Meanwhile on 18 December 1940 the Fourth had sailed in a convoy from Liverpool in HMT City of London. They experienced an Atlantic hurricane, a collision at night with another ship in the convoy and an engagement with the German "Admiral Hipper"; but eventually they arrived at Port Tewfik, Suez on 16 February 1941. Their tanks arrived in April and after conversion the Fourth were ready for battle.
Meantime a devastating blow had struck the victorious Western Desert Force under General O'Connor. On 12 February the Cabinet had ordered General Wavell to halt his advance, thus denying him the capture of Tripoli and removal of the threat to Egypt; worse, air force support was decimated and the experienced brigades were broken up - all this in order to send "the strongest possible Force to Greece".
On 6 April the Germans invaded Greece and on 24 April the Greek Army surrendered, so that the hastily assembled and isolated British Force was soon overwhelmed in a hopeless withdrawal, losing 12,000 men and all their equipment. And into this Middle Eastern muddle, created by London, the genius of General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps began to make itself felt.
The first indication to British tank crews that the Germans were coming was that they began to hear on their nets each night a powerful transmission from Radio Belgrade of haunting German songs such as "Lili Marleen"! The German Force to be known as the Afrika Korps also pumped themselves up with emotional farewell parades before sailing for North Africa.
On 31 March Rommel struck at Mersa Brega, and by 13 April he was back at the Egyptian frontier having by-passed Tobruk.
Inside Tobruk 9 Australian Div included two squadrons of 1 RTR equipped with Cruisers, and D Sqn 7 RTR (Holden) with Matildas.
Early attacks by the Afrika Korps were firmly repulsed and Tobruk was relatively calm until the Autumn of 1941
Outside the Tobruk enclave 4 RTR (Lt Col W O'Carroll), was now to be tested in Op Brevity in the area of Sollum (pictured) on the Libyan/Egyptian border. It involved a thirty seven mile approach march on 11 to 13 May in a heavy sandstorm. The Regt attacked at Dawn on 15 May. On this their first desert action they started very well. C Sqn (Major Miles) with 2 Scots Gds took Halfaya Pass, capturing two batteries, 250 prisoners and much transport.
A Sqn (Major Banks), in trying to get round Capuzzo with 9 DLI met twenty five Panzers III and IV and lost twelve of his fourteen tanks. A small force comprising three RHQ Matildas and the Recce officer's light tank stormed Capuzzo Fort led by the CO doing much damage; but they were driven off. Next morning the Fourth, heavily attacked by 15 Pz Div, fought a delaying action to the Pass, the front stabilizing at Buq Buq.
That evening Lt Vaux and Sgt Dickens were sent out to render irreparable the A Sqn tanks left on the battlefield. While doing so they came under intense fire from Mk III Panzers one of which closed on them rapidly, but inexplicably then fell back and drove off.
Operation Battleaxe was launched by Wavell on 15 June 1941. The aim in Phase 1 was for 11 Inf Bde led by 4 RTR to capture the area Halfaya Pass/Sollum, Pt 206 and 4 Armd Bde led by 7 RTR to capture Fort Capuzzo with a view to pushing on to Tobruk and beyond.
Matildas were under fire from the start
During the B Sqn 4RTR action against Point 206 on the morning of June 15th 1941 Cpl Bill Newman was the gunner in Capt Austin’s Matilda when the tank was set on fire by an enemy strike. Capt Austin was hit and he and the operator dismounted. The internal fire burnt fiercely but Cpl Newman ordered the driver, Tpr Robertson, to carry on advancing slowly. Despite considerable pain from the burns he had sustained on his face, arms and legs Cpl Newman succeeded in extinguishing the fire and then commenced to load and fire the gun by himself, successfully harassing the enemy until the tank was knocked out. Cpl Newnan dismounted just as a German vehicle drew alongside. An officer got out, dressed his wounds, and took him to a German field hospital. Cpl Newman and the driver were liberated when Point 206 was subsequently taken.
The citation for his Distinguished Conduct Medal includes the words “The devotion to duty displayed by Cpl Newman in extinguishing the fire, unaided loading and firing his gun and continuing to fight his tank despite the grave nature of his wounds and intense pain he was suffering, is deserving of the highest praise, and sets an example as fine as any in the history of the Service”.
This is the label tied around Cpl Newman’s neck in the German field hospital.
[At the time of adding this note (20 March 2014) Bill Newman is alive and well.]
This time the Germans guarding the Halfya Pass were ready. They were well led by the able and courageous Major Bach (Iron Cross 1st Class, who was Pastor of Mannheim before the war. He died of cancer in Canada in 1943 as a prisoner of war
Major Bach had positioned some newly arrived 88 mm guns as shown, and some 155 mm GPF guns; these soon took a heavy toll of the C Sqn 4 RTR tanks. Major Miles last transmission before he died was "These bloody guns are tearing my tanks to pieces."
On 16 June the six tanks of 4 RTR moving along the coast road hit an unmarked minefield. There was neither engineer nor infantry support. As the tanks were destroyed one by one 2/Lt Pip Gardner shepherded the survivors including wounded back to safety. The Tp Ldr, 2/Lt Roe, had lost both legs, an arm and an eye. He was too heavy to move. Gardner, administering morphine, stayed with him until he died. Gardner, still under heavy fire, stripped key parts from one disabled tank after another to prevent use by the enemy. Recommended for a VC his citation spoke of gallantry "rarely surpassed in the history of the service." Gardner was awarded an MC.
A Sqn 4 RTR was also decimated. B Sqn, newly returned from Ethiopia, held the rearguard. Maj Clement was killed and command passed to 2/Lt Redhead holding on for some hours. He was awarded a bar to his Eritrean MC for this action. As the Fourth's war diary puts it "15-17 June 41. In action in area Sollum – Halfaya. Heavy casualties in tanks and personnel. 4th/7th formed (again) and fought rearguard at Pt 207 withdrawing to Sofafi night 17/18 June."
Great courage and persistence had been shown by crews of both regiments but serious mistakes were made at formation level which robbed them of the success they richly deserved. The Fourth was ordered to fight widely dispersed and piecemeal; artillery support did not materialise. The Seventh, (who had lost Colonel Jerram when his foot was crushed during off-loading), was expressly forbidden by the Divisional Commander to "forward-rally" for immediate repair after their capture of Fort Capuzzo, as was their proven practice. Both regiments suffered heavily from the newly arrived German 88mm guns expertly sighted. Operation Battleaxe failed.
Four days later General Wavell was replaced in Command of the Middle East by General Sir Claude Auchinleck, " The Auk".
In late September 1941 the Fourth was moved by lighter from Mersa Matruh into the Tobruk enclave and the Seventh, with the exception of D Sqn, were sent back to the Delta for refit.
Under the determined leadership of Maj Bach the German strong-point at Halfaya Pass held out long after the battle had passed them. They were literally starving when they finally surrendered seven months later in January 1942.
The 155 mm GPF gun shown right destroyed that 'C' Sqn Matilda (left). Captain Peter Vaux, by then at HQ 7 Armd Div was present at the surrender with his batman/ driver (shown) and was able to reconstruct the scene.
After Battleaxe five months elapsed while both sides built up their strength. The next major clash was to be Operation CRUSADER. The aim was to trap and destroy the Afrika Korps in Eastern Cyrenaica and to break out from Tobruk. A total of ten Royal Tank Regiments would take part totalling 756 tanks and generous reserves.
4 RTR, now complete in Tobruk, and 'D' Sqn the 7th (Holden) were to lead the break-out sortie. Op Crusader was set to begin at first light on 18 November and the break out on the night of 20/21 November.
Comd 32 Tk Bde, Brig "Ant" Willison (RTR) gives final orders for the break-out from Tobruk, 20 November 1941
(Capt Pip Gardner extreme right)
After the successful break-out and a further seven months of hard fighting some of these officers would be dead or wounded and the remainder captured on 21 June 1942 when the Fourth and the Seventh would be destroyed fighting side by side as Tobruk finally fell to Rommel. (See the end of this Chapter)
Meanwhile on 21 November 'D' Sqn 7 RTR and 2nd Kings quickly subdued Butch and then Tugun. 2nd Black Watch and 4 RTR secured Tiger after being delayed by minefields and heavy fighting, but came under sustained artillery fire from Jack until it too was captured.
When the Afrika Corps had failed to take Tobruk during their push Eastwards in April 1941 the Italians had built the Strada dell'Asse to bypass the town. Immediately after the Allied breakout in late November 1941 the crew of this Matilda Mk 2 of D Sqn 7 RTR ,( driver Cpl Thomas Woodworth) felt the need to amend the road sign.
During a pause in the fighting Captain Pip Gardner MC was relaxing with 2/Lt Dick Simkin, Major A G Roberts (OC C Sqn) and 2/Lt P H Gearing when a message was received from the King's Dragoon Guards that two of their armoured cars were broken down near the Tobruk perimeter and were being pounded by German artillery. Pip Gardner with two tanks was sent to the rescue.
Although Pip Gardner insists that he had been more frightened when winning his MC, what he and his crews did on 23 November was hair-raising. Both armoured cars were being used as target practice by the Germans. Ordering the second tank to fire and manoeuvre to distract the enemy Pip, made a vain attempt to take the remaining car in tow, during which he was hit in the leg, the tow rope was shot away and his loader operator was killed. He then picked up the sole KDG survivor, the now leg-less Lt Beame, and struggled to place him on the back decks of his tank. Pip was hit again, in the arm, but succeeded in holding on to Lt Beame and in extracting both his tanks.
In recognition of this action Captain Gardner MC was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to be given to Armoured Corps troops in the Second World War. As we shall see only one further VC would be awarded to the Armoured Corps throughout the remainder of the War.
By dawn 25 November after very heavy fighting and severe losses on both sides 4 RTR plus 'D' Sqn 7 RTR had captured Wolf. By midday 26 November the Ed Duda ridge was captured by 32 Bde, 4 RTR leading. Finally in a bold night attack by 44 RTR and New Zealand infantry the two forces joined hands at Belhamed.
Post-battle euphoria. "2/Lt Gilbert-Smith greets an officer of 4 South African Armoured Car Regiment (4 SAAC Regt) after the breakout.
CO of the 4th near El Duda with the Brigade Commander 32 Tk Bde, Brig Willison DSO MC(late CO 42 RTR) and OC 2nd New Zealand Inf Bn (third from right).
Great courage was evident at all levels. In this case Cpl Cowlard of 'D' Sqn 7 RTR was successfully recommended for the Military Medal by his Squadron Commander, Maj (later Maj Gen) Jock Holden, who had himself been awarded a DSO for Op BATTLEAXE. He also recommended Lt Mcginlay for a DSO but this was reduced to a bar to his MC. Finally he successfully recommended Capt Tom Craig (later CO 4 RTR) - for an immediate MC for gallantry during the initial breakout from Tobruk.
Although over-matched, Rommel was not yet defeated. On 27 November 15 Pz Div attacked the Ed Duda ridge. They were driven off by Major Jack Pritchard's squadron of the 4th but succeeded in cutting the corridor into Tobruk. In a display of conspicuous resolve the CO held the salient position at Ed Duda. Fierce fighting continued around Ed Duda and Sidi Rezegh Airfield until Rommel took the decision to withdraw – as far as Agedabia by 26 December. Op Crusader had achieved one of its three aims.
The CO of the Fourth, Lt Col Walter O'Carroll DSO, the strain of command showing all too clearly. A contributory factor, known only by him and his Regimental MO, was that he was suffering from TB.
It had been no picnic. The 4th and 'D' Sqn the 7th had lost 85 officers and men, including many excellent young troop leaders.
Most of the Matildas were no longer battle-worthy...
... And some were irreparable.
After the Battle Pip - still wounded - hears about his second gallantry award.
The VC is presented by General Sir Claude Auchinleck in front of the Regiment in Hadera in Palestine where the Regt was briefly re-equipping with Valentines. Lt Col W R Reeves is on the left.
The 4th and 7th were to see action next in late May 1942. The Seventh equipped with Matildas and now commanded by Lt Col H R B Foote were deployed in support of 1 SA Div North of the Gazala position; they easily opposed an Italian attack on 26 May 1942, but it was only a feint.
The Fourth had returned to Libya by rail reaching the Capuzzo Railhead on 27 May. A complex operation which had been planned for them was cancelled because of General Rommel's offensive. Instead they were ordered to deploy in haste to El Adem where they fought a series of battles.
The main enemy attack (involving a total of ten thousand vehicles)was by the Afrika Korps around the Southern flank beyond the Free French Bde at Bir Hacheim. Despite a bad mauling by 3 RTR equipped with Grants, the leading elements of 15 and 21 Pz Div reached Knightbridge by mid afternoon 27 May. But Rommel had lost a third of his tanks.
On 28 May 21 Pz Div reached Pt 209 as they drove for the coast; but they were having severe difficulty with re-supply. That night Rommel personally went to meet the supply column coming round Bir Hacheim and thus missed his HQ being over-run by tanks of 2 Armd Bde.
On 29 May powerful elements of 21 Pz Div were roundly defeated by 7 RTR at Pt 209; Rommel pulled the remnant back as he concentrated his force to the South of the Sidra Ridge with a corridor to the West cleared by the Trieste Div. Piecemeal attacks against Rommel were consistently fended off with a skilful use of tank and anti-tank fire.
Capt Mike Woollcombe (later CO 7 RTR) on morning wireless watch in the desert (note the headset and flex); it is evidently still quite chilly until the sun comes up. Hours later he had to be dragged from his burning tank, badly wounded in the legs which prevented him thereafter from walking or even sitting normally, as we see in image 6 of 58 - 1953. Note the spade which was used for calls of nature.
On 5 June 4 RTR under command Lt Col Bill Reeves DSO joined from El Adem and its new Valentines led the attack by 5 Indian Div against Aslagh Ridge. However they lost twenty tanks. The Seventh, as part of 32 Tk Bde attacked from the North to capture Sidra Ridge. Both attacks did damage but were badly mauled by Rommel's tank and anti-tank screen.
The CO of 7 RTR was twice knocked out. Soon only a dozen tanks were battle-worthy out of the seventy which had started, and many of the best tank commanders had been lost. Extraordinary resolve was shown by the crews and Lt Col Foote was singled out for his "example of outstanding courage and leadership"
The succeeding days showed the battlefield genius of Rommel and the inadequacy of British high command. Superior British formations were consistently out-played. A redeeming feature for the Regiment was the brilliant blocking operation by 7/42 RTR under Colonel Foote enabling 201 Guards Bde to withdraw from the Knightsbridge Escarpment.
Colonel Foote's citation for his Victoria Cross reads
"...he reorganized the remaining tanks, going on foot from one tank to another to encourage the crews under intense artillery and anti-tank fire. As it was of vital importance that the regiment should not give ground Lt Col Foote placed his tank, which he had then entered, in front of the others so that he could be plainly visible in the turret as an encouragement to the other crews, despite his tank being already badly damaged by shell-fire and all its guns rendered useless.. By this magnificent example the corridor was kept open and the Guards Brigade was able to march through. Lt Col Foote was always at the crucial point at the right moment, and over a period of several days gave an example of outstanding courage".
A distinction of the Fourth and the Seventh is that the only two VCs awarded to armoured troops in the 2nd World War were won by a member of each regiment.
Under intense pressure the 4th and 7th pulled back into defensive positions in the Tobruk enclave taking over the battle-worthy tanks and some crews from the remnants of 1st, 8th and 42 RTR. Thus by 18 June the 4th and 7th were inside the enclave once again. Instead of pursuing the Eighth Army Eastwards Rommel turned to attack Tobruk.
Around the Tobruk perimeter mines had been lifted and used in the Gazala Line. They had not been replaced nor the defences refurbished; General Klopper and his South African Division had had that responsibility. By 0830 hrs on 20 June 1942 Afrika Korps tanks and infantry were pouring through the breach.
General Rommel was forward with the leading troops and had marshalled one hundred tanks. The 4th and the 7th were ordered to counter attack and an intensive battle raged for over eight hours. They had made the attackers pay a heavy price but eventually the Fourth and the Seventh ceased to exist as cohesive units.
At dawn on 21 June 1942 General Klopper surrendered the garrison. There were isolated cases of tanks and infantry continuing to fight, including three tanks that were still fighting near the beach 48 hours later. The Fourth and the Seventh, who had fought together very many times since 1917 went down fighting side by side and the survivors went into captivity together.
SQMS George Ovens was among those who were captured. The date on his German POW card – 21 June 1942.
Both Regiments had suffered terminal losses of fighting vehicles and crews. All officers and men were either wounded, captured or dead. The latter lie here in the Tobruk Cemetery.
However the Army Board resolved not to lose either regiment from the order of battle; both were soon to be reconstituted as we shall see in Chapter 5