Chapter 16: A Costly Night Attack on Sidi Rezegh
NO such bloodless victory rewarded 6 Brigade in its night attack on Sidi Rezegh, and Barrowclough expected none. He got what he foresaw: a bitter fight for each rocky crag, each shingle scree, every wadi and many of the countless crevices on the stretch of the escarpment where enemy awaited his onslaught. Even his comprehensive First World War experience of violence and slaughter scarcely prepared him for what took place this night on the way to Sidi Rezegh.
He needed no order from Freyberg to tell him that the ridge must be taken whatever the cost. His men could not stay where they were, overlooked from north and south and open to fire and counter-attack. Before any word came from Division he turned over in his mind the possibilities open to him and found they were few indeed. The southern escarpment, though it dominated all his left flank, could not be tackled. All his resources were needed to gain ‘the high ground overlooking the MOSQUE of SIDI RESEGH’.1
His own headquarters had to hide in a hollow no deeper than a dewpond and when he called up his commanding officers it was to ‘no secluded conference held in the security of deep dugout or steep ravine’. Seven or eight officers, Shuttleworth, Page, Allen, Burton, Weir and the Brigade Major, Barrington, among them, had to ‘lie flat on the open desert with maps spread out on the ground before them’, as Barrowclough says in his report. ‘The slightest raising of the head immediately drew fire from the snipers and machine guns ... and shelling and mortar fire added to the discomforts.’ As Burton recalls it, ‘Shells were bursting nearby and pieces of flying metal and rock were whizzing by’. The telephone rang from a nearby trench and Barrington crawled over and slid gratefully below the level of the bullet-swept ground to answer it. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ Barrowclough announced, ‘the General insists that Sidi Resegh be taken. ... 24 and 26 Battalions will attack and capture Sidi Resegh tonight.’2
Shuttleworth and Page both pointed out that their men were weary, that the leadership of the many officers and NCOs who had been lost was ‘sorely missed’, and one of them added that the 25th might be committed, as it was already in position less than 2000 yards from the main objective. Burton said nothing to this, but when Barrowclough insisted that 25 Battalion must go into reserve he offered to leave it in position until 11.30 p.m. to form a firm base for the attack and his offer was accepted. With the main points settled, Shuttleworth and Page, as Barrowclough says, ‘very gallantly applied themselves to the inevitable task.’ To help fill the gaps left in 24 Battalion by the previous night’s operation, Allen contributed his own weak A Company and a platoon of C Company of the 21st, while Burton supplied two skilled men from his own ‘I’ Section to help Shuttleworth.3 Thus all four battalions were represented in the attacking force and the troops, as Barrowclough adds, ‘in spite of extreme fatigue and heavy losses ... resigned themselves to the prospects of another night’s heavy fighting against obviously superior odds.’
The plan which emerged, unlike that of the previous night, was simplicity itself: 26 Battalion was to attack westwards along the escarpment as far as the Mosque while the 24th attacked north-westwards to seize the stretch between the Mosque and the lattice observation mast. Shuttleworth’s task was a ‘silent’ frontal assault over 1000–1300 yards of almost flat desert which tilted slightly to the north-west, and for this purpose he lined up all four of his companies near his C Company position on a front of perhaps 1000 yards.4 Both units had a hot meal before the start, the first in some cases for three days, and it ‘put new heart into the men’, all of whom well knew they would need all the strength and resolution they could muster.
No written orders for the attack survive and accounts disagree as to the starting time; but it was probably about 11 p.m. that the men rose to their feet and began walking through the black night in fairly close order. Both battalions struck opposition almost at once, flares rose up in front of them, tracer bullets cut the intervening ground into jagged patterns of light and dark, the air was filled with a deadly rustling, whistling and shrieking, and then anti-tank guns and mortars joined in and the streaking gun-flashes and shattering explosions told their ominous tale of an enemy ready and waiting.
A and B Companies of the 26th came to grips with the enemy in the first wadi, getting showered with grenades as they mounted the far slopes, and charged all signs of movement. The crest gained, they rallied to the calls of their officers and NCOs and especially to Major Milliken’s5 roars of encouragement, and then ran into more bullets and grenades as they descended into the next hollow – ‘all bayonet, small arms, very tough fighting’, it seemed to Tolerton, the adjutant.6 Milliken of A Company was too prominent among his men to escape harm and in one of the many wadis on the way he was killed. In another Page was badly wounded. Second-Lieutenant Lamb,7 after Milliken fell, led A Company onwards, alongside Captain Gatenby8 of B Company, and in the early hours the two reached the flat ground below the Mosque and began to form a front there from the various oddments of their companies they could find in the dark. Fighting was still going on all round them and C Company had to deal with many pockets of enemy left behind in the broken ground. It was impossible to keep detachments in good order over such ground and against such a numerous and resolute enemy. Immense self-control and determination was needed to make any progress at all against one MG post after another, but the men carried on, stumbling in the darkness unevenly lit by flashes and flares, until the goal was reached. This was the ‘hardest, bloodiest and most deadly attack ever staged by our Unit’, according to a mortar NCO of the 26th,9 and statistics support him. Behind the advance stretcher bearers and all others who could be spared found men everywhere who badly needed their help.
D Company of the 26th, luckier than the others, pressed on against comparatively slight opposition and ended up on its objective, as near as Major Walden10 could judge in the dark. Sergeant Dodds11 of 16 Platoon had been particularly aggressive in leading his men through heavy MG fire to consolidate on the position Walden indicated, and at Walden’s instigation he then made three sallies to check the position, bringing back valuable information.
Shortly before first light all four companies of 26 Battalion were pretty near where they were supposed to be; but opposition was still heavy and to some officers as dawn approached it looked as though a heavy counter-attack was imminent. They therefore ordered
a short withdrawal to the more defensible crest of the escarpment; but the move soon got out of hand, in the absence of the many officers and NCOs who had fallen in the course of the advance, and two companies went by mistake right back to their starting line. D Company took no part in this move and when day broke Walden found his men far from the rest of the battalion. The mistaken withdrawal, however, provided manpower on something like the scale required for carrying back the dozens of wounded. Wearily the men climbed the slopes and made their way back, ‘The most sad set-up I have ever seen or could ever see’, says Cameron.12 ‘We placed the wounded all together and there were approximately 100.’ When Tolerton discovered what had happened he turned the two companies round and sent them forward once more towards the Mosque, this time in daylight. It proved a very different journey from the first: the ridges were strangely silent, with only the cry here and there of a wounded man lying in some hidden hollow, and the enemy was either dead or gone. From the plumed hats of those lying dead they were identified as Bersaglieri, and closer examination showed them to be of the 9th Regiment. Many of those who went through this night and saw these dead foes in the morning had occasion sharply to revise their opinion of Italians as fighting men.13
The advance of 24 Battalion across the flat was, if anything, a grimmer ordeal for some platoons than that of the 26th along the escarpment. The men came under fire almost at once and on the right, as Tomlinson says, had ‘hand-to-hand fighting practically all the way to our objective.’ The enemy fought their guns to the last. ‘Few prisoners were taken that night as all Coys were so below strength by this time that we simply had not got the men to look after them’, he adds. Ferguson of A Company of the 21st found himself under MG and mortar fire from three sides and he was urging his men through it when he received orders to ‘drop back a little and dig in till dawn’. D Company of the 24th, like its counterpart of the 26th, seems to have missed most of the shooting on the way and had begun to dig in on the escarpment south-west of the Mosque before it attracted much attention. Then on a ‘bare forward slope’, Private Shakespear14 says, ‘enemy fire became murderous, machine gun, anti-tank, and mortar fire from directly ahead. The Coy was cut to pieces.’
The men put up piles of stones where the ground would not respond to their picks and Shakespear, who had managed to dig down a few inches, was hit through the elbow when he raised his arm to reach his pick. His account outlines a grim picture:
I lay quietly as the firing started again. Nothing could live above ground. It eased again, and Pte. G. Whyte15 and Pte. Cain16 got up to put more stones around their shallow slit trench, machine gun fire killed them both. Pte. Milstead,17 a splendid soldier, and several others were wounded, Saddleton18 and Burgess19 among them. ... I have since wondered why the order was given to halt at that particular mark, as we could do nothing, whereas had we dropped back into a wadi, many lives might have been saved.
On the extreme left of the 24th, however, B Company had a charmed life and struck very little opposition. When dawn came it moved forward in extended order to the crest of the escarpment, passing on the way many Bersaglieri and ‘a number of our chaps’, according to Private Bott, ‘as well as two of our chaps sitting up wounded and groaning’. Captain Wallace,20 temporarily in command, stood up and waved his revolver when he saw what was meant to be a white flag ahead and some thirty Italians stepped forward to surrender without a shot fired. ‘We then dumped our greatcoats’, Bott continues, and ‘moved forward along the ridge.’
The rest of 24 Battalion, nearer the Mosque, had a much harder time when day broke. The Mosque itself was still in enemy hands and ‘as daylight improved one could see them ... running round their built up dug-outs’, according to Lynn of D Company. This company was ordered to open rapid fire and did so, but was at once assailed by fire from three tanks which appeared as if from nowhere. To 17 Platoon on an exposed forward slope this was disastrous, as Corporal Opie21 explains:
as dawn came, enemy fire including cannon became more accurate. An enemy tank right in front of our Pl began to play havoc with the breast-works of rock etc put up by us and we suffered heavily. We had no A Tk weapon with us at the time. ... As I could see that we would be slaughtered one by one if we stayed where we were, I ordered the Pl to withdraw, which we did, successfully, under cover of the smoke and dust which by this time enshrouded our positions. We later re-occupied these positions without resistance other than shelling, and buried the dead.
One or two 2-pounders, probably of 65 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, eventually came forward and drove the tanks off. But the task of the tanks seems to have been to cover a withdrawal of the remaining enemy infantry and in this they succeeded. As Tomlinson says, under cover of these tanks the enemy ‘collected his transport on the road at the foot of the escarpment’ – the Trigh Capuzzo. ‘The transport was packed tight and they were embussing their troops’, he adds. ‘It was a gunner’s dream but out of range of our small-arms fire.’ Tomlinson sent back a runner with this information but before an FOO could get forward the enemy drove off.
The enemy’s departure was expedited by A Company of 21 Battalion, operating somewhere on Tomlinson’s right flank but without his knowledge. Captain Ferguson and his fifty men mounted an attack with artillery support and charged down the slopes towards the Mosque, where some Germans and Italians were to be seen. ‘They fought well’, he says, and his own company ‘suffered many more casualties ... and was down to 30 or 40.’ This was probably part of the enemy thought by some of 26 Battalion to be preparing
a counter-attack; but A Company of the 21st ‘cleaned up the place and got into defensive positions’, according to Ferguson. ‘The enemy withdrew. ...’ Later in the morning Ferguson was reinforced by the remnants of 15 Platoon of his battalion, which had been attached to the 24th for the night but had been held in reserve. When the enemy departed a strange quietness descended on the scene, and for the first time since 23 November the men were under no danger from bullets or mortars and had only an occasional incoming shell to worry about. They began to realise with mixed but deep feelings that, as Tomlinson puts it, ‘Sidi Rezegh was ours.’
At Brigade Headquarters only scraps of information came through during the night and Barrowclough learned that 4 Brigade had reached Ed Duda long before he could be sure his own troops had reached their objective. At 8.15 a.m. on the 27th the IO, Captain Moffatt,22 jotted down notes from a telephone or wireless conversation with 26 Battalion which indicated that one company was ‘among derelict vehicles on ridge’ somewhere short of the Mosque and that 24 Battalion had got ‘further forward’ on the left, though the 26th were ‘still advancing’. This suggested only partial success; but the enemy appeared to be retreating, covered by the three tanks. Then at 8.30 a.m. word came from 24 Battalion to the effect that opposition on the left had dissolved (‘enemy apparently pulled out during night’) but was continuing in the Mosque area; the unit was then ‘lining edge of escarpment facing NORTH WEST’ and the Mosque was just below C Company. In this area, however, there were ‘signs of heavy fighting – 26 Bn + A.C.D. [Companies] of 24. Many dead Italians. Our people dead under muzzles of Italians.’ Looking to the north-west, the 24th thought they could see enemy on Ed Duda; but in this they were fortunately mistaken.
Barrowclough had waited impatiently during the night for news of the attack and at first light went forward to see for himself. It was a heart-breaking scene which met his eyes, as he wrote a few days later:
The Bde Commander’s recce at daylight of the SIDI RESEGH position revealed how stubborn had been the fighting there. The night attack brought our troops right forward to the positions selected as their objectives but necessarily left them in a much more confined area than it was advisable to occupy as daylight came. The kernel of the position had been captured in the darkness but still more heavy fighting was necessary in the expansion movement that was initiated when there was light enough. ... It soon became apparent that both the night attack and the subsequent dawn expansion movement had met with the severest possible opposition. The enemy forces comprised a number of Germans and troops of the
9 Bersaglieri Regt (Italian). Both were plentifully supplied with machine guns and anti-tank guns and it was clear that our troops had had to advance right to the muzzles of these guns before their crews were despatched and the guns silenced. There was an enormous number of dead and wounded all over the battlefield. A significant feature was the sight of many men who had been hit by the solid shot of A Tk guns fired at point blank range. These projectiles had torn large portions of flesh from the bodies of their unfortunate victims and it would be hard to imagine a more unpleasant sight or a more heavily contested battlefield. The Bersaglieri Regt fought with much greater determination than is usually found among Italian troops and the numbers of their dead and the positions in which they lay showed that they had kept their guns in action to the last. Indeed it was reported from several of our men that the first to break under our onslaught were the German Troops and that the Bersaglieri had been the last to yield. It was against such opposition as this that the exhausted and sadly depleted ranks of 24 and 26 Bns had fought their way to victory and their victory was complete.
After the first blessed relief from fire and danger, however, the battalions began to count the cost of their achievement and they found it tragically high. Officers were now few and far between. B Company of the 24th had only one, Wallace, and the company outnumbered its thirty prisoners only slightly if at all. C Company of the same unit had two officers, Tomlinson and Lieutenant Nathan, one sergeant, and 32 other ranks. D Company had one officer, the unshakably cheerful Captain Jones; Corporal Opie, who had stopped two bullets during the attack, one of them through his big toe, and could not now wear a boot on that foot, was second-in-command of the company and also commanded 17 Platoon. Opie’s platoon was down to 16 men and the company to 37 by his own account, though a private of the company, Till,23 made this note in his diary:
Moved up again. Only 25 left at roll call. Settled down for first night’s rest. Had hot meal – cooks doing good job.
Only four officers thus remained forward in the companies of 24 Battalion, though Ferguson and Lieutenant Hutchinson24 of the 21st were still with them; Captain Brown soon came back from the ADS against medical advice to resume command of B Company, and several other officers also became available this day or the next. Shuttleworth himself was here, there and everywhere and he did much to restore confidence, reorganise his troops, and put new heart in those whose spirits had flagged. The condition of 24 Battalion may be measured by the fact that the 25th, by far the weakest of the three 6 Brigade battalions before this attack, felt able to contribute several men later in the day to reinforce Shuttleworth’s D Company. The 26th was a little better off, but
not much. Its total strength was now a little over 300; but this included many in headquarters or B Echelon, and the rifle companies, particularly A and B, were pitifully thin.
The battalions suffered moreover the anguish of losing many men whose gallantry and self-sacrifice had won all hearts in the fighting of the preceding days, and it seemed to many of the survivors that the enemy, in losing his last foothold at Sidi Rezegh, had maliciously skimmed off the cream of their unit. One was CSM Wall25 of D Company of the 24th, who from the moment he first set foot on Hill 175 had acted without a thought for himself. ‘We felt it hard having to bury Sgt-Mjr Wall’, a private of his company remarks, ‘so gave him a soldier’s funeral by letting him have his equipment on which was contrary to orders but made an exception of him as he was one of the best of soldiers.’ In the same company Sergeant Constable26 was already a legendary figure because of his reckless disregard of shot and shell to the point that many felt only a miracle would preserve him safely through the campaign. No such miracle occurred. He was ‘too game and brave’, according to one; ‘a one-man infantry battalion.’ Shakespear, who did not even know Constable except by repute, felt constrained afterwards to write to his parents ‘that they might know of his example on the field.’ These and many more of the 24th fell this night and in the 26th it was much the same. Major Milliken was among those much mourned and the severe wounding of Colonel Page was felt as a shock throughout the unit.
The comparative quiet of the morning served to emphasise the violence of the preceding days and the bitterness of these losses and, with time to think, the spirits of many of the men were depressed. A private by his own account saw Captain Carnachan27 of the 24th this morning and ‘told him we’d had it and must rest’, and Carnachan himself comments, ‘Men very exhausted – re-organise.’ Lieutenant Nottle28 of A Company of the 26th thought that lack of sleep was the main cause of falling morale, but even in 25 Battalion, which had spent the night in reserve, Major Burton found on his morning rounds that a change had come over his men:
A group of lads were sitting around a billy of tea. They asked me to join them. ... These boys were just beginning to realise that most of their pals had gone forever. The realisation was hitting them hard ... here today with no shells bursting around them and with a little time to gather their scattered wits, they were thinking and wondering why. ...
Another group was ‘almost as pessimistic’ and Burton quickly arranged for some work to keep them all busy and in his quiet way swung morale upwards again.
Though deeply affected himself by the sights he saw on the battlefield, Brigadier Barrowclough could not allow any slackening of effort. From the high ground above the Mosque he surveyed the whole front attentively and could see enemy only in an area three miles to the west, though much farther still he could see the flashes of guns which he assumed were shelling Tobruk. The nearer enemy was shelled, but rain squalls sweeping down from the north obscured the results. Though Ed Duda was captured the wide gap between there and Sidi Rezegh left him open to attack from the north as well as the west and the south, and he disposed his resources accordingly, with 26 Battalion facing north from the lattice mast eastwards and the 24th facing north and west on the western part of the escarpment, though it did not extend right to the end. The total position stretched roughly 1000 yards east and west of the mast and 600 yards north and south of it, making a box 2000 yards by 1200, with the artillery and B Echelons stretching out behind the undefended eastern flank. Most of the vehicles were in the neighbourhood of the airfield or in a large wadi north of it and they tended to shuffle westwards closer to the fighting units.
In the Blockhouse area 8 Field Company lifted about 100 mines which had been detected there and then moved to the eastern edge of the airfield. There was no suggestion that this company should lay mines in defence of the newly-gained positions above the Mosque, though three miles away at Ed Duda RE parties were busily preparing minefields in front of 1 Essex, who were strengthening their positions with barbed wire. The Tobruk garrison was ‘anti-tank mine conscious’ but the New Zealanders were not.
Freyberg and Scobie were now within reach of each other and their troops were in contact, but communications remained slow even within their respective commands. Scobie did not get word from Willison of the presence of 44 Royal Tanks and 19 Battalion at Ed Duda until after 1 p.m. Freyberg, though he knew the 19th had reached their objective, was not sure that they had linked with
the garrison until some hours later and signalled at 11.45 a.m. that he was ‘holding firmly ED DUDA and BELHAMED’. This drew from Scobie at 1.10 p.m. the following reply:
Your infantry are NOT repeat NOT on ED DUDA. ... I am holding this strongly but require earliest relief. ...
Scobie was naturally worried about the length of the perimeter he now held and expected the New Zealand Division to take over at least the Ed Duda sector. Godwin-Austen signalled at 1.07 p.m., however, that ‘Present situation makes it impossible [for the New Zealanders] to do more than hold the ground they have gained’ and made Scobie responsible for ‘establishing the corridor and for holding it open at all costs’. To this Scobie responded generously at 2.30 p.m.:
Corridor is open. Will do our best to maintain it so.
At 3.20 p.m. Scobie finally confirmed that 44 Royal Tanks and 19 Battalion were indeed with his own troops at Ed Duda and signalled Freyberg accordingly.
With misunderstandings on this scale about even the most elementary features of the situation, requiring hours of patient work among cipher clerks and signalmen or hazardous journeys by LOs or DRs, there was no hope of immediate and decisive result from the link-up between the two divisions. Before Scobie and Freyberg could reach a closer understanding of each other’s position and press on according to Godwin-Austen’s plan towards El Adem, evidence began to accumulate of a growing threat of armoured counter-attack on the Tobruk corridor, and the domestic problems this created in each division made closer co-ordination between the two even harder to achieve, though it made collaboration between the two all the more essential.