The battle for the Gazala Line continues

The crew of a Morris-Commercial C4 15cwt truck take cover during an enemy air raid in the Western Desert, 2 June 1942.

A lorry-mounted 2-pdr anti-tank gun passes a destroyed German PzKpfw tank in the Western Desert, 2 June 1942.

Henry Foster was with the 2nd Battalion The West Yorkshire Regiment, he had left the UK in January, travelling to Egypt via South Africa and then up to the Gazala Line. They formed part of the defence force based at Tobruk but on the 4th of June they were transported out of the town to join the battle in the desert. As they approached their position they passed large numbers of damaged and burnt out vehicles:

We were than told that the Division would be in action the following morning 5th June, the objective was to close some gaps in the British line and to form several defensive boxes, the Italians being to our front it was expected that the opposition would be light with their Infantry and Artillery. Food was brought up along with rations and water for the following day.

Next morning we were to move off at 04.30 hours. This was one hour before day break, as we were all aboard trucks, each truck carried a small light at the rear, we were now in the hands of the C.O. moving along on a compass bearing the lights on the trucks assisting each truck driver to keep in line. As day-light broke as far as one could see, to our right there were literally hundreds of trucks all moving in the same direction carrying the rest of the 5th, Indian Division.

We the West Yorks were on the left flank and 16 Platoon were on the extreme left of the whole line, to our left was sand and more sand, miles of it, (has Lawrence of Arabia appeared, we would not have been surprised for this used to be his stamping ground).

Very soon we were joined by seven or eight Tanks which took up position immediately to our front, everything was now moving forward at a steady pace, soon we came under shell fire, high explosive anti tank and air bursts, trucks were being hit and taking fire, the soilders who had been on board were picked up by another truck. Soon we were ordered off the trucks and were to advance on foot, each company now operating individually.

The few trucks that were still intact scarpered as fast as their wheels could move vanishing in a cloud of dust, leaving us with a few Tanks and Bren Carriers, doing there best.

At the same time we were now under fire from enemy tanks and armoured cars, we had not been informed about the tanks etc. Furthermore, we learned that our anti-tank platoon of six 2 pounder guns were knocked out before firing a shot, eight Bren Carriers and crews were lost soon afterwards, whilst the West Yorks were being engaged by forty tanks and seventeen armoured cars (15 Panzer Division, this I learned later reading the Regimental history).

The Valentine Tanks supporting withdrew to the rear being out-gunned by the Panzers, this left us the infantry against the tanks, the rest of the Division were in a similar situation. Two forward comapnies of the West Yorks were overun by the tanks, nine officers were killed or captured and casualties were very heavy (Regimental History states – 22nd. Armoured Brigade with 100 tanks stood back out of range and stood back and watched the destruction of the West Yorks and several more Infantry Regiments by the German Tanks).

Valentine tanks training in the Western Desert, 27 March 1942. A solidly armoured 'infantry tank', it only had a 2 pounder gun which had been useful when confronting the Italians but was no match for the German tanks.

10th Indian Infantry Brigade was completely destroyed. 16 Platoon being on the extreme left flank of the action, took up position behind a small ridge, we had no trenching tools, picks or shovels, and being under continuous fire from a group of Armoured Cars supporting heavy machine guns, we could not inflict much damage to them, having only Bren Guns and Rifles, and there was no artillery support (there was supposed to be artillery support but none was forthcoming). Communications were bad, West Yorks having no wireless sets and as fast as the Signals Platoon laid telephone cables Tanks in the rear chewed them up so any link up was just non existent.

Shortly after mid-day “D” Companies 16 Platoon were ordered to withdraw as did the rest of the Battalion, leap frogging one platoon after another, tanks and trucks that had been knocked out were given the final treatment by grenade and fire, ensuring that they would be of no use to the enemy forces.

Late in the afternoon we passed through the artillery lines, the enemy in close pursuit, the darkness was closing in now when we reached fairly safe area and here we were served with a hot bully beef stew, once more we were under attack from artillery fire, our artillery was retalliating, we then received orders to dig in and be prepared for a tank attack.

As dusk was settling we could make out the enemy tank in the distance. Then an other order was given to board whatever transport was available once more we were retiring, it seems that a number of the vehicles we had gone forward aboard on their journey back had wandered into a minefield. Unfortunately, this minefield was British and was creating a large number of casualties.

I was fortunate enough to climb aboard a 15 cwt vehicle being driven by an officer taking us in a southerly direction. It was now dark as we skirted the minefield and the Jerry tanks. We did not travel far, just out of range of the battle which was still being fought out between our artillery and the German armour.

Read more of this story on BBC People’s War.

Of all the actions that day in the desert one was particularly notable:

Portrait of Quentin George Murray Smythe, awarded the Victoria Cross for action in the Western Desert, 5 June 1942.

No. 4458 Sergeant Quentin George Murray Smythe, South African Forces.

For conspicuous gallantry in action in the Alem Hamza area on the 5th June, 1942.

During the attack on an enemy strong point in which his officer was severely wounded; Sergeant Smythe took command of the platoon although suffering from a shrapnel wound in the forehead. The strong point having been overrun, our troops came under enfilade fire from an enemy machine-gun nest.

Realising the threat to his position, Sergeant Smythe himself stalked and destroyed the nest with hand grenades, capturing, the crew. Though weak from loss of blood, he continued to lead the advance, and on encountering an anti-tank gun position again attacked it single-handed and captured the crew. He was directly responsible for killing several of the enemy, shooting some and bayonetting another as they withdrew.

After consolidation he received orders for a withdrawal, which he successfully executed, defeating skilfully an enemy attempt at encirclement.

Throughout the engagement Sergeant Smythe displayed remarkable disregard for danger, and his leadership and courage were an inspiration to his men

A British infantryman takes the surrender of the crew of an enemy supply truck in the Western Desert, 2 June 1942.

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