In the last days of August there were many indications that Rommel was about to deliver his last offensive, and that he was going to come round our left flank. Intelligence said that he had about 250 German tanks.1 It was decided that 5 Brigade should move to the menaced flank.
A brigade of the newly arrived Forty-fourth Division relieved us, and during the dusty night of the 29th we moved through the box and on the 30th occupied positions on its southern and eastern sides. Twenty-first and Twenty-third Battalions went on to the Alam Nayil Ridge, facing south. The Twenty-second had now returned from Maadi, again under John Russell (who brought me a bottle of Benedictine), and it occupied the eastern flank, facing east. The total brigade frontage was 12,000 yards. The Maoris were in reserve. On our right, also on the Alam Nayil Ridge, was 132 Brigade of 44 Division, under command of the New Zealand Division, and beyond them our 6 Brigade as before. Ample reserves of ammunition, water, and food were held within the box and it was intended that the Division should stay there even if Rommel's advance swept past us.
The New Zealand box was the southernmost solidly-held portion of the line. Several minefield belts ran south of the box as far as the Taqa plateau. They were only patrolled by our light armour and the enemy would have no great difficulty in making passages. Then he would have to pass through the bad going of the Alinda, Munassib, Muhafid, and Ragil depressions which we had known only too well in July, a perfect target for air attack with the bottle-necks of the minefield gaps behind him. We would be on his page 206 northern flank with nearly 150 guns and three brigades in strong positions and available to attack. Directly ahead he would find the strong Alam Halfa position held by another brigade of 44 Division. Between this brigade and us the British heavy armour was massed and a long southern flank would be harassed by our light armour. The farther the enemy pushed on, the more troops he would have to detail as flank-guards. The whole plan for the battle was thoroughly explained to us and I liked it more than that for any action I had taken part in. More pleasing even than the plan was the ready, balanced feeling that we all had; and that feeling undoubtedly came down from Army Headquarters. It was the first and typical Montgomery battle. All our preparatory moves were made unhurriedly and in plenty of time, and we were completely ready when the blow fell.
At 2 in the morning of 31 August a runner came to my dug-out and said ‘Twelvebore’. This was the code word which meant that the enemy were passing the minefields south of us and that their offensive had begun. I thought for a moment: everything I could think of was ready. There was a heavy bombardment to the north in the Ruweisat Ridge direction but it would not affect us immediately. So I went to sleep again, and slept well, though during the rest of the night our guns fired steadily at the minefield gaps, more or less over my head.
We had a lively morning. Despite shelling and bombing the enemy had pushed steadily on, and they continued to work forward all day, They did not appear to be interested in us, and although our guns were busy most of the day, we were only very lightly shelled. We were frequently bombed, however, and our Bofors were constantly in action. One bomb which pitched a few yards from our shallow dug-out set a truck on fire. The driver had taken shelter underneath and in an instant he was a sheet of flame. Someone beat the flames out and he writhed for a few minutes, blackened, smoking flesh, and was still alive when an ambulance took him away.
We were greatly cheered by the successes of our antiaircraft gunners, who with constant practice were now page 207 becoming very good. This morning they brought down three Stukas, in each case after they had pulled out of their dives and were running for home rather low. The Bofors at that time had a ceiling of only 6,000 feet.
A hot sandstorm stopped all fighting in the afternoon and made conditions extremely unpleasant. It cleared for a cool and noisy evening and a wild night. Both sides appeared to make a maximum air effort. Our bombers dropped flares over the minefields and depressions south of us, and bombed mercilessly. The enemy dropped flares over us in the box and bombed equally heartily. This was the first time that we saw butterfly-bombs, a dozen or so small bombs in a container which broke up on landing while its contents fizzed and spluttered all about before bursting. The sky was alight, and there were fires and bursts in every direction all night.
The day of 1 September was much the same as the previous day. Our guns kept up a steady fire and we got rather more back than on the previous day. The enemy advance continued slowly and cautiously, and by evening its head was well eastwards of us, but we had the feeling that the situation was well in hand. No attempt was made to sweep in behind the box, east of which many of our tanks were sitting snugly waiting in hull-down positions. All day there was an incessant thudding of tank-fighting farther east, and we heard that matters had gone well. Bombing continued by both sides but we got less, and our Bofors again had successes. During the following night our patrols located the enemy flank-guard positions a little north of the series of depressions.
11. The Author Speaking to Survivors of the Rifle Companies of 21 Battalion after Alamein. (Ross at back of car)
Dr. G. H. Levien
The Brigade's attack was to be made by the Maoris on the right and the Twenty-first on the left. The Maori objective was the northern edge of the Munassib depression along a length of 1,000 yards with a 1,500-yard flank thrown back over open ground to the edge of the Muhafid depression, where they would make contact with the Twenty-first. The Maoris were to exploit into Munassib with their carriers and two sections of carriers attached from the Twenty-first. That battalion had to establish itself on the northern and western edges of Muhafid and also hold the long but not seriously exposed eastern flank back to our original line. It had a shorter distance to go and an easier task than the Maoris but was much weaker in numbers. We were learning by experience, and there were several differences between our plans for Ruweisat and for this battle. All the preparations were made without hitch or misunderstanding, with very minor exceptions.
The start-line was taped forward of our own minefield by and under protection of the company of the Twenty-third. A twelve-yard gap through our minefield was cleared by the sappers, the mines being located by the primitive method of prodding every square foot with a bayonet, and plainly taped off. Brigade Headquarters was established close to this gap and as near the start-line as possible. In moving there we got lost, as usual, with the result that I was too late to see the troops on the start-line before they moved off. 33 Anti-Tank Battery, two platoons of 4 Machine-gun Company, 6 Field Company, an escorting company of the Twenty-second, and the first-line transport and carriers of both the assaulting battalions were assembled in groups under Dugleby close to Brigade Headquarters. With them was the squadron of tanks with six carriers attached from the Twenty-third. page 210 So disposed, it was easy to peel detachments off and send them forward as required.
To assist the tanks and transport to find their way forward the provost section was to plant a line of lamps behind the advance along the inter-battalion boundary for 4,000 yards. Apart from clearing the gap through our own minefield, some of the sappers, under the protection of the company of the Twenty-second, were to lay a field between the two depressions covering the left of the Maori objective. We now had a new signals officer, John Shirley, very much on his toes, and he produced a good and comprehensible signals plan. A lateral line was laid to 132 Brigade Headquarters. The attacking battalions carried their No. 11 sets in jeeps and careful plans were made for getting line up to them on the objective. I asked John if his plan would work and he replied: ‘One hundred per cent., Sir.’ Monty and I both smiled. ‘This is your first battle, John,’ I said.
The gunners were to have their O.P.s forward at first light. I pulled the Twenty-second out of its position and brought it forward in close reserve. We were in good communication with the divisional artillery, reinforced to 144 guns, which could all shoot beyond our objective. Things seemed well knit together, and Monty and I felt as satisfied with our plans as it is well to be.
During the afternoon the Brigadier commanding 132 Brigade called on me and asked if I could give him any tips. I disclaimed any expert knowledge of the technique for night attacks, but showed him our plans and made two points very strongly. The first was that Brigade Headquarters should not move up following the assault as Burrows, Clifton, and I had each done in the Ruweisat-E1 Mreir battles. We had each got into serious trouble and had been unable to command effectively. I urged that a better solution was for Brigade Headquarters to be established as far forward as possible before the assault, and to stay there, the Brigadier personally going forward to look at things when necessary. The second was that the supporting arms and transport should not move behind the assault, or go forward on any timed programme, but should be concentrated in the way page 211 that we were doing and sent forward with guides on lighted routes as required and as possible. He decided not to accept my advice. Despite our careful planning and the fact that our unit commanders and troops were all thoroughly experienced, a great many things went wrong.
We were late in reaching our battle headquarters, a big hole in the sand with sand-bag walls and roofed by a tarpaulin. Our bombers were already pounding the depressions. We sat on boxes and piles of sand-bags, smoked and chatted, and waited. John Russell and Hughes, the tank commander, came in and waited with us. John had a bad cold and wheezed and coughed steadily. Hughes scarcely spoke. Monty sat at a table with phone and maps. I sat opposite him with another map. Alan McPhail, Shirley, two signalmen and their telephone exchanges and wireless sets, the Intelligence sergeant keeping a record of events and messages, Dugleby, and two or three L.O.s made up the party. Before long it was very hot and we were all dripping with perspiration.
The L.O.s reported that both assaulting battalions had got away up to time, but in each case a company short. Nothing could be done about this: the missing companies had miscalculated the time it would take them to reach the start-line and we could only hope they would hurry and catch up, which they did. We did not expect to hear from the battalions, all going well, for an hour or more, and I did not believe in harassing them by constant requests for progress reports. After a while I went out and with one of the L.O.s walked through the minefield gap to near the start-line. The depression was still being bombed with heavy bombs that shook the earth even where we stood. Directly ahead, in the direction of our attack, the line of lights ran south, apparently in order, and in the distance flares were soaring up in unbroken succession, but we could see and hear only the vaguest signs of fighting. But away to the right where 132 Brigade was attacking there was an alarming sight—at least a dozen vehicles ablaze and shells bursting incessantly among them.
Three other things were wrong. The gap itself was being page 212 shelled; work on it must have started in daylight and been observed. Two Maori soldiers came back escorting one single Italian prisoner. I said we would take him back, he was not at all inclined to give trouble, and ordered them to rejoin their company. They said they would never find it and though they started off I was sure it was with no very firm intention. The third was that the provost officer was at the control post at the exit from the minefield gap, whereas I had expected him to be forward with his light-laying party. He assured me that he had a good sergeant there and, as the job he was doing was certainly important and as it was turning out dangerous enough, I said no more; but I felt uneasy. It was of the gravest importance that the lights should be correctly laid for the full distance.
We returned to the dug-out. There was still no news. I told the signalmen to get the battalions in turn. Quarter of an hour later the result was—21 Battalion no reply—28 Battalion no reply—132 Brigade no reply. Neither by line nor on the air was there any result. I am afraid that I rather sneered at poor John Shirley.
It was now midnight and the assault should have reached its objective. I sent an L.O. to find 21 Battalion. He returned two hours later with the good news that it was on its objective with slight casualties. Before long, the line party reached Battalion Headquarters and the wireless jeep, which had gone astray, had turned up. From then on we had unbroken communications with the Twenty-first. The battalion's anti-tank guns and transport were sent forward and arrived without mishap.
A few wounded came back from the Maoris but they could tell us little. About fifty Italian prisoners came in; their escort knew only that there was hard fighting and ‘the boys were still going on’. There was no other word of the Maoris until about 2 a.m., when Keiha, one of the company commanders, came in, nearly exhausted and incoherent with excitement. Gradually we calmed him down. His company had led the advance, extended over the whole battalion frontage. He said that the idea was that he should take the whole objective, the other companies would follow and page 213 consolidate, a startling piece of tactics. His company had met Germans and destroyed many posts in furious close fighting, getting and giving no quarter and losing many men, but the troops had become widely scattered and he was left alone. He had failed to find Baker or the other companies and had come back to report and ask for advice. After he had rested awhile I sent him back with instructions to collect what men he could, dig in, and find and report to his Battalion Headquarters, not so easy to do as it sounds.
Soon after he had gone, Baker himself arrived. Out of touch with his companies and with Brigade, he had come back in his jeep to give me the picture as well as he could, and I was very glad indeed to see him. It appeared that the objective had been reached after violent and most bloody fighting. Most of two companies had then carried on into the Munassib depression directly contrary to their orders and were slaughtering the transport drivers and burning the trucks there. A third company, Peta Awatere's, had strayed into 132 Brigade's area and was evidently still hotly engaged, and Keiha's company was scattered everywhere. 132 Brigade had unquestionably failed and was a long way behind on the right flank.
The situation was not altogether satisfactory, but there was something to go on. Baker went back with orders to reorganize and consolidate on his objective. I was a little doubtful whether he would be able to get his men in hand but decided to take the risk. Hughes was ordered to take his tanks, followed by the anti-tank guns and Maori fighting transport, to the end of the line of lights. When Baker got back to his headquarters he was to put up a series of white flares, the only ones he had, as a guide for the tanks and guns for the rest of the way. As an insurance, I ordered John Russell to move forward with the Twenty-second and dig in on a line extending the right of the Twenty-first, about 2,000 yards behind the Maoris and extending into 132 Brigade area.
These moves began about 4 a.m. but of course took time and the Twenty-second was not in position before daylight. Meantime there had been a disaster. Hughes and his tanks page 214 moved out along the line of lights and found that they stopped 2,000 yards out instead of 4,000. He called us up. We called Baker and with Charlie Bennett, the Maori L.O., talking in Maori to the operator, told him to put up his three flares at a certain time a few minutes ahead. Then we told Hughes to steer on the flares.
They duly went up, and so did others in a wide are, put up by the Germans. Hughes selected those he thought most likely and ran off his course into Muhafid, where twelve of his tanks were blown up on mines or knocked out at close range by anti-tank guns and he was killed. We heard this a few minutes after first light, and a moment later Baker reported that no tanks or supporting arms had reached him, that his battalion was still in a disorganized state with many men still down in Munassib, and that enemy tanks were moving up in his front and between the two depressions. The sappers had already reported that they had been unable to lay the minefield across the open space. It looked ominously like the familiar story of the tanks' counter-attack upsetting everything at dawn.
I decided to evade the impending blow and told Baker to withdraw his battalion at once through the Twenty-second, and to reorganize north of Alam Nayil Ridge. We would arrange a smoke-screen to cover the retirement. I left Monty to arrange this with the artillery and went forward in a jeep.
22 Battalion was on its ground and digging hard. I missed Battalion Headquarters and went through to one of the forward companies. It was a relief to see that the anti-tank guns had arrived and I stirred up a few people who were being unduly deliberate and scientific about siting their guns. By this time the smoke-screen was building up nicely and the Maoris emerged from it in parties and came quietly back. Baker had miraculously escaped injury when his jeep blew up on a mine. He was worried about Porter's company, with which he had not been able to make contact. Porter was a very shrewd, experienced officer, however. He guessed the purpose of the smoke-screen and withdrew through it with the tanks on his heels.
Every moment was now improving the situation. I drove page 215 across to the edge of the Muhafid depression and was surprised that no O.P. officer was up to make some use of the view of dozens of German trucks closely grouped there within a few hundred yards of the Twenty-first. When I drove back through the Twenty-second the whole of its area was under heavy fire from tank guns and 88's. I was pleased to see how little notice anyone appeared to be taking. After all, they were only small shells.
I went back for breakfast and then out again to view the unsatisfactory scene in 132 Brigade's area, where reorganization was proceeding under heavy fire. Shelling continued throughout the morning but the enemy counter-attack was unaccountably delayed. At midday I went to the Twenty-second again. John Russell was standing looking south through his glasses. The smoke-screen had nearly disappeared and he pointed out, some 3,000 yards away, four or five tanks and perhaps a hundred infantry, with more coming into view every moment. ‘This looks like it, Sir,’ John said. I grunted agreement and said I would go back and get the guns on; there was time enough yet. More and more infantry and more tanks appeared. Several of the tanks were firing at long range, and from them and the 88's the Twenty-second was getting quite a preparation. The sight fascinated me and I still dallied. Another minute and John said: ‘You'd better go now, Sir, this is where I do my stuff.’ I rang Monty and told him to call for fire from every gun we had on to the map squares that I estimated the counter-attack would be passing through in ten minutes. Then I scrambled into my jeep and bolted off, not so much out of timidity as out of the virtuous realization that my right place was at my own headquarters. John at the same moment climbed into his jeep and went forward. One of his forward platoons, hastily and badly placed and feeling isolated, was retiring, and he went to rally and lead it back to its pits.
When I got in, within five minutes, Monty was still on the phone, carefully dictating co-ordinates to the Brigade Major, divisional artillery. He finished, said ‘Make it snappy’, and we waited in silence. The gunners responded splendidly. This was before the practice had developed of having page 216 defensive fire tasks prepared, code-named, and issued to gunners, infantry, and armour, before any operations. With that system the infantry could get a ‘stonk’ wherever it was wanted within three or four minutes of asking for napier or nelson or whatever the appropriate code word might be. The quickest I remember was two and a half minutes. In this case it was eleven minutes before the first shell howled overhead. Very good for those days. A few seconds later every gun was firing, while we gloated. It was a magnificent, overpowering concentration. After five minutes it stopped. I called for a repeat, searching back. Down it came like the hammer of Thor. We rang the Twenty-second and asked how things were. ‘That's fixed 'em,’ said the Adjutant. ‘They're fixed.’ So they were. The leading elements of the attack escaped the shells but were stopped short by the infantry and anti-tank guns. Four Italian M.13's were knocked out and there was later an argument whether the infantry two-pounders or the artillery six-pounders had got them. The main attacking force was caught in the open and suffered very heavily, and all the afternoon the survivors were crawling and dodging back. For the first time in our experience, the immediate counter-attack had been crushingly defeated.
There was another half-hearted effort in mid-afternoon, stopped in the same way by guns and mortars; but otherwise the remainder of the day passed placidly enough and we were content to complete consolidation on the line that the Twenty-first and Twenty-second were on. Gentry rang and told me that 132 Brigade had been badly knocked and the Brigadier severely wounded. I was ordered to take command. McPhail went over to find out the position and we ran another line to Brigade Headquarters as they had for-gotten to take our lateral line forward. When Alan returned he reported that the Brigade was in a very bad way, all three battalions bunched together in a shallow wadi and under constant fire. A lot of their burned-out transport lay nearer the enemy positions. Many of the men were demoralized and he thought the Brigade had very little fighting value for the time, though Murphy, the Brigade Major, who was in page 217 command, was doing good work. The Brigadier and all three battalion commanders had been hit or were missing and the squadron of tanks attached had been cut up. We saw to it that artillery support was properly laid on, helped in getting the wounded away and the numerous stragglers collected and organized, and kept some carriers in readiness. In the evening I moved the Twenty-third out to extend my line to the west and give 132 Brigade some support.
Generally, the operation had not been particularly successful. 26 Battalion on the right had met severe opposition. Jan Peart was mortally wounded and when George Clifton went out in the morning to find a missing company, he approached the wrong troops by mistake and was again taken prisoner. Years afterwards, from repatriated prisoners-of-war, we heard that the company had fought until its ammunition was exhausted and then surrendered with fewer than a dozen men unhurt.
In 132 Brigade, Brigade Headquarters had taken part in the advance and had suffered heavily. It was said that the transport, observing a timed programme, had actually been ahead of the assaulting troops, who were late off the startline. The transport had come under heavy fire at short range, many vehicles had been burnt, and the flames had disastrously illuminated the battlefield. Whether this explanation was correct or not, the Brigade had certainly had very severe losses, and I do not think it ever again took part in a serious operation. I spoke to many of its officers and men on that and the next day. They were quickly recovering and most said they hoped for better luck next time and not so much bloody messing about.
5 Brigade had 120 casualties, mostly in the Maoris, and took about as many prisoners. 21 Battalion had a simple task and did it neatly and efficiently. The Twenty-second had been quick and businesslike in getting into position and steady against the counter-attack. The Maoris had made a brilliantly successful attack and had killed quite an exceptional number of Germans. They had, however, got badly out of control and were lucky to have got out without disaster. Splendid troops as they were and easy for a hard page 218 commander to handle, the Maoris needed an iron hand. It was the stern George Dittmer, their original commander, who made them a battalion, and throughout the war, the sterner and firmer their commander, the better they responded. The battalion was organized on a partly tribal (basis. A. Company was Ngapuhi, B. Company Arawa, C. Company Ngati Porou, D. Company made up from the minor tribes, and Headquarters Company, of course, a mixture. This had to be remembered in posting and promoting officers but I never saw any serious signs of harmful intertribal jealousy. The great deeds of the battalion are now the heritage of all the Maori tribes and a bond between them.
I talked to every company and platoon commander afterwards and got them to give me estimates of the numbers of the enemy their men had killed. The Maoris are not boastful in this way. After making every deduction and allowance, I reported that they had killed at least 500 Germans and Italians. This is a very high figure and was questioned, but I do not think it was an exaggeration. Little quarter was given and I myself saw quite an exceptional number of dead in the path of their advance; and much killing had been done among the transport in the depression. One platoon commander told me that his platoon was pinned down at close range by a nest of Spandaus. In a momentary lull a German called out: ‘Come on, New Zealanders, we'll fight you.’ With one accord the men charged in and killed everyone in the post.
Rommel's withdrawal continued slowly and methodically during the 4th and 5th, harassed by bombing and our guns but unhurried. On the morning of the 5th, General Freyberg came and talked to me. He asked if I thought the men had had enough. I had been round that morning and had been hurt to see their haggard faces and drawn, strained appearance, but I thought that they were capable of another effort if it was wanted, and said so. The General said: No, the men had had enough. In any case, there was no point in staying in our forward positions; we would withdraw and the whole Division would go on leave!
A battalion of Durham Light Infantry took over our old page 219 positions on Alam Nayil and that evening we withdrew through them and marched several miles to assembly positions outside the box. I realized how near exhaustion the men were while I watched them dragging themselves wearily along. There was nearly a most unfortunate mistake. The withdrawal, was a timed operation and the Twenty-third was intended to remain in its position until 132 Brigade had withdrawn through it. There was some misunderstanding and very late Monty discovered that the Twenty-third had gone without advising 132 Brigade, who were left isolated and without guides. He got the Brigade on the air and by the same medium guided it out, reading off his mape the distances and bearings to the various minefield gaps. It was a great relief when they safely emerged about dawn.
The battalions rested during the 6th, which was a very lively day in the air, with five Stukas brought down by our gunners. Brigade Headquarters remained another day to help a Greek brigade to come in. Next day we were all to move to a rest area, Swordfish area, fifty miles eastwards, and get our leave parties away. There was one more blow to fall. Late in the afternoon John Russell came over to see me. His feet were again troubling him and he said sadly that he would have to give up command of the Twenty-second. He asked permission to leave that night and take himself to hospital at Helwan, which of course I gave. We talked for a while, both glad and relieved to have a period of rest ahead. He left me to visit the Durham colonel, who was an old friend of his.
An hour later the Durhams rang to say that Colonel Russell had stepped on a mine after leaving them and had been killed. He was following a carrier through the gap in the minefield, when it struck a mine which had been missed and its crew were hurt. ‘In his kind way’, as his heartbroken driver told me, John got out of his car and walked forward to help. He stepped on another mine and was killed instantly.
His body was brought over in a lorry. The General and Gentry came down from Division, the other battalion commanders and all the officers of the Twenty-second came back, page 220 and we buried him that evening—sad beyond words. John was a born soldier, with a gay, serene courage and a kindness and simplicity of heart that made him widely and deeply loved.
Next morning I left Monty to conduct the move and went to Cairo on leave. I felt that I had had all I wanted.
1 The number of German tanks was always a vital question. The number of Italian tanks might be a matter of interest but hardly affected plans.