7. Libya 1941: Opening Moves
7. Libya 1941: Opening Moves
We had a week's leave and then came back to Helwan to rebuild. The Twentieth had all told 300 out of the 851 who had gone to Greece and received 400 reinforcements in one draft. They were marched in on a ceremonial parade and we settled down for training in very hot weather.
A battle was fought near Sollum, known by its code name as ‘Battle-axe’. It was not a success but we took little interest. I went into hospital with a recurrence of malaria and was joined by John Gray and Jim with jaundice. I convalesced at Moascar, bathing and sailing on Lake Timsah, dining and drinking at the French Club, and being eaten alive by bedbugs, and returned to the battalion early in August. We moved to an unpleasant camp at Kabrit on the Canal and did a combined training course. Brigadier Puttick returned to New Zealand on promotion and Inglis took over 4 Brigade, making his mark at once with a characteristically thorough inspection.
In September, after a leave in Palestine, we moved back to the Western Desert and again camped at Bagush. Tobruk was still besieged and we concluded that we were to share in its relief. Jim was promoted and went to command an infantry training depot and McKergow from the Twenty-sixth became second-in-command. There had been many changes and my rifle company commanders were now Mitchell, Agar, Fountaine, and Manchester, of whom only Fountaine had been in Greece and Crete.
One spell of training is very like another, very important, very interesting for the trainers, but there is not much to be said about it. We trained and exercised solidly, practised page 80 night and day attacks and movement in desert formation, got to know one another, and became very fit. Word came through of Upham's V.C. and there was great rejoicing. Jim sent a nicely worded message of congratulation from his depot. A week later we heard that Sergeant Hinton, also of C. Company, had been awarded a V.C. We had left him at Athens with the reinforcements and he had been captured at Kalamata. A notice appeared in the lines: ‘Join the 20th and get a V.C.’—and another message came from Jim:
Southern Inf. Trg. Depot,
18th October, 1941.
Honours & Awards
Reference our communication 11/1/4630 dated 15th October 1941, for 2nd Lieut. Upham read 2nd Lieut. Upham and Sergeant J. D. Hinton.
It would be a convenience to this Headquarters if in future, the names of members of the Twentieth Battalion who win Victoria Grosses were published in one list and not on different days as appears to be the present practice.
Sgd. J. T. Burrows
The company areas were rather far apart but every Saturday night all officers came in to headquarters mess and we had very happy and valuable parties. There was a famous divisional Rugby match against the South Africans, inter-company and inter-battalion matches. We ran a very good inter-platoon competition in drill and tactics, easily won by Upham's platoon. It was a happy, fruitful period which might have lasted indefinitely for all we knew or cared of future plans, and then it suddenly ended.
Back up the desert road and at Battalion everything was packed and ready to move. No one doubted that the exercise would be held in Libya and that the enemy would co-operate.
The General gave the outlines of the plan to all senior officers. I paraded the battalion and with maps told everything I knew. We had a final party. Upham, McPhail, Maxwell, and the others I had decided to leave behind sat gloomily in corners. At the last moment I relented and took McPhail and Chesterman extra to establishment.
In the morning of 12 November we took our place in the column, moved through Matruh and down the Siwa road, and in the evening formed up at the head of 4 Brigade for the great approach march. Until the end of the war it was the opinion of old hands that the morale of the New Zealand Division was at its peak for this campaign. Certainly in the Twentieth it was terrific; we felt like runners, tense for the pistol.
This great approach march will always be remembered by those who took part in it though the details are vague in memory. The whole Eighth Army, Seventh Armoured Division, First South African Division, and the Second New Zealand and Fourth Indian Divisions moved westwards in an enormous column, the armour leading. The Army moved south of Sidi Barrani, past the desolate Italian camps of the previous year, along the plateau south of the great escarpment, through the frontier wire into Libya, south of the enemy garrisons in the Sidi Omars, and wheeled north. Then, just as we were rejoicing in the conception of a massive move on Tobruk, disregarding the immobile frontier garrisons and crushing everything in our path, the whole Army broke up and departed different ways. This was the era of the Brigade Group and the ‘Jock’ column. It has been said that at the Somme in 1916 British tactical doctrines reached their lowest depths, and it seemed to me that Libya '41, or the Winter Battle, or Auchinleck's Offensive, or ‘Crusader’, as it was variously called, was fought with an equally total page 82 disregard of what one had understood to be the principles of war—with two exceptions.
Surprise was achieved and thrown away, but there certainly was economy of force, a nicely calculated or perhaps unavoidable minimum for every operation, and there was a most obstinate maintenance of the objective. The Army battled on, regardless of setbacks and losses, until it had fought the Germans to a standstill. Then it gathered the fruits of a great victory, relieved Tobruk, and mopped up the frontier garrisons. So perhaps the management was not so bad as we were inclined to think. It was a fantastic battle, fought during the short days and moonlight nights under lowering skies. There were no flanks, the enemy was as likely to appear in what one thought was the rear as in front, Headquarters were constantly on the move, usually running hard from some roving column, the whole picture changed daily in kaleidoscopic fashion. We had rather more than parity in the air but two grave weaknesses. Our armour had nothing better than a two-pounder gun against the 75 mm. of the German tanks, and our infantry with only four two-pounders per battalion were helpless in the stony desert against the German tanks.
We did a short night move, some 14 miles, and then two long day moves of 50 to 70 miles. These were easy, there was little dust and we rolled along, trucks 150 yards apart stretching far out of sight, a monotonous, never-changing procession like a convoy at sea. Then we started on the night moves. The trucks closed in until we were in 9 columns, not more than 20 yards apart and trucks almost head to tail. This was done just before last light each evening and meantime the provost sections went ahead planting posts with lanterns at ½-mile intervals along the intended bearing. All the brigades had different desert formations. In 4 Brigade at this time 20 Battalion led in 9 columns with companies abreast, 18 Battalion and 19 Battalion followed, each in 3 columns behind the flanks, and Brigade Headquarters and the attached troops, field, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft gunners, sappers, Field Ambulance, and supply vehicles followed the centre 3 columns. Fully closed up there, was a mass of over page 83 800 vehicles on a front of some 200 yards and a depth of 1,500 or so. When dispersed in the day-time the front was about 1 mile and the depth anything up to 10.
Brigade groups followed one another, so that when each closed up for the night move there were gaps between them of about nine miles and they had to halt with similar gaps to leave room for dispersion at daylight—always made forward and outward. We had practised movement in desert formation, by night and by day, very often. Every truck had its allotted place and everyone knew it. The Division in the desert always moved on the one axis, marked by black diamond discs or by lights. Each formation and each unit had its regular and often-rehearsed drill for passing defiles, changing direction, dispersing and closing in, deploying to attack, or taking up a defensive position. One great advantage to commanders, staff officers, and dispatch riders was that Once a truck was identified it was easy to find the headquarters of the formation, unit, or sub-unit to which it belonged, as relative positions were known and familiar and unchanged.
This carefully studied and very often practised system enabled the Division to carry out many great moves, from Egypt to Tunisia, with comparative ease and speed. In time we came to think, not without reason, that we knew all that needed to be known about the movement and the manœuvring of masses of transport in the desert.
With every care and attention to system and detail these night moves were weary and slow. In the move into Libya it was my responsibility, as the Commanding Officer of the leading battalion, to lead the Brigade on to the line of lights and hold it on the line, which sounds easy enough. The vehicles of the Brigade ahead disappeared as they moved forward to concentrate. My first task was to find the three lights marking the brigade starting-point, and these were invariably where I did not expect them. If, as happened once or twice, I failed to find them before starting-time, the only course was to lead off on the correct bearing, peering anxiously ahead into the darkness until a light was picked up. At the time the provost people had a maddening habit of page 84 planting lights in hollows where these occurred at the correct half-mile intervals, and they would be passed altogether if there was the slightest discrepancy in course, or not seen until almost trampled under. Sometimes there were gaps in the line of lights, perhaps through one being knocked over and broken, and then we crawled on in acute anxiety until the next was picked up. In later times the provost detachments had learned more about our limitations and difficulties, planted their lights more frequently and prominently, and even let us know what spot in the desert they calculated to be the start-point. But the move into Libya remains in memory as a nightmare of anxiety.
Apart from these difficulties the night moves were not easy. We used no lights and most desert is bumpy and uneven. Leading vehicles travelled at two and a half miles in the hour but there was unavoidable concertinaing, and the tail of a long column usually had to move in fits and starts at anything up to twenty miles an hour. Twenty miles was a long night march under normal conditions. The drivers could see nothing of the ground in front, those back in the column could only follow their leaders. One was constantly slithering down over steep banks, bumping against hummocks, falling heavily into abandoned slit trenches, or getting stuck in soft sand. But every difficulty would be surmounted, the lights were always found in the end, and a few minutes after daylight we halted and dispersed and every truck brewed up for breakfast. During the day the stragglers and cripples were brought in by the indefatigable L.A.D.,11 and next night the performance would start again. The men could sleep during the day, but there were conferences and affairs of various kinds for commanders, and I was very short of sleep before the battle opened.
1 L.A.D.: Light Aid Detachment, a section specially equipped for the recovery and repair of vehicles.
At a conference next day we heard something more about the plan. The armour had gone ahead ‘to seek out and destroy the German armour’—4 Indian Division was to capture the enemy position in the Omars, now east of us. The South African and New Zealand Divisions were to remain in laager and await events. We made a short move and halted.
On 20 November we stayed in our laager all day, listening to the rumble and thudding of tank battles far ahead over the rim of the horizon. I went for a run round and saw the start of an attack by an Indian brigade on one of the Omars. Two hundred enemy tanks were reported ten miles ahead but they came no nearer. Two German plantes flew over the laager, came low to look, and went away in a great hurry with everyone firing at them.
The morning of the 21st passed quietly. At 12.30 p.m. we moved very suddenly. To my keen and doubtless ill-informed disappointment the Division split up at once. 6 Brigade went to help the support group of the Armoured Division, already hotly engaged and hard-pressed on Sidi Rezegh escarpment. 4 Brigade moved northwards to cut the Bardia-Tobruk road, 5 Brigade north-east to deal with or mask the positions about Sollum.
The Brigade halted and shook out into its day-time formation. I sent Mitchell's company forward to go down the escarpment on foot and get established across the Tobruk–Bardia road and then we rested until daylight.
Very soon after dawn I arrived on the escarpment and in the growing light saw a pleasing scene. The escarpment here was steep and about a hundred feet high, unscalable for vehicles except by one very steep track. On the road below, half a mile away, several trucks were stopped, one blazing, and grenades were bursting round another which also broke into flames. Numerous German trucks dug into pens were scattered between the road and the escarpment, and hundreds of enemy soldiers in groups were staring at the blazing trucks. Half a mile to the east, on the edge of the escarpment, was a group of tents, more transport, and men bustling round in an agitated manner. Obviously it was a complete surprise.
The companies had come up in their trucks and were waiting close behind me. I ordered Agar to debus with B. Company and attack across the flat, Manchester to take D. Company in its trucks right up to the camp and go in with the bayonet, and kept Fountaine with C. Company in its trucks in reserve. The carriers found the track down, and Guthrey went down with them to sweep between the road and the sea, three miles away.
Everything went like wedding bells. The companies moved quickly, and the enemy, with A. Company already in their midst, were too surprised to offer much resistance. In an hour's time we had 200 prisoners, armoured cars, and some thirty trucks, with only one casualty. One truck, taken by A. Company, was marked A6 and proved to be their own, lost in Greece, and with some possessions of Washbourn's still on board.
This was a good start and I looked round for something more to do. No more enemy were to be seen in the Bardia direction but there were still some about, west of Mitchell's position and fairly close. I went down and saw that he was page 88 comfortable, went back and told Fountaine to take his company down and mop these parties up, made sure that the gunners were ready to support, and sat down for breakfast, surveying the scene with satisfaction. It suddenly changed rather alarmingly. Some German armoured cars and a couple of self-propelled guns appeared from the Tobruk direction, opened fire at long range and then closed steadily on Fountaine's company. We had no anti-tank guns down the escarpment yet and, though C. Company fired briskly with Brens and rifles, it was obviously soon going to be in trouble. Fountaine handled his company skilfully, keeping up a steady fire and stepping platoon by platoon leftwards to the shelter of the tankproof escarpment. This was the only thing to do but it exposed Mitchell, and our gunners seemed maddeningly deliberate over getting into action. The German A.F.V.s1 continued to close—more dash and they would have punished us heavily—but just when matters were looking really serious, Carson, my old friend of Crete, got his troop into action and the Germans at once withdrew. The guns shelled them happily till the range was over 14,000 yards but did no damage.
C. Company collected on top of the escarpment. Only one man, a nice lad called Hill-Rennie, had been killed and a few wounded, but the men looked rather rattled and were worrying more than they should have. Many more Germans had appeared from holes in the ground when their A.F.V.s were about and the situation needed clearing up.
I went back to Brigade Headquarters, a mile back from the escarpment. Parties of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth were kicking footballs about, Inglis was tied to the telephone to Division. He told me to take the squadron of Valentine tanks, attached to the Brigade and counter-attack as I thought fit.
1 A.F.V.: Armoured Fighting Vehicle. Tank or armoured car or self-propelled gun.
The plan worked very nicely. The tanks moved smoothly down, deployed, and advanced at a steady pace, Fountaine close on their heels. The enemy cars and guns moved well back; their infantry surrendered as they were overrun. The only contretemps was that when I emerged with B. Company on the escarpment a mile ahead of our tanks they opened a warm fire on us and we retired rather hastily. By dark we had another 230 prisoners in hand with three or four more casualties. I pulled tanks and C. Company back to the top of the escarpment, left A. Company in its position with some two-pounders, and felt that it was quite a good day. The night was bitterly cold, and Rhodes, my Adjutant, gave himself a great deal of work trying to get hot food and blankets for our 430 prisoners.
During the action the remainder of the Brigade had moved westwards on Gambut without waiting for the result of my attack. I was to be relieved by 22 Battalion from 5 Brigade and follow next day.
Early on the morning of the 23rd advance parties arrived from the Twenty-second. I was showing them my dispositions when the Germans attacked again from the Tobruk direction, this time with thirteen A.F.V.s of different sorts and sizes, and some scores of infantry lorries. Infantry and anti-tank guns opened briskly, but as the enemy seemed to mean business, I hurried my squadron of tanks down the escarpment again. Unluckily this move could not be concealed and the enemy scuttled off smartly.
Division called for me to move without delay to Point 212, fifteen miles westward, on the Trigh Capuzzo, the so-called road from Capuzzo to Tobruk. 22 Battalion was arriving, so without waiting for formal relief I called in A. Company and the tanks, formed up into desert formation, and set off. The Twenty-second had some very hard fighting later in the positions they took over from us.
About 4 o'clock in the afternoon, after one detour to avoid some camels which looked suspicious, we arrived at page 90 Point 212, where Divisional Headquarters and 21 Battalion were waiting. General Freyberg told me that 6 Brigade was heavily engaged on Sidi Rezegh, 5 Brigade was staying to watch Bardia and Sollum, and Inglis with 4 Brigade, less the Twentieth, was by now at Gambut. Divisional Headquarters, with the Twentieth and Twenty-first, was to move through the night and join 4 and 6 Brigades. An enemy force with guns was in contact farther west along the Trigh and would have to be by-passed. I was to take the lead and guide the group to Bir1 Chleta, another fifteen miles to the west, where it would be between the two Brigades.
This was a really difficult piece of navigation. We had to swing round the Germans ahead, and then back on to the Trigh before we got on top of the unclimbable Sidi Rezegh escarpment. We moved very carefully, halting every half-hour to check distances and bearings, which we plotted by torchlight in the back of my car under a blanket. Flares, only used freely by the enemy, were going up in all directions and we several times had to alter course. But it was accurately done, and at midnight I was able to tell the General that we were at Bir Chleta and that the high ground looming to the south of us was the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. The Twenty-first immediately moved off to join 6 Brigade, the rest of us got into laager and had several hours sleep. A German Staff car ran into the laager during the night and its occupants were very surprised to be taken prisoner.
Soon after daylight I was ordered to move to Point 172, a mile or so to the north, make contact with 4 Brigade, now at Gambut, and come under Inglis's command again. He was about to resume the move westwards parallel with 6 Brigade's advance on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. The enemy group which we had by-passed had now followed us up and was shelling our laager, so I was also told to drive them away. Obviously this would have to be done before we joined 4 Brigade.
1 Bir: a well, always marked by the heap of excavated soil and so a tactical feature in the desert.
The Twentieth formed up in its trucks with its right flank on the Bir, B. and D. Companies leading on a front of 1,000 yards. C. and A. Companies lined up 600 yards behind them with Battalion Headquarters and the mortars immediately behind again. When the forming up was completed the tanks were to pass through in line abreast and advance at ten miles an hour on a bearing of forty degrees, the infantry following. If the tanks could overrun the enemy so much the better; the infantry would mop up. If the tanks were checked the infantry would debus, pass through, and assault. 4 Field Regiment would support with observed fire and I emphasized that speed and violence were the essence of the affair. No time was wasted in giving these orders but it took an hour for everyone to move into position. Meanwhile I ran in a carrier to Point 172, which was on the edge of the next escarpment above Gambut, and saw the rest of 4 Brigade already moving westwards in exactly the opposite direction to that in which we were about to attack.
I returned to find the battalion formed up and the tanks passing through. They did not check, charged on at about fifteen miles an hour on a bearing more like seventy degrees than the prescribed forty, spotted our carriers moving out of the way to the right flank, opened fire and knocked out two of them, one bursting into flames, and carried madly on. Things happened very quickly. Through the control tank I yelled to the tanks to get on the right bearing but without result. The infantry trucks leapt forward, keeping stubbornly to the correct bearing and steadily increasing speed. The guns opened, unluckily on the wrong target, a newly appeared mass of transport miles farther away. The machine-gun page 92 platoon had got well forward and came briskly into action, as did the carriers. So did the enemy, with guns, mortars, and automatics. The tanks saw the enemy and swung in to their correct course, slackened speed, and opened fire. Several were hit and blazed up, others stopped. Rhodes and I had followed up in a carrier and we stopped to speak to the control tank, sheltering in its lee from a hail of bullets. The tank commander called me and said: ‘I've had seven tanks hit; I'll have to stop.’ I had just seen the leading companies debus and advance, one steadily and nicely spaced, the other in rushes and evidently under fire. I replied: ‘The infantry are attacking; go on or I'll court-martial you.’ This was unfair to a very gallant officer, killed a few days later, but it was no time for politeness. The tanks went on slowly, firing fast, but the infantry passed through them and closed swiftly and savagely. I passed through the empty trucks coming back to get out of range and found that the fight was over. Most of the enemy transport had got away but about a dozen trucks were abandoned and we had captured three 88's with their crews all dead, except one slightly wounded man whom we picked up. I ordered the companies to move back at once and embus. A detail was left to cover the tanks, whose recovery vehicles quickly came up, and to mop up. They collected 260 prisoners of 361 German Infantry Regiment. Our loss was twenty-one and seven tanks, of which several were soon runners again.
Our transport had gone rather too far and I overtook the infantry trudging back. They were very cheerful and pleased with themselves. I was still rather excited when I met Gentry, the G. 1, and told him: ‘Tell the General my infantry are beautiful.’ We reached the trucks, got into desert formation with the carriers as a screen ahead, and moved west. At 4.30 p.m. we drew level with 4 Brigade, to which I sent a message that we had had a nice fight, and until dark we moved steadily on, going seven miles without opposition. At dark we halted for the night, expecting a good deal to do in the morning. There was an orders conference at Brigade at ten but I had the first real sleep since the campaign had opened.