Events in North Africa - June 1942
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"All our positions were overrun"
Robert Lee, a Signaller in the Royal Artillery shortly to be captured on the Gazala Line, described the purpose of the Box system during interviews with his nephew David Heaton:
Boxes were originally to protect the Infantry... When you're in an established position, they're like a camp. A huge area. Barbed wire all the way round the outside, then minefields, with a gap, similar to a drawbridge. The tracks that go out from the box and then through the minefield are planted with mines each night. At dawn 'Stand To' it's the Infantry's job to go out and take up those mines and bring them back inside, all carefully accounted for. Then the OP Officer can ride out to his position. One morning they did a miscount. Left one on the track. Killed a Troop Commander. He drove into it.
The men are arranged inside. The most vulnerable units are in the middle... Our system of boxes was essentially a defensive thing. It was too rigid. The boxes couldn't help one another. The Afrika Korps methods were more flexible. They could take each of our boxes in turn and have a battle with it... (As the situation deteriorated)... We held them off a long time. Getting on for four days and nights. Our guns were in action on 28th and 29th, plus the Infantry - machine guns and mortar fire. Coming at us we had artillery shells, airburst rapid fire, machine-gun fire. On 30th and 31st, German armour and German vehicles got right up on us. They were in full view - to our south, mind. One vast football field. Vehicles and Valentines burning all around us, palls of that acrid smoke, the smell of human flesh roasting, burning. The first taste of hell. But not the last... I remember listening in to a Bombardier Specialist, and he was talking to a Sergeant out at the OP. This Sergeant was one of my old 'B' Troop blokes. I knew the voice. He was obviously getting disturbed. The Germans were right there in front of him. He could see them clearly. Out at the OP they were just in a dug trench. Just telephones with them, wires running back. Nothing else at all. There's this Sergeant saying, "I'm afraid it's getting impossible now. There's nothing much we can do. They're getting so close". He says, "I hope you'll explain to my wife what happened". He was talking to someone who knew him well. He was in a state. That's how it was at the end...
All our positions were overrun like a farmer ploughing his fields. Their infantry and their quick-firing guns on portées were advancing on us. It didn't take much to clean up the table, not by then. We'd no alternative, apart from committing suicide. We laid our weapons down. We spread out. We walked towards individual German soldiers with our hands raised and open. The young German I came to said "Nicht boom-boom", and I said "Nein". Pretty well the only German word I knew at that time. When we walked on, in those first few minutes, we were moving past stretcher after stretcher. I don't even know who they were, whether they were our Gunners or whether they were Infantry blokes. Could have been anybody. In that sort of situation, you lose all track of what's going on. You just know you're finished.
From the memoir of Ted Stonard who served in the Royal Artillery, in 72nd Field Regt, 286th Battery.E Troop, of 50th Infantry Division, is an extract relating his experience of the climax of the battle.
The final day commenced with the usual 'stand-to' at 5.30am an ominous stillness greeted the detachment as they stood or knelt around their guns wondering what the day would bring, food was no longer of any importance as most were suffering from thirst, and many had blistered lips and parched throats...
It was not long before the Troop began to have casualties, E Sub. (Bdr Stonard) having the first, a shell burst near the gun and Gnr Lavendar (his nose already bandaged from a splinter several days previously), while laying in his shallow slit trench was hit by a large piece of shell, it sliced through the fleshy part of his upper thigh, splintering the bone.
On hearing his scream, the Bdr and Gnr Bristow went to his aid, he was conscious but in a state of shock. Stuffing a cigarette into his mouth the Bdr put a large shell dressing on the gaping wound, the leg was almost severed and the splintered bone showed through...
The Troop position came under continual shell-fire, vehicles and Gun Quads being hit, a 3 ton lorry some hundred yards to the left flank burst into flames from a direct hit, this gave the Germans a visual target, unfortunately an acute shortage of ammunition prevented the Troop from returning the fire, detachments were only too pleased to seek the protection of a slit trench no matter how shallow...
No 1 Gun (Bdr Stonard) was out of action, one man (Gnr Rickett) being killed and two wounded, the Bdr was blown forward into a slit trench, Gnrs Canfield and Odell managed to escape injury and took shelter in their slit trenches.
After the dust had settled a voice was heard calling out for help, this was Gnr Ginger Lee who had been blown several yards in the rear and was laying stretched out on the sand. ...With disregard for his own safety, Gnr Canfield dashed across and dragged Lee into the slit trench alongside Bdr Stonard, the wounded man was in a bad state, his shirt was scorched and burning but the worst injury was to his eyes, one socket was empty and the other eye was hanging out on his cheek, the shell had hit the cartridge case he was holding and the explosion had ignited the cordite. He was quite calm, probably in shock, the Bdr bandaged his eyes and gave him the only comfort he could - a cigarette and laid him in the slit trench...
After about half an hour the firing ceased, tracked vehicles were heard approaching, German Infantry appeared and indicated to them to go back to their rear - the Troop had fired its last shot!
Transcript of pages (right) from diary of Ted Stonard:
Slept in Gun-pit during night. Apps came as well.
Thursday 28th May 1942 Rotunda.
Friday 29th May 1942
Saturday 30th May 1942
Also captured on the Gazala Line was Captain Bill Chambers of the 4th battalion East Yorkshire Regiment. As a POW in Italy and subsequently Germany, he was heavily involved in producing plays in the Camps and his POW Log comprises photographs and programmes of these productions. Stage set materials, musical instruments, records and sports equipment were all supplied by the YMCA and the quantities were carefully noted, so too was the level of food supplied in the Camps. It will come as no surprise that Chambers concluded the calories were insufficient to maintain life. To exist without Red Cross Parcels in the Camps was very difficult.
Transcript of Airletter (below):
Dear Bill, Norfolk told me today they had a Cable from their Boy and it has done your Mother and I quite a lot of good as we impatiently wait for news from you. Send us a Cable as soon as you can or Brenda as she will phone us. We listen to Bir Hacheim Knightsbridge Gazala till we are tired. I do hope you are well under your conditions. You know the real meaning of the word Comrade and your fellow officers and men must mean everything to you. Mother has been to York for the day but is back now. She is tired and worried about you all. They were all at York. Frank and Kate from the Bay, as there was a full House she saw them all and it has done her good. Dick. Field. John Stafford are always in my thoughts and I pray you are all safe and well. An Australian airman told us how and on what you were living and the water[?] and what water[?] you were at in Sunday night's Broadcast. Well my good thoughts and Prayers are for you all, so with all my love and waiting for news. I am, Pop.
Transcript of left page of log:
This camp was a Carthusian Monastery built in 1300 but since considerably restored. It was used as a prison camp for Austrians during the last war & in peace time was an orphanage.
Opened in March 1942 as an officers camp.
Situated in a beautiful valley 2000 ft above sea level, south of Salerno. The monastery itself lay at the foot of the village of Pedula which rose up steeply on a hillside.
I spent a year here from Aug 1942 to Aug 1943.
The Armoured Corps suffered heavy losses during engagements in the 'Knightsbridge' area. Major Gerald Jackson, serving with A Squadron, 6RTR, fought through several punishing encounters with German Armour during this period and describes his arrival south of the Knightsbridge Box:
...when we got there we found that we were now in the area popularly known as the "Devil's Cauldron". One could soon see why, the area was covered with derelict British and German tanks, lorries, guns and needless to say, numerous dead bodies, which in the heat of the summer gave off a pungent sweet scented smell and were covered in flies, no doubt the same flies that seemed to appear from nowhere to share your bully and biscuits.
The new 'General Grant' tank is also discussed in his memoir:
It was the first time that I had seen Grants brewing up and it was not a pretty sight. The crew were virtually sitting on a petrol tank of a hundred gallons of aviation gasoline and a large quantity of high explosive shells, all of which are highly inflammable. Sometimes when they were hit all this would explode and the turret, weighing several tons, could be seen being blown off into the air. If the crew were lucky and unwounded they got out in time but this was not by any means always the case.
The severe losses led to an order to withdraw, with Jackson in the lead tank:
I was going along gaily as navigator in the dark until I was blown up, the rest of the regiment halted and, eventually after much searching a safe track through the minefield was found. I spent an uncomfortable night trying to get the tank out of the minefield, we mended the track, backed out hopefully the way we had come and were blown up again and yet again, however at last we made it and joined the others just west of Tobruk, it had not been a good time for me. I had been blown up four times in two days and by my own side! I was feeling absolutely shattered after no sleep for several days and Bam Brown, our doctor, made me have a couple of hours sleep in his ambulance, he said it would be in his own interest if I was navigating he wanted to make sure we knew where we were going and that it would be no good to have a zombie directing us.
See also El Alamein and Torch 1942.
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