And a big thanks to Ilan and Oded Negbi
Silentstalker’s foreword: As some of you probably know, I am a big fan of Israel. Vollketten tried to make the article as apolitical as possible – I’d have acted differently, were I him. That however doesn’t mean I won’t ban any anti-semite I will see in the comments. Respect Vollketten’s wishes, keep politics from it.
So, I have been remiss in writing this up for several months, for which I offer no excuse except saying I’ve been busy with other writings and been trying to add more to this story. In doing so, I was very fortunate to speak with an eyewitness of the actual battle. It first came up as a part of looking at post war-footage from the Middle East, originally for the Egyptian use of British armour after the war.
Also, just because the topic involves Israel in some way, don’t think that any political viewpoint is offered here by me or wanted from you either, this is just about the tanks. Not interested in politics.
Negba [in Hebrew נגבה) is the location of a Kibbutz near Qiriat Gal in what is now South-Central Israel, founded on the 12th of July 1939 as the southernmost of several ‘protected’ settlements, known as ‘tower and stockade’ settlements.
On the 15th May, 1948, Egyptian Forces, numbering some 6,000 men with tanks and armoured vehicles, attacked through the Gaza strip with one part of the advance heading for Tel Aviv and another towards Jerusalem; this came just one day after Israel’s declaration of independence.
At this time in the history of Israel, its forces were sparsely equipped with all manner of odds-and-ends salvaged, bought, stolen and donated from a wide variety of sources. The Negba area was seen as a strategic location near the main route from northern Israel to the Negev area and only 2 kilometers or so from the old British fort at Iraq-al-Suweidan, held and strongly defended by Egyptian forces, that took it on the 12th May. The Israelis had tried to take this fort on the 12th May and again on the 18th May, but were repelled by the Egyptians. At the time of the attack by Egyptian forces, the Kibbutz was defended by some 70 or so soldiers and about 140 irregulars, armed mainly with light weapons, but also two 3” mortars and a couple of PIAT anti-tank weapons.
For a protected settlement, it was poorly located, having several small hills around it higher than it was, allowing for fire to be directed down onto it. The first attack took place around the 21st May 1948, starting with a bombing run by aircraft, leaving possibly three or more dead.
The next contact, the ‘First Battle of Negba’, took place on the evening of the 1st of June, 1948, with approximately a battalion strength attack of Egyptian forces with a heavy artillery bombardment and an assault by 7 tanks, flanked by armoured vehicles and followed by infantry. By 0700 hours, on the 2nd of June, these forces had moved up to about 100 metres from the compound, as the defenders, lacking long range weapons, were unable to stop the advance. When they got this close however, the Egyptian artillery could no longer support them and the Egyptians entered an area with mines and covered by fire from the defenders.
The lead Egyptian tank was disabled and the other vehicles started to fall back, at which point two of them struck landmines and were also damaged. Israeli forces were then seen on the flank and the Egyptian forces were forced to retreat. Casualty estimates, as you imagine, are ‘varied’ to say at least, but from the Israeli side, the count was about 100 Egyptians killed versus 8 Israelis killed and 11 wounded. The fighting continued until the 11th of June, when the defences of the Kibbutz were reconstituted, expecting a renewed Egyptian attack by regular forces.
By the 12th of July, the ‘Second battle of Negba’ took place, when a battalion sized (about 500) Egyptian force again attacked the Kibbutz at around 0600 hours against the 100 or so defenders. Beginning with a 5 hours bombardment, the Egyptians attacked again and by 1100 hour, they reached the distance within 50 meters of the Kibbutz. Unable to gain a foothold, the Egyptians retreated at dusk, leaving four ‘Bren-Gun carriers’, a single M.13/40 and a (per Israeli sources) up to 200-300 dead versus (again these are Israeli sources 5 dead and 16 wounded).
This is a photograph of the M.13.40 tank in question. Originally an Italian beast, it must have languished in Egypt since about 1943, when Italy left North Africa. The keen eye will notice the turret front is different.
The two men in the image are both Israeli defenders of the Kibbutz, the chap of the left with his shirt off is Oded, the gentleman I correspond with, who very kindly dates this image to the 12 or 13th of July 1948. Oded had gone out and cleared the mines out of the way and the defenders had then accessed this tank and removed the gun from it. The gun being described by him as a “37mm ‘2 pounder’ “. Oded also informed me that in the course of that day, he saw 20 or so light tanks, of which there were 2 Fiat M.13/40’s and 2 British Matilda’s.
From here, the M.13/40 in question was dragged into the Kibbutz and then 3 or so days later was loaded onto an army truck to be taken away. It seems the retrofitted and removed gun may have been refitted in the Kibbutz, but it too was taken away and does not seem to have survived.
Here it is inside the Kibbutz (note the building on the left of the image) and the remains of a tow rope. Also in this view you can clearly make out the modification to the front of the turret with a greater thickness of steel plate and a box type structure in which the gun was mounted.
In case you are curious, the slogan I am informed reads “מות לפולש” (mawet la-polesh) which means “Death to Intruders”
This is the only known image of the tank in question with its gun still fitted, taken some time around the 13th of May 1948 when the gun was removed and prior to its recovery for the Kibbutz.
The area today is currently part of Israel – a functional Kibbutz that still bears the scars of the battle, the most obvious place being the water tower, which – shell damaged – became a symbol of defiance against the Egyptians and of an independent Israel. There is a small museum on the site and a single M22 Locust on display (barrel not the original), which was given to the Kibbutz in about 1953 to replace the M.13, which was taken away and the location of which is still unknown.
There is footage of the period before and after the fighting here, which shows a row of ‘Bren Gun Carriers’ at 3:31 and an M.13/40 having a turret hoisted onto it at 3:46, the damaged water tower is also visible during the footage. The image is a little distorted, making things seem wider/longer than they should be, but it is interesting nonetheless.