19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 12 — The Division in the Desert
The Division in the Desert
For death was a difficult trade.
—James Elroy Flecker
The 19th detrained in the Western Desert at Sidi Haneish on the morning of 16 September. A year earlier some of its members had taken part in the construction work when this desert railway station was being built. Though to many the location was new, neither the old hand nor the recruit felt enthusiastic about this destination. True, the Baggush Box held many memories for the unit and not all of them were unpleasant, but while taking over E and F sectors from the Essex Regiment it was all too clearly revealed that the place was still drab, dreary, and uncomfortable.
The prospect of action in the near future seemed to be confirmed by the ominous entry in routine orders, ‘No leave until further notice’, and as companies moved out to their respective areas the general feeling was: ‘Oh well, we won’t be long here anyhow.’ The official orders were: ‘Keep the positions in good repair; build alternative fire positions where necessary; carry out patrols by day and night; normal training wherever possible.’ Work began at once.
The unit sector was about two miles west of that prepared previously and the few features on the uninviting landscape were well known to those who had toiled in Baggush for six months in 1940. Their knowledge of the area plus their experience in desert dwelling was valuable, for September was the beginning of the bad season and well-constructed bivouacs and field works would be more than ever necessary in the months to follow. This area, while no improvement on the one the 19th had made and occupied last year, was closer to the sea, but the weather was now cold; it was too chilly for pleasant bathing, and the ground had been so badly churned up that dust cloaked anything and everybody. Every movement caused a fresh cloud.page 187
Tools and weapons, however, were kept fully employed from the day the 19th moved in. Construction work, patrols, weapon training and night marches filled the days for 4 and 6 Infantry Brigade Groups during their stay in the Baggush Box.
An old-timer in the Western Desert, ‘Major’, the bull terrier mascot of the 19th, received promotion to the rank of lieutenant, Routine Order No. 2 carrying the following notice: ‘2nd Lieut. “Major” (No. 1 Dog, NZ Div) to be Lieut, with effect from 24 September, 41. Authority, approval of the CO granted on the grounds that the prescribed period for one pip regimental mascots has expired and that during such period 2nd Lieut “Major” has carried out in a soldierlike manner all duties allocated to him.’ With the last statement in the notice, all who knew the dog readily concurred. As befitting his profession he was aloof to petting, but received congratulations from all and sundry with soldierly dignity.
The tactical situation in the Western Desert could be likened to a calm before the storm. During the British preoccupation with Greece and Crete, the Axis commander in North Africa had used the short route from Italy to build up considerable forces and supplies. The German-Italian army was now reported to be preparing for a full-scale operation against Tobruk, whose gallant garrison had twice withstood and fought off assaults. Their stand was a severe check to Axis plans for the invasion of Egypt via the Western Desert.
The British forces in Egypt, too, had been building up steadily and after the Balkan campaign the brief breathing space had been used to full advantage. Now was the time for determining the first issue in our Middle East strategy: the Axis forces in North Africa were to be destroyed. All available air forces and transport began to concentrate in Egypt from Syria, Palestine and Cyprus. A steady stream of new American equipment swelled the depleted war stores of the theatre. In the main these stores, however, were at this stage confined to transport and heavy equipment. None affected the war equipment tables of an infantry battalion.page 188
By November 1941 General Sir Claude Auchinleck was ready to launch his offensive. Training in air co-operation now occupied such an important place in the syllabus of all arms that its effect on morale was evident throughout the whole army. Though the system of ground-to-air communication between forward units and army co-operation squadrons proved to be inadequate during the later mobile operations, the promised full support of the RAF in the campaign ahead put every man in good heart.
On 10 September Eighth Army was constituted and Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham appointed to command it. The New Zealand Division, with 4 Indian Division and 1 Army Tank Brigade, were grouped to form 13 Corps (commanded by Lieutenant-General A. R. Godwin-Austen) and this formation took over the headquarters of the old Western Desert Force at midnight on 26–27 September. Wavell’s battleground was again to be the scene of operations, and the first phase of the plan was to trap and destroy the Axis forces in Eastern Cyrenaica. Over a month elapsed before the opposing armies clashed in battle.
Meanwhile, in the battalion positions at Baggush work and training continued. General Cunningham visited the area on 29 September inspecting units at work. Dust and fleas continued to irritate; but an occasional reconnaissance aircraft was the only sign of the enemy. October arrived, and on the 3rd the unit celebrated its second anniversary. Though both occasions were spent in drab discomfort, they are still recalled with pleasure by all who participated. The midday meal on Sunday, 5 October, in the dry cisterns and dugouts which served as company messes was the result of hoarding and planning over many months.
The 19th Battalion was now a band united by stronger ties than mere military discipline. The main body survivors and the newest recruits all felt that they were part of a good unit, and on its second birthday toasted their battalion’s success for the future and retold with satisfaction its past exploits. It was a happy party, and in the small hours of the next morning the desert re-echoed to the page 189 hilarity of farewells as groups broke up to wend their uncertain ways back to bivouacs and posts.
On the 4th the battalion moved approximately seven miles to take over J sub-sector of the Box. This area lay between the road and the railway and linked up with 20 Battalion which was in position between the road and the sea, while on the left flank 18 Battalion held an area from the railway line to the escarpment. Conditions were hard, water was at a premium; but out of the most unpromising material ingenuity contrived some semblance of comfort, and self-discipline and collective effort resulted in a pattern of ordered living only possible through the co-operation of each man. But the battalion had no illusions about this construction work on the Baggush defences. The veterans knew that the Box could not turn an attack of any weight, and it was unthinkable that any serious action would take place within its defences.
A lecture given about this time by an officer of the Royal Tank Corps on the organisation of a tank brigade was attended by all officers and NCOs, plus one private from each company. It reflected the general trend of future tactics and provided much discussion in the bivouacs. The significance of ‘one private from each company’ was not lost, and it is safe to say that the men selected for so unusual an assignment did much effective work when they returned to their companies. The salient points of the lecture were retold many times. The effect was good. All ranks predicted that armour would play an important part in the success of the forthcoming operations.
Tactical training and instruction intensified throughout the month, and on the 14th the battalion moved out with other units of 4 Brigade Group to laager 10 miles south of Fuka for the whole of the following day and resume operations against ‘an enemy fortified camp’ the next night. General Freyberg attended the exercise, and the ‘G office’ comment at its conclusion was: ‘Although the move was carried out in complete darkness over very rough country it was very successful.’ Bumping and rattling through the desert night, mounting and dismounting from shadowy trucks, scurrying page 190 forward on foot in uncertain and devious directions—all this no doubt was useful training, but in the absence of a real enemy and with some trucks which represented tanks and some which did not, the operation, by daylight, left the troops blown and somewhat bewildered. The worth of these night manoeuvres would be proved later in battle.
By way of group instruction the Engineers introduced a new angle on modern warfare in their demonstration of the use of the mine detector and the lifting of mines, and a detachment from the Green Howards gave an astonishing exhibition of wire crushing and surmounting obstacles. These diversions, besides training, guards and fatigues, filled days which were as varied as the programme, for heat, cold, dust and rain all could occur within the same twenty-four hours.
On 19 October Lieutenant-Colonel Varnham made an informal round of visits to the companies of his battalion to say goodbye. Recalled to New Zealand for special duties, he handed over to Major S. F. Hartnell, who had commanded Taranaki Company when the unit was formed; except for a tour of duty at Maadi as CO of a training battalion which kept him out of the campaigns in Greece and Crete, the new CO’s service had all been with the 19th.
The CO’s going was regretted by all, for the battalion owed much to his leadership and influence. As its first commanding officer, its moulding was in his hands, and he soon had reason to be proud of his command. The respect and esteem in which he was (and still is) held by all ranks was a tribute to his sterling qualities.
The rest of the month passed with the daily entry ‘Normal Routine’ in the unit war diary. There was one constant topic, however, which outshone all others—not far away over the escarpment was a South African brigade, and a Kiwi-Springbok Rugby football match was in the offing. By the end of the month preparations for this match had assumed the proportions of an international test, and a fortnight before the game was played thirty men were detached from their units and reported to Divisional Headquarters for training. The battalion paraded five men for page 191 the selector’s verdict. Three made the grade—the RSM, Jim Coull,1 ‘Knox’ Welsh,2 and ‘Tris’ Hegglun.3
On 4 November the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, visited the Box, and in the 19th area a full ceremonial parade of all units of 4 Brigade Group was held. Sir Claude made a quick inspection, presented medals for immediate awards earned in Greece and Crete, took the salute at a march past and departed. Lacking Wavell’s pug ruggedness of feature and Wilson’s genial bulk, omitting the usual cheery words of encouragement to the troops, the C-in-C earned few words of approbation from the ranks. However, when he pinned the scarlet ribbon of the VC on the tunic of Lieutenant Charles Upham4 of 20 Battalion, the cheers from all units were spontaneous and full-throated.
On 8 November the anxiously awaited football match was played. The time could not have been more inopportune for other dramatic events were looming, and a day or so before there was an official comment that the Division might have to default the classic encounter. However, the game was played before a gallery of some 8000 enthusiastic spectators in weather reminiscent of a typical New Zealand winter Saturday afternoon. It was cold and showery, and though the field and the grandstand was sandy, stone-sprinkled desert, both the players and those behind the wired-off sidelines put on a strenuous performance. It was a grand game played in the best traditions. The plucky representatives from the Springbok brigade lost but kept the score down to 8-nil; while war was forgotten, red-hatted generals and balaclavaed privates alike shouted themselves hoarse for a hectic hour when a small leather ball loomed larger than the biggest tank in Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
Yet even while the game was in progress, not far away from the Rugby ground the Engineers were stacking newly page 192 pointed and sharpened bayonets into bundles of twenty for return to the units of the Division. Preparations for the push were well advanced. The stage was set for a grimmer battle.
In the forthcoming operations both sides would encounter different conditions from those the troops a year earlier had known. The methods of warfare had advanced; science and experience were combining to produce new tactics, new weapons and new moves. Two factors alone remained stable: the desert and the men who, moving like mites across its wastes, formed the opposing armies drawn up in battle array. It was 11 November—a solemn anniversary forgotten in a frenzy of preparation for further sacrifices—when the first of the Division left for the assembly area.
Administrative arrangements on the British side were impressive. The railhead had crept onwards from Matruh, 75 miles west to Bir Misheifa. A pipeline now pumped a steady stream of precious water from Alexandria to a point some 10 miles short of the new railhead. Its availability so far forward was important, for in the desert no army could operate unless supplies were assured. Nearly 30,000 tons of munitions, fuel and supplies came into the forward area in the brief space of six weeks. Equipment was checked, and once more among the flurry of transport whose tracks twined and intertwined over the troop-infested areas, despatch riders sped bearing packets marked ‘Secret’.
New Zealand Division Exercise No. 4, 4 NZ Infantry Brigade Group Operation Order No. 1, 19 Battalion Operation Order No. 1: in rapid succession these were issued for action to all concerned. None had any illusions about the impending operation, for the word ‘Exercise’ was a security fiction to cloak the real import of the preliminary moves. Five officers and 59 other ranks, nucleus if necessary of a new 19 Battalion—all protesting—marched out to the LOB5 camp that night, and the following day (12 November) the movement forward began.
The selection of men to be left out of battle was a vexing business to every CO. From those chosen there were always page 193 the most bitter objections, yet it was vital to leave behind sufficient good, tried leaders on which the battalion could if necessary rebuild after the battle. Never was this to be more clearly demonstrated than with 20 Battalion which, when almost wiped out at Belhamed, returned to Baggush where Lieutenant Upham, VC, was among the men left behind; men who later constituted the vital core of a 20th Battalion which was able to take its place with the rest of the brigade in the next campaign some seven months later. The 19th entered the November 1941 campaign under establishment in officers, and Sergeants Roy McLean (Wellington Company), Dave Rench (Wellington West Coast Company), Ron Liddel6 (Hawke’s Bay Company), and ‘Snow’ Rundle7 (Taranaki Company) served as platoon commanders.
The advance party, consisting of part of the battalion orders group, pulled out before dawn to rendezvous in the early morning at Kilo 40. At 10.30 a.m. the rest of the battalion, mostly conveyed in the 3-ton trucks of D Section of 4 Reserve MT Company (Captain Blanch8), left Baggush via the main road, bypassed Matruh on to the Siwa track, and finally struck off into the desert to laager 68 miles from the starting point. It was a good opening move, fast, orderly and unhindered. Debussing at 4 p.m., there was still plenty of time to prepare a hot meal before dark and to settle down as snugly as possible in the bleak, open desert for the night. By dusk it was miserably cold and dismal. The battalion remained in laager all the next day, going through each item of equipment for final tests and checking.
Away out in the desert the other units were concentrating according to plan as the Division assembled for battle. Well pleased at last to have an offensive role and happy in a conviction of moral and material superiority over the enemy, each man looked to his arms and waited resolutely page 194 for movement to begin again. With adequate air support this campaign might well turn the tide of the German victories. The men who had suffered and survived Greece and Crete were among those whose hopes were highest.
Now began the phase in which the New Zealand Division became fully mobile; when the infantryman came to regard a truck and not a trench as his home; when each vehicle became a self-contained caravan carrying its own supplies and its own reserves. When the campaign began men soon learned how to snatch each brief halt as perhaps the only opportunity they would encounter in the day to brew up, to feed, to make all the necessary arrangements for comfort before movement began again. The drivers of the vehicles responded well to their early training, and the ease and accuracy with which large bodies of transport were moved long distances in desert formation, fully dispersed by day and nose to tail in columns by night, was remarkable. In this campaign the Division was to achieve an outstanding record for desert movement.
At 1 p.m. on 14 November 4 NZ Brigade Group Operation Order No. 2 arrived by despatch rider but still no order came to advance, and it was eight o’clock on the morning of the 15th before the battalion scrambled back into its transport and the wheels again began to turn. Meanwhile, however, senior officers from all units had attended a conference at Divisional Headquarters to study a model of the ground to be occupied. The force was approaching the Libyan frontier and from now on enemy action could be expected. A heavy ground mist obscured visibility all round, but up above RAF escort fighters were keeping watch. Their speeding shapes were seen with satisfaction by those who remembered all too vividly the grim days spent moving down from Macedonia when the Luftwaffe, unobstructed in the air, had dealt mercilessly with our transport.
When the early morning mist evaporated the full panorama of mechanised movement was unfolded. It was a breathtaking spectacle. As far as the eye could see, across the stony wastes crept rattling lorries, truck quads, portées page 195 and guns. They kept interval and distance for safety, and hour after hour rolled steadily forward with nothing to disturb the pattern of their progress except when a solitary, darting despatch rider cut through the tracks on the shortest route to his moving destination. A strict wireless silence was enforced, and so far the advance towards enemy territory seemed to have been undetected.
The going was rough, but 4 Brigade Group moved 55 miles that day and on halting learned the news that all future movements would be made during darkness. In the laager, in enveloping night and intensifying cold, the men dug in, then slept fitfully and uncomfortably in the holes they had made. The weather was bitter but worse was yet to come.
Caution characterised the next moves for the frontier was close. Reconnaissance parties were pushed forward, and on the night of 16–17 November, in torrential rain, and on the night of the 17th–18th, half the unit moved at a time in close column to an area already marked out. An electrical storm raging in the distance made the drivers’ task doubly difficult—vivid lightning flashes seared straining eyes then Stygian darkness swallowed up every trace of the vehicle ahead. It required nerves of steel to keep going steadily forward but the mass of vehicles kept on, each one handled by instinct sharpened by long practice. There were no major hold-ups, and on each move the whole battalion convoy arrived in its appointed area before dawn. At daylight the trucks dispersed and the unit laagered at Alam el Seiyif. The position was close to the Wire and about half-way between the enemy frontier posts of Capuzzo to the north and Maddalena to the south.
The eve of the British offensive had arrived. General Cunningham’s forces were now in position for the first phase of the new operation. The capture of Cyrenaica was its object. Forward aerodromes sited in the Western Desert, where the RAF could screen Malta convoys and watch over the uncertain destiny of that heroic little island, were an urgent necessity. These would be available once Cyrenaica was cleared. The initial role of 13 Corps, of which the page 196 Division was part, was to isolate and later destroy the frontier posts. Thirtieth Corps to the south, commanded by Lieutenant-General C. W. M. Norrie (now Sir Willoughby Norrie, Governor-General of New Zealand), would deal with the enemy armour and attempt to relieve Tobruk. The following night, 18–19 November, after a cold move of 16 miles, the battalion crossed the Wire and laagered in Libya.
The approach march had now ended and the Eighth Army, in co-operation with the Navy and RAF, was fully on the offensive. The same night the Navy shelled enemy fortifications at Halfaya and at daylight the land battle began. Thirtieth Corps, which was strong in armoured formations, delivered the main thrust for Rommel’s panzers were mostly concentrated towards the coast and therefore in that corps’ area of operations. The enemy was clearly surprised, and news from all sectors of the Eighth Army front was good.
Thirteenth Corps carried out its preliminary tasks without difficulty, and all in all operations progressed well. The Army Commander now decided to push ahead with the second stage of the plan, which was to link up with the forces in Tobruk. The enemy forward airfield south of Sidi Rezegh escarpment, one of the ridges which stepped up from the coast to the inland plateau and commanded the main line of communication to the west, had been captured by 7 Armoured Brigade.
Thirteenth Corps had now swung right towards the coast, and 2 NZ Division had begun to move to the north-east when a report was received that, 20 miles away at Bir el Hamarin, a force of 200 German tanks was approaching. Shortly afterwards successive waves of RAF fighters were seen heading north-west, and it was later reported that our own armoured forces, with good co-operation from the RAF, had the situation well in hand. Fourth Brigade Group, however, remained in position, put its area in a state of defence and, with the squadron of I tanks which had come under command the previous day, prepared to deal with a threatened attack. An enemy reconnaissance plane flew over the brigade area several times but at last page 197 paid the price of its curiosity and was brought down by AA fire. This incident, plus the constant RAF activity, was most heartening. Clearly the Luftwaffe was to be well taken care of here.
The expected enemy armoured attack did not develop, and on the morning of the 21st, in biting cold weather, all units stood by their transport awaiting word to move. The journey began again at 1.30 p.m., and once more in full daylight the whole Brigade Group, plus its attached tanks from 8 Royal Tank Regiment, rumbled purposefully forward across the desert, heading for Menastir, 45 miles away to the north-east. The task allotted it was to block the Bardia-Tobruk road and prevent the enemy from withdrawing his forces to the west. The move was uneventful until, when passing the Libyan Omar, the formation was shelled, but the advance was not checked though some bursts fell among 20 Battalion.
Earlier in the day wireless silence had been lifted and operators on the brigade links heard their first reports of offensive action. At dusk all vehicles moved into tight formation and in darkness continued to make good progress until 9 p.m. Obstacles about which there had been no previous intelligence were then encountered. An extensive area of deep mud resulting from the torrential rains of the 16th–17th and an anti-tank ditch 12 feet deep by 15 feet wide had to be negotiated. It was a pitch black night with drizzling rain, and considerable delay and scattering resulted. The drivers of the vehicles were equal to the occasion and safely brought the whole of the brigade to the other side, but it was an anxious night for the officers responsible for guiding and control. By 1 a.m. on the 22nd all units were through and reforming, and the move continued until 4 a.m. when the destination, Bir ez Zemla, was reached.
Here the brigade deployed and 18 and 20 Battalions were immediately engaged by the enemy forces round Bardia. A wedge was quickly driven between positions near the frontier and those to the west. The 18th then sent fighting patrols to within 200 yards of the Bardia forward defences page 198 while the 20th, with a block across the main road, attacked north-west. Both units were successful and about 150 prisoners, a quantity of motor transport, two armoured cars, and two 88-millimetre guns were captured. The 19th Battalion was held in reserve until the afternoon, and while awaiting on the escarpment had a grandstand view of the engagement. Shells from our guns shrieked over their heads on the way to Bardia. Below them a company of the 20th could be seen at grips with the enemy. Yet, despite these distractions, the noise, and the potential danger, several footballs were brought out and the men punted them around on the flat sandy area as though nothing untoward was happening. Had the unit been there for another few hours no doubt goalposts would have been erected.
About an hour before dark the 19th moved along the escarpment at Bir el Baheira to relieve the Divisional Cavalry, who were guarding the tracks leading down from the high ground. Before nightfall the change-over had been successfully effected, and at 11 p.m. a reconnaissance patrol commanded by Lieutenant Simpson9 was sent out to contact Brigade Headquarters. It reported back with the news that 20 Battalion, after a successful attack with ‘I’ tanks at Menastir, was now mopping up and that 18 Battalion had moved in behind Wellington Company. The same day 5 Brigade occupied Capuzzo while 7 Indian Infantry Brigade took Sidi Omar.
A captured German motor-cycle combination at Ed Duda—J. Cowels and Noel Christensen in front
Battalion positions on Jebel el Emside in Syria
Entrenched at Minqar Qaim—Sgt J. Hough
Wellington Company advancing against the Ariete Division on 3 July 1942
Major’s Field Medical Card
Major, official unit mascot, with Lt J. E. May, July 1942
On the 22nd Rommel continued his counter-offensive and his panzers drove our armour off Sidi Rezegh. On the 23rd, advancing further along the escarpment, they overwhelmed and virtually destroyed 5 South African Brigade. In the face of these reverses the final phase of the Tobruk operation was postponed. Thirteenth Corps’ role was revised and on the 23rd, leaving 5 Brigade to deal with Sollum and Musaid and to contain the Bardia-Halfaya area, the rest of the New Zealand Division moved westwards to link up with 6 Brigade, which while advancing along Trigh Capuzzo captured part of the headquarters of the Afrika Korps and was now approaching the area of the German successes. The 19th Battalion led 4 Brigade Group (less 20 Battalion) during this move, and at first light 44 Royal Tank Regiment joined up with the column and came under command immediately. At a conference held at 6.30 a.m. Brigadier Inglis issued his orders for an attack on the enemy airfield and supply dumps at Gambut, 20 miles to the west.
The approach march to Gambut was tricky, for while the brigade was moving along the escarpment overlooking the Bardia-Tobruk road, it was itself overlooked by a higher escarpment to the south. The shortcomings of this route were clearly demonstrated when, with the brigade still approximately 10 miles from its objective, enemy guns and what appeared to be tanks opened up from the left flank. Our own artillery replied immediately and the lorried infantry quickly debussed, dispersed, and lay down while the duel went on. The 19th Battalion received immediate orders to move two companies—Taranaki (Captain Everist10) and Wellington West Coast (Captain E. W. S. Williams), plus one section of Bren carriers and two troops of 46 Battery page 200 (Captain J. W. Moodie11) from 4 Field Regiment under command—up on to the escarpment to drive off the enemy there and act as a flank guard while the main body of the brigade pushed on to Gambut.
This small covering force, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell, moved up through a wadi until it made the top of the escarpment, then with the Bren carriers patrolling 500–600 yards in front of Wellington West Coast Company and with Taranaki Company covering the left flank, skirted along the ridge. There was no sign of the enemy and it was assumed that he had withdrawn westwards. Other enemy mechanised forces could, however, be seen in the distance withdrawing from Gambut.
Keeping on a westerly course until noon, Hartnell’s small force then approached an enemy column of about forty vehicles moving west from Bir el Garabat and covered by what looked like four medium tanks in hull-down positions. The 46th Battery engaged this target and also successfully dealt with some more enemy vehicles moving north along Trigh Capuzzo. At this juncture Brigade Headquarters reported that the way was clear to advance, but in view of the fact that the brigade would be unlikely to be shelled from the escarpment while the enemy was being engaged by his group, Hartnell decided to make no forward move until the enemy withdrew. This they did some twenty minutes later, and once more the force moved westwards.
At 2.45 the enemy force appeared again and by skilful use of every depression and wadi avoided our artillery fire until they finally disappeared over the escarpment to the north-west. At 3.30 p.m. the advance was resumed, and at this stage the force was joined by the remnants of an artillery supply column which had been dispersed by enemy tanks to the south-east. After a further advance of some 9000 yards, approximately eighty vehicles were seen in the sunset to the west and a halt was called while the identity of this force was ascertained.page 201
Wireless touch, which had been lost since early afternoon, was now established with Brigade, and it was learned that Gambut had been successfully occupied. It was notified also that 20 Battalion should be in the vicinity of the area in which the force was located. As nothing had been seen of that unit, it was thought that the vehicles to the west might be those of the 20th. One or two 25-pounder shells fired at this time added weight to this assumption that it was a British unit. A Bren carrier under command of the Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Jock Thodey, went out to investigate and was fired upon when approximately 400 yards off, thus leaving no doubt that the force was hostile. Immediately a gun battle began, both sides commencing a vigorous programme. The situation was reported by wireless and permission asked to attack after dark. Brigade Headquarters, however, ordered Colonel Hartnell to disengage immediately and to rejoin the brigade group. A guide was sent out to bring his force in.
At 8.45 p.m. a defensive position on the perimeter of the airfield was taken up, and having successfully countered the enemy’s threat to the brigade’s left flank, the force laagered for the night. No casualties in either men or vehicles had been sustained during the day’s operations. The rest of the unit had taken part in the occupation of the airfield and was already dug in as follows: Wellington Company (Major Woolcott12) on the left of Brigade Headquarters, Hawke’s Bay (Captain D. S. Thomson) and Headquarters Company (Major D. K. McLauchlan) on the right of Brigade Headquarters. They had been mortared and shelled during the evening but had managed to construct adequate cover. No. 12 Platoon (Lieutenant Y. K. Fleming) patrolled down the escarpment to the north during the night.
Next day (24 November) the battalion area was shelled intermittently and a violent explosion in the direction of the escarpment caused one of our patrolling Bren carriers commanded by Corporal Frank England13 to go out to page 202 investigate. It proved to be a Dodge 8-cwt truck from a British unit which had struck a minefield, but a group of enemy was also spotted in position by a cave and later engaged by a party under Captain Quilter.14 They surrendered after a sharp exchange of fire. When brought in and interrogated they were found to be fifty-eight members of a German engineer unit whose task was to mine the escarpment road. England at once returned to the road and, leaving his carrier and crew at the foot of the escarpment, reconnoitred forward on foot. On reaching the crest he was startled to see an enemy gun and crew, plus some transport, pulling out. He was unobserved and, lacking any means of reporting back to our artillery and without hope of hindering their withdrawal, he coolly took a photograph as the gun drew abreast of him.
From the observation made the day before by Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell’s flank guard, it was clear that the presence of enemy to the south of the airfield was due to his anxiety to keep open the road on to the high ground and so enable any of his troops still hiding in the vicinity to retire along Trigh Capuzzo. A close watch was therefore kept on that area.
The unit Bren carriers kept constant patrols forward of the battalion FDLs. They reported the presence of several enemy parties and during the day engaged one small force, captured twenty-two prisoners, and inflicted some casualties on the enemy.
The Gambut airfield was strewn with wrecked enemy machines, many burnt-out aircraft being eloquent testimony to the efficiency of the RAF. At least one of these aircraft was a British Hurricane—complete with German markings —which had been captured and used by the enemy. There was still some booty to be had in the captured positions around the airfield. Interesting souvenirs picked up included a supply of Luftwaffe shirts of synthetic wool and several dress uniforms belonging to senior officers—uniforms which no doubt they had hoped to wear on their triumphal page 203 entry into Cairo. As a welcome addition to and change from the scanty ration of rusty, chlorinated water, a number of wicker-covered flagons of Chianti and many bottles of Vichy water were also found. This tangible evidence of a successful operation boosted up the already high morale of the troops, for so far the campaign had been a popular venture and in the battalion at all events there was a feeling of great confidence and cheerfulness.
Fourth Brigade Group remained in position on the Gambut airfield until 3 p.m. (24 November) and then moved unopposed 18 miles to a line west of Ed Dbana. During this move 20 Battalion rejoined the brigade and reported a further successful engagement in which it had captured a good bag of prisoners. The brigade laagered for the night. As soon as it had laid out company areas, 19 Battalion sent out patrols. One of these sighted a camp of some 32 tents tucked into a wadi on the southern escarpment. An outpost was established to watch the area but it appeared to be unoccupied, and apart from some Very lights in the distance no enemy activity or movement was seen.
That evening at Brigade Headquarters a conference of commanding officers was held and information given on events further west. Rommel’s counter-stroke had been followed up by powerful armoured thrusts eastwards, and the panzers were now attempting to re-establish their line of frontier defences. The recapture of the dominating features south-east of Tobruk was imperative, and that night 4 Brigade received orders to make a dawn attack on Zaafran. This feature was about four miles away to the west and in line with Point 175 on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, where 6 Brigade was already heavily engaged.
4 Brigade positions, Zaafran, 25 November 1941
HB 2 and Tara 2 are the positions taken by Hawke’s Bay and Taranaki companies after the advance by 18 and 20 Battalions
The rocky ground at Zaafran made deep digging impossible and sangars of stones were built around the fighting slits. They were poor protection, and it was fortunate that there was no enemy air attack against the position that day. Accurate mortar fire, however, was directed on to our forward posts and there were some casualties, including three men from 4 Platoon 27 MG Battalion who were attached to the 19th at this time.
On the high ground towards the Blockhouse on Sidi Rezegh escarpment the enemy was holding strongly fortified positions, and his artillery commanded both the areas held by New Zealand troops—Point 175, won and consolidated by 6 Brigade during the previous two days, and Zaafran which 4 Brigade had just cleared of enemy. Our artillery silenced the German guns on the ridge by 9 a.m. and at 9.30 broke up an infantry attack developing against 20 Battalion’s position. A little later what appeared to be a general advance by enemy tanks was also stopped. The New Zealand gunners, despite ammunition restrictions, were doing fine work and their accurate and efficient fire made the enemy most cautious. However, it seemed obvious that an armoured assault on the position was impending and a call was made for bomber support. Here was the first test of the new ground-to-air procedure—though the ultimate result was good it did not work out quite according to the book. The message was sent, the recognition strips put out and the flares prepared: the planes were expected at 1.30 p.m. As the hour approached all stood by expectantly: 1.30 came and went, 2.30, 3 p.m., then there was a steady drone from above—but it came from the wrong page 206 direction. The drone turned into a roar as a flight of Ju87s supported by fighters snarled in from the west. Locating their target, they passed over the battalion, turned, and came back to dive-bomb the brigade area. No casualties resulted; fortunately the call for bomber support turned out to be unnecessary as the expected tank battle did not develop that day. At all events no RAF planes were available as the air force was fully employed against the panzers advancing on the frontier.
At seven o’clock that evening Brigadier Inglis returned from Divisional Headquarters with orders for an attack on Belhamed, to coincide with an assault on Sidi Rezegh and then Ed Duda by 6 Brigade. The battalion took no part in this attack but was left in reserve near Brigade Headquarters and the grouped transport remaining at Zaafran. As the men of the 19th watched their sister battalions go forward, some were envious, but the fates were kind to the unit for many men of those battalions did not return from this attack.
The 18th and 20th Battalions were again successful in a silent night attack which demoralised the enemy. By 11 p.m. they were consolidating on the Belhamed escarpment with many German prisoners on their hands and many dead Germans lying about. Their tenure of the feature was soon to be furiously contested, for the enemy was well aware of its importance. Soon the cold, uncomfortable wind which swept across its bleak slopes was joined by a lethal rain of mortar bombs and shells, which poured in from three directions and made the gain an uncomfortable one indeed. By daylight both battalions had suffered grievous losses but hung on grimly, fighting off enemy counter-attacks and improving their positions throughout the morning of 26 November.
In the afternoon the RAF sent over two sorties to deal with enemy armoured concentrations forming up to counter-attack. The situation was still grave, however, for while 4 Brigade was clinging stoutly to its objective, 6 Brigade was encountering devastating opposition at Sidi Rezegh. For that brigade’s secondary objective, Ed Duda, page 207 there were no troops to spare. Accordingly, new plans were made that day.
On the afternoon of the 26th units from the Tobruk garrison made a sortie from their perimeter and captured Ed Duda. To 19 Battalion—the only infantry unit in 4 and 6 Brigades which still remained at full strength—was allotted the role of linking Eighth Army with the forward troops from the garrison. The operation involved a long and dangerous advance through enemy territory. Its success was vital to the Army Commander’s plan. Belhamed was still firmly in our hands, but the furious fighting there and at Sidi Rezegh was evidence of the anxiety of the Axis command about the progress of events in the sector. No easy operation was expected.
Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell called together his orders group and in the gathering dusk outlined his plan. It was to be a night attack with I tanks, the first operation of its kind ever undertaken. The idea had not been relished by the tank commanders for—as the whole campaign was to prove to our cost—there had been too little training in co-operation between infantry and tanks and as yet the two arms had achieved little co-ordination with, or confidence in, each other.
The Brigade Commander’s insistence that the tanks, despite their objections, should precede the battalion and make their best speed to Ed Duda while the infantry followed up was justified, as this operation was perhaps the most outstanding success in the campaign. The fourteen Matildas charging through the enemy positions in pitch darkness were thought likely to leave him thoroughly shaken and off balance before he faced the following infantry. This proved to be the case.
Ten thousand yards was the distance to the objective and the intervening area was expected to be strongly held by entrenched infantry with artillery support. Only one truck per company could be taken to carry weapons and ammunition; the wounded would have to be picked up later. News from the battalions on Belhamed was not reassuring; they had had heavy casualties. Sixth Brigade, too, was being page 208 severely mauled. The 19th could expect no better treatment and at least 50 per cent casualties were likely. But at all costs Ed Duda must be reached before morning. The advance would begin at 9.30 p.m. The whole operation would be a severe test and would call for the utmost effort from everyone. Only fit men would be allowed to attempt the task; those who for any reason might not make the distance were to be left behind.
The ‘I’ section under Lieutenant Thodey moved out at once to the start line to lay guide tapes. Company commanders went back to their troops to brief them for the operation; reserve ammunition, anti-tank rifles, etc., were loaded on to a company truck. The 3-inch mortars were carefully packed on Bren carriers and, with all preliminary work done, the 19th settled down to wait for zero hour.
The wait was not free from apprehension, though there was a good omen for the attack when a German reconnaissance plane was shot down in Taranaki Company’s area, on the extreme left flank of the battalion position, as that company began to move in. By 9 p.m. all companies were on the start line, and during the cold half hour spent there three shells landing right on the tape made it appear as if the attack had been spotted before it had begun. It was a chilly night and the troops, lying behind a low sandy ridge, were unusually silent. Except for the sound of blowing on cold hands and the impatient whirring of the engines of the ten Bren carriers and the fourteen tanks, there was a complete absence of the usual sounds associated with so large a body of men. It was an eerie wait.
The experiences of those who took part in this attack varied considerably. Some encountered brief but fierce opposition which was dealt with by bayonet charges; some saw numbers of prisoners surrender; some stumbled over an enemy artillery position; others saw no action at all except the criss-crossing of tracer on their flanks and in the rear. As the advance went on it was evident that the roar of the oncoming tanks had chilled the spines of the enemy; their opposition was negligible and their firing wild. In underground shelters the ‘invincible German infantry’ and their Italian allies cowered, too demoralised in many cases to come out when called upon to surrender. Those off the main axis of the advance waited till the tanks had passed then fired frantically into the rear, expecting (as was normal) that the infantry would be following some distance behind.
The enemy casualties were considerable—ours were nil. Though there was no time to stop or to go back to mop up, page 210 bayonets were used effectively throughout the advance, and grenades were tossed into each trench or dugout and under each enemy truck. The prisoners were all disarmed and waved back towards Zaafran. On the way some New Zealanders, plus a few men from armoured units, were released from an enemy PW cage. Much equipment was destroyed en route; in fact, the only halt made during the long march was to put out of action eight large-calibre field guns whose barrels loomed up suddenly in the track of Wellington West Coast Company. These presented a problem for the infantry, until with sledge-hammers borrowed from the tanks, they made short work of sight brackets, traversing handles and the breech-block threads.
By I a.m., breathless and almost unbelieving, the battalion found itself at Ed Duda. The moon had sunk, the night was pitch black and bitterly cold, but contact was made immediately with 1 Essex Battalion’s forward posts.
Tense, but eager to come to grips with the pockets of resistance likely to be encountered in the line of advance, we moved steadily forward. The sight of an ammunition dump going up on the ridge to our right was an inspiring one, but the advancing troops did not waver, nor were they to be deflected from their course. The fire had become heavier, and tracers pierced the advancing troops from numerous positions on the flanks.
There came the time when flanking fire had reduced in intensity, and I felt, as those who were with me felt, that we had come through and all that remained for us to do was to strike hard and fast. Small groups of prisoners appeared at odd intervals. These we pushed behind us, stopping only to blast the interiors of cut-and-covers from which stray shots were fired.
Then we literally blundered on to a group of big guns, whose barrels made grotesque outlines in the darkening sky. Bayoneted men bore grim testimony to the fact that they had been dealt with by the flanking platoons. Spiking of the guns did not hold us up for any great length of time, and we moved on.page 211
It was very late when we formed up on the ridge at Ed Duda, it may have been about 1 o’clock in the morning, and it was bitterly cold. That morning we dug in on the reverse slope of the ridge, close to what later became Tank HQ. Almost before we had time to accustom ourselves to our new surroundings, we were being heavily shelled from the escarpment in the direction of Sidi Rezegh.
The tanks had opened up the way well. They had done no firing for the flashes from their guns would have marked them out for the German anti-tank guns. Now they were on the spot to give support should the battalion be counter-attacked, and the smooth success of the operation had done much to engender confidence between our infantry and armour. In the dawn as the 19th dispersed and dug in along the east of the escarpment, each passing tank was cheered by the elated troops. The unit, tired but triumphant, now literally joined hands with the Tommies who had so recently broken out of the long-beleaguered fortress. There was some shelling immediately dawn broke and the position showed grim signs of earlier fighting on the ridge and along the El Adem road below. No time was lost in digging in. This done, almost the first order received was to clean up the litter in the area.
A quiet day was spent on the 27th. Enemy shelling and mortaring of the battalion’s positions was kept down by retaliation from Tobruk, where the British artillery replied with an effective programme of counter-battery fire. The Germans at this stage were using some heavy-calibre guns, and during the afternoon a 210-millimetre shell failing to explode on impact ricocheted round the wadi in Wellington Company’s area, then finally rolled down the slope to come to rest underneath the company truck loaded with reserve ammunition. Private Trevor Gill18 without hesitation jumped in, started up the engine, and very gingerly eased the truck away while the rest of 9 Platoon waited in their slit trenches with bated breath. However, the shell was apparently a dud for it lay dormant in the area for the rest of the unit’s stay at Ed Duda. Fragments from one of these heavy shells also damaged two of our Bren carriers and page 212 wounded Sergeant Earl Coleman19 and Private John Rippin20 (later died of wounds). The two carriers were recovered next day by Private Brian Buchanan,21 who worked on them for four hours. During the whole of the time the position was under enemy fire, and Buchanan’s cool performance out in the open not only added the carriers to our strength but gave strength to the morale of the troops in whose area this outstanding job was done.
During the day defensive positions were dug and prisoners rounded up; the day’s bag totalled 265 Germans and Italians. They no longer showed any stomach for the fight and almost eagerly hurried off to the PW cage. One of the more notable captures was a British major who had been showing considerable interest in Taranaki Company’s positions. Corporal V. C. Gordon,22 suspecting him of fifth-column activity, marched him ignominiously to Battalion Headquarters. The tank brigadier happened to be on the spot at the time and recognised the prisoner as one of his squadron commanders. He was forthwith released.
By nightfall the situation was firm. Taranaki Company was entrenched in a covering position above the roads running from Ed Duda and the Bardia-Tobruk road, while the rest of the unit dug in (or rather built stone sangars as the position was on solid rock) alongside the Essex Battalion. At Zaafran 19 Battalion’s B Echelon transport, with the remainder of the brigade transport, prepared to move into Tobruk.
At Ed Duda there had been many amusing incidents during the first day of occupation. The enemy was clearly unaware of just what had taken place, and there was considerable confusion among his transport using the route along the Trigh Capuzzo. The second-in-command Wel- page 213 lington Company (Captain Les Dugleby23) took the company cooks out on a patrol and returned shortly afterwards with a German truck, complete with driver. The unsuspecting Jerry was held up and captured as he drove blissfully along what had apparently been considered a safe route. He was only one of a big bag of 550 enemy who fell into the hands of the brigade as a result of the 19th’s night attack.
Meanwhile, five miles away to the south, another act in the bloodiest and most exhausting phase of a hard campaign was being carried through by the battle-weary battalions of 6 Brigade. Cold steel decided the issue, and despite the stubborn resistance of the well-sited, well-entrenched, and well-armed German and Italian infantry, after four days of incessant fighting they broke. Sidi Rezegh was once more clear of the enemy.
The New Zealand Division now occupied the two larger of three escarpments that stepped back from Tobruk. Fourth Brigade was established on the high ground stretching from Zaafran to Belhamed, then across the El Adem road, and was in contact with the Tobruk forces on Ed Duda. Sixth Brigade at great cost was holding Point 175 and Sidi Rezegh on the second escarpment. But from the third, southernmost escarpment the enemy still threatened these positions. His observation was good and his artillery very active, but his infantry were not happy. Intercepted wireless messages from the German commander recorded his urgent requests for armoured support. It soon became clear that Rommel and his panzers were returning from their raid into Egypt.
Fifth Brigade, still around the Bardia sector, had passed from the Division’s command and was out of wireless touch. Its determined stand on the 27th and the overrunning of its headquarters by the German armour at Sidi Azeiz were not learned of till later.
On the 28th the first German panzers attacked British armour protecting the southern flank of the Division, and page 214 the armoured battle swung southwards. Lorried infantry attacked the Division late the same afternoon. On the 29th the capture of General von Ravenstein by the ‘I’ section of 21 Battalion led to a clear appreciation of what was in store. The General’s marked maps and official documents gave away the enemy’s intention. The captured plans showed that there was little time for counter preparation, and the situation in the area held by 6 Brigade, whose decimated units were battalions in little more than name, was extremely grave. The success of 4 Brigade’s operations had removed the immediate threat from the north, but from the west, south, and east the whole sector was open and vulnerable to the enemy’s renewed offensive.
On the morning of 28 November orders were received by liaison officer from Tobruk Force headquarters to the effect that the enemy was using a desert road between the Trigh Capuzzo and Ed Duda and that 19 Battalion would, with the assistance of a squadron of I tanks, deny him this route. Accordingly, at 10 a.m. a force commanded by Major McLauchlan and consisting of Wellington Company (Major Woolcott) and Wellington West Coast Company (Captain Williams), plus some headquarters personnel, set out with three I tanks in support to cut the Trigh Capuzzo and establish a ‘box’ across the route. By 11.30 the force had advanced towards Sidi Rezegh and was in sight of some troops which were believed to be part of 6 Brigade. Just before contact was established a wireless message was received calling off the operation and ordering the force to return to Ed Duda with all speed. From the headquarters position at Ed Duda a large enemy concentration, including armour, was seen moving west. It was quickly decided that McLauchlan’s force should come in, not only for its own protection, but also because it would be needed if an attack developed against the Ed Duda position.
During the march back enemy artillery and mortars fired on the force, and Captain Williams, marching at the rear of his company, was killed. The same shell also wounded his orderly-room clerk, Lance-Corporal Green,24 who subse- page 215 quently died in hospital in Egypt. The death of Errol Williams was a severe blow to the unit. He had been the 19th’s first adjutant. His own rigid standards of duty and discipline, his superb physical fitness and the jealousy with which he guarded it, were an inspiration to the 800-odd men over whom, by personal example and official appointment, he was able to exercise so splendid an influence. An officer of the New Zealand Staff Corps, he epitomised the highest qualities of the traditional British soldier, and as a man amongst men his code and character earned for him a respect far deeper than that derived through mere rank. His company buried him in the open desert at Ed Duda and, together with the whole unit, mourned the loss of a leader and a friend. His unselfish and unswerving devotion to duty and to the unit he loved left a permanent mark in the battalion which, collectively and individually, was richer by reason of his service with it.
His dog ‘Major’ maintained a pathetic vigil below the ridge over which he had last seen his master disappear. He refused to be moved until at last word came for withdrawal to Baggush, then he took his accustomed place on the Company Headquarters’ pick-up and for the rest of his service stayed staunchly loyal to Wellington West Coast Company. On return to Ed Duda the company was taken over by Captain Les Dugleby.
The afternoon of 28 November began with a confusion of orders and counter-orders, for it became apparent that the German counter-offensive was developing and reports of enemy troop concentrations were beginning to pour in from all points. The sally made towards Sidi Rezegh during the morning had revealed a strong movement of German artillery from west to east above that feature. Large concentrations of enemy armour were reported both from the north-east and south-west. Rommel was about to strike.
At 3 p.m. sudden orders were issued for a force from the battalion to move to the north of Belhamed, to be ready to occupy a position on the high ground around Zaafran. Hawke’s Bay and Taranaki Companies were hurriedly taken out of their areas and, together with part of Headquarters page 216 Company and Battalion Headquarters, set off under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell for the new area. They pulled out in small groups for the enemy was shelling the area steadily, and the obvious withdrawal of a large force might have had disastrous results had it been observed. Once beneath the escarpment, however, the force was joined by tanks and shook out into a dispersed formation. The tanks led, Hawke’s Bay Company followed at 600 yards distance, then came Battalion Headquarters, Taranaki Company, and the Headquarters Company detachment. At 5 p.m. a halt was called and a defensive position laid out below the escarpment north of Belhamed.
Some nearby caves provided part of the force with the best and most comfortable cover the tired men had encountered throughout the campaign. They crowded in, brewed up, and settled down for a well-deserved sleep—but their rest was shortlived. At 10 p.m. a runner arrived from Brigade ordering the move to Zaafran without delay. The enemy’s armour was known to be approaching the area in which the battalion was lying up, so rubbing the sleep from their eyes, the troops stumbled on once more towards the 4 Brigade position, arriving just after 1 a.m.
For the rest of the campaign the 19th was divided into two groups. Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell’s force at Zaafran was known as ‘Zaaforce’, and those left at Ed Duda under command of Major McLauchlan as ‘Dudaforce’.
‘Zaaforce’ had scarcely completed moving off when, at 3.13 p.m., the German artillery put down a heavy ‘stonk’ on the Ed Duda positions, and this was followed by an attack with tanks and infantry. The main weight of the assault, which was kept up till 7 p.m., was taken by 1 Essex Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel E. Nichols, DSO, MC. Their positions, laboriously constructed in solid rock, gave poor protection, but from them they fought gallantly until, after a period of fierce shelling by the tanks and the artillery, their FDLs were penetrated. The enemy success was shortlived, however, for during the afternoon two companies from a veteran Australian battalion from Tobruk were moved up, and at 9 p.m., supported by Matilda tanks, went page 217 in with the bayonet and dislodged the enemy. During the engagement Wellington and Wellington West Coast Companies were switched into the areas vacated by ‘Zaaforce’, which meanwhile had got into position on Trigh Zaafran in reinforcement of the main 4 Brigade Group.
The German counter-attack on the Sidi Rezegh-Belhamed sector was building up to a climax. The prospects facing the defenders were not good. Supplies of 25-pounder ammunition were desperately low and both 4 and 6 Field Regiments had had considerable casualties. The 1st South African Brigade which was expected to relieve the remaining battle-weary troops of 6 Brigade had not arrived. General Freyberg’s report to the Corps Commander stated that ‘the situation was most difficult.’ The rearrangement of the small forces to meet the expected assault was undertaken during the night, which passed quietly, but by the light of his many flares it was obvious that the enemy was busy with preparations for an offensive on the following day.
At Ed Duda 29 November was a slack day. There was little shelling and the enemy did not put in an appearance. At Point 175, however, the enemy struck and by a ruse overwhelmed the remnants of 21 Battalion. At Belhamed the timely arrival of a convoy of 300 vehicles, including tanks, under command of Colonel Clifton put fresh heart into the defenders and built up the depleted supplies of ammunition urgently needed by the whole Division.
That afternoon Battalion Headquarters personnel with ‘Dudaforce’ co-operated with the tanks and rounded up 350 prisoners, said by the Italian major captured with them to be the remnants of a battalion. The roar of British bombers and fighters passing overhead during the day cheered the troops in all sectors. The panzers moving into position to attack were not being permitted to manœuvre unmolested. From Corps Headquarters came orders which concluded: ‘The corridor [to Tobruk] will be kept open at all costs.’ The initiative lay with Rommel. His artillery now harassed all sectors, but his probing thrusts that evening against Ed Duda and Belhamed were driven off.page 218
At Ed Duda during the evening an attempt was made by Wellington and Wellington West Coast Companies to relieve the Australians who had successfully dealt with the German break-in the previous day. The shelling, however, was too intense and the changeover did not take place until next day. These two companies of 19 Battalion then passed to the command of 1 Essex Battalion. The unit mortars (Lieutenant Simpson) and Bren carriers and two anti-tank guns were then grouped as a light mobile force under Major McLauchlan and stood by to assist wherever required.
‘Zaaforce’, now back on one of the positions the battalion had held earlier at Zaafran, took under command two platoons of Buffs (Major Lewis), five anti-tank guns of an English artillery regiment (Major Foster), the remainder of 5 Field Park Company NZE (Captain Dick Pemberton25), plus some Brigade Headquarters personnel.
At daylight on the 30th the Ariete Division appeared over the escarpment en masse; it halted and for some time was thought to be the long-expected South African brigade. When the force was recognised, however, the gunners fired a divisional concentration, and the huge congestion of transport was mercilessly hammered. The Italians fled in precipitate confusion, leaving behind a collection of burning trucks and a couple of brewed-up tanks. Several enemy approaches towards the Belhamed-Zaafran position during the day were put into reverse by the excellent work of the guns. But the enemy artillery now had good observation of the New Zealand Division’s defences and kept all areas under fire.
That afternoon Rommel struck in force. After a desperate fight 24 and 26 Battalions were overrun and Sidi Rezegh fell before the overwhelming weight of the attacking armour. Features which dominated the Trigh Capuzzo were now in the hands of the enemy; it remained only for him to eliminate the 4 Brigade positions and so cut the corridor to Tobruk. As the German-Italian forces were page 219 moved into position, 4 and 6 Field Regiments dealt with anything coming within range of their guns. The New Zealand Artillery in this campaign earned a reputation for courage, fortitude, and professional skill which every infantryman who fought with them endorsed. Against all odds—and the odds were tremendous—they served their guns and, if need be, kept them firing till the last round and the last gun. At Zaafran their guns were sited right among the forward posts and this was the first opportunity that many infantrymen had had to watch the gunners at work.
Next morning the German tanks and infantry returned early to the offensive. At daybreak ‘Zaaforce’ repulsed a sharp attack by enemy armour. At 7.15a.m. more tanks were seen approaching 20 Battalion’s lines and both tanks and infantry were attacking north from Sidi Rezegh towards Belhamed spur. By 7.30 the enemy had overwhelmed the 20th, which had suffered heavily in the repeated attacks. The end came about twenty-five minutes to eight when a wireless message advised: ‘We are surrounded. Send ….’ The call was never finished. The infantry were then engaging tanks at close range in an endeavour to stem an attack that would drive a wedge into the line between the feature and Brigade Headquarters. The majority of the survivors were taken prisoner, including Brigadier Miles, CRA NZ Division, who had been wounded.
The German armoured attack took in the 6 Brigade advanced dressing station and 6 Field Regiment’s gun positions and Divisional Battle Headquarters on the slopes of Belhamed. Battle Headquarters hastily evacuated to 4 Brigade Headquarters at Zaafran but had many casualties. The situation rapidly deteriorated, and at 10.30 a.m. 4 Brigade Headquarters joined 19 Battalion at Zaafran. ‘Zaaforce’s’ B Echelon and the 4 RMT vehicles attached to the battalion were sent off to Tobruk, and the position was organised for all-round defence. The area was under constant shellfire, but excellent shooting by the guns of 4 Field Regiment discouraged any further enemy advances, though tanks in hull-down positions harassed the defenders with accurate and devastating fire.page 220
It was during this difficult period that that diminutive but indomitable despatch rider Ken Rieper26 happened, when delivering a message to one of the companies, to hear a call for a stretcher-bearer. Without hesitation he went out and helped to bring in the wounded man, then went away on his official duties back to Battalion Headquarters. This prompt action was typical of his deeds in earlier campaigns, where his cheerfulness and complete disregard for his own safety had already made him a popular figure throughout the battalion. He was awarded the MM in recognition of this and similar exploits.
At this critical juncture a large force of tanks was seen advancing down Sidi Rezegh escarpment, and while the hard-pressed New Zealanders still debated their identity, enemy artillery went into action against them. It was now possible to recognise, through the thick pall of dust enveloping the movement, the double pennant recognition signal of the British armour. These tanks came right in to 6 Brigade Headquarters’ area and the situation in that sector was instantly transformed. The remnants of that hard-fighting brigade rallied to a man. Infantry, gunners, drivers and orderlies from the brigade’s B Echelon surged forward ready to attack.
Then the British armour came to a halt. With dismay Brigadier Barrowclough27 heard from the tank brigadier that his orders were to cover the withdrawal of 6 Brigade. Orders were orders. Barrowclough was forced to accept the position and the withdrawal to Zaafran began. The tanks took complete control of the retirement, and it was unfortunate that they chose as the route out the wadi between Point 175 and the blockhouse on Sidi Rezegh, for the brigade suffered heavy casualties before it got back on to the safe route and finally arrived at Zaafran. Coming page 221 through the 19 Battalion area the indomitable group clearly demonstrated that they were still cheerful, full of fight and in good order.
About midday a column from the Ariete Division, which earlier had fled under the battering it had received from our artillery, approached from the east. It was led by an officer on a motor-cycle who, when captured by one of our Bren carriers and taken to Taranaki Company’s forward position, admitted that his convoy was lost. Dividing into two groups, this column demonstrated convincingly that it had no hostile intention. One group was content to continue on in the direction of the battalion positions. Of these, twenty-four trucks were captured while others escaped to the east again. The other group pushed on southwards and eventually lost fifteen large covered trucks to the Divisional Cavalry.
With the withdrawal of 6 Brigade complete General Freyberg conferred with his infantry brigadiers and it was decided that the Division should take advantage of the protection afforded by Brigadier Gatehouse’s tanks and break through to the south-east in the direction of Capuzzo in search of some safe area where it could regroup. The enemy was still maintaining a solid pressure on the eastern slopes of Belhamed where the remnants of 4 Brigade had been kept in action all day, but at nightfall no new activity developed and the division was able to form up in desert formation and begin its move to the south-east. The enemy made only half-hearted attempts to prevent the withdrawal, and 6 Brigade, which acted as rearguard, had little difficulty in disengaging and joining the column. The night march was without incident, and after crossing the escarpment the Division came within the protective screen of the British armoured brigade patrols. So ended the Libyan campaign of 1941 for the main body of 4 and 6 NZ Infantry Brigades.
The Duce’s men had lent an ironical turn to the closing stages of the Sidi Rezegh drama. While the New Zealanders were waiting in their positions at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed for the final blow to fall, many weary, browned-off Italians struggled into the lines to give themselves up before they page 222 became further involved. They had had enough. The crowning touch was added by the Italian prisoners held by 6 Brigade at the time the final withdrawal was ordered. With barely sufficient transport to carry the diminished strength of the two New Zealand brigades, it was decided to turn all prisoners loose. Their own forces were but a short stroll away on Belhamed, and just before the move they were liberated. Next morning, after a long night march, the brigade awoke to find some of its erstwhile guests still with them. Before the New Zealand column was lost to sight in the darkness, the Italians had set to work on a damaged enemy truck and trailer and, quickly putting them in running order, set off in pursuit of their captors, determined to stay with them rather than face further hostilities.
It was a bitterly cold night, but it is doubtful if many of the occupants of the crowded three-tonners were more than faintly aware of it. Tired bodies gave up the struggle as soon as the trucks began to move. Enveloped by sleep so sorely needed, they were oblivious to the cold and the rough route over which the columns jolted.
The Division’s withdrawal had been made in nine columns 30 yards apart. Taranaki Company led the battalion, and when 58 miles had been covered in wind and rain a halt was made at Bir Gibni. The plan from then on was to continue the march until the original area in the Baggush Box was reached. The next four days were spent on the move. On the first night the column laagered four miles east of the Wire and from then on the route was through Bir Khimia and Bir Haquna, on through Mersa Matruh and so to Baggush. For the spent troops crowded in the trucks it was a cold, weary, and uncomfortable journey, but nevertheless it was also a sterling performance on the part of the drivers.
The 19th Battalion regained its position east of the tank trap in J sector in the middle of a vicious winter sandstorm. Its area had been wrecked and stripped by other units settling in elsewhere. It was a disheartening homecoming to the tired troops, and the first few days were spent in page 223 re-erecting shelters so vital to health and comfort in the severe winter weather and in preparing for the reception of the rest of the unit which had remained at Ed Duda.
The union of British and New Zealand troops under one command at Ed Duda was an historic one and the 19th’s association with the Essex Regiment was most happy. Lieutenant-Colonel Nichols kept his command constantly active, and though for the remainder of the stay at Ed Duda it was not destined to play an important part in the campaign, ‘Dudaforce’ of the 19th saw plenty of action and took its part in beating off the waning enemy attacks against the garrison of Tobruk. Offensive patrolling by day and night and work on improving their defensive positions kept the companies fully employed. On 1 December mines and wire were put out in front of the positions. Many of these mines were without primers, and though they stopped no tanks several trucks came to grief on the live ones. The following day, despite the fact that Ed Duda was being shelled from 270 degrees of the compass, patrols from the battalion were successful in destroying some enemy vehicles and capturing fifty prisoners.
At 6.45 a.m. on 3 December the enemy, under cover of artillery, launched an attack against the Essex positions. Assisted by machine guns of the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Essex Regiment inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers, who withdrew three hours later. At three o’clock that afternoon the German infantry again returned to probe the Ed Duda defences. They pushed up between the left flank of the Border Regiment and the right flank of 18 Battalion. The Border Regiment put in a valiant but unsuccessful counter-attack, and it was not until evening that the arrival of a squadron of I tanks forced the enemy to withdraw. During this engagement the armour was severely handled by the enemy 88-millimetre anti-tank guns and lost ten tanks.
This attack was the last real enemy threat to the position. That night rum (the first 19 Battalion had had during this campaign) was issued to all ranks. Thereafter at Ed Duda page 224 the rum issue was regular, and though at first welcomed, much was finally left untouched for our men found that the poor rations gave an inadequate foundation for strong waters, and many preferred to leave their issue rather than risk a bout of indigestion.
From 4 to 6 December the Ed Duda position remained stable though the enemy shelling was continuous. It was obvious that the enemy was withdrawing westwards. Their vehicles were continually engaged by our artillery and machine guns, while our infantry and Bren carrier patrols did good work and brought back a constant stream of prisoners. An abandoned enemy base camp towards Trigh Capuzzo yielded good bags, for from time to time German foraging parties attempting to retrieve rations and supplies were rounded up by our men, who pushed out patrols 6000 yards south of their position and kept constant pressure on the retiring enemy forces. Naturally these patrols too foraged effectively and were able to bring back a good deal of enemy food. Water—the most pressing need—was unobtainable, but they did collect many bottles of Italian eau-de-cologne. This made a most refreshing sponge down —always provided that the scented variety was avoided.
From this abandoned German camp came a small dog which was in time to become a battalion personality. ‘Duda’, bewildered, deserted and very hungry, was brought back by a patrol, fed, petted and comfortably accommodated. She displayed nothing but gratitude and obviously had no qualms of conscience about changing sides. In time her offspring were spread throughout the whole Division, for she had numerous litters. Whether any of these were sired by ‘Major’ was never really proved—at all events she was discouraged in any attempts to fraternise with officers. ‘Duda’ was an ORs’ dog; in status, sex, and official standing she could not compare with the No. 1 Dog of the Division, but she did outlive him and was brought home to New Zealand, where she ended her days in the care of her last custodian at his home in Dunedin.
A patrol from Wellington West Coast Company going out on the morning of 7 December located enemy infantry page 225 along the escarpment to the west of Ed Duda, and an attack by the Border Regiment and the Durham Light Infantry dislodged them. Thereafter the area was quiet and next day all enemy action against the position ceased. Some of our men now visited the scene of 6 Brigade’s valiant stand at Sidi Rezegh. Grim evidence of the fury of the fighting could still be seen. The dead were unburied; many were still in their fighting slits surrounded by empty shell and cartridge cases. They had fallen with their weapons still in their hands. The gallant stand by this New Zealand brigade had cost the enemy casualties from which he never recovered; the doggedness and bravery of our men had contributed largely to the retreat of the Axis forces.
After two days of well-earned respite ‘Dudaforce’ came under command of 18 Battalion. In saying goodbye, the CO of 1 Essex spoke highly of the work our men had done, and later Colonel Hartnell received the following letter from the Colonel of the Essex Regiment:
United Services Club,
19 NZ Battalion,
Middle East Forces.
Dear Colonel Hartnell,
I have just received an account from the Commanding Officer of the 1st Bn, the Essex Regiment, of the operations carried out at the end of November and the beginning of December last year at Ed Duda.
Colonel (now Brigadier) Nichols tells me how greatly indebted he is to you and the men of your Battalion for the great assistance given him at a critical period of the operations.
As Colonel of the Essex Regiment may I thank you very much indeed for what you and your Battalion did, and may I add the hope that this intimate connection between you and my Regiment, born on the battlefield, may be continued in years to come under peace conditions.
Wishing you all good luck, and with kind regards,
(Sgnd.) G. W. Howard, Lieut.-General,
Colonel of the Essex Regiment.
(Lieut.-General Sir Geoffrey W. Howard, KCB, CMG, DSO.)
All ranks of the 19th who were associated with the Essex Regiment held them in very high regard, and the unit’s small part alongside the defenders of Tobruk is an episode of which it is justly proud. It was a privilege to work with these gallant British troops and there were many incidents during the stay at Ed Duda which lightened the tension of the desert battle. The ‘Vicar of Tobruk’, Padre Quinn, MC, was a regular visitor to the lines, holding divine service in the area and distributing copies of the Tobruk Truth. The battalion’s collection of war souvenirs was good, and all ranks had some trifle once belonging to the Afrika Korps to remind them of the Axis’ defeat. The heavier items included several of the distinctive German motor-cycle combinations.
So ended the Ed Duda episode. With 18 Battalion, ‘Dudaforce’ was withdrawn to the eastern perimeter of the fortress where, picking up the transport which had been held back for it, the journey to Baggush began. The column left Tobruk on 11 December and rejoined the battalion two days later.
* * *
For the two New Zealand brigades, who with the British armour and attached troops had at the approaches to Tobruk defied 15 and 21 German Armoured Divisions and the Axis infantry, it had been a memorable campaign. Though they had eventually lost Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, the New Zealanders had wrought such havoc in the ranks of Rommel’s forces that his temporary advantage was not worth the final cost. Tobruk had been relieved; the campaign was closing, and of the New Zealanders only 5 Brigade remained in the Desert engaged in final clearing-up operations. Both sides were now back on the defensive, preparing to face as best they could the formidable problems of the next round.
The high hopes held early in the campaign were realised only in part and only after very heavy sacrifices. The battles so largely dominated by armour showed clearly the disadvantages under which our army was fighting. The panzers’ system of field maintenance and recovery was page 227 superior to ours, and the anti-tank guns which supported the German armour had caused many casualties among our tanks which, once hit, could seldom be recovered. It was clear that these material factors, plus the enemy commander’s appreciation of the high importance of the principle of concentration of force and his skilful integration of all arms in battle where armour was employed, had given him a distinct advantage over Eighth Army.
To the individual soldier the campaign had been more confused even than Crete. Lack of knowledge of what was taking place, not only in other areas but even between units in the same brigade, left little individual appreciation of real objectives. There was bewilderment over many of the moves backwards and forwards across the battle area. Nevertheless the New Zealand Division had every reason to be proud of its performance. The actions fought during the advance and the difficult days spent at Sidi Rezegh, Belhamed, Ed Duda, and Zaafran had clearly demonstrated both its efficiency and doggedness. The Germans themselves, writing of the campaign, referred to ‘the skilful New Zealanders’.
The swift succession of events; the lack of pattern; the uncertainty of identification, indecision, then sudden, hurried movements; all these made the campaign a mad, disjointed medley. These highlights and shadows will remain always with those who took part: the grand moves of MT; the comforting roar of RAF aircraft in the skies; the misery of bitter nights and days spent on the defensive in the unfriendly wastes; the scanty and almost undrinkable water; the sorry plight of the prisoners; the mad scramble behind tanks during the attack and the indomitable spirit which pervaded the whole force even on the most difficult days. It was clear to all that this round had been indecisive. Rommel’s difficulties, aggravated by lack of adequate air support, tended to offset his advantage in armour. The Afrika Korps was respectfully regarded for the skill and stamina it had shown in the fight just ended. But at Baggush as the ‘sitreps’ followed the enemy’s retreat, few doubted that Rommel would come again.page 228
Four thousand five hundred and ninety-four New Zealanders—almost a quarter of the force that passed through the Wire into Libya on that bleak November night, were lost in the campaign. The 19th Battalion had been most fortunate; it suffered less than any other infantry unit in the Division. Thirteen men of the battalion gave their lives: seven were killed in action, and six died of wounds or went down in the Chakdina when this ship, carrying wounded from Tobruk, was sunk by air attack while en route for Alexandria. The roll of wounded totalled only seventeen, and when the unit check-up was complete there were none of the 19th men unaccounted for. The untiringly cheerful and courageous work of the RMO, Captain Bill Carswell, not only in this campaign but during Greece and Crete, earned him the respect and confidence of all ranks. His award of an immediate MC was a popular and well deserved decoration.
In this campaign the Division had demonstrated its ability as a hard-hitting, mobile striking force. Transport had naturally played a most important part, and the New Zealanders in Eighth Army earned an excellent record for the handling, care, and recovery of their vehicles. In this regard it is notable that 19 Battalion operated throughout without one truck leaving the unit for write-off or repair. The MT personnel worked hard—they also worked miracles —for ‘Baldy’s Circus’ were a stout team. Some attributed their stamina to a sack of onions captured at Gambut by Private Jim Kellor,28 which thereafter became a savoury and appetising addition to their bully and biscuit ration. At all events Captain F. M. Stewart, Staff-Sergeant ‘Baldy’ Williamson,29 Sergeant Mick Castelli,30 Corporal ‘Pop’ Luckin,31 Privates ‘Bull’ Scott,32 Johnny Trye,33 Frank page 229 Beresford34 and each truck driver gave stalwart service under most trying conditions: they toiled skilfully and slept little and so kept every 19th truck in going order for the duration of the campaign. The 4th RMT drivers, too, attached to the unit with their three-tonners, added to the already high regard in which the ‘Colonial Carrying Company’ was held by the infantry.
Back at Baggush discussion over the last fortnight’s events was spirited and healthy. At Divisional Headquarters conferences of senior officers studied the campaign in retrospect; in dugouts in unit areas, officers, NCOs, and men met officially and unofficially to the same end.
General Freyberg’s order of the day struck a note which echoed the sentiments of the whole of his Division:
The test for troops is whether they can ‘take it’ and fight back. For the first time in this war, the odds were almost even, and we had a chance to fight back. Nobody, I hope, doubted it. This is the acid test of war, a test the Germans have still to go through. An interesting phase has been reached in the struggle for history appears to be repeating itself. The last war was an arty war. Then as now the Germans had a long start and during the earlier years they hammered us unmercifully. Later on when we had the guns and the men, the Germans became the receivers and took refuge underground like rabbits. They could not ‘take it’. This time it is a tank war in which they again had a big lead in the equipment race. But the time is coming when the tide will turn. When it does the Germans will have to show that they can ‘take it’. The experience of this campaign makes me feel certain that they can’t.
Rommel’s retreat was followed with satisfaction by all ranks and the published accounts of the battles in the past campaign were eagerly read in the NZEF Times. This newspaper supplied a marked want and every feature was read, studied and discussed. Still, the overall picture—the actual reason for the enemy’s withdrawal—was none too clear to the individual soldier, and the summing up of one man, though somewhat sweeping, gave a synopsis of the campaign which quickly found almost universal approval page 230 and was widely quoted: ‘Jerry was mucked about and we were mucked about, but we were more used to it!’
The Germans always make to the highest ground and once there it is very difficult to push them off for they dig in and deploy large numbers of anti-tank weapons.
It was found that motorised columns could move under desert conditions over long distances by night—we always caught the enemy unprepared and created favourable opportunities for the use of armoured forces but we were never sufficiently strong to follow them up.
There is in our view a general demand for an armoured gun for close support of tanks, in a tank or on a chassis which can keep up with tanks. It was found that the enemy destroyed our tanks before his were within our effective range (800 to 1,000 yds). He was penetrating our tanks at 1,500 yds.
Owing to the heavy armament of the Germans our tactics have been on the hit and run principle. To be able to deal effectively with German armoured Divs we require an armoured gun and a tank mounting a heavier weapon than a two-pounder.
Truly ‘death was a difficult trade’, and if we appeared to lag in the learning it was only because twenty years of peace had led to a lack of material preparation. So far the progress of the war had been little to our liking and not often in our favour. As the second phase of the Desert campaign was closing, Japan joined the Axis, but her attack on Pearl Harbour brought to the British side a formidable ally. On 8 December the United States declared war, but Great Britain, whose arms had for two years withstood the assaults of the enemy in Europe and North Africa, had still to face hard times on many fronts.
The battalion’s stay at Baggush in uncomfortable conditions and execrable weather was a provoking experience. After action, the bright lights of Cairo and the comforts of Base were beckoning. Leave was hoped for, even expected, but the Western Desert operations were not yet over and page 231 Baggush was still a defence area across the route to Cairo. The Box must be manned, and meanwhile training began again with only a brief interruption for Christmas and New Year celebrations.
Christmas was an unqualified success for the preparations made had had no parallel in any previous feast planned by the unit. Firstly, there was a seemingly inexhaustible stock of Australian beer, then the unit funds were generously used to acquire supplies of victuals fit to grace the occasion, and finally National Patriotic Fund Board parcels arrived.
On Christmas Eve a brisk 10-mile route march whetted the thirst of all ranks, and when the battalion returned to Baggush that evening there was an auspicious opening to the celebration. Next morning was dull and overcast; a morning of hangovers and no reveille. For most men Christmas dinner was their first meal of the day, but the cooks had excelled themselves and the fare they provided was attacked with zest by those who had for several months found sustenance chiefly from a bully-beef tin. Pork, turkey, Christmas pudding, nuts, cake, and all the traditional trimmings were served. The helpings were large and returns were welcomed. It was an occasion of good fellowship among all ranks, rich in the true spirit of Christmas and losing nothing by reason of its incongruous surroundings.
Boxing Day brought a reluctant route march and the rest of the month passed with routine training and work as usual. Revelry, however, broke out again on New Year’s Eve, and the New Zealand sector of the Baggush Box turned on a midnight mock battle which roused neighbouring units into frenzied preparations for repelling an unexpected enemy attack. All offensive weapons from the 25-pounders of the artillery to the rifles and pistols of the infantry were fired frantically into the night as a welcome to 1942.
So the New Year dawned, and in the Egyptian Desert as the din died down many men from New Zealand spent the first hours of 1942 linked in thought with home. Hopes for the future were high, but fate and the Axis had not yet finished with the unit.
5 Left out of battle.
27 Maj-Gen Rt Hon Sir Harold Barrowclough, PC, KCMG, CB, DSO* and bar, MC,* ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US), Croix de Guerre*; Wellington; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915–19 (CO 4 Bn); commanded 7 NZ Inf Bde in UK, 1940; 6 Bde, 1 May 1940–21 Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and GOC 3 NZ Div, 8 Aug 1942–20 Oct 1944; Chief Justice of New Zealand.