Panzer Mk III and Rommel’s command vehicle in the western desert at the time of the Gazala battles.
During the early hours of 30 June 1942, the Afrika Korps continued its westwards withdrawal defended by able rearguards to keep the British at bay. At around 0200hrs it met an acute problem. Near Sidi Muftah it bumped into the British troops manning the box created by 150th Brigade of the 50th Division, reinforced by 30 infantry tanks from 1st Army Tank Brigade. The position dominated the two minefield gaps opened by the Italians and totally disrupted Rommel’s plans. He knew it would have to be eliminated and quickly.
The first attack by 15.Panzer Division was halted on the edge of the minefield surrounding the box and then turned back by a screen of British anti-tank guns. While a second assault was being prepared things went from bad to worse for Rommel. At 1100hrs news came in that the British 1st Tank Brigade was attacking 90.1eichte Division at Bir Harmat, the 2nd Armoured Brigade was advancing along Trig Capuzzo, 201st Guards Brigade was making a sortie out of the Knightsbridge position to join in the attack and the 21.Panzer Division was being hard pressed by a very heavy bombardment by the guns of the Gazala Line. To make matters worse, the RAF in the shape of the Desert Air Force was up in strength attacking every German column its aircraft could find.
Thus in a short space of time, it seemed that the advantage had swung back in favour of Eighth Army. Victory was within Ritchie’s grasp if all these attacks were pressed home together. It seemed that the British commander had Rommel’s forces constricted within a relatively small area, bounded by Trig Bir Hacheim, Trig Capuzzo and Trig el Abd, with their backs against the British minefields. The area eventually acquired the nickname of the ‘Cauldron’, The 150th Brigade’s box dominated the Italian minefield gaps with its artillery, forcing German re-supply to be confined to the night. Rommel’s plan to hold the British in the east while consolidating in the west would be impossible as long as the 150th Brigade position held out in his rear.
For a while it seemed so promising for the British, but the ever-confident Rommel was certain of his forces and completely unfazed by the situation. He still thought that he could out-general the British commanders. On the other hand, if things turned really bad for him, he had an escape route to the west through the minefield gaps. Leaving the artillery and anti-tank screen to deal with Eighth Army’s attacks, he turned his attention westwards to the problem of 150th Brigade and the Sidi Muftah Box. His confidence was not misplaced for the attacks by the 2nd and 22nd armoured brigades were crushed by his guns and turned back once again with heavy losses, as was that of the 201st Guards Brigade. The British were still not concentrating their armour to an effective degree to enable them to apply the killer blow. During the night supply trucks got through the gaps to the Afrika Korps and both Panzer divisions were refuelled and re-supplied ready once again for concentrated action the next morning. Events had once again swung back in Rommel’s favour.
The commander of 150th Brigade, Brig. Haydon, had been expecting the German attack for a few days, ever since Rommel’s forces had arrived in his rear to the south of Knightsbridge. The gaps above and below his positions effectively meant that his brigade was cut off from the rest of 50th Division and from Eighth Army. Haydon was also hampered in dealing with the Italian gaps by supply difficulties, which had reduced his guns to a ration of just 25 rounds per gun per day. He should have been able to interdict passage through these gaps with his artillery, but he had to conserve shells for the attack from the east that he knew was bound to come. There was no help on hand from the remainder of 50th Division, for the corps commander, Lt. Gen. Gott, had ordered the division’s commander, Maj. Gen. Ramsden, not to move out of his positions in the Gazala Line.
Brigadier Haydon knew that the gravest danger was to the rear of his area. It was here that Rommel would strike, so he withdrew a battalion from the south of his positions where it was harassing the 101a Divisione Motorizzate ‘Trieste’ and set its men to work digging new trenches and gun pits on the eastern side. Into these new positions the brigadier moved the bulk of his one regiment of 25-pdr guns, the 72nd Field Regiment RA, and a battery of the new 6-pdr anti-tank weapons. Behind these positions was the contingent of tanks from 1st Army Tank Brigade, the 30 Matildas of 44th RTR.
Everyone in the brigade, and indeed elsewhere, knew that this single infantry formation could not hold out for long against armoured opposition, especially when that opposition was the Afrika Korps and its main defensive minefield was to its rear rather than to its front. Rommel had to be engaged in his flanks and rear in order to dilute the strength he could commit against 150th Brigade. At XXX Corps and Eighth Army HQs there was still a good deal of optimism that Rommel had been cornered and could be reduced by shellfire and swept aside by armour. Major-General Lumsden sent an encouraging message to Haydon saying that Eighth Army ‘had Rommel boiled’. If an all-round series of continuous and concentrated attacks could be put in then 150th Brigade could be relieved and the battle won.
On 30 May Rommel continued with his attacks against Haydon’s isolated brigade box. These were preceded by German engineers moving forwards under covering fire to lift the few mines that had been sown on the eastern side of the position. Motorized infantry then moved forwards and began to penetrate the British position only to be turned back by British infantry supported by the Matildas. Ground was won and lost by successive attacks and counterattacks, and by the end of the day very little new ground had been gained or lost.
Ritchie sent a message to Haydon congratulating him on keeping the enemy at bay: ‘Well done!’ he signalled. As for positive action to aid the beleaguered brigade, Lumsden organized two diversionary armoured attacks during the daylight hours each of battalion strength, neither of which gave Rommel much cause for concern for they were beaten back by a screen of 90 anti-tank guns along a front much shortened by the Afrika Korps’ withdrawal the previous day. The remainder of XXX Corps’ armour did very little else that day, although 4th Armoured Brigade made a sortie southwards in search of a reported 30 Panzers and a repair workshop near Bir Hacheim, but found nothing.
The losses to Lumsden’s armour led him to complain to Norrie that the only real way to tackle Rommel’s force was to have the infantry attack and clear the German anti-tank screens, then for the engineers to lift the defensive minefields to allow the armour to go through. Both Norrie and Ritchie agreed that this was the best course of action and an attack was ordered for the following night, 31 May, with 50th Division’s 69th Brigade attacking from the north and one of Eighth Army’s reserve formations, 10th Indian Brigade, attacking from the east. In the meantime, 150th Brigade was to hold off the Afrika Korps on its own as best it could, although later that evening a column of one company of infantry, two troops of anti-tank guns and a battery of artillery, set out from Knightsbridge along the Trig Capuzzo to harass the Afrika Korps. They ran into the guns of the 21.Panzer Division, lost five 25-pdrs, seven valuable 6-pdr anti-tank guns and 157 men, and then returned to Knightsbridge. The column achieved nothing save for perhaps the sound of battle giving some comfort to the besieged men of 150th Brigade that at least something was being done to help them.
The next day, 31 May, Rommel issued a formal request for Brig. Haydon to surrender his brigade. The request was rejected without comment by the brigadier. This signalled an intensive artillery bombardment behind which the infantry of the 90.leichte Division crept forwards to the edge of the box. Both sides now became embroiled in close quarter and small arms action. After several hours the Germans withdrew having gained little but having taken a large number of casualties. An hour later the attack was resumed, this time the infantry were backed by tanks. The shock of the assault allowed the British line to be penetrated, but each time a break was opened up it was contained by the determined efforts of the defenders. As the day wore on the fighting became more and more intense until both sides became exhausted and drew back in the failing light of the end of the day.
The area of the box had shrunk to half its size as each successive line of defence had been overwhelmed. Trench systems had been overcome, guns captured or destroyed and isolated resistance posts eliminated. Those weapons that remained intact were very low on ammunition. The time bought by this heroic defence was ill used by the rest of Eighth Army. The infantry attack planned for that night to break into the Cauldron had been postponed by 24 hours – the corps commanders felt that sufficient time had not been available to organize the attack. Ritchie did not send a message to Haydon and his isolated brigade that evening, nor were any diversionary attacks sent in to help them. The 150th Brigade was on its own, left to contain the strength of the four Axis divisions in the Cauldron with whatever means it could.
That night Rommel’s forces were re-supplied along the two tracks through the Gazala Line. The next day, 1 June, the army commander decided to put a stop to the stubbornness of Brig. Haydon and his brigade. He ordered an assault of massive proportions to eliminate what had become a tiresome diversion to his plans. The heaviest possible aerial attack would be mounted on the Sidi Muftah Box by the Luftwaffe to be followed by a massed tank and infantry assault on its defences. He intended that brute force would overwhelm the British in a blatant show of might.
As expected, this demonstration of the Axis power won through that day. The defensive box was crushed mercilessly, but only after a long and bitter struggle An enemy report written after the battle talked of the stubborn resistance and hand-to-hand fighting that was met at each bunker and defence position in turn, with the British suffering extraordinarily heavy, bloody losses At one point during the height of the action, Rommel himself took personal command of one of the leading platoons. As a later historian pointed out, this was possibly the first time a unit of such small size was commanded in action by so high-ranking an officer. Soon every British position had been surrounded or destroyed; ammunition stocks dwindled to nothing; the fight was knocked out of the beleaguered defenders. Finally an end was called and the fighting ceased. The 150th Brigade capitulated to the victors and 3,000 British survivors filed into captivity. Rommel rushed forwards to the brigade’s headquarters to congratulate Haydon upon the courage and skill of his men, but to his sincere sorrow he found that the brigadier had been killed by shellfire earlier in the day.