CHAPTER 5 — Libya 1941
Helwan, some fifteen miles south of Cairo, was (and probably still is) a small spa where fashionable Egyptians took the waters. It was also the generic name of a very large area of desert in which was situated one of the main camps for the British forces near Cairo. A New Zealand General Hospital took over a hotel in Helwan in July 1940, and from time to time 2 NZ Division trained in the desert, where it pitched tents around the Naafi and other permanent buildings. To reach Garawi, a part of Helwan Camp, you marched south from the Helwan railway station across a large flat wadi known as ‘Sunstroke Plain’.
The day after disembarking at Alexandria the men of 21 Battalion entrained for Helwan. They were met at the station by Captain Tongue and Second-Lieutenants Wilson and Phillips, whom everybody had thought were prisoners in Greece. Hands were shaken and backs slapped. But that was only the start. In the battalion lines at Garawi a welcome-home party had been organised by a reception committee, some of whom were from hospital, some from Base, and some from the Peneios Gorge via Turkey or Cyprus. With the 169 men evacuated from Crete, the battalion strength was now 17 officers and 255 other ranks.
Parades for pay and essential clothing were followed by seven days' leave for all men from Crete. They returned to more parades for clothing, equipment, medical boards, and the marching in of 530 reinforcements. A new unit had to be built on the foundations of the old, and when routine orders issued a stern warning that mosquito nets were not to be cut up and used as covers for food containers, the veterans realised that they were back in training again.
Officers and prospective officers departed to and returned from courses. Major E. A. Harding marched out to 31 Infantry Training Battalion, and Major R. W. Harding marched in from the same training unit to succeed his brother as second- page 109 in-command to Colonel Allen. Headquarters Company was commanded by Captain Fitzpatrick,1 a Second Echelon man who had been OC4 (Infantry) Anti-Tank Company until it was disbanded; Major Trousdale went to A Company; Lieutenant Yeoman was promoted to captain and given B Company; Captain Tongue returned to C Company; and Captain McElroy, who speedily wangled his way out of hospital after being wounded in Crete, took over D Company.
At first there was considerable movement amongst the officers and men: subalterns snarled at chits demanding returns of men with experience in occupations that would remove them from rifle companies to specialist platoons; section leaders found their commands changing daily as the sifting and probing went on; senior NCOs were no sooner appointed than they departed to schools of instruction. But gradually sections, platoons, and companies shook down and got to know each other. Scraps of Greek were discarded for the Arabic equivalents; ‘Greekos’ became ‘Wogs’ and grapes and Greek wines were succeeded by ‘Or-in-ges very good, man-dar-ins very cheap’. By the middle of July the unit had been reformed and was almost capable of taking the field again. On 26 July 5 Brigade moved to the Suez Canal area where, first at Kabrit2 and then at Geneifa, it underwent a course of night marching on compass bearings, desert battle tactics, and its first experience of combined operations.
By the end of August 5 Brigade was ready for training in real desert conditions, and 21 Battalion, with the rest of the brigade, moved into the Western Desert to work on reserve defensive positions in a corridor where the impassable Qattara Depression came to within forty miles of the sea at El Alamein,3 sixty miles west of Alexandria. On flat tablelands above escarpments, Fortress A, better known as the Kaponga Box, was built by the brigade. For a month the troops accustomed themselves to desert conditions, with water rationed to one and a half page 110 pints daily. Tank ditches were dug, minefields laid, and supplies of food, water, and ammunition stored against a siege.
The brigade had its first lessons in desert mobile operations at the Kaponga Box. The necessity of moving an army on wheels, with flexibility in manoeuvre and defence, produced the drill that became almost second nature—the famous ‘desert formation’. Tactically it was an arrangement of units and brigade groups whereby they were constantly deployed whether moving or stationary. Essentially the idea was that vehicles invariably occupied the same place relative to each other when moving in formation across the desert. A chessboard with the black squares representing vehicles and the white squares the desert is a convenient illustration of desert formation for a battalion. The four corners of the board were occupied by the four rifle companies, with vehicles three abreast at 200 yards' intervals. Battalion Headquarters travelled in the front centre with the Intelligence Officer navigating; following Battalion Headquarters were the various elements of Headquarters Company, with the QM trucks between the two rear companies. When artillery was attached one troop was in position stretched across the front for quick anti-tank protection, and one troop in two lines behind the leading companies. Anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns fitted into the general scheme. Upon an alarm the carriers formed an outer screen, the vehicles closed on a flank or centre, and the infantry and anti-tank guns formed a perimeter around the artillery and the medical and other services. While the guns dropped trails the troops put out dannert wire and dug slit trenches.
In the first week of October the brigade joined the Division in the Baggush Box,4 on the coast 80-odd miles farther west. The move was made in desert formation. At night a close laager was formed with the artillery outside the perimeter. It gave the older soldiers the greatest pleasure to chaff the gunners at being in the forefront for once in their lives.
About this time vehicles were fitted with sun compasses and drivers soon became expert in finding their way around page 111 the desert. Company messes occasionally had a change of menu when a gazelle, more curious than prudent, permitted a truck to get within easy rifle range.
It is elementary and fundamental that wars are not won without fighting, and signs were not wanting that the training period was nearly over. Early in November there was a brigade parade for the Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces (General Sir Claude Auchinleck); practice moves in desert formation were interspersed with extra-keen kit inspections, coupled with instructions that all diaries be sent to Base; then, too, inspections of the battalion's arms were more than usually solicitous; and finally there was an informal talk by Brigadier Hargest on general conduct in battle, with an outline of what might happen in desert warfare.
Veiled references to forthcoming manoeuvres did not pass unnoticed. Neither did the departure of a reconnaissance party composed of Colonel Allen, Major Trousdale, Major Fitzpatrick, Captain Tongue and Captain Yeoman. It was whispered that they had gone far beyond the outpost line.
Nor did the goings on in D Company pass unnoticed. Captain McElroy left on a tour of duty at Base and was succeeded by Captain Trolove,5 an officer who had left New Zealand with the Second Echelon in 5 Brigade's anti-tank company. D Company left Baggush as guard to an ASC convoy carrying petrol. The wires connecting the headlights and horns on the trucks were disconnected to ensure silence and secrecy.
Further evidence that the battalion was about to take part in an offensive was the detailing of seven officers and 50 other ranks to remain behind as LOB personnel.6 That was carrying the game of ‘Let's pretend’ a little too far, even for the most credulous.page 112
The officers who served with 21 Battalion in the Libyan campaign of November 1941 were:
|CO: Lt-Col J. M. Allen||killed|
|Adj: Capt G. A. Dutton||PW|
|QM: Capt G. H. Panckhurst||wounded|
|IO: 2 Lt J. H. Money||wounded and PW|
|MO: Lt G. H. Levien|
|Padre: Rev Fr W. Sheely|
|Mr R. H. Busfield||PW|
|OC: Maj T. V. Fitzpatrick||wounded|
|Sigs Pl: Lt G. E. Moore||wounded|
|AA Pl: 2 Lt H. K. Anderson||wounded|
|Transport Pl: 2 Lt W. K. King|
|Mortar Pl: 2 Lt F. E. Wilson||PW|
|Pioneer Pl: 2 Lt S. E. Carr||wounded|
|Carrier Pl: 2 Lt G. E. Cairns||wounded|
|OC: Maj A. C. Trousdale||wounded|
|2 i/c: Capt C. A. Ferguson||PW|
|Lt W. J. G. Roach||wounded|
|2 Lt C. P. Hutchinson||PW|
|OC: Capt A. A. Yeoman||wounded and PW|
|2 Lt V. J. Tanner||wounded|
|2 Lt M. R. Faull||killed|
|OC: Capt W. M. Tongue||PW|
|Lt H. H. W. Smith||PW|
|2 Lt E. G. MacPherson||PW|
|OC: Capt F. J. Trolove||wounded|
|2 i/c: Capt A. C. Turtill||killed|
|Lt W. K. Henton||with prisoner-of-war cage|
|2 Lt C. R. Hargrave||wounded and PW|
Security, of course, was all important; even if it was not possible to conceal the fact that an offensive was being prepared, it was essential that the time and direction remain a secret. To this end the polite fiction was maintained that all moves were purely incidental to training, and orders for a divisional exercise issued on 10 November made innocent reading.
This is where we pay off for Greece and Crete. This time we've got tanks and planes, the latest models fresh from the factory with the paint still wet on them. Tanks with power-driven turrets, mind you, even though their two-pounder guns might be a bit light, tanks that can fire on the move while Jerry mostly has to stop before he can shoot. And no roads for the Luftwaffe to follow strafing transport. Remember 42nd Street, the only time we had a fair go?
Fifth Brigade Group left for Divisional Exercise No. 4 on Armistice Day, 11 November. The assembly area was 30 miles south-west of Mersa Matruh and the route was along the main road to the Matruh turn-off, then along the Siwa track. The column of 1006 staff cars, guns, trucks, lorries, ambulance cars and Bren carriers, spaced ten to the mile, would have been more than a hundred miles long had the journey continued so far. As it was the head of the column was in position before the tail started to move. The men from Greece and Crete kept one eye on the sky, but the only wings over them were friendly. Things were different now.
On arrival the units formed up in the now familiar desert formation, every vehicle 200 yards from its neighbour by day and at visibility distance by night. Slit trenches were dug and a little training done, while the balance of the Division (including D Company) moved into the area. The concentration was completed on 14 November and, at a conference attended by officers down to company commanders at Divisional Headquarters, General Freyberg threw pretence aside and revealed that the Division was on more than an exercise. The whole Eighth Army was in motion, and the manoeuvre was nothing less than a gigantic turning movement around the inland flank of the frontier fortresses. The immediate intention was to destroy the enemy in Cyrenaica and relieve Tobruk. The long-term objective was to drive the enemy out of North Africa.page 114
Eighth Army comprised three main groups: 13 Corps, consisting of 4 Indian Division, 2 New Zealand Division and 1 Army Tank Brigade, was to isolate and eventually destroy the enemy positions on the frontier; 30 Corps, which included the bulk of the British armour, was to seek out and destroy the enemy armour; and the Oasis Group, which had the minor role of seizing oases in southern Cyrenaica and threatening the enemy lines of communication. The Indians were at first to hem in the frontier positions from east and south, while the main tank battle was being fought between Tobruk and the frontier. When conditions seemed favourable 2 NZ Division was to move round the escarpment and cut off the frontier fortresses from the west. At the same time the Tobruk garrison was to break out through the besieging enemy divisions and make contact with 30 Corps.
A long approach march from the assembly area across the flat plateau to the frontier wire south of Sidi Omar would be the first undertaking for the New Zealand Division. Starting on 15 November, the Division completed the 100-odd miles around the inland flank of the enemy's frontier defences in one day and four nights of travelling.
Eighth Army entered Libya on 18 November. The 21st Battalion passed through the Wire during the night of 18–19 November, with 4 Indian Division between it and Sidi Omar. The unit moved in fits and starts, conforming to the movement of the Division, until the afternoon of the 21st, when General Freyberg received orders to split the Division into brigade groups and move on different objectives. Sixth Brigade went north-west to reinforce the Support Group of 7 Armoured Division at Sidi Rezegh. Fourth Brigade went north to cut the Bardia-Tobruk road, and 5 Brigade moved north-east to contain the enemy forces in the Bardia-Sollum area.
The 21st Battalion was detached from 5 Brigade and was instructed to detail a platoon for guard duties at the prisoner-of-war cage at the gap in the wire and then to move on and capture Hafid Ridge, about ten miles west of Fort Capuzzo. No company commander wanted to lose a platoon on so ignoble a job when there was high adventure afoot, but D Company, whose officer commanding and second-in-command were page 115 both comparative newcomers to the unit, was awarded the doubtful distinction. Captain Trolove passed the buck in a masterly manner by leaving it to his two subalterns commanding platoons to toss for the job. Second-Lieutenant Hargrave7 won the toss and went on to get a bullet in the throat and be taken prisoner of war, while Lieutenant Henton8 took 18 Platoon back into Egypt9 and lived nearly another year.
Under command for the capture of Hafid Ridge were 47 Battery 5 Field Regiment, one platoon of medium machine guns, one troop of 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, and a detachment of 7 Field Company. The importance of Hafid Ridge, a mere fold in the sandy waste a few feet higher than the surrounding desert, lay in the fact that it dominated the rear of the enemy frontier defence line, which extended from Sollum to Sidi Omar.
Not long before dusk the battalion group halted in the Gabr el Meduar depression. It would be more correct to say it was hoped that the battalion was in Gabr el Meduar, but the almost featureless country did not seem to conform with the map. In actual fact the battalion was between two and three miles south-east of the area it was ordered to occupy; a dozen derelict tanks on the horizon, however, went some way to confirm the position of Hafid Ridge, where a tank battle had been fought in June 1941.
At first light patrols identified and reconnoitred Hafid Ridge; they reported that it was not occupied, but that there was a concentration of transport some distance to the south. Colonel Allen, before leaving to visit Brigade Headquarters, ordered a fighting patrol to take a closer look at the hostile transport threatening the right flank of the ridge. The patrol consisted of 15 Platoon C Company, one section of carriers, one section of three-inch mortars, one section of machine guns, and the forward observation officer of 47 Battery (Captain Crawford-Smith10).page 116
Before they moved off, however, Colonel Allen returned with revised orders. The battalion was now to attack Bir Ghirba11 as a diversion in support of 4 Indian Division, which was attacking Libyan Omar to the south. Bir Ghirba included the low ridge to the south-east of Hafid. Instead of being a fighting patrol, Captain Ferguson's force changed its role to that of a spearhead for the attack, with orders to clear what was thought to be an outpost before the battalion advanced on Bir Ghirba, while C Company, with a section of carriers and a section of machine guns, occupied Hafid Ridge.
There was some artillery fire as the entrucked patrol moved off, but it was not well directed and there were no casualties in the early stages. The objective was about three miles distant, and the vehicles felt their way cautiously to within half a mile of what appeared to be wire defences in front of enemy transport. Second-Lieutenant Cairns12 took his carrier section forward to investigate, and immediately a shower of shells and mortar bombs fell around them. The platoon debussed and went forward by sections, but enemy machine guns came into action and halted the advance. The forward observation officer got his guns onto targets and the mortars helped to keep the fire down a little, but men were being picked off as they lay on the flat desert taking what cover they could. By 11 a.m. 15 Platoon had only 20 unwounded men left, and Ferguson called Colonel Allen on the artillery line. He came up in a carrier and decided to commit the battalion to an assault.
The New Zealand cemetery at Sidi Rezegh
Returning from Libya, December 1941
Battalion Headquarters, Baggush
Flooded bivouac at El Adem
Regimental Aid Post, Alamein
At 1.30 p.m. A Company was ordered to attack between B Company and the patrol. It moved embussed until nearly level with B Company, and came under very heavy fire when the trucks halted. Within a few minutes half the vehicles were on fire or disabled. The company suffered severely before the troops were able to get out into open order. Major Trousdale and Lieutenant Roach were wounded, leaving Second-Lieutenant Hutchinson14 in command and 7, 8 and 9 Platoons commanded by Sergeants Ray Bonner15 and Ralph De Costa16 and Private Len Steiner17 respectively. With supporting fire from B Company and Ferguson's patrol, A Company got forward another 150 yards before it in turn was pinned down.
Corporal Avery18 describes A Company's part in the attack: Shortly before mid-day A Coy which was in reserve received instructions to move up in support of B Coy. The weather had now cleared and the approach was over very flat sandy country devoid of any cover. A Coy which was still in vehicles moved further forward under artillery fire and as the distance shortened came under mortar fire. Our own artillery was not giving close support but was firing at targets well back, and was possibly engaged on counter-battery work. The trucks were halted after going about 800 yards. The enemy was now using anti-tank guns in addition page 118 and before long all trucks excepting the OC's pick-up were either burning or destroyed. I counted ten vehicles that were knocked out. Two anti-tank shells went through the truck I was in, one passing through the centre of a roll of blankets on which we were sitting. The trucks were smartly vacated by the troops, many of whom were under fire for the first time, but who were nevertheless behaving in an exemplary manner. The volume of fire which now included that of small arms was intense and we moved forward in small rapid dashes of 25 yds. There were large sheets of water everywhere and although it had stopped raining the surface of the water was continually broken by shrapnel and falling sand. It was soon seen that nothing much could be done until the artillery dealt with the enemy's wire defences and machine gun positions which were behind the wire and on the forward slopes of a ridge. We could not engage the enemy effectively with small arms as we were still between 800 and 1000 yards away. The flat sand offered no cover and we couldn't get up to dig ourselves in, or mount our machine guns. We had no mortars or anti-tank weapons. Just discernible above the ridge were the turrets of two enemy tanks which from time to time changed positions and raked us with fire. We were suffering numerous casualties and our first-aid chaps were doing a great job.
We remained in this position throughout the afternoon. After dusk I returned to one of the trucks that had not been burnt out and picked up some dry rations and we dug in and made ourselves a little more comfortable.
The situation at 2.30 p.m. was that C Company had occupied Hafid Ridge, with only two casualties from long-range artillery fire, A and B Companies were pinned down, and D Company (less 18 Platoon) was held in reserve protecting B Echelon. The 47th Battery was firing continuously in an effort to silence the enemy tanks and guns, but for the second time 21 Battalion, with inadequate support, had been given an impossible job.
In actual fact the battalion was trying to capture the headquarters position of the Italian 55 Savona Division, defended by tanks, artillery, and machine guns firing from concrete pillboxes.
Extra artillery assistance was obtained from 5 Field Regiment, which detached a troop under Lieutenant Moir19 to report to Colonel Allen. Contact was maintained with Moir by page 119 the roundabout means of first Major Trousdale and then Second-Lieutenant Hutchinson getting directions through by company No. 18 set to the Carrier Platoon's No. 18 set and then to Battalion Headquarters' No. 18 set, by runner to the battery commander, and finally by R/T (radio-telephony) to gun position officers.
Except for one short period while the ammunition was being replenished, the guns were never silent. At least one tank was destroyed and an ammunition dump set on fire. There was a terrific explosion followed by other and smaller ones during the night. There was, however, no apparent slackening of small-arms fire, and Allen asked Brigade for another company to assist the attack. The request was not granted, as all battalions were being employed, but permission was eventually given to withdraw C Company from Hafid Ridge.
At 5 p.m. C Company was ordered by R/T to return and attack on the left of A Company. It was almost dark when C Company debussed on the left of A Company and behind Captain Ferguson's group. Sergeant Kibblewhite, with 13 Platoon, passed through the sorely tried 15 Platoon. (Kibblewhite lost contact with his platoon and after a skirmish with enemy troops was taken prisoner next day.) There was no wire on this sector and the platoon advanced into the minefield. The red and green tracer bullets showed that the enemy had at least thirty machine guns covering his front. C Company found patches of dead ground and waited for orders.
It was now blowing a howling gale, and the stiff and half-frozen troops were glad to get out of the mud they had been lying in all the afternoon. The night was dark, with the sky clouded over, but a three-ton truck which burned all night was an excellent landmark. Casualties sustained by nightfall were 13 killed and 65 wounded.
It had been impossible to move the wounded in daylight, but they were gathered into trucks after dark and evacuated. Colonel Allen and the company commanders held a conference and agreed to attack again two hours before dawn, but while the details were being worked out, Captain Dutton came up with a message from Divisional Headquarters that the battalion was to withdraw.page 120
The companies came out independently and returned to B Echelon at Gabr el Meduar. The supporting arms ceased to be under command and the battalion spent the morning reorganising.
While 21 Battalion was lying out in the muddy desert at Bir Ghirba the tank battle had suddenly turned against Eighth Army, and 6 New Zealand Brigade was ordered to move post-haste to the assistance of the support group of 7 Armoured Division beleaguered at Sidi Rezegh.
The news became worse, and 4 Brigade was ordered west through Gambut on the main road from Bardia to Tobruk to form a two-brigade front with 6 Brigade. Divisional Headquarters followed behind 6 Brigade, while in the meantime 5 Brigade had to blockade the frontier forts from the west until relieved by the Indians. The 21st Battalion, not needed for this task, travelled west in divisional reserve. Dawn on 24 November found the unit above the escarpment overlooking Bir el Chleta, with Divisional Headquarters and 20 Battalion laagered below. Twenty miles westward the Tobruk garrison had already started its sortie, but had halted on account of the unfavourable situation.
Our armoured forces were now severely mauled and almost out of the battle, and on the 23rd the enemy tanks had overwhelmed 5 South African Infantry Brigade advancing on Tobruk from the south. Fate was on the side of the New Zealanders that day, because the enemy chose to make a counter-thrust to the frontier instead of pressing on to attack the Division. With only four two-pounder anti-tank guns with each battalion, 6 Brigade would have certainly suffered the same fate as 21 Battalion did in the Peneios Gorge.
The country between Bir el Chleta and Tobruk is dominated by three escarpments, roughly parallel and about three miles apart; the northern or Belhamed escarpment was the axis of advance for 4 Brigade to Ed Duda through Belhamed; the most southerly escarpment began south-west of Bir el Chleta and petered out near El Adem, 15 miles south of Tobruk. Neither of these was tactically vital, but the middle or Sidi Rezegh escarpment, along which 6 Brigade was fighting its way, was page 121 the key to Tobruk. A tiny mosque (actually a tomb), about half the size of a State house and comprising two small rooms, gives the feature its name; it is situated near the western end of the escarpment, where the Trigh Capuzzo and the Axis-built road that bypasses Tobruk enter a narrow valley between the Sidi Rezegh and Ed Duda escarpments. The value of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment to the enemy can be estimated by the strength of his reaction to our occupation of it.
At midday orders arrived for 21 Battalion to reinforce 6 Brigade. Mobile enemy columns were reported in front, behind, and on the inland flank. They were part of the German counter-thrust which swept as far east as the Libyan frontier, disrupting communications and shooting up supply columns.
There was some delay while 20 Battalion, with tanks and artillery, attacked and chased an enemy column away, and then 21 Battalion moved south-west and came in behind 6 Brigade, now holding Point 175, on the escarpment east of Sidi Rezegh.
The 24th and 25th Battalions had lost heavily capturing Point 175 and the 25th had been taken under the command of the 24th, but the brigade was fairly astride the objective, though the enemy still held wadis on the escarpment. A square blockhouse further west along the escarpment prevented further exploitation.
Colonel Allen halted just short of Wadi esc Sciomar, which intersects the escarpment about three miles east of Point 175, and reported to Brigadier Barrowclough,20 under whose command 21 Battalion now came. He was ordered to swing south-west around the wadi and protect the left flank of 6 Brigade.
The 21st Battalion dug in and spent a cold, quiet night, while the other battalions of 6 Brigade spent a very busy one organising another attack. The plan was for the brigade to advance on a two-battalion front, capture the Blockhouse, and carry on for five miles to an airfield that had been overrun in the preceding tank battle. The enemy had vacated the field, and all the planes had been destroyed by driving tanks over their page 122 tails. The 21st Battalion's part in the operation was to get onto the southern escarpment when ordered and conform with the other battalions. Fourth Brigade was also going to advance into line with 6 Brigade, preparatory to capturing Belhamed.
The assaulting troops moved off from the start line at 5 a.m., but 21 Battalion was not brought up until 10 a.m. Allen's orders were to prevent enemy movement from east to west, for the escarpments running in that direction were the main tactical features on this desert battlefield. Further south the flat country was being patrolled by 22 Armoured Brigade.
As the 21 Battalion column picked its way along the ridge-top it passed through part of the area where 7 Armoured Support Group had been defeated and 5 South African Brigade overwhelmed. Derelict tanks, burnt-out trucks, and overturned field guns were silent reminders of a savage battle. The 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions had lost many tanks, but had carried on to raid into Egypt and later to capture 5 NZ Brigade Headquarters at Sidi Azeiz.
The battalion's objective, about seven miles west of Point 175, was reached at midday. En route A Company had been able to replace the Bren guns, mortars, ammunition, and blankets lost at Bir Ghirba. Three runabout cars, one with the engine still warm, and a truck were also added to B Echelon. The blankets were particularly welcome, for the nights were bitterly cold.
Company areas were allotted and patrols combed the wadis. No enemy were found in the immediate vicinity, but a wadi full was located two miles further west, in a position that might be a nuisance to troops advancing along the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. Colonel Allen was ordered to move into a position where he could harass the enemy without committing himself to an action. This was done, and Lieutenant Smith, with a carrier and a patrol of platoon strength, was sent out to probe the area. They approached from several directions, but bounced off each time and, with instructions not to press the attack, left the enemy in possession.
Other patrols combed the wadis that indented the escarpment. Second-Lieutenant Cairns stumbled over a party of fifty mixed South African and German wounded under the care of page 123 a German medical section. They were loaded into B Echelon trucks and taken to a main dressing station in Wadi esc Sciomar. The makeshift ambulances were bombed en route, but there were no casualties. The wounded were hurriedly unloaded, as there was a tank battle in the vicinity. The enemy wounded did not remain prisoners for long, as the dressing station was later captured.
The night found 21 Battalion dug in on the eastern portion of the southern escarpment, about four miles south-west of 26 Battalion on the near side of Sidi Rezegh. Possibly there were enemy pockets between them; if the number of flares was any criterion, there was no doubt at all about the strength of the opposition east and north of Sidi Rezegh mosque.
The Division was now in a position to attack the last obstacles on the road to Tobruk. The plan decided on was for 4 Brigade to take Belhamed and for 6 Brigade to clear the Sidi Rezegh escarpment to a point above the mosque, then change direction and move north on Ed Duda. The operation was to be an attack in two phases and was to be made that night as follows:page 124
Phase 1: The occupation of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment to the point immediately above the mosque by 24 and 25 Battalions under Lieutenant-Colonel Shuttle-worth.21 This position had to be in our hands before the relief of Tobruk could be seriously considered.
Sixth Brigade had to execute a very complicated manoeuvre calling for careful timing. Two battalions (24 and 25) had to move west and two (21 and 26) north, which meant that they had to cross each other's line and advance without colliding; as far as 21 Battalion was concerned, it had to march on compass bearings with four changes of direction.
Colonel Allen's orders, given at the company commanders' conference at midnight on 25–26 November, directed the companies to debus at the conclusion of the initial move in transport, and to form up with three companies abreast and one in reserve. Each company was to deploy with two platoons up and one in support, and the platoons were to adopt the same formation. B Company was to be on the right flank, D Company in the centre, C Company on the left flank, and A Company, which had suffered worst at Bir Ghirba, in reserve and escort for 47 Battery 5 Field Regiment, under command for the operation. The artillery Bren carriers and A Echelon trucks were to follow hard on the heels of the assaulting troops, and at first light the B Echelon transport, commanded by Major Fitzpatrick, was to move forward to the mosque. The Staff Captain of 6 Brigade would meet them there with further orders.
An hour later the battalion moved in trucks across the slight depression between the escarpments to the edge of the Sidi Rezegh feature, where it was to meet a guide from 26 Battalion. There was nobody there. Colonel Page was called on the wireless and the two commanders agreed that 21 Battalion would page 125 move forward until it made contact with Colonel Shuttleworth's force, believed to be near the Sidi Rezegh mosque. Page was not definite about his own exact position, and the combined effects of static and jamming prevented either commander from getting a clear idea of the other's location.
Deploying a battalion after an approach night march and without start lines is not easy; with the added distractions of shells passing low overhead, the rattle of musketry in the near distance, and a menacingly inscrutable obstacle ahead, it is extremely difficult. B Company, which had the farthest to go, was not ready when Colonel Allen passed the word to move off. He then went on ahead, with Battalion Headquarters and the Pioneer Platoon for protection, in search of Colonel Shuttleworth.
Captain Yeoman, as soon as B Company was ready, looked for somebody to report to, but could find nobody so decided to carry on. The noise of the transport following behind B Company brought down some indiscriminate shelling, but casualties were light and the troops climbed with determination towards the continuous enemy flares colouring the cloudy moonlight.
Before the top was crossed B Company passed through mixed elements of 24 and 25 Battalions dug in and out of touch with their units. Actually Phase 1 of the operation had partly failed and the line was being consolidated about a thousand yards short of the objective. The 21st Battalion was therefore behind the enemy lines but, owing to the wireless breakdown, Colonel Allen was not informed that Phase 2 had been postponed.
Completely unaware that anything was amiss, the Colonel had reached the bottom of the escarpment in search of 26 Battalion. The descent was too steep for wheeled transport, so Captain Dutton returned with instructions for it to report back to Major Fitzpatrick, waiting for daylight in the slight depression south of the escarpment with the B Echelon. He met Captain Yeoman, and B Company pushed on to join the commanding officer. When it came to a road that ran from the airfield along the top of the escarpment, however, it encountered a heavy concentration of artillery and machine-gun fire, extending for about a hundred yards on each side of the road. Dutton got his troops across whenever the fire slackened but, by the time they were all through, the company was some- page 126 what dispersed. Part had carried on down the escarpment on to the flat, while the rest waited for their commander. Day was breaking and Captain Dutton ordered everybody to get to the bottom of the escarpment. They were sitting shots on the skyline and casualties were heavy. Some dropped behind any cover they saw, some followed Dutton into one wadi, others followed Sergeant Lord23 into another.
D Company reached the bottom of the escarpment safely after a brush with a pocket of Italians. Although the company was advancing quietly it must have been heard, for the Italians were chattering like a cage-full of monkeys and throwing grenades indiscriminately; they were obviously uncertain both of themselves and of the identity of the troops lying silently near them. Colonel Allen came along at this moment and Captain Trolove asked what should be done about the Italians. ‘Fix bayonets and clean them out’, was the reply. The leading platoon, commanded by Sergeant Wallace,24 was given the job and it took several prisoners. While the attack was going forward Captain Trolove was wounded by a grenade. The company formation was broken by the encounter and Second-Lieutenant Hargrave, unable to locate Captain Turtill,25 asked Colonel Allen for instructions. He was told to leave a runner with the Colonel and to carry on as far as the Trigh Capuzzo and wait there for the rest of the battalion.
C Company, on the left flank, did not encounter any opposition until it was almost in the valley at the bottom of the escarpment in front of the Sidi Rezegh mosque. It is a hard thing to keep contact at night under any circumstances, but especially so when marching on a bearing with no fixed points to tie to, across unknown country broken with gullies and spurs, and with some companies fighting to get through and others meeting no resistance. C Company lost touch with D Company and was widely dispersed. The forward elements of the company halted in the shelter of a wadi at the bottom of the escarpment, while Captain Tongue went forward to investigate.page 127
The position at dawn, therefore, was that B Company was in three groups, two in wadis and one some distance forward on the flat ground north of the escarpment, with odd parties scattered behind cover on the escarpment. The majority of D Company was lying in dead ground near the Trigh Capuzzo and 400 yards from the bottom of the escarpment. Most of C Company was sheltering in a wadi near the Sidi Rezegh mosque waiting for Captain Tongue.
Corporal Olde describes the fate of B Company:
About ten of us under Sgt. Lord went into a crevasse in the escarpment to try and find out our position. We found that we were … practically surrounded by enemy on all sides but one, and drew fire if we made a movement. We could look on to a flat and saw some of our company dug in down there but the enemy concentrated heavy mortar fire on them and then drove out and captured them…. We stayed in our crevasse until noon then crept along a gully and met up with some ‘A’ Company personnel, and some more of our own chaps.
In the meantime A Company had reinforced 25 Battalion (as will be described later) and was on the extreme left flank.
Daylight found D Company stranded with over 400 yards of open country between it and the escarpment. Second-Lieutenant Hargrave decided to move eastwards, hoping that the sun would upset the aim of the enemy seen digging in about a hundred yards in front. As soon as the company began to move, however, it was shot at from all sides. Sergeant Robertson, at the rear, was killed instantly, and almost at the same moment Hargrave was wounded. Movement was impossible, and the survivors, about fifty strong, were taken prisoner.
Captain Tongue had returned from his fruitless quest for information when Colonel Allen and Captain Dutton arrived. The commanders discussed the situation and decided that C Company should pull back. The CO and the Adjutant returned to Battalion Headquarters and Tongue gathered up all the troops he could find, about one hundred all ranks. The light was growing fast, they were fired on, and there were many page 128 casualties. Men were seen on the skyline shaking blankets and moving about. They were Germans, and the company fixed bayonets and charged uphill. It was a bloody affair with grenades, bayonets and rifle butts, and when it was over there were 29 survivors, nine of whom were wounded, and five German prisoners. C Company, carrying its wounded, moved down the slight reverse slope. Lieutenant Smith, who was in the lead, saw men and vehicles ahead and went cautiously forward to investigate. They were from 6 Brigade, and the first man he met was one whom he had last seen working on his home farm. Captain Tongue reported to Brigade Headquarters, was put into brigade reserve, and for the first time found that the second phase of the attack had been cancelled.
The CO and Adjutant returned to Battalion Headquarters. The runner may have been sent—in all probability was—to D Company, warning it that something was amiss and to return. If so, he did not reach the company. Colonel Allen and his headquarters moved east, looking for B Company, but passed it and, when they in turn were caught out in the open by daylight, took shelter in a wadi. The 26th Battalion, dug in on the escarpment above, noticed Allen's predicament. Colonel Page put on an attack by his C Company and, with a loss of 22 casualties, subdued the enemy fire sufficiently for the 21 Battalion troops to get onto the escarpment.
Meanwhile Major Fitzpatrick, waiting in the slight depression south of the escarpment with B Echelon, heard the rumble of wheeled traffic and thought it was the enemy on the move. It was, of course, the artillery Bren carriers and A Company, which had been turned back by Captain Dutton. The column missed the depression in the darkness and eventually reported to Brigade Headquarters.
B Echelon, now under undirected and spasmodic fire, dug in and watched the fireworks display of tracer and Very lights above them. A little before first light they moved up a narrow defile, passed through elements of 24 Battalion, and met some carriers heavily in action. There was no sign of the brigade B Echelon, and while Major Fitzpatrick was scouting round for information, a panic message from somebody in a staff car sent the vehicles streaming back. Captain Panckhurst stopped page 129 them near the Sidi Rezegh airstrip and, by the time Major Fitzpatrick arrived, had them sorted out again. A wireless van came up and a message from Brigade instructed the B Echelon to report to the brigade dispersal area east of the airstrip, where it had moved during the night.
A Company, the only organised company remaining of 21 Battalion, was sent up the ridge to reinforce 25 Battalion. Upon its arrival at that battalion's headquarters about 8 a.m., it was sent with the carrier platoon from 24 Battalion to support 25 Battalion, commanded by Major Burton,26 and dug in north-west of the airfield. The company found 25 Battalion hard pressed; shells were falling fast in the area and the position was overlooked by a slightly higher section of the escarpment, and small-arms fire was increasing hourly from that direction. The battalion mortars put down a smoke screen, and A Company, supported on the flanks by the carrier platoons of 24 and 25 Battalions, seized the high ground and dug in.
It was about this time that Sergeant Lord, with his dozen survivors of B Company, arrived in A Company's area. They had not yet had an opportunity of firing a shot and were not displeased when Captain Ferguson pointed out a machine-gun post that was giving trouble further along the ridge. Lord and his party stalked the post and silenced it at a cost of three killed and two wounded, one seriously. They found a stretcher and carried the seriously wounded man to an artillery field dressing station, after which they reported to Battalion Headquarters where, in the words of Corporal Olde, ‘We had a welcome hot meal of meat stew and rice pudding, as we hadn't had a cup of tea or a hot meal for two days.’
Down in the valley behind the brigade B Echelon area 21 Battalion spent 26 November reorganising. Survivors of the three companies who had managed to regain the top of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment made their way by various routes back to the unit, and by nightfall, as far as could be ascertained, the strength was 14 officers and 424 other ranks.
Colonel Allen reported back to Brigade Headquarters about page 130 3 p.m. and found the Brigadier in conference with his other commanders. Another attack on the vital area above the mosque was being prepared: 24 and 26 Battalions were to advance west for two miles, and 25 Battalion was to join 21 Battalion in brigade reserve. A Company 21 Battalion, reinforced by 15 Platoon C Company, was to come under command of 24 Battalion for the operation. The plan was for 24 Battalion to clear the ridgetop and for 26 Battalion to advance across the wadis on the northern slopes as far as the point overlooking the Sidi Rezegh mosque.
The moon was just rising when the attack began. The 26th Battalion met stiff opposition all the way, but cleared each wadi with bayonet, grenade and tommy gun. The Bersaglieri fought bravely and no quarter was asked or given.
The 24th Battalion had an easier time in the early stages. After being pushed off the higher country the previous day, the enemy had withdrawn some distance west to prepared positions above the mosque. The battalion pushed on with determination to a point south of the eminence, where the enemy was waiting, and went in with the bayonet. It was another bloody affair with grenades, cold steel and rifle butts, and, when the position was finally captured, A Company 21 Battalion was down to fewer than forty men.
But the corridor to Tobruk had been opened. The 19th Battalion had linked up with 70 Division.
The operations up to this stage could be summarised as follows: The struggle for the all-important Sidi Rezegh escarpment had started with the attack by 25 Battalion, supported later by 24 Battalion, on Point 175 on 23–24 November. At heavy cost this feature had been captured, but then it had been found that enemy fire from the Blockhouse further west along the escarpment had made the hold on the position precarious and expensive. The Blockhouse had been taken in the second big attack, made on 25 November. Then the night attack on 25–26 November had been undertaken with the intention of seizing the whole of the escarpment, breaking through to Ed Duda, and linking up with the Tobruk garrison. This had partly failed, and through lack of communications 21 Battalion had gone too far and had suffered severely. The final attack page 131 on the night of 26–27 November had captured the commanding position above the mosque, and the tactical advantages gained were some compensation for the terrible price that had been paid.
A light rain fell all day on 27 November, and the depleted platoons of A Company 21 Battalion dug themselves in on Sidi Rezegh under desultory long-distance shelling. The German armour was returning from its raid into Egypt. Sixth Brigade was reorganising. The 21st and 25th Battalions were to form a composite battalion under the command of Colonel Allen, with two rifle companies from each and a composite headquarters company. B and C Companies 21 Battalion were merged and arrangements were made with 24 Battalion for the relief at last light of A Company, which would merge with D Company. The 25th Battalion made similar dispositions but, owing to the distance between the two battalion areas, Colonel Allen's command was divided into two parts, one in front and one behind the vehicle dispersal area. A warning order was received for 21 Battalion to be ready to relieve 24 Battalion after dark, but it was later countermanded and A Company stayed on the escarpment with Colonel Shuttleworth.
Colonel Allen left the battalion area to visit A Company. Major Burton, who was commanding the remnants of 25 Battalion, writes:
Just before dark Colonel Allen came up in his car and told me he was going out to see some of his men who were some distance away. He told me the direction he was going, and I advised him not to go. Some of our troops who had just reported in stated they had contacted enemy in large numbers in that direction. ‘The boys will be expecting me, so I must go,’ he said, and with a wave of his hand he entered his car and he and his driver set off into the blue.
The driver (Clegg27) returned at daylight saying that Colonel Allen had left the car and failed to return, though he had waited for ten hours. Major Fitzpatrick took command in the meantime, and the amalgamation of 21 and 25 Battalions was cancelled.
The night was as quiet as the day in 21 Battalion's sector. page 132 The rain stopped and Friday 28 November dawned with the promise of a warm winter's day after a cold night. But the stillness did not last. The Division still held two of the three escarpments, but there were not enough troops to man the third and most southerly of them, though 1 South African Brigade was expected hourly with the mission of guarding that vulnerable flank. About 9 a.m. a convoy of vehicles was seen on the escarpment moving west. It was assumed that the South Africans had got up as promised, but they were coming from the wrong direction, not that any direction was very right or very wrong in the confused battle. It was difficult in the haze to distinguish between friendly and enemy vehicles, and our artillery was silent. The convoy disappeared over the brow of the escarpment and soon shells were registering on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. The enemy had returned to the attack.
With A Company still detached, Major Fitzpatrick formed the battalion into two rifle companies, each about forty strong, and a headquarters company. Captain Tongue commanded C Company, Captain Turtill D Company, and Captain Panckhurst Headquarters Company.
Colonel Allen's absence was explained when 26 Battalion decided to clean out an enemy pocket that had twice defied capture. It was a concreted strongpoint with slits that commanded the landing ground to the south and the valley across to Ed Duda to the north-west. The third attempt, assisted by a troop of 25-pounders was successful, and 26 Battalion captured 70 Germans, recaptured 23 of our troops who had been held prisoner, and found Allen's bullet-riddled body. He may have miscalculated the distance or, as is more likely, thought the wadi was unoccupied and offered a short cut to A Company. The news cast a gloom over the battalion. It had lost a brave man, a good soldier, and a commanding officer whose first thoughts were always for his ‘boys’.
Now that the enemy was on the southern escarpment he could make it very hard for any troops to live on the ground below it, and with fire coming from two directions, the front (west) and the rear (east-south-east), the reserve position was becoming untenable. Most attention was being paid to Sidi Rezegh, however, and the volume of fire directed against 24 and page 133 26 Battalions increased hourly. Early in the afternoon an infantry attack from both south and west developed against 24 Battalion, which was holding the extreme western end of the position. The troops were dug in facing north and had to hurriedly readjust their position under a concentration of artillery, infantry gun and mortar fire.
Captain Ferguson had divided his company plus 15 Platoon into four sections, with about ten men in each. Lieutenant Hutchinson, with No. 4 Section, remained in position while the others moved out and attempted to dig new weapon pits under heavy fire. It was an impossible task in the time available on that stony ground, with the enemy less than a thousand yards away. D Company 24 Battalion had also moved out to face the threat, and a number of men were hit while they were hastily making sangars. The converging attack made steady progress and our casualties mounted; when the two companies were finally overwhelmed, A Company consisted of two officers, no NCOs at all, and 20 men. The 24th Battalion finally drove off the attack.
Brigadier Barrowclough decided to move his headquarters to a safer position north of Sidi Rezegh. Major Fitzpatrick was ordered to move on foot and to take only enough vehicles to carry arms and ammunition to a defensive position at Point 175. The balance of the transport would remain and move with Brigade to the new dispersal area. Six tanks (Major O'Neill) were placed under command, and seven anti-tank guns from 259 Battery RA (Major McKenzie) would be waiting to report at Point 175.
It was about 10 p.m. when the column started for Point 175. The night was dark and the sky overcast. Occasional shells exploded in the sand and random bullets whispered overhead. A platoon in extended line followed the guides, with the rest of the battalion in column of platoons, tanks on the left in line ahead, carriers on the right, and transport in the rear. After they had travelled the estimated distance, about three and a half miles, Point 175 failed to show up, so the column was halted while reconnaissance parties felt their way forward but failed to locate any landmark. Brigade was raised by W/T (wireless telegraphy) and agreed to the suggestion that the page 134 column remain where it was until daylight. Transport was heard moving and Very lights were seen going up on all sides, but recognition signals had yet to be devised and each column carefully avoided the other. A close laager was formed, with tanks on the outside, until a liaison officer accompanied by Major McKenzie stumbled across them and guided the battalion to its destination.
The battalion B Echelon was guided by Captain Panckhurst. The brigade transport column halted several times and on arrival Panckhurst was horrified to find he had only six trucks. The others arrived later at the dispersal area, still under the impression that the head of the column had been overrun and captured by enemy tanks. What actually happened was that a driver had gone to sleep at one of the halts and only the vehicles in front of him had moved.
At first light a defensive position was organised. The enemy who had been driven off Point 175 by 25 Battalion had dug plenty of trenches, and those most suitable for the purpose were taken over by the new occupants. The battalion was spread in a semicircle, with Captain Tongue's company facing south towards the positions vacated during the night, and a platoon twelve strong—the remnants of D Company under Sergeant Lord—about 400 yards nearer the Blockhouse to take care of the flank and rear; Captain Turtill's company, facing east, completed the arc, with the carriers extending his left flank to the escarpment. The tanks were just behind the northern side of the escarpment, and the anti-tank guns were disposed in depth covering each other.
To the east there were unknown troops moving along the same escarpment over which the battalion had travelled from Bir el Chleta; there were more troops around the Blockhouse on the right, but these were identified as 25 Battalion. With both sides jamming each other's wireless, with front, rear and flanks always changing, and with each side using the other's transport with the utmost impartiality, every vehicle had to be assumed hostile.
Second-Lieutenant King28 discovered the truth of this when he was returning to look for the portion of the battalion transport page 135 that, as far as he knew, had not yet arrived. Incidentally his batman and kit were also missing.
Moving in the same general westerly direction was a column with three Dodge pick-ups on the flank—undoubtedly the South Africans. King's driver (Sheehan29) moved cautiously until they were within sixty yards of the column, when a rifle bullet through the door of the car convinced them that a mistake had been made and a speedy withdrawal called for.
The next lone vehicle on 21 Battalion's front was not so lucky. Second-Lieutenant Money30 and Privates Bob Nicol31 and Cliff Vause32 were out forward looking for a good observation post for the ‘I’ section when they noticed a car approaching. When about 200 yards away the occupants were seen to be wearing German caps, and the section immediately opened fire. The car stopped and three men dropped into a slit trench. The section went forward to investigate and found one German wounded and two others with their hands in the air; one of these was wearing a general's epaulettes. The prisoners were bundled back into their car and driven to Battalion Headquarters, who rang Brigade and reported that a German general, complete with car, papers and maps, was being sent in. A quick search of the general's Mercedes-Benz showed that he had done very well for himself from our supply dumps, with a tin of Aulsebrook's biscuits, some cartons of South African cigarettes, a case of Crosse and Blackwell's tinned delicacies, a bottle of Greek brandy and a jar of rum. As it was considered that they were of no military significance, these were retained at Battalion Headquarters.
The capture was an extremely important event, almost as important as taking Rommel himself. The prisoner was General von Ravenstein, commander of 21 Panzer Division, and the marked maps and plans he carried warned Divisional Headquarters of the coming efforts to destroy the New Zealand Division.33page 136
During the first part of the morning everything was quiet around Point 175. From the north-west there were sounds of a tank battle and shells were bursting on Belhamed Ridge. Lieutenant King gave the first warning that the quietness was not going to last. He came rapidly in in his pick-up from the direction of Wadi esc Sciomar, yelling that the b——Jerries were coming.
Making good use of the cover afforded by the southern ridge, the enemy had worked around into Wadi esc Sciomar and had captured the New Zealand main dressing station located there. The artillery was not able to bring down fire owing to the presence of hundreds of our own wounded.
D Company blew the sand off the sights of their rifles and watched the edge of the wadi. Very shortly approximately two companies of German infantry shook out into extended order and, supported by four Italian 65s and some mortars, began to advance. D Company's fire was too accurate and the attack faltered and failed before the enemy was within 500 yards of his objective. The company's casualties were few but included Captain Turtill killed.
Towards midday Brigade rang up and said another attempt was likely, that some machine guns would be sent up, and that ‘Our football friends’ were not far away and would move on Sidi Rezegh via Point 175. An artillery forward observation officer also reported.
The attack that had been forecast developed from the south-east at 2 p.m., and was supported by manhandled mortars moving behind the infantry and several mobile machine guns. It was a much heavier attack than the previous one and made steady progress. Three of the supporting tanks went out to shoot up the enemy infantry, but one went up on a mine, another returned in flames, and the third parked itself among some derelicts of the previous battle, where it was soon silenced by boldly handled anti-tank guns. The timely arrival of the promised machine guns helped to turn the scale, but not before some of D Company's posts were captured.
When the situation in D Company's sector was reported, Major Fitzpatrick sent Captain Dutton with the Battalion Headquarters staff, except a signaller at the telephone and a page 137 few stretcher-bearers, to stiffen the line; and Second-Lieutenant Cairns left the carriers to become Adjutant.
Private Graham Goad34 helped materially in repulsing the attack on D Company. His post was surrounded and he could have surrendered without dishonour. At one stage he rang through and said there appeared to be no alternative but to surrender, but he hung on. When the attack fell away the machine-gun posts remained well forward and restricted all movement. The guns were being directed on to them, but some were in positions that could not be seen by the forward observation officer. Goad stood up whenever a shell was due to land, noted the fall and phoned directions through Battalion Headquarters direct to the battery until the machine guns were all knocked out. When the enemy finally withdrew there was only one tank left, and the English anti-tank guns were all silent, with their crews dead alongside them.
The battalion reorganised, the wounded were got away, and General von Ravenstein's rum jar and delicacies provided an issue for the tired troops. Major Fitzpatrick was looking over the position when a runner brought a message from Second-Lieutenant Cairns to the effect that a column was approaching from the east. The CO returned to Battalion Headquarters while the Adjutant got through to Brigade with the information. Brigade said it was probably the South Africans who had been expected all day.
The column approaching at a steady six miles an hour was keenly watched. Brigade had mentioned that the South Africans would be easily identified by their Marmon-Harrington armoured cars, and there were cars with high turrets leading the column. The turrets were open and men wearing berets were sitting on top waving friendly greetings. The guns were given a range and bearing and a carrier patrol was ordered out to make a positive identification.
D Company, quite sure that the South Africans had got up at last, left their trenches and ran forward to welcome them with their steel helmets held high on their rifles, the recognised method of identification. Suddenly the turret lids were slammed page 138 down and the astounded troops were being fired upon. The forward observation officer yelled for fire, but his set must have failed for no fire came. Fitzpatrick put a frantic message through on the telephone to the guns, but could get no connection. As a last resort he rang Brigade to get the guns firing. Still no fire came, and the tanks behind the armoured cars were among the troops with their guns trained on the helpless men. Those who were furthest from the enemy ran an 80-yard gauntlet to the edge of the escarpment and scrambled down into the wadis.
Corporal Olde describes his escape:
About 5 o'clock in the afternoon we heard a lot of shouting where “C” Company were situated, and on Sgt. Lord having a look through his field glasses found that the enemy had surrounded “C” Company and taken them prisoners, so our platoon was called together and we made off down a gully chased by an enemy armoured car, but the gully and darkness was in our favour. Then a brilliant moon came up and we set our bearing upon Tobruk and had been travelling about 2 hours when we sighted a truck in the distance, and were able to creep up unseen till we heard the personnel in the truck speaking English and found to our relief they were from the 6th Brigade artillery picking up their phone wire.
The leading tanks were within sixty yards of Battalion Headquarters when Major Fitzpatrick again rang Brigade, told them what had happened, and asked for instructions. He was told to ‘Do the sensible thing’, and with the Adjutant joined the others at the bottom of the wadi. There they met the commander of the anti-tank battery with a pick-up and two guns on portées. He had been gathering scratch crews for replacements, but as they were not needed now, took the party to Brigade Headquarters.
A few more stragglers came in during the night, and in the morning of the 30th 21 Battalion was once more reorganised. The roll was answered by five officers and 177 other ranks, with 40 vehicles and three carriers. Fitzpatrick divided them into two companies: No. 1 Company, 60 strong, under Second-Lieutenant Anderson,35 with Second-Lieutenant King as page 139 second-in-command; No. 2 Company, 49 strong, commanded by Captain Panckhurst. There was no headquarters company. The battalion transport, now commanded by Sergeant Gorrie, was faced north-east, the only direction from which no fire was coming, with instructions to keep the vehicles in running order.
The area was under sporadic shellfire, and Anderson was wounded before the rearrangement was completed. Second-Lieutenant Cairns took his place, leaving the commanding officer without an adjutant. Battalion Headquarters then consisted of Major Fitzpatrick and three runners.
It was a day of anxiety that ended on a note of tragedy. Both 4 and 6 Brigades were under close enemy observation from Point 175; their hold on Ed Duda was shaken; and terrific tank battles were being fought to the west and south. At dusk 24 and 26 Battalions were overrun and the keypoint at Sidi Rezegh was lost.
Brigadier Barrowclough asked permission to take his shattered brigade into Tobruk and was refused. The orders to keep the corridor open at any cost still stood. Major Fitzpatrick was instructed to move to a defensive position on the brigade perimeter facing Sidi Rezegh and west of the vehicle park. The cooks, spare drivers, batmen and ‘odds and sods’ that largely composed 21 Battalion dug fire pits in front of three 25-pounders that fired until either silenced when red hot or out of ammunition. The rest of the artillery, which in daylight would have been under direct observation, was moved west, and a hopeless dawn drew near.
There was a mist over the battlefield at daybreak on 1 December. As soon as the sun cleared the air the enemy put down such a concentration of fire on the perimeter that movement was impossible. At 7.15 a.m. four lines of tanks with infantry following moved towards 21 Battalion. They were engaged with all weapons available, including three damaged tanks which fired until they were out of ammunition. The enemy tanks turned away at sixty yards, but rallied again and moved diagonally across the battalion front towards the Belhamed spur.
At that moment another column of tanks, appearing on top of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, began to move down behind the perimeter. Beyond all doubt this was the end of 6 Brigade.page 140
Resignation changed to jubilation, however, when the enemy began to shell the advancing column. It was not the first time that tanks on the same side had shelled each other, but through the haze it was seen that the newcomers were flying the pennant of British tanks. Some passed immediately behind 21 Battalion, with their guns blazing, but their armour was light and several were soon burning. The rest moved into the area occupied by Brigade Headquarters, and as they went forward the oddments of Brigade Headquarters, cooks, batmen, drivers and orderlies, went on with them without waiting for instructions. Brigadier Barrowclough wanted the tanks to continue the attack, but their commander's instruction was to cover the withdrawal of 6 Brigade. Fourth Brigade was split in two and was no longer on Belhamed Ridge. There was nothing to do but accept the inevitable.
Major Fitzpatrick was ordered to get 21 Battalion into as few trucks as possible and to move with Brigade Headquarters. There were 16 more casualties while the men were getting from the trenches to the vehicles. Both company commanders were wounded, but managed to keep going as far as the battalion transport, where Second-Lieutenant Cairns was left with the RAP truck. Captain Panckhurst remained with the unit.
The tanks, whose commander had taken control of the operations, directed the brigade transport along a route between Point 175 and the Blockhouse, under the impression that the enemy had been cleared from there and the route was safe. As the leading trucks came out of the shelter of a wadi onto the escarpment, they were met with murderous fire and were shot to pieces. Fortunately the smoke from the burning vehicles formed a screen while the column turned and swept down again. A safer route was taken north to Zaafran, the location of 4 Brigade and New Zealand Division's battle headquarters.
Troop-carrying vehicles were mixed with tanks, cars and carriers, and while 21 Battalion was getting sorted out, a liaison officer appeared with a message to bring the transport to the top of the escarpment and to put the men on the left flank. The area was being shelled and Major Fitzpatrick was wounded, but he remained with the unit. Second-Lieutenant King, who was now the only unwounded officer in the battalion, took charge while the tired troops dug a defensive position.page 141
Meanwhile a conference was being held at Divisional Headquarters. Tanks and lorried infantry were closing in from north, west and south. There were only two courses left—either to try to fight through to Tobruk in the darkness, or to move south-east behind 4 Armoured Brigade and make for some place where the Division could refit. The latter course was decided upon and Corps informed: ‘Remnants of Division at Zaafran. After dark will attempt break out direction Bir bu Deheua. If unsuccessful will attempt break out west.’ Sixth Brigade travelled 42 miles south-east before daylight. The cooks produced something hot for breakfast and the march continued safely to the border wire, where Major Harding met and took command of what was left of 21 Battalion—fewer than 150 all ranks, including walking wounded.
While the column travelled east into Egypt the battle for Tobruk continued. Two attempts by the enemy to relieve the frontier garrisons were defeated, one by 5 NZ Brigade and the other by 5 Indian Brigade. Eighth Army regrouped and Rommel, after an abortive attack on the Tobruk salient, accepted the position and began to retire. The same day as the enemy withdrawal began in earnest (6 December), 21 Battalion arrived back in the old lines at Baggush. With the possible exception of Crete, Sidi Rezegh was probably the hardest-fought battle of the whole war, but the survivors wear no ‘8’ clasp on their Africa Star. Somebody or other decided that Eighth Army did not really come into existence until the Battle of Alamein.
The battalion's casualties in November 1941 were: 80 killed or died of wounds, 126 wounded, and 167 prisoners of war (of whom 18 were wounded and 19 died), making a total of 373.
6 Left out of battle—a nucleus of trained men available in case of disaster to a unit.
9 Incidentally Rommel threw a few shells in the direction of 18 Platoon when he passed that way later.
11 Bir in Arabic indicates a well, but not necessarily one that contains water. The importance of a bir in a sandy waste almost as flat as a billiard table lay in the fact that there was usually a mound around it, something that could be positively identified when marching on a compass bearing. Birs were invariably used for map references and often gave their names to the surrounding country.
17 2 Lt L. A. Steiner, DCM; born NZ 4 Mar 1918; farmhand; killed in action 23 Sep 1944.
20 Maj-Gen H. E. Barrowclough, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915–19 (CO 4 Bn); comd 6 Bde 1 May 1940–21 Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and GOC 3 NZ Div 8 Aug 1942–20 Oct 1944.
22 Brig J. R. Page, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Dunedin, 10 May 1908; Regular soldier; CO 26 Bn 15 May 1940–27 Nov 1941; wounded 27 Nov 1941; Commandant, Northern Military District, 1950–52; Adjutant-General, Army HQ, Apr 1952-.
26 Lt-Col H. G. Burton, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Christchurch, 1 Dec 1899; plumber; NZ Mounted Rifles 1918–19; actg CO 25 Bn 23 Nov-6 Dec 1941; CO 25 Bn 24 Jul-11 Sep 1942; CO 1 and 2 Trg Units 1944.