Chapter 26: Fourth Brigade Overrun
FOURTH Brigade was well aware by the middle of the afternoon that a counter-attack was impending. From three o’clock the enemy shelling from the north-west and west increased considerably and troop and transport movements could be seen in the enemy’s rear area. Detailed observation, however, was difficult as, in addition to the heat haze, a slight wind was blowing into the defences the dust raised by the enemy’s transport and shellfire. This dust, extreme heat, flies, and the unhygienic state of much of the area made conditions most unpleasant.
When 20 Battalion’s forward posts reported that transport was assembling in the enemy’s lines, Brigadier Burrows passed the information to Divisional Headquarters with urgent requests for more anti-tank guns and ammunition. The J Section signalman operating the wireless link, however, could not get his signals accepted as the divisional station was fully engaged with messages with a higher priority than that permitted the brigade. Realising the urgency of the situation, the signalman on his own initiative gave the Brigadier’s message the second highest priority and thus broke into the continuous traffic on the link. Divisional Headquarters replied that the supply columns were on their way forward and that the brigade was to hold its positions until support arrived.
This message, sent in apparent ignorance of the position of the brigade’s supply columns and support weapons as well as of the British armour, deprived Burrows of any initiative he might have exercised. The facts at that hour were that the brigade’s supply and support columns were still held up, no one knew precisely what 22 Armoured Brigade was doing, and 5 Brigade’s columns and 2 Armoured Brigade had barely reached the top of the ridge. Possibly there was little that Burrows could do, but a message to the effect that the right was being made secure and that the situation on the left was obscure would not have left the false impression that support was at hand.
Besides the physical discomforts that had to be endured, the casualties were becoming heavy. As the enemy were mounting their attack, 20 Battalion reported that since the morning more than half
of its officers had been killed or wounded. Other reports indicated that few of the rifle companies throughout the brigade could muster more than half of the strength with which they had crossed the start line.
Increasing enemy fire prevented the distribution of ammunition brought forward by a few vehicles that pressed onward when the supply columns were turned back. This fire also covered a reconnaissance of the brigade’s north-eastern front by two enemy armoured cars. They were engaged unsuccessfully by a six-pounder and a two-pounder as they made fleeting appearances out of the cover of slight hollows and ridges. These cars cannot be definitely identified, but most likely they were from Lienau’s unit, as at ten minutes past four Schroetter, who was then on the north-eastern slope, reported to Afrika Korps, ‘33 Recce Unit arrived here.’
About this time an officer from 2 Armoured Brigade drove up to 18 Battalion on the brigade’s right or eastern flank and reported that a strong force of British tanks was then only two and a half miles to the east and was making its way forward along the south side of the ridge. The infantry situation was explained to him and he left, ostensibly to bring the tanks forward. As the attack appeared about to fall, Burrows sent one of his liaison officers,
Lieutenant McLernon,1 to hurry the tanks forward. He found the leading tanks just over a mile away. After explaining the situation to the commander of the regiment, he returned with a British liaison officer. When heavy fire prevented this officer from making a detailed survey, he suggested that he should obtain his regiment’s light reconnaissance tanks for the task. Burrows told him this was no time for such tactics and that the situation demanded full armoured support. The liaison officer set out for his regiment as the enemy attack developed against 20 Battalion.
Captain Dasler, 5 Brigade’s signals officer, also tried to hasten the advance of the tanks. He had brought 4 Brigade the welcome news that a supply route through 5 Indian Division’s sector was open. He also left as the attack commenced with the intention of urging the armour to advance. He found a group of tanks in cover only a short distance away, but his request for urgent action was met with the reply that the squadron had not yet received orders to advance. One commander, however, offered to send an officer to reconnoitre.
The enemy did not show comparable hesitation. Lienau’s report to Afrika Korps at 4.45 that Point 63 was held only lightly by infantry and anti-tank guns appears to have confirmed an impression that the objective was of the type specially favoured for the swiftonslaught tactics of German armoured cars and tanks. During a slight pause apparently on the start lines, the enemy intensified artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire on 4 Brigade. The dust screen drifting over Point 63 was thickened with the smoke of burning vehicles seemingly deliberately set alight. Against the setting sun, the screen reduced visibility from the defences to about 300 yards and sometimes to as little as a hundred yards.
Resisting the temptation to remain under their scant cover against the artillery and mortar bombardment and the hail of machine-gun fire which swept the area, the men of 20 Battalion and the anti-tank and Vickers gunners peered into the haze to engage every target they could see. Just on five o’clock Lienau’s armoured cars, their machine guns blazing, struck out of the screen against the south-west corner of 20 Battalion’s sector and then swung northwards to the east of Point 63 into 19 Battalion’s area. The cars moved so swiftly that they were among the posts almost before the defenders could realise what was happening. Their speed, the skilful manner in which they were manoeuvred, the volume of fire they produced and the smoke, dust and haze, created an impression that they were more numerous than was the case.
Concurrently tanks, half-track trucks, self-propelled guns and captured British portées, most of them carrying infantry, attacked from the west. Further armoured cars were also reported to have advanced from the north, but whether this was so or not cannot be established.
In its exposed and unsupported condition, the brigade had little chance of withstanding the enemy’s swift descent. The anti-tank gunners, normally the backbone of the defence, were particularly vulnerable as they manned their guns on the portées. First a gun and portée of D Troop and then another of B Troop were hit and set alight. A second portée of B Troop was next immobilised. The crew of the troop’s third gun took the damaged portée in tow but their own vehicle received a direct hit and caught fire. A passing two-pounder then took over the tow and got away safely. This was the only gun of B Troop to be saved, the fourth gun which had been damaged in the night attack being lost later in the day. The remaining three guns of D Troop and all four of C Troop’s were withdrawn successfully.
With the collapse of the anti-tank defence, the position of the infantry became hopeless. Most of 20 Battalion was surrounded and forced to surrender. Men who attempted to withdraw into 19 Battalion’s area found the armoured cars there also and 19 Battalion being rounded up. A few men escaped by breaking out to the east and south, and one group of A Company 19 Battalion was led out by Captain Thomson.2 The remainder of the two battalions, 10 officers and 171 other ranks of 20 Battalion and 11 officers and 195 men of 19 Battalion, were made prisoner. Captain Upham was among those taken. Although badly wounded in the arm in the early morning attack, he had commanded his company throughout the day. He was again wounded in the counter-attack, this time by a mortar, burst that left him unable to walk. For his great gallantry and leadership at Minqar Qaim and on the present occasion, Upham was later awarded the most rare of battle honours, a bar to the Victoria Cross.
The two battalions also lost their headquarters except their commanding officers. Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell was at brigade headquarters when the attack opened and Major Manson had moved back to get support for his men.
The experience of the infantry is well described in the story of one of 19 Battalion’s more fortunate platoons. As the shelling increased, the men of the platoon had their first warning of the
enemy’s approach when they saw an anti-tank gun crew move from cover in response to a call from the lookout man on top of their portée. Against the setting sun and the haze, the infantrymen in their slit trenches could see nothing ahead except the flashes of guns and exploding shells. Machine-gun fire continually swept the ground. An armour-piercing shell ricocheted out of the haze and set a nearby truck on fire. Although the anti-tank gunners had opened fire, the platoon still could not see the enemy. After they had fired a number of rounds, the anti-tank gunners drove off, calling out as they passed that they had run out of ammunition.
At this stage the infantrymen saw several vehicles, either armoured cars or light tanks, in the haze about 100 to 150 yards away. Fire was opened in the hope of deterring the enemy from coming closer. However, when only a few rounds had been fired, they had to stop as men from their own battalion close to the vehicles rose to surrender. The platoon commander then ordered the platoon to withdraw. The men dashed over bare rocky ground to their rear. Machine-gun fire followed them until they reached cover.
Of the anti-tank action, Sergeant Parks3 of C Troop has recorded:
When the tanks came in the afternoon and we backed up over the rise, at first we could see no tanks. There were plenty of our chaps surrendering. There were many vehicles on fire and we knew that tanks must be close as only tanks could cause such a situation.
When we made out the tanks the range was 300 yards or less. I laid and loaded the gun (C1), observing the fall of shot over the shield. We knocked out two tanks and I was just sighting on a third when a party of 30 or 40 New Zealanders. ... walked between C1 and the tank. It was impossible for me to fire through them. The German commander must have been a good man. The tank also abstained from firing through the surrendered New Zealanders. While those men walked across the line, I laid on the tank and could see his gun laid on C1. The moment the last man passed the line of fire, both the tank and I fired.
The tank shell hit the metal plate at the back of the portee just below the gunshield, and threw pieces of metal under the shield among the crew. We were all wounded except the driver. Before we got away, our men saw the tank start to smoke and then burst into flame. [The driver] started up the portee and drove off straight away and got us out of trouble. On the way out [one man] slipped off the portee and disappeared.4
The infantry two-pounder sections, which had suffered losses in personnel and equipment under the bombardment, followed the lead of the nearest six-pounder crew. But as the attack developed communication became difficult and each gun commander had to
operate independently. Lieutenant Wood,5 who was helping to man one of 20 Battalion’s two surviving guns, has recorded:
The shelling intensified so much that dust was raised all round us and we had practically no visibility ... the only things visible were the AP shells shooting through the dust. ... We and Sergeant Thompson’s portee fired a considerable number of rounds at the enemy gun flashes through the haze. One of our crew was shot by small-arms fire which penetrated the shield so I withdrew the portee eastwards about 100 yards. ... turned round and again fired at the gun flashes. We then advanced westwards again. ... We could not see much but knew there was some form of enemy attack on because the gun flashes kept changing position and approaching. ... Men in the area were moving east. We moved back a short distance till we came to where troops were attempting to stabilise the position. We were told to go and site ourselves on the ridge again. Shortly afterwards one of the infantry company commanders told us to withdraw further east. ...
The Vickers gunners from their commanding positions on the ridge probably had the best view of the attack. They had been in action throughout the day and by the late afternoon were running short of ammunition. Several of the gunners had been wounded and at least two of the eight guns brought forward had been damaged. About five o’clock the gunners overlooking 20 Battalion reported that the area was being attacked by five armoured cars and two light tanks. The gunners put down all possible fire to help 20 Battalion, but the battalion was quickly overrun and the enemy closed on the gun positions. Some of No. 5 Platoon, including several wounded and men attending to them, were taken prisoner. The platoon’s No. 2 Section under Corporal Fraser6 did a good section withdrawal, each gun giving covering fire in turn as the other was carried back. The section found an Italian truck in going order, and in it the two gun crews with their guns and stragglers got away safely. No. 4 Platoon was also forced to abandon its positions when the enemy broke into 19 Battalion’s area. The platoon’s guns and some of the men were lost and the survivors fell back on the brigade headquarters.
Lienau gave Nehring prompt advice of his progress. At 5.30 he reported: ‘ Point 63 taken. Haul of PW cannot yet be ascertained.’ An hour later he signalled: ‘Have pushed our way forward as far as Point 53 [a spot height about three-quarters of a mile south-east of Point 63.] So far 7 57-mm and 4 40-mm anti-tank guns and a scout car knocked out.’
On receipt of this news Nehring decided, according to his diary, ‘Now we must achieve the envelopment of the enemy to the north of Ruweisat.’ To this end he signalled Lienau at 6.40: ‘Make for
your objective with all speed and bottle up the enemy north of Ruweisat.’ Bruer was told at the same time to ‘Surround the enemy north of Ruweisat by swinging round and moving to Point 64. Hurry.’ Baade also was advised: ‘The enemy north of Ruweisat is to be surrounded. Advance forthwith to the area east and south of 909 right 2 and then swing north. 21st Panzer Division [i.e., Bruer Group] will be on your left.’
These orders meant that Lienau’s Recce Unit was to push along the top of the ridge while Bruer was to skirt the resistance by moving on the southern slope of the ridge and then turn north, against Point 64, where 5 Indian Brigade was consolidating itself. Baade, moving on Bruer’s right, was to complete the envelopment by coming in on the Indian brigade’s rear.
Nehring’s plan for the second phase of the battle, however, was too optimistic. No sooner had he issued his orders than he learned to his astonishment that Baade was still at Kaponga, having been held there in reserve by 15 Division which, contrary to instructions, had taken the group under command. At the same time, Bruer reported: ‘Infantry and tanks streaming back from the sector where the attack is taking place. Trying to stop them. They say they are being attacked by Pilot7 tanks.’
On the ridge the tide had again turned, but not before further severe damage had been done to 4 Brigade.
After overrunning 19 and 20 Battalions, the enemy paused only long enough to assemble the prisoners and salvage weapons and other equipment before resuming the advance against the eastern part of 4 Brigade’s position. Here there were only the Brigade Defence Platoon and the sappers of 6 Field Company about brigade headquarters and, a little further to the east, part of 18 Battalion and the company from 21 Battalion. Most of the men who escaped capture in the first attack were halted in the area and given places in the defences. On receiving further reports that the British tanks were only a short distance away, Brigadier Burrows gave orders to stand fast.
Because of the constant fire falling in the headquarters’ area the pause in the enemy’s advance was not noticed. About six o’clock the turret of an armoured car appeared over the rim of a ridge to the south of headquarters. It was thought at first to be a British tank but the defenders were quickly disillusioned. The armoured car machine-gunned the area thoroughly but did not advance over the ridge. It was engaged by a two-pounder from 18 Battalion’s sector
without success. An effort was also made to bring into action the six-pounder left overnight by 31 Battery, but it was too badly damaged to be aimed.
As the armoured car withdrew, the defence platoon and sappers halted enemy infantry advancing over a ridge to the west on captured portées. At the same time, two armoured cars reached the eastern side of 18 Battalion’s area. They moved rapidly backwards and forwards across the end of a wadi opening into the position, machine-gunning the battalion immediately they could bring their guns to bear. A two-pounder was turned on to the cars but their appearances were too fleeting for success. The cars also cut short a reconnaissance by Captain Batty, 18 Battalion’s adjutant. He saw enough, however, to report that if a retreat eastwards were contemplated the battalion would have to run the gauntlet of armoured cars and possibly other enemy troops. Just before Batty returned to the battalion headquarters, three enemy tanks were reported on a ridge to the west. The two-pounder was turned against them and the tanks moved into cover.
Major Brett, who commanded the battalion while Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch was at the brigade conference, then assembled his surviving officers to discuss the situation. They agreed that there was little chance of breaking out to the east past the armoured cars and, in the light of other reports of enemy action, Brett decided the battalion would have to surrender. However, no sooner had he reached this decision than tanks, armoured cars, and infantry swept into the area apparently from all directions. The solitary two-pounder was soon put out of action and, with little further resistance, the majority of the battalion was made prisoner.
Several men hid in their trenches hoping to escape detection in the approaching dusk, and others on the outskirts of the position dashed for freedom. In this a good example was set by Sergeant Kennedy,8 who collected a number of men on the portée of the two-pounder and drove off under fire. Although the portée was hit, a tire punctured and several men wounded, Kennedy persevered and at length got out of the enemy’s range.
At the same time as these events the brigade headquarters’ area, a short distance to the south-west, was attacked by armoured cars. The cars were engaged by the sappers and defence platoon and for a time did no more than poke their turrets over the ridge surrounding the headquarters and spray the area with its machine-gun fire. Then a solitary car, braving the fire of the defenders, drove through the area with its machine gun firing and the occupants lobbing hand grenades into the trenches. Encouraged by Major Reid, the
defenders replied with their small arms and with Italian hand grenades found in the area. The car eventually withdrew to cover, from which it continued to machine-gun the defence.
In its passage the car passed close to the headquarters’ trench in which were Burrows and most of the brigade’s senior officers who had been prevented by the attack from returning to their units. Major Reid saw a grenade burst apparently in the trench, and when later there was no sign of survivors he concluded that the brigade staff had become casualties. He thereupon assumed command of the defence.
The situation now was obviously hopeless. There was no support of any kind at hand or in the offing. Reid therefore gave orders to withdraw. The order was obeyed as it was passed round, although as soon as the men rose from their cover the enemy fire increased. Undaunted, the men took over a truck and a staff car which had remained unharmed. They were loading their wounded into these, when both vehicles were put out of action. The wounded were placed in shelter and Reid then led the survivors in dashes to safety along the north side of the ridge. Although still under fire, the troops, by moving widely dispersed, managed to traverse nearly a mile of open ground without further loss before crossing the ridge again into shelter.
Here they found a number of British tanks whose crews, on being questioned very forcefully in some cases, said that although they were willing to help they had not received any orders to intervene in the battle. Near the tanks an abandoned truck was taken over and driven by the sergeant of the defence platoon back along the escape route, as it appeared that the enemy, on sighting the tanks, had begun to withdraw. The truck was loaded with wounded in the headquarters’ area and was driven out safely. An attempt was made to repeat this meritorious performance, but by this time the British tanks had begun to take action and the battle had flared up again.
The 21st Battalion troops also withdrew in the face of the armoured-car attack. They were led out in two groups by their non-commissioned officers, the two company officers having been wounded and evacuated in the afternoon and the other, Lieutenant R. B. Abott, intelligence officer, then being on his way to brigade headquarters. One group which moved on to flat ground south of the ridge was taken prisoner. The other escaped to 5 Indian Division by moving along the north side of the ridge. Lieutenant Abbott also managed to escape capture.
The grenade that Major Reid thought had exploded in the headquarters’ trench actually fell on the parapet. Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch was badly wounded but the others in the trench were unharmed. As the area was still under fire, they remained in cover,
expecting every minute that the attack would be resumed. When it was seen that all the troops nearby were either withdrawing or surrendering and when the cars again came in, Brigadier Burrows, having given up all hope of help from the British armour, decided to surrender. With Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell and several other officers he gave himself up.
The enemy made a perfunctory search of the area and was beginning to march the prisoners away when British tanks to the south-east opened fire and appeared about to advance. The Germans thereupon hastened their withdrawal. Dusk was falling and there was some confusion of which several of the prisoners took advantage. Among those who escaped were Burrows and Hartnell.
Back at the headquarters’ site, Captain Paterson9 and his J Section signallers had been missed by the enemy. Paterson had already destroyed the wireless sets and documents and was arranging the escape of survivors in the area when he was badly wounded in the head. Major Johansen,10 who had escaped after having been taken with the brigadier, joined the group and made ready to lead it along the north side of the ridge to safety. Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch and several other wounded had been placed on a truck and Paterson was put with them.
As the group was ready to move off, it was joined by Brigadier Burrows and Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell. A man was sent ahead to plot the route with a compass, but the party had covered only a few hundred yards when an armoured car appeared in the dusk. In the moment of confusion before identification, Burrows, Hartnell and Corporal Stevenson,11 of the signallers, slipped away and went to ground to escape later in the night. The remainder were taken prisoner. After being joined by other armoured cars, the enemy withdrew and laagered for the night. In the morning the wounded were given attention. Paterson, however, was dead. Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch died later while a prisoner.
Other men who escaped capture by hiding in the trenches and ignoring German calls to surrender later reported that the enemy fell back well to the west of Point 63 on the approach of the British tanks. The tanks did not press their attack but, as darkness fell, withdrew under a smoke screen into cover to the east and south-east. On this the Germans again advanced rapidly on a broad front as far as the pipeline track.
At 5.30 p.m. Major-General Inglis had received a report, believed to have emanated from 1 Armoured Division, that 4 and 5 Brigades
were ‘quite happy on the ridge.’ This was not true even of 5 Brigade, which felt the impact rather than the force of the enemy’s attack. Schroetter’s armoured cars operating on the brigade’s northern flank, increased artillery fire on the brigade positions, and the rapidly increasing noises of battle to the west gave additional urgency to the task of disposing of the support weapons and distributing ammunition. Soon small groups and stragglers from 4 Brigade arrived with stories that their positions had been overrun and that enemy tanks and armoured cars were close on their heels.
Major Romans, who had now taken command of 23 Battalion and the other infantry groups which had attached themselves to the unit, had ample evidence that the stories brought from the west were not the usual exaggerated and unreliable tales of men seeking refuge in a rear area. The enemy fire and armoured cars cut off contact with 4 Brigade, and more cars could be seen moving eastwards along the broken ground to the south of the ridge. These were turned back by the British tanks, one of whose commanders exercised his initiative in pressing several of 4 Brigade’s anti-tank guns and some of 5 Brigade’s guns into service with the tanks.
After making a quick appreciation of the new situation, Romans concentrated his defences closer to 5 Indian Brigade’s position about Point 64. The consequential rearward movement and the influence of 4 Brigade men passing through led several groups to believe they were withdrawing in face of an armoured attack. Accordingly, they fell back on to the Indian brigade or through the British tanks. The majority of 5 Brigade, however, remained under control and set to work digging themselves in on the new position, where the digging was as difficult as elsewhere on the top of the ridge.
At nightfall, Romans reported to Brigadier Kippenberger over the radio that he thought he could hold his position until the next morning. The brigade commander, however, considered the position, projecting as a small salient on the corner of the main British line, was too insecure to be held by the small force of infantry available and advised Divisional Headquarters accordingly. General Inglis then described the situation to 13 Corps and received permission to withdraw 5 Brigade from its exposed position. At ten o’clock 13 Corps circulated an order that from six o’clock next morning the corps’ front would be covered by New Zealand Division from 26 Battalion’s present area to Point 64, where contact was to be kept with 5 Indian Division. First Armoured Division was to protect this front, while 7 Armoured Division covered the Alam Nayil area to the west and south.
During the night and the early morning of 16 July, Kippenberger brought the 5 Brigade troops back from the ridge and placed
23 Battalion on the right of 26 Battalion, with 18 Battalion prolonging the line to the north-east. The survivors of 21 and 22 Battalions were mustered and the two battalions set up headquarters to the right rear of 18 Battalion. The headquarters of the brigade remained in Stuka Wadi.
Also during the night General Inglis ordered 6 Brigade forward at once and instructed the B echelon groups of 19 and 20 Battalions and 6 Field Company to collect their survivors and move to Rear Division. The 18th Battalion, which appeared to have suffered the least casualties in 4 Brigade, was placed under the command of 5 Brigade.
On the enemy side, Nehring decided at 8.30 p.m. that it was useless to continue the fight in the dark as the units had become badly mixed. Orders, therefore, were given to ‘hedgehog’ for the night and to resume the attack next morning at 5.30. At 9.30 p.m. Nehring could note in Afrika Korps’ diary, no doubt with some satisfaction: ‘The crises of the day were mastered by throwing in the last forces available. The troops have again achieved great success and have inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. Recce Unit 33 has been particularly successful. The possibility exists that tomorrow the situation which had become so critical through no fault of the troops of Afrika Korps may be completely restored.’
Reflecting on the battle, 15 Panzer Division also noted in its diary: ‘It was most astonishing that the enemy could not exploit his penetration to a breakthrough by pushing his tanks forward. Reasons for this may have been 1. No accurate knowledge of the situation and the extent of the enemy’s [British] success; 2. Perhaps the operation had only been intended as a limited one and had not been prepared on a large scale; 3. Lack of troops to exploit. It was most important to find out whether the last of these was correct.’