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4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies

Saturday, 22 November

page 129

Saturday, 22 November

Sixth Brigade, its plans suddenly changed by a crisis ahead, moves off at a top speed of eight miles in the hour. The pace, no scorcher, allows for rough patches and defiles through which the Brigade's transport must pass. The speed also includes regular halts. Along with the vehicles the escorting tanks must average ten to twelve miles an hour to cover eight miles of open desert within the hour. Sixth Brigade is moving towards Sidi Rezegh, 20 miles from Tobruk, where deadly tank fighting rages.3 Our tanks, told to seek out and destroy the enemy armour, fight with dazzling bravery, but in vain; the well-trained and shrewdly used German armour gives them a terrible pasting. We lose about four hundred while the Italians lose some forty and the Germans no more than fifty. Few know of this at the time.

Sixth Brigade, travelling part of the way along Trigh Capuzzo, brushes into an enemy unit and takes twenty prisoners. The march ends at 9 p.m., transport officers making sure all vehicles under their command have arrived. If one RMT troop-carrier were lost half the fighting strength of a platoon would be missing.

Fourth Brigade tests the defences of Bardia.

At daybreak 4 RMT's headquarters, with the brigade's B Echelon, sees 4 Brigade, despite its hectic night of bog and ditch, still holding good formation except for a few stragglers. Now close to the coast and behind the northernmost fort, Bardia, the convoy halts about 7 a.m. Already battalions have moved off from the brigade on tasks to sever Bardia from the enemy forces in the west. Everyone with B Echelon is tired after 18 hours' continuous travelling over 39 miles——one of the company's toughest trips in its life. Everyone is hungry too, for the last meal was at 10.30 a.m. the previous day. An hour after B Echelon halts, a hostile plane circles its area in a thick curtain of ack-ack fire. The 4th Field Regiment's guns, a hundred yards from 4 RMT's headquarters vehicles, are soon in action supporting the infantry ahead, and before noon a hundred German prisoners are brought in. One Company page 130 Headquarters vehicle joins B Echelon transport carrying prisoners to cages already built and waiting behind the gap in the frontier wire.

With the dawn drivers of 4 RMT's operating platoons carrying the three battalions run into their first engagement of the campaign. A Section, carrying 18 Battalion and moving east to Bardia, hits a startled enemy camp at first light. The enemy, abandoning a number of vehicles, is chased towards Bardia. By 9.30 a.m. the battalion has occupied high ground above Bardia and begins patrolling the escarpment. About a dozen miles west of Bardia, near Menastir, are 19 and 20 Battalions. The 19th remains in laager on top of the escarpment over-looking the coastal road to Tobruk, and the D Section 4 RMT drivers with this battalion fill in time kicking a football about. The war does not seem very real. Already one company from 20 Battalion has gone down the escarpment on foot and has cut the coastal road a mile below. From the escarpment drivers look down on surprised and confused enemy units and trucks on the flat. Another company debusses and attacks across the flat. Some C Section drivers take D Company to rout an enemy camp of some sixty tents a mile east along the escarpment. Surprise is complete. Prisoners say they thought the British were a hundred miles away. Before noon fresh Germans, with six tanks supporting, counter-attack on the flat from the west. Fire from mortars and 25-pounders holds them. Early in the afternoon 20 Battalion's C Company, 500 yards behind infantry tanks, cuts down the escarpment on foot and wheels west to meet the counter-attack. The German tanks, outnumbered, promptly flee. A large gun mounted on a tank chassis and a number of mortars are captured, together with overrun German and Italian infantry and engineers. The only error concerns B Company, poised in RMT trucks on the escarpment for a strategic descent when needed. This company is kept from getting down to the scrimmage on the flat by fire from the over-energetic and ill-informed British tanks. C Company triumphantly continues mopping up and by dusk 20 Battalion will have collected more than 400 prisoners.

Drivers are elated and keen for more. They study captured vehicles and C Section bags two Opel Blitz trucks, Sergeants page 131 Ritchie4 and Walker taking over a truck loaded with new rifles, new boots and, alongside a body, the answer to every soldier's dream——a unit's payroll, gloriously complete. Drivers see the badge of the Afrika Korps, a palm with a swastika on the trunk. A belt——like a scout belt——has Gott mit uns on the metal clasp. Curiously, drivers examine the enemy's personal little belongings, abandoned and pitiful: his writing paper, his photos from home, his shaving outfit, his strange magazines, a handful of sweets in paper stamped with patterns of flowers. There's his uniform too, khaki or blue-green, his gourd-shaped water bottle, his queer mess kit. And somewhere a pet dog circles in bewilderment.

Fifth Brigade masks Sollum. The 21st Battalion attacks Bir Ghirba, comes under heavy fire, loses some transport and suffers heavy casualties. The attack is called off. The 23rd Battalion reaches out from Capuzzo towards Musaid, which is captured in the afternoon, and arrives at the escarpment overlooking Sollum. Many prisoners, mostly Italians, are taken and the pipeline to Sollum is cut.

3 Estimate of enemy's total strength: 110,000 men, about 380 medium tanks, 1140 field and anti-tank guns. Eighth Army: 127,000 men, about 120 light tanks, 500 cruiser tanks, 200 infantry tanks, 850 field and anti-tank guns.

4 Sgt W. Ritchie; Wellington; born Wellington, 25 Oct 1914; general carrier.