CHAPTER 9 — Libya, 1941
On3 June 1941 one officer1 and 49 other ranks of the Divisional Petrol Company arrived back in Egypt, more than pleased to encounter once again the heat, flies, filth and general degradation of that benighted country. Relief was not unmixed with sombre feelings. The Company had lost 25 (including one officer) killed or died of wounds in Crete, and 62 wounded. Besides these, about 120 Divisional Petrol personnel were still somewhere on the island, in a total of over 12,000 Imperial troops left behind there.
The main task facing the Company now was to rebuild, retrain and re-equip. Some useful lessons were drawn from battle experience in the two previous campaigns. In Crete especially, the need for physical fitness, the ability to undertake long marches, and a sound knowledge of the use of infantry weapons had been clearly demonstrated. These lessons, learned the hard way, were emphasised in Petrol Company's subsequent training programmes.
On 13 May the 5th Reinforcements (from which the Company was largely rebuilt) had arrived at Suez, in a convoy which included some of the largest vessels then afloat, for example the giant Cunarders Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, which joined the convoy with Australian troops at Sydney. New Zealanders travelled in the Mauretania (carrying ASC reinforcements), the Aquitania, and the Nieuw Amsterdam—all now stripped of their luxury-line fittings and rigged out with the bare essentials for troop-carrying.
The voyage was uneventful, and uncomfortable. The ASC shared cramped quarters below decks, where they slept in canvas hammocks slung above the mess-tables. Some men slept on or under the tables. Rough seas early in the voyage caused much sickness. Harassed MOs faced long queues on the daily sick parades but had little to offer beyond aspirin tablets.page 146
These were usually ejected, together with other stomach contents, as soon as they were swallowed. Grey-faced, the men then returned to duty.
Training aboard ship pressed on, interspersed with boat-drill, inspections, and the inevitable queuing for meals, beer, pay and pictures. Off duty the men read, wrote letters, played cards and other games—‘Housie’ (permitted), crown-and- anchor (forbidden), bridge, euchre, Slippery Sam, and the rest. Brighter moments came at the various ports of call: Sydney (no shore leave, but much interest in Our Bridge and Our ‘Arbour); Fremantle, with excursions to Perth (not on foot); Colombo, where a stay of nearly two weeks made a memorable interlude; and finally Port Tewfik.
Throughout the voyage the ships’ radios blared tidings that grew progressively worse, as our Division, pursuing its hopeless mission in Greece, was forced to evacuate and then to stand as best it could on Crete. In the Western Desert, too, German troops had appeared and, led by Rommel, were threatening Egypt. The reinforcements, some of them conscripted men, listened and wondered.
Arrival and settling-in at Base Camp followed much the same pattern as for earlier drafts. More progress had been made with camp construction, more amenities provided. But the ASC Fifths were not destined to linger yet amid Maadi's ‘pleasures and palaces’. Because of an outbreak of influenza they were confined for ten days at Garawi—a bleak desert camp providing the bare minima for human subsistence.
Meanwhile the mercury hovered around the hundred mark, and often went above it. Earlier in the month a record temperature of 119 degrees in the shade had been registered; but there was little shade at Garawi. Rations for a time were scant and unappetising. Surface pipes carrying water to the camp became too hot to touch; their liquid, heavily chlorinated, was anything but refreshing. So the Fifths went on wondering just what they had let themselves in for!
They soon found out. Garawi was followed by a short, sharp course at the ASC Base Training Depot, Maadi, under the loving care of Second-Lieutenant Chas Graham and Major John Hunter, both originally of the Petrol Company. On page 147 18 June eighty-two were drafted out to the makings of a new Petrol Company at Helwan. Other drafts followed; and, with the Crete survivors back from their seven days' special leave, the reconstituted Company settled down to serious training.
‘I had just come back from the ASC School where I had been an instructor’, Stan Forbes recalls, ‘when I was informed by the Colonel that I was to take over the Company. I went down to the unit to see what was there. I found nothing there, except the battered remnant from Crete. There was no orderly room, no records, no paycards, nothing. The first job was purely administrative—to set up a Headquarters to start to control something which was going to be rebuilt. Then the reinforcements began to arrive—and in the midst of it all I got German measles!’
Reorganisation brought the Company a number of new officers. On 28 June came Second-Lieutenant M. G. Browne,3 fresh from OCTU and before that from 4 RMT. A keen cricketer and a New Zealand representative hockey player, ‘Brownie’ gave a boost to the Company's sporting life.
Lieutenant Hastie4 transferred in on 30 June, while three days later Staff-Sergeant A. S. Rusden and Corporal A. T. Rimmer marched out to NZASC Base Training, as candidates for OCTU. On 15 July Captain Forbes and Lieutenant Hastic were promoted acting major and captain respectively. Next day the Company gained Second-Lieutenant Bill Swarbrick,5 a lively youngster also fresh from OCTU, and previously from Divisional Ammunition Company. On 19 July Sergeant Wallace6 (alias the ‘Black Tracker’) marched in as acting CSM.
While all this was going on, drivers and NCOs, though page 148 lacking vehicles, were kept hard at work. Training included night route marches along the Nile and over the moonlit desert—for ten miles on 7 July, 15 miles on 9 July, and 20 miles the next night. And the farther the troops pushed on into the desert the surer they were to encounter Abdul—or Ahmed— rising wraithlike from among the sand-dunes to offer ice-cream, bottles of gaziz, or juicy water-melons. Such fare, though forbidden, was often bought, and eagerly consumed, by the perspiring ‘askaris’.
Camped next at Mahfouz, the rebuilt Company paraded, practised musketry, mounted guard, learned to read maps. Most training was done between daybreak and noon, with a compulsory siesta in the early afternoon, followed by recreational training. With the help of Ken May, who had left Petrol Company and was now a one-pipper in Divisional Ammunition Company, a gas chamber was rigged up in a disused cookhouse, airproofed with army blankets. The officers laid on genuine WD tear-gas, and through this our lads, muffled in their respirators, went one by one, cursing and panting.
The idea was to test the efficiency of the men's anti-gas equipment. But so small and hot was the room, and so heavy the concentration of gas, that the fumes stung the skins of the sweating soldiery, who, thinking they were encountering mustard gas, hopped about in great style. Such stunts, however, helped to break the monotony, as did the afternoon sports activities run by Maurie Browne and other officers. These now included Second-Lieutenant Bill Washbourn,7 marched in on 27 July.
For MT training there were lectures, and, in Workshops Section, practical work such as brake and steering overhauls. Until 31 July, however, the Company's MT was largely imaginary. On that date a party under Captain Torbet8 collected from Tel-el-Kebir ten Matchless motor-cycles, ten Royal Enfields, one workshops vehicle, one stores vehicle, and various page 149 technical kits. The Company's mileage for the month was: motor-cycles 4609, trucks 45, total 4654—a far cry from the tremendous totals notched by this and the other ASC companies in days ahead.
By July the weather was still extremely hot and, with the Nile rising rapidly, becoming very muggy. ‘The mosquitoes are also putting in an appearance’, one soldier wrote home,‘and I got chewed to Hell the other night’. That month, and in August, there was marked interest in the Divisional casualty lists, now making their appearance on camp notice-boards. The crowds gathered continually around these notices reflected current anxiety over the fate of comrades or relatives who had fought in Crete.
On 3 August Maurie Browne recorded: ‘I have had a pretty busy week organizing our ASC athletic team. Sgt Cording9 (Pet Coy) is ASC representative on the Divisional Committee’. ‘Brownie’ himself was secretary of the NZASC committee. The first big function (a 2 NZEF sports meeting) took place on 5 August, with a general holiday for all troops not on necessary duties.
A fortnight later Browne wrote in a letter home: ‘I'm so damned busy, and look like being so for weeks. Things are starting to hum. I've spent days bringing in new vehicles from a long distance away. Usually some stupid joker hits a Wog or runs into something while in the convoy and I have to spend hours making up accident reports and being a general insurance adjustor as it were. I'll have to dash off again shortly to get a statement from a Wog policeman re an accident in my convoy yesterday.’
Despite such contretemps the build-up of vehicle strength for the Company and for the Division (with Petrol Company acting as the Division's receiving and distributing unit) proceeded apace. By 15 August allocations totalled 115 three-ton Chevrolet trucks, 19 Ford V8 station wagons, 20 Dodge 8-cwt pick-ups, 3 workshops vehicles, 6 stores vehicles and 6 break down vehicles. While B and D (Workshops) Sections were attending to this, A and C Sections spent several days in the page 150 El Saff area on desert convoy practice. Small parties also marched out to 2 NZEF Rest Camp at Sidi Bishr.
During the latter half of August, vehicles continued to be drawn by Petrol Company from Nos. 9 and 10 Vehicle Reserve Depots and distributed to the Division. On 22 August Lieutenant Collins and Second-Lieutenant Washbourn, in charge of two detachments comprising 87 men and 36 vehicles, moved out for special duties at Suez and Geneifa. These included the carrying of troops (mostly Indians with English officers), and their baggage, from Suez to Qassasin (Collins's detachment); and general carrying under the orders of ADST, Moascar Area (Washbourn and party), mainly removing stores from RE dumps and delivering them to various points. In the course of these duties one driver, J. W. Clare,10 was accidentally killed. He was buried in the Suez Military Cemetery on 30 August, his loss being keenly felt by all his Petrol Company comrades.
September brought increased activity for Petrol Company as Divisional units, rebuilt and re-equipped, moved out from their base camps and again became desert dwellers. In the van went a detachment of B Section under Second-Lieutenant Browne to form the Petrol Detail of an NZASC Composite Company. Our detachment consisted of one officer, one sergeant and 27 other ranks, including a cook and a Supply Detail corporal. On 4 September the party set up camp three miles on the Alexandria side of El Alamein, from which point it proceeded to supply POL to 5 NZ Infantry Brigade, then engaged in building defences at Kaponga Box.
After a series of desert exercises to give Company HQ and Section Headquarters practice in moving as separate entities and quickly establishing themselves with all components in working order at a given rendezvous, the main Company moved out in convoy on 15 September, setting up camp two days later on the sea coast near Fuka. Before that, Workshops Section had worked long hours painting and camouflaging vehicles sand-colour. Camouflage nets, bivvy tents, and other harbingers of an impending desert campaign were issued, and base kits put in store. That the Division, including Petrol Company, was again heading for action, nobody doubted.page 151
By this time the Company was well prepared for the battle tests ahead. It had been thoroughly rehearsed in its operational role, and every man had developed a willingness to work hard for long hours, regardless of fatigue or other discomfort. A strong team spirit had also been built up, with officers, drivers and NCOs all pulling together in the best possible way. It was now, indeed, a reborn Company, strong, robust and thriving.
Two assignments in this pre-battle period gave drivers a taste of the variety involved in wartime carrying. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, back from Eritrea, were resting south of the escarpment between Mersa Matruh and Sidi Barrani. Petrol Company's C Section (under Second-Lieutenants Washbourn and Chapman11) carted the ‘Scotties’ and their guns—including some captured Italian ‘75s’—to a point near the Halfaya Pass. This was done, Washbourn recalls, right under the noses of the enemy, who, with the early-morning sun in their eyes, sometimes failed to notice movement from the east.
Next task was to take a consignment of live goats, as food for 4 Indian Division, to a supply depot near Sidi Barrani. Anxious to quit his none-too-fragrant load, Washbourn led his convoy to the head of a line of trucks waiting to draw rations at the depot. A Tommy warrant officer, aged about 60, sat reading comics in the first vehicle of the queue. He obviously thought our officer ‘a cheeky young b—’, until Washbourn explained that he was bringing supplies, not collecting them.
Early in the year Rommel had built up his Africa Corps and put some stiffening into the Italian forces then in North Africa. The Tobruk fortress remained a persistent thorn in Rommel's side. Two strong attacks had failed to subdue it, so, faced with increasing British strength in North Africa, and short of petrol for his panzer formations, Rommel settled down to defend his conquests, which then extended to the Egyptian frontier.
He was planning, however, yet another assault on Tobruk during November; and by the beginning of that month almost page 152 the whole of the enemy's North African army was in north-east Cyrenaica. Those forces were estimated at 110,000 men, about 380 medium tanks, and 1140 field and anti-tank guns. Air support by the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica was estimated to be greater than the RAF could provide, but in the event proved considerably less.
Against these forces the British Eighth Army, under Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham, was preparing to do battle. The Army consisted of four main groups: 30 Corps, Eighth Army's main striking force, comprised 7 Armoured Division, 22 Armoured Brigade, 22 Guards Brigade, and 1 South African Division (less one brigade). The role of this formation was to ‘seek out and destroy the enemy armour’; it was then to relieve Tobruk.
The second formation, 13 Corps, included the New Zealand Division, 4 Indian Division, and 1 Army Tank Brigade. Its role was to advance north after crossing the Wire and isolate the enemy's fortresses along the Egyptian frontier, later subduing them and rounding up the garrisons. Formations from 13 Corps were also to swing westward later to join 30 Corps and help clear a way into Tobruk. The other two elements of Eighth Army were the Oases Group, a composite force with its own special tasks to perform, deep in the enemy's rear; and the Tobruk Garrison (Tobforce), which would make a sortie in an effort to join up with the advancing forces of 30 and 13 Corps.
Such was the over-all plan, and by the beginning of November preparations for carrying it out were virtually complete. On 9 November the New Zealand Division received its ‘marching orders’ instructing the Division to move across the frontier south of the two Omars—enemy fortresses on either side of the Wire—on 18 November. The Omars were to be masked by 4 Indian Division. Our Division was then to swing northward and cut off the frontier posts as already explained. The date for this move depended upon the success of 30 Corps in its clash with enemy armour. Fourth Armoured Brigade was detailed to protect the entire left flank of 13 Corps.
In his campaign report (‘The New Zealand Division in Cyrenaica’) General Freyberg gives the following account of page 153 the Division's role: ‘5th Brigade Group was to advance to the Trigh Capuzzo and sever that line of communication with the West, at the same time sending a patrol to cut the Bardia-Capuzzo water pipe line.
‘4th Brigade Group was to advance on to the escarpment West of Bardia, block movement on the main Bardia-Tobruk Road and contain any enemy forces in the coastal area some miles further West by blocking tracks to the South across the steep escarpment.
‘The move of the Division to its assembly area at Bir Kanayis’, the GOC continues, ‘commenced on Armistice Day and was carried out as an exercise. No mention was yet made of an attack. I do not think that this deceived anybody. Each Brigade Group column, at 16 vehicles to the mile, was about 100 miles long and took, at 15 m.i.h., about seven hours to pass a given point. On the 14th, in the assembly area, we let everybody know the plan. I held a conference of officers down to company commanders and gave them a talk on the campaign just opening and the role we would probably have to fill.’
Petrol Company set out on its 90-mile move to the Divisional assembly area (30 miles south of Mersa Matruh) at 10 a.m. on 11 November. Their starting-point was Fuka, some 20 miles east of Baggush, from which the bulk of the Division departed; but ours was a slow convoy with many stops, and Baggush was not passed until 1.15 p.m. To add to their discomfort, many drivers had been kept awake by air raids the night before, when bombs were dropped on the landing ground at Fuka, and on other areas close to the ASC camp. On 11 November three Divisional Petrol Company trucks were detached for duty with Divisional Cavalry, then already in the forward area, under command of 4 Indian Division. From a petrol point at Bir Idwan, in the assembly area, the Company issued POL as required by Divisional units.
By 14 November the whole Division was assembled and ready for action. In an area some twelve miles long by eight miles wide its 2800-odd vehicles, spaced at 200-yard intervals, page 154 were laagered, brigade by brigade. Next day, a clear and windless one, the Division, advancing for the first time as a complete formation, began its great ‘approach march’. There was little dust; and this enormous mass of transport, tanks, guns, and carriers, covering the whole wide panorama of the desert plain, made a most impressive spectacle.
Travelling in desert formation, the Division covered about 50 miles to reach its first objective, Bir el Thalata. And one record maintains that never before had a British unit of similar size moved so far in battle order in the course of a single day. For the following two nights the advance continued, unchallenged, as the vast conglomeration of lorries, guns, staff cars, motor-cycles, AFVs and what-have-you rolled westward, resting during the day. On 18 November our Division reached ‘the Wire’, then poured through a 300-yard gap torn by the engineers at El Beida.
Petrol Company drivers, like those of other units, found these night moves trying. They were slow affairs, made without lights, and with a ban on smoking. Vehicles moved in columns almost nosc to tail, the drivers now straining to pick up the dim outline of the truck ahead, now cursing furiously as they slammed on brakes to avoid a collision. There was no deviating to by-pass rocks, soft patches, or steep declivities. These and other obstacles were taken as they came; for the Division followed a plotted course, moving on an axis marked by lanterns planted by the Divisional Provost Company at 1000- yard intervals along the route.
‘One was constantly slithering down over steep banks, bumping against hummocks, falling heavily into abandoned slit trenches, or getting stuck in soft sand’, wrote Brigadier Kippenberger. ‘But every difficulty would be surmounted, the lights were always found in the end, and a few minutes after daylight we halted and dispersed and every truck brewed up for breakfast. During the day the stragglers and cripples were brought in by the indefatigable LAD, and next night the performance would start again.’12
While other people rested, Petrol Company drivers worked overtime—often round the clock—on a shuttle service to uplift page 155 petrol from forward dumps and carry it on to the points of issue. For a division on wheels is a ravenous monster, consuming enormous quantities of ‘juice’. At each halting-place petrol points were set up and Divisional units replenished.
From 12 to 19 November inclusive the Company issued 141,196 gallons of petrol, the daily hand-out sometimes exceeding 28,000 gallons, all in four-gallon tins. In that period D Section (Workshops) also worked flat out on repairs to vehicles and replacing spring-leaves, which took a heavy thrashing in the rough desert going. Our Company, often negotiating slit trenches and patches of rough ground in the dark, had only one vehicle casualty, a C Section lorry which dived into a gun pit. This truck was later recovered by D Section.
But for all this hard work, and the careful planning which preceded it, the estimates of petrol required for the move proved well astray. John Jensen13 in his ‘Unofficial History of 1 NZ Petrol Company’ (unpublished) observes:
In the matter of petrol consumption there is an astonishing difference between a desert move of fifty miles and the moving of the same distance over roads. Unit commanders had in general failed fully to appreciate the sharp decline in miles per gallon occasioned by low speed over bad going, so that before this first stage to Bir Thalata had been covered, not only had the petrol which had been estimated and drawn for it been used, but reserves had been drawn upon to an extent which in view of the initiatory nature of the move, gave cause for the gravest concern. An estimate of 25,000 gallons had been made for the journey but some 30,000 gallons had been used and the replacement of that quantity was outside the carrying capacity of the Petrol Company as then established.
The situation was aggravated by the use of leaky four-gallon tins. At the Bir Idwan dump alone, wastage was estimated at 14 per cent, and this percentage sharply increased after the tins were uplifted. The successive loading, off-loading and re-loading of the containers (appropriately dubbed ‘flimsies’) resulted in an alarming number of tins being delivered to the units either entirely empty or less than half full. It was heart-breaking for our drivers, after working day and night, to page 156 sit at their wheels for hours watching this precious fluid pouring in a steady stream from the trays of the trucks ahead.
In an effort to stop the rot, and keep the Division moving, all camp gear not absolutely essential was removed from Petrol Company's trucks and sent back. On 18 November ten lorries from other units were attached to the Company as load-carriers. Two days later C Section was relieved of its role as mobile ordnance reserve, carrying the Division's spare blankets, clothing, boots, etc., and its vehicles, also, were released for petrol carrying. Thus the Company was able to satisfy in full the Division's POL requirements.
This crisis in the petrol situation arose through no lack of thought on the part of our ASC officers. Under directions from Colonel Crump (Commander NZASC) and the Senior Supply Officer (Major Bracegirdle14) petrol containers to be used by the Division during the move had been hand-picked well ahead at Baggush. After that they were ‘nursed’ in handling and transport, with the utmost care. At Sidi Haneish they were examined daily to ensure that every container was sound and likely to remain so. Leakers were weeded out and replaced.
But after all that, Major Bracegirdle had been summarily ordered by Army to deliver his cossetted supplies to a dump under Army command. Stocks for replacement were drawn from Railhead at Daba. And it so happened that the trainload which our Division drew had been roughly treated en route.
On 18 November Eighth Army's main striking force (30 Corps with its brigades of tanks and other AFVs) crossed the Wire and achieved their first object: complete surprise. They were even surprised themselves, and no doubt a little piqued, to find that Rommel had ignored their arrival in Libya and neglected to arrange a reception for them. This discourtesy was explained partly by poor German Intelligence, the almost entire absence of the Luftwaffe, and urgent business elsewhere— up around Tobruk, which at that time was receiving the Africa Corps' undivided attention. Or so Rommel thought. He was soon put right on that as 30 Corps, intent on seeking and destroying the enemy's armour, fanned out towards the Trigh Capuzzo.page 157
That same night, as we have seen, the bulk of the New Zealand Division also crossed the Wire. It then settled down in defensive positions about eight miles south of Libyan Sheferzen to await the outcome of 30 Corps' tank battles. On the success of those depended the Division's next big move to get in behind the enemy's frontier forts by deploying northward as far as the escarpment. This was to be done by our 4 and 5 Brigade Groups, while 6 Brigade Group moved westward along the Trigh Capuzzo to assist 30 Corps in its advance on Tobruk. In this move 6 Brigade Group was to function as a separate, self-contained entity with its own artillery, medical and other services, and with a squadron of I tanks under command.
With morale at its highest (‘we felt like runners, tense for the pistol’) the New Zealand Division awaited the word for action. The men made light of the chilly days and cold nights, the overcast skies and the occasional mud and rain (more frequent near the coast), the normal concomitants of a winter campaign in the desert. But several days passed without firm news of the fortunes of 30 Corps.
When Rommel realised just who and what had arrived on his doorstep he reacted sharply. On the afternoon of 19 November 5 Panzer Regiment launched a powerful attack on 4 Armoured Brigade only a few miles north-west of the New Zealand positions. The battle continued until dark when both sides ceased fire and laagered for the night. That same day 22 Armoured Brigade engaged enemy tanks near El Gubi, about 40 miles farther west, and suffered important losses. Meanwhile, 7 Armoured Brigade, in the centre of 30 Corps, had pushed on and captured the Sidi Rezegh landing ground, meeting little opposition.
Reports and rumours concerning the armoured battles were many and varied, and the real situation was by no means clear. Nevertheless, on the morning of 21 November the Division was ordered to move to Sidi Azeiz. This was the signal so eagerly awaited, the green light to send New Zealand troops, now armed and trained to the highest pitch, forward into battle; and the opening gambits worked like a charm. It was also a signal for the split-up of our Division to conform page 158 with a tactical system then prevailing—that of dispersal in brigade groups. This practice has since been severely criticised. Some authorities hold that Eighth Army, before it split up, was omnipotent, and could have rolled on to Tobruk, disregarding the immobile frontier garrisons and crushing everything in its path. In the outcome the Division and other elements of Eighth Army suffered heavy casualties and were involved in some of the bitterest fighting of the whole war.
By the morning of 22 November our 5 Brigade Group had captured Fort Capuzzo and taken 200 prisoners, without loss, in a night action. It also cut the water supply to Halfaya. Fourth Brigade Group passed Sidi Azeiz at midnight and pressed on to the escarpment, where it surprised a sleeping enemy camp. That morning (22 November) it cut the Bardia-Tobruk road, taking many prisoners. These moves drove a wedge into the enemy forces in Cyrenaica and severely hampered Rommel's activities. Meanwhile our 6 Brigade Group moved ten miles westward along the Trigh Capuzzo and came under command of 30 Corps.
On 22 November Petrol Company, moving in convoy, passed groups of tanks with 4 Indian Division waiting for word to attack Sidi Omar; and Divisional Ammunition Company, on Petrol Company's right, had to ‘step on it’ as shells from the fortress burst among its vehicles. The same evening some Divisional Artillery trucks which had drawn petrol from our Company returned to report that they had run into a tank battle after travelling three miles. That night guards were doubled in the Petrol Company area and our men were treated to a fireworks display as the skirmishing AFVs belted one another with streams of brilliant tracer. Next day Petrol Company reached its operational area near the Trigh Capuzzo; and from then on its troubles came thick and fast.
Many of these stemmed from the difficulties encountered by 30 Corps. For, while the operations of 13 Corps had, as we have seen, all gone strictly according to plan, with further successes at Musaid and Sollum (captured by the Maoris on 23 November) Eighth Army's tanks in their battles farther west had not fared at all well; and reports received on 22 November made it appear to General Freyberg that 7 Arm- page 159 oured Division and its commander, General Gott, were then surrounded at Sidi Rezegh. Our GOC reacted with characteristic energy. He ordered the commander of 6 Brigade Group, already making good speed westward along the Trigh, to ‘press on to Sidi Rezegh, start fighting, and get in touch with General Gott’. Plans were made at the same time to send 4 Brigade and part of the 5th (21 Battalion Group) with all speed westward in an advance on Tobruk. This advance was to be made on a two-brigade front; so the first aim was to concentrate 4 and 6 Brigade Groups. The bulk of 5 Brigade was to remain behind, with 4 Indian Division, to help contain the frontier forts.
To further these plans some modification was needed in the supply system, which normally functioned on a Divisional basis, with our Petrol, Supply and Ammunition Companies under control of HQ NZASC. But when 6 Brigade Group moved westward, a Brigade Group Company comprising one section each from Petrol, Supply and Ammunition was formed to service it. A similar composite company now serviced 5 Brigade Group, left behind near the frontier. In this campaign, too, ASC companies drew their supplies from Field Maintennance Centres, a new set-up which, for the first time, provided a corps link in the supply chain. For identification purposes the FMCs were numbered, those for 30 Corps commencing with No. 60 and extending roughly westward from Maddalena; those for 13 Corps, beginning with No. 50, were grouped nearer the coast.
On 22 November, therefore, Petrol Company's Second-Lieutenant Bill Swarbrick, with A Section under command, was detached to form part of the composite Group Company to service 6 Brigade. Under instructions from Captain Roberts15 (Divisional Supply Column) who was in charge of the Brigade Group Company, Swarbrick set out for 62 FMC to uplift petrol for delivery at Bir el Chleta. There the load would be issued to New Zealand units advancing along the Trigh Capuzzo, south of Gambut. Having given his orders, Roberts, with a loaded convoy, set out himself for Chleta.page 160
The Hun was eventually shaken off, but not before one spare driver had tossed away his load of petrol to gain extra speed. page 161 In the race it was observed that A Section's cook-truck easily led the field, despite the heavy handicap of a water-trailer on tow. And as the trailer bucked, pitched, rolled and plunged, it was also observed that a lone human figure (Driver Calvert,17 alias ‘the Count’) was clinging desperately to the outside of it! And so the convoy escaped, without damage to men or vehicles, and with only one really nasty ‘near miss’ from an exploding tank-shell which showered ‘Dilly’ Dalton's truck with dust.
The section, less two vehicles which went their own separate ways in the scramble, did not return to the Company until noon on 26 November, and its absence caused much anxiety at Company Headquarters. For in the interim Major Forbes found himself with too few load-carriers on hand and the petrol situation for 5 Brigade Group in the Bardia sector beginning to deteriorate. This anxiety was by no means allayed by a report from one of the ‘lone-star’ drivers (who had managed to contact Second-Lieutenant Washbourn) that his vehicle was the only survivor from A Section, and that Swarbrick and all the rest had gone into the bag!
At 4 p.m. on 24 November, however, Second-Lieutenant May of Ammunition Company reported that Swarbrick, with A Section less the two missing trucks, had joined Ammunition Company in the forward area. They were detained there because of the tactical situation. May was instructed to return A Section to the Company area immediately.
Before this could be done, B Section under Second-Lieutenant Browne also came in for a brush with the enemy. On 23 November ‘Brownie’ had set off with about 10,000 gallons of petrol to make a dump and issue POL to our advancing brigades at Point 212 on the Trigh Capuzzo. But the brigades had not yet reached that point, and Jerry was lurking there instead. He seemed pretty surly over B Section's arrival, and signalled his displeasure with bursts of machine-gun and cannon fire from tanks hull down among the wadis.
The convoy turned tail, and some AFVs gave chase. But speed once again favoured the Company's vehicles, and B Section also managed to break clear without casualties. Their relief, however, was short-lived, for soon the leading page 162 drivers saw several AFVs screening a large group of transport straight ahead. Enemy tanks behind them, AFVs in front. What chance now of escape? The convoy pulled up. Drivers reached for their rifles. But before they could use them an armoured car and a couple of Bren carriers, recognisable as ‘some of ours’, shot out from the group and accosted the convoy.
Second-Lieutenant Browne was taken along to Colonel Kippenberger (again in command of 20 Battalion) who asked some pertinent questions. What was the convoy doing out there in enemy territory? Why hadn't the lieutenant shaved that morning? Having satisfied the Colonel on these important points, Browne and his outfit were put under the wing of 20 Battalion, and that night enjoyed the luxury of tank protection, plus a sharp watch kept by B Section pickets. Next day the section joined a combined petrol, water, and supply point some three miles south of the Trigh Capuzzo. From there, petrol issues to the brigades proceeded.
While Browne and his convoy had been flirting with the enemy at Point 212, Second-Lieutenant Washbourn, back at Company Headquarters, was preparing to set out for the very same spot with thirteen petrol trucks from C Section. He departed with this convoy at 5.15 p.m., blissfully unaware of the events just related. Yet such were the fortunes of war that Washbourn reached Point 212 without seeing anyone (the enemy tanks had been chased off by then) and was puzzled at not finding B Section there. His convoy laagered for the night with drivers and ‘spares’ keeping a sharp watch. For the tactical situation then was decidedly tricky; and for all Washbourn knew, Browne and his B Section might have gone ‘in the bag’.
At dawn C Section revved up their motors and headed eastward, soon making contact with B Section. After swapping experiences, with much mutual marvelling, Washbourn's drivers unloaded their petrol in the B Section area and returned to Company Headquarters. Next day (25 November) they set out under orders for 50 FMC, where they expected to reload. In the convoy were thirteen vehicles of 309 General Transport Company (RASC), two trucks of our 27 (MG) Battalion, and a Ford V8 staff car for delivery at the FMC.
But all unwittingly, the C Section officer was leading his men into a trap. For, some two hours after the convoy's page 163 departure, word came through to Petrol Company headquarters that all was not well around 50 FMC. The whole area to the south, in fact, was now infested with enemy.
Washbourn got his first hint of trouble when Second-Lieutenant Atkinson18 driving the staff car at the rear of the convoy, reported that an Italian motor-cyclist had been nonchalantly riding some distance with us. When each woke up— apparently in the same instant—to the other's identity, the ‘Itie’ sped off, with Atkinson in pursuit. The chase led him into a small nest of Italians who opened fire, shooting a piece off the staff car's steering wheel and putting several holes in the driver-side door.
On receiving this news Washbourn halted the convoy and turned it about. In his 8-cwt runabout he then went forward to ‘recce’, accompanied by Atkinson in the V8, and leaving Sergeant Williamson19 in charge of the convoy.
The officers soon came on a most disquieting spectacle: a dozen British vehicles, including a Bren carrier, abandoned in a wadi. Not a soul in sight—yet the motors were still warm, including that of the carrier. Washbourn started it up and drove it around, with a view to salvage later. He then carried on with his reconnaissance, hoping to find a safe route to the FMC. Sounds of firing, far off to the right, persuaded him that the raiders had found other victims, which would probably keep them occupied while he got his trucks through.
Accompanied by Atkinson, he skirted the wadi and came upon a Moslem grave, with an armoured car drawn up alongside. Two more AFVs—one on either flank—were then seen to be closing in. There was nothing else for it; the two ‘recce’ vehicles turned tail and fled, followed by the AFVs and a lively stream of bullets.
Outstripping their pursuers, the two light vehicles made for the waiting convoy, whose drivers, alerted by the firing, were quick off the mark for a brisk helter-skelter back to the Company's lines. Laagered on the outskirts were the vehicles of D Section—a sitting target for AFVs. But the Hun, it is thought, mistook the sloping booms of the Workshops wreckers for artillery and shied off.page 164
The return of this convoy, empty-handed, brought little joy to the Company's OC. Anxious over the petrol supply position, Forbes had been worried on the previous day by the non-return of his POL vehicles. By early afternoon of 24 November, detachments under charge of Second-Lieutenants Swarbrick, Browne and Washbourn were still out; and all petrol on the ground in the Company's area had been issued, mainly to units of 5 Brigade Group, still investing Bardia.
At 2.30 p.m., therefore, Forbes despatched Sergeant D. R. Plumtree, with the thirteen remaining vehicles from C Section and four from B Section, to uplift petrol from 50 FSD. Two hours later Washbourn reported in, after his night at Point 212 and his subsequent reunion with ‘Brownie’, with whom he had left his petrol for issue to the brigades. Washbourn was then briefed to follow Plumtree to 50 FSD for petrol next day— with the consequences already narrated. At 10 a.m. on 25 November, 13 Corps Advanced Headquarters pulled into the Company's area after being chased by the enemy. Its vehicles needed petrol, but none was available until the load-carriers returned.
Washbourn's trucks, as we have seen, were chased back, empty, at 1 p.m. Sergeant Plumtree's were still away; and three hours later there was still no word concerning this detachment. But advice was received that enemy tanks had penetrated to, and shot up, the FSD. Plumtree's story is an exciting one, and will be told further on. Meanwhile, events at 50 FSD (where Plumtree and his convoy were not) are also worth brief mention.
This FSD lay just inside the Egyptian border, near the El Beida gap, through which the Division had passed, unchallenged, a week before. But the area now was a ‘no-man's land’, for on 24 November Rommel had loosed a strong flying column in the general direction of his besieged frontier posts; and for the next four days the frontier area became a ‘playground’ for the entire Africa Corps, plus Italy's crack Ariete Armoured Division. One prong of the flying column, comprising 21 Panzer Division, penetrated into Egypt south of the Omars and disrupted our lines of communication.
At one FMC, the story runs, German armour surprised page 165 the OC and his staff by arriving while they were still in bed. The major had the presence of mind to leap into his car and escape—still wearing pyjamas. From a safe distance he watched the invaders ravaging his supply dumps and rounding up prisoners. Then he tapped a telephone wire and relayed a running commentary to 13 Corps, whose tanks and AFVs soon altered the situation. By early afternoon the FMC was again operating as usual.
Meanwhile Sergeant Plumtree with his seventeen Petrol Company vehicles had reached Point 187, some miles north of the El Beida gap, where he was halted, not by the enemy, but by an RMT convoy under Major Hood. The Major informed Plumtree that 50 FMC was in enemy hands and he advised the sergeant to tack on to the RMT convoy for a passage through the Wire. They could then seek petrol wherever it might be found on the Egyptian side of the border. Major Hood added that as the El Beida gap was not likely to prove too healthy at that moment, he intended crossing at Sheferzen, farther north.
This was accomplished towards evening, and the convoy, now a very mixed one, with the RMT trucks carrying large swags of prisoners, nosed on through the night, continually stopping and starting as suspicious sounds or sights spelt danger. At breakfast time the vehicles drew up in rows about fifty yards apart, with the seventeen Petrol Company vehicles ranged on one flank. In the centre were the trucks carrying prisoners. Suddenly, over a nearby ridge, came a number of German Army vehicles. They drew up level with the rear of Plumtree's section and opened fire.
Our drivers dived for cover under their trucks. Further down the line a few shots rang out. The prisoners broke from the RMT vehicles and streamed towards the attackers, many being mown down by the bullets of their compatriots. Seeing this, the attacking Germans then held their fire, leaping from their vehicles with levelled automatics, and calling on the convoy to surrender. But Petrol Company men near the head of the column did not wait to obey. Rallied by Sergeant Plumtree, Corporal Jenkin,20 and Drivers Perston21 and Lloyd Jones, page 166 they crammed into the leading lorries and took off at high speed.
Jones relates: ‘I was driving the leading vehicle with Jenkin when we made a break for it, while Plumtree and his driver followed. German AFV's attempted to outflank us on both sides, but we managed to escape through the centre of the converging columns, although our trucks were hit several times. Jenkin was on the tray, and he succeeded in tying a piece of rag high above the canopy and the rest of the escaping vehicles followed this until we were out of range and able to re-organize at an old Italian fort.’
Seven Petrol Company trucks got away, with thirty-five assorted soldiery, including Tommies, Indians and even a few Germans. Maybe the war looked better to them from our side of the fence—or perhaps they saw more future in being prisoners of war. Meanwhile the marauders surrounded the main convoy; and into the bag went Petrol Company's Corporal Ray Whitehouse, with Drivers Noel Bryant, Reg Depper, Lance Emery, ‘Shorty’ Fitzsimmons, Doug Hutchison, Jock McWilliam, Bert Ramsay, A. L. Simmons, I. V. Lord, Len Symes, Walshe, ‘Rosy’ Wilson and several others.22
Back at Petrol Company headquarters a harassed OC, bereft of many vehicles and at his wits' end to know where to find the petrol so urgently needed by the Division, had his troubles increased by an order to shift camp, since the Company area, also, was menaced by enemy raiders. This meant a night move, by compass, to a location just beyond Maurie Browne's section near Point 212. Major Forbes describes the move:
It was fortunate that I had previously been over the ground and was able to avoid in the dark a number of wet salt marshes. As it got later, flares and Very-lights were going up all round us; and at one stage, when we made a brief halt, still more flares went up, less than half a mile ahead. We carried on, and at the prescribed mileage came across Browne's dump of petrol on the ground.
Indians unload petrol from a lighter at Bardia
Tobruk, December 1942
Convoy arrives at Saunnu, December 1942
Padre Holland conducts a church service on the beach at Nofilia on Christmas Day, 1942
14 Section with their workshop truck outside Tripoli, March 1943
Full daylight disclosed no other vehicles at all in that vicinity— no Div HQ trucks, which were supposed to be there—nothing but the empty desert. I again sent off scouts to look for Maurie Browne, and was amazed to learn that they found him—back with his dumps of petrol! It turned out that when he had heard us approaching during the night he thought we were an armoured column, and decided it was better to be out of the way.
But the most extraordinary thing was that the flares and Very lights we had seen turned out to be those of the Ariete Division, which had laagered for the night directly across our path. But they, too, mistook us for an armoured column, and dispersed into the desert. We had gone clean through the middle of them!
Research establishes that the Ariete Division was, at this time, quite a few miles away; so it must have been some detachments of that division that we scared off. But with Rommel's flying column lashing about, the situation was very confused, with mistaken identity common on both sides.
Yet with all these and other trials and difficulties, Petrol Company, performing for the first time its true wartime function, succeeded in keeping the Division fuelled and fully mobile. At no time during this campaign was an operational plan modified by shortage of POL—an achievement indeed in a battle area 100 miles long and 60 miles deep, with the tactical situation almost constantly ‘fluid’. An average of more than 20,000 gallons of oil-fuel and some five tons of lubricants were replenished daily, with some issues exceeding, as we have seen, 28,000 gallons a day.
Nevertheless, as 4 and 6 Brigades fought their way doggedly westward, and the German flying columns harried our L of C, the task of supplying the brigades with ammunition, rations and POL became increasingly difficult. Unescorted convoys, out of touch, while on the move, with a situation which was changing from hour to hour, were altogether too liable to be held up or diverted. Some more comprehensive system of page 168 co-ordinated and protected supply trains was needed, but this could not be improvised at a moment's notice; and it was a difficulty which the enemy, too, had yet to solve.
By 25 November, General Freyberg noted, convoys were not reaching 4 and 6 Brigades, and their supply situation was really serious. Twenty-five pounder ammunition was short, the supply being reduced to sixty rounds per gun, with no more in sight. Emergency arrangements had been made to drop supplies from the air, but it was clear that a corridor into Tobruk would have to be opened. Not only supplies were needed. We also required somewhere to send many hundreds of wounded, our mass of surplus transport, and almost a thousand German prisoners.
The fighting had by this time developed into a battle for the three escarpments south-east of Tobruk, terraced back from the sea to the main desert plateau 16 miles inland. These three escarpments were like steps ascending from north to south, three to four miles apart, and rising from 140 metres to 170 and the most southerly to 190 metres. Although the escarpments were not tank proof, they were a strong deterrent to tanks. Their main strength lay in their value as infantry strongpoints in the deep wadis and, of course, for their artillery observation.
Orders were issued on the afternoon of the 25th for a general advance, 4 Brigade (18 and 20 Battalions) to capture Belhamed and 6 Brigade (24 and 25 Battalions) to take Sidi Rezegh, while 21 and 26 Battalions were to go on to Ed Duda. The Tobruk garrison was to break out and join up there at daylight or earlier on the morning of the 26th. The advance was to be by night with the bayonet, the I tanks following in support.
The progress of those moves cannot be followed here; but the outcome, of course, is now well known. On the night of 26-27 November, New Zealand's 19 Battalion, supported by armour of 44 Royal Tank Regiment, advanced 10,000 yards to Ed Duda and joined hands with troops of Tobforce who had pushed a salient out from the fortress. It was ‘almost like a triumphal march, without any casualties’—a very different story from that of 4 and 6 Brigades, both of which had been and were to be involved further in fierce fighting, with both brigades suffering and inflicting heavy casualties.page 169
Then came the urgent business of getting the ASC, and a mass of other transport, through the narrow corridor and into Tobruk before the expected counter-attacks developed. These would employ tanks and heavy artillery, which would make short work of our soft-skinned vehicles.
On the night of 27-28 November Petrol Company laagered only four miles away from Rommel's 15 Panzer Division. It was some consolation to know that the British 22 Armoured Brigade was also handy; but the chance of being involved in a battle of these giants was anything but pleasant. Fortunately, both armoured groups spent that night repairing their tanks; and the clank of iron could be clearly heard by Petrol Company drivers making their own unofficial ‘recces’.
At eight o'clock next morning 22 Armoured Brigade advised that a tank battle was imminent, and that it would be fought over the ground then held by Petrol Company. One enemy column was already in view, advancing from the east, and shells began bursting among the Company's vehicles. These took off quickly to the south. An hour later our column was ordered by HQ NZASC to proceed to a position north of the escarpment and the Trigh Capuzzo; and again Petrol Company shifted, spurred on by fire from enemy tanks.
This move brought the Company, at 2 p.m., to Point 175, in the rear of 6 Brigade's B Echelon. Here the Company was once more ordered off, as the ridge was under observation and within range of enemy guns. Shells were seen landing in the area we had expected to occupy. So our column then travelled east along the ridge to another position, which was reached at 4 p.m. There Petrol Company watched a lively tank battle to the south, the German armour no doubt being that which had harried the Company's flank in the morning.
At 6.30 p.m. the Company received orders to stand by for a move into Tobruk, and some three hours later a huge convoy, led by Headquarters 13 Corps and comprising the whole of Supply, Ammunition and Petrol Companies, plus Divisional Ordnance Workshops, nosed forward uncertainly into the darkness. That journey was a nightmare, with interminable stops and startings, and worn-out drivers falling asleep or losing contact with the trucks in front. No one seemed to know the page 170 route the drivers were supposed to take, and at one stage the whole column, now in single file, found itself going round and round in a vast circle.
At 5 a.m. Major Forbes halted his Company and tried to find out where the entrance was to the gap through the minefields. He knew that all vehicles had to be off the road leading into Tobruk by 6 a.m., since the Hun regularly shelled it at daybreak; and a convoy like ours, silhouetted on the skyline, would offer a heaven-sent target. There was also much movement of other vehicles at that time, Forbes recalls, with comings and goings in various directions, all adding to the confusion.
Finally the OC made contact with a British unit which seemed to know the score. They produced an NCO who said he could lead the Company to the taped entrance to the minefield. He sat on the mudguard of the OC's vehicle and they set off just as day was breaking. ‘But the Tommy’, Forbes relates, ‘had not the faintest notion where the entrance was. We headed towards what turned out to be the forward line of our own defences facing east, and were promptly chased out. Eventually we decided to trust to luck. We sent the Tommy back home to his unit, and carried on by ourselves until we found the tank ditch.’
The Company negotiated that just after daylight on 29 November, and sharp at 6 a.m., shells started to burst among our vehicles. There was a terrific skelter as trucks scattered in all directions—but we were through. Petrol Company had made Tobruk. A collection centre was established at a road and track junction. Many orders and counter-orders were received from British staff as to our subsequent location, and by 3 p.m. they eventually settled on where the Company was to disperse. One B Section truck and one from C Section ran over anti-tank mines while moving to the dispersal area. Sergeant Gordon Williamson was sitting on the front mudguard of one of the trucks blown up, but apart from a shaking, and a slight gravel rash on his bottom, he suffered no ill effects.
The damaged vehicles were extricated by MSM Williams and a party from Workshops. That section, owing to the late arrival of a movement order, had tailed the main convoy, eventually running through enemy fire to reach Tobruk page 171 shortly after the rest of the Company. They came in minus their OC, Captain ‘Hank’ Torbet, who had stayed behind—not entirely voluntarily—to dicker with the enemy. The story of his capture and subsequent escape (he rejoined the Company before the day was through) is appended.
By 8.30 a.m. next day Petrol Company were at work again, loading their vehicles. By midday 26,058 gallons of petrol, with a ratio of oils and lubricants, had been picked up from dumps within the fortress, ready for delivery to Divisional units still fighting outside the perimeter. Sharing the Company area was a British heavy battery which kept up a noisy and intermittent fire by day and by night. At 11 p.m. a large convoy was seen entering Tobruk from the direction of Bardia— and from it emerged Sergeant Plumtree with his seven Petrol Company vehicles. Once again the Company was united, and practically intact. The campaign, so far, had been a tough one; but for Petrol Company at any rate, the end was in sight.
Captain Torbet describes his own adventures:
The tail end of the NZASC column—which included Petrol Company's D Section—was caught in daylight. The enemy seemed just as confused as we were, but as soon as he realised that British transport was moving through the Corridor, he opened fire with artillery, rifles and machine guns. My station wagon was obviously being sniped at.
Soon I noticed a Workshops wagon, with a staff car on tow, making heavy going. The car was Col Crump's Chev, which had broken down during the night. The coupled vehicles were some distance to the rear; and I realised that if they didn't get a wriggle on they would both be shot up. I was concerned that they might miss the tapes marking the lane through the mine fields.
MSM Williams (the senior NCO) was following the workshop section in through the gap. He asked for instructions and destination. I could only tell him to follow the column. Then I jumped from my own car and ordered the driver to go on with the others, saying: ‘I'll jump onto that hook-wagon’. But before I could do so, the coupled vehicles zoomed past, well wide, and I was left stranded.
At the time I was wearing only shorts, shirt, sox, boots and gaiters. My battledress jacket was in the car, along with my cap, belt, pistol and paybook. There was nothing about me to give a clue as to my rank or unit … no pips or shoulder-tabs. Soon a motor-cycle outfit, mounting a machine-gun, bowled up and collected me, and I was taken to a German artillery post.page 172
There I played dumb, and asked for water, cigarettes, the Red Cross … anything I could think of … in answer to their questions, which were put in English. They were pretty busy in that artillery post, and soon gave up. At noon I was given some ersatz sausage, and bread in a cellophane wrapper. I slipped this wrapper into my pocket, saying I wanted it for toilet purposes. It was date-stamped ‘Munich, November 10’.
That afternoon things got really hot in the artillery post, with telephones buzzing, runners coming and going, guns roaring. Then our own artillery got our range, with shells lobbing close, and the air filled with billows of dust and smoke. Nobody took much notice of me, so I waited my chance, and about 5.30 made a dash for it. There was a slight rise immediately in front of the gun position so I was soon out of sight. I kept on running for about five miles, when I picked up an RAF truck, driven by a Cypriot. It was now quite dark. I asked if he was going into Tobruk, and he said ‘Yes’ so I hopped aboard—bumping and bouncing over the desert on a truckload of mines!
Soon we struck the Tobruk-Bardia Road, and I said that that would do me. I hopped out and inquired for the New Zealanders. I was told that they were ‘just down the road’ so I walked along and the first Kiwi I met was Stan Forbes! He was bedded down, it was now almost 2100 hrs. He had saved up a bottle of beer for some weeks. We shared it.
1 Lt E. A. Collins.
16 Washbourn remarks that many of Petrol Company's troubles at this stage were due to the fact that our Company, like others of the NZASC, had no means of radio communication, nor were they receiving situation reports. He himself relied on the BBC news broadcasts, which were very brief, and at least twelve hours old. Nor were they always particularly accurate.