CHAPTER 5 — Minqar Qaim
Two days after Tobruk (with 30,000 men, great dumps of equipment, stores, weapons, ammunition, and all its old legendary bravery and defiance) had crumpled between dawn and dusk, 22 Battalion, with 5 Brigade, camped down by Mersa Matruh at the end of the five-day dash over almost 1000 miles from Syria.1 The Colonel, the company commanders and the battalion Intelligence Officer, travelling independently in a two-day race from Syria, had gone on ahead for an urgent conference in Maadi, and then were given very brief leave until the battalion approached Alexandria. Two officers, Bob Knox (of the carriers, recovering from his wound in Libya) and the Intelligence Officer, Sam McLernon, were in Alexandria when they heard that Tobruk had fallen: ‘The news was a shocker and we really could not believe it,’ writes Sam, clearly indicating the feeling of humiliation and impotent rage which now swept the Middle East. ‘Bob and I were having a few in the Hotel Cecil with a Danish Captain off a small ship that had been plying back and forth between Tobruk and Alexandria for many many months, and they both cried with rage and shame when they learnt of the rapid fall and the loss of so much equipment that [had taken] so much time, labour and danger … to build up.
‘The trip from Alex. to Mersa Matruh will always remain in my memory, as we saw a sight that most of us hope never to see again—the British Army in rout. There are no other words to describe it. An endless stream of traffic for scores of miles, with drivers with their feet on the accelerators with obviously only one stopping place, Cape Town. Twenty-five pounders and quads, trucks, ambulances, anti-aircraft guns, A.S.C. trucks, all jumbled up together and heading eastwards.’ page 149 Others, travelling by rail, recall armoured vehicles in the jumbled mass too, undamaged tanks were pulling out, ‘and we going in with our tin-can carriers—depressing, to say the least.’ ‘Our chaps kept asking what the story was, and all we could answer was “they are just regrouping, we will be O.K.” What a miracle that the Huns could not get up their fighter force, because if they could have, the casualties would have been stupendous.’
For its first two days at Matruh the battalion, placed between 21 and 23 Battalions, dug in and spread out thinly over old 1940 ‘defences’—old trenches, rotting sandbags, useless mine fields, old gunpits, old strongpoints half buried in the sand, supported by a dozen naval guns set well back in pillboxes. Soldiers reported that the breech-blocks from many or all of these guns were missing. Something else was missing too: a plentiful water ration. Men found the daily allowance inadequate after the abundance of water in Syria. A few scattered units of Eighth Army lay between the New Zealanders and the enemy, now in high triumph and on the point of crossing the frontier. Meanwhile the battalion watched a beaten Eighth Army pouring back in full retreat—a rabble. As General Freyberg wrote: ‘The Army had, for the moment, disintegrated.’
On 24 June the enemy entered Egypt, and the idea of a serious stand at Matruh—if it ever had been contemplated and planned seriously—was given up. General Auchinleck, relieving General Ritchie and taking over direct command of Eighth Army, ordered a delaying action only, to cover the Army's retreat to Alamein. Part of this action would be fought south of Mersa Matruh, and south into the desert went the two New Zealand brigades in the light of a half moon, a long column of lorry-borne infantry, guns and Bren carriers—but no tanks.
Enemy bombers struck shortly before a halt in the night: the nearest bomb landed about 20 yards from a 22 Battalion truck, wounding Sergeant ‘Tangi’ Moore, and Privates Alf Adams2 and Jack Scandlyn.3 Elsewhere in the Division two or three men were wounded.page 150
Digging in began at daylight on 26 June in some of the hardest rock it had ever been the battalion's misfortune to strike. Then orders came for another move (a veteran in his diary ‘cursing the army, the desert, and the day’), and again the brigade headed south, ten miles to the bare escarpment of Minqar Qaim. Here, about 25 miles south of Matruh, the battalion took up a position facing north and west on the top edge of the escarpment, about 100 feet high and running east and west—an outcrop known later, and with very good reason, as ‘Iggri Ridge’.4. Positions were dug5 yet again, and rocks were piled up protectively at once, a minefield was laid round the western and southern boundary, and the carriers, circling some six miles south, confirmed that troops of 5 Indian Division were holding ground on the battalion's flank.
The battalion then, on the extreme western flank of the Division, awaited the enemy. Before dusk the troops saw away towards the sea a huge black mushroom of smoke grow up from the desert—demolitions.
This was the battalion's (and 5 Brigade's) only brush at close quarters with the enemy throughout the entire day. Soon after the attack on the carriers shells began falling on the brigade area, and this continued off and on all day. German medium guns gave our outranged artillery a heavy pounding, but the New Zealand gunners did most creditable work against motor transport and other thin-skinned vehicles when, at 10.30 a.m., an enormous convoy, a mile wide, appeared far away in the northern haze, and an attack seemed to develop. ‘Their transport covered the desert, roaring eastward, each truck trailing a long streamer of dust which finally mingled with the others in a huge cloud.’ The most serious aspect of this attack was that most of 5 Brigade's transport, which had laagered about a mile from the battalions, moved hastily eastwards and sped off again when tanks completed the encirclement of the Division. The battalion's padre, in the fleeing transport, noted: ‘13 tanks, 2 Bren carriers and an armoured car came up the waadi in the direction of our transport. “They're ours.” Several tanks began firing. “They're Jerries!” Was there a scatter? I have never seen so many trucks start off on such a mad rush.’
In the 10.30 a.m. attack tanks pushed forward but were held and driven back by the artillery. The guns, hard at work, held off the enemy all day. The enemy probably was content with encirclement—plenty of time next day to deal with this trapped force. A tank battle flared up in the afternoon south of the battalion's defences, but what the result was nobody knew. About this time, judging from the sound of the enemy guns and the direction from which the shells were coming, it appeared that the whole of the New Zealand Division was surrounded. At least one New Zealander was heard to remark page 153 to his comrade: ‘Well, and how do you think the b—s will get us out of this little lot?’ A man said to his section leader, Corporal Hill,9 ‘Things are getting a little rough round here.’ Hill replied, ‘Yes. Have a nip,’ and to the other's surprise produced half a bottle of Scotch. ‘I had a nip all right. Poor Rowe went missing in the breakout, I only hope he was able to finish the Scotch before the desert claimed him.’
In the afternoon shelling brought casualties to the battalion, among them Rhys Price with broken jaw and teeth, stumps of teeth buried in his tongue, and several body wounds.10 Wounded men, who were gathered up by the hard-working medical units, would have to endure a second ordeal in crazily bouncing ambulances a few hours later.
Towards evening news came that after dark troops would gather at a certain place, a path would be cleared, and then (although this last order does not seem to have been known by many other ranks) the Division would keep going until Kaponga Box was reached, nearly 100 miles away at Alamein. Because the battalion's B Echelon and troop-carrying transport had been chased off and scattered, all gear except personal arms was to be dumped. Someone recalls ‘John Russell saying quietly: “Drop this: drop that: you may have to fight your way out”.’ Officers threw away bedrolls and kit—and other ranks ‘quickly snaffled their grog.’ The men of the 22nd, following close behind other battalions clearing the way, were to take their chance and swarm on to anything with wheels—anything from cooks' trucks to water carts, even ammunition wagons and field guns.
While these preparations were going on, an interesting little incident, a good omen for the coming charge, showed how boldness could secure success. Colonel Russell had sent Sam McLernon and a section about 400 yards north of the escarpment to act as a watching party. The night was fairly dark, and soon the party saw one of our own three-tonner lorries move up and stop about 100 yards away. A few minutes later Knox, with his carriers, appeared casually and said all was quiet. Next, men climbed out of the three-tonner ahead, lit page 154 cigarettes and leaned against the lorry, yawning. McLernon, armed with a revolver, and his batman, Morris Nicol,11 with a rifle, strolled towards them. ‘We were just about up to them when all of a sudden the truck started up. The men hopped onto it, opened fire, and … disappeared in the darkness. The episode showed clearly how by pure cheek one could approach the enemy's lines without difficulty.’
By about nine o'clock that night, most of the surplus gear had been abandoned. All the carriers were loaded to the top with 3-inch mortar ammunition. Then someone, thinking ‘What about the mortars?’, found that they had been made useless by running a truck over the barrels. No time remained to unload the carriers, so away they went fully loaded with bombs when the shadowy figures of the battalion began moving down from the escarpment on to the plain below. A man was ‘beginning to whimper as though given prescience of his fate in the next few minutes.’
The closely packed column of hurrying men raised a white cloud of dust in the misty moonlight. They spoke in whispers, feeling that the enemy must be able to see and hear them. ‘We were marching in threes,’ writes Gough Smith, who stubbornly retained his pack and blankets, ‘continually changing our positions as some halted to drop packs or hurried up from behind to fill gaps, and in those changes of position deciding our immediate fate. I was talking to Dick Bentley12 and those about me, cursing and making jokes, but secretly oppressed by forebodings and the eerie light. A long line of Brens and trucks loaded with ammo passed us only a yard or so away, keeping in the shadow of the escarpment. Suddenly I was enveloped in a rosy cloud full of flying stars. I began to stagger towards the ground; we were being shelled; I wasn't hurt. A terrific blast caught me sideways and knocked me flat. I came struggling up from terrific depths of blackness, my lungs striving for air.’
Anti-tank mines which had been placed about 5 Brigade's defences were supposed to be lifted for the retreat (Brigadier Kippenberger writes: ‘I gave special, and I thought clear, page 155 orders for lifting our minefield’;13 this was not 22 Battalion's responsibility), but this had not been done previously. The close columns of infantry were marching under the escarpment when a carrier tried to pass on the left of the infantry and exploded two mines. The blinding flashes and two great explosions were only a few yards from the marching troops, ‘and many of us thinking “Christ the sods are on us and throwing bombs”—the scatter, most moving up the escarpment like goats and some throwing themselves towards the direction of the enemy.’ Havoc and a fortunately brief panic broke out, while the wounded cried out pitifully. At least twenty-five men were lost here; how many belonged to 22 Battalion the records do not show. John Riddiford's14 platoon (No. 14) certainly suffered: so did 15 Platoon, in which Frank Algie,15 Dick Bentley, Jim Bryson16 and Harold True17 were killed and twelve others wounded, among them the All Black, Jack Sullivan. The battalion's carriers picked up a number of severely wounded men and placed them on top of the mortar ammunition which had been packed in the carriers.
The men rallied and eventually reached 5 Brigade's forming-up area, where every vehicle had been pressed into service, nose-to-tail in long columns. Men scrambled on and into the nearest vehicle.
‘There was no panic, but all sort of formation was lost and at this stage the 22nd Battalion was definitely not a fighting unit. Some scrambled on quads, some on anti-tank guns, some on Bofors as well as the artillery and three tonners and Pick Ups,’ writes Sam McLernon.
After midnight 4 Brigade, which included the Maori Battalion, began the valorous attack to clear a path to the east, along which 5 Brigade was intended to follow. While 4 Brigade was still in action, the 5th and the rest of the Division got under page 156 way. ‘We soon moved off quietly and if ever we in the convoy cursed a vehicle it was a Grant tank that was chuffing along on one cylinder, shooting out flames from the back and making a terrible noise. We felt sure that every German from Benghazi to Mersa Matruh must have heard it.’
Brigadier Inglis18 (since late afternoon replacing General Freyberg, who had been wounded in the neck) wheeled his formations to the south, away from the fighting. After they had safely covered about a mile and a half, they struck a laager of about a dozen closely packed German tanks. Flares went up, and then a hail of cannon and automatic fire came down on the New Zealanders. ‘We were moving along nicely when all of a sudden the fun started,’ says McLernon. ‘The convoy stopped and troops debussed and waited; all the while the tracers and mortars hailed down, but strangely enough the casualties were comparatively light, thus proving once again that at night at least 99% of troops must fire too high.’
‘Chaps illuminated by the intensity of fire, and tracer, red hot shell, hanging on in all manner of places, Bofors gun barrels, etc.—the terrible screams of those in the ambulance which caught fire—the terrific clatter of the Grant tank beside which Malcolm McKenzie sheltered when once we halted only to have a shell hit the turret and knock it from its bed,’ writes Mick Bradford. ‘The German stretcher-bearer walking down towards our truck with Nicky Nicholls19 from Inglewood and myself looking at him in stupefaction and asking each other what the Hell he thought he was doing—and the column moving off again with a mad dash to get on board again forgetting the Hun—helping hands from “Tiny” Revell—feet in a dixie of stew—and shell shot passing through our truck canopy from front to rear and hitting the one behind killing some and then the realisation that our wagon was being towed by an artillery quad! Holy Sailor.’ Inside the truck ‘with all that holocaust around us … Tarrant20 said very quietly: “You page 157 know Mick it doesn't do to have your own brother in the same outfit as yourself”.’ Incredible as it may seem, a man saw a small shaving mirror and picked it up, remembering that a comrade needed one.
Keith Hutcheson21 remembers a man running after a vehicle crying ‘For Christ's sake stop!’ until he dropped, still pleading in vain; tracer ‘hitting tanks and shooting straight up like sparks from a grindstone’; and how Colonel ‘Gussie’ Glasgow22 appeared, ‘standing up in his stationwagon, gesturing his hand round to the right, in a most exposed position, the wagon crawling round at about 5 m.p.h. A very gallant act.’
‘The troops had of course debussed, and when the transport moved on, they just grabbed any vehicle that happened to be close,’ McLernon continues. ‘Some were run over and others were killed by enemy fire, but the casualties were much less than appeared possible. My Corporal, Rowan Hill, was killed that night. The milling mass of trucks reminded me of a cattle stampede in a corral, as all of a sudden, they all followed the leader, Colonel Glasgow, and dashed straight through the enemy. Without Colonel Glasgow's inspiring leadership our casualties would have been terrific, as no-one except him seemed to react quickly enough to the tornado of enemy fire.’
Describing the night as ‘unreal and eerie as a nightmare’, one survivor from 15 Platoon writes: ‘Strings of incendiary bullets and shells tore across our front. Trucks burst into flame. Fireballs lit up the scene. The convoy halted. The firing became heavier and men began to leap from damaged vehicles. A staff car raced up the line, an officer hanging out of the window. “Turn to the right, swing to the right!” he yelled. There was a gigantic roar of motors and the whole line as one swung to the right and raced forward … an incendiary shell splashes off a Grant tank like a drop of water … strings of tracer ripped about our heads or bounced about the desert. There were many ghastly sights. Men jumping from stationary trucks were knocked down and killed by the stampeding convoy. A string of explosive bullets passed down the length of page 158 Ike Benn's23 truck, blowing off his neighbour's head in passing.’
Knox says: ‘All hell broke loose and one of our Bofors guns which had been captured by the Hun opened up but apparently couldn't be lowered enough to strike any of the carriers as we were too close. The tracers just kept buzzing over our heads but they hit plenty of the larger vehicles. Suddenly every vehicle moved as one and I can still see Quads and limbers on my left moving quite fast with soldiers running to get a hold on any part of them even to the gun barrels. Trucks and ambulances were going up in flames everywhere, and all were crowded as we had lost our B Echelon that morning. All I did was follow the vehicle in front and kept going. Hell what a stampede. We travelled all night and at dawn I was able to take note of what was happening. We were being led by a staff car in which was Colonel Glasgow. He organised the column and did a wonderful job. Every time he saw a strange column he prepared for action and then sent me ahead to contact the various strangers who were really much like ourselves—lost. No doubt if we had contacted the enemy Colonel Glasgow would have given him a hot reception even with the weapons we had …. he is one of the many good leaders I have met in the Army.’
Knox's description is typical of the experiences of other fit men in the battalion that night and next day. The plight of the wounded lying on the mortar ammunition in the bucking carriers can be left to the imagination. Men who had passed through the advanced dressing station had been loaded into a few ambulances and lorries, some of which were hit or caught fire. Private Price, a stretcher case in an unlucky lorry with about twenty walking wounded, got to his feet and, despite his smashed face and multiple wounds, ran and caught an ambulance.
After striking the German laager the columns had split up. One group, led by Brigadier Inglis, had turned to the east towards Alamein; the group which turned west and was rallied by Colonel Glasgow headed to the south and then eastwards to Alamein.
Many of the men of 22 Battalion, scattered and mixed with other units, moved with Colonel Glasgow's column. Other stragglers, in groups and patches, ‘split up, b—ed up, and page 159 far from home’ as one man put it, followed on, advised here and there by Colonel Russell, who was driven by Jack Hargreaves. In the break-through inferno, with his men spread about the convoy, the Colonel of course had no command. ‘I pulled out onto a flank to get my bearings and see what the trouble was, while the convoy swung about and disappeared in the night again. Owing to the noise of so many vehicles it was not hard to tell where it was and eventually I found myself with a bren carrier and five burning trucks alone on the spot.’ He set a course between two enemy positions ‘and crept off as quietly as we could …. they opened up on us….I told the driver to step on it. … suddenly we shot out into space but fortunately we landed on all four wheels and kept going. About half an hour later we ran into friendly patrols [and] pushed on in the direction of the noise of the main convoy. When the light came we found that we had been following a different outfit altogether and in spite of searching high and low could not find our people at all, everyone but.’ In the afternoon he picked up B Echelon, directed it to the east, continued the search for his men, and pulled up at the divisional rendezvous at dusk. ‘What a day.’
Borrowing petrol and water wherever possible, climbing into less precarious transport if lucky, the freed brigade began drifting into the divisional rendezvous near Kaponga Box; ‘and Kaponga meant food and water and rest—we thought.’ Here the battalion, assembling and watching with surprise the arrival of yet more comrades who had been ‘definitely’ captured or killed, formed into shape again. ‘Next morning,’ says one officer, ‘it was amazing: there was the battalion back and intact and organised and ready again, a good lesson of the wonderful recuperative powers the Army had—and Freyberg's circus in particular.’ Yet, with blankets and all personal gear lost, the effect of the break-through, the privations and shock would nag increasingly at men over the next trying fortnight. Another officer writes: ‘The morale of my boys was very low at this stage. After all most of them had been chased out of Greece then Crete, and by now had thought Egypt was next on that list. However they soon got over that and came good.’
An indication of the trial ahead comes from Padre Champion's diary:page 160
We are now in our third and last line of defence. God help us. We cannot tell how our men fared in the battle last night and things are still very confused. Organisation on our part seems very poor. Monday, 29 June: We were bombed last night…. Tuesday: We were heavily bombed last night. … at 3 pm a bad dust storm…. Wednesday, I July: A lot of gunfire all around this morning. Some say the Yanks were 15 miles away last night with mechanised stuff. [This proved to be wrong. 24.] Many bombers came over during the night. Friday [in 21 Battalion's RAP, under heavy mortar fire.] At midnight I buried two men…. Saturday…. numerous shock cases—some cried like babies. They went through hell…. Jerry bombed along the skyline today and got a few of our trucks but we bombed him and got a few of his. Sunday 5 July: ….buried…. [two men, not from 22 Battalion]….Monday: … a lot of shelling going on today. I am the only padre available for 21, 22 and 23 Battalions at present…. Tuesday:Plenty of artillery fire in the morning…. Wednesday: Things seem very much quieter…. Thursday: The units seem very scattered. Gunfire all day. Friday: The morning opened with awful amount of gunfire— very deafening. The news seems better. They say the Aussies took 700 prisoners last night…. buried Cpl. Baker25 (22 Bn) and Pte Benny26 at night. I slept near Brigade HQ, at night. About midnight there were many flares being dropped from planes—which we thought were ours. The Transport officer for 22 Bn came and told us to be on the move in 1/4 of hour (the Jerries were a few hundred yards away we were told later). The flares were German ones— they were looking for us! We travelled all night. 13 July… many shells… two cooks were killed… buried Berry27 and Sawyers28 …. Wednesday 15 July: [at 23 Battalion RAP] The morning dawned with much fighting—wounded men poured in, numerous Italian and German prisoners, 2,000 for the day…. bombed twice…. 23rd [Battalion] doctor went up to the front to help with wounded—he is a game man…. buried three men, one was corporal Creagh29 of 22nd…. lost an ambulance in the minefield last night.… 16 July: Padre McKenzie30 (Senior Presbyterian) and page 161 I buried 8 men who were killed at their post (anti-aircraft gun)…. at night shells passing both ways over our heads and all about us. 17 July: … conducted services over 9 men [from 23 Battalion] who had been buried hurriedly [the service was at the request of Lieutenant-Colonel Romans31].
The Padre now hears that 22 Battalion, almost wiped out, is withdrawing to reorganise; he stays with the remaining two battalions in the brigade; morale is improving. But by 23 July (when 6 Brigade had been crippled) ‘things have all gone wrong again because the tanks did not go in and support the infantry at “first light”.’ The front quietens, but the flies are ‘extremely bad … awful … too numerous to have a service …. beastly flies … one of the Ten Plagues that never left Egypt!’
1 4 and 5 Brigades went to Mersa Matruh; 6 Brigade stayed in reserve at Amiriya, near Alexandria. 22 Battalion's LOB party (under Major T. C. Campbell) was A Company and the 2 i/cs of the other companies, who went back to Maadi, where they stayed for a month.
4 Iggri: an army term taken from the Egyptian for ‘hurry off’
5 Mortar men, with obvious reluctance, set up ‘a Heath Robinson device for knocking out tanks': the new Spigot mortar, freshly issued in Matruh and with the usual remarkable reputation. ‘It not only kills the soldier, but the next of kin as well,’ glumly remarked one sceptical mortar man. This ungainly weapon (four long legs had to be pegged to the ground) was used for only a few practice shots at Minqar Qaim—the mortar men with some relish spiked theirs before leaving the place.
6 Sgt H. J. Murphy; born NZ 2 Nov 1924; clerk
10 Rhys Price after his discharge from hospital needed plastic surgery: ‘He should never have gone back to the front,’ says a stretcher-bearer, ‘but such was the shortage of good battle-experienced NCOs (and of course the spirit of the man himself) that he went to Italy and was killed there.’
13 Infantry Brigadier, p. 133: ‘Brig. Kippenberger used to go around all the men during the action at Minqar Q aim and inform them of all that was happening,’ notes one 22 Battalion man. ‘That of course was a great boost for morale and was really appreciated by the men.’
18 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d., MC (Gk); Hamil ton; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn 1915-19; CO 27 (MG) Bn Jan-Aug 1940; comd 4 Bde 1941-42 and 4 Armd Bde 1942-44; GOC 2 NZ Div 27 Jun-16 Aug 1942 and 6 Jun-31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947-50; Stipendiary Magistrate.
22 Col K. W. R. Glasgow, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wellington, 15 Nov 1902; headmaster; CO 14 Lt AA Regt May-Dec 1941; 5 Fd Regt Dec 1941-May 1943; OC Tps 6 NZ Div May-Aug 1943; GSO I NZ Maadi Camp, 1944; Rector, Scots College, Wellington.