10. Return to Battle Minqar Qaim
10. Return to Battle Minqar Qaim
We could return to Aleppo, sixty miles by good road, and thence by the main road, 180 miles to Baalbek, or we could travel across the desert direct, about 130 miles. Monty and I looked at the map: there was nothing to show that the going would be difficult, and I decided to go direct. We did an easy thirty miles that night.
The next day, 14 June, was difficult. It was again intolerably hot, and about half-way we ran into a knot of little villages and could find no way round. There were innumerable watercourses with narrow crossings and we got entangled among these on narrow tracks and causeways, at many places too narrow for our vehicles. We laboured for hours in the stifling heat; it was impossible to turn and go back, and sometimes I feared we would be stuck for days. Everyone was bad-tempered but determined and somehow we wriggled and struggled on. After about three hours my car at the head was out on open desert with clear going ahead. For miles back among the stunted palms and mud huts I could see files of trucks and guns winding at crawling speed. But the heads of each file were emerging into the open and the obstacle was obviously surmounted. I have seldom felt more relieved.
Monty and I went ahead fast and arrived at Baalbek just before the last of Divisional Headquarters moved. The General and Gentry had returned from the Caspian and gone on to Cairo by air. Many units were on the move, but 4 Brigade required all the road space next day and we would not be able to start our move for a day or two. It was annoying to find that we need not have been in such a page 124 desperate hurry, but pleasing that we would have time for a rest and clean up before starting the long move to Libya.
We went back a few miles and found an excellent camping place with a stream. Only the guns arrived that night and the Brigade was not in till next afternoon. Everyone looked jaded and travel-weary, but the units were nearly complete and the L.A.D.s brought in the last stragglers by midnight. It was a fine performance with our tired old trucks.
There were two possible routes as far as Beersheba but only one road across the Sinai Desert and that was being used to capacity. The men thoroughly enjoyed the rest, the last they were to get for long enough. 4 Brigade was moved on the 16th and not until the 18th was there road space for 5 Brigade. I decided to leave Monty to make arrangements for the move and to get ahead to Cairo myself, and I told my unit commanders to do the same.
Ross, Joe, and I set off in our nice new Chevrolet early on the 17th. I always sat in front with Ross and occasionally took the wheel. Joe sat in the back seat wedged amid piles of luggage. We could have lived for a month on the tinned foods and drinks we normally carried and could have dressed for a year in the clothes. In addition Ross always carried as much spare petrol and water as could be jammed in. Our most precious possession was the primus and both Ross and Joe were adepts at making tea in the shortest possible time. I could never be trusted to work the thing.
We overtook the Twentieth on the road moving to the last of its disasters, and passed it with a wave and a smile from every truck. At Beirut I saw Dick Chesterman for a moment and we picked up Phil Levy, a very plucky anti-tank gunner who had been with me in Libya, and crammed him in somehow. Near Acre we lunched by the roadside with John Russell. He went on to Cairo that day but we were content with 270 miles and camped in the Sinai Desert near Beersheba. Next morning we were very early away and did the 260 miles in time for lunch at the New Zealand Club in Cairo. The Club was full of senior officers who had come ahead of their troops. There was a tense feeling and a fine sense of confidence. Things might be going as badly in the page 125 Libya battle as was rumoured but we thought our arrival would make a difference.
George Clifton arrived and that night he and I dined very pleasantly with some of the sisters on the roof of the Turf Club. Next morning there was a conference at which the General explained the situation, a grim one, to all brigade and unit commanders. I learned that 5 Brigade, moving across the Delta by the new strategic road, would be near Alexandria by the night of the 20th and I should rejoin it there. In the afternoon while Ross changed our tyres for the last set of desert tyres in Maadi, and Joe had a busy day sorting out and washing my campaigning kit, I sat tranquilly watching a cricket match at the Maadi Club where I had a leisurely dinner in the evening. The next day, 20 June, I spent in similar manner.
I got back into camp about midnight and was hailed with relief by three very worried officers. They had black news. Tobruk had fallen. The General had left for Matruh and Brigadiers were to proceed there forthwith, travelling through the night. Ross was on leave but Joe and I packed the car with the help and advice of a Brigadier and two full colonels. Ross was back an hour later and we left immediately.
At daylight we stopped for breakfast near Amiriya, where Monty, who had come ahead of the Brigade from the Canal, joined us. He reported that the move was going well, our rather decrepit trucks showing no sign of a mass breakdown. We travelled on up the familiar, weary desert road and reached Matruh at eleven, reluctantly resisting the temptation to stop a little while and bathe in the sparkling waters of Smugglers' Cove.
At the divisional conference held underground in Fortress Headquarters we heard a very gloomy story. Eighth Army had unquestionably taken a bad beating and there did not appear to be much solid left. About a hundred tanks were still runners, many of them the light Stuarts; 1 South African Division was in fair order, 50 Division and 4 Indian Division were reduced to little more than weak brigade groups, and not much else remained. On the other hand, 10 Indian Division had arrived and part was already about Sollum. page 126 New Zealand Division would be complete in a couple of days, 9 Australian Division was following us from Syria, and in a few weeks another armoured division would arrive in Egypt. A few weeks sounded a long time. We also heard that the Desert Air Force had been weakened by the move of fighter squadrons to the Far East but had by no means been beaten, and the retirement of Eighth Army had not been seriously molested from the air. It was thought that Rommel would not have enough transport to move his Italian infantry and that supply difficulties would slow down his pursuit. I cannot remember anything about the Army plan except that Inglis and I thought little of it. Our own part was to hold Matruh.
Inglis took the western sector with 4 Brigade which, with the Maoris, had four battalions. 5 Brigade reinforced by 26 Battalion from 6 Brigade was to hold the eastern sector. This sector had been prepared and occupied in 1940 by an Egyptian Brigade, which withdrew with amusing celerity when Graziani advanced, and the defences were in very bad order. Most of the dug positions had caved in or filled with sand, much of the wire was on the ground, minefields were badly marked, communications non-existent, and the whole plan of defence obscure.
An Eighth Army memorandum said that a lesson of the battle was that a division had more infantry than its field and anti-tank guns could adequately support and recommended that infantry battalions should be reduced to three companies each. This it was decided to do and we were instructed to select one company in each battalion to return to Maadi.
My unit commanders appeared during the afternoon and we did a reconnaissance and allotted sectors. In the afternoon the troops arrived, very weary after their 900-mile forced move in the height of summer. I sent as many as possible for a bathe in Smuggler's Cove and they moved into position in the moonlight. Early on the 22nd we were hard at work.
During the next three days we worked hard. Eighth Army poured back through us, not looking at all demoralized page 127 except for the black South African drivers, but thoroughly mixed up and disorganized. I did not see a single formed fighting unit, infantry, armour, or artillery.
On the evening of the 24th we were lightly bombed. Next afternoon there was another divisional conference in the deep dug-out of Fortress Headquarters. The General said that Gott's 13 Corps on the frontier had been overrun and that the enemy were already at Sidi Barrani, eighty miles away, in great and unexpected force. Apparently, the undamaged transport captured at Tobruk had enabled Rommel to carry his Italians and he was going all out for complete victory and Egypt. The Air report spoke of 3,000 vehicles in one of the advancing masses. Then the General said, to our delight, that we would not stay to be besieged in Matruh: 10 Indian Division would relieve us and during the night we would move south into the desert and meet the invasion head on. He told us to get our ‘left out of battle’ companies away; and in accordance with the opinion that there were too many infantry in a division, George Clifton and 6 Brigade would return to Amiriya. It had been a tense conference and we were all sitting silently when George heaved a prodigious sigh and we relaxed in laughter.
The relief was carried out during the evening. The brigade that relieved us had been involved in the scramble on the frontier, had been surrounded, had broken out, and was very weak. While the relief was under way I wrote a letter home. In it I said: ‘It is a lovely cool evening. Matruh lies peaceful in the last light and the little ships are moving out to go to Alex. If we can only somehow gain a little time, a fortnight or so, all will be well but it will be a hard fortnight and a great test.’
We moved out of Matruh that night and halted before dawn. During the move the Twenty-second lost some men in a random bombing. General Freyberg selected a position at Minqar Qaim—the cliffs of Qaim—twenty-five miles from Matruh. I was ordered to send a battalion to Bir Khalda, twenty miles to the south, to guard a petrol dump and reluctantly sent Sam Allen with the Twenty-first.
The Minqar Qaim position was a very odd one and I was page 128 greatly puzzled to know how to occupy my portion of it. The escarpment was a definite tank obstacle over a hundred feet high, but it ran east and west and the enemy were just as likely to come along the top as along the plain to the north, so as an obstacle it was of no great use. 5 Brigade was on the left, with the Twenty-second on the escarpment mainly facing south and the Twenty-third, now commanded by Romans, as Leckie had been left sick in Maadi, on a lower terrace to the east mainly facing north. Then came the Reserve Group, newly formed under John Gray, and consisting of the Eighteenth and some oddments. It was on lower ground still and also faced north. 4 Brigade continued the line in open desert, as far as I could see in a north-easterly direction and facing every way but south. The guns were all out on the flat out of my area, but 5 Field Regiment remained under command. There was no room for transport inside my position so I grouped all but the fighting vehicles under the Staff Captain, gave him a wireless set and a signals detachment, and told him to remain on the lee side of the Division, which I expected to be the eastern side, to move as he might be required but on no account to get out of touch with me. It was also difficult to find a satisfactory site for Brigade Headquarters and we finally settled in a wadi running a hundred yards into the escarpment, perfectly concealed from all directions but the north. There was no information about neighbouring troops; they all seemed to be retiring. During the 26th the First Armoured Division, said still to have a hundred tanks, appeared a few miles to the south and an Indian Brigade was stated to be in a position some miles to the east at Minqar Sidi Hamza, the cliffs of Saint Hamza. My L.O.s failed to find it. The general situation was extremely vague and I could see no merits in the position we stood on, though I knew of no better and could not see one.
We moved on to the ground on the late afternoon of the 26th and dug in that night and until 9 o'clock the next morning. On top of the escarpment the solid rock was within eighteen inches of the surface and it was not possible to do very much.page break
Early on the 27th some six-pounders arrived and the anti-tank gunners started to train with them. The infantry battalions at this time had eight two-pounders each and not enough six-pounders arrived for any change.
Late on the night of the 26th bad news arrived from the Twenty-first. The battalions reached Bir Khalda at last light and halted while Sam Allen looked round to see where to put everybody. The trucks, everyone having grown careless in months away from the field, closed up with a view to the evening meal. They were caught and bombed by a flight of Dorniers and there were sixty casualties.
About nine on the morning of the 27th, six or seven miles to the north-west, a huge column of transport appeared, shimmering in the haze and headed by a group of fifteen tanks. It moved slowly, growing in width and depth. A battery moved out from the Reserve Group position, unlimbered, and opened fire. The tanks moved steadily against the battery, disregarding and untouched by the twenty-five-pounder shells bursting about them. We saw a very pretty sight as the battery fell back, the two troops leap-frogging one another as in a drill movement and maintaining a steady fire. They passed north of my position apparently unhurt.
Some mines had arrived and at this moment Lincoln, my sapper officer, was laying a belt 200 yards from the mouth of the headquarters' wadi. The tanks were 4,000 yards away and Lincoln called to me, where I stood on top of the escarpment: ‘Shall I finish?’ He had two trucks and about ten minutes' work still to do, simply unloading and placing the mines on the ground in a pattern. I told him to go on.
The party worked furiously for five minutes while I watched with my heart in my mouth. Several batteries were now shelling the tanks, almost hidden in dust and shell bursts. Suddenly one tank moved swiftly in towards us and opened rapid fire on the sappers with its gun and heavy machine-gun, vicious-looking tracer. The second shell hit one truck and killed five men and wounded three. The other truck and its party went resolutely on until I could make them hear me and then came calmly in. One man ran back and drove in the damaged truck.page 130 page 131
The tanks came no nearer, but an artillery O.P. truck came well forward, and try as they might our guns failed to disturb it. The vehicles in the headquarters' wadi were the only ones inside the brigade position and before long we were under a very unpleasant fire from 105's. There were several casualties and we were obliged to stay in what little cover we had. A heavy artillery duel worked up. From my position on the cliff I could see shells bursting incessantly among our guns and admired the way our gunners were standing to their work. Soon columns of smoke rose where trucks in the divisional position had been hit and were burning. The great mass of enemy transport in the northwest moved about uneasily but as the morning wore on it gradually worked past our northern flank. In the haze it was hard to see what was happening.
The shelling on us died down and I visited the two battalion commanders. They had nothing to report and there was no sign of any threat from south or west, where we had Bren carriers well out. When I got back, as the shelling on us had stopped, I sent out a party to bring in and bury the poor sappers. The tanks had gone but the O.P. must have seen them; it called down accurate fire and two of the burial party were killed and were left to lie with the others.
Soon after midday we could see that the enemy had worked round the right flank of the Division. There was a steady thudding of gunfire, much dust and the smoke of many explosions and burning vehicles, and occasionally the distant mutter of automatics, but we could form little idea of what was happening. Everything remained quiet with 5 Brigade but we could see that 4 Brigade was heavily engaged and that the enemy was steadily moving east of us. North of 5 Brigade the great enemy mass remained out of range. We moved headquarters to a safer area with 22 Battalion.
Early in the afternoon Division informed us that General Freyberg had been wounded. Inglis had taken command and Jim Burrows had taken over 4 Brigade. A sharp attack had been repulsed but more attacks were expected. About this time a very agitated officer arrived in a great hurry and said that tanks had driven our transport away and were page 132 now wreaking havoc among our guns. I sent him back with a savage reprimand for giving false and alarmist information; but it was true enough that our transport had been driven away. Another officer came in with a message that the transport had been attacked by tanks and had retired nine miles to the south. We could not raise them on the air and then began a time of desperate anxiety. We called them without ceasing from then on but with no success. Transport was visible some miles to the south but whether friendly or hostile we could not tell. I sent out Bren carrier patrols and L.O.s to find out, with urgent orders to discover and bring up our own trucks.
I was called to Division for a conference about 8 o'clock that evening. We stood in a group at the back of the command truck. Inglis said that all attacks had been repulsed so far, but the enemy was fairly round behind us and we obviously were in a grave position. The going to the south was reported bad, the only sure going was due east, which meant that we must make a break-through. His plan was that 4 Brigade should make a gap by a night attack with the bayonet, the rest of us should drive through in a solid column, and then 4 Brigade should mount its own vehicles and follow. It was a shock to him when I announced that my troop-carriers had disappeared and that, though we would pack the men on to guns, carriers, anti-tank portées, gun quads, and every fighting vehicle we had, there would still be five or six hundred who could not be carried. Bob Dawson, now G.2 on Division, said that some of the petrol and ammunition vehicles could be used and it was arranged that he should get them to a rendezvous. All vehicles, including guns, were to form up after dark, head to tail in nine columns ten yards apart, with 5 Brigade in the rear. Zero hour for the attack was 10.30 p.m. and we would move on the success signal from 4 Brigade.
General Lumsden, commanding 1 Armoured Division, was present. I asked him if he could let us have a squadron of tanks as a spearhead. He replied that he had to move south to Bir Khalda to refuel. I got permission to recall the Twenty-first.page 133
On return to my headquarters I told Monty that we were going to have an interesting night. We still had no touch with our transport and now could not raise the Twenty-first.
I cursed the signals officer heartily for not having his sets in better order or his operators better trained. Years afterwards we discovered that he had stupidly sent all his charging sets with the transport and his batteries had run down.
We worked out a plan for withdrawing, moving to the rendezvous and embussing, and gave it verbally to the very anxious-looking unit commanders. I gave special, and I thought clear, orders for lifting our minefield so that the Twenty-second could safely move out north of the escarpment. The carrier patrols had reported that the transport south of us was friendly and for some time I was hopeful that the L.O.s would locate and bring in our missing troop-carriers; indeed at one time someone reported that they were doing so. Instead, both youngsters returned looking decidedly harassed and reported that the transport south of us was extremely hostile and that they had been unable to get through. Which report was correct I never found out, but they were plucky lads and I gave up all hope of seeing our trucks. We continued unceasingly to call both Twenty-first and our transport on the air, but with no success.
At ten we began to withdraw and move to the rendezvous? We were not yet finished with the unlucky minefield. It had not been completely cleared, a carrier struck a mine and twenty men out of a platoon of the Twenty-second marching alongside the carrier were killed or wounded.
Apart from this the Brigade assembled safely and was loaded on to our vehicles. The trucks were packed to the limit and the hundreds of men whom they could not carry were crammed on to the fighting vehicles. Men were hanging on wherever there was standing room, squeezed inside the gun quads, on the guns themselves, on carriers and anti-tank portées, everywhere imaginable. The loading was completed in a quiet and orderly manner and I walked round to check up, I found about twenty men still unaccommodated and they followed me round while I found places for them one by one.page 134
I then returned to my headquarters which was at the head of the Brigade Group immediately following the forty vehicles of Divisional Headquarters. Meantime Monty had at last got into touch with our transport, very faintly. We had a poor map-reference code which it was hopeless to try to use. He said in clear, many times: ‘Go east to Amiriya immediately.’ The over-suspicious signals officer with the transport, although he was given nicknames as identification checks and recognized Monty's voice, refused to accept the message as genuine. He decided that we had been captured and that Monty had been coerced into sending this order. Consequently the transport did not move.
The position of 5 Brigade was therefore highly unsatisfactory, two battalions loaded anyhow on to the first-line vehicles and guns and completely incapable of fighting, one out of touch altogether and about to be left isolated and unaware of our retreat, and our troop-carriers miles away and obstinately determined to remain in the danger area.
I joined Inglis and Gentry at the head of the column. There was silence ahead where we expected to hear the sounds of 4 Brigade assault. We waited with growing impatience and anxiety. No message came from Jim explaining the delay, which in fact the Maoris had caused by being late on the start-line. After what seemed a very long time Inglis decided to move with the idea of passing south of the enemy flank or, if necessary, of breaking through. The assault actually began, at most, a few minutes later and was completely successful. A clean cut was made and the original plan would have worked, but Inglis was in a difficult position and daylight was not long ahead.
We moved off slowly due east, Inglis, John Gray, and Gentry personally leading. Then came some forty divisional vehicles, then 5 Brigade Headquarters, the divisional reserve group, 4 and 6 Field Regiments, and the medley of vehicles representing and carrying 5 Field Regiment and 5 Brigade. I settled down beside my driver and relaxed. Joe was in the back seat wedged among his piles of gear.
A few moments later firing broke out ahead. We continued eastwards and then turned south, when we must have page 135 been quite near the scene of the assault. The sounds were confused and it was impossible to decide what was happening. We moved on, apparently just clear of the fight, and I was beginning to think we had found a gap when white flares went up close ahead. The column stopped, closely packed. More flares went up, no doubt a challenge, to which we had no reply to make. The Germans opened fire.
We had bumped into a laager of about a dozen tanks lying so closely together that there was no room to break through between them. Their fire simply hailed down on us. There were tank shells, 20-mm. shells, and automatics, all firing tracer. A petrol truck was hit at once and exploded. An ammunition truck was hit and the boxes of cartridges crackled and exploded in succession. The most dreadful sight was an ambulance a few yards away which blazed furiously, the wounded on the stretchers writhing and struggling utterly beyond help.
My car was jammed on all sides and could not move. I told Ross and Joe to get out and for a moment we lay flat on the ground. Many others had done the same. A few seconds later I saw the truck ahead of us turning to the left, and beyond it quite clearly saw John Gray standing with his head through the roof of his car and pointing in the same direction. ‘We'll give it a go, Ross,’ I said. ‘Very good, Sir,’ he replied, as polite as ever. We scrambled back and followed the trucks ahead, all bolting like wild elephants. For a few moments we ran on amid a pandemonium, overtaking and being overtaken by other frantic vehicles, dodging slit trenches, passing or crashing into running men, amid an uproar of shouts and screams. I recognized the men as Germans, pulled out my revolver and was eagerly looking out for a target when suddenly there was silence and we were out running smoothly on level desert. We were through.
There were vehicles ahead. I looked back and saw a steady stream following four or five abreast. The pace slackened and we settled down to run quietly at ten miles an hour. I thought of Joe, who had not got out of the car with us, turned round and poked him. There was no response. I prodded again and called anxiously and Joe woke up. He had slept page 136 through the whole affair. Near morning, Inglis dropped back and told me to form a rearguard; we would assemble and reorganize in the Kaponga Box, a fortified position on the southern end of the Alamein line about twenty miles from the sea. Monty and I pulled out of the traffic stream, turned our cars about and, while breakfast was being prepared, advertised to the passers-by for a rearguard. There was no trouble in getting candidates. Everyone was only too anxious to stop and join us or perhaps to stop and have breakfast. We sent on all infantry, single guns, two-pounders, Y.M.C.A. trucks and sundries, and very soon had a nice little force of a troop of twenty-five-pounders, complete in all respects, some Bren carriers, and some six-pounders. We were also joined by Reg Romans in his staff car, four other 5 Brigade Headquarters vehicles, and a truck load of German prisoners.
We took up a position astride the line of retreat, got on with breakfast, and waited for the end of the column. By sunrise there was only a single file and soon only single vehicles. The intervals widened, at ten o'clock there had been none for half an hour, then a lone Bren carrier and no more. We realized that we had the whole of 5 Brigade with us in three staff cars and four three-tonners. I took a photograph of them.
We moved on, anxious enough, though I tried to comfort myself by remembering Earl Haig's dictum that things are never as bad, or as good, as they seem. I came on Inglis talking to a South African sapper who was laying a dummy minefield. He listened dubiously while Inglis explained what a dreadful hammering we had given to Afrika Korps. We went on together and joined Divisional Headquarters which had stopped to organize the movement down the escarpment running south from Fuka. An order of march had been worked out and there was consternation when I grimly explained how little road space 5 Brigade Group would require.
The move ended in the Kaponga Box, an almost circular ring of big sand-hills which 5 Brigade had prepared for defence in 1941. 5 Brigade was allotted an area and we waited fairly confidently for the Brigade to arrive. By midnight nearly page 137 all had done so and in the end our losses were no more than 165, the divisional total being about 700. All the afternoon there was a trickle of stragglers coming in with fantastic stories, so that we never had time to hear one out before another arrived with his story urgent on his tongue.
Keith Glasgow, C.O. of 5 Field Regiment, brought in the largest group. Apparently when the head of the column came under fire most of the rear vehicles, under fire also from another direction, turned and hurried back the way they had come. Keith in his car went after them, got ahead, waved his blue flag (‘Follow me’) aloft through the hole in the roof and got most under control. He then led them south and east and either round the flanks or through a gap in the enemy line and got away unmolested.
John Russell in much the same way got control of a leaderless group and with it was not far south of the battlefield at daylight. By great good fortune he there met our errant transport coming pertinaciously to pick us up. He took the whole lot south to Khalda and thence safely eastwards.
Sam Allen was last to arrive, when we had almost given him up and in fact had heard he was dead. He had somehow discovered that we had gone and, though harassed by enemy parties, he showed fine decision and skill and came out with little loss.
It rather appeared that the break-out had been unnecessary and that we could all have moved south and east as these parties did; but that would have entailed an unjustifiable gamble on the going.
That first afternoon in the Kaponga Box was a wonderful one of reunions and mounting joy as each party arrived. At one stage, when only a few of my people had appeared, I ran out a few miles to the west and met a big mass of trucks moving in perfect formation, Jim Burrows and 4 Brigade coming proudly in after their great exploit. It was sheer happiness to see him and Brian Bassett, both graver and quieter than usual, with the Brigade and my beloved Twentieth in such soldierly order. I felt envious but very proud. Before evening 5 Brigade was reassembled and looking just as well.