Chapter 22: Counter-attack on the Tobruk Corridor
GENERAL Rommel could now, for the first time in five days, make use of the planning resources of his own headquarters at El Adem and of the fighting strength not only of Africa Corps and Ariete but of Boettcher Group, 90 Light Division, Trieste, Pavia, Trento and Bologna Divisions, and the German and Italian Army Artillery. For this reason he flew with General Gause to El Adem on the 28th, hoping to talk things over with Generals Boettcher and Sümmermann and Navarrini of 21 Corps. Sümmermann was on the wrong side of the Corridor and he did not see him; but he met General Gambara and also his own nominal superior, General Bastico, who was worried about the loss of Jalo and Aujila and about the situation as a whole, and therefore paid one of his rare visits to Rommel’s headquarters. Bastico was doing all he could to strengthen the defences of Gazala, behind the Tobruk front, and of Ajedabia on the Gulf of Sirte.
Meanwhile the battle drifted (or was guided by Crüwell) into a shape which made Rommel’s plan to push southwards from the Via Balbia less and less feasible. As late as 7.45 p.m. on the 28th Crüwell nevertheless pretended to Panzer Group that a choice between Rommel’s scheme and his own still existed and asked urgently for orders. This was a stratagem he had used several times before when looking for an excuse to act on his own initiative, and by 8 p.m. he judged the time was ripe. He set out a plan to attack to the west and north-west at ten o’clock next morning with 21 Panzer on the right, 15 Panzer on the left, and Ariete covering the left rear. The starting line ran from Zaafran to Sidi Rezegh and the objective was the original perimeter of Tobruk at the base of the Corridor. Crüwell thus hoped to overrun the whole of the Corridor from end to end in one swift, violent action starting (if he did but know it) from the heart of the New Zealand Division. The conception was not unlike that of the Totensonntag attack; but the ground and the opposition were very different. Had Crüwell spent his time while awaiting Rommel’s orders in amassing and weighing information about the forces he faced, he might have proposed something more practicable; but this was not his way.
He sensed rightly that time was vital, but it was equally vital to strike in the right spot. He sorely missed the staff and facilities he had lost at Bir el Chleta on the 23rd; but Neumann-Silkow’s staff was at hand and it would have been more sensible to use the two remaining patrols of 33 Reconnaissance Unit to find out what lay ahead rather than for them to push, as they did, ineffectually against the ‘thick protective screen’1 of the British armour to the south. The much stronger 3 Reconnaissance Unit which was under Corps command could also have probed ahead; but it was committed again to defend the pass south of Gambut from which Colonel Kippenberger had driven it on the 24th. Without proper reconnaissance Crüwell could only guess the nature and location of the opposition he proposed to crush with one blow. Eighth Army thought of the enemy armour as a force bent on making its escape; Crüwell (and Rommel too) imagined that the New Zealand Division and other troops in the Corridor area were trying to shelter behind the Tobruk defences and he wanted to drive right through them before they could reach this haven.
Had Crüwell known more about his own troops he might have had second thoughts. But he had been out of personal touch with 21 Panzer for several days and did not realise how low it now was in strength and morale. This was evident in the person of its GOC, General von Ravenstein, who bore obvious signs of strain, as the Corps diarist noted, when he reported in at 8.30 p.m. and received his copy of the operation order. Ravenstein still had a fair complement of artillery, but only a handful of tanks, and his infantry battalion and machine-gun battalion were much the worse for wear. Yet by Crüwell’s plan these remnants of the once-proud 21 Panzer Division would have to make their way through half the New Zealand Division just to reach the starting line for the counter-attack. It was a hopeless assignment, as both generals were soon to discover, and there was little that 21 Panzer in its weakened state could contribute to the coming operation.
The next stage of planning followed familiar lines. Rommel’s order reached Corps at 9.20 p.m. on the 28th and differed from Crüwell’s in that it proposed an encircling movement rather than a single sledgehammer blow. Rommel had at least partly given up the idea of attacking from the Via Balbia and now wanted Africa Corps to mount a concentric attack from the east, south and south-west against the ‘Enemy in the area Belhamed and south’ and prevent him from ‘escaping into Tobruk’.2
Crüwell had two objections. The attack from the south-west could not be carried out without first overcoming the enemy at Sidi Rezegh and would therefore have to be deferred until a later stage. And the only way he could see of cutting off the retreat of the force in question was to attack from the area of 90 Light Division north of Belhamed westwards across the rear of the Ed Duda position, which was what he had strenuously opposed from the start. ‘Also it was too late to alter the orders already given’, the Corps diary added, not for the first time.3
Belatedly realising how little he knew of the opposition, at 6.22 a.m. on the 29th Crüwell ordered both divisions to send out strong fighting-reconnaissance patrols. But little could have come of this, because as late as 8 a.m.4 the diarist of 15 Panzer made the following note:
Little was known of the enemy. The divisional commander assumed that the last engagements had been with rearguards while the main enemy forces retreated towards Tobruk.
The diarist added that Africa Corps ‘would attack this force, cut its route to Tobruk, and destroy it’, a programme more in line with Rommel’s plan than Crüwell’s, though this may have arisen in part from the corps commander’s reiteration of Ed Duda as an intermediate objective without reference to Sidi Rezegh. But Kriebel says that Neumann-Silkow ‘knew of the steepness of the escarpment at Sidi Rezegh’ and decided to pass south of there; also 15 Panzer intercepted orders from Panzer Group, he says, and modified its plans accordingly. But Crüwell was travelling as usual with the leading tanks of 15 Panzer and could easily have been consulted. His independent and sometimes argumentative attitude to orders from above was matched by Neumann-Silkow’s, however, and the divisional commander determined to by-pass Rezegh and attack Ed Duda from the west. Panzer Group arranged for Boettcher Group to bring down supporting fire and for 90 Light to do likewise for 21 Panzer at Belhamed, in the fanciful belief that these two objectives would be attacked simultaneously.
Soon after 9 a.m. 15 Panzer moved off briskly through light shellfire which increased in weight as the New Zealand guns found its range, encouraging the vanguard to swing south of the southern escarpment. Though the British armour was some miles to the south, its guns also engaged the long German columns and British tanks harried the supply vehicles at the rear, causing much confusion
until 33 Anti-Tank Battalion took charge and drove them off. By 10.55 a.m. the leading elements of 15 Panzer suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves among friends, Boettcher Group at Bir Bu Creimisa.
Wireless interception had meanwhile introduced a fresh complication. Crüwell heard from Panzer Group that a ‘Strong enemy force with tanks and artillery’ was ‘advancing east of Ed Duda towards Sidi Rezegh’.5 This was part of the British move to put 19 Battalion on the Rezegh escarpment (with the help of Tobruk tanks and the Australians) and it came to nothing; but Crüwell was not to know this and at 10.30 a.m. he signalled to Neumann-Silkow as follows:
Ravenstein is lagging behind badly. Stop south of Rezegh and detail a force to open up the pass down from the escarpment.6
Assuming that 15 Panzer would obey this order, Crüwell signalled at 11.10 a.m. to General Sümmermann that ‘Neumann is waiting at Rezegh’ and ‘Ravenstein is to move forward’. But Neumann-Silkow refused to be diverted and carried on past Boettcher Group towards Bir Salem, three miles west of Ed Duda, opening up a wide gap between the two panzer divisions, while 21 Panzer loitered as before. Its GOC, General von Ravenstein, had set out on an early-morning reconnaissance and had not returned. In his absence his GSO I, Major Süsskind-Schwendi, failed even to get the division started on its westward advance.
Crüwell reached Bir Bu Creimisa before he realised that his order to take Sidi Rezegh had been disobeyed and there his attention was soon taken up by a rare gathering of senior officers. Rommel was there and with him the two Italian corps commanders, Gambara and Navarrini, and General Franceschini of Pavia Division. Crüwell again pleaded the case for pushing the attack through to the Tobruk perimeter but Rommel would not hear of it. He had no wish to deal with a garrison even stronger than that which had been the bane of his existence since April, and he insisted on cutting off ‘the enemy at Belhamed and Duda’ from Tobruk. As the Africa Corps diary puts it, ‘an enormous pocket was to be formed in the Belhamed–Zafraan7–Bir Sciuerat8–southern escarpment–Sidi Rezegh area’. This implied a new task for Ariete, which would become the connecting link between the two panzer divisions and form part of the forces directly encircling the New Zealanders. To complete the encirclement 15 Panzer would have to break through the Ed Duda position and link up with 21 Panzer on the ‘northern edge of
Belhamed’. There was not even a remote chance, however, that 21 Panzer would keep this rendezvous and its commander was at that very moment the prize exhibit at New Zealand Divisional Headquarters, the first German general to be captured in the Second World War.
When von Ravenstein failed to return from his reconnaissance the divisional staff began to get upset. Not only was opposition ahead altogether too lively, but the Jock Columns of 30 Corps kept up troublesome 25-pounder fire from the east and south-east and Ariete, moving on westwards along the higher ground, left the southern flank open. Appeals for help from Corps and 15 Panzer fell on deaf ears, and in the end Crüwell reconciled himself to the fact that 21 Panzer had no hope of reaching Belhamed. Realising at last that it could do no more than block the eastern escape route of the New Zealanders, he instructed the division accordingly at 6.35 p.m.
The southern flank of the New Zealand Division was now in great danger, increased by expectation of the arrival of 1 South African Brigade, since this led observers in 6 Brigade to view movement to the south with hope rather than suspicion. When 25 Battalion reported at 7 a.m. on the 29th the approach from the east of a large column, there was some doubt about whether or not it was friendly until its course carried it westwards above the southern escarpment. Then it was identified as enemy ‘escaping westwards’ and shelled both by 6 Field Regiment and by guns of 30 Corps far to the south. There was no suspicion that this was practically the whole of 15 Panzer Division.
Since first light 21 Battalion had been busily disposing its two companies in trenches and sangars prepared by 361 Africa Regiment to defend the derelict-strewn slopes of Point 175. The CO, Major Fitzpatrick, set up his headquarters in a large bir which had evidently been used for the same purpose by the Germans. Captain Turtill’s9 company extended in an arc from south to east with the dismounted carrier platoon carrying the line to the escarpment rim, while Captain Tongue’s company faced south with an outpost on the Rugbet en-Nbeidat, 500–600 yards from the left of 25 Battalion. Seven 2-pounders of 65 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, added depth to the defences, and seven Valentines and one light tank of 8 Royal Tanks lurked in two wadis ready to counter-attack above or below
the escarpment. Across the Trigh Capuzzo there were six field batteries which at various times gave support.
Though the position was weak in infantry, it therefore had solid support and the men were in good heart. They soon had an excellent tonic, moreover, when a German general fell into their hands. The ‘I’ Section had been stationed on Turtill’s left, and from it Second-Lieutenant Money10 set out about 8.30 a.m. to find a good place for an OP. ‘After walking for a few minutes we sighted a large car travelling WEST parallel with the escarpment’, two privates in the party reported. ‘Not able to recognise the occupants we lay “doggo” till it was within 200–300 yards of us. We then saw they were enemy so opened fire with our rifles. The car immediately halted and the three occupants ... dived into a hole. After firing a few more rounds we walked forward and took them prisoner.’11 Other members of Turtill’s company had given covering fire, including Private Goad12 and Turtill himself. Money says that when he got close enough he was ‘thrilled and excited’ to see the ‘badges of rank’ of one of his captives. ‘Unconsciously I must have taken a firmer grip on my rifle’, he adds, and the prisoner yelled, ‘ Nein! Nein! General! General!’ But it took some time to discover that the prisoner was Major-General von Ravenstein. At 6 Brigade Headquarters he gave his name as Mueller and Barrowclough sent him on to Divisional Headquarters, together with the many papers captured with him, some of them obviously important.
This was at five past ten, and at 11.15 a.m. Divisional Headquarters signalled back that ‘there are two immediate threats’ revealed by the captured documents: an attack from the east to ‘drive us back on TOBRUK’ and a panzer attack from Gambut ‘sweeping down on BELHAMED’ from the north. But the documents were not the blessing they were deemed: Ravenstein had missed the early-morning conference with Crüwell and knew nothing of later modifications to Crüwell’s plan to drive with both panzer divisions abreast straight through the New Zealand Division. The Ravenstein papers drew all eyes at Divisional Headquarters to the eastern flank in imminent expectation of the tremendous assault forecast in bold crayon lines on a captured map, though at that very time the major partner in this threatened enterprise, 15 Panzer Division, was already miles west of Sidi Rezegh and swinging round to attack Ed Duda.13
Meanwhile the close-packed columns of 15 Panzer Division attracted most of the gunners’ attentions and an attack on 21 Battalion started up from the south-east in such inconspicuous fashion that its menace was not immediately apparent. A small
group of vehicles which emerged from the direction of Wadi esc-Sciomar, near the captured MDS, about 10.30 a.m. carried 2 MG Battalion of 15 Panzer on a mission which was by some oversight a relic of Crüwell’s original plan. This unit, under Captain Busch, had been ordered to push westwards along the escarpment, in the mistaken belief that by so doing it would maintain a link between the two panzer divisions. Busch knew (as Ravenstein evidently did not) that Point 175 was strongly held, and set off on foot with two companies leading, his headquarters back a little, a third company in reserve in vehicles on the right and the Motor Cycle MG Company on the left. An anti-tank troop with five or six guns followed the leading companies, but there was no field artillery.
In this tufted desert it was the vehicles which attracted most attention. While they advanced under light shellfire, the leading machine-gunners drew as close as they could to the FDLs before the defenders perceived what was afoot. Twenty-first Battalion opened fire with Brens and mortars, and the German heavy mortars and MMGs quickly replied. Some machine-gunners reached the shelter of derelict vehicles (including tanks) and directed heavy and accurate fire into the eastern end of Turtill’s thinly-held position. This damage, however, was localised and with patience could easily have been overcome by the field artillery. But Majors Fitzpatrick and O’Neill agreed that the I tanks should make yet another unsupported sortie of the kind which had already caused 8 Royal Tanks crippling loss. In it O’Neill met his death and most of the remaining tanks were lost.
The main body of the enemy was well over 500 yards away when O’Neill counter-attacked with four tanks of 3 Troop on the right, while Second-Lieutenant Sugden led the remaining three tanks on the left. The Valentines presented a formidable threat to the machine-gunners and for a few minutes it looked as though 3 Company of the German unit would be overwhelmed. Then the German anti-tank guns opened fire and all four of O’Neill’s tanks were hit. ‘Major O’Neill’s tank came back out of action very fast with the turret on fire’, Sugden wrote later: ‘it is reported that the driver was pulled out by N.Z. infantry, but I am practically certain no one got out of the turret’. Sugden lost one tank to a Teller mine and was more careful with his remaining two, making two sorties and engaging the enemy each time from the crest of the escarpment until the anti-tank guns ‘started to hit us’ at about 700 yards’ range, when the two Valentines withdrew. After the second sortie Sugden’s tank was found to be hit through the radiator and from then onwards had to be towed.14
The Germans then pushed on through ‘violent’ defensive fire to seize the easternmost of Turtill’s posts and take ‘about 30’ prisoners.15 This was a copybook example of ‘fire and movement’, in the course of which overwhelming MG fire was concentrated at the point of attack. But it was almost the limit of Captain Busch’s success. To overcome heavy opposition on his left (from Captain Tongue’s company) he committed 1 Company, which was soon forced to dismount when its vehicles were swept with fire. The reinforcements nevertheless pressed on and pushed back some of Tongue’s posts, the remaining Valentine got ready to counter-attack, and the whole front was ablaze when Busch received orders to break off at once and follow 15 Panzer westwards. Like 33 Panzer Engineers at Capuzzo he pointed out that he would lose more men by pulling out than by carrying on; but Colonel Geissler of 200 Regiment insisted and 2 MG Battalion disengaged bit by bit ‘under terrific fire all the time’.16 The action had cost Busch 7 killed, 67 wounded and 17 missing; but there is no record of the losses of 21 Battalion, other than the estimate of thirty taken prisoner. Two whole gun teams of 259 Anti-Tank Battery, RA, had been killed or wounded, however, and the battery commander, Major R. P. H. Mackenzie, was shot dead while ‘carrying in wounded’.
By mid-afternoon men of 21 Battalion were able once more to move freely about their positions. Then the three Vickers guns which had done much to hold off the final attack were moved back to the edge of the escarpment so as to cover the Trigh Capuzzo. They were soon engaging ‘with good effect’, Fitzpatrick says, ‘the enemy column ... on the flat below us’ – 21 Panzer pushing towards Zaafran. More trouble was indeed brewing for 21 Battalion, but not from that direction.
At the other end of the long 6 Brigade position the morning also brought good news. Carriers found the enemy had departed from the ground overrun the previous afternoon,17 and patrols went out from C Company of the 24th to pick up wounded and recover weapons, ammunition and other gear left on the ground. The chief trouble now was the thinness of the troops on the ground. The two remaining companies of the 24th numbered a little over 100 (with three officers) and the 26th could muster perhaps 260 (with ten officers), not nearly enough to defend the whole of the escarpment west of Point 162. Most positions were on flat, rocky ground, with no cover for anti-tank guns or other supporting weapons, and in plain view of enemy on the southern escarpment.
Until 8.30 a.m. there were lingering doubts as to whether or not the troops seen in the Bir Bu Creimisa area were friendly; but the landing of an enemy transport aircraft there at that time settled this issue. Then came news of the impending arrival of the South Africans, with its consequent train of false hopes and disillusionments. The march of 15 Panzer was watched with great interest, seldom tinged with apprehension, by Shuttleworth’s group, by 8 Field Company occupying some 1000 yards of the escarpment north of the airfield, and by 25 Battalion holding 1500 yards on both sides of the Blockhouse, as well as by 21 Battalion during lulls in its contest with 2 MG Battalion. At 10.08 a.m. 25 Battalion reported a large column of unidentified lorries and tanks moving west and the Intelligence Officer noted that these were ‘Probably enemy who have made a break from NORTH for EL ADEM’.
The field guns, their ammunition replenished by Clifton’s convoy and the consignment from Tobruk, had their busiest day so far, and 6 Field Regiment was seldom idle for more than a few minutes. The only limiting factor was the uncertainty in identifying the various groups observed.18 The batteries generally covered their own zones, 29 and 30 the gap between Rezegh and Ed Duda reaching as far as Bir Bu Creimisa, 47 Battery the southern front, and 48 the south-eastern and eastern, but they were linked on occasions to thicken up fire on important targets, chiefly in the neighbourhood of Point 175. Three such concentrations were fired with some success on a hostile battery ‘located on scanty information’ in the unnamed wadi just east of this point, and a fourth was directed at ‘a hostile concentration’19 in Wadi esc-Sciomar. Some of this fire, by an unhappy hazard of war, fell within the captured New Zealand MDS. The 29th Battery engaged two large-calibre guns observed on the southern escarpment to good effect, but to balance the account 48 Battery received heavy and accurate counter-battery fire.
At about 12.40 p.m. the supply column escort ventured into no-man’s-land to the south on its way back to 4 Armoured Brigade, carrying with it the unjustified hopes of Brigade Headquarters and 25 Battalion (through which it passed) that it would help to ‘destroy some enemy convoys to the south east’.20 Then there was a distraction in the west. ‘Tank battle observed ED DUDA’, 24 Battalion reported at 1.50 p.m.: ‘30 Tanks’.21 This was premature, and when 4 Brigade saw 8 Panzer Regiment disappearing towards Bir Salem it concluded
that the tanks attacking Ed Duda had been driven off, an opinion duly relayed to 6 Brigade. Then at 4.45 p.m. 26 Battalion saw a ‘terrific battle going on’ to the south-west; ‘Two Big German guns on wheels ... firing furiously into battle’.22 The two guns were engaged by 6 Field Regiment, but though a ‘Terrific battle din from DUDA’ was heard at 5 p.m., its meaning was not at all clear.
Everything depended, in Barrowclough’s view, on getting the South Africans up to help hold his over-stretched line and thicken the defences against armoured counter-attack. His position was otherwise untenable. There was nothing to suggest that Pienaar might have serious trouble in getting forward. When at 3.15 p.m. a solitary armoured car came through the lines of the 25th bearing Lieutenant Bayley ‘to announce arrival of 1 SA Bde’,23 it seemed that Barrowclough’s troubles were practically over. All that remained was to identify among the various groups seen from time to time in the south the particular vehicles that were carrying the Springboks. The South African brigade would be easily recognisable, it was thought, by its ‘particular type of vehicles’ and by the armoured cars which would precede it.
In the light of what was actually happening in the south this was a recipe for trouble; but in mid-afternoon there was a deceptive lull. A report came through that the tank attack on Ed Duda had been driven off, the attack on Point 175 had died down and the enemy there was decamping, and throughout 6 Brigade there was only intermittent shellfire to contend with.
Lieutenant Sugden of 8 Royal Tanks suggested that the two remaining Valentines (one of them on tow) with 21 Battalion should withdraw to their headquarters on the flat below and Major Fitzpatrick readily agreed. Off they went, and Fitzpatrick inspected Captain Tongue’s company and moved over to Lieutenant Dutton’s,24 where rum was being issued from a supply taken from von Ravenstein’s car. A message then came from the carrier officer that a column of vehicles was approaching and that Brigade Headquarters, told by telephone, had replied that this was probably the South Africans ‘we had been expecting all day’.25 Fitzpatrick therefore sent out a carrier patrol and in the meantime did his best with those around him to make out whether the leading vehicles were the armoured cars of which he had been told. He could not be sure, but they had ‘high turrets like M.H.s [Marmon-Herringtons]’, and these were open and ‘the crews sitting on top had on berets’.26 Then
he saw Dutton walking out towards the newcomers, followed by some of his men waving their helmets on top of their rifles in a gesture of welcome. The artillery FOO alongside Fitzpatrick, however, was sceptical and gave his guns directions to lay on the approaching column, though not to fire.
Relief changed to horror and dismay when Fitzpatrick saw Dutton and the leading infantry among the vehicles, now identified as tanks, and under fire from them. The brigade Log Diary has the following terse entry for 5.10 p.m.:
21 Bn. Bn Comd sends urgent message for Arty support. ‘They are into my lines with three tanks and are taking prisoners. Arty support at once for Gods sake.’
Two Italian tanks were quickly disabled by portées of 259 Anti-Tank Battery, skilfully firing over the heads of the New Zealand infantry; but other enemy tanks were obscured by their prisoners. Brigade asked Lieutenant-Colonel Weir to help, but it was already too late for the field guns to reverse the situation. Many of Dutton’s men had gone forward and were caught in the open, the tanks opened fire, and the Italian infantry (for it was part of Ariete) debussed and were soon among them and disarming them. Some of Tongue’s sections slipped down the escarpment to safety; but most were quickly rounded up by ‘flying columns of Italians with LMGs’.27 Fitzpatrick got back as fast as he could to his headquarters, sent his ‘H.Q. personnel’ to the ‘bottom of the wadi’, and burnt important papers and erased map markings. When the tanks were no more than 60 yards away he asked Brigade for orders and was told to ‘do the sensible thing’. So he joined the others below and made off along the foot of the escarpment. He then met the acting commander of 259 Anti-Tank Battery, who was going back to see if he could retrieve the rest of his guns. Fitzpatrick told him it was ‘useless to go for them’ and the anti-tank party turned round and accompanied Fitzpatrick’s, stopping every now and then to engage Italian tanks on the crest. Near Brigade Headquarters Fitzpatrick came upon some field guns which were by this time engaging Ariete on Point 175 in the gathering gloom.
Various other parties also got back safely to Brigade Headquarters, including one consisting of wounded, a carrying party of about a dozen German prisoners (from 2 MG Battalion), and an escort. After a hot meal the survivors were allotted places in a new position near the Trigh Capuzzo facing Point 175, where they had to dig in on rocky ground. Twenty-first Battalion now numbered 5 officers and 179 other ranks,28 some 140 having been taken prisoner. Losses
in the supporting arms were also heavy. Only a sergeant and six drivers of 7 MG Platoon survived unharmed; at least three complete tank crews of 8 Royal Tanks were lost; and 259 Battery had 10 killed or missing and 8 wounded in the day’s fighting.
Once again the enemy held the much-contested Point 175 and in the morning would undoubtedly exploit the splendid observation it gave over much of the Divisional area. Many stories were told of how this disaster came about, and some survivors, not recognising their assailants, attributed to the Germans a deliberate and disarming pretence of friendliness towards 21 Battalion. But the truth was that the vanguard of Ariete, like Ravenstein earlier, thought the Germans held Point 175 and was as much surprised as the New Zealanders when it realised its mistake.
To Barrowclough the news was bad indeed and he looked for relief from the only source he knew: 1 South African Brigade. His efforts, however, had the opposite to the desired effect. On Freyberg’s orders Brigadier Pienaar had agreed to make a night march to 175 to ‘link up ... with N Z holding that point’, starting at 7 p.m. When he received Barrowclough’s message after 6 p.m. that Point 175 was lost he changed his mind. At 6.50 he reported to 30 Corps that the move was cancelled for the night ‘as door reported open was subsequently closed’.29 He halted his vanguard and the South African brigade bedded down.
On the eastern flank of the Division the main weight of the fighting below the escarpment on the 29th was borne by 8 Field Regiment, RA, (less V/AA Battery) under Lieutenant-Colonel Walton, by 8 Royal Tanks, and by four recaptured Stuarts manned by ad hoc crews from C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, as well as by some of the old Mark VIBs. These tanks struck soon after dawn and to better effect than they realised. The German infantry retreated in ‘wild disorder’ (according to 5 Panzer Regiment) until the twelve remaining German tanks and the anti-tank guns intervened, knocking out two New Zealand tanks and no fewer than ten tanks of 8 Royal Tanks.
The two small battle groups of 21 Panzer nevertheless suffered a severe setback which considerably delayed the assembly for the main attack, though Walton’s rearguard endured a blistering bombardment by the German guns. The German infantry came on again in mid-morning, backed by tanks, and the remaining Valentines and light tanks of 8 Royal Tanks carried on in gallant opposition until all were lost. Then the nine remaining Matildas of 44 Royal Tanks
stepped into the breach and fought a sound delaying action, withdrawing with the guns to the Divisional area by 1 p.m. without further loss. Thus concluded a rearguard action which was extravagantly expensive in tanks.
The eastern flank of the Division then stretched from Point 175 to Zaafran. Its defences were in the nature of a patchwork quilt, but they could be backed if necessary by the full Divisional Artillery and were more than a match for anything Colonel Knabe, temporarily commanding 21 Panzer, could set against them. The Ravenstein papers suggested otherwise, however, and encouraged Divisional Headquarters and 4 Brigade to pay undue attention to this flank.
The defences between Zaafran and the Trigh Capuzzo had been taking shape since the previous evening, when Brigadier Inglis decided to form a strongpoint in the area of Bir Sciuearat, a mile and a half due north of Point 175. This covered Divisional Headquarters in its new location and eventually formed one of the links in a loose chain stretching southwards from about halfway between Ed Dbana and Zaafran. The core of the strongpoint was 26 Field Battery, facing east and south, which was joined in the afternoon by Major Cochran’s composite force of South Africans plus 6 Field Company, and by 4 Platoon of 2 MG Company under Lieutenant Lee.30 ‘Zaaforce’ of 19 Battalion under Colonel Hartnell at Zaafran took over 5 Field Park Company and a detachment from Brigade headquarters, with 260 Anti-Tank Battery (five guns) and D Troop of 31 Anti-Tank Battery.
Brigadier Inglis now recommended that Divisional Headquarters should follow Corps Headquarters into Tobruk and clear the ground of the many non-fighting vehicles which hampered the defence. This was similar to Barrowclough’s proposal; and Freyberg rejected it for the same reasons. He had been ordered to keep open the Corridor and felt that ‘only chance of holding Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed depended on co-ordination of plans with SA Bde Gp’.31 Inglis had been listening-in on the ‘Bayley to Bayley’ link between Freyberg’s and Pienaar’s headquarters and was sceptical. He doubted if the South African brigade would arrive and pointed out that ‘it was a damned draughty corridor with nothing to go through it anyway’. Sounds of fighting at Ed Duda gave rise to speculation; but there was nothing to suggest that 15 Panzer had reached that area and Freyberg was still expecting this division to appear in the east in accordance with the captured plans. Yet the first heavy blow of the counter-attack had already fallen, not on the New Zealand Division but on the Tobruk garrison.
There was still some hope that the Tobruk garrison might be able to take some of the weight off Freyberg’s shoulders and Brigadier Harding had flown again to Tobruk on the 28th for further discussions with General Scobie. They both agreed that the next stage of operations would be defensive, but no material benefit accrued other than the welcome supply column of forty-two lorries from Tobruk. The proposals Scobie and Harding made to tighten up the defences of the Corridor, signalled at 10.30 p.m. on the 28th to General Godwin-Austen and duly approved by him, did not go very far and proved in the end fruitless. Scobie was ready to cover the gap between Ed Duda and Sidi Rezegh; but the complete redisposition of his troops which this would have entailed if attempted on an adequate scale was far from his thoughts. He also prepared to send the remaining half of 19 Battalion to reinforce Sidi Rezegh, the western part of which he understood to be in enemy hands; but the enemy there had withdrawn in the night and this plan was therefore cancelled, though it brought 2/13 Australian Battalion into the picture at Ed Duda as a useful reserve.
German tanks were seen approaching Ed Duda from the west at 1 p.m. and lorried infantry from the south. After a brief delay 1 RHA and then a battery of 104 RHA engaged the enemy, but the rest of the garrison artillery was too far away. The four batteries of 6 Field Regiment could have thickened up the defensive fire very considerably had the groundwork for such co-operation been laid in the past two days; but 1 Essex had to do without this help. Even the I tanks at Ed Duda did not seem to the infantry to be doing much, and B Company of 1 Essex soon found itself facing fifteen German tanks about 300 yards to the west. A and D Companies watched a brief duel at 900 yards’ range between an anti-tank troop and thirty tanks to the south which the tanks won. The next phase was a systematic destruction by the tanks of the rocky sangars of 1 Essex, an ominous development which Brigadier Willison at once reported to Scobie, asking if 7 Armoured Division could do anything to help. Scobie could give no assurance of this and told him Ed Duda must be held at all costs. A few I tanks ventured forward, several of them were hit, the rest drew back to hull-down positions in the rear, and from then onwards 1 Essex felt very much alone.
The attack on Ed Duda might have been even heavier; but it was carried out with breathless haste which robbed 8 Panzer Regiment of much support. A boggy stretch of ground below Bir Bu Creimisa held up most of II Battalion of 115 Infantry Regiment and many of the supporting guns. Only three companies of infantry therefore took part in the final assault. This was nevertheless successful as far as it went and the tanks and infantry collected 150 prisoners. Only
two companies of 1 Essex, however, were overrun and the Germans halted short of the rest of that unit. The three companies of 115 Regiment, some 300 men all told, split into two battle groups, one on each side of the By-pass road, and dug in at once. It was after 5 p.m. and already too late to carry the attack through to Belhamed.
At about this time Brigadier Willison ordered 2/13 Australian Battalion to counter-attack; but there was no sense in doing so in daylight against enemy tanks and the move was deferred until after dark. In 1 Essex, C Company, most of D, and a few of A and B Companies were still holding out. The German tanks were so near D Company that the men scarcely dared breathe; but the enemy seemed more interested in the ground to the north, where I tanks could be glimpsed from time to time. Four Matildas lay just behind C Company, excellently placed if the enemy came on but unable to engage the German tanks from where they were. Nor could they advance without offering the enemy easy targets.
When the light began to fail, some of the British tanks edged forward and the air was filled with tracers as the enemy engaged them. The Pzkw IIs came into their own in this twilight clash and their 20-millimetre automatic cannon blazed in deadly fashion at the Matildas, knocking out two them. The Matildas in the end gave ground and the panzers followed them slowly, ending up in brilliant moonlight at 6.35 p.m. on the edge of the Australian position. German infantry also spread out and some began digging in 200 yards from the headquarters of 1 Essex. To Colonel Nichols the position looked desperate.
Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows of the Australian battalion prepared to counter-attack; but the moonlight was too bright, the German tanks still very much in evidence, and he decided to hold his hand until the moon was lower. His B Company on the right and C on the left formed up on either side of Nichols’s headquarters, A Company covered 1 RHA, whose gun positions were now very close to the German tanks, and D stayed in reserve ‘along the western approaches to Ed Duda’.
Then the Australian B Company suffered a tragic blow. As it moved forward a heavy shell landed directly on 10 Platoon, killing eight and wounding ten of its total of twenty-six men. The other two platoons, ‘displaying exemplary battle discipline, moved past the stricken platoon, disregarding the pathetic cries of the wounded and the dying’.32 The stretcher bearers were soon on the scene and the gap in the Australian ranks was filled when a platoon of A Company and the remnants of B Company of 1 Essex spontaneously lined up to join the attack. Nichols and Burrows had meanwhile
called for tank support, and as the moon was waning eleven tanks came forward, all that was left of 4 Royal Tanks. These lined up astride the By-pass road ‘with only a foot between the horns of each tank’ and Willison inspected them there.33
When the I tanks counter-attacked, late at night, they ran all through the German lines, creating panic. Then the Australians fell with great vigour upon the two bewildered battle groups of 115 Regiment, ‘slew an undetermined number’,34 and took 167 prisoners, at a cost of only two killed and five wounded Australians. Mopping-up continued for the rest of the night and many small parties of enemy wandered in by mistake and were taken prisoner. The two Australian companies reorganised with the remainder of 1 Essex as a composite battalion under Colonel Nichols, occupying much the same ground as was originally defended.
On the enemy side six officers and about fifty other ranks, the remnants of those elements of 115 Regiment which took part in the action, fell back 1000 yards to the west and formed a new position alongside 15 Motor Cycle Battalion. This unit of 200 Regiment had been brought forward to continue the attack through to Belhamed next day with 8 Panzer Regiment. A second attack on Ed Duda was briefly considered, but there were too few German infantry at hand to undertake it. Then Panzer Group, signalling to 33 Reconnaissance Unit to come under its command and report at once to El Adem, used by mistake the call sign of 15 Panzer, which therefore withdrew at once and reached Bir Salem before the mistake was discovered.35 Thus the whole division was back where it started and the attack on Ed Duda gained nothing. Like the first attack on Capuzzo, it exposed weaknesses in the defence which were soon remedied so that any further attack would be harder still.
There was some talk at Panzer Group Headquarters of closing the gap between 15 Panzer and 90 Light by artillery fire, but in an appreciation of 10.30 p.m. on the 29th Crüwell stated without beating about the bush that ‘The enemy at Belhamed and Zafraan36 was not surrounded’ and ‘His contact with Tobruk had not been severed’. Crüwell therefore decided that the ‘tasks of the divisions for 30 Nov remained the same as for 29 Nov.’ He did not hear of the British counter-attack at Ed Duda, however, until 3.25 a.m. on the 30th, and it was not until 6.30 a.m. that he was told the bad
news that 15 Panzer was back at El Adem. Panzer Group identified a fresh British rifle brigade with 100 tanks to the south and was puzzled that this force (actually the two armoured brigades plus 1 South African Brigade) did so little. In an intelligence report to Berlin Panzer Group attributed this charitably to supply difficulties. The British Jock Columns harassing the rear of 21 Panzer were thought to be about equal in strength to the force in the south, which was anything but flattering to the latter – the main strength of 30 Corps.
On this day, the 29th, the main German striking force, 15 Panzer, was able to travel 20 miles westwards from Bir Sciafsciuf, tuck itself in behind Boettcher Group at Bir Bu Creimisa, and then attack Ed Duda without any effective intervention by the British armour. Ariete, too, moved up and seized Point 175 simultaneously with the attack on Ed Duda and under the very noses of the British armoured brigades, also without hindrance by them. While these grave threats to 13 Corps were developing the British armour was curiously passive, and a member of 3 Royal Tanks, who saw no enemy this day and fired no shot, has recorded his impression that the British command meant to ‘give us a bit of a break’ at this stage, with the result that 4 Armoured Brigade was ‘uncommitted to any decisive action for a considerable time.’37
Thus the two armoured brigades with at least eighty-four tanks between them and the South African brigade had even less influence on the battle than the Jock Columns. Early in the morning the armoured brigades took over two of the South African field batteries and 7 Medium Regiment, RA, was used for long-range fire against Ariete and Boettcher Group, leaving Pienaar very few guns to protect his brigade. General Ritchie signalled his approval of the policy of dispersion by ordering General Norrie to continue the ‘excellent work with “Jock” columns’ and to direct ‘armoured cars to harass enemy supply columns’. He also wanted Pienaar to ‘join up with N.Z. Div. as soon as the situation permitted’,38 thought this would not come about without firm orders. The British tanks still showed no inclination to clear the route and Pienaar could not move under threat of tank attack without strong artillery. Norrie had a vague hope, when he heard late in the morning that Clifton’s supply column had got through under cover of darkness, that a fighting formation could somehow do the same in daylight; but the situation called for something more than vague hopes.
General Gott signalled to Brigadier Gatehouse before 8 a.m. telling him to keep open (not to open up) the way to the New Zealanders and to ‘Follow 1 S.A. Bde and keep a look out.’39 How the armour was to keep open a road by following the traffic which used it is hard to understand; but the question soon became academic. All the armoured brigades did was to deploy again in the Sidi Muftah area, four miles north of their night laager, and spend the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon shelling likely-looking targets. They first managed to cause alarm among the supply echelons of 15 Panzer as these drove westwards, though they failed to identify them as such despite accurate reports from 4 South African Armoured Car Regiment. Another westward movement, probably of Ariete, then engaged Brigadier Gatehouse’s attention and he withdrew his leading elements and formed up facing mainly eastwards, allowing part of Ariete to slip past to the north. There followed two or three hours of comparative inaction and then 4 Armoured Brigade set off once again northwards, only to halt after a short distance while 2 Royal Horse Artillery, covered by 5 Royal Tanks, shelled 6 New Zealand Brigade at Sidi Rezegh in the belief that enemy tanks were assembling there. An hour later 4 Armoured Brigade Headquarters learned that the airfield was ‘clear’ and the guns ceased fire. By this time – about 1.30 p.m. – Gatehouse received orders to take up a position facing north along the 400 grid (running just south of the southern escarpment) from which he could counter-attack ‘any threat on our own Tps on the NORTH side of the aerodrome’.40 The attack by 2 MG Battalion on 21 Battalion was then in full swing, 4 Armoured Brigade was admirably placed to intervene decisively. and when Gatehouse reached the appointed grid line he was ordered to do so. He had 22 Armoured Brigade on his right and there was nothing to stop him driving straight on to Point 175. But at the last moment 5 Royal Tanks reported a large column about two miles to the west and sent out a patrol to investigate it before moving on, while the whole brigade waited. Some 40 to 50 enemy tanks were believed to be advancing on the left flank, supported by 88- and 105-millimetre guns; but ‘dust and sun’41 obscured the view and exaggerated the menace. For the rest of the afternoon 5 Royal Tanks fought an action of sorts against this enemy – probably part of Ariete – while the rest of 4 Armoured Brigade and the whole of 22 Armoured Brigade awaited the outcome. Each side lost one tank.42
While this was happening the German 2 MG Battalion moved westwards to rejoin 15 Panzer, driving without trouble past the British armour, and Ariete recaptured Point 175. General Gott had been ordered to ‘do everything possible to prevent’43 an attack on the New Zealand Division as well as to ‘destroy the enemy armour’. This day Ariete was most vulnerable, being short of ammunition and other supplies; but it was able to carry out its operations with very little interference by the British armour. At dusk the armoured brigades drew southwards to their previous night laager. Neither Ritchie nor Norrie read bad omens in the situation, chiefly because wireless interception provided faulty insights into the enemy’s situation. Norrie learned that both panzer divisions were ‘asking for assistance’ and the 21st found things ‘intolerable’ because of artillery fire from the Jock Columns,44 while Ritchie concluded that it had ‘become a matter of life and death for the enemy to drive us from the positions astride his communications with the west.’45 Neither had any idea that Rommel’s current object was to encircle and destroy the New Zealand Division.
Rommel’s forces were not strong enough to pursue this aim with advantage if Eighth Army concentrated to prevent him. He hoped to form a Kessel46 encompassing the whole of Freyberg’s force and some of Scobie’s into which he would throw a concoction of shell, mortar and MG fire so that dust and smoke rose from the witches’ brew like an evil steam. Then, when he judged that the contents were ready, he would thrust in his panzer force like a gigantic ladle to empty the Kessel. But this was highly fanciful. The circumference of the cauldron would be 30 miles long, passing round Ed Duda, Belhamed, Zaafran and the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. Along this he had to stretch his dwindling forces as best he could – part of Ariete in the south, the shaky remnants of 21 Panzer in the east extending round (with some slight help from 90 Light) to Belhamed, and 15 Panzer linking up the two through Ed Duda. The Kessel would at best be leaky and its thin walls in constant danger of collapse. A determined blow from the outside would demolish it once and for all, and with it Rommel’s pretensions.
Yet Rommel’s fancy was backed by his iron determination and encouraged by the inability of his opponents to act in close co-operation to pursue any aim at all. The main thought at 30 Corps and Army was to get Pienaar’s brigade inside the Kessel,47 where with its strong artillery and its three intact infantry battalions it
would undoubtedly have been a great boon to Freyberg. But the first thing to do was to overcome the panzer threat. Orders to the armoured brigades wavered between protecting the New Zealanders, covering the South African advance, and destroying the enemy armour. Pienaar’s orders remained unchanged until the late afternoon. He was to get in touch with the New Zealand Division as soon as possible, but first his reconnaissance troops must get through and he must not lose contact with the two armoured brigades; otherwise he was not to move from his position south of Sidi Muftah. When he reached Freyberg he was to come under his command.
This was as ordered by Norrie at 6 a.m. on the 29th and received by Pienaar at 8.50. Since the preconditions were not fulfilled he made no move in the morning. Early in the afternoon his reconnaissance troops reported a ‘large formation of Italian tanks to the NE of us’;48 but with further encouragement from Norrie and ‘orders’ from Freyberg he nevertheless decided to move if 22 Armoured Brigade could promise protection. This Brigadier Scott-Cockburn could not in the first instance do, being tied to the flank of 4 Armoured. At 4.40 p.m. he told Pienaar to wait an hour and then refer back to him.
Lieutenant Bayley of 3 South African Reconnaissance Battalion had meanwhile got through to the New Zealand Division with one out of three armoured cars which set out and an invaluable wireless link. Freyberg, thinking Pienaar was already under his command, promptly ordered him to move up to Point 175. This was the message:
Will you come with all speed under adv guard AFV protecting yourself East flank with arty of all classes to point 175 . ... Operate with confidence against these people. If you do you will get on top of coln moving East to West trying to escape on escarpment. They are Germans – force of troops in motor lorries and few AFV. Repeat take normal precautions for your front and flanks. Troops at 175 and to East [West?] at SIDI RESEGH. Shoot at these lorries East to West. Use Armd Cs right to East.49
This was reasonable enough, except that it viewed the enemy as an ‘escaping prey’; but it was a task for armour rather than infantry. That 2 MG Battalion was trying to escape fitted the facts as Freyberg knew them and he knew little of what was going on farther south. But Pienaar had first-hand accounts of the meanderings of Ariete and every reason to be sceptical about help from the British armour. He nevertheless decided to move and at ‘1663 hours’ – 5.03 p.m.? – the ‘Bayley to Bayley’ link passed the following to Freyberg:
Am despatching strong forces forthwith to rendezvous moving remainder tonight. Is that right?50
At 4.50 p.m. Norrie had again urged Pienaar to move, but to the southern escarpment, not to Point 175. He, too, spoke of an escaping enemy and not of a crisis in the New Zealand Division. But Pienaar nevertheless decided to make for 175 and set the starting time at 7 p.m. Then he received Barrowclough’s message that Point 175 was lost. At 6.25 he was told he was under Freyberg’s command and that Ritchie was ‘most anxious that you should join Bernard [Freyberg] tonight’.51 Freyberg through Bayley assured him just after 6 p.m. that as far as could be ascertained ‘point referred to is held by three enemy tanks and some MT’52 and told Pienaar at 6.14 p.m. to notify Divisional Headquarters when he reached 175: ‘we will then send up instructions’. This scarcely flattered an enemy who had overcome 21 Battalion and attached I tanks and Pienaar was not drawn by it. At 7.06 p.m. Freyberg ordered him to ‘push on at once a column adequate to capture and hold 175’ and to ‘Report when you are in possession of that feature’.53 This was demanding much; for Pienaar knew even less than Freyberg what strength was required to recapture the position and in the darkness had no way of finding out, so he waited until morning.
This was the end of the Bayley to Bayley link until after dawn on the 30th, and so Pienaar failed to explain ‘why such a move was not feasible until first light’. He did, however, get another optimistic message from Ritchie through 30 Corps at 8.30 p.m. that the ‘Huns and Macaronis’ were ‘squealing for help’, that 21 Panzer found its situation ‘unbearable’ and that Eighth Army should ‘stick to them like hell’. Ariete was indeed short of ammunition and supplies and 21 Panzer was sandwiched uncomfortably between the New Zealand and Jock Column guns; but an infantry brigade was not the force to tackle enemy armour.
Ritchie spoke to Gott in the same vein and with even more emphasis. He was certain 21 Panzer and Ariete were trying to get away and told Gott to ‘Stick to them tonight’. Gott was to do all he could to cut the L of C of the enemy armour and to use the South African armoured cars to ‘chivy’ the supply echelons of 15 Panzer. But no words of Ritchie’s could change the time-honoured cavalry custom of withdrawing from the battlefield at dusk, and the armoured brigades continued their leisurely journey southwards. Gott was unimpressed with other messages suggesting some sort of crisis, though both he and his superiors knew that Ed Duda had been heavily attacked. Further details of this attack which trickled through during the night, however, introduced an element of alarm at Army Headquarters.