14. The Hard Summer
14. The Hard Summer
For the next five weeks we remained in our positions without any material change. 6 Brigade, with the Eighteenth taking the place of the Twenty-fourth, reoccupied its old positions and 5 Brigade remained where it was. We surrounded ourselves with minefields on all four sides and the position became known as the New Zealand Box. Our period there was perhaps the most trying that the Division ever experienced. Summer was at its height and the flies at their worst. Strengths were so low that there was little rest for anyone. We were depressed and cynical. The men's faces were gaunter and more strained each week and there were many cases of jaundice.
A series of reserve positions was prepared twelve or fifteen miles to the east. We were allocated sectors and took our officers back to look at them. Our transport was kept well forward and we did not know whether we would fight where we stood, or in the reserve positions, or run away. On 26 July there had been further attacks by the Australians on Miteiriya Ridge in the north. We heard of objectives being taken, got the usual fatuously cheerful stories from the intelligence summaries, and slowly realized that there had been another failure with the same old story of no tank support. The whole attitude of Eighth Army was that of having one foot in the stirrup, and it was evident that, for the time being, the initiative had passed to the enemy. In my own small sphere, I realized the dangers of the prevailing mood and did my best to be cheerful and optimistic, but I let myself go in letters home. One phrase, ‘Things are not being done right in Eighth Army’, rebounded violently a few weeks later.
General Freyberg returned early in August with his wound almost healed, and resumed command. He was suffering page 192 from a frightful body rash, caused by his having been given a wrong drug during his treatment. He told me that it was far worse than any wound. I cannot imagine how he endured it in that heat. He did not allow it to affect his temper or industry or judgement. Inglis returned to Maadi and resumed command of 4 Brigade, Jim Burrows returning to the Twentieth. A few months later, when the Brigade was nearly ready for the field again, it was decided that it should be converted into armour and it began a long period of training. We still received frequent Stuka raids, though our fighters occasionally broke them up before the attack had been delivered, and always inflicted losses. The Stukas were escorted by German fighters flying high above them and there were many air combats with the losses by no means one-sided. We were having lunch one day when one of our fighter pilots landed by parachute a few hundred yards away. McPhail went over in a truck, gave him my compliments, and invited him for lunch with us. He literally dropped in.
An American colonel visited us and went round the battalions with me. As he was going away he remarked that he had now seen everything but a Stuka raid. He had been shelled, been under mortar and machine-gun fire, had elsewhere seen an attack, reckoned he was entitled to a combat medal in fact, but he would have liked to see a Stuka raid. While he was talking I had been uneasily watching the sky and the rapid movements of people in the vicinity. I interrupted him to say that I had arranged a Stuka raid for him but he had better come to a slit trench with me. We were just in time, the first plane was diving as we got down. The raid was heavy and very close. Afterwards he produced a bottle of Scotch and went away with everyone well satisfied.
I followed a regular routine. Breakfast before the sun was hot and then I would be sick. I was only slowly getting over my illness in Syria and never omitted this item until the cool weather. Then after looking through the overnight reports on progress of digging, wiring, mining, and the patrol reports, and giving Monty decisions on any points he raised, I set off with Twigden in the jeep to go round the battalions. At this stage, I was always watched suspiciously by the signals officer, who wanted to know my precise route and times of arrival and departure at various points. He was quite right but I hated to be tied down and always departed with the guilty knowledge that he did not believe for one moment that I would follow the route or observe the timing that I had given him. Eventually he put a wireless set in the back of the jeep, and as neither Twigden nor I could work it, an operator, who took a very gloomy view of the whole business, had to accompany us, perched more or less on top of the set.
My invariable rule was to visit the headquarters and at least one company of each battalion and one of the artillery O.P.s every day. This took several hours as I frequently stopped to chat with some men. At the end of the tour I had, or should have had, a very good idea of how everyone was shaping, what were their troubles, and what could be done to help them. Usually I managed to see the leader and some of the men of the previous night's patrols and get a better notion of what had happened than was conveyed by their stilted reports. Objects for the next night's patrols were settled during these visits; the plans were left to units. Very often, in fact almost always, we ran into trouble of some sort. 21 Battalion area was particularly lively and, with Battalion Headquarters practically in the front line, the visit there was always interesting. There was an O.P. nearby from which there was a view into part of the El Mreir depression. My old friend Carson, of Crete days, was often there and I sat with him under many smart shellings. Once I took General Gott there and admired his complete coolness under a very page 194 heavy dusting. We had to approach this O.P. very carefully, and whereas we had been satisfied with stooping on the way there, we both crawled twenty yards on the way back and the O.P. officer was not very pleased with us.
On one trip I strayed out of my area to visit a British field regiment that had come in south of the ridge. While I was there it was bombed by forty-seven Stukas and several guns and trucks were knocked out, one of the most concentrated bombings I have ever cowered under. Monty was very angry with me for getting into this unnecessary trouble and thought little of my defence that I did not know the field regiment was going to be bombed. During my absence my car was wrecked by a 500-pound bomb which made a huge crater ten yards from the car and very nearly got Ross.
On my return we had lunch, sitting at a trestle-table out in the blazing sun, with one hand continuously waving over the food and fighting the flies for every mouthful from plate to mouth. The afternoon we spent in the command truck, swishing at flies and playing chess. After a time we fixed up a good fly-proof screen and, when a light sea breeze reached us about four, the day became quite endurable. In the late afternoon I frequently visited the brigades on either flank, either George Clifton or Russell of the Indians, and returned to bathe in a basin of water and dine pleasantly in the cool of the evening.
We started patrolling again. I laid down the object of each patrol and the units took turns. The enemy very soon had booby-trapped double-apron wire along their front but there were many gaps in it and we kept a careful watch on the progress of his work. The El Mreir depression was still a prominent salient. In the re-entrant south of it, there were several German-manned posts which appeared to be occupied only at night. It occurred to me that if we could clear them out of this area we would be in a position to attack or raid the depression from the south, getting in behind the strong defences that were being constructed round the tip of the salient, and also evading the defensive fire. Several fighting patrols accordingly were directed on to this task. They had some sharp brushes but we methodically page 195 worked over the area until we could be sure it was clear for a depth of some 800 yards from the tip of the salient, and much of that flank was only lightly defended. Also, by carefully watching the tracer, when, as frequently happened, the Italians fired on their fixed lines, we came to realize that this flank was not covered by any heavy fire. The Italian Bologna Division held the depression, the German 105 Regiment held the line to the south. There is often a weakness on the boundaries of formations, especially when they dislike one another, as did Italians and Germans.
The stiffest scrap in this little enterprise was when a 21 Battalion patrol, led by Joe Tanner and his sergeant, Jack Bramwell, came on a post with fourteen Germans. They rushed them, shot or bayoneted twelve without loss, and took two prisoners. One of these tried to escape and was shot. The remaining one was regarded as a great prize, as German prisoners were very hard to get at that time. They usually fought to a finish. Unfortunately, he was a reinforcement only ten days from Germany and was very disappointing to the Intelligence people. I sent Bramwell up with the next batch of candidates for commissions and was very annoyed when the Selection Board turned him down.
Inglis had departed before General Freyberg returned and I had a few days commanding the Division but with nothing particular to do. A few days after the General's return, Corps held a conference which all senior officers attended. General Auchinleck was there and General Gott in a brand new uniform. We were informed that General Auchinleck, who had been carrying the double burden of Middle East and Eighth Army, was handing over command of the Army to General Gott, who would first have a few days' leave. When the conference, which did not seem to be about anything in particular, had ended, Gott went straight off to fly to Cairo in an old troop-carrier. Almost as soon as the machine left the ground it was shot down, and he and fourteen others were killed. He and Jock Campbell, who had been killed in a motor accident near Sollum a few months earlier, were two great leaders of the early desert campaigns. Gott was said to know every wadi and well from Matruh to page 196 Tobruk, and probably did. The scientific soldiers were now to come from England.
For a few days General Freyberg went to Corps and I went again to Division. This time there was a little more to do. It was clear that the next move lay with Rommel and probable that he would go for the Army's left flank, held only by light armour south of the New Zealand Box. Gentry and I selected a line to hold on our southern flank. It was easy enough to select the bold Alam Nayil Ridge and we decided a few points such as inter-brigade boundaries and location of minefields. A new General, one Montgomery, arrived to command Eighth Army, and a new Corps Commander, Horrocks. General Freyberg came back and I returned to 5 Brigade.
The new Army Commander made himself felt at once. I saw him first when he called, unannounced, a few days after his arrival. He talked sharply and curtly, without any soft words, asked some searching questions, met the battalion commanders, and left me feeling very much stimulated. For a long time we had heard little from Army except querulous grumbles that the men should not go about without their shirts on, that staff officers must always wear the appropriate arm-bands, or things of that sort. Now we were told that we were going to fight, there was no question of retirement to any reserve positions or anywhere else, and to get ahead with our preparations. To make the intention clear our troop-carrying transport was sent a long way back so that we could not run away if we wanted to! There was no more talk of the alternative positions in the rear. We were delighted, and the morale of the whole Army went up incredibly. I was inspired to issue instructions to the Brigade which amused and pleased everyone.
To All Ranks 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade and Attached Units—17th August, 1942
The New Zealand Division has a very proud name in the Middle East, no Division has a better. It is fairly admitted on all sides that the arrival of the Division, its action at Minqar Qaim and in the subsequent fighting, together with the arrival of the page 197 Ninth Australian Division, were decisive in stopping the enemy advance. Further, it is freely admitted that at Ruweisat Ridge on July 14th the Division made a breach in the enemy lines which, if properly exploited, might have led to a decisive victory. But, instead of being satisfied with the credit given to them by all other soldiers in Egypt, many of our men are trying to insist on it by blaming or disparaging everyone else. Letters from the men of the Division show that many men are blaming impartially the South Africans, Indians, British, and the Armoured Formations, and by implication are boasting that we are the only good troops in Egypt. Many of the men in Base, who have taken no part in the fighting or very little, have disgraced themselves and the Division by unseemly boasting and insulting conduct in Cairo…. Leave It to Others to Praise Us. Everybody in Egypt is willing to give us full credit and we need not boast.
It must be remembered that we have seen very little of the fighting of other units. We did not take part in the great battles in Libya from May 26th onwards and many of the troops whom we are freely insulting have been continuously in the field since then. We were disappointed in the action of the Armour in failing to support us, disappointed and bitter. We do not know what difficulties prevented them, but we do know that many of the men whom we have freely charged with cowardice have had their tanks destroyed under them half-a-dozen times and that almost every armoured unit, owing to losses, is an amalgamation of several units. We freely blame the South Africans for losing Tobruk but we have not shown yet that we ourselves can face and defeat a Stuka bombardment and concentrated tank assault of the violence that they had to meet.
I appeal to all men in the Brigade to remember that we know only too little of what other units have done and suffered, that we are fighting the Germans and the Italians and not the South Africans, British, or Indians and that careless, ignorant, and thoughtless talk of the description that has been common does tremendous harm to our cause and to the good name of the New Zealand Division.
We are now facing a very severe test. For the next few weeks we will be on the defensive, and it is open to the enemy to make an attack which will test us to the limit. If he does not make it or if he makes it and fails, then the tide will quickly turn strongly against him, but these few weeks are critical. We hold an exposed and vital position of the line. Like the Australians, the page 198 South Africans, the Indians, and British, we are burning our boats by sending our transport many miles away and it is our duty to stand and fight where we are, to the last man and the last round. It is probable, almost certain, that we will be subjected to extremely severe attacks by dive bombers, artillery, tanks, and infantry, and in fact it is probable that the supreme test of the New Zealand Division is close ahead of us.
We are in a strong position, mined and wired, with well over a hundred guns and an ample supply of A Tk guns and if we stand our ground firmly, we cannot be broken. There must be no question of surrender if there is a ‘break-in’. Every post must fight to the last, irrespective of the fate of its neighbour. This must be the guiding principle of the defence. The methods to be observed are as follows:—
These will everywhere be dug to a depth of five feet without parapet and weapon pits will not be connected by crawl trenches. Each man is then safe against everything but a direct hit from bomb or shell and a tank can roll over him without damage. Each individual soldier must fight until he has no means of fighting left. Small-arms fire will be concentrated on the enemy infantry who will either precede or follow his tanks. Enemy tanks coming to close range will be tackled with sticky-bombs and Hawkins grenades, but this is only possible if they have been separated by fire from his infantry.
These will have pits dug sufficiently deep to remove the gun from its platform so that it is not crushed by a tank rolling over. Reserves of ammunition, spare barrels, will be dug in close by and MG positions will be defended with as much tenacity as Infantry posts. While the enemy is forming up and preparing his assault MMGs will engage his tanks and supporting weapons so as to force personnel to take cover and the tanks to ‘close down’. During later phases MMGs will concentrate on supporting weapons.page 199
All guns have already been sited in defiladed positions and have already been dug in. Ammunition will be stored close by and every gun will be fought to the last. All guns will remain still and silent until enemy tanks are within decisive range.
Mortars will be sited so as to cover the minefields and their principal function in the initial stages of an attack will be to stop enemy infantry or engineers from lifting the mines. For this purpose good observation of the minefields is essential. They will then engage his supporting weapons if within range and otherwise continue to engage his infantry.
Enough 2″ Mortars will be placed forward in each battalion area to illuminate the minefields by means of the parachute flares if the enemy attempts to lift the mines under cover of darkness.
RAPs will be dug in and cover provided for all personnel and as far as is possible, for wounded held at RAP. Ambulance vans may be retained but will be dug in and Not occupied.
Dumps of food, water, and ammunition will be made in each Coy. Area and will be well dispersed.
All Headquarters will be dug in and organized for defence and will be defended with as much determination as any platoon area.
Fire will be put down on enemy armoured vehicles from the limit of observation. If the lorried Infantry can be separated from the armour, the attack may collapse early. After the enemy has debussed, fire should be directed mainly at unarmoured supporting weapons and to blinding his supporting tanks.
A proportion of the guns may be used to engage the enemy infantry following the tanks.
When the A Tk guns become engaged it is of great importance that their view of the tanks is not obscured by artillery fire coming down among the tanks and raising dust.
Destruction of enemy mortars, when they can be located, is of paramount importance.page 200
It is the tradition of Field Gunners to fight their guns to the last.
(Sgd.) H. K. Kippenberger,This is a Secret Document. All Copies will be returned to this HQ, by 1800 hours 18th August, 1942, after being read to all Ranks.
Comd. 5th N.Z. Inf. Bde.
I went up one evening and spoke to the officers of each battalion assembled at their respective Headquarters. If Rommel's final throw—and we were slowly realizing that it would be his final throw—was to have any chance, it seemed that he must smash the bastion of the New Zealand Box, and I fully expected a desperate fight. We got ourselves into the mood of rather looking forward to it. We organized the position for defence in depth. Wire fences marked dummy minefields so sited that we hoped any enemy penetrations would be canalized and led into trouble, while our own counter-attacking tanks would not be embarrassed. A squadron of tanks was put under command for the counterattack and we faithfully exercised with them on several hot days. One innovation we practised was carrying machine-gunners on the tanks, to be dumped and brought into action from selected positions. By the end of August our positions were so solidly dug, the spirit of the men so high, and our preparations so promising that I was almost sorry that the expected blow was never delivered.
On 24 August the General asked me if I could put on a raid. He told me that no prisoners had been taken on the whole Army front for a fortnight and some must be got. I said that we were ready to go into the El Mreir depression again if we could have the support of the divisional artillery. He replied that we could have two divisional artilleries, 144 guns, and to go ahead.
I decided to do the raid with two companies of the Maoris, who were the freshest battalion and had had the least fighting during the campaign so far, and told them to submit a plan. Preparing plans was not their strong point and a few hours later, with a touching faith in Brigade, they asked us to page 201 produce a plan. Monty and I worked it out very carefully that hot afternoon and I took it up to Baker in the evening.
The date was set for the following evening, 26 August. Briefly, the plan was as follows:
First, a company of the Twenty-third was to move out after dark into the area our patrols had cleared, as a covering party. Under its protection a tape line was to be run out from one of our forward posts at a right angle to our front and 300 yards south of the salient. The two assaulting companies were to move out along this line, halt and face right when the leading file had gone 500 yards. They would then be on their start-line. The guns were then to open, all concentrated on the tip of the salient, and for 300 yards back. Under cover of the bombardment the troops were to advance up to the wire and gaps in it were to be blown by a detachment of sappers with Bangalore torpedoes.1 The guns would lift and continue on the western portion of the depression and posts thereabouts and the infantry would assault. They were to go straight through, out on the northern side, turn right and return to our own lines. As it turned out it would have been better to bring them back the way they had gone out. Timings were very carefully worked out and we had detailed arrangements, which worked very well, for dealing with and evacuating wounded and getting prisoners quickly back to Division, where Army was to send a team of interrogators. It was a little like crushing a beetle with a steel hammer and I was confident of success. Indeed, I was rather afraid that the guns and the Maoris between them would kill all the unfortunate Italians in the area and that we would not get a satisfactory bag of prisoners. Accordingly I warned the Maoris that I wanted prisoners and not scalps. This was the first time the Maoris had fought under my command. I watched them during the next afternoon and was pleased to see that they studied the plan thoroughly, explained it carefully to the men, and made their preparations in a cheerful business-like manner. The men were delightful, laughing and talking with one another, working busily at page 202 oiling and cleaning and polishing their weapons, and all giving me the most cheerful grins.
Half an hour before zero I went up to see them off. Both companies, Ngapuhi under Porter and Arawa under Pene, were ready, waiting together at the near end of the tape. I walked about among them and was amazed and amused by the number of weapons they were carrying. Every other man had an automatic, mostly captured Spandaus or Bredas, they were loaded with grenades, many had pistols, very few had rifle and bayonet only. Otherwise they were lightly equipped. The Maori padre spoke to them, most eloquently and impressively. Then he said a prayer, very moving in the utter silence. Baker asked me to speak. I did so briefly. I said how many guns would be in support—there were grunts of satisfaction—that I was confident they would do well, wished them all good fortune and concluded by saying: ‘The fame of your people and the honour of your battalion are in your hands to-night.’ There was a pause and a moment's silence, broken by a long burst from a Spandau in the salient. A man said: ‘Let her go, boy, that's your last.’ Baker said: ‘On your feet, men,’ said ‘Good-bye’ to me, and they moved silently off and disappeared into the gloom. I returned to the Battalion Headquarters to wait and watch.
Of course I could see very little and might just as well have stayed in my own headquarters. The guns opened punctually, a ripple of flashes round a quarter of the horizon. For the first time I realized that the sound of the opening of a bombardment or of a barrage, however perfectly synchronized, is not a crash, as often described, but a series of rapid thuds, for the guns are varying distances away from the listener. Then there is the whirr and whine and scream of the shells passing overhead and a series of crunches as they burst. After a few moments it works up to an incessant hammering and drumming. The depression was soon ablaze with shell-bursts, the first concentrations were very heavy indeed, and it seemed impossible that there should be any resistance. The enemy guns replied promptly, putting down defensive fire just where we expected, and it was very pleasing that the men in the assaulting companies did not have to go page 203 through it. But they made things very unpleasant for the rest of us and we had to keep our heads well down. We could recognize the moment when the bombardment lifted and when the assault was to go in, and could see the Bangalores exploding exactly on time. Then we had to wait as patiently as we could.
At the expected time, the company in the line rang to say that Ben Porter's company was coming back through them, bringing prisoners. Pene and Baker came in soon afterwards. The first prisoner to arrive was gibbering with terror. He clung to me in the shallow dug-out and trembled violently with every near burst. We packed him off alone to Division, where he cannot have been of much use, and a few minutes later sent another batch. There were some late-comers, but half an hour after zero all was quiet again. The bag of prisoners, forty-one, was satisfactory in the circumstances. They came from two companies of Bologna Division, and the Maoris reported that there were scores of dead and wounded and that they had left no one unhurt or not a prisoner. These two unfortunate companies must have been annihilated. The Maori casualties were heavier than I had hoped—over thirty, including a very good officer, Mitchell, and a few men missing. Most appeared to have been incurred from our own artillery fire, either from shorts or through over eagerness in pressing on. The missing were all wounded and would no doubt have been picked up if the raiders had returned over the same ground. A few pockets of Italians had shown fight and some Germans had also had to be killed.
This was the first offensive operation of Eighth Army under General Montgomery's command, and we received warm messages of congratulation from him and from General Horrocks, the new Corps Commander.
During the whole of the next morning we could see ambulances moving into and out of the depression, and a patrol just before daylight reported that the enemy forward positions were not yet remanned. I reported this to Division and was ordered to take possession of the tip of the salient, which would give us observation over the whole depression. I should have foreseen this, but I had thought of the page 204 operation as a raid only and was not prepared, either mentally or with troops. We took it on very carefully. A platoon of the Twenty-first was sent forward well extended and with instructions not to press forward against anything but very light fire. Perhaps we were just too late, for they came under fire from several automatics before they had gone a hundred yards. Quite rightly they went to ground and slowly worked their way back, to my great relief, without casualties. No doubt we missed an opportunity.
In retaliation the enemy put down a very heavy concentration on one of the Maori company areas that afternoon. This was an uncommon thing, as they very seldom fired concentrations after our style. Ammunition was usually something of a problem for them and they favoured fire by observation on opportunity targets. However, this was a genuine concentration, so intense that we thought it was the overture to the expected attack. Everyone went to their battle positions, we warned Division, and I went forward to watch from a few hundred yards outside the danger area. All the fire was coming down on a belt about 500 yards long, pitching in well-spaced salvoes of four. The whole of the company area was obscured in smoke and dust. The Maoris lay low in their single-man trenches, ten yards apart and four feet six inches deep, but every few moments I could see a helmeted head bob up, looking for attackers. I made an estimate that a dozen troops (forty-eight guns) were firing not less than two salvoes a minute each and, as the bombardment lasted for twenty minutes, calculated and reported that about 2,000 shells had been fired. It ended as suddenly as it began, the dust cleared away, and nothing more happened. I did not expect many casualties but was surprised that there was only one, a man killed by a direct hit in his trench. General Horrocks came up in the evening and I took him along the line of forward posts in the moonlight. With the enemy nervous and irritated, it was quite an interesting walk.
1 Metal tubes about five feet long, filled with explosives; a two-man carry; pushed under the wire and set off, they blew a sizeable gap.