Chapter 9: Heading for Tobruk
THE tasks now confronting the New Zealand Division were indeed more ambitious than anything the CRUSADER plan proposed; but the circumstances were far less propitious than any previously envisaged. What Freyberg concluded was that he would have to leave one brigade in isolated possession of an arc from Menastir through Capuzzo to Upper Sollum while the rest of the Division marched towards Tobruk, and he eventually chose 5 Brigade for this ‘masking’ role. This meant disappointing Hargest, who badly wanted to take further advantage of his position in rear of the enemy’s frontier defences; but Freyberg, Inglis, and Barrowclough seemed cast for roles in an altogether larger enterprise which promised quick and complete success. Freyberg therefore did not make strong objections to splitting up his division in this way. He hoped, moreover, that the Indians would soon take over the present role of 5 Brigade and let Hargest rejoin the Division and share this success.
The view of the battle on which these hopes were founded was almost totally misleading and it was only slowly and partially corrected. The armoured battle had been lost not won and the Division was venturing westwards against a far stronger enemy than Freyberg had been led to believe. He expected 30 Corps to protect him against whatever panzer forces had survived the early fighting and looked on the strong force of I tanks now under his command1 for help against infantry rather than tanks. As the dangers were by degrees disclosed, however, he accepted heavier and heavier commitments.
The mission to Gambut was at first mystifying. Freyberg had assured Barrowclough soon after 9 a.m. on the 22nd that 6 Brigade was expected to operate in the Gambut area as well as at Bir el
Chleta and it was understood that for this purpose the brigade would come under 30 Corps. It was not until after 4 Brigade had left on the first stage of its journey to Gambut that any sort of solution to the mystery was offered, in the form of the first incredible intimation of the disaster which had overtaken 30 Corps. A similar disclosure, also far short of the full truth, was made in the late afternoon to Barrowclough and added to his westward journey an urgency that had hitherto been lacking.
The changeover from Matildas to Valentines for 6 Brigade, in accordance with Norrie’s wishes, had caused trouble and delay. Freyberg and Barrowclough were agreed that the brigade should not venture westwards without tank support; too little was known of what lay ahead. So the Matildas of 44 Royal Tanks (less one squadron) were diverted to 4 Brigade and Barrowclough had to await the arrival of C Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, with its Valentines. Barrowclough had no direct wireless link with 30 Corps and was very much in the dark about what was expected of him. All he could do was to be ready to move off as soon as the Valentines reached him. At 1.30 p.m. he issued instructions for the move to Bir el Chleta, which the I tanks (when they arrived) and 24 Battalion were to lead. There was still no great hurry so far as he knew and his scheme was that if darkness fell before the brigade reached its destination it would halt for the night. A Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, did not turn up until 3 p.m. and a quarter of an hour later the brigade group moved off. The 900-odd vehicles drove on steadily over uneven desert astride the Trigh Capuzzo at 8 miles in the hour,2 a pace which caused the 25-pounders to bounce merrily and gave the crews of the swaying Bofors many moments of alarm.
After a few miles, however, there came a dramatic intervention which changed the whole outlook. A liaison officer from General Norrie found his way to Barrowclough and gave an account of the armoured battle so strikingly different from any yet heard that it could scarcely be believed. The main point as far as 6 Brigade was concerned was that the Support Group of 7 Armoured Division was ‘heavily pressed’3 at Sidi Rezegh and badly wanted the Valentines. These were therefore to go there post-haste without waiting for the rest of the brigade.4
This was a startling order and troubled Barrowclough greatly. He was highly vulnerable to tank attack while on the move, he still expected to have to fight at Bir el Chleta and Gambut, and was liable to be attacked from any direction without warning. Midway as he was between 13 and 30 Corps, he could look to neither for support and could communicate with the latter only by slow and roundabout means. After some heart-burnings he decided to meet the order and instructed C Squadron’s commander, Major Veale, accordingly. But his anxieties found quick relief. Veale conferred briefly with his subordinates and came back to say that he could not possibly exceed the pace at which the brigade was already travelling. This solved the immediate problem and the journey continued as before.
The liaison officer’s account suggested local setback rather than general disaster in the armoured battle. He offered the whimsical and contradictory estimates of enemy tank losses then being fed back to Corps and Army and made it all the harder to comprehend how the Support Group could have got into serious trouble. Barrowclough was still thinking this over when the brigade reached Gasr el Arid and there came upon sixty vehicles and a few enemy tanks. Twenty-fourth Battalion halted and, after some uncertainty, the Valentines nosed forward, one or two anti-tank guns went into action, and a few 25-pounder rounds whistled off into the distance. At this the enemy drew off out of sight, leaving a disabled lorry and a dozen men behind, and the march was soon resumed, unhampered by one or two tanks which continued to haunt the horizon.
At some stage of the journey a messenger from 30 Corps passed unseen on his way to General Freyberg, and later another, with further details of the battle. What the first had to say was duly relayed to Barrowclough as follows:
Have received orders from 30 Corps that you are to take your Bde Gp with all haste to relieve Support Gp of Armd Corps who are surrounded at SIDI REZEGH 428405. You will receive no further orders but you will start fighting and get in touch with Gen GOTT comd 7 Armd Div who is surrounded there. Recognition signal is two red Verey lights. Leave your 2nd line [transport] at present location or send back eastwards. You must decide quickly whether you go by rd or part on escarpment.
This sounded as though the whole of 7 Armoured Division and not just the Support Group was surrounded, a very much worse situation than the LO had suggested; but it did at least vaguely outline a course of action and Barrowclough pressed on. But it was already getting dark, Veale’s tank crews were worn out, and the brigade staff with a sleepless night behind them and a day of work and
worry ahead had to have food and rest. At about 8 p.m. Barrowclough therefore called a halt. After a quick meal he called up the orders group and presented his plan. The brigade would move off again at 3 a.m., with 25 and 26 Battalions leading and 24 Battalion to the right rear. Passing south of Bir el Chleta to by-pass any enemy there, he would issue fresh orders at Wadi esc-Sciomar, three miles east of Point 175. He hoped to reach 175 by 8 a.m.
During the halt a Captain Clark arrived, another emissary from 30 Corps, with the following message in Norrie’s handwriting:
G.O.C. N.Z. Div or Brigadier of Selected Bde Co-operating with 30 Corps
1. Situation as marked on Map (1030 hrs) [not preserved] L.O. has full details of our tps & enemy – also Tobruk progress.
2. Your Task in General is to secure an all round defensive locality about Pt 175 438404. Bring your Valentine Tanks.
3. After securing this, gain touch with troops of 7th Arm Bde & 5 S.A. Bde about SIDI REZEGH.
4. I suggest you shd move S of escarpment from GASR EL ARID to avoid climb later.
5. My HQs Pt 179 448360 – – [west of Gabr Saleh]
6. Am sending you W/T set on my frequency –
C. W. M. Norrie Lt General
Thus Norrie had by this time learned that the New Zealand brigade was taking the direct route along the Trigh Capuzzo; but when he specified shortly after 10.30 a.m. on the 22nd that Barrowclough should secure Point 175 he was evidently unaware that this would then have meant fighting his way through the whole of 15 Panzer. If the LO was no better informed on other points Barrowclough would have learned little that was of use to him.
Freyberg was still toying with ideas of attacking Bardia or other frontier garrisons when he heard of the troubles of 30 Corps. He regretted the scarcity of ‘bombardment and barrage guns’ and advocated to Godwin-Austen5 ‘a definite policy of dumping ammunition’ following a conversation with the CRA. Brigadier Miles6 somehow reminded him of an earlier talk with Cunningham when the latter spoke of the desert campaigns as ‘a Bde Gp War’.7 Freyberg asked him, ‘Since when?’, adding, ‘Against the Boche 
consider the striking power and manoeuvrability of a Division is necessary to give weight and effect to attack.’ These words were to ring truer and truer as the hours and days passed.
In such a frame of mind Freyberg was not at all prepared for his next visitor, an LO from 30 Corps, with news that the Support Group was surrounded at Sidi Rezegh and in dire need of help from 6 Brigade. This sounded so unlikely that his first impulse was to arrest the man as a spy. The impulse passed and confirmation soon came with another LO direct from Gott. On the highest priority, therefore, Freyberg sent the signal of 4.45 p.m. to Barrowclough. Yet he was still so far short of the truth about the armoured battle as to be almost in another world. The liaison officers, he wrote in his diary, ‘claim the annihilation of a large part of the German tanks and drew a picture of some 60 enemy AFVs of the 2 Armd Divs hull down with A Tk arty in support being attacked by 250 tanks of 3 British Bdes.’
Hard as these reports were to understand, they seemed clear enough on one point: it was a shortage of infantry and not of tanks from which 30 Corps was suffering. This was of course what Freyberg had predicted to Cunningham and his thoughts jumped ahead from the salvation of the Support Group to the relief of Tobruk. ‘Had a talk to Hargest and Miles’, his diary says of this episode, ‘and thought of a plan to go for Tobruk leaving 3 Bns under Kippenberger to contain Bardia, etc.’ The first formulation of this plan was in a letter Freyberg wrote in the evening to General Godwin-Austen:
My Dear Corps Commander,
I have seen a LO from 30 Corps and also a personal one from General Gott, 7 Armd Div.
I am taking Musaid and clearing the enemy out of the area Capuzzo-Musaid-Salum. This should be done at dawn tomorrow. In view of the general situation I suggest that I re-arrange my forces around Bardia as follows: –
20 Bn and sqn tanks astride the road Bardia-Tobruk and on the escarpment.
One Bn of inf at Musaid.
Two coys of inf at Capuzzo with sqn ‘I’ tanks.
Remaining two coys in Bde Reserve at Sidi Azeiz.
Although this would leave the garrisons very weak, I could if necessary take the remaining two bns under Brigadier Hargest and get him to join forces with Brigadier Inglis who has two bns of the 4 Inf Bde, two sqns of ‘I’ tanks and the Div Cav. I suggest that this force could march on Tobruk along the escarpment to break through the Bologna Div, or such other help as is necessary. I feel I could do this starting early in the morning.
If this is done it would be necessary to get the 4 Ind Div to extend their boundary up to Capuzzo.
B. C. Freyberg
P.S. I have as you know dispatched the 6 NZ Inf Bde with all haste complete with Valentines, to relieve the Support Gp. I know they will do well.
There followed a busy hour of consultation, first with Miles about the guns, then with Brigadier Watkins about 1 Army Tank Brigade, with Lieutenant-Colonel Agar8 regarding the enormous upheaval the scheme would cause in signals arrangements, and finally with Captain Bell, who reported that 700–800 prisoners had been captured so far. Going over the situation with Colonel Gentry Freyberg concluded, ‘Am convinced must get infantry Division up to attack Tobruk and get that high ground to SE [ Sidi Rezegh]. Get that and the battle for Tobruk is won.’9
This go-for-Tobruk policy was feasible in the light of what Freyberg had been led to believe: the British armour had asserted its superiority over the enemy armour but felt the need of more infantry to help break through Bologna Division and join hands with the Tobruk garrison. Moreover, Freyberg had advocated some such scheme even before the campaign started, he readily returned to it, and it was entirely in character.
Other minds, however, were working parallel to his. Cunningham had given it as his opinion as early as 21 November that the Tobruk fighting would call for more infantry. By the evening of the 22nd he recognised that the British armour was now too weak to win the battle without solid help from 13 Corps, and at midnight he ordered Godwin-Austen to send the New Zealand Division to link up with the right flank of 30 Corps and co-operate in an ‘attack on the enemy forces investing Tobruch’,10 for which purpose 6 New Zealand Brigade would revert to Freyberg’s command. This order was quite independent of Freyberg’s current scheme and in fact went further: it meant the whole of the Division to move westwards, regardless of the frontier situation. It also presupposed, as Freyberg did, that a large British tank force remained in being. Had the Army Commander known of the crippling blow 4 Armoured Brigade had just received he would certainly not have sent this order. At 4.30 a.m. on the 23rd Godwin-Austen passed it on to Freyberg in a signal, of which there is no mention in New Zealand documents and which may not have been received:
6 NZ Inf Bde will revert to comd NZ Div on receipt of this message. Comd NZ Div will leave minimum troops necessary to keep enemy under observation from incl Capuzzo to incl road Bardia- Capuzzo [Bardia-Tobruk?] and will march with remainder of his Div to make contact with right flank of XXX Corps. NZ Div will then co-operate in attack on enemy forces investing Tobruch. XXX Corps have been instructed to arrange assistance for NZ Div in event of concentration [ sic] enemy attack during advance westwards.
The drawbacks to the scheme to put Barrowclough under Norrie’s command had been explained when Cunningham flew up to Norrie’s headquarters in the afternoon of the 22nd. In his report Norrie puts it thus:
[Gen Cunningham] told me that ... it appeared to him that it would become more and more an infantry battle and that he hoped that 1 S.A. Div would soon be able to play their part as originally planned.
The question of command of 6 N.Z. Bde. was discussed and I explained that, as it was some 40 miles away, it was very difficult for me to control, unless some special arrangements had been made about communications. I was given their call sign, but this was of course useless without their frequency and it became imperative that they should be sent an anchor set, if it were to be subsequently put under my command.
I suggested that 6 N.Z. Bde. should be commanded by their own Div. Comd. or by 13 Corps. I discussed this matter with General GOTT, and to make certain, he sent off at dawn on 23 Nov. a liaison officer with W/T set and tank for the particular task of establishing contact. As events turned out, it was a most provident action on the part of G.O.C. 7 Armd. Div.
This should of course have been considered long before, when the detached role of 6 Brigade was made part of the Crusader plan. But Cunningham now wanted Godwin-Austen to assume command of all the infantry in a battle to relieve Tobruk, though 13 Corps had no way of communicating with the South Africans except by LO or DR.
Effective command could not be exercised without proper wireless links and codes and Eighth Army was then curiously inflexible in these respects. For the next week the Tobruk battle was fought by elements of two corps with very different ideas of what was happening around them and what was intended. In similar circumstances Rommel would have stayed in the forward area and exerted the full force of his personality to achieve his ends. Cunningham’s method, in line with the British approach, was to fly up to Norrie’s headquarters or Godwin-Austen’s from time to time and make his views known, issuing written orders in between times as he thought fit. But his headquarters near Maddalena remained too far behind events to exert much influence and these intermittent interventions in no sense constituted an effective command of operations.
All the senior officers concerned – Cunningham, Norrie, Godwin-Austen, Gott and Freyberg – continued to think in terms of the
CRUSADER plan with various modifications as befitted their personal misconceptions of the situation. None quite realised at this stage that the plan and the reality were utterly different and that the current scheme to bring up more infantry for the Tobruk battle discarded all the assumptions made by the planners about the use of mobile infantry. This scheme contained the makings of another disaster like that which had befallen Gott (and which was shortly to engulf a whole South African brigade); but there were some favourable features not apparent on the surface. For one thing, the New Zealand Division was going forward a brigade or less at a time and might therefore temporarily escape identification by the vigilant German and Italian Intelligence services. Another was the yeast of anxiety working in Rommel’s mind about the security of his frontier line. These and other factors produced in the end a situation of a complexity which created insoluble problems of command and communications in the higher echelons of both sides.
By the morning of the 23rd Freyberg had changed his plan. Instead of taking both brigade headquarters with him and forming a third under Kippenberger for the frontier area, he now thought it better to leave the whole of 5 Brigade there under Hargest and assemble the whole of 4 Brigade at Gambut. To achieve this, 22 Battalion would relieve 20 Battalion and attached troops at Menastir as soon as possible. By 6 a.m. the revised scheme had taken sufficient shape for the GSO II, Major Sanders,11 to be sent to Godwin-Austen with the following instructions:
See 13th Corps Commander and say:
(1) We think we have cleaned up all around Bardia.
(2) There is a considerable force of enemy in Bardia. As long as he is surrounded there is no chance of his trying to get out.
(3) We also think we have cleaned up and occupied Musaid and Salum.12
(4) 4 Bde have cleaned up the wadis immediately West of Bardia halfway to the sea. I am going to relieve Kippenberger now on Bardia-Tobruk with 1 Bn of the 5 Bde and I am going to send Kippenberger with attached troops to join Inglis’ 4 Bde.
(5) Messervey [sic] might take over command of our 5 Bde.
(6) I suggest Div HQ should move to Gambut area and then we should advance to 6 Bde and get the Division on a two-Bde front opposite Tobruk. I suggest my HQ should move immediately and hand over situation here on Bardia front to Hargest.
(7) Administration: We can carry on as we are at the moment. We have three days’ water, petrol, oil, food, and ammunition in hand. We could either transfer to 30 Corps or go as we are if they put in another link.
(8) We shall take Gambut today. I shall be ready tonight to move to join the 4 Bde.
(9) Corps Commander could release Hargest’s 5 Bde by relieving them by 4 Indian Division. I could bring him [Hargest] to Gambut and we could go on pushing on as a complete Division at the side of the Armoured Division. Our dispositions tonight will be:
(a) We will leave 5 Bde Gp at Bardia.
(b) 4 Bde Gp will be in Gambut this afternoon.
(c) The 6 Bde Gp interposing on the flank of the Armoured Bde opposite Tobruk.
1st Phase. Move with all troops available join with 6 NZ Inf Bde and march on to Tobruk. 5 Bde to come under Indian Division.
2nd Phase. To relieve 5 Inf Bde which could come forward to join us.
Godwin-Austen readily agreed to the first phase, but pointed out that the additional troops (5 Indian Brigade) needed to put the second phase into practice could not be brought forward for some days. Meanwhile the 13 Corps Commander had replied to Freyberg’s letter of the previous evening, suggesting that 4 Brigade should guard the Bardia area and 5 Brigade ‘make junction with West Column’. It was unlikely, he pointed out, that 4 Indian Division would be ‘able provide troops for Capuzzo until tomorrow’ – a more sanguine estimate than he supplied to Sanders shortly afterwards. At 9.30 a.m. he sent the following brief signal (received at 10.50 a.m.):
Agree Phase 1. Do not send 4 Bde north track Bardia Tobruk. Sanders leaving rejoin you now.
An earlier situation report (8.40 a.m.) was not received until 11 a.m. and its contents evoked less concern than they warranted, perhaps because of the rush of work related to the Division’s impending departure for Gambut.
1 SA Div take over responsibility for Sidi Rezegh area from 7 Armd Div. 30 Corps reports enemy now hold Sidi Rezegh. 7 Armd Div withdrawn on southern flank 1 SA Div. Gds Bde masking el Gubi – –? [mutilated group]
This put the current task allotted 6 Brigade in an odd light and could well have appeared highly alarming at Divisional Headquarters; but it was construed otherwise. This may have been because of a more hopeful view Godwin-Austen gained in discussion with General Cunningham. He expressed this in a letter which Sanders brought back with him and delivered to Freyberg soon after the above signal:
My dear Freyberg,
The Army Comd has just been here. He has arranged that – probably with effect from 24 Nov – 13 Corps takes over the operations for the relief of TOBRUK – Troops under comd 13 Corps will be your Div, 4 Ind Div and at least one Inf Bde Gp of 1 S.A. Div – I am now going to see Comd 30 Corps to discover exactly what S. Africans he will hand over to me.
The general situation seems to be that the enemy still has some 100 Tanks, location NOT definitely known; that he appears to be organising a North and South position somewhere West of BIR EL GUBI: that the SIDI REZEGH situation is and will remain critical until your 6 Inf Bde Gp arrive; and that the TOBRUCH sortie is making slow progress which will be accelerated by the arrival of your 6th and 4th Bdes.
Your Liaison Officer [Sanders] has just come and I have sent you a message approving of your proposals for Phase I. You will, I hope, realise from the above that the urgency of clearing the area North of the main road BARDIA – TOBRUK is less than that of relieving the situation in the area SIDI REZEGH – TOBRUCH. So I have asked you NOT to get committed North of the main road. BUT LOOK AFTER YOUR RIGHT FLANK in view of Enemy Tanks – Lack of 3rd Line [transport] for 4 Ind Div and lack of troops will prevent them from taking over CAPUZZO until 24 Nov and I doubt whether they could take over any distance Northwards for the present. So though I would like your troops picquetting that area to be reduced to a minimum (say two Bns and one Sqn Tanks) leaving as many as possible free to operate Eastwards [ sic], I cannot hold out hopes for the whole area being taken over by 4 Ind Div, as I would like – Would you object strongly to such of your troops as have to remain being placed temporarily under command of 4 Ind Div?
Will you please send me a signal in answer to this question?
D.A. & Q.M.G. is coming with me to H.Q. 30 Corps13 to discuss all maintenance questions the answers to which I will give you as soon as I can.
A. R. Godwin-Austen
A reasonable inference from this would be that the Sidi Rezegh fighting was a covering operation while the enemy line west of Bir el-Gubi was being formed, and for this purpose the enemy had somehow managed to gain a local and temporary superiority. It was impossible to reconcile early reports of enemy tank losses with any more ominous interpretation of the present situation; but the second paragraph of Godwin-Austen’s letter left much to the imagination. Sidi Rezegh was vital both for the British armoured effort and for the junction with the garrison of Tobruk. If some force other than the German armour was holding it and ‘some 100 Tanks’ were free to operate elsewhere, the scheme to take the New Zealand Division forward a brigade or less at a time was hazardous in the extreme. But Freyberg could not leave his 6 Brigade orphaned in the forward area and in any case his natural impulse as an old soldier was to march to the sound of the guns.
The actual situation, however, was far blacker than anything Cunningham envisaged and it was getting quickly worse. The two panzer divisions could still muster 170-odd tanks and Ariete some fifty and they were all taking up position with strong support to destroy the remaining British forces south of Sidi Rezegh, which now included fewer than fifty effective cruiser tanks. To these fifty might be added some sixty I tanks to be brought forward by the New Zealand Division and an assortment of tanks from Tobruk if the course of the battle allowed. But there was no reason to suppose the enemy would let these tank forces combine against him, nor was such a combination an aim of Eighth Army. A crisis had indeed arisen, graver than was realised, and it could not be overcome merely by sending the bulk of the New Zealand Division westwards in the vague hope that it would join with 30 Corps to relieve Tobruk. Neither the New Zealanders nor the South Africans could attack panzer divisions and it was too much to hope that they would succeed where 7 Armoured Division with 500 tanks had failed. But Cunningham and Godwin-Austen had yet to learn the extent of this failure.
Freyberg changed his mind again during the morning about which troops he would take westwards and which he would leave behind. After sending off Sanders he conceived an alternative plan to leave Colonel Dittmer14 with Divisional Cavalry (less one squadron), 5 Field Regiment (less one battery), and two battalions to guard Bardia and Capuzzo while Hargest with his other two battalions, his squadron of I tanks, and supporting arms should move up on the left of 4 Brigade at Gambut. This would have given him an extra brigade headquarters and one more battalion for the Sidi Rezegh fighting, and it is a pity the scheme was dropped. The deciding influence here seems to have been Godwin-Austen’s letter stating that 4 Indian Division could not take over Capuzzo until next day. Because of this Freyberg reverted to his earlier plan to leave Hargest behind; but he added 21 Battalion to his westbound force. Since Divisional Headquarters had been warned as early as 8.35 a.m. to be ready to move at ten, these various changes caused many last-minute readjustments and much hurried staff work. By midday the group was still not ready to move, though Freyberg’s plans had acquired enough detail for him to signal to 13 Corps as follows:
Have little information regarding enemy troops on line our advance from East. Position 6 Inf Bde will be South TRIGH CAPUZZO moving on Pt 175 438404. 4 Inf Bde is moving GAMBUT. As Ind Div will not take up to CAPUZZO today am forced leave three bns 5 Bde to mask area SALUM MUSAID CAPUZZO BARDIA with orders to thin out
as soon as Ind Div arrive. Bns to be under Comd 5 Bde with HQ SIDI AZEIZ. Hope to hand reduced garrison over to 4 Ind Div later. Div HQ marching to just East Track Junction 456403 [Bir el Chleta] as soon as possible. Understand enemy still holding BIR EL CHLETA 4540. My object is to concentrate whole Division less 5 Bde Gp North of and in touch with 6 Bde Gp. Will move as far as I can by daylight and consider further advance tonight.
Inglis was by this time well on his way to Gambut and 20 Battalion with a squadron of 8 Royal Tanks was soon to follow, so that when Divisional Headquarters Group drove westwards protected by 21 Battalion and a few anti-tank guns the route should be clear. But even this scheme was to be upset.
Freyberg had telephoned about 9 a.m. to tell Kippenberger that 22 Battalion would relieve him within an hour and the first company arrived on time. The companies of 20 Battalion were accordingly forming up above the escarpment when another attack came in against A Company at the road block. What looked like twenty tanks could be seen to the west and there were a few moments of worry when it was realised that the anti-tank troop had already withdrawn. Some rounds of gun fire fell on A Company and after a short delay a troop of 4 Field Regiment replied. The anti-tank troop hurried back into action and fired some 150 rounds at long
range. From a distance Captain Briel’s 20-millimetre armoured gun carriers were again mistaken for tanks and Kippenberger reluctantly committed his I-tank squadron to drive them off, knowing full well that this would delay the relief for some time. The tanks duly descended to the Via Balbia, but were not called on to counter-attack as the enemy had already drawn back. One ‘enemy AFV’ had been hit and was left at the side of the road. Briel and his small band of infantry, with one or two field pieces and a few automatic cannon, drove back towards Gambut, where they were soon engaged against the mass of 4 Brigade. Meanwhile 20 Battalion formed up again and by 1.30 p.m. was ready to move off. A quarter of an hour later 22 Battalion was firmly posted, with its A Company at the road block and the rest, including three Bofors guns and a complete MG company, on the ridge above. Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew15 took over five German and 237 Italian prisoners and later sent them back to 5 Brigade Headquarters, now at Sidi Azeiz. The enemy in the west did not reappear, to Andrew’s satisfaction, though there was some movement of vehicles in the direction of Bardia later and light shelling on the escarpment a mile to the east after dark.
Fourth Brigade had meanwhile moved off at 9.15 a.m. for Gambut, with C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry leading and a field battery and two companies of 19 Battalion on each flank. Behind C Squadron drove 18 Battalion, with one squadron of 44 Royal Tanks in support. The route took the group down the escarpment by Bir el Baheira and then westwards along a widening ledge between that ridge and another to the north which directly overlooked the Via Balbia. After a few miles fire from the southern escarpment halted the advance and the field guns went to rather more trouble to ensure an accurate reply than the occasion warranted. An hour was thus wasted, and when the brigade moved off again Inglis posted the southern flank guard above the escarpment, thinking that 20 Battalion would soon come up to fill the gap. Some skirmishing ensued between the two companies of 19 Battalion which Colonel Hartnell led westwards along the crest and German reconnaissance troops, though the New Zealand mass was too great for the Germans to challenge seriously. From his vantage point Hartnell could see much commotion ahead which he misconstrued. Neither he nor Inglis dreamt that the track between Gambut and Bir el Chleta was then the main supply route of Africa Corps.
At 3 p.m. the brigade drove on to Gambut airfield with the Matildas leading and easily drove off a few confused enemy detachments. More than thirty aircraft, most of them already wrecked, were found on the ground and many valuable supplies, including ‘large dumps of petrol and diesel fuel’ which Inglis hesitated to destroy. Shell and mortar fire now came into the area from several directions and the brigade guns quickly replied. V/AA Battery of 8 Field Regiment, RA, fired to the west, a troop of 25 Battery, 4 Field Regiment, to the north-west and south, another to the north, and a third sniped from the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Via Balbia, ‘causing considerable damage and disabling one enemy Tank’.16 The impression that 4 Brigade was now in the heart of enemy territory was heightened by strong opposition which Hartnell met in the south, and which held him up at dusk a few miles short of the rest of the brigade. After dark he disengaged on Inglis’s orders and posted his whole battalion to cover the airfield. A section of MMGs engaged targets near the Via Balbia from a wadi north-west of the airfield and after dark it fired on fixed lines.
Inglis now had the supply services of the two panzer divisions at his mercy and could easily have cut Crüwell’s main lifeline; but he had been specifically forbidden to become involved north of the Via Balbia. Current opposition, more noisy than effective, came from Briel’s small detachment near the Brown House at Gambut and 3 Reconnaissance Unit between Bir el Chleta and the escarpment at Point 172, the scene of a skirmish at dawn this day with 6 Brigade. Inglis had fulfilled his mission and his next task had yet to be decided. At 8 p.m. he learned that 20 Battalion was with Divisional Headquarters Group, but as late as 8.30 p.m. he was still expecting 5 Brigade to come up on his left.
After irritating delays and several minor mishaps, Divisional Headquarters moved off astride the Trigh Capuzzo, leaving Rear Headquarters with most of the Administration Group at Sidi Azeiz for the time being. Carriers of 21 Battalion led the way, but the group had only a handful of anti-tank guns and could be halted, as indeed it soon was, by the merest show of enemy strength. Vehicles closed in to meet possible tank attack and the infantry dug in; but the enemy drew away and the march was resumed. At about 5 p.m. 20 Battalion Group with its invaluable squadron of I tanks and a battery of field guns caught up and drove through the mass of transport to take the lead. Trouble expected at Gasr
el Arid did not eventuate and the journey continued into the night, with occasional and erratic illumination by enemy flares in various directions. The night drive was ‘very bumpy and ... confused’17 and Kippenberger, no doubt remembering when he led 4 Brigade astray crossing into Libya, checked bearings carefully every half-hour, and was greatly relieved to be able to report to Freyberg at midnight that ‘we were at Bir Chleta and that the high ground looming up to the south of us was the Sidi Rezegh escarpment.’18
Thus Divisional Headquarters ended the day near where 6 Brigade began it. Barrowclough had meant to pass south of Bir el Chleta on his way to Wadi esc-Sciomar, but his columns veered to the right in the darkness and when they halted for breakfast at the first glimmerings of light on 23 November trouble started. The leading elements were astride the Trigh Capuzzo with 25 Battalion below the escarpment and 26 Battalion just above it. The men were cold, tired and hungry and lost no time in dismounting to set up burners, boil billies, and get something to eat. The scene was only too familiar to them, an apparent confusion of vehicles of all kinds facing many directions, each like a suburban household doing its chores with little regard for its neighbours. ‘Numerous fires appeared in the Bn area’, says a private of 25 Battalion, ‘and also to our left ... 100 yds or less away.’ No notice was taken of the latter, he adds, ‘as there were tank people in support operating on the flanks.’19 The war could wait until after breakfast.
An officer saw two tanks with British markings which somehow looked odd and he drove over for a closer look; but they ‘disappeared in a cloud of dust’.20 Then he saw a large column of lorries approaching along the track from Gambut and suddenly realised they were German. Before he could give the alarm, however, the peace of the scene was shattered. Machine guns and mortars opened fire, the 25-pounders swung into action and fired furious broadsides into the column, and enemy were replying from all directions at ranges which the increasing light showed to be ridiculously short. Twenty-fifth Battalion was in the thick of it and responded admirably. A and C Companies and the carriers engaged the column and more German vehicles on Point 172 while B Company, pinned down at first by fire from enemy who had driven between the battalion and Brigade Headquarters, quickly recovered the initiative and advanced in open order. This enemy group was trapped, its
escape blocked by the Valentines to the west and a platoon of 3 MG Company to the east, and after a few minutes it surrendered. At ranges down to 150 yards 29 Field Battery wreaked fearful destruction on the first column and many fires broke out. A brave charge by a few vehicles led by a staff car ran into a torrent of bullets from C Company and its survivors had to surrender, a German colonel among them. The carriers of the battalion were here, there and everywhere and attracted much fire, which set two of them ablaze and killed two men.
Above the escarpment 26 Battalion missed most of the excitement and took only two prisoners, though Lieutenant-Colonel Page himself, on his way to see Brigadier Barrowclough, had run into enemy and was one of the first to open fire. Major Mantell-Harding,21 the second-in-command, was taking 24 Battalion down the slope to rejoin what he thought was the rest of the brigade when the firing started. From their vantage points the leading members of the 24th could grasp the situation quicker than those below them. ‘My God!’ an officer exclaimed, ‘It’s 25 Battalion and the enemy and they don’t know!’22 Before the engagement began the morning was clam and voices carried clearly. Hard on this exclamation D Company of 24 Battalion could hear fire orders. Then the guns opened fire. Shortly afterwards came the fateful words ‘Fix bayonets and charge’ and they could see B Company of the 25th advance ‘in a slow steady line’.23 Then came screams from the enemy and scores of hands in the air. D Company of the 24th rounded up many prisoners but did no fighting. The total captured is variously estimated but was probably just over 200. Losses were seven killed and about five wounded in 25 Battalion and Brigade Headquarters.
To Brigadier Barrowclough the whole episode was an embarrassment caused by faulty navigation and the consequent delay irked him greatly. It seemed to him, too, that a counter-attack was under way from the north. In the midst of the flare-up he therefore ordered Colonels McNaught24 and Shuttleworth to disengage as soon as they could and resume the march. McNaught appointed A Company as rearguard, with the carrier platoon and a troop each of 29 Field Battery and 33 Anti-Tank Battery. Covered by this detachment of the 25th the two battalions began to mount the escarpment at about 9.30 a.m. Firing had by this time died down, and although enemy were in evidence in several directions none
cared to offer opposition. When A Company of the 25th departed, however, a few shots came at it more as a gesture of farewell than with intent to hold it back. Ample evidence of the brigade’s short stay at Bir el Chleta was left behind in the form of wrecked and blazing vehicles, the two carriers of 25 Battalion among them.
The delay here, as things turned out, was well worth while. The bivouac so violently disturbed had been that of Africa Corps Headquarters, which was now shattered, its main wireless links captured or smashed, and most of its staff on their way under New Zealand escort to the Egyptian frontier. General Crüwell himself and his chief staff officer with a handful of others had missed the fighting only by a few minutes, though it was some time before they learned of this disaster. The careful supply arrangements for Africa Corps were plunged into disorder and no supplies got through this day to either panzer division. By the time the supply vehicles which escaped from 6 Brigade were sorted out and ready to make another attempt to reach Africa Corps, 4 Brigade arrived on the scene.
As 6 Brigade drove westwards above the escarpment its right flank was raked from time to time by small-arms fire from the rough crest and the detachment of the 25th guarding this flank had to overcome a series of MG posts in wadis along the route. The brigade group carried on and passed out of sight and when the carriers remounted the ridge the flank guard hastened to regain its position, guided by the lingering haze of dust. At 10.30 a.m. Barrowclough halted as planned at the Wadi esc-Sciomar.
The open, scrub-covered desert in front gave little evidence of friend or foe and disclosed its few features with such relutance that the ground was not easy to reconcile with the map. To the left front occasional bursts of MG fire came from a group of captured Stuart tanks, formerly of 4 Armoured Brigade, which had run out of petrol. Among them were salvage parties with lorries and several of the latter drove off hastily to the south, chased by rounds from 33 Anti-Tank Battery. More fire came from the right, where enemy parties were holding out in the wadis and re-entrants of the escarpment, though there was no sign of formed bodies of troops of significant size. Below towards the coast a vehicle here and there in the distance served only to emphasise the emptiness of the scene.
A few minutes after 6 Brigade halted Norrie’s LO, Captain Clark, reappeared and indicated where 5 South African Brigade was located (five miles south-south-east of the tomb of Sidi Rezegh). His information about 2 Scots Guards was out of date, however, and he brought an extraordinary request for the Valentines to be sent on a long excursion which would take them far beyond Barrowclough’s control and leave him without their support. Clark
said there were fifty Italian M13 tanks ‘ready to be taken’25 at a point six miles south of the South African brigade and 15 miles south-west of 6 Brigade, and he had come to ask for the squadron of I tanks to be sent to capture them. Barrowclough agreed to do this; but it is doubtful if he grasped what a tall order it was. Lieutenant-Colonel Weir26 of 6 Field Regiment, for example, understood that the Italian tanks were only five miles away and the brigade commander probably gained much the same impression. These tanks must have been deemed vulnerable for some reason, for it would otherwise have been rash to assume that a mere squadron of about eighteen Valentines could overcome fifty Italian tanks. But Barrowclough evidently had reservations on this point and the task as finally laid down allotted guns and infantry to support the squadron of 8 Royal Tanks. The brigade log diary puts it thus:
C Sqn Tanks given Tp of 25 prs and tanks to go and mop up the 50 M 13 tanks – speed essential – when job is done to report back and stay on ground. Also with Tanks two Pls of Inf to help mop up.
The Valentines would therefore not be at hand to help the infantry on to Point 175, which was the main objective; but there was nothing to suggest they would be needed. Barrowclough went forward with Weir to a vantage point ‘to have a look and make a plan’, as Weir wrote in a letter home. ‘We got up and had a look and there wasn’t a thing to be seen and I could have sworn there were no Huns holding that hill.’27 The feature itself was vague in the extreme. To most observers it looked flat desert, with perhaps a slight slope upwards towards the west. The escarpment to the north and Rugbet en-Nbeidat to the south, curling round to the west, could not be seen.
There was some reason to believe Point 175 might be defended, though not strongly, and Barrowclough decided to deploy 25 Battalion, with a field battery and an anti-tank troop,28 to attack it. The area to be occupied was left for Lieutenant-Colonel McNaught to decide and at a brief orders conference at 10.50 a.m. Barrowclough was chiefly interested in how soon the battalion could advance. McNaught said 11.30 and this was agreed. But this entailed a breathlessly hasty move and allowed no time for careful planning. What was evidently intended, was to make a show of force and drive off or overcome any small parties of enemy in the area with
the least possible delay. The urgency of the need to occupy the hill as a first step towards relieving the strain on 7 Armoured Division had been made very clear and Brigadier Barrowclough was determined to bring his strength to bear at the earliest possible moment. By not getting McNaught to send forward patrols in carriers or on foot he hoped to save time; and there was in any case no apparent need for reconnaissance of a feature he had studied through his field glasses without seeing any positive sign of enemy. But his haste, impelled by the orders from 30 Corps, proved excessive. It left McNaught no more than a few minutes to give out his orders and his company commanders had a bare quarter of an hour to form up their men and pass on to them the few scraps of information available, which turned out to be most misleading. What nobody could foresee, however, was that General Rommel, on his way to inspect the armoured battle, should reach Point 175 in time to throw in his great store of skill and determination in favour of the defence (as he almost certainly did) and for 6 Brigade this was sheer bad luck.
The start line faced north-west and stretched across 800 yards of gently-sloping desert between the top of Rugbet en-Nbeidat and an unnamed wadi two miles west of Esc-Sciomar. B Company of 25 Battalion formed up on the right and D on the left with equal frontages, with C in reserve 800 yards behind D. McNaught could give no details of the enemy, but for some reason suspected that the ground to the left (i.e., south-west) of the trig point might be strongly held and told Major Hastie29 of D Company to pay special attention to it. Some firing was heard to right rear as McNaught gave out his orders and he detailed A Company to attend to this. Three 3-inch mortars went with each forward company.
The platoons moved off at the appointed time, expecting no more than one or two machine guns to oppose their advance. The men were well dispersed and hard to see at a distance in this tufted desert and carried on silently towards a vague objective some 2000 yards away. There was little to see ahead and no sign of enemy and they were surprised when, after a very few minutes, orders came for them to halt.
Meanwhile Barrowclough decided on another expedition to help Gott. His second task, in General Norrie’s words, was to ‘gain touch with troops of 7th Arm[d] Bde & 5 S.A. Bde about SIDI REZEGH’ (actually some miles south of there as he now knew), and he ordered Colonel Page to take 26 Battalion with another field battery and an anti-tank troop south-westwards across the desert plateau
to an area just east of the South Africans. The latter were facing north towards Sidi Rezegh, or so he thought, and he expected Page to extend their front eastwards. This meant a journey of six miles, opening up a wide gap between 26 Battalion and the rest of the brigade; but this would soon be narrowed to two miles or less when 25 Battalion reached its objective. Moreover Barrowclough retained a useful reserve with 24 Battalion, a field battery, two anti-tank troops, a Bofors battery, an MMG company and (when it returned) the squadron of Valentines.
This was a bold and generous interpretation of the instructions from Norrie and Freyberg; but before it could take full effect news came which changed the whole outlook. The group of tanks and derelicts to the left front, after a brief skirmish, yielded an ambulance car filled with British wounded and a medical officer from 8 Hussars who had spent some hours in enemy hands. By 11.15 a.m. he reached Brigade Headquarters and gave a first-hand account of the overrunning of 4 Armoured Brigade Headquarters and 8 Hussars during the night. He mentioned a ‘formidable line and nest of A Tk guns and Tommy Guns etc’ centred on a blockhouse on the escarpment just west of the Rugbet and, even more ominously, ‘100 enemy AFVs at first light’ on Point 175, and added ‘with enemy AFVs were three/four heavy guns drawn by tractors’.30 This put McNaught’s task in quite a different light and Barrowclough at once issued orders for 25 Battalion to halt. The excursion by C Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, was now out of the question and it was promptly cancelled. McNaught was called back and told that ‘advice had been received that the position was strongly held and tanks were present’.31 He would therefore have the I tanks under his command and an extra anti-tank troop. With these, he said, he could resume the advance at noon. Barrowclough asked if he could resume sooner and he replied, ‘Impossible’.
Any danger of tank counter-attack was enough to warrant this change of plan; but Barrowclough was not greatly worried by the medical officer’s story. It was in the first place vague, and on some points which he could check it was wrong. The doctor insisted, for one thing, that the Blockhouse was on Point 175 when Barrowclough ‘knew it to be on the rising ground further west’. Moreover it was believed among the infantry, as among the tank crews themselves, that the I tanks were almost invulnerable to anti-tank fire;32 so the squadron of Valentines seemed a handsome reinforcement. The need for haste was still in the forefront of Barrowclough’s mind and this fresh information therefore did not deter him from pressing
on without prior reconnaissance of Point 175, nor from sending Page to link with the South Africans. Twenty-sixth Battalion duly moved off on this second task at 11.45 a.m. Barrowclough was for the time being out of touch with either 30 Corps or the New Zealand Division and the burden of duty was heavy. He felt it imperative for his brigade to do its utmost and was ready to take whatever risks his sketchy information seemed to justify.
Just beyond the horizon Africa Corps was getting ready to crush the last remnants of the British armour and end the threat to the siege of Tobruk, which seemed a main object of the British offensive. At the same time 6 Brigade was unwittingly taking the first major step to mount a different and more dangerous operation against the besiegers. Both blows were struck within ten miles of each other and Crüwell and Barrowclough were equally ignorant of what the other was doing, the latter for some hours and the former for several days.