Chapter 5 — The Second Libyan Campaign
The Second Libyan Campaign
WHILE the New Zealanders were fighting in Greece and Crete the tables had been turned in the Western Desert. German troops under General Rommel landed in North Africa in February and March, and by April Axis forces were again at the frontier of Egypt. But Tobruk still held out and its garrison sharply repulsed all attacks. The Germans and Italians built a 25-mile chain of forts running inland from Sollum at the frontier and then turned their attention to Tobruk. During the summer and autumn they built up their forces in readiness to launch a major attack about the middle of November.
Meanwhile, the forces in Egypt were being strengthened. In spite of the long sea route the British build-up was quicker than that of the Axis, which lost many ships in the short crossing to Tripoli. Although broadly aware of the enemy's intention, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief Middle East, continued with preparations for an offensive to conquer Libya. In September the Eighth Army was formed under the command of General Sir Alan Cunningham. A month later the garrison at Tobruk was strengthened and the Australian troops there relieved. It was planned that the Eighth Army would attack early in November. General Cunningham expected his force to have greater mobility than the enemy and to outnumber him in tanks, guns, and men. On the other hand the Axis Commander was expected to have more aircraft at his disposal and his force was equipped with superior tanks and anti-tank guns. The date of the British offensive was finally fixed as 18 November, the Eighth Army hoping to destroy the enemy armour at the outset and then overrun his infantry. The Axis assault on Tobruk, planned to begin on 23 November, had been forestalled by five days.
General Cunningham divided his force into three groups: 30 Corps, containing armoured units and motorised infantry; 13 Corps, largely motorised infantry, of which 2 NZ Division formed a part; and the Oasis Group. Thirtieth Corps was to seek out and destroy the enemy armour regrouping in Cyrenaica page 78 and then relieve Tobruk, leaving 13 Corps to capture the frontier posts and, if necessary, follow the armour later. The Oasis Group, small and very mobile, was to thrust deep into enemy territory to capture oases, threatening the enemy's western exit from Cyrenaica. Each of the three groups would have to cover large tracts of desert devoid of any form of sustenance except for meagre supplies of water. For this reason the maintenance of adequate supplies was essential to the success of the offensive. Within the Division elaborate and detailed arrangements were made to ensure that nothing would be lacking on this score. Although General Freyberg was strongly opposed to the splitting up of his Division, there was a possibility that the brigades would have to be separately employed. Sixth Brigade had been made self-sufficient in supply and medical services.
At Baggush everyone knew that the Division was being trained for a desert campaign. Rumours had been circulating in the unit concerning the probable date of the assault and the battalion's part in it. By early November there was an air of expectancy throughout the camp although there was little to go on. Nothing had been said, but the men knew that the next move would not be just another manæuvre. They had seen the road and railway choked with traffic taking forward guns, tanks, supplies and every other type of equipment. The sight was most impressive. The RAF was very much in evidence, and this did more than any words could to instil confidence.
Just before midday on the 11th came the first definite news —the Division would be moving into action within a few days. This news flashed through the camp, and as the men filed past the cookhouses, dixies in hand, there was a noticeable change in their bearing. Nearly everyone was excited, but all were very confident. That day the company canteens sold poppies—it was Armistice Day. At 7.30 p.m. Col Page called his officers together.1 He could give them little detailed information of page 79 what was planned, but there was plenty to be discussed and decided before the battalion could be considered ready for offensive action so far from its base. Captain Wilson was left with the heavy task of making all the arrangements concerning supplies—those to be carried by the men themselves and those to be collected en route. Adequate transport was another important factor to be considered and Col Page's instructions were: ‘All transport will, if necessary, be able to get to Benghazi— no vehicle will be abandoned in the event of a breakdown; it must be towed.’ Then came the news that certain officers and men would be left behind as LOBs2 When the names were announced there was mutual disappointment. Next morning when the names of all who were to be left behind were posted, the disappointment felt was more pronounced. Many and varied were the excuses given by those trying to get a chance to go with the battalion. They tried in vain, however, and under the command of Maj McQuade,3 64 officers and other ranks remained in the Baggush camp until the campaign was over.
During the 12th and the morning of the 13th the preparations for the move were completed. In the meantime the rest of the Division departed. Early on the afternoon of the 13th the troops of 6 Brigade embussed on RMT, and soon after the long brigade convoy—918 vehicles all told—was on its way. The lorries were rather crowded. Each carried a stock of bully beef, tea, biscuit and cheese rations. The men, after their experiences on manæuvres, had all filled their water bottles. Spirits were high. From the trucks came the sound of singing. The convoy continued along the Siwa road. South of Matruh it turned westward and travelled a mile or so across the desert. The brigade then moved into desert formation and laagered for the night. By this time it was 10 p.m. During the afternoon the battalion had halted for a short while close to 2 NZ General Hospital near Mersa Matruh. Captain Little was at the roadside, and he went along the line of trucks bidding everyone the best of luck, obviously disappointed that he was not accompanying the battalion.page 80
There was no move on the 14th, but early next morning the Division, for the first time in its history, moved off as a complete formation. It was a magnificent and unforgettable sight— some 3000 vehicles of all types, widely dispersed and moving slowly westward, windshields flashing in the sunlight and little tufts of dust rising here and there. Royal Air Force planes hovered overhead. Nearly sixty miles had been covered by nightfall when the Division halted, each brigade closing in so that vehicles were only a few yards apart. The cooks, travelling at the rear of the column, prepared a hot meal. Pickets were posted and the men settled down for the night in shallow trenches, cold in spite of blankets and greatcoats.
The Division was now south of Sidi Barrani, and to avoid detection from the air the remainder of the approach march was completed under cover of darkness. It extended over three nights. Before dawn each morning the brigades opened out into normal desert formation, a manæuvre that sometimes took several hours. A start was made about 5 p.m. on the 16th, the long columns of vehicles heading steadily westward across the desert, occasionally delayed by soft patches of sand. A stop was made at midnight and the men tumbled out of the trucks to sleep until morning. Similar progress was made the following night, the Division halting close to the frontier. A vivid display of lightning during the night fooled nearly everyone, until the complete absence of sound convinced the men it was not a land or naval bombardment. The flashes were low down on the horizon in the direction of the frontier forts.
Long before dawn on 18 November hundreds of tanks and thousands of vehicles of 30 Corps began moving westward. By 9 a.m. they were in Libya and driving towards Tobruk. The offensive had begun! The New Zealanders, still east of the Wire, felt no excitement, for until the tank battle started they could only wait and wonder. In the battalion bivouac area the troops read mail and kicked a football about. After dark the Division crossed the frontier. The battalion columns reached it about eleven o'clock and before dawn halted several miles south of Sidi Omar. The vehicles were widely dispersed and the troops dug in. Gunfire could be heard, and every now and again flashes could be seen to the north and west of the staging area. page 81 Little happened in the divisional area during the 19th. About 4.30 p.m. 6 Brigade moved to a position about nine miles south-west of Sidi Omar. On reaching the new area the columns closed in and the battalions took up defensive positions. In the morning normal desert formation was resumed and all ranks settled down to await further orders. The Division was now poised ready to move off, and everyone was anxiously awaiting news of the tank battle farther west.
Early reports of the fighting indicated that 30 Corps was making satisfactory progress towards Tobruk. Closer at hand 4 Indian Division had swept around to cut off the frontier forts running south-west from Halfaya Pass. Air activity increased considerably during the 20th, and in the staging area precautions were taken to meet the possibility of attack. Colonel Page sent the Carrier Platoon to patrol the ground east of the battalion. The party exchanged greetings with some Indian troops and picked up the pilot of a crashed Hurricane but saw no sign of the enemy.
During the night and early morning further reports of the armoured battle were received at Divisional HQ. Despite stiffening opposition and heavy casualties, the tanks of 30 Corps had penetrated to an area just south-west of Tobruk. The time seemed to have arrived for 2 NZ Division to carry out its role of isolating and possibly capturing the remaining frontier positions. This task had fallen to 4 and 5 Brigades, which were to swing north-east and attack Sidi Azeiz, Sollum, Capuzzo and Bardia. Sixth Brigade, in reserve, was to move north to straddle the Trigh Capuzzo, a track leading westward to pass south of Tobruk. This advance would bring the brigade close to Bir el Hariga and not far from Sidi Azeiz, where Divisional HQ was to be established. Orders for the move were received at Battalion HQ shortly before midday.
At 1 p.m. 6 Brigade moved off in desert formation and two hours later reached the divisional start point. A short halt and the columns set out in the wake of 4 and 5 Brigades. Progress was fairly slow, with frequent short stops. During one of these in the late afternoon, the troops were interested spectators of an artillery duel between Indian gunners and Italians defending Libyan Omar. When shells began to land near the columns of page 82 stationary vehicles it was a different story, and no time was wasted in getting out of range. The advance was continued after dark and drivers were soon in trouble. Driving without lights in inky darkness, they ran into a waterlogged section of the desert. Before long almost every vehicle was bogged down. To lighten the load and help push the trucks on to firmer ground, the troops debussed. The Carrier Platoon did a great job, ranging up and down the columns pulling truck after truck out of the mud. Some were so badly bogged they had to be dug out— a task left to the sleepy infantrymen. To the latter it seemed hours before they embussed and were on the way again. All semblance of formation had been lost in the confusion and a coating of mud had been added to the grime and dust on each man.
It was after midnight by this time, and as the going was still very heavy the Brigade Commander decided to halt and continue the march at first light. The battalion vehicles reached the stopping place about 2 a.m. and resumed normal formation. Advance elements of the brigade had captured a German LAD4 unit comprising about 30 men and six trucks. In the morning the captured vehicles were found to be British, apparently captured in Greece, reconditioned, and sent to Libya. One HQ Coy driver claimed that one of the trucks, an English half-ton Ford, was the one he had left in Greece. Shortly before 10 a.m. the battalion reached the Trigh Capuzzo and moved forward to halt in desert formation alongside 25 Battalion at the head of the Brigade Group. The need for wide dispersal was soon made apparent. Before A Coy had debussed, an enemy plane dived directly towards one of the vehicles. The occupants tumbled out of the truck and scattered in all directions. Fortunately the plane was only a reconnaissance one and did not open fire. Later, as the troops were digging in more planes appeared, but they also made no attempt to attack.
Meanwhile, the forward brigades had succeeded in isolating the frontier outposts and capturing many prisoners. The position there was reasonably secure, and 6 Brigade was ordered to proceed with the second phase of its role. This involved a 30- mile advance west along the Trigh Capuzzo to Bir el Chleta and page 83 north to Gambut. Thirtieth Corps in its thrust westward had passed south of these places, both of which were believed to be occupied by the enemy. Under command of the brigade were 6 Field Regiment NZA, 33 Battery of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, 8 Field Company NZE, 6 Field Ambulance, and a squadron of Valentine tanks (8 Royal Tank Regiment, 1 Army Tank Brigade).
Little of this news reached the troops, who were told to be ready to move at midday. The slow-moving tanks caused some delay and it was after 2 p.m. before the columns began to move westward. The tanks, out in front, cautiously probed forward while carriers and anti-tank guns covered the flanks. Progress was slow, with frequent stops. Gunfire was heard to the north-west. The brigade had not gone far when a disturbing report arrived which subsequently changed the course of events. Hitherto it had been thought that the tank battle was going well, but an LO from 30 Corps HQ painted a very different picture. The British 7 Armoured Division had suffered very heavy losses in tanks and its Support Group on Sidi Rezegh, 15 miles beyond Bir el Chleta, was virtually surrounded and in a desperate plight. Fifth South African Brigade, which was to have come up from the south towards it, could make little progress. The Tobruk garrison, which had succeeded in breaking through the inner ring of the cordon around it, had encountered much stronger opposition than had been expected. Although reluctant to separate his brigades, General Freyberg gave orders for 6 Brigade to move post-haste to relieve the Support Group.
Now under command of 30 Corps, 6 Brigade moved slowly westward. Despite the urgency of the situation it could not increase its rate of advance, for the tanks could only travel eight miles in the hour. After dusk progress was further delayed while the columns negotiated a minefield. At 8.15 p.m. the brigade halted for a hot meal and a rest. This was a welcome break for the tank crews who had been almost continuously on the move for many hours. While the troops slept supplies were brought forward and the tanks refuelled. Brigadier Barrowclough planned to resume the advance at 3 a.m. and, by swinging south of Bir el Chleta to avoid engagements in that area, hoped to reach Sidi Rezegh escarpment early in the morning.page 84
Half asleep and shivering with the cold, the troops embussed again at 3 a.m. The trucks moved off, turning south on to an escarpment with the object of bypassing Bir el Chleta. It was very dark and drivers found it difficult to maintain contact. As a result the rate of advance was slow. Just as dawn was breaking, the columns stopped while further reconnaissance was carried out. In the dim light the troops debussed and began looking around for suitable places to dig their slit trenches. Cooking gear was unloaded and the cooks began setting up their burners. Accompanied by Lt Westenra, Col Page set out in a carrier to locate 25 Battalion HQ.
Not long after he left the silence was broken by a sudden burst of machine-gun fire. Within a few minutes bullets were flying in all directions. The cooks, like everyone else, dived for shelter. In the murky light it was difficult to tell what was happening but it appeared that the brigade had laagered around an enemy force. Colonel Page had been the first to notice something amiss. As the carrier moved towards 25 Battalion he saw what appeared to be a tank and a staff car on his right. Closer investigation revealed they were enemy. The CO opened fire with a Bren gun, and a German officer, leaning head and shoulders out of the tank hatch, threw his arms in the air and flopped over the side in spectacular fashion.
As the light grew stronger 25-pounders and anti-tank guns opened fire on a group of armoured vehicles, cars, and lorries laagered between the two battalions. Enemy troops were milling around, obviously confused by the sudden change of events. B Coy, which was nearest to them, was having a good time, shooting at anything in sight. Several of the enemy vehicles attempted to run the gauntlet of fire and escape. Some succeeded, but the majority remained immobile.
Almost as suddenly as it had begun the shooting ceased. About 200 Germans, hands high in the air, came running towards the troops. The booty was considerable and some valuable documents were found, including the enemy code list of the day. Through an error in navigation in the early hours of the morning the Brigade Group had swung back on its original line of advance, the Trigh Capuzzo. As a result it had stumbled page 85 on part of the headquarters of the Afrika Korps, laagered at Bir el Chleta.
Anxious to reach Point 175 without further delay, the Brigade Commander gave orders for the advance westwards to continue. In the meantime 25 Battalion had become involved in a sharp skirmish with an enemy force north of it, but was able to disengage without difficulty. By 9.30 a.m. the brigade was again moving west along the escarpment south of the road. Captain Wesney's5 men (B Coy) were feeling very pleased with themselves. It had been their first taste of action and the results were very satisfactory. Most of them were carrying souvenirs of some sort.
An hour after setting out along the escarpment the columns halted in the Wadi esc Sciomar, a long and fairly narrow depression about three miles east of Pt 175. The troops debussed and began digging in, although they knew their stay would be short. Not far away was a solitary fig bush which looked out of place in the open desert. A Coy captured a prisoner, quite unexpectedly. A motor cyclist was seen approaching the wadi from the south. He was recognised as a German, and when he was only about 100 yards away the platoons opened fire, wounding him and shattering the tank of his motor cycle.
Sixth Brigade Group was now on its own, 50 miles from the Division. Ahead lay a big task, for the situation at Sidi Rezegh was worse than had been feared. The Support Group of 7 Armoured Division had been defeated and the remnants had withdrawn to the south, leaving the enemy in control of the Sidi Rezegh feature. In this region the desert was dominated by three well-defined escarpments, 70–100 feet high and facing the sea. These escarpments, each 20–30 miles long, were of great tactical value for the observation, command and opportunities of concealment which they gave. The one in the north ran westward through Ed Dbana, Zaafran, and Belhamed to Ed Duda, towards which the Tobruk garrison was fighting its way. The central or Sidi Rezegh escarpment, continuing past Pt 175, the highest ground on the east end of the feature, skirted the northern edge of a landing field and ended about page 86 3500 yards south of Ed Duda. Over a mile from the western end was perched the tiny mosque of Sidi Rezegh, and at this point the escarpment commanded the vital bottleneck through which ran Trigh Capuzzo and the Axis-built road bypassing Tobruk. Two or three miles to the south ran another escarpment, on part of which was 5 South African Brigade.
The Sidi Rezegh escarpment rose sharply from the north with few approaches for vehicles. The wide, rocky crest was scattered with boulders, and it fell gently towards the south across desert covered thinly with small rushes and dry, prickly scrub. The escarpment face was cut by wadis and ravines, some of which stretched across the flat towards the north. It appeared that 6 Brigade Group would have to retake Sidi Rezegh with only limited armoured support, as it was doubtful if the South Africans could provide effective help. While 26 Battalion moved south-west to make contact with the South Africans, 25 Battalion with tank support was to attack and capture Pt 175; 24 Battalion was to be in reserve.
* * *
After only a short stay in the Wadi esc Sciomar, the battalion moved off on a south-westerly course to make contact with 5 South African Brigade. Under command were 30 Field Battery, with eight 25-pounders, and L Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery, with four two-pounder anti-tank guns. The columns travelled about five miles before the South African transport was seen laagered on higher ground about a mile away. Colonel Page gave the order to halt and the troops debussed. Not long afterwards they began digging in in sand-covered rock. It was difficult to get down more than six to nine inches, and stones and rubble were piled around the edges of the trenches to give better protection. The CO deployed his companies in the form of a square, with Battalion HQ, supporting arms, and transport in the centre and to the north. A Coy faced south-west, B Coy north-west, C Coy south-east, and D Coy north-east. In each company sector two platoons held forward positions with the third in reserve about 50 yards in rear. The supporting arms were placed to face north-south and west, the most likely directions from which attack could be expected. The Carrier Platoon page 87 was ordered to patrol the ground between the battalion and Pt 175.
After midday the CO left to establish contact with the South Africans. When he reached their headquarters he was informed that a tank-supported attack was expected at any time. Reconnaissance had shown that the enemy was organising a large striking force behind the southern escarpment. The supporting arms with the brigade were not strong enough to break up this concentration. Long-range guns had already started several fires in the South African sector and the tempo of the enemy shelling was steadily increasing. Somewhat perturbed by this news Col Page returned to his headquarters. Some time later the Carrier Platoon arrived back with 20 prisoners from a German recovery unit who had been captured while repairing some broken-down vehicles not far away. Lieutenant Westenra brought news of 25 Battalion's attack on Pt 175. Supported by the Valentines, the infantry were making steady progress against heavy opposition.page 88
During the early part of the afternoon 5 South African Brigade was very heavily shelled. From the battalion sector it was difficult to see what was happening. As the shells exploded they threw up clouds of dust and smoke. Thin columns of black smoke rose above the dust into the sky. The South African artillery was retaliating vigorously. Nevertheless the enemy force, which consisted of over a hundred tanks supported by infantry, drew nearer. The artillery and tank duel reached a climax about 3.30 p.m. and the brigade was heavily engaged in close fighting. Guns were firing at close range and fires were blazing in all directions. At first it seemed that the South Africans were holding their own, but slowly and relentlessly the enemy pressed on. Ambulances and transport came racing over the open ground to pass through the battalion and on out of shelling range. They were followed by part of a British field battery and more vehicles.
By this time shells were landing in the battalion sector at an increasing rate and the New Zealand 25-pounders were replying. With some dismay the troops watched enemy tanks—and there seemed no end to them—fight their way through the South African Brigade, rounding up prisoners and quelling stubborn points of resistance. One by one the South African field guns were knocked out. Just when the battle appeared to be over, the remnants of 22 British Armoured Brigade charged in from the south and engaged the enemy armour at close range. Both sides lost heavily in the ensuing brief fight, the remaining British tanks being forced to withdraw. (The severity of the fighting and the splendid resistance by the South Africans and British are clearly established by German reports of this action. Rommel committed the best part of three armoured divisions and lost heavily in tanks and infantry.)
At this stage Col Page could have ordered a withdrawal. The enemy was shelling the battalion area more heavily and his tanks and infantry were forming up as if to continue their advance northward. The battalion was in no position to withstand a tank-supported attack. However, the Colonel decided to stand firm. The men of 30 Battery and L Troop 33 Battery were ready for the task ahead. For some time they had been engaging the enemy at long range, and when resistance ceased page 89 in 5 South African Brigade's sector they turned their attention to targets closer at hand. Their fire struck amongst the enemy's thin-skinned vehicles and knocked out several tanks. Colonel Page, a gunner himself in earlier days, was moving the guns around and farther forward so that they could do the greatest possible damage and so delay the attack on his battalion.
The enemy retaliated, and a heavy volume of fire from tanks, field guns, and mortars was directed on the position. Machine guns sited on higher ground to the south-west opened fire and swept the area with an almost continuous hail of bullets. This made no apparent difference to the gunners, few of whom had been able to dig in their guns. They continued to load and fire as fast as they could, winning the admiration of all around them. Casualties began to mount. Several men in A and B Coys were killed or wounded by flying splinters. The Colonel's batman was killed in the trench he had dug for the CO. Several trucks were damaged and set on fire,’ and Capt Wilson was ordered to take the bulk of the transport back to Wadi esc Sciomar where Brigade HQ had been established. The drivers lost no time in complying with this order and the convoy reached the wadi without difficulty. This left the battalion with insufficient vehicles to effect a sudden withdrawal, but the Colonel hoped to hold on until dusk and then disengage under cover of darkness.
Shortly before dusk enemy infantry were seen moving down from the high ground south-west of the battalion, heading north along the shallow wadis and folds which divided the two escarpments. As they crossed in front of A and B Coys the forward platoons opened fire, inflicting casualties. It appeared that the enemy was going to attack from the west with the setting sun behind him. The troops prepared to meet the blow. From each company carrying parties raced across the uneven ground through heavy fire to collect ammunition from the small reserve at Battalion HQ. Colonel Page ordered the field guns to pull back to the rear. This they did, and from their new positions continued to fire with evident success.
The withdrawal of the guns and the difficulty of inter-company and platoon communications nearly caused a catastrophe. A and B Coy officers thought a general with- page 90 drawal was taking place and began to move back. On seeing this the Colonel dashed forward and, although the shelling was very heavy at the time, rallied his men. Within a short time they were back in their shallow trenches. Almost immediately afterwards A Coy was heavily engaged by machine-gun fire and enemy infantry began to approach. Steady fire from the three platoons checked their advance. Nevertheless, in the failing light the enemy seemed to be getting nearer. C and D Coys, together with part of HQ Coy, were ordered to abandon their positions and withdraw under the command of Maj Mathewson.6 As they moved off a burst of machine-gun fire struck a crowded truck. Corporal Berry,7 a very popular and capable NCO, was wounded in the chest and subsequently died.
Dusk fell and the shelling eased off. B Coy could hear the Germans moving about not far away and Capt Wesney was given permission to charge them. With the same dash he had shown on the football field as a Rugby All Black, this officer led his men forward. In the poor light it was impossible to see the enemy, but with bayonets fixed and yelling as they ran the company followed their commander. The ground was rough and uneven, and twice the men were on the skyline. On the last dash Capt Wesney, who had been wounded during the afternoon and again early in the charge, received a burst in the chest and was killed instantly. Several hundred yards had been covered with still no sign of the enemy. Panting breathlessly, the men lay on the ground awaiting the order to charge again. It was dark by this time and the enemy was lighting up the area with flares. Seconds that seemed like hours passed, and then came the whispered order, ‘Make your way back to the trucks.’
The company had lost ten men, seven of whom had been killed. In addition, 12 Platoon was missing. Everyone was anxious to be gone. A Coy was already embussing and moving out. Before he left 2 Lt Rutherford,8 10 Platoon commander, took a small party back to the scene of the charge to collect the page 91 two wounded men left behind and bring out Wesney's body. There were not enough trucks, but eventually everyone clambered on something—a truck, artillery limber, or anti-tank portéc. Drivers were impatient to be gone for enemy machine guns were still spraying the area with bullets. Some trucks had flat tires, but the men hung on grimly as they moved over shell holes and on towards Brigade HQ. Colonel Page remained behind with the Carrier Platoon to cover the withdrawal. As the last vehicles left the area the carriers ranged up and down-the front with guns blazing. Satisfied that the battalion was well clear, the Colonel gave them the order to withdraw.
By midnight the battalion was reassembled near Brigade HQ. The troops dug in and settled down. Some were without blankets, greatcoats and personal gear, which had been lost when platoon trucks had been hit during the afternoon. A number of the vehicles brought back by Capt Wilson had been commandeered for use as ambulances to carry wounded back across the frontier. Casualties had been surprisingly low. Eleven men had been killed and eight wounded. No. 12 Platoon was still missing and Doctor Jennings, who had gone forward late in the afternoon to attend to wounded in A and B Coys, had not returned.
The situation on Pt 175 had changed considerably since Lt Westenra's early report. The 25th Battalion had succeeded in capturing the greater part of the feature but was troubled by fire from an enemy strongpoint farther west along the escarpment. When the Valentines went forward to deal with this most of them were knocked out. Later the enemy counter-attacked. The 15th Panzer Division, which had taken part in the assault on 5 South African Brigade, attacked from the south and other troops from the west. The New Zealand infantry fought hard to retain their grip on the hill and suffered very heavy casualties. The 24th Battalion was ordered forward, and two companies went to the assistance of 25 Battalion. They, too, lost heavily but the position was held, and shortly after dusk the enemy attacks ceased. The 26th Battalion was ordered to take up a reserve position before dawn in a wadi just east of Pt 175. At 3.30 a.m. the troops embussed and were in their new position long before daylight.page 92
The fierce struggle of the previous day and the defeat of 7 Armoured Division and 5 South African Brigade had placed 6 Brigade in a serious position. A numerically weak two-battalion force, commanded by Lt-Col Shuttleworth,9 held Pt 175 with 26 Battalion in the wadi nearby. After overwhelming the South Africans and attacking Pt 175, the victorious but battered 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions had laagered for the night not far from the New Zealanders. With practically no armoured support, 6 Brigade was in no position to withstand a heavy tank attack. But, with victory in his grasp, the Axis Commander chose to send his armour east to the Egyptian frontier, leaving the New Zealanders still in the field. During the 24th the two Panzer divisions passed south of Pt 175 and headed east towards Sidi Omar.
So, quite unexpectedly, Monday the 24th was a quiet day for the battalion, with only desultory shelling disturbing the peace. A large-calibre gun, known as ‘Belching Bertha’, fired several salvos which caused casualties to D Coy. Two men were killed and four wounded. Lieutenant Nidd,10 16 Platoon commander, was wounded and Sgt Dodds11 took over his command. The wadi was littered with abandoned equipment: burnt-out and damaged trucks lying at grotesque angles, gaunt, blackened hulks which had once been tanks, guns with the dead still lying around them. Here and there was a rifle, a Bren, or a spandau. Other equipment, most of it personal gear left behind by the enemy, lay in untidy heaps all around. Those who had already spent one cold night without blankets and greatcoats were soon rummaging amongst this gear in the hope of finding something of use. Captain Wilson had some spare blankets but not enough to meet the demand. Unfortunately, later in the day the RMT which had brought the battalion from Baggush was sent east to collect supplies. With it went most of the blankets, extra water supplies, and other gear belonging to page 93 the men. At the time it was thought the trucks would not be away for long and few bothered to off-load their gear. More important still, the battalion was now left with insufficient transport to make an emergency move.
During the day the missing personnel returned. Doctor Jennings and the RAP sergeant arrived on foot. Returning to Wadi esc Sciomar the previous evening, they had driven into a minefield guarded by enemy troops. Forced to abandon the ambulance they set out on foot and, after a long and roundabout journey, managed to escape capture. No. 12 Platoon also arrived back. Its commander, Lt Ryder,12 had not heard the order to withdraw during the bayonet charge and he returned to the battalion area to find everyone gone. Eventually the platoon reached the Trigh Capuzzo east of Wadi esc Sciomar, where other New Zealand troops were encountered. Late in the afternoon after the enemy shelling had ceased a large convoy was seen approaching from the south-west. It was led by enemy armoured vehicles, but as soon as the 25-pounders opened fire they made off. The convoy continued on towards the battalion, and when they came closer the trucks were seen to be British. They proved to be a convoy of wounded South Africans and Tommies. The enemy had insufficient medical supplies to attend to them and had sent them back.
About the same time 4 Brigade was seen advancing west beyond the Trigh Capuzzo. The troops climbed on to the escarpment to watch. Travelling in desert formation with its tanks and carriers out in front, the brigade made a grand sight and a very welcome one. Aware of the serious position on Sidi Rezegh but not knowing that the German armour was moving towards the frontier, General Freyberg had decided to move westward, join up with 6 Brigade, and continue the advance on Tobruk. A battalion of 5 Brigade, the 21st, was ordered to join 6 Brigade at Pt 175. Fourth Brigade was to push westward through Gambut along the northern escarpment, while Divisional HQ followed along the Trigh Capuzzo. Fifth Brigade was to follow when relieved at Bardia and Sollum by 4 Indian Division.
By dusk on the 24th 4 Brigade had drawn level with Pt 175. page 94 That night plans were drawn up to continue the advance to bring both brigades within striking distance of Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. Although 6 Brigade held Pt 175, it was unable to occupy the western slopes because they were under observation from a blockhouse, a prominent stone building near the edge of the escarpment about two miles away. Fire from this area had already caused casualties to the brigade. East of the blockhouse a wadi cut through the escarpment, the possession of which was of some value to the enemy for it sheltered troublesome snipers and offered an alternative route to bypass Sidi Rezegh.
Orders for the advance were received at Battalion HQ about midnight. Colonel Page called his company commanders together and detailed the plan. The 21st Battalion was to move along the southern escarpment while 24 and 26 Battalions advanced along the central one and consolidated in the vicinity of the landing ground about five miles away. Strong opposition was not expected although it was believed that 24 Battalion, advancing along the crest of the escarpment and on the right of 26 Battalion, might meet trouble in the vicinity of the blockhouse. The operation was to begin at 5 a.m., and it was hoped that both units would reach their objective by dawn. The 25th Battalion was to follow later. Colonel Page's plan was simple. C and D Coys were to lead off on foot from a start line south of the battalion's reserve position, and would be followed by the other two rifle companies with Battalion HQ in the centre. C Coy, on the right, would pass south of the blockhouse. Except for the 25-pounders, the supporting arms were to accompany the infantry. Arrangements were made for 30 Battery to give supporting fire should it be required. The unit transport and B Echelon were not to move until the companies were firmly established on their objective. One 15-cwt. truck provided by HQ Coy was to travel between C and D Coys to give the mileage.
After a hasty breakfast of bully beef and biscuits, platoons formed up in the darkness and set out for the start line. Shortly after five o'clock C and D Coys moved off, with the others following close behind. It was very cold and everyone was warmly clad. As the men moved forward there was little noise page 95 save for the quiet curses of those who stumbled over desert scrub and the clink of loose equipment. Colonel Page had left his headquarters and was travelling on the left of 14 Platoon and maintaining contact with D Coy. No opposition was encountered until almost daylight, when the leading platoons came under machine-gun fire from the blockhouse and enemy positions farther west. One C Coy man was hit but the advance was not seriously delayed. The need for silence was gone, and each of the forward companies appeared to be trying to outdo the other in warcries and curses. The Colonel set a fine example. He had come without his steel helmet and seemed quite unconcerned by the fire. Shortly after daylight the two companies reached the eastern edge of the landing field and began to dig in.
The action over, the battalion deployed on its objective with 24 Battalion linking up on the right flank. There was little cover and the ground was hard and stony. The leading companies moved farther across the landing ground and dug in under fire from enemy mortars, machine guns, and field guns north-west and west of the sector. About a thousand yards away four or five enemy tanks, using derelict British tanks as cover, were protecting the withdrawal of infantry to transport laagered in a wadi below. Artillery FOOs14 had not come forward with the battalion and an easy target was missed. The trucks were milling around in hopeless confusion; mortar fire was directed onto them but no apparent damage was done. Later a small car raced across the front several hundred yards away. Good shooting by the forward platoons of D Coy, Nos. 17 and 18, brought it to a stop. Three figures jumped out and lay prostrate, whereupon several of the men ran out to collect them. Two German doctors and a batman were brought into the lines, while another soldier drove back the car, flat tires and all. Captain Jennings subsequently used it in place of the one he had lost.
The landing ground was littered with the wreckage of German and Italian planes, burnt-out and abandoned tanks, a few trucks and some field guns—the results of the desperate battle of 20–23 November. Nearby was a barrack room, and in it lay the personal gear of Italian troops who had plainly vacated the area in a great hurry. Those of the battalion who had lost their own gear managed to salvage something from the wreckage. A page 98 fatigue party set about burying the dead. Most of them were Italians or British gunners from 60 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery.
Meanwhile, contact had been made with 30 Field Battery, which was still back near Pt 175, and artillery fire was directed on the enemy trucks and tanks, causing them to disperse in a hurry. Unfortunately at this juncture 6 Field Regiment was short of ammunition, otherwise much heavier casualties would have been inflicted. Later in the morning the unit transport arrived at the landing ground and was widely dispersed. The operation had been successful. Both 24 and 26 Battalions were firmly established in the vicinity of the landing ground and 4 Brigade, on the north side of the escarpment, had drawn level again in the afternoon. The 21st Battalion had moved along the southern escarpment and was holding a position about four miles south-west of the battalion.
During the afternoon hostile shelling and mortaring became much heavier, indicating that the enemy was holding the western end of the escarpment in some strength. The Mortar Platoon again gave good service and succeeded in reducing the enemy mortar fire. About three o'clock the Anti-Aircraft Platoon opened fire on an enemy reconnaissance plane, but the fire was ineffective for the pilot leisurely finished his task and then flew off. About twenty minutes later the battalion sector was heavily shelled and mortared. Direct hits were scored on a number of trenches and five men were killed and several others wounded, C and HQ Coys faring worst. Towards dusk RAF bombers and fighters passed overhead, heading west. It was a most welcome sight for they caused an immediate slackening in the enemy fire.
After dusk a conference of battalion commanders was held at Brigade HQ to discuss plans for a divisional attack to capture the whole of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, Belhamed and Ed Duda, and open a corridor to Tobruk. Fourth Brigade was to capture Belhamed and the Tobruk garrison would attack Ed Duda from the north-west. The task in front of 6 Brigade was formidable. First the escarpment had to be cleared. This represented an advance of about four miles, and there was every reason to believe that the enemy was strongly entrenched on page 99 the crest of the escarpment and in the many wadis which ran into it. Until this stage 20 Battalion, the left flank battalion of 4 Brigade, had been clearing some of these wadis, but in this attack they became the responsibility of 6 Brigade. The second objective was Ed Duda. The Brigade Commander had no information about the strength or composition of the enemy forces which might be encountered in this second advance.
A complicated attack of this nature requires careful planning, but as it was scheduled to begin about 9 p.m. little time was left for that purpose. The assault was to be made in two phases. The 24th and 25th Battalions, under the command of Lt-Col Shuttleworth, were to carry out Phase One and attack and clear the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. With this well under way Phase Two would begin with 21 and 26 Battalions, under the command of Lt-Col Page, advancing on Ed Duda. Except for small concentrations to give direction, no artillery support could be given.
The 21st and 26th Battalions were several miles apart, and this was Col Page's main problem in planning Phase Two. It was essential that the two should unite and reach the final objective under cover of darkness. The 24th and 25th Battalions intended to rendezvous at the blockhouse and drive westward along the crest of the escarpment and the lower slopes. At length the Colonel decided that 26 Battalion should follow the 24th along the crest and rendezvous with 21 Battalion at a point south of the mosque, that battalion moving by direct route from its position on the southern escarpment. The 48th Battery NZA and a battery from 65 Field Regiment RA were to accompany 26 Battalion.
For this attack Maj Mathewson assumed temporary command of the battalion. Two other changes in command had been made necessary through casualties. Captain Gatenby15 of C Coy had taken over B Coy, and 2 Lt Rutherford now commanded the Carrier Platoon. Four platoons were commanded by NCOs: two in B Coy and one each in C and D Coys. The acting CO was faced with the almost impossible task of preparing a plan of action and getting his men and the supporting page 100 arms to the blockhouse within the prescribed time. Both troops and vehicles were widely dispersed across the landing ground, and although enemy shelling had practically ceased it was very dark. The battalion was to form up and move off from the landing ground in two columns, one containing the rifle companies and the other the supporting arms and the transport. At the blockhouse, which was chosen as a convenient point for a start line, the infantry were to deploy and advance along the crest of the escarpment in the wake of 24 Battalion. B and C Coys were to lead, and on advice of the success of Phase One were to turn down into the wadis and advance north-west towards Ed Duda. The 21st Battalion would link up with the 26th in the vicinity of the Sidi Rezegh mosque and advance alongside it.
Brigadier Barrowclough's hopes of launching the attack at 9 p.m. were doomed to failure as Phase One did not begin until two hours later. About this time the battalion began moving towards the blockhouse. Major Mathewson with his Tactical HQ was leading. A thick ground mist limited visibility to a few yards and progress was very slow, much slower than had been expected. Shortly after midnight the infantry column reached the blockhouse and the companies began to deploy across the crest of the escarpment. Company commanders were talking and checking direction on Maj Mathewson when there was a loud explosion. A light truck which had been following Tac HQ had struck a mine. The driver was fatally injured and Maj Mathewson badly wounded.
Major Milliken came forward and took command, 2 Lt Lamb16 being left in charge of A Coy. After some delay, caused chiefly by the darkness and the difficulty of maintaining contact, the companies moved into position ready to continue the advance. The troubles of Tac HQ were not over. The British anti-tank battery had not arrived and a fruitless search was made for it. The guns of the field battery had got mixed up with the transport column and this caused further delay. The rest of the supporting arms were slow in arriving and the Adjutant set out in search of them. After some difficulty he page 101 brought them forward. Meanwhile B and C Coys had begun to move along the escarpment, the men picking their way over rough ground and around huge boulders. Colonel Page, who had remained close at hand throughout the night and had assisted in the reorganisation at the blockhouse, was directing the advance. He was in wireless communication with Brigade HQ and the other battalions. Colonel Shuttleworth's group had not reached its objective but was advancing against very heavy opposition. The 21st Battalion was already moving towards the rendezvous.
The leading companies had gone over two miles when they came under fire from the front and right flank. This indicated that the battalions ahead had bypassed a number of enemy posts and were not as far forward as thought earlier. By three o'clock the platoons were close to 24 Battalion. Fighting was going on all around, and heavy fire forced the troops to seek cover after several men had been hit. Colonel Shuttleworth's battalions were obviously heavily engaged and consequently somewhat disorganised. In the meantime Col Page had learned that 24 Battalion was still a thousand yards from the mosque. Enemy opposition had been stronger than had been expected and heavy losses had been suffered. In view of this the line was being stabilised. At 4 a.m. the situation had not improved, and the Brigade Commander cancelled Phase Two because of the impossibility of reaching Ed Duda before daylight. Unfortunately this news could not be passed on to 21 Battalion, which was approaching the mosque from the south. The wireless link failed and patrols were unable to locate the battalion.
Colonel Page resumed command of 26 Battalion and in the darkness moved his companies into positions on the right of 24 Battalion. C and D Coys were holding the forward positions on the escarpment and their front faced north and north-west. The troops began to big in. Deep trenches were out of the question for the escarpment was almost solid rock. Instead the men hewed out holes about six inches deep and built low walls around the edges with stones. At daylight the enemy subjected the area to concentrated and prolonged shelling and mortaring. Shells and mortar bombs exploded in all directions.page 102
All four companies were in very exposed positions. D Coy on the right had dug in on the crest of the escarpment with its right-hand platoon overlooking the northern slopes of it. From page 103 this company the line ran back on an angle to C Coy on the southern slopes. A Coy was behind D and B Coy was to the left rear. The wadis which ran up into the escarpment offered cover only from machine-gunning and snipers. Although the whole sector was under heavy fire, D Coy was perhaps in the worst position. An enemy pocket bypassed during the night lay to its right rear and any movement towards it draw mortar and machine-gun fire.
The morning passed with the men crouching in their shallow holes hoping the next shells or bombs would come no nearer. There was little comfort in the knowledge that about one in every ten shells which landed would be a dud. The 24th and 25th Battalions were in no better position. The weakened 25th Battalion still held its position about a mile south-east of the mosque; 24 Battalion east of it had suffered heavily and some of its positions overlapped those of 26 Battalion. From early morning survivors of 21 Battalion had been arriving in the battalion sector from the northern slopes of the escarpment. They told the story of their unit's misadventures. Believing the escarpment had been captured, 21 Battalion had headed for the mosque but when close to it ran into heavy opposition. The troops fought their way through the enemy lines, but at daylight had to fight their way back again. In doing so the battalion became scattered. One company reached 24 Battalion and the others were scattered in the short wadis on the north side of the escarpment. One large group led by the CO, Lt-Col Allen,18 was sheltering in a wadi north of C Coy.
The news from other fronts was a mixture of good and bad. Fourth Brigade had captured Belhamed after a hard fight and the Tobruk garrison had pushed south-east to Ed Duda. Enemy armour had thrust into Egypt and, ranging across the frontier, had disrupted divisional supply columns. This was already having a serious effect in the struggle outside Tobruk. Artillery regiments in particular were very short of ammunition. So far 5 Brigade had not been seriously affected by the enemy threat.page 104
On learning of Col Allen's predicament Col Page took immediate steps to assist the beleaguered party. C Coy was ordered to advance over the escarpment and cover its withdrawal. Captain Thomson was given no time for preparation. Mortars were already laying smoke over the area and on the right flank Vickers gunners were waiting to give covering fire. The Company Commander yelled to his men to charge. Nos. 14 and 15 Platoons heard the order and sprang to their feet. In the face of heavy mortar and machine-gun fire they ran up the slope, across the crest of the escarpment into the wadi, and up another slope. Many were hit and more casualties were suffered as the enemy intensified his mortar fire. When the two platoons attempted to move over the slope they ran into heavy machine-gun fire which forced them back. Captain Thomson decided to go no farther, particularly as the 21st Battalion remnants and some 24 Battalion wounded were now able to withdraw to the lines. No. 13 Platoon joined the rest of the company. The Platoon Commander had not heard the shouted order to charge and it was some time before he realised what was happening.
The withdrawal was made under extremely difficult conditions and the evacuation of the wounded took several hours. Stretcher-bearers and their helpers did a magnificent job, exposed to continuous mortar and shell fire. Carriers and trucks carried the wounded back to 24 Battalion RAP, Doctor Jennings being forward with the troops. Although the attack had enabled Col Allen's party to withdraw, C Coy had suffered heavily. Five men had been killed and 17 wounded. Captain Thomson lost a second platoon commander and six NCOs. The company reoccupied its former position, the 21st Battalion remnants remaining with it.
Later in the day D Coy attempted to reduce the enemy pocket at the rear of its position. No. 17 Platoon (2 Lt Clubb)19 attempted to capture the post with mortar support but ran into heavy machine-gun fire and was forced to withdraw. Subsequently No. 18 Platoon (2 Lt Tizard)20 joined No. 17, and the page 105 two platoons made a determined effort to reach the enemy position, the approaches to which were cut by several shallow wadis. Although given excellent support by the Mortar Platoon, the attackers could make little progress and suffered serious casualties as they attempted to cross the wadis. The strongly constructed pillboxes seen in the area and the volume of fir indicated that the post was no mere pocket. Eventually the two platoons withdrew to their original positions. The task of evacuating the nine wounded from the exposed slopes to the RAP took over three hours and was completed under heavy fire. A third attempt to capture this strongpoint was abandoned when it was learned that another night attack was to be made.
Colonel Page was advised of this attack at a brigade conference held out in the open desert during the afternoon. Each officer lay flat on his stomach with maps spread out in front of him, for the slightest movement brought down enemy fire. The Brigade Commander had decided the escarpment must be captured at all costs if the battle to raise the siege of Tobruk was to succeed. The decision was a difficult one in view of the heavy losses already suffered by the brigade and the known strength of the enemy defenders. Battalion commanders reported that their men were very tired. Lack of sleep and the strain of constant enemy fire was telling on all ranks. Many of the platoons were in very exposed positions and were suffering casualties. Colonel Page reported that he had lost six officers and over 80 other ranks since the start of the campaign, and another day in the present positions would increase this total considerably.
In contrast to that of the previous night, Brig Barrowclough's plan was simple. The battered remnants of 21 and 25 Battalions were to withdraw, the 21st to Pt 175 and the 25th to the blockhouse. At 11 p.m. 24 and 26 Battalions would attack, the former driving west along the crest of the escarpment, with 26 Battalion on its right moving through the short wadis on the north side. Their objective was the high ground around the mosque, the possession of which would give the brigade observation over the western end of the escarpment and the valley about Ed Duda. It was not to be expected that the enemy would relinquish his hold on the escarpment without a hard page 106 struggle. His infantry were likely to be on or near the crest of the escarpment and his machine guns, mortars, and anti-tank guns in the wadis, but in view of the probable close fighting no support of any kind could be given.
Back with the battalion Col Page called his company commanders together to discuss the plan. A thousand yards away an anti-tank gun was trying to hit the carrier on which the CO was sitting. The other officers, more discreet, were huddled down on the ground. The battalion was to form up on the crest of the escarpment and, with A and B Coys leading, move west along it for a distance of about 1200 yards. The leading platoons would then move down into the wadis and continue west another 1100 yards. Tactical HQ and the other two companies would follow close behind. All communication was to be by wireless. Captain Tolerton was to set up a Rear HQ at the forming-up position and maintain the link between Brigade HQ and Col Page. Company commanders were given compass bearings to assist them to get into position. Some HQ Coy personnel were to be drafted into the companies to build up the strength of platoons which had already suffered heavy losses. The going was likely to be difficult, and the CO impressed on his company commanders the necessity for all platoon commanders knowing what was the objective. Success would bring the battalion into line with the mosque.
The news of the attack was well received by the men who, although extremely tired, knew that they could expect no peace until the escarpment was wholly captured. In any case, moving about was better than shivering all night in shallow holes. After dusk, when the enemy shelling and mortaring had eased off, Capt Wilson arrived with hot stew and a supply of water. The hot meal put new heart into the men about to embark on the next phase of the battle for the Sidi Rezegh escarpment.
* * *
A few minutes after eleven o'clock the troops rose from their shallow trenches and moved quietly along the crest of the escarpment towards 24 Battalion. It was a pitch-black night and platoons had to travel in close formation to maintain contact. The enemy's reaction was swift and sudden. It came as page 107 the men moved over the crest into the wadis. Flares bathed the whole area in light and the air was soon filled with tracer. As the leading companies formed up and prepared to continue the advance, enemy mortars and anti-tank guns opened fire at close range. Grenades burst amongst the lines of closely packed infantry. The troops, forgetting their tiredness, were not to be gainsaid. They pressed on regardless of the heavy fire and those falling about them and engaged the enemy at close quarters with grenades, rifle, and bayonet. The fighting was severe but the issue was never in doubt. The Italian defenders (9th Bersaglieri Regiment), together with some Germans, fought well. They were shown no mercy and gave none in return.
The first wadi was cleared and officers and NCOs rallied their men to charge the next. Major Milliken's stentorian voice could be heard above the noise of battle urging his men on. A fusillade of shell and shot met the two companies as they crossed the next ridge. Small groups of men made concerted rushes on the enemy firing pits, and one by one they were wiped out. Many individual acts of heroism and bravery passed almost unnoticed in the heat of battle. There seemed no end to the wadis. No sooner had one been cleared than another loomed up ahead. From it came machine-gun and anti-tank gun fire by which the Italians sought to stave off the assault. Some confusion was inevitable. Sections became scattered, but the initial impetus of the assault was maintained until the objective was reached.
Both companies had suffered heavy losses. Nearly twenty men had been killed and many others severely wounded. Major Milliken's voice was silent. Early in the fighting A Coy HQ had walked right into a machine-gun post. The Company Commander and half his staff had been killed. Second-Lieutenant Lamb had taken over command and he and Capt Gatenby (OC B Coy) began reorganising the forward platoons along the line of the objective. It was not an easy task. Fighting was going on all around as isolated pockets of resistance were cleaned out. Other enemy positions lay close at hand, and from these and some farther west came heavy machine-gun, mortar, and shell fire. The troops began to dig in. Behind them C and D Coys were also consolidating. The former had had to deal with a number of enemy posts bypassed during the advance but had page 108 escaped with only light casualties. D Coy on the right had encountered little opposition. Nos. 16 and 18 Platoons were in position but the reserve platoon was missing.
Tactical HQ had suffered a similar fate to A Coy HQ. Colonel Page was badly wounded and about half the headquarters personnel became casualties. This had happened shortly after the attack began, and Tac HQ as such had ceased to function. The two officers left, 2 Lt Kearney,21 Signals Officer, and 2 Lt Pierson,22 IO, endeavoured to restore some measure of control. Wireless communication with the companies and Rear HQ had unaccountably broken down. Kearney went ahead with his wireless operator to find out what was happening and Pierson returned with Col Page and the stretcher-bearers to Rear HQ. By this means they hoped to establish a direct wireless link from Capt Tolerton to the forward companies.
They did not succeed. The fighting was still going on when Kearney reached the forward area, and in the darkness and confusion he went too far. Realising his mistake he came back to the lines, only to be bayoneted in the leg by an excited soldier. To make matters worse the wireless operator was killed by machine-gun fire and the set damaged. In the meantime the IO had reached Rear HQ where he learned that, due to static and jamming, wireless communication with Brigade HQ and the companies was practically impossible. As a result he went forward again on foot to make personal contact with each company. He found A, B, and C Coys in close touch with one another. The troops had dug in but were being subjected to very heavy mortar and shell fire, the severity of which led company commanders to believe the enemy was preparing to counter-attack. There was no sign of 24 Battalion. In view of this they had decided to withdraw to the crest of the escarpment at first light.
Sidi Rezegh, dawn 27 November
The expected enemy counter-attack did not eventuate. The 24th Battalion was heavily engaged at first light and the enemy withdrew from the area in some confusion. D Coy moved forward and took up a position north of the mosque and on the right of 24 Battalion. It was bitterly cold and a damp mist enshrouded the area. Firing had ceased except for the occasional ping of a sniper's bullet. The scene at dawn is best described in an account written by one of the platoon commanders:
Sidi Rezegh on that cold morning of Thursday, 27 November 1941, could never be forgotten. I knelt beside two men, gave one a cigarette and a drink from a water bottle. His right shoulder and arm were gone. He said of the still form beside him, ‘Cover my mate, sir. He's just died.’ He followed soon after. I remember thinking of an article by Quentin Reynolds which he titled ‘The Wounded Don't Cry.’ Here and there was a bayonet stuck in the ground. A steel helmet on the butt marked a casualty. Everywhere stretcher-bearers strained under their loads, keeping the trucks busy as they came up one after another. Amid the prostrate, khaki-clad figures were many wearing the blue uniform of Italy—I wanted to be sick. Padre Watson24 was a grand sight, doing all that was humanly possible. It started to drizzle. I looked for some of my platoon. I found… He would not need the trousers of his delight, those with the 26-inch bottoms—his legs were gone. We carried him to the RAP. There the Doc was hard at work. An injection put my lad to sleep. Not far away the first ravs of the sun caught the domed mosque—a temple amid a bloody carnage.
An extract from Brig Barrowclough's report on this action reads as follows:
My recce at daylight of the Sidi Rezegh position showed how stubborn had been the fighting there…. The enemy forces comprised a number of Germans and troops of the 9th Bersaglieri Regiment. Both were plentifully supplied with machine guns and anti-tank guns, and it was clear that our troops had had to advance right to the muzzles of these guns before their crews were despatched and the guns silenced. There was an enormous number of dead and wounded all over the battlefield. A significant page 111 feature was the sight of many men who had been hit by the solid shot of anti-tank guns fired at point-blank range. These projectiles had torn large portions of flesh from their unfortunate victims and it would be hard to imagine a more heavily contested battlefield. The Bersaglieri Regiment had fought with much greater determination than is usually found amongst Italians, and the number of their dead and the position in which they lay showed they had kept their guns in action to the last. It was against such opposition that the exhausted and sadly depleted ranks of 24 and 26 Battalions had fought their way to victory— and their victory was complete.
The Sidi Rezegh escarpment had been captured—captured by the courage and determination of troops who fought against heavy odds. Officers and NCOs had set a splendid example and the men had followed them unflinchingly. The importance of this hard-won ground, in particular the high feature south of the mosque, was the commanding view gained over the surrounding desert—north to Belhamed, north-west to Ed Duda, west to El Adem, and south to the southern escarpment. The Division was now in control of the two northern escarpments. Some of the low ground between them had not been cleared, but 19 Battalion had attacked towards Ed Duda during the night and had linked up with the Tobruk garrison. Although enemy troops were close at hand, the corridor was open and the main purpose of the divisional attack had been accomplished.
The price paid for victory was high: 26 Battalion had lost 84 men—23 killed and 61 evacuated wounded;25 24 Battalion had lost heavily too. Many of the wounded had terrible injuries which left them maimed for life. Some had lain on the battlefield for many hours, undiscovered and in great agony. Nine of the battalion's wounded subsequently died. Stretcher-bearers and RAP personnel worked unceasingly through the night and into the morning. At dawn trucks and carriers came forward as far as they could to assist with the evacuation of wounded. Captain Wilson brought up a hot meal and took back a load of wounded men. On the escarpment and in the wadis Padre Watson and Mr. Gray26 of the YMCA moved among the prone figures, distributing cigarettes, chocolate, and a word of cheer. At the page 112 RAP near the landing ground Capt Jennings and his staff worked without respite for many hours. Friend and foe were treated alike and everything possible was done to ease their suffering.
* * *
Although the Division now held the two escarpments dominating the corridor to Tobruk, it was unable because of heavy losses to occupy the southern escarpment. The enemy was quick to take advantage of this and early on the 27th returned to this area. Not long afterwards his artillery began shelling Sidi Rezegh. Another enemy force lay between the central escarpment and El Adem. At the frontier the situation had deteriorated still further. During the morning of the 27th HQ 5 Brigade was overwhelmed at Sidi Azeiz by an enemy armoured column, and only a determined stand by the battalions of that brigade saved them from a similar fate. The enemy armour then turned westward in response to a plea for help from the German commander of the forces about Tobruk.
Completely unaware of this, Brig Barrowclough went ahead with plans to defend Sidi Rezegh against attacks from the west, north-west, and north. He was not unduly perturbed about the threat to his southern flank as 1 South African Brigade was reported to be moving towards that escarpment. The 24th and 26th Battalions were ordered to extend west to cover a wider front. The move, which was made about four o'clock in the afternoon, left the battalion in positions overlooking the mosque and the Ed Duda valley along a front facing roughly north and north-west. Major Mantell-Harding,27 who had come from 24 Battalion to command the unit, placed B and D Coys forward. The supporting arms were sited in positions to give all-round protection. Sixth Brigade was at this stage extended along a seven-to-eight mile front with 21 Battalion at Pt 175, 25 Battalion at the blockhouse, and the two battalions around the mosque.
The troops dug in. Enemy shelling had not been heavy during the morning but it increased late in the afternoon. A cold page 113 wind made conditions rather unpleasant. Some of the men were wearing clothing discarded by the Italians in their withdrawal. During the afternoon the last of the dwindling stock of ammunition was distributed. This problem had been made acute by the loss of several ammunition carriers and trucks during the heavy shelling of the previous days.
The strongpoint which D Coy had attacked on the 26th was still causing trouble. Snipers operating from this area had already killed several men and were harassing traffic moving to and fro from Brigade HQ and B Echelon to the forward troops. Brigadier Barrowclough gave orders for it to be captured; Maj Mantell-Harding, not knowing the strength of the enemy position, detailed 7 Platoon for the task. One carrier and a detachment of mortars were to give covering fire. The Platoon Commander, 2 Lt Nottle,28 made a rapid reconnaissance and decided to attack from the west while the carrier moved around from the south. The mortars were to fire smoke and high explosive.
The platoon manæuvred into position and then attacked. Almost immediately it came under machine-gun, mortar and anti-tank fire, which became heavier as the troops ran over the uneven ground and neared the enemy. Some of the men were hit, but the rest carried on until pinned down by strong small-arms fire within a hundred yards of their objective. For nearly an hour the men hugged the ground while bullets passed over their heads and bombs exploded all around. 2 Lt Nottle realised that the enemy strongpoint was no machine-gun post but an extensive chain of defences. The platoon had already passed several concreted dugouts and gunpits. The Platoon Commander decided to withdraw. Taking advantage of any lull in the firing, the men raced back towards their start point. The evacuation of the wounded was a more difficult problem but was safely completed with the aid of the Bren carrier. The latter came under heavy fire as it approached the area and on each trip was chased along the escarpment by anti-tank shells.
The mortar detachment had given the platoon close support, not only during the initial stages of the attack but also during page 114 the withdrawal. Sergeant McIntosh,29 the Mortar sergeant, stood up in a carrier to gain better observation, although by doing so he attracted fire on himself. An unusual incident occurred while this attack was in progress. There was a heavy fall of rain which pelted down with such force that everyone was soon soaked. Not one platoon weapon would fire. Breeches and bolts were already covered with fine sand which the rain turned to cement. The enemy was in a similar position for all small-arms fire ceased, only the mortars and anti-tank guns continuing to fire. In some instances it took half an hour to get the gun mechanisms working again.
At dusk enemy shelling ceased, to recommence at irregular intervals throughout the night. For the first time since the 20th the troops were free to enjoy a night's sleep. Company QMs brought forward a hot meal, but this did little to warm the men who, soaked by the rain, had nothing to protect them against the penetrating cold wind. Socks unchanged for nearly a fortnight and wet with sweat and rain, caused feet to swell and become numb. Despite their weariness most of the men worked with picks and shovels for long periods in an effort to keep warm. Everyone cursed those responsible for sending off the RMT and the extra blankets.
Early next morning (28 November) it was evident that the enemy force on the southern escarpment had been considerably strengthened. First South African Brigade had not arrived as hoped, and the position of 6 Brigade was fast becoming serious, particularly in view of its long front and the shortage of ammunition. Little could be done about it. Fourth Brigade advised that it would be clearing up some isolated enemy pockets between the two brigades during the afternoon. Brigadier Barrowclough at an early morning conference decided that another attempt should be made to clean up the enemy strongpoint east of 26 Battalion, this time with artillery support.
During the morning two enemy columns raced across the low ground between the battalion and the southern escarpment. The first, a large convoy of troop-carrying vehicles, appeared about nine o'clock. It came from the south-east and everyone page 115 cheered up, thinking it was the South Africans. Binoculars were turned on the convov but a carrier reconnaissance proved it to be hostile. Disappointment was written on all faces when the news was made known. Not long afterwards a second convoy appeared. This also proved to be hostile for it turned off to join the first, now dispersed along the southern escarpment south-west of the battalion. Both columns would have been easy targets for the 25-pounders had they not been reserving their ammunition for 4 Brigade's attack.
By midday it was apparent that the enemy was building up a large force behind the southern escarpment. The troops on Sidi Rezegh were being subjected to a heavy and almost continuous bombardment from large-calibre guns. At 2 p.m. 24 Battalion reported an enemy column about three to four miles to the west. About the same time 4 Brigade began its attack and the 25-pounders opened fire. Down near the landing ground Capt Bowie was keeping his trucks on the move to dodge the shelling. He was quick to realise that it was a series of concentrations, and largely because of this no losses were suffered. B Echelon also spent an uncomfortable afternoon but the cooks provided the usual hot meal at dusk. Meanwhile, 2 Lt Nottle had been ordered to take Nos. 7 and 8 Platoons and make another attack on the strongpoint. None of the 22 men was very keen about the attack but the promise of support from 29 Battery put matters in a better light. Early in the day Nottle made a thorough reconnaissance before deciding to circle around the post and attack this time from the east. He planned to move off at 2 p.m. At this time the artillery was fully engaged in assisting 4 Brigade and the assault was delayed an hour. The two platoons moved along the escarpment and circled around the strongpoint.
While waiting for the 25-pounders to open fire, the platoons had a bird's-eye view of the cleaning-up operations south of Belhamed. Tanks, carriers, and infantry moved across the wadis. Ahead of them were large clouds of dust raised by the shells. The sight of Germans with their hands in the air put new life into the assault party, which turned to move into the fray itself. The 29th Battery fired shell after shell into the enemy fortification. The infantrymen advanced and, when still page 116 400 yards from it, were surprised to see only 50 yards away several Germans with their hands in the air. Other groups of the enemy followed suit in quick succession. Without a shot being fired by the infantry the strongpoint was captured. Prisoners totalled 157, and over twenty New Zealanders (from 24 Battalion) were released. The artillery fire had apparently convinced the enemy that a full-scale attack was impending and had induced him to surrender.
During the morning Lt-Col Allen's body was found. He had been missing since the night of the 27th and had apparently run into fire from the strongpoint as he moved along the escarpment from Pt 175.
Somewhat embarrassed by the numbers of the enemy, 2 Lt Nottle and his men escorted them down the slope towards the landing field, intending to hand them over to Brigade HQ. At this juncture Brigade HQ was preparing to move across to the north side of the escarpment and Nottle was ordered to return to the strongpoint and mount guard over the prisoners until relief could be arranged. The Brigade Commander informed the party that 24 Battalion had been under attack and had suffered further losses but the situation had since improved. In 26 Battalion 2 Lt Lamb had been mortally wounded, and in the meantime 2 Lt Potts30 was acting commander of A Coy. The two platoons and their prisoners remained in the strongpoint until about midday on the 29th, when a party of sappers arrived to demolish the fortifications. These extended over an area of several thousand square yards and were all dug out of solid rock. Within the perimeter were numerous weapon pits with concreted sleeping quarters, deep caverns, a number of anti-tank guns (including an 88-millimetre), three wireless sets, mortars, machine guns, and small arms of all descriptions. Most of the dugouts were roofed in, and from the strongpoint the enemy commanded good observation over the Trigh Capuzzo to Belhamed and south past the landing field to the southern escarpment.
Diving out of trucks on the road south of Corinth—the ‘spotter’ in the foreground gives warning of aircraft
More air attacks on the way to Monemvasia
Dugout at Baggush—all the others in the photograph are concealed
The enemy gunfire slackened off. Then came a startling report that the two forward companies of 24 Battalion had been captured, apparently by a ruse. This reduced 24 Battalion to little more than a hundred men, and Nos. 13 and 18 Platoons were sent forward by the CO to help fill the gap. Strangely enough, just when everyone thought the game was about up, the enemy disengaged. A small enemy party which made a half-hearted attack from the south-east was beaten off. Three British tanks arrived late on the scene and, before anyone could get to them, opened fire on the 24th and 26th Battalions' RAP. Padre Watson went out, at no little risk, and explained to the tank commander what was happening. Unfortunately, several of the wounded in the RAP had been killed. As darkness fell the enemy withdrew, leaving a relieved 6 Brigade in peace. B Echelon had suffered nine casualties during the heavy shelling. The rifle companies had escaped fairly lightly, four men being killed, including one officer.
Fourth Brigade had succeeded in clearing the ground between the two escarpments, taking over 600 prisoners. This removed any threat to 6 Brigade from the north, and during the night the brigade positions were reorganised. The remnants of page 118 24 Battalion, with the two platoons from 26 Battalion, remained in position covering the western and south-western approaches to the mosque. The 26th Battalion extended east along the crest and lower slopes of the escarpment a distance of about 1200 yards to Pt 162. It was a wide front to cover with so few men and such little support. A and B Coys occupied the lower ground west of the landing field, with C Coy on high ground behind them. Their front faced south and south-west. D Coy dug in close to Pt 162 and faced south-east. Brigade HQ, B Echelon, and the transport all left the landing ground during the night and moved across to the northern side of the escarpment. To strengthen the thin line of infantry stretched along the 10,000-yard front from Pt 175 to west of the mosque, the Brigade Commander brought in 8 Field Company NZE to act as infantry. The company took up a position about midway between 25 Battalion at the blockhouse and the strongpoint captured by 2 Lt Nottle.
It was another cold night, and again the men were unable to sleep because of it. All ranks were dog-tired and rather dispirited. Since the 27th everything seemed to have gone wrong. Water was very short and there was scarcely any ammunition. To the west, south and east were enemy forces which appeared able to attack at will. The presence of many enemy tanks was viewed with concern for the brigade had only a few two-pounders and 18-pounders to deal with them. It was plain that the enemy armoured columns had returned from their thrust into Egypt and were only waiting their chance to counter-attack the troops holding the ‘corridor’ to Tobruk. It seemed that the hard fighting of the last few days had gone for nothing. But each man, tired as he was, was grimly determined that the enemy would not regain the escarpment without a hard fight. Throughout the night flares were going up along the southern escarpment and everyone hoped that this might mean the South Africans had arrived.
It was a gloomy picture. The only bright spots were the absence of enemy fighters and bombers and the regular arrival of hot meals. Morning and night, despite the shelling, the QM vehicles arrived with the hot-boxes, and carrying parties from each company would go back to collect the food. Few of the page 119 men realised the difficulties faced by Capt Wilson and his staff in collecting the rations in the first place. With only a signalled map reference to guide him, the QM or his assistant, WO II Cross,31 would lead a small convoy out into the desert to find the supply column. Frequently the convoy encountered enemy AFVs and had to make a run for it. On other occasions the supply column was driven off its course by enemy action and the QM had to scout around to find it. After the enemy armour returned from its thrust into Egypt, the collection of supplies became increasingly difficult, but the men seldom went without a meal, notwithstanding the severity of the shelling.
At dawn on the 29th all eyes turned to the south-east but there was no sign of friendly troops. Instead, over came the enemy shells, and all ranks crouched in their new trenches. Shortly afterwards a large convoy of about 300 vehicles escorted by tanks and AFVs was seen approaching from the east. The men turned to face this new threat. This looked like the final battle. As the 25-pounders opened fire the column was recognised as a supply column. At the head of it, standing in a battered staff car, was Col Clifton,32 who had guided the convoy through the enemy cordon to the Division. Chased by enemy shells, the long column of trucks crossed the escarpment to a safer harbour on the north side. The arrival of food, water, and ammunition cheered everyone up, although the brigade's position was still serious. During the morning 21 Battalion captured General von Ravenstein, Commander 21 Panzer Division, who was under the mistaken impression that Pt 175 was in German hands. Documents found in his staff car included the enemy order of battle and gave a clear indication of how he intended to drive the New Zealanders from the two escarpments. Despite this knowledge both New Zealand brigades could only sit and hope for the best.
Throughout the morning hostile shelling forced the troops to remain under cover. Twice enemy infantry and tanks attempted page 120 to approach the battalion from the south, but each time artillery fire drove them back. The position was much the same on other fronts. The 21st Battalion was threatened and later engaged by an enemy column. The 25th Battalion and the sappers reported threatening moves by the enemy. West of 24 Battalion and 4 Brigade, enemy columns assembled and began to move across the front, being engaged by the 25-pounders. Enemy reconnaissance planes appeared overhead and the shelling increased. After midday a tank battle developed west of Ed Duda. Smoke and dust hid the contestants from view. South-west of the battalion a large transport plane was delivering supplies to the enemy force on the southern escarpment. Enemy transport and AFVs again approached the sector, this time from the south-west, but the 25-pounders again drove them back.
The tank battle west of Ed Duda raged all afternoon, and it was clear that the enemy was holding back his assault on the escarpment until a decision was reached in this battle. Nevertheless a constant pressure was maintained on 4 and 6 Brigades throughout the rest of the afternoon. To the men it was good to hear the 25-pounders firing again and to know they could expect closer support now that the ammunition supplies were better. In turn the artillerymen found they had so many targets that it was impossible to engage them all. Shortly before dusk enemy tanks in the wadis south-east of D Coy began to move north. They were immediately engaged by the artillery and one tank was knocked out, the others withdrawing rapidly to the south.
At dusk the situation was unchanged. The enemy attack had been staved off and another fairly quiet night followed. Grave news came from Brigade HQ. Part of Ed Duda had been recaptured by the enemy and, worst of all, Pt 175 had been lost. The 21st Battalion had been overrun by tanks which had approached the feature openly displaying British recognition signals. The enemy now had observation over the Sidi Rezegh escarpment and, to a certain extent, over 4 Brigade's sector too. Everything depended on the South Africans, who were ordered to move direct on Pt 175 and recapture the feature.
Sunday, 30 November, dawned fine and sunny. The troops page 121 on the escarpment felt that this day would see the crisis, which could hardly be delayed much longer. Patrols from 25 Battalion reported Pt 175 in enemy hands. The South Africans had not arrived. The tank battle of the previous afternoon had gone against the British but Ed Duda had been retaken during the night. Everyone hoped that before it was too late an order to withdraw would be received, but from Divisional HQ came a message to hold on—the corridor must be kept open. Captain Wilson brought up a hot breakfast—bully-beef stew, porridge and hot tea—the last meal of consequence for some time.
About 9 a.m. a large concentration of tanks and vehicles was seen on the southern escarpment some distance south-east of D Coy. It was wildly hoped this might be the South Africans, but reconnaissance patrols reported it as hostile. The artillery opened fire and the enemy withdrew in some confusion, leaving several burning trucks behind. At 10 a.m. about thirty tanks moved rapidly across the southern front, apparently trying to join the enemy force on the western end of the southern escarpment. Several times they attempted to approach Sidi Rezegh but were driven back by artillery fire. Before long the New Zealand gunners had more targets than they could handle. Concentrations of tanks, guns, and infantry could be seen in almost every direction. Tanks and infantry were reported south of the blockhouse. East of them was the Ariete Division, which had been shelled at 9 a.m. Closer at hand the enemy was moving reinforcements onto Pt 175. South of the battalion was a number of tanks, while west of these on the southern escarpment was the concentration of tanks, guns, and lorried infantry seen the previous day. West and north-west of 24 Battalion were other enemy concentrations. Fourth Brigade at Ed Duda, Zaafran, and Belhamed was also menaced by converging enemy forces.
At 10.30 a.m. the enemy began the longest and heaviest shelling of the battle. For over five hours enemy gunners plastered the western end of the Sidi Rezegh feature. The troops lost interest in the 25-pounders and their targets, for it was too dangerous to lift a head above the level of a slit trench. The enemy was using long-range guns which the New Zealand artillery could not reach. A pall of smoke and dust covered the page 122 escarpment. All ranks knew that this shelling was but the prelude to an attack, and they knew, too, that nothing could be done about it. The only ones on their feet were a few signallers, vainly endeavouring to maintain line communications with Brigade HQ and 24 Battalion, and one or two stretcher-bearers attending to wounded. Amongst the stretcher-bearers was Pte Harvey.33 This soldier, who had already done a magnificent job during the night attacks and throughout the periods of heavy shelling, carried four wounded A Coy men back to safety during the early part of the afternoon. He did this unaided and won the admiration of all. The few remaining carriers moved to and from the RAP to the edge of the escarpment to assist with the evacuation. Many of the men were suffering from minor wounds which they did not consider serious enough to warrant attention. 2 Lt Rutherford, who had been twice wounded, did not leave his carriers until Maj Mantell-Harding ordered his evacuation. (He was subsequently sent to Tobruk and was drowned when a ship carrying wounded troops was torpedoed and sunk leaving the port.)
By three o'clock the shelling had become very severe. A large-calibre gun was firing and its shells left huge craters in the rocky ground. Eight men had been killed and seven others wounded. Strain was written on every face. One soldier who had been blown out of his trench during the morning suddenly went berserk. The men on the higher ground watched with dismay enemy tanks converging on the sector. Infantry were crossing down the southern escarpment and moving northward through the wadis. The 25-pounders had practically ceased firing. They were short of ammunition and, in any case, were fully occupied dealing with threats from the west. One by one the anti-tank guns were knocked out. Two more sent up by Brigade HQ suffered a similar fate after they had fired a few shots.
From their vantage points on the crest of the escarpment C and D Coys had watched the rest of the battalion being captured, powerless to do anything about it. The tanks and enemy infantry brought heavy fire to bear on both companies, and under cover of it began to approach the crest of the escarpment while others moved east along the lower slopes. The two company commanders decided to withdraw while there was still time and they had the failing light to help them. The remnants of the two companies—there were fewer than eighty left—ran back along the escarpment out of sight of the enemy. Captain Walden had decided to try to link up with the sappers who were stationed east of the strongpoint and with them form a line to protect Brigade HQ. While this party moved east along the escarpment two other groups, one led by Sgt Robertson and the other by Lt Matheson, Mortar officer, were also trying to find their way to Brigade HQ in the darkness. The latter group eventually linked up with C and D Coys at the strongpoint. Captain Walden had gone on with Capt Thomson and Sgt Dodds to try to find the sappers, of whose location all three had only a vague idea. 2 Lt Clubb was left in charge of the two companies with orders to withdraw north across the escarpment if approached by enemy armour. Enemy shelling had almost ceased and considerable movement of tracked vehicles could be heard.
Led by Sgt Dodds, who thought he knew the way, the two company commanders continued along the escarpment but ran into and were captured by the 33rd Reconnaissance Regiment (15 Panzer Division). The enemy continued to move east and a short while afterwards ran into two-pounder fire. Yelling loudly the sappers, whose position the Germans had bumped into, charged the enemy. An ammunition truck was hit and set on fire, and in the confusion the two New Zealand officers and the sergeant escaped to Brigade HQ. Meanwhile enemy AFVs page 125 had approached the strongpoint, and 2 Lt Clubb immediately led his party north across the escarpment and after some difficulty located Brigade HQ and the vehicle park.
The remnants of the two battalions took up a position covering 6 Brigade HQ and the transport park. It was an all-in effort, with the B Echelons occupying defensive positions. The troops dug in close to the Trigh Capuzzo and settled down to await the dawn and possible further enemy attacks. Over to the west a long line of unkempt, unshaven, and very weary men was marching off to captivity. The thoughts of those still left to fight were with them, knowing their pride and missing their company. Nine officers and 217 other ranks, 18 of them wounded, were lost to the battalion as prisoners of war. The fighting strength of the unit had been reduced by three- quarters: 449 casualties had been suffered, including 89 who had been killed or who subsequently died of wounds. This was a tragic loss to the battalion in its first severe action. Only six officers remained of the 25 who had set out from Baggush with such high hopes. Casualties amongst the NCOs had been equally heavy.
* * *
As the enemy swung around on the western flank of 6 Brigade he was engaged by whatever weapons could be brought to bear against him. Damaged Valentine tanks were manned and remained in action until they ran out of ammunition. Enemy fire on the sector increased considerably and several trucks were set on fire. The situation became worse. Despite almost super- human efforts by the artillery, the enemy could not be kept at bay. The 20th Battalion was overrun and 18 Battalion was forced to withdraw west against the Tobruk perimeter. Discouraged by the accurate 25-pounder fire and the few remaining tanks, the enemy did not press his attack towards Zaafran and 4 Brigade HQ, but swung around on 6 Brigade. Tanks and infantry launched a heavy attack and it seemed certain that 6 Brigade was going to suffer the same fate as the others. Shells were bursting all around the troops and many of the vehicles were on fire. Just when everything seemed to be lost a large force of tanks swept down from the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. Should they be enemy, the war was over for 6 Brigade.
As the tanks came nearer shells burst around them and British pennants were seen flying from the aerials. They came forward to 6 Brigade HQ and the enemy began to withdraw. As one man, the troops ran forward to join the armour and chase the departing enemy. The spontaneous accord with which riflemen, drivers, cooks, and clerks urged the armour to attack with them was infectious. Brigadier Barrowclough was affected. He pointed out to the British commander that there were only about thirty enemy tanks and that the German infantry appeared to be demoralised and ready to surrender. His men were ready— indeed eager—to go forward. The British commander, however, had definite orders to cover the withdrawal of the New page 128 Zealanders and not get involved in an offensive action with the enemy. His force was a composite one and included remnants of 22 British Armoured Brigade.
Preparations were made to depart. There was no shortage of vehicles. Captain Bowie and the drivers had done an excellent job keeping the unit transport intact and roadworthy. Numerous springs had been broken, but the drivers kept their trucks going with whatever they could improvise. The troops embussed and, under the direction of the tanks, moved south-east up the wadi between the blockhouse and Pt 175. As the leading trucks came out of the wadi onto the escarpment they ran into very heavy fire from enemy positions east of them. One truck was set on fire, and under cover of the smoke from it the rest turned back. The columns hugged the north side of the escarpment until they were past Pt 175, and then turned north towards Zaafran where the rest of the Division was assembling. By mid-afternoon the remnants of 6 Brigade were safe behind the screen of tanks and artillery.
The enemy followed but made only half-hearted attempts to penetrate the defences. These attacks were beaten back by tank and artillery fire. Plans were made to continue the withdrawal. The Division intended to break through the enemy cordon and drive east towards the Egyptian frontier. It was expected that the columns would have to fight their way through enemy mobile columns known to be operating east of Zaafran. After dusk the columns formed up with 6 Brigade at the rear. About 7 p.m. the battalion vehicles moved off and the long convoy headed south-east towards the frontier. Before dawn the Division was laagered behind British armoured units not far from Bir Gibni. No opposition had been encountered. Shortly afterwards about sixty Italian prisoners, who had been left behind at Zaafran because of the shortage of transport, arrived. They had repaired an Italian truck, apparently preferring to remain prisoners of war to rejoining their units.
The Division was now out of the danger zone and for the next three days continued to move east, retracing its steps along the path it had travelled less than three weeks before. Here and there were signs of the recent fighting—wrecked planes, derelict tanks, abandoned trucks, bullet-riddled ambulances, and a few page 129 solitary graves. The columns crossed the Egyptian border, and at four o'clock on the afternoon of 4 December the battalion reached its old quarters at Baggush. Major McQuade and the 63 LOBs were there to welcome the men back.
It was not a happy homecoming. The sight of so many empty dugouts brought back only too vividly the loss of so many friends who had left Baggush with such high hopes. Those who returned were tired and unshaven. They had fought against heavy odds and had stood firm when fortune was against them. Many good comrades had been killed or captured, but those who were left knew that, given equal support, they were a match for the enemy. They knew, too, that they were the nucleus of a new battalion which would fight again.
1 Appointments at commencement of Libyan campaign:
2 i/c: Maj B. J. Mathewson
Adjt: Capt W. Tolerton
QM: Capt F. W. Wilson
IO: Lt C. W. J. Pierson
Carriers: Lt W. D. Westenra
OC A Coy: Maj T. Milliken
OC B Coy: Capt A. W. Wesney
OC C Cov: Capt E. J. Thomson
OC D Coy: Capt E. F. Walden
OC HQ Coy: Capt C. D. F. Bowie
Signals: 2 Lt R. Kearney
Mortars: Lt J. E. Matheson
2 Left out of battle.
4 Light Aid Detachment.
14 Forward Observation Officers.
25 Many with minor wounds were not evacuated.
32 Brig G. H. Clifton, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Greenmeadows, 18 Sep 1898; Regular soldier; CRE 2 NZ Div 1940–41; Chief Engineer 30 Corps 1941–42; commanded 6 Bde Feb–Sep 1942; p.w. 4 Sep 1942; escaped in Germany, Mar 1945; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1949–52; Commandant Northern Military District, Mar 1952–.