The Relief of Tobruk
CHAPTER 12 — The Matruh Stakes
The Matruh Stakes
HELP was closer than Barrowclough thought. When Divisional Headquarters Group settled for the night near Bir el Chleta it was less than eight miles away, with two infantry battalions and, not far behind them, another squadron of 8 Royal Tanks, while 4 Brigade with two more I-tank squadrons was five miles farther away in the Gambut area. The blanket of interference which made wireless almost useless at night, however, affected all formations and G Branch could not get through at all to 6 Brigade and not even to 4 Brigade until 2 a.m. on the 24th, though a message was received from much farther afield to say that 5 South African Brigade was now under the Division's command. Even wireless could not keep pace with events.
This signal was sent from 13 Corps at 9.38 p.m. on the 23rd. Another from 30 Corps to 1 South African Division at 10.27 told Brink to get in touch with Brigadier Armstrong as soon as possible; it pointed out that Gott would try to do the same and that, further, Armstrong would come under command of 13 Corps. The battered British armour would rise, phoenix-like, from the desert to deny the enemy the use of the ground on which he had asserted his superiority, and next day 30 Corps would reconnoitre ‘with a view to counter-attacking later’. Brink was to use mobile troops as a back-stop against light enemy forces venturing some distance south of the previous day's battleground, and he was encouraged to form a strongpoint at Taieb el-Esem on the Trigh el-Abd. This last was the only substantial suggestion, and after pointing out that 5 South African Brigade had virtually ceased to exist, Brink ordered Pienaar to move a few miles south-east at dawn and set up 1 South African Brigade in all-round defence of Taieb el-Esem, which in due course he did without trouble.
This might indicate that 30 Corps somehow remained hopeful of a favourable outcome to the present troubles. But Corps Headquarters had no clear reports of the fighting, and in particular had no idea of the size of the enemy armoured force involved. On the assumption that the German tank units had sunk to somewhere near the low level of strength of the British armour it was possible to remain page 198 hopeful. At a conference at 12.15 p.m. on the 23rd this assumption had been made with reservations, and Norrie's GSO II, Major Carver (in R/T contact with Norrie), and Godwin-Austen discussed with Brigadier Galloway ways and means of bringing 13 Corps into the battle to relieve Tobruk in accordance with Cunningham's intentions. These were that the changeover of command of the infantry in the forward area should take place on 24 November by arrangement between the two corps commanders, and that 30 Corps should ‘continue the destruction of enemy armoured forces’1 and at the same time help 13 Corps and protect its L of C as they extended towards Tobruk. Another question which the corps commanders and the BGS Eighth Army considered was how much weight the Tobruk garrison could throw into the struggle, and on this Norrie was cautious. He was asked ‘to decide whether he could break off the battle or stabilise on the line Point 175 (438404)—Bir el Gubi’; but he made no decision on this and affirmed to Godwin-Austen that he was ‘perfectly able to deal with the situation for the rest of the day in the event of an enemy counter-attack’.2 This was presumably at the time when Gott was convinced that the morning's operations by the panzer forces were the first step of a general withdrawal by them. Godwin-Austen was shortly afterwards in direct R/T contact with Norrie and got the impression that he was in no way down-hearted, but that 13 Corps would certainly be needed in full force to break through to Tobruk.
Somewhere in these discussions there emerged the alarming possibility that Eighth Army might have to break off the whole offensive, but neither Norrie nor Godwin-Austen would hear of this, the latter especially, since his corps had scarcely started fighting and, so far as he knew, his strong force of I tanks was still largely intact. (He had yet to learn of the loss of almost three squadrons at the Omars and Point 175.) But he could not fail to recognise that 30 Corps was gravely weakened and could no longer bear anything like the burden allotted to it in the crusader plan.
If the British armour had indeed failed as badly as these reports suggested, Cunningham could not see how he could carry on trying to destroy the enemy armour, because at the present rate of loss the time was not far off when he would have no tanks left at all. This raised the possibility not only of the defeat of Eighth Army but also of the invasion of Egypt. He had begun to see that the tempo of operations and the boldness of the German conceptions were beyond anything the British commanders could cope with. The British armoured brigades were quite outmatched in their fighting capabilities by the panzer divisions and there seemed nothing for it but to try to stand on the defensive on a line perhaps between Gambut and Gabr Saleh or on the frontier.
But Auchinleck found it hard to adjust his outlook to the sudden change from glowing reports of success to the present gloomy forecasts of disaster. He insisted that the offensive must go on, whatever the cost and even to the sacrifice of the very last British tank. His spirit was magnificent and greatly impressed Galloway and others who saw him at this time. With this encouragement the Eighth Army Commander therefore issued an order at 10.30 p.m. to both corps which was attuned to Auchinleck's attitude, and which was in its essentials utterly impractical unless some drastic change in the general situation took place. Godwin-Austen was to take command of all troops concerned with relieving Tobruk and was to ‘recapture’ Sidi Rezegh and Ed Duda [sic] and exploit towards El Adem, with whatever air support was needed. Norrie was to carry on as before with his efforts to destroy the enemy armour, but with the added commitments that he would have to guard both the New Zealand and South African divisions against tank attack and also be ready to meet a tank attack from Bir el-Gubi against his left flank and rear. ‘Tk strengths indicated should make comfortable allowance for this without prejudice to main role of armoured forces which is to destroy enemy tks’, the order concluded, with remarkable disregard of the plain facts of the case. Cunningham could not possibly have believed that in its present state the British armour was able to take on more and more commitments on top of that which had already proved beyond its ability, the destruction of the enemy armour. The odds had already swung against 30 Corps and this order could only increase them. But it also set in motion the complicated rearrangements required to free 5 and 11 Indian page 200 Infantry Brigades from their present tasks and make them available for mobile operations perhaps a week hence, a move which was to operate very much to the advantage of Cunningham's successor.
Auchinleck says in his despatch that Cunningham received his decision to carry on the offensive ‘loyally’ and ‘at once issued his orders to give effect to it’; but the truth was that neither had any constructive ideas as to how the situation might be retrieved, and their determination to push the New Zealand Division westwards to the area then dominated by the undefeated enemy armour in the full knowledge that 30 Corps was powerless to intervene effectively was courting further disaster. That this did not in the event come about was not their doing but Rommel's. They could not predict the striking change in the general situation which Rommel was on the point of bringing about in defiance of his advisers and to his ultimate and serious disadvantage.
1 Underlined by Auchinleck.
What Godwin-Austen proposed in detail in the order of 9.38 p.m. to Freyberg rested on the belief that, on the 24th, 30 Corps would be holding a seven-mile front running south by west from a point on the Trigh el-Abd 12 miles south of Ed Duda. He wanted the New Zealand Division to extend this line to Ed Duda. Then the Tobruk garrison would surge forward to Ed Duda and thereby complete a front extending in a huge arc for nearly 30 miles from the original perimeter of the fortress. But 13 Corps had yet to learn that Armstrong's brigade had been deleted from the order of battle, and Colonel Gentry signalled in reply at 2 a.m. on the 24th asking ‘Do you know where 5 SA Bde is now?’ Gentry also on Freyberg's behalf wanted to see Godwin-Austen or a representative during the day and suggested he should be escorted ‘as small parties of enemy tks and guns are about’. Godwin-Austen had meanwhile put his thoughts on paper for Freyberg's benefit in a personal letter which arrived late on the 24th.
HQ 13 CORPS
23 NOV 41.
PERSONAL. BY HAND OF AN OFFICER.
My Dear Freyberg,
I have just returned from 30 Corps who are in a bad way. Briefly it seems that the enemy still had at 1100 hrs today, at least 100 German Tanks in being, plus an unknown number of ARIETE. With them they were repeatedly attacking our forces South of SIDI REZEGH. Our own losses have been extremely heavy and though it may be pessimistic to say so, it may well be that we have less tanks (excluding ‘I’ Tanks) running than the enemy.
An order was issued by Army to the effect that you and your troops were temporarily under command of 30 Corps. This was done with the intention of ensuring that any task on which they were employed in conjunction with troops of 1 SA Div was co-ordinated. This, NORRIE assured me, would NOT work. It is cancelled and all troops coming into the area North of the 390 Grid line will be under your command and you under mine.
There is no necessity whatever, I'm sure you will agree, to become disheartened over the situation of our 30 Corps. We will meet and destroy the enemy tanks with our guns and ‘I’ tanks. I am absolutely determined to relieve TOBRUK when we shall automatically get at least 40 more ‘I’ Tanks.page 202
1 Designed for gaining information rather than scalps.
The sortie having made quite good progress with the capture of over 2,000 prisoners was halted owing to the check to our 30 Corps. I do not consider it has the reasonable chance of success we should offer it until we are ourselves firmly established on the ED DUDA position. I would ask you to let me know instantly when you are so disposed, using the code word curate.
I heard the question of withdrawal mentioned today but refuse to consider it while our prospects on the whole are so rosy by comparison with the enemy's whose mobile German forces are so small and of whom we have already garnered so much. Suffice it to say that like anyone of sense I have an outline plan in my mind for execution should the question arise. Its main features are that any withdrawal would be by our existing axis and that I would keep what we have gained by standing on the general line MENASTIR - 5040 - Pt 217 502388 - Pt 201 497367 - BIR BU DEHEUA 490364 - LIBYAN SHEFERZEN 495359.
It is good to feel that you and yours are with me in a situation of this kind.
With many many thanks for all you have already done.
4 Ind Div have been asked to send up all ‘I’ Tanks they can spare and the remaining Bty 8 Fd Regt.
Yours very sincerely,
The spirit of this was, like Auchinleck's, admirable; but the 13 Corps Commander was in effect asking Freyberg to undertake with only two infantry brigades what the whole of 30 Corps had failed to do. Freyberg might have to fight his way through two panzer divisions and a German infantry division, as well as various Italian formations and perhaps Ariete too. And he would have to start fighting not with the concentrated strength of 1 Army Tank Brigade but with whatever I tanks he had at hand. He could not hope to succeed in this mission unless the remaining British armour gave all possible help, and this called for a fundamental change of policy to put the relief of Tobruk as the main object of Eighth Army, a step which neither Cunningham nor Auchinleck would take. Unless the enemy armour obligingly absented itself (as unpredictably it did) Freyberg would have no real chance of success, and there was no reason to suppose that his infantry brigades would serve any other purpose than to be sacrificed like the South Africans to overwhelming panzer counter-attack. None could therefore quarrel with Godwin-Austen when he spared a thought for possible retreat. But even with a firm order rather than a request from Corps, Freyberg could not count on I-tank reinforcements from 4 Indian Division, nor (as Godwin-Austen elsewhere suggested) could he draw all his needs from Tobruk once he made firm contact. The crusader plan had not provided for this and the garrison was already, because of the prolonged break-out battle, facing a crisis in the supply of 25-pounder ammunition.page 203
A revealing statement of the position as seen from the British side comes from a meeting at about 10 a.m. on the 24th between Godwin-Austen, Galloway, Carver (in R/T contact as before with Norrie) and Brigadier Griffin (DA & QMG, 30 Corps), at which Galloway came right out with the information that Cunningham was seriously thinking of ‘ “calling off” the whole offensive’ and thereby ‘horrified’ Godwin-Austen. The latter ‘spoke to Norrie who told me that XXX Corps was as good as “finished” ’. Then Galloway asked him if 13 Corps could relieve Tobruk and he replied ‘No! but Freyberg will’. Godwin-Austen impressed on Galloway that the offensive must at all costs continue and the BGS returned to Cunningham's headquarters ‘a very much happier man’.1 But it is interesting to note that Cunningham when he saw Norrie in person a little later made no mention of retreat.
The future of Eighth Army depended less on its own leaders than on what went on in General Rommel's mind as he toured the battleground south of Sidi Rezegh after dark on the 23rd by the light of blazing lorries and tanks and saw evidence all around of overwhelming victory. He already had another good reason to congratulate himself. A very strongly worded request this day to Comando Supremo in Rome to be given direct command of the Italian 20 Mobile Corps was immediately granted and left him free to issue orders and not merely requests to General Gambara, a privilege of which he was not slow to avail himself. He could now use Ariete Armoured and Trieste Motorised Divisions however he pleased to exploit the day's success. The extent of this success was no matter for careful calculation: it seemed complete and he was led to believe that not only the whole of the South African division but all the remaining British armour, including the Support Group, had been shattered, and with their defeat all likelihood vanished of a link-up with the Tobruk garrison. He had won the battle of Sidi Rezegh and certainly did not feel like waiting for the final balance sheet before taking his next step. ‘When he came back to El Adem that night he was in a state of excited exultation’, his Intelligence staff officer says, ‘and at once began to issue orders which changed the whole character of the Crusader battle’.2
2 Mellenthin, Panzer Battles, 1939–1945, p. 73.
The essential result achieved on 23 November was the removal of the immediate threat to the forces investing Tobruk. The important thing to do now was to destroy the remainder of the enemy (elements of 7 Armoured Division) in the bag south of Sidi Rezegh, and afterwards to advance as quickly as possible to relieve the Sollum Front.
This was what Gause and Westphal at Panzer Group Headquarters thought, and Cruewell too. But Rommel disagreed, though he acted without consulting them, so that this difference of opinion did not immediately come to light. From his headquarters at El Adem he put out the orders Mellenthin mentions, the first to 3 Reconnaissance Unit at 11.15 p.m. stating that next day ‘some elements of troops’ would ‘advance towards Sidi Omar’ and that the unit was to keep the Via Balbia open and reconnoitre in force to ‘the far side of Bardia and Capuzzo’, a task which in fact meant passing right through the New Zealand Division. The next was to Fliegerfuebrer Afrika:
Air reconnaissance in force and fighter sweeps astride Trigh el Abd east of El Gubi is requested.
Thus by 11.48 p.m. he had already decided to take a considerable force along the Trigh el-Abd to Sidi Omar; and there is no reason to doubt that in so doing he meant, as the Battle Report says, to re-establish the frontier line. About midnight he sent off his usual daily report to Rome and Berlin saying that next day he meant to complete the destruction of 7 Armoured Division and ‘advance with elements of forces towards Sidi Omar with a view to attacking enemy on Sollum Front.’
The first report of the day's fighting from Africa Corps had been sent at 6.15 p.m. and said enough to confirm the impression Rommel gained with his own eyes:
Corps attack successful. Large enemy force destroyed. Forward line Sidi Rezegh airfield. Details of the situation not yet clear. Large number of PW, much material and many guns and tanks captured. page 205 Because he had lost most of his wireless sets Cruewell had to send this by way of 21 Panzer; but it no doubt reached Rommel in good time. Rommel set out for Cruewell's headquarters at midnight but did not find it and ended up at 15 Panzer Division, which was at that time, 4 a.m., out of touch with Cruewell. Rommel therefore assumed direct command of the Corps for the time being and told Neumann-Silkow that ‘15 Pz Div will detach an advance guard under Lt Col Cramer to push SE towards Sidi Omar and hit the enemy as he withdraws.’ Neumann-Silkow had already planned to reorganise his forces next day and salvage the huge amount of equipment which now lay at his disposal; he had ordered his 33 Reconnaissance Unit to cover this activity and follow up the retreating British remnants from the previous day's fighting. If the view 15 Panzer took of this fighting was correct there could not possibly be any sizable British forces left in the area:
23 November, 6 p.m.: Darkness fell. In this terrific engagement well over 2000 PW had been taken, over 100 tanks destroyed, and countless trucks, guns and SP guns captured or destroyed. 1 South African Div, with its attached tanks and A Tk, had been completely wiped out.1
Before leaving his own headquarters Rommel had had a brief talk with Westphal, in the course of which the latter pointed out that fresh British forces were ‘coming up from the east’2 and got Rommel to consider attacking these at once with Africa Corps; Westphal was not in favour of taking the Corps so far away from the Tobruk front and Rommel when he departed, taking General Gause with him and leaving Westphal in charge at El Adem, promised that he would be back by the next evening or the morning of the 25th at the latest. Lieutenant-Colonel Bayerlein, Chief of Staff of Africa Corps at the time, says that Rommel ‘still meant to take Tobruk but could not do so while he himself was still being attacked’,3 and this seems very likely. Certainly it was entirely in character. Rommel was not the man to relinquish easily his burning ambition of many a long month. Bayerlein's view finds some support in an order General Boettcher issued this day, which read in part that ‘Tobruk Fortress will be attacked and captured at a time to be decided.’
1 15 PZ Div war diary.
At the conference on the By-pass road Cruewell reported in this sense, stating that the battle just finished had resulted in ‘the destruction of the greater part of 1 SA Div and 7 Armd Div. 120 guns, many A Tk guns and trucks, and 80 tanks had been captured, and about 5000 PW. Some of the enemy had escaped south towards Gabr Saleh. Our losses were also heavy, particularly in the panzer regiments.’2 The full extent of the tank losses, however, had yet to be explored and this item attracted less attention than the preceding statements. Rommel's orders, given out after hearing this, allotted 155 Infantry and 361 Africa Regiments the task of salvaging the captured equipment and motorising their units with it. Africa Corps (and not merely elements of it) had to mount an ‘Attack on Sidi Omar to relieve the Sollum Front’.
1 The ‘Appreciation’ in the DAK diary identifies these troops as NZ Div; but this is certainly an afterthought.
2 DAK diary. The estimate of prisoners was greatly exaggerated.
The task Cruewell specified was to ‘pursue the enemy’ and this was enlarged in the order of 15 Panzer to include the route (‘via Sidi Rezegh, Gabr Saleh and the Trigh el Abd to Gasr el Abid’). The object was now stated to be to trap ‘the enemy force attacking the Sollum front’, however, and there is much to suggest that this rather than pursuit was the fundamental purpose of the move.
There are various post facto versions of what Rommel really intended by this sudden move, but pursuit and the trapping of British forces supposed to be encircling the frontier line are the only motives which appear in contemporary documents. His quarter-master-general says he meant to capture the British supply dumps and by cutting off supplies force the British to break off the action; but he scarcely concerned himself with this1 and it would have conflicted in any case with his stated intention of getting back to the Tobruk front within twenty-four hours. The pace and unexpectedness of the move, however, were no doubt meant to have a psychological impact on an enemy who had already suffered a crushing defeat.
But the exorbitant demands Rommel made on his troops in order to achieve the degree of surprise he desired had by no means a favourable influence on the minds of his own men, who had already served him wonderfully well; and he was assuming, reasonably but wrongly, that the British would at once recognise the scope and power of the advance. Had the two panzer divisions moved off to schedule and had Ariete and Trieste done likewise this might well have been the case. The resultant mass of armour and mobile infantry racing along the Trigh el-Abd might have put an end to any hopes Cunningham and Auchinleck had of maintaining the offensive. But no such assembly of might took place and the ever-lengthening and thinning column which resulted from Rommel's urgings to von Ravenstein at the head of it to increase his pace made the arrival at the frontier look much less impressive than it might have appeared. It was the 18th of November in reverse, with the British this time refusing to take the enemy move seriously enough.
1 Another sommernachtstraum was certainly not what he had in mind.
The defeat the British suffered the previous afternoon was complete enough so far as it went; but it did not go as far as the Germans thought, and it cost far more than Rommel realised. The tank strength of Africa Corps was in two or three hours almost halved, and in particular 15 Panzer, which had escaped serious loss in the fighting thus far and had entered the fray on the morning of the 23rd with 116 tanks, now had just over sixty and had lost heavily in all units of 15 Infantry Brigade, particularly those of 115 Regiment. From a first-class fighting formation, Neumann-Silkow's division was drastically reduced in strength by its reckless advance against the South Africans. Von Ravenstein had had only a small complement of infantry to start with and had suffered considerable loss in the earlier fighting; now his tank regiment was reduced from 57 tanks to about 40 and his division was down to below a third of its proper strength. The battle had cost the Germans more than seventy tanks and Cruewell might well have echoed the words of Pyrrhus about such costly victories.
Thus the corps on which Rommel's hopes mainly rested was now a blunter weapon than he thought, and the excessive haste of his dash to the frontier was to make it blunter still. This was a time to husband resources and ensure that the advantage gained in the Sidi Rezegh battle was turned to good account, as Cruewell, Westphal and others recommended. But Rommel staked everything on shock tactics to end all resistance. In so doing he put to flight British troops in his line of advance, but he puzzled rather than panicked the remainder and left the two New Zealand brigades free to operate against the siege troops outside Tobruk without interference from Africa Corps. In so doing Rommel threw away the victory won by the skill and bravery of his panzer troops and granted Eighth Army a priceless reprieve.
1 Young, pp. 110–11.
Neumann-Silkow had meanwhile strained every resource to get moving along an axis six or seven miles east of that followed by 21 Panzer, which meant threading his way from the Sidi Rezegh airfield through the rear columns of the neighbouring division. Information which came in about Eighth Army was most confusing and two reports, one from Savona and the other from 3 Reconnaissance Unit, were jumbled together to read as follows: ‘On the Sollum Front a unit of heavy British tanks had broken through towards Bir Ghirba and was advancing west along the Trigh Capuzzo and the Via Balbia.’2 Then 33 Reconnaissance Unit at 10.35 a.m. reported 21 NZ Battalion and the battered remnants of 22 Armoured Brigade farther south as enemy ‘moving SE and swinging ESE, covered by tanks, armoured cars and artillery’ while 350 vehicles remained at Bir Sciafsciuf. Who these were and where they came from were puzzles Neumann-Silkow had no time to solve. It was 12.30 before 15 Panzer moved off, with 8 Panzer Regiment and the troop of ‘88s’ leading and 15 Infantry Brigade to the right rear. By this time 21 Panzer was ‘in great depth’, as Neumann-Silkow's diary euphemistically describes it, the front and rear being more than 20 miles apart. At the best possible speed 15 Panzer could do no better than overtake a few supply detachments of von Ravenstein's and the heads of the two divisions were by 3 p.m. farther apart than ever, one at Bir Berraneb and the other nearly 30 miles away at Bir Gibni, though 5 Panzer Regiment was still tied to Gabr Saleh and out of touch with Divisional Headquarters.
1 Battle report of 5 Pz Regt.
2 15 Pz Div war diary.
1 Battle report of 5 Pz Regt.
From scraps of information gathered on the way and his own earnest thinking on the subject, Rommel had now decided what to do. Before leaving in the morning he had given verbal orders for Ariete to make for Gabr Saleh and for Trieste to vacate Bir Hacheim and head for El Adem (where Westphal would presumably send it on eastwards behind Ariete). These divisions extending eastwards would link up with Africa Corps to form a line along the Trigh el-Abd to Sherferzen, and from there to Halfaya, to block the escape of a British force which he imagined was closely investing his own frontier line on both sides. Then the two panzer divisions would drive this enemy on to the deep minefields ‘and compel him to surrender’2 Meanwhile 33 Reconnaissance Unit, which was in even worse condition than 5 Panzer Regiment and now had no armoured cars left, would push on to the escarpment at Bir Habata and block the descent there ‘for withdrawal or replenishment’ of the forces he meant to destroy. With 4 Indian Division south of the frontier line and the New Zealand Division to the north of it thus knocked out with swift blows, the campaign would be finished and Rommel could give his full attention once more to Tobruk.
1 Davv, pp. 177–9.
2 DAK war diary.
The order reached 15 Panzer 15 miles south-east of Sidi Omar and Neumann-Silkow planned to despatch 8 Panzer Regiment at 5 a.m., with 200 Regiment following, to form up south of the Omars and attack northwards at the specified time, while 115 Regiment dug in facing north and covered by anti-tank mines along the Trigh el-Abd to Bir Gibni to form a blocking position against any British troops fleeing southwards as the panzer threat developed, a task Ariete would take over when it arrived. But 33 Reconnaissance Unit could not go on to Bir Habata, ‘as it had neither ammunition nor petrol’.2
By looking to the north-east Rommel turned his back on far more tempting prizes and beguiled himself with what Kriebel called in retrospect an evil dream. But the full reward of his enterprise was also denied by the lingering misapprehensions in Eighth Army about his remaining armoured strength. It was impossible to rate the dash to the frontier at its full value if the German tank states had fallen as low as was believed, and this belief proved remarkably durable. A careful collation of the many reports on the subject might have confirmed the scope and power of the move; but since Norrie's headquarters was swept away in the flood of retreating vehicles and Cunningham's gravely threatened, no such calm staff work was possible. Reports of small details were therefore taken as whole panoramas and the impression gained ground at Army Headquarters and 13 Corps that the enemy was making his ‘last and final effort’3—enough to justify quick steps to dodge inquisitive panzers in the rear areas but not enough to make any major alteration to current policy.
1 DAK war diary.
4 Shakespear (D Coy).
1 Brig G. H. Clifton, DSO and 2 bars, MC, m.i.d.; Porangahau; born Greenmeadows, 18 Sep 1898; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1919–21 (MC, Waziristan); BM 5 Bde 1940; CRE NZ Div 1940–41; Chief Engineer 30 Corps, 1941–42; comd 6 Bde Feb–Sep 1942; p.w. 4 Sep 1942; escaped, Germany, Mar 1945; Commander, Northern Military District, 1952–53.
2 Clifton, pp. 131–3.
Godwin-Austen's headquarters near Bir el-Hariga was not directly threatened by the enemy move and could take a more balanced view of it. The first impression was that the enemy had undertaken a ‘wide encircling move from south of El Adem, with the intention of destroying the British forces in the area south of Sidi Rezegh’ and had committed for this purpose a maximum of sixty tanks. Then Ariete was thought to be threatening the supply dumps of 30 Corps. Planning to link up with Tobruk nevertheless went on and 70 Division was told to be ready to continue its sortie by 26 November if the operations of the New Zealand Division went well; if they did not then the garrison might be called to make an earlier effort as a diversion. Freyberg was to press on regardless of the situation elsewhere, and when he felt able Messervy was to relieve 5 New Zealand Brigade.
Messervy's first task was to tidy up the position at the Omars and 4/16 Punjab fought all morning to overcome resistance in a large pocket in the northern half of the Libyan Omar strongpoint. By 2 p.m. on the 24th this was cleared and many more prisoners taken; a small but extremely stubborn pocket in the west was all that now remained and this showed no signs of weakening. As it contained the ‘88s’ which had done most of the damage to the I tanks in the original attack and most of 12 German Oasis Company, which had formed the backbone of the defence of the whole position, it had to be left for a later date. In the meantime it was a constant source of annoyance, as was the artillery in the Ghot Adhidiba strongpoint (‘Cova’).page 215
These local troubles were dwarfed, as the day advanced, by the menace of the onrushing panzers, on which wireless interception of 30 Corps signals gave a running commentary soon confirmed by the front runners in the Matruh Stakes. Hundreds of lorries of all sorts raced through the area of 4 Indian Divisional Headquarters at Bir Sheferzen ‘in a great cloud of dust’,1 and when part of 30 Corps Headquarters drove through an artillery commander was told with tactful understatement that ‘owing to the German tank advance, soft-skinned vehicles were being withdrawn.’2 There was no indication that the culprits were more than ‘some Axis tanks’; but this was reason enough to take steps to protect divisional headquarters and the nearby 50 FMC. The German vanguard crossed the frontier before any action could be taken and was on its way to Halfaya by the time the few Matildas of 42 Royal Tanks and all available anti-tank and Bofors guns were sent to cover gaps in the Wire. There was still no suggestion that more than a raiding party was involved, and Messervy therefore ordered the Central India Horse and 31 Field Regiment, RA, to move out during the night to tackle any enemy east of the frontier next day and defend the FMC. In the night also Messervy's Advanced Headquarters moved into the comparative safety of Libyan Omar. ‘Night fell on a scene of confusion;’ Dobree says, ‘but darkness, strangely enough, threw light upon the situation.’ Enemy flares ‘began to soar on all sides’ and to those at Bir Sheferzen ‘it was apparent that the Germans practically surrounded them’.3 By a strange trick of fate three most important German Army officers, Rommel, Cruewell and Gause, were close at hand and in similar peril.
Aircraft of both sides operated this day chiefly in fighter sweeps, but with little effect because the situation on the ground was in a state of flux and friend and foe were in many cases intermingled. Me100s were the only German fighters with range enough to operate in the frontier area and the RAF claimed five of them for the loss of three Hurricanes. As German tanks got closer and one ALG4 came under shellfire, the five foremost landing grounds had to be evacuated in great haste; but for most fighters it was too late to fly to the rear base and a total of 175 aircraft assembled in acute congestion on LG 122, ten miles from Maddalena and only 20 miles from the nearest enemy. Panzers had in fact passed within ten miles. Local anti-aircraft guns might be able to hold off German tanks for a time; but there was little to stop the Germans, if they chose, from shelling to destruction the bulk of the RAF fighters in the desert as one target of rare opportunity.
1 Bharucha, The North African Campaigns, 1940–43 (Indian official history), p. 240.
2 Dobree, ‘On the Libyan Border’, Royal Artillery Commemoration Book, 1939–1945, p. 191.
4 Advanced landing ground.
This unique offering and the FMCs of both British corps were among the prizes Rommel rejected when he gave his main attention to the Sollum front. Eighth Army Headquarters was also at his mercy in the Maddalena area and began packing up to move if necessary. But these opportunities were fleeting. Besides Norrie's and Messervy's steps to protect their FMCs, other measures were put in hand to guard the Railhead area and all anti-aircraft guns there and around Maddalena and the ALGs were to concentrate on ground targets.
Cunningham flew north to see Godwin-Austen in the afternoon, landing at Sidi Azeiz at 2.30 p.m. and leaving two hours later, but failing to perceive on the return journey that the enemy spearhead had already crossed the frontier. He was not unduly worried by the new turn of events and in this was encouraged greatly by his commander-in-chief, who maintained a calm confidence which had a profound impact on those around him (as Norrie did this day south of Gabr Saleh). Auchinleck refused to accept the enemy move as anything more than a ‘desperate effort’ which he was sure would ‘not get very far’ and would soon outrun its supplies.1 It nevertheless flatly contradicted his assurance this morning to Cunningham that the enemy would almost certainly not be able ‘to stage any major advance for some time to come’. If Cunningham betrayed some anxiety for the safety of Egypt it was not without warrant; but both he and Auchinleck were inclined to minimise the immediate danger and an Eighth Army report to Cairo at 8.45 p.m. described the current panzer movements as ‘Probably only raids’. Both confirmed Godwin-Austen's view that the New Zealand Division should press on towards Tobruk regardless of events elsewhere. Yet Freyberg's L of C could not be kept open as things were and his division could not carry on for long without supplies. For all his admirable demeanour Auchinleck had, like Cunningham, no really constructive suggestions as to how to carry on the battle and everything now depended on how Rommel conducted his frontier operations. He had enough strength at hand, though Eighth Army refused to believe this, to compound the confusion in 30 Corps and Army Headquarters and force a general withdrawal behind the frontier, leaving the New Zealand Division isolated and starved of supplies. But Rommel's judgment was in this case even worse than that of his opponents and he gave them three priceless days in which to retrieve their blunders and rebuild their strength while he squandered his own.page 217
Nobody had more reason than Brigadier Barrowclough to rejoice at the new developments, though he was only vaguely aware of them. He had strained every resource to be ready for a tank onslaught of the kind which had overwhelmed the South Africans the day before, and realised with immense gratitude some hours later that this danger had for the time being passed. It was a great relief, too, to be rid of many of the wounded and most of the empty RMT lorries which had cluttered his area, and he had no idea of the wild adventures to which he had committed them.
Major Hood1 of 6 RMT Company had had to canvass during the night battalion commanders whose whereabouts he could only guess to get them to release their troop-carrying lorries, and in so doing narrowly escaped disaster on an enemy minefield. B Section, which carried 25 Battalion, was almost hopelessly mixed up in the unnamed wadi with other transport and guns and quite unready to move, and C Section with 26 Battalion was also hard to disentangle. The whole area was now under shellfire and another detachment of his lorries drove into the unnamed wadi loaded with prisoners who had not been fed and who complained about being held under fire. Only A Section with 24 Battalion was readily extricated, and Hood told it to pick up wounded at the ADS and form up behind Company Headquarters. But the brigade staff intervened in Hood's absence and sent this section off southwards; Hood got back in time to see it disappear over the horizon. Four more lorries were needed for wounded and he supplied them. A little later he moved off himself with the bulk of the company, the staff captain's words ringing in his ears: ‘For God's sake get rations, ammunition, water and fourthly petrol as soon as you can get it up.’
Similar adventures befell most New Zealanders who on 24 November tried to supply the various units of the Division or went back for more ammunition, water, rations or petrol. The careful provisions of the crusader plan for maintaining these services had already been gravely strained when Freyberg took two brigades westwards instead of one. Under the impact of Rommel's dash to the frontier the whole maintenance organisation was shattered. ‘Extended & unprotected L of C is bringing its difficulties’, the A & Q diarist wrote this day with masterly restraint. Rear Divisional Headquarters and Administration Group had moved to Abiar Nza Ferigh south-west of Sidi Azeiz, a calm desert island in a turbulent sea. The diarist was worried at first because 5 Brigade badly wanted to engage a field artillery target ‘behind HALFAYA’ but could not get enough ammunition. Then he was concerned for the safety of his own Group and thought of asking for permission to move inside Hargest's perimeter at Sidi Azeiz, which would have been a fatal move. The diary of Headquarters of NZASC lists one column after another which failed to get through to its destination and several came back to Rear Division with their loads intact. Only 5 Brigade units (other than 21 Battalion) were this day supplied so far as Rear Division knew.
Supplies did in fact reach both 4 and 6 Brigades, though in limited quantities and by means hazardous enough to satisfy the most insatiable desire for excitement. The composite supply company1 specially formed to replenish 6 Brigade in its detached role got caught up very early, not in the Matruh Stakes but in another ‘flap’ promoted by South Africans heading back from yesterday's disaster, and got back to Nza Ferigh by about 10 a.m. A more experienced officer than Captain Roberts2 might have ignored such tales; but they were extraordinarily convincing and the ‘contagion of bewilderment and fear and ignorance’3 needed strong medicine to cure it.
The 6 Brigade Supply Officer, Captain Bean,1 came into the brigade area early in the morning with a few lorry-loads of supplies. The main body of Divisional Ammunition Company and A Section of Divisional Petrol Company halted a few miles short of 6 Brigade, but Major Coutts2 stood firm against the panicky flood of vehicles which swept past and ignored advice from all quarters to join the exodus. Then a New Zealand provost officer came in and told Coutts to move to Bir el-Haleizin, a few miles south of Sciafsciuf, and Coutts set out at 11 a.m. By 12.20 p.m. he came up behind 22 Armoured Brigade, and since this was firing at tanks directly ahead he had to halt. When he learned that 6 Brigade was urgently in need of ammunition, however, he despatched his B Section at once and it got through, and an hour later he sent off A Section to 4 Brigade at Gambut. This, too, arrived safely; but six lorries carrying Bofors ammunition for 4 Brigade fell into enemy hands. As 22 Armoured Brigade swivelled round to follow the German vehicles with its guns, Coutts had to move a mile south to clear their fields of fire and in this uncertain no-man's land he stayed for the night with the vehicles he had left.
On the other hand Africa Corps was even harder to supply than the New Zealand Division. Ammunition and other supplies from the dumps beside the Via Balbia west of Gambut could only reach the panzer divisions by very roundabout routes, which had first to be explored and opened. As the Quartermaster-General of 15 Panzer noted this day, ‘many isolated vehicles went astray in the desert and some of them were captured.’ The supply route selected from Gambut was by way of the Tobruk By-pass and Sidi Rezegh and 66 metric tons went along it to be delivered during the night. Another 33 lorry-loads followed later but did not reach the By-pass until 4.30 a.m. on the 25th and their time of arrival at 15 Panzer was highly problematical. Another worry was that the fighting had so far entailed a very heavy expenditure of 50-millimetre ammunition and only ten tons remained at the divisional dump. Similar records of 21 Panzer have not survived; but this division was certainly no better off, as its supplies had to be moved westwards in a great hurry to escape 4 New Zealand Brigade. Besides the difficulties and dangers of getting convoys through to Africa Corps, there was the even greater danger that the stocks by the Via Balbia would be captured; but neither the QMGs concerned, nor Westphal at El Adem, nor Rommel and Cruewell properly appreciated this and all reposed excessive confidence in the ability of Captain Briel's makeshift battle group to hold off marauders.
1 Brig S. H. Crump, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born Wellington, 25 Jan 1889; Regular soldier; NZASC 1915–19; Commander NZASC, 2 NZ Div, 1940–45; comd 2 NZEF, Japan, Jun-Sep 1947; on staff HQ BCOF and NZ representative on Disposals Board in Japan, 1948–49.
First thoughts in 6 Brigade on the 24th were to consolidate rather than to attack. Major Mantell-Harding, second-in-command of 24 Battalion, had gone forward at 4.30 a.m. with A Company, some badly-needed company vehicles, and probably 7 and 8 Platoons of 3 MG Company; but the blazing tank which had been pointed out to him as a signpost of the route had burned itself out and he fetched up in no-man's land south of Tomlinson's FDLs. The C Company pickets were not unduly nervous, however, and Mantell-Harding drove through without incident and came upon Shuttleworth as the sky was beginning to lighten. He found the CO ‘looking very weary after his hard task of the previous day’ but glad to have his battalion once more together, and A Company went into reserve behind C. At about 7 a.m. 26 Battalion moved up along the southern flank and dug in facing south to meet the expected attack, with the hard-hit 9 Platoon of 3 MG Company in support. Only six of the nine Stuart tanks which C Squadron of 8 Royal Tanks took over during the night could be persuaded to start, but the troopers towed the other three into position and by 8 a.m. all were at action stations south of 26 Battalion. Though no attack developed the enemy Army Artillery in the Belhamed area brought the 6 Brigade box under fire, to which 6 Field Regiment replied vigorously. This exchange chiefly affected the parties engaged in burying the dead in ones and twos and half-dozens where they lay, but it did not deter them and every now and then they were rewarded by finding a wounded man still alive.
Barrowclough was further reassured by the news that Divisional Headquarters was not far away and was moving up with 4 Brigade, and by a message from 22 Armoured Brigade that it was ‘covering page 223 our flank to the SOUTH and our rear to the EAST’, though he had no indication of the low strength to which it had been reduced. Stragglers came in, too, from the south with tales of ‘complete destruction of their unit by the Panzer units’1 and confirmed the worst fears about the South African brigade. When the ‘unending stream’ of German transport moved to the south-east at a distance of about three miles it was not immediately clear that it took with it all threat of tank attack on 6 Brigade, but the men were naturally glad to see it go.
1 G. H. Logan, 7 Pl, 24 Bn.
We placed our greatcoats in a pile to be collected later and on we went with fixed bayonets. It seems that at the top of a slight rise … the Germans had established an OP so that they were able to direct fire upon our transport in the rear. As we moved forward one or two shots were fired at us, but as we came near the top of the rise the troops in the OP retreated, leaving their gear and what I took to be a radio set.
Another member of 12 Platoon says, ‘I remember Capt. Brown1 saying it was just a Coy job, with no supporting arms at all, just our own 2” mortars and … anti-tank rifles.’2 D Company, however, was asked to give supporting fire, and perhaps C Company, too. When 10 Platoon, moving forward along the top of the escarpment, got to the three burnt-out Valentines which had become a landmark on that part of the front, it came under fire and went to ground, but the fire was soon lifted as 12 Platoon drove off the enemy around the cairn, and 10 Platoon was urged on by Captain Brown in person as he ‘gave us a running commentary on what the Hun was doing’. In so doing Brown attracted much fire himself which drove him from one to another of the derelict tanks.3
B Company had done very well in gaining the cairn at small cost; but like 25 Battalion earlier it found the lure of the ground beyond irresistible. Second-Lieutenant Ashton,4 leader of 12 Platoon, gained ground by fire and movement but was killed with several others by long-range mortar or MMG fire on the forward slope and Second-Lieutenant Breen5 of 10 Platoon was badly wounded. Private Bott6 of 12 Platoon who was hit by a mortar burst, has this to say:
All around us chaps were being killed and wounded and the attack was brought to a standstill. Wait until nightfall' was the next order—‘in the meantime, find whatever cover you can’.
4 2 Lt H. B. Ashton; born NZ 24 Jun 1918; clerk; killed in action 24 Nov 1941.
The fortunes of B Company were followed anxiously by Brigadier Barrowclough; for he could see with painful clarity that his grip on Hill 175 would remain expensive unless the Rugbet en-Nbeidat and the Blockhouse ridge beyond were also in his hands. As these features began to take shape in his mind as objectives for further attack he had the doleful task of weighing the lives he would have to spend against those he might save. The map had made 175 the dominant point; but the map was deceptive and the sense of relief he hoped to enjoy when he gained the crest was lost in the deceptive lie of the land, which gave the ground around the Blockhouse dominion not only over the forward slopes of 175 but over the south-eastern approaches, with the Rugbet a covered route for counter-attack.
The need to seize the Blockhouse area was immediate and pointed; but the decision was taken out of his hands when Freyberg's wider purposes were made known to him and the whole of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment became a stepping stone to Tobruk. The Rugbet and the Blockhouse remained the first objectives, and since the enemy was reported to be ‘strongly entrenched’3 around the latter Barrowclough had to think hard about how he would take them. The first steps were to reorganise his present resources to the best effect.
3 Barrowclough's report.
Major Veale and his men of 8 Royal Tanks made brave and strenuous efforts, often under fire, to recover several of the damaged Valentines; but they were mostly damaged beyond repair and some were still under such heavy fire that salvage work was impossible. By next morning he nevertheless had four tanks more or less ready for action, apart from the recaptured Stuarts.
Freyberg, too, had Barrowclough's interests very much in mind in view of reports of the heavy losses sustained, and soon after midday he ordered 21 Battalion Group at Bir Sciafsciuf to move at once to Point 175 and come under Barrowclough's command. Various delays were imposed, however, chiefly by uncertainties about what lay to the south, and it was not until dusk that Lieutenant Colonel Allen reported to Barrowclough just short of the unnamed wadi. The latter decided to leave 21 Battalion where it was, just east of 26 Battalion and guarding the southern flank, until morning, when it was to take up position on the eastern end of the southern escarpment. This increment of strength in the brigade group of 22 officers and 609 other ranks would therefore not be available for attacking the Blockhouse; it was more important, as Barrowclough saw, to deny the enemy use of the highest of the three ridges which commanded the area in which Freyberg hoped to join hands with General Scobie. Barrowclough's resources thus remained stretched taut and the need for a third brigade in the battle to relieve Tobruk, as Freyberg had predicted, was only too evident.
The enemy was evidently disposed in some strength in the area and Freyberg concluded the attack must be mounted. At 8.50 a.m. 20 Battalion was put at five minutes' notice to move. Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger was given a rough outline of his task, went forward to see for himself what it entailed, and made his plan. The Valentines were formed up at the bir, flanked to right and left by two 2-pounder portées, and with D Company 300 yards to their right rear and B Company the same distance left rear on a total frontage of some 1000 yards. A and C Companies were 600 yards farther back and with them a platoon of 2 MG Company. The infantry were carried in lorries of C Section, 4 RMT Company, and these were to return to the starting line when they dropped their loads. The Bren carriers already formed a screen in front and at least one was hit by mistake by one of the Valentines. The 26th Field Battery was still under Kippenberger's command and gave supporting fire.
1 With HQ 8 R Tks and A Sqn.
2 War diary of 1 Army Tk Bde.
The momentum of the advance, however, was too great for the opposition and even Major Bevan3 of 26 Battery could not keep up in his carrier. Moreover, the dust and smoke were so thick that ‘it was necessary to fire a round of gun fire from whole Bty’ just to observe and correct the fire, an unusual expedient for so skilful a gunner as Bevan. To Kippenberger it looked as though Bevan was on the wrong target altogether and he later wrote that ‘The Arty did not help the attack as their fire was 200 yards from the enemy posn.’4 But Bevan may have been able to see that the main enemy strength was to the east of the group Kippenberger meant to attack. Other field guns, too, had joined in, including some with 4 Brigade at Gambut.
By 11.40 a.m. the enemy transport on the objective began to move quickly eastwards to escape the shellfire. Then, when he saw the I tanks halt and the infantry move up through them, Kippenberger raced up to see what was happening. O'Neill told him ‘7 of my tanks are hit and I'm rallying’;5 but Kippenberger would have none of this, made a forceful reply, and the tanks went on. As A and C Companies drove forward on an impulse he headed them off and directed them to the left of B Company so that all four companies finally advanced in line. As they got close opposition quickly died down and the fight was over. ‘As we neared our objective the enemy broke and ran’, says Macpherson,6 and another account indicates that some of the enemy dropped down the escarpment out of sight. Within twenty-five minutes the tanks rallied and the infantry were ordered to embus. ‘Enemy routed’, says 20 Battalion diary, ‘and heading fast towards Cairo.’ The object had been achieved and there was no need for pursuit. In any case a signal had come in from Division at 12.20 p.m. ordering the battalion to move west to rejoin 4 Brigade at 1 p.m.
1 G. F. Clarke.
2 J. A. Macpherson.
The losses of A Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, however, were of a different order. Only three men were killed; but seven tanks were lost, and though five of these were eventually recovered it was four days before they were all back in action. This loss had undoubtedly to be paid for later when these tanks were badly needed. In his diary this day Freyberg commented that ‘20 Bn carried out successful attack at midday on Sidi Clif style which eliminated nuisance pocket between 20 Bn and rest of 4 Bde’; but it is doubtful if he realised what he had to pay in terms of I tanks. Fortunately B Squadron of 8 Royal Tanks reached 1 Army Tank Brigade this night after a forced march from 5 Brigade at Fort Capuzzo and helped to make up for the Valentines lost here and the greater loss suffered by C Squadron with 6 Brigade. The anti-tank troop and three carriers were sent to cover the salvaging of the damaged tanks; but long before this was finished they were recalled to 20 Battalion. The infantry had to walk back to their lorries, and some of them who had gone a good way east of Point 172 had a long trudge back. The battalion moved off westwards with Divisional Headquarters, after several false starts, soon after 3 p.m.
German records disclose that the attention paid to the enemy at Point 172 was flattering. No more than a detachment of 3 Reconnaissance Unit was in occupation, the main body of the unit being farther east. The ‘88’ had annoyed 4 Brigade around the Gambut airfield and had knocked out a Matilda of 44 Royal Tanks; but there was enough field artillery there to keep it quiet. Colonel von Wechmar could feel as satisfied as Kippenberger with the outcome of the fight. All that the German unit admits losing is the engineer platoon and an attached company of 200 Engineer Battalion, the bulk of which may have been the 61 men surprised by Captain Quilter. But von Wechmar could no longer hold open the pass up the escarpment south of Gambut, nor were there supply columns to make use of this, and so he withdrew and came upon 15 Panzer Division north-west of Sidi Omar during the night. The absence of 3 Reconnaissance Unit for the next two days nevertheless greatly handicapped Colonel Westphal in his efforts to find out what was happening outside Tobruk.
Some of von Wechmar's troops tried at first to slip along the foot of the escarpment westwards but they felt the full force of the field guns of 4 Brigade and quickly changed their minds. For most of the morning 4 Brigade was concerned with enemy concentrations to the north-west, observed by ground troops and Tac/R aircraft and reported in due course to Air Support Control. It did not dawn on any of these observers that the masses of transport belonged mainly to German supply troops, and Brigadier Inglis was worried about a possible counter-attack. He therefore got 44 Royal Tanks to parade its Matildas in full view of the enemy and Colonel Duff1 engaged targets in this direction with ‘a few rounds from all our guns instead of firing the same amount from a single troop or battery’.2 A signal of 12.40 p.m. spoke of a brigade with many tanks ready to attack 4 Brigade on a frontage of at least two miles from some seven miles west of Gambut. ‘Vehicles as far as can be seen’, it added. At 1.15 p.m. 1 Survey Troop was sent to Point 172 to locate guns in this enemy mass by flash-spotting and by 2.30 was established there for this purpose with complete line telephone. Five minutes later, however, the troop was told to close down and be ready to move westwards at 3.15 p.m.
Duff mentions a troublesome ‘5·9’ gun which could not be pinpointed so that counter-battery action was ‘very sketchy’.3 It was in fact a 150-millimetre howitzer which Captain Briel had obtained to strengthen his little force guarding the dumps of Africa Corps, together with some tanks from the nearby workshops which came forward as soon as they were repaired and eventually numbered five. It was a useful weapon; but Briel credited it in his report with full responsibility for the many readjustments of position the various elements of 4 Brigade carried out in the course of the morning, so that the paragraph in question, telling of the effects of its fire, is an amusing fantasy:
The result was excellent. The British battery had to change position several times, the OP could not operate from the escarpment, and the British vehicles charged round the airfield in wild confusion.
1 Brig C. S. J. Duff, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wellington, 19 Nov 1898; Regular soldier; comd 34 NZ A-Tk Bty 1939–40; CO 7 A-Tk Regt Oct 1940-May 1941; 4 Fd RegtAug 1941-Apr 1942; CRA 3 NZ Div Aug 1942-Oct 1944; NZLO Melbourne, 1947–48.
3 Duff, report in 4 Bde diary.
The battle group had accomplished the task I had been given in spite of the enemy's great superiority in men and weapons. We had held our positions and enabled the supply services of Africa Corps to escape and to ensure the Corps' supplies.
Briel had reason to be proud and his little force had done well; but the real saviour of the supplies of Africa Corps was someone in Corps or Army who laid it down that Inglis was not to get committed north of the Via Balbia.
The move by 4 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters of 8–12 miles went off with no greater incident than a few bursts of MG fire at dusk from an isolated enemy pocket in the escarpment, along the foot of which Divisional Headquarters was advancing with no fighting troops directly in front. This caused a celebrated ‘about turn’ and the Group retraced its steps for half a mile; but 21 Battalion joined 6 Brigade as arranged and 20 Battalion caught up with 4 Brigade half an hour after the latter halted. By some misunderstanding 6 Brigade was expecting 4 Brigade to attack Point 175 from below the escarpment, and when Shuttleworth reported at dusk that he was in contact with 20 Battalion to his right rear Barrowclough assumed that an attack had in fact taken place, persuaded perhaps by the firing which broke out in front of Divisional Headquarters.
Freyberg was now able to correct some of the misapprehensions which lingered from the false reports of the early fighting and which as late as 9 a.m. this day allowed him to think that 5 South African Brigade was eight miles south of the Sidi Rezegh airfield and under his command. He planned to extend the line northwards from there to Belhamed, as Godwin-Austen had ordered. A situation report issued by Division at that time estimated that the main strength of the enemy lay at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, and that at least eight enemy battalions held the east sector of the Tobruk front with a total of 119 guns of calibres ranging from 75-millimetres to 150. Even with the combined strength of the New Zealand Division (counting, as G Branch did at first, the now-defunct South African brigade) and the Tobruk garrison this promised severe fighting, in the course of which 30 Corps could give far less help than Freyberg was relying on. Then Freyberg received his first detailed news of the fighting at Point 175, as he noted in his diary:
Got in wireless comn with 6 Bde at last—B. sounds cheerful enough but has had pretty tough time and Sqn of Valentines knocked out except for 2 plus 120 casualties, including McNaught wounded and 3 coy comds killed. Germans suffered heavily. At present 6 Bde is being shelled by page 233 105mm guns which, of course, outrange our 25 pr. 5 SA Bde reported over-run by enemy tanks and to have dispersed South. 6 Bde are ready for possible tank attack and hoping rest of Div is on way. Sent them message re our plans to clear up area here at 1100 hrs and move at about 1230 with 4 Inf Bde and 21 Bn to swing on to B's front.
But the Divisional staff remained hopeful that first reports of the disaster to the South African brigade were exaggerated and marked it on a sketch in an intelligence summary even next day as a formed body rather south of where it was previously expected to be, thinking it might have been driven southwards but not put right out of the battle.
With his two brigades in line about 12 miles from the nearest elements of 70 Division, Freyberg now had to plan the next phase of operations to link up with Tobruk. His first impulse was to drive straight ahead at once regardless of opposition; but Brigadier Miles urged caution. The next step was a conference with his brigadiers, reported in his diary as follows:
Barrowclough and Inglis came in for a conference. 6 Bde are weary but cheerful. They have been warned by 30 Corps to be ready for an attack by large concentration tanks presence of which is confirmed by Tac R. (CN1: Brig Watkin[s] pays a tribute to Gentry. ‘He is the calmest G1 I have ever met—nothing shakes him.’ I agree, remembering Monemvasia.2)
6 Bde hold crest of 175 without having observation on the Wadi. Barrowclough reported that 26 Bn had gone forward and been in contact with 5 SA Bde. The latter had been attacked by tanks and completely overrun. They had broken to the South. The 26 Bn were isolated but held their position splendidly and one troop of arty is reported to have knocked out 24 German tanks. They also killed a lot firing over open sights.
Question of points to take was discussed.
CRA: ‘If we strike any stiff opposition at all I think we are in a very insecure position if we do not have the top escarpment.’ Intelligence officer Corps says Boche did not have more than 100 tanks and that is not taking into account what happened yesterday.
GOC: ‘Consider Boche are going and that fires seen are destruction of material.’
It was agreed that going along the escarpment was a night show.3
GOC: ‘The only thing that frightens me from going straight on are his guns.’
Finally decided that 6 Bde should enlarge their show without worrying about timing of attack while 4 Bde should advance to overlook country up to Bir Hamed [Belhamed].
3 i.e., that shortage of artillery ammunition and other considerations made it advisable to attack by night rather than by day along the top of the escarpment.
In saying that he thought the ‘Boche are going’ Freyberg of course meant the whole of Panzer Group Africa, and none of those present had any knowledge of what Africa Corps was doing this day. Barrowclough's immediate object of relieving an irksome situation by a short advance to the west was radically different from Freyberg's fear lest the enemy should slip away altogether. Freyberg nevertheless remained very confident and signalled to Godwin-Austen at 11.39 p.m. as follows:
Have now formed up as binary division without Div Cav. Large pockets enemy still in our rear. We are attacking westward and are now on a line running north and south through Pt 175…. If we had petrol and ammunition we might have been in tobruk early tomorrow. As it is we hope to get there tomorrow night but impossible to be definite.
This was just the sort of message Godwin-Austen expected from Freyberg and it must have done much to offset other curious and worrisome reports which reached Corps this day.
The plan eventually agreed to in outline at the brigadiers' conference and later confirmed was that 4 Brigade should advance three miles at dawn on the 25th to a line running from Zaafran south to the Trigh Capuzzo, and that 6 Brigade should seize the Rugbet and the Blockhouse area in a swift advance before first light.
‘Hargest is happy’, the GOC noted in his diary, ‘and thinking of going into Salum. He sent me a cheerful letter. Reported that Army Comd is very pleased with what NZ Div has done’. Then Freyberg went to bed and next morning noted, ‘Turned in for some sleep feeling sure that the Boche had gone’. Rommel was equally certain that the New Zealand Division lay at his mercy north of the frontier line.