The Relief of Tobruk
CHAPTER 16 — A Costly Night Attack on Sidi Rezegh…
A Costly Night Attack on Sidi Rezegh
NO such bloodless victory rewarded 6 Brigade in its night attack on Sidi Rezegh, and Barrowclough expected none. He got what he foresaw: a bitter fight for each rocky crag, each shingle scree, every wadi and many of the countless crevices on the stretch of the escarpment where enemy awaited his onslaught. Even his comprehensive First World War experience of violence and slaughter scarcely prepared him for what took place this night on the way to Sidi Rezegh.
He needed no order from Freyberg to tell him that the ridge must be taken whatever the cost. His men could not stay where they were, overlooked from north and south and open to fire and counter-attack. Before any word came from Division he turned over in his mind the possibilities open to him and found they were few indeed. The southern escarpment, though it dominated all his left flank, could not be tackled. All his resources were needed to gain ‘the high ground overlooking the MOSQUE of SIDI RESEGH’.1
His own headquarters had to hide in a hollow no deeper than a dewpond and when he called up his commanding officers it was to ‘no secluded conference held in the security of deep dugout or steep ravine’. Seven or eight officers, Shuttleworth, Page, Allen, Burton, Weir and the Brigade Major, Barrington, among them, had to ‘lie flat on the open desert with maps spread out on the ground before them’, as Barrowclough says in his report. ‘The slightest raising of the head immediately drew fire from the snipers and machine guns … and shelling and mortar fire added to the discomforts.’ As Burton recalls it, ‘Shells were bursting nearby and pieces of flying metal and rock were whizzing by’. The telephone rang from a nearby trench and Barrington crawled over and slid gratefully below the level of the bullet-swept ground to answer it. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ Barrowclough announced, ‘the General insists that Sidi Resegh be taken.… 24 and 26 Battalions will attack and capture Sidi Resegh tonight.’2
1 Barrowclough's report.
Shuttleworth and Page both pointed out that their men were weary, that the leadership of the many officers and NCOs who had been lost was ‘sorely missed’, and one of them added that the 25th might be committed, as it was already in position less than 2000 yards from the main objective. Burton said nothing to this, but when Barrowclough insisted that 25 Battalion must go into reserve he offered to leave it in position until 11.30 p.m. to form a firm base for the attack and his offer was accepted. With the main points settled, Shuttleworth and Page, as Barrowclough says, ‘very gallantly applied themselves to the inevitable task.’ To help fill the gaps left in 24 Battalion by the previous night's operation, Allen contributed his own weak A Company and a platoon of C Company of the 21st, while Burton supplied two skilled men from his own ‘I’ Section to help Shuttleworth.1 Thus all four battalions were represented in the attacking force and the troops, as Barrowclough adds, ‘in spite of extreme fatigue and heavy losses … resigned themselves to the prospects of another night's heavy fighting against obviously superior odds.’
The plan which emerged, unlike that of the previous night, was simplicity itself: 26 Battalion was to attack westwards along the escarpment as far as the Mosque while the 24th attacked north-westwards to seize the stretch between the Mosque and the lattice observation mast. Shuttleworth's task was a ‘silent’ frontal assault over 1000–1300 yards of almost flat desert which tilted slightly to the north-west, and for this purpose he lined up all four of his companies near his C Company position on a front of perhaps 1000 yards.2 Both units had a hot meal before the start, the first in some cases for three days, and it ‘put new heart into the men’, all of whom well knew they would need all the strength and resolution they could muster.
No written orders for the attack survive and accounts disagree as to the starting time; but it was probably about 11 p.m. that the men rose to their feet and began walking through the black night in fairly close order. Both battalions struck opposition almost at once, flares rose up in front of them, tracer bullets cut the intervening ground into jagged patterns of light and dark, the air was filled with a deadly rustling, whistling and shrieking, and then anti-tank guns and mortars joined in and the streaking gun-flashes and shattering explosions told their ominous tale of an enemy ready and waiting.
1 The remnants of A Coy, 24 Bn, had already gone to reinforce C Coy (Tomlinson).
2 C Coy of 24 Bn was on the right, D centre and B on the left; where A Coy, 21 Bn, fitted into the line is a matter of dispute but it seems likely that it was on the right.
A and B Companies of the 26th came to grips with the enemy in the first wadi, getting showered with grenades as they mounted the far slopes, and charged all signs of movement. The crest gained, they rallied to the calls of their officers and NCOs and especially to Major Milliken's1 roars of encouragement, and then ran into more bullets and grenades as they descended into the next hollow—‘all bayonet, small arms, very tough fighting’, it seemed to Tolerton, the adjutant.2 Milliken of A Company was too prominent among his men to escape harm and in one of the many wadis on the way he was killed. In another Page was badly wounded. Second-Lieutenant Lamb,3 after Milliken fell, led A Company onwards, alongside Captain Gatenby4 of B Company, and in the early hours the two reached the flat ground below the Mosque and began to form a front there from the various oddments of their companies they could find in the dark. Fighting was still going on all round them and C Company had to deal with many pockets of enemy left behind in the broken ground. It was impossible to keep detachments in good order over such ground and against such a numerous and resolute enemy. Immense self-control and determination was needed to make any progress at all against one MG post after another, but the men carried on, stumbling in the darkness unevenly lit by flashes and flares, until the goal was reached. This was the ‘hardest, bloodiest and most deadly attack ever staged by our Unit’, according to a mortar NCO of the 26th,5 and statistics support him. Behind the advance stretcher bearers and all others who could be spared found men everywhere who badly needed their help.
D Company of the 26th, luckier than the others, pressed on against comparatively slight opposition and ended up on its objective, as near as Major Walden6 could judge in the dark. Sergeant Dodds7 of 16 Platoon had been particularly aggressive in leading his men through heavy MG fire to consolidate on the position Walden indicated, and at Walden's instigation he then made three sallies to check the position, bringing back valuable information.
2 A rear HQ had been set up on the starting line to keep in touch with Brigade and with the companies by wireless, while Page and a small HQ travelled in the middle of his attacking force.
3 2 Lt F. G. S. Lamb; born Methven, 22 Feb 1918; clerk; died of wounds 28 Nov 1941.
5 M. A. Cameron.
The advance of 24 Battalion across the flat was, if anything, a grimmer ordeal for some platoons than that of the 26th along the escarpment. The men came under fire almost at once and on the right, as Tomlinson says, had ‘hand-to-hand fighting practically all the way to our objective.’ The enemy fought their guns to the last. ‘Few prisoners were taken that night as all Coys were so below strength by this time that we simply had not got the men to look after them’, he adds. Ferguson of A Company of the 21st found himself under MG and mortar fire from three sides and he was urging his men through it when he received orders to ‘drop back a little and dig in till dawn’. D Company of the 24th, like its counterpart of the 26th, seems to have missed most of the shooting on the way and had begun to dig in on the escarpment south-west of the Mosque before it attracted much attention. Then on a ‘bare forward slope’, Private Shakespear3 says, ‘enemy fire became murderous, machine gun, anti-tank, and mortar fire from directly ahead. The Coy was cut to pieces.’
2 Though their methods were not always admired. As Cameron of 26 Bn mortar platoon says, some of them were ‘screaming “Amigo, Amigo”, with one hand up and the other on the machine gun.’
The men put up piles of stones where the ground would not respond to their picks and Shakespear, who had managed to dig down a few inches, was hit through the elbow when he raised his arm to reach his pick. His account outlines a grim picture:
I lay quietly as the firing started again. Nothing could live above ground. It eased again, and Pte. G. Whyte1 and Pte. Cain2 got up to put more stones around their shallow slit trench, machine gun fire killed them both. Pte. Milstead,3 a splendid soldier, and several others were wounded, Saddleton4 and Burgess5 among them.… I have since wondered why the order was given to halt at that particular mark, as we could do nothing, whereas had we dropped back into a wadi, many lives might have been saved.
On the extreme left of the 24th, however, B Company had a charmed life and struck very little opposition. When dawn came it moved forward in extended order to the crest of the escarpment, passing on the way many Bersaglieri and ‘a number of our chaps’, according to Private Bott, ‘as well as two of our chaps sitting up wounded and groaning’. Captain Wallace,6 temporarily in command, stood up and waved his revolver when he saw what was meant to be a white flag ahead and some thirty Italians stepped forward to surrender without a shot fired. ‘We then dumped our greatcoats’, Bott continues, and ‘moved forward along the ridge.’
The rest of 24 Battalion, nearer the Mosque, had a much harder time when day broke. The Mosque itself was still in enemy hands and ‘as daylight improved one could see them … running round their built up dug-outs’, according to Lynn of D Company. This company was ordered to open rapid fire and did so, but was at once assailed by fire from three tanks which appeared as if from nowhere. To 17 Platoon on an exposed forward slope this was disastrous, as Corporal Opie7 explains:
as dawn came, enemy fire including cannon became more accurate. An enemy tank right in front of our Pl began to play havoc with the breast-works of rock etc put up by us and we suffered heavily. We had no A Tk weapon with us at the time.… As I could see that we would be slaughtered one by one if we stayed where we were, I ordered the Pl to withdraw, which we did, successfully, under cover of the smoke and dust which by this time enshrouded our positions. We later re-occupied these positions without resistance other than shelling, and buried the dead.page 291
One or two 2-pounders, probably of 65 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, eventually came forward and drove the tanks off. But the task of the tanks seems to have been to cover a withdrawal of the remaining enemy infantry and in this they succeeded. As Tomlinson says, under cover of these tanks the enemy ‘collected his transport on the road at the foot of the escarpment’—the Trigh Capuzzo. ‘The transport was packed tight and they were embussing their troops’, he adds. ‘It was a gunner's dream but out of range of our small-arms fire.’ Tomlinson sent back a runner with this information but before an FOO could get forward the enemy drove off.
The enemy's departure was expedited by A Company of 21 Battalion, operating somewhere on Tomlinson's right flank but without his knowledge. Captain Ferguson and his fifty men mounted an attack with artillery support and charged down the slopes towards the Mosque, where some Germans and Italians were to be seen. ‘They fought well’, he says, and his own company ‘suffered many more casualties … and was down to 30 or 40.’ This was probably part of the enemy thought by some of 26 Battalion to be preparing page 292 a counter-attack; but A Company of the 21st ‘cleaned up the place and got into defensive positions’, according to Ferguson. ‘The enemy withdrew.…’ Later in the morning Ferguson was reinforced by the remnants of 15 Platoon of his battalion, which had been attached to the 24th for the night but had been held in reserve. When the enemy departed a strang quietness descended on the scene, and for the first time since 23 November the men were under no danger from bullets or mortars and had only an occasional incoming shell to worry about. They began to realise with mixed but deep feelings that, as Tomlinson puts it, ‘Sidi Rezegh was ours.’
At Brigade Headquarters only scraps of information came through during the night and Barrowclough learned that 4 Brigade had reached Ed Duda long before he could be sure his own troops had reached their objective. At 8.15 a.m. on the 27th the IO, Captain Moffatt,1 jotted down notes from a telephone or wireless conversation with 26 Battalion which indicated that one company was ‘among derelict vehicles on ridge’ somewhere short of the Mosque and that 24 Battalion had got ‘further forward’ on the left, though the 26th were ‘still advancing’. This suggested only partial success; but the enemy appeared to be retreating, covered by the three tanks. Then at 8.30 a.m. word came from 24 Battalion to the effect that opposition on the left had dissolved (‘enemy apparently pulled out during night’) but was continuing in the Mosque area; the unit was then ‘lining edge of escarpment facing NORTH WEST’ and the Mosque was just below C Company. In this area, however, there were ‘signs of heavy fighting—26 Bn + A.C.D. [Companies] of 24. Many dead Italians. Our people dead under muzzles of Italians.’ Looking to the north-west, the 24th thought they could see enemy on Ed Duda; but in this they were fortunately mistaken.
Barrowclough had waited impatiently during the night for news of the attack and at first light went forward to see for himself. It was a heart-breaking scene which met his eyes, as he wrote a few days later:
After the first blessed relief from fire and danger, however, the battalions began to count the cost of their achievement and they found it tragically high. Officers were now few and far between. B Company of the 24th had only one, Wallace, and the company outnumbered its thirty prisoners only slightly if at all. C Company of the same unit had two officers, Tomlinson and Lieutenant Nathan, one sergeant, and 32 other ranks. D Company had one officer, the unshakably cheerful Captain Jones; Corporal Opie, who had stopped two bullets during the attack, one of them through his big toe, and could not now wear a boot on that foot, was second-in-command of the company and also commanded 17 Platoon. Opie's platoon was down to 16 men and the company to 37 by his own account, though a private of the company, Till,1 made this note in his diary:
Moved up again. Only 25 left at roll call. Settled down for first night's rest. Had hot meal—cooks doing good job.
The battalions suffered moreover the anguish of losing many men whose gallantry and self-sacrifice had won all hearts in the fighting of the preceding days, and it seemed to many of the survivors that the enemy, in losing his last foothold at Sidi Rezegh, had maliciously skimmed off the cream of their unit. One was CSM Wall1 of D Company of the 24th, who from the moment he first set foot on Hill 175 had acted without a thought for himself. ‘We felt it hard having to bury Sgt-Mjr Wall’, a private of his company remarks, ‘so gave him a soldier's funeral by letting him have his equipment on which was contrary to orders but made an exception of him as he was one of the best of soldiers.’ In the same company Sergeant Constable2 was already a legendary figure because of his reckless disregard of shot and shell to the point that many felt only a miracle would preserve him safely through the campaign. No such miracle occurred. He was ‘too game and brave’, according to one; ‘a one-man infantry battalion.’ Shakespear, who did not even know Constable except by repute, felt constrained afterwards to write to his parents ‘that they might know of his example on the field.’ These and many more of the 24th fell this night and in the 26th it was much the same. Major Milliken was among those much mourned and the severe wounding of Colonel Page was felt as a shock throughout the unit.
The comparative quiet of the morning served to emphasise the violence of the preceding days and the bitterness of these losses and, with time to think, the spirits of many of the men were depressed. A private by his own account saw Captain Carnachan3 of the 24th this mornign and ‘told him we'd had it and must rest’, and Carnachan himself comments, ‘Men very exhausted—re-organise.’ Lieutenant Nottle4 of A Company of the 26th thought that lack of sleep was the main cause of falling morale, but even in 25 Battalion, which had spent the night in reserve, Major Burton found on his morning rounds that a change had come over his men:
Another group was ‘almost as pessimistic’ and Burton quickly arranged for some work to keep them all busy and in his quiet way swung morale upwards again.
Though deeply affected himself by the sights he saw on the battlefield, Brigadier Barrowclough could not allow any slackening of effort. From the high ground above the Mosque he surveyed the whole front attentively and could see enemy only in an area three miles to the west, though much farther still he could see the flashes of guns which he assumed were shelling Tobruk. The nearer enemy was shelled, but rain squalls sweeping down from the north obscured the results. Though Ed Duda was captured the wide gap between there and Sidi Rezegh left him open to attack from the north as well as the west and the south, and he disposed his resources accordingly, with 26 Battalion facing north from the lattice mast eastwards and the 24th facing north and west on the western part of the escarpment, though it did not extend right to the end. The total position stretched roughly 1000 yards east and west of the mast and 600 yards north and south of it, making a box 2000 yards by 1200, with the artillery and B Echelons stretching out behind the undefended eastern flank. Most of the vehicles were in the neighbourhood of the airfield or in a large wadi north of it and they tended to shuffle westwards closer to the fighting units.
In the Blockhouse area 8 Field Company lifted about 100 mines which had been detected there and then moved to the eastern edge of the airfield. There was no suggestion that this company should lay mines in defence of the newly-gained positions above the Mosque, though three miles away at Ed Duda RE parties were busily preparing minefields in front of 1 Essex, who were strengthening their positions with barbed wire. The Tobruk garrison was ‘anti-tank mine conscious’ but the New Zealanders were not.
Your infantry are NOT repeat NOT on ED DUDA.… I am holding this strongly but require earliest relief.…
Scobie was naturally worried about the length of the perimeter he now held and expected the New Zealand Division to take over at least the Ed Duda sector. Godwin-Austen signalled at 1.07 p.m., however, that ‘Present situation makes it impossible [for the New Zealanders] to do more than hold the ground they have gained’ and made Scobie responsible for ‘establishing the corridor and for holding it open at all costs’. To this Scobie responded generously at 2.30 p.m.:
Corridor is open. Will do our best to maintain it so.
At 3.20 p.m. Scobie finally confirmed that 44 Royal Tanks and 19 Battalion were indeed with his own troops at Ed Duda and signalled Freyberg accordingly.
With misunderstandings on this scale about even the most elementary features of the situation, requiring hours of patient work among cipher clerks and signalmen or hazardous journeys by LOs or DRs, there was no hope of immediate and decisive result from the link-up between the two divisions. Before Scobie and Freyberg could reach a closer understanding of each other's position and press on according to Godwin-Austen's plan towards El Adem, evidence began to accumulate of a growing threat of armoured counter-attack on the Tobruk corridor, and the domestic problems this created in each division made closer co-ordination between the two even harder to achieve, though it made collaboration between the two all the more essential.