Capt D.S. Thomson, MC; Stratford; born Stratford, 14 Nov 1915; clerk; wounded 26 Jun 1942; p.w. 16 Jul 1942. (Source: Murphy, W.E. The Relief of Tobruk. p.284.)
'Then the enemy sprang to life. A few odd shots swelled rapidly into a cacophony of fire from rifles, automatics of all types, and anti-tank guns. Lines of tracer bullets crossed and recrossed with the appearance of a perfect fire pattern. Apparently the Germans had been waiting. It seemed impossible for any troops to get among the enemy without suffering heavy casualties. What would happen? In the face of such a blaze of fire would the brigade check? Would it falter? There was only one chance. Close with the enemy as fast as possible.
Fourth Brigade did not falter. To quote from Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows' report, ‘a most amazing and thrilling thing happened. To a man the whole brigade charged forward. No orders were given; no urging forward by officers and non-commissioned officers. With shouting, cheering and war cries every man broke into a run as if he knew exactly what was expected of him.'
The shouting and cheering were more of a frenzied yell. The pent-up emotions of the last minutes on the assembly line and of the steady march were freed. The yell was heard above the din of the fire. It carried 4 Brigade as on a wave into the defences. With a few yards to go, some men checked as if to return the enemy's fire and beat it down. What was their purpose, no one knows precisely, for check and sweeping on to close with bayonet, bomb and bullet were almost simultaneous.
On the right flank, the Maoris swung a little further out and drew level with 19 Battalion. From column, the companies changed into line and made short work of some machine-gun posts. On the main objective, the neck between Bir and Mahatt Abu Batta, little opposition was found by 19 Battalion. In a splendid exhibition of the characteristics of spirited troops, 19 Battalion immediately turned down into the Bir Abu Batta re-entrant to give 20 Battalion a hand. There, among the parked German transport, the greatest resistance was met.
Using bayonets, rifles, tommy guns, Brens fired from the hip and the newly-issued bakelite grenade, the two battalions penetrated into the centre of the close-parked laager. Here, for a few minutes, there was the ‘impassioned drama’ of war. No chances could be taken. Kill or be killed. The bayonet was used with terrifying effect. The German slumped in the corner of a trench or lying on the ground might be shamming. He might fire a shot or throw a grenade when backs were turned. A thrust or a bullet eliminated the risk.
In the slit trenches, most of the Germans had their boots off. Some were undressed. While some Germans attempted to surrender and some to make off by foot and in trucks, others fought hard. Machine-gunners who used the light of burning trucks or of deliberately lit petrol fires to help their aim were dealt with by the simple process of assault from all points except on the line of fire. Truck drivers used wheeled and half-tracked vehicles as tanks in efforts to overrun the attackers. Some got away, but most fell victim to bullets and bombs, including the sticky grenade.
The flashes of explosions, the blaze of burning vehicles, the smoke, dust and the yells and screams made an inferno through which 19 and 20 Battalions fought their way to the far side of the laager. They had punched the required hole. On the eastern side of the wadi, the companies and battalions reformed while the transport came up in response to the success signal. As the advance had been drawn off its axis by the greater resistance on the left, the majority of the troops were some distance to the north of the embussing point. Spasmodic fire caused a number of casualties while the troops were marching to the transport and in embussing, but the now calmer troops quickly got into the trucks and the whole brigade moved off in night formation to the east.
In this climax to the Battle of Minqar Qaim, 4 Brigade added unfading lustre to the story of New Zealand arms. Proof was given, if proof were needed, that the New Zealand citizen soldier, adequately trained and equipped, was equal to any situation. Physical fitness was a factor. The men of 4 Brigade, since leaving Matruh on 25 June, had been travelling in trucks, marching or digging defences, with little time for sleep or even rest until the morning of 27 June. During that day they had stood the strain of continuous attack under a broiling sun. Their discipline—the discipline expressed in the willing subordination of the individual for the good of the whole—made them a proud command. This discipline, and their confidence, also made it relatively easy to impose on them one of the severest tests of battle—the evacuation of secure defensive positions for the hazards of open warfare attack.
Major Smith's company of the Essex Regiment shared equally in the glory of the breakout as it had been steadfast in the trials of the day. Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows' report closes with a special paragraph on the company. ‘I should like to pay a tribute to the company of the Essex Regiment which attacked with the leading battalion,’ he wrote. ‘The conduct of the men throughout was excellent. They attacked with the same fury that was shown by all troops and this assistance contributed considerably towards the success of the operation.’
For an action in which so many men distinguished themselves, decorations had to be sparingly awarded. But there were no two minds in the Division that it had the right to claim on behalf of one of its officers the most jealously guarded award, a bar to the Victoria Cross. Neither wounds nor enemy fire deterred Captain Upham1 from carrying out what he conceived to be merely his duty. That was the case in Crete when he had been given the Cross. In Bir Abu Batta he entered the thickest of the fighting and his men followed him. He saw a truck full of the enemy trying to escape. In spite of heavy automatic fire, he approached close enough to destroy the truck and all of its occupants with grenades. Although wounded in both arms, he continued to lead and control his company. The highest award for bravery, however, was not made for this action alone. It came later for like conduct at Ruweisat. But the foundation of the Division's claim to the signal honour was laid at Bir Abu Batta. Other awards for the action included the DSO to Lieutenant-Colonels Burrows and S. F. Hartnell (19 Battalion), the MC to Captain D. S. Thomson (19 Battalion), and the MM to Driver C. C. Robinson (NZASC, attached to 4 Field Ambulance).
While waiting for 4 Brigade to move and the remainder of the Division to assemble, Brigadier Inglis gave further thought to the problem of the breakout. His reflections led to the conclusion that while there was no doubt 4 Brigade would cut a gap and pass its own transport through, the alerted enemy might trap the remainder of the Division in the gap. By the time the divisional column entered the gap, the enemy on the flanks should be aware of what was happening. Whatever else they might do, they should at least be pouring fire into the gap.
The delay in getting 4 Brigade's assault under way was also disturbing. Brigadier Inglis did not know how deeply the enemy was disposed about Bir Abu Batta and therefore how long 4 Brigade would take in breaking through. The midsummer night was short. The desirability of the Division's being clear of the area by daylight presented itself as an imperative necessity when it was related to 5 Brigade's dispersion in the transport of other formations. If a further emergency arose it would be difficult to put the brigade on the ground to fight. Certainly the operation could not be carried out with the speed an emergency would demand.
Inglis decided that while the enemy was apparently fully engaged about Bir Abu Batta, the remainder of the Division should bypass the battle area by moving south for about two miles and then turning east parallel with the route to be taken by 4 Brigade. The column would move in tight formation on a front of about 80 yards, and if any enemy were encountered it would crash through them on wheels.
This solution of the problem appears to be so bold, indeed so potentially risky, as to call for examination of the factors which led to its adoption. If nothing else, they emphasize the truth that almost every tactical problem is unique and must be solved on its merits, and that the art of war has no traffic with rules to be slavishly followed in every situation.
Inglis had not been impressed with the weight or vigour of the enemy's attacks during the day. It was not likely, therefore, that resistance to the breakout would be stronger. Probably it would be weaker. As the enemy appeared to have disposed most of his forces for the night about Bir Abu Batta, his defences elsewhere should be thin. A surprise, solidly packed punch should break them.' (Source: Scoullar, J. L. Battle for Egypt : The Summer of 1942. pp. 110-112.) AWMM