20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 8 — Rebuilding after Battle
Rebuilding after Battle
Throughout 30 November the Battalion B Echelon group near Zaafran had experienced heavy shelling and mortaring. At 3 a.m. on 1 December Captain Agar, with the padre and transport officer, led a convoy consisting of all the B Echelon vehicles except the battalion's tactical transport on a slow and difficult move to Tobruk. Passing through the perimeter defences, the convoy drove to a bivouac area on the other side of the town. During the day news filtered through that the rifle companies on Belhamed had been overrun by tanks. Only one man, Lance-Corporal Glover,1 a signaller, had escaped. During the attack it had seemed clear to him that the battalion had little chance of beating off the tanks, and just before the unit was overrun he took a chance and dashed back over the escarpment. He made his way north-west, ultimately joining a vehicle at the tail of a convoy and travelling to Tobruk.
On the night of 2-3 December Captain Agar and all available men, including cooks and quartermaster's staff, were sent as reinforcements to 18 Battalion on the escarpment west of Belhamed. They were put in a forward position facing the mosque. No action was experienced, but at 2.50 p.m. on 4 December the men watched the Border Regiment make a bayonet attack that closely resembled the unfortunate action fought by B and D Companies only a week before. At 6.30 p.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Peart was asked to repeat the attempt with his unit, but to everyone's relief wiser counsels prevailed. Several days later, when a patrol found no enemy out in front, all 20 Battalion men were sent back to Tobruk, where enemy air raids made life much less safe than on the escarpment.
Padre Spence had accompanied the men out to the 18 Battalion area and during the week spent in Tobruk he visited page 213 soldiers of the Eighth Army in hospital. On 7 December he held a church service for 4 Brigade Group.
Next day, the battle having moved westward, the convoy left on the return journey to Egypt. In a short time it became widely scattered and soon resolved itself into a number of small groups, each making its way to the border with all speed. Passing through the Wire, the convoy laagered for the night near a South African unit and two days later reached Baggush.
Meanwhile the remaining battalion vehicles left near Zaafran under the Quartermaster, Lieutenant Bolwell, had also been forced to withdraw rather hastily eastwards. Sergeant Lloyd Borthwick2 of the transport platoon describes their experiences:
On 1st December enemy shells landed in the area in increasing numbers. During the early afternoon RAF bombers flew over and dropped their bombs so close that we fired at them. Actually they were bombing the enemy but at the time we did not know that he was so close. Captain Bolwell drove off to Brigade and on his return told us to move over the plateau in ones and twos to avoid dust and prevent Jerry from knowing that we were evacuating. However, he had come closer and lead was flying in all directions. The whole show moved out at high speed, which wasn't a bad idea as he couldn't aim at us properly for the dust. The water truck broke down but was towed out by the Battalion Orderly Room 3-tonner and all our transport escaped without damage. Many trucks from other units joined in the stampede but the 20th drivers kept in two groups. This was fortunate for me as during a halt we brought our vehicles together and reported to the Brigade Major at the head of the column. Discipline was excellent, and even at the beginning drivers kept in line.
We went forty odd miles east. After two hours' sleep all units formed up correctly and at 2.40 p.m. passed through the ‘wire’ into Egypt.
The move back to Baggush was completed at noon on 5 December when Lieutenant Bolwell and his convoy of 37 vehicles and 77 men rejoined the officers and men of the battalion who had been left out of battle at their camp near Sidi Haneish station. Next day the battalion moved into the area occupied by B Company prior to the campaign.
Company areas were re-established on 8 December and when Captain Agar, Second-Lieutenant Beauchamp, Padre Spence page 214 and twenty-six men reported in from Tobruk later in the day the strength of the unit stood at 10 officers and 127 men.
The LOB4 personnel consisted of a few officers from Headquarters and the rifle companies plus NCO's and men unfit through injury, or on courses or leave. Several small parties of these were despatched to join the unit but got no further than Corps Headquarters by 1 December, and consequently rejoined what was left of the 20th when it pulled back across the wire.
To those who were still in the unit the realisation of the disaster was felt most forcibly during the parades which were held in the reorganisation period at Baggush. Faces one had got to know so well were just not where they should have been. The uncertainty as to what had happened to one's friends added to the sense of loss. It was a sad period, but helped by the vitality of the new blood among the reinforcements. This, and the spirit of the 20th which existed among the LOB's gradually helped the new unit to take shape.
On 9 December Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows took command of the battalion, replacing Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger. During the next few days the battalion received reinforcements to the number of 23 officers and 291 other ranks. Many of them were ex-20th men who came hastily back from courses and training depots when they heard of the disastrous depletion of their unit. On 14 December a sergeant and thirty men, previously attached to 18 Battalion, arrived from Tobruk, bringing the number of ‘original’ officers and men—those in the battalion before the last campaign—to 10 officers and 183 other ranks.
By 15 December the battalion officers were up to strength. Their leader, as previously stated, was Colonel Burrows, whose quiet mien and force of character made him a worthy successor to ‘Kip’. The second-in-command was Major Paterson, D Company's original commander, who had commanded Headquarters Company in Crete. Second-Lieutenant Gibb became Adjutant and Second-Lieutenant Sullivan, who had proved himself so thoroughly in Greece and Crete, was the Intelligence Officer. The Quartermaster was Lieutenant Bolwell. At that stage he and Padre Spence were two of the most battle- page 215 experienced officers in the unit. Major McKergow commanded Headquarters Company, Captain Washbourn, A Company, and Captain Agar, B Company. Lieutenant Upham took over C Company. Men recalled how, when told that he would be LOB for the Libyan campaign, Upham had thrown his equipment on the sand and wanted to know what he was doing in Egypt anyway. Lieutenant Maxwell, who had been through Greece and Crete, took over D Company. The subalterns included a leavening of original 20th men, with others of the 5th and 6th Reinforcements keen to prove their worth. Lieutenant Feltham5 was the new RMO.
The NCOs also included quite a number of old hands. RSM ‘Uke’ Wilson's parade-ground manner was such that reinforcements soon knew that they had become a part of the 20th. ‘Gus’ Gray6 became CSM of A Company, ‘Wally’ Johnson7 of B, Bob May returned from hospital to carry on the spirit of Grooby in C, and ‘Algy’ Hayes8 rose to senior NCO in D Company. Many of the large number of platoon NCOs required were drawn from the LOBs and well-tried ‘originals’. Promotions were rapid; in fact, promotion in a fighting battalion seemed to be mostly a matter of survival.
The period at Baggush was very wet but it was no time to sit about brooding. Training began with equipment lent by 18 and 19 Battalions and soon successive drafts of reinforcements brought Headquarters and the rifle companies up to strength. The training syllabus for 15–21 December included platoon drill and weapon training, an hour's bayonet training each day, platoon exercises in attack and defence, route marches, exercises in desert formation and the use of scouts, and night marches and patrols on two nights a week.
Over the signature of the new Adjutant appeared a significant footnote to the training syllabus:
During the afternoon periods Coys will ensure that personnel who appear backward in Weapon Training receive extra instruction under the supervision of the Coy Weapon Training Officer.page 216
The reputation of the battalion was obviously in safe hands.
On Christmas Day Brigadier Kippenberger visited the unit, receiving a warm welcome, especially from the ‘old hands’. It was a sad visit for him, with so few of his old friends still with the battalion and the fate of so many uncertain. Christmas dinner, however, was an immediate success, with turkey the star item on the menu.
The war diary for 31 December records briefly, ‘General New Year celebrations.’ Sergeant Monteath expands this a little:
By the time the festive season arrived there was a certain amount of resemblance to the old 20th in that those old hands present, in order to let off steam, turned on one of the best fireworks displays ever seen during its history. It was just not safe to be above ground on New Year's Eve. Everyone was firing anything he had, 25- pounders were in action, as well as enemy weapons and flares. At one stage a signal from rear units wanted to know if a coast landing had been made in the area. No doubt the beer issue helped.
After a short period of training the battalion moved by train on 6 January to Maadi, where on the 8th there arrived six doughty men who had escaped from Benghazi. They were Sergeant C. C. McDonald, Corporals E. Karst9 and R. Lumsden, Lance-Corporal P. A. McConchie, and Privates J. Nixon10 and T. Kidd.11 They wore impressive-looking beards and were duly photographed before shaving them off. The heartiness of their welcome was equalled only by their delight at being back in the battalion.
On 14 January all who had been members of the unit before the Libyan campaign assembled at afternoon tea to bid farewell to Brigadier Kippenberger, who was relinquishing command of the Training Group at Maadi to take command of 5 Brigade. Regulations forgotten for the occasion, he was presented with a set of decanters and a shooting stick, suitably inscribed, as a token of esteem.12 The inscription read: ‘To Brigadier H. K. Kippenberger, from those members of the 20th Battalion who were privileged to serve under him.’page 217
Training continued and included live practices at the battle range at Abbassia and on the ranges at Wadi Tih. At the latter, unofficial practice shoots with a captured spandau machine gun added considerable interest. At a brigade group shooting competition a team from B Company won the Bren-gun teams' shoot.
During the last week in January the battalion moved to Kabrit to undergo training in combined operations. Companies practised pulling boats, did exercises in assault landing craft, learnt to handle the special equipment and scaling ladders. Choppy water on the Great Bitter Lake had the usual effect on indifferent sailors, who found manoeuvres on the Sinai shore welcome after a rough twenty-minute crossing.
As a contrast, on 3 February the battalion moved out in transport for four days' field exercises in which the troops carried out attacks from lorries and practised moves in desert formation. Further field training began on the 16th with a three-day exercise which culminated in an attack using live ammunition and with artillery and machine-gun support. Further training included the laying and lifting of mines and the use of explosives.
On 23 February warning was received of a move to Syria. A German invasion southwards through Turkey to the Middle East oilfields and the Suez Canal was possible, and the defensive scheme included tasks for the New Zealand Division.
4 LOB: left out of battle.
12 Still in his possession and treasured as priceless mementoes.