CHAPTER 3 — Sidi Rezegh
A heatwave heralded the month of May, and for a while there was a high rate of sickness at Helwan among the troops back from Greece with constitutions weakened by prolonged strain and exhaustion. The month passed uneventfully except for a sudden alarm which sent 24 Battalion posting off to Suez to cope with an airborne attack that never took place. A few days later the battalion moved to Spinney Wood camp, near Ismailia. There, as part of a force prepared to deal with the somewhat remote possibility of an airborne attack on the Canal, it carried out routine training and dug defensive positions. No airborne attack but an air raid came early in August. Its impact on 24 Battalion was indirect yet severe, for the Aucklanders were required to provide a working party 500 strong at El Kirsh supply depot to replace Egyptians frightened away by the bombing.
Reinforcements arrived early in July and for a while the battalion was over strength. Possibly the high spirits of these newly-joined men were responsible for some falling off in discipline; at all events, a notice appeared in 24 Battalion routine orders soon after their arrival, deploring and at the same time prohibiting the practice of throwing bombs and firing small arms from train windows. Gambling was also mentioned with disfavour on more than one occasion.
Back at Helwan in August the training syllabus gradually expanded, taking on a more realistic form, and even before 2 NZ Division returned to the Western Desert in the middle of September, there were brigade tactical exercises with artillery and air co-operation. Baggush Box, to which the 24th moved on 18 September, was a fortress or chain of earthworks close by the Mediterranean coastline, begun in 1940 by the first contingent to leave New Zealand. Lying approximately thirty miles south-west of Mersa Matruh, it contained extensive underground shelters, the whole being skilfully camouflaged page 55 against aerial observation. The climate of this region was typical of the Western Desert, and dust-storms were a prevailing nuisance. Sixth Brigade now took over the eastern of those sectors into which the Box was subdivided, and 24 Battalion moved into a position in the south-east corner of the perimeter that had formerly been occupied by a battalion of the Essex Regiment.
At Baggush training was adapted to a special rather than a general purpose. Moving in desert formation, after the manner evolved by 4 Brigade in 1940, was practised extensively. Just as infantry had once advanced in column and assumed artillery formation, so now vehicles were moved in column and deployed for protection against air attack. Principles were much the same, though means and methods had changed. In modern warfare infantry was transported over the initial stages of advance, but debussed and made the final assault on foot as in days gone by. For the rest, training consisted largely in practising attack over minefields or crossing wire obstacles. Dummy fortresses modelled on air photographs of German defences on the Libyan frontier were assaulted by infantry co-operating with Valentine tanks and artillery. All these exercises portended aggressive intention in the near future.
The intention was actual as well as apparent. Protected by a chain of isolated forts masked in depth by minefields and extending from Sidi Omar northwards along the Libyan frontier to Halfaya and Sollum, General Rommel had concentrated his forces for a third attack on Tobruk. So long as this place remained strongly held as a perpetual threat to the enemy's left flank, invasion of Egypt was impracticable. In any case, since British forces were now superior to those of the enemy, invasion was about to move in the opposite direction. It was General Auchinleck's intention that the Eighth Army should drive the enemy from Cyrenaica and at the same time relieve Tobruk. His plan, in brief, was that 30 Corps, comprising most of the armour, should threaten the approaches of Tobruk and force an armoured encounter, while 13 Corps, in which 2 NZ Division was included, should isolate the frontier fortress line and later mop it up from the west. With this accomplished, 13 Corps would move west to unite with 30 Corps in the region page 56 of Tobruk. Meanwhile it was not to be committed until the result of the armoured battle should be known.
By the beginning of November all was complete. Effort had been concentrated on preparing for a special operation, and training directed towards the accomplishment of a well-defined purpose. Battalion and company commanders had been made well acquainted with the lie of the land between Tobruk and the Libyan frontier by means of a large relief model in plaster, which they were able to study in comparison with maps. From all sides came unmistakable evidence that something was afoot, and when orders were received on 9 November for 2 NZ Division to assemble in the desert at Qaret el Kanayis, no one was deceived by the official pretence that nothing more than an exercise was contemplated. Starting on 11 November, the Division moved by brigade groups on successive days. Last to leave Baggush, 6 Brigade resembled a miniature division when judged by standards of the 1914-18 war. A field regiment, anti-tank and anti-aircraft batteries, a machine-gun company, and a field company of engineers were among the units under its command, and since it was eventually to come under direct control of 30 Corps its administrative arrangements were those of an entirely self-contained formation. Travelling via the Baggush-Matruh road and thence south-west along the Siwa track, the group convoy, comprising about a thousand vehicles spaced out ten to the mile, was nearly 100 miles long and took six hours and a half to pass a given point. As Qaret el Kanayis was 70 miles away, the first vehicles of the column were arriving at their destination while the last were leaving the starting point. Time was lost early in the move. There was some disorganisation, with the result that units in the rear did not arrive in the concentration area till nearly midnight, but 24 Battalion was fortunate in being well up near the head of the column. All its vehicles had arrived by 5.30 p.m. and the men had made themselves comfortable for the night before darkness fell.
The Division being now assembled, General Freyberg called a conference at his headquarters of all officers down to the rank of company commander and gave them an outline of the general situation. Since returning from Greece there had been page 57 some changes in the battalion. D and Headquarters Companies were still commanded as before by Captain McDonald and Major Hedge, but A was now under Captain Forder,1 B had been taken over by Captain Brown, whose former position as Quartermaster was filled by Captain Robertson,2 while Captain Tomlinson3 had succeeded Captain Morrison in command of C Company. Captain Carnachan, Intelligence Officer in Greece, had been appointed Adjutant, and his former position filled by Captain Thompson.4 Six officers and 80 other ranks were left out of battle at Sidi Haneish, in the Baggush Box.
Having rested a day at El Kanayis, the whole division moved 50 miles west by daylight on 15 November, in a mass of widely spaced vehicles covering an immensity of ground, to a point about half-way between its place of assembly and the Libyan frontier. Here another short halt was made, and the men spent their hours of leisure playing football, thereby illustrating the aphorism that rest is merely a change of occupation. Much to everyone's surprise no air attack had yet been made, but henceforward moves took place by night along an axis of advance marked every 1000 yards by green lights, shaded and facing to the rear. Advancing in a westerly direction by stages of 25 or 30 miles nightly, with vehicles dispersed at wide intervals during daylight, 2 NZ Division arrived on the night of 18 November at the great barbed-wire barrier built by the Italians and stretching from the Mediterranean coast southward along the Libyan frontier, deep into the desert. In their anxiety to be eye-witnesses of an historical event, many men of 24 Battalion stayed awake till 1.30 a.m., at which time their unit passed through the barrier. Lightning flashes lit the northern sky as they entered Cyrenaica and camped in the divisional area a few miles beyond the frontier.
On the morning of 19 November the Division was assembled some short distance to the south of Libyan Sheferzen. The page 58 4th Indian Division had begun investing the frontier fortresses and the armoured encounter appeared imminent. Early in the afternoon orders came from 13 Corps directing 2 NZ Division to move north to the line of the Trigh el Abd, a desert highway crossing the frontier at Bir Sheferzen. The New Zealanders arrived after dark at their new position, ten miles south-west of Sidi Omar, and remained there throughout the following day. By 21 November enemy tanks were retiring westward and it appeared that the armoured encounter was going in our favour. The battle's second phase was due to begin. Crossing the Trigh el Abd, 2 NZ Division, led by its Divisional Cavalry and with 5, 4, and 6 Brigades following in that order, moved north-west towards the Trigh Capuzzo. A few shells fell close to 26 Battalion's vehicles as they were passing east of Sidi Omar, but did no damage. At dusk 5 Brigade was swinging east to bottle up enemy forces in Sollum and Bardia, while 4 Brigade held its former line of advance with the object of cutting the Bardia-Tobruk road. Sixth Brigade was near Bir Tgheit, still some way south of the Trigh Capuzzo, when orders arrived for it to incline left and move to Bir el Hariga. Thereafter, passing under command of 30 Corps, it would advance westward towards Gambut and Bir el Chleta to clear that region of the enemy.
Sixth Brigade moved on throughout the night with 24 Battalion leading, screened by the carriers of 25 Battalion, while its own carrier platoon guarded the left flank. The surprise was mutual when 25 Battalion carriers encountered 20 Germans and took them prisoner without a shot being fired. Heavy rain had fallen, and an hour before midnight the brigade ran into a patch of soft mud in which most of its vehicles stuck fast. Daylight would have found them a helpless, sitting target for hostile aircraft, but two hours' hard work saw them extricated from the bog and on firm ground beyond. At dawn they were approaching the Trigh Capuzzo and, since Bir el Hariga might still be occupied, the battalion's carrier platoon was sent forward as a protective screen. No enemy was found, but a few artillery vehicles which had lost touch during the night had gone on separately and were waiting in occupation of the position.page 59
A squadron of Valentine tanks was due to join the Brigade Group at this point, but no tanks appeared and an officer sent in search of them found that they also had struck a muddy patch in the night. Of the squadron's 16 tanks, four were still stuck—one hopelessly. The runners having been guided in, 6 Brigade started off along the Trigh Capuzzo for Bir el Chleta at 3 p.m. on 22 November, with 24 Battalion still acting as advanced guard. The Carrier Platoon moved ahead as a protective screen and at 5 p.m. saw an enemy convoy astride the road south of Gambut. Word was at once sent back, but as preparations were being made to attack them the enemy vehicles moved off. A few Germans belonging to the staff of the Gambut aerodrome were surprised and taken prisoner and the aerodrome itself was reconnoitred by a carrier patrol. The dugouts were all found to be empty, but everywhere there were signs of recent occupation. When 6 Brigade halted for the night at dusk it was still some way east of Bir el Chleta.
Meanwhile it was fast becoming obvious that the armoured encounter was not going entirely in our favour. Early in the afternoon of 22 November a message from 30 Corps reached 6 Brigade, asking that the attached squadron of Valentine tanks be sent forward at once to Sidi Rezegh, where 5 South African Brigade and 7 Support Group of 7 Armoured Division were being hard-pressed, but the tank commander said he was unable to increase the speed at which his vehicles were already moving. At 8 p.m. definite instructions arrived from the same quarter. Sixth Brigade Group would continue its advance along the Trigh Capuzzo with all possible speed to Point 175 (some ten miles west of its present position south of Gambut), where it would take up an all-round defensive position, and then get in touch with 5 South African Brigade and 7 Support Group at Sidi Rezegh.
A start was made at 3 a.m., with 25 and 26 Battalions forward on the right and left respectively and the 24th in rear on the brigade's right flank. Since it was essential that no time be wasted in reaching Point 175, Brigadier Barrowclough decided to make a detour south of Bir el Chleta and thus avoid the delay that must ensue should his brigade run into the enemy. In the darkness 24 Battalion lost touch with 6 Field Ambulance, page 60 by which it was immediately preceded. Though somewhat concerned at hearing the rumble of vehicles away on his right, Colonel Shuttleworth continued to steer his own course in the hope of regaining contact at daybreak. Just before dawn the lights of what appeared at first to be an approaching convoy came into view. Since lights were not being used on our vehicles it seemed likely that the convoy was part of an enemy force, but the true state of affairs soon became apparent when the lights turned out to be fires over which the remainder of the brigade was cooking breakfast. There was, however, something strange about the position occupied. According to plan it should have been on top of the escarpment along which 24 Battalion was moving, whereas in fact the fires were down in a valley. At this juncture Colonel Shuttleworth was called to a conference, and Major Mantell- Harding, who took over command, describes the events that followed.
As I led the Bn down the face of the escarpment on the south, to my amazement I saw through my glasses a convoy of six Hun vehicles moving down the face of the northern escarpment and into the same wadi as our Bde was in. They did not appreciate who we were and we both continued on our way. I made a left wheel and they made one to the right, and we were then moving parallel in the same direction about 600 yards apart. There was a certain amount of firing going on from our Arty which I could not quite understand, and I decided to lead the Bn up in rear of a troop of guns who were shelling somebody or something. Just before reaching my final position I was standing in my truck with my head through the ‘sunshine’ roof when phst, phst, and bullets began flying uncomfortably close in front of my truck. Just at that moment two guns of the troop in front of me turned right and fired point blank at two Hun Cars which had come down the escarpment opposite us. They blew one into the air but the other managed to hare away out of trouble. They realised now that they had come into the wrong camp, and the troops in the vehicles quickly bit the dust with the result that Harry McDonald's Coy took about 150 prisoners and six 3-ton lorries full of petrol and water.5
The carriers, having been out in advance of the battalion, page 61 were the first to run into the convoy. As they approached, still doubtful whether they were encountering friend or foe, they saw men get out of the trucks and hide among bushes but soon distinguished their uniforms and opened fire. Lying flat on the ground, the Germans tried to raise their hands in the air. ‘[Sgt McDonald] stood up in his carrier and waved them up on to their feet. All stood up with their hands up, and it was found that they had debussed in such a hurry that they had left their arms behind them and didn't have a rifle among the lot…. The twenty-six prisoners were counted and handed over to B Coy. Of the enemy convoy only the anti-tank gun had escaped. It was on the extreme right of the small column and far enough off to take advantage of the bad light and make a dash for it. All this time a general action of considerable proportions was going on in front.’6
It transpired that, while 24 Battalion alone had steered along the right course, the remainder of 6 Brigade, through an error in navigation, had arrived at dawn astride the Trigh Capuzzo at Bir el Chleta, instead of well to the south of it. The 25th Battalion had run into part of the German Afrika Korps, and the ensuing battle was in full swing when 24 Battalion arrived on the scene to collect in all about 200 prisoners. Not wishing to waste strength on a diversionary operation, and having in mind the main purpose of getting as quickly as possible to Point 175, Brigadier Barrowclough took the earliest opportunity of breaking off the engagement, and before long his command was again moving westward.
From Bir el Chleta a long, low, stony ridge, running east and west, extended some two miles beyond Sidi Rezegh. Point 175 lay between these two places on top of the escarpment. The southern approaches to Tobruk were domináted by this and a similar ridge running parallel to it on the northern side, on which Ed Duda and Belhamed were situated. As has been already mentioned, the battle for these vital features had gone against us. Driven back from Sidi Rezegh, 7 Armoured Division had been unable to make contact with the garrison of Tobruk as it sallied out towards Ed Duda. Thus, while page 62 6 New Zealand Brigade moved rapidly to its support, 7 Armoured Division had withdrawn behind 5 South African Brigade, which was being heavily attacked south of Sidi Rezegh. Fifth Brigade was still engaged in bottling up enemy forces in Bardia and Sollum, while 4 Brigade was moving on Gambut, north of the Trigh Capuzzo. Such in brief was the general situation on the morning of 23 November.
Sixth Brigade arrived within striking distance of Point 175, only to find it held by the enemy in considerable strength. Without delay 25 Battalion was ordered to attack, with two troops of anti-tank guns under command, while at the same time 26 Battalion, with one battery of 6 Field Regiment and one troop from 33 Anti-Tank Battery, was sent to make contact with the South Africans, whose position had been pointed out by a liaison officer recently arrived from Corps Headquarters. The 24th remained in reserve on the escarpment near Wadi esc Sciomar.
Soon after crossing the start line 25 Battalion was halted and reinforced by a squadron of Valentine tanks, as it had become apparent that an armoured force formed part of the defence. Accompanied by the battalion's carriers, the page 63 Valentines advanced on Point 175 at full speed, leaving the infantry, who had debussed to attack, far behind. All attempts to get in touch with the squadron commander and order him to check the pace were ineffectual. The tanks pushed on over the summit of their objective and ran into nests of anti-tank guns, which took so heavy a toll of them that only four returned from the action. When the infantry arrived it was opposed by various strongpoints overrun by the armour, and had to fight its way to the objective unsupported in face of stubborn resistance. By failing to co-operate the two arms had denied each other mutual support, and for this they paid dearly. A deep wadi entered the escarpment on its northern side and ran south-eastward along the forward slopes of Point 175, and on the right of the position the ground fell away steeply. The enemy now gathered out of sight in the wadi and sent lorried infantry round 25 Battalion's right flank under cover of the steep slope, so that within a short time the New Zealanders were being counter-attacked in front, on their right flank, and even in their right rear. Pressure increased; the battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel McNaught,7 was wounded and, having no alternative, he sent back asking for assistance. Colonel Shuttleworth was at once ordered forward with C and D Companies of his battalion to take charge of the situation and reinforce the hard-pressed defenders, who had been forced to give some ground and were now about 400 yards east of the hill summit.
D Company, under Captain McDonald, was first to arrive on the scene. Wounded a second time but still remaining with his men, McNaught directed McDonald to push on to the right of the cairn on the summit of Point 175. The situation was obscure; 25 Battalion was unavoidably disorganised, and as D Company advanced it was fired upon by men of the 25th who were farther forward than had been imagined. The fire was returned and several men of both units were killed or wounded. Fire also came from the enemy in front and, while disposing his company in position on the edge of the page 64 steep declivity that sloped northwards, McDonald was killed, together with his orderly, Private Absolum.8 By nightfall D Company had lost 27 men killed and wounded.
Captain Tomlinson, with C Company, arrived forward about half an hour later than D Company to find no one in charge of 25 Battalion headquarters. McNaught had been evacuated and Major Burton,9 who had taken over command, was out on the right flank reorganising his unit. Seeing a number of 25 Battalion men ‘streaming off Point 175 hotly pursued by the enemy’, Tomlinson decided on his own initiative to attack the position and thereby enable the hard-pressed remnants of the 25th to rally and reorganise. ‘On going back to my Coy’, he writes, ‘I noticed the enemy A.F.Vs in a waddy over to the left, grouped together and apparently refuelling. We were lucky in this as we were not seriously attacked by their armour on our move to the objective. However the enemy's ground troops were now in full possession of Point 175 and, casualties becoming heavy, we went to ground about 300 yards from that point and managed to beat an attack which they staged with our own fire power.’10
Before Tomlinson managed to get in touch with D Company, there was a gap in the centre of the line which he filled with men of 25 Battalion. In the evening Shuttleworth moved up with his headquarters and, having examined the position, decided to bring up the remaining two companies of 24 Battalion during the night.
Activity died down as darkness fell, bringing relief to our troops, whose situation left much to be desired. A bitterly cold wind was blowing and many wounded men lay out in the open. On widely separated fronts the brigade was simultaneously fighting two distinct actions, neither of which had been entirely successful. Word had come from Lieutenant- Colonel Page,11 commanding 26 Battalion, that the South page 65 Africans had been overrun and his own men were being hard-pressed. Orders were sent back for him to disengage under cover of darkness and rejoin the main body. Meanwhile 4 Brigade was more than twenty miles in rear; strong enemy forces were in the offing to the south-west, and more were known to be somewhere north of the Trigh Capuzzo. The only troops not yet committed to action were A and B Companies of 24 Battalion. A message from 30 Corps to the effect that 6 Brigade might expect a tank attack the following morning was not conducive to cheerfulness; in any case, the possibility had already been only too well realised.
In Colonel Shuttleworth's absence Major Mantell-Harding had taken over command of the remainder of 24 Battalion. At 7 p.m. he was instructed to move forward with all available fighting troops so as to arrive at the front line by dawn. A platoon of A Company had left in the morning to escort prisoners to the rear; another platoon was formed to replace it, consisting of motor transport drivers, batmen, cooks, storemen, the armourer-sergeant, pioneers, and men of the Anti-Aircraft Platoon. The 26th Battalion came in about 9 p.m., and a little later Captain Carnachan returned from the front line, gave the first really reliable information that had come to hand since the reorganisation, and asked that B Company be sent forward as soon as possible. Captain Brown got his men away about midnight and the Carrier Platoon occupied the position he had evacuated on the right flank. Mantell-Harding was ready to move off with his mixed company at 4 a.m. He had been promised the services of a liaison officer to guide him, but as no officer had turned up by a quarter past four he decided to start, since there were three miles to go and most of the troops had to march. Carnachan had pointed out a burning tank as a guide to steer by, but the tank was burned out when the party had covered two-thirds of the distance. Growing uneasy about his direction, Mantell-Harding decided to halt until dawn should disclose his whereabouts. His driver walked away a short distance to the left and returned to say he had heard the sound of digging and voices talking in what might be Afrikaans. Acting Company Sergeant-Major Ranum,12 of A Company, page 66 offered to investigate, and with one other man moved off into the darkness. Two minutes later came the sound of guttural shouts, followed by three rifle shots. Ranum and his companion did not return, so Mantell-Harding turned away to the right, and presently dawn revealed the outline of 24 Battalion's vehicles on his right rear. Having gone too far south, he had arrived between our own forward lines and those of the enemy. Fortunately the Germans into whom he had so nearly run did not open fire, and his party moved back unharmed to the 24th's position, covered at first by the rifles of C Company, whose men were suspicious because of the direction from which they came.
At 10 a.m. on the 24th B Company was sent forward through C and D to capture the summit of Point 175, from which our troops had been forced back the previous day. Captain Brown was instructed not to attempt a frontal attack, but to infiltrate under cover of the desert scrub and accomplish what he could with as few casualties as possible. His company reached the objective without much difficulty, but once in position came under heavy fire from a blockhouse and adjacent entrenchments west of Point 175. By nightfall there were about thirty casualties, among them Brown himself, who insisted, against all advice, on leaving the dressing station and limping back into action, only to be fatally wounded next day. Corporal Simpson13 describes the action as follows:
At the appointed time we moved forward under our OC, Captain Brown, who throughout the day was a marvellous example of courage and leadership to us all. He did not seem to know what fear was, and his display carried us through that first day. The going was pretty hard, but you could always hear his cheery voice urging you on and directing operations. In a very short time we reached our objective, having driven the old Hun well on ahead of us. We had just enough time to settle in as best we could. After a while he (the enemy) started to machine gun and shell us fairly heavily, so we just lay doggo watching for him to come and try to push us back again, but apparently he wasn't game enough.14
While B Company advanced, the carriers investigated a page 67 deserted German camp below the escarpment on the right. ‘[Sgt McDonald] drove his carrier through the camp to make sure there were no snipers concealed among the tents. In one tent he found enough lager beer to allow two bottles for each man in the platoon. Returning to the platoon he allowed his men to go down in pairs to “rat” the camp. Towards evening Pte Odlum15 (Dad of “Dad and Dave”) found a cave the other searchers had missed. The cave was very dark but contained a lot of Jerry gear, and “Dad” had set his heart on a German blade razor. He had been inside about a quarter of an hour poking round and striking matches when quite unexpectedly he stumbled on four Jerries asleep in a corner. A moment later he appeared at the mouth of the cave preceded by four sleepy looking Germans and stood waving his arms in excitement and shouting “Oi! Oi!” in the general direction of the platoon.’16
The general outlook had now become brighter. At noon (24 November) word came from 22 Armoured Brigade that it was covering 6 Brigade's southern flank and rear. Headquarters 2 NZ Division sent news of an intended advance by 4 Brigade along the north side of the escarpment. Though it was not yet generally known, Rommel had already sent his armour to raid the frontier and disrupt our communications. Its absence meant a slackening of pressure upon our advanced forces.
Although we now held Point 175, enemy troops were still in the wadi running into the escarpment from the north-east —the same troops that had been such a thorn in 25 Battalion's side the previous day. Besides this, on the high ground west of the wadi stood a blockhouse, round which the enemy was strongly entrenched. The troops on Point 175 were continually under fire from this strongpoint, and the ground they occupied was too stony to allow digging in. Concluding that the obvious and only remedy for conditions so unfavourable was a further advance, Brigadier Barrowclough issued orders for a night attack along the escarpment to capture the blockhouse and dig in on its further side.page 68
By the evening of 24 November 4 Brigade Group had arrived along the north side of the escarpment. The 20th Battalion was in touch with 24 Battalion's right rear and held the line of the Trigh Capuzzo. Divisional Headquarters group, with 21 Battalion, had arrived at Bir el Chleta, while 5 Brigade still contained the frontier garrisons.
At midnight Colonel Shuttleworth held a company commander's conference and explained that the attack would be made with D and C Companies right and left forward, and with B and A right and left rear. The axis of advance pointed straight at the blockhouse, and 26 Battalion would move forward simultaneously on the left of this line. The 25th was being withdrawn into reserve. At 4.30 a.m. the companies formed up 400 yards east of Point 175 and the advance began. The 26th went forward with only slight opposition for nearly five miles and reached the edge of Sidi Rezegh aerodrome, where it dug in. The 24th Battalion's path was not so smooth. Opposition was encountered early on in the wadi, but this was soon overcome, though pockets of resistance were passed by in the darkness and remained to harass the transport that followed up later in the morning. Having crossed the wadi, the leading companies were approaching the blockhouse when heavy fire from behind the building itself pinned them to the ground. No. 13 Platoon of C Company advanced upon the blockhouse but met with murderous fire and was practically wiped out. Sergeant McKay,17 the platoon commander, was among those killed. Frontal attack bid fair to prove a costly business. Some other expedient must be employed if heavy losses were to be avoided. Brigadier Barrowclough, who had come upon the scene, directed that an attempt be made upon the open left flank, and 7 Platoon of A Company, under Second-Lieutenant Cutler,18 began to move round the southern side of the blockhouse. Meanwhile the carriers, under Captain Yeoman, had been employed in escorting the transport forward and clearing up pockets of enemy resistance overrun by the advancing troops in the darkness. Having accomplished page 69 this task, they moved up along the battalion's left flank, where 7 Platoon appeared on their right front, ‘going forward as if the war were over’.19 As it skirted the southern side of the blockhouse, a line of enemy troops stood up to surrender, but as they did so their comrades concealed further back opened fire. Without a moment's hesitation Yeoman tore in ahead of the infantry, drawing all fire upon his vehicles. The enemy held scattered points on the escarpment west of the blockhouse and, as Yeoman arrived on the southern flank of his position, began to surrender in large numbers; all the more willingly because a small force detached from 26 Battalion was starting to harass his position from the south-west.
At this juncture the artillery of 4 Brigade started to shell the whole area from positions north of the Trigh Capuzzo. Friend and foe alike came under this fire and little could be done till it ceased, but as soon as opportunity offered Yeoman pushed on with five carriers until held up by three anti-tank guns about a mile beyond the blockhouse. He fired on the crews, who were well concealed and difficult to dislodge. An artillery officer now arrived and soon brought the guns of his battery into action. The third round of shells fell right in the enemy gun positions, and the carriers moved forward unopposed to find nothing but a burning truck where the anti-tank guns had been. It was time to call a halt, as the enemy were likely to be in strength further ahead. Sergeant McDonald remained on the ground with his section while Captain Yeoman returned to report. All remaining strongpoints around the blockhouse had now been captured, together with some 200 prisoners. The latter were handed over to the right rear company of 26 Battalion, which had assisted in the operation with flanking fire.
With the whole objective gained by 9.30 a.m., 24 and 26 Battalions now held a line running north and south, facing along the ridge towards Sidi Rezegh, with the blockhouse immediately in rear. On their left 21 Battalion, recently placed under command of 6 Brigade, occupied a position close to that in which the South Africans had been overrun on the afternoon of 23 November. Major Mantell-Harding page 70 moved B Echelon transport close up to Battalion Headquarters, and at the same time sent orders for A Echelon (under Major Hedge), which was sheltering in the wadi between Point 175 and the blockhouse, to join him there as soon as possible. B Echelon was shelled and eventually obliged to move some way back, where it remained till late in the afternoon, when orders came for it to go forward once more to a position in rear of the blockhouse. As A Echelon still remained in the wadi, Mantell-Harding went there personally to show its commander the new position. Just as he arrived Hedge's transport began to emerge, and at the same moment the enemy began to shell the area. A few men were hit, but all vehicles were brought forward without loss.
It was now more than ever essential to gain possession of the three vital ridges that overlooked the main German line of communications and dominated the southern approaches to Tobruk. The safety of our own supply lines depended very largely on our ability to gain and hold Sidi Rezegh and Ed Duda. Ammunition was running low; there remained only 60 rounds per gun for the 25-pounders, with no immediate prospect of more arriving. Moreover, some depot, preferably Tobruk, was urgently needed to receive our wounded and a considerable number of prisoners.
Sixth Brigade lay astride the central escarpment facing Sidi Rezegh; 4 Brigade occupied Zaafran to the north, threatening Belhamed, while on the left flank 21 Battalion faced westward along the southernmost of the three ridges; but though these forces held part of the key position, their grip upon the whole was as yet incomplete. The door had been forced ajar; until it should be burst wide open there could be no slackening of effort.
Darkness had already fallen when Brigadier Barrowclough returned from a divisional conference to his own headquarters on 25 November, and at once called his unit commanders together to explain the forthcoming operation. While 4 Brigade attacked Belhamed on the right, 6 Brigade would first take Sidi Rezegh and then Ed Duda beyond, where contact would be made with the Tobruk garrison already poised for a sortie at dawn. A night attack with the bayonet, without artillery page 71 support, was likely to serve two purposes—the saving of both time and ammunition, neither of which could be wasted at this juncture. Moreover, incalculable advantage might derive from the element of surprise. Zero hour had been fixed for 9 p.m., but time for preparation was short, and it was not until two hours later that the first lines of attacking troops were formed up on the airfield a mile west of the blockhouse.
The 24th and 25th Battalions, the latter reduced almost to company strength, were to capture Sidi Rezegh and form a defensive perimeter ready for occupation by the brigade's transport on the following morning. With this objective taken, 21 and 26 Battalions were to advance to Ed Duda and there join forces with the garrison of Tobruk.
From a starting point immediately south of the blockhouse 24 and 25 Battalions moved off at 11 p.m., accompanied by their fighting transport only. While going forward the leading companies of the 24th (A and B) encountered several pockets of resistance manned by Italian troops. Some of them fought to the last, while others fired a few token rounds and then surrendered. In one of these encounters Second-Lieutenant Cutler, of A Company, was killed, but on the whole our casualties were not heavy. The Italians taken prisoner were a source of some embarrassment as it was not possible at that time to escort them to the rear. Passing to the north of Sidi Rezegh aerodrome, the battalion advanced about three miles and, having gained the objective, formed a perimeter with B Company, reinforced by a platoon of machine-gunners, facing west; A and C looked north over the escarpment, and D Company was at the perimeter's eastern end. The southern side was occupied by 25 Battalion. The 24th Battalion's headquarters took up a position inside the perimeter.
The perimeter, however, did not last long. At dawn A and C Companies came under withering fire and were forced back south-eastwards. The machine-gun platoon was also obliged to withdraw. Colonel Shuttleworth had not been able to report the complete capture of his objective, and in the darkness there was some difficulty in fixing his exact position, but in spite of this Brigadier Barrowclough decided to send 21 and 26 Battalions, under Colonel Page, to their prearranged rendez- page 72 vous just south of Sidi Rezegh, so that they might be in a position to advance as soon as circumstances should permit. Colonel Page moved off with his own battalion (the 26th) and arrived in course of time on the east or right flank of 24 Battalion, but nothing had been heard of the 21st (under Lieutenant-Colonel Allen20) which appeared to have vanished; nor had any sign of it come to light by 5 a.m., at which time Barrowclough cancelled Phase 2 of the operation, since it was manifestly no longer possible for the second wave of attacking troops to reach Ed Duda by dawn. It transpired later that 21 Battalion, having moved up from the southernmost escarpment, as directed, to join forces with those of Colonel Page and come under that officer's command, had failed to make contact because of the darkness, whereupon Colonel Allen had decided to go forward alone to the mosque of Sidi Rezegh. Crossing the escarpment from south to north, with the mosque on his right hand, he had passed, by a disastrous miscalculation, right through the enemy forces confronting 24 Battalion and had arrived on the Trigh Capuzzo. Dawn found his men surrounded, with retreat up the escarpment presenting the only chance of safety. One entire company succeeded in reaching the 24th's lines. A remnant under the Commanding Officer held out in a wadi for the rest of the day. Many men were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, and a few made their way back to Brigade Headquarters.
Having captured Belhamed soon after midnight, 4 Brigade was preparing to hold an exposed, featureless ridge against inevitable counter-attack. Colonel Shuttleworth's perimeter, with the 26th on its right flank, had been battered in on the northern side, and the task of rendering it secure was beset with difficulty. The whole area was under direct observation and every movement drew fire, while any attempt to dig in disclosed a layer of solid rock six or eight inches below the surface. Thus the only means of obtaining protection was to build weapon pits above ground level with walls of loose stones. Around Sidi Rezegh mosque a strip of the escarpment, here and there indented with wadis, was still held by page 73 the enemy, who kept up an harassing fire. At first light the strongest resistance had come from the direction of Ed Duda. A and C Companies had been forced back, and later in the morning enemy forces began to gather in the west in obvious preparation for a counter-attack, which soon developed. Supported by artillery fire, infantry and a few tanks assaulted the western face of our position and succeeded in overrunning some of our infantry and a platoon of machine-gunners, who were obliged to surrender, but the rest of the line held firmly. A troop of 18-pounder anti-tank guns did considerable execution, and guns of 33 Anti-Tank Battery were up forward with the infantry. With the same clear-headed skill shown on former occasions, in Greece, on Point 175, and before the blockhouse, Colonel Shuttleworth directed the defence and inspired confidence in the defenders.
If the ridge of Sidi Rezegh was a commanding feature of the utmost importance, its value depended to an extraordinary degree upon whether its possession was partial or absolute. Nests of opposition maintained themselves as constant sources of annoyance in the numerous wadis that gashed its northern face, making all movement dangerous for the New Zealanders and taking a steady toll of casualties. Present gains being insufficient to afford security, it was essentially a case of the whole or nothing, and in spite of the fact that his men were exhausted after days of continuous fighting, Brigadier Barrowclough was directed to renew the attack with a view to driving the enemy from every part of the escarpment. At a unit commanders’ conference late that afternoon, the attending officers lay flat on open ground under shell and mortar fire, with maps spread before them, while any movement such as a raising of the head drew rifle and machine-gun fire upon them as well. Under these distracting conditions Colonels Page and Shuttleworth pointed out to the Brigadier that their troops were exhausted and their casualties severe; at the same time they recognised and accepted the dire necessity of the contemplated operation.
Once again the New Zealand soldier's peculiar aptitude for fighting by night with the bayonet was to be used to advantage, not only at Sidi Rezegh but also on the northern ridge, where page 74 4 Brigade prepared to advance on Ed Duda and join forces with the garrison of Tobruk. At 11 p.m. on 26 November B and D Companies of 24 Battalion swept westward across the perimeter and beyond the line formerly occupied by the machine-gun platoon. The remaining companies followed, A coming up in rear of B, and C moving to the southern end of the battalion's front. The advance was resolutely opposed by German and Italian troops, especially those of 9 Bersaglieri Regiment. On the right 26 Battalion crossed the summit of the escarpment and dug in facing north, with its left flank almost opposite the mosque. Mopping up parties were now sent forward to clear up pockets of resistance still holding out in the wadis. ‘I just got there in time to take my platoon out on a mopping up patrol’, writes Corporal Simpson, of B Company. ‘We went forward for some considerable distance, investigating all the little gullies etc on the side of the escarpment, and landed back with about 30 prisoners, nearly twice as many as there was left in the platoon by this time.’
Before dawn reports had been received that 4 Brigade had taken Ed Duda and had relieved the garrison of Tobruk. This was glad news, but around Sidi Rezegh daylight revealed a battlefield strewn with dead. Our men lay at the very muzzles of enemy machine and anti-tank guns, the bodies of those hit by the latter being horribly mangled. Nevertheless, sadly depleted though it was, 6 Brigade now held the field as unchallenged victors. At noon on 27 November it occupied an all-round defensive position on the western end of the escarpment, with good observation over all quarters. Belhamed and Ed Duda were both clearly visible; only to the south-west could any movement of the enemy be seen. A lattice mast had been set up by the enemy as an observation post on the highest part of the ridge south-west of the mosque, and a line running north and south of this mast divided the areas for which 24 and 25 Battalions were responsible. Guarding the position's western approaches, 24 Battalion formed the segment of a circle with its companies facing outwards—B on the right close by Sidi Rezegh mosque, then A, D, and C on the left of the line, turning its front towards the south-west. In the state of affairs now existing, this was the position most liable to page 75 counter-attack. The 25th Battalion had been withdrawn at midnight and remained in brigade reserve throughout the 27th.
Colonel Page having been wounded and his second-in- command (Major Milliken21) killed, Major Mantell-Harding was sent for early in the afternoon and directed to assume command of 26 Battalion, after first handing over the 24th's transport to Major Hedge. Mantell-Harding at once went forward and conferred with Shuttleworth about their joint preparations for defence. Brigadier Barrowclough proposed relieving the two forward battalions on successive nights, but both COs were of the opinion that the hours of darkness would be better spent in resting than in moving about. Thus 24 and 26 Battalions remained in position, the former still having under command the company of the 21st that had joined it on the previous day. For the time being, 25 and the remainder of 21 Battalion stayed in brigade reserve as a composite force.
The rest of the day (27 November) was relatively peaceful, and that night the exhausted troops were able to enjoy the sleep they needed so badly. Though weary, they were not discouraged by the sufficiently obvious trend of events, and a few bold spirits still regarded the whole proceeding as an adventure likely to provide both interest and amusement for those taking part in it. With the enemy driven from the escarpment, prisoners were sent to the rear and their captors turned to other pursuits. Corporal Simpson describes his own personal experience:
After getting rid of this cargo [prisoners] we settled down to a bit of good solid scrounging. There were about 30 motor bikes in one clump so needless to say this interested yours truly—I wasn't the only one either. Well, that day passed and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly; we also had a peaceful night, the first since the show began. Next morning we got plenty of fresh water and were able to get a real good wash, and later had breakfast, then set out for our amusements again. We had a lot of fun this morning [28th] but unfortunately it was too good to last, for just as we were having lunch old Jerry opened up with his mortar and artillery fire. Well page 76 we just took our lunch and made for our trenches and tin hats, knowing by the amount he was plastering us with that it was only a start of something.
The corporal's conclusions were correct. It was indeed ‘a start of something’, to the origin of which we must now revert.
About 9 a.m. on 28 November, a convoy of vehicles was seen moving in a westerly direction at the foot of the southern escarpment, but its identity could not be distinguished. It might possibly have belonged to 1 South African Brigade, which was expected to arrive from the same direction. Another convoy followed along the same route shortly afterwards. The vehicles passed within range of our guns, but, even supposing there had been no doubts as to their identity, 6 Brigade's artillery had already been committed elsewhere in support of 4 Brigade, which was attacking westward along the Trigh Capuzzo to crush all remaining resistance between the ridges of Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. At midday the Germans were seen to be placing heavy guns in position on high ground beyond the western extremity of Sidi Rezegh escarpment. Early in the afternoon these guns came into action and shelled 6 Brigade's defence lines. Soon afterwards a convoy of about twenty-five lorries approached from the west and troops debussed. Though shelled and forced to disperse for the time being, they remained close at hand under cover.
We come, then, to the time of which Corporal Simpson speaks, when signs were not wanting that an attack of some sort was imminent, though as yet there were no means of knowing on what scale it was likely to develop. At 2.30 p.m. another enemy column of 40 or 50 vehicles was seen three miles west of 24 Battalion's positions. The attack was coming in real earnest and Colonel Shuttleworth prepared his forces to meet it.
Supporting his infantry were a few two-pounders of 33 Anti- Tank Battery, in position on the high ground south of Sidi Rezegh mosque. These guns were spaced out at intervals of 40 or 50 yards, but owing to the hardness of the ground they were not properly dug in. The 24th Battalion carriers had not been employed in the night attack of 26-27 November, as Shuttleworth had decided that their noise and lack of page 77 vision in the darkness would detract from their usefulness. At one time he had considered dismounting the men and sending them forward as infantry, but second thoughts had convinced him that they had better be reserved for an emergency. Throughout the 27th the carriers had been a mark for enemy guns on the exposed ridge. ‘Each time we stopped the machines in a different position’, writes Captain Yeoman, ‘it was only a matter of moments before a troop of guns would drop 4 shells too close for comfort. Finally, while quite close to Bn HQ, I gave it up, much to the amusement of the Colonel. I dismounted to go and report to him and told Sgt McDonald to take the machines right back to a dead area if he could find one. Col. Shuttleworth, disdaining to wear a tin hat, laughingly remarked: “Well, they shot you out of it at last.”’ When the carriers eventually found cover in dead ground, a telephone line was run back to their new position, where they remained until the attack began in the afternoon of 28 November.
On the Aucklanders' right flank 26 Battalion was now under the command of Major Mantell-Harding, who describes what he saw of the ensuing action:
About 3.30 p.m., the enemy commenced to move forward down the slope of the feature behind which they had assembled. They presented a wonderful target again for our gunners, but our luck was out as communications from the OP to the batteries had been severed, and also the whole of the guns were on a regimental shoot in support of an attack which was being carried out to the north by the 4th Bde. Hence another golden opportunity was lost…. The enemy continued to press forward but by this time his barrage had slackened considerably in intensity as contact had been made with the forward elements of the 24 Bn. After a bit of desultory fighting I intercepted a radio message to the effect that A and D Coys 24 Bn had surrendered. This seemed unbelievable as the fighting had not been severe. I looked forward and saw troops moving with hands up, but through my glasses they appeared to me to be Huns. The next moment I noticed troops moving towards them also with their hands up. The position seemed most confused but I was able to determine that the latter troops were our own. It transpired that Jerry had pulled his old trick of moving forward behind some of our troops whom he had taken prisoner. These had their hands up and when he was close enough he turned on the page 78 works. Unfortunately our boys fell for it. In all about 100 of 24 Bn and 70 of 21 Bn who were attached to the former were collected. Lt.-Col. Shuttleworth, immediately realising the position, went forward and reorganised his front line. Also realising there was a weakness in the centre I called in two of my platoons—one from D and one from C Coys—and sent them forward to the 24 Bn to help fill the gap.
When it became obvious that the attack was developing into a serious threat, Barrowclough sent a squadron of Valentine tanks under Major Sutton to take position 2000 yards south of Sidi Rezegh and remain there in readiness for a counter-attack. No sooner had the Valentines reached this destination than a mixed column of enemy vehicles came into view farther south, and Sutton was ordered to engage this column at once before taking action against the forces opposing 24 Battalion. Thus it came about that our tanks were not available at the critical moment, but meanwhile 6 Field Regiment had been ordered (at 3.5 p.m.) to switch from support of 4 Brigade and concentrate on dealing with the local attack. A few minutes later seven tanks were seen advancing behind the attacking infantry, and then took place that strange occurrence described by Major Mantell-Harding.
An account given by one who was present on the spot throws further light on the incident.
‘Late in the afternoon’, writes Corporal Opie,22 of D Company, ‘we were in the process of shifting to better defensive positions when troops appeared on our front. The forward sections immediately fired on them, whereupon the approaching infantry gave our “friendly troops” sign—the raising of tin hats on their rifles—and continued their leisurely approach. This was somewhat confusing and by now there was heavy machine-gun fire from one flank. It was at this stage that I was seriously wounded by MG fire and immediately after this the approaching infantry gave up their pretence and attacked in earnest. The forward sections had not had time to prepare their positions and the enemy simply over-ran them and forced them to stand up. This of course cramped the style of the supporting sections, who could not fire without hitting their own men, and they in turn were over-run. I was lying in a shell hole page 79 while this was going on, having been hit while taking ammo up to the forward sections. The Germans took little interest in me after ascertaining that I could not walk. After they passed me they came under heavy fire from the Vickers guns and I noticed that a German officer was having some trouble in getting his men to advance in the face of it. I saw the enemy reach Coy HQ and take Capt. Jones23 prisoner, and it was at this stage that the Coy runner, Pte Bill Friday,24 began the actions which earned him the award of the DCM. Instead of surrendering with Capt. Jones he dashed back over a small ridge, and the rest of his exploit is recorded in the citation.’
The whole truth of this strange affair is likely to remain a mystery since the various eye-witness accounts extant do not coincide in every respect. To summarise briefly: it appears that the remnants of A and D Companies under Captain Jones had made a slight change of position and were digging in on new ground. Jones had just received a message by wireless telephone, apparently from Battalion Headquarters, telling him that the South Africans were about to pass through his lines and that he should take care not to fire upon them. A number of men wearing khaki and shorts then approached, either with their hands up or making friendly signs of some description. The South Africans were believed to be in the offing and, besides, there had been rumours of a relief by 4 Brigade. The false message,25 whether or not it was accepted without reserve as being genuine, must have contributed towards bringing about the temporary lack of vigilance that proved disastrous to so many of our troops. Caught off their guard, the New Zealanders calmly watched the enemy come on, only to find themselves suddenly covered by firearms and forced to surrender. The great majority of A and D Companies, or what remained of them, fell victims to this ruse.
It proved fortunate indeed at this juncture that Colonel Shuttleworth had decided to reserve his carriers for an emergency. page 80 Between 24 and 26 Battalions there was now an open gap and the situation was critical. Captain Yeoman was waiting for a call from Battalion Headquarters, but after a while he concluded the line had been cut and moved his command forward to make a reconnaissance.
‘I was in a quandary as to where I could best put the carriers to use’, he writes. ‘I could not quite see where the action was most severe, and was on the point of going to Bn. for information when I saw some men of one of our forward companies standing up to surrender. This decided me and I called to my section commanders that I was going to recce the position, and to get going and follow me. We were by this time under severe machine gun fire as well as being shelled by the Bofors, but had still suffered no casualties. I headed towards where the men were standing up, with the intention of trying to prevent a breakdown there. However an anti-tank gun was waiting for just such a target and my machine was a sitting shot. Waiting until we were too close to get away he opened fire. Two or three shots hit the carrier broadside on with no apparent damage, but the next got my driver, Pte Johnson,26 through the left foot. I yelled to him to turn away and try to drop into dead ground. Even with his clutch foot out of action he managed to change gears and make the turn. Another shell hit the rear of the machine without apparent effect; the next struck the front plate between my driver and myself. Being an explosive shell we both received the back blast, he receiving several splinters in his left shoulder and I getting some in both legs, my abdomen and one hand.
‘We then managed to get clear and met the remaining carriers coming up. I took a quick survey of the set up and decided I had better pull out of it and hand over to Sgt McDonald. I suggested he go right round Bn HQ to right and try to cut in on the show from there. He moved off in that direction and we drove back to the RAP.’27
Captain Yeoman's story is well and clearly told, but it obviously does less than justice to a performance which earned him the MC.28 The loss of his services at this critical moment page 81 was a sad blow, although his place was most ably filled by Sergeant McDonald. As the carriers went into action one of the few survivors of A Company, Private Friday, jumped on one of them and thereafter became the life and soul of his special party, directing the carrier's fire and shouting words of encouragement to the hard-pressed infantry. Major Mantell- Harding now sent two platoons of 26 Battalion to fill the gap, and the position became more stable. Five enemy tanks were out of action.
Meanwhile Major Sutton's Valentines, having returned to Brigade Headquarters after a successful engagement, were sent off in a westerly direction with orders to turn north at a given point and overrun the troops attacking Shuttleworth's forward defences. Sutton went too far west before turning, with the result that he missed the German infantry and ran into anti-tank guns which immobilised most of his vehicles. His manoeuvre was of no avail, but at 5 p.m. six more Valentines arrived and were sent on a similar errand by the Brigadier. This latter force, it appears, instead of going too far west did not go far enough, so that when it turned north its fire was directed, not upon the enemy, but upon the sorely tried 24 Battalion. Sergeant McDonald's section was chased home by three tanks which then shot up the RAP (Regimental Aid Post), and might have continued doing so had it not been for an act of gallantry by a soldier of the battalion. Private Muir,29 of the Medical Section, ran across 30 yards of open ground under close-range fire, climbed on the leading tank, opened its turret, and told the commander in no very polite terms exactly what he was doing. A tank officer then came over to Battalion Headquarters and apologised. Muir survived without a scratch and was awarded the MM for his courage and presence of mind.
The enemy withdrew as darkness fell, leaving 6 Brigade still in possession of the ridge but in a situation that had been growing hourly less secure, with forces diminished by the loss of two entire companies, besides other casualties. Fourth Brigade's attack between the ridges of Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed page 82 had been completely successful, but elsewhere the signs and portents were ominous. Rommel's armour was rumbling back from the Libyan frontier and beginning to manifest its presence in more than one quarter. The 21st and 25th Battalions had reported enemy columns moving along the Sidi Rezegh ridge from the east. Another column was observed on the ridge south of the airfield. Sixth Brigade was now threatened from the east, west, and south; its vehicle park on the airfield was overlooked and in danger of coming under gunfire at dawn. The 1st South African Brigade was expected to arrive from the south next day, but unforeseen chance might delay its coming. Under these circumstances Brigadier Barrowclough suggested that his transport be moved within the Tobruk perimeter, but the Divisional Commander demurred, consenting, however, to allow 6 Brigade Headquarters and all B Echelon vehicles to be shifted on to low ground north of the escarpment. Still intent on advancing further west towards El Adem and widening the Tobruk corridor, the commander of 13 Corps insisted that present positions at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed must be maintained at all costs. No course remained, therefore, but for Barrowclough to distribute his depleted forces to the best possible advantage.
A group in Katerine—Lt J. A. Carroll on the left
Digging defences on the Aliakmon line —Pal Elevtherokhorion in the distance
The monastery above Livadhion
A German reconnaissance plane in the Molos area
The foregoing changes and realignments were carried out during the night of 28-29 November. In the morning, when Colonel Shuttleworth made a tour of inspection, he found his men still in good heart and ready for whatever might befall. There was sporadic shelling later in the day, and Padre Watson,30 of 24 Battalion, aroused the admiration of an observant corporal who watched him carefully while he was reading the burial service under fire to see whether he hurried unduly or missed out any of the prayers.
Complete plans for the annihilation of our forces by Rommel's returning armour had been captured—together with the person of General von Ravenstein, commander of 21 Panzer Division—by the ‘I’ section of 21 Battalion. Forewarned of the exact method by which their destruction was contemplated, the New Zealanders were now able to make what preparations their diminished strength allowed. Generally speaking, the day of 29 November was uneventful for 24 and 26 Battalions, but misfortune, which had visited them so severely on the 28th, was now about to overtake another unit of the brigade.
The South Africans were really coming at last and all units had been warned to expect their appearance. At intervals during the morning columns of motor transport were seen moving on the southernmost ridge, but they invariably turned out to be those of the enemy. At 10.50 a.m. 21 Battalion repulsed an attack on Point 175. Early in the afternoon a second and more determined assault was beaten off. Later a fierce tank battle began to rage round Ed Duda, but as far as could be ascertained 4 Brigade was holding its own. A South African officer arrived by armoured car at Brigadier Barrowclough's headquarters, informing him that 1 South African Brigade (beginning, by this time, to be regarded as a mythical formation) was actually advancing on Point 175. For a while it seemed that the situation was improving. The impression was illusory.
At 5.10 p.m., with startling suddenness, the voice of Major page 84 Fitzpatrick,31 commanding 21 Battalion, came over the brigade telephone, saying, ‘They are into my lines with three tanks and are taking prisoners. Artillery support at once for God's sake.’32 Brigade at once called upon 6 Field Regiment, but it was already too late. Fitzpatrick's voice was heard once again, but his sentence broke off unfinished—‘Everyone has left, what shall I do? They are right on top of me….’33
The mystery enveloping this disaster was explained when stragglers began to make their way down the escarpment into the brigade transport lines. Expectantly awaiting the South Africans, the men of 21 Battalion had seen tanks approaching with open turrets and crews waving a friendly greeting. All unawares, they had allowed the tanks to come right in amongst them. The crews then slammed down their turrets and opened fire.
At nightfall word came that the enemy had captured Ed Duda.
The morning of 30 November dawned gloriously fine, but the tactical situation promised conditions of storm and stress. Sixth Brigade was now virtually surrounded. Some faint hope was at first entertained that Point 175 might be in South African hands, but patrols sent out by 25 Battalion soon proved the contrary. The enemy's way along the escarpment from the east now lay open. The 15th Panzer Division was concentrating south-west of Sidi Rezegh. In the absence of 1 South African Brigade the New Zealanders' southern flank was exposed. Ed Duda had been recaptured, but our hold on the Tobruk corridor could only be described as precarious. Not least disquieting of all adverse circumstances was the fact of 6 Brigade's diminished strength. The 24th Battalion consisted of four officers and 159 other ranks. The 25th and 26th Battalions had been less severely mauled, but the 21st was reduced below company strength.
Hearing what was afoot, Brigadier Barrowclough at once ordered 25 Battalion to support the troops under attack and sent lorries to carry its men forward to the scene of action, but before it could move the battalion was attacked from the south-east and pinned to its position. The remnant of the 21st was sent to extend Colonel Shuttleworth's line to the north. Away behind the German tanks, infantry could be seen manhandling guns down the slopes of the southern escarpment.
The gunners of 33 Anti-Tank Battery replied to the tanks' fire with some effect, but their two-pounders were outranged and the sinking sun glared in their faces. Hard, rocky ground still hindered the building of adequate gun emplacements and casualties were heavy in consequence. The 25-pounders had expended much ammunition firing on the tank concentration as the attack developed, and could give little further support. Failing other reserves, Barrowclough sent up a troop of portée anti-tank guns which arrived upon the scene when the German tanks were all in position and blazing away. ‘There they are. Do your best’,35 said Colonel Shuttleworth, indicating what he considered the best position, which was actually nothing more than an expanse of open ground. The guns were swung smartly into action by men who could scarcely have failed to realise how slender were their chances of survival; a few shots were got away; a few hits were obtained, and then the crews were wiped out.
About 4.30 p.m. the tanks began to move forward, some frontally along the escarpment and others from the right flank as the inverted L closed in its sides. By now all our anti-tank guns were out of action and there was nothing to stop the armour. While our men's attention had been concentrated on the tanks, German infantry had been moving up in rear. The situation was hopeless. A last report came through to Brigade from 26 Battalion that tanks were right on top of its position, milling round and shooting everything up.
The 24th Battalion now ceased to exist as such for the time being. Only those who were fortunate enough to remain concealed had any chance of escape. Mantell-Harding's 26 Battalion headquarters was overrun by a tank and he and his page 87 adjutant were taken prisoner. Colonel Shuttleworth shared his fate and was last seen being taken away but refusing to acknowledge defeat by putting up his hands. The Adjutant, Intelligence Officer, and all four commanders of the rifle companies of 24 Battalion were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Having rounded up what survivors could be found, the tanks pulled out at dusk, and only then did the German infantry come on in mass, ‘kicking up a hell of a row’.36 This was the moment when a number of our men who had been lying low seized the opportunity of making their escape.
Disposed in rear of the unit's headquarters, the 24th's nine remaining carriers were all knocked out by the tanks within a few minutes. The crews scattered for safety and took cover while their vehicles burned out. A few of them, together with about thirty other survivors, including Regimental Sergeant- Major Wilson37 and Padre Watson, got back to B Echelon, north of the Trigh Capuzzo, and dug in round the trucks, but were overwhelmed and captured next day (1 December), when the enemy's armour moved on Belhamed from Sidi Rezegh.
A larger body of the 24th managed to reach Brigade Headquarters, north of the escarpment, and formed part of a remnant which still showed a bold front next day in face of a threatened attack that could scarcely have been withstood unaided. While launching his assault on Belhamed from Sidi Rezegh, the enemy exposed a flank to 6 Brigade, which in its weakened state could only partially exploit the advantage presented. Its hastily prepared lines were being shelled continually; vehicles were hit and set on fire; blazing ammunition trucks exploded periodically. Belhamed fell and the enemy returned to Sidi Rezegh to regroup for another assault.
Supported by infantry, tanks were already moving forward against the devoted remnant of 6 Brigade when another large armoured force of doubtful identity began to move down the escarpment, coming from a southerly direction. Should these new arrivals prove hostile there could be no alternative to disaster, but all doubts were resolved when enemy guns fired page 88 on them as they approached, flying the double pennant by which British tanks might be recognised. No sooner was this force revealed as friendly than the fortune of war on this special sector of the battlefield was at once reversed. As the British tanks moved forward the enemy wavered, and the survivors of 6 Brigade, whose morale neither weariness nor defeat could diminish, advanced with the armour without waiting for orders. The tank commander, however, had instructions merely to cover 6 Brigade's withdrawal and was unwilling to become further involved, though Barrowclough urged him to attack at once, pointing out that the moment was opportune and that his own handful of men were still eager to come to grips with the enemy. Rightly or wrongly, the Brigadier was overruled; a withdrawal to the north-east was made along a route that passed unnecessarily close to German guns on Point 175, and later in the day a junction was made at Zaafran with 4 Brigade and Advanced Divisional Headquarters.
Of 24 Battalion, three officers and 60 other ranks, who had succeeded in reaching Brigade Headquarters on the night of 30 November, took part in this last action. They then moved back with 6 Brigade across the Libyan frontier and eventually arrived at Baggush on 5 December. Fortunately they were not the only survivors. A party of 23 had made its way into Tobruk. Corporal Simpson describes their manner of doing so:
[We] lay doggo for the day [30 November] and as luck would have it the tanks didn't come right down to us, although one lot of three stood off about 75 yards in front and peppered our trenches with machine gun fire, then ambled round to the side, only about 50 yards off this time, and gave us another dose; but we were all quite safe so just kept down and out of sight. They must have satisfied’ themselves that there was nobody at home because they turned and ambled off further along where a few chaps gave themselves up, and this probably saved our bacon. We just stopped where we were until darkness fell when we got the whole platoon together intact, also 2 mortar crews, and made our way out of it. We only just got out too when his infantry moved up and filled the positions we had just left—the beds must have still been warm. We had our plans made as to where we would head for, so set out. En route, some of the chaps under a mortar sgt. apparently didn't like the tracks we were taking so set out on their own, page 89 (incidentally these 9 men haven't as yet turned up) leaving us what was left of the platoon and two of their men who preferred to come with us—in all 23 of us. We hiked for about an hour and a half and then we heard a convoy moving. We made our way up to it in the darkness, but couldn't make out whose it was, ours or Jerries, so a pair of us went to find out from one of the drivers as they passed. On seeing us on a mighty desolate desert the drivers naturally wouldn't stop, but rather sped up to get out of our way. We eventually managed to board one and were very relieved to find them English and bound for Tobruk. This suited us so we called the other chaps up and we all piled on. The drivers had plenty of rations and gave us as much as we wanted to eat and drink. They also shared their blankets with us as all we got away with was our fighting equipment and great coats. We all had plenty of souvenirs in our packs, but could not carry them out with us, but we weren't worried very much as we got ourselves out, and, after all, I think that's the best souvenir of the lot.
The battalion's casualties in the battles for Sidi Rezegh were:
|Died of wounds||3||14|
|Presumed died of wounds||–||2|
|Prisoners of war (includes 1 officer and 20 ORs wounded and p.w. and 10 ORs died while p.w.)||10||267|
5 Report on 24 and 26 Bns in 2nd Libyan Campaign, 13–30 Nov 1941, by Maj Mantell-Harding.
7 Lt-Col G. J. McNaught, DSO, ED; New Plymouth; born Wanganui, 26 Nov 1896; schoolmaster; NZ MG Bn 1916–19; CO 29 Bn 2 NZEF (UK) Jun 1940- Mar 1941; CO 25 Bn Sep-Dec 1941; GSO 1 HQ Maadi Camp, Apr 1942; wounded 23 Nov 1941; headmaster, New Plymouth Boys' High School.
10 Letter, Capt Tomlinson, 13 May 1951.
11 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 1952-.
14 Letter, Cpl Simpson.
19 Account by Sgt McDonald.
25 It seems probable that the false message was sent by the Germans from a wireless truck captured from the South Africans.
28 Yeoman's conduct before the blockhouse on 25 November was also taken into account in the bestowal of his award.
32 Log Diary, 6 NZ Inf Bde, November 1941.
34 Report on 24 and 26 Bns in 2nd Libyan Campaign by Maj Mantell-Harding.
35 Draft narrative, 7 A-Tk Regt.
36 Account by Sgt McDonald.