Chapter 11: The Attack on Point 175
‘HERE is our present position on map’, McNaught told his company commanders when he gave out his revised orders at 11.37 a.m. ‘There is Pt 175 1½ miles away. You can see a tallish object, call it “Cairn”. Beyond is what looks like a blockhouse. Call it “Blockhouse”.’1 The officers looked across ‘a long stretch of flat ground sloping gently upwards and dotted with an occasional tussock’2 on the left and with rather thicker vegetation nearer the escarpment to the north. The enemy was now thought to be ‘Probably in strength and on high ground both sides’ of the feature. ‘Probably has tanks’, McNaught added, ‘and may be using captured British tanks.’ But the ground ahead disclosed little of this, though the OC of 29 Battery, Major Wilson,3 fixed his attention on what he thought might be MG or mortar positions and decided to fire at them until FOOs could point out better targets. But for the faint rumble of distant guns the scene was peaceful and there was nothing to suggest that the silent desert ahead held men as resolutely resolved to hold their ground as the infantry of the 25th were to gain it.
The cairn and the Blockhouse beyond were in the respective areas of II and I Battalions of 361 Africa Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Grund, which was recently formed, short of equipment, and not well thought of by General Sümmermann. I Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Harder was made up of former members of the French Foreign Legion, and perhaps II Battalion under Major Ryll also suffered from this unpatriotic association and now had the chance, as Sümmermann had rudely suggested on 12 November, of regaining ‘the name of good Germans’. But their various experiences in a foreign army had made seasoned fighters of many of Grund’s men, adept at using ground and holding
their fire and no strangers to desert conditions. A shortage of antitank guns of which Grund had complained a few days before had been partly remedied and at least one 88 in the Blockhouse area (perhaps from 21 Panzer) could cover the western slopes of the position. The regiment was not well served by the artillery in the Belhamed area, which had a heavy programme in support of the Africa Corps attack; but its allotment of machine guns and mortars was above average and gave each battalion much greater firepower than its New Zealand counterpart.4 Anti-tank mines, however, may have been in short supply, as some were laid near Major Ryll’s headquarters on the escarpment north of the cairn but there seem to have been none around the cairn itself, where a company or more of II Battalion was disposed.
A well planned battalion attack with strong I-tank and artillery support along the lines of the ‘Sidi Clif’ manoeuvres might have made short work of such defences; but McNaught had to produce a stream of orders at very short notice indeed. There was no time for finesse. ‘I can almost hear myself saying to myself “make it simple, make it simple” ‘, he wrote later. What he told Major Veale, the I-tank commander, and the company commanders was under the circumstances a model of clarity and concision. The intention was simply ‘To capture and hold at all costs “Hill 175” ‘ and the tanks were to advance in two waves, the first (with the carriers close behind) at 15 miles per hour to seize the objective, the second at infantry pace with C Company, 800 yards behind B and D. The tanks were to wait until the infantry were on the objective and then, after consulting McNaught, they would move back through B Company to rally. The infantry were to dig in on the ‘forward half of high ground’ and be ready for a ‘quick counter-attack’. When A Company finished its current task it was to move up behind B. The field guns were to fire slow concentrations on what looked like trenches near the cairn and on the Blockhouse in the distance until the FOOs took over. Two anti-tank portées were to travel 800 yards behind each leading company. At 12.20 p.m. McNaught proposed to take his forward headquarters to within 500 yards of the cairn, keeping in touch with the companies by wireless.
A Company with a section of carriers had meanwhile been investigating fire to the right rear and the carriers came under anti-tank fire which 9 Platoon was sent forward to overcome. A machine gun on the edge of the escarpment was quickly dealt with and 9 Platoon carried on down the slope towards the Trigh Capuzzo.
No more enemy was found, and after a quick survey the platoon began to ascend the steep, rocky slopes. Then what looked like C Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, passed below, though it might have been panzers returning from the depot near Gambut. The agreed recognition signals were given, but the tanks nevertheless opened fire and killed two men and wounded another.
C Squadron in any case reached the starting line as ordered and the first wave swept forward at top speed, closely followed by the carriers, and was soon among the enemy in shallow trenches around the cairn, where the carriers helped to round up prisoners in large numbers. In some of the numerous small wadis and re-entrants in the escarpment to the north, and in the Rugbet which curled round from south to north-west and beyond it, however, there was ample concealment for anti-tank guns and for a few German tanks which appeared in due course. These found the Valentines easy targets silhouetted on the high ground and quickly disabled three or four of them.
D Company ‘just plodded up the slope’5 at a steadily increasing pace with 17 Platoon on the right, 16 Platoon left, and 18 Platoon in the rear, until muscles ached. At about halfway Major Hastie became suspicious of a tank which he took to be a Valentine, and which moved out to the left flank at a distance of some 700–800 yards, keeping level with Company Headquarters. Some 500 yards from the cairn he noticed that his men were veering left towards the Rugbet and getting farther away from B Company and he ordered a half-right wheel, which caused the sections farthest left to run until lungs were bursting to keep abreast. Soon after this the enemy opened fire with rifles, machine guns and mortars and D Company went to ground. The enemy position was more extensive than the tank commanders realised and some enemy had lain low even in the area overrun by the tanks and now came to life again. But resistance was short-lived. In a series of short dashes D Company was quickly among the enemy. Most resistance ceased when 16 and 17 Platoons were still some 25 yards away and the Germans rose to their feet and gave themselves up. Lieutenant Handyside6 of 16 Platoon told his men to ‘run forward all together and take them prisoner’, but in so doing was himself badly wounded in the arm. A burst of fire from the supposed Valentine on the left then killed Second-Lieutenant Holt.7
The prisoners taken here numbered 200 according to Hastie and they were soon grouped together and sent back towards the rear with an escort of three or four men. D Company thought for the moment that the action was over and, according to one man, ‘there was a great scramble for the usual loot’. Casualties were not numerous: three wounded in 17 Platoon, a sergeant killed and two or three besides Handyside wounded in 16 Platoon, Holt’s two successors (one after the other) wounded in 18 Platoon, and a company runner and mortar corporal killed or mortally wounded. C Company followed half a mile behind and met little fire until it was well forward, though the platoon on the left, 13 under Second-Lieutenant Ormond,8 came upon some German posts left behind by the tanks, some of which were quickly overcome by the energetic New Zealanders when the Germans tried to resume opposition. But 13 Platoon swung farther south than D Company and Ormond came upon a detachment of the latter under Corporal Quin,9 which had on Quin’s initiative stayed to engage ‘strong German positions on the left flank’. Ormond suspected a counter-attack was brewing from this quarter and decided to stay also.
McNaught had kept his word and by 12.30 p.m. had his Advanced Headquarters a few hundred yards south-east of the cairn; here the wireless truck and a few more vehicles were soon joined by the ammunition lorries and some of the company transport. He sent Hastie word to dig in where he was and Hastie asked in return for the platoon trucks with tools, which were duly promised. Then McNaught spoke with Major Veale of C Squadron, who thought the infantry were ‘pressing on past the objective because the enemy were surrendering in handfuls’10 and regarded this as a mistake. Veale felt they should consolidate first. The squadron was also rather disorganised and more tanks had been knocked out or damaged than either McNaught or Veale realised. To McNaught, however, the flat top of the feature seemed very open and enemy fire from the front and flanks opened up soon after the prisoners left. He was not quite sure, moreover, that the defended area was in fact his objective and he realised, too, now that he had got forward, that the Rugbet gave valuable cover for any counter-attack the enemy might care to mount. All in all he favoured going on some hundreds of yards and asked Veale to stay a little longer. He sent Hastie a signal accordingly to ‘push on as the tanks would only be with us for another ten minutes’.11
Captain Heslop12 of C Company reached Hastie just after he received this message. Hastie had already gone some way towards laying out a defensive position and reorganising his men and had the mistaken impression that they had suffered heavy losses. Talking things over with Heslop he agreed that C Company should move through D to carry out McNaught’s new order, partly to save time. But Heslop did not realise that Ormond’s platoon, less one section, and the whole of 15 Platoon had not stayed with him. McNaught had intercepted Second-Lieutenant Robertshaw13 and sent 15 Platoon with three tanks to fill the gap which had opened up between B and D Companies. Knowing nothing of this, Heslop ordered his men forward and they began to pass through D Company, at which 18 Platoon, not realising what was happening, got up and joined them, carrying on north-westwards for some hundreds of yards.
B Company had meanwhile struck trouble of various kinds and its task turned out to be very different. On the right 10 Platoon under Second-Lieutenant Cathie14 crossed ground that was ‘very flat,
with clumps of salt bush here and there’15 and came under fire from the clefts in the escarpment after half a mile. Cathie therefore sent one section along the crest to bring down plunging fire and descended himself with the rest of the platoon to the foot, where a quick bayonet charge overran an encampment of bell tents and yielded twenty prisoners and five dead Germans. A little farther to the west another charge gained thirty more prisoners. The section above, infected with the excitement, then started to come down to the west of Cathie’s detachment and was trapped by enemy fire in an exposed re-entrant. Cathie managed to subdue this fire and extricate the section, including three wounded; but in so doing he attracted a good deal of mortar and machine-gun fire and ran short of ammunition. He therefore led his men back up the escarpment and there replenished from the platoon truck. The platoon was not at all daunted by this setback and continued its dual advance above and below the 90-foot-high rampart with undiminished zest, though the terrain with its innumerable irregularities made progress slow in relation to that of the troops advancing across the flat above.
In contrast with the sporadic in-fighting of Cathie’s platoon, 11 Platoon on the left, led by Lieutenant Tredray,16 after about five minutes came under long-range fire, which grew more and more intense and forced the men down. In widely extended order they carried on in bounds and after some time were joined by a few tanks, which kept level with them and fired their machine guns, though none of the infantry could pick out any sort of target. The section on the left was luckier than the rest, and with one tank in close support took some part in rounding up the enemy in the neighbourhood of the cairn. In this it was soon joined by some of 12 Platoon which was following, and which provided four men to escort the prisoners thus taken to the rear area. The right of 11 Platoon continued north-westwards some distance from the lip of the escarpment and suddenly came under fire from a small party of enemy ‘down a siding to our right’17 and lost one killed and two wounded before Cathie’s men arrived to take another dozen or more prisoners here.
By this time most of 11 Platoon, without tank support, seems to have passed the top of the feature and was approaching the headquarters area of II Battalion, 361 Africa Regiment, which was strongly defended, though the men of course knew nothing more than that bullets were whistling about them in countless numbers from sources they could not locate. As they went on Tredray, who had led them unflinchingly onwards, was killed and at least six more
men were lost. Behind 11 Platoon came Second-Lieutenant Morris18 with 12 Platoon, which alone of the three had been given the revised estimate of enemy strength and was therefore not surprised by the fierceness of the resistance. The men were at first inclined to linger on the ground when they came under fire, but Morris, a young officer in his first action, said, ‘I think it’s only spent stuff. Get up and walk.’ Some 500 yards past the cairn 12 Platoon found itself under fire from three sides, including the rear, and as one private puts it, ‘things got very hot’. Ammunition was running low and three tanks ahead were all hit and belching smoke, not a reassuring sight. Morris himself was hit, mortally as it turned out, a Bren-gunner was killed outright, and another private lay dying. A fourth was blinded. There was no sign at all of other troops, either friendly or enemy, though the deadly MG fire continued. Sergeant Martin,19 a burly and still-cheerful figure, now took command and, assessing the position as hopeless, decided to withdraw. By degrees the few survivors came back, the men taking it in turns to provide covering fire while the remainder carried Morris or helped the walking wounded. Despite attention bravely given under fire by a captured medical orderly, Morris died and the survivors of 11 and 12 Platoons tended to fall back towards McNaught’s headquarters to escape the fire they had come to expect from several of the wadis. They ended up facing north rather than north-west to meet this menace, stabilising their position as best they could without digging tools on the rocky plateau. A few more men of B Company joined them here and a company lorry braved terrible fire to bring up ammunition. In the gap between B and D Companies the three Valentines made a good pace across the flat top of the hill and kept any enemy in the area quiet. Continuing northwards, all three were crippled in quick succession near the top of the escarpment, though their crews continued to man their guns. When 15 Platoon, following the I tanks, reached the scene, the men quickly killed the crew of the anti-tank gun responsible. Then they found themselves threatened by a German tank which came to the top of the slope and, to their immense relief, backed down again. Heavy mortar fire came down on 15 Platoon and an infantry counter-attack from the west was repulsed with difficulty. The platoon commander, Second-Lieutenant Robertshaw, knew nothing of what B Company was doing and felt very isolated. Looking round, as Sergeant Martin did a short distance to the east, he perceived signs of enemy on several sides and could
hear the German tank moving just below the crest. There was nothing to be gained by staying and he told his sections to withdraw independently until they regained contact with the rest of the battalion.
This proved a disastrous decision, as the hidden enemy was much closer than Robertshaw thought. As soon as the men rose to their feet they drew terrible fire, which killed or wounded most of them in a matter of seconds. Robertshaw watched this with horror and dismay but could do nothing to help. Taking advantage of the cover offered by one of the disabled tanks (and of the knowledge which the firing revealed of the enemy’s whereabouts), he got safely back to B Company. Of the 34 men who had set out with the three tanks 14 were killed, 9 wounded and ultimately safe, and 6 were wounded and captured. The platoon sergeant was the only other man who got back safely that day. Before Robertshaw left, one of the three tanks was hit again by a heavy shell and burst into flames, and he was shocked to see the crew shot down as they tried to make their escape.
Thus 15 Platoon failed to plug the gap between B and D Companies and the B Company action broke up into a series of minor though intense engagements, helped here and there by I tanks which were used up in ones and twos in gallant response to local demands but in a manner quite contrary to all teachings of how these valuable machines should be employed. Captain Fisher,20 observing for the field artillery, was well forward in his Bren carrier and doing his best with his four 25-pounders to cover the tanks and infantry from enemy pockets, which were found over a large area and were extremely hard to pinpoint on the ground. The two anti-tank portées supporting B Company, commanded by Lieutenant Muirhead21 and advancing in reverse so that the crews could gain some protection from the gunshields, came under heavy machine-gun fire. The gun K1 nevertheless got well forward and damaged an enemy tank below the escarpment, forcing its crew to evacuate it, and was then put out of action by mortar bombs. McNaught himself was nearby at the time and when Muirhead suggested bringing K2 forward he replied, ‘No, you are infantry now! Forward!’ But the gunners were soon pinned down by low, intense machine-gun fire, which wounded Muirhead and mortally wounded the gun sergeant. K2 soon after this engaged a tank which came up the escarpment and blew its turret off. But the situation on the right remained fluid and the enemy was able to re-establish or reinforce almost any of
his posts in the wadis by bringing fresh troops along the foot of the escarpment, supported by one or two tanks which were a grave menace to B Company. The one portée left could not cover the whole two-mile flank and the Valentines here were all stationary and mostly wrecked.
Men of C and D Companies soon saw for themselves what the German anti-tank guns could do to the heavily armoured I tanks, not only in terms of ugly holes and blazing interiors but in gun barrels bent into odd shapes or in one case shot off altogether, so that the turret looked like a face without a nose. When McNaught ordered Veale to stay another ten minutes the Valentines at hand descended the gentle slope towards the Rugbet and there ran into deadly fire. Six were knocked out in one group some 300 yards north-west of the cairn, two of them fiery wrecks and the rest badly damaged, while several more were damaged but could with-draw either with useless guns or with wounded or dead members of their crews as passengers. Theirs was a brave but unavailing effort to ease the burden of the infantry and put an end to the stiffening opposition, and when Veale ordered them to rally at 1.10 p.m. only four tanks came back. Of these there was Veale’s tank with a ‘holed fuel tank’, another with a 2-pounder jammed and a gunner wounded, a third with a wounded commander and badly damaged suspension, and the fourth with ‘front idler wheel buckled’.22 Four more were coming back when the infantry on the spot asked for help and it was given despite Veale’s order. One of these came back twenty minutes later with one of the crew dead, another badly wounded, and only the driver unscathed. Its thick turret had two clean holes on the gunner’s side of a calibre which suggested hits by a 50-millimetre anti-tank gun and the interior was heavily damaged. Another tank came in miraculously free of harm but carrying a sergeant with a broken shoulder from another crew; the crew minus the sergeant went back into action, and before their tank had both tracks shot off their 2-pounder claimed two German tanks.
When elements of C Company and 18 Platoon of D Company resumed their advance on the left they were first mortared and then came under fire from machine guns to their left front which they could not pinpoint, as well as getting showered by splinters from shells bursting low overhead, a type of fire they had not met before. By a natural impulse they tended to wheel left to face this flanking fire, and those on the left were soon halted and forced to
take cover. On the right 18 Platoon went 400 yards or more and 14 Platoon in the centre covered perhaps 200 yards in short dashes in the face of intense fire, so that they all got within a short distance of the eastern edge of the Rugbet, where they were finally halted. Men of 14 Platoon could see Germans to the front on the edge of the wadi, and where this curved round to the left rear more enemy were advancing in short spurts and then going down, getting closer all the time to 13 Platoon and the rest of D Company. The counterattack of which Ormond of 13 Platoon had tried to warn Captain Heslop was clearly under way.
Ormond had meanwhile settled his sections in shallow German slit trenches and sangars to face what was evidently a serious threat. Then he went forward with his runner to reconnoitre. Some 40–50 Germans stood up 150 yards away as if to surrender and he beckoned them over; but they did not come, and when he started over towards them he noticed more lying on the ground and in the background a tank which fired occasionally towards his men. So Ormond returned in haste, his runner getting killed on the way by the tank. The enemy was by this time visible from where 13 Platoon was and Ormond moved from trench to trench to encourage his men, who were running short of ammunition and making what use they could of captured small arms. Ormond himself fired several German rifles and concluded that their former owners had been ‘pretty rattled’ because their sights were still set at 1200–1400 metres.
Major Hastie was puzzled to know where the fire was coming from and worried because his men had such slight cover, mostly little more than ‘a few very shallow holes and clumps of tussock’. He sent a runner to McNaught to explain that he could not move because of heavy fire from the left flank. After this he was talking to a sergeant who came to report that Handyside had been wounded when the sergeant was killed. Then he saw a tank turret rise on the left, and a moment later the whole tank followed by two others which looked like Valentines. Each had a detachment of infantry co-operating closely with it, the tank coming forward a short way and the men dashing up to it in extended line and then going down while the tank made another bound forward. By this careful means the enemy worked his way into the area of 16 Platoon despite spasmodic fire directed at the following infantry from elements of C and D Companies not immediately threatened by the tank guns. A carrier then appeared on the scene, slowly withdrawing before the tanks but losing no chance of firing at the German infantry. It drew much fire and ‘fought a good rearguard here’ according to Handyside. Private Gamlin23 fired one shot from the
captured German anti-tank gun and was then shot through the head. The two portées of K Troop under Second-Lieutenant Ryan,24 which had followed D Company as Muirhead’s had followed B, were at this time occupied with the ‘derelict’ which had killed Holt, and which they destroyed at a range of no more than 150 yards. But they were shielded from view of the tanks in Hastie’s area by the same curve of ground which at first hid the tanks from Hastie; and C and D Companies therefore had no anti-tank support. Two of the three mortars which had followed up the advance had been driven back by small-arms fire and were now stationed near McNaught at Advanced Headquarters, firing as hard as they could in the direction of the Rugbet but unable to observe the results. Their fire, as it happened, caused many casualties in the enemy’s rear area but fell nowhere near the force which was overrunning the two companies. The shells of 29 Battery were at this stage falling thickly around the Blockhouse.
With nothing to combat the advancing tanks, C and D Companies had no choice but surrender, a contingency which had never entered the head of any man until he found himself staring at point-blank range at the tank machine guns. One or two here and there gave a last defiant burst of fire and Hastie saw a sergeant of 17 Platoon who ‘very coolly got an officer’. Hastie buried his maps and other papers and rose to his feet, noting Heslop doing likewise. Heslop’s comment to those around him was, ‘Looks like we’ve had it’.
Thus two companies were lost within an hour of taking their objective and with it a large number of prisoners. It is clear from the accounts of what Quin and Ormond did that the enemy was already strongly posted in the wadi on the left flank when D Company advanced, and prior reconnaissance could have disclosed this important fact. But bad luck also played its part: it was the merest chance that Ryan’s two portées were distracted by the ‘derelict’ to the south at the critical time, and the enemy was lucky in introducing three tanks here without at once meeting these guns or one or more of the Valentines, which were still in the forward area and well able to deal with them.
The men were well treated by their captors, apart from one or two who were wounded, perhaps inadvertently, after they raised their hands, and were soon marched down the gully. No sooner had they gone than shell and mortar fire started to fall in the area, discouraging any exploitation of the German success. The 29th Battery and the mortar platoon had evidently corrected their sights, and Hastie when he looked back saw the three tanks circling north-westwards and later saw one in flames.
Ryan’s section of K Troop at last came into action against two of the tanks, too late to save the two companies but not too late to avenge their capture. The crew of the gun K4 saw what Ryan thought was a light Italian tank followed by what looked like a Valentine ‘flying our recognition signals’. K3 and K4 both engaged the light tank and it fired no more, though it kept coming to within 50 yards and then burst into flames. Then Ryan directed K3 on to the ‘Valentine’ and scored several direct hits in addition to two ‘sticky bombs’25 lobbed at the tank by the infantry. ‘This tank was knocked out’, Ryan says, ‘but I think the honour should go to the infantry.’
Among the many figures on the bullet-swept slopes of Hill 175 none was more prominent or inspiring than that of McNaught himself, calm and unhurried, pipe in mouth, apparently unconcerned about the fire which came his way. A general counter-attack was evidently in progress and about 2 p.m. he realised from observation and the tales of a few survivors that the two companies had been ‘largely overrun’. At about this time Captain McBride26 asked for help for B Company; but McNaught refused it and told him ‘to hang on without help.’ McNaught used his remaining carriers to ‘reinforce threatened points’ and got the two mortars nearby to help block what was now a dangerous gap. Then he called up his only reserve, A Company, to reinforce his left.
This company had meanwhile finished its task on the escarpment to the right rear, and when Captain Roberts27 received McNaught’s order he lost no time in coming forward. ‘Under terrific mortar and machine gun fire he made his reconnaissance of the enemy position’, says Major Burton28 of Headquarters Company, ‘to find the best line of attack.’ A crisis had evidently been reached and there was no easy way to overcome it. Speed was essential and Roberts called up 7 Platoon on the right, overlapping into the sector of B Company, and 9 Platoon on the left in their vehicles. They reached Advanced Headquarters, which was in course of being shot to pieces, and debussed under heavy fire. Pushing forward in bounds into a storm of bullets and bursting mortar bombs which claimed many victims, the two platoons got to about 150 yards from enemy positions which produced MG fire in such volumes that further advance would have been suicidal. There 9 Platoon was soon reminded that
it had not replenished ammunition after the skirmish on the escarpment and became desperately short of it. Both platoons veered a little to the right as they advanced to escape the worst of the fire and 9 Platoon now found itself gravely menaced by a tank which was first thought to be derelict – yet another case – but which came to life and tried to run over the infantry (being presumably itself out of ammunition or with jammed guns). K2 of Muirhead’s section came up in the nick of time and blew off this tank’s turret and the infantry settled down to hold their ground.
By some misfortune 8 Platoon found itself without transport and came forward on foot, meeting murderous small-arms fire which killed four men at the outset and made this advance an unforgettable experience for those who survived. By the time this platoon reached the front A Company had lost 15–20 men killed and twice that many wounded, and now consisted of little groups out of touch with each other and somewhat bewildered. A Company was now too few and too disorganised to drive the enemy back; but the Germans were rebuked if not repulsed and were no longer venturesome on this part of the front. Lieutenant Henderson29 of 7 Platoon gathered together some of his men and some of 9 Platoon (Lieutenant Jack30 having been wounded three times) in a small island of resistance somewhere north-west of the cairn, and Second-Lieutenant Campbell31 of 8 Platoon likewise collected some thirty men, mostly his own, to the south-east. Sergeant Winter,32 who took over from Jack and was soon badly wounded himself, though he stayed in action with five others of 9 Platoon, says:
it was impossible to obtain a coherent appraisal of the situation, a continuous stream of wounded was passing to the rear, enemy fire was intense, and our own 6th Field were putting down a spot barrage that was suicidal in its closeness, captured German vehicles were shuttling up and down between Brigade H.Q., Bn H.Q. and the attached arms. A Company was desperately short of ammunition. ... Enemy fire from concealed positions and Tanks decimated the Company before 100 yards had been covered.
Roberts himself had been badly wounded in the leg and lay, like many of his men, with bullets passing inches overhead and no chance of succour until the firing died down.
Things were no better at Advanced Headquarters, where McNaught had already been twice wounded and the Intelligence and Signals Officers were both badly hurt. Many vehicles, including ammunition lorries, were in flames and it was evident to Major Burton when he came forward at this stage that they had been taken too far forward on the bald plateau and could serve no useful purpose there. At about 2.15 p.m. the wireless truck was destroyed and its crew killed or wounded and Burton sent several other lorries a few hundred yards back. He reported to McNaught and then moved over to the escarpment, where he collected some stragglers and stationed them on the edge to cover the rear of B Company, which was now threatened by a series of minor counter thrusts. Then he sent back word for every able-bodied man of his own company to come forward at once. With these and the few men of 11, 12 and 15 Platoons still in action he formed a two-platoon front facing north, with its foremost posts below the crest.
Cathie and 10 Platoon had meanwhile been carrying the fight to the enemy along the escarpment until increasing infiltration with tank support forced them back. A charge down the slope had gained a dozen prisoners, including two or three officers, but two enemy tanks snatched them back from their escorts. One of these tanks was then knocked out by K2 and Cathie’s men ‘popped off the personnel as they came out of the tank’. When enemy pressure became too great to hold by such tactics, Cathie chose a commanding point on the ridge (getting a bullet through the shoulder in so doing) and disposed 10 Platoon for a last-ditch stand. Two corporals and a medical orderly were killed here, but ‘this point simply had to be held’, Cathie says, and 10 Platoon kept up fire against all enemy movement below.
McNaught had done his utmost and now had to ask Barrowclough for help. What little was left of Advanced Headquarters was now practically in the front line and McNaught was weakened by loss of blood. Limping badly, he was still an inspiration to those who could see him moving about disdainful of cover, and for some time he personally directed the fire of the two mortars. Wireless was now working only between 29 Battery and its two FOOs and the casualty rate among runners was high. One who did outstanding work was Private Kinder,33 who carried messages between McNaught and the companies, repairing his own motor-cycle when this was hit and later making use of a captured motor-cycle until this, too, was put out of action.
When the call for help reached Brigade Headquarters it was only too plain that the battalion was in trouble, and the blazing lorries at McNaught’s headquarters with their continual explosions of ammunition served as landmarks and danger signals. Men of 24 Battalion were uneasily aware that their associates of the 25th were not getting all their own way. One officer was very much on edge and said several times to his men, ‘We should not wait – we are wanted up there, I am certain they can’t get word back.’34 When Barrowclough committed D Company of the 24th to help the 25th the men were therefore ready and anxious to go. The plateau was obviously swept by enemy fire and the plan was to drive down the unnamed wadi and along the foot of the escarpment to reach a certain point before enemy reported to be advancing from the west could get there. D Company would then mount the slope on foot and hold off this enemy. This was vague and nobody at Brigade Headquarters could give Captain McDonald35 of D Company much information.
When D Company of 24 Battalion drove forward to the point indicated the men came under heavy fire as they left their lorries, and like others of the 25th they were none too sure of its source. They could see movement on the crest above and promptly engaged it with their Bren guns. B and HQ Companies of the 25th had had no warning that help was coming and naturally responded to this challenge. Burton, who saw it all, says, ‘a hail of bullets whistled overhead and looking over the edge ... we could see khaki forms crawling towards us . ... then one of our guns replied. When the enemy came a little closer we all held our fire for the attackers were ... a portion of a company of the 24 Bn.’ Captain McBride managed to get in touch with McDonald and this exchange of fire ceased. The attention of the newcomers was quickly drawn to genuine enemy farther west who deluged the area with mortar bombs from a wadi somewhere north of the cairn. This same wadi also harboured a tank, which threatened the survivors of B Company and which soon provided the gun K2 with its third victim this afternoon. Backing up to the edge, the 2-pounder fired from its portée and at short range blew off the turret. This broke the back of the enemy’s resistance here and 16 Platoon of D Company crossed the wadi, which was strewn with wounded and dead of both sides, and pushed on along the rocky slopes against what turned out to be a very strong enemy counter-thrust supported by murderous fire. A private of 16 Platoon36 describes it thus:
Pte Mottram37 ... made his way to the edge of the escarpment. The noise was terrific. He passed a knocked out Spandau and crew and moved over the edge, joining Pte Morgan38 and others who were down among the rocks. They were caught by fire. Mottram gave one last burst of fire from his Tommy gun before turning back, then was killed. Morgan was wounded while making his way back ... D Coy was held down by fire.
McDonald then ‘stood up to size up the position’39 and was himself shot down, together with his batman. To lose ‘Happy Mac’ at the outset was a heavy blow; it served if anything to stiffen the resolution of D Company but robbed it for a brief but critical period of the initiative McDonald would undoubtedly have supplied.
McDonald’s death coincided with a thrust above the ridge by the four I tanks which Major Veale had managed to rally and make battle-worthy, and which drove the enemy there right back beyond the three Valentines which 15 Platoon of the 25th had followed to their doom on the escarpment north of the cairn. The tank commanders expected the infantry to follow and hold the recaptured
ground and were disappointed when none did. To B Company of the 25th, not knowing of the death of McDonald or of the fierce fire still coming up at D Company, it seemed a pity and the unit report says that ‘no advance was gained’ from the tank thrust and ‘no advance was made by 24 NZ Bn, under cover of the tanks’. Veale gained the impression that the infantry had no ammunition; but this could not apply to the newly-arrived D Company, nor does it emerge from accounts of B Company at this stage. McNaught himself came over and ordered 12 Platoon to ‘attack again’, according to Private Reed.40 ‘Went over to our right to the edge of the escarpment’, he adds, ‘and attacked up there’. This cost four more lives, and in another skirmish soon afterwards McBride was wounded. Then McNaught was hit a third time. Reed saw him ‘bowl over, get up and shortly go down again’.
The shortage of officers in B Company was now acute and Sergeant Martin rose splendidly to the occasion, directing a series of local thrusts and helping to turn the tide of German aggression. Barrowclough had also committed the four Vickers guns of 9 MG Platoon, and two of these came across from McNaught’s headquarters and were stationed on the escarpment by the time D Company came forward, though too close to the enemy to be effective at first. Their guns were far too conspicuous to set up at what was no more than Tommy-gun range of the Germans. It was not until the situation became a little more stable that these two guns went into action on the plateau to their left front and the reassuring clatter of their fire, steady and persistent, did much to strengthen this front. The other two guns of 9 MG Platoon were much troubled by accurate and close-range fire, and by first one tank (duly knocked out by K Troop) and then another which passed within a few yards, and they could not get into action as ‘the very least movement brought down a hail of fire’.41
When he was hit the third time McNaught was on the point of going over to inspect the left flank, which had again come adrift; but he was taken instead to Brigade Headquarters and there saw Brigadier Barrowclough, who at once arranged to send up another company of 24 Battalion and also Lieutenant-Colonel Shuttleworth to take over command. By a great feat of willpower McNaught mustered his ebbing physical powers long enough to go back and brief Shuttleworth when he arrived, which he did ‘rather incoherently’ as he says. Then he was taken back to the dressing station and withdrew from the action.
The second company of reinforcements, C Company of the 24th under Captain Tomlinson,42 was sent up with the vague instructions to ‘assist 25 Bn as they directed’. Tomlinson waited until his men were moving off in their lorries and then went on ahead to Advanced Headquarters of the 25th, which was now a collection of broken-down lorries with no sign of order or purpose. All Tomlinson could find were a few signallers ‘who were packing up and getting out’. He could get no more information than his own eyes told him and this was misleading: 25 Battalion seemed to him to be ‘badly demoralised and disorganised and their men were streaming off Point 175 hotly pursued by the enemy.’ This must have been at about 4.30 p.m. and probably coincided with a fresh attempt by the enemy to dislodge the few handfuls of A Company of the 25th still fighting on the left flank. Tomlinson quickly summed things up and decided that he should stage a company attack, ‘hoping that the sight of fresh troops would help 25 Bn to reorganise and establish a line’.43
He therefore met his men on their way forward, sent the troop-carrying vehicles back, and told the platoon commanders to attack towards the cairn but not to incur heavy casualties; if this seemed likely they were to go to ground and hold on to give 25 Battalion time to reorganise. This was not a prescription for driving back the enemy and C Company halted some 300 yards short of the cairn, which the enemy now held strongly. But Tomlinson’s men showed themselves resolute in defence and repulsed a quick counter-attack. By about 5 p.m. the situation seemed stable and the left flank secure. Tomlinson was out of touch with the right flank and did his best to rally elements of 25 Battalion and extend his line northwards in the hope of making contact with D Company, which he was told had been ‘pretty badly mauled’. In this he succeeded, and perhaps half an hour later he reported back that C and D Companies now formed a line with some of 25 Battalion between them and he thought it would hold in the meantime, though it had no depth if heavily attacked. Advanced Headquarters of 24 Battalion then arrived on the scene and Shuttleworth himself conferred with Tomlinson, deciding to leave things as they were until after dark, when he would bring up his other two companies to form a reserve. Digging tools were now brought forward and C Company made use of them wherever it could to strengthen its posts, extending this work after dark to the more exposed positions.
Shuttleworth’s first concern was to get his own D Company (now under the command of Captain Jones44) firmly established and he did much to encourage the men. Though there was much evidence of enemy above and below the escarpment, firing gradually died down and Button and Shuttleworth were able to talk things over. Shuttleworth left Burton in command of the 25th and began to redispose D Company, not on the slopes where it had done most of its fighting but on the plateau above. He personally sited section posts quite close to the enemy, who sounded very near after dark and sent up the usual abundance of flares. Later in the night the enemy withdrew. On the Trigh Capuzzo enemy transport was noisily active. At the same time Burton reorganised his men to the right rear into a composite company. Some men of Headquarters Company were used here to reinforce B Company, which at a roll call after dark numbered only two officers and 36 other ranks – about the strength of each of the three platoons when they set out at noon for Point 175.
Rather less than half of Hill 175 remained in New Zealand hands, though more than two-thirds had been seized in the early stages with the invaluable help of the I tanks, so the enemy had regained a good deal of ground, including the cairn at the highest level of the feature. But neither side had enough troops forward to build up a firm front, and on the left in particular the demarcation between the two was vague and no-man’s land an uncertain area in which carrying parties impartially attended friend and foe among the wounded. In at least one case Germans directed New Zealand wounded back to Tomlinson’s lines. The ground to the north of the cairn was thickly strewn with wounded of both sides, some of them already suffering pitifully from exposure in the cold desert night. Even the men of 24 and 25 Battalions who were still in action had no greatcoats or blankets and were chilled to the bone, and Burton, seeing this, went back and got his men blankets and a hot stew. C Company of the 24th worked ceaselessly throughout the night bringing in wounded and taking them back to the rear, where the RAP of 25 Battalion overflowed with stretcher cases. But those who advanced farthest on the left before being hit almost all ended up in German hands. The paradox of tender care for the wounded regardless of nationality following the relentless fighting which caused their suffering was never more apparent than in the stretch of desert north of the cairn, where a wounded man bearing as best he could his lonely agonies had about an equal chance of being lifted up by German or New Zealand hands and all were treated with
equal compassion. Thus in 15 Platoon of the 25th nine wounded ended up at their own RAP (where a German medical officer worked alongside ‘Doc’ McCarthy,45 Padre Willis46 and others until all were ‘almost to the point of collapsing’47) and six reached a German dressing station. Even in this work of mercy, however, fate clashed with logic: Captain Roberts of A Company, whose driver had driven boldly forward to pick him up, was mortally wounded by mistake on the way back, his last words being, ‘Tough luck, being hit by your own chaps.’ This was a rare case, however, and the darkness was used in general to save lives and repair as much as possible the damage to flesh and bone which was the inevitable outcome of an attack pressed resolutely against stubborn defences, developing into thrust and counter-thrust until both sides had had about as much as they could stand.
The bare details available do little to illuminate this hard-fought action from the enemy’s point of view, but the diary of 21 Panzer Division refers to ‘repeated attacks by enemy tanks from the south and east along the Trigh Capuzzo’ and goes on to say that 361 Africa Regiment ‘had particularly hard fighting, and its most easterly battalion had severe losses’. Neither this division nor Sümmermann’s (both of which thought by some misunderstanding that 361 Regiment was under their command) identified this action as being chiefly against New Zealanders, and both seem to have regarded it as some sort of offshoot of the main battle against the British armour. Reports of the advance of 4 New Zealand Brigade (not identified as such) towards Gambut were followed by others which suggested that this force had somehow turned south and had run up against Africa Corps. Then at 8 p.m. Major Ryll of II Battalion, 361 Regiment, came back wounded and reported that eight British tanks had been knocked out on his front, which was rather less than the truth. But it is interesting to note that a patrol from 2 MG Battalion of 200 Regiment passed right through the regimental area in the early hours of the morning and did not meet any members of 361 Regiment until it got nearly to the Via Balbia. More interesting still, Sümmermann sent forward during the night a subaltern of this regiment, who failed to find any of his colleagues and reported next morning that the area was ‘completely deserted and in disorder as if it had been plundered’. He found ‘numerous dead and tank tracks’ in the area. Sümmermann was baffled and
sent sapper patrols next afternoon to Sidi Rezegh to make contact with 361 Regiment, thinking that Colonel Grund may have withdrawn westwards along the escarpment.
This is all mystifying, as Shuttleworth found enemy well established next morning in the area of the cairn (though he dislodged them with surprising ease). The only explanation that seems to fit the case is that Grund, having committed a good deal of his I Battalion as well as the whole of II Battalion in defence of Point 175 and lost heavily in both units, withdrew all he had left during the night and reorganised in the Blockhouse area, leaving 175 to infantry of Africa Corps who came up from the south (and who were withdrawn at short notice next day for Rommel’s dash to the frontier). Point 175 is frequently mentioned in reports of 15 Infantry Brigade as the objective of the afternoon attack against the South Africans, and it is at least possible that some of either 115 Regiment or 200 Regiment ended up there after dark. One step the enemy took during the night was to lay anti-tank minefields in various areas, including that occupied by the six disabled Valentines on the western slopes of the hill.
At all events 361 Africa Regiment lost heavily and was badly disorganised by Barrowclough’s attack; but casualties seem to have been about the same on each side. The 270 German prisoners sent back to the rear were more than twice the 100-odd of C and D Companies of the 25th who were captured (to say nothing of 80-odd wounded Germans brought in); but sixteen British tanks, mostly Valentines, were lost against a total of no more than eight assorted enemy tanks put out of action. In killed and wounded 6 Brigade probably lost more than 361 Regiment. Whether General Sümmermann accepted the latter after this action as ‘good Germans’ is not recorded; but they surely earned by their stout defence at least this recognition. The New Zealanders found them worthy opponents, as brave as any they met.
No New Zealand battalion in the Second World War lost more men killed in a single action than the 100 or thereabouts that the 25th lost between noon and dusk of this Sunday of the Dead.48 The wounded who were not captured numbered well over 100 and total casualties in the battalion were more than 350, some two-thirds of those who actually took part in the attack. Officer casualties were heavy, 16 out of 27 who set out for Point 175, including Cathie, who stayed in action despite his shoulder wound. In its brief action. D Company of the 24th lost 27 men, including eight killed, and C Company lost rather fewer. C Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, which battled bravely this day and saved both battalions from losing
many more than they did, ended up with 25 killed, wounded and missing, a high total for such a sub-unit, and had only two Valentines fit for action, a crippling loss. In 9 Platoon of 3 MG Company 11 men were killed or missing and several more wounded and safe, also a high rate of loss, though none of the four Vickers guns was lost. The total in 6 Brigade amounted to 420 men or more, severe losses by any standard and particularly so against defences which had virtually no field artillery support and very little mortar ammunition.
The ‘bag’ of 350-odd German prisoners in this attack was increased by another fifty taken by Major Sawyers,49 OC of 48 Battery, from salvage parties working in the huge park of derelicts to the southwest of Brigade Headquarters. When he found out that enemy were still among the tanks, chiefly Stuarts of 8 Hussars, he called down fire from his own D Troop and then attacked with his small OP party in such determined fashion that the Germans quickly surrendered. The Brigade LAD officer, Second-Lieutenant Cooper,50 took several of his mechanics and drivers and, covered by the Brigade Defence Platoon, began work to recover these tanks. The party was shelled and two men wounded; but by the end of the day at least nine Stuarts were brought into the brigade area.
The other troop (C) of 48 Battery opened fire in the late afternoon on five or six enemy tanks which approached from the east and sent them scuttling away. Then another group of tanks and what looked like lorried infantry was seen driving up from the south and Brigade Headquarters was alerted; but this enemy disappeared in a fold of the ground and was not seen again. Both were doubtless some stragglers from the main battle against the South Africans; but they served to distract the attention of 48 Battery at a time when its fire might have been very useful to the troops on Point 175. Then a third group of tanks caused anxious moments as it came on towards 24 Battalion just before dusk; but since they were flying the correct pennants they were given the benefit of the doubt, and they turned out to be twelve Stuarts which had run out of ammunition and were nearly out of petrol. (They stayed the night and were still there when 6 Brigade moved on next morning.)
These were minor concerns; but they added to Barrowclough’s already immense burdens, and when he got warning from 30 Corps at 7.10 p.m. that he should consolidate and be prepared to repel tank attack next day he was worried about the large number of
lorries in the brigade area, particularly those of 6 RMT Company which were not likely to be needed for the next day or two but which greatly enlarged the perimeter to be defended. The growing congestion of wounded men at the 25 Battalion RAP and at an ADS opened near Esc-Sciomar by 6 Field Ambulance also demanded attention. He therefore decided to send some of the lorries back towards the frontier with those of the wounded who were fit to travel this way, while the rest of 6 RMT Company moved south to the 30 Corps transport area. McNaught undertook with Lieutenant Ollivier51 to navigate the column of wounded and this set off before dawn on the 24th, after a busy night of preparation. Besides these matters there was acute anxiety about the supply of food, water, petrol and, above all, of ammunition. The Brigade Supply Column which had been specially formed to serve 6 Brigade in its detached role had not yet arrived and there was no knowing when it would turn up.
By 11 p.m. Barrowclough laid his plans for the next day, expecting to have to hold his ground against tank attack probably from the south-west. He was determined to yield none of the ground then held by Shuttleworth and so had no choice but to close up from the east towards Point 175. In its present form the brigade group straggled for some miles along the plateau above the escarpment. Just before first light on the 24th he meant to move up the rest of 24 Battalion to reinforce Shuttleworth, who was to hold what he now possessed, while Page would hold the southern flank to link up with Shuttleworth’s force and the eastern flank at about Wadi esc-Sciomar, the northern flank along the top of the escarpment being taken over by 8 Field Company to link up with 25 Battalion and complete the ‘box’. The nine Stuarts handed over to Veale would from outside Page’s position strengthen the south-western face in an anti-tank role. Other less mobile tanks would operate from within the brigade perimeter. The rest of the anti-tank defences were left to 6 Field Regiment, 33 Anti-Tank Battery, and 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery. A signal to this effect was sent to Shuttleworth at 11.15 p.m. and in it he was authorised to use one day’s reserve of rations and water, in the hope that further supplies would arrive in the morning. There was a possibility, inferred from a message which came in soon after 1 a.m. on 24 November, that British armour might cover the southern flank; but Barrowclough did not attach much weight to it. The message read as follows:
Information received confirms most unlikely ARMSTRONG (OC SA BDE) still holding out. GOTT responsible deny enemy area between you and BRINK (S.A.’s remainder at GOBI).
This was evidently from 30 Corps; but it was too vague to justify weakening the southern flank in favour of any other. Later in the morning Barrowclough also heard that he was no longer under 30 Corps but under the New Zealand Division, which was small consolation in view of the uncertainty of communications with either. He felt he was for most practical purposes still isolated and left to his own resources.