25 Battalion suffers heavy casualties at Point 175

23 November 1941

Armoured car at point 175, Libya (Alexander Turnbull Library, DA-3209-F)

The attack was part of Operation Crusader, an ambitious attempt by the Egypt-based British Eighth Army to both recapture Tobruk – the eastern Libyan port in which an Australian division had been besieged since April 1941 – and destroy General Erwin Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps, the armoured spine of a large German–Italian army.

When the British offensive began on 18 November, 2 New Zealand Division’s initial role was to help envelop German–Italian strongpoints just inside Libya. With this achieved, 4 and 6 Brigades of the division were ordered to move west towards Tobruk on the 22nd. About noon next day, 25 Battalion of 6 Brigade advanced towards Point 175, on the edge of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, 40 kilometres south-east of Tobruk.

Most of Point 175 was initially taken in an attack across open ground – as were several hundred prisoners. But the German infantry were bolstered by tanks and machine guns, and despite support from 24 Battalion, by nightfall less than half the feature remained in New Zealand hands. 25 Battalion’s losses included more than 100 killed – the highest death toll in a single action for a New Zealand battalion during the Second World War. About 150 men were wounded and another hundred taken prisoner. These casualties amounted to two-thirds of all the men of the battalion who took part in the attack.

The Crusader fighting ebbed and flowed in a confused fashion for several weeks, with thousands of prisoners taken on both sides. By mid-December the Axis forces had pulled back to El Agheila, 500 kilometres south-west of Tobruk. A quarter of the 18,000 Eighth Army casualties had been suffered by the New Zealand Division, for which Crusader was to prove the most costly battle of the war.

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