18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 14 — Calamity in the Desert
Calamity in the Desert
The 27th November was a day of clouds and showers, of success, disappointment and confusion. The brave remnant of 6 Brigade fought its way ahead, almost yard by yard, to clear the rest of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, at fearful cost to its already decimated battalions. But the Tobruk corridor proved a very inefficient corridor indeed. Nineteenth Battalion, on its way to Ed Duda, had unsuspectingly passed several enemy pockets, which now, in fighting mood, prevented the Kiwis from making any firm link with Tobruk. With British tanks handy and liable to come at them at any time, the occupants of these pockets must have been most unhappy; but they did what they could until the German armour hurried back from the Egyptian frontier. Had the corridor been cleared and properly consolidated on 27 November, the New Zealand Division might have been spared the events of the next few days. But the Division and the Tobruk garrison wasted precious hours that day at cross purposes, while the time for concerted action passed fruitlessly.
For 18 Battalion 27 November was a vile day—steady shelling from the north and west, mortaring from all round the compass, machine-gunning on fixed lines from the south. Horribly typical, all this, of the days on Belhamed, days spent lying as flat as possible in your cramped slittie, getting up to stretch your legs only at night or in the early morning. Corporal Joyes enlarges on this point:
There appeared to be some kind of a gentleman's agreement about the hour to commence hostilities in the mornings— … we could see the enemy shaking out his blankets or coats first thing in the morning and the same thing happened in our positions. About 9–10 a.m. the day's work commenced and we would put in another day hugging the ground and cursing.
However, gentleman's agreement or no, it says a lot for 18 Battalion that its steadiness and discipline did not crack. It page 206 was bad enough on Belhamed, in company with the dead, short of food, water and rest, without the strain of this continual destructive fire, which had claimed eighteen victims on 26 November and went on whittling down the battalion by ones and twos on the 27th. Worst of all, they could do little to retaliate. The mortars and Vickers did what they could, but their ammunition supply was getting nearly as low as the artillery's.
The battalion's particular dislike was reserved for the pocket of enemy to the south. It was impossible to tell exactly how big this pocket was, though not many troops were visible down that way, and yet its nuisance value was tremendous. The men on Belhamed had, they felt, a very legitimate grievance against these Germans—they were outnumbered and surrounded, so why couldn't they do the sensible thing and surrender?
It is understandable, then, that when two of them approached the battalion's lines under a white flag about 9 a.m. on 27 November they should have been taken for truce emissaries. Wishful thinking, yes, but natural in the circumstances. They were actually coming to pick up one of their officers lying wounded in front of D Company. But the first 18 Battalion men to reach them had other ideas. ‘They appeared to be somewhat nervous,’ says Lieutenant Phillips, ‘and neither could speak English…. A pantomime ensued between us, they wanted to take him back with them, but we rolled him on our stretcher and fetched them all back with us…. The officer was delivered to R.A.P. and the other two … were sent up to Bn HQ.’
Opinions at Battalion Headquarters were divided as to whether or not the Germans were truce emissaries, but finally Lieutenant-Colonel Peart (backed up by 4 Brigade Headquarters) sent them back to their own lines, in company with the IO (Lieutenant John Tyerman1), who was to demand the surrender of the pocket. Tyerman reports, ‘I was successful in making contact with the 2 I/C but the request was refused.’ Surrender was not part of the German idea at all.
So the ‘truce’, after nearly two hours of beating about the bush, ended in a fizzle. It seems now, looking back, to have page 207 something of a comic opera flavour. But to the men on the spot there was nothing amusing about it. As Phillips says, ‘The events of the previous few days made the position somewhat unsettled.’ Peart's demand for surrender was perfectly serious, and might have been a chance to save lives and smooth the path for the Division.
But the sequel was tragedy. A tentative arrangement had already been made for a daylight attack on the southern pocket on the 27th, and immediately after the ‘truce’, still with the thought in mind that the enemy was ready to throw in the towel, Brigadier Inglis and Colonel Peart confirmed the order. At 11 a.m., therefore, two companies of 20 Battalion set out across the flat, coverless desert, straight for the pocket, following an artillery concentration which was little more than a token. The men of 18 Battalion, watching them go, thought to themselves, ‘Poor devils’.
There was cause for pessimism. The Germans, very far from surrendering, turned the full weight of their fire on the luckless 20 Battalion companies, which were forced to ground out in the open, with no chance of going either forward or back. The 20th sent an SOS to 18 Battalion, and Colonel Peart ordered D Company out in support. At 1.20 p.m. 17 and 18 Platoons went forward on this forlorn hope, accompanied by a 3-inch mortar and followed a little later by three damaged Matildas that someone had ‘rustled up’ from somewhere.
The platoons dropped down off the top of Belhamed to the east, circled round and advanced due west towards the enemy. They might as well have stayed at home. Well short of the German positions they were forced to the ground, and there they stayed, burrowing as far as they could into the sand, helpless against the torrent of bullets and mortar bombs that streamed in. The pocket of Germans, isolated, outnumbered, doomed, was showing its teeth to some effect.
The Matilda tanks had no direct contact with the infantry and so gave them little relief; but they gamely tackled a nest of anti-tank guns and put some out of action. Two of the tanks were further damaged and had to pull out. But the exposed infantrymen had to stay prone on the ground and take what came. ‘After much talk around the Coy. by passing messages from man to man,’ Phillips reports, ‘it was decided to wait page 208 till dark and either have another go or return to unit…. Some few Jerries tried to come after us but they were not very keen on their job.’
When darkness fell, after an endless afternoon, the men of 18 and 20 Battalions got up off the ground and made for home with their tails down, and with nothing to show for their hard work except further gaps in their ranks. D Company, 18 Battalion, had had eleven casualties, 20 Battalion not far short of a hundred.
Long before this it had become obvious to the spectators on Belhamed that the attack would make no headway. Fourth Brigade had neither reserve infantry nor gun ammunition enough to push the thrust home, or to cover the withdrawal of the unlucky forward companies—so what was there to do? The only solution that might possibly be any good seemed to be for the Matildas, on their way back from Ed Duda, to pass through the pocket and perhaps shock Jerry into surrendering.
The afternoon was well on when the tanks left Ed Duda, but they travelled too far north. The Germans in their path, panic-stricken at the sight of them, tried to surrender, but with no infantry handy the tanks could not round up any prisoners, and carried straight on eastwards. The Germans in front of the 18th and 20th forward companies were untouched. This plan had miscarried; now a full-scale tank and infantry attack on the pocket was planned for next day.
So the situation mounted towards its climax. But not all on the one side. Africa Corps was racing back from the frontier to play a belated part in the tussle for Tobruk, and if it could carry out its plan to assemble on 28 November for an attack on Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, calamity would be impending for the New Zealand Division, away out there on the bare desert step, short of ammunition, rest, food and support. And by the end of 27 November Africa Corps had made so much headway in its swift westward move that it could hardly now be baulked in its plan for next day.
Eighteenth Battalion's first inkling that anything of this kind was afoot was at 1 a.m. on 28 November, when it was rudely roused from sleep and stood-to till dawn. It was a noisy and colourful night, with flares and lights in the distance in all directions and the sound of engines coming apparently from all page 209 sides except the west. To the bemused men in the slitties it seemed probable that they might be attacked at any moment, but sounds travel far in the clear desert air, and the storm was not yet ready to break. So 18 Battalion's night vigil was fruitless.
The doomed German pocket was still there in the morning, apparently undismayed by yesterday's proceedings. During the night two small patrols from C Company had reported Jerry awake and active; and morning found his machine-gunners and mortar men still very lively, while the gunners from the north added their regular quota as before. But at 2 p.m. the men in the slitties, standing up and braving the shellfire, were rewarded by a magnificent sight.
Across the Belhamed flat, steady and unhurried, moved the tanks, with lovely 25-pounder shells and mortar bombs bursting in front of them and the clatter of Vickers joining in; then a line of bustling carriers, and last of all three platoons of infantry—a ridiculously small infantry force it looked, not much more than sixty men all told. The watchers had a grandstand view of an attack which went like clockwork. They saw the tanks advance slowly westwards nearly to the horizon, they saw the demoralised Germans in their hundreds standing up, they saw the carriers and infantry, like sheepdog packs, rounding them up and herding them back towards the Belhamed fold, they saw the tanks come back again sweeping the area and picking up strays. After three days of alternate boredom and fright, this spectacle was exhilarating. The looming threat of German tank attack was forgotten in the joy of seeing those bloody mortars and Spandaus eliminated. But the number of Jerries made your head swim. First estimates by those who saw it were anything up to 1000, and even though this figure was reduced in the final count to somewhere about the 600 mark, it was still a lot of Jerries—more than all the combined fighting troops of 18 and 20 Battalions on Belhamed.
The attacking infantry (two platoons of C Company and one of D, all under Major Lynch) made the same circuitous approach as the D Company platoons had the previous day, dropping down the northern escarpment, then moving about two miles east while still out of sight of the Germans, then spreading out on their start line near the artillery, 15 Platoon page 210 right, 13 Platoon left, 16 Platoon of D Company behind. Early in the piece the tanks disappeared over a slight hump, but the platoons, breasting the rise, had a fleeting glimpse of tanks and carriers exchanging fire with the enemy.
The resistance was slight. Machine-gunners here and there fired sporadic, uncoordinated bursts, some of the anti-tank gunners stuck to their posts and got a few shots away, a handful of marksmen in a derelict tank made things uncomfortable for a while. But there was no real determination in the defence. The Matildas cruised slowly on, right through the positions, peppering them with fire and completing the confusion. Then, as the carriers and infantry closed in, the debacle began, and right in front of them the Jerries popped up out of their holes like rabbits, first one, then a few, then a swarm of them. It was a worrying few minutes for C Company, who had been led to expect 100 or 150 men against them, but now found themselves outnumbered many times by their prisoners. Sergeant Percy Yendell2 of 15 Platoon says:
How easy it would have been for them to pick up arms again, as they were everywhere, and the tanks and carriers every moment were getting farther away, we had to move very quickly to crowd them into the centre. There was a moment when a shot was fired, one of my men sung out that it was a Jerry, when I thought they were starting to re-arm, but thank goodness it did not happen, as candidly I don't think we would have had much show.
Both carriers and infantry were too alert to allow anything of this nature. They herded the prisoners up and kept them under control, passing them back with no waste of time, first to 16 Platoon, then on to B Company.
After getting rid of their prisoners, 13 and 15 Platoons moved on again after the tanks, right through to the far side of the pocket, where Jerry had had a group of field guns, including four of the big 5.9-inch brutes. These the tanks put out of action very effectively with a few shells, and then, to quote Lieut Hewlett,3 ‘amused themselves shooting up stacks of ammo’, while the infantrymen, having no more prisoners to worry about, turned their attention to the pickings lying round the battlefield. There was less personal loot than at page 211 Gambut, but there was a fair supply of pistols and compasses, while Sergeant Baker reports that they ‘collected so many binoculars that nearly every man had a pair for the few days before the inevitable calling in’. Then the tanks and carriers assembled on the western slope of Belhamed near 20 Battalion, while C Company set out for home with its haul.
The attackers did not come out of this action scatheless, but considering the numbers opposing them they could have fared very much worse. One of the 18 Battalion carriers was hit by machine-gun fire before the resistance collapsed, one of its crew killed and one wounded. Twelve of the infantrymen were wounded, one fatally. The wounded were picked up (unusual luxury) by an RAP truck which went the rounds after the battle. There could well have been another truck, or a whole convoy of them, circulating to pick up the mortars, anti-tank guns, rifles and assorted gear left strewn round, but that was impracticable in the meantime.
By 4 p.m. the tumult and the shouting were all over, the prisoners on their way back to 4 Brigade, the attackers either back at Belhamed or going there, the excitement simmering down among both participants and spectators. But very soon Belhamed was buzzing again, as 18 and 20 Battalions packed up their scanty belongings, vacated slitties and sangars, and changed places. The move was already under way when 13 and 15 Platoons arrived back, so that they didn't return to their old positions, but went straight to the new, only a few hundred yards away, just behind the field of Teller mines that ran along Belhamed's western slope. The position 18 Battalion now took up was three or four hundred yards in diameter, with A and C Companies on the escarpment facing north and west, and B and D a little to the south, D Company in close touch with 20 Battalion. Some of the boys had to dig new slitties, a most unpopular sport in that Belhamed rock; but a slit trench is one of those things you can't take with you.
The changeover was a domestic arrangement between the two units. Twentieth Battalion was in poorer shape than 18 Battalion, having had more casualties, including most of its senior officers; so this move would, in theory, put 18 Battalion in the post of danger on the west, nearer the enemy (or where the enemy was thought to be). According to all the rules 18 page 212 Battalion should receive the brunt of any attack in its new area. In the event, this plan miscarried badly, but that was due to poor co-operation by the Germans.
It was pretty obvious by the afternoon of 28 November that an attack was bound to come. A large enemy force, armour and all, on the highest escarpment on the Division's southern flank, was nibbling at the edges of 6 Brigade, clearly with the intention of pushing through to the north and smashing the Tobruk corridor. To the north and west 4 Brigade knew very little of what was happening, and Lieutenant-Colonel Peart was worried over reports from observers that tanks and infantry were moving down from the north towards Belhamed. It seems now, with the benefit of after-knowledge, that the observers may have been indulging in a little excusable panic, and that what they took for enemy may have been British forces from Tobruk mopping up among the garrison troops of the German 90 Light Division, or else part of 19 Battalion with some I tanks moving back from Ed Duda. The Tobruk troops did their best that day to help the New Zealand Division (and themselves) by widening the corridor down below the Belhamed escarpment, but their upstairs neighbours were completely in the dark about all this.
Thanks to the Matilda tanks, the corridor was now more than just a token. That night some of the more vulnerable troops from outside Tobruk, including 13 Corps Headquarters and the ASC, moved through it into the fortress to be out of the line of fire of Jerry's attack, and up to Belhamed came a convoy, a wonderful convoy laden with supplies and ammunition. All these vehicles came quite close to 18 Battalion, and the rumble of engines in the still night air never sounded more musical. Even the boys on 18 Battalion's western fringe, who had to work hard to keep the trucks off their minefield, did not curse them as they would normally have done.
But just over the horizon, sometimes audible on Belhamed, was that other sound, similar and yet much less musical, the menacing growl of enemy tanks and troop-carriers manoeuvring into position for the assault. By 29 November they had the troops in the corridor all but surrounded, and were beginning their inward move to slash though the New Zealand positions and cut the Division off from Tobruk. Ed Duda and Belhamed, page 213 we now know from German records, were right on the attack route. The men of 18 Battalion, sitting uncomfortably on their eminence, did not know that, but it was a pretty safe guess that they were ‘for it’.
They endured a day of savage shellfire on 29 November, thicker and more continuous than on any other day so far. The shelling did little actual damage, and several of the sufferers have remarked on the number of duds, but the moral effect of spending yet another day down below ground was very bad. ‘If it lasts much longer,’ commented one man, ‘we'll all be “nuts”.’ Even the duds were nerve-racking, ricocheting and skidding all over the place with a noise like a train going through a station.
That afternoon and night the men could hear the ominous din of battle only four miles away, as 15 Panzer Division attacked Ed Duda. This fight, though 18 Battalion was not in it, had a great effect on its future. Had 15 Panzer Division overwhelmed the thin garrison on Ed Duda it could have carried straight on to Belhamed and very likely would have rounded up every man there. But the British on Ed Duda spoiled this plan—the Germans got a toehold on the height, but after hours of savage fighting were pushed off again, and 18 Battalion had a respite from the fate intended for it.
But what an uncomfortable respite! Nobody in 4 Brigade knew much about the position—Jerry, for all anyone knew, might be cleaning up Ed Duda and getting a clear run to Belhamed. So the night of 29–30 November was wakeful and alert, everyone on edge, till patrols from C Company went out and returned with reassuring news. The country between Belhamed and Ed Duda looked empty; one patrol met some British tanks and had a yarn to their crews, who told them of Jerry's reverse at Ed Duda. About the same time a two-man ‘recce’ from D Company crossed the low ground where the late Jerry pocket had been, found the whole place bare, and made touch with 6 Brigade on top of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment with no worse risk than that of being shot by zealous 6 Brigade sentries. Evidently it was not the turn of the boys on Belhamed—yet.
So 30 November came, and three-quarters of it went, with nothing to get excited about except (of course) more shells; page 214 until 4.15 p.m., when dimly through smoke and dust the men on Belhamed could see enemy tanks converging on Sidi Rezegh from the west and south, and could watch the battle raging as 6 Brigade went down fighting. It was an awful, depressing sight. Despite shellfire and all the resistance desperate men could put up, the tanks moved on along the Sidi Rezegh escarpment right through 6 Brigade, a poor shaken remnant of which got away northward and rallied again just east of Belhamed. In the evening 18 Battalion could see the macabre glow of fires for several miles along the escarpment, and, looking at them, knew that they themselves would be next, and that they would need all their ‘guts’ to face what was coming next day.
Unpleasant as this day was on Belhamed, it was even grimmer a couple of miles east, where 18 Battalion's B Echelon transport was huddled, along with the rest of 4 Brigade's, in the sparse cover afforded by shallow wadis. Till now the transport had had comparatively little shelling, the ‘B Ech’ boys had been able to go about their normal business, and the quartermasters had been able to run hot food up to Belhamed every night. But on 30 November they ‘copped a packet’. This was due (so everyone thought) to a mass of trucks from other units, having parked in the area the previous night, skipping out of range of an expected tank attack from the east. Whether that is true or false, the whole B Echelon area got well plastered all day, so much so that 18 Battalion's carriers moved back there in a hurry, expecting to have to repel boarders any time. The news that all 4 Brigade's transport was to take the corridor to Tobruk that night was very welcome. Jerry, luckily, was not a great one for shelling at night, so the move was undisturbed; the carriers went back to the Belhamed escarpment, and by daylight all of B Echelon was safely harboured inside the Tobruk defences.
Captain Playle has commented on this move:
It was typical of this unorthodox campaign, that we had to drive out through our own front line positions, cross a considerable area of ‘No Man's Land’ quite unprotected, and enter the Tobruk perimeter through the front line at Ed Duda…. There was little time to spare as daylight was fast approaching as we passed through the Ed Duda positions; as it was, the tail of the column was almost embroiled in the battle which flared up again with the oncoming of day.page 215
Dawn on 1 December found the rifle companies straining sore, sandy eyes south from Belhamed, and their fears were justified. By 6.15 a.m., before it was well light, the shells were pouring in again, thicker and more continuous than ever, and soon a pall of dust and smoke, hanging thick over the battlefield, blotted out the view and left 18 Battalion guessing but apprehensive. Then every heart turned over and every hand gripped its weapon tighter, as out of the haze loomed German tanks, ten times life-size, followed by field guns and lorries full of infantry.
Shells were falling thick on Belhamed, but it wasn't in human nature not to pop your head up occasionally and watch the tanks as they crossed the flat where the German pocket had been so successfully wiped out three days earlier. Now the tables were turned. The tanks seemed to be coming straight for 18 Battalion—no, they weren't—they veered off to the east, across B and D Companies' fronts, and the noise of battle rose to an unbearable racket as they clashed with New Zealand artillery two miles away.
This epic slogging match, tanks against field guns at point-blank range until the guns died fighting, holds a place of unique tragedy and honour in the Division's history. But from 18 Battalion's hill the action was hidden by the dust cloud, thickened now by the smoke of many burning vehicles. All the 18th knew was that there was a mighty battle with the German tanks down there in the murk. There were other things to think about, too, for machine-gun fire was coming from the south and shells were screaming in from three sides, a lot of duds among them, but also a lot of good ones. The 18th had never experienced heavier shelling. The German field guns had stopped south of Belhamed and were trying to batter it to a pulp, though under fire from the battalion's anti-tank guns. One German gun was knocked out, but there were plenty more to slam their shells into the defences. The battalion was too occupied with its own plight to spare many thoughts for a battle it could not see, and so the tanks' next move, though inevitable, came as a sudden shock that might well have panicked less steady troops.
Turning from the stricken guns, the tanks charged straight into 20 Battalion, which, battered by fire and lacking support, page 216 had no chance. Not till the tanks were right inside 20 Battalion's lines did the 18th see what was happening, and by then 20 Battalion's companies were surrendering. While some of the tanks busied themselves rounding up their prisoners, others moved on towards the nearest 18 Battalion posts less than 100 yards away. It was a critical moment for 18 Battalion. A few men, dazed by the fire and disheartened at seeing 20 Battalion's surrender, began to climb out of their slit trenches with their hands up; if the rot had set in at that moment, it could have been the end of 18 Battalion.
It was a moment for prompt action, and prompt action there was. All the officers within earshot roared at those offering to surrender; and not only the officers, for one man reports that ‘their mates stopped them’. The danger was scotched at birth by the example of all those who stuck to their posts. There was no more immediate threat of surrender. The battalion's only loss just then was a mortar crew which was too close to the 20th to avoid capture.
But if there was no quick intervention, 18 Battalion would beyond a doubt be overwhelmed just as the 20th had been. There was no hope of support from the New Zealand artillery, but by good luck the 18th had at its back 1 Royal Horse Artillery of the Tobruk garrison, on the other end of a telephone line which miraculously was still intact. A call for help went out from Battalion Headquarters, surely one of the most bizarre distress calls ever sent: ‘You know where we are. Shell us, and shell us hard.’ The tanks were as close as that.
The shells were wonderfully prompt, and they fell just in the right place. The 18th, heads down as far as they could get, suffered not a single casualty; but the tanks sheered off to the south, and their prey had a few minutes' breathing space to collect its resources for the next round.
Then, as so often happens, the hour produced the man, and the man was Lieutenant-Colonel Peart. This reserved ex-schoolmaster, meticulous to a fault in base camp, had shown rare mettle in this his first fighting campaign, though no fire-eater like John Gray. Now he decided that 18 Battalion, instead of going ‘into the bag’ en masse, would clear out. There was an escape route down over the escarpment to the north; it had been closed to 20 Battalion because some of the tanks had page 217 circled round and reached the lip of the escarpment first, but luckily it was still open for the 18th. Major Lynch of C Company walked right over to 20 Battalion's position to make sure that it was past all help, and while he was away Peart issued a provisional evacuation order to the companies, to go into effect when he gave the word.
Though tired and well under strength, the 18th could still have ‘packed a punch’ against infantry attack, but tanks were another matter. Apart from the anti-tank rifle, or ‘elephant gun’, about as effective against tanks as a pea-shooter, it had in support only a handful of two-pounders of 31 Anti-Tank Battery, the staunch guns that had elbowed their way through to Belhamed in broad daylight on 26 November. One of these, sited almost on the 20 Battalion boundary, had been overrun at the same time as that battalion, and two others, brought down with all speed from 18 Battalion's northern front that morning, had had time only to take up makeshift positions against this threat from the south. Faced with the heavier guns of the Mark III and IV tanks, the two-pounders did not have a dog's chance.
Now the machine-gun and mortar duel which had been going on all the time rose to an uproar as the German tanks and infantry moved in again. There was no doubt at all this time where they were heading. They came straight for 18 Battalion.
Peart, in a characteristically laconic report made later, describes what happened then:
At about 1000 hrs the tanks turned to attack this Bn. At this time the order to withdraw towards the Tobruch Force was given. The withdrawal was carried out in good order under heavy fire.
B and D Companies, the first to go, stuck to their slitties till the tanks were almost on top of them. Then Peart gave the order to withdraw. They needed no second telling; some men left small packs and everything except rifles in their scramble for safety. The Bren guns went with them, but anything heavier had to stay. But the withdrawal did not degenerate into a rout as it could easily have done. Any tendency to panic was firmly checked by the officers, under Peart's direction, who page 218 kept the men well under control—a terribly difficult thing to do when metal is flying, and great tanks coming up fast at your back. B and D Companies, along with the anti-tank gunners, mortar and Vickers men, and a few odds and ends, reached the escarpment and thankfully disappeared over it, followed at once by A Company, and finally C. In these companies, too, some men escaped from right under the noses of the tanks, which swept Belhamed right up to the escarpment and the minefield.
Of course there were casualties—a lot of casualties. They were unavoidable. In their slitties the men had come through the rain of fire pretty well, but once up on their feet, running those few hundred yards back to shelter, the tanks and guns took their forfeit. The official cost was 58, including nine dead. As many as possible of the wounded were carried back, but it was inevitable that some should be missed and fall into Jerry's hands.
Near the escarpment edge were the carriers and a few essential vehicles. They were out of luck. Before they could withdraw down the escarpment the tanks had them in their sights, and the cloud over Belhamed thickened as truck after truck was hit and set ablaze. Eight burning wrecks were left behind when the rest finally got under way and disappeared over the lip of the escarpment, one of them on fire. The carriers dodged the shells, but on the way down off Belhamed they had the bad luck to run on to a minefield that they did not know about, losing two carriers and four men. The rest assembled with the infantry companies.
The ‘gathering of the clans’ was a matter of minutes only. A little distance to the west, near the friendly Royal Horse Artillery, Peart rallied his battalion. He had no intention of withdrawing farther, or of staying there under the escarpment to be a target for plunging fire. Within half an hour he again had the companies up on the escarpment facing the enemy, about a mile west of the old position, protected from the tanks by the minefield. The Germans on Belhamed seemed to be too busy looting the positions to do anything more aggressive in the meantime.
Now the worst had happened. Calamity had struck, and it was the Kiwis who had stopped the blow. The Tobruk page 219 corridor was no more. The New Zealand Division, exhausted and disheartened, its positions disrupted, its ranks tragically thinned, could take no more part in the battle, but left the field to the apparently victorious Germans and, except for 18 Battalion, withdrew that night to quieter spots eastwards.
Compared with the rest, 18 Battalion had been lucky. True, it had lost a fifth of its number, but it had not had such fierce, prolonged fighting as 6 Brigade, nor had it been overrun like 20 Battalion. It had been within a whisker of that fate, but had dodged it by what Brigadier Inglis later called ‘a skilful and justifiable avoidance of a punch they could not have taken directly’.
The chance of war is an unpredictable thing. Had 18 and 20 Battalions not changed places three days before, it would have been the 18th that finished the war behind barbed wire, and the 20th might well have taken the escape road. However, that was not to be. The 18th survived to fight another day, and carried the New Zealand flag at Tobruk until the pendulum of calamity swung again, and the enemy, weakened beyond immediate repair by his furious November battles, left the Tobruk area in headlong retreat.