20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 7 — Campaign in Libya
Campaign in Libya
At 1.30 p.m. on 21 November the battalion began a long move northwards at the head of 4 Brigade, which had been given the task of cutting the road between Bardia and Tobruk. Light rain fell about 5.30 p.m., making the going very heavy. The country had become waterlogged after a storm a few nights earlier and many trucks bogged and had to be pulled out by the Bren carriers. Near Sidi Azeiz about midnight a deep trench—most probably an anti-tank ditch—hindered progress. After a desperate struggle most of the convoy crossed, but when 240 vehicles were found to be missing the brigade halted till 1.30 a.m. Pushing northwards again, the convoy at 5 a.m. reached a point within half a mile of Bir ez Zemla and a mile west of Menastir. The brigade halted and shook out into its daytime formation.
The CO ordered A Company to go down the escarpment on foot to cut the road and break communication between Bardia and Tobruk but not to damage the surface of the road. B Company was to patrol the area on top of the escarpment, which at this point was some 150 to 200 feet high.
A Company moved up to and almost over the escarpment in trucks; Major Mitchell's truck actually put two wheels over and had to be towed back. The company at once debussed and moved down—7 Platoon first in extended order under Lieutenant Dunne,1 followed by 8 and 9 Platoons. Reaching the bottom the company formed up, 7 Platoon extended in front, 8 and 9 Platoons in section files in the rear. A Company was completely out on its own. There was wireless silence till dawn, no telephone communication, and no support could be expected before daylight.
At the bottom of the escarpment the company found tents and trucks from a German divisional workshops. The platoons passed through and moved on about 1000 yards to the road, page 169 wheeled right, and advanced about 500 yards until they found a crossroads and cut the telephone wires. Company Headquarters was sited in camouflaged positions already prepared by the enemy. No. 7 Platoon was astride the road and facing Bardia, 8 Platoon facing north astride the crossroads, and 9 Platoon facing west towards Tobruk. The company was on the outskirts of a field hospital which had been evacuated, and from which valuable equipment was obtained and later handed to the MO.
Platoons were in position by daylight, and soon afterwards an enemy truck which approached from Bardia was engaged by 7 Platoon. During the day eight or nine trucks from Bardia and two or three from Tobruk were shot up. The last truck captured in the afternoon was A6 which had been left in Greece. It had been repaired and used by the Germans; Captain Washbourn's respirator was found to be still hanging in the cab. One shot had damaged the steering gear but it was repaired by the carrier platoon. The truck was used by the battalion throughout the campaign and returned afterwards to Baggush. All captured trucks were hidden in a depression.page 170
At 10 a.m. Major Mitchell, with one section from each platoon, moved off to the west to clear out any pockets of enemy along the escarpment. Two sections of carriers had gone down to the road to support the company and to sweep between the road and the sea, three miles away. One carrier ran over a mine, the driver being wounded, and another capsized while going down the escarpment but was later righted without damage. Several Italian trucks, destroyed by A Company, were dragged off the road by the carriers. From some of these the men obtained food, liquor, and tobacco. It was obvious that the enemy had been completely surprised—‘the stretch of country we overlooked resembled a disturbed ant's nest,’ wrote the Brigade Commander—but there was still a good deal to do.
B Company soon after first light was ordered to move down the escarpment and mop up between it and the road, where there were groups of enemy and trucks dug into pens. The company moved off quickly and the enemy appeared to be too surprised to offer much resistance. In a wadi below the escarpment were three small lorries, used as German officers' quarters. Before the attack all companies had been informed of the types of enemy equipment likely to be of use to the intelligence section and great stress had been laid on the value of maps, particularly of the Agedabia area. One of the trucks contained maps and air photographs which were duly handed over to the ‘I’ section. Another, which had evidently been abandoned in great haste, contained a large payroll and mail from Germany.
Half a mile to the east on the edge of the escarpment was a group of tents, more transport, and some flurried enemy troops. While B Company was busy below the escarpment, D Company was ordered to go right up to the camp in its lorries and go in with the bayonet. This was done and the men debussed and moved in extended order through the tented area, but the occupants had decamped 500 yards ahead of the attackers, just as it was growing light enough to see them. The company then turned left, moved down the escarpment, and engaged enemy across the flat to the north, firing as targets appeared. Approximately forty prisoners were captured; some of them were forced to part with their braces, partly to hinder any attempts to escape and partly to meet the needs of some of our own men who had recently been issued with new battledress but with no braces.page 171
C Company, meanwhile, had been held in reserve. The area towards Bardia appeared to be clear but there were still some enemy troops west of A Company—a hastily-formed battle group under a Captain Briel charged with covering the evacuation of 21 Panzer Division's supply dumps. The CO then ordered C Company to go down and mop up these parties and warned the gunners to be ready to give support. C Company moved down the escarpment and was crossing the flat when heavy rain fell, turning the surface into a clay bog. Suddenly six armoured half-track carriers appeared from the direction of Tobruk and the company was pinned down by the fire of their 20-millimetre cannon and by machine-gun fire. Platoons continued to advance by fire and movement, crossing the fireswept road towards the camp west of A Company. Sergeant Bob May,2 commanding 15 Platoon, reported AFVs approaching along tracks north of the road. It was obviously impossible to go further over the flat ground in front without incurring heavy casualties. In addition, most of the Brens were out of action through being clogged with mud as the men went to ground, and even rifles jammed. Captain Fountaine sent a runner to Colonel Kippenberger to ask for artillery support as the anti-tank troop was under A Company's command. There was some delay before the guns opened up, and as the enemy was closing in fast the company commander skilfully side-stepped the platoons up the tank-proof escarpment, where they re-formed. A Company was now in danger, but the artillery came into action and the enemy at once withdrew.
On going back to Brigade Headquarters Colonel Kippenberger was told to take a squadron of Valentine tanks (A Squadron 8 Royal Tanks) and counter-attack as he thought fit. About 3 p.m. the attack was repeated. The tanks moved down the steep track, faced westwards astride the road and advanced steadily, supported by fire from two field batteries. C Company followed the tanks and the enemy infantry surrendered as they were overrun. D Company mopped up the wadis along the face of the escarpment, encountering groups of enemy who surrendered readily.page 172
B Company had embussed and, with four mortars, was waiting to move west along the escarpment to cut off the enemy on the flat. The men had a grandstand view of C Company's attack and it was, to quote Lieutenant McPhail, ‘such a pretty sight that we stood up on our trucks and cheered.’ Suddenly several explosions were heard. It was then discovered that the battalion had laagered the previous night in an Italian minefield. The move westwards was made cautiously after a lane had been cleared. Apparently the tank commanders did not know the whole story, for when B Company appeared on the escarpment ready to plunge down on the enemy at the appropriate time it was engaged by the tanks' gunners and driven to cover. Finally, B, C, and D Companies, with the tank squadron, assembled on top of the escarpment. The day's ‘bag’ of prisoners totalled I German officer and 17 other ranks, 6 Italian officers and about 300 other ranks; the battalion's losses were one man (Private Hill-Rennie) killed and not more than five wounded. Rations were low but nearly all the men gave some to feed the prisoners. A Company, with some two-pounders, was left in position that night on the road.
During this action the rest of 4 Brigade had begun to move westwards to Gambut. The battalion was to be relieved next day by the 22nd and rejoin the brigade.
On the morning of 23 November advance parties of 22 Battalion arrived and were shown the 20th dispositions. Some time before 11 a.m. a truck was seen approaching A Company at high speed from the west. It proved to be driven by the com mander of the tank squadron attached to the 20th. He reported that while searching the German camp he and his sergeant-major had been made prisoner. He had escaped in his truck, but three boxes of codes and squadron records had been lost. Major Mitchell sent ten Bren carriers under Lieutenant Guthrey3 to search westwards but on no account to become engaged. The boxes were found and security preserved.
While this was happening the CO wirelessed for the carrier platoon and the attached anti-tank two-pounder section to return as the battalion was moving off immediately. A Company was to move off when relieved by a company of 22 Battal- page 173 ion. Two men were left on the escarpment with instructions for the company.
When the carrier platoon returned just before 11 a.m. it came under long-range tank fire. The carriers moved up the escarpment but the anti-tank guns, under severe fire, were unable to do so; they took up defensive positions at the foot of the escarpment, firing at 1500 yards at German tanks4 and lorried infantry which were approaching A Company and held them at bay. Everyone in the company was pleased when the 25-pounders began ranging on the enemy. The guns had been ready to move but, seeing the threat to A Company, they dropped their trails where they stood and opened rapid and accurate fire. C and D Companies were ordered to debus and move down the escarpment to support A Company, but were not to advance too far. The men were fired on as they dropped over the escarpment but were not bothered any further. When the tank squadron made its way down about a quarter past eleven the enemy hastily withdrew.
At 1.30 p.m. the battalion was ordered to move 15 miles to the south-west to meet Divisional Headquarters at Point 213 (by Bir el Hariga) on the Trigh Capuzzo, the road from Capuzzo to Tobruk. By now 22 Battalion had arrived and A Company and the tanks were hurriedly recalled. The battalion formed up in desert formation and moved off.
After a detour to avoid a camel train—in the distance it appeared a much more formidable convoy — the battalion reached Point 213 about 4 p.m. and joined Divisional Headquarters and 21 Battalion. Here General Freyberg informed the CO that 6 Brigade was heavily engaged on Sidi Rezegh, 5 Brigade was staying to contain Bardia and Sollum, and 4 Brigade, less the 20th, was by then at Gambut airfield. Divisional Headquarters with 20 and 21 Battalions was to move by night for about 30 miles and join 4 and 6 Brigades. An enemy force to the west at Gasr el Arid would have to be by-passed. This move proved to be a difficult piece of navigation. Fireworks were seen to the south-west and enemy flares of all colours were going up in all directions. The column moved warily in close desert formation. Orders were that if opposition was encountered the troops were to debus and go in with the bayonet. page 174 Some men carried their bayonets fixed in the trucks, a practice not without its dangers in crowded vehicles bumping over the uneven desert on a dark night, but no enemy was met. Halting every half-hour to check distances and bearings, Colonel Kippenberger led the convoy on a wide detour and successfully arrived at Bir el Chleta about midnight. Twenty-first Battalion took up positions on the escarpment overlooking Bir el Chleta while the rest of the group dug in and had several hours' sleep.
Soon after daylight next day, 24 November, the battalion was ordered to move to Point 172, a mile or so to the north, and link up with 4 Brigade, which was then at Gambut and preparing to move westwards, parallel with 6 Brigade's advance on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. Carriers sent out to reconnoitre a track suitable for lorries down the escarpment above Gambut encountered seven enemy armoured cars, engaged them, but were outgunned and forced to withdraw. By this time the enemy group by-passed during the night had followed up and was shelling the laager from the north-east. General Freyberg ordered the 20th to drive it away.
The battalion carriers moved a mile to the east to form a screen. The CO went out to reconnoitre and decided to make a frontal attack with tanks leading, the infantry following in their trucks, and machine guns, anti-tank guns, and carriers giving covering fire from the right flank. As this type of attack had been well practised before the campaign, though not with those particular tanks, orders were simple. The battalion was to form up in trucks with its right flank on the road, D and B Companies leading on a front of 1000 yards. C and A Companies would line up 600 yards behind them, with Battalion Headquarters and the mortar platoon immediately behind again. When the forming up was completed the tanks were to pass through in line abreast and advance at ten miles an hour on a bearing of 40 degrees, the infantry following. If the tanks were checked the infantry would debus, pass through and assault. Fourth Field Regiment would support with observed fire. In the favourite phrase of the CO, ‘speed and violence’ were the essence of the attack.
While the battalion was forming up the CO went in a carrier to Point 172, on the edge of the escarpment above Gambut. Returning to Bir el Chleta he found the tanks moving off. page 175 Unfortunately they came under fire from another enemy group to the east and, advancing on a bearing ‘more like seventy degrees than the prescribed forty’, observed the carrier platoon moving to its support position on the right flank and fired on it, knocking out two carriers.
The attack began promptly at 11.20 a.m. but the guns opened on the wrong target, the larger enemy group farther to the east. The machine-gun platoon, mortars, and the carriers had by this time got well forward and came into action, the mortars putting down an ‘area shoot’ lasting about twenty minutes. The enemy replied with guns, mortars, and automatics, whereupon the tanks swung on to their correct course, slackened speed and opened fire. Several were hit and blazed up. Others stopped but were ordered into the attack again. Meanwhile the RMT drivers, keen to ‘have a go’, were obviously enjoying themselves and drove with great dash over the stony going, page 176 disregarding the enemy fire until ordered to halt. The rifle platoons then debussed, deployed, and moved through to assault as the tanks slowed down.
When fired on the Company debussed and advanced in extended order by fire and movement. The tanks, when fired on, fanned out and slowed down, seven being hit.
Enemy fire was heavy but high, coming from armoured cars dug in and supported by machine guns. There was little cover and had the enemy range been correct their fire would have stopped the company. We proceeded to within 500 yards of the enemy when the Company Commander ordered us to halt. At this stage I called forward two mortar men, Privates W. Hanna6 and W. Jamieson.7 Estimating the range at 500 yards [the maximum for the 2-inch mortar] I told them to engage the German positions…. Considering that there was no cover whatsoever the Company's position was rather critical. However, a string of mortar bombs was laid along the enemy positions, two machine gun positions being silenced and one gun crew wounded. It was a most amazing performance for the 2-inch mortar.
At this stage the Bren carriers, which were some 400 yards to our rear advanced. Before they reached us the AFV's were retreating and the gun crews were walking forward to surrender. We did not proceed further and the Bren carriers combed the enemy position. A section of our Machine Gun Company then arrived, but, uncertain as to the identity of several retreating vehicles, could not be induced to engage them until too late. I doubt if the surrender and retreat of this enemy force could have been hoped for had they not had a clear view of a very large group of our transport to our rear, that is, on the rising ground to the south. Our casualties were none killed and only a few wounded. Receiving orders from the Company Commander to withdraw, we returned to our vehicles.
B Company was similarly engaged on the left flank, where anti-tank shells fired at our tanks were falling short and bouncing past its ranks. As the company neared the objective the enemy broke and ran. After most of the opposition had been silenced one gun was still firing and Colonel Kippenberger said page 177 he wanted it stopped. Lieutenant McPhail jumped into a Bren carrier, which advanced on a zigzag course firing bursts from the Bren gun. The mortar platoon also gave support. The crew of the gun, a German 88-millimetre, were finally all wounded or killed. A grenade was exploded in the barrel but had little effect. The tyres were slashed, sights, handles and wheels smashed, but the gun and its platform were difficult to destroy. Two staff cars were discovered, but when the carrier crew tried to drive one away it was found that the tyres had been punctured by Bren fire.
C and A Companies also debussed and moved through the stationary tanks, coming under small-arms and anti-tank fire at the western end of the enemy position. The forward platoons attacked but the engagement was over before they got to close quarters. Sergeant May, commanding 15 Platoon, was wounded and was evacuated under protest after being hit three times. Sergeant Vincent of C Company noticed that the German machine-gun crews wore overalls that blended perfectly with the landscape. In his opinion the attack went off just like the exercises the battalion had often practised for an attack by lorried infantry.
The enemy was routed and heading fast eastwards. The battalion marched back to the lorries and embussed. Its total casualties for the action were 2 killed and 17 wounded. Enemy weapons captured included one 88-millimetre gun and two anti-tank guns. Seven of the fifteen Valentines were casualties, but their recovery vehicles came up and several were soon runners again. A detail of Bren carriers was sent to mop up and, though fired on by our own artillery and mortars, luckily had no casualties. They reported enemy and asked for assistance but were recalled. Two hundred prisoners were rounded up by the tanks; left without transport, they were waiting to surrender. An additional sixty who had withdrawn over the escarpment were captured by Captain Quilter,8 who was coming from Brigade Headquarters in a Bren carrier up the track east of Point 172.
Once more the battalion formed up in desert formation and moved west to link up with 4 Brigade, halting about dusk page 178 astride the Trigh Capuzzo approximately 4000 yards east of Point 175. Defensive positions were taken up for the night with three companies forward. A Company on the left was to make contact with 6 Brigade on the escarpment. No enemy was seen, but the Divisional Headquarters defence platoon which had moved forward of the battalion positions just before dusk was driven back by enemy fire.
Next morning, 25 November, the advance was continued until the battalion was nearly level with a prominent square stone building, subsequently known as the Blockhouse, near the edge of Sidi Rezegh escarpment on Point 167. The Bren carriers with the CO were advancing a mile ahead of the trucks. A herd of gazelles sprang out of the bushes and raced nimbly ahead. Suddenly the carriers were fired on at short range by a well-concealed anti-tank gun, probably sited in the mouth of Rugbet en Nbeidat. Other fire from the right was at first thought to have come from 18 Battalion's area. Corporal Tom Veitch put his steel helmet on his rifle, the recognition signal, but this was promptly knocked out of his hand by the next shell. Two of the Bren carriers, those commanded by Sergeant Kimber and Corporal Veitch, were hit and both drivers and a gunner wounded. The survivors jumped out and endeavoured to reply with Bren-gun fire from the ground but were forced by enemy machine-gun fire to withdraw. When a lull came they tried to rescue the wounded men and were immediately engaged. Corporals Scott9 and Lumsden10 coolly manoeuvred their carriers alongside the knocked-out vehicles under heavy anti-tank and machine-gun fire. Two of the wounded were transferred but the third was killed when his carrier was hit by two more shells. The carrier platoon's commander, Lieutenant Guthrey, won the MC for his part in this and earlier actions.
The rifle companies, with A Company on the left and B and C Companies on its right, had also come under fire and debussed on the order of the CO. Nos. 7 and 8 Platoons went forward in extended order, but after 1000 yards had been covered they came under heavy machine-gun fire from the front and from page 179 the escarpment and were halted. They remained in these positions till dusk. No. 9 Platoon, which was following 500 yards in the rear, moved up Rugbet en Nbeidat on to the escarpment to attack the Blockhouse but was checked by machine-gun fire. The mortar platoon meanwhile shelled the Blockhouse.
The other companies had taken up positions on the flat when a further advance of 1000 yards was ordered. Heavy fire was encountered, and when B Company prepared to dig in it was found impossible to bring up the company transport with the entrenching tools closer than some 400 yards. Sergeant Lochhead,11 of one of the forward platoons, returned to the trucks and collected the tools and distributed them to his platoon. He was in full view of the enemy and under fire the whole time.
The Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Boyle, went up the escarpment to discover the position to the left of the battalion where 6 Brigade had had some hard fighting at Point 175 and at the Blockhouse. Point 175 had been captured the day before but a dawn attack on the Blockhouse by 24 Battalion had been halted on the western slopes of Rugbet en Nbeidat. A combined attack from the south by elements of 24 and 26 Battalions succeeded in capturing it later in the morning.
Boyle returned from his reconnaissance with the news that 24 and 25 Battalions were now under joint command. Later, Sergeant Allison of the ‘I’ section while taking a message to 26 Battalion was impressed with the numbers of dead Germans in their trenches and the large groups coming in to surrender. Padre Spence went over to 6 Brigade and came sadly back after burying eighty of its dead.
The battalion was on a dead flat plain overlooked by the Sidi Rezegh escarpment to the south and its orders were not to press on against opposition. Firing continued throughout the day and about 4 p.m. enemy dive-bombers attacked Divisional Headquarters and A Company. There were no casualties in A Company but Divisional Headquarters lost vehicles and men.
Lieutenants Wilson and Heenan12 were ordered to search the country on either side of the road and for over half a mile page 180 ahead of the forward companies in order to locate enemy mortars against which they could lead fighting patrols after dark. This was a dangerous reconnaissance and for that reason was given to officers. They reconnoitred, planned the route to be taken by their patrols, and returned through the forward companies, who were withdrawing to less exposed positions under heavy fire. During this withdrawal Sergeant Lochhead acted as rearguard for B Company. When checking his platoon he found that one of his men was missing. Without hesitation he returned to the forward lines, advancing over ground still swept by machine-gun and mortar fire, located the soldier, who was wounded, and carried him back to safety.
At dusk a warning order was received from Brigade for a night attack and the night's patrols were cancelled. Companies closed in to a battalion laager and were given a hot meal. Colonel Kippenberger reached Brigade Headquarters at six, and his own account13 gives the best picture:
Inglis's orders were short and to the point. 18 and 20 Battalions were to seize and hold Belhamed, I was to be in command, make page 181 the arrangements, and continue to command on the hill after its capture. 6 Brigade was attacking along Sidi Rezegh and we were to advance simultaneously with them at 9 o'clock. There was no question of artillery support; it had to be a straightforward night attack with the bayonet. The guns would, however, fire small concentrations at intervals to help us keep direction.
Belhamed was another escarpment, very steep on the northern side and then falling away very gently for four miles to the foot of Sidi Rezegh. On our approach we would have to cross a wadi running at an angle to our line of advance and then ascend a moderate slope. I expected difficulty in keeping direction for the 6,000 yards of the advance.
Inglis gave me precise objectives and then rather soberly wished me luck. Jan Peart14 was commanding the Eighteenth, and he and I discussed the plan of attack. We settled on a start-line and Paddy Boyle went off to lay it and guiding tape for the battalions to move up on, no easy task. We decided to attack with the two battalions side by side, Eighteenth on the right, each with two companies forward extended to four paces, the other companies following similarly extended 400 yards behind.
It was nearly 8 o'clock when I got back to the Twentieth. The companies had come in from their positions, had a meal, and were assembling. I gave my orders to the company commanders, A and D Companies15 to lead, Mitchell to take command if I was hit… When all the companies were assembled, sitting quietly together in the brilliant moonlight, I spoke to them. It was a tense moment. We all knew that desperate fighting was very close ahead. I told the men what the objective was and the plan, that our success would mean the relief of Tobruk, and that we would go through at all costs and then hold the hill against all comers. I ended by saying: ‘And now I want only to wish you good luck, every man of you.’ It was a very wonderful thing to hear the response: ‘Good luck to you, Sir.’
The companies moved off along the guiding tape and formed up on the start line. Eighteenth Battalion arrived, the commanders checked up, and at 10 p.m. the CO gave the forward companies the order to move. The long lines moved resolutely forward, bayonets fixed and rifles at the port, and quickly disappeared into the darkness. The supporting companies approached, crunched past, well-spaced, steady, and very determined looking. Battalion Headquarters with the anti-aircraft platoon and two trucks of mines followed.page 182
The actual attack is described by Second-Lieutenant Wilson of D Company:
The going was comparatively flat except for a wadi running across the line of the advance at an angle. After about 600 yards the forward posts of the enemy were encountered. As we advanced we came upon row after row of machine guns but we just went through everything. At the first bursts of tracer men halted, crouched for a second, but without going to ground, and then ran in under the tracer with the bayonet. Some Germans surrendered when approached, dropping their guns just when they would have been effective at close quarters, some ran, but others drew pistols or picked up rifles and tried to club with them. It was a wild night. My platoon went forward with cries of ‘Otago!’ and giving no quarter. Numbers of the enemy were without boots and had obviously not expected to be attacked…. Casualties had been comparatively light.
During the impetuous advance in the darkness contact with the 18th had been lost. When Battalion Headquarters did not appear Major Mitchell took command, moved the forward companies on, and finally halted the battalion on the south-west slope of Belhamed. The companies were disposed with C on the right and half of D on the left, both facing west, B Company and half of D faced south, and A Company on the right of B was in reserve. The digging was hard and little depth had been achieved by daylight. In most cases men could manage only a shallow trench with a built-up perimeter of rocks, forming a ‘sangar’. The absence of Battalion Headquarters, and especially of the CO, was disturbing.
Colonel Kippenberger describes how his party became separated from the battalion:
…. after travelling 2000 yards we reached the wadi. It was shallow and not very wide, but the trucks had to pick their way and, without my noticing it, they and my whole party emerged on the other side some hundreds of yards north of the original course. A few flares were going up ahead but there was still no firing and we pressed on. A few hundred yards on Allison, my young Intelligence sergeant, told me that he had lost touch with the companies. He was on the correct bearing, 282 degrees. Neither of us realized what had happened at the wadi crossing and we hurried on. Soon the loom of high ground appeared to our left—how far away it was impossible to tell—and a moment later the flash and sparkle of tracer. In an instant the top of the hill was sizzling with tracer criss-crossing in all directions—and faint and clear and distant we could page 183 hear the high-pitched yell of charging infantry. Still quite unsuspicious of what we had done, I said, ‘That's 6th Brigade going in on Sidi Rezegh’, and we hurried on more anxiously than ever, momentarily expecting the roar of battle to break out ahead. The clamour to our left swelled and sank and swelled again. We heard the incessant hammering chatter of many automatics, the ‘whang’ of grenades, yells and screams, but all seemed far away. We were fired on from our right but took no notice and hurried on, almost running. Then I was startled by bursts of tracer over our heads from the high ground and at the same moment found myself on a bitumen road.
I instantly realized what had happened. In crossing the wadi we had swung to the right and had thenceforward moved parallel with the assaulting battalions and outside their right flank. We had gone through a gap in the enemy line, the high ground was Belhamed, not Sidi Rezegh, and it was our own fight we could hear and partly see, still raging furiously on our left rear. Crouching under a great-coat I examined the map with a pocket torch. Thinking very carefully indeed, I decided that if we went back for 1200 yards and then climbed the escarpment we should be behind the Eighteenth.
We had just turned the trucks, all keeping very quiet as the situation seemed delicate, when there was suddenly the sound of many men running over stones down the escarpment only fifty yards away Baker16 and his platoon rushed across. For a minute there was a terrific noise, everyone shouting and firing at once. I went over and savagely ordered silence. To my surprise there was. We had eighty German prisoners. They had been running from the fight and had scrambled down the hill to get on their trucks, and were very surprised by our appearance.17 Our situation was still insecure, however, deep in the enemy position and ahead of our own troops. … After a few minutes I got everyone quiet and we formed up for the return march, the prisoners moving in threes between the two trucks. Belhamed was silent and dark again.
We moved off gingerly and slowly, counting the paces. At 1200 we stopped and Rhodes and Allison came with me up the escarpment.
Sergeant Allison takes up the story:
With Col. Kippenberger I climbed to the top of the hill. I stumbled near a wounded German who was at his last gasp (couldn't help feeling sorry for him—think Spicer18 gave him a drink of water). Somebody was digging in just ahead of us. Difficult to say who they were. I think we heard somebody say ‘What?’ in a New Zealand page 184 voice. Col. Kippenberger went towards them and he was immediately challenged…. the Kiwis were very hesitant about believing him; they were openly suspicious and took no chances. They were members of the 18th Bn and soon one of their officers came along and recognised the Colonel…. The companies had apparently pushed well west into a kind of salient. We went on and rested in a hollow, the German prisoners still with us and also two trucks of the NZ Engineers….
Allison then guided a 4 Brigade liaison officer (Captain Copeland)19 back to his headquarters with a message from the CO and from there went to the battalion B Echelon, where he was told to guide some ambulances up to Belhamed to collect wounded. The wounded were assembled in a wadi on the steep northern side of that feature, the southern slopes of which fell gently for nearly three miles, then rose steeply to form an escarpment above the mosque of Sidi Rezegh, which was still in enemy hands.
Meanwhile, 20 Battalion was in a very difficult position. Battalion Headquarters' radio set was missing and company radios were unable to contact 4 Brigade. The carrier platoon and the tanks had been left with B Echelon with instructions to come up at dawn. The area was overlooked by the Sidi Rezegh position to the south and was under heavy artillery, mortar, and small-arms fire from a strong enemy pocket between Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh. Casualties mounted steadily.
In the meantime, having spent some hours trying to find the battalion, Colonel Kippenberger, Captain Rhodes, and Second-Lieutenant Roberts20 had all been wounded just after dawn as they were about to move over to the battalion area. Lieutenant Boyle had also been wounded about the same time while looking for Battalion Headquarters. Later in the morning Major Mitchell was wounded when moving back towards Brigade Headquarters to try to establish contact and get artillery support. Captain Fountaine, whose gallantry in the last few days' fighting was to win him the MC, then took over the battalion and CSM Grooby commanded C Company, which dealt effectively with an enemy counter-attack. Light German AFVs page 185 brought in infantry who advanced south-east across the flat but retired when fired upon. Shortly afterwards Captain Fountaine was wounded. Captain Agar21 took over the battalion and Lieutenant McPhail became OC B Company. On the way to the Advanced Dressing Station the lorry carrying the wounded had halted by Brigade Headquarters and Colonel Kippenberger had asked that Captain Quilter, then liaison officer with Brigade Headquarters, be sent up to the battalion as Adjutant.
Shelling and mortaring continued through the day and life on Belhamed was ‘most uncomfortable’. The men had been told to keep under cover and not disclose their numbers or positions, but as they had still been digging in after first light they must have been seen by the enemy on the higher ground to the south. A Fieseler-Storch reconnaissance plane flew low over the area at intervals during the afternoon. As practically every weapon was fired at it without apparent effect, it was no wonder the enemy machine guns and mortars were able to range on the battalion's positions. Men of D Company used over a hundred rounds from a Boys anti-tank rifle trying to hit the plane each time it landed in the German area about a mile away. One D Company man was killed in his slit trench as the German observer replied to his fire through a window of his aircraft with his tommy gun. The honours rested with the New Zealanders, however, as the plane was shot down at dusk and a valuable situation map obtained from it. The Germans across the flat were very hard to locate but they were there all right, well dug in and quick to reply to fire.
During the day an Italian map with German dispositions marked on it was found in D Company's area. The finder gave it to the OC, Captain Manchester, who sent it to Battalion Headquarters. Captain Quilter endorsed it with the date, time, and place, and sent it by runner to 18 Battalion, which had a carrier service to 4 Brigade. The map showed sixteen machine-gun positions in the area to the south.
With 6 Brigade held up south-east of Sidi Rezegh the task of joining up with the Tobruk garrison on Ed Duda now fell to 4 Brigade, and during the night 19 Battalion made a remarkably uneventful advance of nearly six miles behind a screen of page 186 Matildas from 44 Royal Tanks. The battalion, ‘breathless and almost unbelieving’, reached Ed Duda about 1 a.m. During the night 6 Brigade finally succeeded, after some of the bloodiest fighting of the desert war, in capturing the rest of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment.
Back on Belhamed the 20 Battalion men manning their positions spent a cold night and the Adjutant got one blanket or greatcoat for each man sent up from B Echelon. While coming up through B Company's lines after dark with ammunition Lieutenant Uttley's mortar truck was hit by tracer bullets and the ammunition exploded for hours. During the night the battalion's position was strengthened by the arrival of anti-tank guns which had not been able to come forward in daylight.
Next morning, 27 November, two German stretcher-bearers carrying a white flag came forward to pick up a wounded officer and were halted by 18 Battalion and taken to its headquarters. Major Snadden,22 OC 46 Battery 4 Field Regiment, who was attached to the 18th, has said that the Germans were told they were heavily outnumbered and were asked to surrender. They laughed, refused, and countered by asking 18 Battalion to surrender. That battalion's IO went back with the Germans to their position south of Belhamed in a Bren carrier, but his proposal that the enemy pocket should surrender was rejected.
Early in the morning Captain Quilter received a warning order from 4 Brigade, through Colonel Peart of the 18th, that 20 Battalion was to attack the German pocket to the south with two companies. The attack was to begin at 9 a.m. but was later postponed until 11 a.m. A battery of field guns and a platoon of machine-gunners would support it.
At this stage 20 Battalion had no line communication direct to Brigade. Colonel Peart, as the senior commander on the ridge, had taken command of both battalions when Colonel Kippenberger was wounded, and the brigade order for the attack was sent through his headquarters. Captain Quilter objected to the proposed operation and asked Colonel Peart to use his own troops as he felt the 20th was being used too much and had had heavy casualties, particularly in senior officers. page 187 Colonel Peart demanded to know who was the battalion's senior officer, and on learning it was Captain Agar ordered him to report to him immediately. Agar did so and protested vainly on the telephone to Brigade that there was inadequate support for an attack ‘with two weak companies’ across flat ground in daylight against a dug-in machine-gun position ‘of at least a battalion strength’.
After about twenty minutes Captain Agar ran down the exposed forward slope to 20 Battalion headquarters and ordered the Adjutant to get B and D Companies' commanders. The conference is described by Lieutenant McPhail, OC B Company:
Some time after 9 a.m. I received a message to go to Bn HQ. At a conference there the previous day we had been shelled so we kept as far apart as possible and yet within comfortable speaking voice. We were under enemy observation at all times and the conference must have been very obvious to any astute German officer.
Orders were very brief and Capt. Agar was obviously unhappy about the attack that had been ordered. We were to attack the German position to the south in the depression between Bel Hamed and Sidi Rezegh. The attack was to begin in ten minutes. We were to have artillery support and tanks would come in from the east.
I ran back to my Coy HQ and gave the story to the platoon commanders. We attacked with two platoons forward and one back, and came under fire as soon as we moved out. The company advanced steadily but when our artillery stopped the enemy fire increased. We had advanced by bounds but half way to the objective were pinned down by heavy fire. I sent three runners including CSM Anderson23 back to ask for artillery support. Casualties were becoming heavy. I saw Sjt. Hayward24 killed as he rose and waved his platoon forward.
We hugged the ground for the rest of the day, and after last light I put a protective screen of the few able bodied men left between ourselves and the enemy and began the collection of the wounded. The men afterwards told me they were so close to enemy positions that they could hear the Germans talking.
I ordered all the wounded who could walk to return to our lines and take their weapons with them. I also asked them to send out any stretcher bearers they could find. We could just see the blurred outline of the Bel Hamed feature against the sky. We then gathered the wounded into a group. Sergeant Lochhead25 and page 188 [Corporal] West, platoon commanders, were still on their feet but Lt. Mills26 was badly wounded. We improvised stretchers from battle dress tunics and rifles and carried the wounded in. A check up revealed that there were 32 left in the company. Captain Agar was waiting for us and visibly upset.
From a platoon commander's point of view the attack was equally disastrous. Second-Lieutenant Evan Wilson of D Company describes his experiences thus:
Between 9.30 and 10 a.m.27 with the other two platoon cmdrs, Lt Abbott and Sjt ‘Ro’ Wilson,28 I went to Company HQ where Captain Manchester said we had to carry out an attack with B Coy on German positions to the south, that is, between Bel Hamed and Sidi Rezegh. We were told, ‘The Germans are anxious to surrender. There will be no fighting but we have to put up a bit of a show and go out and bring them in.’29
The boundaries were then pointed out. B Coy were to advance on the left, their right boundary being a line passing through a burnt out British tank. D Coy were to move through the area to the right of the tank…. Our attack was to begin in three minutes. We ran forward from Coy HQ to our platoons. There was just time to put my pack on and get away…. the Company then moved out with 16 and 17 Platoons leading in extended order and 18 Platoon in reserve.
The country was practically flat with scarcely any cover either in the form of undulations or low camel thorn scrub. We came under heavy machine-gun fire almost at once, actually while 17 Platoon was passing through 18, Corporal Rex Miller30 being the first casualty.
We deployed and for a time advanced in rushes…. It puzzled me that there should be so much shooting. We continued the attack for about 800 yards, suffering heavy casualties which did not seem apparent at the time as we were watching our front for targets.
After about 1000 yards I realised that something was wrong. It seemed plain that we could never hope to take the position over open country without very considerable support. In view of our page 189 orders before the attack the enemy certainly seemed to be overdoing his ‘gesture’ before surrendering. Finally the uncomfortable realisation came that there was no intention of the enemy to surrender.
It was at this stage that I was wounded. The number of other wounded and killed together with the increasing intensity of enemy fire now completely checked the advance. The leading elements were by this time between 300 and 400 yards from the enemy. It was then that we received a small amount of artillery support. It sounded like the fire of a battery and fell in the dead ground between ourselves and the enemy.
The attack having been checked the enemy concentrated on us with machine guns and mortars, causing further casualties. This lasted fairly consistently till dusk, about seven hours later. Right throughout the day fire was kept up by the company….
During the rest of the day contact was several times made with Battalion, asking for assistance. Runners and Red Cross personnel suffered heavy casualties and contact with Battalion finally could not be maintained. In any case our position was obvious; no support was forthcoming, and finally orders came up to withdraw after dark.
As soon as darkness permitted the wounded were evacuated, mostly by their mates, there being only one RAP man left out in the field. Due to the number of wounded on the ground, the considerable area over which they were spread, the darkness and the absence of assistance, this was a lengthy and laborious undertaking. It sometimes took six men to carry a badly wounded man the 1200 yards to the battalion area. Several times I sent back word requesting assistance up to even company strength. Enemy fire, including tracer, continued all night.
During this period the men in the field did remarkably unselfish work. Outstanding was Corporal Ken Pratt,31 who though wounded in the neck and almost delirious, walked about the battlefield in search of wounded. On one occasion, after returning to me, he fainted, but, recovering a few minutes later, went out again…. [Second-Lieutenant Dunne of A Company] with a considerable party, made three accurate compass journeys to our area and it was through his efforts that we were able to take in the last of the company wounded at approximately 1.30 a.m. Some of them had been nearly fourteen hours without medical attention.
Many died of wounds, only twenty-eight men being left in the company. It had been a gallant attack and individual bravery was universal. At one stage Private Jack Hogg32 carried on the attack with his platoon of seven survivors who had appointed him their leader. It was some satisfaction next day to find that we had inflicted considerable casualties on the enemy.page 190
Meanwhile Battalion Headquarters had not been idle. The attack was watched with increasing dismay as the predicament of the infantry became apparent. Captain Quilter appealed several times for artillery support but apparently the scarcity of ammunition would not permit it. About midday Colonel Peart rang the 20th and urged the Adjutant to have the attack pressed home. Quilter asked for a supporting attack from the left flank and this was agreed to. An hour later a company of infantry from 18 Battalion and three tanks appeared from the east on the crest of the wadi. The leading tank was knocked out and the remainder, including the infantry, later withdrew.
The mortar platoon had not been given any task at the outset but after the failure of the supporting attack from the east Lieutenant Uttley tried to help. He states:
I thought it was time I did something in a hurry. It was obvious that if the companies had tried to go forward they would have been killed to a man without even reaching the German lines. I hoped that if we could quieten the fire they might pull out without any orders. The enemy position was just out of our range but to save time we ripped some bombs down and put extra charges on others and a couple of ranging shots showed we could hit them. Then we put a smoke screen across the German front and pumped in HE. … Our ammunition soon ran out and the only people who did any firing for the rest of the day were the Germans.
During the afternoon Captain Quilter made another attempt to obtain tank support. Some time after 5 p.m. the tanks which had made the sortie to Ed Duda with 19 Battalion returned to Zaafran. On the way back they mopped up a German position on the west end of Belhamed, losing two tanks on a minefield. While coming in the tanks had fired on the battalion in spite of recognition signals, steel helmet on rifle, and green flares, but they stopped firing when Captain Agar, waving his tin hat on a rifle, went out to meet them. The tanks were asked to help B and D Companies marooned out on the flat, but by this time it was too late for the squadron to replenish its ammunition and attack before dark. Finally, Captain Agar sent out orders by runner for the companies to withdraw as soon as the light permitted.
Captain Quilter says:
I asked A Company to send out stretcher parties at dusk and C Company, then under Sergeant-Major Grooby, to put a protective page 191 screen in front of B and D Companies to cover their withdrawal. Grooby and I took a bearing in daylight and agreed on it. At dusk C Company personnel went out in line before the stretcher bearers went out. Grooby told me next morning that at one stage in the advance someone told him he could hear Germans talking. Grooby stopped the advance and found he had infiltrated right through the German forward posts and that the Germans were actually talking behind him. Realising his critical position he decided to push ahead till he reached the Sidi Rezegh escarpment where he was out of trouble. There he collected his men and circled back, coming into the 18th Battalion area. They were not even fired at. Perhaps, after the night attack on Belhamed, the Germans were reluctant to start a show after dark.
I had arranged to have 3-tonners sent up to collect our wounded and take them to the 4th Field Ambulance in 4th Brigade laager area. Dr. Gilmour treated the wounded that night on the face of the hill near Battalion Headquarters and they were loaded on to trucks and sent away. B and D Companies were reorganized by Lt. McPhail and Lt. Wilson after a hot meal.
The day's fighting cost the battalion 35 killed and died of wounds and 62 wounded. The wounded had had no choice but to lie out in the open on that barren, fire-swept field waiting for darkness to give them cover and bring relief. Many were hit again as they lay, some once, some twice and more, and were in a bad way when at last they were brought in to the RAP. Back on Belhamed the two companies' sixty survivors spread themselves thinly over the defences they had formerly occupied and sought what rest the night would bring.
The exposed nature of the battalion area and the difficulties of communication due to constant trouble with the No. 11 wireless sets made it difficult to supply the forward troops on Belhamed. Captain Baker,33 D Company's second-in-command, describes his experiences:
On the night 26-27 Nov I went up in a Bren carrier, taking a hot meal in the hot boxes. We moved along the north side of the escarpment and turned up a narrow, steep-sided re-entrant, stopping about half way up at the last suitable turning place. Nearby, on the side of the escarpment, and in a subsidiary wadi, I found a telephone exchange and tried to get a message through to D Coy to ask for a guide and carrying party. The signallers could not get through to the 20th. I waited three hours and then had to return page 192 with the carrier, leaving the hot boxes there and instructing the signallers to contact 20 Bn as soon as possible and get a carrying party across.
Next morning, 27 Nov, about 8.30 a.m. I went up again with a hot meal by carrier and found that the containers were still there but the food was cold. Leaving the carrier in the wadi we went a short way across the escarpment past a burnt out truck. Things were quiet. A carrying party came back and collected the meal. On our way back to B Ech … [we had] some fairly brisk shelling….
That night I came up again with more rations…. I gave those who were in a hot meal. The men looked exhausted and under severe mental strain, but grim and certainly not demoralised. I got the impression that they were not happy about the daylight attack they had been engaged in, but if they had been called on would have readily gone in at night to get their own back.
I reported to Capt Agar who told me to stay with D Coy that night. Next morning he told me to take over A Coy.
On 27 November a party from the carrier platoon went back to examine the two carriers which had been shot up on the flat two days earlier. Sergeant Kimber describes their recovery:
Veitch's carrier had had it. Several shell holes had wrecked the steering gear and the whole machine was in a mess. Mine was not so bad; two shell holes but the vital parts had been missed. Apart from being very shaky and full of vibrations it was still serviceable. We brought it back again. Some of our engineers had picqueted this area the day before. They had made a thorough job of ransacking all our reserve food…. But a bottle two-thirds full of Johnnie Walker whiskey missed their search. I must have hidden it well. The three of us had a conference and smartly decided to drink it in case somebody else found it—very good too…. We returned to B Echelon where I got myself another driver and gunner and that night the carriers took a relief of sigs up the front, bringing back hot boxes, etc. It had rained off and on all day making things miserable….
When taking supplies up the front we would travel up a wadi most of the way, climb up over a ridge, and go down into another wadi, finally dropping our supplies in a small wadi near an old are the enemy had used for a cook shop, etc. As soon as we left on our trip our progress could have been seen for miles by the dust we stirred up, and as soon as we crossed the ridge the Jerry MG would open up. We must have been just out of effective range for we could hear the bullets hitting the carriers but none ever came through. They just made slight dents in the sides.
During the afternoon of 28 November the attack against the German position between Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh was page 193 repeated from another direction and in a more carefully prepared and strongly supported operation. First there was a ten-minute artillery preparation by 4 and 6 Field Regiments and other concentrations covering the advance of a squadron of Matildas from the 44 Royal Tanks. The tanks, in turn, were supported by the Bren carriers of 18 Battalion and some from the Divisional Cavalry, followed by one company of the 18th. Two platoons of machine-gunners fired from Belhamed feature in front of the tanks and the mortar platoons of 18 and 20 Battalions gave support, using auxiliary charges.
It was a well-planned attack and the artillery softening up brought many of the enemy out before the tanks arrived. The tanks went through in two small waves and the Germans surrendered quickly. There were only two or three infantry casualties and about six hundred prisoners were taken. Unfortunately some of these prisoners were released when the prisoner-of-war cage fell into enemy hands later in the day and within a matter of hours were back in action.
While the attack was in progress Colonel Peart gave orders for 18 and 20 Battalions to change places. This was done, company by company, and sappers lifted the minefield to the west of Belhamed. No reason for the changeover was given, but it is probable that as the 20th had been seriously weakened by casualties, particularly in senior officers, and was then occupying what seemed to be the exposed flank—the western end of Belhamed—Colonel Peart decided to assume for his own battalion, which had had fewer casualties, the responsibility for what appeared to be the more difficult position.
During the afternoon there were sounds of an action to the north. Going 200 yards over to the escarpment, Captain Baker saw enemy tanks milling around, apparently under fire from our artillery on Sidi Rezegh. No hits were observed but the tanks moved off to the west. There was little news of the Rezegh– Tobruk battle and the situation was confused. German shell and mortar fire seemed to come from unpredictable quarters, at times from the north-east.
At night the Bren carriers took up more blankets and food and remained with the rifle companies, their crews dismounting their Brens and being allotted an area between B and D Companies. The pioneer platoon was also used to thicken up the page 194 rather thin line. During the night a column of transport—Rear Division and Headquarters 13 Corps: 2000 vehicles in all—went through the battalion lines to Tobruk. It was no time to be lying in a slit trench. Anyone in the way jumped up hastily and watched the trucks jolting and lurching across the sangars.
The 29th November was uneventful, with occasional shelling from heavy-calibre guns but few casualties. Brigade Headquarters, to which the battalion now had a direct line, sent a warning message to expect an attack from the north. A burial party with Bren carriers acting as a screen went out to bury the dead from the two-company attack and also the German dead from the night attack on Belhamed. Sergeant Allison and Private Speedy34 of the intelligence section marked the position of the graves on a map, while Padre Spence coolly conducted the burial service during the shelling.
The carrier crews examined the German position with great interest as it was from this direction that their vehicles had been shot up on 25 November. The machine-gun positions were well made and perfectly camouflaged. Nearly every machine gun had an anti-tank gun mounted beside it and a network of booby traps laid about it. Another observer describes machine-gun nests ‘only about twenty yards apart’ and containing ‘nearly every mortal thing to kill a man with’.
During the morning Brigadier Inglis had sent up Major Orr to take over the battalion and Captain Agar went back to command B Echelon. Orr reported to Colonel Peart, who told him that their job was to hold Belhamed and that he (Peart) was in charge. When he returned to the battalion Orr went around each company. The men seemed very tired and strained. He sent for their personal gear so that they could have a shave and clean up.
The men were hungry for news. On Sunday morning, 30 November, as they had had no up-to-date situation reports for some days, Captain Quilter asked Brigade for information. Captain Beale,35 Brigade Intelligence Officer, made a trip to Divisional Headquarters and returned with a map board and situation report showing the positions of the reorganised 7 Armoured Division and 1 South African Brigade, which were stated page 195 to be seven miles south-west of Sidi Rezegh and 20 miles east respectively and coming up towards Belhamed. A green flare was to be the indication that the South Africans were coming to assist. There was no mention of German tanks in the area but fifty of our tanks and ‘1000 Australians’ were said to be ‘in support’ in the vicinity of Ed Duda.36 The Intelligence Sergeant was sent round the companies with a copy of this map and gave each group the gist of the information. The men were considerably heartened by this news. Captain Quilter and the battalion sergeant clerk, Sergeant Borthwick, made a complete check-up on personnel and casualties and brought the war diary up to date.
Early in the evening there was a warning from Brigade that there might be an attack from the north. Companies were warned but nothing happened. About 5 p.m. a lively battle began on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment and the fires of burning trucks lit the whole skyline. Enemy armoured vehicles and trucks moved along the escarpment from the west to the mosque area. While a scuffle was going on about the mosque, tanks came over from the south side of the ridge. Captain Quilter immediately rang Brigade Headquarters, which seemed to doubt the information. As darkness fell trucks could be seen escaping north-east and along the top of the escarpment. Later, Quilter again rang Brigade to say that he could see fires burning and that he considered 6 Brigade had been overrun. About 9 p.m. Brigade Headquarters rang confirming this. Meanwhile, the battalion could hear the rattle and clank of tanks and a patrol got near enough to see the Germans doing maintenance work, refuelling, and ‘having a boil-up’ with petrol fires in the sand.
About 10 p.m. the Brigade Major rang to say that Sidi Rezegh would be attacked by daylight. Presuming, at first, that 20 Battalion would be mounting the attack, Captain Quilter pointed out that it would require ammunition and was told that the South African brigade was expected and that the 20th would be withdrawn next day about 10 a.m.
Companies maintained listening posts and sent out patrols throughout the night. B Company's posts at one stage thought page 196 enemy tanks were going to come through the area. One patrol, led by Sergeant Vincent of C Company, patrolled eastwards down the Belhamed escarpment. There were 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion positions in the area and some posts which had not been warned challenged sharply. The patrol investigated noises to the north-east previously reported by a listening post but no enemy was encountered. During the night the machine-gunners were withdrawn to strengthen the eastern flank, but the real danger lay to the south and south-west. Unfortunately this was not fully realised at the time, nor was the battalion informed of the departure of the machine-gunners.
The 1st December was a disastrous day for the battalion. Battle-weary and sadly reduced in numbers, strained almost to the limit of endurance by constant shelling and mortaring, crouching for almost six days and nights in damp slit trenches, cold, hungry, and damp, the men had stuck it out in a grim endeavour to ‘hold Belhamed against all comers’ as their share towards the relief of Tobruk. The latest rumour was heartening indeed: the ‘1000 Australians and fifty tanks’ would come out of Tobruk to relieve the battalions on Belhamed, who would be taken into Tobruk for a much-needed rest. The relief was timed page 197 for 10 a.m. There would just be time to eat the hot meal the cooks had promised and clean up.
For some time in the early morning there was complete calm. Then the silence was broken by one shell or mortar bomb landing near the battalion area. This was followed quickly by more shelling and mortaring. When this ceased the men could hear the thud of tank guns and the rapid fire of heavy machine guns. In their sangars the men listened and wondered. Something was brewing. Whose guns? Whose tanks?
None at the time could answer as the historian now can; for none on Belhamed knew that it was 15 Panzer Division which had taken the high ground to the south the previous evening. No one suspected that in the early hours of the morning German infantry were creeping northwards, paving the way for the tanks, and that behind them heavy guns were preparing supporting fire.
The tanks started up and made for Belhamed and then veered eastwards, disappearing in the smoke and dust of the shellfire. For perhaps an hour the defenders got only occasional glimpses through the murky haze of a tank here or a gun flash there. They were conscious that gunners somewhere to their left were answering the fire and that after a time the answers grew weaker. That was all they knew of a fierce action in which a dozen tanks were disabled and twice that number of 25-pounders from 6 Field Regiment put out of action, their crews dead or wounded about them, their lorries and limbers ablaze. With the defeat of the guns the way for the tanks to Belhamed was as clear as the billowing smoke would allow. But the smoke itself was a menace; for with the steep escarpment to the north the tanks had to make their way gingerly north of the guns, where the escarpment was less abrupt, and then westwards along the top, halting when smoke obscured the steep drop to their right.
Thus the tanks came on the battalion chiefly from the east and south-east, meeting B Company first and C Company to its north, then Battalion Headquarters in the centre and A Company (north-west of B), and D Company last of all— though D, to the south-west of the unit area, was nearest to the tanks when they first approached. It was a curious roundabout way, dictated by the fierce resistance of the field guns in the early stages of the attack, and then by the smoke which hid page 198 the treacherous escarpment. Once the anti-tank guns were knocked out—a matter of minutes so far as the battalion was concerned—there was no other obstacle and nothing the infantry could do to avert capture, unless they took to their heels, which was unthinkable.
The overwhelming enemy attack on Belhamed has been the subject of many discussions by men of the 20th since that sad day. The following accounts by eye-witnesses give a more complete—if at times conflicting—picture of what happened than the limited knowledge gained by any one man from his immediate surroundings.
First, Captain Quilter describes the action:
At first light B and D Companies both reported activity around Sidi Rezegh; it was possible to see vehicles coming off the escarpment. At daylight Jerry started to shell Belhamed heavily and the tanks and lorried infantry moved off across the low ground towards us, and raised a great deal of dust as if they were dragging something behind their vehicles. I counted 45-48 tanks but Neil McPhail made it 50. At about 2000 yards from our positions the enemy advance split up, part moving east towards 6 Brigade B Echelon and part towards us. By this time our Field Regiments were engaging them and the dust practically obscured them from our view. When they were about 500 yards from us both B and D Companies and Headquarters Company Brens engaged them. Most of the lorried infantry turned about smartly and moved back but one or two loads debussed. The tanks then sat out at about 1000 yards and I could see one tank commander looking us over. Suddenly about ten tanks in a row started shooting at our three 2-pounders, the first of which was between my headquarters and D Company. The fire was concentrated on the guns one at a time from west to east and the three were wiped out very smartly. Just about this time a German shell hit our own mortar bombs and from then on both B and C Company were hidden from my view. B Company reported that it was under heavy fire and the air around Battalion Headquarters was pretty thick too. About this time the telephone line to B Company went out and I had no further communication with them.
During this time I had been talking to Brigade Headquarters by telephone, the No. 11 set being useless. Some time about 7.30 I think the Brigade Major had told me to hold on as our tanks would be attacking through our area, that is, moving west along Belhamed and turning south through us. I passed this message on to the companies. Shortly afterwards—about fifteen or twenty minutes I should say—Corporal Scott of Battalion Signals Platoon, attached to C Company reported that B Company had been cleaned up and were page 199 being marched off by the Germans. B Company's area was still obscured by smoke. At the same time Scott told me tanks were advancing on them from the east. I told him they must be our ‘I’ tanks coming in but he told me they were firing on C Company. While he was talking to me CSM Grooby, the Company Commander, was mortally wounded near Scott. At this time we were being heavily mortared from the south and I saw German infantry advancing towards D Company across the area that had been occupied by the 18th Battalion on our right.37 Within a few minutes, while I was watching D Company's area my signaller drew my attention to a tank about thirty or forty yards away to the rear of Battalion headquarters. The commander was waving us out of our slitties. At the same time there were at least two tanks in A Company's area getting them out. There seemed to be four or five infantrymen with each tank. One I remember carried a Spandau while another had a tommy gun and at least three belts for the Spandau. At this time D Company were still firing from their slitties. We [Bn HQ] were shepherded fairly smartly with A Company out to join C Company and D Company were brought along behind us a few minutes afterwards.
We were then marched about 2000 yards towards Sidi Rezegh where a German doctor and assistants met us and took away the walking wounded. We joined here with a hundred or so prisoners from 6th Brigade's and had an unpleasant time for half an hour or so from 6th Brigade's 25 and 2-pounders.
The line to Brigade had gone dead about 8 a.m. but I was in communication with the 18th Battalion until a few minutes of the finish when I was forced out. Their adjutant did not tell me they were withdrawing to the escarpment to the north. Their Mortar Platoon was next our D Company, and, unable to get away with the rest of their battalion, was taken with us.
Major Orr, acting CO, saw the battle thus:
About 7 a.m. we noticed movement on Sidi Rezegh escarpment and our arty was shelled. From the information received the previous day we expected the vehicles to be our own tanks and the South African Bde.
Then a column of tanks left Sidi Rezegh and moved east across our front, apparently making for the arty area, and at that stage appearing to take no notice of us whatsoever. As soon as we realised they were Huns Captain Quilter rang Bde and …. asked for arty support and for tanks to be sent to our assistance. We were ordered to hang on.
During this stage an English major came along dressed in a khaki sweater and flat cap, coolly sat on the edge of a slit trench, and asked us where Div. HQ was. We told him where Bde HQ was page 200 and he stood up and started to walk in that direction. Suddenly the tanks swung across at B Coy and also came round them and up through the centre of our area. We had no sticky bombs or Molotov cocktails on Bel Hamed and none, as far as I know, at B Ech.
I looked to my right and saw A Coy coming out. Shortly afterwards we were ordered out by a Hun tank commander who was waving his pistol out of the turret and calling through a slit in the tank. He was waving us in the direction of B Coy.
The tanks changed direction so quickly that they were in amongst us almost before we realized it. Our orders were plainly to stay where we were and that tanks were coming to our assistance, so we stayed. There was no suggestion of withdrawal or surrender. I remember Jack Quilter saying that the last words the BM [Brigade Major] said were ‘We must be going now.’ With that the line became dead.
While the tanks were changing direction and swinging round us we were under shell fire and also under MG fire from the German lorried infantry out on the flat. Had any attempt been made at that stage to retire back over the Bel Hamed escarpment to the north casualties would have been very heavy both from this fire and from the MGs of the tanks which by this time were no more than 150 yards away…. Furthermore we could not have covered Bel Hamed with fire from the north if we had gone over the escarpment. … If we had cleared out against orders to hold on, as given by Bde, the tanks would have proceeded straight through to 4 Bde and B Ech areas. Our only hope was artillery or tank support. The latter was promised but neither materialised….38
When we were being formed up on the flat I spoke to some men who were strangers to me. They proved to be men of the 18th Bn Mortar Platoon who had been placed between their Bn area and our D Coy and were taken with us. They told me the 18th had gone over the escarpment, but they had been too far away to go with them. This was the first I knew of the move of the 18th Bn.
Sergeant Allison adds his account:
I saw a British tank appear on the ridge behind me, i.e. to our west where the 18th Bn lay. I optimistically imagined this was the first of the 50 tanks coming to our relief from Tobruk. The tank commander was looking from the turret. The tank waited a few seconds then turned away westwards again.
Later an English officer walking from the west came up to me. He appeared casual and very calm. He asked the direction to Bde or Div HQ, (can't recall which), then walked placidly on. (Sjt. Peter McGhie39 told me later that an English officer was badly page 201 wounded near him and did not have much chance of living. He gave Peter this verbal message: ‘Tell General Freyberg that we are sorry, but we could not get through.’)
An 18th Bn truck to the rear of where Basil Borthwick and I had our trenches burst into flame, but the next minute we looked it had completely disappeared.
My maps, messages and code I managed to destroy by fire before the tanks came right close. The Jerry was waving a revolver from the turret. Then he showed his head and said, ‘Come, come up, up.’ Bob Orr said, ‘You Deutchland b—’ but I guess the Panzer soldier did not understand. We now experienced the wearying and humiliating exercise of jogging along with raised arms. A little later we were greeted into our captivity by our own artillery's shells.
Lieutenant Uttley, mortar platoon officer, was taken prisoner in the early stages. He says:
I had five mortars left in my platoon and I told them to open fire at full range in the hope that we might damage the lorried infantry and perhaps give the effect of a bit of strength.
The poor anti-tank guns which could be seen for miles fired four and one shots respectively before they were blown out. The tanks appeared to me to advance like draughtsmen in short staggered moves.
At one stage when we were being heavily machine-gunned a gentleman with a cheese-cutter hat, an MC, and a strong Oxford accent appeared beside my slit trench. … in the midst of quite a hot fire he stood calmly and said, ‘Where's Brigade, old boy?’ I didn't know and told him so but sent him on to Lt. Neil McPhail a few yards in my rear…. Meanwhile it was becoming more and more obvious that there was to be only one end to the affair. I cannot remember how information was passed along the line, it may have been by shouting or by runner, but the story was, ‘Hang on at all costs, help is coming.’ This word came several times and was not believed. We had numerous opportunities of clearing out when fire was concentrated on other places but it was not easy to disobey a direct order although one knew it was a stupid one.
The centre mortar of my five seemed to have some luck. Corporal S. S. Lowe,40 who had his eyes glued to the sights, dropped something and bent down to pick it up. When he straightened up the sights had been shot away.
When ammunition ran out we used our rifles, more to have something to do than in the hope of doing much damage.
We had been unable to bury all our ammunition and some smoke … [shells were] camouflaged behind desert growth. These were hit. … A heavy pall of smoke drifted eastward and I ordered the centre gun crew out as they were unable to breathe properly. They page 202 came out with their rifles and I distributed them around in other trenches….
Neil McPhail took me in, he was only a few yards away. Neil's trench was one foot deep and built for one only. I lay on top of Neil and gave him a running commentary on the dying stages. I could see … forty-five tanks. Of course, a few were out of action and they were attacking various points but there were several right in front of us. I had been telling Neil they were coming closer and closer, then I said, ‘Ron Guthrie [Guthrey] and the Brens are walking out’; they were slightly on our right. About five minutes later I said, ‘If you care to look now, you will see a large German tank with a large gun pointing straight at us, estimated range fifteen yards.’ ‘Don't be silly,’ says Neil. ‘Take a look,’ says I. He did and saw a German with head out of the tank and inviting us to come out or else—. We were not asked to put our hands up but had to take our helmets off and walk through the tanks. As I did this I saw Brig Miles coming out on my left. Even at this stage I did not think of being a P.O.W. as I expected to be shot.
The custom of asking prisoners of war to remove their steel helmets was quite usual with the Germans and led to an unfortunate incident. Captain Quilter says:
Our Regimental Aid Post was in a very good wadi on the north side of Belhamed. One Hun tank drove through the area and the Hun officer told Doc Gilmour to take off his tin hat and be among the wounded and they would be all right. Gilmour did so, but after the, tank passed through there was some shelling and shrapnel fell in the RAP area. Gilmour put on his tin hat again and continued working among the wounded. The next tank shot him. The first tank officer came back, apologised for the incident, and explained they regarded a man wearing a tin hat as still armed.
Lieutenant McPhail gives his impressions:
Enemy tanks were heading for 4th, 5th, and 6th Field Ambulances who were on our left and slightly behind us. This area had a fringe of 18-pounders in front and these guns opened up and knocked out two tanks. They opened up late due to the difficulty of identifying tanks in the poor light, made worse by dust and smoke. In addition the code for the pennant system of identification had finished on Nov. 30th and we had not been given the code for the new month.
When the guns opened up the tanks swung immediately in their direction. This movement made us think they would miss us but some turned towards us and advanced by bounds, one moving and the others spraying the ground with machine-gun fire. Lt. Uttley was with me and at one stage the side of our slit trench, a one-man affair, was drilled away. The tanks that had passed through the page 203 hospital area swung round in a circle behind us, firing steadily all the time. We had no option but to surrender when the tank commanders said ‘Aus!’.
Lance-Corporal McConchie41 of the pioneer platoon was in position near B Company and gives some idea of the way in which the tank attack was opposed:
Shortly after dawn … word went round to stand by for an AFV attack. We had had several warnings of this nature on previous days with negative results and this time did not really expect anything to eventuate. In about twenty minutes' time, I spotted a column of about a dozen tanks advancing up a wide wadi about 800 yds distant, but I thought they were our own tanks, as I could see the artillery preparing breakfast over in the Bde area about 500 yds away, and they did not appear to be disturbed at the appearance of the column. It was very hazy and dusty and my P1 remained watching these tanks unable to decide whether they were friendly or otherwise.
The first indication we received that they were enemy tanks was flashes from their guns firing in the direction of the Bde area. At this stage the tanks were three hundred yds slightly to our right and something like seven hundred yds from the Bde area. By this time the artillery started to get moving and four quads came tearing over to the left flank of B Coy's position, but only three guns actually went into action. Coming across from Bde one of these guns was hit when about half-way across and remained there with the quad burning. The first column of tanks advanced on to the Bde area setting afire several trucks and another column following close behind comprising round about fifteen tanks turned and commenced a zig-zag attack on our positions, their apparent objectives being two 2 pdr A Tk guns a hundred yds to my rear and the 25 pdrs to my left flank. The German tanks advanced in threes, each tank supplying protection for the other two. When about 150 yds distant the tanks stopped and threw over several smoke bombs which exploded round about the Arty guns making direct shooting for them very difficult. The 2 pdr at my rear opened fire but was soon put out of action…. Through the haze and smoke we could see enemy mortar and machine-gun units coming up in the rear. A/Sjt. Lockhead [Lochhead] ordered us to open fire on these units, and at once we could see that this fire was having very good effect as the enemy quickly went to ground. My particular target was three m/c combinations and I had great satisfaction at seeing two of these careering round out of control with the seats empty. All this time we were expecting to see our own tanks put in an appearance, as shortly before the enemy opened fire a British Tank Officer page 204 informed us our tanks were coming in on the right flank. This English Captain was making a great joke of it all, and told us to make sure and fire at the slits of the enemy tanks; he walked away but had only gone a few yards when one of the forward enemy tanks opened fire with its heavy machine-gun—I heard a groan and I looked round and saw this Officer lying on the ground. I waited a few moments and then crawled over and dragged him into a hole close by…. Three enemy tanks directly out in front started to advance once again and I had visions of being run over and squashed. However they came to a halt sixty yds in front. A/Sjt. Lockhead ordered us to fire at the slits and we opened fire. I fired half a magazine but received such a hail of bullets in return I decided it was useless firing at a tank once he had spotted you. Private ‘Gun’ Leckie42 in a trench a few yards to my right was firing steadily with a Boyes [sic] A Tk Rifle. Apparently he was annoying the tanks as twice I saw the turret swing round and send a hail of bullets in his direction. He bobbed down each time the turret swung round and up again and continued firing when the tank was concentrating on other objects. He ran out of ammunition, yelled out for more, which we threw over to him. ‘Gun’ Leckie then continued firing and we could actually see the bullets bouncing off the tank, it was so close. Suddenly, and very quickly the turret swung round, and the tank opened fire with its 75 mm, ‘Gun’ Leckie receiving a direct hit from the shell, which also destroyed the Boyes A Tk Rifle and blew away part of the parapet. The tank could not have been more than fifty yards away from him at the time.
The German tank formation … gave … full protection to each supporting tank from any attack with infantry A Tk bombs….
I glanced over to my left and saw one 25 pdr still firing, but the remainder were going up in smoke. After the tanks had knocked out this remaining gun, three or four tanks moved round to the left flank of C Coy completely surrounding our particular area. I concentrated on my front, firing at the Germans in the rear, and when I happened to glance over to my left received a big surprise to see C Coy coming out with their hands up. This was roughly an hour after the commencement of the action. I looked over to my right, and there was A Coy coming out with their hands up, and we stopped firing, and lay down in our holes, as low as we could, thinking we might be missed. However, one of the heavy tanks came rumbling up, turret opened; a German appeared with a Tommy-gun, pointed it at us, and in a very guttural voice said ‘Op, op’. We got out.
A Bty of 25 pdrs a fair way away were still firing and the Germans herded us back towards the Mosque very quickly. On the way we passed several German tanks, and I took particular notice of them page 205 as on the majority of the bogey-wheels the rubber was completely worn off which explained the peculiar creaking noise these tanks made when on the move. Also, behind each tank was a huge pile of firewood attached with a chain, apparently with the object of raising dust. We passed close to a Hun mortar unit in action and had a good view of their methods, which did not appear to differ very much from our own, except the crews seemed to have more rythm [sic], all moving at exactly the same time. The Germans, in, our own captured ambulances (about six of them), were driving round the battlefield collecting their wounded, and as they passed on their return journeys I could see that our fire must have had very good effect, as each ambulance was crowded—so crowded that the slightly wounded were even standing on the running boards. The Germans had an ADS alongside the Mosque, and we carried our own wounded there.
Because of heavy casualties in the rifle companies the carrier platoon had been given a static role in the centre of the battalion front. The platoon's story is told by Sergeant McDonald:43
Our platoon had a front of 200 yards with a depth of about 40 yards. There were four Bren guns in the forward positions and three in the rear, with two men to each gun. The Carriers were dispersed to the rear of the gun positions. The drivers had dug slit trenches near their Carriers….
The troops were all in good spirits. In conversation with men from the Coys on our right and left [D and B Companies] the previous day they all expressed pleasure at the fact that our platoon was there with seven extra Bren guns and I heard some say they hoped the Germans would make an attack and that we would chop them to pieces.
McDonald's description of the early stages of the attack is the same as Lance-Corporal McConchie's. He continues:
I heard from my right and to the front shouts of ‘Don't shoot’ and I knew that they were Germans adopting their usual tactics.
There was at this time nothing for our Bren guns to engage, but then more tanks came into view with anti-tank guns towed by motor vehicles. I immediately opened fire, range about 500 yards. Motor cycle machine gun units followed and there were quite a number of Germans running about from vehicles to guns, etc. They were engaged by us with good results. Two large calibre guns mounted on four wheeled carriages then moved up. Neither of these got into action.
For the first part of the attack the tanks did not engage us, that page 206 is, of course, those 9 I could see from my position, but with the arrival of their supporting weapons, two tanks turned and directed their fire at us, although they did not approach closer than 300 yards. We had been firing almost continuously for some time and I was beginning to consider the advisability of conserving ammunition, not knowing how long we would have to hold out and expecting infantry to follow up the AFV attack. During a pause at this stage I had a look over to my left and was surprised to see men with their hands up about 250 yards away. At first I thought they were Germans and wondered how they had got there but then noticed the flat steel helmets of our own troops. I could not understand what had happened. In the meantime there was still plenty of enemy movement to the front and we carried on shooting and were getting heavy fire in return. The tanks in addition to their MGs were firing anti-tank at us. They had also closed in to closer range. About this time which I think would be fifteen minutes after I had noticed the others with their hands up, Mr Guthrey shouted my name and told me to put my hands up, which my gunner and I did. … I confess that for about the next half hour I was in a daze. Surrendering was something that I had never considered possible and yet there it was. I do know that when I got up I could see three tanks a short distance away to the left.
A Company was the third to be overrun. Its OC, Captain Baker, records his experiences thus:
About daylight German artillery shelled 4 Bde … with air bursts and HE. … I took a bearing on the enemy gun flashes from my Coy HQ and went over to inform Bn, leaving them to work out the position of the guns as I had no maps. While I was there enemy tanks appeared round the west end of the mosque and Captain Quilter told me to go round the coy and warn them to prepare for a tank attack. I went to each Platoon HQ and pointed out the tanks. At this stage the Bn area was shelled.
The tanks moved eastwards across our front in the direction of the arty area. About this time the officer in charge of the 2-pr fifty yards behind my HQ came forward and we …. debated whether we should engage them as the range was rather far for a 2-pr to be effective. He returned to his gun which fired only about six rounds before it was silenced by a direct hit from a Mark IV tank 75-mm gun. Soon afterwards the 18-pr behind C Coy was also silenced.
From then on the situation was confused. I had no telephone to Bn HQ, and had had no orders since those of the previous night to stay where we were. We certainly had no orders to withdraw.
The tanks moving east seemed to be making for 4th Bde where I hoped they would be engaged by our own. They had engaged our own arty and our area was under spasmodic MG fire. I was page 207 personally fired on four times as I raised my head to see what was going on. There were infantry with the tanks, although I could not see exactly where the fire came from, and from where we were, in the second line of defence, we could not see much to fire at.
About this time an incendiary shell struck the pit of mortar bombs and a pall of smoke drifted across B and C Coys. Shortly afterwards I could see C Coy going forward with their hands up. We still could not see any enemy. Then four Mark IV's came through the smoke and sat about fifty yards from my slit trench….
The Hun tank commanders were very businesslike, and stood up through the turrets with tommy guns, waving us out on to the flat. There were dismounted troops with them. They made us take off our tin hats and throw them on the ground…. There was no chance of escape after the tanks appeared out of the smoke, but when I looked towards the 18th Bn there was no one in their positions. In the early stages the tanks appeared to be going past our area but after they swung towards us anyone who had tried to escape back over the escarpment would have had very little chance.
D Company was the last to be encircled and resisted all-comers to the bitter end. Second-Lieutenant Wilson had suffered a painful shoulder wound in the two-company attack on 27 November but had returned after treatment, though still far from well. He describes the last stages of the disaster:
Although we had such reduced numbers the men were in good fettle. We fired all we had at the motor cycles and lorried infantry —rifles, Bren guns and mortars. We were raked by machine-gun and mortar fire as the tanks came in. Our orders were to hang on and we did so. Each company was overrun in turn as the tanks came round and up through our area. I saw a tank nearly running over Jack Quilter who was burning his maps and papers. I was on the extreme right flank, linking with the 18th and witnessed the break up of the 20th Battalion. There was no battalion order given to surrender. As the first platoons were overrun by the tanks the others carried on. We were finally overrun and, like others, just stood up and dropped our weapons. I wish it had been an infantry attack. They would never have reached us with similar arms to ourselves, or if they had they would have been met with the bayonet. There would have been no budging of an inch. However, riflemen can't overcome tanks.
Surrender was inevitable. There was no hope of continuing to fight or of escaping. To make it an honourable surrender for my men I gave them the order to do so. There were so few of them left and all had fought so well that I did not wish to see them killed at that stage.
Our orders had been to stay where we were. Not one of us had ever thought that we would surrender. It never entered our heads page 208 that we would or should. The realisation was instantaneous. Amongst our men who were captured I saw only one water bottle. We were days with little water. The 20th Battalion, by standing to, saved the rest. If we had pulled out nothing would have stopped the tanks before Brigade.
From these statements it is apparent that both before and during the attack the 20th had orders from Brigade Headquarters to stay in position and was promised tank support. At first it looked as if the battalion was going to be missed as the German tanks were making for the artillery. This is the only stage of the action at which the troops could have escaped but at that stage they were not being closely attacked, and to run away before they were attacked, against orders to stay in position, was not the way of the 20th. When the tanks swept round and in amongst them out of the dust and smoke it was too late to go; they would have been mown down by tank machine-gun fire.
That 18 Battalion escaped a similar fate was a stroke of good fortune. After overrunning D Company the tanks halted and regrouped, swinging round southwards and then advancing northwards towards the 18th. Peart executed a timely withdrawal, and a few hours later his battalion was firmly re-established behind the minefield half a mile to the west.
So ended the unequal fight. The unwounded walked away, the wounded were grouped for attention, and on bitter Belhamed lay only scattered scraps of personal equipment and the dead who had fought to the end.
About eight miles away, a prisoner in the captured New Zealand medical centre in the Wadi esc Sciomar, Colonel Kippenberger watched anxiously the swirl of dust and smoke around Belhamed and tried unhappily to piece together the story of his battalion's last stand. In a letter home a few weeks later he wrote:
Really, we don't know much of it. I was hit on the 26th and succeeded in turn by Mitchell, Fountaine, Agar and Orr, the last mentioned taking over on … [29 November]. At that time, the Bn. was still at Belhamed, a feature near Tobruk which we took on the night of the 25th and the Coy. strengths (130) were reported as A. Coy. 60, B 38, C 80, D 32, H.Q. and H.Q. Coy. (Mortars), Bren Carriers, A.A.Ptn, Signallers 76, a total of 286. There were page 209 9 Officers left. The men were tired after 10 days' fighting but the Padre says they were in great spirits. Belhamed is very rocky and trenches could not be got below 18”. 128 Men, the Tpt. Off. and Q.M. were not on the hill, Drivers, Cooks, Company Q. Staff, storemen, etc.
Just after first light, about 6.15, a powerful tank (55) and infantry attack developed and we know hardly any more…. The 18th, next door, were not attacked seriously and sidestepped out of the way with 50 casualties. The whole brunt of the blow fell on the 20th, 2 Batteries (16 guns) of the 6th Field Regt. (3rd Ech), a troop of Bofors A.A. guns, used for Anti-tank. The gunners died at their guns, layer replacing layer, till the tanks crushed them. The corps C.R.A., who has been over the field, says that every gun had 3 to 6 dead gunners. There was much dust and smoke from burning transport and tanks, for many were hit. The tank tactics were to approach to 800–1000 yds., stop hull down—just turret and gun showing, pound hell out of everything they could see with quick-firing 2 pdrs, 6 pdrs and M.G's, then the infantry would come through to mop-up. The 18th say that my Companies, fighting magnificently, beat them back three times, but gradually the return fire weakened and the tanks edged closer and closer. Then at 7.45 came a R/T message from Quilter, the Adjutant, to Brigade. ‘The tanks have broken through B. Coy. and are within 50 yds. The end’—and no more was heard…. prisoners were seen being marched away, but so far there is no word of who was hit except that the body of Gilmour, our M.O., gallant, debonaire … was found some days later. But most of our dead were buried by the Huns and the wounded removed. It is the end of as good a battalion as was ever in the King's service. Jim Burrows has taken over and is building anew with on foundation our ‘B’ team, including Charlie Upham, returned wounded from Crete and Greece, odds and ends from Base jobs and a proud tradition.page 210
The battalion's casualties in this campaign were:
|Killed in action||1||42*||43|
|Died of wounds||1||15||16|
|Wounded and prisoner of war||1||24||25|
|Prisoner of war||8||330†||338|
* * * * *
Back ‘home’ — very still and a quiet breeze blowing…. I am writing this just above the wadi which divides Belhamed from Sidi Rezegh, the wadi of the B and D Coys' battle of 27 November. Actually I'm nearer to the old mosque.
The place is full of thoughts and ghosts of the past — and the litter of battle(s) is still around. There on Belhamed are those slabs of white rock into which we tried to put pick and shovel on that night we arrived there…. I've tried for three days to reach here from Tobruk and this morning I succeeded and I've wandered around at my leisure and with my thoughts. It's a risky journey and parts of Belhamed are mined still.
I recall so vividly the night of the assault here and the damn compass bearing I was given and Kip saying ‘Go on, you're on the right bearing.’ Then our hectic trip with Chas Macdonald [McDonald] — the attack by our own tanks — you with a handful of red paybooks and your making of long, detailed lists. I think you went back for a blanket and then returned (?) — and then Harry Beale with his news of ‘1000 Australians and 50 tanks will come here from Tobruk — go around — tell each platoon and each section.’ I recall how happy the chaps were to get this news and on each time around each platoon offered food and tea — and the burning truck (no sign) — and … Orr saying ‘You Deutchland bastard’…. Then there was Spicer with his field glasses and his true forecast, ‘These are not our tanks, they're bloody Huns.’ Tell Tom Jackson (the page 211 Bishop of York) that it's too hot to count his 1,068 (?) steps from the starting line — the steps which Paddy Boyle went on counting after the Jerries opened up fire.
As I write now I'm right beside the mosque — the one to which we marched during the first few hours of captivity. To me it seems slightly different but it's very battered and all about lie heaps of twisted wire, some broken iron beds, washing bowls, pieces of tattered cloth, and boots, green in colour and shrunk to almost child's size by the sun. Do you recall the German doctor coming forth and saying ‘Are there any wounded among you?’ There were some German graves, you might remember, just near by…. All morning I've been a little scared of mines — and a little superstitious — perhaps I'm tempting Fate too much. To me this land has more ‘pull’ and interest than all the grand places of the world and I think you would agree. I don't mean as a place to live. I mean that this spot holds more interest for me than for example, the tombs of the Mamelukes.
It's so quiet here …, just the slight breeze. A Bedouin is tending a flock of goats about a mile away. Some minutes ago, when crossing the B and D Coy battle flat I stopped and spoke to two Senussi tribesmen who came from two tents. Now, 14 years ago two tents were pitched very close to where these ones are — it all seems so odd…. On and around Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh I can still see old trenches and old stone sangars — perhaps not ours as other battles raged over here since our day. I've been up and down the Trigh Capuzzo, now in a shocking state, and I've wandered towards Bir el Chleta, but not the full distance, and about half an hour ago I passed by Ed Duda and thought of the Essex Regiment there in '41 — and of the Essex lads who visited our dugout in the weeks previous to the attack. My map is an old army one — how familiar it all seems now — it's a ‘1: 250,000 Egypt & Cyrenaica-Salum-Tobruch’ — revised 1942 – and how familiar do these names read and sound now — Gambut – Point 172 — and at the other end El Adem to where I went this morning and from where I came along the escarpment to Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh. I came to a well with a battered concrete post on which was written ‘Bir Sidi Rezegh’. I tried to photograph it but the sun was against me.
…. Getting out here has been most difficult. I've no rank, no standing, no strings to pull — a complete stranger — a tramp who has come to Tobruk. I'm very tired mentally. Everybody, or rather most people told me I am mad. One official said, ‘You haven't a chance old man — you're just wasting your time — besides, it's very dangerous.’ (20,000 Arabs have been killed since the end of the war with mines and unexploded shells, I was told.)
4 These were probably Captain Briel's armoured half-track carriers, frequently mistaken for tanks.
15 This was a slip of the pen—C and D were the leading companies.
17 This incident was reported in Africa Division's war diary as an attempt to capture ‘Strongpoint 903’.
25 After the war, on the testimony of repatriated prisoners of war, Lochhead was awarded the DCM, mainly for his part in this attack.
27 The times given by McPhail and Wilson are difficult to reconcile with the starting time of the attack (11 a.m.) as given in the battalion diary.
29 The belief that the German pocket was ready to surrender arose as a result of the ‘parleying’ with the two stretcher-bearers. The subsequent fighting was to show that the assumption was far from the truth, and for the two companies concerned, a costly misjudgment.
37 18 Battalion stayed where it was for some time after the 20th had been overrun, then withdrew some 700 yards westwards behind a minefield previously laid by the Germans.
38 Seven Matilda tanks, seven two-pounders, and a company of the Buffs were used to reinforce the eastern front.
45 The Colonel escaped from the dressing station in a lorry with a party of twenty (including Captain Rhodes and Second-Lieutenant Boyle) on the morning of 4 December. Arriving safely at Baggush a few days later, he was greeted by General Freyberg with the words, ‘You're a Brigadier!’ and on recovering from his wound took command of 5 Brigade.