27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 7 — Sidi Azeiz and Gazala
Sidi Azeiz and Gazala
While 2 and 3 Companies endured with 4 and 6 Brigades the severity of the fighting south-east of Tobruk, where for a few days the New Zealanders carried the main burden of Eighth Army's offensive, the rest of the machine-gun battalion shared 5 Brigade's fortunes at the frontier.
The 22nd Battalion, which replaced the 20th at Menastir on 23 November, had 4 Company's twelve Vickers among its supporting weapons.1 One rifle company and some anti-tank guns were astride the Tobruk-Bardia road, and the remainder of the battalion group on the high ground to the south. Major White had placed two machine-gun platoons on the escarpment, 10 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Rose2 covering the road towards Bardia, and 11 Platoon (Lieutenant Frazer) covering it towards Tobruk, ‘both being able to engage targets almost from their gun muzzles to extreme range.’ The third platoon, 12 (Sergeant Merfield3 was in reserve ‘on wheels’ half a mile from the top of the escarpment.
White had visited Rose's platoon, and together with his driver (Private Tong) and the CSM (Sergeant-Major Booker), was setting out for the reserve platoon about seven o'clock next morning when a force estimated to be two companies of Germans suddenly attacked from the direction of Bardia. ‘Just about the time we left Mr. Rose,’ White writes, ‘there were an odd rifle shot or two but nobody took much notice. We walked on passing odd groups of men preparing breakfast, fires going merrily. Then we saw a long line of men emerge from some widely scattered derelict vehicles up on the escarpment towards Bardia—right in the sun and right on our flank. One of Lt Rose's sections, Sgt Butler's,4 started to fire…. It was Jerry all right. He opened up evidently firing light automatics while on the move and almost at once mortar fire commenced page 165 too. Things were a bit hectic and confused for a while but my mind was made up immediately—I wanted that Res Pl in action as soon as I could….’
While Tong dropped behind a mound to fire his rifle, the OC and the CSM made dashes to a group of infantry, the shelter of a truck, and a Bren carrier. ‘And then off again. There were bullets singing past galore, many of them tracer, and mortar shells seemed to be landing regularly … somewhere about where Lt Rose would be I calculated. I remember thinking “I'll never get through this” and having a sort of itch in my right shoulder and thinking “I'll catch it in the shoulder” over and over again…. And then I got it but it was in the right leg….’
Booker, who was running ten or fifteen yards ahead, went back to drag the wounded officer to the comparative safety of a truck. ‘I could hear my MGs firing away,’ White recalls, ‘so I told the Sgt Mjr to go to Coy HQ to make sure they were in shape to help in the defence.’ By this time 12 Platoon was helping to repel the attackers. ‘The Res Pl did a real good piece of work. They brought two guns into action where they were and two [under Staff-Sergeant Stanley, the CQMS] went round the Artillery who were further out in the desert with no Infantry at all. These two guns came into action from well on the flank of the enemy attack. It was sound MG tactics executed on the spur of the moment, carried out fearlessly and swiftly under fire…. The Artillery got into action very promptly too, firing over open sights….’
The skirmish was over in half an hour. The enemy was driven off after inflicting only five casualties. Booker, who had not hesitated in the face of fire, was awarded the MM.
At Sidi Azeiz 5 Brigade Headquarters group, which included Headquarters 27 (MG) Battalion, Headquarters Company and 1 Company less 2 and 3 Platoons, comprised almost as many vehicles as men and was not well equipped to withstand attack. Until a company arrived from 22 Battalion in the evening of 25 November, the only infantry was the Defence Platoon. Four 25-pounders arrived the same night. There were three 18- pounder and four two-pounder anti-tank guns, three Bofors ack-ack guns, and 1 Platoon's four Vickers. Divisional Cavalry, based on Sidi Azeiz, patrolled between Menastir and Capuzzo.
5 Brigade, 26–27 November 1941
The whole of 27 Battalion's reserve ammunition, 90,000 rounds, had been sent out to the companies. The Quarter- page 167 master (Lieutenant Williams6 left on the morning of the 25th with a column of vehicles to get ammunition from a field supply depot, but ‘found the Germans in possession of it,’ says Wright, ‘so he came back and that explains the shortage of ammo.’
In the half dark of early morning on 26 November a German convoy blundered into the laager. A Divisional Cavalry detachment and an 18-pounder opened fire and knocked out a staff car containing two doctors. Some trucks were captured, and fifty British troops whom the Germans had taken prisoner not long before were released. Later a huge enemy force was seen travelling from the west and south towards Bardia. Long columns of vehicles passed between Sidi Azeiz and Menastir, and between Sidi Azeiz and Capuzzo ‘pouring by like a flood, leaving my little garrison a lonely rock in the middle of a swollen river,’ Brigadier Hargest later wrote.7
This procession of vehicles, estimated to total 3000, continued throughout the day. They were discouraged from coming too close to Brigade Headquarters by the artillery—which was exasperatingly short of ammunition—and the other defending weapons.
‘It was a very busy day for us,’ says Corporal Millar, of 1 Platoon. ‘Occasionally one of the 25-pounders or the 18- pounders would open fire at the distant transport when they perhaps got a little closer, and perhaps I would fire too—we got no orders from higher up so we just used our discretion….
‘Late in the afternoon a hun car, looking as if it wished to commit suicide, drove right up to 700 yards of our guns, trailing a gun behind it…. we all opened fire almost simultaneously— the car stopped and the three occupants threw themselves to the ground where they were hidden by the low scrub a few inches high. The third shot from the 18 pounder which was a few yards from our guns was a direct hit on the car—great flames and columns of smoke everywhere…. the Jerries were all badly burned and two died later…. The car burned for half the night….’page 168
The movement of German transport ceased before nightfall, but there was still the danger that the enemy, having obtained what he wanted at Bardia, might return next day and overwhelm the little force at Sidi Azeiz. Brigadier Hargest, at a conference in the evening, discussed moving the Brigade Headquarters group to Menastir. ‘No definite arrangements were made,’ says the Staff Captain (Captain Mason8). ‘Simply discussed possibility of moving to join 22 Bn and they were of course warned of the possibility and everyone warned to be ready to move at short notice.’ But the Brigadier intended to stay.
Captain Hains, who now commanded 4 Company, had finished going around his gun positions at Menastir that evening when the CO 22 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew) told him that he had just had a telephone conversation with the Brigadier about the contemplated move. ‘I had to go round my coy again warning them that the Bde HQ were coming through on certain lines. They had to be careful not to shoot up the convoy. I had just returned and gone to bed when I was called out to a conference … Lt-Col Andrew said he had had another message from the Brig who would not be coming over as previously arranged. So on foot as usual went round my coy for a third time.’
The eight 25-pounders and 3 Platoon's four Vickers with the Maori Battalion at the Sollum barracks were too few and did not have sufficient ammunition to take full advantage of the magnificent view their commanding position gave of lower Sollum and across the bay to Halfaya pass. Sergeant Cato's men did not have enough long-range Mark VIIIZ ammunition, and the Mark VII could not reach the wadis below Halfaya where troops moving about and innumerable vehicles could be seen. Corporal Davidson's9 section, on the right flank, had an arc of fire towards Halfaya; Corporal Gardiner's,10 on the left, occupied an old fort overlooking Sollum village, where the machine-gunners could do some useful shooting, especially when the artillery shelled the buildings in which the enemy was holding out near the pier; they could also snipe at men moving between scattered houses and sheds.page 169
The large enemy guns at Halfaya and nearer the sea continued to shell upper Sollum, but fortunately many shells failed to explode. Early on 26 November the 25-pounders, mortars and Vickers ‘gave Sollum a pasting to let them know we were still in position.’ The enemy shelling reached its heaviest about 4 p.m. that day. In less than a quarter of an hour probably 200 shells were fired into 3 Platoon's area without doing any harm. The troops at upper Sollum did not know at the time that this bombardment was paving the way for an enemy advance through Musaid (half-way between Sollum and Capuzzo) towards Bardia.
Enemy activity was reported on all sides of 23 Battalion at Capuzzo, and late in the afternoon almost simultaneous attacks developed from two directions. The force coming from the direction of Halfaya was severely rebuffed at Fort Musaid by a small group of Maoris and men of 23 Battalion. A whole German battalion attacking from the north or north-east was held off by a single infantry platoon and a section of machine guns.
The foremost platoon of A Company 23 Battalion (8 Platoon), supported by Corporal Mack's11 section of 2 Platoon, a two-pounder anti-tank gun and two three-inch mortars, was three miles from Capuzzo on the road to Bardia. About 4 p.m. the enemy approached in several columns of vehicles led by a half-tracked troop-carrier. After firing at least a couple of shots, the two-pounder, still en portée, had to withdraw for cover, but it must have been chiefly responsible for halting the tracked vehicle. The other transport came on until the Vickers fire forced the enemy to debus, probably less than 1600 yards away. Both the Vickers and the mortars, whose first shot hit a truck, did damage among the enemy, who brought his own mortars and guns into action.
Shortly after dark, when enemy machine guns had reached positions about 20 yards to the rear of each flank, 8 Platoon was ordered to withdraw, but this order may not have arrived in time, or perhaps did not reach the forward rifle sections, which instead of pulling out counter-attacked with the bayonet page 170 and drove the Germans back before being overwhelmed.12 In this gallant action twenty-three men of 8 Platoon were killed or captured; only six, several of them wounded, escaped.
The two mortars were too hot to move and were left behind after vital parts had been removed. Corporal Brown's13 Vickers gun, assisted by fire from the other under Mack, was taken back to the transport, where it engaged the enemy to cover Mack's withdrawal. The No. 1 gunner (Private McGovern14) knocked out a spandau not more than 50 feet behind Mack's gun, which nevertheless was surrounded and could not be moved. Mack and Privates Harrisson,15 Baker16 and Hoggard17 remained with it and gave covering fire while the rest of the force withdrew to prepared positions at Fort Capuzzo. They kept their gun working until further resistance was impossible, and then rendered it useless by removing vital parts. ‘Until such time as we were completely cut off,’ says Mack, ‘I did not feel free to make any decisions regarding pulling out completely.’
The four men stayed near a disabled I tank until it was almost dark, when they hid under the tank. Twice German transport was brought up close and then retired. The men were not detected and sneaked away when the moon set. On the way back they encountered a German light armoured vehicle. ‘It was moving straight towards us…. we sighted it first & just had time to stop together facing inwards in a kneeling position…. our hope was to make a last-second evasive action when really close & out of the line of sight of the crew. At about twelve feet this became unnecessary when we were ourselves sighted & (mistaken for some battle debris) neatly semi-circum- navigated.’ They reached the fort before dawn.page 171
The other section of 2 Platoon, which had also assisted in beating off the enemy, mounted its guns on trucks, and accompanied by two Bren carriers, was guided forward by Mack to retrieve his gun, the two mortars and a large quantity of ammunition. The Vickers gun was reassembled, overhauled and put back into position covering the Bardia road.
Mack was awarded the MM. Undoubtedly his two guns, especially during the early stages of the attack, had done much to prevent the Germans from reaching the main defences of Capuzzo.
At Sidi Azeiz the Brigade Headquarters group spent an uncomfortable, bitterly cold night, with enemy flares rising and falling in almost every direction. No enemy could be seen when the troops stood to early on the morning of 27 November, but while the machine-gunners were preparing to have breakfast— which was left untouched—the rumble of tanks could be heard in the distance. ‘It sounded like the sea in a storm, or hundreds of aeroplanes flying overhead,’ wrote Private Friar.18 ‘Stood to guns and about half an hour later the Div Cav, which had been out to reconnoitre, came back and tooled off smartly. We did not know what was in store but expected an attack.’
Divisional Cavalry had reported to Brigadier Hargest that forty enemy tanks were approaching from the direction of Bardia, and had been ordered to get clear because its light tanks and carriers would be no match for the German heavy armour. The four 25-pounders, handful of anti-tank and ack-ack guns, four Vickers guns, and few platoons of infantry who remained were certainly no match for the force that now threatened them. Most of the defending weapons faced to the west. Captain Crafts ‘had a look around the Gun Posns and found all pits manned and ready, but realized that we were on the wrong side of the square to get much of a chance.’ The enemy came from the east.
Millar says ‘we could see nothing because the noise came from behind a ridge a short distance away. The sun was just rising from behind this ridge. The morning was suddenly made hideous by the scream of shells soaring through the air and the noise of their exploding. It took no time to realise that the huns were attacking us from behind the ridge…. we were in a nice way being unable to use my section's guns as the attack page 172 was to the rear and we could only fire through our own chaps and through our own transport which was parked all in a bunch in the centre. Also, there was no enemy to be seen. So I decided that there was only one thing to do for the time-being, and that was to protect ourselves as much as we could. I honestly cannot imagine how any bombardment could be heavier than that. They were using heavy artillery, great mortars and machine guns firing explosive bullets. For an hour and a half it was hell-on-earth….
‘The crews of the few artillery guns did really magnificent work keeping on firing with absolutely no protection for themselves, but I think all the guns or their crews stopped direct hits pretty soon…. A few yards from the hole we were in was the 18-pounder which they had managed to turn about and they were doing great work keeping it in action. Just the moment a large truck drove up to it with ammunition, there was a “whoof” as a shell landed direct on the back of it. The huns must have been watching it all the time. Of course it was a huge mass of flames immediately. One brave chap tried to extinguish it with a fire-extinguisher…. It was completely impossible to do anything with those roaring flames. And it was due to explode any moment so we could not very well stay where we were…’
Millar and another man took one of the machine guns to a hole where several men were sheltering and ‘were extremely unpopular bringing a gun like the Vickers amongst them.’ But the hole was too small, so they made a dash to a larger and deeper one. ‘We got the gun mounted with the muzzle just pointing over the edge…. but it would have been taking a needless risk to fire on the tanks for our bullets would have just bounced off. We waited for their infantry which never came….
‘Finally the tanks began to move round either side of us and also right through the centre of the Brigade. It was pretty evident that the day was almost lost, so we hugged the ground in the hope that the Jerries would be in a hurry to leave the locality and might miss us altogether….’ A tank stopped alongside and Millar and his companions were taken prisoner.
‘We,’ wrote Friar, ‘were herded together like sheep by the Hun infantry who had not been used at all but had come in riding on the back of armoured cars; disarmed, put in lines, searched, and told to wait. What else could we do with machine-guns trained on us?page 173
‘By this time the tanks had moved on and the recce plane had gone from the aerodrome after the pilot had flown low over us and (presumably) taken photos. The ground staff was captured.
‘Quite a number of the Jerries that we saw were wearing the Iron Cross. They did not treat us unreasonably…. General Rommel was with the tanks. I saw him myself talking to Brig. Hargest….’
Lance-Corporal Norman19 noticed that some of the Germans were very young. ‘I doubt if they had ever shaved—they looked to me to be about 17 years old.’ Private Budd20 saw that ‘scrappy looking, unshaven Jerries’ were keen to get gloves (sometimes issued to the No. 1 of gun teams and usually to drivers), and ‘too short and too long’ underpants, which they eagerly donned; they were also ravenously hungry, and ‘wolfed down contents of tins of bacon, paper and all, off our captured Q. Master's trucks.’
It seemed to Millar that the Germans had spared as many of the light trucks as they could; 1 Platoon's six trucks were all unharmed except for a few shrapnel holes. But most of the three-tonners were in flames, and ‘enormous columns of black smoke poured from everywhere…. Unless you had actually seen it you would hardly credit that some of these trucks could be so mangled by direct hits….’
In this brief, violent action probably 40-odd New Zealanders had been killed and fifty wounded, most of them artillerymen; no machine-gunners had been killed, but several had been wounded, among them Lieutenant Williams and Regimental Quartermaster-Sergeant Featherstone21 and the LAD officer (Second-Lieutenant Stubbs22). Among the forty officers and 650 other ranks captured were the whole of Battalion Headquarters, Headquarters Company, and all except two platoons of 1 Company.
Within an hour of conquering Sidi Azeiz the German armour was well on its way westwards—towards Sidi Rezegh—leaving the prisoners in the hands of a small detachment of motor page 174 cyclists and infantry. The captives were formed up into a long column, and starting at 1 p.m., marched 16 or 17 miles to Bardia.
‘The march proved to be a hard one,’ wrote Friar. ‘Chaps with heavy packs and blankets did it hard, as we had no water, and many of the Brigade HQ were not used to much marching. Quite a lot of gear was soon being dumped by the roadside at the stops….
‘Almost at dusk we passed through the wire of Bardia's perimeter defence, and a couple of miles inside were told to bed down for the night on the open desert. The chaps asked for water, and a German officer … told us we should have it, but that we must go another 3 kilos. After about an hour we moved on, in the light of the moon, and with grey clouds scudding across the sky. At each halt the chaps practically fell to the ground, where they lay until the Hun guards yelled, “Auf! Aus!”—whatever that may be; “Up! On!” I expect. Then they staggered on…. The temptation to just sit down by the roadside and let the guards do their worst was almost overpowering at times….
‘About 9 p.m. we reached a walled area apparently built on or around an old rubbish dump. There we were herded inside, finding that the water which had been there had all been used and spilt long since….’ A German guard gave Friar and several others ‘a mouthful of cold coffee … and it was like nectar of the Gods.’
Rommel had been present at the capture of Sidi Azeiz. Later in the day he watched an attack which he intended should clear the New Zealanders from Capuzzo and Sollum and drive them back towards Halfaya Pass. This operation, in which he took such a personal interest, ended in utter failure.
At Capuzzo 23 Battalion came under heavy shellfire about midday. A hostile force, estimated to be a battalion with light tanks, armoured troop-carriers and anti-tank guns, advanced from the south-west two or three hours later. The 25-pounders and anti-tank guns scored hits on vehicles, setting some of them on fire, which forced the enemy to debus; but he still came on. The infantry and 2 Platoon were soon very busy. Second-Lieutenant Pleasants says his Vickers ‘managed to get in quite a lot of good shooting, and considerable damage was done.’
The attackers showed determination and closed in on one of the weakest points of 23 Battalion's perimeter, where men page 175 of Battalion Headquarters and Headquarters Company, acting as a rifle company, were greatly hampered by the many vehicles in the area. The Germans found cover among the lorries and took prisoner some sixty drivers and B Echelon men, whose presence was a handicap to the defence. Spontaneous bayonet charges by several small parties, however, regained some ground.
A Vickers gun (under Corporal Watson23) on the flank where the attack came was in danger of being overrun by a tank. ‘The tank was destroyed within 10 yds of the gun pit by an A T Gun,’ says Pleasants. ‘Cpl Watson's brother was in the crew of the A T Gun which did the deed.’ Three machine-gunners ‘found it necessary’ to join in a bayonet charge, in which Lance-Corporal Dougal24 was killed and Private B. B. Carter seriously wounded. This action enabled the threatened Vickers gun team to get away.
Realising the urgency of delivering a message for the withdrawal, Private B. H. Carter,25 brother of the wounded man, rode his motor cycle across the disputed ground. It would have been much safer on foot.
All four guns of 2 Platoon were brought back behind A Company 23 Battalion, which formed up and went forward in a bayonet charge. Only sufficient gunners to keep the weapons working were left behind to give supporting overhead fire; the remainder joined the yelling, charging infantry, who put the Germans to flight. A section taken forward to assist in holding the regained positions found that the counter-attack had been pressed beyond any real need of machine-gun assistance.
As darkness fell 23 Battalion reorganised its position to rectify the weakness the German attack had revealed. Two Vickers were left to cover the Bardia road, and the other two taken to the southern side of the fort; they were dug in during the night.
The total New Zealand casualties in this engagement (including the two in 2 Platoon) were about fifty killed and wounded, but German losses were at least three times that number. The Germans released the captive drivers.page 176
The destruction and capture of Brigade Headquarters was seen from Menastir, about six miles away. ‘At first we could see the spirited defence of the doomed group and thought they had managed to see Jerry off,’ says Frazer; ‘then one by one their vehicles were brewed up and finally we could see the enemy tanks moving in and out among them. Wireless communication ceased.’
In the afternoon of the 27th the enemy attacked 22 Battalion from the direction of Bardia with artillery, mortars, machine guns and small arms, but was driven off by four 25-pounders and 4 Company's Vickers. A runner from 12 Platoon reported to Frazer that enemy infantry was moving up on that platoon behind a heavy mortar barrage and was threatening its right section; Sergeant Merfield sought permission to withdraw the guns of this section to a position where they would have infantry protection. Leaving Sergeant Petrie26 in charge of 11 Platoon (whose guns, facing north and west, could not take part), Frazer, with Sergeant Knox,27 ‘went to have a look … we walked 400–500 yards through a thickening concentration of enemy mortar and machine-gun fire. First we came to the gun trucks of 12 Platoon, one of them ablaze and one with its tyres torn flat. Then we found the Right Section and thankfully dropped into a gun-pit each, with the gunners.
‘Around us was a grey-black forest of exploding mortar bombs; the smoke and dust made observation difficult. Jerry infantry could be seen moving towards us in a shallow wadi from which he was unable or unwilling to get any further. 12 Platoon guns stayed where they were and had some good shooting, just over the near edge of the wadi, where we reckoned Jerry would be concentrating to come over at us, and a good target on the far side of the wadi; ranges from 300 to 1000 yards. The enemy was obliged to break off the action at dusk. That night 12 Platoon was moved back to a less exposed position, with infantry protection.’
Next day a party from 22 Battalion went to Sidi Azeiz to look for survivors and to salvage any equipment that had not been destroyed. They were greeted by 27 (MG) Battalion's MO (Captain Adams28) and padre (Michael Underhill29), who had page 177 attached themselves to a New Zealand field ambulance company to help tend the wounded. ‘We were overjoyed to see them,’ says Frazer, ‘and for the rest of the campaign Captain Adams lived and travelled, a welcome guest, on my pick-up. In the burnt-out wreckage of Sidi Azeiz we located the positions of 1 Platoon's guns and salvaged from them and two of our burnt-out armoured cars a considerable number of parts, although the guns themselves were smashed and useless.’
The troops at Menastir were isolated. Repeated attempts to open communications with other units failed. Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew called a conference of company commanders and the officers commanding the supporting weapons to consider the situation. ‘We were out of touch with everybody, had little water, little ammo and no rations since Bde HQ had gone in the bag,’ says Captain Hains. ‘Choice: (1) stay (2) join the other Bns and re-form.’ During the night of 28–29 November, therefore, 22 Battalion left Menastir to make contact with 4 Indian Division in the Sidi Omar area, and next day took up a position at Musaid.
After a reconnaissance Colonel Andrew, now acting commander of 5 Brigade, put 4 Company into Fort Musaid (with a front of 360 degrees) and gave Hains orders to tie up on fixed lines with 3 Platoon at Sollum and 2 Platoon at Capuzzo. This was done, and the company stayed at Musaid, ‘subjected to regular sessions of shelling from Halfaya.’ Some of these shells were duds.
Major Greville,30 acting CO 22 Battalion, decided to deny the enemy use of a water hole between Musaid and Halfaya which was also being used by the New Zealanders. He despatched a rifle company, supported by 11 Platoon, to lie in wait. They opened fire when the enemy arrived, but to their surprise mortars retaliated. ‘The infantry were saved from a sticky position by the drivers of the MG trucks who went in and picked them up,’ says Hains. ‘Result: Nobody could use the water hole.’
‘All our mob, NZ, South Africans and Indians are fighting private battles all over Libya,’ Private Bell (of 3 Platoon, at Upper Sollum) wrote in his diary on 27 November. ‘We are cut off, the Germans are cut off, everything is ruddy well cut off…. I wish Wavell was running this show.’page 178
Rommel's armoured columns did not attack the troops at Upper Sollum, although several hundred vehicles supported by tanks passed less than two miles away. ‘We were heavily shelled from Halfaya during enemy's move across our front,’ reported Sergeant Cato. One Vickers gun under Corporal Millar31 had moved out to Beacon Point; Corporal Gardiner had taken another to strengthen the right flank, where Corporal Davidson had his section; a captured Vickers, reconditioned by Private Dunphy,32 had also been put into position. ‘Those in [lower] Sollum must be fairly sick of things by this time as they cannot make the slightest move without Cpl. Millar or Cpl. Gardiner giving them something to try and dodge.’
Nevertheless, when Davidson's section, together with the artillery and mortars, supported a raid by a platoon of Maoris on the pier and some sheds in Sollum, the ‘Attack was not successful. Enemy in Sollum fired two red flares which was apparently the signal for all the arty in area to open up and they effectively kept us quiet for some time.’
A launch was seen entering the bay early on the morning of the 29th. When it was well within range a burst of machine-gun fire seemed to put it out of control. A few minutes later it attempted to continue on its course, but a long burst of fire made it turn and head out to sea. Later, when the periscope of a submarine was seen a few hundred yards offshore, a couple of machine guns and a mortar opened fire on it, and it soon disappeared in the direction of Bardia.
The machine-gunners at Sollum did not know until three days afterwards that their battalion and company headquarters had been captured. ‘Have not had any messages from brigade nor do my messages seem to be getting through,’ reported Cato on the 29th; but next day he ‘heard from German radio that Bde HQ has been captured.’ The platoon supplemented its rations with ‘scme excellent enemy tinned vegetables and French pork,’ but had to put up with very salty water.
Patrols sent out from Capuzzo—usually a section of carriers, a section of Vickers and some anti-tank guns—roamed well afield and seldom failed to capture vehicles and prisoners; they also helped to keep 2 Platoon supplied with rations at a time when none were drawn from 23 Battalion. ‘Rations and water generally were scarce … for a while after Rommel had cap- page 179 tured Brigade HQ no stores could be drawn,’ says Pleasants. One foraging party found a German water cart which had been abandoned by the enemy after the engagement on the 27th. ‘This was a most welcome gift as, when the pipe-line was cut by the Infantry at Capuzzo, the Germans had soon woken up to the fact and cut off the supplies of fresh water.’
Rommel's armoured forces had returned to the Tobruk sector. Shortly the remnants of 4 and 6 Brigades, driven off Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, were to retire from the battlefield. But 5 Brigade Group, including 4 Company and the two platoons of 1 Company, was to stay. On 1 December this brigade was relieved by 5 Indian Brigade in the Sollum-Capuzzo area and moved to Menastir, to resume the role of cutting off Bardia from the west.
While 11 and 12 Platoons returned with 22 Battalion to its former position on the escarpment south of the Tobruk-Bardia road, 10 Platoon joined Divisional Cavalry, which was to patrol westwards; 2 Platoon, with 23 Battalion, went into position across the road roughly north of the 22nd, and 3 Platoon, with the Maoris, across the road a mile or two farther west.
‘The machine gunners [2 Platoon] with the carriers of the 23rd and an anti-tank troop … had moved forward in advance of the Infantry,’ says Pleasants. ‘They had overrun their original objective but had halted on the top of a ridge as darkness fell. Whilst “milling around” wondering whether to go back and join the infantry a member of the carrier platoon came back with a Leica Camera which he claimed to have found in the wadi just below…. there was a general mad rush into the gully and the only troops who remained by the guns were a member of the anti-tank troop who had dislocated his shoulder … and two machine gunners who were, at that stage of the proceedings, fairly ill and desired only peace and rest. The wadi yielded some good loot—our boys getting into what had once been a German Post Office…. Whilst this “raid” was proceeding, two enemy trucks and seven Germans drove in through the assembled carriers, anti-tank and machine guns and they were captured by the resourcefulness of the three sick men who had been left behind … these men claim that they thought it was our own transport … had they known that it was the Germans, they say nothing in the world would have prevented them joining their comrades in the wadi beyond.’page 180
The platoon subsequently dug in with its guns covering the ground towards Bardia. The carriers and machine guns patrolled towards Bardia and along the coast. Patrols were pushed right up to the wire of the Bardia perimeter, and on one occasion 2 Platoon captured seven Italians who claimed they had been walking eastwards for three days in an attempt to reach the fortress.
‘The Huns did not always know that we were covering the road to and from Bardia,’ says Hains. ‘Every day there was the odd fellow who thought the road was clear. We got 2 Staff Cars, 2 Motor Cyclists…. Just a picnic—an open season.’
A patrol made up of a squadron of Divisional Cavalry (10 Platoon attached) and a company of Maoris (a section of 3 Platoon attached), reconnoitring some miles to the west, gave ample warning on 3 December of a large enemy column coming along the road from the direction of Tobruk. Fifth Brigade held its fire as long as possible. From a vantage point on the escarpment Hains saw the long line of closely packed vehicles come on until, about midday, the head of the column was a very short distance from the Maori Battalion. The enemy stopped. ‘They must have sensed that something was wrong. Then the anti tank guns opened up and the first ten or so vehicles burst into flame and smoke. It looked as if each gun crew had been given its particular target—only about 200 yards away! The Huns were out of the vehicles back along the column and out into the open…. The crack of the anti tank guns acted like a signal. The 25 pdrs opened up and I ordered my MMGs to fire … 28 Bn across the track at right angles to the road added to the fire and the MG pl with them was mowing down the Huns who were bolting from the trucks…’ At this stage only one section of 3 Platoon was with the Maoris, but soon the other, returning from the patrol, took its guns into position under fire.
Hains saw a Very light signal go up farther back along the column, and five minutes later German guns opened fire from a position farther back still. The enemy could not easily locate the troops astride the road, but could see the vehicles on the escarpment and at the foot of it. ‘And the shells came at us,’ says Hains. The machine-gunners could observe almost every move the Germans made, and had the range to reach them. ‘It was a target from an MMG textbook—an MMG paradise. The escarpment was about 100 ft high and with my telephone I was able to direct the fire very nicely. The Arty would be doing page 181 the same.’ About 5 p.m. the Maoris, under smoke and covered by fire from 3 Platoon, routed the enemy with a bayonet charge. The Vickers had excellent targets at 2000 yards when the Germans bunched and ran.
Estimates of enemy casualties vary, but according to 3 Platoon's report six officers and 146 men, all Germans, were taken prisoner, and 259 dead ‘were in front of our lines.’33 The rough handling this column received apparently discouraged the enemy from making any further efforts to link up with his garrison at Bardia. Fifth Brigade had less than a dozen casualties. Corporal G. McC. Millar, of 3 Platoon, had been killed.
Fifth Brigade returned to the Sollum-Musaid-Capuzzo line on 4 December to relieve 5 Indian Brigade, which was needed in the Tobruk sector. With the exception of 10 Platoon, which remained with Divisional Cavalry, the machine-gunners returned to their previous positions. During this move the New Zealanders were shelled by the Indian artillery, which apparently had not been warned who they were. Several vehicles were hit, and ‘accelerators were soon hard on the floor boards.’
Apart from exchanges of shellfire the next few days were quiet. On the 8th preparations were made for an attack on lower Sollum, with supporting fire from the artillery, mortars and machine guns. ‘Everything was ready … when the order came to pack up,’ says Cato. Early next morning the Maori Battalion and its supporting arms left Sollum to join the remainder of the brigade at Sidi Azeiz. Fifth Brigade, now commanded by Brigadier Wilder,34 was to be ready to take part in operations west of Tobruk.
By this time the battle was going well for Eighth Army: Sidi Rezegh had been captured (once again), El Adem had been taken, the siege of Tobruk had been raised, and the Axis Army was withdrawing towards Gazala.
The advance to Gazala, 11–16 December 1941
With orders to gain touch with the enemy and reconnoitre the Gazala defences, the brigade left Sidi Bu Amud in the early hours of the 11th, made slow progress along the bypass road— which was reported to be mined on both sides—through El Adem to Acroma (where the 22nd stayed in reserve) and continued the westward advance with 23 Battalion on the Tobruk-Derna road and 28 Battalion on a track from Acroma.
On the main road 23 Battalion came under shellfire, but captured the ridge Mengar el Hosci, repulsed a counter-attack, and collected 250 Italian prisoners. The machine-gunners (2 Platoon) did not get an opportunity to do any shooting.
The men of 3 Platoon were cooking a late breakfast (at 10 a.m.) when a despatch rider arrived with the ‘usual Maori Bn order “Get ready to fight”. On trucks and the Bn drove off at what was terrific speed for a convoy in desert formation,’ says Cato. About an hour later they came under artillery, anti-tank and mortar fire, but ‘did not even waver’ the trucks reached the foot of Point 209, wheeled half-left, and took cover in a wadi below the feature. They were within 100 yards of an artillery battery and at least twenty anti-tank guns. The Maoris debussed immediately, and advancing with fixed bayonets, took 200 prisoners on the spot.
The machine guns went into action on a ridge to the right, ‘a full platoon shoot completely dominating the situation. Our right section put the second battery of arty out of action. At this stage we were heavily dive-bombed by … Stukas.’ Supported by artillery and the machine guns—3 Platoon fired 13,500 rounds—a platoon of Maoris went forward and captured an astonishingly large number of Italians. At dusk the enemy fell back towards Gazala, abandoning a large quantity of equipment, including many anti-tank guns, French 75-millimetre guns, and machine guns. The 1123 prisoners included thirty-six officers. The Maoris had sixteen casualties.
Next day 5 Brigade, continuing the advance on a three-battalion front, met shellfire but no infantry opposition. By evening 23 Battalion, still astride the main road, held command of the Gazala landing grounds and the coastal country to within three or four miles of the small bay at Gazala; 28 Battalion, on the escarpment running east and west a few miles inland, was a mile or two beyond Sidi Mgherreb; 22 Battalion, brought page 184 forward from Acroma to the vicinity of Bu Allusc, on the left flank, was about ten miles south of Gazala.
Little real progress was made on 13 December. The 23rd was shelled in the positions it had reached the previous day; the Maoris, advancing towards a strongpoint (Point 181), were halted by shellfire after going a couple of miles; the 22nd also came up against strong shellfire, but one of its companies, supported by twelve I tanks, artillery and 10 Platoon, overran a strongpoint (Point 194) and took a hundred prisoners and som guns without loss.
About 3 a.m. on the 14th the Maoris, going forward again under the cover of an artillery barrage, met anti-tank, mortar and machine-gun fire, and closed in with fixed bayonets and hand grenades. Little more than an hour later 3 Platoon helped consolidate. Three rifle companies occupied positions in the vicinity of Point 181; the fourth (B Company), going farther forward, was cut off by fierce machine-gun fire, but beat off two counter-attacks with the assistance of Gardiner's section which had gone into position under fire. B Company's commander (Captain Royal35), who was wounded, later sent a message from the advanced dressing station to thank the machine-gunners, whom he said saved his company when it was ‘in a very sticky position.’
At the cost of thirty casualties the Maori Battalion captured 380 prisoners and many weapons of various kinds. The Italians had dug themselves in well, with their 75-millimetre anti-tank guns and machine guns as close to ground level as possible and camouflaged with wire netting, scrim and natural vegetation.
The New Zealanders were now up against the Gazala Box, which was believed to be occupied by three Italian divisions. High ground farther south, at Alem Hamza, was held by Germans whom the Indian Division, on 5 Brigade's left, so far had been unable to dislodge, and still farther south attempts by 7 Armoured Division to get around the enemy's inland flank had been frustrated by a screen of mobile anti-tank guns.
Thirteenth Corps, which was conducting the fighting west of Tobruk, was to strike a ‘hard blow’, with the armour directed on a wide encircling movement around the southern flank to cut off the enemy's retreat, while the Indian Division, with tank support, attacked Alem Hamza, and 5 Brigade, reinforced by a Polish brigade, cleared the Gazala Box.page 185
The Poles arrived in the afternoon of the 14th and were wedged in between 22 and 28 Battalions. Plans were formulated for an attack the following afternoon by two Polish battalions and the Maoris, supported by all possible fire from 22 Battalion on the Poles' left flank and by a demonstration by 23 Battalion on the Maoris' right. The Maoris were given three objectives north-east of Carmuset er-Regem, each to be taken by a company, and were to be supported by artillery, mortars and two machine-gun platoons.
Expecting the attack to start at zero hour (3 p.m.) 22 Battalion put down a heavy artillery barrage, but the Poles did not get away until half an hour later, by which time the enemy had been alerted. The Poles nevertheless attacked with great spirit and reached Carmuset er-Regem, and in support 10 Platoon ‘despite heavy shelling … did great work.’
The Maoris got away on time. D Company, clearing pockets of resistance as it went, advanced along the top of the escarpment and made contact with the Poles at Carmuset er-Regem on the left. Gardiner's section (3 Platoon) almost completely exhausted its ammunition while giving covering fire, but received replenishment by Bren carrier. D Company was then relieved by the Poles and withdrew to Point 181, Gardiner's section going back with it.
Davidson's section (3 Platoon) and Sergeant Homer'36 section (11 Platoon) supported A Company, which advanced swiftly over flat ground to Point 154. The four Vickers did excellent work keeping the Italians down until the Maoris were within seventy yards of them; about a company was captured. Sergeant Cross's37 section (11 Platoon) also kept the Italian infantry down while C Company advanced towards Point 152, but mortar and machine-gun fire caused casualties among the Maoris, who were brought to a halt after taking the first line of trenches. Part of B Company (in reserve) was sent to assist C Company, and together they mopped up the whole position.
‘During the covering shoot,’ says Cato, ‘the six guns [those supporting A, B, and C Companies] together were on a hundred yard front and … had the majority of the terrific enemy arty barrages. The men were great, keeping their guns going page 186 throughout the whole show.’ An attempt was made to get a section forward to C Company in two Bren carriers, but they were driven back and one carrier had a track blown off. The men and equipment returned undamaged. Later four guns were taken forward in three carriers and two trucks. Cross took his section to help A Company consolidate at Point 154. Major Dyer,38 CO 28 Battalion, reports that ‘Sgt Cross of the machine gunners here behaved heroically, maintaining the defence and succouring the wounded during the day’39
By nightfall, therefore, the Maori Battalion was on all three objectives and had taken a hundred prisoners, but had suffered about fifty casualties. In the south, in the Alem Hamza area, the Indian Division had repulsed a counter-attack by forty tanks strongly supported by artillery and infantry, and there had been severe casualties on both sides. Meanwhile, on the southern front, the British armour had been making slow progress in difficult country for tanks.
A counter-attack against 5 Brigade seemed imminent early in the morning of the 16th. Brigade Headquarters warned 22 and 28 Battalions that ‘Arty report 800 enemy forming up Bir Chesceua….’ But this concentration was broken up by intense artillery and machine-gun fire. The four Vickers with B and C Companies 28 Battalion took a heavy toll; an artillery officer observing close to the Italian lines in a tank afterwards told Cato that the enemy was ‘mown down … it was one of the best sights of the war.’
Two platoons of Maoris, with some assistance from 22 Battalion, launched an attack on Point 137 (north of Point 154), but were halted about three-quarters of a mile from Point 154 by withering anti-tank, mortar and machine-gun fire. Sixteen men were killed and 30-odd wounded. The survivors dug in and held on to the ground they had won. ‘We spent all we could of our ammo trying to cover them and they may have been wiped out had not the arty stepped in,’ says Cato. ‘Obtained ammo in bren carrier and were firing most of the day.’
Major Dyer asked Cato if it would be possible to get two page 187 guns to B Company's left flank at night ‘as the position was none too healthy. After a rather hair-raising recce in the dark [Cato] was just about to move off with the guns when the order came to stay where we were and make our positions as strong as possible. It had been decided to form a strong pocket [near Point 152] with B and C Companies because the limited number of men left was not thought to be enough to hold the extended line.’ The remainder of the battalion withdrew, and Cross's section was recalled.
Elsewhere there were signs that the enemy was in retreat from the Gazala line. A section of 12 Platoon (which was in reserve) had been despatched in the morning to 22 Battalion and had dug in close to one of 10 Platoon's positions, but the guns there had ‘no particular action.’ In the afternoon the Poles advised 22 Battalion that they had cleared the Carmuset er-Regem area; they attacked Bir en-Naghia after dark and captured a concreted position with numerous prisoners.
The enemy evacuated the whole of Gazala during the night of 16–17 December. ‘Dawn came with everybody expecting a large scale attack on our small pocket,’ wrote Cato. ‘We were amazed to discover that the enemy had retreated … the last of an R.A.P. post pulling out while we watched at first light. The heavy casualties inflicted on the preceding day by arty and M.M.G. must have been at least one of the factors which made the enemy decide to withdraw. Gazala Ridge, one of the enemy's strongest points, was thus invested by us without another shot being fired.’
C Company 28 Battalion was ordered to go forward in the morning to secure the crossroads on the Gazala-Derna road (north of Point 152) but would not have been able to get there by the time stipulated, so some machine-gunners were sent instead. Cato set off with a section in a captured enemy truck driven by a Maori. ‘Arrived at position which was three miles from our starting point only to meet a Polish recce party (one of whom spoke English, luckily) who informed us that the enemy had left hurriedly some time before. Sent a message back to Bn; and after an hour was given the order to withdraw and join Bn. On return journey discovered that we had, in our outward journey, passed through an extensive minefield on one of the two tracks.’
Bren carriers from 23 Battalion, accompanied by 2 Platoon and some anti-tank guns, advanced rapidly along the main road and rounded up many prisoners. ‘It was just a hunt,’ says page 188 Pleasants. ‘Advanced 13 miles and trail of retreating Italians. … Pte Walker40 and Pte Carter distinguished themselves by capturing over 100 prisoners whilst investigating a promising looking wadi…. Pl Sgt [Crispin's41] truck lost for 2 hours in dump of enemy stores…. Besides the usual assortment of army necessities, this dump contained large quantities of food, including sweets, and opportunity was taken to replenish our supplies….’
And that ended 5 Brigade's part in the reconquest of Cyrenaica. The enemy went back to El Agheila, followed by all the troops Eighth Army could keep in motion and supply over such long distances. On 18 December 5 Brigade, having assembled in the vicinity of Bir el-Geff, about ten miles south of Gazala, handed over its transport to the Guards Brigade, and received with disappointment the news that it was not to see the campaign to its end. Other transport arrived and five days later the New Zealand brigade left on the return journey to Baggush. Captain Hains obtained Brigadier Wilder's permission for 4 Company and the two platoons of 1 Company, which still had their own vehicles, to return independently. On the way they were joined at El Adem by the CO (Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam) and Captain Robbie, and the latter took command of the two platoons of 1 Company.
The Axis Army still held out at the Egyptian frontier. Bardia was not captured until 2 January 1942, Sollum three days later, and Halfaya, the last stronghold to fall, not until the 17th; these fortresses yielded over 13,000 German and Italian prisoners, and at Bardia more than 1100 British troops, about 700 of them New Zealanders, were released from captivity. Among them were most of the machine-gunners who had been captured with Headquarters 5 Brigade at Sidi Azeiz.
When these men arrived at Bardia on 27 November they were herded into a small, walled compound, but during the next day or two were moved to a slightly larger enclosure, where they spent the remainder of their captivity. The officers42 were separated from the men and put in a stone-floored, iron-roofed building, where they stayed until taken to Italy by submarine.page 189
‘The new compound,’ wrote Private Friar, ‘was about 60 yards by 80 yards … with a 5–6 ft. stone wall enclosing it…. The sea was quite close, but lay at the bottom of a steep cliff, and a very keen breeze continually swept the compound, veering from point to point because of the deep gullies about, so that it was difficult to get any protection from it. There was absolutely no shelter for the men.
‘Sanitary arrangements were of the poorest. A trench, too wide to be comfortable, served as a latrine, and users had to crouch on the edge and cling to the rougher parts of the wall —a very precarious proceeding….’ After a couple of days the trench was full. ‘The chaps emptied straw into it, burned the straw, filled the trench, and got a number of half-drums with a pole along—these to be emptied daily—a much better system.’
The prisoners were given coffee—‘without milk or sugar, and really only coloured hot water’—in the morning, a very small quantity of unsweetened, boiled macaroni and bread at lunch time, and coffee again at night. Soon they were very hungry and ‘would willingly have given almost any money for food.’ But they were confident that they would be released. Friar's diary continues:
‘1 Dec…. Men starting to feel the cold as lack of food begins to tell. Paving of the terraces torn up as the men try to make holes to protect them from the wind at night. The few who have ground-sheets make tents or covers for the holes…. Italian officer very irate about his terraces … made the chaps fill in the holes they had dug, but they will only dig them out again later.
‘2 Dec…. Only one blanket per man allowed. Those with more to hand the surplus into a pool so that everyone has a blanket….
‘3 Dec…. Shower of rain during the day but not for long. Put on our greatcoats and put blankets up under them to keep them dry….
‘4 Dec. Shower of rain during the night. Folded our blankets and sat on them to keep them dry, then back to bed when the rain stopped.
‘5 Dec…. Shiver through every night. Getting sore hips through sleeping on the rocks.
‘6 Dec. Everyone getting very weak. Almost fainted when I got up. Giddy whenever I move suddenly….’
RAF bombing of the harbour and other targets raised the page 190 prisoners' hopes of an early release, but towards the end of the second week of December this activity died down. On the morning of the 15th a hospital ship, the Aquelia, entered the harbour. ‘We were told that we would be taken off by her, and packed our few belongings,’ Friar wrote. ‘Later told that RAP patients, Hun and British wounded, and 300 fit men would be taken. Names balloted and called out. Suspense of waiting. Not chosen….’
Corporal I. G. Millar's name was amongst those read out. ‘Very soon,’ he says, ‘they had us marching down the steep road to the harbour…. Down at the wharf we had to wait and while we stood there the fat German captain came up and began questioning the chaps, asking how many were sick. Of course he got the answer that we were all perfectly well… Nothing happened and then to our great joy the head of the column started wheeling about. The captain had refused to take the risk of breaking international law by taking us in a hospital ship…. It is a fact that while a lot of our chaps had found it difficult to walk downhill to the port as they were weak, going back we almost ran up that long steep hill, so great was our joy….’ But not all of them returned. Several machine-gunners were among those taken aboard the Aquelia, which left for Italy that night.
On Christmas Day the slogan ‘out for Christmas’ became ‘out for New Year’; but most of the men were still confident, if impatient. By this time biscuits had replaced the bread ration.
Between seventy and eighty aircraft passed over Bardia on 29 December, and 115 next day. ‘Early morning [artillery] barrage very heavy,’ says Friar's diary on the 31st. ‘Began at 4 a.m. and continued unbroken until after 7 a.m. Rolled and crashed and flashed and fluttered and crumped and banged. Great doings, making the heart leap up. Machine-gun and mortar fire to add to our joy. It seems as though the big event is really under way at last…. Air Force very busy. Bombs landing along the escarpment without much resistance from the Hun Ack-Ack, even from the big AA guns.
‘In the afternoon tanks followed by infantry and preceded by retiring Jerries came over the ridge, but Bardia Bill got among them and they retired out of sight again. Boys very pleased and saying “Out tomorrow”….
‘1 Jan 42. Quiet day. Very strange. Cannot understand why the activity died away when we thought things looked so well yesterday….page 191
‘2 Jan. Shellfire all night kept us awake. Shells whining over our compound and bursting very close to the compound walls. Spent and live shrapnel coming straight amongst us, but nobody hurt. Very fortunate. One piece landed on the roof of our dug-out.
‘At 2 a.m. fires began to burn all about us. Could see Huns with torches going from place to place lighting anything useful. Boys very cheerful—certain that the Jerries are about to throw it in.
‘About 6 o'clock news that Bardia had surrendered, but warned not to leave the compound until our troops had completed the job. It would be hard luck to stop one now. About 7.30 the guns ceased firing close to us, though there were other parts where shells were still landing. Guards on the gate had their rifles slung, but bolts open and nothing in the magazine. They can't feel too happy about things.
‘About 8 o'clock the first Bren carriers and armoured cars came along the road. South Africans and our own Div. Cav. …’
The South Africans wanted to give the released prisoners ‘everything they had in the way of food … even their own Xmas cakes and parcels and cigarettes,’ says Millar. Next day they ‘took us in trucks away from Bardia for good. That night they brought us to … Sidi Omar where they had a large dump. They could hardly do enough for us here and what a feed we had.’ The New Zealanders were taken in RASC transport to the railhead near Bir el Thalata, and then by train right back to ‘dear old Maadi’.
In the crusader campaign Eighth Army won its first victory (13,000 Germans and 20,000 Italians killed, wounded or captured), but at no small cost. The New Zealand Division, with 1079 dead, 1699 wounded and 2042 captured, suffered over a quarter of the total (17,704) British casualties. The 27th (MG) Battalion, sections of which had taken part in almost every engagement, lost two officers and twenty-one other ranks killed or died of wounds, two officers and forty-five other ranks wounded, and ten officers (mostly from Battalion Headquarters) and twenty-seven other ranks captured, a total of 107.
7 Farewell Campo 12, p. 16. This enemy force was 15 Pz Div, which was making for Bardia to replenish petrol and other supplies. Meanwhile 21 Pz Div had crossed the frontier into Egypt, and after 5 Pz Regt's disastrous encounters near Sidi Omar, remnants were approaching Bardia from Halfaya.
12 The Germans were I Bn 115 Inf Regt (reinforced before dark by II Bn) of 15 Pz Div. The divisional war diary says: ‘… bitter close-range fighting with bayonets and hand grenades took place. In one place the enemy [8 Pl] made a penetration but was stopped by 2 light infantry guns. …’ The Germans reported that only three or four MG nests barred them from entering Fort Capuzzo and asked for ‘a few tanks to be brought up to engage the MGs’. But the attackers had not reached the main defences of Capuzzo when they were ordered to break off the engagement.
33 The enemy column was Geissler Advance Guard (not Knabe Column as some believed). A German report describes ‘a withering fire from HMGs [which upgraded the Vickers], mortars and A Tk guns in well-concealed positions on the escarpment on our right, and shellfire from at least 4 batteries.’
34 Maj-Gen A. S. Wilder, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Order of the White Eagle (Serb); Te Hau, Waipukurau; born NZ 24 May 1890; sheepfarmer; Wgtn Mtd Rifles 1914–19; CO 25 Bn May 1940–Sep 1941; comd NZ Trg Gp, Maadi Camp, Sep–Dec 1941, Jan–Feb 1942; 5 Bde 6 Dec 1941–17 Jan 1942; 5 Div (in NZ) Apr 1942–Jan 1943; 1 Div Jan–Nov 1943.
35 Maj R. Royal, MC and bar; Wellington; born Levin, 23 Aug 1897; civil servant; served in Maori Bn in First World War; 28 (Maori) Bn 1940–41; comd Maori Trg Unit, Rotorua, 1942–43; CO 2 Maori Bn May–Jun 1943; wounded 14 Dec 1941.
39 In a report on the Gazala operations Maj Dyer wrote: ‘It is perhaps unfair to mention special units, but the machine gunners were an unfailing support to us. From Lt MacDonald, who voluntarily stayed back with the rearguard at Maleme, to Sgt Cross at Point 154, we had always found them brave, efficient and tireless in their duties, we thought their Vickers gun the best infantry supporting weapon in the world.’