27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 6 — Sidi Rezegh
The machine-gunners who returned direct to Egypt from Greece at the end of April were not downhearted. Indeed, upon their arrival at Helwan Camp—where they compiled lists and returns of this and that, checked gear and equipment, and replaced some (but certainly not all) of what had been lost— the distribution of large bundles of mail added to their gaiety. ‘I suppose it was reaction,’ one officer wrote home. ‘We had come through and our casualties had been remarkably light. We had been up against the Jerries and knew we could beat them.’
In weather even hotter than usual at that time of the year the battalion, about 400 strong, settled down to training, and towards the end of May took over guard duties at a prisoner-of -war camp at Helwan, an irksome task that allowed little leave and not much rest. The guard commander (Major White) thought the Italian prisoners, most of whom had been there for some time, were ‘a bronzed, healthy, happy crew who gave no trouble at all.’ But the Germans were quite different. ‘They were defiant, surly and boastful, openly declaring that they expected our places would be changed in a few weeks. The officers made all sorts of absurd complaints and then demanded the protecting power—Sweden—to report to Germany…. They also objected because they were not allowed to go to the men's pen to make Nazi speeches….’
The ninety-odd survivors of Captain Grant's detachment returned from Crete at the beginning of June. Of the 208 men of 27 (MG) Battalion who had landed on the island, seventeen had been killed or had died of wounds, and two officers and eighty-six other ranks (including fourteen wounded) were prisoners of war; sixteen of those who returned to Egypt were wounded. Reinforcements arrived to replace those who did not return. All who had served in Greece and Crete were given a week's ‘survival’ leave, which many spent in Palestine.
The battalion was relieved of its guard duties after about five weeks and moved to Maadi, where it set about reorganising and training in real earnest. Transport and equipment were replaced and the unit was again brought up to its full establishment of forty-eight Vickers guns. Twenty-five had been page 119 brought back from Greece, none from Crete. Hard route-marching, machine-gun and rifle training, manœuvres by day and night, swimming and sports meetings filled in the next few weeks.
Each New Zealand brigade in turn trained in combined army and navy operations with HMS Glengyle, a landing ship, at Kabrit, on the shore of the Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal zone. In mid-August 1 and 3 Companies went there with 4 Brigade for about three weeks, and next month 4 Company accompanied 5 Brigade; 2 Company, meanwhile, manœuvred at El Saff with 6 Brigade, which had returned from the Canal in August. The combined operations, which included practice in beach landings, suggested that the Division might perhaps be required to make a landing somewhere from the sea. Its next move, however, was to the Western Desert.
An advance party from the battalion left for Baggush on 14 September, and the main body (less 4 Company, which came later with 6 Brigade) followed next day. For those who had recently joined the battalion this two-day journey was their first experience of travelling in convoy and their introduction to the Western Desert. The old hands noticed some changes, such as camps and airfields where there had been open desert; after their experiences in Greece and Crete they took comfort in the sight of so many friendly aircraft. At Baggush they re- examined the underground shelters they had laboriously constructed the previous year; these at least had provided excellent dwelling-places for scorpions, snakes, lizards, bugs and beetles.
General Wavell had completed the conquest of Cyrenaica by mid-February, but a few weeks later, when the British were weakened by the demands of Greece and Crete, German forces under General Rommel, newly arrived in africa, had swept back to the Egyptian frontier. The Germans and Italians now besieged the isolated fortress of Tobruk and held a string of frontier fortresses, including Bardia, Sollum, Halfaya and the Omars; this meant that an army invading Libya from Egypt would have to make a wide detour to the south. General Auchinleck, who succeeded Wavell in July as Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, was preparing for an offensive which aimed first at recapturing Cyrenaica and ultimately at driving the enemy from North Africa, and Eighth Army, formed in September under the command of Lieutenant-General Cunningham, was gathering strength for the purpose.page 120
The New Zealand Division, therefore, trained for an offensive role. At first the battalion occupied a sub-sector of the Baggush Box, where the defences were cleaned out but not manned, and each company in turn went out on three-day manœuvres. Then the battalion moved two or three miles east of the perimeter of the box and dug in close to the sea at Ras el Kenayis, where the men, sun-tanned and superbly fit, worked and trained hard, and outside working hours led a carefree life, with bathing and football as diversions. Companies were attached to the infantry brigades—3 Company to the 6th, 2 Company to the 4th, and 1 Company to the 5th—to rehearse attacks on dummy fortresses (Sidi Clif and Bir Stella) modelled on air photographs of the enemy's frontier positions.
One bleak, dull, November day a New Zealand Rugby fifteen defeated the South Africans by eight points to nil. Three days later, on Armistice Day (the 11th), the first moves were made for ‘NZ Div Exercise No. 4', but it is unlikely that anybody was deceived by the pretence that this would be just another exercise.
The same day Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam was evacuated to hospital with eye trouble and Major Wright became acting CO.1 About a tenth of the battalion was to remain at Baggush as LOBs—left out of battle; this included a proportion of the officers, which meant that one platoon in each company would be led by a sergeant.
Fifth Brigade Group2 (which included 1 Company), the first formation to leave Baggush, headed westwards along the coastal road, down the Siwa track and into the desert south-west of page 121 Mersa Matruh. Fourth Brigade Group (including 27 Battalion less 1 and 3 Companies)3 and Divisional Headquarters followed next day (the 12th), and 6 Brigade Group (including 3 Company) on the 13th. ‘It was most comical to regard the gun crews who travel in the back of the trucks for the thick layer of dust all over them made them look just like circus clowns wearing their “make-up”,’ gloated a machine-gunner who sat in the front seat of his vehicle
The whole Division was then assembled in the open desert; its trucks, lorries, staff cars, guns, light tanks, Bren carriers and ambulances, nearly 3000 vehicles altogether, spaced about 200 yards apart in brigade laagers, extended in all directions as far as the eye could see. Vivid memories of Greece and Crete caused some apprehension about air attack, but none came.
General Freyberg called together all officers down to company commanders, and throwing aside all pretence, told them that within a week they would be in contact with the enemy in a battle which might well play a decisive part in the conduct of the war.
Briefly the plan for crusader (the code name by which the operation was known) was that Eighth Army was to attack with two corps:4 30 Corps, which included the bulk of the British armour, was to seek out and destroy the enemy armour, while 13 Corps, of which the NZ Division was part, was to outflank and cut off the frontier defences and later destroy them. Eighth Army, 118,000 strong, with about 750 tanks, would be opposed by 100,000 Axis troops, a third of them German5 and two-thirds Italian, equipped with about 400 tanks (250 of them German). The British outnumbered the Germans and Italians in field guns and aircraft as well as tanks, but the enemy had at least one advantage, superiority in anti-tank weapons, and was better organised and trained for mobile desert warfare.page 122 page 123
In daylight on 15 November the Division, its multitude of vehicles moving together as one body for the first time, drove 50 miles westwards across a stony plain towards Bir el Thalata, where it stayed that night and all next day. Then, in two night marches, each of about 25 miles, it approached the border well south of the Omar forts.
On the second night an electrical storm lasted several hours. ‘The lightning was certainly the most vivid I have ever seen,’ wrote Corporal Millar.6 ‘For a long time we thought it was the flash of great gun fire and bombs, but gradually we realised that no gun fire could produce such terrific flashes. The alternating blinding flashes and then the blackness that followed made it pretty difficult for us to see.’ The going was rough; soft sand, ridges and wadis caused delays, traffic mix-ups and broken springs. The sides of wadis twenty or thirty feet high would have been easy enough to negotiate in daylight, when the best route could have been selected, but at night a driver was lucky if he got his vehicle up at the first attempt.
At dawn next day (the 18th) the British armour invaded Libya, meeting at first with no resistance; apparently the enemy, who was preparing for an assault on Tobruk, did not suspect that a British offensive had begun.
The New Zealand Division crossed the frontier that night. The transport streamed through a 300-yard gap blown by the engineers in the hedge of barbed wire erected by the Italians some years earlier.
The British armour, going into action at several widely separated places on 19 November, met unexpectedly stubborn resistance at Bir el Gubi, south of Tobruk, and was also violently engaged west of the Omars, but occupied the Sidi Rezegh landing ground almost without opposition. Just north of this landing ground a low ridge, presenting a steep escarpment on its northern side, overlooked the Trigh Capuzzo, a broad desert track running east and west. Possession of this ridge, one of several similar features7 rising from the barren, almost level Libyan plateau, was an essential step towards the relief of page 124 Tobruk. Sidi Rezegh, in fact, was the key to the whole battlefield; in the next two or three weeks it was to change hands five times in some of the bloodiest fighting of the desert war.
From the start 30 Corps suffered more heavily than the enemy in tanks damaged or destroyed. Nevertheless the battle seemed to be going well, and encouraging reports—grossly exaggerating enemy losses—reached the New Zealand Division, which advanced northwards in the late afternoon of the 19th. At the Trigh el Abd, a track roughly parallel with and about 25 miles south of the Trigh Capuzzo, the Division waited next day while the tank battle continued just over the horizon. The Germans moved away north-westwards soon after dawn on the 21st and were thought to be retreating; they, however, were reacting to the threat at Sidi Rezegh and were racing there to prevent the British from linking up with the Tobruk garrison.
With the enemy tanks no longer so menacingly close, 13 Corps could go ahead with its task of surrounding and destroying the frontier forts. The New Zealand Division, therefore, with Divisional Cavalry leading and 5, 4 and 6 Brigades following in that order, continued its northward movement towards the Trigh Capuzzo.
Early in the advance 21 Battalion, despatched by 5 Brigade, secured Hafid Ridge with a company of infantry, some carriers, and a section under Sergeant Downes8 of 1 Platoon; this ridge gave command over the rear of the fortress line between Sidi Omar and Sollum. On 22 November the battalion attacked Bir Ghirba, three or four miles to the south of Hafid. The infantry debussed under shell, mortar and machine-gun fire, and after making some progress on foot over dead flat ground in pouring rain, were pinned down short of their objective, which was fortified with concrete pillboxes, dug-in guns, mines and wire.
He got his section ready and ‘sent them forward one at a time to proceed with a series of sharp dashes and throwing themselves flat on the ground, up to the shelter of the two vehicles…. Meanwhile I made my way to the area I had decided on for the guns and selected the best cover which consisted merely of patches of scrub only about six inches high. … So the guns were finally mounted in their very lowest position and the chaps managed to scoop themselves shallow trenches about six inches deep where there was solid rock. But page 126 … the coy. had not yet arrived to attack and it was rapidly getting dark, and here we were out in the open … only 1400 yards from the enemy … as soon as it got dark they would see the muzzle-flash of our guns and then it would be merry hell, so I sent everyone except the numbers 1 and 2 of each gun back to the trucks…. a few moments later we saw the company advancing on our left, so I yelled “fire” and away we went— but not at them of course—we were giving them blanketing fire and at the same time firing over the heads of others of our own infantry. And the hun bullets came back in answer. … It was in fact very difficult to see anything in the growing darkness so very soon, rather than risk shooting up any of our own chaps, I called “cease fire”, called up the rest of the section to carry back the stuff, and in a very short time we were all back at the trucks…. It was a miracle that not one of us had received a scratch and we had not lost any equipment….’
The 21st Battalion suffered nearly eighty casualties. Millar took some of the wounded to the RAP, four miles away, and was guided back to his section by the light of a burning truck. He found his men still under fire. They had spent a miserable evening lying in muddy trenches, but now they were to withdraw. ‘And away we went as smartly as we could with these b— tracers going faster and pressing us on either side….’
The attack on Bir Ghirba had failed, but elsewhere 5 Brigade was more successful. While leading the Division on 21 November Divisional Cavalry had come upon a few mud huts and tents at Sidi Azeiz and collected some fifty prisoners, nearly all Italians, including a naked officer startled from his bath. Unaware of this success, 22 Battalion, with 2 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Pleasants10) among its supporting troops, mounted an attack a few hours later and ‘captured’ Sidi Azeiz without opposition. The same evening a strong patrol from 23 Battalion, taking the Italian occupants completely by surprise, captured Fort Capuzzo almost without firing a shot, and severed the water pipeline from Bardia to Sollum.
Early on the 23rd 28 (Maori) Battalion and a squadron of Valentine tanks11 captured the Sollum barracks, at the top of the precipitous, 500-foot escarpment overlooking the village and page 127 bay of Sollum. When the supporting artillery, mortars and 3 Platoon arrived, large guns at Halfaya, four or five miles to the south-east, and on the flat ground near the sea beyond Sollum were shelling the barracks. ‘Had one or two sticky moments while consolidating,’ reported Sergeant Cato, who added cheerfully, ‘Everybody fit and wanting to have some hand in the action.’
Fourth Brigade struck unexpected trouble soon after dark on the 21st. Rain had softened the ground at the Trigh Capuzzo, and farther north a deep ditch, believed to be an anti-tank ditch, ran across the line of advance. The brigade lost cohesion while negotiating this obstacle, but assembled early next morning in the neighbourhood of Menastir, on the high ground overlooking the Tobruk-Bardia road. It was ‘the most difficult night move of the campaign,’ says Captain Johansen (2 Company). ‘At 4 a.m. we bedded down by trucks in night formation for about 1 ½ Hrs then at first light opened out into desert formation to find to our surprise that we had driven right into a German encampment….’
The 25-pounders and 2 Company's Vickers went into action. When ‘the Germans to the north discovered we were upon them,’ Brigadier Inglis reported, ‘the stretch of country we overlooked resembled a disturbed ants’ nest. Camps and bivouacs were abandoned; cars, trucks, guns and motor cycles tore off into the broken country nearer the coast for cover, and our artillery and machine guns had some exhilarating shooting. Until 1025 hours nothing came back at us….’
At that time, however, 20 Battalion, which had blocked the road, half a mile from the steep, 150-foot escarpment, was counter-attacked from the direction of Tobruk by a small force including half a dozen self-propelled guns. The artillery compelled these guns to withdraw, and in the afternoon 20 Battalion, supported by a squadron of Valentine tanks, and also by flanking fire from 6 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Kinder12), overran some German infantry, guns and mortars.
Thirteenth Corps now surrounded the Axis garrisons at the frontier: 4 Brigade had cut off Bardia from the west; 5 Brigade had severed land communications between Bardia and Halfaya; and the Indian Division had captured most of the strongpoints at Sidi Omar.page 128 page 129
Sixth Brigade, with which 3 Company travelled at the rear of the Division on 21 November, was also troubled by the boggy ground during the night march, many of its vehicles being stuck fast, and did not reach Bir el Hariga, 11 miles west of Sidi Azeiz, until after daybreak. The following afternoon it set off towards Bir el Chleta, 20-odd miles farther west along the Trigh Capuzzo, where it was to come under the command of 30 Corps.
Thirtieth Corps was fighting a disastrous battle south-east of Tobruk. The Support Group of 7 Armoured Division secured a foothold on the Sidi Rezegh ridge, and then, together with 7 Armoured Brigade, fought with great gallantry—three VCs were won—to defend this vital ground against the combined German forces. Other British formations were drawn into the struggle, but the Germans prevailed, and 30 Corps, having lost two-thirds of its tanks, withdrew from Sidi Rezegh.
A message reached 6 Brigade in the afternoon of the 22nd asking that the attached squadron of Valentine tanks be sent forward at once to Sidi Rezegh, but the tanks were unable to increase the speed at which they were already moving. Later messages emphasised the urgency of the situation. Sixth Brigade was instructed to continue its advance along the Trigh Capuzzo with all possible speed to Point 175, where it was to take up an all-round defensive position and reinforce the troops near the Sidi Rezegh airfield.
The brigade resumed the march at 3 a.m. and at dawn was astride the Trigh Capuzzo at Bir el Chleta. The brigade, in fact, had run into a German laager, although neither side was at first aware of this. Firing broke out when an enemy column approached from the direction of Gambut. Part of this column drove into the middle of the laager; the remainder was diverted to the right.
The Vickers of 8 Platoon joined in the shooting. ‘One of my sections immediately went into action, closely followed by the other, and effectively disabled the last few vehicles in the column,’ says Sergeant Stewart.13 ‘After a brisk, but one sided, exchange of fire the infantry surrounded the enemy, who surrendered. The range was point blank and we found later that our Mk. VIIIZ ammunition had pierced even the engine blocks of odd vehicles. We passed in for inspection papers which included what appeared to be a signallers code.’page 130
Sergeant McClintock14 ordered four or five men, one of them armed with a tommy gun, to go out and capture some Germans lying in a hollow, while he covered them with his section's two guns. The Germans came out with their hands up, but one attempted to make a break for it and was shot by the tommy-gunner.
The fighting was soon over in the middle of the laager, but blazed fiercely on the right flank, where 25 Battalion and some 25-pounders had excellent targets. Many of the enemy were killed and wounded, and over 200 prisoners, including some senior staff officers from Headquarters Afrika Korps, were collected. The engagement was broken off as soon as possible and 6 Brigade pushed on westwards.
From near Bir el Chleta the low, stony ridge south of the Trigh Capuzzo extended 15 miles westwards to Sidi Rezegh and a mile or two beyond. In mid-morning 6 Brigade reached Wadi esc Sciomar, within striking distance of Point 175, half-way along the ridge.
The attack on Point 175 was mounted in haste. Although the whole of 3 Company was available no machine guns were committed in the early stages, which was a great pity, for much of the German machine-gun fire which caused so many casualties was long range and probably could have been countered effectively by the Vickers.
The supporting Valentine tanks and some Bren carriers quickly reached the objective, and 25 Battalion riflemen, advancing resolutely in the face of the withering fire, rounded up many prisoners—more than 300—and sent them back to the rear, but a counter-attack by German tanks and infantry overran part of the battalion, a sad and sudden ending to a high-spirited attack. With both flanks unprotected, the survivors were in a critical situation. Two companies of 24 Battalion and 9 Platoon were sent to their assistance. ‘This platoon,’ says 3 Company's diary, ‘had a tough time.’
Led by Major Luxford in his pick-up and Lieutenant Daly15 in his truck, the platoon's four gun trucks set off from Brigade Headquarters late in the morning. ‘In a matter of minutes,’ says Private Collis,16 who was in the leading section (Corporal page 131 Winfield's17), ‘we were headed off at considerable speed in the direction of where the fighting appeared to be taking place. We flashed past the artillery and other units in action or preparing for it but it wasn't until we passed some infantry just debussed and moving forward from 3-tonners that it crossed my mind that we were going well forward. No time to speculate on this as we came to a sudden halt with the trucks in extended formation and wasted no time in getting off. There seemed to be a considerable amount of M.G. fire passing overhead. An odd bullet hitting the truck made us realise it wasn't all going high….’
Sergeant Holden,18 who remained at 25 Battalion's advanced headquarters as liaison, believes the platoon was ‘taken too far forward as we were under intense small arms fire when we debussed, which was a mistake as we could outrange any small arms fire of the enemy.’
After a short discussion with Daly, Luxford returned to Brigade Headquarters. Daly said the platoon was to go over to the edge of the escarpment for cover, and he, Winfield, and Corporal Cox19 of the other section ran out in that direction. Private Woolf20 remembers Daly ‘leaving his truck and running, and believe me he had to run as things were really sticky by this time.’
Winfield returned to his truck for his rifle, which he had left in his haste, and then led his men over to the edge of the escarpment. ‘Our section was soon stringing off behind Winfield,’ Collis continues. ‘We hadn't had time to take off our greatcoats & it was tough going running forward about 200 yds up a slight rise & over the lip of a depression [the edge of the escarpment]. Winfield disappeared over this lip, & when I followed a few seconds later heard him yell to get down & noticing the sand dancing up in little spurts all around went on a bit further & went down. The first members of the section seemed to reach this area safely despite the heavy M.G. fire which seemed to come from about three sides. Actually Lee21 page 132 of our section & Des Ralfe22 of the other had been killed on this run out but we were not aware of this. The fire was so intense it was impossible to move & in between bursts of spandau it was possible to hear Jerry giving fire orders. There was no sign of Tom Daly and the rest of the Platoon H.Q. except Pte Walker.23 We were obviously considerably less than 100 yds from the Jerry positions….’
The section was on the reverse slope of a small ridge on the side of the escarpment, and the enemy was on the other side of this ridge, ‘only a stone's throw away.’ There were more enemy troops on the flat ground to the north, and tents which seemed to contain wounded.
During a lull in the fire a German tommy-gunner came towards where the machine-gunners were lying, ‘to complete the job’, but was shot in the stomach and ‘his cries weren't altogether muffled by the other din.’ A few minutes later, to the machine-gunners' intense relief, the infantry (24 Battalion) appeared, advancing in open formation. Winfield beckoned to them. ‘Disregarding the intense M.G. fire,’ says Collis, ‘they passed through us & in a few minutes the Jerry M.G. posts were silenced & on the flat below the enemy was in full flight. We started to get the 2 guns mounted ready to join in & a group of 20 to 30 Jerry prisoners soon came back escorted by one [or two] infantrymen….’ The escorts tried to get the prisoners to double up the escarpment in rear of the machine-gun section.
‘At this stage the situation changed again. Our infantry started coming back as quickly as they had advanced but not so well organised. [Collis] managed to stop one sufficiently long to get the information that tanks were responsible. We were starting to join in the withdrawal when one appeared around the escarpment. Someone identified it as a Valentine but a slight breeze unfurled a Swastika as its M.G.'s opened up. We could not withdraw on account of equipment so had to go down again while it did over the area. It continued this for what seemed a considerable time. It was here that “Johnny” Johnston24 lying a few feet away from me got it, & McNeill25 on the other side was hit in the thigh….’
In the beer garden, Burnham Military Camp
Training on the Sobieski
Demonstrating the ‘Inglis design’ gun emplacement, Maadi Camp
2 Company at the Citadel, Cairo
A mineral bath at Helwan: J. C. Reid, R. H. Kerr, H. J. MacDonald and J. E. Petrie
Christmas at Baggush, 1940
Italian prisoners from Sidi Barrani
One of 3 Company's guns near Elasson
The road from the Yugoslav frontier to Kleidi Pass
The airborne invasion of Crete
German paratroopers and machine-gunners near Galatas
On the escarpment at Menastir: W. P. Gibson (in gunpit), T. E. Doyle and M. Homer (with binoculars) of 11 Platoon
At Capuzzo: B. H. Carter, A. S. Hutchinson (in woollen cap) and R. Walker of 2 Platoon
At the edge of the Sidi Rezegh airfield: standing, C. A. Rogers and J. A. Black; sitting behind gunpit, B. V. Cox; in gunpit, G. T. Woolf, L. D. Daly and H. L. G. Hambling of 9 Platoon
Sidi Rezegh mosque. New Zealand graves in the foreground
In the prisoner-of-war compound at Bardia
Defence against the Alamein fly
General Montgomery, accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel J. K. Robbie, inspecting the battalion before the Battle of Alamein
Near 8 Platoon's gunline on Miteiriya Ridge
Christmas at Nofilia, 1942
Examining a captured spandau: standing, W. A. Corney, Lt-Col A. W. White, A. H. Chadwick, N. H. Chadwick, L. C. Macartney; kneeling, L. H. Lynch; behind gun, Capt I. S. Moore
The tank fired on each side of the line of prisoners who were being hurried up the escarpment. The escorts disappeared and the prisoners escaped. When the tank was a short distance away —it went towards the left of Cox's section, farther back along the escarpment—Winfield's men took the opportunity to go over the top of the escarpment farther forward, where they joined some infantry of 25 Battalion. These troops had been advancing steadily, but could get no farther; they had very many casualties. The two Vickers were set up between two infantry platoons and engaged targets. ‘Where these guns came from no one seemed to know,’ says Major Burton26 (25 Battalion), ‘but they did a wonderful job in supporting this attack and won the admiration of all.’ They fired at a derelict tank from which the Germans were sniping; there was no further trouble from that quarter. An anti-tank gun went to the edge of the escarpment and disposed of the tank which had released the prisoners.
‘At dark,’ says Collis, ‘the line was reorganised—Winfield and Pte Woodhall27 went out & brought in McNeill & we then withdrew some distance to 24th lines & were later rejoined by our trucks. The fate of Tom Daly, his batman & medical orderly was still not known but seemed fairly certain.’
Corporal Cox's section was pinned down and could not fire a shot from the time it ran out from its trucks to the edge of the escarpment. ‘On arrival we lay flat,’ says Private Beckingham.28 ‘It was suicide to so much as wag your ears; the very least movement brought down a hail of fire. An occasional mortar bomb landed near us, but to my knowledge no one was hit … a Valentine tank appeared on our left, between us and the dispersed transport….’ (This was the tank seen by Winfield's section and later disposed of by the anti-tank gun.)
Beckingham says that about 3 p.m. another tank, ‘a German recce tank (similar to our Honey) was seen approaching our positions…. The tank traversed the depression immediately in front of our positions. The only thing that prevented further casualties, to my mind, was the fact that the remaining members of the platoon, not killed, were well dispersed, and remained page 134 perfectly still, lying where they had been pinned on first reaching the position.’
The tank ‘then proceeded to the high ground immediately behind us and on the verge of the dispersed transport. The tank gunner fired a few spasmodic bursts of machine gun fire in amongst the transport. I do not think much damage was caused except, probably, to the nerves of the drivers. I took a quick peek behind me, and observed a German officer with field glasses up to his eyes scanning the general area occupied by the trucks. The tank then turned and proceeded back through us once again, and headed for the enemy lines. I am fully convinced that the tank crew believed us all killed, because it passed within a few feet of some of us and could not fail to see us.
‘We spent the rest of the afternoon in this area, pinned down, and at dusk when we thought it dark enough to move, decided to make a break either for the dispersed transport, or our own Coy lines. I shouted to my gun team to make a break for it, but for Hell's sake spread out wide. We picked up our gear, and ran about 20 yds when Jerry let go a burst from a Spandau. We all dropped and lay still. Jim Taylor29 my No. 3 gun team member lay parallel with me but about 3 ft from me. Another burst of fire landed all around us two and Jim was hit…. he must have lived about 30 seconds….’
Cox says they sheltered around a three-ton truck until dark. Privates Farrell30 and Prole,31 inseparable companions, were wounded within five minutes of each other, both in the same fleshy part of the body. When darkness came the section retired along a signals line. ‘We carried on in the direction of the ADS (not knowing it was there of course),’ Beckingham adds, ‘and about 400 yds from the unlucky scene of the action George Holden arrived with a platoon truck, where he got it, or came from, no one cared a damn, but I can remember about 6 of us hopping on board hanging on anywhere we could get a foothold and the old bus, running on 3 pots at the most and no water, ground her way out with a farewell of Spandau bullets, a last parting gift from Jerry….’page 135
By nightfall part of Point 175 had been captured at great cost. The casualties exceeded 400 and included more than 350— about 100 of them killed or mortally wounded—in 25 Battalion alone. Eleven men were missing from 9 Platoon, and of these at least six (Daly, Ralfe, Lee, Horne,32 Johnston and Taylor) were dead.
That night the remaining two rifle companies of 24 Battalion were ordered to Point 175, and 7 and 8 Platoons came under the command of that battalion. At the same time 9 Platoon, which had been reorganised, was sent under Sergeant Holden to join 26 Battalion, which was taking up a position a mile or two south-east of Point 175. While 25 Battalion and part of the 24th had been attacking Point 175, the 26th had been expected to link up with 5 South African Brigade to the south-west, but the South Africans had been overwhelmed and dispersed by a huge force of German tanks and lorried infantry. The 26th returned to 6 Brigade after dark.
Next day a bayonet attack regained the top of Point 175, but the forward slopes were under full observation and continued to be plastered by fire from a sharply defined wadi (Rugbet en-Nbeidat) and from the vicinity of a square building known as the Blockhouse on the high ground farther west. Nevertheless 3 Company's diary records that ‘This day was quiet and the guns had practically nothing to do.’ They fired on some vehicles.
The CSM's truck, which had left earlier to collect ammunition and petrol, returned in the evening and made off towards two derelict vehicles which apparently were thought to be part of the brigade group. The truck hit a mine and went up in flames, and Sergeant-Major Blackett33 and Private Gibbons34 had to be evacuated with injuries.
General Freyberg was instructed in the afternoon of the 22nd to leave a minimum number of troops to contain Bardia— which patrols35 found strongly defended—and to send the page 136 remainder to the Gambut airfield, said to be still in use by the enemy. Fourth Brigade, less 20 Battalion, was despatched that evening.
The brigade halted for the night after covering about eight miles, and continuing the westward advance next day, occupied the airfield and captured twenty-one aircraft with scarcely any opposition, but came under shell and mortar fire from several directions. ‘The actual attack and occupation of Gambut was a novel stunt,’ says Johansen. ‘The whole Bde Gp simply kept forging ahead in desert formation at rather high speed sending up clouds of dust. This must have struck terror in the heart of the Hun for he beat it fast off the aerodrome. When the Bde vehicles braked hard to a halt it was just No. 2 Coy's luck to land fair & square on the 'drome. Of course the “Goons” had the place taped and in a few minutes mortars landed on us. In fewer minutes the 'drome ceased to exist as such & was reduced to countless, or to be truthful, approx 160 M. Gunners' slitties. Spades worked awfully fast.’
Later that afternoon 4 and 5 Platoons, under Johansen's command, took up positions facing north on the escarpment at the northern edge of the airfield. One of 4 Platoon's sections fired at posts near the Tobruk-Bardia road.
The 20th Battalion, whose supporting troops still included 6 Platoon, was relieved by 22 Battalion at Menastir on 23 November and moved to a point on the Trigh Capuzzo where Divisional Headquarters and 21 Battalion36 were waiting. The whole group, moving cautiously, for enemy flares appeared in all directions, continued westwards to Bir el Chleta, which it reached about midnight.
Next morning (the 24th) 20 Battalion was ordered to make contact with 4 Brigade, which was about to resume the advance westwards from Gambut. But it was decided that the battalion should first eliminate an enemy group which had been bypassed during the night and was now about three miles to the north- east.
‘I still had the squadron of tanks and a platoon of machine-guns under command,’ says Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger, ‘so decided to make a frontal attack with tanks leading and the infantry following in trucks, machine-guns, anti-tank guns, and carriers giving covering fire from the right flank.’37 The page 137 tanks, advancing at top speed, came under fire from another enemy group farther east and veered in that direction. The mortars and Vickers moved out to the right flank, with eight carriers, and quickly brought down fire to assist the infantry, which debussed when the enemy's defensive fire became too hot. The tanks swung on to their correct course but stopped; several had been hit. They were ordered on. The infantry passed through them and closed ‘swiftly and savagely’. The fight was soon over; the Germans broke and ran, and in the resultant confusion many were taken prisoner. ‘I thought the most effective fire was that of Kinder's MG platoon. It was their fire which knocked out the German [88-millimetre] gun crew who when I got up were lying dead round their gun.’38
It was not known at this stage that Rommel, in a dramatic move which was to alter the whole course of the campaign —and unwittingly enable the New Zealanders to link with the Tobruk garrison—had taken his armoured forces to the Egyptian frontier. What he meant to do, so far as can be ascertained, was to restore the frontier fortress line as quickly as he could and then return to Tobruk. With the British armour, as he thought, routed or destroyed and the frontier line intact, he would then be free for the one operation on which he had set his heart for months past—the assault on Tobruk. At the Egyptian frontier, however, he thought he saw a chance too good to miss of destroying the New Zealand and Indian divisions in one huge pincer movement by his three armoured divisions (15 and 21 Panzer and the Italian Ariete). To the achievement of this illusory objective he directed his energies for the next three days. He was punching the air. Only one New Zealand brigade, widely dispersed, remained in the frontier area, and one Indian brigade was too securely posted behind the minefields at Sidi Omar to be easily dislodged. Thus this imaginative and daring adventure ended in failure, with the capture of Headquarters 5 NZ Brigade a scant compensation for the virtual destruction of a German armoured brigade at page 138 Sidi Omar and the gift to the British armour of three valuable days' breathing space.
First of all the enemy had to be cleared from the Rugbet en-Nbeidat wadi and the blockhouse west of Point 175. Sixth Brigade, now augmented by 21 Battalion, was to attack before daylight on 25 November, and 4 Brigade was to be brought up to its right rear at dawn. The night attack was to be with the bayonet and tommy gun; supporting fire was not considered possible.39 The machine-gun platoons, therefore, were withdrawn from 24 and 26 Battalions to Headquarters 3 Company, which moved with Brigade Headquarters.
After fiercely fighting its way through the wadi in the darkness, 24 Battalion was halted by heavy machine-gun fire just below the blockhouse. The 26th Battalion reached the edge of the Sidi Rezegh airfield, and the 21st the eastern end of the ridge farther south. The combined efforts of 24 and 26 Battalions supported by artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, resulted in the capture in daylight of the blockhouse which had at least twenty machine guns in position around it.
The supporting machine-gun fire came from 2 Company (which of course was with 4 Brigade). The platoons of 3 Company had not yet been brought far enough forward. Fourth Brigade advanced to Zaafran without much trouble, although 20 Battalion, which extended on the left to the foot of the escarpment, came under fire from the direction of the blockhouse. On the left flank 6 Platoon survived mortar and machine-gun fire, and engaged the enemy on the escarpment, and later in the morning 5 Platoon, on the right flank, also found targets in the blockhouse area. ‘We had some good long range shooting, and observation of strike both by dust and effect on enemy was very good indeed,’ reported Second-Lieutenant Newland, who also claimed that, owing to a misunderstanding, his platoon was not allowed to fire at several hundred enemy, who got away. ‘I estimate about 500 escaped. These men were a particularly easy target for us, but we were told that we might shoot up one of our own units who were supposed to be near by at the time. This was found later not to be true.’
Sixth Brigade now faced Sidi Rezegh on the central of page 139 the three parallel ridges that commanded the south-eastern approaches to Tobruk. The plan for the night of 25–26 November was that this brigade should secure both Sidi Rezegh and Ed Duda, and that 4 Brigade should capture Belhamed. If this plan succeeded the New Zealanders would hold a corridor across two vital enemy lines of communication, the Trigh Capuzzo and the Tobruk bypass road.
Sixth Brigade's operation was to be in two stages: 24 and 25 Battalions (the latter reorganised as two rifle companies) were to advance from the blockhouse and occupy Sidi Rezegh, and then 21 and 26 Battalions were to pass through and march on Ed Duda, which they would have to reach, with their supporting arms, before dawn. To help consolidate after the capture of these objectives, 7 and 9 Platoons were to be under the command of 24 Battalion and 8 Platoon under the 26th.
The 24th got away about 11 p.m., and advancing well south of the crest of the ridge (where most of the enemy had dug in), met little if any opposition. Two rifle companies moved on the right and two on the left, with the transport, including the two machine-gun platoons, in between. ‘The infantry mopped up a couple of Italian outposts and we all continued on,’ says Second-Lieutenant Mabin (7 Platoon). ‘There was a bit of shelling and machine-guns firing on fixed lines but it wasn't at all effective. We had no casualties during the move up.’
Two companies of the 24th then took up a position facing north on the ridge overlooking the Sidi Rezegh mosque (actually a tomb), where they engaged the enemy; another company faced west, another east. To form the southern side of a hollow square, 25 Battalion eventually occupied a position facing south. The machine-gunners were to take up a 2000-yard line on the western side of the square—with no infantry in support—7 Platoon on the right and 9 on the left.
‘The section commanders,’ says Mabin, ‘were instructed to get their guns in the best position under the circumstances in the dark, and if at first light the position of the gun was unsatisfactory to move as quickly as possible to a better site. In the dark it was extremely hard to pick a place for the guns and as far as I can remember they were about 150/200 yards apart. The infantry who were at the beginning ahead of the MGs and clearing the ground for us went on to the edge of the escarpment. During the night unknown to me they pulled out [some went down the escarpment] and we were left on our own.’page 140
A rendezvous south of Sidi Rezegh had been appointed for 21 and 26 Battalions. But 26 Battalion's approach march from the blockhouse was obstructed by the now alert enemy pockets which 24 and 25 Battalions had missed, and this battalion halted east of the 24th. Coming from a different direction, from the southernmost ridge, 21 Battalion did not find the 26th or the 24th, and ended up near the mosque, with detachments above and below the escarpment in a very precarious situation. Some fell into enemy hands; others made their way back to 24 and 25 Battalions' lines. The second phase of the operation was cancelled.
The machine-gunners were also in a dangerous situation. Sergeant O'Brien40 (No. 1 Section 7 Platoon, on the right flank) says, ‘It appeared to us at daylight that we were too far forward and had lost the cover from our own infantry who were then 250 yards behind us….’ He sent a runner to Platoon Headquarters, but was told it had gone; a second runner reported that Platoon Headquarters had been captured. ‘I then went myself to find out why we were out on our own and saw an infantry officer who told me we were supposed to be behind him. I went back to my guns to get them out but on the way I was wounded and it took me some time to get to them. By then it was too late to get out and we had to fight, just 13 of us, and what a show that was….’
Private Redwood41 reveals how perilously close they were to the enemy. ‘Having set the gun in the dark we could not shoot the immediate foreground for 50 yards with my gun. We engaged targets beyond this. However the 50 yards that we could not get a go at contained a lot of Spandaus. The one with rifles slowly silenced them. Sergeant O'Brien did a good job by knocking one out about 15 yards out in front, he having to stand erect for quite a few shots before he got him.’
Although wounded, O'Brien made another effort to get his guns out, but by this time enemy mortars had the range and ‘the going was pretty bad…. At 9 AM the tanks had a go and cleaned up my No. 2 gun and some of its crew, under Cpl Helm.42 I tried to get the rest over to us, only 10 yards, but there was a Mk III about 50 yards away and he wasn't page 141 very happy. We had blown the commander's head off and [the tank crew] seemed a bit wild. This tank was finally driven off by our artillery but we had one hell of a time while they go the range. This was when Cations43 was wounded and with his leg shattered we had to leave him when we went at 10.45. By now some feeling was coming back into my legs and I decided if we were to go it had to be now. Out of 15,000 rounds of Mk VIIIZ we took in with us there were only two belts per gun left and with 5 men out of action the place was too hot even for machine gunners. Cpl Helm would not leave Cations and I got the others to bury the locks from the guns and off we set. The mortars let go too and Newman44 stopped one which now left 5 of us and two wounded at that to keep going, and just to cap it off Ian Stewart with No. 8 Platoon shoots us up too, but we got out to the infantry. I had a look at where we had been, it certainly was a long way.’
Platoon Headquarters had been about half-way between the two sections. As it grew light Mabin could see that he was at the top of a wadi containing tanks and infantry. Some aband- doned vehicles behind Platoon Headquarters became the target for mortar and machine-gun fire. ‘I was out of contact with the guns, and it was impossible to move from our positions because of the flatness of the ground and the shelling. We were just lying quietly in our slit trenches when some Mark IVs came out of the wadi and came towards us machine gunning the trucks behind us all the time. They came within 300 yards of us, stayed a short time and then went away again…. later the tanks came back again but this time with infantry. They advanced towards us and before we could do anything we were captured.’
At least one or two of 9 Platoon's Vickers did some shooting in the morning, but they were mortared heavily by the enemy and fired on by their own artillery and infantry. ‘Len Jansen,47 page 142 my No 2, and myself had only dug in about 6 ins. when the sun appeared,’ says Beckingham. ‘From dawn onwards we were pelted from both sides by mortar, small arms fire, and 25 pounders…. During the day Eric Heaps48 was mortally wounded at his gun on my left….’
Private Hambling's49 gun ‘let loose at a few huns and Ities’ trucks. [We] were getting shot at by snipers and automatic rifles, MGs, mortars, artillery, then our own guns and MGs. No. 8 Platoon started to pepper us. Bren carrier from our infantry came out to within 200 yds of us. Let us have a few rounds and then retired. Thought we were Jerry….’
With the exception of Corporal Winfield's gun team, out of touch on the extreme left of the line, the machine-gunners left their guns and ran the gauntlet back to their own lines. Beckingham says that ‘Cpl Brown50 from 7 Pln came running towards me, and yelled “We are going to make a break for it for our own lines, we are in a bad position.” I relayed the word back, and as one we all took to our scrapers and I think we all broke the 500 yd record in that mad dash….’
Apparently the Bren carrier which had gone forward to investigate had fired at Private Dudman's51 position. Nobody had been hit, but when he got back one machine-gunner sought out an infantry officer and said, ‘Call yourselves bloody riflemen? You fired point blank at us, and missed the bloody lot of us.’
Holden decided to withdraw to the artillery lines. ‘Got my truck and made a break to Arty lines. Pln Trns [transport] going another route, the troops walking, distance to go was about 1800 yds. Got through & blew hell out of Arty officer at gun lines then found out they had not been told we were there & the Inf had retired when mortared in the morning & the proposed attack [by 26 and 21 Battalions] had been cancelled.’
Winfield's gun team had no contact with anybody on either side or in the rear. Their Vickers, like the others, had not been dug in deep before daylight. ‘The digging of the gunpit was particularly difficult on a rocky formation and after going down page 143 a few inches we had to abandon further effort,’ says Collis. ‘The noise seemed to attract a bit of small arms fire. We regretted not going further with it next morning.’
At dawn they surprised some enemy troops who debussed from two vehicles—apparently a mortar team taking up position. When the Vickers opened fire the vehicles spun around and withdrew, but there was an almost immediate response from elsewhere, and for the rest of the day Winfield's men were pinned down by concentrated mortar fire. Bren-gun fire and light shelling came from behind.
With ‘no news during the whole day, no food, no sign of anybody else,’ Winfield decided when it was dark that the best thing to do would be to go back and try to make contact. ‘We had only gone about 100 yds back when we met a hail of fire from the direction of our own lines,’ says Collis. ‘We had some difficulty in making our identity known and the officer in charge some difficulty in silencing the line….’ The infantry ‘were quite unaware that we were immediately in front. Woodhall's comment to one of the Bren gunners with a pile of empty cases beside the gun was caustic….’
Of 7 and 9 Platoons' eight Vickers, Winfield's was the only one brought back. Holden had withdrawn the remainder of the two platoons to Company Headquarters, which was with Brigade Headquarters, and had heard that another attack was going in that night (the 26th–27th). ‘We offered to go in with it and pick our guns up,’ he says. ‘It was agreed to for a while, then it was decided that No. 8 Pln would go in with the attack. We went forward at daylight and recovered the guns.’
Fourth Brigade had no great difficulty in seizing Belhamed with 18 and 20 Battalions in a silent attack on the night of 25–26 November, but in daylight the possession of this bald, gently sloping hill proved dangerous. Enemy guns pounded it from three sides—north, west and south—infantry bombarded it with mortars, and it was swept by machine-gun fire. Neverttheless casualties were not unduly severe.
The supporting arms—the Matildas of 44 Royal Tanks, 2 MG Company (less 4 Platoon), 31 Anti-Tank Battery, and the infantry's mortars and carriers—went forward at 5.30 a.m. (‘not early enough,’ says Captain Johansen) and at dawn came under shell and anti-tank fire from the direction of Sidi Rezegh. Four tanks were destroyed and three damaged before they could take page 144 cover. The anti-tank battery and the machine-gun company worked their way along the northern edge of Belhamed, where Johansen and Major Levy52 (OC 31 Battery) decided to combine forces—‘a happy combination … that of MGs & A/T guns’— to hold the area between 18 Battalion on the left (west) and 4 Field Regiment on the right (east).
5 and 6 Platoons' alternative positions at Belhamed
Newland says that each day 5 Platoon was severely shelled and was often under mortar and machine-gun fire, but suffered no casualties, ‘probably because we were well hidden and covered amid the large rocky wadis running down the face of the escarpment.’ The platoon fired at several targets, mostly at long range, and appeared to have a measure of success, occasionally stopping a truck or motor cycle or two, and inflicting casualties among men on foot or in the vehicles. Kinder's platoon (No. 6) which also came under shell, mortar and machine-gun fire, apparently without casualties, gave most of its attention to silencing, or endeavouring to silence, enemy machine-gun posts to the south.page 145
Meanwhile 4 Platoon (Sergeant Hull53), detached from 2 Company, was in reserve with 19 Battalion near Brigade Headquarters in the Zaafran area. At daybreak on the 26th the men of No. 2 Section found themselves on the right flank, ‘parked like a neon light on a forward slope overlooking the enemy positions,’ to quote Private Campbell.54 ‘We did not have our gun set up and we, proving how conspicuous we were, provided the mark for a barrage of 5? mortar. The first shell to land was almost a direct hit on our truck, landing over and past it by about 30'. This sighter collected three of our crew, Pte Thomas Twistleton55 … Cpl Clive Smith56 … and myself.’
In the late afternoon a German reconnaissance plane, showing navigation lights, flew around slowly at a low altitude. ‘Every time he flew over our positions,’ says Private Friend,57 ‘he shone a big lamp in his tail … it was only minutes late we would be plastered by German artillery.’ About 5.30 p.m. the plane approached very low in front of No. 1 Section. ‘My gun was not loaded at that time as we were waiting to get our fixed lines to lay on,’ says Private Winterburn.58 ‘I immediately grabbed an ammo, belt and loaded up and pulled out the rear pin so as to get the gun to swing free and so bear on the plane. He was then about 50 or 60 yards away and about 100 feet up and I fired straight into him, not many shots, when checking afterwards only 19 had been fired, and he wobbled a bit and then crash landed about 70 yards from us. Cpl. Phil. Tritt,59 my Section Cpl., was first to the plane and promptly pulled the pilot and observer out….’ The plane was armed only with a light machine gun.
‘Arguments immediately started over who shot it down60 and it was fortunate that we were the only guns around firing the page 146 new Mark VIII ammunition and in the pilot's seat and cabin we found several slugs,’ says Friend. ‘The pilot was badly shot about the legs and was too bad to shift in the 3 tonners which we were using for ambulances and our medical orderlies after doing him up decided to wait for an ambulance. During the night though he died….’ One of the maps salvaged from the plane not only gave useful information about enemy dispositions but also showed accurately New Zealand and Tobruk force positions.
At this stage it fell to 19 Battalion, the only battalion of 4 and 6 Brigades still at full strength, to complete the link between Eighth Army and the Tobruk garrison. It had originally been intended that the Tobruk force should push out to Ed Duda after it had been captured by the New Zealanders, but 6 Brigade had been unable to carry out its advance from Sidi Rezegh before dawn on the 26th. In the afternoon, however, troops from 70 British Division made a sortie from the Tobruk perimeter and captured Ed Duda.
The 19th Battalion's advance to join hands with these troops was another night affair, but this time tanks went ahead of the infantry. The fourteen Matildas charging through the darkness demoralised the dug-in Germans and Italians, and by 1 a.m. on 27 November 19 Battalion, without a single casualty, was on Ed Duda and in contact with 1 Essex Battalion.
The same night 6 Brigade completed the occupation of the Sidi Rezegh ridge. During the previous day—when 7 and 9 Platoons had withdrawn from a place ‘too hot even for machine-gunners’—the brigade had consolidated short of the mosque, but this situation was precarious. Brigadier Barrowclough saw that an attack to clear the remainder of the ridge was an ‘absolute necessity’, and therefore ordered 24 and 26 Battalions to secure all the high ground overlooking the mosque.
The two battalions fought hand-to-hand with Germans and Italians (Bersaglieri, the toughest Italian troops encountered), and suffered grievous casualties from close-range anti-tank, mortar and machine-gun fire. The Brigadier, going over the ground soon after dawn, found that ‘our troops had had to advance right to the muzzles of these guns before their crews were despatched and the guns silenced. There was an enormous number of dead and wounded all over the battlefield … the exhausted and sadly depleted ranks of 24 and 26 Bns had fought their way to victory and their victory was complete….’page 147
The three machine guns from 9 Platoon and the four from 7 Platoon lost the previous day were recovered, but both platoons were short of men, and 7 Platoon had to be reorganised on a three-gun instead of a four-gun basis. To help consolidate on the western end of the ridge, 7 Platoon joined 24 Battalion; 8 Platoon was with the 26th (east of the 24th) and about 200 yards from the mosque; 9 Platoon was in reserve. ‘There was no need to build pits for we merely removed the Italian dead & their Machine Guns, allowing ourselves to utilize their roughly built sangars,’ says Private Clemens (8 Platoon).
An unsuccessful attempt was made to reduce an enemy strongpoint in a commanding position behind 26 Battalion. Although cut off, this strongpoint had withstood two attacks by a platoon of 26 Battalion the previous day, and as Sergeant Stewart says, ‘still had plenty of sting…. One thing that stands out in my memory is the efforts made to dislodge that pocket of Germans by one platoon of infantry with the support of the mortars. I was asked to give overhead fire with MMG at 1100 yds over a crest using Mk VIII ammunition. An impossible feat, of course.’ When two platoons (actually twenty-two men), with artillery support, finally captured the strongpoint in the afternoon of 28 November, they were surprised to find that it had contained 180 Germans (and twenty captured New Zealanders), several anti-tank guns, mortars, machine guns and small arms of all descriptions well entrenched in concreted positions.
Another enemy pocket, a much larger one, well supplied with anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns, and occupying a long, low rise about midway between Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, had become 4 Brigade's chief concern. Under the sadly mistaken belief that the enemy there was ready to surrender and could be rounded up without difficulty, two companies of 20 Battalion were ordered to attack on 27 November. They met intense mortar and machine-gun fire, and after suffering nearly 100 killed and wounded, had to be extricated from a hopeless position after dark.
The answer to this setback was a well-organised attack next day by eleven tanks, ten Bren carriers, and three platoons of 18 Battalion, supported by both 4 and 6 Field Regiments and 5 and 6 MG Platoons. The Vickers were to fire across the fronts of the tanks from forward positions on Belhamed. ‘Everything went according to plan & I might say in passing was pretty to watch,’ is Johansen's impression. At small cost some 600 prisoners were taken, and the last obstruction to a firm link page 148 between the New Zealanders and the Tobruk garrison was eliminated.
Since 24 November the New Zealanders had been fortunate in at least one respect: they did not have to contend with the three armoured divisions which Rommel had taken on his costly and abortive excursion to the frontier. On the 27th, however, Rommel recognised the critical situation south-east of Tobruk and ordered his armour back to that front. While driving along the Trigh Capuzzo the Germans lost heavily in tanks in probably the most successful engagement fought by the British armour; but this did not prevent them from continuing the westward advance, which was to have such fearful consequences for the New Zealand Division.
Late on the afternoon of the 28th the New Zealand main dressing station, situated east of Point 175 and containing over 1000 wounded and sick, was suddenly and unexpectedly captured. Private McCahill,61 one of the wounded machine-gunners there, ‘heard a great shout go up. I went out to see what it was, and to my horror, the place had been surrounded by Germans … and we were in the bag….’ About 1500 Germans and Italians were released from the adjoining prisoner-of-war cage. The enemy set up guns around the dressing station and opened fire in the direction of Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. British artillery replied, and shells falling among the tents caused further casualties among the wounded, who also were tortured by thirst and hunger before they were recaptured eight days later.
Convoys of vehicles were seen moving westwards south of 6 Brigade during the morning of the 28th. At first some thought these might be 1 South African Brigade, which was expected to arrive from that direction to support the New Zealanders. ‘The constant misleading statements about a South African relief column approaching from different directions were little short of amazing,’ says Sergeant Stewart. ‘On about 28th Nov a few trucks stopped in a Wadi on our left front about 1500 yds away and I could see through my binoculars that they were German troops whatever the vehicles, so promptly opened fire with Cpl Pye's62 two guns and was smartly told by 26th Bn page 149 HQ to stop as they might be SA trucks. Perhaps they were— the men were not [South Africans].’
Early in the afternoon vehicles appeared on the high ground beyond the western extremity of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. Troops debussed and brought guns into action against 24 and 26 Battalions, but were shelled and driven off. Another convoy was reported to the south-west. About this time 8 Platoon sustained its first serious casualties. While one gun crew was digging in on top of the ridge an ‘exceptionally heavy shell’ landed among the men and killed Privates Hawkins,63 Boyle,64 and Gobbe,65 and seriously wounded Corporal Andrew66 and Private Connolly.67 Clemens, who alone was uninjured, evacuated the two wounded men.
The same afternoon misfortune overtook 24 Battalion. Some of the infantry had moved slightly and were digging in when a number of men were seen approaching and making friendly signs. Thinking these were friendly troops, the New Zealanders, allowing the enemy to come in, fell victims to a ruse. The forward sections were quickly overrun; others farther back could not fire without hitting their own men. The Germans, says a 24 Battalion NCO, ‘came under heavy fire from the Vickers guns [probably 7 Platoon] and I noticed a German officer was having trouble in getting his men to advance in face of it.’ The intervention of 24 Battalion carriers drove back the enemy, but not before he had captured 100-odd men.
At nightfall 6 Brigade was still in possession of Sidi Rezegh, but was reduced to about a third of its normal strength and was threatened from the east, south and west; its vehicle park on the airfield was overlooked and in danger of coming under gunfire at dawn. Brigadier Barrowclough suggested that his transport be moved within the Tobruk perimeter, but was given permission only to move Brigade Headquarters and all B Echelon vehicles on to the low ground north of the escarpment. ‘Div replied,’ he reports, ‘that CORPS orders required page 150 us to keep open the TOBRUK Corridor and that we must therefore maintain our present positions substantially as they were…. Nothing therefore remained but to utilise the hours of darkness in redistributing our depleted forces to the best possible advantage….’
The 24th and 26th Battalions were to hold their positions on the high ground near the mosque; 8 Field Company was to guard the airfield; 25 Battalion was to defend the area around the blockhouse; 21 Battalion was to reoccupy Point 175. The necessary moves were completed during darkness. Major Luxford, with 9 Platoon, joined the engineers (under Major Currie68) on the edge of the airfield; Headquarters 3 Company, under the command of the second-in-command (Captain Mason69), went with Brigade Headquarters below the escarpment; 7 and 8 Platoons were still with 24 and 26 Battalions.
The brigade now held a very thin line about eight miles in length, extending from Point 175 to about 1000 yards beyond the mosque. Columns of transport seen moving on the southernmost ridge next day (29 November) invariably turned out to be hostile. ‘One of these convoys advanced towards our position and we found recognition to be very difficult,’ says Luxford. ‘We were expecting a South African convoy from the same direction and Brigade had warned us to be very careful not to shoot them up. Fire was held until the convoy was about 600 yds. away when one of the flank sections opened fire. The convoy immediately turned and made off in a S.W. direction; some of the rear ones were seen to halt at extreme range south of us and recognition was still not definitely established. A wounded man was observed out in front and a party went out to collect him. He was a German so orders were given for all M.M.Gs to open fire on the trucks in sight. This caused one truck to make off eastwards, although two remained but the personnel were observed to get out of them. During the afternoon an Italian tank drove up under a white flag. Inside was one dead, one severely wounded and two unhurt Italians.’page 151
Early in the afternoon Brigadier Barrowclough told Luxford by telephone that he was taking 7 Platoon from 24 Battalion and placing it under the command of 21 Battalion on Point 175; late that evening the Brigadier advised him that Point 175 had been overrun and the troops there captured. ‘All I had of No. 7 Platoon after that,” says Luxford, “were the six drivers and one sergeant who had managed to get away from Point 175.”
Sidi Rezegh, 30 November 1941
At Sidi Rezegh Sunday 30 November “dawned with everything still quiet, but the air charged with a tense expectancy,” wrote Clemens (8 Platoon). “Surely he must attack today or our Tanks will arrive to consolidate our position, making us secure. Something must be done soon about our own and enemy dead littering the ground all around, for the flies are thick and the air is foul.”
From about mid-morning there was almost continual movement along the southern ridge. Troop-carrying vehicles and tanks could be seen assembling and were shelled at extreme range, with little apparent effect other than retaliatory fire. Early in the afternoon 8 Platoon was warned that an infantry attack supported by tanks was expected about 4 p.m. “Everyone is on his toes and our Tommy Anti-Tank Gunners71 assure us that no Tank will cross the wide sandy flat below us….” Almost on the tick of four tanks appeared on the ridge to the south, about two miles away. From behind the Sidi Rezegh ridge the 25-pounders brought their fire to bear on the slowly moving targets. Through binoculars Clemens saw “one, two, three fires from direct hits, but still they advance. I count thirty72 in all which have evaded our Guns & as they reach the dusty flat they mill round & round in apparent disorder….’ The Germans were taking advantage of a following wind to raise a protective dust screen. The 25-pounders were prevented by the crest of the ridge from engaging them at close range. The dust cleared, and 700 yards away the tanks ‘in two nigh perfect lines’ lumbered forward with their guns blazing. Vehicles were set on fire. The British anti-tank guns, their crews ‘working heroically’, put two tanks out of action before the enemy's concentrated fire scored direct hits on all of them. The gunners took shelter in their trenches.
Sergeant McClintock says that some of the tanks had troop-carriers behind them. ‘When they stopped in line in front of our position one trailer load of soldiers got out of their carrier, they were standing near the side of their armoured troop carrier. I would not order my men to fire, but I gave them the page 153 order “gun control”, which means that the gunner can fire if he wishes to. One gun opened up, the other one was faulty, therefore could not fire….’
‘There was still a lot of dust about the tanks but I too saw troop carriers and also men on the back of the tanks,’ writes Private Mackenzie,73 who opened fire ‘with a fair amount of success’ among the Germans who dropped with their light automatic weapons from the rear of the tanks. ‘… the attack seemed to surprise them more than a little. For a time after this little do, no men appeared in sight, then looking through the legs of the Gun Tripod I saw seven men appear from behind the leading tank, they appeared to be Officers and were apparently interested in something I could not see, to my right and behind me. To bring my gun to bear on this party I had to reach out and release my traverse clamp and then half climb out of my pit as they were on my right at a sharp angle and below me, by moving slowly I got them lined up and let go swinging the gun across and back, 3 men fell as if hit when all went to earth, they did not appear again.’
Clemens observed through his binoculars ‘that there are as many as five men clinging full length on the rear slope of each Tank. Their job is to cover the area & when the Tanks are through, follow & round up the prisoners. I look around to see what our Infantry are doing. All are below ground but as I gaze someone makes a dash across the open ground. His mission is not fulfilled for I see him blown to smithereens by a stray Tank shell. The Tanks are only a hundred yards away now in two columns, gingerly picking their way up the rugged slope. We all are clinging fervently to the rocky ground wishing our holes were not so conspicuous & about a quarter as wide. The Tanks stop almost upon us & we clearly hear an eventual deployment order being given by radio…. We remain as quiet as mice and the Tanks pass beyond us, four of them within a few yards of my trench. They are completing their job by occupying the high ground behind us & worrying about the concentration of Infantry there…. To our left & behind us the Infantry stream out of their holes with hands about their heads….’
Clemens watched the German infantry advance in groups. ‘Caution is thrown to the wind, & they have no eyes for our area for they hurry forward to claim a share of the prisoners’ page 154 loot. Orders are given to make our Guns useless & the Gunners comply by burying the locks. We call to one another hasty plans for making a mass break to the flat below & then veering right in the hope of finding Brigade Hdqs. Our slender chances vanish as a convoy appears on the route followed by the Tanks —a few German staff cars in the lead supported, as always, by motor cyclists, & followed by their counterpart of our three-tonner, with indeed a sprinkling of our own vehicles of that description among them. There are approximately thirty wagons in close column—a perfect Vickers target—but it would be folly to open up on them with Tanks so handy. The convoy halts immediately below us, a senior staff officer gives a command & German Infantry debuss in an orderly manner. I am struck by the fact that they carry no webbing, respirators or haversacks, & indeed only about half of them carry steel helmets. Light automatic weapons and mausers are their arms and about one in every three is an ammunition number. There is a Battalion of them, I judge, and their confidence saves us from immediate discovery for they form up in threes & march past us to occupy the crest of the ridge. They are close enough to easily discern their features in the dying light.
‘As the Infantry go up, the Tanks come down. Rotten luck! They have chosen our area for a refuelling point—their store trucks are now arriving—& to “laager” for the night. We remain in our holes hoping against hope that something will turn up at the last hour & save us from capture. The neatly attired Tank crews are now fraternizing excitedly. They have much to discuss and easily acquired loot to display. Detection must follow, but it is fully five minutes before, apparently by accident, someone discovers an occupied hole. A warning shout & a dozen Lugers are drawn as the Anti Tank Gunners surrender. The Germans are now the personnification of complete caution. The game is up for us, for six of them come towards our holes & covered by a Tank Gun. Three of them are at the Gun Pit about five yards to my right. “Up Up” I hear one command in guttural English. With three Lugers a few feet from them handled by a capable foe, the Numbers One and Two & the Section Commander jump to their feet smartly hands well above their heads. “Are you armed?” I hear in the same foreign voice & the prisoners are lightly searched for hidden weapons. A searcher proudly withdraws a pair of binoculars from Mac's person & is the envy of his comrades. They evince small interest in the Gun. Soon the rest of the Section page 155 are on top of the ground & marched away to a nearby car. I am impressed by the almost courteous manner in which the boys are treated….’74
Clemens, all this time, was lying on the ground pretending that he was dead. Twice a German nudged him with his foot and ordered him to get up, but went away satisfied. Later, when a favourable opportunity occurred, he walked to a slit trench where he hid before making his way to another trench. When he felt he had reached a safe distance, he began to run. He headed in the direction of some flares, but could hear Italian voices; he went in another direction and found Germans; eventually he ran into New Zealanders, who at first mistook him for an Italian. He ended up at Brigade Headquarters, where he had the greatest difficulty in convincing anybody that there were thirty tanks at Sidi Rezegh. Actually there were more than thirty, but nobody would believe that the Germans still had so many.
Clemens was the only man from No. 1 Section who escaped, but the eight or nine men of No. 2 Section also got away. ‘The first we saw of the tanks,’ says Pye, ‘was when about 8 tanks abreast topped the rise behind us and then stopped and proceeded to blow up the 26th Bn Bren carriers and of course anything else they could see. They would be about 50 Yards away from us. Another six to eight tanks came in from the west and stopped about a hundred yards away and proceeded to line up the infantry in that area….’ Pye's section and some nearby infantrymen kept down out of sight. Dusk was falling and the air was thick with dust and smoke. When it was half dark they all made a dash for freedom. They were fired on by the tanks behind them, and although some of the infantrymen were hit, the machine-gunners all got away safely to Brigade Headquarters.
In the morning of the 30th (before Sidi Rezegh was lost) Major Luxford, who was with 9 Platoon at the edge of the page 156 airfield, overheard telephone conversations between Brigadier Barrowclough and Major Burton; the latter insisted that the enemy was on Point 175.75
Two tanks appeared on 9 Platoon's eastern flank in the afternoon and moved over the ridge northwards in the direction of Brigade Headquarters, which was about 1500 yards away. A few minutes later one of them came back and was bagged promptly by the anti-tank guns.
Luxford learnt from Brigade Headquarters that 24 and 26 Battalions had been overrun and captured. ‘Things were now pretty sticky and we were expecting a busy night.’ Shortly after dark some vehicles were heard moving over the edge of the escarpment between 9 Platoon and Brigade Headquarters. Two anti-tank guns on portées went to investigate and fired on a lorry which went up in flames; it was one of three ammunition lorries towing guns.
About midnight Luxford noticed a line of men approaching from where 24 and 26 Battalions had been. He ‘hurried over to the flank and warned the guns to keep a good lookout and not to fire too soon as there was a possibility of them being some of the 24th and 26th filtering back. They were allowed to come quite close and were then challenged. A great gabble of foreign language answered the challenge and so fire was opened and they could be heard running away. Later in the night a badly wounded German (a mere youth) came in and gave himself up; still later his cobber who was unhurt came in and gave himself up so that he could be with him.
‘The prospects were gloomy for the morrow if the South Africans, who had been expected for the last two days, did not arrive by morning.’
They did not arrive.
Reports had reached 4 Brigade by the evening of 28 November that an enemy column was advancing westwards along the ridge south of the Trigh Capuzzo. That evening, too, gunfire could be seen in the direction of the New Zealand main dressing station. To strengthen his brigade's perimeter against threats from the east and the south, Brigadier Inglis formed a strongpoint just west of Bir Sciuearat, a mile and a half north of Point 175. There a battery of 4 Field Regiment occupied a position together with some survivors of 5 South African page 157 Brigade, sappers of 6 Field Company in an infantry role, and 4 Platoon. In addition half of 19 Battalion was brought back from Ed Duda to Zaafran.
An attack on the strongpoint was expected during the night of 29–30 November—when 21 Battalion had lost Point 175— but did not come until the following afternoon, when tanks and infantry were repelled by the 25-pounders. A machine-gunner had been wounded by mortar fire in the morning, but 4 Platoon—‘as a result of digging deep’—had no further casualties, despite artillery, tank-gun, mortar and machine-gun fire.
Later that afternoon Brigadier Inglis told Johansen that he wanted him to concentrate the three platoons of 2 Company at the strongpoint. Johansen pointed out that this would leave the area on Belhamed between 20 Battalion (which had changed positions with the 18th) and 4 Field Regiment vacant except for the anti-tank guns ‘which would be deadly vulnerable without small arms and infantry.’ The Brigadier agreed, but said that Point 175 ‘was looming up important’ and ordered the machine-gun officer to take one platoon and leave the other. Johansen therefore withdrew 5 Platoon and his battle headquarters from Belhamed, and left 6 Platoon under Kinder to hold the ‘gap’. The guns of 5 Platoon were sited at the strongpoint after a difficult reconnaissance by moonlight. Daylight on 1 December revealed that this small force of field guns, infantry and machine guns—later reinforced by a troop of British anti-tank guns—was located in and around a small, narrow wadi about 2000 yards south of the two companies of 19 Battalion at Zaafran.
The survivors of 8 Platoon at Headquarters 6 Brigade were armed with rifles. ‘When dawn broke,’ says Clemens, ‘it appeared we were on the left flank of the Brigade Position with the Brigade Command Truck clearly distinguishable in the centre. To say we were a motley fighting force would be putting it mildly, some infantry were dug in around & in front of us while the only anti-tank Guns I could see were 2 lbs. & Bofors which were later fired over open sights…. We had no sooner taken stock of our surroundings when on the horizon page 158 we picked up the shapes of our previous day tank enemies looming towards us. When within firing distance a very confused battle took place….’
Major Luxford watched from the ridge. ‘It was a real donny- brook…. Lorry after lorry went up in flames and we on the ridge could do nothing to help.’ Major Currie, who was standing alongside, told Luxford that he had a three-tonner down there loaded with some hundreds of mines, and he hoped it would not be hit. ‘The words were hardly out of his mouth when there was a terrific explosion and he said “Well, there go the mines.”’
‘Things looked very black. The battle had been raging about threequarters of an hour when swarms of tanks were observed coming over the escarpment south of us. Friend or foe? It was hard to tell. I went out to contact them, and they turned out to be our own, part I think of the 4th Armoured Brigade, and I directed them on to the battle….’
At first Clemens thought the British tanks were the South Africans ‘who for days we had been told to expect’, but some of the infantry must have thought they were German, for they got up out of their holes and went forward to surrender. Meanwhile the German tanks stopped firing. The British tanks wheeled sharply and advanced towards the Germans, and as they did so an officer called out from his turret, ‘Come on, you fellows, we are no good without infantry to help us.’
About twenty men, including the 8 Platoon men, went forward at the double behind the tanks, which fanned out in a line. The surrendering infantry changed their minds and went back for cover. The British tanks fared badly. ‘… four went up in front of us in the space of seconds…. Suddenly they broke off the engagement & made off the way they had come. We M.G.'s. were left stranded & had to make our best and quickest way to cover….’
Clemens recognised Captain Weston76 (the Staff Captain) standing up in a pick-up. ‘He called out “Tell as many as possible in this sector to embus on the least number of vehicles possible & as soon as the Brigadier moves off follow him as best you can.” I was still engaged in telling Anti Tank Gun personnel & various others this message when I suddenly noticed the Brig's car was away & a lot more too. For a moment I page 159 though I was going to miss a ride when I spied Jimmy Butler77 the Platoon Mechanic with the Ptn Hdqs truck loaded with gear. I jumped aboard & we made off….’
Brigadier Barrowclough ‘came up on the ridge in his car and we were ordered to evacuate immediately and follow,’ says Luxford. ‘I asked him where we were going and his reply was that the tanks knew a safe place….’ The sappers and one section of 9 Platoon were taken out on the tanks, the other section on an anti-tank portée. Luxford packed as many as he could on his pick-up. The group headed eastwards, but came under fire from the direction of Point 175 and swung sharply to the north towards 4 Brigade. ‘There was a wild stamped of trucks across the desert. Control was gone. As a fighting unit the brigade was useless….’
As well as chasing the remnants of 6 Brigade the Germans overwhelmed 20 Battalion on Belhamed and drove a wedge between 18 Battalion and the two companies of the 19th at Ed Duda on the Tobruk side and the remainder of 4 Brigade at Zaafran on the other. Thus the Tobruk corridor was cut.
The enemy came over the brow of Belhamed towards 6 Platoon's positions within an hour of the beginning of the attack. ‘Anticipating this and being unable to bring fire to bear on the enemy I had by this time withdrawn my guns and trucks and was standing by while I … investigated the position,’ says Kinder. ‘Within a few minutes I considered it necessary to evacuate my lorries and men….’ After going a mile or two in a north-easterly direction Kinder met three lorries, one of which had a wireless, and ascertained the whereabouts of Brigade Headquarters. At Zaafran he reported to Brigadier Inglis, who told him to post his guns on the ridge (in the area formerly occupied by 4 Platoon). There 6 Platoon fired on and dispersed at least thirty German troop-carriers advancing towards Belhamed from the north, No. 1 Section under Sergeant Green being particularly effective.
At the strongpoint near Bir Sciuearat the morning ‘was one of uncertainty, and even to the men who had no way of knowing the true position, it was evident that the situation was serious,’ says Sergeant Macartney78 of 5 Platoon. ‘… most of us had been disturbed by the noise of the German attack upon the page 160 [Belhamed] feature during the early hours of the morning, and none of us liked the sound of it, although we had not been able to ascertain what had happened.’
Johansen was left with six Vickers at the strongpoint when a section of 5 Platoon, commanded by Macartney and guided by 2 Company's second-in-command (Lieutenant Lee79), was despatched to the north-east to support 4 Field Regiment. Macartney had been told by his platoon commander (Newland) that he was to provide the best support he could for the field regiment, and if possible he would be given some indication of when to withdraw, ‘if such a movement was possible.’
Macartney asked the CO 4 Field Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Duff) if he had any special area in the defences he wished to have strengthened. ‘He informed me that there were no plans for the placement of defending units … and suggested we decide upon the most suitable positions, taking into account the likely direction from which the enemy would make his final assault, and our own capabilities. I conveyed this to Lt. Lee who immediately suggested we go on a reconnaissance in a Bren Carrier … off we went—out into the “Blue”, and over several crests … towards the enemy. I noticed at this time that Lt. Lee had been wounded. He said that it was only a superficial scratch, but I suspected he was already suffering much pain….
‘It was very shortly obvious to the both of us that the task of providing anything like effective defence was well nigh hopeless. The open spaces which had to be defended by so few were large enough to accommodate two battalions of infantry and supporting arms. We decided to place one gun at either end of the Regiment's forward line of guns, dig them in as deeply as possible, and hope to do some damage if the enemy came close enough….
‘We found it impossible to dig holes and trenches for the guns and teams, the tools we had were not suitable to deal with the solid rock we found just below the surface … so shallow depressions were made, with low parapets of rock built around them.’ Macartney sent the trucks back a short distance, still within sight, with instructions to move only if he told them to do so. ‘I felt that those trucks, if not hit … might offer a slender chance of escape for my teams when the show collapsed.’
Lee, meanwhile, was making strenuous efforts to create a page 161 strongpoint. He worked tirelessly, moving quickly from place to place in a Bren carrier, talking and planning with officers and NCOs how to use and co-ordinate to the best advantage the few men and arms at their disposal.
Towards dusk the enemy began to close in. The last two hours, in Macartney's opinion, were ‘the most glorious of the 4th Field Regiment. My admiration of these fine fellows who manned the guns transcended all personal feelings of anxiety. They were simply magnificent. They … fired into the enemy's armoured formations until one team after another was destroyed. … The place was just one horrid little bit of hell, with vivid flashes, ear-splitting explosions, and general confusion.’
Lee, after doing all he could to organise the scattered troops in the area to delay the enemy's advance, returned to the machine-gunners. ‘I am sure,’ Macartney continues, ‘this brave man did not envisage a withdrawal of any kind. He came up to me and with a spirited flourish of his arms, said, “Even if they do overwhelm us by sheer weight, we shall make it a thoroughly expensive victory for them. Tell the men to be ready, for there is nothing to do now but wait for them, and have it out on the most intimate terms.”’
It was getting dark and the forward artillery pieces were out of action. The Vickers were firing at a point less than 1000 yards away where the Germans were using tracer. Through the glare of burning vehicles it was possible to see confusion developing among the troops out on the left of the forward line. Lee left the machine-gunners and sped swiftly to the spot where he imagined the initial attack would occur. A despatch rider arrived on foot from Headquarters 2 Company (his motor cycle had been knocked out on the way) with a message instructing Macartney to hold out until 5.20 p.m., if possible, and giving rough directions of where to go.
The Vickers carried on firing steadily and deliberately at any show of enemy small-arms fire. They also raked the areas in the general direction from which it was now certain the enemy was approaching, which must have had a delaying effect. At precisely 5.20 p.m. Macartney signalled the trucks and ordered the first gun out, and a few minutes later the second. By this time troops were drifting to the rear. A British tank seemed to be picking up stragglers. Macartney went out to where he had last seen Lee, and found him severely wounded in the head. ‘I told him we were withdrawing, and tried to get him to come with us. He refused and insisted that no page 162 withdrawal was taking place. For several moments I tried to persuade him, and had decided to call some of my own men to assist me when a Bren Carrier crew assured me they would look after him. By this time small arms fire was streaming into the area, and I had to think about getting the gun teams out, so left him in their care. Fortunately they got him out…. Our men got out with only one casualty…. More by good luck than by skill, we rejoined our unit shortly after leaving the place.’
Lee died a month later in Cairo, but lived long enough to receive an award of the MC.
It was decided that the New Zealand Division should take advantage of the protection given by 4 Armoured Brigade and break out to the south-east, to reorganise in a safe area. The strongpoint, which in Johansen's words rapidly became a ‘Hot Point’, had to stave off attacks while the two brigades assembled. ‘I must say that the sappers of the 6 Fd Coy under a pal of mine Maj Bert Woolcott80 … fought magnificently as infantry. Fighting their 25 Pdrs as A/T guns superbly the gunners under Major Bevan81 added the strong punch to the party. We were ordered to hold the Pt until 1800 hrs if I remember correctly & as the pressing attacks left no opportunity to withdraw piecemeal, the two Majors & I decided to synchronize watches & all of us bolt for it right on the dot. This arrangement accordingly promulgated & carried out. The one truck I lost was due to a tank shell going clean up the centre of the tray & through the motor striking the driver's (Pte ‘Silver’ Gibb82) leg en route. The Strong Point was altogether exciting & successful.’
About 6.30 p.m. Johansen, with 4 and 5 Platoons, rejoined 4 Brigade, ‘where we picked up No. 6 Pl all safe & well.’ Macartney's section returned to 5 Platoon. The whole New Zealand group moved off in night formation without hindrance from the enemy.
The remnants of 3 Company found themselves next to the engineers, who had a couple of truckloads of prisoners, Ger- page 163 mans and Italians. ‘Before the move back was commenced that night orders came to dump the prisoners,’ says Luxford. ‘When they were told to buzz off the Italians said they wanted to go to Cairo. However they were told in no uncertain terms to beat it and the move back to Egypt commenced. Much to the disgust of the Engineers when daylight came after the first night's move who should be with us but the truck load of Ities but no Germans!’
On 5 December 2 and 3 Companies were back at Baggush; their part in the crusader campaign had ended.
Acting CO: Maj P. W. Wright
Adj: Capt R. C. Bradshaw
IO: Lt O. Somerset-Smith
MO: Lt A. B. Adams
Padre: Rev M. L. Underhill
QM: Lt R. P. Williams
Sigs: Lt E. A. Hunter
TO: 2 Lt J. J. Abernethy
AA Pl: Sgt L. Williams
2 i/c: Capt R. L. Hains
1 Pl: 2 Lt C. R. Lee
2 Pl: 2 Lt G. B. C. Pleasants
3 Pl: Sgt C. L. Cato
OC: Capt C. C. Johansen
2 i/c: Lt G. L. Lee
4 Pl: Sgt T. G. Hull
5 Pl: 2 Lt C. A. Newland
6 Pl: 2 Lt A. G. Kinder
2 i/c: Capt R. J. Mason
7 Pl: 2 Lt E. D. Mabin
8 Pl: Sgt I. J. W. Stewart
9 Pl: Lt T. W. Daly
2 An infantry brigade group in this and subsequent desert campaigns usually consisted of three infantry battalions, a field regiment, an anti-tank battery, an anti-aircraft battery, a machine-gun company, a company of engineers, and a field ambulance unit. On this occasion 5 Bde had four battalions (21, 22, 23 and 28).
3 Bn HQ, HQ Coy and 4 Coy were transferred from 4 Bde Gp to B Gp Div HQ on 18 Nov. But this was only a temporary arrangement; a few days later the whole of 27 Bn, apart from 2 Coy with 4 Bde and 3 Coy with 6 Bde, was attached to 5 Bde. Maj-Gen Inglis comments: ‘At one stage 4 Bde was intended to take HQ 27 Bn with it; but I could see no good purpose in doing so, because the Bn HQ had no real job and would only clutter me up with useless vehicles I did not want. I said so with the result that the 27 Bn HQ was palmed off on to 5 Bde, with the HQ of which it was captured. The Bn HQ would have been better LOB.’
7 These small ridges all run approximately in an east-west direction and rise steeply on the seaward (northern) side, but do not form a series of steps leading inland onto the plateau; the ground between them falls away almost to the same level. In RMT Jim Henderson describes them as ‘a group of about five small escarpments pointing like a bony hand to a besieged Tobruk.’
35 Sections of 2 Pl accompanied 23 Bn patrols from Capuzzo towards Bardia and Halfaya with their Vickers mounted in 15-cwt trucks. ‘Each time I tried to contact this Pn,’ says Capt Crafts (OC 1 Coy), ‘I was told they were away and not expected back for some time.’
38 German records say the 88-mm gun was knocked out by a direct hit by British artillery, in which case the machine-gunners might have contributed towards putting it out of action—if indeed it was the same gun. But there might have been two 88-mm guns, one east and the other northeast of Bir el Chleta.
39 The attack had begun before Maj Luxford knew anything about it.
48 Pte W. E. Heaps; born NZ 8 May 1917; clerk; died of wounds 30 Nov 1941.
68 Lt-Col A. R. Currie, DSO, OBE; Wellington; born Napier, 12 Nov 1910; military engineer; OC 8 Fd Coy Oct 1940–Jul 1942; comd and chief instructor Eighth Army School of Minefield Clearance 1942; CO NZE Trg Depot 1943; OC 7 Fd Coy Jul–Nov 1943; three times wounded; Director Fortifications and Works, Army HQ, 1946–49; Director RNZE 1949–51; Chief Engineer NZ Army 1951-.
72 Probably between 40 and 50.
74 The machine-gunners captured at Sidi Rezegh were taken to Benghazi and on 8 Dec sailed with a large draft of prisoners in the Jantzen, an Italian cargo ship. The following afternoon, while near the south-west coast of Greece, the ship was struck by a torpedo in one of the forward holds. Five hundred or more of the prisoners (including 44 New Zealanders) were killed by the explosion and the falling debris, or died while trying to get ashore. Sgt D. A. McClintock and Pte E. A. Brightwell, who were among the last to leave the hold, helped in rescuing the injured. The Italian captain and crew took themselves off in the lifeboats, but a German naval engineer brought the ship in stern first and beached her.
75 Later the whole Div Arty, probably 70–80 guns, fired for five minutes on Pt 175, which was very quiet for some time afterwards.