29 November 1941 – the Crucible of Ed Duda
Following the failure of the ‘dash to the wire’, and the increasingly critical situation around the Tobruk breakout salient, Rommel took the decision to reduce the forces in the salient, restore the siege lines, thereby also restoring traffic on the Axis by-pass road, and remove the threat to the rear. Following such a victory, a secure connection to the border fortifications would be re-established, and the severely weakened tank force of 30 Corps either pushed back into Egypt, or destroyed in Libya.
As a plan, it was as sound as it could be, and had it been attempted on 24 November, instead of moving east in pursuit of the beaten 30 Corps, it might well have worked. Five days later however, the Afrikakorps was in a substantially worse position, the forces in the Salient considerably stronger thanks to the connection that had been made with 13 Corps’ 2 New Zealand Division, and the plan that looked so enticing on a map was much harder to carry out. Success or failure would hinge on the ability of the German tank force to break through the defenses of first Brigadier Willison’s breakout force from the Tobruk Fortress, and then the elements of 2 New Zealand Division in the salient.
The 29 November, a cool, sunny day with broken cloud cover, was a critical day outside Tobruk. The Afrikakorps had managed to return to the battle from the ‘dash-to-the-wire’, and was organized to take first the most advanced and exposed Empire position on the Ed Duda height, which blocked the Axis bypass road around Tobruk, and thus the connection of the fighting elements of the Afrikakorps from the rear services around Gambut.
The Empire Side
At the same time, from midnight onwards, large volumes of 8th Army transport poured into Tobruk, and command confusion had led to a denuding of the critical Ed Duda height, which was in the morning only held by two weak companies from the New Zealand 19 Battalion with three damaged tanks from 44 R.T.R., because the Matilda tanks on Ed Duda had been ordered to the Zaafran height to the east by a direct order from 70 Division.
Brigadier Willison, CO of 32 Army Tank Brigade, rectified the situation by ordering the tanks of 4 R.T.R. returned, and prepared for an attack south of his own, to take the Dahar Adeimat ridge, starting at 11.00 hours. This was a Brigade attack that aimed to clear the area south of Ed Duda.
Map of Ed Duda, showing Belhamed and Zaafran to the west, Dahar Adeimat ridge (Axis: Bir Bu Cremeisa) to the south, and El Adem to the east. Bir Salem would have been about the 42 grid line. 1942 map – Rommelsriposte.com Collection
At 06.45 hours ‘D’ Squadron 7 R.T.R. was ordered to Ed Duda, where it arrived at 08.30 hours. The planned attack had to be postponed due to the Australian 2/13 Battalion not being made available for a high-risk operation, and the tanks not returning from the Zaafran.
The German Side
The war diary of the 15. Panzerdivision spends a lot of time on this day, and it is clear it was a hard fought action with heavy losses.
The order to attack was issued at 03.00am, with 15. Panzer on the left wing, attacking into the direction of the old defensive position outside Tobruk. A detailed order to be issued by the GOC Afrikakorps on the command post of 15.Panzer at 07.30am. General Crüwell accordingly appeared there at 08.00am.
The order as issued was for 15. Panzer on the left to break through to Ed Duda, while 21.Panzer takes Belhamed, and to throw the back into the fortress of Tobruk. Ariete was to cover the left (southern) flank of the Afrikakorps, with the artillery split in support of both efforts. The intent was to break through to the west, then turn, and attack east, clearing and taking Ed Duda and Belhamed.
From 08.15am the attack commences under heavy artillery fire from the northern flank, which forces the division south, before it can then turn west again. Empire tanks constantly harry the supply and rear columns, but are held off by the AT guns of Pz.Jg.Abt.33. The artillery fire from the breakout salient continues throughout. Demonstrating the fog of war, at Bir Bu Cremeisa the division discovers an Italian position, subordinated to Gruppe Böttcher, at around 10.30am. At the same time, the Empire troops on Ed Duda report being shelled from two directions, the west, and the north east.
At 10.46 70 Division issued a warning to 32 Army Tank Brigade, noting that an attack on Ed Duda from the east was likely. Brigadier Willison then cancelled his attack, which he now considered unwise, and prepared for defense, with the squadron of 4 R.T.R. having arrived around this time.
At 1050 patrols of 2/13 Battalion come under fire from Italian forces, likely from Bir bu Cremeisa.
At 11.35am Ariete reports it is fully engaged with a British attack. This means that if the Afrikakorps continues advancing west, the left, southern flank will not be covered. It is likely that this enemy force was 4 Armoured Brigade. About the same time, an Empire artillery FOO reports 16 moving tanks 10,000 yards south-east of Ed Duda, possibly Ariete. A tank patrol is sent out and notes these are stopped.
At 12.15 the order is issued for the Afrikakorps to encircle the troops in the area Belhamed – Zaafran – Trigh Capuzzo. 21. Panzer is ordered to break through to the east.
At 13.00 the order is given to push on Bir Salem to the west. While crossing a valley bottom continued heavy artillery fire is on the division. The infantry of 15. Schtz.Brig. is delayed in a swamp, and remains under heavy artillery fire for a time.
At the same time, Empire patrols report a tank advance on Ed Duda from the south. Brigadier Willison breaks off lunch and moves to the HQ of 1 Essex on the western front of Ed Duda to warn them. On return he met the GOC 70 Division and was instructed to deal with the impending attack. All tanks were alerted by him in person, and an HQ set up.
The vanguard of the division, including its GOC, reaches Bir Salem, occupied by the Italians, and requests artillery from Gruppe Böttcher on Ed Duda, while M.G.Batl. 2 executes a rapid attack across Point 175. An attack by 10 British tanks is repulsed, with five claimed destroyed. The battalion is then ordered to disengage and join the division.
This order was to have tragic consequences for the M.G.Battalion, which was closely engaged with the enemy forces at the time. It only succeeded to disengage thanks to the intervention of Ariete’s tanks, which rescued one of its platoons.
Colonel Hans Cramer, CO Panzerregiment 8, June 1941. Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv.
At 13.30 hours Brigadier Willison notes the impending attack of about 50 tanks. It is faced by ‘D’ Squadron 7 R.T.R. facing west in hull-down positions, while 4 R.T.R. is in reserve, and the broken down tanks (crocks) of 44 R.T.R. guarding towards the east. It is clear that this is an attempted encirclement, with tanks also attacking from the direction of Belhamed, estimated as two groups of 36 tanks (21.Pz.Div). These were to be engaged by the remaining 9 cruisers of 32 Army Tank Brigade.
At this point 15. Panzerdivision is complete except some elements of the infantry 3km west of Ed Duda (see map below) and attacks in line with the plan with its tank regiment, grouped in two attack waves.
At 14.10 Rgt.z.b.V.200 with M.G.Btl.2 is orderded to follow the attack, wheeling through the left, via Bir Salem to Ed Duda. A.R.33 supports the attack, and while II./PR8 attacks the western slope of Ed Duda, I./PR8 defends against an attack of 20 Matilda tanks from the north-east. These soon retreat north, but cannot be pursued across a Wadi, leading to I./PR8 attacking the slope of the wadi in a north-westerly direction instead.
From the war diary of 32 Army Tank Brigade it does not appear any attack took place, but this is likely the squadron of 4 R.T.R. engaging.
At this point the artillery posted in the breakout salient is firing heavily on 15. Panzerdivision, directed by the Matilda tanks on Ed Duda. Even using the heavy artillery of Gruppe Böttcher only some of this Empire artillery can be neutralized.
Continuing the attack frontally, II./PR8 is engaging the AT and MG positions on Ed Duda and manages to break into the defensive position despite mines and wire, while I./PR8, advancing rapidly, fights down the infantry of the Essex regiment. The battalion destroys several Matilda tanks that again attacked from the north-east, and brings in 150 POWs.
The POWs were from ‘B’ Coy of 1 Essex, which from 14.30 hours reports to be under heavy fire from tanks close to the forward defense line. The war diary notes that a troop of Matildas that were forward of the lines had now withdrawn and were no longer engaging the enemy.
To propel the German attack forward, heavy Flak is brought up to take the load of the tanks, but the guns are damaged and get stuck under the continuing artillery fire. Only slowly, and suffering heavy losses, can Schtz.Rgt. 115 follow the tanks.
This fire was delivered by 1 R.H.A., who had good observation on the attack. To the east, the nine cruiser tanks of 1 R.T.R. had now driven off the attack, identified as 1 German Panzer III and 10 Italian tanks, although in reality all tanks were from Panzerregiment 5 of 21. Pz.Div.
As a result of this setback, at 15.32 hours a terse radio exchange takes place between the two divisions of the Afrikakorps:
Artillery fire from south into B Echelon, situation urgent, suggest 15.Pz.Div. on highest Jebel escarpment moves east.
Call for help not understood here! Where is Ariete? Am fighting myself.
New Zealand Official History
At 15.40 hours Ariete reports that artillery is threatening the open flank of 15.Pz.Div. It has now moved WNW and established contact with the Pavia infantry division, probably at Bir bu Cremeisa. The artillery fire on Ariete is confirmed in the war diaries of 4 and 22 Armoured Brigade.
At 16.03 hours the pressure of heavy long-range guns and a relentless tank attack are causing steady losses to the New Zealanders.
At 16.37 hours Brigadier Willison asks his HQ to report to Division that “I think we are countering an Armoured Division. GOC would probably like to know. Our fellows are putting up a magnificent fight and are well handled.” Just after this, at 16.40 hours he notes 30-40 trucks debussing infantry at the location of the German tanks.
By 16.55 hours the situation is becoming tense, and it is clear that the Germans have the numbers, and Brigadier Willison orders disabled tanks to be manned as a last ditch defense effort, noting that “We were getting a bit thin on the ground.”.
At 17.00 hours the mass of Schtz.Rgt.115 has broken into the Ed Duda position and prepares to defend it, in front of the tanks. Some parts of the regiment have however remained stuck to the west under heavy artillery fire. The GOC, protected by his command tank, slowly shepherds one section after the other to the Ed Duda height.
This location was again the position of long-suffering ‘B’ Coy 1 Essex, which now lost POWs from 11 and 12 Platoons. The Germans then moved into the rear of ‘A’ Coy, taking POW the majority of 8 & 9 platoons, while an attempt to attack from the south failed in the fire of ‘D’ Coy. The final attack is described in detail in the war diary, 18 tanks moving in line ahead at 2 miles per hour with infantry in-between, and a flank guard of 3 tanks either side.
It was at this point that the attack stopped, and the remaining 150 men and two AT guns of Schtz.Rgt.115 now are broken into two combat groups, one on each side of the Axis bypass road. A.R.33 is tasked with supporting them, while the reconnaissance battalion A.A.33 has the task to secure any gaps in the front by constant and aggressive patrolling. The motorcycle battalion KB15 forms the reserve. The Empire troops are considered to have withdrawn northeast, and artillery fire slackened.
The German infantry is digging in less than 200 yards off the HQ of 1 Essex however, and fails to clear the position completely, thus allowing the survival of a jumping off point for a counterattack during the night.
Light 10.5cm howitzer moving into firing position, North Africa, 1942. Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv.
At 17.15 hours the Ed Duda height is firmly under control of the Germans. After darkness falls some Matildas try to advance onto it but are forced off, after two are destroyed.
At 18.40 hours the order from the GOC Afrikakorps arrives at 15. Panzer, to make contact with 90.lei.Afrika-Division, and to interdict traffic moving into the fortress. Fatefully, PR8 is now ordered to move off west, to re-supply with ammunition, while the Empire artillery fire becomes more intensive. The German infantry is left on its own.
The German view at the end of the day is that the connection between the salient and Tobruk is nearly severed by the breakthrough and capture of Ed Duda. Tank losses were low during the day, 1/1/2 of Panzer II/III/IV, and the regiment has 11/25/3 operational at night, equivalent to about 2/3rds of a tank battalion.
During the night however, at 23.30, a counterattack with tanks and infantry of 2/13 Australian battalion is coming from the east, without the warning of an artillery preparation, hits Schtz.Rgt. 115. One AT gun is hit and destroyed, while the other is run over by a tank, while fighting another tank. Individual positions are then rolled over by tanks, weapons and ammunition crushed. At first the southern position of the regiment is taken, with most men becoming POW, and then the garrison of northern position has to retreat about 1,000m west of the western slope of Ed Duda where it makes contact with KB15, who were supposed to act as reserve but never were ordered forward in support.
Having driven the Germans off Ed Duda, the Australians organize for defense. Confusion on the German side prevents an immediate counterattack. The gain of a day’s hard fighting was lost, and the stage set for another three days of battle for the salient.
Map from the war diary (KTB) of 15. Panzerdivision. NARA via James – Rommelsriposte.com Collection
KTB of 15.Panzer
This entry covers the for second part of this battle, the afternoon advance to the east from Bir Salem to Ed Duda.
Panzer Regiment 8
Africa, 4. January 1942
Attack on Ed Duda 29. 11. 1941
On 29 November the regiment in its role as point of attack of the division receives the order to take the height of Ed Duda. The attack progresses quickly, as usually despite heavy flanking fire of artillery, but unexpectedly finds an Italian position at 10.30 hours at Bu Cremisa. At 12.30 the regiment again starts in a northerly direction. Despite heavy artillery fire it succeeds in gaining the descent at Bu Creimisa without loss, and to cross the two valley bottoms quickly.
Already at 13.00 hours the regiment crosses the Trigh Capuzzo and gains, advancing under the heaviest artillery fire, at 13.10 Bir Salem. An Italian strongpoint with artillery remains there. A terribly heavy artillery fire, including a number of heavy batteries from Tobruk, hits the regiment when it continues to drive, reaching the Axis bypass road and there turns east onto Ed Duda. To ease this turn the regimental commander leads ahead to Ed Duda with raised command flag and the clear order “Follow the leader!”, thereby having the regiment turn in eastwards behind him. Since the ground, because of the Wadis to the right and left of the Axis Bypass Road, did not allow a broadening of the regiment, the regimental commander decided to organize the regiment in two echelons, first echelon Captain Kümmel, second echelon Captain Wahl. Once the regiment had taken up the direction and structure as ordered, the regimental staff falls back in with the first echelon. machine gun and infantry positions on the western slope of Ed Duda to the left of the Axis Bypass Road are quickly overrun. Shortly before reaching the height of Ed Duda the regimental commander orders the 1st Battalion to attack the northern part of Ed Duda, while the 2nd Battalion should continue to advance along the Axis Bypass Road drawing level with the 1st Battalion.
Continuing, the 1st Battalion soon met 20 Matilda tanks attacking from the north and commenced the firefight with them immediately. The 2nd Battalion meanwhile combated frontally the numerous, wire protected, machine gun and AT gun positions on the height.
At 14.15 hours Captain Kümmel reports that the tanks are withdrawing towards north-east behind the height and that a further advance of his battalion was not possible because of a deeply cut Wadi athwart him. The regimental commander in a quick decision pulls Battalion Kümmel to the right wing and the regiment attacks with impetuous drive the height, now with the main effort on the right, in the following structure: ahead left battalion Wahl, ahead right Battalion Kümmel, with regimental staff. Captain Wahl in particular distinguished himself here by driving his battalion forward without regard, giving a personal example, despite heavy mining, despite K-rolls and of a large number of AT guns, while Captain Kümmel fought down the crew (Tobruk garrison, Essex Regiment) in a rapid drive, destroying a number of Matilda tanks which meanwhile had appeared from the northeast. At this time arrive single riflemen of the rifle battalion which was sent after the tanks.
At 17.15, despite strong artillery fire, the regiment stands on the hotly fought over height of Ed Duda as ordered, while the attack by the riflemen had stopped shortly before the height. Because of the heavy firefight of the afternoon the regiment had fired off about 20% of its ammunition at this time. To be able to smash attacks at any moment the regimental commander ordered to resupply on the battlefield, despite the heavy artillery fire. As always, this task is solved by First Lieutenant Lindner and his men in a first class and brave manner.
A counter-attack in darkness costs the the loss of two tanks. In this defense shared particularly the Panzer II, thanks to their rapid fire with 2cm tracer. At 20.00 hours the regiment is withdrawn under divisional orders.
Destroyed 5 Matilda, numerous AT guns and infantrie material. 150 POW were made.
3 tanks damaged by mines which could be repaired. Some dead and wounded.
Australian Official History map on this battle (all Australian material from this page, Chapter 10). AWM
Now, it is very interesting to read the New Zealand history on this here:
In particular on what happened after the tanks withdrew – the first para of the following excerpt refers to the first attack by four Matildas which was beaten off by the Panzer IIs. But it all went a bit pearshaped for the Germans after that:
When the light began to fail, some of the British tanks edged forward and the air was filled with tracers as the engaged them. The Pzkw IIs came into their own in this twilight clash and their 20-millimetre automatic cannon blazed in deadly fashion at the Matildas, knocking out two them. The Matildas in the end gave ground and the panzers followed them slowly, ending up in brilliant moonlight at 6.35 p.m. on the edge of the Australian position. German infantry also spread out and some began digging in 200 yards from the headquarters of 1 Essex. To Colonel Nichols the position looked desperate.
Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows of the Australian battalion prepared to counter-attack; but the moonlight was too bright, the German tanks still very much in evidence, and he decided to hold his hand until the moon was lower. His B Company on the right and C on the left formed up on either side of Nichols’s headquarters, A Company covered 1 RHA, whose gun positions were now very close to the German tanks, and D stayed in reserve ‘along the western approaches to Ed Duda’.
Then the Australian B Company suffered a tragic blow. As it moved forward a heavy shell landed directly on 10 Platoon, killing eight and wounding ten of its total of twenty-six men. The other two platoons, ‘displaying exemplary battle discipline, moved past the stricken platoon, disregarding the pathetic cries of the wounded and the dying’.1 The stretcher bearers were soon on the scene and the gap in the Australian ranks was filled when a platoon of A Company and the remnants of B Company of 1 Essex spontaneously lined up to join the attack. Nichols and Burrows had meanwhile1 Bayonets Abroad, p. 150.
– 406 –
called for tank support, and as the moon was waning eleven tanks came forward, all that was left of 4 Royal Tanks. These lined up astride the By-pass road ‘with only a foot between the horns of each tank’ and Willison inspected them there.1
When the I tanks counter-attacked, late at night, they ran all through the German lines, creating panic. Then the Australians fell with great vigour upon the two bewildered battle groups of 115 Regiment, ‘slew an undetermined number’,2 and took 167 prisoners, at a cost of only two killed and five wounded Australians. Mopping-up continued for the rest of the night and many small parties of enemy wandered in by mistake and were taken prisoner. The two Australian companies reorganised with the remainder of 1 Essex as a composite battalion under Colonel Nichols, occupying much the same ground as was originally defended.
On the side six officers and about fifty other ranks, the remnants of those elements of 115 Regiment which took part in the action, fell back 1000 yards to the west and formed a new position alongside 15 Motor Cycle Battalion. This unit of 200 Regiment had been brought forward to continue the attack through to Belhamed next day with 8 Panzer Regiment. A second attack on Ed Duda was briefly considered, but there were too few German infantry at hand to undertake it. Then Panzer Group, signalling to 33 Reconnaissance Unit to come under its command and report at once to El Adem, used by mistake the call sign of 15 Panzer, which therefore withdrew at once and reached Bir Salem before the mistake was discovered.3 Thus the whole division was back where it started and the attack on Ed Duda gained nothing. Like the first attack on Capuzzo, it exposed weaknesses in the defence which were soon remedied so that any further attack would be harder still.
Australian Official History map of 2/13 Battalion’s Attack. AWM
Below is the relevant excerpt from the official Australian history, Chapter 10, Ed Duda. Many thanks to JonS for pointing out to me that this is the place to look for the action, since 2/13 Battalion carried out the counterattack.
About 1 p.m. the 15th Armoured Division began forming up to attack Ed Duda from the west. Captain Salt of the 1st R .H.A’s Chestnut Troop broadcast a running description of their deployment and approach, and of the early development of the battle. The first German assault on the westernmost positions of the 1 /Essex was thrown back by the infantry and anti-tank gunners. Colonel O’Carroll of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment ordered all tanks to the top of Ed Duda and those at hand went with him; about eight, including some acting as armoured command posts for the 1st R.H.A., went on to the main feature. (Footnote 8 – Not all the tank commanders managed to comply with this instruction. The charge is made in a British narrative that some non-participation arose because a tank commander “had been seized as a suspect by the 2/13th Australian Infantry Battalion and not released until 9 p .m. ” On the likelihood that any such irresponsible action was taken by the experienced, earnest and realistic Australians, no comment is offered.) For a time the German tanks stood off and bombarded the pits and sangars of the Essex infantry, neutralised their machine and anti-tank guns and cleared the minefields with patrols. Captain Salt’s tank was hit and he was killed. Major Goschen’s tank was also knocked out; Captain Armitage rescued him and his crew. This disorganised the artillery support, and about 4 .30 p.m. the started closing in from the west.
It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was behind them. Three of our tanks came up on the side of our position, later joined by a fourth. They were Matildas. They started withdrawing in pairs, firing as they went. As the heavy tanks got nearer the position, the German light Mk. IIs moved up on our flank, and swept the area with machine-gun fire. Some posts continued firing. The German tanks, twenty of them, fanned out and formed a line right across the middle of the battalion position. Our four tanks had cleverly withdrawn behind us to a hulls-down position. It was starting to get dark. They had halted just short of where our tanks could engage them. (Footnote 9 – Martin, The Essex Regiment 1929-1950, pp. 635-6. From a description by Lieutenant P. P. S. Brownless.)
The loss of Ed Duda was reported to Burrows about nightfall when he was called to a tank in direct communication with Willison’s headquarters. The possibility of a counter-attack by the 2/13th Battalion was discussed. Burrows indicated that he was prepared to attack infantry but not tanks. The issues were hammered out at a conference at Willison’s headquarters about 8 p.m.; it was conceded that 2/13th would not be expected to attack against tanks without tank support. The 2/13th Battalion was to counter-attack at Ed Duda with two companies and provide one company to protect the 1st R.H.A’s gun area near Belhamed. The rest of the battalion was to be organised to hold the escarpment where the battalion was then situated.
The 2/13th headquarters were on the escarpment about 1,000 yards north-east of the Ed Duda pass. “C” and “D” Companies were detailed for the counter-attack, but when it appeared that the outlying “D” Company would not reach battalion headquarters by the time prescribed for leaving, Burrows issued a last-minute order that “B” Company (Captain Graham) would take its place and move off with “C” Company (Captain Walsoe) . The two companies were then assembled by platoons in column of route at the foot of the escarpment on its northern side. A troop of 25-pounders was firing directly over their heads from behind a ridge to the north-east but the night was otherwise quiet. The guns stopped firing and almost as they did so a shell landed in the middle of a closely-bunched platoon of Graham’s company, killing or wounding almost all.
It was necessary for Burrows, so as to be on time at the rendezvous, to order the rest of the column to march past. As the men did so with exemplary discipline, heart-rending cries from the stricken platoon assailed hem. They were then led in silence round the foot of the escarpment to a start-line laid for an attack south-west on both sides of the “pimples» of the Ed Duda feature. The forms of tanks could be identified through binoculars on the objective some 500 yards away. Burrows refused to allow the attack to proceed. The start was postponed while he went back to Willison’s headquarters. Only one conclusion was possible. If Ed Duda was to be retaken, the German tanks would have to be dislodged; if Willison’s tanks could not do this, there was no other way. It was decided that it would have to be a close-in tank-to-tank and man-to-man fight without artillery support. This may have been influenced by the fact that the 1st R.H.A’s “A/E” Battery had withdrawn to Tiger after dusk and Colonel Williams had ordered “B/O” Battery back in the belief that the by-pass road was not blocked. The 4th R.T.R., however, was maintaining a block just forward of the 2/ 13th with three tanks and the 44th R.T.R. was maintaining another to the east. It was decided that the battery’s departure could no longer be delayed.
So, while in the desert not far to the south Gott’s armoured brigades again spent an untroubled night in a leaguer off the battlefield, Willison’s tanks, which had been in the thick of the fight for nine days, came forward with devotion and pluck to try conclusions with the main tank force of the Africa Corps.
Accounts of the battle are difficult to reconcile. Some misunderstandings have arisen because descriptions of incidents have been read as descriptions of an entire engagement, which was a long one. The tanks fought for about three hours, the infantry for about fifteen minutes. The battle began when eight Matilda tanks approached the Ed Duda escarpment from low ground in front and fought the German tanks skylined above .The contest provided a most spectacular fireworks display . Streams of small-arms tracer fire, which seemed to issue from holes in the hill, and fiery marbles spat out by automatic cannon converged on the British tanks’ hulls and ricocheted from them like splashing molten metal. The Matildas stabbed back with rapid Besa machine-gun fire. Sharp exchanges of 2-pounder or 50-mm shot rang out; some tanks and vehicles on either side caught fire. The British tanks outnumbered by about three to one continued to engage, but the worrying question was whether all or most had been immobilised. Soon it was answered when some were seen to advance a short distance. Then it was puzzling to observe the same tanks withdraw. But they returned to the fray. In the end the puzzle of the battle was that the German tanks, after having appeared to have the upper hand, withdrew and did not come back. The Germans later blamed the receipt of a wrongly coded message purporting to recall the 8thArmoured Regiment, but the battle had been decided before the message was received. British tank crews had for once fought German tanks in an action in which the Germans could not employ their guns to weight the odds against the British ; at the end the outnumbered British were there, the Germans gone .
At one stage it had been planned to delay the infantry attack until the moon set behind the western ridge but when it appeared that the German tanks had departed Willison and Burrows decided to attack a t1 .30 a.m. German war diaries make it plain that complete surprise was achieved because the attack was made without artillery support (as though an offence against the ethics of war had been perpetrated) . Burrows, however, was more interested in frightening than surprising the and told the men to call out “Australians coming” as they assaulted. In the same spirit the Matildas advancing on the flanks soon had their tank engines roaring at full throttle and were firing wildly when on the move. Unfortunately battles often do not proceed according to plan. Soon the enthusiastic British tank gunners were shooting up the charging Australians, mistaking them for retreating Germans, and the ignorant Germans, despite the Australians’ shouted attempts to identify themselves, were crying out “Engländer kommen”.
The following are extracts from an account written by a soldier about two months after the battle: (Footnote 2 – CO Thompson of 2/13 Bn Int Sec.)
Captain Walsoe fired a green Very flare and the attack started with two platoons of B Company on the left and C Company on the right. C company had first to ascertain whether the men to their front belonged to the Essex Battalion or were Germans. Soon however a German was captured. Colonel Burrows moved with the men telling them to call out “The Australians are coming” when they charged . The men went forward at a steady walking pace until they sighted the . There was no need to advise them to shout when they went in : shouting, yelling, cooeeing like madmen, they charged with the bayonet . The seemed stupefied. There was no concerted resistance. Those who did not run either threw themselves on the ground or held up their hands. As the attack progressed through the ‘s positions Germans could be heard running in front calling out “Englander kommen” . . . . The advance was continued to a distance of 500yards beyond the top of the opposing ridge, but though Germans were heard running and shouting in the distance the men were recalled, since it would have been unwise to have gone further. Small pockets of were soon mopped up and the companies withdrew to the southern slope of Ed Duda. B company sent out a patrol and took another 15 prisoners from a post on the left flank.
motor transport was heard moving about in confusion but could not be captured in the darkness, but a motor cyclist was stopped by a burst of TSMG fire and captured.
Although at the moment of assault the men charged with vigour and elation, Walsoe and Graham kept their companies in hand and platoon commanders and section leaders maintained control. Organised resistance was met only on the fringes, and there, by initiative and with confidence in night fighting based on patrol experience, the Australians kept on top .On the right, for example, Sergeant Searle (Footnote 3 – Capt J. E. Searle, DCM, NX21876; 2/13 Bn . Bank officer; of Cudal, NSW; b. Bathurst, NSW, 10 Mar 1919) put in a quick charge and subdued a pocket of that opened fire when challenged. Two men nearby who were slow to stand up and surrender were about to be dispatched with the bayonet when they identified themselves as Australian stretcher bearers captured by the that evening. On the other flank Private Ferres (Footnote 4 – Cpl H. Ferres, MM, NX17484; 2/13 Bn. Labourer; of Paddington, NSW; b. Sydney, 12 Dec 1919) firing his Bren gun from the hip and leading three other men assaulted a troublesome post and took the surrender of 25 Germans. The prisoners taken in the attack—almost all by the Australians—numbered 167. Only 7 Australians were wounded, two mortally.
The Australians were quickly reorganised to form a compact two-company front in the centre of the Ed Duda position, where they prepared for an immediate counter-attack. What was needed was to get belowground at once and be concealed as much as possible by dawn, but only one or two picks or shovels could be found. Infantry could hardly have been placed with less protection in a more vulnerable position than these men on Ed Duda at the very hinge of the Tobruk corridor; but no immediate counter-attack was made.