2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
6 Brigade Overruns Africa Corps Headquarters
6 Brigade Overruns Africa Corps Headquarters
The advance of 6 Brigade along the road or track called the Trigh Capuzzo, which led westwards parallel to the Via Balbia, had been held up on the 21st until the I-tank squadron arrived. The Valentines (I Tanks, Mark III) did not arrive until 3 p.m., and almost as soon as the brigade moved off a liaison officer from 30 Corps and then a wireless message brought news of the crisis at Sidi Rezegh. The brigade could move no faster and it continued on its way, with 24 Battalion leading and 48 Battery of the 6th Field well forward in support. A landing ground at Gasr el-Arid was still showing signs of enemy activity and beyond it a large group of vehicles, including some tanks, was astride the road. Carriers investigated and 48 Battery fired a few rounds, the I tanks moved through to the head of the group, and the enemy made off. The brigade halted for a brief rest at 9 p.m. and was to move on again at 3 a.m. on the 23rd.
This it did, with the I tanks and anti-tank guns on the flanks, 6th Field in the middle, and the Bofors guns distributed throughout the group. It took over an hour to get the whole group in motion and by this time the leading elements on the right had veered too far northwards. The escarpment began just east of Bir el Chleta and the given route passed well south of this; but when the brigade halted for breakfast at 6 a.m., just before first light, the leading battalion on the right was astride the Trigh Capuzzo at Bir el Chleta and below the escarpment.
What followed was dramatic in the extreme. The men were cold, tired and hungry and lost no time in dismounting to set up cookers and get something to eat. Each vehicle and those who travelled in it constituted something like a domestic household which went about its affairs of waking, washing and cooking page 197 unmindful of its neighbours. The war could wait until after breakfast. Suddenly some of the neighbours realised that they were total strangers: 6 Brigade had halted in the midst of the Headquarters of the German Africa Corps and some supply troops.
Sudden recognition was followed by sudden action and it was still dark enough for the gun flashes to be spectacular. The field guns—29 Battery—were quick off the mark. Bombardier Hawkins12 had been sent out on his motor-cycle to investigate a column of vehicles that was approaching from the north and the sight of him ‘hurtling back’, chased by bullets, alerted the gunners. The range was 150–400 yards and every shot a coconut. Fires broke out everywhere among the enemy vehicles and several witnesses insist that all were destroyed. Tracer bullets flew in all directions. Brens, Vickers and tank guns all engaged the enemy at ranges down to a few yards. It is a striking evidence of the vigour, skill and presence of mind of the field gunners that they were among the first to open fire. A company runner of 25 Battalion gives a typical account:
‘…an enemy column consisting of heavy cars with rear tractor wheels, staff cars and armoured transport was heading for us at…about 350 yards…. When the artillery swung into action the gun nearest to me, a distance of 12 or 15 yards, collected with a beautiful shot a huge Jerry caterpillar truck, and the gun crew supported by us let forth a mighty cheer. I recall one voice above all the others, I believe it was Captain Fisher,13 calling out in a stentorian voice, “Whacko, first blood to Murphy.” Murphy14 I learned later was the gun layer.’
A private of the same unit says, ‘the roaring of our 25-pounders informed us that we had camped alongside a Jerry armoured car outfit. The whole lot of the cars were destroyed with the exception of one that came in and surrendered.’ A sergeant says, ‘Our artillery opened up at point blank range and had most of the enemy vehicles in flames in a matter of minutes.’ The battalion diary says, ‘Five AFVs were put out of action in quick succession by one Arty gun.’ One company staged a bayonet attack with complete success. I tanks and carriers page 198 and a party under Gunner Ainsworth15 of the 6th Field RHQ rounded up prisoners. Over 200 were taken all told, including a colonel who was the chief Italian liaison officer at Africa Corps Headquarters. The corps commander and his chief staff officer had left only a minute or two earlier and were lucky not to be captured.
The firing slackened after 20 minutes or so, though it continued at a reduced rate for more than an hour against enemy to the north. The brigade commander had no wish to linger and got the brigade moving again as soon as he could, covered by a rearguard of a company, a carrier platoon, K Troop of 33 Anti-Tank Battery, and a 25-pounder troop. The field gunners kept their guns in action until the last moment and showed more interest in searching the wrecked vehicles in the area than in following the brigade. A similar interest on the part of the brigade Intelligence staff might have been rewarding; for it was not realised until later that this was the German corps headquarters. For the rest of the campaign the operations of the German armour were seriously handicapped by the loss of wireless sets, codes, and trained staff in this chance encounter.