The most memorable World War II action during the North African campaign of the 3rd Field Regiment (Transvaal Horse Artillery) was the battle of Sidi Rezegh on November 23, 1941. The South Africans were surrounded on all sides by German armour and artillery, subjected to a continuous barrage. They tried to take cover in shallow slit trenches. In many places soldiers could only to about 23cm deep because of the solid limestone underneath their positions.
Durban man, Steve Herbert, who was 17 at the time, describes his experience of the battle. Herbert, who turned 95 in October, was a signaller.
Part of this recollection is based on a letter written to his parents in Durban and sent soon after the actual battle.
At about 3.30pm we (Steve Herbert and Okkie Margolis) were told we had to go out and maintain the telephone lines (these communication cables were constantly being blown up as the battles proceeded).
We were taken part of the way and dropped off the van. While Okkie set about connecting up the phone, I did a spot of hasty trench digging. The ground was very hard and the trenches could only be very shallow. The one trench I dug in about five minutes and the other fellow was still trying to get through, so I started on the other one and by then the stuff was really flying. Hardly had I completed it, when the tanks started their main attack.
The din was something terrific. It was virtually impossible to poke even your nose above the trench. When the tanks got closer there was pistol fire, rifle, light and heavy machine gun fire, anti-tank and artillery fire all going directly over our trench.
The tanks came closer and closer and eventually they passed right over our trench. It struck me then that this was one thing I had never visualised – being crushed by a German tank. I could smell the oil as it passed over and the light was blocked out for a few seconds. My feet were a little bit too long for the trench and the tank went over the one heel which was lying in the spoil from the trench digging at one end and my foot was pressed into the ground. Some of the tanks stopped and shots were fired at us but missed. Needless to say, we hardly moved an inch. After what seemed an eternity the sounds of battle gradually died away.
It was then about 6.30pm. There was still all kinds of transport moving up and down and this continued until quite late. We had decided to wait until the moon went down before making a move, for in the moonlight everything is plainly visible from quite a distance away. Anyhow, at about 9pm we were so stiff and sore we decided to push off.
Steve Herbert as a 17-year-old soldier in World War II.
We decided to take our rifles with us as we had been instructed never to abandon our weapons, although they were absolutely useless, the tanks had squashed and bent them to such a degree.
We tried crawling, but we didn’t seem to get very far, so we started running in short runs. I might explain that we were heading for where our lines had been. We hadn’t an idea of where our men had gone, so we decided to try the old lines first. After a run of 250 yards we fetched up at an abandoned and damaged truck and decided to rest there. While we were sitting there we heard voices. Surprised, we kept quiet and listened. After a while we heard German being spoken. We promptly decided to do a duck from this truck, which contained some supplies – we took a tin of potatoes, a tin of Chivers blackcurrant jam and a tin of carrots. We had with us a tin of bully beef and half a bottle of water. This was to last us for four days, but we didn’t know it then.
We lay in a trench all that night. Did we shiver! It was really and truly cold.
Early in the morning another huge German convoy went past, but fortunately did not go over our trench otherwise we would surely have been killed. This convoy took exactly two-and-a-half hours to pass us by and I guarantee you that in all that time we never even so much as moved one millionth of an inch; in fact, I doubt if I even blinked my eyes.
After this lot came a host of vehicles, some of which stopped to look at us. They must have taken us for dead as indeed we might have been. They did not examine us however, fortunately. We had a brief spell of relief after this, but when later we looked up, the Germans had established a camp a little way to our right.
This made things very awkward. However, as we had a bit of food, we elected to spend the night there in the hope that they, like the others, would move out early in the morning. Morning came, but they didn’t move out. That meant that we had to stay there all day again and then wait until the moon was down before we could pull out. The way in which we slobbered that blackcurrant stuff down was amazing. On this day our water petered out – somewhere about breakfast time. The tin of potatoes we opened with an oversize piece of shrapnel.
The moon only went down very early the following morning – somewhere about 1am. On our left flank a tank battle was in progress. On our right was a fire from the German camp. We must have walked nearly six miles when a tank battle started developing towards our front. This promptly put a stop to our walk.
We took cover in a burnt out tank – some fire it must have been. We spent the remainder of the night there. At about 7am we saw a huge convoy approaching. This we thought was also German, although they seemed to have a large number of our type of trucks, but we thought it was all captured from us. This convoy stayed put all day, as did we in the tank, for tanks were buzzing to and fro all the time. The trouble was we didn’t know whose tanks they were.
Air raids took place over this convoy all day. At about 5pm we decided to take a chance and walk over and see who this crowd were. We had lived on carrot water for the last day and a half.
When we got over there we were not sure of ourselves for we saw two fellows sitting on the outskirts, one was blond with bright blue eyes and the other fellow had all his hair shaven off. Anyhow, they turned out to be New Zealanders and took us to an officer who soon fixed us up.
They allocated us new rifles and everything we needed in no time, cigarettes and matches for Okkie and when one discovered I did not smoke, he even managed a chocolate for me. He had probably been saving it for a rainy day. You have no idea how grateful we were to these men.
We then became involved in further action with these New Zealanders.
- Herbert was later caught up in the post-Tobruk South African surrender and spent the rest of the war in many different POW work camps in Italy and Germany and had many experiences, including several escapes. In October, Herbert featured on The Independent on Saturday’s news pages when he revisited another childhood memory, Cha Cha’s Lounge in Umgeni Road.