CHAPTER 3 — Libya, 1941
If I ever get a chance to grab a soft job I'll do so. —Private 6971, immediately after Greece.
I hope I get back to the old Battalion. I'd hate to go into a strange unit. It's one's old cobbers who make the existence of an infantryman reasonably happy. —Private 6971, after some weeks at Base.
‘Cairo,’ writes Bob Foreman,1 ‘the city which seemed to stand apart—the boom town. If you wanted to go on the bash what better place than Cairo—arguing with and cursing and swearing at George Wog—bright lights—a great variety of food and drink—the Pam Pam—a few chairs flying — and bottles—then came the Red Caps to spoil it all—jokers running down troops from other countries fighting in the desert (were the troops furthest from the line the loudest in their criticism?)—shoe shine boys (remember those ones who would pester you when you didn't want your shoes cleaned, and then rub a patch of blacking on them?)—hawkers (wallets, photos, obscene and otherwise—crude little books containing very crude stories written in unconsciously humorous English—fountain pens, watch straps, etc., etc.). Wogs saying such things as “You come with me Kiwi—I show you….” Walking down to Bab El Louk station and passing Wogs smoking hubbly-bubbly pipes—a whiff of burning incense when passing some doorway —Arabic cafés blaring forth native vocal and string music from a radio and fat Wogs sitting at tables drinking (say) coffee (black in small cups). Cane crates full of fowls, piles of veges. —hunks of raw meat covered with flies—those native pancake sort of things—donkeys (four legs two ears and a nose sticking out from under some enormous load, or a Wog sitting on the donkey's rump and the donkey always looking the picture of dejection). The Wog driving his cart and sitting at the front page 85 with his wives in a group at the back and dressed in black with veils. Walking round the streets, shops and places where you could get nearly anything at a price—Wog kids meeting you and then running after you yelling “Backsheesh-ana-muskeen-marfesh faloose” (then, finding themselves out of luck and the object of abuse, as a parting shot: “New Zealand bastard!”). Then in the bazaar—they said it was safer if there were three or four of you together—masses of tall Wogs in flowing dirty white robes—some of them carrying sticks—out of the hot dusty sun into a cool dark little shop (maybe you wanted to buy some stockings or tapestries)—then out into the blinding sunshine again—Wogs with something wrong with one eye—a Wog with no legs, just wheeling himself along the street on a trolley: a trunk, two arms and a head. Sometimes he would stop and get off his cart and move himself along with a loping motion on his arms and the bottom of his trunk, the way a monkey sometimes hops along on its front legs. And small Wog eggs with a taste of their own. And always Wogs shouting and arguing. Gully-gully men—Wogs with flies clustered round eyes and mouth and not bothering to brush them off. And traffic roaring and honking their way along the streets, especially those taxis, they drove with one hand on and off the horn. And the trams, packed full and other Wogs clinging onto the sides. (It was the same on the trains—full inside—and more Wogs sitting on the roofs of the carriages—robes flowing and fluttering in the wind.) And all those tales of mystery about the Dead City. (And tales of trams bought and sold.)
‘But often you would get dressed up in your “Groppi- Mocker”, with maybe a camera slung over your shoulder, and make for the N.Z. Club (via YMCA, Wog bars, and Maadi train). Then a hot shower, more refreshing than a cold one even in hot weather. Then a feed (that very good ice cream at the Club), and then off for the afternoon to—say—the zoo or Mohamed Ali Mosque (something worth seeing I thought) or the races at Gezira or Heliopolis—you only usually went to the Pyramids once (got your photo taken sitting on a camel), and if you felt energetic, climbed to the top; also stood for a minute and looked at the Sphinx. (Also wondered just how they got those great blocks of stone all the way from the quarry.)page 86
‘Then maybe back (by train or sometimes taxi) to Maadi. If it was still daylight and hot, well what better than a nice cool meal at the Maadi Tent—those ladies of Maadi who ran it won't be forgotten by one Kiwi. (Then back to the pictures at Shafto's or Pall Mall: reels put on in the wrong order and frequent breakdowns: waves of insults, whistles, etc. each time it broke down. Also Andrews Sisters singing “Rumboogie” while you waited for the pictures to start at the Pall Mall.) And as you left the Maadi Tent there were all those Jackaranda and Flame trees putting on a great display of blue and red, and maybe a Kiwi having a round of golf. And if you came back by bus, taxi or lorry, remember that bump at the railway crossing? And the Berka (no comment)?’
Men new to Cairo, walking out of the New Zealand Club and wandering aimlessly down streets and around corners, would suddenly stop, realising they were completely ‘bushed’. The best plan was to call a gharry, say ‘New Zealand Club, George’ with the utmost casualness, and hope no circling of blocks would add a few more ‘ackers’ to the fare. Newcomers soon found the heat and sweat played up with leather watch straps; they bought metal ones (and arguments would start: ‘Now if you're smacked on the wrist…’). And the sudden discarding of money belts, so zealously worn and guarded in camp and in troopship. Some had their hair shaved off—a regular fashion early in the war—or were tattooed, waking in the morning with heavy head and groping for sweet, cold water in the tall-necked earthenware zeer, and discovering that other dull ache was some clumsy or blatant tattoo. The once-over at hairdressing establishments: haircut, shave, shampoo, vibrator-massage, nail manicure, and so on.
Pestered by a hawker to buy something at, say, 50 piastres, and offering perhaps five or ten just to be rid of the trader. But ‘George’, game to the end, haggling, until finally: ‘Right New Zealand. You my very good friend—I give it you at your price.’ And the Kiwi saying in disgust: ‘Christ, George, I don't want the bloody thing.’ Many bought sunglasses, and how quickly these were discarded. Others bought bottles, all sealed and wrapped in cellophane and ribbons and labelled with a well-known brand of Scotch whisky, but when opened it tasted page 87 like methylated spirits; and search as much as a man could, no trace would be found where the glass had been tampered with and repaired. Gradually other men grew more civilised in their drinking habits, and ordered and drank such things as ‘gazoos: very nice, very sweet, very clean’; ate water melons; got used to the paper boy (Mail or Gazette) shouting remarks about diseases (not entirely unknown within the 2 NZEF itself) affecting Mussolini and Hitler and, sometimes, for a ten-acker bribe, even a distinguished New Zealand commander or two.
The Naafi canteen ran ‘housie’ and sold eggs and chips fried in oil, and Stella or Pyramide beer, invariably drunk from cut-down beer bottles. The company canteen (when company canteens were established) had its radio blaring happily (‘the beer ran out on one occasion and we got in Zibbib, with disastrous results to one Kiwi from Gisborne’). Bits of spare time were also passed dozing in the tents, or running each other down, or playing cards.
‘Sometimes somebody would get heartily sick of it all and really go on the bash. Then in the dead of night we would hear approaching noises—songs—laughter—curses. Then one voice would break away from the others and make roughly in our direction (‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine….’). Then the next second the whole tent would jolt as a thud was heard outside. Then would follow a stream of curses at the offending tentpeg—then the voice would become more distant and finally die away in the distance, probably to enter at last its own tent —telling the victims in there just what it thought of them, amid much shuffling and fumbling….’
‘Yes: Egypt and the desert: I hated it,’ writes a veteran. ‘The other countries I saw all had their redeeming features, but Egypt had so very little and I liked it least of all. A climate and landscape as uninteresting as any I could imagine. You hear of beauty of desolation:2 well it had the desolation…. I didn't even see those great sand dunes you see in pictures (except maybe a patch in the Sinai), but mainly flat desert page 88 or sombre wadis (valleys) and escarpments. And so little sand and so much dirt, dust and broken bits of rock lying about, plus camelthorn. Some said the sunsets were beautiful, but I'd say I have seen plenty better at home. Then again some said that the evenings had “something”. But there again I'd say that it was only relative: how many times in the desert have we waited longingly for the evening to come?’
June began with the weary survivors landing at Alexandria and going on to the desolate outskirts of Garawi Camp (near Helwan, a few miles south of Maadi), a very bad camp, ‘arid and bare as a sow's paunch’, with no facilities, rice three times a day, no fresh vegetables, and a sugar shortage. The Intelligence Officer, Sam McLernon,3 suggested grinding the rice to make it more palatable; but this made meals more leather-some than ever. The rearguard from Greece welcomed comrades back. The stories, reunions, arguments, laughs, and sudden silences began. So did weapon training and the endless route marches (full water bottles carried, but nobody allowed to drink). One platoon, slogging through dirt and sand, met a peanut vendor—and hawkers used to appear in the most surprising places, even during ‘highly secret’ moves. The soudani-seller cried: ‘Hitler no bloody good, Mussolini no bloody good, but peanuts very bloody good.’ They ignored him, and as they headed for home, heard the farewell cry: ‘Hitler no bloody good, Mussolini no bloody good, and peanuts no bloody good.’
The reinforcements, 365 of them, marched in, bringing the battalion's strength up to 30 officers and 752 men. ‘And what a splendid lot of men they were too,’ says Colonel Andrew. ‘They'd had home affairs to wind up and leave in order, and once this was done they turned to soldiering. When they came to us they were keen to learn. The veterans took them in hand, taught them and wised them up. They settled down excellently.’
Here is the first impression of a reinforcement, Private Price:4 ‘The first parade after the reinforcements had been posted to page 89 their various Companies, he gives us all a heart to heart talk: “You are in the 22nd Battalion, yes, 2nd to none, and I'm tough, bloody tough. Old February, that's me—Twenty-eight Days—ask any of the old hands, they'll tell you. Don't think you can go sick and get out of it….” The old hands had told us beforehand practically word for word what he would say…. Our Company Commander is a hell of a good sort, Major Hart….’
The Colonel was not satisfied with the appearance of his battalion. He cancelled all leave until camp lines were left clean and tidy, bedding and equipment laid out properly for inspection, guards and pickets knew their duties and performed them smartly, and men dressed properly on parade. Furthermore, to the delight of other ranks, officers were given brisk rifle drill for several mornings.
One Saturday morning the men were straggling back to camp after an unusually hot march. The Colonel appeared and shouted: ‘March like soldiers!’ A muffled voice retorted: ‘Oh shut up you silly old b—.’ That afternoon, instead of Cairo leave, away they went on a second march, Colonel Andrew first saying, ‘I may be a silly old b— but I'm the boss' and then setting the pace. No veteran will ever forget that afternoon's march, and stories of that day used to frighten off reinforcements from 22 Battalion. ‘But by God,’ a veteran writes, ‘we prided ourselves on being able to walk any other outfit into the ground—and we could. An officer, Tommy Hawthorn, used to bounce along, leading his boys, with his eyes half closed, the son-of-a-gun could walk indefinitely.’
After a few weeks at Garawi the battalion moved to another camp, Kabrit, by the Bitter Lakes, three-quarters of the way down the Suez Canal and about 16 miles from the tarnished port of Suez. This was no holiday resort: enemy bombers knew Kabrit, and all tents (eight men to a tent) were dug down three feet. They stayed here for a month. Fifth Brigade was grouping together for advanced training. On the lake and on the Canal they practised invasion exercises in shallow landing craft. ‘These ALCs are something like a steel barge, one end opens and the platoon goes aboard, Nos. 1 and 3 Sections first and No. 2 last. All sit down in rows, the door is pulled up, and away we go. The ALCs are…. for landing purposes only. There are page 90 ships fitted with special davits and the ALCs are carried aboard these. Then about three miles off the shore the Mother ship anchors, and each crowd man their ALC and are lowered over the side, and away you go, either get lost or land on the wrong beach. We put in two days on one of these ships and did a few practice landings and then the whole business was called off.’ Perhaps it was just as well that the plan to make a surprise landing behind enemy lines in Libya was abandoned.
Meanwhile, men who had lost all their personal gear in Crete were wondering whether they would be compensated. They learned now that they would: 50 ackers (10s.) apiece. Officers seem to have received full compensation, and one is known to have received £46.
From Kabrit they went on to Ismailia, marching a third (14 miles) of the way in a day, one of the worst marches put up by the battalion, with feet giving out all the way. Platoon commanders had to go on a punishment march next day. Nobody fell out from 3 (Mortar) Platoon, 7 Platoon (A Company), and 14 Platoon (C Company). Paul Donoghue and a comrade marched the full distance with recently stitched heads.
The unit, now on guard duties with the rest of 5 Brigade, had the bad luck to camp in Spinney Wood, a filthy spot, a good example of some of the wretched places a battalion can be landed in. RASC traffic, using extensively a road through the camp, sent dust flying in all directions. One row of tents huddled between a highway and a railway. A train ‘with square wheels' jolted past every night. The Camel Corps only too obviously occupied an area to the south. Near that was a row of native hen-houses. Any attempt at migration was baulked by a wireless station to the west, the Royal Marines to the north, and the main railway line to Port Said to the east. Within this blighted area sprawled a contractors' canteen (no Naafi), a dhobi with clothes-lines and living quarters, native latrines and washing places, traders' hovels, and a native barber shop —all this in a dusty patch smaller than 20 acres, where 774 men lived in tents jammed together, their guy ropes interlacing. Precautions against the swarming flies were negligible; cooks found their quarters dirty and primitive, and with no mess tent, men had to draw their food and carry it to their tents. The camp was set in a malarial area. Every night jittery natives page 91 streamed through the lines to avoid air raids on Ismailia. And an outbreak of plague in Port Said stopped all leave.
Colonel Andrew, who could storm as fiercely for his men as against them, sent a vibrant report to Brigade, but fortunately the battalion stayed here only a fortnight.
There were two compensations: a train containing crates of beer became derailed, an extraordinary coincidence, beside the camp (while the canteen contractor joined pillagers about the train, other enterprising soldiers rifled his canteen); and working parties sent to unload boats on the Canal often returned laden with tinned delicacies. With visions of luxuries, C Company landed the hay and wood line: no job was dirtier or thirstier. Officers of 23 Battalion were entertained at a hilarious party, at which Colonel Andrew sat back smilingly and said: ‘If I were 10 years younger I would be in there.’ Suddenly, with a whoop and a yell, he dived into the struggling mass ‘and took as much subduing as anybody.’
The next move, 280 miles away into the desert, into ‘the blue’, was to Kaponga Box. While approaching their destination, near Alamein, a few men noticed a slight rise in the sand and rock. It didn't look much. This modest ridge was known as Ruweisat—a dark and tragic place for the battalion one year later. Kaponga Box, where 5 Brigade settled, was a patch of desert encircled by low sandhills, intended to be turned into a horseshoe-shaped fortress—not a Beau Geste one with walls and loopholes, but a camouflaged, almost invisible fortress with strongpoints and trenches on the surface and underground tunnels and rooms. Fifth Brigade sweated away preparing these amenities. Little showed above ground. The idea was that should the enemy sweep down from the frontier and approach Alexandria, the fortress garrison, amply supplied with food and ammunition, could sally out and harry him from the flanks. This ‘Box’ outlook, together with schemes of flying ‘Jock columns', was a fashionable but unsuccessful idea, abandoned in mid-1942.
The battalion set to work to build a series of ‘keeps’. First the section built its keep, modelled along the lines of those which had proved their worth round Tobruk. Once the section keeps were finished, they were wired round to form a platoon keep, and then, finally, a company keep—that was the theory, page 92 anyway. There was no continuous line—rather a chain of company keeps, about 400 or 600 yards apart. The men worked away in the rock and sand, hacking out holes of all shapes and sizes with many curses and blisters, four hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. Charlie Brock5 and his pioneers were well to the fore. Indian sappers and men from 7 Field Company, New Zealand Engineers, gave brief assistance, blasting into layers of hard limestone which had very few fissures. Sometimes they struck enormous, tough boulders. ‘A Company found some good fossils; one day a rabbit bobbed up, God knows what it lived on, but it was knocked on the head with a spade.’
The battalion picks and shovels, although plentiful, were made from poor stuff: ‘on the hard rock the pick just bounced off and turned back and looked at you.’ The battalion's forge was kept busy. Help arrived in the shape of twenty crowbars and Spaulding hammers.
By mid-September good progress had been made. Parties took spells and briefly bathed and basked on the coast. Ploughing back to the Kaponga Box through fine, sandy dust left the troops dirtier than ever. Water was not plentiful—‘1 ½ gallons a man a day for all purposes', read the official ration, but all of this except half a water bottle for each man went to the cookhouse. The soldier washed, cleaned his teeth, and shaved with this ration of half a bottle, and ‘if any was over he was able to have a good drink.’ Canteen stores had to be brought 40 miles away from El Daba. Canteens opened with slender and quickly exhausted stocks of English, Australian and Egyptian chocolate, tinned fruits, boot polish, shaving tackle, biscuits, English lollies, cigarettes, tobacco, and Chinese beer (‘Ewo’, with the yellow label, from Shanghai); on the average a man received half a bottle each week, ‘and all other luxuries in the same proportion.’
‘Flies were the greatest army of all,’ wrote Tom De Lisle. ‘At their worst they accompanied the moving soldier, and made his arms ache with waving to ward them off. At their mildest they were still there in ones or twos to torment and annoy. No matter what remote spot the battalion moved to, nor how page 93 quickly, no sooner were the preliminaries of bivouacking engaged in when the vanguard of the fly army arrived. Flies and sand! Sand and flies in never ending quantities.’
To keep the men in touch with civilisation a Cairo daily newspaper brought out a special Western Desert edition which arrived by air a few hours after publication. Half-hearted attempts to prosecute Egyptian war profiteers made wry reading. The NZEF Times brought the home news every week; a picture propaganda magazine, Parade, turned up too; and the YMCA cinema unit toured here and there, screening tirelessly ‘Topper Takes a Trip’.
For all its bleak environment the life was better than at base camps. ‘I think that at Kaponga the troops were fitter and healthier than they ever were before or since,’ says Colonel Andrew, ‘and we should have gone direct from there into action.’ Other men, remembering ‘the terrific desert sores’, disagree firmly. ‘Gerry Fowler could tell you of some battles with desert sores and septic fingers,’ notes a stretcher-bearer, ‘and how nearly every “cocky” in Taranaki provided ointment and liniment and the Lord knows what through parcels for D Company.’
At Kaponga, first thing every morning before starting his daily jobs, Padre Thorpe6 would go across the desert plateau away from the unit's position to read the Psalms and Bible readings for the day, ‘and to pray for the men and for our people at home, and that I might be of some use. At the time about which I speak things were pretty bad with the Allies; I tried to see the world situation from a moral and spiritual point of view. How else could we pray? And of course there were great moral issues at stake, and it was important that we should keep that perspective in view. Otherwise we would not have right motives, when coming back after the war, to rebuild our nation on more secure moral foundations. It seemed, as it really was and is, a critical crisis in the story of mankind—with the rise of Nazi-ism, as an evil, destroying force and with plenty enough soul-less materialism corrupting our own people. With this background of thought, I prayed for the springs of spiritual renewal within our people, and of course within our own men page 94 of the 22nd Bn. Stretching away for hundreds of miles was the desert, barren and lifeless, and symbolising to me in a very real way the desolation in the heart of man that gave rise to such a ghastly war. Moreover, Egypt itself depressed us by the corruption and slums (tho’ in the worst slums I had found inspiration when I saw Christian love in missionary centres). Tho’ I knew God's promises, could I ask for “a sign”?
‘My prayers seemed pretty hopeless. But then I remember I took a hold on myself, and stood up and prayed, accepting God's promise that those who pray believing are already answered. Then there came over me an assurance that whatever the barren appearance to the contrary, God had not forgotten man and his need, and His mighty purposes were working out. I turned to the Psalms of the day and the words were to me a direct message to confirm what I felt: “I am well pleased that the Lord hath heard the voice of my prayer, that He hath inclined His ear unto me, therefore shall I call upon Him as long as I live!” Verse after verse applied to our situation and to me.
‘As I arose to go back from my meditation, something attracted my attention. Nearby on one of the dead-looking camel-bushes was an exquisite, wax-like flower, the only sign of life that I had seen in that vast dead desert. Then, nearby I saw a similar tiny, pink flower; and close by me I saw a little track in the sand behind a white snail-shell. All through the hot summer these snails had sealed themselves off with a waxy substance and had gummed themselves to camel-bushes. Intrigued by tiny signs of life I walked around for some hundreds of yards, and found not a sign of anything more; nor did I when moving around our position that day. Here was the “sign” I asked for. To me it was a way in which the good Lord said to me, that in the moral desolation of man He was still sovereign over His universe, and He would bring forth springs of life in the midst of man's failure. It was as real to me as if He had spoken by voice; and I knew I could help bring a new moral strength of purpose to those who were in the midst of the conflict.’
October7 brought an end to fortress work. The Division was page 95 to train for mobile desert operations. The rest of the Division was now by the coast at Baggush Box, and 5 Brigade would join it there. In any future attack, as Brigadier Hargest pointed out during a visit, the infantry would be carried in motor transport up to the assembly point. Sometimes men might be carried into the fringe of the attack itself and debus under fire.
After a church parade on 5 October the battalion moved off in convoy, bound for Baggush, and travelled 25 miles westwards over the desert before bivouacking for the night. One man's impressions read: ‘Movement of a big formation in the desert is like a convoy at sea. As far as the eye ranges are motor vehicles big and small. They roll and dip with the undulations in the sand. The carriers forge along as escorts—like destroyers —and suddenly one will dart away, speeding to the head of the moving mass of vehicles, or to some point which needs watching.’ Before tea-time next day the battalion covered 50 to 60 more miles to a gaunt escarpment scattered with mines at ‘Baggush by the Sea’, as the parodies of ‘Sussex by the Sea’ described the dusty, flea- and bug-infested oasis. From here, after a month, big formations of New Zealand vehicles would move out, the Division would assemble and move towards Libya, one force moving in one body, nearly 3000 vehicles and over 19,000 men, in all its power and majesty, for the only time in its life. But first, something had to be learned of exercises, traffic discipline and manoeuvre. And time was running short.
News came through of a gallant escape from Greece. Early in July Second-Lieutenant Craig had broken out—the first officer to escape from his camp—from a prisoner-of-war cage near Athens. Two months later he and three companions reached Crete via Antiparos. Engine trouble set in, and for twenty-four hours they drifted near Port Spinalonga. From there they set sail to Alexandria. The boat was small, and they suffered great hardship. They reached Alexandria on 8 October, and Craig, who had shown great fortitude all the time, went back to underground work in Greece.
The troops practised, with map and compass, navigation and movement and speed over the desert by companies, by battalion, and then, for three days, by brigade. They moved at night without lights. They learned to scramble from 3-ton lorries, and to attack swiftly and in orderly fashion. B Echelon page 96 (administration, supplies, sanitation) rehearsed its own movements and checked over rationing arrangements. A sergeant recalled the panic which set in back home when his family of four drove off for a Sunday picnic. ‘Now we've got 800 men to feed and care for on the move, dammit,’ he wrote. They went through the motions of practising protection against aircraft and sudden raiders, both on the move and when halted for the night. Engineers gave talks and demonstrations on various types of mines and booby traps. A practice took place on the range with live grenades (Lieutenant Davison8 was injured here).
Then General Auchinleck (who had succeeded General Wavell after the first desert victories) took the salute at a parade at Sidi Haneish station, ‘the best gallop we had for a long time, luckily we moved along in our own dust storm.’ Admonishing 7 Platoon's commander, Peter Hockley,9 for untidy lines, Colonel Andrew pointed to a lumpy old sandbag, aimed a vigorous kick at it, and found it was full of solidly set cement. Some members of the battalion were allowed to see New Zealand play the Springboks, provided they marched with full equipment and ammunition. Other units went by truck. They saw the All Black, Jack Sullivan,10 of D Company, score the only try of the match. Another All Black, Captain Arthur Wesney,11 of 26 Battalion, converted Jack's try and kicked a penalty goal. He had two more weeks to live.
Padre Thorpe records in his diary the last two days at Baggush oasis:
Sunday, 9-11-’41. Expectancy in the air as I go from place to place among barbed wire and mines taking little services, before moving up into action….at the services in each place little messages for the occasion. After each service around a rough altar at the back of a V8, they come to kneel in brown dust for Holy Communion.
8 am: A Coy; 8.30: B and C and Holy Communion; 9.15: HQ and D and Holy Communion. Then as fast as rough desert will allow, along the flat to 21st Battalion HQ escarpment with Major page 97 Harding12 to a great parade of 21 Battalion HQ at 10.15 am. All ready. Again through the service is a sense of things to come, of committing those we love to God, of asking guidance and strength to go out into the fortunes of battle, ‘O, God, our Help in ages past’; Lieut.-Col. Allen gives the last message and we arrange for Holy Communion early tomorrow.
I called at HQ and saw Padre Sheely13 (R.C.) and went on to 23rd Battalion HQ for lunch with old friends….On to YM for as many primuses as they could sell me for the platoon trucks. To 22 Battalion Headquarters and franked a pile of letters. To 28th [Battalion] for more primuses. Back in a cloud of dust to the deep concreted dugouts of C.C.S. for final visit to sick men including Padre Read,14 Doc. MacGregor15—all anxious lest they get missed out of the coming offensive: visit to Transport 22 Battalion, up rocky escarpment to C Coy to give latest news from BBC, treacherous journey, along escarpment again to A Coy among whom I was living at the moment, and then quiet in the dusty, concrete gun-emplacement which is my home and my spiritual fortress, to sleep.
Monday, 10-11-’41. A cold shave in darkness and away to 21 Battalion as light comes. Lieut.-Col. Allen meets me in battledress— which from now on replaces for all of us the scanty drill shorts— and we choose a rocky waadi against the escarpment. I open the back of the car and set out the silver vessels on the simple altar. One by one a few faithful come and stand in the cold wind for the simple service. As in all these last services there is the special thought for those in authority, for decisions on which shall hang the issue of the day, and the life or death of many. (I did not realise then [Padre Thorpe subsequently wrote] that the 21st Battalion was to be so badly mauled at Sidi Rezegh, that among the killed would be the C.O. now kneeling for his last Holy Communion, and that Padre Sheely with many prisoners would be in German hands.) But here we commit all to God, rise to our feet and on with the day's work. Breakfast at 21st Battalion's officers' mess, back to A Coy by 8 am, away with the Ration Corporal, some 12 miles up the road to Naafi for emergency supplies, cigarettes for the wounded, wine for Holy Communion. Back for lunch, last letter to R—, and till 3 pm franking a great pile of innocent letters which may be the last. Called at the R.Q.M. for an extra water tin and a petrol page 98 tin, go to the Transport for petrol, to D Coy for extra blankets and emergency ration. Mess in A Coy's officers dugout, BBC news, silence and prayer, get anti-gas ointment, finish!
They were off on Armistice Day. ‘Some idiot from Div H. or Base had the happy thought of sending us a lot of red poppies to buy. We didn't subscribe very much. Seemed a very “We who are about to die” stunt.’ Away they went, a motorised fleet, streaming up the coastal road, leaving behind the rehearsals in vain by the Canal, the hen-houses and humiliations of Spinney Wood, the navvy work at Kaponga. They were off, 77 vehicles among 5 Brigade Group's 1006 lorries, trucks, cars, carriers and guns. They were off, 700-odd men, a twenty-sixth of the New Zealand Division, a hundred-and-sixty-fifth part of the newly formed Eighth Army's 118,000 men and 17,600 vehicles going towards battle.
The idea behind this campaign, the Second Libyan or CRUSADER campaign, was to drive the enemy out of North Africa. Libya's two northern provinces, first Cyrenaica then Tripolitania, were to be captured in turn. The first step, which was to be taken in November, was not the relief of Tobruk (this was incidental to the plan) but the destruction of the enemy's Armoured forces. Once the armour was shattered, General Auchinleck, holding Cyrenaica easily, hoped to advance into Tripolitania.
Out in the desert from Mersa Matruh, 22 Battalion rested quietly while the other units of the Division moved into position. General Freyberg arrived from Baggush after jotting down in his diary: ‘Thirteen to dinner last night; part of 13 Corps, and left on adventure 13th November.’ When they were all in place the New Zealand vehicles formed an oblong 12 miles long and 8 miles wide: 2800-odd vehicles, 200 yards apart, each with a camouflage net to break revealing outlines and shadows. They rested, silent and still, waiting the word to go.
The word came. The oblong crawled forward, the Division moving as one entity for the first time in its history, early on Saturday, 15 November. Vehicles, still spaced 200 yards apart in case of enemy bombing, stretched from horizon to horizon, an unforgettable sight.
Speed was set at seven miles in the hour, for the ground with no roads whatsoever was humpy and patched in low, wiry page 99 camel-thorn, the sand piled and packed in small hard cones about its roots. It was no joy-ride for the riflemen, jolted, bumped and bashed together, stiff at times from the cold, travelling under conditions which would have brought serious trouble to any transport firm carting farm animals. Yet ‘the morale of the Division was at its peak, a level never surpassed,’ writes a New Zealand historian.
They covered 60 miles this day, dug in, and settled down for the night, all lights banned except in the carefully blacked-out office trucks. Daylight movement was cut to a minimum, and all through Sunday they lay low, undetected. Evening brought intense activity. Vehicles drew in and closed up for the 25- mile night move. Green-shaded lamps, planted a mile or so apart, marked the route ahead.16 The guiding lamps were placed and tended by provost who had gone on ahead, had done their work, and then had taken cover. The centre of each brigade moved along this route. The trucks ran into soft sand in the darkness, concertina movements began in the column —now fast and lurching, now crawling or halted.
Vehicles, halted in their tracks in the night, fanned out to 200-yard intervals at daybreak. To allow for this sudden expansion, gaps of several miles had been left between the brigades. Men heard of an eve-of-battle message from Britain's Prime Minister saying: ‘Now is the time to strike the hardest blow yet for final Victory, Home and Freedom.’
They moved again in the night. This was no orderly move, but a hectic scramble. Last night's bruises doubled. The route, not well chosen, lay across soft sand, small depressions, rocky rises and other obstacles. Trucks fell back and then, their drivers hoping against hope not to ram the vehicle ahead, raced forward to hold position in the darkness. The night, pitch dark, was slashed wide open with great sheets of light from a thunderstorm in the north. The brief flashes, momentarily lighting up the desert and dazzling drivers, revealed trucks, roaring angrily, disappearing into dust clouds. And the dust-caked riflemen, cooped together under the lurching canopies of the three-tonners, felt like dice in a shaker.page 100
A party from D Company went out in the afternoon to guard engineers cutting a 300-yard gap in the wire barrier along the Libyan frontier. (This barrier, no defensive measure, was to keep Mussolini's Senussi from straying.)
The next night, tangling with the trucks from another battalion, the 22nd moved into Libya.
Inside the frontier, south of the chain of enemy forts, the New Zealanders, unmolested, waited in full battle order. With airfields soggy from recent rains, the bulk of the enemy air force remained grounded. The Division's move, both to the frontier and 12 miles farther north in the afternoon of 19 November, seemed to have been undetected by the enemy. English armoured vehicles and tanks arrived, most inoffensive looking at a short distance under their camouflage of false canopies. The complete and cocky confidence of these Englishmen, ‘some knee-high to a grasshopper’, made a deep and permanent impression on the New Zealanders—this and the fact that the English soldier was always short of sugar.
Before the New Zealand Division began its major operations, deadly fighting raged over a huge area of desert. Tanks hid hull-down behind any protecting rise, or charged from out of the sunset. One by one the engagements ended in flames, with oily smoke billowing above the horizon. Anti-tank guns claimed most tank victims. By the afternoon of 22 November the Germans began to get the upper hand. Our battle plan allowed dispersion of our armoured brigades, which were defeated one by one. The German properly co-ordinated all arms in his panzer divisions, but many of the British tank officers thought they could ‘go it alone’.
Lieutenant W. C. Hart, Les Murphy and Jack Weir rest on the way back from Gazala
Playing cards under the olive trees at Haifa
22 Battalion digs in at Minqar Qaim. Lieutenant Sam McLernon left, elbows on knees) was later captured at Ruweisat
A meal at Kaponga
Troops debus the day before the attack on Ruweisat Ridge
General Freyberg joins Captain MacDuff and members of B Company in a mug of tea, 26 October 1942
Tanks burning on Miteiriya Ridge
Unloading supplies at Sollum, November 1942
22 Battalion Pipe Band, Maadi, 1943
Officers of 22 (Motor) Battalion, Maadi, June 1943
Back row, from left: Lt W. H. Cowper, Lt A. W. F. O'Reilly, Lt J. H. W. Dymock, Lt P. R. Willock, Lt C. R. Carson, Lt P. B. Were, Lt R. E. Johnston, Lt F. R. Wheeler, Lt E. F. T. Mullinder, Lt T. F. Hegglun, Lt D. M. Whillans, Lt F. N. Twigg. Centre row: Rev. T. E. Champion, Capt W. A. Cawkwell, Capt D. Horn, Capt R. R. Knox, Major F. G. Oldham, Major H. V. Donald, Lt-Col T. C. Campbell, Major J. L. MacDuff, Major P. R. Hockley, Capt L. G. S. Cross, Capt J. Forster, Capt J. Milne, Capt G. S. Sainsbury. Front row: 2 Lt T. G. Fowler, 2 Lt W. A. Tubert, (Not identified), 2 Lt D. C. Cox, Lt R. L. Thompson, Lt A. T. House, Lt. L. R. Thomas, Lt A. W. Hart, Lt C. McKirdy, 2 Lt J. H. McNeil, Lt W. C. Hart, Lt T. N. Bright
The order for action, soon to affect the battalion, came early on 21 November. The forces to the north—the strongholds of Bardia, Sollum and Halfaya—were to be blocked from the west, completing their isolation, for already the Indians had hemmed them in from east and south. Fifth Brigade, screened by the Divisional Cavalry, was to cut Bardia from Sollum. Fourth Brigade would move north too, while 6 Brigade remained for the moment in reserve.page 102
The battalion17 formed up at noon and moved off towards the north. The brigade's three rifle battalions were carried on lorries of 309 General Transport Company, a British unit borrowed for the campaign. They travelled steadily for about four hours, meeting nothing more formidable than a heavy rainstorm, and halted about four miles from Sidi Azeiz, not a settlement but merely a landing strip and a junction on the worn caravan trail known as Trigh (track) Capuzzo. The trail, faint and in some parts quite obliterated by drifting sand, runs from the border to south of Tobruk, and far into the west. Twenty-second Battalion was to capture and hold the track junction near Sidi Azeiz, and prevent any enemy movement east or west.
The cavalcade of 1000 vehicles had scarcely halted after covering 20 miles when the battalion was ordered to push on and take Sidi Azeiz immediately. Sidi Azeiz was deserted—but only just: from what men saw of dugouts and hastily abandoned articles lying about it appeared that the enemy had left in a hurry only a little time ago. Potatoes were still cooking on untended fires; a lonely wind scattered letters from home, curious-looking magazines and writing material. A Divisional Cavalry squadron, striking the first blow of the campaign, had raided the place, taking about fifty prisoners, lorried infantry and gunners, including a startled Italian officer in his bath. The enemy had not attempted to return. The battalion at once organised to meet any counter-attack, and all companies went quickly into position. Captured material included four Breda guns and large quantities of ammunition, seven trucks, two motor-cycles and a great wad of paper money. The carriers found a treasure trove inside an aircraft fully loaded and ready for flight. The night was peaceful.
While the battalion continued digging in next morning during heavy rain at Sidi Azeiz, D Company left to probe the outskirts of Bardia itself, 11 miles north-east. With the riflemen went seven carriers, a troop of anti-tank guns, and a detachment of two mortars. The small force had been told that 23 Battalion was ‘rolling up the opposition’ on the road running north page 103 from Capuzzo to Bardia. D Company's urgent task was to head them off and round them up by Bardia's crossroads just before the Italians reached the protecting defences. The battalion war diary says that Major Campbell was to ‘push forward as far as cross-roads outside Bardia and withdraw without getting into serious fight’, but Campbell got no such impression. If he had, he would have pulled back much sooner; for the crossroads were actually inside the Bardia defences.
Lieutenant Bob Knox,18 with his seven carriers, went well ahead in arrowhead formation, his task to contact the enemy, find his strength, flanks and position on the ground, engage him, and radio back all information to D Company. The carriers, keen to reach their objective before 23 Battalion appeared, pressed on, flushed a party of Italians, simultaneously came under fire, suspected an ambush, directed the Italians where to make for, and swung off on a wide right-flanking circuit to the outer defences of Bardia, ‘a sea of barbed wire in which there was a kind of gateway,’ Knox writes. ‘I of course moved through this opening and noticed hundreds of men in uniform about 100 yards ahead and to my left. Some were standing, others just lounging around. I remarked to my driver C. G. Watson19 that these men must be the 23 Battalion who had beaten us to the job.
‘“Like hell!” says Slim Watson. “These Bs are Ites!”
‘Being doubtful and wanting to make sure, I told him to drive closer. The Ites just stood and looked at us, apparently under the impression that anything mechanical was German.
‘When we get up about 60 yards from them I realise what has happened. I remember adjusting the sights on my Bren gun and putting it on to single shot. I aimed at one poor fellow who was standing smoking a cigarette. I pressed the trigger and strangely enough two rounds went from the gun and the fellow dropped, having collected both. Of course everyone else in the vicinity dropped out of sight into slit trenches which I hadn't noticed.
‘I next stood up to yell charge (like a bloody fool), and then for the first time discovered that I only had three carriers under page 104 Sergeant Hart20 with me, the other three having captured the prisoners and taken them back to D Company's headquarters.
‘I sat down behind my gun and opened up on a German staff car which was moving off as fast as possible. No sooner had I opened fire than all hell broke loose, so informing my driver to get out through the gateway I told my wireless operator to contact D Company and tell them the news.’
The carrier party, passing through ‘their smallfire stuff which was buzzing around us like a swarm of angry bees', took cover in a handy wadi, untouched by heavy shelling but reached by mortars ‘which really didn't seem to be very heavy.’ This wadi indicated a fairly safe way back towards D Company.
Meanwhile D Company, now about seven miles on from Sidi Azeiz, rounded up the party of Italian prisoners, and continued the advance in vehicles in desert formation according to the drill book. Almost immediately down came heavy artillery fire from the left. The trucks drove on until the fire grew too accurate, with mortars joining the fray, and were then sent back while the company deployed and continued on foot over bare open ground in a determined attempt to reach the crossroads. The men were plodding on through an area marked with various large heaps of stones and large drums. The enemy was now ranging on to these identification marks, mortar fire was extremely accurate, ‘landing among us like raindrops’, and here several casualties, including Charlie Smith,21 were incurred. Many were actually knocked over by the blast but were otherwise unhurt. ‘Mac let out a wild yell, and there bouncing along the ground with terrific leaps was the nosecap of a shell–we stood fascinated and watched its progress past us—then carried on and walked the rest of the way—funny how the tension had gone.’ Soon they ran into machine-gun fire. More were wounded. Fortunately at this moment badly needed cover seems to have been detected by Lieutenant Bill Lovie22 and 16 Platoon on the right.
Major Campbell (known as ‘pooch’ because of his frequent orders to ‘booten up your pooches’) writes: ‘I seized the opportunity as a rain shower moved across us to quickly change direction right with the whole company and seek the cover of a very low ridge. I am quite satisfied that this completely foxed page 105 the enemy defences which, being unable to find us, thereafter left us severely alone.’ An attempt to bring up the transport and resume the advance as another shower approached, however, brought a further hail of fire. The platoons deployed and Campbell settled down to observe what he could of the enemy defences, intending at nightfall to withdraw the company to Sidi Azeiz. Foot patrols failed to contact 23 Battalion: the radio at this stage failed to get through to Battalion Headquarters.
Knox had now returned to the company area, placed his Bren-gunners on the ground to a flank where enemy positions could be picked out quite easily without binoculars, then went back to report to Battalion Headquarters, and returned under heavy fire. He met Corporal Caldwell23 who, although exhausted with little sleep in the last forty-eight hours, cheerfully volunteered to guide him to Company Headquarters. There Knox passed on the Colonel's orders: ‘Tell Campbell to withdraw his company immediately.’ It was now between four and five o'clock. Knowing a move now (instead of waiting for dusk) would bring casualties, Campbell questioned this order. But it was confirmed and so he carried it out, himself bringing up the rear. He adds: ‘No sooner had the first section of the leading platoon poked its nose round the corner from our hideout than the symphony commenced. However, everybody moved steadily and we had very few casualties in this withdrawal. I think we had only one man killed…. There were one or two wounded though not seriously, and we were lucky to have got away so lightly.’
The waiting trucks, just out of shell range, were a welcome sight to D Company, and soon, travelling by truck and Bren carrier, most of the men were back with the battalion again at Sidi Azeiz, where important information was passed on promptly about the gun positions, the estimated calibre of the guns, fields of fire and range. In the battalion's first action in Libya four were killed (Crompton,24 Redpath,25 ‘Shorty’ Sangster,26 and ‘Sandy’ McClintock27) and fifteen wounded, a high cost for page 106 eleven Italian prisoners. The men ‘had behaved magnificently’ under fire; Private Laurie Corbett,28 who had coolly driven an ammunition-laden 8-cwt truck under fire to pick up wounded, recalls these two incidents:
‘I remember seeing a fellow (I think his nickname was “Irish”) coming out with his full equipment, pack, rifle, etc. and marching with his head high in the air. He had the lower portion of one side of his jaw cut wide open with a shell splinter, but apparently he wasn't worried very much about that because he just went past me and smiled.’ And: ‘Tom [Campbell] was lying on the ground with bullets hitting the ground in front of him. He was obviously the main target because of his dress which was a white trench-coat. He also had a great big map board with him. I told him to throw the coat away, but he said it was “too cold”. Hell! The sweat was pouring off my nose which was pretty close to the ground.’
As the company cleared the line of shells the Medical Officer, Captain Volckman,29 was waiting with the greeting: ‘Have you anything for me?’ ‘He was in a trench coat, his fore-and-aft cap sideways on his head, and a more striking resemblance to Claude Raines with his hands in his pockets would be hard to find. “By jove,” said someone, “you look just like Napoleon.” The name stuck, and he was always referred to after that as “Nap”.
In two three-tonners just after dark, Donald and his platoon (14) from C Company went back for wounded who could not be found or were isolated by particularly heavy fire during the withdrawal. Near the spot the platoon left the trucks and walked forward cautiously. ‘It was pitch black,’ writes Donald. ‘We had to comb the ground close to the defences. We left one section at the trucks: too many men would have been difficult to control. We spread out in a long line about five yards between men, almost the limit of visibility, and started to comb the ground systematically. It was very eerie with the searchers calling out in hushed voices the names of the missing men, with flares meantime going up intermittently from the Italian lines. Everyone froze when the flares went up, and we felt as if we had page 107 been stripped to the skin, but not a man moved, although every moment we were expecting the dread chatter of a machine-gun.’
Then Donald received a shock. A grinning face under a shock of curly hair poked over his shoulder, and a Scotch voice said: ‘Hullo.’ It was Jock (‘Haggis’) Lowe,30 flatly disobeying orders to stay with the trucks. Donald reprimanded him. ‘But you're bloody pleased to see me, aren't you?’ said Jock. ‘Yes,’ said Donald emphatically. With Jerry Fowler and Jock playing a notable part, they collected every man. For their work in this action and previous campaigns, Campbell was awarded the MC and Fowler the MM.
In the west a dramatic change had begun. The armoured corps had suffered heavy losses, while the sortie from Tobruk had halted. This affected 5 Brigade and, in its turn, 22 Battalion. At 2 p.m. on 22 November (while D Company was still pinned down before Bardia) this signal reached Divisional Headquarters from 13 Corps:
Leave minimum troops to observe enemy Bardia and send remainder your troops to clear up north Bardia-Tobruk road, and advance on Gambut which enemy aircraft still using. Advance west will best assist plan.
For 30 Corps was beaten, and 13 Corps had to do its best to link up with Tobruk as well as isolate the frontier forts—a makeshift arrangement and no part of the original plan. For the rest of this ill-fated and confused campaign the New Zealand Division was split into two parts: 5 Brigade, by the frontier and under fire from the forts, was soon to be buffeted by raiding panzers while 4 and 6 Brigades battled about the gaunt slopes of Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh in the Division's bloodiest fighting of the entire war.
In 5 Brigade's tasks along the frontier forts31 22 Battalion was concerned with Bardia, a somewhat meagre port but important as an anchor of the frontier defences. It now held a reinforced brigade of Italians stiffened by Germans and appropriate artillery.page 108
The battalion (briefly without B Company, which did not move on and join up until after dark) set off towards Bardia on 23 November, which dawned to the rumble of heavy gunfire and flashes far to the south. Moving seven miles north-eastwards from Sidi Azeiz, the battalion came to the 150-foot-high escarpment stretching past Bardia, and took over from 20 Battalion, which the day before had dug in on the escarpment and fanned out below to sever the Tobruk-Bardia road. The new position, a few miles west of Bardia garrision, was reached about noon. Occupation was delayed by a scuffle between 20 Battalion and a hotch-potch of enemy with half a dozen lightly armoured, half-tracked guns (mistaken for tanks). Then 20 Battalion streamed away to the battle in the west, and the 22nd, piling up stones in front of slit trenches to improve the defences, was in position by 2 p.m. Some men, while digging in, noticed thermos-flask bombs scattered about. Late in the afternoon transport was seen towards Bardia; shells from the garrison burst harmlessly on the escarpment a mile away. Here, firmly planted among rock and sand in the area named Menastir after a nearby well, the battalion stayed for five days, masking the Bardia fortress from the west and cutting the coastal road from Tobruk.
At Menastir A Company took up position forward by the crossroads below the escarpment, C Company was placed to the east, and D to the west, on the escarpment, both with a platoon of medium machine guns. Headquarters took up the central position with the field artillery to the south. Twentieth Battalion's prisoners were sent back to 5 Brigade, which was now setting up its headquarters at Sidi Azeiz. B Company stayed at Sidi Azeiz as a guard for Brigade Headquarters, but was called back briefly to the battalion during the night. Colonel Andrew was expecting ‘a bit of fun’ in the morning. B Company arrived in the B Echelon area and settled down as a reserve company.
The ‘bit of fun’ arrived at breakfast time on 24 November: ‘Oh, they're only our blokes,’ said somebody, and breakfast continued until interrupted by sudden mortar, machine-gun and rifle fire.
What looked like two companies of Germans attacked from the east. They were difficult to spot. They advanced directly page 109 in front of the sun, and did not open fire until within 1000 yards. The battalion immediately manned all defences and turned the attackers back with heavy counter-fire from all weapons, the artillery, Bofors and anti-tank guns opening fire at a range of 1500 yards over open sights. B Company, from reserve, set out after the enemy until he reached his transport beyond the ridge. The counter-attack halted, but Bob Bayliss32 had not had enough. With Jack Adeane33 and another he chased five Germans for a mile, finally forcing them to ground. Bob, with a man on each flank, went in with his tommy gun. He shot two in the last 30 yards, and then the German officer emptied his Luger at him at point-blank range and missed. Bob, who brought the officer (‘a truculent b—’) and two other captives back with him, won the MM.
The action, in which five soldiers were wounded, lasted about half an hour. Nine prisoners were taken, several enemy dead were buried, and spasmodic shelling of the ridge continued without any further enemy attack. A private ‘spent the hot moments in a hole feeling homesick and a bundle of nerves.’
Fifth Brigade's policy now was to harass with strong patrols the enemy in his isolated forts, and to keep him guessing. Accordingly, after finishing the rudely interrupted breakfast, a fighting patrol from 14 Platoon (C Company) moved out, reconnoitred the enemy defensive positions outside Bardia, and although under heavy artillery fire, edged to within a thousand yards of the main defences and to within a few hundred yards of an outpost. The patrol returned unscathed with useful information (including the heartening news that 20 to 30 per cent of the enemy shells were duds) and a little brandy, spare water, and socks, all picked up in a small deserted Italian camp. A Company seized an incautious Italian truck at the crossroads. B Company (less one platoon), supported by carriers, went out on a long sweep north of the coastal road, covered 32 miles, ‘an uncomfortable trip, no place for lorries’, rounded up six Italians, and on return received a rude welcome from a two-pounder gun in A Company's area. Many a man spent a restless night hearing imaginary shells. A few night bombers passed overhead.page 110
Defences were well strengthened (more digging, more rocks piled up). Next day (the 25th) was quiet, with reports of enemy armoured fighting vehicles on the prowl. The precautions were just as well. The tanks with 5 Brigade had left the day before for Sidi Rezegh because General Godwin-Austen believed ‘the battle will be won in the forward zone’. At dusk Brigadier Hargest radioed from Sidi Azeiz and said an awkward situation had arisen in the south. (An enormous German cavalcade of 2000 vehicles had suddenly been reported coming up from the south, from Sheferzen, near where the Division had crossed through the frontier wire.) Hargest was sending his non-fighting B Echelon, supply columns and Divisional Cavalry B Echelon to 22 Battalion for protection. Probably he would follow. B Company, not without misgivings, was sent back to Sidi Azeiz to give Brigade Headquarters protection. Rumours buzzed all through the night.
At dawn on the 26th the battalion made ready for action. All vehicles moved to the foot of the escarpment, joining transport which had arrived from Brigade Headquarters.34 The artillery moved in closer, taking up a position in the centre of the perimeter, and the guns swung their dark muzzles out towards the bare desert. Carrier patrols scouted south-west for six miles but saw no enemy movement.
Meanwhile Peter Butler, Tom Hood35 and Bill Greig36, who were driving south for supplies, were about 18 miles south of Brigade and Sidi Azeiz. Suddenly like a rocket over the ridge soared a truck. The English driver slowed up momentarily to stutter: ‘T-t-t-tanks!’, then shot on again. They ignored the nervous fellow. Then one of the party, strolling up to the ridge, looked down on to a swarm of hostile fighting vehicles. Despite the Tommy's flying start, the three 22 Battalion men passed him and beat him to Brigade. Well before this, in the early hours of the morning, a 22 Battalion patrol stationed at Sidi Azeiz had reported to Brigade Headquarters. This patrol, led by Lieutenant Barton,37 reported what seemed to be a powerful page 111 enemy force camped across Trigh Capuzzo and about five miles west of Sidi Azeiz. This made at least two strong forces approaching Sidi Azeiz.
The balloon went up at 10 a.m., preceded spectacularly by an Me110 sweeping over the battalion at a height of less than 50 feet—some men fired their first shot of the war against this plane. A big enemy convoy (15 Panzer Division) appeared from the dusty south-west and moved, apparently without end, along Trigh Capuzzo towards Bardia, between the battalion and Brigade Headquarters' area. Fired on by the forces at Sidi Azeiz (a few carriers, some 25-pounders with little ammunition, and machine guns briefly engaged the column with little success), the host swung towards Bardia and came under fire from guns in 22 Battalion's area. Vehicles were too well spaced to suffer much harm, and the convoy, estimated by the battalion at between 700 and 800 vehicles, was intent on reaching Bardia. Two enemy armoured cars on the ridge 2000 yards east of the battalion made off when shells landed near them. Major Tom Campbell, watching through binoculars, suddenly exclaimed: ‘Good Heavens! Our water cart has joined the procession!’ This was only too true. Abruptly, to a sprinkling of fire, the water truck left the convoy and came wildly into New Zealand territory. Ted Jaggard38 jumped out and, half smiling, stuttered: ‘—! Made a mistake, thought they were South Africans by the sun-helmets. Cows started shooting’—a long speech for him.
Then, quite apart from the main convoy, another force appeared: enemy armoured fighting vehicles coming in from the west at the foot of the escarpment. This second force was coming from Gambut with repaired tanks and supplies for 15 Panzer Division, but it did not get through; it was driven back by F Troop 32 Anti-Tank Battery, which scored direct hits.39
Vehicles in the main convoy were still passing at dusk and in fact not long before midnight one group came close to 14 Platoon C Company (all standing-to), an English voice called ‘Hullo’, someone opened up, and away they went. The entire page 112 German Army seemed to be on the move. Dumbfounded over events, every man knew one thing: he was in for a hot time tomorrow. In short, 5 Brigade, intent on isolating the frontier forts, was now thoroughly isolated itself. Rommel, confident of victory near Tobruk, had boldly but foolishly sent all his armour circling south-eastwards, then north, in a massive raid to wipe out forces menacing the frontier forts. (Incidentally this period, 24-26 November, was not a bright spot in Rommel's career. Not a single well-prepared or well-directed operation was laid on during this time, and at Sidi Omar 7 Indian Brigade defeated and crippled the tank regiment of 21 Panzer Division.) The tables were turned. The raid did not succeed, but up and down the frontier, confused and despairing lightly-armed and non-fighting units (including 13 Corps Headquarters) milled, fled, or were gathered up by the raiders.
‘Hargest in hopeless position but Corps HQ won't let him move,’ noted Ray Salter,40 of Battalion Headquarters, in his diary. The Brigadier certainly was not prohibited from moving his vulnerable headquarters from Sidi Azeiz; he intended to move to Menastir on the afternoon of 27 November, but this was too late. Captain Simpson41 of B Company, at Sidi Azeiz, recalls that Hargest's orders ‘were to hold the landing strip at all cost and there we were. Who was actually responsible for the defensive plan I cannot say but I am sure it was aimed at a threat from the West and South and must have assumed the continual stream of vehicles making for Bardia were broken remnants rather than a coherent force merely going in to refuel.
‘I have always considered that the “vehicle discipline” at Brigade Headquarters was shocking during the few days we were there. Anyone wanting anything seemed to drive into the middle of the area and the congestion at times round the actual Headquarters vehicle was a shock to anyone trained by L. W. Andrew,’ says Simpson. In fact, the conglomeration of Brigade Headquarters vehicles attracted attention, invited attack, and made defence most difficult. A small, uncluttered force might have had a chance of holding the airstrip, which was of no interest to the Germans.page 113
B Company (Captain Stan Johnson, with Captain Simpson as second-in-command), with a troop of four guns, had left Menastir in the darkness of the evening of 25 November to give protection to Brigade Headquarters. The company came into Sidi Azeiz from the north, and at once 11 Platoon (Colin Armstrong) was detached and sent to the south-eastern perimeter. With his two other platoons (12 Platoon, Lieutenant Barton; 10 Platoon, Sergeant Andrews) and the 25-pounder troop, Johnson took up a position—it was too rocky to dig in —just south of the airstrip. Very lights rose to the south and west: ‘we could hear vehicles moving very close, swarming around.’ Barton, with his platoon, went west along the Capuzzo track to get an indication of what was coming that way: Captain Hamish Simpson, with a foot patrol of half a platoon, moved south among vehicles in the dark trying to identify sizes and types, and so did Armstrong's men. All returned safely before dawn.
‘The sight of that desert at dawn was amazing,’ says Johnson, ‘thousands of vehicles seemed to be going in all directions, milling north south east and west: you could get lyrical about it: they seemed just like a poor mass of lost Ities. A few came towards us (the three guns and 10 and 12 Platoons), we let them come right up, these strays, and we grabbed them when they got out of the cab. Three came in like that, one after the other—Germans. Open fire? God NO! Guns quiet.’
In the afternoon of 26 November the host got under way, ignoring Sidi Azeiz, and streamed north and east towards Bardia. In trucks, 10 and 12 Platoons, with the three guns, went raiding to the west along the fringe of this mob, ‘just like a fox-terrier running up and down beside a herd of cattle. Down trails, out riflemen, a few quick shots at a few vehicles, then up and off fast. As we would let rip with a few rounds, now and then out of the mass would come a tank or two— there would be a dirty spit of a shell beside us (funny, they shelled us and didn't use their machine guns), then we'd run like hell.’ The handful of raiders, suffering no casualties, dug in in the late afternoon on the western perimeter. B Company patrols in the night (26-27 November, a night without flares) definitely found and reported tanks, ‘many tanks’, barely one and a half miles east of Brigade Headquarters. Their engines page 114 were running. Johnson was rather surprised that he was not accordingly moved over to the east.
The storm broke after dawn on the 27th: ‘a beautiful day but things look black for us.’ The enemy had spent the night mostly outside Bardia. An urgent request to 13 Corps (shortly before it went off the air) for bombers had resulted in a lone RAF plane flying over at sundown. At 7 a.m. forty tanks, infantry and guns of 15 Panzer Division bore down from the direction of Bardia on to 5 Brigade Headquarters at Sidi Azeiz.
While standing down after dawn and preparing for breakfast, the troops heard the klaxon alarm sound, and simultaneously the attack started. The line of armour halted at a handy distance, from which their guns and machine guns smashed into the vehicles. Johnson, by the brigade command truck, quickly got 10 Platoon from the western perimeter. ‘The fire was really belting in but not one casualty as they came across, some 400 yards tightly congested with vehicles. The cool sergeant [Andrews], a very able platoon commander, lay down with his men next to me, calmly placed a grenade to his right, another to his left, handy, offered cigarettes and lit them, while spurts of sand were all about. Terrific concentrated fire.’
Sergeant Andrews gives his impressions: ‘By this time the air was thick with smoke from … burning trucks (ours) and as the smoke lifted at intervals I could make out the outlines on the horizon some 300 yards away of the turrets of about two dozen tanks. At the sight of these the old tail went down properly [yet he prepared to use his grenades and wished he had anti-tank sticky bombs]…. Then the force of the attack increased and the first wave of tanks came tearing through about 20 yards apart. Fortunately this wave stopped firing as they came near and passed without inflicting any further casualties … while this was happening the second wave of tanks had moved up closer and were spraying our area with machine gun bullets…. the guns stopped when I looked up to see a lot of chaps between us and the tanks with their hands up and Brigadier Hargest surrendering to the tank commander. Well I was stumped….’
Over to the east in 12 Platoon Private George Orsler42 page 115 glimpsed tanks in a brief pause after initial severe shelling: ‘Hurrah we thought our tanks have arrived and chased him off—but no they are Jerries, they are firing at our anti-tank guns—hell this looks grim, what shall we do now…. [His section-leader, ‘Snow’ Bateman,43 was hit by a burst of machinegun fire] while a mortar lands close in a cloud of dust and the section huddles behind the truck wheels in an attempt to get cover. Then someone spotted an abandoned MG pit, and we all dived in. It was an anti-tank rifle (Boyes) and one of the boys had a go at a tank commander who is half out of his turret—he misses and a double Spandau drops towards us— did we flatten—I'll say. Luckily he did not fire and turned off just before reaching us. Another Jerry tank coming from the other side gave us another turn but he too was not interested in us. Then a direct hit by an enemy mortar on a nearby 25 pounder startled us, and we forgot momentarily about tanks. When we peered through the dust and smoke once more we saw Jerry infantry and motor cyclists rounding up our chaps everywhere—we exchanged thoughts hurriedly—will he shoot us or not—will we put our hands up like the others or lie doggo. We had little time to think, so reached for the skies. One chap near a truck filled his tunic with a few rations and dished them out to us to hide round our persons—we were now prisoners
“‘Von line” shouts a Jerry with a tommygun, and we obey quickly. In searching us a young Nazi pulls out a 36, his face whitens and carefully he places it on the ground a few yards away—we nearly laughed.
‘Then we were ordered to a large group some 200 yards away from the scene of the battle. A grim sight it all was with burning vehicles and equipment everywhere. We were ordered to sit down and told that if anyone stood up he would be fired on. In the meantime the Jerries got busy to salvage as many vehicles as possible.
‘By midday we were well searched and our long march to Bardia began….’
Fifth Brigade Headquarters, suffering about ninety casualties, was now out of the war with some 47 officers and 650 men prisoners, counting four officers and the surviving men page 116 from B Company, which had suffered two killed and about six wounded. Among the officers, Captains Johnson and Simpson, Lieutenants Armstrong and Barton, were taken to Italy by submarine; the men (‘We were the cause of amusement to hundreds of Ites and Jerries', after trudging under guard to the fortress) were herded together, and after being meagrely fed in Bardia's bleak compound, were liberated when the fortress fell early in the New Year.
Meanwhile, at Menastir, 22 Battalion listened to heavy firing from Sidi Azeiz, saw in the distance the fires and smoke, wondered about the fate of companions in B Company, and thought gloomily, ‘our turn next unless a miracle happens.’ A message came through: Brigade Headquarters was being attacked. Then silence. In vain they attempted to make contact again by radio and despatch rider. Sidi Azeiz must have fallen, and a second despatch rider, Gunner Dobson44(14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment) set off to check up. He approached Sidi Azeiz, found the smouldering camp occupied, and was captured when his motor-cycle was shot from under him; he soon escaped and was awarded the MM for his bravery on this excursion.
Menastir was not troubled in the morning, but a second attempt by the Germans to get supplies and repaired tanks through from Gambut was foiled by the guns. The German- Italian armour was recalled urgently to the Tobruk front. One division (15 Panzer) was to return south by way of Sidi Azeiz and Trigh Capuzzo, and 21 Panzer Division, which was severely mauled and without its tank regiment, was to travel by the coastal road. The battalion group succeeded in delaying 21 Panzer's return for a day by forcing it to deviate south by Sidi Azeiz.
The first of 21 Panzer appeared an hour after noon when a large enemy convoy made westwards along the flat below the escarpment. The convoy halted, opened fire, was dispersed with vigorous artillery and machine-gun fire, and took refuge in rough country north of the road. This group probably detoured later by way of Sidi Azeiz.page 117
Half an hour later a much stronger force appeared and attempted to sweep away Menastir's opposition. These enemy troops and vehicles, on the ridge about a mile north-east of Battalion Headquarters, launched a heavy attack with artillery, mortars, machine guns and rifle fire. The brunt of this attack was borne by artillery, medium machine guns, and the left forward company (C Company), some of whose men consider this shelling and mortaring the heaviest they ever experienced. Dick Goodall45 and Percy Hunt46 were killed. Major Hart, wounded in the back of the head, refused to leave his post. Sergeant Viv Hill47 was knocked unconscious when a shell landed eighteen inches from his head and passed within a foot of his nose as he lay on his back in a slittie. Although the side of his face swelled up, turning from black and blue to a greenish-yellow, he carried on with conspicuous bravery. Another man, twice knocked unconscious by shells landing two feet from his trench, escaped with burst ear-drums. One 25-pounder received a direct hit, killing four of the crew; two other guns were hit shortly afterwards.
Enemy infantry, attempting to close in under cover of this shelling, were checked by unabated fire from the defenders. The Vickers and the artillery (two-pounders, four 25-pounders, and three Bofors), exposed though they were, played a most active part. The fight continued for two and a half hours, by which time the enemy had had enough and halted the attack. To the surprise and relief of 22 Battalion he withdrew (to take the Sidi Azeiz route) and the night was fairly quiet.
Meanwhile large enemy columns were streaming out of Bardia and westwards through Sidi Azeiz. That afternoon and into the night the signallers worked hard trying to get in touch by wireless with outside units. No replies came back. The battalion, still periodically under shellfire, was isolated.
Earlier in the day—whether in the afternoon or morning is not quite clear—tracked vehicles could be heard creaking and moving about (though few men cared to raise their heads to see for themselves). Lieutenant Donald called out: ‘Here's your page 118 chance, 14 Platoon, get out your sticky bombs, here come the tanks.’ No tanks came in—they were engaged by the two-pounders and one of them was disabled and its crew captured, the other escaping—which was just as well; for the sticky bombs had neither fuses nor detonators.
The inevitable threat during breakfast came again next day (28 November), within two miles of Battalion Headquarters. One hundred vehicles halted and diverted the battalion's attention by going through the motions of an attack to cover an enemy column moving south-westwards from Bardia, and then withdrew. ‘Well,’ notes one soldier's diary, ‘the miracle has happened, Jerry has suddenly left us unmolested, he must have been in a terrible hurry for he left us without firing a shot. We are not out of danger yet as we are cut off from the outside world so anything may happen yet.’48
The battalion's situation was critical. Ammunition, water, and supplies were very low, not enough to see them through a sizeable attack, although roving carriers collected a little food from an old enemy camp. Everyone had been on half rations for two days, cigarettes and tobacco were vanishing, and Lance- Corporal Butler noted that the evening meal on the 28th was a cup of tea only. Wounded and prisoners had to be moved. Men were dazed or sore from concussion.
The battalion's chances of carrying out its task of preventing enemy movement to and from Bardia now had practically vanished. Colonel Andrew, lacking ammunition, unable to fight effectively, and seeing his food vanishing, had little choice but to move south to contact 4 Indian Division. The decision to move through ‘pirate country’ was not easily reached. Deviations had to be made to dodge enemy columns; at any stage the battalion, without tanks and with few carriers, was liable to run into enemy convoys; and above all, the final leg of the course was between two enemy camps. This allowed the navigator only a small margin of error. If he failed, the battalion and the attached units had every chance of joining B Company in Bardia's prison pen.
The arrangements for the move were made by the second- page 119 in-command, Major Greville.49 He had four hours to marshal more than 220 vehicles, most of them stragglers and strangers sent to the battalion for protection.50 Each vehicle, under cover of darkness, had to be brought up a single and very steep track which climbed a hundred feet up the escarpment. The last truck groaned up the narrow track, and all of the vehicles were marshalled into position in less than three and a half hours. Transport began forming up just west of D Company from 6 p.m. onwards. An enemy truck appeared and was seized by a section of carriers; it contained seven Germans, some of them wounded, and two wounded British soldiers, one of whom died almost immediately.
At 10 p.m. all lay in the hands of fortune—and in the hands of the navigator, Second-Lieutenant Sam McLernon, who performed his exacting task brilliantly. The convoy was under way half an hour later. Cloudy conditions made navigation difficult; parts of the route were quite unknown and rough. Yet a good speed was kept up. Drivers picked their way to the west of Sidi Azeiz, and at one stage an enemy truck attached itself to the column before becoming lost again. Twice the completely blacked-out column halted during the night while German columns moved across its track. The convoy arrived safe and sound close to Sidi Omar four hours later. Dawn brought gunfire close by, but whether from friend or foe nobody could tell. The battalion made contact at last at 7 a.m. with the Divisional Cavalry, which handed instructions to Colonel Andrew, who learned that he had been appointed to command 5 Infantry Brigade.
The raiding panzers, their visit to the frontier over, were now delivering the coup de grâce in the Tobruk sector. The bloody fighting at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed ended with the remnants of 4 and 6 Brigades being driven from the approaches to Tobruk. The Division had suffered over 4000 casualties in killed, wounded and prisoners. Some units sought refuge in Tobruk; the remainder broke through a gap in the encirclement and withdrew to the south-east. All but 5 Brigade (which page 120 remained under command of 4 Indian Division) were ordered back to Baggush.
During 29 and 30 November 22 Battalion occupied positions east and west of Fort Musaid and reinforced 23 and 28 Battalions in the Capuzzo-Musaid-Sollum sector, which was not attacked. ‘Been digging all day, ground very hard and rocky and blisters galore but the thought of Jerry's accuracy with his mortars etc. makes me dig deeper.’ With Colonel Andrew now commanding 5 Brigade, and Captain John MacDuff acting as Brigade Major, Major Greville took over 22 Battalion.
At the end of November 5 Indian Brigade took over the Capuzzo-Musaid-Sollum position, freeing 5 Brigade to move on to Menastir on 1 December, when once again Bardia was blockaded from the west. This time, much to the 22nd's satisfaction, a whole brigade would be waiting at Menastir to give a warm reception to any enemy movement to or from Bardia. The battalion, patrolling towards Bardia, stayed on the familiar escarpment and sited supporting weapons with great care. A little to the north the Maori Battalion dug into the flat below, facing towards Tobruk and not far from 23 Battalion, which was also astride the road but facing Bardia.
Stubborn Bardia, still holding out, continued to range its guns over the Menastir area. A party under Captain Young reconnoitred the outer defences of the fortress. Major Campbell led a scavenging party to an abandoned camp—spare parts and equipment had been lost when Sidi Azeiz fell—and collected much-needed petrol, spare parts and tools for the LAD, and a few blankets and tents for a small ambulance unit. In fact, the unit now rather resembled a mob of hawkers. Clothes were stiff with dirt and sweat; most of them had not been changed for a fortnight. The afternoon of 2 December turned cold and wet, and little wretched groups with no shelter huddled together over inconspicuous fires, usually in benzine tins.
But things certainly warmed up next morning (3 December), when companies were warned to stand-to in a cold, driving wind. Two large columns of enemy were reported on the way to the relief of Bardia. One column met its doom to the south towards Sidi Azeiz at the hands of an Indian column—100 dead and 100 prisoners.
The other column, 100 to 200 vehicles according to one page 121 estimate, came carelessly down the coastal road from the direction of Tobruk. The unsuspecting enemy actually drove into the first Maori positions on the flat before fire was opened on the whole of the column by all weapons within reach. Colonel Andrew had insisted that his brigade hold fire until the last possible moment, and none could play that game better than the Maoris. Wrecked vehicles blocked and tangled transport in many sections of the road, and the enemy fell into confusion with crippling losses, his documents telling of ‘withering fire from well-concealed positions on the escarpment…. the hail of fire.’ In cramped and fireswept positions, enemy 75-millimetre guns and mortars had great difficulty in swinging into action to return the fire and support advancing infantry, which in any case got nowhere. Under the cover of smoke some took to the rough country on the northern side of the road, but were rounded up by a few infantry and carriers. Fire from 28 Battalion (luxuriating in a field day), plus machine guns and heavier supporting weapons of the brigade lined along the escarpment, inflicted severe punishment. Twenty-second Battalion, enthusiastically giving maximum fire support, had a grandstand view of the rout. Care had to be taken when Bardia's guns reached out over the escarpment. Some of the battalion's vehicles on the move panicked and were hit in the ensuing scramble, which was brought under control by an engineer, Sergeant McQueen,51 who later received the DCM. Late in the afternoon the enemy managed to escape under the cover of smoke. He left behind some killed and prisoners, estimated to be as many as 260 and 120 respectively. Fifth Brigade had ended its last days along the frontier with a dramatic coup, which incredibly enough cost only one man killed and nine wounded. Many fires burned far into the night.
Orders for a move back to the Capuzzo-Musaid-Sollum area gave no time to bury the dead or to salvage battlefield debris. These tasks were taken over by the Divisional Cavalry and South African units providing the relief. The move back to Musaid early on 4 December proved more deadly to 22 Battalion than the previous day's fighting. The column, after travelling for about half an hour, came under shellfire from page 122 the guns of an Indian force between Sidi Azeiz and Bardia. A carrier raced towards the guns to call off the shelling. The Indians, expecting an attack, could have been misled by the number of captured German and Italian vehicles in the column, but the general situation in any case was complicated and confusing. A sergeant records the ‘terrible lack of recognition signal’, and two days later he noted: ‘Just heard that 12 of our tanks put out of action by RAF. Not surprised—no co-operation.’ Wherever official news is meagre, unconvincing, or lacking, a host of grey rumours scurries in, attempting to fill the fighting man's need for information.
Fifth Brigade's guns struck back at the unrecognised Indians (‘We got one of their guns and a gunner. Regrettable’), and to make matters worse enemy artillery from Bardia joined in the bombardment. Avoiding cannonades from friend and foe, the hapless battalion, zigzagging its course, finally reached Musaid to occupy, when further shelling died down, positions left by 5 Indian Brigade. On the way an Indian shell, striking a 22 Battalion truck, fatally wounded the driver, Jack Towers,52 and another man, Lance-Corporal Wellington.53 A badly wounded German prisoner endured the ‘wild dash, enough to finish off the toughest [but when taken off the truck] he still clung to life and not a whimper out of him.’
The battalion stayed five cold days at Musaid, writing home rather shaky letters, puzzling over all the recent moves ‘just like a game of draughts', and learning the fate of 4 and 6 Brigades. ‘I think,’ wrote one man in words which were only too painfully true, ‘they are split up too much and taking Jerry too cheaply.’ The first rum ration in the campaign arrived, a quarter of a cup each. Cold, cutting winds interrupted sleep, rain soaked blankets and equipment, and touches of ‘Wog guts' were common. Men got to know well a big gun, possibly a naval gun, which fired regularly from the direction of Halfaya. The Musaid-Capuzzo area is remembered for this gun (‘Hellfire Herman’) and for an old Italian plane set in the parade ground.page 123
Apart from occasional shelling the only brush with the enemy was at a well, Bir el Silqiya. Here a party under Lieutenant Donald lay in wait to capture a staff car and five prisoners, and souvenirs—binoculars, compass, cameras. On the way out Bill MacKenzie,54 a prominent and hard-working Bren-carrier sergeant, was killed by mortar fire. A German prisoner, an officer speaking perfect English, asked Jack Ford55 why the New Zealand troops were two different colours: ‘he said they were frightened of the Maoris as he heard they were cannibals and ate their prisoners.’ At Musaid a rather battered gramophone came into its own. All through the campaign Gordon Couchman56 had kept it and a few records wrapped carefully in a blanket and stowed in the back of a carrier. On occasional peaceful nights the gramophone would start, and heavily muffled men would drift in from the darkness. ‘She was a bit scratchy and a bit sandy, but she worked. Those songs were “Ave Maria”, “La Paloma”, “The Desert Song”, and Richard Tauber … singing “You are my Heart's Delight”.’
Major Greville left to command 24 Battalion. Colonel Andrew and Captain MacDuff returned to the battalion when Brigadier Wilder57 took over the brigade on 9 December. Colonel Andrew had faced and overcome many difficulties. Working with little rest, he had gathered about him and welded together an efficient brigade headquarters which received ‘perfect loyalty and assistance’. His greatest difficulty was forming and maintaining a supply column, and he gave special mention to the hardworking 17 LAD. For ‘outstanding courage, skill and leadership … through a very difficult 14 days', Colonel Andrew was awarded the DSO.
After marching (the Colonel was back again!) ten miles to Sidi Azeiz, the infantry boarded troop-carrying lorries of 4 RMT Company, which had come down unescorted from page 124 Tobruk without meeting any enemy bands, a good omen for the move into the west on 9 December.
After being relieved by two South African battalions 5 Brigade, 3213 strong (22 Battalion totalling 536), in 13 Corps reserve, was to continue the westward advance from Tobruk. By 8 December the enemy, short of supplies and greatly weakened by losses, had raised the seige of Tobruk and was withdrawing to partly prepared positions at Gazala. Thirteenth Corps was to break this line and prevent the enemy from escaping. By this time British forces were getting the upper hand. The enemy continued to withdraw westwards from Acroma.
Fifth Brigade's first clash with the enemy since leaving the frontier came on 11 December, during the move to Acroma, 17 miles west of Tobruk, a slow, cautious move because mines abounded. Twenty-second Battalion stayed in reserve this day —when Lloyd Bailey,58 a most promising ‘I’ sergeant, was killed in a motor-cycle accident. Twenty-third Battalion moved ahead, clearing a path along the Derna-Tobruk road, and at noon the Maoris got under way with a dashing attack west of Acroma, charging with the bayonet and capturing over 1000 Italians at a cost of sixteen casualties.
The enemy stood in the Gazala area on 12 December, covering the withdrawal of vital supplies. His line, a series of strongpoints which ran from south-west to north-east for several miles at right angles to the Tobruk-Derna road, proved hard to penetrate. Furthermore the Luftwaffe, close now to its airfield bases, was back in strength again. Fifth Brigade faced elements from four Italian divisions. Twenty-third Battalion remained near the coast; next to it was 28 (Maori) Battalion, then 22 Battalion, and on the left flank 5 Indian Brigade, with all the remaining armour gathered further south.
Battle was joined on the morning of the 13th,59 and in the course of a three-mile advance the battalion twice ran into enemy fire. The infantry immediately debussed, A and D Companies fixed bayonets and moved forward to the attack, while C acted as their reserve. Heavy fire from front and flanks pinned the infantry down, but D captured a post and took twenty-four page 126 prisoners, equipment and weapons. The remainder of the column, hurried by heavy shelling, moved into a depression, and headquarters was set up at Bir el Geff. Here, with much satisfaction, the Bofors guns shot down three enemy planes.
As the attack by A and D Companies developed, an enemy strongpoint was detected on the right flank. This was causing a great deal of trouble, so C Company, under Major Hart, attacked at 2 p.m., theoretically supported by artillery and twelve I tanks, though the tanks were late and the guns seemed to be mainly in enemy hands. The company advanced in open order with two platoons forward and one back. No shots were fired, and 100 Italians were taken out of trenches. Then the tanks came up, the enemy artillery opened fire, ‘and from then on until the Company reached the escarpment perhaps 600 yards further on it was one rain of shellfire, remarkable in that one man only was wounded. Plenty of the chaps lost skin, but that was as close as it came.’ The enemy equipment destroyed included four guns.
Indignation was widespread over two deliberate misuses of the white flag by the Italians. Shortly before the attack some carriers had gone forward. A white flag was raised, and one carrier approached. Suddenly the flag was lowered, and fire from 20-millimetre guns and machine guns raked the carriers. An anti-tank bullet in the forehead killed Alan Merrick,60 and a shell smashed a carrier's engine. On the same day Lloyd Cross,61 setting his platoon off in the advance, hurriedly detailed Private Kirschberg62 and two others to bear left and pick up some Italians who were waving a white flag. ‘But Private Kirschberg never arrived there, the miserable hounds wounded him,’ writes Mick Kenny.63
Enemy fire continued briskly from surrounding ridges, halting any further movement. The three companies consolidated as best they could, but digging in was hopeless, just a matter of getting down a few inches.page 127
In this attack ‘we stretcher bearers were caught on a piece of high open ground and as always—due we believe to the stretcher being taken for an anti-tank rifle—came in for some particular attention, and there is vivid memory of undoing webbing to get closer to the ground, and ages spent in moving the stretcher forward so that one could rest the edge of one's tin hat on it “hidden from view”, and painfully slow work edging stones onto their ends while the least movement brought long bursts of machine gun fire—but Oh! what security when a stone the size of a dinner plate was in position! The old “stern-sheets” never before or since have assumed to one's mind such major proportions, but the greatest injustice of all really seemed, at the time, that nature had to be so cruel as to assert herself and nothing could be done about it—if one wanted to live a little longer.’
The battalion did not advance next day, 14 December. The Maori Battalion, nearby, had taken Point 181 in the night with almost 400 prisoners. Along the Gazala front a tank attack was driven back, bringing the total of enemy tanks knocked out in the last two days to twenty-two. In the morning Colonel Andrew, while on reconnaissance and checking positions, found his left flank dangerously open—the Buffs had been overrun by a German counter-attack. This called for greater vigilance and brought a heavy strain on to the battalion's patrols. Although assured protection by the armoured brigade, at no time could the battalion make proper contact with it. After his tour the CO issued a special order calling for aggressive fire at every opportunity: ‘just sitting passively in trenches [sic] will be of no assistance whatsoever to other units on our flanks.’
Here, on a totally black night, Padre Thorpe set out, counting the 2000 paces and hoping to strike the forward positions without walking into the opposition. His faint ‘Hullo’ was heard and answered, and in the pitch darkness men gathered round an historic chalice he carried for the communion service.64page 128
Although under a different command, 5 Brigade was now working in co-operation with a Polish brigade. Polish officers who, it was pointed out, ‘have a lot of debts to pay’, reported to 22 Battalion before taking up positions about two miles east of Battalion Headquarters. The Brigade Commander and the CO reconnoitred the Polish positions, and early next day the Poles prepared to attack in the north. Twenty-second Battalion's task was to give them the utmost support with artillery fire and other weapons, and then to advance and take over ground won by the Poles.
Accordingly, the battalion's attached artillery opened heavy fire at 3 p.m. In the meantime, however, the Poles, without letting the battalion know, had changed their zero hour to 3.30 p.m. Half an hour's artillery work was wasted, and on top of this the Polish artillery shelled the battalion's anti-tank positions. When the attack did begin the enemy, thoroughly roused, replied hotly. Off to a bad start, the Poles advanced slowly, but at dusk, when the shelling eased up, no call had been made on 22 Battalion to support them. The battalion was not too pleased at events anyhow.
At dusk D Company, under Captain Young, was sent over to join the Maori Battalion, which had made further advances (yielding 180 prisoners) this day in the Point 181 area. The CO, seeing his battalion being whittled away and concerned about his open left flank, recorded his disapproval of this move. However, a piece of good work had been carried out by a platoon from C Company. Enemy guns, firing on the flat, had ranged on the Poles during their attack. British artillery had accounted for most of the gun crews, and the platoon finished them off and destroyed the four enemy guns.
‘“Tiny” Revell,65 our Quartermaster,’ recalls a D Company comrade, ‘had the unenvious job of bringing up our rations and had to walk in carrying two containers: he came in for a lot of unwelcome attention and repeatedly disappeared in shell bursts till we wondered if he would ever make it. Many times we thought “Tiny” had “had it” but he duly arrived, out of breath and strange to say fair hopping mad. He wasted no time— dished it out—then picking up the dixies proclaimed loudly in most forcible language that the So-&-Sos couldn't hit the biggest man in the NZ Army (“Tiny” weighed at that time between 19 and 20 stone and was built in proportion)—and “I'm page 129 going to walk back this time and to Hell.” He did, and apart from an initial burst of machine gun fire they left him alone!’
At daylight on 16 December A Company attempted to silence an enemy strongpoint on the left flank. The position held, and artillery fire was concentrated on the area. The Poles, now really under way, made steady progress during the day, aided by C Company with long-range Bren and spandau fire. When a report was received of a strong enemy force, about 800, forming up by the open left flank, an extra section of machine guns moved over, but no attack came. The concentration was broken up by intense gunfire. The Poles rounded off a good day's work by attacking Bir Naghia after dark with supporting fire from C Company. The post, deeply dug in and concreted, was cleared at bayonet point. Twenty-second Battalion's carrier patrols reported much transport movement: the enemy seemed to be withdrawing.
Private Duffy66 recalls an incident this evening in A Company. A barrel of cognac had been discovered, together with ‘a German motorbike which would only just go, and Corporal Lloyd Williams67 and Alan Mutton68 were doubling on this bike, Alan driving, Lloyd on the back. Well Lloyd had a pocketful of Italian grenades and would drop one behind him every now and again. Of course Alan didn't know this, he thought he was being shelled or something. It was quite a while before he woke up to it. We had a great view of it from a nearby rise.’
The 17th brought warm, bright sunshine—and a great peace. D Company came back from the Maori Battalion, which had moved forward the day before to cover any advance from the gathering enemy force, 800-strong. The Maoris and D Company, after long and weary plodding, ran into fire and were shelled again as the force withdrew following our bombardment. The Maoris suffered fifty-eight casualties. D Company had two men killed and ten wounded, including one man wounded in the lobe of an ear: ‘We tried to keep the chap with the hole in the ear as a showpiece but the darn thing healed up quickly, so no free beer for that back in Taranaki!’
The second Libyan campaign was over for 5 Brigade which, page 130 in the words of the commander of 13 Corps, ‘has enhanced the remarkable reputation enjoyed by the New Zealand forces.’ The enemy had withdrawn in the night, and the New Zealanders took no further part in the pursuit into the west. The battalion had suffered seventy-seven casualties, including twenty-three dead, forty-four wounded, and ten prisoners of war (of whom one was wounded). In the Division (4594 casualties) one officer in every three and almost one man in every four had become a casualty during those bloody three weeks. Of the many prisoners taken by 5 Brigade, the Italians outnumbered the Germans by 100 to one.
So back to Baggush where the Division waited, back over the dusty old trails the ancients and the caravans had used, to a cold Christmas Eve at El Adem and a short service to mark Christmas Day—‘a bleak, windy morning, it seems sarcastic to say “Happy Xmas”. There is a smell and taste of petrol in my cup of tea and it needs a lot of sweetened tinned milk to kill it.’ ‘Someone attempted to improve (?) the bully beef by boiling it with sauerkraut and nearly poisoned the lot of us.’ Then back to Sidi Azeiz, where men wondered about B Company comrades, and into Egypt again, to a smothering dust-storm: ‘Our faces were unrecognisable, powdered all over [with dust] … the awful wind….’ Down to the railhead, and so by train to Baggush.
But they took the lid off the place on New Year's Eve. The Division, decimated but together again, showered the night sky with German flares, exploded Italian grenades, even fired several 25-pounders out to sea, alarming nearby English units which stood-to to repel a seaborne invasion. As midnight came in over the little oasis ‘the boys pulled down the colonel's tent and demanded a speech, but Colonel Andrew, taking this in good part, would not address the gathering until he was properly dressed,’ writes Doug George.69 ‘He then fired several Verey flares in spontaneous reaction (and so did Captain John MacDuff, setting fire to a bivvy), and regarding his collapsed tent said: “I will crawl into the b— thing as it is.” But they held him in such estimation that they decided to re-erect the tent for him.’
2 He remembers only one spot where he saw both beauty and desolation together: ‘… coming up the Red Sea (inky and oily looking in a stifling hazy heat). The coastline of Egypt was on our left: rocky, mountainous and barren looking. It had a reddish glow about it; you could almost imagine it glowing hot. It had beauty of desolation.’
7 The battalion's senior officers at the end of September 1941 were: CO, Lt-Col L. W. Andrew; 2 i/c, Maj T. C. Campbell (Maj J. Leggat had gone to GHQ MEF). HQ Coy: OC, Lt F. G. Oldham. A Coy: OC, Capt J. Moore; 2 i/c, Capt E. T. Pleasants. B Coy: OC, Capt E. F. Laws; 2 i/c, Capt E. H. Simpson. C Coy: OC, Maj I. A. Hart; 2 i/c, Capt R. R. T. Young. D Coy: OC, Maj G. L. Mather; 2 i/c, Capt K. R. S. Crarer.
12 Brig R. W. Harding, DSO, MM, ED; Kirikopuni, North Auckland; born Dargaville, 29 Feb 1896; farmer; Auck Regt 1916-19; CO 21 Bn 1942-43; comd 5 Bde 30 Apr-14 May 1943, 4 Jun-23 Aug 1943; twice wounded.
31 21 Bn moved westwards with Divisional Headquarters and 20 Bn, and 5 Bde was down to three battalions: 23 Bn at Capuzzo, 22 Bn on the way to Menastir, and 28 (Maori) Bn at upper Sollum. Together with 4 Indian Division, 5 Bde was to keep the frontier forts isolated. For the time being it was out of the question to capture Bardia, lower Sollum or Halfaya.
34 Among those reaching 22 Battalion from 5 Brigade were 27 RASC men who had been recaptured; they confirmed that 40 enemy tanks and some MT were west of Sidi Omar and were believed to be making for Bardia.
39 The 22 Battalion group now included four 25-pdr guns (one troop of 28 Battery had gone with B Company to Sidi Azeiz), four 2-pdr anti-tank guns, three Bofors, and 12 Vickers guns (4 Coy 27 (MG) Bn). All contributed handsomely towards staving off the enemy.
47 2 Lt V. D. Hill; Fernhill, Hastings; born Hastings, 10 Jan 1911; farmer.
48 They were out of touch with the rest of Eighth Army, although the gunners (remnants of 28 Battery) at Menastir had been in touch by wireless with 27 Battery at Capuzzo, which had called up the CRA 4 Indian Division.
57 Maj-Gen A. S. Wilder, DSO, MC, m.i.d., Order of the White Eagle (Serb.); Te Hau, Waipukurau; born NZ 24 May 1890; sheep-farmer; Wgtn Mtd Rifles, 1914-19; CO 25 Bn May 1940-Sep 1941; comd NZ Trg Gp, Maadi Camp, Sep-Dec 1941, Jan-Feb 1942; 5 Bde 6 Dec 1941-17 Jan 1942; 5 Div (in NZ) Apr 1942-Jan 1943; 1 Div Jan-Nov 1943.
59 A small yet important point: before action a YMCA truck found the battalion, which had been critically short of tobacco and had ‘smoked anything that looked like a cigarette…mighty welcome, it certainly helped the chaps.’
61 MajL. G. S. Cross; born Dunedin, 20 Nov 1918; Regular soldier.
64 The little portable communion chalice, which Padre Thorpe carried in its case in his battledress pocket, belonged to his grandfather, Archdeacon R. J. Thorpe, who came to New Zealand in the ‘sixties from Ireland, and was a member of the Volunteers in New Zealand. He carried it on horseback in backblock districts. It was handed on to Padre Thorpe's father, the Rev. F. H. Thorpe, who carried it in his saddlebags when he used to ride the 230-mile-long South Westland parish when there were scarcely any bridges; the clergyman could and did shoe his own horses.