Combat Report Kampfgruppe Briel on Gambut Airfield – 21 November to 3 December 1941

Combat Report Kampfgruppe Briel on Gambut Airfield – 21 November to 3 December 1941

Gambut airfield, located just south of the Via Balbia between Tobruk and Fort Capuzzo, served as a jumping off airfield for the Axis air forces, and was the centre of a vast agglomeration of supply and logistics installations for Panzergruppe, with e.g. repair shops for the armoured divisions close by. 

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Gambut airfield in 1942 after its re-capture. It had become an airfield for the Royal Air Force after CRUSADER. Bundesarchiv.

At the start of CRUSADER it became a backwater, and one that inexplicably was not taken into serious consideration as an objective by the Empire forces, who had their focus on Bardia itself, and the area around Belhamed, Sidi Rezegh, and the Zaafran, probably due to flawed intelligence about the location of rear area services for Panzergruppe. While the airfield was attacked, it was never done in all seriousness, and a relatively weak defense managed to hold on to it until it withdrew as part of the overall retreat into the Gazala line. The failure to take the area and clean it up meant that the repair shops could continue to function and send e.g. repaired tanks back into battle outside Tobruk.

Below a relatively straightforward combat report by Captain Briel, CO of the self-propelled anti-aircraft battalion 606, equipped with 2cm AA guns. The main attack on 23 November was undertaken by 4 N.Z. Brigade, which afterwards was drawn off south. Through its east-facing defence of Gambut, Briel’s Kampfgruppe ensured that the vital rear services of the Panzergruppe which were located north of the Via Balbia, could continue to work throughout the battle. The area was only cleared up by 2 S.A. Division in the middle of December after the withdrawal of the combat troops. Hauptmann Briel received the Ritterkreuz for his defense of the airfield.

The map below from the New Zealand Official History shows this quite neatly.

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Map from New Zealand Official History. New Zealand Archives.

 

AA Btl. 606

COMMANDER                                                                    Btl. CP 4 Dec 1941

 

Battle Report

Concerning the combat of the combat group tasked with the protection of the Via Balbia

 

21. Nov. 41

At 21.00 hours the 20mm platoon of 1st Company, which was tasked with the protection of the ration depot, was tasked with the protection of the supply services of 21. Panzerdivision against advancing English forces.

 

22. Nov. 41

On 22 November I received the order to carry the order to move the supply services to the Ib of the division. When I arrived there, the 20mm platoon was in combat with 6 English tanks, 8 armoured cars, and about 150 riflemen. The riflemen had already crossed the Via Balbia northwards, and advanced on the depot. Realising that immediate and resolute action was required here, I resolved to protect the area of the division with all available forces.

I immediately assembled two rifle platoons from the remaining force of 1./Fla 606, the battalion staff of Fla.606, and riflemen of the butcher company, which through a northern envelopment threw back the English riflemen to the south.

The English laid on heavy artillery fire from the Jebel escarpment into the area 19km west of Bardia and north of this point.

The position was held nevertheless until the supply services of the division and remaining forces had moved off into the new area.

Since not everything could be removed from the depot on this day, I gave the order that the elements present had to hold the position until the next day. From the position MG nests and foxholes were effectively attacked, and losses were caused to the English.

Around evening time the English crossed the Via Balbia northwards with six tanks and riflemen.

Further armoured cars advanced on the Jebel escarpment, deeply enveloping our position.

Thus the danger developed that the small group would be encircled. I waited for dusk, and then avoided encirclement by a change of position.

To allow resistance against the vastly superior enemy, at least for as long as it took to completely remove all the depots, I started to assemble a combat group.

On the evening of 22 Nov. I subordinated to the combat group the 4th platoon of Supply Company 200, to be used as riflemen. A further addition were 2 20mm guns of I./Flak 33.

 

23. Nov. 41

During dawn I moved with the small combat group again into the original position, and prevented the advance of the English. The English again put down heavy artillery fire on the position in order to push us out. But the position was held.

Around 14.00 hours I observed that a strong English detachment advanced rapidly on the Jebel escarpment, and that three armoured cars had already advanced towards the brown house [probably a Casa Cantoniera?] on the Via Balbia.

Since during the day the last columns had moved off to remaining commands, I now saw the main task in preventing the enemy’s advance against the supply services of the 15.Pz.-Div., and especially the tank repair company [Pz.Werkstatt-Komp.].

I changed position with the combat group on the double towards the brown house. When the combat group arrived, artillery fire already lay on both sides of the brown house, and two rifle companies advanced from the airfield in the direction of the brown house.

The security force which had been put on the airfield during the morning had already, according to orders, displaced towards the position south of the brown house. When the six 20mm guns rolled into position at the brown house a 2.5 hour fight developed. I subordinated 2 50mm AT guns and three tanks of Pz.-Rgt.8 which had just come from the Werkstatt.-Kp. to the combat group. With these forces and increasing artillery fire it was not only possible to prevent increasing the advance by the English, but the English riflemen and armoured cars retreated onto Gambut airfield.

During the fight the English put down about 240 rounds of artillery fire on our forward positions. Our weapons fired around 2,000 rounds 20mm.

Around 17.00 hours I subordinated to myself a 150mm howitzer of 9./A.R.33 coming from the Werkstatt, which took the serpentine and the Jebel escarpment under fire, and provided valuable service to the combat group.

 

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North Africa, 2cm AA gun on 1t prime mover, February 1942. Bundesarchiv. Almost certainly one of Haumptmann Briel’s guns.

24. Nov. 41

During the night enemy patrols were repulsed.

During the night I established through reconnaissance the position of the enemy artillery, and following the reconnaissance had the howitzer fire.

The success was excellent. The English battery had to repeatedly change position, the OP could no longer stay on the Jebel escarpment, and the English columns drove in wild confusion on the airfield.

To establish a clear situation for the next night, I faked an attack on Gambut with five tanks and all available riflemen while our artillery delivered a lively fire. The success was excellent.

The English columns moved off south, on the Jebel escarpment south of the airfield armoured cars remained in position as security.

The task which I had set the combat group was fulfilled, even though the enemy was very much superior in weapons and numbers.

The position was held, the supply services of the D.A.K. were protected, and could ensure supply.

 

25. Nov. 41

30 Panzerpioniere [soldiers from an armoured engineer battalion] of Pz.-Pi.-Btl.200 [of 21.Pz.Div.] were subordinated to the combat group. On this day both sides engaged in patrol activity. Results from reconnaissance were constantly passed on to the D.A.K. via the Ib of 15.Pz.-Div.

 

26. Nov. 41

On 26 November I established liaison with Div.z.b.V. to have clarity on the general situation. I received there the order from the divisional commander to hold the position at Gambut under any circumstance in order to ensure the supply of the D.A.K., especially with fuel and ammunition. Following my return I informed my combat group about the meaning of its task, and ordered the position to be built up into a defensive position. The engineers produced moveable barriers, and the guns were dug in.

Also on this day I had reconnaissance carried out to km 16 in the direction of Bardia, and towards the south up the Jebel limit of the airfield.

The incoming results were immediately passed on to the Div. z.b.V. and the D.A.K. by the means mentioned above.

 

27. Nov. 41

During the morning reconnaissance patrol activity by us.

During evening the Panzergruppe and Korps staffs arrived on the airfield Gambut. I reported immediately and established security for the protection of the staffs on the airfield. The chief of staff confirmed the measures taken as correct based on the general situation, and I now received the order from Korps to hold the position under any circumstance because of its immense importance for the assurance of supply.

 

28. Nov. 41

During the early morning of 28 November the guns of the combat group, in co-operation with the guns of 2./Fla-606 which were tasked with the protection of the Korps staff, during an English air attack shot down:

            2 bombers and

            2 fighters

During the day my combat group was temporarily subordinated to Lieutenant-Colonel Knabe [OC PR8]. This subordinated relation ceased however after only a few hours and the combat group became independent again. The combat group of Lieutenant-Colonel Knabe reinforced me with one infantry gun [either 75 (more likely) or 150mm] and three 37mm AA guns.

29. Nov. 41

By order of Div. z.b.V. the heavy howitzer [the one taken over on 22 November] had to be sent off to the Tobruk front. During the day reconnaissance patrol activity.

 

30. Nov. 41

During the morning lively English reconnaissance activity with armoured cars from east and south against the positions of the combat group. In the area east and south-east of the airfield single English vehicles. During the day I received the order from the Div. z.b.V. to send off all heavy weapons above 20mm, furthermore a platoon of 20mm, and the armoured engineers to the Batallion Kolbeck [see related article].

Because of the time when this move was ordered, the release of these elements from the position could not be missed by the English reconnaissance patrols. Half an hour after the elements had moved off, the English pushed from east and south against my position, which at this point in time was only occupier by 4 20mm guns and some other guns. The fight against the advancing enemy was taken up, as ordered.

Through a despatch rider sent to Div.z.b.V. I succeeded in having the elements which I had been ordered to send off stopped, and returned to my command. [this is an interesting interplay with the situation on the Tobruk front, where the next day Battalion Kolbeck’s attack failed miserably, partially for want of fire support.]

These elements returned on the double to the defensive position and by their immediate use and continuous fire the enemy could be stopped.

The defensive combat lasted until 03.00 hours in the morning. Because all elements of the small combat groups did their utmost throughout, the advance of the again vastly superior in weapons and men English could be prevented.

 

1. Dec. 41

During the night the English brought his artillery into position on the airfield Gambut, and from 06.45 to 10.30 hours prepared a new attack against the Via Balbia. During the time indicated 330 to 340 rounds of artillery were fired by the English on our positions, calibre 80-90mm. The hits in the brown house on the Via Balbia are witness to this fire.

When the English then tried a renewed advance with infantry, this attempt was again repulsed decisively in fighting.

A renewed start to the artillery fire was prevented by the immediate use of the 4th and 7th batteries of Art.-Rgt.33 [of 15.Pz.-Div.] which arrived by accident from Bardia.

These two batteries completely secured the defensive success of the combat group, by forcing the entire British battalion off the airfield by excellently placed fire.

Our immediately started reconnaissance showed that the English retreated onto the Jebel south of the airfield. During the course of the afternoon all heavy weapons had finally to be handed over to Div.z.b.V. on its orders.

 

2. Dec. 41

No combat during the morning.

During the afternoon an English truck column, accompanied by four armoured cars and two tanks, was taken under long distance fire by the 20mm platoon of the combat group which was tasked with securing the airfield.

The column therefore turned and retreated on the Jebel escarpment south of the Via Balbia in the direction of Bardia. At 18.00 hours [difficult to read] a forward detachment of 15.Pz.Div. arrived, which leaguered north of the road and advanced against Bardia early on 3 Dec.

 

3. Dec. 41

I reported the situation and the advance of the forward detachment via Ordonnanz officer to the D.A.K., and received the order:

            The task of the combat group is fulfilled.

            The combat group is to be dissolved.

            Elements Fla.-Btl. 606 will report to 21.Pz.Div.

 

Personnel losses

            2 dead

            13 wounded [3 seriously wounded]

            4 POW

 

Materiel losses

3 guns

1 special trailer

 

At 13.00 hours I arrived with the elements Fla.Btl.606 at the 21.Pz.Div.

The other elements were relieved and sent back to their units.

 

Signed:

Briel

Hauptmann

 

Setting the Record Straight – The First Night Attack By Tanks

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 250

A 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. (NZ OH)

 

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4 R.T.R.’s Matilda II tank DEFIANCE’s crew is observing 19 Battalion coming in (NZ OH)

 

New Zealand Division on Zaafran, 1 Dec 1941

New Zealand Division on Zaafran, 1 Dec 1941

Background

On 1 Dec 1941 the New Zealand Division was subjected to violent attacks while trying to hold open the corridor into Tobruk. The Axis forces, led by the Afrikakorps, managed to smash 6 NZ Brigade, and to push the New Zealand Division north and out of the battle, severing the corridor.

Ed Duda

Commonwealth map showing Zaafran at 4441, east of Belhamed. Rommelsriposte Collection.

This success led to Rommel’s premature victory claim (see translation at this link), and it led to the NZ Division passing out of the battle , with only its reconnaissance regiment (Divisional Cavalry) and 5 NZ Brigade remaining active on the battlefield after this time, except for 18 Battalion and 2 companies of 19 Battalion which continued to fight under 32 Army Tank Brigade on Belhamed for a few more days.

Nevertheless, in Brigadier Inglis view, 4 NZ Brigade, having suffered serious casualties only to 20 Battalion, was capable of continued action on 1 December, provided it had been possible to replenish ammunition and join the two battle groups into which it had split. 5 NZ Brigade needed a headquarters, which had been overrun at Sidi Azeiz a few days early, and also had lost most of 21 Battalion there, but was otherwise fine. 6 NZ Brigade however had to be completely rebuilt, and the same applied for 6 NZ Field Regiment.

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Infantry of the 2nd New Zealand Division link up with Matilda tanks of the Tobruk garrison during Operation ‘Crusader’, Libya, 2 December 1941. IWM E6198

The war diary of the division has a very detailed statement on which elements of the division were on the Zaafran outside Tobruk, and this maybe of particular interest to wargamers. 

  • Battle HQ NZ Division (most vehicles of the actual HQ had been sent into Tobruk the night of 30 November/1 December)
  • HQ 4 NZ Brigade
  • 19 NZ Battalion less two companies
  • Approximately 120 South Africans of 5 SA Brigade who had attached themselves to 4 NZ Brigade on 23 November and were formed into a company, equipped with captured rifles and kit, as well as kit from NZ casualties. 
  • small part of B Echelon transport of the Brigade[3]
  • HQ 6 NZ Brigade
  • 25 NZ Battalion
  • B Echelon transport of 6 NZ Brigade
  • Artillery
  • 4 NZ Field Regiment
  • 6 NZ Field Regiment (One troop) 
  • 6 2-pounders, 6 18-pounders, 7 NZ Anti-Tank Regiment
  • One battery less one section 14 NZ Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment
  • Engineers
  • 5 NZ Field Park Company (approx. 50 men)
  • 6 NZ Field Park Company
  • 8 NZ Field Park Company

 

  • British forces
  • Artillery
  • 8 Field Regiment RA (16 guns)
  • 65 Anti-Tank Regiment RA (some guns) 
  • Armour
  • 44 R.T.R. 5 Mark II (Matilda) tanks
  • 8 R.T.R. 2 Mark III (Valentine) tanks[4] 

A total of some 700 vehicles and 3,500 troops.

Many thanks go to Jon for providing me with copies of the war diaries and the narrative by Brigadier Inglis. The former is kept under WAII 1 DA 21.1-1-24 latter under WAII 1 DA 46-10-13 in the New Zealand archives.

[1]actually just 87, according to Brigadier Inglis, who were what remained of the 127 (7 officers, 120 Other Ranks
[2]
Their commander, Major Cochran of the South African Irish regiment, was recommended by Brigadier Inglis of 4 NZ Brigade for a Military Cross.
[3]the major part of it had been sent into Tobruk by Brigadier Inglis on 28 November
[4]The Valentine tanks get a very bad review in Brigadier Inglis’ report

Batallion Kolbeck – The wrong tool for the job on Ed Duda 1/2 December 1941

Batallion Kolbeck – The wrong tool for the job on Ed Duda 1/2 December 1941

Background

On 1 December Batallion Kolbeck, a thrown together unit consisting of about 500 lightly armed recently released German POWs from Afrika-Rgt. 361, as well as cooks and other B echelon (supply troops) personnel of infantry, artillery and flak units of or attached to or from 90th Light division,  reinforced by some heavy weapons, was launched into a supporting attack from the north towards Belhamed. This was one prong of a pincer attack to retake the height of Ed Duda.

The other pincer was supposed to be provided by the Italian Trento division, with the support of five tanks from 15. Panzerdivision. The tanks never showed up, being busy elsewhere, and Trento’s command wisely decided that without armour support they would be on a hiding to nothing. Unfortunately for Batallion Kolbeck, that meant they were left alone to face the formidable Commonwealth defenses.

Overall, the plan of attack was  based on a flawed intelligence appreciation about Commonwealth forces in the break-out salient, a flawed understanding at higher command levels of what could still be asked of its troops, and flawed co-ordination of the attack. Looking at the records, the decision to pursue this attack with this force is difficult to comprehend, and it is one more example of the command failures of Panzergruppe during the battle.

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German prisoners, captured by the troops from the Tobruk garrison, carrying in one of their wounded. IWM, 28 November 1941. It is quite possible that these same men were liberated that day when the NZ Field Hospital was captured by Ariete Division and German M.G.Btl.2

Battle around this sector had been raging for days (see this older post for events on 29 November).  The proposed attack was following the rather successful attacks against the New Zealand Division, which the day before had suffered severely, and had to give up its hold on the corridor.  On the other hand, the Axis forces had been too weak to really re-establish a close siege line, and most importantly had failed to dislodge the Tobruk garrison forces from the Ed Duda salient. The command of 90th Light seems to have assumed, trusting information from the other formations, that there were few enemy forces and no tanks left in the salient and ordered this scratch unit (its only battalion left judged capable or available for attack) with some heavy weapons support to attack, while Panzergruppe expected 90th Light to cross the salient and re-establish the siege, retaking all the strongpoints lost during the breakout.  Needless to say, Batallion Kolbeck completely failed, with considerable losses, and Panzergruppe seems never to have been told that this was the only remaining unit within 90th Light capable of taking offensive action (or so they thought). The incident is well covered in the official histories of Australia and New Zealand, probably because it came at a critical point in the battle, maybe because it marks the passing of the high water mark of the Axis effort to crush the salient and maybe because the German attack fell apart with heavy losses, a performance that was unusual, to say the least.

The Australian official history states the Commonwealth perspective of this fight in Chapter 10 “Ed Duda”, pp493-4:

Then as a result of enemy movement on the north and west sides of Belhamed a warning was given that an attack on Ed Duda was expected. Burrows returned but the attack did not develop. Later in the afternoon enemy infantry and three tanks advanced from the east as though to cut the corridor in rear of the battalion and a heightening of artillery fire in the west indicated a possible  converging thrust from that quarter, but the force attacking from the east did not press on when shelled.

[…]

A German infantry advance against the 1 /Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, supported by a heavy volume of small arms fire, was checked, and the New Zealanders drove off a party that simultaneously approached their headquarters . One company position at Bir Belhamed was penetrated, however, and isolated English pockets anxiously held to their ground throughout a confused night. At first light some Germans were captured but the enemy reorganised and about 9 a .m. a sizable force of infantry assault engineers and anti-tank gunners made a crude attack. The Beds and Herts showing cool discipline held all fire until the enemy were close and then engaged them with crippling effect . The Germans turned and made for the ridge to the north only to run into sharp fire from the New Zealanders, who effectively disrupted a none too orderly withdrawal . Once again a German assault on the Tobruk sortie force had gained nothing but had cost the German command many killed, wounded and captured . Some had been taken prisoner twice within a fortnight . Many of them belonged to a newly formed infantry unit of the 90th Light Division, called after its commander the Kolbeck Battalion, which was composed largely of men released from the New Zealand prisoner-of-war camp overrun in the German counter-offensive on 28th November .

The New Zealand history also has an account of the battle in Chapter 25 of “The Relief of Tobruk”:

On the saddle between there and Belhamed 18 New Zealand Battalion repulsed a light and poorly-staged attack (by Kolbeck Battalion, an ad hoc unit of 90 Light) after dark on 1 December and helped to defeat a much heavier attack next morning. This came mainly against 1 Bedfords and Herts to the left rear, and this unit drove the enemy northwards in considerable disorder. In the course of this fighting it became apparent that the morale of General Suemmermann’s troops had deteriorated and their offensive potential was now negligible. Kolbeck Battalion suffered crippling loss in men and equipment, and 605 Anti-Tank Battalion, 900 Engineer Battalion, and III Battalion of 347 Infantry Regiment met with some loss, particularly in anti-tank weapons. To 18 Battalion, on the other hand, the action was salutary; it cost only seven casualties against many times that number of Germans killed, wounded or captured and helped to restore any confidence that had been shaken by the fighting on Belhamed.

Chapter 15 of the official history of the New Zealand 18 Battalion contains this text on page 222 and a map:

Life on that escarpment, though much more bearable than the previous week, was still no bed of roses. The enemy was close and was in a nasty aggressive mood at first, as 18 Battalion soon found out. A report by Peart to Divisional Headquarters on 3 December outlines briefly what happened during the first three days in the new position:

At about 1900 hrs [1 December] a night attack was made on the Bn. by enemy infantry from the north. This attack was easily repulsed with LMG and rifle fire.

At about 0630 hrs 2 Dec 41, a new attack was started from the north by at least a Bn of the enemy with arty support. This attack was also repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy by 0900 hrs. We suffered 7 casualties.

The remainder of 2 Dec 41 was one of comparative quiet except for movement of the enemy outside small arms range. Arty fire was brought to bear by 1 RHA who had sent an FOO to the Bn.

Late in the afternoon considerable activity by the enemy was observed on belhamed and an attack from that direction was expected. After considerable difficulty it was found possible to get two A/Tk guns (Polish) through Beds and Herts Regt, and five I tanks from 22 Armd Bde…. 1 RHA arranged a complete defensive fire plan.

No attack developed and night ⅔ Dec was quiet. 90 reinforcements were sent forward from B Ech of 18 Bn and 20 Bn. 10 18 Bn reported and took away all wounded, except stretcher cases, and some 50 officers and ORs of a German and Italian hospital in the Bn area.

On 3 Dec much enemy movement was visible east and south of the posn. Recce patrols were sent out and at time of writing it appears that the enemy is holding a defensive line sidi resegh-belhamed-bu amud…. An attack on the enemy has also developed further south from apparently some portion of our own troops.

Wire has been received from Beds and Herts Regt and 600 mines have been promised. It is proposed to further consolidate the posn on night ¾ Dec.

The morale of the tps is good…. The present strength of the unit, including attached from 20 Bn, is 17 Offrs and 528 ORs….

It is emphasised that for a considerable period this Bn has been placed in posns of extreme difficulty with three sides open to attack and with little support available. Great help has been received in particular from 1 RHA and their FOO….

Early information about plans for our future action or movement would be appreciated….

This bald account fairly effectively conceals some very sound work by 18 Battalion, beginning shortly after dark on 1 December, when the alarm was first raised that Jerry was coming in on the north-east flank. The Brens facing that way opened up forthwith, the riflemen round them joined in with enthusiasm, and very successful their efforts were, for Jerry halted and dug in where he was, down below the escarpment. After the morning’s events the battalion was not at all disposed to let sleeping dogs lie. The Brens continued to give Jerry what one man described as a ‘good pasting’, but Jerry stuck to his new position, and a little later in the evening sent in a few shells which rather cramped the battalion’s style.

All that night fingers in 18 Battalion were very ready to triggers, but Jerry did nothing till daybreak next day, when a sudden storm of shells arrived, followed by the enemy infantry, whose numbers, now that they could be estimated in daylight, looked like 200 or so. Reaction was swift. Brens and rifles opened up, followed by the Royal Horse Artillery, with an effect so rewarding that even the 18 Battalion boys were astonished. Under the shelling and accurate sniping the German troops broke and ran—a rare spectacle—and as they did so more and more troops rose out of the ground and joined them till the estimated 200 had swollen to a battalion at least. They did not stop till they reached a small ridge 800 yards away, where they rallied on a line of tanks in hull-down positions.

Jerry had now lost his first advantage of surprise, and all the advantage of ground lay with 18 Battalion, which could overlook the whole situation. To some men it looked as if the tanks were driving the infantry back into the fight, but that might have been a bit far-fetched. There was certainly much activity over in the lee of the little ridge, staff cars buzzing about and the Germans obviously making ready to come again. But the fun, when it began again about 7 a.m., was shortlived. The German infantry this time made almost no progress; the Royal Horse Artillery (for whom the 18th was beginning to cherish a warm regard) opened fire again and broke up the advance, helped by three opportune British tanks which appeared out of nowhere.

That was the ignominious end of Jerry’s attempt on 18 Battalion from the north. During the rest of the morning the infantrymen and artillery had intermittent sport shooting at small enemy parties which from time to time rose up from the ground and made a dash for safety, and in the afternoon the pioneer platoon sent out a patrol and helped the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment to round up some 150 Germans who had hoped to lie doggo till dark. They might have got away with it but for an accident—an enemy car travelling injudiciously up the bypass road had stopped when fired on, and a carrier which went to investigate had stumbled on these hapless Jerries in the vicinity. Exposure for hours to drizzle and cold wind (for 2 December was a foul day) had sapped their resistance, and they surrendered without argument. They were herded up and marched off to the ‘Beds & Herts’ lines, with 18 Battalion interestedly watching from its vantage point.

The history of these abortive attacks from ‘the other side of the hill’ is interesting. While the morning attack on Belhamed on 1 December was in full swing, Africa Corps asked 90 Light Division to attack from the north, the idea being to trap the Kiwis between two forces and crush them, nutcracker style. The 90th Light agreed with alacrity, but promise seems to have outrun performance; the best unit it could find for the job was a makeshift, poorly armed battalion, commanded by the divisional adjutant and composed of odds and ends, supply troops and the like.

The first attack that night penetrated well down towards the Belhamed escarpment, but could not be pressed home against the solid defence of 18 Battalion and the Tommies. The attackers dug in for the night, then next morning tried again, with the disastrous results already described. It was no mere repulse, it was a fiasco. The battalion, received in such unfriendly fashion by 18 Battalion and 1 RHA, lost heart and decided unanimously to go home, ‘streaming back in disorder’ as 90 Light Division itself admits. Its unfortunate commander, hauled over the coals later, could offer no convincing explanation—the men, he said, had ‘bolted leaving behind their A Tk guns and other weapons’. Not an inspiring page in the history of German military prowess—but what a tonic for the battle-bruised 18 Battalion, whose morale had inevitably suffered a little in the cataclysm of 1 December.

18 Battalion on Ed Duda

New Zealand Official History

While these write-ups in the histories make things look like they were very tidy from the Commonwealth side, one has to remember they were written after the war, by authors who had access to the war diary and reports of 90th Light, and are thus subject to a certain amount of hindsight.  A rather different picture is given by the operations report for 2 December 41 by 4 RTR, a Matilda tank regiment operating on Ed Duda which was involved in breaking up the attack.

Operations Report 4 R.T.R. 2 December 1941

Operations on 2nd December 1941

Issued operation orders for the day.

All quiet for the moment after battle at BELHAMEDlast night (this maybe the night action Kolbeck refers to, but which is not mentioned anywhere else).

Battle developed vicinity of BIR BELHAMED. This maybe the preliminary to an attack on the North of DUDA. BIR BELHAMED held by the Beds and Herts. C.Os. orders were to give any help possible.

Decision to be taken whether to send tanks to assist and possibly weaken DUDA which may be attacked in turn any moment or keep them and let the Beds and Herts carry on unsupported.

On the other hand no information that enemy are in vicinity of it at the moment, whereas if they overrun the the BIR BELHAMED position, they will be behind us here and can put guns to shoot up our tail.

Tank position at the moment is bright:-

12 tanks, 3000 yds West of BIR BELHAMED (Maj. Pritchard)

13 tanks, on top of DUDA (Capts. Kendall and Gardner).

4 tanks, in reserve at HQ (Major Roberts).

Decision:- To send help to BIR BELHAMED and ordered Major Prichard (sic!) to move as under:-

His left, forward and North to watch WOLF (one of the old objectives of the break-out).

His right, to advance and engage enemy tanks that now appeared South East of BIR BELHAMED and advancing to attack Beds and Herts. There are eight of these Mk IIIs by the the look of them.

Major Roberts with 4 tanks to move directly forward East to demonstrate towards enemy.  This will have the effect of putting tanks on both flanks of them.

0750 – considerably firing in vicinity of BIR BELHAMED. It looked as though Beds and Herts were surrounded by enemy tanks and infantry, and that they had surrendered, and this was confirmed by an Officer of the Australians who said he could see them.

Message from Major Prichard to say enemy had withdrawn, and that BIR BELHAMED was in our hands and had been all the time.  He also says that considerable number of weaponless Germans who had surrendered are now walking over a minefield and escaping. Asked what to do. C.O. told him to fire on them. Later he reports that they returned when he opened fire. They were later taken in charge by the Beds and Herts.

Enemy did not engage with tanks at all. Major Roberts had some shooting, but as far as could be seen, his shells bounced off the enemy tanks.  Hear that the Mk IIIs have been reinforced.

Enemy withdrew North East.  Beds and Herts shot up Major Prichards tanks on sight. SOme Germans came near the Beds and Herts and called out that they were Poles, but this did not save them at all.

It was now established that the N-Zs at the corner BELHAMED were still in position too, and happy.

The rumours that (a) The Beds and Herts had surrendered.

(b) The N-Zs had been scuppered.

(c) That the enemy held the whole of BIR BELHAMED are thus fables. Most of our information appears to be fables.

1330 – All has been quiet for a while.

1400 – Information that enemy are advancing from the East along the escarpment.

Major Prichard lost two tanks on a minefield when he advanced on BIR BELHAMED. This cuts tanks down to 25 effective. Adj. tank is doing rear link and not available for fighting (unless things are desperate).

War Diary 90.lei.Afrika-Div.

Finally, it is instructive to read the German original documents.  The failure was clearly seen as serious, and questions were asked up and down the command chain. The war diary entry of 90th Light’s operational war diary reads as follows:

1 December

1315hrs – the order to attack is also given to Battalion Kolbeck which consists of released prisoners from the Afrika regiment (former Foreign Legion men) and B Echelon personnel with minimal weapons equipment.

1520hrs – Battalion Kolbeck stands south of airfield with 4 Italian AT guns and waits for order to move out.

1610hrs – German planes bomb the british cauldron north of Belhamed (according to a New Zealand gunner, they actually bombed a a column of15th Panzer). Despite repeated request no answer from Corps (DAK) regarding permission for Battalion Kolbeck to attack and time to start.

1640hrs – Pz.Grp. orders closing the gap between Italian XXI. Corps south and 90th north by attacking. Forces are lacking for this. Because of fault on phone line and congestion on the radio net it is not possible to inform Grp. of the failure to carry out its order. The subordination to DAK, which gives new orders, the transmission from Gruppe is no superseded.

1700hrs – Start of attack of Battalion Kolbeck. Fluid, uninterrupted advance in direction Belhamed

1815hrs – Magen Belhamed reached. No enemy contact yet.

2000hrs – 1km south Magen Belhamed defensive fire from MG and AT guns. Shortly after heavy enemy artillery fire into the attack of Btl. Kolbeck. The Btl. goes to ground and can not advance one step more. Captain Kolbeck has doubts whether Belhamed is even in German hands already, since he received heavy fire from Belhamed. In several discussions with 15th and 21st Panzer Division, to which there is once more phone contact, it is confirled that Belhamed is in German hands. Thereupon radio call to Btl. Kolbeck. Meanwhile – 1945hrs – question from Panzergruppe why its order to close the gap southwards to Pavia across the old strongpoints (lost to Tobruk garrison breakout earlier in the battle –  see this older post) had not been carried out. Pz.Grp. declares agreement with measure after divisional commander explains (division under DAK since 1845hrs) and who points out phoned order from DAK to take Belhamed from the north.

2220hrs – two heavy tanks (Pz IV) arrive at the CP.

2 December 1941

Night quiet.

0620hrs – report that Btl. Kolbeck has reached the Ital. positions 1km north of the Axis road serpentines (Belhamed).

0700hrs – Captain Kolbeck intends to attack with left wing on 700m frontage along the serpentine towards the east to neutralise allegedly present English remaining elements. Attack gets stuck.

0705 – heavy enemy artillery fire on Btl. Kolbeck. Enemy attacks from Sghifet ed Duda with infantry (no tanks). Fire of several batteries from Tobruk on Btl. Kolbeck.

0730 – the two tanks which arrived during the night roll up to the support of Btl. Kolbeck and take with them the remains of Pz.Jg.605 (a formation of self-propelled lightly armoured 4.7cm AT guns) and help the hard fighting Btl. Kolbeck. The English attack breaks down.

0820hrs – the divisional commander drives to the frontline to personnaly orient himself about the situation of Btl. Kolbeck. Returns after 2 hours and again – 1000hrs – the Zafran appears to be free of enemy, while the Belhamed is lightly held. It appears unclear to all why Btl. Kolbeck has not advanced further.

1015hrs – Captain Möller receives the task to establish contact with DAK because Btl. Kolbeck can not advance since 0700hrs. The combat power of the newly established incongruent battalion is very much weakend by the enemy artillery fire and the attack.

1040hrs – a tank attack by 9 tanks is repulsed by our Pz.Jg. company by simply appearing.  Nevertheless the elements of Btl. Kolbeck are flooding back to the Via Balbia in complete confusion. They are there at the Axis cross caught by an orderly officer of the division and brought back to the supply officer to recover. The Pz.Jg. stand ready to defend at km 7 of the Axis road. Pioneer battalion 900 holds Point 130. Btl. Kolbeck moves back to Point 126 north of the Axis road and should hold a line strongpoints 903 to 900.

[…]

1235hrs – Captain Kolbeck reports to the divisional commander on the situation of his battalion. He states that the men made off, leaving behind their AT guns and weapons. Wounded and dead were caused primarily by artillery and MG fire.

3 December 1941

Night completely quiet. Some men of Btl. Kolbeck manage to return under cover of darkness. A complete weapon loss report of the division except S.R.155 and Afr. Rgt. 361 is handed to DAK.

Reports by Hauptmann Kolbeck

The two additional reports by Captain Kolbeck below are the German first-hand and unfiltered side of this fight, and were a response by the him as battalion commander to the criticism of the performance of his unit on those two days. They are appended to the war diary of 90th Light.

The first is a neat illustration of the chaos of battle.  Wargamers in particular sometimes seem to have trouble comprehending that a WW2 battlefield was a chaotic place, in which orders and units got lost or were simply not carried out because they conflicted with the instinct of self-preservation.   The report includes all the chaos one can presumably expect on a battlefield.  Vehicles break down, units retreat or advance in the wrong direction against orders, units leave the battlefield during fighting, units get lost.

1st Report

Battalion Kolbeck

Battl. CP, 3 December 41

Re: Phone call from Divisional Commander 3 December 15.00 hours

Topic: Whereabouts of heavy weapons of Battlegroup Briehl during attack on 1 and 2 December 41

To the 90. le. Division.

As ordered I report:

To support the attack on Belhamed the following had arrived as ordered:

1 platoon 3.7cm AT guns commanded by a Lt. Gewehr

2 5cm AT guns with a total of 5 men commanded by a Senior Private (Obergefreiter); munition porters were supplied by the battalion,

1 light Infantry Gun (short-range 7,5cm howitzers) platoon with 2 guns commanded by a Corporal.

The platoon of 3,7cm AT guns had the task to protect in leapfrogging advance in the right wing and the right flank of the battalion against tanks during the attack.  During the night fighting it was also used against machine gun targets.  During the night one vehicle broke down with engine damage.  During the continuation of the attack on 2 December the platoon took over tank protection of the right forward company, guns moving down-hill towed by their crews.  When the largest part of the company moved east against my orders and retreated north, the tank hunters followed on the order of thier platoon commander after removing the bolts, breeches and optics, carrying the latter with them. The guns were left behind.  The 2 i/c of the platoon reported to me on 3 December after he had been with Battlegroup Briehl until then. He and his 13 men with their light weapons were integrated into the 2nd company. Lieutenant Gewehr is allegedly wounded.

Of the 5cm AT guns one gun fell out during the first kilometres already, allegedly because of engine damage on the towing vehicle.  The second gun had the task during the early morning of 2 December to protect the attack leftwards against enemy tanks from the assembly area.  It was supposed to follow the left forward company as soon as this reached the valley bottom.  During the the evasion, against orders, of the leftward company and the elements of the battalion pushed left, the gun suddenly limbered up and moved back. No catching up with it was possible.  A report to the straggler collection point, which could not have known to the platoon, was not made.

The light infantry gun platoon had the order to follow the attack on 1 December 41 at the head of a company echeloned back leftwards, and be available to me.  When I wanted to call up the platoon for direct fire on an English strongpoint during night combat, it was not available.  It also did not reach the later assembly area.  Several hours of searching during the night remained fruitless.  One has to suppose that the platoon lost contact, moved in the wrong direction, was taken prisoner or returned without orders to its unit.

Signed: Kolbeck

2nd Report

Battalion Kolbeck

Battl. CP, 4 December 41

To the 90. le. Division.

Evening Report 3 December 1941

The reorganisation of the remains of the battalion to a two-company structure has been carried out. A further  32 NCOs and soldiers have reported as stragglers.

Strength:

Staff 2 Officers 2 Civil servants 1 NCO, 7 soldiers

1st Company 1 Officer 28 NCO, 113 soldiers

2nd Company 1 Officer 15 NCO 103 soldiers

Total 4 Officers 2 Civil Servants 44 NCO 223 soldiers

One officer and 62 NCO and soldiers of 2./Afr.Rgt.361 are still on the march from the rest area of A.A.33 according to a sergeant. If they arrive it is intended to form a 3rd Company.

No new arrivals for weapons.  It was ascertained that a large part of the lost light MGs and 3 AT rifles was taken back on their own accord to their various units by the members of B Echelon who originally sent them.  A report to the straggler collection point was not made.  An order to recover the weapons has been issued by the supply officer of the battalion.

Equipment and weapons of the soldier was improved. Seven large tents were organised.  The mood amongst the troops is very good under the current circumstances.

Battalion personnel officer: DAK was sent loss and shortage report by radio on time.

Officers: KIA 3, WIA 7, MIA 9

NCOs: KIA 11, WIA 27, MIA 30

Soldiers: KIA 34, WIA 156, MIA 256

Shortage 22 officers, 74 NCO, 649 soldiers.

A more detailed follow-on report will come in writing and as soon as line fault is rectified by phone.

The numbers are partially estimated.  III./I.R.255 and Signals Command are not considered in loss and shortage, and Afr.Rgt 361 only for those recovered from prisonership and used here.

Signed: Kolbeck

Despite the performance (or rather lack of it) during the battle for Ed Duda, Batallion Kolbeck was kept as a unit until at least the retreat to Agheila.

Of further interest maybe that Captain Kolbeck was an old acquaintance of Rommel. He is mentioned a few times in ‘The Rommel Papers’.  Apparently he was assigned to Hitler’s HQ and was sent out to accompany Rommel on his march west through France in the final stages of the campaign there, with no specific role.  He seems to have survived the campaign in Africa and was taken prisoner when Panzerarmee Afrika surrendered in Tunisia in 1943. He is one of the old acquaintances mentioned by Rommel in a letter to his wife, wondering how they were doing in captivity. I am guessing that Rommel met him when he was serving as commander of Hitler’s bodyguard.