CHAPTER 9 — The Capture of Bardia
The Capture of Bardia
The New Zealanders' thrust, which cut off Bardia from the west, implanted between Bardia and Sollum a firm wedge into the enemy's fortress line on the frontier; so, when the greater part of the Division made off towards Sidi Rezegh on 23 November, 5 Brigade Group was left under command of 4 Indian Division, and later of 13 Corps, to hold this position and exploit it until the brigade could be relieved and allowed to rejoin the Division. Despite the fact that the other two brigades were desperately in need of reinforcement and that the arrival of a third brigade would have entirely changed the whole course of the fighting, this could not be done, for there was no brigade to replace the 5th.
During the previous evening, the 22nd, the regimental patrol line was taken over by units of 4 Brigade, and the regiment, less C Squadron, which remained where it was to join up with 4 Brigade for the advance on Gambut, was to come under command of 5 Brigade; and so it retired to laager positions near the Trigh Capuzzo. In the morning it assembled at Sidi Azeiz, which was held by 22 Battalion. There was no call on the squadrons that day, the 23rd, and the crews took advantage of the lull to do what maintenance and small repairs they could.
That night the squadrons found themselves required to laager with the infantry. In an infantry unit the type of laager adopted is of a very set form because, owing to the large amount of transport, it would be impossible in the dark to find any particular headquarters. The men of the cavalry squadrons, accustomed to forming little circles just as each troop happened to arrive at the end of the day, voiced, rather unreasonably perhaps, their disgust at this ‘parade-ground’ type of laager.
On the 24th Brigadier Hargest,1 who had sent 22 Battalion to Menastir and had moved his own headquarters to Sidi Azeiz, gave the two squadrons an extensive patrol line which ran in a huge semi-circle of a radius of about ten miles round Sidi Azeiz. The line began at Bir Zemla in the north, ran along the page 150 top of the escarpment past the Bardia defences, south to Fort Capuzzo, and then more west to Bir Hafid. This was a very long line to be covered by two squadrons, totalling at most only twenty-six vehicles. Its function was to link up the 22 and 23 Battalion positions.
Overnight the Brigadier received word that enemy armoured columns had left the main battle and were thrusting east to their frontier positions and doing what damage they could to our lines of communication. One of these columns was coming along the Trigh el Abd and was therefore expected to meet the Wire, and possibly pass into Egypt, at Sheferzen. Brigadier Hargest, on the 25th, asked for two carrier troops to patrol a line south of Sidi Azeiz, running west from Sollum Barracks, through Musaid to Bir Hafid, upon which line they could give warning of an enemy approach.
These patrols made no contact with the enemy, but word came through during the day that a column was indeed on the Egyptian side of the Wire, was heading north, and by dark was some 20 miles away, under attention from the RAF. So, in the evening, the Brigadier took the precaution of sending his transport well away from Sidi Azeiz to the protection of 22 Battalion at Bir Zemla; whither Captain McQueen went also with HQ Squadron.
At 5.30 a.m. on the 26th it was thought that the squadron had got lost and was blundering back into Sidi Azeiz. There were indeed transport vehicles coming right into the B Squadron laager but these turned out to be enemy. The squadron opened fire and the attached troop of 32 Anti-Tank Battery knocked out a staff car containing two doctors. At this stage of the fighting it was not uncommon for small parties of enemy transport to be picked up anywhere, since General Rommel had impatiently forged ahead leaving, straggled all over the desert, any vehicles which could not keep up.
All day on the 26th the two squadrons patrolled the same line, picking up odd prisoners whom they handed over to Brigade. These prisoners were from many different units, mostly lorried infantry, but they included quite a variation of troops: tank and anti-tank, field artillery, signals, reconnaissance and medical. Altogether there seemed to be quite a lot of disorganisation among the enemy.
Breaking camp at Ngaruawahia, 4 January 1940
Arriving to take part in the Anzac Day service during manoeuvres at El Saff, April 1940
Training with Mark II light tanks, Wadi Digla, 1940
At Helwan Camp, January 1941. Left to right: C. B. McIntosh, W. T. Weir, R. J. Loughnan and M. G. Loughnan
The train journey north through Greece
Marmon-Herrington armoured car in Greece
German dive-bomber shot down by the Divisional Cavalry during the withdrawal in Greece
‘The morning we landed in Crete’
German parachutists land near Galatas
Sergeant-Major G. T. Seccombe (nearest camera); (behind him) Sgt T. Hayward of 28 (Maori) Battalion; (in tin hat) Sgt Dick Rakanui of 28 Bn; (centre, amidships) Maj E. R. Harford; (by gunwale) Tpr. A. J. Jonson; (with towel round his head) Lt M. P. Studholme, Tpr R. Baker, Tpr R. Wildash (at oar); (behind Studholme) Tpr H. Andrell, Tpr C. Lovell (centre), Tpr T. Bradford (hand on rowlcok); Tpr W. Greenwood (in bows); Absent, Cpl W. J. Ryan (the photographer)
C Squadron crew with a recaptured Stuart tank. WO II C. W. Mack, Cpl P. L. Titchener, Tprs A. J. Kennington and T. G. L. Hawkins
Prisoner-of-war compound, Bardia, 2 January 1942
Convoy halts beside Lake Tiberias en route to Egypt, June 1942
Mr Churchill meets Sgt Alan Sperry during his visit to 2 NZ Divison at El Alamein, August 1942
Wheel tracks, El Alamein
Divisional Cavalry convoy in Halfaya Pass, 11 November 1942
Bivouac near Bardia, November 1942
Lunch halt at El Adem, December 1942
The enemy column on the Egyptian side of the frontier attacked supply depots and workshops and barked its knuckles against 4 Indian Division before advancing towards Halfaya. Here, under cover of fire, it attacked Point 207; then, further dividing into three groups, it attacked 23 Battalion at Musaid, Sollum Barracks and Capuzzo, before continuing on into Bardia. All these attacks were beaten off and the enemy suffered quite considerable losses.
While the attack was developing against 23 Battalion in Capuzzo, two troops of Divisional Cavalry were sent from Sidi Azeiz to chase off some enemy armoured cars which were commanding the road into the fort, and to escort back a lorry-load of ammunition for 5 Field Regiment. This patrol successfully cleared the road and pressed on to Capuzzo, only to find that all the vehicles carrying the ammunition had been sent away; so they had to return empty handed.
Four South African armoured cars which had been on the way to 13 Corps Headquarters at Bir el Hariga, about ten miles to the west, were unable to get there because of the presence of an enemy column on the route, so they were attached in the meantime to 5 Brigade Headquarters. After dark they were sent, under command of Captain E. R. Andrews of B Squadron, to Bir Zemla as an escort to the brigade LAD and some of the RAF detachment, and to escort back four guns and supplies of petrol, food and ammunition.page 152
At first light on the 27th the squadron patrols detailed to occupy a line east of Sidi Azeiz had barely left the laager before they began to send back in quick succession a series of disquietening reports. The first came from an A Squadron troop which had captured a wireless truck, and all its personnel, which drove in from the east. The troop leader was suspicious of the deliberate way in which this truck had driven up to him and of the smugness of the captured crew. Then a report came from a B Squadron troop leader who said that some thirty or forty tanks with guns and transport were approaching from the east. The previous suspicions were therefore well grounded as this column had been led in by the ‘pathfinder’ who had just been captured. Lieutenant-Colonel Nicoll immediately drove over in his tank to Brigadier Hargest and was in the middle of warning him that a strong attack was almost upon them when the first shells began to fall.
The Brigadier had no choice but to fight where he stood; but there was no use in having a mobile unit sitting there under the shellfire, so he ordered Div Cav to get out as best it could. The greater part of the squadrons were already out on patrol, but Nicoll led the balance of the regiment boldly across the enemy front as this force was deploying for the assault. He suffered surprisingly small casualties in so doing. The RAF observer's truck was hit and did not get away; some of the regiment's B Echelon and one DR were left behind; the IO's carrier was hit but did not stop, though the gunner, Corporal Bridge,3 was wounded. Bridge sat there nursing a smashed leg which he subsequently lost, and gritted his teeth until he could be given attention when the regiment was clear.
Meanwhile the squadrons had been forced to retire in face of the attack, A Squadron to the west and B Squadron to the east; and from these positions, powerless to do anything about it, the patrols watched the whole Brigade Headquarters take the bitter thrashing that they, too, might have suffered. A little before 9.30 a.m.—less than an hour after the attack had begun— the patrols had to report that the whole position seemed to have surrendered and that the enemy column had formed up and moved off westwards. The whole regiment then rallied about five miles to the south and set off to join 7 Indian Infantry Brigade at Sidi Omar Nuovo. This was an unfortunate decision, for Div Cav should have kept contact and then would have page 153 known that it could easily have recaptured the New Zealand prisoners being marched off to Bardia only lightly guarded. But the chance was lost.
En route to Sidi Omar, two carriers and a tank had to be abandoned owing to mechanical breakdowns, so on arrival every man got busy on the maintenance of his vehicle.
Headquarters Squadron was still at Bir Zemla, some 25 miles away, with enemy troops possibly ranging the intervening country. The squadron was known to have been involved several times in the fighting while under the protection of 22 Battalion. A and B Squadrons were badly in need of their B Echelons so, while patrols were sent out to the north and west, Lieutenant Sommerville4 was sent to Bir Zemla to inform Lieutenant- Colonel Andrew5 how the rest of the brigade had fared and to guide HQ Squadron back to Sidi Omar.
The patrols found that the situation in the frontier area seemed to be quietening down again, an impression borne out by an intercepted enemy message to the effect that their armoured formations were being recalled westwards. There was little to report other than a few enemy armoured cars, which were not engaged, and a lone German soldier wandering about the desert, who was made prisoner.
Colonel Andrew had thought it unwise to allow the Div Cav B Echelon to set out for Sidi Omar so lightly guarded, since Bir Ghirba was still in enemy hands, and as he was now able to move southwards himself, he kept the squadron till after dark when he was moving his own battalion.
Early in the morning of the 26th the Divisional Cavalry set out for Fort Capuzzo and met 22 Battalion at Point 201. Colonel Nicoll passed on instructions to Colonel Andrew from the Commander of 4 Indian Division to take command of 5 Brigade Group and the attached troops and to hold a line from Capuzzo through Musaid to the barracks overlooking Sollum; he was to set Div Cav patrolling west of Bardia to prevent any movement between there and Tobruk. Thus all the enemy-held positions on the frontier would be isolated.
Upon meeting the fighting squadrons HQ Squadron refuelled the AFVs before continuing on to Sidi Omar with the surplus page 154 transport from 22 Battalion, which was carrying prisoners and wounded. The battalion, with the Div Cav in the lead, headed for Musaid, where the regiment laagered a little to the west of the fort.
At first light on the 30th A Squadron began patrolling north as far as the Bardia-Tobruk road and B Squadron towards Bir Ghirba. The regiment now had a South African anti-tank battery, less two troops, attached; and attached to each of the squadrons was a troop from 5 Field Regiment, a troop of 32 Anti-Tank Battery, and a platoon of No. 4 Company, 27 MG Battalion.
In the evening it was decided that the New Zealand brigade group should assume a more mobile role operating from Bir Zemla, and accordingly it was relieved by 5 Indian Infantry Brigade. The move to Bir Zemla was made on 1 December, with Div Cav forming a screen round the front and flanks of the brigade column.
The duties of the brigade group now were to cut all communications between Bardia and the west, to begin clearing the area of any enemy in the coastal region west of the Bardia perimeter, and to form two mobile columns which could harass any enemy who tried to make contact with the frontier posts.
On 2 December, while A Squadron maintained its patrols along the main road, B Squadron put out a protective screen to the south and west. Brigade Headquarters needed time to reorganise and RHQ helped during the day to put together new Intelligence and signals establishments.
Both the squadrons worked well to the west, almost level with Gambut. They took three prisoners from the German 8 Tank Regiment and A Squadron reported much material hidden in the wadis which ran down towards the coast. This country was too difficult to cover completely with AFVs so co-operation was arranged with A Company, 28 (Maori) Battalion, to ferret out these supplies.
In the morning, the 3rd, the company went out and began collecting any material that would be useful to us and destroying page 155 what was not wanted. A flank guard to the west was being mounted by A Squadron which, before long, was reporting a column of about a hundred vehicles with guns approaching.
During the afternoon a detachment of Maoris with a troop of carriers from B Squadron followed up the success by chasing the enemy further afield. The cost to the enemy from the whole action was 130 prisoners, of whom 20 were wounded, about 100 killed, many vehicles destroyed and four guns captured. Two of these, 50-mm. calibre, were gladly taken over by the South African anti-tank gunners attached to Div Cav who had stayed with the Maoris for the battle.
Once the enemy had been led into the ambush the regiment did not take much part in the fighting, but while it was going on Corporal Alan Sperry earned a bar to his MM. He rode forward on his motor-cycle under mortar and machine-gun fire and drew an accurate picture of the enemy's dispositions. Then later, when he noticed some of his own B Echelon vehicles heading unwittingly for the enemy's positions, he rode out again through some very rough country and, under fire, headed them off and led them back.
While the final mopping up of Geissler Column was going on a Div Cav troop brought back six Italian prisoners and an Australian seaman off the ship Parramatta, sunk outside Tobruk some days before.
There was more than one probe eastwards by enemy columns. The next day, 4 December, RHQ and the two fighting squadrons continued their harassing role on the main road while the brigade moved off to relieve 5 Indian Brigade at Capuzzo and Sollum. Late in the morning RHQ heard that fifteen enemy tanks were advancing eastwards along the Trigh Capuzzo. Patrols out in that direction were advised and RHQ, with the attached troops, moved into the shelter of the re-entrants along the escarpment, hoping to repeat the previous day's ambush; but this was not to be, for no attack developed. Nor was there any clash with a further twenty-nine tanks that were reported on the escarpment during the afternoon. Second-Lieutenant Ormond6 did his best to bring the enemy to blows when, page 157 ignoring the fire from three tanks on his flank, he led his troop in to engage six armoured cars. These withdrew hurriedly but, try as he might, Ormond could not catch them. This exploit was one of several for which he was awarded the MC.
The regiment had made contact with the enemy in several different places throughout the day, and when the squadrons came in at dusk, the whole unit made off south-east to laager near Gabr Ahmar, about five miles from Capuzzo. It is never wise for a light unit when patrolling alone to dally long in any particular spot, for there is always a possibility that the enemy, having reasoned out its laager position, might move a strong force there overnight. The regiment maintained its value by keeping mobile, pricking and probing, and using its eyes to gain information and its fleetness to keep out of trouble. At most times there were guns attached to it as protection against a sudden raid; but to anticipate a raid is better protection. The technique of the regiment on such occasions when, responsible for its own protection, it had made contact with enemy forces, was to move off after dark, to all appearances aimlessly—and the more aimlessly the more confusing to a possible raider— and laager five or ten miles away. Colonel Nicoll, like succeeding commanders, used the regiment, and used it wisely, as a foil: riposte–retire–thrust; and it was probably that same motive that brought the regiment through its cavalry days with such an extraordinarily small casualty list.
* * * * *
While the ambush was going on against Geissler Column at Bir Zemla, C Squadron was on its way from El Rabta to rejoin the regiment. Its route led along the frontier track to Sidi Omar, where the squadron paused for the rest of the day to do its first maintenance in twelve days. The squadron waited at Sidi Omar the next morning, 4 December, for a convoy which it escorted past enemy-held Bir Ghirba to 5 Brigade Headquarters at Capuzzo. Here it met HQ Squadron, the first of the regiment it had seen since setting off for Gambut on 23 November. With HQ Squadron, as with the rest of the regiment, whom they met at Gabr Ahmar on the 6th, the C Squadron men found themselves subjects of both interest and envy—interest at the page 158 stories they had to tell of the fighting round Sidi Rezegh, and envy for the recaptured tanks that they brought back. As he caught sight of the General Stuarts, the eyes of every man in the regiment glowed. There was not a man who would not have gladly exchanged his carrier or his Mark VI tank for a ‘Honey’ with its powerful motor and burst of speed; with its quick-firing gun that had already proved what it could do in the hands of a determined man.
The 4th Indian Division had been ordered to join the fighting round Tobruk and was being relieved by 2 South African Division. So on the 4th Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew was ordered to take his brigade back to the Sollum – Capuzzo area and relieve 5 Indian Brigade. Under the new command the New Zealand brigade's duties remained the same, namely to contain the enemy's frontier forces and to maintain mobile columns working westwards.
On 5 December ‘Nickforce’ was formed, comprising the Divisional Cavalry, 258 Battery of the South African anti-tank regiment, two troops of 32 NZ Anti-Tank Battery, a troop of field guns from 27 NZ Battery, and a platoon of 27 MG Battalion. But this column never operated as such since 5 Brigade left the area a few days later.
In the meantime the squadrons went out in an all-round defensive screen and, during the afternoon of the 5th, patrols made contact with the Central India Horse, which was leaving to rejoin 4 Indian Division, and with the headquarters of 3 South African Brigade, which was moving up towards Menastir to stage a demonstration against Bardia.
The regiment's patrol positions remained the same on the 6th and the enemy gunners in Bardia showed that they were on the alert by firing with uncomfortable accuracy on any movement within range.
On the 7th the system of mobile columns began to operate. B Squadron formed two columns, ‘Vic’ and ‘Mac’, with the Imperial Light Horse Battalion, 3 South African Brigade; and A and C Squadrons, with the attached field and anti-tank guns, formed respectively ‘Gold’ and ‘Flake’ columns. All four columns began sweeping westwards, ‘Vic’ and ‘Mac’ astride the main road, and ‘Gold’ and ‘Flake’ along the Trigh Capuzzo to within a few miles of Bir el Chleta. There was not much excitement that day and ‘Gold’ and ‘Flake’ returned to laager at Gabr Ahmar while the other two laagered out. RHQ went back to Bir Zemla on the 8th while ‘Vic’ and page 159 ‘Mac’ columns began a sweep back, this time to the north of the road. On arriving back they reported some twenty-nine tanks in a wadi near the coast.
Nothing was done about these that day and on the 9th, 5 Brigade being ordered to join the main battle to the west, the liquidation of these tanks became the responsibility of 3 South African Brigade, under whose command Div Cav remained.
A column consisting of C Squadron, two troops of South African 25-pounders and one troop of 32 NZ Anti-Tank Battery set out along the main road, while A Squadron spread along some higher ground to the south to protect the flank.
Though twenty-nine tanks sounded a formidable task, the area was a tank recovery workshops and not all the tanks were in fighting condition. The regiment's AFVs took up position on the edge of the wadi in which the workshops was located so as to prevent any escape, while twenty or thirty men went in on foot. Resistance was light and gave the Germans time only to set fire to their tanks. Thirty prisoners were taken and the Div Cav men completed the job of putting the tanks beyond any possible repair.
B and C Squadrons spent that night in laager with the Imperial Light Horse and in the morning, when infantry began to probe towards Marsa Lucch, through country too rough for AFVs, they returned to Bir Zemla.
The AFVs had by now done almost twice the mileage that was considered safe without a complete overhaul. They had been constantly on the move now for eight weeks without a chance of any ‘heavy’ maintenance, and crews were hard-pressed to keep them in going order. But no rest was in sight, so they just tinkered and improvised and nursed their vehicles along from day to day.
Jimmy Little's parody expresses the situation perfectly:
… carrier men;
You can find them patching up
Their lousy little battle-wagons
Any old time.
The 2nd South African Division was new to the desert and was not fully trained, so when the battle moved on towards Gazala, this division was brought up to keep the enemy frontier positions isolated.
The South Africans were openly pleased to have attached to them troops whom they considered veterans. They relied rather page 160 too much on these troops' experience and took somewhat optimistic views of their capabilities, at the same time being inclined to underestimate the enemy. They had not been very well equipped in the way of transport or in automatic weapons. When Div Cav first became attached, it handed over to the South Africans several dozen German automatic weapons which were received with alacrity.
Though the Divisional Cavalry and the British artillery regiments attached to this division realised that they were out of the fighting while they imparted to the South Africans some of the lessons they themselves had learnt, they were only too glad to be on their ration strength as they found themselves well supplied in South African cigarettes, coffee, and an occasional keg of Cape brandy.
For about the first week, from 10 to 16 December, the regiment had the task of setting up a chain of posts by day and night between the Bardia–Sidi Azeiz track and the Bardia— Capuzzo road, in order to prevent enemy movement between Bardia and his strongpoints to the south.
The job was dull and the weather showery and miserable. By day the enemy guns in Bardia attended diligently to any movement about the posts. Lieutenant Poolman7 suffered one day at the hands of a German gunner. Poolman's troop was trying to erect a tarpaulin for shelter from the rain. Each time they began to tie it up to the side of a carrier the Germans would begin to shell them and they would have to give up: very funny for everybody but the troop in question.
One cold evening, when B Squadron was on the way out, Lieutenant Kerr's tank broke down outside the South African MDS near Sidi Azeiz and the driver could raise no life out of the motor. Kerr, wise man, spent a most comfortable night at the MDS. It really must have been the cold that affected the tank for in the morning it started up and ran perfectly!
There was one squadron in reserve all the time and its men could wash and clean themselves up and do maintenance on their vehicles and weapons. Mostly they spent all the time they could spare in foraging round the old enemy dugouts at the foot of the escarpment. From there they used to return with an assortment of loot: beds and bedding, groundsheets and pieces of canvas to make shelters.page 161
It was about this time that the fashion started for a type of shelter that soon became universal in the regiment. A sheet of tarpaulin was clamped along the top edge of the carrier: piping from an old truck canopy frame was ideal for this. When not in use it could be rolled up and left strapped there, and in a matter of minutes it could be rolled out over two short pegs and pinned to the ground as a lean-to tent for the whole crew. With the passage of time these tents became more elaborate. First another piece of canvas was attached which fell down the side of the vehicle and along the ground, forming a breakwind and a waterproof floor. Then later, ends were added, and then, for sun-shelter with a draught and with protection from the flies, pieces of mosquito netting were added. In time they became snug little summer and winter homes, lightproof so that a primus could be lighted inside or a little festoon lamp hung which worked off the wireless or starter battery.
The foraging parties brought back a surprising assortment of food: Danish butter, Portuguese sardines, tinned ham, or sauerkraut. Some found German beer, Chianti and cognac, and one night A Squadron had such a party that it was said that the Bardia garrison, disturbed by the noise, was on the point of coming out and surrendering.
When anyone visited the 2 i/c of C Squadron, Captain Van Slyke, after dark he would often explain that he had to go out and ‘milk Gretchen’; he would disappear into the dark with a bucket, presently returning with it half full of Chianti.
On 16 December 2 South African Division undertook to attack Bardia. The plan was to infiltrate one battalion, the Rand Light Infantry, through the northern part of the perimeter and another, the Royal Durban Light Infantry, through the south, while the Cape Dutch Machine Gun Battalion, assisted by C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry, watched the centre sector for any break-out and A Squadron stood over the Tobruk road. Artillery support came from one of the South African field regiments and from British medium and 6-inch howitzer batteries.
The attack was not very successful because the South Africans found, much to their surprise, that the whole perimeter was strongly held, and they managed to do little more than just pierce the outer defences. Not much further success was reported on the 17th, and on the 18th the two battalions retired to holding positions. B Squadron took over the job of patrolling the road and A Squadron went into reserve, whilst C Squadron covered the area between the road and the escarpment.page 162 page 163
During the 18th Lieutenant Wilder was reconnoitring the enemy's road block when one of his tanks was knocked out by gunfire. Its driver, Trooper Galvin,8 was badly wounded in the legs but the other two of the crew, Sergeant Riddell9 and Lance-Corporal Lovegrove,10 managed to get him out and into a fold in the ground away from the tank. There they gave him first aid and all three lay low throughout the day while enemy mortars searched the ground for them. They managed to work their way back to safety after dark. For this, both Riddell and Lovegrove were awarded the Military Medal.
The attack was now at a standstill and all units remained where they were until it was resumed a fortnight later. As Christmas approached the whole battlefield became quieter and quieter, with both sides content to sit suffering the cold, miserable weather. Christmas Day was just as miserable as any other and the spirit of festivity existed only in isolated places where some crews had saved a few delicacies or a flask of cognac for the occasion. The CO could do little but send greetings to all squadrons, promising at the earliest opportunity a day to celebrate; but this was poor cheer to men sitting in their overcoats with water dripping down their necks and, for the despondent majority, the prospect of a Christmas dinner of bully beef and biscuits. At RHQ Padre Taylor11 held a short service which was attended by Brigade Headquarters. The sight of their South African neighbours poring over Christmas mail made the men no happier: they were damp and dirty, forlorn and forgotten.
Essentially the battle continued—business as usual—for, during the day, operation orders were received from the South African divisional headquarters for the continuation of the attack in a few days' time.
On such occasions as this one realises just how important to morale is mail from home. The morale of the regiment at this time was not really low though the men were in need of a rest. But they would have been much happier and better soldiers had they been able to hear from home. On Boxing Day a small parcel mail arrived—the first mail for over seven weeks—but letter mails seemed to have gone astray.page 164
Between Christmas and New Year the softening-up of the Bardia garrison grew in intensity. The guns were now supplied with plenty of ammunition, and in addition to this the Gambut aerodrome had been brought into use and medium bombers based there were employed to blast the inside of the perimeter.
The regiment had very little to do and most men had the feeling that they were being wasted where they were. The infantry OPs12 were doing all the observation necessary and the enemy troops seemed to be showing no inclination at all to break out.
If there was not a cold wind blowing showers from the west there was another from the south just as cold but dry and, what was worse, driving with it a punishing dust which reduced visibility to a few hundred yards.
During this week 5 New Zealand Brigade passed back over the Wire, leaving Div Cav the only New Zealanders now in Libya. Major Russell, who had been with the brigade to Gazala, now returned to the regiment. It was not long before he had sounded out the South African Divisional Commander's hospitality. In a very short time he was on excellent terms with the General and was in a position to call on him whenever he felt himself in need of a dram of ‘hospitality’.
Having underestimated the enemy on their first attempt, the South Africans were correspondingly thorough in their second. As well as the RAF's bombing crescendo there was to be, for those days, a considerable artillery barrage from 150 guns, consisting of the three South African field regiments, a Polish regiment from Tobruk, a regiment of the RHA, and all the medium regiments already in the area. The attack was to be launched by the Imperial Light Horse and the Royal Durban Light Infantry, supported by an Army Tank Brigade of Valentines and Matildas. The assault was to be carried out in the south and centre while, in the north, the Rand Light Infantry with Div Cav in support were to create a diversion.
A ‘Deception Officer’ had previously arrived at RHQ with some dummy General Stuart tanks, and on the 30th, the day before the attack, B and C Squadrons created a diversion by simulating a large number of tanks massing in the area. Then during the night some fifteen dummy tanks were erected in ‘hull-down’ positions while a troop of Bren carriers supplied the appropriate sound effects by moving about with much starting and stopping and gear-changing. At first light on the 31st page 165 Lieutenant Reeves, now in command of the four C Squadron Stuarts, opened the offensive by moving in and out amongst the dummies, firing off every weapon he had in the general direction of the enemy. This produced the required effect for the enemy guns put down fifty or sixty rounds among the dummies, blowing most of them over. To re-erect them Lieutenant McAulay13 brought up his troop and put down a smoke screen which, incidentally, drew a hail of small-arms fire. Undeterred, Reeves went forward on foot and put the dummies up again. The whole operation was most successful, and for his coolness Lieutenant Reeves was awarded the Military Cross.
By 9 a.m. the troops on the northern sector had little left to do as the tanks supporting the attack proper had completed their first phase. The enemy was well bluffed in the north and shelled the dummies again during the afternoon. At 7 p.m. the RDLI were ordered into divisional reserve, leaving the task of watching and harassing the perimeter between the escarpment to B and C Squadrons and B Company RDLI.
The momentum of the attack slowed down a little on New Year's Day and there were some counter-attacks which were repulsed. Through the day the bluff in the north was kept up by Second-Lieutenant Fowler, who lit large smoky fires in the area to give the impression of a large force encamped there while B and C Squadrons kept probing at the perimeter forts.
The infantry and tanks renewed the attack proper during the night and at first light on the 2nd a large column of smoke could be seen rising just north of Bardia harbour, while on the northern side of the perimeter white flags were flying on some of the forts.
Lieutenant E. W. Kerr had been sent with his troop to harass the outer defences near the main road when a series of dramatic messages began to come from him. Firstly: ‘Am embarrassed by about 50 Italians who wish to surrender.’ Then a little later: ‘Now about 150 including some Huns. Am investigating.’ Then: ‘German emissaries with flag of truce arrived and wish to surrender Bardia. What shall I do?’
He was told to wait a little, but before anybody could join him there came another message: ‘Huns want to take me to their General. I am going in.’ There was a silence for a while. Then: ‘Have skidded off the road and shed both tracks. Operator knocked out. I am going on in another tank.’page 166
Kerr had been hurtling down the tarmac road at full speed with the German emissary perched on the front of the hull when they hit an enormous pothole. The tank bounced, spun a good 90 degrees left, shot off the road and stopped dead, catapulting the German officer off the front and knocking out the wireless operator inside, who hit his head against the gun-butts. Kerr called up his sergeant's tank, upon which he continued—no doubt at a more reasonable speed—to the headquarters of the garrison commander, General Schmitt. The General was very annoyed to be actually discussing the surrender and arranging to be conducted to General de Villiers while still under shellfire. He had sent a staff car out through the road block in the early hours of the morning with headlights full on, only to have the car shot up in the dark (this had been done by a C Squadron patrol, who naturally could not see the flag) and now, with white flags flying on the outer defences, there was still shellfire coming down. Kerr managed to pacify him a little, however, on the way out to the divisional headquarters by upbraiding some artillery officers whom they met on the way.
Meanwhile B Squadron and RHQ had followed on into the perimeter. After Kerr's troop, they were the first British troops to enter the perimeter, and though all the way they were passing troops waiting to surrender, they had thoughts for only one thing: the prison compound. They found it near the town itself, and pouring out of it some 1100 bearded figures in ragged battledress. There was wild excitement—the hand- shaking and back-slapping, the smiles, the cheerful faces—and there were the regiment's own boys. There was Bob Dillon,14 his face one huge grin, and Jack Haley15 and Jack Oxenham16 and all of them; even ‘Wan-wan-oh-faive—Trooper P. Kearns’17 —Paddy, of the face like a map of Ireland, his voice now shrill with excitement as he told the squadron: ‘An Oi kipt tellin’ the beggars Oi wuz Oirish an' theerforr neutral an' they jist laffin' at me.'
One of the released prisoners had been searching round in a dugout and he arrived with a portable gramophone which he set down on the side of the road, and the men clasped each page 167 other and danced round and round for pure joy. But as the excitement wore down a little they suddenly remembered their six weeks' starve. Immediately the regiment's Christmas parcels, which had arrived the day before, were slashed open; the tucker boxes were emptied out; and everyone sat down to eat heartily, bully beef even appearing to go down with as much relish as fruit cake. The former New Zealand CRE, Colonel Clifton, had arrived back from finding the German ration dumps. The B Squadron trucks were immediately detailed to go down and carry back to the compound as much food and water as they could.
Officially the South Africans were to have captured Bardia, so as soon as things were beginning to be properly organised, Div Cav was ordered to assemble outside the perimeter and help to collect prisoners and march them off.
Joe Smyth,18 the sergeant cook with HQ Squadron, has never really managed to live down the incident with one of the columns of prisoners. Joe was known for his famous brews of strong tea. One column of Italians on its way to Tobruk laagered near HQ Squadron. Joe was told to make a brew for them. They sipped it doubtfully, and Joe asked their spokesman if they did not like the tea.
‘Tea? Coffee! Verra good, the coffee.’
Those that know Joe's brews will agree that the mistake was pardonable. So also will they agree that Italians are, on the whole, more polite and diplomatic than, say, the average Div Cav trooper.
So that is the tale of how the Divisional Cavalry stole the South Africans' thunder and became the unofficial captors of Bardia. They had not liked being left behind when the rest of the Division returned to Baggush; they were due for a rest and it took much hard work from every crew to keep its vehicle running; at times they had felt forgotten and lonely; and the weather had been bad—indeed, on the very night after the fall of Bardia there was such a heavy downpour of rain that many of the men who were sleeping in captured German bivvy tents were flooded out, so that, one and all, the regiment were impatient to leave the desert behind them.
There was a little delay in having the regiment detached, firstly from 2 South African Division and then from 30 Corps, page 168 so the 3rd and 4th were days of impatience. The 5th was spent in packing up ready for the move on the next day, and on the 6th the trip back to Baggush began.
The regiment left the desert carrying something, however, which gave every man pride and satisfaction. The CO carried a letter to General Freyberg from General de Villiers:
In the Field 5.1.42
My Dear Freyberg,
Your NZ Div Cav are returning to you tomorrow after having been lent to me for the past month or so. I feel that I cannot allow them to leave without letting you know what a tremendously important role they played in these operations and how efficiently they performed the duties allotted to them.
I was compelled by force of circumstances to work them very hard, but their willingness and spirit was such that they not only never groused, but on the contrary looked for more work.
It must be very gratifying to you that they materially assisted in achieving the early release of so many of their comrades.
I consider them a very fine unit indeed—ably commanded and thoroughly well officered.
This goes to you per Lt-Col Nicoll who has been asked to convey the contents hereof to his Unit.
(signed) I. P. de Villiers
1 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d., MC (Gk); born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; MP, 1931–44; Otago Mtd Rifles, 1914–20 (CO 2 Bn, Otago Regt); comd 5 Bde May 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941; escaped, Italy, Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.
5 Brig L. W. Andrew, VC, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Ashhurst, 23 Mar 1897; Regular soldier; Wellington Regt, 1915–19; CO 22 Bn Jan 1940-Feb 1942; comd 5 Bde 27 Nov-6 Dec 1941; Area Commander, Wellington, Nov 1943-Dec 1946; Commander, Central Military District, 1948–52.
12 Observation Posts.
16 Tpr J. Oxenham; Tikorangi, Waitara; born NZ 14 Aug 1915; labourer.