The Relief of Tobruk
CHAPTER 19 — The Loss of 5 Brigade Headquarters
The Loss of 5 Brigade Headquarters
THE signals from El Adem and Neumann-Silkow's scepticism about the utility of the frontier operations combined to produce a grave threat to 5 Brigade Headquarters at Sidi Azeiz, which the Germans had thus far been content to by-pass but which now offered as a prize at least some consolation for failures elsewhere. Hargest had spent some hours awaiting orders from 13 Corps, but none came. He was therefore left with his existing instructions, which were to contain Halfaya from the west, sever land communications between Bardia and Halfaya, cut off Bardia from the west, and protect the reconnaissance airfield at Sidi Azeiz. These were framed, however, before Africa Corps reached the neighbourhood and made no sense in the present circumstances. Only two aircraft remained on the landing ground, with orders to reconnoitre locally for as long as possible and then fly off; so the airfield was unimportant, especially after 13 Corps Headquarters moved westwards. Hargest had asked Corps on the 25th to relieve him of this commitment, but Corps refused.
How much was left to Hargest's discretion cannot now be decided. Few documents of the period survive and the main sources are the recollections of those who spent years together as prisoners of war. In his book Hargest is gloomy;1 but his letters to Freyberg were confident and even aggressive, and on the 26th he allowed the only field guns and infantry he had to skirmish along the flanks of the enemy columns.
1 Op. cit., p. 17.
2 Shared by the Q staff of 13 Corps.
Brigade Headquarters and attached troops2 spent a restless night, with flares much in evidence all round. The night was bitterly cold and the signalman who operated the main wireless set (with Straker sleeping alongside him) found reception bad. Hargest slept in a tent a few yards away and rose early, sending a message at 6.30 a.m. to all three battalions saying, ‘How are you? Everything all quiet here’. The day had just dawned. Divisional Cavalry had long since been searching the neighbourhood for signs of enemy movement and had found none. Enemy flares always seemed closer than they actually were on moonless nights and daylight unexpectedly revealed no enemy in sight, though the slightly curving slope of the ground as it fell away to the north-east made the horizon in that direction close. A clerk who was on duty at Brigade Headquarters says, ‘We were all a bit gloomy’;3 but MG fire to the north, which he was not surprised to hear at dawn as he boiled the billy for tea, soon ended and a minute or two later a German wireless truck drove in, captured by Divisional Cavalry.
2 HQ Div Cav and two squadrons, HQ 5 Fd Regt and one troop (4 guns), HQ 32 A-Tk Bty and troop (3 18-pdrs), two half-troops of 34 A-Tk Bty (4 2-pdrs), HQ 42 Lt AA Bty and one section (3 Bofors), HQ 7 Fd Coy and one section, B Coy 22 Bn, HQ 27 MG Bn and one platoon, the Bde Defence Pl, HQ 309 Gen Tpt Coy, RASC, and an ADS of 5 Fd Amb.
3 F. G. Nixon.
These dispositions gave much more strength in the west than in the east and the mass of lorries in the area obscured observation so that the 25-pounders could not engage tanks by direct fire except to the west. Only one 18-pounder, one Bofors, and the four vulnerable portée 2-pounders covered the eastern perimeter, now the likeliest to be attacked. The group could therefore use no more than a fraction of its resources, small as these were, to meet attack from the east and no infantry faced that direction.
It appeared to Africa Corps that this small force meant ‘to prevent us from moving west’;1 but the immediate purpose of 15 Panzer had not been to move west but to gain elbow room for a wide movement to envelop the British forces supposed to be facing the frontier line. There are several suggestions in the German documents, now hard to understand, that the Sidi Azeiz force had moved into position during the night. The Germans evidently did not find it easy to reconcile the pin-princking activities of mobile elements of Hargest's group on the 26th with the resistance they met this day. At 6 a.m. 8 Panzer Regiment reported ‘enemy positions and MT concentrations’ at Sidi Azeiz, but the diary of 15 Panzer refers again later to the ‘defended supply dump’ there.
The situation from the point of view of 15 Panzer was complicated by a tug-o'-war between Rommel and the Panzer Group staff at El Adem, the former not yet reconciled to leaving the frontier area with a record of failure and the latter anxious for help at the earliest possible moment. Neumann-Silkow received orders from both. Rommel wanted him to swing round on a wide front, with his right flank facing Libyan Omar, and Panzer Group told him to ‘move immediately to relieve the Tobruk front’ as there was ‘a serious threat to El Adem’, and at 6 a.m. added that the situation was ‘very dangerous’ and he was to ‘Make all possible haste’ and report when he moved off. Rommel's orders naturally prevailed; but the C-in-C had in the meantime decided that Sidi Azeiz must be seized to make room for the manoeuvre he wished Neumann-Silkow to make against the frontier line, and at 7.30 a.m. 15 Panzer reported in this sense to Corps.
1 DAK diary.
Shaking out from this mix-up, the head of 15 Panzer came close to Sidi Azeiz and was engaged by field guns.1 This prompted Lieutenant-Colonel Cramer of 8 Panzer Regiment to send his light tank troops forward. By degrees the whole of the regiment became involved and, as a matter of course, 33 Artillery Regiment too. A heavy concentration of guns of calibres up to 150-millimetre ranged on Hargest's sketchy defences and then brought down a crushing weight of fire from distances of no more than 2–3 miles. ‘Air bursts’ kept the heads of the defenders down, and with good observation and short-range fire the New Zealand field guns were soon silenced, so that Abteilung2 II of 33 Regiment was not needed. But the tanks also fired briskly, and at the end of it all Neumann-Silkow was able to report with evident pleasure that he had used up all his tank-gun ammunition, and as he could not replenish this he could ‘hardly attack any further south’. Thus he excused himself from any further frontier operations. Despite earnest efforts to continue it, Rommel's ‘evil dream’ in this way came to an end. Rommel had one last gesture to make, however, before turning his gaze once more towards Tobruk.
1 The German accounts agree that the British opened fire first; but E Troop did not and the fire must have come from elswhere.
2 Slightly stronger than a British battery.
Captain Johnson of B Company, 22 Battalion, reacted quickly, sending one of his two platoons to the eastern perimeter to be ready to repel infantry';1 and the two officers in command of the anti-tank portées, who had of their own accord elected to stay and fight when Divisional Cavalry departed,2 drove through to the east as soon as they saw this was the threatened sector. With no organised defence there they found no pattern into which they could fit the 2-pounders, and on the spur of the moment took them up to a slight rise some 200 yards beyond the perimeter and formed them up in line. The two remaining Tac/R Hurricanes took off just in time and, after circling for a few moments, flew away. As the men of E Troop, 5 Field Regiment, were having breakfast they were told to take post; but they could see little at first because the brigade lorries blocked their view to the east, and when they opened fire it was, as Sergeant Cook3 says, ‘at 2,000 yards in the general direction east’, over the tops of the lorries.
1 As Sandford overheard.
2 They were still under Nicoll's command.
5 His leg was carried off by a solid anti-tank shot, the modern equivalent of a cannon ball.
The nearest 18-pounder of H Troop, 32 Battery, opened fire at 1000 yards3 and drew heavy return fire at once, which hit the gun tractor and killed three men. But the gun carried on, firing its last shot at about 150 yards and causing a tank to slew round under the impact, to the delight of the layer. The delight, however, was momentary and the cost great; for two of the crew lay dead and two more wounded and the gun was promptly wrecked by a torrent of fire. The crews of the other two 18-pounders and one of the three Bofors heard but could not see and fretted at their impotence. But the second Bofors fired 15 rounds of a mixture of HE shell and AP shot, halting one of the tanks. This gun was then disabled and the third carried on the action, firing AP at first and shooting all it had, 30 rounds, then switching to HE and getting away 40 rounds of this before the inevitable end.
1 Op. cit. p. 20.
2 Niven, through volunteering for medical duties when captive in Bardia, was taken to Italy and later to Germany. He made several attempts to escape, one of them ending unluckily with his recapture in the course of a routine street check.
3 i.e., when the tanks were within about 700 yards of the anti-tank portées and all but N4 were out of action.
The 25-pounders of E Troop were soon hidden behind the smoke and for this reason lasted longer than the other guns, though in the end they received the undivided attention of the German artillery. Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser1 was at the gun position and with him Major Grigg,2 second-in-command of the regiment, and they went from gun to gun, watching all the time for breaks in the swirling clouds of smoke through which to observe their fire and glimpsing from time to time ‘tanks on the skyline silhouetted against the rising sun’.3 The guns spoke up valiantly, though to doubtful effect, until the German artillery gained by flash-spotting the bearings it needed and brought down a thunderous and devastating gun fire which hit two guns and several lorries around them. Grigg had meanwhile gone for more ammunition, crossing open ground in face of terrible fire and bringing back a 3-ton lorry with a full load. On the way back smoke was so thick he had to lead on foot past burning trucks and round obstacles for a quarter of a mile. He brought the lorry up to Sergeant Cook's gun and began to unload it. Captain Ombler4 of E Troop lay dead, after setting a gallant example, and with him six of his men. Cook was hit in the arm while moving the gun trail to engage tanks which could now be seen, and many other men were wounded.
The ammunition lorry was hit as soon as it halted and burst into flames and the ammunition began to explode. No more than two or three rounds remained at the gun and the explosions alongside were so violent that Grigg ordered the crew to take cover. But he took no heed of the fire himself and went over to the one gun which could still fire and found this, too, nearing the end of its ammunition. Scouting round, he soon found a few more rounds and brought them up. In the whole position only this one gun now flashed its defiance and, with crew members hit by the fire aimed at this solitary centre of opposition, Grigg took over as gun loader. Dust and smoke made the gun sights useless and Grigg slipped out to the side where he could see—and be seen. There he stood calmly directing the layer, undaunted by the blazing fury of fire which each round attracted as the tanks picked up the gun flash through the smoke, until he fell gravely wounded and E Troop's last gun ceased fire.
The tanks were already deep among the lorries, the infantry powerless to stop them, though they flung three ‘sticky bombs’ at them before they surrendered. Private Nixon,1 in a large trench, his rifle butt splintered by bullets, had a typical experience. ‘Every time there was a lull’, he says, ‘I thought we had driven them off’. Another man put up his head and yelled, ‘The tanks are coming in’ and added, ‘The bastards will kill the lot of us’. Then he jumped out and zig-zagged to the rear. Nixon waited, unbelieving but not knowing what to expect. Then another man told him to put up his hands and said, ‘We've surrendered’. Nixon was shocked: ‘It had never occurred to me that we might surrender.’ He felt relief and at the same time humiliation.
Hargest had been much concerned about what seemed to be a nest of German machine guns to one flank and ran round the partly destroyed Intelligence lorry to see Straker and find out if there was any way of counter-attacking them. Straker answered without words by pointing to tanks closing in less than a hundred yards away, ‘stretched across the camp with the extremities thrust forward like the horns of a crescent’. The tanks were not firing but Straker could see grenades being tossed out from some of them on the left, bursting to his left rear. An RAF officer named McIntyre fired a full drum of Lewis-gun ammunition at the nearest tank but it ‘did not deign to reply’. It cost Hargest ‘a great effort’, Straker says, to signal submission to this tank.
This turned out to be Colonel Cramer's and Hargest was called to join Cramer, ‘a bespectacled German officer’, in the turret and found he spoke English. Cramer complimented him on the fight his men had put up and agreed that they should be allowed to collect their coats, blankets and food before being marched off (though in fact few were given this privilege). Then Rommel himself appeared on the scene, neatly dressed and shaven, and called for Hargest, also congratulating him, though annoyed that he did not salute. Hargest was allowed under guard to visit the nearby ADS, where he sat for a few moments beside the now-unconscious body of his friend and parliamentary colleague, Grigg. As he walked away into captivity fact and feeling interacted painfully in his mind. ‘So great was my misery’, he writes, ‘that I envied Arthur his quiet sleep in the sun.’
The dressing station at Sidi Azeiz with some eighty patients was left alone and its three medical officers and ther few assistants were too busy to worry about their curious situation. The worst of the German wounded were also left with them and, though no guards stayed behind, German detachments (often including tanks) moved past on their way west at intervals throughout the afternoon. The staff and patients therefore felt that if they were not prisoners they were at least under enemy surveillance, and so they remained for several days before being officially ‘recaptured’.
At Menastir 22 Battalion plainly saw the smoke at Sidi Azeiz and heard the thunder of guns for about an hour and then there was silence. As Captain McLernon1 of D Company says, ‘we realised Bde. had been taken.’ A brief wireless signal had announced that Brigade Headquarters was under heavy attack. No more was heard and at 1 p.m. a DR was sent to investigate but did not return. Ten minutes later a large column of vehicles drove down on to the Via Balbia east of Menastir, advanced a short distance, and then dispersed on the flat below the escarpment and guns opened fire on the 22nd. To this 28 Battery (less E Troop) and 4 MG Company replied with such vigour that the enemy soon turned northwards and then passed westwards over broken country, out of range. Half an hour later another enemy force appeared to the north-east and opened fire on the ‘left forward coy on top of the escarpment’, according to the unit diary, which regarded the battalion as facing Bardia. This fire was heavier and more persistent and was backed up by a series of infantry attacks which were beaten back only with difficulty. Artillery and mortar fire were heavy and accurate and scored so many hits and near misses on the four 25-pounders that all were put out of action, two of them permanently, and the crews suffered heavy loss, four men on one gun alone being killed. For 28 Battery this was a hard day indeed.
Casualties in 22 Battalion were remarkably light considering the weight and accuracy of the enemy fire; but Lieutenant Donald's2 platoon of C Company lost several men and Donald himself had his eardrums shattered by a near miss, though he stayed in action. With time now to think of other things, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew tried several times without success to get in touch with other units by wireless or other means, and he began to realise that history was repeating itself: his battalion was again isolated as it had been at Maleme in Crete.
Andrew might have felt rather better had he known that this day he had held off much of 21 Panzer Division and in the end forced General von Ravenstein to draw back and swing south through Sidi Azeiz to get past 22 Battalion. In so doing he delayed the return of 21 Panzer to the Tobruk front by a day. In a report to Africa Corps 21 Panzer stated that it had come upon a battalion which was ‘well dug in’ and by the evening its ‘fire superiority had not been neutralised.’
At Capuzzo and Upper Sollum, 23 and 28 Battalions started the day in good spirits, seeing for themselves the losses and damage they had caused the enemy in the night's fighting and not learning until much later that their brigade headquarters had been lost. A Company of 23 Battalion turned back fourteen lorries approaching from Bardia at 8.15 a.m. and at ten o'clock carriers and a repaired Valentine of B Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, drove off more enemy in the same area and covered a detachment of machine-gunners who retrieved the Vickers gun which had been abandoned in the night, the two mortars, and much ammunition.
1 F Tp, 32 Bty, had previously engaged two tanks advancing from the west and knocked one out. It proved to be a captured Matilda, and over fifty direct hits were scored on it at ranges between 300 and 900 yards before a lucky shot passed through an aperture in the turret (where the grenade thrower had been knocked off) and wounded the crew. Another shot had jammed the turret and a third had removed a plate guarding the suspension, permitting a fourth to penetrate and damage the engine. The toughness of the armour was amply proved. The crew was captured and the other tank disappeared westwards.
Again this affected the enemy's supply services. These tanks led a convoy of 33 lorries intended for Africa Corps; but, though there were three more tanks in the escort, they all turned back to Gambut.
Then at midday 105- and 150-millimetre guns shelled D Company and the fort itself and two hours later enemy were seen advancing from the south-west, estimated at 2.30 p.m. as about a battalion with light tanks, anti-tank guns, and armoured troop-carriers—a formidable force which 27 Field Battery engaged at once. The 25-pounders were extremely accurate and forced the enemy to dismount soon after they opened fire. They scored several direct hits and so did G Troop, 32 Anti-Tank Battery, the foremost portée of which, under Sergeant Stewart,1 knocked out several vehicles, firing even after it was set on fire. Scarcely had Stewart's crew put out this fire, however, when another hit started a second blaze and three men, including Stewart, were wounded. The Bren-gunner jumped aboard to act as loader while Stewart carried on firing until exploding ammunition in the racks below forced him to abandon the gun, taking the firing mechanism with him. From the ground all gunners who could handle a rifle continued to engage the enemy until surrounded and forced to surrender, though shortly afterwards they all escaped and rejoined their troop.page 344
C Company of the 23rd had been drawn into this action as the enemy veered northwards to avoid the well-aimed fire of D Company and, as the enemy worked in that direction, he came within range of a Bofors of E Troop, 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, about 300 yards west of Battalion Headquarters. This set fire to a troop-carrier which was driving through the transport area of 23 and 28 Battalions, but it could not stop infiltration by the enemy infantry through the mass of lorries which here formed a weak part of the battalion perimeter. The drivers of 309 General Transport Company, RASC, and men of 28 Maori Battalion B Echelon formed a makeshift ‘company’, but this was only lightly armed and some sixty men were captured by three light tanks and an armoured troop-carrier and marched off a short distance. They remained within view of 23 Battalion, however, and several efforts were made to rescue them.
The Bofors continued to fire and earned so much of the enemy's attention that the troop subaltern decided to ease the pressure by bringing up another gun. This drove forward until the driver was killed and then went into action and knocked out an enemy tank, silenced a machine gun, and drove back several clusters of infantry with its automatic fire. When four of the crew of this second gun had been killed and two wounded it was ordered to withdraw, its task achieved.
By about 4 p.m. the enemy had exploited the weakness in the transport area and counter-measures were restricted by the presence in the background of the sixty captive drivers and B Echelon men. A dashing sortie by six carriers of the 23rd got right up to this group about 1000 yards west of the transport area; but the captives were closely threatened by the MGs of their guards and could not get away, two of the carriers were disabled, and the remaining four had to withdraw. A counter-attack offered the only possibility of releasing these men, the bayonet being a more discriminating weapon than the machine gun or mortar. This responsibility fell on the adjutant, Captain Orbell,1 who received a rousing response when he called for volunteers. With twenty men he set out to the north-west, meaning to swing round and fall upon the transport lines from the north. The IO, Second-Lieutenant Jeavons, took another half-dozen men due west and D Company committed first a section and then a full platoon from the south, a section of MMGs to the north gave lively support, and two platoons of C Company enfiladed the enemy and brought down heavy covering fire for the counter-attack.page 345
All these detachments had to advance in face of all kinds of fire and some of them were extremely embarrassed by their inability to give effective reply because of the prisoners in the background. The thrusts nevertheless made ground in the most determined fashion. Jeavons, for example, led his small band through a clamorous bedlam of sound ‘with shells, mortar bombs, bullets and shrapnel whizzing, whining, screaming and crackling everywhere’ until halted by a German anti-tank gun on the far side of a stretch of flat, open ground well covered by fire. ‘We could not stop them by firing from cover’, he says, ‘and if they came on we were sunk’. So he gathered his handful of men and rose to charge the gun. After fifty yards he was hit and his shoulder broken, but he carried on. Then two men were killed and shortly afterwards Jeavons was hit again, and after another fifty yards or so he was hit a third time, his helmet carried some yards away, and he was brought to his knees. He got up and, after a few more yards, was hit heavily in the chest, and though he rose again he could do no more than stagger a few paces and fall flat on his face.1
Major Pugh2 of Headquarters Company led another detachment which included Captain Berry of 309 General Transport Company, RASC, and this also advanced bravely in face of heavy fire. Berry was particularly inspiring and, according to the 23 Battalion diary, he ‘pushed forward armed only with a revolver which he fired until empty.’ Then he went 20 yards unarmed—or, as others say, with a swagger cane—‘then caught up the rifle of a fallen man and continued to advance until killed.’ A wounded private lying near where Berry was killed says, ‘I still do not know whether he was over-game or foolish as he had no fire arms.’3 Pugh also was wounded, and two more officers with him.
1 Ross, pp. 115–17.
3 H. McG. Farrow.
The enemy gradually withdrew to the south-west, covering his move with fire in a manner which made pursuit costly and in the end discouraged it altogether. Though the enemy had driven a deep wedge into the Capuzzo position, starting from the transport lines, 23 Battalion was never as a whole in grave danger and the attack was beaten off without the help of B Company and sizable parts of C and D Companies. Even had the Germans not been recalled, therefore, they would have found that the hardest part of their task of capturing Capuzzo still lay ahead of them. But they deserve credit for an attack mounted with vigour and resolution and persisted with in face of fierce counter-attack.
It is all the more remarkable that the Germans were not regular infantry but 33 Panzer Engineer Battalion, which was committed by Rommel personally to ‘clear the area south of the Trigh Capuzzo between Sidi Azeiz and Capuzzo, clear Capuzzo and Sollum of the enemy, and drive him back towards Halfaya Pass … the action to take place with all speed.’ A whole regiment had failed on a similar mission the previous evening, yet Rommel chose to repeat the attack with this smaller force and stood by himself at Point 204, two or three miles west of the Fort, to watch the progress of the engineers. Two troops of 33 Artillery Regiment and two platoons of 33 Anti-Tank Battalion were under the engineers' command, and support was probably also forthcoming from the Bardia guns as well as from some captured British I tanks. The engineer battalion assembled on Sidi Azeiz airfield and drove forward in extended order parallel to the Trigh Capuzzo. On the way two companies veered too far to the right so that they approached Bir Ghirba and had to swing left, getting badly mixed up in so doing. Rommel, who stood watching this, urged them on when they halted to reassemble and they had to press forward in this unhappy condition, bringing up I tanks and nine armoured troop-carriers to lead the advance and cover their confusion.
2 Ross, loc. cit.
Even this brave effort did not please Rommel and about 2.45 p.m. he sent orders by an LO to the commander of 33 Engineer Battalion to abandon the attack and disengage at once if Capuzzo were not taken by 3 p.m. There was no hope of taking the objective by that time; but prospects of doing so later seemed good and the alternative of withdrawing across the same bare, exposed ground over which the engineers had advanced with heavy loss seemed anything but reasonable. The CO therefore decided to disobey the order and continue his attack, meeting further success and bringing the total of prisoners up to an estimated 120, but finding that the hard core of the defences had not been breached. In the course of the counter-attacks by 23 Battalion the engineers found they were running very low in ammunition and, despite every effort to get more supplies forward, the scarcity increased, so that, as the unit report admits, ‘the chances of taking Capuzzo receded’. Another message had come in ordering the engineers to follow 15 Panzer westwards, and after dark they did so, first collecting forty wounded from the battlefield—a task in which the aid of the prisoners was enlisted—and taking them to Bardia. The trucks used for this last purpose had been meant to carry the prisoners and these were therefore driven some distance into the desert and ‘dropped there’, returning to their units after a long walk next morning.
*Probably 2 killed and 2 wounded.
†Most of the missing men were probably killed or wounded and PW during the enemy counter-attacks.
1 Report of 33 A-Tk Bn appended to 15 Pz Div diary.
This action had nevertheless demonstrated serious weaknesses in the Capuzzo position and Leckie hastened to remedy them, redisposing the whole battalion with this in view, sending the transport of 28 Maori Battalion to Upper Sollum and withdrawing that of 23 Battalion within the perimeter east of the Bardia road. Reports of enemy massing in about brigade strength near Bir Hafid accelerated the reorganisation and ‘All troops dug furiously’, as the war diary says.
1 This report ties in remarkably well with 23 Bn accounts and even mentions the destruction of Stewart's portée.
At Upper Sollum 27 November passed with no more than the normal exchanges of artillery fire and the capture of two Germans who had had the nerve to go swimming on the beach just below the cliff, and a 75-millimetre gun was hauled up and put to use in the area of A Company. As sounds of fighting at Capuzzo grew, Captain Love got ready to receive 23 Battalion in his lines if the attack became too hot to hold and signalled accordingly to Leckie, who signalled back at 9.47 p.m. that ‘My line shortened but stronger’ and told Love to ‘Keep your end up’, asking as well for drivers to replace those captured in the course of the afternoon.
With the departure of 15 Panzer from Sidi Azeiz, Africa Corps ended a three-day respite in which only a few units did any hard fighting.1 This was long enough for the cumulative strain of the past week to be felt but not for it to be overcome and it needed a greater effort than before to get units back into fighting order. As with 6 New Zealand Brigade, too many of the old faces were missing for the remaining men to look forward with confidence to further trials. The force which turned westwards on the 27th was a foe far less formidable than that which four days before had overwhelmed the South Africans.
Rommel nevertheless signalled confidently to Corps at 10 a.m. that the British ‘at Sidi Azeiz [were] already destroyed, and the destruction of the enemy facing your old front has begun.’ He was anxious only that this enemy ‘must not escape southwards.’ His confidence, however, was less infectious than before and some of his immediate subordinates now had reason to doubt his judgment in a way that would have been unthinkable at the start of the campaign. Von Ravenstein was doubtless one of these. His 21 Panzer had been strong enough on the 22nd to recapture Sidi Rezegh but since then had been committed piecemeal, largely without his knowledge, and gravely weakened.