18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 21 — The El Mreir Fiasco
The El Mreir Fiasco
For three days 18 Battalion faced Ruweisat, listening to tank battles ahead and our artillery hammering the ridge, keeping an eye cocked for Stukas (which came over periodically but dropped nothing on the battalion), occasionally hitting the ground when the odd shell fell in the area. There was no particular excitement, except one afternoon when some tanks moved out from their nearby laager and headed for Ruweisat, and British infantry on the ridge could be seen advancing westwards. Even this distant spectacle lasted only a short time, then smoke blotted the infantry from view, and there was nothing left but the shellfire to indicate that fighting was going on out there just ahead.
The inaction of these days was not unwelcome, as Ruweisat had left the battalion in a sombre mood that remained longer than usual. Even the news that the unit was going back into the Divisional Reserve Group aroused little disapproval. For the time being the battalion did not much care what happened to it.
The Maori Battalion, which was to replace 18 Battalion in 5 Brigade, was expected up on the evening of 18 July, but did not arrive till early next morning. After breakfast on the 19th 18 Battalion turned its back on Ruweisat and drove away south-east to Rear Divisional Headquarters, eight miles behind the front line.
Away back here, in the peace of Rear Division, the boys could enjoy a few amenities unheard-of in the rough living of the forward areas. With a slightly more generous water ration they were able, according to one man, ‘to have a decent wash which was needed badly’. The YMCA was there with tobacco, chocolate, tinned fruit and beer, and free toilet gear for those who had lost theirs. Equipment was overhauled and replaced, and Brens and rifles got a more thorough clean than they had had for some time.page 296 page 297
Here, too, the battalion got a new commander, Major C. L. Pleasants1 from 19 Battalion. He took over on 19 July, and on the 20th addressed the unit in words that gained him favour even with the hard-bitten 18th. He used to think, he said, that the 19th's methods were good. However, he was going to try to fit in with the 18th's ways rather than make it conform to his. To a unit as jealous of its individuality as 18 Battalion this sounded fair enough.
It might have been thought that Ruweisat would have cured the British of making plans involving highly dubious infantry-tank co-operation, but it did not, for the Ruweisat tragedy was not four days old before another nearly identical scheme was on the drawing boards. The idea behind it—to smash the enemy's centre and cut him in half—was very laudable, but the method was ill-judged. This time the main force of German tanks was known to be in the place chosen for attack. However, there the plan was, and there it stayed, despite the doubts expressed by the New Zealand commanders at the preliminary conferences.
This time it was the turn of 6 Brigade, newly arrived up from reserve, which would make a full-moon attack on the eastern end of a large depression known as El Mreir, south-west of Ruweisat. At the same time 5 Indian Division would go for the western end of Ruweisat. The tanks of 1 Armoured Division would again be in support, and were to ward off counter-attacks in the morning and then exploit west. Fifth Brigade would hold a firm base and give supporting fire from the right flank, and the left flank was handed over to 18 Battalion.
The battalion's orders sounded straightforward enough. It was to move up to a forming-up place along with a battery of six-pounders, two troops of Bofors guns and two companies of Vickers; then, under cover of fire from the Vickers and mortars, it was to advance behind and to the left of 6 Brigade, to protect the line of advance and cover the left flank while the 25-pounders of 5 Field Regiment came up into position behind. Eighteenth Battalion's own left flank would be covered by page 298 Divisional Cavalry's busy cars, and 22 Armoured Brigade would be handy to deal with any German tanks or counter-attacks.
If an attack depended for success on the amount of air support beforehand, then this one was a safe bet. All through 21 July British bombers and fighters were overhead in numbers not seen since November 1941, and the Stukas for once had to take a back seat. It seemed a good omen.
It was fairly common knowledge on 21 July that there was another ‘do’ on, but, as usual, the battalion's orders came at very short notice, and to add to the normal chaos, while everyone was rushing round packing up, a batch of some fifty reinforcements arrived. What the newcomers thought of the scene of wild confusion can only be imagined. When the convoy got going—somehow—at 5 p.m. some men were still eating their evening stew, and platoon sergeants were still taking their reinforcements' names as the trucks bounced along westwards.
It was 7 p.m., and broad daylight, when the convoy reached the forming-up place in a long wadi supposedly out of the enemy's view. There the trucks dropped their passengers and retired; but before they were even empty the night's misfortunes began. Not far away shells began to kick up the dust.
At first this looked like a patch of normal harassing fire that would soon pass off, but it increased in weight and accuracy until the whole unit was under concentrated fire, obviously coming from an enemy who had seen them and did not like them. The men scratched shallow holes as best they could, but the digging was hard, shovels were at a premium, and there were several casualties before everyone got below ground. For more than an hour the shells came in, and not till dark could the companies assemble for the advance. The ‘I’ section, which was to have marked out a start line with white tape, had been pinned down like everyone else, so there was a little trouble getting the companies lined up, but by nine o'clock they were on their way, led by B Company on the right and D on the left, with C Company and Battalion Headquarters following. Less than a mile away the 6 Brigade units were already on their way north towards El Mreir.
Though only half as far as the Ruweisat marathon, 18 Battalion's advance was still a long one, 3000 yards on a page 299 bearing of 343 degrees (in ‘civvy’ language, north-north-west), followed by 1600 yards due west. This would lead it through a thick belt of mines which covered the front, then across a shallow depression, then up on to the next low ridge rising from the southern wall of El Mreir. On this ridge was the objective, where the battalion was to dig in.
In contrast to the eerie silence of Ruweisat, this advance began to the accompaniment of a full chorus of guns and mortars, with an occasional Wellington bomber growling overhead. Just ahead of the start line were the Vickers guns and the battalion mortars, which fell silent as the companies passed through, then all opened up at once with an ear-splitting racket, firing over the attackers' heads. Going forward under Vickers fire was for most of the men a new and strange experience, all other battlefield noises blotted out by what one diarist calls ‘this incessant crackling’.
Well out on the first leg of the advance 18 Battalion unexpectedly came on a large column of vehicles, apparently stuck out miles from nowhere, which proved to be 6 Brigade transport queued up to go through a gap in the minefield. The battalion navigated the minefield without difficulty, then set off again on its bearing. It had outrun the noise of the mortars and Vickers, every ear was cocked for suspicious sounds and hands were not far from triggers, for nobody knew exactly where to expect the enemy. But, though battle noises were floating down from El Mreir two or three miles ahead, all was quiet to the left, and the battalion made its left turn and set off across the sand of the wadi and then up a slight slope, stumbling over rough stones. Its wireless contact with 6 Brigade was not working well, so that the battalion was out on its own, groping forward, with a bright moon lighting it up uncomfortably.
Then, just as at Ruweisat, the leading troops struck wire and mines, flares went up ahead, Spandaus snarled, tracer came streaming in, and B and D Companies surged forward, bayonets fixed. For a few minutes all was noise and fitful light, Brens and Spandaus and grenades all joining in.
The foremost B Company platoons, 10 and 11, came under crossfire as they went forward, and had several killed and wounded. They stirred up real trouble, for the source of the fire proved to be a line of very unfriendly tanks sitting hull page 300 down over the ridge. Corporal Voss of 11 Platoon, always apt to treat tanks with disrespect, got close enough to grenade one tank and its supporting infantry. A man of his platoon tells the story:
In went Alf with half a dozen of us yelling like a bunch of banshees around him. I was never closer than 25 yards to the tank but I saw Alf Voss all over it. It was a one man show and I don't think any of the rest of us did anything more than give him moral & oral support.
But one man could not beat the whole German army alone, and B Company had neither the numbers nor the fire power to drive home its attack.
But despite the tanks, B Company came off lightly compared to D, which had a really tragic night. Its bad luck began before the left turn; two men in the reserve platoon (18 Platoon) were hit by ‘shorts’ from the Vickers, and in the resulting delay the platoon fell behind and lost touch, so that only 16 and 17 Platoons were able to go into the attack. What happened next is told by Second-Lieutenant Cliff Hawkins2 of 16 Platoon:
Just before we reached the limit of our advance someone touched a trip wire exploding a series of mines which caused many casualties and brought down heavy M.G. and small arms fire from straight ahead. Beachen3 gave the order and we charged the Gerry F.D.L's. taking heavy casualties on the way. They pulled out before we got into bayonet range and retired to their next line about 200 yards further up the slope of the ridge while we occupied their former position and exchanged fire for a short time.
When things quietened down we started to look after some of our wounded and one of the boys reached into a slit trench to get a blanket…. To his surprise there was a Gerry cowering under the blanket…. We picked up about half a dozen prisoners there.
On this flank, too, it was hopeless to try to push farther on without support. Captain Beachen (D Company's commander) had disappeared, presumably killed in the first scramble forward; 16 and 17 Platoons together were reduced to about seven men; two of the tanks moved over from the right and came in behind the survivors, so there was no option but to sidestep to the left and leave the field to the enemy.page 301
When the trouble first began Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants called C Company forward to help. The company hastened up, picking up a few odd prisoners on the way, but it missed the forward companies and may, without realising it, have gone a little way ahead of them. It came under fire from the tanks at 200 yards' range, went to ground and could make no more headway, though some men tried without success to hunt the tanks with grenades. Its situation was very precarious, out on its own with nobody else around but a few D Company strays, so Captain Phillips ‘decided to fall back about 200-300 yards to a wadi we had crossed & take up a posn there…. So we passed the word round the Coy & back we went. Dug in on the northern edge of the wadi.’ C Company, with only one man killed and one wounded, was by far the most intact of the companies.
About this time Colonel Pleasants, who had stayed in touch with B and D Companies, ordered them back 1000 yards, as there was obviously no chance of holding their ground. Back to the minefield came the survivors, plus their handful of prisoners; there they stopped to reorganise and gather in stragglers. It was not yet midnight—less than three hours from the time the unit had left its start line.
The spot where 18 Battalion returned to the minefield was right beside the gap where 6 Brigade's vehicles were still filing through on their way north to El Mreir. Brigadier Clifton4 of 6 Brigade, hearing the story of the fight on the ridge, and noting that the companies had cleaned out their stock of anti-tank grenades, immediately ordered the unit to stay and guard the minefield gap until further notice; so Colonel Pleasants passed the word round to dig in, which the men were already trying to do.
This was not as easy as it sounds. The men on the forward edge of the minefield were well enough off, as they had a nice sandy wadi bottom to dig; but farther back the ground rose to a bare rocky hump worse even than Ruweisat, and some of the men had to hack out hunks of rock and laboriously build themselves sangars, as slitties were quite impossible. To make things page 302 even less congenial, the night was unusually cold and dewy, so that after the warmth of the digging had worn off everyone shivered in the sangars, and sleep was almost out of the question.
So matters stood until nearly dawn, by which time C Company had again made touch with Battalion Headquarters. Then, as light began to creep into the sky and the surroundings grew dimly visible, it became clear that the men up on the rise were going to be in a bad position later in the day. So Pleasants revised the layout slightly, drawing the unit a little closer together, and moving the most exposed men from the high ground down into the wadi. The troops, numb with the cold, did not voice any of the usual criticisms of the change, so glad were they to move round and get their circulation going again. The day was lightening fast as they moved to their new positions, but, thanks to the easier digging, they were all out of sight by the time it was light enough to see any distance.
While this was going on, Lieutenant Burn was spending a sleepless night trying to locate the A Echelon column—after the painful Ruweisat experience nobody felt like taking more risks on being left out on a limb with no support weapons. The column had moved forward in the wake of the attack, but had been held up by the queues of vehicles behind the minefield gap, and lost touch with the main part of the battalion until shortly before dawn. The support weapons then dispersed in a slight wadi, except for a platoon of Vickers and two troops of six-pounders, which closed up behind the minefield and went into position near three other anti-tank guns which had been lent to the 18th by Brigadier Clifton, and which had up to now been its only safeguard against the enemy tanks.
Daylight revealed Jerry not far ahead, clearly visible on the crest of the little ridge where the battalion had had its fireworks in the night. There were infantry walking round and digging, and behind them two or three tanks. A few stray Italians discovered not far from the minefield made off, followed by everything 18 Battalion could throw at them, but seemed to get away unscathed—the popular opinion was that the bullets could not catch up with them. Second-Lieutenant McLean with three carriers made a sortie through the minefield to try to scoop up these Ities and to contact any British tanks that page 303 might be around, but came under such heavy fire from the enemy tanks that he had to order a retirement at full speed.
The enemy on the ridge were a rare target for the support weapons, which opened up as soon as it got light enough to see, the Vickers and mortars tackling the infantry and driving them to ground, whence they reappeared only at odd moments during the day. The tanks made a half-hearted attempt to advance on the minefield gap, but thought better of it and retired to the lee of the ridge, no doubt influenced by 18 Battalion's mortars and a few salvoes of 25-pounder shells in their vicinity. For the rest of the day tanks and six-pounders peered at each other over the ridge, neither side taking any very vigorous steps against the other. Later a few tanks of 22 Armoured Brigade put in an appearance, but did not seem anxious to buy trouble, which at that stage would have been futile.
Throughout a searing hot day the battalion sat there uncomfortably, right in a line with the tanks and the six-pounders, under desultory shellfire from the west. The boys, from the low-level viewpoint of their slitties, cursed the heat, the flies and the war in general. It was a particularly joyless day, its misery accentuated by hunger and thirst. But there were consolations. It seemed unlikely that this show would become another Ruweisat, for the 18th was well supported this time, and the enemy in front (though he had plenty of shells to squander) was not as aggressive as the previous week, but seemed content to hold his ground and discourage 18 Battalion from attacking again.
This was probably partly due to the minefield, and partly to 18 Battalion's general set-up. Just in front of Battalion Headquarters was a knoll, perfectly placed for observation, from which infantry and artillery eyes gazed at Jerry all day. The infantrymen watched with relish a small Honey tank trying to get up this knoll to shoot, but stalling and sliding back every time, till finally it gave up the struggle. Its commander, a wizened little fellow, came under some verbal fire as a ‘bloody dicky-bird’, from his appearance and his habit of blowing a shrill whistle blast to direct the slightest movement of his tank. In such a bleak situation the boys naturally made the most of any light relief that might come along. Especially in the page 304 afternoon, when, to add to the existing unpleasantness, the Luftwaffe began to come round.
A few days free from air raids were beginning to make the troops think of the Luftwaffe as a spent force, so its appearance now was looked on as definitely unfair tactics. From 1 to 4 p.m. there were continual bombing forays on the minefield gap, and a lot of bombs fell on the battalion and its supporting anti-tank guns, two of which were knocked out and others damaged, with casualties to their crews. The 18th also had some wounded from the bombing, lost one carrier, and the RAP truck was skittled, but the worst damage was to nerves and tempers.
The really serious news did not penetrate down to 18 Battalion Headquarters until quite late in the day. In the morning Colonel Pleasants had been sustained in his determination to hold the minefield by the thought that his right flank at least was secure with 6 Brigade to protect it. But when eventually 18 Battalion made touch with Divisional Headquarters it heard a grim tale of events up north in El Mreir. There the German armour had struck before dawn, had beaten the British tanks to the battlefield by hours, and had overrun and captured most of 6 Brigade. Still farther north, 5 Indian Division had been knocked back and the new British 23 Armoured Brigade cut to pieces. This was shocking news for 18 Battalion, for it took away all its fancied security on the right, and left it feeling very bare, jutting out in a little salient of its own.
The relief, then, was great when Divisional Headquarters decided that there was no point in leaving the 18th where it was, and that it would pull back that night to rejoin its B Echelon a mile and a half east of the minefield gap, next to the Maoris, who were holding the left flank of 5 Brigade's firm base.
At 8.45 p.m., when the light was quite gone, the 18 Battalion companies moved quietly from their positions and came back through the minefield, followed by Battalion Headquarters, the Vickers and anti-tank guns, which had taken such punishment from the Stukas and had so many portées damaged that it took all night to haul them out. The men in the companies did not know yet of 6 Brigade's disaster, but they very well knew how tired and hungry they were, and how thankful they were to be leaving that foul place. By 11 p.m. page 305 they were back at their new position, wolfing bully stew before turning in to catch up some of their arrears of sleep.
For the rest of the night the mortars and carriers stayed at the minefield as a rearguard. Shortly before dawn on 23 July they pulled out and headed for the new position on a compass bearing, but went astray and had to hunt for the unit after daybreak; finally they found it, but not before they had made another important ‘find’, reported by Lieutenant McBeath:
We went out in a carrier in an endeavour to locate the Bn. and whilst we were driving round we noticed two figures walking towards us from the north and we finally identified these, one turned out to be Brig. Clifton (6 Bde) who was making his way back after escaping, we gave him a ride back.
In the nomadic, slap-dash desert warfare such events did not seem half as fantastic as they sound in retrospect.
Compared with the unfortunate 6 Brigade, 18 Battalion had had light losses, and it was generally agreed that the withdrawal of the forward companies had saved a lot more casualties. But even as it was, the unit had lost more men than it could afford, weak in numbers as it had been to start with. About thirty were wounded, 35 missing, 20 of whom were later found to be dead. Badly felt was the loss of Captain Beachen, an original 18 Battalion officer, a quiet, reserved man and a reliable, steady officer, one whom all his men—even while they sometimes mimicked his inability to pronounce ‘r’— respected highly. The battalion's original officers were taking a bad knock in this 1942 summer, and there were not many left now.
The El Mreir disaster was 13 Corps' last attempt to smash its head through the brick wall in the Alamein central sector. Major-General Inglis, furious at being let down again by the armour, outspokenly declined to consider any other operation of the same kind, and with this refusal every Kiwi agreed. The loss of so many good men in such a fiasco so soon after Ruweisat, plus all the discomforts of the desert summer, had 2 New Zealand Division in a sour, discontented mood, not so much against Jerry as against the Eighth Army's methods, and particularly against the British armour. The demand on all sides was: ‘Why can't we have our own armour?’ It was a question that was to completely change the life of 18 Battalion before many months had passed.
1 Brig C. L. Pleasants, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Halcombe, 26 Jul 1910; schoolmaster; CO 18 Bn and Armd Regt Jul 1942-Mar 1944;comd 4 Armd Bde Sep-Nov 1944; 5 Bde Nov 1944-Jan 1945, May 1945-Jan 1946; twice wounded; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1949-53; Commander, Northern Military District, 1953-57; Central Military District, 1957-.
3 Capt A. C. Beachen; born NZ 20 Jun 1909; builder; died of wounds 21 Jul 1942.
4 Brig G. H. Clifton, DSO and 2 bars, MC, m.i.d.; Porangahau; born Greenmeadows, 18 Sep 1898; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1919-21 (MC, Waziristan); BM 5 Bde1940; CRE NZ Div 1940-41; Chief Engineer, 30 Corps, 1941–42; comd 6 Bde Feb-Sep 1942; p.w. 4 Sep 1942; escaped, Germany, Mar 1945; Commander, Northern Military District, 1952–53.