Battalion Kolbeck–The other side of the Hill

I have previously written about the failed attack of Battalion Kolbeck, a last throw of the dice by the Axis on the Tobruk front, at this link. Tom has now been kind enough to type up the war diary of the 2nd Beds & Herts Regiment, an infantry battalion, and provide it to me.  The Beds & Herts, in 14 Infantry Brigade, 70 Division, Tobruk Fortress,  were at the receiving end of this failed attempt to push in the Tobruk garrison’s position in the wake of the defeat of the 2nd New Zealand Division on the Zaafran (see this link).

1 December 1941 Bir Bel Hamed

0200 Bn arrives at new area. Coys are placed in position. Consolidation commences at once. Work is immediately carried out on the completion of a protective minefield which runs right along the Eastern side of the “Corridor” to the foot of the escarpment at BEL HAMED.

0630 Sounds of a battle are heard coming from the direction of BEL HAMED. Impossible to see what is occurring owing to the fact that the Bn’s position is so low and is dominated by the escarpment. Tanks are occasionally observed, but they confine their activities to the top of the escarpment.

0730 Lt-Col Hassell is evacuated to TOBRUCH on account of sickness. Command of the Bn devolves upon Major R.A.W. Stevenson.

It is now obvious that the enemy has launched a heavy dawn attack on the BEL HAMED feature, supported by tanks.

A large number of transport vehicles come back through the Bn positions. They are intercepted and re-directed towards TOBRUCH.

0740 “Stops” are placed on all tracks leading towards the Bn area to control “refugees”. It is impossible to collect coherent information regarding the position on the escarpment but it is possible to understand that the New Zealand Bde has been rather badly cut up.

0815 Twelve 25-pdrs and crews are collected and taken under command together with one troop of A.A. Bredas.

The Bn is now acting as a rallying point.

One Coy 2/13 Aust Inf Bn is rallied and used to stiffen “A” Coy’s front, which is directly opposed to the enemy’s presumed line of advance.

18th New Zealand Bn withdraws down the escarpment but rallys [sic] on the Bn position and is used to extend “A” Coy’s front to the South West and along the line of the road back on to the escarpment.

1445 The sounds of battle gradually grow dim. It is impossible to conjecture why the enemy did not come forward to the edge of the escarpment when he would have placed this Bn in a most invidious position, as the escarpment dominates every single position in the Bn area.

The position is now stabilised with 18th New Zealand Bn established on the edge of the escarpment to the EAST of “A” Coy and the Bn established as shown in “Annexure A”.

1449 Commander 1st R.H.A. arrives and takes over command of the 25-pounders.

1515 Enemy commence counter-battery shoot on the 25-pdr battery which is forced to withdraw from its forward position.

The situation is now defined as follows:-

(a) The position held by the Bn is organised for all round defence both for each Company and the Bn as a whole.

(b) The Anti-Tank defence of the Bn is strong, consisting of 10 2-pdr anti-tank guns and a continuous anti-tank minefield extending along the whole of the North front.

(c) 18th New Zealand Bn is in position on the edge of the escarpment so preventing observation of the Bn area from that position.

BUT

(i) The Bn area is dominated by the BEL HAMED feature.

(ii) 18th New Zealand Bn are tired.

(iii) 18th New Zealand Bn are only holding a small area on the escarpment.

THEREFORE

(i) It is essential that 18th New Zealand Bn area should be as strong as possible.

(ii) If the enemy advances to the BEL HAMED feature and occupies it, both the 18th New Zealand Bn area and this Bn’s area would be untenable.

1645 Orders are received from Bde H.Q. to be prepared to withdraw to a position in rear of TIGER during the night.

1730 C.O. (Major R.A.W. Stevenson) holds conference at Bn HQ in preparation for withdrawal. This conference is attended by all Company Commanders.

1800 Orders received from Bde H.Q. that there will be NO withdrawal. The Bn is ordered to consolidate on the present position.

1815 “B” Coy report movement of tanks and infantry to their front, i.e. to NORTH.

“A” Coy report movement of tanks and infantry in valley to the north of their area.

1822 “A” and “B” Coys report that they are being heavily attacked by enemy infantry supported by tanks.

1827 18th New Zealand Bn report that they are also being attacked on their left rear (from NW?). It appears that the greater part of the weight of the enemy attack is falling on “B” Coy which is in a rather isolated position.

1905 It appears that a party of New Zealanders may be trying to make contact with the TOBRUCH forces. This leads to confusion and doubt as to whether the attack launched on “A” and “B” Coys might be by own troops. Fortunately “A” Coy are able to ascertain definitely that the attacks are definitely GERMAN.

1907 Artillery defensive fire falls on defensive line laid down; 300 yds in front of “B” Coy.

It can be stated here that the thought of friendly troops being involved in this attack cannot possibly have arisen if full information were available.

1925 One Platoon detached from “D” Coy to strengthen “B” Coy. This Platoon fails to reach “B” Coy’s area. Communication with “B” Coy by ‘phone is cut.

2000 It is definitely established that “B” Coy’s position has been over-run by the enemy.

Communication with Bde H.Q. has been precarious throughout the whole day. At the most critical period both W/T and L/T communication broke down completely, hence causing the embarrassing delay in obtaining artillery defensive fire.

2005 Stragglers from “B” Coy arrive at Bn H.Q. and “D” Coy.

An additional complication is now presented. Owing to the break down in communication with Bde H.Q., the ration convoy has arrived in the Bn Area. It was stopped by “D” Coy and the rations have been dumped in that area. A system of policing and checking ration convoys in areas in proximity to the enemy must be established, preferably controlled by Brigade Headquarters.

The situation is examined and found to be as follows:-

(a) “B” Coy area is in enemy hands.

(b) Enemy attack is held up in front of “A” Coy and left rear of 18th New Zealand Bn.

(c) The enemy is in a position to exploit attack on “B” Coy to take Bn H.Q. and attack “C” Coy from rear or avoid that Coy altogether.

2015 “A” Coy and 18th New Zealand Bn report that enemy are no longer pressing attack but are evidently “digging in” in triangle between “A” Coy and 18th New Zealand Bn.

2020 There is no sign of the enemy exploiting from “B” Coy area. His information must be vague regarding our dispositions.

2300 The following plan is put into operation:-

(a) The salient formed by “B” Coy area is to be “sealed off” by an anti-tank minefield of Italian box mines, single row at four yards spacing.

(b) “C” Coy (less one Platoon) to be moved to a position 150 yds N.E. of Bn H.Q. commanding the re-entrant to the rear (SOUTH) of “B” Coy area.

(c) One Platoon to remain in original “C” Coy area for the local protection of the anti-tank gun detachment (two guns).

(d) Should there be no further advance by the enemy from “B” Coy area all available weapons will fire on that area from first light.

2330 Work on minefield commences. This is carried out within 100 yds from the enemy who can be plainly heard by the working party.

There is no opposition either to the mine laying party or to the move of “C” Coy (less one Platoon) in spite of the fact that, in the former case, a 30-cwt lorry had to be used for transporting the anti-tank mines.

2 December 1941 BIR BEL HAMED

0145 Arrangements detailed above are completed.

0614 There is not sufficient light to reveal the enemy. It is estimated that there are about 400 men in “B” Coy’s former position and about 1200 in front of “A” Coy between the line of “AXIS” road and the Western edge of the escarpment.

All available weapons are brought to bear on the enemy on all fronts.

The enemy has brought forward Anti-tank guns. These are silenced within a very short period of time by accurate Bren gun fire. He has three tanks which cruise along the front “hull down”. One is knocked out by a well aimed round from the detachment of the Polish Anti-Tank Battery.

The situation as far as we are concerned is extremely good.

(i) The minefield has not been penetrated.

(ii) The enemy in front of “A” Coy are caught in enfilade and are also over-looked by the 18th New Zealand Bn.

(iii) The enemy on “B” Coy’s position are on a forward slope, on which excellent observation is obtained both by “C” Coy and Bn HQ (which is now a fighting unit).

The fire of all arms brought to bear on the enemy must be devastating. In particular it is necessary to mention the effect of well controlled Mortar fire.

0630 Artillery fire is brought down on “B” Coy’s area.

0720 Enemy commences to withdraw. In front of “A” Coy he endeavours to put up a smoke screen, which is not effective.

0723 One detachment of the mortar platoon is moved forward from “D” Coy area to a position from which observation on the enemy can be obtained.

0730 The enemy is definitely beaten off. He is using dead ground in front of “B” Coy area to re-form. This area is heavily mortared and shelled by us.

0747 Artillery fire is shifted to the area in front of “A” Coy. Fire is controlled by O.C. “A” Coy by ‘phone to F.O.O. at Bn HQ, who in turn relays by W/T to his battery.

0817 Orders are given to Carrier Platoon (now only two bren carriers strong) to follow up the retreat of the enemy. Unfortunately one bren carrier runs onto our own minefield and is put out of action.

OBSERVATIONS.

(a) ENEMY.

(i) It appears that he had no information of our dispositions.

(ii) He “sat down” after over-running “B” Coy instead of exploiting his success which would have carried him right through the Bn defensive position.

(b) OWN TROOPS.

(i) Defensive works must be orgoinously [sic] developed.

(ii) The labour in laying the anti-tank minefield on nights 30 Nov/1 Dec and 1/2 Dec was amply repaid.

(iii) Defensive fire by Bn weapons MUST be co-ordinated most carefully, for mutual support. This should be the first task on taking up a defensive position. In this connection it should be remembered that mortars, also, must be given definite “fixed line” tasks.

(iv) Unless a most careful reconnaissance and rehearsal has been held, it is impracticable to re-inforce or counter-attack by night.

(v) The Bn’s task was greatly facilitated by the total absence of enemy artillery fire.

RESULTS OF OPERATIONS.

Estimated casualties to enemy – Killed 60 (32 confirmed)

Wounded 200 (87 confirmed)

Prisoners about 50 (including wounded)

Captured equipment – 4 anti-tank guns.

A large number of assorted automatic weapons.

One light tank.

Nine vehicles.

Own Casualties. – One killed.

Eight missing.

Remainder of day is spent in further consolidation of Bn position.

2045 Bn stands by for a further attack. Attack fails to materialize on Bn front.

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