18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 18 — Battle at Minqar Qaim
Battle at Minqar Qaim
Dawn on 27 June showed 18 Battalion that its little corner of Egypt, far from being deserted, was uncomfortably over-populated. Inside its perimeter, besides the big trucks and caravans of Divisional Headquarters, the desert was bristling with Bofors guns, anti-tank guns, and the snouts of 25-pounders sticking up out of their camouflage nets. Bad neighbours in a scrap, these 25-pounders, for they always attracted the first and the heaviest fire; but at the same time good, comforting friends to have around when the situation was bad.
There, too—rather embarrassingly—were the battalions own two-pounder anti-tank guns, eight of them, the first it had ever owned. Until that morning they had been the property of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, but they had long been promised to the infantry units as soon as the regiment got the wonderful new six-pounders it had been waiting for. Anticipating this bequest, 18 Battalion had formed an anti-tank platoon and sent a few men to a short course at Matruh, but it was hardly prepared for the guns to arrive while it was in the act of settling into its battle positions at Minqar Qaim. However, that is what happened. The platoon took the guns over, but could only put them near Battalion Headquarters and experiment with them at every opportunity during the day.
The most unnerving part of a battle, they say, is waiting for it to begin. If that is so, the Kiwis were spared much strain on 27 June, for the day was not very old when Jerry made his appearance, not coming directly at the Division, but passing five miles north of it, through a gap between 10 and 13 Corps, his passage for the time almost undisputed. The first indication of his arrival was the noise of shelling and what sounded like a tank battle to the north. This was about 9 a.m. A little later the first German shells arrived in the vicinity, and the battle was on.
Minqar Qaim, 27 June1942
Shortly before ten o'clock 18 Battalion launched its only excursion of the morning, when two sections of carriers under Second-Lieutenant McLean,1 in company with a column of page 255 25-pounders from 6 Field Regiment, set out northwards, straight for the enemy, to tackle the troublesome guns harassing the Division. To the spectators this looked like a door-die show, and this was what it turned out to be, for the column found itself unexpectedly face to face with German tanks which obviously thought it had no right to be there. Neither carriers nor guns were adequate to deal with tanks. The column did not stop to argue, but at once began to pull back, half the guns covering the other half, and the carriers firing as they withdrew. One carrier was hit and put out of action, and Sergeant Jock Black2 won one of the battalion's rare decorations by pulling his own carrier up alongside the stricken one and rescuing its crew and weapons. Luckily nobody in the carrier crews was hit. The column made for home, pursued half-heartedly by a few tanks, and reached safety with no more mishaps. After this the shellfire on the enemy was stepped up, but no more raiding parties went out. The Germans also increased their fire, obviously aiming at the artillery and the big vehicles of Divisional Headquarters, but the whole of the Reserve Group spent a very uncomfortable hour with shells dropping quite thickly all over the area. In 18 Battalion several men were killed and some wounded, including WO I Harry Lapwood, the RSM; and one truck in the battalion's area was hit and set alight.
So this artillery duel went on hour after hour, while the infantry suffered that worst of tortures, prolonged boredom mixed with fright. It was a really bad day. There was nothing they could do, not even walk over to see their friends—not safely, anyway, for the hard ground made the shell splinters fly far, and there was no cover except for the slit trenches. ‘When we weren't doing anything,’ says Private Hamilton,3 ‘we stayed in them all the time, but the heat was almost unbearable in them …. We tried hanging our ground sheets over the top to keep the sun off, but it only made it all the worse.’ To the other distresses was added thirst, for the air was full of dust, and there was no water except what the boys had in their bottles.page 256
There was more or less of a lull about midday, but only for a little while, then Jerry began again, from the north-east this time, ranging with airburst shells (vile things against which even a slittie was no protection). The afternoon was worse than the morning, for Jerry seemed to have woken up to the fact that there was a big force south of his line of march, and that he must do something about it. The New Zealand guns were prompt to join in, and the whole of the battalion's plateau seemed to be dancing with points of light flickering through a fog. To the east, where 4 Brigade was, the battlefield was hidden by the dust and smoke, but whenever the noise died down in 18 Battalion's area it could still be heard from 4 Brigade's direction. Most of the shells that came 18 Battalion's way passed over the rifle companies to burst round Divisional Headquarters and the artillery. Late in the afternoon Lieutenant-General Freyberg was wounded in B Company's area; the first man to attend him was Private Seddon Haua,4 one of the company's medical orderlies.
About 4 p.m. the battalion had a rude awakening to danger, when German tanks appeared below the escarpment to the south-east and began to scatter shells over the landscape.
This was something that had not been bargained for. Although C Company was on this side of the perimeter facing south, nobody had seriously thought there would be any danger from there, as the British 1 Armoured Division was not far away in that direction. Accordingly the field and anti-tank guns had all been sited to fire north, and the Reserve Group's transport had been carefully parked south-east of 18 Battalion, in the exact direction from which these tanks came. When they first loomed into view through the haze nobody recognised them, and for a while artillery and infantry observers peered at them through glasses, trying to decide which side they were on.
The first people to decide were the transport drivers. An officer—nobody knew who—is said to have driven through the transport park shouting out that German tanks were on them and that all trucks were to get out of the road. There was, regrettably but understandably, a minor panic; everyone ran for the vehicles, and at the same time shells began to whizz and page 257 crash round them. Nobody attempted to form up in any sort of order; it was every truck for itself. Most of them followed the plateau round past 18 Battalion Headquarters, through B and D Companies and towards Minqar Qaim, but some went up the escarpment, steep though it was, and headed west across C Company's front. Major Boulton5 recalls some blanket rolls bouncing out of one truck in its flight, and the German tanks wasting good shells shooting at these suspicious-looking objects on the ground.
Later in the day, after things had quietened down on the battalion's southern front, most of the vehicles came back. But not all, for some took a big circle round to the west and south, then headed east and stopped only when they were well clear of the battle. Not until two days later, when the whole of 2 NZ Division was back in the Alamein line, did they rejoin the battalion.
With the transport out of the way the German tanks kept their course towards C Company, firing impartially all over 18 Battalion's area as they came. By now there was no doubt whose they were. They closed to not much over half a mile, and C Company, with only itself between them and Divisional Headquarters, and with no anti-tank support, felt very naked on its cliff top. The men, remembering 20 Battalion on Belhamed, could already see the wire of the prison camps closing round them—and then deliverance came.
The artillery had not been sitting idle all this time. As soon as the tanks first appeared a battery of 25-pounders and some of the new six-pounder anti-tank guns of the Reserve Group had been swung round to face south; now that the tanks were definitely identified as not ‘ours’, all these guns opened fire. At such short range they could hardly miss. Several tanks were knocked out, and, to the mighty relief of C Company, the rest turned back. At about the same time some tanks of 1 Armoured Division hove in sight; they did not close with the enemy tanks, but their presence was probably a deterrent, for Jerry did not renew his attack.
But there was a little more trouble to come. About the time the German tanks first came along, a little force of German page 258 infantry had established itself unnoticed in a wadi in the escarpment about 400 yards south of C Company's platoons, set up mortars and a machine gun or two, and opened a very disconcerting fire on the company. The forward platoons (13 and 14), reinforced with a platoon of Vickers and two 3-inch mortars, returned the fire as best they could, but the enemy was well tucked away out of sight in the wadi, and C Company was working more or less in the dark until Second-Lieutenant Ron Bush6 of 15 Platoon reconnoitred out on the right flank and reported Jerry's position.
Major Boulton takes up the story:
Up to now, C Coy. had been sitting tight and for lack of suitable targets had scarcely fired a shot. In spite of a good deal of shelling and the rather daunting tank advance, everyone had been very steady. I decided to have the enemy on and attack with one Pl. supported by fire from the other, the M.M.G.'s and Mor…. I cannot speak too highly of 15 Pl's attack and of the support given…. Before 15 Pl. moved, Andy McBeath7 slapped down 30 or 40 rounds right on the enemy mortar & M.G. positions. The M.M.G. effectively mowed down every O.P. the enemy tried to set up & as a result his mortar fire became hopelessly inaccurate.
Fire from a carrier also helped to keep the Germans' heads down while 15 Platoon advanced.
The attack was a little classic of fire and movement. Second-Lieutenant Bush describes it:
One section… was sent to a position where they could fire down into the wadi from the flank…. The 2 sections with me commenced what was an attack more or less according to the book, with one section advancing about 30 yards under cover of the other section's fire and then going to earth and giving the fire for the other section…. The enemy group were under cover of a rock ledge… with 2 machine guns and an anti-tank gun trained up the slope. During the attack we suffered no casualties though two rounds were fired from their anti-tank gun. They were unable to use the machine gun as the gunner was shot…. Before we reached the ledge some of the enemy escaped in one of the trucks while the remainder surrendered.page 259
There were fewer than a dozen prisoners (‘a dirty lot of devils,’ remembers one man, ‘and … in great spirits’), a truck, some assorted weapons, and two British artillerymen whom the Germans had been holding prisoner. But German prisoners were extremely rare at Minqar Qaim, and C Company had reason to be pleased with itself. Unfortunately, the prisoners had to be left behind that night.
A small local success like this made no difference to the general situation, which was about as bad as it could be. The enemy behind 18 Battalion was the forerunner of a larger column which had circled round east and south of the Division. Jerry had the Division nearly surrounded, and evidently thought he could take things easy, for about dusk his shelling stopped and his columns made ready to laager for the night.
From quite early in the day the future of the Division had been under discussion at high levels, and it had been clearly laid down that it was not to stick to the Minqar Qaim position to the bitter end, but to withdraw when the time was ripe, and go back to Alamein, 80 miles east, where the next defence line was being organised. Now that Jerry was in force east of the Division, there was no option but to pull out that night. So the battle groups, as soon as darkness fell, set about their preparations. The Division, said the orders, would be led by 4 Brigade Group, with the Reserve Group, 5 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters following, and would crash its way through any opposition.
All 2 NZ Division's perfection in desert drill would not help it this night. Not only the Reserve Group's transport, but also 4 and 5 Brigades', had been scattered by German tanks during the day, and all the vehicles the Division could raise were insufficient to take everybody except by packing them on like sardines. Well, there was only one thing to do—pack them on, even if gear had to be dumped to make room. Everything on wheels that would go was pooled and divided among the units, petrol was shared out.
During the evening 18 Battalion quietly packed up and tramped a mile and a half east to where the vehicles were waiting. All roads led to the same place just then. The desert seemed full of men, little groups walking here and there, criss-crossing one another's paths, but all somehow heading in the page 260 same direction, converging on the transport. And what a collection of vehicles! Besides such of its own transport as had come back after the afternoon's disturbance, 18 Battalion had a sprinkling of stray trucks and anti-tank portées, and the men who could not be accommodated on these were put on to artillery ‘quads’ and gun limbers, sometimes along with men from 5 Brigade units. They swarmed over every vehicle, grabbed places where they could sit or cling on, and then, when they were all shaken down and ready to go, there was the usual interminable wait. Even apart from the overcrowding it was a fidgety wait—everyone knew that Jerry was close, and it seemed that all the noise involved in organising the column must penetrate his consciousness and bring down a shower of shells. But nothing of the sort happened.
Fourth Brigade was very late getting off the mark, and not till 1.30 a.m., two hours behind schedule, did the Reserve Group move off. It had been formed up in parallel columns, with Lieutenant-Colonel Gray in front, then carriers and anti-tank guns, then 18 Battalion just behind, with its leading vehicles in a good position to get a ringside seat if anything happened. Now it set off eastwards, a close-packed mass of transport and men groping its way across the rough ground. The atmosphere was tense and rather jumpy, but it was a relief to be on the move, no matter how slowly.
And then 4 Brigade, a little way to the north-east, gatecrashed the enemy in its path, and things began to happen.
The famous breakthrough by 4 Brigade took place about a mile ahead of the Reserve Group, but once the action got into full swing the noise, even at that distance, was awesome, and so was the dazzling display of tracer that marked the engagement. Streams of this tracer and a few ‘overs’, flying round the Reserve Group, gave some men the impression that their group was at close quarters with the enemy, which was not the case.
The Reserve Group, 5 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters were hastily ordered to wheel right to get away from the danger area. This was a tricky manoeuvre in the dark, and for a while things were a bit mixed up, some of 4 Brigade's vehicles tangling with the other groups, some of the rear vehicles threading their way up through the convoy. Somehow things were fairly well straightened out, and the Reserve page 261 Group and the rest of them went on southwards, with the noise of 4 Brigade's battle growing fainter behind them. The men, with relief, settled themselves a little more comfortably on their congested vehicles and composed themselves as best they could for sleep. They had had a trying day, and all they wanted was to take it easy for a while.
Perhaps it is partly because everyone was so bemused with sleep that nobody can remember details of the next events very clearly, or agree on just what happened. But there is not the shadow of argument about the main fact, which is that, about a mile and a half from where the column turned south, it ran full tilt into Jerry.
The first anyone knew of this was green flares going up out of the darkness almost under the noses of the leading vehicles. There was not time to dodge. The flares were followed by tank shells and tracer, at first a few trickles from different places, then increasing to a torrent as more and more of the enemy woke up and manned their guns.
The front trucks stopped—they could do nothing else. They stopped dead, men jumped out of them, dived to the ground, and the stouter-hearted among them tried to take the enemy on with rifles and Brens. Still the rivers of tracer streamed through the darkness, though it was not dark for long, as trucks were hit here and there and set on fire, the flames providing a dim, unstable light for the battle. Some 18 Battalion carriers went out on the right flank to form a screen, and the New Zealand field and anti-tank guns joined in, dropping trails on the spot and opening fire at shorter range than they had ever done before.
After the first minute or two there was little order in the ranks. Trucks were starting up and going this way and that; the rear of the column had not stopped but was piling up behind the leaders. There was no panic, but there was terrible confusion, and as for keeping place in the column, there was no such thing.
The halt must actually have been very short, though it seemed endless. Then Colonel Gray took a hand. From the time the action began he had been standing up with his head sticking out of the cab of his truck, a landmark for those of the Reserve Group who were close enough to see him. Now his page 262 voice rose clearly above the din as he ordered the group to wheel left and get out of it. Trucks started up and shot off following Gray's direction; men who had left their vehicles or jumped out of burning ones scrambled madly on to any others they could catch; then, as one man says, ‘the chariot race was on’. At full speed the trucks charged across the desert, heedless of rough ground and stones and broken springs, heedless of order or distance or desert formation. The drivers just went with the mob, and the passengers clung to the sides, to any projecting bits and to each other, in a desperate effort to stay with their vehicles. All round them the tracer still carved great gashes in the darkness.
Afterwards, when the Kiwis thought back in cold blood on the events of that mad night, everyone was amazed how light the damage had been. The enemy's shooting had been the shooting of frightened men rudely jerked out of their sleep, erratic in the extreme. Some remembered having seen lines of tracer going high overhead, far too high to do any damage; it was a miracle, said others, how the shells and bullets had passed right down between the rows of vehicles without hitting anything. Inevitably, though, hundreds of them had found marks, and most of the trucks bore some honourable scar, a broken windscreen or a punctured radiator or a torn canopy. The human casualties, at first feared to be enormous, turned out to be much lighter than anyone could have believed possible.
The ‘chariot race’ took the Reserve Group, quite by accident, along the edge of the German laager for several miles, but luckily no more of the Jerries seemed to grasp what was happening, or perhaps they were not game to begin anything. Whatever the reason, the fire soon slackened and died down as the column tore on its way, and never were men more glad to be swallowed up in the darkness and to seek less frequented spots.
Half an hour's gallop eastwards, and then the column stopped to have a look at itself. What it saw was not reassuring. There seemed to be only about half as many trucks as there should be, and these included bits of other units picked up somewhere along the route. What had happened to the missing vehicles nobody knew, but there was no time to go searching page 263 for them now; Jerry would undoubtedly take up the chase at daybreak, and it was a long way back to Alamein. The convoy went on its way through the first faint light of dawn, at a much more sober pace now. Everyone was tired out, suffering from reaction, and gloomily pessimistic about the fate of the missing trucks and men.
All that day they travelled over an unchanging stony wilderness, dotted here and there with other groups of vehicles, large and small, all going in the same direction. After a breakfast halt they spared no time to stop for anything, and by nightfall they had reached an easily recognised landmark, a well-used track and water pipeline which ran down through the desert from Alamein. Thence next morning the Reserve Group moved six miles south and dispersed covering Divisional Headquarters in the ‘Kaponga Box’.
This Box, though 18 Battalion had never been there before, had a familiar name. One of a chain of prepared positions on which the Alamein line was based, it had been christened by Kiwis who had worked on it in 1941. Now, on 27 June, when it became clear that the Matruh line would not last, 6 Brigade had been hastily called up from reserve to man it, and the rest of the Division ordered to assemble there after withdrawing from Minqar Qaim.
The desert here was a ragged affair, covered with the same stones and scrub that you found round Matruh, but cut up and dotted in all directions with pimples and flat-topped eminences instead of the comparatively clean-cut escarpments farther west. In this unattractive spot the battalion gouged out its slit trenches and prepared to make the best of its heavy losses— or what it thought were heavy losses.
On 28 June a few of the missing vehicles turned up again, and on the 29th, to everyone's wonder and delight, more of them straggled in, some singly, some in small groups mixed up with assorted vehicles from other units. Several had broken down after the Minqar Qaim stampede, some with German metal in vital parts, some merely with the stress of speed across ground not built for fast driving; others had kept going, but had lost the column, and had in most cases banded together for company with any other trucks in sight at dawn on the 28th. There were men, too, who came back to the unit on foot on the page 264 29th—men who had jumped off their trucks and had afterwards climbed on to those of some other unit, men whose trucks had been hit or had ‘conked out’ and who had found their way back by scrounging lifts where they could. Some had spectacular stories to tell, like WO I Naughton,8 who, while directing traffic during the night action (for which he received the MM), was knocked out by a shell splinter, regained consciousness to find the transport all gone, walked through the enemy's lines and hitch-hiked back to Alamein. There was also a group of two dozen or so who walked all night after losing their trucks, collected together in the morning, and spent some time working on a group of abandoned trucks trying to get one going. Finally one man (Sergeant Felix Crandle9) got away to the east on a salvaged motor-bike, reached a British column and told the story to its commander, who sent a truck back and picked up the rest of the party with Jerry already in sight on the horizon. These and similar stories were told to attentive ears on 29 June, while 18 Battalion relaxed in its slitties or sought under its trucks what shade it could from the heat.
By evening the gloom pervading the unit had almost completely lifted. So many of the missing men had come in during the day that only a handful was still unaccounted for. It was the real 18 Battalion again, amazingly intact, with all its weapons and gear, fit to face the enemy whenever it was needed. And that would be soon, for Jerry was advancing on the Alamein line, and everyone would be called on to stand firm and stop it from crumbling as the Matruh line had crumbled. In the meantime the battalion sorted itself out again, restocked with food, water, petrol and ammunition, and waited for its next orders.