THE battle to destroy the Germans and Italians in the Knightsbridge Cauldron started in the early hours of June 5, when Boucher's Ten Brigade went in to attack. Sentries walked round to wake the troops at half past two. Just before 3 a.m. our artillery barrage began, and for twenty minutes shells from five regiments thudded and crumped upon the two areas of sand and stone that the battalions were to capture: Bir Et Tamar and Dahar El Aslagh. Then, riding in lorries, the 4/10th Baluch and 2nd Highland Light Infantry crossed their starting line behind a screen of armour. In moonlight the visibility was good.
Soon after three o'clock the H.L.I. were fired upon on the way to B.180. Our tanks and carriers. retaliated, and the battalion reached the first objective in good order. The enemy gave no sign of his presence; but fifteen derelict tanks, relics of a previous battle, lay on the sand like black monsters. At B. 180 'A' Company dropped off to mop up, and rejoined two hours later. The battalion pressed ahead, and the firing became heavier. At first the direction taken was too far north, and our tanks became split up; the left half of the squadron disappeared into the night. The H.L.I. were unable for the moment to find Bir Et Tamar, so Colonel Thorburn formed a 'cowpat' before daybreak. He sent out Kindersley's 'B' Company, with a troop of Valentine tanks and a section of carriers, to search for B.204, a little distance to the north of the battalion's position.
In this part of the Desert the ground was flat. With the dawn came the enemy shells in great numbers, before the Scottish troops had finished digging their trenches and weapon pits. 'C' and 'D' Companies now went forward in transport, preceded by five Valentines, to the southern edge of Bir Et Tamar, to capture the second objective. They dismounted and advanced on foot towards the northern edge. The men were shelled and machine-gunned all the way. On seeing this, Colonel Thorburn came up and stopped the two companies going any farther; they dug in on the northern edge, while Battalion Headquarters established itself a short way to the west. Meanwhile, Kindersley's 'A' Company had formed its independent 'cowpat,' and had dug in, with the guns taken off their portees. From the frequent Very lights that rose in the west, it was plain that the enemy was not far away.
Soon after this, Thorburn sent his carrier platoon officer, Captain Bromley Gardner, to tell 'B' Company to retire. Kindersley was found to be holding the position with a dozen men. Around him lay the dead and the wounded. Only two vehicles remained undamaged. The others were burning and all the time fresh shells came crashing into the small area. The remains of the company crowded into what transport could still be driven, and withdrew to the rear of the main battalion defences.
The tanks from one regiment of the 22nd Armoured Brigade came into position west of the H.L.I., who kept on hoping that our armour would attack, for the enemy guns could be seen a thousand yards away.
The main attack on Bir Et Tamar was launched at half-past six; the objective was a series of bumps on top of a long ridge. Heavy shelling obliged the companies to dismount from the lorries and cross the last two hundred and fifty yards to the first bump on foot, with bayonets fixed. Casualties mounted. Shells and machine-gun bullets hailed down on the advancing infantry, and there was no cover of any sort. A number of German tanks were now visible on a ridge west of the Bir. At this moment Thorburn arrived on the scene to order his companies to consolidate their gains, with 'D' Company on the forward end of the ridge. 'C' Company settled in just behind, with headquarters in the rear and 'A' Company on its left.
Then, soon after eight o'clock, while the H.L.I. were attempting to dig in, six enemy tanks moved to within 1,500 yards of 'C' Company on the left flank, and it was soon obvious that the Germans had forestalled our own armour in occupying this area. Part of the 22nd Armoured Brigade that had advanced level with this company was unable to go farther forward without coming under fire from the deadly 88 mm. guns.
While this had been taking place, the 4/10th Baluch had captured Dahar El Aslagh, B. 178 and B. 180. Their green success signal was fired at a quarter past four. Half an hour before this the adjutant, when asked for a report by Boucher's Headquarters, had said, "I think we have overrun the position, but the situation is not yet clear." Within a very few minutes the battalion commander, Lieutenant- Colonel B. L. Sundius-Smith, announced that he had just heard a loud cheer from one of his forward companies. "They are," he said, "obviously mopping up." But soon afterwards the Baluch were reporting heavy and accurate shelling on their position.
The third battalion of Ten Brigade, the 2/4th Gurkhas, were covering the minefield gaps at Bir El Harmat, to the south-east. They had to await the arrival of the 1st Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry before rejoining the Brigade.
And so, by half past six, Boucher's forces had taken their objectives. The first phase of 'Aberdeen' was over. Casualties had been comparatively light, success was complete. Four artillery regiments now moved up in readiness to support the 22nd Armoured Brigade and Fletcher's Nine Brigade in the second act of the battle, which was to pass through and secure Sidi Muftah.
At 6.45 a.m. Fletcher's attack began. The Brigadier wrote in his report soon after the battle this instructive paragraph:
"If we examine this plan from the point of view of Nine Indian infantry Brigade, we find that battalions were expected to advance in the dark, over ground they did not know, to an assembly area, the centre of which was marked by a barrel; to do a further advance to a point 'east of B. 100, where they were to be joined by a battery of a regiment which they did not know (it had arrived from Iraq two days previously), and by a squadron of the 4th R.T.R. which had already been in action in the dark. The axis of advance was marked out by the Brigade Intelligence Officer (Captain Livingstone) with lamps, some of which went out during the night. The leading battalion, however, reached the assembly area by 5.45, and the Brigade's first group, consisting of the 2nd West Yorks and supporting troops, crossed the Trigh Bir Hakeim at 6.35 behind the 22nd Armoured Brigade."
The 4th R.T.R., which had fought in support of the H.L.I. earlier that night, now covered the advancing West Yorkshires, under whose command was the machine-gun company of Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (Major Martin). Our own minefields were reached without opposition, but the battalion was then heavily engaged by German tanks and 88 mm. guns.
"The first thing," records Captain Wiberg of the West Yorkshires, "that one remembers about the attack on June 5 is that it was mounted in a great hurry. The second thing is that there was an entire absence of detailed information about the enemy, and we were told that we would very likely meet only very slight opposition. The haste was necessary and justifiable; even if the appreciation of the enemy's dispositions and intentions was correct---but, of course, it was not---so that the haste only produced added difficulties. Just before it got dark, the battalion close-leaguered in the formation it was to adopt for the approach march next day; i.e. the carrier platoon leading on a broad front followed by the rest of the battalion in five columns. Battalion Headquarters and Headquarters Company, led by Colonel Langran, standing up with his head through the roof of his station wagon, made up the centre column, and the four rifle companies the others. We moved off well before dawn, and slowly bumped our way, nose to tail, radiator to radiator, in an ungainly line across the Desert, through the darkness. That was stage one, and it was depressing.
"The battalion opened out at this point, and we halted in an area inhabited by other units, and here picked up the Valentine tanks which were to precede us on to the objective. Behind me were troops sitting in their 3-ton lorries, more or less impassive, as is their wont on such occasions. Very shortly the scene began to change; the ground became slightly undulating; battered vehicles of other units appeared, and the signs of battle, too, in the shape of unkempt tired men, working on their guns or vehicles.
"I felt the threat of a crisis. The battalion surged forward again, and now shells began to fall among the vehicles. Just a few at first, then more thickly. Colonel Langran, leading his troops into battle, literally even in this modern age, increased speed so that very soon we were all advancing in fine style and no doubt keeping the German gunners very busy shortening range.
"I can remember seeing the rear of a 3-ton lorry full of troops suddenly burst into flames, and the efforts of the men to tell the driver in his closed cab, quite oblivious to what had happened, to stop.
"As soon as this last forward movement started, we left the undulating ground behind and came on to flat desert, which was No-Man's-Land. The slight hill or ridge ahead was the enemy's forward position, and our objective. Langran stopped a few hundred yards before the hill and stepped out of his car. 'B' and 'C' Companies, commanded by Majors Dawson and Timbrell, continued forward toward the ridge, our tanks and carrier platoon having already arrived there. The Valentine tanks (4th R.T.R.) rallied to the rear sharply, as soon as our infantry arrived, and that was the last we saw of them. They had two-pounder guns: the German tanks had 75 mm. Battalion Headquarters was simply a spot on the open desert, where Colonel Langran had originally stopped. There was no cover, except from vehicles and an odd slit trench or two.
"It must have been about now that the German armour (15th Panzer Division) counter-attacked. They had, of course, been waiting to do this, and completely overran our two forward companies and more or less wiped them out. All nine officers were killed except one, who was taken prisoner. The tanks stopped at what had been for so short a time our forward position. From there they used their guns on us. Had these tanks advanced we should have been destroyed, because all the anti-tank platoon guns had been put out of action almost before they had had a chance to fire. But we learned afterwards that the enemy tanks formed part of a force that was after bigger game, namely, Ten Brigade on our right, which they were virtually to destroy later that day."
At seven o'clock the 22nd Armoured Brigade had informed Brigadier Fletcher's headquarters that they had completed their attack and were rallying north to B.204, to the north-east of Ten Brigade. They had met no enemy tanks, but had incurred a number of casualties from German anti-tank guns near Bir El Scerab, covering the 21st Panzer Division at Sidi Muftah.
German resistance from this quarter was more severe than might have been expected. The 32nd Army Tank Brigade, having run. into a minefield, was unable to attack Sidi Muftah from the north. It failed to influence the battle, and to divert the enemy's strength which could concentrate to meet our attack from the east.
The withdrawal of the 22nd Armoured Brigade was to leave Langran's West Yorkshires in the open, to be attacked by German tanks.
Half an hour later, at half past seven, the West Yorkshires reported that they were being engaged by forty tanks and seventeen armoured cars (15th Panzer Division). On being informed of this fact, the Armoured Brigade, in its turn, announced the presence of German armoured units (21st Panzer Division) near B.204. This was true, for as we have seen, six German tanks were giving trouble west of the H.L.I. position. So were several 88 mm. guns.
Then, some time after nine o'clock, Ten Brigade told Divisional Headquarters that the H.L.I. had been subjected to a fierce tank attack and forced off B.204, having suffered many casualties. They were now concentrating at Bir Et Tamar, and enduring heavy shelling from guns and tanks near Barrels 174 and 175. The infantry were complaining that our own tanks were sitting behind them and not attempting to assist in the fight.
It should be here stated that the 22nd Armoured Brigade was not an Infantry Tank Brigade. Nor was it armed with the type of tanks designed for close-support action with infantry. Moreover, having once wheeled to the north-east, it is likely that the Armoured Brigade considered that to re-enter the Cauldron would be to leave open. a dangerous gap between the Fifth Indian Division and the First Armoured Division, a gap now covered from the direction of Sidi Muftah by the position they had taken up.
Since May 26 these crews had had little sleep, some hard knocks, and many days of stern fighting. A number of their tanks had become casualties. They had no Grant tanks to stand up to the German tanks. The squadrons rarely started a battle at one hundred per cent. strength, and there were frequent mechanical breakdowns before the fighting area was reached. Moreover, after several days of action, a regiment might well be reduced to one composite squadron without reserves. Only two out of three tanks had a wireless set that worked on this occasion. Two hours before the start of the engagement, several tanks had broken down, and last-minute changes of crew and commander had been made.
But resolution did not mark the handling of our armour at the crisis of the battle. By the very nature of our attack we had challenged the enemy Panzer divisions to a decisive battle, but we had failed to concentrate our tank forces for this challenge.
For two hours, from ten-thirty, the H.L.I., who wore the red and white hackle on their bonnets and the Mackenzie tartan, were shelled and machine-gunned steadily. Their wounded were evacuated in carriers, for this was the sole means of getting them back over shell-torn sand. Brigadier Boucher appealed for assistance to our own tanks, and was backed up by requests from the Divisional Commander. But these waited still, a few hundred yards behind the infantry position; they drew down heavy fire on the troops, and could do nothing themselves to intervene, for fear of undue exposure.
It was at ten-thirty that Thorburn had come forward across the desert to 'D' company's position to tell Major Robertson that some two-pounder guns were being sent up to deal with the German tanks. One hour later these guns had not appeared. Then, about midday, the enemy tank attack developed. Preceded by intense shelling, machine-gun fire and mortaring, small groups of tanks slowly approached from right, centre, and left.. It was a dangerous moment. Complete surprise had been achieved by clever use of ground.
No sooner had the 22nd Armoured Brigade moved back from its position near Thorburn's command post than this German tank pincer movement started. And 'C' Company---enfiladed on both sides---had to retire through a murderous hail of fire from every type of weapon. This cost them dear.
One platoon of the H.L.I. and their Gunner O.P. were seen to be trapped in a position from which no withdrawal was possible. Just after one o'clock the men tried to escape away to the right. But at once they met four enemy tanks approaching from that flank. One of the platoon, Private Campbell, was last heard shouting "Withdrawal impossible! "He charged a tank, firing his Bren gun from the hip. Most of these brave men were killed or wounded on the spot.
German tanks continued their methodical advance. They mopped up slit trenches one by one. At 1.15 p.m. Major Robertson decided that to stay longer would be to lose the whole of his 'D' Company to no good purpose. Accordingly, he led back the remnants to the Gurkha box at B. 180, three miles away to the east.
When the armoured onslaught first began against his two forward companies, Colonel Douglas Thorburn realized quickly that unless support arrived very soon, the ridge of Bir Et Tamar could not be held except at a price: the destruction of the Highland Light Infantry. The Colonel did his utmost to urge our tanks to go forward. It was while standing on top of one tank, talking in a tone of fierce urgency to the squadron commander and imploring him to do something to stem the German progress, that he was struck on the head by a piece of shrapnel. His wound was bandaged with a field dressing. He carried on. He summoned Captain J. H. Rolls and ordered him to drive with all speed to Ten Brigade Headquarters. There he would inform Boucher that to hold the ground without reinforcements was now impossible. Thorburn needed the Gurkhas, the Brigade M.M.G. Company, and some guns that would take on the German tanks.
Rolls stood up to salute. At once he fell on the sand, shot clean through the forehead. He died instantly. Into his place hurried Captain Bromley Gardner, who commanded the battalion's carriers and had been striving throughout the morning to carry back the wounded to safety. He arrived at Brigade Headquarters. He explained the situation to Boucher. The Brigadier at once ordered the Gurkhas and the M.M.G. company to hasten to the aid of the H.L.I., and he added that the 28th Field Regiment had already been summoned forward. Bromley Gardner was on the point of leaving when there came a message on the wireless from 'Thorburn to announce that both his forward companies were being overrun and were withdrawing. A stand was to be made at battalion headquarters.
Boucher straightway cancelled the move of the Gurkhas, for to expend more man power would be fruitless. Instead, he did everything he possibly could do to. persuade our tanks to counter-attack and save the situation. His attempts were unavailing.
Meanwhile Thorburn at Bir Et Tamar found himself obliged to give up his plan for making a last stand with his headquarters and the few men from the forward companies who still remained there. The position had by half past one become untenable, and he decided to retire. The battalion re-formed at B. 180 behind the Gurkhas, having withdrawn on foot across the Desert under constant fire.
Douglas Thorburn was driven back for attention to his wound. It is sad to record that he was killed a year later in the landings in Sicily. Major Kindersley assumed command. As that afternoon was drawing towards evening the battalion was taken out of the line in its own lorries. The casualties of the day now made room in the surviving transport for the whole number. Kindersley took them south to B. 231 near Bir El Harmat, on the track that ran from Bir Hakeim to Knightsbridge. The men were meant to rest, and sleep, but they had been in the new quarter of Desert but twenty minutes when they were both bombed and shelled. Soon after this, carriers from the D.C.L.I. rattled in with news that enemy tanks (15th Panzer Division) were approaching. Almost at once these came in sight. Kindersley telephoned to Brigade Headquarters for orders. He was told to take his men back until such time as he found opportunity to form up and dig in again. The battalion moved, but became badly split into little groups. An hour past midnight they had reached a point six miles beyond El Adem, having travelled some twenty-five miles to the east.
Meanwhile, General Messervy had ordered Fletcher to inspect the area now held by Langran's West Yorkshires, and to report whether or not it could be held. Messervy thought that the battalion would have to be withdrawn, as it seemed to be much in advance of our rear-guard position. Fletcher visited Sundius-Smith and the Baluch at B. 178, and then walked to Langran's position, which he found in a little hollow. To the north, seventeen German tanks could be seen heading very slowly for B.178. The West Yorkshires' transport was burning in amongst them, but these tanks paid no apparent attention to our infantry in the hollow..
Fletcher ordered Langran to withdraw as soon as he was able to, adding that he would probably have to wait for darkness before he got an opportunity. However, at 2.15 p.m. the tanks rumbled towards B. 178, soon came under our fire, and themselves began to shoot. Langran. now saw a chance of escaping from his present exposed position. With great coolness he brought his battalion out in good order. Let Wiberg describe the withdrawal:
"When the time came for this, we just, got up and slowly walked away across the desert. In contrast to most battles that end in defeat, we came out of it a good deal more slowly than we went in, leaving behind something like 180 dead and much wrecked transport and equipment, including our six 2-pounder anti-tank guns."
The wounded were carried in Langran's staff car and in the very few trucks that had not been either sent back or set on fire."
A dangerous situation now arose on the left flank. The forward battery of 157 Field Regiment had originally been part of the West Yorkshire group. But when Langran's companies withdrew, this battery did likewise. Fortunately the situation was reported. At once the battery was ordered back into action, with an escort of one company of Jats. The line from B. 180 to 100 now looked secure. At least four field regiments were in action. Our two flanks were near to the main minefield on the left and to the Knightsbridge position on the right.
General Briggs, in consequence of arriving at Boucher's Headquarters during a heavy Stuka raid on the terrible conglomeration of vehicles in the area, ordered Fletcher to form a composite brigade and to move with the West Yorkshires, H. L. I. and 3/12th R. F. F. R. to B. 742, where the two British battalions could reorganize and the Indians be held in reserve. These moves were completed by half past six, when the enemy began to shell from the south.
"We were all sitting," wrote Wiberg, "round the mess table, having just finished eating, when a 3-tonner drove up at high speed, and came to a stop in a cloud of dust and smoke. The driver jumped down and dashed up to Colonel Langran. Before he had a chance to say anything, Langran gave him a severe 'rocket' for making a dust. That over, the man blurted out the information that a German armoured column had broken through and was heading in our direction. He was quite right, as we soon discovered. Very soon there was further evidence.. All manner of transport from other units, including, I am sad to say, perfectly good antitank guns, appeared, entirely unorganized, moving eastwards as though they were in a gold rush. We watched this in amusement for a moment or two, and then a carrier with a British officer went past near by. Langran stopped him. It was the carrier platoon commander of the 3/12th R.F.F.R. He also talked about German armoured columns breaking through. Having given all the information he could, he went forward to the great relief of his Sikh driver, who had been saying 'Get going, Sahib,' throughout the thirty seconds' conversation,
"Langran hesitated, as well he might, undecided. We watched him. Then the matter was settled by the unmistakable sounds of small-calibre shells bursting in the area. The Colonel said 'On Truck,' and before you could say 'Knightsbridge' every man-jack had his feet off the ground, in spite of there being only half enough transport left from the day's war.
"Away we went, and not too soon, for German armoured cars were already running neck and neck with us. But we outstripped them, and the whole battalion headed eastwards at no mean pace."
Meanwhile, disaster had occurred on the left flank. That afternoon the 1st Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, after a forced march from Baghdad, arrived at Bir El Harmat to relieve the 2/4th Gurkhas. This new battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel H. W. Dean, had expected a day's rest before going into action, but patrols were sent out and found the enemy a few miles to the south-west of their position. The D.C.L.I. formed the sole barrier between the Eighth Army Headquarters area and lines of communication on the one hand, and any enemy attack from the south-west on the other. The battalion had the task of blocking lanes through our minefields, which came out near Bir El Harmat.
The companies had arrived piecemeal throughout that afternoon, armed with the normal issue anti-tank guns. Their position was critical. Behind them the remnants of the H.L.I. were unfit to assist. Beyond the Scotsmen stretched the echelons of various forward units. And at five o'clock, by which time the guns and tanks supporting the D.C.L.I. had been ordered into the front battle, Rommel chose to send tanks round this vital flank. The D.C.L.I.'s position, after being shelled and mortared, was attacked from the rear by a strong armoured force. The one rifle company charged with the bayonet. But infantry without tanks or guns were of no avail. Soon German tanks moved forward, and the battalion ceased to exist.
Briggs had ordered the 4th Field Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Truscott) to support the D.C.L.I. on our left flank, but later these gunners had been summoned by the Seventh Armoured Division to support its tanks. Later again, the 2nd Armoured Brigade, which had also been watching this flank, though from some distance to the rear, had been called into the main battle. This latter move caused Briggs to ask for 157 Field Regiment to be attached to the D.C.L.I. to operate in a column southwards. But the Armoured Division said this was unnecessary, as the flank was watched. In effect, it was precisely the unguarding of this flank which allowed the enemy tanks free access to the rear units of both divisions.
Of significance on this grave issue are Brigadier Fletcher's comments at the time:
"Our left flank had evidently not been guarded. Its protection was such an obvious necessity that it never occurred to me personally to ask what that protection was. I assumed that my Brigade and Ten Brigade would not be asked to advance five to eight miles into the enemy positions without adequate steps having been taken to protect the southern flank.
"There appears to have been a complete misunderstanding between the 22nd Armoured Brigade and Nine Brigade as to the capabilities and tasks of the two brigades. The 22nd Armoured Brigade appears to have thought that a battalion could establish itself in a box in the Desert in a matter of half an hour; while Nine Brigade thought that the 22nd Armoured Brigade, with its one hundred tanks, had been given the task of destroying the enemy tanks in this area in which it was to establish itself. In point of fact, the Armoured Brigade appears to have made no attempt to go to the assistance of the 2nd West Yorkshires when they were attacked by forty tanks and seventeen armoured cars; and when the position held by the 2nd H.L.I. was attacked by forty tanks, the 22nd Armoured Brigade began a slow withdrawal. Later, it reported itself faced by ninety tanks. The opportunity of destroying the two small concentrations of enemy tanks had passed.
"I consider that infantry who have to operate with tanks should be trained with them. There would not then be this wide divergence of opinion as to the tasks and capabilities of the two parts of a force engaged in any one operation.. In the Desert infantry require forty-eight hours in which to establish a box which can stand by itself against an enemy tank attack. In addition, they must be allowed to lay mines. Lack of mutual understanding and of common doctrines extended beyond the failure of tanks and infantry to understand each other.
"The two companies of Royal Northumberland Fusiliers arrived in the concentration area at dusk on the evening before the battle. They had been stationed in Cairo without arms and unable to train. Suddenly they were issued with arms and ordered to entrain for the front. This was not fair on the men. 157 Field Regiment had arrived from Iraq two days before the battle, and the 3/9th Jats had come a fortnight before."
And what, meantime, was happening to the 3/12th Frontier Force Regiment? By the afternoon Dean had moved his battalion back to a point two miles south of Bir El Harmat. Then he set off in search of Brigadier Fletcher, was directed to Messervy's headquarters, found the General in a trench, still outwardly cheerful, but Fletcher had already left to return to Nine Brigade Headquarters. At length Dean obtained orders to take his men back to their harbour area of the previous night: Fletcher had formed a new brigade of the West Yorkshires, Highland Light Infantry and 3/12th.
They drove towards the harbour, reading the numbers on the barrels as they went towards the east. And all the time scores of vehicles surged past, heading at great speed towards what their drivers deemed to be safety. When Colonel Dean and his battalion, driven by R.I.A.S.C. men in pool lorries, reached their destination, their eyes saw a vast concourse of vehicles that occupied several square miles of Desert. Dean chose the only empty space in this gathering, drew the battalion up in five company lines, ready to move off in any direction at short notice.
Suddenly the silence was shattered. Several shells landed near by. A few more whined overhead and crumped into the sand. The effect was startling. In Dean's striking simile, it was as though a teacher had taken a duster and wiped clean the blackboard of the Desert. The concourse of vehicles vanished into the dusk. And their wake of dust was caught just above the horizon by the setting sun.
Within a few moments only the 3/12th remained in the area. Then one of Dean's officers spotted a number of men three-quarters of a mile away. When these men started to run towards the Indian battalion, it was thought that an attack was coming in. One company was set in defence positions, but it soon became obvious that these were no enemy approaching, but a large party of the West. Yorkshires, under Major Osborn. When the first shells landed they had been standing on the sand, having dismounted from their lorries. The R.I.A.S.C. drivers, following the general departure, had driven away hastily, leaving the British infantry alone, with no means of transport.
Soon after this a group of armoured cars came past. Dean stopped the first and asked what was happening behind. He was told that the Boche had broken through and was now driving east along the Trigh Capuzzo towards the El Adem box. Dean had no communication, and could apply to no one for orders. Only from passers-by could he glean news of the battle. A troop of Bofors guns now arrived, and then two of the battalion's anti-tank guns, so with these firing in turn at the German tanks which had meantime appeared on the horizon, they all moved slowly back.
This firing at the tanks, though it could have little effect, did hearten the troops, for it was a gesture of pulling faces at the enemy. Darkness had now fallen, and down on the Trigh Capuzzo fires were springing up, each one nearer to the east than the previous glare. This seemed to prove that the Germans were heading along the route, but it later turned out to be some of our own vehicles blowing themselves up on the minefields. Dean at the time thought that the German tanks were shooting up our retreating lorries. But as he could not get down the escarpment to the Trigh in darkness, he decided to report for orders to Brigadier Reid in El Adem.
After holding a census to see that the lorries had an equal share of petrol, the battalion, with Osborn's West Yorkshires and the Gunners, moved along the top of the escarpment. Air raids could be seen and heard over Tobruk. Noise was coming from the Trigh below. At length they came to the El Adem wire, and turned along the outside edge of the minefield until the sole entrance on the north side was found.
Dean went inside to find Brigadier Reid, and was ordered to take the 3/12th to B.650. This was a position some four miles north west of El Adem, just where the road crossed the escarpment. This road was of vital importance to the enemy. When we held the port during the first siege, the Italians had built it as a metalled highway to bypass Tobruk. Now, if we held Tobruk again, the Axis troops would need this bypass for their pursuit and exploitation.
At B.650 Dean found Gleeson's 3/2nd Punjab., Within an hour the hand-over was made, Gleeson's battalion on its way, and the 3/12th Frontier Force Regiment established., And here, for the moment we must leave them.
Having overcome the D.C.L.I., thrown out to protect our southern flank, the enemy tanks now overran the joint tactical headquarters of Messervy and Briggs, and that of Ten Brigade. This happened at seven o'clock. Lieutenant-Colonel C. L. Morgan, commanding the Divisional Signals, was with General Messervy at the time. A heavy dive-bombing raid coincided with the tank attack. When things were particularly fierce the General said to Morgan in a quiet voice: "Don't you think it is time we left here?" Morgan agreed heartily. Messervy jumped into his armoured car, but Morgan and the others had first to extract the Signal Office lorry which had been dug in. They got away with the loss of only the small cook-house truck.
Morgan tapped in on the cable to Main Divisional Headquarters, and warned the G.S.O.1, Colonel A. R. Barker, known as 'Tochi,' of what had occurred. When Morgan did reach Main Division he found an atmosphere of calm disbelief in the likelihood of unpleasant events. The headquarters staff of the Divisional artillery were about to have their supper, all laid out on a table.
Just then a young officer of the D.C.L.I. came up, and told the C.R.E., Colonel Napier, that he had a small detachment near by. He could see some German tanks in the distance. Napier passed this information to Barker, but before anyone could act, an airburst overhead showed that the headquarters vehicles were now coming under fire. At that moment General Briggs arrived. On his return from seeing Boucher at Ten Brigade, he had approached his tactical headquarters, only to find it in enemy hands. Briggs, ignorant of what had taken place, received a very hostile reception. Chased by German tanks, he headed at full speed for Main Headquarters and ordered a hasty move. A rendezvous was fixed. A few seconds later the command vehicle was seen to be moving off, followed by such other trucks as were ready. Signals had some trouble in getting the heavy Signal Office lorry clear of its many telephone cables and out of its pit. Enemy tracer being now directed upon Signals vehicles, Morgan's car stopped a bullet in one of its rear wheels. The car was driven on a flat tyre, with Morgan's orderly sitting on the Signalmaster's knee, and the back of the car tight with men. Finally the whole wheel collapsed, but those in the car were picked up by an Ordnance lorry and taken to El Adem.
Meanwhile, Napier's vehicles in headquarters, and those of the C.R.A., Brigadier Vallentin, still had their camouflage nets down. By the time the Engineers had packed up ready to move off, they were under close-range machine-gun fire. Napier's small headquarters, the last to leave, moved away in a group of five vehicles, hotly pursued for four miles by streams of tracer bullets. Not one truck was hit, nor was there a single casualty. And at dusk the enemy abandoned the chase. He established picquets, and fired Very lights every few minutes as was his custom. As no one was found at the given rendezvous, Napier considered the wisest course of action.
"I was," he wrote, "surprised to find more lights going up in the east, as though there were German advanced posts in that direction also, but my field glasses revealed a number of vehicles apparently blowing themselves up on a minefield. This we found indeed to be the case, a most extraordinary scene of confusion. I believe some Indian drivers thought they were under shell fire and so tried to run the gauntlet at speed, only to be themselves blown up.
"This was the position outside El Adem, held by the 3/12th R.F.F.R., who were desperately trying to guide the vehicles through the unmined gap. We crept through, and on the road beyond found ourselves taking part in a 'gold rush.' By this I mean a disorderly stream of miscellaneous trucks and lorries, going away from the enemy, with a tendency to hurry and apparently motivated by fear. It is only fair to say that on this occasion it was dark, there were many vehicles of different units and formations, the majority not of our division nor indeed of any division. Some of them, one would have thought, should never have been in a forward area at all during a battle. The scene was a road on the escarpment, a defile, whereas we were all accustomed by now to the open Desert spaces. Under these circumstances, great confusion was inevitable, quite apart from the tension caused by the very unfavourable turn of events."
Napier gave up the attempt to reach Rear Division with his small party. Instead, they turned off the road and slept till daybreak.
We must leave this scene of confusion and hurried escape, typical of the experiences of hundreds of men that evening and night, when the enemy seemed everywhere, the tides of battle running against us in every quarter, the lack of information oppressive, and the sudden comings and goings a source of anxiety and despair. Many there were who did not know what they were meant to do. They were just fighting the enemy wherever he was encountered. Few knew what was now our main object, for the original plan of attack had been thwarted and turned against us. The troops who had set out that morning in darkness were now being smashed and decimated and split and driven in flight, overrun and captured, pursued and harried, shelled and dive-bombed, encircled and crushed by armoured forces. Men needed their firmest courage in such an hour as this. Officers and N.C.O.s. were forced to take sudden decisions upon which their lives depended, but without news of where the enemy or our own units now were. Messages were flying but communications were breaking down whenever a cable was torn and cut, a wireless set shelled, a headquarters put to retreat or captured.
Well might A. E. Housman have called June 5 "the day when heaven was falling, the hour when earth's foundations fled." During these hours many acts of great gallantry were performed that will for ever go unrecorded. If there were the few who crumpled under the weight of such desperate events, they were far outnumbered by those who showed a resolute example to their companions and to those whom they served or commanded. In the hour of trial, as was frequently observed, some men proved themselves to be better than ever they had been given credit for. Perhaps, even, they stood firmer than they themselves had imagined possible.
The memories of that day and the night that followed are burnt deep into those who came through the testing. But there were hundreds who did not survive; instead, they lay on the sands in attitudes of sudden death, in prolonged agony, or with fatal wounds, with flies to torment, the sun to scorch their suffering bodies, no water, burning tanks and trucks around them, hastening arrivals and departures, and slowly diminishing hope as the fighting ebbed and flowed, and became ever graver towards our own situation. Those who were captured that day numbered as many as the dead and wounded. Suddenly they were swept up in the swirl of mobile warfare. Without warning the enemy was upon them. Their trucks broke down or were hit, and they could not escape the pursuing foe. Or these men fought their guns to the last, until they were taken prisoner. Or in driving to what they believed was safety they blundered into a German column and were taken.
But for a moment we must turn back to watch the misfortunes that beset Boucher's Ten Brigade. At 6.30 P.M. on June 5 the enemy delivered a severe bombing attack north-east of Brigade Headquarters. Then he shelled the area from the south. And, finally, a few of his tanks came into view 1,500 yards away. Forbes, the Brigade Major, ordered the H.L.I. to withdraw in a northeasterly direction. The Headquarters remained. But at seven o'clock it was overrun by tanks and forced to withdraw. Many escaped in trucks before the enemy could mop them up. In the course of this withdrawal, communication with the battalions was lost, never to be regained. Brigade Headquarters became separated and, when darkness fell, split up into groups of vehicles, all moving somewhere in the stretch of Desert between Tobruk and El Adem.
Brigadier Boucher was missing, but this was not yet known to most of his troops. He was returning from visiting forward troops to his Brigade Headquarters, accompanied in a carrier by three Indian ranks. Shot and shell began to fall about them from directions where no enemy should have been. The Signals and escort trucks lost contact. Time and again Boucher was frustrated from following the bearing on his route: heavy shelling and the presence of German and Italian groups and columns prevented this. When night fell the carrier had suffered a direct hit, one man had been killed, and further progress was impossible, so Boucher and the two remaining Baluchis took refuge in a derelict three-ton lorry. During that night long columns of tanks passed to and fro, without giving signs as to whether they were friend or foe. At daybreak the two sepoys crept out to pay their usual early morning visit. They saw tanks to the east of them, and more tanks to the west. Both groups had leaguered close to one another. Both knew that they had no forward outposts where this lorry was standing. On seeing the two figures moving, both sides opened fire on the derelict. A battle ensued, and the British tanks were forced to withdraw from the scene. Boucher sheltered in a handy trench with the Indians until the firing died down, and then set off across the sand on foot towards the Baluch position. Soon a further group of vehicles appeared from the south-west. This time it was part of the German 90th Light Division, who machine-gunned the Brigadier and his companions.
By now the three men were tired. They could see the 4/10th Baluch fighting ahead by the horizon, and the sounds of battle reached them across the Desert. And then a German battery of guns came into action near where Boucher was. He had just time to find a slit trench, bury the two Indians with sand, and cover himself in the same way, with twigs of scrub to allow an air passage, before the German artillery arrived. For some time Boucher lay concealed. All round him the enemy guns were firing. In the lulls he could hear shouts and orders. Men were passing near him. Soon the British artillery ranged on this battery and shelled it heavily. The R.A.F. bombed it. A German gunner saw the slit trench and jumped into it, right on top of the Brigadier. It happened that one of the Brigadier's boots was showing out of 'the mound of sand. The German soldier saw this boot, was tempted to steal it and its fellow from the supposed corpse, and yanked out Brigadier Charles Boucher with the coveted boot. Thus was he captured. The two Indian ranks, seeing what had happened, stood up and were captured too.
To turn back to the late afternoon of June 5. General Briggs had placed the 3/9th Jats with Ten Brigade to replace the battered H.L.I. Two companies moved forward under Major J. J. Waite to find the Brigade. But when news reached Lieutenant-Colonel H. V. Bragg, the Commanding Officer, that Ten Brigade Headquarters had been forced to disperse, he went to look for Waite and his men. With him were Captain Schubert, Lieutenant Rowling, and an attached R.I.A.S.C. officer. This party caught up the two companies, and began to discuss plans. Rowling was sent off on a mission. Then a shell landed among the group, and all these officers were killed outright by the direct hit. This was one more disaster in a day of disasters.
The rest of Ten Brigade with the motor battalion of the 22nd Armoured Brigade and Truscott's 4th Field Regiment, stayed in their positions on Dahar El Aslagh, to hold the ridge. Here they awaited the enemy's next move, with orders to hold on to the last. To dig in the guns was impossible. The commanders of the First and Seventh Armoured Divisions realized the gravity of Ten Brigade's position, and formed plans for a counter-attack to rescue the infantry from the encircling enemy. General Messervy found that his 22nd Armoured Brigade was in no fair condition to take part in such an attack; sixty tanks had been lost from shell fire or mechanical failures during the day's fighting.
And the guns of the German tanks could penetrate our tanks while remaining two hundred yards outside the furthest range of our own tank weapons. The enemy tanks were thus enabled to reduce our armoured strength while they themselves escaped almost unscathed.
Our 4th Armoured Brigade, which had been reinforced by a regiment, made slow progress from the north. And, worst of all, owing to a misunderstanding of orders, the 2nd Armoured Brigade attacked too far north and found its advance blocked by an impassable escarpment. The tanks could only intervene in the battle at long range, and this was of little value. And so the armoured counter-attack proved abortive on June 6, and failed to prevent the enemy from overwhelming our infantry and artillery.
That morning, June 6, Ten Brigade, unprotected by armour, was attacked on Dahar El Aslagh. At seven o'clock heavy shelling started, and sixty tanks slowly approached the 4/10th Baluch, making use of the ground, hull down. They halted beyond effective anti-tank range, and all our six-pounders were knocked out of action without being able to retaliate with success. The 4th Field Regiment was slowly destroyed. Our guns were obliged to use their ammunition sparingly. Should they fire shells at too great a range for accuracy, or wait till the German tanks came near enough to hit with effect? If the guns did wait, they were exposed to terrible fire, for their positions were exposed. One by one, slowly, systematically, the field guns were blown up.
By half-past nine only two 25-pounders were still firing. The Baluch carriers had been overrun. At the same time the leading company commander telephoned to Lieutenant-Colonel B. L. Sundius-Smith and said, "The tanks are coming through now." Ten minutes later the Colonel ordered another company to retire to the box at B.180. His battalion headquarters was taken by the first group of tanks that roared across the position. With no opposition but small-arms fire, they came forward, and sat over our slit trenches, their guns trained at point-blank range, while dismounted lorried infantry gestured "Get out---or else. . ." And so our infantry were mopped up, still fighting, but with their ammunition exhausted or very low. It was this battle that Brigadier Boucher had heard when walking over the Desert that morning towards eventual capture. Only scattered remnants of Ten Brigade escaped to tell the tale and to fight another day.
The Highland Light Infantry, saved from annihilation by Briggs' order. to join Nine Brigade, re-formed in the El Adem "box." Stragglers and small detachments came in all that day. When the roll was called, of the twenty-five officers and 678 men who entered the battle, fifteen officers and 467 other ranks remained to answer their names. In the early morning rain fell heavily. And Richard Bromley Gardner noted in his diary: "A good thing; it washed the blood off our vehicles."
And so it ended. Our counter-attack against Rommel's forces in the Cauldron had failed. Far from destroying the enemy, we had ourselves been severely mauled, our tank strength had been gravely reduced, and one brigade of infantry had been wiped out save for isolated parties who made their way back to safety after strange adventures. Four artillery regiments had been lost, their guns spread-eagled or damaged, their crews killed or captured. So great had been our losses, so widespread the disorganization, so bewildering the confusion and lack of control, that a withdrawal of the forces round Knightsbridge became inevitable.. Tobruk, El Adem, and Bir Hakeim were the next bastions in our defence, and it will be seen how each in turn was to fare, and in what way the defenders of each were to conduct themselves.
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