Chapter 14: Success at Belhamed; Failure at Sidi Rezegh
AS planning progressed it soon became clear that the programme to occupy all three escarpments at once was too ambitious and the southern one could not be included in the scheme. A daylight advance was out of the question, as the diarist of I Army Tank Brigade explains:
There was insufficient infantry to enable properly prepared day attacks with adequate supporting fire to be staged. Tanks alone could not attack in daylight without serious casualties and therefore new methods had to be tried.
The ‘new method’ chosen was to advance by night across up to eight miles of unknown ground, not knowing where or when opposition would be met and relying on New Zealand Bren and Tommy guns, bayonets and grenades to overcome it.
Freyberg opened a conference with his brigadiers in the early evening of 25 November by stating that the Division must occupy all the features overlooking the break-out area (Belhamed, Rezegh and Ed Duda) and the Tobruk garrison would then come out and join forces. He wanted the advance to start as soon as possible and signalled to Corps at 5.35 p.m. as follows:
TOBRUCH garrison is making a sortie after NZ Div has captured the ED DUDA posn. This sortie will probably take place morning 26 Nov. INTENTION NZ Div will attack and capture BELHAMED ED DUDA SIDE REZEGH. METHOD Objectives 4 Inf Bde BELHAMED leaving one bn ZAAFRAN 6 Inf Bde SIDI REZEGH and ED DUDA. Zero hr 2100 hrs. Consolidate on objective. Div Res one sqn R TKS area 442406 [south-east of Zaafran]. Div H.Q. and H.Q. 4 Inf remain present posns. H.Q. 6 Inf Bde SIDI REZEGH. Ground recognition sigs between our Tps and Tps from TOBRUCH will be succession green Very lights.
How the I tanks might be used to support the night attack was discussed with Brigadier Watkins, who was willing to commit them behind the infantry but did not want them exposed to enemy fire at first light; by that time he wanted them tucked away out of sight but ready to counter-attack if required. All that the conference settled, however, was that 44 Royal Tanks would be in support of 4 Brigade, B Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, in support of 6 Brigade, and
A Squadron in Divisional Reserve. The details were left to Inglis and Barrowclough in consultation with the tank officers concerned. In discussion later that night with Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry, however, Freyberg disclosed a view of the operation quite different from that of the Army Commander and significantly different from Godwin-Austen’s. ‘We have to get in and join with Tobruk’, he said. ‘I have no doubts whatever that we have to go in, but we may have to go in tomorrow night’. By this he meant that the Division would have to turn about when it linked with the garrison and face outwards to meet the inevitable counter-attacks, joining and reinforcing the garrison in a perimeter that would then command the bottleneck between Ed Duda and Sidi Rezegh. At least in the first instance, this would in no sense constitute the relief of Tobruk, as many of those concerned imagined it would.
The various reports of enemy in front of 4 Brigade and the comparative absence of such reports from 6 Brigade seem to have built up the impression that Inglis faced a harder task than Barrowclough, and the fact that he was given two I-tank squadrons to Barrowclough’s one lends support to this. But Inglis had a straight advance to make of about three miles over fairly flat ground, whereas Barrowclough had to seize several miles of escarpment indented with innumerable inlets and wadis and then swing half-right and carry on for three or four miles to Ed Duda, all in the hours of darkness. There were many details to settle and much work to be done before either brigade could start, and for 6 Brigade the zero hour of 9 p.m. was far too early.
The German supply troops near Belhamed had given 4 Brigade Headquarters a false impression of strength and when Inglis came back from the conference Bassett was ‘alarmed’; ‘I’d checked on hordes of Boche stacking up in thousands in that area’, he wrote later. A warning order had already gone out to battalions that they would have to make a night attack and the orders group was quickly assembled. ‘Inglis’s orders were short and to the point’, Kippenberger wrote. ‘18 and 20 Battalions were to seize and hold Belhamed, I was to be in command, make the arrangements, and continue to command on the hill after its capture. ... There was no question of artillery support; it had to be a straightforward night attack with the bayonet.’1 The guns were to fire ‘a series of harassing fire tasks before and during the early stages of the advance’2 and then a few bursts at intervals to indicate the objective. The supporting I tanks
plus 46 Field Battery, 31 Anti-Tank Battery, and a troop of 41 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery were to move forward in one group at 4 a.m. so as to be close up to the forward infantry at first light, while V/AA Field Battery from its present positions would bring down fire as directed by its FOOs travelling in the tanks.
An operation order of 18 Battalion, signed at 6.25 p.m., gave details, many of which must also have applied to 20 Battalion. The two battalions were to assemble on a line then being marked out with tape along existing FDLs, with the 18th on the right and the 20th on the left, each on a frontage of 300 yards with two companies forward and two 300 yards behind. Essential transport and mortar platoons would come forward in the morning with the I tanks. The axis of advance was just north of due west and the speed of advance 100 yards every two minutes.
Kippenberger moved among his men assembled for the attack and told them what he intended: ‘we are going forward tonight to take Belhamed and open the way to Tobruk. This is the crisis of the battle. We have 6000 yards to go and after 4000 yards we will have to fight our way. We will go straight in with bayonet and bomb and nothing will stop us. ...’3 Then he went over to Brigade Headquarters, meaning to move with Lieutenant-Colonel Peart;4 but the two lost sight of each other in the dark. It was 10 p.m. before the battalions got away, with fair visibility which decreased as the moon went down.5
For the men in the lead the approach march seemed endless. ‘I think most of us were pretty well done in when we actually got into the real thing’, a private of 18 Battalion writes.6 ‘Even then we saw nothing but tracer which seemed to pass us by on all sides. The noise was terrific with most of us yelling our heads off.’ C Company of the 18th was on the right and A on the left, with D behind C and B to the left rear. The war diary says, ‘Bn heavily engaged by MG fire’, and a private recorded in his pocket diary that ‘Jerry bullets shot all over the joint by the hundreds’7 and the handle of the shovel he was carrying was shot away. But the fire was mostly wild and caused few casualties and the battalion was soon on Belhamed, with C and D Companies along the top of the escarpment and A and B forming a front to the west. Battalion Headquarters was set up in pitch darkness just south-west of Point 154 and before midnight sent a message to Brigade that the objective was taken.
Much the same occurred on the left, where the 20th found the enemy panicky and firing too high ‘as if they were head down in slit trenches, pulling the trigger plenty’, though light anti-tank guns were also in action until their crews were ‘dealt with very promptly with the bayonet’.8 A large measure of surprise had evidently been achieved on Belhamed itself; but the enemy was in far greater strength to the south, between there and Sidi Rezegh, and those on the extreme left crossed the flank of this position and passed ‘row upon row of MGs’ and ‘just went straight thro’ everything.’9 An officer of A Company who was wounded spoke to Bassett at the RAP later of his men ‘cheering and cursing as they swept up the hill through the second line’.10 Behind them Signals linesmen found it hard to keep direction in their trucks and seemed to be surrounded by enemy whose cross-fire made their tasks difficult and dangerous. Second-Lieutenant Wilson11 of D Company says, ‘my own PI went forward with cries of “Otago” and giving no quarter’.
The 18th settled down on the eastern half of the feature and the 20th to the west. In the absence of Kippenberger, who could not be found, Major Mitchell12 assumed command of the latter and disposed the companies with C on the right and half D on the left facing west, the other half of D and B facing south, and A in reserve. Digging was hard and unrewarding. A private of B Company says of the consolidation, ‘We did so by picking out slabs of rock and piling them up, as we thought, between us and the enemy.’ However, ‘At daylight we soon found out that the enemy was in a different direction.’
It was when he came upon the Tobruk By-pass that Kippenberger, with a small HQ party and two lorries, realised he had gone astray and began to retrace his steps. He had veered to the right and had gone far beyond his objective. After only a few yards he could hear ‘sounds of voices and hurrying feet across the road under the escarpment’ and sent off Lieutenant Baker13 with his LAA Platoon to investigate. A brief burst of firing and then loud shouts began to awake the neighbourhood and Baker came back with some eighty calm prisoners and his own very excited men. The party nevertheless got back safely with the prisoners to where 18 Battalion was digging in.
All fighting had stopped [Kippenberger wrote on 15 January 1942] – 18th had not lost many they thought. I moved off to find the 20th. The night was bitterly cold – soon we came to the area 20th should have been in and came upon many dead and some helplessly wounded. For two hours we searched but I think just went round in circles and about one we stopped and huddled up together to wait for dawn. There was no sleep and the wind went through us while from all about, near and far, sounded the cries of wounded men, Germans calling ‘RAP’.
The companies of the 20th had pushed on farther to the west across a shallow depression which did not appear on the map; but for the moment there was no sound of further fighting and Kippenberger therefore wrote out a brief report and sent it back to Brigade:
Position taken after some hard fighting. I became separated and am at present bivouacked with a party of Sappers & sundry & about 100 prisoners on objective just S of Peart.
After much wandering I think the position is that 18th are on the objective but haven’t gone far enough & 20th have gone too far. I can’t find them anyway.
There are a lot of casualties about & I think they must have passed through.
Tell Pikes14 to be careful in morning, not to shoot up either 20th or my party. My party is identifiable by having 2–3 tonners & a mob of prisoners.
(Sgd) H. K. Kippenberger Lt Col
This estimate of position is verified at the moment by sound of fighting ahead.
Captain Copeland,15 a Brigade LO attached to 20 Battalion, took this back with Sergeant Allison,16 who describes the journey back as a ‘terribly eerie trip – lots of screaming from wounded and dying men’, which suggests that the attackers had made liberal use of the bayonet.
At Brigade Headquarters Inglis, Bassett, Duff and the IO, Beale,17 all listened anxiously throughout the night on a party line and at first heard only the rather alarming reports of the linesmen. Then one or two wounded came in to the nearby RAP, after which there was anxious silence until 5 a.m.’18, when Copeland brought Kippenberger’s message.
The 44th Royal Tanks and supporting arms set off at 6 a.m., 26 November, but did not get far before a message from 4 Brigade was passed on to Captain Pike which made him hold up the group for nearly an hour until he could get his orders clarified:
To 44 RTR
46 Bty NZA
LT COL KIPPENBERGER
(1) 18 & 20 Bns on objective.
(2) 6 Bde NOT yet on ED DUDA & daylight attack necessary.
(3) DIV orders us to support this attack BOTH by guns & tanks – in absence of further orders from Div, independent action. You will act accordingly.
(4) Pockets of Boche on North under side of escarpment South of Trigh Capuzzo to be winkled out by tanks.
46 Bty will support 6 Bde & 4 Bde will be supported by guns from this posn.
26 Nov 41
(Sgd) B. I. Bassett Capt
The situation was not nearly as simple, however, as this made it sound. A daylight attack by 6 Brigade across to Ed Duda was out of the question, as Divisional Headquarters soon learned. At 7 a.m. 4 Brigade was told that this attack would be ‘postponed until tonight’19 and the tanks and guns could therefore concentrate on defending Belhamed. The ground between there and Sidi Rezegh was expected to be undefended; but it actually contained a very strong German position which soon made its presence felt. Belhamed itself had been defended only by a weak company of German engineers, the remnants of which still held out on the saddle to the north-west; but the enemy to the south was formidable and ‘winkling out’ enemy in the wrinkles of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment was no task for the unaided Matildas of 44 Royal Tanks. For the time being there was little 4 and 6 Brigades could do to help each other. What had been conceived as a joint operation of the two moving forward abreast and rolling up all the enemy positions between them had turned out quite differently.
Nor were 4 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters better informed about the Tobruk garrison than they were about the enemy, and so they had no knowledge of a ‘diversion’ which Scobie provided this night intending to help them. This took the form of attacks on ‘Wrecked Plane’ on the northern shoulder of the break-out area and ‘Wolf’ (now renamed ‘Grumpy’) to the east, which if successful would widen the area and make the final advance to Ed Duda all the easier. A combined tank-and-infantry attack on ‘Wrecked Plane’ met heavy opposition but overran two important sangars and ‘wiped out’ a sizable German patrol, getting near enough to the main position to neutralise its fire next day. ‘Grumpy’ was taken by 10.30 p.m., however, with 150 prisoners, at a cost of five tanks disabled on mines, and the infantry consolidated there, well under
three miles from 20 Battalion at Belhamed and less than two miles from the farthest point Kippenberger’s party reached. A link-up between the two divisions might easily have been made this night in the Magen Belhamed area had they been in direct wireless contact. But Godwin-Austen had been so specific about Ed Duda that there was no thought of joining hands anywhere else.
The heavy opposition expected by 4 Brigade had not been met; but even Barrowclough’s stern view of the difficulties which faced 6 Brigade rated them far too low. He thought when he was given it that his task was ‘formidable’:
Sufficient was known of the enemy strength at SIDI REZEGH to make it perfectly clear that the place would not be won without a stern fight. After it was taken a substantial force had to advance a further three miles to ED DUDA and engage an enemy garrison about whose strength and composition we had not the slightest information.20
In strict truth nothing was known even of the enemy at Sidi Rezegh and all Barrowclough could do was to assume from fighting thus far that resistance would probably continue on much the same scale as he pushed on westwards. The plan he formulated as he hurried back from Division in the evening of 25 November was to despatch Shuttleworth with 24 and 25 Battalions westwards to form a box above Sidi Rezegh through which Page with 21 and 26 Battalions would pass on the way to Ed Duda. There Page would consolidate as the situation allowed. Supporting arms would follow as soon as they could get through. Both groups would take up all-round defensive positions to meet any counter-attacks which developed next day.
This seemed simple; but when the details were worked out it was in fact most complicated, particularly in the face of the opposition disclosed in the course of the advance. The lack of sufficient time to carry out the preliminaries was a severe handicap. Allen had to get back to 21 Battalion, embus, make an approach march in the dark over six miles of strange ground, and then form up with 26 Battalion, pass through the box, descend the escarpment near the Mosque, cover another three miles of desert not guaranteed to be free of enemy, then attack jointly with Page a feature which was almost sure to be strongly defended, and be in position there by first light to meet counter-attack.
Knowing there was no time to waste, Barrowclough when he got back to 6 Brigade at once called up the commanders of the various supporting arms and began to brief them, pending the arrival of the battalion commanders. With remarkable clarity and precision
of thought he gave out orders filling in all foreseeable details of the many moves to be made and the allocation of supporting weapons, medical services, and transport, timings, communications, code signals, and even the rations to be carried. Each of these in practice, however, had its own set of complications and its pressing limitations of time. The Intelligence Officer tried to get it all down in writing, and the allocation of artillery and Vickers guns, according to his notes, was as follows:
Arty: EL DUDA garrison
12 2 pdrs and 8 25 pdrs
SIDI RESEGH – 4 2 pdrs 16 25 pdrs 4 18 pdrs.
O.C. 6 Fd Regt to arrange for F.O.O’s to accompany EL DUDA garrison if thought advisable.
AA. Arty 3 guns EL DUDA
5 guns SIDI RESEGH
M.M.G’s one pl EL DUDA
two pls SIDI RESEGH
Weir and his assistants would evidently have to do some quick thinking and the various gun detachments some hasty and accurate navigation in the dark to assemble at various rendezvous and take their proper places in the order of march or attack.
Major Burton was strolling across from the new position occupied by 25 Battalion in the late afternoon to check arrangements with 26 Battalion ahead when he first received word of the conference. Not knowing where Brigade Headquarters was, he carried on towards Page’s headquarters, hoping to find out, and came upon Page himself, who drove him to the conference. Burton had already given his unit a code-word which meant ‘Prepare to move’ and knew his headquarters would act promptly if this word came through. When they reached Brigade Headquarters Barrowclough was still briefing the commanders of supporting arms and services and the four battalion commanders had to wait. As Burton describes it:
It was dark and bitterly cold. Col Shuttleworth (24 Bn) and Col Page (26 Bn) sat in the front seat of the car ... and I perched in the back seat to try and keep warm. The wait was long and tiring.
At last the Brig calls for inf comds and as we enter his command truck, he apologised for the delay in calling us. There was not much time to spare and very briefly we were told of the tasks which were ours for the night.
This must have been about 7 p.m., leaving very little time, and when Burton pointed out that it was impossible to be ready south of the Blockhouse by 8 p.m. the time was put back an hour. It was left to Page and Shuttleworth to work out further details of the moves of their two groups and the conference broke up.
Before he left Burton got the Brigade Signals to send his codeword, and when he got back he found preparations well advanced. Twenty-fifth Battalion had its transport in a central column with marching troops on either side and a protective screen in front, the carriers bringing up the rear. In this order he reached the Blockhouse by the appointed time, but it was about 11 p.m. before 24 Battalion was ready to start.
Shuttleworth had in the meantime decided to march due west with his own 24 Battalion from a starting line south of the Block-house to the area south of Point 162 on the far side of the airfield, with 25 Battalion following. In the new area his A and C Companies would extend 2000 yards westwards and then face north with C on the right and A on the left, each across 1000 yards of front, with the right of C opposite Point 162 and perhaps 2000 yards south of the escarpment. Then the two companies would advance in line almost to the edge, clearing an area 2000 yards square. Finally A Company would send forward a detachment to ensure that the route down to the flat below was also clear. Meanwhile 25 Battalion would extend along the original 2000-yard line but facing south, thus forming the southern flank. What was intended for the eastern and western sides of the box is not known for sure: one account says the western side was to be left open; another says that B Company of 24 Battalion was to guard it and D Company the eastern side; a third says that both B and D were to form the eastern side facing west, which does not seem to make sense but corresponds better than the other two with what in fact took place.
Page did not intend, as Shuttleworth did, to remain in direct command of his own battalion and appointed Major Mathewson to take his place while he commanded the group as a whole.21 His battalion was widely dispersed from south of the Blockhouse to the eastern fringe of the airfield, and in the end he decided to form up behind Shuttleworth’s group and follow it. But this was an impossible route for 21 Battalion, which had to cross six miles of desert at night and could not afford to get tangled up in the Rugbet. Page therefore told Allen to make straight for Sidi Rezegh. To save time he thought Allen might descend the escarpment there as soon as Brigade ordered Phase Two, the advance to Ed Duda, to start, and Page would take 26 Battalion down to the Trigh Capuzzo by whatever routes lay at hand, forming up with Allen north of the Mosque for the final advance.
Weir had a hard task at this stage sorting out the various gun groups and getting them where they were needed. In the haste of
planning the fact that 47 Field Battery was still with 21 Battalion was overlooked and Weir decided to leave it with Allen. He attached his 48 Battery to 26 Battalion and the rest of 6 Field Regiment was to move forward to Sidi Rezegh en masse with transport before daylight. There were fewer 2-pounders, however, than the brigade plan provided for, as all troops were not at full strength. The troop of 65 Anti-Tank Regt, RA, which came in during the day was put under Shuttleworth’s command, together with K Troop of 33 Battery, each with only three guns. How the other 2-pounders and the Bofors were to be allotted is not known; but planning and reality in any case soon diverged greatly. Nos. 7 and 9 Platoons of 3 MG Company were to be allotted to Shuttleworth and No. 8 Platoon to Page; but here again the treachery of circumstance decided otherwise.
For the first three miles 24 Battalion went well with A Company leading, C following, B and D on a parallel route to the south and the transport between the two groups. At the appointed place they began to open out to form the box as planned. No enemy had been met and A and C Companies began their advance northwards in good order. This they mostly maintained despite heavy fire in places and the loss of a number of men. But defensive fire thickened up and mortars and artillery joined in as the troops began digging in stony ground. A Niue Islander with C Company, for example, says he did not come under fire until after digging in – ‘picks and shovels sounding all over the desert’ – but the fire carried on for the rest of the night.22
Captains Forder23 of A Company and Tomlinson of C had arranged to consult each other before setting out northwards so that their companies would keep in touch throughout. But as Forder says, ‘in the darkness it was impossible to maintain contact’ and he could not find Tomlinson. He did, however, come upon the platoon of 3 MG Company which was to cover the north-western corner of the box and for perhaps half the distance the vehicles of this platoon travelled with him. Then ‘quite heavy’ small-arms and anti-tank fire broke out and the machine-gun officer went off to the left to take up his position while A Company pushed on northwards. Forder found his men ‘clearing up numerous pockets of Italians (Bersaglieri)’ some of whom ‘fought extremely well firing from their positions until accounted for by grenades and Tommy guns’. Others, however, were only too anxious to surrender and a fairly large party of ‘very frightened Italians’ was ‘gathered in’ but could not yet be sent back to the rear. In Forder’s neighbourhood his men reached
the appointed line and began to dig in in the few places where this was possible, and where it was not they constructed sangars which gave some cover. When heavy fire came down on this position many of the Italians were killed; but few of A Company were hit.
One casualty, however, was Second-Lieutenant Cutler24 of 7 Platoon, whose men had struck much opposition. He had had a hard job ‘rallying and directing’ them as they ‘charged shouting, probing and firing at anything movable’, as one private describes it;25 then he was killed instantly and the platoon carried on with only a vague idea of what was expected of it. There had been no time for detailed briefing, several changes of direction had been made on the way, and the corporal who now took charge26 consulted those around him and had to decide on a line of advance. By a stroke of luck the one chosen proved to be correct. The platoon managed to mop up several more enemy posts without further loss and then came upon 8 Platoon on the right and began to dig in alongside it. This seems to have been somewhere near the crest of the escarpment south-west of the Mosque. By first light 7 Platoon had lost another man killed and two more wounded, much the same as the other platoons of A Company. C Company had an easier passage northwards and went into position on the right of A Company without much trouble. Forder of A then sent a ‘small party’ down the track leading past the Mosque and this came back and reported it clear of enemy. A runner was sent back to Shuttleworth to tell him this and the first phase of the attack seemed to have been carried out very much as ordered. Neither Forder nor Tomlinson realised at this stage that the enemy was strongly posted in the rock-strewn crest of the escarpment just in front of them and in the many wadis which cut into it for some distance to the east.
The southern side of the box was formed almost exactly according to plan, with A Company of 25 Battalion on the right facing south and B on the left, each covering 800 yards of front, and Headquarters Company in the centre extended over 400 yards, though A was ‘considerably mixed up with troops of the 24 Bn’, according to Major Burton. He could hear enemy fire and could see the enemy anti-tank-gun bullets and tracer bullets from small arms flying through the air to the north and therefore stressed that his men should take up all-round defensive positions. In the centre the men struck clay and could dig deeply, but the flanks were stony and the trenches of A and B Companies therefore shallow. As the fighting to the north continued Burton began to worry about the transport
and decided in the end to disperse it as much as possible and get the drivers to dig in ready to fight in case 24 Battalion failed to secure the northern flank. Near Burton’s headquarters Signals dug a deep pit for the wireless set to Brigade and duly installed it. To most of the men it seemed that they were to be no more than ‘car park guards’ for the rest of the brigade27 and they were more concerned with the penetrating cold of the early morning than with what the enemy might do.
Back in the Blockhouse area 26 Battalion did its best to assemble the companies and supporting arms it had to take to Ed Duda, and unlike Shuttleworth’s group it could not leave the sorting-out until dawn. Some of the field guns got mixed up with the wrong column of transport, that which was to stay at Sidi Rezegh; but by midnight all elements were assembled in fair order and soon after this the battalion moved forward rather closer to the escarpment than 24 Battalion had been. The ground there was rougher and the now alert enemy more numerous and closer at hand. Page in the haste of his briefing had gained the mistaken impression that Shuttleworth was to clear the escarpment along the whole of its length westwards to beyond the Mosque, so this opposition came very much as a surprise. As he got closer to the box fire from the right became intense and pinned several detachments to the ground. Page was well forward and could see that there was some confusion ahead among Shuttleworth’s men, and when he heard a false report from Brigade by wireless that 24 Battalion was still 1000 yards short of the Mosque he had no reason to doubt it. He could therefore do nothing but wait, hoping that Shuttleworth would soon complete his mission so that the second phase could start.
The haste and the darkness bred other misapprehensions, too, and it is not surprising that when Lieutenant-Colonel Allen got the warning order to move to the rendezvous with 26 Battalion at Sidi Rezegh he took it that this meant he was to set out to attack Ed Duda. The difficult drive to the box, starting at midnight, entailed several changes of direction in the dark over uneven ground, but it went off remarkably well and the battalion reached the escarpment above the Mosque in fair order. But Allen found neither a guide from 26 Battalion nor Shuttleworth, and when he checked by R/T with Brigade he gathered in a conversation much marred by ‘static’ that he was to go ahead as planned.28 He assembled his companies on foot with the vehices directly behind and advanced with B on
the right, D in the centre and C on the left to clear the escarpment far enough on both sides of the track down past the Mosque to allow a safe passage for the vehicles which must get through to Ed Duda.
This was certainly not what Barrowclough had intended. In the various expressions used to describe the objective of Shuttleworth’s group – ‘box’, ‘perimeter’, ‘garrison at Sidi Rezegh’ and ‘corridor’, to name a few – the purpose of clearing the way for Page’s group was lost. Instead of using the combined strength of 24 and 25 Battalions to clear the Sidi Rezegh area and secure the escarpment there to let Page’s group through to Ed Duda, which was what Barrowclough wished, Shuttleworth’s force did no more than establish itself south of this area and send a patrol down the track past the Mosque. When this patrol got through in the dark and returned with a favourable report, nothing more was done to help Page, though only two of Shuttleworth’s six rifle companies had any direct contact with the enemy. To clear the escarpment here before going on to attack Ed Duda was too much for Allen’s companies; yet there was nothing else he could do if he was to keep his rendezvous with Page.
About 150 yards from where they dismounted the forward infantry of the 21st passed through the northern side of Shuttleworth’s box, mainly in Tomlinson’s area. Then a party including C Company, the pioneer platoon and Headquarters of 21 Battalion crossed the track near Point 162 and descended the escarpment to the flat below, south of the Trigh Capuzzo. This party then swung left and advanced parallel to the escarpment and ‘met MG fire – cleared up several posts’, according to the adjutant, Dutton.29 The whole battalion, instead of moving astride the track down the slope and past the Mosque, had gone east of this. Part of D Company descended the slopes nearby, met no enemy, and went straight ahead across the Trigh, where it settled down until the rest of the unit appeared. But heavy fighting had broken out where B Company and the rest of D tried to descend. Many sections, indeed, got nowhere near the top and were held down by defensive fire of all kinds which swept the approaches. A Company and the supporting arms had followed through and the field guns reached the lip of the escarpment before coming under fire which threatened disaster. Major Beattie30 of 47 Battery therefore withdrew south-eastwards to find reasonable cover before dawn. Other vehicles fled at dangerous speed through 25 Battalion to escape enemy fire, running over several men of that unit and destroying the wireless set which had been dug in with
great care. Communications broke down completely and 21 Battalion was at this stage a number of detachments, none larger than a company and all acting independently and dispersed over a considerable area north and south of the escarpment, with no hope of attacking Ed Duda and every reason for anxiety about what daylight would reveal. None were dug in and some were much closer than they thought to strong enemy positions.
About 5 a.m. Page was in touch with Barrowclough and ‘with the approval of Div HQ’ cancelled Phase Two of the operation, though he had no way of passing this decision on to Allen. He now resumed direct command of his own battalion and put his C and D Companies into position on the right of 24 Battalion facing north and north-west, where the men dug down or built sangars as best they could. The transport was sent for safety to a large wadi north of the airfield. Divisional Headquarters in acquiescing had pointed out that 4 Brigade had gained Belhamed and expressed the hope that 6 Brigade would be equally secure in possession of the whole of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment by first light. This hope, as Barrowclough says, was ‘not fully realised’.31 The enemy still held much of the escarpment in strength, there was another strong position between the Trigh Capuzzo and Belhamed, and reinforcements were being brought in from the west accompanied by tanks. Dawn of 26 November would be a sad and painful one for 6 Brigade, with many regrets and few consolations.
The Divisional staff had done its best to follow the fortunes of both brigade attacks during the night and by 3.30 a.m. understood that 6 Brigade had captured Sidi Rezegh and was ‘now on the way to ED DUDA’, and despite some obscurity it seemed that Belhamed was captured. A signal to this effect was therefore sent to Corps. Another at 5.10 a.m. on the 26th contradicted this, pointing out that Belhamed was ‘firmly in our hands’ but ‘Much opposition’ was still being met at Rezegh and the attack on Ed Duda had not yet started. By that time the Ed Duda operation was out of the question and at 5.40 a.m. Division signalled 6 Brigade as follows:
Consolidate on SIDI REZEGH. Make a plan to attack ED DUDA but do NOT attack until ordered to do so.
In a situation report at 9 a.m. on the 26th, received at Division at 9.40, Barrowclough explained the situation as he knew it and disclosed that he meant to hold Sidi Rezegh with 26 Battalion on the right facing north, 24 Battalion in the centre, and 21 Battalion on the left, a scheme which could not be fully realised until he
got in touch with 21 Battalion. All he knew of the 21st was that 47 Field Battery had been unable to keep in touch and that at 7 a.m. Captain Ferguson reported in with A Company, 50-strong, and said that ‘the Bn had been very heavily attacked just beyond SIDI REZEGH and in the confusion scattered’. The report concluded thus:
At the present moment the situation is that the tps on SIDI REZEGH are disorganised, and re-organisation is not easy, as they are being subjected to mortar and machine gun fire. All attempts to locate Col. ALLEN have so far failed and it is feared that he may be a casualty. At the present moment no serious enemy attack is developing against us, though he is sniping with rifle and MG fire very consistently.
This still did not make it clear to Division that 6 Brigade had by no means succeeded even in capturing Sidi Rezegh, and for some time Freyberg assumed that that area was in New Zealand hands except for a few isolated pockets. As he noted in his diary, ‘4 Bde reached Belhamed in dawn attack with 18 and 20 Bns’, and ‘6 Bde reached Resegh’. He added that ‘Fighting has been extremely tough and our successes have cost us casualties’. When 6 Brigade ‘found Resegh strongly held’ he was not unduly perturbed and ‘we decided it was unsound to go forward to Ed Duda’. He was expecting the Tobruk garrison, again by a misunderstanding, to complete its sortie at the same time and commented that ‘ Tobruk have failed to come out because of the condition, no doubt, that we must be first on Ed Duda’. Neither he nor Gentry was greatly worried about the failure to get to Ed Duda, thinking at first that a daylight attack by 6 Brigade would complete the link with 70 Division,32 though as the day advanced it became increasingly obvious that Barrowclough had quite enough on his hands at Sidi Rezegh.
Though units were warned that supplies had been ‘temporarily interrupted’, there was every confidence that 22 Armoured Brigade would be able to deal with any threat from the south or rear, and when a message came in that ‘400 MET33 and some tanks’ were moving north-west from the Gabr Saleh area this was passed on without comment to Brigadier Scott-Cockburn, who happened to visit Divisional Headquarters at 9.50 a.m. Scott-Cockburn saw Freyberg and gave an account of his situation:
He is protecting our L of C with his 46 tanks out of 150 and Armd Cars. A patchwork quilt was how he described his force ‘but keen and in good heart – 4 Yeomanry Regts’. Discussed posn of other Armd Bdes – 4 and 7 Armd Bdes at Bir Gobi doing maintenance, about 100 strong altogether at present. 1 SA Bde is on the L of C. Talking of the use of tanks, the Brig said ‘I quite agree tanks can’t go for A Tk guns unsupported’.34
This statement, which had to be taken at its face value, was highly misleading and gave a false sense of security regarding the southern flank. Of the two armoured brigades thought to be at El Gubi, one was many miles away and the other had been withdrawn from the campaign. With this assurance, however, Freyberg and his staff turned their attention to Belhamed, where 4 Brigade was getting much attention from enemy guns and mortars.
As early as 6.20 a.m. Division had signalled Air Support Control asking for bombing of the enemy artillery in the Bu Amud area north of Belhamed. Then an operation order of Boettcher Group of 10.30 p.m., 25 November, captured during the night, was translated and for the first time the Division had a reasonably reliable indication of the enemy it faced. Boettcher’s 104 Artillery Command faced east with II Battalion, 155 Infantry Regiment, on its right, the southern escarpment, 9 Bersaglieri Regiment on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, and I Battalion, 155 Infantry Regiment, on its left, east of a line between Belhamed and the Rugbet en-Nbeidat. These dispositions had of course been modified by the operations of 4 and 6 Brigades during the night and there had been reports of reinforcements coming forward, confirmed by this operation order. The supporting artillery included some 32 100-millimetre howitzers, at least eight 75-millimetre guns, a troop of 88s and various other guns in direct support, apart from the medium and heavy guns in the area of Africa Division to the north. There was mention also of 2 Company of 900 Engineer Battalion standing by at Belhamed ready to lay mines as required, and of ammunition for tank guns, implying that Boettcher also had tanks at hand.