At the end of May Rommel and the Afrika Korps were held up on a line from Gazala on the coast to Bir Hacheim, forty miles south in the desert. Between these two positions stretched a belt of minefields and behind them were a series of ‘boxes’, surrounded by wire and mines, constituting self-contained and impregnable fortresses.
Rommel’s main objective was Tobruk, and to get there he had either to break through the minefields and destroy the ‘boxes’ or else skirt around the southern end of the line by Bir Hacheim and then push north. It was this latter plan that he chose to follow. Opposing him on this corner was the 7th Armoured Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade in particular.
The 7th Armoured Division at this time had under command the 4th Armoured, the 7th Motor, the 1st Free French, the 29th Indian Infantry and the 3rd Indian Motor Brigades. The 4th Armoured Brigade, commanded by Brigadier G.W. Richards, consisted of the 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, the 8th Hussars, the 3rd and 5th Royal Tanks and the 1st Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps.
The Brigade was situated in a position about fifteen miles east of Bir Hacheim and seven miles north of Retma with part of the 7th Motor Brigade, under Brigadier Renton, operating as ‘Jock’ columns near Segnali and Tengeder, a hundred or so miles to the west. The remainder of the Brigade was preparing the position at Retina.
On the afternoon of May 26th Rommel began to move eastwards, pushing out strong advance guards of tanks which were harassed by the 7th Motor Brigade who withdrew before him towards Retina. During the night he was watched and reported on by patrols of the 4th South African Armoured Cars.
Meanwhile, the Regiment in their positions east of Bir Hacheim had as yet received no indication that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen in the near future. Bathing and leave parties continued and tanks went off in twos to be overhauled. Two Squadron Leaders were away from the Regiment at this time, Major Harbord of ‘A’ Squadron who was instructing the 4th Hussars at Cowley Camp, Mena, in the use of Grant and Honey tanks and whose place was taken by Captain Nelson, and Major Sir E. Malet who had handed over Headquarters Squadron to Lieutenant Robertson.
Squadrons had fitted up miniature ranges. and training in sighting and ranging was carried out with Tommy guns mounted on the 75mm barrels. The Regiment was comfortably dug in and, as 2nd Lieutenant G.D.T. Taylor of ‘B’ Squadron wrote: “Its camouflage from the air might not have been perfect, but it was well concealed from generals driving past on the Divisional Axis, so except from the numerous recce’s of prepared battle positions in all directions, life was fairly peaceful.”
Squadron sports were being organised too, always a mixed blessing, but there were obstacle races in plenty ahead without the need for arranging a course.
The evening of the 26th May brought with it the first appearance, a long way to the west, of German Very lights, seen so often the previous winter, and it looked as though the report by British Intelligence of a possible attack was going to come true.
At 3.30 a.m. on the 27th of May, the 4th Armoured Brigade rang up to say that there was forward enemy movement and that the Regiment must be ready to move within fifteen minutes of first light.
All Squadrons were informed by 4.30, but with the dawn, there was no further information. There was time to risk a quick ‘brew up’, and at 6.30 one troop at a time went to the Cookhouse. By 7 am Brigade came through again to say that a large enemy column had overrun the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade about eight miles to the southwest and that they might be moving towards the 8th Hussar position in the Giof el Baar. Lt Col Kilkelly, therefore, ordered a patrol of light tanks from ‘C’ Squadron to recce to the south.
They met the ‘B’ Echdon of the Indian Brigade, who had no news of anything untoward. At this juncture, the Regiment was still expecting to take up their northern battle positions and imagined that any movement to the south must be in the nature of a demonstration or a feint, as the attack was expected through the minefields north of Gazala.
At about 7.20 however Brigade ent through the code word ‘Majority’ which meant ‘Move to southern battle position: followed by an order to move to the Start Point which was immediately east of the leaguer area. It was while the Regiment was moving to this position that ‘C’ Squadron reported enemy tanks about 4,000 yards to the south, advancing north-cast. These were on a ridge on the Regiment’s left flank and consisted of a large column of Mk.III and IV tanks, closely supported by anti-tank guns.
The Regiment formed a line and prepared for action, and ‘C’ Squadron was the first to engage. Major Hackett, in command, had his tank knocked out in the first few minutes and was himself badly burned. However, he mounted another tank and continued to command his squadron.
Meanwhile ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons had formed up on the left and right of ‘C’ and were immediately involved in the battle. The first shot fired by Nelson in command of ‘A’ scored a direct hit on an 88mm anti-tank gun, but being on the southern flank of the Regiment, his squadron bore the brunt of the enemy attack and came under a merciless hail of fire from 88-mms, and Mk. III and IV tanks.
Captain Huth wrote:
“We all opened up at once as the whole column appeared to do a right wheel and advanced directly onto us.
“Fighting lasted about fifteen minutes by which time all our tanks except two had been hit and put out of action. We had hit many enemy tanks but at the time I could not estimate enemy losses, although I saw three or four go up in flames.
“My own tank had been penetrated by an 88-mm after I had fired only two shots with the 75-mm., and the driver, Lance-Corporal Dixon, and the 75-mm gunner, Trooper Prescott, were killed immediately. The 37-mm. also having been hit, we bailed out and two more of the crew were killed. I then managed to get on to the back of 2nd Lieutenant Coleman’s tank. By this time the Squadron was retiring, firing at the same time, being completely outnumbered.
“By the end of fifteen minutes Captain Nelson had been wounded and of the three Troop Leaders, David Elliott bad been killed, Nigel Gibbes wounded and died within an hour and Francis Coleman also wounded. There were about twelve wounded and twelve killed. among the other ranks of the Squadron.”
Finally, the only two tanks left from ‘A’ Squadron were No. I Troop Sergeant, Sergeant Morris, in ‘Arctic Star’, who evacuated Lieutenant Gibbes, and Lieutenant Ames, the navigator’s light tank. He backed up the wadi, firing and picking up some of the baled-out crews on the way. They were dumped at the top and he then, with Lieutenant Hall, engaged an Mk.III tank which was offering a good broadside target. Later Hall was forced to abandon his tank with a broken track and Ames picked him up with 2nd Lieutenant Taylor and some eight or ten men and took them out of the battle.
‘B’ Squadron, although not so heavily engaged, was having its own difficulties. 2nd Lieutenant Taylor who previously was running the Squadron sports takes up the tale.
“At 7.10 ‘C’ Squadron reported two enemy Mk.III’s approaching their leaguer. At 7.15 ‘B’ Squadron crossed the Sports ground or mudflats and formed a line to engage about fifty enemy tanks. Breakfasts had been thrown away and the Tommy-gun strapped on to the Squadron Leader’s tank for the Miniature Range was hurriedly pulled off. 7.15 to 7.45 was a period not to be forgotten. Grant tanks lost their tracks and bogey wheels.
“German tanks were left blazing but they were being reinforced by the 8th Tank Regiment or the Death’s Head Hussars, at least a hundred and fifty tanks strong. ‘A’ Squadron who were lined across the Giof el Baar facing south had been severely dealt with by German 88-mm. and other anti-tank guns, but no anti-tank guns had yet engaged ‘B’ Squadron, who were on their right rear, facing south-west. However most tanks in ‘B’ had by this time either their guns jammed, tracks off or were short of ammunition, so when the order came to withdraw east up the hill only one tank commanded by Sergeant Morgan was able to get out.
“The remainder fought it out until forced to evacuate their tanks, and about twenty-four crews, led by Major Threlfall and Captain Gwyn did various items of the Squadron Sports across the mudflats and up the hill, including the obstacle race with H.E. from Mk.IV tanks in place of camouflage nets.
“For some reason, the Germans did not machine-gun the crews and all by various routes got back to safety. Major Threlfall and Captam Gwyn were picked up by the Regimental Liaison officer after a three-mile point over fair country and were able to put the Brigade Commander more or less in the picture.
Lieutenant Hall, Lieutenant Taylor and other crews were picked up by Captain Ames in the ‘A’ Squadron Honey. Nine tanks went into action that morning, two being under overhaul, and eight were left on the battlefield. These were probably too badly damaged to be recovered by the Gennans and most of them were collected or destroyed by our own recovery sections a few days later.”
By now ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons, heavily out-numbered, had fought themselves to a standstill. ‘C’ Squadron continued to fight on. and taking up a flank position knocked out at least ten German Mk. III’s and IV’s, bringing the total of enemy tanks to thirty tanks knocked out or destroyed. A number of German Mk. III’s infiltrated and found their way around the flanks, so that Regimental Headquarters were engaged. They had by now withdrawn to the high ground to the east, hoping to rally the Regiment here, but it was impossible as ‘A’ and ‘B’ had but three Grant tanks left between them, although ‘C’ Squadron turned up later.
Lt Col Kilkelly succeeded in knocking out an Mk.IV which went up in flames at a distance of thirty yards, but the squadron lost all its tanks. The armour of the Grants withstood the anti-tank fire of the German tanks but was pierced by the ground weapons, 88 mms., and 2O/28-mms., and many were immobilised by damaged tracks. Major Phillips, the second-in~mmand. and 2nd Lieutenant D. Gimblett, Signals Officer was taken, prisoner and, although some crews found their way back on foot, a party with the Adjutant, Captain Baldwin, were machine-gunned and killed.
It was a gallant fight. The Regiment had destroyed thirty out of the hundred or more German tanks and had gone on fighting until they were overwhelmed. Owing to the rapidity of the advance and the fact that the Regiment received no adequate warning (although the advance of this column had been accurately reported throughout the night by the Divisional Armoured Car Regiments to Divisional Headquarters. For some reason, never explained even to this day, these reports were never taken seriously), the enemy had been able to make a surprise attack and engage and destroy the Regiment before any support or artillery could be brought up.
Some of those who were taken prisoner managed to escape like most of the ‘B’ Echelon and the thin skins. But the Regiment had suffered many casualties, chiefly from ‘A’ Squadron who lost all their officers.
However, heavy though their losses were they were not alone in this respect. Divisional Headquarters too was overrun, and the whole of the 4th Armoured Brigade fought desperately all day.
- A short history of The 8th Hussars
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- Article: The Battle of Bir Hacheim, May 1942 – The Regiment
- Article: The Battle of Bir Hacheim, May 1942 – ‘B’ Echelon
- Article: The Battle of Bir Hacheim, May 1942 – Escape Stories
- Article: The Battle of Bir Hacheim, May 1942 – ‘C’ Squadron with 3 RTR