New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
CHAPTER 7 — The Crusader Campaign
The Crusader Campaign
The last New Zealand engineer unit evacuated from Crete, 5 Field Park Company, arrived at Alexandria on 1 June and went to Helwan, where new clothing and other essential items were drawn. Half the Company then departed on seven days' ‘survivors' leave’, and were followed in due course by the other half; meanwhile, between parades for the issue of stores and equipment, reorganisation was carried out and reinforcements marched in.
The end of the month saw the sappers at El Kirsh on the Canal, where they trained and worked until the middle of September, when they returned to the Western Desert and took over their old duties at Sidi Haneish in what was now called the Baggush Box or Baggush Fortress.
General Rommel chose the same day as the Company moved from the Canal (14 September) to stage a reconnaissance in force. Its code-name was the German for Midsummer Night's Dream, but by and large it turned out to be something of a nightmare to the German tank crews, some of whose vehicles were battered into urgent need of tank recovery unit services.
The action was fought a long way from Baggush and did not concern 5 Field Park Company;1 Field Stores Section again operated the Divisional RE Stores Dump, and Workshop Section found plenty of employment offering; Bridging Section spent its time on water pipeline renovations, alterations and extensions.
Since its near miss in accompanying the Division to Greece, 8 Field Company had been kept from brooding by employment on the Cairo Defence Scheme. This, for the sappers, involved the construction of pillboxes and rifle and machine-gun emplacements over the several square miles of country bounded by the Nile on the east, the desert on the west, the Mohammed Ali Barrage on the north, and a line some miles beyond the Mena Road on the south. Other measures about which it did not seem necessary to advise the Egyptian Government included page 197 the drawing up of plans for the demolition of every bridge in the area, including those over the Nile in Cairo and the Mohammed Ali Barrage. During this period the sappers' chief relaxation was looking for Trixie.
‘It was at Mena that Trixie, a fox terrier bitch, disappeared. Trixie came into the unit at Trentham camp as a very small puppy and travelled with the men around New Zealand, when they were on leave, and overseas with them. It was suggested that she was stolen by the Wogs, though of this I am not sure. Anyway constant reports were brought in that a dog like her was seen in various parts of the Egyptian Delta, and for a while I was prevailed on to let parties go in search. I think I was being imposed upon!2
It was also at Mena that 8 Field Company Transport Section had an illustration of South African duplicity. An abandoned 12-cwt Commercial Ford with South African markings was brought in from one of the canal roads and repaired with the idea of presenting it to the CO as his own private PU.3 A complete overhaul, including new tyres and wheels, had been completed and the unit identification signs were being painted on when a South African officer called and asked if a truck for which he quoted the chassis and engine number had inadvertently been included in the Company transport. It was discovered later that the Springboks had known all the time where their truck was, had watched its repair, and had only waited for the work to be completed before claiming it.
The Company was, however, more fortunate in other vehicle deals. The sappers were not satisfied with their water cart and at Amiriya had made friends with a Polish unit guarding a vehicle park. The guard did not have a key to the park gates, but at the price of a few cakes of chocolate obligingly lifted the gates off the hinges. Two water carts were taken for a trial run but neither was satisfactory. One had a poor engine and the other a broken chassis. At Mena an English well-boring company camped alongside the Company—and they possessed a welding plant. A patrol suitably provided with cakes of chocolate returned to Amiriya. The upshot was that, with the help of the Tommy welding outfit, 8 Field Company possessed a good water cart plus an extra 15-cwt truck which was not shown on the Vehicle Returns.
On 18 August the Company handed over to 19 Army Troops page 198 Company and joined 5 Field Park Company at Ismailia, where they camped on what was known as ‘The Island’—a small, shady, tree-covered island joined to the mainland by a bridge. There they were employed in building a leave camp and a jetty. Piles were driven by a Heath Robinson style pile-driver of Kiwi design wherein the motive power was provided by five sappers hauling on a rope. Incidentally, there was a big derailment a mile or so from the camp and some fast work by predatory sappers enabled the Company to supplement the ration scale by several sacks of flour and other scarce liquid commodities before guards were posted to prevent further such activities.
In the middle of September 8 Field Company left the Canal area under orders to join 6 Brigade at Mena before travelling by the desert road to Baggush. The newcomers still had something to learn, for the leading trucks got mixed up with a 6 Field Regiment convoy leaving Mena. By the time the mistake was straightened out everybody knew the difference between a regiment of artillery and a brigade of infantry. On arrival at Baggush the Company camped first in the Burbeita oasis which, it will be remembered, was 5 Field Park's home the previous September, and later at Kilo 60, halfway between Mersa Matruh and Sidi Barrani.
Engineering work on water points and reservoirs both elevated and on the ground was mixed with minelaying exercises with 4 Indian Division and field exercises with the infantry battalions. The sappers consoled themselves for the loss of Trixie by adopting a baby camel that had fallen into a disused well. It was hard work finding food for the new pet and it made horrible noises at them. When they moved on the camel was left behind.
Sixth and 7th Field Companies followed much the same pattern of activities; the 6th at Garawi and the 7th at Helwan went on survivors' leave, staged reunions with recovered wounded, sick and others who had escaped from Greece and Crete by divers means, absorbed reinforcements and began to feel like engineer units again.
Both left for the Ismailia area in the last week of July. Sixth Field Company had acquired a new commander (Major Woolcott) and the 7th was soon to do likewise (Major Thomas).4 page 199 The sappers underwent a course of combined training—landings on defended beaches, pontoon bridging, underwater demolitions, building floating pierheads and suchlike activities peculiar to engineers.
In early September 7 Field left for the desert, with 6 Field and Headquarters NZ Engineers (Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton) following a day or so later, en route for Baggush. The engineering component of the Division was again ready for battle.
Seventh Field Company's destination was the already mentioned partly constructed box near Alamein known as Fortress A, or more generally as Kaponga. It was situated halfway between the sea and the swampy Qattara Depression—the corridor through which the enemy would have to pass to reach Cairo.
The sappers worked for a month with the infantry of 5 Brigade Group on the excavation of posts and anti-tank obstacles. They also helped 5 Field Regiment with gunpits and 5 Field Ambulance with a dressing station. To use a few figures so dear to the heart of an engineer, approximately 30,000 feet of holes were drilled and 100,000 feet of primer cord used on 800 detonations of 9250 Ib of ammonal and 2900 Ib of monobel.
Another ‘miracle while you wait’ job, like the assignment given the Mechanical Equipment sappers at Aqaba to dredge a harbour without a dredge, was asked of 7 Field Company during this period.
There was need of a road from Alamein to Kaponga and Major Hanson was instructed to supervise the work with his Company. As mentioned in the previous chapter, South African engineers were already constructing the road from Alamein southwards, but at the rate of progress, a few chains a day, it would take months to finish—and it was wanted within weeks. At the Kaponga end there were no quarries, stone crushers, graders or bulldozers and no possibility of getting them, at least for several weeks.
‘We were set a really first class problem to which none of the Chief Engineers of Army, Corps or Line of Communication had an answer. It just happened that in pre-war days I had made some study of what is called soil stabilisation and the actions of chemicals such as gypsum, calcium chloride and various salts in binding certain gradings of soils into a tightly compacted mass.
‘“Laboratory” tests of desert soils appearing to contain a page 200 concentration of hygroscopic salts were made by moulding small briquettes of different soil mixtures and drying them by a primus. They were then tested for stiffness or toughness and a mixture worked out for roadmaking. A trial patch was put down, a car run backwards and forwards over it, and, as hoped, a tight compaction was achieved without the addition of water.’5
Kiwi ingenuity had found an answer to the Alamein roading problem; all that remained to be done, with the help of infantry working parties, was to mix the soils in the right proportions, spread the mixture and compact it by running lorries over it. Thousands of tons of stores and materials were carried over that road into Kaponga during the months that followed.
On 6 October 7 Field Company returned to the Division, now concentrated at Baggush. The journey was made in the new ‘desert formation’, whereby every vehicle in a gigantic draughtboard pattern had a fixed place in relation to every other vehicle in the unit and was spaced 200 yards in every direction from its neighbour. At dusk they closed to visibility distance.
In the Base Post Office Captain Shelker6 had been placed on the New Zealand Roll and Lieutenant A. V. Knapp appointed Assistant Director of Postal Services. The Divisional Postal Unit, now commanded by Lieutenant Coupland,7 was operating post offices at each brigade headquarters and at the supply point.
Sixth Field Company, camped at Ras Hawala in Baggush, worked on reservoirs at Sidi Haneish. Two 500-gallon tanks had been excavated by South African sappers and the job was to finish them with a bitumen lining and fill with water.
The importance of anti-tank obstacles in a campaign where fast-moving armoured vehicles had taken the place of cavalry was beginning to be realised. In this branch of their trade the New Zealand sappers were as advanced as any, for their training included a thorough knowledge of mines, enemy and friendly, what made them go off and how to stop them going off.
It could hardly be otherwise when it is remembered that the Field Companies had served under a CRE who had smuggled naval depth-charges into Greece in lieu of other missing supplies. Further, they were now serving under a CRE who as a page 201 company commander had smuggled anti-tank mines out of England, in and out of Egypt and finally into Greece—the only anti-tank mines available in the New Zealand sector.
Every section of the New Zealand Field Companies spent a week with 4 Indian Division to further its education, for the CRE of that division had introduced a novel and fast method of minelaying. This method was known as ‘The Indian Rope Trick’ and was officially adopted throughout the Middle East. Its essence was to define a datum line with long pickets and to mark points along this line with short pickets driven flush with the surface of the ground. Tapes knotted at intervals were looped over the short pickets, stretched in the required direction and mines buried under each knot. The distance between the lines varied but the density aimed at was one mine per yard of front. Knowing the combination it was possible to locate the mines quickly if necessary.
The corollary, of course, for no wars are won by armies on the defensive, was training in methods of breaking through minefields. A piece of equipment developed by each side from the necessity of having to locate mines was the magnetic detector. Essentially, a magnetic mine detector is a piece of radio apparatus connected to a pair of earphones and to a looped aerial or search coil. The set, complete with batteries fitted into a small box, was carried on the back of the mine-detecting sapper who, with earphones fastened, carried the search coil on a shielded rod and waved it from side to side as he advanced. When switched on the set went into a state of oscillation which could be heard on the earphones. If the search coil passed close to a metal object the oscillation was damped down or stopped altogether. The early detectors,8 made locally and urgently, were inferior in design and construction to the German sample, which incidentally was branded 1940 and which suggests that the enemy had at least twelve months lead in this respect.
During October and early November sections trained in rotation with the infantry battalions in assaults on defended areas. The exercise usually consisted of an assembly and night march to a forming-up place, followed by an attack on an enemy position. The sappers were required to clear lanes page 202 through the protecting minefield and, when the operation was successfully concluded, to lay another minefield for defence against enemy AFVs.
This tactic of clearing lanes to, and then erecting a barrier in front of a position resulted in the Engineers, as an arm, forsaking the rear of a battlefield and working ahead of the infantry. It also resulted in the sappers' active-service life being very considerably shortened.
The drill for clearing a passage through a minefield, as practised by the New Zealand Field Companies at that period, was as follows:
The first sapper of the team inserted a Bangalore torpedo under the outer line of wire and blew a gap, and the next man went through the field clearing trip-wires or booby traps. Two sappers followed with mine detectors, sweeping a 10 foot lane while another cleared the mines as located. The demolition party ran out a line of cordtex detonating fuse across the field and over the tops of each mine in the lane. A stick of gelignite, already split open, was gripped to the cordtex and laid on top of each mine. The detonation of the cordtex fired all mines simultaneously, thus clearing a lane and enabling the tanks to pass through after the limits of the track had been taped.
The Engineer command in the Crusader campaign was as follows:
Headquarters New Zealand Engineers
Capt G. A. Lindell, Adjutant
Lt P. B. Wildey
Lt K. F. Jones
Capt C. E. Watson, MO
Lt S. T. Taylor, LAD attached
5 Field Park Company
6 Field Company
Lt P. W. de B. Morgan
Lt P. H. G. Hamilton
7 Field Company
Capt C. F. Skinner, LOB9
Lt W. S. Ross
Lt W. A. Scott
Lt N. R. Brady
8 Field Company
Maj A. R. Currie, OC
Capt H. M. Reid
Lt R. A. Pickmere, LOB
Preparations for an offensive have been glimpsed in the employment given 18 Army Troops Company and the Railway Operating and Construction Groups. Each did vital work and was commended by Authority for doing, without fuss and up to time, everything asked of them.
A brief glance backwards and forwards in order to bring the Middle East situation into perspective is appropriate at this point.
Campaigns fought almost simultaneously and with an exiguity of force that is breathtaking had been successful in Libya, Eritrea, Abyssinia, Iraq, Syria: unsuccessful in Greece and Crete. New Zealand sappers had taken some part on all fronts excepting Abyssinia and Iraq. The enemy had regained the initiative in North Africa and, in spite of attempts in May and June to dissuade him, was preparing to reduce the beseiged port of Tobruk and present Egypt, with due and appropriate ceremony, to Der Fuehrer and Il Duce.page 204
The Eighth Army had been created.10 Headquarters Middle East Forces, devoutly thankful for the lull while General Rommel took thought about Tobruk, completed its plans for yet another offensive and considered that ‘The time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained.’ When the Division was concentrating for ‘Exercise No. 4’ the enemy was making finally ready for the fall of Tobruk. It was thought that we might be preparing a diversionary attack, but as it was estimated that we would need three days to deploy and that the Tobruk affair would take only two days, everything, Teutonically, was just fine.
It is not in the character of an Engineer history to probe deeply into relative strengths of fighting formations; it is sufficient to say that the infantry was considered adequate, the Royal Air Force had a plentiful supply of planes and forward landing grounds, and that the Royal Navy was taking an interest. Our tank gun was inferior in penetrating power but it had better control and rate of fire—an Achilles and Graf Spee set-up, in a situation that had many of the characteristics of an ocean: no flanks, few landmarks and a wide choice of routes.
The Eighth Army plan may also be briefly summarised. Thirtieth Corps, containing most of the armoured units, was to destroy the enemy tank formations wherever they might be. Thirteenth Corps, consisting of the New Zealand Division, 4 Indian Division and 1 Army Tank Brigade, was to isolate and later destroy the strongpoints along the frontier. A third force, the Oasis Group, had the minor role of creating diversions in southern Cyrenaica, while the Tobruk garrison at the appropriate moment was to break out of the surrounding ring, consisting mostly of Italian formations.
In 13 Corps, 4 Indian Division had the task of engaging enemy attention from the coast to the Omars, and of covering the New Zealand right flank as it wheeled and advanced northwards to isolate the enemy in the Bardia-Sollum-Halfaya-Sidi Omar areas. The Army Tank Brigade was to come under New Zealand command.
The nature of the terrain was not unknown to the senior officers, for the CRE had had a scale plaster model made of the whole area from Sidi Barrani to Tobruk. This was the first of many topographical models built by Headquarters Divisional page 205 Engineers for General Freyberg. Although it served the purpose well enough it was too heavy to be readily moved and later models were made in sections of convenient size and weight. They were bolted together, and when the General moved the whole thing was dismantled and slipped into a cabinet and moved with him.
The transfer of the Division to the assembly area, about 30 miles south-west of Matruh, took three days, with one brigade moving each day. Seventh Field Company was under command 5 Brigade, 6 Field Company with 4 Brigade, Headquarters NZE and Divisional Postal Unit with Divisional Headquarters Group, and both 8 Field Company and 5 Field Park Company11 with 6 Brigade.
When the sun rose on 14 November the radiators of nearly 3000 vehicles, all at 200 yards' interval, were pointing to the west, with the wheels of the rearmost just off the Siwa track. For the first time in its history the New Zealand Division was about to move as a single body. It covered almost one hundred square miles. Far to the south other hundreds in the tens of thousands of square miles of desert were occupied by formations in 30 Corps.
Officers attended conferences and returned with the news that was no news—we were going to chase Jerry right out of North Africa. In actual fact preparations for battle had already begun, for the RAF was taking care that as few as possible enemy planes saw as little as possible of what was going on below. Remember Greece and Crete where a man was scared to look up in case a German pilot saw the whites of his eyes?
The first stage in the New Zealand approach march was made by day and ended near Misheifa, where the Kiwi railway sappers had built the railhead. Two night marches, ending south of Buq Buq and Sollum respectively and about 20 miles in length, brought the Division close to the frontier, where a barbed-wire barricade separated the sands of Egypt from those of Libya.
How did thousands of vehicles move by night across the desert without the benefit of tail or head lights? They snarled along in low gear on an axis already surveyed by Headquarters Divisional Engineers. The drivers develop a sixth sense and the whole mass moves as inexorably as a plague of locusts— with internal variations. Fifth Field Park Company was carrying its small box girder set (SBG) on large Albion lorries which page 206 were not designed for moving in soft sand. There were few four-wheel-drive vehicles in those early days, and the only way to avoid bogging in such patches was to open the throttle, surge forward and risk a collision.
Lieutenant Bowes12 of Headquarters Divisional Engineers surveyed the axis of advance by sun-compass and mileage meter and then checked on known points by oil compass. He travelled with a section of the Provost Company which marked the route with blue flags at half-mile intervals. For night marches the flags were replaced with shaded lights sited to give the maximum range of visibility.
‘On Monday 17 Nov,’ Lieutenant Brady,13 7 Field Company, wrote, ‘we were lying somewhere south of Sofafi when I was informed that I was to move west that night with No. 1 Section, and to meet the Div. Cav. at 0800 hrs the following morning, and if necessary put a patrol out ahead of us. Our job was to cut a 300 yd gap in the Border wire at a given map reference and without fail at that exact point. This was for the Division to pass through later that day…. The wire presented quite a problem to remove, being of very heavy gauge and with steel standards set in concrete. Quite a problem to climb through it, but who was keeping who out of where we had no idea. However with the aid of our trucks we were able to pull out the standards and drag the tangle of wires to either side. The main excitement came when a couple of vicious looking snakes were discovered at the base of one of the standards.’
The Division passed into Libya through the gap in the wire (18-19 November); farther south 30 Corps was making a gigantic right wheel; General Rommel, convinced that the movement reported in the south was only a ‘recce’ in force, gave orders to exert sufficient strength to take care of the situation while he dealt with the really important job of reducing Tobruk.
The Division did not move on the 19th. The only events of sapper note were that 5 Field Park Company left 6 Brigade and reverted to the command of the CRE; more gaps were cut in the wire. Captain Pemberton, with twenty men from Bridging Section and a few trucks of wire, departed to erect a cage on the Egyptian side of the border for the accommodation of pros- page 207 pective prisoners of war. They built one, as suggested, 100 yards square, then having some wire left over erected a smaller one for luck just in case business was brisk. They rejoined the Company the following day.
A short move nearer the desert track Trigh el Abd was made before nightfall. The Indians were closing in on the Omars and there was a rumble of distant gunfire. Advanced armoured elements were already in contact, but to the German commander it was still only a reconnaissance in force, though maybe too great a force for comfort.
Panzer Group Africa issued the instruction: ‘Afrikakorps will destroy the enemy battle groups in the area between Bardia, Tobruk and Sidi Omar before they can offer a serious threat to [the assault on] Tobruk.’
For two more days the Division teetered around on its toes like a keyed-up runner waiting the starter's signal. Inconclusive battles were fought elsewhere and inaccurate appreciations were made of enemy tank losses. They were very like the estimates made in early infantry actions before it was realised that an enemy who dives for cover is not necessarily a casualty; neither is a tank commander who moves back on his reserves fleeing the field. The armoured fighting had moved to the west and so given 13 Corps some elbow room. The Division began to move on 21 November towards Sidi Azeiz, a spot where several important desert tracks converged on the Trigh Capuzzo, itself the inland main highway, a series of rutted tracks wandering across the desert. It had not moved far, however, when the code-words MARS, JUPITER, TAURUS were received. Their purport was to begin immediately the tasks originally allocated to the brigades, which were, shortly:
General Rommel, finally convinced that his opposite number was engaged in no diversionary thrust but on a large-scale offensive, shelved his plans for Tobruk and began considering how best to destroy the British forces now in the Sidi Rezegh area and uncomfortably close to Tobruk.
The immediate tasks of 5 Brigade were: 21 Battalion Group, page 208 which included 3 Section (Lieutenant Foster14) 7 Field Company, was to reconnoitre Hafid Ridge15 and Bir Ghirba in the rear of the enemy fortress line; 22 Battalion Group (no engineers) was to capture and dig in at the Sidi Azeiz road junction; a patrol from 23 Battalion was to ‘recce’ a route to Fort Capuzzo; 5 Brigade, less detachments, was to take up an all-round defensive position three miles south of Sidi Azeiz.
Twenty-second Battalion met no opposition at Sidi Azeiz. A section of Divisional Cavalry had already swept the area and scooped up the few resident Italians.
Twenty-first Battalion moved on to Hafid Ridge without trouble but had a very different reception at Bir Ghirba. That is always liable to happen when information is not accurate and a battalion is unwittingly sent upon a brigade-sized job. The attack was called off at dusk (22nd) and the sapper section returned without being employed.
The 23 Battalion patrol, which included No. 1 Section, 7 Field Company, took the honours in 5 Brigade.
‘… during the afternoon (21st) Major Thomas told me to prepare for a move with a detachment of 23 Bn, our job being to cut the water pipeline from Bardia to Halfaya. I was supplied with an aerial photograph of Capuzzo which clearly showed the trench in which the pipeline was laid. After tea we joined up with 23 Bn and set off for Capuzzo, the navigating being done by the Bn. All went well until some of the leading trucks became stuck; this created a considerable noise which must have been heard for miles around. After getting mobile again we carried on and finally came out on a tar sealed road running from Bardia to Capuzzo, and just north of the actual fort itself. We formed up and moved down the edge of the road straight into the fort.’16
It was the noise of getting the trucks unbogged that helped the patrol commander in his audacious capture of Fort Capuzzo and 200 very surprised Italians. Nobody, they thought, except their own people, would make such a hellish noise in the middle of the night.
The sappers left the infantry to do whatever they do when they help themselves to an enemy fort without so much as a page 209 by-your-leave and set about locating the pipeline. It proved to be a six-inch main and was cut by the simple process of removing a length of pipe.
At dawn sappers early on the scrounge found some empty tents with beds obviously vacated in a hurry. Further investigation led them to an underground tank in which were found about twenty very cold Italians, the engineers' first prisoners of the campaign. The officer with them appeared not so much concerned about his prospects of passing the war in a PW camp as with the disappearance of his ornate shaving gear from his tent.
Fourth Brigade, with the task of cutting the Bardia-Tobruk road, navigated through a dark and stormy night to Menastir, about 15 miles north of Sidi Azeiz. The brigade halted near the edge of an escarpment that overlooked what was variously called the Coast Road, the Bardia-Tobruk road or the Via Balbia.17
Sixth Field Company continued an unpleasant experience by camping in a nest of thermos bombs, one of which advertised its presence by exploding under Lieutenant McFarlane's18 truck. ‘We walked on tip-toe all night, marked off 20-odd more without further explosion, then moved out and set them off with rifle-fire. McFarlane wasn't hurt, but the truck was very battered underneath.’19
The sappers had a grandstand view of 20 Battalion negotiating a track down the escarpment and having a fine time playing foxes in the hen run with bewildered line-of-communication troops. The surprise was complete, but later armoured cars and self-propelled guns arrived and a squadron of tanks was sent to answer them. Small battles were fought throughout the day and by nightfall over 400 prisoners had been collected.
It was a satisfying spectacle for 6 Field Company, which had opened its campaign in Greece with the loss of forty sappers in the ambush at Elevtherokhorion and closed it with a hundred killed, wounded and missing at Corinth.
Orders were expected for an attack on Bardia, but instead 4 Brigade was instructed to leave 20 Battalion Group, with 6 Field Company less No. 2 Section (Lieutenant Wheeler) under page 210 command, at Menastir, until relieved by 22 Battalion, while the balance of the brigade occupied the landing ground at Gambut.
The reader is invited to study the map. South of the main road between Bardia and Tobruk an escarpment divides into page 211 two branches, the northern one fading out past Gambut landing ground (now the objective of 4 Brigade). The southern branch flattens out near Bir el Chleta, then builds up again and carries on through Zaafran to Belhamed, then to Ed Duda and farther west.
Another escarpment begins south of Bir el Chleta and follows the Trigh Capuzzo to Sidi Rezegh. At two-thirds of its length stands Point 175. South again from Point 175 is the start of yet another escarpment which fades out west of El Adem.
It will be noticed that a by-pass road that had been built from the Via Balbia around Tobruk passes through a defile between Belhamed and Ed Duda, while the Trigh Capuzzo goes past the little tomb popularly called ‘the Mosque’ that gives the Sidi Rezegh escarpment its name. The Ed Duda-Belhamed-Sidi Rezegh triangle dominates the south-eastern approaches to Tobruk.
The Gambut landing ground was approached by 4 Brigade by way of a shallow three-mile-wide valley between the forks of the escarpment south of the Via Balbia. The column was fired on and there were halts while the gunners retaliated, but there was no trouble for the infantry on arrival. The attached tanks had done all that was necessary.
Sixth Brigade had left the Divisional area on the afternoon of the 21st under instructions to move west on the axis of the Trigh Capuzzo as far as Bir el Chleta. The journey was resumed on the 22nd but, on account of an inaccurate situation report, without any sense of urgency. The situation was viewed in a different light when an LO from 30 Corps arrived with urgent instructions for the support tanks to move on Sidi Rezegh at their best speed.
A signal from General Freyberg amplified these disturbing orders: ‘Have received orders from 30 Corps that you are to take your Bde Gp with all haste to relieve Support Group of Armd Corps who are surrounded at Sidi Rezegh 428405. You will receive no further orders but you will start fighting and get in touch with Gen GOTT comd 7 Armd Div who is surrounded there. Recognition signal is two red verey lights. Leave your 2nd line [transport] at present location or send back eastwards. You must decide quickly whether you go by rd or part on escarpment.’
The brigade got on to the Trigh Capuzzo before dark and found that it did not belie its name—‘the Capuzzo track’—a mere line of wheel ruts very like the old Tokaanu-Waiouru page 212 desert road in the coaching era. A halt was made for breakfast before dawn, but the first glimmers of light revealed that some of the columns were mixed among German vehicles whose occupants were similarly engaged. Eighth Field Company heard the firing and was told later that 200 prisoners were taken before the parties disengaged and finished their breakfasts at a safer distance from each other.
The intention was to occupy Point 175 before going to the assistance of 5 South African Brigade, whose position was reported to be insecure. What was expected to be a routine operation resulted in a bloody battle, with 25 Battalion losing over 300 in killed, wounded and missing. Part of 24 Battalion was thrown in and even then a line had to be consolidated short of the trig point. The sappers were positioned in what was thought to be a safe spot near Brigade Headquarters in Wadi esc Sciomar, about three miles east of Point 175.
Eighth Field Company's first day in action had been very full; it had heard a confused mêlée before breakfast and seen the results of a partially successful attack against a heavily defended position before tea. In the interval three enemy tanks had been sighted and chased away by guns, but not before a few trucks had mildly panicked at the sight. Then a party of infantry had been seen and fired on at extreme range and with probably little effect, but they had obligingly disappeared from view. However, the Company had laid no mines to protect the infantry nor had they been asked to lift any.
The infantry completed the capture of Point 175 the next day but the Field Company took no part. The position was then that the western slopes of the feature could still be made uncomfortable, the South African brigade had been overrun and apparently there were enemy in all directions. Sixth Brigade could, in fact, have been very easily erased, but it did not happen and this is the way of it—in the light of after knowledge.
General Rommel, under the impression that he had accounted for the armour of 30 Corps, was engaged in a venture that has been described variously as a brilliant operation and a piece of military foolishness; instead of completing the destruction of his scattered adversary, the German and Italian armour had been ordered to relieve the Omar forts. Certainly Headquarters 30 Corps was chased into Egypt, supplies disrupted and havoc caused in the rear areas. The Omars, however, were a disappoint- page 213 ment as they were largely occupied by Indians and determinedly hostile, but the New Zealand Division, thought to be facing Sollum, was marked for early capture.
There were in fact only three battalions and 5 Brigade Headquarters in the Sollum area. The position there was:
Brigade Headquarters had taken over the defence of a landing ground at Sidi Azeiz.
Twenty-eighth (Maori) Battalion Group, which included No. 2 Section, 7 Field Company (Lieutenant Ross20), had captured the barracks on the edge of the escarpment at Upper Sollum without much trouble and were looking down on the pier where 19 Army Troops Company barges had been bombed the previous December.
Twenty-second Battalion Group (No. 3 Section, Lieutenant Foster) was covering the Bardia-Tobruk road west of Bardia. It had taken over from 20 Battalion, which had left by way of the Trigh Capuzzo, where it was to rendezvous with 21 Battalion (now detached from 5 Brigade) and Divisional Headquarters which, with 5 Field Park, was en route to Bir el Chleta.
Twenty-third Battalion Group (No. 1 Section, Lieutenant Brady) had moved in to Fort Capuzzo; three battalions were thus doing the job originally entrusted to seven and there was no more talk for the moment of attacking Bardia. Water was now a problem at Capuzzo for the three tanks originally supplying the fort were in various stages of disrepair, and the enemy, after losing the services of a truckload of men sent to repair an inexplicable leak in the line to Halfaya, discontinued pumping water to the fort.
Lieutenant Brady illustrates one of those arrangements that just happen through force of circumstances and without the consent of Authority. He wrote:
‘Water was now one of our problems. We discovered an underground supply about a mile North of Capuzzo where the track branched off to Sidi Aziz. As this was outside the Bn's perimeter we used our water cart and all available cans to transport water into one of the large tanks in Capuzzo and succeeded in shifting a considerable quantity in this manner. This daily water cart parade really provided one of the highlights of our stay in Capuzzo. Each morning we set off after breakfast accompanied by a Bren Carrier who was to give us warning of any enemy activity.page 214
‘After one morning we got word that an enemy party was approaching from Bardia, so we packed up our pumping gear and departed back to our area and discovered to our amazement that the Germans were also using this water point, presumably to augment their supply. It then became a daily practice for us to have the mornings at the water point and the Germans the afternoons, both sides doing their best to get as much as possible. We eventually shifted about 10,000 gls.
‘We also turned one of the underground tanks into an emergency hospital and this proved to be very useful later on.’
Meanwhile at Bir el Chleta, Headquarters NZ Division, 20 and 21 Battalions, 5 Field Park and 6 Field Companies dispersed at daybreak and stood-to under scattered shellfire. The sappers breakfasted and later had a grandstand view of 20 Battalion with some tanks turning on an enemy group and chasing it away in the general direction of Gambut where, unless it was very careful, it would collide with 4 Brigade. The group then split, with 21 Battalion, under orders to report to 6 Brigade, moving towards Sidi Rezegh, 20 Battalion rejoining 4 Brigade now west of the Gambut area, and Divisional Headquarters (with 5 Field Park and 6 Field Company less one section) moving another seven miles along the Trigh Capuzzo and establishing themselves under the lee of Point 175.
Sixth Brigade attacked again before dawn (25th) and carried its line about two miles past what was called the Blockhouse, actually a rest post for travellers. During the night 8 Field Company was ordered to take up a position near Point 175. It was the Company's first night manoeuvre in battle and Major Currie remembers it very well:
‘We moved in close formation, my PU in front of the centre to lead the way. We went South-West to avoid WADI ESC SCIOMAR and then directly North to the centre of our position. It was pitch dark, no lights, and I was travelling on dead reckoning worked off the map. We travelled at a very slow speed. Suddenly the texture of the darkness changed, and I stopped and everybody else did. I then found that we were on the edge of the escarpment where we were supposed to be. The escarpment was too steep to drive down in the dark and in that part it would require careful driving in full light. We camped for the rest of the night and dispersed at first light.’
The Company was shelled at daybreak and suffered its first casualties, one fatal.21 The 18-pounder troop of 33 Anti-Tank page 215 page 216 Battery came up and silenced the enemy guns, for which the sappers were very grateful as it was their first experience of shellfire and it taught them much of the nerve control that carries a man through such an ordeal. In the years to come many a night in the NAAFI was brightened by descriptions of sappers taking cover behind their unloaded boxes of ammunition and grenades.
When there was sufficient light to see the country ahead, 4 Brigade again drew level by advancing as far as Zaafran, where there was a good passage down the escarpment. No. 2 Section, 6 Field Company, was joined there by the rest of the Company and it was agreed by all that even though they had been given no jobs there was no lack of movement. The Company was lucky to have left the Divisional Headquarters area in time to miss an attack by twenty-eight dive-bombers, one of the few times the enemy air force had been able to intervene. A number of bombs fell among the Headquarters Divisional Engineers and 5 Field Park vehicles. Four trucks and Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson's car were damaged beyond repair. Captain Lindell was wounded and Lieutenant Wildey took his place as Adjutant. The only fatal casualty among the engineers was the 5 Field Park dog mascot, Captain Box Girder.
Major Anderson was instructed to build a temporary prisoner-of-war cage in a wadi where an MDS had been established a little eastward of Trig 175.
‘We jacked up a cage using the Fd Park Bridging trucks and some barbed wire. And prisoners came thick and fast. By 28th we had over a thousand. There was no shelter, no conveniences, no grub. It was getting a bit grim. We had a German Colonel for whom we provided a tent but that was the only convenience. He asked for a smoke and I offered him some cigarettes but apparently he only smoked cigars which weren't on the menu.’
Major Currie was called up on the phone that had been laid to Brigade Headquarters (Engineer companies had no wireless at that stage) and instructed to investigate a suspected minefield reported in a wadi between Point 175 and the Blockhouse, where three trucks had been blown up during the night operations. He went to investigate his first enemy minefield and found a number of hastily laid ‘Teller’ mines,22 conspicuous by page 217 being only partly buried and covered with sand. No. 3 Section (Lieutenant ‘Mit’ Page23) was given the job of lifting them and found about fifty altogether. The place had been used as an artillery headquarters and the sappers left the area staggering under the weight of loot they had acquired. Another minefield found at Point 175 was lifted by No. 2 Section (Lieutenant ‘Monty’ Craven24). The Company felt that it was justifying its existence.
General Rommel, besides other diversions, was getting on with his arrangements for liquidating the New Zealand Division which he still supposed to be in the Sollum area. And General Freyberg was making his preparations for the relief of Tobruk. It was to be a night attack with bayonet and grenade, and if all went well daylight would find 4 Brigade on Belhamed ridge and 6 Brigade with two battalions on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment and two on the high ground at Ed Duda. Then 70 Division from the Tobruk garrison, when ordered, would break through the enemy ring around Tobruk and join the Kiwis.
Eighth Field Company had no active part to play in the 6 Brigade operations beyond moving up as far as the Blockhouse area, but 2 Section, 6 Field Company, spent a very busy and unprofitable night with 4 Brigade.
Belhamed was to be taken by two assaulting battalions (18 and 20) with Colonel Kippenberger of 20 Battalion in charge of the operation. No. 2 Section (Lieutenant Morgan25), with two trucks and 500 anti-tank mines, accompanied the attack with the mission of laying a protective minefield in front of the position when won. Morgan says:
‘We moved off in the dark following Bn. H.Q. After some time we started moving down hill along what appeared to be a wadi, which I later realised led down the escarpment. We had difficulty in guiding the two trucks as the going was very rough. When we reached the bottom of the escarpment Kip realised that he was off course and we must have moved too far to the right. After doing some map reading under a ground sheet he decided to move back up the escarpment and change direction left from our recent course.’page 218
The sudden rattle of small-arms fire, the yells of charging men and the uprush of German rockets was the first intimation that Headquarters Group was not where it ought to be. A cautious return was being made when a party of enemy was encountered and the result was approximately seventy prisoners. Except for wounded men calling for help and stretcher bearers stumbling around in the darkness, everything was then quiet on Belhamed. No. 2 Section and Battalion Headquarters formed a defensive perimeter while Colonel Kippenberger went off to find the battalions. This took a long time and in the end the infantry consolidated on Belhamed without the benefit of protective mines. Had things not gone wrong in the darkness those 500 anti-tank mines might have made all the difference later. It is to be noted that the tactical advantages of minefields were not thoroughly appreciated at that period, for though other opportunities presented themselves during the battle, none of the engineer units were called on to protect the FDLs with anti-tank mines.
‘Just before dawn Kip sent me back to Bde. with my Sec. and two trucks as these were too conspicuous on the flat plain,’ Morgan continues. ‘We also took back a batch of prisoners…. We arrived back at Bde about an hour (?) after daybreak out of the morning fog. I believe Bde was rather puzzled by our appearance at first. Two trucks with prisoners between them and my blokes in single file on each side escorting both. That morning haze played tricks on the eyes.’
Support arms were to move up to Belhamed behind the infantry and Sergeant Tom Hanger26 and fifteen sappers of 3 Section were detailed to accompany some tanks which were under command of 4 Brigade. Their job was to lift anti-tank mines, for which task they carried mine detectors. Again something went wrong for the tanks did not find the infantry and went too far forward. The result was a fierce fight with enemy armour which cost seven tanks, and from which the sappers were lucky to return without casualties.
The 6 Brigade attack along Sidi Rezegh was only partly successful for it got no farther than the little mosque that gave the place its name, whereas two battalions should have pressed on from there to Ed Duda. Fourth Brigade, securely in possession of Belhamed, brought 19 Battalion from reserve and page 219 sent it against Ed Duda. Sixth Field Company was then ordered to occupy part of the position vacated by the 19th along the edge of a low escarpment at Zaafran. They were joined there by some 200 survivors of the South African brigade mentioned earlier and a South African officer, Major C. Cochrane, was given command of the Kiwi-Springbok combination. The line was thickened up with the balance of 5 Field Park under Captain Pemberton. Beyond the shortage of water, which was rationed down to half a bottle per man plus three half mugs of tea provided by the cooks, memorable events in the next few days on the Kiwi-Springbok front were the guarding of some tanks in laager while maintenance was carried out and the shooting down of an enemy ‘recce’ plane.
Who shot the plane down is an open question but it fell in the 6 Field Company area. No. 3 Section captured the wounded pilot and observer and were rapidly dismantling the machine when Authority put it under guard until an IO came from Divisional Headquarters.
The Divisional programme for the night 26th–27th was for 6 Brigade to secure the rest of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment while 4 Brigade tied in with 70 Division, which had meantime reached Ed Duda. The Italian forces investing Tobruk had been rather roughly handled by 70 Division in the breakout, and messages to Rommel imploring him to return and save a threatening situation failed to reach him, or if they did he took no apparent notice. He was still in the rear of the force he supposed he had trapped between 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions. And the scattered but not annihilated 30 Corps armour had been given time to reassemble, repair, and replenish.
Both brigades now took all their objectives and junction was made with 70 Division on Ed Duda. Tobruk was in effect relieved and a corridor cleared in the terrain commanded by the New Zealand Division. But General Rommel was now concentrating on the problem of how to disperse the enemy containing his frontier posts, and how with expedition to get back to Tobruk. His resulting actions brought disaster to 5 Brigade Headquarters Group.
Seventh Field Company's dispositions at dawn on 27 November were:
No. 1 Section on water duties at Fort Capuzzo.
No. 2 Section at Sidi Azeiz with Company Headquarters in the 5 Brigade HQ Group.page 220
Company Headquarters' cook's burner was belching flames and breakfast was near. Over near the horizon was an approaching cloud of dust, a cloud that hid a line of tanks—enemy tanks. Shells began to explode in the area and everybody dived for slit trenches—everybody except the cook, who had no trench and had to lie down near his burner and watch the breakfast burn to cinders. Soon the engineer trucks were on fire and detonating anti-tank mines added to the smoke and noise.
Major Thomas describes his last battle:
‘Much of the ground in our area was rock and when a shell burst on this hard ground near a slit trench the ground was made to ring and slit trenches certainly felt comforting. The gunners had a bad time manning their few guns as they did not have the same protection as other personnel close to the ground.
‘Some infantry groups changed their position among the black smoke of burning gear, ammo and other stores, and the bursting shells but their game effort could not affect the outcome.
‘After a period of heavy shelling the tanks rode into our position with their machine guns shooting at anything above the ground. The tanks halted among and over us and we furtively looked for the German Infantry who we understood always followed up their tanks. Fortunately for the German Infantry and possibly fortunately for us, no German Infantry arrived. The tanks with their armour plate overawed us and Brigadier Hargest decided to cease fire…. The Brigadier was not interested in mines for protection of his wide open position. Admittedly, all of us assumed that it was merely a halt on our advance on Tobruk and Major Nicholl,27 O.C. Div Cav was horrified when it was suggested that mines would give some protection.’28
The survivors of 5 Brigade Headquarters Group, breakfastless, were marched 19 miles to Bardia and a PW cage. Streams of enemy vehicles were on the move, some towards Tobruk, others to Bardia and replenishment. Elements of 23 and 28 page 221 Battalions situated in the path of these columns as they lapped around Fort Capuzzo were involved, but the sappers were not engaged in any of the fighting. The situation that night was not reassuring according to Lieutenant Brady:
‘By nightfall Capuzzo was completely surrounded and in every direction German flares were to be seen, giving a grim picture for the following morning as it was known that large forces of enemy were in the vicinity and our reply was one tank minus track which was manoeuvred into position and there it stayed. However by next morning the enemy had completely disappeared.’
Twenty-second Battalion was in the unhappy state of not knowing much of what was going on but being quite certain that its position was dangerous: gunfire and smoke in the direction of Sidi Azeiz, a message to the effect that Brigade Headquarters was being attacked, then no more messages. Large heavily armed convoys, too strong for the battalion to do much about, streamed westwards from Bardia and a threatening infantry deployment, which did not however develop into an attack, preceded an uneasy night.
‘Next day the 27th, at about 1100 hrs the shelling began in earnest and we had several hours of it during which we suffered six engineer casualties, including Sapper Tate,29 killed in action and Sapper Davidson,30 died of wounds. My pickup, an 8 cwt Dodge, received a direct hit but fortunately Arthur Warburton,31 the driver, was not in it…. This truck “Audrey” was to become a familiar sight, as over the next couple of years the riddled cab was to be seen whenever we passed Capuzzo and was still there when we finally left Libya in 1943…. The attack carried on and the Germans actually got as far as our transport at one end and took two or three sappers prisoner, but they were later released.’32
The return of the panzer divisions to the main battle at Sidi Rezegh was announced by the muffled sounds of distant page 222 firing. It was German armour beating off British attacks and finally breaking through to the rear of the Division.
Major Anderson was wondering how many more prisoners he would have to cram into his cage before somebody took them away, when Lieutenant Bowes arrived with a message from Divisional Headquarters to the effect that there were some unburied dead to the south-west, and also that there was food and water in an enemy encampment somewhere between the Blockhouse and 6 Brigade. Anderson left Captain Thomson in charge, and accompanied by a truckload of prisoners and nine guards, he and Bowes went out to reconnoitre the areas. They found a number of German dead who were buried by their countrymen, and also obtained a load of water cans, tinned gherkins, Danish butter and hermetically-sealed bread as moist and fresh as the day it was made.
‘We started back with our spoils and got within about 600 yards of home when we realised that Jerry was in charge,’ Major Anderson writes. ‘The cage was in a depression that we could not see but the prisoners were all running around cheering and they came up on the ridge where we saw them. We went about smartly. Jerry blazed a bit of MG fire at us but apparently they were all too excited to do anything much. We moved a mite smartly. Fortunately we had located 6 Bde on the march out so we made for them and reached them just before dark. I made for HQ and found Barrington33 (BM at the time). His tale was gloomy. Everyone was pinched and nothing certain was known of Div HQ. He suggested I join 8th Field Coy and picked up Capt Reid34 about 9 p.m. just as he was moving off. We moved down the escarpment on to the flat and turned west for about two miles where we laguered for the rest of the night. In the morning I turned east to look for Div HQ and when I located them they were all rather surprised because the whole of the Company, less Pemberton's detachment, was reported captured. Anyway we still had our few prisoners and we made a small crib to hold them until arrangements were made for their despatch elsewhere.’page 223
‘We got home safely, had tea—and then it happened! About 20 minutes after we arrived a whole Panzer brigade arrived without any warning and the first we knew about it there were Huns in amongst us with machine guns. We couldn't even fire a shot it was so sudden and unexpected. We had treated the “prisoners” pretty well (at least¼ of them speak intelligible English). They all leapt out of the pen saying “New Zealanders—good comrades”, patting us on the back with one hand and taking away our rifles with the other! It was really very funny and a movie of it would have made a good sequel to the one the official photographer took of us guarding them a few days earlier! They marched us a couple of miles, put us in trucks and the next morning we were in a temporary P.O.W. camp on the Bardia-Tobruk road.’37
While Major Anderson was moving to the new location with 8 Field Company transport, Captain Pemberton's section was on night manoeuvres. ‘Sometime during the night 28–29 Cpl Harry Livingston38 reported tanks moving out forward of our positions,’ Pemberton writes. ‘Bn HQ and Bde had no more clues than we whether they were ours or enemy.
‘I decided to investigate them before first light. However they were up early too for they started up their engines and pinpointed their position while it was still fairly dark as we went down to find them. Sergt Ted Morse39 (Workshop Sect) had an idea they were probably ours because the faint outline of a truck he could pick up looked like a South African truck.
‘I kept Workshop sect back covering me from the FDL's of their position and sneaked forward in the faint glimmer of page 224 first light to recce—realising then that I had left some perfectly good “sticky bombs” back at HQ and all I had was a pocket full of grenades. I almost reached the nearest tank when it pulled out and disappeared and I ran over to the next one. Someone must have spotted me in the half light for the turret with its big gun swung round in my direction and I ducked in alongside to avoid being shot up. The tank was a Hun. An unfriendly type leaned out of the turret and had a shot at me with a pistol at a few feet range while I frantically pulled at a stiff pin of a grenade. It came away and I held it—just too long—and then lobbed it for the hatch of the turret. The clang of the cover closing and the crash of the grenade against it were almost simultaneous. The engine roared and the tank slewed around and thundered off into the dusk of the morning. I ran back where I'd left Ted Morse a bit shaken and annoyed at myself for not doing better—our little action a failure. But no—not quite. Some of the boys had spotted a tank and a couple of trucks slower off the mark than the others further round quite close under the escarpment between Stores and Workshops fronts. They caught the crew out of their tank and rounded up the lot, 1 tank, 2 trucks and nine prisoners. I was very proud of them.’
The Germans who had overrun Major Anderson's prisoner cage and the adjacent MDS did not move beyond the wadi that had sheltered both. But the German officer who smoked only cigars and did not like Anderson's fags, Colonel Mickl of 155 Lorried Infantry Regiment, was to be back in action again the next morning.
By dusk there had been more fighting for the Sidi Rezegh ridge, but 6 Brigade had remained in possession though not without cost. There were enemy east, west and south. To the north where 4 Brigade was on Belhamed and to the north-west where the Tobruk garrison held Ed Duda were the only friendly fronts. Brigadier Barrowclough regrouped his battered battalions with 21 on Point 175, 25 around the Blockhouse, 8 Field Company with detachments of machine and anti-tank gunners under command on the north-eastern perimeter of the Sidi Rezegh airfield, then 26 Battalion and finally, completing an eight-mile line from east to west, 24 Battalion on the western flank, the whole brigade being deployed facing south. Brigade Headquarters and all vehicles moved to a safer area below the escarpment and nearer Belhamed. This move was in progress when Major Anderson met Captain Reid.page 225
A move that had some bearing on 6 Field Company fortunes was that of Divisional Headquarters, which had been forced to vacate its area after the capture of the wadi containing the 5 Field Park PW cage and the MDS. It moved west nearer to 6 Brigade Headquarters. Brigadier Inglis chose a new spot on the south-eastern slopes of the wadi between Belhamed and Zaafran for his 4 Brigade headquarters. Part of 19 Battalion was brought back from Ed Duda to its old area, where it was greeted by Sergeant Len Morris and his Stores Section armed to the teeth with grenades and sticky bombs. After identification had been established, 19 Battalion took over the area and 5 Field Park were attached for all purposes.
The South Africans and 6 Field Company moved to the Bir Sciuearat area a mile and a half north of Point 175, where in an infantry role they joined 26 Field Battery, a troop of 65 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, and a platoon of 27 Machine Gun Battalion, partly to protect the rear of Divisional Headquarters and partly to fill the gap between the two brigades. Next to Point 175, Bir Sciuearat was the highest ground thereabouts. It was tactically an important feature, but to keep a clear mind for what follows it is only necessary to say that for the next few days both sapper units shot when there was anything to shoot at.
They had to put up with a lot of shelling, mortaring and machine-gunning at long range, but when anything ventured close enough it received a shower of Spandau bullets with which the sappers were by now well provided.
The day (29th) opened with infantry attacks against 21 Battalion on Point 175. They were repulsed, and the battalion was congratulating itself on the outcome when tanks were seen approaching. Without doubt these were the South Africans, known to be not very far away. The troops went forward to welcome them and it is a moot point as to who got the biggest surprise—for the South Africans were actually part of the Italian Ariete Division under the impression that Point 175 had been recaptured. In the event Point 175 was recaptured, together with most of 21 Battalion. Twenty-fifth Battalion was unable to intervene, and 8 Field Company farther west again passed an anxious day that ended, however, on an unusual note. To quote Major Currie again:
‘It was on the 29th that an Italian tank came into our lines for safety. The turret had been pierced by an AP shell and the tank commander was badly wounded. We gave what assistance page 226 we could. Some of my sappers got the crew's Biretta automatic pistols. All this was in the afternoon. I decided to take the tank to Bde HQ. Driving it was quite easy and I took it down the escarpment only to be met by some British tanks, who said I was not qualified or permitted to handle it. They took it from me and I was robbed of a glorious opportunity to drive up to the Brigadier's truck with my prize.’
Eighth Field Company had another quiet day in the sunshine of the 30th wondering what was going on. Twenty-fifth Battalion was still on their left and 24 and 26 on the right. None of the shellfire directed against the western end of Sidi Rezegh ridge came their way, nor were they involved with the converging tank and infantry movement that ended at dusk with the overrunning of 24 and half of 26 Battalions. Their turn come later.
‘Some time after dark,’ wrote Major Currie, ‘there were sounds of vehicles moving close at hand. On a dying telephone line, we had no wireless in those days, I ascertained that there were no friendly vehicles moving. The anti-tank portees backed up inch by inch until they could see the loom of the vehicles in the darkness. They opened fire and got every truck, three of them I think. One was an ammunition truck and went on fire giving a brilliant display for some hours, but we didn't like it as it drew attention to our area. The enemy seemed to go to ground, and not wanting to be between them and the sky line at daylight, I organised a bayonet charge under the command of Lt Craven.’
The enemy did not wait for the wildly yelling sappers and the only positive result was the release of Captains E. J. Thomson40 and E. F. Walden,41 who had been captured while searching for Major Currie with the view to forming a line in his area with what was left of 24 Battalion. They managed to slip away in the confusion, and after Thomson had restored himself to comfort by removing his compass from where he had hidden it in his crutch, they reported to Brigade Headquarters. Their troops had already been withdrawn there.
The situation on the Sidi Rezegh ridge was then that 25 Battalion around the Blockhouse and 8 Field Company adjacent to the airfield were all that remained of 6 Brigade, excepting of course Headquarters, the B Echelons below the escarpment page 227 and some remnants of the other battalions. They were safe until daylight, and orders were to keep the corridor to Tobruk open at all costs even if, as Brigadier Inglis said, ‘It was a damned draughty corridor’.
A South African brigade was still expected to reinforce the Division, but the loss of Point 175 and other complications made this expectation remote.
From the New Zealand point of view the providential arrival of a 300-lorry supply convoy piloted by the ex-CRE, Colonel Clifton, restored the fighting power of the guns, and the food and water were welcome, too, but there was little else pleasing in the prospect.42 Divisional Headquarters and 4 Brigade Headquarters were stripped down to bedrock and the rest sent into Tobruk along the ‘damned draughty corridor’. Unfortunately, 6 Brigade B Echelon was not included in this order. Major Anderson and his sapper team of guards, Engineer Headquarters and the Postal Unit were included in the column that was met and guided through the minefields. The journey was surprisingly quiet and uneventful, except for Lieutenant Coupland's Postal truck which went up on a mine with the loss of two killed.
Eighth Field Company's transport stood-to ready to move into Tobruk at a moment's notice; Captain Reid waited all night at 6 Brigade Headquarters for orders and then at dawn (1 December) returned to the park and dispersed his vehicles. This had hardly been done when firing broke out on Belhamed ridge, and then German tanks were seen there moving eastwards. They had come from Sidi Rezegh, had overrun the guns of 6 Field Regiment, then overwhelmed 20 Battalion and forced 18 Battalion to withdraw into the Tobruk defences. An ironic twist to a desperate situation was that 18 Battalion found safety behind an anti-tank minefield previously laid by the enemy.
Every gun and tank that could be brought to bear halted the enemy advance towards Zaafran and 4 Brigade Headquarters and the attack swung round on 6 Brigade. Very soon seven of Captain Reid's trucks were burning. A runner was sent to Brigade for orders and returned with instructions to hang on for our own tanks were coming.
Major Currie, from his vantage point on Sidi Rezegh, saw page 228 the captured 20 Battalion being marched away, and saw also less than a mile away his own trucks burning, one in particular giving a remarkable pyrotechnic display.
‘I remarked to my companion, Major Luxford,43 of the Machine Gun Battalion that there were going our mines. Mines which nobody wanted but which, if laid, could have kept the Hun tanks off the Brigade. Besides the mines given us by the CRE, we had a truckload of Teller mines we had lifted earlier.’
But Brigade's information was correct. This time the tanks really were coming. Major Currie saw 22 Armoured Brigade approaching the airfield and went down to tell them what was going on over the ridge and to hurry, otherwise their journey would be unnecessary. He was staggered by being requested to produce his identity card; it did seem to be carrying security a little too far in a situation where every minute counted. How much every minute counted even he did not know, for the infantry immediately available to Brigadier Inglis in 4 Brigade consisted of the 5 Field Park/19 Battalion group at Zaafran and the 6 Field Company/South African combination at Bir Sciuearat.
Captain Reid, from a slit trench in the vehicle park, saw two tanks coming from the direction of Brigade Headquarters. He saw also that they were the wrong kind of tank. They took thirty-eight cooks, drivers and quartermaster personnel from their shelters and marched them away. Later Reid, who had been missed, collected nine others and, under cover of the smoke from his burning trucks, made his way to Brigade Headquarters only to find that it had departed. Actually it was now with Divisional Headquarters at Zaafran.
By this time, early afternoon, 22 Armoured Brigade was down off Sidi Rezegh and turning back the tide of disaster threatening to engulf the Division. General Freyberg with only 25 Battalion, two and a half Engineer companies, half of 19 Battalion and sundry infantry remnants left to him out of the seven battalions that had entered the battle was virtually surrounded. He asked and obtained permission to break out that night (1–2 December) and refit in Egypt. Arrangements were made with General Norrie, commanding 30 Corps, to do this and by late afternoon orders for the operation had reached all units.
Major Currie was to withdraw his sappers from Sidi Rezegh page 229 forthwith. ‘Withdraw’ suggests an orderly movement with the best use being made of the transport available, but there was no transport available and in actual fact some of the company came back on the portées of the anti-tank guns, some on the machine-gunners' trucks and some rode on stray 22 Armoured Brigade tanks.
The tanks came under fire from the enemy on Point 175 and the passengers were forced to de-tank and move out of danger as fast as their legs would take them, down to the Trigh Capuzzo and to the rest of the Division around Zaafran, where Captain Reid found them. It only remains now to bring the Bir Sciuearat detachment into focus.
Sixth Field Company was facing south and south-east, with enemy on Point 175 about 3000 yards away with whom they carried on a desultory sniping match. According to Lieutenant Wheeler, who was with Captain Woolcott at Tactical Headquarters:
‘Daytime we usually had a sniping match with infantry moving on the plains to the south. But the thing I always remember is how at 12 noon, they would bring up a big lorry with a smoking chimney, the Gerries would queue up for lunch, and all shooting would stop while our own cooks brought up the “dixies”. Till 1 p.m. you could walk around, sit and write letters etc. in peace. Then there would be a shot, and both sides would dive for cover and go on with the war. Then the last afternoon…. they came in really hard from the South. We had some 25-pounders back in a hollow doing very well against the tanks, but their O.P. must have been shot out, because Woolcott spent most of the afternoon with field glasses and telephone, directing the fire. He was hit, in the arm only, and I took over the telephone, had a great time for a while, but the sun got low behind the enemy, and they could pick up the field-glasses, and gave us quite a straffing. We lost the telephone line, so the big guns moved up to the ridge behind us, with the 2-pounders and fired over the sights. But one by one they were hit, and there was quite a fireworks display from burning guns and quads behind us. Our slit trenches were barely a foot deep, the ground was so rocky. McFarlane got a piece in the stomach, was taken out, but died next day on the way back.’
Lieutenant Morgan in the centre of the engineer defensive position saw it this way:
‘6 Bde took off from Sidi Resegh past our West flank, the page 230 27 (MG) Bn chaps were picked up in a rush and we still had no word of what was happening…. Some of our transport came for us and we quadrupled the loads to take out the South Africans. This was about 1700–1730 hrs. McFarlane was hit in the stomach with a bit of mortar, loaded into my 8-cwt and off…. Wheeler picked up my batman and myself when we had the whole place to ourselves.’
Eighth Field Company fossicked around among the battalions for transport to replace that lost in the vehicle park and were offered several trucks and trailers by some Tommy gunners. The catch was that they were full of captured Bersaglieri, but the orders were that all prisoners were to be left behind.
‘One truck with trailer wouldn't go so we abandoned it. With the prisoners was one of my sappers “Flash” Ashdown,44 so named because nobody in the NZ Div could ride a motor cycle slower than he and yet keep going. He had been one of my D/Rs. The Wops had to be got off the trucks at revolver point. Flash didn't hear the order that we were abandoning them and went with them. After the Bde had gone the Wops set to and got the truck going and took Flash with them, not West to their own lines but East after us. They had had the war and wanted to get into a POW Cage. They propped Flash up in the front seat, nursed his rifle for him and caught us up the next morning. Thereafter they were our devoted slaves till we reached BAGGUSH and sent them back to the cages at MERSA MATRUH. They used to push our trucks out of the soft sand, do the cooking and line up for whatever rations were left over.’45
The engineers were back in their old area at Burbeita by the afternoon of 5 December after travelling all day in a hellish sandstorm. ‘Got settled in and issued more blankets. Andrew46 went ahead as advance party and arranged things. Had tea at LOB camp with Pickmere47 and Skinner. A great feed and yarn by the fire. To bed at 2115 very tired and done up. Foot and arm pretty sore.’48
It is not unusual for feet and arms to feel pretty sore after some days of neglected wounds.page 231
The departure of the panzer divisions from the frontier on 27 November relieved the pressure on the decapitated 5 Brigade. Colonel Andrew,49 worried by his isolation, had brought his 22 Battalion Group back to Libyan Omar and was there directed to join 23 Battalion at Capuzzo. The Maori Battalion was still in position at Upper Sollum. Colonel Andrew was appointed to the temporary command of 5 Brigade and had got a scratch headquarters operating when he was instructed to take his brigade back to his original area and prevent all movement between Bardia and the west. Seventh Field Company was re-formed and distributed, No. 1 Section going to 23 Battalion; No. 2 Section, a small new section commanded by Sergeant George,50 to 28 Battalion; and No. 3 Section (Sergeant McQueen51) and a skeleton Company Headquarters (Lieutenant Foster) to 22 Battalion.
On 3 December, while the rest of the Division was making its way back to Baggush, a battalion of the German 104 Lorried Infantry Regiment practically ceased to exist after having the misfortune to run into an ambush set by the Maori Battalion on the flat below the Menastir escarpment. Sergeant McQueen was working with his section improving the track down the escarpment when the transport park was shelled. The drivers were ordered to take their vehicles down to the flat where there was some shelter, but the movement was not well organised. Part of McQueen's DCM citation states:
‘Heavy artillery and machine gun fire was encountered and drivers were leaving their trucks, control was being lost, and the road was becoming blocked with lines of vehicles. Sgt. McQueen realising the seriousness of the position immediately took control and, displaying a total disregard for personal safety and refusing to leave when he himself was wounded, soon had some of the drivers back and damaged trucks were quickly moved aside to allow the remaining traffic to pass and disperse. He then turned his attention to wounded personnel. Despite his wound he carried on and again the following day was responsible for saving transport under almost similar con- page 232 ditions between MENASTIR and CAPUZZO. Sergeant McQueen was at all times an example and an inspiration to all who came in contact with him.’
Brigadier Wilder52 arrived on 7 December with a headquarters staff to take command of 5 Brigade. The 7 Field Company sections had been recalled from the battalions and assembled at Capuzzo the previous day, and on the 8th 5 Brigade was ordered westward to reinforce Rommel's decision to retire from Tobruk. His success in resealing the punctured cordon around Tobruk had proved a Pyrrhic victory, for he had insufficient strength left to resist renewed British pressure and protect his long line of communications.
It was thought likely that he would try to stand at the Gazala position about 40 miles to the west. Gazala was a strongly defended area and might have to be reduced before the operation could continue.
Fifth Brigade assembled near Sidi Azeiz, then moved westwards in desert formation astride the Trigh Capuzzo for a few miles before turning north and scrambling down the escarpment on to the Via Balbia, where it laagered for the night at the Tobruk bypass turnoff. The troops stayed there throughout a cold, wet and windy day (10th). It did not seem a proper way to chase a retiring enemy, but 13 Corps had to wait until the rear echelons were organised to operate from Tobruk; the supply chain from the New Zealand Railway Group's railhead at Misheifa was stretched to the limit.
The latest information was that the enemy had vacated Acroma, on the western junction of the bypass road with the Via Balbia, and was, for the time being, beyond pursuit. The RAF was of course in attendance. After a long chase from the LOB camp Captain Skinner and Lieutenant Pickmere caught up with 7 Field Company. Captain Skinner took command and Pickmere went to No. 2 Section.
The same afternoon Major Anderson and party, who had left Tobruk with Divisional Headquarters two days earlier, marched into Sidi Haneish expecting to find only Captain page 233 Pemberton's detachment, but to his speechless amazement practically the whole Company was there. The sappers whom he thought were languishing behind enemy barbed wire had beaten him home by five hours after one week as prisoners of war. According to Sapper O'Reilly they had been well treated by the Germans and exceedingly badly by the Italians, to whom they had been handed over while their original captors got on with the war. An armoured-car detachment had picked them up somewhere west of Tobruk, and as O'Reilly wrote: ‘We had been prisoners just 2 hours short of a week—and what a wonderful feeling to be free again! You have no idea what it was like…. None of us had shaved for at least 10 days, nor once had taken our clothes off nor washed and we were a pretty rough looking lot. It was really great to have a decent wash and shave yesterday and to clean one's teeth…. this morning we got a Patriotic Fund issue of razors, soap, tobacco (I lost 5 tins of Bears DC would break your heart wouldn't it) and there is also another Patriotic parcel due so we should be all right.’
To return to 7 Field Company.
Thirteenth Corps' plan was for 5 Brigade to advance on Gazala which, if held in force, was to be reconnoitred but not attacked. A tank brigade would protect the inland flank, while 4 Indian Division would bypass the place and endeavour to cut off and capture the garrison.
The brigade left early next morning and made a slow trip along the mine-flanked road between the silent Belhamed feature and Ed Duda as far as Acroma, where the troops deployed on a three-battalion front facing west. To the north was the sea, to the south 4 Indian Division, and straight ahead the Gazala fortress position.
From then to the end of the campaign 7 Field Company salvaged vehicles, machine guns, artillery gunsights, water tanks, signal gear and the debris of a battlefield while the enemy were pushed from position to position. The biggest engineering job was the construction of a road that saved the wounded many excruciating miles, as Captain Skinner later reported:
‘Accompanied by Major King53 of Field Amb. I recced a roadsite down the escarpment north of el Azragh. Commencing page 234 work before daylight on 14th Dec. using our compressors and a considerable amount of explosives we were able to construct a road enabling ambulances to convey the wounded from the 28 Bn. to the MDS. established on the el Agheila flat instead of taking them to Acroma saving approx. 30 miles over desert track each trip.’
Corporal Jefferies and Sapper Locke54 were lent to the REs in the rear for instruction in mine detecting, using detectors instead of bayonets, and they supervised the lifting of some 2000 enemy mines. No. 2 Section found a minefield of their own and picked up about 500 mines, while the Company as a whole disposed of unexploded mines and Thermos flask bombs.
By the 15th the outer defences had been breached and the main Gazala position was within reach. Poles, Indians and Kiwis launched their attacks and after two days' hard fighting, plus the threat of the outflanking left hook which had been delayed by bad going, the enemy withdrew.
It was the end of 5 Brigade's active role in the campaign. The Company continued working on battlefield salvage and operating the water point until transport arrived to carry the infantry. The brigade left the Gazala area on 23 December. Near Tobruk the Company salvaged one of its own trucks, a 30-cwt. Ford complete with log book and tools. It had been abandoned in Greece and brought to Africa by the Germans, and had not been looked after very well. Sidi Haneish was reached on 26 December.
Christmas Day had passed almost unnoticed. Away to the west Benghazi, where the Railway sappers spent a few weeks earlier in the year, was again in our hands. Christmas dinner in the traditional manner was served on New Year's Day.
The coming of 1942 was hailed by the Division at Baggush in such a way that the Navy and RAF thought the enemy had miraculously returned to the attack. The engineers added a few special effects to the erupting land mines, the indiscriminate mortar and cannon fire, and the streams of tracer that tore into the sky from ten thousand rifles.
Engineer casualties for the period June-December 1941 were:page 235
|Died of wounds||1|
|Killed and died of wounds||4|
|Killed and died of wounds||5|
|Wounded and PW||1|
|Killed and died of wounds||3|
|Wounded and PW||2|
|Killed and died of wounds||2|
|Died while PW||1|
2 Letter, Maj Currie.
4 Maj Rudd relinquished command of 6 Fd Coy to become Military Secretary, 2 NZEF, and Maj Woolcott took over. Maj Thomas replaced Maj Hanson, who became CRE when Lt-Col Clifton left the Division to be CRE 30 Corps.
5 Letter, Brig Hanson.
8 The very first mine detectors, few in number, were the Goldak, made in the USA as a commercial machine for finding buried engineering services but not robust enough for the desert conditions. The local mine detector was made to meet a pressing demand, from parts and valves available in the Middle East.
9 LOB, left out of battle.
10 Modern military history has been made by at least three triumphant Eighth Armies. The first was the Chinese Eighth Route Army of the nineteen-thirties, then the British Eighth Army of the 1939-45 war, and finally the United States Eighth Army of the Korean war.
16 Letter, Lt Brady.
17 5 Fd Pk Coy had, during the first Libyan campaign, travelled the Via Balbia across Cyrenaica. On its return it had brought back a liberated Italian piano for the sisters at the General Hospital at Helwan.
19 Letter, Lt Wheeler.
22 The Teller was the German standard anti-tank mine, about twelve inches in diameter by three high, and containing 11 lb of high explosive. It could be fitted with pull igniters and trip-wires which made lifting a very dangerous operation. A tank exploding a Teller mine invariably lost a track and was immobilised until repairs were effected. A truck was generally a write-off, and drivers seldom escaped death or injury.
28 While mines greatly assisted in protecting a defensive position, they were disliked by armoured units when laid hurriedly without adequate marking and clearly-indicated gaps for vehicles.
32 Letter, Lt Brady.
33 Brig B. Barrington, DSO, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; born Marton, 2 Oct 1907; insurance inspector; SC 6 Bde Mar 1940-May 1941; BM 6 Bde May 1941-Jan 1942; DAQMG 2 NZ Div May-Nov 1942; AA & QMG Nov 1942-Dec 1944; DA & QMG NZ Corps Feb-Mar 1944; died Wellington, 17 Apr 1954.
34 Lt-Col H. M. Reid, MC and bar, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Auckland, 21 Mar 1904; civil engineer; OC 6 Fd Coy Jun-Jul 1942; 8 Fd Coy Aug-Dec 1942; comd NZ Forestry Group (UK) Jul-Oct 1943; attached Air Ministry Dec 1943-Feb 1944; twice wounded; wounded and p.w. 16 Dec 1942; released, Tripoli, 23 Jan 1943.
37 The officers were separated from the sappers and sent away to Benghazi. En route they stayed the night with some South African sapper prisoners, whereupon Lieutenant Acland demoted himself by removing his stars and became a Springbok. In Benghazi he joined forces with an Australian Flight Sergeant and the pair hid in the camp water cart. The idea was to wait there until the city was captured, but they were discovered and, as the escapee writes, ‘that was that’.
42 For getting the supplies through to the Division Col Clifton received an immediate bar to a DSO awarded, but not yet notified, for his exploits in Greece. He therefore received the bar before the initial award.
45 Letter, Maj Currie.
48 Capt Reid's diary.
49 Brig L. W. Andrew, VC, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Ashhurst, 23 Mar 1897; Regular soldier; Wellington Regt, 1915–19; CO 22 Bn Jan 1940-Feb 1942; comd 5 Bde 27 Nov-6 Dec 1941; Area Commander, Wellington, Nov 1943-Dec 1946; Commander, Central Military District, 1948–52.
52 Maj-Gen A. S. Wilder, DSO, MC, m.i.d., Order of the White Eagle (Serb); Te Hau, Waipukurau; born NZ 24 May 1890; sheep farmer; Maj, Wgtn Mtd Rifles, 1914–19; CO 25 Bn May 1940-Sep 1941; comd NZ Trg Group, 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.
53 Brig R. D. King, CBE, DSO, m.i.d.; Greek Medallion for Distinguished Deed; Timaru; born Timaru, 25 Feb 1896; medical practitioner; 1 NZEF 1918–19; physician 1 Gen Hosp 1940–41; CO 4 Fd Amb 1942–43; ADMS 2 NZ Div 1943–44; DDMS NZ Corps Feb-Mar 1944.