Chapter 20: Rommel Returns to the Tobruk Front
FORCE ‘E’ of the Oases Group had meanwhile captured Aujila on the 22nd, Jikheira (a dozen miles north of Jalo Oasis) on the 23rd, and Jalo itself on the 24th, after enormous exertions to get through long stretches of soft, sandy going on the fringe of the Libyan Sand Sea and patches of ground so rough that it made a mockery of the Cairo planners who proposed a major thrust through this region. (On the 22nd also ‘Whitforce’ began operating from LG 125, established by 2 RAF Armoured Car Regiment and ground staff 110 miles west of Jarabub, to harass enemy as far afield as Benghazi, Ajedabia, and El Agheila.) Only the garrison of Jalo offered much resistance and several subsidiary attacks had to be put in there on the 24th and 25th. None was easy to mount after such an exhausting approach march and in the absence of some of the supporting guns, which had to be winched forward sometimes through miles at a time of treacherous sand. The only way to take some of the pockets of Italians was at the point of the bayonet, and the 670 prisoners eventually gained cost Brigadier Reid 11 killed and 30 wounded.
The British, South African and Indian troops concerned had achieved much with small forces hampered by truly formidable obstacles of terrain; but they could do no more. Together with Whitforce they had attracted, as intended, many air attacks which might otherwise have been directed at 30 Corps and they had aroused much uneasy interest at Bastico’s and Rommel’s headquarters. But counter-measures other than air attack and minor reinforcement of Ajedabia did not get past the talking stage, and the arduous expedition of Force ‘E’ made no difference to Panzer Group Africa on the main battlefield, where the whole group might have been employed with greater profit.
On the map Brigadier Reid seemed within easy reach of the Gulf of Sirte and the obvious next step was to cut the Axis communications along the coast road. On the 27th, the day after he assumed command of Eighth Army, Lieutenant-General Ritchie signalled to Reid, ‘Well done: Press on to Agedabia.’ But the map did not tell the long tale of digging, dragging and winching along
Reid’s L of C, of inserting heavy sand channels again and again under wheels to gain each time a few more feet of the 240 miles between Jarabub and Jalo, or of the softer going following lorries struck after fighting vehicles had broken the light crust of gravel which in places made all the difference. Force ‘E’ had used up almost all its fuel and, though patrols ranged widely, the force as a whole had to wait nearly a month under frequent air attack until petrol tanks could be refilled for a further advance. By this time Panzer Group had fallen back along the coast road and it was too late to interrupt its supply lines.1
Ritchie was by nature cheerful and readily accepted Auchinleck’s view that Rommel’s dash to the frontier was a last desperate gamble. Intercepted signals passing between Westphal and Rommel and Crüwell on the 27th confirmed his ‘suspicions, which were already tantamount to certainty, that the enemy situation was critical’.2 Now
was the time to apply all possible pressure; but for lack of transport 5 and 11 Indian Brigades could not yet take part in the mobile operations. If Tobruk garrison could supply the New Zealand Division, Ritchie hoped vehicles might be released; but the garrison could not do this for long and not at all if Africa Corps interposed itself between the two.
In 30 Corps similar sanguine counsels prevailed. The first thought was not to oppose the enemy armour which had yet to be defeated, but to attack the positional troops facing the New Zealand Division and their defensive wing stretching south to Bir el-Gubi. Norrie meant to ‘assist the 13 Corps attack by threatening the enemy’s flank and rear’;3 but he made no move to concentrate the Jock Columns and they remained as before facing mainly north near Gabr Saleh. Norrie’s hand was strengthened, however, by the return to his command of 22 Armoured Brigade, which he says had never been able to ‘maintain proper touch with 13 Corps.’
In front of the Columns were the armoured-car units, and early in the morning of the 27th patrols of these watched 13 Corps Headquarters move westwards along the Trigh Capuzzo, followed
by the vanguard of Africa Corps. But the Columns could not do much because Ariete, moving to the left rear of 15 Panzer, was much too strong for them. After a curious clash with Headquarters of Savona Division at Bir Ghirba, which shelled Ariete at a range of about five miles,4 the Italian armoured division headed westwards halfway between the Trigh Capuzzo and the Trigh el-Abd and kept the Columns well clear of the Germans. The King’s Dragoon Guards reported the return of 15 Panzer (and its signals were duly intercepted by the Germans) and 22 Armoured Brigade now proceeded to head off the German armour. By 1.20 p.m. Army Headquarters had decided on the evidence of wireless intercepts that both panzer divisions were moving westwards, ‘probably astride the Trigh Capuzzo’, and accordingly advised 7 Armoured Division, at the same time asking for air attack on the ‘retreating’ enemy. Gott’s plan was for 22 Armoured Brigade (with a composite regiment of fewer than fifty tanks) to halt the enemy ‘from the front’ and for 4 Armoured Brigade (with nearly seventy Stuarts) to attack the southern flank.
The main enemy tank force reached Bir el Chleta at noon, thwarting Gott’s scheme for his two armoured brigades to meet just west of Gasr el Arid. As late as 1 p.m. 4 Armoured Brigade was still at Bir Berraneb, 20 miles away; but it raced northwards and in little over two hours was bearing down on the left rear of the enemy at El Chleta. C Battery, 4 RHA, meanwhile brought down telling fire and the RAF found a splendid target in the bunched-up tanks and lorries on the Trigh Capuzzo, while two misdirected Me.110s bombed Africa Corps Headquarters. By 3 p.m. 22 Armoured Brigade was under strong pressure but fighting back fiercely and the 4th was causing confusion in the German rear echelons. The diary of 15 Panzer speaks of ‘heavy casualties among the wheeled vehicles’ and of field howitzers firing over open sights at British tanks at point-blank range. Another series of thrusts came against the right flank of 8 Panzer Regiment as it tried to push up the escarpment above El Chleta. Everything Neumann-Silkow had was used to try to force a passage up the slope and through to the west; but he was thrown back on the defensive and more bombing raids caused ‘very heavy casualties in men and equipment’.5
Only desperate defensive efforts beat off some of the British thrusts and tanks which came forward from the repair depot near Gambut were at once flung into the struggle. Even with these the Germans could do no more than hold their ground, and as dusk approached it seemed as though the British armour had fought them to a standstill. Had the whole of Gott’s artillery been deployed here
and not in Jock Columns 15 Panzer might very well have faced disaster. For the first time in CRUSADER the British tank losses were not disproportionate to those of the Germans – about 14 tanks to at least 13 German tanks and possibly as many as 26. Gott felt that he had delivered a heavy blow against an enemy who was trying to escape and Norrie heard from Army at 6.45 p.m. that it was ‘of the utmost importance to prevent the enemy escaping westwards, south of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment’.
In what General Norrie describes in his narrative as a ‘fierce and bloody action’ the enemy were ‘finally routed and dispersed in all directions, mostly going NORTH and a few escaping to the WEST’. By the doctrine of the ‘keep mobile’ school, the British tanks like the cavalry of old withdrew from the battlefield at dusk to attend to their domestic needs, and the night laagers of the two armoured brigades selected in this case were five miles to the south. Scarcely believing their eyes, the Germans watched them go and then pushed up the escarpment after dark and carried on six miles or so westwards before settling down for the night in positions they had almost ceased to hope they would reach. It was almost beyond belief that the British would freely yield the ground for which 15 Panzer had fought bitterly but to no avail throughout the afternoon. The way was now open for a counter-offensive against the Tobruk Corridor; but men of the two armoured brigades a few miles to the south, as they busied themselves refuelling and servicing their tanks and then enjoyed a well-earned meal, had not the faintest suspicion that they had conceded a most important victory to the Germans and placed the New Zealand Division in grave jeopardy.
General Ritchie had meanwhile ordered Norrie to send 1 South African Brigade to join 13 Corps and help the New Zealand Division on 28 November, which is what Norrie in any case meant to do. But Pienaar was a good 60 miles from Sidi Rezegh and would have to move at once to get there next day. On the way to him this order seems to have been watered down and its urgency diluted; but the German armour was in any case now able to strike across his line of advance, so Ritchie’s intention was thwarted and another debit has to be entered against the account of those who gave up the vital ground above Bir el Chleta.
Reports of the afternoon’s tank action reached the New Zealand Division a few miles to the west by various means and the sound of the guns could clearly be heard at Divisional Headquarters. For General Freyberg, however, the scale and meaning of this action at his backdoor were hard to judge and his apprehensions were too slight to cloud his satisfaction at having at last established
his end of the corridor to Tobruk. At the other end of the Corridor Scobie’s satisfaction was just as great and he signalled to Godwin-Austen and Freyberg at 11.50 a.m. on the 27th to the effect that a general enemy retreat might already be starting and that quick action by the New Zealanders in following through to El Adem was ‘very necessary as enemy show signs CRACKING’. He was still expecting Freyberg to take over the Ed Duda position, and more than two hours passed before he learned anything to the contrary.
It was urgently necessary for Freyberg and Scobie to get in close touch with each other, since wireless signals in high-grade cipher took up to five hours to pass to and fro, but efforts from both sides to establish closer contact met with little success. A patrol of three light tanks of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, soon found the task beyond it, the enemy being far too strong across its path, and Freyberg signalled Corps to this effect at 4.45. Two staff officers from 70 Division also failed to get through from Ed Duda. Brigadier Harding, BGS of 13 Corps, flew to Tobruk in the afternoon to talk things over with Scobie; but even he knew too little about the present situation of the New Zealand Division to plan a detailed course of action.
Godwin-Austen had signalled to Scobie, Freyberg and Brigadier Scott-Cockburn of 22 Armoured Brigade as early as 8.25 a.m. to say, among other things, that ‘Counter attack by enemy may be expected today therefore essential no further advance take place until present positions really secure’; but Scobie was ordered to send strong columns eastwards along the Via Balbia to ‘bar area between NZ and GAMBUT and to establish strong picket east of road and track junction’ at Gambut and to ‘secure all landing grounds’. This meant opening up the whole of the northern flank of the corridor and breaking through the artillery and rear installations of Africa Division and was far beyond Scobie’s present powers. He was able from various sources to chart the return of the German armour from the frontier and, because of this, he substituted for the thrust to Gambut a scheme for a smaller operation to the Via Balbia at the junction with the By-pass road; but even this was to prove too much for his resources.
The Ed Duda position was rocked all day by a heavy bombardment, much of it from medium or heavy guns beyond the reach of 1 RHA, a scene vividly recalled by Lieutenant Brownless of 1 Essex in his appendix to the regimental history:
We divided our time ... between cowering in the bottoms of our very inadequate holes, eating, and digging. A little more than a foot down you hit rock. ... We were shelled with everything from small-bore high-velocity guns to nine-inch howitzers. Quite a few of the nine-inch shells
were “duds”. It was a remarkable sight to see such massive projectiles bounce off the ground, and travel for another 200 or 300 yards, making a queer jerky noise as they spun askew through the air and then rolling over and over as they hit the ground.6
The companies of 19 Battalion, about a mile north and north-east of 1 Essex, were also shelled heavily at times, though not nearly so persistently. To the immediate north, some of the Tobruk I tanks sheltered in wadis and New Zealanders soon made themselves known to their crews and exchanged congratulations. Others of 19 Battalion accepted the surrender of many parties of bewildered Italians and a few of Germans which wandered into their lines. The enemy’s rear services had been disrupted and many of his troops in the neighbourhood were much disheartened. One party of 120 Italians all claiming to be medical orderlies walked into the lines of the 19th before 9 a.m., and by the end of the day the battalion held 208 Italians and 52 Germans.
This was only a small part of the total haul, however. Patrols of 4 Royal Tanks and C Squadron KDG took 1000 prisoners between the By-pass road and Belhamed by 9.15 a.m. By the end of the day the total ‘bag’ was in the region of 1500. D Squadron, 7 Royal Tanks, engaged tanks coming along the By-pass at 6 p.m., obviously unaware that it was blocked; when one of these enemy tanks was knocked out the others quickly withdrew. Meanwhile Scobie issued orders to Willison at 9.30 p.m. for a thrust next morning by his cruiser tanks, a few I tanks, two companies of 2 Queens, and supporting arms to clear the enemy positions up to the junction between the By-pass road and the Via Balbia.
By newly-connected telephone in the morning of the 27th, Freyberg asked 13 Corps for the return of 5 Brigade and also of 6 RMT Company as ‘we have only one mobile brigade’. Hargest’s brigade was needed because ‘We have only advanced by night attacks with the bayonet’, he explained, ‘and that, of course, has been costly.’7 Claims on behalf of the I tanks made before the campaign, he now realised, had proved exaggerated; these like any other arm needed full artillery support in daylight attacks and this could not be given because of shortage of ammunition.
The position of the Division nevertheless seemed strong and the GOC wanted 5 Brigade ‘for our future moves’. The attitude was anything but defensive, as Freyberg’s PA, Captain White,8 learnt when asking Colonel Gentry at 10.15 a.m. what he thought of
things. The GSO I replied, ‘Grand, improving every minute ... I give the General full marks for his stout heart. We would not be where we are but for him. ... We will go on and clean the whole show up. We shall get them while they are running.’ Gentry added that Godwin-Austen ‘reckons we have so far saved the War’. Brigadier Watkins of 1 Army Tank Brigade was also pleased. The success of the night advance to Ed Duda by I tanks and infantry prompted him to comment, ‘There is something in these night attacks in certain circumstances’.
In this optimistic atmosphere Godwin-Austen was a welcome visitor to lunch. In the course of this Freyberg put his view that his own division had suffered heavy loss and now needed to consolidate its gains, and Scobie should therefore carry on by clearing the ground north of a line from Ed Duda to Belhamed. Then the New Zealand Division might push on westwards to dislodge the rest of the enemy facing the Tobruk perimeter. This was in line with Godwin-Austen’s order of 8.25 a.m. and was readily accepted.
At a lower level the situation looked rather different. The guns of 4 Brigade were mainly in the wadi between Zaafran and Belhamed, well within reach even of enemy mortars, and both the guns and 18 and 20 Battalions on Belhamed were bombarded throughout 27 November. Counter-battery fire was a luxury that 4 Field Regiment with its present low stocks of ammunition could seldom afford. Only emergency tasks were therefore undertaken.
A lull in enemy fire soon after 9 a.m. coincided with a curious incident when two Germans advanced with what passed for a white flag to rescue a wounded German officer south of Belhamed. The officer was taken to the 18 Battalion RAP and the two others, ‘rather scruffy types’, were for some reason thought to be emissaries of the commander of the German troops still holding out between Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh. It somehow got around that the enemy was thinking of surrendering and this was what Captain Bassett9 at Brigade Headquarters was given to understand. When the ‘parley’ was prolonged the BM grew impatient and sent word to Lieutenant Tyerman,10 the battalion IO, to ‘give them 5 minutes to surrender’, with the threat that if they did not do so the German pocket would be attacked. Firing had meanwhile ceased and most of 18 Battalion waited expectantly until the whole episode began to look like a ruse to gain time and ‘allow reinforcements of men or stores to be
brought up’. The two Germans were bewildered by it all and the wounded officer when he was questioned was more inclined to discuss the surrender of 18 Battalion than of his own unit. Tyerman accompanied the two Germans back to their lines and there addressed a German officer requesting surrender. This was rejected abruptly, Tyerman returned, and the ‘morning hate’ was resumed.
Captain Agar, who then commanded 20 Battalion, had already been warned that he would have to attack this pocket and Brigadier Inglis now took it that the enemy was bluffing to cover his weakness and would therefore be, as Captain Bassett told Agar, ‘an easy mark’. Agar estimated that the enemy in question was at least a full battalion strong and asked for tank and air support for the two weak companies Colonel Peart (who commanded all troops on Belhamed) had told him to commit. Bassett pointed out that the whole of 4 Field Regiment and an MMG platoon would support the attack and considered this adequate. In a written order Bassett estimated the enemy as about a company strong about 2000 yards south by east of 20 Battalion, ‘isolated and believed ready to surrender’.11 Captain Quilter, acting as adjutant of 20 Battalion, lodged serious objections on the grounds that the enemy had been greatly under-estimated; but both Quilter’s and Agar’s protests were brushed aside.
A firm order that the attack must start at 11 a.m. reached Agar about 10.40 a.m. and from then onwards it was a mad rush to get ready. In an awkward conference in full view of the enemy, he quickly briefed the two company commanders concerned, Lieutenant McPhail12 of B Company and Captain Manchester13 of D, and these lined up their men for the start. One young officer recalls being told that ‘there will be no fighting but we will have to put up a bit of a show and go out and bring them in’.14 Boundaries were given in relation to a burnt-out tank to the front and the two companies set out across flat ground, thinly sprinkled with scrub and offering very little cover. Colonel Duff was reluctant to expend precious ammunition on what he understood was a very minor operation to overcome ‘a small “pocket” of enemy MG and Inf SOUTH of BELHAMED’ and his guns fired some sort of concentration at the start and again later; but, as he remarked in his report, there was ‘little cohesion or real co-ordination between our concentrations and the Inf attacks and little practical success occurred, for the amount of amn expended.’ Nor was Captain Johansen of 2 MG Company given
the detailed information required for effective support of the attack and the machine-gunners, knowing only in the vaguest terms what was happening, could do little to help.
Under these circumstances Agar’s and Quilter’s worst fears were soon realised. Within 200–300 yards of the start the attack became a matter of short dashes, and lengthening pauses, until progress was barred altogether by deadly and sustained MG and mortar fire. Many men did not realise the hopelessness of their plight until they were hit and perceived for the first time how few men remained unwounded. Second-Lieutenant Wilson of D Company remembers it thus:
After about 1000 yards I realised something was wrong. It seemed plain that we could never hope to take the position over open country without very considerable support. ... the enemy certainly seemed to be overdoing his ‘gesture’ before surrendering. Finally the uncomfortable realisation came that there was no intention of the enemy to surrender.
Wilson himself was wounded and the advance was finally checked when the nearest posts were still some 300–400 yards away and the main defences some distance farther. McPhail sent back a total of three runners, including his CSM, to ask for artillery support, and Agar and Quilter who watched from Belhamed made similar requests – hence the later concentrations from 4 Field Regiment. A desperate effort by the mortar platoon to bombard the enemy positions by adding extra charges to gain enough range soon used up the mortar ammunition.
From a distance of 2000 yards or more it was not at all clear to observers at 18 Battalion Headquarters that those who remained unwounded in the two attacking companies met a deadly fusillade every time they moved, and Peart was not satisfied that the attack was being pressed with proper vigour. Quilter was somewhat abashed by a telephoned injunction from him to put more ginger into the efforts of the two companies, knowing only too well what they faced, and he did his best to explain the situation. Peart therefore agreed to make a supporting thrust from the left by 18 Battalion. D Company of that unit was lined up at 1.20 p.m. to attack the eastern end of the enemy position. This move soon proved Quilter’s point; D Company came under the same intense fire, went to ground, and made no further progress. Even three damaged I tanks which were committed here to help overcome the enemy MGs and mortars could do little. They managed to silence a nest of three anti-tank guns which engaged them but in so doing suffered further damage and had to withdraw, leaving all three companies pinned down and unable to move until dark.
Agar was out of touch with both his companies after about 1 p.m., when R/T failed, and he told Bassett about 2 p.m. that, since no more artillery support could be given, there was nothing more he could do either to resume the advance or extricate the survivors. In the end it was decided that 44 Royal Tanks must overcome the enemy, but it proved impossible to get the I tanks back from Ed Duda in time to revive the attack.
A wounded man15 who crawled and then walked back came upon Agar and found him ‘visibly distressed’ by the turn of events and by his inability to bring about any improvement. Eventually Agar ordered A and C Companies to withdraw half their men from the western part of Belhamed in readiness to fetch the wounded of his other two rifle companies and cover a withdrawal. A Company was to provide stretcher parties and C under CSM Grooby was to throw out a protective screen.
Quilter and Grooby decided on a bearing on which this detachment should march and at dusk Grooby led it forward. Enemy fire was scarcely diminished, the defences being thoroughly aroused and fearful of a resumption of the attack after dark. But MG fire on fixed lines was plainly evident and could be avoided. By circling round to dodge these streams of tracer bullets, however, Grooby lost his direction and passed through or round the enemy positions to the escarpment beyond. He could hear the enemy talking and moving about uncomfortably close but managed to make his way back without a clash, and it seemed to him that the enemy was as anxious as he to avoid a fight. A Company and the able-bodied survivors of the other two companies meanwhile worked into the early hours of next morning bringing in wounded. In 11 Platoon, Sergeant Lochhead,16 who had done much to encourage his sections in the advance, brought back all his men, including the wounded and the dead. Then B and D Companies did their best to spread their thin ranks over the Belhamed defences they formerly occupied.
B Company now numbered 32 and D Company 28. The attack cost 21 killed and 76 wounded, 14 of whom succumbed to their wounds. The high proportion of dead to wounded may be explained by the multiple nature of many of the wounds17 and the many hours which most of the wounded spent in the open under fire and without attention. The wounded added two more officers to the long list of officer casualties in the unit and one of these later died.
The composite squadron of 44 Royal Tanks reached Brigade Headquarters from Ed Duda in the evening and Major Gibbon was asked by Inglis to mount another attack on the enemy pocket early next morning; but Gibbon demurred on the grounds that he needed time for maintenance and preparation and Inglis agreed that he should attack at 2 p.m. on the 28th. Inglis now considered that the enemy position was ‘about a mile and a half wide from north to south and rolled from east to west in three low waves of ground.’18 The night advance by 19 Battalion and 44 Royal Tanks to Ed Duda had overrun the guns immediately supporting this position, Inglis guessed, but the position still held plenty of mortars, MGs, and anti-tank guns, including some of 50-millimetre calibre.
In the course of the afternoon General Freyberg himself visited 4 Brigade Headquarters, at a time when Inglis was working out details of the next day’s attack. But the GOC was much more concerned with the general situation than with the two-company attack on what seemed to him to be an unimportant and isolated pocket of enemy. The forming of a ‘strong corridor with Tobruk’ was the next task, and for this Freyberg counted on a major effort by Scobie. When a request came through from Tobruk at 5 p.m. for the locations of New Zealand units, Freyberg interpreted this as indicating that ‘Tobruk are probably doing something’ of the kind he had in mind. Back at Divisional Headquarters Freyberg sent for Inglis about 8 p.m. to talk about the renewal of the attack next day on the enemy position south of Belhamed, but was by no means convinced that it was warranted. Inglis explained at length but left in the end doubtful whether he had persuaded Freyberg of the necessity, though Freyberg concluded by saying that ‘if I thought it had to be done, of course I must do it.’19 More hung on this question than either Freyberg or Inglis realised. This pocket was the last sizable body of enemy between the Division and the Tobruk garrison and vital time was lost in overcoming it. The abortive two-company attack was to cost far more in the end than the ninety-odd casualties in 20 Battalion.
A firm junction and free exchange of information between the New Zealand Division and 70 Division were urgently needed before the German armour could intervene. Over-estimating the time available, Freyberg aimed at forming a ‘strong corridor with Tobruk’20 when what was immediately required was an unobstructed route to and from Ed Duda for operational liaison and supplies from the stocks in Tobruk.
Elsewhere in 4 Brigade the day was uneventful – if any day which provided such a jarring and persistent chorus of explosions could be so described. The eastern flank was consolidated under the command of a South African, Major Cochran, who had been acting CO of 1 South African Irish on Totensonntag and had brought into the divisional area a mixed group of over 100 South Africans, all anxious to continue the fight. This was joined by other South Africans who had arrived independently (including Cochran’s brother) and formed a composite company. Inglis now put sapper-infantry of 5 Field Park Company21 and 6 Field Company under Cochran’s command to form a battalion replacing 19 Battalion on this flank. The only action on the 27th, however, was by the 6 Field Company detachment, which easily drove off a group of enemy which seemed to be advancing to attack.
Patrols went out from 18 Battalion during the night towards the enemy position which Inglis was planning to attack again next day, and at 7.45 p.m. Colonel Peart was told to ‘dig one Coy in the valley for the night, to be ready to follow a tank attack next morning’, according to the brigade diary. At 11 p.m. there was a sudden warning of impending attack from the north. Colonel Duff of 4 Field Regiment hurriedly prepared a ‘defensive barrage’ and soon after midnight it began to look as though it would be needed. The whole brigade was told to stand-to and much noise of lorries and tracked vehicles could be heard from several directions, ‘with flares and lights going up all round the compass’.22 But in the end all was quiet.
In 6 Brigade, Major Mantell-Harding of 24 Battalion replaced Major Walden in command of 26 Battalion, and one or the other of them ordered another attack in the afternoon on the enemy strongpoint still holding out on the escarpment east of the main position. This was another hasty action mounted without much knowledge of the enemy and it also failed.
Second-Lieutenant Nottle of 7 Platoon, who was given the task, was not told of the previous attempts to overcome what he was led to believe was no more than a ‘batch of snipers’. He carefully reconnoitred but could see very little and was much surprised by the volume of fire the platoon met when it attacked from the west, in conjunction with feints by a single Bren carrier from the south and under cover of fire from a detachment of 3-inch mortars. The infantry got within about 100 yards of the western outposts and
were then held down by accurate fire from what Nottle could now see were strongly made defences, including concrete dugouts and extensive field works giving all-round arcs of fire. Then came a shower of rain which Nottle says ‘pelted down with such force that in the whole pl not one weapon would fire’. Small arms on both sides were for anxious minutes clogged with wet sand and only mortars remained in action. When bolts were cleared and firing resumed, Nottle could soon see there was no hope of getting farther forward and after a helpless hour he decided to withdraw. Bit by bit 7 Platoon edged its way back and the lone carrier, despite anti-tank fire, picked up all six wounded and brought them out. Two more of 7 Platoon had been killed; but this was not all. The strongpoint remained a menace to anyone who moved by day in the open north of the airfield. Brigadier Barrowclough nearly became one of its victims and his batman was severely wounded. In the evening when Lieutenant-Colonel Allen of 21 Battalion tried to walk past in ignorance of the danger he was shot dead, a serious loss to his unit and to the whole Division.23
Allen’s death, which was not confirmed until next day, delayed the arrangements for amalgamating 21 and 25 Battalions under his command and in the end these fell through. Brigadier Barrowclough hoped thereby to form a composite battalion with four rifle companies at something approaching full strength;24 but there were many complications, and without the benefit of Allen’s leadership these were magnified.
In the evening 6 Field Regiment shelled the neighbourhood of the strongpoint and Barrowclough ordered it to be patrolled after dark to find out if the enemy was still in occupation. He also proposed to relieve 24 and 26 Battalions in two phases with the amalgamated 21 and 25 Battalions; but he was shortly to learn that ‘front’ and ‘rear’ were no more than conventional figures of speech in this unpredictable battle, and there was no way of bringing relief from the pressure to which all would soon be subjected.
The experienced riflemen in each unit were barely enough for a normal rifle company.
Though Barrowclough still believed he was covered in the east and south by British tank forces, Rear Divisional Headquarters and Administration Group between Bir el-Haleizin and Hareifet en-Nbeidat knew better. They heard the noise and later felt the heat of the fighting at Bir el Chleta, and when the armoured brigades drew off to the south at dusk on the 27th their next door neighbours became the leading elements of 15 Panzer Division.
For the harassed supply services of the New Zealand Division this was the climax to a day of vexation in which the only bright moment was when Second-Lieutenant Cottrell’s detachment of the Supply Column arrived with a day’s rations for the Division. The outlook was otherwise bleak and Major Ross,25 the DAQMG, reported at 7 p.m. to Rear Headquarters of 13 Corps that probably two days’ rations and water only were held, and petrol for about 50 miles, that reserves of ammunition were nil, there were no ordnance stores, 900 prisoners had to be fed and 700 casualties required immediate evacuation. A large convoy was expected from 30 Corps but did not arrive, no route was yet open for supplies from Tobruk, and promised air drops of 25-pounder ammunition, now urgently needed, also failed to materialise. From the supply viewpoint things were going from bad to worse.
Rear Division moved north to join Divisional Headquarters on the Trigh Capuzzo during the day, facilitating administration and reducing the vulnerable mass of vehicles outside the divisional defences. Then at 8 p.m. 22 Armoured Brigade moved through the Petrol Company to settle down for the night to the south-east, overlapping into the NZASC area. The Field Ordnance Workshops edged westwards next, after learning that German tanks and infantry were a mile or two away on the Trigh Capuzzo. The Petrol Company was assured that an armoured brigade was protecting its eastern and southern flanks, but this was evidently untrue and the NZASC and NZOC units concerned spent a troubled night, clustered south of the Wadi esc-Sciomar. Next morning British tanks prepared soon after first light to give battle in the Petrol Company lines and by 8.30 a.m. on the 28th the NZASC and NZOC companies were scattering to north, west and south before the advancing panzers.