CHAPTER 8 — The ‘Crusader’ Campaign
The ‘Crusader’ Campaign
When german troops arrived on the North African scene early in 1941 they refreshed the badly defeated Italian army there; moreover, General Wavell was committed to fighting over an enormous area, for he was conducting operations in Eritrea, he had troops opening an offensive in the Balkans, he had the task of overcoming the Vichy French in Syria, and as further distraction there was a revolt in Iraq. It is small wonder then that General Rommel, who had decided, as it were, to stretch his legs in front of the El Agheila positions, should, when he found himself only lightly opposed, make a bid—a largely successful bid—to recapture Cyrenaica.
But Wavell was a man of foresight. As he withdrew towards Egypt he left an uncomfortable thorn in the side of the Axis troops by turning Tobruk into a fortress which was to be held regardless of the cost. By doing this he constricted the Axis line of communication by the constant threat to its flank, and the Axis forces could not therefore advance with any degree of safety beyond the Egyptian border until Tobruk was in their hands. And so, when General Auchinleck formed the Eighth Army and began to prepare an offensive, the first step was to seek out and destroy the enemy armour and then relieve Tobruk.
During the summer the Axis forces had been busy building up a series of defended areas along the border from Sollum as far south as Sidi Omar. Tactical surprise could not be obtained by a frontal assault on this line so the attack was to go round its flank.
The offensive was timed to start on 18 November and 13 Corps, less the New Zealand Division, was to take up a line from Sheferzen to the escarpment overlooking the coast south-east of Sollum, thus containing the enemy positions from the east and denying any sortie south and east into Egypt. The New Zealand Division was to pass through the Wire north of and parallel with 30 Corps, then wait until the time came to strike northwards.
For a week Div Cav had been lying up east of the frontier, under the command of 4 Indian Division, well camouflaged and waiting for the day. Some troops had been doing the routine patrolling of the Wire itself and one patrol had slipped along the Trigh el Abd as far as Bir Gibni without incident; but at dusk on 17 November the crews pulled off their camouflage nets and stowed them. Regimental Headquarters and A Squadron moved up to laager opposite El Beida; C Squadron drove along ahead of the Division to laager facing El Rabta; while B Squadron came under command of 7 Indian Infantry Brigade. This brigade continued forward, screened by B Squadron, across the Wire at El Beida and made towards Bir Gibni. Thus B Squadron became the first British troops in the whole operation to move over the border; that is apart from the Oasis Group, the LRDG and the SAS,1 who of course were no respecters of any borders or frontiers.
Those on picket that night could sense in the sky a preview of events. The wind blew from the north from under frowning clouds which seemed occupied with their own battle. Brilliant lightning was stabbing between the cloud layers as if Mars and Thor were brawling, Mars ripping with drunken illiterate hand a great shaky ‘Y’ of lightning which lit the earth below, each flash followed by Thor's growl of defiance rumbling between the clouds.
Dawn on the 18th disclosed a kind of restlessness over the desert, where units and parts of formations were jockeying themselves into position. This restlessness appeared gradually to impart momentum throughout the day to the whole Army, until in the late afternoon the desert was covered with a moving mass of machinery plunging steadily forward. Then it was and here it was that every man in Div Cav, forming the spear tip page 121 of this powerful thrust, was overtaken with a feeling of minuteness—a minuteness within which was compressed, nevertheless, unlimited vitality—and overwhelmed with a feeling of pride. Within a man's body the blood tingled a little stronger, giving the feeling of straining at invisible traces which were to draw this great mass of guns and lorries just a little faster towards its goal.
Never in the history of the Division was morale so high and in the Div Cav this was no exception. When B Squadron went off with the Indian brigade, it took two ‘stowaways’ from B Echelon, Sergeant-Major Chambers and Corporal Dawson,2 who had made up their minds that they would be amongst the first to open fire on the enemy.
C Squadron set off to cross the Wire well ahead of the time scheduled for the divisional columns. The gap had been made at El Rabta and, after passing well clear of the frontier, the squadron headed north-west towards Bir Gibni. RHQ and A Squadron set off from their laager about the same time as the Division and, passing through the gap at El Beida, held a course due west until they met C Squadron forming laager about ten miles short of Bir Gibni, in the position designed to be the head of the divisional column. The chilly wind could dampen the spirits of no man and there was little warmth in the sun as it set, giving the signal to hurry the last meal of the day before darkness prohibited fires; and when darkness fell the wind developed a knife-like sharpness. But instead of matching their mood to the falling temperature, everybody's spirits rose in anticipation of the success that the morrow must undoubtedly bring.
The regiment formed its laagers on the same defensive principle as the early American covered-wagon trains, with the ‘A’ vehicles in a rough circle facing outwards and, in the centre, any soft-skinned, or ‘B’, vehicles which, at the discretion of the squadron commanders, were with the fighting squadrons.
Sited thus, each armoured vehicle had its weapons facing outwards so that, in the event of a surprise raid by night, it would not fire into its own laager in the excitement of the moment: moreover, if the laager were discovered and attacked by aircraft, every vehicle had only to drive a few hundred yards the way it was facing and the whole squadron was immediately dispersed, leaving nothing but a baffling cloud of dust under page 122 the aircraft's illuminating flares. Fortunately this manoeuvre never had to be used for, though sometimes it was expected, never once did the regiment have any laager attacked by night.
B Squadron's function on the 18th was to man a patrol line along the Trigh el Abd from the flank of the Indian brigade near Sheferzen to within a mile or two of Bir Gibni. Its troops were in position at first light and could see a mass of vehicles on the slightly higher ground round Sidi Omar. Major Garland3 decided to move his headquarters to a place of better observation, and while he was doing this, some unidentified vehicles appeared in the north and brought the headquarters under light shellfire just while it was a little bunched, thereby considerably accelerating the process and giving rise to the words of Jimmy Little4 in his parody about the campaign:
… and the Dispersal of the squadron was a picture to see!
About the same time Lieutenant E. W. Kerr's troop on the right flank was engaged by some enemy tanks. Three of these, which Kerr identified as German Mark IIIs, came forward until they were in range of the two-pounders attached to the squadron.5 These opened fire and drove them off after an exchange of shots. Later five or six more came down for another try and this time the little guns managed to disable one, but unfortunately it was towed away by another as they retired. For the remainder of that morning the right flank suffered a little light shelling and some machine-gun fire which did not worry it.
Towards midday the reconnaissance screen of 4 Armoured Brigade, armoured cars of the KDG,6 appeared to the left rear. The brigade was to move in on the left of B Squadron, but the screen was rather to the east of its proper line of advance. Seeing armoured vehicles ahead of them, the KDG proceeded to ‘capture’ Second-Lieutenant Fowler's7 troop. A very bright little action it was, too; brighter was the sight of the Tommies' faces when they found whom they had captured. No harm was done, however, and they went off on their proper line, flattered by the comments on their troop tactics.page 123
The supporting weapons which the Indian brigade had placed under command of B Squadron were a section each of Bofors anti-aircraft guns and two-pounder anti-tank guns. The AA officer was a Lieutenant Dodds who had played for his country against the 1936 All Blacks, a team which had included the troop leader of No. 3 Troop, Lieutenant J. G. Wynyard. The anti-tank officer, Lieutenant Smith, was a strange figure. He was drawing a pension from a hand crippled during the war in 1918, had lived in New York between the wars, and claimed to be the first American to serve in the Eighth Army; he had an uncanny knack of disappearing from the back of the squadron column while it was groping along in the dark to an appointed position, and on being given up for lost, would be found waiting nonchalantly in the right place with his guns. He had a trick also, when the column halted, of calling plaintively for the squadron second-in-command and then of acknowledging that officer's frigid arrival with a formal salute, a knowing look, and a colossal tot of whisky.
About 3 p.m. on the 18th, when the squadron was retiring in the face of what was thought to be a strong force of tanks, Smith was determined to stand and fight; and on being reminded that the desert was quite flat and that there were some fifteen tanks against his four little two-pounders, he roared: ‘No. We're anti-tank and we'll shoot 'em up here’, and had to be formally ordered to retire before he would allow himself to be led away, breathing fire and slaughter.
Major Garland was beginning to worry on realising that there was only a very light line opposing these tanks, and guessing that they would probably be supported by artillery, he was doing the only thing possible in retiring. This was allowing a force of enemy armour to thrust between two of our formations, but just as the situation was beginning to look very serious and when Garland had wisely destroyed the Eighth Army's Order of Battle which he had on his person, 4 Armoured Brigade arrived to save the day by driving the enemy off with its guns.
The Armoured Brigade then continued its sweep in a northerly direction until it came in contact with, and fought a brisk action in the late afternoon against, one of the reconnaissance units of the German Africa Corps.
At dusk B Squadron pulled back a mile or so to form a tight laager with the supporting guns facing outwards from each corner.page 124
There had been a certain amount of trouble in keeping communication with the squadron Intelligence Corporal, who had been left at Brigade Headquarters to maintain a wireless link. Most of the time wireless reception had been very poor and almost all the communications had to be passed by motor-cycle. This made the interchange of messages desperately slow and cut down the amount of information that could be sent by the Brigade Commander.
At first light on the 19th the remainder of the regiment fanned out from their laager positions and cooked their breakfasts. It was a fresh, keen morning and everybody was impatient to get on with the fight. Fretting against the powers that kept them waiting when there was a perfectly good enemy just over the horizon simply asking to be knocked about, the men spent the morning going over their vehicles and weapons once again. About noon the Division had orders to move up and breast the Trigh el Abd, and the CO was preparing orders to move off when word came through that Bir Bu Deheua had been occupied by the Indians.
This news was brought to Divisional Cavalry headquarters by none other than Major John Russell. John, as we have seen, had taken a most energetic and, at times, spectacular part in the campaigns in Greece and Crete, and it was not surprising that General Freyberg had expressly ordered that he be included in the ‘Left Out of Battle’ personnel, for he knew Russell well enough to anticipate that he, despite normal specific instructions that 2 i/c's remained LOB, would do everything in his power to stay with the regiment even to the extent of ‘stowing away’, exactly as happened in B Squadron.
At the risk of breaking continuity it is interesting to recall a stowaway story against John.
During the first Libyan campaign when the regiment, green with envy, were watching all the Australians travelling west to Bardia, two of John's own men, Troopers Magan8 and Campbell, disappeared and had to be posted as deserters. Some days later they arrived back under close arrest and, according to his custom, John had them brought to his tent to give them a severe tongue-lashing before they appeared before him formally. He thought that they had gone back to the fleshpots in Cairo, and as they stepped into the tent they were met by a pair of cold eyes as John said:page 125
‘Well? How far did you get?’
‘The bloody Redcaps picked us up half-way up Hellfire Pass. The Aussies we were with tried to bluff them but we had to show our paybooks.’
We can leave the story there with the remark that it is certain that within seconds he would have had them both sitting with him on his bed and probably accepting his sympathy in the form of whisky from his tooth-glass. But to get back to Libya….
Those who knew John Russell would also know that ‘Spirit of the Regiment’, and were not surprised when they heard that, as he told Colonel Nicoll, he had ‘talked the Old Man into letting me come and act as a “roving liaison officer”.’9
The regiment set off towards Bir Gibni just before 3 p.m., working on a one-squadron front, with C Squadron forward and A in reserve at RHQ. The forward squadron arrived at the Trigh el Abd well before dark and there watched 4 Armoured Brigade, which was heavily engaged to the north-west with a battle group from 21 Panzer Division.
B Squadron was still under command of the Indians and in the morning had been sent back to its previous day's positions to watch the left flank of the brigade while it advanced on Bir Bu Deheua. By midday the Royal Sussex Battalion, with supporting arms, had advanced along the Trigh el Abd to Bir Gibni and swung right to take Bir Bu Deheua. This task was accomplished by two o'clock, without opposition. This was not surprising since it was only a dummy fortress after all. The infantry had carried on farther north so as to be surrounding the Omar positions. From west of Bir Bu Deheua the squadron took up a line facing north-west but found little to report except occasional shelling from the Omar fortress; and most of this was falling among the infantry. Towards dark Major Garland sent his 2 i/c over to the Brigadier, who thanked him for the squadron's help and told him that B Squadron was to revert to its own regiment at Bir Gibni.
The 20th again was not a very eventful day for the Division since the enemy armoured forces had not been destroyed. In the morning 4 Armoured Brigade came to grips again with the same battle group north of the Trigh el Abd and B Squadron was sent out to its previous day's patrol line as a cover for the Division, which now sat in the gap between Sheferzen and page 126 Bir Gibni. About 8 a.m. a small German car, which must have been driven through the lines of the Indian brigade, sped across the squadron front. A message was immediately sent to the troop at the end of the line to ‘Stop small car’. Second- Lieutenant Ward10 never dreamt that it was an enemy one and sent his motor-cyclist after it. Imagine his surprise when the car stopped, the DR parked his machine, climbed in, and was driven off to the west—and to Stalag.
C Squadron was sent out on a similar role to B, but closer to Bir Gibni. Here everybody had a front-seat view of the tank battles to the north. In the morning they watched the battle against 21 Panzer Division and in the evening another heavy engagement in the same area against 15 Panzer. The lighter British tanks were outgunned and had to use a combination of naval tactics and cavalry charges to get within range of the German tanks, thus turning to their advantage their superior speed and the thorough training of their crews. The battles were therefore very spectacular, with the Germans working themselves into hull-down positions and engaging the British squadrons as they manoeuvred in for the charge. These columns, usually in line ahead, would gradually become hidden by a grey-brown cloud of dust and smoke before they swung into line and charged, often with the squadron commander standing out on the hull of his tank or even charging in with them in a little 15-cwt truck, signalling them forward with a big blue flag.
There is no doubt of the bravery of these British tank crews nor of the coolness and dash of their commanders, who seemed to know no fear. The C Squadron wavelength was close to that of one of these squadrons, and right in the heat of the battle the whole C Squadron net heard the voice of one of the British majors—that inevitable detached, almost casual, voice: ‘Hello Baty 4. Hello Baty 4. Baty calling. For God's sake turn right, man: turn right. What the devil d'you think we practise these things for on manoeuvres?’
There was some concern in the New Zealand Division that the Armoured Brigade might not be able to cope with the enemy armour, and the question arose whether it might have to withdraw through the Division. General Freyberg was impatient to get into the battle and welcomed the suggestion. During the day he sent a liaison patrol from Div Cav over to page 127 Brigadier Gatehouse to offer support. This was not accepted but the troop came back with some information about the general situation.
In the light of later experience of desert fighting it perhaps was rather a pity that this support was not accepted; for, had the armour fallen back through the Division and been pursued by the German armour, this could have been chopped about badly by the New Zealand guns. After all, that would only have been a case of turning the Germans' own tactics against themselves. Until General Montgomery took charge of the Army some nine months later, we were too inclined towards the ‘seek out and destroy’ principle in which we used to suffer rather much destruction ourselves while we were doing the ‘seeking out’. It took the Battle of Alam Halfa to prove this.
There was no change until the morning of the 21st when the Support Group of 7 Armoured Division, together with a regiment of 7 Armoured Brigade, fought its way on to an escarpment facing north, by the mosque of Sidi Rezegh and just over 20 miles from Tobruk.
The 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions were racing westwards to deal with this threat to their rear, pursued by 22 and 4 Armoured Brigades, and it seemed to the latter that the enemy was properly on the run. The Italian 132 Ariete Armoured Division was still at Bir el Gubi glaring at 1 South African Brigade. The enemy armour was thus fully committed and already was thought to have suffered heavy losses; so it was considered time for 13 Corps to take a more active part in the battle.
Looking back on it now we can see again how completely wrong it was to use tanks, particularly our lighter ones, to destroy tanks when we had any quantity of guns, the proper weapons, which should have been used in conjunction with the tanks. The British tanks had to go out and find the enemy, and that meant fighting on ground more or less of his own choosing, and they had not only suffered heavy losses but had also overestimated the enemy's losses. If only the Army Commander could have sent his armoured corps, in a solid mass, direct to Sidi Rezegh and sat there in a phalanx of guns— which he had—then the enemy would have had to come and smash himself the same way.
Early on 21 November General Freyberg received word to begin his drive northwards, past Fort Capuzzo and Sidi Azeiz, page 128 to the edge of the escarpment overlooking Bardia. Thus 13 Corps would have the fortress area on the frontier isolated and would be able to cut it up bit by bit.
The Divisional Cavalry led off soon after midday covering a front of eight or ten miles, with A Squadron on the right, B on the left and C in reserve; and, with each squadron, was a half troop of 34 Anti-Tank Battery, whilst RHQ retained the troop of 4 Field Regiment which was under command. The patrol line had not gone far when Colonel Nicoll sent A Squadron off to raid Sidi Azeiz. To keep his patrol line complete he edged B Squadron over to the right and brought C Squadron up on the left. A Squadron bowled up to Sidi Azeiz, having put up some seven or eight enemy transport which they left to be handled by B. Sidi Azeiz appeared to be occupied so two troops were sent to gain touch. These troops first shot up and captured two motor-cycle combinations, then, stopping just short of the buildings, they roared for the two-pounders, which fired a few shots through the huts. These incidentally scared the wits out of an elderly Italian officer in charge, who was not expecting callers and was having a bath. The Div Cav troops made a quick rush to find a stark-naked figure, with dust and rubble sticking to his wet body, waving a towel in surrender. (As one trooper remarked: ‘His underpants would have been as effective under those circumstances.’) Besides the officer there were forty-eight other ranks of the Italian 52 Anti-Aircraft Battery and six other ranks, German and Italian, of lorried infantry and artillery personnel. Amongst the material captured was a list of the code-names for 15 Panzer Division. The transport which A Squadron had allowed to go, scuttled westwards along the Trigh Capuzzo, right across the front of B and C Squadrons, but everybody was taking the job of screening the Division far too seriously and ignored them, much to the indignation of those who wished to rush up and capture them but who, in every case, seemed to have some senior to remind him of his primary role.
The last ten miles of the advance to the escarpment, though comparatively uneventful, left several vivid impressions. One remembers the fragrant carpet of blue-green thyme whose scent was crushed out under the tracks of the vehicles, the innumerable mounds of yellow earth, so misleading to navigators, where wells had been dug, the lurching of the carriers as they swayed over the windswept hummocks of sand, the sting of the cold page 129 wind in one's eyes; but most of all one remembers still that curious, eerie sense of offensive impatience that seemed to permeate the whole Army.
C Squadron arrived at the edge of the escarpment first and, as each troop stopped, it formed part of a line that reached from Bir ez Zemla to about three miles west. Along this line there were odd outposts in the form of rock sangars containing machine guns or mortars. The troops manning these were completely unaware of the presence of any British and were walking about unconcerned at their approach until they had stopped quite close and opened fire.
This skirmishing was indecisive as darkness fell soon after it had begun, so the squadrons pulled back a little and laagered independently. B and C Squadrons chose positions a mile or so back from Bir Zemla, RHQ a few miles south again, and A Squadron in reserve a little farther south near the Trigh Capuzzo, about five miles west of the scene of its afternoon's engagement at Sidi Azeiz.
By dawn on the 22nd 4 New Zealand Brigade had moved up into position a little to the east of the Divisional Cavalry and halted with the head of the column near Bir Zemla. Almost immediately a company of 20 Battalion was sent down the steep rocky face towards the Bardia-Tobruk road which runs along the flat, and started up a brisk engagement with transport there.
Meanwhile two troops of C Squadron had attacked and cleaned out some Italian machine-gun posts near Point 127, capturing an engineer officer and suffering one man wounded.
Throughout the day all three squadrons enjoyed intermittent fighting. C Squadron was now firmly placed on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the flat to the west of where 20 Battalion was engaged and was firing on any targets which could be found within small-arms range. Directly below Point 127 was a group of vehicles, some trucks and staff cars, and a few tents. During the day this was identified as probably a headquarters of the Africa Corps, and even before they knew this, Div Cav were asking for gunfire to be brought down on the spot; but the guns were fully occupied in firing on some tanks which were reported to be counter-attacking 20 Battalion. Later, however, in response to a call from A Squadron, Captain J. W. Moodie brought forward a troop of 4 Field Regiment and opened fire on some enemy anti-tank guns and machine guns which were engaging several pin-point targets on the ridge.page 130
During the day A Squadron captured three grounded aircraft and some prisoners and also recaptured a Bofors gun and its supply of ammunition, which was used with considerable effect by a scratch crew of the 34th Anti-Tank men then under command. B Squadron had also been busy and had captured five ambulance cars with their personnel. The disposal of prisoners was a problem in the regiment as it was a unit designed to be constantly on the move and so had not the facilities for passing back prisoners. On this occasion, however, the ambulances provided transport for the prisoners who, after they were interrogated by the Divisional Intelligence Officer, were sent back with the B Echelon convoy.
Some of the mass of material that A Squadron sent in proved to be most interesting, especially the Luftwaffe material: there were marked maps, ground-to-air signalling codes, notes on Army-Air Force co-operation, the performance figures of various aircraft, and some very good photographs of Tobruk.
Headquarters Squadron had a certain amount of trouble on the 22nd when the ‘C’ Section Signals' workshop truck, together with transport from other B Echelons, got badly bogged in patches of mud in the desert and was left behind when the squadron moved on from Bir Gibni. When they were all extricated the trucks were assembled into a convoy; but nobody knew the destination. However, the ‘C’ Section truck had an experimental D/F11 loop aerial which had been made during the stay at Baggush and, using this to receive signals from Captain McQueen's wireless set in HQ Squadron, it managed to lead the convoy safely in.
That evening the regiment's patrol line was taken over by units of 5 Brigade, and the Divisional Cavalry, less C Squadron, moved off to Sidi Azeiz. C Squadron was to come under command of 4 Brigade for its advance on Gambut.
It will be necessary, in order to get a clear picture of the whole campaign, first to follow C Squadron over the next ten days, since that was the squadron which became involved in the critical fighting round Sidi Rezegh, and then to go back and trace the movements of the rest of the regiment afterwards.
To do this it is necessary to consider the topography of the Cyrenaican desert and the way in which the main plateau falls away towards the coast. From well into Egypt, this plateau ends abruptly in an escarpment which runs parallel to the coast. At page 131 the western end of the Gulf of Sollum both the coastline and the escarpment swing northwards and the two lines meet near Sollum, continuing as one to Bardia. Here the escarpment swings westwards again, but not quite so high because from Sollum to Tobruk there is a rugged and broken coastline which eases off to a flat terrace along which runs the main road. The escarpment itself does not continue in an unbroken line for it gradually loses height towards the west and breaks into a series of parallel ones which, for convenience, we shall supply with names. The first one, running a little north of west, fades out about ten miles beyond Gambut: the Bardia or Gambut escarpment. The main plateau itself maintains a fairly constant height, and so, about half-way between Bardia and Gambut, the ridge divides, the southern branch continuing due west until it also flattens out south-west of Gambut near Bir el Chleta: the Bir Chleta escarpment. A little farther west it comes into being again at Ed Dbana and its crest is marked by several memorable features—Zaafran, Belhamed, Ed Duda—the Belhamed escarpment. This overlooks the wide terrace falling away right to Tobruk. South of Bir Chleta another escarpment rises and runs westwards past Point 175 to Sidi Rezegh, beyond which it flattens out again: the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. This is over- looked by yet another, in the south, which can be called the Southern escarpment.
All these escarpments have rocky crests and can be negotiated only with difficulty by wheeled or tracked vehicles except in a few places, usually where gullies run up into more gentle re-entrants. The terraces are more or less flat and are narrow enough to be dominated by mortar or shell-fire from above. The main road, running along below the Bardia-Gambut escarpment straight to Tobruk, was bypassed after August 1941, opposite Belhamed, by a road (‘Axis Road’) which turns south to swing round the Tobruk perimeter through Ed Duda and El Adem. There is also a desert track of note, the Trigh Capuzzo, which runs from the frontier near the fort of that name to Bir el Chleta, whence it runs westwards along the foot of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment and on past El Adem.
The 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades, in full cry after the German armoured formations, soon found them not to be in full retreat but to be racing westwards to prevent help arriving at Sidi Rezegh for 7 Armoured Brigade, already there, and the Support Group of 7 Armoured Division, which was with it. These formations were too lightly supplied with infantry and guns to carry page 132 out a prolonged defence, and 5 South African Infantry Brigade could not get there as some German armour was in its way. When the New Zealand Division advanced northwards to isolate the frontier fortress line, 6 New Zealand Brigade, organised as a self-contained formation for the purpose, was directed westwards along the Trigh Capuzzo ready to occupy the area by Gambut. But, by nightfall on the 22nd, the tank battles near Sidi Rezegh ended in the defeat of the armoured brigades of 30 Corps, and in the afternoon 6 Brigade was sent hot-foot towards Sidi Rezegh to help the Support Group which was reported to be surrounded there. The other two New Zealand brigades were hastily redisposed in the Bardia – Sollum – Capuzzo area on the night of the 22nd to allow Divisional Headquarters and 4 Brigade to move westwards.
For most of the morning the columns trundled westwards unmolested in the pleasant sunshine—all unmolested except the three Div Cav tanks that were detailed to follow along the top of the ridge on the northern edge of the terrace and watch the main road on the flat below. These tanks were making good time and, while reporting one of their bounds clear, had stopped fully five minutes on the very crest of the escarpment to keep a close watch on a self-propelled gun, which came down the main road, swung off on to the desert, stopped, and suddenly opened fire with alarming accuracy. One tank had to travel quite a distance back across the flat before it was out of sight. While doing this it had to dodge at least three shells literally while they were in flight. To do this the wireless operator kept his eye on the enemy gun and each time it flashed he called to the crew commander, who immediately ordered a sharp turn one way or the other, with the result that, when they had gone a chain or so, a shell would land practically on the spot where they had turned. As a matter of fact, throughout its whole life as an armoured unit, the Divisional Cavalry suffered surprisingly light casualties, and it is fair to claim that this was largely due to the care with which the men were originally trained and their skilful handling of their vehicles in tricky situations like this.
Towards midday the carriers in the centre of the patrol line could recognise Gambut by the several buildings, some tents, page 133 and what appeared to be a large naval-type gun. Two or three armoured cars came out to have a look, and one of the carriers drove up to a solitary Bedouin in the middle of the desert to see if he could identify these vehicles, friend or enemy, before it gave chase. The Arab greeted their approach with a carefully correct Nazi salute, and then, realising his mistake, broke into a huge smile with the words: ‘El-hamdu-lellah, il Ingleezi!’,12 climbed aboard, unslung his flintlock rifle, and demanded that the battle should begin. He took quite some dissuading from his warlike intentions, the crew of the carrier being more apprehensive of the effect of his firing off, just over their heads, the dangerously heavy charge that he rammed down the muzzle of his rifle than solicitous for his safety.
While this was going on, the brigade was brought to a halt by heavy gunfire from the higher ground near Bir el Chleta, but the guns of 46 Battery came into action smartly, driving the enemy away and allowing the column to advance again. The Div Cav line was halted while the brigade drew forward until the line of I tanks was in the lead.
At first there was some shellfire which fell amongst the transport, but on getting closer to Gambut, it could be seen that there would be little infantry resistance as figures around the buildings were on the run. As the advance continued, Major Bonifant was ordered to send his faster armoured vehicles up through the line of tanks and rush the position, firing every automatic weapon they possessed to increase the confusion. The little tanks and carriers had just passed through the line of Matildas when they met the near edge of the aerodrome. They bounded across the flat surface of this at full speed, with every weapon blazing at anything at all. At the far side they careered off through the dispersal area, past rows of wrecked aircraft, bomb dumps and petrol dumps, and out on to the desert beyond. Here each troop swung right to form a line along the edge of the escarpment and pepper the enemy, who had fled before the onslaught and were now ducking and diving down through the rocks to the flat below.
The next morning, the 24th, the firing began again and patrols were sent out south and west to see if they could identify the gun and mortar positions. One troop advanced boldly towards the foot of the escarpment; too boldly, for as one of the carriers stopped for the commander to level his glasses, a shell landed right between the tracks. It did no serious damage to the carrier but wounded two men running over from one of the other carriers towards it.
It was this enemy group that was attacked and driven off by 20 Battalion as it came along the Trigh Capuzzo to join 4 Brigade opposite the end of the Bir Chleta escarpment.
Among the aircraft captured on the aerodrome was a Hurricane which the Germans had been using. In this, one of the squadron's tank gunners discovered the guns loaded with an assortment of .303 ammunition—ball, tracer, explosive, armour-piercing—all of which he gleefully appropriated.
While the attack on Gambut was going on, 6 Brigade was working its way along the Sidi Rezegh escarpment and had become involved in the critical action of the whole campaign, in which the enemy, throwing caution to the winds, made a headlong attack with all three armoured divisions upon 5 South African Brigade at the Sidi Rezegh landing ground. This attack also came against 26 Battalion, with field and anti-tank guns, to the east of the South Africans. The South Africans were overrun but the losses in German tanks gravely weakened the Africa Corps.
By that evening 25 Battalion, after hard fighting, had occupied part of Point 175 on the escarpment about five miles east of Sidi Rezegh and, by 3 p.m. on the 24th, 20 Battalion had chased away the last of the enemy along the Trigh Capuzzo; Divisional Headquarters had linked up with 4 Brigade and the next step was to bring that brigade up level with 6 Brigade, on the terrace above, ready for a drive farther westwards.
So C Squadron was sent off again to form a screen between Ed Dbana and the Trigh Capuzzo and to drive west, ahead of 4 Brigade Group. Spirits were running high, and one troop in particular was making the pace fast when some Italian diesel trucks on the Trigh started up and lumbered off north-west- wards towards a wadi beyond Zaafran. Unfortunately they could not be overtaken before the head of the brigade arrived opposite Point 175, so, with the light beginning to fail, the patrol line was recalled.page 136
In the evening it was decided that 6 Brigade would force its way westwards along the escarpment in the early hours of the next morning, the 25th, to clear out the enemy infantry in the wadis west of Point 175. The 4th Brigade had not yet met much opposition, though the C Squadron reports showed that it should be meeting something fairly soon. Accordingly, 6 Brigade advanced in a silent attack with the bayonet—which was put to its proper use—and by daylight 26 Battalion, on the left, had reached the edge of the Sidi Rezegh landing ground, but the 24th was held up farther back for some hours. The 4th Brigade rested overnight and continued its advance at first light. Since it was expected to meet resistance fairly soon, the I tanks formed a line immediately behind the Divisional Cavalry screen.
There was a slight mist which the sun had barely dispersed and the cold air was still bringing water to rheumy eyes when the forward screen ran into the expected opposition. This comprised infantry with anti-tank guns just east of Zaafran. The squadron screen halted while the infantry debussed behind and the tanks passed through to take the lead. The advance continued, with the C Squadron line close up to the heavy tanks to protect them from enemy infantry interference; the 4 Brigade infantry followed on foot, for some three and a half miles, until well within sight of Belhamed. Here the infantry dug in while the tanks carried on up the rising ground, almost to the feature itself, but suffered considerable damage from the 50- and 88-millimetre guns opposing them. Part of the Div Cav line followed, gathering the enemy prisoners as they gave themselves up, and when the tanks turned and came back to their rallying point, Div Cav swung also to herd their prisoners, now numbering some two hundred, back to where the 4 Brigade infantry were consolidating their positions.
That part of the squadron's line which did not follow on behind the tanks was the troop on the extreme right, which turned down a wadi which breaks the line of the escarpment about half-way between Zaafran and Belhamed—very probably the same re-entrant down which the Italian trucks had fled the previous evening. This troop was tempted, indeed almost fatally, by a pet German ruse. As the advance drew level with the top of the wadi the three tanks comprising the troop saw two light enemy trucks start up and bolt headlong down to the flat below. The tanks set off after them, but the leading one suddenly pulled up in suspicion when the crew saw, facing them, a single page 137 wire shining in the morning dew. This marked the near edge of a minefield and the troop realised just in time that they were being decoyed on to this and probably within range of anti-tank guns. It is interesting now to read Major-General Sir Howard Kippenberger's account of the advance of 20 Battalion, which he commanded at the time, upon Belhamed that night. This same wadi put him off his course, with the result that he led his battalion headquarters, complete with two truckloads of mines, right across the minefield, blissfully ignorant of its existence.
The squadron took no active part in repelling the counter-attacks which followed the advance towards Belhamed, but later in the morning, when tanks were seen approaching along the Trigh Capuzzo, it was sent to identify them before the guns of 4 Field Regiment were switched round to disperse them.
Major Bonifant was at this stage instructed to establish his headquarters near Divisional Headquarters so that the General could order patrols at a moment's notice. Bonifant left his patrol line facing east for the rest of the day, with its right flank resting on the Trigh near Sidi Muftah. There was little to report from the troops, but Squadron Headquarters had its afternoon enlivened by a squadron of Stukas which bombed Divisional Headquarters.
By now the battle had resolved itself into a struggle for the triangle of land, Sidi Rezegh – Belhamed – Ed Duda, since whoever held that had control of the vital bottleneck of communications and, when held by the Eighth Army, it provided a point of contact with the Tobruk garrison. If we held the important triangle we held a corridor into Tobruk; if the enemy held it he could command a dangerous soft spot in the enlarged Tobruk perimeter.
After 23 November the armour of 30 Corps was virtually out of the battle for a few days; but so were 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions and the Italian Ariete Division, since General Rommel had made the mistake of thinking the battle was won and had hurried off with all his remaining armour to trap the British forces besieging his posts on the Egyptian frontier from both sides. This proved harder than it looked and the move failed to justify itself.
While the two New Zealand brigades were battling to link up with the Tobruk forces there was no specific job for C Squadron in that neighbourhood, and it was kept at Divisional Headquarters to watch the rear and flanks of the Division. It page 138 took no part in the attacks which secured Belhamed and the blockhouse at Sidi Rezegh, nor in the obstinate defence which held these positions against counter-attack; nor in the final assault on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment near the mosque and the link-up with the Tobruk forces at Ed Duda on the night of 26–27 November.
The question of maintenance was becoming critical within the squadron as every vehicle had to be kept in a state of instant readiness, but very little could be done. Indeed, the drivers who were able to do any running repairs at all were those who, while they were stationary on the patrol line, contrived to steal a chance to go over their tracks, to replace any broken pins, and to pump a little grease into the bogey bearings. Wireless communication was becoming rather difficult, too, as there was no chance of getting fresh batteries. The Mark VI tank is equipped with a generator for charging its own wireless batteries, but in most cases this was not working. However, the operators did manage to struggle through by interchanging their batteries or, at night-time, by obtaining the use of little charging motors which were fitted on some of the neighbouring units' trucks.
The protective screen was maintained on the 26th and again on the 27th when Squadron Headquarters was moved a little east to Hagfet esc Sciomar, where there was a track up the Sidi Rezegh escarpment and patrols could be immediately sent across the upper or lower terraces as required. Two troops were sent up this track and then west to Ed Duda to watch the front of 24 and 26 Battalions, since these were now badly depleted and were tiring, but which nevertheless were holding an enormous front with very few men. Fortunately the enemy there was inactive so the day was quiet.
During the afternoon four Stuart tanks, which had been captured from 4 Armoured Brigade earlier in the fighting and then later recovered in working order but out of petrol, were offered to C Squadron. They were received with enthusiasm, the men being delighted at the prospect of using tanks mounting 37-millimetre guns and with a fair turn of speed. These tanks were taken over by Sergeant-Major Mack13 and there was considerable competition amongst the various spare personnel, who were living now with the squadron fitters, for a job in the new troop. Nobody knew much about Stuarts with their radial page 139 aircraft engines, their Browning machine guns, their 37-mm. cannon and their strange wireless sets, but after an afternoon's experimenting, the crews were quite capable of taking them into action, though no occasion arose for a day or so.
As there was an increasing possibility that the German armoured columns would be on the way back from the frontier, on 28 November the squadron's patrol line was extended so as to cover all approaches from the east. One troop was placed on top of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment and the line reached as far north as the edge of the Gambut escarpment, overlooking the main road, a lateral distance of seven or eight miles. Individual positions had to be carefully chosen in order to cover this increased front, since a portion of the squadron had to be held back for other jobs. During the morning 22 Armoured Brigade was involved in a tank battle to the south of Point 175 and two troops—or six vehicles—were sent to do liaison work between this brigade and the New Zealand Division. In the afternoon the Commander of 4 Brigade wished to clear the area between Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh of some pockets of resistance. He used 44 Royal Tanks with strong artillery support and a company of 18 Battalion. There were not sufficient Matildas left so two troops of carriers from the Divisional Cavalry completed the line of armoured vehicles, one to each flank. The attack, covered by artillery concentrations from both 4 and 6 Field Regiments and by Vickers gun-fire from near Belhamed, was most successful. It swept the area from east to west almost to Ed Duda and then swung north to a rallying point west of Belhamed. Mortar and machine-gun posts and anti-tank guns were destroyed and about 600 prisoners taken. One of the troops captured three guns described as ‘naval’. The other troop was cut about, the troop leader, Second-Lieutenant Ivan Rutherford,14 and his driver, Trooper Budd,15 being killed and their gunner seriously wounded.16 The squadron felt very bitter about the way in which these men were lost because the carriers had to maintain the same pace as the slower tanks and were unable to use their acceleration and mobility to avoid trouble. The advance was well under way, and many prisoners page 140 were coming in with their hands up, when one group climbed out of a sangar containing an anti-tank gun. Rutherford had swung over towards the prisoners to signal them to the rear when, at point-blank range, two Germans who had stayed behind the gun fired a single shot and then walked out themselves with their hands up, expecting quarter. They got none.
This engagement gave the Division full control of what had been a troublesome little piece of ground and which remained of great tactical significance; but by now there were not enough infantry left to hold it securely. The 5th New Zealand Brigade was not available and 1 South African Infantry Brigade was having difficulty in arriving to reinforce the position. Furthermore, General Rommel's armoured columns were back from the frontier and an attack was clearly expected. This was borne out by some marked maps gained the next morning when 21 Battalion captured General von Ravenstein.
The Div Cav patrol line had been reporting all the afternoon a large column looming up along the Trigh Capuzzo. Squadron Headquarters was consistently, and somewhat hopefully, declaring that it was probably 1 South African Brigade, and though Lieutenant Wilder17 thought he could identify half-tracked troop-carriers, he was told to go forward and make contact. The three tanks advanced cautiously until they were fired upon. On reporting this cordial greeting they were still assured that the column must be friendly and were told to go forward and investigate further. By now the column appeared to be splitting, one half continuing along the Trigh directly towards Divisional Headquarters; and Corporal Tippett,18 the troop's operator, sagely and appositely observed: ‘They'll be able to do their own identifying soon!’ The other half swung along the top of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. The troop leader reported this, now adding that it was definitely enemy. He was then asked whether it was German or Italian and was told: ‘Go closer and make sure.’ That was just too much. Under heavy fire, exasperated by Headquarters' persistent passion for detail, Tippett made the best use of what he thought were his few remaining moments by throwing his switch to ‘Send’ and spitting out: ‘What? D'you want me to bloody well shake hands with them? OFF.’page 141
The same headquarters was to be convinced only too well. Soon after, there was a frantic call from just behind the squadron laager for some armoured vehicles to repel an infantry attack against 8 Field Regiment, RA—under command of the New Zealand Division. Both the Div Cav tank troops and, at last, Mack's troop of Stuarts, together with one of the carrier troops, were sent scuttling back. They arrived just in the nick of time to save the 25-pounders from capture, as enemy infantry were in the act of debussing to make a rush at the harassed gunners. For the last few minutes of dusk, all Hell was let loose, with tracer criss-crossing in every direction. Lieutenant Wilder's troop which had been reporting the advance, and was therefore close at hand, hurried back and arrived just in time to catch a wave of German infantry scrambling up towards them, desperately trying to get away from the machine-gun fire of Lieutenant Cole's tanks. Wilder's gunners, in just the right mood after what they had had to take for the previous hour or two, enjoyed themselves immensely dealing with this target and then attended to several machine-gun posts that had been set up to bring down plunging fire upon the 25-pounders. The darkness which ended the fighting seemed to bring a sudden silence, made all the more vivid by the glare of three enemy vehicles blazing merrily on top of the ridge.
The three troops on the lower terrace were called back to laager while they were still having a fruitless argument with two anti-tank guns, but No. 2 Troop, which was still on top of the ridge, was left there with the instructions to try to locate the Main Dressing Station which, it was feared—and correctly feared—had been overrun. The troop failed to find the hospital and, on the way home, stopped to investigate some knocked-out German vehicles. These they explored to the extent of finding at least one camera, when the men were alarmed by the sound of tanks approaching from the east. Much to their relief these turned out to be British cruisers making a sweep of the area. The tanks' commander suggested, also much to their relief, that since the hospital must have been overrun, and because the area was dangerous for light tanks, the troop should accompany him until it was deemed safe for it to return home.
The evening engagement had cost one casualty, Corporal Crossan,19 who was killed by machine-gun fire. The whole squadron stood-to all night since the whereabouts of the enemy page 142 column were not known. The early morning of 29 November showed that part of it, one vehicle at least, was not far away at all, for it had spent a restful night right within the squadron laager, its occupants no doubt surprised and delighted not to be detailed for picket. For many months the C Squadron men, in their lighter moments, used to declare that, had they realised that there was an extra vehicle in the laager, they would have insisted that its occupants, Hun or Anglo-Saxon, should share the picket. The Germans for their part must have been very startled to wake up and find English spoken on all sides. They were not too startled, however, to make a smart get-away, and without omitting to show their gratitude for a peaceful night by loosing off a Parthian burst of machine-gun fire.
No. 1 Troop set off in hot pursuit but did not get far when it, too, found that it was certainly not amongst friends. The three tanks ran right into an anti-tank troop, which they immediately engaged with their Vickers guns whilst trying to run them down. The enemy guns had the advantage of slightly lower ground, though the German infantry covering them had been properly scattered. But with the dawn light behind them, they could only be located by their gun-flashes. Two of the tanks were quickly knocked out, the drivers in each case, Corporal Read20 and Trooper Falloon,21 being killed; and of the crews, all the rest except one man were wounded. Cole's own tank accounted for one gun at least before it too was hit, Cole and his gunner being both wounded. The driver, Lance-Corporal Gollan,22 used great skill and initiative in breaking off the action, for although he lacked any control from his crew commander or any covering fire from his guns, and though his tank sustained two further hits, he managed, by zig-zagging violently, to reach some cover at Squadron Headquarters.23
The enemy column apparently turned north during the night down the track which ran from Bir el Chleta to Gambut, page 143 since, on the morning of the 29th, Divisional Headquarters came under mortar and shell-fire from the east, below the escarpment, and lost several of its lorries. An attack began to develop from this new quarter, but Sergeant-Major Mack took his four Stuart tanks to the edge of the ridge and managed to hold it. He accounted for several tanks all heavier than his own by advancing until just his guns and sights were showing over the edge and, quickly picking a target, delivering one accurate shot from each gun; then, reversing out of sight to reload, he would creep up somewhere else. For this he was awarded the DCM.
Nos. 2 and 5 Troops (Lieutenants Wilder and Laing24) had been sent up the escarpment to watch for movement south of Bir Chleta. They had a bad time. As they were breasting the hill they looked back and saw Cole's troop being cut to pieces and were powerless to do anything about it. Then a few minutes later they approached the New Zealand MDS which had been captured the night before. In Wilder's words:
‘I looked back and called him [Laing] up alongside me in his carrier. At the same time the German picquet round the Field Amb. [i.e., the MDS] were picking themselves up from their night's sleep. They were far too strong for us, with at least a Regt. of tanks behind; and all our wounded lying about not far away….I can see him now, sitting in his carrier waiting for the signal to come up. I can also see the look on his face when he saw what was in front of us.’
The two subalterns were by now only too well aware, after seeing the end of the other tank troop, of the hopelessness of trying to regain contact with the MDS with three Bren carriers and three Mark VI tanks, and swung away to the south. In doing this they narrowly missed being cut off by the tanks of 15 Panzer Division now advancing on Point 175. They were being bounced about the desert like so many pieces of flotsam on an ocean comber.
Once the remnants of 21 Battalion were overrun on Point 175 the rear of the New Zealand Division, under pressure from the east, was brought under shellfire from the ridge above it to the south. The enemy was making a determined effort to close the corridor at Ed Duda, so the Division was virtually surrounded, although there were two armoured brigades, the 4th and the 22nd, and the guns of the Support Group harassing the enemy from an outer ring to the south and west.page 144
At first light on 30 November patrols were sent up the escarpment again. They reported that the Main Dressing Station had for certain been captured, that the enemy was holding Point 175 in strength and that a closely packed column was approaching from the east.25 Were these the long-expected South Africans? But no: the patrols were not sure and, on investigating further, were fired upon. Every gun in the Division was trained on this, an artilleryman's dream, and the Divisional Artillery commander gave the order to fire. Like so many wailing banshees the shells came howling over the patrols' heads and in a few minutes a cloud of red-brown dust and grey smoke had enveloped the whole close-packed column. Here and there were angry stabs of light where shells exploded, or a dull red glow under a mushroom of heavy black smoke where a truck caught fire.
So the Division, even hard-pressed, short of men and surrounded, was able to show that it still possessed a sharp sting, and Mussolini's much vaunted Ariete Armoured Division fled from the punishment, leaving much transport blazing and two tanks knocked out completely.
But that did not end the New Zealand Division's troubles as it was under constant and accurately observed shellfire from the escarpment above, and gradually the toll of casualties mounted. One mortar bomb landed almost under the tail of the C Squadron fitters' truck and wounded three, one of whom, Corporal Wood,26 died in hospital. That day Squadron Headquarters was indeed an uncomfortable place to inhabit for there was nowhere to go and nothing to do when the shells and bombs began to fall; one just had to sit and take it. Out on patrol the men could at least get out of sight, if not out of range. Certainly, Squadron Headquarters was a cheerless place that day.
As the afternoon drew on the situation became worse and worse. First 24 Battalion, and later most of the 26th, were overrun: 15 Panzer Division with fifty tanks had Sidi Rezegh. As soon as dusk fell preparations were made to fall back into Tobruk if the need arose, for in the morning the whole of the Division would be under direct observation from the ridge above. If only the South Africans could take Point 175; but page 145 they could not manage this; and moreover, due to bad atomspheric conditions, wireless contact with them was temporarily lost.
The last contact with 1 South African Brigade had indicated that it was trying to recapture Point 175 so, with 25 Battalion and 8 Field Company, NZE, still in position west of this point, General Freyberg considered it both essential and possible, if Point 175 were retaken, that the South Africans should push on through 25 Battalion and retake Sidi Rezegh also by dawn. He told Major Bonifant to send a troop to take a message to Brigadier Pienaar ordering the recapture of Sidi Rezegh.
Bonifant considered this far too much to ask of any junior officer and elected to go himself. It entailed finding his way by dead reckoning, and certainly running the gauntlet right through enemy positions. Courage he could expect of any of his officers, but he could not ask them to be lucky too. Lieutenant Wilder volunteered to go with him.
They selected two Bren carriers as being smaller targets and lower to the ground than tanks, and perhaps a little more reliable, and set out for the Blockhouse. This is on the escarpment about half-way between the Sidi Rezegh mosque and Point 175, and was still held by 25 Battalion. Here they learnt that the enemy was still on Point 175, and in the darkness they could see the lines of fire of both the enemy's and what they presumed was the South Africans' gunfire. Bonifant decided, therefore, to head south until he was in a position to run at right angles straight between this duel. The patrol got safely through but, once clear of the lines of fire, it eventually happened upon some transport which, by listening to voices, they could recognise as German. The two carriers drove straight on unobtrusively and passed through and out of sight. As Corporal Ryan writes:
‘[it] was like waiting for a hand to pluck us out of the dark. Soon after this we were bearing left but heading away from Point 175 when we discovered we were following a patrol of some kind. [Imagine the nerves then.] It was impossible to say who they were so we crept along behind unobserved, as we thought, until they disappeared into a slight depression. This could have been our end, as we followed at a safe distance only to find the patrol had fanned out and was waiting for us to come along. We obliged and were halted at a reasonable distance and Bonny made no bones about it—just carried on, just us covering him.’page 146
The patrol turned out to be of South African armoured cars and the two officers were whisked away to meet Brigadier Pienaar, to whom they delivered the message. This of course, in assuming that the South Africans had already taken Point 175 and needed only to pass through the 25 Battalion and 8 Field Company positions to counter-attack on the Mosque, turned out to be asking the near-impossible, since they were some 13 miles short of the Point. General Norrie, who was near at hand, agreed that, were the brigade able even to take Point 175 during the night, or if it were just by-passed, it was still physically impossible to recapture the Mosque at first light.
So the two officers were sent back to the New Zealand Division with these dismal tidings. And furthermore, they had to get there!
In making a big detour out to the south they completely missed the Blockhouse and at dawn found themselves with a German armoured column between it and themselves.
‘Without any hesitation [writes Ryan] Bonny gave the order straight through the lines to the Block House. We took off with Nick [Wilder] in pursuit and everything went well until we had cleared the lines and [were] half way across the flat to the Block House. 3 or 4 German tanks on our left opened up and the chase was on. Fortunately everything kept passing just over the top of us until one scored a direct hit on Nick's carrier. Looking round I saw it disappear in a cloud of dust and smoke, slow right down, and come again.’
Both carriers were still under fire as they clattered and slithered down the escarpment, and full praise must go to their drivers, Troopers Bloxham27 and Gambirazzi.28 The latter's carrier just made 4 Brigade Headquarters though holed in several places, including one in the sump. It never went again.
By now the battle had been raging and swaying in this vast cockpit for two weeks. Our wireless, and probably the enemy's too, had been playing tricks, so that friends and foes appeared in unsuspected places and both adopted the same technique— to loose off a shot and see what answer it provoked. Even by using this method both sides were often mistaken, because to some extent they were using each other's weapons. Small wonder then that nerves were frayed while the tension lasted.
Soon after daylight on 1 December the expected attack came page 147 from Sidi Rezegh against Belhamed and forced the remnants of 6 Brigade to fall back through 4 Brigade to Zaafran. The 20th Battalion was overrun by tanks and the survivors captured. This attack also split 19 Battalion properly in half, for part of it was at Ed Duda and the remainder at Zaafran. The 18th was also cut off and joined the Tobruk garrison. The Corridor had ceased to exist.
The Division was no longer capable of offensive infantry action; but the field guns, the anti-tank guns—though both of these had suffered heavy casualties—and the last few heavy tanks of the gallant 8th and 44th Royal Tanks were still capable of hitting back; capable, ready, and willing to smack at the enemy whenever and wherever he showed himself at close quarters. And we still had the most telling defence of all— high morale.
That day the attacks came in from all sides on the stubborn circle, but these were not pressed hard, for at every indication of an attack the guns stabbed back, while the RAF bombed 15 Panzer Division.
The sun set behind a cloud of dust where a last attack was being prepared. The guns and the few remaining I tanks held this off while the remains of the Division were forming into a tight column for the drive back to the frontier. They were to leave behind them the last few tanks, with those lion-hearted crews gallantly intending to fight a rearguard action alone. By 6 p.m. the column was on the way back along the Trigh Capuzzo. The Div Cav squadron, guided by flares from 1 South African Brigade, led the way to the top of the escarpment by the track its men now knew so well. Once on top, the column passed through a South African rearguard and travelled due south for an hour before making a beeline for Bir Gibni, about 30 miles away.
It was a hard night. As soon as the column was clear of the enemy area, reaction set in; but the men, particularly the drivers, all utterly exhausted, found themselves contending with an even more persistent and relentless opponent, sleep. The night was dark as Erebus and the whole 30 miles of the journey was a waking nightmare. Mile after mile the drivers, peering through monotonous darkness at the murky shapelessness of a vehicle ahead, were continuously fighting a losing battle for consciousness.
The Division, less 5 Brigade, was headed for Baggush to rest before beginning to refit, and the journey was continued at 11 a.m., through the gap at El Rabta. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment was now under command of 3 South African Brigade at Bardia and, as the New Zealand 4 and 6 Brigades had passed the frontier, C Squadron halted before heading north to rejoin the other squadrons.
General Freyberg sent for Major Bonifant to say goodbye and, in so doing, gave him a most heartening word of thanks. He congratulated him on the work of the squadron, saying that it had done every job asked of it in the true cavalry spirit and that valuable information had been gained by its efforts.
1 Special Air Service.
5 These were a section of 259 Bty, 65 A-Tk Regt, RA; a section of 171 Bty, 57 Lt AA Regt, RA, was also attached.
6 King's Dragoon Guards.
9 Which was, in fact, the truth.
10 Lt T. F. L. Ward, m.i.d.; Tangiteroria, Kirikopuni; born Ohaeawai, 30 Nov 1917; farmer; wounded 1 Sep 1942; Deputy Commander (Col), 1 Inf Bde Gp, NZ Terr. Force, 1962-.
11 Direction Finding.
12 ‘Thank God! The British!’
16 The gunner, L-Cpl D. S. Clark, was so seriously wounded that the casualty lists had him entered as Died of Wounds. Some months later, in Syria, he returned to the regiment in time to admire his own photograph amongst the Roll of Honour in a newly-arrived Auckland Weekly News.
23 Tpr J. A. Stanley, one of the wounded, lost his life when the merchant ship Chakdina, which was taking wounded back to Alexandria, was torpedoed shortly after leaving Tobruk. One other of the troop, Cpl R. J. M. Loughnan (the author), who was being evacuated on the same ship as a stretcher case, was saved by the unselfishness and gallantry of a man from C Squadron, Tpr M. W. Stewart, who came within seconds of losing his life in so doing.
25 There was an imaginative phrase used in describing this column and it stuck with the regiment for all time. Thereafter any collection of men, materials, or machinery was always referred to as a ‘heap-o’-guts'.