Chapter 17: Rommel’s ‘Evil Dream’
THE struggle to establish the Tobruk Corridor had gone on in a separate compartment of the campaign from that in which Rommel was operating and, despite crossed lines of communication, interaction between the two remained at a remarkably low level. Freyberg and Scobie knew next to nothing of what the German armour was doing and an event as important as the dismissal of the Eighth Army Commander took place without their knowledge. So far as 13 Corps knew, the Axis tank strength was too low for decisive action and the revived power of the British armour was well able to deal with it. But relative tank strengths gave no good guide to the fighting ability of 15 Panzer Division, which was still stronger than the British armour and able to stage a counter-attack against the Corridor of far greater weight than Freyberg and Scobie envisaged. If 21 Panzer Division had not been reduced in the mean-time to a shadow of its former strength they would probably have faced disaster.
The dash to the frontier, in the opinion of Rommel’s closest associates, was a mistake; but on 25 November it was not an irretrievable one. Rommel could well exploit the panicky situation in the rear areas of Eighth Army by seizing huge stocks of military supplies and cutting supply routes, by crippling the RAF fighter force while it lay helpless on the ground, and by spreading chaos and dismay in widening circles until CRUSADER became submerged (as Cunningham feared it might) in anxieties for the safety of Egypt. But he chose instead to attack objectives which were either unprofitable or illusory.
With Crüwell and Gause, however, he first had to avoid capture by one of many British detachments near where he spent an uncomfortable night somewhere north of Maddalena. In this he was lucky, and early on the 25th his little group made its way northwards unmolested, crossed the Wire, and joined Crüwell’s tiny head-quarters at Gasr el Abid.
In the light of the latest information, which was sparse, Rommel and Crüwell then conferred on their next step. Ariete had been delayed and was not at hand to help surround the British forces Rommel believed were besieging his frontier garrisons, and there was no news of Trieste Division, but he could not afford to wait. Through Crüwell he therefore ordered 15 Panzer to attack these British forces from the north-west and drive them on to the mine-fields, deploying for this purpose on a wide front between Sidi Omar and Sidi Azeiz and raising clouds of dust to give the impression of greater strength than Neumann-Silkow actually possessed. At the same time 21 Panzer was to attack from the south-east with its greatest force on the left at Sidi Omar. He also conceived of a thrust by a mixed force southwards to seize Jarabub, to cut the L of C of the British force reported to be deep into the hinterland of Cyrenaica and threatening Jalo and Aujila. But he gave no thought to Eighth Army Headquarters, nor to the huge supply depots which must exist in the neighbourhood, nor even to the nearby landing grounds from which the RAF fighters operated. The raid to Bir Habata by 33 Reconnaissance Unit, which he had ordered the previous night, had not yet started for lack of petrol and ammunition and Crüwell reported accordingly; but this evoked no comment from Rommel, whose interests were firmly fixed on a largely non-existent enemy to the north.
Rommel was accustomed to giving orders on broad lines, leaving the details for the Panzer Group or Africa Corps staffs to fill in; but in this case no staff worthy of the name was at hand and the nebulous nature of the enemy he proposed to attack, which would have been disclosed to trained staff officers by the lack of specific information as to units and locations, remained obscured. It did not even emerge in this discussion that both panzer divisions were badly situated to carry out their share of his new scheme. Having prepared to attack northwards, 15 Panzer would now have to draw back, rearrange all its march schedules, and deploy on a different front from that envisaged the previous night. Unless this division was quickly and effectively committed to action in the frontier area, however, most of the effect of the operation as a whole on the minds of the senior British commanders (if Rommel was in fact aiming at their minds) would be lost.
Instead of striking thin air Rommel might have made it his business to get in touch with Major-General de Giorgis at Bir Ghirba and find out from him all he could about the British dispositions in the frontier area, concerting with Savona Division a course of action based on knowledge rather than intuition. By so doing Rommel would have learned that Omar Nuovo and all but
the western part of Libyan Omar had fallen into British hands. But he seems not to have known where de Giorgis was. Rommel’s orders and later accounts strongly suggest that he thought the southern anchor of his frontier line was still intact, though threatened by mobile forces of some size. ‘South and east of Sidi Omar an enemy group of considerable strength with much artillery had been recognised’, Kriebel says in his post-war narrative, and this evidently refers to 4/11 Sikh and 1 Field Regiment, RA.1
These two units were east of the Omars at first light, getting ready to move but not ready to fight where they were. When what looked like twenty-five German tanks2 fired on a troop of the field regiment at 7.30 a.m., there followed anxious moments until the tanks withdrew out of range. The guns were then hastily dug in where the ground permitted, and where it was too hard they went into action without any sort of cover.
Meanwhile Crüwell had passed Rommel’s orders on to von Ravenstein near Halfaya and then ran across Colonel Stephan of 5 Panzer Regiment and told him to report at once with his regiment to Headquarters of 21 Panzer. This meant driving north-eastwards, either through or round the British force with which the tanks had already clashed, though Stephan may not have been fully aware of this. But the matter was soon afterwards taken out of Stephan’s hands by the RAF, which strafed his columns and inflicted wounds on him from which he later died.
Major Milderbrath of I Battalion assumed command of the regiment and, continuing the move, soon found himself at grips with a force he at first under-estimated. With his much-weakened tank force and practically no supporting weapons, he was in no position to press on against a regiment of 25-pounders firing over open sights; but he was given little choice, since the British gunners, in desperate defence of 4/11 Sikh, held their fire until the tanks were at almost point-blank range. The tanks came on against the eastern flank of the infantry and the gun area of 52 Field Battery, opening fire at 2000 yards and imposing a severe strain on the nerves of gunners crouched behind their gunshields awaiting the word to engage. Many gunners were hit; but the guns lay silent. The tanks halted from time to time to bring their cannon to bear, then advanced again with machine guns blazing. One or two guns were knocked out but even this could not provoke the others to open fire prematurely. Then, when the tanks were no more than 500
yards from the nearest 25-pounders, the gunners leapt into action and their solid shot tore apart the armour of the leading tanks. To the tank crews the desert looked alive with gun flashes, and after a few minutes of punishing in-fighting they turned back to the shelter of a low ridge some 400 yards to the west. Meanwhile 4/11 Sikh and much transport in the area slipped away through the minefields into the two Omar forts. The tanks carried on the fight from their new positions but without supporting arms they were greatly handicapped.
Quickly thinking things over, Mildebrath decided to swing to the right round the flank of the British force and then make his way to Halfaya as originally ordered; but even this course was denied him. The gun position was more extensive than he thought and the intended outflanking move became a frontal assault which met the full force of the guns of 52 Battery and a troop of 11 Field Battery. Some tanks got to within 300 yards, but at this range the 25-pounder fire was too much and they broke away to the south-east, ‘with the vengeful guns buffeting them’, as the history of 4 Indian Division says. ‘Seven smashed tanks dotted the plain, and troops of South African anti-tank gunners, which arrived too late to join the action, finished off another as it hobbled away.’3 Thus arguments in many an artillery mess about what would happen in a ‘straight-out’ clash between panzers and 25-pounders were settled in favour of the latter. As the battle report of 5 Panzer Regiment adds, ‘Most of the regiment’s remaining tanks and guns also received some battle scar’ and tank ammunition was running low.
The price the gunners paid for their success was sadly in evidence to Lieutenant-Colonel Dobree of 1 Field Regiment, RA, and others who toured the battlefield after the Germans had gone. It was ‘exactly like some of the more gruesome Gunner battle pictures that one used to see on the walls of messes’, Dobree says: ‘damaged guns, bits of limbers, blown up ammunition, dead and wounded everywhere.’4 Of 66 casualties all told, 42 were in 52 Field Battery (out of 73 in that battery who were in action this day). Five guns were knocked out, but all were repaired and back in action next day.
The setback suffered here, however, was only the beginning of a series of misfortunes which beset 5 Panzer Regiment. The next was five miles north-east of Gasr el Abid, where Mildebrath finally reassembled his force, with only nine tanks fully battleworthy. The regiment had begun to refuel and stock up with ammunition when ‘two bombing raids in quick succession scattered the transport.’5 Then Mildebrath was confronted with the formidable presence of his commander-in-chief, who had no time for tales of woe and ordered him to ‘attack north towards the enemy columns south of the frontier, to break through on a wide front, and to halt in sight of the frontier wire’.6 Since the frontier wire ran northwards as far as Libyan Omar and then veered eastwards this could only have the effect of bringing the regiment up against the Omar
defences; but it seems unlikely that Rommel meant Mildebrath to attack these and he probably imagined them to be still in Axis hands. By driving northwards Mildebrath would push the British on to the minefields outside the Omar forts and force them to surrender, or so Rommel hoped.
The unlucky major could not argue with Rommel and had to do the best he could. If his orders entailed attacking Libyan Omar then he would attack; but it was quite impossible to do so on a ‘wide front’ as his regiment was now down to the strength of about ‘a reinforced company’7 and his communications were altogether too tenuous to cover a wide area. Three damaged tanks were towed forward to bolster up his dwindling fire power and, though still short of ammunition and petrol, he set off northwards soon after 1 p.m.
His determination may have deserved a change of luck but did not get it. After a brush with the five remaining tanks of 42 Royal Tanks, Mildebrath pushed on until he came upon what looked like a ‘position about 12 km wide along the frontier’ but was actually the two Omars, with which he was evidently unfamiliar. To the mystification of the defenders of Omar Nuovo (‘Frongia’), who expected the enemy to know where their own minefields were, 5 Panzer Regiment steadily closed in on them and seemed likely to try to charge through the minefields. To the infantry it was evident that the contest, when it started in earnest, would be between the German tanks and the defending guns, and they rose from their trenches to get a better view.
When the tanks reached a low ridge 1000 yards away the guns of 25 Field Regiment, RA, flashed and thundered into action and the heavier shells of 68 Medium Regiment, RA, were soon bursting among the attackers. Five tanks were knocked out, two of them blazing wrecks, and as Mildebrath swung west two more were set on fire. With his regiment dissolving in front of his eyes, he ordered the remnants to rally to the south; but II Battalion did not receive this order because wireless aerials had been shot away. It managed to gain the lee of the enemy pocket still holding out in the west of Libyan Omar and eventually entered there to recuperate. Mildebrath now had only ten tanks left, and only three in fighting order.8 This small band took up its station halfway between Bir Sheferzen and Sidi Omar in complete isolation from the rest of Rommel’s force and found to its further dismay that on the C-in-C’s orders its supply lorries had joined in with those
of 15 Panzer to simulate an attack. Rommel had gained nothing by interfering here and for most practical purposes 5 Panzer Regiment had ceased to exist.
The operations of 15 Panzer Division this day were scarcely more successful. Heavy air attacks persisted for some time in the morning and caused many casualties. Before 9 a.m. Rommel ordered Neumann-Silkow to advance at once with his right flank level with Libyan Omar; on reaching there he was to deploy over a wide front stretching northwards to Sidi Azeiz to ‘hem in the enemy in the Sollum area’.9 This again suggests that he expected Libyan Omar to be in friendly hands and he was aiming at an enemy he thought faced the frontier line between there and the coast.10 Even so it was a tall order, and Neumann-Silkow promptly disbanded the force he had formed on Corps orders to carry out Ariete’s blocking role in the Bir Gibni area, so as to have more troops to cover the 20 miles between Libyan Omar and Sidi Azeiz. He also ignored the Corps order to supply the infantry battalion, guns, and other detachments required for the excursion to Jarabub and thus put paid to this scheme, which might have had far more favourable repercussions from the German point of view than anything else Rommel at present contemplated. To add a further impression of strength the supply lorries were also added to the battle array of 15 Panzer, to the detriment of their proper role.
All this took time, however, especially under air attack, and refuelling caused further delay. It was 1.45 p.m. before the division got properly under way, half an hour later it clashed briefly with British tanks, and at 3 p.m. 8 Panzer Regiment came up against what looked like a ‘strong enemy force’ but which was actually the Light Recovery Section of 1 Army Tank Brigade.
This was in a hollow near Bir Bu Deheua and in it Matildas damaged in the attack on the Omars on 22 November were under repair, some eighteen tanks in various stages of serviceability.11 Four could not move at all. Crews were quickly made up (when word arrived of the approach of the panzer force) of fitters, wounded men, and the few experienced crew members at hand, and they did what they could to manoeuvre their tanks into fighting positions. As they mounted the sides of the hollow, however, the panzers were already closing in and brought them under concentrated fire. It was a one-sided fight, with the 88s and field howitzers joining in; but the 15 Panzer diary does not suggest this: ‘After hard fighting
at very close range, 16 Mark II tanks were knocked out and a number of prisoners taken from 6 Army Tk Regt’.12 The division nevertheless lost three tanks this day and probably in this action, and when it moved off again an hour later it was already too late to do much else. By 8 p.m. the spearhead of the division was on the Trigh Capuzzo west of Sidi Azeiz and the tail not far north of the Trigh el-Abd, and on this thin line nearly 20 miles long it bedded down for the night, facing east. Its tank strength is listed as 53, practically all the tanks now left in Africa Corps.
General Neumann-Silkow had suffered all day from a shortage of petrol and at 12.30 p.m., when he reported ‘enemy in strength at Sidi Azeiz’, he had been ordered to attack with his ‘main body’ and destroy this force; but it was far more urgent to refuel and restock with ammunition. Though a ‘large supply column’ reached him during the night, practically no supplies got through to 21 Panzer and this division, in the euphemistic words of the Africa Corps diary, ‘had not yet succeeded’ by midday ‘in assembling its forces and launching a unified attack’. General von Ravenstein with a small headquarters group was at ‘Faltenbacher’ strongpoint south-west of Halfaya, 5 Panzer Regiment was in course of dissolution, and Knabe Group ‘on the way to the division, but apparently engaged against its will in fighting east of Sidi Omar’. Von Ravenstein succeeded in assembling a battalion to attack Capuzzo early in the afternoon but it could not do so, also for lack of petrol. Later in the afternoon Knabe joined him but he, too, was in urgent need of fuel.
Air attacks meanwhile continued and caused heavy loss to 33 Reconnaissance Unit, as well as destroying all wireless sets at Corps Headquarters except the one in the ACV. Late in the afternoon Rommel cancelled the Bir Habata operation, which had not yet started, and told 33 Unit instead to block a six-mile stretch of the frontier wire south of Gasr el Abid; but Neumann-Silkow, not knowing this unit had been removed from his command, ordered it to protect his rear near Sidi Azeiz and it did so. Thus Rommel was thwarted from all angles and achieved nothing. The stubbornness which was invaluable when he was actually at grips with a foe was a paralysing disability in circumstances such as these. He may have realised as the day advanced that Omar Nuovo and at least part of Libyan Omar were in British hands; but he still thought that much of the frontier line between there and the sea was besieged by New Zealanders and Indians and at 9.25 p.m. sent the following order to Crüwell: ‘Destroy the enemy pockets
on either side of the Sollum front. Main weight on Sidi Omar [i.e., Libyan Omar]. Protect your rear communications.’ This was the mixture as before; and Neumann-Silkow and von Ravenstein were beginning to find that it tasted bitter.
Back at Gasr el Abid the small Corps Headquarters did its best to keep up the normal staff routine and by a roundabout way through 21 Panzer received a signal from Westphal at El Adem at 9.45 a.m. on the 25th stating that attacks had broken through the centre of Boettcher Group, opening a gap between Trento and Pavia which he was plugging with elements of Trieste. Westphal feared a concurrent extension of the Tobruk garrison’s operations to join hands and asked for a panzer division to intervene at once. This message did not reach Crüwell until 4 p.m. and Rommel did not receive it until 10.30 a.m. on the 26th.
Crüwell had feared that such a situation might arise at Tobruk when he first learned of the frontier scheme and his war diary sets out his view:
The situation in front of Tobruk proved that, although the enemy had been defeated in the hard fighting on 23 Nov, he had not yet been destroyed, and therefore full advantage had not been taken of the early successes. Pz Gp, contrary to the advice of the Corps Commander, had taken the surprising step of moving Africa Corps away to the Sollum front, quitting the battlefield and the vast quantity of captured material there. The enemy had thus been able to reassemble, retake much of the equipment and weapons he had lost, and reorganise his forces.
Thus he did not realise that the forces in question were fresh and independent of those he had defeated. In particular, he had not identified them as the New Zealand Division, though he strongly suspected that the garrison at Sidi Azeiz was a New Zealand brigade with ‘part of an Indian division with a large number of Mk II tanks’ – a most flattering estimate of Hargest’s headquarters group. His proposals for next day, however, were sound and for 5 New Zealand Brigade ominous. They were to destroy the force at Sidi Azeiz, clear Capuzzo, and ‘ensure supplies for both Pz divisions from stores at Bardia’, to attack with 21 Panzer from the east with the main weight (as Rommel specified) at Libyan Omar, and to get ready the group destined for Jarabub. Ariete was known at 5.15 p.m. to be ‘attacking an enemy force but meeting heavy resistance’ and was therefore left out of these calculations.
Rommel was impatient with the lack of progress by 21 Panzer and signalled his intention of supervising the operations of this division personally next morning, starting at 7.15 a.m. ‘Knabe is not to go on with his task13 without express orders from me’, he
added. But Crüwell was now certain that no British troops faced him except at the Omars and at Capuzzo and Sidi Azeiz. Neumann-Silkow would deal with the last and Capuzzo would require perhaps a battalion. Thus Ravenstein would have troops to spare, and at 8.10 p.m. Crüwell asked him to send these to a specified point (perhaps Habata) ‘to cut the enemy’s withdrawal route’. Colonel von Wechmar had joined 15 Panzer in the morning with 3 Reconnaissance Unit from Bir el Chleta and in the afternoon Rommel sent him to Bir Sheferzen, which he reached at 9 p.m.; but Crüwell knew nothing of this.
With Rommel and Crüwell thus acting at cross purposes only confusion could result. No matter how much he exerted the force of his personality, Rommel could not create a significant fighting potential from the battered and weary remnants of 21 Panzer. At the same time Neumann-Silkow, who alone had the strength to produce effective action, had developed serious doubts about the whole scheme and was less hopeful than Crüwell of being able to maintain the frontier operations from Bardia. ‘Intend to carry on against the Sollum front’, he signalled to Corps at 8.10 p.m., ‘but this will only be possible if contact is made with the Tobruk supply base.’ His misgivings on this score were only slightly abated by the supply column which reached him in the night and it was evident to him that a return to the Tobruk front could not long be delayed. Both Rommel and Crüwell signalled for fighter cover next day against the torment from the air which had hampered them greatly; but in vain. Fighters from Gazala could not operate so far east. At El Adem Westphal was almost frantically trying to attract Rommel’s attention to the very serious predicament in which he found himself. On the 25th he sent two aircraft to drop situation maps and other details, but both were shot down. After sending several wireless signals without acknowledgment he signalled to Crüwell at 10.57 p.m. in more moderate terms, having come to the curious opinion that the threat which he so greatly feared in the morning was now fading. By wireless interception he learned that two brigades and elements of one armoured brigade south-east of El Gubi were withdrawing and General Boettcher claimed to have repulsed an attack by two tank detachments of the New Zealand Division. The situation looked so favourable that Boettcher Group and Trieste Division were getting ready to stage a pursuit. Within a very short time 4 New Zealand Brigade, by seizing Belhamed, must have disillusioned him.
If Rommel did in fact intend by the sudden move of his whole armoured force14 to the frontier area to shatter the nerve of the opposing commander and cause him to withdraw into Egypt he gained a partial success, but British misconceptions made his move seem less significant than its magnitude warranted. In any case, the CRUSADER plan had been modified as much by circumstance and decision at lower levels as by the C-in-C, and Cunningham’s few direct interventions had done little to affect the course of events. By the 25th an immediate full-scale retreat of Eighth Army was difficult, if not impossible, to bring about. Those who were fighting the battle outside Tobruk had the bit between their teeth. When Cunningham began to think of retreat and Auchinleck decided to dismiss him, the change was therefore less influential on the outcome of the campaign than might be supposed.
In his various statements on the subject Auchinleck gives three reasons for dismissing the Army Commander: defensive thinking due to heavy tank losses, undue concern about Rommel’s dash to the frontier, and lack of confidence in his ability ‘to carry out my intentions’.15 With his calm presence and firm insistence that CRUSADER must continue, Auchinleck had achieved his purpose regarding the first and Cunningham obeyed him ‘loyally’, though there was in fact every justification for ‘defensive thinking’ by the evening of the 23rd. On the second score, both Auchinleck and Cunningham greatly under-estimated the scope and power of Rommel’s move, which was on the face of it highly dangerous. On the morning of the 25th CRUSADER was trembling on the brink; by evening the striking power of Africa Corps had declined by loss and other circumstance enough to allow Eighth Army a chance of survival and even, if Rommel failed to develop effective action quickly, a chance of victory (though the odds were still against this).
The third point was an afterthought. Auchinleck talked things over with Tedder, who was more than once critical of his Army colleagues,16 and when he got back to Cairo in the afternoon of the 25th he consulted the Minister of State, Oliver Lyttelton. Then he wrote a letter removing Cunningham from his command. ‘I am convinced that I am right’, he cabled to Churchill the same day, ‘though I realise the undesirability of such a step at present on general grounds.’ Lyttelton and Churchill warmly supported him and the latter regarded this act as ‘dominant and decisive’, as may be inferred from his opening remarks on CRUSADER.17 But it was a
grave and dangerous step to take and in the long run Eighth Army paid dearly for it, while in the short term it made little difference to the desert fighting.
The choice of a successor was an unfortunate one, as Auchinleck soon realised, and led in a very short time to a dangerous duality of command in which Auchinleck peered over the newcomer’s shoulder and the new Army Commander, Ritchie, freshly promoted lieutenant-general,18 kept glancing backwards for confirmation of his decisions. Auchinleck spent much of the next fortnight at Army Headquarters and it would have been better had he taken over command himself, as Churchill and Dill recommended on the 27th.19
Ritchie’s background and experience were inadequate for the task. As De Guingand says, ‘It was an incredible responsibility to throw on his shoulders’.20 The obvious choice, if not Auchinleck himself, was Godwin-Austen, whose determination to continue the offensive was beyond question. Norrie, being as he says himself ‘armour-trained’, was needed in his present capacity and Freyberg could well have taken over 13 Corps. But Auchinleck wanted to disturb things as little as possible and seems to have regarded the appointment as very temporary, to tide over the crisis. This passed, however, regardless of the change of command and Ritchie could not then be replaced until he lost the more promising Gazala battle next summer. Then Auchinleck himself took command and kept it until he, too, was replaced. It was not Auchinleck’s move but Rommel’s ‘brilliant brain-storm’ which ‘saved the Eighth Army from defeat’21 on this occasion; in May and June of 1942 Rommel was in better form.22
The change was kept very quiet and it was several days before Godwin-Austen, Scobie, or Freyberg heard of it, so they carried on their battle as before. Nor did Rommel find out for some time that he had succeeded in disturbing his opponents to this extent, otherwise he might well have turned his attentions elsewhere in the frontier area and to better effect. In the meantime Africa Corps had given 7 Indian Brigade at the Omar forts an unexpected though
well-deserved taste of victory against the panzers and encouraged 5 New Zealand Brigade to brace itself against attack. Ariete Division actually achieved more, because of erroneous reports of a ‘battle’ on 25 November at Taieb el-Esem, which attracted unwarranted attention in 30 Corps and delayed support and supplies for the New Zealand Division.
The area of 30 Corps by the morning of the 25th had been compressed south of the Trigh el-Abd except for Pienaar’s 1 South African Brigade, which was astride it at El Esem. Norrie’s current policy was to ‘reorganise his troops behind an armoured car screen thrown out to the north to protect 62 FMC on which the immediate supply of the Corps depended, and to guard his lines of communication eastwards through the Wire.’23 The reconnaissance units faced north with 4 South African Armoured Car Regiment on the right, the King’s Dragoon Guards (less a squadron in Tobruk) in the centre, and 11 Hussars (less a squadron with 22 Armoured Brigade) on the left.
Behind these, four Jock Columns formed up on a wide arc guarding the FMCs, each strong enough to rebuff curiosity but not to fight a pitched battle. They each consisted in the main of about two companies of infantry with field and anti-tank artillery, and were useful in the present circumstances in that they could cover a large area of ground against light enemy forces; but they needed some way of concentrating quickly under unified command against any major threat which might present itself, and no such way was provided. This was the persistent weakness of this Jock Column policy and much colourful publicity, sentimentally associated with the gallant ‘Jock’ Campbell after whom the columns were named, only served to hide it and present these columns as giant-killers, which they were not. Once the enemy concentrated, the Jock Columns could inflict scratches on him but no serious wounds. In this manner most of the remaining strength of the Support Group and much of 22 Guards Brigade was dissipated, the rest being committed in direct defence of the FMCs.
Outside this scheme there were only 1 South African Brigade and 4 Armoured Brigade, the latter with 37 tanks slowly picking its way southwards towards the FMCs. Brigadier Pienaar at Taieb el-Esem was very much alone and enemy flares which rose in many directions during the night of the 24th–25th emphasised this fact. He, too, was expected to break up his force into columns to harass any enemy venturing within nine miles of his laager, but he did not do so. South African patrols found enemy on three sides at dawn, with many tanks in evidence, and shellfire came down on the
position at 7 a.m. Pienaar took it that he was faced with a panzer division and sent exaggerated reports to General Brink that he was being attacked and asking for help. This caused much worry and a good deal of pointless argument between Brink and 30 Corps on his behalf, and in the end Brigadier Gatehouse was sent post-haste to Pienaar’s aid.
All that had happened so far was that the artillery of Ariete and 7 Medium Regiment, RA, and 7 South African Field Regiment had exchanged fire, but little damage was done within the South African lines and there were no serious casualties. When the tanks of 4 Armoured Brigade interposed themselves between the Italians and South Africans and added the fire of 4 RHA to the current artillery duel, neither side cared seriously to challenge the other. An uneasy stalemate was thus maintained until dark. The Italian commander seems to have made just as much ado to his superiors about the fighting here as Pienaar did; but it was no part of his task to get heavily committed. Rommel badly wanted him in the frontier area and after dark that was where he headed.
Norrie was most anxious that Pienaar should stay where he was and several times questioned Brink on this point and was reassured. The messages between Brink and Pienaar, however, allowed some slight grounds for misunderstanding and in the evening Pienaar withdrew. Gatehouse opposed this move; but he had to follow in continuation of his task of protecting the South African brigade. Pienaar showed less reluctance on this occasion than on the night of the 22nd–23rd to undertake a move in the dark and reached 65 FMC in a most expeditious manner by 10.45 p.m. The ‘Battle of Taieb el-Esem’ was over and Brink was much embarrassed, expecting recriminations from Norrie, who had independent and more moderate reports of what had happened from 4 South African Armoured Car Regiment; but Norrie seemed unperturbed. His first thought was still to protect the FMCs against light enemy forces; but he had it in mind that 1 South African Brigade might be needed to help the New Zealanders and told Brink that Pienaar should be ready to move north at short notice for this purpose. Pienaar’s withdrawal, however, had made it much harder for 30 Corps to help the New Zealand Division.
The presence of Ariete near Taieb el-Esem did serve a purpose, however, that was unintended and perhaps most important. Pienaar spoke of German tanks facing him and, when aerial reconnaissance reported this concentration, Eighth Army concluded, as the United Kingdom narrative states, that the ‘bulk of the enemy armour, together with a proportion of artillery and lorry-borne infantry,
remained confronting 1 SA Bde at Taieb el Essem’. This allowed Army to estimate the ‘raiding force’ which ‘might have crossed the frontier in the Sheferzen area’ as no more than 30 tanks and 500 infantry, and 4 Indian Division was therefore told to mop up the enemy along the L of C of 13 Corps as far west as Bir Gibni, a task actually far beyond General Messervy’s strength.
Messervy then had his 7 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters in the Omars, 11 Brigade on the coastal flat facing Halfaya, and 5 Brigade still trying to assemble its scattered elements for a mobile role. In this endeavour 5 Indian Brigade was not having much success and it was simultaneously trying to put the Playground and North Point areas, suddenly of vital importance, into a state of defence.24 Messervy was now under Army command, and behind his positions Brigadier Medley, BRA Eighth Army, was forming defences along the escarpment as far east as Sofafi. At Libyan Omar 7 Indian Brigade now had to contend with the tanks of II Battalion, 5 Panzer Regiment, but these could do little in the maze of mines and ditches. The Indians overcame one of the three remaining platoons of the original Axis garrison in an early-morning attack on the 27th, but the final mopping up of Libyan Omar had to be left until later, when ammunition became more plentiful.
The most pressing danger to 13 Corps was that the enemy would seize the huge stocks of supplies of all kinds which were dispersed over an area far too large to guard effectively at 50 FMC, south of Sheferzen, and for the early part of 25 November this danger seemed only too real. The Field Supply Depot, the Field Ammunition Depot, the POL dump, the Ordnance Field Park, the RE dump, the water point, the NAAFI/EFI stores,25 the labour camp, the PW cage and the Field Post Office covered an area of more than sixty square kilometres centred on the administrative headquarters, 50 FMC, staffed by a handful of New Zealanders under Major Closey.26 But Closey was soon to find that the difficulties of control introduced by this wide dispersion were more than offset by the security gained. It needed a thorough and systematic investigation to disclose the value of this great prize; but the Germans who came this way, with Rommel urging them to greater efforts elsewhere, had neither time nor encouragement for this.
There was nevertheless good reason for anxiety after the ‘Matruh Stakes’ field race through the previous evening and the panzers came
dangerously close. The FAD staff spent the night of the 24th–25th at Closey’s headquarters; but he sent it back at 6 a.m. in the hope that the enemy was gone. At 8.15 a.m. it returned, having been fired at, and the enemy carried on ‘along the escarpment’ to the FSD and the Postal Tent, where they were distracted by a British convoy coming down from the north. A single German gun engaged this and most of the lorries were captured. Other enemy on foot collected any other vehicles they could find and sent them to the north. At the same time the Indian labour camp was shelled, one Indian killed and another wounded, and several others disappeared. Then a few guns of 2 South African Anti-Tank Regiment arrived on the scene and fired some shots, at which the German infantry quickly embussed and drove off, releasing a dozen men of the FMC staff they had captured. The Central India Horse then entered the area and about mid-morning the enemy drove off eastwards, later turning north. Closey found that ‘quite a large amount’ of the stores in the FSD had been taken and other stores damaged, but he lost only three vehicles of his own and gained two Italian lorries in working order, as well as several smaller vehicles.27 By 3.45 p.m. the whole FMC was working once more and convoys coming in from Railhead were unloaded until dark. The supplies for 13 Corps were for the moment safe and the main problem was to get them flowing forward from 50 FMC to the troops who needed them.
New Zealanders also had a small part in the action of the morning outside the Omars. Major Hood of 6 RMT Company, who had halted a little to the south-east with his lorries (and Sergeant Plumtree’s detachment of Divisional Petrol Company), was asked to provide twelve lorries to help move 4/11 Sikh at about 1 a.m. on the 25th. He was also told to move with that battalion to Point 203, south-west of Sidi Omar, and reached there at 7 a.m. after much struggling in the dark to assemble the lorries. Before the men had time to ‘boil up’ for breakfast, however, he was told to move on at once as the present area was ‘a target’ of the enemy. Thus he just escaped the first advance of 5 Panzer Regiment; but the new move was the parting of the ways. Hood was directed to Conference Cairn and then eastwards to 5 Indian Brigade at Playground. There he could get rid of his prisoners, he was told, and get in touch by telephone with the New Zealand Division. All but four of the twelve lorries had returned, shells were bursting in the neighbourhood, and Hood arranged to move at 5 m.p.h. for
a few miles and then wait for the four lorries which were still to come. He travelled seven miles and then halted, taking care to safeguard his prisoners, and arranged for a meal for them and his own men. This took time and by 10 a.m. only the second of several groups was lining up for its food when bullets swept into the group and a German column appeared among the lorries. Three drivers were killed and thirteen captured in the ensuing scramble and it was every man for himself. Hood’s staff car attracted much attention and he had a lively time getting away. Only 39 lorries assembled in due course at Conference Cairn, and Plumtree with only six of his 15 lorries ended up farther east at Sofafi. For the time being 6 RMT Company had no hope of rejoining 6 Brigade, which was on that account not only short of supplies but tactically non-mobile since it was Hood’s lorries which carried the infantry.
Supplying the New Zealand Division in its advanced position was becoming more and more difficult and this subject exercised many minds deeply. At 13 Corps Headquarters two possibilities were explored: air supply and replenishment from Tobruk. The first came to nothing, though the Division was warned to be ready and given the necessary code signals. The second was premature and Tobruk could not in any case supply much of the most urgently needed item, 25-pounder ammunition, since its stocks of this were dwindling fast. Administration from Rear Headquarters near Sidi Azeiz was under the circumstances hopeless and it was therefore decided to move Rear Headquarters and Administration Group, including two NZASC companies, to Bir el-Haleizin, a point a few miles south of Bir Sciafsciuf. This seemed conveniently near to the Division and was not likely to be affected by Freyberg’s efforts to link up with Tobruk. The Ammunition Company was already near Haleizin, less one section with 5 Brigade, and was glad to receive on behalf of the Division petrol, ammunition and water brought in this morning by 65 General Transport Company, RASC, from 62 FMC, plus two German prisoners and a Fiat car, which betokened an adventurous journey. The move of Rear Division and Administration Group took place in the afternoon with little or no sign of enemy28 until after dark, when flares were seen. The huge group of vehicles spent the night a few miles short of its destination and had no trouble covering the remaining distance next morning.
Lieutenant Cottrell’s detachment of the Supply Column had spent the night 24–25 November in no-man’s land with German flares rising on all sides. Driving north soon after first light Cottrell came upon five German vehicles and captured them, taking fourteen prisoners. Then he was warned, like so many others before him,
that German tanks were ahead and he turned back and made for 62 FMC, where he left his prisoners, filled up with rations, loaded one of the captured vehicles (formerly South African) with petrol, and was about to set out unescorted for the New Zealand Division when he was ordered to await the protection of an armoured brigade which was shortly going there. Cottrell, who had so far shown admirable determination, was irked by the delay and in the end set out independently.
To attend to the needs of 5 Brigade, another composite supply company was formed, again under Captain Roberts of the Supply Column, with C Section of the Ammunition Company, B and H Sections of the Supply Column, and a few lorries of 4 RMT Company for water-carrying. There were no lorries for POL, but none were likely to be needed for some time. Roberts duly assembled his vehicles and left for Sidi Azeiz at 4 p.m. On the way he caught sight of the vast bulk of 15 Panzer Division heading in the same direction and reported accordingly to Brigade Headquarters when he reached there at 5.30. He could not do much until one of the FMCs, preferably the 50th, was reported open and the route was clear. Meanwhile his lorries added greatly to the congestion at Sidi Azeiz, so that at 1 a.m. on the 26th he was told to go on to 22 Battalion at Menastir, where the ample folds of the escarpment could shelter the composite company until it could be used.