CHAPTER 7 — Defence of Egypt
Defence of Egypt
When, on 22 March, 21 Battalion left the El Adem Box, Eighth Army was holding a line that stretched from Gazala to the Free French position at Bir Hacheim. Both sides were reorganising, but with the Mediterranean closed to our ships and with men and supplies being diverted to the Pacific, Eighth Army could build up only slowly. Rommel was ready first.
On 13 June, by which time 21 Battalion had moved into a training area and roasted in the oven of the Syrian Desert, with a temperature of 100 degrees—and had had 30 men bitten by scorpions—Eighth Army had been beaten back to the Tobruk-El Adem line. The same day Divisional Headquarters received orders to make all speed for the Western Desert.
A brigade exercise was cancelled late the following day and rumours spread like wildfire—the Division was departing immediately for New Zealand, India, Australia, England, Singapore. By 17 June 5 Brigade was concentrated at Baalbek and the commanding officer and company commanders of 21 Battalion left for Maadi, apparently to prepare for embarkation to Australia, England, India, New Zealand, Singapore, or China.
The move (to the destination you fancied) began by truck on the 18th, and the brigade passed through Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, to Tulkarm, after about two hundred miles of suffocating dust. The next leg was through Lydda and Gaza to Asluj; it then seemed quite definite that the Division was returning to New Zealand. On the third day, however, the brigade crossed the Sinai Desert to the Suez Canal and then continued on to Amiriya, outside Alexandria. And the same day, 21 June, Rommel captured Tobruk.
The 21st Battalion left Amiriya early next morning and followed the well-known route through Daba and Baggush to Mersa Matruh. The trucks travelled nose-to-tail along the only road, while an unending stream—sometimes four lanes of traffic page 155 —passed in the opposite direction. Eighth Army was in full retreat.
It was 1918 over again, with the New Zealand Division being hurried forward in a desperate effort to halt a German army on the brink of victory. And in its final results four months later it was also 1918 over again, with the utter defeat of the enemy.
The five-day journey ended at Smugglers' Cove, in the eastern sector of the Matruh Box, after over nine hundred miles in crowded trucks during the height of summer, and the swim that followed was something to remember. The night after the swim was also something to remember. The Naafi staff had caught the general panic and had departed with the keys of the building. The local police did their best but were not able to stop the New Zealanders, whose regimental funds took some heavy punishment later. Many of the trucks held unusual cargo in the morning: for instance, the battalion ammunition truck, besides small-arms ammunition and grenades, could have produced a case of EWO Chinese beer. The driver of the vehicle, Private ‘Lucky’ Luckings,1 had a gift that almost amounted to genius in that direction. He was renowned in the battalion as a prince of scroungers for whom the words ‘discipline’ and ‘fear’ had no meaning.
For three days 5 Brigade dug trenches, laid wire, attempted to repair existing defences. The enemy's pursuit was swift and relentless; he advanced through Bardia and Sollum to Sidi Barrani with scarcely a check. On the 25th his vanguard was within forty miles of Matruh. General Auchinleck took personal command of Eighth Army and determined to make a stand on a line running from El Alamein to the Qattara Depression—the now famous Alamein Line.
El Alamein was on the coast, and the Qattara Depression, some forty miles to the south, was an impassable barrier. It is the dried-up bed of a former inland sea which stretches from the neighbourhood of Siwa Oasis, near the Egyptian frontier, to a point about 160 miles west of Cairo and 90 miles south-west of Alexandria. The bed of the depression consists of quick- page 156 sands and salt marshes, almost everywhere impassable to heavy vehicles, and on the northern side it is surrounded by precipitous cliffs. The Qattara Depression was as definite an obstacle as the Mediterranean in the north; and if Rommel was not stopped on the line between it and the sea, it was goodbye to Egypt.
But time was needed for Eighth Army to reorganise, and 2 New Zealand Division, one of the few battleworthy formations now available, was briefed to fight a delaying action. The plan was to occupy the ridge of Minqar Qaim, 25 miles south of Mersa Matruh, and force the enemy to halt to deal with this threat to his flank and communications.
There was some fast movement. Surplus gear, including anti-malarial equipment and the detested Bombay bloomers, was called in; D Company, in pursuance of an order to reduce the proportion of infantry to artillery, went disgustedly back to Maadi.
The officers of 21 Battalion on 26 June 1942 were:
|CO: Lt-Col S. F. Allen||killed, Ruweisat Ridge|
|Adj: Capt W. C. Butland|
|QM: Lt A. C. Pryde|
|IO: Lt R. B. Abbott|
|MO: Capt G. H. Levien|
|Padre: Rev Fr J. F. Henley|
|OC: Maj H. M. McElroy|
|Sigs Pl: 2 Lt L. E. Judd|
|Transport Pl: Lt W. F. N. Gardner|
|Mortar Pl: Lt G. S. Rogers|
|Carrier Pl: Capt K. G. Dee||wounded, El Mreir|
|2 Lt R. A. Marshall-Inman|
|A-Tk Pl: Lt H. Bailey|
|Lt W. D. Bremner|
|OC: Maj G. H. Panckhurst||wounded, El Mreir|
|Lt A. E. Hogg|
|Lt R. A. Shaw|
|Lt K. C. West-Watson|
|OC: Maj R. W. Adams||killed, El Mreir|
|2 Lt J. R. R. Barnsdall||wounded, El Mreir|
|2 Lt P. P. Hutt||wounded, El Mreir|
|Lt R. D. Trounson||wounded, Ruweisat Ridge|
|OC: Capt L. N. Wallace||wounded, Ruweisat Ridge|
|Lt I. M. Thomson|
|2 Lt R. E. Horrocks|
|Lt B. B. S. Catran|
The following were left out of battle:
D Company complete
Maj R. W. Harding
Lt A. T. Eady
2 Lt J. P. Stranger
Capt W. Dickson
The company commanders, with the exception of Major Adams,2 were all original 21 Battalion subalterns: Major McElroy and Captain Wallace had fought through the Greece and Crete campaigns, and Major Panckhurst had been Quartermaster continuously until his promotion. Major Adams, from 24 Battalion, had served a tour of duty with Divisional Headquarters in the previous campaign, and had attended a course at the Staff College in Haifa.
The 21st Battalion was relieved by a battalion of 10 Indian Division on the night 25-26 June and moved via the Garawla track to a brigade rendezvous where the troops, widely dispersed, dug the inevitable slit trenches and watched the aurora of enemy flares in the west. Night-flying planes bombed the column in the moonlight but did no harm in 21 Battalion's area.
In the morning the Brigadier and the battalion commanders reconnoitred the position on Minqar Qaim and in the late afternoon the units were moving. Brigadier Kippenberger had been instructed in the interim to send a mobile column to page 158 defend a field maintenance centre at Bir Khalda, 16 miles south of Minqar Qaim, and as Colonel Allen was the senior battalion commander he was given the semi-independent mission. Nothing much was known about the conditions in the area except that I Armoured Division was sparring with the advancing 15 Panzer Division to the west of Bir Khalda. Allen had under command for the operation 27 Battery 5 Field Regiment, 2 Section 7 Field Company, and E Troop 32 Anti-Tank Battery.
There was an hour of daylight left when the column reached the Bir Khalda area, and Allen decided to dig in for the night on Gebel Khalda, a nearby hill. The cooks were instructed to prepare a meal while the company commanders went with the CO to reconnoitre their positions on the gebel. The column was climbing out of a wadi when the signal to halt was given, but because of the extra transport with B Echelon and the supporting arms, there was insufficient room left for correct dispersal. Most of the drivers used their initiative and moved out to flanks, but others remained huddled together. Two trucks from 1 Armoured Division raced up to identify the column, told B Company it was taking a risk if enemy aircraft came over, and departed at speed.
By the time the last of the column had climbed out of the wadi and dispersed as well as it was able, the light was failing and tea was ready. Several three-tonners of the supporting arms were driven over to the cooks' truck and, with the ration trucks grouped around the cookers, offered a perfect target if bombers came over, which was precisely what happened.
The troops were standing about, dixies in hand, when the drone of approaching aircraft was heard. About two dozen planes passed overhead, and the ‘Ours or theirs’ argument was in full swing when they came back and bombed and gunned the column. Three ammunition trucks of 27 Field Battery were set on fire, a mortar platoon truck received a direct hit, and three other vehicles were damaged. Corporal Hedley,3 of 4 Reserve MT Company, and Second-Lieutenant Horrocks4 page 159 removed wounded men and driverless trucks from the vicinity of the exploding 25-pounder ammunition. The only opposition to the bombers came from Corporal Ray Blows,5 who later received a letter of commendation from General Freyberg for blazing away at them with his Bren gun.
The casualties were 12 killed and 45 wounded. The worst cases were evacuated in the two ambulances attached to the column and Lieutenant Carnachan,6 the brigade liaison officer, left immediately with a request for more ambulances. They arrived before daylight and evacuated the rest of the wounded.
About midnight Lieutenant Atkinson7 reported with H Troop 32 Anti-Tank Battery, armed with two-pounders. He also had orders for Lieutenant Smith's8 E Troop to return with its six-pounders to Minqar Qaim.
Because the enemy might have been in a position to attack by daylight, the night was spent in building sangars. There were flares in the western sky and the noise of gunfire in the north, but a reconnaissance by a carrier patrol at daylight found no enemy in that area. There were, however, columns of our own troops moving in all directions.
At midday a wireless cipher message instructed Colonel Allen that he would be relieved by a squadron of Divisional Cavalry, to whom he would hand over command of one troop of 27 Battery, and was then to rejoin 5 Brigade. Major Sutherland9 arrived with B Squadron Divisional Cavalry about 3 p.m., and the 21 Battalion column, less the troop of 27 Battery, moved off an hour later. It halted to brew up at 5 p.m., when Colonel Allen was called to answer an R/T message from Brigade. Major Fairbrother,10 Brigade Major 5 Brigade, asked where the column was and said the brigade was still in the same place. page 160 Allen asked if the same place was where he had left the brigade the previous day (Minqar Qaim) and said that, if so, 21 Battalion had travelled only five miles but would start again immediately.
Meanwhile 21 Panzer Division had received three surprises, all unpleasant: first, whatever formation was blocking the road to Cairo was not conforming to pattern and moving back on the Germans' approach; second, the New Zealanders, supposedly in Syria, were actually deployed across their thrust line; third, the New Zealand massed artillery fire was something to be reckoned with.
The day at Minqar Qaim passed in a series of duels between the artillery and enemy tanks probing for a weak spot. Had a gap been found, a fourth unpleasant surprise would have been experienced by the Panzers, because most of the hitherto helpless infantry battalions were armed with eight of the two-pounder guns formerly used by the anti-tank regiment, now equipped with six-pounders.
By late afternoon the New Zealand Division was almost surrounded. It is not the function of this history to describe in detail how it broke out during the night from Minqar Qaim; it is sufficient to say that 4 Brigade cleared a gap with their bayonets and the Germans were left holding an empty bag.
By the time the navigating officer was ready to continue the march, Major Thornton,11 OC 27 Battery, brought information passed on by a nearby British armoured unit that enemy forces were both in front and behind the 21 Battalion column. A new course was then set, which would avoid the area where the enemy was thought to be, and which would bring the battalion to a point two miles south-west of Minqar Qaim.
The column moved towards the dust cloud over Minqar Qaim and halted near the lip of a depression, where it could be seen that the battalion was on the fringe of an exchange of fire between the rear of the New Zealand position and a German formation that had evidently passed and circled round to the south behind Minqar Qaim.page 161
Major McElroy, under instructions from Brigade given at the previous R/T conversation, had gone on ahead to report to Brigade Headquarters; he returned with the information that the Division was preparing to move out from Minqar Qaim. He had been told this by the commander of an Indian formation which he had encountered a little north-west of where they stood.
Colonel Allen decided that there was no point in trying to break into a position that the Division was trying to break out from, and resolved to make use of the protection afforded by the Indian regiment. The flag signal was given for a left wheel, and A Company was in the act of conforming when some vehicles were reported on the right flank. Captain Dee led two sections of carriers out to investigate. Norm Bai,12 the driver of Dee's carrier, describes what follows:
We advanced in line abreast and got well across to the other side near a couple of low hills, and tucked in at the foot of these hills I saw four guns, two of our own anti-tank, a six- and a two-pounder still painted yellow, and two enemy anti-tank guns. I was most interested in the six-pounder, as we were advancing in a direct line to it. It was the first to open fire, the shell landing just to the side of the carrier and close enough to shower us with sand. Captain Dee opened up with his Bren gun on the six-pounder to good effect. He gave me the about turn sign, and a little later signalled to turn in again and had another go at another gun. We were turning away for the second time when I saw another anti-tank gun coming around a corner on a portee. Captain Dee said to turn in again and he stopped the portee with direct hits and disastrous results to the crew.
The carriers, however, were no match for the anti-tank guns and turned back in accordance with earlier instructions from Captain Dee that, if they saw him turn back, they were to disengage. They managed to struggle up the escarpment, but three were so badly damaged that they had to be abandoned, the crews going out in trucks. When Dee found that a carrier was still in the depression he wanted to return and try to rescue the crew, but was refused permission by Colonel Allen.
Some of the enemy fire fell among the rear companies and A Company's wheel was construed as a withdrawal, whereupon page 162 the whole column turned about and set off at speed. The column was thus divided into two parts: A Company with Battalion Headquarters under the guidance of Major McElroy was moving west, and the other part was moving south-west. A Company turned south to rejoin the column, but a wadi running south-east separated them, and both portions searched for each other until dusk without success.
Colonel Allen, with A Company, and Major Adams, with B and C Companies, finally sought the protection for the night of armoured parties in their vicinity. Both moved at first light and caught up with the straggling tails of other columns. Little by little it became clear that the Division was making for the Kaponga Box which 5 Brigade had helped to build the previous year. Major Adams reported in that evening. There was no sign of Colonel Allen or A Company and they were almost written off as lost, but true to battalion precedent they turned up the next morning.
With the obstacle at Minqar Qaim removed, the enemy rolled on towards the Nile Valley, engulfing Mersa Matruh and El Daba in the process. To stop the rush Eighth Army dug in on the Alamein Line. On the coast was 1 South African Division, disposed around El Alamein. Twelve miles south 18 Indian Brigade, recently arrived from Iraq, occupied a depression, Deir el Shein, with another Indian composite force on the western end of Ruweisat Ridge behind it. Twenty miles south-west of El Alamein, the Kaponga Box (Fortress A) was occupied by 6 New Zealand Brigade, which had not been at Minqar Qaim; 4 and 5 Brigades, together with Divisional Headquarters, were in a depression, Deir el Munassib, about nine miles south-east. Munassib is an oval basin three miles long and about a mile across. The northern lip, a fairly steep 50-foot escarpment, gave cover from Alam Nayil Ridge, four miles north.
Fifteen miles south-west of Fortress A was Fortress B, at Naqb Abu Dweis, on the edge of the Qattara Depression. A mobile column of 5 Indian Division held Fortress B, but had no guns and little water and did not expect to stay long. The 9th Australian Division was en route from Syria, but still some days page 163 away. West of the thinly held line, mobile columns were harrying the enemy but hardly delaying his advance. In the rear the remaining formations of Eighth Army were reorganising.
Fifth Brigade moved into Deir el Munassib on 30 June, with 22 Battalion facing west, 23 Battalion south and 21 Battalion north, and with 5 Field Regiment inside the perimeter. The enemy was reported to be within fifteen miles, and it was expected that he would bypass the Kaponga Box. The battalion dug for its life and hoped there were enough artillery and anti-tank weapons to stop the tanks. All dug except the Pioneer Platoon, who had been equipped with the new infantry arm and were living with their eight two-pounder anti-tank guns. They spoke learnedly of angles of sight and trajectories and portées, and were a little difficult to get along with.
The enemy chose the northern sector, however, and the following morning an attack was launched against the Alamein Box and Deir el Shein. The South Africans withstood the attack, but the Indians, after a gallant all-day defence, during which a dust-storm helped the tanks to make a breach, were completely overrun.
The capture of Deir el Shein put the enemy onto the western end of Ruweisat Ridge, which poised a ten-mile-long dagger at the heart of the Alamein Line. The importance of Ruweisat lay in the fact that, though it rose only about twenty feet above the surrounding desert and was hardly discernible at any distance, it was actually 200 feet above sea level and dominated over a hundred square miles. The ridge was comparatively flat on top, about 500 yards wide, and sloped steadily down towards the coast. Like all other sand-blasted features of the Western Desert, it was corroded with shallow wadis. The Indians held the eastern part of Ruweisat Ridge, and a hastily formed gun column helped to retard the enemy's advance. Nevertheless the situation of the New Zealand Division was critical, and 6 Brigade was warned to prepare to evacuate the Kaponga Box.
The pressure being exerted against the southern flank was lightened considerably on 3 July when 4 Brigade with attached artillery encountered the Italian Ariete Division along the Alam Nayil Ridge, four miles north of Munassib. The Italians were outmanoeuvred and our gunners fired over open sights at a page 164 thousand yards. The Ariete departed at high speed, leaving 44 field guns.
Locally the initiative had passed to the New Zealand Division, and 5 Brigade was ordered to exert pressure against the enemy's open southern flank by occupying the El Mreir Depression, five miles north of the Kaponga Box and about two miles south-west of the western end of Ruweisat Ridge.
The brigade was moving before midday and was deployed about 4.30 p.m. three miles short of the objective, with 21 Battalion on the right, 22 Battalion on the left, and 23 Battalion in reserve. There was a desert road running north across the western end of El Mreir which would be useful in the event of a thrust towards El Daba with tanks. It was therefore made the axis of advance, with the forward battalions occupying a half-mile frontage on each side.
The battalion dispositions were C Company on the right flank, B in the centre, and A on the left. When the battalion was about a mile from El Mreir a number of enemy armoured fighting vehicles made a cautious appearance on the right of C Company, and a section of 33 Anti-Tank Battery went into action. C Company stopped to protect the guns, but the enemy vehicles, evidently a reconnaissance group, did not like the new six-pounders and shortly withdrew. C Company found the rest of the battalion debussed and sheltering behind a slight rise in the ground that was in fact the southern edge of El Mreir. The whole area was being heavily shelled, it was almost dark, and there was no contact with 22 Battalion. Colonel Allen called a conference and ordered the companies to dig in for the time being. The Mortar Platoon had previously been sent forward to quieten enemy posts on the far side of the depression. The distance was almost beyond their range, but the mortar crews jammed extra secondary charges into their weapons and fired until almost out of ammunition. The companies put out listening posts on the forward slopes of the rise and waited for daylight.
El Mreir is roughly pear-shaped and at the western end is shallow and ill-defined. The 22nd Battalion was on the left of 21 Battalion, which was behind a small ridge. The depression widened and deepened quickly, and it was approximately a page 165 mile across to the 50-foot escarpment that was the northern side of El Mreir and the enemy defensive position.
For the greater part of the battalion this was, except for the unnerving bombing at Bir Khalda, their first experience of being under fire, and Colonel Allen spent most of the night going from post to post speaking to his men. He lost two batmen wounded during his rounds.
Brigadier Kippenberger came up before daylight. The orders were still to exert pressure, although the idea of a thrust to Daba had been dropped, and Allen was instructed to get the companies across the depression. The company commanders were present at the conference and the plan decided upon was for each company to move independently in open order.
Zero hour was 6.30 a.m. and after a hurried meal the platoons deployed. C Company, on the right flank, where the depression was widest, encountered frontal and enfilade fire from guns and mortars, and Captain Wallace reported that without supporting arms it was impossible for the company to advance. The appearance of some enemy armoured cars approaching from the north-east lent support to the claim, and Wallace was instructed to face right and form a flank. He was reinforced by the Carrier Platoon, which made many sorties during the day and kept the enemy vehicles at a safe distance.
B Company was not so heavily opposed during the move over the rise to the bottom of the depression, but suffered the loss of Major Adams killed before the advance had properly started. It was not long, however, before the company was forced to get down and move by sections. Progress was slow and the sun was soon beating like a furnace on the backs of the troops, who were face down in the sand, watching the searching bullets falling like a shower of hail on a lake. The platoons worked stubbornly forward but it was late in the afternoon before the majority of the company was across.
No. 12, the right-flanking platoon of B Company, did not manage to get over. It was pinned down by fire from its immediate and right front, as well as being enfiladed by machine guns sweeping the wadi from the east. Either by bad luck or good marksmanship, Second-Lieutenant Hutt13 and every section page 166 commander was hit during that hot and thirsty day. Private ‘Lofty’ Ingham14 took command after all the NCOs were knocked out and saved the platoon from probable capture. An Italian armoured car came out of a re-entrant in front of 12 Platoon and drove straight towards them, but by great good fortune the scattered sections were not noticed. What might have happened is conjecture, but what did happen was that Ingham emptied the magazine of his rifle into the car, which took fright and bolted back to the wadi again.
A Company had rather an easier time, although it was hours before it was across. The 22nd Battalion was able to give some covering fire, which assisted the advance and kept the casualties down. Major Panckhurst was wounded half-way over, leaving both assaulting companies without commanders, and Lieutenant West-Watson took command of both groups.
The position at 4 p.m. was that the two companies, less 12 Platoon, and with approximately thirty casualties, were held up at the bottom of the northern escarpment and the Italians were trying to dislodge them with grenades. Sergeant Jock Brown,15 A Company, recrossed El Mreir with a request by West-Watson for assistance, food and water. CSM Bill Davies, B Company, was also asked to deliver the same request. Both made the journey successfully, reported to Battalion Headquarters, and returned to their companies.
If the Italians on top of the escarpment could be quietened, West-Watson's intention was to capture the lip of El Mreir, but Colonel Allen decided the position was untenable and the troops were withdrawn under cover of a smoke screen. The wounded were brought in after dark and evacuated by an American volunteer ambulance. The drivers must have remembered that it was Independence Day (4 July), for one of them pointed to the coloured enemy flares decorating the darkness and said, ‘To think that the guys back home are killing themselves with those things’.
The men had a hot meal and bedded down for the night. B Company found that an Italian had joined them. He had page 167 come across to give himself up, but everybody was too tired to bother about him and he bedded down with the company until the morning, when the cooks got him to help with the breakfast.
Once again 21 Battalion was on the receiving end and the whole operation an apparent failure, but in actual fact the actions by 4 and 5 Brigades resulted in a considerable amount of pressure being taken off the northern flank. Rommel was so fed up with the defiant attitude of 2 New Zealand Division that he decided to liquidate the menace to his southern wing.
The following report was sent to General Headquarters, Rome, from Panzer Army on 4 July:
‘…. Our intention is to hold our front line position and to regroup with a view to encircling and destroying 2 NZ Div.’
The 5th and 6th of July were relatively quiet days for 21 Battalion, still dug in at El Mreir. There was occasional bombing, including a stick from a Kittyhawk, which luckily did no damage. As a precaution against a repetition, a large aircraft recognition sign made of tins burning petrol-soaked sand was put out in front of the area after dark.
Fourth Brigade was now echeloned behind and to the west of 5 Brigade, but the enemy regrouping had brought 90 Light and 21 Panzer Divisions too close for comfort, and the two brigades were ordered to move east of the Kaponga Box, while 6 Brigade continued to hold the fortress.
Fifth Brigade moved after dark on the 7th behind the Kaponga Box. The distance was not great, but vehicles were continually getting bogged in soft sand and the troops spent more time out of the trucks pushing them than riding in them. It was after daybreak before 21 Battalion was in position facing south. The whole line was retiring slowly, and again that night (8 July) 21 Battalion was pulled back further east. Guides with signal lamps had been posted along the route into the Alinda Depression, and once more the unit dug itself in.
The Kaponga Box was stormed by the enemy on the morning of 9 July. His task was made easier by the fact that 6 Brigade had been withdrawn into reserve the previous day and the page 168 Box was unoccupied. Fifth Brigade spent the whole day in digging, wiring, and helping 7 Field Company to mine the wire in case the enemy, having captured the empty Kaponga Box, might feel ambitious enough to take on something tougher.
On the night of 9-10 July a reconnaissance and fighting patrol of one officer and five men from each battalion in the brigade, all under the command of Colonel Allen, went out with instructions to (i) draw fire, (ii) estimate the strength of the enemy in the vicinity, and (iii) obtain identifications if possible. The 22nd and 23rd Battalion parties met no opposition and returned safely, but Lieutenant Trounson,16 commanding 21 Battalion's patrol, had more success. This patrol revisited El Mreir and found what was thought to be half a dozen tanks bedded down for the night. The first one was rushed and turned out to be a heavy Italian tractor-drawn gun. The crew took shelter under the tractor, where they were dealt with, but as they were clad in overalls without straps or shoulder badges it was not possible to identify them. The patrol was withdrawn under wild and inaccurate small-arms fire without a scratch, although Private Phil Ross17 complained bitterly all the way back that he had sprained his wrist using his jammed tommy gun as a club on a reluctant Italian gunner. For this exploit and others later, Sergeant Charlie Carter18 was awarded the DCM. Lieutenant Trounson received an immediate MC.
The 10th of July was an anxious day for 5 Brigade, with enemy to the north-west and south. By evening the position was plainly untenable, and again the troops moved by night, this time into the El Muhafid Depression. The Italians rushed the abandoned area at first light. They had an audience of two attached men from Divisional Signals, who had overslept and were left behind. The signalmen were inclined to be peevish at the neglect, but were warm in their praise of the enemy's steadiness.
The days were getting hotter and hotter and the flies hungrier and hungrier, while a night's rest was something to dream page 169 about. Everybody was thoroughly fed up with getting pushed around without much idea of what it was all about. For a fortnight the New Zealanders had been fending off probes, sidestepping, back-stepping, leap-frogging, ‘taking ground’ (as the Army says when it wants to call a withdrawal by another name), and occasionally snapping back. The enemy, in spite of strenuous efforts, had not reduced the Alamein defences; nor had he gained complete possession of Ruweisat Ridge.
Gradually word got about that something more dynamic than desert chess was in the air. Something to do with ‘bacon’. Operation Bacon was the code-word for an attack on Ruweisat Ridge. At five in the afternoon of 11 July, 5 Brigade set off in desert formation and crossed the Alam Nayil Ridge, seven miles south of Ruweisat. Shelling became progressively heavier as the trucks, widely dispersed, picked their way forward. When two miles had been covered the troops debussed and pressed on through the spouting dust for another mile into the wadi which was the assembly point for the night attack on Ruweisat.
The operation was postponed and for three blazing days the troops crouched in slit trenches, alternately sleeping, smoking, and gritting their teeth when the whistle of shells indicated a close landing. Periodically there was the roar that preceded a stick of bombs, the bang-bang-bang of the Bofors, the rattle of machine guns, and the crackle of rifles. Then the dive-bombers were gone, leaving silence, a sun burning like a magnifying glass, and an intolerable thirst.
But there were plenty of our own planes around also, and it was cheering to hear the rumble of bombs dropped from Bostons that never broke formation or took notice of the ack-ack exploding around them. Those Bostons looked wonderful as they roared overhead, all silver in the sunlight. Behind, above, below, and all round them, vicious little fighters raced and dived. Other fighters loafed around, tilting their wings to show their markings and waiting for the next Stuka visit.
A few reinforcements arrived from Base and partially filled the gaps made by the daily casualties. There had not been any reinforcements from New Zealand for months, and most of the draft had been winkled out of messes, canteens, orderly rooms, and other base jobs, or were newly discharged from page 170 hospital after sickness or wounds. In many cases they were just not tough enough to take their places beside the tried and honest soldiers who comprised 21 Battalion, and for that matter all other battalions. Some collapsed with the heat, others gave out from thirst, and a few, a very few, malingered their way back to Maadi.
The reasons for the delay were probably good and sufficient, but they were not made known to the brigades who were most interested. It was a Corps' operation and Corps kept its reasons to itself. In the absence of definite information rumour supplied the answer—several answers. The most generally accepted appreciation of the situation was that it all depended on the Aussies in the north. They had held off two attacks, and if there was no further attempt to dislodge them we were to stay put. On the other hand, if the Aussies were pushed back, we were to retire for 14 miles, but if the enemy's attack failed we were to go in. Twice the signal came that Bacon was off, then on 14 July, definitely and finally, Bacon was on.
The following is an extract from 21 Battalion's Operation Order No. 1:
Enemy.—The enemy holds the line of the low ridge El Ruweisat 880279 as his main position, with an outpost line in front of 5 Inf Bde from 880 grid to incl trig 63 (4000 yds). A minefield had been located running north and south along the track on grid 881.
Own Tps.—(a)nz div and 5 ind inf bde are attacking ruweisat ridge and 7 armd div is moving to left of nz div.
(b)raf is attacking enemy position in front of nz div, ceasing at 2300 hrs.
5 nz inf bde will attack on a front of 2000 yds and then roll up to join 5 ind inf bde. 5 nz inf bde is disposed with 21 nz bn on the left and 23 nz bn on the right. 22 nz bn is in reserve.
21 nz bn will move by coys into position on start line; A Coy (right) at 2200 hrs; B Coy (left) 2145 hrs; C Coy (res) 2130 hrs; bn hq (res) 2200 hrs.
Start Line: In rear of 21 BN FDL's marked with lights as follows:
Inter-Coy bdy—Red and Green
IO will contact Bde IO with ref to lights and send guides to coy. Coy runners report to IO at BN HQ 2045 hrs.
Time past Start Line: 2300 hrs.
Bearings: 320 deg.
Distance to Objective: Approx 6¼ miles.
Rate of Advance: 1½ mih; 44 yds per min.
Formation: Line of Secs at 60 yds interval from the right.
Res Coy and Bn Hq will form up 30 yds behind fwd coys; Bn Hq behind A Coy and C Coy to the left. Res Coy will cross Start Line 400 yds behind fwd coys.
Action on Meeting Opposition: Secs will deploy to the left with an interval of five yds between each man. Touch will be kept with the right. The attack will be made with the bayonet. The outpost posn will be rushed with the bayonet and the Bn will pass on to the objective. 22 NZ BN will mop up.
A/TK Tps: All A/Tk guns will be under command oc A/TK BTY. Att tps and own tps will move out of present posn on orders Bty Comd.
M.G.'s: Will remain with A Ech and move from present posn under orders of coy comd.
R.E.'s: A det of one offr and two OR with detector will be located with BN HQ.
Dress: Battle Order with hard ration.
Recognition: The flank men of pls will wear a white patch on the back of the pack.
Arms: Bandolier of 50 rds, normal weapons, 2? mor, EY rifle, 68 grenades, two 36 grenades per man. A/Tk Rifle will be on pl 15 cwt.
Tpt: A Ech will include normal unit vehicles. Res MT will be located with A Ech. Carriers will remain with A Ech. All other vehicles will report to B Ech tonight before 2100 hrs. B Ech remains brigaded.page 172
Blankets: Blankets, greatcoats and packs will be sent to B Ech, Res MT to supply one truck per coy for the purpose.
Tools: Tools will be collected from coys by a vehicle to be supplied by Res MT. This vehicle will remain with A Ech.19
Spiggot Mortars: These will be placed on coy vehicles carrying cooks and will remain with A Ech.
Success Signal: Red when on the objective, repeated at five-minute intervals.
Consolidation: When the bn reaches the objective, A Ech vehicles will come forward as ordered….
Owing to the width of front to be covered and the wide dispersal of sections—at 60 yards' intervals—it was likely that some strongpoints would be bypassed and that the mopping-up battalion would have no lack of employment. Colonel Allen stressed this point at a last-minute conference: platoons were to carry straight through to the objective, only cleaning up opposition directly in their way, and were to leave the rest for 22 Battalion to deal with.
All companies were on the start line in good time and an hour before midnight there was a rustle in the darkness. It was the noise of troops making final adjustments to equipment, testing bayonets, loosening ammunition pouches, feeling for cigarettes and field dressings.
A quiet word of command and the battalion moved forward. For an hour there was nothing to be seen and little heard, only the shuffling of feet through sand, or the click of boots on stones and the smothered directions of platoon commanders correcting distances and alignment. Just on midnight one of our planes, with its navigating lights on, circled over the battalion area for 15 minutes. The pilot fired first two green Very lights then two red and came down very low. He was immediately answered with coloured tracer from the forward enemy posts, which disclosed their position. The presence of this inquisitive plane permitted more rapid progress, since the sound of its motors drowned the noise of the advance, which page 173 was just then over very stony ground. After the plane departed enemy listening posts must have heard movement, for a number of flares went up and disclosed the battalion's presence. Battalion Headquarters, between the forward A Company (Captain Butcher20) and the reserve C Company (Captain Wallace), was close up with the forward platoons at this time, and at Colonel Allen's yell, ‘Give it to them 21 Battalion!’, the sections swung into line and went on at the double, firing from the hip.
Enemy tracer lit up the area, but the forward posts were overrun without difficulty; then a battalion headquarters suffered the same fate, and finally some gunners joined the mixed bag of prisoners moving towards 22 Battalion and the prisoner-of-war cages.page 174
The two flanking battalions, the 23rd on the right and the 18th on the left, were also busily engaged and were moving forward at different speeds; consequently contact was not maintained. A Company at first did not encounter the same opposition as B Company and lost touch, first with 23 Battalion and then with B Company. Battalion Headquarters had got mixed up with B Company, excepting the ‘I’ section, which was overtaken by the reserve C Company.
Colonel Allen realised that contact had been lost with 23 Battalion and, as his signal section could not be found, sent the Adjutant to re-establish touch with it while he endeavoured to locate A Company.
Captain Butcher meanwhile was nearing more field guns which were still shooting aimlessly. They were rushed, and the crews were sent back without escort towards the mopping-up battalion. Upon checking up Butcher found that Lieutenant Hawkesby,21 with 7 Platoon, was missing, but a few strays from 23 Battalion had joined him.
Meanwhile B Company and Battalion Headquarters were reorganising on the move when they ran into a tank laager. Hawkesby, who had veered towards B Company and was famous in the battalion for his brass throat and bull's roar, saw them and yelled light-heartedly, ‘Sergeant, arrest those men!’
There was a concerted rush towards the tanks which, with their commanders standing with their heads and shoulders through the turrets, were already moving away.
A 23 Battalion man who had strayed from his company was armed with a sticky bomb with which he set a tank alight. By the illumination thus provided Sergeant Lord (B Company) climbed onto another tank, shot the commander and dropped a grenade inside, while others fired tommy guns through the slits, killing the crew and setting it on fire also. Lord killed the commander of another tank in the same manner, but the crew climbed out and surrendered before they could be dealt with. The rest of the tanks scattered into the darkness.
The presence of tanks so close to the outpost line had not been expected, and though at that stage in the war they were page 175 comparatively harmless by night, they would have to be dealt with at first light. Brigadier Kippenberger, leading the column of supporting arms towards the spot, about half a mile south of the ridge, knew nothing of the menace rumbling about in the darkness. The clash with the armour resulted in the battalion finally losing formation, with B Company, part of C Company, and Battalion Headquarters inextricably mixed. The left-hand platoon of A Company, No. 8, under Lieutenant Shaw,22 went across the front after a tank and eventually joined 23 Battalion.
The remnants of A Company were still going forward when, about 1.30 a.m., Colonel Allen overtook them. The men were in need of a rest, and Allen gave permission for a short spell and a cigarette while a check was made. Captain Butcher found that he had with him, besides Lieutenant West-Watson and the majority of 9 Platoon, a handful of B Company, Lieutenant Cooper23 and 17 Platoon of 23 Battalion, and Captain Ironside24 with some headquarters men of D Company 23 Battalion, about fifty all told.
The general opinion was that they were on or near the objective. They appeared to be on the forward slopes; the men had been hard to restrain and had taken all opposition at the double. Colonel Allen disagreed and decided to advance for another hour. At 2.45 a.m. he again called a halt. They were on the edge of a minefield situated in front of a double-apron fence, behind which loomed what appeared to be a huge gun emplacement. Scores of enemy trucks on their right were moving out hurriedly and the rumble of tracked vehicles could be heard. Convinced that he was now on the objective, Allen decided to return and bring up the reserve company before daylight. He left at 3 a.m., accompanied by Staff-Sergeant Philip,25 of D Company 23 Battalion, after instructing Captain Butcher to wait for an hour and then, if no other troops arrived, to use his own discretion.page 176
Staff-Sergeant Philip writes:
[Ten minutes after we started] an Italian soldier joined up with us giving us some Nestles chocolate and a cold cocoa drink, [then] four more Italians thrust themselves upon us insisting on going back with us. [Shortly afterwards we heard] voices ahead, [and] I investigated, taking one of our prisoners on my bayonet. We had run into a strong point overlooked in our advance and I was set upon by several Italians. I was bayonetted and shot through the knee and chin. [Colonel Allen received four bullets in the chest and died about 3 p.m.]… I probably looked very close to dead. I was carrying a bit of loot, a Luger and a Biretta, and had the experience of being looted myself…. When daylight broke an Italian officer … gave us both a drink of water. [About 7 o'clock] two enemy tanks appeared driving a good number of our troops ahead (west)…. I managed to attract the attention of L/Cpl Rex Cross26 and Pte Victor Idour,27 both 23rd men… along with another lad they managed to get us on a 15 cwt truck close by…. The driver [turned eastwards, but] ran into a very large mob of Italians … standing at the edge of a minefield … [so we swung back west again]. We then came upon a dressing station set up in the middle of the battlefield and manned by both NZ and Italian orderlies and treating German, Italian and NZ wounded. To my knowledge there was no medical officer and the orderlies had just banded together and were treating the wounded irrespective of nationality.
B Company pushed on but lost all cohesion. Some of its men joined C Company as it advanced, and others carried on alone. Captain Marshall28 led the remainder forward and overran an Italian headquarters. A colonel with his staff and a number of men were sent back for 22 Battalion to gather in, and the advance was resumed. About this point Captain Marshall had been joined by Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch,29 commander of 18 Battalion, with some of his staff who had page 177 lost contact with their battalion. The group pushed on until 2 a.m., when at least three more armoured vehicles were encountered. They were attacked with grenades and one was set alight, but the encounter completed the disintegration of B Company. Marshall carried on with ten men of his company and some stragglers. He worked across to the right in an endeavour to make contact with A Company, and eventually met Captain Norris30 with A Company 23 Battalion. They were digging in so, thinking he had arrived at the objective, Marshall put up the success signal and dug in also.
C Company, in reserve, was advancing just sufficiently far behind Battalion Headquarters to keep within sight of it. Captain Wallace detailed Second-Lieutenant Horrocks with 14 Platoon to move just behind Battalion Headquarters and go where it did, irrespective of compass bearings, while 13 and 15 Platoons were to advance abreast. By the time Wallace had reached the tank left burning by B Company, Lieutenant Catran,31 with 15 Platoon, was missing. (Catran first led his platoon west to join 4 Brigade, was turned back by machine guns, and eventually met some 23 Battalion men who were also out of touch with their unit. He then went forward until nearly daybreak without meeting friendly troops, eventually turned back, and reported to Brigade with 100 prisoners captured during the night.)
C Company then consisted of Captain Wallace, a runner or two, Lieutenant Thomson32 and 13 Platoon. They carried on until they met New Zealand troops, whom they discovered were 4 Brigade Headquarters digging in. Wallace selected a position close by and began to consolidate.
To return to the right flank, where A Company and attached stragglers were waiting for Allen's return. Reconnaissance to the east and west had discovered no friendly troops and, after the hour suggested by Colonel Allen had elapsed, Captain Butcher gave orders to return on the back bearing of the page 178 original axis of advance. At approximately 4.30 a.m. they met Major McElroy, who had with him Second-Lieutenant Judd33 and three signallers from Battalion Headquarters, and also Lieutenant Hawkesby and 7 Platoon, who had become detached earlier in the night. They also had gone forward until blocked by enemy transport and challenged, whereupon they had removed themselves rapidly.
McElroy took command of the augmented party, 69 all ranks, of whom eight were walking wounded. They moved back towards the ridge for a short period when, as it was near first light, McElroy proposed to dig in, but a check on the ammunition disclosed that they had an average of only five rounds for each man. This was distributed equally, but was definitely insufficient to face the possibility of counter-attack, and the withdrawal was continued. Almost immediately they came to a wadi running due east, with defences blocking further movement south. In the wadi there was transport which they engaged, capturing a number of Italians. Further east more transport could be seen and the noise of a developing tank battle to the south was plain and ominous. McElroy decided to move along the wadi towards where 5 Indian Brigade might be expected.
The whole party, wounded included, was extended across the wadi. There was opposition from machine guns and small arms, also some shelling, but fierce charges and vicious bayonet work cleared the wadi and produced approximately 500 prisoners, including 30 officers, of whom two were colonels. The most determined opposition came from a party of 14 Germans who refused to surrender and had to be killed. Among the prisoners was an Indian intelligence officer who had been captured earlier and who acted as guide until they reached a minefield, through which an Italian officer obligingly led them. On the far side they were met by Indian armoured cars, which directed McElroy to their headquarters, where the prisoners were handed over.
Captain Marshall, after being originally on the left flank, was now digging in on the right flank near A Company 23 Battalion, where he was joined by Lieutenants Shaw and Horrocks page 179 with portions of their platoons, plus stragglers from practically every other battalion in the attack—in all about eighty strong.
The next arrivals in the area were Lieutenant Rogers,34 his runner (Private Alec Niven35), RSM Jack Farmer,36 and a few more men of 23 Battalion. They had dug in on what they thought was the objective. At daylight enemy fire from the rear swept the position, and during a lull the party dashed to a wadi further forward. Some trucks were parked there, among them two captured portées complete with two-pounders. Sergeant-Major Farmer describes how he became an anti-tank gunner:
I thought it would be a good idea to have a truck in case we had to make a quick get-away, and that the anti-tank gun might come in handy. The first one had a dead German propped behind the steering wheel, but the other started at the second attempt, so I drove it to where we were consolidating. Lieut Rogers was elected gunner, Jack Niven the crew, and I appointed myself driver and ammunition wallah. Lieut Cameron37 had about a section strength of 23 Bn with him, and they were keen to clean up some of the remaining Italian posts in front of us so we thought we would scare them with our two-pounder before the boys went out. We backed the portée up to a hull down position on the side of the wadi and fired a few rounds. They had the desired effect, and the Ities came out and surrendered to the section.
C Company, which had started as reserve, had ended with part of 13 Platoon digging in near 18 Battalion, on the left of the battalion objective. It had been joined by Lieutenant Abbott,38 with the Intelligence section and a few stragglers who, like most other groups, had captured or bypassed numbers of prisoners during the advance. As soon as his men were dug in Abbott left to see if he could find the rest of the battalion.page 180
The Brigadier had no definite information as all his communications had broken down, but thought that the main portion of 21 Battalion was on Ruweisat Ridge, but not as far forward as 4 Brigade. Abbott was returning to C Company when he met Captain Marshall, who was looking for unattached troops to strengthen his position. He was the bearer of ill tidings: 22 Battalion had been captured by enemy tanks, no support weapons had got up, Colonel Allen was lying mortally wounded in a nearby RAP, and A Company was missing. (At that moment A Company was fighting its way towards the Indians on the eastern part of Ruweisat Ridge.)
Abbott found Colonel Allen, conscious and worrying about the battalion. The Colonel asked him to get the companies joined up, whereupon Abbott returned to Headquarters 4 Brigade and asked permission to move C Company over to where the remainder of the battalion was dug in. He was told to await Brigadier Kippenberger's instructions, and returned to C Company.
During the time Abbott was away, Captain Wallace realised that his party was in the centre of a minefield and thought it advisable to move further forward. Some trenches were located in a small wadi about 400 yards ahead and, with enemy shells exploding the mines around them, he ordered an advance into the shelter of the wadi. Both Wallace and Lieutenant Thomson were wounded in helping some half-buried men out of a trench, and Lieutenant Abbott found Sergeant Leo Tucker40 in charge when he rejoined them.
The position, therefore, as far as 21 Battalion was concerned, was that of the three assaulting companies, each about ninety strong, a mixed group commanded by Captain Marshall was in position on the right of the objective, a smaller one under Lieutenant Abbott was on the left near 18 Battalion, and page 181 A Company, with strays, had fought its way diagonally across a portion of 23 Battalion and was with the Indians to the east. The CO was mortally wounded, headquarters was dispersed, the rear battalion was captured, and the troops on the objective were cut off and without supporting weapons.
It will be remembered that the supporting arms in A Echelon were to come forward as ordered after the ridge was taken. To that end the battalion anti-tank guns were to move with the six-pounders behind the reserve unit (22 Battalion). The column got lost and did not find 22 Battalion, but after a lot of frenzied rushing around in the darkness nearly all the battalion portées fell out and joined 5 Brigade Headquarters, which was moving up to its selected position. The column halted at 4 a.m. and the Brigadier went forward with a troop of six-pounders to investigate. While he was away tracer of a calibre that could come only from tank weapons went over the tops of the waiting vehicles. It was almost daylight and, with no Brigadier and no success signals, but with convincing evidence of armour in the vicinity, the Brigade Major turned the column around and withdrew to a safer locality in what was later known as Stuka Valley, about a mile in the rear.
The Brigadier found 22 and 23 Battalions and, when returning to Brigade Headquarters, saw enemy tanks closing on the rear of 22 Battalion. He went post-haste through them for support, but in the meantime the enemy armour captured most of 22 Battalion and marched them west in columns of threes.
The Brigadier found some tanks taking a languid interest in the battle for the ridge. After the commander had been convinced that there was enemy armour in the vicinity, they moved up slowly—much too slowly to be of any assistance to 22 Battalion. The tanks were not under brigade command and were fighting according to their own rules. Agag never walked more carefully.
The morning passed with the troops consolidating on the ridge, the supporting arms trying to get up, and the tanks still moving imperceptibly forward. In the early afternoon the Indians, led by other tanks that were really on the job, advanced sufficiently close to 21 and 23 Battalions to permit a column of anti-tank and machine guns to get onto the ridge.page 182
Lieutenant Abbott and his party were still out of touch. The area was under increasingly heavy fire from three directions and enemy tanks could be seen edging in about 4 p.m. Abbott decided to find 4 Brigade Headquarters and get instructions, but before leaving he instructed the men that, if anything happened to make the position untenable, they were to split into groups and move back independently. He writes:
I had gone about one hundred yards when all hell broke loose, and I took shelter and studied the position from a slit trench. It was apparent that 4th Brigade was being overrun, portées were going up in flames and tanks were among the forward infantry. I then continued in the direction of Headquarters 4th Brigade, but saw that Brigadier Burrows and brigade headquarters were surrendering. I decided that no useful purpose would be served by becoming a PW so took to my scrapers.
He evaded capture and eventually located the troops of 21 and 23 Battalions still securely in possession of their objective. C Company had split up when the tanks closed in. Those that moved eastward along the ridge escaped, but those that took the direct route south were mostly scooped up by the converging enemy armour.
The 23rd Battalion, with the small group of the 21st, the only New Zealand troops left on the ridge, were withdrawn after dark to a new line 1000 yards south of the ridgetop. All through the night parties, platoons, and companies reorganised and dug in.
With the death of Colonel Allen the battalion lost another popular commander, as well as 50-odd officers and men killed, wounded and missing. Ruweisat had been added to its long string of defeats, disasters and withdrawals: Platamon Tunnel, Peneios Gorge, Vineyard Ridge, Bir Ghirba, Sidi Rezegh, Point 175, Bir Khalda, and El Mreir.
There was an uneasy truce in the Ruweisat Ridge area while each side licked its wounds and reorganised. Major R. W. Harding was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and given command of the battalion; A and C Companies were amalgamated; D Company, left out of battle at Maadi, returned to the unit, and B Company went there for a spell. The troops cleared page 183 the recent battlefield. Enemy planes paid daily and nightly calls with bombs; so did ours. Sixth Brigade relieved the shattered 4th Brigade, and within a week the Division was in fighting form again.
On the night of 21-22 July 6 Brigade was ordered to capture El Mreir Depression. The infantry took El Mreir, the tanks once again failed to arrive in time, and the brigade was cut to pieces, with most of 24 Battalion in the bag.
Static warfare was resumed in 5 Brigade's area. The Indians made another attack on Ruweisat Ridge but did not hold their gains. There were alarms and excursions that did not develop into serious attacks, and there was a steady drain of casualties from bombing and artillery fire.
August continued in much the same way. Stukas, with sirens screeching, dived down out of the sun, flattened out, and left behind them mushrooms of dust heavier than the all-pervading haze. Spitfires—more and more of them thank the Lord—were getting the upper hand, however, and Stuka raids became fewer. From dogfights over the desert planes plummeted, fluttered, or glided to earth, not all of them enemy, but nearly all. The general opinion was that, were it not for the air force, we would have been properly ‘in the cart’. Everybody knew the yarn about the Hurricane pilot who bailed out and was seen to be falling near 5 Brigade Headquarters. The Brigadier promptly ordered another place to be laid for lunch. The pilot had scarcely hit the deck before he was greeted by a staff officer saying, ‘Brigadier Kippenberger's compliments, Sir, and would you be so kind as to have lunch with him.’
It is midsummer. Hot winds, scorching, searing. Heat and dust. Dust makes you thirsty. A salty film settles on your lips and when you lick them it dries your mouth right out. One water bottle a day, lukewarm and tasteless. A good remedy for a parched palate is to rinse your mouth out without swallowing—if you have any water left. To clean your teeth is another cure for a sour-salty mouth—if your toothbrush didn't go with the rest of your gear when the truck was burnt out. Flies— millions and millions of fat, carrion-fed flies. You fight a losing battle against corpse-fed flies; they cluster on your mouth and page 184 in your eyes, they commit suicide in your tea, they cling to every part of your flesh and clothing, they tangle in your hair and try to crawl up your nostrils and into your ears. You work—digging and deepening weapon pits, choking in the dust you raise with every strike of pick or shovel, sweating like a pig and the sweat caking the dust into a mask. Red, sunken eyes peer through a rim of dirt. Listening patrols, reconnaissance patrols, fighting patrols, double pickets, working parties. Talk of another retirement. Operation instructions marked ‘Most Secret’ don't stay secret when unit officers drive off to look at new positions for no reason at all. Again you are pulling trucks out of soft sand and digging more slit trenches in a race against daylight. Pity Rommel wouldn't change sides and then maybe we might win the war instead of doing bloody marathons around the desert. Everybody is looking over his shoulder. Alam el Halfa Ridge is 15 miles back—that leaves about forty miles before the suburbs of Alexandria block the free movement of transport.
A new general, named Montgomery, takes command of Eighth Army. More ‘Secret Instructions’. Only essential vehicles are to remain with the battalion; all others are to be ready to move at short notice to area 475905-475895-470895-470905, wherever the hell that may be.
At last a little light. ‘We will fight where we are and there will be no more withdrawals’ an order to Eighth Army from General Alexander, Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces. ‘Troop-carrying transport will be sent to the rear.’ Then more light, a blinding flash that dispersed the darkness of frustration. On 17 August Brigadier Kippenberger issued a brigade instruction which, after deprecating a tendency, more prevalent in the rear areas than in the front line, to talk as if the New Zealanders were defending Egypt single-handed, went on:
We were now facing a very severe test. For the next few weeks we will be on the defensive and it is open to the enemy to make an attack which will test us to the limit. If he does not make it or if he makes it and fails, then the tide will quickly turn strongly against him, but these few weeks are critical. We hold an exposed and vital position of the line. Like the AUSTRALIANS, the SOUTH page 185 Africans, the indians and british we are burning our boats by sending our transport many miles away and it is our duty to stand and fight where we are, to the last man and the last round. It is probable, almost certain, that we will be subjected to extremely severe attacks by dive bombers, arty, tanks and infantry and in fact it is probable that the supreme test of the nz division is close ahead of us.
We are in a strong position, mined and wired with well over a hundred guns and an ample supply of A Tk guns and if we stand our ground firmly we cannot be broken. There must be no question of surrender if there is a ‘break-in’. Every post must fight to the last, irrespective of the fate of its neighbour. This must be the guiding principle of the defence. The methods to be observed are as follows:—
These will everywhere be dug to a depth of five feet without parapet and weapon pits will not be connected by crawl trenches. Each man is then safe against everything but a direct hit from bomb or shell and a tank can roll over him without damage. Each individual soldier must fight until he has no means of fighting left. SA [small-arms] fire will be concentrated on the enemy infantry, who will either precede or follow his tanks. Enemy tanks coming to close range will be tackled with sticky bombs and HAWKINS grenades, but this is only possible if they have been separated by fire from his infantry.
These will have pits dug sufficiently deep to remove the gun from its platform so that it is not crushed by a tank rolling over. Reserves of ammunition, spare barrels, will be dug in close by and MG positions will be defended with as much tenacity as Infantry posts. While the enemy is forming up and preparing his assault MMGs will engage his tanks and supporting weapons so as to force personnel to take cover and the tank to ‘close down’. During the later phases MMGs will concentrate on supporting weapons.
ANTI TANK GUNS
All guns have already been sited in defiladed positions and have been dug in. Ammunition will be stored close by and every gun will be fought to the last. All guns will remain still and silent until enemy tanks are within decisive range.
Mortars will be sited so as to cover the minefields and their principal page 186 function in the initial stages of an attack will be to stop infantry or engineers from lifting the mines. For this purpose good observation of the minefields is essential. They will then engage his supporting weapons if within range and otherwise continue to engage his infantry.
Enough 2? Mortars will be placed forward in each BATTALION Area to illuminate the minefields by means of the parachute flares if the enemy attempts to lift the mines under cover of darkness.
RAP will be dug in and cover provided for all personnel and as far as is possible for wounded held at RAP. Ambulance vans may be retained but will be dug in and NOT occupied.
Dumps of food, water and ammunition will be made in each company area and will be well dispersed.
All headquarters will be dug in and organised for defence and will be defended with as much determination as any platoon area.
Fire will be put down on enemy unarmoured vehicles from the limit of observation. If the lorried inf can be separated from the Armour the attack may collapse early. After the enemy has debussed fire should be directed mainly at unarmoured supporting weapons and to blinding his supporting tanks.
A proportion of the guns may be used to engage the enemy infantry following the tanks.
When the A Tk guns become engaged it is of great importance that their view of the tanks is not obscured by arty fire coming down among the tanks and raising dust.
Destruction of enemy mortars, when they can be located, is of paramount importance.
It is the tradition of Field Gunners to fight their guns to the last.
[Signed] H. K. Kippenberger, Brigadier. Comd 5 NZ Inf Bde.
This was followed by a brigade operation order, the relevant portion of which said that 5 Brigade Group would hold its position against attack from any direction and that units would be prepared to counter-attack, with or without tank support, and would prepare plans accordingly.page 187
Good. Now we know. Rommel will have to go through us or around us. As he's got no show of going through us, he'll have to go around us and we'll still be here to give him a kick in the pants. Wasn't there something in the school history books about a Maori chief taking on all comers at Orakau and telling the English soldiers to go to hell? We will fight on forever and ever. Ake Ake Ake. Must ask some Maori in 28 Battalion what it was all about.
Everybody ‘prepared accordingly’, a little harder, if possible, than they had been preparing in the past. Dumps of reserve battle rations were established and picketed; tanks, anti-tank guns and portées manoeuvred over the battalion area, working out their plans for dealing with enemy break-ins; the whole scheme of defence was inspected by the Brigadier and GOC, and finally the Corps Commander took a look. Now that the troops knew the state of affairs, their spirits rose remarkably, and the sense of frustration that had made every move a burden gave place to quiet determination. There was even a feeling of apprehension lest the ‘reception committee’ might not be called on to do its stuff.
General Montgomery met company commanders at Battalion Headquarters on 23 August, and the same day Brigade passed on this message:
On receipt of codeword Twelve Bore from this HQ units will stand at immediate notice and all tps will be ordered to the highest state of readiness for immediate attack. All posns will be manned bivouacs removed vehicles parked in vehicle pits gaps in minefields closed and line comns tested every 15 mins. W/T watch will be continuous.
All sangars in the battalion area were demolished, so that there might be no ready-made cover available for stray parties who managed to infiltrate. If Rommel was ready to attack, we were equally ready to receive him. Finally, so as to know who our attackers would most likely be, 5 Brigade was asked to put on a strong raid and collect some prisoners for identification. The raid was entrusted to 28 (Maori) Battalion, and the locality chosen was El Mreir. For any enemy who did not surrender very promptly indeed, this was likely to be unfortunate. The Maoris took nothing with them except their rifles, page 188 bayonets and light machine guns, plus as many captured automatics as they could drape around their persons and a grenade in every pocket. Nobody knows how many they killed, but they brought back 41 prisoners.
Everything pointed to an attempt by Rommel at a ‘right hook’ around the inland flank, and our dispositions were altered accordingly. The 132nd Brigade of 44 (British) Division relieved 5 Brigade on the night of 29-30 August, and 21 Battalion dug in behind minefields on the southern slope of Alam Nayil Ridge. The southern flank was refused, with 132 Brigade (under command New Zealand Division) facing west, 6 Brigade facing west and south, and then 5 Brigade, with 23 and 21 Battalions facing south, 22 Battalion facing east, and the Maoris in reserve.
Shortly after midnight on 31 August the code-word Twelve Bore was received at Battalion Headquarters and stand-to was ordered from 1.50 a.m. Later in the day an Order of the Day was received from the Army Commander:
The Eighth Army bars the way. It carries a great responsibility and the whole future of the war will depend on how we carry out our task.
We will fight the enemy where we now stand; there will be NO WITHDRAWAL and NO SURRENDER.
Every officer and man must continue to do his duty as long as he has breath in his body.
If each of us does his duty we cannot fail; the opportunity will then occur to take the offensive ourselves and to destroy once and for all the enemy forces now in EGYPT.
Into battle then, with stout hearts and with determination to do our duty. And may God give us victory.
B. L. Montgomery,
Across the desert between the New Zealand Box and the Qattara Depression were minefields and wire entanglements, with mobile columns patrolling through the gaps and around them. This was Rommel's path to Cairo, the route for the classic page 189 envelopment of an inland flank, and the only way that avoided a head-on collision with dug-in troops disposed at great depth and determined not to be shifted. The enemy forced the minefields under cover of an air attack, of which 21 Battalion's area received its full share. But the RAF was not idle. Neither, as the gigantic left wheel around the pivot of the New Zealand position progressed, was our artillery. All through the day there was the noise of battle in the south as our armour fought delaying actions, and throughout the hours of darkness the throb of aircraft engines could be heard. Darkness was a relative term, for until the moon came up the sky was alight with flares.
Shelled from the ground, bombed mercilessly from the air, and harassed on three sides by light and heavy armour, the swift breakthrough of the German blitzkrieg became a slogging match on ground and under conditions dictated by the British. The enemy had other difficulties besides the uncooperative attitude of the defence: the necessity of maintaining a flank to the north of the axis of advance around the New Zealand position, the paucity of sheltering depressions for transport, and the bottleneck corridors in the minefields.
The first two days of September passed with Rommel standing at bay in front of the core of the defence on Alam el Halfa Ridge, awaiting a counter-attack which he considered would be delivered at once with every tank available.
Montgomery counter-attacked, but not with tanks. While the artillery continued to throw everything except their guns at the waiting enemy and the RAF dropped everything except their planes on top of him, the infantry was to try to narrow his lines of communication by capturing the northern edge of the Munassib Depression. It was to be another night attack with 26 Battalion on the right, then 132 Brigade, still under the command of 2 New Zealand Division, and 5 Brigade on the left. The Maoris were given the major role, with 22 and 23 Battalions in support, and 21 Battalion guarding the open left flank.
Under command of 5 Brigade, besides the anti-tank and field artillery and the engineers, was B Squadron 50 Royal Tank Regiment. There were grunts of satisfaction when it was known page 190 that the tanks were under brigade control and not working on their own. The first couple of hours after first light and before the anti-tank guns were sited were always a dangerous time, and the only thing to stop a tank then was another tank.
On paper, and before the operation began, it appeared that 21 Battalion had the easiest task, and so it turned out. Two of our minefields ran south from and at right angles to the main field along the front, and it was the mission of 21 Battalion to line the inside of the eastern field from the start line to the western edge of the Muhafid Depression. The gap between Muhafid and Munassib, about half a mile, was to be closed by mines, and the Maoris' left was to make contact with 21 Battalion's right flank.
Companies left their areas independently, so timed that the whole battalion would be clear of the minefield gap before 28 Battalion arrived. The start line was already taped just outside the protecting 600-yard-wide minefield, and the track through was lighted by the provost detachment. As the attack progressed the provosts were to carry the line of lights forward as a guide for the tanks and fighting transport. Battalion Headquarters was first but was delayed because the track was not yet fully cleared of mines. In order not to hold up the assembly, Battalion Headquarters went through ahead of the sappers, while the rest of the companies passed through a walking gap three chains east. A wire on short pickets in the assembly area was the cause of more delay, until it was realised that it surrounded a dummy minefield. In spite of these delays the battalion was ready to move off at zero hour, with the exception of B Company, whose timing had gone astray. This company turned up later and was on its objective and in position by midnight.
D Company led, followed by C Company, each with two platoons in extended order and one in reserve. Battalion Headquarters followed C Company, with B Company as battalion reserve, but as previously mentioned the latter had gone astray for the time being. The axis of advance was due south for a mile and a half, when the battalion wheeled left and each company took up its allotted position facing east. Up to this stage there was no opposition but, by the sound of the heavy page 191 explosions further south, the RAF was making things very uncomfortable in the depressions. At this stage the battalion's No. 11 wireless set and ‘I’ section jeeps went astray through being delayed in soft sand and failing to notice the left wheel; they turned up at Battalion Headquarters an hour later.
Of D Company, only the reserve platoon and Company Headquarters found their area. The two forward platoons had advanced so rapidly that they lost contact and, owing to a slight deflection westward, went on past the edge of Muhafid into 28 Battalion's area. Second-Lieutenant Robertson41 took command when it was realised that they had gone too far and, after several clashes with enemy posts, in which a few casualties were suffered and several posts cleaned up, he succeeded in withdrawing the platoons and getting them back to their correct positions before first light.
The 21st Battalion's task was now completed. The companies consolidated their positions through the night, in spite of almost constant bombing by enemy planes, which first lit up the area with flares and then followed with incendiaries and high-explosive, but everybody was safely dug in and there were no more casualties. Supporting arms were guided up and were in position by 4.30 a.m.
There was, however, no contact with 28 Battalion on the right flank, nor had the engineers been able to lay the minefield between the two depressions. They had not been able to contact the left flank of the Maori forward defended localities, and enemy defensive posts had not been silenced. The Maoris had encountered strong opposition from German strongpoints, and both sides had fought to a finish, no quarter being given or taken. The Maoris had then overrun their objective, got down into Munassib Depression, and had played havoc with the transport and its drivers. Everything was fine from the Maori point of view, but Brigade did not see it that way and brought up 22 Battalion. The latter dug in behind the Maoris and extended the right flank of 21 Battalion. It was a wise move, for German tanks were moving up between the two depressions, and most of those attached to the brigade had page 192 already committed suicide on mines through an error, not entirely theirs, in guiding lights. The divisional artillery took care of the tanks and also put down a smoke screen across the front, whereupon the Maoris extricated themselves with a hundred-odd prisoners.
The 132nd Brigade, on the right of the Maoris, did not take its objective and was badly cut about. Marching across the desert by night is a chancy business, even for troops trained in desert warfare, and 132 Brigade had only recently arrived from England. Our 26 Battalion also met severe opposition and, after reaching the objective, had its southernmost company cut off in enemy territory. The gap through the minefields to the south, therefore, remained open for the retreating enemy. Counter-attacks were mounted in the morning and again in the afternoon, but 22 Battalion, assisted by the artillery, dealt with them in workmanlike style. Apart from these interruptions, it was a day of intermittent shelling and occasional Stuka raids. One of those things happened that could only happen in that sandy sea, where tanks cruised like battleships and warlike tactics were half naval and half military. Across the desert where a thousand holes sheltered a thousand men, crouched finger on trigger, some trucks bumped, swayed and jolted; they were not rushing up bullets, shells or bombs, nor were they ambulances for the stretcher cases. They were civilians in khaki, YMCA men, with an issue of pineapple and biscuits. Their gallantry was appreciated all the more, as the previous night the ration parties had got lost and so had the hot meal they were bringing forward.
While Rommel's rear elements were returning through the minefields from what had begun as an offensive to knock out Eighth Army and had ended, according to the German radio, as a mere reconnaissance in force, 21 Battalion spent the time cleaning its arms, reading the mail that had just arrived, and sleeping.
The following message from the Army Commander was sent to all units:
The battle of Alamein has now lasted for six days and the enemy has slowly but surely been driven from Eighth Army area. Tonight 5 Sep his rearguards are being driven west through page 193 the minefields area north of Himeimat. All formations and units both armd and unarmd have contributed towards this striking victory and have been magnificently supported by the RAF. I congratulate all ranks of Eighth Army on devotion to duty and good fighting qualities which has resulted in such a heavy defeat of the enemy and which will have far reaching results. I have sent a message to AOC Western Desert expressing our thanks to the RAF for their splendid support.
The 21st Battalion's casualties during the period 26 June-6 September 1942 were: 67 killed and died of wounds, 180 wounded, and 40 prisoners of war (including four wounded and three who died), a total of 287.
10 Col M. C. Fairbrother, DSO, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde 1942-43; comd in turn 21, 23, and 28 (Maori) Bns, Apr-Dec 1943; CO 26 Bn Oct 1944-Sep 1945; Associate Editor, NZ War Histories.
11 Brig L. W. Thornton, OBE, m.i.d.; London; born Christchurch, 15 Oct 1916; Regular soldier; CO 5 Fd Regt Jun-Dec 1943; GSO 12 NZ Div 1943-44; CRA 2 NZ Div 1945; DCGS Apr 1948-Jan 1949; Commandant, Linton Military Camp, Jan 1949-May 1951.
19 Para 21 was cancelled at the last minute and the tools were carried by the troops.
39 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Greek); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn Dec 1941-Jun 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942-Jul 1943; comd 4 Bde 27-29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul-15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug-Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul-Aug 1944; Commandant Southern Military District Nov 1951-.