Chapter 19: The Loss of 5 Brigade Headquarters
THE signals from El Adem and Neumann-Silkow’s scepticism about the utility of the frontier operations combined to produce a grave threat to 5 Brigade Headquarters at Sidi Azeiz, which the Germans had thus far been content to by-pass but which now offered as a prize at least some consolation for failures elsewhere. Hargest had spent some hours awaiting orders from 13 Corps, but none came. He was therefore left with his existing instructions, which were to contain Halfaya from the west, sever land communications between Bardia and Halfaya, cut off Bardia from the west, and protect the reconnaissance airfield at Sidi Azeiz. These were framed, however, before Africa Corps reached the neighbourhood and made no sense in the present circumstances. Only two aircraft remained on the landing ground, with orders to reconnoitre locally for as long as possible and then fly off; so the airfield was unimportant, especially after 13 Corps Headquarters moved westwards. Hargest had asked Corps on the 25th to relieve him of this commitment, but Corps refused.
How much was left to Hargest’s discretion cannot now be decided. Few documents of the period survive and the main sources are the recollections of those who spent years together as prisoners of war. In his book Hargest is gloomy;1 but his letters to Freyberg were confident and even aggressive, and on the 26th he allowed the only field guns and infantry he had to skirmish along the flanks of the enemy columns.
About 1 a.m. on the 27th a detachment of Divisional Ammunition Company reached Sidi Azeiz, under the misapprehension2 that 51 FMC had opened up there, and it was sent on to 50 FMC, which was now known to be functioning again. With it went lightly wounded men and Major Russell, now a ‘roving LO’, who was to explain to General Messervy the predicament Hargest was in. The brigade LAD and other NZASC vehicles had already been sent to 22 Battalion and the Headquarters area was thus freed of some of the unwieldy mass of transport which clogged it and
hampered the defence. But the headquarters of 5 Field Regiment, 27 MG Battalion, and various sub-units which remained at Sidi Azeiz kept the proportion of non-fighting vehicles unduly high. Hargest goes on to say that his orders were ‘ “hold” and they allowed of no compromise’; but he was nevertheless free to move his headquarters to a safer place so long as he left the airfield defended. An obvious place was the 22 Battalion area at Menastir, where the steep escarpment gave some protection against tanks, and Hargest thought of moving all non-fighting vehicles there when the Staff Captain approached him at a late hour. Captain Mason3 wanted good warning of any likely move and Hargest told him that Corps had ordered him to hold on, but that if ‘nothing came through next morning we were to move at midday’. The Brigade Major, Straker, says that Hargest meant to ‘fulfil his current orders to the utmost’, but if the enemy remained in the frontier area ‘he intended to concentrate the Bde in either the CAPUZZO or the MENASTIR area’.
Brigade Headquarters and attached troops4 spent a restless night, with flares much in evidence all round. The night was bitterly cold and the signalman who operated the main wireless set (with Straker sleeping alongside him) found reception bad. Hargest slept in a tent a few yards away and rose early, sending a message at 6.30 a.m. to all three battalions saying, ‘How are you? Everything all quiet here’. The day had just dawned. Divisional Cavalry had long since been searching the neighbourhood for signs of enemy movement and had found none. Enemy flares always seemed closer than they actually were on moonless nights and daylight unexpectedly revealed no enemy in sight, though the slightly curving slope of the ground as it fell away to the north-east made the horizon in that direction close. A clerk who was on duty at Brigade Headquarters says, ‘We were all a bit gloomy’;5 but MG fire to the north, which he was not surprised to hear at dawn as he boiled the billy for tea, soon ended and a minute or two later a German wireless truck drove in, captured by Divisional Cavalry.
Two platoons of B Company, 22 Battalion, had dug in on the western side of the perimeter in defence of E Troop, 5 Field Regiment, and the third platoon was in the south-east, covering one of the anti-tank 18-pounders. The Defence Platoon also faced west along the Trigh Capuzzo with another 18-pounder. The third
18-pounder was in the north-east corner of the position, with some and perhaps all the four Vickers guns to its left and the personnel of the headquarters of 27 MG Battalion as infantry. One Bofors was in the north, one in the south-east and the third in the south-west. The mixed troop of four 2-pounders, still under the command of Divisional Cavalry, remained en portée within the perimeter, able to move as required but dangerously conspicuous in this flat desert.
These dispositions gave much more strength in the west than in the east and the mass of lorries in the area obscured observation so that the 25-pounders could not engage tanks by direct fire except to the west. Only one 18-pounder, one Bofors, and the four vulnerable portée 2-pounders covered the eastern perimeter, now the likeliest to be attacked. The group could therefore use no more than a fraction of its resources, small as these were, to meet attack from the east and no infantry faced that direction.
It appeared to Africa Corps that this small force meant ‘to prevent us from moving west’;6 but the immediate purpose of 15 Panzer had not been to move west but to gain elbow room for a wide movement to envelop the British forces supposed to be facing the frontier line. There are several suggestions in the German documents, now hard to understand, that the Sidi Azeiz force had moved into position during the night. The Germans evidently did not find it easy to reconcile the pin-pricking activities of mobile elements of Hargest’s group on the 26th with the resistance they met this day. At 6 a.m. 8 Panzer Regiment reported ‘enemy positions and MT concentrations’ at Sidi Azeiz, but the diary of 15 Panzer refers again later to the ‘defended supply dump’ there.
The situation from the point of view of 15 Panzer was complicated by a tug-o’-war between Rommel and the Panzer Group staff at El Adem, the former not yet reconciled to leaving the frontier area with a record of failure and the latter anxious for help at the earliest possible moment. Neumann-Silkow received orders from both. Rommel wanted him to swing round on a wide front, with his right flank facing Libyan Omar, and Panzer Group told him to ‘move immediately to relieve the Tobruk front’ as there was ‘a serious threat to El Adem’, and at 6 a.m. added that the situation was ‘very dangerous’ and he was to ‘Make all possible haste’ and report when he moved off. Rommel’s orders naturally prevailed; but the C-in-C had in the meantime decided that Sidi Azeiz must be seized to make room for the manoeuvre he wished Neumann-Silkow to make against the frontier line, and at 7.30 a.m. 15 Panzer reported in this sense to Corps.
The fate of 5 Brigade Headquarters was thus decided almost by chance, since Neumann-Silkow was more likely to by-pass it if he acted on Westphal’s instructions. But no formal orders were issued and the assault which actually took place was the result of co-operation on the spot by unit commanders and their subordinates, used to working together on the battlefield and able to improvise tactics as the situation demanded. When 15 Panzer began to move two hours before dawn it meant to gain a starting line along the
track from Bardia to Sidi Azeiz in readiness for Rommel’s frontier operation, but much confusion arose from a concurrent move by 21 Panzer towards the Via Balbia and a bad traffic tangle imposed several hours’ delay.
Shaking out from this mix-up, the head of 15 Panzer came close to Sidi Azeiz and was engaged by field guns.7 This prompted Lieutenant-Colonel Cramer of 8 Panzer Regiment to send his light tank troops forward. By degrees the whole of the regiment became involved and, as a matter of course, 33 Artillery Regiment too. A heavy concentration of guns of calibres up to 150-millimetre ranged on Hargest’s sketchy defences and then brought down a crushing weight of fire from distances of no more than 2–3 miles. ‘Air bursts’ kept the heads of the defenders down, and with good observation and short-range fire the New Zealand field guns were soon silenced, so that Abteilung8 II of 33 Regiment was not needed. But the tanks also fired briskly, and at the end of it all Neumann-Silkow was able to report with evident pleasure that he had used up all his tank-gun ammunition, and as he could not replenish this he could ‘hardly attack any further south’. Thus he excused himself from any further frontier operations. Despite earnest efforts to continue it, Rommel’s ‘evil dream’ in this way came to an end. Rommel had one last gesture to make, however, before turning his gaze once more towards Tobruk.
There was no sign of enemy when the men of 5 Brigade Headquarters began to prepare breakfast, and fears of attack engendered by the previous day’s experiences and the flares at night were allayed. The IO, Captain Sandford,9 was talking to the Brigadier and the Staff Captain was examining the captured wireless truck which had just been brought in, when Lieutenant-Colonel Nicoll10 of Divisional Cavalry drove up in his light tank and reported that forty German tanks were approaching from Bardia. Sandford says this was at nine minutes past seven; he rushed to his tent and began writing a signal to all unit and sub-unit commanders: ‘Forty tanks approaching from Bardia’. But he had jotted down only the time and half the text when the first shell arrived, quickly followed by others. Hargest sized up the situation in a flash and told Nicoll to get clear, as his lightly armoured tanks could do little against German tanks. The Mark VIB tanks and Bren carriers and some
of the lorries of Divisional Cavalry raced through the laager in a matter of moments, attracting some fire but suffering no damage, and they rallied a few miles to the south. Hargest told Mason to sound the siren, the agreed warning of attack, and then picked up a rifle and walked to his slit trench, accompanied by his batman.
Captain Johnson of B Company, 22 Battalion, reacted quickly, sending one of his two platoons to the eastern perimeter to be ready to repel infantry’;11 and the two officers in command of the anti-tank portées, who had of their own accord elected to stay and fight when Divisional Cavalry departed,12 drove through to the east as soon as they saw this was the threatened sector. With no organised defence there they found no pattern into which they could fit the 2-pounders, and on the spur of the moment took them up to a slight rise some 200 yards beyond the perimeter and formed them up in line. The two remaining Tac/R Hurricanes took off just in time and, after circling for a few moments, flew away. As the men of E Troop, 5 Field Regiment, were having breakfast they were told to take post; but they could see little at first because the brigade lorries blocked their view to the east, and when they opened fire it was, as Sergeant Cook13 says, ‘at 2,000 yards in the general direction east’, over the tops of the lorries.
With some forty tanks approaching and no vestige of cover for their high portées, the anti-tank gunners saw no point in holding their fire and P4 opened up at about 1200 yards, quickly followed by the other three. The German tanks began to reply when still more than 1000 yards away, concentrating their machine guns and larger armament on the four portées and scoring direct hits on all of them. The gunners also scored hits, but the ranges were long and the tanks so numerous that the results could only be guessed. Knowing full well the odds were hopeless, the gunners nevertheless carried out their drill in parade-ground order and the No. 1 of P4, Bombardier Niven,14 gave his orders quietly and calmly, allowing three rounds for each tank engaged, until the gun was hit and its traversing and elevating gears wrecked. By this time N1 had caught fire, and one of its crew was killed and two others wounded; on P3 three gunners were wounded, one of them mortally,15 and the gears were also smashed; and on N4 two were killed and the sight bracket damaged. Niven was still unhurt and he walked (‘strolled’ according to one witness) over to the other guns, helped the wounded to board N4, and told the driver to take them back to the ADS.
Then he unloaded the wounded (the driver by this time among them) and the dead, and, taking the driver’s place, drove the portée back into action from a position roughly level with Hargest’s trench. Hargest watched in wonder and admiration as Niven, single-handed, engaged the tanks, now much closer, with deliberate fire. He saw him, ‘load, aim, fire – load, aim, fire, time after time’, attracting an arc of German tank guns towards N4 as though it were magnetised. The portée was hit on the side and set on fire, then again behind the gun, and a third round ‘struck the shield and shot the muzzle straight upwards where it remained pointing to the sky’, Hargest writes. ‘Niven slid from the truck and disappeared unhurt.’16 But Niven’s efforts did not end here; he made his way over to the nearest 18-pounder, which was still in action, then to the Bofors, doing what he could at each until it ceased fire, and was with E Troop, 5 Field Regiment, in its final stand.17
The nearest 18-pounder of H Troop, 32 Battery, opened fire at 1000 yards18 and drew heavy return fire at once, which hit the gun tractor and killed three men. But the gun carried on, firing its last shot at about 150 yards and causing a tank to slew round under the impact, to the delight of the layer. The delight, however, was momentary and the cost great; for two of the crew lay dead and two more wounded and the gun was promptly wrecked by a torrent of fire. The crews of the other two 18-pounders and one of the three Bofors heard but could not see and fretted at their impotence. But the second Bofors fired 15 rounds of a mixture of HE shell and AP shot, halting one of the tanks. This gun was then disabled and the third carried on the action, firing AP at first and shooting all it had, 30 rounds, then switching to HE and getting away 40 rounds of this before the inevitable end.
The platoon of B Company of the 22nd had to make its way through the acrid smoke of blazing lorries and bursting shells, with bullets fluffing up the sand around the men’s feet, but they did not falter. Hargest saw them as they ‘moved steadily, not hurrying, indifferent to the ruin blazing around them’ until they drew nearly level with the line of portées and dropped down to await the German infantry. They saw none, but fired into the mass of transport ahead, and when they saw tanks coming they got their ‘sticky bombs’ ready. Behind them, according to Straker, ‘cooks, clerks, batmen and, worthy of mention, the RAF Det[achment] directed a concentrated fire in the general direction of the enemy’, shooting through the
smoke when this blotted out their view. Among them was Hargest himself and a private heard him call out, ‘Can you see anything to shoot at, because I can’t.’ A little later Hargest was bruised on the hip by a shell splinter.
The 25-pounders of E Troop were soon hidden behind the smoke and for this reason lasted longer than the other guns, though in the end they received the undivided attention of the German artillery. Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser19 was at the gun position and with him Major Grigg,20 second-in-command of the regiment, and they went from gun to gun, watching all the time for breaks in the swirling clouds of smoke through which to observe their fire and glimpsing from time to time ‘tanks on the skyline silhouetted against the rising sun’.21 The guns spoke up valiantly, though to doubtful effect, until the German artillery gained by flash-spotting the bearings it needed and brought down a thunderous and devastating gun fire which hit two guns and several lorries around them. Grigg had meanwhile gone for more ammunition, crossing open ground in face of terrible fire and bringing back a 3-ton lorry with a full load. On the way back smoke was so thick he had to lead on foot past burning trucks and round obstacles for a quarter of a mile. He brought the lorry up to Sergeant Cook’s gun and began to unload it. Captain Ombler22 of E Troop lay dead, after setting a gallant example, and with him six of his men. Cook was hit in the arm while moving the gun trail to engage tanks which could now be seen, and many other men were wounded.
The ammunition lorry was hit as soon as it halted and burst into flames and the ammunition began to explode. No more than two or three rounds remained at the gun and the explosions alongside were so violent that Grigg ordered the crew to take cover. But he took no heed of the fire himself and went over to the one gun which could still fire and found this, too, nearing the end of its ammunition. Scouting round, he soon found a few more rounds and brought them up. In the whole position only this one gun now flashed its defiance and, with crew members hit by the fire aimed at this solitary centre of opposition, Grigg took over as gun loader. Dust and smoke made the gun sights useless and Grigg slipped out to the side where he could see – and be seen. There he stood calmly directing the layer, undaunted by the blazing fury of fire which each round attracted as the tanks picked up the gun flash through the smoke, until he fell gravely wounded and E Troop’s last gun ceased fire.
The tanks were already deep among the lorries, the infantry powerless to stop them, though they flung three ‘sticky bombs’ at them before they surrendered. Private Nixon,23 in a large trench, his rifle butt splintered by bullets, had a typical experience. ‘Every time there was a lull’, he says, ‘I thought we had driven them off’. Another man put up his head and yelled, ‘The tanks are coming in’ and added, ‘The bastards will kill the lot of us’. Then he jumped out and zig-zagged to the rear. Nixon waited, unbelieving but not knowing what to expect. Then another man told him to put up his hands and said, ‘We’ve surrendered’. Nixon was shocked: ‘It had never occurred to me that we might surrender.’ He felt relief and at the same time humiliation.
Hargest had been much concerned about what seemed to be a nest of German machine guns to one flank and ran round the partly destroyed Intelligence lorry to see Straker and find out if there was any way of counter-attacking them. Straker answered without words by pointing to tanks closing in less than a hundred yards away, ‘stretched across the camp with the extremities thrust forward like the horns of a crescent’. The tanks were not firing but Straker could see grenades being tossed out from some of them on the left, bursting to his left rear. An RAF officer named McIntyre fired a full drum of Lewis-gun ammunition at the nearest tank but it ‘did not deign to reply’. It cost Hargest ‘a great effort’, Straker says, to signal submission to this tank.
This turned out to be Colonel Cramer’s and Hargest was called to join Cramer, ‘a bespectacled German officer’, in the turret and found he spoke English. Cramer complimented him on the fight his men had put up and agreed that they should be allowed to collect their coats, blankets and food before being marched off (though in fact few were given this privilege). Then Rommel himself appeared on the scene, neatly dressed and shaven, and called for Hargest, also congratulating him, though annoyed that he did not salute. Hargest was allowed under guard to visit the nearby ADS, where he sat for a few moments beside the now-unconscious body of his friend and parliamentary colleague, Grigg. As he walked away into captivity fact and feeling interacted painfully in his mind. ‘So great was my misery’, he writes, ‘that I envied Arthur his quiet sleep in the sun.’
The best estimate of casualties in this action is that 44 men were killed and 49 wounded, most of them gunners, while about 46 officers and 650 other ranks were captured and marched off to Bardia, a long trudge under light escort. The German armour soon moved off westwards, leaving the prisoners in the hands of about
a company of motor-cyclists and infantry. Most of the other ranks were duly released some weeks later, but some of them and all of the officers were taken to Italy. Divisional Cavalry had watched until about 9.30 a.m. and then unfortunately withdrew to Sidi Omar, where Nicoll reported to General Messervy.
The dressing station at Sidi Azeiz with some eighty patients was left alone and its three medical officers and their few assistants were too busy to worry about their curious situation. The worst of the German wounded were also left with them and, though no guards stayed behind, German detachments (often including tanks) moved past on their way west at intervals throughout the afternoon. The staff and patients therefore felt that if they were not prisoners they were at least under enemy surveillance, and so they remained for several days before being officially ‘recaptured’.
At Menastir 22 Battalion plainly saw the smoke at Sidi Azeiz and heard the thunder of guns for about an hour and then there was silence. As Captain McLernon24 of D Company says, ‘we realised Bde. had been taken.’ A brief wireless signal had announced that Brigade Headquarters was under heavy attack. No more was heard and at 1 p.m. a DR was sent to investigate but did not return. Ten minutes later a large column of vehicles drove down on to the Via Balbia east of Menastir, advanced a short distance, and then dispersed on the flat below the escarpment and guns opened fire on the 22nd. To this 28 Battery (less E Troop) and 4 MG Company replied with such vigour that the enemy soon turned northwards and then passed westwards over broken country, out of range. Half an hour later another enemy force appeared to the north-east and opened fire on the ‘left forward coy on top of the escarpment’, according to the unit diary, which regarded the battalion as facing Bardia. This fire was heavier and more persistent and was backed up by a series of infantry attacks which were beaten back only with difficulty. Artillery and mortar fire were heavy and accurate and scored so many hits and near misses on the four 25-pounders that all were put out of action, two of them permanently, and the crews suffered heavy loss, four men on one gun alone being killed. For 28 Battery this was a hard day indeed.
But the enemy fared no better. All four 2-pounders and two of the three Bofors fired from the rim of the escarpment at ranges up to 3000 yards and with the MMGs they exploded the ammunition beside a German mortar, destroyed a staff car and several other vehicles, and gave the enemy much trouble. The best efforts of the
defence, however, could not stop the enemy infantry from closing in from the east and south-east, above the escarpment, and the Bardia guns gave them excellent support. By 5 p.m. McLernon began to get uneasy; but to the great surprise of the whole group the enemy quietly withdrew, followed to the limit of their long range by the MMGs, and the engagement ended.25
Casualties in 22 Battalion were remarkably light considering the weight and accuracy of the enemy fire; but Lieutenant Donald’s26 platoon of C Company lost several men and Donald himself had his eardrums shattered by a near miss, though he stayed in action. With time now to think of other things, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew tried several times without success to get in touch with other units by wireless or other means, and he began to realise that history was repeating itself: his battalion was again isolated as it had been at Maleme in Crete.
Andrew might have felt rather better had he known that this day he had held off much of 21 Panzer Division and in the end forced General von Ravenstein to draw back and swing south through Sidi Azeiz to get past 22 Battalion. In so doing he delayed the return of 21 Panzer to the Tobruk front by a day. In a report to Africa Corps 21 Panzer stated that it had come upon a battalion which was ‘well dug in’ and by the evening its ‘fire superiority had not been neutralised.’
At Capuzzo and Upper Sollum, 23 and 28 Battalions started the day in good spirits, seeing for themselves the losses and damage they had caused the enemy in the night’s fighting and not learning until much later that their brigade headquarters had been lost. A Company of 23 Battalion turned back fourteen lorries approaching from Bardia at 8.15 a.m. and at ten o’clock carriers and a repaired Valentine of B Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, drove off more enemy in the same area and covered a detachment of machine-gunners who retrieved the Vickers gun which had been abandoned in the night, the two mortars, and much ammunition.
Again this affected the enemy’s supply services. These tanks led a convoy of 33 lorries intended for Africa Corps; but, though there were three more tanks in the escort, they all turned back to Gambut.
Then at midday 105- and 150-millimetre guns shelled D Company and the fort itself and two hours later enemy were seen advancing from the south-west, estimated at 2.30 p.m. as about a battalion with light tanks, anti-tank guns, and armoured troop-carriers – a formidable force which 27 Field Battery engaged at once. The 25-pounders were extremely accurate and forced the enemy to dismount soon after they opened fire. They scored several direct hits and so did G Troop, 32 Anti-Tank Battery, the foremost portée of which, under Sergeant Stewart,27 knocked out several vehicles, firing even after it was set on fire. Scarcely had Stewart’s crew put out this fire, however, when another hit started a second blaze and three men, including Stewart, were wounded. The Bren-gunner jumped aboard to act as loader while Stewart carried on firing until exploding ammunition in the racks below forced him to abandon the gun, taking the firing mechanism with him. From the ground all gunners who could handle a rifle continued to engage the enemy until surrounded and forced to surrender, though shortly afterwards they all escaped and rejoined their troop.
C Company of the 23rd had been drawn into this action as the enemy veered northwards to avoid the well-aimed fire of D Company and, as the enemy worked in that direction, he came within range of a Bofors of E Troop, 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, about 300 yards west of Battalion Headquarters. This set fire to a troop-carrier which was driving through the transport area of 23 and 28 Battalions, but it could not stop infiltration by the enemy infantry through the mass of lorries which here formed a weak part of the battalion perimeter. The drivers of 309 General Transport Company, RASC, and men of 28 Maori Battalion B Echelon formed a makeshift ‘company’, but this was only lightly armed and some sixty men were captured by three light tanks and an armoured troop-carrier and marched off a short distance. They remained within view of 23 Battalion, however, and several efforts were made to rescue them.
The Bofors continued to fire and earned so much of the enemy’s attention that the troop subaltern decided to ease the pressure by bringing up another gun. This drove forward until the driver was killed and then went into action and knocked out an enemy tank, silenced a machine gun, and drove back several clusters of infantry with its automatic fire. When four of the crew of this second gun had been killed and two wounded it was ordered to withdraw, its task achieved.
By about 4 p.m. the enemy had exploited the weakness in the transport area and counter-measures were restricted by the presence in the background of the sixty captive drivers and B Echelon men. A dashing sortie by six carriers of the 23rd got right up to this group about 1000 yards west of the transport area; but the captives were closely threatened by the MGs of their guards and could not get away, two of the carriers were disabled, and the remaining four had to withdraw. A counter-attack offered the only possibility of releasing these men, the bayonet being a more discriminating weapon than the machine gun or mortar. This responsibility fell on the adjutant, Captain Orbell,28 who received a rousing response when he called for volunteers. With twenty men he set out to the north-west, meaning to swing round and fall upon the transport lines from the north. The IO, Second-Lieutenant Jeavons, took another half-dozen men due west and D Company committed first a section and then a full platoon from the south, a section of MMGs to the north gave lively support, and two platoons of C Company enfiladed the enemy and brought down heavy covering fire for the counter-attack.
All these detachments had to advance in face of all kinds of fire and some of them were extremely embarrassed by their inability to give effective reply because of the prisoners in the background. The thrusts nevertheless made ground in the most determined fashion. Jeavons, for example, led his small band through a clamorous bedlam of sound ‘with shells, mortar bombs, bullets and shrapnel whizzing, whining, screaming and crackling everywhere’ until halted by a German anti-tank gun on the far side of a stretch of flat, open ground well covered by fire. ‘We could not stop them by firing from cover’, he says, ‘and if they came on we were sunk’. So he gathered his handful of men and rose to charge the gun. After fifty yards he was hit and his shoulder broken, but he carried on. Then two men were killed and shortly afterwards Jeavons was hit again, and after another fifty yards or so he was hit a third time, his helmet carried some yards away, and he was brought to his knees. He got up and, after a few more yards, was hit heavily in the chest, and though he rose again he could do no more than stagger a few paces and fall flat on his face.29
Major Pugh30 of Headquarters Company led another detachment which included Captain Berry of 309 General Transport Company, RASC, and this also advanced bravely in face of heavy fire. Berry was particularly inspiring and, according to the 23 Battalion diary, he ‘pushed forward armed only with a revolver which he fired until empty.’ Then he went 20 yards unarmed – or, as others say, with a swagger cane – ‘then caught up the rifle of a fallen man and continued to advance until killed.’ A wounded private lying near where Berry was killed says, ‘I still do not know whether he was over-game or foolish as he had no fire arms.’31 Pugh also was wounded, and two more officers with him.
The captive drivers must have been moved back at this stage and, once they were far enough away, mortars and machine guns could be used freely and the situation at once eased. The mortars got away more than 300 bombs and had much to do with this lessening of enemy pressure. But some enemy had got through to the buildings of the fort itself – no key point of the defence, but in enemy hands a considerable embarrassment. So 16 Platoon of D Company was detailed to deal with this infiltration. It came unexpectedly upon two anti-tank guns and an MG nest and these were ‘completely wiped out’.32 A quick skirmish and determined use of the bayonet took the heart out of the enemy here and they ‘broke and ran and
many were killed whilst running’.33 Then 16 Platoon joined with A Company in another bayonet charge, which Jeavons saw as he lay on the ground, ‘a long straight line of determined blokes, bayonets fixed and firing from the hips. ... I tried to give them a cheer but only got out a gurgle.’34
The enemy gradually withdrew to the south-west, covering his move with fire in a manner which made pursuit costly and in the end discouraged it altogether. Though the enemy had driven a deep wedge into the Capuzzo position, starting from the transport lines, 23 Battalion was never as a whole in grave danger and the attack was beaten off without the help of B Company and sizable parts of C and D Companies. Even had the Germans not been recalled, therefore, they would have found that the hardest part of their task of capturing Capuzzo still lay ahead of them. But they deserve credit for an attack mounted with vigour and resolution and persisted with in face of fierce counter-attack.
It is all the more remarkable that the Germans were not regular infantry but 33 Panzer Engineer Battalion, which was committed by Rommel personally to ‘clear the area south of the Trigh Capuzzo between Sidi Azeiz and Capuzzo, clear Capuzzo and Sollum of the enemy, and drive him back towards Halfaya Pass ... the action to take place with all speed.’ A whole regiment had failed on a similar mission the previous evening, yet Rommel chose to repeat the attack with this smaller force and stood by himself at Point 204, two or three miles west of the Fort, to watch the progress of the engineers. Two troops of 33 Artillery Regiment and two platoons of 33 Anti-Tank Battalion were under the engineers’ command, and support was probably also forthcoming from the Bardia guns as well as from some captured British I tanks. The engineer battalion assembled on Sidi Azeiz airfield and drove forward in extended order parallel to the Trigh Capuzzo. On the way two companies veered too far to the right so that they approached Bir Ghirba and had to swing left, getting badly mixed up in so doing. Rommel, who stood watching this, urged them on when they halted to reassemble and they had to press forward in this unhappy condition, bringing up I tanks and nine armoured troop-carriers to lead the advance and cover their confusion.
This was the situation when 27 Field Battery opened fire and forced the Germans to dismount, some of their lorries already blazing from direct hits. The open terrain and hidden defences to the south and west of Capuzzo made the engineers swing northwards, so that
it was luck and not skill which located for them the Achilles’ heel of the defence in the transport lines. The 37-millimetre guns of the two anti-tank platoons were driven and then manhandled forward in a desperate effort to overcome the defensive fire which swept the attacking force, and their efforts provide a remarkable parallel to those of the defending 2-pounders and Bofors. The commander of one of the platoons was killed and ‘many of his men’, and ‘In the end only one 37-mm gun was left firing, manned exclusively by wounded men’. Even this gun was put out of action and ‘the few remaining A Tk troops fought on with their rifles, shoulder to shoulder with the engineers’.35
Even this brave effort did not please Rommel and about 2.45 p.m. he sent orders by an LO to the commander of 33 Engineer Battalion to abandon the attack and disengage at once if Capuzzo were not taken by 3 p.m. There was no hope of taking the objective by that time; but prospects of doing so later seemed good and the alternative of withdrawing across the same bare, exposed ground over which the engineers had advanced with heavy loss seemed anything but reasonable. The CO therefore decided to disobey the order and continue his attack, meeting further success and bringing the total of prisoners up to an estimated 120, but finding that the hard core of the defences had not been breached. In the course of the counter-attacks by 23 Battalion the engineers found they were running very low in ammunition and, despite every effort to get more supplies forward, the scarcity increased, so that, as the unit report admits, ‘the chances of taking Capuzzo receded’. Another message had come in ordering the engineers to follow 15 Panzer westwards, and after dark they did so, first collecting forty wounded from the battlefield – a task in which the aid of the prisoners was enlisted – and taking them to Bardia. The trucks used for this last purpose had been meant to carry the prisoners and these were therefore driven some distance into the desert and ‘dropped there’, returning to their units after a long walk next morning.
The casualties are listed in the report of 33 Panzer Engineer Battalion as follows:
* Probably 2 killed and 2 wounded.
† Most of the missing men were probably killed or wounded and PW during the enemy counter-attacks.
To these must be added the losses of the anti-tank platoons, which are not stated in detail but which must have been heavy. At least two officers and about a dozen other ranks must have been killed,
judging by the anti-tank report appended to the 15 Panzer diary.36 These figures may be compared with those of 23 Battalion and attached sub-units, which cannot be ascertained in full detail but were roughly 20 killed, 30-odd wounded, and 7 missing (drivers who failed to return). There is no mention of prisoners taken by 23 Battalion and the total of Germans listed as missing must have been killed. Some sixty Germans were buried next day and other bodies farther off were found several days later and buried by Indians. Two armoured troop-carriers and an armoured wireless truck were also recovered and put into service by 23 Battalion, and two 50-millimetre and two 37-millimetre anti-tank guns were repaired and manned, while many other vehicles, including two light tanks, remained derelict on the battlefield. Rommel’s last gesture in the frontier area had proved an expensive one and when he turned westward, as he did in mid-afternoon, he had nothing on which he could congratulate himself in any part of his ‘evil dream’.
This action had nevertheless demonstrated serious weaknesses in the Capuzzo position and Leckie hastened to remedy them, redisposing the whole battalion with this in view, sending the transport of 28 Maori Battalion to Upper Sollum and withdrawing that of 23 Battalion within the perimeter east of the Bardia road. Reports of enemy massing in about brigade strength near Bir Hafid accelerated the reorganisation and ‘All troops dug furiously’, as the war diary says.
Leckie still had no news of Brigade Headquarters and now had particular reason to establish contact. The afternoon’s fighting had yielded some documents which seemed to be of the first importance and he was anxious to get them to Corps or Army Headquarters. Leckie therefore signalled on various frequencies throughout the night as follows: ‘New Zealanders holding out at Capuzzo and Salum aid and air support wanted urgently’. No acknowledgment was received, however; but 28 Field Battery sent a message from Menastir which was passed on to Eighth Army at 2.30 a.m. on the 28th (and duly intercepted by the Germans) in this form: ‘NZ Fd Arty reported an attack on Capuzzo from the SW at 1430 hrs’. Neither Leckie nor Andrew realised that the enemy had departed altogether from the frontier area; but Andrew did at least know that it was no use trying to ‘raise’ Brigade Headquarters by wireless, whereas Leckie was very much in the dark about what was happening elsewhere. Until next morning there was nothing to suggest that demands on his dwindling supplies of ammunition would not
continue on the same high level they had maintained for two days now.
At Upper Sollum 27 November passed with no more than the normal exchanges of artillery fire and the capture of two Germans who had had the nerve to go swimming on the beach just below the cliff, and a 75-millimetre gun was hauled up and put to use in the area of A Company. As sounds of fighting at Capuzzo grew, Captain Love got ready to receive 23 Battalion in his lines if the attack became too hot to hold and signalled accordingly to Leckie, who signalled back at 9.47 p.m. that ‘My line shortened but stronger’ and told Love to ‘Keep your end up’, asking as well for drivers to replace those captured in the course of the afternoon.
With the departure of 15 Panzer from Sidi Azeiz, Africa Corps ended a three-day respite in which only a few units did any hard fighting.37 This was long enough for the cumulative strain of the past week to be felt but not for it to be overcome and it needed a greater effort than before to get units back into fighting order. As with 6 New Zealand Brigade, too many of the old faces were missing for the remaining men to look forward with confidence to further trials. The force which turned westwards on the 27th was a foe far less formidable than that which four days before had overwhelmed the South Africans.
Rommel nevertheless signalled confidently to Corps at 10 a.m. that the British ‘at Sidi Azeiz [were] already destroyed, and the destruction of the enemy facing your old front has begun.’ He was anxious only that this enemy ‘must not escape southwards.’ His confidence, however, was less infectious than before and some of his immediate subordinates now had reason to doubt his judgment in a way that would have been unthinkable at the start of the campaign. Von Ravenstein was doubtless one of these. His 21 Panzer had been strong enough on the 22nd to recapture Sidi Rezegh but since then had been committed piecemeal, largely without his knowledge, and gravely weakened.
When 8 Panzer Regiment set out from Sidi Azeiz about 9.30 a.m. on the 27th it had with it the very weak 33 Reconnaissance Unit, part only of the divisional artillery, and elements of 200 Regiment with some anti-tank guns. In the late afternoon 115 Infantry Regiment followed, and after dark the battered 33 Engineer Battalion with its one remaining anti-tank gun. Crüwell stayed behind to tidy up and while so doing began to worry about opposition
Neumann-Silkow might meet on his westward journey. The Corps Commander thought the British might counter-attack from the north38 when the real threat was from the south, and when he changed his mind about this at 2.25 p.m. it was too late for Ravenstein’s Schuette Group to disengage at Menastir before dark. Crüwell wanted all possible strength concentrated for the drive westwards and was annoyed that Rommel still persisted with the Capuzzo attack: at 3.45 p.m. he signalled to him to ‘Bring all the troops you can with you.’ His tactical sense told him, too, that 15 Panzer should move south of the Trigh Capuzzo after passing Gasr el Arid so as to avoid having to mount the escarpment at Bir el Chleta, perhaps against opposition. But here also he was too late: Neumann-Silkow had already allowed himself to get trapped by the lie of the land and by a British armoured force which for once took advantage of it.