Totensonntag – the Experience of 6 New Zealand Brigade

The battle of Totensonntag saw the destruction of 5th South African Brigade and another hammering of what remained of 7th Support Group of 7th Armoured Division.  The Germans could have won the CRUSADER battle that day, had they stuck around on the battlefield to finish the job, instead of swanning off to the border in a futile (but exciting – for the Commonwealth forces) rush.  Those German forces that brought about the victory suffered heavily, with many officers being killed when they attempted to get their men forward again, and a good number of tanks lost.

The report below is from the commanding officer 6 NZ Brigade, Brigadier Barrowclough DSO (and later Bar, awarded for the battles around Sidi Rezegh), and is appended to the war diary of 1st Army Tank Brigade:

Report from COM 6 N Z Bde, dated 24/11/41

on operations of 23/11/41

————————————————————-

On leading 485391 (a map reference) proceed to and occupy Pt 175 438404 then consolidate.  Then extend South and contact 5 SA Bde 438400.  Left R.V. 1445 hrs and proceeded to Gasr el Arid and contacted enemy.  A few PW taken. Proceeded further 3 m. Message from 30 Corps suggesting moving S of Bir Chleta. In darkness to ran into En Tps at Bir C and were engaged in short action. A No of PWs and tpt AFVs operationg on rd from Gambut driven off by fire. were not attacked by enemy who retured leaving with us British officer who had been PW. He was in 8 H Rgt. He said ravine beyond 175 was very heavily held. 30 Corps then urgently asked us to get into touch with SA Bde. One Bn was despatched to them (about 6 m). They made contact. Attack on 175 met gt opposition. They were heavily shelled with A/Tk guns at end of day only two were effective. Casualties heavy (120) incl Col McNaught and 3 Coy Comds killed.  2 Coys of Res Bn were committed to this op when 26 Bn advised that they were heavily attacked while in contact with SA Bde. SA Bde were over-run.  Reported as streaming southwards. 26 Bn held their ground until nightfall. Were completely isolated. Brig withdrew Bn and closed them on Bde which with its tpt was too long a task to protect. Withdrawal orderly. During afternoon very many casualties on Germans. Sup Bty fired over open sights. Own cas were light. During night Bde concentrated in leaguer with allround A Tk defence. Word received from 7 Armd Div that Tk attack to be expected to-day. At present in very small perimter necessitated by requireùments of all round defence.  Would be glad to disperse a little further if we knew that other units of Div were joining up with us. Had orders to push on with El Ressig (A verbal message). As Armd forces were withdrawing South point was lost.

On news of 7 Armd Div. Recaptured 9 American Tanks being manned by crews of Tank Bn attached. Tanks of this Bn were lost.

Col McNaught            W

Capt McDonald          24 K

Capt Roberts              25 K

Capt Weaney              26 K

Hussars were captured by Germans using American Tanks without recognition signals. Tanks were captured by Arty OP with Tommy guns.

ADS is quite clear.

Two PW here trying to send back to Corps.

Inf has retreated North-West across the flat.

Amn short situation urgent.

The official New Zealand history by Murphy describes the event in this section and the following.

The text is given as in the original report, and I tried to stay close to the original formatting. Here are some explanation for the abbreviations:

ADS – ?

AFV – armoured fighting vehicle

Amn – ammunition

Armd – armoured

A/Tk – anti-tank

Bde – Brigade

Brig – Brigadier

Bn – battalion

bty – battery

Com – commander

Comds – ommanders

Coy – Company

Div – Division

m – mile

PW –  prisoners of war

R.V. – rendez-vous (?)

rd – road

Sup – Support

tpt – transport

Tk – Tank

26 thoughts on “Totensonntag – the Experience of 6 New Zealand Brigade

  1. A.D.S. – Advanced Dressing Station
    R.V. – rendez-vous

    Barrowclough went on to become commander of 3(NZ)Div in the Pacific, and at various points commanded significant US Forces attached to 3Div in the Solomon Islands. IMO, he was probably the best of the NZ Bde Commanders till he left, which roughly coincided with Kippenberger taking over 5 Bde.

  2. Hello,

    In term of analysis, this day was a turning point, but the 8th Army steal had some fresh units in such quantities in the vicinity, that to “finish the job” is not as easy as it might be.
    And we must remember that Axis commanders were really anxious to what happened near the Border (the Wire sector : Bardia – Halfaya).
    I am not sure that the decision of Rommel to crush to the Wire was the wrongest one, but what I can certainly say is the way Rommel applied his decision was the wrongest one (too fast, too much disorganisation…) !
    Only my two cents thoughts, and sorry for my bad english…
    CM

    • I agree that at the time it must have looked like a good decision to him (even though Cruewell strongly disagreed). The effect he desired was achieved on Cunningham, but of course what could not be expected by Rommel was that he would for the first time meet the determination of Auchinleck. Rommel was gambling on his opposing commander losing his nerve, and the gamble succeeded. But then the opposing commander was sacked and that’s when it all started to go wrong. That the execution of the counterstroke was dogged by very bad organisation, failure to concentrate, and plain bad luck (missing important landing grounds and supply depots by a few miles) did of course not help either.

      All the best

      Andreas

  3. R’s situation was a microcosm of Germany’s in both rounds of the WW: keep the battlefield moving, win quickly…or not at all. So “Dash to the Wire” was the right move, and all but succeeded. But for the intelligence and courage of one man – Sandy Galloway, Cunningham’s BGS – who faced down his superior and refused to transmit an order to break off the battle, 8th Army would have disintegrated then and there, and with awful strategic consequences for the Empire.

    • Again, we’ll have to agree to disagree. If Rommel had taken it more deliberately, as suggested by Cruewell (clean up the Sidi Rezegh battlefield, and then move), there is no doubt in my mind that the Axis could have won. With the gamble on the dash to the wire they banked on winning a game of chicken. After Totensonntag the Axis had full control of the battle. If they had turned towards Tobruk to crush the breakout (which they could have done easily, in my view), instead of throwing away tanks in a fruitless set of battles on the border, they could have gone on to defeat the Commonwealth in detail. First the Tobruk salient, then the New Zealand Division, and then the border. 7th Armoured was a spent force at this point.

  4. Or been worn down in detail: Tottensontag was a phyrric victory, almost half his remaining armor lost then and there. Besides, R wasn’t looking just to win a positional battle; he was a loose cannon, one of the reasons Hitler exiled him to what he intended to be no more than a secondary front. No matter how tight Hitler’s leash, R. was looking to win the war. And had not something remarkable happened at Cunningham’s HQ on the 24th, I think 8th Army would have disintergrated and R. been in Cairo within the week. Then, even the dolt in Berlin might have seized the opportunity. In all, I admire a man who bets all then rolls the dice and loses; way more than one who won’t roll them at all for fear of losing.

    • There was never a risk of Rommel being in Cairo by end November 41. He still would have to defeat 2 South African Division, 11 Indian Brigade (which was held in reserve), and the New Zealand Division. There were also still 1 South African Brigade and 22 Guards Brigade, which had not really been involved in the battle. Command disintegration would not have led to these units just folding, and he simply did not have the supply reserves to get anywhere near Cairo.

      I admire a man who can take counsel of his peers, and then arrives at a justifiable decision after considering the options. It’s war, not a gamble, and dice-rolling should not have a part in it. Rommel made a massive mistake, and lost a battle he could have won through impulsive recklessness.

  5. “Command disintegration”? On 24 November the whole Empire center was collapsing inward; not only supply units but also many fighting troops and AFVs. Had Cunningham’s order to break off the battle and pull back into Egypt gone out to the Corps Commanders, the rot would have swiftly spread to the flanks – NZ Brigades in the north, 22nd Guards at the FSD – as well; then R. gets the supplies. Based on (non-) performance of Pienaar’s SA Brigade after Totensonntag, and the way 2nd SA Div wilted at Tobruk a few months later, I think both would have quickly cracked and joined the rout. That one remaining intact Indian Brigade wouldn’t have been sufficient to stem the tide. Overall, I think you give too much weight to objective factors and insufficient to the psychology of battle – psych of panic in particular – when decisions, esp. by officers at all levels, have to be made in conditions of tremendous stress and insufficient information; like it or not, the dice are always being rolled. Looked at this way, I see it all as less a blunder by Rommel, and more a matter of Galloway, Belcham, Coningham, and Auchinleck coming up very big indeed.

  6. Hallo Andreas and Dragonconquerer

    That’s a really interesting debate on “What If”.

    I can’t agree with the opinion that an Allied collapse on the egyptian border will pull irreparably the loss of the Nile’s Delta, especially when Tobruk is still besieged.

    We muste remember that even with Tobruk under control, and with the capture of all 8th Army stocks in the Western desert, Rommel cannot go strait to the Nile without stop.

    And the situation at the end of november 41 is quite different : After the victory of the first Sidi Rezegh battle, Rommel was really anxious of the resistance of Halfaya and Bardia (the border sector), besieged and threaten by important forces still intact.

    That’s why he was so hurry to exploit to the border his early successes, won at heavy cost.

    We cannot judge his action with our knowledge of what happen “after”. Rommel really believed that his posts on the border sector are too weak to resist for a long time (in fact that’s the case). Sidi Omar was fallen the 23rd of november.

    The problem, in my mind, is not on Rommel’s decision to dash to the Wire as soon as possible (Cruewell’s choice would imply to accept the sacrifice all Halfaya’s sector – Rommel nor italians were ready for this). The real problem is to go as fast as he did, loosing control of his units already reduced by the earlier fights.

    He might go slowlier, and in a more organized way.

    Hope this will help,

    Regards,

    CM

    • I agree it is interesting.

      I think that if he had gone slower, he would have figured out that:

      a) What Suemmermann reported from Tobruk (all is fine & dandy and the breakout is under control) was porkies; b) that the frontier garrison could withstand a divisional attack a bit longer, thank you very much; and c) that someone (4 and 6 New Zealand Brigade) was moving west north of him

      That then would have led to the only sensible course of action:

      Phase I: i) clean up Sidi Rezegh ii) block the westward move of the NZ Division iii) smash the forces in the Tobruk breakout area and push 70 Division back behind the siege lines

      All in all 2-3 days for this, on the outside.

      Phase II: i) Smash whatever reconstituted armour 7 Armoured Division can bring into battle ii) move with all forces in a deliberate manner to the east to connect with the garrisons, thereby splitting 4 Indian and the NZ Division, pinning the latter against the coast iii) Turn north and destroy the NZ Division iv) Consolidate the battlefield v) recce south and ascertain what is east of Bir el Gobi, and push whatever it is (1 SA Brigade and 22 Guards Brigade) back across the frontier wire

      Another 3-4 days for this.

      Phase III i) take stock of what is left in terms of resources ii) bring back into life damaged armour and vehicles iii) carry out the assault on the now very much weakened Tobruk force

      Another 2-3 weeks for this

      By Christmas, Tobruk is no more, and the Axis forces hold sway up to the frontier wire. The Commonwealth is too weak to seriously threaten them for the next 4 Months. Since overall Axis losses are much less than were experienced in real life, they can bounce back quicker, and move on the initiative for Egypt by late March/early April.

      • Yes you are right.

        And to go slower, he would have avoid losses, troubles and problems which prevented from inflicting losses to the Allied forces besieging the border sector.

        The problem is double : Rommel took his decision on a wrong appreciation of the situation (you are right) But he also executed his decision in such awful way that in fact he wasted all profits acquired at heavy cost the previous days.

        I have to complete your appreciation in two ways : first Axis’s losses the 21-22nd of november are heavy and would have transormed any attack on Tobruk on a risked gambit with uncertain results, and second, Allied forces in the Middle-East are not unimportant (for exemple australians are still in Palestine).

        Happy to see that all is good for you (still in London ?). You never replied to my several mails asking for news from you :-((

        CM

      • I fully agree by the way that the issue was two-fold. The execution was simply awful, and further significantly weakened German tank forces.

        Regarding carrying out the assault on Tobruk, I think however that the weakening of the garrison in the breakout and subsequent pushback (in this scenario) would have made the job a lot easier. Heavy tank losses, and 14 Brigade (if I remember correctly) pretty much a spent force.

        Your point on the allied forces in the Middle East is quite correct. Just from memory: elements of 5 Indian Division, the Australian Corps, the Free French with at least one combat-ready Brigade, 1 Cavalry Division (in the process of losing their horsies 😉 ), parts at least of 50 Division. Plus 2 South African Division and 11 Indian Brigade east of Halfaya. Those are not insignificant forces, and certainly too much to handle for the Axis forces in Libya, weakened already.

        All the best,

        Andreas

  7. Désolé pas là du week-end.
    Je t’ai écrit en janvier et en mai. Je suis allé à Londres et je t’aurai rencontré avec plaisir (j’ai pu déjeuner avexc David par exemple).
    En fait il faudrait que tu me redonnes ton mail.
    CM

  8. All of you Armchair Generals – I consider myself armchair Kitchen Police – seem to be insufficiently aware of how bad the Empire rout was getting on 23-24 November; real and spreading chaos. As of today I’m only up to 21 November at my site, but when I get to the critical hours I plan to post all sorts of exciting stuff. This is all on the one hand. On the other, R’s supply situation: very bad, and deteriorating by the day. He had to win quick, by keeping the battlefield moving, or not win at all. Your scenario is interesting, but would have resulted in the same old battle of attrition that occured after the Dash to the Wire failed: during the westward recoil he substantially destroyed the NZ Division anyway….and still lost.

    • But I think in this you overlook:

      a) the losses suffered by the Afrikakorps’ tank force during the dash, which were substantial, especially in PR5 (and there were also heavy infantry losses in the engineer battalion of 15 PD during the attack on Capuzzo I believe);
      b) the losses in tanks suffered when the Axis Bypass tank collection point was abandoned on 26 November; and
      b) the losses suffered by the Tobruk encirclement force in the period between Totensonntag and the return of the Afrikakorps from the east.

      In the scenario I set out, the Axis forces would have been far stronger in the Tobruk area on 24 November than they were on 27 November. In my view sufficiently strong to achieve their objective, especially considering that they would have been able to concentrate forces in the area with relative ease, working on internal lines of communications – this refers especially to Gambarra’s motorised Corps.

      I do not see the tradeoff of speed and victory you postulate. Especially since by staying in the area, the Axis supply situation would actually improve. Less petrol used, less unprotected supply columns lost to marauding British columns, and the ability to draw on local supply stores, and captured supplies from the Totensonntag battlefield.

      So overall, attempting the destruction of Commonwealth forces in the area north of Sidi Rezegh, up to the Tobruk and Bardia encirclement lines, would have been a fare more plausible plan on 24 November than it was on 27 November, in my view.

      All the best

      Andreas

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      • Dear Andreas
        Thank you for your response. Like you, I am doing whatever I can to raise the public awareness of this campaign so if I can help in any way I will be delighted to assist.
        Kind regards
        Peter

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