8. Libya 1941: Belhamed
8. Libya 1941: Belhamed
At first light on 25 November we resumed the advance in our trucks, all three battalions of 4 Brigade moving abreast. 6 Brigade, which we heard had experienced very heavy fighting, was on top of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment on our left, and the immediate intention was simply to move up level with it.
We travelled along cheerfully for four miles until nearly level with the famous Blockhouse, a prominent square white building near the edge of the escarpment. I was up with the carrier screen a mile ahead of the trucks when we suddenly came under close-range fire from an anti-tank gun which must have been extremely well concealed. One carrier was hit and we had some trouble getting the badly wounded driver out of the flames. The gun was knocked out and I went back, a little shaken from the effect of several near misses from high-velocity shells, and stopped the trucks. We were on a dead flat plain, overlooked by the escarpment, and orders were not to press on against opposition. We accordingly halted and started to dig in, while Paddy Boyle went up the escarpment to discover the position on our left. Johnny Quilter, our L.O. with Brigade, came over and said that the Eighteenth on our right had taken a hundred prisoners and was half a mile ahead. We accordingly stopped digging and advanced in extended order until level with it, and settled down to dig in again immediately below the Blockhouse. Paddy Boyle came back with the disturbing news that the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth, on our left, had been amalgamated because of losses, and he thought they looked rather worn.
We spent the day in this position without any particular incident. Enemy transport was visible miles ahead. We were spasmodically shelled, and around the Blockhouse and page 94 in the wadis to the west there was activity which we could not quite interpret. There were constant reports of enemy forming up for a counter-attack. In my experience this usually means that the forward platoons have seen someone moving far ahead. Our guns found plenty of targets and fired away steadily. Padre Spence went over to 6 Brigade and came back hours later looking very sad. He had buried eighty of our dead. The General came round and told me we had some very hard fighting ahead.
In the afternoon matters were so quiet that I went three miles back to the transport, shaved and bathed, and for a while rested blissfully in the sun. A message came that A. Company below the Blockhouse was being counter-attacked, and I hurried back. All was quiet. I walked over and saw Mitchell who reported a small scrap, a few casualties, and a certain amount of discomfort from mortaring. I went round his posts, had a chat with a cousin who was a private in the company, and was discussing patrols for the night when Rhodes rang to say I was urgently wanted at Brigade and that there was a warning order for an attack.
I reached Brigade Headquarters at 6 o'clock. Inglis's orders were short and to the point. 18 and 20 Battalions were to seize and hold Belhamed, I was to be in command, make the arrangements, and continue to command on the hill after its capture. 6 Brigade was attacking along Sidi Rezegh and we were to advance simultaneously with them at 9 o'clock. There was no question of artillery support; it had to be a straightforward night attack with the bayonet. The guns would, however, fire small concentrations at intervals to help us keep direction.
Belhamed was another escarpment, very steep on the northern side and then falling away very gently for four miles to the foot of Sidi Rezegh. On our approach we would have to cross a wadi running at an angle to our line of advance and then ascend a moderate slope. I expected difficulty in keeping direction for the 6,000 yards of the advance.
Inglis gave me precise objectives and then rather soberly wished me luck. Jan Peart was commanding the Eighteenth, page 95 and he and I discussed the plan of attack. We settled on a start-line and Paddy Boyle went off to lay it and guiding tape for the battalions to move up on, no easy task. We decided to attack with the two battalions side by side, Eighteenth on the right, each with two companies forward extended to four paces, the other companies following similarly extended 400 yards behind.
It was nearly 8 o'clock when I got back to the Twentieth. The companies had come in from their positions, had a meal, and were assembling. I gave my orders to the company commanders, A. and D. Companies to lead, Mitchell to take command if I was hit. Mitchell was the senior company commander but, as he had not been in action, I had ordered before the campaign began that Fountaine should take my place if necessary. Mitchell had done so well that I now revoked this order, to his obvious delight. When all the companies were assembled, sitting quietly together in the brilliant moonlight, I spoke to them. It was a tense moment. We all knew that desperate fighting was very close ahead. I told the men what the objective was and the plan, that our success would mean the relief of Tobruk, and that we would go through at all costs and then hold the hill against all comers. I ended by saying: ‘And now I want only to wish you good luck, every man of you.’ It was a very wonderful thing to hear the response: ‘Good luck to you, Sir.’ But it is little use wishing good luck; not one man of the 500 of the Twentieth who stormed Belhamed that night had any; more than half were killed or wounded; the others suffered years of imprisonment.
We moved off along the guiding tape, feeling somewhat serious, and each man thinking his own thoughts, and without misadventure we reached and formed up on the start-line. The Eighteenth arrived about the same time. Jan Peart and I checked up and found everything in order; we were an hour late but that did not matter.
At 10 o'clock I gave the forward companies the order to move. They stepped off with a resolute air and disappeared. Then the supporting companies came up and passed, intervals very accurate, and the men moving in a steady, page 96 determined way that stirred my heart. My young cousin passed, we exchanged greetings, and I turned and watched him go to his death. My headquarters appeared, Rhodes, some of the Intelligence section, Roberts with some signallers, Copeland from the Brigade staff, two trucks laden with mines, the anti-aircraft platoon under Baker. Paddy had gone with one of the assaulting companies to help in keeping direction and check distances. I joined them and we followed, I munching biscuits that stood for my evening meal. I reflected that my hobby of soldiering had got me into a serious position.
We moved at a good smart pace but I was surprised that we quickly lost sight of the companies ahead. I remembered with a shock that I had omitted to say where my headquarters would be established after the attack. As I had always flattered myself that I gave orders clearly and in the correct sequence, this was mortifying and it might cause serious trouble. The company commanders should have reminded me, but, after all, their failure to ask me was also my fault, something wrong with my training. I was fretting over this and considering how to notify my whereabouts in due course when after travelling 2,000 yards we reached the wadi. It was shallow and not very wide, but the trucks had to pick their way and, without my noticing it, they and my whole party emerged on the other side some hundreds of yards north of the original course. A few flares were going up ahead but there was still no firing and we pressed on. A few hundred yards on Allison, my young Intelligence sergeant, told me that he had lost touch with the companies. He was on the correct bearing, 282 degrees. Neither of us realized what had happened at the wadi crossing and we hurried on. Soon the loom of high ground appeared to our left—how far away it was impossible to tell—and a moment later the flash and sparkle of tracer. In an instant the top of the hill was sizzling with tracer criss-crossing in all directions—and faint and clear and distant we could hear the high-pitched yell of charging infantry. Still quite unsuspicious of what we had done, I said, ‘That's Sixth Brigade going in on Sidi Rezegh’, and we hurried on more anxiously than ever, page 97 momentarily expecting the roar of battle to break out ahead. The clamour to our left swelled and sank and swelled again. We heard the incessant hammering chatter of many automatics, the ‘whang’ of grenades, yells and screams, but all seemed far away. We were fired on from our right but took no notice and hurried on, almost running. Then I was startled by bursts of tracer over our heads from the high ground and at the same moment found myself on a bitumen road.
I instantly realized what had happened. In crossing the wadi we had swung to the right and had thenceforward moved parallel with the assaulting battalions and outside their right flank. We had gone through a gap in the enemy line, the high ground was Belhamed, not Sidi Rezegh, and it was our own fight we could hear and partly see, still raging furiously on our left rear. Crouching under a greatcoat I examined the map with a pocket torch. Thinking very carefully indeed, I decided that if we went back for 1,200 yards and then climbed the escarpment we should be behind the Eighteenth.
We had just turned the trucks, all keeping very quiet as the situation seemed delicate, when there was suddenly the sound of many men running over stones down the escarpment only fifty yards away. Baker and his platoon rushed across. For a minute there was a terrific noise, everyone shouting and firing at once. I went over and savagely ordered silence. To my surprise there was. We had eighty German prisoners. They had been running from the fight and had scrambled down the hill to get on their trucks, and were very surprised by our appearance. Our situation was still insecure, however, deep in the enemy position and ahead of our own troops. Some of my men were excited and inclined to be noisy; the Germans kept silence and behaved with perfect discipline. After a few minutes I got everyone quiet and we formed up for the return march, the prisoners moving in threes between the two trucks. Belhamed was silent and dark again.
We moved off gingerly and slowly, counting the paces. At 1,200 we stopped and Rhodes and Allison came with me page 98 up the escarpment. Near the top we came on a wounded German, moaning and writhing, and then to our delight heard the clank of metal on stones—the Eighteenth digging in. The next problem was to get in without being fired at.
We walked towards the sound and then I went ahead with my hands up and called out, ‘New Zealand here’, thinking glumly that another omission from my orders had been a password. The picking and shovelling stopped and I was sternly ordered to advance and keep my bloody hands up. I did so and was sharply examined by a soldier, one of three who kept me closely covered. At first he refused to send for an officer; one of his mates recommended shooting the bastard. I protested and said who I was. He knew of me but did not think I looked like the chap. My knowledge of his Colonel's name only tended to confirm his suspicions. Then he said: ‘Well, if you are a New Zealander, who won the Melbourne Cup?’ ‘Damned if I know!’ I replied. This satisfied him. ‘You sound like a New Zealander’, he said, and called for his officer.
There was no further trouble, the platoon commander recognizing me at once. I told him to bring in the wounded German (long afterwards he told me that he had died) and Allison went back and brought the party, prisoners, and trucks up on to the hill. For the next four hours we wandered round trying to find the Twentieth. I found Peart and got directions from him, but though we quartered the hill I could not find the battalion. We came on many German dead and wounded and a few of our own, there were cries for help in all directions. I could never understand why we failed to find any of the Twentieth: for they were there and in their correct positions. Presumably we moved in circles. I sent a message to Brigade reporting success and before dawn sent off the prisoners and the trucks with escorts.
We rested for a short while, bitterly cold and worried by the wailing of the German wounded all around. At first light we set off again, Rhodes, Roberts, the signallers, and myself. Shortly afterwards we found Peart, and he had mean-while found the flank of the Twentieth. We proceeded with him to the forward posts of one of his companies and found page 99 two of his officers, Green and McKay. They knew where the Twentieth lay and Green pointed out the company positions. We were standing in rather a careless group in the growing light. I had just said delightedly, ‘They are all just where they should be’, when there was a streak of tracer coming directly for us. We all dived for the ground and as I was going down I felt two violent knocks on the left thigh.
For a moment there was a stream of bullets over us, all literally hugging the earth. When it stopped I asked Rhodes if he was hit. He said he was, badly—eye and wrist. McKay had a bullet in the head and Roberts one in the calf of the leg. Peart and Green (both to be killed in later battles) were the only ones unhurt. They crawled up cautiously and applied field dressings, and then went away, stooping and running. So did the signallers, whom I told to find Major Mitchell, now in command. After a while Roberts hobbled off.
Rhodes, McKay, and I lay still for a time. It was bitterly cold and the wind blew the sand in our faces. One of the tanks, up to support at first light as promised, came past and changed course to avoid us. Fifty yards on it was hit and burst into flames. Two of the crew scrambled out, were hit, and collapsed beside it. The blazing tank attracted the enemy mortars and they searched the area with an intense concentration. I saw a soldier's head a few yards away, was invited to share his pit with him, and laboriously dragged myself there. The others found similar cover a few yards away.
For half an hour my host and I lay squeezed together in his shallow trench under a most alarming pounding. One shell burst a yard away and covered us with sand. At last the fire ceased and I was able to sit up, light a pipe and look round, while my friend got out and, kneeling, dug himself another home. My view was limited and I could see nothing but the burning tank, so I settled down to smoke and wait for stretcher-bearers. The time passed very slowly.
After a long time a signaller with a wireless set appeared and crouched down beside me. He told me that Mitchell had taken command of the Twentieth and I spoke to the page 100 companies in turn. A. was quite happy under heavy shell-fire, Captain Baker was now in command; B. was also cheerful, Agar said he was not far away and would send some stretcher-bearers. C. said that Captain Fountaine had gone to Battalion as Major Mitchell had been wounded, and Sergeant-Major Grooby was now commanding the company. I spoke to Grooby and this gallant soldier told me that all was well, a bit of a counter-attack had been beaten off and the boys were quite happy. We could not raise Manchester and D., and for a while had to lie very low under another heavy mortaring. The signaller said that the whole hill was being pasted and that there were many casualties. When there was a little quiet again we called Battalion and got through. The operator could only tell us that Captain Fountaine had been wounded and that Captain Agar was coming over to take command.
The signaller went away. I saw him a few days later just before he died. The mortaring continued and for a long time I could see no movement. A medical orderly named Arnold, whom I remembered having punished severely for some offence at Athens, appeared at a particularly nasty time and put fresh dressings on us all.
About 1 o'clock four stretcher-bearers from B. Company appeared, picked me up, and set off cheerily, quite regardless of the fire. Rhodes and McKay came too, and the mortar bursts followed the procession the whole mile to 20 R.A.P. On the way I saw Ray Lynch, who was upset to see me wounded. Sergeant Smith told me that fifty-eight wounded had already been evacuated and showed me the list of names. He said that Captain Gilmour was up on the hill where there were many more wounded, but sent his compliments.
We were loaded into a truck and bumped off painfully over the hummocks. We called in at Brigade where Inglis and Bassett came over, very friendly and concerned. Inglis agreed to send Johnny Quilter up as Adjutant, which eased my mind greatly. In the early evening we arrived at the Advanced Dressing Station where I found that the two knocks had been one bullet passing in and out so that nothing much had to be done. Ross and Neville arrived, very page 101 anxious and worried, with my bedroll—but I spent a highly uncomfortable night.
For the next week I cannot do better than quote my diary, helping it out where memory serves:
Nov. 27th. Moved to surgical tent, being treated better than was warranted by my wound. Did poorly for food but was comfortable very quickly and began to feel better. Rusty Page (C.O. of the 26th) came in, hit through the back, and looking rather poorly.
Nov. 28th. General, Gentry, Maxwell, and Kenrick all looked in, very cheery and confident. Gentry says Germans have only fifty tanks left. About five German infantry came in and made us all prisoners. Alan Tennent popped his head in the door and said, ‘We're in the bag!’ The orderlies all went out with their hands over their heads.
Two German soldiers looked in, I remember, but said nothing, and we were left in silence. There were about twenty seriously wounded in the tent and after a while some began to call out for water. I was least badly hurt so I got up and found that I could walk after a fashion. I found a bucket half-full of water and went round giving everybody a drink from an enamel jug. All drank with restraint for they knew how badly off we were. Rusty refused anything.
The orderlies returned after an hour. 4th, 5th, and 6th Field Ambulance, and Mobile Surgical Unit, and about 1,200 wounded are prisoners and 900 German prisoners have been released.
Nov. 29th. Shifted to tent provided by Stan Wilson and joined there by Guy, Paddy, and Cyril Pepper, all in a bad way. Mills and Mitchell are in the tent I have just left, Mills very bad. Fountaine is in another tent. Heenan, Roberts, Harper, Abbott, and Baker are in holes near by. Spent most of day talking to wounded and hobbling round watching Germans get into position. In afternoon our people seemed to be attacking in our direction and got within two thousand yards. Considerable small arms fire. About 5.30 p.m. damned Italian motorized Division (Ariete) turned up. They passed with five tanks leading, twenty following, and a huge column of transport and guns, and rolled straight over our infantry on Pt. 175. About 200 of the Twenty-first came past us as prisoners. Fighting went on in the moonlight until 11 p.m.page 102
Nov. 30th. At daylight we saw that the enemy column was still halted with its head on Pt. 175. An hour later shells started to burst among the leading vehicles and there was a great panic.
The tanks stayed, but every other vehicle bolted and many did not stop to pick up their passengers. A number passed through the camp and Paddy and I put out a coil of wire between two tents. A small staff car ran slap into this and the occupants got out and continued running. We grabbed an attaché case and when they came back looking for it, were lying down in our tent looking very sick. The papers were interesting but of no great value. This was a cheering incident but otherwise it was an unhappy day.
Completely cut off and without news. Rations and water very short. Can manage a few days on one pint per man. Much firing in all directions and camp shelled by own twenty-five-pounders. Several of the wounded killed.
The signaller who was with me at Belhamed was among these. He sent me his compliments after he had received his second and mortal wound, and I was with him when he died.
[November.] Over a thousand wounded here, many serious, and cannot be washed or properly looked after. Heard from wounded that ‘B’ and ‘C’ companies of 20th made an attack on the 27th and suffered heavily, to no good.
In the evening Italian ten-ton trucks took away several hundred of the walking wounded and drivers. I was nearly included in the party, but was saved by John Twhigg giving me warning in time to keep away. He and a number of other medical officers were taken. Dittmer, C.O. of the Maori Battalion, Abbott, and some others joined the Italians in one of our three-tonners and escaped from the column after dark.
Dec. 1st. Lot of traffic during night and hopes that enemy were leaving, but they were still about in the morning. On two tiny meals a day, and half a cigarette tin of water, so taking things quietly and trying to keep optimistic. Very heavy fighting visible about Belhamed, six miles away.
On the previous evening the German armour had overrun the remainder of 6 Brigade on Sidi Rezegh and during that page 103 morning of 1 December what was left of the Twentieth was overwhelmed on Belhamed. I watched sadly and anxiously from the edge of the wadi and had an odd conversation with a German artillery officer. He came up and said: ‘We have retaken Belhamed and our Eastern and Western Groups have joined hands.’ I expressed regret. ‘But it is no use; we have lost the battle,’ he went on. ‘I am glad; it has been a pleasure to meet you. You have fought well,’ I said. ‘That is not enough. Our losses are too heavy. We have lost the battle,’ he answered and went on his way.
About 5.30 p.m. much shelling in all directions and many in the camp. Heenan gave me some tobacco, Jackson got some heavenly extra water by straining tea leaves thrown out by the cooks. Walked a few hundred yards to see Fountaine and visited as many men as I could, which was tiring.
Dec. 2nd. A.S.C. personnel and senior medical officers taken away. In evening about two Battalions Italian Motorised Infantry with twenty guns came from west and took up positions facing north-east, less than a mile away.
I have never been able to understand the object of this Italian movement. Our guns were firing only from east and south.
Dec. 3rd. A grim sort of day. Started to plan escape but in evening, big enemy column, fifty tanks, twenty-eight armoured cars, hundreds of trucks parked south of wadi and cut off chance. Conference of conspirators, postponed attempt. Moonlight too bright, guards all round, R.A.F. dropping flares and too many troops about. Bitterly cold night.
And bitterly miserable! When the Germans came into our camp our drivers managed to remove the rotor arms from our trucks and immobilize them. On this day two drivers, one named Robinson, came to me and said that they had the rotor arm of their truck and would like me to organize an escape. We spent the day getting recruits and planning and in the evening held a conference. A surprising number of those approached were not willing to take the risk. Many, of course, were not fit and several of the doctors held that their duty lay with the remaining wounded. I agreed to take twenty altogether and stipulated that those page 104 going should be able to walk and should each have a packet of biscuits and a bottle of water. The stipulation as to walking excluded Fountaine, Heenan, Roberts, and Harper of my own battalion, and I gave myself a dispensation as it would have puzzled me to walk half a mile. The party finally consisted of Stan Wilson, Lovell, and Jack, doctors who considered they could be spared, Rhodes, Boyle, Jackson, and Pepper, all badly hurt but able to walk, a South African, and a number of Lovell's medical orderlies. I was rather unwilling to take these latter as many of the orderlies had behaved badly when we were captured and under the shelling, but there were no other fit candidates. We held a secret meeting after dark. I hoped to make a bolt during the night but we had to abandon the idea for the reasons given in my diary. I lay awake very disappointed and despondent all night.
Dec. 4th. Tank column moved in early morning, east apparently. Decided about nine to make a break. Got truck by a miracle. Gradually loaded people aboard. One complete unloading because of prying Italians. Finally seized chance and bolted. Anxious moment climbing out of wadi but not stopped and after furious run of five miles were fired on and stopped by South African armoured cars.
I had just completed a laborious reconnaissance, discovered that the way south and west was clear, and that the Italian sentries had been reduced from two every fifty yards to one every hundred, when Lovell joined me and suggested that we should make the attempt at once in daylight. I agreed, pleased to have the encouragement, and we set about it. The people concerned had to be notified to make their final preparations and to collect unnoticed in the vicinity of the truck, which was well placed beside a marquee. This was a slow process, as it had to be done in a casual manner and there were many Italian soldiers wandering about the camp looking for what they might pilfer. As the party arrived I loaded them into the truck, seizing opportunities when no Italians were near. Once, when about half were aboard, lying on the floor, some Italians started to examine nearby trucks. I had to make everyone scramble out and page 105 later start afresh. I found a chance to call on Rusty Page and say good-bye. His neighbour, an English tank officer, gave me the pistol which he had concealed under his pillow and I had binoculars and a compass.
After three nerve-wracking hours all were aboard and I dragged myself up beside the driver and told him to start. He pressed the starter button and the battery was flat! The switch had been left on the previous night. I ordered everyone out again. It was quite impossible to use the crank handle. The plan had collapsed.
At this precise moment, before anybody but myself had got out, a British three-tonner drove up and stopped along-side facing east. Two Germans got out, one carrying a kit of tools, and without even looking at me they went to the far end of the camp and started methodically examining trucks. They had stopped their truck in an ideal position and in five minutes I had the whole party transferred and lying on its floor. I then clambered in beside the driver, told him to rev. the engine up, to back for twenty yards, and then wheel round and climb out of the western side of the wadi. I then drew my pistol, told him to drive close to the nearest sentry so that I could have an easy shot if necessary, and said I would certainly shoot him, the driver, if he stalled on the climb. I do not think Robinson needed this encouragement. The engine started nicely. An Italian sentry fifty yards away, whom we were facing, stopped on his beat, looked at us very hard, and then unslung his rifle. I thought it was time to go and gave the word. Very coolly Robinson backed the twenty yards with the engine singing beautifully. The sentry still hesitated, we turned and bounded up the slope, passed within two yards of another sentry who luckily for himself was too slow-witted, and rattled west at full speed.
It was a delightful moment. There were cheers from the passengers and a great sense of relief and elation, but we were not yet quite out of the wood. My plan was to run west for a mile, then south for five, and then east for Egypt. We turned south, saw enemy tanks ahead, tried to get round them, saw more and more tanks, until we were forced to run west again and then found we were being chased by two page 106 armoured cars. They quickly overhauled us, opened fire with machine-guns, and began to hit. Very sadly we stopped, there was a wild scramble to get out and lie on the ground, and I went clear of the truck and put my hands up. The fire stopped and the cars came in, keeping us well covered. An officer put his head out of a turret. ‘What an ugly-looking bastard you are,’ I thought; and then suddenly I saw the pennants and his shoulder badges. They were South Africans!
The two armoured cars escorted us to their Regimental Headquarters and thence we proceeded alone to Jock Campbell's headquarters. This consisted of a few trucks dispersed on a piece of perfectly flat desert. Four very suspicious-looking twenty-five-pounders swung their barrels on to us as we approached.
I dismounted and was met by a smart-looking military policeman who asked for my identity card. I had torn this up while a prisoner and so I replied, ‘You go to hell.’ ‘Very good, Sir,’ he said, and conducted me to Jock's car. Some food was promptly arranged for the party and I had a memorable meal of bully and Worcester sauce, sitting in the back of his car with Jock. I told him of the move of the German armour westwards along the Trigh Capuzzo that morning and he promised to stop shelling the wadi and to see what could be done about rescuing the wounded still there. We then moved on, and two days later after a painful journey arrived at Bagush. On the way we had discovered Corps Rear Headquarters and managed to interest someone in rescuing the wounded in our wadi, which was done.
New Zealand Division had returned to the same area from which it had left for the battle. Lovell and his team went on another 400 miles in the night to Helwan. The other wounded made a very slow journey by hospital train to Alexandria, where Rhodes had an eye removed and Boyle his broken jaw fixed up. I myself stopped at the 2 New Zealand General Hospital at Gerawla. Here an 18 Battalion officer told me of the annihilation of the Twentieth and took me to Brigade Headquarters.
I got out of the truck and walked towards the familiar page 107 entrance. A staff car passed me and General Freyberg and Rudd, the Military Secretary, got out. Rudd saw me and grabbed the General's arm. The General turned, stared an instant, took three huge steps, and embraced me, saying: ‘You're a Brigadier!’ A minute later I met Inglis and Bassett and Beale, all beaming and smiling.
We had drinks, asked and answered questions, and then I went back to Gerawla, and to bed for the next three weeks.
A few days after our escape, when only thirty gallons of water were left, the hospital camp was recaptured and the remaining wounded and medical staff were freed. Page and Mitchell came into beds on either side of me. Mills was brought in moribund and died, as did the officer who had lent me his pistol.
The Twentieth had returned to Bagush with 120 men, all from Headquarters Company, and two officers, Agar and Padre Spence. Jim Burrows had come up with 600 reinforcements and thirty new officers to form a new battalion, greatly helped by Upham, Maxwell, and Gibb, whom I had most fortunately left behind, by Washbourn who came up from Base, and by Phillips and Chesterman who had been wounded and evacuated early. R.S.M. Wilson and Quartermaster Bolwell were both back, and other old hands who were scattered on courses or had also been evacuated early were quickly collected, so that the links with the first Twentieth remained strong.
It was some time before we were able to get a reliable account of what had happened after I was wounded. Mitchell and Fountaine were hit in quick succession and Agar took command, with Quilter as Adjutant. On the morning of the 27th B. and D. Companies made an attack, the details of which are still obscure. Agar stated that he was given insufficient time for preparation and wholly inadequate artillery support for a daylight attack—a ten minutes' concentration by one Field Regiment which ended before his orders had reached the platoons. The attack was stopped by very heavy machine-gun fire, with more than 50 per cent, casualties.
Inglis then relieved Agar of the command and replaced page 108 him by Orr, who was thus the fifth commander in three days. There were two quiet days with a constant trickle of casualties from shelling and mortaring. On the morning of 1 December the battalion, which then had nine officers and 286 men, with four two-pounders, was attacked by forty-eight tanks and some hundred lorried infantry and after ninety minutes resistance was completely overrun, one man escaping. The Eighteenth, less directly attacked, withdrew into Tobruk with fifty casualties. We knew that Gilmour and Grooby had been killed, but otherwise had no details until a month later, when a few men escaped from Benghazi and made statements. Two of the statements are worth quoting. Sergeant McConchie says:
At Belhamed on December 1st, my platoon occupied a forward position. Shortly after dawn word came round to stand by for an A.F.V. attack. We had had several warnings of this nature and did not really expect anything to eventuate. In about twenty minutes' time, I spotted a dozen tanks advancing up a wide wadi about eight hundred yards distant but I thought they were our own tanks as I could see the Artillery preparing breakfast in the Brigade area about five hundred yards away, and they did not appear to be disturbed at the appearance of the column. It was very hazy and dusty and we remained watching these tanks, unable to decide whether they were friendly or not.
The first indication that they were enemy was flashes from their guns, firing at the artillery. By this time, the artillery started to get moving and four quads with guns came tearing over to our left flank but only got three guns into action as one was hit on the way and remained there with the quad burning. The first column of tanks advanced on the Brigade area setting afire several trucks. Another column of fifteen tanks turned and commenced a zigzag attack on our position. The German tanks advanced in threes, each supplying protection for the other two. When about one hundred and fifty yards distant, they stopped and threw several smoke bombs which exploded round our guns and made direct shooting very difficult for them. The two-pounder in my rear opened fire but was soon put out of action by a direct hit from a 75-mm. shell.
Through the haze and smoke we could see enemy mortar teams and infantry coming up. Sergeant Lochhead ordered us to open fire on these and at once we could see that this fire was having page 109 good effect as the enemy went to ground. My particular target was three motor-cycle combinations and I had great satisfaction at seeing two of these careering round, out of control, with the seats empty. All this time we were expecting our own tanks to put in an appearance as shortly before the attack a British tank officer informed us that our tanks were coming in. This English captain was making a great joke of it all. He walked away but had only gone a few yards when I heard a groan and saw him lying on the ground. I crawled over and dragged him into a hole close by. He had been hit in the stomach and as I couldn't do anything for him I crawled back to my own position.
Three enemy tanks directly in front started to advance and I had visions of being run over and squashed. However, they came to a halt sixty yards away. Lochhead ordered us to fire at the slits, and we opened fire. I fired half a magazine but received such a hail of fire in return that I decided it was useless firing at a tank once he had spotted you. ‘Gunner’ Leckie, a few yards to my right, was firing steadily with a Boys anti-tank rifle. Apparently he was annoying the tanks as twice I saw the turrets swing round and send a hail of bullets in his direction. He bobbed down each time the turrets swung round and continued firing when the tank was concentrating on other objects. He ran out of ammunition and yelled for more which we threw over to him. He continued firing and we could actually see the bullets bouncing off the tank, it was so close. Suddenly and very quickly the turret swung round and the tank opened fire with its 75 mm., Leckie receiving a direct hit at not more than fifty yards.
I glanced over to my left and saw one twenty-five-pounder still firing, the remainder were going up in smoke. After the tanks had knocked out this gun several moved round to the left flank of ‘C’ company, completely surrounding our area. I concentrated on my front, firing at the German infantry, and when I glanced over to my left received a big surprise to see ‘C’ company coming out with their hands up. This was rather more than an hour from the commencement of the action. I looked over to my right and there was ‘A’ company coming out with their hands up. We stopped firing and lay in our holes as low as we could, thinking we might be missed. However, one of the tanks came rumbling up, a turret opened, a German appeared with a Tommy gun, pointed it at me and in a very guttural voice said ‘Op, Op.’ We got out.
A battery of twenty-five-pounders a fair distance away was still page 110 firing and the Germans hurried us back to the Mosque very quickly. On the way we passed several German tanks and I noticed that behind each tank was a huge pile of firewood attached with a chain, apparently with the object of raising dust. The Germans in our captured ambulances (about six of them) were driving round the battlefield collecting their wounded and we could see that our fire must have had very good effect as each ambulance was crowded, with the slightly wounded standing on the running-boards.
Sergeant McConchie was awarded a D.C.M. next year for very gallant conduct at Minqar Qaim.
Sergeant McDonald, who was later killed at Alamein, gave a similar story:
The troops were all in good spirits. In conversation with men from the companies on our flanks on the previous day, they all expressed pleasure that our platoon was there with seven extra Bren guns, and I heard some say that they hoped the Germans would attack and that we would chop them in pieces.
Shortly after dawn the order was passed along ‘Stand by for A.F.V. attack.’ Visibility was bad, a haze making it difficult to pick up objects beyond five hundred yards. About fifteen minutes after the warning order three tanks passed across my front about four hundred yards away. They had brushwood tied at the back to raise a dust. At first I was not sure whether they were enemy as our artillery did not fire at them, but when they stopped I saw their gun flashes firing towards Brigade area. Then more tanks came into view with anti-tank guns towed by motor vehicles. I immediately opened fire, range about five hundred yards. Motor-cycle combinations followed and there were a good number of infantry. They were engaged by us with good results. Two large-calibre guns mounted on four-wheeled carriages never got into action.
For the first part of the attack the nine tanks I could see did not engage us. With the arrival of their supporting weapons they turned on us, edging slowly up. We had been firing continuously for some time and I was beginning to consider the advisability of conserving ammunition. During a pause I looked to my left and was surprised to see some of our men with their hands up, three hundred yards away. I could not understand what had happened. There was still plenty of enemy movement in our front and we carried on shooting and getting heavy fire in return. page 111 The tanks closed in to shorter range and fired heavily on us with guns and machine-guns. About fifteen minutes later Mr. Guthrey shouted to me to put my hands up and I did, not understanding the reason until I saw three tanks a short distance away to the left. Surrendering was something I had never considered possible and yet here it was.
While I was in hospital at Gerawla an incident occurred that left a good deal of bitterness. Inglis attended a parade of the new battalion and, after some handsome remarks on the performance of the unit up till 1 December, said that it had surrendered too easily at Belhamed. In saying this he had the highest motives and he must have believed there was an alternative. I was never able to concede that there was; I told him that what my men had done was good enough for me, and we agreed to differ. Inquiries among prisoners after the war have only confirmed my opinion that when the surrender took place there was no possibility of continuing effective resistance or of running away. The casualties of the Twentieth in this campaign were twenty-four officers and 537 other ranks, of whom ten officers and 361 other ranks were prisoners; about a hundred of those taken prisoner were wounded.