CHAPTER 9 — The Cyrenaican Offensive
The Cyrenaican Offensive
Eighth Army had grown quickly and was now ready to carry the war into Libya. The 7th Armoured Division, with three fresh brigades, was to smash the enemy tank forces and, with the other formations of 30 Corps—1 South African Division and 22 Guards Brigade—was to break through to the garrison of Tobruk. While the German and Italian armoured formations were meeting the assaults of the 500-odd cruiser tanks of 7 Armoured Division, the two infantry formations, 4 Indian Division and 2 New Zealand Division, and 1 Army Tank Brigade—all of 13 Corps—were to isolate and subjugate the frontier forts. The garrison of Tobruk, reinforced with heavy infantry tanks, was to break out to meet the advancing 30 Corps. Far to the south, the Oases Group was to trek across lonely wastelands to capture the oases of Gialo and Augila, on the western fringes of Cyrenaica.
The enemy was disposed in Cyrenaica in four main groups. Around Tobruk were the four divisions of the Italian 21 Corps and one German division. The frontier forts, including Bardia, Sollum, Halfaya and the Omars, were garrisoned by the Italian Savoia Division and two or three German battalions; their fortifications were strong. The third group was the German Afrika Korps, which included the Special Afrika Division—forerunner of the famous 90 Light Division—and two armoured divisions, 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions. The fourth force was the Italian mobile corps—Ariete Armoured Division and Trieste Motorised Division.
The first New Zealand formation to leave Baggush was 5 Brigade, which moved along the bypass road south of Matruh on the morning of 11 November and continued south-westwards to the divisional assembly area, 25 miles along the Siwa track. It was followed next day by 4 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters. Sixth Brigade left on the 13th, and by the evening of that day the whole Division was concentrated in the vicinity page 184 of Qaret el Kanayis. The move to the frontier was made by a succession of day and night marches, entirely unmolested by enemy aircraft, and on the night of 18-19 November the Division passed through the frontier wire and bivouacked a few miles inside Libya.
The Libyan Desert, stretching a thousand miles from the River Nile in the east to the high ground of Tripolitania and the Fezzan in the west, and a thousand miles from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Tibesti Mountains in the south, consists of an arid expanse of desolation in which flat, featureless, sandy wastes alternate with undulating stony plains dotted with low rocky hills and plateaux. Vegetation depends upon rainfall, which occurs annually in the narrow coastal strip but very rarely in the southern wastes, and upon artesian water from the underlying sandstone in the inland oases of Siwa, Kharga, Dakhla, Bahariya, Farafra, and Kufra. Seven hundred miles south of Sollum, Gebel Uweinat rises 6200 feet above sea level and is probably the only place in the inner desert where an oasis depends on rainfall and not on artesian water.
It was not in the inner desert of Libya that the armies fought, however, but along the northern coastal fringe, a mere fraction of the vast expanse of desiccated wilderness and solitude. This fringe, loosely referred to as the Western Desert, is an ideal battleground for mobile armoured forces. From the frontier at Sollum it runs westwards beyond Tobruk and ends in the broken ground at the threshold of Gebel Akhdar, a fertile tableland between the sea and the inner desert. In eastern Cyrenaica, where the battles of November 1941 were fought, the country near the coast rises to the south in a series of low escarpments. Over these broad shelves the surface is hard enough to support all types of vehicles, and this led inevitably to developments in the employment of armour that would have been impossible in close country. Visibility extended to between 3000 and 4000 yards, although heat haze and mirage tended to limit this range. During dust-storms visibility closed down and in strong winds was often less than ten yards.
In the New Zealand Division's area just inside Libya Signals was astir early on 19 November—long before the first light of dawn. Lines to Advanced Headquarters 13 Corps and to brigade page 185 positions had already been put out, and while the linemen ate their breakfast at 5 a.m., operators shivered miserably in their wireless trucks, where they sat on listening watch waiting for the code-word pluto which would lift wireless silence when the forward troops gained contact with the enemy.
During the morning the sound of distant gunfire from the north and north-west told where the armoured battle was already joined and where 4 Indian Division was investing the three Omars—Sidi Omar, Libyan Omar and Omar Nuovo. All communications were now working, wireless silence having been lifted at 5.30 a.m.
Early in the afternoon an enemy Me 109 fighter dived out of the clouds and made a swift circuit of the divisional area before disappearing at high speed into the west. A little later the Divisional Headquarters group moved north, but only for 11 miles, where it sat down again to await news of what had happened further forward. In the evening gunfire was still sounding away to the north, where enemy flares lit up the sky.
When dawn came Major Smith, the second-in-command, viewed Signals' area in the Divisional Headquarters group with some dismay. It was plain to see that drivers and wireless detachment NCOs had still not learnt the wide dispersion drill that had been hammered into them during the October training. Clusters of vehicles stood in snug little groups all over the area, tempting targets for any marauding aircraft that might happen that way. In a very short time, however, the vehicles were properly dispersed at their correct intervals, and the area settled down again to await the next move. This came shortly after midday when the group commenced to move to Sidi Azeiz.
Late in the afternoon, while the group was still moving, a sudden order came from Divisional Headquarters that the forward signals group was to go ahead and establish communications at the new location. This caused a good deal of confusion. The drill of sending off reconnaissance group and forward signals had been thoroughly practised in the October training, but not from a moving column when the light was beginning to fail. In the deepening dusk Major Smith rushed about trying to extricate his forward signals vehicles from the press of moving transport. At last he had them assembled in the rear of the page 186 rapidly disappearing column — wireless detachments, cable vehicles and all. But by this time there was no sign of the Divisional Headquarters' reconnaissance group, and it was quite dark. So Smith set a course for Sidi Azeiz, and arrived at 7 p.m. at Trig 212, about two miles west of his destination.
Meanwhile the Divisional Headquarters' column had run into trouble in the shape of an extensive area of soft ground caused by recent rain. In every direction vehicles were bogged down and hopelessly lost in the darkness. In Signals there was some concern for the forward signals group which had last been seen standing forlornly in the wake of the divisional column. Shortly afterwards, however, wireless contact was made with the lost group and attempts were made to direct it on to the divisional laager, but as no one knew quite where the headquarters was, the attempt was not very successful, although the strength of the group's signals indicated plainly that it was not very far away. At last Smith sent a message that he was settling down for the night and that he would bring his forward signals group in at first light. When dawn broke it was painfully clear why the lost group's signal strength had been so good the night before—forward signals were sitting in an open piece of desert not 300 yards from the control set at Divisional Headquarters! Major Smith came in with a wide grin on his face, but Sergeant McKenzie,1 who stepped out of the control set vehicle as the second-in-command came up, wasn't amused. He spat disgustedly at a clump of camel-thorn and described the whole episode as ‘a bloody good NABU to start a battle with’.
Wireless was already playing an important part in the Divisional Commander's control of his forward brigades. Throughout the afternoon and night of the 21st the GSO 1, Colonel Gentry, operated from the wireless truck carrying the set which controlled the brigade net. From here he issued the GOC's orders direct to brigade commanders. Except for No. 1 Company's experience with Headquarters 13 Corps Signals in the first desert campaign earlier in the year, this was the first time that radio telephony had been used by the staff while the headquarters was actually on the move.page 187
Apart from the sound of gunfire from the direction of Capuzzo, on the frontier, 22 November passed quietly at Divisional Headquarters. The next day all three brigades were off on their predetermined tasks. Fifth Brigade Group was left to contain Bardia and take Capuzzo, Musaid and Sollum Barracks, while the rest of the Division moved westwards to join in the drive on Tobruk. Fourth Brigade moved along the escarpment above the Bardia-Tobruk road to Gambut, while 6 Brigade, which had now passed to the command of 30 Corps, moved along Trigh Capuzzo towards Point 175, an important feature about five miles east of Sidi Rezegh, where the enemy was reported to be in some strength. Actually 6 Brigade had commenced its move westwards on the afternoon of the previous day. As the brigade moved farther away it approached the limit of range for the No. 9 set at Divisional Headquarters, so it was only with the greatest difficulty that an important signal from the GOC was successfully transmitted. This message confirmed an earlier order received from Headquarters 30 Corps, ordering the brigade to make all haste to relieve 22 Armoured Brigade, which was in trouble at Sidi Rezegh. For nearly two hours relays of operators, including A Section's Sergeant Smith,2 strove manfully to get the signal through to 6 Brigade and secure an acknowledgment. At that time Signals had not learnt the trick of selecting day and night frequencies on No. 9 wireless set forward control nets, and on this occasion it was actually a too-high frequency which prevented the signal from being transmitted as easily as a lower one would have done.
The 22nd November became an historic day for T Section at Headquarters 13 Corps, when the very first air support message transmitted by the section reached Headquarters 4 Indian Division. T Section's war diary records the result with the words: ‘Bombers over Sidi Omar right on time.’ Tentacle sets had been sent to their positions on the 20th, one each going to the headquarters of 4 Indian Division, 7 Indian Brigade and Central India Horse, and one each to the headquarters of New Zealand Division, 4 Brigade, 5 Brigade, and 6 Brigade.
Early in the afternoon of the 23rd the Divisional Headquarters group moved westwards towards Bir el Chleta from page 188 Sidi Azeiz. The headquarters was now split into Advanced New Zealand Division and Rear New Zealand Division. The latter remained for the time being at Sidi Azeiz. After going about nine miles along Trigh Capuzzo Advanced New Zealand Division was held up by fire from enemy armoured fighting vehicles and guns, but shortly afterwards 20 Battalion joined the column and the enemy withdrew westwards. Shortly after midnight Advanced New Zealand Division halted and dispersed near Bir el Chleta.
Meanwhile 6 Brigade had launched a battalion attack on Point 175, which was strongly held by enemy infantry and anti-tank guns—the 88-millimetre guns which were to take such a toll of British armour. Fierce fighting continued throughout the 23rd, when 25 Battalion sustained very heavy casualties. During the afternoon the L Section No. 11 set truck at Battalion Headquarters was hit by anti-tank and machine-gun fire and put completely out of action. Both of the L Section operators, Signalmen Gordon3 and Wells,4 were killed. Later Sergeant Schofield5 and Signalman Montgomery,6 while attempting to salvage the truck, were both wounded.
The heavy fighting continued throughout the 24th, but with the assistance of 4 Brigade, which had moved up from Gambut to a position south-east of Zaafran, 6 Brigade gained possession of Point 175. Advanced New Zealand Division had also moved westwards and at 9 p.m. was established two miles east of Headquarters 4 Brigade, which was now three miles south of Zaafran. In this move Advanced New Zealand Division proceeded in the desert formation evolved for moves in the open desert. The vast concourse of vehicles was moving majestically along at a moderate pace when suddenly the angry chatter of machine guns sounded somewhere out in front and hundreds of little spurts of dust arose ahead of the column where the fire was striking. Instantly, from the staff car of the GSO 2 in page 189 the centre of the leading rank of vehicles, a blue flag shot up and was waved frantically in a circular motion. This was the transport control signal which meant ‘About turn’. The effect was instantaneous: the whole formation turned about as one vehicle and moved briskly back the way it had come. In Lieutenant-Colonel Agar's staff car the driver, Signalman George Roil,7 discussed the sudden move with the Colonel's batman, Signalman Charlie Clark. Neither understood very clearly what had happened; nor did the Colonel, who sat in the back of the car and listened while George and Charlie sorted it out. Each in turn advanced several explanations which were rejected by the other. Suddenly George, with a look of resentment, said: ‘I know! The ground up there's too bloody easy for digging slit trenches so we're going back a bit.’
By the evening of the 24th the signal plan had assumed a more normal aspect. For the last two days line communications had been used very little owing to the mobility of the operations, and most of the traffic passing between Advanced New Zealand Division and brigades had been transmitted by wireless. Lines were now laid out to Headquarters 6 Brigade, which was established on the rim of the escarpment about midway between Point 175 and Sidi Rezegh, six miles further to the west. A line had already gone forward to Headquarters 4 Brigade. At this stage Advanced New Zealand Division had no communication with Headquarters 5 Brigade, which was still in the Sollum area under command of 4 Indian Division.
On the 25th orders were given 6 Brigade to attack Sidi Rezegh and, later, Ed Duda, a feature about three and a half miles to the north-west of Sidi Rezegh. The object was to join up with the Tobruk garrison, which on the morning of the 26th was to make a sortie and meet the New Zealanders on Ed Duda and so open a corridor into Tobruk. At the same time that 6 Brigade attacked Sidi Rezegh 4 Brigade was to attack and capture Belhamed, two and a half miles to the north of Sidi Rezegh. The preliminary arrangements to bring the Tobruk garrison on to Headquarters 13 Corps' forward wireless net with 2 NZ Division and 1 South African Division had been completed on the 23rd in readiness for the operation of linking up 13 Corps and the garrison.page 190
Sixth Brigade's attack on the night of the 25th met heavy enemy opposition and its second phase, in which 21 and 26 Battalions were to carry on and take Ed Duda, was abandoned. On the right, however, 4 Brigade was on Belhamed. During 6 Brigade's attack L Section linemen carried the line forward behind 24 Battalion as it moved on Sidi Rezegh under heavy enemy shellfire. One lineman was wounded.
The sortie made from Tobruk had succeeded in reaching Ed Duda on the 26th, so that night Advanced New Zealand Division ordered 4 Brigade to attack with 19 Battalion and effect a junction with Tobforce (the Tobruk garrison). J Section immediately asked Divisional Signals for an additional 16,000 yards of cable to extend a line behind 19 Battalion as it moved through the enemy positions east of Ed Duda and to repair 18 and 20 Battalions' lines on Belhamed. The 19th Battalion led off at 9.30 p.m. with a squadron of I tanks in front, and Second-Lieutenant Brennan8 and his line party bringing up the rear. At four o'clock next morning the line party rang back and reported that 19 Battalion had reached Ed Duda. Hardly had they reported this than the line went dead. Meanwhile both lines from 4 Brigade Headquarters to 18 and 20 Battalions on Belhamed were being continually damaged by shellfire and tracked vehicles, and considerable difficulty was experienced in keeping communications open.
At Advanced New Zealand Division on the 25th Divisional Signals had lost four men killed and three officers and two men wounded in a heavy raid on the headquarters by a large formation of Ju87 bombers. The planes appeared from the west, flying high, and passed over slightly to the north. Suddenly they wheeled and dived on the area, which in a few minutes was blotted out in a dense cloud of dust and the black smoke which rose from burning vehicles. Lance-Corporals Rush9 (A Section) and Hornsey10 (H Section) and Signalmen Clark11 page 191 (D Section) and Pearmine12 (D Section) were killed. The wounded were Lieutenants Wilkinson and Hislop,13 Second- Lieutenant Andrews, Lance-Sergeant Edwards14 and Signalman Rodgers.15 Edwards died next day from his wounds. Nearly all line communications were disrupted by the raid but were quickly restored.
On the 28th a column of enemy armoured fighting vehicles and lorried infantry appeared from the south-east and was heavily engaged by 22 Armoured Brigade just south of Advanced Divisional Headquarters. An intense battle ensued but moved away to the south. Later in the afternoon, however, enemy lorried infantry attacked the Divisional Headquarters' area. First they attacked a main dressing station about two miles to the east and set free about 900 German and Italian prisoners confined in a temporary cage nearby. Armoured cars then made a quick dash to the rim of the escarpment overlooking the Divisional Headquarters' area and fired bursts of machine-gun fire into the headquarters. Local defences were quickly brought into action. Men were mustered into parties and sent to man the edge of the escarpment, primarily to give infantry support to a troop of anti-tank guns stationed there. About a hundred officers and men from Divisional Signals under Captain Pryor were sent to take over a section of the escarpment. There was much noise and confusion, but no enemy approached close enough to be effectively engaged. A group of I tanks lumbered up over the rim and shortly afterwards the excitement died down, the enemy having withdrawn in some haste when the tanks appeared.
Headquarters 13 Corps and Rear New Zealand Division moved into Tobruk during the night of 28 November, and Advanced New Zealand Division moved westwards and took page 192 up a position a few miles east of Belhamed ridge. Early next morning Major Smith and the 13 Corps' line detachment attached to Divisional Signals set out to take a line through the corridor to Headquarters 13 Corps in Tobruk; by daylight they had reached Ed Duda without running into trouble, but shortly afterwards the party was shelled for several miles in the corridor. After they had laid 18 miles of line, which took them within the Tobruk perimeter, the cable ran out, so Smith made his way into Tobruk and borrowed some more to complete the circuit. At this stage the line went dead and Lance- Corporal Munro's detachment, which was with Rear New Zealand Division in Tobruk, was sent back along the cable to find the fault. The circuit was restored for brief intervals, but the speech level between Headquarters 13 Corps and Advanced New Zealand Division was so low that the circuit was almost unworkable.
After staying that night with Headquarters 13 Corps Major Smith, with Munro and his detachment, set off next morning on the return journey to Advanced New Zealand Division. During the night heavy fighting had taken place in the corridor and the cable had been badly damaged in many places; part of the line between Ed Duda and Advanced New Zealand Division had to be relaid because of the extensive damage it had sustained. While the party was searching for and repairing the numerous faults it came under fire several times, but by 6 p.m. communication between Headquarters 13 Corps and Advanced New Zealand Division was again restored. The party returned to Zaafran, only to find on its arrival that the circuit had been interrupted again. No further attempts were made to restore it, however, because Advanced New Zealand Division, less a small Battle Headquarters, was preparing to move into Tobruk.
The situation was now changing rapidly for the worse. Enemy pressure was increasing, and on the evening of the 29th 21 Battalion was thrown off Point 175 by German armour which penetrated its lines by a ruse.16 Heavy attacks had been launched against Ed Duda, but the troops from the Tobruk page 193 garrison beat them all off. This was the fighting that Major Smith and Munro's detachment had run into on their return journey from Tobruk.
On the 29th 1 South African Brigade was placed under command of 2 NZ Division to assist in the now precarious situation at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, where the enemy was making more and more determined efforts to throw 4 and 6 Brigades off the high ground. At 3.30 p.m. that day a liaison officer from 1 South African Brigade arrived at Headquarters 6 Brigade in an armoured car equipped with a No. 9 wireless set. He was sent on immediately to Advanced New Zealand Division, where the GOC established wireless communication with the commander of the South African brigade and instructed him to bring it up quickly. It was the expectation of the arrival of this brigade that lulled any suspicions that might have been raised in 21 Battalion on Point 175 later in the day when the enemy overran its positions. Three German tanks gained the position by coming in with their turrets open and the crews, wearing black berets for the occasion, sitting on the outside. At Headquarters 6 Brigade, under whose command 21 Battalion was at the time, the first intimation of the attack came when the battalion commander (Major Fitzpatrick17) called for artillery support.
‘They are into my lines with three tanks and are taking prisoners. Artillery support at once for God's sake!’
Later Fitzpatrick again called urgently for artillery support, and shortly afterwards he called:
‘Everyone has left. What shall I do? They're right on top of me….’
The voice broke off suddenly and was not heard again.
The K Section No. 11 set on which the 21 Battalion commander called so urgently for support must have been removed from its truck and dug in on Point 175, probably in the Battalion Headquarters' dugout, because later the truck came in to Headquarters 6 Brigade driven by a K Section signalman, who was then attached temporarily to L Section.page 194
On the afternoon of the 29th Captain Feeney, OC No. 3 Company, was wounded in the head by a shell splinter at Headquarters 6 Brigade, where he had arrived a short time before with the Divisional Headquarters' reconnaissance group to discuss with the OC L Section Divisional Headquarters' next forward move. He was evacuated soon afterwards to Tobruk.
At dawn on the 30th there was still no sign of 1 South African Brigade and the enemy was still in possession of Point 175. First light, however, revealed a large concentration of transport led by a number of armoured vehicles on the skyline east of Point 175. At first it was thought to be the expected 1 South African Brigade which had still not put in an appearance. A little later, however, carrier patrols established that the column was hostile, and concentrated fire from 4 and 6 Field Regiments was brought to bear on it. Special lines were quickly run out to the two regimental headquarters by a B (cable) Section detachment, and Brigadier Miles, the CRA, directed the shelling, which set fire to two tanks and a large number of vehicles. The column quickly withdrew eastwards.
At 4.30 p.m. that day 6 Brigade's weakened western flank was assailed by a strong force of infantry supported by fifty tanks, and Sidi Rezegh fell into enemy hands. By 5.15 p.m. the enemy was firmly in possession of the ridge and 24 and 26 Battalions had been overrun. At Headquarters 24 Battalion the No. 11 wireless set terminal manned by two L Section operators, Signalmen Ashe18 and Stewart,19 was dug in under cover. Ashe and Stewart watched tensely as the forward companies were overrun and the tanks broke through towards Battalion Headquarters, and as they watched they gave a running description of the attack to the operators on the control set at Headquarters 6 Brigade.
‘Jerry is now attacking the forward companies and he's got tanks. The tanks are in amongst the company and have broken through…. They are now through the reserve company and are approaching Battalion Headquarters. Yes! Here they come —we'll soon be overrun…. the tanks are right on us but page 195 our blue and white flag is still flying. Cheerio….’ Silence.
During this attack on 24 Battalion's position the brigade commander, Brigadier Barrowclough, called from Headquarters 6 Brigade on the forward wireless net and demanded to speak to an officer. At 24 Battalion, where the wireless terminal was dug in in a trench separated by about fifty yards of fire-swept ground from the Battalion Headquarters' dugout, Stewart tried to explain to the Brigadier that the remote-control cable had been shot away, but was ordered to fetch an officer at once. To replace the damaged remote-control equipment Stewart and Ashe had rigged up a captured German telephone in the Battalion Headquarters' dugout and connected it to the remote-control unit at the set with German field cable. Stewart called the headquarters' dugout on this telephone and passed the Brigadier's request. The battalion signal officer clambered out of the headquarters' dugout and commenced to run through the hail of fire towards the set, but when he was only half-way across he was wounded in both legs and lay helpless in the open. Without a moment's hesitation Ashe climbed out of his trench and ran across to the stricken officer, whom he carried on his back to the wireless dugout. Unfortunately this act of cool courage was never reported and escaped recognition because Stewart, who witnessed the whole affair, was taken prisoner with Ashe some time later.20
The enemy's latest success at Sidi Rezegh opened a dangerous gap in the corridor defences and placed 4 Brigade and the remnants of 6 Brigade in a difficult position.
That night wireless communication with 1 South African Brigade, which for some inexplicable reason was still several miles south of Point 175, broke down owing to battery failure. page 196 OC A Section sent Sergeant Smith to examine the wireless batteries in the South African liaison officer's armoured car and, if necessary, replace them with two from an A Section vehicle. To his horror Smith found that the batteries, which were of the ordinary car type, were completely exhausted, and that no spare ones were carried in the car. He noticed also that the two South African operators were exhausted from want of rest. Despite his brusque, forthright, and faintly contemptuous manner towards anyone who did not belong to 2 NZ Division, Smith looked on the two operators with a compassionate eye. Since their arrival the day before he had watched their methods carefully and later, to the surprise of all around him, had been heard to remark that ‘they weren't too bad’. Smith brought relief operators and batteries from A Section and sent the two South Africans off to get some sleep. Within a short time wireless communication with 1 South African Brigade was restored.
At eight o'clock that night the GOC sent Advanced New Zealand Division into Tobruk, keeping only a small Battle Headquarters to direct the next day's operations. The Signals component of Battle Headquarters consisted of the CO (Lieutenant- Colonel Agar), OC A Section (Captain Borman), and forty-five other ranks. There was a signal office detachment under Sergeant Vincent, a B (cable) Section detachment under Sergeant Pierce, and five wireless detachments, including the armoured car set working to 1 South African Brigade. Later in the night, after Advanced New Zealand Division had left for Tobruk, Battle Headquarters moved westwards and took up a position on the south-eastern slope of Belhamed. A little later 6 Field Regiment moved up and deployed its guns about 500 yards farther west.
Signals at Battle Headquarters worked tirelessly all that night. An RD tent was dug in about four feet deep and its walls heavily sandbagged. Sergeant Pierce and his linemen laid out new cable to 4 and 6 Brigades, and Sergeant Smith sped from wireless truck to wireless truck checking up on the signal strengths on each net and the state of wireless batteries. At last, in the early hours of the morning, the men settled down to snatch a little rest before dawn brought the perils of the next day's fighting.page 197
Shortly after 7 a.m. on 1 December the enemy mounted a fierce attack on Belhamed with tanks and lorried infantry. The attack swept north from Sidi Rezegh, engulfing Headquarters 6 Brigade, 6 Field Regiment and 20 Battalion. At Brigade Headquarters heavy artillery and mortar fire quickly put all line communications out of operation. L Section's stores truck and the signal office truck both received direct hits and were destroyed, and another direct hit, which blew in the sandbagged signal office shelter, destroyed the Fullerphone terminal and public phone. By this time all circuits, including local lines, had been broken beyond repair by shellfire and blast. Casualties occurred quickly, the first being Signalman Rea,21 who was wounded in the foot while attempting to repair a break in one of the lines. Others wounded were Signalmen Gavan,22 Fell,23 and Neilson,24 and Signalman Williams25 of B (cable) Section detachment attached to L Section.
At G Section, in 6 Field Regiment's area, all line communications failed shortly after the attack began, despite the determined efforts of Corporal Baird26 and his linemen, who continued to repair lines under the heavy fire. Wireless communications to batteries, however, continued without interruption. At 7.50 a.m. the section was ordered to withdraw north-eastwards to a small wadi. By this time the enemy had swept into the regimental area and his tanks were right up to the muzzles of the guns. OC G Section set up a wireless-telegraphy signal centre and continued to maintain communications to all batteries and to the regimental commander's reconnaissance set. The section had now lost six of its vehicles, of which three were totally destroyed and two disabled and abandoned; a sixth had been hit but was taken in tow.page 198
By 9 a.m. the section was withdrawing northwards towards Tobruk with the remnants of the regiment, and it was at this stage, in the face of the overwhelming enemy fire, that the men displayed the real spirit of Divisional Signals. There was no chaos and little confusion. Signalman Carnegie,27 the driver of the signal office 3-ton lorry, brought his vehicle forward to the dug-in signal office as though on a practice exercise, and waited calmly for the men to get aboard, which they did without haste, bringing as much equipment with them as they could carry. Sergeant Toms28 even brought out the exchange switchboard. Carnegie would not drive off until he was sure that his crony, Marfell,29 was aboard. Finally he moved off, but unfortunately the lorry stopped a shell when within reach of the edge of the escarpment. Carnegie tried to crawl the remaining few yards by turning the engine with the self-starter but without success, and the vehicle had to be abandoned.
At Battle Headquarters Signals was astir at first light, each detachment looking to its own tasks in the cold light of dawn. Sergeant Pierce was already away with his linemen making good the hasty repairs effected during the night by line patrols on the 4 and 6 Brigade circuits, where damage had already occurred from wheeled and tracked vehicles. OC A Section and Sergeant Smith bustled around the four wireless trucks, which were dispersed at 150-yard intervals in a wide semicircle around the western end of the area. In the dug-in RD tent where the signal office was set up Sergeant Vincent31 prowled restlessly, watching the operators at the Fullerphone terminals and scanning the incoming traffic with a critical eye for priorities and transmission delays. Presently Lieutenant-Colonel Agar and OC A Section clambered into the signal office to look over the completed preparations for the day's work.page 199
Since dawn there had been the usual sounds of gunfire from the west and south and the incessant rumble of transport. Suddenly, shortly after 7 a.m., the noise increased so quickly that in a few minutes the air was full of crashing detonations as heavy enemy fire came down on Belhamed just forward of the Battle Headquarters' area. Mortars added to the awful din and vicious machine-gun fire whistled through the knee-high camel-thorn, whipping off the tops of the bushes and tossing them high in the air. Already the dispersed wireless trucks which lay closer to where the fire was coming down had suffered damage. The radiator of Sergeant McKenzie's vehicle was rent wide open by a flying splinter, while in another vehicle a bullet had shattered the vulcanite steering wheel from which a flying fragment inflicted a painful and bloody flesh wound on Signalman Hattersley's32 face. In another part of the area a shell or mortar-bomb splinter had torn away the brake rods on B (cable) Section's 3-ton layer lorry. Hard by the signal office Sergeant McKenzie stood below the D Section 3-ton stores lorry counting into a sack A Section's portion of the day's rations. Every now and then an angry spatter of machine-gun fire interrupted his counting so that he dropped the bag in confusion and then cursed softly to himself as he tipped the beef tins and biscuit packets out on the ground and started afresh. At this stage Sergeant Vincent emerged from the signal office tent and clambered over the tailboard of the stores lorry. Just as his rear was about to disappear into the lorry he received a severe wound in the buttocks.
Meanwhile the enemy attack had swept right up to the guns of 6 Field Regiment, only a few hundred yards to the west near the summit of Belhamed. Through the brief rifts which showed momentarily in the thick pall of smoke and dust which now almost completely masked the western end of the feature, the watchers at Battle Headquarters could see men lifting their arms in the air as the German tanks swarmed through the gun positions. Anxious eyes watched the GOC as he moved about the area, seemingly oblivious that his headquarters was about to be overrun. As the minutes passed Lieutenant-Colonel Agar began page 200 to issue instructions in readiness for the destruction of call-sign books, row directories and other secret papers, should orders be given for the headquarters to be evacuated.
The GOC was next seen standing outside the South African armoured car, microphone in hand and headphones clamped over his uncovered head, speaking to 1 South African Brigade. By now the machine-gun fire coming into the area had reached a crescendo of fury, and bullets clanged on the side of the armoured car as the General imperturbably continued his wireless conversation. Sergeant Smith came over from the car to where Agar stood near the signal office. He jerked his thumb in the direction of the General and spat on the ground expressively. ‘The man's mad! Why the hell doesn't he get inside the car?’
In the direction of the now silent guns of 6 Field Regiment the enemy tanks could be seen lumbering forward in the swirling smoke and dust; between the tanks groups of infantry moved slowly forward, the fire from their machine carbines filling the air with an incessant stutter. Suddenly from the G office came the order to withdraw eastwards to 4 Brigade's area near Zaafran. Vehicles began to turn, picked up speed slowly and disappeared down the slope and into the deep wadi behind the headquarters' area.
Meanwhile Captain Borman was in a dilemma. The area was rapidly emptying of vehicles, but his wireless trucks were still dispersed on the western perimeter of the headquarters and very close now to the advancing German infantry and tanks. Borman set off at a run for the nearest vehicle, shouting as he passed it for Signalman ‘Bluey’ Gaughan, the NCO in charge, to start up and clear out. Gaughan, conscientious to the last, raised a perspiring and anxious face and yelled: ‘What about our half-wave aerial?’
‘Leave the bloody thing and clear out,’ said Borman as he raced for the next truck, where by this time, fortunately, the NCO had sensed that the exodus had started and was already turning his vehicle into the east. By this time, too, the remaining two vehicles were on the move, so Borman started back to where his own 8-cwt truck waited with his driver, Signalman Bond,33 page 201 a hundred yards or so away. He reached the truck safely and called to Bond: ‘We can't move until Tweeddale's truck is past. Start up the engine ready to move and chuck my bedroll in the back while we wait.’
Bond started up the engine, which spluttered briefly and stopped. He ran around to the back and seized the bedroll, muttering imprecations as he worked. Borman, anxiously watching McKenzie's truck lumber slowly past with its shattered radiator belching steam at every grinding lurch, caught some of Bond's words.
‘What did you say?’ he called.
‘Nothing,’ said Bond.
‘What did you say?’ again, angrily.
‘Well,’ said Bond, pausing briefly from his perspiring labours, ‘If you want to know, I said: “To hell with your bloody bedroll! You think more of your — blankets than you do of my hide.”’
At this point the conversation began to flag. Both McKen- zie's and Tweeddale's trucks were now coasting easily down the slope towards the deep wadi and shelter, so Borman and Bond leaped into their truck and, after one or two unsuccessful attempts to start the engine, which finally burst into life, followed at a breakneck pace and reached Lieutenant-Colonel Agar's party at Zaafran in safety.
During the day the remnants of the Division concentrated at Zaafran came in for some heavy shelling. It soon became obvious that the enemy was attempting to encircle the position, particularly to prevent any movement towards Tobruk. By 3.30 p.m. tanks and lorried infantry appeared on the skyline to the north of Zaafran, while more tanks and infantry began to close in from the east.
Both wireless links to 4 and 6 Brigades were now closed down, but Battle Headquarters Signals still operated the control station of the forward control net on which Advanced New Zealand Division in Tobruk was still working. A line was run to Headquarters 4 Brigade, a short distance to the east of Battle Headquarters' position, and this constituted the only line communication in the Division.page 202
During the afternoon a plan was made for all remaining New Zealand troops to withdraw eastwards at dusk, then south and then east again towards the Egyptian frontier. The GOC called up Headquarters 30 Corps by RT and spoke to General Norrie about his intentions. Sergeant Smith stood by the set while the General spoke and listened in horrified silence while he described his plan in the plainest of plain language, quite unblemished by the merest pretence of RT procedure or security precautions. Smith bounded over to OC A Section: ‘Did you hear what he said? Did you hear?’ he yelled and, without waiting for answer, ‘Tiny said that we are going to break out at dusk—four miles east, nine miles south-east over the escarpment and then flat out for the wire! And all in clear!’ The last words were almost a shriek. Throwing out his arm in the direction of the sinister black shapes squatting on the distant skyline to the north, he turned and peered earnestly into the face of Lieutenant-Colonel Agar, who had come up to see the fun. ‘And what does he think those bastards out there are going to do about it, sir?’ As he sauntered off dejectedly, fragments of his mournful soliloquy floated back to his hearers: ‘…. nine miles to Point 192…. east to the wire…. nine miles to Hell, more like….’
Preparations for defending the divisional position until after dark were immediately put in train, primarily for defence against attack from the west. At 4 p.m. the enemy was observed to commence a closing-in movement. Half an hour later a fierce battle was in progress, I tanks, 25-pounders and anti-tank guns exchanging shot for shot in a slogging match with the advancing armour. Attacks from the north, east and south were beaten off, and at five o'clock, just as the light began to fail, the divisional transport began to form up, 4 Brigade in the lead, followed by Battle Headquarters, and 6 Brigade bringing up the rear. The column was ready to move off in fifteen minutes, but was delayed by 4 Brigade's difficulty in disengaging. At last, after about an hour's wait in the gathering darkness and the obscurity of the smoke and dust hanging over the area, the column got under way and moved off quickly towards the east, without molestation from the enemy who, except for an odd stray shell, gave no sign that he was aware of the withdrawal.page 203
By half past three next morning the Division had reached Bir Gibni, on the Trigh el Abd, where it bivouacked for the rest of the night, continuing its march to the Egyptian frontier soon after dawn. That afternoon it passed through the wire at the point where, fourteen days before, it had swept through on the high tide of adventure.
At 3 p.m., on the Egyptian side of the frontier, lines were laid out in the bivouac area from Battle Headquarters to 4 and 6 Brigades' headquarters to deal with administrative traffic. The wireless range to Tobruk was now increasing rapidly, so just before the Division resumed its march eastwards on 3 December communication to Advanced New Zealand Division, Headquarters 13 Corps, and the Tobruk Garrison was closed down.
The Division reached Baggush on 5 December in a raging dust-storm, in which headquarters and units cast about for a considerable time to locate their old areas. Signals reached its area early in the afternoon, and by four o'clock a signal office was open, with lines running to 4 and 6 Brigades, to Baggush military exchange, and to Headquarters 83 Line of Communication Sub-Area at Burbeita.
Lieutenant-Colonel Agar immediately set about reorganising the remnants of his unit to handle divisional communications until Major Smith and the remainder of Signals were able to return from Tobruk. Battle Headquarters Signals was divided into four sections. Headquarters Section was responsible for command and administration, with Agar as CO, Borman as Adjutant and Administration Officer, and Sergeant McKenzie as NCO. No. 1 (wireless) Section, with fourteen operators and electricians, was under Sergeant Smith; No. 2 (cable) Section, with six linemen and two drivers, was under Sergeant Pierce; and No. 3 (operating) Section, with six operators, four despatch riders, one lineman, one driver and three orderlies attached from Battle Headquarters was under Sergeant Green.34 Wireless and line communications to Headquarters 4 and 6 Brigades were resumed, but no attempt was made to re-establish wireless communication with Advanced New Zealand Division and Headquarters 13 Corps in Tobruk.page 204
Meanwhile, in the frontier area, 5 Brigade was engaged in its task of containing the enemy forces in the Bardia fortress and reducing the more lightly held positions at Capuzzo, Musaid, and Sollum barracks. Early on 22 November a strong fighting patrol from 23 Battalion, accompanied by engineers, anti-tank guns and carriers, attacked Capuzzo and captured the garrison there. The patrol was accompanied by the K Section No. 11 set which normally provided the rear wireless link to Headquarters 5 Brigade. After the post had fallen the patrol cut every line, both poled and field cable, which it could find in the area. It then ventured further afield in the direction of Musaid, where a poled circuit at an important road junction was demolished. This cut enemy communications between Sollum, Musaid and Halfaya to the east, and Bardia, Gambut and Tobruk to the west.
K Section came in for a share of the booty which the capture of Capuzzo yielded. This included an Italian truck fitted out with a very complete direction-finding equipment, a considerable number of enemy wireless sets, and no end of German and Italian field cable. Lieutenant McFarlane despatched the DF truck and wireless sets to 2 NZ Division, but retained the cable, which he used to strengthen his line communications to 22 Battalion at Bir Zemla, at the outer defences of Bardia, to 23 Battalion astride the Bardia-Capuzzo road, and to 28 (Maori) Battalion at Sollum Barracks.
By the 24th Headquarters 5 Brigade had, in addition to its normal line and wireless communications to its forward battalions, a line circuit to Headquarters 13 Corps, obtained by a tee-in to the corps' line running to an advanced landing ground nearby. Fifth Brigade was now under the command of 4 Indian Division, and its rear No. 9 wireless link went to that division's headquarters, which was directing the attacks on the frontier defences of Libyan Omar and Omar Nuovo farther to the south. Communication with Headquarters 13 Corps was provided on this same wireless link by means of a ‘flick’ frequency, but this channel was unsatisfactory owing to the limited time allowed to Headquarters 5 Brigade on the corps' net and the heavy traffic, all of which was enciphered.
Reports were now beginning to come in of the heavy fighting page 205 raging farther to the west at Sidi Rezegh and of the disaster that had overtaken 5 South African Brigade, which was overrun by German armour. On the 25th came the news that Rommel had broken away from the battles in the west and, by passing around to the south, was bringing his armoured forces eastwards towards the British rear. According to air reconnaissance reports the enemy column consisted of 2000 vehicles led by 100 tanks. Late that afternoon it was already close to the frontier and moving towards Halfaya. The advanced landing ground at Sidi Azeiz, the defence of which was one of 5 Brigade's primary tasks, now had its perimeter lined with eleven guns and four machine guns. In all Headquarters 5 Brigade had barely 600 men with whom to hold off the threatened attack.
In the first light of dawn next day (the 26th) the first phase of the fighting at Sidi Azeiz, which was to end in the capture of Headquarters 5 Brigade, opened suddenly and dramatically. In his book35 Brigadier Hargest describes the events of that morning:
The darkness of the early morning was shattered by the crash of an eighteen-pounder gun. The whole camp sprang into action. The klaxon horn sounded, men slid into their battle positions; shot after shot was fired by the gun. Then, as we waited for the assault of the enemy which we thought must surely be upon us, an unmistakably Cockney voice came across: ‘Stop shooting, you silly bastards, we're British.’ And so they were. A column of German transport driving British trucks full of British prisoners had stumbled on us in the darkness and the role of captor and captive had been rapidly reversed. At the sound of the first gun the prisoners in the trucks disarmed their German guards whom they were now bringing in.
So opened the little drama of Sidi Azeiz which was to develop in intensity all that day to end a little more than twenty-four hours later in General Rommel's attack with his Afrika Corps. By sheer weight of metal he was to reduce our camp into a blazing ruin and overwhelm us with his tanks.
Wireless and line communications within the brigade and to Headquarters 13 Corps remained stable throughout that page 206 day except for the interruptions that inevitably occur when tracked vehicles are moving in areas where field cables lie. On the rear wireless-telegraphy link to Corps, however, Headquarters 5 Brigade was unable to attract the attention of the control station, which, engrossed as it was with traffic between Corps and the formations farther to the west in the Tobruk corridor, appeared to ignore calls from both Headquarters 4 Indian Division and Headquarters 5 Brigade.
All that day enemy columns passed to the east of Headquarters 5 Brigade, whose guns were in action against them during the afternoon. Early next morning, the 27th—a critical day in the affairs of 5 Brigade—the line to 22 Battalion in the north failed and Headquarters 13 Corps could not be raised either by line or wireless. It was learnt later that Corps had suddenly moved westwards without telling 5 Brigade of its intentions. Shortly after 7 a.m. a message from Divisional Cavalry reported forty enemy tanks approaching the Brigade Headquarters' position from the direction of Bardia. A bare twelve minutes later shells from the enemy armour were falling in the area. Lieutenant McFarlane's truck and K Section's stores truck were both hit and burnt out. All lines were now cut, except for the local circuits in the headquarters' area, and wireless communication with Headquarters 13 Corps was still not restored.
The enemy armour had approached to within 2500 yards and was pouring in a devastating fire, which was increased by enemy artillery and machine guns coming into action from behind the crescent-shaped line of tanks. About a quarter to ten the tanks came in and overran the headquarters, which was by now an area of blazing vehicles. Behind the armour came infantry carried in half-tracked troop-carriers, and the fight was over. Guns on both sides were now silent, 5 Brigade's because they were all disabled and their crews killed or wounded, and the enemy's because the tanks were now right on the target area.
All K Section's transport and the signal office were burnt out, but no one was killed. Only one man, Signalman Laskey,36 was wounded. As the German infantry swarmed in among the page 207 now silent and stationary tanks, the men were rounded up, counted and disarmed.
F Section, which had come in to the Brigade Headquarters' area with Headquarters 5 Field Regiment the day before, when the probability of a heavy enemy attack on the area had become a certainty, fared less fortunately than K Section. Not all of its transport was burnt out, but every vehicle was disabled. Line communication to the guns, however, was maintained from the signal office truck right until the end. At 8 a.m. OC F Section, Second-Lieutenant Stevenson, sustained severe wounds from which he died about two hours later. The rest of F Section, with the exception of Signalmen Leary and Mitchell,37 who were then with B Troop 27 Battery of 5 Field Regiment in the Capuzzo-Sollum area with their wireless detachment, were taken prisoner and marched off to Bardia that same day with the rest of the captives from Headquarters 5 Brigade.
Shortly after dawn on the 27th 22 Battalion, at Bir Zemla in the Menastir area to the north, observed a large enemy column east of Brigade Headquarters at Sidi Azeiz. During the early morning heavy fire was heard from the direction of Brigade Headquarters, and a little later a message was received by wireless saying that the Brigade Headquarters' area was being attacked. Very shortly afterwards all communications with Brigade failed altogether, although efforts were made to restore it by wireless and despatch riders. A 22 Battalion despatch rider, who volunteered to ride into Brigade Headquarters to ascertain what had occurred there, left at 1 p.m. but did not return. During the afternoon determined efforts were made by the K Section operators on the wireless terminal at 22 Battalion to establish communication with other British units, but without success.
At 23 Battalion, too, Brigade Headquarters' silence was causing considerable concern. Throughout the night of 27- 28 November the K Section wireless terminal at this battalion broadcast on various frequencies the message: ‘New Zealanders holding out at Capuzzo and Sollum. Aid and air support wanted urgently.’
At 10.15 a.m. on the 28th wireless communication was established page 208 with the CRA 4 Indian Division by means of an H Section No. 11 set, and 23 Battalion learned that Headquarters 5 Brigade had been overrun and captured the day before.
A conference was held at Musaid on the 29th to formulate plans for reconstructing and reorganising Headquarters 5 Brigade. Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew,38 CO 22 Battalion, was appointed to command the brigade, which was to remain under the command of 4 Indian Division. Second-Lieutenant Catchpole,39 of 5 Field Regiment, was appointed brigade signal officer, and a new K Section was made up of regimental signallers from 5 Field Regiment and the battalions of the brigade. On 7 December seventeen other ranks from Signal School Base arrived at Musaid to join the section. About this time, too, a detachment of sixteen men of Royal Signals arrived from the signal section of 25 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery. They brought with them five No. 11 wireless sets. A No. 9 set was borrowed from Divisional Cavalry to provide a rear link to Headquarters 4 Indian Division and a cable-laying truck with several miles of cable from 27 Battery of 5 Field Regiment.
By 8 December the new section had laid out the normal line and wireless communications for a brigade, but was very short of transport. That day orders were received that the brigade would move next morning, and arrangements were made accordingly to reel in all lines at first light. Brigade Headquarters moved off about 7.30 a.m. on the 9th, but a number of K Section men who had no transport were inadvertently left behind. They finally made contact with Brigade Headquarters through a 1 South African Division despatch rider, and a water truck was sent back to pick them up, together with their equipment.
Lieutenant Lowe and an NCO, both of Royal Signals, arrived at Headquarters 5 Brigade on 10 December to take over command of K Section, whereupon Second-Lieutenant page 209 Catchpole returned to 5 Field Regiment. Later that same day a T Air Support Control Section detachment joined Headquarters 5 Brigade.
The brigade moved to Acroma on the 11th and set up a signal office there, but lines were not laid to units, all communications being by wireless. Traffic for Headquarters 13 Corps was passed over the T Air Support Control Section's No. 9 set.
During the morning of the 14th Brigade Headquarters was twice attacked by formations of Ju87s, and in the first raid three men of Royal Signals were killed. On this day Captain K. Robson and seven other ranks, all from Royal Signals, arrived and Lieutenant Lowe returned to Headquarters 13 Corps. Lieutenant Jory arrived from 2 NZ Divisional Signals on 15 December to assume command of K Section. Captain Robson and all other Royal Signals personnel returned to Headquarters 13 Corps on the 21st.
By the 23rd 5 Brigade was at El Adem awaiting transport to take it to the rear, where the brigade was to rejoin the New Zealand Division. On Christmas Day it was still there. That day K Section's war diary records that ‘as a special treat we had fresh bread instead of biscuits’.
The brigade began to move on the afternoon of the 25th and reached Baggush and rejoined the Division on the 30th.
Advanced New Zealand Division and Divisional Signals remained at Tobruk until 8 December, when they left to rejoin Battle Headquarters at Baggush. They had entered Tobruk Fortress on the 1st and joined Rear New Zealand Division there at dawn. During that morning two officers, Lieutenant Rose and Second-Lieutenant Shirley,40 and seventeen other ranks of G Section reached Tobruk and reported to Divisional Signals. Shirley was to have taken over command of G Section the day before from Rose, who was to be Adjutant in place of page 210 Lieutenant Wilkinson, who had been wounded on 25 November. Rose, however, had been unable to join Divisional Signals that day because of the fierce fighting which was raging in the Sidi Rezegh area. He assumed the duties of Adjutant on the evening of 1 December.
G Section's ranks had been sadly depleted—one man being killed and nine others missing—and all but two of its vehicles had been lost. Both H Section and the 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Signal Section were safe in Tobruk. Divisional Signals immediately set about the task of compiling a roll of all members of the unit in Tobruk, which disclosed that there were 239 all ranks, including Major Smith (the second-in-command), Captain Pryor (OC No. 1 Company), Captain Fletcher (OC No. 2 Company) and Captain Feeney (OC No. 3 Company), who was then in 62 British General Hospital. There were three warrant officers, including the RSM (WO I Barrett), thirteen staff-sergeants and sergeants, and 210 rank and file. Little was known by those in Tobruk of the fate of C, E, F, J, K and L Sections, except that the wireless terminal set at Advanced New Zealand Division could still hear traffic passing between Battle Headquarters, Headquarters 4 Brigade and Headquarters 6 Brigade, which indicated that A, J and L Sections, at least, were still active. During the morning of the 3rd a message in clear was received from Battle Headquarters, saying: ‘Tell Bert going to laundry. Do you understand IMI’.41 Major Smith understood the oblique reference to Baggush, or ‘bag-wash’, and replied: ‘Yes. Understood.’ A few minutes later a second message from Battle Headquarters said tersely, ‘X 494 AR VA’,42 and the link closed down.
The unit suffered a distressing loss on 5 December when Captain Feeney was drowned just outside Tobruk harbour. German aircraft sank the ship Chakdina, in which he and a number of other wounded were being evacuated to Alexandria. Signalman Perry,43 another wounded man from Divisional Signals, was also lost in this ship.page 211
Much of the unit's equipment and transport, including six wireless trucks, two No. 11 wireless sets and nine miles of D Mark VIII cable, was transferred to 70 British Division in Tobruk, very much against the inclinations of Major Smith who, remembering how difficult the task of re-equipping the unit had been after the Greece and Crete campaigns, fought hard to retain as much as he could.
All New Zealand troops in Tobruk, with the exception of certain units then under command of 70 British Division for operational tasks, left on 8 December to rejoin Battle Headquarters and 4 and 6 Brigades at Baggush. They passed through the frontier wire late that afternoon and bivouacked for the night on the Egyptian side after an uneventful trip. Two days later Divisional Signals rejoined Lieutenant-Colonel Agar and his Battle Headquarters' Signals in the old unit area at Baggush.
It was learnt on the 17th that, with the exception of Signalmen Leary and Mitchell, the whole of F Section was still unaccounted for. It was already known that Second-Lieutenant Stevenson had died of wounds on 27 November, but in the absence of information concerning his men, it was assumed that they had been taken prisoner of war, together with Lieutenant McFarlane and his men of K Section. A new F Section was immediately formed and placed under the command of Second- Lieutenant Cooper.44 The new section marched out from Baggush on the 20th to join 5 Field Regiment at Tobruk.
The remainder of the month passed at Baggush in training and reorganisation, Christmas Day being celebrated in traditional style with a Christmas dinner, of which the total cost of £68 from regimental funds was lightened by a generous donation of £10 from the Corps' Regimental Association in Wellington.
13 Maj S. J. K. Hislop; Williams Lake, British Columbia; born Napier, 23 Jun 1909; radio officer; OC 14 AA Sig Sec Jun-Nov 1941, A Sec Apr-Jul 1942, L Sec Jul 1942-Jan 1943; 2 i/c Sig School Base Jan 1943-Mar 1944; OC 2 Coy Apr 1944, 1 Coy May-Sep 1944; wounded 25 Nov 1941.
16 The German column was thought to be South African.
20 Shortly after the capitulation of Italy in 1943 Stewart and Ashe, who were among the prisoners of war held in Campo PG 57 near Udine, in the north-eastern province of Venezia, were taken by train to Germany. The prisoners were carried in cattle trucks under heavy German guard, but during the journey over the Brenner Pass Ashe contrived to evade the notice of the guards on the truck on which he and Stewart were travelling and jumped off the train. This bold bid at escape came to disaster, however; Ashe landed on a frozen embankment, slipped, missed his foothold and sustained serious injuries from his fall. His attempt had been seen from the train, which was brought to a halt; he was taken, unconscious, back to the truck where he remained without attention for twenty-four hours. When the train reached Salzburg he was examined by a German officer, who had him removed to a hospital where he died a few months later.
35 Farewell Campo 12 (Michael Joseph Ltd.), 1945.
38 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-Mar 1942; comd 5 Bde 27 Nov-8 Dec 1941; Area Commander, Wellington, Nov 1943-Dec 1946; Commandant Central Military District Apr 1948-Mar 1952.
40 Maj J. R. Shirley, OBE; London; born Napier, 27 Apr 1915; radio engineer; OC C Sec Sigs May-Dec 1941, G Sec Dec 1941-Jul 1942, K Sec Jul 1942-Mar 1943, A Sec Mar 1943-Apr 1944, 2 Coy Apr-Oct 1944; NZ Sig School, Bari, Oct 1944-Jan 1945; 4 Sig Sqn Jan-Apr 1945; 2 i/c Div Sigs Apr 1945; Deputy Assistant Director, Scientific Research, England, 1948-50; comd British Operational Research, Far East, 1950-52; representative for USA and Canada of Scientific Adviser to Army Council, 1952-53.
41 IMI: A Morse procedure signal meaning ‘Interrogative’.
42 Morse procedure signals with the following meanings: X 494, ‘Close down’; AR, ‘End of message’; VA, ‘End of transmission’.