“Crusader” – decisive November-December 1941 land, air, and sea battle between Italo-German and British Empire forces, fought across Cyrenaica (western Libya) and central Mediterranean waters; + segue to 26 November-6 December Roosevelt-Churchill Pearl Harbor conspiracy. (Excerpt from CHAOS AND CONSPIRACY: THE WAR OF ENCIRCLEMENT, 1914-1945; Vol. XI/a: Big War, Big Treason: Crusader, Moscow, Pearl Harbor, November-December 1941).

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          While Empire land  and air forces in Egypt continue to train and build-up for the coming offensive, air-sea battles in and over the Mediterranean Sea intensify. The Italians and Germans attempt to get supply ships carrying troops, tanks and other vehicles, ammunition, fuel and food through to the Axis forces in Libya; while Empire naval and air units – surface ships and submarines, low-level bombers and torpedo-planes – based in Malta, squarely in the middle of the north-south convoy route, are fighting hard to cut off these supplies. Malta too has to be sustained, via death-strewn east-west Empire convoys coming from Gibralter and Alexandria, and Italo-German air and naval units, based in Libya, Sicily, Crete, and Italy, fight just as desperately to stop them. So on 8 November a large convoy comes out of Naples, heading for Tripoli, and begins its southward run: 5 transports – 4 Italian and the German Duisberg – and 2 fuel tankers with a close escort of 6 destroyers, plus a forward covering force of heavy cruisers Trentino and Trieste with 4 destroyers; several Italian submarines are also in the area, but one of these with its 80-man crew disappears without a trace,  caught running on the surface and torpedoed c. 4 AM on the 8th by Cdr. H.M. Wanklyn’s submarine Upholder. And worse in the works: thanks to ingenious code-breakers, Empire air-sea commanders know all about the Duisberg convoy. They know the ships, their cargoes, departure points and time, speed, routing, and destination. By way of deception, the convoy is “officially” located by a recon aircraft of RAF #69 Squadron, based on Malta,(1)  though the pilot’s real role is as much to be seen as to see. Mission accomplished. Then Force K –  light cruisers Penelope and Aurora, accompanied by destroyers Lance and Lively – 

leaves Valetta harbor and heads north….we are a little sceptical about our chances of finding the enemy, which is reported to be merchant ships and destroyers some 40 miles east of Cape Spartivento. Sounds like another “Club Run” designed to prevent us from enjoying a Saturday night ashore. Once past the breakwater we increase to 28 knots and hope there might be something to show for our trouble. Our ships look peaceful enough and even beautiful as we sail through the serene calmness of a Mediterranean night….Reports from shadowing aircraft are eagerly awaited, but none materialize, and our prospects don’t seem over-bright. At 2100 we go to Night Action stations and await developments. A bright night, with a half-moon well up in the sky, and visibility is exceptionally good.  However, nothing in sight and we begin to feel the airman has led us up the garden path. Captain Nicholl tells the navigator that he intends to turn back at 0100 if nothing is sighted….moments later a lookout cries, “ Bearing red three-zero…darkened vessels.”

          Thus Aurora, discovering the convoy – actually, first by radar – at 7 miles range.  The British warships now cut speed to 20 knots and work their way down-moon, to the rear of the unsuspecting Italians who, due to a German failure to share the technology, have no radar on their ships. At 12:57 AM, range 

just under 6,000 yards, the forward 6-inch batteries open fire. We hold our breath, watching the red-hot shells trace through the night…a subdued cheer on the bridge as we see all four disappear into the hull of a destroyer with a red flash and shower of sparks. Within 40 seconds, two more  broadsides are quickly poured into the unfortunate ship, now heavily on fire, listing, and sinking by the bow.(2)

          So dies Italian destroyer Fulmine and most of her 170-man crew. HMS Penelope

opens fire 30 seconds later on another destroyer, continuing to shoot her up for four minutes. Aurora leading, we then pass along the western side of the convoy…as the merchant ships are each in turn engaged by our entire force. They burst into flames as soon as we hit them….each ship seems to have an upper deck cargo of petrol and ammunition…one salvo usually enough to start the best blaze since the Fire of London. One eyetie destroyer a bit of a nuisance firing at us from astern, and she straddles us several times. We engage her with our starboard 4″ guns, and see an enormous Christmas tree of sparks…she gives us no more trouble. No chance to use our torpedoes, but Aurora and Lance do so with good effect.  A large tanker goes up in a wall of flame and an ammunition ship makes a superb fireworks display before she blows up in a tremedous explosion. We can soon see about 8 burning ships and a great pall of smoke where the ammunition ship had been….Steaming around the convoy, we pass close to a fiercely-burning ship loaded with motor vehicles, and after 40 minutes there’s nothing in sight that’s not a blazing hulk.(3)

          While the Italian cruisers circle uselessly nearby, their captains confused by the raging flames and shifting ship silhouettes, Force K turns away and speeds unscathed back to Malta. Next morning, with all 7 merchant ships sunk or still burning, Upholder creeps in and strikes again,  torpedoing the destroyer Libeccio while she is recovering survivors. Six other Italian destroyers pluck 700 men from the water, but the loss of life remains high and the loss of shipping and supplies – 40,000+ tons worth – catastrophic. Word of this Empire victory spreads quickly; at Alexandria, Egypt, Captain Frank Gregory-Smith of the destroyer Eridge gets together with other Hunt-class escort commanders for dinner

          at the Union Club. These are exciting times. We’re on the eve of Operation Crusader, a great land offensive which is expected to drive the Axis out of Cyrenaica. Our three “Hunts” are standing by to escort HMS Glenroy to Tobruk as soon as the fortress has been relieved….Glenroy’s landing craft and crews will be vital for landing seaborne supplies to sustain the offensive. Probably, we are the only ones in the club who know the exact date of the offensive, but everyone knows it’s near and the bar is full of excited officers. Moreover, news has just been received of a naval victory in the central basin where Force K…has totally destroyed a large Italian convoy. The Axis seem to be losing control of the shipping routes to North Africa…Rommel might be forced to withdraw through lack of supplies. We’re in a carefree mood and feel satisfaction that we will be the first ships to enter Tobruk during the offensive…(4) 

          One day later, on November 10th, the Empire launches a Malta-directed supply and reinforcement operation code-named “Perpetual” with somewhat more, though costly, success. Force H – carriers Argus and Ark Royal escorted by battleship Malaya plus a cruiser and 7 destroyers – sorties from Gibralter, moves to within range of Malta, and on the 12th flys off 37 Hurricane fighters; 34 make it in to bolster the  defences of an island that is now under round-the-clock Italo-German air attack. Italian recon aircraft  then spot the British carriers, and Adm. Doenitz in Berlin vectors a four boat wolfpack toward the task force as it turns back toward Gibralter. At 4:13 AM on the 13th, U205 attacks, but her torpedoes explode in the wake of an escorting destroyer. Alerted, the carriers launch relays of anti-submarine aircraft, also without success;  then, at 3:41 and almost in sight of the Spanish coast, Lt.-Cdr. Guggenberger’s U81 puts a torpedo into Ark Royal. A tow is tried, but damage control fails and she sinks 18 hours later:

      Short of destroyers,  Admiralty next day dispatches the 6,000-ton British transports Empire Defender and Empire Pelican  on a desperate, unescorted supply run from Gibralter to Malta. No joy. Italian torpedo-bombers, operating from Sardinia, catch both ships off the Tunisian coast and pound them under. On the 15th, Axis aircraft strike again.  Nine German JU-88 bombers (LG III/1) and eight ME-110 heavy fighters from ZG-26, covered by several squadrons of JG-27’s ‘109 fighters, rise from various Libyan bases, head deep into the southeastern desert and attack the Empire bomber and fighter squadrons at Giarabub Oasis: 6 Blenheim bombers of 113 Squadron and 2 #33 Squadron Hurricane fighters are destroyed or damaged in a fairly effective bombing and strafing attack, which also wounds 16 ground personnel and kills 6 men outright – all buried alive when their shelter takes a direct hit. Defending fighters, late to get aloft, pursue and shoot down two of the attackers – both of whose crews survive to be picked up by German rescue planes – and lose two more of their own to defensive fire, with one of the Hurricane pilots killed. Later in the day and 70 miles away to the north, a press conference, as Desert Army Commander Alan Cunningham

          receives us in his underground command post, shaking hands with all 20 correspondants. Randolph Churchill has suggested we shouldn’t ask too awkward questions, as Cunningham has small experience of the Press and might get scared….But he appears very ready to help, leaning his back against the side of the bunker and talking freely. He says our boys’ tails are right up – a fact which gives him much satisfaction. He has no plan except to go into Libya and take up positions – then Rommel will have to act and on Rommel’s actions our own will depend. This does not strike me as genius….The Navy, he says, has already done some bombarding and has sunk the only tug at Bardia. I ask him if he can tell us what the enemy strength is. He replies that the Italians have five regular divisions, plus two motorized and one armored. The Germans with two armored…plus some infantry. Cunningham makes it plain that our objective is to destroy the enemy armored divisions – territory won’t matter much. He doesn’t think the enemy can reinforce with planes from the Russian front. Asked if the sinking of Axis convoys in the Mediterranean has been a great help, he smiles and says “yes”, adding that he has sent congratulations to his brother, Med Fleet Commander Andrew Cunningham.(6)  

Next day the Mediterranean air-sea hecatomb continues apace, as HM corvette Marigold duels a German submarine off Gibralter; Marigold survives, while U433 and her 40-man crew go on Eternal Patrol. Almost simultaneously, two commando operations intended to facilitate the Crusader offensive go badly wrong. A submarine-launched Special Boat Service mission to kill Rommel at his (supposed) seaside HQ results only in a mass-drowning of half the troops and then a bloody shootout that does for the rest; never there in the first place, R. is at the moment in Rome, arguing command arrangements with the Italians. And a Strategic Air Service strike at the Italo-German airfields strung out between Tmimi and Gazela is another debacle, as one of five lumbering, twin-engine Bristol Bombay transports carrying the commandos is shot down by Axis fighters, while the others dump their paras “into near hurricane force winds during a desert sandstorm…of the 65 men that jump, only 22 make it back to the Long Range Desert Group extraction point .”  LRDG officer W.B. Shaw views

the night of November 17th…one of the foulest of the Libyan war. Looking north from Siwa Oasis we can see flashes of lightening along the coast, though the torrential rain does not reach this far south. As a result of the bad weather the R.A.F. drops the parashots wide of target, and they land in rain, wind and mud….Easonsmith goes north to meet them, but though he picks up David Stirling, Paddy Mayne, and 20 other men, the remainder never come in to the rendezvous at Rotunda Segnale.(7)

Twenty-five miles to the north, a calmer atmosphere prevails in the  regimental leaguers of 22nd Armored Brigade. Lt. Stuart Pitman, commanding a 4-tank troop with the 2nd Gloucestershire Hussars, gets the news

          known some time before in Cairo bars, that operations are to start on the 18th and final preparations begin. Maintenance on the tanks completed. guns cleaned, ammunition checked, kit and provisions carefully stowed. Those who got battledress from the “B” echelon put it on, as the nights are now bitterly cold….Orders are given out…the Intelligence Officer, Lt. Muir tells of our forces, giving us the composition of 30 Corps, how and where we will attack, and what we will achieve. Maps as far as Tripoli, one thousand miles away, are issued…at least it shows an optimistic High Command. “Information about the enemy,’ he says, “is contained in Appendix ‘A’. Unhappily, my dear chaps, Appendix ‘A’ has still to reach us, so you must take my word for it.’ He says that the only tank that might bother us is the German Mk. IV, and there only twenty of them in North Africa. The German Mk. II and III and the Italian M.13 will, he assures us, present no difficulties. We almost feel sorry for the enemy…This night great flashes are seen to the north of us, first thought to be the preliminary bombardment, but finally assumed to be an electric storm.(8)  

     A storm indeed, and a big break for the Empire. This same night, 17/18 November 1941, 9:30 PM and on the Egyptian side of the coastal frontier newsman J.L. Hodson sees

          lights flickering in the sky over Mersa Matruh. Earlier I’d walked by the sea and saw in the sky a flying horse and a man behind in a chariot. The chariot vanished and became a hooded eagle with wings. My companion asks, ‘What does this mean?’ and I answer, ‘…all those lads who will not see the sky by tomorrow night.’(9)

Nearby, correspondants Alan Moorhead and Matt Halton notice that

          there are no stars…we stand still for a moment to accustom our eyes to the darkness. Then we walk slowly across the sand-dunes to our camp. Out in front of us a hundred thousand men lie in the sand, Germans and Italians, British, South Africans, New Zealanders, Poles and Indians….All around us men are asleep. The sea moves easily and quietly along the beach. The one irresistable thought that fills my mind: within hours all these placid, sleeping men will rise up and start killing one another….Later this night it rains in squalls of bitter sleet. Like artillery, the lightning comes rushing in from the Mediterranean and, as we lie awake and watching, the water seeps through bedding, ground-sheets, everything. Men crouch against the sides of tanks and guns in a futile effort to keep dry. The infantry sit numbly in their trucks, greatcoats turned up….No aircraft can take off from the sodden, sticky sands.

          A judgment concurred in by Royal Navy torpedo-bomber pilot Donald Judd, whose 826 Squadron moves

up to Sidi Barrani for a night attack on Tmimi airfield. But it’s cancelled….Spent the night in a flooded tent. Electric and rain storms continue the night through without abating. Whole desert a lake and every Wadi a waterfall. Army push starts at dawn….(10)

          It does, as the newsmen, still

cold, miserable, bedraggled, and wet, trail along in the wake of the soldiers. Somehow the great, lumbering Eighth Army gets into motion, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of vehicles bumping across the sand….General trend is west, into Libya, but no one seems to have a clear idea of what is happening; for hours we move along with South African supply convoys and then, giving that up, turn aside to chase a few stray guns or pause to brew a cup of tea….A cold, fierce wind succeeds the storm. In the morning light…better. We pass the ruins of Fort Maddalena in the early sunshine, and the sky is now full of allied fighters and bombers heading west.(11)

          For an artilleryman with the New Zealand division, moving a few miles north, the advance to the frontier and beyond is

the most tiring night I can remember. For seven or eight hours we plow on through bad country, across sandy wadis, up and down escarpments…stuck in wet sand only once, but often held up by others stuck in front of us. Pass by Peter whose limber perch has snapped off and left his gun and half his limber sitting alone on the sand. He’s winching the gun out and swearing mightily….This night the line of our advance is mainly northwest, then a sudden turn due west toward dim green and red lights set 200 yards apart. I glance around curiously, apprehensively, as we pass through the Wire into enemy country. First time we have advanced as a division into hostile territory, and I have an idea in mind that the Germans will be sitting there waiting for us. Uncanny to be moving about within striking distance on a dark night….Dawn finds us once again under our camouflage nets and…about this time we begin to see our own aircraft flying overhead to bomb and strafe enemy columns.(12)

          On the Axis side the storm is still worse. Thomas Schulze, a driver with one of 15th Panzer Division’s motorized infantry battalions, then posted near the western entrance to Halafaya (“Hellfire”) Pass, is

nearly drowned there, like standing under a spigot, and the wadis quickly fill with water pouring down the rock walls of the Pass…helping dig our trucks out of the mud caused by the rain when I slip and fall into a water-filled wadi and the force of the flood takes me away….My comrades form a human chain and drag me out. Later the Italians tell us it hasn’t rained in this area for 60 years.(13)

          Other less lucky  soldiers in the Hellfire Pass garrison are drowned in flash-floods and, westward in beseiged Tobruk, the violence of nature claims more lives. Australian infantry Sgt. George Fearnside watches

rain fall in torrents…the defensive system is soon waterlogged. In our sector, water runs off the rock faces and fills weapon pits and trenches alike. Soon we are sitting on the parapet, wrapped in glistening groundsheets, our misery alleviated by the amazing spectacle taking place below, on the floor of Wadi Sehel. There the unfortunate members of the standing patrol and the maintenance engineers are fighting for their lives. A great wall of water rushes down the wadi, dividing at the pumping station and making of it a concrete island in a boiling, muddy sea. Warning flares and rockets shoot into the sky…by their light we can see the rain streaming down, the surge of water and bare-chested men struggling waist-deep in the torrent and holding weapons high above their heads.

When dawn comes the rain stops, but the torrent doesn’t yet subside. Our patrols caught on the enemy side of the wadi are soaked and hungry, then forced to wait hours before they can return to our lines. Around in the Salient, where the Poles are dug in, wet and miserable though they must be in positions that are mostly exposed to the weather, they work frantically in setting up machine-guns to capitalize on the confusion dawn will bring….Even in the half-light they begin firing at the equally wet and miserable Germans.(14)

          Still further west, in an Afrika Korps rest camp near Derna,

it rains for hours; the roads are flooded and we try in vain to keep the water out of our building…sand dunes collapsing into our trenches.(15)

          While the Empire forward landing grounds in western Egypt dry out relatively quickly, the main Italo-German airfields in eastern Libya are so saturated that most Axis planes, even lightwight recon aircraft, cannot get off the ground. And not all of this by accident. Desert Air Force Commander Arthur Coningham and his top staff officer, Basil Embry,

make the decision that when squadrons move forward they should use inland airfields in preference to coastal ones, for the reason that the stony and more compact surface of the ground inland will not be affected to the same extent by rain as the surfaces of the coastal belt….during the first hours of the offensive we derive full advantage from this decision, for the night before the attack torrential rain falls throughout the area, flooding a great part of the coastal belt and grounding a high percentage of the enemy’s air force, wheras our airfields remain servicable.(16)

          So this morning finds Bill Cartwright, a ground crew technician with RAF 260 Squadron, rejoining

“A” flight across the wire at Fort Maddalena, LG-124. Bully beef and biscuits, water brought up in petrol barrels, undrinkable. Horrible flat place, drome, a salt bed.(17)

          And, as such, quick-drying and soon flyable. The Empire now has a brief window of absolute air supremacy and uses it to deadly effect. Axis forward fighter fields near Tobruk, at Gambut, El Adem, and Sidi Rezegh, the Stuka nest at Tmimi, even reserve fields as far away as Gazala and Derna, 60 miles west of Tobruk, are all hit hard. At Tmimi, six Beaufighters of 272 Squadron – fast, fearsome twin-engine ground-attack aircraft, each packing four 20 mm. cannon and six machine-guns – strike at zero altitude and destroy 4 Italian torpedo-bombers on the ground, then catch 5 German JU-52 tri-motor transports just as they are taking off and flame them all, killing passengers and crew.(18)

           An American correspondent is airborne just after noon on the 18th with another lethal flock as they whip over the

dense tangle of barbed wire that separates Egypt from Libya. Once across, the Beaufighters move into battle formation, as Bertie looks back at the

other three planes, waggles his wings, and edges the stick forward. Our plane darts toward the earth, levels off not more than 15 feet above the ground…flying at enormous speed, breathtaking and fantastically dangerous; the merest wrong touch means instant death….The flat desert drops away behind us, then the ground becomes rougher and the wadis – desert watercourses – deeper. As the land lies so we fly, dipping down into each ravine and lifting just in time to clear the next ridge and dip again, always at 15 feet….We are like an albatross I once saw in the South Atlantic, almost dipping his wings into the sea. We too are birds – birds of death.

We come at last to an arm of the sea. Target…10 minutes. In the passage behind me, the sergeant is fitting drums of shells into the cannons…Bertie turns the knob on the wheel to “fire”…just in time. Suddenly, on our left, a blockhouse with an Italian flag snapping in the wind. Never meant to approach it, but too late now…can’t risk them signaling a warning. Our slight error in navigation is fatal – but not for us, as four dark angels wheel sharply toward the blockhouse. Bertie doesn’t look like a clerk now; blue eyes that a few months ago were scanning columns of figures are now pressed to a gunsight.

Puffs of smoke, gunfire from the blockhouse….They’ve seen us. All my instincts cry out for more speed, but Bertie doesn’t touch the throttle. If we fly too fast our fire will be too widely spaced on the ground, won’t do enough damage. He eases the stick back, we vault up to 200 feet, then puts the nose down gently as we dive in at the blockhouse. On the ground…a man, running. I see his white face turn toward us as Bertie touches the firing button…solid sheets of death spit from our cannon and machine guns, plowing up the earth as bullets march toward and through and as we roar over I glimpse him lying motionless on the ground like a torn rag doll. Now bullets and explosive shells hammer the blockhouse, 16 cannon and 24 machine guns tear at the white walls and their firing ceases. Bertie guns the engine, barely in time, jerking back on the stick to clear a hill beyond the shattered blockhouse….No one will give an alarm.

We speed on, cross two more ridges and there, dead ahead, the airdrome at Derna, tents shining white in the sunlight. The Germans and Italians on the ground don’t have a chance. I see about eight of them lounging near a tent and we leave them still lounging…in death. Our fire now falling just right of a large truck full of men, they pile out, begin running, but the Beaufighter on our left cuts them down as the truck bursts into flames and flips over. Nearly past the airfield now….Away from the ‘drome, the four of us bank sharply and head back again. This time they are better prepared. Tracer smoking over and under us, and I see a quad-.20mm AA emplacement on the side of the plateau…something spatters against the bulletproof windshield, a few inches from my face. Bertie taps the firing button lightly, the gunner collapses. Now we are over the field again, spitting out death, bullets and incendiary shells, explosive and solid shot. Grounded planes, German and Italian, erupt into flames, tents cut to ribbons, a gasoline truck vanishes in a spurt of flame. A column of black smoke spreads and rises as we flee for home, throttles wide open….(19)

          Only at Gazela do the Italians and Germans get a few fighters airborne. These chop into a nine-plane formation of South African Air Force light bombers and shoot down two of the attackers, while losing one of their own.(20) Meanwhile, throughout the early daylight hours of the 18th, Empire armored units backed by infantry cross the Wire and fan out into an almost empty desert:












 On the left, southern flank of the advance, J. Scott-Cockburn’s 22nd Armored Brigade/7th Armored Division – 3rd and 4th County of London Yeomanry Regiments plus 2nd Gloucestershire Hussars, equipped with 158 of the new “Crusader” medium tanks – moves toward the water-point at Bir el Gobi; a group of wells which, held by Italian armor and infantry, are thought to be a soft target by 7th AD commmander “Strafer” Gott. 1st South African Infantry Division, commanded by Lt.-General G.L. Brinks, trails along in the wake of 22nd Armored. Farther south, British 22nd Guards Infantry Brigade screens a vast forward supply dump intended to sustain the entire advance into Libya. In the center, behind a screen of South African armored cars, George Davy’s 7th Armored Brigade/7th Armored Division – 7th Hussars + 2nd and 6th Royal Tank Regiments, with 77 newer model tanks plus 96 old A-13s and A-10s – thrusts toward a key objective, the Italo-German airfield at Sidi Rezegh; 7th Brigade, unlike the 22nd, is accompanied by a strong component of heavy guns that throw a 25-pound shell: 4th Royal Artillery Regiment. On the right, northeastern flank of the attack and screened by armored cars of the 11th Hussars and King’s Dragoon Guards, Alec Gatehouse’s 4th Armored Brigade/7th Armored Division – 8th Hussars + 3rd and 5th Royal Tank Regiments, all driving the new, fast but light-gunned American-provided “Stuart” tanks – moves toward the coastal tracks with 2nd New Zealand and 4th Indian Divisions in trail. The Indian troops will mask and assault the Axis garrisons at Hellfire Pass, Sollum, and the Omars, while the men of New Zealand (including 1st Armored Brigade with another 100 light “infantry” tanks) are to cut off the Bardia garrison and then, with 4th Armored Brigade covering the landward flank, drive down the desert tracks and break through to besieged Tobruk. Whose own garrison, a strong force of infantry and tanks, will attempt to crash through the surrounding Italian and German troops, then link up with the New Zealanders. For a thoughtful 8th Hussars officer, the

orders for the advance are clear and simple. Object is the destruction of the Axis Army in Libya and the relief of Tobruk. I wonder, as I glance at the familiar sight of 4th Armored Brigade in battle formation, whether this is feasible…including the Tobruk garrison we do have a two-to-one superiority in tanks. But without exception ours are armed with 37-mm. guns firing 2-pound armor-piercing shot, while many of the German tanks are Mark IIIs with 50-mm. guns firing a 4.5-pound AP shell. Among the rest there’s bound to be some Mk. IVs with a 75-mm. gun throwing a good high-explosive shell….Late in the afternoon we cross the Trigh el Abd, not moving in wireless silence, because no one believes that this massive advance will pass undetected. No enemy in sight yet and, as I listen to Kinnaird’s first orders, it seems as though all the preceeding weeks of rest and training have been only a dream.(21)

          Brigadier Davy, whose personal tank goes out with 7th Hussars, is on the move at

5:40 AM…just getting light and the desert almost flat. To the left front I can see 2nd RTR, Brigade HQ, conspicuous by its armored control vehicle, and beyond in the distance 6th RTR. Our aircraft in evidence but there’s no sign of an enemy in the air….Cross the border wire at about 8 AM and the gaps so well made that there is scarcely a pause as the squadrons converge and pass through. At 9 each squadron re-fuels, and so far only one tank fallen out with mechanical difficulties. Major Younger’s “B” squadron leads, followed by regimental HQ squadron, then Seymour-Evans’ “A” Squadron on the right, and “C” on transporters. Course now northwest and the pace a good 12 miles per hour. Boggy going from Gabr Salegh onwards, owing to last night’s heavy rain. Early in the afternoon the entire brigade reaches Bir el Gharbi….Of the enemy, still no sign.(22)

          A few miles west along the Trigh el Abd: the enemy. Guenther Bahnemann, armored car driver in a 21st Panzer Division recon battalion, brings his 8-wheeled vehicle to

a grinding halt. Lifting sweaty hands off the steering wheel, I peel dust goggles from my eyes and from my face a rag which keeps the sand from choking me. Grabbing binoculars, I crawl from the gun turret and look around….Don’t like this part of the desert…too many surprises, strafing fighters, landmines, Brit patrols….I raise the glasses and take a long look around…endless sand dunes…nothing…(23)

          Lt. Bob Crisp, a South African ex-athlete commanding a 4-tank troop, quarter-part of C Squadron/3rd RTR/4th Armored Brigade, is by noon on 18 November

heading at a good pace northwest into enemy territory…the border wire a disappointing thing in its rusty inadequacy, and the sand and scrub of Libya look just the same as the sand and scrub of Egypt. In open-order formation now, the whole brigade moving swiftly toward its first objective, a point known as Gabr el Salegh. Our tanks still camouflaged as trucks, but not an enemy plane has yet appeared….At 3:30 in the afternoon the first order flashes through the wireless: “drop shields”. The camouflage clatters off as we roll on, littering the desert for miles around and bringing joy to any wandering native….We quite often pass isolated groups of Arabs and camels, a chimerical vision, glimpsing a world having no place in ours. With the disappearance of the shields our wireless aerials release, and floating fron the top are twin yellow pennants which each of our tanks carries for identification. In moments of quick decision we will  assume that vehicles without pennants are hostile.

The speed we’re moving, the vast, clean space all around new-washed by the night’s rain, the awareness of participation in great events…a feeling of elation. Beyond this the dominant emotion in my mind is an immense curiosity about the immediate future and what will happen…what will happen to me. No. If anything terrible is going to happen it will happen to others. Not to me. As we rush on I am all the time conscious of the forces deployed ahead – 11th Hussars, KDGs – we can hit nothing and nothing can hit us without the air crackling with messages from the recon units in front.(24)

          Now, just over the western horizon, British and German armored cars clash savagely along the Trigh el Abd. Bahnemann of 21st Panzer stops for some quick maintenance, gears up and heads down the track when

a burst of machinegun fire hammers against the steel hull. Spurts of sand, left and right of the car obliterate my view of the track. Spin the periscope…two armored cars – British – right behind me. I floor it and shoot forward, left hand ripping a lever down and in a bedlam of bullets, screaming engine and grinding gears I hear a crash as steel plates drop to protect the wheels….Swaying and rocking, can’t hold them in the ‘scope and no gunner with me. Can’t use the guns unless I stop the car…sweat runs into my eyes, scalding and blinding so I nearly slew off the track. Suddenly I recall that my vehicle is better than the Brits in rough terrain so I turn sharply, hit soft sand, and bounce southward into the desert, bullets smacking off the right side….They turn too, following at a furious pace through rocks and sand. Driving like a madman I whip around boulders, through a ravine, down a gravel hill; take one hand off the wheel and frantically yank the covers off the machinegun and cannon breeches and the next moment… hit solid rock. My head smashes into the forward ‘scope and a ball of sparks appears….

Fear…pain, no time for it….Off comes my safety belt, gears into neutral, open the turret hatch…look for the enemy armored cars behind me and I see them 300 yards away, a mad sight, careening in and out among the rocks, heading right for me. Drop the cannon barrel, try to get the one in front…a burst of machinegun fire whines just past me, spattering into the rocks and ricochets whistle through the air. Press the trigger and a wall of sand and dust erupts beside the first car which alters course, giving me a broadside target. I fire again, walking a stream of 20-mm. shells across the ground in front of target and then over it, some bursting on steel skin, one glances off with an awful scream, another blows a gaping hole….Under a mushroom of black smoke the British armored cars veer away and disappear behind a pile of boulders….

I reload quickly and wait for their next move. Suddenly a sheet of flame and smoke brew up from behind the rocks, followed by crackling, exploding ammunition and I yell in triumph and relief. Then the whine of an engine revving up…and minutes later I see a column of dust in the eastern sky as the surviving enemy car retreats.

          Elsewhere along the desert tracks, outnumbered German armored cars are pushed back by Empire recon units. Bahnemann, meanwhile, dismounts to find his own vehicle disabled as well. After radioing for help, he has time to look over

the burned-out British armored car. The fire is dieing down, and so have a look through an open port. Black and burned to charcoal, among ashes and cartridge casings, a human figure lies twisted and broken on the steel floor.(25)  

         During the afternoon hours, 7th Armored Brigade and its screening armored cars push on to the northwest. 7th Hussar tank gunner R.D. Lawrence notices that

the sun has by now burned off the desert moisture, and inside the tank the temperature is well over 100 degrees. The driver, Harold Mains, opens his vision port but hardly any air gets in. In the turret, wireless operator-gun loader Steve Anderson and I are soaked in sweat. Lt. John Ferguson, our commander, isn’t much better off though he has his head and shoulders out of the open hatch. Beneath our black berets, over which we clip our radio earphones, perspiration streams down our faces….

….the radio comes alive and we are ordered to change course, intercept a German convoy….anything is better than trundling along the empty desert and we greet the instructions with joy. Fifteen minutes letter, breasting a ridge, we see the enemy and we are off, racing down an incline, heading for the soft vehicles at the head of the convoy which is composed of trucks and light armored cars. Face glued to the eyepiece of my periscope, I see a 6-wheeled canvas-covered truck in range and yell, “Load H.E.!”…the breech slams shut, Steve puches my arm, I take aim and slam my foot on the firing pedal just as the tank hits a bump…shell sailing away and explodes harmlessly on the sand, well beyond target. Frustrated, I get Steve to load another high-explosive round, then yell at Harold, telling him to stop, for the bouncing of the tank makes it impossible to aim. “Yes, stop”, adds John. “But as soon as Lawrence fires, get going. FAST.”

The tank stops. Another truck in my sights. I fire, the truck blows up and men fall out of it, clothes blazing….off again. Another target. Armored car…Steve loads armor-piercing, driver stops, I aim and fire. Target lurches and begins to burn…one man emerges then falls, riddled with machine-gun bullets from another tank.(26)

          In this short, vicious firefight B Squadron of 7th Hussars loses one tank while taking out two German armored cars, a half-dozen trucks, and then returns with 15 prisoners, maps, and documents.(27)  As to the men of 4th Armored Brigade, now miles to the north and east, 

morning turns to afternoon and afternoon to evening and the desert stays empty around us and the skies as empty as the sands. At 4:30 we reach our assigned battle position. A vaguely discernible cairn of stones mapped as Point 185. We’ve traveled 65 miles since dawn, and line up to fill with petrol….Still no sign of the enemy. We spend the night where we halt, knowing nothing, tired enough for sleep to overwhelm anxiety and puzzlement.(28)

          For Rommel also, now back from Rome and with his staff at Gambut, Panzerarmee Afrika advanced HQ, the daylight hours and night of 18/19 November are a time of increasing unease…and no rest. He is still focused on Tobruk, full of plans to take the fortress in an attack set to begin on the 23rd. Col. Rainer Kreibel, Chief of Staff with von Neumann-Silkow’s 15th Panzer Division, monitors incoming signals and local developments:

First light – enemy infantry in front of the Sollum line moving closer to German-Italian positions. Intensive reconnaissance of our fortifications and minefields south and west of Sidi Omar….Ranging fire by enemy artillery.

1200 hours – Recon Battalion 3 withdrawing 7 km. northward to avoid envelopment by strong British recon forces backed by tanks and artillery.

1700 hours – Recon 3 further withdrawal in face of pressure allegedly exercised by 200 enemy vehicles including tanks. Patrols to south and southwest unable to penetrate dense security screen which enemy has thrown out along the Trigh el Abd.

1750 hours – 21st Panzer Division staff suggests pushing an armored battle group into area north of Gabr el Salegh to make flank attack on enemy opposing Recon. 3. General Cruewell, c/o Afrika Korps, regards these enemy moves as only a large-scale reconnaissance operation with the object of harrassing our preparations for attack on Tobruk.  He does, however, instruct 15th Panzer, disposed at the coast near Marsa Belfarid, to prepare to move and also approves proposal of 21st Panzer to move its 5th Regiment into the area Gabr el Salegh.

1900 hours – Panzerarmee Afrika informed by telephone on the occurences of the day and intentions of Afrika Korps. It appears that neither air reconaissance nor wireless intelligence achieve noteworthy results this day…

2000 hours – in a personal discussion with Cruewell, Rommel insists that the enemy advance involves only negligible harrassing operations. No need to lose one’s nerve. He countermands movement of Pz Regiment toward Gabr Salegh.

          Midnight approaches and Rommel remains in a state of deep denial, still hoping to seize Tobruk, a 6-month-long thorn in his side, before he is attacked from Egypt and forced to fight in multiple directions.

2300 hours – prisoner belonging to 4th Indian Division captured in sector of Italian Savona Division. Prisoner states that not only 4th Indian but entire 7th Armored Division is attacking….and a South African Division moving across the frontier. Interrogation passed on to R. without delay; he, however, regards it as incredible and stamps it as a deliberate attempt by the enemy to deceive.(29)

          Almost simultaneously the Italo-Germans have a chance at a much bigger intelligence coup. Not far away, the New Zealand Division’s top communications staff officer and his entire section are lost and blundering about in the desert night. Captain Geoffrey Cox, looking to catch up with Division after a late start on the 18th, has

gone barely a mile or so when the light fades and we can no longer pick out the line of the telephone cable amongst the tufted bushes…only thing to do is run on a compass bearing. This isn’t easy. A pitch black night, not a star showing, and there’s a new and unexpected hazard. We have to travel across desert where two of our brigades have been in position. The ground is pitted with slit trenches, some to a depth of four or five feet…a constant hazard, a series of mini tank traps around which we have to snake and dodge…impossible to maintain a straight course. By 200o hours, when my speedometer shows we should be very close to Division, there’s no sign of anything but thorn bush and rocks; utter darkness, so dark it is impossible to tell where the sky ends and the desert surface begins. At this moment, ahead, a light, for a brief instant….I decide to drive towards it. Do this for three miles, but without finding anything….we are lost.

At this point, a mile or so ahead of us, a yellow flare sails up into the air followed by a green one. Germans….We are uncomfortably near the enemy and I am even more uncomfortably aware that in the trucks ranged behind me are copies of all the main army code ciphers, and secret documents which will disclose much of what 8th Army knows about the enemy….Decide to stop right where we are until first light. I form the trucks into a small laager, post sentries, and warn the men not to light up any fires to brew tea. A bitterly cold night, and I lie in my blanket wracked with anxiety, sleeping little, watching the northern horizon. Intermittently, more flares and I can hear faint sounds of vehicles…tanks. I later discover that we halted just south of the 5th Panzer Regiment battle group.(30)

           If Rommel has difficulty apprehending the true situation, the Desert Luftwaffe commmanders, their airfields already hard hit, do what they can to strike back. II/JG-27 gets a few fighters aloft from El Adem just before sunrise on the 19th. Geoffrey Morley-Mower, British pilot with an Empire recon squadron at LG-132, is one of those at the receiving end as he

wakes to the sharp crack of a Bofors anti-aircraft gun situated a hundred yards from my tent. I scramble out, pulling on clothes and sticking bare feet into desert boots….Dawn, everything still white and grey under cloud cover as four Messerschmidts scud fast across the airfield, engines snarling…in a second the other seven Bofors on airfield defense are a thumping staccato, gun muzzles flashing streaks of flame in the semi-darkness as the 109s wheel to port and descend in line-astern. On all sides men struggle to their feet and run for cover, a pile of stones near my tent left by workers who cleared the landing ground. A dozen pilots already running toward it, throwing themselves on their faces, late arrivals landing on top of the others….don’t fancy a cannon shell through my backside so I stand still, ready to run in any direction if unlucky enough to be in line with one of their targets. A crackle of gunfire as the lead plane opens up early in its dive, scattering shells over a wide area….I watch like a spectator at an airshow as spurts of dust track across the ground, shells striking with a high pinging shriek and ending with a low sob as they rebound into the air. The 109 climbs away in a steep turn….

A second German fighter, attacking from a slightly different angle, fires a long burst which kicks up a line of dust between two parked Hurricanes…our gunners bang away at him as he climbs, the shells arcing behind his tail. Next two come in fast along parallel tracks. As the leader opens up there’s a violent explosion and a blinding sheet of flame as he nails a Hurricane parked about 50 yards from where I stand. Meanwhile the first attacker turns back and lines up another target, heading straight for me. I run at right angles to his path, past the mound of stone and piled-up bodies. The crack and ping of shell strikes is very close and I curse my untied boots which flop uncomfortably as I galumph along….A loud bang and a sheet of flame behind me, another Hurricane hit and something on the far side of the strip also burning vigorously; our Bofors crews fire a few more ineffectual rounds after the 109s as they disappear into the western sky.(31)

          Where, minutes later, they are jumped by a lone Australian-piloted P-40 of #3 Squadron. Flying Officer Fischer flames one of the Germans, and then is shot down by Unteroffizier Karl Reuter. Minutes later, Reuter and his remaining wingmen catch six unescorted RAF Blenheim bombers of #45 Squadron attacking Sidi Rezegh and destroy two, killing the crews.(32) A few miles northwest and this same 19 November dawn finds the men of 8th Hussars more gently awake

before the first streaks of light in the eastern sky….As atmospherics pip and wheeze in the headphones and the rigmarole of the morning net plays out, each tank moves farther and farther away from Regimental HQ until, as the sun tops the horizon, we are dispersed and ready for battle.(33)

          Lt. Crisp, with 3rd RTR, is also up and about

before dawn…and in our action stations, checking the wireless net and listening to the cautious chatter of B Squadron, who are off on a special mision in support of the KDGs. As the light grows we move off several miles due north, then sit and watch nothing for another two hours with leisure enough to cook breakfast – bacon, biscuit, marmalade and hot tea. (34)

          A few miles to the north, just over the event-horizon, 15th Panzer Division tank crewman Klaus Hubbuch enjoys a reflective moment:

around our tank, the mood is good, finally after the long desert summer and fall, again combat in sight. Many are also thoughtful…what will happen to us? Lt. Liestmann thinks he will not survive the battle. Others are cheerful…gunloader Hans M. describes his last night in Naples before coming to the desert….(35)

          Last, brief lull before a 6 week-long storm of steel, agony, and death. By noon on this day ferocious, close-quarter fighting flares along a 40-mile arc. At the southern edge of the Empire advance, a group of wandering civilian news reporters has

covered ten miles when we are suddenly hailed from behind a little hillock. One of the sleek, new Crusader tanks is sitting there with the commander’s head sticking out of the turret.

 “Where to?

 “Trying to find 30 Corps HQ.”

“Well, you are going straight into a battle.”

Right…as we stop the engines of our trucks we can hear a thudding of guns not far over the horizon ahead. The tanker climbs down and strolls over.

“They’re fighting an Eyetie armored division,” he tells us. “This blasted thing – ” waving his foot at the tank – “broke down so we’re missing the show.” (36)

A lucky man. Just a few miles ahead, near Bir el Gobi, 22nd Armored Brigade attacks without infantry support

and crashes headlong into the Italian Ariete Division. Which, with 146 medium tanks disposed in a well-sited hedgehog of minefields, anti-tank gunlines, and backed by tough infantry – elite regiments of Bersaglieri and Giovanni Fascisti(37) – does not wish to be disturbed. Based on prior indifferent Italian performances in Greece and North Africa, the Brits expect an easy victory. First contact at 8 AM as a forward patrol of 16 Italian tanks comes under artillery fire and

a duel follows, with attacks and counter-attacks. At 1100 hours a group of 40 British tanks approach from the northeast at high speed. Our tanks turn to face them and, though outnumbered, attack head-on. A ten-minute long fight follows during which the enemy loses 8 tanks….Three of ours hit and their crews killed. Seven others damaged but return to our positions, three bearing dead commanders: Captain Zanolla, Lt. Sobrero, Lt. Benito.(38)

          Now a brief success, as additional Empire tanks attack and punch through an outer defense line, knock out 20 or so Italian tanks, and kill or capture several hundred soldati. These men, though, seeing that the British armor is unsupported by infantry, break lose, pick up weapons and rejoin the battle. Then the attackers hit the minefields. Tanks lose treads, grind to a halt, and exiting crews are cut down by Italian machine-gunners. Other Crusaders, struck at pointblank range by truck-mounted 102-mm. and dug-in 47-mm anti-tank guns whose Bersaglieri crews give no ground

explode and burn so quickly that no one gets out. Communications break down as 4th County of London Yeomanry and Hussars lose tanks and crews by the dozen; of 4th CLY’s “C” Squadron, 8 of 11 tanks are knocked out with 21 men killed or captured, while “B” Squadron – already thinned by mechanical breakdowns – is annihilated by

heavy anti-tank gunfire from the fort at Bir el Gobi. Almost at once the tank of the squadron’s C/O, Major Godson…hit by AT gunfire and a track blown off. The tank continues to fire back for awhile until hit on the turret and silenced, Maj. Godson and his driver both wounded. Immediately after this another tank hit on the turret at close range and all the occupants killed…In the meantime two more tanks hit by AT gunfire…(39)

When a late arriving 3rd Yeomanry counterattacks, it is in turn run over by an Ariete tank regiment. The fighting swirls for nearly six bloody hours; by 4:30, now minus some 80 tanks, a shocked, battered 22nd Armored Brigade breaks off and pulls back to mourn and reorganize. 2nd Gloucestershire Hussars’ war diarist records his unit’s fate:

1330 – Regt advanced 3 miles north of Bir el Gobi and…became engaged with a very large force of enemy tanks estimated between 140 & 160, plus numerous concealed anti-tank positions.

1530 – Wireless communication with 22nd Armd Bde broke down during 2 1/2 hours heavy fighting…

1630 – Regiment withdrew to reorganize two miles south of Bir el Gobi…

1730 – All runners withdrawn. Close leaguer ordered….replenished petrol and ammunition.

Tank strength at start: 46.

Tank strength at 1730: 16.(40) 

           While a victorious Italian officer tallies his own losses, and looks over the infernal ground:

….no more whistling of bullets, no more shell bursts. Here are two clashing tanks with bows locked, they remain half-suspended like rampant lions, burning together, crews now at one in death. One, two, three at a time, machine-gun rounds explode with short sharp reports….A few feet away another tank with its turret blown off and lying to one side, like the top of an orange sliced off with a knife and smoke billowing from the damage hole. With the coming of dusk more fires become visible, fires burning all around, and occasionally an explosive, flaming eruption….(41)

          While this British tank brigade takes a beating from the Italians, 1st S.A. Division is lashed from above. At 11:45 an Italian recon aircraft spots the South Africans’ HQ trucks and supply column, which is shortly

attacked by bombers of the Italian Air Force. One plane shot down and as it hits the ground all of its bombs explode. I drive over in my jeep to inspect the site. A huge crater where our brigade chaplain administers last rites for the human fragments which are all that remain of the bomber crew.(42)

At 2:30 a single ME-109 strafes and escapes; and around 4 PM soldiers of a Transvaal Scottish Regiment glance upward then duck and cover as

Stukas fall screaming from the sky then zoom up and away as enormous fountains of sand and black smoke leap skyward….Brigade HQ dive-bombed amid a roar and thunder of engines and explosions. Doors of staff cars fly open…trucks empty instantly, some drivers jumping out in such haste that they don’t wait to stop their trucks. Then Messerschmidts with black wings and yellow noses sweep down the lines of vehicles machine-gunning, passing so low that prostrate men feel the heat of their engines and slipstreams tear at clothing. Our Bofors gunners, inexperienced and excited, follow the speeding machines with streams of shells which burst on the ground in and beyond our column, as the drone of Stuka engines dies away and their fighter escorts climb back into the sky….(43)

          The South Africans suffer 19 men killed and wounded in this attack and then, prodded by messages from 30 Corps Headquarters, which does not know that the assault on Bir el Gobi has failed, begin to move forward. But not for long. At 5:15 a halt order, as “situation at Bir el Gobi unknown”; and later a corps liason officer comes in to report the wells “still strongly held by enemy armored and other units.” Which then becomes obvious as heavy and accurate Italian artillery fire begins to thump down amidst the Afrikaaners, who dig in and this day advance no more. In the center of the Empire drive, however, a significant success. After skirmishing with a German reconaissance unit, S.A. armored cars and 7th Brigade tanks climb a ridgeline to behold the setting sun…and almost undefended Sidi Rezegh airfield, packed with Italian fighters and German dive-bombers just then warming up or frantically taxiing to take off. Too late, as 6th Royal Tank Regiment vehicles spill down the slope and over the field, shooting up, ramming and crushing grounded planes, massacring crews, shooting down others as they take off or turn back to strafe the attackers. Two dozen Stukas are destroyed on the ground and, of XX Gruppo’s 21 G.50 fighters, only three escape,(44) while some 80 pilots and groundcrew are captured. Though Italian infantry and elements of the German 90th Light Division throw back further probes toward Tobruk, 7th Armored Brigade is by nightfall November 19th onto the Sidi Rezegh position in main strength.(45)

To the northeast, meanwhile, armored cars and all three regiments of 4th Armored Brigade are heavily engaged, attacking German transport columns and slugging it out with main elements of 15th and 21st Panzer. Around 2 PM, C Squadron of 3rd RTR receives a

startling order: “advance and attack 200 enemy mechanized transport on the Trigh Capuzzo.” I bring my troop over a long, low rise which runs down to the track about a mile in front of me. There I pause to let as many tanks as possible come abreast of me in a hull-down position while I survey the column with my binoculars. Looks a piece of cake, with only a few armored cars moving up and down the line of vehicles like shepherd dogs guarding a flock. I see my other tanks ready and waiting…Harry pulls up alongside, grinning. I give him a thumbs-up, and with a wide wave of my arm we are off and over the crest 16 abreast and roar down the slope flat out, the wind catching our trailers of dust and flaunting them like banners of doom….





….In a few seconds I see consternation in the enemy ranks translate into violent motion as, after a moment of immobility and shock, the whole line of vehicles breaks and scatters wildly to the north and northeast. The main body of the enemy making good its getaway, over an escarpment by which the plateau drops down to the sea.

          As the handful of German armored cars and light tanks sacrifice themselves to save the transport vehicles

Maegrith and I are compelled to divert our attention from the fleeing transports to several armored cars which act in a hostile fashion. A couple of small Mark IIs are also bustling about like terriers with their teeth showing. We get one of the light tanks, two armored cars,  and a little later I come across a third, immobilized, with petrol pouring out from underneath the engine into a pool in the sand. My gunner puts a burst of tracer into the pool, and the whole thing brews up into a roar of orange flame and black smoke.

            Crisp and his squadron pursue the fleeing soft-skinned vehicles, leaving

the Trigh Capuzzo miles behind. Some way to my front, the land seems to dip away into space. I guide my driver to the edge of a steep escarpment and gasp with astonishment….Beyond an intervening belt of rock and sand rolls the sudden deep blue of the Mediterranean. Over to my right a lighthouse, and beyond I can just see the roofs and walls of a sizeable village climbing out of a steep wadi…Bardia. Scan for some sign of the enemy…Harry’s voice, urgent, “Look out, Bob…anti-tank guns on our left”….even as he speaks I hear a sharp bang and a slight shudder pass through the tank. 600 yards away, along the edge of the escarpment, a puff of whitish smoke and immediately something whips by in the air…time to go.(46)

         Far out on a limb, these 16 Empire tanks pull back inland and then, low on gas, form a defensive circle. Later that night, via radio and firing tracer into the air, they are found and rescued by a roving fuel truck. For other tanks and crews of 4th Armored Brigade, though, there is no rescue this day. While elements of 3rd Royal Tank Regiment have an easy time scattering the German convoy, the rest of 3rd RTR, 8th Hussars and 5th RTR are locked in mortal combat with Col. Fritz Stephan’s 5th Regiment/21st Panzer Division: 100+ heavy Mk III and IV tanks, plus supporting artillery and a battery of 88-mm. AT guns. The Hussars

move not more than three miles when the first reports come in from leading troops of the center squadron: “…enemy concentration…motor transport and tanks stationary at one five zero zero yards. Over.”

Kinnaird answers. “…OK. Advance and engage….”. Then calls the two flanking squadrons, mine on the right, “…move into battle-line and engage. See if you can find their flanks…Off.”

I call out, using the intercom, “Driver, closedown. Gunner, 37-mm. action. Loader, get a stack of shells ready.” Look right and left to check the disposition of my tanks then settle back to scan the ground….Already to my left front I can make out a solid mass of German vehicles and the flash of enemy field guns as they range in on our approaching tanks…find that I’m overhauling the tank immediately to my front, and all along the Regiment’s line other tanks are coming to an abrupt halt. To my right I see the crew of one tank tumbling out of the turret, wisps of smoke issuing from the engine-covers….Away to my front the mass of German tanks remain stationary, menacing, silent.

“Hickson, what’s the trouble?….Why they’ve all stopped?”

“AT guns in  front of their tanks….Look…that flash…”.

Split-second later a hard, flat crack-TSSZZIP as something rips the air nearby. I hear Standall’s voice in my headphones, “…enemy anti-tank guns about eight zero zero yards forward of their tanks. Am withdrawing out of range….Can you send an artillery observer to me? Over”. Then Kinnaird: “…OK, he’ll be along soon. Don’t let him get too far forward.” To me and Chesham he calls, “Probe outward, get onto the flanks of those guns.”

          This manuver fails, as German 88-mm. crews firing armor-piercing shells at extreme range destroy four more Hussar tanks. When British 25-pounder guncrews hit back with high explosive, it is to little apparent effect. This Hussar officer now finds himself wishing that 8th Army C-in-C Alan Cunningham had concentrated all three brigades of 7th Armored Division into a single striking force, instead of spreading them all over eastern Libya. But

no use wishing….When the midday haze starts to clear at about 1500 hours, peering through my binoculars I become aware of a larger dust-cloud behind and beyond the main German positions, approaching from a north-easterly direction. A first pay no attention, thinking that it’s merely the dust of other actions borne on the wind. As the cloud comes nearer…I distinguish the squat black shapes of numerous tanks and in my earphones Peters’ confirmation: “About one zero zero tanks….Range two zero zero zero yards and coming on fast.”

“Look at the bastards”, Hickson mutters.

“…No move unless I order it”, Kinnaird’s voice over the radio. “We’ll fight here…only give ground if we have to.”

Almost immediately Mills reports, “Enemy tanks now one zero zero zero yards and still moving fast.” And Peters, on the right flank, adds disquieting news, “…more German tanks now visible to my flank and moving in fast.”

Kinnaird replies, “OK, keep an eye on…I’ll get our elders to move somebody else up to deal with them.”

So we join battle again…find that I fail to measure time in the heat of it, and when I check my watch during a lull in the firing I am staggered to discover that it is already well past 1600 hours. To my front Mills’ tank lies derilict and smoking, and I wonder how many of the crew escaped…didn’t see any. To my left I know that at least one tank of my squadron is knocked out and I see another withdrawing slowly, ablaze,  reversing out of the battle. One of Peters’ tanks on fire too, but I recall seeing two of the four crewmen bale. Beyond Peters, another regiment joining the action….(47)

          Fifth Royal Tank Regiment, which takes the field just as Alan Morehead and another party of wandering journalists

blunder into British 4th Armored Brigade HQ, and the first officer I see there is Col. Bonner Fellers, the American military observer…he’s observing across to the east where quick, heavy gunfire suddenly breaks out. I call across,

“What’s happening?”

“Damned if I know!”

….we all duck for shelter as two ground-strafing Messerschmidts zoom over and then, clambering on top of our trucks, see in the evening light a line of grey shell-bursts until twenty or more are hanging together on the skyline. As the battle joins these bursts grow together and make a continuous curtain of dust and smoke and blown sand. The battle of the guns, German guns at our tanks, our guns at the German tanks. Brigadier Gatehouse, with his heavy head and deep-set eyes, sits in his tank watching the battle, estimating enemy strength and the position of the sun…then lifts up his radio mouthpiece – what a moment, these light Stuarts with their 37 mm. guns have never seen battle before, they come straight from the steel mills of America to the desert and now for the first time we are going to see if they are good or bad or just more tanks – and gives the order.

At his command the Stuarts…charge. Straight into that curtain of fire and dust that hides the German tanks and guns. At speeds of nearly 40 mph and then…some of them…come right out the other side of the German position. Then they turn and charge straight back again, passing the bigger German tanks and firing at pointblank range….Dust, smoke, burning oil, exploding shell and debris fill the air…(48) 

          Alex Clifford, another reporter with this group, watches

something of a naval battle, something of a mediaeval cavalry charge, but all madly speeded up as you might speed up a cinema film. When they meet and collide there is utter chaos. Noise, quick, jarring crack of tank guns firing, pulsing clamor of mighty engines going all out, rasping, screeching clatter of tank treads….Dust, a hundred separate cyclones, of whirling, choking, yellow dust. Smoke, thin bitter smoke of explosives and thick exhaust from hundreds of raving engines. Flame, quick, stabbing flash of guns firing in a red-black haze of tanks on fire. Spectacular pyrotechnics when a shell gets in among a tank’s ammuntion or flares….Inside this frantic jumble tanks duel with tanks in running, almost hand-to-hand fights, firing, twisting and dodgling, sprinting with screaming treads and whining engines that rise to a shriek as they change gears….Then a moment of respite when an enemy petrol and ammunition convoy arrives over the horizon and the German tanks draw off and cluster around it like wasps.(49)

          The carnage renews and continues until full darkness intervenes, when the engines and guns, gradually, fall silent. Third RTR tank commander Robert Watt senses

          ammunition getting low, so is the sun on the horizon, partly obscured by a thick pall of dust and smoke drifting across the battlefield. As light fades we creep away in the darkness to the sanctuary of our leaguer, leaving behind a skyline of flickering flames and the stench of burning rubber, flesh, and cordite. For me a very depressing introduction to war in the desert…  very different in Greece where casualties were mostly obscured by hills and trees. Here it’s all laid out on flat ground just like a bloody cemetary with burned out tanks for gravestones.

But Jake Wardrop of 5th RTR is proud that

          we held them. The great thing about this scrap is the fact that we have fought back a crack German division and they have bigger guns and heavier tanks. Losses heavy, six men killed in my squadron alone and about 10 wounded, while most of the tanks have been hit and some are ready to be written off.(50)

          While an 8th Hussars officer observes

a satisfying pall of black smoke lying over the German positions…in the gathering gloom I pick out, on my immediate front, the flicker of about a dozen fires. Occasionally one of these blazes up momentarily, or explodes in a shower of sparks. After giving a hand with the disposal of empty shall casings which clutter the turret floor and helping lay in a new supply of ammunition, I walk around my squadron. Lt. Mills is dead…from a shot through the head. His driver and gunner dead too. Four other tanks hit, three total losses, each with at least one crewman dead. I report to Kinnaird, who answers, “That’s 14 tanks we lost and 30 good men killed or wounded…but Brigade says the Jerries lost over 60 tanks.”(51)

          Both sides think thay have destroyed more enemy fighting vehicles and lost fewer, a belief that helps universal morale. In fact 4th Armored Brigade loses about two dozen tanks, though recovering and repairing half of these within a day or two; while the Germans, who must scavenge with even greater efficiency because they lack the Empire’s reserve strength, are after recovery and repair minus just 7 runners. And, though both Axis and Empire are again short of fuel and ammuntion and have to replenish during the night, it is the Germans who control the battlefield:

Through the sharp cold of the desert night the Nazi tank-recovery crews creep forward onto the battleground and they are not unkind to our wounded….They give hot drinks to the men who lie helpless beside the smoking wrecks of their tanks and throw blankets over some who will otherwise die of exposure before morning. Working at speed, they hitch up damaged vehicles, British and German, and drag them off to mobile repair shops.(52)

          Meanwhile, 7th Armored Division Headquarters goes

into leaguer after dark. All the soft, unarmored transport gathers in a ring with armored cars stationed all around us as a defensive screen. We are hungry and cold, but I make some hot soup and we wrap ourselves up in our blankets and much biscuits and argue….All along the horizon where battle was, silver star shells rise and fall in jerky flight. Tracer skids along the horizon and colorful flares rise singly or in pairs and distant orange flashes mean that our 25-pounders are still firing. We hear quite clearly the rumble of moving tanks and vehicles, both sides regrouping and jockying for position in preparation for the morning.

4:30 AM….a double-burst of bren-gun fire wakes me almost in a panic. But it’s only the headquarters alarm-clock….As we dress we can still see flares, star shells and tracer to the east.(53)

          Where, at dawn on 20 November, 4th Indian Division tightens its grip on the strong Axis garrisons – Italian Savona Division infantry and artillery stiffened with elements of the German 164th Division plus 88-mm. gun batteries – at the Omars and Hellfire Pass. J.H. Henderson, loader with a battery of heavy guns moving up to support the New Zealand troops, hears

artillery fire….gunners from 4th Indian Division shelling Libyan Omar. Two troops, 8 guns 200 yards away firing at a target over the eastern horizon. Harmless looking puffs of dust rising in front of and behind them…the enemy firing back.

“Come on, you fools!” yells Pat, one of our officers, and we start up and speed on as the Italians add 200 yards to their range-drums…presently shells begin landing where we’ve been sightseeing.(54)

          Col. Howard Kippenberger, an officer with the NZ Division’s 4th Brigade, spends this day still

in laager, listening to the rumble and thudding of tank and artillery battles far ahead and over the rim of the western horizon….Two German planes overhead, low down to look and away in a hurry with everyone firing at them.(55)

          To the west and south, with the Axis airfields now dry, numerous aircraft from both sides get aloft and fierce air battles swirl across the desert sky. Just after sunrise 20 Empire fighters piloted by Brits, Australians, and South Africans catch a half-dozen ME-110s of III/ZG-26 patrolling near El Adem and shoot down four while losing one of their own to a German rear-seat gunner who keeps on firing while his own plane goes down in flames. A few hours later two dozen Empire fighters – #250 Squadron P-40s and a Royal Navy Hurricane unit – mix it with a dozen Stukas escorted by 15 109s. Lt. P.N. Charlton knocks down three of the dive-bombers, then he too is shot out of the sky. Three more Stukas, a couple of Messerschmidts,  and three Empire fighters also hit the ground hard, though some of the pilots and crews survive and walk out. Acting on the assumption that this sweep has cleared the area, 9 Maryland light bombers of #21 Squadron SAAF strike without fighter escort at El Adem; but I/JG-27 still controls the airspace, and a near-massacre results. The South Africans

hardly know what hits us…raked from stem to stern with a withering hail of cannon and machine-gun fire. We jettison our bombs, close formation, and dive to gain speed….One plane’s wing on fire, then it ploughs into the ground killing all on board. An American gunner attached to the squadron picks off one of the attackers, but his Maryland shot down by another. Now fleeing at zero feet as Major Stewart’s aircraft goes down….

          Ace pilot Lt. Hans-Arnold Stahlschmidt destroys three of the bombers, while Italian fighters shoot down a fourth.(56) The men of Third RTR, meanwhile, haven’t even time

to make a brew in the morning; as soon as it gets light enough to see, shell start falling among us….We no sooner get dispersed when enemy tanks are reported attacking the battalion’s right flank. Take up hull-down positions to meet this threat, but within half an hour they are reported attacking our left flank. This threat proves equally nebulous, and for two hours we sit gazing into space and sand. Away in the distance I spot a column of vehicles replenishing with petrol, but cannot be sure which side they belong to….(57)

          But 8th Hussars, leagured several miles to the north and east, is immediately beset by lead elements of von Neumann-Silkow’s 15th Panzer Division, finally released by Rommel to join the still-refueling 21st. Before the Hussar tanks have

spread out to battle position, and when the first rays of the rising sun still blind vision to the east, Sgt. Storney of Mills’s troop reports: “….enemy tanks moving out of the sun round my right flank.” All through the morning a savage, running fight…from our night positions relentless German pressure forces us gradually southward, the enemy always searching for our right flank, so that we are forced to face  farther and farther to the right until we face due east. And still the Germans come on, their determination to advance leading them to take such risks that, for awhile, the balance of losses seems against them. By noon visibility reduced to so low a level by heat-haze that a mutual truce is called…(58)

          Only apparently. Unable to outflank 8th Hussars and looking again to get up-sun, the resourceful Neumann-Silkow suddenly shifts the weight of his attack onto 3rd RTR. There the

next alarm comes over the air at noon, a warning to expect a heavy attack from the north where tanks and transport are massing….By this time most of us are developing a cry-wolf complex, but startle into reality when a frantic call comes from B Squadron, who scream they are being attacked by over 100 tanks. Suddenly the desert air is full of high explosive and the terrifying swish of armor-piercing shells. Coming in from the west very fast, with the sun behind them, scores of dark ominous shapes…German panzers. Going even faster a few hundred yards ahead of them are B Squadron’s Stuarts, together with a half-dozen soft-skinned vehicles. They hurtle back through A Squadron, whose commander yells

“Halt! Halt!! The lot of you! Turn around and fight you yellow bastards! I’ll shoot the next tank I see moving back!”

As the rush goes by me and the firing gets personal, it’s desperately hard not to turn round and join in….I don’t particularly want to die at this moment. Movement is the obvious answer….I can see the Panzers clearly now, 40 to 60 of them in line abreast, coming down a broad depression. On my left a low ridge, and I make for this flat out with my troop conforming, in the hope of getting onto the flank of the advancing juggernauts and out of the line of direct fire…two other tanks join my troop, and I lead them in a wary circle, trying to come up behind some of the Mark IVs.(59)

          By mid-afternoon other elements of 15th Panzer join the discussion, and 8th Hussars as well finds itself

harried and threatened with envelopment. I lose two more tanks, on of these Elliot’s, crippled by a shot which severs a track…the crew bales, and I watch with impotent horror and rage as all four men stumble and fall, shot down by German machine-gun fire. We are gradually driven farther and farther west until by last light, though contesting every yard of the way, we are almost back to the leaguer position we occupied at the end of the first day of the advance.

          In the gathering darkness tanks and armored cars on both sides continue to fire on each others’ gun flashes until at last, with full night, the violence subsides. Radio signals, flares, and verticle tracer now draw scattered, decimated squadrons into leaguer where losses are accessed and the dead again briefly mourned. Fourth Armored Brigade, after only two day’s battle, finds itself a “considerably depleted and dispirited” force, now minus 68 tanks. The remaining 97 crews are

weary beyond belief. For two days now almost constant action for many hours….Food intermittant and scanty, sleep brief and duisturbed, fear a constant companion, sapping our strength, taking a toll of supplies of courage and determinstion which only the utmost will-power can replace. Acute physical exhaustion….(60)

          22nd Armored Brigade, brought up late in the day to backstop 4th Armored, is in even worse shape: already bloodied by the Italians and now battered at long-range by German field guns and 88s, with little opportunity to shoot back. In all the Empire tankers have fought well, but their American-supplied Stuarts and home-grown Crusaders, thin-skinned and puny-gunned, just don’t match up well against the thick armor and heavy weapons of the German panzers…also well-crewed, and whose net losses come at this point to no more than 20 tanks. Indeed, but for Rommel’s uncertainties, Alan Cunningham’s northernmost tank brigade would no longer exist. Like the German commander, what the soldiers in the field want is

information. What the hell is happening elsewhere? Is this just the outside edge of a major battle? Who is winning? One of our operators picks up the BBC 9 PM news and we gather around to hear the familiar, well-modulated voice: “Eighth Army, with 75,000 men, excellently armed and equipped, has started a general offensive in the Western Desert with the aim of destroying the German-Italian forces in Africa”(61)

     A perhaps premature announcement which is also picked up by the Germans. Finally recognizing that this is no mere reconnaissance-in-force, no re- run of the half-hearted Battleaxe fiasco, but a massive offensive by the Empire aimed at annihilating his command, Rommel begins to concentrate both his armored divisions and move them toward the critical position: the airfield at Sidi Rezegh now held by 7th Armored Brigade. And there, during the same hours that see 4th and 22nd tank brigades so roughly handled, the fight already intensifies. On land and in the local airspace. R.L. Crimp of A Company, 2nd Rifle Brigade, is a member of the infantry battalion protecting 7th Armored’s support column HQ, which approaches Sidi Rezegh around mid-morning of 20 November; just after the defenders – British artillery and tanks, South African armored cars – beat back two regiment-sized ground attacks by German and Italian infantry. He and his platoon

 move ahead into the sand hills. Trucks are parked in one of the wadis and we proceed on foot with weapons and trenching-tools over the crest, down onto the forward slopes. Here R. allocates section positions about 50 yards apart. Immediately in front…a broad valley. Beyond, some 2,000 yards away on an expanse of more elevated ground are a score or so black objects: airplanes. Pedlar, who has binocs, pronounces them Jerry. They stand strangely still and deserted…German Stukas, abandoned by the enemy when we overran the airfield. Nearer at hand, in the valley, our 25-pounder batteries…crews stripped to the waist and voices can be heared, fragile yet clear, calling the fire-orders. They’re smiting hard, splitting the air with curt salvoes. Limbers and auxiliary vehicles stand scattered behind the guns….Retaliation soon comes. Shells begin sweeping the valley, bursting with horizontal flash, whiplash crack, and residue of black smoke. The vehicles move back and we judge it’s time to dig in. By midday our trench is five feet deep and the platoon officer, on tour of the positions, is quite impressed; never before has he seen such keenness. While we lunch on biscuits and cheese, eight Stukas approach from the west, wheel right across our area, and proceed in single file to dip, dive with sirens howling and discharge strings of bombs. Engines in a shrieking crescendo, the planes turn and climb away like black carrion birds….Somewhere behind us erupt a series of great, clattering crashes and seconds later the ridge to our rear has a rolling mane of sand and smoke…support HQ catching it. Shortly after, a squadron of our Marylands passes over in close formation, harassed by a half-dozen 109s. One of the Germans darts in behind a flanking bomber and delivers a brief, rattling burst. The Maryland falters, catches fire, goes into a fast flat spin and hits the ground with a violent explosion. No parachutes. The rest of the formation disappears eastward….(62) 

          At Bir El Gobi, where 1st South African Division alone now confronts Ariete, fighting sputters then flares with renewed violence. Around mid-morning, 1st Brigade’s supply echelon is in for it as

Black specks begin to materialize against the blue sky….seems to be no end to their numbers, as gaping men begin to count. Stukas…recognizable by their dangling legs and heavy flight. Fighters swarm around them….74 in all. They go over with a thunder that shakes the ground, then plunge down toward the rear formations of the Brigade as every gun mounted for A/A goes into action. The sky dappled with white puffs and scored with tracer. Suddenly agitation among the enemy…our fighters, Hurricanes, among them and the sky is full of fighters zooming and rolling in mortal combat. Seven machines, unidentifiable in the turmoil, flare up and scorch down trailing black smoke and a Stuka crashes with a full bomb load. Others weave off trailing smoke…horizon blanketed in smoke from crashed aircraft and our burning trucks.(63)

Also at the receiving end, Public Relations officer Sean Fielding and his covey of correspondents arrive

in time for a nasty shelling. We throw ourselves on the ground…I chuckle to see Alaric Jacob with his head well dug-in behind a sprig or two of camel thorn – anything for an illusion of shelter. Round and about are many Italian tanks and some of ours, all badly shot-up, some with their dead crews still inside. During the shelling Stukas dive-bomb our position, and then we’re attacked by Italian G.50s, swooping low along the ground and machine-gunning. By this time I’m taking a very dim view of the situation….in a slit trench with a South African officer using my shoulder as a rest for his tommy-gun.(64)

          If the battle has so far not gone well for the Empire, Alan Cunningham at his Fort Maddelena HQ remains in confident ignorance. Misled by early, false returns of tank losses and in possession of fragmentary reports indicating a westward movement by German armored units, he concludes that this means an enemy retreat – in fact this is Rommel concentrating his tank divisions toward the battle’s keystone at Sidi Rezegh – and during the evening of 20/21 November orders the Tobruk garrison to break out at first light, advance southward, and link up with 7th Armored Brigade. He also orders Armstrong’s 5th SA Brigade to pull away from the static fight at El Gobi, leaving only Dan Pienaar’s 1st SA Brigade to face Ariete, then move north to provide much-needed infantry and artillery support for the British gunners and tanks holding on at Sidi Rezegh. When 7th Armored Division commander Strafer Gott visits 7th Brigade cdr. George Davy on the 20th he too considers the situation “well in hand” and anticipates a quick linkage with Tobruk.(65) As night falls near the captured airfield,

everything becomes almost uncannily calm. None of us feels much inclined to sleep….Out in the darkness, Verey lights describe bright, silent, leisurely parabolas. A few glowing orange points beyond the valley betoken vehicles burning. Occasionally a graceful tracery of ack-ack founts up from the horizon….The northern sky is restless with a silent flickering, and at intervals comes a remote rumble of the fighting at Bardia and Tobruk.(66)

          And violent collisions nearer still. A few miles eastward, the exhausted tank crews of 8th Hussars awaken around midnight to the unpleasant knowledge that their own leaguer is closely bracketed by German encampments. They must break out into the darkness or be massacred at first light.

I pass the orders to my tank commaders and watch them disperse into the black night back to their own tanks. Climb into the turret, adjust my head-phones….These last few minutes are nerve-wracking, through my mind pass all the disasters that might occur. With a roar Kinnaird’s tank starts and all the rest immediately follow. For a few hundred yards progress unimpeded, then from the ground ahead we see shadowy shapes of men leaping out of the way. Here and there one or more Germans open fire with rifles and pistols. To my front I see the figure of a man outlined then we are over him and the roar of the engine muffles his piercing screams as he’s swept under the tracks. Suddenly we are through and into empty desert…In the darkness and shroud of dust it’s impossible to see more than a few yards…more by luck than judgment I sense that the leading vehicles are swinging to the right and gradually conform. The first hectic rush to escape now checks and we move at a more even, slower speed. As pale streaks of dawn appear in the sky Kinnaird orders, “Halt…stay put until full light and we’ll sort ourselves out. That was good…”.(67)

          While 8th RTR gets briefly out of harm’s way, the Tobruk garrison, now a coiled spring, uses the midnight through early morning hours of 21 November to prepare its break-out. The forces involved are formidable: a fresh British 70th Infantry Division which, brought in at night during the preceeding weeks by destroyers and other small ships running a gauntlet of Italian torpedo-planes and German dive-bombers along the coastline between Alexandria and Tobruk, has by now replaced most of the battle-weary Australian 9th Division; 32nd Armored Brigade – 1st, 4th, and 7th Royal Tank Regiments with about 100 light and medium tanks; plus a Polish-Czech Infantry Brigade and one unevacuated Australian battalion. Communications intelligence and patrol activity indicate only weak opposition along the southeasterly breakout line, though Rommel has actually stiffened this sector – coincidentally, his own planned break-in point – with German infantry and anti-tank units. The Empire attack will begin with a massive pre-dawn artillery barrage, as 70th Division gunners prepare to pump thousands of high-explosive rounds into the Axis positions. Sgt. Henry Ritchie commands a 4-man guncrew in a 4-gun cluster of heavy rifles throwing 25-pound shells, one of dozens such batteries waiting to cut loose:

By 2 AM all is ready, guns laid on the zero line….A cold night with a chill breeze coming off the sea. A few distant, red flares sizzle and fall in the no-mans land in front of us. We speak in low voices, seeking news of 8th Army’s progress…those who can, snatch a few hours sleep. Infantry are already in their foxholes on the start line and tanks have pulled in around our guns. They won’t move forward until our barrage is in full drive and the thunder of the guns will drown the noise of their engines and treads….Kevin, best gun-layer in A Troop, checks and re-checks his dial sight and aiming post angles. Francis lays out our tin hats on the edge of the gunpit…Ross and Jock are pulling heavy tarps and camoflage netting off the boxes of ammunition and powder charges. “Well”, I hear myself say, “We’ve been waiting seven months for this.”

Zero hour…0530. Lt. Hester-Hewitt, our battery commander, begins the countdown.

“Zero less 15 minutes…”

“…10 minutes…”

I pull out my torch, check the second hand of my watch…still dark, the morning raw and chilly. The first shell is loaded, charge rammed home, breech slammed shut.

“Zero less 5 minutes…”

Just time to re-read parts of the fire program. “Rapid”, four rounds per minute; “Normal”, two per minute; “Slow”, one per minute. 300 rounds to be fired in the first part of the barrage, programmed at 135 minutes. Now we thrust flimsy cotton wool plugs in our ears, small protection against the crushing blast of a 25-pounder…

“…60 seconds…”

I pick up the ramrod and tuck it under my left arm, every nerve strained. Kevin’s hand moves toward the firing lever.

“5 seconds.”



Sudden, percussive blast as all four troop guns erupt as one and other batteries open up all around us. Jock whips open the breech and the empty charge case flies out followed by a white sheet of flame. Francis rams another shell into the breech and another charge. Kevin makes a fine adjustment to the angle of sight, reports “ready”. I make a quick check of the settings…FIRE! And another shell hurtles toward the enemy front line. We have just 15 seconds…range, 4,500 yards. Add 50. Kevin makes the correction to elevation…FIRE! As another package of death shrieks away into the darkness…another…another and another…

“Zero plus 30 minutes.” We’re so committed to the program we don’t notice the passage of time. Rate of fire now scaled down to two rounds per minute. The gun barrel hot as a stove. I spit on it and it hisses like an angry snake. Enemy artillery all the while sending salvo after salvo at our old gun positions, coursing through the air like wild things then cracking and exploding far behind us….Suddenly a brilliant flash of flame on the horizon followed by massive explosion and sheets of flame shooting skyward in the half light, as we hit an ammunition or petrol dump. The troop now firing at slow rate, one round per minute…clouds of smoke and dust surround us and a dry reek of cordite and explosives fills the air. Holgate and Gibson, two of the battery cooks, stagger up to the command post carrying between them a lidless dixie of hot tea. One man at a time from each gun walks over and dips a mug into the steaming brew.

While sipping ours, Jock lifts his head and says, “Can you hear the pipes?” No doubt about it. Slithers of purple in the empty sky and we see the first streaks of dawn which, for many soldiers in Tobruk, will be their last….In the smoke-filled cauldron ahead, Scottish bagpipers are playing their battalion into the attack.(68)

          The breakout assault meets with initial success. More than 1,000 stunned, surprised Germans and Italians are taken prisoner, many others killed, and several strong points quickly seized. But the British tanks are slowed then stopped by minefields and ferocious anti-tank gunfire, while Axis machine-gunners lay out a carpet of bullets that cuts down hundreds of the attacking infantry. A Rhodesian member of a 600-man battalion with a great history senses that the Germans

hold fire until we pass the wire. Then his machine guns let go. Such of us who survive at once fall flat to take advantage of whatever cover we can; but our officer, though wounded, crawls to where we are lying and gets to his feet. “Isn’t this the Black Watch?”, he cries…”Then – …” he waves us on with his baton and is instantly killed. We rise and take Point Tiger with the bayonet….That evening at battalion roll-call 8 officers and 196 men are able to answer.(69)

          Rommel himself scrapes together headquarters personnel, signalers, a few 88-mm. guns, then leads the defense at a key position and knocks out a half-dozen British tanks.(70) Elsewhere along the line of battle other Axis strongpoints are overrun, but Italo-German anti-tank gunfire destroys an additional 34 Empire tanks and 15 armored cars so that, by mid-afternoon, the Tobruk breakout is contained within a two-mile by four-mile bulge. Still about 7 miles short of the ridgeline at El Duda where the junction with elements of 7th Armored Brigade, striking northward from Sidi Rezegh, is supposed to occur. This attack too begins at daybreak on the 21st, but Brigadier Davy, like Rommel, now has to divide his force and fight in two directions: with covering artillery fire from his forty-two 25-pounders, three rifle companies and 6th Royal Tank Regiment will assault the northern ridgelines…each bristling with dug-in Italian IXth Regiment Bersagliari, 164th Division German infantry, and well-sited A-T guns. His remaining tank regiments – 2nd RTR and 7th Hussars – will face eastward and, covered by a thin screen of South African armored cars, try to hold off the massed armor of 15th and 21st Panzer, a mailed fist he now knows to be coming in fast.

Morning…21 November. As the outlines of 7th hussar tanks begin to show against the dawn, the squadrons open out as usual and begin to cook breakfast. At first light, 11th Hussars armored cars report a large enemy column, 150 tanks and transport, moving southwest toward 22nd Armored Brigade…but, on making contact, turning northwestward. From my viewpoint, the problem is clear-cut. The sortie from Tobruk has already begun. Accordingly, I place Brigadier Campbell in command of all troops allotted to the northward thrust and order him to attack as planned. 2nd RTR in reserve to meet the new threat, but alone they won’t be enough. So 7th Hussars and F Battery RHA are withdrawn from the attacking force…(71)

          Near the airfield, rifleman Crimp hears the

25-pounders putting down an early barrage. At 8 AM three companies of our infantry move off across the valley northwestwards with a dozen Bren-gun carriers. Strung out in open order they look pathetically exposed on the wide, flat expanse. I don’t envy these men, trudging off into the distance and over the first ridge….Shortly afterwards a burst of machine-gun fire, like a peremptory challenge. Then another burst – sustained, staccato, remorseless – brens in stuttering reply, crackling rifle-fire, and morter bombs crash in rapid succession like train doors slamming. Our guns in the valley now firing as fast as their crews can load, the air rent by the continuous blast and up above the arching flights of shells make a wild, whistling chorus. After ten minutes they slack off, and sounds of strife over the ridge also peter out….An hour later two carriers back with casualties. They stop near us and ask the whereabouts of an aid station. When we ask how the battle went, a sergeant says it was tough. Mentions a pal, then adds bitterly, “made sure of the sod that did him. Filled his guts with this Bren, close range….(72)

          One ridgeline falls to the British infantry attack: among other death-defying acts, Pvt. John Beeley charges an anti-tank gun position while firing an automatic rifle from the hip and takes out the crew,  before he too is killed.(73). But when 6th RTR attempt to exploit northward, it is pulverized by concealed A/T guns behind the next ridge and loses 28 tanks, more than half its strength, and the advance grinds to a halt. Just about this time and five or six miles to the south, 5th South African Brigade rescues 22nd Armored Brigade’s supply column,  then hits the southern flank of the oncoming German armored units and, westward, duels Ariete’s tanks as well.

1000 hours…column halts on Brigadier’s order. A group of vehicles, traveling fast, appears from the northeast. Vehicles halt just after crossing our front and prove to be B echelon of one of our armored brigades. Rather incoherantly inform us that they are being chased by enemy tanks. C/O issues orders for men to take up defensive positions and goes forward with Major Berry to the cistern Hagfet el Gerbia….about 2,500 yards away, 20 tanks appear on the skyline. Tanks without pennants and stop on our front, facing west. Our guns immediately get forward, dig-in and fire on these German tanks which wheel and make off to the northwest.

1020 hours…armored cars report approach of 12 Italian tanks from west, dispersing over a wide front with hostile intent. We engage with artillery and A-T guns, enemy retaliates with intense machine-gun and anti-tank gunfire, scoring direct hits on two guns of F Troop, 9th Field battery, killing 4 men. Our guns knock out 7 tanks, two of these burning, and the remainder withdraw westward.(74)

          Col. George Clifton, XXX Corps Chief Engineer, also roves the local battlefield between El Gobi and Sidi Rezegh during the eventful morning hours of 21 November. Officially, he’s checking out water sources; actually, getting in on the action. He 

cautiously…tops the next ridge. Along the northern skyline stands a mass of dark-grey transport. Instinct warns me…my binoculars confirm..that the hundreds of men lounging there are German; so are the guns, field and anti-tank, disposed around them. Excited by my first glimpse of the Afrika Korps in bulk, I drive along the ridge toward three South African armored cars obviously in observation – Captian de Marillac’s recon party – and so come in sight of an even bigger lorried formation stretching south and west for miles: 5th S.A. Brigade moving up to Sidi Rezegh. By the unusual chances of desert warfare, here are two formidable mobile forces, halted, separated by four miles of open going – yet the Germans haven’t the faintest inkling….I find the nearest S.A. gunner, Major Berry, take him up on the ridge and point out this most marvelous target. “Good Lord!, he exclaims. “What a break! If only I can get Regiment on to them in time.” He dashes off…and nothing happens. His commander has orders from brigade not to fire on anything over one thousand yards. That’s that….While we watch, five of our fighters swoop over and circle the massed German vehicles. Instantly a terrific burst of tracer streaks up like a hailstorm in reverse, as every heavy automatic weapon opens up….One of the Tomahawks bursts into flames then blows apart, fragments raining down, and the others depart promptly. Incredible fire discipline, most effective show of this kind I’ve ever seen.(75)

          Here, with the lead Panzers already closing on Sidi Rezegh, Clifton sees the mid-section of the dire beast in action: Afrika Korps motorized infantry and flak units taking an – efficiently lethal – break before moving up. Ten miles to the southeast, meanwhile,  with 22nd Armored Brigade still awaiting re-supply, 4th A.B. moves out of leaguer and begins a nasty, harassing, running fight with the spiked tail – rearguards of 15th and 21st Panzer as they too drive west toward Sidi Rezeg, both German divisions periodically shedding then recovering a deadly screen of towed 50 and 88-mm. anti-tank guns. Crisp of 3rd RTR is

hungry, dirty, unenthusiastic. I munch miserably at a hard biscuit plastered with marmalade passed up from inside the turret….light steals across the desert from the east and, as it drifts ahead suddenly illuminates a dense column of enemy transport moving northwest at a good pace across our front. Spotting us simultaneously, the column suddenly wheels sharply west and makes off….A brisk battle devlops over on the extreme right, and my C Squadron moves over to reinforce others under pressure.

          Too right. No matter how courageous the crews, the relatively thin-skinned Empire and American-built tanks are no better a match for the high-velocity shellfire of the German anti-tank guns than they are for the guns of the German main battle tanks. Peter Williams, second-in-command of B Squadron, is among many to pay the price. He is

standing in the turret when a shell goes in one side and out the other, taking away most of his abdomen and hip, but he doesn’t die right away. Somehow they get him out and he lies on the ground screaming, “Finish me off…for God’s sake finish me off,” but his crew can’t bring themselves to do it. A sergeant-major, real tough nut, eventually draws his pistol and puts Williams out of his agony.(76)

          For the next several hours Gatehouse’s tanks

constantly skirmish with enemy forces which seem to occupy all the desert to the north. I have several duels with enemy tanks, knock out two, and learn which of their AFVs I can take on and beat with a Stuart – Italian tanks, German Mark IIs and armored cars – and which – German Mk IIIs and IVs – have to be dealt with by subterfuge and grace of God.(77)

          An 8th Hussar officer counts the remaining tanks of his regiment – 25 out of an original 52 – as his commander

gives further orders: “Enemy moving off northwest…give chase and do all the damage you can.”  All along the battle line I see spurts of white smoke from exhausts as each tank revs up and begins to move forward. In the haze it’s…impossible to estimate the range. As we advance Kinnaird warns, “Keep an eye skinned for anti-tank guns…they’ll be waiting.” And so it happens. To my front I glimpse a flash and see the tank immediately ahead jerk to a sudden standstill. Another flash from the sand and scrub, maybe 800 yards away, and what’s left of the crew bales out and huddles at the rear of their tank.(78)

He rescues these men, turns, then his tank among others is shattered by a direct hit. 8th Hussars breaks off its pursuit, giving some of the surviving crews a little time to look skyward and watch the air battles whirling overhead. While the aerial fighting on 21 November is perhaps a little less intense than on the 20th, men continue to die aplenty. Beaufighters of 271 Squadron again harrow the Italo-German fields at Tmimi and Martuba, destroying a half-dozen Stukas and other aircraft on the ground, while #229 Squadron sends up a 12-plane fighter sweep; only one Axis aircraft encountered, which gets away, while one of their own is blown out of the sky by ground fire…probably the episode witnessed by Major Clifton. Empire #33 Squadron claims eight kills, but 80 Squadron loses its c/o, shot down while escorting a group of bombers. Over Fort Capuzzo, German fighters jump  a six-plane squadron of Wellingtons equipped for radio-jamming, and destroy two.(79)  Ex-Spitfire pilot Neville Duke, veteran of the early 1941 air battles over western Europe and now flying an American-supplied P-40 with Empire 112 Squadron out of LG-122, finds himself on patrol near El Adem when he

meets up with some Italian fighters, CR-42s, very maneuverable biplanes, and I share one of them with two other pilots but it’s not a very satisfactory fight….The Italian does a couple of turns, goes down to land, bolts away from the Fiat like a scared rabbit. The other two Tomahawks begin chasing and shooting him up, but I have no stomach for this sort of thing and concentrate on setting fire to his machine. While making my run-in to pepper the Fiat I fly low over him as he runs, terrified, stumbling along in his flying kit. After I flame it I turn and look for him…dead now, spread-eagled on the ground.(80)

Noon, and the situation up near the airfield is now

          quiet. A column of men appears from over the ridge….They march in good order, and after a while resolve into German prisoners. Escort a section of Bren-carriers who halt near our position and hand them over. About 150 men and looking pretty disheveled…they behave themselves and seem preoccupied. We keep them covered and begin the business of checking and searching them. The Germans seem to know the drill and discard stuff wholesale, so that very soon a large pile of letters, photos, diaries, pay-books, wallets and etc. lies on the ground. Then, with their officers segregated into a small, aloof group, they sit or lie, silent or talking quietly together…

          2 PM: another column of prisoners, this time Italians. They too look dusty and disheveled, but are in quite good spirits….The Germans show little interest in the arrival of their allies. Immediately search this new lot, and out of the discarded gear reserve a penknife for myself….Scarcely have these been checked when shells begin bursting sporadically all over the valley, missles of various calibers winging over and falling at random, some exploding, some not. Pedlar says these are stray solids, there must be a tank battle going on. Whatever, it’s very awkward keeping a careful watch on the prisoners and maintaining a suitable sang-froid. The Italians lie flat on their stomachs, but the Germans appear unperturbed. One of the 25-pounder batteries in the valley suddenly veers front 90 degrees, and now faces east….(81)

Toward the approaching vanguard of 21st Panzer Division. Simultaneously and twenty-five miles farther east,  the battle widens as 21st Battalion/5th New Zealand Brigade finds itself tasked with a “diversionary” attack on Bir Ghirba, just north of Libyan Omar, aimed at smoothing the way for the morrow’s assaults on both Omars by 4th Indian Division. Unknown to the New Zealanders, Bir Ghirba happens to be the headquarters block of Savona Division; Bersaglieri aside,  best of Rommel’s Italian infantry units, and defending another wired-in hedgehog of automatic weapons, concrete pillboxes, mortars, artillery, and anti-tank guns. Frank Austin, a gunner with 47th Battery, 5th Field Regiment, is

sharply reminded of our lack of slit trenches by the sight and sound of a 105-mm. shellburst some 500 yards away….the Boss and I move off as a second shell on line with the first drops less than 100 yards off. A third shell over my head has me bracketed and I dive for the ground and make myself small…call out to an infantry slittie which I could now see, for room, but they advise me to stay where I am. A fourth round comes close – 8 yards – and I prop myself up just in time to get thumped on the chest by a 105-mm. nose cap….About noon the Colonel’s station wagon cruises up and he advises us that 21st Battalion is about to mount an attack on Bir Ghirba and that 47th Bty should drive up behind him to establish an O. Pip and provide gun support….(82)

 #15 platoon of “C” Company attempts a close reconnaissance using Bren-gun carriers, but is halted by a “shower of mortar bombs and artillery shells”. Forty men leave the carriers and attempt to advance, but they are quickly pinned down and picked off  one-by-one as a heavy, freezing rain squall begins. By 11 AM, 20 of these soldiers are lying dead or wounded in sodden misery. Captain Yeoman’s “B” Co. attacks next, gets to within 300 yards of the wire, then finds itself similarly pinned down and bloodied. Yeoman crawls forward amidst the sleeting gunfire and discovers more trouble, a minefield. When he attempts to call battalion HQ and request artillery support, the radio fails; he asks for volunteers to run a message through and  six ordinary heroes agree to try: two killed outright and three wounded.  One man, Cpl. Norman Olde, gets through and returns with orders to “hang on until dark” when engineers will attempt to clear the minefield. “A” Company is committed next, among them Cpl. John Avery, who

          moves forward under artillery fire and as the distance shortens we come under mortar fire. Our own artillery not giving close support but firing at targets well back, possibly engaged in counter-battery work. Trucks come to a halt…enemy now using anti-tank guns and before long all except the C/O’s are burning or destroyed. I count ten vehicles knocked out. Two anti-tank shells pass through the truck I’m in (and) the troops smartly vacate….intense volume of small-arms fire and we move forward in rapid dashes of 25 yards. Soon see that nothing can be done against enemy’s wire defenses and machine-gun positions…can’t engage effectively, flat sand offers no cover and we can’t get up to dig ourselves in or mount our machine-guns. Just discernable above the ridge are the turrets of two tanks which from time to time change positions and rake us with shellfire. We are suffering numerous casualties…(83)

After awful hours

         …lying in sheets of water whose surface is continually broken by    shrapnel and explosions, falling sand and ripping machine-gun fire…

the frozen, shell-shocked survivors of NZ 21st Battalion are pulled out. Lesson learned, same as by 22nd Armored Brigade two days prior: pre-battle buzz about “cowardly wops unwilling to fight” is just so much eyewash.  Westward and near Sidi Rezegh, meanwhile, the lead element of 21st Panzer Division

          appears over a ridge moving westward, 16 tanks about 800 yards away. The two-pounders under command of Ward Gunn open fire…25-pounders of 60th Field Regiment engaging over open sights. They return fire, knocking out two anti-tank guns, but four of them go up in flames. The remainder halt, dodge about and, finding they can make no headway against our fire, but getting a good look at our positions, withdraw just out of sight.(84)

German dive-bombers and artillery pummel the 7th Support Group positions, then 21st Panzer attacks again, this time in force. Robin Hastings, an officer with the Rifle Brigade, crouches behind a burning truck and watches

          three guns firing away at the enemy, crews undaunted as they are picked off one by one by an enemy giving everything they have: machine-gun fire from tanks and supporting infantry, mortars, shells from Mk IVs and field guns. One 2-pounder destroyed, a 40-mm. Bofors set on fire. All crew of the remaining gun killed or wounded, and the driver begins to pull it out….Ward Gunn of 3rd R.H.A. runs out, stops him, and together they drag the bodies off the portee and get the gun back into action, Bernard Pinney joning in. Can’t gauge the effect, because to look over the edge of a slit trench is suicidal…but at least two nearby enemy tanks are ablaze. In seconds the portee is on fire, the offside front hit, and boxes of ammunition behind the passenger seat in flames. Gunn, who keeps on firing throughout, is hit in the forehead, killed instantly. Pinney pushes his body out of the way and goes on firing…(85)

Other German tanks

          are engaged by anti-tank guns in front of my troop and six tanks knocked out…but only one member of the troop survives. Col. de Robeck appears and finds me lying full length on the ground between my guns. he stands in front of his truck waving a fly whisk – presumably at the bullets which fly thick and fast from the machine-guns of the lead enemy tanks. We pass the time of day from our respective positions and I ask permission to withdraw.(86)

Not granted and no time for it, as gun after gun is destroyed and the crews shot down or run over by advancing tanks, while Support Group personnel are killed or captured by Afrika Korps infantry. 7th Hussar tank squadrons, meanwhile, are fed into the battle and annihilated as fast as they arrive, the German tank and anti-tank guncrews using their bigger weapons and greater range to devastating effect:

          range 2,000 yards and the enemy opens fire with artillery and AT guns not at first recognized as hostile as they ar mixed in with fleeing British trucks and other vehicles. “A” squadron engages vigorously but the odds are too great and it’s quickly overwhelmed. Major Seymour-Evans’ tank hit and he orders Captain R.C. Watson to take command. No reply, as Watson’s tank also hit….Control in “A” Squadron ceases. Regimental HQ heavily engaged at close range, both rear link tanks knocked out, severing wireless contact with Brigade….Brigade Tac HQ, consisting of 4 tanks, now in fact in among the tanks of 7th Hussars and trying in vain to be heard. Captain Napier’s tank hit, steering wrecked and he can only circle toward the advancing enemy; he and his crew dismount and take cover behind the tank, where all but Lt. Evans are killed….Col. Byass now orders “C” Squadron to move across and help “A”,  but as Maj. Congreve relays this order over his radio the microphone is shot out of his hand and his wireless mast carried away….”C” Squadron out of control….(87)

Another 7th Hussar officer sees his unit

          struck by a hail of fire….in “B” Squadron Major Younger’s tank disabled and he himself wounded – in a few moments only two tanks of his squadron left in action. Shortly thereafter a shell hits the turret of the regimental c/o’s tank, killing Col. Byass….Major Fosdick takes command, the regiment by this time reduced to just 12 tanks, several of which also hit. By now they’re cut off from the remainder of Brigade, but fight their way out under the dust raised by all the shelling and black clouds of smoke billowing up from numerous burning tanks….(88)

Recon pilot Morley-Mower of 451 Squadron is right overhead, watching

          random explosions dot the landscape, tanks and trucka set ablaze and pouring out black smoke….Little movement to attract the eye and there is no way to see who is winning or what the pattern of the engagement is. I content myself with pinpointing and identifying British Crusader tanks, German Mk IVs with the long gun, some 88 MM. anti-tank guns and British, German, and Italian trucks. Bridges asked me to look for the New Zealand Division which is though to be advancing toward SidiRezegh….I fly back to Gambut looking for them without success, eventually returning to the battlefield. Watch the gun flashes and smoke for a few more minutes, hoping to find something coherant to report, but it’s an undecipherable mess….When I land back at LG-132 it’s to hear that my squadron mate Smith and another South African were bounced by 109s. Smith the unlucky one, shot down and crashed in flames.(89)

 Along the southern edge of the German drive, covered by 15th Panzer, the afternoon’s fighting is equally destructive. Second RTR, at first unsupported by a fuel-starved 22nd Armored Brigade stuck a few miles to the southeast, launches desperate, slashing attacks. At Afrika Korps HQ Col. Kriebel detects

          a growing threat to the left flank. Soon 15th Infantry Battalion with bulk of  Anti-Tank Battalion 33 have to move south on a broad front to cover it. (2nd RTR) thrust into a gap between 15th Motorcycle Battalion and 15th Infantry only repelled by throwing in 8th Panzer Rgt…A/T guns covered by tanks compel the enemy to turn away, leaving 13 of his tanks in flames. Towards evening the weight of the enemy attack increases….(22nd Armored Brigade) thrusts unexpectedly from southeast into rear of the Division, a break-in that is only checked as it reaches the AK Headquarters.(90)

Elsewhere along the line of battle, and taking a page from the Germans’ own book, a group of South African armored cars lures a dozen panzers away from their protective A/T guns and onto an ambush by stationary, hull-down 2nd RTR tanks; half the German vehicles are destroyed, others damaged. Following these actions, 4th Armored Brigade

          takes up positions for an evening attack in force on another big enemy column that can be seen moving to the north-west. Tired and a little unwilling, we wait for the command…the light fails before it comes. In the gathering darkness we pull back into leaguer and count the rising toll of battle….The sense of adventure is gone, replaced by grimness and fear and a perpetual, mounting wearness of body and spirit.(91)

These  harassing attacks, the heroic resistence by 7th Armored Brigade – 7th Hussars now reduced to just ten runners, 2nd RTR to six, 6th RTR to one – and by Brigadier Campbell’s Support Group near the airfield, plus a gnawing shortage of ammunition and fuel force the Afrika Korps to break off the battle at nightfall, then pull back several miles to the northeast in order to rendezvous with their own supply columns. However, despite determined efforts by the Italian Navy and merchant marine – during the days after the 8/9 November convoy disaster and the onset of Crusader, several submarines and individual transports run the Mediterranean gauntlet and deliver cargoes to Tripoli or Benghazi – Axis stocks of fuel and ammunition are verging on critical; in fact, due to frequent Empire air attacks on the harbors and along the coastal road – many of these one-way trips for the crews involved – much of the delivered tonnage doesn’t even make it up to the battle zone. Now, the Italian naval planners in Rome will split the difference and dispatch 8 transport vessels divided into 4 separate but simultaneous convoys, in the hope that at least some of the ships will get through. Captain Marc’Antonio Bragadin, an intelligence officer at Supermarina, lays out the plan and later monitors incoming signals:

          with seven escort vessels and five cruisers for cover, the two more important convoys leave from Naples heading for Tripoli. One of the cruisers, the Gorizia, takes part despite the fact that a few hours previously, during a British air raid on the port, it was holed by bomb fragments and suffered casualties in dead and wounded….The other two convoys, bound for Benghazi, leave from Navrino and Taranto with total escort of only three destroyers…there are simply no more available. As part of this operation, on the evening of the 21st, the cruiser Cadorna leaves Brindisi unescorted, bound for Benghazi and carrying a cargo of gasoline…grave risk…with her decks covered by drums of fuel, use of guns is restricted and she is doomed to destruction if hit by even the smallest enemy shell.(92)

Though Cadorna and and 3 of the 4 Benghazi-bound ships break through with vital supplies, the Tripoli convoys are first ULTRA’d, then detected and shadowed by a Malta-based submarine, Cdr. Cayley’s HMS Utmost, and finally homed in on and lit up by radar-equipped, flare-dropping aircraft. One such piloted by Lt. William Garthwaite, also out of Malta:

          Laying a stick of flares at the right place, angle, distance, and time is by far the most difficult job we have to do….The flares open and float down far behind my plane, and considerable anticipation, tight maneuvering, and liason between the radar operator, pilot, and flare dropper has to be employed…the enemy often opens fire on these drifting flares, achieving nothing but revealing their position to the ships or planes bearing down on them from the dark of night.(93)

On this night of 21/22 November, a first wave of Malta-based Royal Navy torpedo-planes from #828 and 830 Squadrons. At Supermarina, during the late evening and wee small hours, Bragadin continues to monitor events:

2130 – ships scarcely out of the Straits of Messina, already under violent air attack…opposed by smokescreens and concentrated AA fire.

2312 – cruiser Trieste hit by aerial torpedo…dead in the water.

2400 – flare planes, bombers, torpedo-planes combining in a hellish shuttle between our convoy and Malta…attack after attack…

0038 – cruiser Duca degli Abruzzi hit by aerial torpedo, stern practically blown off.

0100 – suspend the operation….Convoy ordered to make for Taranto. Another definite demonstration that the convoy battles cannot be won unless Malta’s air strength is beaten down.(94)

In Rome, 700 miles north and at the pinnicle of the Italian regime, Foreign Minister Ciano opens his diary and pens a post-mortem to these and preceeding events:

          English attack in Libya. At some points resistence effective, at others the offensive penetration rapid and deep. Cavallero optimistic and considers the situation “normal”. This is Mussolini’s attitude as well. I am especially fearful about the lack of supplies and the weakness of our air force which, during the initial attack, suffered serious losses…The convoy which was to cross last night directly to Tripoli by following the route east of Malta didn’t make it…the task of moving supplies is most difficult and keeps us in anguish.(95)

Thanks to heroic efforts by the crews and skillful damage control, both cruisers stagger back to port, but will be out of the war for months. The attackers losses…light, provided you are not Lieutenants O’Brien and Griffith of 830 Squadron, both men killed when their torpedo-plane is shot into the sea during the battle. Supply aside, the Afrika Korps has other, continuing problems, this noted by Major von Mellenthin at Panzergruppe HQ:

          …ominous reports coming in from the frontier….The New Zealand Division is on the march, thrusting behind our fortresses and crossing the Trigh Capuzzo on both sides of Sidi Aziz. This brings them dangerously close to our headquarters at Gambut, so Rommel orders us to move to El Adem during the night.(96) 

While Rommel relocates, the same storm that drenched NZ 21st Battalion’s failed assault on the Savona block expands westward and arrives near Sidi Rezegh at

          2200 hours…raining heavily. The trucks, out collecting casualties, haven’t returned yet, and our bedding and overcoats are with them. Pretty cheerless. The prisoners are better off….the wadi is full of the noise of rustling waterproof capes, low conversation, coughing, shifting limbs, spasmodic rain patter. The desert blackness all around broken only by distant specks of fire, waxing and waning….

Some of which may be the burning vehicles of 4th Armored Brigade’s headquarters company, run over and scattered around midnight by by one of the Panzer divisions’ withdrawing tank columns.

          2400 hours…sound of vehicles approaching, whining in low gear, then shouts. I’m on guard with Bob Harris, so we go down to the Wadi entrance to challenge. Proves to be a couple of our trucks, which have been milling about for hours in the darkness, trying to locate us. Each full of enemy wounded. The drivers want the aid station, but they’ll have to wait until morning. Much groaning from the men on board, some calling desperately for “acqua”….Harris has a torch and probes aboard where the wounded are piled one atop another. The beam rests for awhile on a young German, big fellow with fair hair, broad pale face, purple-blue eyes and a feline expression. His left sleeve from wrist to shoulder is saturated with blood, but he stares moodily, saying nothing…(97)

Midnight darkness and rain notwithstanding, the New Zealanders are indeed on the move…

          for seventeen hours continuously, in the latter stages a very hard march. Near Sidi Aziz, about midnight, we run slap against a deep trench that has no right to be there. A crossing place found, but in the rain and darkness there’s a desperate struggle to get over. Somehow it’s done, and the drivers sort themselves out again….At 5 Am on the 22nd, before first light, we are within a half-mile of the escarpment at Bir ez Zemla, a mile west of Menastir. 4th Brigade halts and shakes out into attack formation. I send Michell’s company forward, down the escarpment on foot, and get them established across the Tobruk-Bardia road…(98)

…and, for the most part, draw the long straw. A unit of 5th Brigade surprises and captures intact a small Italo-German force at Sidi Aziz, taking 55 prisoners, cuts the telephone linkage between Rommel’s HQ and the other Axis frontier garrisons, then blows up their inland water pipeline as well. Along the coast, 4th NZ Brigade artillery

          cuts the water pipeline running from Bardia to Sollum and Hellfire Pass, then supports the infantry as they establish a roadblock below the escarpment, stopping German supply columns into Bardia.(99)

Thanks to the night approach-march, total suprise achieved. For Col. Kippenberger, a

          pleasing sight. On the road below, half a mile away, several trucks are stopped, one blazing, and grenades burst around another which also breaks into flames. Numerous German trucks dug into pens scattered between the road and the escarpment, and hundreds of enemy soldiers stand about in groups, staring at the blazing trucks….to the east, on the edge of a cliff, more tents, transport, men bustling about in an agitated manner….I order Agar to debus with “C” Co. and attack across the flats, Manchester to take “D” by truck right up to the camp and go in with the bayonet. Our Bren-gun carriers slide down the track and sweep between road and sea, three miles away. It all goes like wedding bells. The enemy are too shocked to offer much resistence. In an hours time we have 200 prisoners, some armored cars, and 30 trucks. I look around for more to do….By dark another 230 prisoners in hand with only 3 or 4 more casualties. During the action, the remainder of 4th Brigade plus 6th Brigade move westwards on Gambut…(100)

 Short straw goes to 4th Indian Division, which runs into determined resistence at Hellfire Pass and the Omars, Axis-fortified areas on both sides of the Wire. Around noon on the 22nd, after a Desert Air Force bombing raid, 7th Indian Brigade plus 42nd Royal Tank Regiment/1st Armored Division attempt to take Egyptian Omar, aka Omar Nuovo, and Libyan Omar by storm. Lt.-Col. Desmond Young, Brit liason officer, hears

          the rumble and crash as artillery and bombers lay it on. Make our approach march unhindered and near Omar Nuovo the attack forms up. Bren-gun carriers of the Royal Sussex Battalion lead, followed by tanks with pennants flying….Immediately behind the tanks come the leading infantry companies in trucks. Behind them, brigade HQ. Then the remaining companies and behind them more carriers, tanks, and trucks for the 4/16th Punjab Battalion attack on Libyan Omar, until as far as the eye can see the desert is filled with machines and men speeding to the attack. I remark, “Trafalgar must have been like this”, when a whiz and a crash show the enemy ranging in on us. On the horizon, upright black streaks mark the telescopic ladders of Italian artillery observers and we have no hope of concealing ourselves on this plain that’s as flat as a billiard table….”Here’s where we get a basinful,” says a veteran photographer, reaching for his tin hat and camera.(101)

The assault begins badly, as many vehicles get hung up on an unsuspected minefield and a small but well-served battery of German 88mm. guns, protected by hard-fighting Italian infantry, hit and destroy tank after tank, often killing the crews as well:

          ….a narrow belt of mines hidden in the sand, and the first wave of tanks runs slap into it. It takes more than a mine to knock out a Matilda, but tracks are blown off, drive sprockets damaged, and nearly all the leading tanks are brought to a sudden halt in full view of the enemy….Worse, behind the minefield and carefully sited on rising ground with a good field of fire, is a troop of the dreaded 88’s. First shot goes clean through Lt. Hembrow’s tank, setting it on fire and killing the entire crew; and they follow up by engaging all the crippled tanks lying in the minefield.(102) 

 Geoffrey Evans, c/o the Royal Sussex Battalion, sees

          many of our tanks immobilized by the mines and this means the infantry companies are not getting the support they need….Beyond the stranded tanks comes the flash and smoke of exploding grenades, the noise of automatic weapons and the sharp crack of artillery fire. Best thing I can do is get forward, sitting on the running board of a truck…a shell explodes on the bonnet, lucky it doesn’t burst into flames….On our side of the minefield two tanks left. They’re heaving and rumbling, still intact. I beat on the outside of one with my stick, but this produces no reply…go round the front and tell the driver to get the tank commander to open up. Directly ahead are the tracks of a tank which seems to have gotten through the minefield. I tell the driver, “Follow those tracks!”

 Evans and his abbreviated squadron get past the mines and soon encounter the remains of a 150-man infantry company…

          …about 30 soldiers lying on the ground. “What are you doing here?”, I shout. “Why don’t you go on?”

          “We’re held up, sir” – it’s Lt. Stratton, of D Co.

          “Where from?”

          “Straight ahead…”.

          I look and there, about 100 yards away is a series of trenches flush with the ground and well-camoflaged….At this moment Willy Newall jumps down from one of the tanks and waves his cap in the direction of the enemy, shouting, “Come on, Royal Sussex!”

          Stratton and his men are up in a flash. With my tank taking out any of the enemy incautious enough to put their heads above ground, we all move forward….Stratton’s men dive into the trenches with fixed bayonets. In 15 minutes they clear three strongpoints, taking more than 150 prisoners…(103)

Evans moves on across the battlefield, rallying reduced companies whose officers are dead. By nightfall on the 22nd he reports the seizure of Egyptian Omar complete, with his own battalion taking 50% casualties. Libyan Omar, meanwhile, is being defended with greater gusto, and an even more brutal and extended killing match ensues. Again, a combination of mines, Italian infantry, and German-crewed anti-tank guns inflict heavy losses on the attackers. At last light scores of 42nd/44th RTR tanks and Bren-gun carriers are flaming wrecks and more than 80% of the Punjab Battalion lie in the sand, dead, dieing, wounded, and this with only the southeastern one-third of the position in Empire hands. While the struggle for the Omars intensifies, the early hours of 22 November find the attenuated main armored units of both sides still in leaguer at or near Sidi Rezegh, variously refueling, recovering and repairing damaged vehicles, replenishing supplies of food, water, and ammunition. 22nd Armored Brigade, what’s left of it, moves first and gets up to the airfield by noon where its 30 remaining Crusaders join forces with the remnant of 7th Armored; which, thanks to skillfil overnight work by the three regiments’ mechanics, has 46 runners. Meanwhile, via a stealthy, hooking movement, 21st Panzer moves north and west of Belhamed ridge then turns south, taking up a pre-attack position facing east while 15th Panzer, as on the previous day, prepares to close in again from the east. Rommel and Cruewell intend to crush 7th Armored Division between hammer and anvil:     


And from the south, Armstrong’s 5th South African Brigade continues a remarkably slow, northward crawl toward the airfield. 30 Corps engineer George Clifton is still roaming about the area when

          who should we meet but Brigadier Kisch and his mechanical wizard, Major Wadeson. They admit to swanning about my bit of desert on the feeble excuse of getting pumps into Tobruk….We join forces, salve our engineer consciences by inspecting a brace of birs – all brimming with rainwater – then keep 5th South Africans in view as they advance toward Sidi Rezegh. Happy in our work, we move on north toward the rim of the escarpment where it drops away toward the ill-fated landing ground…. Slightly left, a wadi cuts through the ridge and, framed in the V, through the dust haze, we get a glimpse of the blue Mediterranean bordered by the promised land – battered Tobruk, still besieged.

          About 500 yards short of the rim we stop, quite by chance, to inspect several derelict vehicles through our field-glasses. Some khaki-clad figures standing in the low scub catch my eye. “Must be our infantry,” I call over to Kisch….A staccato rattle of machine-pistols and bullets screaming past proves their identity. The Chief and Waddy, engine still going, swing around and run for it…bumping back to the South Africans with two tires shot out, a burst through the rear window, and a holed petrol tank – but all three lucky occupants without a scratch. Caught with a dead engine, Connell, Baker, and I crash dive from the car…as a second burst of gunfire hits it, one bullet tearing through the front of my pants while I’m in mid-air. Hit the ground and roll sideways a good ten yards clear of the car….We start to belly-crawl back, and doing it through camel thorn is really the hard way. After 200 yards of painful progress, the most perfect armored car in the world, manned by a crew of Springbok angels, comes rolling up. Connell and I scramble in, slam the doors, and drive full speed to safety.

          Our rescuers belong to the Recon Squadron of 5th S.A. Brigade….When the Springbok guns go into action, seriously embarassing the Germans, the latter retaliate with both shell and dive-bombers, and the area is anything but peaceful….leaving me still hoping to gather up my precious car, now very much in no-man’s-land. Then 3rd Transvaal Scottish Battalion attacks past it against the wadi full of Spandaus, mortars, and anti-tank guns. They advance in widely extended lines of riflemen followed by man-handled mortars and other weapons. Magnificent, but not war. German machine-guns take a quick and heavy toll – about 150 casualties in ten minutes including a gallant commander, Major Kirby, killed. Watching the advance through glasses, I see two Scots slip into my car and gather an abandoned tommy-gun off the roof. “Thank God, they’ve missed the beer!”, observe I. “Beer? In that car?” exclaim other onlookers. “Let’s go…!”(104) 

Clifton trades brew for a quick fix up, then gets out of harm’s way. Just in time. 10 AM,  and Rifleman Crimp at 7th Armored Brigade Support Group HQ hears       

           heavy thumping and buffeting out beyond the northwest ridge. Shells whiz over and crash disconcertingly near. Everyone keeps his head low. The wadi doesn’t offer much cover, and the Italian prisoners soon begin feverishly scooping out trenches with their fingernails….The Germans lie still, seemingly impervious.(105)

Just to the north and over this ridge, 22nd Armored Brigade tankers briefly converse with

          some gunners who say they’ve already fired to the north, west, and east this morning and fully expect to be engaged from the south before long. While we’re waiting occasional shells fall amongst us, and at one o’clock 70 German tanks appear on the other side of the aerodrome. Brigade told to move forward to a ridge and prevent the enemy from getting onto it. They’re about 2,000 yards away, out of range of our guns, and we are subjected to a heavy shelling, both high explosive and armor piercing, while on the ‘drome to our right derelict planes are bursting into flames and their ammunition exploding. Now asked to move around between the two ridges and outflank the enemy, but we’re only halfway when hidden machine- and anti-tank guns open a furious fire and force us back. Major Trevor’s tank knocked out….Captain Ling’s hit several times, visibility very bad…”(106) 

While 21st Panzer and 7th/22nd Armored Brigades begin a climactic struggle for Sidi Rezegh, the components of 4th Armored – scattered in leaguers about 10 miles to the east and southeast – are getting off to a slow start. The men of 8th Hussars

          wake up to the certain knowledge that there will be fierce and desperate battles all day. Without my bedding, with a new crew not yet used to my ways, almost smothered by the fug under the tarp which we used to keep off the night’s rain, I cannot be less ready for action. My beard is at the most uncomfortable stage of its growth, my clothes damp and foul-smelling, my face and hands co0ld and numb. I leave the radio-man to complete the net and walk over to Kinnaird’s tank…such a picture of misery that K., despite his many anxieties, grins and says, “Cheer up….You’re still alive.”(107)

The Hussars deploy, but don’t move up. Brigadier Gatehouse, uncertain and worried about the activities of 15th Panzer, decides to hold them in reserve with his HQ, while committing 3rd Royal Tank Regiment and later 5th RTR to the battle at the airfield. Various “false alarms and wild-goose chases” occupy 3rd RTR’s morning hours, a “time full of puposeless movement”. Then, at 1:30

          orders are given for the whole regiment to move on a nearing of 283 degrees, C Squadron leading. That means me…My own troop of two tanks are soon ahead of the rest and I’m beginning to think this is another mare’s nest when ahead I see columns of black smoke rising on the horizon. Look back behind me and I see the moving dots of other tanks….Via wireless I contact the C/O, who sounds faint and distant and says only, “Friends being heavily attacked. They need help. Move fast.” I look over at Tom, who heard the conversation…he makes a dispairing gesture.

Crisp senses that the battle

          now approaches a dreadful and fateful climax. I alter course slightly north, my tank now pointing straight at the tall columns of doom. Out toward the west some lonely-looking vehicles perch on the rim of the horizon and soon, as we speed on, I pick out long lines and clusters of transport scatterd all over the desert to my left. Nothing to prepare for the astonishing sight that greets me as, quite suddenly, I come onto the edge of a long escarpment which dips down under the very tracks of my tank. Straight ahead and below in the middle distance lies the square, clean pattern of a desert airfield, boundaries marked by neat lines of wrecked German and Italian planes, its center littered with shattered tanks, from some of which smoke is rising into the sky. Between my tanks and the landing ground, the slope and bottom of the escarpment crawls with the dark figures of men digging slit trenches, putting down mines, clustering around anti-tank and field guns…every now and again I see the flash of gunfire.(108)  

        (to be continued)


Insightful narratives on Crusader include, in the British Official History Series,  I.S.O. Playfair, The Mediterranean and Middle East, Vol. III (orig. 1960; repr., Uckfield, 2004), pp. 33-118; in the South African Official History Series, J.A. Agar-Hamilton and L.C. Turner, The Sidi Rezeg Battles (Cape Town, 1957); in the New Zealand Official History Series, W.E. Murphy, The Relief of Tobruk (Wellington, 1961); and in the Australian Official History Series, Barton Maughan, Tobruk and El Alemein (Canberra, 1987), pp. 435-513. Also useful: Barrie Pitt, Crucible of War, Vol. I,Western Desert 1941 (NY, 1989), pp. 353-463; Richard Humble, Crusader: Eighth Army’s Forgotten Victory, November, 1941 – January, 1942 (London, 1987); and Ken Ford, Operation Crusader 1941 (Oxford, 2010). The Libyan Campaign – November 1941 to January 1942 (Campaign Study #1, 25 August 1942), a U.S. War Department/Military Intelligence Service publication available at the Merriam Press link, offers a good early take on the battle. David Downing, Sealing Their Fatethe 22 Days That Decided WW II (Phila., 2009), is a day-by-day account of 17 November – 8 December 1941 which cogently argues that this span – including Crusader, Hitler’s narrow failure to seize Moscow, and the Japanese misfire at Pearl Harbor – substantially decided the outcome of the world war. For a conventional German view critical of Rommel’s c0mmand during Crusader, see Bernd Stegemann’s essays on the Mediterranean air-sea battles during the summer and fall of 1941, the Axis supply problem, and Operation Crusader in Gerhard  Schreiber, Stegemann, and Detlef Vogel, Germany and the Second World War, Vol. III, The Mediterranean, South-East Europe, and North Africa, 1939-1941 (Oxford, 1995), pp. 708-754. Other relevant unit histories and first-hand accounts as cited: 

  1.  Juergen Rohwer and G. Humelchen, Chronology of the War at Sea, Vol. I, 1939-42 (NY, 1973), p. 149; Sidney Hart, Submarine Upholder (London, 1974), pp. 127-129.
  2. Anon., The Silver Phantom – HMS Aurora (London, 1945), pp. 33-34.
  3. John Palmer, Our Penelope (NY, 1942), pp. 34-35; Silver Phantom, pp. 35-36. For the post-mortem at Naval HQ in Rome: Marc’Antonio Bragadin, The Italian Navy in WW II (Annapolis, 1957), pp. 132-135.
  4. Gregory-Smith, Red Tobruk (Barnsley, 2008), p. 59. 
  5. Rohwer and Hummelchen, op. cit., pp. 149-152; also S.W. Roskill, in the British Official History series, The War at Sea, Vol. I (London, 1954), pp. 533-534; and William Jameson, Ark Royal (London, 1957), pp. 336-348. Empire Pelican was sunk by a pair of SM79s of 130 Gruppo, E. Defender by SM84s belonging to 256 Squadraglia/108 Gruppo: Chris Dunning, Courage Alone – the Italian Air Force, 194-1943 (Manchester, 2010), pp. 257, 134, 139.   
  6. On the 15 November air attack on Giarabub Oasis, see documents @ http://crusaderproject.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/luftwaffe-against-giarabub-aerodrome. At Cunningham’s evening, 15 November press conference: James Hodson, War In the Sun (NY, 1943), pp. 234-235.  
  7.  Paul Chapman, Submarine Torbay (London, 1989), pp. 85-95; John Weal, Jagdgeschwader 27 – “Afrika” (Oxford, 2003), p. 72. Latter source errs, probably via misprint, in dating this operation to “27” November. Casualty figure via SAS veteran John Cooper @ http://www.sasrogues.co.uk. Also: Shaw, Long Range Desert Group (Novato, 1989), p. 121.
  8. Stuart Pitman, Second Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, Libya – Egypt, 1941-1942 (London, 1950) pp. 7-11.  
  9. Hodson, op. cit., pp. 235-236.
  10. Judd, Avenger From the Sky (London, 1985), p. 66.
  11. Alan Moorhead, The March to Tunis (NY, 1965), pp. 217-18.
  12. Martin Uren, Kiwi Saga (Auckland, 1944), pp. 155-56.
  13. Schulze quoted in James Lucas, Experiences of War: the Third Reich (NY, 1990), p. 134.
  14. Fearnside, Half To Remember (Sydney, 1975), pp. 99-100. Wladyslaw Ghoma, Tobruk-Gazala (Jerusalem, 1944), is a rare first-hand account by a member of the Polish Carpathian Brigade who fought throughout the summer-fall 1941 siege, in Crusader, and then during the spring-summer 1942 desert battles. Not translated yet, but I’ll get to it…. 
  15. diary of Rolf Krengel, an armored car driver with 21st Pz Division, in: Don Gregory and Wilhelm Gehlen, eds., Two Soldiers, Two Lost Fronts (Drexel Hill, 2009), p. 156.
  16. Embry, Mission Completed (NY, 1958), p. 219.
  17. Cartwright diary in J.F. Edwards, Kittyhawk Pilot (Battleford, 1983), p. 60.
  18. Christopher Shores and Hans Ring, Fighters Over the Desert: Air Battles in the Western Desert, June 1940 – December 1942 (NY, 1969), p. 63.
  19. Gordon Gaskill, “Fifteen Feet Above Hell”, orig. AMERICAN MAGAZINE, February, 1942; reprinted in Maude Walters, ed., Combat in the Air (NY, 1944), pp. 61-68. Hodson, op. cit., p. 237: “Our Beaufighters have done deadly work….little opposition in the air yet. Not a single enemy plane has been over our lines.”
  20. Shores and Ring, loc. cit.
  21. Cyril Joly, Take These Men (London, 1985), pp. 180-81.
  22. Davy, The Seventh and Three Enemies (Cambridge, 1952), p. 145.
  23. Bahnemann, I Deserted Rommel (London, 1961), pp. 12-13.
  24. Crisp, Brazen Chariots (NY, 1960), pp. 30-31.
  25. Bahnemann, loc. cit.
  26. Lawrence, The Green Trees Beyond (NY, 1994), pp. 109-110.
  27. Davy, op. cit., loc. cit.
  28. Crisp, p. 33.
  29. Kriebel, Inside The Afrika Corps: the Crusader Battles (Mechanicsburg, 1999), pp. 62-65.
  30. Cox, A Tale of Two Battles (London, 1987), pp. 156-57.
  31. Morley-Mower, Messerchmidt Roulette (St. Paul, 1993), pp. 129-30.
  32. Shores and Ring, loc. cit.
  33. Joly, p. 183.
  34. Crisp, loc. cit.
  35. Hubbuch quoted in Kevin Fish, Panzer Regiment 8 in WW II: Poland France – North Africa (Atglen, 2008), p. 105.
  36. Alex Clifford, Conquest of North Africa (Boston, 1943), p. 143.
  37. Antonio Cioci, Il Regimento “Giovani Fascisti” Nella Campagna Africa Settentrionale, 1940-43 (Rome, 1998), pp. 61ff.
  38. Ariete Division post-action report quoted in Ian Walker, Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts: Mussolini’s Elite Armored Divisions in North Africa (Ramsbury, 2006), pp. 82-83.
  39. See Ian Paterson’s 7th Armored Division site @ http://www.btinternet.com/~ian.a.paterson/battles1941.htm.
  40. 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars War Diary @ http://www.warlinks.com/armour/2nd_rgh/2nd_rgh_41.htm.
  41. Col. Oderisio Piscicelli-Taeggi, Diario di un Combattente Nell’Africa Settentrionale (Bari, 1946),  pp. 41-42.
  42. Captain Denis Matthews in South African Military History Soc., Military History J., X/6, Dec. 1997; @ http://Samilitaryhistory.org/journal/html.
  43. Agar-Hamilton and Turner, op. cit., pp. 149-50.
  44. Giovanni Massinello and G. Apostelo, Italian Aces of WW II (Madrid, 2001), p. 115.
  45. Pitt, op. cit, pp. 361-62; Humble, op. cit., pp. 97-99. 
  46. Crisp, op. cit., pp. 34-36.
  47. Joly, op. cit., pp. 182-185. 
  48. Morehead, op. cit., p. 222.
  49. Clifford, op. cit., pp. 145-47.
  50. Watt, A Tankie’s Travels – World War II Experiences…(Bognor Regis, 2006), p. 66; Wardrop, Diary of…(privately published, 1968), p. 18. Among the many other 5th RTR casualties during the 19-20 November tank battles: Lt. Hugh Lester, KIA and “with no known grave”, leaving in this world a wife and infant son. See memorial page @ http://sjbradley.com/memorial/viewRecord.php?name=Lester,%20H%20S%20S.
  51. Joly, op. cit., pp. 185-86
  52. Morehead, op. cit., p. 223.
  53. Clifford, op.cit., pp. 147-148.
  54. Gunner Inglorious (Wellington, 1945), p. 5.
  55. Infantry Brigadier (London, 1949), p. 85.
  56. Shores and Ring, op. cit., p. 164; SAAF #21 Squadron Diary fragment in N/A, Messerschmidt Bf-109 Aces of North Africa and the Mediterranean (Madrid, 2000), pp. 15-16.
  57. Crisp, Brazen Chariots, pp. 41-42.
  58. Joly, Take These Men, pp. 186-87.
  59. Crisp, op. cit., pp. 42-43.
  60. Joly, op. cit., pp. 187-88.
  61. Crisp, op. cit. p. 44.
  62. R.L. Crimp, Diary of a Desert Rat (London, 1971), pp. 44-45.
  63. Anon., quoted in Agar-Hamilton, op. cit., p. 166.
  64. Fielding, They Sought Out Rommel: Diary of the Libyan Campaign (London, 1942), p. 10.
  65. Agar-Hamilton, op. cit., pp. 162-165; Humble, op. cit., pp. 109ff.
  66. Crimp, op. cit., p. 45.
  67. Jolie, op. cit., pp. 189-191.
  68. Ritchie, Fusing of the Plowshares (Bath, 1987), pp. 180-185.
  69. Anon. Rhodesian soldier quoted in Agar-Hamilton, p. 194.
  70. Pitt, op. cit., p. 377.
  71. Davy, op. cit., pp. 253-254.
  72. Crimp, op.cit., p. 46.
  73. Beeley, dead at age 23, later awarded the Victoria Cross, posthumous; little compensation for his mother’s 23 years and 9 months of travail. See citation and memorial @ http://krrassociation.com/journ06/Victoria%20Crosses_John%20Beeley-pdf(%)20   
  74. Reports of 3rd Battalion, Transvaal Scottish Regiment + other battalion reports in Agar-Hamilton, pp. 188-89. That the soft-skinned vehicles fleeing ahead of the German tanks were 22nd A.B. supply echelon is my inference only, but may help explain this unit’s ineffectiveness for most of 21 November.
  75. Clifton, The Happy Hunted (London, 1952), pp. 124-125.
  76. Quoted in William Moore, Panzer Bait – With the Third Royal Tank Regiment, 1940-1944 (London, 1991), p. 68.
  77. Crisp, op. cit., pp. 46-47.
  78. Joly, op.cit., pp. 192-193.
  79. Shores and Ring, op. cit., p. 65.
  80. Duke, Test Pilot (London, 1992), p. 66.
  81. Crimp, op. cit., pp. 46-47.
  82. J.F. Cody, 21st Battalion (Wellington, 1953) @ http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2-21Ba-c5.html
  83. Robin Hastings quoted in Pitt, Crucible, p. 382.
  84. Hastings in Ronald Lewin, ed., The War On Land: The British Army in WW II (NY, 1970), pp. 96-97.
  85. Lt. Patrick McSwiney quoted in Pitt, op. cit., p. 383.
  86. Davy, Seventh and Three Enemies, p. 154-155.
  87. G.L. Verney, The Desert Rats – 7th Armored Division in WW II (London, 1990), pp. 71-72.
  88. Messerschmidt Roulette, p. 138.
  89. Kriebel, op. cit., p. 78; War Diary, 15th Panzer Division, excerpt in Agar-Hamilton, op. cit., p. 184.
  90. Crisp, op. cit., p. 48.
  91. Bragadin, Italian Navy in World War II (Annapolis, 1957), pp. 135-136.
  92. Tony Spooner, In Full Flight (Wingham, 1991), p. 179.
  93. Bragadin, op. cit., pp. 136-137. See also Kenneth Poolman, Night Strike From Malta: 830 Squadron and Rommel’s Convoys (London, 1980), pp. 136-138, and Rohwer and Hummelchen, Chronology, op. cit., pp. 153-154. Trieste was actually torpedoed by Utmost, and the convoy turned back not only because of the air attacks, but because German codebreakers picked up and deciphered orders dispatching Force K to intercept.  
  94. Ciano, Diary 1937-43 (NY, 2002), p. 467.
  95. v. Mellenthin,  Panzer Battles (Norman, 1983), p. 68.
  96. Crimp, op. cit., pp. 48-49.
  97. Kippenberger, op. cit., pp. 85-86.
  98. Uren, Kiwi Saga, pp. 156-158.
  99. Infantry Brigadier, pp. 87-89.
  100. Young quoted in n/a, The Tiger Kills – Story of the Indian Divisons in the North African Campaign (London, 1944), p. 32.
  101. Unit history, 42nd Royal Tank Regiment, quoted in Agar-Hamilton, op. cit., pp. 202-203.
  102. Evans, The Desert and the Jungle (London, 1959), pp. 90-97.
  103.  Clifton, op. cit., pp. 127-130. For Kisch’s version, see Norman Bentwich and Michael Kisch, Brigadier Frederick Kisch – Soldier and Zionist (London, 1966), pp. 143-144.
  104. Crimp, op. cit., p. 50.
  105. Stuart Pitman, Second Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, Libya-Egypt 1941-1942 (London, 1950), p. 24.
  106. Joly, op. cit., pp. 197-198.
  107. Crisp, op. cit., pp. 50-52.


 APPENDIX A: Orders of Battle at onset of Crusader

















Posted in 1939-1945 | 4 Comments

Midway, 27 May – 7 June 1942 (excerpt from CHAOS AND CONSPIRACY: THE WAR OF ENCIRCLEMENT, 1914-1945; Vol. XI/b: Vulture at the Feast – Japan in the Pacific, Gazela-Tobruk, and south Russia, December 1941 – July 1942). To leave a comment, source suggestion, critique, etc., click on “About”.


           Admiral Halsey’s Task Force 16 – carriers Hornet and Enterprise plus escorting cruisers and destroyers – which missed the Coral Sea battle thanks to a grand Presidential PR operation called the Tokyo Raid,  flys off its aircraft and returns to Pearl Harbor on May 26th. Clayton Fisher, a dive-bomber pilot with Hornet‘s VS-8, gets ashore and finds

all our pilots and aircrew restricted to station. Why?….It’s hard to describe the mental pressure we are under….We know we are going into a battle…How many of us will survive? And now we are deprived of a chance for a little mental relaxation. It just doesn’t seem fair as I watch air station personnel going off base on liberty. That evening bottles of whiskey are given to the pilots to pacify us. After a few become inebriated, they end up wrestling on the lava cinders and having a couple fist fights. No one seriously hurt, but next morning there are faces with skin abrasions and some black eyes.(1)

           Led by Commander Hornet Air Group (CHAG) Stanhope Ring, a martinet with frayed nerves and not the best of pilots, the men of VS-8 and VB-8 are unhappy warriors. Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s Task Force 17, meanwhile, returns from a real fight in Australian waters to Pearl Harbor on May 27th, with carrier Yorktown badly damaged and leaking oil. In ordinary circumstances, a couple of months’ repair in drydock might make her combat-ready. With most of Japan’s navy now heading east, the Americans have 72 hours to get the job done. Bernard Petersen, an aviation machinist and torpedo-plane gunner with Saratoga‘s Air Group 3, now coming aboard to replace Yorktown‘s chewed-up squadrons (only the superb Bombing Five retained as a unit) helps

rush all of our support equipment from  Kaneohe to Ford Island and begin hauling supplies, tools, and personal equipment aboard on our backs. This goes on around the clock…making our way a real obstacle course. Yard workers by the hundred swarm everywhere, performing miracles in battle-damage repair. Hoses, cables, ladders, acetylene torches…sparks light up the night and add to the tense eeriness of the moment. I talk to members of the Yorktown crew and they are really bent out of shape…promised liberty as soon as they hit Pearl. One hundred days plus at sea is a long stretch, but they accept it and pitch in when told they will be going stateside after this one.(2) 

     Yorktown crewman Bill Surgi finds himself

drilling wooden pegs of different shapes and sizes for all the shrapnel holes in the hull and fuel and water tanks, then we drive them in with sledgehammers to make her watertight. In the spaces below decks where bombs went off, we put in big timbers and weld cross-beams to shore up decks and bulkheads. Nobody gets shore leave….We have shipyard workers on board and our working parties are going around the clock. Nobody sleeps. To fix bomb-holes in the flight deck, they hoist aboard huge metal plates and we fasten them down with metal spikes. The ship isn’t what I’d call seaworthy, but the flight deck is operational.(3)

     With some of Nimitz’s staff officers (Adm. King’s men) agitating for his removal, Fletcher is called into a quick face-to-face with the C-in-C. After stopping along the way to fortify himself with a stiff drink, Frank Jack makes a strong case for his conduct of the Coral Sea battle – though losing carrier Lexington, he won a major strategic victory with an inferior force – and Nimitz decides to retain him in overall command of the upcoming confrontation. Adm. Halsey, who now suffers combat fatigue and associated illness,  hands over command of TF 16 to his cruiser commander, Adm. Raymond Spruance. Though he brings Fletcher and Spruance together in conference to coordinate plans, Nimitz does not directly subordinate Spruance – who has no experience handling carriers in combat – to the battle-tested Fletcher; probably a mistake. And considerable time and energy is expended fending off Washington, where Adm. King still suspects the real Japanese target may be the American west coast. Meanwhile far to the east, on Midway Island, a B-17 squadron takes up residence and the dive-bomber squadron of Marine Air Group 22 receives a

draft of nine new pilots….Upon May 27 arrival we are greeted by remarks indicating that we are “just in time” for something. Doesn’t bother us….Next morning Major Henderson at squadron briefing lets us know the Japs are due, and we do a little more thinking on the matter. The greenest group ever assembled for combat includes 2nd Lieutenants George Lumpkin, E.P. Thompson, George Koutdas, D.L. Cummins, myself, Jack Cosley, Ken Campion, Orvin Ramlo, and James Marmande. None of us has ever flown a Vindicator, so we immediately check it out…








…with no more trouble than a couple of ground loops (and) we all make two or three dives with practice bombs…mighty little preparation for the job at hand. (4)

             While military politics plays itself out and repairs on the Yorktown continue, Spruance’s force – carriers Enterprise and Hornet with six cruisers and nine destroyers – quickly provisions and sorties from Pearl Harbor. Press correspondant Bob Casey, witness to Halsey’s Marshall Islands and Tokyo raids from cruiser Salt Lake City, now finds himself aboard Northampton:

28 May, Thursday….out of harbor at 8:30 AM, at 9 heading out through the slot. The day turning out well, cool enough. Calm, sleepy atmosphere broken only by black bursts from Fort Weaver ack-ack ominously thumping off our port bow. Apparent now that we’re going northwest and best thought on the subject suggests that we are headed for a slugging match.

29 May, Friday….At sea, calm, cooler. This morning an announcement to officers on watch that we will shortly contact an enemy who is traveling in great strength. According to the best information the Japs have mustered many carriers and battleships, a large number of cruisers and countless destroyers. As usual we seem to be holding the short end of the stick – this time shorter than usual. We muster two carriers, a few cruisers, and a handful of destroyers to face an armada, meeting it with a fly swatter and a prayer. Today heading almost due west, tomorrow we will be in waters north of Midway…already in their patrol zone. A B-17 passed over us today. Well, we might sit here and fret but, while our assets may be slim, they are good. We have our carriers and inasmuch as the Japs are going to run into it we may look upon Midway Island as another carrier – and unsinkable at that. So Let us think in a grand fashion….This is our great opportunity.(5)

The American Admirals think so too, and at noon on the 29th Spruance chairs a conference attended by his staff, Air Group Commander, and the Enterprise fighter, torpedo, and dive-bomber squadron c/o’s. Among them Richard Best of VB-6:

He lays out the whole plan of the Jap attack, including that they will hit the Aleutians on June 3rd….not only gives us the names of their carriers – Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu – but also mentions a battleship force coming up from the southwest and a transport unit with troops that will land on Midway….the carriers will strike from the northwest, at daybreak on June 4th. This is all hard  believe. Our submarines cannot possibly have observed all Spruance tells us, because he gives their battleship and cruiser division numbers, even the names of ships. When the briefing is complete, he asks for questions. I speak up boldly, “Admiral, suppose they don’t hit Midway but keep going east and hit Honolulu or Pearl again?” I have a wife and four-year-old daughter there. Spruance regards me silently…then says, “Well, we just hope they won’t.”(6)

          Next day is largely uneventful for TF-16….

30 May, Saturday….at sea, northeast of Midway. Cold and a little gray. Finagle about all day to no apparent purpose and it gets colder and grayer.

          …..while TF-17, as recorded by Ralph Wilhelm – a floatplane pilot aboard heavy cruiser Portland – gets

underway at 0845….The Yorktown, Astoria, 5 destroyers and our ship leaving Pearl but we don’t know what for. Fired our 5″ battery this morning, afternoon the 8″ turrets. Bob, Al, and I fly during the firing. Thought we might return to port this evening but at about 1500 Yorktown’s planes come aboard (so) I know we are not going in. Now heading NW on course 320 at 19 knots but no one seems to know where to.(7) 

          First to land are 18 SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers VB-3 led in by Lt. Cdr. Max Leslie; then Lt. Cdr. Wallace Short’s 19 Dauntles’s of Scouting (VS)-5; and then VT-3, 13 Devastator torpedo-planes led by Lt. Cdr. Lem Massey. All these aircraft come aboard without incident but, amidst all this lethal technology, death is omnipresent even before battle. When Cdr. John Thach’s 25 Wildcat fighters begin their landings, radioman Ray Daves is watching from the bridge. VF-3s exec, Lt. Cdr. Don Lovelace, gets down first and he’s

still in the cockpit when the next plane approaches the stern. Coming in hot, too fast….I can tell by the sound of the engine. The LSO tries to wave him off. I’m laughing when he drops his paddles and scrambles out of the way….Why doesn’t this pilot pull up and try again? He comes in so fast that the tail hook bounces over all the arresting cables and then plows through the last barrier, a rope net below the island. I brace for the impact…this plane crashes into the plane that just landed, propeller blades cutting through the canopy and I watch them chop the pilot’s body into pieces as blood spatters across the flight deck….”.(8)

     Thach and the other Fighting Three pilots have little time to mourn the loss of the experienced and popular Lovelace.

That night, after we get everything buttoned up and are headed toward Midway, all pilots of the air group are brought into the wordroom. There the carrier Air Officer gives us a complete briefing on everything known about the oncoming Japanese forces and their intentions. We are all mighty impressed….If we can win this one, we may be able to stop the Jap advance. So we spend the time at hand getting our ammunition ready, checking and re-checking each aircraft. Then I get word that the dive-bomber c/o and the commanding officer of VT-3 want to have a talk….Massey says I ought to stay up with the dive-bombers, “because that’s where the Zeros are going to be, where they were during the Coral Sea battle.” That’s the issue, whether my fighters should go with the dive-bombers or the torpedo-planes. I don’t have enough fighters to split up and send a few with each….I reason that, since the Devastators at Coral Sea went in pretty much unpposed and got hits, the Japs will be more concerned about them now….So it’s finally decided that I will go with VT-3. But then next morning Captain Buckmaster, the carrier’s c/o, decides that only 6 fighters can go. He wants to hold back as many as possible to defend the Yorktown.(9)

     Aboard Northampton, correspondant Casey greets

31 May, Sunday….at sea, northeast of Midway. Cool. Calm. Took on fuel this morning, including lots of aviation gasoline, all of which is right under my bed. HQ – may its tribe increase – sent out a request today for somebody to take pictures of Jap battleships, etc., so that profiles in the spotting books can be corrected. Except for this odd communication, nothing to suggest that there is a war going on in the neighborhood.

     For Yorktown radioman Daves, the morrow is

a good day because I spend my free time with Mike Brazier…one of the new aviation radiomen that hangs out with us. Not sure how we got to be such good buddies in such a short time. Maybe that’s just the way it is when you’re stuck together on a ship during a war, but I think Brazier and I would have been friends anywhere. Ashore, we’d go for beer and play some pool….He’s got a girlfriend back home and shows me her picture, going to get married the next time he gets leave. I’m more afraid for him than for myself, because he is a rear-seat gunner on a torpedo plane. By this time everyone knows that the Devastators aren’t devestating at all…too slow. Carrying a 1,000-pound torpedo, they can barely do 100 miles per hour. But Brazier never indicates any fear. We don’t talk about it. But this day I know he isn’t concentrating very well when we play acey-deucey; I beat him two times out of three.(10)

Casey continues:

1 June, Monday….at sea, northeast of Midway. Cool and a bit foggy. Now really in Jap territory. We can tell by the condition watches and our daylight zig-zag. Odd that it seems so much like any other part of the Pacific. We continue to contact whales large and small, as if there weren’t plenty of Hirohito’s subs in the vicinity.

     In fact, due to the Americans’ code-breaking intelligence coup and quick exit, most of these Japanese submarines are now many miles east of the U.S. fleet, forming a useless patrol line near Oahu which Yamamoto thinks will give him advance warning of anything hostile coming out of Pearl Harbor.

At noon, raining, a thick gray rain. Boots and saddles for launching planes. Then un-boots and saddles. Too wet…too thick. About 2 PM an alarm…planes sighted to starboard. Our cruiser’s scout planes go out to look at them….Midway-based PBY’s. The aviators come in, red-faced from the wind and wet, their yellow rubber jackets dripping and shiny. “I was always a delicate kid”, says pilot Tom O’Connell. “They used to wonder if I’d ever grow up, Now I wonder if I’ll live to see my twenty-second birthday.” ….”When is it?”….”Thursday”.

2 June, Tuesday….at sea, northeast of Midway. At 1 PM the Yorktown arrives with two cruisers and an assortment of destroyers. This new force stays aloofly over toward the horizon on our starboard side, but they make a very inspiriting sight…(11)

     On June 3rd, as the Americans maneuver their now-concentrated three-carrier force into a hoped-for ambush position northeast of Midway – aka “Point Luck” – the Japanese carrier force, Main Body, Aleutian strike and invasion forces, and Midway invasion and bombardment flotillas churn confidently eastward – each hundreds of miles apart and in no position to support the others should things go wrong:




(map here)








     Midway-based patrol planes spot the invasion force first, at about 3 AM on June 3rd, and shadow it for some hours. Though at first mis-identifying it as the Main Body, they get off good contact reports as to course and distance, now about 700 miles west of Midway Island and closing fast. A few Midway-based Army Air Force B-17 heavy bombers find and attack the Japanese transports and their escorts shortly after 4 PM. Tameichi Hara, Captain of destroyer Amatsukaze and who a few days earlier felt that “something is wrong with this operation”, now watches

American planes coming head-on at us, identify as 9 B-17s….Our destroyers open fire, throwing the enemy’s timing off. Bombs arc down and fall 1,000 meters away.

     Lt. Genjirou Inui, an anti-tank gun platoon commander and member of Col. Ichiki’s detachment aboard troop transport Zenyu Maru, sees things from another angle:

….our destroyers sending up black smoke into the blue sky. Air-raid warning! The convoy spreads out into battle formation while anti-aircraft crews man their guns. 9 enemy planes to starboard, attacking in 3 formations….AA opens fire, bombs falling….Huge columns of water rise up on both sides of Argentina Maru, but my transport unscathed. 3 minutes later…only the calm sound of our ship’s engines.(12)

     While the high-altitude bomber attack goes in, another threadbare American improvisation begins. Four VP-51 PBYs depart from Pearl and arrive Midway around 3 PM. The already-tired crews, among them Ensign Allan Rothenberg, are directed

to an underground bunker where we eat and are allowed two hours sleep before reporting for briefing. I ask myself, “Briefing for what?”, but don’t let it sink in right away as I am bone-weary from the long flight in. When I arrive at the hanger there is an ordnance crew hanging a submarine torpedo under the wing of my seaplane; why, I have no idea. At the 5 PM briefing, Captain Logan Ramsey announces that a Jap fleet is 750 miles west of Midway and expected to hit the island tomorrow morning. Our 4 PBYs are to attack the enemy with torpedoes….Ramsey then advises it will be a “volunteer mission: Richards, Davis, Propst, and the little Ensign standing in the back of the room.” In the shortest briefing of my Navy career, he concludes, “depart at 2000 hours and you should intercept, flying a westerly course, about 550 miles from Midway….Find and attack!”

Mine is the last plane off, delayed by a ladder that refuses to release, causing an additional time-lag….As a result the other 3 PBYs drop their torpedoes and are on their way out, leaving a hornet’s nest for me to wade through. But we drop, don’t wait to see results, and get out of there.(13)

     Remarkably, one of these torpedoes

pierces the bow of oiler Akebono Maru, killing and injuring two-dozen men. But watertight compartments hold and the tanker keeps pace with the slower troop transports….I am no longer uneasy. So far the attempts against our convoy have been feeble. Nagumo’s carriers will smash this enemy with sledge-hammer blows.(14)

     Also on June 3rd and 1,000 miles to the northeast, Adm. Kakuta’s task force moves into position for its Alaskan strike; an attack which will succeed only in diverting two Japanese aircraft carriers from the Main Event. Due to the usual, ferocious weather conditions – almost perpetual cloudcover, fog, and frequent, nearly instantaneous killer storms – that make this part of the world unsuitable for large-scale military operations, U.S. patrol planes cannot locate it. Shortly before 3AM, from a point 165 miles south of target, Kakuta gets off two deckloads of fighters, bomb-carrying torpedo-planes, and dive-bombers. But all of Junyo‘s planes get lost in thick, drifting mists and have to turn back, as do some of Ryujo‘s. Fourteen torpedo-bombers and three fighters do win through to Dutch Harbor and, considering the limited number, inflict substantial damage: strafing and flaming moored PBY seaplanes, blasting army barracks, killing and wounding dozens of soldiers and sailors, while losing two zeros to AA fire.  

      A second strike flys off around mid-morning on 4 June, this time directed at American naval units in Makushin Bay. Through worsening weather these aviators fail to find the primary target, and instead administer another useless trashing to Dutch Harbor. On the way back to their carrier they overfly an American airbase on forlorn Umnak Island, where eager pilots get quickly airborne. Zenji Abe’s plane is

suddenly attacked by P-40s from both sides. I throw my dive-bomber into a tight turn, and soon my group and the American planes are going after each other in circles….the low ceiling won’t allow the quick P-40s to zoom down on our bombers, so I think I have a chance. Fight back against one of them, but another fires at me. My comrade, Warrant-Officer Harano, chases after it. I notice another friend, Pilot Officer Numata, egaged in a dogfight with a P-40 about 300 meters above the sea in some low clouds, circling vertically, each trying to get on the other’s tail. A confusing melee, I’m sweating buckets and time seems to stand still though it’s over in seconds….Our aircraft put up a good fight, but I see three trails of smoke going down and later find out that both Harano and Numata were shot into the sea.(15)

      In this brief, bloody encounter the Japanese lose 4 dive-bombers with their two-man crews; a zero is also shot down, as are two U.S. fighters, though one pilot manages to parachute and survive in the freezing water. Next day, Kakuta will back off to cover Japanese amphibious landings at Kiska and Attu islands. Hours earlier on June 4th and 1,000 miles to the south, aboard American carrier Enterprise, Lt. Clarence Dickinson and his VB-6 squadronmates are

 in the readyroom by 0400, plotting our carrier’s position, recording wind and other data. All we want is the word that the enemy carriers have been spotted; that and the final order. I sit beside Earl Gallaher and Lt. Ware, the squadron’s flight officer. Any message the ship picks up from distant patrols or Midway will be relayed to us from air plot….The waiting is…trying. Five AM….such long intervals of silence it seems as if the teletype mavhine will never clatter again, and I begin to resent the talker’s silent telephone. Never as during these hours have the men when together in these rows of chairs been so quiet. 7 members of our squadron are combat experienced, but 11 of our pilots have never been under fire. Yet the confidence is something one can feel….(16)

     For a Scouting 6 pilot in the same readyroom,

the air is so tense you can cut it with a knife….Now we wait, listening to the whine of the elevator lifting planes to the flight deck, a continuous high-pitched drone that tightens hands into hard knots of bone and muscle….clock-watching….we were here when it read 0330. Two false alarms haven’t helped….Silence…so quiet we can hear ourselves breathing.(17)

     Now, off to the west, events and time itself begin to accelerate. Lt. Howard Ady, at the controls of a Midway-based PBY, spots at 5:20 AM an “unidentified aircraft” heading east – Jap cruiser-launched recon floatplane – and reports it in code. Then he sees a phosphorescent wake and goes in low to investigate….

 ….flying through rain squalls. As we come out of one we see the Japanese coming out of another. A long front of ships, two big carriers, some other big ones which I believe are battleships, some cruisers, and a lot of destroyers. From their course, running into the wind, they have either launched planes or are about to.(18)

     Indeed. At this moment, aboard  carrier Kaga, communications officer Sesu Mitoya hears

a bellowing, shattering uproar on the flight deck and livid streaks of engine exhaust flame through the darkness. “Commence launch!” sounds from the bridge. I watch the Air Officer swing his green lamp in a circle. One by one Zero fighters roar forward and leap skyward, the cheers of deck crew echoing over screaming engines…the dive-bombers follow. Soon over 100 planes, from all the carriers, are airborne.(19)

     At 5:30, again in code, Ady signals

<carriers….bearing 320….distance 180>

     15 minutes later, a PBY piloted by Lt. William Chase spots something equally electrifying. Excited, he does not bother to encode – a vastly fortunate error, as Fletcher and Spruance pick up this transmission – and signals in plain language

<many planes heading Midway….bearing 315….distance 150>

     On Midway, a patchwork group of American pilots, air- and groundcrew have been up and about since 3 AM. Marine pilot Tom Moore, who will fly one of 16 clapped-out, Navy-reject SBD-2 dive-bombers handed down to his squadron – VMSB-241 – walks

through pitch-black darkness to the mess hall. There I find others of the dive-bombing and fighter squadrons….It seems as though everyone has something to say. We are like people who keep talking all through an operation in order to keep their minds off what the doctor is doing. We chew on thick slices of bread with marmalade and drink burning hot swallows of coffee and talk and talk….Who listens, I don’t know….

….still not yet dawn when we make our way in threes and fours to the revetments where our planes are waiting. Pvt. Huber, my rearseat gunner, is already there checking his twin-.50s and ammunition. I don’t know him very well, but in the next few hours will find out a great deal. 500-pound bomb in place under the fuselage. looks deadly. I climb into my cockpit, start the engine, check radio and intercom phones. All in order. Danny Iverson, in the next plane over, waves and I wave back.

Nothing to do now but wait…perhaps I should write a note to Janet; write by the light of the instrument panel. Something meaningful and everlasting in case I don’t come back. No. Too late now. And I can’t think of any words. We have an unborn child, a son, I hope….God let me live long enough to see him. 

In the east, the sun…and Major Henderson’s plane starts to taxi slowly down the runway, heading into the wind, and now I push the throttle forward. We move faster, faster, my plane straining to lift off when the engine starts coughing…cut throttle then ram it forward again…airborne. Our squadron is up, 16 green pilots flying worn-out SBDs accompanied by 11 obsolete Vindicators. For a minute or two there’s nothing but the steady drone of our engines  and a few idle remarks passing over the ‘phones. Sky very blue and clean of clouds, wind whipping around my face and goggles.(20)

          Good men, these 54 Marines. But all green indeed. Not one has ever flung a bomb or fired his guns in combat.  At 5:53, Midway’s radar picks up the incoming Japanese strike – an overwhelming and battle-tested force of 35 bomb-carrying “Kate” torpedo planes, 36 “Val” dive-bombers, and 36 Zero fighters – some 90 miles away and coming in fast at 11,000 feet. Aside from a few batteries of anti-aircraft guns, the island’s main defense is VMF-221, a Marine fighter squadron led by Major Floyd Parks and which, like VMSB-241, finds itself equipped with a clutch of cast-off Navy planes. Originally, the Marines have 21 F2A Brewster Buffaloes – an aptly-named, years-obsolete, slow, clumsy, undergunned deathtrap – and 7 better, though service-worn F4F-3  fighters; but various mishaps reduce the available aircraft to 20 and 4. The pilots too are a mixed bag. Some, like Lt. Marion Carl, an instructor with prior service in a Wildcat squadron and 1,400 hours of flying time, are primed and ready for lethal combat. Others, with much less air experience, are not yet up to it and, reasonably enough, do not like their planes. Right after the dive-bombers get off, Carl hears 

the air raid alarm, and just for good measure the command post pickup is scurrying around, siren wailing. We immediately start engines, already warm since we strapped on our aircraft almost an hour ago. No briefing, no coordination – just a mad scramble to get out from under whatever is inbound. Using two of Eastern Island’s three runways, the Buffalos and Wildcats narrowly miss one another at the intersection….Wildcats wobbling in their climbs as each pilot cranks rapidly with his right hand – 28 turns – to raise the wheels, and our tactical organization breaks down before the atoll is even a few miles astern. I look for John Carey’s number two man but can’t see him. My own wingman, Lt. Clayton Canfield, is im position with me but I wave him forward to support Carey, continuing my climb alone, outbound to 14,000 feet….24 aircraft straggling into a beautiful blue morning sky with almost unlimited visibility. A low-lying deck of puffy clouds partially obscures the ocean, but otherwise the weather affords excellent prospects for interception. Minutes after takeoff I hear Carey’s radion call – “Hawks at angels 12…”

Glancing down I spot them. Immaculate ranks of Jap carrier-based bombers approaching Midway, barely 40 miles out…a beautiful set-up. With a 2,000 foot altitude advantage our three Wildcats are well positioned for an overhead attack on the bombers. I roll into a 180-degree left turn, completing a half-roll to inverted. At that moment…Zero fighters diving on me but I am committed to my attack, jockying stick and rudder to line up one of the Nakijimas in my gunsight…trigger finger tense on the stick grip as the target grows larger during my 300-knot verticle plunge. Press the trigger and feel four .50 caliber guns recoiling….(21)  

           Lt. Carl’s intended victim escapes, but Carey and Canfield destroy two Japanese bombers. Then the Zeros arrive, and it becomes a savage, swirling dogfight, rolling toward Midway as one American pilot after another, unable to manuver with a nimble and skillful enemy, is blown out of the sky. Major Parks gets as far as the island and parachutes out of his riddled plane, but a Jap with a taste for blood kills him before he hits the water. Of VMF-221’s 24 pilots, 14 are swiftly dead, while others crash-land damaged aircraft and run for cover as low-flying Zeros work over the island’s defenses with cannon and machine-gun fire. Hollywood director John Ford, filming the battle, watches a too-confident Zero pilot

dive down about 100 feet from the ground, turn over and fly upside-down over the seaplane ramp while thumbing his nose…suddenly a Marine gunner says, “What the hell…” and lets go at him….and the Jap slides off into the sea.(22)

          Then bomb-carrying Kates dump their loads, in a single high-altitude pass over the island. Ensign Taisuke Maruyama finds the AA fire

accurate and intense. Anti-aircraft shells tear through our formation, and I can feel the wind-blast from the explosions. Pilot Officer Sakamoto’s plane blows up in the air, and I see another of our planes force-landing in the water. (23)

          Against continuing and “furious anti-aircraft fire” which destroys several of their number, Japanese dive-bombers now slant downward and join the attack. Lt. Moore is just at the horizon and

wondering if we will see the enemy at all when someone shouts over the radio, “Island under attack island under heavy attack”….I glance backward…and see bombs bursting all over Midway. All at once a sheet of flame streaks toward heaven and falls back. Thick palls of smoke billow upward….(24)










          While Lt. Carl hears

Midway ordering VMF-221 to return and land by divisions. Nobody responds….Guided to my revetment, I shut down and unstrap. Climbing from the cockpit, I count the bullet holes….Every returning fighter has evidence of combat except one. My Wildcat and the undamaged Buffalo are quickly re-fueled and armed, but Midway still reels from the attack. Gasoline fires rage out of control, hangers flattened, debris strewn everywhere. A dive-bomber hit -221’s arming area, detonating several bombs and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Four men killed there. Most of the returning pilots are stunned by their experience….C/O and the exec both missing…our squadron is a shattered command. The surviving officer walks out of the command post to a bomb shelter, and proceeds to get drunk. He has plenty of company.(25)


          Col. Walter Sweeney, commanding Midway-based 431 Squadron of 11th Bomb Group, is long since at altitude with 14 B-17s and

proceeding to attack the same Jap fleet we bombed the previous afternoon. En route to target we get word that another enemy force, complete with carriers, is approaching Midway from 325 degrees and at a distance of only about 1455 miles….Climbing to 20,000 feet, we turn to intercept. Cloud conditions lower broken, bottoms at 1,000 feet, tops at 6,000 with high thin-scattered at 18,000….Jap carriers under the clouds, and we have to search for them.

          At 7:10

Captain Payne spots the first carrier, and we go in to attack. Enemy starts firing as soon as we open our bomb bays, not effectively, but a bit disturbing. Fighters attacking, manuvering beautifully, but they fail to follow through…in no case is an attack pressed home. I divide our planes into three groups, each group instructed to take a carrier, and we bomb away. Fairly certain we hit the first carrier, but don’t claim it. The second group, under command of Capt. Cecil Faulknor, hits its carrier amidships. Lt. Col. Brooke Allen, commanding the third flight, secures hits on the third carrier. We don’t have time to wait and see them sink, but leave knowing they are badly crippled.(26)  

      In fact, though dropping with fair accuracy, the American B-17s hit nothing but water. Destroyers and cruisers laying smoke screens, ships venting smoke, low-lying clouds, and gunflashes are all easy to mistake for hits under the stress of combat. Too, this is an Army Air Force that is bucking hard for separate service designation (= bigger slice of military budget) – based on a “unique strategic mission” carried out by the “Big Bombers” – and not at all averse to exaggerating results. The skillful Japanese carrier captains go to battle speed, circle tightly, then whip their ships through violent S-turns and so just manage to evade the clusters of falling bombs:









          And torpedoes, because 10 Midway-based torpedo-planes attack at about the same time as the B-17s. Six of these aircraft are new TBF-Avengers flown out to Midway on June 1st by off-carrier members of VT-8, led in by Lt. Langdon Feiberling. These planes are a big improvement over the Devastators just now being launched from the American carriers: better-built, much faster, and feature both a twin-barreled dorsal turret weapon and a ventral gunner. Flown in proper formation, these planes can put out a truly devastating cone of defensive fire. But their crews too lack combat experience – not to mention escorting fighters – and now find themselves intercepted by a swarm of kill-hungry Zero pilots. As Ensign Bert Earnest and his fellows 

near our targets, we are jumped by about 20 Zeros. Cannon shells and machine-gun bullets immediately tear into our plane, killing my turret gunner Jay Manning….a cannon shell hit him in the chest and there’s blood everywhere. Our flight of six drops to 100 feet and makes for carriers that we can see in the distance. Just then the control cables to the elevator are shot away so I decide to go after a nearby cruiser. As I flick the plane around and turn toward it, cannon shells are dancing on my wings. Gyro compass shot out…the stick goes limp in my hands….hydraulics lost…difficult to control, losing altitude…drop my torpedo….(27)    

          With Feiberling’s and the other 4 TBFs already shot into the sea, Earnest alone survives to nurse his battered plane back to Midway. And this only because the Zeros are drawn away by the hard-on-the-heels arrival of 4 torpedo-lugging Army B-26 light bombers. These too are roughly handled by the Japanese. Lt. James Muri and his crew

don’t know what we are getting into….When we leave (Midway) staff tells us there’s a target and the estimated mileage. Could be a barge for all we know….didn’t tell us there’d be Zeros which hit us before we even see the Jap fleet. We are flying at 800 feet when they come over the horizon and start shooting. Makes quite an impression because none of us has ever been shot at before, and our formation breaks up. Imagine the surprise when we come over the horizon and see all these warships, all shooting at us. We can see carriers, protected by the rest of the ships, and go after the nearest big one. I see another B-26 going in, probably Captain Collins….

          Collins watches

six fighters come at us fast, straight in, others hit us from the rear and we can’t shake them. Aniaircraft shells, nachinegun and tracer whizzing around….I slip between several destroyers and cruisers, head for a carrier. It makes a quick turn and puts on speed, trying to swing head-on to us….We can actually hear 20 mm. shells leaving the Zeros’ guns, that’s how close they are. Now about 2 miles from target, and the Zeros don’t hesitate to fly into AA fire from their own ships. Although the carrier is circling to the right, we manuver so that she’s side-on to us, and the whole side seems to be ablaze with antiaircrft guns, a curtain of fire for us to fly through. Have proer altitude and release our torpedo as close as we can, pull up sharply and shoot over the carrier’s bow at only a couple hundred feet. Then I yank the controls straight back and shoot up another thousand feet, Zeros still after me….

          With his own plane now well shot-up, Lt. Muri

goes in to attack, so low and fast that as soon as the torpedo drops away I have to turn sharply to get over the carrier’s deck….Climbing, I pass over the island and toward the stern, see 50 to 75 men standing around the structure and my nose gunner throws lead, scattering them in all directions. Zeros still on us as we draw away.(28)

          A third B-26, Lt. William Watson at the controls, takes a fatal hit, cartwheels across the water and explodes. Lt. Herbert Mayes’ #4 plane, seen through Japanese eyes,

skims straight over Akagi, from starboard to port, nearly grazing the bridge. The white star on the fuselage of the plane, a B-26, is plainly visible. Immediately after clearing our ship, it bursts into flames and plunges into the sea….trailing pale white wakes, several torpedoes pass to port of Akagi.(29)

          No hits, 7 more American crews – 24 men in all – dead. Eight thousand feet higher and closing, Marine dive-bomber pilot Tom Moore’s watch shows 7:55 AM.

(To be continued…)






Useful narratives and analyses of the Midway battle include – despite a contra-factual hatchet-job on Fletcher and other inaccuracies – Samuel Eliot Morison, History of U.S. Navel Operations in WW II (Boston, 1950), Vol. IV, pp. 69-186; Walter Lord, Incredible Victory (NY, 1967); Gordon Prange, Miracle at Midway (NY, 1982); Alvin Kernan, Unknown Battle of Midway (New Haven, 2005); John Parschall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword (Washington, 2005); Ronald W. Russel, No Right to Win: A Continuing Dialog With the Veterans of the Battle of Midway (NY, 2006); Dallas W. Isom, Midway Inquest (Bloomington, 2007); and – getting Fletcher as right as Fletcher got the desperate, early months of the Pacific War – John Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal (Annapolis, 2006). Other narratives and firsthand accounts as cited: 

  1. Clayton Fisher,  Hooked – Tales and Adventures of a Tailhook Warrior (Denver, 2009), p. 73.
  2. Peterson, Briny to the Blue (Scottsdale, 1992), pp. 53-54.
  3. Surgi quoted in Oliver North, ed., War Stories, Vol. II, Heroism in the Pacific (Washington, 2004), pp. 116-117.
  4. Casey, Torpedo Junction (Indianapolis, 1943), p. 363.
  5. Best statement in Wayman C. Mullins, ed., 1942: Issue In Doubt (Austin, 1994), pp. 191-92.
  6. Wilhelm’s diary at Chris Hawkinson’s Battle of Midway site; @ http://www.centuryinter.net/midway/veterans/ralphwilhelm.html.
  7. Daves interviewed by Carol Hipperson in Radioman (NY, 2008), pp. 112-113.
  8. Thach statement in John T. Mason, Jr., The Pacific War Remembered – An Oral History Collection (Annapolis, 1986), pp. 98-100.
  9. Daves, op. cit., pp. 114-115.
  10. Casey, op. cit., pp. 364-369.
  11. Inui’s diary, My Guadalcanal, @ http://www.netally.com/jrube/Genjirou/cover.htm
  12. Rothenberg account in Mel Crocker, Black Cats and Dumbos (Blue Ridge Summit, 1987), p. 48.
  13. Hara, Japanese Destroyer Captain (NY, 1961), pp. 99-100.
  14. Abe interview in Ron Werneth, ed., After Pearl Harbor: Untold Stories of Japan’s Navel Airmen (Atglen, 2008), p. 51.
  15. Dickenson, Flying Guns (NY, 1942), p. 141.
  16. Anon. VS-6 pilot, unpublished ms. 
  17. Ady statement in Foster Hailey, Pacific Battle Line (NY, 1944), p. 164.   
  18. Mitoya, “I Fought the Americans at Midway”, in Howard Oleck, ed., Heroic Battles of WW II (NY, 1962), p. 152.
  19. Moore, The Sky is My Witness (NY, 1943), pp. 57-59.
  20. Carl, Pushing the Envelope (Annapolis, 1994), pp. 2-3.
  21. Ford account in Prange, op. cit., p. 201.
  22. Maruyama interview in Werneth, op. cit., pp. 178-179.
  23. Moore, op. cit., pp. 59-60.
  24. Carl, op. cit., pp. 25-26.
  25. Col. Sweeney’s account in John Loosbrock and Richard Skinner, eds., The Wild Blue (NY, 1961), pp. 206-207.
  26. Bert Earnest’s account @ http://harryferrier.blogspot.com/
  27. Muri interview in Aviation History, XV/6, July 2005, p. 42, plus additional material in Gilbert Cant, America’s Navy in WW II (London, n.d.), p. 153. Collins in same, loc. cit.
  28. Fuchida, Mitsuo and Masatake Okumiya, Midway (NY, 1955), p. 142.



















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