Chapter 10: Sunday of the Dead
IF they counted tanks as trumps, by the morning of 23 November Cunningham and Norrie could have read doom in the bald figures of the ‘tank states’ then supplied, but for the swollen estimates of enemy tank losses. Even these could not make the situation less than gloomy and Cunningham was profoundly concerned, as he had every reason to be. The figures he had were even worse than Norrie’s and the situation in 30 Corps was described as ‘still very confused’.1 Only 30 tanks remained in 22 Armoured Brigade and none at all in 7 Armoured Brigade, so far as Cunningham knew, whereas at Norrie’s headquarters the 22nd was credited with 45 tanks and the 7th with 10, while 4 Armoured Brigade with 75 tanks was regarded as ‘temporarily useless as a fighting entity’.2 Norrie could do nothing more than try to build up a strong infantry position around 5 South African Brigade and hope that the remaining British armour would be able to hold off attacks by enemy armour, which was reported to be greatly depleted in strength. To this end he urged Barrowclough on and pressed General Brink to get 1 South African Brigade forward. He had discussed with Cunningham the previous afternoon the difficulties of commanding the New Zealand brigade which was on its way to him, and suggested that either Freyberg or Godwin-Austen should continue to command it. In the meantime, if the two South African brigades joined up he wanted General Brink to assume command of ‘all infantry in the SIDI REZEGH area, in order to free General GOTT.’3
Daylight revealed, however, that the field company and ambulance and most of the B Echelons of 1 South African Brigade had gone on by mistake in the night and ended up some miles ahead of the main body. Hampered thus by masses of transport in front of his fighting units, Brigadier Pienaar made slow progress and there were still a few miles between the two brigades when the enemy intervened and multiplied the confusion. The history of 7 Medium
Regiment, RA (a valuable unit so far unused in the battle), says that when its 27/28 Battery drove forward ‘pandemonium broke out in the Brigade column as a large German force was identified ahead moving East4 across the Brigade’s path’.5 Norrie and Brink were helpless spectators some distance to Pienaar’s right rear and General Gott, in the thick of things as usual, could make no more than minor readjustments to meet the emergency. Pienaar moved 1 South African Brigade back three miles to wait until the situation cleared.
Brigadier Armstrong’s 5 South African Brigade had stayed where its abortive attack of the previous afternoon had left it and was now at the head of the Corps. The 3rd Transvaal Scottish faced across a thousand yards of arid plateau (too thin a slice on which to deploy any armour available in face of German anti-tank guns) to where elements of 155 Infantry Regiment still clung to the southern escarpment. The Scottish had brought back their wounded and consolidated their positions as best they could in the dark. To their right rear 2 Regiment Botha faced east and to their left rear 1 South African Irish looked westwards across empty miles of thin scrub towards Hagfet en-Nezha, the area to which Norrie had hoped the South African position might be extended. The best that could be done for the moment in this direction was to station what was left of 22 Armoured Brigade (30 tanks by one account, 45 by another, organised in a composite regiment) on this flank, while the remnants of the Support Group lay east of 2 Botha. A handful of 7 Armoured Brigade with a few tanks, all to some degree crippled, made a brave show of supporting this flank, but was ordered south to reform. Gott hoped to get 4 Armoured Brigade to cover this flank; but most of the fragments of this brigade spent the day edging southwards in a vain effort to regain cohesion. The B Echelons of the South African brigade and the Support Group stretched across a huge tract of desert southwards almost to Pienaar’s advance guards, cluttering the scene and creating an impartial confusion which for a time thwarted attempts both friendly and hostile to make sense of what was happening. The most useful increment to Armstrong’s strength came from the field guns of the Support Group, which Gott ordered to ‘hold by fire’6 the escarpment north of 3 Transvaal Scottish; but this was not, as it happened, where danger really threatened. Gott later ordered up 2 Scots Guards, and this unit made its way northwards but arrived too late to fit properly into the defensive scheme before the enemy struck his main blow.
The first blow was not as heavy as Rommel intended, because the Africa Corps Commander either ignored his orders or failed to get them in time. The Panzer Group operation order had been in course of preparation since about noon on the 22nd and was issued at 10.30 p.m., but it did not reach Bir el Chleta until 4.30 a.m. on the 23rd. The Corps diarist noted testily that it was ‘much too long’ and dealt with ‘a host of details absolutely unimportant to Africa Corps’; but these comments may have been prompted more by the lingering labours of the cipher clerks when Crüwell was wanting to get away than by the actual text of the message. Yet ten minutes later Neumann-Silkow signalled to Ariete that he would be attacking south-westwards at 7 a.m. and he wanted to know when and where he might expect to meet the Italians: had the order not been deciphered and the gist of it passed on to him he could scarcely have known Ariete was joining in. What seems most likely is that Crüwell got Rommel’s orders at a time when his own very different plans were so far advanced he felt it too late to change them.
Both Rommel and Crüwell meant to force a decision this day in the Sidi Rezegh battle, but by opposite routes. Rommel wanted to strike with both panzer divisions from Sidi Rezegh towards Bir to el-Gubi, while the bulk of Ariete pushed north-eastwards towards Gambut. All three divisions would thus take part in a ‘concentric attack’ to encircle and destroy the British force believed to be in the area and so end all danger of a link-up with the Tobruk garrison. The 21st Italian Corps would meanwhile maintain the siege, the two German reconnaissance units would ‘reconnoitre in force’ along the Via Balbia and Trigh Capuzzo, and 155 Infantry and 361 Africa Regiments would remain in their present positions in Army Reserve. Ariete was not under Rommel’s command and its part in the scheme had to be settled by agreement with General Gambara, which no doubt accounted for some of the delay.
Crüwell doubted if the Italians could even hold their ground against the British if the latter were forced back towards them, and therefore planned to send 15 Panzer Division with the tank regiment of 21 Panzer round the eastern flank to link up with Ariete and drive northwards towards Sidi Rezegh. The guns and infantry of 21 Panzer and Africa Divisions would be the anvil on which the panzer forces would smash the British remnants. This meant a sweep of some 20 miles in the morning to form up with Ariete south of the British force, and then in the afternoon the Axis armour would strike a sledgehammer blow northwards.
Only the first part of this, the morning advance, was disclosed in the Corps order which reached Neumann-Silkow at 12.10 a.m. and he passed this on with normal elaborations. Later he added an intention of his own: 15 Panzer was to ‘destroy everything that opposed it during the day, even if it meant veering a little from its axis and direction.’7 But there was no danger of departing too far from Crüwell’s wishes, because the Corps Commander elected to travel (with a small battle headquarters) with the leading wave of tanks. He set off with his party at 5.45 a.m., escaping the clutches of 6 New Zealand Brigade at Bir el Chleta by a very few minutes, and took up his station in the vanguard at 6.30 a.m. Whether Neumann-Silkow, who commanded the whole of the attacking force – 15 Panzer with 5 Panzer Regiment added – was inspired or embarrassed by having his Corps Commander so far forward is not recorded. Crüwell also commanded by wireless the rest of 21 Panzer, which he wrongly thought to be directly facing the remnants of the British armour. This misconception hampered his grasp of von Ravenstein’s situation and supplied an unreal background to the operations of the panzer forces, which was not entirely rectified even when (reversing the Panzer Group order) 155 Infantry and 361 Africa Regiments (according to 21 Panzer) were put under Ravenstein’s command.
The Africa Corps diary describes Crüwell’s intention at this stage as to ‘push south to bottle up the enemy, join forces with Ariete Pz Div, and then take part in an attack against the rest of the enemy force.’ ‘This attack’, the diary adds, ‘would be made in one long wave of tanks of 5 and 8 Pz Regts and the armoured regiment of Ariete Div, and was intended to destroy the enemy.’ Crüwell evidently thought his route would take him south of all but supply elements of 30 Corps and he had no idea that he was actually driving towards the narrow gap between Brink’s two brigades.
The advance was held up for half an hour by the non-arrival of 5 Panzer Regiment, which actually topped the escarpment just as 15 Panzer moved off and was led forward on the left of that formation and not on the right as ordered (and disappeared over the horizon not long before 6 New Zealand Brigade appeared on the scene). A mist covering the ground at dawn had lifted and the advance to the south-west from Point 175 over ‘flat, firm ground8 made fast progress. In a very few minutes the leading troops came upon enormous concentrations of British transport and destroyed them, or so the Corps diary says. Some twenty British tanks counterattacked but were repulsed and another fourteen caught refuelling
‘fled wildly south and SW’, according to the diary of 15 Panzer. The scene quickly became one of the utmost confusion, gradually clarifying as the transport fled in all directions so that 15 Panzer emerged as a target for British and South African guns to the north, west and south. The opposition was nevertheless so disorganised that Crüwell seriously thought of abandoning his plan and plunging right into the British positions in an orgy of destruction, and in this he may have been supported by Neumann-Silkow. ‘An immediate continuation of the attack looked very inviting’, says the Corps diary. But many minor engagements were still in progress, among them one to rescue a troop of 33 Artillery Regiment captured by British tanks,9 duly accomplished by an anti-tank platoon of 15 Panzer which knocked out four British tanks in the course of it. The CO of I Battalion, 8 Panzer Regiment, was killed while trying to break through a column, several other German tanks were knocked out, and the regimental commander, Colonel Cramer, came very close to capture. There is much mention in German accounts of opposition from tanks and guns, and though this was localised and spasmodic it helped to disorganise the panzer forces, which were in any case confused by the enormous area covered by the British forces. To add weight to the onslaught Crüwell ordered 21 Panzer to attack southwards; but nothing came of this and he decided in the end to break away towards Bir el-Gubi to link up with Ariete10 as planned and regroup before starting the main attack.
Crüwell thought he had practically all the remnants of 30 Corps trapped in this vast pocket; but 5 Panzer Regiment, which reached Sidi Muftah on the left of the advance by 9.15 a.m., had to face south and east and use its 88s at long range against tanks moving across this front, outside the area roped off by 15 Panzer. The rest of the division pushed on and at 12.35 p.m. met Ariete eight miles north-east of El Gubi. In so doing 8 Panzer Regiment was further disorganised by swampy ground and shellfire from several directions. Halting just in time to miss getting bogged down, 15 Infantry Brigade used its artillery to subdue the fire from the south; but the fire from the north kept increasing and because of the swamp the troops could not assemble beyond the range of the guns. It was vital for Crüwell’s purposes to attack at the earliest possible moment and 2 p.m. was set for the start; but these handicaps imposed delay, extending in the end to a full hour, every minute of which was invaluable to the defence in strengthening the threatened southern and south-western flanks.
A new principle was embodied in the ‘long wave of tanks’ scheme and Crüwell evidently considered that the great size of the British force and the small time available for overrunning it called for a novel approach. But what Crüwell and Neumann-Silkow agreed upon was a radical departure not only from accepted panzer tactics but from the fundamentals of their trade. Facing as they were an extremely deep position, they needed depth rather than breadth in their attack; but in general they chose the latter. They lined up all three armoured formations on a frontage of 8–10 miles, 5 Panzer Regiment on the right, 8 Panzer Regiment in the centre, and 132 Tank Regiment on the left. In the absence of the rest of 21 Panzer the guns and infantry of 15 Panzer had to be spread over two panzer regiments instead of one, so that Colonel Menny of 15 Infantry Brigade covered twice his normal front: 200 Regiment was to follow 5 Panzer Regiment, 115 Infantry Regiment to follow 8 Panzer Regiment, and the infantry of Di Nisio Group would co-operate with 132 Tank Regiment. The 33rd Artillery Regiment was to be thinly disposed over the whole front of 15 Panzer, though the Abteilung which was supposed to support 200 Regiment did not in the event arrive until after dark. So far as possible the infantry were to remain in their vehicles and follow close behind the tanks.
This scheme was weakened by ignorance of the nature and extent of the opposition, and it is not surprising that in the event only the central segment of the long line was aimed at the main centre of resistance (5 South African Brigade) and the two wings tended to skim past the flanks. This was to be partly rectified when 5 Panzer Regiment later swung westwards and Di Nisio made vaguely threatening moves against the composite regiment of 22 Armoured Brigade to the west of 1 South African Irish. But the main weight of the attack was not concentrated to good effect and by far the greater burden was borne by 8 Panzer Regiment and 115 Infantry Regiment. Crüwell could see well enough the magnificence of the opportunity offering, but he was too impatient to take full advantage of it and at the same time conserve his strength for further fighting. He was staking all on a knockout blow to decide the campaign.
The menace of these movements to the south and south-west was plain and Gott and Brigadier Armstrong strengthened the southern flank of 5 South African Brigade with field and anti-tank guns. In the brigade area there were at least 44 25-pounders and 24 2-pounders, together with two anti-tank 18-pounders, while the remaining guns of 2 RHA supported the composite regiment of
22 Armoured Brigade in ‘a hull-down position near the south-western corner’.11 The anti-tank guns were mostly moved to cover the southern sector, leaving only two in the west and one in the east, the north being covered if need be by 4 RHA in an anti-tank role. At least sixteen of the 25-pounders within the laager were also brought to bear to the south. More help was on the way from the guns with 26 New Zealand Battalion, though Gott did not yet know this, and much more could have come from the strong artillery of Pienaar’s brigade; but the command and communications were not adequate for the task of getting this forward.12 The remaining tanks of 7 Armoured Brigade, all in some way crippled, and the remnants of the infantry of the Support Group could do little and they were sent to the south-east to be out of the way. The 2nd Scots Guards when they arrived were hastily allotted positions, one company in the area of the Transvaal Scottish and at least some elements in that of the South African Irish.
This went on to the accompaniment from noon onwards of a steadily increasing bombardment by the many guns of 21 Panzer and the enemy Army Artillery in the Belhamed area and by the guns of 15 Panzer, and the Transvaal Scottish on their rocky ground, reinforced by an MMG company, calmly awaited an attack from the north. The gunners in the South African laager were badly placed to counter the fire from the north and were not well off for ammunition; but the German accounts testify to the accuracy of their fire on 15 Panzer Division.
Headquarters of 6 Brigade knew nothing of all this when 26 Battalion was sent south-westwards, and when Lieutenant-Colonel Page set out from Esc-Sciomar at 11.45 a.m. his mission was to take up a position on the right of the South Africans facing north. The four portées of L Troop led the way and reached Garaet en-Nbeidat, a mile or more east of 2 Regiment Botha, at about 12.25, though the great size of the laager in front made it seem closer. From a slight rise in the scrub-covered desert, littered with the derelicts of battle, the men could see occasional shelling ahead to which the South African guns replied; but there seemed no cause for alarm and Page signalled back to 6 Brigade that he had reached his destination without meeting enemy, was in touch with the South Africans, and would try to link up with 25 Battalion at Point 175. Page then went forward to report to whoever was in command and before reaching the South African laager met General Gott.
Page had only the vaguest idea of what was expected of him and looked to Gott for detailed instructions. He learned that Gott was expecting an attack ‘supported’ by tanks and gained the impression that this would be from the north. Gott gave no indication that he was at all worried about the situation and seemed convinced that the German armour was in full retreat; if he had a few more AFVs, he told Page, he would launch a pursuit at once. In the meantime he approved the present position of 26 Battalion and told Page to co-ordinate the anti-tank defence with the CO of 4 Royal Horse Artillery, who was nearby. This Page did; but he was not as hopeful as Gott about the situation as a whole. The South African perimeter nearest to him seemed cluttered with lorries and in poor anti-tank shape. The rate of fire, moreover, of the German guns was increasing and Page, a gunner by training, realised that the 25-pounders had no answer to the long-range shelling by medium and heavy guns from the north.
With some misgivings Page returned to his unit and disposed it with A Company facing south-west, B north-west, C south-east and D north-east. E Troop of 30 Field Battery he put behind the northern perimeter of this all-round position and F Troop behind the southern, and all four 2-pounder crews were told to dig in for ground action facing east, while the carrier platoon was to patrol northwards and get in touch with 25 Battalion. The 16 25-pounders of 4 RHA went into action along a line between the northern end of the Botha position and the northern perimeter of 26 Battalion. The ground was too rocky for any but shallow trenches or sangars and the gun pits gave little protection. But the shellfire to the west seemed strangely unreal and for the first hour or more nothing came near Garaet en-Nbeidat.
A section of infantry in a lorry accompanied the carriers on their mission to 25 Battalion, and after a mile or two this party passed through the wreckage of a tank battle. Less than a thousand yards past this the carriers, which went on ahead, came upon elements of both 24 and 25 Battalions. The infantry section, waiting among the derelicts, were much moved to see other men of their brigade as distant figures advancing through fire against the defenders of Point 175. Soon the carriers came back with word that losses were heavy and both battalions were now committed to the attack. The small detachment itself came under shellfire and made its way back to Garaet en-Nbeidat, its task accomplished.
The battalion had meanwhile been watching with some concern as shellfire thickened on the South African positions, and by 2 p.m. gained a more personal interest when a few light shells landed in the 26 Battalion area. Soon after this tanks could be seen in the
far distance, evidently hostile, and it seemed at least to the unit diarist that the western flank was ‘not sufficiently protected’. Dust and smoke clouded the scene to the west, lit here and there by flashes of guns and bursting shells, and it was hard to tell what was happening. Soon after 3 p.m. the ominous sound of heavy small-arms fire joined the noise of the guns and it was obvious that an action of great violence was taking place, though 26 Battalion could only guess the details.
What was in fact taking place was one of the heaviest tank attacks of the desert war, always to be associated by the Germans with the formidable title this day bore in the Lutheran calendar, Totensonntag – Sunday of the Dead. In keeping with this awe-inspiring name some 110 tanks of 8 Panzer Regiment bore down on the South African B Echelon area, now bristling with anti-tank guns, and on the southern part of the Irish, closely followed by the two battalions of 115 Infantry Regiment in their vulnerable lorries, while on the right more than fifty tanks of 5 Panzer Regiment skirted the eastern flank and then dashed in among the South Africans, losing touch in the process with the tardy 200 Regiment. As the tanks broke from their assembly area and raced across the open ground towards the South Africans they were met by fierce fire over open sights from some twenty-four field guns and by fire from all 2-pounders within range. Many of the latter, lurking among the lorries, did not disclose their positions until faced by a target it was impossible to miss, the ‘long wave of tanks’ at point-blank range.
Some of the tanks which survived this deadly fusillade were soon among the vehicles, with Lieutenant-Colonel Cramer of 8 Panzer Regiment personally leading them at the head of II Battalion on the left, and there they struck further trouble as isolated tanks or small detachments were picked off by guns farther back among the mass of transport. Much of this transport began to move to escape the fire and thereby caused more confusion on both sides, to which the black smoke of blazing tanks and transport, the grey veils of gun smoke, and the churning turbulence of dust all added their share in a pandemonium of violence. Cramer had firmly resolved to keep straight ahead into the heart of the British position, ‘paying no attention to flank threats’, and by 3.30 p.m. I Battalion (under Captain Kümmel) thought it had ‘crippled the enemy’. The regimental report says at this stage that ‘Wherever the tanks were the enemy surrendered’; but the surviving South African and British gunners continued to fight savagely and the many pockets of resistance left behind opposed the German infantry with deadly
effect, so that Kümmel had to signal back ‘for infantry to be sent up urgently to mop up the battlefield and take over the prisoners’. Both tank battalions paused for a short time to give 115 Regiment a chance to catch up; but the defence seemed quickly to recover its vigour and Cramer realised that he had no choice but to push on with or without supporting arms. I Battalion therefore fought its way slowly northwards through heavy defensive fire and Cramer led II Battalion round to the north-west, to ease the task of the following infantry by meeting another and dangerous threat in the form of a tank counter-attack by the composite regiment of 22 Armoured Brigade.
The following infantry were all part of 15 Infantry Brigade under Colonel Menny, whose headquarters followed 200 Regiment. But it was 115 Regiment on the left which had the harder task. Advancing on a broad front, this regiment meant to keep to its lorries as long as possible; but when Lieutenant-Colonel Zincke led them past the tanks and on towards the South African lines, the fire which swept through the vehicles was more than flesh and blood could stand. Bullets, mortar bombs and anti-tank shot came from the front and left flank, where the regiment of 22 Armoured Brigade was stationed, and 25-pounders burst among the lorries with vicious fragmentation. Still 200 yards short of their opponents the two battalions faltered, their commander, Zincke, and the CO of I Battalion, Major von Grolmann, were killed and Major Göttman of II Battalion was gravely wounded while dismounting. The infantry tumbled out of their lorries and were for a short time pinned to slit trenches or any other cover they could find,13 and Neumann-Silkow was faced with a crisis. But he was close at hand and went forward at once to get 115 Regiment under way again. The adjutant, Lieutenant Struckmann, had meanwhile assumed command and drove forward in a light AFV to pick out a point of entry. The attached anti-tank and MMG sections held off the regiment of 22 Armoured Brigade and helped to open up a passage ahead. The resistance remained unbroken, however, and the regiment extended eastwards to resume the attack where the opposition looked weaker. This in turn had repercussions in 200 Regiment, which had likewise been daunted by the defensive fire and which Menny now ordered to swing to the right to conform with 115 Regiment, thereby taking the motor-cyclists and machine-gunners right out of the main arena and involving them in an action of their own against 26 New Zealand Battalion, as well as depriving both panzer regiments of effective infantry support.
This was a matter which greatly concerned Cramer of 8 Panzer Regiment, and at 4.20 p.m. he made a remarkable decision to let I Battalion carry on unaided its difficult passage into the heart of the defences while he took II Battalion round by the left to the south to disengage and bring the infantry forward at all costs. After a massive and expensive effort, however, the scheme fell through and Cramer found himself pushing northwards once more still without infantry support, and as a last resort called forward the panzer engineer battalion in some armoured troop-carriers, the rest of the sappers travelling on the outsides of tanks. The opposition of cruiser tanks of 22 Armoured Brigade among the mass of transport was with difficulty overcome, and the regiment pushed forward in what the regimental and divisional reports both call ‘an epic of bravery and soldierly self-sacrifice’. Behind it were solemn batches of prisoners in the care of the sappers and infantry and a waste of flame and smoke speckled with wrecked tanks and lorries, with here and there a gun destroyed at close quarters, its crew killed or wounded.
Cramer also had 5 Panzer Regiment under his command for this attack and the regimental report makes some scornful references to the lack of help from this quarter. But Lieutenant-Colonel Stephan had been directed too far east and plunged into the lines of 2 Regiment Botha in a right hook, with hot encouragement from the guns with 26 Battalion. Stephan also came under fire from various elements of 7 Armoured Division which thrust from the south-east, and which drove off with heavy loss a straying detachment of RECAM. But the weak oddments of British armour were too ill-informed about the situation at large to intervene to good effect.
Only the composite regiment of 22 Armoured Brigade could do much to help the South Africans and its dwindling band of tanks fought a solid and skilful action, falling back by degrees through the huge laager, at one stage passing right through the main MDS, to be followed, with equal solicitude for the wounded, by the German tanks. Then came Brigade Headquarters, which had heard very little of what was happening after the attack started and first learned of the progress of the panzer units when a staff officer recognised German tanks only 300 yards away. Armstrong and most of his staff were captured and the tanks carried on northwards, still meeting strong opposition from the guns guarding the northern perimeter, though the Transvaal Scottish, taken from the rear, could do little and were soon badly disorganised. Lorries swarmed towards the eastern flank to escape the enemy and drove wildly towards and past 26 Battalion on their way to safety, carrying with them
various non-fighting detachments and also many of the Scottish and the South African Irish who sensibly preferred flight to capture. Major Cochran, who was then acting CO of the Irish, took with him a sizable body of men and four 25-pounders were also driven through the maelstrom and got away eastwards. Lieutenant-Colonel Mason of the Botha got his Bofors troop to drive off encircling German tanks at a late stage of the fighting and saw eight tanks disabled. Mason was then wounded and taken to the MDS, already partly in enemy hands. The various groups of Scots Guards which evaded the tanks made off however they could, and the remnants of 22 Armoured Brigade rallied by a determined effort in the south-western corner and drove boldly through the enemy, clashing in several sharp skirmishes with tanks and doing much to distract attention from the escaping lorries.
Brigadier Armstrong had sent an engineer officer, Lieutenant Nellmapius, to ask Colonel Page for anti-tank support, and he must have arrived at about 3.30 p.m. Page promptly signalled 6 Brigade for permission to send a 25-pounder troop, and while awaiting a reply concluded that he had better send both troops of 30 Battery. He still knew very little of what was going on and had suddenly to re-orientate his whole position to face westwards. When he ordered up the 2-pounders of L Troop, the two which had been put in ground action were quickly winched back on to their portées, and all four drove to the western side of the position. At the same time 30 Battery was told to drive over to help the South Africans and the eight 25-pounders were hooked on and driven westwards through the battalion.
No sooner did the field guns reach the 26 Battalion FDLs in a line north of L Troop when vehicles burst out of the laager ahead and raced towards them, small-arms fire began to come through the area, and vehicles flooded through at high speed with South Africans clinging to them – the first indication to most of the 26th that they faced a South African brigade. Captain Tolerton14 had already been startled to see through his field glasses the steady progress of German tanks through the laager and bands of South Africans being rounded up and taken prisoner. Some of the 25-pounders of 4 Royal Horse Artillery also came back towards 26 Battalion either now or a little later and went into action somewhere north of 30 Battery. The New Zealand field guns promptly halted, dropped trails, and began to engage the enemy.
It was still very hard to sort out friend from foe, however, and several observers thought they saw British tanks on the fringe of the South African position.
After a pause of uncertain duration, what was thought to be a disabled Valentine tank on the right flank suddenly opened fire and put one of the portées out of action; the solid shot came to rest on the deck of the portée and was found to be of 50-millimetre calibre, which identified the tank as a Pzkw III. This was quickly finished off by the other three guns and they turned their attention to more tanks which now appeared, apparently from the South African lines. The range was still too great for effective 2-pounder fire, but the 25-pounders carried on by indirect fire and later over open sights. A second 2-pounder, after firing three or four rounds, was disabled and the driver mortally wounded. This left two 2-pounders and these found a profusion of targets, which they engaged as fast as the crews could load, aim and fire, while any spare gunners manned Bren guns and rifles on the ground. More 2-pounder shot was soon called for and used up – from the two disabled portées, from the troop reserve, and more still provided from somewhere or other by the troop commander, Lieutenant Pepper15 – and the paint was soon blistering off the gun barrels. A good deal of fire of various kinds came back at L Troop and 30 Battery: light shells and mortar bombs, AP shot and much small-arms fire. Page ordered all unessential vehicles back to 6 Brigade to save needless loss and gain clearer fields of fire for the guns.
At the end of about an hour the two anti-tank guns had fired more than 300 rounds each, a phenomenal rate of fire for such equipment, at ranges between 600 and 2000 yards and mostly in the upper brackets. At such ranges the following summer the 2-pounder would not have been effective against the Pzkw III and IV; but at the time of CRUSADER not many of the German tanks had strengthened or reinforced armour plate and they were on that account much more vulnerable. L Troop claimed a high score in tanks in this energetic action, and one careful estimate was that twenty-four were knocked out and ‘only those going on fire were counted’.16 This was a remarkable tally for two guns and the troop certainly deserved every praise. But it is nevertheless hard to reconcile any such total with the German accounts and, indeed, hard to place this action in detail in the reports of the two formations on the right, 5 Panzer Regiment and 200 Regiment.
The report of 5 Panzer Regiment admits the loss this day of twenty tanks all told (including two ‘technically’ damaged) and it is most unlikely that all these were lost to 26 Battalion. But this report testifies that Page’s group gave Stephan much trouble. The regiment ‘came under heavy shell fire, particularly the right flank and II Bn’ at 3.15 p.m. and soon after this was harassed by British tanks on the right. Then the regiment ‘was opposed by very heavy A Tk fire from the MT columns, shell fire from a large number of batteries, the enemy tanks, and SP guns on the right flank,17 and fought its way very slowly forward.’ This points to 26 Battalion as providing the opposition from the right, and the report adds, ‘The heavy fire from tanks and A Tk guns on the right flank hampered our movement very seriously.’ Then I Battalion became entangled in the great mass of South African vehicles and fought its way forward ‘under fire from both flanks, destroying enemy tanks, guns and batteries’, until it linked up with ‘about 15 tanks’ of 8 Panzer Regiment south of the airfield of Sidi Rezegh. German battle reports tend to over-estimate opposition and are often uncharitable towards neighbouring formations whether German or Italian; and it is therefore hard to know what weight to attach to this account. But 26 Battalion certainly did not knock out twenty-four tanks of this regiment, and if its score in tanks approached this number elements of 8 Panzer Regiment must somehow have become involved, which is not altogether implausible in view of the disorder into which Cramer’s regiment was thrown by the fierce resistance in the South African laager.
What might reasonably be supposed in this connection is that 5 Panzer Regiment headed at first towards 26 Battalion rather than 5 South African Brigade and was encouraged to correct this error by the fire of 30 Battery, 4 RHA, and L Troop of 33 Anti-Tank Battery. But it is also likely that some of the ‘tanks’ claimed by L Troop were actually half-tracked carriers of 200 Regiment (as Briel’s LAA carriers on the Via Balbia had been mistaken for tanks). Most of the fighting of 26 Battalion was against this regiment after it swung eastwards to conform with the change of direction of 115 Regiment. After this Lieutenant-Colonel Geissler brought up 2 MG Battalion on the right of 15 Motor Cycle Battalion and the two advanced on a broad front and in depth without tank or field artillery support.
Their attack progressed slowly, hampered at first by soft ground, and though they met less fire than 115 Regiment had faced, the men soon dismounted and continued on foot, covered by their
mortars and their many MMGs.18 Soon after 5 p.m. both units were held up by defensive fire and between then and dusk they gained very little ground, so that the left wing was still short of the South Africans and the right faced 26 Battalion. Just before this they were assailed from both sides, the machine-gun battalion by elements of 7 Armoured Division from the south-east and the motor-cycle battalion by the few tanks of 22 Armoured Brigade which burst out of the South African laager to rally for the night. Neither unit showed much of the dash and self-sacrifice which took 115 Regiment into the heart of the South African defences and it was not until after dark that they made any substantial progress at all.
As night was falling 115 Regiment pushed two companies through to the southern escarpment and the rest of the regiment came to rest just north of the positions originally held by the Transvaal Scottish, guarded by anti-tank guns and 88s and holding the impressive total of 1600 prisoners. To its right rear 15 Motor Cycle Battalion advanced quickly as opposition dissolved into the night and ‘small rearguards gave themselves up to the attacking troops as they exploited’.19 But 2 MG Battalion, according to the regimental report, ‘was again forced to ground by very heavy mortar fire about 200 metres short of the enemy defences’.
This was unquestionably 26 Battalion, which blazed away furiously at dusk and for some time after at what looked in the deceptive half-light (to a sergeant of L Troop) like ‘the whole German Army’. Some of the ‘mortar fire’ came from 30 Battery, which fired into the oncoming vehicles and infantry at a very rapid rate until some guns ran out of ammunition and had to withdraw in search of more. A Company was hotly engaged and an NCO of the mortar platoon says the enemy ‘came in droves with fixed bayonets ... until their faces were quite recognisable’. Even the reserve mortars were soon firing at maximum elevation20 which gave a range of about 150 yards, and their fire at that distance was devastating, driving the enemy back. The second-in-command, Major Mathewson,21 stood firing from the shoulder at the retreating infantry, outlined from time to time against blazing vehicles, until his rifle was unbearably hot. As one or two of the field guns, useless without ammunition and needlessly exposed in the FDLs, withdrew a short distance some of the infantry followed, thinking a general withdrawal was taking place; but Page quickly redirected them back
to their positions and a corporal of the carrier platoon saw them ‘turn and walk back ... into the whole force of heavy fire.’22 There followed a pause and then at 7 p.m. the enemy tried again, covered by tremendous fire from the massed MMGs of the machine-gun battalion. Brigadier Barrowclough had meanwhile ordered Page to fall back to Brigade Headquarters, in view of information gained from 30 Corps at 7.10 p.m. warning him to be ready to ‘repel tank attack tomorrow morning’ and to ‘consolidate with that in view’; the fresh attack put Page’s plan in jeopardy and he ordered Captain Wesney23 to stage a bayonet counter-attack with B Company while A Company stood its ground and the rest of the battalion group withdrew under Mathewson.
The night had darkened, the enemy sounded very close and Wesney soon disappeared into the blackness at the head of his men. But the sounds proved deceptive and B Company charged a long way without making contact, though it ran into fire which killed Wesney and six others and wounded three more before the company was called to a halt. Lieutenant Rutherford24 of 10 Platoon searched with a small party until he found Wesney’s body and two wounded men whom he brought back. Sadly 10 and 11 Platoons came back, tricked out of their prey by the night and robbed of their zest, and 12 Platoon (which did not get the order to fall back) was unwittingly left to wander in a state of high tension between the many islands of enemy with their nervous profusion of flares in search of a way back, a journey which took two days. A Company and the guns had pulled out and gone back a short distance to await B Company. ‘L Troop remained’, according to the troop subaltern,25 ‘until the last movable truck had gone and then moved away from the area under a canopy of flares, the enemy by this time being only a matter of 100 yards away’. B Company had stirred up a hornets’ nest and the air was thick with tracer bullets, so that drivers had no wish to linger. Pepper followed the two L Troop portées in his pick-up truck, bringing with him a German he had captured, Page brought up the rear of the group with the carriers, and all made a fast journey back to Brigade Headquarters at Esc-Sciomar. The action had cost no more than 12 killed and about 20 wounded altogether in the battalion group, whereas 200 Regiment had 10 killed, 46 wounded and 61 missing, a considerable number of them due to 26 Battalion. These losses, however, were dwarfed by those of 5 South African Brigade, which at ‘ Sidi Rezegh’ had 224 killed, 379 wounded, and about 2800 captured.