Operation Battle of Point 175

The 'Battle of Point 175' was fought between New Zealand and Italian forces for possession of Point 175 during the 'Crusader' (i) undertaking in the 'Campaign for the Western Desert' (29 November/1 December 1941).

Point 175 is a small rise just to the south of the Trigh Capuzzo, a desert track to the east of Sidi Rezegh and to the south of Zaafran, with a good view over the surrounding area. Early in November 1941, the feature was held by German infantry of Generalmajor Max Sümmermann’s Division zbV 'Afrika', which was soon to be redesignated as the 90th leichte Afrika Division. Troops of Major General B. C. Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division and infantry tanks of Brigadier H. R. B. Watkins’s 1st Army Tank Brigade attacked and captured Point 175 on 23 November, during the 'Battle of Sidi Rezegh' at the start of 'Crusader' (i). The New Zealand troops then attacked west to the and linked with the Tobruk garrison, which had broken out to meet them. From 29 November to 1 December, the New Zealanders defended the point and the area to the west against Axis attempts to sever the link with the Tobruk garrison and regain control of the local roads. Generale di Divisione Mario Balotti’s new 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete' recaptured Point 175 late on 29 November.

The defenders mistook Italian tanks heading toward them for South African reinforcements led by armoured cars, and therefore let them approach unchallenged, and as a result 167 men of the New Zealand 21st Battalion were taken prisoner by Italians who were apparently just as surprised to find the area unoccupied by Axis troops. Brigadier H. E. Barrowclough’s New Zealand 6th Brigade was almost destroyed in the fighting around Point 175 and eventually its remnants retreated to Zaafran. The division then returned to Egypt to refit as it had suffered 4,620 casualties. When the division reassembled, it was sent to Syria to recuperate and was then almost sent to the Far East for commitment against the Japanese after the latter’s invasion of Malaya on 7/8 December 1941.

The Western Desert is about 240 miles (385 km) wide between Mersa Matruh in north-western Egypt and Gazala on the Libyan coast, along the Via Balbia, which was the region’s sole paved road. The Great Sand Sea 150 miles (240 km) inland marks the southern limit of the Western Desert at its widest points at Jaghbub (Giarabub) and Siwa oases, and in British terms the Western Desert came to include eastern Cyrenaica in Libya. From the coast, extending some 120 to 190 miles (195 to 305 km) inland, there is a flat plain of stony desert, at an altitude of about 500 ft (150 m) above sea level, until it meets the Sand Sea. Scorpions, vipers and flies infest the region, which is sparsely inhabited by Bedouin nomads, whose tracks linked wells and the easier traversed ground. Navigation was by the sun, the stars, the compass and 'desert sense', the last being a good perception of the environment gained only by experience. In the spring and summer, the days are hot and the nights cold. The Sirocco (Gibleh or Ghibli), a hot desert wind, blows clouds of fine sand, whose presence in the air reduces visibility to a few yards and coats eyes, lungs, machinery, food and equipment. As a result, motor vehicle and aircraft engines need special oil filters, and the barren ground means that water and food as well as military stores have to be transported from outside.

The area between Sollum, Maddalena, Bir el Gubi and Tobruk is larger than the UK’s East Anglian region and, except near the coast, has a hard, flat and open surface, easy for desert-worthy vehicles to cross except after rain. From Bardia westward to El Adem the ground undulates with several east/west ridges, whose north-facing sides are usually escarpments passable by vehicles in only a few places. Farther to the north is the Via Balbia along the coast, and then a maze of wadis to the coat of the Mediterranean Sea. One ridge lies to the north of the Trigh Capuzzo track, which runs along either side of the southern escarpment. Near El Adem, the Trigh Capuzzo lies between the ridges, as does the Tobruk bypass built during the 'Siege of Tobruk'. About 12 miles (19 km) to the east of El Adem, opposite Sidi Rezegh, the bypass turns to the north between Ed Duda, a small hill on the western side, and Belhamed to the east. The area of Sidi Rezegh, Ed Duda and Belhamed was an Axis transport bottleneck which gave it a great tactical significance to each side. Point 175 was a rise on the escarpment just to the east of Sidi Rezegh, with a cairn and a nearby blockhouse.

Lieutenant General Sir Alan Cunningham’s British 8th Army planned to engage and destroy the tanks of Generalleutnant Ludwig Crüwell’s Deutsches Afrika Korps with the tanks of Lieutenant General C. W. M. Norrie’s XXX Corps in the form of Major General W. H. E. Gott’s 7th Armoured Division, while Major General G. L. Brink’s South African 1st Division covered their left flank. On the right flank, Lieutenant General A. R. Godwin-Austen’s XIII Corps, supported by Brigadier A. H. Gatehouse’s 4th Armoured Brigade Group, would make a clockwise flanking advance to the west of Sidi Omar with Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division, while Major General F. W. Messervy’s Indian 4th Division contained the Axis frontier posts. The New Zealanders were to hold a position threatening the rear of the line of Axis defensive strongpoints extending to the east from Sidi Omar to the coast at Halfaya. When the Axis armour had been defeated, the XXX Corps was to continue to the north-west in the direction of Tobruk to link with the breakout by the beleaguered port’s garrison, Major General R. M. Scobie’s 70th Division. (There was also a deception plan to persuade the Axis that the main Allied attack would not be ready until a time early in December, and would then be a sweeping outflanking move through the Giarabub oasis on the edge of the Great Sand Sea, more than 150 miles [240 km] to the south of the real point of attack.)

If the Axis garrisons along the frontier tried to retreat, the New Zealanders and the rest of the XIII Corps were to cut them off or closely pursue them if they escaped. To protect the western flank of the XIII Corps, the 4th Armoured Brigade Group had been detached from the XXX Corps but remained under command, ready to intervene in support of either corps. At a conference on 6 October, Freyberg insisted that the New Zealand 2nd Division should not engage Axis armour without British tanks under command, unless the opposing tank forces had already been defeated. In the event that the brigade group was called on by each of the corps, Freyberg wanted priority but this was refused, although the brigade group was still ordered to stay close to the XIII Corps on the frontier, a compromise much to the dismay of Godwin-Austen and Freyberg in the XIII Corps and also the armoured commanders in the XXX Corps, who wished to keep their tanks concentrated.

On 23 November, Barrowclough’s New Zealand 6th Brigade of the New Zealand 2nd Division advanced westward along the Trigh Capuzzo to Point 175 in preparation for a descent into the valley to Sidi Rezegh. Minefields delayed the move and the last leg began at 03.00 on 24 November. As dawn broke the New Zealanders realised that they had arrived at Bir el Chleta by mistake. The headquarters staff of the Deutsches Afrika Korps discovered that they had been surrounded by the New Zealanders also by mistake and were taken prisoner. Point 175 was held by the 1 and 2/verstärktes Afrika-Regiment of the Division zbV 'Afrika', which had an unusually large number of machine guns and mortars. The New Zealanders and the attached infantry tanks of the 1st Army Tank Brigade overran the German defenders and took 200 prisoners.

By 25 November the New Zealand 6th and 4th Brigades had advanced to the west from Point 175 along the Trigh Capuzzo, the valleys on each side of it and the Sidi Rezegh ridge. The 4th Brigade reached Zaafran to the north by dawn and the 6th Brigade arrived, via the blockhouse 2 miles (3.2 km) to the west of Point 175, at Sidi Rezegh airfield. After a night attack on Sidi Rezegh ridge on 25 November, Belhamed was captured. The 6th Brigade was partly pinned on the airfield and partly forced down the escarpment near the Sidi Rezegh tomb. The Tobruk garrison broke out and captured Ed Duda on 26 November as the New Zealanders repulsed a German counterattack. During the night the 6th Brigade attacked again and annihilated the IX Battaglione Bersaglieri during its capture of all of the Sidi Rezegh ridge. The New Zealand 19th Battalion made a flank march to Ed Duda and linked with the Tobruk garrison.

During the morning of 29 November, Generalmajor Walter Neumann-Silkow’s 15th Panzerdivision set off to the west, travelling to the south of Sidi Rezegh. The remnants of Generalmajor Johann von Ravenstein’s 21st Panzerdivision were supposed to be moving up on the right to form a pincer but were in disarray after von Ravenstein failed to return from a morning reconnaissance, and was replaced on a temporary basis by Oberstleutnant Gustav-Georg Knabe. von Ravenstein had been captured at Point 175, to the east of Sidi Rezegh, by the New Zealand 21st Battalion. Just after 17.00, this battalion was overrun by elements of Balotta’s 132a Divisione corazzata.[12] Having defeated several half-hearted armoured attacks by Gatehouse’s 4th Armoured Brigade and Brigadier J. Scott-Cockburn’s 22nd Armoured Brigade, which added to the confusion in the area to the south of Point 175, Balotta had ordered his division to keep moving northward to the escarpment and the division had then turned to the west at a speed of 6.2 mph (10 km/h) toward Point 175. The Italians were in khaki uniforms, had hatches open and waved black berets, which looked like Royal Tank Corps uniform, at the occupants of Point 175. The New Zealanders, having received a 250-lorry supply convoy earlier in the day and expecting the arrival of Brigadier J. H. Pienaar’s South African 1st Brigade from the south-west, mistook the Italian tanks for Marmon-Herrington armoured cars, emerged from cover to wave them in, and only then found that they had been overrun by Italian tanks and Bersaglieri, who took prisoner about 200 men of the 21st Battalion.

The New Zealand 24th and 26th Battalions met a similar fate at Sidi Rezegh on 30 November, and on 1 December a German armoured attack on Belhamed almost wholly destroyed the New Zealand 20th Battalion: in these attacks, the New Zealanders suffered the loss of 880 men killed, 1,699 wounded and 2,042 taken prisoner. The leading elements of the 15th Panzerdivision reached Ed Duda, but before the fall of night made little progress against determined resistance. A counterattack by 4th Royal Tank Regiment and Australian infantry recaptured the lost positions and the German units fell back 1,000 yards (915 m) to form a new position. During 29 November, the two British armoured brigades were passive, with the South African 1st Brigade tied to the armoured brigades and unable to move in open ground without them, because of the threat from the Panzer divisions. In the evening, the South African 1st Brigade was placed under command of the New Zealand 2nd Division and ordered to advance northward to recapture Point 175. Radio intercepts had led the 8th Army headquarters to believe that the 21st Panzerdivision and 132a Divisione corazzata were in trouble and Ritchie ordered the 7th Armoured Division to 'stick to them like hell'.

Following the reverse at Ed Duda, Rommel withdrew the 15th Panzerdivision to Bir Bu Creimisa, 5 miles (8km) to the south, to prepare for an attack to the north-east on 30 November, aiming between Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, leaving Ed Duda outside the encirclement. In the middle of the afternoon, the New Zealand 6th Brigade, each of whose four battalions was down to about 200 men, was attacked at the western end of the Sidi Rezegh position. The 24th Battalion was overrun, as were two companies of 26th Battalion, losing 600 men taken prisoner and several guns. On the eastern flank, the 25th Battalion repulsed an attack by the 132a Divisione corazzata from Point 175. Freyberg requested permission to withdraw the remnants of the brigade into the Tobruk perimeter, but this was refused because the South African 1st Brigade was scheduled to retake Point 175 with a night attack from the east, covered by the 4th Armoured Brigade. By dawn the South Africans were 1 mile (1.6 km) short of their objective after knocking out about 19 Italian tanks.

At 06.15 on 1 December, the 15th Panzerdivision attacked again towards Belhamed, supported by a massed artillery bombardment, to drive the New Zealanders back from the Tobruk perimeter. The New Zealand 4th Brigade was eventually forced back and the 20th Battalion was overrun, cutting the New Zealand 2nd Division in two. During the morning, the 7th Armoured Division had been ordered to advance and 'counter-attack the enemy’s tanks at all costs', and the 4th Armoured Brigade Group arrived to the north of Sidi Rezegh and at the positions of the 6th New Zealand Brigade at around 09.00, outnumbering the approximately 40 German tanks attacking the position. New orders were received from Gott to cover the withdrawal of the remains of the New Zealanders to the south, which the tank regiments prepared to cover. During the morning, Freyberg had seen a signal from the 8th Army’s headquarters indicating that the South African 1st Brigade was now to be under command of the 7th Armoured Division.

At about 14.00, Freyberg signalled that without the South Africans his position would be untenable and that he intended to withdraw. The New Zealanders were only in touch with Norrie, the corps commander, who approved the decision. The weather was poor but Air Commodore T. W. Elmhirst’s Air Headquarters, Egypt had concentrated on the El Adem area in support of the New Zealanders and the Tobruk garrison. The 15th Panzerdivision renewed its attack at 16.30 after replenishing, and the New Zealanders became involved in a desperate fighting withdrawal from their western positions. The division was formed up by 17.30 and, having paused for one hour for the tanks and artillery to join them from the west, set off for Zaafran at 18.45. Bombarded from both flanks, the New Zealanders retired to the north-east along the divisional axis towards Zaafran, 5 miles (8 km) to the east of Belhamed and slightly farther to the north-east of Sidi Rezegh.

At Maaten Baggush, Freyberg wrote a report on recent operations, in which he described how the Deutsches Afrika Korps had been trapped but that the breaking up of British divisions into battle groups had led to the latter being defeated piecemeal and that the Deutsches Afrika Korps had managed to escape, a conclusion rejected by General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the British commander-in-chief. Mindful of his obligations to the New Zealand government and the right of appeal if he thought that the division was being imperilled, Freyberg then revived a suggestion that the division be sent to Syria, which was accepted on 13 December. After the outbreak of war in the Far East, with Japanese landings in Malaya on the night of 7/8 December, the New Zealand 2nd Division was one of the formations in the Middle East slated for return to Asia along with Australian divisions. The offer of a US division to the New Zealand government, however, persuaded it to consent to the New Zealand 2nd Division’s sojourn in Syria.

The New Zealand 2nd Division began 'Crusader' (i) with 20,000 men, of whom 879 were killed or died of wounds, 1,699 were wounded and 2,042 taken prisoner (103 prisoners died from all causes), total casualties for the division thus being 4,620 men. The 132a Divisione corazzata had an establishment of 6,231 men and lost 4,731 men (76%) in the course of 'Crusader' (i).

The New Zealand 2nd Division reached the lines of the XXX Corps with little more interruption, and here Freyberg concluded that the division must withdraw from the battle and refit, which was agreed by Norrie. In the early hours the 3,500 men and 700 vehicles which had escaped drove to the east, then cut to the south across the Trigh Capuzzo and retired to the Egyptian border. The 19th Battalion and part of the 20th Battalion joined the Tobruk garrison. On the frontier, Major General Isaac P. de Villiers’s South African 2nd Division was ordered to prevent Axis supplies being sent to the west from Bardia and to mop up Axis positions as soon as an opportunity appeared. The New Zealand 5th Brigade remained under South African command and the rest of the New Zealanders were ordered back to the Baggush 'box' to refit. The retreat from Zaafran left more than 1,000 New Zealanders of the 18th Battalion, half of the 19th Battalion and many gunners in the Tobruk corridor, 3,500 (apart from wounded) in Tobruk, more than 3,200 of the New Zealand 5th Brigade outside Bardia and hundreds of patients and staff in the New Zealand Medical Dressing Station, which had been captured. There was a lull on 3 and 4 December as the cost of the fighting to the Germans was established by staff officers and a German attack near Ed Duda was repulsed. A report that Bir el Gubi was under attack arrived in the afternoon and Rommel ordered the Deutsches Afrika Korps to concentrate against the threat of attacks from the south. Amid confusion and indecision from 4 to 7 December, both sides skirmished and during the night Rommel ordered the Axis forces to abandon the besieged forces on the Egyptian frontier and retreat to Gazala.