The nervous, outnumbered and already weakened 150th Infantry Brigade was quickly subjected to probing attacks, and the brigade reserve was moved onto the perimeter to the right of the 4th Green Howards. Aggressive patrolling by the British infantry yielded results, with heavy casualties inflicted on an enemy working party by one patrol. On the morning of 30 May 1942, German engineers began lifting the hastily laid minefields on the eastern side of the box, which were a pale imitation of those to the west.
An assault by German motorized infantry from the 15 Panzer-Division gained some ground, but these positions were successfully counter-attacked throughout the remainder of day by the Matildas, which successfully plugged the gaps opened in the defences. Panzer-Regiment 5 lost 11 tanks in the initial exchange of fire. A position occupied by 232nd Company Royal Engineers on the eastern face of the defences was overrun during a determined infantry assault, however, giving the enemy a vantage point overlooking a great part of the box.
Efforts to dislodge them by combined infantry and tank attacks failed, despite large quantities of precious ammunition being expended. Attacks on the carefully dug-in 4th Green Howards were defeated, and heavy Axis casualties were inflicted during a counter-attack carried out by the battalion's Bren Gun Carriers. As darkness fell, aggressive patrolling immediately began all along the perimeter to prevent further German infiltration across the new minefields into the box.
The eventual fate of the beleaguered 150th Infantry Brigade, if left unsupported under concentrated armoured attack, was never in doubt to all those who served at Sidi Muftah. Unfortunately, it received little of the promised aid as the noose gradually tightened around its position, apart from periodic 'stirring' messages from divisional headquarters and the British high command. Efforts to resupply it with ammunition proved abortive. Although two small diversionary armoured attacks were mounted at Bir Aslagh Ridge and in the Bir Hamat area, they had little impact on the German anti-tank screen. Similarly, a small sortie made from the Knightsbridge Box along the Trigh Cappuzzo was badly mauled by the 21 Panzer-Division. Although plans were put in train by the hesitant and indecisive British high command for further infantry attacks on 31 May and 1 June and a larger armoured counter-attack, it proved to be too little and too late.
The full fury of the DAK descended upon 150th Infantry Brigade on 31 May, after elements of the 90 leichte Afrika-Division and the Trieste Division deployed overnight around the perimeter. A formal request for surrender by Rommel preceded the initial attack, but was dismissed out of hand by Brigadier Haydon. A heavy bombardment heralded the first assault, with German infantry from the 90 leichte Afrika-Division moving up close behind the barrage. Little progress was made, however, despite a furious exchange of close-range fire in the face of skilful and stubborn resistance by the defenders, and the attackers withdrew at 0800hrs having suffered heavy losses. A German attack supported by tanks on the north-east corner of the box, which was held by the 4th East Yorkshire Regiment, proved more successful and penetrated the outer defences of the box, despite desperate resistance from the 6-pdrs, Bofors guns and infantry that continued until 1600hrs. This penetration was successfully sealed off, however, by the handful of remaining Matildas.
The steady destruction or capture of the 6-pdr, 2-pdr and assorted captured Axis anti-tank guns pressed into British service and their crews, however, undermined the brigade's ability to defend itself against tank attack. Heavy attacks were made on the south-east corner of the box at the vulnerable junction between the 4th East Yorkshire Regiment and the 5th Green Howards, where the Germans took ground and prisoners, but the gap opened in the defences was quickly sealed by a counter-attack launched by the headquarters of the 4th East Yorkshire Regiment. The 4th Green Howards also beat off an assault on its sector. A heavy price, however, was paid in dead and wounded by the defenders for these local successes. By nightfall most anti-tank guns had been destroyed, ammunition supplies had dwindled alarmingly and all available reserves had been committed. Only 13 Matildas still remained operational, along with six medium guns, with 20 rounds each, and 12 25-pdrs with less than 100 rounds all told. No support was forthcoming from outside the box. Both sides drew apart as darkness shrouded the position.
The writing was clearly on the wall for the exhausted and increasingly desperate survivors of the 150th Infantry Brigade, whose defensive box had contracted to half its original size under heavy German pressure. The DAK was ordered by Rommel to end British resistance at Sidi Muftah once and for all by bringing to bear all its strength, and to do so it had been resupplied overnight using the nearby gaps through the minefield. Early on 1 June the box was subjected to intense shelling and dive-bombing by Ju87 Stukas, following which the assault from all sides redoubled, with the attackers reinforced by more artillery and part of the 21 Panzer-Division. A series of concentric attacks employing massed tanks and infantry began, which lasted into the late afternoon and steadily wore down the remaining British troops. Although every remaining trench, dugout and gun position was bitterly contested in fierce hand-to-hand fighting by the remaining tough Northumbrian infantrymen, the box was overrun. Casualties rapidly mounted, including Brigadier Haydon, who was killed by shellfire. This bitter fighting also taxed the morale of the attackers, with Rommel personally taking charge of a faltering lead infantry platoon. A German report stated: 'The encircled enemy, supported by numerous infantry tanks, resisted stubbornly. Each separate point within the fortress-like, strengthened defences had to be fought for. The positions had to be taken in hand-to-hand fighting for each individual bunker... The enemy suffered extraordinarily heavy bloody losses.'
By late afternoon, as water and ammunition ran out, further organized resistance was impossible and the survivors of the 150th Infantry Brigade emerged from their slit-trenches and bunkers with their hands in the air and capitulated after destroying their remaining guns and small arms.
The 3,000 exhausted British troops who marched into captivity on 1 June had displayed considerable courage, self-sacrifice and dogged determination during intense close-quarter infantry combat despite clearly being massively outnumbered and out-gunned from the beginning of the engagement. Such bravery proved to be of no avail, however, in the face of the DAK's concentrated armoured units. Ultimately, this hard-fought defensive action had proved to be another classic demonstration of the inherent weakness of the Gazala Line and of the static infantry box as a defensive tactic in the Western Desert. The wide gap between the 150th Infantry Brigade and neighbouring boxes ensured that no external support from these sources was possible and as a result its vulnerable, out-gunned and immobile garrison had been overwhelmed. The failure to mount a strong, well-coordinated armoured counter-attack, upon which the Gazala defences depended, effectively sealed the fate of 150th Infantry Brigade as soon as the DAK turned its full weight against it.
The time won by the brigade's extremely gallant defence and the opportunity the situation had offered to inflict a decisive defeat on the DAK was ill-used by the British high command, who failed to mount a decisive armoured counter-attack while the concentrated German armoured spearheads were at their most vulnerable as they were penned within the Cauldron. It was a turning point of the battle of Gazala and arguably one of the greatest lost opportunities of the North African campaign. In comparison, the Axis high command acted with commendable vigour by immediately opening a supply line through the minefield belt and restocking its armoured troops with water, fuel and ammunition. The revitalized DAK, occupying a salient deep in the heart of Eighth Army behind the Gazala defences, husbanded its strength and calmly awaited developments.
Archives Highlighted Teaching RSS Twitter micro.blog Edit Sidebars On the Internet For Reference Edit Posts