Sollum and Gazala
Major Dyer's detachment received a vociferous welcome at Amiriya. Notes were compared concerning the trip, the weather, and the attentions of the enemy aircraft. There was unanimous admiration for the Royal Navy.
Two days were spent in the issue of essential kit, in drawing pay and in writing letters home, after which the battalion entrained for Helwan, where trucks met and took it to its tented area at nearby Garawi. Already in camp there were a number of men who had found their way back to Egypt direct from Greece or who had been discharged from hospital and convalescent camps. Captain Werohia was in command of them.
The battalion was issued with summer kit and, after a muster parade on which Colonel Dittmer warned the Maoris that they must live up to the good name won in Greece and Crete, departed on seven days' 'Survivors' Leave'. The CO spoke no platitude when he said the Maoris had won a good name in Greece and Crete. Their mana had been raised very considerably indeed among all ranks of the New Zealand Division, for any lingering doubts as to their ability to stand the stress of modern war had been finally stifled. They had 'Done well in all their doings', and henceforth the Maori soldier was spoken of as a fighter who carried a thirsty bayonet and who was never so happy as when he was arrayed in a comprehensive assortment of enemy equipmentin addition, of course, to his own.
Cairo, where the New Zealand Forces Club had recently opened, was the main leave centre and there were many happy reunions with friends and relatives in the newly arrived 5th Reinforcements encamped at Maadi, the base camp for the Division. On Sunday, 15 June, and before the reorganisation of the battalion commenced in earnest, Padre Harawira conducted a special church parade in memory of the fallen and to offer thanks for a safe deliverance. The men sang the funeral hymn 'Piko nei te Matenga' (In solumn grief we bow our eads), followed, in accordance with Maori custom, with a hangi lunch. Then the Army took over again. Eleven officers and 240 men were marched in, mainly from the 5th Reinforcements, but there was also a continuous movement to and from schools of instruction and a continuous shuffling of men to and from specialist platoons. The difficulty and it persisted throughout the warwas to find enough men with even rudimentary knowledge of many of the trades necessary to the running of a modern infantry unit. Before the war the only mechanical devices with which the Maori was really at home were the hand-pieces of shearing machines and the steering wheels of motor vehicles.
The first ceremonial parade of the reorganised battalion was witnessed by the King and Queen of Greece, who were accompanied by Prince Peter, General Freyberg, several of his staff and a sprinkling of ladies. The day concluded with an entertainment for the visitors provided by two haka parties, one from C Company led by Second-Lieutenant Pine Taiapa and the other from B Company under Corporal Nan Amohau. After the shaking-down period, training, in view of the likelihood of desert operations, consisted of compass marches by day and night, these leading up to night-approach marches and dawn attacks against an 'enemy' provided by the unit. As the efficiency of junior officers and senior NCOs in the use of the compass increased they plotted the courses for the exercises. Of course bayonet work, the battalion's specialty, figured largely in the syllabus. The familiar straw-filled dummies never failed to produce a spring into the step of troops who, on the other hand, could think up the most amazing excuses for missing a night march.
July followed much the same pattern, with the battalion settling down as the various schools completed their courses and the men returned to the unit. It was not all work and no playthere were picnics and sports, while the highlight of the month was a divisional swimming carnival held at Helwan on the 8th. The Maoris won more than their share of the events: the 100 yards invitation freestyle was won by Lieutenant Pene and the 50 yards open by Private Manahi, while the ten-men relay race for the Freyberg Cup was also won by the battalion. Minor places were filled in the 50 yards invitation, 100 yards medley, and the 50 yards backstroke. As in England, the majority of the battalion's competitors came from the Rotorua district.
Towards the end of the month the unit moved to Kabrit on the Bitter Lake portion of the Suez Canal and with the rest of 5 Brigade underwent three weeks' combined operations traininglanding from assault landing craft, learning the use of special equipment such as scaling ladders and poles, nets for crossing wire defences, and wire-cutters. The course culminated in an exercise in which the battalion embarked on a naval transport, sailed for some hours, manned assault landing craft and made a dawn beach landing.
On 15 August, the day before the unit departed, boat races were held between the Navy and 5 Brigade. Two crews were entered by each unit and three by the Navy and the event was decided by the fastest time over a set course. The Maori 'A' team was first and the 'B' team second. A Maori concert at the naval barracks ended a very enjoyable day. In the morning the troops packed up and marched to Geneifa, where they stayed for a couple of days before moving by MT to Tahag, some 20 miles west of Ismailia. There they remained until the end of August, training steadily, while 20 per cent went on daily leave to Cairo or Port Said. On 1 September an advance party left for a new location in the Western Desert where a fortress area was to be constructed as part of the defences of the Nile valley. The battalion followed two days later by train to El Alamein, 60 miles west of Alexandria, then by MT another 20 miles south-west of that inconspicuous railway halt that was later to become a name as familiar as Waterloo. Fortress A, better known to New Zealanders as the Kaponga Box, was a ten-square-mile semi-circle of low, steep-sided ridges in an area where the navigable desert, that is where mechanical transport could move freely, was, between north and south, only 40 miles wide; the coast was one flank and the Qattara Depression the other. The depression began at the bottom of a 700-foot cliff and was the partially dried-out bed of a vanished sea, impassable for heavy vehicles and unsafe even for loaded camels.
The Maoris were engaged mainly in the formation of a ten-mile stretch of road connecting the Box with a similar defensive work at Alamein, but they also put in some time on construction and wiring. The 5th Field Company engineers who supervised the work were asked what length of road should be constructed per day, and after consulting their Field Service Pocket Books suggested that a working party of about ninety men should do up to one hundred yards. The battalion, always unorthodox in its approach to a new situation, completed 400 yards the first day with on company on the job. This apparent miracle was performed by putting experienced men, regardless of rank, in charge of the various gangs while the others, including the officers, worked under the direction of the experts.
The monotony of the role of a road construction unit isolated in the desert was broken by occasional swimming parades at the beach near Alamein and a concert by the re-formed Kiwi Concert Party. A letter from Sir Apirana Ngata, the 'Father' of the Maori Battalion, expressing the pride of the Maori people in the manner in which the battalion had acquitted itself in Greece and Crete, and assuring it that reinforcements were rapidly coming forward, helped to keep the morale of the troops at a high level. When 5 Brigade was advised that all work on Kaponga would cease at the end of September, 28 Battalion's share of the road was practically completed.
Fifth Brigade, with 28 Battalion under command, had been detached to General Headquarters, British Troops in Egypt, while working on the Kaponga Box, but was now to return to the New Zealand Division concentrated in the Baggush Box on the coast some 80 miles to the west. The move, across the desert and with no sign of road or track, was done in two easy stages commencing on 5 October. The basis of the march formation used had been worked out by the 'Desert Rats' (7 Armoured Division) before the war started. 'Desert formation', as it was styled, was eventually accepted, with minor variations, as an effective formation for moving troops across the desert.
In the case of 5 Brigade, which with the attached Maori unit consisted of four battalions, there were two battalions forward and two in rear. Each battalion moved on a two-company front and therefore occupied a rectangle with six vehicles across the front and five or six deep. During daylight each vehicle was about 200 yards from any other and at night the trucks closed to visibility distance. The Bren carriers of each unit formed a screen across the front and down the flanks, with the anti-aircraft artillery behind the carriers. All other armsartillery, signals, engineers, and medical unitswere positioned in the gap between the front and rear battalions, while the Light Aid Detachment was in the rear to effect vehicle repairs.
With the brigade making rather heavy weather of its first move in desert formation to Maaten Baggush, this is a convenient time to bring the military situation into perspective.
After the fall of France the initiative in North Africa rested with Italy, for there was more need for Italian troops to watch the French in Tunisia and the British forces in Egypt were small, scattered, and ill-equipped. A week after the Maoris had moved to Doddington as part of the English Channel garrisonon 12 September 1940General Graziani led the Italian army from Libya into Egypt. New names came into the newspapersSidi Barrani, Bardia, Tobruk, Benghazi.
General Wavell's answer to the Italian threat was the clearance of the Libyan province of Cyrenaica, the capture of 135,000 prisoners, and the hasty retirement of the balance of Il Duce's army into the further westward province of Tripolitania.
Other factors then intervened. On 12 February 1941, the day the Maoris sailed from Capetown, the advanced elements of a German air corps arrived in North Africa and were soon followed by German ground forces under the command of a General Rommel. British Mediterranean strategy was that fighting the enemy in North Africa was not as important as countering the German assimilation of the Balkan states with its consequent implicationsan enemy advance through Turkey, Syria, and Palestine to the Suez Canal or via the Caucasus and Iraq to the same destination.
Hence the British expedition to Greece and the return to Egypt by way of Crete. In the meantime General Rommel had recaptured practically all of Cyrenaica even more spectacularly than the Italians had been chased out of it, but the fortress port of Tobruk, one of the few good harbours along that coast and an ex-Italian naval base some 80 miles west of the Egyptian border, was impeding his further advance towards the Nile valley. The Italian Supreme Command was in favour of pushing on to Cairo but Rommel felt that Tobruk must be taken first. To that end he established a line of powerful defences extending from the sea at Sollum to Sidi Omar, nearly 25 miles in the desert to the south-west. Thus covered, as he thought, from British interference, the German general was building up a sufficient striking force to assault Tobruk.
General Auchinleck, who had succeeded General Wavell, was also building up strength for a return to the attack. The plan was, shortly, to sweep around the enemy chain of frontier defences, seek out and destroy the enemy armour, relieve Tobruk, and then chase the Germans and Italians out of North Africa. While Rommel was preparing to reduce Tobruk, that hemmed-in garrison had an important part to play in the Auchinleck plan - at the appropriate moment it was to break through the investing enemy and join in the general offensive.
It will thus be seen that the opposing generals had entirely different objects in viewone aimed to clean up a danger to his line of communication, the other to end the war in North Africa. In the event Auchinleck just beat Rommel to the draw.
The weapon that had been forged for the destruction of the Axis forces was the Eighth Army, composed of 30 Corps, which included most of the armour, and 13 Corps comprising 4 Indian Division, the New Zealand Division, and 1 Army Tank Brigade. The Indians were to contain the frontier fortress line from the south and east while the New Zealand Division, after a wide outflanking march, was to move northward when the armoured battle situation was favourable and complete the isolation of the frontier forts from the north-west and cut off the small supply port of Bardia. In the meantime nobody was to take any notice of or make any deductions from the trainloads of equipment passing daily through Baggush, but to carry on with training exercises in mobility.
The battalion occupied an area astride the railway in the eastern defences of the Baggush Box and put in six weeks' intensive training in mobile operations. Navigation and attacks from vehicles by day and by night, assaults on wired positions under cover of smoke screens, practice in crossing minefields and clearing lanes to permit the passage of armoured and other vehicles gave a foretaste of things to come.
The tactic of advancing through a minefield to provide covering fire on the enemy side of it while engineer units destroyed the mines and provided safe gaps for traffic was made so realistic that the troops thought they were really moving amongst live mines. Actually, they were practising on a dummy field with the genuine article not far away, but such was the confidence gained that the CO nearly had a heart attack when he saw a number of late arrivals for a recreation period take a short cut through the real field. Anti-personnel mines had not become fashionable at the time, but that particular field had been sown with old Egyptian and Italian products with springs so weak that one was exploded by an empty kerosene tin blown across the area by a heavy wind.
All sub-units of the battalion were determined to put up a good show when active operations began and every possible preparation and contrivance was made to meet situations that might arise. The contribution of the pioneer platoon was a wooden telescopic ladder, some ropes with iron hooks, and some home-made scaling ladders for use in climbing steep cliffs.
There had been many changes in the unit's officers since the campaign in Crete: Major Bertrand, Captain Werohia, and Captain Weir had been posted to the New Zealand roll and were at Base waiting passage; Captain Scott was with the Composite Training Depot at Maadi, and Captain Baker was with 25 Battalion. Captain Sorensen became adjutant vice Captain Te Punga, evacuated sick, and Captain Harvey, left behind sick in England, had rejoined and commanded A Company. Major Dyer was second-in-command to Colonel Dittmer.
The battalion list of officers at 11 November 1941 was as follows:
Battalion Headquarters Commanding Officer: Lt-Col G. Dittmer Adjutant: Capt C. Sorensen Quartermaster: Capt C. M. Bennett Intelligence Officer: Lt A. Awatere Regimental Medical Officer: Capt M. Kronfeld Padre: Rev K. Harawira Headquarters Company Officer Commanding: Lt D. Urlich 2 Lt P. C. West 2 Lt D. O. Stewart 2 Lt J. C. Reedy 2 Lt P. Taiapa 2 Lt E. C. Pohio A Company Officer Commanding: Capt H. D. Harvey Lt W. Porter 2 Lt W. D. P. Wordley 2 Lt H. M. Mitchell B Company Officer Commanding: Capt R. Royal Lt F. T. Bennett 2 Lt A. Mitchell 2 Lt A. T. Rota C Company Officer Commanding: Capt P. Tureia 2 Lt T. Wirepa 2 Lt H. P. Rangiuia 2 Lt W. Awarau D Company Officer Commanding: Capt E. Te W. Love Lt F. R. Logan 2 Lt J. R. Ormsby 2 Lt J. Matehaere Attached 2 Lt H. Maloney Lt A. Te Puni (LO HQ 5 Bde) LOB Maj H. G. Dyer (2 i/c) Lt J. T. Gilroy (D Coy) Lt H. Toka (A Coy) 2 Lt R. Pene (B Coy) Lt H. Te K. Green (C Coy) Lt J. Tuhiwai (C Coy)
On the morning of 8 November bayonets were collected for sharpening and in the afternoon the troops saw New Zealand beat South Africa in a representative Rugby match. A heavy shower following a lighter one earlier in the day drenched the spectators as they marched back to their linesa reminder that the desert winter had arrived.
Battle dress was issued the next day, and on 11 November LOB details, 62 all ranks, who were to be left behind as rein forcements, watched the unit move out on a divisional exercise that was no exercise at all. The enterprise, which had the longterm object of driving the enemy out of North Africa, was to last eighteen months, for the most part in a land where no birds sang and no grass grew - 'Country with the top scraped off'a land of bare stones and drifting sand, of escarpments and defiles, of low ridges and shallow depressions; a roadless land where trucks were driven on a compass bearing, where armoured vehicles fought whirling battles in the dust and smoke, and infantry were pawns on a thousand-square-mile chessboard; a generals' paradise of parry and thrust where formations had no front or rear or flank and where sudden reversals of fortune could lose a battle after it had been won.
It is expedient at this stage to take a short lesson in North African geography. Mention has already been made of escarpments, which might be likened in New Zealand to papa or sandstone bluffs of varying degrees of steepness from vertical to an incline negotiable by trucks. An escarpment was almost invariably serrated with wadis like the familiar New Zealand gullies. Frequent reference will be made to depressions (deirs in Arabic) and ridges, so if the non-desert reader will visualise a depression as the bottom of a shallow lake and a ridge as a fold in the desert about as high as a two-storied city building the picture will not be inaccurate.
The tactical value of depressions and escarpments was immense and complementary. Situated on an escarpment, you had observation and some protection from tanks; while a depression offered cover from view and shelter from fire, a weapon pit that might accommodate a battalion or even a division.
Fifth Brigade moved west from Baggush towards the frontier and reached the divisional concentration area south-west of Mersa Matruh without incident on 11 November. It waited there for three days while the other formations of the Division assembled.
The journey was continued on the 15th when the whole Division, nearly 3000 vehicles in all, began the approach march to Libya. When the trucks were on the top of the slight rises that spread across the desert like undulations on a frozen sea, the Maoris could look over the square miles of vehicles that were just like the covered wagons of the Cowboy-and-Indian pictures they had grown up with. They would not have been surprised if a horde of whooping, yelling redskins had appeared on the horizon.
By nightfall the battalion was in the Bir el Thalata area 45 miles due west, and each unit's trucks closed in from day formation into close laager with only a yard or two between vehicles. Before first light disclosed a bomber's dream target the drivers would have their vehicles spread at 200 yards' interval again.
An easy day followed while commanders attended conferences. The border was to be reached in two night marches, if sitting in a jolting, bucking, heaving, slithering, overcrowded 3-ton lorry could be called a march; there were to be no lights or fires during darkness, minimum movement by day, and slit trenches were to be dug on arrival and filled in before departure.
The battalion's first real desert-formation night march was not an unparalleled success for, although the axis of advance was marked by green shaded lights at 3000-yard intervals, there was no moon and some vehicles lost contact and others got bogged in soft sand. To make matters worse there was a change of direction that the unit on the right failed to notice and it carried straight on. The result was a tangle with the rear of the Maori column, but it is a tribute to the Tommy drivers of 306 General Transport Company, RASC, that all the vehicles were with the battalion at the end of the move. The frontier was now only 30 miles away and the low rumble of gunfire suggested that the Indians were already in action.
Now that we are really on the way to seek battle on something like even terms with the enemy and with the very definite intention of taking utu for Greece and Crete, a few words about the shape of an infantry battalion at this period might be interesting. The four assaulting companies, the bayonet and tommy-gun men, each contained 5 officers and 119 other ranks at full strength; Headquarters Company, 8 officers and 241 other ranks, did the administration and manned the support armsmortars, anti-aircraft LMGs, (Bren Light Machine Gun) carriers, pioneers, signals, and transport. A battalion was by way of being a miniature army and often became more so by the attachment of a platoon of machine guns from the Machine Gun Battalion, a troop of anti-tank guns, another troop of field guns, and occasionally a section of Bofors. Tanks and engineers were also attached from time to time according to their availability and the size of the job in hand. There was sufficient transport to move the unit weapons, reserve ammunition and supplies, but the men were lifted and put down at their destinations by lorries of Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies, sometimes Tommy but mostly Kiwi. The lorries were 'three-tonners' and contained ('contained' is the right word) up to twenty infantrymen plus gear. Sardines nicely packed in tins are lonely and dispersed by comparison.
The next night things went better and, after hours of being jolted and thrown about as the drivers did their best to dodge being stuck in soft sand or twisted suddenly to avoid a rock, the troops dug in close to the frontier wire. The wire ran far south from Sidi Omar into the inland sand seafour lines of five-foot metal stakes closely intertwined with barbed wire. The barrier had been built by the Italians with the intention of keeping the subject Senussi Arabs from escaping into Egypt, but it was no insurmountable military obstacle.
The third night march took the Maoris through the gap in the wire that had been cut by the engineers and 15 miles into Libya. It is probable that morale was never so high as at that period. In Greece and Crete the Maoris had awaited the coming of the enemy in friendly country but now they trod hostile soil. The sand didn't look any different from the Egyptian variety but it was enemy sand, and the troops made unnecessary trips from truck to truck just for the opportunity of walking over it. From then (the 19th) until the afternoon of the 21st the battalion moved jerkily northwards as the Division deployed for the phase to follow the armoured clashes that had started three days earlier.
The Division's turn to enter the fight had come; 6 Brigade Group, as previously arranged, left to co-operate with 30 Corps to the west, 4 Brigade was to cut the Bardia-Tobruk road, and 5 Brigade to occupy the Sollum-Musaid-Capuzzo area as a wedge between the enemy positions at Halfaya Pass and Bardia, and also as a base for operations to reduce the frontier forts.
Sollum was a small seaside village at the bottom of the escarpment which, in turn, was the boundary of the higher ground upon which the Division was standing. There was an Italian army barracks at the top of the winding road up the escarpment from Sollum. Capuzzo was a fort surrounded by field works; loopholed and battlemented stone walls surrounded a watch tower and guarded a customs house close by. It looked like the battered remains of something out of a P. C. Wren novel of the Foreign Legion. Musaid, about half-way between Sollum barracks and Capuzzo, was a jumble of demolished stone buildings on a slight mound and was almost surrounded by field works. The importance of Musaid lay in the fact that it gave observation over a wide area, was a good defensive position, and was also the junction of a track from Halfaya and another from further south. B Company was to know that triangle very well before long.
In accordance with 5 Brigade's orders 21 Battalion left to investigate Bir Ghirba in the rear of the Omar forts; 22 Battalion departed for Sidi Azeiz, 13 miles south-west of Bardia and the junction of the roads from Bardia and Sollum westwards; 23 Battalion surprised the fort at Capuzzo and carried on to Musaid, which was found unoccupied. It also put out of action the water supply line and telephone exchange serving the area, leaving the garrisons dependent on local wells and with very inadequate communications. The 28th Battalion remained in reserve at Bir Bu Tabel, three miles south of Sidi Azeiz; reports from the main battle area indicated that things were going well there.
The position on the afternoon of 22 November was that 4 Brigade had cut the Bardia-Tobruk road, but that Bardia was in communication with Halfaya by land along the top of the escarpment and also by sea to Sollum, thence by road along the foot of the same escarpment.
The occupation of Upper Sollum, which as already described consisted of a few scattered houses and the frontier barracks, would cut the land communications and practically isolate the Halfaya-Sidi Omar area which was the job allotted to 5 Brigade. To this end Colonel Dittmer was ordered to approach by night and attack at dawn.
The CO and his 'O Group' made a reconnaissance to Musaid and looked at the objective about three miles away. Two prominent features were a tower on an airstrip a mile short of the barracks and a water-tower immediately to its south. The 23rd Battalion was of the opinion that Sollum was very lightly held if, indeed, it was occupied at all. Photographs taken by the Air Force did not support this view for these disclosed many clearly defined gunpits and machine-gun emplacements. They were sited along the edge of the escarpment and covered the road from Lower Sollum. These positions might, of course, not be occupied, for the stone buildings of the barracks and the surrounding locality had been hammered periodically from sea, air, and land since the opening of hostilities in June 1940.
The barracks were seen to be situated on a small plateau near the top of the escarpment, and it was decided to attack from the left flank and occupy the higher ground overlooking the objective. Support arms for the operation were B Squadron 8 Royal Tanks, 27 Battery 5 Field Regiment plus a troop of 32 Anti-Tank Battery, a platoon of 27 (MG) Battalion, and a detachment of engineers from 7 Field Company. A detachment of 5 Field Ambulance was also assigned to the battalion.
Colonel Dittmer held a conference of company commanders and attached units that evening and laid the plan of attack. C Company, right, and D Company, left, each supported by a platoon from A and B Companies respectively, were to occupy the barracks and exploit to the cliffs overlooking the beach. B Company, less one platoon, was to extend the line in rear of D Company and clean up machine-gun posts and gun emplacements shown on aerial photographs, with the cliffs as the final objective. A Company, less one platoon, was held in reserve, and after the attack was to take up defensive positions southeast of the barracks. The attached artillery was to be prepared to produce covering fire at first light while the MMG and mortar platoons were to move forward at the same time. The tanks were to be at the barracks as soon after first light as possible; B Echelon was to establish itself at Capuzzo. The Maoris left Bir Bu Tabel an hour before midnight, debussed at Musaid, and marched about a mile to the start line.
It was very different from the last approach march towards the Maleme airfield on Crete: there were no landmarks, no road to follow, no grape-vines to get entangled in, no other battalion to wait for, and no powerful and determined enemy at the destinationonly some low scrub and sandy patches alternating with rocky ground. Platoon commanders' eyes were glued to compasses when the battalion moved off at 3.30 a.m. on the required bearing to bring it above the barracks before dawn.
C Company was near the objective when two rifle shots wakened somebody, and within a matter of minutes coloured tracer bullets were cutting haphazard lines through the darkness. Soon afterwards the crash of mortar bombs added to the clamour and the attack developed into a series of skirmishes.
The opposition was short-lived and all objectives were taken without much trouble. B Company found that sundry gun emplacements shown on the aerial photographs were unoccupied but ran into a machine-gun post on the edge of the escarpment which caused some casualties. Sergeant Martin McRae, Corporal Tommy Duncan, and three others rushed the post and killed two of the gun crew, whereupon the others, faced with the prospect of being impaled or surrendering, chose a third course and jumped over the cliff to safety or a broken neck.
B Company was consolidating when troops were seen advancing upon its rear, but before any harm was done they were identified as the two platoons of the reserve A Company with oddments of Headquarters Company. Captain Harvey had been wounded en route so Captain Royal disposed the men in rear of his own company.
D and C Companies extended the line along the escarpment, effectively isolating the barracks from Lower Sollum, and the tanks completed the operation by moving into the barrack square. Spasmodic mortar fire was coming up from Sollum and one tank was temporarily immobilised either by a lucky shot or a mine, but the tanks' presence was sufficient to discourage any prolonged resistance.
Colonel Dittmer was wounded about this time, and until Captain Love handed over D Company to Lieutenant Logan and went to Battalion Headquarters to take command, the Maori Battalion had another pakeha commanding officer. The war diary of 8 Royal Tanks explains the situation:
0600 hrs. 'B' Sqn entered solum with Maori Bn. Some resistance but managed to occupy barracks. Commanding Officer of Maori Bn. injured and Major sutton temporarily took command. 200 prisonersmany German. One tank knocked out in solum Barracks.
A reinforced company of Germans held Lower Sollum, and though in all probability they had only the haziest notion of what was going on above them they covered the escarpment with fire. Captain Tureia, fulfilling the instructions to exploit forward, directed his company to follow when he signalled and went down the escarpment to make a reconnaissance. He was killed before he had gone far, but the fire was too severe to bring him in until some time later.
The number of prisoners mentioned in the 8 Royal Tanks squadron's diary was increased by another fifty marched in by Captain Sorensen and Private Jack Hemi. The Adjutant was inspecting the forward positions when a Maori was sniped nearby. Corporal Governor Matthews (MM for gallantry in Greece and Crete) was trying to place the sniper when he, too, was killed, but Jack Hemi had located him. Hemi was carrying a thermos anti-tank grenade and threw it down the escarpment; whether or not the sniper was obliterated is not certain, but about fifty enemy troops emerged from a cave and surrendered.
With the exception of a few Germans the prisoners were not a very warlike lot. They were line-of-communication troops from 4 Italian Labour Unit, or, to give them their full title, members of 4 Battaglione raggruppamento lavvoratori della Libia, and faced the prospect of life behind the wire of a prisoner-of-war cage with admirable aplomb. Revolvers, cameras, and binoculars speedily changed hands; the Maoris, who never let the chance of extra kai pass, loaded themselves with tins of various kinds of rations; several motor cycles with side-cars were appropriated by the despatch riders and the stretcher-bearers also equipped themselves with these amenities for the quicker removal of casualties to the RAP that Captain Kronfeld had set up near the aerodrome tower.
Casualties in the actual assault had been inconsiderable, but with the daylight OPs at Halfaya could see the troops digging in on the flinty desert and four long-range guns were turned on the area. At the end of the day the battalion losses were 18 killed and 33 wounded, which included two company commanders and the CO.
The position as Brigade Headquarters viewed it was serious, for with Captain Love acting CO, Captain Royal was the only company commander with any long experience in that capacity. Brigade Headquarters would have been even more perturbed had it known that Captain Love was fighting off an attack of arthritis and would not accept the MO's advice that he should be evacuated. At that stage the battalion command was:
Acting Comanding Officer: Captain Love Adjutant and acting Quartermaster: Captain Sorensen Officer Commanding HQ Company: Lieutenant Urlich Acting Officer Commanding A Company: Lieutenant Porter Officer Commanding B Company: Captain Royal Acting Officer Commanding C Company: Captain C. M. Bennett Acting Officer Commanding D Company: Lieutenant Logan
Concern at the state of the command was confined to Brigade Headquarters, however, for the acting leaders were confident that they could handle any situation that might arise, and as for the rank and file the kai was adequate. Among the booty taken at Sollum was an army pay-truck and very soon the desert was strewn with Italian lire notes of all denominations. At first they were used for short sessions of poker, mostly in Headquarters Company, and players rose untroubled after winning or losing some hundred thousands of lire. When they tired of the novelty of being useless paper millionaires the currency was used as cigarette lighters and for toilet-paper. But the state of mind of the survivors of the campaign, who later discovered that Italian lire were exchangeable in Cairo, is better left to the imagination.
Brigadier Hargest placed Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie (23 Battalion) in command of the garrison of Capuzzo-Musaid-Sollum with orders to co-ordinate the defences of the area, not to allow the enemy to concentrate for an attack, and to watch the Halfaya flank in case the enemy attempted a breakthrough to Bardia. In pursuance of these instructions Colonel Leckie came over to Sollum and Captain Love showed him over the battalion dispositions. The long-range guns at Halfaya were still searching the area, and it was agreed to disperse the majority of 28 Battalion's transport at Capuzzo in 23 Battalion area where the danger of getting shot up was not so great.
Further west, the main battle, fought over many square miles of empty desert, was not only going against us but was in fair way to being lost. General Freyberg was instructed to leave only the minimum number of troops to contain Bardia and to move the rest with all speed to the decisive area at Sidi Rezegh. The 21st Battalion was accordingly withdrawn from Bir Ghirba, where it had been involved in a bigger operation than was intended, left 5 Brigade, and moved west into the Sidi Rezegh battle; 20 Battalion was relieved at Bir Zemla by 22 Battalion and also moved westward; 23 Battalion, based on Capuzzo, continued to watch the Bardia perimeter from the south while the
Maoris continued to act as a wedge between Bardia and Halfaya; 5 Brigade (less 21 Battalion), now under command of 4 Indian Division, moved its headquarters to Sidi Azeiz until the Indians could take over and thus permit the New Zealand Division to operate at full strength in the battle to relieve Tobruk.
Brigadier Hargest's instructions to his brigade were to be vigilant and aggressive for the next few days without becoming involved in heavy fighting.
Fulfilling the directive, a patrol of two NCOs, McRae and Duncan, from B Company went down the road to Sollum and disturbed enemy posts with grenades. The following night a two-platoon patrol led by Lieutenant F. T. Bennett visited the same locality. The enemy was on the alert and called down fire from Halfaya with a red Very light. McRae, who was again in the party, remembered that the garrison had used red flares for artillery support and green to stop it, and he smartly put up a green flare. The enemy started the artillery again with a red and McRae countered with a green. The third time the guns opened to the call of the red flare they declined to stop for McRae's green so the patrol withdrew.
A page from Lieutenant Wordley's diary describes the activities in A Company area in particular and the Sollum position in general:
Monday 24th Nov. 1941.
Nothing eventful during night. 0600 stood down from night areas to our day areas in stone houses for cover from sight & fire. Walls can withstand the shells. Quite a few of the houses have raid-shelters built in too. Vickers gunners keeping Jerry quiet down below.
Jerry made a determined attempt to wipe one post outhe had arty. mortar & m.g.s. and also a field gun firing point blank at suspected position. Found a 'Spandau' m.g. out on hill working O.K. We have lot of Hun ammo. a.p.'s & explosive too. So will probably give him a taste of some of his own medicine. We have a 2'' M. & A/T. rifle too. Jerry sends his shells in spasms but no one takes much notice. Am getting the boys to have as much rest as possible. We have a very large front to cover also a road. Report of 40 enemy tanks in S. of Halfaya Pass with motorised infantry. We're waiting! Air Force is supposed to do some straffing but no sign of themstill they are doubtlessly being kept very busy. All boys have souvenirs but I can't see how they are going to be carried.
During the day D Company noticed movement in the lower part of the barrack buildings and on investigation captured three Italians and four Germans whose firearms included one of our Bren guns. A rumour had circulated that dumdum bullets had been used the night before, and this crew was given the discredit of using them. They were all in grave danger of being shot on the spot, and one German who possibly read something unpleasant on the faces of his captors tried to run away. He was immediately shot and the mercurial Maoris sent the rest back to Battalion Headquarters.
A couple of nights later the dual nature of Maori personality was demonstrated by their treatment of two more prisoners. No. 18 Platoon, sleeping in caves below the escarpment, was wakened by the rattle of a tommy gun and there was a rush to stand to. The sentry pointed out something in the dim moonlight that was swimming towards the beach and later two figures emerged from the water, stark naked and shivering. They were Germans and where they came from no one knew, but being helpless they were put to bed with their captors. In the morning they were clothed, offered cigarettes and breakfast, and made thoroughly at home before being sent back to Battalion Headquarters.
The next day (the 25th) was of much the same pattern in the Maori area, but 23 Battalion had a busy time preparing for thirty tanks reported to be moving in its direction from the south. They were, however, turned back by the Indians with the loss of seven, according to a later report.
How it came about that enemy tanks were in the rear of 5 Brigade, which itself was in the rear of the enemy frontier defences, requires explanation. General Rommel, after his near victory on the 23rd, when his adversary was defeated but not destroyed, conceived the idea of leaving some of his infantry beseiging Tobruk while he took 21 Panzer and 15 Panzer Divisions and Ariete Armoured Division to re-establish the situation on the frontier. When he got there he further planned to annihilate the New Zealand Division and 4 Indian Division. He certainly disrupted the supply system by cutting across the lines of communication, but neither of his intended victims was where he thought it was. He came off second best when he did locate part of 4 Indian Division and at the same time turned north to wipe out the New Zealand Division, which he thought was north-west of the frontier forts but which was actually forcing its way along the Sidi Rezegh ridge towards Tobruk.
Headquarters 5 Brigade knew as little about the enemy dispositions and intentions as Rommel knew of the location of the New Zealand Division, but Colonel Leckie prepared for a possible attack by requesting Captain Love to send a company to Musaid to strengthen the centre of his position and ensure liaison between the two units.
B Company was given the job and a section of carriers for reconnaissance purposes. A check on arms and ammunition disclosed that the company fire power had increased by approximately 200 per cent, for in addition to its normal weapons the company had raided the enemy arms depot at the barracks to some purpose. The return showed six spandaus, three anti-tank rifles, one 2-inch mortar, six tommy guns, and fifty stick grenades from this source. The Arawas, still in high spirits after the easy capture of the barracks, were prepared to tackle any number of the enemy. Captain Royal was not so optimistic until he was assured of the support of all field, anti-tank, and light anti-aircraft guns in the vicinity.
Fort Musaid was found to be just a heap of stones. It had been a fort once but had been completely demolished with the exception of portions of some walls. The main road from Sollum to Capuzzo ran through the area and four other rough tracks also converged and met there.
The company was disposed for all-round defence, with all roads left unobstructed, and spent the night digging narrow, two-men weapon pits. The spoil was carried some distance away and used to form parapets around non-existent trenches.
The dispositions at first light on 26 November were: 28 Battalion, less B Company, at Sollum barracks, three miles east of Musaid; 23 Battalion, less B Company, at Capuzzo, three miles west of Musaid; B Company 23 Battalion had two platoons at the Customhouse, a mile and a half west of Musaid, and the third platoon at Musaid; and B Company 28 Battalion was sitting on the junction of all roads meeting at Musaid. The attached artillery was disposed between Musaid and Capuzzo and the MMG platoon was north of Capuzzo.
The battalion put the finishing touches to its defences, both real and dummy, during the day, while the area was kept under shellfire ranging from desultory to heavy. About four o'clock in the afternoon the section of carriers which had been on a reconnaissance to the south came streaking back at high speed. Their report was: 'They're coming in bloody thousands.'
They certainly were. Ravenstein Group (Part of 21 Panzer Division), through what Africa Korps' diary states were 'wrong orders or a misunderstanding', was coming up from Halfaya with the intention of attacking towards Capuzzo and breaking through to Bardia.
Simultaneously with its arrival an extremely heavy artillery concentration was laid on Sollum, later switching to Musaid. It was, in effect, a barrage, the first the Maoris had experienced, but the deep, narrow weapon pits were adequate cover and there were no casualties.
When the shelling stopped there was a convoy advancing on a front of 500 yards and about 1000 yards distant, with a solitary directing vehicle almost inside the position. Orders were given in Maori to keep down and allow the vehicle free passage. It came on unsuspiciously until one of the reserve sections shot it up and the secret was out. Infantry were debussed at three points in the column and advanced to clean up whatever was hiding in the ruins of Musaid. B Company, still under strict orders to remain hidden, held its fire until permission was given.
No progress could be made against the Maori collection of automatics though several determined efforts to close in were attempted. Towards dusk the column split in two, lapped around each side of Musaid, clashing in so doing with the remainder of B Company 23 Battalion, and carried on towards Bardia. Captain Royal wrote:
A message was passed back that what sounded like tanks were approachingand they were. Five staff cars heading the tanks came blissfully into our position and one was heading straight for Coy Hq. Cpl McRae personally disposed of it and started the second show. The tanks were right in our position with guns ablaze. The dummy trenches were flattened out but the boys were quite safe in their narrow slit trenches and were having a lot of fun with A/T rifles and grenades and anything they could throw. A gun was brought up on a six wheeled track vehicle and made a lot of noise when fired. The boys shot off the steering wheel and immobilized the vehicle. A light tank was set alight by a sticky bomb and evacuatedthe occupants were shot up. A captured South African armoured car was shot up by an A/T rifle and recaptured.
At this stage reinforcements arrived from B Coy 23 Bn1 pl with Capt Romans and they joined in too. The fight stopped as quickly as it startedafter about an hour thoughwhen the enemy got organised and passed in the wake of the first convoy. The final act was to cut off one of the field pieces, a 75 mm gun, manuvred in by the captured light tank manned by a Maori crew and driven by Pte H. Manahi.
The six wheel track vehicle with the steering wheel shot off was freely used on salvage and patrol and was steered with a pair of pliers. The gun had been recovered by the Huns. Of course we would have fared differently if the tanks had got up in daylight for then they would have stood off and blasted our section posts one by one.
The enemy got his wounded away but the B Companies of 23 and 28 Battalions had accounted for 76 dead and had taken 9 prisoners. The cost to the Maoris was 3 killed, 4 wounded, and 2 missing. Over at Battalion Headquarters B Company had been written off as killed, wounded, or captured.
Now let us take a look at the action at Musaid from 21 Panzer Division's point of view:
26 Nov 41
In the afternoon the division was ordered to push through to Bardia. It moved to the attack in its transport at 1700 hrs, just as dusk was falling, covered by a preliminary artillery bombardment including the artillery on the Halfaya front. The enemy, who had taken up positions in the little hamlet of Musaid halfway between Capuzzo and Sollum, was defeated after a short engagement, and the way was thus cleared. The main body of the division followed on. In the Musaid area, however, the division's marching columns were attacked by infantry of 4 Ind Div, with hand grenades and A Tk guns. The division suffered some casualties.
The 15th Panzer Division had already reached Bardia by a more westerly route and was filling up with oil, petrol, and ammunition before getting back to the main battle area, where the New Zealand Division's operations outside Tobruk had assumed menacing proportions. Capuzzo-Sollum was the only serious intrusion into the enemy defences in that area, so while, presumably, 21 Panzer Division refuelled, 115 Infantry Regiment (two infantry battalions) from 15 Panzer Division was sent to capture Capuzzo, still held by 23 Battalion.
This attack against A Company of 23 Battalion, made about the same time as the one against Musaid, was pushed on determinedly and was as stoutly opposedthe battle report of 115 Infantry Regiment speaks of bitter fighting with bayonets and hand grenades. The German commander, however, felt that he was on the point of success when he received a wireless message: 'Break off contact immediately and return to your start point.'
Truly the old-time Maori god of war, Tu of the Red Eyes, was watching over his warriors and their pakeha neighbours that night, for had even a substantial portion of the strength available been sent against them they could not have escaped destruction.
During the rest of the night 28 Battalion stood-to while Ravenstein Group streamed past, B Company searched for souvenirs over its own private battlefield, 23 Battalion reorganised after its stiff fight, 22 Battalion on an escarpment near Bardia escaped attention, and Rommel prepared to get back to the Tobruk front as fast as possible.
The next day (the 27th) Rommel began the return from Bardia to Tobruk, fell upon 5 Brigade Headquarters at Sidi Azeiz, and, after a one-sided action, captured it. Still hankering after the destruction of 23 Battalion, he sent, inexplicably enough, a force only about half the size of the previous one to reduce Capuzzo.
The commander of 33 Panzer Engineer Battalion was ordered, after he had become heavily engaged, to withdraw if Capuzzo could not be captured by 3 p.m. It says something for the German engineers that, although they did not succeed, they were close enough to success to disobey orders and carry on the action until nightfall. During this hard-fought engagement the Maori B Echelon, attached engineers, and some 23 Battalion men were captured.
They were not easily taken. Lieutenant Pohio had gathered his drivers and taken up a position facing south. Their armament consisted of one Bren, one Boys rifle, and about twenty rounds per man when they were attacked by three light tanks and a troop-carrier. Two anti-tank guns nearby each accounted for a tank before they were themselves knocked out, but the other came on. With their ammunition exhausted, the drivers were taken prisoner and marched off a short distance and, with two machine guns trained on them, were left to watch the battle from the side-line.
Lieutenant Urlich, who had been at 23 Battalion headquarters, arrived in time to see the captured transport platoon being marched away, and he collected a few men from the Quartermaster's trucks further back and tried to effect a rescue. He was wounded in the charge and the others took shelter. Urlich, ahead of his men, was in grave danger of joining the transport platoon when Private Johnny Jenkins jumped into an empty truck and succeeded in rescuing him.
Lieutenant Pohio, after describing the above incident, continued: 'Then two carriers from 23 Bn came and very bravely tried to help us out. A burst of machine gun fire from behind warned us of the futility of trying to make a break.' One man, however, Private Shepherd, snatched a bayonet from a guard, stabbed him with his own weapon and leapt on to the nearest carrier, but was killed instantly by an anti-tank shell which also killed the carrier crew.
When the enemy withdrew they released their prisoners in the desert about six miles north of Capuzzo and did everything possible to ensure that they found their own lines again, which they did. The Maori losses were five killed and two wounded; among the former was Sergeant Wilson, battalion armourer since Palmerston North days.
B Company had stood to while the German attack on Capuzzo was repulsed and the next day continued its interrupted salvaging and sorting of captured equipment. Amongst the collection was a battery-operated radio with five sets of earphones, and it was on this radio that 'Lord Haw-Haw' was heard to announce that the New Zealand Division was short of provisions and had been reduced to eating salted seagulls. It was a heavy blow to the Maoris for they then knew that an expected supply of their favourite delicacy, titi, had been captured.
Nothing definite about the fate of Brigade Headquarters was known until the 29th, but a message was received by Captain Love that administration had been upset and that for a period there would be no rations. The situation was not too bad, however, for water was plentiful and a search of the barracks produced three truck-loads of biscuits, macaroni, tinned meats, coffee, beans, soda water, and orange syrup. Other events of importance during the day were the capture of an Italian patrol south of Bardia by a section of carriers commanded by Lieutenant Reedy and a raid by 18 Platoon on an enemy post at the bottom of the escarpment. Beacon Point was found to be unoccupied by the enemy and a section was left there to ensure it stayed that way. Further advance towards the pier was stopped by shellfire from Halfaya and the raiders returned.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew (22 Battalion) decided to withdraw his troops and report to 4 Indian Division for instructions. The column arrived at its destination during the night of 2829 November, whereupon Colonel Andrew was instructed to assume command of 5 Brigade, still with the task of holding the line Capuzzo-Musaid-Sollum barracks to prevent enemy movement between Bardia and Tobruk.
It was while Colonel Andrew was getting a team together to operate his headquarters that the Maori Battalion fought its first and only naval engagement. A submarine was seen approaching Sollum pier and the MG section and 3-inch mortar in C Company area fired on it, whereupon the submarine turned and removed itself from the vicinity. The Halfaya guns retaliated with a fifteen-minute hate on C Company. The enemy was probably expecting mail and supplies and appeared very upset over their non-arrival. However, as a result of 18 Platoon's raid, the beach below C Company was clear of enemy and many of the company went down for a swim. They found three trucks and a driver hiding in a cave. There were other trucks abandoned near the pier; no doubt they had been sent for the supplies from the submarine.
D Company occupied itself in laying a minefield along its front with Italian mines found in the barracks. Private Graham Kahui, who had transferred from the Engineers, was the expert on fuses and the laying was so successful that an artillery driver who failed to understand the frantic waving of arms and took a short cut through the field had the front wheels of his truck blown off. After that the men of D Company kept a hopeful eye open for enemy tanks but were not able to test their workmanship further.
B Company was relieved by 23 Battalion on the 30th and returned in triumph with a long string of cars, motor cycles, tanks, and sundry other vehicles. The 75-millimetre gun was presented to 10 Platoon 23 Battalion as a small token of esteem and thanks for its help in the fight at Musaid.
On the last day of November Lieutenant Awatere marched out to Brigade Headquarters as Intelligence Officer and the battalion received a warning order that it would soon be moving. In the meantime, the defences were further strengthened by hauling up the escarpment three captured French 'seventy-fives' and ammunition and siting them in D Company area.
A battalion of the Buffs from 4 Indian Division relieved the Maoris on 1 December. The battalion then marched a gruelling 14 miles to the Menastir area with the dual role of containing Bardia and preventing its communication with enemy forces around Tobruk. The rest of the Division, after crippling losses at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, had made and lost contact with Tobruk and was withdrawing while Eighth Army was preparing to renew the struggle with fresh forces.
On arrival at Menastir, immediately north of the Bardia-Tobruk road, Captain Love disposed the battalion for all-round defence, with B Company facing east towards Bardia and south towards the escarpment above the road while C Company faced north. The western side of the hollow square was defended by A Company, right, and D Company, left, with supporting arms, including a platoon of machine guns, disposed within the perimeter. The 23rd Battalion was two miles nearer Bardia, while 22 Battalion was spread over the high ground on the 180-foot-high escarpment south of the Maori position.
Bardia was 11 miles east and Tobruk 65 miles west of the 5 Brigade positions. The country was undulating and Captain Love's defence scheme so sited that, from the ground, platoon positions were completely hidden.
The battalion was dug in and open for business by the afternoon of 2 December. The first customers arrived about midnight. They were an enemy officer and two other ranks, part of a reconnaissance patrol, and were driving one of our own 15-cwt trucks with a gun mounted on the tray. Soon afterwards a German truck was stopped and two men who were looking for the patrol commander found him at Battalion Headquarters, waiting removal to a prisoner-of-war camp.
There was no further incident until morning when Lieutenant Porter took A Company, supported by A Squadron Divisional Cavalry, out on patrol. His instructions were to move not more than ten miles towards Tobruk, then work north before returning, but he had covered only three miles of the assignment when he sighted a column approaching. His trucks were dispersed until the newcomers were identified, which was not done until the column stopped about a mile away and men in enemy uniforms could be seen through binoculars. Porter then decided to return and leave the attached Divisional Cavalry squadron to coax the enemy into the Maori area. Meanwhile, in 22 Battalion area, the field and machine-gunners on the escarpment were taking a keen interest in the long line of vehicles halted on the road below them.
As what followed took place largely in D Company area, a more detailed description of its dispositions will make for clarity. No. 17 Platoon (Sergeant Tainui) was the most forward and on the right or north of the road, with 16 Platoon (Lieutenant Ormsby), right rear, and 18 Platoon (Lieutenant Matehaere), left rear, with one of his sections on the left of the road. There was a dummy minefield in front of 17 Platoon, and the company 2-inch mortars operating as a group under Corporal Te Anga were in the centre of the triangle formed by the three platoons. Company Headquarters, plus a Breda machine gun brought from Capuzzo, was dug in behind the rear platoons, while the company cooks' truck covered 16 Platoon with a Bren gun acquired by stealth from somewhere.
Finally, Sergeant Poutu had two of the battalion 3-inch mortars behind 18 Platoon and ranged on a bend in the road about 1600 yards ahead.
The enemy column, led by an officer standing on the running-board of his car and gazing earnestly at the escarpment on his right, passed 17 Platoon and was within sixty yards of 18 Platoon when he turned his glasses to his other flank, where-upon Lieutenant Matehaere shot him and started the fight. Every weapon in D Company opened fire on a target while Private Elkington, a signaller with the company, rode around the posts on a captured motor cycle delivering ammunition. Up on the escarpment every field, anti-tank, and machine gun worked steadily down the halted line of trucks. Enemy guns at the rear of the column were quick to reply but not to the hidden Maoris, and D Company was able to prevent the German machine-gunners from getting into action. Some trucks were able to deploy in front of A Company and debus their machinegun crews, who immobilised everybody in their vicinity until they in turn were nearly all picked off by 22 Battalion on the escarpment above them.
Late in the afternoon there were still two enemy posts firing on A Company so an operation was planned to clean them up before darkness gave them an opportunity of escaping. The battalion mortars were ordered to put a smoke screen across their front while the battalion carriers and the Divisional Cavalry troop that had remained in the background since the opening of the action made a detour and engaged the enemy from a flank. While the Germans were occupied with the light armour, a party of A Company would charge through the smoke and silence the posts. Lieutenant Porter detailed Corporal Mio Wiki and a section of his reserve platoon for the job.
Again reverting to Wordley's diary:
1630. My No. 2 Sect. went out on a bayonet charge under smoke screen and captured 83 Huns. They won't stand up to the bayonet. The rest of them fled. Peace reigned again. Some of the boys got merry on some drink they swiped during the day. Lloyd gave me a Luger and Maru Wharerau gave me a torch. I'm quite satisfied with my lot.
Those who were not captured by Wiki's men did not flee very far for the carriers and Divisional Cavalry rounded them up.
Meanwhile, 17 Platoon was mopping up along the line of trucks. The platoon had a number of 5th Reinforcements who were not as cautious as the old hands, and when they came upon about fifteen dead Germans in a fold in the ground they were about to carry on without further investigation. Private Harper Takarangi, a veteran of Greece and Crete, was suspicious and fired a burst in their general vicinity, whereupon the dead men came miraculously to life. Takarangi lectured the others very severely on the folly of taking a dead German for granted.
In this action extremely good work had been done by the RMO, Captain Kronfeld. There were few Maori casualties but, as can be gathered, the enemy casualties were heavy and the RAP had a difficult task trying to treat them all. When the order came to move, Kronfeld volunteered to stay behind to complete his task, and did so in spite of the dangerously fluid situation. He rejoined the unit later.
Now to take a look at this action from the enemy point of view. The ring around Tobruk had been closed again and the New Zealand Division regarded as destroyed, a somewhat optimistic appreciation of the situation considering that 5 Brigade was still functioning so offensively. The 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions mustered around Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed had not come unscathed out of the battle that had resulted in the withdrawal of the New Zealand Division (less 5 Brigade) into Egypt.
Regrouped British forces operating south and south-west of Tobruk were causing anxiety and the supply position in the enemy's frontier posts was becoming acute. Halfaya was particularly insistent and claimed that it had only two more days' rations.
General Rommel ordered that two advanced guards, one each from 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions, were to move along the Via Balbia and the Trigh Capuzzo with supplies for the Sollum front. Parts of the two divisions were to follow and clean up Sollum and Capuzzo.
In the event the advanced guard on the Trigh Capuzzo was turned back by the Indians. Geissler advanced guard, the force which moved along the Via Balbia, supplies its own obituary:
Report by 15 MC Bn on Action west of Bardia [Geissler advanced guard] Commander; 200 Regt commander. Troops: 15 MC Bn, 1½ coys of 33 A Tk Unit, 1½ btys of 33 Arty Regt. [After detailing the sending out of a patrol that failed to return, the approach to the Maori position and the deployment of the force, the report continues:] They pushed ahead fast until Km 17, when, as they topped a rise they suddenly came under heavy shell, Anti-tank and Machinegun fire. Many of our vehicles loaded with ammunition were set on fire immediately. The troops jumped off the vehicles, and many of them could not even save their weapons. The recce platoon and 3 Coy, however, pushed on under the personal leadership of Major von Debschitz, but were very soon halted by a withering fire from Heavy Machineguns, mortars and Anti-tank guns in well-concealed positions on the escarpment on our right, and shell fire from at least 4 batteries. One or two platoons tried again and again to get their MGs into action and silence the enemy fire but were prevented from doing this by accurate MG and Anti Tank fire. Our heavy weapons could not be brought into actionthey were either knocked out by the hail of fire or could not be taken into position. For over 1½ hours the battalion was tied down by the enemy fire. Enemy infantry broke in among our foremost troops and captured some of them. Then the battalion commander gave the order to break off the action. Many men of the battalion were wounded as they withdrew and had to be left behind. The battalion commander, adjutant and 2 other officers were wounded and missing. All this time 1 Coy, on the left of the Via Balbia, had been defending itself stubbornly, but the order to withdraw failed to reach it. After the main body of the battalion had disengaged from the enemy it was surrounded by enemy tanks. The company commander gave the order to retire, but the tanks followed up and set all the company's trucks on fire. Only the A Tk platoon of 33 A Tk Unit and one vehicle got out.
2 officers and 6 OR wounded.
5 officers and 226 OR missing.
In the west the battle of manuvre was moving against the enemy, who was in some danger of being encircled in the same manner as his Sollum-Sidi Omar positions were hemmed in.
During the night Headquarters 5 Brigade was informed that, due to regrouping, it was to return to the Sollum-Capuzzo area.
It was a highly delighted 28 Battalion, loaded down with trophies of the chasethe men quite unaware that in all probability they would soon have been in the Bardia prisoner-of-war cages had the operation planned for 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions not been cancelledwhich lead the column back to its old area.
Nothing had altered while the battalion had been away from the Sollum front, but elsewhere the climax to the relief of Tobruk was approaching. The two panzer divisions were recalled to help counter the threat to the German-Italian lines of communication.
Captain Love complimented the battalion on the action at Menastir and also reminded the troops of the good treatment accorded the B Echelon during the short period it had been in enemy hands. He concluded by saying that he expected the same standard of treatment to be accorded to enemy prisoners. The latter part of the message was regarded as a piece of amiable eccentricity on the part of the CO. Nobody would harm a taurekareka so long as he surrendered expeditiously and behaved with decorum. Clearly he would have no further use for such trophies of the chase as lugers, birettas, binoculars and such-like oddments.
The 7th December was a full daythe first letters and parcels for nearly a month arrived and were distributed; Major Dyer, promoted temporary lieutenant-colonel, arrived from LOB and took over command from Captain Love, who later marched out to hospital; the news was received that Japan had entered the war with a flourish by attacking Pearl Harbour without the formalities usual to such occasions; the German-Italian forces were at last withdrawing from the Tobruk-El Adem area towards Gazala, about 40 miles farther west.
The next day was also fairly busy: Lieutenant-Colonel Dyer was not in favour of the enemy continuing to hold the Sollum pier from the shelter of caves above it and was arranging a two-platoon attack on the area, but the operation was cancelled at the last moment after orders came to move with the rest of 5 Brigade in pursuit of the main enemy body.
After handing over to the South Africans, the battalion left soon after midnight and marched to Sidi Azeiz which it reached by dawn. RMT vehicles from Tobruk met it there and transported the troops over the remaining miles of stony desert and low scrub to the concentration area 17 miles south-east of Tobruk. In the morning the battalion commanders were informed that the brigade was under command of 70 Division, newly released from Tobruk, and was to be ready to move at thirty minutes' notice to Acroma, thought to be held by the enemy rearguard.
The troops sat around through a miserably cold day of wind and driving rain but were cheered in the afternoon by the arrival of a mobile canteen purchased in New Zealand by donations from Maori school children. Mr Charles E. Bennett, the YMCA representative who operated the canteen, presented a tin of New Zealand tobacco and a cake of chocolate to all who called on him, irrespective of unit. 'Charlie YM', as Bennett was soon christened by the troops, apparently never ran short of supplies during the four years the canteen followed the fortunes of the Maori Battalion. He later acquired a wireless set, reputedly a gift from the Italians in Libya, and on quiet evenings the men gathered around the truck listening to the news of the outside world. After the war the canteen driven by 'Charlie YM' toured the Maori schools before it ended its days of active service in the safe keeping of the Waitangi Trust Board.
Later in the afternoon information was received that the enemy had vacated Acroma and that 70 Division was mopping up between that area and the coast. Fifth Brigade would move first to Acroma and then gain contact with the enemy. If the Gazala Box was found to be occupied in force, the brigade would reconnoitre the area but was not to get involved in serious fighting without prior permission. Meanwhile, 4 Indian Division would bypass Gazala and secure objectives further west.
The brigade finally left about 3 a.m. the next morning (the 11th) and by breakfast time was at Acroma, a bare and rocky elevated area on the desert flatness. Here the battalions were given their tasks22 in reserve, 23 to advance along the Tobruk-Derna road, 28 along a track due west from Acroma and four miles south of the main road. Lieutenant-Colonel Dyer had under commandbesides the usual machine-gun platoon and section of engineers and troop of anti-tank gunsa troop from 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery and one from 1 Royal Horse Artillery.
By mid-morning the battalion was ready for its semi-independent reconnaissance. The formation was A and C Companies forward, B and D in support. The carriers screened the front and both flanks, while for extra protection the anti-tank guns guarded the exposed left flank; the right was covered by the ack-ack troop and the RHA was in the rear. Final instructions were that the enemy might be met about eight miles ahead and that the companies were not to get involved in a major action. Five miles were covered without opposition but when nearing Sidi Mgherreb, a slight rise dominated by a little hill hardly more than a pimple on the desert, shells began to drop among the trucks.
Mgherreb was actually a very strong position and had withstood an attack by tanks and infantry. The enemy left was protected by a minefield, the right by a line of twenty-six anti-tank guns interspersed with machine guns and mortars. Further back there were field guns and infantry.
Lieutenant Porter saw the shells bursting among the trucks and made a quick decision to push on as there would be less danger in moving ahead than in turning back, since the guns would have to alter range to keep up with the advance. He told his driver to 'step on it' and veer left where a slight rise promised some shelter for the vehicles. The driver stepped on it so hard that the speed altered from seven to forty miles per hour and the whole battalion, conforming to the change in direction, missed the minefield where the greater part of a battalion of the Buffs was held up. B Company, following A, took a wide detour to the left and escaped the attention of the enemy guns, one of which put Colonel Dyer's car out of action. The CO was not hurt and jumped into an artillery signal truck and chased his rapidly disappearing battalion.
Nearby was a group of five Crusader tanks whose commander said they were the survivors of a regiment and could not move until the infantry went in and cleared the way. The CO pointed to the trucks racing forward and said, 'We're in!'
Meanwhile, B Company, going flat out, was nearing the anti-tank-gun line, which was still firing at the place where the Maoris should have left their trucks and deployed. Perhaps, like the Turks at Beersheeba when the Australian Light Horse charged on horseback, the gunners were too flustered to alter their range. Even Kiwi gunners find it difficult to fire in two directions at the same time, so, with B Company racing rapidly down on one flank and A Company on the other, the Italians took the course of prudence and stopped firing altogether. B Company collected about 200 prisoners. By this time A Company had debussed and formed up on the rise with the intention of capturing some field guns in the near distance. Somebody yelled to Porter that there was a whole line of anti-tank guns on their immediate left, but as they were now silent the company pushed on. However, it was soon pinned to the desert and had to watch while its intended victims limbered up and drove away.
The lack of serious opposition is accounted for by the fact that the Italian Trento Division was in the process of falling back on the main Gazala position. The Italian official history says: '. the "Trento" Division, under enemy pressure, was made to fall back with all its guns.'
The battalion consolidated with C Company on the crest of the rise, B and D in support and A out in front, with the support arms suitably positioned for a possible counter-attack. The Italians must have put up a very determined defence prior to the arrival of the Maoris for there were many dead British soldiers lying in groups with their bayonets fixed as if they had been shot down while charging the guns. There were also some survivors in the area, for a group of about sixty commanded by an NCO reported to Colonel Dyer and asked permission to retire as they had not eaten for twenty-four hours. Asked why they had not gone back during the night, the leader replied that they had not been instructed to do so and therefore, naturally, had stayed.
The Italian gunners were disgusted with the unconventional methods of the Maoris. They had held up tanks and infantry but had not expected to be charged down by trucks full of yelling enemy. 'This is a new way of making war,' they complained, and were told it was the Maori way.
The enemy was apparently considering a counter-attack for more guns were brought forward and the battalion endured some hours of searching fire, while groups of infantry could be seen in the distance. They were, however, broken up by the support arms before they became dangerous.
While this was going on there was an aerial clash overhead and three enemy planes came down. A carrier went out and rounded up four airmen as they landed. One of them reached for his pistol and was shot. Towards dusk the enemy was seen to be moving back. Sergeant De La Croix took his carrier forward for a parting shot but soon returned in a very bad temper saying unking things about his jammed gun. A Company out in front decided that the battle was over and began to look for some trophies of the chase. Lieutenant Wordley wrote:
....in time we got up and not seeing anyone about some of the boys went ahead on a 'ratting' mission and were surprised by the sudden appearance of a couple of Itis out of a dug outthe boys fired a couple of shots above their heads and, wow! Itis seemed to come from out of the ground. No. 7 Pl. collected 1000 in all.
They were from 62 Regiment, Trento Division, and brought the battalion bag up to 1123 all ranks for the loss of five killed and eleven wounded.
Brigadier Wilder, now commanding 5 Brigade, paid a visit to Battalion Headquarters the next morning (the 12th) and arrived in time to share the battalion's first dive-bombing attack in North Africa. Fifteen black dots in the sky became fifteen Stukas, with wings held like diving kingfishers as they streaked down with screaming sirens. The rocky ground heaved and shuddered as the bombs exploded into dusty rosettes. Private Iver Whakarau, a battalion despatch rider grounded with a damaged ankle, described the incident in a letter home:
It happened just before dinner when we were once more at peace with the world. I was in the middle of a shave at the time when we spotted a whole lot of planes circling around the area we'd already occupied. At first we thought they were our planes but believe me it didn't take us long to find out different. When they started to dive down on us I just flattened out on the ground and closed my eyes and prayed like Hell. Forgot all about my crook ankle too, during my fright and I never finished my shave till three days later.
The battalion got off lightly with two killed and two wounded. New orders arrived soon after the Stukas left. The brigade would move forward on a three-battalion front with 23 Battalion right, 28, centre, and 22 left. The Maori objective was Point 182, about eight miles west, which was reported to be occupied. B and D Companies led the column, debussed, and went forward but the enemy had departed. Enemy equipment was strewn around and the troops passed the time souveniring before they dug in for the night. Fifth Brigade was now close to the main defences of Gazala.
Brigade Headquarters informed units that the advance to maintain contact would continue in the morning and Lieutenant-Colonel Dyer arranged his order of march. He decided on a variation of the usual desert formation by increasing the lateral distance between companies so that they occupied an extra 400 yards of frontage. In effect, the battalion was disposed in two wings, the right under Captain Royal (B Company followed by A Company) and the left under Captain C. M. Bennett (C Company followed by D Company). It was hoped that greater flexibility of manuvre would be obtained and that if one wing was held up the other would be able to outflank the opposition. Brigadier Wilder had definitely forbidden any more head-on collisions without artillery and smoke protection.
In the broader picture, 23 Battalion was to continue along the Tobruk-Derna road while 22 Battalion was to veer northwest towards the Maoris' left flank. South of 5 Brigade was 4 Indian Division, and on its inland flank 7 Armoured Division.
The battalion had travelled a bare two miles when shells from a slight rise directly ahead (Point 181) were the signal to try the outflanking technique. B and A Companies in the line of fire charged straight ahead into the shelter of a wadi, while Captain Bennett tried to make ground to his left but was forced to debus and take cover. The support weapons immediately deployed and came into action and an artillery and machine-gun battle ensued.
The 22nd Battalion was likewise held up by strongpoints and 23 Battalion necessarily did not move far. The Indians had met tough opposition on their front, and there was now no doubt that the enemy intended to defend the Gazala line and that 13 Corps had a fight on its hands if the continuation of the enemy retreat was to be insisted upon. Thirteenth Corps was instructed to use its armour on the inland (left) flank and also to increase its frontal pressure. To effect this pressure, a Polish brigade was to reinforce 5 Brigade. The successful outcome of the operation would have been to encircle the enemy at Gazala, but in the event no such result was achieved.
Colonel Dyer was ordered to clear the enemy off Point 181 at first light, but after making a reconnaissance of the area and considering the reports from the artillery OPs, he decided that it was too tough a job to be done by a day show and was given permission to defer the attack until nightfall.
It was a tactical problem of some complexity; Point 181, perched on an escarpment, was the core of the strongpoint, of which the rise that had stopped the advance was a part. The escarpment was shaped like a horseshoe with the open end inviting the Maoris to enter, whereupon they would have been under fire from Point 154 at the top of the horseshoe and Point 152 on the far side. The defended localities themselves were in the form of a triangle, with each point about a mile and a half from the other.
Colonel Dyer decided to deploy the battalion so that A and B Companies would assault from the northB on the forward rise where it would consolidate while A carried on to Point 181, which was about 500 yards farther back. C Company and D, less one platoon in reserve, would attack from the south in a similar manner. Companies were to commence moving into position 600 yards from the enemy flanks at 2 a.m. and be ready to attack at 3 a.m., when the RHA plus 5 Field Regiment, which had rejoined 5 Brigade, would open fire.
A five-minute concentration was to be fired on the near rise and then a ten-minute one on Point 181. The lift would be the signal to attack.
The CO visited each company after dark to make sure that everything was understood. At A Company Lieutenant Porter guided him to B Company area, but on the way back inadvertently took the wrong route and the pair found themselves among a lot of Italian noises. They tiptoed very quietly back, and Porter, who thought the enemy were jittery and getting ready to move out, obtained permission to feel forward with a platoon. The reception accorded them was much too warm and Lieutenant Wordley and two others were wounded in the withdrawal. By the time the baffled Ngapuhis had returned to their lines the artillery had opened with A Company not in position. Porter led the platoon back at a gallop, with the rest of the company in close pursuit.
The rest of the troops were lying out in the camel scrub watching the darkness being cut to ribbons with coloured tracer when the artillery opened up. As soon as the guns lifted the Maori yells that the enemy were to know so well were answered by the crackle of small-arms fire, then bursting grenades disclosed deep, stone-lined trenches, each containing an anti-tank gun and some thrity Italians who were dealt with Maori fashion.
C Company began to consolidate on the first objective, but as only 17 Platoon (Sergeant Jack Tainui) had arrived from D Company and none at all from A Company, Captain Royal formed B Company up facing west and with Tainui's platoon prepared to tackle the final objective. Just as they had moved off, Lieutenant Porter, with his tin hat blown off by a grenade and his legs and back full of splinters from the same source, stormed up at the head of his company.
The second assault was a replica of the first. Colonel Dyer placed Captain Royal in charge with orders to consolidate while he returned to his headquarters back on the first objective. Royal, in turn, instructed A Company and 17 Platoon to consolidate while he went forward with B Company to exploit in case there were more enemy about. They found a field ambulance, medical stores, a food truck, a car and several motor cycles.
The Arawas had taken time off to sample the Italian hot coffee in the food truck when the approach of daylight disclosed still more enemy in trenches close by. They did not offer much opposition and the Maoris took over their weapon pits. B Company's adventures were not yet over for at first light another enemy group was seen about 400 yards away, apparently standing around waiting to surrender. The Maoris were proceeding to oblige them when the enemy suddenly turned and manned some guns behind them, whereupon B Company's men dived for the cover they had just left.
By the greatest of good fortune a Vickers crew had arrived by this time and came immediately into action, cleaning up the enemy gun crews, breaking up an incipient counter-attack, and ensuring that the guns remained unmanned. The RHA battery soon had the range also and kept the area under surveillance all day, for B Company was isolated and unable to rejoin the battalion. Captain Royal and Lieutenant D. Stewart were wounded by the same mortar shell and Lieutenant F. T. Bennett took command.
It is necessary to digress a little and account for the platoon of D Company that, it will be remembered, did not get up in time to assult Point 181. Lieutenant Logan had remained behind with the reserve platoon while 18 Platoon (Matehaere) and 17 (Sergeant Tainui) went forward. No. 18 Platoon came under fire from the left flank and right rear and was forced to ground. Private Charlie Shelford volunteered to silence the firing behind the platoon and did so in spite of being wounded three times by grenade splinters. When he was close enough to use his spandau he found that it also had been damaged by a grenade, but he still had a grenade himself which he used to bring the enemy out into the open. He captured 4 officers, including the commander of the group, and 36 other ranks. The resistance crumbled after that and the platoon was able to rejoin the battalion. Shelford was awarded the DCM for this action. Three Maoris were killed and twenty-seven were wounded and missing, but 382 members of 36 Regiment, Pavia Division, including the colonel, were captured.
The booty, besides innumerable small arms, included numerous field and anti-tank guns, transport and two light tanks. Point 181 was found to be a very small rise on which there had been some habitations, but these had been demolished to provide the stones for the trenches of the strongpoint.
The Maori Battalion was now on the south rim of the shallow horseshoe plain that ended a mile towards the west and where more enemy strongpoints were located. Neither of the flanking units had been required to move and 28 Battalion was holding a salient. The 23rd Battalion was busy clearing up a landing ground and 22 Battalion was more in the Indian area than in that of 5 Brigade.
The day passed with B Company isolated by crossfire, Brigade preparing another job for the Maoris, and the Polish Brigade getting ready to wedge in between 28 and 22 Battalions preparatory to the reduction of a strongpoint at Carmuset er Regem.
The day was not without its diversions. Private Bill Maha was down in the depression 'inspecting' enemy transport when a German staff officer, unaware that the place did not belong to his side any more, drove up to him. 'English?', he asked suspiciously. Maha replied equally curtly, 'Italian'. Maybe Maha's Italian accent was not so good for the car zigzagged away at top speed while the Maoris on the point danced with rage; had they shot at the car Maha would probably have been killed.
The next callers, two Germans with a motor cycle and sidecar, were not so lucky.
Later, as a result of a dogfight overhead, a Tomahawk plane came down in B Company area, and Lieutenant Reedy took out two carriers and under fire rescued the wounded South African pilot. Sergeant Goodwillie took three carriers out on a reconnaissance towards the main escarpment, where the enemy was still holding in some strength on the reverse side, and provided the enemy gunners with a target, the crews with some anxious moments, and the Maori spectators with some excitement. The first salvo fell close, the second right among them, and the middle carrier disappeared in a cloud of dust. A loud 'Ah-hh' from the troops changed to a delighted yell when the little carrier was seen streaking like a bat out of Hell for the crest of the escarpment. The team shot up enemy trenches and guns and then wheeled right and raced for home unscathed.
While these diversions were going on, Brigade was preparing for the further employment of the Maori Battalion in conjunction with the Polish Brigade. Two battalions of Poles were to capture Carmuset er Regem while the Maoris took Points 152 and 154 on the main escarpment; 22 Battalion would assist the Poles with covering fire, while 23 Battalion would demonstrate south-west and divert attention from the Maoris. Colonel Dyer's task was not easyPoint 154 was clearly visible, a white mound of spoil above dark-green scrub, but Point 152 was hidden from view and had to be taken on trust.
The battalion plan was for D Company to advance on the right of the Poles until in a suitable position to give covering fire to A Company assaulting Point 154. While this attack was in progress C Company would assemble under the crest, then, assisted by machine-gun and artillery fire, would charge over the top on to Point 152. B Company was to remain in reserve on Point 181.
Two hours before the attack an unlucky shell killed Lieutenant Green and eight others in C Company and Lieutenant Taiapa was brought up from the Pioneers to command the platoon. Lieutenants Pohio and Awarau had already, on account of officer casualties, been transferred to B Company.
Two different actions developed, and we will deal first with the attack on Point 154 on the left flank. It has been mentioned before that the Maori approach to military problems was sometimes unorthodox, and on this occasion Lieutenant Porter was troubled by the long approach march in full view of the enemy. In the previous engagement the company had souvenired an Italian 15-cwt truck which had been used to bring up the rations, and Porter had noticed that this particular vehicle was never molested by the enemy. He used that fact and the other fact that his men, like the rest of the battalion, were wearing sundry items of enemy clothing, to obtain the element of surprise.
Sharp on time, D Company moved along the escarpment and C Company down a wadi preparatory to advancing to the shelter of the crest. A Company had a hot meal brought up in the Italian truck and the troops were told to put their bayonets away, sling their rifles, and draw their rations. When it was time to move off the whole company straggled forward in extended order, the troops eating their hot meal as they did so.
A rattle of musketry out on the left flank indicated that D Company had found targets, and simultaneously a message from Brigade ordered the attack to be postponed for half an hour because the Poles were not ready. The order came too late to be obeyed, but it meant that until the Poles went in D Company had an open flank.
By this time the Ngapuhis were nearing their objective and upon a signal resolved themselves into three lines of yelling Maoris advancing with fixed bayonets. Point 154 fell without a shot and without a casualty. Maybe if the defenders had been Germans instead of Italians the ruse would have failed.
D Company, out on the left, was fired on from Carmuset er Regem, the Polish objective, and was forced to take cover and wait for the delayed attack to come in. A Polish reconnaissance carrier appeared and Sergeant Tainui, after a conversation with its commander, told his platoon that the Pole was willing to support them in getting forward and that he would get Lieutenant Logan's permission to move. He was away for a few minutes, sufficient time to walk about a quarter of the distance to Company Headquarters; then, returning and saying it was all right to get cracking, he led his platoon forward. They had not gone twenty yards when he was mortally wounded by an anti-tank shell meant for the carrier. But Jack Tainui, if he could not die standing, meant to die fighting, and he signalled for a Bren gun to be brought to him. 'Give me the gun. You load the magazines', were his last words. When his men buried him they covered his grave with his spent cartridge shells.
The Poles came up with their first wave perched on carriers and took everything in their stride, including most of 17 Platoon. They could not really be blamed for this because the Maoris were dressed as much in Italian as in their own uniforms. They were eventually constrained to release their Maori prisoners but retained their weapons just in case they were really Italians. There were plenty of enemy automatics about and there were no hard feelings.
Meanwhile, C Company had reached the bottom of the crest shielding Point 152 but fire was too fierce to risk crossing the skyline without more artillery support. Captain C. M. Bennett put up a red flare asking for aid, which was immediately supplied, and in addition Lieutenant Awarau was sent up with a platoon from B Company to support the attack with enfilade fire. Lieutenant Pohio begged to be allowed to take the rest of B Company and they, too, were soon moving up the valley. The anti-tank section also lent a hand by using its guns as field pieces.
In spite of the extra fire power the enemy kept the crest under continuous fire and C Company remained pinned to earth. The pioneer platoon, with a section of engineers, was the only battalion reserve not committed and it looked as if the attack was going to fail. The quietly spoken commander of the RHA battery, Major Loder-Symonds, had a solution, and he sent one of his officers, Lieutenant Hayes, forward in an open truck with a wireless set to Captain Bennett.
The result of this direct observation wirelessed back to the guns was soon apparent; the enemy fire slackened and the Maoris surged over the top, accompanied by Hayes in his truck, who brought down artillery fire neatly in front of the first wave. En route to the objective C Company overran a battery of guns.
By last light the positions had been consolidated. Casualties were 10 killed and 39 wounded, but over 200 prisoners had been taken. The troops were very thin on the ground with D Company now back at Point 185. Lieutenant-Colonel Dyer asked Brigade for reserves and, after checking the position, left Loder-Symonds as the senior officer in charge while he returned to Battalion Headquarters for a wash and a freshen-up.
A quotation from the Italian official history deals with this engagement:
In the afternoon of the 15th December in the Ain el Gazala area, the British renewed the attack on the whole front of the Italo-German units. At about 15 hours the British launched a fierce attack with infantry and armoured cars in the direction of q. 181, 186 and 208, and between 'Pavia' and 'Brescia' Divisions. The fighting continued with extreme violence till late in the evening, and notwithstanding the determined resistance of the troops some successes [were won] between q. 152 (right flank of the 'Brescia' Division) and q. 186, in the direction of Carmuset er Reghem (q. 183). They also succeeded in penetrating the right flank of the 'Brescia' Division, opening a gap of about 4 km, which, however, was finally held by units of the 'Trento' Division.
Dyer had not been long at rear headquarters, about 1200 yards behind Point 185, when Captain Young reported with D Company 22 Battalion. The men debussed and in open order were sent up to Point 185. A short time later Major Loder-Symonds rang through to say the enemy were massing for a counter-attack. They were about 800 strong, and he had sent D Company 22 Battalion forward to support A Company and was turning his guns on to the enemy. At that moment Lieutenant Mitchell was the only officer with A Company. Lieutenant Porter was back at his headquarters having fragments of Italian grenade removed from his person. His batman was prising them out with his thumbnail and a sharp knife when a despatch rider reported with a message that the enemy was massing. Porter took over the runner's motor cycle, but while riding hell for leather towards the danger point, skidded on a stone and was so badly concussed that he was unable to move.
The CO raced back to Point 181 and took command. He found that the artillery had opened fire on the enemy and that the enemy artillery had also opened fire on its own troops. D Company 22 Battalion was advancing through fire towards A Company when the Ngapuhis, without any orders, left their pits and charged the enemy. A hail of bullets met them and nearly two-thirds of their number went down; the rest found what shelter they could. Captain Young occupied the pits just vacated and covered the remnants of A Company. Dyer pushed B Company forward to cover the right of both A Company 28 Battalion and D Company 22 Battalion, and also moved D Company back to its old position to do likewise on the left.
Although A Company's losses were terribly high (58 killed and wounded), its readiness to meet the enemy more than half-way had broken up the counter-attack. The company, now commanded by Sergeant Dick Stephens, vice Lieutenant Mitchell, wounded, was only 22 strong and might have been entirely eliminated had not Sergeant 'Spud' Cato, forward with a machine gun, helped to maintain the defence and succour the wounded. A stubborn fire fight was carried on by both sides until the afternoon, when the enemy quietened down. A message from Brigade for D Company 22 Battalion to return immediately could not be acted on until dark, when the handful of A Company were also withdrawn to their original position at Point 181. At dawn, Polish patrols brought back word that the enemy had departed in the night.
Orders were received to embus and the battalion was assembled. The company commanders and the MO reported that the men, who had been in action almost continuously since 23 November, needed a spell.
The troops moved back to Point 191 during the afternoon of the 17th and stayed there until the 23rd resting, cleaning up, and servicing trucks, of which the battalion had acquired rather a varied collection. D Company scorned ordinary vehicles and owned a light Italian tank, and C Company had a heavy diesel lorry. They were all needed to carry the array of enemy longrange morters, machine guns, and 20-millimetre cannon that had been collected during the campaign.
It was a sad battalion that received a demand from Brigade Headquarters to pass over all captured enemy arms. In spite of the order Colonel Dyer felt justified in retaining a selection of anti-tank guns and long-range mortars, for it was common knowledge that many men had been scooped up by enemy tanks because of the absence of anti-tank arms. Two truckloads were handed over and the rest became a secret reserve.
Padre Harawira held a memorial service on the 19th in memory of the fallen. Describing it, Private Iver Whakarau wrote home:
Friday 19th. Our first church service was held. I think that was the saddest day I ever experienced in my life. Saw the hardiest of men shed tears during the sermon, in fact I couldn't hold back myself. Happened to be wearing a pair of goggles so I just pulled them up over my eyes so that no one would see me.
The battalion's casualties for the whole campaign were:
Died of wounds 14
Wounded and prisoners of war 10
Prisoners of war 3
Colonel Dittmer, wounded in the attack on Sollum, carried on the tradition established in Greece by Captain Baker, and continued in Crete by Major Bertrand and Captain Scott, of going 'into the bag' and getting out again.
Some Maori casualties from the Sollum attack were taken to the New Zealand medical centre near Sidi Rezegh, for the possession of which 4 and 6 Brigades were fighting most bloodily. The medical centre was overrun by the enemy on 28 November and over a thousand patients taken prisoner.
Colonel Dittmer managed to manuvre himself, less his badges of rank, into a tent occupied by Lieutenant Addie Mitchell and ten other ranks of various units. A compass and a map he still had were buried in the sand close by. The Colonel was considering means of escape when Captain Lomas of 4 Field Ambulance, to whom the prospect of becoming a prisoner of war for the duration was also extremely distasteful, mentioned his dislike while dressing Dittmer's wound. The upshot was an arrangement that Lomas was to get a truck in going order and Dittmer would navigate. Some thirty all ranks were mobilised and a truck selected and put in order at night. It was not possible to collect a food reserve as two scanty meals of biscuit were the daily ration, but water and petrol were quietly drawn from other vehicles as were two rifles and some ammunition.
The actual breakout was made under cover of a sing-song arranged by Captain Lomas and put on by 4 Field Ambulance to cover the noise of the truck. One by one the escapees slipped away by devious routes and boarded the truck. The concert was in full swing and the nearest sentries in serious danger of being shot when the fortuitous arrival of an enemy mechanised column incited their curiosity. They moved away and the truckload of Kiwis, driven by Sergeant Owen Gosson of 4 Field Ambulance, moved off in the opposite direction. The course set by Colonel Dittmer was first due west for five miles, that is, deeper into enemy territory to avoid reserves behind the fighting troops; then due south for 35 miles in the hope of outflanking the enemy front line; then south-east for the frontier. Apart from dodging ten or so mechanised groups laagered for the night, and who may or may not have been friendly, the party safely crossed a wire and, after some hesitation, approached a halted column. It turned out to be a group of British supply vehicles.