CHAPTER 8 — Battle for Egypt
Battle for Egypt
DURING the Libya fighting of May-June 1942, the pendulum of success had swung even more strongly than before in favour of the Axis forces. Despite stands at Bir Hacheim and other ‘boxes’ by Free French and British troops, Rommel broke through the Gazala line and pressed on to Tobruk. When the New Zealand Division was called to return to the Western Desert, it was expected to take up a position near the Libyan frontier, but by the time its move was completed, it was too late to occupy such a position. This was in no way due to lack of speed in making the move. The 23rd, for example, took only five days to move from Djedeide to Mersa Matruh. The battalion left Djedeide on 18 June and, after passing through Merd-jayoun, Upper Galilee and Tiberias, staged the night at Tulkarm. Asluj and the Canal marked the next two staging points. Officers only had been informed of the unit's destination and a few rumours circulated concerning the ships at Suez which were to take the Division back to New Zealand or to the war in the Pacific. But, as the BBC news grew worse, fewer and fewer men believed in any destination other than the Western Desert. The report that Tobruk had fallen came as a genuine shock. Any lingering doubts as to destination were removed on 21 June as the convoy rolled through Cairo and took the Wadi Natrun road to Amiriya.
Although the move was ‘Top Secret’, with divisional shoulder flashes and hat badges removed, and vehicle signs and fern leaves painted out, the newsboys and other street sellers of Cairo hailed the ‘Kiwis’ as confidently as if flags and all identification signs had been shown. Amiriya itself was just a little dirtier and a little more dismal than usual. On the move along the coastal road towards Matruh on 22 June, the battalion met heavy traffic pushing, without any sign of organisation or control, towards Alexandria and Cairo. Sometimes in two and sometimes in three or more columns, trucks of all kinds from a variety of units, loaded with gaunt-faced weary men, forced their way back from Libya and the scene of the Eighth Army's latest defeats. Sometimes the convoy was disorganised by inter- page 143 ference from this down traffic and a dust-storm at Daba did not improve the going, but all trucks managed to report at Smugglers' Cove, a few miles east of Mersa Matruh, on 22 June. Later General Freyberg termed the Division's move of over 900 miles from Syria to Matruh as a ‘most remarkable military move’.
During this return to the desert, Colonel Leckie was evacuated sick and Major Romans temporarily took command of the unit. As Colonel Leckie, the last of the First World War officers to leave the battalion, did not return to the 23rd, his departure marked a decisive break with the unit's early history. As its original second-in-command and its commander on board ship, for a time in England, and from 13 May 1941 till 21 June 1942, Colonel Leckie made a notable contribution to the spirit and outlook of the 23rd. All who recall how ardent were the supporters of pre-war Southland Ranfurly Shield football teams will know something of the spirit Doug Leckie infused into the battalion. This spirit, a fierce pride of unit, was sometimes narrow and not markedly friendly towards other units, but it generated a Highland clannishness and a determination to make the 23rd the best fighting battalion in the Division. In the mess, Leckie was ‘one of the fighting Leckies’1 and in no way a stickler for formalities. He encouraged an independent individualism in his officers and NCOs. In particular, he encouraged them to hold and enthuse their men, not by virtue of their rank but through such natural powers of leadership as they possessed. This helped to make the 23rd a hearty unit in which respect for officers and NCOs grew according to the qualities they possessed and was not something enforced by King's Regulations and adherence to the letter of the law. Sometimes this led to a neglect of what is often termed the ‘regimental’ side of the unit's life. ‘We never over-organised in the 23rd but we always got things done’. In this typical remark of his, Leckie possibly summed up his views on command. During his term as CO, the 23rd may not have been ‘regimentally’ perfect, but it built up a remarkable esprit de corps which was one of the major forces in making it a strong and successful battalion.
Although the sight of an army in retreat was depressing, morale soon recovered: a swim in the Mediterranean, a good page 144 meal and an equally good beer—company canteens had picked up cases of tinned beer at the various NAAFIs en route—enabled most men to recover their normal high spirits. On 23 June Major Romans placed the companies in position in the eastern sector of the Matruh defences which were then being occupied by the New Zealand Division. On 24 and 25 June the battalion worked hard to clear the accumulated sand out of trenches, to re-erect or improve flattened barbed-wire fences, and to dig new weapon pits. In keeping with orders, a large LOB party, consisting of the whole of C Company and the seconds-in-command of all companies, was sent back to Maadi.2 Late on 25 June, to the delight of all who had given any thought to the likely outcome of being shut in this so-called coastal fortress, the New Zealanders handed over the Matruh ‘box’ to 10 Indian Division and moved out on a more mobile role to the south.
After a night move, 5 Brigade took up a defensive position at the head of Wadi el Garawla, but in the afternoon of 26 June moved to the vicinity of Minqar Qaim, a peculiarly shaped escarpment about 25 miles south of Matruh. Here the Division (excluding 6 Brigade which, in keeping with the current Eighth Army doctrine that a division had more infantry than its guns could support, was being held at Amiriya) occupied a battle position with 5 Brigade in the west and 4 Brigade in the east. In 5 Brigade, 21 Battalion was sent off on a separate mission to guard a petrol dump at Bir Khalda, the 22nd was placed on the west facing south and west, while the 23rd took up positions on a terrace and a flat area to the north of the escarpment. In the unit area, D Company was on the west and almost entirely on the flat ground in positions which faced north and north-west. A Company was in the centre on the terrace and covering Battalion Headquarters, while B Company was on the right facing north and north-east.
The ground at Minqar Qaim was extremely hard and, although the urgency of the task kept many of the troops digging till well after midnight on 26–27 June, some slit trenches were still very shallow and sangars had, in some cases, page 145 been built up from the excavated rocks. The digging-in of the spigot mortars, the new but rather big and clumsy infantry anti-tank weapons which were supposed to be most effective if a hit was scored at 100 yards range, proved virtually impossible in the time available. The news that the enemy had ‘broken through’ at Charing Cross stimulated the diggers to make fresh efforts. Of course, the late discovery that HQ and B Companies had trespassed on the 22nd's area and that the men responsible had to begin digging fresh slit trenches was greeted with typical comments from the soldiers concerned.
After stand-to on 27 June at 4·45 a.m., work on the defences was continued. Carrier patrols went out to the south and west. After breakfast, Captain J. Ensor, the brigade transport officer, conducted all the non-fighting transport to what was hoped would be a safe locality in the south. When, about mid-morning, large transport columns came over the north-west horizon, Major Romans, who was inspecting company defences, was asked the question in most minds, ‘Ours or theirs?’ With typical optimism, he replied, ‘Ours, of course. You don't think the enemy would move at such speed when we have 100 tanks between him and us’. The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the opening rounds in a lengthy artillery duel were fired. The enemy vehicles came on but shells forced them to retire. Several times, as their numbers increased, they advanced and then pulled back out of range. Later in the day the enemy tanks and trucks moved round to the east on the north flank of 5 Brigade and, somewhat later, attacks on 4 Brigade were reported.
The battle of Minqar Qaim was not one in which the 23rd was at all actively engaged. The men were well enough dug-in to be safe from most of the shelling, which varied in intensity from very fierce to spasmodic. All platoons came under this fire, but possibly 11 Platoon came under the heaviest shelling. This platoon was dug in on a small spur running out from the main terrace. One artillery troop had its guns at the end of the spur, another was in the slight depression east of it and a third was in a similar position west of the spur. When the counter-battery shooting reached its heights, 11 Platoon received many ‘unders and overs’ but, although one man was buried temporarily, no serious casualties were sustained.
Shelling is an experience which the infantryman comes to take for granted, but the first time under such fire is trying page 146 enough. Private Jack Bickley3 wrote an account during the day of 27 June which is of value both as giving a reinforcement soldier's reactions and a picture of the shelling to which the 23rd was subjected on that and many other days:
‘1030 hrs. 27th June…. My first experience of battle…. It's not very pleasant. I'm not actually afraid but a bit het up just like before a football match. Unfortunately, last night in the bustle, we didn't get a very good position. I'm on a solid rock floor, could get only about 6” under the level of the ground and built a rough barrier round me of stones…. That was close! Up by Bn HQ. Whir-r-r-rr DUCK! A couple of trucks are on fire out in front…. Gosh! It's getting hot in here with a tin hat on and the sun streaming in…. 1130 hrs. I'm getting stiff and sore—this rock isn't as comfortable as it might be. Can page 147 see the flash of his guns now. Here's the first casualty and here's the closest yet…. that one was close, but it was a dud. Quite a few duds come over. A bit of shrapnel just landed next me. 1145 Too close altogether and I can't get any flatter. Bits flying in all directions…. 1200 The skyline is covered with vehicles now. Our 25s have stopped for some time and he's just stopped too…. Later. The shells started again about 1300 hrs and dozens landed round by Brigade. We finished off our area map and I took a copy to Brigade…. There had been five killed in their wadi after dinner. Poor lonely smashed bodies of men lying out in the sun where they had fallen. That was my first sight of the grimmer side of war, and it set me back a bit…. I found Bde and headed back…. back to my hole again. There was a chap dead at the RAP. The shells are coming pretty close now…. Then in come the mortars, horrible things they give you no warning. Jerry seems to be right round us now—will probably attack tonight—don't like the position at all.’
The men in the unit RAP were the hardest worked members of the unit that day. Captain Alan Wilson, the MO, had to attend to artillery and engineer casualties as well as the 23rd's, often under the most trying of conditions, especially after the enemy guns began firing from the north-east. But, for the most part, the long hot day passed with the men lying low in their slit trenches. After dark, Major Romans announced that the New Zealanders were to ‘break out’ from Minqar Qaim: 4 Brigade was to attack with the bayonet and 5 Brigade was to drive through the gap carved in the enemy. Since the unit's B Echelon and the 5 Brigade troop-carrying vehicles had been attacked by tanks and driven off to the south where they were out of touch, the troops were ordered to board artillery, ammunition and any vehicles available. Tactical loading was impossible and platoons were to be split, very often between widely separated trucks.
At 10 p.m. the troops formed up and marched to the brigade rendezvous, where the trucks were waiting in three closely packed columns. Although some difficulty was experienced in loading all the men on the vehicles, by 11 p.m. the columns were practically ready to move. Moving slowly at first via the Divisional Headquarters area, the 5 Brigade group turned south-east about midnight towards the enemy. The zero hour for the 4 Brigade attack was 10.30 p.m. but, as it was postponed because some of the troops could not reach the start line in time, Brigadier Inglis, who had taken command of the Division page 148 after General Freyberg had been wounded in the afternoon's shelling, decided to try to outflank the enemy positions. Actually, 4 Brigade's attack was highly successful, but the 5 Brigade and other vehicles had in the meantime become involved in a most exciting drama.
Eye-witness accounts of the scene during the actual ‘breakout’ give something of the colour and tension of the few minutes involved. The 23rd carriers covered the right flank of the transport columns; they were told to form a screen. Private Bruce Robson4 reports: ‘The carriers kept bunching like a flock of frightened sheep. The sergeant [“Scotty” Anderson5] stood up shouting and waving his arms like a maniac. “Spread out! Spread out!” They didn't seem to understand. Behind us came the deep, steady roar of the column…. The gunner leaned forward suddenly and pointed at the ridge ahead. “There's tanks there”, he said in a hoarse whisper. And sure enough their turrets could be dimly seen at intervals along the skyline. There was a breathless moment, a sort of frozen inaction, then, crash! a great ball of fire burst out of the blackness and bounced between us and the next carrier. In a second the air was alive with these horrible messengers of death. As if by a prearranged signal the whole covey of carriers turned and sped away to the right in a desperate effort to divert the fire from the vulnerable line of trucks. The poor old carrier—it seemed to be straining every nut and bolt to out-pace those bouncing balls…. We eased up to a halt. Over at the column it looked as if the lid had been lifted off Hades…. Almost uncanny misfortune had guided one of those first shells into a petrol tank among the foremost trucks, and in a moment the whole ghastly scene was lit up by the blaze. Even as we looked a truck full of ammunition blew up, men's bodies could be seen thrown twenty feet in the air, outlined against a great livid wall of flame. The noise was terrific—engines revving and revving, ammunition bursting, the tear and crash of guns. Confused, helpless figures could be seen running in and out among the fires.’
In the columns, things looked much worse than they were. Much of the German tank fire went high. But the Germans could not very well miss such a perfect sitting target and a page 149 petrol truck exploded, an ambulance burned fiercely, and boxes of ammunition blew up. Streams of tracer bullets flew down the columns, now clearly shown in the light of the burning vehicles. A Bofors and some other guns were quickly swung into action while, without waiting for orders, some of the trucks in the left-hand column swung left, raced north and then east, and those on the right did the opposite and eventually broke clear of the enemy.
Private Bickley recorded his impressions early next day: ‘At 0200 hrs we ran into it—the experience I'll never forget. We were perhaps 150 yds from the head of our charging roaring column and about the third row in from the right. One bullet—tracer—cracked over the roof of our truck. From straight in our front came streams of fiery machine-gun fire right towards us and straight down our column…. A shell hit an ambulance just on our right…. It was a flaring mass in a minute filling the air with a horrible orange glare. The drivers rushed round to the back doors, jerked them open, but the inside was a blazing inferno…. Then we were round with the fire coming from our right side and back. I saw tracers glancing off trucks and others disappearing through them. I was right on the back of the truck and, even crouching down, felt as though I was ten feet high and six broad. The driver of every truck was flat out—a thundering mass of trucks. I take my hat off to the drivers….’
Private Charles Pankhurst of B Company confirms this impression: ‘Shells and bullets whizzing everywhere—trucks, ambulances on fire everywhere…. What a target for Jerry and I thought that every moment would be my last. However, someone directed the truck to turn left and the drivers were wonderful. They got us away from there in record time though it seemed like hours’.
Private Garnet Blampied was slightly resentful at not being able to return the enemy's fire: ‘… soon he had streams of bullets chasing each other through our truck…. It seemed as though the furies of hell itself had been let loose. The worst part about it was that we were unable to return the fire, we could only crouch low in the trucks expecting any moment that ours would be the next one to go up in flames.’
During the night, the three main groups into which the transport had divided made their way independently back towards Kaponga. In the morning, only Major Romans's staff car and two 23rd 3-ton trucks were with Brigadier Kippenberger page 150 and 5 Brigade Headquarters, but during the next twenty-four hours practically the whole unit made its way to Kaponga, where a very happy reunion took place.
The 23rd's casualties at Minqar Qaim were 1 officer, Lieutenant Torrens,6 and 4 other ranks killed, 14 wounded and 14 lost prisoner of war. The majority of these casualties had been incurred during the ‘break-out’ when a mine-carrying truck had been blown up. As this truck had been loaded with A Company men, most of the casualties which resulted from its destruction were from that company.
On 30 June Lieutenant-Colonel Watson7 arrived to take command of the battalion. One of the first of the 23rd officers to be decorated, he had left on a tour of duty just prior to the unit's move to El Adem in January 1942 and had served as CO of the Southern Infantry Training Depot in Maadi and, for a short time, as CO of 26 Battalion. He found the 23rd in good heart and shape. The men were still physically fit. Morale was high: any demoralising effect of heavy shelling or of losses was forgotten in the memory of the ‘break-out’ and the exhilarating dash across the desert. The reinforcements had been ‘blooded’ and had been knit more tightly into the unit. A man could not share a single blanket or a single greatcoat with a mate, as had been the fairly common experience on the night of 28 June, without coming to regard him as a special comrade. A day or two in action was doing what many weeks of ordinary training could not do, especially for those who had joined the unit since the last campaign.
To halt the advancing Panzerarmee, Eighth Army dug in on what became conveniently known as the Alamein line. This defensive ‘line’ extended for nearly 40 miles from the sea in the north to the virtually impassable Qattara Depression in the south. The only line which existed at the end of June 1942 was one drawn and redrawn on the maps. Three defensive boxes, 16 to 18 miles apart, at Alamein in the north, Qaret el Abd (Fortress A or the Kaponga Box) in the centre, and Naqb Abu Dweis (Fortress B) in the south apparently provided strong defended localities. But, as both Fortress A and Fortress B were vacated early in July, ‘falling back on the Alamein Line’ page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page 151 simply meant taking up fresh positions in the desert between the one firm position at Alamein on the coast and the Qattara Depression. At this time, 1 South African Division occupied the Alamein Box, the New Zealand Division was responsible for the centre, and 5 Indian Division held the south. Large gaps remained to be covered by light mobile columns or by troops arriving from farther east. Eighteenth Indian Infantry Brigade from Iraq occupied Deir el Shein, a depression about eight miles north of Fortress A, while columns of 1 Armoured Division watched the gaps in the south.
Second Echelon units at Burnham Camp give the General Salute. The parade was inspected by Lord Willingdon, official representative of the British Government at the New Zealand centennial. 23 Battalion is on the left. The officers in front are (from left) I. O. Manson, A. F. G. McGregor, M. J. Coop, A. le G. Campbell, B. I. Bassett, R. E. Romans, C. N. Watson and H. C. Black
Entraining at Burnham for overseas, 1 May 1940
Boxing match on the Andes
King George VI visits 23 Battalion at Mytchett, 6 July 1940
View from A Company headquarters tent in the Olympus Pass. Lt Bruce Baxter is in the center
German paratroops drop over Maleme, 20 May 1941
Galatas, a photograph taken before the battle
In the New Zealand Division, 6 Brigade, which had come forward from Amiriya, occupied the Kaponga Box while the other two brigades moved in a mobile role to the south-east. Within half an hour of Colonel Watson's arrival, the 23rd moved from the outskirts of the Kaponga Box to Deir el Munassib. In this area 4 Brigade took up a position to the east while 5 Brigade held the west, with 21 Battalion on the north, 22 on the west and 23 in the south. The unit's defences were strengthened by the 23rd's own anti-tank guns, which were under the command of Captain Herbie Black, who rejoined the battalion on 30 June.
The next two days passed with only light artillery fire and intense heat to trouble the men, who were often very thirsty but otherwise had few worries. On the second of these days, 2 July, B Company, under Captain Fergus Begg, and a section of carriers moved out with a gun column of 28 Field Battery and a troop from 32 Anti- Tank Battery. This mobile force, under Major John Snadden, moved north-east and joined a larger 4 Brigade force under the CRA, Brigadier C. E. Weir.8 Enemy forces were sighted on several occasions but they did not come to grips. Both sides were manoeuvring for position. The B Company men, who were responsible for protecting the guns in their column from infantry attack, dug in on seven occasions that day as a result of the many changes of position. In the late afternoon an artillery and tank battle opened north of Alam Nayil ridge. At dusk the New Zealand guns enabled the tanks of 7 Armoured Division to disengage and withdraw to a laager area. The CRA's group remained in position overnight. As the B Company men had only light dry rations for page 152 page 153 the day, the CSM, Dan Davis, returned to the 23rd area both to get meals and to secure more picks and shovels. Just before dawn next morning, Lieutenant J. Brittenden, the battalion's liaison officer, brought out a truck of supplies, hot stew and tea, and reported cheerfully that ‘the Aussies are arriving from Syria soon and Jerry will get a shock’.
About 7 a.m. on 3 July, before the New Zealand mixed group had moved, an enemy transport and gun column began to move southward across Alam Nayil. Battle was quickly joined; the guns under Brigadier Weir asserted their superiority; 19 Battalion, quickly called to the scene, launched a highly successful attack which completed the destruction of the artillery group of the Italian Ariete Division.9 The New Zealanders captured a large number of trucks, and captured or knocked out forty-four artillery pieces. Some 350 prisoners were also taken. While all the credit for this highly successful action was due to the gunners and to 19 Battalion, the 23rd men present returned later that day to their own unit with spirits as high as if they themselves had been responsible for this success.
When B Company returned to Deir el Munassib, it found that the rest of the battalion had gone. Early that morning, 5 Brigade had been ordered to seize the El Mreir Depression, a steep-sided feature about four miles north of Fortress A. Picking up 6 Field Regiment, 33 Anti- Tank Battery and 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery near the fortress, the brigade moved to a position astride the Alamein track and south-west of El Mreir. In the face of enemy shellfire, 21 Battalion on the right and 22 on the left occupied positions near the lip of the depression. The 23rd occupied an area in rear of the two forward units.
On the night of 4–5 July, however, after a day of much shelling and considerable air activity and bombing, the 23rd was sent to raid the enemy positions on the north side of El Mreir. Brigadier Kippenberger ordered the unit to move north by trucks to a start line about a mile west of the depression and then attack on foot from west to east through the enemy positions until it reached the Alamein track, which the troops page 154 were to follow back to their original positions. Years later, he wrote: ‘It was probably an over-elaborate plan and there was little time for preparation’.10 The plan was not too complex, but the 23rd companies had too little time to prepare for their attack. Although the attack was not due to commence till 9.30 p.m., the company commanders had barely sufficient time in which to give their instructions to their officers before the men had to embus for their move to the start line, which was being marked by the ‘I’ section. Platoon commanders had no adequate opportunity for briefing their men before they moved off in their trucks. The 23rd's raid was to be supported by a limited artillery programme, timed to open as the infantry crossed the start line at 9.30, with normal fire for eight minutes searching and sweeping the enemy area, then fifteen minutes' slow fire after a lift in range. When the guns opened fire, the trucks were stuck in soft sand and the infantry were pushing, shoving, struggling and swearing. Eventually, the men got their vehicles on to solid going, but 6 Field Regiment had completed its task before the infantry had even arrived at the start line. The artillery thus did little more than alarm the enemy and certainly lent little direct support to the late-starting infantry.
The situation on the start line was confused. It deserves description, if only to show what results if troops are thrown into a night attack without rehearsal of the drill that should be observed on such occasions. The 23rd's misfortune in being recalled to Egypt on the very eve of embarking on battalion and brigade training in Syria was now revealed: not once since before Libya 1941 had the unit, now with a new commander, new company commanders and many reinforcements, both officers and men, rehearsed the procedure for moving on to a battalion start line and then moving off smoothly in correct formation for a night attack. On this occasion, the lack of training was made worse by the tension arising from the knowledge that the attack was late, that the benefit of artillery support had been lost, and the number of questions which still had to be asked and answered. Thus, one of the best platoon commanders, Lieutenant Alf Boag,11 had to inquire of the Adjutant: ‘What's the compass bearing for the axis of advance?’ Others wanted to know what was the back-bearing to be followed if they could not locate the Alamein track in the dark. The CO page 155 and Adjutant, the IO and the company commanders all had to work hard to bring order out of chaos, but eventually the companies began to advance, with D Company on the right, A Company on the left and B in reserve.
But the possibilities of confusion had not been exhausted. D Company advanced with its three platoons in line—16 on the right, 18 in the centre and 17 on the left. Major Cameron,12 in the centre of 18 Platoon, was too far from his company's left flank to be able to tell whether or not contact with A Company was being maintained. A Company, with two platoons forward and one back, veered slightly to the left while D stayed some-what to the right, and a gap opened between the two leading companies. Captain Fergus Begg hurried B Company, in reserve, along in a tight box formation, with a narrow frontage, in an effort to maintain contact with the forward companies. In his determined efforts to keep in touch, he increased the pace and B Company passed through the gap and began to take the lead. D Company men, hearing the sound of marching feet and doing their best to re-establish contact with A Company, side-stepped towards the left and found most of B Company were in front of them. Something of a mix-up resulted until the correct formation was re-established. Indeed, as one D Company private recorded later: ‘We advanced again and almost shot up B Company who, by some unknown means, had got in front of us’.
Very shortly afterwards, when the companies had advanced about 1600 yards, the enemy opened fire with mortars, anti-tank guns, machine guns and small arms of all kinds. This concentrated fire showed that the 23rd had lost the advantage of surprise and the men went to ground until the officers of the leading companies selected the posts they were going to attack. As some of the fire came from the left, it was obvious that, in crossing the flat bottom of the depression, the unit had missed the exposed flank of the enemy positions. Captain Norris therefore led A Company more than half-left against a large Italian outpost he had sighted. No. 7 Platoon on the left went wide and did not strike many enemy, but the rest of the company, encouraged by the shouts and example of their officers, Captain Norris, Lieutenants Fane Vernon,13 Ian Wilson14 and Horace Cameron, got to grips with the Italians in quick time. The page 156 leading troops fired their rifles and tommy guns and threw grenades with good effect. They killed a number of Italians and penetrated their positions to a distance of about 200 yards. The last of the Italian positions were found vacated as the Italians had taken to their heels and fled in some disorder. No. 8 Platoon had some of the toughest fighting that night and Private John Milne,15 an acting section leader, did good work in heading the attack until the first enemy posts were overrun. Even when wounded in the hip, he continued to urge his men on. Corporal ‘Dagwood’ Bain16 took prisoner one Italian, who surrendered quickly. After quite a fight with the occupants of one heavy machine-gun post, Lance-Sergeant Bruce Gillies17 and his men knocked out the post and captured the Breda gun. In the darkness, the A Company men got separated in chasing the scattering Italians, but Lieutenant Wilson led 7 Platoon and some of 9 out by the route used on the advance, while Captain Norris collected most of 8 and some of the stragglers and led them out by the Alamein track. A few stragglers joined D Company.
When the 23rd first came under fire, Major Cameron was wounded in the knee and he therefore handed over command of D Company to Lieutenant Boag, the officer in charge of the centre platoon. Finding that the enemy fire sounded worse than it was in fact, since most of it was going high, Boag shouted to his men to follow him. Both 17 and 18 Platoons, with bayonets fixed, dashed into the attack. As they approached the enemy positions, Boag himself was practically knocked off his feet by an Italian grenade. He replied in kind by lobbing a 36 grenade into the nearest Italian weapon pit, which was later found to contain seven dead Italians. The men of these two platoons charged, shooting to the front, throwing grenades and later using the bayonet. In the first positions they struck they wiped out the enemy but, as with A Company on their left, the farther they went the fewer enemy they found, as the Italians simply fled. The enemy small-arms fire ceased and, as several members of D Company claimed later, it seemed that nothing could stop the 23rd from penetrating to the enemy gunline. Unfortunately, at that stage, the order to halt and withdraw came from the page 157 rear. Private ‘Red’ Kearney,18 who had done good work throughout, grabbed the last Italian to be seen and the only one left alive in the sector and brought him back as a prisoner. Boag led 17 and 18 Platoons and a few of A Company back by the Alamein track, which was only about 100 yards east of where D Company had mounted its attack. The third D Company platoon, No. 16, failed to join in the attack. In its position on the extreme right of the battalion's front in the advance, its men possibly came under heavier fire than the rest of the attacking troops. At any rate, the platoon commander claimed: ‘We got pinned down by heavy fire and couldn't move’. That this failure to attack when they were supposed to do so had a depressing and demoralising effect on the men may be seen from the fact that during the next few days this platoon was the only one in the battalion to have men evacuated as anxiety neurosis cases.
B Company took no part in the attack. Especially after the shouts of A and D Companies had indicated their entry into the attack, Captain Begg was fretting to commit B Company, but his orders were to wait for the CO's decision. Since, in the confusion of the advance and the move of D Company through B, all contact between the Colonel and B Company had been lost, the company was reluctantly withdrawn with the others without having fired a shot.
Shortly after 2 a.m. on 5 July, the three companies were back in their own areas. Their casualties were light for the amount of fire which had been directed at them. Three had been killed, 15 wounded and 3 left to become prisoners of war. Lieutenant McCambridge19 had been wounded twice, and with two others had then wandered in the wrong direction, falling into enemy hands. Although a New Zealand Divisional situation report described this raid as ‘completely successful’ and a message was received which stated, ‘C in C congratulates NZ Div on success of last night's raid’, the men of the 23rd were not particularly proud of this engagement. Indeed, it provided many of those who participated in it with a perfect example of how an attack should not be mounted. Nevertheless the battalion was pleased to learn from a divisional intelligence summary page 158 that its prisoners had led to the identification of the Pavia Division, and that one of the prisoners had reported that a battalion less a company had been broken up by the raid.
For the next two days 5 Brigade remained in position to the south of El Mreir. Conditions were anything but pleasant: vicious shelling and occasional bombing did provide some distraction from complaints about the heat and lack of water. Jack Bickley's diary entry for 4 July reads: ‘Independence Day for the U.S.A. and a stinking hot thirsty shell-battered day for us.’ But, on the day after the raid, mail arrived from home, always a welcome event but one that was particularly appreciated by men who had been campaigning for over a week in the heat of the Egyptian summer. Thus Bob Stone wrote: ‘Mail arrived for us—4 for me—great to get it in front line’; Garnet Blampied described the arrival of letters as ‘one of the happiest events of a soldier's life’, while Jack Bickley reported: ‘We got a great surprise today—mail arrived. What a great time to get letters, they are as good as a tonic’. Spasmodic shelling and intermittent air raids continued: a few more casualties occurred. Lieutenant Boag was one of these and D Company was left temporarily with only one officer. News from the rest of the Alamein line gave no hope of an early success.
The policy of harassing the enemy was continued. On the night of 6–7 July, Second-Lieutenant Don Grant took his platoon, No. 12 of B Company, to Deir el Qatani, a depression only a mile west of El Mreir. Setting out at 10.15 p.m., this fighting patrol ran into about two dozen Germans with a troop-carrier, an anti-tank gun, a Bedford 15-cwt truck and a car. No. 12 Platoon opened fire with all its weapons on this small laager. The troop-carrier bolted, the Bedford was put out of action, several of the enemy were killed or wounded and one of the German wounded was brought back as a prisoner. He belonged to 580 Mixed Reconnaissance Unit. Although the patrol had three men wounded and had lost one ‘presumed killed’, its members were very pleased with their successful brush with the enemy and with having beaten Germans, who were classed as so much better fighters than the Italians.
These days of waiting also saw the 23rd's new anti-tank platoon fire its first shots in action. On 5 July a small enemy convoy approached from the west. Captain Black and his men waited till the leading vehicle came within range before opening fire. Their ‘bag’ was only one vehicle but it was a good start. page 159 On 7 July, again, the anti-tank guns kept enemy armoured cars, engaged in reconnaissance work, at a distance and knocked out one vehicle.
For the infantry, 7 July was, according to Bob Stone's diary, ‘another very hot and weary day. Doing nothing on very little food and water and being shelled and bombed continuously is a bit nerve racking. Heat terrific—it is hard to rig up much shelter in our holes’. But late that day orders came for a move to the south: the higher command appreciated that the panzer divisions were probing for a gap between the two British corps in the area between Alam Nayil and Munassib and therefore ordered the New Zealand Division to occupy that area. At 8.45 p.m. the 23rd took the lead in a brigade column moving to the south and east. Unfortunately, the enemy's evening ‘hate’ was intensified at that time, and one truck went up in flames and others were damaged. But, despite having a few trucks on tow and striking soft sand en route, the move was completed by 2 a.m.
With the 22nd to the west and facing north and the 21st facing south, the 23rd dug in on and around some escarpments not far from Point 104, about three miles east-south-east of Kaponga. After practically no sleep, stand-to came at 4.30 a.m., and thereafter men busied themselves with improving the positions chosen in the darkness or selecting and digging new and better ones. The day was reasonably quiet: no enemy columns approached within range. On 8 July, too, some of the keener members of the unit arrived back from Maadi, having refused to wait any longer for an official posting. Thus Privates W. Valli20 and E. Green,21 both of 10 Platoon, arrived with the supply column, having taken French leave in order to rejoin their comrades in the desert. Captain Charles Mason also returned from a course in Palestine and again took over command of the carrier platoon. ‘Charlie had a reputation for recklessness but his downright common-sense was a tonic in the depression fairly prevalent at this stage. Even the men in the companies seemed affected by the new atmosphere he created.’22page 160
That night, 8–9 July, 5 Brigade moved another three miles to the east. Daylight reconnaissance of the route and the new positions, and the marking of the route by lamps, enabled the move to be completed before midnight. The 23rd now took up positions on a low feature which the troops named ‘Iggri Ridge’, a name derived from the Arabic for ‘Hurry-up!’, which describes the treatment administered by the enemy guns while the 23rd occupied that position. On 9 July, too, the enemy occupied Kaponga Box unopposed. Earlier that day demolitions were carried out and vast columns of smoke rose from the Box. The giving up of this prepared strongpoint, the frequent night moves to new positions, and the general lack of reliable information led to much questioning of the ability and intentions of the higher command. ‘I can't understand this war in the least, but I suppose somebody must,’ wrote Private Bickley that day. ‘Kaponga Box blown up by our engineers, had not expected we would not defend this place but suppose the heads have their reasons, all our hard work of last year gone,’ wrote Private Stone. In fact, the Box was too far to the west to form part of a defensive line with the troops available and it was in danger of being isolated. But even Rommel was puzzled and wrote: ‘we were at a loss to understand why they had given the position up’. Other actions about this time were somewhat baffling to thinking troops. On the night of 8–9 July the 23rd established a listening post, under Corporal Jim Baxter,23 at Point 104, but on the following night the Germans occupied this useful observation point, with a resulting marked increase in accurate shelling of the battalion's positions on the following day.
While it would be both difficult and unfair to generalise at all dogmatically concerning morale in the unit at this time, it cannot be denied that it was beginning to flicker. While the majority were in good heart and condition, some were growing very tired of the shelling, the bombing, the heat, the various moves and the need to dig in again and again. Thus, the normally cheerful Johnston could write at this time: ‘It is very disheartening and we are all beginning to get in the dumps at having to withdraw all the time. Digging in every day is not the best on a bottle of water per day. Have never been so dry before.’ Some found the various moves under threat of encirclement or pressure quite exhilarating, but too much excitement page 161 can itself become exhausting. On 9 July Bob Stone wrote: ‘We sat quiet all day confident we could smack the enemy if he tried anything on.’ Actually, the enemy was engaged in a reconnaissance in force and, in the late morning, four German tanks and seven or eight troop-carriers approached the gap between B and D Companies. Sergeant Moncrieff's24 anti-tank-gun crew opened fire at about 1200 yards and hit the leading tank. Although it did not ‘brew up’, it came to a halt. The New Zealand artillery opened fire immediately afterwards and the enemy column turned tail, leaving one tank and the two trucks behind. A minefield was laid in the gap but the enemy did not venture again into that sector. Towards evening the battalion's forward troops reported mortar and airburst fire as well as ordinary shelling. Reports of much enemy movement continued to come in. The Germans appeared to be massing for an attack. Consequently, although the word did not reach the troops till after midnight, 5 Brigade made another move to the north-east.
The late announcement of this move meant that several who were dog-tired and sleeping soundly were nearly forgotten. Most platoon officers carried out the normal check and were able to report their men all present and correct, but so hurried were the preparations that some men were left to look after themselves. Thus, Corporal Ward25 and Private Herbison,26 in a listening post about 400 yards forward of the D Company position, only just heard the trucks in time to join their company. Sergeant Percy Cunningham,27 acting CSM of D Company, not being in any platoon, was not warned of the move and remained asleep in his slit trench. Early next morning he watched the occupation of the area by German tanks. He was close enough to see German tank drivers lighting cigarettes and laughing at having conquered unoccupied ground. Later in the day, Cunningham managed to move away unobserved and, by following the convoy's tracks in the sand, he rejoined the unit in El Muhafid Depression.
The news from other parts of the Alamein front was good, without being very good: at the beginning of July, 1 South African Division, aided by the determined stand of 18 Indian page 162 Brigade, had held the coastal sector against Rommel's first attempt to punch a way through to Alexandria; next, 1 Armoured Division, supported by 1 and 2 South African Brigades and battle groups of 50 Division, had operated aggressively but without scoring any decisive victory; and then, on 10 July, 9 Australian Division, freshly arrived from Syria, attacked in the sector forward of El Alamein station, took the mounds around Tell el Eisa, and captured over 600 prisoners. This encouraged General Auchinleck, Commander of Eighth Army, to order increased pressure along the whole front. Consequently on 11 July, 13 Corps, with 1 Armoured Division on the right and 2 New Zealand Division on the left, moved to an attack generally directed against Ruweisat Ridge, a long narrow feature running east and west about five miles north of the New Zealanders' positions and a short distance east of El Mreir. This 13 Corps attack was to be in three phases: first, the attacking divisions were to seize a start line running north-north-east from Alam Nayil ridge to a wadi later well known as Stuka Wadi; secondly, in operation BACON, the New Zealanders were to seize the western end of Ruweisat Ridge; and thirdly, 1 Armoured Division was to exploit to the west.
However long the various headquarters in the chain of command between Eighth Army and 23 Battalion had been deliberating over the first phase of this attack, the troops who were supposed to execute it, in the 23rd at least, had no time whatsoever to think about it. At approximately 4.30 p.m. on 11 July, Colonel Watson returned to the unit from a conference at Brigade Headquarters with word that the companies had to embus and move off at 5 p.m. As he had gone to Brigade without notifying his Adjutant, no Orders Group was waiting for him and his IO was fast asleep, making up for several very short nights. By the time Captain Cunningham had summoned the company commanders and Lieutenant Pat Lynch had sorted out his maps, worked out compass bearings for the advance in the trucks and attended to other details, there was no time left to give even the company commanders full information and proper orders. The Adjutant insisted: ‘It isn't on! It can't be done!’, but the CO declared that the unit could be pulled together with flag signals. He himself drove off slowly in his jeep waving a flag to indicate that the companies must follow in desert formation. Although the troops hurled themselves into their trucks with no information as to where they were going or what was intended, the 23rd did not move at the stipulated page 163 time. Once again the hurried scramble to move led to an atmosphere of rush and tension, but the battalion was sufficiently well trained in moves in desert formation to follow the CO's lead without being briefed on what would normally be considered essential details.
The Division made an impressive sight as it shook itself out into desert formation, with 5 Brigade on the right and 4 Brigade on the left. In 5 Brigade, 22 Battalion was on the right, the 23rd on the left and the 21st in the rear in reserve. The enemy artillery quickly opened fire on the target thus provided, and shells began to land thick and fast around the advancing trucks. Garnet Blampied probably described a general experience when he wrote: ‘It is surprising how helpless one feels, with the truck dashing forward and shells screaming and bursting on all sides. On the outside we appeared cool and calm and even made feeble attempts at cracking jokes but I fear that inside we were seething with conflicting emotions, and I guess there were very few who could not honestly say that they had “the wind up”.’ Unfortunately, the driver of the CO's jeep was one of the first hit by shrapnel. Colonel Watson at once took his place at the wheel and drove him back to the RAP. The temporary departure of the CO on an errand for which no flag signal was provided led to the slowing down of the battalion's advance. About the same time, B Company on the left got its trucks involved with those of the Maoris and thus provided the enemy gunners with an even better target than before. The 23rd suffered casualties from this fire, the most important so far as the direction of the unit was concerned being the loss of the Adjutant, Captain Gordon Cunningham. At this juncture, some of the trucks turned about and drove back to a safer area where they let the infantry debus; others allowed their occupants to debus on the spot. Most men promptly started to dig in and only on the return of Colonel Watson was the advance resumed.
By this time, the units of both brigades had begun to advance in a series of long extended lines. They made an inspiring sight as they advanced through the shelling with bayonets fixed and gleaming in the setting sun. After about 6000 yards had been covered, they reached Stuka Wadi, where they were to form up for the night attack. All were certain that they must be intended to go straight into an attack that night but, before the advance was complete, the 23rd LO at 5 Brigade Headquarters roared up in his jeep with the message: ‘No BACON tonight. Bacon page 164 is off’. This message made sense to those acquainted with the code-word for the next phase of the operation, but sounded like an insult to the men who had been hurried into an advance before they had been given their tea. As it was, all hands had to dig in since shells and mortar bombs were still falling. To be without greatcoats and blankets for the night after a long advance in shirts and shorts and to go without tea did not help morale, but there were compensations. The British tanks which moved to a laager area in rear of the battalion were much discussed. ‘As good as a tonic to our boys was the sight of our tanks. At last we've seen them and know for certain they're here,’ wrote one 23rd private. About midnight, Major Romans brought a truckload of dixies of hot stew to Stuka Wadi. That meal put new heart into the cold and hungry troops.
During the night Colonel Watson, worried that the 23rd was in touch neither with the 20th on the left nor with the 22nd on the right, moved his forward troops to the right, with D Company required to fill the gap between the 22nd and the 23rd. Staff-Sergeant Ron Philip,28 D Company's CQMS, temporarily in charge of 16 Platoon in view of the shortage of officers, received the order to be prepared to move in five minutes. Certain in his own mind that this meant that the attack was now on, Philip sent one section back to Company Headquarters with the runner and went to rouse the other two sections. This took a little time and, when they were all ready, Philip led them forward. Imagining that they must have fallen behind the others, Philip and his men hurried on, never for a moment dreaming that they alone were advancing towards the enemy. After about an hour, dawn began to break and, about 300 yards ahead, they saw the forward posts of the enemy but no sign of the rest of the battalion. Some desultory fire—probably nothing more than early morning clearing of machine guns—sent the two sections of men to ground in a slight depression, where they remained unobserved by the enemy throughout the day of 12 July. Philip ordered ‘No smoking!’ in case their presence was betrayed by the sight or smell of smoke. Thus, the seventeen men lay out in the broiling sun all day, scarcely able to move and steadily growing more parched with thirst. They watched the Italians going about their business, wiring and mining their defensive posts, and Philip was later able to report on movement of guns and vehicles and the page 165 siting of machine guns. Darkness fell about 8.40 p.m., but Philip delayed moving his men until certain their withdrawal could not be detected. The sections then went back to a small wadi where they rested and some fell asleep. Later they were picked up in a 3-ton truck by Lieutenant Grant Robertson29 of B Company.
Another 23rd soldier, Private George Ellis,30 went missing on the night of 11–12 July. A signaller, he left the B Company area to check on communications with D Company. In returning, he either lost his way or was misled by the moving of the companies during the night. He was posted ‘missing’ and remained on the list of missing for nine months, although, in fact, he was killed on the morning of 12 July along with three members of a Bren-carrier crew whose story follows.
Before first light on 12 July, Lieutenant Charles Mason, with a crew of three—Privates P. Rayner,31 driver, D. A. A. Griffin,32 gunner, and B. Robson, signaller—set out to contact B Company and then to try to locate Philip's two sections. They saw nothing of B Company nor of the D Company men, but picked up Ellis some distance out from the 23rd. Robson, the only survivor, can best tell what happened next: ‘Just over a slight rise we ran slap-bang into the enemy lines and the next thing I knew we had stopped practically among gun positions and slit trenches. Griffin, our gunner, hopped out with a 38 and the daft idea of taking prisoners. Charlie acted promptly. He signalled the driver quick about turn and shouted urgently to Griffin, “Back in! Quick man”. In a moment we were off. The Italians started to run for their guns and before we had got up speed or could get over the rise plastered us with small arms fire. Griffin was working an MG on the back of the carrier and I worked the bolt of my rifle like a madman but they had too much fire for us. Griffin got one through the head. George Ellis had one leg all but shot off below the knee. I got hit in the thigh of my right leg. Charlie called for more speed. But the engine choked and stopped. Not fifty yards away to our right sat a Jerry Mark IV tank—its fire had stopped the carrier. Another tank also opened up on us.’page 166
The odds were too great. Mason, Rayner and Griffin were killed. Ellis was shot by an Italian and Robson was taken prisoner. When the carrier was located nearly a week later, it was in a burnt-out condition and, in the absence of identification discs, the bodies could not be identified. None of the burial party had any idea that Ellis had been picked up, and, consequently, Mason and his men were reported killed in action. Some nine months later, word came back from an Italian prisoner-of-war camp that Robson was alive and that the ‘missing’ Ellis had been killed under the circumstances described.
Bacon, the attack on Ruweisat Ridge, confidently expected by the 23rd on the morning of 12 July, was postponed till the night of 14–15 July. While waiting, most men endured the spasmodic shelling and the heat, and found some consolation in the tins of fruit brought up by the YMCA truck and the sight of the eighteen Bostons going over to bomb the enemy and coming back in undisturbed formation. On 14 July the Divisional Supply Point was bombed by Stukas while 23rd reinforcements were coming forward and the Quartermaster's truck was collecting rations. Sergeant Greig,33 who had done a fine job as unit ration sergeant, was killed. So also was Lieutenant Ivan Dillon,34 who had been a spare officer in Syria.
In the interval of waiting, more detailed plans had been worked out for the Ruweisat attack: 30 Corps, represented by 5 Indian Division, was to take the eastern end of Ruweisat Ridge, while the New Zealand Division from 13 Corps was to take the western end. Eighth Army orders for the tanks of 2 Armoured Brigade were watered down in the orders of 13 Corps to ‘2 Armd Bde will be prepared to move on centre line of the inter-corps boundary with the tasks of (a) exploiting success of the N.Z. Div to the NW; (b) countering any counter-attack by the enemy armour against NZ Div which may develop from the NE, North or NW.’ The Eighth Army was still learning how to mount a major attack involving different divisions: provision for liaison and for guiding the tanks forward were limited and no specific times were given to the Armoured Brigade.
In the New Zealand Division, 5 Brigade was to attack on the right and 4 Brigade on the left, as in the advance on 11 page 167 July. In 5 Brigade, the attack was to be executed on a 1000-yard front with the 23rd on the right, the 21st on the left and the 22nd in reserve with a ‘mopping-up’ role. ‘There is nothing more nerve-racking than waiting in idleness for the hour of a projected attack to arrive. Thus it was with a feeling of profound relief that we received the news at 5 p.m. on the 14th July that our attack would go in that night’.35
The starting time for the attack was 11 p.m. Long before that hour, the brigade ‘I’ section marked the start line with coloured lights, shaded from the front but visible from the rear, and the units moved into position behind this line. No rum was issued to the 23rd on this occasion as its arrival had been delayed by the bombing of the supply point. A more serious shortage arose from the same cause: no sticky or other anti-tank bombs could be obtained. The RSM, ‘Buzz’ Daly,36 tried hard to secure these bombs but he could not replace those destroyed that day by page 168 the enemy bombers. Although the artillery fired a few concentrations, these fell far ahead of the infantry, who were to attack without close artillery support.
Promptly at 11 p.m. the 23rd moved off on its six-mile advance, with B Company under Captain Fergus Begg on the right and D Company, now under Captain Ironside,37 on the left, and A Company under Captain Peter Norris in reserve, moving about 300 yards behind the attacking companies. Battalion Headquarters moved in rear of A Company with elements of HQ Company, not normally committed to an attack, but including Major T. B. Morten, the company commander, and Lieutenant W. Cook, the transport officer, who was most anxious to avenge his lost friend, Charlie Mason.
The first two miles of the advance were made in comparative silence, broken only by the occasional word of command— ‘Keep your interval! Don't bunch!’—and the curse that accompanied a fall into a disused slit trench. The sound of boots on stones was covered in part by an RAF plane which circled overhead, flicking its navigation lights on and off and drawing fire which helped the infantry to locate some of the enemy posts.
Just on midnight, B Company encountered heavy fire which came from behind a minefield. Bursts of tracer fire flew across the front of and towards the advancing infantry. Soon the heavier booming of a quick-fire close-support gun added to the noise of the light and heavy machine guns. Mortars also opened up and the noise of firing spread along the front of the divisional advance. Begg quickly decided to chance casualties in crossing the minefield and courageously set the example by leading his men into it. As Private Blampied wrote later: ‘It was a queer sensation crossing the minefield and one seemed to step very lightly.’ Apparently, it was either a dummy or was sown with anti-tank mines only, as no one was blown up on it. At any rate, the infantry were quickly across and, with bayonets fixed and tommy guns blazing to the front, were speedily engaged in wiping out Italian machine-gun and other posts. ‘Despite the heavy fire and bursting of hand grenades, our chaps made short work of the forward positions,’ says Blampied. Unfortunately, during one of the first bayonet charges, Captain Begg was killed by a direct burst of machine- page 169 gun fire. Private ‘Nip’ Nolan38 of 11 Platoon took a speedy revenge and followed up his grenade by going in with the bayonet on the machine-gun crew responsible. Similar incidents occurred at other points. Several casualties were also sustained. No. 11 Platoon, under the command of Sergeant Dave McKay,39 lost some of its connecting files as well as an outstanding section leader in Corporal Henry.40 This platoon thus became temporarily separated from the rest of the company in the confusing fighting which followed. No. 12 Platoon, under Lieutenant Don Grant, was on the extreme right of the divisional advance and, as a gap remained between the New Zealanders and the Indians farther to the east, this platoon was much troubled by fire from its right flank. Grant had some difficulty in keeping his platoon on its correct bearing and preventing it from sheering off to deal with this fire. After B Company had cleaned up a series of enemy positions and taken some dozens of prisoners in a fighting advance of over three hours, its men went to ground for approximately half an hour while Lieutenant Grant Robertson, OC 10 Platoon, who had taken over command of the company, reorganised and also discovered what the movements of tanks on the left front meant. By now all contact with D Company had been lost.
In the meantime, on the 23rd's left, D Company had also encountered the enemy. In addition to small-arms fire, it came under heavier fire from anti-aircraft or anti-tank guns. At this stage D Company was well organised, with the two forward platoons, 18 under Lieutenant J. H. Cameron on the right and 17 under Lieutenant Cooper,41 in touch and not very far forward of 16 Platoon under Staff-Sergeant Philip. The D Company men held their fire until they were practically on top of the enemy and then went in, firing from the hip and using the bayonet to good effect. As at El Mreir, some of the Italians withdrew hurriedly to the rear, but the great majority of what proved to be the Brescia Division surrendered as quickly as possible. The determined riflemen of D Company promptly shot any who showed fight or were slow in surrendering.page 170
Soon after striking the first enemy positions, D Company encountered tanks belonging to 8 Panzer Division. The first of these tanks was on the move and spraying the ground with indiscriminate machine-gun fire. One D Company man expressed the general feeling when he shouted at the top of his voice to the German tank: ‘Why the hell don't you go home? You're spoiling the whole show.’ The lack of sticky bombs was a serious handicap at this time. Nevertheless, Cameron and his men went tank-hunting and, with the aid of a tin of petrol luckily found nearby, Private Jack Clark42 set one tank on fire. It burned furiously for some time and, as men did not want to show up as a target against its glare, they avoided it.
In the confusion caused by the moving tanks and in an attempt to retain contact with 21 Battalion on the left, the rest of D Company veered to the left and lost touch. By 1.30 a.m. on 15 July, therefore, formation had been lost. Most of D Company, under Captain Ironside and Lieutenant Cooper, kept in touch with what they understood to be the 21st, but when, after cleaning up pockets of resistance encountered en route, they halted for a rest at around 2.30 a.m., they discovered that this force was made up of Colonel S. Allen,43 CO of the 21st, two other officers and one 21 Battalion platoon under Lieutenant Keith West-Watson.44
A Company, the reserve company of the 23rd, was meanwhile advancing steadily. At first, its men had no fighting to do, although they came under mortar and later machine-gun fire. About 3000 yards from the start line, they met an enemy tank. Lieutenant Ian Wilson, in command of 9 Platoon on the right, shot at it and threw a grenade at its tracks without doing obvious damage. Lieutenant F. Vernon, with 7 Platoon on the left, later described his company commander's actions on this occasion: ‘Peter was rushing round with a “Tommy” gun when we came upon a Hun tank which was roaring round aimlessly. Peter goes up to it, shoves his “Tommy” through the driver's slits and lets him have it … the result was electric. The tank sort of stood on its rear bogies, raced its engine a good deal and then started to lower its gun at him, so Peter page 171 skips round the back and throws a grenade under it and, after the smoke and dust had died down, the tank could be seen going for its life—away from Norris.’ The Battalion Headquarters group also ran into tanks during its advance. Some tanks in enemy forward areas were partially dug-in and sandbagged and to outward appearances knocked out. They came to life after the second wave of infantry passed and one of them roared into action practically in the middle of the 23rd headquarters. Brens were fired at its slits in the vain hope of getting some shots inside. Sergeant Thomas45 and Private ‘Congo’ Smith, both of the anti-aircraft platoon, made valiant attempts to get a track off and to lever open the turret with a pick—but to no avail. The tank fired several shots in various directions without hitting anyone, got up speed and made off in the darkness.
A Company continued to advance until Captain Norris considered the right distance had been covered and that the forward companies should be on the objective. He then sent Lieutenant Ian Wilson and Private Ken Cooper46 forward to contact D Company. About 300 yards ahead they found Lieutenant Cameron and a dozen of his men, the remainder of his platoon having become casualties or been scattered. He could give no indication of the whereabouts of the rest of D Company, which by this time was a long way farther on. Wilson arid Cooper returned to A Company headquarters, whence Norris sent them south-east to report to Colonel Watson. About this time, too, Lieutenant Robertson led B Company not forward but practically at right angles to the axis of advance and succeeded in linking up with the Battalion Headquarters group. Colonel Watson now halted this mixed force while he himself went forward with Wilson to reconnoitre the area in which A Company was halted.
After a brief reconnaissance, the Colonel ordered those elements of the battalion available to consolidate, with A Company on the left, the handful of D Company in the centre and B Company on the right. Lieutenant Wilson he sent back to bring up those troops halted in the rear. On this occasion, Wilson ran into Brigadier Kippenberger and gave him a report on the situation. The Brigade Commander then left the area to hurry page 172 into position the troop of anti-tank guns he had brought up, and also to ensure that the tanks of 2 Armoured Brigade came forward in time to support the infantry on Ruweisat Ridge.
From about 5 a.m., therefore, everyone was busy digging in and organising a defensive position. After a small amount of fighting, A Company and Cameron's men captured about sixty more Italians slightly to the north-east of the area in which they were consolidating. After siting his headquarters in the rear of the area, Colonel Watson went back to check on the position of 22 Battalion and to arrange for it to fit into a scheme of all-round defence. Major Hanton,47 the commander of the 22nd, has recorded: ‘0545 hrs. Contacted Lt.Col. Watson 23 Bn and everything seemed to be OK. He left for his Bn and I for mine. Then the tanks began firing at us—the ground was very rocky with about only 1'– 11/2' of sand.’ Seven or eight tanks of 8 Panzer Regiment swung in from the south, sprayed the area freely with lead, and quickly captured 22 Battalion, with the exception of Sergeant Keith Elliott's48 platoon on the extreme right flank. Colonel Watson and those with him had no chance of escape and shared the fate of the 22nd.
The guns of K Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery under Lieutenant Ollivier49 were between 22 and 23 Battalions. Their crews fought gallantly and scored some direct hits but were all knocked out within a few minutes. At this stage, when it seemed that the tanks would sweep the 23rd ‘into the bag’, Captain Norris shouted to the whole 23rd group to move forward to the main ridge, which could now be clearly seen about 300 yards ahead. His appreciation was that shelter on the north side of the ridge offered the only hope of protection from the tanks and their devastating fire. ‘Never had we moved so fast as when we sprinted across the 400 yards of bullet-swept flat until we reached the temporary cover of the ridge,’ wrote Blampied in describing the wild dash up to and over the very low rise which was Ruweisat Ridge. Fortunately for the 23rd, the tanks now concentrated on getting the 22nd away to an area from which they could not be recaptured. Despite some fire from machine guns and from armoured cars in the north, the 23rd crossed the ridge and took up positions mainly to the page 173 west of the pipeline. Some elements of the 21st and Sergeant Elliott's platoon later joined the 23rd but, as senior officer, Norris took charge and laid out all-round defensive positions, although quite a few preferred to shelter in the pipeline ditch rather than attempt to dig new positions in what seemed to be the solid rock of the main ridge.
It will be remembered that the larger part of D Company—Company Headquarters and most of 16 and 17 Platoons—had joined Colonel Allen of the 21st in the advance. Although Ironside and Cooper thought they had reached the objective when they halted for a rest at 2.30 a.m., Colonel Allen insisted they should push on. After advancing for another hour, they met a few isolated groups of enemy with whom they dealt speedily, killing some and sending others back, unarmed and unescorted, as prisoners. During the cleaning out of two strong machine-gun posts, such section leaders as J. S. Baxter, J. Richardson,50 W. D. H. Lory51 and W. Smellie52 distinguished themselves. Cooper says: ‘At 3.50 a.m. we encountered a minefield and an enemy B echelon or tank repair workshop of some description—for at least 20 prisoners were sent running back towards the 22nd. Cpl. “Hank” Rogers53 then spotted a couple of Iti drivers trying to start their trucks, and a burst from his tommy gun found its mark, and the air was rent with agonized Italian.’
After a conference at which Colonel Allen concluded that the mixed group had come too far, he and Staff-Sergeant Ron Philip went back, hoping to meet their own reserve companies or the 22nd. On the way, they ran into fire from a strongpoint overlooked in the advance. Colonel Allen died of his wounds, but Philip, whose wounds were dressed by Privates Rex Cross54 and V. Idour55 of the 23rd, was picked up about 4 p.m. in a truck by Lieutenant Paddy Lynch, the 23rd IO.page 174
After waiting some time for the return of Colonel Allen and Staff-Sergeant Philip, the mixed party decided to move back towards the other units before consolidating. Lieutenant Cooper's story runs:
‘Promptly at 0420 hours we fanned out in formation, and commenced our walk back, and no sign of either Col. Allen or Ron Philip did we see. We walked for approximately 3/4 of an hour when we came across Major McElroy,56 21st Bn, who was in charge of approximately 20 men and 20 prisoners, so after explaining our theory, we pushed on until we considered we were near Pt. 64 on Ruweisat Ridge. The first grey streaks of dawn were breaking at this stage, and Capt. Ironside along with Major McElroy, and a Capt. from the 21st,57 had a conference on a course of action. Suddenly we saw a truck moving not 30 yards from us, and Jim Richardson's Bren started things going. The truck stopped, and out came 20 Itis, who must have received a horrid shock finding us behind them. They quickly joined Maj. McElroy's party. We then surged forward in formation for it was fast breaking day. The area was fairly thickly populated with Itis, but they soon caved in arid joined the rest of their comrades. We were moving down a wadi at the foot of the ridge, and our stiffest resistance came from a mixed bunch of entrenched Huns and Itis, and we had a couple of charges at them, and in the last of these Tinny Ironside received a machine gun bullet through the head, and was killed instantly. A bayonet attack or two overcame all resistance, and Ray Searle's58 burst of a Bren magazine down a long trench convinced them that the fight was one sided…. They say New Zealanders are resourceful, but I'll go so far as to say they think of most things. A certain Dunedin wharfie,59 member of 17 Pl., was helping to escort the prisoners when he stopped and carefully cleaned his bayonet, and on being questioned he answered, “You never know how this war might swing around, and they say that blood on your bayonet doesn't help to prolong one's life”….in the course of rooting out the Itis we came across an I officer from the 5th Indian Division who had been captured that morning while on a recce. He was delighted to lead us back to his lines….’page 175
Cooper's account of the capture of over 500 prisoners, mainly Italians of the Pavia Division, must be supplemented, especially concerning Cooper's own work. The last main attack by this party was launched by Jim Richardson's shout as he saw a truck move off: ‘We can't let them get away. We must give it a go!’ In view of their shortage of ammunition by this time, bayonet charges were the order of the day. Until he was wounded, Corporal Jim Baxter set his section an excellent example as he led them into one charge after another. He was wounded when the party struck the Germans mentioned by Cooper. At this point, Privates Stanley Wilson,60 Alan Hamilton61 and Douglas Elliott62 attacked two German posts where an anti-tank gun and a medium machine gun were situated close together. Their grenades and close following up with the bayonet wiped out the opposition. Many splendid individual efforts were made, but the more important charges were led by Cooper himself. As Major McElroy reported to the commander of 5 Brigade on the following day: ‘Throughout this action, Lt. Cooper who had armed himself with a rifle and bayonet fought superbly. He was cool, rallied his men all the time and often as not led the bayonet charges. I have not seen a better example of courage and leadership.’63
As this party moved back to the Indian lines, Private Tyler64 got an enemy truck to go and Corporal J. C. Rogers was sent back to pick up Baxter and the other wounded men. He did not find Baxter, who was rescued by others, but, after picking up some wounded, he spotted some more Italians, including a colonel and three other officers. He took them prisoner and was escorting them back when his truck was blown up on a mine. A ‘quad’ came out from the newly advanced Indian positions and took this last group of D Company and its prisoners back to the Indian brigade headquarters. Later in the day Cooper and his party joined the 23rd A Echelon.
Meanwhile, the 23rd men under Captain Norris were organised on Ruweisat Ridge, with A Company under Lieutenant Vernon on the west (but not in immediate touch with 4 Brigade), page 176 Lieutenant Cameron and 18 Platoon in the centre, and B Company under Lieutenant Robertson to the east of the sector. Farther east were elements of the 21st and Sergeant Elliott's platoon from the 22nd. Soon after their arrival on the ridge, the forward sections of the 23rd saw some Italian trucks moving off to the north-west. Private Herbison and others opened fire at a range of something over 100 yards and had the satisfaction of seeing their tracer bullets pass through more than one truck.
Some infantry and other enemy posts remained occupied. Supported by fire from a captured anti-tank gun, manned by Lieutenant Rogers65 and Sergeant-Major Farmer66 of the 21st, Cameron and his men attacked the nearest of these posts and took about thirty prisoners. They were sent along the ridge to be evacuated by 4 Brigade, with which contact had been made.
Later in the morning, Brigadier J. T. Burrows, commanding 4 Brigade,67 sent word to Norris to contact the Indians to the east. Lieutenant Cameron was sent on this errand but found enemy still holding out between the New Zealanders and the Indians. Cameron was badly wounded but his runner returned with the news. Lieutenant Ian Wilson was then told by Norris to organise a fighting patrol to rescue Cameron and clean up the enemy post. With volunteers from 8 and 9 Platoons and some from B Company, Wilson went out accompanied by a 21 Battalion officer who had observed the route followed by Cameron. They started off in a truck, but were soon fired upon and debussed. Wilson then led a bayonet charge in which ‘Dagwood’ Bain, Varley,68 White69 and ‘Darky’ Munro70 were prominent. They killed a number of Italians and forced their way through to an Italian RAP, where they rescued Cameron and other wounded New Zealanders. Some twenty-five to thirty prisoners were taken. Wilson and Signalman Wootton,71 who had brought a signals page 177 vehicle to the north of the ridge, took the wounded on Wootton's truco, first to the 23rd area and thence to a 4 Brigade RAP. As the patrol started back with its prisoners, some German posts farther west opened rapid fire and wounded some of the prisoners as well as members of the patrol.
For those on the ridge, it was a long weary day. Jack Bickley, who with other members of the ‘I’ section had gone so far to the left in the night advance that they were temporarily associated with the 20th, later reported that at intervals they were ‘shelled, mortared, and fired at with vicious anti-tank guns’. Small parties of Italians came in and surrendered. In twos and threes, several of the 23rd went out to explore deserted enemy posts and trucks. They found plenty of water, some wine and all kinds of loot. For example, in the afternoon Blampied and two mates found one large Italian truck—to quote Blampied— ‘packed full of the wildest variety of goods to delight the eye of a soldier. Cameras, revolvers, knives and binoculars….officers’ clothes, scent, soaps, hair clippers, razors and even a wireless set…even more important to us was the find of bottles of aerated and lime water and tinned fruits.’
But the situation was by no means so secure as to make looting a safe occupation. The New Zealand infantry were still lacking artillery support. The British tanks, expected at or soon after dawn, did not arrive until late afternoon. As well as the differences in wording and in interpretation of operation orders and other matters mentioned earlier, the late arrival of the tanks was due to the minefields and the enemy opposition encountered on their way forward. Enemy strongpoints with some 88-millimetre guns to the south of Ruweisat Ridge continued to hold out till mid-afternoon. During the course of the afternoon, however, the Indians supported by tanks made some progress along the ridge from the eastern end. By 2.30 p.m. the Indians had established contact with the New Zealanders. Apart from hold-ups caused by minefields, the way was now open to bring up supporting arms. Although movement brought down hostile fire, vehicles now began to arrive. One of the first brought Major Romans, who had spent an anxious day trying to get Bren carriers with ammunition, rations and water, as well as the battalion mortars, through to the forward infantry. Some of these carriers got through but the majority were held up by minefields. Thus, the carrier with B Company's rations, driven by Private Joe Murphy, reached the pipeline.page 178
Major Romans took command of the 23rd on the ridge not very long before increased shell and mortar fire and armoured car activity to the north presaged an enemy attack. Towards 5 p.m., armoured cars, tanks and some lorry-borne infantry attacked 4 Brigade from the west and north. Through the dust and smoke, the 23rd men could see the brigade's anti-tank portées burning and correctly surmised that more New Zealand units had been overrun. Stragglers arrived with more definite news of the disaster that had overtaken 19 and 20 Battalions. Jack Bickley gives an account of events as the attack moved towards the 23rd: ‘About 5 p.m. a big barrage was put over us and lying in my bit of a trench, I fell half asleep. The boys were all dog tired. I woke up to find we were being attacked—dashed into my equipment and ran down to find our Bn HQ. They were gone. Mr. Norris said they were over the ridge. I hurried over there and ran right into our tanks. It was a nasty position as the enemy was firing all he had at the tanks.’ The 23rd was threatened with being overrun and only the arrival of the British tanks, which many members of the unit credited Reg Romans with having brought up, prevented this calamity. To clear the ground to give the tanks freedom of manoeuvre, Romans ordered the infantry to pull back two to three hundred yards. Blampied records the experience of some of B Company: ‘We left behind most of our hard-won treasure and sought cover in some trenches from ever-increasing tank and machine gun fire….the order was given to return once more on to the flat. We once more ran the gauntlet of machine-gun fire as we raced across the flat to find temporary cover near a pipe line’.
Major Romans withdrew his men closer to the Indians' position around Point 64, where they were in less danger of being cut off. Although the British tanks did not advance far, their presence sufficed to keep the enemy armoured cars and other vehicles at a distance. With tanks in front and with routes open for bringing up supplies, Romans felt justified in telling his troops there would be no further withdrawal and in advising Brigadier Kippenberger at dusk that he felt perfectly confident of the 23rd's ability to hold its position. Later that night, after consultation with General Inglis, Kippenberger ordered the withdrawal of the 5 Brigade troops. Between 11 p.m. and midnight, therefore, the men boarded all available vehicles, Bren carriers and anti-tank portées mainly, and ‘we were taken several miles back to a more peaceful spot where we laid on the sand and slept from sheer exhaustion.’page 179
The official New Zealand historian of this campaign has recorded: ‘On the evening of the 15th…. There seemed to be few survivors of the rifle companies of 19, 20 and 22 Battalions; 18 and 21 Battalions were disorganised and their casualties were difficult to assess. Only 23 Battalion of the six battalions of 4 and 5 Brigades appeared to be fit for further operations.’ That this was so may be termed a matter of the fortunes of war. Had the 23rd been where the 22nd was in the early morning or where the 19th and 20th were in the late afternoon, it would have suffered the fate of those units. Nevertheless, that the 23rd was still an organised unit capable of fighting when it entered the forward defence line on the following day was at least partly due to the cool decisive actions and the energy of Captain Peter Norris, who had taken over in a moment of crisis. The field censor's comment on home-going mail—‘Since the division went into action again, the morale has been of the highest standard…even higher than before’—might have had special reference to the 23rd, where all companies had given of their best and were able to go forward with the confidence that comes from having fought a good fight. Jack Bickley's last diary entry for 15 July has a pleasant ring of confidence in the new commander as well as a note of pleasure at the thought of something gained: ‘Old Reg took over as Colonel. I picked up a nice pair of binocs. on the ridge’.
Although on the morrow of Ruweisat Ridge, plans were made for sending the badly mauled 4 Brigade units back to Maadi to reorganise, 5 Brigade dug in afresh to the north and northwest of Stuka Wadi.72 Although not committed to another major attack during this period, the 23rd remained in the line another six weeks and helped to construct and hold the ‘New Zealand Box’, the southernmost defended area of the Alamein line.
On 16 July the enemy tried to push eastwards along Ruweisat Ridge. Some of 5 Brigade's officers and men had stayed with the Indians in the forward defences there and Captain Ken Armour, the 23rd's carrier officer, helped materially to stem the enemy advance. Manning a two-pounder anti-tank gun some 80 yards in front of the foremost six-pounders and well in advance of the Indians' guns and supporting tanks, Armour and his friends, Lieutenant Rogers and WO I Farmer of the page 180 21st, engaged enemy tanks and armoured cars at short range and to good effect. Armour was wounded and the unit lost an officer whose services were badly needed at this time.
Officer casualties were now creating something of a problem. In addition to Colonel Watson and Lieutenant Cook who had been taken prisoners of war, and Captains Begg and Ironside killed during the attack, Lieutenant Harold Richards was killed in a bombing raid on B Echelon on 15 July. He was one of those strong and cheerful characters whose death was mourned by all ranks. Major Morten and Lieutenant Cameron were among those who were evacuated wounded. But more casualties came from the heavy bombing and shelling to which the 23rd's area was subjected after Ruweisat. Thus, on 17 July, reinforcements arrived from Maadi, but, within twenty-four hours, several of the officers and men were dead. Captain Murray Grant, who had again taken over command of B Company on his return to the unit, was killed by shellfire on the day of his return, and Lieutenant Lee73 died of wounds received during the same burst of heavy shelling. This left B Company temporarily with only one officer, and its situation was by no means unique. On 20 July, however, new life was given to the battalion by the return of C Company under Captain Ted Thomson from Maadi. D Company, now under Captain G. S. Cooper, became the LOB company and went back to base for a rest.
As the war became static, the battalion under Colonel Romans worked on wiring and mining at night and on general improvement of the defensive position in the ‘box’, wherein 5 Brigade was holding the northern sector and 6 Brigade, which arrived in the line on 17 and 18 July, the southern. So many patrols went out during this period that to do justice to them individually would require a special chapter. Sometimes two or three patrols went out from the 23rd on a single night. Scarcely a night passed without at least one carrying out a reconnaissance, going out to protect a minelaying party, to establish a forward OP, or to attempt to collect a prisoner. For example, on 18–19 July Lieutenant Ian Wilson's patrol covered the engineers responsible for the demolition of vehicles which might have provided cover for enemy OPs in no-man's-land, while on 20–21 July Lieutenants F. Vernon and C. A. Slee took out similar patrols to protect engineers searching for mines.page 181
This search for minefields and other obstacles was a preliminary to a major attack on the eastern end of El Mreir Depression by 6 Brigade. In support of this attack, which went in on the night of 21–22 July, the 23rd mortars moved forward and were brigaded with those of the 21st and 28th under Lieutenant G. S. Rogers. Once again the infantry fought magnificently and took their objective, and once again the enemy counter-attacked with armour before the British tanks got up to support the infantry. Late on 22 July, the battalion heard the depressing news that most of 6 Brigade had been overrun by German tanks. For all practical purposes the New Zealand Division was reduced temporarily to a one-brigade division, but 6 Brigade was quickly reinforced and the two-brigade division completed the New Zealand Box.
A period of stalemate followed: both sides suffered from exhaustion and from supply problems. More patrolling followed as information on enemy reinforcement and moves was badly needed. In late July and early August, morale in the battalion sank slowly but surely to what was probably its lowest ebb. The 23rd emerged from the fighting of July as a well-organised fighting unit with some pride in its record, and its morale never slipped to a point where the battalion became unfit for fighting, but material conditions did lower the spirit of the men. Human flesh can endure more than the men were called upon to endure in the grim summer of 1942, but only with a deterioration in the enthusiasm for the task in hand. In the main, the factors which caused the drop in morale were physical and did not originate in the life of the unit.
Stuka dive-bombing and the dropping of heavier bombs—sometimes as often as six times a day—and accurate shelling were a worry to infantry who could do nothing in retaliation. Confidence was sapped when some men were killed by direct hits in their slit trenches. Was there no safety even in a slit trench, and was it merely a matter of time before the rest of the section suffered a similar fate? The intense heat by day and the patrolling and other work by night were exhausting limited reserves of energy. Worst of all, billions and billions of corpsefed flies were apparently concentrating on sending each and every man insane. The following private diary entries of 23rd men indicate how serious was this problem: ‘21 Jul. The flies are terrible now. There was a terrific number of dead men lying out in front, and those that have been buried are scarcely below the rocky ground. The smell is bad at nights.’ ‘25 Jul. page 182 These flies are terrible. There's millions of them…. as I lie here writing this, there are hundreds of flies walking all over me, on my mouth, in my nose, eyes, ears, everywhere.’ ‘27 Jul. No wind today so heat very bad and flies something terrible—they just about drive us frantic.’ ‘1 Aug. Several in our coy evacuated with dysentery. Had a cup of tea in morning and put it down for a second—8 flies in cup straight away.’ ‘1 Aug. Had Geoff's complaint today—vomiting and diarrhoea’.
As the weeks wore on, the men were issued with mosquito-netting covers for their heads and all kinds of precautions were taken in the manner of field hygiene and sanitation. But so long as the unit remained in that area, flies continued to be a problem. As Peter Norris wrote on 20 August: ‘The flies which are decreasing a bit now have played merry hell with stomachs and there are many desert sores’. With the resulting physical debilitation and the strain that resulted from being subjected to regular bombing and shelling, men lost some of their former confidence. Thus two private soldiers—one in B Company and the other in Battalion Headquarters—recorded quite independently their reactions on 11 August: ‘About 7.30 a.m. Hun started shelling…. Put one about 6' from foot of hole and another even less distance from head. Covered me with rocks and dirt—rifle ruined and steel box of Bren magazines split open. Am not so cocky about shelling as I used to be.’ ‘Had some more shells lobbed in our little area again today. These weeks of tension are beginning to tell: I can't stand up to shelling as well as I used to.’
Nor did the latest reinforcements from Maadi help morale much, except perhaps by reaction to the poor spirit shown by some. The war with Japan in the Pacific meant that no reinforcements left New Zealand for the Division between the 7th Reinforcements on 15 September 1941 and the 8th on 12th December 1942. After Ruweisat, therefore, some men of indifferent quality not very well fitted for front-line service were sent forward from Maadi. A critical attitude, coupled with a determination to preserve the high standards the 23rd had known in the past, is shown in these two diary entries: ‘Am not impressed by some of the newcomers to the platoon—too much self about some of them. They would drink the reserve water we are carrying if given a chance. Our old platoon certainly stuck together and helped each other.’ ‘I have a poor opinion of some New Zealanders—the majority who have just page 183 joined us have been brought from jail and from soft jobs in base; they are moaning already, wanting to get a spell. Some one has to stay here, so why moan?’
This last question shows that, despite hardships and minor sickness—there was scarcely a man who did not suffer from ‘Gyppy tummy’ and desert sores—the 23rd continued to do its job. The factors which maintained morale probably varied from man to man. But highly important was the growing conviction of the men in the ranks that what they had done was of value in the winning of the war, that what they were doing in the Alamein line was essential, and that, if half the reports of the Eighth Army's growing strength were true, the tide of battle would surely turn and the enemy would be driven out of Egypt and eventually out of Africa. Before Ruweisat, Brigadier Kippenberger had issued a survey of operations which ended with the assurance that the New Zealanders had ‘played a vital part in stopping the enemy onrush into Egypt’. This required no demonstration after the front became static.
This sense of purpose in what they were doing grew stronger as August progressed. The arrival of General Montgomery on 13 August to take command of the Eighth Army produced electric impulses which were felt even by the infantry soldier in his slit trench. Monty's orders that all transport should be sent some miles back since there was to be NO further withdrawal made a good impression. Brigadier Kippenberger's instructions of 17 August stressed the guiding principle of the defence that ‘Every post must fight to the last, irrespective of the fate of its neighbour’. The challenge in his words, ‘Each individual soldier must fight until he has no means of fighting left’ produced the desired response: men determined to stand and fight it out where they were in the event of another enemy attack. Visits of commanders to the unit area aided the growth of confidence in the command at all levels. Brigadier Kippenberger paid regular calls, and General Inglis and, after his return to the Division on 10 August, General Freyberg inspected the defences from time to time. The news that Mr Churchill was in the desert strengthened the belief that the material needs of the Eighth Army would be met. His message to the New Zealand Division which was read to all ranks—‘You have played a magnificent, a notable, even a decisive part in stemming a great retreat which would have been detrimental to the cause of the United Nations’—was well received. Shoulders went back and heads were carried a little higher.page 184
Within the unit, officers and NCOs did their utmost to look after the welfare of their men. Colonel Romans set the standard by radiating confidence on his rounds of the companies. He also insisted on regular reliefs of the company in the worst forward area and on a supply of fresh food from Alexandria. The YMCA continued to do good work in bringing up to B Echelon and to the rear companies such heartening extras as tinned fruit, chocolate and cigarettes. Letters and parcels from home and tins or bottles of beer, secured by company canteens, all helped to make life endurable. The picture of men sitting after dusk on the edge of a slit trench eating fruit cake and sharing a can of beer must be set against the more sombre sketch of flies and hard rations in a hot Egyptian August.
The company in the western sector of the battalion area could only be approached under cover of darkness, so dangerous was the shelling and machine-gun fire. Consequently, breakfast arrived before 5 a.m. and dinner came about 9 p.m. No company was kept there for more than a fortnight. Blampied holds that: ‘There was one thing, which…kept us from cracking up under the strain of these twelve days in this area—and that was the “chai”. Every afternoon, despite the often bursting shells, the rite of “boiling up” was carried out by two members of the platoon, who would then carry it round from hole to hole and serve it to the thirst-parched men, and, despite the top layer of floating fly corpses, it was more valuable than fine gold.’
A normal relief of the company in this dangerous forward area was often followed by two days' rest back at B Echelon. That was good, but the six days' leave scheme introduced in August was better. It allowed two days for travelling and four days for leave in either Alexandria or Cairo. A hot bath, an expensive meal, a few drinks (or more than a few) and a sleep between clean sheets made dirty, dehydrated soldiers feel like new men. But even on leave, the good soldier was mindful of his comrades—most of the old hands made a point of visiting wounded mates in Helwan hospital or wherever they could be reached. The comradeship of those who had fought and lived together under trying conditions was a very real thing.
The padres made every effort to meet the spiritual needs of the men in the line. Until he, too, was evacuated sick—for flies were no respecters of persons—Padre Stan Read, who had been with the unit from the end of 1941, moved round the companies page 185 endeavouring to cheer and assist wherever possible. The Roman Catholics went regularly to Brigade Headquarters for Communion and other services taken by Father Henley.74
Through the weeks, the work on the defences went on. Most of it was of necessity done at night. Practically every day the 23rd reported on the amount of wiring done or on the success or failure of a patrol. For example, on the night of 5–6 August, the battalion laid 500 yards of dannert wire and 500 yards of double-apron wire despite the fact that the wiring party was fired upon by both machine guns and mortars. Other nights saw similar lengths of wire laid. The engineers of 7 Field Company helped the infantry to get their slit trenches down to the required depth, both by drilling with compressors and by shattering rock with explosives. The sappers also joined in minelaying and mine-lifting patrols but, as they grew more experienced, the infantry handled mines, especially the Hawkins variety, with more confidence. Thus, on the night of 9 August, a B Company patrol under Second-Lieutenant Kinder75 laid mines on the Kaponga road and neighbouring tracks where they might damage enemy vehicles. Other patrols of these days were commanded by Captains Thomson and Orbell, Lieutenants J. Garbett,76 M. Cross,77 I. Wilson, C. A. Slee and F. D. Sutherland,78 and Second-Lieutenants D. Grant, J. W. McArthur,79 A. Bailey,80 T. Ferris81 and A. C. Marett.82
Most patrols went through a standard drill of thorough briefing as to task, compass bearings, distances and paces to be counted, formation to be adopted when on the move, evacuation of wounded and so on. Some patrol tasks appeared simple enough as they involved little more than securing information page 186 concerning the enemy's defences, wire or minefields, but even the simplest patrol usually involved danger and much nervous tension for those in it. In theory all officers should be equally competent but, in fact, some stand out as being exceptionally good at moving stealthily towards their objective and in showing the determination necessary to accomplish their task in the face of enemy flares and fire. Like most units, the 23rd came to depend on two or three junior officers of proved ability in this specialist craft when special information was required: Don Grant,83 Arthur Bailey and Fred Marett.
Some slight idea of the dangers and difficulties of night patrols may be gleaned from the diary of Ray Minson and the reminiscences of Arthur Bailey. On one occasion, Bailey was plotting the wire fence of an enemy minefield, when ‘in one place the wire instead of being loose was taut between two standards and, on closer inspection, a huge booby trap was discovered. It was on a push-pull igniter which meant that if the wire was pulled tighter or slackened it would go up. We did neither….’ On another occasion, Bailey was taking an artillery OP officer out to a position among some derelict vehicles where he could lie up all day and better observe the enemy. Minson's account states: ‘we were stalking along very cautiously when suddenly, right in the middle of us—bang!’ An S-mine, an anti-personnel mine filled with shrapnel, had been accidentally kicked, but the canister had merely jumped out of the casing without exploding. Minson continues: ‘When we recovered from the shock and looked around, we found ourselves in the centre of an anti-personnel mine field. Incidentally, I lifted my head to find my tin hat touching a detonator.’
Sometimes the concluding stages of a reconnaissance patrol in enemy territory had to be carried through by the patrol leader alone. Bailey gives a good account of the nervous tension experienced by the solo patroller. He left his men inside a wired minefield and went forward to examine two knocked-out tanks the enemy was suspected of using for an OP. ‘Leaving the others with instructions to retire smartly if I stirred anything up, I crawled slowly and carefully forward, going to ground when a flare went up however distant. I had proceeded some fifty yards or so when I suddenly remembered that I was no longer proceeding on a bearing. I broke out in a cold sweat, pulled out my compass…. Forward and slightly right, I page 187 suddenly heard footsteps and, as they came towards me, my heart commenced to thump till I was certain “Footsteps” would hear it. However, they stopped, then moved away again. I lifted my head out of the dirt where it had been pressed, wiped the sweat out of my eyes with my sleeve and slowly made my way forward and left. “Footsteps” approached again—turned and crumped away—obviously a sentry on a beat…. At this point another pair of footsteps approached the first, and I listened intently to hear if they spoke in Italian or German. However, no word was spoken and after the second pair departed, “Footsteps” halted and I could hear him sip loudly at a cup of something hot.’ Despite the near proximity of this sentry, Bailey secured the information he sought, rejoined his patrol and returned to the battalion. Few who read the brief item in the divisional intelligence summary next day realised how close the patroller had gone to the enemy.
Of course, the task of securing a prisoner was one of the most difficult for a patrol to execute—it is always easier to kill than to carry off a determined man—but Lieutenant Garbett's patrol of 14 August secured a member of the Bologna Division. The higher command considered this quite important as it was the first indication it had received of the introduction of Italians into the eastern end of El Mreir. Three nights later, a large fighting patrol under Captain Orbell went to the same general area to take more prisoners. The arrival of this patrol was apparently expected, as no sooner were its members inside the first enemy wire than they were fired upon from both flanks as well as from the front. They were forced to retire, having two killed—Sergeant Andrew Swale84 and Private Gorton85—and three, including the patrol commander, wounded.
Fifth Brigade's major effort to hinder enemy preparations for resuming the offensive was a major raid on El Mreir by the Maoris before dawn on 26 August. A good patrol by Bailey on 17 August confirmed the view that this would be best launched from the south and not from the east. Standing patrols under McArthur on 23–24 August and Ian Wilson on 24–25 August kept the area of the Maoris' start line clear of enemy patrols. At 9 p.m. on the night preceding the raid, Wilson took 7 and 12 Platoons to the standing patrol's area and provided page 188 protection for the start line until the raid was successfully launched. The Maoris killed some scores of the enemy and took forty-one prisoners.
Probably the hardest worked members of the 23rd at this time were the signallers. With seriously reduced numbers—at one time they had five only as most of the platoon had been taken prisoner at Ruweisat—the signals platoon kept communications functioning extremely well. With captured equipment to aid them, they had some 14 miles of cable and 32 telephones operating in the unit area in place of the regulation scale of 8 miles and 10 telephones. The ‘Sigs’ worked day and night repairing lines cut by shells or by Bren carriers. Although many lines were eventually dug in, the technique of driving along at about 10 m.p.h. in a jeep with the cable running through a crook at the end of a stick saved much time in checking for breaks in cables on the surface. Until Second-Lieutenant Reeves86 took over command of this platoon from Lieutenant Hoseit,87 who became Adjutant for a time, Sergeant Bruce Redfearn was ably assisted during this period by such men as F. C. Irving,88 D. Scott,89 J. F. Dennison,90 L. Stammers,91 E. J. Fenton92 and C. H. Ericksen.93 Although not present through-out the whole of this period, Lance-Corporal Jock Bell94 should also be mentioned as instrument mechanic and an outstanding member of an important platoon.
Another 23rd soldier whose work at this time deserves special mention was Sergeant Harry Parfoot.95 He acted as transport officer from the time Second-Lieutenant W. Cook was taken page 189 prisoner until the arrival of Second-Lieutenant Foote96 some weeks later, and ensured the efficient care and functioning of the battalion transport.
At the end of August, the period of waiting for Rommel to move came to an end. On the Eighth Army side, General Montgomery had concluded that his troops needed more training and new Sherman tanks to support them before resuming the offensive. He therefore concentrated on giving Rommel a hot reception when the latter attacked. The Allied bombing from North Africa and Malta had taken toll of the tankers supplying the Axis forces in Egypt and Rommel had difficulty in accumulating sufficient petrol for his purposes. Although he gave his preliminary orders on 22 August for the attack which he hoped would take the Afrika Korps to the Nile Delta and to Cairo, this attack did not begin till the 30th. The plan was to force a way through the minefields to the south of the New Zealand Box and then swing north-east towards Alam Halfa ridge and the main road to Alexandria. Eighth Army Intelligence had appreciated that Rommel would work on some such plan and General Montgomery had made his plans accordingly.
On 30 August, before it was known the Axis advance had begun, 5 Brigade was transferred to the south and south-east corner of the Box, where most trouble was expected in the event of an attack. Fifth Brigade was replaced in the western sector by a brigade of the recently arrived 44 Division, the 23rd handing over to 5 Royal West Kents. Early on 31 August the code-word twelvebore came through from Brigade Headquarters. This meant that the enemy had attacked and that every man must prepare to resist that attack. With typical 23rd spirit and sceptical of the wisdom of passing on code-words which needed explaining, Colonel Romans had told his men that on the command ‘Action Stations’ they would stand to, clear away all indications of occupation that might attract air or other attack, and prepare to resist to the last. Consequently, in the 23rd, twelvebore was received and the order ‘Action Stations’ was issued to the companies. Actually, the day passed quietly with only a marked increase in air activity and some extra shelling to show that the campaign had taken a fresh turn.
On the night of 31 August, B Company under Captain Robertson went to the south of the Box on a fighting patrol. page 190 With three tanks and some carriers, the company went the required distance but did not encounter any enemy. On its return to the Box, a carrier and a ‘pick-up’ were blown up on a mine and one man was badly wounded. Later that night, the enemy launched a half-hearted attack on a neighbouring sector of the Box, but the Maoris drove them off. The next day passed uneventfully, although some enemy tanks appeared on the skyline. That night a small reconnaissance patrol under Second-Lieutenant Arthur Parker97 went out into the Muhafid Depression and returned with two German prisoners from 155 Panzer Grenadier Regiment. The GOC directed that Parker's patrol should be congratulated on its success.
On 2 September an even more daring patrol penetrated farther into the lanes of the enemy advance in the south. An attack on the following night was contemplated and Second-Lieutenant Fred Marett was directed to secure all possible information concerning the enemy in the area to be attacked. Marett and a Maori officer penetrated behind the enemy FDLs and brought back details of the enemy positions. The two officers were complimented by Brigadier Kippenberger, who subsequently wrote of ‘An exceptionally good patrol led by young Fred Marett of the Twenty-third’.
Rommel's attack had failed and he was beginning to withdraw through the southern minefield. To prevent his retrieving damaged trucks and tanks and generally to harass his forces, the New Zealanders and a brigade of 44 Division attacked on the night of 3–4 September with 6 Brigade on the right, 132 Brigade in the centre and 5 Brigade on the left. The 23rd did not participate, apart from providing A Company to cover the forming-up area for 21 and 28 Battalions. The attack was fairly successful and the northern edge of the Munassib Depression was captured: 132 Brigade suffered some setbacks in what was its first attack and, on 4 September, the 23rd was ordered to take up a defensive position in depth to the rear of the Buffs. This it did to the accompaniment of some heavy enemy shelling. After dark came the welcome word that the New Zealand troops were to withdraw to the Box and then proceed on leave before refitting and training for a fresh offensive.
After a long march out—a march which one soldier wrote ‘will always live as a vivid memory’—the battalion waited for two days for transport to take it to a rest area near the beach. page 191 This period in the line, from before Minqar Qaim till after the battle of Alam Halfa, was by far the longest without relief the unit had so far experienced. The unit's casualties were also the heaviest suffered in any campaign to this date: 71 killed and died of wounds, 178 wounded, and 72 lost prisoner of war, of whom 11 were wounded. Despite these casualties, the 23rd was still a fighting battalion. Although, for the meantime, all were delighted to be going on leave, most men were confident that the tide was at last about to turn at Alamein. They felt that Montgomery knew what he was doing—hadn't he been proved right at Alam Halfa?—and that the steady arrival of Sherman tanks and other supplies would soon see the Eighth Army going over to the offensive.
An extract from Dave Jenkins's diary closed the Libya 1941 chapter of this history. His words, written about the middle of December 1942, when he was in hospital but about to go for his commission, may also conclude this chapter: ‘It's been a nerve wracking six months, bitter memories most of it, but a man is proud to have been part of such a game outfit. It was mighty hard on the central sector at Ruweisat Ridge, week after week of blazing heat and those terrible night patrols, continual shelling, when we were pinned to the ground from morning till night, and things got so bad in the forward position which No. 10 platoon held that we had to be relieved or we would have cracked up. That terrible day when Gordon Bone98 and Butch Conner99 were killed in their trenches! I mind Harry and I nearly got shot up burying them after dark. And always there was the flies and the sickly smell out in front where the dead of both sides lay unburied. And the long hours of darkness when we laid minefields and did miles of wiring, all half sick with dysentery and desert sores. A wonder how we stood it! My God what a pack of scarecrows we were! We have McArthur to thank for much, he was always so good and kind to us.
‘Looking back, it was the loss of so many fine chaps that was so hard, the old Battalion can never replace men like Ernie Hobbs, Ginger Cunningham, and Charlie Mason. The three best that No. 10 ever had, Alex Smith and Pat Lynch100 page 192 killed, and Ivan Stott101 missing from the 26th. Little Keith Todd, the first to go, he's buried in a quiet wadi near the old Kaponga road, what a fine little joker he was! Ray Hope102 and Ted Loper,103 the platoon will never have better men than them…. Yes, they were crazy days that followed the run out south of Mersa Matruh. By God, that was a terrible night, the worst of all perhaps. Well, it's behind us now, thank Christ. Here's hoping the Div never sees such times again…. To us it has been a memorable period and though things were often terribly hard and often hopeless, the comradeship and sheer guts of the boys concerned have been among the finest things in our lives.’
1 In southern New Zealand the Leckies have built up a record of achievement in the ring and on the athletic field. The best-known boxer of the family was generally known as ‘fighting Johnny Leckie’.
2 Company commanders at this time were Maj T. B. Morten (HQ Company), Capt M. Coop (A), Capt P. T. Norris (B), Capt F. S. R. Thomson (C) and Maj D. B. Cameron (D). Captain Connolly was on a tour of duty as second-in-command of the Southern Infantry Training Depot; Maj D. Reid was transferred to 20 Battalion in exchange, as it were, for Maj Cameron; and Capt McKinlay was returning to New Zealand as an instructor. When Capt Coop was evacuated wounded on 27 June, Capt Norris returned to A Company and Capt T. F. Begg took command of B Company.
8 Maj-Gen C. E. Weir, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939-Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941-Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 4 Sep-17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944-Sep 1946; Commander, Southern Military District, 1948–49; QMG, Army HQ, Nov 1951-Aug 1955; Chief of General Staff 1955.
9 In The Rommel Papers, p. 249, Rommel says: ‘This reverse took us completely by surprise, for in the weeks of fighting round Knightsbridge, the Ariete—covered, it is true, by German guns and tanks—had fought well against every onslaught of the British…. The resulting threat to our southern flank meant that the Afrika Korps' intended knock-out attack now had to be carried out by the 21st Panzer Division alone, and the weight of the attack was consequently too small…. The attack came to a standstill.’
22 B. Robson, Barb Wire Saga, unpublished personal account.
23 2 Lt J. S. Baxter, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 23 Jun 1916; labourer; twice wounded.
35 G. R. Blampied, B Company, personal account.
48 2 Lt K. Elliott, VC; Pongaroa; born Apiti, 25 Apr 1916; farmer; twice wounded.
63 For his gallantry, Cooper was awarded the MC.
67 He had succeeded Brigadier Inglis when the latter took over command of the Division on 27 June, had relinquished command to Brigadier J. R. Gray for a few days, and had again been appointed when Brigadier Gray was killed on 5 Nuly.
72 19 and 20 Battalions went back immediately; the 18th and 22nd followed later. By decisions still to be taken, 4 Brigade became 4 Armoured Brigade, with the 22nd as its motorised infantry. The 28th replaced the 22nd as an integral part of 5 Brigade.
83 Grant later became an instructor in the art of patrolling at the Eighth Army School of Instruction.
93 cf. H. K. Kippenberger, Infantry Brigadier, p. 179, for account of how Privates Irving, Fenton and Ericksen were on a signals course but ‘broke camp and marched out to 2nd New Zealand Division without authority.’
100 This statement is given here because it has special reference to the July-August 1942 period, but it was written in December 1942 and therefore contains this reference to Lynch's death at Alamein on 23 October.