There had been savage fighting along the whole front of the 7th Armoured Division on May 27th.

Not only did the 8th Hussars lose relatively all their tanks but so did the 3rd Royal Tanks. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade east of Bir Hacheim had been overrun and the Germans pushed on from there to oust the Riflemen from the Box at Retma. The whole Division was fighting from Bir Hacheim to el Gubi and in the midst of the confusion Divisional Headquarters was overrun. They managed to bring out a few vehicles but until they got sorted out, 30 Corps Headquarters took over.

As night fell on May 27th the 29th Indian Brigade and the survivors of the 7th Motor Brigade arrived at el Gubi. The 4th Armoured Brigade was a few miles southeast of el Adem and had, at a price, kept the 90th Light Division from its goal. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade had relatively ceased to exist but the Free French still hung on in their box at Bir Hacheim.

May 28th saw none of the savage fightings of the previous day. Both sides had to patch themselves up if they were to continue at all, although Rommel had intended to push straight on.

Lt Col Kilkelly and Major Threlfall left in the morning for Capuzzo with a party to draw a fresh supply of tanks. They were able to find enough to bring ‘C’ Squadron up to strength, who were reinforced so as to make a complete squadron ready for operation under command of the 3rd Royal Tanks on the next day.

Huth, who after his escape had been taken by the South African Armoured Cars to the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, had left his men there and had been loaned two 15 cwt. trucks with Indian drivers and an Indian Medical Orderly. He wrote:

“We drove off back to the wadi where I had left the wounded. There was a German encampment about a mile away, but I reckoned to get the wounded onto my vehicles and away before the Germans noticed me.

“As I drove up to the head of the wadi I found a German with a Tommy gun guarding the wounded, but he put his hands up immediately. I was then about to descend into the wadi and take away the wounded when Captain Nelson shouted to me to go at once.

“I then noticed a German tank about a hundred yards away, and the crew preparing to mount. Realising I had got myself into an awkward corner I mounted at once and drove off at top speed. Trooper Paul who was only slightly wounded had managed to scramble onto one of the cars, but I had no time to collect the rest. The tank fired about half a dozen rounds at me at very close range before I got over the hill, but by jinking, I avoided being hit.

“About three days later I went back to the scene of our engagement with the padre, the enemy having been driven off, in order to bury our dead.

“Of our nine tanks which had been knocked out, four had been burnt by us, two blown up by the Huns and the other three we saw being recovered by our own Recovery Sections.

“We went over to where the German leaguer had been established after our action of the morning of May 27th and counted twenty-seven German tanks abandoned. There was also one German 88-mm. burnt out with two dead beside it, but apart from these two dead, we saw no others. The Germans had apparently established a Tank Recovery and repair park here and had been forced to leave the area at short notice as kit lay all over the place.

“About ]une 5th whilst at the Tank Delivery Regiment near el Adem, I was questioned by General Ritchie and told him what I had seen. He informed me that no less than thirty-six German tanks had been blown up by our R.E.s ill the area of Giof el Baar. How many the Regiment had accounted for and how many had been brought in from other actions I cannot say for certain. but I think the majority had been almost certainly accounted for by the Regiment.”

During the day of the 28th the 29th Indian Brigade came up to el Adem, wherein the evening the 4th Armoured Brigade attacked their opponents of the day before, the 90th Light Division, and they succeeded in driving back a force who were trying to reach the escarpment south of Sidi Rezegh airfield.

Rommel was by now behind the minefields although unable to get north to Tobruk and Acroma. He was finding it increasingly difficult to bring up supplies and was trying to drive a gap back through the minefield to establish a line of communication. Most of the fighting on the 29th took place around the Knightsbridge box which was held by the Guards Brigade.

‘C’ Squadron, 8th Hussars, now came under command of the 3rd Royal Tanks. Major Hackett had to be evacuated as a result of the burns he had received in the battle on the 27th and the squadron was taken over by Captain Firth, 2nd Lieutenant A.F. McClintock being second-in-command. The troop leaders were 2nd Lieutenant L.F. Carter, 2nd Lieutenant Thurston of the 7th Hussars, 2nd Lieutenant Twiss of the Royal Tank Regiment and Sergeants Atkins and Knill.

‘C’ Squadron, who was with the 3rd Royal Tanks on the right of Brigade, moved from a position about three miles north-west of el Adem to intercept an enemy column which had been reported moving north-east near Bir el Harmat. However, thanks to a sandstorm, visibility was about ten yards and although battle positions were taken up it was impossible to see anything.

In the evening yet another attempt was made to get in touch with an enemy column to the southeast, but this time darkness fell before the squadron could make contact. At dawn on May 30th, the 3rd Royal Tanks were ordered to advance to a position about ten miles south-east of their leaguer area, while ‘C’ Squadron was ordered to reconnoitre towards Harmat as it was suspected that the enemy had established himself there.

Sure enough, the Panzers were encountered about two miles east of Harmat and reports came in from the forward patrols of nine Mk.IV tanks and some anti-tank guns.

‘C’ Squadron lost no time in coming to grips with this force. 2nd Lieutenant Thurston, whose troop was protecting General Headquarters, had his tank knocked out and was himself severely wounded in the head. 2nd Lieutenant Carter, whose troop had been one of the forward patrols, succeeded in rescuing him and towing his tank out of the action, a very courageous act carried out under heavy fire.

Then the 5th Royal Tanks came up and preparations were made to engage this enemy force. ‘C’ Squadron was again sent out on a recce to the south. After covering about three miles the enemy was found in strength. and two troops under 2nd Lieutenant Twiss and Sergeant Atkins were sent off to investigate some enemy vehicles to the south of Hannat. They returned with three German prisoners having shot up seven enemy lorries.

That night a leaguer was formed four miles east of Harmat with patrols out to the west.

On May 31st ‘C’ Squadron with the 3rd Royal Tanks advanced to a point on the Trigh Bir Hacheim north of Bir el Harmat. and patrols were sent out to the northeast.

The day was principally taken up with an artillery duel, and the enemy appeared to withdraw under the terrific barrage. That night ‘C’ Squadron withdrew a mile east to leaguer. 2nd Lieutenant Carter’s troop was sent out as a night patrol to Bir el Harmat. During the night, as always happened so near the front line, the leaguer was strafed by enemy aircraft.

The tank situation was causing grave concern. The 8th Hussars and 3rd Royal Tanks could between them only muster nine Grants and twenty-four light tanks. The 5th Royal Tanks were not much better off and Brigade Headquarters had three of each. Although the 4th Royal Tanks, who had been attached to Brigade, had thirty-six, they were ‘I’ tanks and very much slower than Grants or light.

By now almost the only serious opposition to Rommel on this southern sector of the line was from the 150th Brigade Box, which stood directly in the middle of the lane he had cut back through the minefields and the Free French who were still holding out at Bir Hacheim. The fighting around 150th Brigade Box was intense, added to which the Royal Air Force were continually bombing the area, which came to be known as ‘The Cauldron’.

However by midday on June 1st, when the defenders of the Box were running short of ammunition, they were overpowered and Rommel now had a clear run through the minefields. Severe fighting in this area still continued however and the Free French clung on for a few more days.

On June 1st at dawn ‘C’ Squadron, still with the 3rd Royal Tanks, returned to their position of the day before, and enemy tanks to the north-west were kept under observation. At about 11. a.m. they were relieved by the 4th Royal Tanks and moved back into reserve on the Trigh el Abd. Their new position however came under shell fire, so they withdrew a mile to the east, where they were joined by 2nd Lieutenant Dates with a troop of Honeys.

That afternoon a battle position was taken up at Nadaret el Ghesceuasc to meet a threatened enemy attack from Harmat but nothing came of it and a comparatively quiet night was spent in the same area. The next day, June 2nd, the German 90th Light Division was sent down to concentrate on the Free French at Bir Hacheim. The 21st Panzer Division to the north was trying to cut off the 1st South African and the 50th Divisions who were still holding their original positions on the line from Gazala to Alam Hamza.

At dawn on June 2nd, the 4th Armoured Brigade heard that an enemy attack was coming in on Knightsbridge from Harmat and the west-north-west. Brigade was ordered to Point 187 and the 3rd Royal Tanks advanced with ‘C’ Squadron, 8th Hussars, doing left flank guard.

As they arrived at their destination, enemy tanks and anti-tank guns were reported at Eluet el Tamar to the east, and orders were received to advance two miles north of this position. However, as they did so the enemy withdrew and a terrific sandstorm came up. ‘C’ Squadron then received orders to advance to Point 166 on the western flank of the 3rd Royal Tanks, an order easier said than done. Visibility was by now practically nil and the only chance of contacting the enemy was to make frequent halts to switch off engines and listen.

The storm became so dense that when they reached the escarpment on which Point 166 was situated the tank commanders dismounted and led their tanks on foot. Two troops under Lieutenant Bates and Sergeant Atkins were then sent off to recce to the west-south-west, and almost immediately they reported nine Mk.IVs and four anti-tank guns to their west. That they had surprised the enemy was evident too, as they were standing about, unconcerned.

The remaining Grants of the combined Regiments came up as quickly as possible, but unfortunately not unobserved, and a fierce battle ensued. ‘C’ Squadron lost two tanks knocked out, with 2nd Lieutenant Carter wounded and missing. Bates succeeded in rescuing 2nd Lieutenant Twiss, who was badly wounded, and two other men. It was impossible in the dust and smoke to estimate the number of enemy tanks knocked out but there was no doubt that a great deal of damage was done. That night the Squadron withdrew into leaguer on the Trigh Bir Hacheim.

It had been a hard day for the whole Brigade, and by nightfall ‘C’ Squadron and the 3rd Royal Tanks were the only effective fighting force left, the 5th Royal Tanks having but one Grant and two light tanks to their name.

On this same day, the remainder of ‘B’ Squadron and Regimental Headquarters withdrew to Bardia, where they were given the job of guarding a pumping station as well as coastal defence. The town and the harbour by this time were both more or less flattened, but all the same, their short stay was enjoyed by everyone, it enabled them to clean themselves up for one thing.

June 3rd dawned on a diminished ‘C’ Squadron. All they could muster were three troops of two tanks each, commanded by Bates and Sergeants Atkins and Knill. The battle of the Cauldron was still raging. At first light, the Squadron was ordered to recce to the west, but very little was seen.

However, a concentration of seventy enemy tanks was reported south of Eluet el Tamar, facing north. ‘C’ Squadron took up battle positions and remained in observation until nightfall, but the attack never materialised, and they eventually withdrew into leaguer about a mile to the north.

Meanwhile, the survivors of the Regiment at Bardia received orders to go to the Tank Delivery Squadron at el Duda and there make up a Grant Squadron.

This composite squadron was commanded by Major Harbord with Captain Huth, second-in-command, and three troops under 2nd Lieutenant Taylor and Sergeants Barnett and Wilmshurst, while 2nd Lieutenant Scott commanded ‘B’ Echelon. They left Bardia in the afternoon and arrived at el Duda that evening, taking over nine Grants from the 9th Lancers and the protection of the Tank Delivery Squadron for the night.

Dawn on the 4th of June saw ‘C’ Squadron again taking up their position on the Tamar Ridge, but at 9 a.m. the area was taken over by the 1st Royal Tanks, and ‘C’ Squadron was sent to make a demonstration near Bir Hatieza about six miles to the west.

‘C’ Squadron was again in the advance positions to the west and south-west owing to the high standard of reporting on the enemy which had been reached by Troop Leaders during the campaign.

As a result of these reports, the Royal Air Force was able to bomb a large column of enemy mechanized transport. Sergeant Atkin’s troop was engaged by two Mk.IVs and an anti-tank gun which closed to within a thousand yards and then withdrew, having only inflicted superficial damage.

Laguer that night was formed at Bir el Taaleb.

Meanwhile, the composite ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadron at el Duda was having problems of its own. A message was received which would have meant splitting up the Squadron amongst various regiments in various Brigades. Major Harbord went to 30 Corps to remonstrate and obtained a guarantee that the Squadron could carry on intact.

During his absence, the tanks taken over on the previous evening wae recalled and others had to be drawn. These were in a deplorable state. Most were minus internal communication and W/T sets, while the guns in some cases were so rusty that they would not work at all. Rations were missing and the general cleanliness had to be seen to be believed. Three days of hard work at least were necessary before they were fit for war.

However, before the last tank had been drawn imperative orders were sent by 3 Corps to the effect that the Squadron would have to leave immediately and report to the 1st Armoured Division.

A vain attempt was made to delay the start in order to get the tanks into a more fit condition, but to no avail, Two more messages were received from 30 Corps stating that no excuse for delay would be accepted, so the Squadron had no alternative but to take to the field as they were.

On June 5th the struggle for Bir Hacheim was still going on, and in the Cauldron the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade, although fighting, was surrounded. ‘C’ Squadron however had a quiet day, being in reserve until about 6 p.m. when they went forward to support the 1st Royal Tanks who were grappling with the enemy near Bir el Taalb. However, they were not called on and leaguered in that area.

Major Harbord’s Composite Squadron at el Duda moved at 8 a.m. to join the 1st Armoured Division. After some delay, while maps, codes, tracings of minefields and orders were collected, the Squadron eventually joined the Bays in the 2nd Armoured Brigade during the afternoon.

The greatest trouble they experienced was in tuning in either to the Bays or to Brigade owing to the condition of their W/T sets, and they could only receive orders by liaison. Eventually, a set was persuaded to work and orders came through to form a line on the right of the Bays opposite Bir el Aslagh where an attack was expected.

It did not, however, develop, and after an attack by Stukas they moved off just before dark in the direction of the Knightsbridge Box. At nightfall, they hit the edge of minefield and moved on west round it in double line ahead. They halted that night on the west of the Knightsbridge Box and moved on at first light on June 6th to the neighbourhood of the blockhouse north-west of Bir Bellafaa. Already four tanks had fallen out through mechanical trouble.

At 10 a.m. on June 6th, the Composite Squadron moved due east to an unnamed Bir just east of the blockhouse with the intention of attacking Bir Bellafaa. Again the plan came to nothing and they retraced their steps. They then moved in a south-westerly direction to the escarpment and on reaching the top had a shoot at enemy tanks at 2,000 yards, hitting several and with no damage to themselves. An attempt at a further move forward was stopped by enemy anti-tank guns in well-concealed positions.

The Squadron remained there for the rest of the day with an occasional shoot target as they appeared, and at dark withdrew into night leaguer under the escarpment. In the meantime, Captain Firth in command of ‘C’ Squadron had handed over his remaining tanks, one to the 3rd Royal Tanks, and the other two troops commanded by Bates and Sergeant Atkins to the 5th Royal Tanks.

The next day, June 7th, ‘C’ Squadron personnel under Captain Firth joined Regimental Headquarters at Bardia and remained with them until June 23rd when they joined the 7th Motor Brigade.

Related topics

  1. A short history of The 8th Hussars
  2. Middle East (Egypt and Libya) timeline
  3. Article: The Battle of Bir Hacheim, May 1942 – The Regiment
  4. Article: The Battle of Bir Hacheim, May 1942 – ‘B’ Echelon
  5. Article: The Battle of Bir Hacheim, May 1942 – Escape Stories
  6. Article: The Battle of Bir Hacheim, May 1942 – ‘C’ Squadron with 3 RTR