The Relief of Tobruk
CHAPTER 6 — From Baggush to the Libyan Frontier
From Baggush to the Libyan Frontier
IN the New Zealand Division defence against tanks was much canvassed, but the true prophet here, as elsewhere, passed unrecognised. Anti-tank mines could be had in reasonable quantities and the new CRE,1 Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson,2 had seen to it that the infantry as well as the sappers were trained to use them, as he firmly advocated they should. His propaganda nevertheless failed and the Division was not ‘mine-conscious’ in crusader and made no use of this valuable weapon. The New Zealand sappers were asked on occasions to lift enemy mines, but never to lay their own, though the threat of tank attack was a constant and at times overwhelming burden. Defensive minefields were too passive to accord with current views; they attached more value to the ground they protected than prevailing opinion allowed. ‘portée action’ similarly became the rule rather than the exception in the anti-tank regiment; ‘ground action’ usually allowed better concealment and more effective fire, but it smacked too much of static warfare.
2 Brig F. M. H. Hanson, DSO and bar, OBE, MM, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Levin, 1896; resident engineer, Main Highways Board; Wellington Regt in First World War; comd 7 Fd Coy, NZE, Jan 1940–Aug 1941; CRE 2 NZ Div May 1941, Oct 1941–Apr 1944, Nov 1944–Jan 1946; Chief Engineer, 2 NZEF, 1943–46; three times wounded; Commissioner of Works.
The days at Baggush, however, were in the main crowded with smaller triumphs1 and tragedies and with mundane routine. Field guns were calibrated, bayonets sharpened, khaki drill exchanged for winter battledress, and anti-gas drill was carried out from time to time with less enthusiasm than marked the ‘trial packs’ most units conducted to find space in their vehicles for their manifold and increasing possessions. Three resounding echoes of Greece and Crete came in the form of VCs awarded, to Upham,2 Hinton3 and Hulme,4 and Upham's was presented on 4 November by Auchinleck himself.5
Cunningham had already introduced himself at the end of September and made a warm impression; he was a personal friend of Freyberg's and had the knack of putting even casual introductions on a high plane of interest, while his gift for recalling names and details enriched later meetings. He seemed very pleased, in turn, with what he saw of the Division. Godwin-Austen, too, had made his debut as visiting corps commander and told officers and senior NCOs of 4 Brigade that ‘it is a real privilege for me to be with you again—the last time was at Rhododendron Ridge’,6 a remark well-calculated to endear him to the few veterans of Gallipoli in his audience. To the others he gave evidence, like Cunningham, of an articulate intelligence which augured well for crusader, and one New Zealand staff officer described him on this occasion as ‘first-class stuff’.
1 Among them an 8–0 victory over a South African brigade at rugby football on 8 Nov.
6 B. I. Bassett, in a letter home, 19 Oct 1941.
move to fwd area taken for granted, location generally guessed as Siwa, details not known.
Rumours—NZ Div to attack the Italians, the UDF1 the Germans. Move to fwd areas and an attack in the very near future accepted as facts….
That the Division would be challenging a power that was supreme in the continent of Europe and making prodigious advances in Russia was a reflection reserved in the main to higher levels. At the unit level the diarist of 22 Battalion spoke for the majority when he noted at the end of October that the ‘health and fitness of the tps is good and the morale is high. …’ The men were well placed at Baggush to observe the flow of tanks, guns and lorries along the coast road and the numerous and heavy trainloads of ammunition and supplies moving westwards, a fabulous wealth of material with which to buy victory, and the complementary cost in lives and suffering they estimated lightly.
One detail of 2 NZEF policy created a small but dark cloud when it was laid down that 10 per cent of the strength of Divisional Cavalry and infantry battalions should be left out of battle so that in case of disaster a core of sorts would survive for rebuilding. This dismal provision was of course scorned and the initials LOB dreaded. Many were the intrigues to escape this unwelcome label, but usually in vain, and the second-in-command, three or four other officers, and some sixty other ranks were subtracted from each battalion. In Divisional Cavalry Major John Russell2 was classified LOB by special edict of General Freyberg, who knew that keeping him out of battle could never be a matter of routine; but Russell went in the end as a special LO. In the 20th an LOB gloom was added to Upham's VC embarrassment.
1 Union Defence Force (of South Africa).
The Corps and Divisional plans had by this time taken firm shape, with ample documentation, and what emerged was what might be expected of formations intended to mark time while another corps fought the decisive battle. A negative character predominated, effort was to be fragmented, and there was much labelled ‘anticipatory’. Though there was some attempt to give vent to the surging offensive spirit of the troops, the sum total, if the armoured battle took its intended course, would nevertheless amount to extravagant waste of the potentialities of a force of two strong infantry divisions (with four fully and two partially mobile brigades), a brigade of heavily armoured tanks, and an impressive array of all kinds of mobile artillery. But Freyberg and General Messervy of 4 Indian Division knew the Germans too well to conceive of the coming operations as a possible anti-climax to their long preparations.
The first task laid down by ‘13 Corps Instructions for Battle’ (12 November) was to ‘protect the L of C running westwards from No. 2 Fwd Base’, but the detailed tasks allotted to Messervy hovered uncertainly between defence and offence and were more concerned with covering the right flank of the New Zealand Division than with guarding against a body blow aimed at the main railhead of Eighth Army. So lightly, in fact, was this danger assessed that Messervy was expected to commit his one mobile brigade at an early stage to an attack on the strong defences which anchored the south-western end of the frontier line near Sidi Omar, to the detriment of his other obligations. This brigade, the 7th, would in the first instance shuffle southwards round these defences and prevent their garrisons from interfering with the moves of the New Zealand Division. The gap thus opened up between this brigade and 11 Indian Brigade in the coast sector was to have been filled by 5 Indian Brigade, occupying extensive defences—North Point, Playground and Kennels Box—which had been built to cover the vast forward base; but this brigade was also saddled with multifarious duties along the L of C and could not man these defences in any strength until some days after crusader started, by which time, if things went reasonably well, the need would have passed.
The New Zealand Division was to cross the frontier and form up south-west of Bir Sheferzen by midnight on 18 November, ready to push northwards next day to the Trigh Capuzzo at Sidi Azeiz, 12 miles south-west of Bardia. From there patrols and pickets would be thrown out southwards to link up with 7 Indian Brigade north of Bir Bu Deheua, a road block would be set up on the Via Balbia at Menastir to the north, and detachments would hold the few crossings of the escarpment for nearly 20 miles westwards from Menastir to ‘prevent any enemy forces moving southwards from the area north of the BARDIA – TOBRUK rd’. On a 30-mile arc, therefore, from the south through east to north-west, all movement by the enemy to or from the frontier line, Bardia, or the broken ground north-west of Bardia was to be stopped. A raiding party was to cut the Bardia-Capuzzo water pipeline, but no other action was planned in the first instance to isolate Bardia from the rest of the frontier line. At the same time a brigade group was to be ready to move westwards to dispose of enemy groups isolated in the region of Gambut and Bir el Chleta, halfway to Tobruk, and this might have to carry on to the Tobruk front under the command of 30 Corps. In this case another battalion of 1 Army Tank Brigade would probably come under New Zealand command, and with it the brigade headquarters and 8 Field Regiment, RA (intended solely for close support of the I tanks), leaving only one I-tank battalion with the Indian division.
1 One medium regiment (6-inch howitzers and 4.5s), four field regiments, two anti-tank regiments and three independent companies, and a regiment of Bofors, a total of some 300 guns, as compared with 172 in NZ Div (though exchanges soon strengthened the latter at the expense of 4 Indian Div).
An insistent question remained: was it more urgent to cut off the escape of the besiegers of Tobruk or to open up the coast road through Sollum to ease the supply of Eighth Army? Everything again depended on how quickly and completely the enemy armour was defeated. Delay would increase supply problems and make the opening of the coast road more urgent. There was, however, a third possibility that was earnestly considered: ‘ROMMEL must by now realise his numerical inferiority and the desirability of withdrawing westwards nearer to his own bases for supply and nearer to his own fighter aerodromes.’1
1 Appreciation by Capt R. M. Bell, GSO III (I), 10 Nov.
By next morning practically the whole of the Division was for the first time assembled as a complete entity, an historic occasion. In an area twelve miles by eight the 2800-odd vehicles rested 200 yards apart in brigade laagers, with clusters of men among them, and here and there a staff car or truck tearing a thin ribbon of dust from the flat, scrub-covered desert. The troops rested as much as possible and enjoyed the clear, warm day. The unhurried routine included distributing rations, water and POL,2 cleaning weapons and overhauling equipment. Workshops in 5 Brigade worked hard repairing broken springs, Intelligence sections collected information and marked maps, and there were several conferences.
1 He was soon to see fighting as fierce as at Beaumont-Hamel in that battle where he won his VC.
2 Petrol, oil and lubricants.
Parties left in the afternoon to reconnoitre brigade and unit lines in the area which was next day's destination. In the present area units regrouped for this move and Divisional Administration Group (under the CRASC) came into being, with all ASC units except troop-carrying transport, Divisional Workshops and Ordnance Field Park, and the Salvage and Mobile Surgical Units, removing from the brigade groups vehicles they did not need.
1 British bulldog.
2 As a final (and still unavailing) step to encourage the use of anti-tank mines, 6 Fd Coy demonstrated laying and lifting them to the assembled officers.
It was not until next day, when the Division drove westwards in one vast array of ‘transport, tanks, guns and carriers covering the whole panorama of the desert plain’ (as Freyberg described it in his report), that the full emotional impact of its new-found unity, mobility and potential power was felt.
Looking round from any slight vantage point … the whole expanse of desert was peppered with moving vehicles as far as the eye could see—and on the horizon fresh lines of black specks were popping up like puppets on an endless chain…. the country was very stony—great slabs of ‘crazy pavement’ at times and patches of scrub. No air interference but five Messerschmitts seen in the sun.1
The experience of driving towards the enemy in the company of nearly 20,000 men with no apparent doubt among them was as impressive as the spectacle. From the post-Crete depths the morale of the Division had soared to dizzy heights. Feeling of such intensity was not likely to be dampened by the minor mishaps of the journey, many broken springs among them. The rather clumsy performance of an exercise in contracting to meet tank attack and then opening out again, which was included in the journey, was a revelation of inadequate divisional training only to the perceptive few, though it left 5 Brigade 1000 yards south of its proper course.
This exercise and the various layouts adopted by the three brigades on the move and at rest did, however, illustrate one aspect of the differences in kind and character between the three brigades which had emerged in more than eighteen months of corporte extence. Fourth Brigade2 had served a long apprenticeship at Baggush the previous winter and had most first-hand knowledge of desert conditions. Its accepted routines for moving or halting by day or by night were therefore in many ways superior to those of the other two brigades and later became standard in the Division. In organisation 5 Brigade with four battalions was the heavyweight and its greater mass was naturally harder to handle.
1 GOC's diary.
All three brigades had attained some degree of unity of spirit which was consolidated in various ways by the characters and methods of their commanders. Barrowclough4 of 6 Brigade, for example, was a high-minded and fearless leader, still much the same as when he stormed the defences of Le Quesnoy at the head of his battalion in 1918. He was as ready now as then to attack Germans wherever and whenever he found them on the battlefield, and in this was well attuned to the feeling in his battalions that they had to ‘catch up with’ the other battalions because they missed Crete. He was disinclined to delegate authority, and in this may have been influenced by the relative inexperience of his newly-appointed BM, Major Barrington,5 on whose shoulders operational staff work would normally fall. Thus the main burden of work, as of responsibility, fell on Barrowclough, and he welcomed it.
1 Lt-Cols Andrew, VC, and Dittmer, MBE, MC.
3 Brig J. R. Page, CBE, DSO, m.i.d.; Canberra; born Dunedin, 10 May 1908; Regular soldier; CO 26 Bn May 1940–Nov 1941; wounded 27 Nov 1941; Commander, Northern Military District, 1950–52; Adjutant-General, 1952–54; QMG 1956–60; head of NZ Joint Services liaison staff, Canberra.
4 Maj-Gen Rt. Hon. Sir Harold Barrowclough, PC, KCMG, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US), Croix de Guerre (Fr); Wellington; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915–19 (CO 4 Bn); comd 7 NZ Inf Bde in UK, 1940; 6 Bde, May 1940–Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and 3 NZ Div, Aug 1942–Oct 1944; Chief Justice of New Zealand.
5 Brig B. Barrington, DSO, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; born Marton, 2 Oct 1907; insurance inspector; SC 6 Bde Mar 1940–May 1941; BM 6 Bde May 1941–Jan 1942; DAQMG 2 NZ Div May–Nov 1942; AA & QMG Nov 1942–Dec 1944; DA & QMG NZ Corps Feb–Mar 1944; died Wellington, 17 Apr 1954.
7 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF1916–17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939–Apr 1941, Jun–Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942–Jun 1943; Nov 1943–Feb 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div, 30 Apr–14 May 1943, 9 Feb–2 Mar 1944; comd 2 NZEF Prisoner-of-War Reception Group (UK) Oct 1944–Sep 1945; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories, 1946–57; died Wellington, 5 May 1957.
Hargest approached crusader bursting with confidence. With four battalions his 5 Brigade was the strongest and he was sure it would acquit itself well. All his battalions and his field regiment had lost heavily in Crete, however, and new faces predominated. Twenty-second Battalion still had on its collective mind its withdrawal from Maleme airfield, which was not without its effect on Hargest himself. He was on record as ‘one of the finest soldiers in the Division’ in France in 1916–181 and he entered crusader determined to erase the unhappy chapter of Crete. His staff was in the main the same that had served him through much adversity in that campaign and there was a warm bond. Hargest had had less chance than his fellow brigadiers, however, of getting to know the desert, wherein a headquarters was as apt as a fighting unit to find enemy on its doorstep. His reluctance after Crete to yield even unimportant ground was in marked contrast to current light-hearted attitudes in the armoured corps towards the significance of ground, and of the two extremes Hargest's was certainly to be preferred.
1 Stewart, The New Zealand Division, 1916–19, p. 178.
3 Gp Capt G. R. Magill, OBE, DFC and bar, m.i.d.; born Te Aroha, Cambridge, 23 Jan 1915; journalist; joined RAFAug 1936; LO to HQ NZ Div, Nov–Dec 1941; comd No. 180 Sqdn 1943; Operations Staff, No. 2 Group, 1943–45.
4 Other than the news that the Ark Royal had been ‘sunk at last’ after several premature claims by ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ on the German radio.
The impending moves, however, were already viewed with concern in some quarters. Travelling in low gear across rough desert had already used up 40,000 gallons of petrol instead of the 25,000 allowed for: 3¾ miles per gallon per vehicle in place of the estimated 6 m.p.g. The Division was more than 15,000 gallons short of current needs and the Petrol Company had to make two trips to the nearby Forward Base, working until long after dark. The complicated scheme for rationing Eighth Army also had teething troubles and the Supply Company had similar difficulties, so that units had to draw on their reserves. A full-scale divisional move into action was a different matter from manoeuvring brigades in the well-known hinterland of Baggush. One difference which soon made itself felt was in the marking of the route for the night marches. A half-mile interval between lamps was adequate for the fairly level ground south of Baggush and for the first night move on the 16th; but patches of soft sand on the night of the 17th, defiles through small wadis, and several minor escarpments caused delay and confusion and the field regiments in particular had much trouble. One regimental commander described it as ‘difficult, dangerous and hair-raising’1 and the small reconnaissance party which laid out the lights2 was much criticised, though the real trouble was that many more lights were needed for such uneven ground. By a trick of fate an electrical storm provided eerie flashes to light the chaos and stimulated speculation that the fighting might already have begun. This wild journey ended a few miles short of the frontier early on the 18th, only an hour or two before the armoured mass of 30 Corps 10 to 30 miles to the south surged through the Wire on its way to Gabr Saleh.
2 The Div IO, the Engineer IO, most of the Provost Coy, and several others.
More than 80 miles to the south, ‘Force E’ of the Oases Group under Brigadier D. W. Reid2 got ready to leave Jarabub on a long and lonely trek to the distant oases of Jalo and Aujila. Some 300 miles north-west a small band of desperadoes delivered by submarine made a brave but clumsy attack on what was wrongly thought to be Rommel's residence.3 Two more groups were dropped by parachute to sabotage airfields at Gambut and Tmimi on the night 16–17 November without success. These far-flung activities all had one central aim, the recapture of Cyrenaica, to which Eighth Army's 120,000 hearts were dedicated.
Had the Germans not been so intent on their own schemes they must have discovered what was afoot. The Italians had been only too ready to take note of the various warnings; but even they failed to get wind of the vast moves taking place from the first week in November.4 Daily reports to Berlin from Panzer Group Africa Headquarters in this period start monotonously with the statement ‘Enemy situation unchanged’, to which as late as 18 November only one word was added—'mainly’. The Intelligence war diary of Panzer Group reveals a singular obtuseness in the face of almost unmistakable evidence. The New Zealand Division was spotted from the air on the 14th and again next day, yet its absence on the 16th was merely noted. It had disappeared into the blue and evoked no further comment. The vigilant German wireless interception company, No. 3 Company of 56 Signals Unit, detected the move of 1 South African Division from Matruh and confirmed it on the 16th with scarcely a raised eyebrow. When complete silence descended on British wireless activity on the 17th the German Intelligence relaxed, though the Italians were acutely suspicious. Bad weather had set in and no aerial reconnaissance could be flown. Nothing more could be done until it cleared up.
1 Agar-Hamilton and Turner, pp. 119–22.
2 With HQ 29 Indian Inf Bde, a South African reconnaissance battalion and most of an armoured-car regiment, field, anti-tank and LAA batteries, a section of sappers and miners, and an Indian infantry battalion.
4 De Giorgis of Savona Div thought an ‘enemy offensive to be imminent’ as early as 14 Nov and issued orders accordingly. See Manzetti, Seconda offensiva britannica in Africa settentrionale e ripiegamento italo-tedesco nella Sirtica orientale, 18 Novembre 1941–17 Gennaio 1942, the Italian general staff history.
Yet the best evidence of all was solemnly recorded in Panzer Group records without a suspicion of its real significance. The fact is that the RAF had given the enemy clear warning of coming events which the Germans refused to see in any other way than as a reaction to their preliminary moves for the attack on Tobruk (which they characteristically supposed had been disclosed to the British by treachery). The switching of RAF targets from distant ports and installations to nearer landing grounds and dumps in the week before D 1 was a marked change of policy: it was tactical rather than strategic and obviously so.
From the RAF point of view crusader began in mid-October in a gradually increasing programme of bombing from Malta and Egypt and of fighter activity to deny enemy observation of battle preparations. At the same time careful though incomplete photographic and other reconnaissance of the relevant area of Cyrenaica was carried out as cloud, sandstorms and enemy fighters permitted. In the last week, 11–17 November, bomber sorties against airfields rose from 38 the previous week to 1271 and fighter sorties from 191 to 274, though still well under maximum effort so as not to reveal full fighter strength. It was an impressive programme by current standards and comparatively economical; but the results achieved fell short of claims, in the same way that the achievements of the British armour were shortly to be exaggerated, partly through overlapping reports. In helping the Royal Navy to sink enemy shipping and in protecting the small ships supplying Tobruk the RAF made a valuable contribution to the coming operations; but land targets were less profitable. The vast spaces of the desert were ill-suited to air action against ground targets on any scale then feasible. Unless landing grounds were caught crowded with aircraft they made poor targets and attacks on army installations or troops seldom had more than a nuisance value. Aerial reconnaissance, however, was extremely valuable and Eighth Army was able to enter the fray with printed maps of enemy positions giving detailed information no more than a fortnight old.
2 Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, KCB, KBE, DSO, MC, DFC, AFC, Legion of Honour (Fr), Distinguished Service Medal (US), Order of Leopold (Bel), Croix de Guerre with Palm (Bel); born Brisbane, 19 Jan 1895; 1 NZEF 1914–16; entered RFC 1916; permanent commission RAF 1919; AOC No. 4 Group, Bomber Command, 1939–41; AOC Western Desert, 1941–43; AOC 1st TAF, N. Africa, Sicily, Italy, 1943–44; AOC-in-C, 2nd TAF, invasion of NW Europe and Germany, 1944–45; lost when air liner crashed during Atlantic crossing, Jan 1948.
Thus the handful of Me109Fs at the disposal of Fliegerfuehrer Afrika, Major-General Froehlich, were able to achieve an effect out of proportion to their numbers. Some such advantage was urgently needed, as it was only too clear to the Axis leaders (as it was not to their opponents) that they had many fewer bombers and fighters in the desert than the RAF. Last-minute allocations of more Luftwaffe units would rectify this for the Tobruk operation but would still leave the Sollum front weak in air cover in the opinion of Reichsmarschall Goering, as OKW advised on 1 November. In Rommel's absence Cruewell nevertheless committed Panzer Group Africa to the Tobruk attack and reposed every confidence in the ability of the frontier line to hold out for a few days against British counter-attacks, even by strong tank forces.
Froehlich's situation was unusual. He was under the command not of Rommel but of General Geissler of X Flying Corps in Sicily, and so far as the Italians were concerned his powers were restricted to co-ordinating the operations of the Luftwaffe units in North Africa with those of the forward units of General Marchesi's 5 Air Fleet. This nevertheless seems to have worked fairly well and the Italians were particularly pleased with the Stukas Geissler gave them. Their own aircraft were inferior and it was good for page 78 their morale to have German crews operating alongside them and perhaps one or two Me109Fs overhead. Froehlich was not in the habit of setting up shop alongside Rommel's headquarters, however, and the absence of a close understanding between the two, in marked contrast to the co-operation between the two Axis air forces, became only too obvious at times. So long as the RAF fighters were mainly based east of Sidi Barrani no serious repercussions ensued and the Axis air commands were able to make good use of their slender forces1 in attacking Tobruk and the ships which supplied it. But when the RAF fighter wings moved up to the frontier, as they did for crusader, their numerical advantage could make itself felt over the whole battle area and the loose co-ordination between Axis air and ground forces only served to emphasise disparities in air strength.
|Bombers||43||‘some 100 aircraft’||100|
|Reconnaissance aircraft||15||Total 283|
This is the same, if the RAF official historians are correct (Richards and Saunders, Vol. II, p. 173), as the total of serviceable aircraft at the start of crusader, the full total then being 436, to which might be added 186 in Tripolitania and 1400 in Italy, Greece and neighbouring islands.
Tedder's total force of serviceable aircraft was over 700, two-thirds of them in the Western Desert and the rest in Malta or the Canal Zone and Nile Delta. Of Coningham's 29 squadrons, six were South African, two Australian, one Rhodesian and one Free French and two were Fleet Air Arm.
For details of New Zealand airmen serving in this theatre see Thompson, New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force, Vol. III. One of them was Wing Cdr E. W. Whitley, DFC, who gave his name to the special force (Whitforce) assigned to cover the Oases Group and attack the coast road in western Cyrenaica.