Setting the Record Straight – The First Night Attack By Tanks

 

The below is a letter written in the course of the research for the New Zealand Official History, which I found of interest, since it shows rather nicely that battles are sometimes fought years later with the typewriter, and between erstwhile comrades… I also thought it quite interesting since I do actually have the book ‘With Pennants Flying’, which Inglis felt gave rise to the need for a correction. It’s an interesting read, but rather for its contemporary nature than for historical accuracy. You should be able to find copies flying (excuse the pun) about on Amazon or Abe Books for a reasonable sum.

The actual attack covered here is generally seen as one of the master strokes by the Allied forces, and rightly so in my view. It was also a vindication for Freyberg’s assessment during planning that the first imperative had to be the breaking open of the encirclement of Tobruk. Presumably because that was the only way to force the enemy to battle. It was all the more astonishing for taking place with no infantry casualties at all, and only one tank lost. In turn, the operation brought in 550 German and Italian prisoners, furthermore killed a considerable number of them, destroyed 8 field guns including one of the dreaded 21cm super-heavies, as well as AT-guns and machine guns.

Many thanks to my friend Jon for getting this one out of the New Zealand archives!

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Map of the attacks, from the New Zeland Official History Series

 

Letter From Maj-Gen L.M. Inglis To Sir Howard Kippenberger, 14 January 1952

4 Nz Brigade With Rtr, 26/27 November 1941

I believe Cox is in NZ and is to discuss his history of the 1941 Desert Campaign with you. A year or two ago someone showed me a story in a popular history of the RTR about the part of the 44th RTR played in the night attack by 19 Battalion to open up to Tobruk on the night of 26/27 November 41: and I don’t know whether this has become the officially accepted story or not. If it has, it is well out.

You will remember that to begin with 4 Brigade had O’Neill’s squadron of 8 RTR under command. When you were left at Menastir you to finish off your battle and the rest of your brigade set out for Gambut and beyond, that sqn stayed with you and was still with you if at Bir Chleta. I picked up 44 RTR (less 1 Squadron). By the time 19 Bn made its night attack to El Duda I had about 17 tanks of this outfit left runners. When I got orders for the attack on Duda, 18 and 20 Battalions were committed and I had only 19 Battalion and the tanks left available for the job. A nice, but rather pedestrian, little half-Colonel called Yeo was the CO 44 RTR. My plan was to assemble the tanks in front and 19 Battalion on a 300 X foot front behind them, launch the tanks straight at Duda at their own speed and follow them as 19 Battalions at its own speed. There was a German lorried infantry right, dug in between us and the objectives in three main positions between Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh. Yeo was not “on” for the party – It was too novel for him – and I think he must have got touch on the blower with Brig “Boomer” Watkins, that tank Bde Cmd, who was with Div. Anyway while my orders conference was still on both General Freyberg and Watkins turned up. Freyberg took no part in the conference except to draw me on one side and say: “Make him go. Insist that the tanks go.” I assured him that they were going– after all Yeo was under my command at that stage– not under Watkins. Watkins tried all he knew to dissuade me. His final argument was: “We can’t navigate these things shutdown at night”, to which my reply was, “My infantry have got to walk from the feet up, so surely your people can keep their damned lids open and look out the top.” I also said; “This is the way I propose the tanks will go.” (referring to the plan I had already made), “and they’re going to Duda whatever you say; but, if you can think of a better way, put it up to me and I’ll consider it.” After a measurable silence he said, “Well, if they’ve got to go, I suppose that way is as good as any.” The story in the Tank book I referred to is that Boomer persuaded General Freyberg and, apparently with great difficulty, myself to use the tanks; and one would gather that the whole thing was a tank party. There were in fact two main reasons why I insisted on the tanks going: –

  1. I thought that if they rolled over the enemy positions in the dark before the infantry arrived they would horrify and shake the Jerrie’s usefully. Their orders were to go at their own speed independently of 19 Battalion and not to fire (because they’d hit nothing in the dark and the flashes of their guns would only mark them out to the German A/T guns) and to start firing green flares as they approached El Duda so that our troops there would know who they were.
  2. But mainly I wanted them at Duda in daylight next day so that 19 Battalion could have proper support if they were counter-attacked by enemy armour.

In fact the tanks (less one Matilda and two light tanks – the Battalion HQ which moved with Hartnell) went in this fashion. 19 Battalion following at a considerable interval as the tanks drew away from them did a great deal of slaughter. The German fire was so badly directed that 19 battalion suffered no casualties at all, and the Germans make no fight of it at all at close quarters.

Cox may have come over with General Freyberg and Watkins and heard what happened himself at the orders group. I have some faint recollection of his being there but maybe wrong.

I brought 12 of these tanks back from Duda and used them (with 18 Battalion and 16 carriers) in the attack on the afternoon of 28 November to clean out the enemy positions that still existed between Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh.

That is briefly the story of how “Boomer” Watkins invented night attacks for tanks. It would interest me to know what the officially accepted story is.

According to the secret first draft of the British Official History, the attack went in slightly differently from what Inglis had ordered, maybe because of an agreement between Hartnell (CO of 19 Battalion) and Yeo. 10 tanks in a composite squadron (composite is presumably an euphemism for ‘understrength’) went in at tank speed, followed by a further 2 troops of seven tanks total and the regimental HQ at infantry speed. It does not mention Brigadier Watkins’ views on the operation.

It is also worth noting that the New Zealand Official History (at this link) is rather more charitable to Brigadier Watkins than Inglis is:

How the I tanks might be used to support the night attack was discussed with Brigadier Watkins, who was willing to commit them behind the infantry but did not want them exposed to enemy fire at first light; by that time he wanted them tucked away out of sight but ready to counter-attack if required. All that the conference settled, however, was that 44 Royal Tanks would be in support of 4 Brigade, B Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, in support of 6 Brigade, and PAGE 250A Squadron in Divisional Reserve. The details were left to Inglis and Barrowclough in consultation with the tank officers concerned.

The men and machines who did the job (from the New Zealand Official History). Note the signs on this 4 R.T.R. Matilda II:

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Brigadier Inglis. I must say I love the description of the R.T.R. ‘half-Colonel’ as ‘pedestrian’. The sarcasm is exquisit, and I am sure Inglis enjoyed writing his letter rather a bit too much.

 

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4 R.T.R.’s Matilda II tank DEFIANCE’s crew is observing 19 Battalion

 

 

4 thoughts on “Setting the Record Straight – The First Night Attack By Tanks

  1. Andreas,

    Interesting article, thanks – it would be fascinating to see what the contemporary NZ documents said rather than a much later comment perhaps influenced by the subsequent less than brilliant relationship between the NZ forces and British armour in mid-1942.

    Interestingly, there is mention in the war diary of 1 Army Tank Brigade of a conference on the previous day (i.e. at 1630 on 25th Nov) at HQ N.Z. Div at which the Div. Comd announced that the div was going to capture BELHAMED, SIDI REZEGH and ED DUDA by night attacks on the night 25/26 Nov supported by 1 Army Tank Bde. It states that “the [1 Army Tank] Bde commander agreed that tanks might be used to assist the night advance provided they were moved in rear of the infantry and allowed to find suitable counter-attack positions in Bde reserve before first light, i.e. they were to contribute to the operation merely by the noise of tracks and to be tucked away out of observation before first light…Tanks alone could not attack in daylight without serious casualties and therefore new methods had to be tried”. The diary goes on the describe the operation with its tanks “noises off” (i.e the capture of BEL HAMED) as a success but that the tanks were caught in the open in the morning and suffered 7 tank casualties before reaching a covered position from “intense arty and A/Tk fire from SIDI REZEGH area”. An event which probably produced some tension between the two brigadiers (Watkins of the tanks and Inglis of 4 N.Z. Bde)!

    So it looks like the decision to use the infantry tanks in a night attack was actually made on 25th (and by the Div Comd) and perhaps it was just the phasing of the tanks and infantry that remained to be debated on the 26th Nov. That Freyburg called insisted the attacks should be night attacks by infantry supported by tanks is also interesting for a battle fought almost exactly a year later!

    I’ll be transcribing the army tank brigade in more detail over the next few weeks and will see if there is any more about these operations in orders or reports.

    Cheers

    Tom

  2. Hi Tom

    Thanks for making me look, and good digging. WD NZ Div. confirms the conference on 25 Nov, at 1700, as a Bde Cmdrs conference. So Inglis would have been there. It is possible that Yeo got cold feet when told by Inglis that his tanks would lead, which wasn’t the deal Watkins had agreed to, and this brought about the kerfuffle?

    WD 4 NZ Bde also confirms the conference. Apparently there was a move planned in the morning of 26 Nov which was canned when Lt.Col. Yeo delayed moving off the tanks in order to get the instructions confirmed in person.

    All the best

    Andreas

  3. Tom has some trouble posting his reply, so here it is, emailed to me:

    Andreas,
    There is a bit more in the war diary of 44 RTR that conflicts with the account given by Inglis of the tanks not firing:-
    “2115 Bn forms up for night advance to join our forces from TOBRUCH at ED DUDA.
    Order of March:- Composite Sqn (Comd. Maj Gibbon) to advance at Tk speed – Bn HQ + 2 Tps, to accompany one Bn NZ Inf at Inf speed.
    2130 1st Tk Echelon advances, and arrives at ED DUDA at 2245 hrs. Strong enemy position was overrun and many enemy killed. Enemy A.Tk guns, Fd guns and M.G.’s encountered and destroyed.
    2145 Bn HQ + 2 Tk Tps advance with Inf Bn. No enemy fire was encountered, all guns having been silenced by 1st Tk Echelon. This Echelon arrived at ED DUDA and established contact with 4 R Tanks from TOBRUCK. Many German + Italian prisoners were taken as a result of this action.
    No casualties were sustained by this Bn, or by the NZ Inf Bn accompanying the Tks.”
    I’m not sure that “cold feet” is fair – given the instructions he had from his Brigadier, the training the Bn would have undergone and the current Infantry doctrine I’m not surprised there had to be some persuasion applied!
    As for planned actions on the morning of 26 Nov – from the 44 RTR war diary it looks like they had a hard fight at dawn that morning, leaguering at 0730 (to refuel, resupply ammunition, do maintenance etc). Nothing after that until the 2115 hrs entry.
    From my perspective, the real tragedy is not this typical inter-arm, international bickering over “kudos” but that the 1st Army Tank Brigade war diary stated that “Tanks alone could not attack in daylight without serious casualties and therefore new methods had to be tried” and yet 1942 is replete with catastrophic British attempts to attack using unsupported armour in similar conditions. What happened to those lessons learned documents?
    Regards
    Tom

  4. Okay, I think I can see the confusion now Tom. 1 Army Tank Brigade WD clears it up.

    What you found refers to the night attack 25/26 November on Belhamed, which cost 44 R.T.R. seven tanks, eight men killed, three missing, and two wounded, when they were caught in the open. This was the ‘noise’ operation which had been discussed in the afternoon of 25 November at Div. HQ.

    The 2130 hours attack on 26 November is described in the 1 Army Tank Bde WD as “This was again a new conception as [to] the use of Army Tanks.” The WD then goes on stating that Watkins suggested the night advance by 44 R.T.R. as the solution to the problem that the ground between the startline and the objective was full of AT guns and little artillery support was available.

    So we have a clear contradiction here.

    All the best

    Andreas

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