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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Withdrawal

The Withdrawal

THE BATTALION’S withdrawal was made in good order, quickly, and with complete success. German flares were casting a bright light over the position when the troop received orders to retire. Its vehicles, now three portées, the commander’s ‘pick-up’, and the troop 3-ton lorry, were in the last party to leave. This comprised the field artillery, which kept up its fire to the very last moment, the battalion’s Bren carriers, and the last infantry company, the infantrymen riding on the gun vehicles and the carriers. One German prisoner also found a seat in the troop commander’s truck. It was not until eleven o’clock at night that L Troop and the 26th Battalion re-established contact with the 6th Brigade and bedded down for the night near Point 175.

Before the withdrawal the troop’s casualties were attended by the 26th Battalion’s Medical Officer, Lieutenant G. C. Jennings23, who earned the admiration of the gunners by bringing his RAP* truck to within fifty yards of the forward positions.

Reporting on this action, Brigadier Barrowclough wrote: ‘It will be appreciated that this small force had been hotly attacked by an enemy column which had already proved itself strong enough to defeat and overthrow the whole of the 5th South African Brigade Group. That the 26th Battalion and its supporting artillery and anti-tank guns were able to maintain their positions and come out of the action with surprisingly few casualties was an eloquent tribute to the high standard of training and fortitude of all ranks. After the action there was no question that the infantry had the highest possible regard for the gunners. Nor were the gunners less generous in their praise of the way in which the infantry first stood its ground and then fought the rearguard action back to the main body of the Brigade group.’

Lieutenant Pepper estimated that L Troop had knocked out 24 tanks as well as many unarmoured vehicles. As the fight progressed the front had become lined with burning vehicles, some South African, many of them transport lorries. In the dust and smoke, with the sinking sun shining into the eyes of the observer, it must have been extremely difficult to make an accurate count. The fact that eight field guns of the 30th Battery were also in action against the enemy armour made a tally all the more uncertain. It was reported by the British that the German attack against the South page 30 Africans and the 26th Battalion cost the enemy 52 tanks. With that as a total figure, and taking into account that the two L Troop guns fired nearly 700 rounds between them in about three hours’ fighting, the figure of 24 certainties is at least possible, even allowing for the long range at which many of the shots were fired.

On the debit side, one L Troop gunner was killed and three were wounded, and two guns and one portée lost. The afternoon’s fighting in this area cost the Eighth Army almost the whole of the 5th South African Brigade, as well as some tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. Against that there were the indefinite but certainly considerable German infantry casualties besides the losses in tanks and transport.

At the time of this engagement, it is probable that Rommel thought he had encountered a considerably larger proportion of the New Zealand Division than was actually the case. It was later stated by Colonel Mario Revetria, Chief Intelligence Officer of the Italian forces under Rommel’s command, that the German leader had first been under the impression that the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade had been virtually wiped out in company with the 5th South African Brigade on 23 November. Instead, on that same afternoon, the 25th Battalion had driven the Germans from Point 175, and the brigade was to take heavy toll of the enemy from the Sidi Rezegh escarpment before it was finally dislodged on 1 December.

Throughout this short but severe action the leadership of the anti-tank troop commander, Lieutenant Pepper, was an inspiration to his men, and indeed to all the New Zealanders there. Regardless of the heavy small-arms fire, he moved from gun to gun encouraging the crews, meeting every emergency promptly and with skill. At one stage, when the arrival of some South African vehicles and the distortion of an order gave the impression that there was a general withdrawal, he corrected the error and by personal visits to each gun made sure that the line was maintained. For this outstanding work under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and his complete disregard of personal danger, Lieutenant Pepper was awarded the Military Cross. It was a grave misfortune for the troop and the regiment when, three days later, he was so badly injured by a staff car which backed into the slit-trench in which he was resting, that he had to be invalided back to New Zealand.

Good fortune attended L Troop to the end of the short but bitterly-fought campaign. Both the battery’s other two-pounder troops, J and K, were overrun with the 24th and 26th Battalions above the mosque at Sidi Rezegh on 30 November, with heavy casualties and complete loss of equipment. With the survivors of the 25th Battalion, L Troop was able to withdraw next day, and made its way back to Baggush with what remained of the 4th and 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigades.

* Regimental aid post.