Chapter 21: Increasing Pressure on 6 Brigade
THE panzers which scattered the NZASC companies were not, as Eighth Army and 30 Corps supposed, trying to get away. They meant to ‘clear up the situation south-east of Tobruk’,1 and Rommel and Crüwell met at Gambut at 11 p.m. on 27 November to decide how to do this. Again they failed to agree and Rommel seemed at first to be in the wrong. He wanted to descend to the Via Balbia and emerge from the area of Africa Division to attack the New Zealand Division from the north. Crüwell pointed out how difficult Neumann-Silkow had found it to make progress up an escarpment that was strongly held and was emphatic that the counter-attack should come from the south, descending the successive escarpments and driving the British back to the original perimeter of Tobruk.
Rommel was well aware of the tactical disadvantage of attacking uphill rather than down; but he could see no other way of cutting off the troops in the Corridor. To drive them into Tobruk and thereby strengthen the garrison was the last thing he wanted to do. But the decision could wait and he decided to fly back to El Adem. It was therefore left to Crüwell to ‘examine the various methods of attack, hold a conference with Africa Div, and then draw up a provisional plan and submit it to Pz Gp’. But Rommel’s time scale was still radically different from that of his opponents and what was to him a long pause was to them but a brief instant.
Crüwell at once took steps to ensure that 15 Panzer was put into a position from which Rommel’s scheme could not be carried out. He told General Neumann-Silkow to take up an all-round defensive position on and above the escarpment and next day expand it to gain a favourable jumping-off place for an attack later that day. Early on the 28th, however, he heard from Westphal that strong British armoured and infantry forces had reassembled in the desert to the south in the past day or two and these menaced the southern flank of Africa Corps seriously enough to require a much stronger flank guard than Crüwell intended to deploy, thereby weakening the counter-attack. He therefore decided that Ariete, which was tailing along some miles to his left rear, should assume the duties
of flank guard; but he had little confidence in his Italian allies. A quick visit to Sümmermann’s division, now renamed 90 Light Division,2 in the morning of the 28th partly reassured him, however, and he returned to his own headquarters in a more confident frame of mind. Sümmermann was no doubt in touch with Westphal, whose confidence in the situation was now returning. On the 28th, events took a turn which was ominous for the New Zealand Division. Attacks by the British armour towards Bir Sciafsciuf were easily beaten back by 15 Infantry Brigade without help from the German tanks (which were stranded without petrol). Then, when the latter, after refuelling, resumed the advance west-wards at 2 p.m., they covered five or six miles before being halted by shellfire and a wide screen of British tanks from south-west to south. The rear of the New Zealand Division and 13 Corps
Headquarters were now open to direct attack in overwhelming strength and were largely unaware of the danger. But two things saved them. The Germans jumped to the conclusion that the mass of vehicles was no more than an administrative ‘tail’ of forces already on their way into the Tobruk defences, a suitable target for artillery but not otherwise worth bothering about. Then German attention was distracted by the British tanks and 15 Panzer swung more and more to the south to deal with these, though Neumann-Silkow’s 45 tanks had no trouble in pushing the 100-odd tanks of the two armoured brigades back southwards.
Brigadier Pienaar’s brigade, moving northwards to join the New Zealand Division, reached Hagfet en-Nadura in the afternoon, less than 15 miles from Point 175; but it could go no farther unless the British armour opened the route. Thus a tug-o’-war began between the New Zealanders and South Africans for the services of the armoured brigades as protectors against German tanks. At 1.30 p.m. General Gott ordered both armoured brigades to assemble five miles south of the southern escarpment and eight miles from Sidi Rezegh with the dual role of ‘preventing the enemy withdrawing westwards’3 and of covering 1 South African Brigade. The approach of Pienaar’s brigade therefore seriously distracted the attention of the British armour at a time when the New Zealand Division was gravely threatened.
Though 15 Panzer was under orders from El Adem not to get heavily involved, some fighting took place in mid-afternoon and, as the history of 11 Hussars puts it, ‘the fortunes of war turned against the British armour.’4 The 22nd Armoured Brigade lost nearly half its tanks, 21 out of about 45; but 4 Armoured Brigade seems not to have lost any and probably did not get to close grips with the enemy. The British artillery served a useful purpose, however, by forcing the German guns to deploy facing south rather than north-west, and the 15 Panzer diary bemoans this because it robbed the German gunners of the tempting targets they had located astride the Trigh Capuzzo and which they were anxious to engage.
To 30 Corps in the south it looked as though the Germans were on Point 175, which had been suggested as a rendezvous for the South African brigade, and more enemy were seen on the southern escarpment. There was no apparent way of getting through to the New Zealand Division, though Norrie noted in his narrative that he thought ‘it might have been possible for determined troops to have infiltrated through by moonlight’.
At New Zealand Divisional Headquarters eyes were turned westwards rather than eastwards through most of the day and the many vague reports of what the German armour was doing attracted little attention. General Freyberg was far more concerned with the enemy around Tobruk and looked forward to the promised arrival next day – the 29th – of the South African brigade not to defend but to extend the Corridor. He started the morning cheerfully with a talk to Colonel Gentry. ‘Everything looks better’, he said, and he examined proposals for ‘an Air Force Blitz and a Naval bombardment’.5 Meanwhile various operations got under way to improve the Corridor. These included a thrust southwards from Ed Duda by half of 19 Battalion with I-tank support, the operation Scobie had been planning to extend the northern shoulder to the Via Balbia, and a second attempt by 4 Brigade to overcome the pocket of enemy south of Belhamed.
The thrust from Ed Duda was a product of the poor communications between the two divisions. The object was to gain firm contact between the troops at Ed Duda and 6 Brigade, which was presumed to be at Sidi Rezegh, though its dispositions there were the subject of much speculation by 70 Division. At Ed Duda the situation had eased greatly. There were only occasional reminders of the heavy shellfire which had made the previous day hideous and the enemy had withdrawn 3000–4000 yards west and south-west of 1 Essex. Patrols of British tanks, guns and infantry had gone as far as the Trigh Capuzzo without opposition, and at 10 a.m. A and B Companies of 19 Battalion, with three I tanks in support, formed up and began to advance towards Abiar el-Amar at the western extremity of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. Major McLauchlan,6 who commanded this force, halted just north of the Trigh Capuzzo and tried to make out the identity of troops ‘on SIDI REZEGH’. He was puzzled because these ‘did not appear to be digging in or attempting to consolidate’,7 and they failed to respond to recognition signals which were fired. While still pondering this issue McLauchlan received orders through the I tanks’ wireless to return at once to Ed Duda. While forming up for the return journey he saw guns to the south engaging the troops at Sidi Rezegh, thus identifying the latter as friendly; but his own party soon came under fire and was hotly shelled all the way back to Ed Duda. Only one man was hit; but unluckily this was Major Williams, OC B Company, a very popular officer and a fine soldier, who was mortally wounded.
When the two companies got back they were told to take over positions just vacated by the other two companies of the battalion. B Squadron of 4 Royal Tanks (with ten Matildas) was despatched with the other two companies under Hartnell on an urgent mission to occupy the northern escarpment of the Belhamed position. With him Hartnell took half of Battalion Headquarters and Headquarters Company, leaving the other halves with McLauchlan.
The move attracted very little attention, the Matildas moving a short way ahead of the infantry on a frontage of 600 yards, and it was not until the escarpment loomed up on the right that any opposition was met, a brief gesture by machine guns which the tanks soon discouraged. Some 50 Italians and 12 Germans who were ‘occupying tents and caves in the slopes of the escarpment’ came down and surrendered and Hartnell settled down, unknown to Brigadier Inglis, to the north of 18 Battalion. The I tanks, however, were under orders to return to Ed Duda and early on the 29th they did so.
The 32nd Army Tank Brigade made a move in the afternoon of the 28th from Bir Belhamed against the strongpoint known as ‘Freddie’ (east of Tiger and north-east of Wolf), intended as the first of a series of thrusts to shatter the northern wall of the Corridor. Rain fell as the troops were forming up and, when A Company of 2 Queens got ready to advance with D Squadron, 7 Royal Tanks, enemy to the east provided a diversion which lasted an hour. Though 1 Royal Tanks brought in 200 prisoners as a result, the delay only served to warn the enemy at Freddie of what was in store. D Squadron, 7 Royal Tanks, lost two Matildas in the meantime and the remaining six set off with the infantry but met fierce opposition which drove some of A Company back behind the starting line. Two RHA regiments did their best to silence opposition and by 3.15 p.m. D Squadron burst into Freddie and took 300 prisoners, most of them German. But only two Matildas and two light tanks got through unscathed and A Company was still pinned down in the open by fire from farther afield. Further stages of this operation could therefore not be carried out and after dark A Company came back under cover of artillery fire with the loss of fourteen men. Opposition was not crumbling on this part of his front as Scobie thought, and a much heavier attack was required; but by this time he had no troops to spare. He had struck, if he only knew it, at the part of the front where General Sümmermann had concentrated his strength in a series of strongpoints covered by wire and mines, and the scheme of widening the Corridor here was impracticable. At the end of the day no ground had been gained and the prisoners taken had to be counted against the loss of valuable I tanks.
While these various moves were taking place 1 Essex was left to occupy the extensive Ed Duda position with very few tanks in support. Since 44 Royal Tanks, half of 19 Battalion, and for a short time B Squadron of 4 Royal Tanks would not be available for the defence of this important ground, Scobie realised he needed more troops there. He therefore transferred 2/13 Australian Battalion from the relatively stable and quiet sector of 16 Infantry Brigade to that of 32 Army Tank Brigade, ‘much against his wishes’.8 Scobie had been given to understand that this battalion was ‘not to be committed to battle unless it became imperative for the success of the operation.’9 Their passive role, however, was irksome to the Australians and they welcomed the change.
At 6 p.m. the Australians moved off. Scobie saw them pass through the gap in the original perimeter and told them, ‘Ed Duda must be held at all costs’. In the Corridor, however, they experienced a thrilling sensation as they drove forward in their lorries towards Ed Duda. For the first time in seven months they were moving freely across ground hitherto in their experience accessible only to stealthy night patrols, and they felt a wonderful freedom from the constrictions of the long siege. They were proud that they alone of those who were there in the beginning were there ‘to the end – to the very end of the end’.10 As the Australians settled into reserve positions behind the headquarters of 1 Essex, plans (soon to be overtaken by events) were being made for them to attack southwards next day in support of 19 Battalion on a thrust similar to that from which Major McLauchlan had been recalled earlier on the 28th. The object was to recover ground seized during the afternoon from 6 New Zealand Brigade by Boettcher Group.
Not only 4 Brigade Headquarters but 6 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters were brought into the planning of the second attack on the enemy south of Belhamed and there was an impressive gallery of spectators as the attack went in at 2 p.m. A concentration by twenty-eight guns of 4 Field Regiment11 was fired as the composite squadron of 44 Royal Tanks under Major Gibbon moved off, flanked to the left by carriers of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, and followed by carriers of 18 Battalion and then by two platoons of C Company and one of D Company. From the right flank on Belhamed two MMG platoons fired steadily ‘across the front of the tanks’.12 It was all utterly unlike the pathetic efforts of Agar’s
two companies to get forward the day before, and General Freyberg was much impressed by what he saw. The tanks, he thought, were ‘brilliantly commanded’13 and Brigadier Miles, watching closely, was satisfied with the artillery support. From the escarpment above, Lieutenant-Colonel Weir, who had such excellent observation that Miles put him in charge of the guns for the purpose of this attack, was in touch with 4 and 6 Field Regiments and ordered the first concentration, lifting it only when the tanks and infantry were almost up to the bursting shells and then directing 6 Field on to the second objective, where more prisoners were taken, with a repetition on the third. ‘Everything went well in this attack’, he wrote later. Brigadier Inglis, watching from a carrier driven by one of his LOs, saw one of the carriers hit by an anti-tank gun on the left, then he saw the upper part of Gibbon’s tall figure sticking out from the turret of one of the Matildas and watched admiringly as he continued in this fashion deep into the enemy lines. Captain Bassett heard what Gibbon and his subordinates said on the ‘blower’ and duly recorded it all in a letter home:
Old Stumps [Gibbon], long, saturnine and fearfully doggy, cool as a cucumber, opened at 1405 hours with ‘O.K. Ai think we’ll AD-vance now. Rito 2 would you mind looking at those wretched anti-tank guns on the left. Rito 4 d’you see that hill on the right – the one with the block-house and those square heads dancing about – do you eh? Well, those are mortars and more anti-tank. Do go and walk about it a bit. Rito 3 please don’t keep shooting at my tank – you see mai head is sticking out of the turret’. (As indeed it was from start to finish.)
‘Rito 7, Rito 7 (petulantly as to a naughty child) you mustn’t go so far ahead of the in-fant-ry.’
Answer from David Ling excitedly, ‘But I’m having such lovely fun rolling over Jerries everywhere.’
‘Never mind Davie, you must keep with them – they haven’t any shells like yours.’
Answer: ‘I’ll put ‘em there all right.’
Complaint from Rito 5 that Stumps was off his direction.
‘It’s quaite all right, I just thought I’d look at these field batteries, I don’t think there’s anyone left there, but I’ll just tip these guns over. Rito 3 d’you see those derelict I tanks? Well they’ve got Jerry M/guns inside, just potter up and put a few shells through the gun barrels. Now I think we’ve come too far, we’ll just tootle around and pot this stuff – has anyone got a match, I’d love a smoke while we’re waiting for the infantry.’
‘Now we’ll go north, come on Rito 4, don’t worry about that pocket, the carriers are rounding them up.’ And finally, ‘I think all this crowd are prisoners, we’ll just huddle them up till the infantry collect them.’
Resistance quickly collapsed, and at 2.45 p.m. F Troop OP reported to 4 Field Regiment as follows:
Tks well up into area. INF. well into area. Prisoners coming out in all directions. Firing practically stopped. Leading Tks are well up towards SIDI REZEGH. One vehicle on fire believed Bren Carrier.
Five minutes later another OP reported that there was ‘still a little opposition’ and that the original estimate of 150 prisoners was about a third of the actual total. At 3 p.m. carriers were still rounding up prisoners, but there was no more fighting, though 4 Field Regiment fired a few small tasks to help the mopping-up, which by 3.40 p.m. was complete.
This defensive position proved more extensive than most of the attackers expected and the columns of prisoners which were shepherded back by the infantry were astonishingly long. Brigadier Inglis says there were 637 unwounded prisoners, including a German regimental commander. The German documents throw little light on this engagement; but Lieutenant-Colonel Mickl of 155 Infantry Regiment was captured here and it seems likely that the bulk of what was left of his regiment was overrun. Gibbon’s squadron lost neither men nor tanks and gave an admirable demonstration of what I tanks could achieve with proper handling and support. In C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, an officer and a trooper were killed, and in a carrier of 18 Battalion a sergeant was killed and his Brengunner wounded: among the infantry no more than one or two men were hit and possibly none at all. To those who surveyed the ground afterwards this was all the more surprising; for they could see how closely and skilfully the defences were laid out and how amply they were supplied with weapons, including field and anti-tank guns, mortars, and a multitude of MGs. A section of 6 Field Company followed through to clear a gap in a German minefield running south from the western end of Belhamed.14
Men could now move freely about Belhamed and Inglis studied this feature carefully, meeting Colonel Hartnell in so doing and leaving his half of 19 Battalion for the time being where it was on the steep northern slopes. Then Inglis went back to his headquarters at Zaafran and soon afterwards 18 and 20 Battalions changed places. It seems that Peart judged the western half the more strongly threatened by counter-attack, thinking this would probably come from the El Adem area, and he therefore put his own unit, as he thought, to the forefront. The change-over took place, company by company, without incident and two days passed before the full consequence of his move became apparent.
At Zaafran Inglis was confronted with a series of reports about what was going on to the east, the sector which he had hitherto regarded as safe. But there was as yet no suggestion that anything more than an adventurous German column or two was involved and the chief outcome was that, since Corps Headquarters was under some kind of pressure on the Trigh Capuzzo, it would pass through 4 Brigade in the night and on into Tobruk. General Freyberg also asked for 44 Royal Tanks as a covering force; but, following the afternoon’s fighting, Gibbon’s tanks needed fuel and ammunition and it was dark before they rallied. Inglis now took steps to strengthen his eastern flank, though at first with little thought of serious danger from that quarter.
In the morning of the 28th there was so little sign of enemy that gunners in 6 Brigade found very few targets. Men of 26 Battalion had dug in at Sidi Rezegh ‘amidst a ghastly mess of the enemy dead’15 and were still too busy on defences to do much cleaning up, though they picked up their own dead and in due course buried them. Meanwhile 25 Battalion set up an OP on the southern escarpment, from the eastern end of which the enemy had evidently withdrawn. This reported enemy at various points to the south in the morning, but no meanacing movements until the middle of the afternoon. To the west, McLauchlan’s detachment of 19 Battalion from Ed Duda was seen but not identified until it turned back to the north; the enemy party which shelled it also shelled 24 and 26 Battalions and was driven off by 6 Field Regiment about 1 p.m. An hour later the 24th reported 40–50 vehicles just north of Bir Bu Creimisa to the south-west and three to four miles away; but these did not look particularly suspicious and 6 Field Regiment therefore went ahead with its programmes in support of the 4 Brigade attack to the north and of a fourth attack on the strongpoint east of 26 Battalion.
Colonel Weir personally went forward to register this strongpoint as a target and Second-Lieutenant Nottle of 26 Battalion was again given the task of attacking, this time with 8 Platoon as well as his own 7 Platoon, though the two together numbered only 22 men against the 24 with which he had attacked the day before. The infantry, moreover, were reluctant to attempt what now seemed to them a hopeless task. Nottle assembled his two platoons on the escarpment east of the strongpoint and then heard that the guns could not given support for another hour as they were engaged in support of the 4 Brigade attack, of which he had a splendid view.
‘It was like a book’, he says; ‘Arty, Tanks, Carriers, then Infy. & out came the Jerries... 800 all told’. This was just the tonic his men needed and he adds that ‘morale went up sky high’.
A Troop of 6 Field Regiment was finally free to give support about 3 p.m. and began to bombard the strongpoint as Nottle led his men forward, not knowing what to expect. Weir, watching from a derelict tank, saw the Germans go to ground, and when he judged that Nottle’s men were close enough he lifted the fire. No opposition had yet been met and Nottle thought he still had some 400 yards to go when some Germans unexpectedly stood up to surrender no more than 50 yards away. The position took in far more of the escarpment than was realised and Weir was surprised to see enemy rising to give themselves up from numerous points he had not suspected were occupied. The total of prisoners was 182 according to Nottle, and twenty New Zealanders, mostly of 24 and 26 Battalions, who had been held in the strongpoint, were released.16 Major Sawyers of 48 Field Battery had an OP nearby and, when he saw a German evidently ready to surrender, he was quickly on the scene with his OP party and helped to round up prisoners. A regimental concentration, which Weir was on the point of firing, was not now needed.
In the strongpoint Nottle found an 88-millimetre gun, a far more powerful weapon than he expected to see, other anti-tank guns, several mortars, and small arms of all descriptions. The position stretched for 300 yards along the top of the escarpment to a depth of about 150, with concrete weapon pits and covered sleeping accommodation. It was sited to give command over the airfield, the Trigh Capuzzo below, and across to Belhamed, and Nottle estimated that, if well defended, it would have required a full battalion to overcome it.
It was at 4.50 p.m. that word got through to Brigade that ‘approx one company of enemy’17 had been captured here; but the brigade staff had far more urgent matters to attend to at that time than the disposal of prisoners. When the 24th reported at 2.10 p.m. that there were 40–50 lorries to the south-west, Barrowclough had been reluctant to direct 6 Field Regiment on to them since it was then firing in support of the 4 Brigade attack and he had no wish to jeopardise its success. At 2.40 p.m. the question was put more urgently when the 24th reported it was being attacked. For a troubled twenty-five minutes Barrowclough waited until at five past three he switched his guns from the 4 Brigade attack.
In the interim disaster had struck the outlying companies of the 24th in the west, the result mainly of rumours and wishful thinking by troops who had had more than their share of fighting, losses, and lack of sleep and were less wary than they might have been. The chief trouble was the persistent rumour that the troops who were advancing towards them were friendly, and it was this above all which undermined the defence.
The 24th was disposed in a semicircle facing north, west and south from the lattice mast where Colonel Shuttleworth had his headquarters. Although from there it seemed a compact position, the perimeter of well over 3000 yards was in fact too long and the ground to the west and south hard to defend against an enemy who overlooked it. D Company was on the western end of the escarpment with B along the higher stretch to the north-west, while A Company of 21 Battalion (under Captain Ferguson) was south and south-east of D. A Company of the 24th was south-east and east of Ferguson, and C to the east, facing south. Of these, numerically speaking, only Ferguson’s company was worthy of the name, and that only barely, as it had some forty men.
The platoons were separated from their neighbours by wide stretches of rocky plateau or by wadis and bluffs along the escarpment which limited their view and made contact difficult. Under such conditions it is not surprising that the fabric of command wore threadbare and threatened to tear apart. Captain Jones of D Company received a message by some means which asked if he was A Company and said ‘that the South Africans wanted to come through and to let them do so’. This was just after he had taken his men farther west in response to a Battalion request to take into his defences a wadi 200 yards away. The broken ground there narrowed the horizon, and when some of the men saw troops and ‘armoured equipment’ moving towards them these were not far away. A. H. Campbell,18 a private who was acting-sergeant at the time, at once notified Jones, who in turn got in touch with Battalion Headquarters and was told that the troops in question were friendly. Campbell pointed out that these troops were firing at his men but was told to hold his fire ‘on Col Shuttleworth’s orders’. A minute or two later the troops in question were identified beyond doubt as Germans; but Campbell’s men were ‘trapped in a wadi’ and it was too late to offer opposition.
Corporal Opie’s forward sections opened fire at troops who showed up to their front, but they held their fire when these troops raised their helmets on their rifles and continued ‘their leisurely approach’. This was, as Opie says, ‘somewhat confusing’. But he
could do nothing more about it, for it was at this stage that he received his third wound, a serious one, while carrying ammunition forward. Lying helpless in a slight hollow, he saw the enemy suddenly drop all pretence and attack in earnest, catching the defence unawares. ‘This of course cramped the style of the supporting sections’, he adds, ‘who could not fire without hitting their own men, and they in turn were overrun.’ The Germans then came under heavy fire from Vickers guns farther back and Opie saw one officer ‘having trouble in getting his men to advance in the face of it.’
Private Lynn remembers a ‘queer order’ to expect attack from a friendly quarter and to change front. From the west a large group of vehicles approached and ‘all thought the 4th Brigade was coming to our aid.’ Then more lorries were seen approaching from Bir Bu Creimisa and, as the two groups converged, ‘the guns livened up and shells began coming in three directions and all falling to our right.’ Lynn and those with him were told to hold their fire and there was mention of Poles and Free French. While changing positions Lynn saw ‘troops without hats’ in front and thought ‘at last we are safe’. When a section of Vickers guns to the right rear, somewhere near the Mosque, opened fire there was consternation. Captain Jones yelled out ‘For God’s sake don’t fire as they are our own men coming in’, but the Vickers carried on firing for a short time. The Bren-gunner in a nearby section opened fire but was quickly stopped by an officer. Private Sleeman19 could see Germans through his field glasses and men of 21 Battalion had already fallen back through D Company. ‘Next thing hand to hand fighting broke out and the Jerries were amongst us’, he says. ‘They with sub machine guns and we with just rifles.’ It was soon over and Captain Jones and his men were captured.
With minor variations, these were also the experiences of men of A Companies of the 21st and 24th, who were overrun at the same time. There were the same rumours and ‘orders’ to cease fire, and in the case of Captain Ferguson’s company the same last-minute change of position which left his men even more helpless than Jones’s to meet the attack. Second-Lieutenant MacPherson20 says it was ‘an almost impossible task’ to dig in on a flat bed of rock under heavy fire, and when the other platoons moved he kept his where it was. A Company of the 21st had three officers, Ferguson, MacPherson, and Second-Lieutenant Hutchinson, but there were no NCOs at all and in a very short time no more than twenty men, the others having been killed or wounded by fire which swept in from the south-west, south and south-east. Hutchinson’s platoon watched
the enemy advance on foot in extended order with mortar detachments leapfrogging forward ‘in excellent “fire and movement” ‘ until they were 400 yards away, when the platoon opened fire. Three times the platoon fired and each time there were shouts from behind for it to cease fire. Poles were spoken of freely in this connection and Hutchinson was puzzled and went back to the company telephone to check up. Looking back he saw his own men and Germans intermingled and hurried back to the front; but there was nothing he could do; ‘nobody could fire’. It was all over. MacPherson says that as a ruse some of the enemy in front put up their hands shortly before the end; this coincided with fresh shouts from behind to cease fire, and in the uneasy pause which followed Germans appeared among them.
A Company of the 24th saw a tank on each flank of the advancing enemy, and though these did not come close they gave deadly covering fire, added to the mortar and artillery fire which was bursting all through the defences. Orders shouted from post to post made men in Private Thomson’s21 neighbourhood highly suspicious and some of them went forward to check the identity of the oncoming troops. When they found out the troops were German it was too late; they were captured and masked the fire of those behind them.
Thus three companies were lost, perhaps 100 men all told. Some 20 were killed, 20 wounded, and 50–60 captured (many of these wounded), while about 20 escaped unwounded. The western flank of 6 Brigade was now held by only B and C Companies of 24 Battalion, with a wide gap between them. These companies were no longer in doubt as to the identity of their attackers; but they found it hard to select targets which did not endanger the captives, though in some cases they were forced to take the risk. B Company to the north was briefly threatened, but a mortar detachment fired sixty bombs in quick succession at ranges from 600 yards down to 100 and halted the enemy. The sustained fire of the Vickers gunners from farther back also daunted the attackers and greatly encouraged the defence.
For a critical half hour C Company suffered increasingly from a shortage of ammunition and the Germans managed to close in and throw their ‘potato masher’ grenades, calling on the defenders to surrender. Two carriers rushed up under anti-tank fire and hastily dumped some ammunition to tide the company over the crisis, then two more carriers replenished stocks of ·303 bullets in the outlying sections. From then onwards C Company was not seriously troubled, though fighting went on until dusk.
The carriers under Lieutenant Yeoman had swung round to take the attackers from the north – i.e., on their left flank – and from this direction they fired effectively into the enemy, greatly helped by Private Friday,22 a D Company runner, who had escaped capture and, mounting a carrier, directed its fire to good effect against MG posts. Major Mantell-Harding sent 13 and 18 Platoons of 26 Battalion forward but, though they passed through fierce fire which mortally wounded Second-Lieutenant Lamb and one or two others, they did not get to grips with the enemy. Shuttleworth himself did all he could to stabilise his front and was much in evidence among the survivors of his rifle companies. Far from being downhearted by the turn of events, C Company was, as Captain Tomlinson says, ‘very elated at the success of beating off this attack as by this time most of our platoons had been reduced in numbers to the size of sections.’ B Company also held firmly, though it came under heavy shellfire which killed Captain Wallace, the acting CSM, and at least one private.
These events were followed closely at Brigade Headquarters and it soon became evident that the enemy effort was on a more massive scale than Brigadier Barrowclough had thought. At 2.48 p.m. the B Echelons south of Brigade Headquarters came under shellfire from due south, which indicated the arrival of fresh enemy forces above the southern escarpment. At 2.49 p.m. the 26th reported the enemy deployment ‘in fairly large numbers’ for an attack on the 24th: ‘Now coming forward in waves over crest about 60 abreast . ... also some tanks’.23 B Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, with its Valentines was in reserve and at 2.55 Barrowclough ordered it to rendezvous at Point 157, 2500 yards south of the Mosque, and ten minutes later he told 6 Field Regiment to concentrate on the ‘local attack’.
Thus about 3 p.m. Barrowclough had to sort out in his mind the relative importance of the 4 Brigade attack, the attack on 24 Battalion, the heavy shelling of the B Echelons and Nottle’s imminent attack on the strongpoint. It was a curious mixture of the offensive and defensive, each in its own compartment.
The mentions of tanks in the various reports by the 26th were especially worrying. Seven were counted at 3.12 p.m. A few minutes later 6 Field Regiment stated that its 30 Battery was under heavy shellfire and two battalions were attacking it. When B Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, formed up to move off to its rendezvous Barrowclough therefore stopped its OC, Major Sutton, and sent him off to deal
with an enemy column to the south which included ‘some AFVs’,24 after which he was to keep the appointed rendezvous on the southern flank of 24 Battalion.
This enemy column seemed ‘a most suitable target for the Sqn of Valentine Tanks’ and the thrust seemed to go well. ‘Major Sutton moved off rapidly and in a very few moments his guns were seen and heard in action in a brisk encounter with the enemy. The tanks were seen driving the enemy back up the escarpment.’25 No sooner had the tanks gone, however, than 21 Battalion reported it was under fire from enemy to the east or south-east (as well as from the west) and attacks were evidently under way or impending from the west, south and east. He therefore asked Division to send another squadron of I tanks, and at 3.35 Freyberg signalled that nine more tanks were on the way.
Then 24 Battalion reported that its reserve companies had halted the attack from the west and the time seemed ripe for a counter-attack. Sutton reappeared on the scene and Barrowclough committed him at once to a second sortie in much the same style. He was to go westwards to a point roughly south of the original FDLs of 24 Battalion and then drive due north, thereby taking from the flank and overrunning the enemy who was facing Shuttleworth’s reserve companies. The Valentines were to go as far as the escarpment where D Company of the 24th had been overrun and then return by the same route, ‘shooting up the enemy wherever they were found’.26
Both thrusts, however, involved Sutton in harder fighting and heavier loss than Barrowclough realised. The Germans to the south and to the west were liberally equipped with antitank guns which could penetrate even the thick armour of I tanks. On its first sortie B Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, met ‘strong artillery and tank opposition’, destroyed a tank and four anti-tank guns, and killed about 200 enemy infantry, according to current estimates; but in so doing it lost five out of twelve Valentines. This thrust fell against a force under a Major Schmeling, detached from Boettcher Group at Bir Bu Creimisa. Schmeling had two anti-aircraft troops (including some 88s), two troops of Italian field guns, some antitank guns and infantry, and with these he claimed to have driven off twenty-four British tanks with the loss of four or five tanks. ‘Our own losses are heavy’, it was reported to Panzer Group.
On the second sortie B Squadron passed closer to the outposts of 24 Battalion than was thought, these being no more than 400 yards from the line along which Sutton had been ordered to push
northwards. But the German anti-tank guns were farther forward than 6 Brigade imagined and, of the seven Valentines concerned, only one came back in the first instance. In these two brief sorties B Squadron was therefore practically wiped out, a loss which was all the more serious since 6 Brigade had yet to meet the full force of the Axis counter-offensive against the Corridor.
Of the nine more Valentines promised by General Freyberg, only six actually reached 6 Brigade, all that could be mustered by A Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, commanded by Major O’Neill, who had already suffered heavy loss in the 20 Battalion attack from Bir el Chleta. Lieutenant-Colonel Brooke, CO of 8 Royal Tanks, also appeared, reaching Barrowclough’s headquarters at 5 p.m., by which time news had come in that five of Sutton’s tanks had been put out of action. Barrowclough at once committed A Squadron on a mission exactly similar to the second sortie of B Squadron, but with the added duty of doing whatever was possible to help survivors of that squadron. He also pointed out that it would soon be dark and A Squadron had better hurry. After what seemed an unduly long delay (though it was actually no more than ten minutes) the tanks moved off.
This time the I tanks did not go quite far enough and headed north through the lines of 24 Battalion. When they reached the RAP they opened fire on it and on troops nearby. A section of carriers was chased towards Battalion Headquarters and for a few moments there was a difficult situation until by various means the tank commanders were made to realise their mistake. Private Muir27 of the 24th crossed 30 yards of open ground sprayed by tank bullets and climbed to the turret of a Valentine to put a stop to this fire. A Bren carrier was carrying wounded back to the RAP when a tank came up, firing at everything in its way, including the RAP. Then it stopped and its commander got out and was very upset when he learned what had happened (though happily no men were hit). He told Private Bell28 he had orders to ‘clean up whatever he saw on the other side of the aerodrome’, indicating that there had not been time to brief the tank crews properly.
O’Neill managed, however, to bring back two more of Sutton’s tanks and returned to find the I tanks were still much in demand. A request had meanwhile reached 6 Brigade Headquarters from Division to use them with two companies of infantry to ‘clean up the German Infantry above Div HQ.’29 An LO had already reported
at 6.45 p.m. that there was half a battalion of lorried infantry ‘on ridge above Division’ which had machine-gunned the MDS to the east. But it was too late and no such counter-thrust was attempted.
Three medium howitzers concentrated accurate fire on the field guns of 6 Brigade, and even in the gathering dusk it was impossible to flash-spot their positions accurately enough for effective reply. When they ceased fire an hour after dark, 6 Field Regiment still did not have all the information needed to silence them.
It was plain that the guns and vehicles would have to move out of sight below the escarpment. Barrowclough therefore suggested to Freyberg that the transport should withdraw inside the Tobruk perimeter and that 4 and 6 Brigades should ‘take up a position with their backs to TOBRUK and facing EASTWARDS’.30 To this Freyberg replied that Corps had ordered him to keep open the Corridor and that he must therefore hold on to the present positions. An infantry brigade (first said to be Hargest’s and later Pienaar’s) was expected next morning, however, and armoured support was also promised. All Barrowclough could do, therefore, was to redispose his dwindling resources as best he could to hold the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, but with the defences now facing mainly south and east. This meant taking in Point 175 and thus creating an even longer front to hold with fewer troops; but there was no choice.
In a few minutes Barrowclough made up his mind what to do. Shuttleworth with 26 Battalion and what was left of the 24th would hold on where they were, but now facing south and west, 8 Field Company with a platoon of MMGs would face south on a stretch of escarpment north of the airfield, 25 Battalion would do likewise in the Blockhouse area, and 21 Battalion would occupy Point 175, facing south and east. To help with this last task, Colonel Gentry agreed to send a battery of 65 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, a welcome reinforcement. Brigade Headquarters, the field guns, and all the unessential transport would descend to a new area astride the Trigh Capuzzo, out of sight of the enemy on the southern escarpment. Thus 6 Brigade would form what the Log Diary calls a ‘thin red line’ facing chiefly south from Point 175 to about 1000 yards west of the Mosque, a distance of about eight miles as the crow flies but with a frontage on the ground of something like 18,000 yards, dangerously long for the troops available. A major counter-offensive against the Tobruk Corridor was to be expected and it was now only too evident that the British armour was not effectively guarding the southern and eastern flanks. All Barrowclough could hope was to hold on until the promised help arrived.
The whole brigade area was in a turmoil after dark as these far-reaching changes took place. In the Mosque area Shuttleworth pushed 26 Battalion eastwards to take in Point 162, which was essential since he now faced south, and he drew in the FDLs of the 24th towards the escarpment. An unexpected stroke of luck, not recognised until next morning, was that the enemy who had overrun the three companies of the 24th withdrew about midnight, ‘taking their wounded but leaving ours.’31 A 2-pounder portée, the crew of which had been captured, was recovered and manned by a scratch crew and many wounded were brought in; but beyond this the 24th did not do much. The men were ‘terribly tired’32 and did their best to get some sleep. The sappers of 8 Field Company similarly did no more than take over the ground they were now allotted and they left the digging until morning.
The mission of 25 Battalion was awkward, as it was not certain that the Blockhouse area was still free of enemy. Major Burton describes the preliminaries:
The air was cold and damp ... men wearing their greatcoats were dotted here and there talking in undertones. ... Some were bright, some a little depressed. ...
At 2 a.m. on the 29th they moved off, wondering what was in store for them and seeing flares which they recognised as enemy. When Burton could see the squat shape of the Blockhouse through his field glasses, he sent Lieutenant Cathie forward with his platoon ready to stage an assault. Just when nerves were stretched taut Burton’s driver jammed his motor horn and in a desperate move to quieten its penetrating blast he switched on the headlights, outlining the troops lined up to attack. But there was no enemy at hand and the Blockhouse and the escarpment on both sides of it were occupied without further trouble.
The new arrangements ended once and for all the scheme to amalgamate 21 and 25 Battalions and the former, under Major Fitzpatrick,33 with Major O’Neill and six I tanks under his command, moved up towards Point 175 in similar expectation that they might have to fight for possession. After some tricky navigating they failed to find the place; but before dawn an LO arrived from 259 Anti-Tank Battery, RA, and led the group on to the feature, where the anti-tank guns were waiting.
Similar difficulties attended the move of the vast mass of transport and the guns down the escarpment to the flat below, the former to a new transport area south-east of Belhamed and the latter to gun areas in the centre and north-west corner of the transport area. From there the guns could give support to the whole brigade front by indirect fire; but they could no longer engage in anti-tank action in defence of the infantry, and to this extent the brigade position was weakened, though there was as yet no evidence of impending tank attack and nothing to suggest to 6 Brigade that the enemy had many tanks left.
Though General Freyberg had emphasised weeks before the importance of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment and fully expected that his occupation of it would be bitterly contested by the enemy, he had no thought of heavy armoured counter-attack because, so far as he knew, the enemy armour by this stage, 28 November, consisted of no more than ‘remnants’. Thus he was unable to take the reports of the progress westwards of the enemy armour with the seriousness which the facts warranted, even when Divisional Headquarters came under fire and was forced to move.
Headquarters of 1 Army Tank Brigade34 with seventeen tanks (mostly Valentines) of 8 Royal Tanks (less B Squadron) and 8 Field Regiment, RA, (less V/AA Battery) supported by 259 and 260 Batteries of 65 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, formed a tough rearguard for Divisional and Corp Headquarters for most of the day. Seven Pzkw IIIs passed within 500 yards of this rearguard just before first light, and soon afterwards an eighth was found abandoned without petrol and was towed in. The rest of the morning was quiet, but things became lively in the afternoon and W/X Field Battery engaged what was first thought to be B Echelons of the enemy armour but were later identified as ‘enemy lorried infantry moving WEST along TRIGH CAPUZZO.’ The field guns seemed to have the situation well in hand, however, and there was no sign of 15 Panzer, though this was only a mile or two to the south and south-east. At Divisional Headquarters the danger from the east or south-east continued to be discounted, and when the MDS near the Wadi esc-Sciomar was suddenly seized, General Freyberg thought this was the work of a small band of mobile troops and was not greatly perturbed.
General Neumann-Silkow had ordered 200 Regiment to push northwards and gain the crest of the escarpment, which it did under shell, anti-tank and MG fire from the south. This thrust, led by 2 MG Battalion, came in the first instance against the New Zealand Main Dressing Station which had been set up in a large hollow between Wadi esc-Sciomar and the unnamed wadi west of it, and which included the bulk of the Divisional medical services. Most of 4, 5 and 6 Field Ambulances were there, the Mobile Surgical Unit, 4 Field Hygiene Section, and elements of British and South African medical units which had arrived as refugees and were now taking their share of the huge task of caring for 900 wounded (including 100 enemy) classified ‘for immediate evacuation’ until they could be sent, as was now hoped, through Tobruk and then by sea to Egypt. Besides these there were others too ill to be moved or not bad enough to be evacuated. Nearby was the prisoner-of-war cage with at least 960 prisoners, some of them captured in the early afternoon by 4 Brigade,35 guarded by 3 Section of the Divisional Provost Company and part of 5 Field Park Company.
The undefended MDS was a vast humanitarian enterprise caring impartially for New Zealanders, their allies, and their enemies, and the pressure of work was immense. Patients were coming in all the time and preparations were well advanced to send cases on to Tobruk as soon as the route was clear. Fighting had sounded close at about 4 p.m. but had drawn away to the south, and there was no thought of attack when bullets began to scatter through the area, their tracers flashing through the gathering dusk, and German soldiers appeared among the tents and vehicles. The guards at the PW cage were quickly overcome and the prisoners released, Colonel Mickl of 155 Infantry Regiment among them; then 2 MG Battalion moved on to the edge of the escarpment, leaving the MDS in German hands to carry on its work. As the German machine-gunners reached the edge they attracted MG and 2-pounder fire, and 18-pounders of Q Troop, 34 Anti-Tank Battery, also fired into the area in ignorance of the whereabouts of the MDS. Thus the wounded began a further ordeal at the wrong end of guns and mortars of the New Zealand Division and later of the Jock Columns from the south, and some of them and a few of the staff were killed and more wounds were added to the hundreds already under treatment.
As another section of the Provost Company was making its way up the escarpment at ten past five to relieve 3 Section, it came most unexpectedly under MG fire and hastily retreated. Enemy armoured cars appeared on the crest and began spraying the ground
below with bullets, to which anti-tank guns (including those of 259 Battery, 65 Regiment, RA) replied, and then some Valentines of 8 Royal Tanks came on the scene and the German armoured cars did not wait to argue with them.
All that faced 15 Panzer here in the first instance was ‘B Group’ of Divisional Headquarters under Lieutenant-Colonel Oakes36 of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, a makeshift organisation reminiscent of Oakes Force in Crete. Besides the anti-tank guns B Group had three Bofors of 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery and ancient Mark VIB tanks of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, joined later by a few recaptured Stuart tanks, inexpertly manned. The I tanks were not part of the group, though their help was welcomed.
This small force, including whatever the various unit headquarters in the neighbourhood could muster in the way of rough-and-ready infantry, faced eastwards along the Trigh Capuzzo with its right flank below the escarpment. The assumption that 22 Armoured Brigade was guarding this flank had yet to be disproved and, since Brigadier Watkins’s and Godwin-Austen’s headquarters were still to the east, B Group could reasonably expect fair warning of any attack. None was given and bullets suddenly started whipping through the area from above. ‘We destroyed a number of M.T. and had some first-class shooting at dismounted infantry’, the diary of 259 Anti-Tank Battery states; ‘but no tanks approached.’ This battery had one portée badly damaged by MG fire and a gunner wounded, as well as ‘7 flat portée tyres’.
RSM Gilberd’s37 ‘platoon’ of men from RHQ 7 Anti-Tank Regiment counter-attacked up the escarpment at the point where firing broke out and occupied the crest unopposed. Firing soon died down and in a few more minutes daylight had faded and the scene was lit only by a blazing vehicle on the crest and frequent flares to the south. These added vigour to the digging of local defences; B Group formed an outer circle and the Defence and Employment Platoon and the remaining provost NCOs an inner circle around G Branch office, which for a few minutes had been in some danger. Later in the night Divisional Headquarters moved westwards.
The NZASC companies and Ordnance Workshops which had scattered in front of the advancing German armour in the morning were reassembled by degrees south of Ed Dbana in the afternoon, where for a time they were shelled. In the meantime A & Q Branch signalled to Eighth Army for 200 stretchers and 600 blankets for wounded and prisoners and to Tobruk for 25-pounder ammunition
‘by any means ... urgently’. The routine report to 13 Corps stated at 4.45 that there was ammunition and water for one day only, petrol for 50 miles, little ammunition for infantry weapons and only 20 r.p.g. for the field guns, though the actual situation was rather better. It now seemed unlikely that supplies would come from anywhere but Tobruk, and the mass of empty lorries in the Divisional area served only to hamper the defence. Administration Group and Rear Divisional Headquarters were therefore ordered to move into Tobruk during the night.
For similar reasons General Godwin-Austen decided to do the same with his own headquarters and attached elements of 30 Corps Headquarters, and he signalled accordingly to all concerned at 6.45 p.m.:
As enemy force advancing WESTWARDS astride TRIGH CAPUZZO attacked HQ 13 Corps and ... am moving Corps HQ straight into TOBRUK. Corridor will be kept open at all costs. NZ DIV report from unreliable information ARIETE Div following westwards along TRIGH CAPUZZO. Do NOT attach much credence to this. No supplies of any nature received by land or air.
The second sentence rang loud in Freyberg’s ears and caused him to veto Barrowclough’s scheme to draw in towards Tobruk and then face outwards to meet the counter-attack. The Corridor, he concluded, would have to be kept intact; but it was now no more than an appendix from the original Tobruk perimeter, blocking the Trigh Capuzzo and the By-pass road, though the enemy could still get round the obstruction. Like the vermiform appendix of the human body, its significance was shrinking and it was doomed to be amputated if adequate steps were not taken to protect it.
It was a step in the right direction, however, to get rid of the unessential transport. After dark on the 28th the Corridor became a jostling bedlam of vehicles edging forward by degrees through 4 Brigade, through or round the Belhamed minefield, across to Ed Duda, and then into a narrow funnel through the deep minefields surrounding Tobruk. Such a journey at such short notice was beyond the ability of the best of staffs to organise like clockwork and mishaps were inevitable. Captain Bassett spent four hours at 4 Brigade Headquarters with an ear to the telephone arranging rendezvous and guides and trying as best he could to smooth the passage of all sorts of detachments driving unseen through the night. Had the drivers all been wide awake the journey would have been hard enough; but most of them had had little or no sleep for days and in the numerous halts they could not help dozing off. ‘One bad check, again through drivers going to sleep,’ the A & Q diary
says, ‘resulted in the front of the coln being lost, leaving the tail of the Adm Gp and Rear Div without guides.’ For those detachments, including most of Rear Headquarters, which halted on the By-pass near Ed Duda awaiting guides, the approach of dawn on the 29th was anything but welcome. To go on might mean running into enemy positions or minefields, yet to stay would certainly mean revealing themselves ‘in an extremely exposed position’38 when daylight came. Guides from 70 Division arrived just in time and led the vehicles through the Corridor into Tobruk, passing on the way forty-two lorries carrying 3600 urgently needed rounds of 25-pounder ammunition and other supplies to 4 Brigade. Many NZASC sections had no idea where they were meant to go. The Petrol Company diary, for example, says ‘Convoy completely broken and mixed, and diverted into a circle. ... Utmost confusion caused by outgoing vehicles [the 42-lorry convoy], and all touch lost with leader of main convoy.’ Then a guide from 1 Essex arrived. The vehicles in front, he pointed out, had gone to Tobruk – the first time the Company heard of its destination. But the time was now 5 a.m. and the lorries would have to cross a ridge which was under constant shellfire in daylight, and they would therefore have to move fast ‘to clear jam before daybreak’. They did not quite succeed and some shells fell among them before they got out of sight of enemy gunners.39
The 42-lorry supply column somehow struggled upstream against the flow of vehicles into Tobruk and delivered its valuable cargo to 4 Brigade. At the same time another and larger supply column, 260 lorries, which had been assembled in the frontier area (and included seven of Sergeant Plumtree’s Petrol Company lorries), threaded its way northwards from 62 FMC. It was led by Brigadier Clifton and escorted by seventeen Stuart tanks, eight South African armoured cars, and some 2-pounder portées, and in the middle of the night it reached the escarpment two miles east of Point 175. The armoured cars, trying to find a way down, entered the captured MDS in the dark but quickly withdrew, and the long column descended to the Trigh Capuzzo and headed westwards. Though enemy flares had risen in all directions for the last ten miles not a shot was fired at these lorries, and they entered the lines of 8 Field
Regiment, RA, some hours before dawn on the 29th. Leaving six lorry-loads of ammunition with the gunners, who were down to six rounds per gun, Clifton pushed on for a few miles and then halted at 3.30 a.m., still short of Divisional Headquarters, and the drivers enjoyed two well-earned hours of sleep. As well as 4000 rounds for the 25-pounders, they had brought the Division 37,000 gallons of water, 15,000 rations, a large quantity of POL, and other invaluable supplies. With the 42 lorries from Tobruk, this eased the supply situation, though the further outlook remained unsettled. General Freyberg also welcomed the escorting tanks; but he readily agreed when told that they were more urgently needed by 4 Armoured Brigade.