4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
Tuesday, 25 November
Tuesday, 25 November
Sixth Brigade captures a troublesome blockhouse just west of Point 175, takes 200 prisoners, and then gathers for a night attack which fails to break through to Ed Duda. Opposition is fierce, casualties on both sides severe.
Fourth Brigade, to the north, moves four miles forward after dawn, runs into heavy fire, and digs in. The three sections of 4 RMT Company draw back south of Belhamed and Zaafran, awaiting further orders. From now until entering Tobruk their job is to stay put and wait. Except for one air raid——and now enemy bombers and fighters appear daily in moderate strength ——the day passes fairly quietly for 4 RMT. In the evening white flares from enemy positions prick the sky. Fourth Brigade's 18 and 20 Battalions, on foot, in moonlight capture Belhamed by bayonet.
The Division's ammunition is low, supplies and water are short, and now with no link-up to the east, hundreds of wounded and almost a thousand prisoners are further problems.
With plenty of problems of its own, B Section of 4 RMT, on water supply work, is worried by roving tanks, artillery fire, occasional bombing, and shifting water points. One water point has changed its position three times in two hours. One B Section convoy runs into seven lost Germans, accepts their surrender, and hands them over to a tank brigade headquarters. Driver Hewlett48 is last seen searching an abandoned car when a staff car pulls up beside him. Thought to have been taken prisoner, Hewlett later is reported killed.
B Section 4 RMT acts as a water-carrying section in the Divisional Supply Column, which comes under the Divisional Administration Group, at first located just through the wire where the Division entered Libya. Stationed with the group are the workshops sections of the two RMT companies, together with similar sections from other NZASC units. From the page 146 front Divisional Headquarters sends messages (usually by radio) concerning supplies, reinforcements, ammunition, wounded, and so on, to the Divisional Administration Group, which tries to carry out these orders. Near the group is 50 Field Maintenance Centre, an enormous open-air dump handling all the stores, ammunition, petrol, water, and supplies necessary to maintain 13 Corps in the field. The 50th FMC also receives prisoners from the front. B Section is supposed to help supply the Division with water from water points established wherever operations permit, starting first of all from the water point in 50 FMC. Between 23 and 28 November their efforts to supply the Division are largely thwarted by the movement of enemy armoured divisions.
The 6th RMT's trials are by no means over when the new day, Tuesday, 25 November, begins. The company's laager in the dark near Point 204 lasts only about four hours. The Indians and the gunners are moving back to near the wire gap at Sheferzen to form a defensive position around a feature, Point 203. The company follows, twice getting lost. Point 203 is reached after dawn, but transport must move immediately because it is a sitting target for enemy artillery.49 On the suggestion of the Indians, the company, led by Major Hood, leaves for Conference Cairn, 21 miles away, intending from there to follow the telephone wire east to 5 Indian Brigade headquarters. Once reached, the brigade headquarters could take over the prisoners and ‘contact by phone N.Z. Division’ for orders for its unhappy waif, 6 RMT.page 147
Seven miles on the way to Conference Cairn Hood halts the company for a badly needed breakfast. Many of the men and most of the prisoners have not eaten for two days. Everything seems wonderfully quiet and peaceful at last. Only a small knot of drivers argues fiercely. A rifle has gone off accidentally. Half of them maintain, half deny, that a rifle with safety catch on can go off if dropped on the ground. Abruptly the debate breaks up to a volley of shots, and from the west enemy armoured cars are coming hard and fast out of the haze.
Drivers race towards their lorries, intending to seize their rifles and fight it out, but in a moment the enemy is among the transport and it's every man for himself. Major Hood, watching prisoners lining up for breakfast, waves them to get aboard and shouts to nearby drivers, ‘Get the transport out!’ Drivers at the end of the convoy see the enemy race in at high speed, an officer in a people's car bolt upright and spraying the area with tommy-gun bullets. From the rear the raiders seem to be heading straight for the top of the column, attempting to cut it off, but those in front see the German fire on his own men, the prisoners near the cooks' wagon. Major Schmidt, an English-speaking officer, runs out waving a white flag. By the time the German officer leading the armoured cars and the half-tracks mounting light guns reaches the head of the convoy, 6 RMT is on the move.
The celebrated ‘Tewfik Stakes’50 is off to a flying start, destination unknown.
Those taking cover spring for their lorries the moment fire slackens. Some get away to a perfect start, others muff the mechanical side of starting, such as the Whangarei man cranking furiously with the ignition key turned off. Some, too far from their lorries, leap on to running-boards of passing vehicles. Even then a few do not get far, suddenly blocked by gallant or demoralised prisoners throwing themselves in front of the lorry to form a human road block. In No. 1 Sub-section, where page 148 most of the prisoners are lost in the mad rush, Drivers Barron51 and Boyes52 find their lorry stalls at the first run. A prisoner (or ex-prisoner) is sheltering under a wheel. Whether he stays there or not, the second run certainly succeeds, and away they go, their prize passenger, Major Schmidt, missing, believed free. An armoured car heads off two lorries and forces them to a standstill. The breakdown wagon towing the vehicle belonging to Claude Steadman53 and Jim Cartwright54 has little chance, but doing his best Driver Dick55 drives on, Germans firing directly alongside him until he is killed at the wheel. Jim (‘Dave’) Kiihfuss,56 his truck loaded with surplus timber, refuses to move until the stubborn tailboard is fastened properly. His truck whips to a safe spot dead behind a German armoured car, slows down to gather up Sandy Roger,57 then charges off at full speed. Jim Mackay's damaged truck, towed by Bill Macey58 from Point 175, is soon abandoned. Bill, falsely told ‘All aboard’, speeds off, and a stranded Jim, sprinting east, is picked up by Eric Newcombe.59 Further back one driver lolls dead at the wheel. His co-driver, grasping the wheel and pressing the dead man's foot hard down on the accelerator, escapes.
Everywhere spare drivers and passengers give drivers plenty of advice, urging them to ‘give her the gun’, shouting directions, warnings, encouragement. They shout warnings to anybody met on the way, and in one superb movement stray linesmen at work slide down telephone poles, fling ladders into trucks, and vanish. The enemy pursues for perhaps three miles before returning to the scene of the original attack. He has killed two page 149 drivers, captured 17, and taken about five lorries and two motor-cycles. The danger receding, trucks slow down, groups form, stragglers come in, and the lost and scattered bands, still ignorant of the company's official destination, continue east.
When the German strikes, Sergeant Lionel Jemmett60 recalls, a far-ranging 6 RMT driver passes through a quiet area where a high-ranking British officer is fondly feeding a cackling crate of fowls lashed to his truck.
‘Tanks!’ yells the driver, slowing up.
‘Poppycock!’ says the Briton, tossing another biscuit to his hens. ‘We've a couple of armoured brigades exercising near the wire, old man.’ Just then a cannon shell rips through the crate. The Briton disappears in a cloud of feathers.
Some time later and a good many miles nearer Cairo, the driver passes the same British officer once more. This time, alone and henless, he is anxiously sweeping the desert with an enormous pair of binoculars.
‘Old man,’ shouts the driver, ‘you're … out of luck if you're looking for them … fowls.’
At Conference Cairn Major Hood finds Second-Lieutenants Pool and Todd, two sergeants, and a bare horizon. The sergeants set out to seek and collect transport. The officers go part of the way to the scene of the attack, remove Driver Kenning61 from a riddled lorry and bury him at Conference Cairn, then follow the telephone wire nine miles east and set up Company Headquarters. Sergeant Toogood62 turns up with 39 three-tonners, two 15-cwts. and three motor-cycles. Still nobody knows how many trucks to expect, for nobody knows how many trucks have stayed with the battalions, how many are in the ambulance convoy, how many are lost or captured, and how many are still ploughing east. Second-Lieutenants Brown and Todd arrive. The latter begins to sort out the trucks and Brown leads an armed party to near the scene of the attack and captures two German motor-cyclists engrossed in page 150 mending a puncture. In the meantime Hood has found 13 Corps Headquarters (‘near the frontier wire’) and is told to await further orders. Pool goes east, calling at the railhead for scattered drivers and evacuating to hospital the dysentery patients, Second-Lieutenant Irving and two drivers. For most of 6 RMT the campaign is over.
49 Waiting behind until facing capture by an enemy attack were Capt Collins and Lt Rimmer. They were to redirect six RMT trucks which did not turn up. These six trucks belonged to a small convoy of twelve RMT trucks which went ahead of the main convoy in the night carrying soldiers of a Sikh battalion to near Point 203. On the way Dvrs Cartwright and Steadman struck a very deep slit trench which put their lorry out of action. The drivers ‘cooeed’ in the dark trying to keep touch. Trucks were scattered at dawn when an infuriating order arrived to turn about and return the Sikhs to Point 204. Six trucks, not receiving the order, dumped the Sikhs near Point 203 and joined the main convoy. The remaining five trucks returned their Sikhs to Point 204, collecting on the way Sikhs earlier and wrongly debussed. Trying to find 6 RMT Coy, these five trucks got lost, were shelled, scattered, and by good fortune eventually managed to rejoin the company. Dvr Frank Bushell was killed at this time when his truck was ambushed. Germans were about to help the relief driver, Doug Nicol, bury his comrade, but vanished when a South African patrol appeared.
50 Commemorated in a 6 RMT song to the tune of ‘Bless ‘em All’. Amended, one chorus runs:
Follow me, follow me, follow me,
And we'll be in Egypt for tea.
You can join the rearguard
Of your local Home Guard.
Get cracking, my lads, follow me.