Chapter 24: Belhamed and Zaafran
THE sky in the east was lightening when Brigadier Miles returned from Tobruk on 1 December and it was then too late to withdraw to Ed Duda and Belhamed. By this time, also, there was no hope that the South African brigade might somehow save the day for what was left of the New Zealand Division; but there was faint hope of help from the British armour and Freyberg had to cling to this. With some difficulty he was dissuaded from trying to get to Tobruk himself to obtain more satisfactory instructions than those brought back by Miles. As the desert began to waken, Colonel Gentry pointed out that with Germans at Sidi Rezegh such a journey in daylight was impossible. The Division, in Freyberg’s view, would therefore have to hold on to its present positions at all costs.
Had this issue been settled earlier much might have been done to improve dispositions; but it was now too late even for this. The weakened elements of the Division therefore remained disposed over a large area with little co-ordination between them and huge gaps in the defences. A night patrol from 18 Battalion had failed to make contact with Ed Duda, where half of 19 Battalion was stationed, and Colonel Peart’s two battalions, the 18th and 20th, faced the new day from Belhamed with some anxiety about the loss of Sidi Rezegh but in a generally hopeful mood, encouraged by over-sanguine Intelligence. Morale was high. The MMG platoon immediately east of 20 Battalion had gone to Sciuearat and in its former area were the guns of 6 Field Regiment, with 6 Brigade ADS to the south-west, 6 Brigade Headquarters to the south, and Divisional Battle Headquarters to the east. On the southern flank there were the lonely posts of 8 Field Company and 25 Battalion above the escarpment. At Sciuearat were the South Africans and Engineers under Major Cochran, with 26 Field Battery and two MMG platoons, and at Zaafran the other half of 19 Battalion with more Engineers and two platoons of 1 Buffs. The remaining guns of 4 Brigade were in the wadi between Zaafran and Belhamed. Except for a gap between Sidi Rezegh and the ground north of Belhamed, observed by enemy eyes and covered by fire, there were enemy in all directions. ‘Woke up at first light’, Freyberg wrote in his diary, ‘and made everyone dig again – very cold morning.’
With the cold a mist had settled in the shallow basin between Sidi Rezegh, Ed Duda, Belhamed, and the slight ridge south-west of Zaafran, and for some minutes as this slowly lifted there was complete calm. As soon as it was light enough to pick out neighbouring vehicles there was piecemeal rearrangement in 6 Field Regiment to overcome the more obvious disadvantages of the positions hastily taken up in the night. A few of the gunners felt that ‘something was amiss’1 and Colonel Weir had grave misgivings; but most men sensed no special dangers and entered into their usual early-morning routine. Primuses were lit and tea made. The guns were still mostly limbered up in column and in front of them were some wounded in ambulances which had missed the night convoys to Tobruk.
The night and then the mist, however, hid widespread enemy activity designed to take 15 Panzer another step forward, this time to Belhamed. Support was to come from 90 Light and the Army Artillery to the north, from Italian artillery to the south-west, from two batteries of 33 Artillery Regiment at Sidi Rezegh, and from Ariete and 21 Panzer to the south-east and east. Silently during the night the men of 15 Motor Cycle Battalion and 2 Machine Gun Battalion had descended the slopes by the Mosque and spread out over the flat to form a long line north of the Trigh Capuzzo facing Belhamed, their FDLs on their right perilously close to the remnants of 6 Brigade. North in the broken ground near the coast German gunners carefully prepared the massive rounds and charges of 210-millimetre guns and checked their calculations. Above the escarpment on both sides of the Mosque the 36 remaining tanks of 8 Panzer Regiment assembled with I Battalion forward, then Regimental Headquarters, followed to the right by II Battalion, anti-aircraft/anti-tank batteries with the tanks, and I Battery of 33 Artillery Regiment bringing up the rear. The tanks were to pass through the infantry on the lower slopes of Belhamed, and the infantry would then rise up behind them for the final assault. It was a heavy and methodical attack which the Germans had in mind, in keeping with a newly revised estimate of the opposition. Africa Corps had only reluctantly yielded its original view that the force astride the Trigh Capuzzo was merely supply lorries, and it was not until 30 November that it was realised that ‘a large force the artillery was in the Duda-Belhamed pocket.’2 The attacking units therefore expected a hard fight. At 6.30 a.m., before the mist lifted, they attacked.
In the New Zealand lines there was much uncertainty. Men of 6 Brigade mostly did not know what to expect and the two units of 4 Brigade on Belhamed knew so little that six of their eleven 2-pounders faced the wrong way. No anti-tank mines were laid though the situation cried out for them and three lorry loads were at hand.3 An FOO of 4 Field Regiment near 18 Battalion Headquarters reported enemy tanks to the south at 6 a.m.; but 6 Field Regiment FOOs, who could also see them, remained doubtful about their identity and refused to engage them for several critical minutes. Infantry could be seen forming up near the Mosque and then the tanks began to move; but Captain Crawford-Smith4 of 47 Field Battery, who was the nearest of the gunners to them, still thought ‘the tanks were our own’ as ‘the second tank was flying our identification signals’. (Actually, in defiance of the opinion of CRUSADER planners, the leading tank was a captured Matilda.) Next came the prolonged rumble, rising in pitch, and the thunderous concussion of heavyweight 210-millimetre shells in salvoes of three, compressing men in slit trenches, sucking them upwards, and dropping them back, a shocking train of sensations. These huge explosions were marked by angry clouds of smoke and dust which spread in each case over nearly an acre of desert. Medium and lighter guns thickened up this formidable fire and countless MGs joined in, soon replacing the mist with smoke and flying sand. In Colonel Weir’s estimation ‘two batteries started to shell us at a slow rate, just sufficient to raise the dust’, but from 18 Battalion the haze below was too dense to penetrate, though it was possible to see right across it to the south where ‘21 tanks, guns and lorried infantry’5 were advancing. In 29 Field Battery two gunners had been detailed to bury German corpses in a nearby sangar and had just finished when they were urgently called to the gun to fire over open sights at German tanks. Bullets were buzzing past ‘like angry bees’ as they crouched and ran the thirty yards to the gun position.6
The nearest batteries to the enemy were 30 Field Battery on the right and 47 Battery on the left, supported by a few 2-pounders, Bofors, and Bren guns. The field gunners fought in emergency anti-tank positions, unlimbering the guns under fire, and serving them in a thickening fog of smoke and dust which gave the action the character of a bad nightmare. Bombardier Loughnan7 of 30 Battery, for example, as his quad drove madly to a hastily chosen position, tried to drink a mug of tea but spilled most of it.
The gun was brought into position [he says], sights clear and prepared; but no ammunition ready. Two of the others were trying to get the armour-piercing shot off the limber. ... Next I was peering through the open sights at the tanks; they were far too close by now. Their light machine-gun bullets were penetrating the shield and shot was flying in all directions.
Geoff Oliver8, the gun-sergeant, swung the trail around and we fired the first shot – with what effect I do not know. After each shot we had to wait several seconds for the dust to clear.
The section commander, Second-Lieutenant Masefield,9 stood behind Oliver’s gun and the F Troop Commander, Captain Reed,10 moved from gun to gun, both officers heedless of enemy fire. When Loughnan was knocked from his seat by a shell fragment Masefield rushed up and took his place, but a few rounds later a direct hit destroyed the gun. Masefield at once ordered the survivors over to the next gun, the crew of which had all been hit, and they fired this until another direct hit killed all but one of them, Gunner Greaves.11 F Troop was to the left front of E Troop, whose visibility was further diminished by smoke from blazing F Troop vehicles. E Troop had lost its commander the night before, and Major Levy of 31 Anti-Tank Battery directed its fire at three tanks trying to outflank the position, destroying two and disabling the third. Two F Troop guns were still in action when all four guns of E Troop were knocked out almost together, and Levy ordered the survivors to remove vital gun parts and then withdraw. The wounded and those who still sheltered in nearby trenches were taken prisoner when the tanks came through. Drivers of lorries which had come under fire elsewhere did not know which way to turn and drove into the gun lines – from the frying pan into the fire – and added to the confusion. The hard ground where 29 and 48 Field Batteries stood caused AP shot and bullets, spinning madly, to ricochet in all directions.
The tanks were no more than 200 yards from 47 Battery when the telephone rang at C Troop command post and Weir at the other end of the line announced to the bombardier on duty, ‘I think those tanks are hostile’. Some of them seemed near enough ‘to throw stones at’12 when the guns opened fire, hitting two or three tanks and driving the others to the right, where they ran into 30 Battery. Following tanks then engaged 47 Battery from the shelter of transport beside the ADS, 300 yards to the right front, and infantry advancing through the smoke brought the guns under
fierce small-arms fire to which drivers and spare men replied with rifle fire thickened up here and there by Brens. The field guns fired independently and one by one they were put out of action, in some cases after running out of ammunition, the crews either rallying to other guns or making their way to the rear. Of seven men, including an officer, at one gun the sole survivor, a bombardier, was twice wounded and then taken prisoner, but not before he fired his last round. Finally, only one gun of F Troop of the 47th under Sergeant Cooper13 was still in action and Major Beattie, Captain Cade,14 and Lieutenants Harper15 and Young16 joined the crew. All AP rounds had gone and Cooper fired HE with 119 cap on to increase penetration, and then, when the Germany infantry closed in, he removed the cap and blasted them with HE at no more than 200 yards’ range. Small-arms fire poured in from the left flank, a tank appeared on the gun position, and Cooper fired his last round at it at point-bank range. Cooper was killed after removing the gun sights and a gunner picked them up and took them back. Beattie was then badly wounded, but Cade carried him back through deadly fire, helped over the last hundred yards or so by Gunner Nevins.17
Just before this there was a slight lull and Colonel Weir, having seen three or four tanks, ‘their turrets almost lifted off, burst into flames’, and his 30 Battery fighting magnificently, thought for a moment as others did that ‘we were getting the better of him’. He directed the fire of D Troop, 48 Battery, by wireless as the gunners could see nothing, then he went forward and found 30 Battery just about finished, its gun positions dolefully draped with wounded and dead and most of the vehicles blazing. There were nevertheless men on the scene with no thought of unauthorised retreat, and Weir got them to drive off any vehicles that still worked. Back at his headquarters, behind which were 29 and 48 Batteries, he sent unessential transport to take cover and some of the gun crews, thinking a general withdrawal was intended, began to limber up. When Weir told them otherwise they quickly went back into action.
In 29 Battery B Troop blazed away vigorously at several tanks glimpsed through the smoke and dust until they were disabled or disappeared, then the gunners paused. A Troop, however, was blinded by ‘clouds of dust and columns of black, sickening smoke’18
and did not fire. The men had been ordered to Take Post and then Stand By behind the tenuous protection of their gun-shields and limbers. While they were thus waiting, Brigadier Miles suddenly appeared on the gun position, a conspicuous figure with his red CRA armband, a light coat under one arm and a rifle under the other. He spoke a few words to each gun commander (‘A great fight going on over there – give one shell for one tank – good work – keep it up’) and then strolled over to B Troop, ‘paying little attention to the pattering of the bullets’.19
The tanks hesitated or sought other avenues of approach; but the German infantry came on through the smoke, taking cover behind burning lorries and bringing the gun crews under MG and mortar fire which it was impossible to subdue. As Miles arrived, B Troop resumed firing, but three guns were quickly put out of action, their crews dead or wounded around them, and the troop was overrun except for one gun which withdrew in the nick of time. Miles saw it all thus:
I reached the nearest gun – no. 4 – as most of the crews of the others were casualties by m.g. fire; though we could see nothing for smoke. Then figures appeared which I saw were German infantry, and I told 2/Lt Bevin20 to take them on. As I spoke No 3 gun pulled out past us, and a shell struck the quad. ... Almost simultaneously a burst of m.g. fire shot down Bevin and most of the crew of No 4 alongside me. I was a bit dazed, but heard a voice say ‘Limber up’. Another voice said ‘Cannot tow the gun with a punctured tyre’ . ... a shell landed to the left of the gun, a splinter slightly wounding me in the small of the back. The German infantry were advancing straight towards us, so I got into a slit trench by the gun with my rifle, hoping to pick off the German officer leading them and the chap beside him with a Tommy gun.21
Miles and the others at the gun position were taken prisoner. Weir had in the meantime ordered A Troop to withdraw when the position became untenable, but his own interpretation of ‘untenable’ was stoical; for he was at the gun A4 when ‘bullets were beating a tattoo on the gun and trailer’ and the crew was huddled on the other side. ‘How about a drink of water?’ he asked, ‘my oath I’m dry’ and after a quick gulp from a bottle he moved away.22 Soon afterwards A Troop withdrew under close-range fire which killed or wounded several men and the quads drove down a perilously steep path on the Belhamed escarpment, swung left at the bottom, and headed towards Tobruk; hastened by fire from tanks at the top, and accompanied by the one gun of B Troop which got away.
C Troop of 48 Battery also failed to find targets in the swirling smoke and did not fire; but D Troop carried on under violent MG and mortar fire until the guns were overrun. C Troop and the survivors of D then withdrew, on the initiative of Major Sawyers and at a time when Weir was trying to get orders to him to this effect. This battery took a different route, however, and entered the 4 Brigade area where Colonel Duff soon put the four guns into action in an anti-tank role, the spare gunners forming a thin infantry screen in front of them. Weir watched the last gun leave, saw Germans at his own headquarters, and made off over the escarpment on foot, coming under fire from Matildas which came on the scene as he headed eastwards but reaching 4 Brigade unharmed.
The last clash between 6 Field Regiment and the German tanks took place on the By-pass road north-west of Belhamed, as A Troop led a mixed collection of vehicles, including three Bofors of 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, towards Tobruk. Nine tanks appeared as if from nowhere and opened fire, hitting a quad, whereupon Sergeant Batty23 brought his gun quickly into action and knocked out the leading tank with his first shot. The other tanks at once withdrew and the group moved on, the field guns and Bofors going into action in close support of infantry then taking up position north-east of Ed Duda.
Losses in 6 Field Regiment on 1 December were the heaviest sustained by any NZA unit in a single day throughout the war: about 14 officers and 170-odd other ranks, to which must be added 60–70 of 47 Battery (5 Field Regiment), which was under Weir’s command. Of these, 76 were killed, 150-odd wounded, and over 100 captured. Of 32 field guns, 23 were lost. There were also many casualties in this action in the anti-tank and light anti-aircraft regiments, though the figures cannot be disentangled from losses elsewhere. The battlefield gave ample evidence of the severity of the fighting in terms of bodies, broken guns, and burning lorries, and it was with a heavy heart that Colonel Weir made his escape. To those who watched from Belhamed, Zaafran, and elsewhere the immense pall of smoke told of a bitter struggle, and Brigadier Latham, BRA of 13 Corps, confirmed this when he explored this ground a day or two later. He was so deeply impressed that he ‘picked up a rammer and after having it roughly inscribed sent it to Freyberg’. ‘Practically every gun was a “write off” though in the shops it might have been possible to make up one out of the parts of two’, he noted. ‘The dead were lying around each gun, each man nearly in his place and burnt out tractors and trailers were just in rear.’24 The official report of 8 Panzer Regiment, which had already seen much hard fighting, describes this as ‘one of its hardest battles’.
The guns of 4 Field Regiment, all of which were within reach and only too anxious to help, could not fire because the smoke curtained off all of 6 Field Regiment and most of 20 Battalion, a state of affairs which unhappily continued as 8 Panzer Regiment and its supporting infantry carried their attack on to the eastern half of Belhamed. The enemy bombardment was heavier on the western half of the feature and the mortar bombs and shells of all calibres which fell there ‘like rain’ (to quote one observer) discouraged all but the bravest from raising their heads from their shallow trenches except at infrequent intervals. Major Snadden25 of 46 Field Battery spent an exasperating hour near 18 Battalion Headquarters trying to perceive what was happening in the murky haze to the south and south-east, glimpsing targets from time to time but powerless to bring down fire on them, because telephone lines were cut to pieces and his wireless was out of order.
If 20 Battalion on the eastern half of Belhamed be regarded as facing Sidi Rezegh (though in the main it was not) D Company was on the right, elements of Headquarters Company in the centre, and B on the left, with C to its left rear and A 200 yards short of the escarpment to the north. Battalion Headquarters was in the centre of the area. The carrier platoon was to the right of B Company, the mortar platoon with five 3-inch mortars just to the rear, and three of the four 2-pounders of B Troop, 31 Anti-Tank Battery, faced south. The fourth 2-pounder, like 6 MG Platoon, could only fire to the north, and C Anti-Tank Troop, sited to the east, had already gone into action supporting 29 Field Battery. Communications with 18 Battalion had long since broken down; but telephone lines to companies remained intact until the action was well under way and the line to Brigade by a minor miracle kept working until nearly 8 a.m. The battalion had some 370 men on the feature, and with them were 30-odd anti-tankers.
All were in good spirits when the action started and took the approaching panzers to be the I tanks they expected from Tobruk. Even when they were no more than 300 yards away, most men were only mildly suspicious until 30 Field Battery to the left opened fire. Blazing vehicles and the dust raised by the tanks (some of which dragged brushwood behind them) soon blotted out this panorama and there was a long pause while the tanks methodically engaged 6 Field Regiment, making much use of smoke grenades to blind the gun crews. Two anti-tank guns were knocked out after firing one or two rounds; but B2 escaped harm and continued to shoot at gun flashes in the thickening haze. B and D Companies and the mortars engaged lorried infantry and several detachments
of motor-cyclists, doing considerable damage and causing obvious confusion to the enemy. Several German guns were also spotted and none of them went into action in face of this fire.
So long as the tanks concentrated on the New Zealand field guns the position was not insecure; but Captain Quilter of the 20th realised that this could not last long and reported accordingly to Brigade. Captain Bassett told him to hold on for half an hour, by which time I tanks would counter-attack, and Quilter passed this information on to Major Orr26 and the rifle companies. Then the line to Brigade was cut and when the tanks attacked it was too late to get permission to withdraw. A more experienced CO than Orr might have taken it upon himself to fall back when he saw the situation was hopeless; but Orr had only just taken over command of the 20th, the responsibility had suddenly become tremendous, and it was almost unthinkable under the circumstances for him to disregard the brigade order to hold on.
The 29th and 48th Batteries were still engaged in their last desperate struggle with the German infantry when the tanks turned their attention to 20 Battalion, approaching B Company obliquely from its left front. As they did so, several men made gallant gestures of defiance. Sergeant Lochhead, for example, fired a Bren at the slits of a tank no more than 60 yards away until it gave his sangar a long return burst with its MGs. Private Leckie27 fired all the rounds he had from his Boys rifle,28 called for more, and kept on firing until a Pzkw IV angrily swung its turret and killed him with a 75-millimetre shell at a range of 50 yards, crumpling up his ‘elephant gun’ with the same blow. Then, post by post, B Company was overrun, the tanks acting very warily and a few of the German infantry following up closely, the rest held at bay by small-arms fire. Most sections fired until the last and were so engrossed with infantry to their front that they were taken unawares by the tanks, the crews of which were surprisingly considerate and caused few needless casualties by their fire.
C Company and Battalion Headquarters were next and the ‘I’ Sergeant just had time to destroy his ‘maps, messages and code’ before the tanks closed in. The action was a bitter disappointment to C Company, which heard the fire but could see nothing through the smoke until three or four tanks suddenly appeared in the east. ‘It was then only a matter of the tank commanders saying up and out’, a private sadly remarks.29 Both C and A Companies could easily
have got away over the escarpment had they been permitted; but when the tanks ‘loomed up out of the smoke practically on top of us’30 it was too late and A Company, too, was lost. The RMO, Captain Gilmour,31 continued to attend to the wounded in the RAP north-east of Headquarters after he was captured; but by a misunderstanding he was shot dead by a following tank. D Company had meanwhile fired furiously whenever enemy appeared and therefore did not have the same sense of frustration as A and C when its turn came, though Lieutenant Wilson on the extreme right (and nearest to 18 Battalion) found it hard to order his platoon to surrender (to save the men from any accusation of doing it of their own accord).
The last shots of all seem to have been fired by the gun A2, operated by Bombardier Marshall32 alone after the rest of the crew were wounded. Marshall had been taken prisoner in Greece, an experience he abhorred, and after escaping he had vowed that never again would he be captured. He remained true to his word and kept on firing the gun single-handed until a tank ran right over it and killed him. The Germans must have been much impressed, because they took the trouble to bury him in the short time they occupied this feature and put up a cross inscribed ‘An unknown British soldier’ – the only New Zealander on Belhamed they bothered to inter.
The crew of the gun B4 slipped over the escarpment to safety when the infantry in front of them were captured; but very few others escaped the German dragnet. The only sizable body of 20 Battalion, other than the B Echelon in Tobruk, which escaped capture was the transport detachment with 37 vehicles and 76 men under Lieutenant Bolwell,33 the QM, which was below the escarpment and went eastwards with other detachments, including 6 MG Platoon, to Zaafran. Over 400 all told (including a handful of the 18th) were taken prisoner, 370 of them from 20 Battalion.
Eighteenth Battalion was sited with B and D Companies on the southern flank and A and C on the northern. Of these, C and D were the ones immediately threatened when the remnants of the 20th were overrun, and the situation at the junction of the two units was highly confused. One section of the mortar platoon, nearer to the 20th than to the 18th, was lost, and the crew of the gun
A4, halfway between the two battalions, was also captured. For a critical minute or two there was a grave danger that the 18th would suffer the same fate as the 20th and Colonel Peart and his adjutant, Captain Crump,34 worked hard to keep control of the situation. Both moved from section to section with words of encouragement or abuse, whichever seemed to fit the case. When a few men, seeing some of the 20th surrender, began to put up their hands, Peart and Crump used strong language to make them change their minds, which they quickly did.
The enemy did not immediately carry the attack into the 18 Battalion area, having enough to do collecting and assembling the prisoners from the 20th and reorganising after the severe fighting of the past two and a half hours. In the pause which followed, Peart took stock of his situation and soon realised that, with enemy on three sides of him, he would have to withdraw westwards if the tanks came on. When heavy firing broke out again about 10 a.m. and tanks bore down on D Company, therefore, he ordered a retreat at once, taking great pains to see that it was carried out in orderly fashion. He specified that the men were to walk and not to run whatever fire was directed at them. Some of the FDLs were under such heavy fire, however, that the men were at first reluctant to leave and then some of them started to run, at which Peart quickly intervened. He ‘waved his stick and called out in his quiet voice’35 and again gained the upper hand. The first stage was to get below the escarpment to the north, several hundreds of yards away for most sections, and it took a good deal of fortitude to walk this distance under heavy fire. As one private says, ‘it seemed like miles and they threw everything at us’. Several vehicles were set on fire and panic could easily have developed; but ‘as we got down the bank ... we were still operating as a team’.36 Some of the tanks had swung south of the battalion area and came against B Company from the south-west, but the Tobruk artillery promptly shelled them and they withdrew southwards. D Company and the remaining mortars engaged infantry in that direction before withdrawing, and the whole operation was carried through in excellent order with officers and NCOs, as the unit diary says, ‘in full command at all times’.
No more than half a mile to the west there was a German anti-tank minefield running southwards from the escarpment and, though two carriers were blown up on this (with a loss of two men killed and two wounded), it proved a great boon. The withdrawing companies crossed the Tobruk By-pass road and the leading sections
had gone past B/O Battery of 1 RHA when Peart rushed up in a carrier and headed them off. He asked them where they thought they were going, and when they vaguely suggested Tobruk he said, ‘Oh no you’re not, you’re going to stand and fight’ and he ‘jockeyed us round into a new position once more on the top, in some old opposition sangars.’37 Having got in touch with 1 Battalion, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, in its new strongpoint ‘Leopard’ at Magen Belhamed, and placed himself under command of 14 Infantry Brigade of the Tobruk garrison, Peart lost no time in getting his men back into action against the enemy who now occupied Belhamed. By 11 a.m. A Company was moving into positions behind the minefield half a mile west-south-west of the former B Company position, and C Company dug in along the top of the escarpment 700 yards west of where A Company had originally been, forming a front facing east with D Company behind them and B in reserve in a wadi to the rear. The occupation was complete by 12.30 p.m.
Tanks meanwhile nosed up to the minefield but did not try to cross it, and after a pause they disappeared. Then some of the Tobruk I tanks appeared on the scene and they, too, were halted by the anti-tank mines and soon withdrew. German infantry began to dig in a short distance away and subjected the new defence line to heavy mortar fire, which wounded one or two men and brought the total of 18 Battalion casualties in the action to over sixty.
The main remaining worry was that there was no way of advising 4 Brigade what had happened; but this was unexpectedly overcome when a Stuart tank of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, which had somehow became isolated in the Corridor area, came forward and Peart spoke to Captain Bassett by R/T. Bassett, who had been called to Major Bonifant’s tank to receive the message, put on the earphones and to this surprise and delight heard Peart’s voice: ‘Hullo Brian, it’s Jan here, I’ve withdrawn my Battalion complete, West into the Tobruk corridor, and filled the gap north of 19th Companys from Duda’.38 This was indeed good news; for there had been nothing at Zaafran until then to suggest that the 18th had not suffered the same fate as the 20th.
Divisional Battle Headquarters had settled down for the night just east of 6 Field Regiment and it was not long after the start of the morning’s action that the cluster of vehicles around G Branch office were right in the firing line. A photograph of the scene to the south-west shows bushy tufts of scrub in the foreground, long
shadows from the left rear of the camera, the GOC’s station wagon thirty yards away with men in the scrub alongside it under fire and Freyberg and one or two men standing, a great column of smoke behind the car, and vehicles of 6 Field Regiment (including a gun tractor) on the skyline perhaps 200 yards away, some of them burning. It was a grim scene and became even grimmer when C Troop of 48 Battery just to the front hooked on its guns and departed. Lieutenant Wood39 of that troop as he drove back ‘stopped to have a word with the General who was as cool as a cucumber’.
The South African armoured car, which through its wireless set provided the only means of communication with 30 Corps, was near at hand, and when German tanks were very close and men ahead were seen putting up their hands Freyberg decided to make one more appeal to General Norrie for help:
By now the machine-gun fire coming into the area had reached a crescendo of fury, and bullets clanged on the side of the armoured car as the General imperturbably continued his wireless conversation. Sergeant Smith40 came over from the car to where Agar [OC Divisional Signals] stood near the signal office. He jerked his thumb in the direction of the General and spat on the ground expressively. ‘The man’s mad! Why the hell doesn’t he get inside the car?’41
This was just before 7.45 a.m. Freyberg spoke to Norrie and learned that ‘SAs still not on their objective’ (as he noted in his diary). Norrie in his report says Freyberg ‘re-stated what had occurred and that he was again being attacked and needed assistance’. Then Freyberg signalled 13 Corps as follows:
Decision taken out of our hands. Being heavily attacked from S and W. 1 SA Bde failed to take point 175 last night but are going to try again this morning. Am in touch with NORRIE.
At the same time Brigadier Barrowclough telephoned to say that his headquarters was ‘in trouble & would have to go.’42
The withdrawal of Battle Headquarters had already been left perilously late and some of the staff were becoming understandably concerned. When Captain Fairbrother called out, ‘The gunners ahead have their hands up’ – no more than 150 yards away – Freyberg at last ordered the group to break away to the east and rendezvous at 4 Brigade Headquarters. Fire was heavy, Colonel Gentry’s driver was at that moment killed, and there was no time to lose.43
To the rear the scrub thickened as the ground fell away to form a wadi between Belhamed and Zaafran which widened as it curled round to the south-east towards Sciuearat. Halfway between Zaafran and the Blockhouse was a slight ridge, scarcely perceptible on the ground yet practically as high as Belhamed (though narrower and longer), and 4 Brigade Headquarters was assembled north of the western end of this ridge and on the enemy side of the wadi, about a mile and a half east of 6 Brigade Headquarters. It was no haven of rest, and most of the vehicles of Battle Headquarters made for the shelter of the wadi where the main gun group of 4 Brigade was sited. Freyberg himself paused on the way and went over to where the remaining Matildas of 44 Royal Tanks were climbing the western side of the wadi near its mouth in a belated attempt to save 20 Battalion.
These seven I tanks had been sent to the east at first light and therefore took some time to respond to the order to help 20 Battalion and arrived too late to intervene. They were nevertheless led west-wards by Captain Ling and climbed a steep slope at the eastern edge of Belhamed to fight a lone rearguard action. Ling describes in his report the scene of desolation:
The whole of BELHAMED was a mass of black smoke from the burning N.Z. Div HQ and amongst it in the centre could be seen some six Mark III and Mark IV tanks at 1800 yards range. We fired at them and after a time they sheered off except one, which watched us from a position behind some burning vehicles out of range. My tank received a direct hit on the mantle and was made useless for further firing. I decided to remain in it and control fire of my other tanks. The F.O.O. [of 8 Field Regiment, RA] could not help a lot as he had to conserve ammunition and was only allowed to fire at concentrations of German vehicles.
There the seven Matildas stayed for most of the day, precariously perched along a narrow track with their backs on the edge of a 150-foot escarpment. A second tank was damaged and with some difficulty returned to 4 Brigade, but two Valentines of 8 Royal Tanks, one of them towed by the other, joined Ling’s detachment later in the day. Between them they held off the German tanks, set a command vehicle on fire, and halted the enemy infantry, firing at times at ranges down to less than 100 yards, a gallant and valuable contribution to the defence.
Standing beside his car Freyberg was grazed in the leg by a shell splinter, but he brushed his ADC’s remarks aside when the latter drew attention to the trickle of blood on his trouser-leg. He duly kept his rendezvous at 4 Brigade Headquarters with Gentry and Fairbrother, both of them somewhat breathless after a quick dash under fire, and soon this headquarters withdrew to Zaafran, leaving the gun group in the wadi, covered by a thin line of ad hoc infantry, to carry the main weight of the defence.
The most vulnerable sector of the defence had seemed to be that of 6 Brigade Headquarters covered by the remanants of 21, 24 and 26 Battalions in positions most of which had been hastily chosen in the dark, and which were found in the morning to be facing across a mass of brigade transport. It was some 2000 yards south of where Divisional Battle Headquarters had started the day, with a further gap of 2000 yards to where 8 Field Company and, on its left, 25 Battalion were clinging to some 4000 yards of the escarpment from north of the Sidi Rezegh airfield to the Blockhouse. Yet Brigadier Barrowclough’s flimsy defences, by the odd fortunes of war, were still holding out after Belhamed was lost.
In an arc facing mainly south-west, 24 Battalion (about 100 strong, mostly B Echelon men with two Valentines in support) was on the right with lorries scattered through the area and had no contact either with 47 Field Battery farther north or 21 Battalion to the south-east. The 21st was in the centre and behind it were three Valentines of 8 Royal Tanks, incapable of manoeuvre but able to fire from hull-down positions in an emergency. Three 2-pounders and three Bofors in an anti-tank role also stiffened the defence here, and behind 26 Battalion on the left, overlooking the Trigh Capuzzo, were the four 18-pounders of M Troop, 33 Anti-Tank Battery, also much hampered by vehicles in front. Other B Echelon men, including those of 8 Field Company, also occupied defences and did their best to return enemy fire. Five light tanks of 8 Royal Tanks were held in reserve; they could do nothing against German tanks but might be useful if infantry attacked without the panzers.
Barrowclough looked eagerly for evidence of South Africans on Point 175 when it grew light enough and found none. Nor was there any evidence of friendly troops near Sidi Rezegh. ‘On the contrary’, he says in his report, ‘a large infantry force supported by tanks and artillery fire was observed forming up for the attack.’ Like the GOC, Barrowclough preserved an icily calm exterior, and when he spoke to G Branch his voice was firm and unhurried. He showed little sign of the immense strain he had endured in the past few days. But as he looked towards the Mosque he knew that he could not withstand the fresh assault that was obviously impending and he prepared himself for the worst. It looked very much as though the great struggle of 6 Brigade would shortly end in complete disaster.
Most of the rank and file of the brigade, however, knowing little of the larger situation, took the unfolding day as just another in a series which had no discernible pattern but ups and downs of violence and quietness, of action and rare spells of rest, of bitter
bereavement and fear alternating with renewed hope and confidence. Fact and rumour intermingled and there was a general expectation that the brigade would shortly enter Tobruk for a period of rest. The men who held the outposts of 21 and 24 Battalions had high hopes of succour by British armour and were not suspicious of tanks they saw near the Mosque. Even most artillery observers gave the tanks the benefit of the doubt until their hostility was confirmed. Lieutenant Betts of M Troop was more sceptical and prepared to engage tanks and infantry he saw to his right front at 6.30 a.m. until the nearby infantry persuaded him to hold his fire. ‘This was an unfortunate step’, he comments, ‘as the Hun tanks took advantage of our leniency.’
When the panzers drove past on their way towards 6 Field Regiment, the Valentines engaged them with flanking fire at long range, the three Bofors depressed their barrels and shot away their 40-millimetre ammunition in batches strung together with tracers, and M Troop soon had to send for more 18-pounder rounds. One of the Valentines had to cease fire three times to let its 2-pounder barrel cool enough to take further rounds. It was a brief period of extreme violence in the course of which the tanks, artillery of all calibres, and the German motor-cycle machine-gunners and mortarmen returned the fire vigorously, though the tanks soon disappeared into the smoke to the north, leaving one or two behind to watch this flank. Most of the 2-pounder portées, conspicuous against the sombre background, were put out of action. On two occasions 21 Battalion men were seen with their hands up, about to surrender, and both times they were ‘cried down’. They could see in the distance a long line of men being marched from Belhamed towards the Mosque, evidently prisoners, a depressing sight, and in the Mosque area it looked as though more German infantry were forming up with tanks to attack 6 Brigade. To Barrowclough it seemed that his brigade ‘would be overwhelmed in a matter of 15 minutes or at most half an hour’.
Brigadier Gatehouse had meanwhile moved his composite brigade with 115 tanks from its night laager south of Point 175 in response to the order of 4 a.m. from General Gott to reconnoitre the Sidi Rezegh area and counter-attack the enemy tanks at all costs. By 8 a.m. the leading units were two miles south-east of the Blockhouse and they halted there for about half an hour while Gatehouse studied the position. He could see the ‘largest mass of all arms I have ever seen’ to the west, stretching many miles south-westwards from Sidi Rezegh,44 and took it that this was what he must counter-attack.
‘If I attack’, he reported to 7 Armoured Division, ‘it will be straight into a very large number of guns of all sizes which are about three miles from me. The ground between is dead flat and nothing could get across it.’ A frontal attack therefore seemed a formidable and perhaps foolish assignment; but it was not required. Freyberg had meanwhile spoken to Norrie and the information was passed on to Gott, who asked Gatehouse at 8.24 if he could ‘get to NZ to help’, which evidently did not mean counter-attacking this huge enemy formation. Exactly what it did mean, however, had to be investigated, as Gatehouse did not know where the New Zealanders were, how many of them survived, or what they were doing. He had been told they were being attacked by tanks; but that was all. The next step was to make contact and find out the details, and at 9 a.m. 8 Hussars followed by 3 and 5 Royal Tanks pushed on towards the escarpment west of the Blockhouse, under artillery fire which Gatehouse instructed the COs to disregard.
As the leading tanks got nearer they could easily identify the New Zealand area from the ‘huge pall of smoke and dust about a mile and a half to the North of SIDI REZEGH’.45 Gatehouse then ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Drew of 5 Royal Tanks to get in touch with the New Zealand commander, find out all he could, and ‘make a plan for an attack against the enemy tanks.’46
This took the impressive array of British tanks and armoured cars towards the lines of 8 Field Company and 25 Battalion in their isolated positions above the escarpment west of the Rugbet en-Nbeidat and these units, unhappily aware of the tragedy that was being enacted below them to the north, feared the worst until they joyfully identified 4 Armoured Brigade. The newcomers entered the area of the sappers and the tanks began to descend the escarpment in single file while Major Currie told Gatehouse what he knew, painting an even blacker picture than the facts warranted, because he thought 6 Brigade Headquarters had already been overrun.
‘As we got to the escarpment we could see the New Zealand leaguer with practically every vehicle ablaze, a terrible sight’, the dairy of 8 Hussars records. ‘Away to the left stretching towards TOBRUK were the German forces.’ The tanks of the regiment attracted much fire as they descended and more still when they began to move northwards in line ahead towards 6 Brigade Headquarters. The New Zealanders by the Trigh Capuzzo, under heavy fire, received a worse fright than those above the escarpment at the sudden appearance of these tanks and some of them ‘came towards us with their hands up’, according to 8 Hussars. When they discovered their attitude changed instantly and ‘many
of them fixed bayonets and formed up behind us wishing us to attack the enemy positions – in the circumstances a very courageous action.’ Had the 8 Hussars diarist known what these men had gone through in the past few days he might have been even more impressed with their readiness to ‘get even with the enemy who had taken such a toll of their comrades’, as Barrowclough puts it. Seeing it all from his embattled headquarters, Barrowclough was immensely proud and entirely supported his men in their attitude. He was as ready as they to try to turn the tables on the enemy.
The 8th Hussars was the weakest of Gatehouse’s regiments, however, and had been ordered only to draw the enemy’s fire and then retire. Major Sandbach in the leading tank pushed on northwards and the rest followed. Then his tank was hit – by a captured Matilda tank, ironically – and he was killed. Another tank was damaged shortly afterwards, and the regiment withdrew eastwards. Barrowclough had expected the tanks to carry on towards Belhamed; he was dismayed when they halted, and mortified when they withdrew, telling the troops around them to ‘fall back with them and that they would cover their withdrawal.’47 He at once set out to find the regimental or brigade commander concerned.
This was only a local and pre-arranged withdrawal, however, and not a general retreat as Barrowclough imagined. He was not looking merely for salvation for the remnants of his brigade; the intervention of the British tanks seemed to him to constitute an almost magical reversal of the situation. Now the hunters and the hunted would change roles, his heavy losses would be avenged, and the countless acts of courage and self-sacrifice at Sidi Rezegh would be rewarded.
In this vengeful mood he came upon Colonel Drew and gave him a careful appreciation of the situation which did not, however, minimise the dangers to be faced. As the diary of 5 Royal Tanks records it, he briefed Drew thus:
there were about 40 German tanks supported by A.T. guns who were in ‘Hull-down’ positions about 1000 yds to the North of his leaguer and who were keeping him under constant gun and M.G. fire whilst he was being heavily shelled by the German Col. [umn] to the West. There was also an Italian Col. to the East at Pt. 175 about 5 miles away but at the moment they were silent. Most of his own 25 pdr and A.T. guns were out of action. His 3 Comd Os were casualties. He asked that an attack should be made against the enemy tanks to the North.
Drew agreed to do this, though ‘it would involve very heavy casualties in view of the extremely difficult position’, and said he would get in touch with the CO of 3 Royal Tanks and make a plan.48
But, characteristically, Barrowclough wanted immediate action and, seeing no sign of this, concluded that Drew did not mean to counter-attack. He therefore sought out Gatehouse to press the matter further.
Gatehouse had meanwhile set up a small headquarters on the escarpment below 8 Field Company, where he could see as much of the battlefield as the smoke and the bursting shells would allow and at the same time keep in touch with Gott on the ‘blower’. He had heard Major Currie’s gloomy account of events and still did not realise that Divisional Headquarters and part of 4 Brigade with its strong gun group was somewhere beyond the drifting smoke in the direction of Zaafran. All that remained, he thought, was there below him, inside his semicircle of tanks, and he reported in this sense to Gott at 9.55 a.m.:
We are in NZ leaguer, it is almost finished certain number of lorries have withdrawn E[ast] still men on ground on their feet vehicles burning everywhere impossible to tell what is happening. Have got NZ major [Currie?] who tells me they were attacked by lorried inf. Very heavy shelling. Have made ring of tanks and very few people can now get out. Will stay and do what we can but arty fire very heavy, strong enemy posn. NW of here, this place is overlooked on all sides. Do not know what is happening at Belhamed.49
He had no thought of counter-attack, since the remnants of the New Zealand Division he could see were very few and in no condition, so far as he could judge, for anything but a retreat from the ghastly shambles below. In this he was mistaken; but the rear link wireless sets of both 3 and 5 Royal Tanks had broken down and he was out of touch with them.
Gott’s conception of the situation, however, was wider of the mark and he signalled back as follows:
Would you be able to get to Bir el Chleta and thence to Sóuth?
Gatehouse replied, ‘Yes, I think so. I have no information but don’t see why not.’ Neither of them knew that 21 Panzer lay astride the Trigh Capuzzo to the east, and Gott had in mind the withdrawal of whatever elements of the New Zealand Division Gatehouse could save along this track to Chleta and thence south to the 30 Corps area. His next communication at 10 a.m., however, only confused the issue:
Your first task is to assit NZ that you are doing, secondly destroy any enemy tanks you can find, thirdly to get back S to posn S of SA Bde. In order to do task (1) it is necessary to go to Bir el Chleta.
As a guide to action this was not helpful. Gatehouse could not counter-attack the German tanks by moving away from them, nor could he very well bring his reserve tanks, his guns and administrative ‘tail’ down the escarpment into the Kessel and then march eastwards under the noses of the Italians on Point 175. He therefore rejected the scheme:
No. NZ have left in formed body moving fast E, there are only a few stragglers left here in this leaguer. Am in a very nasty position and cannot possibly tell what is happening to anyone else.
Like the other British armoured commanders, Gatehouse preferred open desert and freedom of manoeuvre, and in the past fortnight he had seen enough of panzer tactics not to want to ‘mix it’ with Africa Corps unless the circumstances looked favourable. In this case it appeared that the bulk of the New Zealand Division had either been overrun or had made its escape eastwards and he saw no point in risking heavy losses in a lost cause. He was nevertheless ready to do anything within reason to help, and when Gott asked, ‘If you wait 10 mins will it endanger your command, then I can get orders from above?’, Gatehouse replied stoutly:
I will wait here as long as you like and do anything you like. But I have no information and can get none here.
Reasonable though this was from the point of view of an armoured commander who had seen British tank forces dissolve in front of his eyes when they came to grips with German armour, it was radically different from Barrowclough’s attitude. As an infantry-man the 6 Brigade Commander attached more importance to vital ground than to mobility, and the plain facts of this case seemed to him to argue unanswerably in favour of counter-attack. He was surprised that there was any hesitation.
The viewpoints of the two brigadiers, when they met at the escarpment, therefore remained poles apart.50 Barrowclough knew that the enemy had fewer than forty tanks left and he saw for himself a long line of German infantry stretching towards him from the direction of the Mosque in apathetic fashion, with every indication of distaste for their current role – an impression confirmed by a squadron commander of 3 Royal Tanks who was refused permission to attack and take these men prisoner.51 When Barrowclough saw what looked to be a huge assembly of British armour stretching out around 8 Field Company and compared it in his mind’s eye with the German elements he had to contend with near the Trigh Capuzzo, many of them jaded and bedraggled, he was more anxious than ever to stage an immediate counter-attack. This is his version of what ensued:
I urged him [Gatehouse] to make some effort to recover the prisoners from 4 NZ Bde and my own 6 Fd Regiment. I explained the weakness of my own forces, but undertook to attack with him and informed him that, from my own observations, the enemy tanks on our front were much fewer than those he commanded. I promised that my infantry would move forward with him and endeavour to cope with enemy anti-tank guns which I knew to be fairly numerous. From the top of the escarpment, there was exceptionally good observation of the enemy positions on the lower ground in the vicinity of the Trigh Capuzzo.52
To this Gatehouse replied that he had been sent forward only to cover a withdrawal and ‘he did not consider his instructions authorised him to rescue those who had been taken prisoner.’ Barrowclough then pointed out that he had not received any orders to withdraw and saw no reason to do so while 4 Armoured Brigade was at hand. Its arrival had ‘obviously led the enemy to abandon the attack he had been about to launch.’ The answer to this was that Gatehouse’s instructions did not allow him to stay in this position and he would therefore have to withdraw whatever the New Zealanders chose to do. This left Barrowclough ‘no option but to elect to withdraw to Zaafran where I knew I could join up with Inglis’, and the Staff Captain, Weston,53 was instructed to assemble the vehicles. But Gatehouse remained unaware that 4 Brigade or any other part of the New Zealand Division than the few men he could see below remained on the battlefield. The two brigadiers were thus talking at cross purposes.
Had Gatehouse known of the guns below Zaafran which were beginning to pierce the murky haze over Belhamed and pound 15 Panzer, or of the gallant rearguard of 44 Royal Tanks fighting from its ledge on the eastern end of Belhamed, or of the counter-attack which 3 and 5 Royal Tanks were at that very moment preparing, he might have been more receptive to Barrowclough’s suggestions. But he knew nothing of these, and he was subject to further instructions from Gott which were hard to follow. He signalled to Gott at 10.31 a.m. as follows:
We have arranged with Brig. Borroclough [ sic]. He has said he was going to withdraw at once E. Have warned him of the danger of attack, have heard of 14 M13 coming from W. Am ready for this. Place is being very heavily shelled with very large stuff.
Gatehouse had hitherto operated mainly beyond the range of the German Army Artillery and had not previously seen anything like the gun fire then falling on 6 Brigade, particularly the 210-millimetre shellbursts.54 Gott replied at once:
Contact Bernard 2000x [yards] S of Belhamed. Deal with enemy at Pt 175 on your way. Corps Comd wants NZ to join SA this fits your plans. You can cross escarpment to S anywhere E of 450 grid [i.e., Bir Sciafsciuf].
This was puzzling and it is doubtful if Gatehouse understood it, though he replied, ‘OK am in the picture’. Gott added a moment later, ‘Rally S of Pt 175 when you have done this’, which, in conjunction with the previous message, would have meant making a move of many miles eastwards along the Trigh Capuzzo, ‘dealing with’ Ariete at Point 175 on the way, ascending the escarpment where 1 South African Brigade was, and then carrying on westwards to where 4 Armoured Brigade had laagered the night before. All Gatehouse meant to do, however, was to render what help he could to the New Zealand remants and then withdraw the whole armoured brigade right away from the treacherous escarpments to some point in the south where it would be free to manoeuvre without restraint of terrain.
While these talks were going on the captive ranks of 20 Battalion were being assembled near the Mosque. Captain Quilter, looking back and hoping like the others for some favourable turn of events which would free him or allow him to escape, saw the British armour descend the escarpment no more than two miles away. ‘I anticipated a counter attack by these tanks on Sidi Rezegh which was very lightly held’, he says. ‘Nothing developed.’
Patrols from 3 Royal Tanks pushing northwards through the swirling smoke had been halted by anti-tank fire and the whole area was under heavy shellfire. Like Gatehouse, Drew did not know there were other and stronger friendly forces a short way to the north-east, but he carried on probing until, when his rear link came back in service, he was told that the New Zealanders must all withdraw as soon as possible. He naturally assumed that he was required to retrace his steps, taking the New Zealanders with him, ascend the escarpment, and drive south over the ground across which he had advanced in the early morning.
Further misunderstandings were therefore brewing and they soon became apparent. Drew met Captain Weston, who asked him for instructions ‘regarding direction of withdrawal’,55 and even on this simple matter they failed to see eye to eye. Weston had meant to travel east, but Drew recommended the south, pointing out that Weston’s intended route was dominated by Ariete. The result was that Weston began to head up the Rugbet en-Nbeidat in obedience to what he thought Drew meant, though with grave misgivings about the Italians he felt certain covered this route.
Thus a three-sided tug-o’-war began, Drew wanting to move south, Gott expecting 6 Brigade and 4 Armoured Brigade to move eastwards along the Trigh Capuzzo, and Barrowclough having no thought of withdrawing completely from the battlefield and meaning only to rejoin the rest of the Division at Zaafran. The vehicles had first to be marshalled for the journey in blinding smoke and under heavy fire, in face of an enemy who was quick to follow up. The scattered elements of the brigade covered a wide area and some of them could not be told what was happening. If they did not conform of their own accord they would have to be left behind, and this is what in fact happened to some of 24 Battalion and the B Echelon group of 8 Field Company. The largest detachment in the area below the escarpment, that of 26 Battalion, got away safely; but this seemed to arouse the enemy, and when 21 Battalion followed it came under fierce fire which wounded sixteen men on their way back to their lorries. Many desperate little scenes were enacted when men were hit or lorries set on fire and their passengers had to be transferred; then the lorries began to follow Weston up the Rugbet despite several last-minute efforts to head them off.
The column of vehicles raced over bumpy scrubland at high speed and halfway up the Rugbet came under fire exactly as had been predicted. With one accord the transport turned tail and fled back to the bottom with remarkably little damage and only one casualty. The column then headed north-eastwards and in due course reached Zaafran.
Above the escarpment 25 Battalion and 8 Field Company, ordered to withdraw, were assembling for this purpose when Weston made his spectacular ascent of the Rugbet; they watched it breathlessly, and were greatly relieved when nothing worse came of it. When these vehicles fled towards Zaafran Major Burton of the 25th prepared to follow, unbeknown to the tank escort, which expected him to move south. But 4 Armoured Brigade at that moment recalled all its tanks to meet a newly-reported threat of tank attack against its headquarters in the area just vacated by 8 Field Company. In their absence Burton led the way down to the Trigh Capuzzo, swung away when the column came under fire from Point 175, and entered the 4 Brigade area in the wake of the main 6 Brigade transport group, with 8 Field Company following in an odd assortment of vehicles (having lost all its own B Echelon).
The threat against which Gatehouse guarded seems to have been inferred from various movements of M13 tanks of Ariete south of Point 175, and German tanks were also reported to be attacking from the south. The British tank regiments therefore went through the familiar routine of adopting hull-down positions and Gatehouse reported back to Gott. One such report at 11.45 a.m. read in part as follows:
Starting evacuating leaguer as arranged. After 2 miles on a point just E of aerodrome, we were attacked by Italian tanks from in front, German tanks on right flank. Coln we were protecting disappeared NE could not protect them as had no contact. Consider responsibility over towards coln. In good posn now hull down, will shoot it out with them if they come on. Will try to rally in area ordered but must deal with tanks first as they are between us and area we want.
There were actually no German tanks to the south and the Italian tanks stayed out of range; but I Battalion, 8 Panzer Regiment, perhaps a dozen tanks all told, was withdrawn in great haste from the western part of Belhamed to meet what looked like a serious counter-attack by the British armour. This battalion quickly extended along the eastern flank of 15 Panzer in a defensive role, supported by a battery of 105-millimetre guns south of Belhamed. When 4 Armoured Brigade moved southwards shortly after noon, however, it did so without meeting ‘any enemy or being fired on’56 and at 12.47 p.m. a signal to 7 Armoured Division described the journey as ‘very brisk motoring’. Tanks replenished in the new area and the brigade then moved farther south to Bir er-Reghem, where it stayed ‘in a position of observation facing North’ for the rest of the day, followed by a 12-mile journey to Bir Berraneb to form a night laager.
To the men of 6 Brigade the whole episode was puzzling. They were thankful for the timely help of the Stuart tanks when capture had seemed inevitable and full of admiration for the tank crews who lingered under heavy fire to escort them to safety. But they were mildly surprised that the British armour disappeared so quickly from the scene and disappointed that such a strong force made such a small impression on the battle as a whole. They had expected the tide to turn, but it continued to flow against them.
They would have been even more surprised had they known that 4 Armoured Brigade was under orders to counter-attack the enemy tanks at all costs, which it evidently did not do. In this connection Gott’s subsequent orders to Gatehouse were certainly hard to understand and introduced several ambiguities. Brigadier Gatehouse was greatly influenced by the size of the enemy conentration stretching south-westwards from Sidi Rezegh and the proximity of elements of Ariete, though this division showed no signs of wanting to come to grips with the British armour. He had less to fear than he thought, and it is not flattering to his brigade that the remnants of a German tank battalion could turn about from a very severe action and appear to drive away a fresh British force which outnumbered it in tanks by about nine to one.
Zaafran, too, when 6 Brigade reached it, was under heavy shellfire; but the guns in the shallow wadi replied with gusto and there was a very different atmosphere from that which had settled over the derelict-strewn ground the 6 Brigade remnants had left. The situation seemed well under control and the units were left for some time to sort themselves out, and were then sited with the ten anti-tank 2-pounders and two 18-pounders they had brought with them on the thinly-held eastern flank, where the enemy was some way away and unenterprising. There, for an hour or two, they could relax.
Because it was vital to retain firm control of the guns, Colonel Duff could not afford to move with 4 Brigade Headquarters back to Zaafran. To yield this control and sever the intricate telephone and R/T communications while RHQ was on the move would entail great risk. The telephone exchange of 4 Field Regiment had twentyone subscribers – far more than normal resources provided for, so that E Section, Divisional Signals, had to improvise, which it did wonderfully well – and extension telephones had been laid to an emergency RHQ, a hole dug near the office truck in case the latter was hit. For most of the day, however, the staff worked in or near the truck, exposed to fire from most points of the compass.
With a handful of staff Duff now controlled 46 and V/AA Batteries (the latter joined in the morning by C Troop of the 6th Field with welcome reserves of ammunition) in the centre of the wadi, W/X Battery (with two guns of 25 Battery attached) a little to the south-east, 26 Battery in the Sciuearat strongpoint, a collection of guns in anti-tank roles along the western and south-western edge of the wadi, and whatever he could find in the way of makeshift infantry to cover them. In mainly anti-tank roles there were three, and later four, more guns of 25 Battery and four of W/X. In addition, 46 Battery had moved 500 yards eastwards when Belhamed was lost so as to obtain better anti-tank fields of fire, though it carried on in the meantime in its normal role.
These forty-odd 25-pounders with their dwindling stocks of ammunition were the kingpin of the defence and the confidence reposed in them, as so often in the desert war, was not misplaced. They lacked the range of many of the German guns, their rate of fire was comparatively slow, and as anti-tank guns they were conspicuous and vulnerable; but they were versatile, accurate if well served, and as a final sanction able to fire crushing broadsides of solid shot at tanks which came close. Here the 3000-odd remaining members of the New Zealand Division clustered on Zaafran and surrounded by enemy were reassured by their lively and authoritative voices.
The strength of the guns, however, resided as much in the organisation behind them as in their physical characteristics. Though the guns were ‘shot’ in the main by FOOs who observed the effect on the ground and made corrections, there was not nearly enough ammunition to engage all targets offering, nor could the FOOs on the spot always correctly assess the main danger. All ‘shoots’ therefore had to be authorised by Duff or his assistants, who plotted targets on the map, logged information, and studied with growing apprehension the ammunition states. It was 1 p.m. by the time RHQ was linked by telephone with 4 Brigade Headquarters in the latter’s new site, and until then the artillery network was all that linked the various sectors of the defence. Co-operation between 4 Field Regiment and 8 Field Regiment, RA, was excellent and Major Mitchell,57 Duff’s second-in-command, describes the latter as ‘a great team’.
Besides these field guns, Colonel Duff commanded a mixed bag of whatever other troops and equipment he could find to defend the all-important western sector and assembled by degrees three 18-pounders, six Bofors with barrels down ready to fire at tanks, and several 2-pounders extended along perhaps 2000 yards of the south-western edge of the wadi. He made several attempts to obtain infantry to cover these guns but could get for this purpose only a handful of gunners, mainly of 6 Field Regiment and 47 Battery, survivors of the Belhamed action. The men of 6 Brigade who reached 4 Brigade about midday would have been most welcome on this front, but were committed instead in the east. The inner circle of defences at Zaafran, consisting of the Defence Platoon and a few others, 57 all told, and a detachment of 5 Field Park Company, mostly faced west; but they were well behind the guns.
In the early afternoon W/X Battery fired a few rounds per gun at a group of large lorries approaching the eastern flank. Some of the lorries kept on coming, however, and were found to contain many hundreds of Italians of Ariete who had lost heart and wanted to surrender. Their reception was cool; 4 Brigade had no water or rations to spare and did not want them. Some were persuaded to look elsewhere for relief from hunger, thirst, and the anxieties of battle; but others remained in the offing intent on becoming prisoners. Beyond Ariete were the guns of 1 South African Brigade and the Jock Columns, and these and the New Zealand guns had been unwittingly playing a kind of table tennis with these Italians, driving them first one side and then the other of the high ground.
The South Africans had resumed their efforts to seize Point 175 at 5 a.m. and with heavy artillery support drove off elements of 21 Panzer and 3 Reconnaissance Unit and reached the eastern edge of Wadi esc-Sciomar, where the Royal Natal Carbineers were held up by tanks hull-down on the far side. A flanking move to the south by 1 Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles was also halted on the open ground south and south-east of Point 175, and at 11 a.m. 1 Transvaal Scottish moved up between the two. General Norrie remained at hand and was anxious to seize the feature; but this task was beyond the powers of the South Africans without the help of 4 Armoured Brigade. By this time, however, there was little point in trying to break the deadlock. Norrie was told that ‘there was no immediate prospect of Pt 175 being captured’58 and the New Zealanders evidently could not hold on for long where they were. Communications from General Freyberg and also from 13 Corps and Army had changed the whole complexion of the battle.
A confusing signal of uncertain origin but probably from Eighth Army was received at New Zealand Battle Headquarters at 9.45 a.m. and reached Norrie some time later. It pointed out that Brigadier Pienaar would come under General Gott’s command, and if his attack on Point 175 failed he was to be withdrawn to wherever Gott thought he should go. This was the first indication to Norrie that either 13 Corps or Army was thinking of closing the Tobruk Corridor, a most significant step. Freyberg, who thought this message was for him, took it that he was expected to withdraw and signalled accordingly to both corps at 10.10 a.m.:
We hung on in hope SA would attack and recapture pt 175 and SIDI REZEGH before dawn today without which our position was untenable. This they failed to do. Enemy has attacked and captured our HQ half our arty and divided our force into 2. We hope to reach remnants of 19 Bn at ZAAFRAN and extricate remnants of 4 Bde tonight. In view of your 4 of 1 Dec [the signal of uncertain origin] obvious you anticipate withdrawal of remnants which in my opinion inevitable.
Thirtieth Corps did not have the requisite cipher keys, however, Norrie did not receive this message, and he therefore did not learn that Freyberg mistakenly inferred from the signal of 9.45 a.m. that he had authority to withdraw.
This was before Brigadier Inglis moved his headquarters to Zaafran, which occasioned a further break in wireless communications during which Freyberg conferred with Inglis and Barrowclough and considered what to do. Inglis was in favour
of moving towards Tobruk, not realising that the main enemy strength lay between him and Ed Duda, and Barrowclough thought such a move might be possible if attempted under cover of darkness. In the end Freyberg decided to move to the south-east, where 7 Armoured Division was expected to be able to afford help. Freyberg and Norrie then held another ‘ “veiled” conversation’59 by R/T at 1.40 p.m. (which the Germans intercepted and easily understood) in the course of which it became ‘as clear as crystal’ to Norrie that the New Zealand Division ‘would have to be withdrawn’. Norrie asked if Freyberg had been authorised to withdraw and Freyberg replied that he was ‘acting according to instructions.’60 The arrangement made was that 1 South African Brigade would stay where it was until the New Zealanders came through. Gott would meanwhile arrange with Army to send supplies to Bir Gibni, the starting point of the Division when it set out on its CRUSADER adventures ten days before, and the New Zealanders would replenish there.
No times were settled and it was left open to Freyberg to move when he thought fit to do so. About 2 p.m. he went over to tell Inglis to be ready to move to Bir Sciafsciuf in an hour’s time. In the ensuing discussion it was agreed that the Division in its present shape could not hope to fight its way through in broad daylight. The only hope was that the gunners might hold off until dark the attack which was clearly threatening from the west. There would then be fair prospects of reaching Bir Sciafsciuf.
Requests had already been made through the Air Support Control tentacle to obtain RAF support, and about 4 p.m. two squadrons of Maryland bombers dropped their bombs with such precision that only one or two fell among the gunners in the wadi. The original bomb line given by 4 Brigade had been too far east, the staff not realising that the guns were so far away, and it had hastily been corrected to another grid 1000 metres to the west. Even so, Ling’s Matildas and some FOOs were west of the new bomb line and one of the latter was killed. But the Division gained an invaluable reprieve as bombs exploded among enemy forming up for the attack.
Co-operation between air and ground troops on the enemy side was less effective. Bombing was called for on Zaafran, and 90 Light Division recorded seeing the British positions there bombed by Stukas at 4.10 p.m. But 4 Brigade was not bombed and an FOO of 7 Medium Regiment, RA, ‘reported with glee’ according to the regimental history (page 44) ‘that he had just seen an enemy column bombed by both our bombers and German Stukas.’ The diary of 15 Panzer reports heavy air raids ‘causing casualties to men and MT’.
General Crüwell had gone to General Neumann-Silkow’s headquarters soon after midday and ordered 15 Panzer to carry the attack eastwards over Zaafran to link up with 21 Panzer and ‘close in the ring round the enemy’, but 8 Panzer Regiment had to refuel and replenish its ammunition, 200 Regiment had to be withdrawn from Belhamed, where its 2 MG Battalion was digging in facing 18 Battalion, and 33 Artillery Regiment had to be redisposed to support the renewed attack. Neumann-Silkow therefore fixed 4.30 p.m. as the starting time and the RAF bombing raids were thus delivered most opportunely.
Duff had been called to a conference at 4 Brigade Headquarters at 3.35 p.m. and there told to be ready to move eastwards at 5.30. An hour later he had gathered his battery commanders together at his own headquarters to issue orders for this move; but the discussion, as his report says, was ‘continually interrupted by very heavy and very close 5.9 fire’ and all realised they would have to make a fighting withdrawal. There would therefore be no hope of assembling the whole group as an entity before moving off, and Duff merely explained where he wanted the batteries to travel in the brigade group columns and told them to find their own ways to their allotted stations.
The gun lines, however, were too vulnerable for even this simple programme and the attack by 15 Panzer when it came caused an immediate crisis along almost the whole length of the wadi, though the superb battle discipline of the RA gunners did not betray this. Most guns reverted to Gun Control and their crews engaged tanks and infantry over open sights, firing AP (so long as it lasted) at the tanks and HE (if there was time to choose) at the infantry. Tanks appeared at the mouth of the wadi and tried to drive up it, to be met by withering fire from 46 Battery and Q Troop’s 18-pounders which turned them back amid clouds of dust and smoke. Other tanks appeared almost at once on the south-eastern slopes of Belhamed and the gun crews swung their trails round quickly to engage them. All guns within reach blazed away furiously – the 25-pounders of both regiments, the three 18-pounders, and the Bofors – until the tanks again fell back. But the enemy infantry held the guns under MG and mortar fire which was hard to deal with, though fortunately inaccurate.
One cause of this inaccuracy was the fire of the five Matildas of 44 Royal Tanks which remained in working order. These had withdrawn to the wadi to replenish ammunition and while there
had been ordered by Freyberg to take their places at the head of the Divisional columns for the break-out to the east; but Captains Lee and Ling of the regiment conspired to disobey this order. They had heard from Captain Williamson, who now commanded the I tanks, that ‘15 German tanks ... were nearly on top of them’ and ordered him back into action at the western side of the wadi. There the tanks stayed until sunset, keeping back German tanks and offering fierce opposition to the infantry. Though the I tanks afterwards had to be guided slowly, with the aid of many flares, to the Divisional assembly area, keeping everybody tensely waiting, Lee and Ling were convinced they had done the right thing and that 44 Royal Tanks had made a valuable and perhaps decisive contribution to the security of the whole force. A smaller but also valuable effort was made by two Vickers guns of 5 MG Platoon which Lieutenant Lee sited expressly to cover the guns, and which fired continuously at the critical stage before the sun went down. Lee himself moved to the south, still trying to help the gunners, and there received fatal wounds.
Volunteers were never lacking to take over when members of gun crews were hit and two guns of C Troop, 25 Battery, were manned at the height of the action by scratch crews, one under Lieutenant Nathan61 and the other under Sergeant Lindsay.62 More men were hit and replaced, and at the climax of the action the two guns were firing at almost point-blank range at ‘lorried infantry and armoured cars as they came over the crest’. The time had come to withdraw, and out of the corners of their eyes Nathan’s and Lindsay’s men saw crews of 8 Field Regiment in thrilling cameos, framed in smoke, of parade-ground drill. At the appropriate moment Lindsay’s driver, waiting with his engine running, came forward when called and the gun was hooked on and driven off almost under the noses of the enemy. A short distance away Lindsay called a halt and hooked on behind the gun an abandoned gun limber. It seemed to him that one gun of D Troop, W/X Battery, stayed behind to cover his withdrawal, and that this gun and its crew were lost.
In this turmoil two guns, one each of A and C Troops, 25 Battery, kept firing over open sights, manned by the survivors of four gun crews, until there was almost no hope of withdrawing the guns. The setting sun glared for a few painful minutes in the gunners’ eyes and then sank below the horizon. Behind them the shell-torn wadi was the scene of much activity as the last vehicles hastened to get away eastwards, speeded by enemy fire. Then an A Troop officer came forward, told his crew to ‘leave the gun and get out’, and
the men left on foot, taking with them dial sight and firing mechanism. That left only the C Troop gun, which the officer did not see and which was now manned by only two men, Lance-Bombardier Gay63 and Gunner Whitehead.64 These two waited and waited for their gun tractor to arrive; but no quad came, and indeed it would have been suicidal to try to get the gun out at this stage. With the enemy on three sides at point-blank range, the two men in the end removed the instruments from the gun C4, which they had served well and which they were loath to leave, and trudged back in the gathering dusk towards Zaafran.
Nearer the mouth of the wadi three more guns, the 18-pounders of Q Troop, continued to speak out firmly, their flashes streaking out farther and farther into the twilight, and ceased fire only when it was ‘too dark to pick out targets’.65 They had to avenge a gun lost that morning on the way to Belhamed and counted their score in the end as six tanks knocked out. When they finally drove back to Zaafran they brought to a close an artillery action as memorable in its way as the last stand of 6 Field Regiment and tactically even more important.
The attack halted at nightfall and the diary of 15 Panzer blames this, as often before, on an ‘erroneous order from Pz Gp’. Crüwell when he heard of it was angry and signalled to Neumann-Silkow at 11.30 p.m. in these words:
I have always named Zaafran as your objective. I know of no order to halt at [Point] 145. Move on to Zaafran at daybreak and capture it.
The report of 8 Panzer Regiment also states that a halt was called when the division was still three kilometres short of Zaafran; but 2 MG Battalion talks of ‘continuous shell and anti-tank fire until dusk’ and took up all-round defensive positions after dark, having succeeded, as it thought, in an attack against ‘an enemy far superior in numbers and possessing every topographical advantage.’ The report of 15 Motor Cycle Battalion merely says that ‘it was no use going on any farther in the dark’. Those in the van of the attack were only too ready to settle down for the night; they had had enough.
At the Sciuearat strongpoint 26 Battery and some guns of 65 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, assisted by one or two damaged Valentines of 8 Royal Tanks, fought an action of their own against 21 Panzer which kept the 25-pounders busy until dark and made them late for their rendezvous at the Divisional assembly area. Things might
have been much worse, but the panzers showed great reluctance to come close and were in the first instance diverted by an I-tank thrust mounted on General Norrie’s orders by six Valentines which happened to be at Bir Sciafsciuf.
General Boettcher, the new GOC of 21 Panzer, had been ordered to attack westwards in conjunction with the attack on Zaafran by 15 Panzer; but his division was in poor shape and made no attempt to attack the main New Zealand concentration. Instead II Battalion of 104 Infantry Regiment advanced westwards above the escarpment, brushing past Ariete, while 8 MG Battalion pushed along the foot of the escarpment, taking cover frequently and making little progress until after dark. Ahead of the machine-gunners the twelve remaining German tanks and one captured Stuart of 5 Panzer Regiment showed slightly more enterprise. The six Valentines attacked from Sciafsciuf, disabling the Stuart and another German tank, and the rest of the panzers quickly disappeared over the escarpment, reappearing farther west and working their way at high speed round to the western side of the Sciuearat strongpoint so that the setting sun was behind them. None of the six Valentines, however, returned from this skirmish. For a few minutes there was a lively exchange of fire between 26 Battery and the German tanks, but the latter came no closer than 1100 yards and 26 Battery was able to disengage at 6 p.m. and move off three-quarters of an hour later, catching up with the Divisional columns a few miles eastwards on the Trigh Capuzzo.
Vehicles had started moving to the New Zealand assembly area before dark, but the first of them, elements of 6 Brigade, were shelled and had to disperse again for a short time. They reassembled with the rest of the Division soon afterwards, however, and the whole force formed up for the night march in nine columns with C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry (in lieu of the I tanks), leading 4 Brigade, followed by Divisional Battle Headquarters and then 6 Brigade, with 25 Battalion at the rear. The I tanks and the last of the guns later took up position on the right flank.
The starting line had been chosen by Brigadier Inglis in the course of a reconnaissance with his IO, Captain Beale. A gap of about 2000 yards in the enemy positions to the east was thought to exist and Inglis hoped to drive through it. He therefore told Beale to set out flags for a distance of about a mile southwards from the escarpment between Zaafran and Ed Dbana. Beale reached the appointed line and put the northern flag into position, but 1000 yards to the south he came under close-range fire and retreated hastily. There was no hope of marking the southern boundary, and when the light began to fade at 5 p.m. Beale simply placed members of his ‘I’ Section at intervals along the starting line as markers for
the Divisional Cavalry, which duly formed up behind them. The remainder of the 700 vehicles of the Division, other than those still involved in the fighting, lined up at their allotted stations with impressive discipline, and soon after 5.30 p.m. the whole mass was in orderly columns ready to move off. The assembly looked like a well-rehearsed drill and it was hard to credit that it took place under fire and within sight of enemy. The pause of about an hour which followed as the Division waited for the tanks and guns to arrive was a stern test of morale. Then Beale led off about 6.45 p.m. in his PU truck showing one rear light and the mass began to move.
The plotted course ran for three miles almost due east and then south to Bir Sciafsciuf. Flares rising straight ahead, however, were evidently enemy and there were more of the same kind to the south, so that columns had to drive between them. Back on the correct compass bearing the same flares were seen along the right flank and it was well past the appointed end of the ‘first leg’ that the Division headed south across the Trigh Capuzzo. Red flares fired above the escarpment (on General Norrie’s instructions) guided the leaders in and contact was soon established with the Transvaal Scottish of 1 South African Brigade, not at Sciafsciuf but south of Bir el Chleta. Mayfield Column and A Squadron, 11 Hussars, were nearby and in a matter of minutes Freyberg went forward and met General Norrie. The GOC of 30 Corps had already gathered from his R/T conversations that Freyberg ‘in spite of his adversities’ was ‘cool, calm and collected and in remarkable spirits’; now he saw for himself the remnants of the division on which his thoughts had centred for the past thirty-six hours and he was ‘much impressed by the discipline of the N.Z. tps.’66
It was a momentous meeting and brought to an end the main operations of the New Zealand Division in CRUSADER campaign, as well as coinciding with other moves by 30 Corps which in effect conceded victory to the enemy in the second phase of the campaign. The main body of 1 South African Brigade had already moved back to Taieb el-Esem and at midnight the Transvaal Scottish followed. With 4 Armoured Brigade at Bir Berraneb, 30 Corps thus moved beyond striking distance of the main enemy forces, though by withdrawing southwards towards the FMCs rather than towards the frontier Norrie would be, as he says, ‘in a position to resume the offensive at the shortest possible moment.’ There seemed little likelihood of renewing the attack in the near future; but a message from Gott asked him to return to 30 Corps Headquarters south of the Trigh el-Abd by 9 a.m. next day at the latest as there were fresh instructions from General Ritchie. Some new development had
evidently occurred and, when the New Zealand Division departed for the Egyptian frontier, Norrie took his small staff back to his Main Headquarters to find out what was afoot.
Before the New Zealand Division moved on, Captain Ling of 44 Royal Tanks asked for permission to stay behind, as his few tanks were badly in need of overhaul. This was granted and his little party with a few essential vehicles went into close laager for the rest of the night. They were the last (except for two Valentines which stayed with the Division and about sixteen damaged tanks in Tobruk) of the I tanks which had supported the Division throughout the battle and had saved many New Zealand lives, and it was not without some qualms that they were left behind in what promised to be enemy territory next day.
Not a shot had been fired at the Division in the course of the withdrawal from Zaafran and the rest of the journey was so uneventful that, except for the drivers, most of the men slept through it. The night was cold and at Bir Gibni, which they reached about 3.30 a.m. on 2 December, the men hastened to bed down and resume their sleep. The last vehicle to arrive was a massive Italian lorry and trailer loaded with 50–60 men who insisted on their right to be taken prisoner and thereby be absolved from the duty of putting up any more with the hardships of battle. They required no guards and in the morning they followed the Division back towards Egypt.67