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21 Battalion


page 443

Appendix I

[Reprinted from an article in the North Auckland Times, Dargaville, 17 May 1947]

The story of the capture of Major-General von Ravenstein, second-in-command to Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of the Afrika Korps in the Western Desert, and the part played by two local residents has been told by Mr. J. H. Money, intelligence officer for the 21st Battalion at the time of the capture.

The two local men who shared in the capture with Mr. Money were Messrs. R. S. Nicol and C. Vause who, at the time, were members of the battalion intelligence section. Despite all other claims by various units, it was these three men who effected the capture which took place at Point 175, Sidi Rezegh, on November 28, 1941.1

‘That the General's capture, complete with order of battle and marked maps, was of some importance was proved by the report in the NZEF Times that “it gave us possession of important operational orders against which we were able to prepare counter plans. The encircling movement of the Ariete force was thus no surprise and our artillery kept it at a respectful distance,”’ writes Mr. Money in the Auckland Weekly News.

‘For the benefit of any uninitiated who are prepared to read further it is necessary to give an indication of the composition of an intelligence section in an infantry line battalion. It generally consists of seven men, a sergeant and a subaltern. The men should be handpicked—fit, alert, first-class marksmen and natural scouts, for they may be called upon to accomplish some strange tasks. In the case of 21st Battalion at the time of this incident I claim to have had the perfect section. They were grand boys, and I wish I could record that they all came back. There is a degree of intimacy between the officer, the n.c.o. and the men in an “I” section, not always possible in larger groups. I can scarcely recall ever calling my chaps anything but “Boy”, “Cliff”, “Bill”, “Ben”, or “Ox”, but not one of them ever took advantage of the informality or ever gave me anything but the most loyal support.

page 444

Heavy Casualties

‘And this is how three of us fluked the capture of von Ravenstein. By November 27, 1941, the 21st Battalion had suffered fairly heavy casualties. The C.O. had been killed, the second-in-command wounded and the remnants, with the exception of A and B Companies, were withdrawn from Sidi Rezegh, placed under command of Headquarters Company commander, and sent by night to Point 175.

‘I believe the move was made by 6th Brigade, to whom we had been temporarily attached, as much to give us a rest and a chance to recoup as for any other reason. Quite incidentally it had been mentioned that we were to close the back door on 6th Brigade headquarters against surprise from the rear.

‘Desert navigation was the problem of Intelligence, and up to the night of November 27–28 I had not been displeased by our efforts over the Libyan Desert. But I was not clever about this night march on foot of some 3½ miles, and we did not strike the spot until the early hours of November 28.

‘It was a cold dawn to which we awoke having wearily dossed down in the sand once we were certain of our location, and the scene which met our eyes was pretty cheerless.

German Staff Car Appears

‘Dispositions having been decided, the sadly-depleted companies proceeded to dig in and in due course Bob Nicol, Cliff Vause and I went forward to find a suitable observation post. Other members of the “I” section nosed around getting an idea of the place and making ground maps for use by company and platoon commanders. The sun wastes no time in rising in those parts and by the time we had found what we wanted—a bomb hole with an excellent field of vision and adequate cover for messengers to slip back—the day had warmed up. D Company was on our right rear, a distance of perhaps 400 yards.

‘We had just decided to enlarge our observation post when, without warning, a German staff car, travelling slowly from the direction of the escarpment on our left, crossed our front scarcely 200 yards away. This did not necessarily mean that it was manned by Germans as by then both sides were driving each other's vehicles with complete impartiality. But all saw the peculiar flat caps of the occupants at the same moment.

‘No sooner had I given my version of a fire order than Bob and Cliff opened up. Now both are pretty marksmen and the effect page 445 of their opening rounds, which followed each other like lightning, was simply bewildering. The car stopped dead and simultaneously three figures leapt from the car and disappeared from view—obviously into a handy slit trench. We then proceeded to wage a private little war which was interrupted by some bursts of well meant machine-gun fire from the more distant D Company.

Decided to Go Forward

‘We seemed to be getting nowhere fast, so it was eventually decided that we should go forward, firing as we went and attempt a capture. To this end I yelled across to the unknown gunner to give us covering fire and forward we went. Almost immediately two pairs of hands went up and we wondered why we hadn't tried it before! All the same we badly wished to see that third pair of hands and in the most lurid language told the opposition what we wanted. They were desperately trying to tell us something, and one of the two lowered a hand to indicate the third member who hadn't shown up. The movement nearly cost him his life!

‘We had visions of a Jerry trick and were awake to surrendering enemy heaving ugly hand-grenades. However, I had caught the word “blessé” and a vague memory of schoolboy French came to my aid. Wounded he was, across the shoulder blade. And very luckily for us, because he was the bloke who was carrying the Germans' tommy-gun and our shot had made him drop it in the back of the car.

Some Very Big Game

‘As we got close we saw the badges of rank of the tall member of our trio of near-captives. My heart, already doing 60 to the dozen, missed a beat because, unless I was greatly mistaken, those interwoven epaulets meant a general! Unconsciously I must have taken a firmer grip of my rifle for the tall one hoarsely yelled, “Nein! Nein! General! General!” He was a general all right! General von Ravenstein, no less, second-in-command to the great Rommel. Twenty-first Battalion “I” section, had, all unconsciously, bagged some very big game indeed.

‘I had the pleasure of relieving the general of his excellent Luger pistol—a beautiful thing I fully intended smuggling out of Libya and home to New Zealand in defiance of all orders! Then D Company commander and many of his chaps came up. Captain T. wanted binoculars. His chaps wanted anything they could souvenir.

I protested. “Hey! You're not trying to rob us of our prisoners, Alan?” To which he replied: “No! No! They're your prize all right—but I am short of binoculars.”

page 446

‘So was Bob Nicol, and the binoculars were already snugly settled inside his shirt so I was able truthfully to say: “Well, I don't see any around.” Poor old Alan stopped one for keeps an hour or two later.

‘We wasted no time in getting our prize to battalion battle headquarters in his own car and obtained permission to take him back to Brigade. Before leaving we made a cursory examination of the car. It was most comfortably furnished! And the general had displayed a truly catholic and international taste for, among other things, he carried a tin of Aulsebrook's biscuits (yes, we got a shock too!), several cartons of South African cigarettes, a case of Crosse and Blackwell's tinned goods, a bottle of Greek brandy and a jar of rum, country of origin unknown but excellent quality for all that.

Handing Over the Prize

‘We had made a mess of the general's Benz. A front and back tyre, and the spare, which was strapped to the side, were all flat. One round had pierced the upholstery between the general and his driver after ricochetting from the dashboard. Unbeknown to us another had punctured the radiator. No wonder the general, who, by this time, was rapidly regaining his Teutonic composure, paid us the compliment of admitting in broken English: “British! Noo Zeeland? Ja! Ja! Good soldiers, British!”

‘With Bob driving and with Cliff and I doing guard duty we set out for Brigade. Bob had a very hard time steering because of the flat tyre. Even so we should have made the 3½ odd miles but for the punctured radiator which leaked dry and caused the engine to seize.

‘Believe me, we felt much alone when this happened. We were in a wadi and were perfectly sure we were in view of the enemy. Where a German general is doing a personal reconnaissance as lightly escorted as was this chap, there also will you find German troops not far away. We were not at all sure whether our own Brigade had spotted us and if so what they would make of a German staff car making its leisurely way toward our lines. I sent Cliff Vause back with an urgent request for a Bren gun carrier and begged him to “Egri George!” (Hurry up).

Excellent Supplies

‘Bob and I then waited. By this time von Ravenstein was completely composed. He indicated in broken French and much German that some food would be a good idea. We suspected a page 447 trick when he pointed to the back of his car. However, we were curious, so, making it perfectly clear that we were still very trigger-happy, I gave permission to the German driver to open up the back.

‘In a compartment we had not discovered were two excellent loaves of German bread beautifully wrapped in celophane, delicious German butter and some of the best cheese I have ever tasted. There was also a packet of raisins and another of dried figs. Still suspicious, we made the general eat first; the sight was too much for us so Bob and I took turns at covering the enemy while the other had a good feed of the enemy's excellent supplies.

‘Both Bob and I had noticed the keen but surreptitious glances the middle-aged German had directed toward the spot we knew must contain the enemy. Had they made a lightning raid the tables would have turned with a vengeance and I was a relieved subaltern when Cliff Vause returned with carrier, driver and an n.c.o. We off-loaded all the car's possessions excepting the jar of rum and the remnants of our breakfast, which we intended to return to 21st Battalion boys.

Farewell to a General

‘The rest of the journey was uneventful. It was with great glee that we proclaimed our prize to various of our troops who were with Brigade. We handed over the wounded German to the R.A.P. and we disposed of the unwounded German driver to the Field Security Section. Incidentally, he had been very worried about the possible effect of a signet ring emblazoned with the Nazi emblem and had made motions indicating his willingness to chuck it away. We reassured him, however, for which he was grateful. I shall never forget the Teutonic click of heels with which he farewelled his general or the icy-cold acknowledgment of von Ravenstein. The latter, after I had convinced an astonished Brigade liaison officer of his importance, was handed over. His speedy evacuation to Divisional Headquarters and his hazardous journey from there to Cairo are none of my story.

‘Our part was completed. We went back to our own unit to find the battle on in earnest. That same evening, having successfully withstood an attack from motorised infantry all day long, we were ignominiously rounded up by tanks and our own lives as prisoners of war had begun.’

page 448

1 General von Ravenstein was captured on 29 November.