CHAPTER 15 — The Left Hook at El Agheila
The Left Hook at El Agheila
The division enjoyed about three weeks' rest round Bardia while the Eighth Army pursued the Africa Corps in its headlong flight past Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, to its old defensive position round El Agheila; but this time the enemy was so exhausted that he was unable to bound out and mount a counter-offensive. This time, too, it was obvious that General Montgomery was not going to attack until he had his lines of communication with Tobruk and Benghazi open and working smoothly, and had built up a sufficient reserve of supplies.
The Divisional Cavalry employed the rest period in a comparatively light but interesting training programme. There were route marches to keep the men hard, and excursions to Bardia for sea bathing. And it was here that the regiment was able to enjoy the use of some hot showers which had been captured intact. There were periods of maintenance set down in the daily syllabus, but since all the major maintenance had been completed within days of the regiment's withdrawal from the pursuit, the vehicles' crews found that they could devote these periods to more unorthodox work. By now every ‘A’ vehicle had a bivouac permanently attached to it which was large enough for the whole crew, one that could be erected or stowed in a matter of minutes. In most cases these consisted of a tarpaulin rolled round and strapped to a pipe or rod clamped along the side for travelling. Besides this, practically every crew had obtained from the canopy of a wrecked truck another sheet, which lay against the side and tracks of the vehicle as a wind- break and spread out on the ground for flooring. At either end of each bivvy there was usually a triangular piece of canvas sewn on to make it completely snug and light-proof, so that a lead could be brought in from the headlight terminal. The ‘B’ vehicle crews had mostly arranged their bedding inside the vehicles, some in the form of bunks, some arranged as seats and cupboards during the day, and others made so that they could fold away to make room for normal loading. Some of the fitters had arranged their trucks almost luxuriously. According to later standards they were perhaps a little primitive, but for those days they were reasonably equipped workshops besides being page 246 reasonably comfortable. Usually across the front of the tray there was an engineers' workbench, and down one side perhaps a lathe. The other side might sport a welding unit, often a captured one, for in the course of time the enemy provided the regiment with some beautiful engineering equipment; and all available space was taken up with metal bins.
In Base the Divisional Cavalry fed under squadron arrangements but, in the field, crews quickly became adept at improvising something hot to eat at a moment's notice in action. ‘Benghazi boilers’ were much in evidence. This was the name of the picnic thermettes one buys in shops nowadays, and they were usually made so that they would come to the boil on a two-ounce tobacco tin of petrol. Rations included a liberal proportion of M & V—tinned meat and vegetable stew. Most of the Bren carriers and the Ford trucks carried a tin or so of M & V lying in the hollow between the engine blocks where they kept at engine temperature, and whence they could be brought out on the move so as to provide at least a lukewarm meal.
The Tommies used to say that they could trace the progress of the New Zealand Division by the rugby goalposts scattered all over North Africa. That is probably so, but anyone in the Division could identify the place where Div Cav had been by the little ovens dotted all over the place. Fruit pies, meat pies, scones and such delicacies could be made perfectly in an oven of two benzine tins, an empty milk tin, and a little mud. One benzine tin was split along the seam and the other placed inside it; and a layer of mud was put over the lot. A fireplace was scooped out underneath, and the milk tin sufficed for a chimney to draw the heat up between the two larger tins. Many a mother, or an aunt, or a wife must have wondered at the diet of the Army when she was asked, with every food parcel, to put in a good-sized tin of Eno's salts, which made a perfect substitute for baking powder. It was not necessary to eat stew at every meal when you could fry the tinned bacon—and an occasional egg, too, if there were Bedouin about—or fritters; or perhaps tinned potatoes, diced and fried in tinned margarine. A frying- pan, did you say? Why; no trouble. There were millions in the desert. You just got the case of a German Teller mine, took it over to the fitters' truck, and rivetted or welded a handle on it. The most popular piece of equipment was, however, the fire-bucket. This was indeed the universal mark of any Eighth Army vehicle and invariably hung, rattling and sooty, under the page 247 tailboard of a truck or at the very back of an AFV near the shovel. As, invariably, it was a steel ammunition tin with the lid torn off, two Italian bayonets made perfect firebars. At almost any halt the bucket was unshipped; in went a couple of shovelfuls of sand; petrol was splashed into this; a billy of water—a lighted match thrown in—and Voila!—an Eighth Army brew of shai. If the head of the column moved on while you were waiting, you usually could still time it because it was so quick. Up came the water to the boil, in went the tea, a second more on the boil; grab the billy, kick over the bucket, and the last man hooked it up and leaped aboard as you moved off.
In the Divisional Cavalry the internal arrangements of the tanks seldom suffered any change. Each man had his own pet place for his bedroll to sit on the outside of the hull. An odd bedroll placed inside the vehicle was usually much frowned upon as it was inclined to cramp the fighting compartment, and moreover, added to the fire hazard. The Bren carriers lent themselves much more to changes both in equipment and armament. Originally they were issued with a Bren gun and a Boys anti-tank rifle; but by the end of 1942, a Boys rifle was becoming quite a rare thing in Div Cav. Instead there was a variety of weapons sticking out of the fronts of the carriers. To begin with, there were several Vickers guns with various ingenious mountings; here and there could be noticed a Besa gun, salvaged from a wrecked British tank and usually mounted for anti-aircraft purposes; and there were several 20-mm. cannon off enemy aircraft. One of these had a particularly ingenious mounting. It was a Solitherm cannon from a Messerschmitt, and it had been discovered that the mounting trunnions of the gun were a perfect fit for the axle holes of the tailwheel of the plane from which it came. So the forks of this wheel were salvaged, complete with their tapered socket, and mounted upside down. Thus the gun had a perfect lateral swivel and it elevated right at the point of balance. Since it was designed to be fired electrically and from a fixed mounting, a pair of handles, rather like those of a bicycle, were fitted across the breech casing and the self-starter solenoid from a Ford truck was attached to the trigger. Current for the solenoid came from the wireless batteries to a thumb trigger on the handles—the starter button from the same truck. Naturally enemy ammunition could not be had through normal channels but the squadron sergeant-majors kept their eyes open and, though supplies got rather low at times, those guns never went short.page 248
It is not claimed by any means that the Divisional Cavalry had any monopoly of such ingenuities, which indeed were shared by the whole Division who, at all levels, found uses for their equipment that were never contemplated by the makers of it.
By the end of November the time was drawing near for the attack on the El Agheila line. This line was rather like the Alamein line in that it consisted of a series of defended positions in a narrow portion of land between the coast and the marshes along the Wadi el Faregh. The German High Command had considered it impossible that these marshes could be outflanked as the going was too soft, and the difficulty of supplying any large body of troops that might succeed was thought to be prohibitive. Nevertheless General Montgomery had a route reconnoitred by the LRDG and decided that it was quite possible to outflank the position by sending his supply trains forward first to make dumps of petrol and water. The New Zealand Division and 4 Light Armoured Brigade, being completely mobile and self-contained, he considered suitable to make this outflanking move.
The Divisional Cavalry began its move across the bulge of Cyrenaica on 2 December when the wheeled vehicles moved off from Sidi Azeiz to begin a 350-mile drive in four days. They drove past the old battlefields at Belhamed, El Adem, Bir Hacheim, and thence straight to Msus, where the route swung south to El Haseiat, a track-junction south-east of Agedabia. Meanwhile the ‘A’ vehicles had been loaded on to tank transporters of No. 6 Company, RASC, and were being carried by the Italian-made paved highway over the coastal belt through Barce and Tocra to Benghazi, and thence by a fast move to El Haseiat. This last speeding-up was brought about because of reports that the enemy was getting restless at El Agheila, where it was essential to hit him as soon and as hard as possible.
The convoy of transporters reached El Haseiat at dusk on 10 December and the AFVs were immediately unloaded. Waiting at the unloading area was a small group of old friends, mostly ex-members of the regiment. A party from the LRDG had been detailed to make contact with Div Cav and lead the way through the track that they had reconnoitred round the El Agheila line. At 6.30 the following morning the B Echelon began to move south to its first staging area, and at midday the fighting squadrons followed it so as to catch up in the evening. Here the regiment halted all day on the 12th.page 249
The drive was on again next morning, 13 December. Most of the day the axis of advance was in a general southerly direction over desert whose surface appeared never to have felt the imprint of wheels or tracks. As far as the horizon in every direction, the surface undulated like waves on a immobile and lifeless ocean marked only by the new track marks of this, the very first convoy ever to cross it.
There had been a shower of rain the night before so no dust rose, and where the tracks had broken the surface there were to be seen all sorts of exciting colours: pinks, greens, and even ochre where they had lain hidden through the ages under the round grey pebbles of the surface.
Something in the newness of the marks, in the clean air, in the impatient bustle across this patient piece of earth caught the imagination. The clear light of the rising sun made the ground gleam except where dark grey shadows in the track marks, twin ribbons urgently, feverishly unwinding beneath them, curled behind:
… as when the sun new ris'n
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of its beams….
Sitting up on the engine casing in the lee of the turret, swaying with the movement of the tank, squinting in the bright page 250 light of the sun, soothed with the powerful roar of the motor and the warm air curling up from it, it was easy to fall into day-dreaming for long moments, mesmerised by the ribbons pouring out below. They cross and recross others of the same newness, or meet them, kiss for a yard and swing away again, never dead straight. Their long gentle curves, swinging back into infinity, make a soothing lullaby, yet untruthful, for they prelude the nightmare of a war to which they are leading.
In the afternoon, after passing 6 Brigade, the regiment refuelled for the last time. It gave quite a thrill to realise that, but for one refilling dumped ahead, what the vehicles now carried was the last of the fuel to be had until the enemy was forced out of El Agheila. Nevertheless Div Cav's petrol situation was well in hand since the carriers carried every spare tin of petrol they could stow, and on the hull of every tank there sat a 44-gallon drum which had to be used before the enemy was encountered. Refuelling at the last dump was completed about sundown and in the early darkness the regiment moved some miles further to laager at the most southerly point of the whole drive.
The next morning, the 14th, was foggy and the start was delayed until 8.30. Now the axis of advance was to the north-west. The Divisional Cavalry had to make a little extra time during the day. The Greys, who were attached to the Division at this time, ran out of petrol temporarily, and while they were immobile, Div Cav was transferred from the Divisional Reserve Group to come under command of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, and had to move up in time to laager with it that night so that the next morning a squadron could be put out as a screen to the brigade. This job fell to C Squadron.
The objective for the 15th was some high ground overlooking the main road a few miles east of Marble Arch, but during the day this was altered to a similar position much further west, the axis of the advance being taken round behind Merduma.
There was always the same kind of thrill when one of these long marches drew near its end. It was the same squadron which came swooping out of the ‘blue’ a year earlier to take the enemy by surprise at Menastir. Now, a year later and about the same hour, it was coming down on a similar enemy flank, expecting again to arrive suddenly at the edge of an escarpment with the road below and the sea beyond.
A halt on the left hook at El Agheila
An enemy shell bursts among transport near Buerat
The Regiment's Bren carriers pass the saluting base at Tripoli, 4 February 1943
German shelling at Enfidaville
Sgt D. Lunn's crew, Tunisia, April 1943. Left to right: Tprs Ken Chick and Don Beck, Sgt Lunn, and a captured Italian medical officer, wounded in the leg, who had been given a lift
Padre Taylor (‘Harry Kaitaia’) conducts a church parade at Maadi, July 1943
On the way up to the Sangro, 20 November 1943
At Atina: RHQ welcomes the spring sunshine
Near Sora. W. J. Tipler and Lt S. A. Morris
A group of No. 2 Troop, B Squadron, beside the Italian 1914–18 war memorial at Castiglion Fiorentino. The Staghound is equipped with a 3-inch howitzer and bridging trays. The troop sergeant (extreme right) is Dick Lewis
Bivouac near Riccione. From left: V. R. Ashley, W. G. Harvey, S. Willcox, D. O. Wairoa, D. Hedges, R. Chick, A. Evans, M. F. Hulme
Waiting in Rimini
R. A. Loomes and N. N. Phillips in their Staghound at Rimini
Watching Allied bombers passing overhead north of Rimini
Mud near Faenza, December 1944
Crossing the Lamone River into Faenza
Panzer Grenadiers captured in the Faenza area
Col J. R. Williams receives DSO from General Freyberg, March 1945
Flame-throwers strafe the Senio stopbank, 9 April 1945
Wrecked enemy battery near Medicina
COMMANDING OFFICERSpage 251
By 4 p.m. the rest of the regiment, with one battery of 3 RHA attached, had drawn away from the Armoured Brigade whilst the two leading troops of C Squadron had arrived at the edge of the escarpment and had a peep at the road below. Right at their feet, on the near side of the road, was the whole 15 Panzer Division in laager—immobile, had Div Cav known it, for lack of petrol—while the road lying beyond was full of transport streaming westwards. The first troop to see this, a tank troop, belonged to that impulsive man, Jack Reeves. Without much more than a message to his troop to ‘Follow me’ he led the way down the hill right into the middle of the laager. As the three tanks clattered down into the midst of the laager the amazed German crews did nothing much more than stare. There was little more that they could do anyway, since they could not even start up their engines; but not a gunner thought to open fire. Since there was no fight forthcoming, Reeves, just as calmly, turned his back on the enemy and drove up the hill again out of sight. By the time he got there, Div Cav had two squadrons lined up along the crest, together with the battery of guns, while some of the enemy gunners had so far recovered from their surprise as to open fire. The British gunners replied, knocking out one enemy gun, before they concentrated on the transport on the road, forcing it to scatter.
This skirmishing went on until darkness, when the regiment pulled back about a mile behind the escarpment and formed a laager. It was to have been joined by 6 Brigade but this brigade had taken the wrong track, with the result that the regiment spent its night in isolation, happily ignorant that the rumble of moving vehicles a mile or so farther east came not from 6 Brigade moving into its appointed position, but from 15 Panzer Division, now refuelled, getting ready to pull out to the west at first light. However, ignorance is bliss, and everybody slept well.
At 5.45 a.m. on the 16th, Headquarters 30 Corps ordered the Division to try to destroy the enemy which it now had in a trap. Accordingly the GOC warned his artillery, the two infantry and one light armoured brigades, and the Div Cav to expect an attack from the east by about a hundred enemy tanks. In order to come into its proper position in the defensive line the Divisional Cavalry began to move back south-west along the axis of its previous night's advance and had gone about six miles. It was bowling happily along in column of squadrons enjoying the pleasant morning sun, led along a shallow wadi page 252 by Colonel Sutherland in a jeep. Where this met a similar wadi, the Colonel came face to face with a Volkswagen leading a German column. The surprise was mutual, as each column was led by an officer, neither of whom was armed. For a moment they just stared at one another before they both swung about to give warning behind.
Word came to Div Cav in a very cryptic message over the wireless: ‘We are being attacked from the flank! “Orange1”, come out in a screen.’ A Squadron accordingly swung left by troops to breast the ridge between the two wadis, and engaged the enemy with everything that would shoot, while the rest of the regiment swung the other way and, under cover of this, scuttled off across the Wadi er Rigel. While carriers, jeeps, trucks, and everything bolted helter-skelter across the rough bed of the wadi, every accelerator hard on the floorboards, A Squadron, outgunned and outnumbered, held the enemy's attention for the necessary few critical moments for the whole regiment to avoid being completely overrun. By the suddenness and the fury of its shooting, the squadron managed to steal these minutes from the enemy, together with enough time to break off the engagement itself, when the crisis was passed, with surprisingly few casualties. No serious damage was done to our vehicles while at least one enemy Mark III tank was damaged. We had two subalterns killed, Lieutenants Reeves and Fisher, and three NCOs, Corporal Hardy,2 and Lance-Corporals Nevill3 and Taylor4; one other rank was seriously wounded. Both the officers were killed by being caught standing outside their turrets. The enemy column consisted of between thirty and forty tanks with a large number of trucks; and, these latter being rather a tempting target, Colonel Sutherland, after having joined up with 5 Brigade and got his squadrons re-formed, despatched A Squadron to 6 Brigade and B Squadron to 5 Brigade to see if they could get after the column and shoot up the transport. But neither squadron had any luck since the enemy, in the meantime, slipped through the gap between the two brigades and got away. Towards evening the regiment, still under command of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, moved off a mile or two farther west and formed laager.page 253
On the 17th the advance continued again, towards the village of Nofilia in the north-west. The Divisional Cavalry acted as northern flank guard to the Armoured Brigade and, about midday, encountered the enemy rearguard in the wadis south and west of the village. Here some lively exchanges of fire were made, in one of which a B Squadron tank, suddenly meeting a German Mark III tank, got in the first vital shot and managed to knock it out. B and C Squadrons lost a carrier apiece, the troop officers, Lieutenants Ormond and Hardwick,5 being wounded in each case. The advance came to a halt when the Greys' commanding officer was killed just as his regiment was page 254 preparing to make a frontal assault on the village. Presumably it was decided then not to attack the village direct but to switch the attack further west so as to cut the road and seal off the whole enemy rearguard. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade made repeated attempts to do this but each time the enemy resistance proved too dogged, and by nightfall the enemy still held Nofilia as well as the western escape route. He managed to get away in the night with only light losses.
C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry had spent the afternoon tucked in amongst the low sandy hills south and west of the village, watching for any restlessness amongst the rearguard and searching for any possible cover under which the armoured attack might be launched. But the search was fruitless and it was obvious that a headlong attack across the flat ground would be suicidal. So at last light the squadron withdrew to join RHQ and B Squadron and form a laager about five miles west of the village. A and HQ Squadrons spent their night in laager with 6 Brigade.
The day had been rather hard on the nerves, particularly because part of it was spent facing Nofilia in anticipation of a Balaclava charge which, however, never came off. It was obvious that the enemy would be pulling out overnight. With the incident near Wadi Matratin still fresh in their minds, everybody was well keyed up for a possible similar encounter, this time in the middle of the night. This illusion was not lessened by the sound of machine-gunning to the north and the rumble of transport which could only be enemy on the move. RHQ and the two squadrons formed a tight and very careful laager and, though there was no stand-to, orders were that the crews were to remain in their vehicles and were allowed to sleep if they wished—that is to say, if they could. The uneasy night passed ever so slowly and without incident until the small hours of the morning, when the dark silence was suddenly pierced by a dreadful eerie howl, as if someone had trodden on the tail of the scrawniest cat in Kilkenny. Those who, in waking, could jump in the air, did so; those who could not, merely hit their skulls on gun-butts, steering wheels, rifle racks, ammunition cases, wireless sets, traversing handles, or any one of the thousand things that the designers of warlike machines leave protruding to catch the tenderer parts of the anatomy. For a full thirty seconds no human voice was heard, and after that there was just the one spontaneous and explosive monosyllabic oath from some unfortunate who popped his head out of a tank turret page 255 to have it hit a second time when his ear caught the butt-plate of the anti-aircraft gun. All the while the high-pitched screech continued, completely drowning by its proximity the only other voice to be raised. Colonel Sutherland who, out of consideration for his wireless operator working at the set, had curled up in the driver's seat so as to be out of the way, and had stretched out his legs in his sleep, was now roaring to all and sundry to ‘Stop That Bloody Row!’ But the row only began to die away into a mournful moan when, in an effort to get more power into his lungs, the CO drew up his knees and, in so doing, took his foot off the pedal of the traffic siren in his own tank.
Needless to say, nobody slept much after that, and in the early morning twilight, when impossible things take on impossible shapes, there were one or two rather itchy trigger fingers. As soon as it was light enough to make out features on the ground a strong tank and carrier patrol was sent back towards Nofilia. This patrol was carefully covered by 5 Brigade and by the Greys. But caution was not now needed. The enemy had made the most of his chance to escape during the night. The village was deserted, and word was sent back to bring up some sappers to start clearing the airstrips nearby.
This time it was fully expected that the enemy rearguard would make a long bound to the west. The Division was to stay near Nofilia for a week or two; but Div Cav had one small job yet to do. The Desert Air Force had, ever since Alamein, been following hard upon the heels of the Army, clamouring for forward airfields. The next known enemy one was about 30 miles west of Nofilia at a place called Sultan. The Divisional Cavalry was ordered to send one squadron to guard this, with some sappers under its command to clear the ground of mines as soon as possible, and then the main road back to Nofilia.
C Squadron was given this job and, on the 20th, taking under command a detachment of 7 Field Company, NZE, and a troop each from 5 Field Regiment and 34 Anti-Tank Battery, it went forward to form the northern end of a static patrol line manned by 4 Light Armoured Brigade. In the early afternoon next day the squadron was at Sultan and the sappers at work clearing mines. The road, particularly its verges, was heavily mined, and wherever the enemy engineers had envisaged our stopping, at a blown culvert for example, or a well, he had sown the vicinity with anti-personnel ‘S’ mines. These were a fairly new form of cussedness and, even before the squadron had got into posi- page 256 tion, it had lost one man killed, Trooper Doak.6 The ‘S’ mine was particularly hard to notice even if you were looking for it, there being only three fine metal prongs just sticking out of the earth. When these were trodden on there was a light explosion, a second or two's delay, then a small metal cylinder shot up about ten feet in the air and burst, flinging out small metal balls in every direction.
The Sultan landing ground was cleared by 23 December when A Squadron relieved C, and the troop of 25-pounders reverted to the command of its own battery.
So another Christmas had come, but this time everyone felt that he was a good step nearer home. It was a dusty, desert Christmas, but to those who had been living hard for some years, what extra they were given for the occasion was enough to make it festive. On Christmas Eve everyone was given a bottle of beer and fifty cigarettes, and on Christmas morning geese, puddings, and other good fare arrived from the Naafi. Ovens had been prepared, good big ones, made out of 44-gallon drums this time, to cook a whole squadron's meal at once; and some really splendid meals were cooked. On top of all this, and best of all, was a big mail of parcels and letters the next day.
The Divisional Cavalry was not actually concentrated in one area until 27 December, on which day A and B Squadrons were called in from patrol duty. The next fortnight can well be covered by the trite words ‘rest and refit’. The squadron fitters and the regimental LAD went to work on the vehicles; eighteen new carriers arrived; and in no time the regiment was well desert-worthy and ready for the next phase of the campaign. The regimental sports committee got together and arranged to continue competitions which had been curtailed by the move from Bardia. Squadrons got a chance to send everybody over for hot showers at the Mobile Bath Unit, and to the dentist.
For all the fortnight's rest, however, everybody had Tripoli in mind: Tripoli, the goal that had been on every tongue when the Division first crossed into Libya over a year ago; Tripoli that seemed so far away, six months later, when the Division was hurrying down from Syria to stem the enemy advance into Egypt. Any man could look about, round his own squadron and over next door, and know that everybody had Tripoli in mind. Yes: that's what they were thinking about as they tinkered with their vehicles.
1 A Squadron's call-sign at the time.