Episodes & Studies Volume 2
THE 23rd of November 1941 was the third Sunday of the month and devoted by the Lutheran Church to the memory of the dead. It was Totensonntag (Sunday of the Dead), equivalent to All Souls' Day, and it was natural that the Germans in North Africa should call the bloody battle they fought this day, when their Afrika Korps and an Italian armoured division overwhelmed 5 South African Brigade, the Battle of Sunday of the Dead.1
Their victory, however, was not complete. For one thing the losses inflicted on them by the gallant South Africans and the remnants of the British armour were more than they could afford. And as part of this battle, though the German Command was only vaguely aware of it, New Zealanders of 6 Brigade this day fought two important and largely successful actions. One of these, by 26 Battalion on the right or eastern flank of the main Axis attack, has already been described in this series by E. H. Smith in Guns Against Tanks. The other was an attack by 25 Battalion, joined later by 24 Battalion, to capture Hill 175 which barred the way to Sidi Rezegh.
This attack is described here, mainly in the words of participants. It was fiercely opposed by the enemy holding the feature and the ground beyond it2 and proved bitter and costly. In it New Zealand infantry fought one of their hardest fights and some 120 of them lost their lives, so for us as well as for the Germans and South Africans, it was Sunday of the Dead.
* * * * *
1 We are indebted to Colonel J. A. I. Agar-Hamilton of the South African Historical Section for pointing this out—and hence for the sub-title of this study.
3 The riflemen quoted were Ptes B. H. Robb (10 Platoon), A. G. Reed (11 Pl), T. A. Pritchard (18 Pl), E. C. Moynihan (17 Pl), W. G. Gyde (18 Pl), and P. D. Greenlees (18 Pl). The runner was Cpl E. A. Eagan (C Coy). B Coy contained 10, 11 and 12 Platoons, C Coy 13, 14 and 15, and D Coy 16, 17 and 18.
Some men accepted this information; others did not. ‘I don't like it much, boy,’ said Sergeant R. Brown-Bayliss to a friend, ‘it's too much like the book.’ Some men, especially those who had lost mates in a skirmish that morning with Headquarters of the Afrika Korps, were only too anxious to get at grips with the enemy whatever the terms. ‘To me this attack could not come quick enough,’ says Pte L. Grant, driver of a Bren carrier, who had had the sad duty of setting fire to a wrecked carrier containing the remains of a member of his platoon. Private Sam Brown of a mortar detachment moving up to support the left flank ‘saw a few chaps who were old pals of the Greek campaign and moved over for a chat.’ He was ‘impressed with their obvious cheerfulness, and fervently hoped that it would not go too badly for them in the attack.’ A typical greeting, extravagantly confident, was: ‘Give them the works, Bill; see you at the Bengasi Brewery.’ A few men who had no rightful place in the line of attack refused to be left out. Staff-Sergeant W. T. Marshall, quartermaster of C Company and aged 54, made his way up to 15 Platoon, despite his bad feet, and joined Corporal R. W. Common's section. Private Hugh Gamlin, a driver supposed to be back at the transport lines, lined up with 18 Platoon.
Whatever their outward calm, and however lightly they professed to view their tasks, officers and other ranks alike felt an inward strain of a sort which was not yet familiar. For this was their first action in the Desert, except for the morning's skirmish, and their first attack. Colonel McNaught had not fought with them in Greece but he had been in charge of Suda Docks through the worst of the blitz in Crete. Now, commanding officer of 25 Battalion in its first major attack, he was very much on his toes.
Brigadier H. E. Barrowclough had told him to expect little if any resistance and he briefed his subordinates accordingly, pointing out also that the ground just south of the cairn of stones which marked Trig Point 175 was a likely danger spot. He had no time to do more—no time for reconnaissance, no time for reflection and planning, no time for manoeuvre. He had only the knowledge of great urgency and a realisation that the simpler the arrangements the better —‘I can almost hear myself now saying to myself “make it simple, make it simple”.’ And, underneath, was a dark suspicion that the attack might be ‘a very sticky job’. From the moment the operation was ordered—about 11 a.m.—he had to produce a rapid stream of decisions to meet the zero hour of 11.30 a.m. ‘At the most,’ he says, ‘I had two minutes to think about the whole set-up, and no time to weigh pros and cons.’ His mind had to work fast and it seemed to rise to the occasion; he felt oddly exhilarated as though he could think more quickly and clearly than ever before in his life. In less than the half-hour allowed his men were lined up for the start. But his orders had to be carried downwards through company commanders to their platoons and thence to the infantry sections. The crowded minutes were too few and too short to finish this percolation to the last drop. ‘Looking back now,’ says McNaught, ‘I can see that this haste was asking too much of the attacking troops. There was not enough time to brief the men properly or to tie up one or two points about my orders.’page 5
For one thing, it was not even certain that the cairn was Point 175. The objective, clear enough on the map, was far from clear on the ground. On the map it was a tiny triangle surrounded by an oblong contour; but few officers and fewer NCOs had maps or time to study them, and so they remained unaware of a wadi which curled round from south to west of the cairn, and they knew little more of the escarpment to the north than they knew of the enemy who lurked in its folds and who had yet to show himself. There was only the hill itself, vague in outline and inscrutable in its promise. ‘The ground to our front,’ says Sam Brown, ‘was a wide and seemingly flat area of about two square miles. As mortarmen, we shuddered.’ Again he says: ‘We could only see a long stretch of flat ground sloping gently upwards and dotted with an occasional tussock which appeared to be the only cover which it afforded.’ To those on the right it seemed a flat plateau with the escarpment falling away to the north. Perhaps there was more vegetation there, for Private Reed says: ‘Country fairly flat, with quite dense foot-high scrub.’
There had been some movement ahead at first but it soon stopped. According to Sergeant J. Huse of 13 Platoon, the brigade convoy had ‘halted on high ground from which we could see enemy transport scuttling across the horizon. We could also hear machine-gun fire….Our artillery [29 Battery, 6 Field Regiment] was quickly brought up and began firing on the transport….’
These enemy vehicles were not on Hill 175, because Colonel C. E. Weir of 6 Field Regiment went with the Brigadier ‘up to a vantage point to have a look and make a plan… and there wasn't a thing to be seen and I could have sworn that there were no Huns holding that hill.’ The battery commander, Major H. S. Wilson, whose eight 25-pounders were to support the attack, states flatly: ‘Point 175 could not be distinguished as a feature, and there was no visible indication that enemy were in the locality.’ He nevertheless managed to pick out what he thought might be ‘earthworks and possible M.G. or mortar positions’ and got McNaught to agree to these as targets for the guns until FOOs1 could indicate better ones. Lieutenant J. C. Muirhead, whose four K Troop two-pounders were to give anti-tank support, was concerned at the lack of cover for his conspicuous portées and decided that they should drive in reverse 200 yards behind the leading infantry, so that the crews could get some protection from their gunshields. He put Lieutenant E. L. Ryan in charge of the two guns, K3 and K4, on the left while he himself supported the right with K1 and K2. Vickers guns were not called for at the outset, presum ably for lack of targets, or of time, or both.
The infantry, then, had dismounted from their three-ton lorries at the wadi less than two miles from the cairn and had marched through the gun positions to the flat ground beyond, facing west-north-west towards their objective. At zero hour they moved forward.
1 Forward Observation Officers.
To the south 11 Platoon, according to Private W. S. Bellerby, ‘started off in file’ to the tune of ‘four 25-pounders which fired intermittently—I don't know what at. There was no other supporting fire.’ After a short time, which he thinks less than five minutes (but which was probably longer), ‘[we] came under long range machine gun fire. As this fire became more intense we spread out in line in extended order. This fire was from directly in front of us.’ Neither Bellerby nor other members of his platoon mention being halted at or before this stage.
Certainly 12 Platoon, in reserve some 200-300 yards behind 11 Platoon, got the order to halt, on the evidence of Private Reed:
Just before we started the artillery were pounding away and we passed through them, and then were ordered to stop. Plans were changed, more opposition than thought at first.
This was soon after 11.40 a.m., when Captain F. R. McBride, commanding B Company, was ordered ‘to stay the attack and await tank support.’ The method so far had been a formal infantry attack in which 10 Platoon was ‘to deal with the Escarpment and everything over the edge’, while 11 Platoon and, behind it, 12 Platoon were to make straight for the ground to the right (north) of the cairn.
D Company on the left had started in much the same way, except that none of its platoons seem to have been halted. In fact everything at first went just as the men had been led to expect. ‘Nothing happened,’ says Private Greenlees of 18 Platoon; ‘we just plodded up the slope…. somewhere up the rise in a wadi to the left we passed a tented encampment. There was no sign of life there.’ But Greenlees' platoon was in reserve and may have been lucky at this stage. The right forward platoon, No. 17, came under fire at once, if Private S. B. Wolfe's memory does not play him false:
…. right from the start we were under fire from M.G.s firing on what we thought were fixed lines. Small heaps of stones laid out in converging lines seemed to indicate this….
This fire, if it in fact opened so soon, must have been confined to the right of the company; for 16 Platoon, forward on the left, was not yet troubled.
Because of fresh intelligence that Hill 175 might be strongly defended, the Brigaadier had decided to intervene, committing to the attack a squadron of sixteen Valentine infantry tanks —C Squadron of 8 Royal Tanks. Hence the order to halt, which reached some of the attacking platoons but not others. Colonel McNaught had recalled his company commanders (by wireless or despatch rider) for another conference, as he had to adjust his plans. He now had even page 7 less time than before to work out details, but his main intention was clear and his orders went something like this:1
Here is our present position on map. There is Pt 175 1½ miles away. You can see a tallish object, call it “Cairn”. Beyond is what looks like a blockhouse. Call it “Blockhouse”.
Enemy: Probably in strength and on high ground both sides. Probably has tanks and may be using British tanks….
Intention: To capture and hold at all costs “HILL 175”.
Method: Tanks. Advance in two waves. First wave advance at 15 m.p.h. [top speed for Valentines] and capture objective, will cross start line at zero. Second wave at Inf. pace with C Coy (800 yards behind forward companies)….
Bren carriers: Move at 15 m.p.h. immediately behind first tank wave and assist them.
The companies were to advance on a front of 400 yards each, mop up enemy on the objective, and hold the ‘forward half of high ground’—a role which implied that the tanks of the first wave and the carriers would be able to capture the feature on their own. Zero hour was now noon; twenty minutes after this McNaught hoped to move his advanced headquarters to a position 500 yards east of the cairn which marked Point 175. The new arrangements, of course, percolated even less thoroughly than before to the rank and file, so that most infantry sections were still vague as to their tasks and remained under the same misapprehensions regarding the enemy.
The first wave of heavily-armoured Valentines rumbled forward, soon threading their way through the thin lines of infantry and leaving them behind. Two sections of carriers followed, like frisky terriers, with Private Grant ‘worked up to good fighting spirit, giving my gun plenty of use’ until Lieutenant C. S. Wroth, who rode with him, had to restrain him, saying, ‘This is not a game of Cowboys and Indians.’ Enemy infantry on the objective were cowed by the tanks and rounded up by the carriers in a matter of minutes, though some bolder spirits regained their nerve after the tanks had passed and manned their weapons again; others lay low and remained undetected. Resistance was ineffective and the crews of tanks and carriers had only to threaten and they were obeyed. But all this took place within a few hundred yards of the cairn; infantry advancing towards this area had had their way paved by the armour, but on the extreme right and left there was resistance or the threat of it which the tanks had done nothing to overcome. For the infantry the fight was only beginning.
1 As reconstructed by Col McNaught a few months later.
The machine-gun fire which 11 Platoon met soon after the start, according to Bellerby, ‘became more and more intense—I never experienced anything like it again—and at the time I was wounded we were going to ground and going forward in bounds.’ Bellerby was in No. 4 Section (under Corporal R. Sanders) which was accompanied after about half a mile by one of the Valentines, driving alongside at walking pace, firing its machine gun. ‘There must have been about 1000 yds of flat to cover before we came to the enemy,’ writes another member of the section, Private C. M. Morris. ‘After getting amongst them,’ he continues, ‘we went to ground to wait for the troops on our right [presumably Cathie's platoon below the escarpment] to catch up with us. It was while waiting that Bennett1 was killed and Shewan2 and I wounded. A tent and dugout down a siding on our right with 12 or 15 Germans did the damage. They were taken prisoner by the other boys.’
Breasting the faint crest of a rise roughly north-east of the cairn, the section came under heavy fire from machine guns ahead and Sanders, Bellerby, and Private C. C. McNicol were hit. Perhaps it was here too that the platoon lost its commander, Lieutenant J. P. Tredray, a brave young officer, who was killed outright. To Bellerby and those with him it was exasperating that the ground in front still clung doggedly to its secrets, and there was no sign of the enemy but his deadly fire. The wounded, however, were left and those still on their feet continued to press westward.
What the rest of 11 Platoon was doing is not clear, but it seems that one section, including Sergeant E. P. Wootton and Corporal M. C. Ford, attacked with fixed bayonets some enemy posts just north of the cairn. These were taken but at least two men, Privates B. Hoppe and R. Bray, were wounded and there they had to lie, later caught up in a duel between the Valentines and one or two enemy tanks. ‘I was very lucky,’ says Hoppe (wounded in the spine), ‘not to be hit by many hot red tomatoes from the tanks as I lay on the ground.’
1 Pte W. A. Bennett.
2 Pte H. M. Shewan.
3 Cpl W. K. Marshall.
Not only was the advance on the left getting too fast, but D Company also tended to veer southwards, as though the tilt of the ground were sliding the platoons in that direction. In the words of the company commander, Major A. J. R. Hastie,
… when some 500 yards short of it [the objective] I noted with concern that the gap between D & B Coys was increasing considerably and as my left flank did not appear to be coming into enemy held ground I ordered an almost half right wheel by the two forward Platoons in order to help close the gap.
Sam Brown, following somewhere behind Hastie, says: ‘There was a general change of direction to half right with the outside left flank men running to keep up with the unexpected pivot.’
‘The last 200–300 yards were covered by section rushes,’ says Major Hastie, ‘as considerable MG and rifle fire was being encountered.’ Again, Lieutenant Handyside says: ‘… when about 100 yds off the enemy F.D.Ls1 he opened up with spandaus and mortars and we started getting casualties. From here we went in rushes with sections covering each other and were soon about 25 yds from the Jerries, who started putting up their hands. I told the boys to run forward all together and take them prisoner. I got half way up myself when I got hit by a bullet which shattered my arm above the elbow, and knocked me head over heels.’ During this last phase Sam Brown noticed that ‘our men seemed to be drawing together in bunches’—a costly but human weakness, for men feel a sharp loneliness when under fire. Fortunately this lasted only for a few moments. In next to no time the fighting was over, the Germans standing in sorry groups, disheartened first by the tanks and carriers and then by the spirited attack of 16 and 17 Platoons. ‘… by the time we got there,’ says Private Wolfe, ‘there was not much fight left in them. All we had to do was to round them up and send them back with the walking wounded.’
1 Forward Defended Localities.
The mortar detachment plodded forward, ‘still mixed up with the infantry’, and Brown gives a warm description of enemy fire at this stage:
The scythe-like machinegun fire lifted and was immediately followed by an increase in mortar bombs… we were startled by a sharp command:
‘Mortars! Where are the mortars?’
….Working frantically we had our gun set up in less than thirty seconds and commenced to drop bombs down the barrel while a cone of machinegun fire beat a pattern on the ground two yards in front of us….
No. 18 Platoon could see the enemy surrendering ahead and so, writes Pritchard, ‘We ran the last few hundred yards in order to be in at the death and were in time to help with the disarming of the prisoners.’ Private Greenlees ‘arrived at the crest to find the enemy surrendering by the dozen. Already a large muster was grouped together and Colonel McNaught detailed some others and myself to escort them back…. As we left the battalion was going forward again. About a hundred yards back down the slope with the prisoners, we were fired on… and I was wounded in the arm.’ Corporal G. H. Sampson of 18 Platoon was also in this:
… as the prisoners seemed to be rather neglected… I and two or three other chaps (one was big Percy Greenlees, about 16 stone) rounded them up and demanded that they dump any knives, etc. They were all pretty scared and complied readily enough. A few minutes after we set out for Bn HQ. We'd proceeded about two hundred yards when the counter attack broke loose. Being a brand new Lance Jack, I suppose my sense of duty was still a bit keen so I decided to make my way back to the section….
D Company began to settle in and Major Hastie ‘asked for Pl trucks to be sent up with tools. D.R. arrived back… to say trucks would report shortly. At this stage things were fairly quiet, 16 Pl well out on left flank and 17 Pl were near me on right of position and 18 Pl…. had come up into 17 Pl's area. I moved round and indicated areas to 17 & 18 Pls. During this I came across H. Gamlin and one other examining a small captured A/T gun. I told Gamlin to try and see if he could get it working and he said he thought he could….’ Pritchard speaks at this stage of ‘occasional fire from a point where the hills converged’. There was little cover, as Corporal D. S. G. Walker of 16 Platoon reports:
… we were ordered to dig in. Hopeless task—hard ground—no tools. Used. small “holes” vacatad by Germans no more than six inches deep.
But even this comparative haven was to be denied to D Company. At about 1.30 p.m. a despatch rider ‘arrived to say I was to push on as the tanks would only be with us for another ten minutes’, to quote Hastie's report. Hardly had this order reached him than C Company arrived on the scene.
1 L-Sgt T. L. Tattersall.
Ormond, moving fairly well out on the left flank, was perturbed at the sight of a huge mass of vehicles about two miles to the left rear, but a more immediate menace was a ‘derelict’ tank —perhaps the same one from which Holt had been shot—which, according to Sergeant Huse, ‘came to life when we were right under its guns and caused heavy casualties.’ This was almost certainly the tank first engaged by Ryan's left section of K Troop, which he describes as follows:
I moved my section up with the Infantry until we were engaged with what I took at first to be a burnt out tank. We had noticed this tank for about an hour and there didn't seem to be any movement until he suddenly started to move. I moved my portees to attack him on either flank and fortunately for us managed to knock him out.
Private H. H. Hanlen records that 13 Platoon's first casualty was about ‘Halfway across the flat… Pte Wilson1 hit in the thigh… surprised to hear later that he died of exposure….’ Ormond moved with his left section and this seems to have swung well out to the south, where ‘we came up with some remnants of D Coy under Cpl Quin.2 They were fighting, or had been, against strong German positions on the left flank. The remainder of D Coy had gone straight on or had swung slightly right and were out of sight.’ Here Ormond decided for the moment to stay, and his left and reserve sections—Huse's right section now being out of touch—moved through Quin's half dozen men. Quin, according to Ormond, ‘was splendid, drawing a lot of fire but walking round to collect his men and explaining to me that we were on the edge of strong German positions…. I told Quin to withdraw through me… to Bn…. He must have been killed just after this….’
Meanwhile the centre and right of C Company had almost reached D Company. As 15 Platoon on the right drew level with Colonel McNaught, he ordered Lieutenant Robertshaw to ‘accompany the [three] tanks with my platoon and go forward where there was now a very wide gap between the two forward companies….’ So 15 Platoon departed. This left only 14 Platoon, Huse's section of 13 Platoon, and C Company Headquarters to support D Company, though Captain Heslop was as yet unaware that any of his company had been detached. Heslop met Hastie, who had just been ordered to continue the advance, and they decided that C Company —relatively intact as Heslop thought–should move through D, saving time and allowing a pause to Hastie's deserving men.
1 Pte J. T. Wilson.
2 Cpl I. F. A. Quin.
There were no covered approaches to the forward area and lorries bringing up ammunition had to drive over the same bullet-swept flats that the infantry had crossed only a few minutes before; for McNaught took his advanced headquarters forward at the earliest moment and reached the area 300-500 yards short of the cairn by 12.30 p.m., at which time D Company was still collecting prisoners and B Company had not yet drawn level. The vehicles with him were all perilously exposed to small-arms, anti-tank and mortar fire. One or two ammunition lorries were hit and as they burned their contents began to explode.
The Colonel himself seemed unperturbed, and many witnesses have testified to the encouragement they got from the sight of their commanding officer standing in the open or walking without hesitation no matter what fire came his way. They disagree about his headgear, which is variously described as a glengarry, a balaclava, a field service cap, or nothing at all; but they all agree about the pipe in his mouth and his unfailing courage.
Despite the fire which met the vehicle group, Colonel McNaught had some reason for satisfaction with the situation he found. Strong enemy positions had been overrun and ‘Our troops … had got on pretty well.’ It seemed to him that the enemy had been occupying mainly the eastern part of the feature, and this was already in his hands at comparatively small cost and long columns of prisoners were making for the rear. D Company was ‘moving well towards the western part of the objective’ and though B Company had been held up it was in no serious trouble. With C Company at hand and A Company at call, there were reserves enough for likely demands, and the tanks were still forward and their presence heartening. Yet ‘it was page 13 obvious to me that we were most likely in for a sticky time.’ He could soon see D Company ‘at far end of objective and sent word to dig in if possible’, but their position seemed exposed and he had a nagging suspicion that the cairn in front of him might not be Point 175 after all. When he heard from the tank officers that they intended to pull back in a few minutes for maintenance, the bleakness of the ground, this suspicion, and the impending departure of the sturdy Valentines prompted him to send word for Hastie to push on westwards. ‘Their position was so darned exposed that I thought that anything was better than just staying there, and it would be better to get down and clear the waddy beyond.’ When C Company drew level he was talking to the leader of a troop of three tanks, and he got him to thrust with Robertshaw's platoon into the gap between B and D Companies and to clear up any enemy around the cairn itself and in front of B Company. Within a few minutes this hopeful situation took a sudden turn for the worse.
The situation on the left, as CSM R. F. Thorpe of C Company saw it, was as follows:
We were at a burnt out truck near the left hand corner of a large sandhill…. Immediately we left the shelter of the sandhill the enemy fire became very intense and we suffered many casualties before passing through D Coy and taking up a position about 100 yards in advance of them. Here the fire appeared to come from our immediate front, left front, left side and even left rear. Targets were still not visible to our left but men could be seen to the front right (believed to be our own troops) and others moving from right to left and disappearing over the skyline into the wadi. These, I consider, were Germans….
This, then, was the setting for the next stage of the drama: exposed positions, fiendishly heavy and close machine-gun and mortar fire from the seemingly empty desert, and next to no ammunition. Hastic sent a runner, Private T. C. Taylor, to Colonel McNaught to say he was pinned down by heavy fire from the left flank. Except for a few ‘very shallow holes and clumps of tussock’ there was no cover. Then Sergeant H. C. Blackburn of 16 Platoon reported that Lieutenant Handyside had been wounded. ‘We were lying in a shallow depression,’ says Hastic, ‘and I was giving him the situation as I knew it when he [Blackburn] was killed.’ There was still no way of knowing whence the fire was coming and Hastie was as mystified about this as any of his men, but he soon had the answer: ‘… shortly after this I observed the top of a tank appearing over the ground out on the left flank. This gradually came into full view, followed, by two others in echelon formation.’ These tanks advanced slowly in bounds, with infantry following closely. Miles Handyside, lying wounded in the open, saw the Germans counter- attack ‘with one tank that I saw and plenty of Infantry.’ Then he watched a brave action by one of the battalion Bren carriers, which ‘fought a good rearguard here, slowly giving ground and firing single shots all the time from its gun.’ Hastie saw either this or another which ‘came up to my area and then moved round to the rear and back towards Battalion HQ. It drew a considerable amount of fire.’
The same curve of the ground which had first hidden the tanks from C and D Companies still hid them from Ryan's two portées which were level with Advanced Headquarters, and so there was no effective fire which could be directed against these tanks. Or almost no fire; for ‘Hughie’ Gamlin had been working on the little anti-tank gun which had been found on the position and had turned it to face the enemy. Corporal Sampson has reconstructed what he thinks ensued: ‘There was a small Jerry gun with a short barrel poking out through a sheet of plating, pointing towards me but behind most of our boys… Having got a round away at the tank, Hugh did the most natural thing and took a quick look over the shield to see if he'd scored a hit. Jerry was just one jump ahead and guessed that is what would happen; he was also a good man with a rifle.’ And so Gamlin died, and the last slim chance of defeating the tanks died with him. For most of C and D Companies there was now no hope, but this fact took some time to dawn on the men. Hastie told those around him to fire on the enemy infantry when they could, and Sergeant J. E. Caldwell of 17 Platoon ‘coolly got an officer’. The remaining carriers moved over to help D Company but could do no more than send a few bursts of Bren-gun fire into the enemy infantry and retreat before the tanks. The platoon commander's carrier had to withdraw when its driver, Private Grant, ‘stopped a lump of shrapnel in the back’1 and had to be evacuated, and shortly afterwards the other carriers had to refuel.
1 According to himself; it must have been a big lump because Pte H. R. Mackenzie saw him back at the RAP and says he had ‘half his right shoulder blade torn to ribbons’.
Colonel G. J. McNaught addressing officers and NCOs of 25 Battalion at Baggush before the battle
Enemy shells landing in 6 Brigade's area near Sidi Rezegh
Colonel C. Shuttleworth of 24 Battalion (left), General Freyberg, and Brigadier H. E. Barrowclough
Three privates of A Company, 25 Battalion, who took part in this attack. (From left to right) J. H. Archer (killed), K. B. Neilsen, and J. V. Bevan (wounded)
GERMAN TANKS near point 175
from a German photograph captured at the Blockhouse two day after the action
A 25-pounder of 6 Field Regiment firing in this campaign
Few soldiers, before action, seriously think of being captured by the enemy, a contingency which, unless it actually arrives, seems impossibly remote. So capture finds them quite unprepared for the act of surrender or the ensuing captivity. Thus Hastie saw the tanks pass through 16 Platoon, ‘some of whom I saw get up with their hands up’, and he comments: ‘This rather shook me at the time.’ The tanks still came on and more men put their hands up. ‘When the leading tank was about 30-40 yards from where I was I very reluctantly told those around me that they had better do so too as I could see nothing else for it. I then buried my maps and papers and followed suit, noting Heslop getting to his feet too…. Fortyseven of D Coy were taken then including nine walking wounded.’ One of the wounded was Corporal Walker who was using a German spandau machine gun. He says: ‘Owing to its height above ground etc. I and the gun were hit by a burst from tank No. I which could not have been more than 50 yards from me.’
Thorpe, who may have got a good distance farther west with part of C Company, says that the final advance ‘brought us to within 200 yards of the edge of the wadi. By this time all sign of troops, to our right front, had disappeared; but a definite target, Germans, was visible to our immediate front (on the edge of the wadi) and could be seen advancing in short bursts to our left front, left side and left rear. From this stage the remains of the Coy were pinned to the ground by very heavy small arms fire and replied as best they could. Unfortunately the number of targets was far too many for the number of men remaining.’
With Thorpe when he surrendered was Private A. H. Annis, whose battle-dress jacket at the back ‘looked as if rats had chewed it.’ Private Moynihan's view of these last minutes is typical and his last sentence haunting:
…. there were tanks all around us…. things were a bit hazy and the next thing I knew we were marching back behind the Jerry lines. We had done our best with what we had to fight with and it was not our fault we had been taken.
Ormond's two sections of 13 Platoon must have been captured about the same time, from his description of what happened after he relieved Quin's section of D Company:
Settled my 2 Sections in German slit trenches and told Sgt Brown Bayliss we'd have to hold the position. Then went forward a bit with my runner, Pte A. Scott.
40 or 50 Germans stood up and surrendered 150 yards away so started over towards them when they didn't obey my signal to come over. Then I noticed a whole lot more huns lying ready to fire, and also a tank which I hadn't noticed before which was giving us occasional bursts; so got back smartly to the rest of the platoon—Scott killed somewhere here by bursts from tank.
Back with his men Ormond was quickly embroiled in a heavy exchange of fire, during which he moved from post to post, not only to encourage his men but to make use of whatever he page 20 could find in the way of enemy small arms; for.303 ammunition was at a premium. Thinking back on this he says: ‘The Germans [who had originally manned these posts] must have been pretty rattled. I used a dozen of their rifles in different trenches and most sights were still at 1200 to 1400 metres.’ But the end was in sight:
We hung on there till I was knocked out by a trench mortar, the Germans advancing a bit as we got short of men and ammunition.
When I came to the Germans were in possession, none of our men about and no firing close by. I lay quiet in my trench until dark.
Sergeant Brown-Bayliss, among others, was killed and most of the survivors captured.
The captives from C and D Companies were quickly marched off down the wadi which curled round from left to front and saw no more of the battle at close hand. In the years of captivity which faced them they did not even have the consolation of knowing that at least two of the three tanks which overran them were knocked out within a few minutes. Ryan's two portees, in Sam Brown's words, ‘dashed up, in reverse, about 100 yards to our left rear…. we heard dull… thuds as their shots hit home.’ Ryan saw it as follows:
…. we noticed a light tank (Italian I think) followed by a Valentine flying our recognition signals. It was difficult for us to decide whether the Valentine was firing at the Italian tank or not. We engaged the Italian tank at about 500 yards with both guns and he didn't fire another shot–we must have killed the gunner-but he kept rolling to within about 50 yards of us, finally going up in flames. K4. continued pumping shells into him until he stopped…. I switched the fire of K3 to the Valentine, having decided he was hostile and we were greatly helped by two members of the 25th Battalion who lobbed two sticky bombs with good results. This tank was knocked out but I think the honours should go to the infantry.
At this point Brown saw Colonel McNaught dash up in his staff car to ‘about half-way between us and the forward troops.’ The mortar detachment then felt ‘a passionate desire to be useful’ and drove up to him, noticing as they drew alongside, that ‘he was wounded in the leg and limping badly’. The mortar was quickly set up and the Colonel directed its fire. It was soon joined by another gun from the reserve detachment and ‘we put over a positively terrific support fire ranging from 800 to 1200 yards for the counter attacking reserve infantry who were moving up through us [A Company]…. a glorious release from our previous feelings of helplessness and frustration…. [the enemy's] fire decreased… until there was only to be heard an occasional rattle of machinegun fire from well in front.’
Robertshaw, as he led 15 Platoon towards the right, was unaware of what was happening behind him; his eyes were on the three tanks in front and it was all he could do to keep up with them. They ‘went off’, he says, ‘at a pace which soon carried us well forward, and during the advance we did not see any enemy, although we must have passed along the front of a strong enemy position.’ When he reached the escarpment things began to happen quickly. All three tanks were disabled ‘immediately by an anti-tank gun and a Mark III tank just below the top of the escarpment. We engaged and killed the crew of the anti-tank gun. The tank came to the top and then backed down again and we heard it move away again, much to our relief.’
Private J. M. Simonsen of No. 9 Section saw all this as follows:
For a few minutes we were unmolested, then quickly came under heavy fire. We were given orders to charge, which we did. Came to earth after covering some sixty yards….
Perhaps 30 or 40 yards away on our left front were 3 I tanks, all disabled but still fighting with all they had. The nearness of these with the resulting heavy fire, quickly made our position untenable. However when the order came to withdraw, I had already become a casualty, a bullet having passed through my foot….page 21
Gradually this fragment of action fits into the jigsaw puzzle; for surely this action between our tanks and the enemy tank was that which Private Hoppe saw while lying wounded on the ground somewhere north of the cairn. And if so it seems likely that some of 11 Platoon had already pushed past here on their way westwards and that 12 Platoon was not far short of this point.
Robertshaw ordered his platoon to withdraw:
Once on their feet the sections drew a hail of small arms fire, and were practically all killed or wounded. Those who were not killed lay up in unoccupied enemy positions… until forty hours later…. I believe a few of the walking wounded did come out and found our lines on the night of the 23rd…. The few still fit stayed with the badly wounded.
Robertshaw himself and Sergeant Connor got out ‘by a lot of luck’ by taking cover behind the tanks, and two privates also reported back. Simonsen stayed, for he could not walk. He, too, reports the tragic end of 15 Platoon: ‘Upon the order to withdraw, several soldiers rose to be immediately shot down.’ Others ‘gradually dispersed’ and he was left to watch ‘the tanks —still fighting—until one was hit directly by an artillery shell. This could be heard coming and landed on the turret of the tank immediately in front of my position, setting the tank on fire. The crew… evacuated the blazing tank, although I fear that none of them escaped wounds or death, owing to the enemy machine guns.’
To fit this action of 15 Platoon into B Company's movements, bearing in mind the limited viewpoints of those who took part and the urgent and terrible distractions they suffered, is now difficult. For one thing, Cathie's platoon was absorbed in its deadly game above and below the escarpment and lost all count of time or thought of the other platoons. And 11 and 12 Platoons met such a storm of fire on the plateau that those who remained on their feet scarcely knew what was happening. Bellerby, before he was hit, recalls seeing Colonel McNaught some 300 yards to the south. He carried on for perhaps 300 yards, which must surely have taken him somewhere past the cairn and possibly a long way past, for he says that there was a wadi ‘about 100 yds ahead and the ground dipped steeply out of sight and apparently it was in this wadi that the enemy infantry were dug in.’ He stopped a bullet in the leg and there he lay in a slight hollow for the next four hours.
Actually after I was hit the fire eased off somewhat. By this time our advancing troops were out of sight. An RAP bloke came up and dressed our wounds and then he too disappeared forward.
Half an hour or an hour later some of A Company debussed at the crest behind him and carried on past him on foot.
Thanks mainly to Private Reed, the story of 12 Platoon is clearer, though the farthest point of their advance is not known. After the capture of the prisoners, perhaps 150 yards past the cairn, he says:
Continued our advance for another 500 yards or so till things got very hot. Went down. Ben Morris hit in the upper leg, Bernie Willis,1 Bren gunner, killed, McLauchlan2 hit, I got one through the arm. Ammo, getting low. Three tanks hit in front of us and knocked out and began to burn. Saw the crew of one surrender. Seem to have lost contact with our own crowd. We had rightly inclined before going down and were fired on from all sides, even our rear. Sgt Harry Martin3 now in charge.
1 Pte B. G. Willis.
2 Pte G. K. McK. McLauchlan.
3 Sgt H. R. Martin.
Reed in his curiously detached way tells this story without frills:
Slight escarpment to our front and right flank but we couldn't get to the lip of it but could hear a lot of row and heard a tank [perhaps the same one which had menaced 15 Platoon] on our right flank. O. Wilson who had taken over the bren crawled over to me with it. He had had a jam. I cleared it and took it over. Had to pull back. Some of the chaps carried Ben back while I covered them then I made a dash and relied on them. When we got back a bit found McLauchlan had not come. His pal Pete Easton1 ran back to him and tried to bring him back but found him blinded. Germans advancing so had to leave him. Retired further. A captured German RAP chap did what he could for Ben but he died. McDonnell2 was hit (lost a foot) and Brownie3 killed.
At last reached some of our own chaps and got some ammo from B2 [a company lorry] which charged up but was stopped by a mortar or something of that nature.
Let us leave 12 Platoon for a while in this terrible and wonderful setting wherein, as a matter of course, a man goes back into torment for the sake of a friend or stays there alone to cover the others—and such things can be described as though you or I or the man next door would have done the same. Well we might, but there lurks a secret and frightening doubt not apparent to Reed; for such deeds were this day the rule and not the exception.
1 Pte A. N. Easton.
2 Pte J. W. McDonnell.
3 Pte R. R. Brown.
Artillery support was, as it happened, one of the problems of this attack. There were for one thing only eight field guns when a full regiment of twenty-four would have been less than enough. Then the enemy lay low and held his fire until the attacking infantry were too close for artillery support, so the observation officers had to engage more distant targets.1 Observing on the left flank, Captain J. Molloy could only bring down fire on the wadi—Rugbeten-Nbeidat—to the south and west of the hill and the area of the Blockhouse beyond. One closer target was the Valentine in enemy hands which engaged his truck with machine-gun fire and on which he called down fire from his own B Troop guns with little effect. This was destroyed, as has been told, by K3 and K4. Captain F. E. Fisher on the right was luckier; for he had the only artillery Bren carrier, equipped with wireless set, and was able to get closer forward. He ‘liquidated a mortar position’, according to Wilson, ‘but not before a near miss wounded his driver rather seriously in the shoulder and caused minor damage to the carrier.’ Fisher reported this to his battery commander over the air, doubting if he could teach himself to drive the carrier, and was told by Major Wilson that he ‘would not learn younger’; so he mastered the controls while under fire from machine guns and mortars, saying afterwards that it was ‘not a pastime he can recommend.’
So although Captain McBride was ‘unable at any stage to make contact with the Arty’, and Major Burton of Headquarters Company who came up soon after the attack started found him ‘a most worried man owing to lack of arty support’, the gunners were doing their best and Fisher was well forward, unknown to McBride, directing the fire of A Troop wherever he thought it would help B Company. Molloy was doing the same for the left flank with B Troop. But in each case four guns were now covering a front of well over half a mile, and so their fire was sparse.
Where the shortage of guns was particularly felt was in dealing with the ‘Well placed Machine Guns covering A/T Guns’ (to quote McNaught's own account) on the edge of the escarpment or in its re-entrants. No. 10 Platoon was dealing with these as it came to them but Cathie could have done with some help, especially after he was ‘pipped through the shoulder’ and could no longer use his rifle. Nos. 11 and 12 Platoons also tended to face north rather than west in response to this threat. McBride asked for reinforcement, but McNaught thought the left the critical flank and told him ‘to hang on without help.’
Major Burton walked forward with his batman (his truck had been shot up that morning) to report to Colonel McNaught and found that ‘A number of vehicles had advanced perilously too far forward…. I ordered several trucks back a few hundred yds…. Bren carriers were doing a grand job but were smashed like pieces of crockery. Tommy guns, hand grenades and bayonets were coming into operation…. the fire of enemy weapons swept the area….’ McNaught's own headquarters was now under fierce fire and the Colonel himself was hit at about 1.15 p.m. and again a quarter of an hour later. Shortly after that the Intelligence Officer and Signals Officer, Lieutenants M. J. T. Frazer and G. Colledge, were also wounded. Burton continues:
1 After the initial programme had been halted at five past twelve by Colonel McNaught because the shells were landing among our tanks.
…. The CO had advanced his headquarters… very close to the trig point. The fire… was terrific, the trucks being riddled…. The two wireless operators were killed…. The Intelligence Officer stretched out across a Bren carrier looked a shocking sight and as I gave him a wave and a cheerio I thought I had seen him for the last time.
In the respite gained by the mortars on the left flank McNaught sent a despatch rider1 with orders for A Company to come up at once. Meanwhile he found the few remaining carriers ‘of great assistance, as I was able to reinforce the threatened points, and they continued to do excellent work, and undoubtedly kept back the enemy.’ Between half past one and two o'clock McNaught was also busy rallying several small parties which fell back towards his advanced headquarters and sending them back towards the escarpment. Fire in this area was intense and McNaught was wounded for the third time, and in the other leg, about 1.45 p.m. and was much weakened by loss of blood. He was nevertheless, in the words of Brigadier Barrowelough, ‘most active in organising his defensive position’ in the crisis which followed the loss of two of his four rifle companies. The fighting strength of 25 Battalion was already, after only two hours, reduced by more than half, and McNaught reported accordingly to the Brigadier about two o'clock; Barrowclough undertook to send him a company of 24 Battalion and a platoon of 27 MG Battalion.
Meanwhile A Company of 25 Battalion was being brought up in lorries (except for 8 Platoon, which came up on foot) and it debussed under fire somewhere near Advanced Battalion Headquarters about a quarter past two. Captain W. H. Roberts, the company commander, made his reconnaissance under ‘terrific mortar and machine gun fire’, according to Burton, ‘to find the best line of attack.’ Then A Company attacked ‘up the left centre,’ says McNaught, ‘reached the remnants of D Coy and stabilised the position.’ But this is a more sanguine view than that, for example, of Lieutenant Jack, who says:
We were hurriedly deployed and proceeded with the advance…. Platoons came under fire immediately. Advance continued by short bounds…. 7 and 9 Platoons finally pinned down by fire from enemy tank which remained stationary … believed to be out of action. Tank then moved up and attempted to run over our troops who were prone on the ground. Our anti tank guns then obtained direct hits on the tank and put it out of action. (I was wounded very soon after this incident.)
1 This DR was probably Pte J. B. Kinder, who had already proved himself by repairing his motor cycle under fire; again he had it ‘shot away from under him’ (to quote the citation for his MM); and, converting a German machine to his own use, he finally had this, too, disabled by enemy fire. ‘He, together with his friend [Pte W. H.] Bill Morton, did a great job,’ says Maj Burton.
If the left flank gave some appearance of solidity at this stage the right was unmistakably fluid, and Burton spent most of his time there, trying to sort things out. ‘There were quite a number of lightly wounded men and others who had lost their officers and n.c.o.s and who were just moving back to the rear,’ he says. ‘These I ordered into position just over the edge of the escarpment and we established a two platoon front. I sent a messenger back to bring forward every available man from HQ Coy.’ This group of men was very likely that at which we left 12 Platoon after the death of Ben Morris. Sergeant Martin was now, as Reed has told us, in command of this gallant band, whose thin ranks were to be reduced still more. Reed continues:
Colonel McNaught turned up and asked what had happened, then ordered us to attack again. Went over to our right to the edge of the escarpment and attacked up there. Jim Granville2 hit and died [four days later; Burton picked him up the next night], Len Suff3 killed, J. Walker4 killed, Jeromson5 killed.
Then Reed, whose matter-of-fact narrative has already taken us through more death and desolation than most men know in a lifetime, describes with warm admiration an action he witnessed. Others might be brave, we must infer, but for him and those with him there was just a job of work to be done:
Before this action we had been told that one of our I tanks had been captured by the Germans… Col McNaught was walking over to it as though to give the crew orders when it opened up with machine guns. I then saw one of the coolest things of that day. Close to me was a 2-lb anti-tank gun up on its portee. It had been facing our front but when the tank opened up I saw the Sergeant in charge slowly circling with his hand giving the driver instructions to back and turn the truck. They then went into action and the first shot snapped off the wireless aerial of the tank. These chaps were stuck up on the tray of the portee and under heavy machine-gun fire all the time. (The regular gunner [gun-layer] had been hit while the portee was turning.) The tank scuttled back down the escarpment and the portee backed to the edge and finished it off.
We advanced a bit and then Capt McBride was hit…. Pete Easton took over the Bren from me as my arm was stiffening up and I was feeling a bit weak….6
Infiltration below the escarpment reached the level of a serious counter-attack and Cathie picked out a position for a do-or-die stand against it: ‘we were fairly exposed,’ he wrote, ‘but this point simply had to be held. Here I lost two corporals killed (Cpl F. Beamsley and L/Cpl A. McK. Black), and the RAP orderly was shot next to me. All these men had been splendid throughout and were always there when wanted.’ When the survivors of 11 and 12 Platoons joined 10 Platoon, as they now did, Lieutenant D. A. Wilson took command–‘a short, dark, sturdy man,’ Cathie says, ‘the coolest, quietest, best soldier there.’
1 ‘Where these guns came from no one seemed to know,’ says Burton, ‘but they did a wonderful job in supporting this attack and won the admiration of all….’ These formed a section of 9 Platoon, 27 MG Bn. McNaught says they arrived later, but whatever time they came, the machine-gunners certainly deserved the praise; for this bare terrain offered them little cover and their fire was too damaging to remain unchallenged. The other section of two guns supported the right flank along the escarpment.
2 Pte J. Granville.
3 Pte L. E. C. Suff.
4 Cpl J. R. Walker.
5 Pte J. R. Jeromson.
6 Sgt Martin was awarded the DCM for the period when he commanded 12 Platoon.
Brigadier Barrowclough sent up not one company of 24 Battalion, as promised, but two. The first of these, D Company, reached the scene between 3.15 and 3.30 p.m. and was at once committed on the right. Then Colonel C. Shuttleworth of 24 Battalion arrived to take over from Colonel McNaught, of whom the Brigadier says: ‘…. it was with difficulty that he was persuaded to go back to the dresssing station.’ McNaught briefed his successor– ‘I am afraid rather incoherently’–and then went back for medical treatment.1 Shuttleworth left orders for his C Company, when it arrived, to support the left flank and himself moved over to the escarpment where his D Company was heavily engaged.
Meanwhile Major Burton, not knowing of these arrangements, assumed command of 25 Battalion when he heard that McNaught had gone and picked for his command post a shallow bomb hole on the flat above the escarpment. There, with his batman, Private G. S. (‘Taffy’) Ringwood, he endured a few minutes of careful and accurate attention from an enemy mortar. Taffy, who had so far stuck loyally at his side, ‘became restless, he was absolutely sick of this bomb crater, and he was all for evacuating’; but he stayed. Then, when Burton was about to leave this area, a hail of bullets whistled overhead and looking along the edge of the escarpment we could see khaki forms crawling towards us. Another burst ripped through and nearby I heard a man moan. Sgt Atkins,2 my AA platoon Sgt, had been hit rather badly, then one of our guns replied. When the enemy came a little closer we all held our fire for the attackers were none other than a portion of a company of the 24 Bn who had been sent round the right flank of the Bn to help us.
How many needless casualties were caused by this misunderstanding will never be known; for few men on either side of this sharp exchange were clear as to what was happening. It was probably only a handful, though no less tragic for that, and it could have lasted for only a matter of moments; for the newcomers were quickly and heavily involved with the same enemy B Company had been fighting so bitterly all afternoon.
The new D Company, under Captain H. H. McDonald, had come up quickly in lorries, only too anxious to help. From midday, when they first heard the battle ahead, they had been restive, as Private E. E. Heyber of 18 Platoon confirms:
…. We waited for orders to advance. Our officer Mr Thompson3 kept coming to us and saying ‘We should not wait—we are wanted up there; I am certain they can't get word back.’
1 McNaught was awarded the DSO and Cathie the MC for this action.
2 L-Sgt S. W. Atkins.
3 Capt H. Thompson. 24 Bn, like 25 Bn, had 13, 14 and 15 Platoons in C Coy and 16, 17 and 18 in D Coy.
Private R. Heath, manning a two-inch mortar in 16 Platoon, says:
…. we advanced through murderous machine gun and mortar fire. Andy Lees2 was the first chap I saw get hit, shortly after we went to ground and ‘Darkie’ Lewis3 and I were busy with our weapon…. Just before we ran out of mortar ammunition Lewis was killed and then ‘Bluey’ Cains4 helped me…. During the action I saw W. D. Friday [D Company runner] come running across the desert, shout out his message, and run back, the bullets clipping sand at his heels as he ran.
Then Heath ‘collected it in the back’ but stayed on the job until dark. Casualties were heavy all through the company—at least two killed, as we have seen, in 16 Platoon; Privates T. Green, A. Gibson, J. V. Morgan and C. C. Davey killed in 17 Platoon; and, within a few minutes of the start, Captain McDonald himself and his batman, Private G. Absolum. ‘In the meantime D Company was held down under fire,’ says Shakespear; ‘Capt MacDonald (Happy Mac) stood up to size up the position, when I looked again he had fallen.’ This was a sad loss; but the company pushed on. Shakespear continues: ‘We advanced to the edge of the escarpment, but the fire was heavy and we had to withdraw a few chains. While at the edge Pte McClintock5 was wounded and sent back. He was reluctant to go.’
Several D Company men mention an anti-tank action which sounds very much like that which Reed admired; but it could not have been the same unless Reed mistook Colonel Shuttleworth for McNaught, who had long since left the scene. Gunner Kelly describes it as follows:
At dusk Col Shuttleworth came over and asked K2 to engage a tank down the escarpment. K2 moved over the crest … and in three shots demolished this tank which went up in flames.
In moving over the crest … back to its position K2 came under heavy MG fire and Sgt Joe Prisk was killed instantly….
Kelly, himself slightly wounded, took command of the gun.
1 1Pte G. M. Morgan.
2 L-Cpl A. G. Lees.
3 Pte L. M. Lewis.
4 Pte E. W. Cains.
5 Pte C. McClintock.
I decided that the best way to assist the remnants of 25 Bn was to stage an attack on Pt 175 with my own Coy, hoping that the sight of fresh troops would help 25 Bn to reorganise and establish a line.
So Tomlinson went back to meet his C Company, which had been driving forward, and put this plan into effect, telling his men to ‘go to ground and hold a defensive position on the reverse slope of 175’ if enemy fire were too damaging, to give 25 Battalion time to reorganise.
All this, of course, took place in a matter of minutes, and Tomlinson had no time to ponder about a group of enemy tanks which seemed to be refuelling in a wadi not far to the left (south); he was only thankful that they did not intervene. Opposition was heavy enough as it was, and enemy infantry was ‘now in full possession of Pt 175’; his losses were mounting, so Tomlinson's men ‘went to ground about 300 yards from that point [the cairn] and managed to beat off an attack… with our own fire power.’ This spirited action quietened the enemy and gave a breathing space during which the position was strengthened, a party of nineteen of A Company under Lieutenant Campbell and some stragglers of 25 Battalion were brought in on the right, and contact was eventually made with the 24th's D Company, which had by this time been ‘pretty badly mauled’.
Thus the day drew to a close, and the fighting with it. Shuttleworth had decided to hold the ground now in his grasp, bringing up tools for the men to dig in and calling up his own A and B Companies later to form a reserve. Major Burton had reported to Shuttleworth and explained the situation as best he could. ‘I could not give him a complete picture,’ he says, ‘… as I had not seen all the left sector….’ Burton was worried for the safety of Henderson's group of A Company, some 300 yards in front of the new positions, and also for any survivors there might be of Robertshaw's 15 Platoon. He dreaded a second mischance like that on the right when men of 24 and 25 Battalions had fired at each other.
1 L-Cpl F. J. Gaddum.
2 L-Cpl H. McA. Campbell.
On the right the line rested well short of the farthest advance of B Company of 25 Battalion, though how far II and 12 Platoons got before they turned back can only be guessed from accounts such as Bellerby's and Reed's. Bellerby, with Sanders and McNicol, had been lying still for about four hours—‘Most of the time… the fire was too hot for us to move’. About 5 p.m. this fire had eased off and ‘my mates assisted me back to the crest about 2-300 yards behind,’ says Bellerby. From there an A Company truck, hastened by mortar fire, took the three wounded men back to the dressing station. Hoppe (and presumably Bray) was picked up about the same time by a Bren carrier sent up by ‘three boys of my own platoon.’ Simonsen of 15 Platoon, during a lull in the firing, heard someone calling. Taking a quick look on raised hands, I discerned a soldier some fifteen feet away, wounded. I wormed my way up to him, to find him in a very low condition. Basil Cook,1 our section Bren gunner. I comforted him for a short time until he passed away. A fine soldier, his duty nobly done. I then borrowed a knife at his belt to cut off my boot.
Late at night Simonsen was picked up by a German ambulance car.2 Reed stayed in action despite his wound, getting his arm dressed after dark, when D Company of 24 Battalion took over and what was left of B Company went into reserve. ‘Keith Marshall and the boys came back,’ he says, ‘and told us they had 270 prisoners when they tallied up.’
Colonel Shuttleworth was indefatigable; he personally sited, often under fire, almost all the section posts on the right. It was far into the night before he allowed himself any rest from the duties which crowded upon him. Darkness cased his anxiety for the right flank, but the situation there was still somewhat tense, as Private Shakespear recalls it:
Towards dark the firing died down on both sides and we moved to flatter ground up on the escarpment. The Germans were fairly close, we could hear them giving orders and lining up their guns and vehicles on the flat below and a little way ahead. Flares were being used freely by the enemy. We just lay on bare ground, but dug in later as best we could. Pte Fleming,3 a first war man, was a very great asset to our Coy…
1 Pte B.J. Cooke.
2 Such was the confusion of the night that it was a matter of luck whether the wounded here were picked up by friend or enemy and 8 other wounded of 15 Platoon, luckier than Simonsen, were brought back behind our lines. Simonsen was in Cpl Ussher's section, which had 5 killed, 3 wounded and safe (including Ussher), and 2 captured; all 10 of the section were hit. Out of 34 of 15 Platoon who went into action, 14 were killed, 9 wounded and safe, and 6 captured (of whom most if not all were wounded). This was a heavier rate of casualties even than 12 Platoon's, which had 9 killed; the section which included Reed had 4 killed or mortally wounded and 3 wounded out of 10.
3 Pte D. Fleming.
4 Its II killed and missing included the platoon commander, Lt T. W. Daly.
The darkness held other dangers too, as Privates R. T. K. Thomson of 25 Battalion mortar platoon found when he made his way back that night. He heard New Zealand voices and headed in their direction. Then a truck drove near and was loudly challenged to halt. It drove on and a Bren opened fire. The truck stopped and Thomson went over to it. He found Captain Roberts of A Company (who had been wounded that afternoon) lying on one side of it, his driver on the other. Roberts, dying, looked up at Thomson and said: ‘Tough luck, being hit by your own chaps.’
For those who had survived the day's fighting and who now had to hold the ground won, there was not time yet for the shock of their various personal experiences of violence and bereavement to set in—that was not to develop for three or four days yet. In the meantime, as Burton says, ‘There were at least 100 men of the Bn still on or about Pt 175 and they were hungry, sad, and damn cold.’ Burton, the calm and competent ex-Territorial, had compassion and energy, and he got tea and a stew made and took these and greatcoats and blankets to his men at the front. ‘So with a coat, a blanket and a stomach full of hot stew the troops soon lost that feeling of misery which the strain of battle, hunger and cold had brought on.’ He was only sorry that he could not do the same for Henderson's group, not knowing where it was, but it was at least good to learn, as he did during the night, that it was still holding out. D Company of 24 Battalion was similarly cared for, as Private R. D. Lynn notes: ‘Cpl Swanson2 (OC's driver) had brought our greatcoats, and the evening meal at about 2200 hrs.’
If the dark brought relief to the men at the front, in the RAP at the wadi to the rear it meant little or nothing. ‘Doc’ McCarthy, 25 Battalion's Medical Officer, Padre Willis, medical orderlies and volunteer helpers and even a captured German doctor, as Private H. R. Mackenzie says, worked ‘almost to the point of collapsing.’ Mackenzie himself, when free from his signals duties, ‘helped dress various chaps with the result that my clothes from the knees downwards were very bloodstained and dirty…. I helped to spoon feed some of the poor chaps who could not move.’ But grimness was not the only quality of the scene, as Private G. H. Logan of 24 Battalion's A Company reminds us:
1 Lt Ormond met one of the tank officers ‘in the bag’ and learned from him that he had ‘disobeyed three orders to pull out’ and was ‘about to obey an emergency call’ from his OC to withdraw at once when his tank was hit. His crew—and others—did not want to leave the infantry unsupported and dangerously exposed on their objective. Some tanks fell victim to 88-mm guns in the Blockhouse area; others, as we have seen, were knocked out by tanks and anti-tank guns on or below the escarpment. Eight enemy tanks were destroyed.
2 Cpl W. T. Swanson.
Just on dusk the prisoners (Germans) started to come in and our platoon was given 200 to look after….An order was given to take away the prosoners's boots—this was done and I accompanied the truckload of boots to Coy HQs where I was informed that the order had been countermanded and to return the boots to the prisoners. The 200 pairs were dumped in a pile and Afrika Korps officers and men searched for their own boots….
Next day, according to Private G. R. Mansel, 24 Battalion's B Company was given a task which has a familiar ring—‘clearing up a few machine gun posts at Pt 175.’ ‘Our platoon, No. 10, hadn't gone many hundred yards,’ he continues, ‘when it became obvious we were in for a full scale attack.’ But the task was accomplished at the cost of some thirty casualties and Hill 175 was ours. The huge enemy assembly to the south was taking its threat eastwards. To the west the Blockhouse invited attack, and beyond it the tomb of Sidi Rezegh.page 32
GERMAN INFANTRY POSITIONS—from photographs captured near Sidi Rezegh