CHAPTER 3 — Second Libyan Campaign: Prelude
Second Libyan Campaign: Prelude
The ships from Crete berthed at Port Said at 7 a.m. on Friday, 2 May, and after breakfast the battalion disem barked. A six-hour train journey followed. The troops detrained about dusk at El Qassasin, a village on the Sweetwater Canal, and reached the tented transit camp at El Tahag in transport vehicles about half an hour later. After the hard conditions in Greece, the men found the straw palliasses and blankets, the shower baths, and the simple camp amenities very much to their liking.
After three days at the camp, enlivened, but only slightly, by an air-raid alarm at 10 p.m. on the second day, the battalion returned by train to Helwan and quickly settled down once more to camp routine. The highlight of the first few days was the accumulated letters and parcels which awaited most men, while the general leave granted to 15 per cent of the battalion from noon to 10 p.m. was a fitting accompaniment, though a little tardy in reaching the later groups.
During the two months the men had been out of Egypt the weather had become much warmer and some very high temperatures, reaching 119 degrees in the shade, were experienced. For days on end the thermometer passed the 100 degrees mark during a spell of the hottest May weather for many years. The battle dress in which the men returned from Greece had, of course, been replaced by summer dress, but the men had to accustom themselves to profuse and continuous perspiration, to extreme temperatures in the messrooms, to butter in the form of oil, and bread which dried almost like toast as it wa cut. These desert camps had one great drawback in the absence of natural shade, while that afforded by the small buildings was negligible with the noon sun vertically overhead, and in any case was valueless because of radiation from the blazing sands around. These climatic hardships necessitated a proper mental attitude to them if men were to keep well, and a wise balance in control between too much and too little activity had to be maintained.
The swimming baths in Helwan Camp naturally were a great boon though at times shortage of water made it necessary to page 77 close them. It had been established that 50 per cent of the men in New Zealand units could not swim, a rather startling situa tion and one that could have tactical disadvantages. The baths were valuable in reducing that percentage.
During the battalion's absence in Greece the military situa tion in North Africa had deteriorated. The British forces there had been weakened by the withdrawal of considerable forces, including equipment and stores, for the campaigns in Greece and Eritrea and, with the exception of a garrison holding Tobruk, had been compelled to withdraw to the Egyptian frontier. Once again Egypt was directly threatened.
Elsewhere the war situation was far from good, apart from the passing of the United States Lend-Lease Bill, the recapture of Berbera, Keren, and Harar, and the suppression of a rebellion in Iraq. But it is doubtful whether the unsatisfactory war situation had the slightest effect upon the outlook and the spirits of the men of the battalion.
To avoid the worst heat of the day the training hours were altered and reduced. Short route marches, weapon and section training, and lectures on the recent fighting in Greece occupied most of the time allotted, while once more duties outside the camp had to be undertaken; on 12 May eight officers and 360 men were provided for guard duty in the large prisoner-of-war camp between Helwan and the Nile.
The presence of enemy forces on the Egyptian frontier had certain reactions, one of which was a renewal of the measures formerly taken for the defence of Cairo against both attack and internal disorder. The New Zealand Training Brigade had an important part to play in that matter and 25 Battalion on 19 May sent four officers to it to assist in defence preparations.
At this time there was good news from Abyssinia, Eritrea, and Somaliland, where the campaign virtually ended on 16 May with the surrender of the Italian Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Aosta, though many Italians continued to surrender for some months to come.
The equipment lost or abandoned in Greece was gradually being replaced and training proceeded on the hot-weather syllabus for those not on external duties. On Sunday, 18 May, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, made an in spection at a ceremonial parade of all troops returned from Greece, and addressing the parade, congratulated all ranks on their excellent work in the campaign. The failure of the loud speakers, a defect all too common with this equipment both page 78 in army and civil life, unfortunately made it impossible, in the high wind that was blowing, for the men to hear what he said.
The situation in Crete caused much anxiety and the men were very conscious of their separation from the majority of the New Zealand Division there. The increasing intensity of the enemy air attack in Crete heralded the opening of the battle on the morning of 20 May, and from then until the end, the main interest of all New Zealanders in Egypt was centred on the island.
Other matters, however, also claimed their attention. The arrival on 24 May of three sergeants and 152 men from the Training Brigade, followed by another fifteen the next day, rebuilt the battalion to its proper strength, making good the gaps caused by the casualties in Greece and by normal wastage due to sickness and accidents. When the detachment returned from guard duties at the Helwan prisoner-of-war camp on the following day after a two-weeks' tour of duty, the hitherto attenuated battalion again looked the part.
The resumption of camp life near large civilian centres brought complexities, incidents, and problems, which were almost completely absent in the field. Discipline had to be maintained and the usual pickets had again to be provided for a variety of duties, which included keeping order on leave buses and trains, preventing wastage of water from taps and showers, and guarding the camp against thieving by outsiders, which was rife. Within the camp some care had to be taken to keep gambling within reasonable limits so that men would not be impoverished by ‘experts’ and so possibly resort to theft in order to provide fares, tobacco, meals in Cairo, and other requirements.
A change of scene was now in the offing and, on 28 May, 6 Brigade moved to the Suez Canal, 24 Battalion to Suez, 25 Battalion to Kantara West and East, and 26 Battalion to Ismailia. Twenty-fifth Battalion manned the outer perimeter defences at Kantara on both sides of the Canal, paying special attention to all pumping and filter stations, ferries over the Canal, bridges and roads, the railway and approaches, all anti aircraft guns within the defences, and the airfield. Battalion Headquarters with the mortar and anti-aircraft platoons and A, C, and D Companies crossed the Canal to Kantara East and bivouacked in the Rest and Transit Camp. B Company and Headquarters Company (less the mortar and anti-aircraft platoons) occupied the hospital area on the west bank.page 79
Defensive positions were prepared to meet attacks by parachute and airborne troops, the possibilities of which were thrown into high relief by the situation in Crete, where the defenders were now retreating to the embarkation beach on the south coast. Sabotage was also a risk, much increased by the enemy success, which naturally gave great encouragement to enemy sympathisers in Egypt.
The month of June passed with little incident. The forced landing of an RAF aircraft on the 7th in A Company's area gave that company some excitement and also the duty of protecting it against thieves and souvenir hunters with a guard of one NCO and three men. Despite the heat useful training was done, including mortar practices with live ammunition, rifle and Bren-gun qualifying practices, and classes of instruction for six NCOs from each company. An unusual task was the erection of netting to catch parachutists, and throughout the month there was much to interest the troops. The traffic in the Canal was considerable and included, according to one diarist, HMS Leander and a large submarine, a destroyer which was towed past with its stern blown off, and many ships passing both ways, some going north loaded with new trucks. Along the road and the railway on the western side of the Canal there was much traffic, on many days a continuous stream of new trucks and other vehicles passing by, some carrying RAF air craft. Overhead, aircraft appeared in increasing numbers and the ‘experts’ in the battalion identified Tomahawks and Hurricanes, two of the latter entertaining the battalion ‘with high-class aerobatics in a mock fight’.
Port Said was popular with the troops, the Britannia and Piccadilly clubs providing most welcome amenities. The mixed population was always of interest, though the Arab quarter was out-of-bounds, while in the streets and on the wharves there was a ‘real mixture’ of troops, ‘NZ, Aus, Tommy, Indian, East African, and Egyptian’. As usual, it was necessary to guard against disorder, and all units provided pickets, 25 Battalion detailing one officer, one NCO, and six other ranks daily for this duty. With the Canal alongside the battalion's positions, swimming was most popular and a great relief from the oppressive heat, though the nearby civilian population and the passenger ships passing by made it necessary to wear bathing dress. Fishing, of course, was not neglected though catches have not been recorded. Mosquitoes were rather numerous and many men suffered from festered sores caused by scratching the bites. There were also some cases of sandfly fever.page 80
The battalion, with the exception of those on duty, heard on the 13th a most interesting account by Colonel Dittmer,1 the commanding officer of the Maori Battalion, of the fighting in Crete and the lessons learnt there against attacks by paratroops. Later in the month it was announced that seven days' leave had been granted for all men who had served in Greece or Crete, and that in recognition of the Royal Navy's magnificent and self-sacrificing work in evacuating the New Zealand forces, some tangible recognition was proposed. This took the form of voluntary subscriptions from all ranks in 2 NZEF, which resulted in a sum of approximately £850 being handed to Admiral Cunningham, to be used as thought fit for the welfare of the Navy.
The evacuation of Crete had been completed, as far as it was practicable, by 1 June, and although Port Said had not been disturbed, apart from an air-raid warning on the 14th, Alexandria received its first heavy attack on the 5th when heavy damage and many civilian casualties were suffered.
The battalion was now to move on, and on 8 July, after an advance party had been sent to Kitchener Camp, Moascar, and a West Yorkshire Regiment advance party had arrived, the troops entrained in the afternoon and reached their new camp a little before midnight. Within four hours of the battalion's arrival there was an air alert and three more within the next four days.
The defensive area for Moascar-Ismailia, for which the unit was responsible, was shaped rather like a horseshoe, with an outer perimeter of 9000 yards and a depth of 1100 yards, covering the airfield and Moascar Camp. A, B, and C Companies were allotted positions on the perimeter and D Company a reserve position near the transit camp. Mortars and carriers also had their role, but the positions were not to be occupied until ordered.
Daily leave for 25 per cent of the strength from noon to 10 p.m. commenced the day after arrival and the men found the attractive town of Ismailia, with its well-arranged buildings and shady gardens, a very pleasant change from Kantara. The YMCA and Blue Kettle clubs were most popular, the latter page 81 being organised and conducted by the women of Ismailia; the men thoroughly enjoyed the YMCA bathing beach on the Marine Beach, with its excellent facilities, especially its large, shaded area, fresh-water showers, and refreshment room.
A church parade in St. George's Garrison Church on 13 July was notable as being the first occasion since the battalion left New Zealand that a church was available for the parade. On the 23rd Bishop Gerard,2 Senior Chaplain to the NZEF, visited the camp and confirmed one man of the battalion.
In the early hours of the 10th there was a prolonged air raid on the Canal close by and the huts in which the men were accommodated shuddered with the explosions of bombs. Many anti-aircraft guns were in action and aircraft could be heard overhead, but most of the men stayed in bed.
Training during July followed what had become a familiar pattern, with a little field training and some route marches, interspersed with weapon training of all kinds, drill, physical and recreational training, bayonet fighting, and grenade training. Care was also taken to see that the men knew what to do if the enemy commenced gas warfare, and that respirators and other equipment were in good order. The field training included night attacks, manning the Moascar-Ismailia defences, occupation of a prepared position, and attacks at dusk, mostly on a company level.
On 30 July there was another move, this time a march of 30 miles to the south, in two stages, to Geneifa Camp. Starting at 6 p.m., the battalion halted for the night a little before midnight and moved on again the following evening, reaching the camp at 12.30 a.m.; the actual marching time was nine and a half hours. A small reinforcement of one warrant officer, two corporals, and nineteen men from Maadi Camp reported next morning.
The weather was now very hot, with occasionally an exceptionally hot day, and the men found it very trying. Air alerts were increasing, ten occurring in the seventeen days the unit spent in this camp. No bombs fell in or near the battalion area, the enemy air attacks being directed chiefly at the towns in the vicinity of the Canal and the Canal itself, with the object of blocking the waterway or reducing the volume of page 82 shipping passing through. Mines had been dropped in the Canal for this purpose and a carefully planned watching system had been established to pinpoint the splashes and so fix within narrow limits the position of every mine. The troops were warned not to bathe in the vicinity of minesweeping operations as there was a danger of electrocution and of detonating a mine.
On 5 August the battalion set up its own canteen, administered by a committee which included a representative of each company. It proved to be popular and successful and augmented the unit's funds. In the middle of the month Major Satterthwaite3 left the unit on his promotion to lieutenant-colonel and transfer to HQ 2 NZEF at Maadi Camp. His successor as second-in-command was Major George of A Company, which was now commanded by Captain Roberts.4
Some unpleasant incidents with Egyptians had been occurring in the vicinity of Bab-el-Louk railway station, where New Zealanders had been attacked, usually after unsuccessful attempts to steal paybooks, wallets, and other valuables, and violent assaults had been made on individual men. The men were advised to keep in groups of not less than three when returning to the station at night. These Egyptian ‘toughs’ were certainly looking for trouble as it would take very little of this sort of thing to bring about severe retribution.
The men had a change of occupation early in August. A convoy of ships which had arrived at Suez was bombed and, naturally enough, the Egyptian dock-labour fled. Twenty-fifth Battalion filled the gap and unloaded several ships, making quite a name for itself at this work. According to the Port Officer the rate of unloading was twice that achieved by the usual dock labour and the rate of ullage and pillage was considerably less. It is understood that the pillage that did occur included American canned beer and silk stockings, and one ship's captain remarked, ‘A small price to pay for the speedy unloading which enabled the ship to sail the next morning.’
Once again the battalion moved on, leaving for Helwan on 16 August, the carriers entraining with it to save track-wear while the remainder of the transport travelled by road. At Fayid station near the west shore of Great Bitter lake, there was some stone-throwing by Egyptian hooligans, and it says a good deal page 83 for the discipline of all ranks, who showed admirable restraint under such gross provocation, that serious results for the Egyptians did not ensue.
The normal base-camp routine followed and training on the usual lines was resumed. Brigade manoeuvres for four days took place from 1 September in the familiar El Saff area, movement in vehicles in desert formation and debussing well forward to attack receiving a good deal of attention.
Sunday, 7 September, was a ‘National Day of Prayer’, approved by the King and by order of His Majesty's Privy Council. Special denominational church parades were held throughout the camp.
A change of battalion commanders took place on the 9th when Lieutenant-Colonel Wilder, on promotion to brigadier, was appointed to command the New Zealand Training Group at Maadi Camp; he had commanded the battalion from the day it was formed and had won the respect and regard of all ranks. He was succeeded by Lieutenant-Colonel McNaught,5 who in Crete had commanded with distinction the Suda Dock Force under very severe and constant air attack, and who had also commanded 32 (Training) Battalion at Maadi. A farewell parade for Brigadier Wilder was held on 10 September and the occasion was also a welcome for the new Commanding Officer, who inspected the battalion.
In the following week the battalion was busy preparing to move to Baggush on the Mediterranean coast, where troops of the First Echelon had spent several months in the latter part of 1940. After a false start for Kabrit in the Suez Canal zone, to which an advance party was sent on the 14th (the intention then being to carry out brigade training there), the battalion, preceded by another advance party on the 16th, left two days later, reaching Sidi Haneish station, near Baggush, after a train journey of about seventeen hours. This included a halt at Amiriya transit camp for a hot meal in the evening.
Baggush was always a favourite spot, mainly because the Mediterranean not only provided splendid sea-bathing but also had a favourable effect on the climate. There was, too, the feeling that although it was not exactly ‘the front’, it was well on the way to it, and there was usually a certain amount page 84 of enemy air activity against Matruh, 30 miles to the north-west, and airfields and other targets a good deal closer, including occasionally the Baggush Box itself. Our own aircraft in an operational role were to be seen in considerable numbers. But perhaps, apart from all this, the fact that they were a long way from the humdrum monotony of the base camp was the principal source of the men's satisfaction with their new location.
In the following twelve days the unit experienced quite an assortment of what Baggush had to offer. Swimming was of course a daily matter, apart from bathing parades. Two days after the battalion's arrival, and again two days later, an unidentified aircraft a little after midnight dropped numerous parachute flares nearby. Showers of rain then made their appearance, but no flooding occurred and the weather was cool. Finally, a dust-storm arose on the 26th.
Training was soon under way with tactical exercises, desert navigation for officers and the Intelligence Section, and attack exercises in motor transport moving close up to ‘enemy’ positions. The training was mostly on a battalion and brigade scale and its type and intensity made it fairly obvious that operations against the enemy were probable in the near future. Co-operation between tanks, infantry, and artillery was closely studied at demonstrations and conferences, and by officers of these arms attending each other's exercises. To save wear and tear on tracks and engines the tanks themselves were not used, though the ubiquitous Bren carriers sometimes represented them.
October was a bad month for dust-storms, of which there were four, two being particularly severe. After one of these, a brigade exercise in co-operation with the divisional artillery took place over a period of two days. Day and night, movements over considerable distances were practised, culminating in a brigade attack at dawn with artillery and tank support. This move was made partly in moonlight and partly in complete darkness, and it was not surprising that it drew the divisional comment: ‘both 6 Bde and div arty were in the wrong locations’. They were not the only formations that found themselves in the wrong locations after an exercise of this sort.
In the middle of the month a squadron of I tanks gave a very interesting demonstration of their capabilities and methods in an area 14 miles south-east of Matruh, before a large number of spectators, of whom 25 Battalion contributed 25 officers and 40 NCOs. This was followed the next day by a demonstration by 7 Field Company of how mines were laid page 85 and lifted and minefields cleared; a couple of days later a demonstration was given to officers and NCOs of an assault on barbed-wire entanglements. In early November 12 Platoon under Lieutenant Morris demonstrated this method before General Auchinleck, and it was described by General Freyberg as ‘impressive’. Later, the same platoon gave a similar demonstration to the officers and NCOs of 5 Brigade. Colonel McNaught explained that an officer of the Green Howards had invented the method.
Towards the end of October an interesting interchange of two officers (Morris, B Company, and Porter,6 C Company) and one sergeant from each rifle company of the battalion was made for a couple of days with similar numbers from the Botha Regiment of the South African Forces. This recalls the remarkable coincidence that a quarter of a century before, South Africans and New Zealanders were in the same region and took part side by side in operations against the Senussi to the south and west of Matruh.
The battalion took its turn from time to time as the duty unit, available on call for a period of one week, for defence against sudden attack by parachute troops or raiders, especially raiding forces conveyed along the coast in small coastal craft. A coast-watching organisation, with posts every two miles, had been established by the Egyptian Frontiers Administration Brigade. These were manned in part by Ghaffirs, identifiable by red, green, and black armbands bearing the number of the post of the wearer.
Arrangements were now being completed to form a New Zealand armoured brigade and subaltern officers of the battalion were given the opportunity to join it. Those selected would commence a fourteen-weeks' course on 15 November at the Royal Armoured Corps School. Two captains from 25 Battalion, Wakelin7 and Morrison, had been selected several months previously.
The canteen established by the battalion at the Canal in August had proved successful, showing a profit of £199 on a turnover of £2000, which represented practically the 10 per cent discount allowed by NAAFI on bulk purchases. The profit was used to increase the variety and quantity of stocks and to page 86 provide additional comforts for all ranks. Christmas was now but ten weeks away, and in order that preparations could be made for it, a special Christmas grant to units was announced. This amounted to is. 6d. per man from the National Patriotic Fund Board and one shilling per man from special Expeditionary Force Institutes' rebates.
Intensive training continued in November with emphasis on movements in MT in desert formations and methods of protection against attack, especially by tanks and aircraft, during movement or when halted on a march or in bivouac. Co-opera tion with aircraft was practised in a brigade exercise in which A Company, with Headquarters and signal personnel of the battalion, took part, and the converse was also studied, an officer and two men attending a three-day course with 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery. The possibility of a raid or attack from the sea was still being guarded against and B Company had a tour of this duty on the coast near 26 Battalion.
Officially, the intensive desert training was merely for the purpose of bringing the Division up to a high state of readiness for action, which in fact was the case, but it was not disclosed, though everyone sensed it, that the Division in the very near future would be fighting in the Western Desert.
Relief from training was provided by the delightful bathing, by YMCA cinema pictures, and by one great highlight, the long-awaited rugby match between the New Zealand Division and a South African brigade team on 8 November. A good game resulted in a win for the Division by eight points to nil.
The inspiring news of the Navy's great action south of Taranto on 9 November was received the next day. The enemy loss of all but one of the ten supply ships in the two convoys attacked, and of three destroyers sunk and two damaged without loss to our ships, could well have a dire effect on the enemy's land and air operations, both by the actual losses and by delaying future convoys.
Once more the battalion was preparing for a move and, amongst other activities, the packing of vehicles was practised, it being important that the vehicles accompanying the troops in battle should be packed to a standard plan and so save time in getting articles and ammunition required during battle. But in practice there was always something to add to the loads. An amusing account of the loading of the platoon truck has been contributed by Major R. Morrison:page 87
‘After training had progressed a while in Egypt the great day arrived when full transport for the Battalion was issued down to Platoon Trucks. These platoon trucks were 4 × 2 15 cwt. Pickups intended to carry the tools and heavy equipment of each platoon. Very soon the question of loading details came up and those concerned can remember loading and unloading practices to determine just precisely where each article should be put and whether pick helves should be turned this way or that. Finally a cyclostyled packing-sheet was issued and “The Hill” was happy. It was soon decided that it would be in order if a box were provided, in which the unconsumed portion of the men's home parcels could be carried on the truck. Then camouflage nets were issued and these of course were carried on the Platoon Truck.
‘Next was the Boyes Anti Tank Rifle which came in a case as large as a coffin and with particular instructions that the case was under no circumstances to be lost. This of course went on the Platoon Truck together with its ammunition.
‘On arrival in Greece the units were issued with small tents and these went on the truck, and it was also found the cartage of the men's bed rolls by R.M.T. did not work out and from then on these were carried on the Platoon Truck.
‘The next thing was the issue of a tea chest full of empty bottles. These were filled with petrol, a short fuze added, and were to be used to the detriment of enemy tanks. Known as “Molotov Cocktails”, these were carried on the Platoon Truck. Of course, it would have been imprudent to carry on without a reserve of petrol, so each truck acquired a case or two.
‘On top of all this lot was often perched the odd soldier who for various reasons was unable to march but would not leave his unit. Then, as the action progressed and we were falling back the boys could not bear to see so many good cigarettes etc being abandoned in our D.I.D.s and dumps and quite a few “personal necessities” found their way on to the Platoon Trucks.
‘We leave it to the readers to work out just what these trucks carried when one was lost by enemy action and the troops had decided to save what they could of their possessions and pile them on another truck.
‘Yes, we had moved a long way from the cyclostyled packing sheet.’page 88
It was ever thus with vehicles in the Army, and every now and then a ruthless brigadier, colonel, or other responsible officer would cause the accumulation of extras to be cast aside.
On 11 November, Armistice Day, out came the great news: the Division was to take part, within the next few days, in an offensive in Libya, and so any lingering doubts were dispelled. There was a hum of excitement about the camp, but for Major George and sixty-seven officers and other ranks there was grievous disappointment as they were informed that, in accordance with the policy of leaving selected officers and other ranks out of battle, they were to remain at Baggush. Such personnel, termed LOBs,8 were to provide a nucleus on which to rebuild the unit in the event of heavy casualties.
At this date, 11 November, the officers of the battalion and their appointments were as shown below:
Lieutenant-Colonel G. J. McNaught, Commanding Officer
Captain M. J. Mason, Adjutant
Lieutenant M. J. T. Fraser, Intelligence Officer
Lieutenant G. Colledge, Signals Officer
Lieutenant L. C. McCarthy (NZMC), RMO
Rev. C. E. Willis, Chaplain
Captain H. G. Burton, Officer Commanding
Lieutenant H. H. Hollow, Pioneer Platoon
Lieutenant I. D. Reid, Mortar Platoon
Second-Lieutenant C. S. Wroth, Carrier Platoon
Lieutenant T. W. G. Rolfe, Quartermaster
Lieutenant J. H. Birch, Transport Officer
Captain W. H. Roberts, Officer Commanding
Second-Lieutenant B. Campbell, 7 Platoon
Lieutenant B. R. Henderson, 8 Platoon
Lieutenant J. R. G. Jack, 9 Platoon
Captain F. R. McBride, Officer Commanding
Lieutenant D. A. Wilson
Second-Lieutenant C. H. Cathie, 10 Platoon
Lieutenant J. P. Tredray, 11 Platoon
Lieutenant G. J. B. Morris, 12 Platoonpage 89
Captain W. J. Heslop, Officer Commanding
Second-Lieutenant W. E. W. Ormond, 13 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant F. R. Porter, 14 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant P. W. Robertshaw, 15 Platoon
Major A. J. R. Hastie, Officer Commanding
Lieutenant M. Handyside, 16 Platoon
Lieutenant W. M. Clarry, 17 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant P. de V. Holt, 18 Platoon
Officers left out of battle (LOB)
Major C. D. A. George, Battalion Second-in-Command
Captain H. G. Witters, Second-in-Command D Coy
Captain R. M. McLeay, Second-in-Command C Coy
Captain R. C. Wilson, Second-in-Command B Coy
Lieutenant R. G. Stevens
Second-Lieutenant I. C. Webster
Second-Lieutenant W. S. F. Moffett
The advance of the Division towards Libya commenced that day when 5 Brigade Group moved off, followed next morning by 4 Brigade Group and Divisional Headquarters. Sixth Brigade Group left on the third day, all formations concentrating in the divisional assembly area in the vicinity of Qaret el Kanayis, about 60 miles west of Baggush.
The date of 6 Brigade's departure was the 13th but superstition did not seem to worry anyone, least of all General Freyberg, who had a series of ‘thirteens’ at this time. He left Baggush for the assembly area on the 13th, had thirteen to dinner at his mess the previous night, and the division he commanded was part of 13 Corps. Incidentally, the despatch bag he carried was the one he had in the tremendous battle of the Ancre, twenty-five years previously to the day.
The RAF gave protection during the march and the sight of many aircraft in the skies, all British, was exhilarating. No enemy aircraft were seen though the night before they had been bombing Matruh and Fuka, which they illuminated with parachute flares. An air liaison officer from the RAF, Wing Commander Magill, appropriately a New Zealander, was attached to Divisional Headquarters for the campaign.
In 6 Brigade 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery and 33 Anti-Tank Battery came under command and took up positions allotted page 90 to them within the Brigade Group for defence against air and tank attack respectively, both during the march and when bivouacked. One section (three guns) of 43 LAA Battery and one troop (four guns) of 33 Anti-Tank Battery came under command of 25 Battalion for a similar purpose. The section of anti-aircraft guns, however, was passed over to the ASC units at the end of the first day's march.
Very large numbers of vehicles were on the roads everywhere and no lights were allowed in the bivouac area, so that the evening meal had to be prepared and eaten in daylight. The troops rested on the 14th when instructions for resuming the advance were given at a brigade conference, where plans for the campaign were fully discussed with all officers down to and including company commanders. Thirteenth Corps operation instructions were also read to and discussed with commanding officers by Brigadier Barrowclough.
The 15th November was a beautiful day with no wind, and the whole division, in desert formation, moved westwards for 44 miles. This enormous mass of transport, guns, carriers and tanks, moving at 200 yards' interval over the vast desert plain, was a most impressive spectacle. General Freyberg's diary gives an apt description:
‘Seen from any slight vantage point on top of an undulation, 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 speed was restricted to seven miles in the hour, as the country was very stony, with great slabs of ‘crazy pavement’ at times and patches of scrub, around the base of which the sand had packed in small, hard mounds up to a foot high. These provided a most uncomfortable passage for vehicles (and a very much worse one for the crowded troops inside) and were indeed a real obstacle to progress and a danger to axles and springs.
‘Thousands of vehicles were on the move en masse as far as the eye could see, sometimes necessarily slowly in low gear when there was treacherous ground to be negotiated, and at other times at what seemed breakneck speed whenever the going developed into long stretches of hard-crusted gravel and sand.
‘For the mortarmen who were stretched out on the back of their trucks on tarpaulins, observation was very good, but only page 91 up to a point. For instance they had to face the full force of all weather, which at that time of the year was often bitterly cold, and whenever the convoy ploughed through one of the numerous sandy patches billowing clouds of fine dusty sand would rise from every vehicle, and if the stretch was a long one, would increase in density until vision was obliterated as in a terrific sandstorm. Fortunately these patches were usually heralded by warning shouts from occupants of the forward vehicles. … Almost invariably they emerged from these man-made sandstorms completely covered with a thin layer of dust and looking for all the world like flour men. Often too they would be almost thrown off the back of their truck through a sudden swerve by the driver to avoid crashing into bogged trucks in front, whose indistinct outline would only become visible when one was right on top of them, at a distance of only a few yards.’
The battalion moved with 6 Brigade Group in the right-rear of the Division. Hourly halts were observed and the bivouac area was reached about 6 p.m., when the units dispersed to their allotted positions for the night. Next day, Sunday, 16 November, the GOC 13 Corps, Lieutenant-General Godwin- Austen, visited 6 Brigade Headquarters, where he met Colonel McNaught and his company commanders. The day was mild, once the sun rose, but was rather windy and dust was rising later in the day. The Division began to move on at 5.30 p.m. and for this night march 6 Brigade Group moved on a nine-vehicle front, with not more than ten yards between vehicles and at a speed of four miles in the hour. A large British minefield lay directly ahead of the Division, and to avoid it the direction was changed, after the first 15 miles, from south-west to almost due south for four miles before again turning to the south-west, no small manoeuvre for such a mass of vehicles. When the Division halted for the night, just before midnight, the minefield lay within half a mile of the troops on the northern limits of the Division. Fourth Indian Division, old friends of the New Zealanders, had marked the southern end of the field with red lights for that night and the New Zealand Provost Company had set out lines of green lights at intervals of a thousand yards to help the units forming this great mass of vehicles to reach their proper areas.
The battalion covered about 23 miles that night, reaching the dispersal area a little before midnight. It was a very cold ride and the men remained in the vehicles in their close night page 92 formation till dawn, when the widespread daylight formation was adopted; slit trenches were dug, guns, protected by infantry detachments, were placed on the flanks in an anti-tank role, and the men slept and rested as best they could for the daylight hours. A cold wind which raised the sand made conditions unpleasant. At dawn that day thirteen to fifteen squadrons (about 180 aircraft) of the RAF were to attack Gazala aerodrome, 40 miles west of Tobruk. The only enemy aircraft spotted since the Division left Baggush were five Messerschmits seen in the sun on the first day.
The advance was resumed in the evening to the accompaniment of a large electrical storm to the north, which naturally gave rise to a good deal of speculation as to its cause. Some rather wild theories were advanced to explain it. There was no thunder and the absence of noise ruled out any ideas that a big battle was in progress. The battalion halted shortly after midnight, in the very early hours of the 18th, and the usual routine followed. This was D1 day, the master or controlling day for the planning of the operations, so designated to keep secret the actual date, minus signs being used to indicate prior days, D-I day being the 17th, D-2 day the 16th and so on, while D2 day would be 19 November.
The general plan for the British offensive was briefly this. The Eighth Army was divided into four groups, 30 Corps, 13 Corps, Oasis Group, and the Tobruk garrison. Thirtieth Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Norrie,10 consisted of 7 Armoured Division, 22 Guards Brigade and 1 South African Division (less one brigade). Its role was the destruction of the enemy's armoured forces and then the relief of Tobruk.
Thirteenth Corps (Lieutenant-General Godwin-Austen) comprised 4 Indian Division, New Zealand Division, and 1 Army Tank Brigade, plus additional artillery. Its task was to isolate the enemy's forward defensive area (Libyan Omar—Halfaya Pass —Sollum—Capuzzo—Bardia) by advancing northwards around its southern flank and later mop it up.
The Oasis Group, a mixed column situated at Giarabub (an oasis about 130 miles south of Sollum), was to move westwards in an attempt to deceive the enemy, capture the oases of Augila and Gialo, and if possible cut the road near Agedabia (about 250 miles west of Tobruk) or elsewhere near the Gulf of Sirte.page 93
In the period up to the beginning of the offensive, the RAF was to restrict enemy reconnaissance and interfere with his supply system on land and sea. After the battle started strong fighter sweeps were to protect the advancing columns and escort the bombers attacking the supply system and communications, and also take part in direct support of the Army.
The Royal Navy was to continue waging its relentless and highly successful war against the enemy sea routes to North Africa. It was also to bombard Sollum, Bardia, the enemy positions around Tobruk, and other points, and threaten enemy communications along the coast.
On 18 November 30 Corps started its northward advance. Its operations were on a wide front, extending 50 miles westwards of the frontier, while in 13 Corps 4 Indian Division was edging closer to the frontier defences. Fourth Armoured Brigade was moving into position a few miles westward of the frontier, to operate on the right flank of 30 Corps and in contact with the left flank of 13 Corps. It had the dual role of co-operating with the rest of 7 Armoured Division and protecting the left flank of 13 Corps.
Until the late afternoon of 18 November, while the movements just described were taking place, the New Zealand Division remained in its dispersal area about 15 miles east of the frontier. In the morning two enemy reconnaissance aircraft passed over but the day was uneventful. At the usual conference at Brigade Headquarters to receive orders and information, Colonel McNaught learnt that there was some concern at Divisional Headquarters regarding the petrol situation, as owing to the very slow speeds at night and the prolonged low-gear work, the consumption had upset all calculations. This crisis, however, was overcome, though the NZASC unit con cerned had to work ‘overtime’ to do so.
At 5.30 p.m. 25 Battalion resumed the advance westwards, crossing into Libya about 8.30 p.m. through a gap in the frontier wire. The night was cold and bracing as the vehicles halted half an hour before midnight at the dispersal area about four miles west of the frontier. As usual the closed-up night forma tion was maintained till dawn. During the night the sound of heavy gunfire to the north, where 4 Indian Division was facing Sidi Omar, and the vivid flashes of the guns made everyone realise that the war was now on their doorstep.page 94
It was now 19 November, and with the rest of the Division 25 Battalion moved out to its dispersal area, the whole division being in a defensive position awaiting the outcome of the armoured battle.
There was a little excitement in the afternoon when two enemy aircraft attacked a target to the south of the battalion and were heavily engaged by light anti-aircraft fire. Apart from this the skies were clear of the enemy, the RAF holding visible and indisputable command of the air. The absence of enemy aircraft seemed rather extraordinary and so out of character that there was a feeling that something big was brewing, ‘the calm before the storm’. It was learnt later that the electrical storm on the night of the 17th had brought very heavy rain along the coastal strip, flooding some of the enemy airfields. This, together with the very successful RAF attacks on aircraft on the ground, explained the enemy air inactivity.
News was received during the day that the armoured battle had begun and that 4 Indian Division was investing the Omars, 16 miles south-west of Sollum and the same distance northwards of the Division. In the afternoon a tank battle between 4 Armoured Brigade and 21 Panzer Division developed 20 miles to the north-east of the New Zealand Division.
The Division had been warned that it would probably advance to the Trigh el Abd, ten miles to the north, after 7 Indian Brigade had taken Bu Deheua, which was ten miles north of the Trigh. An order to move as soon as possible arrived early in the afternoon and the march was timed to start at 3 p.m. This move at short notice showed the great difficulty of getting the whole Division into motion from desert formation, and as a result of delays the destination on the Trigh, 14 miles to the north-west, was not reached till after dark. Consequently, as General Freyberg said, ‘we were not in a good defensive position on the first occasion we had been in close proximity to enemy tanks.’ Twenty-fifth Battalion was situated close to Trig 190, nine miles south-west of Sidi Omar, where the enemy was still holding out. Tobruk was 70 miles to the north-west. Wakeling in his diary describes some of the air activity of the day:
‘2 Hun planes over—hot reception from our Bofors. A great sight at 1.15 p.m. as 36 of our planes going up passed 24 coming back and on the ground 15 tanks heading for the Hun. Another 24 planes went up at 1.30.’page 95
According to General Freyberg's diary, from information available at 9 a.m. on the 20th, 22 Armoured Brigade on the left of the northern advance had knocked out forty-five tanks of Ariete Division and was moving north towards El Adem (about eight miles south of the Tobruk defences); 1 South African Division was approaching El Gubi (14 miles south of El Adem) to provide a secure base for the forces operating near Tobruk. Seventh Armoured Brigade Group was pressing north in the centre on to the escarpment east of Tobruk; 4 Armoured Brigade Group on the right of the northern advance had engaged enemy tanks five miles north of the New Zealand Division that morning: it then advanced towards Bir el Hamarin (12 miles north of 25 Battalion). Later in the day General Freyberg was told that 4 Armoured Brigade was moving north towards Tobruk and that the Division was to make itself secure where it was in case the enemy struck south.
In the afternoon two enemy aircraft approached 25 Battalion's position and were driven off by fire from LAA guns, but otherwise there was no revival of enemy air activity. The battalion was kept ready for an immediate move and the carrier platoon, together with the attached anti-tank troop, formed a protective screen on the right flank, under the command of Major Burton,11 who was second-in-command of the battalion in the absence of Major George at Baggush, as well as OC Headquarters Company. Various warning orders to move were received and later cancelled as rapidly changing situations developed in the armoured operations elsewhere.
The general situation at this stage seemed to be developing favourably, but the mobility of the contending forces created fresh situations at short notice over a vast area, and neither side could be quite certain of its opponent's dispositions.
The night was very cold and the morning of the 21st was overcast, with low, dark cloud. The men found it difficult to keep warm and, as was to be expected, footballs appeared and were kicked and chased about with great zest. From intelligence reports that morning it was learnt that about 200 enemy tanks the previous afternoon had been opposing 4 Armoured Brigade 17 miles north of the New Zealand Division, the battle moving southwards, while 22 Armoured Brigade was coming across from page 96 the west to render assistance. It was clear, therefore, that the Division might very well have had a battle with enemy armour on its hands.
The air situation remained favourable and sweeps of British fighter aircraft were passing over the New Zealanders every hour from 6.30 a.m., ‘like a tram service’ as the divisional diary put it. It appeared that the actions on the morning and evening of the 20th by 4 and 22 Armoured Brigades were against the main enemy armoured forces, which were reported to be withdrawing at full speed, pursued by 4 Armoured Brigade. An intercepted enemy message said that ‘the situation was one of extreme urgency’.
The general situation now seemed favourable enough to permit the New Zealand Division to assume a more active role. The battalion received a warning at 11 a.m., the Division began to move a little after midday and 25 Battalion at 2 p.m., passing half an hour later just to the rear of the artillery of 4 Indian Division shelling Libyan Omar. No one had any wish to loiter as the enemy was replying briskly and shells were falling too close for comfort.
The Divisional Cavalry was leading the advance, reporting successive ‘bounds’ clear of the enemy and so enabling the rest of the Division, some miles back, to follow in safety. Sixth Brigade Group was the rear formation and, as was the case with the other two brigade groups, had all-round defence and a reserve composed of one-third of the field and anti-tank artillery. At dusk the Divisional Cavalry surprised Sidi Azeiz (ten miles west of the enemy-held Bardia defences), taking fifty-three prisoners, and moving on in the dark secured the final bound, the escarpment overlooking the Bardia-Tobruk road.
An hour after the Division had left Trigh el Abd, General Freyberg had a discussion with the brigadiers and issued orders. Sixth Brigade Group was to move north to El Hariga, 16 miles west of the Bardia defences, stay astride the Trigh Capuzzo until dawn, and then attack any enemy units in the vicinity. Resuming the advance at 4.15 p.m., with 25 Battalion on the right and 24 Battalion on the left, and halting at Bir et-Tgheit to issue verbal orders, the Brigade Group moved steadily northwards. At 6 p.m. soft mud due to the recent storm caused considerable delay. Detours involving careful exploration were necessary, but three hours later the march was continued though soft areas difficult to negotiate were still encountered.page 97
A few minutes after midnight 25 Battalion had a minor encounter with the enemy. ‘…. we stumbled on a German LAD unit,’ wrote Colonel McNaught. ‘My Intelligence Officer was about 50 yards ahead of me with three Bren Carriers for protection. He was doing the navigating. There loomed up in the dark a number of vehicles and a figure stepped out from near one. Fraser12 promptly raised his revolver and challenged. The German officer dropped his revolver and surrendered. My Intelligence Section then investigated one vehicle and found one officer and six other men asleep. They were bagged. Then I got a platoon and we pulled out about 18 more. We took two of the big trucks and put our prisoners into them. Brigade HQ grabbed a small Fiat car and we went on.’
Major Burton also referred to this encounter: ‘About midnight the Brigade advanced troops consisting of our Intelligence section and Bren carriers ran right into a German Tank LAD, two officers and 18 other ranks being captured. Eleven vehicles and a considerable amount of equipment were handed over to Brigade and there was a lot that wasn't handed over. Our Bren Carrier personnel could substantiate this statement. There was not a better-equipped platoon on the desert than the 25th Battalion Carrier Platoon.’
L. Grant13 of the Carrier Platoon wrote: ‘.… we encountered a small group of German vehicles unguarded. They called to our crew for volunteers and we didn't need to be asked twice. Being the gunner in the forward vehicle, I helped to investigate and discovered it to be a complete unit for maintaining trucks. We roused the poor devils out of their bunks, made them dress and loaded them on a truck, 22 of them. Their trucks and gear were very high class, some trucks being V 8s, the first German ones I had contacted.’
The going was still very heavy and as the Group was making little progress, the Brigadier decided to halt till first light. The force then moved on to the Trigh Capuzzo, two miles to the west of Sidi Azeiz, and turning to the west, moved a couple of miles nearer Bir el Hariga at 9.45 a.m. B Company (less one platoon) and a section of carriers reconnoitred the vicinity of the escarpment but found no sign of enemy occupation. Sixth Brigade Group then prepared for its next probable task, an advance to Bir el Chleta and Gambut, 20 miles to the west.page 98
Meanwhile, 5 Brigade Group had moved on to Sidi Azeiz, which it held with 22 Battalion, while it sent 23 Battalion against Fort Capuzzo, 11 miles to the south-east. That battalion captured the fort during the night. Fourth Brigade Group had also been active, passing Sidi Azeiz at midnight and pressing on to the escarpment overlooking the Bardia-Tobruk road, where it surprised an enemy camp. As the light strengthened on the morning of the 22nd, its artillery had perfect targets on the road. All telegraph wires were cut and many vehicles and prisoners captured, together with valuable codes, documents, and maps. In that position 4 Brigade Group was blocking the coast road west of Bardia, which was held by a strong enemy garrison.
In the afternoon General Freyberg was told that the Support Group of 7 Armoured Division had been surrounded and General Gott had asked if 6 Brigade could be accelerated to relieve it. Brigadier Barrowclough was ordered to push on to Sidi Rezegh and start fighting. In the meantime 6 Brigade Group, which at 3 p.m. had been reinforced by a squadron of Valentine tanks and was to come under command of 30 Corps, began advancing westwards a quarter of an hour later. After 18 miles were covered a halt was called for an hour while the advanced guard cleared minor enemy forces from Gasr el Arid, three or four miles ahead and 25 miles from Sidi Rezegh.
The advance was continued until about 8 p.m., when the force halted for a much-needed meal and rest. The Brigade Commander decided to resume the march eight hours later. Orders from 30 Corps by liaison officer instructed that the Brigade Group was to proceed with all speed to Sidi Rezegh and establish an all-round defence on Hill 175, which was on the escarpment six miles east of Sidi Rezegh.
Brigadier Barrowclough called in his battalion commanders to discuss the situation and give his orders. After another brief conference, McNaught had the misfortune about 3 a.m. on the 23rd to lose his Adjutant (Mason), his sergeant-clerk (Heyward14), his driver and his car, and has written this account of the circumstances:
‘Conference with the Brigadier from 9–10.30 p.m. It was decided that my battalion should lead the next day. The move was set down for 3 a.m. and we were to go about 20 miles to attack Sidi Rezegh (just a series of hills and ravines on the page 99 escarpment). We were now under command of 30th Corps … and our instructions were to leave out Gambut (originally we were to attack it) by going south and then swinging north-west. Quite a number of things did not go according to plan. One was a personal point. Having taken my battalion to the head of the column at 3 a.m. and seen that the tanks (we had a squadron) were alongside and my anti-tank guns in position I went back 200 yards in my car to report to the Brigadier. I haven't seen the car since, or my driver, Adjutant, and Sgt Heyward and my gear.’
‘Later that night,’ wrote Major Burton, ‘the C.O. informed us that his car, with Adjutant, Sergeant, and the driver, were numbered with the missing, but he had hopes of them turning up later. And so they did! The Sergeant returned some months later when Bardia was captured, the Adjutant in 1944, and driver in 1945.’
About 4 a.m. the whole Brigade Group was moving westwards with 25 Battalion on the right, 24 on the left, 26 Battalion right-rear, Brigade Headquarters and 6 Field Regiment in the middle, and tanks and anti-tank guns on the flanks. The force moved on compass bearings calculated to bring it on to the escarpment 5000 yards south of Bir el Chleta, a place likely to be occupied by the enemy and so to be avoided to prevent delay. But after a halt was called for breakfast at 6 a.m., just before dawn, it was discovered that the Brigade Group was on the Trigh Capuzzo close to Bir el Chleta. This navigational error was to cause an extraordinary accidental collision with the enemy, which may well have had a considerable effect on the important and widespread operations of the next few days, very much to the disadvantage of the enemy.
The moment the force halted, everyone was busy preparing a meal in which hot tea would occupy pride of place and innumerable small fires sprang up all around. At 6.30 a.m. when the visibility had increased to about 300 yards, a column of armoured cars, staff cars, lorried infantry, and towed anti-tank guns appeared, unobserved of course by the majority of the men, whose first intimation of anything amiss was the sudden, startling roar of our artillery and anti-tank guns, firing at point-blank range.
At the head of the battalion the first sign of anything unusual was the capture of a young German medical officer, who was between McNaught's and McBride's15 vehicles. ‘A few minutes page 100 later,’ wrote McNaught, ‘a group of stationary vehicles was seen parked beside those of B Coy and C Coy. Fire opened from these first and then was heard the roar of our artillery in the rear. I then got into a Bren carrier and went round the bn area, urging the troops to get into action outside the vehicle lines. This was done very promptly by all, the officers having already taken the necessary steps, despite the surprise and the incredulity of the men that such a thing could happen to them. When I returned to the head of the column I talked with the Brig on the wireless, who wanted to know what it was all about. He wanted to be sure we were not just firing on our own troops. I assured him we were not and he asked if I could go across to see him. As all the commotion except on the right of A Coy had now died down, I went across in a Bren.’
Lance-Sergeant Huse16 of 13 Platoon C Company said: ‘November 23, 1941 was the day when everything happened to me…. Since crossing the wire we had been acting as a protection platoon for a 6th Field Regt detachment on the perimeter of the Brigade convoy…. Nov. 23 started with an early brush with … the staff echelon of some Panzer outfit. This approached us in the half-light … just after dawn. An artillery despatch-rider was sent across to investigate and when, having identified the Germans at uncomfortably-close quarters, he swung his motor bike about and came hurtling back, everything started to happen. Our artillery opened up at point blank range and had most of the enemy vehicles in flames in a matter of minutes. One small group led by a German staff car headed straight for our platoon lines, firing as they came, and these were stopped with small arms fire. Prisoners taken included a German Colonel and his adjutant, both wounded.’
‘The Battalion was now the forward battalion of the Brigade,’ said Burton, ‘and our flank guard was recalled to form a forward protective screen. On seeing two somewhat suspicious looking tanks not far away we moved toward them but they disappeared. They were bearing our red-and-white distinguishing mark and were also flying their pennants in the approved manner for the period. We were at this time about 1000 yards to the flank of the Battalion and, looking down the escarpment we could see a very large column approaching along the desert road leading from Gambut. We watched this column and at first thought it to be the 5th Brigade, which we believed had page 101 been operating in that area. However we soon discovered that a large enemy column was about to run right into our Brigade. The alarm was given and our guns opened fire at point-blank range. A Company were quickly in action. The carriers and anti-tank guns returned to the flank and were soon in action.
‘The Germans were not long in recovering from their shock and retaliated vigorously with their small but efficient anti-tank guns. They firstly knocked out my truck, fatally wounding Don Smart,17 the driver, and severely wounding … [Alf] Stott.18 Two carriers were knocked out and two Bren Carrier Corporals were killed (Cpls Pine19 and Charteris20). One three-ton truck was also a write-off. Our R.S.M. and several others were wounded.
‘While this encounter was in progress the Brigade moved on, leaving A Company and a section of carriers to cover their movement. The Brigade moved westward toward Sidi Rezegh, along the high ground, whilst simultaneously the enemy moved westward toward Sidi Rezegh below the escarpment.’
Continuing his account, McNaught wrote: ‘The Brigadier sent for me and said we'd have to disengage from battle as we had to push on…. We took quite a number of prisoners and did considerable damage to the enemy. They did not molest us as we left, but they had done us out of our breakfast. By the time we had formed up on the escarpment it was 10 o'clock and we pushed rapidly on.’
It was soon discovered that this encounter was not only a collision with an enemy column, as was at first thought, but also involved the headquarters of the Africa Corps, which was overrun by 25 Battalion. No connected account of the action is possible as personal accounts are localised by the limits of vision of the observers. It seems, however, that Africa Corps Headquarters was encamped near Bir el Chleta, with a German supply unit a mile or so to its north, and that 25 Battalion halted between the two. Sixth Brigade Headquarters was to the left-rear (south-east) of 25 Battalion so that the German headquarters was more or less sandwiched between the two. Twenty- page 102 fourth Battalion was on the escarpment and south of Brigade Headquarters, while 26 Battalion was some distance east of 24 Battalion.
A German column then came down from the north, passing through the rear of 25 Battalion and Brigade Headquarters and coming up on the left or southern flank of 25 Battalion.
When the firing started the rear part of the German column swung westward between the right or northern flank of 25 Battalion and the German unit to the north, resulting in the lively fighting and the close-range targets for the New Zealand artillery, as already described. Although the Corps Commander (General Cruewell) and some of his staff had left a few minutes earlier, several of his senior staff officers were captured, together with many valuable documents, including the enemy code list for the day and most of the Corps' wireless sets. Among the prisoners was Colonel Lavera di Maria, the chief Italian liaison officer at Corps Headquarters. Over 200 prisoners were taken and the Germans lost quite a few killed and wounded as well as equipment and supplies. The loss of the main wireless vehicles of the Africa Corps was severely felt throughout the campaign. Twenty-fifth Battalion's casualties were five killed and five wounded. Two brigade signalmen at Battalion Headquarters were also killed. Two carriers were destroyed and Burton's anti-aircraft machine-gun truck lost; several vehicles were damaged.
As mentioned by McNaught, the advance was resumed, 25 Battalion moving to the top of the escarpment, covered by its rearguard. The right flank-guard—A Company, carrier platoon, K Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery, and a troop of 29 Field Battery —under Major Burton, resumed its role and was soon required to deal with enemy troops along the escarpment whose small-arms fire was troubling the main body. The carrier platoon was given the task and silenced or overran a succession of machine-gun posts situated mostly in the wadis at the edge of the escarpment.
There were several good opportunities of ‘mopping-up’ parties of the enemy but, somewhat to the mystification of some of the men, nothing was done about them, ‘the Brigadier’, in the words of one of the men, ‘seeming to have an urgent appointment further west’, as indeed he had. That appointment was looming up before 25 Battalion which, before many hours had passed, was to be engaged in a difficult and desperate battle.
1 Brig G. Dittmer, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Maharahara, 4 Jun 1893; Regular soldier; Auckland Regt 1914–19 (OC 1 NZ Entrenching Bn); CO 28 (Maori) Bn Jan 1940–Feb 1942; comd 1 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) Apr 1942–Aug 1943; 1 Div Aug 1942–Jan 1943; Fiji Military Forces and Fiji Inf Bde Gp Sep 1943–Nov 1945; Commander, Central Military District, 1946-48.
2 Rt. Rev. G. V. Gerard. CBE, MC, m.i.d.; Rotherham, England; born Christchurch, 24 Nov 1898; Lt, The Buffs, 1918–19 (MC); SCF, 2 NZEF, May 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. 1 Dec 1941; repatriated Apr 1943; SCF, 2 NZEF (IP), Apr-Dec 1944.
8 Left out of battle.
11 Lt-Col H. G. Burton, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Christchurch, 1 Dec 1899; plumber; NZ Mtd Rifles 1918–19; actg CO 25 Bn 23 Nov-5, Dec 1941; CO 25 Bn 22 Jul-12 Sep 1942; CO 1 and 2 Trg Units, 1944.