4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
Monday, 24 November
Monday, 24 November
Fourth Brigade gets into line with 6 Brigade, which is bringing in its dead from dusty, blood-stained Point 175.
Behind the two brigades is an enemy pocket near Bir el Chleta. There, at midnight, 4 RMT's C Section lorries have brought 20 Battalion, last of 4 Brigade's infantry to move west page 137 from near Bardia. The night journey has been particularly difficult and rough. Every half hour the convoy halted while navigators checked distances and bearings by torchlight under a blanket. The enemy group had to be avoided, and the course was altered more than once when enemy flares soared just a little too closely. The new day brings Divisional Headquarters under fire from big guns to the east and north-east. The heavies crunch into the escarpment among the lorries. Their fire ceases, but 20 Battalion's transport close by is now under fire from the enemy group bypassed in the night. The battalion is to wipe out this enemy group before resuming the drive to Tobruk with 4 Brigade.
Now it's C Section's turn to drive 20 Battalion into battle in the RMT's closest approach so far to those rehearsals around that dummy fort near Baggush in October. On a front of about 1000 yards, the 28-odd RMT lorries form up abreast in two lines 600 yards apart. The riflemen, bayonets fixed, jump up under the canopies. Beside each driver and now in command of the truck sits an infantry officer watching for the signal to go. Three miles away the objective, about a hundred German trucks, with guns and infantry in front, moves uncertainly, restlessly. Machine guns, anti-tank guns, and carriers prepare to send covering fire from the right flank.
A squadron of tanks forms up in line abreast and charges, the RMT's troop-carriers hard behind in the dust. But plans and practice are not always the same. The compass bearing the attackers are to follow from the start to the enemy is 40 degrees. The tanks swing off course, see the Bren carriers, open up and knock out two before they are corrected, while the artillery comes down with a flourish——on the wrong target, miles away. RMT sticks stubbornly to the correct bearing, advancing towards the enemy at a steady 15 miles an hour. The going is fairly rough and from the bobbing lorries drivers glance from side to side to hold good formation. Ahead they see the enemy drawing closer minute by minute, and occasionally they have the uncomfortable thought of ‘one smacking clean through the windscreen’, which at times seems as wide as a barn door. Some drivers meet little fire; others experience a fair amount of mortar and anti-tank fire, laced with lurid page 138 streaks as tracer shells zip past. Luckily most of the fire seems about wheel-high, and Captain Coleman and Lieutenant Fernandez, standing through the cab hatches in their pick-up vehicles, are relieved and surprised to see every truck moving with parade-ground precision. When most of the distance is covered, strong small-arms fire shows the objective is reached and, with the first wave of trucks almost on top of the enemy positions, the signal to debus is waved by the leading battalion officer. From their pick-ups the two RMT officers pass on the signal to the trucks. Fire intensifies every moment and, watching the anti-tank shells skimming past their pick-up, Fernandez and his driver agree they are rather like flying-fish. As each three-tonner turns about the riflemen spring from the back and engage the enemy, while the trucks, still in drill order, return considerably faster than they advanced. A number of drivers, in their understandable haste to turn about, forget to refasten tailboards. Several, realising this after travelling some hundreds of yards, come to a swift stop and spring around collecting scattered personal gear and oddments which have fallen out. At a previously arranged place C Section halts to await further orders from the battalion. Immediately drivers check vehicles for casualties. Surprised, they find, apart from a few dents and holes, the only serious damage is a few springs snapped during the vigorous cross-country charge. The old Tummar tradition still lives.
‘The show has gone like clockwork and I feel a justifiable pride in my section,’ notes Coleman. ‘Over what we feel to be a well-earned brew-up, experiences are swopped and only then we realise what a colossal cheek we had to attack an enemy position in a mass of highly vulnerable trucks. But the success of the show proves once again that a well planned move executed with sufficient dash can have a very satisfactory result. The only flaw in the operation from our point of view is the delay in the order from battalion for the re-embussing of the troops. Had the order arrived earlier we could have gone forward and picked up the infantry, saving them an unnecessary march back.’
With the enemy routed, 260 Germans taken for the loss of 21 men, seven tanks and two carriers, and the threat from the page 139 rear removed, the men drive on in high heart to the advancing 4 Brigade.
In the meantime on this day, 24 November, the enemy is carrying out a bold and probably rash stroke which spreads confusion and panic far behind the forces grasping towards Tobruk. Convinced he has soundly defeated the British armour, Rommel decides to overwhelm the forces on the frontier and then return to master Tobruk. Leading two German and one Italian armoured divisions, he dashes to the frontier. For two days he will attempt to pin and to crush British forces against the forts, but opposition will be too stiff. By the evening of 26 November the critical state of the Axis forces around Tobruk will force the raiders to return. Rommel's roving bands, however, convince many an unarmed unit its last hour has come. And among these startled groups will be 6 RMT Company.
At 1.30 a.m. a despatch rider, saying he has been seeking Major Hood for about two hours in the darkness, awakens 6 RMT's OC with the news that his company is to get out of it; all lorries will move back to B Echelon 13 Corps at first light. Major Hood calls at Brigade Headquarters at 3 a.m., and then, to make certain all trucks will be released promptly, tries to get in touch with the battalions.
Assembling the company in a hurry is a tricky task. Nighttime duties with the battalions have split sections into small parties. Some guard prisoners or take urgently needed supplies to different destinations. There is ammunition to lug forward, wounded to be gathered and taken back. Not until 7 a.m.——a good half-hour after first light, when the company was supposed to be on its way—is the first section (A Section, under Captain Collins) formed up behind 6 RMT's Company Headquarters group and ready to move with loads of wounded from the ADS nearby. Even now few of B and C Sections' drivers know a company move is on. One moment they are obeying a local order to disperse among the wadis; the next they are being ordered to report to a rendezvous at Company Headquarters, at Brigade ADS, or at Brigade Headquarters which, to complicate matters further, has changed position in the night. Vehicles weave to and fro, the confusion increasing when the enemy's page 140 artillery awakes. Soon the ADS comes under shellfire, driving the RMT vehicles so far assembled into a wadi for shelter. The brigade staff captain gives a brief farewell message to Major Hood: ‘For God's sake get up rations, ammunition, water and petrol as soon as you can.’ The Major returns to help Second-Lieutenants Brown, Todd,31 and Pool round up into the wadi as many of B and C Sections' trucks as they can find, including captured lorries loaded with hungry prisoners bitterly complaining of exposure to shellfire. Jim Mackay32 and Jack Lash33 turn up with a shrapnel-slashed radiator after a night in no-man's-land. Drivers Gilmore34 and Armstrong35 are missing——later confirmed prisoners of war. Second-Lieutenant Brown, whose offsider, Second-Lieutenant Irving,36 is sick with dysentery, says there is still plenty of transport scattered about, and Major Hood goes out in a last effort to collect all his company, ordering every ASC vehicle he sees to drop its load of equipment and make for the wadi. At last, about 9 a.m., two and a half hours late, the RMT transport is off on its 15-mile journey. Sergeant Baird has gone on ahead leading a hastily assembled ambulance convoy made up mainly of RMT lorries.
At least six drivers and three vehicles remain with the battalions. Two C Section lorries, working late carrying 26 Battalion wounded, reach Brigade Headquarters well after 6 RMT's convoy has left. Given the compass bearing and vaguely told to follow on, the drivers decide to stay, particularly as prowling tanks are battling in the vicinity. So Corporals Wells37 and Morris,38 Drivers Whyte,39 Worsnop,40 Halliwell,41 and Beale42 page 141 remain with 6 Brigade, sharing with the infantry the bitter experiences of the following week and returning with the remnants of the New Zealand Division to Baggush.
The 6 RMT convoy, heading for where B Echelon 13 Corps is said to be, passes dozens of scurrying vehicles, many of them driving north in the direction the RMT has just left. ‘What the hell's going on?’ drivers ask, puzzled or angry, or maybe too tired to care. Nothing makes sense. Bowling along, Drivers Hampton and Griffin remain unaware their canopy is blazing from an incendiary bullet until flames lick the cab door. In a flash the two are out, slashing ropes, freeing and flinging aside the canopy, throwing off the reserve of petrol, and tossing sand on to the flames. They save the truck.
Fifteen miles covered and B Echelon of 13 Corps nowhere in sight, Hood leads the convoy on five miles further, then halts for reconnaissance. The last stretch of going has been tough, particularly for the German-made lorries carrying the prisoners. Drivers transfer the captives into empty 6 RMT lorries, tip petrol over the Jerry vehicles, and burn them. On the five-mile run a camouflage net falls from an A Section cooks' truck and a cook, showing devotion beyond the call of duty, leaps out crying ‘Keep going, I'll get it’. The net saved, the cook turns to see the last RMT truck vanish in the dust. Alone, with yards of stringy netting streaming from his shoulders, he plods after the convoy's dust. Luckily a YMCA van appears from nowhere and gives him a lift for three miles. Afoot and abandoned again, the cook walks calmly on until Captain Collins and Lieutenant Rimmer43 on reconnaissance emerge from a haze. Astounded, they rescue the cook and accept the camouflage net.
Still no trace is found of the 13 Corps area. Vehicles form into column for easier control, one driver at last finding time to change a tire punctured by a bullet at Point 175 the previous day. Even with a flat tire he has kept up with the convoy over twenty lively miles.
Suddenly, at 11 a.m., enemy shells spurt not far off from the head of the columns. Rommel's raiders from the west are on the job in the neighbourhood. On again smartly, lorries page 142 zigzag for ten miles down shallow wadis, hoping to avoid the enemy's eye. They find an armoured car patrol with a story that everything in the vicinity is clearing out to the border. The 6th RMT carries on, passing wreckage of burning trucks and armoured vehicles. At last, at 4 p.m., the convoy reaches 13 Corps Headquarters, but it too is starting to move now. Hood decides to follow Corps Headquarters group, hoping to get rid of the prisoners and to see if supplies can be sent to hard-pressed 6 Brigade back at Point 175. Just then 16 Divisional Petrol Company trucks turn up, bound for the New Zealand divisional administration group through the wire to the south-east. The OC is about to lead the convoy off to the New Zealand area when armoured cars appear. The latest arrivals are dead against going south where, they say, the armoured brigade is fighting a rearguard action against panzers. Instead they urge to head for the wire gap at Sheferzen.
Pandemonium lies ahead at Sheferzen, where hundreds of vehicles are milling and churning in attempts to crowd through the narrow gap. Avoiding the confusion, 6 RMT tries to sneak down to the El Beida gap, about nine miles south. Everything seems quiet but, after the company has gone only half a mile on the way, shells land ahead and transport can be seen under attack. The convoy immediately turns about towards Sheferzen, finds a gap, and scurries through.
In Egypt hundreds of vehicles, fleeing like sheep before wolves, are racing north. Rather than add to the chaos the 100-odd RMT trucks continue east, halting in the dusk to count and straighten out the vehicles, but sorting out is considered hopeless when South African and British trucks and cars are found tacked on behind the RMT columns. ‘Everything seems to have joined us except Noah's Ark.’ The cavalcade, warned of new dangers ahead (a soldier jumps on to Ed Ewing's vehicle shouting ‘Stop! You're heading straight into a minefield!’) now moves off north-north-east until the Very lights and gunfire fade away. Again the convoy is stopped about 9 p.m., this time by an officer of a Royal Artillery regiment attached to 4 Indian Division in position at Point 204. ‘You're running bang into two Jerry strongholds. Our batteries have been in action against ‘em all day.’ The company laagers page 143 near the gunners. The prisoners, now found to be 280 Germans altogether, are brought into the centre and kept in their trucks under guard by spare drivers.
Drivers are stupefied by events. Questions and rumours fly from man to man. Bewildered and angry knots of men gather in the dark. Why have we abandoned the battalions we are supposed to be carrying? Aren't we supposed to be going for urgent supplies for the battalions? What about 6 Brigade now? Didn't anyone know panzers are on the loose all over the show? What are we doing? Doesn't anyone know ? A wan hopelessness fills some of the drivers, worn out not only by long hours of continuous driving but also by irregular meals, the last of which was at least 36 hours ago. They have had no orders. Always it has been——follow the lorry in front. Follow the … lorry in front. Swinging with the convoy away from heap after heap of smouldering wreckage. Turning left, turning right, avoiding risks of bumping into Jerry. Meeting columns and not knowing whether they are friend or foe. The story of Bir el Chleta——but the other way round it's not so funny. A story spreads that the company is surrounded, to be destroyed or captured in the morning. No reassuring information circulates to deny this. And all this in Egypt, too, Egypt…. What has happened to the ambulance convoy? Nobody knows. So, exhausted, hungry and tired, the drivers bed down beside trucks while other drivers stumble like sleepwalkers to guard trucks where the prisoners sleep soundly.
The ambulance convoy's grim story fortunately is not repeated in RMT's history. Before 6 RMT's main convoy leaves Point 175 in the morning about thirty vehicles, a good many of them RMT lorries, leave under Sergeant Baird for a South African dressing station 15 miles to the rear. This convoy is attacked on reaching its destination. An armoured column, guns blazing, scatters RMT men and the South Africans. A South African native, trouserless, mounts a motor-cycle and, prostrate over the petrol tank, speeds off, only his enormous naked rear visible. In the frantic escape over ten miles some trucks reach up to 40 miles an hour. The flung-about wounded behind, New Zealanders and enemy alike, bounced and jolted unmercifully, rise to a supreme peak of courage and endurance. page 144 Some fleeing lorries carry eight stricken men, not lying in reasonable comfort on stretchers but prostrate and without even blankets on the truck's bare steel tray. The wounded endure their terrible ride without complaint, but at least three men die.
Helpless with a shrapnel hole in his back, Private Grant,44 of 25 Battalion, blesses the RMT driver who thoughtfully and thoroughly roped him into a top stretcher just before the attack began. Lying on his good arm, his other arm numb, Grant watches sky and earth seesawing crazily behind in the frame of the canopy, and realises his life depends on the rope.
‘At this stage I very nearly kick the bucket as the roads [sic] are very rough,’ recalls Private Hoppe,45 of 25 Battalion. Two machine-gun bullets had struck him the previous day on the right shoulder, injuring his spine and emerging from his left shoulder. His right leg and left arm are useless.
‘Some of the wounded suffer great pain as the truck drivers have to go flat out over very bumpy ground,’ notes Private Robb,46 also of 25 Battalion. ‘I can see Ron Burden47 with his two hands full of hair that he has pulled out, so great is his pain.’
RMT drivers attempt to act as medical orderlies during halts, and through the day divide their rations and blankets among their stricken passengers, for the convoy has not been stocked with food or water. Only one of the three medical units met during the day gives food and morphia to the wounded. RMT men manage to group together again under their sergeant and laager for the night. Next morning (26 November) the ambulance convoy passes through the frontier wire near Sidi Omar. South African medical men take off some of the most severely wounded and give morphia to one uncomplaining New Zealander who, without legs, has survived the stampede. He never regains consciousness. The convoy makes for the Conference Cairn area and spends another lonely page 145 night in the desert. Drivers watch with growing concern the state of neglected dressings and wounds. Next day (27 November) the convoy safely delivers its brave patients to the railhead.