20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 11 — Ruweisat Ridge
After breakfast on 29 June artillery fire was heard in the direction of Fuka, but as far as 20 Battalion was concerned the day was quiet. Sentries kept constant watch. The ‘lame ducks’ which had been left behind after collisions with other vehicles in the drive back from Minqar Qaim came limping in, their drivers and the mechanics having worked near-miracles repairing radiators that had been damaged when the crowded convoy stopped and started convulsively during the night move. During the morning there was time for a clean-up and much-needed rest before the brigade moved two and a half miles south in the afternoon and halted in harbour at 5 p.m. near Deir el Qatani. Many groups of strange vehicles were about and, as on the long move on the previous day, valuable reconnaisance work was done by the carrier platoon. From 11 p.m. enemy aircraft were heard overhead, and although the brigade area escaped bombs were dropped nearby.
In the Eighth Army plan 13 and 30 Corps were now organising the defences of the Alamein line extending from the coast some 38 miles south to the Qattara Depression. The latter was an area of soft sand impassable for any large body of transport. At intervals in the line were ‘boxes’—areas prepared for all-round defence. First South African Division occupied the Alamein Box in the north and the New Zealand Division was to hold the Qattara Box, about 20 miles to the south-south-west at Bab el Qattara, at the junction of the track from Fuka and the pipeline from El Alamein. Actually this was the old ‘Kaponga Box’—now called Fortress A—prepared by 5 Brigade in 1941. Fifteen miles farther south was Fortress B, allotted to 5 Indian Division, now reduced to about one brigade in strength. Short of water and having hardly any artillery, the Indians did not expect to stay long in the fortress.
The gap between the South Africans in the Alamein Box and the New Zealand Division in Fortress A was the responsibility of I Armoured Division and 50 Division, both weakened by page 245 losses in the withdrawal. Eighteenth Indian Infantry Brigade, newly arrived from Iraq, was sent to hold Deir el Shein, a depression some eight miles north of Fortress A. A long ridge called El Ruweisat, rising just to the south of Deir el Shein and running ten miles to the east, was an obviously important tactical feature in this area. A composite force from 5 Indian Brigade with artillery support was ordered to hold the western edge of this ridge. The gap between Fortress A and Fortress B was the responsibility of mobile columns of 7 Armoured Division.
At first 6 Brigade occupied Fortress A while 4 and 5 Brigades were to remain outside and support it with mobile columns operating from Deir el Munassib, about nine miles to the south-east.
Throughout 29 June many reports were received that the enemy was advancing rapidly eastwards both in the coastal region and further south in the desert. At half past six next morning the battalion received a warning order to move at short notice as the enemy was reported to be only a few miles away. Nineteenth Battalion, with artillery and anti-tank support, moved out at 7 a.m. to delay his advance. At 10 a.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows returned to command the battalion and half an hour later, with the rest of 4 Brigade, the 20th moved south-east some 14 miles to the Deir el Munassib area. As the brigade was preparing to move firing was heard to the north and the 20th, originally directed to act as rearguard to the convoy, was sent out to cover the northern flank. No enemy was met on the move back.
At Deir el Munassib the 20th had 5 Brigade on its left flank and 19 Battalion on its right, but as the latter unit had not returned by dusk from its mobile column task the right flank was exposed. However, neither the exposed flank nor a report from Divisional Headquarters that the enemy might make his main attack that night about 12 miles to the north-east prevented the men from having a good night's rest.
On I July the battle for the Alamein line began. The South Africans repulsed a light attack at the El Alamein railway station, but 18 Indian Brigade at Deir el Shein, after holding the first enemy assault, was overrun at dusk by a tank attack mounted under cover of a dust-storm. The enemy had thus page 246 penetrated the centre of the line. During the afternoon eighteen or twenty enemy tanks and a convoy of several hundred motor vehicles were engaged by the New Zealand artillery and shelled until dusk. In the 20th's area the day was uneventful. At 9 a.m. came the comforting news that the 19th had moved into position on the right flank. Then at 6.15 p.m. Brigade Headquarters advised that enemy tanks were approaching, but by 7 p.m. word was received that the tanks had sheered off. During the night our bombers attacked the enemy concentrations.
By 2 July the plans for the defence of the Alamein line were changed. Except for the semi-permanent fortifications round El Alamein the Eighth Army's positions were still weak, disconnected, and lacked depth and men to hold them. As General Auchinleck explains in his report, the defence of the all-important Ruweisat Ridge had to be entrusted to battle groups weak in infantry, backed by what remained of our armour. ‘Consequently I decided not to attempt to hold the prepared positions round Bab el Qattara in the centre and at Naqb Abu Dweiss in the extreme south on the edge of the Qattara Depression. In the absence of sufficient armoured troops to support them I was not prepared to risk their garrisons being isolated and eventually destroyed.’
Accordingly, the New Zealand Division was directed by 13 Corps to thin out the troops in the Qattara Box and warned that the brigade of 5 Indian Division holding Fortress B at Naqb Abu Dweis was being withdrawn. Thus the New Zealand Division, instead of being in the centre of the line, became the most southerly formation in Eighth Army's front. The defeat of 18 Indian Brigade at Deir el Shein left the Division open to attack from the north and west, while its southern flank was covered only by a number of relatively weak mobile columns.
Some time after 7 a.m. on 2 July the battalion's three rifle companies as escort for 4 Field Regiment, one battery of six-pounder anti-tank guns, and one platoon of machine guns moved out under Colonel Burrows with orders to occupy the high ground east of Alam Nayil. The column halted at Alam Nayil and was shelled. It moved on to various positions, being shelled out of each one, and finally went back south-east of Alam Nayil. In the meantime a second mobile column drawn from 5 Brigade had followed in the wake of the 20th. About 9 a.m., after seven tanks had been observed on the horizon, Divisional Headquarters ordered that both columns be amalgamated under the command of the CRA, Brigadier Weir.1
At 1.30 p.m. the CRA was directed by Divisional Headquarters to engage enemy tanks approaching from the north. The column moved to attack but the tanks withdrew before they could be fired on. Two hours later the column received new orders to move westwards into the Alam Nayil area to support British armoured units which were to come down from the north, turn west past the Qattara Box, and swing north through the El Mreir Depression against the enemy's rear. However, in the early stages of this move the British tanks encountered an enemy armoured force in the vicinity of Ruweisat Ridge and apparently intending to attack the New Zealand Division. The British armour attacked from the east and south-east and, after an indecisive action, the enemy tanks withdrew to the south-west of Ruweisat Ridge. During this action the CRA's guns supported the tanks, and after last light the column was ordered to stay where it was—slightly to the north-east of Alam Nayil—ready to support the continuation of the counter-attack next morning.
Next day, 3 July, the CRA's column saw enemy vehicles moving in a southerly direction across the column's north-eastern and eastern fronts and opened fire at 7.15 a.m. The enemy halted and returned the fire but, seeing that he had the page 248 upper hand, the CRA asked Divisional Headquarters for infantry support to attack the enemy at close quarters. Leaving 18 Battalion to protect Divisional Headquarters, 4 Brigade with 19 Battalion leading left the Deir el Munassib area and moved north along a track for three miles. Observing the enemy four miles due north, the brigade halted in the wide wadi while the artillery neutralised the opposition and 19 Battalion mopped up most successfully. This action resulted in the capture of forty-four artillery pieces and some 350 Italian prisoners of the Ariete Division. Twentieth Battalion's task had been the passive one of protecting the 25-pounders. At 1.30 p.m. 4 Brigade Group joined the mobile column.
A map captured during this action showed that the enemy's intentions were to drive through the recently overrun central sector, turning north to outflank the El Alamein positions and also south to turn the southern end of the line. As a counter to this plan the New Zealand Division was ordered to move west to harry the enemy's rear. At 9.30 p.m. 4 Brigade moved nine miles westwards to a position just east of Fortress A, bedding down for the night about 11 p.m.
Next morning, 4 July, the brigade took up a defensive position. A patrol consisting of an artillery pick-up and two two-pounder portées went out at dawn in search of the Divisional Cavalry but, coming under heavy fire, withdrew hastily and without losses. The battalion area was shelled at 8.30 a.m. but there were no casualties. There had been sounds of a tank battle to the north since daybreak. During the day enemy bombers attacked four times, the heaviest raid being made at dusk by twenty-seven planes. Ten men in all were wounded, most of them in a mid-afternoon raid, and seven vehicles—including a two-pounder portée—were destroyed and others damaged. During one raid an ammunition truck containing sticky bombs and mortars was hit and set on fire. The RSM, WO I Wilson, coolly mounted the truck, removed the burning materials, and extinguished the fire.
At this stage it was considered at Army Headquarters that the leading enemy elements were on the point of overreaching themselves and that their tired troops might withdraw in the face of determined opposition. Thirtieth Corps was to hold the enemy on the coast, ready to attack if the opportunity came, page 249 while 13 Corps, advancing north-west, was to attempt to roll up the enemy from the southern flank. To commence this attack the New Zealand Division was to advance north from the area west of the Qattara Box towards the railway station at Sidi Abd el Rahman, while 5 Indian Division moved towards Ghazal station on a line further west.
In readiness for this attack 4 Brigade, which now included 28 (Maori) Battalion, on 5 July prepared to move from its area east of the Box round the south of it to take up positions to the north of Qaret el Yidma. The brigade was to move five miles south, seven and a half miles west, and six miles north. As it was to be a daylight move the risk of attack by enemy aircraft was recognised and instructions were given that, if attacked during the move, the transport was to halt and the troops were to debus and lie on their backs to engage hostile aircraft. Trucks were to keep 120 yards apart. The instruction to engage enemy aircraft was evidently taken to heart, for just as the 20th had formed up, with a line of artillery vehicles waiting at right angles to draw into position, an air-raid alarm was given and some men jumped down from their vehicles and engaged with small-arms fire an aeroplane that was skimming very low over the assembling convoy. There was some doubt as to its identity, but before many shots had been fired an artillery officer shouted that it was friendly and sharply ordered the men to cease firing. Still flying very low, the aeroplane disappeared over the sandhills to the west. This incident added to the tenseness of waiting in ‘target’ formation and it was with some relief that at 10.30 a.m. the convoy, led by the 20th, began to move.
The desert at first was much broken by wadis and escarpments. Anti-tank guns moving on the flanks were frequently out of sight of the rest of the convoy for several minutes at a time. After turning west about Raqabet el Retem the convoy had negotiated an escarpment on to more even going over a stony stretch of open desert when a formation of Stukas bombed the columns of vehicles. As soon as the raid began the convoy halted and men jumped down and lay on their backs to engage the planes. However, the recoil of a rifle on a lightly-clad collar-bone in this unusual type of prone position was sharply felt and after their first shot most men quickly assumed a sort page 250 of squatting posture before taking further action. No enemy planes were destroyed but the men felt much better after a few angry if doubtfully aimed shots, which definitely helped to boost morale. The battalion's casualties were one man killed and six wounded. Brigade Headquarters' losses were serious, those killed including the new Brigade Commander, Brigadier John Gray of 18 Battalion, and the Brigade Major, Major Brian Bassett,2 while a Maori Battalion liaison officer later died of wounds. In the Maori Battalion Captain E. R. Chesterman, an ex-20th officer, was amongst those killed. Altogether the brigade group lost 24 killed and 41 wounded in this raid. Colonel Burrows and the others in his staff car had had a narrow excape when the bombs fell, one passenger, Private Paterson3 of the intelligence section, being killed.
Turning to the shaken survivors the CO rallied them quietly with the remark, ‘Your luck has been good, now grasp it with both hands, and don't let this get you down.’ Then he sent a message to Divisional Headquarters apprising them of what had happened, took over command of the brigade, and after the dead had been buried and the wounded attended to ordered the move to continue.
No sooner had the convoy reached its destination about 3 p.m. than a further formation of enemy aircraft appeared and bombed the area but without causing casualties. Major Manson now again commanded the battalion, which took up a position to the north of Qaret el Yidma with the Maori Battalion on the right and the 19th on the left. A 500-pound bomb which had landed near the 19th without exploding was blown up by the engineers. During the afternoon a number of reconnaissance planes flew overhead and the usual sunset raid followed, two men being wounded and Padre Spence's car destroyed. Sergeant-Major Wilson, who had mounted a captured Italian Breda machine gun on a truck, once again fired tenaciously throughout the raid. A rather trying day closed with an issue of mail, an ideal tonic.
After a comparatively peaceful night with sleep broken only by the inevitable but necessary picket duties, the battalion page 251 stood-to as usual from 4.30 to 5.30 a.m. From the north-east came the sound of gunfire and from the west the noise of heavy bombing as our aircraft attacked the enemy. Large formations of our planes were a heartening sight as the troops relaxed in the midday heat after laboriously digging defensive positions in stony ground. At 5.55 p.m. sixteen enemy bombers raided the brigade area but no bombs were dropped on the 20th. Half an hour later a call for the brigade orders group foretold a fresh move.
In accordance with the plan for the Eighth Army to take the initiative, 1 Armoured Division had been ordered to come under command of 13 Corps and attempt a night advance along Ruweisat Ridge to Point 63. At the same time 4 Brigade was to move northwards to positions in the vicinity of Mungar Wahla, level with those of 5 Brigade along the El Mreir Depression, so that the Division would be able to support 1 Armoured Division with its guns and be ready to exploit any success gained by the tanks. Fourth Field Regiment was left free to support 4 Brigade's advance.
After last light patrols from 5 Brigade harassed the enemy while 4 Brigade prepared for the attack. At 1 a.m. on 7 July the 20th moved to the start line. At 3 a.m., with the Maori Battalion on the right, 20 Battalion on the left, and the 19th in reserve, the brigade moved approximately 3200 yards north, from which direction enemy flares could be seen. On reaching the high ground on the eastern end of Mungar Wahla the 20th dug in. Nineteenth Battalion passed rapidly through the leading troops, crossed the depression and reached the higher ground on the far side an hour before first light, still without making contact with the enemy.
Just before dawn on 7 July the unit transport came forward with 4 Field Regiment, whose 25-pounders shelled enemy transport and tanks which daylight revealed to the north and dispersed infantry who appeared to be forming up to attack. The battalion received orders about 8 a.m. to be prepared to move at short notice, and twice during the day was warned of the likelihood of an enemy tank attack from the west. At 3 p.m., on orders from Division, the brigade withdrew to its former area at Qaret el Yidma. As the group was forming up enemy aircraft bombed the area, the battalion's casualties being three page 252 men wounded. Shortly afterwards the convoy was again bombed while on the move. At 4.40 p.m. the unit reached and occupied its old positions, but by 6.25 p.m. had received orders for a further move.
In the north plans for a general attack westwards by 30 Corps had been postponed, the enemy had therefore not withdrawn, and the advance by 4 Brigade and the artillery to Mungar Wahla had not served the purpose of opening the way to Daba. Columns of 7 Armoured Division reported groups of the enemy south of Ruweisat Ridge in the Alam el Dihmaniya area, while 5 Indian Division columns and South African armoured car patrols operating to the south-west of the Qattara Box reported the movement of German troops towards the south, indicating an attempt to turn the southern flank of the line. As the enemy still held the ground from Ruweisat Ridge westward over which 1 Armoured Division was to have attacked, the New Zealand Division was left in a very exposed position, liable to be cut off if the enemy forces at Ruweisat should thrust south-east towards Deir el Munassib. Thirteenth Corps' orders to alter dispositions and shorten the Corps' front directed the New Zealand Division to retire eastwards behind the Qattara Box to positions from which fire could be brought to bear on the area north of the Box and eastwards across Ruweisat Ridge. The Box itself was to be evacuated by 6 Brigade. After conferring with the Corps Commander, General Inglis ordered the Division to move back to Deir el Munassib during the night.
At 9.30 p.m. 4 Brigade moved off in night formation with 19 Battalion across the front, the 20th on the left, and the Maoris on the right. An enemy column of fourteen tanks and other vehicles moving down the telephone line was expected to give trouble. If attacked, the infantry were to debus and go in with the bayonet. The trip of 26 miles south and east was uneventful but it was a trying journey for the drivers, some of whom took off their overcoats so that the cold would keep them awake. The battalion arrived at the Munassib area at 7.15 a.m. on 8 July and reoccupied its old positions. All the troops were very tired after two nights without sleep and were glad of an extremely quiet day, free from enemy air activity.
Further deployment within 13 Corps now took place. The New Zealand Division was ordered to take over the duties of page 253 the 7 Armoured Division columns which had been providing a protective screen across the north of the New Zealanders' area. The Armoured Division was to cover the north and west of the Qattara Box and be responsible for the Box itself. As part of this plan 4 Brigade sent out one mobile column at 9 a.m. on 8 July to occupy Alam Nayil ridge and another to the south-east of this feature. The 20th at 8.15 p.m. carried out a short night move of two miles north-east to Deir el Muhafid, involving little inconvenience other than rather tough digging. In this new area the Maoris were on the right flank, 20th in the centre, and the 19th on the left. The gap between 4 Brigade and the left flank of 30 Corps was to be covered by one of the brigade's mobile columns.
At this stage the weather became extremely hot and between noon and 4 p.m. a heat haze greatly restricted visibility. Flies became very troublesome. The 9th July was again quiet until the evening meal, when the battalion area was heavily bombed. One man was killed and five wounded, two lorries destroyed and three damaged.
During the afternoon at a unit commanders' conference Brigadier Burrows had outlined the plan for the projected Eighth Army offensive. In the north two brigades each from 1 South African Division and 9 Australian Division, recently arrived from Palestine, were to attack west and south of the Alamein Box to make a path for the armour. The whole Army was to be ready to exploit any advantage gained, but if the assault was held up 13 Corps was to stage its own attack, in which the El Mreir Depression would be the New Zealanders' objective.
At 4.30 p.m. Lieutenant Ian Smith4 and six men left the 20th area on a reconnaissance to the north. Three hundred yards beyond Point 71 the patrol made contact with ¼ Essex Regiment, which reported that six enemy tanks were harboured 3500 yards to the west. The patrol carried on towards a low ridge, from which a short reconnaissance disclosed no enemy activity. One of our minefields was located at a burnt-out tank a mile and three-quarters north of the Essex Regiment and its location noted. The patrol returned at 7 a.m.
Meanwhile the enemy was preparing to renew his advance by probing for weak spots in the defence. By midday small page 254 parties of his lorries and infantry had been observed moving across the Division's northern flank. At the same time the British armour there withdrew to the east. By 2 p.m. the troops on Alam Nayil were threatened, but 4 Field Regiment forced the enemy tanks to retire. To the south-west of Alam Nayil enemy parties probed into Deir el Angar and forced a Divisional Cavalry patrol to retire. A small enemy force had approached the Qattara Box from the north on the evening of 8 July and had been engaged by the 6 Brigade rear party. Next day the enemy laid on a full-scale attack and entered the empty Box.
Soon after daylight on 10 July thirty-two enemy tanks and lorried infantry were reported to be either consolidating on the Alam Nayil ridge or preparing to attack. After being heavily shelled by our artillery, however, and bombed by the RAF, the enemy withdrew north-west in the early afternoon. Enemy groups were reported to the south and south-west, but more cheering news was the announcement that the Australians had captured their first objective. The afternoon was fairly quiet and the extra water ration, after the allowance of one bottle a man a day, was a great boon. An order to shave, clean boots, etc., was interpreted as equivalent to a warning order for an attack.
In the late afternoon British tanks attacked the enemy at Alam Nayil and by dusk had cleared the ridge. In the meantime an attack had been expected on 5 Brigade, in position to the west of 4 Brigade, and it had been decided to move the former to less exposed positions east of the Deir el Muhafid area. It was a broken night for the 20th, with convoys passing through its positions most of the time. Fourth Brigade now regrouped to cover the western approaches left open by the removal of 5 Brigade. While the 20th held the right flank, the Maori Battalion moved to the left and the 19th closed the back door of the box.
During the morning of 11 July the enemy moved up to the positions vacated by 5 Brigade. The tank battle at Alam Nayil, which had died down at last light the previous evening, flared up again. The battalion's observers reported that our troops appeared to be still holding the feature, with enemy to the west and north-west. At 11.30 a.m. the battalion dispositions were altered to form a two-company front, with C Company on the page 255 right, D on the left, and A in reserve. Nineteenth Battalion held the left flank, while the 23rd was in contact on the right and the 28th in the southern sector. During the day the unit was visited by the YMCA truck. Tinned fruit and sausages and a mug of lukewarm water were the items most appreciated.
Information concerning the enemy up till 11 July had indicated that his formations were in as constant a state of movement as the British. Between 7 and 10 July 90 Light Division had been observed withdrawing from the central sector and moving west and south. By 11 July elements of this formation had been identified to the south and south-west of the New Zealand Division.
Now came a fresh, and as far as the 20th was concerned, a final plan to assist 30 Corps. It indicated that the latter was preparing to attack in a southerly direction towards Deir el Abyad. Thirteenth Corps, offering ‘maximum co-operation’, was to attack in a north-westerly direction towards this depression. The New Zealand Division had the responsibility of securing a bridgehead around the area of Point 63—on some maps shown as Point 64—half a mile south of Deir el Shein and near the western end of Ruweisat Ridge, with the full fire support and flank protection of 1 Armoured Division on the right. The latter division was to make use of the bridgehead and send an armoured brigade to join 30 Corps. During the operation 7 Armoured Division was to protect the southern flank of 13 Corps.
The New Zealand Division was ordered to advance in three stages: to the Alam Nayil ridge, to a line some 600 yards in front of this feature, and finally to the western end of Ruweisat Ridge. Code-words to be sent to Divisional Headquarters on the completion of each stage were: Stage 1, greens; stage 2, eggs; and stage 3, bacon.
Ruweisat Ridge was a long, low feature ranging from 150 to 200 feet in height. Rising gradually from the surrounding desert, it ran east and west, parallel with the coast. South of Ruweisat the country stepped up in a series of low ridges to a plateau south of Alam Nayil, the surface being broken by large ‘deirs’, steep-sided depressions with rocky outcrops, used by both sides as tank harbours or infantry assembly areas. Whoever held Ruweisat Ridge could dominate the northern front page 256 with artillery fire by direct observation, and behind this and other ridges could operate against the exposed plateau of the southern sector. Possession of Ruweisat Ridge was therefore vitally important to the success of the campaign. Its assault required a superlative effort from men already wearied by several weeks of exposure to intense heat and constant digging in stony ground, tired out with unremitting picket duties, frequent moves by day and night and lack of sleep. It had been a difficult campaign for the man in the ranks to understand. Moves seemed to be made to all points of the compass and information was scarce. Since the breakthrough at Minqar Qaim there had been little actual infantry fighting to do. There was no doubt as to who had won on that occasion and the advance to Ruweisat Ridge was faced with quiet determination.
As the battalions assembled at the start line an alteration was received eliminating the first bound. At 5 p.m. 5 Brigade on the right and 4 Brigade on the left advanced north-west in transport. With 20 Battalion leading, the 19th on the left and the Maoris on the right, 4 Brigade moved to within 600 yards of Alam Nayil ridge. The enemy began to shell and mortar the leading vehicles, the Maoris and the adjoining 5 Brigade vehicles catching most of the trouble.
The transport halted in a shallow depression and the troops debussed. Enemy shelling became heavier, but the companies formed up unconcernedly and the anti-tank portées assembled along each flank. At the signal the infantry moved resolutely and with perfect discipline over the lip of the depression into heavy shell and mortar fire, some nonchalantly smoking cigarettes. All were showing the strain of the campaign. Boots and web gear were streaked with white salt from many days of sweating toil. Shirts and shorts in which men had worked and slept for several weeks without being able to change were hard and wrinkled with perspiration. Everyone looked much thinner, some near the point of exhaustion, others drawn but tough-looking with that sun-browned hardness that comes with life in the desert. Quite a number wore bandages over desert sores, some were limping, but all had a sort of Agincourt grimness that boded ill for somebody out in front.
The shelling took its toll, of course, but the advance continued page 257 up to and beyond Alam Nayil without other opposition. At one stage the infantry passed some British Grant tanks which put smoke down on the left forward flank. After covering about 1500 yards on the same bearing as previously, the battalion was ordered to halt and dig in. Heavy shelling continued till dusk, seeming to come from heavy guns situated in the area of the Qattara Box. The code-word eggs was sent to Divisional Headquarters at 7.35 p.m.
Twenty-third Battalion and the Maoris had become ‘boxed’ at the debussing point and this had caused some of the units to deviate from their correct line of march to the left. At 9.30 p.m. the Brigade Commander advised that the brigade was too far forward and to the west. Accordingly, at 1 a.m. on 12 July the brigade formed up in close formation and moved 800 yards east, taking up a position with the 20th in front, 19th on the left, and the Maoris in the rear. From 5.30 till 9.30 a.m. the enemy shelled and mortared the positions heavily and our artillery replied with counter fire. After the four-hours' blitz firing continued spasmodically till 2.30 p.m., when things became comparatively quiet. A check-up on casualties showed that the 20th had not fared so badly: one officer slightly wounded, one man killed and twenty wounded.
During the morning of 12 July word was received that the final stage in the attack on Ruweisat Ridge would almost certainly take place that night, but after a conference at Divisional Headquarters at which the Corps Commander and the commander of 1 Armoured Division were present it was decided that bacon would be off the menu for the day. Apparently 30 Corps' attack had not synchronised with that of 13 Corps and the Division was ordered to consolidate in its positions in expectation of a stay of two or three days. The armoured brigades were withdrawing overnight into reserve on the New Zealand Division's right, with mobile columns forward to protect their fronts. Infantry units were instructed to send out fighting patrols after dark to harass the enemy and gain information.
It was extremely hot out in the open during the day, but the nights were very cold and the forward troops were glad when greatcoats and one blanket a man were sent up that night.
Fifth Brigade patrols brought in the information that Italians page 258 were laying a minefield to the north, and one patrol which picked up two sections of 23 Battalion which had been marooned out in front of the Division for a day learned from them that the enemy held the ground to the north with a considerable number of machine guns sited in depth. Parties of enemy troops in transport had also approached the Division's south-west flank, debussed, and dug in.
The 13th July began with a heavy mist which hampered observation during the early morning stand-to. There was spasmodic enemy shelling when visibility improved but no battalion casualties. General Inglis inspected the layout of units and ordered alterations to give greater depth to the position. As the 20 Battalion front of 800 yards caused the troops to be too cramped, however, A Company moved to new positions after dark to extend the frontage by 400 yards and dug in. When word was received that the battalion might remain in position for several days, transport was sent back to the area from which the advance had started.
Situation reports at nightfall showed that both armies were preparing for large-scale operations. In the northern sector tanks and infantry of 21 Panzer Division driving north-east to cut off the coast defences had been halted by minefields and artillery fire. South of this area, in the central sector, German infantry had been brought in to stiffen the Italians. In the sector opposite 13 Corps the enemy had been on the defensive all day, apparently to cover the preparation of weapon pits, gun positions, and minefields. By the end of the day a strong line of infantry defences covered by an anti-tank screen stretched from Ruweisat Ridge forward of the pipeline to the Qattara Box.
Between the ridge and the Qattara Box the enemy seemed to be preparing for defence, but south of the Box enemy columns increasing in strength were engaging the columns of 7 Armoured Division. At last light on 13 July an enemy formation of 12 tanks and 40 trucks of infantry advanced eastwards in the southern sector and captured Qaret el Himeimat, a feature ten miles south of Alam Nayil. Apparently by pushing in the north and the south the enemy hoped to force another British withdrawal.
That night Second-Lieutenant Sullivan and the IO of 23 Battalion selected and marked the start line for the divisional page 259 attack. A patrol from D Company went out 4000 yards and encountered enemy wiring parties.
The 14th July was another intensely hot day and the infantry, lying in the open in shallow slit trenches, were severely tried by the heat and the flies. Shelling continued, some of it being airbursts. During this period of improving positions and waiting for the final attack, meals were brought up before dawn and after dusk by carrier as the area to the south was under enemy observation and any movement by trucks brought shelling. Amongst the battalion's casualties over the last two days were A Company's second-in-command, Lieutenant Galbraith,5 and the CSM, WO II Gus Gray, both of whom were killed. At 3 p.m. on the 14th B Echelon was attacked by enemy bombers. Its casualties were one man killed and four wounded.page 260
There had been considerable movement of enemy tanks and transport throughout the day, and in the afternoon Brigadier Burrows had reconnoitred an area to which the brigade group could retire if necessary. The battalion had received about eighty reinforcements, half of whom were allotted to A Company. They included one ASC driver with his arm still in plaster and others untrained in infantry work. Those obviously unsuitable were sent back to B Echelon.
At 6.55 p.m. word was received that the attack on Ruweisat Ridge would take place that night. By 8 p.m. final preparations for the advance had been made and companies assembled.
Orders from Divisional Headquarters required the Division to attack and capture the western end of Ruweisat Ridge, 4 Brigade's objective being Point 63 and westwards, 5 Brigade being responsible for the area east of the trig point. It was understood that an armoured brigade would protect the open left flank. Zero hour was 11 p.m.
Twentieth Battalion intelligence section personnel guided the troops to the start line, which was protected by a platoon of A Company. The leading battalion was the 18th, which was responsible for guiding and for maintaining contact with 5 Brigade. The 19th in echelon took the left flank and 20 Battalion moved in reserve. The distance to the final objective was six miles. Brigade Headquarters travelled with the reserve battalion. The artillery was to be in position on the objective at first light. Three troops of anti-tank six-pounders moved with Brigade Headquarters and three remained with 4 Field Regiment, as did the ack-ack battery. Two platoons of machine-gunners, two sections of 6 Field Company, and some battalion two-pounders moved behind the 20th.
Brigadier Burrows has recorded his impressions of the attack and eye-witness accounts by various men of the battalion give detail to the general picture. The Brigadier wrote:
Our final objective, the Ridge, was exactly six miles from the start line. Information available showed we would encounter outpost positions about two and a half miles from our start line. It was considered that enemy opposition here would not be strong, but that the main task of taking the Ridge would be difficult. It was further page 261 considered we would be on our final objective some reasonable time before dawn, and at first light our Artillery, under the protection of the Armd Bde, would come up and get into position. Our Bren Carriers, 3-inch mortars, and other heavier fighting weapons such as 2-inch mortars, A Tk Boyes rifles, would also come up and join us at first light.
I decided to take three tps of the 6-pr A Tk guns and some of the Bn 2-prs in case we were counter-attacked by tanks before our Artillery was in position. The noise of the advance of these A Tk vehicles was likely to give us away, but I kept the reserve Bn back about half an hour after the other two had gone and brought the vehicles up with them.
At this stage I decided I had to have some news of what was going on in front and asked the 20 Bn to send forward an officer in the small car that was with my headquarters. Charlie Upham would not send an officer from his Coy but went forward himself. He returned in about an hour's time, having had various encounters with pockets of the enemy and with the disturbing news that he had not been able to contact the 19 Bn, but that he had met Major Playle6 with a company of the 18 Bn who were lost.
Captain Upham says:
I could not find 19 Bn when going forward and 18 and 21 Bns were in confusion. So were the Germans. They were getting trucks out and pulling guns back by hand and ropes. All this went on under cover of fire from tanks which, in groups of three, were covering the withdrawal. It was a very colourful show with flares going up, tanks firing, and red tracer bullets from MGs.
Two German tanks were put out by 18 Bn with sticky bombs: they went up quite close to us. Captain Playle's 18 Bn Coy came under heavy fire from a tank, as another tank set on fire by his Coy had a deck cargo of flares which lit up the whole battlefield. The German troops were being badly cut up while the Italians were surrendering in hundreds. They were out of all proportion to our people and really broke up the attack with their crowds. There was some barbed wire that gave trouble, and some trenches, too. We had to stop and lift the jeep out of shallow trenches and often had to disentangle poor efforts at wiring. The enemy helped, thinking we were some of them.
All the time this was going on and even before it there was a rumble of tanks on our exposed left flank. We thought it came from page 263 our tanks which were supposed to be there. C Coy was the left hand Coy of the left hand Bn of the left hand Bde, so we naturally kept a strong lookout to the left as it was an open front.
I returned to Brig. Burrows and reported that there appeared to be confusion on our right flank, 19 Bn had gone through to its objective, and 18 Bn was not so far forward. The enemy line appeared to have collapsed but there were a lot of tanks holding out in groups of three.
Brigadier Burrows continues:
We had been pushing on all the while, disturbed occasionally by artillery fire and bursts of enemy MG fire from our flanks. Soon we came on a burning German tank. There was a distressing little group of our wounded and dead lying near by. I spoke with one wounded soldier who said the tank had opened fire on them suddenly from the dark. One of our men had climbed on board before it could move away and had somehow managed to get a hand grenade through the turret. There were many Italians wandering about now, and some Germans. We sent back a group of about one hundred and fifty or so, but couldn't stop to collect many. We hoped our tanks, which were coming up at first light, would be able to shepherd the prisoners and destroy the astonishing amount of enemy equipment we were passing. It had become obvious by now that what we had taken for an outpost position was something more. We found that the last three miles of our advance had been occupied in depth by the enemy.
It was now showing some signs of growing light. The Ridge ahead was obviously our objective. Then we ran into a real pocket of resistance. Four enemy MG posts and possibly three tanks all opened fire together. I had gone forward to the head of the 20 Bn to consult with the intelligence officer, John Sullivan, about our exact location, and felt somewhat dismayed at the new development. Our A Tk vehicles looked an easy mark for tanks. I shouted to the 20 Bn to go straight in with the bayonet and heard Charlie Upham leading C Coy forward in grand style. His Coy must have dealt immediately with two posts. The tanks were hard to see, but were moving away. A Tk vehicles were now moving over the crest of the Ridge. Still being fired on by two enemy machine guns, the infantry unfortunately tried to get over in another spot and were faced with wire. However our MG officer [Major Johansen7] saved the day. He dismounted two of our MGs and took on the remaining two German guns, one of which was about 400 yds away and the other about 700 yds. In very short time he quietened them both and had set fire to a couple of vehicles. The tanks could not be seen anywhere.page 264
A six-mile advance at night at an angle to the physical features of the ground and with the last four miles obstructed by contact with the enemy required unusual skill in keeping direction. Second-Lieutenant Sullivan, who led the 20th, says:
Navigation was by compass and pacing. I myself led the way and had two of the Intelligence Section checking me…. My method of counting, by the way, was to record the hundreds on my Rosary Beads which I always carried and which gave me a count to 5000.
When we reached the spot according to my reckoning I stopped the unit. We were still on comparatively low ground, whereas we should have landed on … Pt 63 and I wanted to do a quick check up. I think it was completely dark up to that stage. I asked the others to stay put for a few minutes while I had a look around. Pt 63 was a trig and I was looking for a knob complete with cairn. There were signs of dawn breaking at this stage. I found that the high ground was to our right…. before I rejoined the unit the area came under heavy MG fire….
The battalion reacted immediately to this opposition. A Company, in reserve, went to ground, D Company with a lost platoon of 18 Battalion attacked forward to the high ground, and C Company, led by Captain Upham, swung left, south-west, towards the enemy fire. He describes the action:
When we got to the objective the MGs went into action. I remember Johansen saying to his men, ‘Fire at the flashes’. When first light came they found that they had been firing at tanks. Our objective was on a forward slope and it was full of slit trenches. It was broad daylight by now. The Hun tanks kept firing hull down, moving all the time from behind one mound to another. Their infantry were running back and their casualties were heavy.
In the valley the Huns were making a stand. It was broken ground with a small rise or pimple in it and beyond that the rise on the far side of the valley. On the floor of the hollow were guns, trucks, and Huns in confusion. So we went into it with a bayonet charge for half a mile past the slit trenches on the forward slope …. and consolidated on the far side under intense fire. We captured a German Intelligence truck full of maps. While I was prowling round a German officer raced up on a motor cycle. It was a suicide job and I am certain he was sent up to fire the truck. We took him PW and he was with me most of the day. Some of the maps I sent back to Major Manson….
I remember saying to someone this was the greatest victory yet. There was everything a soldier wanted lying about—an enormous heap of rifles, another big heap of unopened mail, stores galore and loaded trucks, several half-tracked vehicles and six field guns (two of them 88s), and a group of German wounded.page 265
In this attack C Company had heavy casualties, particularly in officers. Two platoon commanders—Lieutenants Edwin Shand8 and Ian Smith—were killed, the third, Lieutenant Wilkinson,9 shell-shocked, and Captain Upham himself was shot in the elbow and had his left arm smashed. A call for reinforcements was passed back to Headquarters. A Company and a platoon of D followed C Company while the rest of D held Point 63 for all-round defence.
Second-Lieutenant Cottrell of No. 9 Platoon describes their experiences:
We could hear Charlie Upham yelling for assistance at the top of his voice…. [and I obtained permission] to move my No. 9 Platoon round on Upham's left. This was on slightly higher open ground and we were to go straight in the direction of where the fire was coming from. I sent one section to the left and moved forward with another section, the third section (which comprised mostly what was left of No. 7 Platoon) bringing up the rear. I remember it felt like walking towards lots of coloured tennis balls—tracer always appeared like that to me. My section lost 4 men killed but we went forward to some Italian sangars which we occupied and opened fire with our Brens—apart from odd sniper fire this seemed to quieten the enemy machine guns.
Second-Lieutenant Sullivan, after confirming that the high ground to his right was the objective, followed up C Company's attack to see what was doing and found that it had captured an enemy laager to the south-west of Ruweisat Ridge. Captain Upham was by this time wounded and Sullivan led C Company up the side of the ridge to the higher ground which he felt should be occupied. Captain Washbourn then took command of the two companies and Sullivan returned to Point 63 to report to the CO and Brigadier Burrows. D Company, under Captain Maxwell, was by this time disposed on Point 63, which was the highest knob in the area and was marked by a barrel and a cairn.
Brigadier Burrows continues his report:
It was now nearly light. We were on the Ridge. Our 6-prs quickly got into hull down positions facing the direction in which page 266 the tanks had disappeared. They had an angry battle when it was properly light, and the officer in charge claimed three tanks knocked out.
On the northern side of the ridge I found the 19 Bn in posn, with odd bits and pieces of the 18 Bn. Further along to the East were small groups of men belonging to the 5th Bde. I contacted an officer as soon as I could, told him to organise all the fighting men he could from this Bn of the 5 Bde, tack themselves on to us, and with our A Tk guns we would give them protection.
To the north was a scene of the utmost confusion. There was transport as far as one could see. Wandering aimlessly everywhere without arms were enemy troops—chiefly Italians. They were utterly disorganised and in complete panic. We had no Bren Carriers to round them up, and I felt it a pity the tanks were so long in coming to exploit our success as they were supposed to do. We had a big party of prisoners, including four generals. My intelligence officer reported that General Lombardi was amongst the captured. From further east along the Ridge, what appeared to be easily a Bn of troops were walking North. At first I thought they were our own, but soon realised they were not carrying arms and were Italians walking away. Our MGs could have shot them down, but I couldn't bring myself to order that. There were enough wounded and dead about as it was. On the other hand it was reported to me that very nearly a Bn of what looked like our own troops were seen marching away guarded by German tanks. It turned out later to be a Bn of the 5 Bde who were surrounded by tanks just at daylight and did not have their A Tk guns with them.
Our people were by now consolidating on the ground where they found themselves at daylight. On the southern side and the western end of the Ridge no movement was possible. About seven German tanks were hull down not so far away and fired at everything. The posn on the northern side was easier for about two hours. There was, however, a stratum of rock about four inches down and men could not dig. They occupied as far as possible rock sangars which had been built up by the Italians. I found for my Headquarters a trench which was dug considerably deeper and with the sides built up with sand bags.
I had realized by now that our advance had carried us right through the enemy lines, into what was probably their army headquarters. The staff car and office trucks confirmed this, and of course the capture of the four generals in this area meant it was no ordinary defensive position. It meant that what we had thought were outpost posns nearer our lines were in reality the main defences….
Returning across the valley under heavy fire to Point 63, Lieutenant Sullivan reported the column of prisoners he had seen south of C Company, marching west, to the CO and also page 267 to Brigade Headquarters. He also contacted 19 Battalion to the right of the 20th and located the 18th, enabling its platoon to rejoin.
On Point 63 Captain Maxwell was far from happy about the position of A and C Companies, who had No. 18 Platoon with them on the ridge to the south-west. Going out in a captured 8-cwt truck, he found Captain Upham wounded and brought him back to the RAP. After discussion with the CO he returned to 18 Platoon and ordered it to withdraw under the command of Captain Washbourn. Major Manson was by now convinced of the advisability of withdrawing what was left of A and C Companies and this dangerous move is described by Lieutenant Cottrell:
We stayed there [on the high ground facing south-south-west] some time and then Johnny Sullivan bravely came out and said Gordon Washbourn had gone to fix our positions on the other side of the ridge—a runner also came from Gordon to tell me this. I arranged for the remnants of C Coy and A Coy to move round the ridge. I left two Bren gunners to cover us and ordered my men to move towards the gap in the minefield. It was a fairly hot move back over the open ground … [but] the men were magnificent, some even lighting their pipes as they went. We moved quickly through the gap … in small parties as the enemy fire was concentrated on this point. As I went through with the last party one of my men … was hit in the leg. I saw he was all right and promised to come back for him. I then reported to Gordon Washbourn who gave us a rough area. I then left the Platoon to Sgt. Maurice Shand10 and was on my way back to get … [the wounded man] when I was hit. The Artillery fire was intense with a large number of air bursts.
CSM Bob May describes a typical incident:
I was on a ridge south-west of Pt 63 when I noticed Capt Upham walking towards an 88. I went over to him and found him trying to remove some part of the breech from the 88 with his one hand. He was badly wounded in his left arm. Three wounded Germans were lying close by. They had been attended to by our stretcher bearers. While moving back [to the north side of the ridge] we were heavily machine gunned by two tanks at the western end of the Ridge and several men were hit. Frank Dougherty [Doherty]11 of C Coy went back in a pick up and, under heavy fire, brought in the wounded.page 268
Meanwhile the Brigadier was becoming anxious. The tide seemed to be turning in favour of the enemy. He continues:
Two hours or so passed and I began to worry because the Armour had not arrived nor had our Arty. There were wonderful plums waiting for the picking had the Armour been there. Time passed and nothing turned up. Our wireless was in touch with Div who reported that the Armour was coming. Until it came I knew our Arty could not get through. Then artillery shells started to land from the North. The enemy soon realised we were without our guns and brought his own up. For the rest of the day we had one of the toughest times I have experienced. The enemy used a shell with an overhead shrapnel burst—a deadly thing which came down on you whether you were below ground or not. There was much mortaring and I think he was using some of our own 25-prs too. It went on almost without a break. Our 6-prs and 2-prs were targets that could not be disguised or hidden and gun teams suffered heavily. The infantry losses, too, were distressing. Reports kept coming in of people I knew killed or wounded and during the afternoon the 20 Bn reported that fifty per cent of their personnel were battle casualties.
Shelling and mortaring went on steadily all day and the mounting casualties placed great strain on the battalion Medical Officer, ‘Doc’ Feltham, and his staff. Lance-Corporal Dickson12 of the signals platoon describes their valiant efforts:
On the side of the Ridge the RAP staff under Captain Feltham and Sjt. L. R. Sutherland worked heroically to cope with the casualties. Men passing through the area looking for their sections or helping wounded comrades back to the post attracted fire to this concentrated area and some of the men were hit a second time. Sjt. Sutherland, who was himself later wounded, called to the men to keep away or to leave their rifles behind when they brought in wounded. An RAP flag was improvised from a white towel on which a red cross was marked with the only medium available— blood. This desperate measure seemed to have the desired result, however, as no further shelling came from enemy areas that could see this pathetic signal. Men from the Intelligence section did splendid work as stretcher bearers, bringing in wounded under heavy fire, and two of them obtained a drum of water some distance away and gamely rolled it down the shell and bullet swept slope to the RAP.
Captain Maxwell at one stage went to Brigade Headquarters to try to get an ambulance through to evacuate the wounded, but communication with Divisional Headquarters seemed to page 269 have broken down. To his suggestion that he withdraw the 20th, Brigadier Burrows replied that the position must be held as tank support had been promised.
During the afternoon, however, there were signs that the enemy was collecting for an attack. Tanks and infantry were assembling in the wadis to the west and south-west, from which they could have easily been dispersed had the artillery been able to get forward. This had proved impossible because of the presence until late in the afternoon of a big enemy pocket in the area between Rear Brigade Headquarters and Ruweisat Ridge. During the day the carrier platoon officers of 18, 19, and 20 Battalions tried to find alternative routes for the guns but were unsuccessful. After 2 p.m. some 19 Battalion carriers managed to get through to their unit with supplies, but the 18th's carriers were too late to be of use and the 20th's carriers with the battalion mortars and the machine-gunners were turned back by a tank battle astride the track.
About 3 p.m. Lieutenant Sullivan had gone to Brigade Headquarters to report that the enemy appeared to be forming up. While he was there a liaison officer from 22 Armoured Brigade arrived with the information that the armour was about two and a half miles away to the east and was proceeding westwards along the southern slope of the ridge. Sullivan dashed back with this news, which the Brigadier also sent to the other battalions, adding all the encouragement he knew.
Brigadier Burrows adds:
About 4 p.m. 20 Bn reported that the enemy attack had been launched. I immediately sent away an officer to try to contact the Armour. The attack was preceded by intensive arty fire. Their tanks came in with a slight wind behind them. They set fire to what vehicles they could find in their path, and soon there was an excellent smoke screen across everything. All we could do was sit and wait in our HQ trenches.
In about three quarters of an hour the same officer as previously arrived back to say that the armour was about half a mile away and that three light tanks were coming forward to see me and get information. I suggested that the Liaison Officer himself had all the information necessary and told him to contact his Commander immediately, and ask him to send his tanks on as the situation was critical. He departed under heavy shelling and machine-gun fire.
In the meantime the battalion's CO, Major Manson, had page 270 gone back himself to try to obtain armoured support. Captain Maxwell moved round the battalion area, setting a fine example of coolness and courage to the men on the ridge.
About 5 p.m. [writes Lieutenant Sullivan] enemy shelling became even heavier than before and tanks and armoured cars approached. The situation was very grim at this stage…. I was at Battalion Headquarters with Captain Gibb. We tried in vain to contact Bde HQ but neither phone nor wireless would work.
As the attack approached the six-pounders opened up and after firing a few shots one—perhaps both—prepared to move. I went across to make sure that they were not vacating the area and was told that they were shifting a short distance only to avoid being pin-pointed…. There was heavy fire, both AT shells and MG fire, from the enemy who also appeared to be shelling us from further back….
When the tanks and armoured cars actually reached our lines I was in D Coy area with Capt Maxwell. It was obvious at that stage that unless our own tanks arrived we would be overrun. Incidentally, the ground was very rocky and trenches were very shallow. I believe that many of our men fired away all their ammunition at the gun flashes but when the tanks and armoured cars came in and circled the area, sweeping the ground with small arms fire, it was a case of stand up or be killed. Once the forward troops had been prised out of their holes and were above ground resistance definitely slackened and those in the rear could do little shooting. In any case the cloud of dust and smoke obscured the scene and when the tanks appeared they were close enough to command surrender. Enemy infantry in small parties followed the tanks and took over the prisoners. An anti-tank gun still on its portée below Point 63 but with its crew knocked out by machine-gun fire was taken over and used by the enemy.
Captain Maxwell says:
I realised that we were in a hopeless position as there were tanks all round us. The shelling was still going on and here I decided that rather than lose the remaining men I had no alternative but to surrender. The Germans let Lt. Sullivan and I go over to bury … [some of our dead] and give water to the wounded. We joined up with the men and got the Huns to send back a car for Captain Upham who refused to stay with the RAP.
For their courage and leadership on this disastrous day both Captain Maxwell and Lieutenant Sullivan received the DSO.
The three battalion two-pounders had been separated from the unit during the final rush for the ridge and each had its own page 271 separate action. Captain Barton,13 commanding the anti-tank platoon, describes his guns' part in the battle:
… we arrived over the ridge under a hail of fire and AP shells, not even knowing if it was Ruweisat or not. It was a hull down position, which was all we craved at the moment…. The guns were put into the only positions which offered any protection [on the north side of the ridge] and then the task was to find the 20 Bn. … I had a lot of trouble (and a lot of diving behind rocks and sangars) before I found the Battalion, and nearly wept with relief when I finally found Jim Gibb, Gordon Washbourn and Jackie Sullivan.
When I got back to the guns Major Nicholson14 of the Anti-Tank Regiment came around … and co-ordinated the whole show. He told us that the anti-tank guns were brigaded and to stay where we were. In actual fact the siting of our guns with the exception of one portée which I had pushed forward of the Ridge a bit was not altered materially.
I was desperately worried over this siting as I felt that we should be with the Bn even if we were only two little 2-pdrs…. [one of the three had been knocked out almost immediately]. Actually we were well north of the 20th and directly behind them were the 6-pdrs. There appeared to be nowhere to site a gun as it was just a solid rock ledge and no gun would have lasted five minutes. In any case any movement of gun or vehicle drew instant fire from Jerry and naturally the infantry did not appreciate portées sculling around in their vicinity. God knows they had had enough for one night.
Soft sand in the depression before Ruweisat Ridge gave difficulty. As we came out we saw two blazing enemy tanks, turned, and ran west parallel to the ridge for a while. As dawn broke we saw in front and to the west six or seven enemy tanks which started to fire at the column. The range was about 50-60 yds and two of our trucks were soon on fire. It was surprising that there were not more casualties. Everybody scattered and I drove our portee over a low undulation which was Ruweisat Ridge and stopped in among some infantry. There seemed to be a fair bit of confusion. I met Pat Barton and Brig Burrows. There was a fair bit of shelling from the west and south-west. Capt Barton sited our portee….page 272
Fire came from every angle and a lot of it was AP. My portee was hit by one of these and the front differential damaged. However we moved it to our allotted position and were trying to dig a hole when a second AP wrecked the engine. Other hits later completed the job. We were put in a forward position along the west end of the ridge as the 6-pdrs had the ridge positions…. Due to the rocky nature of the ground it was hopeless to dig in the gun as we would normally have done. Even the German dead were only thinly covered on top of the ground. Our position was obvious to the Huns who shelled us directly. We could see no targets within range and felt ineffective. The Machine Gunners were the only ones who seemed able, from their positions on top of the ridge, to fire effectively. They engaged some armoured cars to the west and south-west. For a fruitless hour we tried to dig in, being shelled all the time. The infantry in the early stages brought in many prisoners from forward and north-west of the ridge. There were also some captured British trucks which we had retaken and from which the men got supplies of food and clothing. Under the circumstances it was rather humorous to see the infantry changing their underwear though they were no doubt glad of the opportunity to do so…. Finally it was decided as the ground made it impossible to take up the normal ground positions to keep the remaining two portees mobile. There were no targets within range. We spent the rest of the day just sitting there being shelled. There were few trenches and these were used for HQ positions. Some of the men were in sangars and actually we just sat on top of the ground behind a few sandbags. The 20th were forward of us….
Later in the afternoon the shelling intensified so much that dust was raised all round us and we had practically no visibility. The troops down in front of us to the north-west were in a cloud of dust. Neither could see the other. The only things visible were the AP shells shooting through the dust.
Our crew had been distributed round the other two portees. At this stage I got on to Sgt. Robinson's16 portee. The gun was facing north-west and we and Sgt. Thompson's17 portee fired a considerable number of rounds at the enemy gun flashes through the haze. The driver, Pte. Joe Wesley,18 was hit in the foot so I took over driving the portee. Things were pretty warm. At one stage Sgt. Robinson, who was directing the fire of the gun, bent down for another shell and as he did so an AP round brushed his hip. One of the crew on the left of the gun was shot by AP small arms fire which penetrated the shield so I withdrew the portee eastwards about 100 page 273 yds, picking up two wounded infantrymen on the way. We then halted, turned the gun round, and again fired at the gun flashes we saw through the dust.
We then advanced westwards again, hoping to find Captain Barton. We could not see much but knew there was some form of enemy attack on because the gun flashes kept changing position and approaching.
I got off the portee and looked for Capt. Barton north of our old position. We couldn't see any sign of him and there seemed to be nobody in authority in the vicinity. Men in the area were moving east. We moved back a short distance till we came to where troops of the 4th Bde (I think) were attempting to stabilise the position on a North to South line. Men were lying in a sort of shallow depression and facing west. We were told to go and site ourselves into the ridge again. We did so. Shortly afterwards one of the infantry company commanders told us to withdraw further east.
When we arrived at what I thought was our objective there were a lot of people milling about and then suddenly we were fired upon. … Our portee dashed off and went over the edge of the ridge. Close by was a 6-pdr portee which opened fire over the ridge. Sgt. Thompson looked over the ridge and told us that the enemy vehicles were out of range of our gun so we did no shooting. One vivid impression of mine was of a lone machine-gunner firing his Vickers. He was really annoyed and was firing very long bursts almost of belt length…. Behind us … to the north there was a lot of abandoned transport, mostly British, which had been captured by the enemy. Later in the day we picked up some supplies from these vehicles—water, which was more than welcome, and funnily enough some V cigarettes and Hudson biscuits….
Later on our portee was shifted by Capt. Barton some small distance to the West and round a corner…. not far from Lt. Wood's portee which had at this stage been knocked out. Later our portee was shifted back to more or less its original position. I cannot recall our having done any shooting from this position. There was nothing to see…. we were heavily shelled periodically during the day. We tried to dig slit trenches but this was impossible. The ground was just solid rock. We also tried to build sangars but with the amount of loose rock available these were practically useless. It was utterly impossible to dig the guns in. At this stage one of our gun crew had been wounded….
Later in the afternoon enemy shelling was intensified and they knocked out several of the abandoned vehicles…. our gun would page 274 have been out of sight during the early part of the attack as it was behind the Northern edge of the ridge…. One or two of the guns or vehicles along the Northern edge of the ridge were knocked out by solid shot and some of the shot came perilously close to our own gun…. I had no idea where the 20th Rifle Companies were….
I noticed a 6-pdr. to the West which I will call the first 6-pdr. An artillery Staff Sgt ran past us calling to another of his guns which was to our east. Both these 6-pdrs were on their portees. As the second 6-pdr. went past us to join the first 6-pdr. Sgt. Thompson called to the Staff Sgt and said ‘Do you want us too?’ He said ‘Yes’. Sgt. Thompson then ordered us on to the portee…. We then moved off to join the two 6-pdrs. The second 6-pdr. by this time was firing. Our portee went up to the 6-pdrs., turned round, and Sgt. Thompson directed the fire of the gun. I was acting as loader. As we were being machine-gunned I kept down behind the shield and did not see anything. We got away a couple of shots when the second 6-pdr. which was right beside us went on fire. There was an Artillery Major on foot in charge. It then became apparent that the first 6-pdr. portee could not move under its own power because the Major ordered the two 6-pdr. portees to be joined by a tow rope. I do not know whether the first 6-pdr. gun itself was out of action. He then ordered us to move back. The second 6-pdr. still on fire towed the first 6-pdr. and we drove alongside them. Just as we moved off I felt a crack under my right foot and later discovered a bullet hole in the portee…. one of the crew of Lt. Wood's portee [who] was now on our portee…. [was killed] by an AP shot of at least .5 calibre [which] had come through the gun shield….
When we were driving back I thought we were looking for a better position to fight from. When we stopped however, a fire extinguisher was obtained and the fire on the second 6-pdr. was put out. At this stage I noticed that an officer who was sitting beside the driver of the first 6-pdr. was seriously wounded. The portee seemed to have a full crew but it turned out that every man … was a casualty. The Artillery Major then ordered Sgt. Thompson to tow the first 6-pdr. out and told his second 6-pdr. to stay and fight. We passed through some Indian 25-pdrs. to an ADS where we unhitched the tow and left … [the casualties]. We then rejoined the 20th.
Captain Barton had an anxious time when the attack reached his area. He says:
… we were north of the infantry by quite some way—the attack came in I think from the south-west, with the result that in actual fact the Battalion had been overrun and the affair was practically over by the time the attack reached us…. the first real indication we had that an attack was coming in was a yell from a 6-pdr crew on our left. They then fired a few rounds into the smoke—we could still not see what was going on…. The smoke, dust and page 275 shelling were terrific, and then small arms started spattering along the ridge above us—it seemed that the fire was coming straight down the ridge. I remember the sudden spasm of fear I had that they had come around the back of the ridge and were going to catch us between two fires so decided I would have to make a dash up the ridge (not very far but it looked a long way with the bullets whistling!) to a small sangar and have a look…. When I got there I had a look to the south but could see nothing. I then turned to the west and at that moment a tank appeared out of the smoke—at that moment a mortar landed ‘fair bang’ on the edge of the sangar. When I had recovered and collected my wits again I was just in time to see the portées pull out and move down the ridge….
The Ridge was very ‘hot’ at that stage—small arms, shells, and even AP bouncing from rock to rock. It was obviously suicidal to go over the northern side of the Ridge and I knew the portées would be not far off, so I dived down the southern side, ran along for a way, and crawled up to the top again to see if I could spot anyone or anything. I did this several times—liking it less each time!—and had no luck…. it was then that to my utter amazement and joy I beheld a squadron of Grant tanks on the flat ground to the south-east. They moved forward to within 400 yards of the Ridge and then stopped. They fired a few rounds and then one troop came right up to the Ridge and fired a few rounds over the top. By then I really thought we were going to get everything back. I ran over to one of the tanks and climbed on board. The commander appeared —an NCO. I told him the story and asked if they were going in and he said he didn't know. I tried to impress on him the urgency and to get on to his commander—I probably wasn't very tactful I'm afraid—but just then he whipped his headphones on and said they had orders to retire and move somewhere else—and they did! I don't know quite what I did—I was so speechless with rage, impotence, and disappointment…. I have often thought afterwards that if I had stayed on the tank and contacted the squadron commander I may have got something done, but I don't suppose so as I have no doubt it was not as easy for them as we used to imagine.
Lieutenant Wood had also attempted to obtain armoured assistance:
On the way [to his second position in the shallow depression] we met an AFV (I think it was a ‘Honey’ tank). The officer in charge told me he was Col. Woods (I forget his unit). I told him what had happened and that we had been waiting for the tanks all day. (Before the enemy attack started I had noticed a movement of vehicles and dust to the east, which I had thought must be our promised tank support.) …. During the day we had had wireless communication with B Echelon through a Bren carrier and I told the Colonel that we had been sending back messages for help all page 276 day. He said he had picked them up through his own radio but could do nothing about it as he had received no orders from his own headquarters.
Col. Woods advised us to link up with the Indians whom he said were further east. We did so and were allotted to an Infantry Company commander who gave us our position. We grounded our gun and were fitted into a definite defensive scheme with our tanks behind us. They were shelled, advanced and fired a few rounds and withdrew, this happening several times.
We remained there the rest of that day (15th July) and the next day. We were out on our own—no sign of Capt. Barton or Sgt. Thompson. I asked permission to rejoin our Unit and was told we could do so. Next morning (17th) we were directed to 5th Bde, picking our way through minefields, recognizable by disabled vehicles. We passed one (or two) 20th Bn portees. From one that had been blown up we salvaged some gear. We reported to 5th Bde just as a bombing raid took place…. From here we were directed to the 20th Bn, arriving there about midday.
At 4 Brigade Headquarters Brigadier Burrows had had an unenviable experience. He writes:
I hoped our people might be able to hang on long enough for our tanks to arrive. Our A Tk guns fought as well as they could but with no arty, and with the heavy casualties amongst our gun teams I knew we could not last long. Soon MG bullets from armd cars were whistling about and I knew the enemy was in amongst us. I shortly saw tanks moving past our flank and along the Ridge. Two armd cars and an enemy A Tk gun stopped about 100 yds away. The noise, confusion and smoke made it difficult to know what was happening. A group of our chaps near us … were keeping up a merry fire, but Bren and rifle fire against Armour doesn't count for much. They were getting heavy stuff back in return.
Then an armd car came straight for us. It came right alongside my trench and someone inside threw three hand grenades at us. They exploded on either side of the trench or someone else would have to be writing about all this…. I learned later that … [an officer] about 15 yards away … threw two Italian hand grenades at the armd car, presumably driving it off. We were deafened and somewhat dazed, but the three officers with me in the trench were unhurt….
There wasn't much forward movement now from the enemy tanks…. and about 7.20 p.m…. [they] began to withdraw. I was hopeful we would be left alone. I felt perhaps many of the troops had stayed in their sangars and shallow trenches and would come to light if the enemy withdrew. It was this thought that prevented me from moving back to safety when we had a chance earlier on. Our Headquarters had been sorted out however for special page 277 attention. Three armd cars and one tank were still on the spot. Three of the vehicles came up to us and took us out. There were very few soldiers left with us—perhaps eight…. Before getting out of the trench I tied a pair of short pants around my neck to hide my rank. I thought I was discovered when a business-like German called me from the top of his tank. I went up to it and found he wanted my glasses. To get them off I had to undo the pants around my neck. The strap was mixed up with the lanyard of my revolver which the German also took from me.
The Germans I saw on the tanks were good types. They were wearing short pants and no shirt or singlet, and were short in stature but well built. They shepherded our little party in front of them and from time to time fired across the Ridge. Tank shells were being fired back and I was certain we could escape. I called out to the other officers with me that I intended to fall shortly into a sangar and advised them to do the same. Before long I was able to do this and lay very still for perhaps half an hour…. [Major Johansen of the Machine Gun Company and Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell20 of 19 Battalion did the same.] The German tanks were hull down behind another ridge, perhaps 500 yards behind us, while on our front more of our own tanks were arriving and were hull down behind the main El Ruweisat Ridge. Both parties began increasing their fire and for peace and quiet in future I definitely don't recommend the ground between two tank groups when they decide to give battle.
It was growing darker and our own tanks started to withdraw. It was obviously time we were to move or we would find the Germans back with us. We went back to HQ and found a few stragglers about. Two trucks were in working order and these were loaded up with the wounded by the small party and two drivers appointed…. It was now nearly dark. We moved off together to get over the Ridge when we intended to move east and try to contact the Indian Div. We had gone perhaps 400 yards when four light tanks and two Bren carriers came from the east. We started to run but slowed up when one of our party called out they were our own. I heard someone else call, ‘Boys, are we glad to see you’. The tanks however kept moving and in no time we were surrounded. A voice called out, ‘Hands up, come in’.
The old heart sank very low, but something made me try again the trick which had succeeded before. I dropped straight down among the stones. I think the small pack on my back may have helped as it must have resembled a big stone in the semi-darkness. The others were collected and loaded on the tanks and carriers. I thought for a time the tank crews were having a game with me and could see me all the time. A vehicle of some sort nearly passed over my legs and it required some effort not to draw them up under page 278 me. In time everything moved away again to the east, but on the northern slope of the Ridge. I got up eventually and keeping on the southern slope began very cautiously to move east. My hobnailed boots rang on every stone in the area it seemed to me and the breeze was in the wrong direction if the enemy were in front. Flares occasionally shot up from behind the Ridge and I stood very still or dropped on my face. After three miles or so I heard a truck start up 100 yds or so ahead. I moved south and round it and found there were many vehicles of some sort parked. I passed some, standing still for long periods. I heard voices on my left and moved as quietly as I could up to the small group of men I could see now in front of me. Finally I heard part of their conversation in English, went forward and found myself among an A Tk group of the Indian Div.
So the disaster at Belhamed on 1 December 1941 had been repeated. The infantry in a most successful night attack had gained their objective, had hung on despite heavy casualties, and finally had been overrun by an enemy armoured attack.
The battalion B Echelon and transport had had a difficult day. At 11 a.m. they were bombed by ten enemy planes. Three lorries were destroyed, one man killed, and ten wounded. According to a member of the RAP, one enemy pilot held his bombs and swung away when he saw the red cross on its truck. At 3 p.m. twenty-four planes bombed the area again and three more trucks were hit. The worst raid took place at 7.40 p.m. when twenty-four bombers with fighter escort heavily bombed the area. The bombers returned westwards but the fighters remained and a further eighteen bombers attacked, one dropping twelve bombs in a row. However, no casualties were reported. After dusk Sergeant Thompson's portée came in and the fate of the rifle companies was learned.
At 8.30 p.m. orders were received for all transport to report to Brigade Headquarters. On doing so the vehicles were formed up in three lines and everyone rested.
At 4 a.m. on 16 July the brigade group moved south for 12 miles, changing direction at midday and travelling east for another 24 miles. By this time the unit's vehicles were showing signs of wear and the fitters did splendid work maintaining them. Corporal Eric Taylor was later mentioned in despatches for salvaging parts from burning trucks, often under fire. Next day transport was handed over to 6 Brigade units. The two- page 279 pounder anti-tank guns en portée were handed over to 25 Battalion, but one towed gun from a wrecked portée was left out on the flank. At 11.30 a.m. twelve enemy aircraft came in very low and bombed the area, straddling the gun without damaging it. The battalion's casualties were one killed and four wounded.
By now 5 Brigade had taken up a line south of Ruweisat Ridge. It had been decided to replace 4 Brigade by 6 Brigade and relieve the three worst-hit battalions—the 19th, 20th, and 22nd—which were to be withdrawn to reorganise.
At 6.30 p.m. the remnants of the battalion moved east, stopping at 1 a.m. on 18 July near the wireless station at Amiriya. That night the sweat and grime of the past weeks were washed away for the first time possible since the start of the campaign. Rupert Brooke has written of the ‘benison of hot water’, but the power of a cold shower to banish fatigue is known best to those who have come back from the desert.
Next morning a roll call, very sobering, was held in the battalion area. The parade formed a hollow square. At its base stood Headquarters Company; on the left was B, the LOB company, and on the right was a short single rank of the survivors of the three rifle companies. The ‘old hands’, some of them veterans of Greece, Crete, Libya, and now Egypt, were noticeably serious. The long list of unanswered names intensified the feeling of disaster, so that when someone straightened to attention and responded it came as a mild shock and the speaker almost felt it unnatural to be there.
From this roll call the battalion's casualties in killed, wounded, and missing were at first thought to be 23 officers and 384 men. These figures were reduced as men who had become separated from the battalion during the battle or through being evacuated as casualties returned to the unit.
It is difficult to discover how many men were lost on Ruweisat. Because of uncertainty as to the exact time a casualty occurred, the lists compiled from unit returns often give only ‘blanket’ dates with a tolerance ranging from a few days to five weeks. It is possible only to give the battalion's casualties for the whole period from the move to Minqar Qaim on 26 June to the withdrawal from the Alamein line on 17 July. These figures are:page 280
|Killed in action||3||42|
|Died of wounds||2||22|
|Wounded and prisoners of war||1||33|
|Prisoners of war||11||162|
The sense of loss was overwhelming. The three rifle company commanders were prisoners of war: quiet-spoken, kindly and popular Gordon Washbourn of A Company; indomitable Charlie Upham, the hero of C Company, of every man in every company in fact, twice wounded—the only way the enemy would ever take him; Peter Maxwell of D Company, the relentless driver, yet driving himself to duty harder than anyone else, somewhere ‘up in the blue’. Battalion Headquarters had lost as prisoners cheerful Jack Sullivan, that modest, brave, and meticulously efficient IO, and Jim Gibb, the Adjutant, model of correct military procedure in camp or in the field. Phillips, Hanan,20 and Moodie were wounded and in hospital; ‘Doc’ Feltham and Waterhouse,21 the new signals officer, were also ‘in the bag’.
The greatest tragedy was the number of young officers who had not come out of their first action after doing so well. Not a single subaltern of the three rifle companies that had attacked at Ruweisat Ridge had come back. In A Company Alan Galbraith, the second-in-command, had been killed while taking rations forward in a Bren carrier. MacMillan22 had been captured at Minqar Qaim, stalwart Sergeant Jack Sanders,23 acting platoon commander, was wounded and prisoner of war, and ‘Beau’ Cottrell, sturdy-framed ex-All Black, who combined keenness of perception with courage for action, had been wounded on the ridge when going to bring in a wounded man of his platoon and had been taken prisoner. In C Company page 281 Ian Smith and Edwin Shand were dead, Sandy Wilkinson a prisoner. D Company had lost cheery, keen little Lloyd Thomson,24 killed while being evacuated, wounded, to the RAP at Ruweisat. ‘Sonny’ Moloney's25 last innings for New Zealand had closed as darkness fell on the battlefield. Hazledine26 of A Company and Rendall27 of D, after only a month in the 20th, were prisoners; Dave Murray,28 platoon commander in D Company, had been wounded on the night of the breakthrough.
The NCOs were sadly depleted. Popular little Gus Gray, CSM of A Company, lay somewhere beyond Alam Nayil, and his mate, Jock Aburn,29 was feeling the effect of wounds received in Crete. Two other CSMs, unassuming Algie Hayes of D and Bob May of C, that tough understudy of Upham, were both prisoners. A much-loved member of the RAP staff, Sergeant Lyn Sutherland, twice mentioned in despatches for his magnificent work among the wounded, had been taken prisoner while engaged in his work of mercy and had himself been wounded. Altogether, there were seventy NCO casualties, many of them original members of the battalion. There was not a man but had lost friends.
With his customarily fitting words Padre Spence, himself limping from a painful leg wound, conducted the simple memorial service. It was a very poignant occasion.
At the close of the parade the ringing tones of RSM ‘Uke’ Wilson brought everyone back to earth. What if response to orders was automatic and thoughts were far away, doing something was better than brooding. In war a man must steel his spirit against every blow and learn to shrug off every shock. After all, it was good to be alive. Dangers shared make for deeper friendships, and there were still many good fellows about.
B Company was there, strong and fit looking. At its head page 282 stood Captain ‘Spout’ Fountaine, whose record and personality at once inspired confidence. Company seconds-in-command ‘Pat’ Abbott and John Rolleston, both experienced campaigners, were on the job, while the survivors of the anti-tank platoon had welcomed their grand leader, Pat Barton, back from Ruweisat Ridge with undisguised relief and affection. Other Headquarters Company officers, Murray,30 Boot,31 Carlyle and Walton,32 Julian Tryon, the linguist, Eric Bolwell, RQM, and several more were there, or at Maadi with Wilson,33 Fletcher,34 and Shand35 to build up the companies. Best of all came the news that Brigadier Burrows, previously reported killed, was safe at 4 Brigade. ‘Gentleman Jim’, as he was known to all hands, law-abiding and hard cases alike, was very much alive after twice escaping from the enemy. Morale was lifting.
There was a useful nucleus of NCOs led by ‘Uke’ Wilson which would soon have the battalion back on its feet. Every CQMS was present. Gruff but kindly George Weenink36 of Headquarters Company, soon to receive the BEM for his service in the field, had completed his fourth campaign. Memory pictures of George at work included one as he was about to dispense an evening meal in the desert. The usual nuisance air raid took place. While the mess queue dived for cover George stood erect, ladle in hand and oblivious of shrapnel, his shock of fair hair almost standing on end with rage as he glared at the sky and cursed the raiders whose dust had defiled his dixies. Jack Collins,37 the boxing enthusiast of A Company, Gordon Fraser of C, and Eric Elder38 of D were looking after their men as usual.page 283
Headquarters Company NCOs included burly Keith Given39 of the mortars and Tim Clews,40 the irrepressible wag and weapons expert. Handsome, quiet-voiced Cyril Kennard,41 that shrewd, cool, battle-trained soldier, who always seemed to do the right thing by instinct, was the senior veteran of the Bren-carrier platoon, and with him were Dick Lumsden and Ed Karst, the ‘iron man’. In the anti-tank platoon tall, spare Allan Thomas,42 rejoicing in the nickname of ‘Bakelite Bill’ from his skill with hand grenades, was still ‘nattering’ to anyone who would listen about football giants of long ago or on how to get a portée with a punctured tyre out of a wadi. Murray Vernon43 was thinking of cricket, ‘Buck’ Needham44 of leave, and Bill Robinson, ‘Robbie’ or ‘Shotgun’ to his friends, was describing a near miss at Ruweisat or once more entertaining his mates with his uncensored reminiscences. Lloyd Borthwick and ‘Blue’ Scarlett45 of transport shared the mess radio, the one a swing fan and the other fond of light opera. Sergeants Steve Fleming46 of A Company and Bruce Beechey47 of C had escaped from the ridge and were still rather grim about it. B Company sergeants Thwaites48 and Nicol49 were veterans of Crete. Their cure for the ‘campaign blues’ was the same for everyone and hurt nothing but the paybook.
For two days the destination of the battalion was undecided and there was leave to Alexandria. Finally, at 9.45 a.m. on 20 July the battalion moved off, arriving in Maadi at 5 p.m. and settling in at the foot of the escarpment beyond the Engineers and the Lowry Hut.page 284
There followed unlimited leave to Cairo, picnics to the Delta Barrage, and excursions to the Agricultural Museum. At a parade of 19 and 20 Battalions near the Lowry Hut Brigadier Burrows briefly explained the purpose of the campaign of the previous weeks, and at lectures in the messrooms shortly afterwards Sergeant J. Monteath of the intelligence section, with the aid of blackboard maps, traced and explained the maze of day and night moves.
On 24 July the New Zealand Broadcasting Unit visited the battalion and fifty members of the unit sent personal messages home to New Zealand. Several NCOs recorded their impressions of the recent campaign, of which two accounts are quoted.
Staff-Sergeant Eric Elder said:
One of my main impressions of the whole show was the amazing numbers of rumours which could be produced, and were produced each day and every day. Being the Quartermaster for an infantry company I used to see the ration people and the water man daily and was generally about among the transport and the other cooks in B Echelon. Three words said jokingly at 9 o'clock became the truth, probably certified by a Brigadier's batman, by IO o'clock.
Our job in the campaign resolved itself into cooking a meal as soon as possible in the morning and delivering it to the companies— putting on a cup of ‘shay’ at lunch and another meal in the evening, but the trouble lay in the fact that owing to the constant movement we spent a considerable time trying to find the boys, sometimes even feeding them during the IO-minute halts when they were moving by transport. This movement caused us our main worry. You know as far as transport is concerned the main thing is dispersion. The further you are away the less likelihood of being bombed. So our first job after a move was to get off any skyline, be as far away as possible from anyone else, and try to get some soft digging, which reminds me that I think it should be taught in schools that a desert is a large area of very awkward and heavy stones covered by about half an inch of sand. If by chance the sand has accumulated to any thickness you can guarantee it to be already occupied….
You have probably heard quite a lot about our charge through when we were surrounded. It was a great show, but, you know, try everything once, like climbing the pyramids. The way the drivers kept all our trucks going during the charge was magnificent and the row was indescribable, no wonder the Jerry was frightened, it nearly scared me to death. After the charge we went south and moved out in mobile column for a while and just to disprove my definition of a desert we found soft digging for a change and naturally we all parked rather close and I suppose just as naturally we got a couple page 285 of air raids. They dropped two lines of bombs right across the camp area. I saw the first few fall—they looked like great big black shiny barrels of beer. Just one quick glance is enough for me and then I do my imitation of a frightened ostrich. Bombs have a rotten habit of appearing to fall closer and closer and the row from Ack-Ack, machine guns, captured Bredas, etc., plus some straffing from the air and the screaming of the Stukas and JUs 57 quickly convinces me that the minute the raid is over I am going to dig a hole at least 20 ft deep, but having a bad memory I am generally found only wishing. During one raid I opened one eye slightly and found the whole side of my slit trench popping up little clouds of dust about a foot high so I immediately closed it again and prayed that the rear gunner would miss me. However, after the raid we found that a cannon shell or a piece of shrapnel had gone through the side of the truck and blown up two 16-gallon tanks of water and pierced a large container of boiled potatoes (we served them up mashed later) and altered the appearance of our truck. It also gave the cooks a very welcome if light shower bath. During one of the raids our Bofors got a Stuka fair and square and he never came out of his dive…. bombs or no bombs our boys were out of their slit trenches to see this one and what a cheer they sent up. The Ack-Ack people have our greatest admiration for their shooting and outright bravery in standing to their guns even when the planes were diving right at them….
Next spoke the Provost Sergeant, ‘Pop’ Lynch:
Desert warfare is essentially a war of mobility; a high-sounding phrase often seen in newspapers and probably coined by a war correspondent sitting in Shepheard's Hotel, but believe me, I can now agree with it. It's true. Anyone who had the misfortune to be astride a motor cycle on the ride from Mersa Matruh after the break through will agree with me that it was the ‘ride of rides’ for Don Rs. The feeling of thankfulness one had after getting through the German ring was quickly replaced by a nightmarish feeling that the ride was never going to end. The ground we passed over practically all the way to the Alamein line was that type of desert which consists of boulders, slabs of stone, alternating with gullies of loose sand. There was no question of keeping my correct place to relay the CO's orders. It was just a case of keep plugging along, praying for a puncture or a break-down, as an excuse to put the bike on a break-down lorry. As usual fate was perverse and along one went. All the next day we kept going and by late afternoon I was so muscle sore that an air raid would have been a welcome rest. ‘All's well that ends well’ however, and we eventually reached our appointed ‘bivvy’ area.
A day's rest soon revived one and we began to wonder what was next on the programme. We soon found out. A mobile column page 286 to hop out and have a good smack at the Hun was organised and my unit provided the infantry protection. After we got going, I and one of my chaps were kept pretty busy dashing about the column with orders and didn't get much of a ‘shufti’50 at what was doing. We soon did, however, as word was received of a strong mixed force on our flank….
After a highly successful ‘bash’ at a lot of … [Italian] artillery in which over forty guns of all calibres were captured and destroyed, our column was withdrawn without losing a man. That sounds fantastic, I know, especially as quite a lot of shells landed in our area, but it's true. I only wish that all shows were as successful. From this time until we were pulled out of action, motor cycles were practically a thing of the past, as our subsequent attacks were made with the bayonet without transport. That just suited me as we then had only two bikes left, a captured Itie one and what we term a ‘klefti’, that is, one we found when the owner wasn't around. … I have reached one conclusion, possibly a biased one, because it concerns me, motor cycles are very suitable for base camps and road convoys but are positively a menace in the real desert. Give me four wheels every day, especially if driven by N.Z. drivers who are just tops.
‘Pop’ was one of the battalion ‘characters’. At his best in action, he had done particularly good work in Greece, where traffic control on the roads required coolness and a strong personality. The time between campaigns imposed greater strain on his restless nature.
In Syria there was a 9 p.m. curfew for troops in the village of El Aine and it was the provost section's duty to clear all cafés. This it dutifully did, and then was suitably rewarded by the proprietors. Arriving back late at the hut one night after a long session with the Muktar,51 Pop crawled groaning into bed. ‘What's the matter, Pop? Are you ill?’ asked his colleague, Lance-Corporal Mason. ‘Oh!’ groaned Pop, ‘I've got such a headache, (pause) but I'm enjoying it, (pause) I'm enjoying it, (pause) because I know it's nothing to the headache I'm going to have in the morning.’
The provost section was privileged: its men did not go on battalion parade. The intelligence section who shared the hut did. The late arrival of the provosts at night and the early departure of the intelligence section in the mornings sometimes made for asperity in greetings. As he walked past the recumbent form of Sergeant Lynch one morning, the Intelligencepage 287
Sergeant remarked rather tartly, ‘And how's the old head today, Pop? Lynch opened one red-rimmed eye, took in the newly-issued topee with a glance, retorted ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume!’ and returned to his blankets.
It was this unfailing sense of humour, coupled with the responsibility felt by all survivors to retain the identity of the battalion, that helped everyone to settle down again. Captain Fountaine was promoted to command the battalion, Lieutenant ‘Johnny’ Johnston, commissioned after Crete, came in as Adjutant, and many ‘old hands’ flocked back from hospital and training depots as they always had done after a campaign. Reinforcements swelled the ranks. Training recommenced.
1 Maj-Gen C. E. Weir, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939-Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941-Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 4 Sep-17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944- Sep 1946; Commandant, Southern Military District, 1948-49; QMG, Army HQ, Nov 1951-Aug 1955; Chief of General Staff Aug 1955-.
25 Lt D. A. R. Moloney; born NZ 11 Aug 1910; insurance clerk; died of wounds 15 Jul 1942.
51 Village headman.