18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 15 — The Pendulum Swings
The Pendulum Swings
Nobody could have called 18 Battalion happy on 1 December, sitting up on the escarpment expecting the worst. It had just seen its friends of 20 Battalion marched off to captivity, had had to leave the field to avoid the same fate, had lost a lot of good men in the process, and was separated from the Division. Late that morning, to Brigadier Inglis' mighty relief, Lieutenant-Colonel Peart raised him momentarily by wireless, but 18 Battalion had no possible chance of rejoining the brigade now that the country in between was infested with Jerries. All it could do was to sit tight and make the best of it.
At any rate, the battalion was with friends. Besides the Royal Horse Artillery it had met the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment of the Tobruk garrison out west towards Ed Duda, and Peart had placed himself under command of their parent brigade, 14 Brigade, who delightedly accepted the reinforcement, temporary though it might be. In its new position perched on the escarpment the battalion could do a useful job blocking Jerry if he tried to go on from Belhamed towards Ed Duda.
A useful job, but a dangerous one. The battalion had no anti-tank guns now; the gunners had withdrawn with the rest, leaving their guns behind, and were now an infantry platoon. The only defence against another attack would be the flimsy minefield and the stout hearts behind it, neither of them adequate protection against tanks. The men could not rely on the friendly escarpment another time, for here it was a gentler slope, no real obstacle for vehicles. Just by 18 Battalion's western flank—in fact B Company was astride it— the Tobruk bypass road climbed the step, then curved west to disappear over the hump of Ed Duda. A good tarred road this, providing access to the 18th from two directions. Ed Duda was all right, as it had been strongly reinforced after the near shave page 221 on 29 November and was now a main point of the Tobruk defence. But down the bypass road to the north was a no-man's land, with (as far as 18 Battalion knew) no British troops between it and 90 Light Division somewhere vaguely up in that direction.
So the position was uncomfortably exposed and open to shellfire. Some of the battalion were lucky enough to find old enemy sangars they could use, but most of them had to turn to and hack out fresh holes that afternoon, while shells splashed round them. Luckily the fire was not concentrated—Jerry was very likely as short of ammunition as the New Zealand Division had been a few days earlier.
One small but vital part of the battalion really benefited from the change, and that was the RAP. It had a perfect position ready made for it, a cave in the hillside, with near by the remains of an Italian field hospital crammed full of medical and surgical gear. The rifle companies on their way back up the escarpment all loaded themselves with blankets and canned food from these stores, but what they took was a drop in the bucket. The cave was still full of enemy wounded, but there were four Itie doctors on the premises, so skilled aid was not lacking. Getting casualties off to hospital, an iffy operation on Belhamed, presented no difficulty here—they went by night along the bypass road to Tobruk, and struck no trouble.
This worked the other way too. The daily hot meal, ammunition and supplies could now be taken up to the battalion in comfort from Tobruk, instead of across a stretch of pathless, perilous desert. The worst dangers that trucks had to face now were the British minefields round Tobruk, which took a lot of negotiating—18 Battalion lost three trucks on the mines during the next few days.
The ‘B Ech’ boys, to digress briefly, were not at all taken with Tobruk, which they sweepingly classified as a terrible hole. A huddle of dusty ruins, a landlocked harbour full of wrecks, bombed nightly, the water undrinkable—what a dump to fight for, they thought. Their spirits were very low the first afternoon, when wild rumours began to circulate about the fate of the boys on Belhamed. But by evening it was generally known that the more alarming of these rumours were untrue, that the rifle companies had escaped the ‘bag’ and were still page 222 in the fight, though tired and depleted. Next day every man who could be spared from B Echelon was sent up to reinforce the rifle companies on their escarpment.
Life on that escarpment, though much more bearable than the previous week, was still no bed of roses. The enemy was close and was in a nasty aggressive mood at first, as 18 Battalion soon found out. A report by Peart to Divisional Headquarters on 3 December outlines briefly what happened during the first three days in the new position:
At about 1900 hrs [1 December] a night attack was made on the Bn. by enemy infantry from the north. This attack was easily repulsed with LMG and rifle fire.
At about 0630 hrs 2 Dec 41, a new attack was started from the north by at least a Bn of the enemy with arty support. This attack was also repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy by 0900 hrs. We suffered 7 casualties.
The remainder of 2 Dec 41 was one of comparative quiet except for movement of the enemy outside small arms range. Arty fire was brought to bear by 1 RHA who had sent an FOO to the Bn.
Late in the afternoon considerable activity by the enemy was observed on belhamed and an attack from that direction was expected. After considerable difficulty it was found possible to get two A/Tk guns (Polish) through Beds and Herts Regt, and five I tanks from 22 Armd Bde…. 1 RHA arranged a complete defensive fire plan.
No attack developed and night ⅔ Dec was quiet. 90 reinforcements were sent forward from B Ech of 18 Bn and 20 Bn. 10 18 Bn reported and took away all wounded, except stretcher cases, and some 50 officers and ORs of a German and Italian hospital in the Bn area.
On 3 Dec much enemy movement was visible east and south of the posn. Recce patrols were sent out and at time of writing it appears that the enemy is holding a defensive line sidi resegh-belhamed-bu amud…. An attack on the enemy has also developed further south from apparently some portion of our own troops.
Wire has been received from Beds and Herts Regt and 600 mines have been promised. It is proposed to further consolidate the posn on night ¾ Dec.
The morale of the tps is good…. The present strength of the unit, including attached from 20 Bn, is 17 Offrs and 528 ORs….page 223
It is emphasised that for a considerable period this Bn has been placed in posns of extreme difficulty with three sides open to attack and with little support available. Great help has been received in particular from 1 RHA and their FOO….
Early information about plans for our future action or movement would be appreciated….
This bald account fairly effectively conceals some very sound work by 18 Battalion, beginning shortly after dark on 1 December, when the alarm was first raised that Jerry was coming in on the north-east flank. The Brens facing that way opened up forthwith, the riflemen round them joined in with enthusiasm, and very successful their efforts were, for Jerry halted and dug in where he was, down below the escarpment. After the morning's events the battalion was not at all disposed to let sleeping dogs lie. The Brens continued to give Jerry what one man described as a ‘good pasting’, but Jerry stuck to his new position, and a little later in the evening sent in a few shells which rather cramped the battalion's style.
All that night fingers in 18 Battalion were very ready to triggers, but Jerry did nothing till daybreak next day, when a sudden storm of shells arrived, followed by the enemy infantry, whose numbers, now that they could be estimated in daylight, looked like 200 or so. Reaction was swift. Brens and rifles opened up, followed by the Royal Horse Artillery, with an effect so rewarding that even the 18 Battalion boys were astonished. Under the shelling and accurate sniping the German troops broke and ran—a rare spectacle—and as they did so more and more troops rose out of the ground and joined them till the estimated 200 had swollen to a battalion at least. They did not stop till they reached a small ridge 800 yards away, where they rallied on a line of tanks in hull-down positions.
Jerry had now lost his first advantage of surprise, and all the advantage of ground lay with 18 Battalion, which could overlook the whole situation. To some men it looked as if the tanks were driving the infantry back into the fight, but that might have been a bit far-fetched. There was certainly much activity over in the lee of the little ridge, staff cars buzzing about and the Germans obviously making ready to come again. But the page 224 fun, when it began again about 7 a.m., was shortlived. The German infantry this time made almost no progress; the Royal Horse Artillery (for whom the 18th was beginning to cherish a warm regard) opened fire again and broke up the advance, helped by three opportune British tanks which appeared out of nowhere.
That was the ignominious end of Jerry's attempt on 18 Battalion from the north. During the rest of the morning the infantrymen and artillery had intermittent sport shooting at small enemy parties which from time to time rose up from the ground and made a dash for safety, and in the afternoon the pioneer platoon sent out a patrol and helped the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment to round up some 150 Germans who had hoped to lie doggo till dark. They might have got away with it but for an accident—an enemy car travelling injudiciously up the bypass road had stopped when fired on, and a carrier which went to investigate had stumbled on these hapless Jerries in the vicinity. Exposure for hours to drizzle and cold wind (for 2 December was a foul day) had sapped their resistance, and they surrendered without argument. They were herded up and marched off to the ‘Beds & Herts’ lines, with 18 Battalion interestedly watching from its vantage point.
The history of these abortive attacks from ‘the other side of the hill’ is interesting. While the morning attack on Belhamed on 1 December was in full swing, Africa Corps asked 90 Light Division to attack from the north, the idea being to trap the Kiwis between two forces and crush them, nutcracker style. The 90th Light agreed with alacrity, but promise seems to have outrun performance; the best unit it could find for the job was a makeshift, poorly armed battalion, commanded by the divisional adjutant and composed of odds and ends, supply troops and the like.
The first attack that night penetrated well down towards the Belhamed escarpment, but could not be pressed home against the solid defence of 18 Battalion and the Tommies. The attackers dug in for the night, then next morning tried again, with the disastrous results already described. It was no mere repulse, it was a fiasco. The battalion, received in such unfriendly fashion by 18 Battalion and 1 RHA, lost heart and decided unanimously to go home, ‘streaming back in disorder’ page 225 as 90 Light Division itself admits. Its unfortunate commander, hauled over the coals later, could offer no convincing explanation—the men, he said, had ‘bolted leaving behind their A Tk guns and other weapons’. Not an inspiring page in the history of German military prowess—but what a tonic for the battle-bruised 18 Battalion, whose morale had inevitably suffered a little in the cataclysm of 1 December.
So, despite the rain and cold, the battalion woke up on 3 December in a mood of renewed confidence. Another factor that helped to bring this on was the welcome reappearance of the RAF, which from 1 December had sent a squadron or two over daily to ‘do over’ Jerry's battle positions. The Luftwaffe, thank Heaven, seemed to be right out of the sky, except over Tobruk, which still took a nightly ‘towelling’. The anti-aircraft displays over the port, even from 18 miles away, were worth the price of a little sleep.
The much-disputed area between Belhamed and Ed Duda, now that Jerry had given up his idea of breaking through from the north, was surprisingly quiet on 3 December. A few odd enemy parties wandering round within range of 18 Battalion's Brens were tickled up a little, and every now and again a small salvo of shells fell on the battalion, including one bout just as the daily supply vehicles from Tobruk were unloading that evening. But apart from this, all movement seen in enemy territory was well away to the east, beyond Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh, where columns were perpetually moving southwards. It puzzled 18 Battalion why this should be so—the explanation that the enemy was getting ready to evacuate the field did not occur to it.
Still less did it seem like that on 4 December, which was a day of alarums and excursions on the battalion's southern front. The day is outlined in another of Colonel Peart's laconic reports:
At 0715 hrs 4 Dec an enemy attack developed on Ed Duda crossing some 1000 yds to our south. We engaged them with MMG fire and some LMG fire from FDL's of B Coy. Our southern flank recd considerable attention from the enemy and suffered heavy mortar, MMG and shell fire throughout the day. We had fourteen casualties.
At about 1215 hrs the same day two enemy tanks approached our eastern flank (C Coy). One ran over an enemy mine and we page 226 destroyed it with anti-tank fire. The second withdrew. At 1450 hrs the Border Regt counter-attacked from Ed Duda with only partial success finally withdrawing through our right flank.
All this was by way of a final fling by an enemy forced off the battlefield, but by no means routed. It began very early in the morning with general shelling of the area, A Company (the most southerly company) getting the lion's share. Sergeant Yendell of C Company recalls:
The first shells to arrive at dawn were sulphur shells, the first we had experienced. One… covered a number of chaps with burning bits of sulphur, fumes went right down our throats and we had a very bad bout of coughing, I and others too thought gas, and no respirators, what a rotten 10 minutes. It proved to be a ranging shell as then followed 2 hours of the heaviest shelling I have ever experienced.
Then came the Germans, about 200 of them, advancing across the open ground south of 18 Battalion in the general direction of Ed Duda. The 18th companies, especially A and B, had some good shooting for a while, and so did a British Vickers gun platoon (Northumberland Fusiliers) which had arrived up in support the previous night and had gone into position with A Company just in time to take part. It looked at first as if Jerry, when he sent his troops straight across that bare flat, did not know just how close the opposition was.
However, he knew now, and lost no time in doing something about it, the ‘something’ consisting of machine-gun and mortar fire on A and B Companies, the heaviest since 1 December. This almost neutralised 18 Battalion's fire, forced the troops down into their holes, and opened the way for the attackers to get right past the battalion and cut the bypass road west of B Company. It was a difficult morning for B Company, its telephone lines constantly cut by shells, so that its defence could not be co-ordinated as well as it would have liked. Jerry succeeded in putting up an anti-tank-gun nest on the bypass road, with unfortunate results, for when four I tanks sallied down the road through B Company they ran into concentrated fire and only one came back.
It was a depressing morning, with the thought in every mind, ‘Is this going to be 1 December all over again?’ It looked as if it might be, particularly just after midday, when two German tanks hove in sight east of the position, making for page 227 C Company. These, thought the boys, would probably be the forerunners of many more; there was no nice escarpment to save them this time, so were they to share 20 Battalion's fate after all?
Not pleasant thoughts, these, for men who had survived that other black day. But this time, thank goodness, they were unfounded. The two tanks were not followed up by more; and awaiting them was an unexpected surprise. One of Jerry's own mines did a job its layers never intended—it blew a track off one tank, and the Polish anti-tank gunners finished the cripple off and drove away its companion. This was a satisfactory little action, in cheering contrast to the pounding A and B Companies were taking.
The Border Regiment's counter-attack was quite unexpected, and to the onlookers seemed a foolhardy though gallant piece of work, straight across the open desert with no supporting fire. The Borderers were caught out in the open and suffered terribly. The only good thing about it, from 18 Battalion's point of view, was that the Germans' attention was diverted from A and B Companies, and the pressure on them was reduced though they were forced to keep low until dark.
That night the enemy disengaged and began a general withdrawal westwards. Patrols south from 18 Battalion next morning found to their surprise that there was no enemy left facing the battalion, only a smallish force on Belhamed. Up north, too, 90 Light Division had left except for rearguards, which pulled back later, leaving that dishevelled piece of sand and scrub to the British.
If you want to appreciate the sun, try living underground for a while. This was pretty well what 18 Battalion's rifle companies had done for nine days, and now once more they were free to roam round in the open with impunity. That is not to say that they dropped their guard and neglected precautions—standing and roving patrols, both from the companies and the carrier platoon, went out in all directions to keep watch. But where you would previously have seen only camel scrub, now there was continual activity, men walking round, standing or sitting in the open, revelling in their freedom. There were still a few enemy holding on at Sidi Rezegh until the withdrawal was complete, but the battalion paid no attention to them.
Before anything else, there was a job to do on Belhamed. Salvage parties found there scenes of terrible desolation, dead page 228 Germans and Kiwis, burnt-out Jerry tanks, the gallant New Zealand gunners still lying round their guns, a shambles of scattered gear and weapons of all kinds. Particularly noticeable was the large number of German dead very close to the old New Zealand positions, gruesome witnesses to the fury of the fight that had taken place there. The 18 Battalion parties buried all these dead, friend and foe—there was no time to waste pity or regret on them, it was of necessity a callous, unceremonious burial. Then there was all the gear to be salvaged and sent back to Tobruk, though of course the battalion made its own losses good first. Most valuable of all the loot in the eyes of the men was a stock of German and Italian rations, and enough water for everybody to wash all over and take off their ten days' whiskers. There were trucks, too, more than enough to replace all the battalion had lost. Even a few stray prisoners were picked up—on 6 December C Company got quite a start when a party of Italians emerged from an old well to make formal surrender.
Now that the enemy was on the run, the RAF was over again in large numbers to hurry him along, passing to and fro overhead. One over-keen Hurricane pilot on 5 December gave the battalion a few bursts from his guns, luckily with no casualties, but that was all. On 5 December the artillery supporting 14 Brigade was near enough to harass Jerry as he moved west, but after that his main force was out of range and the shooting stopped.
A situation like this was always good for a crop of rumours. This time, inevitably, one story in particular gained wide currency—we're going to be relieved, we're going back to Egypt with the rest of the Div. It was a very popular rumour, for a move away from that bleak, ill-omened Belhamed would be fine no matter where they went. And it was a fairly safe rumour, for 18 Battalion, though still fighting fit and in good spirits, had done its full share, and was now overdue for a respite and an opportunity to refurbish.
There were signs of a move from about 7 December. All the attached troops (1 RHA, the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Polish gunners) left one by one. On the 9th the last salvage parties went over to Belhamed, and the same evening definite word came through of a move to Tobruk next day. The battalion was in a holiday mood now, the sort of mood that page 229 grips a unit about to leave any sticky or unpleasant spot, and lightly and cheerfully the men packed the trucks and made ready to pull out next morning.
The 10th December dawned grey and bitter, but that didn't matter. At 7.30 a.m. ASC lorries appeared on the scene, and within an hour the whole battalion was on its way, spinning along the bypass road towards Tobruk. Eyes scanned the waste to catch glimpses of the Tobruk defences or the positions Jerry had clung to throughout the campaign, but the fighting on Belhamed was already slipping from the memory, for such is the way of soldiers.
Seven miles short of Tobruk the convoy turned off the main road towards the sea, wound down into a steep-sided wadi, and there they were. ‘Dig in’ had been the order; but many of the men found ready-made protection in caves, and most of the others were content with token holes. Then they settled down to enjoy a day of blessed idleness.
They had reason to be pleased with themselves. Nobody had ever accused 18 Battalion of lacking guts, but it had re-proved itself beyond all doubt. Its initiative and vigour after the Belhamed catastrophe were recognised—rare honour—in a letter from the 13 Corps commander, who wrote to Lieutenant-Colonel Peart:
I want to thank you most sincerely for all you have done. You have all been hard, even overworked in the task of wearing down the enemy by meeting and beating off his repeated attacks—now he has fallen back, thanks to you and all those who fought to the last. But for the gallantry of all we should never have been in the favourable position in which we find ourselves.
Words like these would, of course, have been shrugged off with a deprecatory oath or two by any member of the battalion; but still it was good to feel that you had come through a trying time with credit, and that it was now over and behind you. The light-hearted, almost happy-go-lucky warfare of Gambut and Zaafran had given place on Belhamed to a tense, uncomfortable sort of war calling for steadiness and stamina, and 18 Battalion had risen to the occasion, though it was to be hoped that such an occasion would not recur.
The battalion had had only a handful of casualties since 1 December, but still its rifle companies were little more than half strength now, for 50 killed and 119 wounded1 is a big gap page 230 torn out of a unit, even without counting the 21 men taken prisoner. A few of the wounded were unlucky enough to fall into Jerry's hands when he overran a dressing station east of Sidi Rezegh on 28 November. Saddest blow of all for the survivors, ten more of the wounded were lost in the torpedoing of the hospital ship Chakdina outside Tobruk on 5 December.
So it was a depleted battalion, only 577 strong, that boarded its trucks after breakfast on 11 December and headed east, turning its back on Tobruk and its scrubby, corpse-strewn desert battleground. Depleted, but gay and in high spirits, its losses already gone from the forefront of the mind, as always when a unit comes out of action.
How different this trip back was from the move up before the battle! No groping in the dark over humps and hollows this time. Away they went at heartening speed down the main road, past their old looting ground at Gambut (the very sight of the airfield made the mouth water), then off the road and south-east across the desert to the Egyptian frontier. At 3 p.m. they passed through the Wire, then through a vast dumping ground of stores and ammunition, and so to their night's camping place eight miles inside Egypt.
Two more days like the first, and at 2.30 p.m. on 13 December the familiar Baggush landscape once more hove in sight, and there were the LOB people welcoming the wanderers back, the whole battalion a Babel of jumbled talk, Gambut and Zaafran and Belhamed being refought, the dead remembered again with brief solemnity.
The past month in the LOB camp had dragged badly, with nothing much to do except guard and fatigue jobs over the almost empty New Zealand area. Rumours of the battalion's exploits had filtered back from the ‘blue’, but most of them, in the way of rumours, had been so distorted as to bear only vague likeness to the reality. Now the yarns flowed freely, losing nothing in the telling, and those who had spent the month in safety and comparative comfort came near to envying the rest their hardships and dangers. For he is a poor soldier indeed who does not covet honour, and in the chaos of Belhamed 18 Battalion had, more than ever before or since, covered itself with honour.
1 Includes 9 men wounded and prisoner of war.