The Relief of Tobruk
CHAPTER 3 — Preparing for Action
Preparing for Action
GENERAL Freyberg himself came up from Baggush (a coastal oasis 30 miles east of Matruh1) with a small party a day or two later and stayed a night at General Messervy's headquarters at Sofafi. On this brief visit, the first of a series by New Zealand officers, he found time for a quick study of the frontier situation, a short survey of the ground, and on the way home a halt to see for himself the good work of the New Zealand Engineers on the railway west of Matruh.
The New Zealand Division, less 5 Infantry Brigade,2 had reached Baggush in the middle of the month to act as long-stop to the Western Desert Force while a more active role was being shaped. The Division was tentatively but not yet irrevocably committed to crusader. Such a commitment came well within the prescription ‘affecting the safety of the NZEF’ and a final decision entailed consultation between the New Zealand Government, the Middle East Command, and in the end the United Kingdom Government.
Freyberg's own views were clear. ‘We had taken part in two forlorn hopes’, he says. ‘We had … been routed, losing all our arms and equipment…. It was most important that we did not have another failure…. troops can have heavy casualties, so long as the heavy casualties are not linked with failure.’ These are post-war comments, but contemporary documents confirm their accuracy as a reflection of his thoughts at the time. ‘What we wanted most was a success’, he adds, ‘but it was most important that we were not employed upon another costly failure.’3 Behind him and equally anxious on this score was the Prime Minister.
1 Fortified as a ‘box’ by 4 NZ Bde a year earlier (see McClymont, pp. 53–4) and subsequent occupants.
3 Comments on my preliminary narrative, 15 May 1950.
The answers were only mildly reassuring. Though the questions were restricted chiefly to the two campaigns they were in effect a challenge to the direction of the whole British Commonwealth war effort, as Mr Churchill was not slow to recognise. While in London Fraser did not press, as Menzies had done, for permanent representation in the War Cabinet; but he was no less anxious for prompt, full and frank consultation on all matters of vital concern, and the crusader preliminaries were to provide a remarkable example of how far Churchill was now prepared to go to meet his criticisms.
1 Mr Fraser had attended a meeting in Sydney of the Australian War Cabinet when this matter came to a head and found the Australians apprehensive on strategic grounds but even more perturbed at the lack of consultation on a matter of vital concern to the two Dominions. See Hasluck, p. 346. Butler (p. 502) says the Dominion governments concurred ‘generally’; but they had been advised of the scheme too late to do otherwise.
This was early in May and the situation vis-à-vis Japan deteriorated in Fraser's continued absence. The acting Prime Minister, Mr Nash, cabled crossly to him on 16 July that ‘the customary policy of saying or doing nothing which might be construed as provocative by the Japanese has resulted inevitably in the very situation we are at such pains to avoid.’
2 See McClymont, pp. 491–513, for full text.
Freyberg's leanings were towards caution and by the time he gave Mr Fraser his first warning of crusader—on 13 September—the Division was already on its way to Baggush. Fraser was somewhat taken aback to read that ‘Division up to War strength’, that it was trained and was moving ‘in stages’ to the Western Desert, to be followed in a month's time by the reinforcements training at Maadi.1 Battle was evidently in the offing and he at once sought more details. ‘I gather from your telegram that the Division should be employed early in operations’, he replied on the 16th. ‘In view of experience in GREECE and particularly in CRETE I should be grateful if you would telegraph me the following information, if necessary after consultation with Commander in Chief, Middle East.’ There followed another penetrating questionnaire, with the explanation that the Government needed the information ‘in order to satisfy themselves and (if it should be necessary to do) to assure the people … that our troops have not been committed to battle without every possible precaution and preparation to meet every calculable emergency’—a worrying addendum to a security-minded general. Two days later Fraser asked further if the Division was ‘to be associated in a corps with any other division or divisions and if so with which division or divisions and under whose command.’
These requests caused some commotion. An interim acknowledgment went to Fraser, Brigadier Stevens2 came up from Maadi, and Freyberg drafted replies in consultation with him which Stevens took personally to Auchinleck, together with a letter of introduction with the following rather stiff postscript:
It is well to state that under the agreement between the British and N.Z. Governments the NZ Govt. reserve the right to consult me upon any question of policy. From time to time they have done so.
Under my charter I have the right to consult them upon any question of policy.
1 For full texts of the main messages see Documents, Vol. II, pp. 70–8.
2 Maj-Gen W. G. Stevens, CB, CBE, m.i.d.; England; born London, 11 Dec 1893; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1915–19 (Maj); AA & QMG, NZ Div, 1940; Officer in Charge of Administration, 2 NZEF, 1940–45; GOC 2 NZEF, 22 Nov 1945–6 Jul 1946.
22 September 1941
My Dear Freyberg,
Many thanks for your letter of the 17th and for sending Stevens to see me. I am grateful to you for letting me see the cables and thoroughly appreciate the way in which you drafted the replies. Your attitude is most helpful and you may rely on me to do all I can to help you give your Prime Minister as much information as I possibly can, consistent with the need for secrecy, so that he may be re-assured as to way in which the New Zealand Division will be employed and commanded in any higher formation in which it may be included….
Not the least of the Commander-in-Chief's burdens arose (and were to continue to arise) from pre-war neglect by British Commonwealth leaders to work out the implications of Dominion independence for a joint war effort. All was now makeshift at a personal level, with a premium on tact, and in this—at least in this first instance—neither Auchinleck nor Freyberg was lacking.
Thus Fraser received his answers (dated 19 September), and though they told him little about crusader they were enthusiastic about the battle-worthiness of the Division, about which Fraser was asked to make no statement ‘just now other than that Division is in good heart’ because of the ‘vital need for secrecy’. The questions are set out below with the answers in italics:
In what operation is division to be engaged? We are carrying out intensive desert training for defensive or offensive operations.
What role is it to play in these operations? Role not yet disclosed and as you will realise depends on many circumstances.
Is it completely equipped in all respects up to war establishment? Division is probably best equipped in Middle East right up to War Establishment except for items which are not available here or are at present in process of being made up.
If not what are deficiencies? 28 light tanks for Divisional Cavalry proportion light anti-aircraft guns both of which will shortly be supplied. Anti-aircraft Regiment at present on defence of aerodromes but returning to Division for training in mobile desert operations. Shortage Anti-tank rifles 5th Brigade shortly to be made up.
Are you satisfied that the Division is ready for action? Yes Division is trained and when deficiencies mentioned in para 4 made up Division will be fit for war in every way.
Is adequate AFV support available for contemplated operations? Importance AFVs is fully realised and our strength now much greater and adequate deal with estimated situation Western Desert.page 27
Is adequate air support available for contemplated operations and have appropriate arrangements been made for its use in conjunction with land forces? Importance of air support realised and no operations could be contemplated unless it is adequate. Situation of course entirely different from Crete as fighter aerodromes available at all stages.
‘I do not think there is any Division superior to ours in Middle East’, Freyberg added. ‘Am certain that as force we have been treated better than any other for equipment….’ Despite the guarded answer to the first question it was evident that a great offensive was brewing, and the next cablegram (20 September) by implication confirmed this:
We will be part of Corps commanded by General Godwin-Austen specially selected after successful command in East Africa and Abyssinia. We will be with Indian Division and possibly South African Division. I am authorised by C.-in-C. to let you know for your personal information that General Cunningham late C-in-C East African campaign will be in command of operations as a whole.
With these bare bones of a small part of the battle plan Mr Fraser contented himself for a fortnight. Then he sought more information, this time from a different source:
4 October 1941
Following is for Prime Minister [United Kingdom] from Prime Minister:
For various reasons it would help us very much here if you could for my own personal information give me an indication when action in Western Desert is likely to commence.
But Mr Churchill was not to be drawn. Thanking Fraser for his ‘Winch No. 1’1, he replied on 5 October that the
date of operation uncertain owing to Australian demand to release all their troops from restriction [i.e., Tobruk] which complicates our plans. Hope these difficulties will be overcome. Will cable you later.
Fraser did not mind waiting; but in the interim Freyberg unwittingly injected a fresh and powerful stimulus to the newborn Churchill-Fraser correspondence. In a cautious but generally encouraging survey of the whole Middle East situation addressed to the Defence Minister2 on 9 October he slipped in the current estimate that in aircraft the enemy would have ‘decided superiority in numbers 3 to 2’ in the forthcoming operation.
1 When Fraser used Churchill's own code-name in his reply the name pefra was suggested for future messages, initiating the winch-pefra correspondence which continued until May 1945.
Churchill's first answer on 15 October, a brief assurance based on United Kingdom estimates with a promise to ‘cable you more fully early next week’, gave no hint of trouble. But it coincided with a sharp clash between Tedder and the Chief of Air Staff, Tedder's estimate being more cautious and taking careful account that the enemy was able if he chose to reinforce North Africa far more quickly than the RAF. The figures needed for Fraser's benefit could not be sent without the endorsement of the AOC-in-C Middle East and Churchill was angered and perplexed. He sent the Vice-Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Freeman, to investigate in person and told Auchinleck in a private letter that Freeman, ‘an officer of altogether larger calibre’, was available to replace Tedder if Auchinleck thought fit.1 But Freeman and Tedder quickly re-examined and reshuffled the figures, giving the RAF a more favourable balance, Tedder retained his post, and Churchill was able on 24 October to confirm his message of the 15th with detailed though not very significant figures of aircraft, tanks, and guns. He specified that the details were ‘of fateful secrecy’ and added that the London War Cabinet had ‘declined to be informed of the date of the offensive’.2 With Freyberg's cable of 9 October, which gave a review of battleaxe, then of Auchinleck's preparations, the enemy's situation, and the New Zealand Division's current programme and prospects, Fraser was now reasonably fully briefed; but his inquiry was to yield yet another dividend.
1 Gwyer and Butler, op. cit.; see also Richards and Saunders, Royal Air Force 1939–1945, Vol. II, pp. 170–1, and Owen, Tedder, pp. 150–1.
2 Fraser thanked him on the 25th and there, for the time being, the winch-pefra correspondence rested.
3 Maj-Gen Sir Keith Stewart, KBE, CB, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Kerikeri; born Timaru, 30 Dec 1896; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF1917–19; GSO I NZ Div 1940–41; Deputy Chief of General Staff Dec 1941–July 1943; comd 5 Bde Aug–Nov 1943, 4 Armd Bde Nov 1943–Mar 1944, 5 Bde Mar–Aug 1944; p.w. 1 Aug 1944; comd 9 Bde (2 NZEF, Japan) Nov 1945–Jul 1946; Chief of General Staff Apr 1949–Mar 1952.
In the five convalescent months June to October the Division recovered its strength and grew stronger than ever. It digested what was needed of four reinforcement drafts,2 absorbed new or newly-arrived units and sub-units, reorganised its existing units in the light of experience, and learned or evolved new tactical and administrative methods for both desert and amphibious warfare. Some of the best officers and NCOs were sent home (chiefly for the army tank brigade); but others also went who had been tried in battle and had failed, so that those who remained commanded respect.
1 The documentation of this episode unfortunately lacks a personal letter from Freyberg to Fraser of 29 Sep (mentioned in Freyberg's diary and acknowledged by Fraser on 6 Nov) which has not been traced.
2 Later sections of the 4th and the 5th Reinforcements (May), the 6th (July-August), and the 7th (October), with an average of 4000 each.
3 See Documents, Vol. I, pp. 50–2.
‘… in my efforts to get the Force together for training I am frequently at variance with Higher Military opinions.
‘General Blamey will not lend a single Australian unit. His policy has made him non persona grata. While we lent everything we were very popular. As soon as we asked for our units back they looked upon me as a Fifth Columnist.’
When 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, to take one case, completed its training in August, the activities of German night bombers against Alexandria and the Canal area created much demand for anti-aircraft gunners. Since the 40-millimetre Bofors guns were also in short supply an active role for the regiment became imperative. Thus 41 and 43 Batteries soon saw action at Tel-el-Kebir, Ismailia, Kantara and Port Said and 42 Battery manned guns at Ikingi Maryut and Aboukir near Alexandria. Regimental Headquarters was compensated for the temporary loss of 42 Battery (under direct command of British Troops in Egypt) by gaining temporary command of a light and a heavy battery of Royal Artillery. Valuable experience resulted, several enemy aircraft were ‘shared’ with neighbouring gunners, and the unit soon gained such proficiency that BTE was understandably reluctant to part with it. When the time came for desert manoeuvres, however, General Freyberg wanted it back. The regiment needed training for a mobile role and he had to insist that it be released.
Similarly, when GHQ noted in a Divisional movement order that 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company was earmarked to go to Baggush it promptly objected. Freyberg had responded favourably on 7 August to a GHQ request (to 2 AIF and 2 NZEF) that the ‘fullest and most economical use’ be made of Base and L of C troops by treating them as ‘part of a general pool’, though he felt that New Zealand troops of that nature should wherever possible be used at least partly to support the Division. The Deputy Chief of General Staff (Major-General N. M. Ritchie) sharply reminded him of this on 7 September. But the case of RMT companies was out of the ordinary. They were used on the L of C as general carriers; but they had, too, to carry infantry into battle. This called for strong nerves and careful training—for the infantry as well as the drivers. So Freyberg again insisted and on 11 September Ritchie agreed that the company should move with the Division and stay with it for about ten days' training, after which it would probably be needed to help prepare for the coming offensive. ‘Every effort will be made’, Ritchie added, ‘to use this coy in work connected with the NZ Div or in the area occupied by NZ Div.’ So far so good; but the interests of 2 NZEF and MEF conflicted and friction was bound to recur.page 31
Current demands for the services of the New Zealand brigades and some specialist units in various capacities clashed, as usual, with the training and re-equipping of the Division for operations. All three brigades served in the Canal area at some stage and had a taste of night bombing there, luckily with no loss other than of sleep.1 Sixth Brigade continued in its anti-parachutist role until mid-August, then returned to Helwan for a four-day exercise, and finally prepared to move back to the Canal area, this time to Kabrit. There on the shores of the Great Bitter Lake was the Combined Operations school, where 5 Brigade served a brief apprenticeship before relieving 6 Brigade at Ismailia, while 4 Brigade took its turn at the school, practising embarkations and assault landings on the far shore of the lake. The skills thus acquired were never, as things turned out, to be used in action, and so it was perhaps just as well that events overtook intentions and 6 Brigade was diverted at the last moment from Kabrit to the Western Desert in mid-September. Units carried out whatever training their other duties allowed in the period June-September and despite interruptions made fair progress. At a higher level, however, much training was still required.
A similar fate might have threatened the two New Zealand brigades: though much had already been done to the Baggush defences they were far from complete and some parts had fallen into disrepair. But Baggush was 30 miles farther from the front than Matruh and for the moment much less important. At all events no serious effort was made to turn the New Zealanders into navvies and any such attempt would have met stern opposition from Freyberg. Not only was he armed with his special powers, but he was under officers who had been very much junior to him in the British Army between the wars, a fact of which they could not fail to be aware, sometimes uncomfortably so. Training, then, came first and the Baggush defences, though held more or less ready, had second call on the time and energies of the New Zealand units.
1 A point of departure strikingly marked by the Great Pyramid and the enigmatic Sphinx.
Freyberg's instructions from Western Desert Force early in September were to practise moving brigades on wheels over the desert in ‘open formation’—an expression not nearly as specific as it sounded. A brigade group contained nearly 1000 vehicles and was most vulnerable when on the move. In what order should it travel and rest by day and by night?: four problems to which no standard solution existed and which each brigade solved as best it could by trial and error. Wide dispersion by day would reduce damage from air raids, but at the price of long and vulnerable defensive perimeters and reduced manoeuvrability. Moving across country in darkness without headlamps or tail lights created another set of problems: how to reconnoitre and light the route and destination, how to traverse rough ground, how to find specific vehicles in the sprawling group, how to time moves and estimate distances the group could cover—how, in short, to take tactical advantage of the hours of darkness. The general aim was to be able to move quickly across open desert, to achieve surprise wherever possible, to overcome if need be strong all-round defences, and to consolidate against armoured counter-attack. This was, so far as could be guessed, ‘the most difficult operation in which we were likely to take part’, as Freyberg later wrote.2 Against seasoned German troops it could not lightly be attempted and the under-standing between all arms at all levels in attack and defence was immensely important. This could be improved only by practice and by early October all battalions had exercised with the anti-tank and Vickers guns which would normally be attached to them. Brigade exercises were an altogether larger undertaking, needing careful preparation. I tanks could not be borrowed, a serious deficiency; but all other troops were at hand or within call and staffs were soon immersed in planning brigade manoeuvres.
1 Yet another ASC company was needed to move the whole Division simultaneously and one was duly lent by the RASC.
Several non-divisional entities were also formed during the month: ‘T’ Air Support Control Signals Section, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Field Maintenance Centres, and ‘X’ Water Issue Section, all needed for the vast Corps organisation within which the Division was to operate.
A series of operation orders and instructions, both written and oral, were issued on 8 October for the first full-scale brigade manoeuvre. Divisional Headquarters emerged from its maze of dugouts and tunnels next day, elaborately sorted its various parts into a reconnaissance party, a Main Group, a Closing Group, an Advance B Echelon and a Rear Group, and set out for a 30-mile drive eastwards along the coast road and then 20 miles south-eastwards across rocky desert, the last part in darkness and with no lights other than shaded hurricane lamps posted at intervals to mark the route. A short drive next day and a longer and somewhat hazardous night journey took the group, now including Divisional Artillery Headquarters with two field regiments and the bulk of 6 Infantry Brigade Group (nearly 500 vehicles, an impressive sight, though only half the full quota), to an assembly area some 40 miles westwards. From there 24 Battalion with RAF fighter support mounted an attack on 11 October on ‘Sidi Clif’, a wired and mined dummy strongpoint laid out previously by a section of 7 Field Company. Sappers cleared a lane through the minefields, a fictitious regiment of I tanks (represented by lorries) drove through and fanned out, covered by high-explosive and smoke concentrations from the field guns, and the infantry and supporting weapons quickly followed up and settled in to meet a notional counter-attack. The 26th Battalion Group pushed through to ‘Bir Stella’ and consolidated likewise with its quota of supporting arms. The exercise was over by 1 p.m. and the large gallery of ‘brasshats’ was suitably impressed.
|Distance in Miles||Rate in Miles in the Hour||Distance||Rate||Distance||Rate|
|Move expected to end with a fight||60||101||42||7||30||5|
|With route lit by lamps||—||—||—||—||30||5|
Freyberg was much impressed with the flexibility desert-worthy lorries gave to infantry operations. Units and their supporting weapons could be moved quickly, attacks from different directions could be synchronised ‘with some degree of certainty’,2 and planning was in general simplified, particularly in view of the savings in artillery ammunition resulting from swifter approaches, assaults, and subsequent consolidation. The tactical setting of the ‘attacks’ embodied certain misconceptions of the current situation at the frontier and the role and capabilities of the I tanks remained uncertain, the tendency being to overrate them. With these reservations the exercises could be accounted successful and testified to the high standard of unit training. No brigade night attack was practised, but units had trained to this end.
1 These figures were proved rather optimistic, this one especially so.
To Freyberg and his brigadiers it was already clear that there would be hard fighting ahead. It was a prospect which, after Greece and Crete, was at once welcome and dreaded. Losses there were bound to be, as in the earlier campaigns, but if the outcome was a failure, added to the frustrations and tragedies which already marred the Division's record, it could be disastrous for 2 NZEF and indeed for New Zealand. With this in mind Freyberg scrutinised every detail of the plan which began to emerge.