18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 13 — Attack in the Desert
Attack in the Desert
The offensive to be launched by the brand-new Eighth Army in the Libyan Desert had one simple but sweeping main aim, to chase the enemy out of Cyrenaica. For more than two months material had been piling up and men had been training, and now everything was nearly ready. It was important that the balloon should go up soon, because there were signs that the enemy intended an offensive too.
The position in the desert was now more or less static. In general the Axis forces were in Libya and the British in Egypt; but at the coast end of the frontier, near Bardia, the enemy possessed a small slice of Egypt stretching east from Sollum to Halfaya Pass and south to Sidi Omar, 23 miles inland. In Libya the British clung to Tobruk, isolated and hard pressed by the encircling enemy. Most of the Germans and Italians were within 25 miles of the coast; south of this was a vast desert, empty but for a few oasis garrisons and some ‘recce units’ snooping round the countryside.
Eighth Army planned first of all to come to grips with the main force of the enemy, destroy his armour and relieve- Tobruk. To this end the British armoured corps (30 Corps) was to make one of those ‘left hooks’ which later became the classical British move in North Africa, thrusting through the desert well inland, then swinging northwards towards Tobruk.
When the time was ripe most of 13 Corps (New Zealand Division, 4 Indian Division, and I Army Tank Brigade) would cross the frontier south of Sidi Omar and advance north between Tobruk and Bardia on a minor left hook, to protect 30 Corps' supply line and cut off the enemy on the frontier. Fourth Indian Division was to attack positions known as the ‘Omars’ at the south end of the enemy line, keep the enemy occupied and prevent interference with the New Zealand Division, which was to take a wider swing, push nearly 50 page 182 miles north, and cut the main coast road west of Bardia. The westernmost New Zealand brigade might later be required to carry on towards Tobruk to help 30 Corps.
The rush and bustle of last-minute preparations was not so pronounced this time as usual. For once 18 Battalion had several days' warning of the move. On 8 November the men were given battledress and an extra blanket; the 10th and 11th the battalion spent getting ready, distributing three days' food and water to every truck, completing its full ammunition supply, ‘topping up’ petrol and oil. The morning of 12 November was taken fairly leisurely. The trucks were packed by 10 a.m., and at midday, after an early lunch, the convoy headed west along the main road. From Mersa Matruh the route led south along the desert road towards Siwa, and then west again. The trucks bounced over a dozen miles of rough stones and dust before reaching their allotted place in the north-west corner of the divisional assembly area. It was 8 p.m. before the convoy arrived.
It would be natural to think of an assembly area as a mass of vehicles, troops and guns, all together in a compact group. But not so in the Egyptian desert. The Division was all together in a group, but far from a compact one—it covered nearly 100 square miles, and some units could see their neighbours only dimly, if at all. The trucks were widely dispersed, and round them the desert was pimpled with ‘bivvy’ tents covering the narrow ‘slitties’ which for a day or two were all that the men could call home.
Here 18 Battalion spent two slightly fretful days lying in the sun, wishing that it knew what was going on. The men were inclined to grudge time spent idly at this stage. They were looking forward to going into battle on equal terms with Jerry, and, they hoped, giving him one in the eye to make up for Greece and Crete. Most of the time British planes were overhead, travelling west towards the battle, holding out hopes that this time the Luftwaffe would not have things all its own way. So when the time came for the Division to move off again on 15 November everyone was eager to get cracking.
Battalion Headquarters on Belhamed, Lt-Col Peart with microphone
Section post, Belhamed
‘Fishing’ in the Orontes
Alamein line—after the Stukas left
B Company platoon post, Alamein line
Armoured training at Maadi—Gunnery class
The Division was now south of Sidi Barrani, only some 55 miles from the frontier. There were rumours that enemy tanks were within striking distance, and there were counter-rumours that the enemy was pulling out and that the Division, once it got going, wouldn't stop before Benghazi. Nobody was unhappy either way. The whole division, 18 Battalion not least, had its tail up and was ready to tackle anything in the way of Jerries. As for the ‘Ities’, well, they just weren't worth worrying about.1
Fifty-five miles sounds only a step in terms of peacetime motoring, but the Division took three bites at it. After 15 November the moves were all at night, with the pace dead slow, only four miles in the hour. The drill was: leave after dark (about 7 p.m.), grope your way along the dim line of green lamps until midnight or 1 a.m., then stop and sleep till daybreak, then get the trucks dispersed and slitties dug, pull the heavy camouflage nets over the trucks, set up ack-ack Bren guns, and make yourself as much like part of the landscape page 184 as possible for the day. The Division was now on a complete battle footing, no lights or smoking at night, stand-to periods morning and evening. What cooking there was (the rations were mainly bully beef and biscuits) was nearly all done in platoons over open petrol fires, and of course only in the daytime.
The camouflage nets were new. These huge, wide-mesh cord nets, dark in colour and threaded with irregular strips of scrim and cloth, did not claim to confer invisibility, but, by softening the shadows and blurring the outlines, they made vehicles harder to spot from above. They had other uses, too— as the sun rose higher they provided welcome shade and relief from the glare (though they weren't proof against the fine swirling dust), and one morning, after a heavy dew, they did duty as impromptu shelters under which lines of blankets were hung to dry.
Under the conditions of the move, 25 miles a night was not bad going, and every night some vehicles got lost, or had punctures, or broke springs. During the second night move there were thunderstorms away to the north; no rain, but vivid lightning displays that spread strange shadows across the desert and made it fatally easy for drivers to veer off course. Next morning, for the first time, 18 Battalion heard a distant growling away to the north-west, quite distinct from the night's thunder. For most of the battalion it was the first sound of guns in action. But it was still nothing but a sound, except for half a dozen carriers, which for two or three mornings escorted artillery observation officers out towards the fighting. No shells actually fell near them, but they could clearly see the bursts and smoke of gunfire on the enemy's positions at Sidi Omar.
The 18th November was D-day for the Eighth Army's attack, and at 9 p.m. 18 Battalion at last crossed the frontier. The crossing was unexciting—earlier in the day sappers had cut a great gap in the frontier barbed-wire fence, and the convoy passed through quietly and quickly. After being keyed up to their first invasion of enemy territory the men felt that the reality was a bit of a flop. ‘The first thrill…soon died away,’ said one. ‘Except for ourselves there wasn't a soul to be seen and the country was just the same barren desert….’ The page 185 gunfire was nearer, but not very near yet. It was the coldest night since Greece; men wrapped themselves up in greatcoats and scarves and huddled together on the trucks, and still shivered.
Next day, the first on Italian soil (or rather sand), was equally disappointing, grey and dismal, causing a spate of outspoken criticism of everything Italian. At first it promised to be a repetition of the last three days, with nothing to do, but later it turned out reasonably eventful. The YMCA truck arrived with a supply of canteen goods, and relieved a threatened tobacco shortage. Soon after lunch, as a relief from the endless streams of British planes still patrolling overhead, appeared a handful of cheeky Messerschmitts; they did not attack 18 Battalion, but the men could see and hear them strafing some unfortunate transport a mile or two away. The ack-ack Brens opened up at them, and some of the carriers had a crack with their guns, but nobody could see any results, for the planes were over and away too fast.
This excitement had barely died away when the battalion had to be up and doing at short notice, pack its trucks and race away north-west across the desert. It was only a short move of 11 miles and was over in an hour, but it was in the right direction— the unit stopped much nearer the gunfire. All that night the rumbling went on, and those who woke during the night could see flares going up on the horizon ahead.
This sudden move was to pull up level with 4 Indian Division, which had made good progress that morning against very little opposition. Not far away to the north-west the nearest British armoured formation (4 Armoured Brigade) had clashed with the German 21 Panzer Division that afternoon, and had kept possession of the battlefield after a drawn battle. The New Zealand Division was now lying ready to push north on its original plan of cutting the coast road, with 4 Brigade as its spearhead.
But this promising move led to nothing better in the meantime. All day on 20 November the Kiwis champed at the bit, waiting in vain for orders to push on. From time to time sounds of battle came down from the north, where both 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions were spending the day in inconclusive actions against 4 Armoured Brigade. Rumours flew—at one stage the page 186 Indians had been roughly handled and the Kiwis would have to go to their rescue; at another there were 200 enemy tanks heading straight for 4 Brigade, a yarn which caused the dirt to fly as men hurriedly dug their trenches a little deeper. But no tanks appeared. The only sign of the enemy all day was one lone bomber which came over at breakfast time, ran into a whole skyful of Hurricanes, swung round smartly and made off home, helped along by cheers from 18 Battalion just below.
By next morning the general situation had changed. The German armour had gone, hurrying west to deal with 30 Corps' dangerous thrust towards Tobruk, and everything was quiet up north. During the morning 13 Corps was ordered to carry on with its northward push. This news, when it penetrated down to the lower levels, was met with glad approval. The enemy, it seemed, was on the run, and the Division was going to follow up and be in at the kill. It was a keen, optimistic, fighting fit division that packed its trucks, oiled its weapons, swallowed a hasty lunch, and made ready to set out.
The brigades were to advance at first along the same axis, then to deploy something like a flower unfolding—5 Brigade, in the lead, was to wheel to the right and tackle the enemy in the frontier forts; then 4 Brigade was to push straight through, cut the coast road eight miles west of Bardia, and take a firm grip of the escarpment overlooking that road; last would come 6 Brigade, which would swing west and eventually move on to support 30 Corps near Tobruk.
It was 1.30 p.m. on 21 November when 4 Brigade moved northwards on its 33-mile run to the escarpment west of Bardia—it was nearly daylight on the 22nd when it arrived. Even during the afternoon the brigade couldn't get into top gear, as 5 Brigade, just in front, was manoeuvring for its right wheel; to the men, not knowing what was happening ahead, the pace was maddeningly slow, and harsh, unjustified things were said about the incompetence of those responsible. But after dark the difficulties really began.
The unit halted a good mile short of the escarpment, too far back to enjoy the turmoil caused by supporting artillery among German supply troops camped on the plain below; but in any case it would probably have paid little attention, for it was occupied with an interesting diversion of its own, nothing less than a German ordnance depot and transport repair park handed to it on a plate. This was first discovered just after dawn by the carrier platoon, as recounted by Corporal Dick Bishop:
Our section moved out with Capt. Atchley2 of the artillery. We stopped to boil up a few hundred yards out and found as the light improved, that we were right alongside a recently vacated (as we thought) German camp. While we were boiling up Capt. Atchley wandered off…and walked right into a small party of Huns who promptly grabbed him and made off. By the time we set out to look for him he was well away and there was not a Hun in sight. We had noticed dozens of them standing about at the other end of the camp and could easily have rounded up a hundred or more of them. We did at any rate get a certain amount of loot and spent an hour or two rummaging through the packs and bivvie tents.
Almost simultaneously the rifle companies, having debussed and moved forward to dig in, found the camp right on the spot where they were to go, and hastened up to investigate just as the Jerries, coming to panic-stricken life, evacuated the place in cars and trucks, some in pyjamas, some half dressed, leaving everything behind, including their hot breakfast stew. Apart from a few sluggards, no prisoners were taken, but there were more stores than 18 Battalion could ever hope to carry away. This was the first time the unit had ever got in among the loot to any extent, and some of the boys overdid it a bit, carrying off heavy articles such as typewriters that had to be discarded later.page 189
Twentieth Battalion was now lining the escarpment on 18 Battalion's left, with a company across the main road down below. There seemed little serious opposition on the immediate front. Eighteenth Battalion was directed to stay where it was, but was to send a strong patrol to clean up a pocket of Germans thought to be holding the escarpment at Point 216 (two miles east), and to reconnoitre farther on towards Bardia.
At 8 a.m. B Company, plus a section of carriers, rode out east with orders to go ahead till fired on, then to keep up the advance on foot. It was impossible to drive fast, as the ground was rough and cut with little wadis running down to the escarpment, but there was nobody at Point 216, and 10 Platoon descended the escarpment and pushed on towards the wire defences of Bardia. Surprisingly, even here it was not fired at; the platoon took a good look at the defences from 200 yards away, and reported back that there were outposts every two chains behind the wire and a working party out in front. Later in the day B Company had a few shells tossed at it, but returned intact to the battalion just in time to join the next move.
Shortly after B Company had left, the other company and platoon commanders also went out to ‘recce’ routes to Bardia, on orders from Brigadier Inglis, who planned a quick attack on the position. The ‘recce’ parties went to a point where they could overlook the Bardia defences, but came under fire, and got back to find that their labour had been wasted, as there would be no attack after all. The general feeling among the officers who had been forward was one of great relief; those defences had looked pretty formidable, and the idea of a frontal attack on them had not been at all attractive.
Apart from these excursions the battalion spent the day idly, feeling that the party had gone flat after a promising opening. The artillery kept on banging away, and later in the day return fire came from enemy guns somewhere away to the north-east; and the men could hear interesting noises down below the escarpment, where 20 Battalion had some lively exchanges with a German rearguard. Eighteenth Battalion, well back from the cliff top, could take no direct part in this activity, but could only wait for something to happen. If this was desert warfare, thought 18 Battalion, there was not page 190 much to it. Some of the boys were even kicking a football about. For the first time since the battalion had entered Libya there weren't many planes to be seen, only an odd few, both British and German, overhead from time to time.
It was after 3.30 p.m. before anything happened, and then it was most unexpected—orders from 4 Brigade to move westwards at once. Westwards, right away from Bardia, which had so far been the focus of attention. There was no time to speculate on the meaning of this about-face. Orders flew out to companies, men snapped out of their afternoon lethargy, and by 4 p.m. the battalion was on its way.
What had happened was this: 6 Brigade, to the west of 4 Brigade, had had a sudden call westwards to Sidi Rezegh, south-east of Tobruk, where advance troops of 30 Corps were in serious difficulties now that the German armour had moved across. Sixth Brigade had to move that night straight for the danger area, disregarding any enemy it might meet on the way. Major-General Freyberg then ordered 4 Brigade to back up 6 Brigade, clearing out opposition as it went, particularly at Gambut, halfway between Bardia and Tobruk, where the Luftwaffe was still using a landing ground. This meant that the attack on Bardia had to be shelved, but 20 Battalion was to stay meanwhile and keep an eye on the Bardia defences, and 5 Brigade also was to remain at the frontier.
To Gambut, as the crow flies, was 26 miles, but any self-respecting crow would fly much faster than a convoy could make its way across the broken ground on top of that escarpment. That afternoon 18 Battalion, jolting along behind 19 Battalion, covered ten miles (half of them in the dark), then stopped for the night, not yet knowing what it was to do next day.
Anyone suddenly transported to 18 Battalion's laager at daybreak on 23 November would have been hard to convince that the unit was in the middle of a bold advance through enemy territory. Everything was quiet, hardly another vehicle in sight except 19 Battalion away on the western horizon, not even a plane anywhere except a crashed British bomber. The move did not begin again immediately; there was time to have a leisurely breakfast, during which the day's orders arrived, closely followed by two heartening squadrons of British page 191 Matilda tanks (44 Royal Tank Regiment) and a squadron of Divisional Cavalry's light tanks. Three-quarters of an hour later 18 Battalion moved off, now leading 4 Brigade, going into action for the first time behind an armoured screen.
The column really looked the part now. First a line of light tanks, then one of big, businesslike Matildas, then the battalion carriers scurrying round the desert like terriers, then more Matildas preceding the lorries which carried C and A Companies. Battalion Headquarters was in the middle of the rifle companies, followed by B, D, and the rest of HQ Company. The battalion was to make straight for Gambut airfield, occupy it and consolidate there, while other troops pushed north from it and cut the coast road. Halt, said the operation order, only when forced. C and A were to be the assaulting companies, going forward on foot if necessary to capture the airfield, after which the rest would come up.
Not far from the starting point the force took a winding track down an escarpment (lower and less steep than farther east) and set off across a flat stony plain as straight as possible for where Gambut should be. The airfield, so the map said, was 16 miles away, near the top of another abrupt escarpment which fell away to the north. But they hadn't gone much more than six miles when enemy guns suddenly opened up from the top of the southern escarpment, and shells began to burst among the trucks.
Being shelled in vehicles, any infantryman will tell you, is one of the most unnerving of all experiences, more frightening than lethal. Only very heavy shellfire does much damage to a well dispersed convoy. But sitting away up there on the back of a truck, without the friendly protection of a slit trench, you feel naked and terribly exposed, and there is nothing you can do about it. This was the first time it had happened to 18 Battalion, and many a prayer was muttered that it might be the last.
There were only three or four guns and a few armoured cars on the escarpment, but it was enough to delay 4 Brigade for an hour. The vehicles stopped, the men gratefully tumbled out and scratched themselves shallow holes in the ground. ‘Before I could say debus,’ says Lieutenant Phillips,3 ‘my page 192 Platoon was out and in formation faster than they did during training!’ Then the brigade's supporting artillery went into action; the first shots landed fair and square among the enemy on the skyline, and he ceased fire almost at once and pulled back westwards. A 19 Battalion patrol followed and reported the way clear. Eighteenth Battalion had had two men killed in those first few sticky minutes, but the trucks had only a stray hole here and there.
From there it was plain, though dusty, sailing to Gambut. The tanks and carriers could see ahead a few groups of trucks, evidently caught unawares by the advance, hurrying off in disorder, but this sight was hidden from the riflemen, whose horizon was limited to the little squares of sky and desert visible through the back of the lorries. No more shells came near, though the men could hear occasional outbreaks of firing from behind them whenever our artillery opened up, and from the left, where 19 Battalion was having a continuous running fight with the German rearguard all the way along the escarpment.
Three miles from the airfield C and A Companies left their lorries and covered the next half mile on foot. There was still an ominous silence ahead; at any moment, thought everyone, the Jerries who were sure to be defending the airfield would open fire. But they did not. Divisional Cavalry, patrolling ahead, found only a few enemy detachments, who, so far from offering fight, withdrew hastily at sight of the tanks. Lieutenant-Colonel Peart thereupon ordered his companies back into the vehicles again, for why walk when you can ride? The ease of it was quite disconcerting to 18 Battalion, who had been all keyed up for a fight. Before long the companies were riding on to the airfield itself, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the rows of German planes, silent and innocuous, which stood deserted there.
By 4 p.m. the battalion was consolidating on the airfield, occupying old German positions on the western boundary with C Company to the north and A to the south. Divisional Cavalry was still patrolling westwards. C and D Companies had cleared the control buildings on the northern edge; D Company was now occupying them and lining the escarpment, which fell away 100 feet just beyond the buildings. B was in page 193 reserve on the open field left of D. On the escarpment edge were the carriers and an attached section of Vickers guns, all firing downhill at enemy posts on the main road and a small side road which wound down the escarpment from the airfield. A troop of 25-pounders farther back was also in the party. German mortars and small-calibre guns were firing back, but it was only speculative shooting and fairly harmless, as Jerry had no observation over the airfield.
The show was absolutely deserted when we drove in. It was a noble sight, we passed thousands of neatly stacked bombs then drove over the airfield to the tents and buildings on the other side. Someone started shelling us from the road so we debussed and the Coys. went forward while the rest of us started investigating. Near the repair sheds there were about 30 damaged German planes…. Some had obviously crashed and had been brought in probably for spare parts but many had been damaged on the ground by our R.A.F. because you could see bomb holes and shrapnel all over the place. But our natural instinct for loot and booty soon led us into the many tents and dugouts round the area. In half an hour most of us were running round in a weird assortment of German and Italian clothing. All of us were smoking German or Italian cigarettes or cigars. Others had got abandoned lorries, cars and motor bikes going while some fortunate few had bagged automatic pistols. We had a marvellous time and although looting is not in accordance with army regulations we were allowed a fairly free rein.
There was leisure that afternoon to have a good look around. C Company had captured a disabled car whose occupants had departed in a hurry, leaving everything behind. The control buildings were a rich prize, full of every kind of gear, and men from all the companies flocked there. Many of them scored cameras, binoculars and Luger pistols, always the most valued items. There was plenty of water, brackish but perfectly good for washing; and there was food enough to more than satisfy a battalion which had existed for a week on light rations. These were the kind of pickings that every good Kiwi dreams about.page 194 page 195
The shooting died down that night. The battalion had pickets and roving patrols out, but all was peace until morning, when the shelling began again. This time there was one awkward heavy gun somewhere over the southern escarpment, which lobbed an occasional shell into C and D Companies, but it was not heavy shelling, and there was only one casualty. A watchful eye was kept on the enemy down by the main road, and there was little trouble from that direction.
The next move was unknown. There was a pretty general suspicion that the unit had ‘had’ Bardia and was to carry on westwards, but this speculation was not confirmed till just before noon on 24 November, when orders were sent out to the companies to move on that afternoon. The general situation had changed very much for the worse—30 Corps had met with disaster at the hands of the German armour, and the Tobruk ball had been thrown to the New Zealand Division.
At 3.30 p.m. 18 Battalion left Gambut, still at the head of 4 Brigade, moving as usual in desert formation, with the tanks out in front and the carriers on the right flank skirting the top of the escarpment.
The afternoon's advance was over a particularly flat, deserted, featureless stretch, the sort of ground on which it is impossible to tell just where you are. One kilometre from the day's objective (or, anyway, from where it was thought to be) the men debussed, left the transport to laager where it was, and walked the rest of the way, grumbling at having to pad the hoof when there wasn't a German within miles. Circulations were livened up for a while by this short walk, but by morning everyone was very cold, and enthusiasm for desert warfare was definitely on the wane, even more so when the battalion had to climb on to its lorries again and move on without breakfast.
Fourth Brigade, all together again now and still led by 18 Battalion, was moving along a sort of step in the desert, a flat plateau three to five miles wide, bounded by one escarpment falling away to the north and another (the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, now famous in the New Zealand Division's history) rising in a long line to the south. On top of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment was 6 Brigade, still a little way ahead, but involved in furious, costly fighting which from time to time page 196 could dimly be heard from down below. Fourth Brigade's job was now to draw level with 6 Brigade and press on westwards to break the enemy ring round Tobruk and join up with its defenders. Just how hard this was going to be nobody knew yet—4 Brigade was sure to strike trouble not far ahead, just as 6 Brigade had, and would have to butt its way through that trouble, unless some miracle happened.
The early morning advance on 25 November, though only three miles, brought 18 Battalion into populated country again, and to the beginning of its troubles. From a depression on the right flank the screening tanks rounded up a band of bewildered Jerries, about 150 of them, and passed them back to 18 Battalion, who received them gladly, briefly looked them over for any binoculars or watches that the tankies might have missed, then packed them off back to Brigade Headquarters. Things were looking up when perfectly good Germans surrendered without a fight; the prestige of the tanks was for the moment very high.
It soon became obvious that this happy state of affairs was not permanent. Shells began to fall among the lorries; Lieutenant-Colonel Peart ordered the companies down on to their feet, and forward they went across the bare ground, spreading out into open formation as they did so, C and A Companies leading, D and B behind. Suddenly the tanks on the left flank ran into a well hidden anti-tank gun over a ridge of high ground which ran diagonally across the line of advance. The carriers hastened up and joined in the fight from behind the crest of the ridge, but almost at once came under mortar and machine-gun fire from among the stones and camel thorn ahead. Here, obviously, was a resolute little group which might take some dislodging—several tanks and a portée already bore scars as evidence of the anti-tank gunners' skill.
But there are times when infantry can do what armour cannot, and this was one of them. A and B Companies lined the ridge while the carriers retired; the battalion mortars sprang into action and plastered the enemy; and forward to the attack went two platoons, 8 Platoon of A Company heading straight for the enemy and 10 Platoon of B Company working round to the left. The Germans, far from being intimidated, let loose a fusillade that forced 8 Platoon to the ground, but page 197 10 Platoon, in Sgt Bill Kennedy's5 words, ‘kept on in excellent training style, one section down while two advanced and even the 2″ mortar in action. The mortar men… dropped their first round slap on one M.G. position.’ There was also a 3-inch mortar in support, with RSM Eric Firth6 directing its fire. No. 10 Platoon was now round the flank, and with both platoons converging on them the defenders broke and ran, leaving their wounded and their heavier equipment and weapons. About thirty prisoners were rounded up. The action had been short, swift and unexpected. The German prisoners were unkempt and hungry, but the anti-tank gun (though now useless after a direct hit from a Matilda) was a prize indeed. A hard-won prize, for 8 and 10 Platoons had lost a lot of wounded, including Second-Lieutenants Rawley7 and Christianson.8
The enemy, it seemed, wasn't prepared to carry on a stand-up fight here. Under shellfire he slowly retired west, but his own long-range shells kept whistling in, dozens of them. For a while the situation was most uncomfortable. But the morning advance had evidently caught Jerry on the wrong foot. The shelling gradually eased off as he withdrew. The 18 Battalion carriers, feeling forward later in the day, picked up a few stray prisoners but met no opposition.
Jerry did not withdraw far. All day 18 Battalion's forward troops had a fine view of him digging hard three or four miles ahead, and it was a shame that the artillery was short of ammunition and so could not ‘tickle him up’ as much as it would have liked. The outlook for 18 Battalion was not good, for these Germans were fair and square in its way, and the next advance would take it right through them. Just behind the enemy, opposite the battalion's right flank, rose a low hill, hardly worthy of the name anywhere else, but a distinctive feature in that table-top landscape. Nobody looking at this page 198 humble bump on the ground would have guessed that it would earn an undying place in the history of the New Zealand Division, but that was destined to happen before many more days passed—the name of the feature was Belhamed.
It was fairly obvious that 18 Battalion would have to push on again almost at once, so nobody was surprised when orders came through late that afternoon for a night attack on Belhamed. Nobody was surprised, but nobody was pleased, for everyone had seen the Germans swarming on the flat ahead, and the thought of heading straight into them in cold blood was not pleasant. But that was the only way. The whole division was to move west that night and make its big effort to join hands with Tobruk. Sixth Brigade would attack along and down the Sidi Rezegh escarpment and make the actual contact with the Tobruk garrison at Ed Duda, four miles west of Belhamed. But this contact would be firm and useful only if Belhamed was in our hands, and this was 4 Brigade's job.
So far this campaign had been a gentleman's war for 18 Battalion, mainly riding in state in lorries with only occasional opposition—food might have been a bit short and lacking in variety, but there had been no bitter fighting as in Crete, no exposure to stinging wind and rain as in Greece. Even when there had been fighting the tanks had taken the edge off it before it reached the infantry. But the night advance to Belhamed was to be different. A straight-out silent attack with the bayonet, infantry face to face with infantry, no trucks, no tanks, no artillery except a few salvoes to help the attackers keep direction. Eighteenth and 20th Battalions were to share Belhamed between them, and tanks, carriers, artillery observers and all the rest would come up in the morning. Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger of 20 Battalion would command both units during the attack and on the objective.
As zero hour approached, a half moon emerging at intervals from clouds lent enough light for the companies to see what they were doing. None of the usual laughing and skylarking, no smoking, only the rustle of men moving and the murmur of low voices as they formed up. C Company on the right, A on the left, with D and B behind, and Battalion Headquarters, signallers, mortars and pioneers in the centre. Then they were away, long files of men in close formation going slowly forward, page 199 every one with a pick or shovel on his back, riflemen with bayonets fixed and bandoliers slung from their shoulders, Bren-gunners loaded up with spare magazines, officers with compass in hand checking direction, ‘sigs’ with their No. 18 sets or with telephones and wire. The battalion had practised and practised such an approach march until the drill was as perfect as it could be, and there was curiously little difference between the training and the real thing.
It was only four miles to Belhamed, but distances at night seem at least twice as far as by day. On and on they went, stumbling over stones, their burdens getting heavier and heavier. Surely, they thought, they must have overshot the mark—and then machine guns spoke up from a rise in front, and they were in the middle of the enemy.
Never ever will I forget that approach march…. It seemed endless and I think that most of us were pretty well done when we actually got into the real thing. Even then we saw nothing but tracer which seemed to pass by us on all sides. The noise was terrific with most of us yelling our heads off.
For a little while all was confusion, 18 Battalion smashing its way through the enemy with bullet, grenade and bayonet, even sometimes with rifle butts. It was Galatas all over again, this time not hemmed in by streets and walls but out in the wide open spaces. Some men fell dead or wounded, but for each 18 Battalion casualty revenge was exacted several times over. The battalion had the whip hand in that mêlée; the Germans were caught only half ready, a lot of their firing was wild, and some were shot down before they could even get into action. Only a few prisoners were taken, most of them wounded.
Then, quite suddenly it seemed, the opposition melted away, and the forward companies found themselves out in the clear, with only sporadic firing going on here and there as a sort of afterthought. The other companies and Battalion Headquarters weren't far away—the whole unit had kept remarkably well together throughout the long approach and the scrap in the German lines, though B and D Companies had tended to overrun the forward companies during the fighting.page 200
Only a little farther now, and then the companies halted an the order was passed down to dig in. Evidently they were on the objective, although it looked very like any other piece of desert. The moon had set, and you could not see far beyond your nose. The men began to dig—and then discovered the peculiar perverse quality of Belhamed. A few inches down was solid rock.
It was before midnight when the battalion halted on Belhamed, and from then nearly to dawn the men toiled and sweated to get underground. Luckily the enemy seemed to have pulled back. But as for digging themselves in, all many of the men could do was to hack out hunks of rock and build ‘sangars’ above ground, some protection certainly, but poor substitutes for slit trenches. Their navvying finished, the men at last had time to draw breath and realise that it was cold. A biting wind was sweeping the plateau, and the battalion, minus blankets and greatcoats, had to crouch there in the dark and take it. By sunrise everyone was nearly frozen.
When it became light enough to see, it was clear that 4 Brigade had indeed reached its objective, but was holding only the northern edge of the Belhamed ‘bump’, 18 Battalion on the eastern part and 20 Battalion on the western, both units bunched into fairly small areas, not far apart. C and D Companies of the 18th were right on the lip of the northern escarpment, with a wide view of the country below, and A and B Companies a couple of hundred yards farther south, B Company in touch with 20 Battalion. But nobody had much leisure to inspect the position in detail. With daylight came mortar bombs, shells and bullets, pouring in from all sides except the east. After the easy war of the last few days the battalion had a rude awakening now. It had truly run into a hornets' nest, and the hornets were full of fight and determined to sting these invaders to death. The battalion was terribly exposed, and almost at once casualties began to mount up. Captain Mackay of B Company was among the first, as was Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger, both wounded about 7 a.m. by machine-gun fire which suddenly swept A and B Companies. The same burst of fire killed CSM Lance Preston10 of B Company.page 201
It was still dark when the supporting tanks, carriers, anti-tank and Vickers guns, and 18 Battalion's own B Echelon transport set out for Belhamed, but dawn caught the column halfway, and German artillery below the escarpment to the north began to plaster it. Most of the column had to stop and take what cover it could in wadis; the tanks and carriers pushed on to Belhamed, but the tanks were engaged by a group of German anti-tank guns to the south the moment they poked their noses over the lip of the escarpment. In a very short time the guns claimed five victims. The remaining tanks spent about half an hour on Belhamed engaging the guns, then withdrew east again, and their part in the day's fighting was over. The battalion was on its own again until, later in the morning, its anti-tank and Vickers guns and 3-inch mortars somehow forced their way through to the northern edge of Belhamed, where the broken top of the escarpment afforded a little cover. The battalion was delighted to have them there. The infantry would also have been more than pleased to see its own unit page 202 transport with some hot food, greatcoats and blankets aboard, but that was impossible during the day. This was the first time in the campaign that the fighting troops of 18 Battalion had been separated from their ‘B Ech’; they missed all the little extra amenities that went with the trucks, but it was no good growling about it.
The infantrymen could do little all day but lie in their slitties or sangars, as every inch of the ground was under observation and any movement attracted fire. But the carriers were invaluable. Not only did they bring the 3-inch mortars the last part of the way up to Belhamed, but they also ran ‘mercy missions’ from the companies to the RAP with wounded men who otherwise could not have been evacuated till dark— in those conditions it was next to impossible for stretcher bearers to work. As it was, the wounded were made as comfortable as possible at the RAP in a ravine on the escarpment, and were sent back that night to the dressing station.
Another group that found conditions pretty well impossible that day was the ‘sigs’. They had taken telephone gear with them, and laid lines to the companies before dawn, but the shelling soon chopped these lines about, and all the linesmen's efforts could not keep them in operation, as each repair would be followed soon afterwards by a fresh break. Finally they had to give up. From then on most communications on Belhamed were by wireless—the No. 18 sets functioned well, and no major difficulties arose, though every company headquarters became convinced after a while that Jerry was using its particular wireless aerial as an aiming mark.
There is little need to describe the misery of the men on Belhamed, cold, hungry, and harassed by fire every time they poked their heads up. They could retaliate to some extent with mortar and machine-gun fire, but none of this seemed to have much effect. From daybreak there were artillery observers forward on top of the escarpment, and requests for shellfire poured in continuously from the companies; but the artillery could not give these really satisfactory attention, as their ammunition was so short that they were forced to limit their fire to essential and emergency targets.
Most of the shells were coming from the north, where the Germans had artillery (including some big 5.9-inch guns) on the page 203 low ground. But south of Belhamed, where the ground sloped gently down to the foot of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, was a pocket of very alert enemy, aggressive and well armed, untouched the previous night. Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh could not possibly be held in comfort while this pocket was there. But no active steps were taken against it immediately. The command system of 18 and 20 Battalions was temporarily out of gear, and it was some hours before Colonel Peart more or less unofficially took over both units and began to make plans for the future welfare of the troops on Belhamed. There was no chance of doing anything constructive about the pocket that day, but Peart had it on the agenda as an urgent item. In the meantime, reconnaissance patrols went out as far as possible in that direction, and both battalions did their best to keep the pocket under fire, though it was out of mortar range and too well dug in for effective machine-gunning.
One patrol in particular, a small D Company ‘recce’ party led by Lieutenant Phillips, went a long way out towards Sidi Rezegh, passed within sight of the pocket, and even had a short argument with a German car containing two officers, but eventually got back without a shot fired at it. Not only did it report details of Jerry's position, but it also stumbled on a minefield, a long belt of Teller mines running north and south just west of the highest part of Belhamed. A few days later 18 Battalion was to make very good use of those same mines.
As the battalion lay hugging the earth and cursing, there were a few bitter inquiries about the wonderful air support that the Division had been promised at the outset of the campaign. It was not till the afternoon of 26 November, in answer to repeated calls for help, that two flights of Blenheim bombers with supporting fighters appeared and bombed to the north of Belhamed, to the accompaniment of loud cheers from 4 Brigade. On the other side, there was a cheeky little German reconnaissance plane that hovered over Belhamed, ignoring the rifle fire that poured up at it from all angles, and even landed once not far from 20 Battalion. Late that afternoon it came back once too often, for this time the rifles did their work, and the plane crashed near the transport lines.
Before setting out for Belhamed the previous night the men had had a hot meal, which was just as well, for they had to page 204 exist till after dark on the 26th on the small stocks of bully, biscuits and water they carried with them. In the evening, when the shooting slackened off, carrying parties brought a meal up from B Echelon, and never were they more gratefully welcomed—except in B Company, whose party was snapped up by a stray German patrol somewhere on the way forward. Gradually over the next few days greatcoats and blankets were brought forward, and they made a great difference to morale. They could not ward off the mortar bombs, but they could and did keep you from ‘seizing up’ in the bitter nights and damp days that followed.
Eighteenth and 20th Battalions were certainly very uncomfortably placed on Belhamed, but they were in clover compared to 6 Brigade, which hadn't been able to sweep the enemy off the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, let alone push on to Ed Duda. That brigade spent 26 November in furious fighting, three battalions perched up on the escarpment and one below, on the same step as Belhamed, but entirely surrounded by the enemy at close range. It had terrible losses—so heavy that General Freyberg cancelled its Ed Duda orders and passed them over to 4 Brigade. That night 19 Battalion, plus the ever-ready Matilda tanks, came forward from reserve, advanced past Belhamed so quietly that 18 and 20 Battalions hardly heard it, and pushed on to Ed Duda with a most astonishing lack of opposition, to meet British troops from Tobruk.
So 27 November dawned with the Tobruk corridor formed at last, a narrow unstable corridor, but an undeniable link between besieged Tobruk and the outside world. The New Zealand Division's immediate objective was won, and now it had to extend the corridor and make it usable. This was plainly not going to be easy. The German armour was away at the Egyptian frontier, ordered from the main scene of action by a wild decision of Rommel's, but it couldn't be expected to be away for ever, and the German and Italian infantry formations left to guard Tobruk were fighting for their lives, and fighting well. The stage was all set for calamity, and the question was— for which side?
CO: Lt-Col J. N. Peart
2 i/c: Maj R. R. McGregor (LOB)
Adjt: Lt S. N. S. Crump
MO: Capt J. Dempsey
Padre: Rev. F. O. Dawson
IO: Lt J. Tyerman
OC HQ Coy: Capt A. S. Playle
QM: Lt A. M. B. Lenton
Sigs: 2 Lt E. H. Fairley
AA: 2 Lt E. R. Percy (LOB)
Mortars: 2 Lt E. F. Kent
Carriers: Capt P. R. Pike
Pioneers: 2 Lt J. W. McCowan
TO: Lt R. McK. Evans
OC A Coy: Capt H. M. Green
2 i/c A Coy: Lt R. G. Parkinson (LOB)
7 PI: 2 Lt D. L. Morgan
8 PI: 2 Lt L. Rawley
9 P1: 2 Lt S. B. Edmonds
OC B Coy: Capt J. G. Mackay
2 i/c B Coy: Capt E. H. Boulton (LOB)
10 P1: 2 Lt P. L. Christianson
11 P1: Lt J. A. B. Dixon
12 P1: 2 Lt P. A. Thorley
OC C Coy: Maj R. J. Lynch
2 i/c C Coy: Capt J. E. Batty (LOB)
13 P1: Lt H. C. Hewlett
14 P1: 2 Lt P. J. C. Burns
15 P1: 2 Lt B. G. S. Jackson
OC D Coy: Maj L. I. Day
2 i/c D Coy: Capt C. L. Brett (LOB)
16 PI: Lt W. F. Snodgrass
17 PI: Lt D. F. Phillips
18 PI: Lt A. C. Beachen
RSM: WO I E. R. Firth