The Battle for 1 Army Tank Brigade’s Repair Shop

The ‘Dash to the Wire’, with which Rommel aimed to win the battle, produced many curious incidents. One of the stranger ones was a tank battle for a repair shop, between 16 Matildas in various stages of repair, and the full strength of German Panzerregiment 8 of 15. Panzerdivision, with a strength of 16/34/6 Panzer II/III/IV, and supported by 88mm AA guns.

The first few days of Operation CRUSADER had been hard on the Brigade, and it had lost almost half of the 132 infantry tanks in the initial assault on the frontier strongpoints and in support of 2 New Zealand Division. On 22 November, the assault by 42 RTR (minus C Squadron, with B Squadron 44 RTR under command) on ‘The Omars’ (see this contemporary analysis) had cost the Brigade 46 out of 51 tanks participating, and caused severe personnel losses of 5 officers and 22 men killed, and 1 offier and 21 men wounded, with 3 more men missing. The proportion of almost 1.3:1 killed to wounded might indicate the ferocity of the fighting, and that many of the tanks which were shot up were being hit by the very powerful German 88mm AA gun. Many of the tanks were recoverable though, and had been brought to the L.R.S. (local repair shop – thanks to Wills on WW2 Talk for this). On 23 November, 8 RTR lost 2 tanks in B Squadron when this supported the attack by 5 NZ Brigade on Sollum, and 16 in C Squadron in support of 6 NZ Brigade when Point 175 was taken – this was equivalent to the strength of the whole squadron (see also this older post). On 24 November, another Matilda of 42 RTR was lost, and Squadron Commander Major R.M. Rawlins killed, when the remaining 5 Matildas of the regiment engaged (and seriously delayed) the advancing Panzerregiment 5 of 21. Panzerdivision at the Bir Sherferzen gap in the wire. Total losses therefore amounted to at least 65 of 132 tanks by 23 November.

Located in a convenient and supposedly safe location west of Sidi Omar, was the repair shop of 1 Army Tank Brigade. The fitters were busy, with 16 of the recoverable Matilda II tanks standing around in various stages of repair/unfitness for service. Of these, 6 had been brought to runner status, and another was expected to be ready by the evening.

Before this was achieved however, Panzerregiment 8 hit the L.R.S. and destroyed it. The entry in its war diary reads as follows:

West of Sidi Omar Panzer Regiment 8 reports strong enemy grouping with Mk.II [Matilda].

In an energetic attack, Lt.Col. Cramer leads the regiment against it. The 1st Battalion attacks frontally, while the 2nd Battalion hits the left flank of the opponent.

The Flak is tasked on the right wing. After a tough fire fight, carried out on shortest distance, all 16 attacking Mk. II are shot up, and a number of prisoners are brought in, which belong to the 6th English Army Tank Regiment.[1]

What really happened was slightly different. It is reported in an account by the R.A.O.C. commander of 1 Army Tank Brigade, written on 10 December 1941:

On afternoon of 25th, a mobile enemy column with tanks made a concentrated attack on the L.R.S. The tanks were manned by R.T.R. personnel, and a battle for 1 ½ hours ensued, during which 2 German Mk. III tanks had been knocked out and also a large ammunition lorry. Seven R.T.R. personnel were killed, and the remainder of the personnel of the L.R.S. and O.F.P. managed to disperse with their vehicles. The L.R.S. anti-tank rifle was in use for most of the battle. Very few of the L.R.S. and O.F.P. have been located beyond the O.C. L.R.S. and 42 men, and the O.C. O.F.P. and 10 men; it is therefore assumed that on dispersal with their vehicles, these men must have met other portions of the enemy column and were captured.

The German column apparently made camp in the L.R.S. area (6 miles west of Sidi Omar) and created further destruction to the tanks and equipment of the L.R.S.

Attempts were made to contact the L.R.S. site but A.F.V’s of the enemy were met; on 30th November the Bde O.M.E. made contact and with a small party surveyed the damage and buried one R.T.R. driver who had been locked inside a tank.

The war diary of 15. Panzerdivision confirms the loss of 2 Panzer III and 1 Panzer II during the day. Since it did not engage in other tank combat, it is probable that the claim by the L.R.S. is correct. It is also interesting to note that the German regiment made a text-book attack, which of course came off very successfully, since the opponent was fighting with both arms tied behind his back.

The incident was quickly recounted, already during the war in the book ‘With Pennants Flying’, which deals with combat by army tank units. Bryan Perrett in his book ‘Through the Mud and the Blood’ also recounts this episode. This contains an eyewitness account by Trooper Leslie Bowie of 7 R.T.R. (a veteran of Dunkirk, COMPASS, and the summer battles around Sollum), who was engaged in tank delivery, and on wireless watch at the site.

It was very hot and all I wore was boots, shorts, beret, and my revolver around my waist. Suddenly I heard a series of shells exploding. I whipped off the headphones and ran to the back of the lorry I was in. There were black puffs of shell-bursts everywhere, men were frantically throwing equipment into lorries and trucks, and in the distance, hull down, were German Mark III’s and IV’s who’d really caught us napping. The tank crews of the 42nd‘s non-runners were jumping aboard their tanks to fight it out, even though much of their ammunition and equipment was stacked outside to facilitate the repair work. Our truck was first off, closely followed by every vehicle that could be got out, and the first 2-pounders started firing back. These crews fought a very gallant action with no hope at all, but they saved us.

Bowie came back shortly after and found no survivors, and the dead in a position that made him believe they had been shot in cold blood, maybe because of the unnecessary casualties their resistance had caused to the Germans. As in his account, in ‘With Pennants Flying’ it is also claimed that it looked as if the Germans had shot R.T.R. personnel who had surrendered. But the primary sources I am looking at do not confirm this, and I am inclined to discard this view of events.

Apart from the loss of the tanks, 42 RTR also suffered heavily in personnel. Lt. M.C.Ebutt was wounded, while Lt. J.B.Wrangham, 2/Lt. L.J.Hotson and 40 other ranks were missing. Also captured were 2/Lt. D.J.Slingsby of Bde. Coy RASC, and 2/Lt.R.L.Bertram of the O.F.P. Capt. R.Nixon of Bde. HQ was captured while travelling from HQ to the RASC.

In total, the regiment had managed to lose, in just three days in action, almost 90% of the tanks it started with (the arrival of ‘C’ Squadron on 25 November made up for about half the losses), and about 10-15% of its total personnel, and 20% of those it went into battle with. A brutal welcome to the realities of war for the regiment.

 

[1] It is notable that the Germans thought they were being attacked by these tanks, and more so given the fact that they must have noticed afterwards that they had been in combat with semi-hulks. It is also interesting that they believed the POWs to be from 6 RTR – while it is possible that members of that regiment were at the L.R.S., if they had been dispersed and joined in the general rush east on 23 November – the 6 RTR war diary nevertheless states that the regimental remains moved along the divisional axis (i.e. south, not east) on 23 November.