27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 9 — Minqar Qaim
Syria was a happy and wonderful experience,’ says Major Robbie. ‘The green and pleasant countryside acted like a tonic. It was the foundation upon which we were able to build the resistance to trials and tribulations that came our way later on. It was like a last family reunion, for later on many of our old friends left us, killed in action, prisoners of war, and some to return to NZ on duty.’ Robbie became second-in-command when Major Grant left for New Zealand to take up an appointment in the country's expanding defence forces, and then (early in June) found himself in temporary command of the battalion when Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam went off to attend a course at Sarafand in Palestine.
On the evening of 14 June Robbie and the Adjutant (Captain Hume) were called to Baalbek and there learned that the Division was to return to Egypt. The move was to be kept secret: the fernleaf sign on vehicles was to be painted over and the troops were to remove their badges and shoulder titles. A machine-gun company was to be with each brigade group— 1 Company with the 5th, 2 Company with the 4th, and 3 Company with the 6th—and the remainder of the battalion was to be part of the Divisional Troops Group,1 under Robbie's command. Colonel Gwilliam was to complete his course before returning to the battalion.
Advance parties, including the company commanders, left for Maadi, where they were to receive further instructions about their ultimate destination.
Fourth Brigade, the first group to go, left El Aine early on 17 June, crossed the frontier at Merdjayoun, and stopped overnight at Tulkarm, in Palestine. Next day the towns were avoided as much as possible and ‘we passed many Polish encampments & were given a great amount of oranges & grapefruit by the soldiers,’ says Lieutenant Newland. After a night at Asluj, near Beersheba, the convoy crossed the Sinai Desert to the bank of the Suez Canal opposite Ismailia, and on the 20th headed through Cairo and Mena to Amiriya, where the advance page 203 party was waiting. At Cairo ‘the Wogs were just the same, they knew about us coming through … one fellow even rushed up during a traffic hold up & offered to change Syrian & Palestinian money for Egyptian.’
The convoy moved out along the Western Desert road on the 21st. ‘Rumour among the men has it that we are going to Daba, Fuka, Matruh, Sidi Barrani, & even some say to Baggush. … The trip & the day lengthen as we pass Daba, Fuka, & even Baggush, speculation is rife…. The convoy slows up, we know that there is no ration or refuelling point nearby so guess that we must be just about there.’ They camped that night near Smugglers' Cove, about 12 miles short of Mersa Matruh, and next day moved into barracks at Matruh.
The journey, about 950 miles in excessive heat, had been long and tiresome. Blowouts had meant constant chasing after light aid detachments for tyres and tubes. ‘No sooner would we get one truck under way again, after proceeding another few miles, we would find another of our trucks laid up by the roadside,’ says Newland. ‘To cap all this work our own truck was not to be outdone having a total of eight blow-outs….’
With 5 Brigade 1 Company returned direct to Laboue from the manœuvres and waited there until the 18th for room on the roads before setting out for Egypt. Battalion Headquarters and 4 Company followed next day with the Divisional Troops Group; 3 Company rejoined 6 Brigade and on the 21st was also on the way to the Western Desert.
While halted at the Suez Canal on 21 June Battalion Headquarters ‘greeted with unbelieving consternation’ the news that Tobruk had fallen. Two days later the convoy reached Matruh. ‘This day, 23rd June 1942, will always remain in my memory as a day of puzzlement and bewilderment,’ says Robbie. ‘We got to Daba about midday and from there on we met 8th Army coming back from the Western Desert. In some places they were travelling 4 deep across the road. Trucks, guns, cars, etc, all heading helter skelter towards Cairo…. what the hell were we in for now. Something was haywire. Why were we going into something that had caused this stir?’
The Division occupied Mersa Matruh. The fortress had been a key point in the defence when Graziani invaded Egypt in 1940, and had been the base of the crusader offensive the following year, but when Eighth Army had stabilised the line at Gazala, more than 200 miles to the west, Matruh's fortifica- page 204 tions had been allowed to fall into decay. As soon as the New Zealanders arrived from Syria they set to work repairing the dugouts, minefields and other defence works.
The machine-gunners dug or altered the gunpits where necessary. Lieutenant McAneny2 says that his (12) platoon ‘was allotted four concrete pillboxes supposedly built for Vickers MGs, but we were unable to mount our guns in them and had to dig in forward of the pillboxes.’ Lieutenant Pleasants' (2 Platoon) headquarters ‘was situated in one of the many old tombs in the area. Place was a massive affair about 20 ft underground. Only notable event was when German planes raided the Naafi in our rear.’ The Naafi was believed to be evacuating Matruh, so the New Zealanders helped, and ‘fed well for a couple of days afterwards.’ Lance-Corporal Lawrie,3 of Headquarters 4 Company, says ‘we stayed … in old dugouts full of filth and fleas.’ But they did not stay long: General Freyberg had no intention of allowing the Division to be besieged in Matruh.
The Division was to operate in a mobile role in the desert to the south. There were too few vehicles to carry all the infantry, so it was decided to send back to the rear one company from each of the seven infantry battalions of 4 and 5 Brigades. Headquarters 27 (MG) Battalion, Headquarters Company and the men who were to be left out of battle were among those who also had to go; Major Robbie was told on the 24th that he and his headquarters were to leave with the LOBs that night. They reached Amiriya next morning and there met 3 Company, which had come down from Syria with 6 Brigade. ‘We gave them all we had to spare in the way of binoculars, vehicles, compasses, and warlike stores to make up their equipment,’ says Robbie. ‘We set off back to Cairo, I am afraid a very despondent group silent with our own thoughts of what was happening to our companies and why the powers that be thought of having LOB personnel.’4page 205
The New Zealand Division was relieved by 10 Indian Division at Matruh on the 25th. Fourth Brigade Group, of which 2 Company was still part, was the first to leave the fortress. The company was to have got away before 3 p.m., but because of lack of transport did not start until about eleven. ‘Once again we were sadly overloaded on the few 3-tonners made available by the Bde transport or whoever was responsible for such things,’ says Newland. ‘We were to move … east along the main road until we came to the Garawla junction, thence south for several miles, a journey totalling some 25 miles in all, but owing to the congestion on the main road—caused by the 5 Inf Bde Gp—we tried to move along the Smugglers' Cove Rd but again congestion was bad so after making 7 miles we camped by the roadside till daylight.’ The company was off again at 5 a.m. and reached the brigade about two hours later.
Fourth Brigade was followed from Matruh by Divisional Headquarters, Divisional Reserve Group5 (which included 1 Company), and 5 Brigade Group (including 4 Company). The Division dispersed at Bir el Sarahna, south of Garawla, and in the afternoon of the 26th moved a few miles farther south to the escarpment in the vicinity of Minqar Qaim—the cliff (or bluff) of Qaim.6 Fifth Brigade took up positions on the high ground around this feature on the western flank; Reserve Group was in the centre; 4 Brigade held the lower escarpment farther east near Bir Abu Batta; and 21 Battalion was sent out as a mobile column to the south. Because much of the ground was too rocky for excavation, sangars were built for weapon pits.
At dusk about twenty-five enemy aircraft swept in from the darkening eastern sky and attacked 4 Brigade's positions. It was ‘the largest raid by Hun planes—JU 52 or 88—since we were in Greece,’ says Newland. No casualties occurred in 2 Company, but about sixty men were killed or wounded and some vehicles were destroyed or damaged in other units.
Meanwhile 3 Company had been divorced from the Division. Captain Hains had gone on ahead to Matruh with 6 Brigade's advance party. Returning to Amiriya on the 25th he met 3 page 206 Company, which was ordered to Matruh. ‘These trips were real nightmares due to the general confusion on the road of heavy volume of traffic returning from the desert.’ When he reached Matruh late that night he found that the New Zealand Division had gone and the Indian Division was occupying the fortress.
Next morning, while his company waited at Garawla, Hains set out into the desert to find the Division, which he eventually located at Minqar Qaim. He was told to return to Amiriya. ‘This was the last straw…. A few ears must have been burning that day…. This time however we did not reach Amiriya— stopped at Daba….’ Hains was told to report to Brigadier Winsor, of Rear Headquarters Eighth Army, and the three machine-gun platoons were ordered to relieve guards on the nearby airfields. The Brigadier said 6 Brigade would be coming to Daba, and Hains therefore reconnoitred a position for the brigade, which of course did not arrive.7
Early in the morning of 27 June 4 Brigade Group moved about two miles westward towards Minqar Qaim to close the gap between it and Reserve Group. The troops went on foot and the transport followed while it was still dark—in case there should be another air attack. Now in the Bir Abu Shayit area, 2 Company took up positions with 19, 20 and 28 Battalions, which gave fields of fire to the north, east and south. The troops laboured on trenches, sangars and gunpits, and the engineers laid mines, but these defences were not completed until well after dawn.
The three platoons of 1 Company were intended to deploy with the rifle companies of 18 Battalion in Reserve Group, but only 1 and 3 Platoons did so. The previous evening, when the aircraft raided 4 Brigade, the column of which 1 Company was part was halted about a mile to the north. When darkness fell it moved a few miles and stopped again. Lieutenant Pleasants (2 Platoon) tried in vain to locate Company Headquarters and find out what was happening. ‘This period was to me one of complete bewilderment,’ he says. ‘We did NOT know where we were going or why.’ The platoon bedded down for the night alongside an artillery unit, from whom it was learnt that an attack was expected at daybreak. Before dawn Pleasants moved 2 Platoon forward of the artillery positions and dug in below the lower escarpment and alongside the Maori Battalion. Later page 207 in the morning, when he found Company Headquarters (which was farther back, at the foot of the main escarpment), it was decided that 2 Platoon should stay where it was.
Farther west 4 Company, on the rocky ridge above Headquarters 5 Brigade, was to support the infantry on the western flank; it was to cover the low ground to the north at maximum ranges and to give overhead covering fire for the infantry on the high ground to the south. Fifth Brigade's B Echelon transport was sent away because of the lack of room for it inside the position; this left 4 Company with the OC's pick-up, the CSM's truck and the twelve gun trucks.
The shelling caused 5 Brigade's B Echelon transport to leave its exposed position north of the escarpment and travel at high speed eastwards across the front of the Division's defences and southwards up the escarpment near Bir Abu Batta. It was not seen again that day.
Much of the shellfire was intended for the 25-pounders, but the machine-gun positions, intentionally or otherwise, did not escape. Private Friar (1 Platoon) was mortally wounded, and several others had to be evacuated. Private Hutchison8 received a wound which he did not disclose and stayed with his platoon.
The day grew extremely hot and hazy; the dust raised by the shellfire and movement of transport and the smoke of burning vehicles made it difficult to see what was happening. In mid-afternoon tanks and other vehicles approached 4 Brigade from the north-east. Some of these were allowed to come within small-arms range of 20 Battalion before a very heavy fire was opened against them. Several vehicles were knocked out, and troops were seen taking cover in low scrub, from which they returned the fire, but the attack was halted and the enemy withdrew. What appeared to be another column approached from almost due east and passed to the south of 4 Brigade, which suggested that the Division was being surrounded.
Some very good shooting against lorried infantry at ranges varying from 1500 to 3000 yards—‘strike observed right amongst the enemy’—was reported by 6 Platoon on the eastern flank; guarding the south as well as the east, 4 Platoon engaged observation posts and an anti-tank gun which made off quickly.
Reserve Group was shelled from the south, and towards dusk tanks approached from that direction. Corporal Gardiner says 3 Platoon was ordered to withdraw. He told his section to pack its three-ton truck and wait ‘several hundred yards to the rear’ while he went with Sergeant Mason9 to report to the commander of the troops they were supporting that they had been ordered to leave. ‘We were under fairly heavy fire at this time which was probably from the tanks,’ says Gardiner. ‘The rear became the front and the section had an uncomfortable few minutes waiting for our return.’page 209
Private Binns,10 one of the men in the section, says the tanks ‘seemed to come through the centre of our position. We made for our truck, but had to spread out and lie flat when a tank, which pierced the line and doubled back, opened up. A 25 lber put up a great duel, which no doubt saved us and our truck, two machine guns, ammo, etc.’
A troop of 25-pounders was fighting over open sights. Gardiner believes these guns ‘had just been dropped there to meet the tank attack as they were not dug in.’ The machine guns did not fire because they had been ordered to move. ‘Further there was not a target for them unless you count tanks a target on flat open ground. I don't.’ One man was wounded by a tank shell while Gardiner's section was pulling out.
‘Things looked nasty as a troop of arty raced up through our position to bring anti-tank fire to bear, for there we were— trucks, 25 pdrs, arty gun crews and dozens of spare men littered over a relatively small area,’ says Private Sherrard,11 of Headquarters 1 Company. Captain Kirk had gone to Divisional Headquarters, and Captain Howell (the second-in-command) to 1 and 3 Platoons. Sergeant-Major White12 was taking some men to an abandoned Bofors gun when Howell returned and told him to pack up and follow him onto the escarpment. There White found both Kirk and Howell.
A number of new six-pounder anti-tank guns had arrived at the Division only that morning; a battery of them had gone into action against the tanks, and five of the six intended for another battery (which had been too busy to change over from its two-pounders) had been moved back hurriedly out of danger. Howell saw the sixth gun on its portée, with ammunition but no crew. ‘Robin [Howell] walked over to it,’ says Private Lawrence,13 ‘and it seemed to be alright so he said “this will do us”. I asked him if I could go too, he said I could so I climbed aboard.’
A staff-sergeant and another man arrived, probably both from 6 Field Regiment. The latter drove the portée, while the NCO showed Howell how the gun worked. ‘We drove up a rise and page 210 could see these tanks hull down and firing,’ says Lawrence. ‘I would say they would be about 6 hundred yards away.
‘Robin told the driver to back the Portee up to the rise, he did this and there something hit the Staff Sergeant and knocked him out. Robin then started firing at these tanks and we hit one. They were firing at us by this, you could see the dust rising off the ground in the trail of the shells that were going past the portee. I am not sure how many tanks there were but the one we hit didn't fire again. I think that in all we fired about a dozen rounds.
‘Then one of their shells hit the recuperator on the gun and [ricocheted] off.
‘Robin fired the gun again, I was feeding the shells to the gun acting as his No. 2. This shell never went off. He said what's wrong. I said it must be a dud. He ripped the breech block open and as he did so there was a terrific explosion and after the smoke had cleared away Robin was lying on the deck mortally wounded…. the 6 pounder shell had exploded on coming out of the breech….
‘Anyway with Robin mortally wounded and the Staff Sergeant out too it wasn't any use me staying there so I told the driver to drive away and we took Robin to the Field Dressing Station, on the way down the Staff Sergeant came to and seemed alright…. After that we found our way back to No. 1 Coy and I reported back to Captain Kirk, the Staff Sergeant and the other chap took the Portee and went off to find their own units.’
For his part in this action Lawrence was awarded the MM.
The field and anti-tank guns halted the German advance. ‘At this time,’ says Lieutenant Rollinson14 (1 Platoon), ‘a large number of tanks loomed up on our right, heading directly for our position. In the dust and smoke haze it was impossible to identify them until they were within four or five hundred yards. We were tremendously relieved to find that they were 1 Arm'd. Div. as they wheeled right and faced the German tanks which then withdrew…. As 18 Bn. infantry were to make a counter attack … it was necessary for us to move our guns to a position which would enable us to provide direct overhead support.’ With this support the infantry captured a dozen Germans and two trucks (originally British).page 211
About the same time as the German attack from the south, a probe came from the north against the Maori Battalion. The Maoris held their fire until the enemy was quite close, and when they opened up all four Vickers of 2 Platoon, in a good position for enfilade fire, joined in. The attack, a weak one, collapsed completely, and the Maoris made a sortie with the bayonet to take a few prisoners.
This ended the enemy's attempts to penetrate the New Zealand defences. His shelling died down and his tanks prepared to harbour. A large group of his vehicles was seen entering the re-entrant at Bir Abu Batta. The Division was now thought to be almost completely encircled;15 its only open flank appeared to be to the south-west, where the British armour had arrived. The Division was instructed to withdraw at its own discretion. Withdrawal to the south was ruled out because the going in that direction was believed to be unsuitable, and it would take the Division too far from the fighting. It was decided, therefore, that the Division would fight its way out through the enemy known to be to the east.
Since all efforts had failed to recall 5 Brigade's troop-carrying transport, arrangements were made to pack the men on guns, portées, carriers, gun quads and every available truck. Consequently 4 Company was to carry the Brigade Defence Platoon on its already overloaded vehicles. The machine-gunners were ordered to dump everything possible, including a large quantity of ammunition. ‘It was noticed,’ says Lieutenant Rose, ‘that the men dumped much of their personal gear in order to keep as much ammo as possible.’ Headquarters 1 Company, which had been ordered to join 5 Brigade, also loaded infantry on its two three-tonners, two pick-ups and a water cart ‘which ran more by good luck than anything else.’ This company's three platoons moved independently with Reserve Group.
Orders were given to lift the mines so that 22 Battalion could go out safely north of the escarpment instead of travelling over the broken ground to the south. Few sappers were available, and the infantrymen and machine-gunners, who had never searched for mines in the darkness—probably had never handled them at all—had to do the job. A lane was cleared, but not completely, and several vehicles were damaged when attempting page 212 to get through. Twenty-five men in a company of the 22nd were among those killed and wounded by the explosions.
Before midnight 5 Brigade fell in behind Divisional Headquarters and Reserve Group at the rendezvous. The troops were distributed among the transport, and petrol was pooled; 4 Company gave 120 gallons to 22 Battalion's carrier platoon.
General Freyberg, who had been wounded in the neck by a shell splinter while watching the battle in the afternoon, had instructed Brigadier Inglis to take command of the Division, and the latter had handed over 4 Brigade to Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows.16 This brigade was to attack with the bayonet on a narrow front to clear the neck of high ground just south of the re-entrant at Bir Abu Batta; the transport was then to pass through the gap and pick up the infantry who had made the assault; the rest of the Division was to follow close behind. There was to be no preliminary bombardment—which would only advertise the Division's intentions. The field guns and anti-tank portées would be placed where they could protect the flanks and rear of the transport column if necessary, and 2 Company's Vickers, mounted in trucks, would also be disposed around the transport.
The start of the advance was delayed until about 1.50 a.m. by the late arrival of the Maoris. The three battalions then marched forward in the moonlight. The enemy, taken by surprise, did not open fire until the foremost attackers were almost upon him. The New Zealanders closed swiftly, and using bayonets and grenades, or firing rifles, tommy guns and Bren guns from the hip, swept through the laager and reformed on the other side. In that brief, merciless encounter they almost annihilated a German battalion.
The success signal went up; the waiting transport went forward, picked up the infantry, and sped away to the east. In the first few miles the brigade twice encountered the enemy and to avoid an engagement detoured to the south each time. The machine-gunners had been fortunate: 2 Company did not have a single casualty in the break-out, and only one man (Private McLean17) had been wounded in the previous day's fighting.page 213
Brigadier Inglis had grown restless over the delay in 4 Brigade's attack, for little time remained to get clear away before daybreak. He decided to get going and to take Divisional Headquarters, Reserve Group and 5 Brigade around to the south of where 4 Brigade's fight was in progress.
The column moved forward a short distance and then swung to the south. After going about a mile and a half in that direction the leading vehicles stopped abruptly when confronted by a closely packed group of tanks and trucks. They had come up against 21 Panzer Division's tank laager, which opened fire with tracer missiles from tank and anti-tank guns and machine guns.
The New Zealand column presented a vulnerable, compact target of soft-skinned vehicles crowded with men. ‘The firing was a bit high and unimaginative, the gunners just pumping their shells straight out,’ says Lieutenant Rose. ‘Had they traversed their guns at all, they would have caused terrific damage. As it was, a lot of their fire went straight down between the lines of trucks. An ambulance in the front of the column was the first to go up in flames and also a three tonner immediately behind my truck. On contact with enemy, everyone had smartly hit the ground, momentarily at a loss to know just what had happened and what to do. The order came to “whip around and get out”, and we scrambled aboard and got out, picking up odd members who had lost their transport.’
Lance-Corporal Lawrie says that Major Cooper ‘ordered our trucks to the front but we could not get ahead of the ambulances and enemy tank fire soon had them a mass of flames with no possible chance of rescue. Throughout this hectic period he [Cooper] had his trucks organised with orders and each man had his job to do, I being posted to sit on the pick-up turret to assist direct the driver past obstacles, but it did not matter where one sat the fiery cannon balls flew everywhere, fortunately most overhead.’
The column broke up. Some vehicles turned left; others turned right; some went back towards the north. Among those that turned right were Headquarters 4 Company and 10 Platoon. This platoon, says Rose, ‘managed to stick together fairly well and after several miles had been covered at a speed not usually carried out for night movements, a halt was called.’ Rose recalls that ‘“Lochie” Munro18 got his truck out with a tank page 214 shell in his right front brake drum, that wheel not turning at all—Bert Cuff19 shot in the leg but said nothing about it until he fainted from loss of blood at first stop.’ Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow,20 the senior officer present, rallied and took charge of the party, which included field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, Bren carriers, and several hundred infantrymen as well as the machine-gunners, and led them for some distance to the south before turning east.
The rest of 4 Company (11 and 12 Platoons) went back to the north before heading eastwards. Lieutenant McAneny says that orders were passed down the line to scatter. ‘There was no obligation on me to follow anyone, and even if I had attempted to do this in the darkness it would have been impossible, as I several times stopped or slowed my truck to pick up stragglers and would have lost anyone I was following…. Stopped at first light with about 26 trucks and decided on course to El Alamein.’
Part of 1 Company went with the large group which turned left on encountering the tank laager. ‘Orders came to turn left and go like hell,’ says Sergeant-Major White. ‘I was driving my truck…. I called out repeating turn left and all aboard. …All 23 infantry plus my own crew were still on board…. I had lost sight of Capt Kirk's vehicle and the other pick up … on my left and going like a bat out of hell trying to pass me was our broken down water cart. After a lot of yelling he pulled back into position and so we travelled the remainder of the night.’
Pleasants says that 2 Platoon's trucks kept well together ‘and when a halt was called and check taken only two members of the pl were missing. No casualties had been received though bullets and shrapnel were embedded in the trucks and some of the bed rolls.’ At the first organised halt the two missing men reported to the platoon; they had ridden out on a portée and the gun barrel of a six-pounder. The group was reorganised under Brigadier Inglis and resumed the march to Alamein.
In the confusion of the break-out 1 Platoon became divided. ‘The movement now developed into a stampede with no semblance of order,’ says Rollinson. ‘Everywhere trucks which had been put out of action were being abandoned and the page 215 occupants scrambling on to passing vehicles.21 Finally we were through the enemy and the going improved. Trucks travelled at great speed in an endeavour to be as far away as possible before daylight. As soon as day broke, we looked around in an endeavour to locate our other truck, but it was not in sight. We pushed on and eventually contacted our Coy. H.Q.’
Other vehicles made their way eastwards singly or in small groups. A group of about six men from Headquarters 1 Company, under Staff-Sergeant Felton,22 and eight others who had been picked up earlier in the evening, had been left behind near Minqar Qaim. When the word had been given to move, their three-tonner would not start. ‘The switch had burnt out,’ says Lawrence, who had been asleep in the back. ‘After a while we got it going and then the head of the column had run into the enemy so we decided not to go that way…. it was dark and we were lucky to be on a good bit of going.
‘We went up a small rise and ran into an Indian Patrol, they weren't too sure of us and couldn't talk English but after a while Sgt Felton induced them to take us to their officer who was an Englishman. A nonchalant type, he said what's all this row going on. It was only the NZ Div breaking through the German Army about 3 miles away but it didn't seem to worry him.’ He directed them towards Daba. ‘We left him,’ says Felton, ‘and immediately afterwards a column appeared through the night and I made myself known to Colonel Glasgow who instructed me to join his column.’
The missing section of 1 Platoon straggled in a day or two later. Anti-tank and machine-gun fire had punctured both rear tyres of their truck. The tyres had begun to burn, and the driver (Donald23) was unable to change them. Most of the infantry (from 18 Battalion) transferred to other vehicles and Sergeant Harbutt24 and Corporal McInnes,25 the senior machine-gunners, decided to abandon the vehicle and make their way on foot. They removed the locks from the Vickers guns and took page 216 water and rations from the burning truck. They planned to get as far away as possible while the darkness lasted and to lie up during the day. That morning they observed a column in the distance and one of the party investigated on a motor cycle which they had picked up. This turned out to be a small ‘Jock’ column with 25-pounders, anti-tank guns, Bofors, scout cars and a company of Green Howards, who were carrying plentiful supplies of beer and rations. The machine-gunners were taken on by this column.
One of 3 Platoon's trucks, carrying twenty-six men, had been set on fire during the break-out. ‘We flung ourselves off—fast,’ wrote Private Bell. ‘Trucks were passing us going like the hammers of hell…. I ran about 100 yds in the direction the convoy had been moving. I waved to several passing trucks to pick me up but no sir—they kept right on going, flat out. … Anyhow a Bren carrier pulled up and I piled on with five others and so we rode out. To my surprise I found that four of the chaps were off our truck.’ Most of the others turned up in the next day or two.
Privates Kitto26 and Wallbank27 were killed, which brought 1 Company's casualties to four killed, half a dozen wounded and several missing; also 1 and 3 Platoons had each lost a truck and two Vickers guns. Two men were wounded and two missing from 4 Company, which had lost two trucks and one Vickers.
Among the missing was Corporal Gardiner (3 Platoon). ‘There were about 105 New Zealanders captured that night from RMT, Engs, Inf, Arty, a bit of everything I think,’ he says. ‘The Germans lined us up in the morning and told us the following: “You New Zealanders do not fight fair. You bayonet our wounded [a charge the captured men did not believe], so you are going to stand in the sun all day without food and only enough water to keep you alive.” Luckily for us after about 4 hrs transport arrived to take us to Tobruch and then to Benghazi.’
While the other three machine-gun companies stood with the Division and then broke out from Minqar Qaim, 3 Company guarded three airfields near Daba. By 28 June traffic on the page 217 road had practically ceased. Lieutenant Morgan28 (9 Platoon) reported that New Zealand transport was retreating eastwards in the desert to the south, and General Freyberg had left by ambulance plane from his platoon's airfield, which was about to be abandoned.
Next day British armoured cars (12 Lancers) reported an enemy column advancing along the road towards Daba. A small force which included about a company of South African infantry, a few South African 25-pounders and ack-ack guns, six or eight New Zealand Bren carriers (from 6 Brigade) and 3 Company, went forward about six miles to take up a position at Sanyet Gabir, where the Vickers were dug in on a forward slope between the sea and the railway, 7 Platoon south of the road, 8 Platoon on the seaward side of it, and 9 Platoon farther back.
‘The Brig [Winsor] assured me,’ writes Lieutenant Beard29 (7 Platoon), ‘we would have ample warning of the German approach as [the Lancers] were still out in front of us with armoured cars and would retire through us.’ Sergeant Gould (9 Platoon) recalls, however, that ‘our confidence was not improved by seeing the 25 pdrs pull out followed by the Bofors at dusk; we felt as though we were being left out on the end of a branch, and everyone was ready to bolt at the drop of a hat.’
Late in the evening ‘two carriers went up in flames on the railway line, and then the S.A. infantry were in action with Bren guns and grenades,’ says Beard. ‘It was apparent that German armoured cars or light tanks30 were right amongst us. In the confusion, we fired no guns but sat tight until identification became possible.’ But at least one of 8 Platoon's Vickers went into action. ‘Enemy vehicles appeared on the road and later reconnoitred the sand hills in front of us,’ says Lance-Corporal Clemens. ‘We engaged them until it appeared we (Jack Chaffe31 and I) would be left behind if we did not heed the entreaties … to embus and be off.’page 218
Lieutenant Gumbley32 (8 Platoon) says that he and Beard ‘decided that as we were not doing any good where we were the best thing we could do would be to get out…. As we were pulling out we saw a red verey light go up from the direction of Daba. A pleasing sight.’
Brigadier Winsor had told the major in charge of the rearguard, whose headquarters was back towards Daba, that when he considered it was time to withdraw he was to fire a Very light. Captain Hains was alongside the major when he gave this signal.
While the rearguard was assembling near the road, the Brigadier, who apparently had heard the shooting, arrived from Daba and wanted to know who had given the order to withdraw. ‘We were unable to convince him that the signal had been given,’ says Gumbley. ‘Tracer, obviously German, was flying everywhere,’ adds Beard, ‘but when I met him [the Brigadier] on the road he still disbelieved it to be hostile fire. … After a moment or two his doubts were resolved when an enterprising German let off a burst of tracer straight up the road and it passed very close to us both.’ The Brigadier said he would give the withdrawal signal, produced a Very pistol from his car, and fired two red flares straight overhead. ‘Jerry appreciated this illumination and gave us the works while the flares supplied light.’
‘The firing of the flare,’ Gumbley continues, ‘was the signal for the start of the Daba-El Alamein cross country reliability trial. There were no rules but everyone showed a marked desire to keep off the road.’ One of 7 Platoon's drivers accidentally switched on his lights with his coat cuff, and the red tail light made a target for the enemy, but fortunately the shooting was high, and only one man (Lance-Corporal Hunter33) was hit. As the trucks passed Daba they were ‘nearly blown over’ by the blast from a demolition, probably an ammunition dump. Enemy aircraft, with landing lights on, strafed the road.
The company camped for the remainder of the night near El Alamein.
4 The officers who remained with the four companies were:
OC: Capt G. C. Kirk
2 i/c: Capt R. H. Howell
1 Pl: Lt C. E. Rollinson
2 Pl: Lt G. B. C. Pleasants
3 Pl: Sgt C. S. Mason
2 i/c: Lt C. A. Newland
4 Pl: Lt J. C. Evans
5 Pl: Lt W. R. Price
6 Pl: 2 Lt N. G. Blue
6 The main escarpment, which rises about 100 feet from the flat country to its north, runs roughly to the west and south of Minqar Qaim; a lower escarpment meets the main one at Minqar Qaim and extends eastwards beyond Bir Abu Batta, where there is a re-entrant. Except on the western flank, the New Zealand positions were mostly along this lower feature.
9 WO II C. S. Mason; Whakatane; born Masterton, 31 Aug 1918; packer; wounded 3 Sep 1942. Sgt Mason commanded 3 Pl at Minqar Qaim in the absence of Lt R. S. Brown, who had been evacuated sick from Matruh.
16 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Greek); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn Dec 1941–Jun 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942–Jul 1943; comd 4 Bde 27–29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul–15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug–Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul–Aug 1944; Commandant, Southern Military District, Nov 1951–Oct 1953; Commander K Force Nov 1953–Nov 1954; Commandant SMD Jan 1955-.
20 Col K. W. R. Glasgow, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wellington, 15 Nov 1902; headmaster; CO 14 Lt AA Regt May–Dec 1941; 5 Fd Regt Dec 1941–May 1943; OC Tps 6 NZ Div May–Aug 1943; GSO 1 NZ Maadi Camp 1944; Rector, Scots College, Wellington.
21 Cpl D. T. J. Coulter (1 Pl), who had been wounded in the shoulder during the morning, was travelling in an ambulance which was destroyed. He managed to scramble out, jumped onto the tailboard of a passing truck, and was able to hang on with his good arm.
30 These vehicles, whatever type they were, probably belonged to the German 90 Lt Div, which was advancing along the road from Mersa Matruh. The German armour had been directed to a place in the desert 25 miles south of Daba.