CHAPTER 7 — Advance into Libya
Advance into Libya
LONG trains, piping shrilly and jolting along with the unpredictable whim of the Egyptian railways, roared south from Alexandria in the closing days of May and early days of June 1941. Tired men lolled in their seats and watched the familiar yellow and green of the Delta flow by. The New Zealand Division, or what was left of it, was back from Greece and Crete and very ready to acknowledge—for the time being—Egypt as home.
For the men there were days of relaxation ahead; comfortable days on the Mediterranean shore and in Cairo bars. For the headquarters staffs there was a heartbreaking totting up of casualties and a complex sorting out of reinforcements. For the more seriously wounded there was the hospital ship Maunganui to take them home—right home.
The ASC normally suffers light casualties, but in Crete almost everyone was a front-line soldier, and now the ASC was short of 1100 men. Supply Column itself could account for little more than half of its strength, and less than half had returned to Egypt fit and ready to carry on. By 4 June the Column could compile a roll of nine officers and 196 other ranks who were classified as ‘in Egypt’. In addition there were fifty-one other ranks in the ‘X’ lists.1 One officer and seven other ranks were known to be dead. But some-where on the other side of the Mediterranean were six officers and 210 other ranks ‘not accounted for’.
Fifth Reinforcement quotas, calculated before these losses were incurred, were hopelessly inadequate for the ASC, and after absorbing 580 of its own reinforcements the corps was still looking around for more. Volunteers were called for from other arms, and as a last resort men were compulsorily transferred. Even then there was a shortage of skilled trades- page 133 men. The 6th Reinforcements, which reached Tewfik on 29 July, brought a meagre 249 men for the ASC in a total strength of 3808.
With the exception of 6 Brigade, which went to the Canal to set up a defence scheme at Moascar and Ismailia, the Division camped at Helwan while it built up its strength and gathered in new equipment. Still without trucks, the ASC, Supply Column included, had to put in the earlier days unhappily tramping the desert and filling in time with drill. To overcome the transport problem, trucks were pooled and 2 Armoured Division Troops Company RASC lent a hand with trucks and drivers.
Ships were already on their way up from the Cape, however, with brand-new American vehicles, and as these arrived the ASC regained its mobility. In Supply Column both new and old hands had much to learn. These new four-wheel-drive three-tonners had to be mastered, and before the Column could be ready to play its part again there was plenty to be done. As the weeks went by the men learned not only to drive in good and bad going, but to unditch, make good mechanical faults, carry out repairs, and generally keep their trucks on the move.
Though the men were not to know it, there was a desert campaign ahead, and all this training was to have an important bearing in giving the ‘service’ part of the ASC some significance. For ‘soft-skinned’ transport mobility is the only defence, and in the highly mobile campaign ahead of them ability to keep their vehicles moving, and when they broke down to get them rolling again as quickly as possible, was sometimes to mean the difference between a successful operation and the loss to the enemy of supplies, men, and, more important, trucks. If there is a suggestion of callousness in placing trucks before men, war has a habit of switching values. In the jargon of a ‘Confucius Say’ sign that appeared later in Tunisia, ‘Easy get new driver, difficult get new truck’.
So there were manoeuvres, exercises and general training programmes. The working part of Supply Column's activities was mainly the old general carrier role. Being close to a DID and base transport services, the Division did not use page 134 to full capacity its ASC vehicles, and Supply Column was called on to do a variety of jobs. A supply point was operated for 5 Brigade, which was digging defences at Alamein.
While the New Zealanders were fighting, resting and training, the world about them had been changing. On 22 June the Germans on the Continent turned east in a gigantic attack on Russia. In the Middle East the British and Australians had made Syria secure, but in Libya the arrival of General Rommel with German troops had completely changed the scene, and General Wavell's brilliant gains were swallowed up as the enemy surged forward again to the Egyptian frontier. Tobruk, the relief of which was to be one of the chief objectives of the New Zealanders' next action, was held against heavy German attacks and remained as an embarrassing thorn in the side of the enemy forces.
While over the weeks the various units developed their training, Supply Column took its trucks along the roads and out into the desert on full-scale exercises designed to give the men some idea of what went on when the unit became mobile. The results are reflected in a comment in a convoy report late in September: ‘Standard of driving by our drivers was uniformly high…. Driving in desert formation was of high standard.’
In September New Zealand Division went back to the desert. The brigades settled into a troglodyte existence in the Baggush Box, and with the rest of the ASC the Supply Column established itself at Fuka.
The journey back to the desert was full of interest, particularly for the old hands who had come this way so often in 1940. Where there had been open desert there were now army camps and airfields on which trim fighters and broad-winged bombers were to be seen. To men accustomed to a hostile sky, the air seemed almost crowded with friendly planes.
Of passing interest is the fact that the Column took from dawn to dusk to travel from Helwan to Amiriya. Nine months later, when the Division came down from Syria in very much of a hurry, the Column travelled from Suez to Amiriya, double the distance, in the same time.page 135
A freedom-loving soldier, the New Zealander was always glad to get away from base where, it seemed to him, senior officers, for lack of something better to do, were apt to pester him with too much ‘soldierliness’. It is a natural line of logic that the greater the opportunity to break away from this, the greater will be the transgressions, and Supply Column found a mobile life eminently suited to exploitation along these lines. Free of the restraints of an official frown, the men would strip off their shirts, boots and socks and enjoy the comfort of old clothing or practically none. Once away from Helwan on this particular journey back to the desert, they were not slow to dispense with their clothing. Major Pryde, who had left the camp at Helwan last to ensure that everything was left as it should be, found when he overtook the convoy that his men had already stripped for comfort. At Amiriya that night he told them just what he thought of the ‘circus procession’ they had staged through Cairo, and with some force complained that the men were even wearing ‘bloody football jerseys’. By a curious chance, the ‘bloody football jerseys’ caught on and echoed through the unit for years and is still heard at unit reunions.
But the men were not as free as they expected to be. Though Fuka was in the desert, there was still too much of the restrictive air of a base camp for the men to be altogether happy. An understandable nervousness over enemy aircraft—memories of Greece and Crete were still fresh—was reflected in various orders, and to make things worse, after there had been several drownings, even swimming became implicated in sternly worded ‘thou shalt nots’. The result was a curious eagerness to carry sea water needed by the cooks to lay the dust around the cookhouse.
There was justification for precautions against the trouble from the air, however. Fuka station and airfield were not far away and enemy aircraft gave their attention to both. Incendiaries intended for the aerodrome on one occasion fell in the Column area. Fuka station went up in spectacular pyrotechnics when an ammunition train was hit, and the railhead was temporarily shifted back to Daba.page 136
Supply Column was engaged in many jobs, but its primary task was to build up No. 2 Forward Base at Bir el Thalata, a dump of ammunition, petrol and supplies that formed part of over 33,000 tons stocked up in the forward areas for the coming attack. Loaded trucks went forward from Fuka in the afternoon and laagered a few miles from the dump, which was in view of the enemy, until dark. Then they moved forward again and unloaded. As the trucks turned away home, an Indian labour corps pulled across the camouflage and smeared away the wheel tracks.
In this work Supply Column saw something of the shocking waste of petrol that was the result of the use of the four-gallon petrol can, commonly known as the ‘flimsy’. And flimsy it was. As an expendable item, it served a good purpose in less rigorous civilian life, but in the Army its expendability began the moment it was moved, and all sorts of calculations have been made about the percentage of petrol that survived the long jolting journey into the desert by the Egyptian State Railways and ASC trucks. The flimsy even inspired a cartoon by Brian Robb, who in his series ‘Little Known Units of the Western Desert’, drew a three-tonner packed with flimsies and leaking a small Niagara of petrol through the tailboard. Its title: ‘Vehicle of the Petrol Dispersal Column’.
There was also the customary job of supplying the Division to be done; in fact, the point at Sidi Haneish fed not only the Division but British and South African troops and the RAF as well. Supply details opened shop here on 17 September in a depot about the size of a tennis court and ankle deep in dust. While British fighters and bombers roared low overhead they unloaded their equipment and got down to business. Supplies were drawn from 18 DID at the railhead twelve miles away. Dust and heat, and winds carrying both, made conditions unpleasant, particularly when it came to handling fresh meat and vegetables. Dull routine was occasionally broken by air raids on the nearby railway station, and on one occasion—on 14 October—the OC supply details, Captain Quirk, received an unwelcome souvenir, an unexploded bomb placed on his table. He called in the engineers to remove it.page 137
The following day a Supply Column man had an even more hair-raising experience when, while testing Captain Roberts's2 car, he collided with a Hurricane making a forced landing. The Hurricane sheared away the radiator and hood, and made a good landing on one wheel. The driver and a passenger in the car were unhurt.
By November the Division was ready and there were signs that something was in the wind. Supply Column received more three-tonners to bring its transport up to establishment, and a number of anti-aircraft trucks—mounting ineffectual Bren guns—were assigned to it. Trucks were loaded up. Although the intention may have been reasonably obvious, the Division's movements were concealed behind a pretence of manœuvres. On 10 November a Supply Column operation order said: ‘The NZ Div Sup Coln is carrying out supply of NZ Div during exercises No. 4.’
Pryde called a conference of officers on this day. Afterwards, he called Roberts aside and told him that during the ‘exercise’ the Division might undertake manœuvres as brigade groups. If this happened brigade composite companies would be formed, and the first would include a part of each of Supply, Petrol and Ammunition Companies under Roberts's command.
The happy thought of taking his echelon, No. 2, away from the Column in a detached role brought a smile to Roberts's face, and Pryde looked stern.
‘And listen, laddie,’ he added, ‘I'm not fooling.’
Roberts soon found that he wasn't.
Out from the hillocks and wadis of the Baggush Box streamed an unending line of vehicles. One by one they jolted on to the coastal highway, a black strip of bitumen across the dusty yellow desert, and turned west. First came the trucks of Headquarters 5 Brigade, and after them the hump-backed quads and guns of 5 Field Regiment, then the anti-tank portées and the long-barrelled Bofors. After these came trucks, miles of trucks, crowded with sappers and page 138 infantrymen of four battalions—21, 22, 23 and 28. A company of machine-gunners followed, and then an assortment of ASC units, 5 Field Ambulance, and at the tail, Supply Column (less four sections), which had driven up from Fuka during the morning.
The date was 11 November 1941, and the first part of the New Zealand Division was moving out for its first full-scale offensive action in a campaign with the code-name Crusader. At the Baggush turn-off New Zealand's High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, Mr. W. J. Jordan, a short, stocky figure in a grey suit, stood by the road and waved his black Homburg to the passing column.
Also on the ground to watch the spectacle was Major Pryde, who stood with Brigadier Hargest at a check point near Mersa Matruh. Pryde had reached this day with a feeling of complete confidence in the ability of the Column to carry out its task. Unlike the Supply Column that had gone to Greece, which had been thrown together barely hours before sailing, the unit now had been training as a team for months and was ready for the future. With justifiable pride Major Pryde watched his vehicles go by with almost perfect spacing, and with satisfaction listened to Brigadier Hargest's compliment.
To the bystander a passing convoy is an impressive spectacle: the slow-moving, winding line of vehicles and guns seems to glide forward with the inexorable power and weight of a battleship. But for the men, seeing little else beyond the road sliding away from the tailboard and under the nose of the next truck in line, there is little romance to relieve the tedious, crowded, uncomfortable hours on a whining three-tonner. In any case, the Army inures the most romantic soul to anything calculated to stir the emotions.
‘It was,’ a Supply Column man recalls, ‘like lining up for another job. I remember it took a long time to get started as there was so much traffic on the road.’
Column Headquarters, A, C, E, G and J Sections followed 5 Brigade group out on this day. At Matruh A and E Sections broke away and made off to Smugglers' Cove, where they page 139 would be in a handy position to draw from No. 1 Forward Base on the morning of 12 November.
The rest of the convoy turned down the Siwa Road and halted at Sidi Husein, 17 miles south-west of Matruh. During the move the Column broke bulk and issued 6700 rations. The headquarters of No. 1 Echelon and B and F Sections left Fuka next day, joined 4 Infantry Brigade group at Baggush, and drove forward with that formation to the divisional assembly area. Finally, the headquarters of No. 2 Echelon and D and H Sections joined 6 Infantry Brigade group on 13 November at Baggush and the whole group moved up the same day, thereby completing the Division's assembly in the new area.
Crusader was different from any previous campaign. True, the British had been this way before, but this time the principal enemy, in strength if not in numbers, was the German armoured group. And this was Eighth Army's first battle, and its aim was a resounding victory.
Across the Libyan border were 100,000 enemy troops—one third German and two thirds Italian—equipped with 357 tanks, of which 227 were German. Eighth Army was 118,000 strong and had more than 800 tanks, of which 500 were cruisers and 273 infantry tanks. General Cunningham's first aim was to destroy the German tank forces. The main attack was to be made by 30 Corps, under Lieutenant-General Willoughby Norrie. Thirteenth Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Godwin-Austen, was in the first place to contain the enemy troops holding the frontier positions. New Zealand Division was part of 13 Corps.
German and Italian positional troops manned the frontier posts and contained Tobruk. Two German and two Italian divisions were preparing to attack Tobruk and a German and an Italian armoured division, together with an Italian motorised division, formed a mobile force to meet any British threat.
In the desert south of Matruh the New Zealand Division prepared for its part. During 12 and 13 November the Division grew to full strength, and Supply Column began to learn what it was like catering for a full division in the field. On the 13th it broke bulk for the whole Division page 140 twice—35,000 rations—and next day issued hard rations. On the 15th the whole Division moved forward in daylight to Bir el Thalata, 55 miles to the west. There were vehicles as far as the eye could see, almost 3000 of them on a six-mile front, each with its trailing cloud of dust, rolling across broken, stony ground.
That night and all next day the Division remained stationary, but forty Supply Column vehicles went back to 29 FSD to draw four days' rations—74,000. There was a hitch at the depot; delivery was refused, and No. 2 Forward Base confirmed that issues would not be made here as the dump was being held until the battle commenced. After a tussle with colonels and majors, Quirk secured permission to draw, and at last, at 2.15 p.m., loading began. The dump was 15 miles square, and consequently the task was a long one, and as vehicles were feverishly loaded an anxious eye was kept on the time. It was 8.15 p.m. before the convoy pulled out, and the Division was already on its way west again. Despite a clear, starry sky, it was pitch black, and without the aid of a compass the convoy moved north until it found the green lights marking the divisional axis. During the march a solitary bomb burst about half a mile away, though no plane could be seen. The Division was overtaken in the early hours of the morning.
On 16–17 November was the first night move of the Division towards the frontier. By day vehicles were checked and repaired, and Supply Column went about its duties. At night the only lights were the track markers; the going was rough, the sand sometimes soft, and inevitably there was some confusion—‘Wrong guff, wrong areas, muck ups from HQ.’ It was tense and tiring, and it was shown quite clearly that the vital thing was to keep drivers awake so that not only they but the following vehicles should not be lost. There was a strong temptation to find solace in the forbidden cigarette. When Sergeant-Major Beer,3 a former Imperial Army man, found a Supply Column man smoking he bawled him out in a proper manner. A few minutes later the Sergeant-Major was back.page 141
‘You still got that cigarette going?’
‘Give me a light, will you.’
The night marches showed, too, that Workshops could depend on plenty of work after movement in darkness. Springs were broken, radiators stove in as drivers, unable to see what was happening ahead, charged halting vehicles, and differentials were dragged out of position when vehicles crashed through slit trenches. On movements such as this workshops men travelled all night then worked all day repairing the night's damage.
The breakdown truck itself—‘Flannagan II’, a Chevrolet, driven by Driver Hyland, with Sergeant Goulden4 in charge—was detached on the first night. On 19 November it overtook two three-tonners that had collided and become immobilised. One truck was got working and the other was towed, the vehicles joining up with the Column on the 21st.
As the Division moved forward on the night of 17–18 November, lightning was flickering in the north-west, and next day gunfire could be heard. At dawn 30 Corps crossed the border and advanced into Libya, meeting no resistance. The enemy was blissfully ignorant that a major attack was pending. The following night the New Zealand Division crossed the border also. Sappers tore out a 300-yard gap in the frontier wire and the vehicles streamed through.
During the 18th the Supply Column issues had given units rations for the 19th and 20th, plus three days' reserves—a contrast with the seven days' reserves that units were to carry a year later. The Column moved forward about 7 p.m. in the cold and starry darkness, with gunfire and bombing rumbling and flashing to the north. On arrival at the new area at El Beida the Column found itself in difficulties; some units in the line of march were out of position, and the Column had to settle down in a temporary area. On the afternoon of the 19th the unit moved to its correct area as Messerschmitts came down on a nearby RAF airfield.page 142
About five came skimming towards Supply Column ‘with a nasty screaming sound’, and as they began to spray the desert the vehicles scattered. The planes did no damage and left to chase a Tomahawk.
Pushing west on 19 November 30 Corps began to beat up trouble. The New Zealanders on the 21st began their encirclement of the frontier positions. While Supply Column remained anchored with the administration group at El Beida, the fighting units pushed north and then fanned out, 5 Brigade to Fort Capuzzo and Sollum Barracks, 4 Brigade to the escarpment west of Bardia, and 6 Brigade westwards along the Trigh Capuzzo to come under command of 30 Corps.page 143
Capuzzo fell to 5 Brigade on the 22nd, and 4 Indian Division captured part of the Omar forts, but a substantial pocket held out in Libyan Omar. Wherever the enemy was still holding out in the frontier area, he was cut off from his main forces in the west.
Back at El Beida there was at first little excitement but plenty of hard work. ‘Two uneventful days supplying our troops,’ is how Quirk summarised it. This entailed sending convoys back to 50 FSD5 and sending rations forward to a prearranged supply point. For this short period, at least, the Column was able to work to the book. It was one of the few occasions throughout the war that it did. ‘The book’ was still the system of echelons, in which certain vehicles were earmarked to carry rations for specified units. This was found to be clumsy and uneconomical for transport, and it meant that B echelon transport from the units had to find particular trucks at the supply point.
The rations in this campaign were not good. No ration scale had been discovered for this period, and the nearest battle ration scale, that for some time in 1942, may be slightly more generous. This provides for two ounces of bacon, nine ounces of biscuits, three-quarters of an ounce of cheese, three ounces of jam or marmalade, one ounce of page 144 margarine, two ounces of milk, nine ounces of M and V, three-sevenths of an ounce of salmon or herrings, four ounces of sugar, half an ounce of tea and half an ounce of salt each day, and finally 50 cigarettes a week. In the early part of Crusader corned beef was served more often than M and V, there was little bacon, and the salmon was labelled fifth-grade and, even so, rarely reached the fighting units of the New Zealand Division. The main meal of the day was generally bully and biscuits, although extras carried by the cooks' trucks and careful cooking helped make the food more palatable. When a comparison is made with later British ration scales and the current German rations, however, the Army at this stage was poorly catered for.
Orders to move north came to the Column at 1 p.m. on 21 November, while No. 2 Echelon was away at the supply point and No. 1 Echelon on its way back to 50 FSD. Column Headquarters and J Section went on alone and were overtaken by the echelons early in the evening at the new position south of the Trigh el Abd, previously occupied by Divisional Headquarters. Next morning a similar move, this time of 22 miles northwards, was executed to Abiar Nza Ferigh; Column Headquarters, J Section and the attached water section moved on, and Nos. 1 and 2 Echelons finished their tasks and followed up.
The 22-mile trip to Abiar Nza Ferigh taught another lesson. Before setting out a course was set by sun compass, but after the Headquarters convoy had been travelling for an hour or so the sky became overcast—nearer the coast it was raining—and a switch had to be made to navigation by magnetic compass. The change created an error that gave the unit a slight swing to the east, and shells that came droning in on to the right flank showed that it was too near the Omars for comfort.
The convoy sheered away to the north-west for three miles. This threw it across the front of another convoy moving up on its left, and the Column switched to the north again. In heavy rain the vehicles moved on. When the estimated mileage was up, it was found that because of the changes in direction the unit was seven miles too close page 145 to Capuzzo—no place to be near on the 22nd—and it moved to its correct area.
Above the harbour of Kea Island
The march across Kea Island
A transport section with new trucks prepared to move from Helwan
Headquarters area near Fuka
That night tracer could be seen cutting through the darkness, and the men went to sleep with the rumble of artillery in their ears.
While the New Zealanders had met with reasonable success at the frontier, further west in the Tobruk area the plan was coming unstuck. The British armour that had set out to smash the German panzers had come off second best, mainly because of superior German tactics, and 7 Support Group was now hard pressed.
Sixth Brigade was promptly ordered by 30 Corps to go to the aid of the support group on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. The order came to Brigade Headquarters on the afternoon of the 22nd; the brigade travelled all that night and in the morning had a short, sharp and very satisfactory skirmish with an enemy group that was found to be part of Afrika Korps Headquarters. Valuable documents were captured.
The brigade then moved on and 25 Battalion went straight into an attack on Point 175. There was bitter fighting, but with the aid of 24 Battalion about half of the feature was captured and held. Meanwhile 26 Battalion had swung to the south-west to link up with 5 South African Infantry Brigade. This brigade, however, was overrun during the afternoon, and 26 Battalion, after fighting off enemy attacks, rejoined the rest of 6 Brigade that night. The latter brigade settled down under cover of darkness and prepared to meet tanks next day.
Unaware of 6 Brigade's situation, the Division made plans to send it supplies. On the afternoon of 22 November a 6 Brigade Company was formed consisting of C Section of Ammunition Company (Second-Lieutenant Butt6), D and H Sections of Supply Column (Second-Lieutenants Daniel7 and Lyon,8 with Second-Lieutenant Demouth9 as Supply page 146 Officer), B Section of Petrol Company (Second-Lieutenant Swarbrick10) and six vehicles from B Section 4 RMT to carry water. Headquarters of No. 2 Echelon Supply Column also went along, and the commander was Captain Roberts.
The 22nd November was the last day of comparative peace for Supply Column. Further west a hot little cauldron was bubbling to boiling point and was soon to boil over; whoever was abroad on the desert would have to move quickly or be scalded. On 23 November, when 6 Brigade Company began its operations, the pot was already simmering.
At 7 a.m. B Section (Petrol Company) and D Section (Supply Column) were sent off to 62 FMC to load. They were to join 6 Brigade Company at Bir el Chleta, where 6 Brigade Headquarters was thought to be. Two hours later the company itself set off from Abiar Nza Ferigh for Bir el Chleta. At 10.15 a.m. it met two officers also on their way to 6 Brigade Headquarters—Captain Hooper,11 6 Brigade liaison officer, and Captain Squires, who was leading B echelon transport of C Squadron 8 Royal Tanks, attached to 6 Brigade. Hooper warned that enemy tanks were on the Trigh Capuzzo at Gasr el Arid.
Roberts set a course to the west, proposing to turn north at a point west of the reported tank concentration. The convoy had not gone far, however, before enemy armoured fighting vehicles ahead prompted a quick turn around. The AFVs disappeared, and the convoy resumed its journey westwards.
It soon appeared that the desert in these parts was fairly crawling with the enemy. As the trucks swung north about 2 p.m., unidentified AFVs were seen about a mile to the west. They were travelling away to the west and were accompanied by several trucks. And while the New Zealanders were watching and wondering, their trucks ran among the slit trenches and weapon pits of a recently vacated Italian camp. Italian wine bottles and Italian food tins were littered about, and the dying embers of a fire were still smouldering.page 147
The convoy ran north across the almost table-flat desert. Soon after 3.30 p.m., when the Trigh Capuzzo was only five miles away, three armoured cars came in from the east, and to avoid being headed off, Roberts speeded up his convoy. But he had barely escaped from this danger when he encountered a fresh hazard.
Approaching Bir Nza er-Rifi, where the ground falls away to the Trigh Capuzzo, he saw a large concentration of transport spread across the slope on the far side of a wadi. Roberts halted his trucks half a mile to the south and Lyon went forward to see whether the transport was friend or foe. He was not left long in doubt. About fifteen minutes later machine guns began to crackle and long arcs of tracer came darting towards the New Zealand convoy. The fire was coming from three armoured cars, two light machine guns in prepared positions, and several small-calibre guns, probably anti-tank weapons.
As the convoy turned south and fled, large concentrations of trucks were seen to the east moving in a north-westerly direction. After covering eight miles the convoy changed direction east and set a course for Bir es Sufan, where it laagered for the night. During the night tanks and motor vehicles, not identified, passed close, travelling south-east and, unknown to Roberts, NZ Divisional Headquarters Group, with 20 and 21 Battalions and a squadron of I tanks, passed close by on its way to Bir el Chleta. In the morning the broad tracks of German tanks, as it was thought, were found on the ground.
At daybreak another column was observed approaching from the north-west, the general direction in which the hostile vehicles encountered the previous day had lain. As the convoy was about to set off for home—Abiar Nza Ferigh—a solitary vehicle approached from the west. In it were one officer and two near-dead soldiers of 5 South African Brigade. They were taken to Supply Column Headquarters, reached at 10 a.m. without loss of men or vehicles, and sent on to Divisional Headquarters.
The 6th Brigade Company was disbanded without having accomplished its mission. Daniel and Demouth, meanwhile, had run into trouble of their own. After loading up 4000 page 148 rations at 62 FMC, the convoy, headed by Daniel's truck, set off for Bir el Chleta at 12.30 p.m. After an overnight halt the journey was resumed at first light, and about the time that Roberts was making for home, Daniel's trucks were rolling west along Trigh Capuzzo. The convoy was not running in blind ignorance, however, for that morning a warning had been received that there were enemy columns about, and Daniel went 600 to 700 yards ahead to act as scout.
All went well until 9 a.m., when the convoy was about three miles east of Gasr el Arid, where tanks had been reported the previous day by Captain Hooper. At this point the road dipped abruptly into a shallow wadi, and for a minute or two Daniel's truck disappeared from the sight of the following convoy. When it was seen again the truck was off the road and was heading north-west straight towards a large group of tanks and trucks. Machine guns spluttered to life and bullets came zipping around the laden trucks.
As the New Zealanders put about they saw Daniel's truck apparently still heading into what appeared to be a hail of explosive bullets and anti-tank shells. What happened to him no one waited to see. At that moment there were other things to think of.
Unexpectedly the Column adjutant, Second-Lieutenant Watt,12 appeared on the scene. His mission was to turn back both Roberts and Daniel. Learning that the 6 Brigade Company scheme had been cancelled and that these convoys had been sent into what was now believed to be enemy-held territory, Watt left Column Headquarters at 5.30 p.m. on 23 November and headed his Dodge ‘bug’ towards the setting sun. When darkness fell he halted and bunked down. Watt slept in the truck, his driver, Myers,13 underneath.
At dawn Watt woke with a feeling that everything was not quite right. ‘Crawling over the tailboard I gently woke Myers. Do you see what I see? A mashie shot away were some tanks, about eight of them. We climbed into the bug and prayed that the motor would start immediately. Thanks page 149 to our ever faithful Workshops Section, off she went after a couple of kicks.’
Away they went at top speed to the north-east. When they stopped for breakfast they were thoroughly lost. For a while they cruised around, and at last saw through the haze a convoy that looked familiar—Daniel's.
Several miles back down Trigh Capuzzo the now retreating convoy encountered a British headquarters. When Watt reported to ‘a thoroughly English colonel’ that there were tanks a few miles up the track he was laughed at. ‘Treated me as a case of wind up, I think. However, I insisted that I send a message to our own headquarters. He reluctantly introduced me to his adjutant, who was much more sympathetic. In fact, he almost believed me. Driver and I jogged along not knowing what to do about the other convoy until some time later (it was 25 November) we ran into our own Supply Column moving up with the rest of the Division.’
And Daniel? He now was a prisoner of war. Demouth reported that Daniel's truck had inexplicably driven on into a hail of bullets, but this was an illusion in the midst of a ‘flap’. As his truck had nosed down into the wadi, Daniel, seeing a concentration of tanks and armoured vehicles about half a mile to the right, decided he would drive over and verify his position as direction had been lost the previous night. His driver, Keppel,14 remarked that the vehicles did not look British, but Daniel, believing there were no enemy columns as far east as this, insisted on going over.
When about 200 or 300 yards from the group, Keppel again said he did not think the vehicles were British, and while he eased up, Daniel poked his head through the roof and put up his binoculars. Instantly tracer came darting towards them. Keppel swung hard on the wheel, but the motor, apparently hit, cut out, and the truck coasted to a stop. Bullets slashed through the radiator and hammered out holes in the cab and even in the water tank in the back. Flying glass cut Daniel's hand, but otherwise the two men were unharmed.
An armoured car came over and took them prisoner.page 150
Keppel, later released from Bardia, came through his adventure with one bright story. After the usual interrogation—what unit (no answer), where were they going (they were lost), why did they volunteer to leave a good country like New Zealand to fight in a country like this, and why did Churchill do this and that—the questioning officer, who did not press for an answer if one was refused, saw a medal Keppel had been awarded for winning the mile championship in the 1941 divisional athletic championships.
‘I see you are a good runner, but you didn't run fast enough this morning,’ said the officer.
Keppel agreed. The officer, who said he had got to know the New Zealand champion runner Jack Lovelock during the 1936 Olympic Games at Berlin, asked Keppel whether he knew him. Keppel replied that he did, and that he had in fact competed against him.
‘What a pity you could not run as fast as him,’ replied the German. ‘You would have been half-way to Cairo by now.’
Shot up, shelled and bombed as it went, this enemy group made its way to the Egyptian frontier and made the attack on Sidi Azeiz. Keppel, sent into Bardia, was searched by Italians and lost his medal, but he complained to a German guard, who retrieved it for him.
While all this was going on, Supply Column, back at Abiar Nza Ferigh, was carrying out, or attempting to carry out, normal supply duties, as well as trying to handle a small horde of prisoners that fighting units were sending for transport to the prisoner-of-war cages further back. With many men away on other tasks, the Column had a worrying time providing guards for the Germans—the Italians were no bother—and the situation was not improved when infantry escorts, contrary to orders, refused to remain with prisoners until the Column was able to release them. But this reluctance of infantrymen to remain, whatever difficulties it caused, hardly called for a reprimand; their keenness to return to their units typified the high morale of the Division in this campaign.
On 23 November No. 1 Echelon was sent back to 50 FSD, taking with it 150 German and Italian prisoners. No. 2 page 151 Echelon broke bulk and at 2 p.m. was ordered forward to a supply point at Point 212 on Trigh Capuzzo.
Fourth Brigade was now on its way westward. On the morning of 23 November, with C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry and 44 Royal Tanks (less one squadron), the brigade moved cautiously towards Gambut. Shelling halted it for a while in the morning, but by mid-afternoon it had secured the Gambut airfield.
After 4 Brigade came Captain Quirk with thirty No. 2 Echelon vehicles to set up his supply point at Point 212. But somewhere things went wrong. Along the Trigh Capuzzo there is first a Point 212, seven miles west a Point 213, which is at the map reference given in the war diary as the Point 212 where the supply point was fixed, and six miles further west again a second Point 212. In general, no one at the time seems to have been clear which was which. The outgoing supply convoy was given a wrong map reference and away it went. It overtook 4 Brigade on the move, and when the brigade stopped ‘moved up through artillery and odd parts of the division’. Watched no doubt by wondering infantrymen, it disappeared in the direction of the enemy to the supposed supply point. ‘We thought the place was not quite right,’ writes Quirk.
‘An officer came up very fast and told us that the blotches on the horizon were German tanks, that our general was preparing to engage them and that we were in the direct line of fire, would we please move our transport,’ he recalls. ‘We moved smartly to the rear of the division and sat there to see the outcome. However, darkness was coming on very fast and there was no engagement.’
That night a supply point was set up, but in the dark several units failed to arrive, and an instruction was given by the Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General (Lieutenant-Colonel Maxwell15) that supplies were to be taken forward to them.page 152
During the night a message was received that the trucks were in a dangerous area and that preparations were to be made in case of attack. Later tanks came clattering through the darkness, but they were friendly and parked nearby. They were a rear group of 13 Corps, lost and seeking its location. Quirk was able to assist.
The next day Quirk returned to the unit while Watt and Second-Lieutenant Latimer16 went on in search of the units that had not received rations. This was easier said than done. The convoy ran into a tank battle and was unable to move until dark, when it finally located the remainder of 4 Brigade B echelon.
On Monday, 24 November, the pot was boiling hard. On this day Rommel launched his counter-thrust to the Egyptian frontier. The New Zealand Division, meanwhile, was pressing forward to secure the vital ground outside Tobruk—Belhamed and the escarpment at Sidi Rezegh. For Supply Column there was now trouble wherever a convoy turned.
Point 175 was securely held by 24 and 25 Battalions. Fourth Brigade cleared Gambut and came up abreast of them. Early on 25 November 4 and 6 Brigades pushed on, 4 Brigade to take Zaafran, and 24 and 26 Battalions along the escarpment to seize the so-called Blockhouse and the Sidi Rezegh airfield. Ahead still lay Belhamed and the escarpment by the mosque of Sidi Rezegh.
Rommel's counter-stroke, meanwhile, was scattering Eighth Army supply transport in all directions. To save his invested frontier positions he despatched 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions and the Ariete Division, and as they struck eastward they inevitably created alarm and confusion in all directions.
To Supply Column, now busily weaving a web of supplies across the desert, all this was most disconcerting. In the course of 24 November the Column had no fewer than seven convoys in various parts of Libya: Quirk was bringing in the No. 2 Echelon group from supplying 4 Brigade, and page 153 part of this, under Watt and Latimer, was still chasing up the rest of the brigade; Roberts was returning with his unsuccessful 6 Brigade Company, and Demouth was bringing in his part of it; No. 1 Echelon returned from a routine visit to 50 FSD, and later in the day went out to victual the Division; and Second-Lieutenant Battersby17 set out for 50 FSD, only to find his way blocked by tanks.
After the mishaps of 23 November no convoy was sent to the supply point on the 24th until the Commander NZASC reported that the area chosen was clear of the enemy. Then, escorted by two Bren carriers and a Honey tank, Morris set out at 3 p.m. with No. 1 Echelon.
The trucks did not get far. Seven miles out they ran into a soft pan, and half a dozen of them sank to their axles and gear boxes. The Honey could make no headway with the floundering vehicles. More Bren carriers came into view some time later, and after the trucks had been unloaded, the carriers, three to each vehicle, dragged them clear. After that it was time to brew up.
It was now too late to continue, and the convoy laagered in square formation and Morris sent back to the unit for hot rations. The night was pitch black—fortunately. In the early hours of the morning the roar and clatter of trucks and tanks came across the desert from the north and steadily swelled into a tremendous clamour; armour moving at night sounds like a horde of racing cars belting along with long strings of old iron trailing behind. The armoured column, identified as German, rolled past the laagered trucks; only 500 yards away, the column was between Morris's convoy and Supply Column Headquarters. ‘If Jerry had chosen a course 500 yards west of the one he took he would have driven clean through us in the dark,’ reports Morris. By daylight the enemy had gone.
On the way to the supply point that morning the convoy was stopped by an armoured patrol and told to wait for instructions. Two miles due south British tanks attached to 13 Corps were engaging the enemy, and ‘anything was likely to happen’. After about half an hour's waiting around page 154 Morris was allowed to speak to Rear Divisional Headquarters on the radio of one of the AFVs and was given a new point at which to rejoin Column Headquarters.
Then down from the hazy sky came screaming Stukas, about eighteen of them, and bombs began erupting. ‘Still no casualties, but we were glad when things quietened down for a bit.’ At the supply rendezvous the Supply Column men found the Division engaged in an artillery duel. Vehicles were dispersed, supplies distributed to units who came for them, and a small quantity of 25-pounder ammunition was delivered to the guns. More enemy planes came down, but though there were casualties around about, the Supply Column came through ‘without more than a fright’.
But the job was still not completed. Hot spot though this might be, there were still troops somewhere to whom rations must be taken, and part of the convoy under Rawle went forward. The trucks went over the escarpment where 6 Brigade had only recently fought, and on to the road. Shellfire was splashing about, but no one was hit. The convoy went west along the road, through the artillery, and dispersed and halted while Rawle made a reconnaissance. Bombers swooped on the trucks and nearby 25-pounders and anti-tank guns, and while the Supply Column men flattened themselves against the ground, jagged holes appeared in their vehicles. Again no one was hit. The artillery kept hammering away.
When Rawle returned the trucks moved forward again and no time was wasted in unloading at the various cooks' trucks. Then they pulled back behind the artillery and camped for the night. Artillery officers asked if they had any ammunition as they were running short. That night the guns were busy, and counter-battery fire from the enemy kept things lively. When the convoy pulled back in the morning, the drivers could hear behind them the chatter of machine guns and the crack of mortars and artillery.
The other section of the convoy had also spent the night abroad in the desert. It camped between General Freyberg's headquarters and the enemy at Gambut, and a runner came out with the suggestion that it would be safer behind the page 155 tank screen. Morris preferred to stay where he was, however, and was granted permission ‘at his own peril’. Both sections rejoined the unit that day.
Back at Abiar Nza Ferigh all this time the rest of the Column was having trouble of its own. At 4 p.m. on 24 November the water section, under Battersby, set off for 50 FSD to replenish. The trucks carried wounded. At 8 p.m. Battersby was back with the information that he had met enemy AFVs 15 miles to the south, and as he was carrying wounded he could not risk an attempt to run around them. This was alarming news, for 50 FSD was the source of supplies, and that morning a No. 2 Echelon convoy under Second-Lieutenant Cottrell18 had set out for this depot to load up.
At 10 a.m. next day 13 Corps reported that the route to 50 FSD was open, and away went Battersby again. He returned at 1 p.m. with the news that the enemy was still astride the route and in fact had moved eight miles to the north. Nothing had been heard from Cottrell and all that was known of him was that he had been seen by a tank officer passing through the wire into Egypt at 5 p.m. the previous day. His non-return was presumed—rightly—to be due to the presence of enemy armour.
Here the lack of something was shown. ASC units were not equipped with radio and once abroad in the desert had no way of calling up their headquarters. ASC convoys, criss-crossing the desert on their various tasks, could have been useful as reconnaissance patrols, but whatever they saw on their travels and whatever trouble they encountered, they could do absolutely nothing except run. Had Cottrell had wireless, he could have told Column Headquarters the previous night that the enemy was closing in on 50 FSD and that it would be useless and dangerous to attempt to reach it.
But although the unit was not aware of this, it certainly knew all was not well in the south, and Pryde went across to Rear Division to say so. He was being assured—as the page 156 ASC was so often assured during Crusader—that there were no enemy tanks for miles and that Battersby was undoubtedly seeing things, when a despatch rider rode in from Supply Column Headquarters with a message that clouds of dust were approaching from the south-south-east and the indications were that they were hostile. It was about this time that news of the raiding of 50 FMC was received, and a prompt order was given to Supply Column to move west forthwith to Bir el Haleizin, detaching before it went a group to supply 5 Brigade, which was still at Sidi Azeiz. Nothing was known of what had become of Cottrell's convoy.
‘What a scatter to get going,’ and the Column's departure was given added urgency when an RASC driver pulled in and asked, ‘Have you any petrol?’ Certainly, he was assured. Would he like some. ‘No, chum, I don't want any petrol. You'll need it all yourselves. Jerry's about 20 minutes behind me.’
The effect on loading operations was marked. As twenty minutes ticked away, eyes anxiously watched the south, but no one was more perturbed than the remnants of the Italian prisoners of war still on hand. Few load-carrying trucks were available to carry them. Most of them were stowed away among various loads, but when everything was packed and the Column ready to move, a few prisoners of ‘little military value’ were still on the ground, and were to be left to be collected by the approaching enemy. The prospect did not appeal to them and they became highly excited. Finally, as the trucks began to move off at 3.30 p.m., their feet found wings, and they came pounding through the dust of the convoy and swung themselves aboard wherever they could. Some must have run at least a quarter of a mile and no doubt broke a few records.
When the dust had settled the group left behind to supply 5 Brigade had the desert to itself. This was another composite ASC group, again under Roberts, and it waited around for half an hour for a section of Ammunition Company to arrive. Lyon was sent out to patrol the eastern approaches.
While the group was waiting around it was decided to blow up a nearby German ammunition dump. Several page 157 attempts were made before the dump caught, just as the Ammunition Company detachment arrived. The whole group moved away to a pyrotechnic send-off.
There were two other absentees from Supply Column on its move west. At 10 a.m. Demouth had set out for the supply point, now located seven miles south of Trigh Capuzzo, and Latimer was away with a convoy carrying prisoners and about seventy British wounded.
Darkness closed down before Supply Column reached Bir el Haleizin, and behind the jolting trucks, flares, so beloved by the enemy—brilliant reds, greens and oranges—were sprouting. As the new area was approached artillery was whipping the night and machine guns were chattering. Not far away the infantry was getting ready for the final breakthrough to Tobruk. At 9 p.m. 18 and 20 Battalions advanced on Belhamed. Two hours later 21, 24, 25 and 26 Battalions thrust at the escarpment above the Sidi Rezegh mosque, intending to go through to Ed Duda. In the Tobruk salient the besieged garrison made a thrust outwards to Ed Duda. The fighting went on throughout 26 November and it was not until early on the morning of 27 November that 19 Battalion (and not 21 and 26 Battalions as had been planned) reached Ed Duda, gained by the Tobruk forces the previous afternoon. So on the morning of 27 November the New Zealanders held the way open to Tobruk and had possession of two of the three escarpments that formed terraces inland towards the Libyan plateau. Fourth Brigade held the high ground from Zaafran to Belhamed and Ed Duda. Sixth Brigade, on Point 175 and the escarpment above Sidi Rezegh, held the second escarpment. But the enemy was still on the third and southernmost escarpment and was making good use of his observation.
Throughout all this Supply Column was not very comfortably placed. If it had previously been too close to the fire for comfort, it was now in the centre of a thoroughly stirred-up pot, and it could be fairly sure that in whichever direction it turned it would meet trouble. With enemy tanks astride the supply lines, the supply situation became serious, and rations were cut by half and the water ration reduced to a quart a day a man for all purposes; not much page 158 is left when you have to cook and fill the radiator. Beards began to sprout.
From the time the Column halted at what was presumed to be Bir el Haleizin on the night of 25 November there were worries. The first was whether, in this lively part of the desert, the unit was in its correct location. After travelling by compass and speedometer, there could be no way of telling until daylight permitted a resection to be made. Morning showed that the unit was just short of where it should be.
There were plenty of other worries. A count showed that all that were present of Supply Column were three officers, Pryde, Quirk and McLaughlin,19 fifty-one other ranks and nine vehicles. Cottrell was still missing, and at 8.30 a.m. Latimer turned up with three vehicles to report that Demouth and seven other vehicles were missing and were probably captured. Latimer had spent the night with tanks on his heels and had come home with a splintered but still intact windshield and a broken pistol. An attempt to smash the windscreen to give better vision during the night flight had been a proving test for triplex glass.
Demouth, however, was not a prisoner and was himself wondering what had become of Latimer. Since he had left the unit the previous day Demouth's wanderings had taken him far. He located the supply point easily enough at midday on the 25th, only to find from Watt, who had arrived earlier, that it had been moved forward. They were searching for the new supply point when, at 2 p.m., Watt learned that Latimer was at the previous supply point, and as the divisional administration group was about to move west to its new area at Bir el Haleizin, Watt instructed Demouth to intercept Latimer and guide him there. But by the time Demouth reached the old supply point, Latimer had gone off to 13 Corps Headquarters. Demouth overtook him there at 6 p.m. It was now too late to return to Supply Column Headquarters that day, and Demouth decided to assist Latimer.
Latimer's convoy, which consisted of five Supply Column trucks and some 4 Brigade vehicles, had picked up wounded page 159 and prisoners from an advanced dressing station near Sidi Rezegh and, on instructions from Colonel Maxwell, had set out to take them to 30 Corps. En route Latimer encountered a British tank and was told that Bir Gubi had been overrun and that he should go to 13 Corps instead. Thirteenth Corps, however, declined to take over Latimer's load, and although flares were visible in the direction of Sidi Azeiz, a brigadier told Latimer to go to 5 NZ Field Ambulance.
The convoy set out, but when an enemy concentration was sighted ahead, put about and returned to 13 Corps. Latimer said he would attempt to get the wounded through but would not take the prisoners. The brigadier emphatically assured Latimer that the place was not surrounded—the old story—but agreed to take over the prisoners.
Away went the convoy again along Trigh Capuzzo, with Demouth at the head and Latimer at the tail. It was now dark, and about five miles to the east, when not far from Sidi Azeiz, the head of the convoy ran right into a panzer laager. Upon them before he was aware of their presence, Demouth ran through the tank lines and past Germans standing smoking by their vehicles, swung about and headed back towards the convoy again. As he emerged a green flare glowed up behind him, and the whole convoy put about and fled west. Somewhere in this scramble for safety the convoy split. Latimer, heading west along Trigh Capuzzo, came across an anti-tank screen about two miles along the road and warned them that tanks were nearby. He pushed on for three or four miles, and when he stopped to check his convoy, tanks fired on him from the rear.
Thinking these were the same tanks that had been encountered earlier and that Demouth and the others had been overrun, Latimer set off again. The following tanks put up flares, bronze and white, from which it seemed that there were half a dozen or so of them. The convoy left Trigh Capuzzo and made tracks for Gambut. Another group of tanks appeared from the south.
At dawn Latimer turned his convoy, and passing barely 200 yards from the nearest German tank, set a course for Bir el Haleizin.page 160
Demouth, meantime, had bivouacked for the night with the remainder of the vehicles. In the morning, of course, he could see no sign of the others, and started to think about what he was going to do with the wounded. G Branch 13 Corps Headquarters could not even tell him where he could get urgently needed petrol, water and rations. At last he came across 4 and 5 NZ Field Ambulances about four miles west of Sidi Azeiz, just as they were on the point of moving out. These units took over the wounded, and because of the strain this sudden influx placed upon their transport, Demouth put his vehicles at the disposal of 5 Field Ambulance until the hospital was shifted. He finished this task at 3 p.m. and reached Column Headquarters an hour later.
All except Cottrell were now either present or accounted for.
The Column now was casting about for fresh supplies. Since Cottrell had not returned and all supply lines were blocked, nothing had been received for two days. At 3 p.m. this day (26 November) Division advised Column Headquarters that Trigh Capuzzo was clear as far east as Sidi Azeiz and that a convoy was to be sent immediately to 51 FSD, a new depot, in 13 Corps' area.
No. 1 Echelon, under Morris, was selected for this task. When he received his instructions, Morris reported to Colonel Crump that the area concerned had been under fire the previous day. Crump showed him a situation report declaring the area clear. But Morris was not entirely convinced. Before starting he arranged with his second-in-command, Rawle, that if trouble was encountered Morris would give three long blasts on his car horn and signal a change of direction. Each vehicle was to turn and set off at full speed and in line.
‘This was the only time I ever lined up all the drivers and went through this preliminary drill to ensure perfection,’ says Morris. ‘Oddly enough it was the only occasion I was ever called upon to make this manœuvre.’
The trucks set off on the high ground above the escarpment south of Trigh Capuzzo. Trouble soon came—from an unexpected quarter. About forty Marylands came over and, presumably mistaking the trucks for a German convoy, page 161 let go their bombs. No one was hurt, and an explanation was forthcoming shortly afterwards. Three armoured cars halted Morris and told him he was in enemy-held territory. He explained what he was doing and was allowed to go on.
A few miles further on shellbursts blossomed to the left. At first it was thought they were overs from a tank battle near Gambut, but when shells began to fall among vehicles, there was no doubt about for whom they were intended. Morris ‘pounced’ on the horn and as he signalled the trucks swung south. ‘I was grateful the drivers were so cool,’ says Morris. As the vehicles turned south Rawle looked across to Morris, grinned, and gave the thumbs-up sign.
About two miles to the south the convoy swung left, halted to check course, and set off again. The journey was continued into the night. A few miles from where 51 FSD should have been, the convoy met another column of trucks heading west. This was 13 Corps Headquarters, which was leaving, Morris was told by Major Sanders,20 because things were getting a shade hot. The area where 51 FSD was to have been opened was still held by the enemy. Sanders advised Morris to fall in behind 13 Corps Headquarters, and he willingly complied.
In darkness, with enemy flares in the sky to every point of the compass, the group moved west along Trigh Capuzzo. When they reached what Morris, by dead reckoning, considered was the Gambut area, he decided to leave 13 Corps and head straight for home. Rawle demurred, but Morris had his way.
When the mileage ran out they stopped. There was neither sight nor sound of troops, but flares were still everywhere, and talking in cautious whispers the drivers crept around and prepared to settle down for the rest of the night. Suddenly, bright flame flared up: a driver trying to start a primus in his truck had set the vehicle alight. Sergeant Braimbridge21 donned a respirator, dived into the burning page 162 truck and soon had it out. At that moment he was the most popular man in the unit.
‘I shall never forget waking up and looking into the guns of an armoured troop camped alongside,’ Morris recalls. ‘It was in or out, now, so if we were to be captured let us get it over. I went over to the troop leader, and luck was with us—they were Tommy armoured cars who were waiting for dawn to shoot up what they imagined was a Hun convoy.’
About 500 yards away were the New Zealand lines. Morris returned to the unit to learn that after his departure the previous day information had come to hand that 51 FSD was ‘non est’.
So three days had gone by without fresh supplies. Further east Roberts and his 5 Brigade Company were in the thick of it. This company took much the same form as the earlier 6 Brigade Company; it consisted of C Section of Ammunition Company (Second-Lieutenant Butt), B and H Sections of Supply Column (Sergeant Baldwin22 and Second-Lieutenant Lyon) and six vehicles from B Section 4 RMT carrying water.
Clearing Abiar Nza Ferigh at 4 p.m. on 25 November, the company had moved north-east towards Sidi Azeiz, where 5 Brigade was located. Four miles south of Sidi Azeiz enemy AFVs were sighted and were reported by Roberts on his arrival at 5 Brigade Headquarters at 5.30 p.m. At 1 a.m. the company was ordered to go to 22 Battalion's area at Sghifet el Charruba, below the escarpment. This was reached at 6 a.m.
This battalion was now eating the first of three days' reserve ration, and on learning of the precarious supply position from Roberts, the battalion's second-in-command, Major Greville,23 placed the unit on half rations. Roberts took over a dump of German food consisting of a three-ton load of Trinkwasser (drinking water) in jerricans (the excellent German water or petrol containers), tins of hard page 163 biscuits and packets of cellophane-wrapped black bread. Unfortunately it was known that the Germans were suffering from gastric trouble, and for fear of contamination it was decided not to allow New Zealand units to use German rations or water.
The morning was uneventful, but about midday an enemy column of about 3000 vehicles—trucks and tanks—was seen moving between 22 Battalion's positions and 5 Brigade Headquarters. Drivers set to work concealing their trucks as well as they could.
Roberts and Lyon climbed to the top of the escarpment to watch the column stream by. The Bren carriers of the Divisional Cavalry and of 5 Brigade were having an exhilarating time. Concealed by the dust, they would rush in, shoot up trucks and anything else with a thin skin, and dart back to safety before the next armoured vehicles came along. In the course of the afternoon between forty and fifty German prisoners and a number of released British prisoners were brought in to Roberts to be transported to appropriate places. The unfortunate Keppel was not one of those released.
Late in the afternoon two enemy tanks came prowling in towards 22 Battalion's area from the west, but when two guns of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment began pumping out shells they shied off, to the obvious disappointment of German prisoners.
At dusk the enemy column was still passing, and at 8.30 p.m. Roberts's composite ASC company was ordered to move to 5 Brigade Headquarters. This, of course, involved crossing the route where the panzers had been passing, and five armoured cars commanded by a Divisional Cavalry officer were provided as an escort.
Confident that replenishments would be available that night or next day, Roberts handed over his group's remaining two days' reserve ration before leaving 22 Battalion.
One by one in creeper gear the trucks crawled along the track up the escarpment. At the top they assembled and set off for Sidi Azeiz, reached without incident at midnight. Here Roberts was told to take his group to 50 FSD to load up with food, water and 25-pounder ammunition, which page 164 was the first requirement of the brigade. The Divisional Cavalry was then out on a reconnaissance and was expected back at any moment to report whether the route was clear. By 1 a.m. no report had come in, but Brigadier Hargest was anxious for the convoy to get away immediately and return as soon as possible. The staff captain remarked that there was no reason to believe that any enemy remained on the route as it appeared that the enemy movement to Bardia had been completed.
The convoy set off at 1.30 a.m., still without any knowledge of what lay ahead. With it went A Section of Ammunition Company under Captain Gibson,24 who had come to Sidi Azeiz in search of the non-existent 51 FSD. Ammunition trucks that were part of the 5 Brigade Company and of Gibson's section that were loaded up were left behind.
Roberts's plan was to move south-west to Trigh el Abd and then turn east through the frontier wire at Bir Sheferzen. The convoy moved south cautiously; ahead were reconnaissance vehicles that reported in every two miles, and in consequence the whole convoy of more than 100 vehicles had to halt every two miles to await reports. Finally a halt was called for the night. When he resumed in daylight Roberts had cause to be thankful he had stopped.
Soon after daybreak, as the convoy was approaching Bir Uaar enemy motor transport was seen moving east directly across the line of advance. Then two AFVs appeared from the east, and from the west came fire from tanks. The convoy put about. ‘Our encounter showed what folly it would have been to have attempted to move over 100 vehicles through the narrow gap in the wire during the night,’ says Roberts. ‘The Germans would have had a good bag of PW, and more valuable to them would have been the transport.’
Roberts headed back for 5 Brigade Headquarters, but at that moment this was no place for anyone who valued his life and freedom. At 7.10 a.m. the Germans had descended on Sidi Azeiz. They poured in fire for over an hour, then sent in their tanks. When the returning convoy reached Bir el Maraa, seven miles to the south-west, ‘the early morning page 165 scene was one of fire, flame, smoke and dust’. Sidi Azeiz was virtually ringed by enemy vehicles, and a column could be seen moving north-west from the direction of Capuzzo. Headquarters 5 Brigade was clearly no place to go.
But where could they go? The location of the headquarters of 23 and 28 Battalions was known, but as these battalions were deployed in the Sollum-Capuzzo areas there was no hope of reaching them. Roberts began to make an arc around the Sidi Azeiz area with the intention of joining 22 Battalion, but he had travelled only about seven miles when, near Point 211, more enemy AFVs appeared and small-arms fire came crackling in.
‘The large number of vehicles moving east and west in the area north of Trigh Capuzzo were obviously searching in a wide arc from Sidi Azeiz,’ Roberts recalls. ‘It appeared to me at the time that the enemy was isolating 22 Battalion.’
Roberts at first considered trying to dodge the enemy during the daylight hours and return to 5 Brigade Headquarters that night, but fortunately he had insufficient petrol. The enemy had a clear run along Trigh Capuzzo, and he decided to return to Bir el Haleizin; his plan was to travel on a west-south-west course until he could turn due north to his destination.
With anxious eyes towards the north, where large concentrations of moving vehicles could be seen, Roberts moved his convoy. It soon became apparent that he was well tangled up. Besides the enemy transport to the north, which was the panzers returning west from the frontier, there were scattered groups of armoured cars to the south, also travelling west. These at the time were thought to be a flank guard for the panzers, boxing the convoy into a hostile corridor, and as the uncomfortable journey progressed their actions were certainly unfriendly. But from the evidence of later events and the tactics employed, it seems more likely that the armoured cars were in fact British and that they in turn believed the New Zealand convoy to be German.
‘With nightmarish regularity we were compelled to head our thin-skinned vehicles to the north to avoid armoured cars approaching from the south,’ says Roberts. ‘The interception tactics employed by the armoured cars were to race page 166 across the path of the convoy in a north-west direction and about half a mile in front. As the convoy got closer they would open fire. The convoy would slow down and more cars would appear from the south.’
To the drivers the convoy was ‘like a hunted fox, running from earth to earth and finding them all blocked’.
About 11 a.m., when the convoy was near Ghot el Mahata, three tanks approached from the south and, moving west across the tail of the convoy, opened fire. Somewhere in the dust and confusion Lyon's Dodge pick-up disappeared.
A few miles further on the southern fringe of a tank battle again forced a halt. Left, front and right there was a milling mass of tanks in a pall of smoke and dust. Roberts, Gibson and Butt had a quick conference, but in the confusion could not identify friend or foe.
They decided that, after allowing for diversions, they had more than run the estimated distance to Bir el Haleizin, and they turned about and moved east in search of a clear run north. They had not gone far before they were compelled to turn south, and very soon they were halted by armoured cars. ‘This is it, we thought.’ But they were cars of a British armoured brigade.
A tank officer took Roberts to the brigade headquarters. The brigadier declined to give Roberts the location reference, but told him to move three miles west and then fourteen miles north to the New Zealand Division. He was at that moment lining up his armour for a battle, and he passed Roberts over to a major, who took what he wanted from Roberts's story. Roberts was being escorted back to the convoy when a terrific bellow was heard from behind. They turned to find the brigadier calling them back. He pointed with his stick to the convoy. ‘What's that transport over there?’ Roberts said meekly that it was his. ‘Take your bloody prams off my battlefield,’ he roared.
‘We started our move in mighty quick time,’ reports Roberts. This time it was for home, although ‘home’ had meanwhile shifted from its previous location at Bir el Haleizin.
Lyon, all this while, was guest of the King's Dragoon Guards; he had good cause to worry about the fate of the page 167 main convoy. Limping along with a broken spring tied up with rope, he had been intercepted by an armoured car that had forced him to halt with a Bren burst across his bows. He had difficulty at first persuading the NCO in charge that he was a New Zealander. The reason became apparent when he was taken to headquarters; Roberts's convoy had been reported as an enemy column since early morning, presumably because it was following the same general line as the German forces. Lyon was told by a colonel that the convoy was heading directly towards a German concentration.
Compelled meanwhile to remain with the KDG unit, Lyon was joined by an Ammunition Company man with his truck, and later two other quite sound abandoned Ammunition Company trucks were recovered. One had a full petrol tank. The New Zealanders assisted by carrying ammunition, and during a bombing raid Lyon's driver, Marshall,25 was wounded. Eventually Lyon, with a borrowed driver, set off with a British convoy for Tobruk, but the Corridor was closed, and it was not until Supply Column returned to Fuka when the New Zealanders were withdrawn that Lyon rejoined it.
At the time when Roberts's convoy was darting about the desert on its harassed homeward run, another Supply Column convoy that had been having a rather similar experience was also on its way home. This convoy was a little ahead of Roberts. It was, in fact, ahead of Supply Column Headquarters, and when the Column moved to a new location on 27 November it found this convoy waiting for it. It was Cottrell's. He had been three days away from his unit and was more than forty-eight hours overdue—but he had rations, the first to come in since the 24th.
Cottrell had set out for 50 FSD from Abiar Nza Ferigh at 10.15 a.m. on the 24th with all the available No. 2 Echelon trucks—fifteen in all—and five captured German trucks, which were all in poor mechanical order. The convoy carried 500 German and Italian prisoners for the prisoner-of-war cage at 50 FMC.page 168
The convoy had not gone far before the German trucks began to give trouble, and after repeated breakdowns, two carrying tires and petrol were abandoned with the intention that they would be reclaimed on the return journey. The cage was reached at 4 p.m., but by the time the prisoners had been disposed of it was nearly 5.30 p.m. and growing dark. In the next hour and a half rations for two brigade groups were loaded. Then through the darkness came the rumble of trucks, and in the distance could be seen burning vehicles around which RAF planes were angrily buzzing. A host of South African trucks went roaring by, some dragging camouflage nets behind them. As they went by a voice called, ‘Go like hell, chum, the Jerries are coming.’ The issuing staff at the FSD promptly left. Cottrell called his men together and told them that the route back was blocked. Together with some YMCA trucks, he took the convoy first south for about ten miles and then west through another gap in the wire.
Behind them 21 Panzer Division was descending on 50 FMC. From his dugout on the top of a hillock the New Zealander in charge of the centre, Major Closey,26 watched the Germans sack some of the dumps and gave a running commentary of the raid to Rear Headquarters Eighth Army.
As soon as Cottrell crossed the border he ran into enemy advanced elements, and he pushed west with flares on his right marking a barrier parallel with his course. After 15 miles he turned north, but flares were now all around him, and he drew his convoy in. While drivers rested in their cabs, escorting infantry were posted around the laager.
Burning vehicles could be seen to the north, but a reconnaissance party found they were too far away to reach. Throughout the night tracked vehicles could be heard growling and clattering as they passed nearby, some within 200 yards, and flares were flashing in the darkness, suggesting that the enemy was searching for the convoy.
In this inhospitable region the trucks huddled together under the cover of darkness in a wadi for the rest of the page 169 night. At first light, with a bitter wind tugging at the canopies, the vehicles set off in open desert formation through a light mist towards the north. Black objects came into view on the horizon. Two Hurricanes flew over, appeared to examine Cottrell's convoy, waggled their wings and turned away to the north. As they swept over the black objects, ack-ack fire went up, and the heavy hammer of machine guns could be heard. The convoy put about, ‘bully and biscuit tins just a jumble in the back of the old three tonners’, and as it was turning three enemy armoured cars appeared on the left. The Hurricanes circled the enemy group until the New Zealanders had turned.
Now travelling south, the New Zealanders saw a number of trucks away to the right. Several vehicles broke away from the right of the convoy to investigate. As they approached the unidentified group a staff car made off, but the remaining vehicles, a captured South African truck and three German trucks, were secured, together with fourteen Germans.
Cottrell went back to the site of the previous night's laager, which was in a wadi, and was reassembling when trucks of a type not previously seen were observed crossing diagonally. Rifles came down from the racks and preparations were made to do battle, but as the convoy came nearer a small vehicle came in towards the wadi and a man in Scottish uniform could be seen waving. The vehicles were identified as a supply column going forward.
After reforming his convoy Cottrell struck out for 62 FSD, about eight miles to the north-west. This was reached without incident, but a Dodge pick-up with Corporal Chinn27 and Driver Pitt,28 who had been bringing up the rear, was missing. At 62 FSD the prisoners were handed over, rations drawn for the third brigade group and the recaptured South African truck loaded with petrol. Cottrell was advised not to attempt to break through on his own but to contact a tank brigade at Fort Maddalena, away to the south.page 170
Fort Maddalena was found to be deserted. The tanks had gone and on the airfield some Hurricanes were still burning from a recent raid. There was not even a compass to be ‘salvaged’ from the aircraft; someone had already done the job.
The wandering convoy set off through the darkness again. There was another alarm when the vehicles came across an unidentified group, and for a few tense moments, with rifles ready, the drivers and infantrymen waited. Not a shot was fired; fortunately, the ‘attackers’ were English.
The tank escort was at last found at 62 FSD. With some tanks on transporters and others ranged along the flanks, the group moved forward in moonlight. Now and then the convoy would halt, tanks would disappear for a short while, fire a few shots, and movement would resume.
Thus escorted, the Supply Column convoy made its way back to the Tobruk area. Next morning, before reaching their destination, drivers had a glimpse of another side of the war. At a field dressing station medical staff were seen attending to British and German wounded alike. There were many freshly dug New Zealand graves to be seen.
The Hareifet en-Nbeidat area was reached that morning, and as the rest of Supply Column had not yet arrived, Cottrell reported to Command NZASC. Cottrell was safely home—or as safe as any part of the desert could be at this time. It was a creditable performance that earned him the MC; the convoy had escaped capture and brought back the long-awaited rations, captured fifteen prisoners and four enemy trucks, and recaptured a British vehicle. Cottrell, however, had one complaint. He ends his report on the convoy: ‘The recaptured South African vehicle was taken over, without my consent, by a platoon of 24 NZ Bn.’ Which shows that honest endeavour does not always bring its reward.
Now the enemy armour was returning. Hard-pressed by the New Zealand Division and 70 Division, the German Afrika Division (soon to be renamed 90 Light Division) and the Italian infantry divisions were clamouring for tank support and, in response, the two German and one Italian page 171 armoured divisions came rolling back. Along the Trigh Capuzzo on 27 November 15 Panzer Division received a sharp rebuff from the British armour but was able to make ground during the night and embark on a sweep around the southern flank of New Zealand Division, while 21 Panzer Division, greatly weakened by the fighting thus far, moved against the eastern flank between Ed Dbana and Point 175.
In the circumstances a change of location of the administration group was prudent. Supply Column received orders at 8.30 p.m. on 26 November to move to Hareifet en-Nbeidat, south-west of Point 175. The move was to begin at 8.30 a.m. on the 27th, but the unexpected return of Morris's convoy that morning delayed the unit an hour.
As the Column moved west, British tanks were seen to the north moving east, and a few passed through the convoy. Enemy AFVs were sighted to the south. As they began to converge slowly on the Column, the course was changed to north, but the enemy tanks continued to close. Bofors of 43 NZ Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, which was attached to the administration group, moved out to that flank, but before they came into action a detachment of I tanks lumbered up and the enemy veered away to the south.
When the Column reached its new area at 11.30 a.m. Cottrell was waiting with 18,600 rations. A supply point was established immediately in the unit area and detailed issues made.
For the rest, 27 November was quiet and in general the next day was still comparatively so. The enemy's main activity around the Tobruk Corridor was a series of tentative probes—but there were tank battles to the south and the east. Unfortunately for Supply Column and for the whole administration group, part of these tank battles were fought over the ground they occupied.
Every Supply Column man who was there will remember that morning, each in his own way. The war diary in the studied understatement of ‘officialese’ records it like this: ‘At 0700 hours an adjoining RTC unit reported that an enemy tank concentration had been located some 2/3 miles to the west and south. Our tanks were about to engage page 172 them and in order to give them room to manœuvre they desired the area occupied by the Admin Gp cleared as soon as possible.’
Morris was ‘having breakfast in the company lines at 6.30 a.m. when a brigadier from 13 Corps, complete with white sheep-skin overcoat, pointed to the horizon in the east and said that dust clouds were Rommel's tanks and we had better move due south as we were on the forthcoming battle arena. There was no time to finish eating. We dived for our vehicles and made off in the direction of Column HQ.’
Quirk ‘was awakened early by a tank sergeant in an armoured car who advised me to shift my transport as the German tanks were on the horizon and our own tanks, who were just behind us, wanted to engage them on our camping ground after breakfast. There didn't seem any place left to go.’
Driver Hyland still hadn't had his breakfast when a tank rolled up and an officer told him, ‘I say, old chap, would you mind moving? You're going to spoil a perfectly good tank battle.’
Sergeant Johnson had returned to the Supply Column area after failing to meet trucks at the supply point when a Dingo breezed up, and a man asked, ‘What unit is this, chum?’ When Johnson cautiously asked to see his paybook, the man replied, ‘Never mind paybook. Bloody Hun's half a mile over the ridge.’
Driver Coulson was a man who believed in keeping ‘the engine well warmed up. A tank battle to the south of us. A few 25 pounders among our trucks firing south-east and west. We move again….’
By the calculation of a senior British officer, the administration group was more or less at the point of impact of the opposing groups of armour. It was, Quirk recalls, like schoolboy disputes over which game was being played where at Hagley Park, Christchurch.
The enemy concentration could be seen through binoculars to the south-west, and British tanks were already parading through the New Zealand transport and heading page 173 out into the desert in Battle of Waterloo style. However, apparently everyone was not aware a tank battle was imminent. Quirk, looking for the brigadier of 22 Armoured Brigade, encountered a captain, apparently a tank workshops officer, who was brewing up. Quirk mentioned that he believed ‘you are going to have a tank battle here in a few minutes’.
‘The hell!’ exploded the officer, visibly put out. ‘The bastards never told me. It's my day for maintenance and inspection.’
Shells were falling in the area as the transport moved off. A Hurricane swooping low across the head of the column caused a swing to the right, and the plane waggled its wings approvingly. From Rear Divisional Headquarters, to which Pryde had sent an officer, came word to go to a new area allotted to the administration group at Ed Dbana, five miles north of Divisional Headquarters. This lay between two escarpments and was supposedly screened from enemy observation. Pryde went down to flag the area, but found Ammunition Company already in possession. He selected another area half a mile to the east and with his batman, Amtman29 was flagging sub-unit areas when shells came in from the west. Pryde went to Rear Divisional Headquarters and was questioned by the CRA, Brigadier Miles, on the location of the guns. Miles thought some of his batteries could neutralise the enemy fire, but in a consultation with Colonel Crump it was agreed to move Supply Column's area further west. On the lower ground the trucks were ‘camouflaged away’ as best they could be in every hollow.
In its new position Supply Column was closer to the tank battle than was previously intended. The men could watch two tank groups milling about under a clouded sky, and occasionally overs came their way.
The tank battle sounded as though it was moving away about midday, and that is just what happened. As the battle moved south the New Zealand flank was left open, and enemy detachments eventually moved in and occupied the main page 174 dressing station and the escarpment overlooking Divisional Headquarters and the administration group. During the afternoon Corporal Baldwin and a driver left with rations for the main dressing station but were turned back by General Freyberg. At 2.30 p.m. three Supply Column men, Corporal Buchan30 and Drivers Trill31 and Sibley,32 went off to take captured German rations to a prisoner-of-war cage near Divisional Headquarters. They were last seen inspecting German prisoners of war who were shortly afterwards liberated by their own forces.
By late afternoon it was obvious that things were not going very well, and Pryde was not surprised when he was summoned to Command NZASC and told to destroy all codes and secret documents, and to be ready to follow Headquarters NZASC after dark.
When the Column had begun to settle down for the night, it wasn't aware the MDS and prisoner-of-war cage had been captured, and in the evening Morris and Rawle decided to go out to investigate what appeared to be 30 Corps moving out to the west on the New Zealand flank. They worked their way forward on their stomachs, and tracer came flying down from the escarpment that they had left that morning and fell just short of them. ‘We thought the boys of the MDS were being frivolous,’ says Morris. However, they identified the moving vehicles that they had seen as German, and hurried back to report to Pryde, who with Watt was trying to keep out the cold with a bottle of Scotch. Simultaneously a runner arrived with the message, ‘Proceed due west until further instructions.’
In any circumstances this would have been a bewildering order; on this night, with flares and tracer streaked across the sky in all directions, it was slightly frightening. It was not as vague as it sounded at the time, however. A due westward course would take Supply Column past Zaafran and Belhamed to Ed Duda, where guides were waiting to page 175 show it the route through the Corridor and into Tobruk. But the destination was not yet known to Supply Column.
The Column had been on one and a half hours' notice to move since 6.30 p.m. and all vehicles were ready, but neither officers nor men were. Many were sound asleep and were awakened with difficulty. What followed will again be remembered by all those who took part in that mad scramble across thirty miles of desert and through the narrow Corridor into Tobruk. The night was pitch black, enemy flares were close on either side, there was only a tape to follow—not always that—and the desert was strewn with minefields.
All went reasonably well until Ed Duda (Watt remembers). After that many are the claims…‘I was first into Tobruk.’…‘I was last into Tobruk.’…‘I picked up the tape and ran for bloody miles.’…‘I missed the tape but got there by instinct.’…The truth was that providence plus the tape laid by the sappers landed a bewildered Supply Column in Tobruk. Drivers did lose their way, officers did fall asleep, did lose their head, but luck was with us and we gazed open mouthed at the holes, guns, sea and rubble that was Tobruk.
That runs probably as close to the recollection of that night journey held by many men as anything. But for all the confusion and blind ignorance it wasn't—couldn't have been—such a haphazard drive as it must have seemed to many.
Acting on instructions similar to those received by Supply Column, all ASC companies moved west to Ed Duda. A series of guides from 13 Corps and from the Tobruk garrison showed the way. Shell flashes and flares broke the darkness, and the Column followed a course over hillocks and down escarpments, weaving between trenches containing bodies—in reality sleeping men, missing death only through the skill of the ASC drivers—and through lines of armoured cars and I tanks. Small-arms fire was singing overhead. Guides would lead so far, then hand over to the next guide at a key point, but at one point there was no guide to hand Supply Column on to. The missing man should have taken the convoy to a white tape and guided it through a minefield.page 176
We found the tape ourselves, and when we were all in the centre of the minefield it ran out (says Morris). As we had been zig zagging around trucks in the pitch black, I decided to investigate how the convoy was making out. Alas, I had four vehicles behind me. Maj Pryde was temporarily bogged across some tracks, and of the rest of the Column there was not a sign.
The rest of the Column was at that moment feeling its way in various disjointed sections along the precariously narrow Corridor. Several men who got out to inquire the way from infantrymen were told, ‘Jerry's 200 yards in that direction.’
The OC's car was taken in tow by Flannagan II. Told that the rest of the vehicles had gone to the left, Hyland drove for several chains, was warned that he was getting near the enemy, made another turn, and with a variety of other vehicles tagging along behind, set off again. Pryde, in his towed staff car, took up station in the rear. Every now and then the trucks would halt as a driver nodded off, and Pryde would be towed to the front and would rudely awaken the sleeping man, and away they would go again.
Sergeant Johnson was following Roberts. Whenever the trucks halted, the sergeant would alight and go back to the next truck and ask, ‘Are you awake? You walk back to the next one.’ And so a chain system of waking the driver of each truck was maintained. One stop, however, was too brief to follow this out, and at the next stop there were only half a dozen trucks behind. Roberts went back and brought up the remainder.
The head of Supply Column, meanwhile, was lodged in the minefield. Morris's station wagon was fitted with an aircraft compass—' salvaged' from a crashed plane—two sun compasses, a full set of maps and even an antiquated sextant, but none of these, he recalls ruefully, was designed to help one out of a minefield in the middle of the night. While his driver, Ferguson,33 stood on the running board and pointed out the tracks, Morris took the wheel and headed in the general direction of Tobruk. They emerged onto a clearing on the skyline just as dawn broke. Others page 177 saw them in the half light, and soon there were twenty trucks nose-to-tail. The enemy saw them, too, and shells bracketed the line. They pushed on without delay.
Truck on fire at Fuka
The approach march into Libya, November 1941
Desert formation near Tobruk
Shell bursting on the escarpment above Tobruk
Supply Company Headquarters near Tobruk
Italian guns near a supply point within the Tobruk defences
Rolling a truck at Ed Duda before dismantling for spare parts
Shelling overtook the tail of Supply Column as the day lightened up. The only casualty throughout the march, however, was the postal truck, which was blown up. There was no loss of life.
Tobruk was coming up nicely when Morris drove head-long into another minefield. He turned smartly, with every other vehicle wisely following his tracks.
At the perimeter the convoy ran into a squadron of I tanks. It was all very peaceful. Crews were spreading their blankets to air, and a young subaltern was frying bacon over a primus. Morris halted the trucks and strolled across to inquire the way into Tobruk. He marvelled at the unruffled calm of the tankies, for shells were falling fairly close. The English officer was ‘so calm I just had to try and be likewise,’ says Morris. ‘I should have felt better inside that tank. I was asking him where to find a suitable track when a shell landed a few yards on the other side of the tank. He put down his frying pan, had a look around the tank, and murmured, “Getting cheeky, what.”’
With as much dignity as he could muster, Morris half ran and half walked to the car. Rawle chuckled as he got in, and they drove off towards Tobruk.
Tobruk was a place of contrasts. As the tired-eyed travellers moved in from the desert it looked picturesque and peaceful, but as they drove on it was revealed as a town of crumbling walls and a harbour of sunken ships. Even so, there was an atmosphere of peace—a remote quietness—until with startling abruptness the garrison's big guns flared into action and the Germans' long-range stuff came rustling back.
Safely based on Tobruk, Supply Column was to have continued to supply New Zealand Division from dumps within the perimeter, but events quickly prohibited movement down the slender Corridor, and ultimately two badly mauled brigades of the Division, the 4th and 6th, broke away, together with General Freyberg's battle headquarters, page 178 and returned to Egypt. Supply Column left Tobruk only after the siege was broken and the enemy in retreat.
Supplies, however, did reach the beleaguered New Zealand units on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment on 29 November. They were carried by an RASC convoy of 300 vehicles, which at first caused alarm as they approached the New Zealanders, who were of course expecting a German attack. The leader of the convoy was Colonel Clifton,34 former commander of the New Zealand Engineers and at this time attached to 30 Corps.
Within Tobruk Supply Column soon got about its business. It settled first on the aerodrome. At noon the town was bombed. During the afternoon the unit was dispersed in the area near Marsa Biad, five miles east of Tobruk. No. 1 Echelon drew rations during the afternoon and ‘broke bulk’ in anticipation of a move to Ed Duda under the cover of darkness. But by evening it was not clear whether the Corridor was still open.
During the 29th Rommel began operations to cut the Corridor. That afternoon tanks and infantry overran the remnants of 21 Battalion on Point 175, giving the enemy observation over a large area of New Zealand Division.
Precarious as the position was, the resolve was to hold the Corridor at all costs. Unfortunately, the analogous use of the word ‘cost’ in war is often fallacious; the resolute frequently pay so heavily for what they deem necessary that they defeat their own ends. When the ‘deal’ is done they have neither the ‘currency’—men and materials—they were ready to pay, nor the victory for which they were bargaining. The New Zealanders now found themselves in this position. They had paid heavily, had in fact gained what they were seeking, but were now to lose it.
A gravely weakened 6 Brigade faced the German attack on the afternoon of 30 November. At 4 p.m. the Germans closed in from the west and south, their dust and the blinding sun behind them giving them excellent concealment, page 179 and most of 24 and 26 Battalions were overrun. Sidi Rezegh was lost. But the Division was still resolved to hold on.
When day dawned on 1 December the Germans had clear observation over our positions, and felt forward again. Their aim was to destroy what was left of the Division. The remaining I tanks and New Zealand 25-pounders and a few anti-aircraft guns beat down the main attack, but 20 Battalion at Belhamed was overrun. The remnants of 6 Brigade, grouped to the east of the guns, seemed seriously endangered, but British tanks, sent to cover a withdrawal, appeared at the last moment to save the situation. Sixth Brigade withdrew first towards Point 175, where it met heavy fire, and hurriedly turned towards Zaafran, where 4 Brigade (less the detachments in Tobruk) and Divisional Battle Headquarters were grouping. Here, on the afternoon of the 1st, were 3500 men and 700 vehicles. In darkness the New Zealanders broke away and in a tense, night drive went east and then south to Bir Gibni.
The Corridor was cut and Tobruk was again isolated. Within its perimeter Supply Column was part of a force that the Germans tauntingly called their ‘self-supporting prisoners’.
Throughout all this there was very little Supply Column could do. On the 30th it had again drawn rations for the Division and, to reduce congestion in the Corridor, had loaded these onto No. 1 Echelon trucks, still carrying the undelivered rations drawn the previous day. While the battle raged outside Supply Column knew little of what was happening and could derive only small comfort from laughing at the Italian news bulletin's claim that most of New Zealand Division had been killed and the rest captured by the Italians.
On-the-spot reports, however, were not reassuring. On 1 December Quirk wrote in his diary: ‘Fine sunny day. Artillery bombardment opened in our lines 5 a.m. You can plainly hear the shells screaming on their way…. Afternoon to Div re issue of rations. Very gloomy atmosphere. Tanks ran over 6 IB and outlook for 4 IB very gloomy. This means the whole div has been badly cut up…. Heard 20th Bn has surrendered.’page 180
Shells came in close to the Column's lines that night, and enemy planes droned overhead, lighting up the night with flares and bombs. The next day a dull sky and later rain added to the depressing atmosphere, although news about the Division was ‘a little better’. A comfortable mess was established in an Italian stone hut complete with fireplace.
There was work to be done inside Tobruk, and during the week the Column was there working parties were supplied to unload ships. The harbour was not a healthy spot; enemy aircraft were attentive, and as bombs came down and the terrific Tobruk barrage sent up shells which in their turn came down as splinters ‘like a New Zealand hail storm’, the men working on the lighters felt unhappily naked.
There were compensations. There generally are in supply work. At mid-afternoon one day Supply Column men were discharging a freighter in mid-harbour into barges when rum was discovered. Word soon reached shore. Attempts to smuggle jars off the wharf beneath coats and uniforms were quickly detected, however, and a bolder ruse was decided on. A Supply Column truck was driven onto the wharf—the RASC was actually providing transport from the wharves—loaded up with at least fifty cases, with two jars to the case, and driven away. Thereafter rum was so plentiful that it was even used for lighting primuses, and there was still some in the unit a year later.
While the Supply Column men were working, the war and the weather changed around them. Quirk noted in his diary:
4 December (Thursday): Bitterly cold with biting wind. Surprised first thing when received orders to pack and stand by. Going out, but don't know how. Saw a Hurricane on the tail of a Hun about 50 feet up and not a quarter of a mile from us. Were they travelling! A few bursts, and the Hun was a patch of dark smoke as he dived into the ground…. After tea to Column mess where I received word I am leaving tomorrow at 1530 by boat with a sergeant and three men. Terrific artillery bombardment all night. Bombers also over, machine-gunned our lines and bombed close by. Clouds low all night.
5 December (Friday): Clear and cold. To Div this morning to get some details. Big shots are flying to Alex.page 181
Tobruk was isolated until 5 December. The enemy tried to break into Tobruk and failed; Eighth Army reserves, especially in tanks, were the stronger. He decided to withdraw to the west, and the siege of Tobruk was ended.
With most of the Division already Egypt-bound, Supply Column had to start thinking about moving back itself, and on 5 December Quirk's advance guard was despatched by sea. This small group was to witness one of the war's smaller tragedies. Among those shut up in Tobruk when the Corridor was cut were a number of wounded—British, Australian, South African and New Zealand. Three hundred and eighty of them, including ninety-seven New Zealanders who were mainly stretcher cases, were taken aboard the SS Chakdina. Also on board were about twenty-three other New Zealanders, mainly medical staff, and the captured German general, von Ravenstein. In company with SS Kirkland, on which the Supply Column men had embarked, the Chakdina put out of Tobruk at 5 p.m. on the 5th.
A big shell that burst near the wharf and sent up a shower of masonry and brick was their farewell. The ships sailed down the harbour between Tobruk's sunken wrecks—‘Italian cruisers and big passenger liners burned and beached, and others with just the stern and mast showing’—and out through the heads into the Mediterranean.
At 9.30 p.m. there was a sudden shout, a swirl of movement as the crew rushed for the freighter's ack-ack protection—twelve machine guns and a Breda gun—and the ship began to spit up into the sky. Then there was a heavy explosion, and another shout, ‘The bloody Chakdina's gone.’ The Chakdina, 100 yards away across the moonlit water, was sinking after being hit by a torpedo. In three and a half minutes the water had closed over her. Then there was another explosion and the sea boiled as the submerged boilers burst. Few below deck escaped and others were drowned when the fast-sinking ship dragged them down.
The plane responsible was still droning about, but a destroyer and a corvette streaked onto the scene and allayed fears of another attack. While the naval craft picked up page 182 survivors, the Kirkland continued on her way. Her passengers and crew spent an unhappy night standing fully dressed and with lifebelts on.
British fighters came over when it became light, and the Kirkland bobbed across the swell in comparative safety. At 5 p.m., as the light was failing again, two planes were seen lurking in the low cloud, apparently waiting a chance to make a broadside-on run at the ship. The Kirkland opened up ‘like a Chinese festival’, the crew firing while soldiers filled the belts. Nearby naval craft joined in. For almost an hour the Kirkland twisted and turned and erupted ack-ack fire. The aircraft made three attempts: one torpedo went across the bow and two behind the stern.
The merchant seamen, Quirk remembers, were the ‘bravest and finest chaps I have ever seen. Bosun, cabin boy, mess waiter, galley steward and cooks manned the guns as quietly and efficiently as if they were going about their usual jobs, and they enjoyed every second of an encounter in which they could get a smack at the Hun.’ At Alexandria the Kirkland had her reward in the form of a message flashed across from the Navy, ‘Well done, Kirkland.’
Quirk and his men went back to Fuka to await the rest of the unit.
Back at Tobruk some reorganisation was going on. Since 5 Brigade was in the field it would have to be supplied, and for this purpose another 5 Brigade Company, consisting of No. 2 Echelon under Roberts, was established on the night of 7–8 December. However, it was not detached until ASC units moved back to El Beida on 8 December. The next day the bulk of the Column continued eastwards while 5 Brigade Company remained at El Beida to await an Ammunition Company detachment.
There was a mild petrol crisis at El Beida. The New Zealand liaison officer at Eighth Army Rear Headquarters said there was no petrol and oil for refuelling nearer than Bir el Thalata, and after a lot of high-level discussion Colonel Crump decided that the convoy should risk going on to Charing Cross, where vehicles with fuel from Bir el Thalata would meet it.page 183
During 9 December, while still awaiting the ammunition detachment, there was nothing to do but vehicle maintenance, and Roberts and Latimer went off to have a look at 50 FMC, a few miles to the north, from which Cottrell had fled on the evening of 24 November as German forces descended on it. They were surprised to find two RASC men in charge of the petrol dump, which was intact. The FMC had not suffered as much harm as Cottrell had feared. So there was plenty of petrol after all to replenish the convoy.
The main part of the Column rejoined Quirk and his group at Fuka on the afternoon of 9 December.
The most desperate part of the battle in Libya was now over, and although there was still fighting to be done, the enemy was falling back. There was one final struggle before the line came to rest at El Agheila.
1 ‘X’ lists: men posted to a headquarters or extra-regimental unit; men evacuated to hospital; prisoners of war and men serving detention or imprisonment; unposted reinforcements.
5 An important innovation for Crusader campaign was a Corps organisation for co-ordinating supply and maintenance of the fighting formations, known as a field maintenance centre. This would contain an FSD, a field ammunition depot, a petrol, oil and lubricants dump, a water point, a prisoner-of-war cage, a field post office, a NAAFI/EFI store (for canteen supplies), and other services, all functioning independently but making economical use of a common labour and transport pool and subject to the headquarters of the FMC for the initial layout of the whole area, the marking of routes and traffic control, local administration, security, and general co-ordination. Each corps had several of these FMCs, those of 13 Corps numbering from 50 upwards and those of 30 Corps numbering from 60 upwards, with the chief components similarly numbered. Thus 50 FMC, just inside Egypt and three miles east of the frontier wire at El Beida, included 50 FSD, 50 FAD, and so on. As it happened this FMC had a NZ headquarters—‘A’ NZ FMC—and the co-ordination was therefore carried out by New Zealanders, although the dumps and services were operated by troops from the United Kingdom. The headquarters of another NZ FMC—‘B’—was at that time waiting at 50 FMC to move forward and set up 51 FMC some 20 miles west of Sidi Omar. Some idea of the enormous size of these installations can be gained from the fact that 50 FMC covered an area of 35 square miles. So wide was the dispersion and so effective the camouflage that a German armoured division later drove through the northern fringe of this area without realising that the supplies and services for the whole British corps lay within its reach.
15 Brig D. T. Maxwell, OBE, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ, 13 Jun 1898; Regular soldier; DAAG 2 NZEF1940; AA and QMG 2 NZ Div Oct 1941-Jun 1942; comd British Commonwealth Sub-Area, Tokyo, 1946-47; comd Area 5, Wellington, 1947-48; NZ Joint Services Liaison Staff, Melbourne, 1948-51; comd Cent Central Military District 1952-53.
20 Lt-Col G. P. Sanders, DSO, m.i.d.; Linton; born England, 2 Sep 1908; Regular soldier; CO 26 Bn Jun-Jul 1944, 27 (MG) Bn and 27 Bn (Japan) Nov 1944-46; Director of Training, Army HQ, 1949-54; GSO 1 NZ Div 1954-.
26 Lt-Col R. V. Closey, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Papatoetoe; born Bury, England, 14 Nov 1897; builder; OC NZ Reception Depot Mar-Oct 1941; OC 1 NZ FMU, Libya, Nov 1941-Apr 1942; OC 1 NZ PW Repat Unit, Italy, 1945.