CHAPTER 6 — Libya 1941
FIVE and a half months elapsed between the safe arrival of the 23rd back in Egypt and its return to battle. In that time the battalion reorganised and recuperated, was reinforced and trained for desert fighting and for combined operations with the Navy and the RAF.
Sleep and more sleep between intervals of eating and drinking, seven days' leave with sightseeing in Egypt or Palestine, swimming and activities of not too strenuous a nature were the principal aids to recuperation after the fighting in Crete. By mid-June, 239 reinforcements had joined the battalion.1 At first some of the old hands were inclined to look down upon these untried soldiers, but the need for reinforcement was so great that the family circle of the 23rd was soon widened to admit the newcomers. Before long, B Company's method of welcoming reinforcements at an evening party in the company lines became standard practice: there the men endorsed the formal welcome given by the commanding officer. In a private letter, Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie, back in command after a period in hospital, described those who joined the unit in June 1941 as ‘very fine reinforcements … fit, keen and well-trained’.2
Till near the end of July 1941, the 23rd trained at Garawi, a desert camp and training area not far from Helwan. Refreshed by their leave and kept in good physical shape by their training, the troops were soon as fit and as full of energy as an Egyptian summer would allow. Morale, which always rose with good health, was also improved by news from the battlefronts of the world: the fighting in Syria ended in victory by 17 July, and the German invasion of Russia on 22 June meant the diversion of most of Hitler's army to that front. The institution of a speedy airmail letter-card service to New Zealand at this time was much appreciated. A unit picnic and sports meeting at the page 98 Special Constabulary Club, Mena, the music of the 33 Battalion pipe band, and improved amenities all helped to relieve the tedium of the hot July.
On 27 July, however, the battalion moved to Kabrit on the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal to engage in combined operations training. First came instruction in the handling of the boats and practice in embarkation and disembarkation from landing craft. Soon landings were being practised, first by day and then by night, on the Sinai shore. During the full-scale brigade exercise carried out on 12–13 August, the battalion encountered many of the problems connected with the execution of carefully timed night operations involving all three services.
After this training, the 23rd moved to Moascar for a fortnight and then, with the other units of 5 Brigade, moved in early September, by road and rail, to El Alamein. South-west of the railway station in a desert area later known as the ‘Kaponga Box’, the brigade group proceeded to develop a horseshoe-shaped fortress area, which it was hoped would be able to hold out in the event of any deep enemy penetration into Egypt. For most of September the 23rd laboured hard: two flat-topped features north of the Qattara Depression were made secure against tank attack by escarping the forward slopes, minefields were laid, gun and section positions were sited. But most men felt keenly that they were in the Western Desert for a very different purpose from digging defences over 230 miles behind the existing front line. On 5 October the brigade reverted to the direct command of the New Zealand Division, then part of 13 Corps, operating under the newly formed Eighth Army. This transfer and the move to Baggush pointed to a very different role.
From this stage forward, training was directed to preparing units for the fast-moving war of manoeuvre, typical of the thrust and counter-thrust in the Western Desert, the ‘tactician's Paradise’. Since the desert in many places resembled the sea in its lack of conspicuous features and obstacles to movement, transport convoys in what was known as desert formation resembled convoys of ships at sea. In the 23rd the vehicles, led by the Intelligence Officer's ‘pick-up’, formed up on a two-company front, with 100 yards between vehicles during daylight and a much shorter distance at night. When the whole brigade moved in desert formation, it did so at this stage on a two-battalion front with the Bren carriers of its units providing a page 99 covering screen some distance (up to four miles) in front and on the flank. Anti-tank guns and machine guns were placed near the perimeter, where they could come quickly into action. Anti-aircraft guns were so positioned throughout the formation that triangulation was provided, or they moved to cover any defile which might cause a congestion of vehicles.
During October the battalion spent several days in practising convoy discipline and communications with flag signals, in speedy debussing and deploying, and in all the procedure of navigation in the desert. A brigade exercise involving an attack on two dummy fortress positions, ‘Sidi Clif’ and ‘Bir Stella’, marked an important stage in the training. This exercise showed that further training in the use and lifting of mines was required, but the night approach of some 30 miles without vehicle lights and the deployment to attack at first light went well. Such an exercise could only be a rehearsal for the real thing. The issue in early November of battle dress to replace the summer dress of shorts and shirts, the sanding of windshields to prevent their flashing in the sun, and similar preparations were followed by the move of the battalion on 11 November towards the Egyptian frontier.
Later, in his report on the Libyan campaign, General Freyberg stated: ‘The move of the Division to its assembly area…was carried out as an exercise. No mention was yet made of an attack. I do not think this deceived anybody.’ The 23rd certainly believed they were ‘in the know’. On 10 November Second-Lieutenant Alf Jeavons,3 the 23rd's IO, wrote: ‘This last 10 days we have been making our preparations and today is the great day to move forward. The spirit of the blokes amazes me. Each one has been quietly putting his house in order, destroying papers and letters, paying all debts and so on, each doing it with the intention of having everything in order in case he might be one of the unlucky ones. Yet I never saw men in higher spirits, laughing, fooling, boozing, and rioting, and far more excited over the N.Z. v S. Africa football match4 than the death or glory just ahead.’ But excitement over such a football match was the best stimulus to morale before a new campaign began.page 100
The campaign on which the New Zealanders were embarking is known by its code-name of ‘Crusader’ or as ‘Libya'41’, although all the fighting took place in Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Italian Libya. By November 1941 the pendulum of military success, which had swung one way and then another since Italy's entry into the war in June 1940, had become temporarily stationary and was waiting for a push from either side. Waveil's wonderful thrust in December 1940-February 1941 had been followed, in the days of the Greek campaign, by the advance to the frontier of the newly arrived Afrika Korps and the Italians, who had found fresh courage when supported by German troops, tanks and aircraft. But Tobruk, some 80 miles from the Egyptian border, held out, a thorn in the side of Rommel's forces, which were thus compelled to halt at the escarpment running inland from above Sollum through Halfaya Pass towards the south-east. The line of forts, protected by minefields, which ran north-east from the Omars towards the coast at Sollum made a frontal assault impossible and forced the British to seek an approach route in the south.
When the 23rd left Baggush in the trucks of an RASC unit, 309 Transport Company, the role of the New Zealand Division was to cross the frontier south of the Omars, which 4 Indian Division was facing, and advance north to cut off and contain the frontier garrison from the west while the armoured units sought out and destroyed the enemy armour. The route followed was along the main road to the Siwa road and then down it to an area near Abar el Kanayis. Here the 5 Brigade units rested while final plans were made: the troops completed the last details of desert camouflage for vehicles and made a last overhaul of weapons and equipment while the officers attended conferences and studied maps.
On 15 November 5 Brigade continued the advance to the frontier by a daylight move of some 45 miles. The whole Division on the move, with its guns and its three thousand vehicles, made an imposing sight. On 16 November Major-General Godwin-Austen, Commander of 13 Corps, visited the Division, where officers down to company commanders were drawn up to receive him. Captain Orbell, the 23rd's Adjutant, reported on the speed with which the Corps Commander moved: ‘He arrived in a cloud of dust, shook hands all round, bellowing how “that fellow Rommel” would hate to meet us, and how proud he was to command us and tore off in his car before we realized he had arrived.’page 101
Moves of some 25 to 50 miles each followed on the nights of 16–17, 17–18 and 18–19 November. All of these were carried out without the use of vehicle lights. An electrical storm on the second of these nights provided a prelude for the noise of the shelling of Sidi Omar on the Indians' front. The Divisional Cavalry and 5 Brigade were the first through the 300-yard gap in the frontier wire cut by the engineers. While the Division waited about eight miles south of Libyan Sheferzen for news of the armoured battle which was being fought in the northwest, the men of the 23rd derived much pleasure from seeing the sky so full of RAF aircraft. ‘The Boys are in marvellous page 102 spirits. At dawn, they warm themselves at football! What a war! The sight of the R.A.F. busy in the skies is a great tonic to us,’ wrote Private Diamond in his diary that morning.
Fifth Brigade Group's first task was to advance to the Trigh Capuzzo and sever the communications of the frontier positions with the west and cut the Bardia-Capuzzo water pipe. The move to execute these tasks did not come until 21 November. Shortly before midday the brigade moved north, preceded by a squadron of tanks of the Royal Tank Regiment. Rain fell during the afternoon and the sodden muddy ground nearly bogged some of the vehicles.
About 20 miles from its starting point, the brigade split up: 21 Battalion turned west-south-west towards Hafid Ridge, the 22nd west-north-west to cover the road junction at Sidi Azeiz, while Brigade Headquarters and the 23rd and 28th moved west with Bir Bu Tabel as their destination. Actually, led by the Brigade IO, these units reached Bir Beder, about a mile and a half nearer Capuzzo than the destination given. At this point, Colonel Leckie received orders to send out a strong patrol to reconnoitre the approaches to Fort Capuzzo and to cut the pipeline supplying Sollum and Halfaya Pass with water. The intention was that this patrol should test the defences of the Fort and then, if necessary, the battalion would attack and capture it at dawn next morning.
Built by the Italians to keep the Senussi under control, Fort Capuzzo was originally little more than four stone walls, with a tower and crenellated battlements, but the shelling of each successive campaign made more and more holes and finally lowered the walls to the ground. In November 1941, however, it was still of some importance as a centre of desert road communications: directly to the north about 14 miles away lay Bardia, to the east lay Sollum and Halfaya, while to the south and south-west were the frontier posts. Captain F. S. R. Thomson, commanding C Company, led the 23rd patrol, which was composed of his company of infantry, a sub-section of engineers under Second-Lieutenant Brady,5 one troop of anti-tank guns and a section of Bren carriers. Lance-Corporal Ramsay6 of the ‘I’ section acted as navigator for the move of nearly ten miles across the open desert.page 103
The patrol started at 8.30 p.m., had trouble with the heavy going and had vehicles stuck on more than one occasion, but about 11.30 p.m. it reached the disused landing ground west of Fort Capuzzo. Captain Thomson now decided to go forward to the Capuzzo-Bardia road before advancing to the Fort itself. As this was being done, some of the trucks and anti-tank portées got stuck in the mud and soft sand. Private Diamond graphically recorded his impression of the scene: ‘…still they bog, the noise, shouting, blue language, and roaring of engines flat out is terrific. Our approach is not at all like the silent swift approach that we have had drilled into us. We find comfort in the thought that the unorthodox is often successful. Surely, we tell each other, the enemy will think a whole Division is coming.’
After reaching the road about half an hour after midnight, Thomson left the company B Echelon, under Captain Ted Richards, with the anti-tank guns and signals, to hold a defensive position on which the patrol could retire if necessary. The Bren carriers were also placed in reserve to protect the flanks of this position. The infantry then simply walked down the road and occupied the Fort without meeting any real opposition. Apparently, the Italians on guard had heard the noise of the advancing patrol, including the uproar when the trucks were stuck, and had concluded that only friendly Italians would make so much noise at night. They never dreamed that New Zealanders engaged in a ‘silent’ night attack, unsupported by artillery or other fire, could be coming in to occupy their fort.
Thus, Fort Capuzzo was captured shortly after 1 a.m. on 22 November. Captain Thomson whistled up the B Echelon and supporting arms and proceeded to consolidate his position. By 1.30 a.m. he had advised Battalion Headquarters by radio of C Company's success and Colonel Leckie gave up his plans for employing the squadron of tanks entrusted to the 23rd for the capture of Capuzzo. Captain Richards and his men cut all telephone wires in the area but experienced some difficulty in cutting the pipeline until a captured Italian officer obligingly indicated how to remove a section of it. Everything was working out so smoothly that it seemed like a picnic. About 5 a.m. two Italian trucks arrived from Bardia. The tossing of a grenade and the firing of a few shots halted them. Three Italians were killed and the remaining dozen with their officer quickly surrendered. The rations they were bringing into Capuzzo were page 104 also seized. The latest prisoners explained that they had come from Bardia, where no one had any idea that anything untoward had happened to the Fort.
The rest of the battalion arrived soon afterwards, Their experience on the way resembled that of the patrol the previous night. ‘We pitched and rolled and tipped into holes mile after mile,’ wrote one officer afterwards. By 6.30 a.m. the battalion was organising itself in and around the Fort. Company positions were soon allotted and the supporting arms and tanks deployed in defence of the recently occupied area.
Before turning into the Fort, Second-Lieutenant Jeavons, escorted by three Bren carriers, reconnoitred past Musaid. Close to Sollum, he ran into a large telegraph line junction. The direction and number of its wires indicated that it probably connected Gambut, Bardia, Sidi Omar, Sollum and Halfaya, or virtually all the Axis strongpoints in that part of Cyrenaica. A Bren carrier quickly rammed two poles, the wires were cut and the resulting break in enemy communications helped to preserve the surprise gained that morning. As a result, carrier and other patrols kept on capturing trucks and small parties of the enemy, including some German signallers and an Italian Water Company officer and party. By mid-morning there were 118 prisoners (38 Germans and 80 Italians). This number grew steadily during the day as more trucks were captured. The equipment taken was also useful: B Company took two motorcycles and a 3-ton truck, HQ Company under Captain Morten, 7 mainly through the efforts of the carrier platoon, captured nine trucks, four of which were still in perfect order, A Company knocked out another vehicle, and D Company claimed a wireless vehicle equipped with a range-finder. C Company had earlier captured three six-wheeled Spa trucks and a small scout car as well as the large telephone exchange in Capuzzo. In the exchange were also found orders of battle, location statements and code-names for all Axis forces in Cyrenaica, which with marked maps and other Intelligence documents were sent on to Brigade Headquarters as quickly as possible. Stores of ammunition, 400 gallons of petrol, and other supplies were also captured. The Libyan war was going well. ‘Everything going swell, our Boys marching prisoners in by the score,’ wrote Diamond.page 105
Without realising how simple the capture of Fort Capuzzo had been but appreciative of the results, General Freyberg wrote in his report: ‘5th Brigade Group moved on by night and 22nd Battalion occupied Sidi Azeiz while 23rd Battalion moved against Capuzzo. It was a brilliant move and an excellent piece of desert navigation. The attack on Capuzzo was also an excellent piece of planning carried out at dawn with “I” Tanks. The small force there was taken completely by surprise. It was like a dress rehearsal for the Battle for “Sidi Clif”. Two hundred prisoners (60 Germans and 140 Italians) were captured without casualties to ourselves…. The capture of Capuzzo played a most important part in disorganising the enemy because the Army Signal Exchange was situated there. In the afternoon 21st Battalion occupied Hafid Ridge.’
Stimulated by their success, the 23rd companies favoured more and more aggressive patrolling and B Company, under Captain Reg Romans,8 set about forestalling 28 Battalion in the capture of Fort Musaid. At 12.15 p.m. Romans advanced with 10 Platoon, supported by two anti-tank guns, a section of mortars, and four I tanks. The diary of Bob Stone,9 a reinforcement private, gives a first-hand account of this excursion:
‘22nd November…. Noon. No. 10 told we were to proceed to Fort Musaid. We'd never heard of that and more than a few of us had a sinking feeling in the stomach, imaggginnninnng wiiireee, mineees, trenches, etc…. Crawled down the road and Jerry promptly fired a couple of mortars at us. It seemed big stuff to us. Reggie leading us. Off the trucks near a wrecked Hun plane and Pat Lynch10 lined us up—16 of us to make a line. The tanks buzzed off towards Sollum barracks and Reggie headed us forward—ran us in fact. Past a heap of rocks and rubble which Colin P., the RAP boy inspected and said had nothing. The sight of 16–20 figures trotting along by themselves with one out in front waving them on must have intrigued Jerry—maybe it was a surprise move. Flashes from the barracks and shells bursting in front of us. “Back a bit, boys,” said Reggie. Pat L ran us back 50 yards and we went smartly…. page 106 Then over the rise came Doug Leckie in a Bren carrier. “Where the B——H——do you think you chaps are going, there's your objective.” The piles of rocks and rubble C.P. had inspected alone—so that is Fort Musaid. Back we head and Jerry decides we are harmless and shuts up. Heavy rain falls and squatting among piles of rocks amongst a collection of Itie gear and letters, we wondered how long war would be like this—wet through, no food, no loot. Black as pitch at night…. Advice received from Bn that the Maoris to come up in the morning and take Sollum barracks and that man with the ea had No. 10 go in in broad daylight. Very little sleep and then we heard the Maoris go in. Day broke and boys poking about the rubble discovered a cellar from which 16 Ities promptly emerged and surrendered. We had stood guard above ground all night while the Ities slept beneath. I hope they slept well. 10 a.m. and some hot stew arrived. We felt 100% again. “Hadn't we captured Musaid?”’
On 22 November, too, Colonel Leckie sent out a larger patrol to test the Bardia defences. Captain J. R. J. Connolly took A Company, supported by five tanks, a troop of 25-pounders from the battery of 5 Field Regiment supporting the 23rd, a section of mortars and two carriers, but his patrol was heavily shelled and was unable to penetrate the defences of Bardia.11 The strength in which this place was held was thus confirmed for the higher command.
During the Maoris' successful attack on Sollum on 23 November, their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer, was wounded and evacuated. Brigadier Hargest now placed Colonel Leckie in command of the Gapuzzo-Sollum area with orders to ‘co-ordinate the defence of the area. All troops already there come under your command. You will ensure that the enemy is not allowed to concentrate for an attack. You will watch the Halfaya flank in case the enemy attempts to break through’.
In the consolidation of the unit position at Capuzzo, the CO placed A and C Companies in the north, with A astride and to the east of the Bardia road and C to the west of it. B Company was on the east with two platoons at Musaid and a third at the old Customs House site between Capuzzo and Musaid. D Company, under Captain R. McKinlay, covered the south to south-west sector, while HQ Company held a line facing west page 107 and linking C and D Companies. Battalion Headquarters occupied trenches to the north of the Fort and parallel to the Bardia road. The unit transport was dispersed between Battalion Headquarters and HQ Company.
Shortly after midday on 23 November, the first enemy troops to make any serious approach to the battalion's area made their appearance on the A Company front. After exchanges of fire, the enemy withdrew after having one of their trucks hit by mortar fire. Their withdrawal was hastened by the appearance of fourteen British tanks on their way westwards. The rest of the day passed quietly, apart from exchanges of fire between carrier patrols and enemy troops on the Bardia road.
By 23 November, too, important changes had been made in the distribution of the New Zealand Division: to the west, 6 Brigade had moved to the support of British troops at Sidi Rezegh while 4 Brigade had moved via the Menastir area to Gambut, and General Freyberg, taking 21 Battalion into Divisional Reserve, was forced to let the rest of 5 Brigade pass under the command of 4 Indian Division, which was still too far south to be in intimate touch with developments around Fort Capuzzo.
The next day, 24 November, passed quietly enough. In a message that morning Brigadier Hargest announced: ‘The decisive battle is being fought west of us and as every tank will contribute towards our success I have released those attached and they are proceeding “hot foot” to the assistance of the Division’. To make up for the tanks removed, the Brigade Commander increased the supporting arms with the 23rd. Thus, a section of Vickers machine guns was added to A Company's sector, and a second troop of anti-tank guns from 32 Anti-Tank Battery and three Bofors guns from 42 Battery of the Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment arrived. On patrols, Brigadier Hargest had laid down as his policy: ‘In none of these patrols do I wish to incur casualties or be engaged in battle, but to harass the enemy and if possible pick up prisoners’. During the day, Lieutenant E. A. McPhail took an A Company patrol with supporting arms to reconnoitre the Marsa er Ramla area, near the coast between Bardia and Sollum, and reported it strongly held by the enemy. At night Major Tom Pugh, who had succeeded Major Thomason as second-in-command in July when the latter was evacuated to the Convalescent Depot, took out four patrols to different wadis and points on the escarpment which, under Lieutenants G. H. Cunningham and Stubbs,12 page 108 Second-Lieutenants Brittenden13 and Hoggans,14 they reconnoitred without coming into very close contact with the enemy.
On 25 November 5 Brigade gave warning of the approach of thirty enemy tanks from the south, but by midday it was reported that the Indians had knocked out seven and forced the remainder to retire. Similar threats were reported in the afternoon and it grew increasingly obvious that heavier enemy movements were taking place. Around 4 p.m., about 200 enemy vehicles debouched from Halfaya. The artillery and the squadron of Divisional Cavalry with 23 and 28 Battalions opened fire and, after some exchanges and some tactical movements which suggested tentative manoeuvring to secure an attacking position, the enemy went back into the Halfaya area. Spasmodic enemy shelling and transport movements near the horizon continued. To safeguard the gap between the 23rd and 28th, Colonel Leckie placed a company of Maoris at Musaid and drew one of the B Company platoons back.
The next two days, 26 and 27 November, were the most exciting of the whole campaign for the 23rd. At 5 a.m. on 26 November, Brigade Headquarters reported that a large enemy convoy had blundered into its lines but had been broken up. Heavier shelling from the direction of Halfaya than had so far been experienced suggested that the ‘picnic’ conditions were at an end. The battalion's intelligence section and the artillery OP in the tower of Fort Capuzzo reported many movements on the skyline or closer in. About 9 a.m. Bren carriers returned from a patrol and reported much movement of enemy transport from Halfaya Pass. At 11.30 Brigade advised that some thirty enemy tanks were to be seen making for Bardia. The CO, as a precaution against any approach from that sector, moved two anti-tank guns into the A Company area. The one tank from 8 Royal Tanks, which had been left behind for repairs and was now mobile again, was also moved into a position covering the Bardia road. Further reports of enemy tank and other vehicular movements continued to come in. At 2 p.m. Brigade warned that some 30 tanks and 700 vehicles of all kinds were moving towards Bardia. Shortly afterwards the OP observed some fifty trucks moving on the escarpment from Halfaya Pass. More trucks were seen a little later in the same locality. The artillery reported that three of these had been hit by their fire. The page 109 afternoon wore on with mounting reports of enemy transport movements in the south, the south-west, the north-east and north-west. Fort Capuzzo appeared to be seriously threatened.
Soon after 4.30 p.m. on 26 November, the expected attack came in on the 23rd. One of the officers most concerned has left a detailed account of that attack:
‘About middle afternoon a great cloud of dust to the north-west became visible and later we watched hundreds and hundreds of vehicles making eastward to Bardia just out of range of our guns. It kept on all afternoon till it became fantastic to estimate their numbers. By 4 p.m. enemy had been reported on all sides of us. The situation had got too ludicrous to worry about and everybody was quite cheerfully determined to do his best, though our ultimate fate seemed to be certain. Promptly at 4.30 p.m., the shelling over Sollum way suddenly became intensely heavy and in two minutes Sollum was invisible under an enormous pall of smoke and dust.15 It was obvious that the attack was coming. Five minutes later, big guns, apparently brought up from Bardia, opened fire on us and, at the same time, down came a terrific barrage from the east…. I was busy observing to the north, and presently in they came—scores of vehicles flying down the Bardia road and through the desert on either side, just like our own method of mechanised attack in desert formation. Our artillery opened up on them and, two minutes later, the rattle of machine gun fire from A Coy told that the party was on. At the same time, a ‘phone ring from B Company to the south-west reported tanks and infantry flying in on them.
‘What a pandemonium! Shells crashing in, tank shells whizzing everywhere like fiery comets, bullets whining and screaming about and the Jerry explosive bullets everywhere…. An hour or so after dark, it began to ease off in the north and we realized the Jerry had a guts full there. A Company's casualties were large, but not bad considering. To the south, the tanks had been beaten off by our artillery firing over open sights at point blank range and by our anti-tank guns.’
A review of the companies' experiences shows that the 23rd had repelled a serious attack. A Company, under Captain Connolly, met the brunt of the infantry and AFV attack down the Bardia-Capuzzo road. Connolly sent 8 Platoon, under Lieu- page 110 tenant Brittenden, forward about three miles from Capuzzo to cover a section of 2 Platoon, 1 MG Company, under Corporal Mack,16 and two 3-inch mortars. This small force fought a particularly gallant action against superior numbers and was later paid a handsome tribute by the diarist of 15 Panzer Division, whose 115 Infantry Regiment was engaged in the advance towards Capuzzo.
The approach of the German infantry was delayed by artillery fire directed by an OP officer with 8 Platoon, but shortage of ammunition meant that the battery had to reserve its fire for targets closer in to the Fort. The Vickers guns, however, opened fire and forced the enemy to debus. Connolly reported ‘Much good shooting was done by the M.M.G. and mortar and … they must have caused much damage.’ Heavy enemy mortar and artillery fire preceded the advance of the German infantry and persuaded the A Company commander that he should pull his forward platoon back to its main prepared defences nearer the Fort. Darkness was falling by the time this order reached Brittenden, who passed it on by runner to his forward sections. After seeing what he took to be the left-hand section withdrawing, Brittenden went forward to supervise the movement back of his right-hand forward section, failed to locate it, decided it must have moved back unnoticed in the dark and withdrew according to plan. In fact, the two forward sections had moved to attack the advancing infantry battalion, which had begun to outflank them on the left flank. Corporal R. D. Minson's personal account scarcely does justice to his own leadership but it gives the essential facts:
‘By dusk we had made small arms contact with about a Bn of infantry in extended line of advance. Our platoon put up very heavy fire … and stemmed their advance for approx. 1 ½ hours. By this time it was completely dark … our Sgt., R. Cherry, was badly wounded through the chest. I, being the only full corporal, took charge. The Hun made a rapid advance after dark and appeared to be attacking from our left flank. I decided to send one of my section, Pte. H. O'Neill,17 back to Bn HQ for permission to withdraw, being obviously heavily outnumbered. I reformed the platoon parallel with the road and made a bayonet advance to meet what I thought was the strongest quarter of their attack. At this stage we had six page 111 casualties, two killed…. We had temporary success with what Huns we could see [who] withdrew rapidly. The mortar fire became very intense. I received a shrapnel wound in the thigh and was unable to walk. I handed over the remainder of the platoon to L/Cpl. M. O'Connell,18 who carried on with the attack but was soon overwhelmed. I managed to crawl back to our Bn, arriving there about 4 or 5 a.m.’
That the Germans in this sector thought they were up against the main 23rd defences and had no idea that they were opposed by only one platoon can be seen from the 15 Panzer Division diary. 1 Battalion of 115 Infantry Regiment advanced about 600 yards after dark and eventually overran the forward positions of 8 Platoon and the Vickers guns they were covering. But the diary admits that the defenders took the initiative as indicated by Minson: ‘In the dark the enemy managed to get close up to our positions and bitter close-range fighting with bayonets and hand grenades took place’. Then, still unaware of the limited strength of the New Zealanders, the German writer not only admits temporary success by 8 Platoon but also mentions the supporting attack by the second battalion of 115 Infantry Regiment. ‘In one place the enemy made a penetration but was stopped by two light infantry guns of 5/115 and forced to surrender. By this time 11/115 had advanced to 800 metres NE of Capuzzo and had driven back the enemy, who hurriedly withdrew SW.’ A report from the attacking I Battalion states that ‘on the left flank of the road there was hard fighting for every slit trench’, and that ‘2/Lt. Keim (commander of the spearhead) was killed while charging a pocket of resistance at the head of this company’.
Corporal Mack and Privates Harrisson,19 Baker20 and Hoggard21 kept their Vickers gun firing during this engagement. Later, this gun crew shammed death when their gun position was overrun in the dark and they withdrew to safety only when the Germans had withdrawn in the early hours of the morning. The mortars in the 8 Platoon position were too hot to move in the withdrawal but they and the machine gun were recovered next morning by a Bren-carrier patrol which reported that, in addition to the twenty enemy dead buried that morning by page 112 A Company, there were several fresh German graves in the advanced battlefield. A Company lost 3 killed, 2 wounded and 18 missing. The question of why the Germans had not followed up their success by a more determined attack on the Fort was discussed at the time. German documents have since provided the answer: the order to break off contact and return to the starting point arrived, having been issued at the direct command of General Rommel, who had reached Bardia and had decided on another operation.
On B Company's front the attack on the afternoon and evening of 26 November was also heavy. At 4.45 p.m. a large enemy convoy advanced from the south, preceded by a heavy bombardment. This column divided into three, one part going towards Capuzzo, one towards Musaid and the third towards Sollum. The Musaid column was the most determined on action: it split into two, the lorried infantry from eight troop-carriers debussed about 1000 yards south of Musaid while the remainder moved out to the east, debussed in a slight depression and began their attack. Immediately the attack opened, Captain Romans moved out to Musaid from the Customs House and ordered 11 Platoon up to reinforce 10 Platoon and the Maoris' B Company at Musaid. Private Blampied22 of 11 Platoon recorded his impressions as follows:
‘… Then the excitement commenced, the curtain went up with crossfire from Jerry's machine guns, and we could see the trail of lead owing to the tracers in them. For some distance we advanced and, when the show got too hot, we flattened out…. we safely negotiated the fire and reached the platoon we were to reinforce. We lay there for some time, watching and listening to the sound of trucks and tanks (Jerry's). They were faintly visible in the darkness and we could hear the orders being given in German…. after what seemed an eternal age, this convoy passed and we breathed again.’
Possibly, things would have turned out less happily had not E Troop of the anti-tank guns done considerable damage to the enemy. Nos. 2 and 3 guns, under Lieutenant Fagan,23 scored direct hits on four AFVs. Nos. 1 and 4 guns, under Lieutenant Foubister,24 knocked out two light tanks. Later, in the growing page 113 darkness, an AFV was seen towing a gun near the ruins where No. 1 gun was sited. Sergeant Gibson25 laid his gun on the target, despite enemy machine-gun fire, and destroyed the vehicle.
No. 12 Platoon, left at the Customs House, also had its share of excitement as some of the enemy vehicles passed to the west of Musaid when the main column circled out to come in from the east. These forces brought two 50-millimetre guns and several machine guns into action against 12 Platoon and the vehicles parked in the rear. The two-pounder at the Customs House put a tracked troop-carrier out of action but could not stop the guns from firing. The mortars attached to B Company were now brought into action. Lance-Corporal Russell,26 whose section of 12 Platoon had kept up a steady fire of small arms, and Second-Lieutenant Hoggans, the platoon officer, stalked the guns and passed back reports on the fall of mortar bombs so successfully that the mortars were able to get right on to the guns, scatter their crews and enable the infantry to capture both of them.
Although the enemy carried away most of their wounded, they left sufficient of their number dead to indicate how heavy had been their losses. At Musaid, six wounded and two unwounded prisoners were taken, while seventy-three of the enemy were buried later. At the Customs House, one dead German was found and three wounded prisoners taken. Similarly, although the enemy carried out vehicle recovery measures during the hours of darkness, the Maoris at Musaid collected 12 trucks, 2 armoured cars and a light tank, and at the Customs House, B Company of the 23rd had the two 50-millimetre guns and an armoured troop-carrier.
There was no slacking on the ‘stand-to’ on the morning of 27 November but, when daylight came, the front was quiet, with only a small amount of transport disappearing to the north-west to be seen. Bren-carrier patrols reported engaging at extreme range some trucks and a staff car. At 8.15 a.m. A Company engaged four armoured cars and a light tank which were escorting about twenty trucks down the Bardia road. This force withdrew, but a German supply truck captured at this time supplied the explanation: the driver stated that the German task on the previous day had been the recapture of page 114 Capuzzo and that he had been told they had succeeded. The ‘I’ section OP reported enemy transport in the north-west and the sound of battle could be heard and much smoke seen from the Brigade Headquarters area at Sidi Azeiz. It was not till the following day that the 23rd learned that at about 8.40 a.m. Brigade Headquarters had been overrun by the German armour and that Brigadier Hargest was a prisoner. More enemy transport came into view, and shortly after 11 a.m. shells began to fall again in the area around the Fort. This fire was coming from 105- and 150-millimetre guns in the north-west sector. The 27 Battery guns replied but, as they could not reach the enemy, and as ammunition was running low, Captain Nolan27 and his gunners decided to wait till enemy tanks or infantry had to be repelled. It was a wise decision as about 1 p.m. the real attack was launched by the Germans.
To the surprise of the troops, the German attack came in from the south-west and not from the area on which their attention had been concentrated during the shelling. ‘Look at this charging in on us! There's hundreds of them!’ shouted the ‘I’ section OP when the enemy vehicles were seen charging at full speed, not in open desert formation, but in close order as if they were determined to cleave a way through by sheer weight of transport. The guns switched quickly to this new target and very soon they scored several direct hits and set a number of trucks on fire. The German convoy dispersed and some of the lighter vehicles sheered off to a flank. But the tanks and some troop-carriers came on, headed for one of the weaker parts of the battalion perimeter, the part held by mixed elements of HQ Company and drivers of 309 British Transport Company. A two-pounder of G Troop of 32 Battery knocked out three or four vehicles before it was itself left blazing and bullet-ridden. The enemy appeared to be in some strength, about one battalion, supported by four to six light tanks and some mobile guns. The one tank still with the 23rd was ordered into action and it disabled two guns and some vehicles before it received a shell through a bogey.
The nearest platoon of C Company, No. 14, also opened fire and the effect of the combined artillery, anti-tank, machine-gun and small-arms fire was to make the enemy veer to the north and come in more directly from the west. Shortly after 2.30 p.m., page 115 enemy tanks broke through the sector held by the transport drivers and part of HQ Company, directly west of Battalion Headquarters. About sixty English, Maori and 23 Battalion drivers were captured. Enemy infantry were coming in to consolidate, but Lieutenant Stratton28 with his Bofors gun from E Troop of 42 Light AA Battery set one troop-carrier on fire with a direct hit. Unfortunately, this Bofors soon drew the concentrated fire of the tanks and guns and was quickly silenced.
The enemy set up machine guns and mortars in the transport park about 200 yards to the west of Battalion Headquarters and also in the shelter of the walls of the south-west corner of the Fort. Some of the 23rd's trucks and two or three German tanks were blazing. The situation was deteriorating rapidly: the enemy was in position to overrun Battalion Headquarters and then attack the infantry companies from the rear. There was no time for detailed reconnaissance or for calling in one or more of the infantry companies from the perimeter defences; it was a time for immediate action. Captain R. M. S. Orbell, the Adjutant, shouted, ‘Every second man follow me and we'll clear these bastards out’. He evidently meant to leave half the men in position to hold and operate the headquarters but there were few who did not respond to his call. Under Orbell's leadership, about twenty men with fixed bayonets set off for the north-west, intending to come in on the transport lines from the north. Second-Lieutenant Jeavons collected another five or six men and set off due west. The CO, busy on the telephone calling on A Company for support, shouted ‘Attack! Attack! Attack!’ What happened to Jeavons and his gallant few is best told in his own words:
‘I got my blokes to fix bayonets and spread them out to look as imposing as possible…. At the same time I had a chance to look them over and see what I'd got. I noticed at once Dudley Fraser,29 Dick Brett,30 Docherty,31 and Johnstone,32 the Colonel's driver. I was considerably cheered. As stout a lot of blokes as I could have picked if I'd had the chance! I took them forward at the double two hundred yards, and then put them down in the last cover available, an old stone sangar and a wrecked I page 116 page 117 tank, for a much needed breather. From here they kept up an intensive fire on the Jerries ducking in to reinforce those already under our transport, while I took a poke about to find out what was what. Jerries were obviously still hidden in amongst our transport in front, and among the fort buildings on the left— others were racing to join them and I got in a few pot shots at these…. There was heavy small arms fire close at hand to the left. I calculated a demonstration here was necessary no matter what the cost. We could not stop them by firing from cover and, if they came on, we were sunk. I called my few brave lads to come on, telling them to try and clear the broken ground to the left. They rose like one man and away we went. I made straight for the gun position ahead…. After going about fifty yards, I was hit in the right shoulder. A few yards further on, the boys on either side of me were both hit and killed at the same moment…. Fifty or sixty yards further on I was hit again, this time on the head, my helmet spinning off into the middle distance…. I went on again until a moment or two later, with the gun position almost in reach, I got a sledge hammer blow in the chest which knocked me head over Turkey, and left me winded and gasping for breath on my face.’
While this gallant if costly bayonet charge was going in, Orbell's party cleared the ground up to some burnt-out Matilda tanks, relics of an earlier campaign. There they were pinned down by particularly vicious machine-gun and small-arms fire from among the transport lines. Lieutenant Noel Jones, the signals officer, went free-lancing among the trucks, ran out of ammunition and found himself under one end of a truck with two Germans, one with a Spandau and the other with a pistol, at the other. These two Germans, taken by surprise, surrendered. But, in his next encounter with a German in a nearby slit trench, Jones was badly wounded in the leg. Others in the Battalion Headquarters party had similar experiences and their counter-attack halted.
Another minor sortie, which failed to dislodge the enemy but at least checked their advance, was that made by the party gathered together by Major Tom Pugh, Second-Lieutenant Phillips,33 the transport officer, and Captain Berry of 309 Transport Company. This group, made up of drivers and mechanics, and joined by the nearest section of D Company, advanced from page 118 a more southerly quarter until, with Major Pugh, Second-Lieutenant Phillips and others wounded, and three or four, including Captain Berry, killed, they were forced to go to ground.
Meanwhile the CO had organised other forces to restore the situation. Six Bren carriers under Second-Lieutenant Charlie Mason34 raced round to the north-west before turning south and coming in on the rear of the attacking enemy and the captured English drivers, who were held in close ranks about 1000 yards west of the transport. The carriers, commanded by Sergeants E. Hobbs and McGregor,35 attempted to release the prisoners but found they could not halt without coming under fire. McGregor and his crew took a chance, dismounted and fired their machine guns from the ground, but without attaining their object. Boarding their carrier again, they moved towards a low stone wall behind which enemy infantry were sheltering. As these infantry tried to rejoin some half-tracked vehicles, McGregor and Private J. P. Fitchett opened fire on them and accounted for fifteen or more. At this stage an anti-tank gun fired on their carrier and scored a direct hit, killing McGregor and wounding Fitchett. Corporal Price36 took his carrier forward in support of McGregor's but it too was knocked out, Price being killed. Two or three light tanks forced the other carriers, which had followed a different route, to retire after they had fired several bursts into enemy transport.
One section of the nearest platoon of D Company had already gone forward with Second-Lieutenant Phillips and, once he had collected his other two sections, the platoon officer, Second-Lieutenant Cameron,37 led them into the attack. They, too, met with stiff opposition in the shape of machine-gun, mortar and small-arms fire, but they forced some of the enemy to withdraw. Thereafter, they were unable to fire to their front owing to the danger of hitting the prisoners who were being used as a screen by some of the enemy. The tide was turning, however, and Second-Lieutenant Ken Armour38 and his 3-inch mortar crews, who got over 300 bombs away that afternoon, caused many page 119 enemy casualties. In addition, Second-Lieutenant Chance,39 Sergeant McClelland40 and Bombardier Manning41 knocked out a German tank, a heavy machine gun and another gun with well-aimed fire from the No. 3 Bofors.
Another D Company platoon, No. 16, under Sergeant Dan Davis, advanced from the south to clear the enemy from the fort buildings. Attacking from a flank, it took the enemy by surprise and, in addition to putting some infantry to flight, destroyed one machine gun and two anti-tank gun crews. No. 16 Platoon next joined in a bayonet charge launched in grander style and on a larger scale than any of the earlier efforts. Captain Connolly had arrived with practically the whole of A Company. The tide which was already turning rose to the flood, and the enemy who were not destroyed or captured beat a hurried retreat. Second-Lieutenant Jeavons, the man nearest the enemy at the time this last charge was launched, can best describe it:‘…there was a sudden intensification of the fire about me and I heard the sound of many cheering roaring voices and good lusty New Zealand cursing. They came nearer and I heard good old Dick Connolly's voice urging them on. I lifted my head and saw them coming, a long straight line of determined blokes, bayonets fixed and firing from their hips. A Company was putting in their counter attack and making a job of it. I tried to give them a cheer but only got out a gurgle. They swept on past me.’42 They swept on with some of that same irresistible spirit of the counter-attack in Galatas and, within minutes, what remained of the enemy had been put to flight.
One private soldier later wrote home saying: ‘The greatest sight I ever wish to see in my life was a bayonet-charge by the 23rd Battalion. I consider myself very highly favoured by Fate to have been able to witness this charge…. In five hours of fierce fighting, our boys were almost fought right out of the page 120 place. Instead of running away—which seemed just about all there was left to do—they fixed bayonets and in 30 minutes had won back all they had lost, as well as chasing the Germans back two miles and capturing some of their light artillery.’
As soon as the enemy were ‘seen off’, Colonel Leckie reorganised the defences, reducing and strengthening the line of the perimeter. The Maori Battalion's transport was sent to Sollum and the 23rd's was transferred to the east of the Fort. A counting of casualties revealed that the unit had emerged comparatively lightly from its ordeal. The battalion group had lost 2 officers (Captain Berry, 309 General Transport Company, and Second-Lieutenant Foubister, 32 Anti-Tank Battery) and 16 other ranks killed, and 4 officers and 32 men wounded. The transport drivers, with the exception of seven of their number, were released some distance west of the Fort by the retreating enemy. Some sixty Germans were buried next day, while the Indians later reported burying several more on the western fringes of the area. The 23rd also took 1 German officer and 11 other ranks prisoner. Captain Romans became second-in-command of the battalion. He was succeeded in command of B Company by Captain Murray Grant.
Of course, on the night of 27–28 November, the 23rd did not know how soon or in what strength the enemy might renew his attack. The battalion group was short of artillery ammunition and rations and other supplies were running out. The carriers which patrolled to the west and south-west reported that enemy to the strength of possibly a brigade had debussed less than five miles away on the side of Hafid Ridge nearest to Capuzzo. Throughout that night, the 23rd broadcast the following message in code on the various frequencies on which British forces were believed to be operating: ‘New Zealanders holding out at Capuzzo and Sollum. Aid and air support wanted urgently.’
But, if the senior officers were worried about their isolation, the lack of any word and any supplies from Brigade, and the likelihood of a heavier attack, the men generally were so pleased with their success in repelling two attacks that they had no very grave fears. Thus, on the morning of 28 November, Len Diamond wrote in his diary: ‘They must have captured one of our supply columns, hence the shortness of our rations. Still, we've got the pumping station and that's what Jerry wants. He appears to have miles and miles of transport and page 121 God knows how many men, but, for all the numbers he has against us, our battalion are in fine fettle and we reckon we're sitting pretty.’
The morning of 28 November was devoted to tightening the defences and improvising where necessary. Thus, old dumps of ammunition, located some distance out by the carriers, produced HE shells without charges for the 25-pounders, and these were made fit for use by inserting charges from the smoke shells, which were practically the only ones left with the guns. All water containers were filled and Musaid and Sollum were well supplied with these in case of a siege or long-drawn-out battle. But the day passed without any renewal of the action of the previous day. About 10.15 a.m., 27 Battery made wireless contact with 4 Indian Division and orders were received that 23 and 28 Battalions were to hold on in their present positions and that supplies of all kinds would be sent to them. A later message stated that 5 Brigade Headquarters had been overrun and probably captured. One 23rd Bren-carrier patrol, supported by a section of Vickers guns, shot up a small enemy convoy and captured one 3-ton truck and two prisoners. Otherwise, the day passed without any contact with the enemy.
The next day, 29 November, saw an end to the isolation of the two battalions. After a comparatively quiet morning in which two enemy trucks and two prisoners were taken as a result of anti-tank and other fire put down on a small convoy passing in the north, and two small British trucks were recaptured by a Bren-carrier patrol, 22 Battalion escorted by the Divisional Cavalry arrived in the Capuzzo area. A new 5 Brigade Headquarters was established at Musaid with Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew as temporary commander. Of even more importance from the point of view of the men was the arrival of the Indian supply column about 5·30 p.m. The ration situation would have been desperate had it not been for the Italian rations captured at Capuzzo and in some of the trucks taken later.
The next day passed quietly and on 1 December the Indians relieved the 5 Brigade units in Capuzzo-Musaid-Sollum. That afternoon the brigade moved north-north-west about 15 miles to the Menastir area, where it was to establish a base from which to conduct mobile operations against columns operating between Bardia and the west, to raid enemy dumps and create as much confusion as possible.page 122
Actually, the next three days passed without much excitement. Carrier patrols by day and infantry patrols by night met with limited success: on 2 December one ration truck and two Germans were captured, six Italians surrendered to a patrol, and several large dumps outside the Bardia wire were discovered, several of which were blown up the following day. On the afternoon of 3 December, the 23rd had to stand to in its prepared positions as a strong German column was approaching, but the Maoris fended this force off and the 23rd made no contact with the enemy. Diamond, the veteran of Greece and Crete, could write at this time: ‘The Boys are keen to have another crack, feeling easy about it myself’. That evening 5 Brigade was ordered to return to Capuzzo to relieve the Indians, who were required for operations in the Tobruk sector. The move back was begun at 2.30 a.m., the escarpment was safely negotiated by moonlight, and after a bone-shaking ride, hurried somewhat by shelling from tanks, the battalion was back in its old Capuzzo positions by 9 a.m. on 4 December.
Four and a half days were spent comparatively quietly at Capuzzo under command of 2 South African Division, the New Zealand Division's headquarters and the other two brigades having been withdrawn to Egypt. Carrier patrols continued to provide the more interesting news. With one of these, Sergeant E. W. Hobbs outflanked and shot up an enemy patrol on the Bardia road. A 37-millimetre anti-tank gun was captured and added to the number of enemy guns, which were given plenty of use, mainly in practice, by their new owners.
On 8 December Brigadier Wilder43 took over command of 5 Brigade and, that evening, the brigade was ordered to move into 13 Corps Reserve and be available for operations west of Tobruk. So sudden was this order that a section of a patrol which could not be recalled by radio had to be left behind for the time being. The battalion moved off at 3.30 a.m. on 9 December with Second-Lieutenant Mason in charge of the vanguard of three carriers, one anti-tank gun and one medium machine gun. The infantry had to march approximately ten miles to a rendezvous with the trucks of 4 RMT Company. While this march was not to be compared in severity with the one to Kokkinoplos, it served to show how speedily the physical page 123 condition of men could deteriorate during campaigning on poor and scanty rations. ‘Long as I live, I'll never forget that march—we were all dead beat, and our feet are in a bad state through no washing for weeks,’ wrote one diarist. But there was consolation that day in the arrival of a good parcel mail from New Zealand. As one private recorded at the time: ‘That morning we were eating dry biscuits and mouldy stale bread, that afternoon we ate fruit cake, shortbread, and sweets’. Another said: ‘Some parcels have just arrived—couldn't have come at a better time. We can go to bed with full bellies for a change. The old wolf was nearly in the door’.
At Sidi Azeiz the brigade formed up for a move to the west. The news that both Japan and the United States of America had entered the war was received at this time with mixed feelings, but most men concluded that, while the war might approach New Zealand more closely than they had previously thought possible, the best thing they could do was to get on with the job in hand. Sidi Bu Amed, about 20 miles east of Tobruk, was reached about dusk on 9 December. A day was spent at this place. It rained heavily and was very cold. Small wonder, therefore, that a private diarist recorded: ‘Carriers brought in barrels of cognac—the boys got tight’.
At 3 a.m. on 11 December the brigade moved on with the 23rd in the lead. C Company supplied the advanced guard, which was strengthened by three Bren carriers, a section of Vickers guns and a troop of anti-tank guns. The route followed led via the Tobruk by-pass to Acroma, where the ‘Chestnut’ troop of the Royal Horse Artillery joined the advanced guard. By 7.30 a.m. they had turned west along the Tobruk-Derna road. At the 136 kilo peg (the numbering started from Derna), the advanced guard made contact with elements of 32 Army Tank Brigade and some South African armoured cars. The orders from Brigade were to make contact with the retreating enemy and then reconnoitre the Gazala Box defences. About 10 a.m. enemy shellfire caused C Company to debus just short of the Kilo 130 peg. The RHA troop went into action and soon silenced the enemy guns. Enemy aircraft—very few had so far been seen in the campaign—came over at a very low altitude and apparently unaware that British forces were already so far west. The Bofors guns with the 23rd shot down four Junkers 52s before these German aircraft were able to take any evasive action.page 124
The advance continued in the afternoon with C Company's ‘flag’—a West Coast football jersey—showing the way on Captain Thomson's ‘pick-up’. About 2 p.m. the trucks came under fire again. Captain Thomson ordered the infantry to debus and advance in open order. The trucks screeched to a halt, the infantry jumped down and deployed in their sections just as they had done in the October manoeuvres. Then they advanced resolutely through the flying shrapnel and dust and smoke. The Bren carriers with the advanced guard did their best to help the attack: Sergeant Ernie Hobbs raced his carrier forward and out to a flank where he set up a Spandau machine gun and fired belt after belt of bullets into the enemy positions. He stopped firing only when the advancing infantry masked his target. Captain Thomson was wounded and Lieutenant Len Stubbs took over. He, too, was badly wounded as the company approached its objective, but the attack went on.
Two participants in this attack have left eye-witness accounts which the historian cannot do better than quote. Diamond, who had previously mentioned in his diary that, of the original page 125 C Company members who went through Greece and Crete, only fifteen were left, recorded: ‘The Eyeties put down a real hot barrage, big stuff and small stuff, it whinnied and whined, whispered and whanged over our heads and in our ranks. The Boys went through it like veterans. Never once did they falter; they obeyed their orders promptly and went on—some good stuff amongst these reinforcements! Later on we got out of the artillery range; it was dropping behind us, and now we get the small stuff and mortars. Brens and rifles spat out and Bredas, fired somewhat erratically, spurted up the stone and dust around us. We were heavily engaged and too far in to withdraw—we would have been cut to bits by artillery. Our wireless had broken down with the result that communications were nil. Three or four hundred yards from the ridge and the trenches, we sent back runners for tanks and support, a long way back to Battalion, 5 or 6 miles. By the time the poor devils got back we were in the trench and over the ridge. When we got within say 50 yards of the trench and prepared to go in with the bayonet and tommy gun, the Eyeties chucked it in. You never saw such a sight—they came running out from behind rocks, out of caves, up from trenches in front of us. Everywhere they came waving anything that appeared white, shirt tails, underpants, cigarette papers, rags. Crikey! What a sight.’
‘… So steady was the advance that the gunners could not range quickly enough with the result that the shells were bursting behind our line, though to me it seemed that several direct hits were made on the right flank but the boys came out of the smoke and dust still in line, never faltering. It was a magnificent sight to see that thin line moving steadily forward into a hail of lead, with shells of all sizes … bursting all around…. the fact that the ground was sandy saved more casualties…. One more dash brought us to within bayonet reach. We crossed the ground swiftly, some of the boys shouting encouragement to each other. From my position on the left flank, I could see our line, straight enough to bring joy to any bayonet instructor, stretching away to the right flank. Roaring “Forward!”, I came up ready for the final dash. It made the blood sing to see the boys leap forward, a steady line of gleaming steel backed by grim faces. Nothing short of death could stop them now.’page 126
On the right flank, Sergeant Gallagher showed his usual courage and sound tactical sense by waiting for an infantry assault gun to turn to a flank before dashing in with his tommy gun blazing to silence its crew. Then, as described by Diamond, white rags and flags made their appearance with such rapidity as to give point to the jest that they must be ‘army issue’ with the Italians in Libya.
Another four or five hundred yards on were more trenches manned by many more Italians. Their artillery and mortars switched to ‘Thomson's Ridge’, as the freshly captured feature was now called, and it seemed that a counter-attack, with the odds, numerically at any rate, very much in favour of the Italians, was about to be launched. Lieutenant Slee45 quickly organised the left-hand platoon to face this threat, while CSM Norman Trewby took over the two right-hand platoons and ensured that all likely approaches were covered by fire. Diamond's account can be resumed at this point:
‘A slight pause and then the counter-attack, shot and shell, mortar and Breda make the ridge a red hot hell, a very determined counter-attack it seemed. Eyeties 50 or 60 yards off as thick as flies, and no support in sight for little old C Company. We grabbed their Bredas and used them. We give them everything, and then the unexplainable happened, they chucked it in, simply left their guns and hopped it towards Derna. There's no accounting for them. Through the action of aggressive, high spirited men, a mere company of us put to flight at least a battalion of sawdust cæsars. We captured two hundred odd prisoners, a large number of Bredas, Fiats, mortars, etc. But you ought to have seen the Eyeties that got away.’
All the Italians on that front did not withdraw and C Company was glad when D Company arrived to fill gaps in its defences and to extend the short right flank which had been causing Sergeant-Major Trewby some concern. The troop of RHA had its OP officer well forward throughout both the attack and the counter-attack, and his calls for artillery fire were quickly answered and probably did more than C Company realised to discourage the Italians. Despite the shellfire falling in the area of the advance, Driver O'Donnell46 drove a truck across the flat and picked up all the wounded he could find.page 127
C and D Companies held their ridge till after darkness had fallen. About 5.30 p.m., acting on instructions from Battalion Headquarters, D Company covered the withdrawal of C back to its trucks on the road. About half an hour later, D Company also withdrew. No enemy fire troubled the withdrawal: the Italians, too, were pulling back to other positions. C Company's casualties were light for an attack on the forward positions of two battalions—2 officers wounded, 2 other ranks killed in action, 2 missing and 24 wounded. The Italians, mostly from 20 Regiment, Brescia Division, lost an unknown number killed and, as prisoners to C Company, 9 officers and 252 other ranks. The enemy also gave up much equipment, including several dumps of stores and ammunition.
On the following day, 12 December, carrier patrols were out early but did not contact the enemy. The remainder of 5 Brigade were advancing on an inland track due west from Acroma and the battalion's only communication with Brigade Headquarters was by wireless. Orders were received to continue the advance. This was done and thirty more prisoners of war were taken: 22 from the Trento Division gave themselves up to B Company headquarters. In the afternoon, with a tank and carrier screen in front and extending to both flanks, and with A Company on the right of the road and B Company on the left, both in desert formation, the 23rd advanced closer to Ain el-Gazala before enemy shelling compelled its troops to debus and prepare for another attack. Just past the wreck-strewn Gazala aerodrome, the infantry of A and B Companies began to advance on foot, well supported by the RHA gunners. Scrub and low mounds offered plenty of cover for a defending enemy, but no contact was made during daylight. Warm fires and other signs of hastily evacuated positions showed that the enemy had pulled back under his own artillery fire as the South Island infantry began to move forward. Quite heavy shelling from guns back on the escarpment continued most of the afternoon and compelled the transport to be kept out of range. At dusk the tanks pulled back to laager at Kilo 118. The advance had not been turned into an attack, but this was in keeping with the brigade instruction: ‘… gain contact with the enemy but do NOT incur casualties.’
That night, at 6.30 p.m., Second-Lieutenant P. Lynch took 10 Platoon out as a patrol to locate the enemy gun positions in the area to the left of the road, west of the Kilo 110 peg. page 128 Corporal Dave Jenkins47 wrote an account in his diary, which may be quoted both as a useful description of this patrol and as giving a typical reaction to a death in a platoon: ‘We got right up close in the dark and they opened up at less than fifty yards with all kinds of fire—machine guns, tank guns, grenades—and had us in a sweat for a while. We returned the fire and moved in closer and threw some grenades, then they quit and scattered. We killed a few and wounded some. Harry got one with his tommy gun. Then we opened fire on a big bunch further in to the escarpment and wounded six before discovering they were Indians taken prisoner. They were relieved to find who we were…. Poor old Tony Valli48 was killed, and we all feel bad about it. He was one of the old original members of No. 10 and one of the best workers we had.’
During the time the patrol was under fire, Corporal A. D. Smith49 worked his way forward, rushed a machine-gun post, killed the crew with a grenade and then swung their machine gun into action against other MG posts nearby. The patrol saw several 75-millimetre and other guns but it was not strong enough to bring them away, nor was it equipped to destroy them. In addition to recapturing the forty-three members of an Indian first-aid unit, which had been captured late that afternoon through taking the wrong road, Lynch's patrol took some prisoners, which brought the total for the day to 3 officers and 70 other ranks.
The battalion spent the next few days at Gazala with little more action than the interchange of artillery fire to report. The normal carrier patrols went out and an OP was established to watch enemy transport movements on the Derna road. Brigade expected the next advance to be made in the south and therefore had told the 23rd to ‘Hold present positions until further orders.’ A few more prisoners were taken. Diamond's diary gives the story of one lot: ‘Our fellows marched in 11 Italians including an officer. Nearly got a Hun, too. This is dinkum. When our fellows approached them, the “Hun” wanted to have a crack at us, with the help of the “Eyeties” of course, but the Italians didn't agree with the Hun, so to ease the situation they shot the Hun.’ A few more Bersaglieri captured by the carriers brought the unit total for the week 9–16 December to 18 page 129 Italian officers, 387 Italian other ranks and 2 Germans. The marked contrast in a soldier's life between such action as he experienced in the night patrol of 12 December and the inactivity of waiting for something to happen is well illustrated in what Corporal Jenkins wrote three days later: ‘Been reading a Free Lance, all about the Grand National, even the fashion notes to pass the time—Fred Blanchard50 says he read all about Mrs. Elworthy's frock and Miss Orbell's hat.’
On 16 December the Polish Brigade launched an attack inland. The 23rd gave a demonstration of fire power in support of this attack. About ten o'clock next morning Brigade signalled that enemy resistance was collapsing and that the battalion was to push on with all speed. The Bren carriers and A and B Companies therefore advanced to the anti-tank ditch where, after a small amount of skirmishing, they rounded up some 200 Italians, whom they ordered to start marching back along the road towards Battalion Headquarters.
In the early afternoon, when the carriers were giving chase to some enemy trucks, they ran on to a lightly sown but well concealed minefield. Actually, Second-Lieutenant Mason had crossed the field in the leading carrier before one of those following was blown up. This carrier went on fire immediately and the three members of its crew, who had been wounded or knocked unconscious, would have had no chance of survival if Charlie Mason had not rushed back and, despite the exploding ammunition, lifted them out.
At this time, brigade orders to hand over to the Poles and to withdraw to a rendezvous at Bir el-Geff, some 20 miles to the south-east, reached the leading elements. Although the ‘hand-over’ did not take place till 18 December, the campaign was concluded for 5 Brigade. Nevertheless, things were going so well that most men would cheerfully have gone on. Some were talking about the greener country between Derna and Benghazi; others were over-optimistically forecasting ‘Tripoli for Christmas’. A day or two before, Diamond had recorded in his diary: ‘This is a different battle from the battle of Greece and Crete. We no longer go unwashed, unfed, unrelieved…. This battle is ours, we eat, shave, wash, polish our boots, rest, fight, and give the enemy hell. The men are bursting with confidence, the Morale was never higher, and last, but not least, the Battalion wears the hallmark of parade ground smartness.’ page 130 Little wonder that three days later he should write: ‘The game's very quiet now, seems as if the battle has passed us by. The rumour is that we are to withdraw back to the Baggush Box…. Blast them! Why can't we go on and be in at the kill!’, and on 21 December: ‘Today we got the dinkum oil. As far as we are concerned, the Libyan campaign is over. The crowd are very disappointed…. It's galling to find we can't go on and pluck the fruits of our first victory’.
Soon the brigade was on its way back to Egypt. On 19 December much of the transport was handed over to 22 Guards Brigade, which was taking up the pursuit. All ammunition in excess of the regular scale, all captured guns and equipment,51 and all the Bren carriers had to be delivered to the appropriate authorities in Tobruk.
On 21 December the padre, the Rev. Stan Read,52 took a church and memorial service. While they waited for transport, company and later battalion teams played football on ‘Romans Oval’, the desert ground named after Major Romans. The 23rd celebrated Christmas Day and dinner at El Adem. It had plenty of captured cognac but rations were still light. One diarist recorded: ‘Xmas Day we got extra rations in the form of green peas and potatoes—the peas were like the pebbles on the beach, and the potatoes—well, this is the 27th and the cooks are still battling with them.’ On 26 December the battalion ran into one of the worst dust-storms it ever experienced in the Western Desert but, despite the loss of contact and direction by several trucks, they all arrived eventually at the railhead and returned to the Baggush Box, seven weeks from the date on which they had left it.
The 23rd's first experience of desert fighting was certainly much more fortunate than that of most other New Zealand units in the same campaign. This was the result of fortuitous circumstances over which the units had no control. The battalion had the one short period of facing German soldiers—and it proved its worth in the defence of Fort Capuzzo—but, otherwise, it had fought Italians who had not offered very strenuous opposition, page 131 especially when it came to close fighting. Nevertheless, even Italian shells and bullets could do damage: the battalion's casualties were 25 killed in action or died of wounds, 68 wounded, and 17 (of whom 10 were wounded) lost as prisoners of war.53 The men had endured the severe conditions—the cold winds, the rains, the short rations, the salty water, the jolting truck rides and the dust. But most of the battalion took these as part and parcel of campaigning in the desert and would have agreed with the concluding diary entry for this campaign made by Corporal Jenkins: ‘Still we had some good times and experienced things we'll never forget and, if B Coy's luck holds as good next time, we ask no more.’
1 These came mainly from the 4th and 5th Reinforcements, which had arrived in Egypt between 16 December 1940 and 13 May 1941.
2 Actually, these reinforcements were to see a longer period of fighting than the original members of the 23rd. Many of the originals went on furlough on the Ruapehu scheme, introduced in June 1943, whereas some of the 5th Reinforcements did not go on furlough till early 1945.
4 In this match, played on 8 November, New Zealand beat South Africa by 8 to nil. R. T. Miller, a New Zealand war correspondent, began his despatch on this match: ‘Three thousand great-coated, battle-dressed fans, from Rugby-mad privates to a Rugby-minded General, yelled most of their throats hoarse today across a sandy field….’
6 2 Lt J. N. Ramsay; born Dunedin, 15 May 1918; solicitor; killed in action 23 Oct 1942.
17 Pte H. O'Neill; Waimate; born NZ 14 May 1917; labourer; wounded 16 Jul 1942.
23 2 Lt J. F. Fagan; born NZ 6 Aug 1918; shop assistant; killed in action 17 Dec 1941.
24 2 Lt W. Foubister; born NZ 1 Aug 1916; clerk; killed in action 27 Nov 1941.
27 Lt-Col H. T. W. Nolan, DSO, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 23 Jul 1915; sheep-farmer; Adjutant, 5 Fd Regt, Dec 1940-Jun 1941; comd 30 Fd Bty Sep 1942-Dec 1943; BM NZA, Aug-Nov 1944; CO 4 Fd Regt Mar-Dec 1945; wounded Feb 1942.
42 Jeavons and other wounded were picked up shortly afterwards by stretcher-bearers taken out, under fire, in a truck driven by Private Jack O'Fee, the driver of the unit water truck. Writing to the author, Colonel Leckie described how he called to pay a last farewell to Jeavons the next morning: ‘The M.O. gave him little hope of living. Alf greeted us thus: “I suppose you bastards have come to attend my bloody obsequies. Well, there's not going to be any. The ground here is too bloody hard to give a man a decent burial.” Alf pulled through. He was typical of the real 23rd spirit.’
43 Maj-Gen A. S. Wilder, DSO, MC, m.i.d., Order of the White Eagle (Serb); Te Hau, Waipukurau; born NZ 24 May 1890; sheep-farmer; Wgtn Mtd Rifles 1914–19; CO 25 Bn May 1940-Sep 1941; comd NZ Trg Gp, Maadi Camp, Sep-Dec 1941, Jan-Feb 1942; 5 Bde 6 Dec 1941–17 Jan 1942; 5 Div (in NZ) Apr 1942-Jan 1943; 1 Div Jan-Nov 1943.
47 2 Lt D. S. Jenkins; Tuatapere; born Orepuke, 21 Dec 1912; farmer.
51 The inventory of captured guns, etc., sent in by the 23rd included one 210-mm gun, one 150-mm, six 105-mm guns, three 75-mm, ten 37-mm, twelve Breda 20-mm guns, four 81-mm and 22 50-mm mortars, 10 Fiat 8-mm machine guns, 15 Breda 6.5 and 2 Spandau 8-mm machine guns, and two Mark III tanks (one of which had been placed in running order with parts from the other).
53 A measure of the 23rd's good fortune in this campaign is found in comparing the casualties given above with those suffered by other units. Twentieth Battalion's casualties were 24 officers and 524 other ranks, of whom 9 officers and 354 other ranks were prisoners. The 26th, the third South Island unit, suffered 449 casualties, of whom 89 were killed and 9 officers and 217 other ranks were taken prisoner. The 21st, which was separated from the rest of 5 Brigade in this campaign, had 376 casualties made up of 83 killed, 126 wounded and 167 prisoners of war.