The Relief of Tobruk
CHAPTER 25 — Plodding on Westwards
Plodding on Westwards
THE retreat from Zaafran by no means ended the New Zealand interest in crusader. More than 1000 New Zealanders remained in the Corridor (18 Battalion, half of the 19th, and many gunners), another 3500 (apart from wounded) were within Tobruk fortress, over 3200 were in 5 Brigade outside Bardia, and hundreds of patients and staff were still in the captured New Zealand MDS.
The main fighting strength was in 5 Brigade, which had spent three uneventful days after Africa Corps left the frontier area and now prepared, as the rest of the Division withdrew, for a new phase of operations. Enemy armour had departed on 27 November and on the 28th it was evident to 23 and 28 Battalions at Capuzzo and Upper Sollum that enemy activity was much reduced. With promises by W/T that 4 Indian Division would soon send urgently-needed food and ammunition, they continued to hold their two-battalion front. At Menastir, however, the enemy was more active and 22 Battalion, which was out of touch with the rest of 5 Brigade, felt itself threatened by much enemy movement which it could not oppose for lack of ammunition. There were many mouths to feed and almost no rations left, and the situation was becoming desperate when a Divisional Cavalry patrol came in and reported that 4 Indian Divisional Headquarters was at the Omars. Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew therefore decided to withdraw the whole battalion group there, get the wounded and prisoners and the many fortuitously attached troops off his hands, and obtain supplies and fresh orders.
1 Including the following:
28 Fd Bty, less E Tp
F A-Tk Tp
Half D LAA Tp
3 Sec, 7 Fd Coy
4 MG Coy
Part of Div Amn Coy and 309 Gen Transport Coy, RASC
B Echelons of Div Cav and 34 A-Tk Bty
This was as General Ritchie had stipulated, in the mistaken belief that Africa Corps was still being supplied mainly from Bardia. Ritchie commented regarding the frontier situation on 28 November that, contrary to his previous suppositions, 5 New Zealand Brigade ‘was no longer masking Bardia at all’.1 Now, when the panzer troops were miles away and one brigade was more than enough for the ‘masking’ role, he wanted Messervy to commit 5 Indian Brigade as well for this purpose. The New Zealanders were to guard one half of the Bardia perimeter and the Indians the other half.
Unexpectedly stubborn resistance to a final attack on the enemy pocket in the western part of Libyan Omar on 30 November delayed this redeployment, as one of the battalions involved, 3/1 Punjab, was from 5 Indian Brigade. The Punjabis suffered 105 casualties in the course of bitter fighting in which all but one stubborn centre of resistance fell by the end of the day and 170 prisoners were taken. The remainder of the enemy, some 80–100 men, slipped away in the night and were rounded up by armoured cars next day. The hard core of Germans, 12 Oasis Company, had kept the main strength of 7 Indian Brigade occupied for three days after Africa Corps left the area, serving Rommel well.
On 1 and 2 December 5 New Zealand Brigade2 was relieved by the Indians in its positions from Capuzzo to Upper Sollum and took up new stations covering the Via Balbia west of Bardia, with 23 Battalion nearest to the fortress, 22 Battalion in its former positions at Menastir, and 28 Battalion farther west. Divisional Cavalry patrolled westwards. The main object was to stop supplies from Bardia reaching Africa Corps and for this purpose 23 Battalion was to the forefront, backed by the 22nd and with the Maoris in reserve to the west. Since the boot was on the other foot, however, and the enemy's wish was to send supplies to and not from Bardia, the significance of these dispositions was in practice reversed. Colonel Andrew was also expected to make up mobile columns with cavalry, guns and infantry to operate energetically along the Via Balbia, in conjunction with similar columns from 5 Indian Brigade centred on the Trigh Capuzzo to the south, to disrupt the enemy's communications and supplies.
1 Eighth Army Report.
2 With a small HQ in which the main appointments were:
|Bde Comd||Lt-Col L. W. Andrew, VC|
|BM||Capt J. L. MacDuff (22 Bn)|
|Staff Capt||A/Capt F. Vernon (23 Bn)|
|IO||Lt E. A. McPhail (23 Bn)|
Maj A. W. Greville took command of 22 Bn. A brigade signals section was hastily improvised from the various elements of Div Sigs at the Wire on 2 Dec and sent to replace losses in 5 Bde.
The heavy losses, particularly in I tanks, which had been incurred in attacking the Omars, had made further efforts to reduce the frontier strongpoints out of the question for some time and it became apparent to Eighth Army and Middle East Command that it was extravagant to retain mobile troops there in a static role guarding non-mobile enemy. Thus it was decided to send forward 2 South African Division, which was neither equipped nor trained for mobile operations, to relieve the Indians and New Zealanders in the frontier area so that, when their deficiencies of transport were made up, they could take part in the main battle.1 Already 11 Indian Brigade had been released from the coast sector and was assembled south of the Omars in Army Reserve. The 5th Indian and 5th New Zealand Brigades would follow in due course, and later 7 Indian Brigade (which had suffered much loss at the Omars).
Defence of the rear areas, the RAF landing grounds, and the FMCs absorbed many trained troops, including 22 Guards Brigade, and Middle East Command also prepared other formations to take over these tasks, the newly-formed 38 Indian Brigade and 150 Brigade (of 50 Division from Cyprus) among them. The already numerous reconnaissance troops of Eighth Army, moreover, were to be augmented by the Royal Dragoons from Syria and 12 Royal Lancers (from the newly-arrived 1 Armoured Division). The farreaching administrative work which made these troops available was as important to the outcome of the campaign as the actual conduct of the fighting, and in the end it was the possession of these reserves which turned the scales in Eighth Army's favour. Looking ahead, Ritchie hoped to free 22 Guards Brigade for an action in the Benghazi area like that at Beda Fomm a year earlier; but Rommel's troops were to offer no such opportunity as General Graziani's army had offered.
2 Eighth Army Report.
3 UK Narrative, Chap. G, Phase 3, ‘The Relief of Tobruk’, 1–10 Dec 1941 (hereinafter ‘UK Narrative 3’).
Ritchie thought that the panzers might be persuaded to sally forth without these guns—an eventuality of the kind rudely remarked on in Shaw's Pygmalion—and he proposed to draw them out by changing the Schwerpunkt of his attack from Sidi Rezegh to El Adem, perhaps by launching ‘a night approach and assault’ by 11 Indian Brigade to occupy this area. What the New Zealand Division with two regiments of I tanks, three field regiments, and two infantry brigades had failed to achieve was now to be attempted a few miles farther west by one brigade with one squadron of Valentines and other hastily assembled supporting arms, a risky enterprise in which the Indian brigade would need all possible help from the British armour.
Leaving his fresh instructions and a letter for General Norrie, Ritchie flew back to Army Headquarters, where he met General Auchinleck, who, sensing a crisis, had flown up from Cairo. Auchinleck was pleased to find that Ritchie took a cheerful view and they agreed that ‘the enemy was hard pressed and would be defeated if we continued to give him no rest’.1 Vigorous use of armoured-car units and other light mobile forces was therefore encouraged to harass the enemy's rear; but the British armoured cars were too lightly armed and armoured to achieve much and field or anti-tank guns could only be despatched with them at the expense of the main forces, which still had to win their battle. One such raid was made this day, 1 December, by 4 South African Armoured Car Regiment, and in his report Ritchie describes this as ‘most successful’; but it was in fact a costly failure. Colonel Newton-King's squadrons, forced to turn back under heavy air attack long before they reached their objectives in the Acroma, Gazala and Tmimi areas, suffered heavy casualties and returned on 2 December minus several armoured cars and many other vehicles.2 Ritchie recommended further raids in these areas in an order timed 9.35 p.m. on the 1st and reaffirmed the Jock Column policy for the Support Group, with the enthusiastic approval of Auchinleck.3 These columns were to harass ‘all enemy movement’ and ‘prevent enemy armour operating in the general area South of the Escarpments’, the latter a task quite beyond the strength of such forces.
1 Auchinleck's despatch.
2 See Agar-Hamilton and Turner, pp. 433–6. Ritchie could not have had access to South African sources.
3 See Connell, p. 393, for a most revealing statement of Auchinleck's views.
From all this it emerges clearly that the continued policy of Eighth Army, even with the firm hand of Auchinleck behind it, was to disperse its efforts and break up its divisions into brigade groups, and even battalion groups, operating independently and offering Africa Corps repeated opportunities to defeat them in detail as it had been doing for the past fortnight. If General Rommel concentrated his shrinking resources and timed his blows well he could continue to deal with Eighth Army a brigade or a battalion at a time and it was important not to give him the chance. The essential tactical situation remained so obscure to those on the British side who were concerned with the higher conduct of the battle, however, that they acquiesced in a move—to give up what was left of the Tobruk Corridor—which would swiftly have yielded victory to Rommel and ended the crusader offensive. It took the initiative of an English battalion commander viewing with a calm eye his local scene to halt this irrevocable step. For an hour or two the fate of crusader trembled on the balance; then it settled evenly and the issue remained open for a day or two longer. The next time the balance trembled, it was towards the other side.
To Rommel it seemed that with the departure of the New Zealand remnants from Zaafran he had won his second victory of the campaign and the relief of Tobruk, which had come perilously close to being accomplished, now seemed as far off as ever. It was Rommel's turn to be relieved and it made him a trifle light-headed. On the surface this victory had been gained by the unified efforts under Cruewell's command of both panzer divisions, Ariete, Mickl Group (formerly Boettcher Group), and 90 Light Division, with some support from other Italian formations and the Army Artillery (and relentless pressure from Rommel). After his headquarters was overrun by 6 Brigade on 23 November, however, Cruewell had too few resources to conduct operations on this scale effectively and the success was actually gained largely by 15 Panzer.
This magnificent fighting machine was now threatening to break down and 21 Panzer and 90 Light both needed a complete overhaul. Thus Rommel would have to make more use than hitherto of his Italian troops. Of these only Ariete and Trieste were mobile, and the former therefore reverted to the command of 20 Italian Mobile Corps so as to constitute once more a force independent of Africa Corps for mobile operations.
Rommel's insistent worries about the supply of the frontier garrisons, which had already clouded his judgment and led him into a chapter of errors, prompted him even before Belhamed fell page 471 on 1 December to order 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions to prepare strong columns to travel along the Via Balbia and Trigh Capuzzo at the earliest possible moment. As part of the same programme he ordered General Gambara to advance eastwards with Ariete and Trieste to the Sollum front, there to fight another battle of encirclement and annihilation. As the Belhamed battle lagged behind schedule he grew more and more impatient to get it finished and start this next phase.
This would not leave him much strength on the Tobruk front, where the Italian formations were stretched taut by the greatly enlarged perimeter and threatened to snap under the strain with calamitous consequences. What was supposed to be a joint effort by Trento and 90 Light in the morning of 1 December to break right through the Corridor from opposite sides had turned out to be ineffective on the German side, and on the Italian side came to nothing at all. To forestall a rupture of the siege front Rommel knew he had to force the garrison back from Ed Duda to the original perimeter; and this, too, he felt could not wait and would have to be done at once.
A third urgent task was to withdraw and overhaul practically all the tanks of Africa Corps, which he ordered to be done as soon as Zaafran was captured early on 2 December. Without these tanks neither of the other two projects had even a remote chance of success, and his insistence on attempting all three at once was an indication that his grip of the situation as a whole was again slipping. His worries about the frontier garrisons were exaggerated, and Cruewell in any case pointed out that the proposed columns from the panzer divisions would be not nearly strong enough; but Rommel had made up his mind and there was no arguing with him.
Meanwhile 70 Division faced another crisis. General Scobie had been much concerned at the deterioration of the situation on 30 November which threatened to leave him holding a 17-mile-long appendix to his original perimeter against the full weight of Panzer Group Africa with little or no help from 30 Corps or the remnants of the New Zealand Division. His fruitless effort to open up the north-eastern shoulder of the Corridor, unluckily directed at stubborn strongpoints of 90 Light, had indicated that the enemy siege troops were not as near to collapse as he had thought. In the circumstances it was easy to forget that the defences of Ed Duda had been greatly strengthened, so that few anti-tank guns remained guarding any other part of the perimeter, and the garrison artillery could now give that key position far better cover than before. A renewal of page 472 an attack which had failed when Ed Duda was much weaker was accordingly less to be feared. But the responsibility of defending Tobruk was a heavy one and Scobie and Godwin-Austen decided that the Corridor might have to be given up if the New Zealand Division failed to hold its ground. Prospects of a successful New Zealand defence against the panzer counter-attacks faded in the night 30 November/1 December and 13 Corps expected Freyberg to withdraw, as he had been authorised to do. Godwin-Austen therefore signalled to Eighth Army at 7.55 a.m. on 1 December as follows:
1st South African Bde failed to reach Pt 175 and corridor defences may be threatened. Consider it may be necessary to withdraw to original perimeter. Estimate ‘I’ tanks number 20. Further offensive action 70th Div would dangerously weaken garrison. Request staff officer be sent to decide.
Godwin-Austen and Scobie certainly did not realise that in giving up this vital ground and allowing the enemy once again to use the By-pass road and the Trigh Capuzzo at the Ed Duda bottleneck they would in effect be bringing the crusader offensive to an end. Nor, when they considered this signal in the evening, did this point strike Ritchie and Auchinleck. But it was obvious that if Ed Duda were given up Ritchie's difficulties would increase, and Eighth Army replied to 13 Corps at 7.55 p.m. (twelve hours later) as follows:
To continue to hold Ed Duda appendix will materially assist future ops for relief of TOBRUK which are being planned now. You are however sole judge of whether any such positions are too exposed to offer reasonable likelihood of successful and prolonged resistance for at least a week and you may therefore adjust the defence of the appendix as you consider necessary even so far as to withdraw to the original perimeter.
Long before this reached 13 Corps plans had been outlined to withdraw from Ed Duda, and it was not until word of this reached the ears of Lieutenant-Colonel Nichols of 1 Essex that the scheme met with its just desserts. The acting second-in-command of the battalion, Major J. F. Higson, received a message from 70 Division ‘to the effect that it was considered that Ed Duda would shortly become untenable and that we were to make plans for withdrawal back within the Tobruk defences.’ Higson told Nichols, who at once replied:
Take a message—
Ed Duda growing stronger every hour, feel confident we can resist attack from any quarter. Strongly deplore any suggestion of withdrawal.
Scobie therefore gave up all thought of yielding Ed Duda and replied: ‘Greatly admire your spirit’, and Higson concludes that ‘whether the main forces would have ever linked up with Tobruk page 473 had the Germans been in force on Ed Duda is very problematical.’1 How little need there really was to withdraw at this time may be inferred from the diary of Dudaforce of 19 Battalion, which has the following entry for 1 December:
The day proved uneventful apart from shelling and our troops took the opportunity of improving and consolidating their positions. In the evening they laid mines and put wire outside their defences.
Thus Ed Duda was not given up; but shellfire on this feature was heavy and remained so for two or three days. On the saddle between there and Belhamed 18 New Zealand Battalion repulsed a light and poorly-staged attack (by Kolbeck Battalion, an ad hoc unit of 90 Light) after dark on 1 December and helped to defeat a much heavier attack next morning. This came mainly against 1 Bedfords and Herts to the left rear, and this unit drove the enemy northwards in considerable disorder. In the course of this fighting it became apparent that the morale of General Suemmermann's troops had deteriorated and their offensive potential was now negligible. Kolbeck Battalion suffered crippling loss in men and equipment, and 605 Anti-Tank Battalion, 900 Engineer Battalion, and III Battalion of 347 Infantry Regiment met with some loss, particularly in anti-tank weapons. To 18 Battalion, on the other hand, the action was salutary; it cost only seven casualties against many times that number of Germans killed, wounded or captured and helped to restore any confidence that had been shaken by the fighting on Belhamed. In the afternoon another attack seemed likely from the east and Colonel Peart hastened to strengthen his anti-tank defences. He was allotted two anti-tank guns manned by Poles, five I tanks came from Ed Duda, and 1 RHA arranged a defensive fire plan. But no attack took place and the night 2–3 December was quiet. Eighteenth Battalion remained, like 1 Bedfords and Herts, under the command of 14 Infantry Brigade, and to Peart's right rear the nearest troops were elements of 2/13 Australian Battalion, then Dudaforce of 19 Battalion and 1 Essex and more Australians, supported by 4 Royal Tanks.
1 Quoted by Martin, pp. 88–9. Rommel would doubtless have concurred. Higson gives the date as 29 Nov but it must have been 1 Dec. Nichols's immediate superior, Lt-Col O'Carroll of 4 R Tks, warmly supported him.
Most of the New Zealand administrative troops in the fortress, however, were not really needed there. When Ritchie's new plan to relieve Tobruk became known and it was learned that the rest of the New Zealand Division (other than 5 Brigade) had returned to Baggush, it was therefore decided that all but the fighting troops would be evacuated as soon as possible, preferably by land. If by sea, then the transport would have to be left behind, a most unwelcome prospect. The New Zealand field battery was particularly needed to support a further sortie planned to help a 30 Corps thrust towards El Adem and Snadden began to train his men for this. Once again, however, the enemy moved first.
As early as 8.30 a.m. on 1 December Rommel called at Cruewell's headquarters, pointed out that the British were ‘trying to starve out the Sollum front, which has food for only 2 days’, and added that to relieve this front ‘it is absolutely necessary to make a push, at least with a strong advance guard.’ This is according to the Africa Corps diary, and the orderly officer completed the record of Rommel's remarks as follows:
Otherwise the enemy will bring up every negro from South Africa and clean up our people. Trieste will push along the escarpment to join Ariete and hammer the enemy attacking from the east. Africa Corps must then push forward in the north towards Halfaya, probably on 2 Dec.
At 5.40 p.m. Rommel added a few further details. After emptying the Kessel Cruewell was to
Take food to Bardia. Keep close touch with Gambara Corps. 90 Lt Div under [Africa] Corps command. 33 Recce Unit still under Pz Gp command, but would probably move ahead of Gambara Corps next day. At least a division of Gambara Corps would advance south of the Trigh Capuzzo. Objective Sidi Omar, to bottle up the enemy.…
This was the mixture very much as before except that Gambara Corps was to take the route followed on 24 November by Africa Corps, which would now travel by way of the Trigh Capuzzo and the Via Balbia. But this time Rommel did not lead the way himself, which was just as well for him.
1 Maj J. A. Bretherton, ED; Christchurch; born Wellington, 2 Jun 1911; barrister and solicitor; CO 15 Comp AA Regt, RNZA, 1948–55 (Lt-Col).
The advance guard along the Via Balbia was to be provided by 15 Panzer and that along the Trigh Capuzzo by 21 Panzer. The troops selected by Neumann-Silkow were Headquarters of 200 Regiment, 15 Motor Cycle Battalion, a company and a half of anti-tank guns, and a troop and a half of 33 Artillery Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Geissler of 200 Regiment—hence the title Geissler Advance Guard. Knabe Advance Guard was similarly constituted under Lieutenant-Colonel Knabe with II Battalion of 104 Infantry Regiment, an anti-tank company, artillery, and three tanks, to push eastwards along the Trigh Capuzzo.
Geissler returned to his headquarters in the early afternoon of 2 December with orders to ‘push forward along the Via Balbia to Bardia and Sollum and contact Bach Bn [I Battalion, 104 Infantry Regiment] at Halfaya.’ His force set out at 3.30 p.m. and spent the night with Briel Group at Gambut, while Knabe halted on the Trigh Capuzzo. Both set out eastwards early next morning and soon found out that the western and south-western approaches to Bardia were now guarded far more securely than when Africa Corps had visited the area five days before.
Divisional Cavalry and 5 New Zealand Brigade were stationed on the Via Balbia, patrolling westwards between the road and the sea, and at Point 208, three miles south-east of Sidi Azeiz, Goldforce was assembling under Lieutenant-Colonel Goulder of 31 Field Regiment, RA. Goulder had the Central India Horse (similar in composition to Divisional Cavalry), his own regiment, an anti-tank battery, and a detachment of engineers. His task was to patrol up to and along the top of the lofty escarpment overlooking the Via Balbia and westwards along the Trigh Capuzzo. In cold weather with frequent showers of rain these troops settled quickly into their new roles and many patrols fanned out from 5 Brigade across the broken country to the north, which yielded a number of prisoners and much equipment and evidently still harboured many enemy service troops. South of the Via Balbia, however, there was at first little doing. A Goldforce patrol met one from 11 Hussars at Bir el-Hariga on 2 December and Divisional Cavalry found no enemy as far west as Bir el Baheira. Later in the day air reconnaissance gave warning that the enemy was reconnoitring eastwards towards Gambut and a German patrol clashed briefly at dusk with elements of 5 Brigade.
Next morning A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, and A Company of 28 Battalion on their way to Bir el Baheira caught sight of an enemy force with artillery and about a hundred vehicles. The patrol hastily withdrew to 5 Brigade Headquarters at Bir ez-Zemla and gave the alarm, all other patrols were recalled, the defences were page 476 manned, and the Cavalry withdrew to a position on the escarpment. CIH had already reported to Goldforce Headquarters that 8–12 tanks and 300 other vehicles were advancing along the Trigh Capuzzo and Goldforce patrols withdrew to Sidi Azeiz, where 31 Field Regiment went into action.
Geissler Advance Guard came on cautiously and halted two miles west of 28 (Maori) Battalion, infantry dismounted and seemed to be preparing to attack, and the Maoris waited tensely for the next development. D Company (less one platoon patrolling to the north) was astride the Via Balbia facing west, A was to the north facing the same way, C was to the right rear of A looking northwards and B faced east and south. The all-round defences included a troop each of 28 Field Battery and 32 Anti-Tank Battery, a section of 42 LAA page 477 Battery, and an MG platoon. On higher ground to the rear 22 Battalion, with a troop of field guns and two MG platoons but no anti-tank guns, also watched closely and counted 200 vehicles in the approaching force.
A few shells landed on the escarpment near the Maoris at 11.30 a.m. and the 25-pounders replied, then at midday the areas of A Company and Battalion Headquarters came under heavy MG fire. There was a scurry in the rear when 22 Battalion called all its vehicles down from the higher ground to gain shelter from the shellfire; but D Company of 28 Battalion kept out of sight and with admirable discipline held its fire until enemy vehicles were well past the FDLs and the nearest of them were no more than 60 yards from Maori Bren guns. The enemy had their eyes glued on the escarpment, expecting trouble from there and not from the seemingly empty desert around them. It was a situation of a kind the Maoris delighted in, and they kept the enemy in entire ignorance of their proximity until the commander of the section astride the road gave the order to open fire about 1 p.m. The first rounds were followed in an instant by murderous fire from every weapon within reach, including the Bofors guns. At short range this caused very heavy casualties, the front was soon strewn with blazing vehicles, and Geissler Advance Guard reeled back.
The enemy then split into two groups and bravely resumed the advance, two or three companies attacking D Company frontally and the others trying to work round the right flank, with support from guns and mortars. But the Maori position was far too strong. D Company and the artillery had no trouble holding the attack. Within an hour the enemy facing D Company were in full retreat, leaving behind many killed and wounded as well as unwounded prisoners, and abandoning most of their vehicles and even personal weapons.
A Company of the Maoris had a harder task, as the ground in front was undulating and there were many covered avenues of approach. The enemy there refused to be easily dislodged and kept the Maoris under continual MG and mortar fire which remained troublesome throughout the afternoon. During a lull the battalion commander, Captain Love, therefore consulted with his company commanders and decided on a counter-attack to clear this front before dark. Only one section of A Company was committed to this and attacked northwards at 5 p.m. from the area of D Company, the carriers of B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, and the Maori Battalion co-operated closely, the field guns fired smoke shells to blind the enemy, and the anti-tank guns and MGs fired heavily in support. With this valuable help the section of Maoris cleared the page 478 disputed ground at the point of the bayonet and the carriers closed in to round up many of the fleeing enemy (the remnants of 1 Company of 15 Motor Cycle Battalion which did not receive Geissler's order to withdraw).
Geissler Advance Guard thus suffered a heavy defeat and its leading elements were almost annihilated at a cost to the defence of two killed and nine wounded. Enemy losses were estimated at Brigade Headquarters to be 239 killed, 129 wounded and 100 prisoners, a veritable massacre. Even in Geissler's report the German losses are listed as 8 wounded and 231 missing, a high proportion of the total force. The remnants of 15 Motor Cycle Battalion were formed into a headquarters and one company and took up positions at Gambut facing eastwards to guard against further pursuit.
Knabe Advance Guard to the south fared slightly better, partly because it had tank support. Goldforce had no infantry and could not therefore set an ambush on the Maori pattern, nor did the open ground encourage this. The action was therefore fought at longer range, chiefly by the field guns, with anti-tank support when the enemy came close enough. At least one tank was knocked out and the enemy drew back at dusk.
In the evening of 2 December Cruewell had recommended to Rommel that the area south-east of Tobruk should be cleared first and pointedly warned him against repeating ‘the error of giving up … a battlefield on which Africa Corps has won a victory and of undertaking operations some distance away instead of destroying the enemy utterly.’ If the frontier operations were absolutely essential, he considered they should be undertaken not with detached forces but with all of Africa Corps except the tanks, which all needed overhaul. His prediction about the advance guards was to be fulfilled in dramatic and costly fashion; but Rommel insisted on trying again to relieve the frontier forts, not with the whole of Africa Corps but with 15 Panzer (less 8 Panzer Regiment) plus the Italian Mobile Corps. Neumann-Silkow was not pleased with his task, the fate of Geissler's and Knabe's forces was ominous in the extreme, and a full-scale repetition of Rommel's ‘evil dream’ was out of the question. Ariete nevertheless carried on eastwards and eventually reached Gasr el Arid, while Trieste halted at Bir el Chelta.
These moves caused a reaction in Eighth Army Headquarters exactly opposite to the reaction to Rommel's dash to the frontier on 24 November. Instead of ‘writing off’ this new threat as a last desperate fling, Army was alarmed and at 11 a.m. on 4 December ordered 30 Corps to withdraw 4 Armoured Brigade. Then an even page 479 more drastic step was contemplated at 2.30 a.m. on the 5th when 30 Corps was instructed that, because of the enemy movements towards Bardia, the relief of Tobruk would now have to take second place to the reduction of the frontier strongpoints. It was vital, Army thought, to stop the enemy ‘refuelling from Bardia and operating in our rear’. Thus Rommel's purpose was misunderstood, the strength of his current move towards the frontier over-estimated, and the belief that Bardia was a major source of supply for Africa Corps lingered on. This change of policy threatened grave danger to 11 Indian Brigade, which was then attacking north-west of Bir el-Gubi, and also to the troops defending the Tobruk appendix. But General Norrie took a calmer view and was reluctant to leave the Indian brigade in the lurch by withdrawing his armour eastwards. Geissler's defeat was overwhelming, news of it helped to reassure Army Headquarters, and anxieties about Bardia gradually diminished. For some hours, nevertheless, there was a danger that the operations of 30 Corps would become seriously unbalanced.page 480
The 11th Indian Brigade had halted south-east of El Esem on the Trigh el-Abd to await the arrival of supporting arms. Duly reinforced with a makeshift squadron of sixteen Valentines, a battery each of field and anti-tank guns, and two troops of Bofors, and followed by 7 Medium Regiment, RA, this brigade moved off at 10 p.m. on the 3rd and after a long and difficult approach march attacked an enemy position north-west of Bir el-Gubi at 7.10 a.m. on the 4th. This was meant as a preliminary to the attack on El Adem and not much opposition was expected. There were only two outposts to overcome and a battalion was committed against each. The nearer, Point 174, four miles north-west of El Gubi, was thought to be the weaker and only three Valentines supported 2 Camerons there. Thirteen I tanks helped 2/5 Mahratta to seize the other, Point 182, with ease, and the Indians gained 250 prisoners and much war material. Point 174 proved much stronger, however, and its garrison of Young Fascists held out against repeated attacks by both battalions and caused them heavy losses.
It was at the height of this fighting that Ritchie asked Norrie to send 4 Armoured Brigade 50 miles eastwards to deal with the enemy advances along the Via Balbia and Trigh Capuzzo (after these had been abandoned!) and Norrie objected strongly. Later in the day, however, when Eighth Army continued to press the point, he ordered Gott to move the armour 20 miles eastwards. Even this gesture, however, weakened his position greatly and put the tanks too far away to protect 11 Indian Brigade at El Gubi if a panzer threat developed.
No such threat then seemed likely; but in fact Rommel had once again concentrated to strike at the vital point. After renewed but unsuccessful attacks by 11 Indian Brigade on Point 174 on 5 December, Africa Corps suddenly intervened just before dusk. With 15 Panzer (43 tanks) on the right and 21 Panzer (six tanks) on the left, the Corps flooded irresistibly through two companies of 2/5 Mahratta and linked up with the Young Fascists at Point 174. For a few minutes there was chaos, and had Africa Corps held its ground it could have created more havoc next morning in 30 Corps. But Cruewell took it into his head that his force was somehow threatened and he withdrew westwards. He had less to fear than he thought; for 4 Armoured Brigade, now with 136 tanks, was 20 miles away at Bir Berraneb. The panzer stroke, however, was enough to put the Indian brigade out of the battle. Arrangements were then made for 22 Guards Brigade to relieve the remnants of 11 Indian Brigade (which was held in reserve for a day or two and then withdrawn on 11 December to refit). It was the sixth brigade of Eighth Army to meet this fate,1 and there was now a grave danger that the Guards brigade would become the seventh.
1 The first was 7 Armd, then came 5 SA Bde, 22 Armd, and 4 and 6 NZ Bdes.
Meanwhile another unsuccessful attack was mounted on Ed Duda, concurrently with the attempts by Knabe and Geissler to get through to Bardia. Orders for this were given to 90 Light early on 3 December; but General Suemmermann's troops were incapable of any such effort. The rout of Kolbeck Battalion (by 1 Bedfords and Herts and 18 Battalion) early on the 2nd indicated a low level of spirits, and even a message from Rommel himself on the 3rd that the ‘fighting in North Africa has been decided in the meantime’,1 though it caused ‘great rejoicing’, failed to restore the morale of the troops. In the end Africa Corps perceived this and agreed that all 90 Light could do was to provide artillery support. An attack by other troops was therefore planned for the morning of the 4th.
1 Diary of 90 Lt Div. The message was issued by Rommel on 2 Dec and proclaimed a great victory, though the troops were exhorted to maintain their efforts ‘until the enemy is trampled into the dust.’
The defences were now manned by 14 Infantry Brigade with 1 Essex (two companies plus A and B Companies of 19 Battalion) at Ed Duda, 4 Border to the north-east (in place of 2/13 Australian Battalion), and 18 New Zealand Battalion on the saddle west of Belhamed, while 4 Royal Tanks (twenty-odd I tanks) and three field regiments were in support. One Essex company, with excellent support from the I tanks, repulsed Mickl Group with ease, and then the other Essex company dealt with the German sappers attacking from the south. A quick thrust by 8 MG Battalion reached the By-pass road where this lay outside the defences between 18 Battalion and 4 Border, and the latter counter-attacked vigorously with tank support, gaining 1000 yards of ground but failing to dislodge some German posts. The ‘88s’, firing at long range, picked off the I tanks one after the other and by the end of the afternoon disabled fifteen of them. This loss was more than counter-balanced, however, by a sudden raid on the rear of the enemy at Bir Bu Creimisa and Sidi Rezegh by Currie Column, which seized several anti-tank guns and a number of prisoners and used its 25-pounders most effectively, causing much alarm.
Dudaforce of 19 Battalion was heavily shelled, but not otherwise engaged, and the southern flank of 18 Battalion was mortared intensely, fourteen men being wounded. Then two enemy tanks tried to drive across the German minefield which covered the front of 18 Battalion and one of them struck a mine. Anti-tank fire destroyed this tank and the other one withdrew. When 4 Border failed in a final counter-attack and some of them withdrew through the lines of 18 Battalion, Colonel Peart was asked to mount a similar attack. This was first deferred until after dark and then cancelled. Patrols brought in many prisoners and the two troublesome ‘88s’ were captured.
Because the troops at Ed Duda beat off these attacks without help, the plans 70 Division was making for a thrust towards El Adem in support of 30 Corps were undisturbed, and this thrust was now expected to take place on 6 December. Once again, however, the battle outpaced the planners and changed its complexion, like the desert chameleon, with bewildering ease. When Rommel realised about midday on 4 December that the Ed Duda attack would not succeed, he decided to withdraw from the eastern half of the Tobruk perimeter, thereby forestalling most of the page 483 El Adem project. Attempts to reach Bardia had failed, the Axis troops at Tobruk could not maintain the siege on their extended front much longer, and it was now urgently necessary from Rommel's viewpoint to concentrate against 30 Corps in the El Gubi area. Africa Corps therefore assembled its scattered elements and was able to make its sudden reappearance on the 5th against 11 Indian Brigade. Gambara Corps had been recalled; but Trieste and Ariete were slowed down by the Jock Columns as they withdrew. For the time being at least the frontier line would have to be abandoned and Rommel was unhappily aware that his garrisons there had rations to last only until the 6th. On the 2nd he had signalled a victory (to Rome and Berlin as well as to his own troops); on the 4th he conceded something very close to defeat.
Africa Corps, after disentangling itself in the morning of the 6th from various elements of 30 Corps, was nevertheless well placed to strike again heavily and perhaps decisively; the British armour was still marking time and 22 Guards Brigade and the remnants of 11 Indian Brigade were open to panzer attack. The Italian Mobile Corps was also coming back into the picture. But Cruewell hesitated and struck too late. Another inconclusive mêlée ensued after dark near Bir el-Gubi. Next day the British armour arrived on the scene and Cruewell's opportunity was lost.
On the 6th 15 Panzer lost its GOC, Major-General Neumann-Silkow, who was mortally wounded by a shellburst in the late afternoon as he was just about to attack. Major Kriebel, a General Staff officer, assumed command capably enough; but Neumann-Silkow had fought skilfully and at times brilliantly and Rommel and Cruewell owed much to him.
A few miles to the east another event occurred on 6 December which had little influence on the battle as a whole but was highly gratifying to the New Zealanders and others who were in the captured New Zealand MDS near Point 175. This day Wilson Column edged forward gingerly, not wanting to start a fight and perhaps harm the patients, and occupied the MDS without opposition, bringing to an end a nine-day ordeal for patients and staff. The Italian guards had flown. The walking wounded were soon despatched southwards to waiting lorries and the more serious cases were evacuated by ambulance car later in the day. More than sixty patients and staff had already escaped, including Colonels Dittmer and Kippenberger, and many hundreds of others had been taken by the Italians to Derna and Benghazi, including 14 officers (the COs of 4, 5 and 6 Field Ambulances among them) and 182 other ranks of the New Zealand medical staff. Others had died from their existing wounds, or from further wounds received in the MDS, page 484 or from the privations imposed by captivity. An acute shortage of water caused many patients to die from that alone, not from thirst but from the gradual ‘dehydration’ of their tissues, and the conditions in the operating theatre without adequate water supplies were appalling. Other patients were much affected by the cold at night, there being no kerosene for the heaters in the marquees. By 6 December there were only 30 gallons of water left and very little food for the 860 patients and staff remaining. Wilson Column was thus most welcome and none of the patients and staff were sorry to see the last of ‘Whistling Wadi’.1
Rommel had been warned on 5 December by a special emissary from Comando Supremo that no marked improvement could be expected in the transport of supplies and reinforcements to North Africa until Luft flotte 2 began operating from Sicily at the end of December. His situation stood in sharp contrast to that of his enemies, therefore, and he could see for himself that fresh British forces were being committed in the south. On the 7th he concluded that if Panzer Group could not achieve a major success at El Gubi that day it would have to withdraw to Gazala and abandon the Tobruk front. The heavy artillery had already left that front, 90 Light and most of its Italian neighbours had moved back behind El Adem, and the mere suggestion of withdrawal at Africa Corps Headquarters at such a difficult time was enough to bring it about. Cruewell was only human and he was now faced with the imposing mass of 4 Armoured Brigade, which this day clashed with 15 Panzer and helped to disable eleven more of its dwindling stock of tanks. No decision was therefore reached in the fighting on the 7th, Africa Corps drew back ten miles north-west of El Gubi in the night, and next day Panzer Group began to occupy the Gazala position.
Though twice postponed, the attack on El Adem remained on Eighth Army's books and in the end was mounted by the Tobruk garrison alone, under the direction of 13 Corps. Thirtieth Corps had hoped to attack El Adem in the night of 7–8 December, but was too well tied up at El Gubi. In the meantime Axis troops thinned out in the eastern sector with little difficulty and small loss. Though the artillery, the carriers of 19 Battalion, and others troops were active in harassing the retreating enemy, General Scobie kept back his main reserves for the El Adem push.
1 See McKinney, Medical Units, pp. 168–76.
Though over-anxious about the thrusts towards Bardia and inclined to exaggerate the significance of that beleaguered fortress, Ritchie and Auchinleck nevertheless remained hopeful about the general situation. Norrie meanwhile continued his operations south of Tobruk, refusing to be thrown off balance by Rommel's unpredictable manoeuvres. Thirtieth Corps was still unable to concentrate to strike really effective blows; but by weight of numbers Eighth Army was forcing the enemy back and sapping his strength.
Thus the tactical problems confronting Eighth Army were not really solved: they merely disappeared in clouds of dust raised by the RASC lorries at the final stage of a gigantic administrative effort. When Africa Corps committed four Italian guns to the Ed Duda attack it carefully noted the ammunition they possessed; but 30 Corps took it for granted that its 25-pounders would carry on punching at the enemy until they wore him down, that the fighting vehicles would continue as before in prodigal disregard of the petrol they consumed, and that units and formations which suffered heavy loss would be withdrawn and replaced. By Panzer Group standards the damage suffered by 11 Indian Brigade was not crippling; but the Guards brigade was nevertheless sent forward page 486 to relieve the Indians. Weapons and equipment were similarly renewed. The tank strength of 4 Armoured Brigade on 4 December was 98; on the 6th it was 136.
Rommel was provisioned from a much smaller barrel and he had long since scraped its bottom. Those which survived of the units which had met the first crusader onslaught were still fighting. The men were weary, in the main unshaven (for lack of water), and bedraggled in a way, for example, that astonished the Maoris at Menastir; but they had to carry on. The troopers of 4 Armoured Brigade were now desperately tired; yet they had done less fighting than the panzer troops, who had been almost incessantly in action, and it is a wonder how the latter kept going at all. Petrol was always precious to the Germans and Italians and, at critical moments, exceedingly hard to procure. With ammunition it was much the same. Rommel's exhortations on this subject to the Italians who managed his land and sea communications effected no improvement, and when he learned on 5 December that he could expect nothing but the most essential of supplies until the end of the month he had to plan accordingly. Sometimes he could outwit or outmanoeuvre his opponents; sometimes by relentless determination he could seize a local advantage; but he had no answer to those who solved the multitudinous supply problems of Eighth Army and ensured that crusader would seldom be halted by lack of the sinews of war.