Chapter 18: Two Attacks on Capuzzo
FIFTH New Zealand Brigade had meanwhile spent two days in its blocking position outside Bardia, starting with a lively attack in the morning of the 24th against the eastern outposts of 22 Battalion on the escarpment west of Bardia. This seemed to be by about two companies of infantry covered by artillery and mortar fire, and the 22nd replied vigorously with all weapons including the Vickers of 4 MG Company, the 25-pounders of 28 Field Battery firing over open sights, and even the Bofors guns. This defensive fire was followed up by a determined counter-attack and the enemy withdrew to their lorries and drove back out of range. In half an hour it was all over, at a cost to the defence of five wounded and to the enemy of several dead and nine German prisoners, two of them officers. The enemy then shelled the unoccupied stretch of escarpment just to the east and when the Brigade Major, Straker, came up from Sidi Azeiz to see what it was all about he found the men of the 22nd quietly getting ready for breakfast.
The time passed with little incident after this and Hargest was mainly troubled by the shortage of 25-pounder ammunition and also of long-range Mark VIIIZ ammunition for the Vickers guns, which caused splendid targets below Sollum Barracks to go begging. An LO from the CRA of 4 Indian Division came forward and promised to see what he could do about this, though he held out little hope of substantial supplies of ammunition. He did, however, bring news of the heavy fighting at the Omars on the 23rd, and from this Hargest inferred that it would be some time before he could rejoin Freyberg. Another LO from 8 Royal Tanks came in later with a request that B Squadron be sent to Bir el Chleta as it was badly needed there. From this it seemed that all was not well with Freyberg and Hargest visited Corps Headquarters at Bir el-Hariga to discuss this. There he learned that 6 Brigade had had heavy fighting. ‘The decisive battle is still being fought west of us’, he wrote in a letter to Colonel Leckie at Capuzzo, ‘and as every tank will contribute to our success I have released those attached and they are proceeding “hot foot” to the assistance of the Division.’ He held out hope that 5 Brigade might be relieved in twenty-four hours’ time and instructed Leckie as follows:
Be vigilant and aggressive without becoming involved in the fighting. ... I want the 28th Battalion to get a patrol into Sollum, if possible, and feel along the road towards Halfaya and the 23rd Battalion to push a patrol along the escarpment. In none of these patrols do I wish to incur casualties or be engaged in battle, but to harass the enemy and if possible pick up prisoners.
The Div. Cav. are still operating between the 23rd and 22nd. Get every MT [i.e. vehicle] in as serviceable a condition as possible so that if we are called upon to assist our Division we can move with speed.
I am sure everyone will be with me in a desire to render all the help we can.
Leckie was already conducting his operations in the spirit intended, sending out six patrols, one consisting of the whole of D Company, which clashed with ‘D’Avanca’ strongpoint. A patrol towards Bardia reported that the enemy ‘is extremely vigilant and appears to fire at anything that moves’. A Maori patrol at night failed to take prisoners and had two wounded in a heavy bombardment.
It was not until 10.30 a.m. on the 25th that news came in of German mobile forces with perhaps thirty tanks in the frontier area and the battalions of 5 Brigade began to take further precautions against tank attack. Then news came in that the Indians had knocked out seven of the thirty tanks. The hesitant movement of about 200 vehicles from the top of Halfaya Pass towards Bardia in mid-afternoon was shelled by 27 Field Battery and no threat developed; but there was no breath of suspicion that this was in fact part of 21 Panzer Division. In the evening 22 Battalion was ordered to send B Company to Sidi Azeiz to help defend Brigade Headquarters.
From Corps Headquarters Hargest also wrote another of his cheerful letters to Freyberg, which reached the GOC next afternoon.1 ‘All goes well with me but I expect to be attacked at CAPUZZO and MUSAID by the tanks that have penetrated behind the frontier wire south of OMAR and are now pushing on towards HALFAYA – I believe they will turn north to BARDIA and attack the 23/28 [Battalions]’, he wrote. Patrols had ventured within a mile and a half of Halfaya the night before and found ‘no enemy – in disgust they discharged their rifles with no results – they came home in broad daylight.’ The 22nd patrolled 36 miles round the northern side of its position, ‘result 6 prisoners’. ‘For heaven’s sake send for us the moment we can be freed,’ he added. ‘The men are fresh and the strength good – morale high and we have kept our mobility at a high pitch. I can do no more than wait – in the meantime we are harassing the enemy.’
Later reports, however, put the enemy armour at very much greater strength and fleeing vehicles confirmed this. Towards dusk Brigade Headquarters was startled to learn that the threat was not, as had been imagined, from enemy who had crossed the frontier and gone on to Halfaya, but from a very much larger body which was at that moment heading for Sidi Azeiz and no great distance away. The RAF sent up a special reconnaissance sortie from the airfield at once and reported that some 2000 vehicles, including tanks, were making for Brigade Headquarters; but in the gathering gloom the pilot over-estimated the distance and stated that the enemy was still 20 miles away. No immediate danger was therefore apprehended, though Hargest put in train various precautionary measures, warning Corps Headquarters and his units, bringing the RAF detachments at the airfield inside his defences, and posting listening posts with telephones half a mile in both directions along the Trigh Capuzzo and at the southern side of the airfield. For some time he seriously thought of taking his whole headquarters northwards to join 22 Battalion, where the escarpment offered better protection against tanks, and he warned Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew accordingly. Men at Brigade Headquarters were told to sleep alongside their weapon pits with firearms and ammunition handy and were put at ten minutes’ notice to move. At 7.05 p.m. sub-units were sent the following signal:
Have a good number of guns. We will fight the position. NO one will leave his post until the signal to move is given. NO whistle signals will be given without the order of Bde Comd.2
The night that followed was tense throughout the brigade area, with enemy flares rising and falling continually on all sides and many happenings which made nerves jumpy. A convoy of German vehicles carrying British prisoners blundered into the defences in the darkness before dawn on the 26th and was fiercely engaged for a few minutes by B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, and the two attached anti-tank guns. A dozen Germans including a medical officer were captured, with all their vehicles, and some fifty RASC men released from captivity, one of whom had lost a foot in the brief action. The medical officer willingly and skilfully went to work at the dressing station at Sidi Azeiz, in the best traditions of his profession.
Soon after first light a very large enemy movement was in progress from west and south of Sidi Azeiz towards Bardia, most of the long columns of vehicles passing between Brigade Headquarters and 22 Battalion. The Brigade Major, Straker, says, ‘German transport,
tanks and guns simply flowed through the gap about 3 miles distant from Bde HQ’, and a counting post recorded 300 vehicles passing in ten minutes and from this and other observations calculated the total for the day at 3000. ‘Some vehicles drove extremely close’, he adds, ‘and were picked off at point blank range.’
At Bir el-Hariga, a few miles to the west, 13 Corps Headquarters was also in the firing line and two troops of 260 Anti-Tank Battery, RA, fought a sharp action at dawn. They claimed three tanks knocked out, one gun, and several other vehicles, at a cost of half a dozen casualties, and suffered the loss of two 2-pounder portées. Three vehicles and nine Germans were captured. For the rest of the day the enemy was plainly in view but there was no more fighting. There was every reason, however, to seek a safer place for Corps Headquarters and at 6 p.m., unbeknown to Hargest, it moved off westwards along the Trigh Capuzzo, ending up for the night at Bir el Chleta.
The new situation was somewhat bewildering to Captain Johnson3 of B Company, 22 Battalion, who had reported at Sidi Azeiz in the night 25th–26th and was told to take all but one platoon, with the four 25-pounders of E Troop, to a position south of the airstrip to defend this against an enemy estimated to have 15 tanks and 50 other vehicles. The company duly dug in before dawn and could scarcely believe its eyes when the grey light of morning showed up masses of German lorries, several of which drove right up and were captured, mostly without a shot fired. The enemy drove at first from the west full pelt towards Brigade Headquarters, and when E Troop opened fire at a range of about a mile the leaders veered northwards. Any stragglers or movements which seemed to threaten Headquarters were discouraged by the field guns and MMGs, which were kept busy as they moved with Johnson’s company to conform to the enemy’s movements in the early afternoon. A gun sergeant in E Troop describes it thus:
We moved south parallel to the line of the enemy column and had a great time driving up to within 2,000 yds. range, then dropping our trails and banging a few rounds into them, then hurriedly shifting out again, only to do the same thing further along.4
Three such manoeuvres, however, sufficed to use up most of E Troop’s ammunition, and when several Pzkw IIIs nosed out from the column Johnson’s force retreated in haste. H Troop of 32 Anti-Tank Battery also engaged the enemy with its three 18-pounders, firing about twenty rounds per gun in the morning. At one stage the gunners waited as a half-tracked vehicle approached towing an anti-tank gun, intending to fire at point-blank range. Before they could do so, however, a Bofors of D Troop, 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, opened fire with alternate high-explosive and armour-piercing rounds and the tractor burst into flames, helped by the second round from one of the 18-pounders, which scored a direct
hit at about 700 yards. Two Germans were killed outright and the remaining three very badly hurt. Four 2-pounder portées tried several times to get within range but each time were driven back by fire from heavier German guns, perhaps 75-millimetre guns of Pzkw IVs. A troop of three light tanks of Divisional Cavalry under Second-Lieutenant Murchison,5 seeing no German tanks in the column, attacked it boldly but came under fire which knocked out one tank. The fabulous size of the enemy force and the paucity of resource with which to attack it, particularly ammunition, left Brigade Headquarters Group little to do after mid-afternoon but stand and stare. The enemy ‘passed on either side of us, pouring by like a flood, leaving my little garrison a lonely rock in the midst of a swollen river’, Hargest says.6
Hargest had at his disposal three powerful wireless sets, the Rear Link, the Air Support Control tentacle, and an RAF set, and therefore did not expect any trouble in communicating with 13 Corps, which was only ten miles or so away. When all three tried and failed, however, he began to worry. An LO then drove through one of the gaps in the German column and came back to say there was no sign of Corps at Bir el-Hariga. About 3 p.m. operators reported that Corps was again on the ‘air’ and a signal was sent outlining the situation and asking for instructions. This was acknowledged but no reply came. Divisional Cavalry then reported a ‘huge laager just outside the Eastern entrance to BARDIA’ as an excellent target for bombing, and another signal recommending this at first drew the reply, ‘Sorry, unable to give bomber support’. This was followed at 5.30 p.m. by another which promised twelve Maryland bombers at 6 p.m. ‘That was the last message received from 13 Corps’, Straker says. ‘The bombers did not arrive.’ Two reconnaissance aircraft came down on the airstrip at dusk, but their crews could give no useful information. Then reports began to come in about a heavy attack on 23 Battalion from the direction of Bardia.
At Menastir, 28 Field Battery (less E Troop) was better supplied with ammunition than the guns at Sidi Azeiz and fired off a good deal of it, though with disappointing results, as the enemy columns were well dispersed. A far more influential action, though the men concerned had no idea of this, was fought by the four 2-pounders of F Troop, 32 Battery, which opened fire at about 1000 yards’ range on two German tanks which appeared from the west along the Via Balbia. The anti-tank guns scored several hits in a total of 36 rounds fired, and after some hesitation the tanks turned tail and disappeared.7
To the gunners this was no more than a passing incident; but it had wide repercussions. The tanks were in fact exploring for the ubiquitous Captain Briel the possibility of sending supplies through to Africa Corps by the direct route from Gambut, and they reported back that this route was closed. This caused the various German supply authorities to continue using the present long detour round the New Zealand Division. The difficulties and delays in provisioning the two panzer divisions therefore continued as before and had much to do with their lack of success in the frontier area.
The Maoris in their commanding positions at Upper Sollum gained a false sense of power, encouraged by a bombardment by 27 Field Battery of Lower Sollum and Pier Point in which guns of 11 Indian Brigade seemed to have joined. The Maoris entered heartily into the spirit of the thing and bombed buildings around the pier with their 3-inch mortars, while the MMG section in C Company area also fired long bursts at selected points below. Those who could look out over almost every inch of enemy territory below marvelled at the admirable precision of this fire and their admiration was scarcely diminished by the replies from the Halfaya guns. The enemy nevertheless had more guns and ammunition, and at 4.20 p.m. proved it by laying such a heavy concentration of shellfire on the OP of 28 Maori Battalion that it had to be abandoned. From there the shelling moved to the area of A Company on the escarpment south-west of the barracks.
That this might be something other than a response to the provocation offered by the New Zealand fire did not occur to the Maoris at Upper Sollum, though ten minutes earlier A Company had reported an enemy convoy coming from the direction of Halfaya Pass. The shelling carried on until dark and it was not until then that reports of fighting at Musaid gave it more meaningful undertones.
At Musaid 23 and 28 Battalions under Colonel Leckie overlapped, and in the morning the troops there saw the enemy waste many shells on unoccupied ground to the south. Later E Troop of 32 Anti-Tank Battery had to move several times because of shellfire which was at times fairly heavy. In the afternoon the huge enemy columns appeared in the west making for Bardia and lorries which were to pick up 25-pounder ammunition at Sidi Azeiz could not get through. Later still enemy appeared in almost all directions round 23 Battalion at Capuzzo, and Leckie sent a platoon of A Company and a section of Vickers guns along the road to Bardia to ‘cover forward positions’,8 the other section of MMGs staying with the rest of A Company north of the fort. Several tempting
targets for the field guns appeared to the north-west but did not come near enough to justify opening fire in view of the scarcity of ammunition. Leckie knew next to nothing about what Africa Corps was doing and the increasing evidence of enemy movement around him suggested that the garrisons of the other frontier strongpoints were trying to get through to Bardia, a most promising development, implying that were nearing the end of their resources.
Soon after 4 p.m. this interpretation failed to fit the facts. There were far too many enemy in evidence and too much transport. The heavy shelling on the OP of the Maoris to the east looked ominous and became personal when part of it was switched to the neighbourhood of Fort Capuzzo. An attack on the Maoris seemed imminent; then Capuzzo itself seemed to be the objective. Since enemy lay all round the position it was hard to know where to expect attack and, in the words of Second-Lieutenant Jeavons,9
The situation had got too ludicrous to worry about and everybody was quite cheerfully determined to do his best though our ultimate fate seemed to be certain.10
At 4.45 p.m. the Bardia guns joined those of Halfaya in bombarding the battalion area and men peered through the dust and smoke for signs of the inevitable attack. When this came from two directions – from the north and the south-east – it seemed like a concerted effort to overwhelm 23 Battalion, and it was a blessing that the effort from the north was less determined than the strength of the enemy there seemed to warrant.
The appearance of a unified operation against Capuzzo on 26 November, however, was deceptive, and the enemy acted in fact with little or no co-ordination, so that his crushing superiority of strength was not effectively brought to bear on Leckie’s positions. The day had started with Rommel as determined as ever to destroy those forces of Eighth Army which he still imagined to be on both sides of the frontier line between the Omars and Sollum, and which perhaps he now realised might include troops posted inside the defences of Omar Nuovo and possibly Libyan Omar. The urgent need of both panzer divisions to get ammunition, petrol and other supplies before they could exert their full strength, however, made no impression, and Rommel was unaware that both Neumann-Silkow and von Ravenstein looked to the Bardia garrison as the only possible source of essential supplies.
A further complication was that when he called at Crüwell’s small headquarters Rommel learned for the first time of Westphal’s pleas for help on the Tobruk front. But he refused to let this deter him from his current purpose, and in this he clashed again with Crüwell. The Africa Corps diary sets out Rommel’s orders as follows:
The most urgent job is to clear the Sollum front quickly. All available troops must be committed to push the enemy into the minefield and force him to surrender. For this purpose all MT, including supply troops, must be directed to kick up all the dust they can to deceive the enemy as to our real strength and hasten his surrender.
Then it registers Crüwell’s strong dissent.
Crüwell was half-convinced that the supposed ‘enemy’ was mythical, and in the afternoon he began to realise that the New Zealand Division was not north of the frontier line but facing Boettcher Group outside Tobruk. In the meantime Rommel had gone, saying that he was bound for Bardia by way of 21 Panzer (though he did not in fact meet von Ravenstein until next morning). In his absence Crüwell could not abandon the frontier operations and went ahead with them as best he could, trying at the same time to get together the force destined for Jarabub. Part of Knabe Group had reached Corps Battle Headquarters for this latter purpose by 12.10 p.m.; but 15 Panzer had so far sent none of its quota for the Jarabub force and Crüwell well knew that Neumann-Silkow, a strong-willed and at times ‘difficult’ subordinate, was unlikely to send it. To add to his worries, Crüwell found his small group at Gasr el Abid the subject of attention from British guns to the south and then under attack from what looked like ten tanks, which overran a troop of light German field guns guarding the southern flank and was held off from Battle Headquarters only by the arrival of an anti-tank gun from Knabe Group, which covered a hurried withdrawal of Headquarters northwards to join Knabe. This started at 4.30 p.m. and by 6 p.m. Headquarters was out of danger.
The British mobile troops in the area nevertheless remained bothersome and engaged most of the attention of the vestigial remains of 5 Panzer Regiment – now ten tanks in working order – and of 3 Reconnaissance Unit this day, to the detriment of the task again given by Rommel to Major Mildebrath of attacking the Omar forts from the south. Mildebrath knew that he could not achieve anything useful against such strong positions, and after Rommel departed he seems to have made no serious effort to carry out these orders. Von Wechmar, less well-acquainted than Mildebrath with the situation at the Omars, advanced northwards with Mildebrath’s tanks under his command, but was also soon convinced of the futility of trying to make headway against the field and anti-tank
artillery of the defences. Crüwell tried to get von Ravenstein to break the British hold on this vital anchor of the frontier line; but 21 Panzer, with only two small battle groups of infantry and MMGs with supporting artillery, was facing north on a wide front with its right flank on Halfaya and there was no hope of concentrating it quickly enough against the Omars for Crüwell’s purpose. In truth Crüwell was floundering as much as Rommel in his efforts to produce effective action in the frontier area; but unlike Rommel, he did not have his heart in it. He was far more interested in getting back to the Tobruk front.
Neumann-Silkow, who alone had the strength to achieve any real success, was left to his own resources on the 26th. Messages he sent Crüwell’s headquarters gave the impression that he was making progress against heavy opposition, but he did no real fighting at all until a late hour, and even then only on a small scale and without conviction. His attitude at this stage is indeed something of a puzzle. Kriebel, who was his GSO I, gives a startling account of the way Neumann-Silkow’s mind was working. He points out that it was by no means certain that Bardia could provide even the bare essentials for maintaining the frontier operations and says that his divisional commander was considering something utterly different from what Crüwell or Rommel intended. He wanted to break away to the south-west, get in touch with Ariete, and order supplies from Gambut to be sent to him at Gabr Saleh, after which he would advance jointly with Ariete to relieve the situation on the Tobruk front.11 He was getting desperate calls for help from Westphal and was alone in fully recognising the urgency of Westphal’s need. He made no such move; nor did he do what Crüwell ordered at 7.35 a.m., namely ‘Attack Capuzzo immediately’.12 This was out of the question, according to the divisional diary:
The continued supply difficulties and the lack of ammunition, water and food compelled the division to move to Bardia first, replenish supplies there, and then assemble for a new action.
The order from Corps seems to have decided Neumann-Silkow against going to Gabr Saleh and he chose instead to ‘push on to Bardia’13 before tackling either Sidi Azeiz of Capuzzo. By 11.30 a.m. the leading elements of the division were inside the fortress and began to replenish supplies, and a little later 15 Panzer signalled Corps as follows:
Enemy SW of Bardia driven back and contact established.
Will continue our attack after filling up with petrol.
Ariete is 13 km NW of Sidi Omar, moving NE.
The garrison of Bardia was not equipped to handle supply arrangements for a whole panzer division and this work made painfully slow progress, so that neither the immediate tasks of attacking Capuzzo and Sidi Azeiz nor the next phase which Corps envisaged – ‘to draw the division off to attack Sidi Omar’ – could be undertaken before dark and another vital day at the frontier was thus wasted. Ariete, however, was closing on Bir Ghirba ‘to block off the Sollum front from the west’,14 and with this backing Crüwell decided to ignore for the time being the British at the Omars and concentrate on the other end of the frontier line. He therefore told Neumann-Silkow to clear up the situation south and south-east of Bardia and join hands with 21 Panzer.
This seemed to 15 Panzer a simple task. ‘The only thing known of the enemy’, the divisional diary says, ‘was that he was occupying Capuzzo and had a small force in Upper Sollum’, and only the depleted I Battalion of 115 Infantry Regiment was committed to drive from Bardia to Capuzzo with artillery support and then carry on to take Upper Sollum. Even this small operation took longer to prepare than expected and it was 5 p.m. before I Battalion started its advance, covered by fire from 33 Artillery Regiment.
By this plan 21 Panzer was supposed to wait south-west of Halfaya until 115 Regiment broke through and joined hands; but Ravenstein either misunderstood or had other ideas and ordered both of his battle groups to break through to Bardia, with the elements of 104 Infantry Regiment on the right between Musaid and Upper Sollum and those of 8 MG Battalion on the left at Capuzzo. These moves took place not long before dusk, covered by the divisional artillery and the Halfaya guns, and 23 Battalion was thus presented with a threat from both panzer divisions, which it naturally took to be two prongs of a single attack to take Fort Capuzzo, though in fact each acted quite independently of the other. Rommel himself reached Bardia in the evening, apparently without seeing anything of Ravenstein or his immediate subordinates and knowing nothing of these moves.
The attack by 15 Panzer was the lighter and came against A Company of the 23rd under Captain Connolly,15 and in particular against 8 Platoon under Lieutenant Brittenden.16 A section of 2 MG Platoon under Corporal Mack17 was in direct support of 8 Platoon and opened fire on German lorries which drove forward from the direction of Bardia, forcing the leading infantry to debus, at which
the company mortars joined in, scoring a direct hit on a lorry with the first shot. Heavy shell and mortar fire came back at 8 Platoon, however, and the guns of 27 Battery remained silent or else were occupied with the enemy approaching from the south, so that as Connolly says, ‘we could not stand there long against their mortar & artillery fire’. A Company had been in the habit of retiring at dusk to a night position closer to the Fort and Connolly now decided to carry out this manoeuvre. One Vickers gun and crew had to stay behind, however, to give covering fire, and the two 3-inch mortars were too hot to move and were also left.
But 8 Platoon had more on its hands than Connolly thought. It faced what looked like a full battalion in extended order and halted it for a noisy hour and half until the smoke and dust folded into the night and the desert came alive with flares and flashes. It was this furious fire which made the mortars too hot to handle, and after dark 8 Platoon attracted troublesome crossfire from MGs which had worked round to about 20 yards behind Brittenden’s forward posts. Then Brittenden received Connolly’s order to withdraw and sent a runner to pass it on. Allowing time for the sections to fall back and seeing no sign of them in the blackness, Brittenden took his small headquarters back towards Capuzzo, expecting his men to be already there. Fighting which had meanwhile broken out to the south-east, however, impeded inquiries and it was a matter of hours before he realised that his sections had not returned.
The runner had not got through and in Brittenden’s absence Sergeant Cherry18 assumed command of 8 Platoon, only to be badly wounded shortly afterwards, at which Corporal Minson19 took command. With one section each side of the road and a third in reserve, Minson had no thought of falling back until the enemy began a massive advance in the dark. He realised, as he says, that he was ‘obviously outnumbered’ and sent a man back to Connolly for permission to withdraw. But he had no intention of letting the enemy push him back. Pending further instructions he decided on quick action to remedy increasing pressure on the left. Drawing the whole platoon up parallel to the road and facing west, he did a ‘parade-ground job’ of fixing bayonets and leading 8 Platoon with the utmost gallantry into the teeth of the opposition.
The resistance of his small band had already made a deep impression on the enemy, to the point that Colonel Menny of 15 Infantry Brigade had ordered the other battalion of 115 Regiment to attack on the left of I Battalion and east of the road. I Battalion,
in following up Connolly’s withdrawal, thought it had penetrated 500 metres into the defences of Capuzzo and Minson’s onslaught struck it on the left flank with remarkable effect. Minson had already lost six men out of thirty, and the twenty-four remaining charged ferociously with bayonet and hand grenade, cutting a swathe clean through the German battalion, as the report of 115 Regiment confirms:
the enemy had apparently brought up reinforcements ... and was counter-attacking to try to regain his positions where 1 Company had broken in. Under cover of darkness the enemy came right up to our positions, and bitter fighting with bayonets and hand grenades developed. In one spot the enemy even broke through our positions. The two light infantry guns of 5 Coy (2/Lt Lange) forced the counter-attack to halt only 50 meters from their positions. Those of the enemy who were not killed or wounded surrendered.
Minson carried on until hit in the thigh and forced to hand over to Lance-Corporal O’Connell,20 who continued in the same brave fashion until, in a sea of enemy, 8 Platoon broke up and was over whelmed. Crawling back to his lines in the dark, Minson was the last to return: twenty-three men were missing, later reported to be prisoners of war. On their own they had held up a German regiment long enough for Rommel to intervene and call off the whole operation.
The fortunes of 8 Platoon, however, were forgotten and its achievement unnoticed in a night of violent activity, most of which concerned not the ill-starred attack by 115 Regiment but the efforts of 21 Panzer to break through to Bardia. B Company of 28 Maori Battalion under Captain Royal21 was disposed in and near the eastern half of Fort Musaid – a fort in name only – with a gap of a mile and a half to the rest of the battalion at Upper Sollum. B Company of 23 Battalion under Captain Romans22 had 10 Platoon in the western part of Musaid and 11 and 12 Platoons around the Customs House a mile east of Fort Capuzzo. At 4.30 p.m. a carrier patrol reported enemy vehicles moving towards Musaid and then heavy shellfire started, some of it from 21 Panzer and the Halfaya garrison and some, unconnected with this, from 33 Artillery Regiment in support of 115 Regiment.
The enemy column to the south divided into three, and one came straight at Musaid while another followed the track along the top of the escarpment and thus came upon the left flank of Royal’s
company. The Maoris held their fire admirably, as usual, and the foremost vehicle had passed the outposts before Royal gave the order to engage it. The vehicle was soon dealt with and the Maoris forced the enemy facing them to dismount and form up on a wide front. Under cover of artillery and mortars the advance continued; but for a whole hour Royal held it up well short of his lines by accurate Bren and 2-inch mortar fire.
Leading the direct approach to Musaid were what looked like half-tracked lorries towing guns and these were engaged by all four 2-pounder portées, which were quickly brought on the scene. The guns were ‘stopped’ and also two light tanks which drove boldly along the road towards Capuzzo. When a larger group of vehicles drove towards Musaid the anti-tank gunners waited for them to get closer; but the field guns with their deeper voices then spoke up and the enemy changed direction, moving parallel to the portées, which engaged them on the flank at 1000 yards’ range and scored more hits while the light was strong enough to take aim. At dusk the portées moved back inside the defences of the Customs House.
Captain Romans made his way to Fort Musaid as soon as the firing broke out and when he arrived he sent back to the Customs House for 11 Platoon, which came forward to reinforce 10 Platoon. The main weight of the attack at Musaid, however, was to the east, where Royal’s company of Maoris was stationed, and under cover of this fighting the enemy slipped much transport through between B Company and the rest of 28 Battalion. Another thrust, however, came in against the Customs House soon after 11 Platoon left, so that Romans’s 12 Platoon had to fight it off aided only by the 2-pounders of E Troop, which could not do much in the gathering darkness. Romans rushed back and brought his 3-inch mortars into action against the guns which were blazing away at the Customs House. These were of large calibre, probably 150-millimetre infantry howitzers, and the mortars scored direct hits on them, a success which owed much to the courage of an acting lance-corporal, Russell,23 who got up very close to these guns and helped to direct fire on them.
The fighting for perhaps half an hour was very confused; but by the time it was properly dark the enemy seemed to have had enough. Vehicles were driving through the gap to the east, beyond the reach of Royal’s company, four or five abreast and this movement continued for an hour, during which the defences were re-established and strengthened. Then the tail of the large enemy column, apparently unaware of what had gone before, rushed straight at Royal’s defences, overrunning the outlying posts – the shallowest of
trenches – and provoking furious fire from the Maoris, so that for a few minutes the scene was tangled with flashes and streams of tracers. In this mêlée one light tank and six other vehicles were knocked out. In the end, the enemy again withdrew, reorganised, and then drove through the gap, leaving the Maoris in undisputed possession of the ground they had vigorously defended.
Just before 9 p.m. the 2-pounders had a final clash with a half-tracked vehicle which could barely be discerned in the dark and which they knocked out. Romans’s mortars engaged enemy MGs which fired at E Troop’s gun flashes and hit a small anti-tank gun and caused its crew to abandon it.
The morning revealed clearly the vigour of the defence, particularly in front of the Maoris, where seventy-six German dead were counted and seven prisoners, most of them wounded, were taken. Two Maoris had been killed and four wounded and two were missing. There was also an impressive array of equipment left behind by the enemy, including two half-tracked 20-millimetre gun carriers, eight cars and trucks, and one ambulance car, as well as the anti-tank gun which fired the last rounds of the action. To the north of Capuzzo, Brittenden went at first light to find out what he could of his missing men. He found only the dead, however, and no sign of the Germans, though a little later a German lorry was captured, its driver having been told that Capuzzo was in German hands.
This was in fact what 115 Infantry Regiment had thought after Brittenden’s platoon was overwhelmed and opposition seemed to have ceased, the Germans not realising that they were still some distance short of the main Capuzzo defences. II Battalion east of the Bardia road had met no resistance and had got within 800 yards of Capuzzo, and the regimental commander was confident that the Fort was at his mercy and that the British had withdrawn. He was therefore very much upset when a message came in which ordered him to ‘Break off contact immediately and return to your starting point’. After checking with Menny of 15 Brigade, this was confirmed as correct and he had to obey it. Thus 23 Battalion was saved from very much heavier fighting than anything yet experienced here; and the saviour was none other than General Rommel himself, who had reached Bardia and insisted on breaking off the action in favour of his original and larger conception of attacking all points on the frontier line simultaneously. Another chance encounter saved the Maoris at Upper Sollum from attack by 15 Motor Cycle Battalion, which Menny had committed after 115 Regiment began fighting. Its task was the second part of that given to 115 Regiment: to
capture Upper Sollum and gain contact with 21 Panzer. On the way the battalion met 8 MG Battalion entering the southern defences of Bardia and thus made the desired contact with 21 Panzer, thereby discharging its main task and leaving the Maoris around Sollum Barracks in uncontested possession. Meanwhile 115 Regiment reluctantly withdrew, reaching its starting line by 12.30 a.m. and leaving a small rearguard in position for an hour or so.
Similar misunderstandings clouded Ravenstein’s view of these events and the divisional report appended to the Africa Corps diary says that Capuzzo was captured by the division on its way through to Bardia, but that Indians24 counter-attacked with grenades and anti-tank guns and caused ‘some casualties’. The Customs House was evidently mistaken for Fort Capuzzo, though it was not in fact captured. But an even greater surprise was in store when 21 Panzer came upon 15 Panzer. Ravenstein had no idea Neumann-Silkow was anywhere near Bardia, while the latter expected to link up with 21 Panzer some miles south of Capuzzo. Rommel was in Bardia and von Ravenstein eventually found him there in the early hours of the 27th and reported in, confident that this was what Rommel wanted. But Rommel was furious. The messages from Westphal had made it essential to bring the current operations to an end and now Rommel was faced with the possibility that they would fail completely.
Whatever happened, Africa Corps had to return to the Tobruk front this day, 27 November, and Rommel and Crüwell had therefore laid out a programme for bringing the frontier fighting to a successful conclusion in a matter of hours. Crüwell’s plan was that Wechmar Group and Ariete in combination should recapture the Omars, while 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions then lunged forward in a fresh effort to sandwich between them the British troops still believed to be facing the frontier line from both sides. But this was in ignorance of Ravenstein’s entry into Bardia, which Crüwell did not learn about until some hours later; and it was in any case a hopelessly ambitious plan.
Rommel’s habit of arriving in person and handing out orders on the spot to whoever appeared to be in charge often led to confusion; but usually the headquarters of Panzer Group and Africa Corps were able to reconcile the contradictions. The trouble in this case was that the headquarters scarcely existed and could exercise little or no control. At Bardia Rommel got Neumann-Silkow and Ravenstein together and gave out fresh orders, still hoping that he would somehow be able to return to Tobruk crowned with success. Neumann-Silkow was to attack at dawn from a line between Bardia
and Sidi Azeiz on a broad front against the frontier between Capuzzo and Libyan Omar, which Wechmar Group (with no mention of Ariete) would in the meantime capture. Then the whole force would swing right and return towards Tobruk, where the situation was grave.
Kriebel says Neumann-Silkow objected that such an operation would take up valuable time, would have little chance of success against widely dispersed British forces, and would entail heavy loss, as well as delaying the return to Tobruk until the next day. Neumann-Silkow wanted instead to seize what he thought was a large British dump at Sidi Azeiz and then head westwards, but Rommel would not hear of it, stubbornly insisting on his own plan, which gave Neumann-Silkow a harder task than ever and with less support. Rommel accepted Ravenstein’s view that 21 Panzer was no longer strong enough to achieve any worth-while purpose in the frontier area and agreed that it should make for Tobruk at once.
Even Rommel’s renowned personality failed to inspire confidence in these orders and Neumann-Silkow had no intention of embarking on another excursion along the frontier line, reversing the procedure of 25 November. Instead he ordered 15 Panzer to edge out from its present laagers towards Sidi Azeiz and thus sealed the doom of Hargest’s headquarters.
Westphal’s confidence in the evening of the 25th that Boettcher had overcome the threat which faced him had long since been shattered and the Italian forces besieging Tobruk were showing signs of falling apart. He signalled in this sense at 7.20 a.m. on the 26th and another appeal for help reached Africa Corps at 9.25 a.m. Expecting his earlier appeals to have borne fruit, he looked for a panzer division to appear on the scene at any moment. When RECAM (the reconnaissance group of the Italian Mobile Corps) made an inquisitive but hesitant move towards 6 New Zealand Brigade from the south in mid-morning, observers at El Adem seem to have jumped to the conclusion that the panzers had already returned. By 10.20 a.m. Westphal, with remarkable resilience of mind, was again able to bring his thoughts to the possibilities of staging a pursuit. By 3 p.m. these hopes had faded and he signalled urgently and rudely: ‘Where are our tanks? Get going as fast as you can.’