In the Desert Rommel had broken through the British defensive line in the middle of the Gazala Line. His forces were now heading north-west towards Tobruk. British forces lying east of Tobruk were now outflanked and in danger of being completely cut off.
A general retreat from the Gazala Line now got under way – there was much confusion and inevitably a good number of rumours and stories were apparent, even though the greater part of the retreat was conducted in good order. James Brown was amongst the South African forces retreating on the 16th June:
Sergeant Cowan, immaculate even in retreat, was with our rear party. He told me that no sooner had the main body left the old lines at Gazala than the enemy attacked the Cape Town Highlanders’ rear party.
Our lines including the company areas were heavily shelled by big guns rushed forward for that purpose. Our minefields apparently held them up and the rear party escaped intact to reach the pass at 2100 where they spent the night anxiously watching the flares of the approaching enemy.
Cowan said the rear parties from the 2nd and 3rd Brigades were not so lucky They were cut off and it is believed they were captured, although some may yet fight their way through.
In the bombing of the pass one horrific story stands out. Vehicles were clustered thickly around the bottleneck at the mouth of the pass and two trucks filled with artillerymen plunged to destruction over the sheer cliffs.
Here, on the frontier wire, trucks of all descriptions have poured un- ceasingly in . . like a vast cattle stampede. Already the retreat is being called the Gazala Gallop. Some are in tow and many have just made it in an extreme state of dilapidation.
Artillery signal vans, workshops, Bren carriers, staff cars – all the four-wheeled and tracked paraphernalia of a mobile division. What a wonderful target for Stukas! Tomorrow we expect to move to Buq Buq.
Today morale is high and steady once more. I feel confident that all will be well, although yesterday I felt that all was lost. A truck has been sent to Matruh for beer – perhaps this has something to do with our recent actions . . . heroism, chivalry cowardice and brutality.
A troop of heavy artillery pieces were attacked by German tanks which closed in under the range of the guns. The men stood to attention by their pieces after the guns were spiked and awaited capture. They were shot to a man. The only men who escaped were the ammunition files some distance behind the guns. Whether this deed was committed out of sheer savagery or because of the inability to take prisoners no one knows.
A hospital plane was attacked by an Italian fighter. Suddenly a Messerschmitt flashed out of the sky shot the Macci to pieces and machine-gunned the pilot who has taken to his parachute. The German pilot then saluted the hospital plane and disappeared. The apocrypha of a lost battle!
James Ambrose Brown wrote one of the outstanding accounts of the Desert war in his diary, Retreat to Victory: Springboks’ Diary in North Africa – Gazala to El Alamein, 1942 (South Africans at War).