CHAPTER 4 — Sidi Rezegh
Shortly before 11 a.m. the battalion halted 4000 yards east of Point 175. This feature was merely a trig point on almost flat ground rising very gently towards it from the east. The trig was marked by a cairn of stones and was shown on the map by an egg-shaped contour 1500 yards from east to west by 800 yards wide and 175 metres in height above sea level. Six hundred yards to the north of the trig point the ground fell sharply about eighty feet down an escarpment to flat ground, traversed from east to west by the desert track, the Trigh Capuzzo, a mile to the north of the trig. An unnamed wadi or gully 3000 yards east of the trig ran in a southerly direction for 1200 yards from the escarpment. Some 2500 yards west of Point 175, another wadi, the Rugbet en Nbeidat, pierced the escarpment and ran in a south-easterly direction, passing the trig 1200 yards to the south-west and reaching the 170-metre level 2300 yards to the south-east. Apart from the two wadis the whole of the nearby country south of the escarpment was on about the 170–175 metre level and gently rising towards a further low escarpment a couple of miles away.
The ground generally was even, featureless, and devoid of cover except for scattered, stunted saltbush nine to twelve inches in height. The surface was sand with rock or hard-packed sand approaching sandstone a few inches down.
About 11 a.m. on 23 November Colonel McNaught received verbal orders from Brigadier Barrowclough to attack and capture Point 175 immediately and to consolidate and hold it. The operation was urgent, said the Brigadier, and McNaught agreed that he could start the attack within half an hour. The company commanders and other officers were summoned and given their orders. They were told there was no information as to the strength of the enemy holding the position but it was thought to be lightly held. The general situation was then explained. The remainder of the New Zealand Division was in the Capuzzo area; a South African brigade was somewhere in the vicinity to the south of 6 Brigade, and 26 Battalion and 30 Battery were to move south to gain touch with it. Information regarding the British armoured forces was vague.page 104
The axis of advance, first stated to be 309 degrees, was later corrected by the IO to 312 degrees. The start line, which was being laid out at the time, was about 2700 yards from the objective and was immediately to the west of the unnamed wadi. The starting time was 11.30 a.m. As soon as the objective was reached, transport was to move forward with ammunition and tools.
The timing of the attack gave the company commanders and other officers no chance to study the ground though they were able to see something of it during the issuing of orders. No time was available to do more than issue the barest essential instructions to platoon commanders and for the latter to instruct their section leaders, who would pass on to the men the little information they had. The men in the ranks had therefore little knowledge of the general plan of attack, though, indeed, with such meagre information regarding the enemy and his position, there was little to tell them; in such flat, featureless country all that could be done was to move forward in more or less orthodox attack formation and deal with tactical problems as they developed.
Captain McBride commanding B Company on the right decided to attack with two platoons forward; the right platoon, No. 10 (Second-Lieutenant Cathie3) was to deal with the escarpment and everything over the edge of it, while the left platoon, No. 11 (Lieutenant Tredray4), would move forward to the right of the cairn, which, as mentioned previously, was in D Company's sector. The reserve platoon, No. 12 (Lieutenant Morris), was to follow 300 yards in rear. The total extent of B Company's front, from the escarpment to the cairn, was about 600 yards.
On the left D Company (Major Hastie) was also to have two platoons forward, 17 (Lieutenant Clarry5) on the right and page 106 16 (Lieutenant Handyside) on the left, with the reserve platoon, No. 18 (Second-Lieutenant Holt6) following in the centre 800 yards to the rear. The company had an open left flank.
The Rugbet en Nbeidat had its origin immediately to the left of D Company at the start line, about 500 yards from the inter-company boundary. The wadi ran almost due west (and therefore at an angle of forty degrees to the axis of advance) for 2500 yards, at which point it was 2000 yards south of the trig on Point 175. It then turned to the north-west, passing through the escarpment as already described. This wadi diverging from the axis of advance, together with the CO's instructions (when amended orders were issued) to pay special attention to the area left of the trig, were no doubt largely the cause of D Company moving too far to its left during the attack, as will presently be referred to.
While Colonel McNaught was giving his orders firing was taking place to the right of the start line on or below the lip of the escarpment. There A Company was deployed covering the right rear of B Company, while the latter was forming up on the start line, and was clearing up enemy pockets. Lieutenant Jack,7 commanding 9 Platoon, wrote: ‘Advanced to the north, that is to the escarpment to mop up suspected enemy pockets … 9 Platoon fired on by enemy machine gunner from stone cairn on edge of escarpment soon after this advance commenced —pinned down for a few minutes, enemy gunner shot and killed by Pte N. Peterson.8 Advance then continued to escarpment and the area below—this had obviously been hurriedly evacuated and no further enemy was located.’
Commenting on the firing heard to the right of the start line, Major Burton says: ‘This firing could also have come from some of our carriers which had moved forward below the escarpment from Bir Chleta, part of the flank guard.’
At 11.30 a.m. the leading sections of B and D Companies advanced to the attack, but ten minutes later orders to halt the attack and wait for tank support were received. The company commanders were called in and amended orders issued. They were told that probably the enemy was in strength and on the high ground on both sides of the Rugbet en Nbeidat; page 107 he probably had tanks and perhaps some captured British ones. C Squadron 8 Royal Tank Regiment, with sixteen Valentine tanks (Mark III Star) and two troops, each of four two-pounder anti-tank guns en portée (K and J Troops), had been placed under the command of the battalion.
The tanks would advance in two waves, the first at a top speed of fifteen miles per hour to capture the objective, crossing the start line at noon; the second wave would move with the reserve company (C Company) 800 yards behind the leading companies and at the same pace as the infantry. The tank commander was instructed to consult Colonel McNaught on the objective before bringing the tanks back to a rallying position to the rear of the objective. Coming out, the tanks would move by the right or northern flank.
The Bren carriers of the battalion would move immediately behind the first tank wave, also at fifteen miles per hour, and assist the tanks. The reserve mortar section of two mortars (each forward company had a detachment of two mortars, it will be recalled) would move near advanced battalion headquarters.
The infantry rate of advance was to be 100 yards per minute, the normal marching pace along a road and so a fast rate across country. The object of this was to get the infantry on to the objective as soon as possible after the tanks for mutual protection; the speed of the tanks was no doubt determined with a view to their overrunning the foremost enemy defences before these could effectively oppose the infantry, and also perhaps to achieve some measure of surprise. McNaught stressed his opinion that the area to the left of the cairn would be strongly held and he instructed Hastie, commanding D Company, to pay particular attention to that area and to ensure that it was cleared.
As there was little information regarding the enemy positions the artillery support would have to be left largely to Major Wilson to arrange. Fire was to be opened at noon against earthworks that were visible, to cover the initial assault, after which the artillery OP officers would engage any other targets that were available. Until the enemy disclosed his positions or better observation was available, the rate of fire would be slow, i.e., two rounds per gun per minute. After the position was taken fire was to be on observed targets; Major Wilson was to accompany Colonel McNaught during the advance.page 108
A section of two anti-tank guns of K Troop was to move 800 yards behind D Company and prevent enemy tanks from moving on to ground captured by our troops, and the other two K Troop guns were to protect the right flank.
Respirators and greatcoats were to be left behind and the transport (excepting platoon trucks, which would go as far forward as possible) would remain under the Headquarters Company in its present position about 1200 yards east of the start line. Wireless sets were to be issued to B and D Companies. It was found later, however, that D Company did not get a set and messages to and from that company were taken by despatch rider or runner. The RAP was established by the MO (Lieutenant McCarthy9) in the unnamed wadi, just to the east of the start line.
The orders were completed a quarter of an hour before the starting time, and as the battalion was already deployed in its battle formation, with the two leading companies each on a front of about 400 yards, once more the orders could reach few beyond the platoon and section commanders.
At noon the attack was resumed. The tanks, travelling at fifteen miles per hour as ordered, were on the objective six minutes later under covering fire from the artillery and had no difficulty at this stage in neutralising or silencing the enemy posts. The Bren carriers, which had been refuelling, were late in getting up and the leading sections of B and D Companies were of course several hundred yards behind the tanks but were advancing rapidly. ‘The tanks went too fast and we couldn't keep up,’ wrote Handyside, commanding 16 Platoon, evidence that at least some details of the orders did not reach the platoon commanders. The Bren carriers soon joined the tanks and closely supported them as they cruised round on the objective, firing their guns and machine guns in all directions at enemy targets to protect the advancing infantry.
McNaught ordered the artillery at six minutes past twelve to cease fire on targets at the objective; fire was then directed against observed targets. During the advance D Company had moved too far to the left and a gap of 700 yards had opened between B and D Companies.
‘During the approach to the objective when some 500 yards short of it,’ wrote Major Hastie, ‘I noticed with concern that the gap between D and B Companies was increasing consider- page 109 ably and as my left flank did not appear to be coming into enemy held ground I ordered an almost half right wheel by the two forward platoons in order to help close the gap. Just after this Sergeant Young10 of the mortar section asked if he could assist with some mortar fire as we were getting a considerable amount of MG and rifle fire. I told him to do so but to watch out for our tanks, one of which was on part of the objective….’
The enemy had opened fire on D Company as 16 and 17 Platoons approached the forward defences after an advance of about twenty minutes. ‘When about 100 yards off the enemy FDL he opened up with Spandaus and mortars,’ said Lieutenant Handyside, ‘and we started getting casualties. From here we went in rushes with sections covering each other and were soon about 25 yds from the Jerries, who started putting up their hands. I told the boys to run forward all together and take them prisoner. I got halfway up myself when I got hit by a bullet which shattered my arm above the elbow and knocked me head over heels. The Jerries then all surrendered and a good swag of them. Panzer Grenadiers I think they were. That was the last I saw of the surviving 16 Pl. As far as I know, 12 were killed and the rest prisoners, except four of us wounded who got out that night. There was no cover except low scrub about 9 inches high. The ground as flat as a board and the enemy on higher ground. We had no artillery support for the attack (i.e., after 12.6 p.m.) but the tanks had softened him up a bit I think. I believe almost all the tanks were knocked out by the time we got there.
‘I lay on the ground and C Coy passed over us. A 3-tonnei came up but got shot up. The Jerries then counter-attacked with one tank that I saw and plenty of infantry. One of our Bren carriers fought a good rearguard here, slowly giving ground and firing single shots all the time from its gun. The German tank was knocked out finally after 39 direct hits from a 2- pounder (I quote Mick Ollivier11 who was commanding these guns).
‘The other wounded and I spent the rest of the day among the Jerry, who were battling then with 24th Bn that had been brought up. One man got hit again. At dusk a Hun showed us where our lines were and when it was darker told us to go page 110 back there, which we did. The chap with me pulled himself along on his hands for 2½ hrs., as he had a broken leg. The 24th Bn wanted to take a shot at us, but we talked them out of it.’
With the assistance of carriers, which throughout the day gave most valuable and gallant service, D Company occupied the forward or eastern enemy fire-pits, collecting 200–250 prisoners who, under a small escort, were sent to the rear. ‘We were ordered to dig in,’ said Private Walker,12 16 Platoon. ‘Hopeless task—hard ground—no tools. Used small holes vacated by Gs no more than six inches deep. In a short time we were fiercely attacked by two or maybe three G tanks on our flank. We quickly turned our face to meet them but Bren and rifle fire not much good. Tanks advanced with their machine guns sweeping and G infantry moving behind. I was using a G Sp MG and owing to its height above ground etc I and the gun were hit by a burst from tank no. 1, which could not have been more than 50 yds from me. We were finally ordered to surrender by Major Hastie at approx 3 p.m. … We were taken to a German field dressing station and given first aid.’
Private Elliott,13 18 Platoon, which was D Company's reserve, had much the same experience. ‘After advancing about 2000 yards,’ he wrote, ‘we came under heavy fire from mortars and machine guns. Lt Holt was killed, shot twice by a sniper whom we suspected to be lurking in a derelict German Half-Track. A few bursts from the Bren seemed to settle him! …’ After capturing prisoners and occuping the position, the platoon was counter-attacked by infantry who were repulsed. ‘Shortly after a number of German tanks surrounded our position,’ Elliott continued. ‘We became from then on guests, first of the Italians and later again, of the Germans.’
A Bren-gunner of 18 Platoon, Private Gyde,14 mentioned that ‘the prisoners I believe, were taken back by Ptes P. Greenlees15 of Waitara, J. Gray,16 and Rae.17 As far as I know they page 111 were the only three men who were able to get back. Lt Holt … was killed very early on in the attack. Sgt T. Tattersall,18 now of Kaponga, then took over. He also received a wound but was captured with the rest of us. After capturing the ridge we were ordered to advance to the left and dig in—we had started to advance when we came under particularly heavy MG fire. While pinned down the enemy tanks encircled us and slowly closing in the circle forced us to surrender, or else! About 3.30 in the afternoon Major Hastie told us to surrender….’ Referring again to Holt's death, Gyde said: ‘As we drew level with this [the derelict half-track or burnt-out tank mentioned by Elliott] there appeared to be bursts of MG fire from the tank directly across us. As Lt Holt stood up to move forward with the platoon behind him, he fell, whereupon Sgt Tattersall went to him, ordering me to open fire on the tank. In my opinion it was a gun under the stationary old tank that killed him about halfway to the ridge…. To my satisfaction the gun remained silent afterwards though we didn't go over to investigate….’
Private Pritchard,19 also of 18 Platoon, gave a good account of the capture of the forward enemy positions, and continued: ‘… we were told to advance further as the attack had just started. We advanced … not more than 4 or 500 yards before we were pinned to the ground with very intense automatic-weapon fire. Personally I could not see where this was coming from and no one else was very sure either. In the meantime our tanks had been recalled and we were stuck in an exposed position with no support and rifle and bayonet our strongest weapon, because to man a Bren meant raising oneself to a position which was the signal for intense fire. This position continued for a couple of hours. C Coy 25th Bn tried to advance in a bayonet charge and were cut about drastically before it gained momentum….’20page 112
Elsewhere on the battalion front there was unfortunately little variation in this tale of disaster. On the right Captain McBride, commanding B Company, had been unable to get in touch with the supporting field battery as the FOO (Captain Fisher21) in a Bren carrier had gone well forward beyond the point reached by McBride and was actively supporting the advancing tanks and infantry by engaging enemy posts, including mortars and machine guns. McBride's right forward platoon, No. 10 (Cathie), became involved almost from the start in clearing pillboxes and dugouts and in dealing with small tented camps over the edge of the escarpment, 800 yards from the start line. In consequence this platoon was a long way behind the general line of D Company and of the left platoon, No. 11 (Tredray) of B Company, which had reached the forward enemy defences about the same time as D Company.
No. 11 Platoon had much the same experience, initially, as Handyside's 16 Platoon on the left flank of D Company. The platoon attacked the enemy in the forward defences with the bayonet and captured about 150 prisoners. On continuing the advance, however, it found the approaches to the further objective under heavy machine-gun fire from a point about 150 yards to the west of the cairn and was ‘pinned down’. B Company's reserve, 12 Platoon (Morris), was then ordered forward. Private Reed22 gives a description of the platoon's approach march 300 yards behind 11 Platoon and of its final advance:
‘… we set off as reserve platoon … on a mile-and-a-half attack. We breasted a small rise and came under machine-gun fire from the right flank. Country was fairly flat with quite dense foot-high scrub. Soon were going fire and movement style but saw no targets. Saw some Huns surrender to the tanks in front. Ben Morris said, “I think it's only spent stuff. Get up and walk”, and we did, though it didn't sound too spent to me. Cpl Dix23 was carrying two grenades in his trouser pocket and got hit, the bullet smashing the bakelite one and glancing off the Mills. He took the detonator of the smashed one out very gently and was glad to leave it on the ground behind. Got amongst the Huns and four chaps under Keith Marshall24 herded them up and started back with them. - page 113 tinued our advance for another 500 yards or so till things got very hot. Went down. Ben Morris hit in the upper leg, Bernie Willis25 Bren gunner killed, McLaughlin26 hit, I got one through the arm. Ammo getting low. Three tanks hit in front of us and knocked out and began to burn. Saw the crew of one surrender. Seemed to have lost contact with our own crowd. We had right-inclined before going down and were fired on from all sides even our rear. Sgt Harry Martin27 now in charge. Slight escarpment on our front and right flank but we couldn't get to the lip of it but could hear a lot of row and heard a tank on our right flank…. Had to pull back. Some of the chaps carried Ben back while I covered them, then I made a dash and relied on them. When we got back a bit found McLaughlin had not come. His pal Pete Easton28 ran back to him and tried to bring him back but found him blinded. Germans advancing so had to leave him. Retired further. A captured German RAP chap did what he could for Ben but he died. McDonnell29 was hit (lost a foot) and Brownie30 killed.
‘At last reached some of our own chaps and got some ammo from B 2 which charged up but was stopped by a mortar or something of that nature. Colonel McNaught turned up and asked what had happened, then ordered us to attack again. Went over to our right to the edge of the escarpment and attacked up there. Jim Granville31 hit and died, Len Suff32 killed, J. Walker33 killed, Jeromsen34 killed.
‘Before the action we had been told that one of our I tanks had been captured by the Germans. It turned up then coming page 114 up on our right flank. Col McNaught was walking over to it as though to give the crew orders when it opened up with machine guns. I then saw one of the coolest things of that day. Close to me was a 2-lb anti-tank gun up on its portée. It had been facing our front but when the tank opened up I saw the Sergeant in charge slowly circling with his hand giving the driver instructions to back and turn the truck. They then went into action and the first shot snapped off the wireless aerial of the tank. These chaps were stuck up on the tray of the portée and under heavy machine-gun fire all the time (the regular gunner had been hit while the portée was turning). The tank scuttled back down the escarpment and the portée backed to the edge and finished it off.
‘We advanced a bit and then Capt McBride was hit and I saw Colonel McNaught bowl over, get up and shortly go down again, and it was not till the third time that he stayed and would not leave until he had explained the position to whoever took over…. Other companies took over from us as darkness fell and we were reserve…. Keith Marshall and the boys came back and told us they had 270 prisoners when they tallied up…. Of my section which went in ten strong we had had four killed, three wounded. The check up that night put B Coy's strength at 2 Officers, Lt Wilson,35 2/Lt Cathie and 36 ORs.’
Sergeant Martin assumed command of 12 Platoon in difficult circumstances and acquitted himself well, retaining command for the succeeding eight days of the battle. With tactical skill he used fire and movement to push home counter-attacks and neutralise strong enemy positions and for his excellent leadership was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
As mentioned earlier, the right forward platoon of B Company (No. 10 Platoon, Cathie) was engaged over the escarpment, well behind the first objective. On the extreme right of the attack, it had advanced at zero but was fired on by machine guns from the escarpment.
‘I could soon see our front would be this escarpment on our right,’ wrote Cathie, ‘so we moved forward a section at a time until we were near enough to make a bayonet charge. I went in with two sections … and the Jerries appeared from every- page 115 where with their hands up. Most of them had machine guns but they dropped them pretty smartly. There were about twenty in this first haul and we had killed about five Huns. I sent these prisoners back and we collected about thirty more in another charge. Up till [this] time I had one man slightly wounded. However my other section had become anxious about us and, instead of staying where they were, as I had instructed, they had gone in down an exposed re-entrant higher up (i.e., to the west). We came round to them and found three wounded, two seriously, one slightly.
‘Jerry then proceeded to give us a pretty hot time with machine guns, mortars, but with the help of the RAP men, who were splendid, we were able to get these poor fellows back.
‘We were now firing back with some effect but were running short of ammo, so I decided to get back on the high ground and replenish from the platoon truck. Also I had more or less lost contact with the company and company commander. However, we replenished and as we could see the old colonel waving his arms, eight of us clambered on to a pick-up and, with the rest of the platoon following on foot, we went over the escarpment with our bayonets fixed and we collected 16 more prisoners (mostly officers). Then two Jerry tanks came round towards us. I had a whang at one with a certain weapon we have [2-inch mortar?] but it fell short, so I ordered everyone to lie low and say nothing. The tanks did not see us but they recaptured those prisoners whom I had sent back with two men. However, we managed to evade them and one of our anti-tank guns got one and we popped off the personnel as they came out of the tank.
‘It was 4 o'clock in the afternoon now and Jerry was counter attacking, so I decided to get on to higher ground. In getting there I was pipped through the shoulder, and we carried on, firing back, although we were fairly exposed, but this point simply had to be held. Here I lost two corporals killed (Cpl F. Beamsley36 and L/Cpl A. McK. Black37) and the RAP orderly was shot next to me. All these men had been splendid throughout and were always there when wanted.
‘We struggled on till darkness began to fall. I had seven wounded round about and I told them to lie still as if dead, as Jerry was sending a fair bit of hail round about.page 116
‘At last we were relieved and we got the wounded back and I was patched up and I went back to try to help with the remaining fit men in the company. My men were a splendid crowd and I never once saw a wounded man cry. They were there to the last and we were hungry, as breakfast had been our last feed. However, I had some chocolate and a few of us ate that. Then we got some bully later on….
‘Needless to say I was glad to be alive as both of my fellow platoon commanders were killed early in the action….’
After the war, in referring to the above account which he had written shortly after the battle, Cathie explained that 10 Platoon advanced along the top of the escarpment for perhaps 800 yards before being fired on from below the escarpment. Sending one section forward a short distance to bring plunging fire down on the enemy, he attacked with the other two as described in his account. He mentioned that the men were mostly new to battle but very keen, some too much so, and the section on top should have waited until the two sections under Cathie came along below, but it could not wait. On returning to the top of the escarpment the platoon continued the advance just below the lip. More tents and a few vehicles could be seen to the north-west, but before they could be fired on the platoon came under both mortar and machine-gun fire and there was not much cover. After replenishing ammunition and speaking to Colonel McNaught, Cathie found that the fire from below was fairly heavy and that his men were usefully employed in preventing the infiltration of small enemy parties round the foot of the escarpment to the rear of the battalion position. Cathie then got an 8-cwt truck and, with several men aboard, drove right up to the edge of the escarpment and mounted a short, sharp bayonet charge down the slope to a little group of tents. Later in the afternoon, after working farther along the escarpment and engaging any enemy parties appearing below, the platoon was joined by the survivors of the other two platoons (whose officers, Morris and Tredray, had been killed); Lieutenant Wilson took charge after McBride was wounded, very much impressing Cathie as ‘the coolest, quietest, and best soldier there’. Cathie himself showed great activity and ability in this action and (to quote the citation for his Military Cross) ‘distinguished himself by his skill, his daring, and his cool leadership’.
Meanwhile, the Commanding Officer, McNaught, had been doing all he could in the very difficult situation which had page 117 arisen. He had arrived at Advanced Battalion Headquarters, 500 yards east of the trig, about 12.30 p.m. when D Company was advancing towards the final objective and ‘mopping-up’ the area. That company reached its final objective about 1 p.m., at which hour a despatch rider brought orders from McNaught to dig in on the objective. ‘At this stage things were fairly quiet,’ wrote Hastie. ‘16 Pl were well out on left flank and 17 Pl were near me on right of position and 18 Pl … had come up into 17 Pl's area. I moved across and indicated areas to 17 and 18 Pls.’ When, however, McNaught was able to see something of D Company's position on the exposed forward or western slope of the hill, he decided it would be better for the company to advance to the far side of the Rugbet en Nbeidat in front. ‘Just about 1330 hrs,’ continued Hastie, ‘a D.R. arrived to say I was to push on as the tanks would only be with us for another ten minutes. The D.R. had only left me when Capt Heslop38 with C Coy arrived in my area….’
Half an hour after receiving the order to dig in, therefore, Hastie was ordered to advance and endeavour to clear the wadi, with the assistance of the tanks which would remain forward for another ten minutes instead of rallying in rear as had been ordered. At this stage Captain Heslop, with C Company, the battalion reserve, arrived in the area. It had advanced with two platoons forward, No. 15 (Robertshaw39) on the right and No. 13 (Ormond40) on the left, with No. 14 (Porter) in reserve. Heslop could see B and D Companies engaging the enemy in the forward posts and, noticing the gap between the two companies, he advanced to the support of D Company, his 15 Platoon with three tanks having on the way been ordered forward into the gap by McNaught.
As D Company was already digging-in, some delay would ensue before orders could reach the platoons and the advance resumed, and the tanks would not then be available. Seeing C Company advancing, Major Hastie arranged with Captain Heslop for C Company to continue its advance in place of D Company. Referring to this matter, Heslop wrote: ‘I then came upon Major Hastie who had been my original Coy Commander when the Bn was first formed … I asked how he was page 118 doing and he told me he had had heavy casualties and gathering that D Coy was spent, I said to him “Shall I move on through you” to which he agreed. Shortly after this a D/R came up to me to say “The CO says to push on and that we are to be reinforced soon”. I told the D/R to tell the CO we needed help right away….
‘We proceeded on about 50 yards and the mortar fire thickened considerably forcing us to ground and to what little cover we could find (an odd camel-grass bush). We again moved forward a few yards in short bounds…. Shortly after … 3 German tanks appeared from the gully on the left some 75 yards away … 2 of the tanks were German Mark IVs I think, and the centre one was a captured I Tank complete with our markings and pennant. They moved forward slowly followed by a few German infantry and proceeded to inflict heavy casualties on us with MG fire from the tanks. We eliminated a few of the infantry following the tanks. Then on my left where the tanks were nearest, my chaps and those left of D Coy surrendered. We were too close to the tanks for the artillery to open fire on the tanks and there was no available route for withdrawal. I looked back for any reinforcements but could not see any moving up. Each time I looked to have another “look-see” … MG bursts welcomed me at uncomfortably close quarters. The right hand tanks continued to move in, whereupon the remainder of us surrendered. I gave no orders to surrender apart from saying to my runner, L/Cpl T. Eagan,41 “Looks like we've had it”. I would not say there were “Germans everywhere”—the tanks and mortars were our undoing….’
No. 15 Platoon of C Company (Robertshaw), on advancing into the gap between B and D Companies under orders from McNaught, moved towards the escarpment, and the three tanks accompanying it, when passing over the crest of Point 175, were destroyed by tank and anti-tank gun fire. No. 15 Platoon killed the crew of an anti-tank gun but came under heavy mortar fire which was covering the advance of the enemy infantry.
‘We had a sharp action for a while,’ said Robertshaw. ‘At this stage I was astonished to see some fifty or more of the enemy, who had been captured by the forward companies before I joined the tanks, coming up from our rear with their hands page 119 up so as not to draw fire from their own lines. I could also hear a tank coming back up the escarpment and I could not see any of our own troops anywhere. Up to this stage the platoon had only a few casualties.
‘I then ordered the sections to withdraw independently until they contacted some of our own troops, platoon HQ under A/Sgt L. T. Connor going with the first section while I went round the rest of the platoon to give them their orders…. I got out by a lot of luck … Sgt Connor and I were the only ones to regain our lines that day.
‘Once on their feet the sections drew a hail of small-arms fire and were practically all killed or wounded. Those who were not killed lay up in unoccupied enemy positions and remained there until the ground was regained by the 24th Bn forty hours later. Several wounded survivors of 13 Platoon were also found. I believe a few of the walking wounded did come out and found our lines on the night of the 23rd but I did not contact them. The few still fit stayed with the badly wounded. Of a platoon strength of 36, fourteen were killed, nine wounded, and six taken prisoner.’
Robertshaw referred to one special casualty. ‘S/Sgt Marshall42 who was C Coy CQMS was a veteran of World War I. He took a rifle and bayonet and joined 13 Platoon on the start line “just to go along with the boys”, and was very badly wounded when C Coy was captured. He remained on the ground with other C Coy wounded until the ground was regained on the morning of the 25th when he was picked up still alive but died shortly afterwards.’
Several other accounts by members of C Company tell very much the same story. R. F. Thorpe43 mentions a shortage of ammunition after the company had passed through D Company, as do several others, and he also refers to a couple of demands from a German officer fifty yards away that the men in the vicinity should surrender. There was no response. Thorpe was slightly wounded when the German tanks were about thirty yards away, when the men surrendered.
H. H. Hanlen44 of 13 Platoon said the enemy brought up three British tanks which sprayed the ground with machine-gun page 120 fire and ran over the men. Three Bren carriers manned by Germans accompanied the tanks, he said, and rounded up the New Zealanders. This occurred at 3.10 p.m. During the advance C Company had rooted out a few machine guns but soon had to go to ground. Some men were lucky enough to have enemy machine-gun pits for cover; there was no cover for the others. The men had one hundred rounds of ammunition each and there were 400 rounds for each Bren gun. When the attack halted, the enemy were about seventy yards away and there was good shooting for a time but the ammunition soon ran out. The company had nothing to deal with the tanks.
An apparently derelict tank, which ‘came to life’ when his section was right under its guns, caused heavy casualties, said Sergeant J. Huse, 13 Platoon, who continued: ‘We advanced in extended order and commenced losing men very early in the piece…. We had fixed bayonets at the start and cleared a number of well-dug German machine-gun positions, taking … prisoners. The further we moved up the more our numbers dwindled. When we came up with D Coy there were only remnants of both companies left…. Our little show was wound up about 4.30 p.m. After firing steadily for an hour or so when the Germans counter-attacked, most of us were down [to] a few rounds for our rifles. Two or three men had been sent back for more ammunition and for new instructions but apparently had collected a bullet en route. There was quite a bit of fire coming from behind us, probably from Jerries who had lain “doggo” under camouflage sheets until we passed; we had already flushed one or two of them out. Enemy artillery had started up and I remember looking back at the depressing sight of a number of our trucks in flames…. We were speedily disarmed and hustled back through uncomfortably thick fire from our own artillery for a couple of miles or so….’
Lieutenant Porter who commanded 14 Platoon, in reserve to C Company, said his platoon did not suffer any casualties until it was well up to the enemy; rifles were slung for most of the way and the light fire encountered was probably, ‘in the main, made up of spent rounds’. During the last few minutes before capture he was ‘trying under the Company Comdr's orders to remove the remaining men of my platoon over to the left in order to get at the enemy who was shooting us up from that flank. We managed to move only a short distance before we were well pinned down in the open, mainly by tank fire. This action was at very close range and when some infantry moved page 121 in with tank support we were in no position to do anything about it and we had to choose between complete annihilation or surrender….’ Porter gave the casualties of his platoon as twelve killed, two killed while prisoners on board a torpedoed ship, four wounded, two wounded and PW, twelve prisoners of war.
Lieutenant Ormond, commanding 13 Platoon, wrote: ‘We were under scattered fire after 500 or 600 yards, MG and rifle, but only one or two casualties to my knowledge. Sgt Huse and his section were 70 yards to my right and may have had more. … Just prior to coming up with … the remnants of D Company I … sent a runner Pte “Mac” Campbell45 to Capt Heslop with roughly this report, “Big mass of transport to left and rear (perhaps 2 miles away no more). Part of D Coy in trouble on our left, I propose joining them, may be a counter-attack from here”…. At this stage I thought the rest of the Bn had got their objective and would be settling in, so turned left with my two sections—Sgt Huse being out of touch on right— and prepared to hold the flank till relieved.
‘Moved up through Cpl Quinn46 (with remnants of D Company) and his half dozen men. He was splendid, drawing a lot of fire but walking round to collect his men and explaining to me that we were on the edge of strong German positions that shouldn't have been there at all according to our briefing—“An isolated pocket of resistance to be cleaned up”. I told Quinn to withdraw through me and give his dope to Bn. He must have been killed just after this as I found his body on the Tuesday (two days later), an MG burst had got him.
‘Settled my two sections in German slit trenches and told Sgt Brown-Bayliss47 we'd have to hold the position. Then went forward a bit with my runner Pte A. Scott.48 40 or 50 Germans stood up and surrendered 150 yards away so started over towards them when they didn't obey my signal to come over. Then I noticed a whole lot more Huns lying ready to fire and also a tank I hadn't noticed before which was giving us occasional bursts; so got back smartly to the rest of the platoon—Scott page 122 killed somewhere here by bursts from tank. We hung on there till I was knocked out by a trench mortar, the Germans advancing a bit as we got short of men and ammunition.
‘When I came to, the Germans were in possession, none of our men about and no firing close by. I lay quiet in my trench till dark. Then collected some of our wounded, Tom Gaddum,49 Hugh Campbell, S/Sgt Bill Marshall and a couple more. Had a yarn to them, got some Huns to find them blankets and was then marched off to a Div HQ…. After a hell of a lot of questioning and threats was put in with a tent full of German soldiers. Stayed with them till Tuesday morning when position over-run by 20th Bn I think. Rejoined 25th Bn about 10 p.m. Tuesday. Was recaptured the following Sunday morning through my own darned stupidity….’
As is generally the case in battle, the times given in diaries, reports, and personal accounts are by no means reliable and those given here have been selected as the most probable. As already stated, Colonel McNaught arrived at Advanced Battalion Headquarters, 500 yards east of the trig, or within the foremost enemy defences, about 12.30 p.m. Ten minutes later K Troop (anti-tank) took up a position in line with the Headquarters. All seemed to be going well at this stage and at 1 p.m., when D Company was on the final objective, casualties had been light, and many prisoners had been taken; D Company had been ordered to dig in and the tank commander told he could go out or rally, as planned, at 1.10 p.m. The I-tank squadron had already suffered heavy loss and on the way out, round the right flank, several more tanks were hit.
It was about 1.30 p.m., apparently, when, as already described, D Company received orders to advance across the wadi in front, and C Company was approaching. About this time McNaught was wounded in the knee but carried on. Shortly afterwards, before 2 p.m., the enemy counter-attack commenced and some B and C Company men were seen falling back on Battalion Headquarters but were rallied on three occasions without great difficulty. It was then obvious to McNaught that the situation was serious, with C and D Companies largely overrun. He had already sent a despatch rider to A Company ordering it forward from its task over the escarpment back near the start line, and later the Brigadier offered a company of 24 Battalion.
A Company (Roberts) had practically completed its task at the escarpment, experiencing little difficulty except for an page 123 unfortunate incident with what looked like the supporting tanks which, despite recognition signals, killed two men and wounded another in 9 Platoon while it was withdrawing near the top of the escarpment. On receiving McNaught's order, A Company about 2.15 p.m. advanced rapidly. Lieutenant Jack, commanding 9 Platoon, gave an account of the action:
‘We were hurriedly deployed,’ he wrote, ‘and proceeded with the advance towards Pt 175 where D and B Coys had already been committed. Platoons came under fire immediately. Advance continued by short bounds. 7 Pl on right, 9 centre, and 8 left. Heavy casualties at this stage. 7 and 9 Platoons finally pinned down by fire from enemy tank which remained stationary and which was believed to be out of action. Tanks then moved up and attempted to run over our troops which were prone on the ground. Our anti-tank guns then obtained direct hits on the tank and put it out of action (I was wounded very soon after this incident).
‘It was at this stage that a Bren carrier came up to us with ammunition and also brought fire to bear on the enemy MGs some 150 yards ahead. This Bren carrier also took back four or five wounded, including myself and then returned to repeat the performance….’
While the rest of A Company had moved up in its trucks, 8 Platoon advanced on foot, as after leaving its trucks in the morning for the advance on the escarpment, it did not see them again that day. The intention was for the attack to go up the left centre of the position but it seems to have been directed a good deal more to the right, due perhaps to a reconnaissance made by Roberts ‘to find the best line of attack’, as Major Burton remarked. The company suffered severe casualties as it advanced but carried on and was finally pinned down about 150 yards from the objective by heavy fire, mainly from numerous machine guns. Casualties were nearly twenty killed and about forty wounded.
When Jack became a casualty, wounded three times early in the fight, Sergeant Winter took over and, leading the platoon forward, used sticky bombs against the tank mentioned by Jack, but, as he said, without effect. ‘At this stage,’ he wrote, ‘it was impossible to obtain a coherent appraisal of the situation, a continuous stream of wounded was passing to the rear, enemy fire was intense, and our own 6th Field were putting down a spot barrage that was suicidal in its closeness, captured German vehicles were shuttling up and down between Brigade page 124 H.Q., Bn H.Q. and the attached arms. A Company was desperately short of ammunition and … moved in open order by platoons and proceeded to advance across the plateau with bayonets fixed. Enemy fire from concealed positions and tanks decimated the company before 100 yards had been covered.’
Winter himself was badly wounded but remained in action though his platoon was reduced to five. Captain Roberts had also been wounded. McNaught had again been wounded, this time in the left thigh, but continued to direct operations. About 2.30 p.m. the wireless truck was hit and men killed, the IO and the Signals Officer being wounded.
Meanwhile D Company (Captain McDonald50) of 24 Battalion was moving forward to support the right flank of 25 Battalion, and driving along the foot of the escarpment, debussed about 3.30 p.m. when it came under fire, and advanced up the slope. Tragically, this was a collision with part of B Company 25 Battalion and considerable fire was exchanged before the error was remedied. A party of Headquarters Company details and other men, organised by Major Burton and doing excellent work in combatting enemy enterprises round the right flank, was also involved, and it seems that the mistake was a natural consequence of McDonald's company coming under fire from enemy positions farther west along the escarpment and thinking this fire came from where B Company was. However, the company succeeded against severe opposition in taking up a position on the right flank of 25 Battalion, greatly aided by the anti-tank gun en portée previously mentioned, which destroyed a threatening tank, and by the action of four repaired Valentine tanks which advanced along the top of the escarpment. Unfortunately, D Company 24 Battalion lost Captain McDonald, killed just before the tanks appeared, and this, together with the confusion caused by the collision with 25 Battalion and the unfamiliar terrain, caused the company to lose the opportunity of following the tanks and recapturing the ground lost on that flank. Its presence where it was was none the less welcome to the harassed troops of 25 Battalion.
Another company of 24 Battalion, C Company (Captain Tomlinson51) had also been ordered forward and reached the forward area on the left flank probably about 4.45 p.m., follow- page 125 ing much the same route as that taken in the attack by D Company 25 Battalion. In the meantime, McNaught had been wounded a third time, on this occasion in the other knee, and went back in a carrier to hand over to Major Burton. Not able to find him, McNaught reported to Brigadier Barrowclough, who sent Colonel Shuttleworth,52 24 Battalion, to take over command. McNaught returned to the battle to hand over to Shuttleworth and then retired from the scene.
Tomlinson had been unable to find anyone at 25 Battalion Advanced Headquarters as Burton was actively engaged on the escarpment and McNaught was meeting Shuttleworth, who stayed on the right. The remainder of the headquarters were on their way to the rear. In the absence of orders from 25 Battalion (which he had been led to expect) Tomlinson about 5 p.m. launched an attack in the vicinity of the cairn, instructing his platoons that in the event of severe opposition they were not to press the attack but to hold a defensive position on the eastern slopes of Point 175. The enemy were found to be holding the position in strength and Tomlinson therefore occupied a defensive position, easily repulsing an enemy attack which soon developed. Two guns of 9 MG Platoon were on the right flank, where D Company 24 Battalion was firmly established, and the other two, though farther back, could not get into action because of enemy fire from close range. There were still a few men of 25 Battalion in the vicinity and these were rallied to fill a gap between the two 24 Battalion companies, thus establishing a fairly reasonable defensive front, though with little depth. A detachment of A Company 25 Battalion under Lieutenant Henderson53 was, however, still in position about 300 yards in front of D Company 24 Battalion.
Major Burton, the only company commander left in 25 Battalion and its senior officer on the departure of McNaught, was unaware for some time that the latter had gone and that Shuttleworth was in command. ‘Late in the afternoon,’ he says, ‘on learning that Colonel McNaught had retired severely wounded, I assumed command of the battalion. I appointed Lieut Wilson to command the troops of the defensive position I had organized, over the edge of the escarpment, earlier in the afternoon (when an enemy attempt was being made to cut in page 126 behind the forward elements of the Bn some 200 yds behind Bn Forward HQ).
‘This group was designated B Coy altho it contained members of all Coys excepting D Coy. It was organized in two platoons. Wilson and Cathie were the platoon commanders. Later we were joined by Lt Robertshaw and some men from C Coy.
‘We undoubtedly repulsed the enemy penetration but later came into conflict with 24 Bn who came up attacking our position…. This unfortunate exchange of fire was easily undertandable to me because I had been operating along the edge of the escarpment most of the morning and afternoon and it seemed to me that there were prearranged enemy defensive posiions along the whole lower part of the escarpment from Bir Chleta to the area below Pt 175. I met Capt McDonald who was most apologetic and who stated he had no idea that 25 Bn were so far forward. I showed him our Bn HQ and pointed out to him what I believed to be Pt 175. I saw him no more.
‘I received a verbal message that Col Shuttleworth was to take the 25th Bn remnant under command. Leaving Wilson in charge with instructions to hold the position until ordered otherwise by higher authority, I then proceeded to (i) locate 24 Bn commander, (2) move back to B Echelon and have a hot meal, blankets, ammo sent forward, and more men sent to reinforce the position.
‘On meeting Col Shuttleworth he said, “I have been instructed to take your Bn under command; as you are on the spot you look after your own men. I've got enough to do looking after my own Bn, but I want every wireless set you have. There will be a conference at my HQ tonight. I will advise you later.” I showed him where our B Coy was situated and he suggested that they remain there and he showed me his intended disositions which included some 25 Bn personnel. On seeing his proposed dispositions I told him that we had troops of A Coy in front of him. He doubted this and told me so. Whereupon I told him what had occurred in regard to 24/25 exchange of fire during the afternoon and asked him if he would please advise his forward troops that any movement in front of their position could possibly be a portion of A Coy who had earlier worked their way around the escarpment. This later proved to be correct for the next day Lieut Henderson and a number of A Coy personnel reported in from that locality.’
As the light faded there was little fighting and Shuttleworth disposed his D Company above the escarpment instead of in page 127 its first position along the slopes. They were quite close to the enemy. In the meantime the remnants of B Company 25 Battalion had formed two platoons from 10 Platoon (Cathie), which had had about eight casualties and a couple of men away escorting prisoners, a few men of 11 Platoon, and about twenty of 12 Platoon as well as stragglers from other companies. Burton took command, with Wilson and Cathie as platoon commanders, but soon left to see Shuttleworth, leaving Wilson in command. Some of B Company's men were used to reinforce 24 Battalion on the edge of the escarpment and the remainder were brought into line a little in rear of Shuttleworth's D Company. The men of 25 Battalion's HQ Company and Battalion Headquarters remained as riflemen in the right rear on the escarpment. The detachment of A Company under Henderson stayed in its forward position.
Back at the transport, Reid54 (Mortar Officer) and Birch55 (Transport Officer) brought the vehicles into close laager at the head of the wadi near the artillery and disposed the men for its protection during the night.
Private S. W. Brown has given his ‘experiences and impressions in a mortar detachment’ during the battle:
‘The ground to our front was a wide and seemingly flat area of about two square miles. This fact made the mortarmen shudder … each forward company would have a detachment of mortars under command and none with the reserve company. As the infantry started their advance the enemy was nowhere to be seen nor was there a shot to be heard. Only an occasional tussock could be seen on the long stretch of ground that sloped gradually upwards to where the enemy were in hiding.
‘The detachment supporting the left flanking company wa following up behind them about 200 yards in the rear. The mortar trucks tailed their crews about 50 yards to the rear. As we advanced the distance between the crew and the infantry was lessened, the tanks began to rumble up, and it was clear that they intended to overtake the forward troops and drive on. The infantry was setting a very hard pace and the mortar-men were gasping for breath. The advance continued for about a mile without any opposition. I then noticed that there was a large gap between their company and the company on the page 128 right which appeared to have gone too far to the right. An order was then heard to close in on the right, that the mortar crew and the left company were too far to the left. There was a change in direction and as they pivoted the chaps on the flank almost had to run to catch up. Before they had time to straighten out, they got everything that the enemy had to give. Between the very few lulls the troops moved on, being somewhat confused by this time. Then suddenly a call was made for the mortars. Jumping to their feet they signalled their truck on, which was now some distance back. The driver in the face of enemy fire and understanding the urgent signal, dashed forward with his charge, and immediately commenced to help the crew to unload the gun and ammunition.
‘Working frantically, the gun was set up in about 30 seconds. With the infantry pinned down and the mortar directed on ground about 800 yards away, the enemy were soon able to pick up such a group of men. Resultant fire caused them to go to ground again.
‘When the moment was right the 2 i/c decided the position was hopeless, so signalled up the driver again and was away again with small-arms and anti-tank fire to lend them wings. On reaching the spot where another mortar truck was, it was noticed that the fire was less fierce. Interesting observations were made from here within the next few minutes. Our three tanks were seen up with the infantry but were soon knocked out by an enemy anti-tank gun. Next a line of men with hands raised and being disarmed were seen and numbered about 200. At the same time a deadly menace was creeping in from the left uncovered flank in the guise of a British tank. Not much notice was taken of it until it opened up on the Bn's vehicles. In the distance more men were seen with hands raised and they were soon found not to be Germans. While the mortar crew was wondering what to do, two of the Bn's A/Tk guns came forward to put the “British” tank out of action.
‘At this stage the whole position was precarious for the mortar crew, who were without their mortar commander, and had two guns but only one crew. The tanks had been lost and the carriers had suffered badly. The reserve coy was still in the rear. But there was one consolation in that the menace of the tank was gone.
‘As they were about to operate the two guns with one crew, up came a familiar figure, the C.O. in his car. [Note by McNaught: I had been there for at least an hour. The page 129 reserve coy was sent for by me at least an hour after I was on the spot.] We dashed over to him through the reserve coy who were moving up to reinforce the thin ranks. It was noticed that he was badly wounded in the leg. But paying no heed to his own disability he set about to direct the fire of the two mortars and was responsible for laying down an effective barrage for the counter-attacking reserve coy. This went on for 20 mins till the ammunition was expended…. With their ammunition spent the crew, who had been also reinforced by some mortar-men, who came forward with the reserve coy, packed up quickly, and moved back to platoon HQ for replenishment but the platoon commander, counting up the reserve he had, decided against it…. The likelihood of any further action that day seemed remote as the sun was sinking low on the horizon. The crew was instructed to make themselves useful with the wounded…. While assisting the RAP orderlies and the MO I discovered some of the chaps of the missing mortar crew, whose gun they had taken over when the CO had made his appearance. This crew had suffered badly when it became mixed up with the forward troops. Their commander had been killed. [Later, Brown's own missing gun commander returned unscathed after a hectic time with the forward troops.]’
Amidst all this turmoil of battle the battalion's communications (the vehicles with ammunition, tools, weapons, and so forth, and despatch riders carrying messages in the absence or failure of wireless) had to be maintained as far as possible and all concerned displayed great gallantry and devotion to duty. This is illustrated in the citation for the award of a Military Medal to J. B. Kinder,56 a despatch rider:
‘On Sunday, 23 November, 1941, the 25 Bn under the command of Col McNaught, attacked an enemy strongpoint … in the Sidi Rezegh area. The battle raged for several hours causing heavy casualties to the Bn. The Coy wireless sets had been put out of order. The only means of communication was by D/R. Pte J. B. Kinder displayed the utmost coolness and devotion to duty during the entire action by delivering messages to and from the Bn HQ and the coys. His M/cycle was shot away from under him but he quickly put the cycle back into running order and proceeded on his way. Later in the day he was able to procure an enemy cycle which he used till it was disabled by enemy fire. Throughout the whole day and under ceaseless fire, page 130 he carried out his duties in the most inspiring manner…. his soldier's record has been consistent with his services in the Greek Campaign.’
Colonel McNaught has written a connected account which considerably clarifies this somewhat confusing battle, though neither in this nor any other account can the times given be regarded as always reliable. ‘The attack had to be launched in haste,’ he wrote, ‘with no reconnaissance worth mentioning. … The forward companies were a few hundred yards ahead of the start line (having been halted there when first orders for attack were cancelled). At zero hour the first wave of tanks went through the infantry. They appeared to go more than the 15 mph ordered. When attack started I received word from HQ Coy Commander that the carriers might not be on time as several were busy refuelling. I ordered all to move up as soon as ready and all that could follow the tanks in.
‘Tanks arrived on objective with covering fire and artillery had no difficulty at first in neutralizing enemy posts on 175. Some carriers arrived before the infantry but most came up with them. Artillery fire on 175 ceased at 1205 on my orders to Major Wilson, Battery commander, who was observing with me. The tanks were then on 175. The infantry moved forward very quickly. D Coy appeared to arrive at enemy trenches forward part of hill without opposition and with carriers rounded up about 150 enemy. B Coy on right seemed to be meeting with opposition. As soon as C Coy had got going across the start line I moved in wireless truck through them, arriving at what was Forward Battalion Headquarters just after D Coy. There appeared to be too many of D Coy in charge of the prisoners and I ordered two men and a carrier to escort them in two groups to the rear, and the rest of D Coy men with them to join their company which had now advanced towards the western edge of 175. This would be about 1220 – 1230. I contacted the Tank Commander a few minutes later, and he asked if he could take his tanks out. I asked him to remain for another ten minutes until we could get more troops up. So far there had been little enemy fire but when D Coy on left and B Coy on right moved further towards final objective machine-gun and rifle fire began to sweep the position. Mortar fire followed. Counter attacks developed from the west and south-west: at first apparently without tanks, later with tanks. C Coy came up under fire and pushed on after D Coy. Men had little cover and the ground was too rocky to dig in. Some page 131 had the use of the enemy's hastily dug holes. Companies were moving forward by short section rushes. B Coy were having difficulty in getting forward, being heavily engaged on north-eastern part of the position slightly to my right front. They pushed reserve platoon up towards western edge. Two platoon commanders were killed earlier in the encounter leading their men in hand to hand attacks. There appeared to be several well concealed enemy machine guns and anti-tank gun positions going down into the wadi on the right.
‘K Tp A-Tk had come into position on line with Adv Bn HQ by 1240. J Tp did not arrive till much later and did not come as far up.
‘Up until 1300 hrs the position appeared satisfactory and we were making progress. I sent an order to D Coy Cmdr. to try and dig in where he was at 1300 hrs. His company appeared to be well up to his objective. It became clear to me a few minutes later that there was a very big gap between the forwar companies and I sent a further message to D Coy Cmdr to attempt to move forward in the direction of the Blockhouse (this would tend to close the gap). This message was received by Capt Hastie but he was unable to move, being fully engaged (this I learned only in 1946 when next I saw Major Hastie); he sent a runner back to me. (This was apparently the man who reported to me but who before he was able to deliver his message was shot down and fell at my feet.) A little later I saw B Coy Cmdr (Capt McBride) who reported that his reserve platoon was well forward. I considered with him trying to push it further forward and to the left in the direction of the Blockhouse, but decided to leave it to hold its present forward position. He requested reinforcements as he had lost fairly heavily but as things at this stage were deteriorating on the left front I told him to hold on and attempt to get another platoon further up and I would use carriers to help. From 1315 hours things moved swiftly. The enemy were now shooting us up from both flanks particularly from the left. Bullets at first were over our heads. It was soon obvious that tanks had attacked C and D Coys. At 1400 hrs the situation on the left had deteriorated. I received a bullet clean through the right knee about 1330 hrs but I was still able to keep on my feet. The I.O. and Signals Officer were wounded about the same time and shortly afterwards the wireless operators were killed. The artillery F.O.O. was up with me and I instructed him to bring down fire in support of C and D Coys. This fire fell into the page 132 wadi (but from Major Hastie in 1946 learned that much of it fell too far over). The F.O.O.'s remote control was shot away and he had to go back a bit, but continued directing fire under my orders all afternoon. The A/Tk guns of K Troop were in action and suffered casualties. I was hit again, this time in the left thigh. I was knocked over but no great damage was done and I could keep on my feet though I was losing a good bit of blood.
‘Earlier I had ordered the left platoon of C Coy to move up to cover the gap that was still troublesome between the forward elements of B and D Coys.
‘There was some falling back upon battalion Adv. H.Q. but I was able to rally them. About 1345 hours it was apparent to me that D and C Coys had been largely overrun, but by using the carriers I was able to hold the enemy off. I sent a D.R. back to A Coy (Capt. Roberts) to leave their task and report to me for a counter attack. They came forward quickly and got up about 1415 hrs. I told Capt. Roberts the state of affairs and ordered him to counter-attack up the left flank and go about 400 yards. His reply, characteristic of this gallant leader was “Leave the b … to us, we'll drive them back.” A Coy had done most of the fighting in the battle at 0600 hrs but they went at this new task with determination and for the time stabilised the position. They suffered fairly heavy casualties in the process.
‘While I was in touch with the Bde Cmdr I had asked him for reinforcements and he sent up one coy of the 24th Battn. to come into reserve, and a section of M.G. to assist on the left flank. I gave my orders to the O.C. Coy of 24 Bn, but he only moved a few paces away when he fell. It was about this time, or just before, that an enemy tank appeared on the right flank about 60 yards away from me. The A/Tk gun on my left hit it three times and it moved off. It was a captured British tank and fooled me for a few seconds. Enemy tanks on the other flank seemed to have been put out of action.
‘B Coy on the right were still pinned down, but continuing to engage the enemy in the wadi from their higher ground. One enemy M.G. post and some A/Tk guns were still a thorn in their side at 1545 hrs. The position seemed now to be a bit easier though Mortar and M.G. fire were still heavy upon us. I was able to direct a reserve mortar of our own on to harassing fire into the wadi where it was obvious the attacks against us were originating. All this kept me personally very busy and I was page 133 not conscious of the great amount of blood I had lost although I was pretty stiff on my walking. I was moving towards a carrier to take me forward to Capt. Roberts about four hundred yards away when I was hit a third time by a bullet through the left knee. I was able to get to my feet after a while and a D.R. (Pte Tomlinson57) from Bde H.Q. who arrived opportunely in a small two seater car was able to convey me to the rear. I asked him to take me to Major Burton … in order that I might hand over to him. We could not find him (at the transport) and so as haste was necessary I got him to take me to Bde H.Q. where I reported to the Brigadier.
‘Things became rather mixed after this. Major Barrington58 (Brigade Major) gave me a man sized whisky which made me more dizzy (I had had neither breakfast nor lunch that day). However I do remember going off to hand over to Colonel Shuttleworth. He took over the action thereafter. The rest is a blank.’
McNaught had played a worthy and gallant part that day, a part worthy of the pertinacity and courage of his battalion. The operation had been a particularly difficult one. It had been hurried to such an extent that there was no time for reconnaissance nor for consideration and discussion of plans of attack, and practically no information was available regarding the enemy. It was in effect almost an encounter attack for 25 Battalion but not so for the enemy, who was in position with tanks, machine guns, mortars, and artillery providing a very effective fire plan supporting his infantry and with all his dispositions hidden from view, with the exception of the few trenches on the eastern side of Hill 175. The substitution of the 12 noon attack with tanks, for the 11.30 a.m. attack without tanks, must have caused some uncertainty and doubt in the minds of the troops. Nevertheless, the men advanced with determination and in the later stages against very severe fire. Gallantly led, they attacked with the bayonet, inflicted many casualties, and captured several hundred prisoners.
Lacking proper observation and sufficient strength, the artillery did its best but its covering fire was quite inadequate for the task, and the same applied to the anti-tank guns. In consequence, three enemy tanks were able to escort infantry page 134 into the battalion's forward positions and so leave the troops there, completely without trenches or other cover as they were, no choice but to surrender or be annihilated. The nature of the ground prevented fire positions being dug without proper tools, which could not be brought up against the heavy fire which developed. The battalion's mortars, Bren guns, and rifles therefore could not operate efficiently under the heavy enemy covering fire, which necessitated adequate fire trenches or other cover from which to subdue or reduce it. Unfortunately the medium machine guns with the brigade, which probably would have been very effective with long-range fire against the Rugbet en Nbeidat and positions beyond, were not detailed to support the attack until mid-afternoon.
The British tanks did splendid work and also displayed great courage, but in the absence of adequate covering fire, could not withstand the powerful anti-tank weapons of the enemy.
When it is remembered that, in addition to these disabilities, the operation was the battalion's first desert battle and in fact its first attack, and that the majority of the officers and other ranks had had little battle experience, it is remarkable that the battalion succeeded to the extent that it did.
It did in fact capture and hold Hill 175, though it did not capture the whole of the objective beyond the cairn and was forced to give up that part of the further objective captured by D and C Companies. In the words of Major Burton:‘… from the C.O. down to the least of the private soldiers, all fought a gallant heroic fight. No battalion could have done better under such conditions.’
Twenty-fifth Battalion's casualties in this very severe battle were extremely heavy, the dead alone probably exceeding 100 and the wounded about 150, the heaviest casualties in dead and wounded of any similar battalion action by New Zealand troops in the whole war. Another 100 were captured.
The wounded had a very difficult time. It was practically impossible to collect a great many of them during daylight in the bullet-swept areas, and owing to the large numbers there was considerable congestion at the RAP and the ADS. Private H. R. Mackenzie,59 a battalion signaller, describes the scene at the RAP:
‘I took a turn of duty at the phone for a few minutes and then, since the boys were coming in too fast for the Doc and page 135 the medical orderlies to cope with, I went down the hill to where the RAP truck was. By now I had forgotten that a dinner-time on this day ever existed and it was becoming late in the afternoon. More prisoners came along with whom were some wounded Huns…. The morphine needle was flowing freely all day. Doc McCarthy, Padre Willis, the orderlies, even the captured German doctor, worked till they were almost to the point of collapsing. I helped to dress various chaps…. Darkness was coming and the last of the wounded chaps came in. Tea had been brought down to us by the cooks and I helped to spoon-feed some of the poor chaps who were incapacitated. I had a copious supply of cigarettes and I gave many away to our own fellows, looking to their needs and comforts as best as I was able to…. The wounded were being taken away now in ambulances and trucks. There were even some German vehicles including ambulances….
L. Grant (Carrier Platoon) who was wounded, wrote:
‘I had to cease fire shortly after as I had stopped a lump of shrapnel in the back. Lt Wroth60 examined my wound, swung the carrier round and set off for a truck to take me to the Casualty Centre…. After getting into a MT truck, partly under my own steam, I was given a casualty net to lie on, and believe me it was a God-send. We eventually arrived at the Dressing Centre where Dr McCarthy was waiting to accept us. … After being made comfortable with a shell-dressing I lay down to await further proceedings. Our Padre (Willis) did a marvellous job of work, giving us all cocoa and chocolate. We lay here from about 2.30 p.m. until approx. 8 p.m. until the ambulances came to shift us a little further away from danger. At arrival at our next destination the worst cases were put in large tents, when we received a shot of morphia and anti-tetanus. Personally I spent a bad night, along with many other patient sufferers. Next morning the tents were dismantled and we were preparing to move again by ambulances. The German artillery at this stage decided to drop a few shells around us. The Padres and Doctors held up Red Crosses but with little avail, so it fell to a lot of our artillery to put a stop to it, which they did.
‘While we were being loaded on to ambulances, I noticed Colonel McNaught—he was sitting on a stretcher smoking his pipe, quite unconcerned—this was the spirit that prevailed page 136 throughout. A little later our convoy was halted to form up for the long journey ahead; this was a sad moment for us all; we were suddenly attacked by a column of German tanks. Those of the drivers who used their own initiative were not long in driving at high speed to safety—others were left to the mercy of the enemy. This part of the journey was anything but Heaven, as we had to travel about 90 miles over very rough going, much to the displeasure of many of the wounded…. That night about 9 p.m. we arrived at the 14th C.C.S….
Colonel McNaught was in the midst of all this and relates his experience:
‘I was bandaged up and put to sleep for the night. I don't remember much about that. Then came a very interesting and exhausting time…. A convoy of 2 ambulances, 10 3-ton trucks and a captured German ambulance were ready at 6.30 a.m. 24 Nov. I was put in the front of the German ambulance and with a compass set out to lead the convoy. I was very uncomfortable with one leg stuck out under the driver. We had to go through German lines, past German tanks and German machine gunners in the scrub. My driver was a bit scared but I told him to keep straight on and no one troubled us. You see there were all sorts of rings within rings of different troops at this time. I had to report 15 miles away to an advanced CCS, but it wasn't there and all the ambulances and Clearing Stations had moved back because some German tanks had got through the ring and were making things merry for rear administrative units. We ran into it all, and some German tanks opened fire on my convoy. We had to scatter and go for it. They killed one of their own men in one of our ambulances and one of our men. They captured an ambulance but drove it straight into the South African lines, so we got it back. In all we went 50 miles that day but the last 20 I did on a stretcher in an ambulance. About 7 p.m. a Tank Major beside me died—the journey was too much for him. The next day was uneventful but tiring—40 miles: the third day was the worst, 55 miles and over very rough ground: the fourth day was better, 42 miles and we were in Egypt and slept in beds in a casualty clearing station. In all I had been in 3 different ambulance units—food had been light, 2 meals a day, one of which, breakfast, was usually just porridge, tea and biscuits. The fifth day we entrained in an ambulance train and were in it for 25 hours before arriving at Hospital on the canal. (Note: After the first day I was on my own as the other vehicles ran beyond me. page 137 I spent several hours trying to find them. I learned later that they all got back through the wire 24 hours ahead of me and reported me missing. I also learned later that it was Rommel's tanks making their move towards the wire to disorganise the administrative units and supplies that came upon us. My vehicle was not hit though bullets came all around it.)’
The men of the battalion who were with 24 Battalion remained in their positions and the following morning 25 Battalion with its transport moved to an area 700 yards north-east of the cairn on Hill 175, remaining under command of 24 Battalion, which that morning had advanced and regained the crest of the hill a little beyond the cairn. The transport moved back to the brigade transport area, being shelled without effect on the way, and Burton set about the reorganisation of the battalion. He established Battalion Headquarters, Headquarters Company, and two rifle companies which, in order to make up a workable strength, included the pioneers, anti-aircraft gunners, sanitary men, clerks, cooks, and drivers.
Lieutenant Ian Reid (Mortar Officer) was appointed Adjutant; Sergeant Slade61 and Corporal Coombe62 were to do the intelligence work; Lieutenant Rolfe63 remained Quartermaster; the company commanders were: HQ Company—Second-Lieutenant Birch (who also remained Transport Officer), A Company— Lieutenant Henderson, B Company—Lieutenant Wilson.
A search of the forward area was made after dark on the 24th to find wounded men reported to be there by one of the wounded. Major Burton and Private Maloney64 in a truck went as far forward as possible and brought back a number of wounded, chiefly from 15 Platoon of C Company and the forward elements of B Company. A great many dead of both sides were seen.
With the withdrawal of some of the men from the forward positions and the arrival of stragglers, the strength had increased somewhat, B Company, according to Private Reed, from thirty-eight to about seventy. ‘We eventually raked up about 230 fit men,’ wrote Lieutenant Cathie (10 Platoon), ‘… and Wally Ormond strolled in the following morning from the German page 138 lines, after the 24th had made a dawn attack on Jerry and had knocked him back a fair way. We had five rifle company subalterns left—Bruce Campbell,65 Tubby Henderson, Wally Ormond, Paul Robertshaw, and myself. We eventually formed two depleted rifle companies with the assistance of Headquarters Company, which had not been so badly hit.’ There was plenty of ammunition but Bren guns and tommy guns were rather scarce. Most of the troop-carrying vehicles attached to the battalion had been used to take the wounded back and very few returned to the unit. Second-Lieutenant Ormond, who had been captured the previous day, escaped and returned to the battalion, where he was warmly welcomed.
The enemy continued to hold the Rugbet en Nbeidat and the ground to the west of it towards the Blockhouse, from which he harassed 24 Battalion's position.
In the operation against Point 175, 6 Brigade Group had been in a very exposed position, far in advance of the rest of the Division and very vulnerable to attack from the strong enemy armoured forces in the neighbourhood. But the situation now improved. The enemy armour, which had inflicted serious losses on 7 Armoured Division and on the afternoon of the 23rd had overrun 5 South African Brigade, six miles south-west of Point 175, had laagered that evening not far away; fortunately, next morning it moved off to the south-east in an enormous column about 20 miles long, bound for the Egyptian frontier some 50 miles away. The movement was seen by 22 Armoured Brigade, which earlier that morning had concentrated five miles south of 6 Brigade under orders to assist the New Zealand Division. Fourth Armoured Brigade, with similar orders, was a further 12 miles to the south-east; both armoured brigades had had severe losses.
(Rommel himself led the German armoured mass towards Egypt. So far as is known, he was not present during the operations against 5 South African Brigade, and it is of some interest to 25 Battalion to know that there is a probability that he personally was involved in the direction of the battle against the battalion.)
That night, 24 – 25 November, 6 Brigade was to advance along the escarpment to a point beyond the Blockhouse, an advance of about two miles, it being decided, in the words of General Freyberg, that 6 Brigade should ‘just enlarge their show without worrying about timing of attack’. Fourth Brigade on the right would move up level at daybreak. The ultimate objective of the New Zealand Division was to effect a junction with the Tobruk garrison, which was to sortie at dawn on the 26th provided the Division had taken Ed Duda, three miles north-west of Sidi Rezegh. Fifth Brigade was still operating in the Sollum – Capuzzo area.
During the early hours of Tuesday, 25 November, 24 Battalion on the right and 26 Battalion on the left advanced westwards, the former encountering severe opposition in the Rugbet en Nbeidat and at dawn being held up and digging in on the western slopes of the Rugbet below the Blockhouse. Twenty-sixth Battalion reached its objective, the Sidi Rezegh airfield, shortly after daylight with little opposition other than some flanking and reverse machine-gun and mortar fire from the vicinity of the Blockhouse. With assistance from artillery, machine guns, and mortars, and one company and carriers from 26 Battalion, an attack by 24 Battalion against very strong opposition from the Blockhouse area succeeded, at least 200 prisoners being taken. It was from this position and the slopes and the Rugbet east of it that 25 Battalion had encountered such determined resistance against its attack on Sunday. In the course of its attack across the Rugbet 24 Battalion released a number of 25 Battalion men who had been captured on the 23rd and held in tents by the Germans.
Early in the afternoon 25 Battalion, whose troop-carrying vehicles were still detached, marched about 3000 yards westwards to the vicinity of the Blockhouse in readiness for the next advance.
In the late afternoon Brigadier Barrowclough issued his orders for an attack that night. Sixth Brigade was to make a silent attack against Sidi Rezegh, about four miles west of the Block- page 141 house, and in a second phase advance on Ed Duda, where contact would be made with the Tobruk garrison. At the same time as the Sidi Rezegh attack, 4 Brigade on the right would attack Belhamed, three miles north of Sidi Rezegh. Time was pressing as Ed Duda should be taken by dawn, the time arranged for the sortie by the Tobruk garrison. There was little time to spare.
In the first phase 24 and 25 Battalions were to form a corridor 2000 yards wide for the passage of vehicles, supplies, and troops, Colonel Shuttleworth (24 Battalion) being in command of both battalions for the operation. After the corridor was formed, 21 and 26 Battalions would pass through to secure Ed Duda, Colonel Page66 (24 Battalion) commanding both units for that operation. Brigade Headquarters and other units would then pass through the corridor, which was to be held for twenty-four hours. Twenty-fifth Battalion was to form the southern edge of the corridor, facing south on a frontage of 2000 yards, the eastern flank to be three miles from the Blockhouse. The battalion was to prevent any penetration of the corridor. The northern edge of the corridor was to be secured by 24 Battalion.
The starting time from the Blockhouse was first fixed at 8 p.m., about an hour after the orders were issued; as 25 Battalion was about a mile east of that point and Burton had to get back, form up his battalion, issue his orders, and get the unit to the starting line, he objected that the time was insufficient, an objection that was frowned upon. However, the time was extended to 9 p.m. Twenty-fifth Battalion formed up with its transport in column, marching troops on either side, a protective screen in front and the carriers in rear, and after some difficulties the Blockhouse was reached about 9 p.m. This surprised Shuttleworth, who found he was unable to start 24 Battalion before about 11 p.m.
Thus two hours late, the two battalions advanced through the dark night and over difficult ground, 24 Battalion leading. A three-mile march in such circumstances (and some of the men had four miles to cover) seems interminable, but 25 Battalion had no special difficulty and met with no opposition. Major Burton gives a good description of the operation:
‘As the head of our column reached the three mile point (past the Blockhouse) we could hear enemy fire and could see the page 142 enemy anti-tank gun bullets and tracer bullets from small arms flying through the air. It was a dark murky night and difficult to select a good defensive position. I established my headquarters approx 1000 yards from the 3 mile point and faced the south. A Coy was then on my right and B Coy on the left with HQ Coy in the centre. HQ Coy was to look after approx 400 yards of the new front and each Rifle Coy was to cover 800 yards. Owing to the intense enemy fire from our rear, I particularly stressed the necessity for all-round defence as it seemed we would be much more concerned with a northerly aspect rather than a southerly one. A Coy had reached the limit of its frontage and were considerably mixed up with troops of the 24 Bn. A Coy were now under considerable fire. The position was organised with as much depth as could safely be used and then all set to work in earnest to dig in. We were very fortunate in the centre of the sector for we struck clay which allowed of fairly good digging. I moved westward to contact the 24 Bn but could not locate the CO. Their move was not going too well and it looked as though they would not form the northern line of the corridor. I took a look at A Coy and later B Coy areas but only when flares lit the skies could one get any idea of the ground we had occupied. The Bn was to face south so naturally our vehicles were better in rear of us. But then it looked as though if the 24 Bn failed to secure their position we would be fighting facing north with our vehicles in front. We decided to widely scatter vehicles and all drivers to dig in and be prepared to fight. Picks were burrowing deep into the ground. The scraping and bumping of shovels could be heard all around as slit trenches, gun pits and mortar pits were made. Near to Bn HQ was dug a pit for the Brigade wireless as it was considered safer to have it underground than on the truck. The time was about 3 a.m. on 26 Nov and we awaited the passage of 21 – 26 Bns…. They did attempt to secure their objective but their columns ran into the same withering fire from the same direction … [as] 24 and 25 Bns … during the early part of the night. They turned and came back. Many of their vehicles ran amuck in the darkness and came thundering through our position…. Two lads of our Bn were run over and had legs broken. I narrowly escaped being run over myself. A 3 tonner stopped with its wheels hanging over our Bn HQ trench. Another vehicle ran over Signal HQ and squashed the Brigade wireless set almost to pulp. There was wild confusion as these vehicles madly careered page 143 through the darkness with enemy fire whizzing all around them. However, they had soon passed through our position and probably returned … whence they came. Then came the dawn and with it much trouble….’
Lieutenant Cathie also narrowly escaped the trucks:
‘On Tuesday night we moved into a new position and spent an uncomfortable night digging in under sniper fire with an occasional burst of machine gun fire for luck. It was not a very nice experience, particularly that damned sniping. It was bitterly cold too and at about five o'clock when I lay down in a pit with my then company commander, Doug Wilson, I said to him that I did not know whether I was shivering with fright or with cold. We were unfortunate enough to have three blokes casualties this night, run over by our own trucks. Just an error of judgment. How the sergeant, Doug, and myself escaped a similar fate I do not know.’
H. R. Mackenzie of the signal platoon was also a target for the runaway vehicles. He had dug a fairly deep, tight-fitting slit trench for himself and about dawn heard the noise of vehicles and saw a truck heading straight for him. ‘I ducked and over it came leaving both its left-hand wheel track marks up my right foot and over my left shoulder, leaving me dazed for quite a while as to what had just happened.’
Burton was quite right in assuming that 24 Battalion was having difficulty in forming the northern side of the corridor. On reaching a position somewhere near the southern side that 25 Battalion was to occupy, 24 Battalion was to turn to the right and advance 2000 yards to the north to occupy the northern side. Two companies seemed to have done this against some opposition, but there is some doubt as to the action of the other two, none of their officers having survived. Two machine-gun platoons with 24 Battalion took up positions facing west on the open western side of the corridor, between the western flanks of 24 and 25 Battalions. Twenty-fourth Battalion had much difficulty with the hard ground, encountering a rocky surface in which positions could not be dug, and there appears to have been a good deal of confusion generally.
Meanwhile 4 Brigade to the north had been completely successful in its attack on Belhamed, and 21 and 26 Battalions had moved forward towards the corridor. Twenty-fourth Battalion was being strongly opposed and was under heavy fire, and 26 Battalion was encountering a good deal of fire from its right as it moved westwards towards 24 Battalion. Colonel Page page 144 was told, incorrectly, by wireless from Brigade Headquarters that 24 Battalion was a thousand yards short of the Sidi Rezegh tomb, though in fact some of its men were well to the west of that point. Twenty-sixth Battalion halted therefore a little to the east of 24 Battalion until the route ahead was clear.
Twenty-first Battalion (Colonel Allen67), on the other hand, understood that Sidi Rezegh was held by 24 and 25 Battalions and moved on for its pre-arranged rendezvous with 26 Battalion, and with the intention to push through to Ed Duda. Looking for 26 Battalion, Allen and part of his battalion passed the tomb and reached the flat ground north of the escarpment and close to the Trigh Capuzzo. A few men were north of the Trigh and the remainder of the battalion on the escarpment or south of it, engaged with the enemy. Twenty-first Battalion was thus somewhat scattered and there was no prospect of its advancing to Ed Duda. This second phase was cancelled about 5 a.m. and 26 Battalion remained in position on the escarpment, facing north and north-west, on the right of 24 Battalion.
To 6 Brigade Headquarters the situation was very obscure, especially as regards 21 Battalion, and it was not until about 7.30 a.m. that it was learnt that 21 Battalion had been heavily counter-attacked just beyond Sidi Rezegh and scattered. Before then, 6 Brigade had been ordered to ‘consolidate on Sidi Rezegh’, make a plan for an attack on Ed Duda, but not to attack until ordered.
The enemy along the crest of the escarpment kept up a brisk fire against the various detachments and positions of 21, 24, and 26 Battalions and also against the western flank of 25 Battalion. The course of the fighting had required 25 Battalion to face about, that is, face north as Burton had anticipated. Continuing his previous account, Burton wrote:
‘Instead of facing south we were required to face and fight northward…. Bde had run a line to our Bn so we were in touch with them at last. The Brig called me up and I outlined our precarious position to him. I remember his remarks quite clearly. “You are the only Bn in position—I am relying on you to hold on at all costs. I cannot give you any help at present. I cannot give you artillery or machine gun support for some hours yet. I will give you support as soon as possible.” We seemed to be almost surrounded and were subjected to violent page 145 shelling, mortaring and machine-gunning. We replied with our Bn mortars and LMGs. The enemy were closing in on us. There were several points from which continuous machine gun fire was being delivered. To hold our ground these had to be neutralised. We put down mortar, HE concentrations and smoke and then rushed our carriers into the strongpoints with success.
‘A Coy on the western flank of our sector was having a very bad time but were holding the enemy back. To the west of them was the pioneer platoon whom I had placed in position to hold the flank which had appeared very vulnerable—they were not enjoying life at all that morning. The Huns were attacking again on the left flank. A Coy were getting the works. … Amid the smoke and dust I could see troops with their hands in the air. The Germans were surrendering but as the air cleared and looking through the glasses I saw to my horror that it was our troops who were surrendering. Then suddenly from the German side came a mortar bombardment. It looked as though the Germans did not intend to take prisoners. Those who had considered it wise to surrender now decided to carry on the fight and all got down to work again and were once more successful in preventing the enemy from penetrating the position. The enemy renewed his attack in the centre, immediately in front of Bn HQ and HQ Coy. We advised Bde HQ as to the progress of the battle and were advised that assistance was forthcoming.
‘We badly needed help and it now arrived as across the desert … [came] A Coy of the 21 Bn under Capt Ferguson68 and the 24 Bn carrier platoon under Lt Yeoman.69 There was no time for elaborate planning. Something had to be done and done quickly as the German fire power seemed to be increasing all the time. Immediately in front was an area within 500 yds which slightly dominated our area. A considerable amount of fire was coming from this direction. We decided to seize this open piece of ground.’
It was about 11.15 a.m. when Captain Ferguson with A Company 21 Battalion and 24 Battalion's carrier platoon reached 25 Battalion, covered during the movement by heavy fire from 25 Battalion's carriers and mortars, including a smoke page 146 screen. With this support the company seized the higher ground referred to by Burton on the western flank of A Company (25 Battalion). The carriers of both battalions were of great assistance, attacking enemy machine-gun and other posts and being ably supported with HE and smoke by the mortars. The smoke at times created difficulties for the carriers, two of which from 25 Battalion collided head on in the smoke; one of the carriers was disabled but the crews fortunately were unhurt. Apparently the density of the smoke had been increased through the Germans also using it to cover their withdrawal.
Throughout the day there was much hostile activity from the west, where the two machine-gun platoons in their very advanced positions were stubbornly and effectively defending the open western flank of the corridor; they were under heavy fire of weapons of all descriptions, including tanks, and ultimately suffered very heavy casualties.
When the situation on 25 Battalion's western flank seemed to have quietened, 24 Battalion carrier platoon, whose commander unfortunately was severely wounded, rejoined its unit. With the exception of heavy enemy mortar fire about 3 p.m. and again at dusk and spasmodic machine-gun and rifle fire, the afternoon was comparatively quiet.
In the late afternoon at a conference at Brigade Headquarters at the eastern side of the airfield, Brigadier Barrowclough said that General Freyberg had ordered that Sidi Rezegh must be taken that night, 26 – 27 November, without fail. Twenty-fourth and 26th Battalions were given the task, while 25 Battalion, 2000 yards away to the south, was to remain in position until 11.30 p.m. to provide a firm base for the attacking battalions. It was then to withdraw and join 21 Battalion in brigade reserve. At Barrowclough's request Burton lent two of his best men (Tiffen70 and Cox71) from the ‘I’ section to 24 Battalion for the operation.
A Company of 21 Battalion had been withdrawn before dusk to join 24 Battalion for the impending attack, and the battalion then awaited the time for its withdrawal. It had been an anxious and hard day for the troops, following so closely the very severe battle for Point 175, and there was nothing to do but hold on and fight back. But there was one bright period:
Farewell parade, Wellington, August 1940
Tug-of-war on board the Mauretania
On the wharf at Piraeus
Resting on the roadside in Athens; Lt R. M. McLeay, standing (nearest camera)
In the snow at Olympus
Looking west from left flank of 6 Brigade's positions at Molos: swamp to the right, ridges to the left—a post-war photograph
25 Battalion officers, Helwan, 1941
Back row, from left: Capt G. A. W. Possin, Capt R. M. McLeay, 2 Lt B. Campbell, 2 Lt J. R. G. Jack, Lt W. M. Clarry, Lt I. D. Reid, Lt J. P. Tredray, Lt H. Macaskill, Rev. C. E. Willis (Padre), 2 Lt P. W. Robertshaw, Capt R. C. Wilson, Lt L. C. McCarthy (RMO), Lt G. Colledge. Middle row: Capt W. J. Heslop, Capt W. H. Roberts, Maj C. J. Williams, Maj C. D. A. George, Brig A. S. Wilder, Capt M. J. Mason, Capt A. J. R. Hastie, Capt H. G. Burton, Capt F. R. McBride, 2 Lt C. H. Cathie. Front row: 2 Lt C. S. Wroth Lt G. J. B. Morris, 2 Lt J. H. Birch, Lt H. H. Hollow, Lt D. A. Wilson, Lt T. W. G. Rolfe, 2 Lt M. J. T. Fraser, Lt M. Handyside
Colonel McNaught addresses officers and NCOs at Baggush before the November 1941 campaign
Looking eastwards towards Point 175
The Mosque at Sidi Rezegh
Assault landing exercises in the Great Bitter Lake, February 1942
A Kurdish village in North Syria
Bren carriers in Aleppo
Troops bivouac in the Sinai Desert on the way back to Egypt, June 1942
Sandstorm at El Alamein
Miteiriya Ridge. Sixth Brigade positions between 25 and 26 Battalions
The New Zealand Division parades for Mr Churchill at Tripoli
At Tripoli: General Freyberg, Brig H. K. Kippenberger, Mr Churchill, Brig W. G. Gentry, Lt-Col C. M. Bennett, and the three battalion commanders of 6 Brigade, Lt-Cols D. J. Fountaine (26 Bn), J. Conolly (24 Bn) and T. B. Morten (25 Bn)
C Company watersiders at Tripoli
6 Brigade Group laagers for the night, Tripolitania
Bivouac area near Enfidaville
Takrouna, from 25 Battalion positions
‘All was quiet to the west,’ said Mackenzie (Signal Platoon), ‘and suddenly I heard a low drone. I roused myself and looked up. They were our planes. I could hear them, then slowly from the clouds they emerged, 15 bombers and 50 fighters (65 planes, 80 engines in all). They dropped their cargoes of death about 5 or 7 miles behind the Hun's lines. Terrific columns of dust and smoke rose high into the still air and a few seconds later the concussion thudded heavily past my ears. I stood up and watched this magnificent display of fireworks. Anti-aircraft guns were outranged and not a plane was touched. The whole formation circled behind our lines, the roar of the engines filling the air with a resounding deep drone, shaking the very ground upon which I stood. Around to the north they came in the same line of their first attack. The flak went up to meet them twice as fast as before, and down came their bombs again, leaving a tremendous pall of dust and smoke, making an even more vicious concussion than the first one. Then came three squadrons of Hurricanes out from the clouds and flat along the ground letting rip every set of their 12 machine guns simultaneously. Strafing they call it and it sounded just as if ten thousand window shades were all tearing at once, as their 108 machine guns all spat out their streams of liquid lead.’
An exhilarating sight, obviously, to the weary, hungry, and strained men on the ground.
About an hour before midnight the attack by 24 and 26 Battalions commenced and very desperate hand-to-hand fighting ensued, with heavy casualties to both sides. An hour or so earlier, troops of 4 Brigade with tanks advanced towards Ed Duda to make contact with the Tobruk garrison, which had captured this key position earlier in the day. Long before daylight on the 27th, Barrowclough heard that the 4 Brigade operation had succeeded, and, as was learnt later, with practically no opposition and no casualties.
It was a different matter, however, on 6 Brigade's front. After a very confused battle 24 and 26 Battalions had secured the objective, though some withdrawal from exposed positions was necessary at dawn. Both Tiffen and Cox of the ‘I’ section, whom Burton had lent reluctantly to 24 Battalion, were taken prisoner.
Twenty-fifth Battalion withdrew at midnight 26 – 27 November as planned. Wakeling wrote of his experiences in the sector and the withdrawal:page 148
‘Nov 26 … 3 a.m. and the fireworks started while we were digging in—a really hectic night. No hope of getting out of our hole all day. Snuggled in without water or tucker. What a day and glad to see the darkness and moved back at midnight (26 – 27 Nov) under heavy shellfire and no one will ever know how we walked through that barrage with no casualties, as the shells were in amongst us and all around us. Our luck held and we slept till 5 a.m. after coming back 2 miles. Moved back to Bde HQ. One or two of ours a bit gone in the nerves and it's only a marvel we are not all the same way. Took up a defensive position in the afternoon.’
Mackenzie (Signals) was doing sentry duty, the line to Brigade being out of action, and woke the sergeant in time to prepare ‘for a quick getaway’. He wrote: ‘A sniper's shot cracked whistling high to our left. Instinctively we ducked. They must have been wise as to our move and later a few machine-gun bullets whistled over at irregular intervals. At 12.15 an odd mortar or two crashed nearby and at 12.20 there was quite a serious barrage being aimed at our area. Odd bullets whined close by and I was almost scared to move out of my hole for a while. I ran behind a carrier for shelter and waited until 12.30 came and we moved out in a slow orderly convoy. Somehow I got a little ahead of our own chaps on the sheltered side of the mortar amn truck. I looked back to see how the convoy was proceeding just as a shell landed within 20 yards of one batch. Not one was hit; it was a miracle and just went to prove that the Hun's shells are more noise than casualties. Shells crashed all around us, but on we went till we were just out of range. We stopped for a rest and Cyril produced some brandy. Hoppy and I and the others took a proffered sip. It was good stuff indeed and warmed the cockles of our hearts. Still the shells came falling short until we were lulled to sleep by their regular monotony.
‘At 5.30 a.m. (27 Nov) we got out and marched again somewhere, I didn't care where, I just plodded on. Dawn came and I could hear the sounds of a fierce battle behind me, probably tanks in it too. Occasionally a spent bullet whined nearby and plopped into the ground. Sig 2 had a flat tyre but she rolled slowly on. Sidi Rezegh aerodrome was in sight with its 37 smashed up (German) planes littered over the entire area. Several burnt-out tanks lay immobile on the slope of the hill. We passed near one of ours which the Huns had been using and got a Spandau machine gun and several other useful pieces page 149 of equipment from it. The whole area was littered with uncountable pieces of shrapnel, shell cases, belts of unused ammo, dampened primer charges for our 25 pounders, dud German anti-tank shells, some used shell cases of our own, and almost everything which had been left after a hectic battle…. We finally parked near a collection of salvage of both our own and Hun (the latter being more plentiful). We dug in and made ourselves as comfortable as possible all around the trucks….’
Burton had withdrawn the battalion to the south-eastern corner of the airfield where Brigade Headquarters had been a few hours earlier before it had moved to a position a little to the east of 26 Battalion, near the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. The battalion transport had also gone from the area, so Burton decided to stop there for an hour or two and dig in while he discovered where Brigade Headquarters was. After the men had rested a couple of hours the battalion moved south of the airfield and, with 21 Battalion, formed the brigade reserve. Both battalions were at very low strength and it was at first intended to amalgamate them; this was not done, however, as they were some distance apart. At 11 a.m. next day, Friday, 28 November, 25 Battalion established a mobile observation post consisting of a section of Bren carriers and the Intelligence Section on the southern escarpment. An excellent all-round view was secured and considerable movement of enemy tanks and transport from east to west was observed and reported to Brigade Headquarters throughout the day. The post also witnessed a tank engagement about two miles from the battalion's left front in mid-afternoon, the enemy being driven off.
A little before midnight Burton received orders to move to the Blockhouse, while his B Echelon transport was to go to the new brigade transport area a little farther west; 21 Battalion was to occupy Point 175, the scene of 25 Battalion's battle on the 23rd.
The battalion moved off in the moonlight at 2 a.m. on Saturday, 29 November. The air was cold and raw and this early campaigning was not too popular with the troops, but everyone of course recognised the necessity for avoiding observation when taking up a new position. Only A Echelon vehicles, flanked by marching men with fixed bayonets, moved with the troops. There was a screen of men about 150 yards ahead with a direction party immediately behind it, Corporal Coombe of the Intelligence Section being responsible for keeping direction. At the rear of the column was the Bren-carrier platoon. A great page 150 many flares lit up the surrounding landscape, the lavish use of flares being a long-standing custom of the Germans who, as in the 1914–18 war, made much more use of them than did the New Zealanders, and had a far greater variety.
With such confusion reigning throughout the extensive battle area and much liberty of movement, there was a distinct possibility that the enemy might be occupying the Blockhouse area and the battalion was very much on the alert. Cathie (10 Platoon) provided the vanguard and describes what happened:
‘My platoon was the advance guard of our column. I found that the weight of my pack made my shoulder sore [he had been wounded there] so I put it on one of the trucks and just carried two grenades and my rifle. At last we could discern what looked like a building some hundreds of yards ahead. It was a moonlit night and I was sent forward with a patrol to make sure that it was our objective and to ensure that there were no Jerries about. About 300 yards from where the column had stopped we came upon two deserted sleeping places—two blankets, two Jerry mess-tins, and two Mauser rifles. Of course I immediately thought that we had disturbed some Huns, but on closer examination of the mess-tins, I found that they had been run over by a vehicle as they were both badly crushed and vehicle marks could be seen on the ground.
‘I can assure you that the old heart was working overtime and I was still very anxious about our reception. However, after being firmly convinced that the building in front was the Blockhouse—our objective—by careful scrutiny through my binoculars, we retraced our steps to the head of the column, with the Mauser rifles in our possession. After finding signs of rust on these weapons and deducing that these Jerries had been disturbed by the 24th in a dawn attack four days previously, Captain Burton, who was in command, gave the order to move on. We all felt reassured but leaving nothing to chance, I went forward again to examine the Blockhouse and see that it was unoccupied. With a grenade in my hand and Ken Cragg72 with a Bren gun at my side and a section of men behind me you might think that I felt secure, but I was damned frightened. However, we searched the place thoroughly and found it concealed no Jerries and thereafter, being allotted positions, we dug in for the night.page 151
‘On the Saturday morning as day dawned we found that we had dug in in relatively good positions around the Blockhouse. The whole outlook was a little confusing at first as there seemed to be transport in the distance all around us.
‘However we soon discovered Brigade and in front of us we had Pt 175….’
A couple of miles to the east, on Point 175, 21 Battalion about 8.30 a.m. scored a notable success, capturing the commander of 21 Panzer Division, General von Ravenstein who, unescorted, drove into the position, thinking it was held by the Germans. Maps and papers showing plans for the destruction of the New Zealand Division were secured and forwarded with the prisoner to Brigade Headquarters.
Twenty-fifth Battalion occupied the Blockhouse position with A Company west of the Blockhouse and facing mostly north, and B Company to the east partly facing Point 175. In the darkness the two companies became somewhat entangled but this was soon corrected. The troops immediately dug in, using picks and shovels in the rocky ground, and at daylight ‘stood to’ in readiness to meet attack from any direction, but for the moment all was quiet. A few adjustments were made in the dispositions: Battalion Headquarters and HQ Company took over 300 yards of front; B Company to the east was allotted a thousand yards; and A Company extended its flank to about 1400 yards to the west to bridge a gap to 8 Field Company, New Zealand Engineers, who were employed as infantry along the escarpment north of the airfield. The position was to be held until the arrival of a South African brigade which would occupy a position near Point 175.
Early in the morning Lieutenant Needham73 (6 Field Regiment) established an artillery OP in the Blockhouse. The battalion also had various OPs under Sergeant Slade of the Intelligence Section. Added security against enemy tanks was provided by a troop of three two-pounder anti-tank guns, sent by Brigade Headquarters and very gladly received; there was a good deal of visual evidence that its services might well be required. The guns were portée type and were under Lieutenant Mitchell, NZA,74 who later ‘managed to dig up a fourth’.
With such an extensive view as the Blockhouse area afforded, the OPs had much to report with considerable enemy movement page 152 in several directions. During the morning and again in the early afternoon 21 Battalion on Point 175 was attacked by infantry, but with the aid of tanks and artillery held its ground, though with some difficulty.
In the early afternoon the approach of an armoured force from the north caused some alarm in the battalion, but it was recognised in due course as British and proved to be part of 7 Armoured Division; this detachment had escorted Brigadier Clifton's75 supply convoy to the New Zealand Division and, driving right through 25 Battalion's position, went off southwards to rejoin its division.
Twenty-first Battalion on Point 175, like the 25th, was awaiting the arrival of the relieving South African troops, which were expected at any moment. Some little time before dusk a large convoy headed by armoured cars and tanks appeared and the familiar black berets were seen above the turrets. Men left their positions to welcome the new arrivals, but most unfortunately they proved to be Italians in captured South African vehicles and 21 Battalion was quickly overrun; about 5.30 p.m. Brigade Headquarters informed 25 Battalion that Hill 175 was once more held by the enemy. Barrowclough also told Burton that a South African brigade would detach a sufficient force to attack and occupy the hill during the night, and that his battalion was to be very much on the alert and hold its ground. Burton was assured that the South Africans would be easily recognised by their type of vehicles and by the armoured cars preceding them, a description which seemed only too closely to fit the force which overran 21 Battalion.
A good many men of 25 Battalion had seen the enemy attack against Hill 175 and were appalled at the outcome. Of this action Cathie said: ‘Later on Saturday we observed that a brisk action was taking place on 175 and it turned out later that the poor old 21st had been overwhelmed by Jerry armoured cars and troops. Only a few of the 21st escaped, after putting in a desperate counter-attack and bayonet charge. But bayonets won't, unfortunately, stop armoured cars.’ Mitchell's troop of anti-tank guns did not stand idly by; though the range was page 153 considerable it engaged enemy tanks on the western slopes of the hill and, apparently, caused them to retire though the effect of the fire could not be observed. Wakeling in his diary remarked: ‘Things started to pop again at 4 p.m. and we had visions of a hectic night but it wasn't so bad.’
But 25 Battalion was taking no chances that night. A good deal of German equipment was found throughout the area, including arms, equipment, ammunition, hundreds of stick grenades, and also foodstuffs. The Provost Sergeant (Jones76) went round the weapon pits distributing enemy machine guns, stick grenades, and anything else likely to be useful, and showed the men how to use them. (This illustrated the value of familiarising the troops with enemy arms and equipment, which to some extent was done during training in Egypt.)
During the night, 29 – 30 November, there was a good deal of noise from various directions and, true to form, the Germans (and Italians) kept the countryside illuminated with their innumerable flares. There was a commotion in the direction of Hill 175 during the night, causing some speculation as to whether the South Africans might possibly have arrived.
An hour before dawn broke on the 30th (Sunday) the battalion stood-to-arms. Brigadier Barrowclough had directed that an officer's patrol should be sent out to ascertain the situation on Hill 175. Cathie refers to the matter in one of his letters home:
‘Before dawn on Sunday morning Wally Ormond went out alone to see if Point 175 was now occupied by South Africans or not. But Wally unfortunately was taken prisoner by a Jerry armoured car. Captain Burton would not allow any more officers to do patrol work because we were so short in this respect. Personally I think a few of us could have had a go at some of the Jerry tanks at night, but still, our job was to hold the Blockhouse position and skirmishing may have been costly. Our artillery had a real field day on Sunday and cut up a lot of Jerry and Itie transport—we were certainly blessing those 25-pounders—and I'll bet Jerry was cursing them. Apparently Rommel's column had arrived back behind us from the south-east, as we could now see quite a large number of Jerry tanks on our front. The situation did not look too healthy, and we were still waiting for the South Africans.page 154
‘On Sunday evening at dusk five Jerry tanks attacked us but our anti-tank guns got three and the other two withdrew in confusion. Two of our chaps were wounded and the Padre took them off in his car, heading for Tobruk.’
Wakeling's comments on the day contained a reference to the air: ‘Not much support from the air but we suppose they are busy elsewhere. Not many Hun planes to be seen.’ But there was plenty of support from the field guns, which fired a memorable divisional concentration on the Italians on Point 175 that morning.
During the morning Burton was told by Brigade Headquarters that the South African brigade which was to attack Hill 175 would first move to Sidi Rezegh to debus and then attack the hill from that direction, that is, from the west. However, there seemed to be some doubt about the operation as a South African officer, arriving a little later in an armoured car and on his way to Brigade Headquarters, made it clear that the South African brigade would not be attacking Hill 175, as the brigade had already been badly knocked about.
From the battalion's eastern OP many enemy tanks could be seen in the Rugbet en Nbeidat, the wadi between the battalion and Hill 175. These tanks naturally were a considerable threat and from time to time several of them would start their engines and move off in various directions, returning after a few minutes. These manoeuvres did nothing to allay the anxieties of the battalion during what was, throughout, a worrying day. In mid-afternoon enemy tanks, supported by lorried infantry, advanced to within one and a half miles of the left flank but withdrew when engaged by the artillery.
Later in the afternoon a warning order was received from Brigade Headquarters that the battalion would embus on first- and second-line vehicles, move to Sidi Rezegh mosque, debus there, and then move in a south-westerly direction to support 24 Battalion. It was half an hour after this that the battalion was attacked by the tanks referred to by Cathie. No further orders were received about this move but another troop of anti-tank guns was brought up to assist in meeting any further tank attacks and, as dusk approached, the battalion was told to continue to hold its position.
The night was one of great anxiety. Tanks heard moving about the enemy positions suggested that preparations were under way for a dawn attack; the usual enemy flares lit up the sky at frequent intervals; machine-gun fire was heard by page 155 B Company and then a little later by A Company. The night was exceedingly cold and the men tired and nearing exhaustion, but a keen watchfulness was maintained. The general situation of the Division was bad and Brigadier Barrowclough was a very worried man, as well he might be. Just before dusk (30 November) 24 Battalion and all but two companies of 26 Battalion, after being heavily shelled for several hours, had been overrun by enemy tanks on the escarpment at Sidi Rezegh and the survivors had taken up a position covering Brigade Headquarters and the brigade transport. A shortage of gun ammunition, originating in the disruption of the supply line when Rommel's armour raided the Egyptian frontier, contributed to the disaster.
There were large enemy concentrations in the vicinity and, unless strong armoured support came, the Division was in danger of annihilation. At dawn on Monday, 1 December, the enemy artillery continued its attack against 6 Brigade and a serious threat was developing against 4 Brigade. During the morning 20 Battalion was overrun at Belhamed. However, 18 Battalion had been able to withdraw westwards from Belhamed and was in contact with the Tobruk garrison, which already included half of 19 Battalion. The other half had withdrawn from Belhamed to Zaafran, four miles to the east, where the other troops then available to 4 Brigade were a field company of engineers, a machine-gun company, ninety South Africans (from 5 SA Brigade, overrun on 23 November), and a few I tanks.
For a time it looked as if the remnants of 6 Brigade would be destroyed, but the appearance of British tanks with field artillery in support caused the enemy to waver, and the survivors of 24 and 26 Battalions were able to withdraw behind the 4 Brigade position at Zaafran.
In the meantime, 25 Battalion near the Blockhouse had sent a patrol at 7.30 a.m. towards Hill 175 and found that it was still held by the enemy. It happened to be Major Burton's birthday, and from where he and his adjutant (Reid) stood in the early morning, with the latter singing a few bars of ‘Happy Birthday’, smouldering fires and smoke could be seen at various points. On Hill 175 there were many enemy vehicles and an ammunition dump still smoking heavily, and some trucks in 6 Brigade B Echelon area were also sending up columns of smoke. The disastrous tank attack on 4 Brigade at Belhamed was also seen and heard. About 8 a.m. two carriers approached page 156 from the north. They proved to belong to the Divisional Cavalry and had been in touch with the South Africans, who, they said, would be attacking Hill 175.
Groups of vehicles—some moving, some stationary—could be seen in almost every direction from the elevated position near the Blockhouse. Until 9 a.m. there was considerable movement of enemy tanks and transport on the southern approaches of Hill 175, moving westwards along the southern escarpment.
At 9 a.m. a large force of light tanks and attached artillery approached from the south and within the hour this force, which was found to be part of 4 Armoured Brigade with 110 tanks, took up a position in rear of 25 Battalion.
An hour or so later orders were received by Burton for an immediate move to Bir Sciuearat on the northern side of the Trigh Capuzzo, two miles to the north of Hill 175 and the same distance south of Zaafran. The battalion at that time was under artillery, anti-tank, and machine-gun fire from Hill 175. The troops were withdrawn from the forward areas and, under cover of the escarpment, embussed in first-line transport in readiness for the move. However, Brigade Headquarters and the B Echelon transport, much to the surprise of Burton and other observers, were then seen moving towards Hill 175, which of course was still held by the enemy, and the battalion awaited the outcome. This was not long in coming, in the shape of heavy fire from the hill, and the vehicles turned away towards Zaafran.
Moving towards Bir Sciuearat as ordered, the battalion came under fire from that direction and also moved to Zaafran, where it found units of 4 Brigade. At 2 p.m. orders were received to occupy a defensive position facing east and to be prepared to move into Tobruk after dark. All this was changed within the hour, when the battalion was ordered to be ready to move immediately, as part of 4 and 6 Brigade Groups, towards the Egyptian frontier. About 4 p.m. the vehicles of A and B Echelons were moved up from their covered position in readiness to embus the troops, but heavy and accurate artillery fire forced them to withdraw and the men moved on foot to covered positions and, embussing there, departed eastwards, 25 Battalion providing the rearguard to the Brigade Group.
The position held at Zaafran by Divisional Headquarters and survivors of 4 and 6 Brigade Groups (other than those in Tobruk) was almost surrounded and casualties and losses of equipment (including most of the guns of 6 Field Regiment) had reduced the units to very low fighting strengths. It would page 157 be difficult for the force to cut its way through any serious opposition and practically its only hope of doing so would be a night attack. Fortunately, this proved to be unnecessary, and the column, moving east for three miles and then south-east after dark, passed through a gap in the enemy forces and eventually halted at 4 a.m. on 2 December 40 miles away in the vicinity of Bir Gibni, 20 miles to the west of the Egyptian frontier opposite Sidi Omar. It was a providential escape ‘Out of the jaws of what appeared to be a pincer movement,’ says General Freyberg's diary; he also ‘hoped Ariete and German troops would run into one another in the dark’. One remark heard during the day, according to the diary was, ‘My morale is alright but its had a h—of a fright’, a remark which most certainly had very wide application.
The last day in the battle, Monday, 1 December, was described by both Cathie and Wakeling. Cathie wrote: ‘Next morning we were pasted with artillery fire and we could see that Brigade had been attacked by tanks. Things were not at all rosy. However, Brigade decided that things were too hot—we had lost a fair number of guns in the tank attack—and so they moved out towards the 4th Brigade who were pinned down. We were to act as rearguard.
‘At last it came our turn to move and although we were under fairly heavy artillery fire the chaps behaved splendidly. Bruce Campbell had lost a few men, but mine were unscathed. I can assure you that I did not feel too happy with 30 men in the back of a truck running the gauntlet under a hail of machine-gun and anti-tank bullets. However, off we went like stampeding cattle. It was the only thing to do, but as we went we saw tanks coming towards us. Sixty of them and British too. They certainly looked good
‘Naturally we felt rather despondent. The brigade had stuck it out for eight days, expecting relief for five of those days, and here we were getting out from those positions which we had won and lost. However, as we found out later, the 6th Brigade had really broken Jerry, as an enemy message had been intercepted that read: “Cannot hold on any longer. Casualties very heavy”; so we know now that our efforts were not in vain.
‘That night we moved some fifty odd miles, nearly back to the frontier and we looked a dirty, unshaven crew if ever there was one. Spirits were soon revived and the battered old 25th withdrew to “port”.’page 158
‘A quiet morning till 11.30,’ said Wakeling, ‘and then hell let loose again and we made a hectic dash across a flat with our tanks heading towards us and heavy Hun shellfire landing all around us. Dug in smartly while the shells were popping and did we sweat. Stayed put until 4.30 and then moved back to our trucks and Jerry gave us hell. On to the trucks and drove all night and it was as cold as charity. A good tank escort for a few miles.
‘Dec 2. Stopped at 4.20 a.m. and waited till daylight and had breakfast of cold sausage and a cup of tea. Travelled all day and crossed the border into Egypt at 4 p.m. and pulled up for the night and dug in. Rum issue to-day….’
No account of 25 Battalion's operations in the Sidi Rezegh battles would be complete without a tribute to the fine work of Major Burton. On Major George being left out of battle at Baggush, Burton, OC HQ Company, took over in addition the duties of second-in-command of the battalion. He showed enterprise, courage, and tactical judgment in the early morning surprise encounter of 23 November, both during the fight and as rearguard commander, and also in the operations on Hill 175. On the departure of Colonel McNaught he showed ability and steadiness, qualities which he displayed also in the very difficult and dangerous situations of the following eight days. Major Burton served his battalion well.
Shortly after crossing the frontier wire south of Sidi Omar about dusk on Tuesday, 2 December, the force halted for the night. The journey was continued in bitterly cold weather for the next two days, Baggush being reached about 4 p.m. on Thursday. A dust-storm on the Wednesday caused General Freyberg to jot down a note in his diary: ‘Having crossed 200 miles of desert—it now appeared to be crossing us.’
Major George and those with him who had been ‘left out of battle’ on 13 November gave the battalion a great welcome, though they were shocked by the great gaps in its ranks. The strength of the unit on its arrival at Baggush was 11 officers and 276 other ranks, exclusive, of course, of those left out of battle. The battalion's losses were 402 all ranks, comprising 4 officers and 116 other ranks killed and died of wounds; 7 officers and 133 other ranks wounded; 6 officers and 129 other ranks prisoners of war and 7 wounded and prisoner of war.77page 159
The officers lost to the battalion (though some of the wounded rejoined later) were:—Killed: Captain Roberts, Lieutenants Morris and Tredray, and Second-Lieutenant Holt; Wounded: Lieutenant-Colonel McNaught, Captain McBride, Lieutenants Colledge,78 Handyside, and Rolfe, Second-Lieutenants Fraser and Jack; Prisoners of war: Major Hastie, Captains Heslop, Mason, Ormond, and Porter, and Lieutenant Clarry.
Immediate reorganisation was undertaken. Major George was appointed temporarily to command the battalion. Other appointments included: Major Burton, battalion second-in-command (temporary); Captain McLeay, Adjutant; Captain McBride, OC HQ Company; Lieutenant Henderson, OC A Company (acting, while Major Burton, the appointed company commander, was temporarily second-in-command of the battalion); Captain D. A. Wilson, OC B Company; Captain Porter,79 OC C Company; Captain Witters, OC D Company.
In the rebuilding of the battalion the great value of the selected and experienced officers, non-commissioned officers, and men left out of battle was immediately evident. It was fortunate, also, that the reinforcements included many well-trained men who had been diverted from NZEF reinforcements in New Zealand to hold Fiji when trouble with Japan had first seemed likely.
Normal camp routine was soon once more the order of the day and the battalion settled down, very well content for the moment, with a life of comparative peace and quietness in comfortable and pleasant surroundings.
The very welcome reinforcement of 20 officers and 300 other ranks from Maadi Camp arrived on 8 December and the battalion was busy for some days in distributing this great influx of strength to best advantage throughout the companies, platoons, and sections of the unit. One change in company commanders had taken place, Captain Baker80 being appointed to command A Company in place of its acting commander, Lieutenant Henderson.page 160
In addition to the rebuilding of the battalion, there was much work to do in clearing up various matters in connection with the recent campaign. Reports, war diaries, returns of strength, and other paper work required attention. Close inquiries had to be made into the fate of all missing men, and to deal with this a Board of Inquiry consisting of Lieutenant Reid (President) and Second-Lieutenant Webster81 was set up. After hearing all the evidence that could be secured, the Board was to submit findings showing, as regards prisoners of war, the date of capture, the place, and whether the man was wounded or not, and in the case of men not accounted for, the date each man was last seen, the place, and whether the man was wounded or not. Later on, of course, a good deal of further information would probably come to hand from reports from the enemy, the Red Cross organisation, and letters from prisoners of war. No pains were spared in the endeavour to obtain and record any information regarding missing men and the procedure outlined above was followed after all engagements with the enemy.
December proved to be a cold and rather wet month, excessively wet at times, as the occupants of dugouts and sunken tents were to find to their great discomfort. One bad sample commenced on the 9th, which was cold with a high wind and much dust, followed by occasional showers. The next day was still cold and there was an intense dust-storm and rain, the day on which, incidentally, men of the Bay of Plenty electorate had the opportunity of voting in a by-election.
Brigadier Barrowclough on the 10th visited the battalion and addressed the troops who had been in the recent fighting. A couple of days later a battalion parade was held in preparation for a brigade parade the following day; at the latter parade the Brigadier read messages from the Army Commander and General Freyberg. Fortunately the day was fine, as on the two succeeding days, 15 and 16 December, there was heavy rain which caused a good deal of flooding. Some dugouts were badly damaged and a pump was necessary to clear the water from the RAP. Possibly this was responsible for the following entry in Wakeling's diary: ‘Dec 16. Breakfast not so good as the cooks had a bit of a spree last night.’ He himself seems to have enjoyed a celebration a few days earlier: ‘Harry Martin awarded the DCM and Mr Cathie the MC. Good evening with No. 12 (Pl) as Harry has been promoted to CSM C Coy.’ These were immediate awards included in a list issued in a ‘Special Order of the Day’, promulgated on 10 December 1941.page 161
Field training was resumed on 17 December when A Company carried out an attack with artillery and machine-gun support, the other companies doing likewise in the three succeeding days. Similar exercises by two companies working in unison, and route marches, were the principal training items during the remainder of the month.
Christmas Day was celebrated in the traditional manner, the day being cold, and was followed by a route march on Boxing Day, on this occasion by companies and not by a brigade march as was the case a year ago.
A few changes in appointments took place in December. On the 20th, Captain McLeay, the Adjutant, was appointed to command A Company, vice Captain Baker, who took command of B Company. A week later Major Burton (acting second-in-command) left to attend a three-months' course at the Middle East Tactical School and was succeeded by Captain McBride from Headquarters Company, Lieutenant Reid (Mortars) taking temporary command of that company. McLeay was succeeded as Adjutant by Lieutenant Armstrong.82 On 1 January the promotion of Major George to temporary lieutenant-colonel while commanding the battalion was promulgated in Routine Orders, and dated 5 December.
Although normal routine and training had been resumed, sport and recreation generally were not neglected. The former leave privilege of seven days to Alexandria and Cairo and of ten days to Palestine had been resumed on the 18th; free rail warrants were issued, with the exception that for Palestine they were available as far as Benha only. The uncertain weather, the availability of suitable grounds and equipment, and national inclination all combined to make rugby football by far the principal item on the sporting menu and Wednesday afternoons became almost gala days. On the 23rd, inter-company matches were held; the brigade band was present, and, above all, nursing sisters from 2 NZ General Hospital also attended. A week later a Possibles v Probables trial match, preceding the selection of the battalion team, was played, with the brigade band again present, and was followed by a band concert at 7 p.m. Unfortunately the day was cold with a high wind and rain from the sea.
During the month the promotion of several officers was notified in orders, all of them with effect from dates preceding page 162 the recent November campaign. Captains Hastie and Burton were promoted to major, Lieutenant McCarthy to captain, and Second-Lieutenants Jack and Wroth to lieutenant.
The New Year was welcomed with an unauthorised display of fireworks. Very lights, parachute flares, tracer ammunition, mortars, and even artillery are reported unofficially to have contributed to a magnificent spectacle, but the war diaries make only very guarded reference to it; General Freyberg's diary says it was a ‘regrettable waste of amn. and enemy flares, etc, but being New Year's Eve, only to be expected’. British units within sight and sound thought an enemy surprise attack was taking place, a very natural inference, and offered their assistance.
The weather over the New Year was very cold, with high winds which brought either dust-storms or rain to exert their unpleasant influence to the full in the featureless desert which afforded no protection against them. News of the fall of Bardia and the release of 800 New Zealand prisoners of war brightened 3 January and made everyone forget the weather. Officer prisoners were not so fortunate as all of them had been sent away before the place was captured.
On 4 January the Division, which in the middle of December was once more concentrated with the return of 5 Brigade from Libya, began to disperse. On that date 5 Brigade commenced to move to Geneifa on the Suez Canal; Divisional Headquarters followed and established itself at Fayid on the west side of the Great Bitter Lake; and 4 Brigade moved to Maadi Camp. In the meantime 6 Brigade remained at Baggush, but on 23 January took over 4 Brigade's quarters at Maadi. Fourth Brigade relieved 5 Brigade, which moved to a new position south of the Sweetwater Canal. And so, 25 Battalion, now the veteran of two campaigns, had returned to the first camp it had occupied in Egypt over fifteen months previously.
2 2Forward Observation Officers.
17 Not traced.
20 After capture, Pritchard and the other prisoners spent a night in a wadi near the El Adem aerodrome and were then sent to Benghazi via Derna. From Benghazi his group of prisoners on 8 December was sent off by sea and next day the ship was torpedoed off the coast of Greece. ‘There were numerous casualties here,’ wrote Pritchard, ‘mostly South Africans. We were held in Greece under appalling conditions … near Petras and finally sent to Italy arriving about 13 March 1942….’
35 Capt D. A. Wilson; born Napier, 14 Aug 1912; barrister and solicitor; killed in action 21 Mar 1943. Wilson was appointed to command B Company, which included stragglers from all companies. He was promoted captain on 28 November.
65 Capt B. Campbell; born Dunedin, 6 May 1916; clerk; p.w. 22 Jul 1942.
66 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.
75 Brig G. H. Clifton, DSO and 2 bars, MC, m.i.d.; Porangahau; born Greenmeadows, 18 Sep 1898; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1919–21 (MC, Waziristan); BM 5 Bde 1940; CRE NZ Div 1940–41; Chief Engineer 30 Corps, 1941–42; comd 6 Bde Feb-Sep 1942; p.w. 4 Sep 1942; escaped, Germany, Mar 1945; Commander, Northern Military District, 1952-53.
77 It was later learned that 11 men had died while prisoners when the Jantzen was torpedoed on 9 December.
80 Lt-Col F. Baker, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; born Kohukohu, Hokianga, 19 Jun 1908; civil servant; CO 28 (Maori) Bn Jul-Nov 1942; twice wounded; Director of Rehabilitation, 1943–54; Public Service Commissioner, 1954–58; died Wellington, 1 Jun 1958.