In the Wehrmacht, there apparently was a joke that the life of a gunner in the assault artillery was short, but exciting (so much for Germans not having any humour). The same could be said for the participation of 6 RTR in Operation CRUSADER.
The Mystery of 6 R.T.R.’s War Diary
There has been an assumption on the internet that the war diary of 6 RTR for Operation CRUSADER has been lost. This does in fact not appear to be the case, and it seems simply to be the case of Liddell-Hart being a bit careless in filing… As before, great thanks are due to the staff and volunteers at the Tank Museum Archives, Bovington, UK. The copy I received has a note on it “November 1941 -Missing [see RTR/6RTRdesert.doc]” and what appears to be an original is in a separate/older and has ink annotations, which I suspect maybe from by Liddel-Hart.
6 R.T.R. in Operation CRUSADER
6 RTR was one of the three armoured regiments in 7 Armoured Brigade, 7 Armoured Division, 30 Corps, Eighth Army. It was the only regiment in 7 Armoured Brigade to be fully equipped with Crusader tanks. The Brigade advanced along the centre line of the division and pushed furthest during the initial phase of the advance, reaching almost to the German siege lines of Tobruk when it seized the Sidi Rezegh airfield on 19 November. After an already exciting day on 20 November, on 21 November the regiment was put into an attack that saw it being annihilated, in a classic screw-up of war. The remains of the regiment left the airfield on 23 November and passed out of CRUSADER into the rear area of 8th Army and to Egypt. It is quite likely that individual crews of the regiment and officers were assigned to replacement tanks joining the battle, but the regiment itself was spent, and would not see action again until May/June 1942.
Crusader tanks from an unknown unit moving to forward positions in the Western Desert, 26 November 1941. Courtesy IWM Collections E6724
Operations on Sidi Rezegh Airfield – 21 Nov 1941. Courtesy National Archives CAB44/92
21 November 1941 – the End of 6 R.T.R. in Operation CRUSADER
It is difficult to comprehend what the commanders on Sidi Rezegh (Brigadiers Campbell of Support Group and Davy of 7 Armoured Brigade) were thinking when they ordered 6 RTR to undertake this attack into what must have been known to be a strong position. While Davey after the war appears to blame Campbell (who by then was conveniently dead, as was the Division’s GOC, Gott, meaning they could not defend themselves), his own report written shortly after the operation notes it as a mistake that he allowed 6 RTR to attack, because it split his tank force (with drastic consequences for 7 Hussars (see this older entry), and the battle itself). There is a good discussion at the Axis History Forum on this link.
Diary. 6th Royal Tank Regiment. November 1941.
1.-10 Training by Squadrons with emphasis on gunnery.
6.11.41 Major G M Warren joined the Regiment and took over the duties of regimental 2 i/c.
11.11.41 Regiment moved to area Alam el Rs.
12.11.41 Gunnery practice.
13-16 Training by Squadrons.
Operation Order No 4 issued (Appx A); Regimental intention to move to area 440378 with a view to taking up battle positions there
1000. Replenishment party left for Pt 181.
At last light regiment moved into close leaguer. Regimental strength 40 tanks.
0530: Regiment left leaguer area in close column moving out into trident (C Sqn leading) at first light.
0930: Crossed the wire south of gap 75.
1000: Regiment reached Pt 181 and replenished by squadrons.
1200: Regiment continues to advance along divisional axis in the same formation.
1730: Regt arrived at Gabr Fatma (446372) and leaguered for the night with DD Battery RHA.
0600: Regt moved out into open leaguer where necessary maintenance and refueling was carried out. [L-H note: Why so long delays?]
1200: Verbal orders issued for move to Sidi Resegh. C Sqn leading B Sqn protection left, RHQ & A Sqn. Lorry camouflage was dropped.
1630: Aerodrome to south-east of Sidi Resegh, on which enemy aircraft could be seen, spotted by leading troop of C Sqn. Regt attacked and captured aerodrome, little resistance being offered by the defenders. One aircraft shot down in attempting to escape; two transport planes, 17 fighter aircraft and 60 prisoners captured, several other aircraft already destroyed upon the ground.
1800. Regiment leaguered on NE edge of aerodrome with HDD battery RHA and A Echelon. During the night the leaguer was approached by a German patrol which was driven off and 6 prisoners taken by scout car troop under Sgt Hopwood. Enemy movements all night, they appeared to be working quite openly, with no regard to noise made, and seemed to be bringing up guns of some sort from the valley to the north of the regiment’s position. Three times during the night small arms fire was directed into the leaguer and was returned by sentries. All this activity kept everybody awake and inside their tanks.
0500: approx: small arms fire and A/T fire of considerable intensity was directed into the camp from the NE. A Verey light put up from C Sqn revealed a considerable concentration of infantry and A/T guns to the NE. A/T guns and tanks also opened fire at extreme range from NE. another Verey light was put up from rear of the regiment which revealed our position clearly. The regiment engaged the enemy position with MG fire. DD Battery RHA withdrew to the south and took up a position. Several B vehicles of A1 echelon were destroyed. Two tanks were hit, 2/Lt Hancock, A Sqn, Cpl Hallahan A Sqn and Tpr Bulbick C Sqn were killed.
0600: approx: an attack was carried out on the enemy positions to the East by a troop of A Sqn under Lt Jackson. 15 enemy AT weapons being destroyed. One tank of ours was knocked out and towed out of action. The Regiment continued to engage the enemy until 0930, when they were ordered to withdraw to the south of the aerodrome. Later in the morning the regiment took up position in defence of the aerodrome, A Sqn facing west, B Sqn north, C Sqn east. During the rest of the day the regiment stayed in these positions, whilst an artillery duel took place between our gunners and the Germans, our tanks helping to observe.
During the day B Sqn destroyed one German Mk 1 tank and some infantry. During this action Lt Permuy, Sgt Dunning and Cpl Baker were wounded.
A troop of C Sqn under Lt K Fidler was sent out to investigate the right flank and destroyed one medium gun. Two of our tanks were put out of action, but were towed out safely. L/Cpl Knott was killed. Several tanks rejoined the regiment in the afternoon after having been repaired by their crews.
At dusk the regiment leaguered on the SE corner of the aerodrome with A Company 2 RB. B Echelon was attacked b a formation of diver bombers, SSM Cowie being killed.
0600: Regiment moved out of leaguer and took up the same positions as the previous day. Orders received for and attack to be made to the NW with 2 RB with orders to seize and hold the cross-roads at Sidi Resegh and make contact with 38th Bde [this is definitely wrong] who were to attack from Tobruk towards Ed Duda. Start line was from SW corner of aerodrome. A Sq’s task was to occupy Pt 167 (432404), establish 2 RB in that area and protect the left flank of 60th [KRRC] who were making a similar attack on our right with 7th Hussars (though this regiment was later withdrawn to meet an enemy attack from the east.) B & C Sqns were then to go through, capture the cross-roads and link up with 38th Bde at Ed Duda.
0830: Regiment crossed the start line. A Sqn reached their objective with 2 RB. 5 Mk II German tanks, one M13, one 105 mm gun, several AT guns destroyed and 300 prisoners taken. 2/Lt Mitchell’s tank was knocked out and Lt Jackson wounded. The remainder of the Regiment in order RHQ, B Sqn, C Sqn, then passed through. Strong enemy gun positions were encountered in the valley to the north of the aerodrome, some guns were destroyed, but the attack was stopped after several tanks had reached the escarpment north of Trigh Capuzzo.
During this action the following were killed, wounded or missing:-
LtCol M D B Lister, commanding officer
Major G M Warren, 2 i/c
Capt J R Cuttwell, Adjutant
Lt E Delson, Intelligence officer
2/Lt T R Price, HQ Troop commander
Major F C K M Laing, MC. commanding C Sqn
Major F Miller, commanding B Sqn
Lt M S Hutton, B Sqn.
Several tanks from C Sqn and two from B Sqn were left. these rallied with A Sqn at Pt 167 making a total force of 17 tanks under the command of Capt S D G Longworth OC A Sqn.
1200. The Regiment being now out of touch with 7th Armoured Bde was put under orders of the Commander Support Group. It was reported that some enemy tanks were approaching from NE. The Regiment formed line ahead and attacked, a brief action took place in which some of the enemy tanks were destroyed, the remainder withdrew rapidly. The Regiment rallied on the aerodrome having suffered no casualties.
Later in the afternoon a large force of German tanks was reported to the south. A patrol of 5 tanks under Capt Ainsley was sent out by the Regiment to observe. The patrol reported approximately 100 enemy tanks approaching the aerodrome from the south, they were engaged by our artillery and the Regiment who had taken up a position in line to the south of the aerodrome.
After this engagement which had taken place at extreme range, the enemy withdrew to the SE and continued to shell our positions with artillery and Mk IV tanks. 5 of our tanks had been destroyed in this action. Capt Ainsley was killed. Later most of the enemy tanks withdrew out ofsight to the east, although a few could still be seen supported by a large force of infantry.
In the evening the enemy tanks were again reported to be approaching from the south. The Regiment, now consisting of 12 tanks, was ordered to attack and to prevent them from reaching the aerodrome, until the 22nd Armd Bde could arrive to support us. The Regiment formed battle line and engaged the enemy from a range of about 1,000 yds, our artillery and AT guns also engaged the enemy tanks. The action lasted for approximately 20 minutes in which time three of our tanks were destroyed and four were forced to withdraw with hits in vital parts. It was difficult to ascertain what casualties had been inflicted on the enemy owing to rain which had reduced visibility and the tendency of the German tanks not to catch fire. 5, however, were definitely burning and several more left behind when the enemy again withdrew to the east.
HQ 7th Armd Bde was now located and the Regiment rallied on them. The Regt’s strength was now about 7 tanks, 3 of which were on tow and only 1 fit for action. The night was spent in leaguer with HQ 7 Armed Bde to the south of the aerodrome.
At first light the Regt moved out to take up a defensive position to the SW of the aerodrome, the one fit tank, with 2/ Lt Stainton, was sent on to the aerodrome and was put under the orders ofthe Commander Support Group. 3 other tanks of the Regt which had been in Ordnance, continued to operate with 22nd Armd Bde and 4th Armd Bde. Later in the morning the Regt moved 5 miles south and joined HQ 7th Armd Bde where recovery vehicles could be found. The Regiment spent the remainder of the day in this area, doing what maintenance was possible and having the first meal since before the occupation of the aerodrome. Three more tanks under Capt E L S Gjemre MC [spelling?] now arrived back from Ordnance and were used to escort 600 German and Italian prisoners back from the area of the aerodrome. During the day B Echelon was attacked by a formation of tanks, several vehicles were lost and some of the drivers reported missing.
The Regt moved back along the Divisional axis to B Echelon area Gabr Gatma, escorting prisoners who were handed over to RASC. Leaguered in that area for the night. Major E C Mitford, MC, rejoined the Regiment and took over command.
 Down from 49 tanks on the roll before the operation started. This means that the regiment was 12 tanks, under strength at this point.
 Under repair.
German 88mm gun on 8 June 1942 outside Bir Hacheim, acting as counter battery. Courtesy Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv Bild 101I-443-1574-24
Below some info from the Axis side
Combat report excerpt of A.A.3 for 20/21 November 1941
Difficult night march via Via Balbia and Axis Road up to Belhamed and from there further east into the left flank of the troops deployed on the Jebel escarpment to take over their flank protection. For this purpose the 2./Flak 18 is subordinated to the battalion.
Battalion engages tanks which broke through between the positions and receives new instructions from General Rommel. – Return march with continuous tank combat to the Belhamed. – From here battalion is deployed during the afternoon to engage tanks which broke out from Tobruk. 8.8 cm AA destroys six tanks during this. General Rommel drives along amongst the point vehicles of the battalion.
At 14.30 hours marching off from Belhamed to Via Balbia to Jebel ascent south of Gambut to secure and hold this. Arrival and subordination of a company from Pz.Pi.200 (engineer battalion of 21.Pz.Div.).
This article misrepresents the involvement and perspective of Brigadier G.M.O. Davy regarding the sacrifice of one of his battalions-6th Royal Tanks-on Nov. 21, 1941. No evidence as been presented to demonstrate that Davy initiated the order that caused two squadrons of Crusader tanks to “attack” beyond (or along) the Trigh Capuzzo. In fact, Davy had specifically condemned this change to an original plan to only place one squadron “astride” the trigh, ostensibly to hold open a path which 5th S.A. Brigade would then exploit. It is possible that Generals Gott or Norrie (G.O.C. XXX Corps) might have seen an opportunity to go beyond the original plan-certainly it was within their perogative to do so-and order an unsupported tank attack, but in any case, Davy did not approve of this alteration of the original plan. Surely a conscientious commander would feel some responsibility for catastrophic losses to his command, but must follow orders and adhere to the mission.
There is nothing in this regimental report which indicates Davy or Campbell originated the order to “attack” beyond the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, and there is nothing in “The Sidi Rezegh Battles 1941”-the S.A. Official History-which supports that interpretation either.
At 08:30 on the 21st the men of 1st KRRC, along with ‘A’ Company of 2nd Rifle Brigade and 6th RTR (less ‘A’ squadron), supported by 4th RHA and 60th Field Regt RA attacked the escarpment to the north of the airfield.
It was a classic rifle battalion attack, while the artillery laid a barrage on the Axis positions, which along with the dust from the carriers helped to obscure the infantry from the defenders.
The defenders were: 1st Battalion of 39th Fanteria and 73rd A/T Bersaglieri Company of the Italian Bologna Division plus 1st and 2nd Battalion of 155th Infantry Regiment of German Afrika Division.
In some areas the Axis defences were further away than expected and the carriers of ‘D’ Company (1st KRRC) on the right suffered with five out of the seven being hit. In the centre the carriers of ‘A’ Company, 1st KRRC also met heavy fire, but the moved off to the right, dismounted and then fought on foot, taking 30 prisoners before overwhelming the position.
In the middle the defenders were still in position and their fire caused many losses among the motor platoons crossing about 2,000 yards of open ground which offered no real cover, even when the men were laying down.
The CO of 6th RTR had led his RHQ, plus ‘B’ and ‘C’ squadrons in an attack across the Trigh Capuzzo and in the valley north of the airfield where they ran into strong defensive positions and started to lose tanks. Despite this several tanks did reach the escarpment beyond Trigh Capuzzo in the Belhamed area where they met with an unexpected standoff from 7th Company of the 31st Sapper Battalion, reinforced with an infantry platoon of 39th Regiment and four L3 tanks, still belonging to Italian Bologna Division. The Squadrons of 6th RTR were stopped and only 6 tanks returned to the British lines (point 167).
The Italian units were up to the situation although the enemy thought getting rid of them in few hours. They were there and can never be forgotten.
I have long sought books and articles on the 6RTR as both my father, (now 92) and my Uncle, (sadly now gone to the green fields beyond) both fought in this regiment. My father was a staff sargent and a forward fitter, having been an original member of Hobos western desert force. My Uncle was a trooper and gunner, who was a hostilites only conscript. Both have told me many many stories of thier time not only in the western desert but also other parts of the middle east and Italy. My father was transferd to the 5RTR and ended the war in Hamburg, whilst my Uncles war ended in Italy. Keep up the good work!
Many thanks for the kind words Robert. I would be very interested in any memories your father may have of the battle at Sidi Rezegh and the remainder of Operation CRUSADER.
As an aside, on the way to Hamburg your father would have passed close by my birth place, Nienburg/Weser, west of Hannover, Lower Saxony. I will email you some more material you and your father might be finding of interest. I presume there was an intentional error in the email address?
With kind regards
Not sure if you saw my post on the AHF thread but I thought I would repeat the details from 4 RHA WD here:
21 November 1941
Combined attack by KRRC and 6 RTR to capture escarpment NORTH of aerodrome was made at first light supported by the Regt. 2 RTR were watching left, 7 H right. Shortly after attack began 7 H were attacked by large number of German Tks and F Bty were ordered under comd 7 H; they turned round and engaged Tks due east. Attack on escarpment succeeded but 6 RTR on left ran into trouble. Capt D. Smith, Comd C Tp, who was FOO with 6 RTR was wounded and was replaced by 2/Lt A.T. Kershaw, who went out in armd O.P. and neither he nor any of his party were ever heard of again. 6 RTR now had only 20 Tks left. 7 H had been badly mauled, lost a lot of Tks and were badly scattered. Throughout the day, Tks kept threatening from EAST and S.E. and were engaged by guns of 3 RHA, 4 RHA and 60 Fd and never closed in to attack. 2 RTR put in an attack in the evening and quickly lost several tks and this was virtually the end of the 7 Armd Bde. 4 RHA, less C Bty came under comd Sp Gp.
I am slowly transcribing the rest of the diary, and will send to you once it is finished.
I did, and many thanks for it. I have just been ridiculously busy with work, travel, and the baby.
All the best
Andreas, just read this. Sorry for the three year delay. Have just returned from my fathers house, (now 95) and left him sorting out photos from ‘those days’. I will be going to see him in a couple of weeks so will copy the pictures so I can post them.
Hi Robert, looking forward to seeing them!
Pingback: 6th Bn. RTR - World War 2 Talk
Some of you may be interested in this – possible Sidi Rezegh casualty? (It’s not my property, by the way)
Pingback: Interview of a Sidi Rezegh Veteran–from the IWM | The Crusader Project
My late father was a driver/mechanic with the 6 RTR during Crusader. His service record shows that he was wounded and posted missing on 22 November 1941. The 6 RTR War Diary for the day includes the following: ‘During the day B Echelon was attacked by a formation of tanks, several vehicles were lost and some of the drivers reported missing.’ He told me that he was wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans. He no doubt gave his name, rank and army number (7904194) when he was captured. He said he was treated well by them and that his wounds were were treated with quality wound dressings. Some days later he was being taken west with other POWs and that the convoy he was in was attacked by the LRDG. His service record shows him rejoining his unit on 12 December 1941. I would be most grateful if you could provide any information from the Axis side on the events outlined above. I have looked at the War Diaries of the LRDG at The National Archives Kew and have been unable to find any reference to their attacking a convoy with POWs on board during the period. Any information on typically what he might have experienced whilst in captivity during this period would be of value.
LikeLiked by 1 person
My sincere apologies for the late reply, I have been travelling quite a bit recently. I will have a look into this, and revert to you.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the convoy was attacked by armoured cars, so maybe a look into the war diaries of the 11th Hussars or K.D.G., or the South African Armoured Car units (good luck finding these!) may yield some information.
I have had a look into 11th Hussars, and there was nothing there. For example, on 5 December CURRIE Column of 7 Support Group liberated a ‘large’ group of New Zealand POW who were marched west under Italian guard.
The end November/early December period was extremely chaotic and fluid.
All the best
Andreas, in your introduction to this page you mentioned that 6RTR were all but annihilated on the 21 November; my late father recalled as much when he was alive. Numerous sources cite tank losses for the regiment, but to date I have been unable to locate personnel casualties for the regiment. I vaguely recall that he mentioned that 40 to 50 of the original regiment survived. Are you aware of any sources that might confirm this?
PS: if you get time, can you please assist with my earlier comment dated 21 November above, thanks.
I am afraid I have no info on the personnel losses overall, and I think that 40-50 sounds extremely low, out of a regiment with just short of 600 men at full strength.
But it is possible, if the B Echelon was caught up in the disaster of 23 November on Sidi Rezegh. Also, it appears some personnel from 6 R.T.R. ended up in 1 Army Tank Brigade’s workshop which was overrun by 15. Panzerdivision on 25 November, according to that division’s war diary. They may have been dispersed earlier in the battle.
All the best
I’ve read through this post and found it s great insight, my great great uncle Wheelhouse was in the 6th RTR and was killed on the 22nd Nov. I’ve read other sources that state that the unit was also at belhamed hill which was full of axis 88’s that decimated the regt, any ideas or other thought on that? All I know is he died on the 22nd and is buried in acroma.
Great read, Lewis from Manchester UK
Hi Lewis, sorry for the delay in replying. I’m still looking at who took apart 6 R.T.R. on that day. I am suspecting it was a mix of 88s and SP AT guns from PzJg 605, who were supporting Division z.b.V., possibly together with some artillery guns. Let me do some digging and I’ll revert.
Great read. My father Cpl H A Silk (Harry) was in Crusader and Major Miller wanted to take over dads tank but as he was tank commander refused and went to see SSM Jock Cowie and protested about the Major taking his tank. SSM Jock Cowie negotiated with the Major and the plan was for dad to drop down into the drivers seat and his gunner to remain. Going into battle early on the 21st November his drivers sight was shot out and requested directions (which none came). Driving blind they ended up broadside on a ridgeline and were hit by an 88 and the tank stopped. Looking back into the turret it was burning and the only option was to exit via the drivers hatch. As the turret was hexagon shaped if it was in the wrong position then the hatches would not open and he would burn to death. Luckily the hatches did open and he crawled out on his belly seeing advancing infantry. At the side of the tank his Gunner (RIP) Bert Steele said his leg was burning and when he looked at it, it was raw as the 88 had hit his side of the tank. The Major asked ‘What do we do now’, my dads reply was ‘What do we do now, your in charge. Well Ill tell you what I’m going to do, tear up my maps and bury them in the sand. Its early morning and we are in the middle of the dessert and Steely is injured and the enemy are advancing. Have you got a white handkerchief because we have no choice but to surrender. Bert later died in a German field hospital and my dad spent the rest of the war as a POW in Italy, Lamsdorf and then to a work camp working in HG Farben next door to Auschwitz.
In Memory Of
Service Number: 319544
6th, Royal Tank Regiment, R.A.C. who died on 23 November 1941 Age 22
Son of Bertie Steel, and of Mary Mabel Steel, of March, Cambridgeshire.
FOR HOME AND FREEDOM HE GIVETH ALL. DEEPLY MOURNED BY MOTHER AND SISTERS
Remembered with Honour
KNIGHTSBRIDGE WAR CEMETERY, ACROMA
12. H. 24.
Thanks a lot for this Geordie!