4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
Sunday, 23 November
Sunday, 23 November
Sixth Brigade wins most of Point 175, east of Sidi Rezegh, in a fierce and bloody attack and takes 350 prisoners. Fifth Brigade remains holding the Bardia-Sollum area. The Maoris capture Sollum barracks, with 160 prisoners. Fourth Brigade moves to support 6 Brigade in the march on Tobruk.
Sixth Brigade moves off at 3 a.m., with anti-tank guns and tanks guarding the flanks, drivers weary, riflemen in the rear huddled together for warmth, aware that today they will go into action. Dawn comes and the grey columns fan out in desert formation, then halt. As men start primuses or gather scrub to boil the billy, the peaceful scene rips wide open to the hammer of machine guns. Somebody has spotted an enemy group moving nonchalantly through the brigade, a ridiculous situation. Vehicles scurry like alarmed fat bugs, gunners swing 25-pounders into firing positions, Bren carriers race to cut off escape, the nearest riflemen (25 Battalion) come under fire and return it with good measure. Many 6 RMT drivers dash page 132 for their rifles, attempting to join the infantrymen, only to be ordered back to stand by their lorries. One driver, sent back because he has no bayonet for his rifle, curses his luck. Enemy armoured cars, perplexed, dart here and there; one gun knocks out five of them. Tracer bullets streak the air. And cooks continue to prepare breakfast until the enemy, scattered and confused, escapes, leaving two hundred of his men captured, together with many valuable documents. An error in navigation has run 6 Brigade into part of the headquarters of the Afrika Korps, no less.
In B Section Drivers Proud5 and Mitchinson's6 vehicle is out of action, damaged by rifle fire, and a shell, miraculously dodging the seated infantrymen, has gone clean through the tray of the truck driven by Drivers McMurtrie7 and Cleator.8 A few A Section drivers are told to carry prisoners to the rear and on the way Drivers Brian,9 Burfield-Mills,10 Borcoski,11 and Smithson12 are in turn taken prisoner.
Leaving the Bir el Chleta area, 6 Brigade continues west to Point 175, the threshold of Sidi Rezegh, where 25 Battalion, later supported by 24 Battalion, dismounts, riflemen cheerfully adjusting packs, examining weapons, and speculating on the coming attack. Before the main attack is launched Mitchinson and Proud (whose truck was knocked out in the morning) temporarily join A Company 25 Battalion to deal with trouble-some fire penetrating the assembly area. Both drivers are without bayonets and they enter the bayonet attack with determination and apprehension. They survive.
Company by company the riflemen move off from the start page 133 line in open formation. Point 175 is thought to be lightly held. The attack is mounted with haste and the infantry, who could have been carried most of the way by 6 RMT lorries, set off on a trying one-and-a half mile march under fire to reach the enemy. Drivers stand by their vehicles and watch with mixed feelings their passengers steadily advancing, steadily growing smaller and smaller until they disappear into their realm of smoke and dust, erupting explosions of mortar bombs, and the continuous spatter of machine-gun fire. The fire intensifies, the enemy directing the full weight of his weapons upon the infantry. Mostly overs land among the transport. Many drivers take cover alongside their lorries, the rocky desert preventing much digging of slit trenches. Some men heap up loose stones for cover while others protect their vehicles by filling sandbags and placing them round the radiator and bonnet. And a significant incident takes place. A 6 RMT cook, watching his sweating sergeant finishing a fine slit trench, suggests adding a wing in case of attack from another direction. Half an hour later the L plan is finished. The cook warns of possible attack from yet another angle; after another 30 minutes' excavating the Y plan is complete. At that very moment of triumph all transport is ordered to move up 100 yards. Here, in a nutshell, is the story of the Second Libyan Campaign.
Five trucks go forward to help evacuate wounded. Drivers Jones,13 Mason14 and Finlay15 take their truck well up into a wadi still partly held by the enemy. In a tense silence they pick up stretcher cases while both sides hold fire. The four other lorries are not so fortunate, and Driver Masters16 is evacuated with a wounded knee. To relieve 25 Battalion's RAP, now working at full pressure, Sergeant James Baird,17 with three lorries, runs a shuttle service to the brigade's Advanced Dressing Station.page 134
When the attack on Point 175 opens, C Section has taken 26 Battalion five miles south-west to link 6 Brigade with 5 South African Brigade soon after noon. The transport laagers in desert formation, the infantry taking up positions in front, and stray shells begin to land in the transport, a mortar blowing up Captain Brown's vehicle and wounding his driver, George Rowland.18 British tanks are seen making sudden dashes, stopping to fire, then jerking on again. Out of sight German panzers are wresting higher ground from the South Africans, whose remnants retire hastily, leaving an isolated 26 Battalion to beat off a determined attack. Pat Ward19 sees a South African, a wheel suddenly blown from his truck, shake a fist first towards the enemy then at the sky, uncertain whom to curse. Drivers Ross20 and Reid21 drive forward taking mortar men into position, then make a second trip loaded with mortar bombs. After this, and still under fire, the two help RAP men gather wounded, Reid walking ahead to guide the truck. Both are mentioned in despatches later. After dark 26 Battalion draws back to 6 Brigade, some RMT men carrying wounded, but Drivers Elliott22 and Davies,23 uncomfortably lost after a mine has destroyed their truck, wander round enemy lines for several hours before an armoured car rescues them.
Scattered as they are over a wide area, drivers have different impressions of the day's battle, the company's first introduction to warfare. The 6th RMT is but five weeks old. Drivers are not experienced. Some are unduly impressed by the tumult of battle; a few give too much heed to the flying rumours of the day; others underestimate the dangers about them. But all have done, and are prepared to do, their duty. Some go further; for instance, the driver who acquires two machine guns, mounts them in a weapon pit, and finds an anti-tank page 135 gun moving into position in front. Bitterly the driver complains to the gunner officer that his line of fire is being obstructed. Every hour has its alarms. Sudden explosions a few feet away rock Drivers Griffin24 and Hampton.25 Unknown to them an anti-tank portée——one of those gallant desert knights without armour——has ripped into position alongside their truck to blaze away at an enemy tank appearing over the escarpment. A Section drivers watch three British tanks pass by their trucks to support the attack. The tanks travel only a short distance before German anti-tank gunners knock them out. Survivors walk back through the lines and Drivers Mattson26 and Ewing27 give them cups of tea.
The approach to Sidi Barrani
An Italian gun at Tummar West
RMT graves at Sollum after the air raid of Christmas Eve
A land mine, Tobruk
Laager area near Derna
The tanks burn savagely. A heavy pall of smoke billows back over the transport lines. There's smoke from other fires, too, and dust and the thud of angry weapons, until at last the light thickens, dusk comes, then merciful night. A great silence settles over the wadis where weary, wounded, and dead men lie. Now drivers help gather more wounded from the battlefield, one man walking in front to guide the lorry around weapon pits and to make sure no wounded are run over. Many a driver is close to tears. He remembers these men two nights ago under 6 RMT's canopies singing ‘On the Ball’ and ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’. The dead lie very thick round about. In some places New Zealanders and Germans lie on top of one another.
By midnight Baird's drivers hear that Brigade ADS intends to evacuate the present spot, believing it will be a battlefield next day. When the last of the wounded and the RAP staff are taken to the dressing station, drivers rest. It's 3 a.m. There's no rest in 6 Brigade's dressing station where ‘the sight was ghastly. There appeared to be hundreds awaiting attention. Men were lying on stretchers and on the ground moaning and groaning…. I28 felt really sick in this atmosphere and wondered how these medical blokes could stand it hour after hour and day after day.’page 136
Other 6 RMT drivers moving wounded, rations, and ammunition learn that all spare drivers are to be organised into a rifle platoon for fighting, but the plan is abandoned. Instead 6 RMT Company, carrying wounded and prisoners, will leave at first light, 24 November, for 13 Corps, B Echelon area, about 15 miles to the east. Trucks move into little groups in widely separated clumps and drivers sleep at last.
The day, which began with 6 Brigade leaving for Point 175, sees 5 Brigade remaining holding the Bardia-Sollum area, where that brigade, less 21 Battalion, will stay. The 21st Battalion is brought up to join battle south-east of Tobruk. Fourth Brigade is on the move again, soon to join 6 Brigade on the march westwards. The 4th RMT's A and D Sections,29 with 18 and 19 Battalions aboard, move off, A section running into shellfire which kills Driver Maxfield30 at his seat on the Brengun defence mounting. The going is rough and ahead lies the enemy, dug in, poised for his attack on Tobruk, yet confident in his tanks and in his ability to smash the invaders. The two sections unload the infantry at Gambut aerodrome at 3 p.m., then drive back under heavy fire while the airfield falls. Wait now for the next job, see how the lorry is taking it, keep her in running order. From now on it's a fight to the finish on and around the gaunt escarpments of Sidi Rezegh and the bare, rocky slopes of Belhamed commanding the approaches to Tobruk. The dead, the wounded, and the wreckage pile up in the Division's bloodiest battle of the war.
5 Dvr L. N. Proud; New Plymouth; born NZ 26 Aug 1912; labourer.
6 Cpl M. E. Mitchinson; Palmerston North; born NZ 4 Apr 1918; grocer and storeman.
7 L-Cpl W. G. McMurtrie; Invercargill; born NZ 3 Mar 1913; truck driver.
8 Dvr J. T. Cleator; Lower Hutt; born England, 6 Oct 1909; slaughterman.
9 Dvr W. C. Brian; Christchurch; born Waiau, 10 Apr 1917; tin worker; p.w. 23 Nov 1941.
10 Sgt P. O. G. Burfield-Mills, EM and two clasps; Wellington; born Dunedin, 18 Apr 1906; traffic inspector; p.w. 23 Nov 1941; escaped 1943.
11 Dvr J. L. Borcoski; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 27 Feb 1915; carpenter; p.w. 23 Nov 1941.
12 Dvr H. H. Smithson; Wellington; born Wellington, 9 May 1915; tram conductor; p.w. 23 Nov 1941; escaped to Switzerland24 Sep 1943; repatriated 24 Sep 1944.
13 L-Cpl G. W. Jones; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 20 Dec 1912; lorry driver.
14 Cpl R. L. Mason; Wellington; born Tasmania, 5 Oct 1914; monumental and quarry worker.
15 Dvr J. D. Finlay; Tauranga; born Frankton Junction, 17 Sep 1915; bushman.
16 L-Sgt D. W. Masters; Auckland; born NZ 5 Jan 1919; motor driver; wounded 23 Nov 1941.
17 S-Sgt J. D. Baird, m.i.d.; Nelson; born NZ 10 Jun 1916; fruit and produce merchant.
18 Dvr G. A. Rowland; Christchurch; born NZ 26 Jan 1917; truck driver; wounded 23 Nov 1941.
19 L-Sgt P. F. Ward, m.i.d.; Greytown; born Greytown, 2 Jan 1907; civil servant.
20 Dvr R. A. Ross, m.i.d.; Waipukurau; born NZ 24 May 1915; lorry driver.
21 Dvr R. R. Reid, m.i.d.; Woodville; born Northern Ireland, 19 May 1907; carpenter.
22 Dvr E. Elliott; Auckland; born Auckland, 31 Aug 1919; labourer.
23 Dvr R. W. Davies; Onehunga; born Dargaville, 30 May 1921; truck driver; wounded 7 Jul 1942.
24 Dvr B. Griffin; Whakapara; born NZ 10 Apr 1918; farmhand.
25 Dvr T. R. Hampton; Ashburton; born Ashburton, 10 Feb 1919; farm labourer.
26 Cpl L. C. Mattson; Auckland; born Auckland, 16 Jul 1918; labourer.
27 L-Cpl E. B. Ewing; Oamaru; born Cromwell, 3 Oct 1912; farm labourer.
28 Maj H. G. Burton, CO 25 Bn.
29 On the way up six 4 RMT trucks carried a company of 19 Bn to an escarpment. The party tried without success to make contact with the harassing guns. Towards late afternoon a conglomeration of transport was sighted on the horizon and the RMT group, scattering, was shelled thoroughly but harmlessly. Gambut and the battalion were reached safely.
30 Dvr L. E. Maxfield; born NZ 28 Sep 1911; labourer; killed in action 23 Nov 1941.