Chapter 26: Gazala and Beyond
THE receding tide of battle left 5 New Zealand Brigade stranded from 4 December onwards at Capuzzo, Musaid and Upper Sollum, its troop-carrying lorries withdrawn to help carry 5 Indian Brigade forward. After the slaughter at Menastir there was little action of note, though patrols were busy in co-operation with 3 South African Brigade, which now ‘masked’ the northern half of the Bardia perimeter. Five officers arrived from Base on the 7th to take over the main appointments at 5 Brigade Headquarters and Brigadier Wilder1 became the new brigade commander.2 Expect for some excitement when an enemy submarine appeared off Sollum (and was engaged by the artillery with the Maoris), the front was quiet. The weather was cold and windy, with heavy could and a few showers which made living conditions unpleasant.
Divisional Cavalry, rejoined on the 5th by C Squadron and reinforced with artillery and MMGs, sent mobile columns in conjunction with the South Africans to comb the country north of the Via Balbia. On 6 December Vic Column, a mixed force including a carrier troop of Divisional Cavarly, discovered a large German dressing station containing over 300 enemy wounded and a few British, and carried on into Tobruk.3 On the 8th another column came upon the main tank repair depot of 15 Panzer. Next day B Squadron attacked this with two South African companies and supporting artillery, while A Squadron covered the right flank.
Half-hearted opposition was soon overcome and there followed a miniature Scapa Flow on land as the Germans hastened to ‘scuttle’ their fleet of tanks with high-explosive. ‘We assisted them in putting the tanks, 35 in all, beyond repair’, the Divisional Cavalry diary states, ‘and took thirty prisoners.’ The figures given by the South Africans are 38 tanks destroyed and 23 prisoners taken. Half a dozen tanks were ‘runners’, and of these one drove off along the coast; the rest were immobile though not all helpless. The resistance was nevertheless negligible and there were no casualties.
Divisional Cavalry was now under the command of 2 South African Division and thus it remained for the next few weeks: 5 New Zealand Brigade was at last (without Freyberg’s knowledge) allotted a more active part in the campaign. Unit wireless sets had told their clusters of listeners of great events elsewhere which were transforming the war: the last German thrust towards Moscow had been beaten back and for a fortnight the Russians had been staging counter-attacks, first against Rostov in the south and then at Tula near Moscow. Then came Pearl Harbour, war with Japan, and the first glimmerings of a threat to Australia and perhaps New Zealand. The occasional exchanges of gun fire or patrol clashes at Sollum or Capuzzo seemed by comparison trivial and the men were not sorry to pack up and leave in the early hours of the 9th, being picked up near Sidi Azeiz by 4 RMT Company from Tobruk.
General Godwin-Austen had asked for 5 Brigade (or other ‘fresh’ troops) to push through to El Adem and beyond, and on its way forward it drove through the scene of Hargest’s last stand, amply documented with derelicts, on to the Via Balbia, and thence to Sidi Bu Amud, the heart of General Sümmermann’s positions north of the Corridor until a few days ago. The journey was signposted by wreckage and the desert littered with equipment and personal belongings discarded in haste. Victory was in the air, the weather for the moment was kind, and men expected to be in the thick of things in a matter of hours.
Next day disclosed, however, that the enemy had withdrawn altogether from the Tobruk front and was occupying the Gazala position. Before 13 Corps could push on it needed to assemble mobile forces and supply echelons. To this end the New Zealand troops in Tobruk had already contributed 30 three-ton lorries, 50 smaller vehicles, and 50 motor-cycles to help motorise a brigade of 70 Division. All other New Zealand vehicles except those of troops required for further operations had left Tobruk on 8 December in a convoy escorted to the frontier by Vic Column and 1 Army Tank Brigade. Passing through the Wire south of Sheferzen,
this convoy of just over 2000 men and 500 vehicles, comprising the bulk of Divisional Headquarters and the New Zealand administrative ‘tail’, carried on unescorted to Baggush and there rejoined the force which had withdrawn from Zaafran ten days before. Only 18 Battalion with Dudaforce at 19 Battalion under command, the composite New Zealand field and light anti-aircraft batteries, and 4 RMT Company were now retained by 13 Corps, together with 5 Brigade.
Various other small New Zealand parties had already left Tobruk by sea or air, and of these the unluckiest was a group of wounded, a detachment of Divisional Headquarters urgently needed at Baggush, and an escort for General von Ravenstein and another German officer. This group left in the small passenger steamer Chakdina on 5 December, in company with smaller New Zealand contingents in the destroyer Farndale and the corvette Thorgrim. There were 600 aboard the Chakdina including 120 New Zealanders, 97 of them wounded, when the little ship put to sea at 5 p.m. bound for Alexandria. Four hours out in brilliant moonlight it was torpedoed and sank rapidly, taking with it all but some 190 men rescued by the Farndale and Thorgrim; eighty of the New Zealanders were lost, most of them men who had been wounded in the fighting at Sidi Rezegh, and a tragic sequel was thus added to a costly chapter in the history of the Division.4 Of the 480 other troops aboard – wounded, medical staff, and a small ship’s company – about 320 were lost. This was the heaviest loss of life sustained in any single incident of the long tale of risky endeavour by the crews of the small ships which supplied Tobruk throughout its siege. Captain Bell, the GSO III (I) of the New Zealand Division, was in the Thorgrim as it stood by for some hours, braving further attacks, to pick up survivors, and was astonished when a naked man hauled aboard from the dark waters turned out to be General von Ravenstein.
The depleted 5 Field Regiment was detached at Tobruk and combined with the composite New Zealand battery there to form a full regiment under Major Sprosen.5 In the meantime 5 Brigade went into action supported by 32 Army Tank Brigade (under the command of 13 Corps) and 1 RHA.
The plan was to advance along the escarpment south of the Via Balbia as far towards Gazala as possible without heavy fighting, the left flank being guarded by the army tank brigade. At the same time 70 Division would mop up between Acroma and the sea, and 4 Indian Division, with its left flank covered by 7 Armoured Division, would push on round the Gazala position to trap the forces there. Raids on the enemy L of C towards Mechili and Giovanni Berta were expected to hasten the end.
The armour now passed to Godwin-Austen’s command and General Norrie’s headquarters was to conduct the siege of the frontier forts. The technical layout of the two corps headquarters, however, was very different, that of 30 Corps having excellent wireless links and being designed for mobile operations while 13 Corps had the telephone facilities required for more static operations. General Ritchie perhaps felt that Godwin-Austen might do better than Norrie in co-ordinating the operations of the armour with those of the infantry; but the technical deficiencies of Godwin-Austen’s organisation were serious and it soon appeared that he, too, was unable to get the British armour to come to close grips with the diminishing enemy armour.
The Gazala defences were of long standing and their general layout well known. They swung south and then south-west from Ain el-Gazala (a coast oasis not unlike Baggush) for about a dozen miles to a southern anchor at Alem Hamza. This flank was open, and without a strong force the position could not be held, as Rommel well knew. The Italian infantry divisions were now shared between 10 Corps on the coast and 21 Corps inland. The Italian Mobile Corps (Ariete and Trieste, both very weak) was at Alem Hamza and Africa Corps lay behind the southern flank, ready to counter-attack. These dispositions, of course, were not immediately apparent to 13 Corps, which pushed westwards with 5 New Zealand Brigade on the right and next to it 4 Indian Division, flanked by Jock Columns which were in turn backed by 4 Armoured Brigade. The first task was to ascertain if the enemy meant to give battle at Gazala or merely to cover a much longer retreat.
In the first instance 5 New Zealand Brigade advanced westwards as a brigade group, starting at 3 a.m. on the 11th and driving through El Adem to Acroma, west of Tobruk. Anti-tank mines on both sides of the road slowed the brigade down to below the scheduled ten miles in the hour and a Bofors gun overturned at a culvert and was abandoned, to be salvaged later.
From Acroma onwards 23 Battalion advanced along the main road and 28 (Maori) Battalion followed the track running west-wards above the escarpment, intending to attack Point 209, eight miles away. After driving 12 miles westwards along the Via Balbia, C Company of 23 Battalion was shelled and had to dismount, Chestnut Troop of 1 RHA engaged the enemy guns, and the battalion drew back a little to plan the next step.
The enemy air forces were now active and both E Troop of 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery with 23 Battalion and D Troop with the Maoris were soon in action. Fourteen Stukas escorted by Me109Fs on their way to Tobruk flew low over the 23rd and on their way back E Troop shot down a Stuka.
Reconnaissance in front of 5 Brigade disclosed that the enemy was holding a triangular ridge south of the road with its eastern apex at Mingar el-Hosci, a name soon to be replaced in the jargon of the 23rd by ‘Thomson’s Ridge’, since it was C Company under
Captain Thomson, led by Bren carriers, which stormed this feature in the early afternoon of 11 December. Thomson was wounded and Lieutenant Stubbs6 took command, only to be wounded shortly afterwards. Pushing on in extended order over sandy ground which minimised the blast of the shell and mortar bursts, the infantry closed relentlessly to within 50 yards of the enemy. Then they rose to their feet again and, with their bayonets fixed, the New Zealanders appearing through the smoke and dust looked altogether too formidable to the elements of Brescia here. Those Italians who had not already fled promptly surrendered, 9 officers and 252 other ranks all told. Much equipment was also seized, and C Company turned several Breda guns and other weapons against their former owners, who were now rallying on the western side of a landing ground about a mile away.
Thomson’s Ridge now came under concentrated fire and it was soon evident that a counter-attack was impending. C Company, though ably supported by Chestnut Troop, was very much on its own, but the men were quickly organised to meet the threat and gave the Italians a very hot reception. The enemy in obviously superior numbers came within 50–60 yards of the New Zealand positions, but there they halted, and after some hesitation they broke and ran, leaving many of their weapons behind and some vehicles. D Company arrived at the critical moment and together with C held the ridge until dark. C Company had lost two killed, two missing and 26 wounded, modest figures for dislodging two enemy battalions from a commanding feature. At dusk C Company and then D withdrew as instructed and the enemy at the same time moved several miles westwards to the Gazala line proper, abandoning a large amount of equipment and stores.
The Maoris had meanwhile seized Point 209 with ease and with it 200 prisoners at very small cost. A platoon of A Company, widely extended and supported by field guns and MMGs, exploited to the west and kept up the pressure on the enemy until dark, at which time the latter, elements of Trento Division, withdrew like Brescia to the main Gazala position, leaving behind the astonishing total of 1123 prisoners (including 36 officers), and field and anti-tank guns, MMGs, and stores of all kinds. The Maoris lost 5 killed and 11 wounded. A carrier from the battalion also rounded up four members of the Luftwaffe who descended by parachute after aerial clashes overhead, shot one of them when he offered resistance, and handed the other three to 5 Indian Brigade, which had moved forward to the left front.
Next day 5 New Zealand Brigade advanced on a three-battalion front, with 22 Battalion on the left of the Maoris. Carrier patrols from the 23rd on the right soon brought in thirty Italians from Trento. When the battalion was halted by shellfire later in the morning, Chestnut Troop silenced this fire and scored a direct hit on a 75-millimetre gun. The battalion was obviously approaching a strongly-held position and was ordered not to incur heavy casualties; so it halted a little to the west when shelling again became heavy.
In the centre the Maoris were dive-bombed and lost two killed and one wounded, but came through much shellfire unscathed. They occupied Point 182, above the escarpment south-west of Thomson’s Ridge, without opposition, digging in there with B, C and D Companies forward and A Company in reserve.
On the left the 22nd, after passing through an area littered with dangerous ‘thermos’ bombs (which exploded when moved), reached first Bir et-Tammet and then a depression in the ground a few miles short of its final objective, Bu Allusc. One truck was damaged on the way by air attack. Heavy fighting seemed to be in progress to the west and a carrier patrol which went out to investigate took 120 prisoners.
By dusk the brigade had reached a line running roughly north-south some three to six miles east of the Gazala line. After dark a 23 Battalion patrol came upon an enemy party escorting forty-three captive Indians and clashed sharply with it, wounding six of the Indians before their identity was established. All in the end were freed and several Italians captured.
Further progress by 23 Battalion next day, 13 December, was difficult and the main activity was by carrier patrols and by Chestnut Troop of 1 RHA, which was heavily bombarded and lost one man killed and five wounded. A carrier patrol nevertheless reached one of the Gazala landing grounds. The Maoris carried on west-wards above a two-mile-wide stretch of extremely rough ground descending to the north and cut by innumerable wadis. Their objective was Point 181; but they were halted by concentrated artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. Point 181 was evidently held in some strength and they had been forbidden to attack without adequate support,7 so they dug in about a mile to the south-east on a front of nearly a mile, with A and B Companies forward on the right, C on lower ground to the south, and D in reserve.
From this area the Maoris saw something of an attack mounted by 22 Battalion on Point 194 to the south-west. D Company of the 22nd had already taken an outpost with twenty-four prisoners, and the main attack went in at 2 p.m. with twelve I tanks in support and the attached troop of 1 RHA providing covering fire. The position was soon overrun and 100 prisoners taken, together with several anti-tank guns and mortars, and the attackers suffered no loss at all, a remarkable feat. Further advance was barred, however, by at least ten troops of artillery, which kept up heavy defensive fire, and the battalion therefore consolidated its gains. The whole brigade had come up against strong defences which the enemy gave every indication of wanting to hold indefinitely.
To the south, 5 Indian Brigade tried to swing in round the southern flank of the enemy defences, but met strong opposition and failed to reach Alem Hamza, though 1 Buffs managed to force its way through to Point 204, six miles farther west, on 13 December. This created a salient, however, which was vulnerable to counter-attack. The 7th Indian Brigade tried to strike up from the south to ease the position and 4/11 Sikh were debussing in front of 25 Field Regiment, RA, some two miles south of Sidi Breghisc and six miles south-west of 1 Buffs, when the area was heavily shelled. Shortly afterwards thirty-nine enemy tanks were counted as they approached. The infantry were just able to withdraw in their lorries; but 25 Field had to stay and fight it out, supported by a detachment of 8 Royal Tanks which came forward on their left and also by 8 Field Regiment, RA, which was coming into action a mile to the east. Anti-tank guns in support included a troop of 65 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, and there were two troops of Bofors at hand.
The opposition was even stronger than it looked. Once again Africa Corps had been able to concentrate without hindrance by the British armour and was now counter-attacking with the 51 tanks of 5 and 8 Panzer Regiments, their usual accompaniment of 88s and other anti-tank guns, 2 MG Battalion following closely to their left rear, and 8 MG Battalion as well as the artillery firing in support – a formidable threat indeed. Overwhelming fire was concentrated on the foremost battery of 25 Field Regiment and all its guns were put out of action. A detachment of 8 Royal Tanks also lost heavily. Defensive fire accounted for fifteen tanks (about half of which were repairable), however, and halted the counter-attack.
‘Early destruction enemy’s armour is imperative’, Godwin-Austen signalled to Gott at 10.20 p.m. on the 13th; ‘... we may miss great opportunity for destruction of his [the enemy’s] armour’, he added, unless 4 Armoured Brigade were moved to a central position, ready to strike round either flank. Early next morning Gott replied that he was moving his armour to the north-west and thought this would ‘affect enemy on 4 Ind Div front’ about 4 p.m. This was a slower tempo of operations than Godwin-Austen required and he urged Gott to get the armour into ‘immediate readiness to attack’. Later in the morning the two met and agreed on a left hook by 4 Armoured Brigade towards Tmimi to threaten the rear of the Gazala line and ‘bring enemy to action’ not later than 11 a.m. on 15 December. But the action against 25 Field Regiment on the 13th deserved close study. It showed that the Germans had not lost the art of concentrating all arms in support of panzer counter-
thrusts and were still able to strike back hard, as 7 Indian Brigade had twice found out. The 5th Indian Brigade was soon to learn the same lesson.
A remarkable change had meanwhile taken place in the minds of Gott, Gatehouse, and other senior armoured commanders, unperceived by their superiors. The main objective was still to seek out and destroy the enemy armour, but these commanders had given up hope of achieving this by direct means, though they now knew they outnumbered the enemy in tanks by at least two to one. ‘In every action the enemy showed his skill in effecting co-operation between tanks and field and anti-tank artillery’, Gott wrote shortly afterwards. ‘No attack by our more lightly armoured tanks was possible’, he added, ‘except by making a very wide detour and coming in on his soft-skinned vehicles.’8 Godwin-Austen’s earnest efforts to bring the British armour into the main battle were therefore wasted and any serious infantry threat to the Gazala line would run a grave risk of overwhelming panzer counter-attack. Fortunately Rommel’s estimate of the potentialities of the British armour was higher than Gott’s (and Crüwell’s).
Fifth New Zealand Brigade was now reinforced by the newly reconstituted 5 Field Regiment under Major Sprosen. On arrival 27 Battery (which had three troops) came under the command of 22 Battalion and 28 Battery (with only two troops) supported the Maoris. The troop of 1 RHA with the Maoris now joined Chestnut Troop of the same regiment in support of 23 Battalion. The Maoris had moved towards Point 181 with A Company on the right, B in the centre, and C followed by D on the left. At 3 a.m. on 14 December the guns opened a 15-minute concentration and the Maoris closed in with bayonets fixed, meeting mortar, MG and anti-tank fire and using grenades freely to overcome it. In little more than an hour resistance ended and C and D Companies began to dig in just west of the foremost defences, while A Company extended the position on lower ground to the east-north-east. B Company, which had advanced farthest, struck trouble, however, from another enemy position on the escarpment to the west and was twice counter-attacked. Pavia Division contributed another 382 prisoners (including 18 officers) in this action to the swelling total taken by 5 Brigade and many guns were also captured. The Maoris lost only three killed and 27 wounded, remarkably few in view of the thorough and skilfully laid-out defences which daylight revealed.
Three similar positions, however, were now located in an arc from west to north of Point 181, uncomfortably close, and the Maoris had to put up with much hostile fire.
The other two battalions made no further move forward this day. Opposition had hardened and it was not possible to strike deeper into the Gazala line proper without a carefully planned programme. Indeed the widely dispersed units were vulnerable to counter-attack and the 22nd, facing north with its left flank open, was in considerable danger until the Polish Carpathian Brigade came forward and nosed into the gap between 22 and 28 Battalions. In the end it was decided that the Maoris should take the next step in conjunction with a thrust by the Poles.
Twice on the 14th 5 Brigade Headquarters was subjected to dive-bombing, which killed a total of four men and set an ammunition lorry on fire. One Stuka, however, was shot down by small-arms fire. Though the enemy was posted in considerable strength not far ahead of the Maoris, there were indications elsewhere on the 5 Brigade front of a deterioration in the morale of the Italians, one small band of whom surrendered this day to 23 Battalion and claimed to have shot their officer. The Maoris were therefore given the ambitious task of taking in daylight on the 15th all but one of the strongpoints on their immediate front, and of closing in to within a very short distance of the enemy on the escarpment to the west. The Poles were to push north-westwards between the Maoris and the 22nd, if possible right through the Gazala line, aided by fire from 22 Battalion, and the 23rd was to demonstrate on the escarpment to the north to distract attention from the main attacks.
Zero hour was 3 p.m. on 15 December, an unlikely time which caught the enemy napping. A Company of the Maoris reached within 100 yards of its objective to the north-west before attracting fire and soon took the position at the point of the bayonet. C Company, advancing due north, took the first line of trenches in similar fashion, but was then held up by heavy mortar and MG fire and could gain no more ground until two platoons of B Company edged round to the west of the strongpoint. When a section of carriers also came forward opposition began to crumble and C Company swarmed through the defences. Another 101 prisoners were taken, this time from Brescia, at a cost of 10 killed and 37 wounded, most of them in A Company. With a vengeance the Maoris were making up for the time they had spent cooling their heels at Upper Sollum: first at Menastir against the Germans and now against three successive Italian divisions they were compiling an impressive list of successes.
The Poles also attacked with great dash and reached the escarpment west of the Maoris, linking up with D Company of the latter. This company was now able to withdraw into reserve, together with a company of the 22nd. Resistance stiffened, however, and the Poles could not carry their attack right through the Gazala line, as had been hoped; but they prepared to push westwards next day along the escarpment.
The addition of the Polish brigade thickened up what had been a rather thinly-covered front facing the Gazala line; but 5 New Zealand Brigade was now awkwardly placed with the Poles between 22 Battalion and the rest of the brigade. Many hostile batteries had been located in the course of the fighting and, pending further attacks, the field artillery was redisposed for counter-battery tasks. During the day 23 Battalion lost the support of D Squadron, 7 Royal Tanks, which was urgently recalled by 32 Army Tank Brigade to support 4 Indian Division. Colonel Andrew of the 22nd remained anxious about his open left flank, with even more justification than he realised. Africa Corps had struck again a few miles to the west.
After the setback to 7 Indian Brigade at Sidi Breghisc on the 13th, when a field battery was overrun and an Indian battalion narrowly escaped the same fate, 5 Indian Brigade met more trouble next day near Point 204, a few miles to the east, this time from the remnants of Ariete.9 The nine I tanks and three cruisers of 1 Royal Tanks and a troop of 31 Field Regiment, RA, helped to repulse an attack at midday by ten or twelve tanks (wrongly reported to be German) and claimed to have put three of them out of action. Then fifteen Italian tanks renewed the attack and overran the troop of six 25-pounders.
The Germans did little on 14 December and General Crüwell was chiefly concerned with contradicting what he thought was Rommel’s unduly gloomy view of the general situation. The Panzer Group staff had produced a map of the British situation which the DAK diary describes as ‘extraordinarily pessimistic’, pointing out that the British formations marked on it ‘had taken a lot of punishment, to say the least.’ Thus Crüwell echoed about Eighth Army the words Auchinleck and then Ritchie were using about Panzer Group Africa. In this Crüwell aligned himself with General Bastico and the chief of Comando Supremo, General Cavallero, who were urging much the same opinion on Rommel. But Rommel, who was acutely sensitive to the weaknesses of the Gazala line, expected
the British vigorously to exploit the open southern flank as he himself might have done had the situations been reversed. Crüwell, who had been more directly concerned than Rommel with the operations of the British armour, was less apprehensive.
After false reports of success at Point 204 (held by 1 Buffs), which Rommel regarded as a vital link in the chain of defences, it became evident that the Italian operations to regain this area were not promising. Crüwell therefore committed his counter-attack force on 15 December to regain this position. The Italians nevertheless still held Alem Hamza, farther to the east, which was from the British viewpoint even more important, and 4 Indian Division therefore prepared a heavier attack on this position. Both attacks went in together, 3/1 Punjab supported by a handful of I tanks attacking Alem Hamza from the south and the main weight of Africa Corps attacking the Buffs from the north-west.
For two days 1 Buffs had held its exposed position at 204, three miles from Alem Hamza and 2500 yards from the rest of 5 Indian Brigade, with ten I tanks and one light tank of 4 Royal Tanks, a squadron of CIH, 31 Field Regiment, RA (less the troop lost the previous day), and a reinforced battery of anti-tank guns. Ariete made another dab at this group in the morning of the 15th and was again repulsed. Then, after much uncertainty about where the Italians and British were in this region, Menny Battle Group of 15 Panzer attacked Bir Temrad, six miles north-west of Point 204 and well outside the point of the wedge 13 Corps had driven into the Axis positions between Africa Corps and the Italian Mobile Corps.10 The 2nd MG Battalion led the advance in the afternoon, coming under shellfire which combined with a gusty wind to raise clouds of dust, and debussing under MG fire. Then the main part of the battle group passed through to the south – both panzer regiments, with anti-tank guns (including 88s) and field artillery. Other guns engaged the British artillery and the tanks pressed forward through increasing fire until they broke into the western-most defences of the Buffs. While a fierce exchange of fire was still taking place between the panzers and the defending I tanks and artillery, the German machine-gunners reached the eastern part of the defences, and by the combined efforts of all the whole position was overrun. ‘If you do not hear from me again’, Lieutenant-Colonel King of 1 Buffs signalled to 5 Indian Brigade in a manner reminiscent of Shuttleworth at Sidi Rezegh, ‘you will know that I can no longer communicate.’ The utmost gallantry was of no avail against the relentless pressure from the German tanks, field and anti-tank guns, and the machine guns, working as a well-drilled
team. All but two of the I tanks were lost, all but one of the field guns, and the infantry held their positions until the tanks were in their midst. The Buffs lost 531 men and only the Quartermaster, the Medical Officer, and 69 other ranks escaped capture. All told more than a thousand men were killed or captured here, and the Germans (by their own estimates) took six I tanks, 25 guns, and a mass of equipment, including over 100 lorries (only about twenty of which, however, remained in working order, the rest being ‘shot to pieces or burnt out’11).
The Germans were naturally elated and Colonel Menny was all in favour of pushing on to the east and south-east. He would certainly have done so had the composite battalion of 115 Infantry Regiment pushed forward as he repeatedly urged to take over the captured position; but this battalion arrived too late and consolidated instead in a defensive arc covering Menny Battle Group, which bedded down for the night. Thus 3/1 Punjab and 4/6 Rajput Rifles, facing Alem Hamza, were spared the fate of the Buffs. The successes of 5 New Zealand Brigade and the Polish brigade were nevertheless outweighed by this counter-stroke againt 5 Indian Brigade.
General Crüwell was well satisfied with the outcome. He felt he could now turn and tackel the British armour, which was trying to outflank him, without having to look over his shoulder to see how the Italians were faring, and he was confident of success. At 6.55 p.m. on the 15th the Chief of Staff of Africa Corps, Colonel Bayerlein, signalled as follows to the acting GOC of 15 Panzer:
Send us some of your loot, including cigarettes.
The panzer strength had fallen to a desperately low level, however, and after further fighting next day the division had only eight Pzkw IIIs and three Pzkw IIs, though Ariete still had thirty tanks.
CRUSADER had already achieved an unsought but enduring success by undermining the confidence in each other of the German and Italian African commands. The Italians found their feet heavy as they began to retrace their weary steps back along the route of defeat they had trodden the previous winter. The last thing they wanted was another such humiliation and they saw no need yet for retreat. To Rommel the need was glaring and he had been furious when General Gambara countermanded his order to Pavia to withdraw from Tobruk. Again on 8 December, when General Bastico called in an alarmed and excitable state, disbelieving that retreat should have to follow so soon after Rommel had proclaimed a victory at Sidi Rezegh, Rommel lost his temper completely. He
hurled wild accusations at his Italian associates and indicated that Gazala might be only a stage in a retreat from the whole of Cyrenaica. This suggested to Bastico and others that the less mobile Italian formations might be sacrified to save the German troops; but this was less than fair to Rommel. Reluctantly the Italian commanders agreed that the remnants of 90 Light12 and some Italian artillery should fall back at once to Ajedabia; but Gazala was to be firmly held. As early as the 13th, however, Rommel warned the German and Italian High Commands that he might soon have to pull back to Derna and Mechili.
Agheila, 300 miles beyond Derna, already had a powerful attraction for Rommel. Covered by salt marshes and other impassable ground, hard to outflank, it had great natural strength and could be held mainly with non-mobile troops. No position between Gazala and Agheila could be held without a strong mobile reserve. The appreciations emanating from Rommel’s headquarters in mid-December therefore had a gloomy tone, to which Crüwell and his Italian associates objected. Rommel was depressed by dwindling supplies, the battle-weariness of his troops, the ever-present danger of being cut off by strong British mobile forces, and the inevitable loss of the 13,000-odd troops in the frontier area. On the other hand, Crüwell was ready, after overrunning the Buffs, to turn and strike the British armour, and the new commander of the Italian Mobile Corps, General Piazzoni, was in high spirits. Hearing of a move of 4 Armoured Brigade towards Mechili or Tmimi13 on the 15th, however, Rommel issued orders in the evening for the Gazala line to be abandoned.
On the 16th Cavallero and Kesselring joined Bastico and Gambara in a weighty inquiry into Rommel’s intentions. Kesselring was more than half convinced that the Italians were right in wanting to hold on at Gazala. Like Crüwell he thought that Eighth Army was much weakened and must be adversely affected by the dismissal of General Cunningham. Reinforcements for Panzer Group Africa were expected at the end of the month, the Luftwaffe was already being strengthened, and from a wider viewpoint the entry of Japan into the war must benefit Axis operations. There was therefore much to be said in favour of playing for time. It was unfortunately too late to halt the withdrawal from Gazala; but Rommel was asked to hold if he could the Derna- Mechili line. Further stormy meetings between the leading characters ensued; but Rommel was firmly determined to get back to Agheila as soon as he could, judging that it would prove more expensive to dawdle than to hurry on this journey.
Though such a long retreat was a difficult operation, every mile on the way back would ease Axis supply problems and increase those of the British, thus tipping the scales another degree in Rommel’s favour. Two companies of German tanks and a battalion of Italian tanks had been sunk on their way to Libya on the 13th; but two more panzer companies were at sea, one bound for Tripoli and the other for Benghazi, and they both arrived on the 19th. They were badly needed, for Eighth Army had another armoured brigade at hand (the reconstituted 22 Armoured Brigade) with which to relieve 4 Armoured Brigade as soon as the situation allowed, and another armoured division (the 1st) would soon take over from 7 Armoured Division.
Godwin-Austen had signalled to both Gott and Gatehouse at 7.50 p.m. on 14 December that the British armour would next day have ‘such a chance of destroying enemy forces as seldom arises in war’. His orders were therefore simple: ‘Smash them relentlessly.’ By 3 p.m. on the 15th 4 Armoured Brigade reached Bir Halegh el-Eleba, south-west of Tmimi, and was thus admirably placed for this purpose. The Royals and B Squadron of 3 Royal Tanks moved northwards and engaged enemy who soon withdrew; but the rest of the brigade halted. Godwin-Austen pressed again for early action against the rear of the enemy facing 4 Indian Division, which was ‘hard pressed’, but Gott objected to any immediate attack on administrative grounds, though he agreed that the brigade should attack at the earliest possible hour next day. Again at 6.50 p.m. Godwin-Austen urged Gott, ‘If humanly possible’, to cut the enemy’s L of C near Tmimi early on the 16th. Gott replied with some unrecorded objection which Godwin-Austen acknowledged but refused to accept, insisting that ‘his wishes remain’ and pointing out that ‘any aggressive action even if only local will materially affect situation which is now reaching climax.’14
But Gott had already thrown a spanner in the works by authorising 4 Armoured Brigade to move south early next day, away from the enemy. The B Echelons had been held up by bad going and the brigade would ‘facilitate replenishment’ by going back to meet its supply lorries. The panzer troops could have told Gott that running out of petrol on the battlefield need not be so disastrous as he feared; they had done it several times already without dire consequences. There was, moreover, no shortage of ammunition, for most of the 85 to 95 tanks had done little or no fighting for some days.
On the 16th Gatehouse turned about and headed southwards; but before doing so he despatched two detachments to raid the enemy’s rear. C Squadron, 3 Royal Tanks, with a squadron of armoured cars and a troop of anti-tank guns, made an extremely bold thrust at the Battle Headquarters of Africa Corps near Bir Temrad,15 causing much confusion and alarm, and another armoured-car squadron raided Tmimi. Had the whole brigade acted in like manner (and
in the afternoon of the 15th rather than the morning of the 16th) CRUSADER might well have been brought to a victorious conclusion in a matter of hours. The 18 miles 4 Armoured Brigade moved in the morning, had they been to the north instead of the south, would have put it within a mile or two of Tmimi. Godwin-Austen’s vision was correct; but its fulfilment was denied by this southward move, which nullified all hope of decisive action.
In the afternoon 15 Panzer Division cut across the rear of 4 Armoured Brigade and stood at Der Bu Sciahra, covered by swampy ground to the south. After replenishing, the British armour headed north-eastwards towards Sidi Breghisc to guard the exposed flank of 4 Indian Division and Godwin-Austen and Ritchie understood that it duly arrived there. But Gatehouse in fact met stern opposition, first from 3 Reconnaissance Unit (reinforced with 88s and other guns) and then from elements of both panzer divisions; he lost ten tanks, and ended the day a dozen miles south-west of his destination. All danger to the Indian division disappeared, however, when the German armour moved west. As a ‘fleet in being’ 4 Armoured Brigade by its move to Halegh el-Eleba had caused Rommel to give up the Gazala line; but the chance of destroying Panzer Group where it stood was lost. Eighth Army now had to prepare for an arduous pursuit across Cyrenaica, in the course of which it would grow weaker while the enemy gained in comparative strength. Ritchie ordered Godwin-Austen at 10.55 p.m. on the 16th to ‘Do all you can to prevent escape’; but it was too late.
Meanwhile 5 New Zealand Brigade and the Polish Carpathian Brigade continued their efforts to break through the Gazala line and met strong opposition. For the first time the Maoris struck dogged resistance when a platoon of A Company attacked Point 137, a mile and a half north of the existing FDLs at Point 154, at first light on the 16th. Another Maori platoon and one from 22 Battalion gave support, but only 1200 yards were gained when the troops were forced to halt and dig in on inhospitable ground. There they were shelled, machine-gunned, and mortared incessantly; but they held on. At the end of the day 16 Maoris had been killed and 33 wounded, most of them in an impulsive charge by A Company.
At the same time A Company of 22 Battalion attacked but failed to seize enemy posts east of Bir en-Naghia. No men were lost, however, and the field guns then concentrated on these posts and kept them quiet. C Company of the 22nd gave long-range supporting fire to the Poles as they continued their advance, gradually gaining ground until by evening they had reached Gabr er-Reghem, some three miles westwards along the escarpment. What looked like an
incipient counter-attack against the Maoris from the north-west in the morning was quickly broken up by 1 RHA and 5 Field Regiment. Later much transport was seen to the west moving in a manner that suggested a withdrawal was taking place. After dark the Poles attacked Bir en-Naghia with support from C Company of the 22nd and took it at the point of the bayonet, finding it well fortified with concrete works and diggings, and another large haul of prisoners resulted. Next morning, after some bickering between 4 Indian Division and a handful of rearguard troops, it became apparent that the enemy had gone.
The battalions of 5 Brigade soon found they had nothing to fear but mines and the carriers of 23 Battalion reached Kilo 80 on the road to Derna, nearly 20 miles past the Gazala line, by the early afternoon. There they came under shellfire, made contact with the Poles, and soon afterwards were recalled.
Later the whole of the brigade was ordered to concentrate at Bir el-Geff, east of Alem Hamza, where it was to contribute its troop-carrying transport (4 RMT Company) to help supply 22 Guards Brigade on the latter’s long-awaited dash across the desert to cut off the enemy’s retreat. As soon as other transport became available the New Zealand brigade would return to Baggush.
When the troops learned this on 18 December they were disappointed. They had looked forward to seeing the campaign through to its end and this unexpected news was bitterly unwelcome. There could be no appeal against this decision, however; Eighth Army could not commit for the pursuit more troops than it could supply across the huge tracts of desert between Gazala and El Agheila. General Freyberg, moreover, was anxious for 5 Brigade to be returned to his division.
After four days of salvage work and maintenance 5 Brigade handed in (to an Ordnance depot at Tobruk) Bren guns, anti-tank rifles, and other war stores, retaining only 10 per cent of ‘war establishment’ for training purposes. Then on the 23rd the brigade moved back to El Adem, leaving there on Christmas Day in supply lorries, entering Egypt near Libyan Sheferzen on Boxing Day in a blinding sandstorm, splitting into a road and a rail party on the 27th, and in the afternoon and evening of the 29th reaching Baggush, where it was warmly welcomed by the rest of the New Zealand Division.
The New Zealand troops left in Tobruk had long since rejoined the Division at Baggush: 18 Battalion, Dudaforce of 19 Battalion, two New Zealand anti-tank guns and a detachment of the Ammunition Company had departed on the 11th and reached Baggush two days later; and ‘X’ Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, having
fired thousands of Bofors and Breda rounds in defence of the Tobruk airfields, detached its RA troops, handed in its guns, and reached Baggush on Christmas Day. Except for Divisional Cavalry, 4 and 6 RMT Companies, and minor detachments, the Division was therefore reunited before the end of the year and the LOBs (in the case of the 6 Brigade battalions and 20 Battalion a substantial part of the remaining strength) rejoined their units. Mail was distributed, memorial services were held for the many who had not come back, and letters and cablegrams were sent to ease the anxieties of relatives and friends at home. Then for the first time since crossing the Libyan frontier on 18 November, the men could relax in mind and body, and they saw the New Year in in such lively fashion that the Royal Navy was prompted to inquire if an enemy landing was under way at Baggush.16
Both RMT companies remained in the field, the 6th serving the troops besieging the frontier forts and the 4th acting as general carrier, chiefly for 22 Guards Brigade. With attached tanks, reconnaissance troops, and artillery this force, called Bencol, set out on 20 December with memories of Beda Fomm, intending to cut off the enemy’s retreat between Benghazi and Ajedabia. On the same day Force E of the Oases Group was at last able to set out from Jalo on a similar mission. Wilson and Currie Columns skirted the southern slopes of the Green Mountain en route to Benghazi in conjunction with the rest of the Support Group, and 4 Indian Division pushed on along the coast through rain and mud and over badly-worn roads with mined verges. All were pursuing or trying to trap the retreating enemy. Next day the Special Air Service with help from the LRDG raided the airfield at Ajedabia and destroyed 37 aircraft and an ammunition dump. Then came a sharp riposte. On the 23rd the panzers counter-attacked from Beda Fomm and drove back 3 Royal Tanks and a squadron of 2 Royal Gloucestershire Hussars with heavy loss, and two Jock Columns met strong opposition some miles north of there. The Germans had quickly put into service the tank company which landed at Benghazi on the 19th and it was soon evident that there would be no repetition of the relatively easy success scored against the Italians in this area a year before. The margin between success and failure was nevertheless narrow: Benghazi fell on the 24th, and without their panzer reinforcements the Germans would have been hard put to it to cover the withdrawal to Ajedabia, where 90 Light Division had been preparing defences for the past ten days.
‘Hope your colns are relentlessly pressing on’, Godwin-Austen signalled to 22 Guards Brigade in the evening of 24 December; ‘You have unique chance. Hustle everyone.’ Then an LO brought disappointing news and half an hour later another and firmer signal was sent: ‘... Get round everything you hesitate to face. Order everyone who has failed to progress by day to regain progress by
night. Report personally to me any unenterprising commander who will be instantly removed. ... I cannot tolerate stickiness especially at such a time. ...’ This kind of language was long overdue in Eighth Army; but in this case it missed the mark. The Guards brigade could scarcely dictate terms to an enemy who was ready with a strong panzer counter-thrust whenever the situation required.
The balance of strength by the time Eighth Army reached Ajedabia was not nearly so unfavourable to the enemy as Ritchie and Godwin-Austen supposed. All enemy formations had successfully withdrawn with comparatively small loss. A weak attack by 2 Scots Guards on 27 December was easily repulsed. Then Africa Corps, with 70 tanks and strong artillery, struck at 22 Armoured Brigade (which had 90 tanks) and drove it back 30 miles with heavy loss of tanks as well as of dignity. The enemy ‘had a/tk guns right up with their tanks’, the diarist of 4 CLY complained (after further fighting on 30 December) as though this were a novelty. The anti-tank guns ‘seemed to appear from nowhere.’ By the end of that day the brigade had lost 68 tanks and was left with only 30 in fighting order. Thus 22 Armoured Brigade, which had been withdrawn to refit after the first ten days of CRUSADER, was soon incapacitated for the second time. The 1st Armoured Division now took over from 7 Armoured Division; but one of its armoured brigades was already out of action and 2 Armoured Brigade could not reach the scene until 4 January.
Despite this success, Rommel was careful not to overplay his hand at this stage and between the 1st and the 6th he withdrew to a line from Marsa el Brega to Marada, covering Agheila, which could not easily be outflanked. The policy of Eighth Army was to press on as soon as possible with acrobat, an offensive to follow CRUSADER and occupy Tripolitania, and on 15 January Auchinleck estimated that this should start between 10 and 15 February. To facilitate the ‘build-up’ the front was lightly manned, and 4 Indian Division (with only two brigades) and the newly-arrived 2 Armoured Brigade were held back where they could more easily be supplied.
At Agheila Panzer Group meanwhile received some seventy-odd more tanks (mostly of an improved design) from Tripoli, its air strength in the forward area became considerably greater than that of the RAF, and Rommel’s staff officers managed with some difficulty to persuade him to stage a ‘spoiling attack’, which he did on 21 January.17 Next day the Germans re-entered Ajedabia, Rommel’s enthusiasm returned, and the operation blossomed out into a full-scale counter-offensive. There followed many tortuous manoeuvres
in 13 Corps18 as an unusually hesitant Rommel pressed forward until he came upon a new line Eighth Army was forming from Gazala southwards to Bir Hacheim. The opposing armies had fought each other to a standstill and for the next three months they faced across a wide no-man’s land which gradually filled up with mines and barbed wire. In the three weeks from the start of the Axis ‘spoiling attack’ 13 Corps lost 1390 men, 72 tanks, and 40 field guns, while the enemy losses were slight. CRUSADER had ended; but acrobat faded out of sight. The next major move, as it happened, was made by Rommel and took him to Tobruk and then to Alamein.
CRUSADER was a victory nevertheless, and Eighth Army had been granted in its first campaign the hard-earned pleasures of a pursuit over mile after mile of road or desert track littered with equipment and stores, the local triumphs of entering as conqueror one Italian settlement after another, and the collecting of many a bedraggled cluster of prisoners. The RAF ground staffs counted with satisfaction more than 400 enemy aircraft left behind, many of them at the main airfield at Benina – more than counter-balancing the 300 or so British aircraft lost in nearly 12,000 CRUSADER sorties (including those from Malta). By far the largest source of prisoners, however, was the frontier line, where the enemy garrisons were ordered to hold out as long as they could to obstruct the supply of Eighth Army and delay the pursuit, a lonely and dismal task, vital though it was to Rommel.
The frontier garrisons were supplied on a most meagre scale by submarine and aircraft and a very occasional surface craft. They had fair stocks of ammunition but little water, except at Bardia, and inadequate rations. Casualties were evacuated in a hospital ship and officer prisoners went to Italy by submarine (Brigadier Hargest among them), but there were well over 1000 other ranks held prisoner in Bardia and they had to be guarded and fed. Eighth Army reached Ajedabia before Bardia fell, however, and it was not until Panzer Group was assembling for its counter-stroke from Agheila that the Halfaya garrison surrendered.
This long delay in opening up the coast road for supplies, releasing I tanks and artillery for the fighting in the west, and carrying the desert railway on from Misheifa to a new Railhead in the Capuzzo area was damaging to Eighth Army. Had the frontier forts been captured quickly, Ritchie would have been able to establish and maintain forces facing Agheila strong enough to discourage the
‘spoiling attack’ by Panzer Group. But troops committed elsewhere could not simultaneously attack Bardia, and there was good reason to concentrate at Gazala in mid-December to knock out the enemy armour. Even in the ensuing pursuit Ritchie and Godwin-Austen still hoped to achieve this vital aim, and the frontier operations had to take second place.
Meanwhile General Norrie, who on 12 December was given the task of opening up the coast road, had to make do with the inexperienced 2 South African Division (with 2 Brigade of 1 South African Division under its command) and was ordered not to incur heavy losses. All-out attacks against the strong defences of Bardia and Halfaya would certainly prove costly and were forbidden (because of the difficulty of obtaining South African reinforcements, according to Auchinleck). Ritchie was confident that ‘the object can be achieved without this’ and had instructed the South African Major-General de Villiers accordingly on 7 December. He felt that if the outlying strongpoints, ‘Cova’, ‘d’Avanca’ and Bir Ghirba, were denied water they would soon yield, and in fact their garrisons slipped away between the 10th and 12th and entered the extensive Halfaya position.
Attention then centered on Bardia, which was considered vulnerable. Its 17-mile perimeter seemed longer than could be effectively manned by the two infantry battalions with supporting artillery, MMGs, and perhaps two Oasis Companies and a few tanks which comprised the garrison as then estimated. An attack, intended to be exploratory, was therefore mounted on the 16th – Dingaan’s Day – by 3 South African Brigade, with the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry and a medium artillery battery under its command. Resistance proved to be extremely lively, however, and the attacking force lost some sixty men before the operation was called off on the 17th.
In Divisional Cavalry, south of Menastir, the feeling grew that ‘the Regiment is not doing much good here’. Then came Christmas Day: ‘Those who had put by some food managed a reasonable Xmas dinner’, the unit diarist noted; ‘for the improvident it was bully beef and biscuits.’ The South Africans were generous, however, in sharing the contents of their food parcels. Thirty lorries of 6 RMT Company set out this day, as on every other day recently, from the company’s bivouac near the desert Railhead, with supplies for the troops at the frontier. The rest of the company ‘celebrated a dusty, gritty Christmas in “the hell-hole of the desert”, Bir Abu Misheifa.’19
A second and heavier attack on Bardia started on New Year’s Eve, after careful preparation in the course of which two Divisional Cavalry squadrons drove tanks round and round a circuit, only part of which was visible to the enemy, to simulate a massing of armour to the north-west. Like a dramatic chorus the light tanks were continually crossing the stage and returning back-stage, and, if not deceived, the enemy was at least interested enough to shell the two squadrons. For further deception fifteen dummy Stuart tanks were stationed near the Via Balbia outside Bardia on the night of the 30th and a Cavalry carrier troop provided the ‘noises off’ – ‘stopping, starting, changing gears, etc.’20 Then on the 31st a troop of real Stuarts led by Lieutenant Reeves21 threaded backwards and forwards among the dummy tanks firing 37-millimetre guns and Brownings at intervals and attracting much fire at the dummies. A smoke screen laid across the front as though the dummy tanks were preparing to attack drew sustained MG fire from the defences. In the afternoon of the 31st Divisional Cavalry, less a squadron and plus a company of South African infantry, harassed the perimeter defences from the escarpment near Menastir to the sea.
These were only side-shows, however, to distract attention from the main attack, which followed its methodical course. Aerial bombing and fire from medium and field guns had helped to soften the defences and the main break-in operation was mounted east of the road to Capuzzo.
The fighting on 31 December was heavier than expected. The South African infantry gained most of their first objective with the help of two I-tank squadrons, but a battalion headquarters was overrun in a counter-attack and there were several local withdrawals. The next step was after dark on 1–2 January 1942, when Colonel Yeo of 44 Royal Tanks, with memories of his night advance from Zaafran to Ed Duda, despatched two of his squadrons in moonlight ahead of two infantry battalions to seize the second objective. Against long-prepared and well-defended positions, however, Yeo had a very different task. The tanks had to wait some hours for the infantry and in the course of this met some opposition. The following infantry were fiercely opposed, suffered considerable loss, and could not get up to the I tanks. But the end was in sight. Flares, rockets, and explosions behind the enemy lines pointed to impending surrender and the morning soon confirmed this.
Dawn on 2 January was strangely quiet and B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, could get no response to the bursts of fire it directed at various points along its eight miles of front, though there was much
smoke rising to the enemy’s rear and a ‘violent pyrotechnic display’.22 Lieutenant Kerr23 of B Squadron therefore investigated and his troop of three tanks quickly gathered 200 prisoners, all of them with ‘Kits and bundles made up and just waiting’.24 Kerr was invited to drive along the Via Balbia into the fortress to meet a senior officer and did so, but his tank shed both tracks at a corner and there was some delay until his second tank came forward. The German sergeant who acted as guide was nervous about the mines at the verge, but another two miles were successfully negotiated and Kerr found himself face to face with Major-General Schmitt. ‘My troops have surrendered’, the GOC of East Sector announced, and he went on to say that they had tried to do so during the night but ‘the English did not understand.’
Kerr was now asked to go to the southern sector and explain that the garrison had ceased to resist. He was a young officer in a novel situation and unversed in protocol and he accepted this commission. After driving a short distance, however, he came upon Lieutenant-Colonel Butler-Porter, CO of 1 Royal Durban Light Infantry, who was bound for Schmitt’s headquarters with orders to bring Schmitt to surrender unconditionally to General de Villiers by 10 a.m. Kerr soon realised that his prior dealings with Schmitt were unwelcome and that he was not needed, so he returned to B Squadron.
B Squadron had meanwhile been most anxious to enter Bardia. Hundreds of New Zealanders, including some men of Divisional Cavalry, were believed to be held prisoner there and the squadron badly wanted to get in touch with them. Soon after 10 a.m. permission was given and the squadron streamed along the road at full speed, reached the township just behind a provost detachment, and soon found the prisoner-of-war compound (‘Just heaps of rock on a bare hillside, very bleak and colder at night than winter in Taranaki’25) with over 1000 ex-prisoners. All were famished and the Christmas parcels (which had belatedly reached Divisional Cavalry) and spare rations of B Squadron were quickly distributed. Then two lorry-loads of rations were collected from a supply dump and distributed among the bearded and shrunken men who had endured seven cold and hungry weeks of captivity, continually menaced by bombing and shelling.26 Next day transport arrived to pick up the prisoners and carry them on the first stage of their journey back to Base. Many
of those who had been captured at Sidi Azeiz, heedless or unaware of their emaciated appearance, were ludicrously anxious to rejoin their units at once rather than be sent to the rear. All told, there were 1171 prisoners released, 650 of them New Zealanders.
The total captured (including wounded and sick), far greater than expected, was 7982, including 1804 Germans. Casualties on the British side, including Divisional Cavalry (2 wounded), were some 140 killed and 300 wounded – figures which would probably have been smaller still but for the inadequate training of the South African infantry and deficiencies in their equipment, especially in automatic weapons. The water pumping station, a most important installation, was taken intact, though fused for demolition, and some 35 field, medium and coast guns, some of them serviceable, were also taken, as well as two 88s. Ammunition was plentiful, ration stocks were not as low as had been expected, and the garrison was by no means in the dire straits which intercepted signals to Panzer Group had suggested.
General de Villiers no longer had to stretch his troops along the extensive Bardia defences and was able to close in on the Halfaya, Sollum, ‘Faltenbache’ and ‘Cirener’ positions. He did not now need Divisional Cavalry, and this regiment was therefore detached on 6 January and returned to Baggush with a warm testimonial from the South African GOC. The only New Zealand unit now involved was 6 RMT Company, which continued to run its thirty lorries per day between Railhead and the frontier until the end of the month. Early in February it was called on to carry 5 New Zealand Brigade to El Adem; but CRUSADER had long since ended.27
In the meantime the remaining frontier posts were overcome. The seizure of Sollum on 12 January by 2 Transvaal Scottish removed the last local source of water for the Halfaya garrison, the four Ju52s which dropped supplies each night could not maintain so large a force in this essential commodity, and on the 17th Major-General de Giorgis surrendered this last garrison, with 2126 Germans and 3413 Italians. The mainstay of the defence, however, had been Major Bach of I Battalion, 104 Infantry Regiment, a German pastor, who had held the Halfaya defences firmly and skilfully and might have resisted much longer had de Giorgis not brought in his large retinue from Bir Ghirba, ‘Cova’ and ‘d’Avanca’ and placed an insupportable strain on supplies.
In all 13,842 prisoners were taken in the frontier area in December and January, apart from those captured by 5 New Zealand Brigade from Geissler Column at Menastir. The release of seventy-five British troops held at Halfaya brought the total of prisoners freed to 1246. Casualties in 30 Corps in the whole phase of operatios were fewer than 600. A heavy attack in preparation (by South Africans and a newly-arrived Free French brigade) was not now required and CRUSADER thus ended in a minor anti-climax, though a welcome one.
General Freyberg had meanwhile been settling many administrative issues, advising the New Zealand Government on various matters, and providing for the needs of troops at Baggush and in Cyrenaica. Regarding the use of 5 Brigade, he also had a sharp disagreement with General Auchinleck.
When Freyberg saw Ritchie in the frontier area after leaving Zaafran he agreed that 5 Brigade, 18 Battalion and Dudaforce of 19 Battalion, and the NZA detachments in Tobruk should remain under Ritchie’s command. But they were ‘not to be committed to active operations.’28 The New Zealand Division had suffered heavy loss, the full extent of which was not yet known,29 and it could not afford further costly operations. This stipulation was also made to Brigadier Wilder when he called at Divisional Headquarters on his way to take command of 5 Brigade. Then, without Freyberg’s knowledge, Wilder was put under General Godwin-Austen’s command for operations west of Tobruk.
In asking for 5 Brigade, Godwin-Austen had in mind a hard fight (at El Adem or Gazala) and then a pursuit, and there was no knowing on 9 December (when the 13 Corps Commander learned from Wilder of the restriction on the use of this brigade) what ‘wastage’ this would entail. He therefore signalled urgently to Ritchie:
Comd 5 NZ Bde has personal instructions from Gen FREYBERG to the effect that his Bde is not to be engaged on army operations in which heavy casualties may be expected. While bearing this in mind I propose continuing employ Bde on tasks already contemplated but feel you should know above.
Ritchie referred this to Auchinleck (who was still with him) and the C-in-C saw Freyberg on this matter in Cairo the next day. The meeting was stiff and Freyberg was much upset. Auchinleck took strong exception to Freyberg’s briefing of Wilder. As the Middle
East CGS, General Arthur Smith, wrote the same day to Freyberg in an explanatory (and conciliatory) letter, the C-in-C ‘had you in for one thing, viz. to ensure you do not give orders to your Bde comdrs which will interfere with orders from their immediate commanders. You agreed this was quite right’.
All the tact in the world was needed and Freyberg preferred to think the matter over before commenting. In the terms of his orders from the New Zealand Government, Freyberg had to do what he had done. It was improper for Eighth Army to commit a New Zealand brigade independently to a new phase of operations without consulting him. On the other hand, to all the officers concerned – Godwin-Austen, Ritchie and Auchinleck – the success of CRUSADER was an overriding consideration. An immediate and fleeting opportunity was presented at Tobruk and then at Gazala of striking the decisive blow and ending the campaign. To strike with less than the greatest weight and fullest enthusiasm was to put success in sorry jeopardy. Freyberg, who could see this as well as his military superiors, was painfully torn by his conflicting loyalties to the Middle East Command and the New Zealand Government. In the end, however, he found in favour of the latter; for he had no real choice. The issue was a recurring one, the conflict fundamental; but for the first time Freyberg had to face it in the razor-sharp form it assumed when battle was raging and victory still in doubt.
The matter of losses already incurred was at the heart of this dispute. It seems that Ritchie and Auchinleck, though aware that 5 Brigade Headquarters had been overrun, had no idea how large this was and how numerous the men involved; they knew little of the fighting at Capuzzo and Menastir, and they did not link the heavy casualties in 21 Battalion (and 47 Field Battery) at Sidi Rezegh with those of the rest of the brigade. Freyberg therefore sent Auchinleck a letter on the 11th formally requesting to know ‘how they [5 Brigade] are being employed and under whose orders they are’ and at the same time discussing the losses so far sustained in that brigade, which he estimated at between 1000 and 2000 and nearer the latter. He added that ‘the lack of HQ organisation is serious’ and ‘the efficiency of [the] Bde Gp has been greatly impaired.’ In a postscript he undertook to write again on the main features of the dispute.
Then he sent a letter to Auchinleck next day, 12 December, stating his case:
I have now had time to go into the facts as I promised on the 11th and in doing so I have tried as far as I can, to see if the criticism levelled against me was merited. I have tried to find points of agreement with your charge rather than concentrate on points of obvious disagreement which I shall not refer to.
The only controversial point that arises is the question of the employment of the 5 NZ Bde Gp. I know that you think I placed restrictions on the use of the 5 Bde Gp without reference to higher authority. If that had been the case I agree that I would have been entirely in the wrong. I am fully aware, however, of the normal channels of command and have always adhered to them.
I did not attempt to answer the charge brought against me at our interview because I did not know the facts, and as you passed judgement upon me without asking me for my side of the case, I felt that it would be better to do so in writing.
I think, if you will carry your mind back to the evening of 3rd December, you may recall the following facts. You, the Army Commander and I met in the office truck after tea at Adv 8 Army [Headquarters] to discuss the lessons of the fighting. It was just before I left for the rear area. At the end of the meeting, and in your presence, the Army Commander said, ‘I shall need the 5 NZ Bde and I am going to ask you to leave them behind.’ I agreed to this, but said that in view of the heavy casualties we had suffered, I would be relieved if he could see that the 5 Bde was not used in further offensive operations. He said he would want them for ‘columns’, and this was also agreed to. I further said that I should be glad if he would see that the 18 Bn and part of the 19 Bn of the 4 Inf Bde, who were in Tobruk, were not committed to any attack, and I understood that he would send a telegram to that effect. My GSO 1, to whom I communicated these facts after the discussion, bears me out as to time and place and as to the results of the meeting as understood by me and passed on to him.
I cannot pass any comment about my Brigadier’s attitude, because I have not yet had any touch with him. My instructions, however, when he went forward to take over command, were precise. I told him that in view of our heavy casualties it had been agreed between the Army Commander and myself that he was not going to be used for offensive action. I told him that he would have plenty of activity as he would have to send out columns to harass and mop up enemy pockets West of Bardia. I also warned him against attempting any attack by daylight without a full quota of supporting arms.
These are the facts to the best of my recollection, and I think you will find them substantially accurate. Under the circumstances I cannot say that I am conscious of being in the wrong.
Now that you have defined the position to me, I shall in future refer all questions affecting our employment to you. I trust that this action will not be misunderstood by my immediate chiefs.
Other disputes occurred at the same time regarding the use of the part of the Divisional Petrol Company which was in Tobruk and also of 4 RMT Company. All were settled amicably in the end and the New Zealand transport was used as fully as possible to help Eighth Army. Freyberg was angry, however, about an order given by 13 Corps to the CRASC, Colonel Crump, to hand over the Petrol Company lorries to the Polish brigade, and also the drivers, to form a composite ASC unit. ‘We have taken two years to train Division and expect to be ready to resume active operations in
month’, he signalled to Advanced Eighth Army on the 10th. ‘We are quite willing in this emergency that our ASC units should be used complete but will resist any efforts to cannibalise them.’
On the 14th Auchinleck sympathetically acknowledged a further estimate from Freyberg of losses in 5 Brigade and wrote that this brigade would be returened to the Division as soon as Ritchie could relieve it. ‘As you know, we are pretty thin on the ground ... for maintenance reasons’, he pointed out. ‘At the same time, it is absolutely essential that we should keep up pressure on the enemy.’ Then on the 15th he answered Freyberg’s letter of the 12th in a friendly manner, accepting ‘unreservedly your explanation that you believed in all good faith that you had made your opinion on the subject of the employment of your 5th Brigade clear to the Army Commander.’ There had been no way of relieving that brigade and at the same time keeping up pressure on the enemy; but it would be withdrawn at the first opportunity. Already it had ‘done most valuable work, capturing prisoners and containing large enemy forces which would otherwise have been free to attack the 4th Indian Division on its flank.’ Finally Auchinleck wrote:
I would like to thank you for your very straight-forward and soldierly letter.
This was merely one of a series of disagreements large and small about detaching parts of 2 NZEF, and particularly of the New Zealand Division. But it had a further and deeper significance in that, unlike the use (or misuse) of ASC and other service units, it entailed committing fighting units to action and perhaps losing many lives, a matter on which Freyberg was directly answerable to the New Zealand Government. The next in the series was an argument about the use of 5 Brigade in a projected seaborne attack in the Gulf of Sirte.30
After several cables about details of CRUSADER campaign and its repercussions in 2 NZEF, Freyberg wrote two personal letters to Mr Fraser on 18 December. In one of them he mentioned the trouble about detaching New Zealand units which made him appear in some quarters ‘as a Fifth Columnist’.31 In the other he reassured the Prime Minister about the excellence of the air support as compared with Greece and Crete, deplored the loss of senior officers including Miles and Hargest, and told of his visit to General Cunningham before the battle started, when he prophesied that the New Zealand Division would be asked to march to Tobruk and said he wanted it to go, if it had to, as a full division.32 Then he summarised the battle:
The [CRUSADER] plan ... was a very good one & up to a point it had been brilliantly carried out. The move by night ... was well done and the attack started as a surprise. ... When the true facts of the Armoured battle were known to us close to Bardia they [30 Corps] were in a grave difficulty. The question of withdrawal was I believe mentioned. That would have been tragic. Especially as so far we had not been engaged. Somebody had to fight the Germans and it fell to our lot. We could either wait for them to attack us or go for him near TOBRUK. We advanced quickly by night and stuck at him and drove his infantry back at the same moment as Rommel made his outflanking movement to the south. It was as well we did so and I feel History will say the New Zealand Division fought the Germans to a standstill and in so doing saved what was developing into a nasty situation for us.
This hastily written letter was followed in due course by a fuller account and then by a fifty-page report which was printed (with deletions stipulated by Auchinleck33) for limited circulation in New Zealand and in 2 NZEF. In this he concluded that surprise was the ‘outstanding factor in achieving success’ and that ‘Night attacks and night advances often offer the best chances’ of attaining it. Infantry tanks ‘can and should be used in attacks at night’; but they should always have the maximum supporting fire from other arms and close infantry co-operation. A dispersion between vehicles of 200 yards was generally too great, he felt, 100 yards was ‘satisfactory’, and 50–60 yards had not caused ‘undue casualties during artillery bombardment’. Having described the withdrawal from Zaafran on 1–2 December, Freyberg summed up:
So ended the New Zealand part of the battle to keep the Tobruk Corridor open. This battle in the Western Desert was not primarily however a battle to hold positions, but a battle to destroy the German forces. I believe we went some distance towards achieving this in our attacks at Sidi Rezegh, Belhamed, and Ed Duda. I think the German Afrika Korps will bear me out in this!
Some months afterwards he wrote more critically of CRUSADER. The enemy at Tobruk and again at Gazala ‘should have been caught like a rat in a trap.’34 Later still he commented:
The British artillery was the best-trained and best-commanded part of the British Army. They could move and fight. They were being wasted [in the Brigade Group Battle].35
Mistakes and failures arising from inexperience occurred as much within the New Zealand Division as in other formations which had to get used to desert conditions and the fast tempo of operations the panzer troops imposed. Even the Germans had been bewildered by the breathless pace of events in the first few days. But Auchinleck’s refusal to let Freyberg criticise in print the dispersion of effort in Eighth Army and the mishandling of I tanks indicated
that wrong-thinking in the Middle East was deeply entrenched.36 Senior officers in Cairo continued to talk a tactical language quite foreign to Freyberg’s and made him apprehensive of the future.
Freyberg had clearly foreseen some of the main features of the CRUSADER fighting. He had emphasised before and during the battle the need to concentrate on relieving Tobruk, he had been certain that the Germans could not be beaten by manoeuvre alone and would have to be fought to a standstill, ‘in the end ruthlessly’,37 and he had even predicted Rommel’s ‘evil dream’. As he approached the frontier he had noted uneasily how strong the Germans were in anti-tank guns; but he did not foresee what a disastrous effect these would have on the British armour.
The catastrophic tank losses in the opening phase of CRUSADER had caused the guns and infantry of Eighth Army, usually with I-tank support, to bear the brunt of the offensive in later phases. The complex struggle that developed, with its bewildering fluctuations of fortune, reflected no great credit at the command level on either side and it was not by and large a generals’ battle. The general who showed up best of all was perhaps Neumann-Silkow of 15 Panzer, the pacemaker in one of the fastest-moving battles in history until he was struck down on 6 December. His calm eye, viewing the fighting mostly at close quarters, saw it as whole and the vigour of his leadership was exemplary. In Eighth Army none did better than Freyberg, whose determination not to leave his 6 Brigade in the lurch and, when he reached it, to push on with his two-brigade division to join hands with Tobruk, left an indelible imprint on the campaign.38
The merit of Freyberg’s performance, particularly in the early hours of 1 December when he faced the imminent destruction of his force and was yet firmly resolved to hold on, must be judged in the light of his deeply-felt responsibilities to his men and to New Zealand. He had set out on CRUSADER believing that a third costly failure after Greece and Crete might shatter the spirit of the New Zealand Division and perhaps cause 2 NZEF to be disbanded, with social, political and sentimental repercussions of which he could scarcely bear to think. Neither by voice nor demeanour, however, did he disclose these cares to those around him. His loyalty to Eighth Army on this occasion made the later disagreement about the use of 5 Brigade all the more painful.
Eighth Army in its first campaign, like the French early in the First World War, fought with superb élan. The spirit of the British cruiser tank units in the opening clashes, unavailing though all too often it was for tactical and technical reasons, was magnificent. At the same time a battle designed around armour was adorned with some of the finest infantry assaults in the annals of the British Army. The attacks of the Black Watch on ‘Tiger’ in the break-out from Tobruk and of the 60th Rifles at Sidi Rezegh, the hard fight for Point 175, and the last relentless night advance on the Mosque showed what men could do with little or nothing more than the weapons they could carry. They deserve to be remembered.
The New Zealand Division, in the opinion of one well-qualified observer (supported by many others), entered CRUSADER ‘at the peak of its fighting form’. Later it became more skilful, ‘especially in the higher ranks, and was probably more effective’, but it is doubtful that ‘it ever fought again with the same fury and determination as it did in that short and confused campaign’.39
Despite this, many New Zealanders concluded from the conduct of the desert war that, as they often put it, ‘Jerry’ was a ‘good joker’. Their fury and determination nevertheless found a just cause, though the Allies were not to know the full horror of what they faced until the end of the war. Here as much as on the Continent of Europe, though few knew it, they fought a barbarous power, guilty already of dreadful crimes and planning others of diabolical degradation.
It was an honour to serve such a cause and in such company. There were men in Eighth Army from the United Kingdom, South Africa, India, Australia, Palestine, Poland, France, Czechoslovakia and many other countries as well as from New Zealand. Together they paid the price in killed, wounded and missing of 17,700 men (against some 38,000 enemy casualties).
More than a quarter of these came from New Zealand; 4620 men, nearly a thousand of them killed.40 This was a greater loss than that of any otheir Eighth Army division. It was a thousand more than the New Zealand casualties in Crete, nearly double those in Greece, and three times the figures for the Orsogna or Cassino battles in Italy. Only in the next campaign, described in J. L. Scoullar’s volume, Battle for Egypt, were they surpassed, and then only in numbers of wounded. More New Zealanders died and more were taken prisoner in CRUSADER than in any other campaign of the Second World War. This was a heavy loss indeed and there were few communities in New Zealand untouched by it.
This loss, however, was not the only spectre at the feast of victory. In February Eighth Army was back at Gazala, sadder but scarcely wiser and ready as ever to disperse its efforts, divorce its armour from its mobile infantry, and in other ways repeat the errors of its first campaign. There were therefore some at the table who felt that CRUSADER had failed. The enemy armour, though badly battered, had not been destroyed, and the fertile slopes of the Green Mountain and most of the empty wastes of Cyrenaica had been returned to the enemy in a matter of weeks. In My and June of 1942 Eighth Army was defeated again, Tobruk was lost, and the Nile Delta gravely threatened.
But Eighth Army did not fight alone and CRUSADER was not mounted purely for Army purposes. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force also had their goals and they were better served by the outcome. Malta, for example, was no disinterested spectator. It still had its hardest test to face, and the Navy and the RAF between them were able to sustain this embattled island without at the same time having to supply a besieged garrison in Tobruk and provide air cover for its small ships. The African airfields of the RAF after CRUSADER were 120 miles nearer Malta than before – 240 miles on the round trip and therefore a great boon to aircraft searching the sea lanes. This was all the more valuable because of losses in the Mediterranean, following on the sinking of the Barham and Ark Royal in November, which made December a black month indeed for the Royal Navy. The surface striking force from Malta (Force K), which had proved a deadly menace to Italian shipping, was put out of action, chiefly by mines;41 two battleships were heavily damaged by Italian ‘human torpedoes’ in Alexandria harbour; and the consequent desperate plight of the Mediterranean Fleet was prolonged by the crisis in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, which drained off ships and aircraft and some Army units much needed in the Middle East.
Black December was followed by blacker January in which the desert situation was as uncertain as that at sea; but things settled down in February and for four vital months, while the British Commonwealth and its allies (now including the United States) were recovering from the blows struck by the Japanese, there was much comfort from what CRUSADER had gained. The desert front was well over a hundred miles farther west, it was stocked by sea
as well as by land, the supply outlook also improved with every mile the railway crept towards El Adem, and there was no constant strain to maintain a beleaguered garrison far behind the enemy’s lines.
The relief of Tobruk, then, became the reward of this desert campaign. CRUSADER thus turned out to be defensive rather than offensive in its outcome; but if, instead of conquering half of Libya, it helped to save Egypt and Malta and gain time to redeploy against Japan, it was all the same a vital success.