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

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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