ALL this time Denys Reid's 29 Brigade, with the 3rd Field Regiment (Lieutenant- Colonel P. H. Teesdale) under command, had been deployed round El Adem. The Brigade found itself taking orders direct from Thirty Corps Commander, General Willoughby Norrie, who was also in El Adem.
During the first twelve days of June Reid operated two mobile columns whose task was to harry the enemy along his lines of communication between Bir Hakeim and the Cauldron. Our small columns normally comprised two platoons of infantry, a battery of 25-pounders, one troop of two-pounder anti-tank guns. Sometimes a machine-gun section or a troop of Bofors A.A. guns was added. These columns, whose movements were directed by Messervy's Seventh Armoured Division, were led by Majors Leatherdale, Hale, Hind, Dodd, Syme, and Captains Digby Trout and Haslehurst. They remained out for three days at a time, and were relieved in turn.
No column came back without having shelled enemy troops and transport, though the infantry never came to close quarters, and the anti-tank guns had few opportunities for action. On one successful day 'Leathercol,' with its platoons of the 1/5th Mahrattas, destroyed twenty-seven German tanks near Bir Hakeim, having received word that these tanks were immobilized through mechanical defects and lack of petrol.
Lieutenant-Colonel Dean's 3/12th Frontier Force Regiment was placed under Reid's command for the purpose of completing and garrisoning the partially constructed auxiliary box at B.650, some three miles to the north-west where the Acroma road descends the escarpment. This battalion, had not, as we have seen, been engaged in the Cauldron, and was left behind when the rest of Nine Brigade withdrew to Bagush to re-form and refit. On June 8 the 1st Worcestershires (Lieutenant- Colonel J. C. Knight), with a battery from the 3rd Field Regiment and a troop of Bofors guns, occupied a second auxiliary box at Pt. 187, a further ten miles north-west of El Adem, and a little to the south of Acroma itself. Here they came under the 22nd Armoured Brigade. In the light of events, this decision to form two subsidiary defence positions was wrong, Reid being left seriously short of artillery in the main box at El Adem. The results of this dispersal of strength were disastrous.
Rommel had started his attacks against Bir Hakeim on June 6, and they continued with growing intensity despite the valiant resistance of Koenig's First Free French Brigade. So grave did the situation there become that by nightfall on the 8th it was apparent that unless immediate outside support were given to the French garrison, it could not hold out. When a further two days had passed, the Army Commander ordered Koenig to evacuate Bir Hakeim. And the Free French were withdrawn during the night of June 10, escorted by Messervy's Seventh Armoured Division.
Having overcome our opposition at Bir Hakeim, the German 90th Light Division advanced swiftly north-east. On its left flank moved the 15th Panzer Division. As, by nightfall on June 11, the enemy's forward troops with some thirty tanks were but ten miles from El Adem, Messervy ordered Reid to withdraw his mobile columns into the box. The remnants of Nine and Ten Brigades had already, four days earlier, withdrawn east of Sollum, near to Buq-Buq. These remnants were indeed few: of the 4/10th Baluch five officers and 190 men survived; the 3/9th Jats had only seven officers; of the 2/4th Gurkhas one officer and 156 men remained; the Highland Light Infantry, now under Nine Brigade and commanded by Major E. L. Percival, D.S.O., could muster fifteen officers and just over four hundred men. Ten Brigade Headquarters was almost complete, except for Brigadier Boucher, who was now a prisoner of war. 28th Field Regiment H.Q. had vanished in the battle of the Cauldron, and the 4th Field Regiment had been severely mauled. The only battalion of Fletcher's brigade which had not suffered heavily on June 5 was the 3/12th F.F.R., now attached to 29 Brigade.
On June 12 the German 90th Light Division made its first assault against the El Adem box. Shells fired from the south-west landed inside our defences soon after dawn that day. Our own artillery retaliated. And Brigadier Reid sent out a mobile column with guns, under Major W. G, Hale, to delay the enemy. Hale's column at once sighted a strong German force south of our box. When the 25-pounders engaged this target, they were immediately fired on themselves and one of our guns was knocked out within a few minutes. So Hale brought his small force back into El Adem.
Meanwhile, carriers of the 3/2nd Punjab (Lieutenant-Colonel L. D. Gleeson), also sent out to delay the enemy, had been dispersed and cut off by the Germans, and withdrew to Tobruk.
During the first part of the morning German lorried infantry occupied a ridge and a deserted Arab village---no more than low broken walls and piles of rubble---that lay south-east of the box. Though several tanks were destroyed by our guns, though the 1/5th Mahrattas (Lieutenant- Colonel W. D. Marshall), when approached by thirty German armoured troop carriers, forced the enemy to dismount, and though our machine-gunners fired to good effect, these Germans could not be prevented from digging in.
The main El Adem box was now surrounded. Our gun positions, in particular, were intermittently subjected to heavy shelling. Colonel Teesdale and several Gunner officers were wounded, and three guns hit. At this time Reid only had six 25-pounders in action. Enemy transport frequently presented excellent targets, but so heavy a counter-battery fire did our Gunners draw down upon themselves whenever they did shoot, that they were ordered to hold their fire as much as possible. We could not risk the loss of all our field guns during the early days of the siege.
Meanwhile, Dean's Frontier Force box away across the sand at B.650, though shelled from time to time, was not seriously attacked either on the 12th or 13th, and remained in wireless communication with Brigade Headquarters.
Early on June 13 Royal Air Force Kittyhawks strafed the enemy round the El Adem box. Daylight brought renewed shelling of our gun positions. From the south and west, where a tank battle was being fought, came the sound of heavy gunfire. To the east our troops could see the enemy being shelled from behind by certain British columns that were operating outside.
Then, during the late afternoon, a fierce duststorm so reduced visibility that the defenders of the box lost sight of these engagements. They lacked news of what was happening beyond their own perimeter.
Towards evening another battle raged, and the enemy started withdrawing south from El Adem. The aerodrome was evacuated. And at nightfall a large column of German transport drove away from the ruined village and moved westwards along the crest of a ridge south of the box. Silhouetted against the sky, these, vehicles offered a perfect target. For twenty minutes they were bombarded by every gun at Reid's disposal, including sixteen light and heavy anti-aircraft guns. When this three-mile-long column vanished into the dusk, twenty hulks, four of them blazing, were left clearly visible on the skyline.
It was midnight before the sound of gunfire died away. Our patrols came back with reports that no enemy troops were to be found in the neighbourhood, except for one German party attempting to recover vehicles from the ridge. Six prisoners were taken. Next day, June 14, the enemy was still absent.
To General Auchinleck's mind it was essential to hold El Adem in order to prevent the permanent isolation of Tobruk. Accordingly, he ordered Ritchie to reinforce the position at once. But this proved impossible. On the afternoon of June 14 began the evacuation of the Gazala line, held by the First South African Division. The Eighth Army was now, by defending a line through Acroma and El Adem, to save Tobruk from encirclement and siege. To 29 Brigade was assigned a mobile covering role, and all troops in the Brigade Group not required for the immediate formation of three columns were to be sent back next day to El Hamra.
But by midday on the 16th the transport needed for such a move had not reached El Adem. Instead, the Germans had again surrounded our positions. No sooner had an early attack against the 1/5th Mahrattas on the west side of the box and against Gleeson's 3/2nd Punjab on the opposite perimeter been repulsed, than the enemy began to dig in. All day fighting continued. Upon the enemy were inflicted many casualties, and during that afternoon German and Italian ambulances made no less than six trips along out minefield wire to pick up their wounded. When great numbers of enemy vehicles passed north of the box, Reid's staff were able to direct the Royal Air Force on to many suitable targets that our pilots engaged with promptitude and accuracy.
This encirclement of El Adem had also isolated our two auxiliary boxes held by Knight's Worcestershires and the 3/12th. The British battalion was attacked at B.187 during the afternoon of June 15. The defenders made a devoted stand, and endured an artillery bombardment for hours on end. When German tanks formed up and attacked the position, they were met by accurate fire from our 2-pounders. Several tanks were destroyed. The rest withdrew. For twenty-four hours Knight's men held off the enemy, and in that time knocked out seventeen tanks.
At dawn on June 16 the enemy, enraged at his failure to break through on the previous day, launched a second armoured assault. This, too, was vain. All that morning Stuka dive-bombers were sent to raid the Worcestershires' lonely corner of the Desert. All that morning bombs thudded and exploded, and erupted showers of sand and flailing metal splinters. Casualties mounted among the resolute, tenacious defenders. But each time the German tanks probed their way forward through the dust, our anti-tank gunners drove them back.
Ammunition, food, water were by now low., And that afternoon the Worcestershires were ordered by the First Armoured Division to leave the position at B.187. To offer further resistance would mean the total loss of the battalion and supporting gunners. Nor could it now serve any good purpose. The 1st Worcestershires escaped in good order to Tobruk, but only a handful of the gallant fighters survived the subsequent disaster there. An immediate D.S.O. was awarded to Colonel Knight.
And what of our other small box ? On the previous evening Colonel Dean had been summoned to a conference in El Adem. He arrived after a nightmare drive, and was greeted by Denys Reid with food and beer. He learned that the South African Division in the Gazala line and the 50th Division were drawing back. Tobruk would be held. Dean was to evacuate B.650 next morning. Lorries would be sent up for his use, and the 3/12th F.F.R. was given a rendezvous behind Halfaya.
Dean returned to B.650 before daybreak, and gave, out his orders. Then with daylight came a large German column, driving along the escarpment between our two boxes. The defenders of El Adem fired at the enemy. The guns in B.650 did the same. Though a few vehicles were hit, the others remained dispersed over the sand, and took little notice. But away to the west the German 90th Light Division, from its halting-place of the previous night, could overlook B.650 and see Dean's artillery firing. At once the Germans started to shell our guns. Soon eight enemy batteries were shooting at the Frontier Force box.
Our troop of 2-pounders was ordered not to disclose their positions until a serious attack came in. Otherwise they would be blotted out by the enemy, who was only too eager to discover our anti-tank weapons. Dean realized that none of the promised lorries could reach his box. Brigadier Reid had told Dean in Urdu on the wireless that there would be no move without orders from higher authority. In any case it was now clear that to leave B.650 was impossible. Parties of the enemy were manoeuvring on all sides. A first tank attack was launched, but retired after losing seven tanks on or near our minefield.
That afternoon the 3/12th were attacked a second time, after our anti-tank guns had been heavily shelled. German tanks roared in from the west, blasted 'A' Company, under Major G. N. Heathson of the former Divisional Commander. Enough mines were lifted to allow one tank to pass through. Behind came other tanks and lorried infantry. They routed out and destroyed each section and platoon one by one. Our only vehicles in the box---one truck for each company---were burning amid the haze of dust and smoke. This made it very hard to see what was happening. One 25-pounder was still firing, and each fresh crew lasted just long enough to fire one or two rounds before being killed. or wounded and replaced by more gunners, who in their turn fired to the end. Dean was without communication: every cable had been cut, and the wireless aerial taken down, because it was too obvious a landmark for enemy artillery.
Dust spurted up from bullets that found a grave on every side. By now Colonel Dean and his jemadar adjutant were firing rifles themselves. And the German tanks were penetrating the box. Dean saw the crew of the Bofors gun near the entrance walk out with their hands up. Major Stanley Raw was killed leading 'D' Company in a counter-attack. The carriers were told to attack, but their officer, Donald Baird, was struck down by a shell as he climbed into his leading carrier.
Then a line of German infantry advanced into the centre of our position. Dean took aim at the tallest German and killed him. Every spare man was firing at the approaching line of troops, but still they came on. Dean went down into his small command-post that was linked to other dugouts by a crawl-trench, and looked at the enemy through the window. A German soldier flashed past, and hid behind a mound of sand. One tank, summoned by the shouts of this soldier, came right up close. The crew called on Dean and his companions to come out. "Herauskommen !" they shouted through the noise of battle. There was no alternative but to come out. All secret papers had already been buried in the sandy floor of the command-post. The adjutant, Hugh Philips, smashed the telephone.
As soon as they walked outside they were covered by German guns. Dean learned that 'A' Company had been overrun, and Heath captured. Maurice Curtis had been shot as he led 'C' Company in a final charge. The battalion had suffered close on a hundred casualties in the day's fighting. The officers were kept separate from the sepoys, and both groups were ringed with Germans armed with automatic weapons. Dean ordered his men to fall in, called the roll, and took a list of survivors. At this time the Germans made no attempt at interrogation. One German subaltern gave Dean an overcoat and brought a chair from his truck, for Dean had only what he stood up in and a blanket. His attaché case that contained washing and writing kit had been taken from him.
The German manner was correct throughout. But our prisoners were given neither food nor water; their captors explained that no supply columns had yet arrived, and they were still fighting a battle. So desperate with thirst did the Indian soldiers grow that Colonel Dean persuaded the German staff officers to send one of his company commanders and a lorry back to B.650 to collect packals of water and tins of biscuits that the battalion had buried. Dean records that one havildar was so heartbroken at the plight of his battalion, which could fight no more, that he wept, and said: "Pultan tut gaya" (the regiment is broken.)
Eventually Dean and his officers were taken to Derna and flown to Italy. The Indian ranks were escorted in a column too close to our positions at Acroma, were fired on, and managed in the confusion to make contact with the British garrison. They went inside and later made their way to Tobruk, only to be captured a second time when the town capitulated.
We must return to follow the fortunes of the rest of 29 Brigade. Throughout June 16 the El Adem box was shelled from all sides. When the Germans tried to approach our wire they were forced to retreat by our machine-guns. Great numbers of enemy vehicles drove past the box, heading towards the east. That morning Brigadier Reid received orders from the Seventh Armoured Division to extricate his brigade during the coming night. He summoned a conference and explained his plan of withdrawal. The gathering had no sooner broken up than Reid was called to the wireless set. From General Messervy he learned that these orders to withdraw had now been cancelled by Higher Command, and that 29 Brigade would remain where it was and fight to the last. But at four o'clock Messervy again spoke to Reid on the wireless, and the decision to move out or to stay fast was left entirely in the Brigadier's hands.
At length Denys Reid made his decision. The troops would move back that night, given a fair chance of extricating the most important equipment. But to avoid having yet again to reverse his plans, Reid disclosed these to no one until the last possible moment. He merely gave orders for the infantry to maintain their patrols that night. He needed early information about the enemy's strength and whereabouts in the south and south-eastern sectors of El Adem. On this information would depend the Brigade Commander's final decision.
The patrols brought in favourable reports, and at half past nine a fresh conference was held. Reid issued his orders. Two gaps would be made in the minefield. Petrol and stores were to be destroyed. A detachment of Sappers would remain behind and start demolitions at three o'clock in the morning.
The withdrawal started at 2 a.m. on the 17th. The troops, Moved, independently, due south for a dozen miles in the direction of El Gubi to a point where transport of the Seventh Armoured Division had been instructed to pick them up. Sending ahead their vehicles, with all guns and valuable equipment, the 3/2nd Punjab and 1/5th Mahrattas walked out of El Adem in small parties. Most succeeded in filtering through without meeting the enemy patrols in the dark, but two Punjabi companies which stumbled into enemy leaguers had to fight their way through with bayonet and tommy-gun. A few men, less fortunate, walked straight into prepared positions and were killed, captured or scattered.
At the rendezvous transport was found, and these trucks continued to pick up stragglers all through the next morning.
Though all our anti-tank guns had been lost in this withdrawal, the six 25-pounders and several Bofors guns were brought out safely, and most of the equipment. Of Marshall's 1/5th Mahrattas 150 men were missing, and of the 3/2nd about ninety.
On June 19 Reid's brigade, such as it now was, moved to El Hamra beside the Fifth Indian Division. To General Briggs' command had been added Five Indian Brigade, summoned in haste from Palestine to join the Eighth Army. This brigade was led by the former G.S.O.1 of the Division, Brigadier Dudley Russell, and normally belonged to the Fourth Indian Division.
It had moved into the Kennels area on June 14, and left Briggs' command four days later for Sollum, when the Fifth Indian Division handed over the defence of El Hamra to the South Africans and went back into reserve at Sofafi.
On the 19th General Briggs and his headquarters entered Bagush and reassumed command of what remained of Nine and Ten Brigades, together with the 1st and 2nd Free French Brigades. Reid's 29 Brigade also came into Bagush, on June 22. The 1st Worcestershires were replaced by Percival's 2nd Highland Light Infantry, and the 32nd Field Regiment (Lieutenant- Colonel Biscoe) joined the brigade to replace the 3rd Field Regiment. The Division was given a role on the Lines of Communication between Mersa Matruh and a point west of El Alamein.
But in the meantime the Eighth Army and the whole world had been shocked by the news that Tobruk had fallen on June 20. The place, so grimly defended in the previous siege, had become encircled three days earlier, when we had been forced from our positions at Sidi Rezegh. The Germans attacked from the east in the previous siege our artillery had been moved to beat off just such an assault from the same quarter. Its direction had been foreseen. Now our transport was gathered in that part of the perimeter, and our guns were less mobile than before.
The disastrous losses of men and materials in Tobruk angered our troops. Far from causing depression, this blow stirred the Army to more resolute determination, to still greater exertions.
On June 22 orders were received that Ten Corps, the headquarters of which had just arrived from Syria, would hold Mersa Matruh at all costs and prevent the enemy from establishing himself cast of a line running south to Sidi Hamza. The forces to hold this line were the Tenth Indian Division in the Matruh defences, the First Armoured Division south and west as far as Bir Qaim, Freyberg's New Zealand Division, which had also just hurried down from Syria, at Minqar Qaim, twenty-five miles from Matruh, and the Fiftieth British and Fifth Indian Divisions in the area of Sidi Hamza and of the minefield by the main Matruh-Siwa road.
Three days later General Auchinleck assumed personal command of the Eighth Army from Ritchie. Meanwhile, far back between El Alamein and the Qattara Depression, Thirty Corps was busy organizing a line of defence with the First South African Division and the 2nd Free French Brigade.
The Germans and Italians had reached Bardia on the 22nd, and pressed on next day south of Sidi Omar. Sidi Barrani had been passed, two columns struck towards Halfaya, a third headed for Maddalena. And so it came about that the enemy drew close to Mersa Matruh.
Our infantry divisions were instructed to organize themselves into battle groups having the largest number of field guns available, and enough infantry and no more to protect these guns.. Artillery was now our only striking weapon; we had mines for delaying purposes. Such a mobile defence could be moved from point to point wherever the danger was greatest. Accordingly, Brigadier Reid sent out two columns: 'Gleecol,' led by Lieutenant-Colonel L. D. Gleeson, with a battery of 25-pounders, another of anti-tank guns, and two platoons of the Highland Light Infantry; and 'Leathercol,' under Major Leatherdale, that had two platoons of the 3/2nd Punjab, and a similar force of artillery. Their task was to delay the enemy north-west of the Siwa road.
The Mersa Matruh position, apart from the perimeter round the town itself, comprised a covering line to the west, in front of which ran a deep minefield from the coast to Charing Cross, and two further minefields that had been laid northwards from Sidi Hamza, on high ground fifteen miles south of Matruh. It was the passage between these two groups of minefields that 29 Brigade was ordered to close with all speed. But the Brigade was to prove too weak to halt the enemy tanks, which eventually broke through, as will be seen, and forced our columns back. Our mines caused the enemy but little delay.
While 'Gleecol' and 'Leathercol' searched for the enemy west of our minefields, the Sappers from 20 and 21 Field Companies, aided by those from the New Zealand Division, worked all day and night to close the gap between our two minefields. By eleven o'clock that night they had done the work, and our columns, which had made no contact with the enemy during daylight, withdrew behind the mines. Soon afterwards several German tanks, preceded by a lorry, approached from the west. The lorry blew up on the minefield, which had deliberately not been marked by wire. On seeing this, the tanks withdrew at speed.
That afternoon the last train steamed out of Matruh. The last British armoured forces moved within the perimeter. Then next day, June 26, the enemy arrived at Charing Cross, seven miles south of Matruh. At half past three two German armoured columns scouted along the minefields in search of gaps, and after bombarding 29 Brigade's position, attacked it. At a quarter to seven our transport was withdrawn from the box. At seven o'clock 'Gleecol' reported that one hundred enemy tanks had broken through the minefields in the north-west corner and were advancing towards the column's position. The German engineers rode on the tanks, ready to jump down and deal with mines. From that moment onwards the wireless failed. The two columns and our Gunners were too busy fighting the battle to pass back details of the engagement. 'Gleecol' and 'Leathercol' did their utmost to delay and destroy the enemy, but they had not the strength. The Germans did lose tanks and many vehicles on the mines and from our shelling.
The enemy took but thirty minutes to penetrate our minefield. Their infantry followed the tanks. 'Leathercol' was overrun, but a few men and guns got away, including Major Leatherdale himself. He was to command the 3/2nd Punjab while Gleeson continued to lead his column, which fared a little better in the onslaught. At eight o'clock the 3/2nd were ordered to withdraw with Brigade Headquarters to a rendezvous seven miles north-east from Hamza. Our retreating columns were promptly bombed by Stukas. One Punjabi and one H.L.I. company were left in the Hamza box to cover the withdrawal, and these were overrun next day. All guns had been spiked, and the men left in groups of two and three, hoping to march south and then east towards El Daba. Most of them did reach our lines after hours of anxious walking. The Medical Officer, with three wounded men, escaped in the only truck, bringing the gun-sights.
All that night of June 27/28 General Briggs and his staff worked to gather in our forces withdrawing from Matruh---the town was no longer to be held to the last. They sought to regain contact with units that had become scattered in darkness and confusion, and to form fresh battle groups from an assortment of men and guns. By morning the position had been momentarily reorganized; three mobile columns had been put together and pushed forward to regain touch with the enemy. These three columns were: 'Gleecol,' once again, with a company of the H.L.I. and eight guns from the 32nd Field Regiment; 'Scotcol,' under Lieutenant-Colonel Scott of the 1st Field Regiment, made up of two companies of the I/5th Mahrattas and twelve guns from Scott's own regiment; and a reserve, consisting of Reid's 29 Brigade Headquarters, two platoons and headquarters of the H.L.I., a company of the Mahrattas, and another of the 3/2nd Punjab.
Brigadier E. C. Mansergh, who had succeeded Vallentin as C.R.A. of the Fifth Indian Division, records how at two o'clock in the morning the G.S.O.2, Major F. B. B. Noble, came to him and reported that the Germans were in a certain position. What should be done ? Briggs must be consulted for a decision. Briggs was at that moment asleep. Mansergh and Noble woke him. "What is it?" he asked. They told him about their information, the signals received, the location of the enemy. Briggs thought for a moment. Then he instructed them to do this and that, to send this signal and that order. He lay back on his blanket and fell asleep once more. His decisions were right, and they were acted upon. Next morning, when Noble asked the. General why he had given those particular instructions, Briggs was puzzled. He remembered nothing of it. No recollection of the night conference remained in his mind. He had been so weary, yet somehow had risen, more than half asleep still, and made the correct decisions.
During June 28 'Scotcol' had a brush with a German column, and was obliged to retire a short distance. Gleeson was ordered to take his small force back to El Hamza, but this move was intercepted by the Corps Commander in person, and 'Gleecol' redirected westwards to Fuka. It was here that the remains of Briggs' division was to make a rearguard stand, to allow the Eighth Army to withdraw from Matruh to the Alamein Line.
And so the hours went by, one, by one. The battle raged, The frontier of Egypt drew ever closer. The delaying actions became more desperate as our casualties in troops and vehicles mounted steadily. One unit, one column, one detachment, one headquarters after another was overrun or forced back. Some escaped to fight again; others were destroyed or captured. But all the time the Eighth Army was extricating itself bit by bit, hammering at the exultant enemy, hanging tenaciously on to Rommel's forces all the way back. It took every opportunity for offensive action, giving as good as it got, and often better. But our men were outnumbered and outgunned at every halting place and in every running engagement.
This was a period of uncertainty and distress, at once mental and physical. Men woke to the sound of exploding bombs. At night scares were frequent: "Ninety enemy tanks have broken through and are heading this way." Enemy flares dropped to illuminate the darkness were particularly unnerving. Small units, headquarters, dressing stations, were being overrun when columns of German tanks roared through, by-passing our positions that were hurriedly evacuated. At any moment the cry might come: "The enemy is upon us." Staff officers began to shout irritably down their telephones. Many were the narrow squeaks and close shaves during this month of retreat. Few were not in a high state of nerves. But they did their best to look unconcerned, and to set a good example to their fellows. journeys became as terrible as nightmares, and most perilous. Trucks were often without food and water. Even reserve rations had been finished or abandoned. How often did men groan or curse at the slowness of the vehicle in front of them in a convoy driving towards Egypt. How frequent were the outbursts of impatience.
In the diary of Christopher Perowne, the Division's Senior Chaplain, we find written such entries as :
"Wash off dust and bloodstains from my meagre wardrobe."
"Dusty, tired, bearded, but in excellent spirits."
"Everyone tremendously depressed. Almost impossible to get any enthusiasm."
Day and night he drove from. point to point, tending our wounded in an advanced dressing station---usually set up in a pair of lorries, with side shelters in which the wounded lay on stretchers on the sand. Never did these stretchers suffice. And men were continually being brought in for urgent attention. At night the doctors and orderlies had to work by hurricane lamps in a complete blackout. Scores of the dead had to be buried, often in stony ground. Picks and shovels and arms to wield them were short. As far as possible the graves were dug in groups, but so often the wind-blown sand blotted out all trace soon afterwards. Through all the days of bewildering strife, celebrations of the Holy Communion were held, a few men here, a group there, by the side of a car, in a truck or tent, or, more often, in the open air.
For all this apparent atmosphere of nervous tension, of confusion, of lack of any clear picture of events, of sudden moves in the nick of time, of scares and alarms, of muddled journeys and frequent moves, almost always towards the east and ahead of or beside the tired but triumphant enemy, most men kept their heads. The troops fought where they were told to fight. They did their utmost to hold back the enemy's onrush, to save their friends from being overrun, and to make the Germans and Italians pay dearly for their successful advance.
And through it all the spirit that prevailed has been exemplified by Brigadier Dudley Russell, as he then was, commanding Five Brigade. The Brigade was ordered to hold Mersa Matruh.
"The New Zealand Brigadier I relieved there said, 'Thank God, I am getting out. You never will.'
"We, were, in fact, surrounded there, and completely picketed by German armour. We all thought we were 'for it.' We collected all the papers of value at Brigade H.Q. and made a bonfire and threw all identifications on to the fire. This was a sad moment, but my Brigade Major, a magnificent fellow, produced a bottle of whisky, and we danced round the fire and drank to all the courts martial, courts of enquiry, and other difficult problems which were going up in smoke.
"That is the spirit you want when things are going badly. We made a hazardous bid for a break-out in a completely unexpected direction, and after a hectic night in the Desert, got away with it."
On June 27 Brigadier Reid was ordered to hold a rearguard position on the Fuka escarpment, to cover the withdrawal of Thirteen Corps. He arrived there during the afternoon. The troops available for this task were two platoons of the H.L.I., two companies of the 3/2nd Punjab, headquarters and one company of the 1/5th Mahrattas, a part of 21 Field Company, organized as infantry, three medium machine-guns, and five 25-pounders from Biscoe's 32 Field Regiment. The orders were these: "The position will be held until it is impossible to hold it without being cut off. Withdrawal from this position will be to Naqb Abu Dweiss" (on the edge of the Qattara Depression and south-west of El Alamein). The two main passes six miles north-east and eight miles due south of Fuka were to be held by 'Gleecol' and 'Scotcol.' General Briggs told Reid that he would if possible send four guns from 'Scotcol' to help 29 Brigade. The 3rd Field Regiment was also on its way. But neither of these reinforcements arrived in time.
Fuka was not a good position to hold. The escarpment could be descended in many different places. Ahead of 29 Brigade were our 12th Lancers, watching the German 15th Panzer Division east of Mersa Matruh. When Reid went out to visit the Lancers he was assured that they would report any enemy approach, for they had a screen five miles deep from the coast.
On the morning of the 28th Reid received a staff officer who came from General Auchinleck to be put in the picture about the situation at Fuka. Reid told the officer all he could, and then said to him, "My compliments to Sir Claude, but I reckon I shan't be here tonight."
Nor was he, as will be seen.
At half past seven that evening the 3/2nd Punjab, who bad established a position on top of the escarpment, saw large numbers of armoured fighting vehicles approaching. At first they thought this transport was our own, and reported it as such to the Brigadier. But five minutes later they telephoned urgently. "By God," they said, "it's not our own. It's the Hun." And it was a sight at once magnificent and menacing to see the Panzer Division rumbling by, some sixty tanks in all. A wind blew from the west, and the upchurned dust swept over the 3/2nd Punjab to blind their vision.
The Germans split their force. Part moved west along the escarpment, part moved east; some of the tanks deployed along the crest, others started to descend the pass. When shells began to fall among the Brigade 'B' Echelon trucks, Reid instructed his Staff Captain, Alan Passingham, to lead them back twenty-seven miles along the railway. This was done. Then a score of German tanks lumbered down the escarpment towards Brigade Headquarters and the Mahrattas, who were near Fuka railway station. Though several tanks were forced by our 25-pounders to turn aside or halt, the main body came on in line ahead towards the centre of the Brigade position.
Brigadier Reid now told Lance-Corporal Macpherson of the Signals to smash all wireless sets. Reid sat in a slit trench while this blue-eyed, ginger-haired Scot went about his business. A few minutes passed. Then Macpherson ran back and saluted. "All the wireless sets busted, sir. They went to ground, Reid, his new Brigade Major, Richard Pease, and the Signals Officer, Brian Gomm. The tanks were all round the position, firing across the dip in which Brigade Headquarters was spread out. Life in those moments was hideous. In the growing dusk German soldiers rounded up our men, one by one, group by group. At least six tanks headed straight for Reid's Headquarters. When two guns from the 32nd Field Regiment, concealed behind a low ridge scored four direct hits on the enemy tanks at two hundred yards range, the advance was momentarily arrested. But such resistance could not last. The gun portees were hit by machine-gun fire and set ablaze.
German tanks then roared into the middle and stopped. Our resistance also stopped.
The Brigadier waited till nightfall. He knew the moon would rise later. Gomm advised Reid to wait a little longer, as things were not yet settled enough for an escape. But Reid said no, they must go now. So they crawled out to the Brigadier's truck. Then four Indian soldiers came by, talking at the top of their voices. At once a German patrol captured them. This patrol walked round the truck and saw the Brigade Commander and his companions. These had no alternative but to crawl out ignominiously and be taken prisoner. And Denys Reid remained a prisoner, in company with Brigadier Charles Boucher, until November 9, 1943, when he escaped back into the lines of the American Fifth Army. Soon afterwards he was given command of the Tenth Indian Division, at that time fighting up Italy with the Eighth Army.
Meanwhile the small remnant of the Highland Light Infantry had watched this disaster to 29 Brigade Headquarters. Colonel Percival. recalls that he was just eating some tinned peaches when the noise on top of the escarpment began. He dashed away to his command post, and later discovered that he was still clinging to the spoon and a tin of fruit.
At eight o'clock the German tanks had been in 'hull down' position five hundred yards in front of Percival's platoons. The two Mahratta mortar detachments fired on these tanks with good results and caused them to veer off. Instead of coming through the H.L.I. they swung round the flank, through the 3/2nd Punjab on the left, and headed straight for our guns and Brigade Headquarters. All this time there was continual counter-battery and anti-tank shelling, for enemy guns had been sighted on top of the escarpment. It was a little before nine o'clock that the H.L.I. saw the Germans on top of Brigade Headquarters. Our forward 25-pounder guns had been overrun. Lorried infantry could be seen on the escarpment. One tank was blazing, and its flare was rivalled by that of two burning portees.
It was now beginning to get dark. Percival ordered his men to climb into their trucks and lorries. He planned to take up an alternative position farther back, where the battalion's transport might be better protected.
The route to choose was a problem for Percival. He could not lead his men south into the Desert, for this was occupied by dark masses of the enemy. To drive eastwards would take them straight among the German tanks. On the north lay the railway embarkment that could not be crossed. Percival. decided to make northwest towards the enemy.
They could do no good by staying. The only chance was to get to the east of the enemy tanks before these cut the road once and for all. The attempt succeeded, but it was a close shave. They came through with less than two hours to spare.
With the aid of four carriers all the troops were got away safely, but our vehicles were heavily overloaded. The transport was inadequate. A number of Indian soldiers who had come down from the escarpment had to be carried and wanted to be driven to safety. It was fortunate that the battalion was not shelled as the men embussed. Percival's own truck normally carried six men; now it was weighed down with twenty-four. In an attempt to reach the main road, they drove under the railway lines through a small drainage tunnel. The cab roof of the first lorry scraped the tunnel. The second vehicle was still higher, and its roof had first to be taken down. As it was, the lorry touched on both sides. Behind, the night sky was slashed by rising white Very lights, signs that the Germans had overrun 29 Brigade Headquarters.
Would the H.L.I. strike an ambush ? Had the road been cut behind them ? No one could tell. They tried to drive across the sands towards the sea, but so bad was the going that they were forced back to the road. Now they headed east. Every man kept his finger on the trigger, ready for a sudden brush and a burst of firing. Several abandoned lorries were found, but their engines could not be started; most of them had in some way been damaged, and time was short.
By midnight the H.L.I. had met a picquet of the 12th Lancers a dozen miles west of El Daba, and it was here that Percival. and his men spent the remaining hours of the night. Next day they drove back to El Alamein, and from there down the defence line to join Nine Brigade at Naqb Abu Dweiss. As for the, 3/2nd Punjab at Fuka, Lieutenant Bhag Singh got away with some men of Headquarters Company, marched all that night along the coast, and early next morning met patrols of the 12th Lancers.
What, meanwhile, had happened to Briggs' Divisional Headquarters ? On approaching Fuka, the Headquarters column found German artillery in action, firing at 29 Brigade's positions. Our leading trucks all but ran into the enemy guns. But these took no notice, and Briggs' column was able to swing away and halt below the escarpment to the west of Fuka.
Divisional Signals picked up on the wireless a running commentary describing the assault on 29 Brigade. When, at eight o'clock, the set with the Brigade went dead---smashed on Reid's orders as we have seen---a staff officer, Major J. N. Chaudhuri, was sent over to discover what had happened. He found the Germans holding the exits to the minefields. It was apparent that Reid's formation had ceased to exist. Divisional Headquarters were now alone. On all sides rose enemy flares. General Briggs asked permission, from Thirteen Corps to withdraw south and then eastwards. General Gott was not available. His Chief of Staff was not prepared to grant permission, despite Briggs' personal telephone call. For Briggs to speak in person was a rare event and indicated the gravity of the situation. What could be accomplished with a Divisional Headquarters, Signals, and the remains of some columns ? Very little that would serve the Army. If this small force was to get away, it must do so at night.
At one o'clock, having heard nothing further from General Gott, Briggs ordered Divisional Signals to close down communication, with the Eighth Army and Thirteen Corps. The locations of the German advanced posts had meanwhile been checked by compass---they were obvious from the flares and Very lights---and by halving the widest gap, a safe course was found. The night was clear. The stars shone brightly. The sand glittered under the moon's cold light. In a compact column Briggs brought his force and some remnants thirty miles south and then turned east.
Looking over the c side of the trucks, our men could see the freshly made tracks of German tanks set in sharp relief by the moon. At one point the column was unwittingly escorted by German armoured cars. A furnace fire gleamed through the darkness, and the clink of hammers could be heard---German fitters were repairing their tanks. A motorized column approached from the flank. Both halted. Was it friend or foe ? We never found out, for the other group of vehicles passed across the front and vanished. Mersa Matruh and Bagush were being evacuated at the same time, so these unknown rovers may well have been British.
Then, one hour before daybreak, a mist came down upon the Desert. Some tanks were heard approaching from the east. Brigadier Mansergh, the new C.R.A. of the Division, was sitting beside Briggs. He jumped out and ran over the soft sand to the nearest tank, to see to whom they belonged. He leaned against the tank, but could see nothing. The tanks did not move. Then a turret opened. Mansergh heard one member of the crew ask in a foreign tongue who these b-----s in front were. Of all the men then serving with the Fifth Indian Division, Mansergh was probably the only one able to recognize this language as Cape Dutch. He had spent the first sixteen years of his life in South Africa. Any other officer sent forward to investigate might in error have thought the tanks to be German. Firing would have broken out and a needless battle ensued. As it was, no harm came. The four tanks from the South African Division went their way. And Briggs' column reached in safety the southern end of the Alamein Line, where Fletcher's Nine Brigade was already established.
Thanks to the gallant rearguard of Reid's 29 Brigade, Ten Corps had been able to break out from Mersa Matruh. But the enemy pressed on along the coast. By the evening of June 29 he was fifteen miles west of El Alamein. Next day our armoured and motor brigades, operating behind the hurrying enemy. were withdrawn into reserve. Gott's Thirteen Corps took over the defence of the southern half of the Alamein Line, with the remnants of the Fifth Indian Division and Freyberg's New Zealanders; while Thirty Corps, having under command the First South African and Fiftieth British Divisions, assumed responsibility for the coastal sector of our defence line.
In a message to his troops the Army Commander stated that the enemy was stretched to his limits and thought us a broken army. "He hopes to take Egypt by bluff. Show him where he gets off."
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