The Relief of Tobruk
CHAPTER 13 — The Capture of the Blockhouse
The Capture of the Blockhouse
FREYBERG'S immediate opponent was Major-General Boettcher of 104 Artillery Command, who commanded what was left of 155 Infantry and 361 Africa Regiments and 900 Engineer Battalion, all of them much weakened. Italian reinforcements were at hand, however, and Rommel had told Boettcher to be ready to attack Tobruk. Boettcher therefore issued a hopeful warning order on 24 November; but like many others in this fluctuating battle, he had to eat his words almost at once and issue very different orders. Panzer Group Headquarters began to get worried about the British force approaching from Gambut and gave Major-General Suemmermann, to the north of Boettcher, the dual role of opposing any further break-out by the Tobruk garrison in the northern sector and halting any westerly advance along the Via Balbia. For this Suemmermann had the rest of his own Africa Division and between the road and the sea an Italian battalion. Linking with him, Boettcher now had to face eastwards on both sides of the Trigh Capuzzo and prevent a junction between the oncoming British and the Tobruk garrison. Boettcher's revised orders started with the announcement that ‘About a division of the enemy, with tanks, is moving on Tobruk from the east.’ Therefore 361 Regiment was to take up a line from the mouth of Rugbet en-Nbeidat northwards halfway to Zaafran, and 155 Regiment was to extend this line to a point two miles north-east of Belhamed, while the engineer battalion less two companies was to occupy Belhamed itself, where Boettcher would open his headquarters.
The German troops were thus leaving the Sidi Rezegh and southern escarpments and concentrating to the north. Panzer Group Africa hoped to put Italian troops on these two vital features, but it was some time before 9 Bersaglieri Regiment of Trieste Division could get into position facing 6 Brigade. When the latter attacked in the morning, therefore, it came upon more troops of the regiment it had already met on 175, the former French Foreign Legionaries of the 361st. Elements of Pavia or Trieste were to take over the southern escarpment, but there were still Germans there late next day.page 236
Sixth Brigade was to advance on a two-battalion front before dawn on the 25th. On the right 24 Battalion was to cross the Rugbet to capture the high ground around the Blockhouse and carry on westwards for some distance along the top of the escarpment. On the left 26 Battalion was to move on parallel lines a little to the south to about as far as the Sidi Rezegh airfield, though 6 Brigade did not yet know this existed and the actual objective given was a line on the map. After dawn the operation was to be widened by sending 21 Battalion to seize the eastern end of, the southern escarpment; but the 21st were warned not to become involved in heavy fighting. The one known centre of opposition in all these objectives was the Blockhouse.
Colonel Shuttleworth of the 24th gave out his orders about midnight at a rendezvous 1000 yards east of Point 175. His objective was to ‘capture feature “BLOCKHOUSE” and advance a maximum distance of 2 miles’. D Company would be forward on the right and C on the left, with B and A Companies respectively behind them. The starting line was the existing front of the two leading companies, about 400–500 yards west of the cairn, and the starting time 4.30 a.m. The Blockhouse itself was the centre of the initial objective, which allowed a frontage for each company of something like 300 yards. Headquarters Company was to bring forward essential vehicles and gear and with the carriers was to come in behind the leading companies starting at 6.30 a.m.1 Similar provisions were made for 26 Battalion, which was to advance on foot to the airfield, starting at 4 a.m. and ‘hoping to reach the place before daybreak’.2
1 Maj S. J. Hedge (HQ Coy) and Lts E. C. Laurie and M. L. Hill, Apr 1942.
This applied only to 24 Battalion, which had by far the hardest task. The deep Rugbet was a difficult obstacle in the dark and the Blockhouse beyond was on commanding ground. There was a hope, however, that the enemy might have withdrawn from the forward area and the silent attack might then sweep up the slopes opposite and take the enemy in the Blockhouse area by surprise.
In the event the attackers had no such luck and met enemy soon after they started. This enemy was indeed taken unawares and in the Rugbet some men of 25 Battalion held prisoner in tents were released. But the firing which broke out soon gave the game away and the enemy at the Blockhouse was wide awake. Germans in the Rugbet were ‘pushed back by the use of the bayonet and by us spraying the ground in front with tommy guns and with rifles fired from the hip’ and casualties were ‘fairly slight’.2 Shuttleworth had stressed that the men should keep ‘well spread out, a difficult thing, as men tend to bunch together more closely in the dark’.3 A short burst of fire at the edge of the wadi, controlled by Shuttleworth himself, and then a quick bayonet charge carried the men through to the other side at small cost. Then heavy and well-organised machine-gun fire met them and Shuttleworth ordered Captain Tomlinson to take C Company round to the left to avoid the worst of this and Captain Jones to take D to the right, where the slopes were steeper and fixed-line fire therefore less deadly.
The reserve companies of the 24th had meanwhile met opposition, not only from pockets by-passed in the dark but from machine guns in the Blockhouse area, and one of the casualties here was Captain Brown of B Company. ‘I remember Charlie singing out “Keep going boys, they're firing over our heads” ’, says Private Bott, ‘and the next thing we know he was smacked in the ankle.’ Then B Company dropped down into the Rugbet and carried on half-right up the far slope, ignoring the food, clothing and equipment strewn everywhere and intent only on helping D Company. One Bren-gunner was hit here and a friend heard the bullets ‘smacking into’ his chest and turned to see him lying ‘with his face pale and his eyes open’. CSM Derbyshire3 was hit at the head of his men and fell face downwards and arm outstretched as if still striving in death to reach his objective, and those who followed even some time later were moved and uplifted by the eloquence of his posture and the spirit it betokened.
A Company had followed up behind C and found itself almost worse off than those ahead, coming under steady MG fire which hugged the ground in deadly fashion. The men had no choice but to lie low for some time. Later in the morning those who could see through the V-shaped mouth of the Rugbet watched 4 Brigade drive forward, halt, and send the infantry forward on foot in extended line with tanks leading and guns in support, a thrilling spectacle though somehow remote as if in a different world from that of the harassed spectators.
2 Cpls A. C. Opie and C. W. Buckeridge jointly; Buckeridge was wounded here, with ‘most of 18 Pl.’
Farther back there were other troubles as Major Hedge1 tried to get Headquarters Company forward but ran into ‘intense MG fire’ and 48 Battery drove on to unmarked and hastily-laid minefields on which four vehicles were disabled. A section of 8 Field Company quickly came up and lifted these Teller mines, some of which had not even been buried.
All this was in complete contrast to the experiences of 26 Battalion, the rifles companies of which trudged forward for four miles with C on the right and D on the left, crossing the upper part of the Rugbet where it was shallow and then traversing flat ground at such a pace that despite the cold of the night the men soon began to feel the weight of their greatcoats. Green flares rose from time to time some way off, but there was no other sign of enemy until after daybreak, when the leading companies still had some distance to go. As the horizon receded C Company came under MG fire from the right rear, near the Blockhouse, which wounded one man but was not nearly heavy or accurate enough to halt the advance. As B Company followed C, however, this fire thickened up with mortar bombs and anti-tank shot and it was evident that 24 Battalion had made much less progress than had been hoped. C and D Companies reached the edge of the airfield with ease and there started to dig in, and Colonel Page reported back accordingly to Brigade. Enemy lorries could be seen about a mile to the east, but they made no threatening moves. Page could now see that Shuttleworth needed help and he therefore halted B Company and ordered it to wheel to the north-east and deal with the enemy who were causing the trouble.
1 Lt-Col S. J. Hedge, ED; Paeroa; born Waiuku, 25 Nov 1896; chemist and optician; Wgtn Regt, 1 NZEF, 1917–19; 2 i/c 24 Bn 30 Nov 1941–15 Jan 1942; CO NZ Reception Depot Feb–May 1943; CO 1 Bn Hauraki Regt 1944–49.
Twenty-sixth Battalion had meanwhile watched enemy moving to the north and north-west and on the far side of the airfield (actually supply lorries of Africa Corps) and came under MG, mortar and artillery fire which wounded fourteen men. There was every evidence that enemy had left the airfield recently and in great haste, for their belongings were strewn among the wreckage which remained from the earlier fighting. Parties of the battalion went out to bury the dead still lying among the shattered tanks, guns, lorries and other equipment of 7 Armoured Division.
Barrowclough had meanwhile on Freyberg's orders sent 21 Battalion Group to occupy part of the southern escarpment and it set out at 9.45 a.m. for Hareifet en-Nbeidat, where at 12.45 it came under mortar fire and halted. This move took the group through part of the battlefield on which 7 Armoured Division had been defeated and to the edge of the ground on which the South Africans were overrun, and the New Zealanders, knowing nothing of these events, were astounded at what they saw. Many of the vehicles in the area were in working order and one German troop-carrying lorry and three ‘runabout cars’ were salvaged, as well as blankets to replace those lost at Bir Ghirba, two Tommy guns, two Vickers guns, three 3-inch mortars, and much ammunition. Only lack of time and carrying space limited this haul.
The companies dug in, 47 Battery began to return the enemy fire, and then a carrier patrol was sent forward. This soon came upon a dressing station guarded by seven Germans who were taken prisoner. The fifty patients included Lieutenant-Colonel Mason of 2 Regiment Botha and other wounded from 5 South African Brigade as well as a few Germans. From Mason 21 Battalion learned that part of its orders could not be carried out: ‘Supposed to contact 5 SA Bde during day’, the unit war diary states. According to Mason this brigade had been ‘surprised on previous Sunday on ground now occupied by us and almost annihilated’. Another of the instructions Lieutenant-Colonel Allen of the 21st had been given was to block all enemy movement along the strip of desert between the Sidi Rezegh and southern escarpments, and to carry this out the battalion would have to occupy a good deal of the latter. The point mentioned in this connection was another 175, nearly two miles east of Bir Bu page 243 Creimisa and roughly due south of the western end of the Sidi Rezegh ridge. But Allen was specifically forbidden to get heavily engaged with the enemy and soon found that he could not make much progress westwards without a hard fight.
New instructions from 6 Brigade put any further advance on the southern escarpment out of the question. In the afternoon of 25 November Brigade Headquarters closed up on 24 Battalion, Burton moved 25 Battalion up to the western slopes of the Rugbet en-Nbeidat, Weir sited Headquarters of 6 Field Regiment at its mouth and moved his batteries well forward, and 8 Field Company moved up to the western edge of Point 175.
Below the escarpment 4 Brigade had advanced three miles due west in box formation, with 19 Battalion on the northern flank, 44 Royal Tanks and 18 Battalion leading, and 20 Battalion on the southern side, all with instructions not to press on against heavy opposition. The whole move took little more than an hour and by 7.30 a.m. 18 Battalion was digging in on a frontage of 2000 yards level with the western end of Point 175 and 1000 yards west of the given objective. A Squadron, 44 Royal Tanks, led the way and ‘ten minutes after the kick off, the tanks had 150 prisoners and could whistle reserve transport forward to collect them before they changed their minds.’1 These enemy were taken quite unawares and no shot was fired; by one account they ‘reckoned they thought it was their own tanks approaching’.2 Enemy farther west, however, were fully alerted and 18 Battalion engaged them from the new position while 20 Battalion, nearer the escarpment, came under fire from the direction of the Blockhouse which caused Colonel Kippenberger to dispense with the troop-carrying lorries and continue the advance on foot. On the right 19 Battalion came under shellfire on Zaafran which wounded one or two men.
The advance had been carried out with ease, but opposition now hardened. The leading tanks attracted anti-tank fire from the southwest and 18 Battalion was machine-gunned persistently from the same direction. A low ridge halfway between the Blockhouse and Zaafran and pointing towards Belhamed enfiladed the front and was evidently held in some strength. C Squadron, 44 Royal Tanks, therefore pushed forward at 8.15 a.m. and cleared this ridge. When the whole tank battalion rallied half an hour later it was found that one Matilda was burnt out and seven others damaged, a serious loss which had its repercussions later.
Mortar fire also came down heavily at times on the front, and when an FOO of 4 Field Regiment went forward with two assistants to deal with this he was seriously wounded and his assistants killed. A Troop of 31 Anti-Tank Battery had gone forward in close support of the I tanks, and when these withdrew a short distance the portées carried on alone to deal with an enemy post. The gun A1 got to within 100 yards when an anti-tank gun opened fire on the portée and scored three direct hits, destroying the 2-pounder, killing the gun-sergeant, Maffey,1 and badly wounding a bombardier, Sim.2 Maffey was well known and liked and the smoke ring which rose slowly from the burning vehicle and could be seen for miles became known as ‘Maffey's Halo’. The troop commander, Lieutenant Harding,3 and the survivors of the gun crew managed to get Sim back through 500 exposed yards to a place of safety. The gun A4 was hit shortly afterwards and its sergeant wounded. At least one enemy anti-tank gun, however, was also knocked out, and when C Squadron of 44 Royal Tanks came forward a little later it finished off all the other enemy guns in the area. B Company brought in six more prisoners and later in the morning a section of carriers of 18 Battalion patrolled forward and collected another 15, as well as bringing back two wounded members of an I-tank crew.
2 Bdr G. F. Sim; Te Poi, Matamata; born Gisborne, 1911; stock agent; MP 1943-; wounded 25 Nov 1941. Sim became the first returned serviceman of the Second World War to gain a seat in the House of Representatives.
It did not take General Freyberg long in the morning of the 25th to realise that his feelings about the enemy's departure were some what premature, and he noted in his diary that ‘there was no doubt the enemy were ahead still in strength’. A quick tour of the 4 Brigade area, however, showed no cause for anxiety, though the shortage of ammunition meant a waste of the ‘splendid observation and targets’ from the FDLs of 18 and 19 Battalions. Back at Divisional Headquarters in the late morning he heard a first report of ‘strong enemy armd force supposed to be in the area of the Omars’, though this was hard to reconcile with current Tac R estimates of ‘tanks up to 100 on our front’. Panzers were reported in the area of 50 FMC and it was ‘clear we will not get any more amn’. Like his superiors Freyberg thought that ‘the Armd force going East is a last desperate effort’ and it made no difference to his plans except to encourage economy in field-gun ammunition. Gentry was ‘not at all anxious about the situation’ and Inglis ‘imperturbable’. Both were thinking in terms of a dawn attack next day coinciding with the final stage of the break-out from Tobruk to Ed Duda. A short visit by the GOC to 6 Brigade after lunch did nothing to change these plans. B Squadron of the King's Dragoon Guards was this morning placed under Freyberg's command and told to patrol south and east of Point 175 to give warning of any threat to the flank or rear of the Division, and RHQ and 257 Battery of 65 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, came under command, having been bombed on the way from the frontier. The 259th Battery had already joined the Division and the 260th was soon to follow, a most welcome reinforcement.
When Freyberg returned to his headquarters he was assured in a letter from Godwin-Austen of further support in the form of strong air attacks against the enemy facing him. The letter was warmly encouraging:
1 L-Cpl Clarke of the Sigs section.
My dear Freyberg,
I have just received your heartening message of 24 Nov. You have done splendidly—I quite realise that you cannot be definite yet as to entry into TOBRUK but am most anxious that you should join forces at first light 26 Nov if humanly possible.
SCOBIE says that the bit between his forces and ED DUDA is strongly covered by enemy artillery so that he might more profitably, from his point of view, make his main sortie through the North Eastern Sector1 which has been thinned out by the enemy. He feels that this would also cause more confusion to the enemy who would be attacked from two directions and have his communications threatened. I have told him to make the plan he thinks best but that any plan he makes MUST INCLUDE A DEFINITE FIRM AND SECURE JUNCTION WITH YOU ON THE ED DUDA POSITION. I attach a copy of my signal to him.
I have to give him FIVE hours' notice for his sortie—This means I should have SEVEN hours' notice from you if possible. Moreover owing to the uncertainty of W/T after dark it will be of great value to me if I could receive notice from you by 1600 hrs today.
I would also like to know at earliest the area in which the Air Force can safely put down for you direct air support in the form of the biggest blitz the Hun has yet seen, and times between which you would like it put down. Let me know if I can, from the Corps point of view, do anything in regard to ammunition, petrol and supply. I would make any conceivable emergency arrangement possible.
The general situation is that the enemy has flung mobile columns with tanks and lorried infantry across the area lately occupied by 30 Corps and that some have reached the 4 Ind Div area. I do not think he will do much harm and am, of course, sticking to our primary objective—linking hands with SCOBIE. But it might conceivably arise that you had to join with him and be based on TOBRUK and scrap the present L of C at any rate temporarily. 22 Armoured Bde has been placed under my command but I cannot at the moment gain touch with them. If by chance there is an L.O. or anyone from them in touch with you, please send him here. I shall use them for clearing and keeping open your L of C.
Yours very sincerely,
0945 hrs. Godwin.
The signal to Scobie cast doubt on the wisdom of a proposal to break out to the west and not along the direct route to Ed Duda though it did not forbid it. Freyberg hoped to reach Ed Duda during the night and Scobie should therefore be ready to attack from first light on the 26th and should send the agreed code-words when the time came.
1 North-westen sector was meant, as the accompanying signal indicated.
Have no intention order SCOBIE to advance on—1 ED DUDA till FREYBERG has reached that area. When that happens SCOBIE will join forces with FREYBERG at all costs. Corridor from ED DUDA and SIDI REZEGH on south and Tobruk perimeter on north will then be firmly consolidated. (Inter?)—div boundary all incl FREYBERG BELHAMED-ED DUDA. Time of attack on ED DUDA will be decided by FREYBERG but operation will NOT repeat NOT begin until FREYBERG is certain it has maximum chance of success. Zero will be signalled by FREYBERG to me by code-word fullback followed by time giving hour's notice. I will pass it on to SCOBIE. SCOBIE will co-operate by engaging enemy batteries located west of ED DUDA. Subject to its NOT rpt NOT weakening SCOBIE'S power to join forces with FREYBERG SCOBIE will create diversion [which] will be decided by SCOBIE on receipt zero for ED DUDA attack from FREYBERG. When TOBRUK - SIDI REZEGH - ED DUDA corridor firmly established advance will be made to TOBRUK - EL ADEM road under my direction. Ground recognition signals between tps of FREYBERG and SCOBIE will be a succession of green Verey lights. FREYBERG and SCOBIE will signal earliest possible most profitable targets for (air?) attack in connection these operations. Speed essential but certainty vital.
There followed a sharp and unexpected distraction. Apprehensions aroused by the constant air raids in Greece and Crete had dissolved in the course of a week of obvious RAF supremacy over the New Zealand part of the battlefield, and the decreasing depth of slit trenches reflected growing confidence on this score. When seventeen Stukas flew over about 4 p.m. they attracted few nervous glances and even the Bofors guns were slow to open fire. Some bombs fell on 4 Brigade, but Divisional Headquarters astride the Trigh Capuzzo north-east of Point 175 was the chief target and bombs burst near G Office and among several attached headquarters, and also in the centre of 1 Army Tank Brigade about half a mile to the east. The worst hit was Headquarters of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, which had four killed; the army tank brigade had two killed and two wounded and suffered damage to its ACV2, and all told there were seven killed and twenty wounded. Seven or eight vehicles were set on fire or otherwise badly damaged, and as Freyberg noted in his diary, many men decided that their ‘slit trenches were neither deep enough nor broad enough’.
1 Corrupt group as received by NZ Div.
2 Armoured Command Vehicle, then issued only to armoured formations (though Rommel and Cruewell each used one captured in the initial advance of DAK some months before).
Sixth Brigade was not bombed and had the best view of what developed into the greatest air encounter of the campaign. Two RAF fighter squadrons came upon twenty twin-engined German aircraft, either Me110s or Ju88s, at 11,000 feet and a strong force of Italian G50s and five other fighters escorting Stukas at a lower level, with a few Me109Fs as ‘top cover’ at 13,000 feet. Though heavily outnumbered the British fighters at once attacked, 3 Squadron, RAAF, going for the twin-engined aircraft and 112 Squadron, RAF, tackling the G50s and driving them into a defensive circle. Four of the twin-engined planes, two G50s and one Me109F were claimed by 258 Wing, with several others probably destroyed or damaged in return for ‘four Pilots missing’; altogether ten enemy aircraft were claimed to have been shot down, with three more ‘probables’ and eight damaged, two of those destroyed being Fieseler Storch aircraft spotting for the bombers, For 23 fighters tackling 60–80 enemy aircraft, even on the smaller estimate the action was strikingly successful and the pilots were particularly pleased to see troops on the ground give evidence of ‘wild enthusiasm’ as they watched the dogfights. Tributes later came in from ‘the New Zealand Forces’ and from Air Vice-Marshal Coningham himself. The RAF, however, was making its largest contribution to the battle by bombing the enemy in the frontier area this day, and it was a matter of luck that these two squadrons arrived on the scene when the New Zealand Division was dive-bombed.
Because the RAF was attacking the panzer forces threatening the forward landing grounds, it was quite unable to provide this day the bomber support which Godwin-Austen had promised Freyberg. Several requests by 4 Brigade for air attack on ‘excellent’ targets in the Ed Duda and Belhamed areas therefore had to be refused. A naval officer from Corps came in at 3.50 p.m., however, to discuss details of a naval bombardment planned for this night, probably on the enemy artillery just east of Tobruk.
With or without this support, Freyberg had already decided he should break through to Ed Duda by first light on 26 November and had signalled to 13 Corps at 1.15 p.m. that he expected to be on a line from there to Point 178 on the southern escarpment by that time. This meant that 21 Battalion would have to make up ground to the west to a depth of about four miles and that the rest of 6 Brigade would have to seize the whole of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment and then press on to Ed Duda, while 4 Brigade took Belhamed, where stronger resistance was expected. But this was before Godwin-Austen's order was received that though speed was essential certainty was ‘vital’.