Chapter 15: Joining Hands with the Tobruk Garrison
DAWN of 26 November was unwelcome on the bald top of Belhamed. As early as 6.15 a.m. 18 Battalion was ‘mortared and shelled intensely’1 and A and B Companies scarcely dared move because of machine-gun fire. An officer of 20 Battalion says much the same, but adds that his men ‘Went back and destroyed A Tk guns passed in the night’. Then there was a minor counter-thrust: ‘about patrol size and [we] would have got the lot if the fwd tps had held their fire’, he says.2 It reminded Captain Bassett at Brigade Headquarters of Cemetery Hill in Crete, ‘which Kip and I found more profitable to return to the enemy we could slaughter there’.3 Guns pounded the two battalions from three sides and strong bodies of infantry seemed to be bombarding them with mortars before counter-attacking. But the wounded from the night before were thick in places and the stretcher bearers carried out their work undeterred by the fire. There was no end to this, however, and when they collected all the overnight cases they found more awaiting them from the morning’s action.
The I tanks and some of the supporting weapons and transport got through from Zaafran soon after 7 a.m. and the crews of the Matildas, thinking the occupied area stretched some way south of the actual positions, exposed their thick armour in silhouette on the skyline to anti-tank guns. ‘Our tanks turned northwards and engaged the enemy with all weapons’, says the diary of 44 Royal Tanks, and some ‘enemy A/Tk & M.G. guns were put out of action’. But when the tanks rallied at 7.30 four were destroyed and three damaged, a high price to pay for this mistake. Inglis says in a post-war narrative that he meant the tanks to ‘take up a position between Belhamed and the Trigh Capuzzo ready to protect the infantry against armoured counter attack or to deal with any enemy who happened to have been outside the area of the night attack on its limited front.’ The infantry who witnessed the scene were puzzled. They saw about eleven Matildas push past the flank of
20 Battalion and would have told their crews, had they been able, that they had just seen German tractors pulling 88-millimetre guns into place on the escarpment at Sidi Rezegh. They soon saw these powerful guns in action: ‘The tanks advanced and were shot up. ... The German fire was deadly in its accuracy. After every bang a tank burst into flames’.4
The other supporting arms had varying degrees of success in getting on to Belhamed. The column came under heavy shellfire at dawn through which it crawled at a nerve-racking pace until it reached the shelter of the wadi just past halfway. The tanks went on ahead from there and the rest stayed for an hour and a half. Just as the depleted squadron was returning, Major Levy5 of 31 Anti-Tank Battery decided to attempt what the tank commanders told him was impossible and get his three 2-pounder troops forward to support the infantry. Picking his way on a motor-cycle, Levy led the column in single file along ledges on the side of the escarpment and got two troops forward without loss to 18 Battalion, but the fire was too heavy to get through to 20 Battalion and the third troop did not make its way up to that unit until dusk. Major Johansen6 got 5 and 6 Platoons of his 2 MG Company into place on the escarpment north of the 18th in much the same way and the excellent observation to the north and the long range of the Vickers guns gave them a wide selection of targets. Behind them, on the eastern slopes of the wadi, 46 Field Battery had gone into action at 6.30 a.m. in response to ‘an urgent call for support from 20 Bn’7 and was kept so busy from then onwards that, when it became possible to move the guns farther forward, only E Troop could be spared and B Troop remained to answer the many calls for support. These calls continued to be so frequent and compelling that B Troop had to stay where it was. Though both troops were put on the permanent grid of the regiment by the survey section in ‘very fast time’,8 the battery therefore could not function as such throughout the day.
It was a difficult and strenuous morning for the field gunners, as Duff describes it:
There is some evidence that 44 R Tks meant to push right through to Ed Duda in response to the order of 5.45 a.m. (See p. 255) while 6 Bde mounted a daylight attack with guns and tanks and to winkle out Germans in pockets in the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. Watkins, for example (The Army Quarterly, Oct 1953, pp. 53–4), describes this action as ‘an abortive attempt to join up with the Tobruk garrison by day’. But Bassett says that in the hour’s pause to consider this order Lt-Col Yeo of 44 R Tks ‘decided Duda must wait until that night’ to my relief’.
At approx 0900 hrs, Bde reported 18 and 20 Bns were being heavily attacked and asked for ‘defensive fire’. The safe lines were decided on with the Brig. and all four btys engaged by predicted fire. This was reported as very successful and bears out that the 1/100000 map is very accurate. Some delay occurred as Arty boards had not sufficient scope to compete with the switches asked for.
At 1030 hrs, repetition of these concentrations was asked for and fired, the major opposition was apparently neutralised. The amn situation was acute, and orders were given for essential and emergency tasks only to be engaged. This naturally resulted in much enemy mortar fire being brought down on our infantry, but as guns were down to 30 r.p.g.9 little could be done.
Communication with BELHAMED was entirely by W/T as OP lines were continually being cut, and movement on the feature itself was practically impossible.
The ammunition stocks may be compared with the average expenditure per gun per day since the 22nd of just over 21 rounds and the average fired this day of 23.5 rounds per gun.
Another cause for grave concern was the loss this morning of three commanding officers in succession in 20 Battalion, an extraordinary piece of bad luck, particularly since the first of them was Kippenberger on whom Inglis relied greatly. Kippenberger had come upon Peart and with him checked the positions of both battalions on the map. As he put it in his diary, he was ‘delightedly saying everyone was just where he should be when we came under bursts of M.G. fire from about 600 yards.’ One long burst, starting low, lifted towards him and he watched the track of the bullets in the sand ‘but was hit on the way down, bullet going through left thigh entering just about knee’. His adjutant, Captain Rhodes,10 was hit at the same time in the face and hand and Captain Mackay11 of B Company, 18 Battalion, was wounded in the head. This was shortly before the tanks appeared on the scene and one of them was set alight nearby, remaining with its column of black smoke a prominent landmark for some hours.
Mortar bombs rained down in the area for half an hour after this and several more men were hit. Major Mitchell again assumed command of 20 Battalion; but he too was hit, as Kippenberger learned when a signaller with a wireless set came up and crouched alongside him. Speaking to each 20 Battalion company in turn except D, Kippenberger learned that Captain Baker12 had taken over command of A Company from Mitchell, that B was ‘also cheerful’ under Captain Agar,13 and then when Mitchell was wounded Captain
Fountaine of C Company took command of the battalion. Shortly afterwards Sergeant-Major Grooby,14 now in command of C Company, reported over the same wireless set that ‘all was well, a bit of a counter-attack had been beaten off and the boys were quite happy.’ Peart, also lightly wounded but remaining with his unit, now assumed joint command of the two battalions in place of Kippenberger.
This rapid change of command was bewildering not only to Inglis but to Freyberg himself. It made it look as though the 20th was indeed in a bad position and in need of help and partly accounts for the greater interest taken by Division this day in 4 Brigade than in 6 Brigade, which was actually in a far worse position.15 When Fountaine as well was wounded (and Captain Agar then took command of the 20th) it made things look black indeed, though it was no more than bad luck that three COs in succession were hit. Nine officers altogether in 20 Battalion were wounded in the night attack and on this day and total casualties in the unit were nearly 70, a far smaller loss than any of Barrowclough’s four battalions had so far suffered, while 18 Battalion lost no more than 49, including three officers, on the 25th and 26th, leaving the unit with the substantial strength of 21 officers and 610 other ranks.
Talk of counter-attack on Belhamed was exaggerated, though this ‘bare feature providing no cover against the heavy shelling and mortaring’16 was anything but comfortable. At 4 Brigade Head-quarters it was assumed that the enemy previously on Belhamed had been driven westwards, and Ed Duda got undeserved blame for much of the fire which came down on the two battalions. Inglis was very much alive to the uses of air support and his staff made a series of urgent requests in the morning for bombing in an area which included Ed Duda and thus caused a tragic error.
With no direct wireless link between the New Zealand Division and the Tobruk garrison, 13 Corps had to act as go-between and the delay thus imposed also contributed to the ensuing tragedy. Freyberg had been anxious to know when 70 Division was due to advance to Ed Duda and Gentry had signalled at 4.50 a.m. asking ‘What time does TOBRUK garrison attack?’, to which Corps replied at 7.3017 that the diversionary attack had already been mounted at 9 p.m. the previous night. Then Corps signalled Scobie at 11.15 a.m. as follows:
NZ DIV reports BEL HAMED and SIDI REZEGH captured but stiff fighting still going on both places. Ammunition situation precarious. Exert greatest possible pressure toward BEL HAMED and ED DUDA to relieve pressure on NZ DIV.
But Scobie had already got wind of Freyberg’s troubles and could in any case have guessed some of them from the obvious fact that Ed Duda was still in enemy hands.18 At all events Scobie decided that no mere diversionary attack was now called for and he ordered 32 Army Tank Brigade to start its long-awaited advance to Ed Duda and to be prepared to fight for this position.
While the New Zealanders were calling for bombing on Ed Duda, therefore, Brigadier Willison was marshalling his tanks and armoured cars and 1 Essex with supporting arms to seize this important feature, the climax of the Tobruk sortie. The plan was simple. The Matildas of 4 Royal Tanks, followed by the cruisers and light tanks of 1 Royal Tanks and with the I tanks of D Squadron, 7 Royal Tanks, in reserve, were to cross the intervening ground from the existing perimeter at full speed, with supporting fire from two RHA batteries; then 1 Essex escorted by C Squadron, King’s Dragoon Guards, plus anti-tank and Vickers guns, would quickly take over. Zero hour was five minutes past midday.
The enemy was alert and shellfire damaged two tanks before they crossed the starting line, but the tanks crossed the four and a half miles to Ed Duda without further harm. Fire on the objective became very heavy indeed and in a haze of dust and smoke 4 Royal Tanks tried to settle down on the feature until the infantry arrived. Willison could see through the dust ‘rows of flashes’ from enemy guns below and judged that a whole panzer division must be facing him. Then the dust blew away and for a revealing moment he could see no more than a series of field-gun positions. To his tanks on the crest of the rise he then signalled ‘Cease 2-pdr all Besa’, getting them to concentrate the fire of their medium machine guns on the vulnerable enemy below. ‘This was too much for the enemy guns’, the United Kingdom narrative states; ‘the crews of the nearest four put up their hands. The men of the next battery turned round and fled, leaving their guns. The crews of the four guns on our left were completely wiped out. ...’19 Willison could now order up 1 Essex.
The carrier platoon led the way, then came D Company with an anti-tank troop and B Company echeloned back to the right, C to the left, then Headquarters, and at the rear A Company with the transport. Some 200 yards from the escarpment at Ed Duda the carriers and a platoon of D Company were heavily bombed, the company commander and carrier platoon commander were both killed and some thirty-five others killed or wounded. This was the bombing ordered by 4 Brigade in ignorance of Scobie’s moves but, though it took away much of the glow of the success which was soon achieved, it did not halt the advance. As the Essex history says,
At this time the whole Tank Brigade had withdrawn to the left flank, and was formed up ready to support the Battalion if required.
As the remainder of the Battalion reached the escarpment, it came under heavy artillery fire at fairly short range, both from field and heavy artillery. Many of the guns could actually be seen and some of them were undoubtedly firing over open sights.20
Some of these guns were in a wadi to the north-west and the Vickers guns of 1 Northumberland Fusiliers gave their crews a lively time as the Essex advanced; but arrangements for supporting fire from 1 RHA fell through.
Ed Duda itself was not nearly as well prepared for defence as had been expected and its Italian ‘garrison’ quickly surrendered. A platoon commander21 of C Company, 1 Essex, whose vivid account is appended to the regimental history, says, ‘Two Italians came out of a wadi waving white rags’, and when he waved them over, to his surprise ‘they were followed by another thirty or so.’ He left one man to guard them and pushed on with the rest of his platoon to the By-pass road, where he saw ‘a continuous storm of shells bursting down its length, and knocking the telegraph poles about like peasticks.’ Despite this fire he took his objective with comparatively few losses and disposed his platoon with one section covering the road and the other two sections a hundred yards in front of it.
The feature itself was overlooked by higher ground to the west, while to the east the ground fell away slightly and provided an entry into the position, and it needed all the resources of 1 Essex to defend it. Lieutenant-Colonel Nichols disposed B Company on the right facing west, D Company (only 40 strong) in the centre up to 300 yards south of the By-pass, and C Company on the left astride the road and facing generally east. He hoped to keep A Company in reserve but in the end could hold only one platoon of it back, committing the rest to reinforce the line between B and D. Even the reserve platoon had to dig in in defence of a large
wadi running north-westwards from the westwards from the western end of the position. The tanks stayed nearby while the infantry dug in and helped beat off several small counter-attacks, the first of them at about 3 p.m. This was by two or three enemy tanks which ‘wiped out’ a detachment some 200 yards in front of the main Essex position but were soon driven away. Another was by about two companies of infantry who were badly shot up in their lorries at a range of some 200 yards. A platoon made a ‘sharp and spirited’22 counter-thrust and took 50–80 prisoners, while 30 more prisoners were taken by C Company in a similar engagement. None of these skirmishes gave rise to anything more than very local anxieties, and when casualties were totalled up it was found that the battalion had lost only 65 all told, a figure which, if it includes those lost in the bombing, is modest indeed for such an operation.
Though 4 Brigade was no more than two miles away, it remained for some time unaware that Ed Duda had been seized. At 1.12 p.m. Freyberg signalled to Godwin-Austen, repeated to Scobie, that ‘Situation demands TOBRUK Garrison exerts its greatest pressure as early as possible. We shall endeavour to reach ED DUDA after darkness.’ From its vantage points on the higher escarpment, however, 6 Brigade had a good though distant view and at 4.30 p.m. in a situation report described the action as follows:
Throughout the past two hours a tank battle has been taking place about three miles ahead on the right front, this must be the sortie being made by the Tobruk garrison.
The first news at Division, however, was a signal from Scobie to Freyberg which came in at 3.15 p.m. and stated baldly: ‘We are on ED DUDA – ensure NOT bombed’. It did not occur to the recipients that this was in any way connected with the bombing which had been ordered on Ed Duda a little earlier, and even that night Freyberg did not suspect the truth and wrote this in his diary:
Everyone was greatly cheered at lunch time when sweeps of RAF fighters drove enemy fighters out of the air, a fight taking place above the front. This was followed by a formation of 17 long nosed Blenheims dropping 17,000 lbs of explosives on the enemy. They flew over us and gave Greece and Crete conscious people a slit trench feeling until the fighters were identified! Further sweeps came and then 19 Marylands with 19 odd tons for the Boche. From all accounts both found their marks on German posns ... 4 Bde’s request for air support on the Belhamed posn was most effectively answered.
When news came that Scobie had reached Ed Duda Freyberg had to make up his mind how to join hands with him there at the earliest possible moment.
In the meantime Freyberg visited Barrowclough and saw for himself the difficulties 6 Brigade faced. The first task had been to extricate those troops, chiefly of 21 Battalion, who had got into difficulties during the night. Various detachments of the 21st and of A Company, 24 Battalion, were below the escarpment at dawn, or sheltering in its many wadis, or silhouetted above it, and some were in perilous straits. The rest of 24 Battalion, much of 26 Battalion, and elements of 25 Battalion were under fire from the crest of the escarpment, against which they had poor cover and to which they could seldom make effective reply. Those who were beyond the reach of enemy on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment – the field gunners, administrative elements and B Echelons – came under fire from the southern escarpment.
For a short time guns in the Ed Duda area and north of Belhamed were directed by observers in a lattice-work tower erected for that purpose south-west of the Mosque;23 but the 18-pounder troop of 33 Anti-Tank Battery, M Troop, which had taken up positions in the 24 Battalion area facing west and south while it was still dark, soon deprived the enemy of this advantage. After dawn 47 Field Battery, back from its excursion to the brink of the escarpment, went into action on the edge of the airfield and, despite opposition from enemy guns, 48 Field Battery succeeded in siting its guns even farther forward on the north-western edge and found a profusion of targets to the north, west and south. The 2-pounders were also well up in support of the infantry but under such fire that their crews had to keep their heads down most of the day.
Below the escarpment and in many wadis and recesses on its slopes most of 21 Battalion and Forder’s company of the 24th and their supporting Vickers platoons were in serious trouble as soon as it got light enough to reveal these various detachments to the numerous enemy around. The plight of D Company of the 21st under Captain Trolove24 was soon seen to be hopeless. Trolove had descended the steep slope in the dark with some fifty men and on Colonel Allen’s instructions charged a group of Italians chattering excitedly somewhere near the Mosque. Several prisoners were taken and Trolove himself was wounded. Allen then told Lieutenant Hargrave,25 now in command, to carry on as far as the Trigh Capuzzo and await the rest of the unit. Thus Hargrave found himself at dawn a quarter of a mile north-east of the Mosque. ‘The escarpment was fairly steep and broken – a valley ran right along
base and rose very gradually away from it’, he says. ‘Ground was not very rough with scattered cover, the usual desert growth and patches of open country with no cover.’ The company lay fairly well hidden in scrub some 400 yards from the ridge and could see troops digging in to the north. Two volunteers went out to investigate, quickly drew fire, and reported back that the troops were German and that German vehicles were less than a mile away. There was no sign of any others of 21 Battalion and, as the plan had evidently gone amiss, Hargrave thought it best to withdraw. As he puts it, ‘our only chance of getting back to our lines was to make our way East into a blazing rising sun and then make a break across the more open ground before going up the escarpment.’ This might very well have worked if the enemy to the north was all they had to fear; but the men soon found they were surrounded and one of them mentions being driven backwards and forwards across a wadi; ‘they proceeded to play table tennis with us’, he says, and when several tanks appeared on the scene the end came quickly. Hargrave had a sergeant killed as soon as he made a move and was then shot in the throat himself and lost consciousness. When he revived his men were being marched off as prisoners.26 Intense fire from the rim of the escarpment at the climax of the night advance had broken up the rest of Allen’s command into smaller detachments, most of which clashed in the dark with enemy on the slopes or on the flat below, so that long before dawn Allen began to realise that he would have to withdraw. Elements of A and C Companies of the 24th and at least one detachment of 3 MG Company had also descended all or part of the way to the foot of the slopes and were mostly out of touch with each other when morning came. The resulting confusion still cannot be disentangled, and the essence distilled from the many accounts is of growing uncertainty and danger as the light increased and of sudden and violent clashes as the sun began to blaze on the scene. Allen had with him part of his headquarters and C Company and Forder’s group of the 24th, perhaps 150 all told, and with him was the commander of C Company, Captain Tongue,27 while Lieutenant Smith28 had a small advanced guard just to the north. Smith went back for orders before dawn and heard Tongue suggest withdrawing. Dutton, the adjutant, was in favour of this and so, after a careful pause, was Colonel Allen. ‘Yes, I think it best to go back’, he concluded, and Tongue and Smith quickly assembled a party of perhaps forty or more and headed back towards the ridge at a brisk
pace. Just as it was getting light, Smith ‘saw a man on the skyline shaking his blanket and others moving round’. What followed as Smith describes it was typical of many skirmishes that took place:
I sent two men towards them to see who they were. They were Jerries and dug in. They didn’t waste time but opened fire straight away with machine guns and rifles as soon as they saw us. I told the men to fix bayonets and was pleased to see them drop to the ground as one to do this. They waited till I told them and then away we went up the hill. It was a bloody do with grenades and bayonets. When the area was cleared we went on but more slowly as we had wounded and some prisoners.
Smith headed eastwards along the ridge, making good use of cover offered by the broken ground, rather than risk his men on the open ground to the south, and in due course came upon the large wadi north of the airfield in the upper part of which some of 6 Brigade were established. With twenty-nine men, five of them wounded, and five prisoners, he staggered in and after a brief rest took up a defensive position in the area.
The night of the 25th–26th had played tricks on several detachments by letting them settle in what looked like dominating ground but which turned out to be overlooked on both sides by enemy. ‘Daylight showed us what a bad position we had taken’, says Private Logan29 of 7 Platoon of Forder’s company. ‘Enemy fire of all descriptions poured into the area.’ Elements of 7 and 8 Platoons had linked up in the dark under Lieutenant Hill30 near the edge of the escarpment and found a section of Vickers guns had dug in in front of them. Farther east part of C Company of the 24th was in much the same condition and other Vickers gunners were very much on their own in front of the infantry and under concentrated fire. After an hour or so several tanks nosed forward, and as their first task they bombed some of the machine-gunners with grenades, driving them from their shallow trenches, and killed or captured them. Another Vickers gun fired a stream of bullets at one tank at such close range that, when its commander raised himself to look around, his head was promptly shot off. Another Vickers section found itself unable to cover the ground immediately in front because of the curve of the slope and the men had to take potshots with their rifles at several LMGs sited within 50 yards of them.31 Forder says that his men tried to ‘engage the enemy in the Mosque area from the lip of the wadi but it was solid rock and the contour was such that the view of the German positions could not be obtained without complete exposure to other enemy positions’, and as the morning advanced all concerned realised they could do little from where they were.
A party estimated at 150–200 strong gradually assembled under Allen in a large wadi and somehow he had to get them all away. The closeness of the enemy had one good result, however, in that they made no mistake about the wounded, and several accounts mention that firing eased as soon as stretcher bearers or walking wounded were seen. Forder goes on to say.
As the first groups moved off and came within view of the enemy a most remarkable thing happened. The German fire ceased abruptly and, when it became clear that the enemy... intended to allow the carrying parties to move unmolested, all the wounded were got under way followed by the remainder of the troops.
By degrees and with many adventures Allen’s party got back to rejoin 6 Brigade, with Allen himself bringing up the rear and reporting at Brigade Headquarters about 4 p.m.
But others outside his control and left largely to their own resources were not all so fortunate. His B Company, for example, under Captain Yeoman,32 had been silhouetted on the slopes at first light and dashed down to take cover from the fire which at once started up. Yeoman turned left, perhaps half his men followed, and all were soon pinned down by a strong Bersaglieri position until the three tanks came up and captured them. The other half of the company followed Sergeant Lord,33 who turned right and found shelter in a small wadi. The tanks came on and captured some of Lord’s men, too; but others escaped in a mad dash back up the slopes, in the course of which they scattered. Lord did his best to collect them but found the task hopeless and with ten men was forced to ground by fierce fire. He could see over the crest, however, and was a sad witness of the capture of Hargrave’s and Yeoman’s men. When fire died down this small party crept back along a gully and joined a larger group which was much troubled by a machine gun some distance off. Lord’s party stalked this and then charged and drove away its crew, at a cost of three killed and two wounded, and in carrying back the wounded, unlike those who had done so earlier, they came under further fire.
Others of 21 Battalion and of Forder’s company made their way south through C Company of the 24th, and Lieutenant Nathan34 of 14 Platoon of the 24th was most active in collecting wounded under heavy fire and getting them back to the rear. Some of Tomlinson’s own company had become mixed up with Forder’s and got back however they could, the Niue Islander, Japeth,35 among them. Japeth
must have been on the left, because he engaged with his ‘Elephant Gun or Boys Rifle’ the three tanks which mounted the escarpment36 and which also menaced some of A Company of the 24th farther to the west, as well as 7 and 8 Platoons of 3 MG Company.37 When all these troops withdrew, as they did by about 11 a.m., Tomlinson was very much alone, out of touch with Battalion Headquarters, and deeply perplexed. When he saw other troops pulling out he might very well have done the same; but he decided to stay and thus held in place about a third of the northern side of Shuttleworth’s ‘box’. Though his men could not move for long periods under heavy aimed fire and a nerve-shaking bombardment by guns and mortars, they nevertheless beat back several minor counter-attacks and allowed Shuttleworth and others in the rear to reorganise and stabilise the position.
Lieutenant-Colonel Page also helped greatly, when he heard of Allen’s predicament, by sending his C Company northwards to the escarpment to cover the withdrawal of Allen’s group. Mortars and the reserve platoon of 3 MG Company gave covering fire and two platoons rose to their feet and charged, reaching a crest from which they could cover the retreat. When they tried to get farther forward they attracted much fire and lost several men, and the company commander, Captain Thomson,38 decided to stay where he was. From there his men worked hard getting wounded of 21 Battalion up the slopes and covering the others of Allen’s party until they all got through. This took some hours and then Thomson withdrew to his original position, many of the 21st staying with him. The action cost him 5 killed and 17 wounded and he welcomed these reinforcements. D Company of the 26th was on top of the rise to his right rear, with A farther east and D to the south behind C.
For all Tomlinson’s valuable contribution, however, the chief bulwark of 6 Brigade this day was 25 Battalion, which had been meant to face south but now had to face north through its own transport area and do what it could to subdue the fire from Sidi Rezegh. Private Reed talks of ‘a lovely day of machine gunning and mortar fire that kept us well pinned down’ and Lieutenant Cathie says it ‘seemed a long day’ in which he was ‘plastered with mortar fire and could not do much about it’. In such circumstances, hard on the nerves of the men, Major Burton had to hold on at all costs, as Barrowclough told him when he reported in the morning. Machine-gun fire poured into the position with scarcely
a pause from three sides, backed up by constant shelling and mortar bombing. Two or three MG posts kept up a volume of fire that became quite intolerable and Burton got his mortars to lay down HE and smoke and then rushed them with his five carriers. Two carriers were lost, but the posts were silenced. Then Burton was horrified to see some of his A Company in the west with their hands raised and was much relieved when a timely mortar bombardment made them take cover again and gave them occasion to change their minds. Some of them did in fact surrender to tanks and infantry in the west, but others thought better of it when hardier comrades discouraged them from giving themselves up. Thus A Company held on and Burton’s attention was at once claimed by the centre of his line, which was under heavy attack. This, too, held; but Burton told Brigade he needed help and the weak A Company of 21 Battalion under Captain Ferguson and the 24 Battalion carriers under Lieutenant A.C. Yeoman hurried forward.
Ferguson had been led to believe that 25 Battalion was no more than 80 or 90 strong and at the end of its tether and he was only too willing to help. He reached Burton at 11.15 a.m. and at once charged forward with the carriers to occupy a slight rise north-west of Burton’s position. Enemy had been forming up apparently to attack and this sudden move discouraged them; but the ground seized was found to be unoccupied and not, as Burton thought, an enemy position. Smoke put down in support blinded the carriers and caused two of them to collide, putting one out of action. Few men were hit, however, and this energetic thrust seemed to take the heart out of a hitherto aggressive enemy and greatly ease the strain on the battered 25th. No further counter-attack developed, though mortar fire became so heavy at 5 p.m. and again at dusk that Burton expected one.
The 18-pounders of M Troop fought a useful supporting action from a little to the east, engaging and destroying four guns at 3500-4000 yards in the early morning, silencing more guns to the south-west, and finally scoring direct hits on two infantry guns39 which tried to come into action 2500 yards away. Then tanks in the far distance – the same, in all probability, as those which overran the MMGs and part of the 21st, 24th and 25th – were engaged and disappeared and M Troop turned its attention to MG posts ‘in the immediate foreground’, getting one gunner killed and three wounded in a warm exchange of fire but giving better than it received. B Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, took some part in these actions and its diary mentions one skirmish at 11 a.m., with an enemy force at the foot of the southern escarpment. ‘Our Tks engaged’, it says; ‘Enemy
withdrew, leaving some vehicles in flames.’ Just before dusk six or seven tanks came in sight at close range and M Troop at once opened fire and blew the turrets off two and set three others on fire. According to the M Troop commander, Lieutenant Betts,40 this was ‘tremendously exciting’ and ‘the 6th Field Regt and odd troops and infantry attached became enthusiastic spectators’.
Meanwhile 26 Battalion could no longer ignore a strongpoint to the right rear of D Company and in an elevated section of the escarpment rim, dominating the whole of Page’s rear and causing much trouble. One platoon attacked but was driven back. Then this and another platoon made a determined effort to close in with heavy mortar support; but this, too, proved futile and nine men were wounded. These lay on exposed ground south of the strongpoint and it took three hours to bring them back under heavy fire, though the rescuers luckily escaped harm. The strongpoint was evidently far more extensive and well-equipped than had been thought and a third and even heavier attack was being prepared, only to be abandoned when word came that the battalion would mount another night attack on Sidi Rezegh.
Brigadier Barrowclough had toured as much as he could of the front soon after dawn and found the situation ‘disorganised and somewhat precarious’, as he wrote in his report. ‘Every effort was made to organise a defensive system but the difficulties of doing so were tremendous as the whole area was under observation and fire from strong enemy positions’, he added. Shuttleworth deserved every credit for the way he ‘restored a very grave situation’. But Barrowclough could see for himself that the troops were ‘extremely tired, having been continuously in action for several days’ and could still get no rest because of the ‘constant shelling and machine gun fire to which they were subjected’. At 4.30 p.m. 6 Brigade sent the situation report to Division which described what could be seen of the sortie to Ed Duda and also outlined the general situation, which at that time was ‘quiet with sporadic shooting by a hy inf gun in the valley below’. A ‘series of heavy counter attacks from the North and later from the West’ had been mounted against 24 Battalion; but by a slip of the pen it reported, ‘Casualties have been light’.41 There were also ‘gun and machine gun positions well dug in down on the flat below’ – stronger in fact than anyone yet realised, as 4 Brigade was to learn.
It was hard even late in the day to get any reliable estimates of strengths and losses, though it was obvious enough that 21 Battalion
had been very hard hit and that the 24th had also suffered much loss. B and D Companies of the latter, however, had held on just west of the airfield throughout the day in exposed positions and had lost very few men, and C Company was still largely intact, though reduced in strength. Forder’s company (A) had suffered most and for the next two days it ceased to exist as such, its elements being used to reinforce Shuttleworth’s other companies.42 Barrowclough still regarded 25 Battalion as being part of Shuttleworth’s command and did not list it separately in his situation report; but Burton had in fact fought independently a very fine action this day and had managed to hold on with only minor loss against a formidable concentration of fire and a series of counter-attacks. Grave fears were felt for Colonel Allen’s safety and it was a huge relief when he reported in after shepherding his motley flock complete with wounded and a handful of prisoners back to safety. Only fifteen officers of the 21st remained in action and other casualties in the unit were heavy, though they could not yet be estimated except that roughly a company and a half had been lost. B Company – like Forder’s in the 24th – lost its identity and its few survivors joined C Company, while D was also gravely weakened. A Company, of course, remained with Burton; but it had lost heavily at Bir Ghirba and now numbered no more than fifty. A complete reorganisation was essential before the 21st could undertake any further offensive operation. Of the two platoons of 3 MG Company which had gone forward to the attack with eight Vickers guns only one gun detachment remained in action, the other seven guns having been abandoned, their locks buried.43 As one sergeant says, ‘the place was too hot even for Machine Gunners’.
Even before he received the report of 4.30 p.m. from 6 Brigade, Freyberg had been thinking hard about how he should join hands with Scobie. He had hoped that Barrowclough would somehow be able to clear up the situation at Sidi Rezegh during the day and push across to Ed Duda after dark. It was essential to get there that night; but by about 4 p.m. he came to realise that 6 Brigade could not be relied on to get through. This left only 4 Brigade, and Freyberg telephoned Inglis about this time and said, ‘You will join them tonight’. Later he rang Barrowclough and told him to ‘reorganise and get secure on top of the hill’44 – Sidi Rezegh. Thus both brigades were to undertake another night attack, the 4th to
reach Ed Duda and the 6th to complete the capture of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, and there was no reason to suppose that one would be easier than the other. But of the two Inglis’s task was the more urgent and it was to this that Freyberg gave his main attention.
He also summoned Brigadiers Miles and Watkins to consult them ‘regarding moves for continuing the battle after we link at Tobruk’. Everything depended on the situation the morning disclosed. ‘Possibly little chukker and big raid’, he dictated for his diary.45 Captain Bell came in with a suggestion that the German armour at present in the frontier area might intervene either along the Via Balbia or the Trigh Capuzzo; but this gained small attention, for there was no thought that enough German tanks remained to exercise much influence on the battle. A signal had moreover been intercepted to the effect that the Germans outside Tobruk ‘were encircled by armd forces and wanting to know where their panzer division was’,46 and he meant to exploit the weakness this suggested.
From a wider viewpoint an LO from 13 Corps brought encouraging news. Corps Headquarters was moving ‘considerably nearer us’ and there was no suggestion that this was due to the enemy’s encouragement. ‘They say NZ Div has been the only star in the firmament recently but now consider things much better – Armd Bdes recovering, tanks from Omar district gone up near Bardia, Corps Intelligence considering this latter a last desperate move.’ Thus he recorded it all in his diary, adding ‘We shall see’. Any anxieties this may have prompted regarding 5 Brigade were offset by a ‘cheerful letter’ from Hargest. Though written the day before, this expressed firm confidence that the enemy armour would make little impression on Hargest’s positions at Capuzzo and Upper Sollum: ‘We are ready to receive them and will give a good account of ourselves’.47
Inglis had meanwhile gone ahead with planning for the Ed Duda advance. His 20 Battalion was still awkwardly placed on the western half of Belhamed and it was not until after dark that supporting anti-tank guns could get forward to it; 18 Battalion was less hard-pressed but nevertheless fully committed on the eastern half; and only 19 Battalion was available for the Ed Duda operation. To send one battalion nine miles from Zaafran to Ed Duda under cover of darkness was an ambitious project and strong support was essential. This could only come from the I tanks, and Inglis
therefore called up Hartnell of 19 Battalion and Yeo of 44 Royal Tanks and put the proposal to them. They had already been warned in a characteristically brief order from Bassett at 4.20 p.m.:
To 44 RTR 19 Bn
1. TOBRUK GARRISON IS ON ED DUDA
3. You will fire green Verey flares on approaching & they will do likewise
The scheme Inglis put forward was that 44 Royal Tanks should drive at top speed on a narrow front straight to Ed Duda, passing south of the Belhamed defences, and that 19 Battalion should follow on a front of 300 yards. He hoped that the sound of the tanks would be enough to discourage opposition and did not expect them to fire; but another reason for sending them was that he wanted them to guard 19 Battalion against tank counter-attack next day. Lieutenant-Colonel Yeo was ‘unenthusiastic’50 and when Brigadier Watkins appeared on the scene (together with Freyberg) he supported Yeo’s objections. As the 1 Army Tank Brigade diary says, it was ‘a new conception [of] the use of Army Tanks’ and Inglis says Watkins ‘tried all he knew to dissuade me’.51 The tanks were under Inglis’s command and he insisted that they go, though he was open to suggestion on details. Thereupon Watkins said, ‘Well, if they have to go, I suppose that’s as good a way as any’. So the question was settled and ‘Yeo could not have been more co-operative than he then became.’52
Time was short and 19 Battalion had to withdraw from its company areas on Zaafran and form up about three miles away. Since Hartnell had first to get back and issue his orders before even these preliminaries could begin there was every reason to hurry. The unit diary says it was 7.15 p.m. when 19 Battalion started to move out from its existing area53 and 9.30 when it was ready to advance, a very good performance. A composite squadron of 44 Royal Tanks under Major (‘Stump’) Gibbon with 13 or 14 Matildas was to lead and three or four more tanks were to accompany the infantry. Freyberg said a few words to Hartnell before he returned to Division and Hartnell quoted them when he addressed his orders
group: ‘Syd, you must get there, even if you get there with only six men, and you must hang on.’54 Captain Thomson55 of C Company recalls looking across at Major Williams56 of B Company and ‘seeing his eyes light up at the challenge’.57 The battalion plan was to advance with the three or four tanks leading, followed by two companies in line, then Advanced Headquarters with a minimum of vehicles, then the other two companies, with the carriers bringing up the rear.
At 9.30 p.m. the first wave of tanks drove off and a quarter of an hour later 19 Battalion set out. Despite Inglis’s intentions the leading tanks soon found a use for their guns and the 44 Royal Tanks diary says, ‘Strong enemy position was overrun and many enemy killed’ and ‘Enemy A/Tk guns, Fd guns and M.Gs encountered were destroyed’. But no delay resulted and in an hour and a quarter the leading tanks fired their green flares, got the correct response, and were among friends on Ed Duda.
The second wave of tanks, with 19 Battalion, reported ‘No enemy fire ... all guns having been silenced by 1st Echelon’ and this is confirmed by numerous post-war accounts, though it is contrary to a legend of gruesome slaughter which gained currency in the Division. The axis of advance passed just outside the strong position south of Belhamed which had caused much trouble throughout the day and there was some firing from the south; but the leading tanks had achieved their purpose and the slight fire directed at 19 Battalion was wildly inaccurate. Lieutenant Fleming,58 whose platoon of C Company was on the extreme left and most likely to meet opposition, remembers none. ‘It was a very dark night’, he says, ‘and we could just see the I Tanks occasionally. My main concern... was to keep up in line with the troops on my right. ... We did, however, pass over quite a few slit trenches which appeared to be deserted, the odd shape appeared in the darkness in front and then vanished. ... There seemed to be a fair amount of shooting out on our open left flank, none in front and very little on our right flank. En route we captured nothing, saw very little and suffered no casualties’. Thomson, his company commander, saw two prisoners come through and ‘some of our men shooting up some apparently deserted bivvies on the way’. He saw no fighting, however, and the one or two guns he passed had been abandoned.
A small Italian camp yielded a few sappers as prisoners and another which was at first fired at turned out to be a dressing station or field hospital, also Italian, which according to one account provided another fifty prisoners and also contained a few captive South Africans. On the way, too, the men passed ‘a group of big guns, whose barrels made grotesque outlines in the darkening sky’,59 and their hardest task in the advance was to find ways and means of putting them out of action, which they did in the end with sledgehammers borrowed from tank crews. The 19 Battalion diary says, ‘The enemy losses in equipment are known to have been eight field guns, some of large calibre, possibly 210 mm. ... In addition to 6 German and 4 Italian prisoners being taken we released 5 of our own Tank personnel and one 20 Bn pte being held prisoner in a compound.’ One carrier was lost by some unstated means, perhaps mechanical trouble, and its crew transferred to other carriers which lacked full crews. The battalion reached its goal about 1 a.m. on the 27th without a single casualty. The legend of slaughter thus obscured the real and considerable achievement of 44 Royal Tanks and the 19th in maintaining direction in the dark across 10,000 yards of uneven and unfamiliar desert without a man or a vehicle going astray, a matter not only of navigation but of training and discipline.
Hartnell went forward to obtain instructions and eventually found Brigadier Willison of 32 Army Tank Brigade, who told him to go into reserve in a shallow wadi a mile and a half north-east of Ed Duda and rather more than two miles due west of Belhamed. The men were meanwhile tired, cold and bored with waiting, and it was not until next day that they began to appreciate the historic nature of their achievement.
Behind the battalion a line-laying party of J Section, Divisional Signals, under Second-Lieutenant Brennan,60 with 16,000 yards of cable, picked its way in the dark to lay by far the longest telephone line in the Division, reporting back along it from time to time to Brigade Headquarters, where Inglis, Bassett, Duff, Captain Marshall61 of J Section, and others listened on a party line. On one occasion Marshall heard Bassett say, ‘I wonder if the Brigadier is listening’ and a gruff voice interjected, ‘Too bloody right I am.’ By 4 a.m. on 27 November the line was complete and Brennan reported that 19 Battalion was on Ed Duda, to the immense relief of the listeners. After this, however, the line was frequently broken by shellfire and proved almost impossible to maintain.