Chapter 23: Sidi Rezegh is Lost
THE assault on Ed Duda gave the New Zealand Division a day’s reprieve from attack by 15 Panzer; but the failure of this assault made the isolation and destruction of the New Zealand Division a matter of the utmost urgency. From the Axis viewpoint the passivity of 30 Corps in the past two days was too good to last. Panzer Group Headquarters thought the British armour was held up by lack of supplies and was certain it would soon resume the offensive on a grand scale. An early-morning aerial reconnaissance on the 30th seemed to confirm this opinion. When British tanks started moving towards the German strongpoint at Bir Bu Creimisa, defended by what was now called Mickl Group,1 General Rommel warned 15 Panzer and Trieste to be ready to help Colonel Mickl or Ariete Division. He nevertheless hoped that he would somehow be able to hold off the British armour long enough to cut through the Corridor, complete the ring around the New Zealand Division, and then close in on all sides to destroy it. For this purpose he placed Mickl Group under Crüwell’s command with orders to seize the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, a task in which 15 Panzer would join if not needed against the British armour.
The consternation which followed the discovery at Panzer Group Headquarters that 15 Panzer had withdrawn from Ed Duda was followed by a decision to leave this position outside the Kessel and cut the Corridor instead between Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. This task accorded better with the diminished strength of Africa Corps and the dwindling margin of time before 30 Corps was expected to attack again in full strength. But the British armoured thrust towards Bir Bu Creimisa evidently ‘suffered from the lack of a strong unified leadership’2 and made no headway. Rommel could therefore direct almost all his attention to the battle of annihilation in the Kessel.
Ariete was to push westwards along the escarpment from Point 175 to link up with Mickl Group at Sidi Rezegh, though it was having trouble from the British armour to the south and the Jock Columns to the south-east and was in urgent need of petrol and ammunition. If its situation got much worse 15 Panzer was to counter-attack to clear its flank and rear; if not, Neumann-Silkow was to attack straight through from Bir Bu Creimisa to Belhamed in conjunction with the attack by Mickl Group on Sidi Rezegh. Five tanks would be detached to help Mickl.
This was the plan at the start, but it was soon modified. At Neumann-Silkow’s headquarters there was some doubt whether ‘the destruction of 2 New Zealand Division was still possible’;3 but Rommel would hear of nothing else. As 15 Panzer made its way from Bir Salem to Bir Bu Creimisa the Tobruk artillery was extremely active and forced it to take a long detour, so that it was 1 p.m. before the division assembled. Then the RAF appeared and caused further trouble. Meanwhile Mickl was doing his best to extricate enough troops from the Creimisa defences to stage his attack and he was still far from ready. Rommel himself turned up at Crüwell’s headquarters at 1.40 p.m. and stated that 90 Light would attack Belhamed from the north at 3 p.m. and there was now no need for 15 Panzer to attack from the south-west; but he wanted Mickl Group and Ariete to move off at 3 p.m. with strong artillery support to which Trieste, Pavia, and the Army Artillery would contribute. Crüwell therefore suggested that 15 Panzer should advance to the saddle between Belhamed and Ed Duda and there link up with 90 Light and Rommel agreed, though he refused to postpone the attack for an hour to give Mickl Group more time. At 2.35 p.m. the artillery programme started; but the RAF returned and bombed Crüwell’s and Neumann-Silkow’s headquarters, causing further delay.
While this grave threat was developing against 6 Brigade, the New Zealand Division continued to operate with little or no help from either 13 or 30 Corps, and the better co-ordination with the Tobruk garrison with Freyberg hoped would result from Godwin-Austen’s presence within the fortress was not forthcoming. Both Corps remained out of step with events and tended to guard against the previous rather than the current emergency. Thus at 1.45 a.m. on the 30th 13 Corps signalled to 7 Armoured Division as follows:
ED DUDA attacked by 55 tanks and inf bn was captured by enemy. Now taken back but situation in area precarious. Most strongly urge you create diversion by advancing on enemy WEST of NZ DIV as quickly as possible to-day.
For Freyberg, to whom it was reported at 2.30, this was the first reliable information about the Ed Duda attack. It was sent in low-grade cipher and therefore reached him quickly; but other signals intended to guide the operations of the Division this day were despatched by high-grade cipher or LO and arrived too late to take effect. The first of these, sent at 8.15 a.m., told Freyberg to push on westwards towards El Adem as soon as he was in contact with 1 South African Brigade and was satisfied that he could hold his ‘present positions against all comers’; this did not reach him until 12.10 p.m. but was in any case quite impractical. The next was signed by Brigadier Harding at 9.05 a.m. and would have been much more helpful. It stated that the eastern side of the Corridor would be from Sidi Rezegh through Belhamed to the present positions of 70 Division, and that it was to be defended with ‘every defensive device available or obtainable’. This was what Brigadiers Barrowclough and Inglis had both recommended and Freyberg also strongly favoured; but it arrived far too late. Another signal of 9.10 a.m. warning ‘that BELHAMED will be attacked today’ did not reach Divisional Headquarters until 9.49 p.m. and a fourth of 10.20 a.m. arrived at 7.50 a.m. next day.
From the command point of view, formations in Eighth Army were worse off than ever. Although only a few miles apart, each brigade acted largely in ignorance of what the others were doing. Freyberg was able to talk from time to time by R/T with Norrie and Pienaar, but these contacts were less useful than they might have been, mainly because Pienaar received contradictory orders from General Gott. Army Headquarters scarcely entered the picture.
Thus the signal from Godwin-Austen of 1.45 a.m. about Ed Duda led to an order to Brigadier Pienaar at 6.15 a.m. to move to the escarpment south of Sidi Rezegh and then to Abiar el-Amar, west of 24 Battalion and south of Ed Duda. Freyberg of course knew nothing of this, while Pienaar (like Gott) thought Ed Duda was in Freyberg’s area, starting another train of misconceptions. To meet this new order, Pienaar sent an infantry battalion north-westwards with field and anti-tank guns, but it was halted by enemy fire some miles short of Point 178 on the southern escarpment. Later in the morning Gott, Norrie and the BRA of 30 Corps, Brigadier Aikenhead, all reached Pienaar’s headquarters and agreed that 1 South African Brigade should not now make straight for Point 175 (which was reported to be strongly held by the enemy) but for Bir Sciafsciuf and attack westwards from there along the escarpment towards 175. This was a serious mistake, as there was far less chance of regaining this feature from that direction than by a combined
effort by the composite armoured brigade4 and the South Africans from the south. Indeed the latter was the only practicable method, and the arrival of the South Africans at Bir Sciafsciuf would make little difference to the general situation. Freyberg nevertheless agreed when Norrie outlined the scheme to him at midday, no doubt thinking that the British armour would be included in the move.
What the South Africans were doing was a vexed question to the New Zealanders in more ways than one. Dawn had revealed a great mass of transport on Point 175, and in the New Zealand Division there was much doubt as to whether it was South African or enemy. Even after Freyberg spoke to Norrie at 7 a.m. he was still uncertain. An attack from the east along the Trigh Capuzzo started at 7.30 and for a few minutes this distracted attention from the lorries ‘congregated on the edge of the escarpment’.5 The attack was easily repulsed by 44 Royal Tanks with artillery support, and at 7.48 a.m. Divisional Headquarters learned for certain that the transport and tanks on the skyline just east of 175 were enemy. Freyberg and Brigadier Miles had issued tentative orders to concentrate all field guns on this tempting target, and the CRA now ordered 4 r.p.g. per minute for three minutes starting at 8.35.
At the appointed time the whole feature began to erupt with smoke and flame as the NZA fired its heaviest concentration of the campaign. When the scene cleared only a few tanks and lorries remained in sight, most of them on fire, and when tanks reappeared a little to the west, 6 Field Regiment fired a regimental concentration on them at 8.45. Then the regiment turned its attention to tanks reported just south-east of El Adem.
From then onwards the elements of Ariete on Point 175 preferred to keep out of sight; but their presence there constituted a threat to 6 Brigade and gave the enemy observation over most of the Divisional area. It made Brigadier Barrowclough’s position awkward, to say the least, and the units of his brigade scanned the southern escarpment and the ground to the south-east for signs of the South Africans. A commentary on their progress in a series of signals reached Brigade Headquarters and made it seem likely that they would appear at any moment. At 10.30 a.m., for example, they were supposed to be only four miles away, but no direction was given and the men did not know where to look for them. At 11.10 a.m. the 6 Brigade battalions were told that the South Africans were ‘making for Pt 175’ and 25 Battalion could see guns and tanks firing to the south-east.
Any hopes of help from that quarter, however, were doomed to disappointment. The British armour spent another wasted day in indecisive skirmishing with Ariete and what were wrongly thought to be groups of German tanks at various points. When 8 Hussars and 5 Royal Tanks chased Italian tanks in the morning and knocked out nineteen of them there was much rejoicing, and as a result the 4 Armoured Brigade war diary describes this as ‘a very pleasant day’. Heavy gun fire was heard in the direction of Sidi Rezegh in the late afternoon and was still to be heard when the armoured brigade moved south at dusk to its customary night laager. An intelligence summary of 7 Armoured Division describing the situation as known up to 9 p.m. makes it clear tht Gott thought that Ed Duda was a New Zealand position, and adds that it was heavily attacked from the north-east and south-west this day. But the New Zealanders, it adds, ‘were only forced to retire in the SIDI REZEGH area as far as is known’. To tank enthusiasts who refused to concede that any ground was vital, this may have seemed a small matter; but to those of 6 Brigade who were being overrun by German tanks (as the British armour retired of its own accord from the battlefield) it appeared very differently.
An Italian M13 tank damaged in the morning’s clash drove into the lines of 8 Field Company at 1.12 p.m. flying a white flag. One of its crew was dead, another wounded, and the remaining two surrendered. These said the bombardment of Point 175 had caused many casualties and much damage.
This was, however, a rare bright spot in a dismal scene. Everything depended on getting help to hold the long brigade front and to oust the Italians from Point 175. The battalions of 6 Brigade now had the following fighting strengths6:
|21 Bn (attached)||1||91|
These figures revealed, as Barrowclough says, ‘the extraordinary losses we had sustained’, and it was evident that the brigade was ‘far outnumbered by the enemy colns now assembling on the escarpment to the SOUTH and WEST of us.’7
To the infantry of 6 Brigade it seemed that ‘the usual afternoon attack is developing’, as the Brigade IO noted at 3.45 p.m. ‘Can our thin red line hold out?’, he asked.8 He soon learned that this was no ordinary affair, as the field gunners already knew. They had been extremely busy for hours engaging fleeting opportunity targets, hostile batteries which were shelling the infantry in their shallow defences, and various clusters of vehicles to the south and south-west. Some of the large-calibre guns the enemy used were beyond the range of the 25-pounders and Colonel Weir would have been glad of the help of 7 Medium Regiment, RA; but these valuable guns had gone with Pienaar to Bir Sciafsciuf at the other end of the battlefield.
There was therefore no relief from this fierce shelling for the infantry and supporting arms and these suffered ‘a real hammering with heavies’9 as well as from smaller-calibre guns and mortars. C Company of 24 Battalion, facing generally south-west, could plainly see German tanks refuelling at Bir Bu Creimisa and saw Hurricanes bomb them with little apparent effect. To the south infantry were forming up in threatening fashion and the tanks moved off to the right until they were due west of 6 Brigade. Captain Tomlinson counted forty of them, and at 3.55 p.m. Shuttleworth told Brigade there were fifty tanks a mile and a half away approaching rapidly from the west.
At this stage shellfire increased greatly throughout the brigade area, telephone lines were cut, and the situation soon became confused. The infantry and Vickers gunners nevertheless offered fierce opposition to enemy infantry attacking from the south and halted their advance. The two-pounders were then systematically eliminated from the defence, chiefly by mortar fire, and there was nothing to stop the tanks.
Weaknesses in the anti-tank layout were now exposed, too late to remedy them. There were six or eight 2-pounders in direct support of 24 and 26 Battalions, but the 18-pounders, Bofors, and 25-pounders were all below the escarpment, which in this sense handicapped the defence. The Matildas of 44 Royal Tanks might have been even more valuable, but the Ravenstein papers had labelled the eastern flank as the likeliest source of danger and the I tanks stayed there, together with anti-tank guns not strictly needed.
‘The two anti-tank 2-pdrs were the first to go’, says a private of C Company of the 24th, ‘and part of the shield of one landed on the side of my slit trench.’10 His company commander, Captain Tomlinson, says the 2-pounders were ‘soon reduced to heaps of
tangled metal, their gunners firing to the very last.’ Major Mantell-Harding, CO of 26 Battalion, signalled urgently to Brigade for anti-tank reinforcements and two portées drove up rapidly; but they came under concentrated fire from tanks as they breasted the escarpment and were shot to pieces. Then, at a critical moment, the field guns ceased fire. Mantell-Harding at once complained to Brigade, to be told a little later that the 25-pounders had used up their ammunition. The guns were quickly replenished and resumed firing; but the end was already in sight.11
So much metal was screaming through the air at this stage that few men cared to keep their heads up for very long; but those who did saw what looked like a well-planned manoeuvre executed with great precision. In reality it was not at all what General Crüwell ordered. He had given the saddle west of Belhamed as the objective of the panzers: General Neumann-Silkow decided instead to send 8 Panzer Regiment ‘across into the area of Mickl Group and to attack Sidi Rezegh first’12 so as not to expose its right flank. The regiment descended from Bir Bu Creimisa and I Battalion under Captain Kuemmel, with 88-millimetre guns in close support, made straight for the Sidi Rezegh escarpment at a point 1000 yards east of Abiar el-Amar and began to descend at once, finding the slope unexpectedly steep. II Battalion under Captain Wahl and the field and medium guns, echeloned to the right rear, came under heavy fire from 6 Brigade and Wahl turned to face this. I Battalion carried on eastwards along the foot of the escarpment towards the Mosque, meeting little opposition; but II Battalion met fierce resistance and Colonel Cramer ordered Kuemmel back to the top to help overcome this. To add to the vigour of the infantry component, 2 MG Battalion joined in on the left of Mickl Group, making up a force roughly equal to three infantry battalions; but, heavily though this outnumbered the defenders, it could make little progress until the tanks broke the back of the defence. About 5.15 p.m. the tanks drove in close and began to take prisoners, but this process lasted until dusk and made Neumann-Silkow postpone the Belhamed operation until next day.
For the remnants of 24 Battalion the situation looked hopeless as soon as the anti-tank guns were lost. The tanks ‘deployed in groups of threes ... and came on in this formation across our whole front’, Tomlinson says. ‘Their fire power was terrific.’ He sent a message to his platoons to ‘lie flat in their slit trenches and to allow the tanks to pass over them and when they had gone through to engage their infantry.’ But 8 Panzer Regiment was too cautious and the trenches too shallow for this stratagem to succeed. The tanks
‘cruised around with their guns depressed and collected our sections one by one.’ The few who offered resistance or tried to get away were shot down. For a few moments Tomlinson hoped that the light would fail soon enough to let some of the men slip away; but tanks appeared from behind and enemy infantry were ‘swarming over the whole area.’ Of his original company only fourteen survived and all these were taken prisoner.
A and B Companies of 26 Battalion were astride the track which led past the Mosque to the airfield and on the flat desert to the south and, like the companies of the 24th, they could do nothing to stop the tanks (though the mortar platoon kep on firing). They, too, were overrun, though a pause when the attack reached the Mosque raised slight hope that they might be saved. Captain Tolerton had asked Brigade for permission to withdraw while it was still possible, but this was refused. ‘The din at this time was terrific’, Mantell-Harding says, and ‘dust and smoke blinded everything’. Cloaked by the flying sand and smoke, most of 8 Platoon managed to get away; but the rest of A and B Companies were captured. Then it was the turn of the two unit headquarters, Shuttleworth’s and Mantell-Harding’s. Shuttleworth gave Brigade a running commentary by telephone and about 5.20 p.m. he reported tanks within 50 yards. ‘When I rose from my trench what a sight met my eyes in the growing darkness’, Mantell-Harding says. ‘We were ringed in by Hun tanks and their infantry were collecting the prisoners.’ The last few carriers had put up a gallant resistance and were now in flames.
A solitary anti-tank portée near the Trigh Capuzzo engaged a tank coming down the escarpment and knocked it out. This greatly cheered those at Brigade Headquarters who saw it, but it was evident that this gun could not stop the panzer force if it chose to carry on. Nor could C and D Companies of the 26th, on the crest of the escarpment, resist for long if the enemy pushed eastwards, though their positions were not so accessible to tanks. Major Walden of D Company therefore talked the matter over with Captain Thomson of C, and they decided to draw back eastwards to link up if possible with 8 Field Company and form some sort of line covering Brigade Headquarters. They had only eighty men between them and these withdrew out of sight of Sidi Rezegh and took up fresh positions, facing chiefly west, around the strongpoint captured by Lieutenant Nottle two days before. Walden and Thomson then walked east-wards to locate 8 Field Company and co-ordinate defences, and in their absence the two companies, hearing tracked vehicles approaching in the dark, withdrew towards Brigade Headquarters.
Brigadier Barrowclough had meanwhile ordered Major Burton of 25 Battalion to send his four 2-pounders to help Shuttleworth, a
hazardous move, since the tanks of Ariete were a constant menace from the other side of the Rugbet en-Nbeidat. Then, when things grew worse, Barrowclough ordered the whole battalion to move at once to the Mosque, and Burton was extricating his three companies from their positions around the Blockhouse when the threat from Ariete suddenly materialised. About 5 p.m. enemy tanks attacked from the mouth of the Rugbet, Burton advised Brigade, and he was told to stay and fight them. The four leading tanks were engaged by the gun L2, which set two on fire in quick succession, damaged the third, and caused the fourth to disappear quickly. The other three portées of L Troop backed over a rise to help and the Italians were soon discouraged. The infantry had meanwhile reoccupied their former positions and were told that the move was ‘off’ for the time being. At 10.40 p.m. Burton was warned once more to be ready to move to Sidi Rezegh, in the unlikely event that the South African brigade might need to be met there, but no such call came. After midnight he was glad to receive two more 2-pounder portées, half of O Troop, 34 Battery, sent up to reinforce his position. ‘Around us we could hear the rattling of tanks as they moved into position ready to strike at dawn’, he says. ‘Coloured flares lit the sky’ and the night, as he adds, was ‘full of anxiety.’
Just west of 25 Battalion was 8 Field Company under Major Currie,13 which had no anti-tank guns and therefore spent an anxious time wondering what was happening in the west. Walden and Thomson of the 26th with their guide, Sergeant Dodds, ran into 33 Reconnaissance Unit on their way to Currie and were captured. The Germans, carrying on eastwards in the darkness, were then suddenly engaged by the four Vickers guns of 9 MG Platoon and a section of 8 Field Company made a most successful bayonet charge. The Engineers rescued the three prisoners and captured several useful vehicles and much equipment, including some welcome antitank guns. The German unit fled. Later in the night the other half of O Troop with two 2-pounder portées joined 8 Field Company. Half a loaf was better than no bread and Currie was duly grateful, though the situation remained precarious.
Below the escarpment and facing generally towards Point 175, the small remnant of 21 Battalion had spent most of the day in shallow trenches under continual artillery fire. Then at 4.40 p.m. Major Fitzpatrick was ordered to deploy west of the brigade MT park and facing Sidi Rezegh, which entailed only a short move but more digging in hard rock. In the course of this stragglers
came through from the Mosque area and signs of disaster there became only too plain. After dark the area of the Mosque was ominously outlined by blazing vehicles and Fitzpatrick’s 160 men had every reason to feel apprehensive. Their positions were strengthened, however, by anti-tank guns which came forward during the night from 4 Brigade: the four 18-pounders of Q Troop, 34 Battery, and some 2-pounder portées of 65 Regiment, RA. The transport was all assembled ready for an expected move during the night; but no such move took place. Before dawn on 1 December the vehicles therefore had to open out once more to daylight formation.
After dark on the 30th Barrowclough ordered the remnants of his brigade to stand by in readiness to move into Tobruk. The Corridor was still open (and was in fact used this night to evacuate wounded from the 6 Brigade ADS) and it seemed that further disaster might be averted by posting the fighting troops facing outwards from somewhere near Ed Duba, with the field guns in support and the non-essential vehicles inside the fortress. But Freyberg still did not feel free to sanction this and said he would put the matter to 13 Corps for a decision. In the end 6 Brigade was told to stay where it was; the South Africans had been ordered to recapture Sidi Rezegh during the night and the British armour would give every help at first light. The proposal for the South Africans was vague and dubious and Barrowclough placed no reliance on it; nor did he expect much from the British armour, which had exerted little influence on the battle so far as he could judge. He therefore faced the coming day with a ‘fairly settled presentiment of disaster’,14 and all he could do to delay it was to move his field artillery northwards.
Even this move was much discussed before it was authorised. Colonel Weir of 6 Field Regiment had pointed out that it would be impossible to hold on for long next morning without adequate infantry cover, and he wanted to put his guns in behind some properly established defences before dawn. The obvious solution was that which Barrowclough favoured and he put it to Divisional Headquarters. Weir obtained permission to state his case to the CRA, but Brigadier Miles was away on a mission to Tobruk and he spoke instead to Colonel Gentry, telling him that ‘unless the Regt was covered, we stood to lose all of it’. Gentry agreed; but he could not sanction a move into the Tobruk defences. Eventually Weir and Barrowclough decided that the field guns should move a short distance northwards (averaging less than two miles) to the eastern end of Belhamed, where they would be beyond MG and
mortar range of Sidi Rezegh. After a moonlight reconnaissance Weir issued the necessary orders and the four batteries moved independently. When dawn came most of the guns were still hooked on to their quads and unready for any but emergency action, which scarcely enhanced their prospects of survival. Nearby was Freyberg’s Battle Headquarters, also perilously exposed.
It is a measure of the inexperience of the Division in its first desert campaign that throughout the ordeal of 6 Brigade in the afternoon of 30 November tanks, guns, and other defensive resources which were well within reach lay idle, awaiting the onslaught from the east predicted in the Ravenstein papers. This attack was expected from minute to minute, but it did not come, though at 5 p.m., when the panzers were closing in on the Mosque, there was a threatening movement of tanks and infantry to the east which attracted much attention and caused needless apprehension. Not only 4 and 8 Field Regiments, which had covered the eastern flank all day, but 47 Field Battery as well were told to stand by to meet the long-awaited attack along the Trigh Capuzzo. But 26 Field Battery and the Vickers guns at the Sciuearat strongpoint, with some help from the Matildas of 44 Royal Tanks, quickly discouraged what was in fact a half-hearted move by remnants of 21 Panzer. The field guns set one tank on fire, four other tanks were immobilised, and the rest of the enemy withdrew. Brigadier Miles came forward and soon judged that there was little to fear on this front. Just before dusk, therefore, 47 Battery and the guns of 4 Brigade were released from their stand-by and turned to engage panzers on the escarpment near the Mosque, in belated recognition of the far greater danger which threatened from that quarter. Neither of the two composite battalions, Colonel Hartnell’s and Major Cochran’s, came to grips with the enemy in the east and nor did ‘B’ Group, though the latter lost its CO, the redoubtable Colonel Oakes, who was killed by shellfire. The main activity of the day here was counter-battery fire, in which the New Zealand guns were handicapped by their shrinking stocks of ammunition and could not therefore give as much as they received.
Fourth Brigade Headquarters was not far from the main gun group of 4 Field Regiment, between Belhamed and Zaafran, and was only too well aware of the attentions the enemy paid to these guns. The worst hit were those of 25 Battery, which for the second successive day endured shell and mortar fire of such intensity and precision that for long periods the gun positions were quite untenable. Careful searching fire ‘neutralised’ (in the euphemistic jargon of the day) the most troublesome hostile battery, but A Troop
then suffered a direct hit on one gun and so many near misses on the others that the gunners were forced to take cover and engage targets from then onwards with rounds of gun fire as opportunity offered. Eventually it was decided to move 25 Battery about 1000 yards westwards, and since the guns were still under heavy fire the gunners prepared to take them one at a time to the new position. Before they could do so, however, the ‘attack’ from the east demanded their attention, and three guns of A Troop and two of C were manned by whoever was at hand and fired over open sights at the tanks and lorries to the east, attracting much return fire which pounded the gun lines. At the end all guns of A Troop were damaged and unfit for action; but another urgent task resulted from the arrival of the panzers in the area of the Mosque and C Troop, which had moved under heavy fire to the new gun area, went at once into anti-tank positions covering 4 Brigade Headquarters. This crisis passed, two guns went into action with E Troop of V/AA Battery, one gun of A Troop, quickly repaired, went into a temporary position overnight, and work on the other damaged guns continued. Casualties were mercifully light though much damage was done to guns and transport.
On Belhamed shellfire was comparatively light and 18 and 20 Battalions were in the main isolated from uncertainties in the east and disaster in the south. The war diary of the 20th has the following entry for 30 November:
Quiet day. Position apparently stable. Troops in good spirits.
There seemed ample strength on Belhamed to deal with occasional small movements of enemy to the north and north-west and there were rumours of substantial help. One account, for example, stated that there were 1000 Australians and 50 tanks about to ‘come out of Tobruk to relieve us’.15 Another was that a South African brigade was to recapture Point 175, thereby conveying the news that this position had been lost. Then there was talk of two armoured brigades, soon to be followed by a third, which were to help overcome all remaining enemy resistance. Captain Quilter studied the attack on Sidi Rezegh closely and was one of the few who concluded that 6 Brigade had been overrun. He reported accordingly to Brigade Headquarters and was assured that he must be wrong, though 4 Field Regiment was at that very time firing at the panzers. After 9 p.m. 20 Battalion was told that the South African brigade was about to recapture Sidi Rezegh and there was therefore no need to worry.
Brigade Headquarters was still more concerned about the eastern flank and when Major Gibbon of 44 Royal Tanks called later in the night he and the BM talked about this to the exclusion of dangers elsewhere.16 Captain Smyth17 of 6 Field Company also called to point out that ‘the eastern flank was thinly held and vulnerable.’18 Brigadier Inglis joined these discussions and agreed that the brigade position should close in towards Tobruk so that the front in the east occupied ‘the ridge running SE from BELHAMED to Pt 151’,19 a mile west of Sciuearat. This was suggested to Division and duly vetoed. The loss of Sidi Rezegh had put any such move this night out of the question. Failing such a major redisposition, the staff carried out minor adjustments in the east to strengthen the brigade defences, among them the move of an MMG platoon from the area of 20 Battalion to the Sciuearat strongpoint. A troop of 259 Anti-Tank Battery and about two platoons of 1 Buffs which had been defending Corps Headquarters now came under Inglis’s command and were all sited facing east, and 44 Royal Tanks, with seven Matildas, was similarly committed. Even at this eleventh hour it was not realised that the most dangerous opponent was the panzer force which had recaptured Sidi Rezegh; but a concession was made in favour of 6 Brigade when the anti-tank troop was redirected to Barrowclough’s headquarters.
The Divisional staff had strong personal reasons for over-estimating the threat from the east, for it was chiefly from that quarter that they had been shelled throughout the day. The open spaces to the west on the way to Ed Duda seemed thrice blessed by comparison with the battered and shuddering slopes of the wadi which housed but failed to shelter Divisional Headquarters and the 4 Brigade guns. Early in the afternoon of the 30th General Freyberg decided to move westwards and sent the GSO III (Ops), Captain Fairbrother,20 to reconnoitre a new location somewhere north of the Mosque. Having pegged out a new site after a quick survey, Fairbrother waited for Headquarters to arrive as scheduled; but it failed to appear. As he waited, however, he saw the whole development of the panzer attack against 6 Brigade and it was a revelation to him (and to G Branch when he duly reported this event) that so many German tanks – nearly fifty – remained in action.
Thus darkness came with the problem of where to set up Divisional Headquarters still unsolved. General Freyberg still regarded the Divisional position as being part of the Tobruk Corridor and interpreted in this sense instructions conveyed by the GSO II of 13 Corps in the afternoon that the Corridor was to be held at all costs. On top of this came a note at 8.15 p.m. from the wireless interception officer that 15 Panzer would probably attack Sidi Rezegh and 21 Panzer Belhamed at ‘dark to-day’, and that Africa Division was in the west. The German intention, the note stated, was to ‘stop you withdrawing’; but this was ambiguous. Freyberg might not have considered a westward move a withdrawal, and it was not clear that the enemy was trying to cut communications between the New Zealand Division and the Tobruk garrison.
Action of some sort was clearly essential, however, to remedy the serious deterioration of the Division’s situation; but it was hard to know what to do. The Corps orders, as Freyberg understood them, insisted that the present positions be held at all costs; but only decisive intervention by the British armour and the South African brigade next day could avert disaster. Wireless communications between Division and Corps were too slow to meet the case, and Freyberg therefore sent Brigadier Miles into Tobruk at 8 p.m. on an urgent mission to General Godwin-Austen. Before contact was lost by R/T he had urged Brigadier Pienaar to ‘push on, push on with the bayonet’,21 and at 9.15 p.m. he despatched a message to Pienaar which read as follows:
SIDI REZEGH was captured by the enemy this afternoon. Our posn is untenable unless you can recapture it before dawn 1 Dec. You will therefore carry out this task at once.
This was carried by Major Bonifant22 of Divisional Cavalry, who travelled in a carrier accompanied by Lieutenant Wilder23 in another carrier. Both got through safely. In the meantime Freyberg could do no more than keep Corps posted with events by W/T and hope that measures taken outside the Division would improve matters. A signal received from 13 Corps at 1.25 a.m. on 1 December, and evidently intended primarily for 30 Corps, stated Godwin-Austen’s view that he considered it ‘absolutely essential 7 Armd Div concentrates every effort [to] destroy enemy Tks East and West NZ Div posn’. At 2.50 a.m. Freyberg signalled to 13 Corps as follows:
Still no touch with 1 SA Bde. Orders sent to them by LO but possibly NOT delivered. Germans digging in SIDI REZEGH. Unlikely that 1 SA Bde have captured pt 175.
Somehow Brigadier Miles worked his way in the dark through a mass of traffic and a maze of unfamiliar defences and reached Godwin-Austen most expeditiously at ten minutes past midnight. He explained Freyberg’s predicament as best he could and asked for further orders. Godwin-Austen readily obliged; but a serious misconception entered into the discussion. His view of the Corridor was that essentially it was the link between the New Zealand Division and the Tobruk garrison. Thus when he insisted that it be held he did not preclude a withdrawal from the Sidi Rezegh escarpment towards Belhamed and Ed Duda on something like the lines already suggested by Inglis and Barrowclough; but Freyberg did not gather this meaning and took it that he had to stay where he was. Then the South Africans were so near and yet so far; their appearance on the scene might swing the scales in Freyberg’s favour, and it was a hard decision to move away from them and from any help the British armour might provide in the morning.
Whatever was decided, however, had to be decided soon, and Freyberg was more acutely conscious of this than Godwin-Austen. Miles was sent back with orders which were confirmed in writing (too late to affect the issue) as follows:
(a) Attack by 1 SA Bde on Pt 175 439404 and then on Sidi Rezegh, to proceed; if successful posns gained to be consolidated; if not, NZ tps to withdraw to area N of Ed Duda – Belhamed, hold Belhamed and keep in touch with 70 Div.
(b) Comd NZ Div to use own discretion about withdrawing dets from Zaafran and S thereof.
(c) XXX Corps being asked urgently to conc 7 Armd Div’s efforts on the destruction of enemy tks.
The alternatives in the first section were more apparent than real. Freyberg could scarcely find out before dawn whether or not the South African attack met with success, by which time it would be too late to close in on Ed Duda. Godwin-Austen evidently could not grasp Freyberg’s predicament despite Miles’s explanation, and Freyberg in turn failed to perceive that Godwin-Austen really meant him to use his own discretion, not only in minor adjustments in the east but in the major issue of whether or not to stay.
In Godwin-Austen’s spoken orders or in the way Miles presented them there must have been some talk, too, of holding the Corridor whatever happened. In his report Freyberg merely says that Miles returned at 3.30 a.m., 1 December, ‘with orders from Corps to say the corridor must be held’ and it was thus that he understood them, taking a larger view than Godwin-Austen’s of what was meant by
the unhappy word ‘Corridor’. But others at Divisional Headquarters gained a different impression, and the G Branch diary states that ‘any decision as to whether we are to withdraw into TOBRUK or fight it out was to be the GOC’s’, adding that ‘It was then too late to withdraw in any case.’ Thus the night passed with no real decision taken, little or no hope that the South Africans would succeed in the arduous enterprise to which Freyberg had committed them, faint expectations of belated help from the British armour, and the certainty that dawn would disclose a sea of troubles.
One important move was nevertheless made while there was still time: all unessential vehicles first of Divisional Headquarters and then of 4 Brigade were sent into Tobruk, creating another exodus through the Corridor (with surprisingly little friction and few incidents) and freeing the battlefield of hundreds of encumbrances. All possible wounded and prisoners were also sent; but by an unhappy mischance the B Echelons of 6 Brigade were left behind, cluttering up the ground between Belhamed and the enemy at Sidi Rezegh and gravely handicapping the defence. The 6 Brigade ADS, like 6 Field Regiment, moved northwards, but not quite so far, so that it rested uneasily in the morning between the guns and their targets. Divisional Headquarters had been thinned out, leaving only a tiny Battle Headquarters,24 which also moved to the eastern end of Belhamed, where it opened up a little north of 6 Brigade Headquarters and close to the new gun areas of 6 Field Regiment. Captain Staveley25 of 6 ADS was with Brigadier Barrowclough when telephone communications were re-established with Division and learned that the brigade had been ordered to stay where it was. From this he reasoned beyond all doubt that ‘We were for it the next day’. On this point Freyberg also had no illusions. ‘Despite these moves’, he wrote in his report, ‘we knew that there would be no place where we would not be under direct observation.’
Tanks and guns had helped German infantry to reach the Mosque and 7 Armoured Division might similarly have taken the South Africans to Point 175 in the afternoon of the 30th. But 1 South African Brigade had been directed instead to Bir Sciafsciuf and was left unaided to fight its way westwards along the escarpment to its objective. Meanwhile 3 Reconnaissance Unit and part of
21 Panzer began to take up positions between Sciafsciuf and Point 175, making the task all the harder, so that little ground was gained, despite much urging from General Norrie.
Norrie had boldly led the advance and reached Sciafsciuf about 4 p.m. and the guns hastened to register targets to the west before dark. At the same time South African patrols pushed eastwards to make contact with Mayfield Column, which was overlooking the rear of 21 Panzer from above Bir el Chleta. At dusk 4 Armoured Brigade withdrew to night laager (rather closer than usual to the scene of the fighting), communications with the New Zealand Division faded as the ‘air’ filled with ‘static’ (after Freyberg had urged Pienaar to ‘push on, push on with the bayonet’), and the South Africans faced up to an onerous task. First there was Wadi esc-Sciomar (now harbouring German infantry soon to be joined by armoured cars and some tanks) and then the unnamed wadi, with the captured New Zealand MDS in between, and finally Point 175, with an unknown number of tanks as well as infantry in occupation.
Pienaar knew of enemy only on the objective and he committed for his attack on Point 175 a modest force of two companies of the Royal Natal Carbineers with an anti-tank troop, with flank protection provided by a company of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles. The two companies were to meet the third company a mile south-east of Point 175 and expected no opposition on the way and only slight resistance on their objective. At 6.30 p.m. they set out, expecting to reach Point 175 soon after 8 p.m. Within three miles they halted, having come upon 3 Reconnaissance Unit moving up into Wadi esc-Sciomar and hearing panzers clanking about below the escarpment. The third company similarly halted to the south and the RNC pushed two platoons forward, led by armoured cars and supported by two field batteries. When the enemy offered hot opposition the platoons withdrew and all three companies seemed for a few minutes to be threatened by a tank counter-attack. In the end Pienaar recalled all three companies and they returned to Sciafsciuf, having suffered the loss of six men killed or mortally wounded and eighteen more wounded – evidence enough that enemy fire had been heavy and that the two platoons had carried out something more than a gesture. The medium guns fired their concentrations as arranged at 8 p.m. and repeated them later as requested; but their rounds fell far beyond Esc-Sciomar and could not affect the attack, and at 11.30 p.m. they ceased fire. Five minutes before midnight 7 Medium Regiment was told that the attack had failed.
The two New Zealand Cavalry officers reached Pienaar’s head-quarters at 1.40 a.m. on 1 December with Freyberg’s order to capture Sidi Rezegh as well as Point 175, and Pienaar consulted Norrie, who was close at hand. Both appreciated the dire straits into which the New Zealand Division had been forced; but the hour was too late. Norrie in his report remarks that ‘with all the will in the world’ this order was ‘not possible to carry out’, and the best that could be done was to resume the attack on Point 175 in the morning ‘with the utmost vigour’. Freyberg, of course, had hoped that Bonifant and Wilder would find the South Africans on Point 175 already, so that his order would entail no more than a move through 25 Battalion and 8 Field Company to counter-attack enemy in the area of the Mosque; but Pienaar knew of no friendly troops anywhere along the escarpment. Acknowledging Freyberg’s order carefully, he played up his current efforts but held out no hope that Sidi Rezegh was within reach:
I received your above quoted order at a.m. 0140 hrs 1 Dec 1941. I have been ordered to attack and take Pt 175 where I now have the bulk of my Force in action. I ordered an attack which was repulsed by hostile tanks Counter attacking my Infantry. As far as I can now ascertain the attack was a failure. I am here (450400) a matter of thirteen miles away from the objective which I am now ordered to recapture before dawn. With my present dispositions as they are It is not Rept Not possible to reach that point in time. I am trying to isolate point 175 tonight if I cannot succeed to capture it.
With this cold comfort Bonifant and Wilder in their two carriers set out on their return journey; but the hazards had now increased and they had to make a long detour southwards which took up much precious time. They lost a carrier on the way, and it was after dawn when they reached the lines of 25 Battalion. Pienaar’s message by the time it reached Freyberg had therefore lost any point it might have had.
Only the British armour could now save the situation and it was strongly urged to do so by Godwin-Austen in his message of 1.20 a.m. (and in another of 7.55 a.m. to Eighth Army). Gott was as a result moved to signal Brigadier Gatehouse at 4 a.m. as follows:
Enemy captured SIDI REZEGH. Bernard [the New Zealand Division] being attacked from EAST and WEST by tanks. Southern boys [South Africans] SW [ sic] of Pt 175. You will recce SIDI REZEGH area first light and counter attack enemy tanks at all costs, subsequently rally South of Pt 175.
This seemed clear enough; but it could allow confusion between the panzers at Sidi Rezegh and the Italian tanks at Point 175, and it was followed up by other messages which further clouded the issue. Gott was some miles away and had a curious view of the situation which was hard to reconcile with any such crisis as Godwin-Austen’s signal presumed. He thought enemy pressure in the Ed Duda area was somehow meant to extricate 21 Panzer ‘from a bad position’26 in the area north of Belhamed so that Africa Corps could concentrate at El Adem either to cover a major retreat or to counter-attack the British armour. That the destruction of the New Zealand Division was part of the enemy’s scheme did not fit his picture at all, and he had no idea that 21 Panzer actually lay astride the Trigh Capuzzo east of that division. The New Zealand Division was the contents of a huge cauldron which Rommel was trying to bring to the boil; but Gott saw it rather as a wedge which was splitting the depleted enemy armour and hastening its destruction by cutting off much of its supplies. He felt it was at last time to concentrate the Jock Columns, but in defence of the exposed flanks of 1 South African Brigade and not of the New Zealand positions, and issued an order to this effect at 5.10 a.m.