CHAPTER 9 — The Battle of El Alamein
The Battle of El Alamein
AFTER a period of over two months in the front line, the men of the 23rd needed some time in which to rest and relax before beginning fresh training. For ten days, therefore, they camped with the other 5 and 6 Brigade units in the sandhills near Burg el Arab. Sea-bathing, good meals, two bottles of beer a man each day, freedom from worry about patrols, shellfire and Stuka raids—these, with concerts by the Kiwi Concert Party and 5 Brigade Band and other entertainments, helped to restore a feeling of well-being. Six days' leave was granted to those who had missed this privilege during the days after Ruweisat Ridge. Daily leave to Alexandria was rationed to the remainder. ‘The sea breeze is great and the water marvellous. What a treat it is to get thoroughly wet all over! Once again a man feels clean!’ ‘This rest is very enjoyable. Already I feel the benefit of this fresh air and change’. ‘Plenty of beer and I rather enjoyed myself last night.’ These typical private diary entries tell better than any official report how quickly the tired men responded to improved material conditions.
But the essential purpose of this time out of the battle area was to prepare the infantry and their supporting armoured brigade for the great attack in which they were to drive the enemy from Egypt. During the rest period, the 23rd was built up in strength by the return of many of those who had gone out sick or lightly wounded. On 13 September D Company returned from Maadi and thus, for the first time since the end of June, the unit was complete. Six days later, 5 Brigade moved some 30 miles south into the desert west of Wadi Natrun. The desert in this ‘Swordfish’ training area was very like the desert near Alamein, but it was comparatively clean and free from flies.
The first few days of training were spent on musketry practices and platoon and company night exercises. Some routemarching to get the troops fit and a battalion night-attack exercise followed. On 24 September all units moved off on a divisional exercise which, although none of the 23rd knew this page 194 at the time, was a rehearsal for the attack on Miteiriya Ridge, the main New Zealand objective in the forthcoming offensive on the Alamein line. In it, the two brigades practised moving forward to an assembly area by night, attacking behind an artillery barrage against strong defences, getting supporting arms and tanks through gaps in the wire and minefields, and consolidating on the objective in preparation for an enemy counter-attack. On 26 September the mock night attack was launched on a two-brigade front with intermediate objectives given to one battalion in each brigade. On the 5 Brigade front, the 23rd was entrusted with taking this first or intermediate objective—‘cracking the hard outer crust of enemy resistance’, Brigadier Kippenberger called it. In the rehearsal of this attack, the infantry had no trouble in keeping up with the barrage. Unfortunately, one gun was firing a little short and Lieutenant Ian Wilson was wounded in the leg by shrapnel. General Leese, commander of 30 Corps, followed the barrage with the 23rd, ‘just to get the feel of it’, as he said, and later he told Brigadier Kippenberger that he was well satisfied with the way the infantry had conducted themselves in this important rehearsal. The men in the 23rd were also very pleased with the competent organisation and conduct of this exercise: it obviously augured well for the future. The three attacking companies kept orderly formation and took their objectives according to plan; Battalion Headquarters maintained communication with the companies and with Brigade Headquarters; the supporting arms came up as planned. This satisfactory try-out was good for morale and the confidence of the private soldiers was further increased by the keen interest shown by the senior commanders. Thus Private Charles Pankhurst recorded in his diary: ‘Old Tiny stops beside me and asks questions about everything—even to my fitness’.
After returning to the bivouac area, the battalion took part on 30 September in a ceremonial parade at which General Montgomery presented the decorations awarded in recent campaigns. In the 23rd, Major P. T. Norris and Captains R. A. Wilson and G. S. Cooper received the Military Cross and Sergeant J. Milne and Corporal A. Russell the Military Medal. General Montgomery congratulated the troops on their steadiness and said how pleased he was to have the New Zealanders under his command. Two contemporary diary entries must suffice to illustrate the generally favourable reaction to the new Army Commander. ‘General M. addressed us and paid the usual page 195 compliments. I was rather impressed by his style though—he is a very peppery sort I should say but would stand no nonsense. One thing he said he had decided the NZ Div had to have tanks under its own command. If we had had this before Ruweisat, many of our men who are now POWs would still be with us.’ ‘General Montgomery spoke the usual bullsh— how he thought what great jokers we were and so on.’
Training of a varied character continued throughout the first half of October. Preparing for an infantry attack by night was given first priority, but there was also training for the day when the infantry would again have a mobile role. Thus, the Maoris demonstrated infantry co-operation with tanks in a hasty attack. The 23rd practised moves in desert formation and in setting-out an anti-tank gunline, the infantry answer to an enemy armoured attack. The men also hardened up on route marches. ‘The heads are gradually extending distances of these marches. Freyberg is insisting on plenty of marching in order to get our feet properly O.K.,’ wrote Bob Stone. Another flare-up of jaundice led to the evacuation of several members of the unit. Several officers and men, who knew that ‘The Day’ was approaching, tried to stay on. These references to a popular B Company officer by Sergeant Dave Jenkins bear witness to the personal struggle which was fought by several at this time. ‘Looks as if McArthur will have to go out soon or we'll be burying him here. He's a mighty sick man…. Next day…. Poor Mac went out to hospital this morning. We're all pleased as he's been miserable for days.’
On 15 October the battalion returned to the beach, but this time there was no leave and route-marching went on as usual. ‘No leave! No beer! What a life!’ one private wrote in his diary on the day after the return to Burg el Arab. But two or three days later Sergeant Jenkins was able to write: ‘Got some beer in today. Been neither beer nor bread for days—the boys want to know what they're fighting for!’ Actually, they were not to be kept in the dark much longer. On the evening of 19 October, Brigadier Kippenberger addressed the 23rd. He himself subsequently wrote of that occasion when rising spirits matched the feeling of anticipation and the certainty that it was ‘Now or never!’. ‘I spoke to the Twenty-third, seated on the slopes of some sand-hills. I told them that this was the turn of the war and the greatest moment of their lives: they had the duty and the honour of breaking in, on which everything depended; our hats were in the ring and I expected them to page 196 do it, whatever the cost. Reg called the men to their feet and they gave three fierce, thunderous cheers.’ Those cheers were both for ‘Kip’ himself and for the occasion of which he had told them. The time out of the line had been just long enough to prepare for the task ahead.
The Brigadier's address put the finishing touch to the rousing of spirits. Jenkins wrote in his diary: ‘The Brig gave us the lowdown on the show and it's certainly going to be a big one, by far the biggest the East has seen. In or out this time and a week should tell the tale. Our battalion is to set the ball rolling. Old Kip was very serious, he looks an old man like the rest of us. I liked the figures he quoted, we seem to have superiority in everything, but he says everything depends on us and on our reaching the first objective. A hundred thousand troops to take part right along the line and twelve hundred tanks in support, so if that can't break Mr. Rommel, nothing can.’ Sergeant Ray Minson wrote: ‘Today we had from our Brigadier one of the most serious and impressive speeches I have ever heard. He told us that the 23 Bn had pride of place in the forthcoming attack … and now with this from him we know it is not far distant’.
Later that night, after the Brigadier's address, the battalion moved by trucks along the main road to the Alamein front line, where it relieved the Seaforth Highlanders of 51 Highland Division around midnight. The New Zealanders now occupied a position in the line about ten miles north of the New Zealand Box. From north to south, the line was now held by 9 Australian, 51 Highland, 2 New Zealand, 1 South African, 4 Indian, 50 British, 44 British, and 7 Armoured Divisions, with the French, Greeks and others also occupying sectors in the south. On the enemy side, Italian companies and battalions had been interlaced with German in order to stiffen the defences. The enemy positions opposite the New Zealanders were held by the German 164 Division and the Italian Trento Division, with 15 Panzer Division in a counter-attack role in rear of Miteiriya Ridge.
General Montgomery's Order of the Day was read to all ranks. Probably the best order he issued, it struck an answering chord in the 23rd and confirmed the men in an absolute determination to see this particular battle through to a victorious conclusion. It said:
‘The battle which is now about to begin will be one of the decisive battles of history. It will be the turning point of the page 197 war. The eyes of the whole world will be on us, watching anxiously which way the battle will swing. We can give them their answer at once, “It will swing our way”.
‘We have first-class equipment; good tanks; good anti-tank guns; plenty of artillery and plenty of ammunition; and we are backed by the finest air striking force in the world.
‘All that is necessary is that each one of us, every officer and man, should enter the battle with the determination to see it through—to fight and to kill—and finally, to win.
‘If we do this there can only be one result—together we will hit the enemy for “six”, right out of Africa.
‘The sooner we win the battle, which will be the turning point of the war, the sooner we shall all get back home to our families. Therefore let every officer and man enter the battle with a stout heart, and the determination to do his duty so long as he has breath in his body.
‘and let no man surrender so long as he is unwounded and can fight.
‘Let us all pray that “the Lord mighty in battle” will give us the victory.’
This stirring message arrived just when battalion morale had reached a new pitch of confidence, not untouched by excitement. The 23rd had not been allowed to patrol in case the discovery of the New Zealanders' presence in the line betrayed the intention to attack at that point, but the men were ready and waiting for action to begin. Jenkins, a grand soldier whose diary has already been quoted as giving the authentic ring of 23rd sentiment, wrote: ‘Friday 23rd October. Early morning of the big day, the day that's going to make history. Or rather the night for we go in tonight to attempt to breach the enemy defences…. We have had a few days rest but are not keen on any further delay…. the sooner night comes the sooner we can get going. The fight will be tough, the Hun always dishes out plenty…. Still we have the feeling we'll smash the b—and that's the main thing.’ Minson of A Company wrote: ‘The men are all itching for success and I pray we shall have it’. To which he added three days later: ‘We heard on the morning of the 23rd that that day was the day. Everyone appeared more confident than I have ever seen them before.’ page 198 Almost certainly that day marked the peak of battle anticipation in the battalion.1
At last everything was ready. Everyone knew the general plan: the Eighth Army was attacking along the whole front, but special attention was being paid to the northern part now held by 9 Australian, 51 Highland, 2 New Zealand and 1 South African divisions. The New Zealanders were attacking with 5 Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left; in 5 Brigade, the 23rd had to take the first objective while, in the second phase, the 21st and 22nd were to take the final objective on Miteiriya Ridge and exploit beyond it; in both brigade sectors the Maoris were supplying two companies to mop up; the artillery had one regiment to provide a creeping barrage for page 199 the infantry to follow, while the remaining guns were to fire concentrations and counter-battery tasks; the engineers were to lift mines and prepare marked and lighted routes through the minefields; and the tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade and the supporting arms of the infantry units were to come forward as soon as these gaps were ready. Every man also knew his own unit's plan and his own particular task: the majority, of course, were to perform their normal tasks as riflemen, tommy-gunners or signallers, but, to assist in making a gap through the formidable enemy wire defences, the 23rd had ten bangalore torpedoes—heavy metal pipes packed with explosives—and two grapnels. The battalion was attacking with three companies forward and one in reserve. C Company on the right was to cover 4100 yards on a bearing of 250 degrees, B in the centre 4060 yards on 247 degrees, and A on the left 4030 yards on 243 degrees; D was to follow B and Battalion Headquarters was to follow D. The different distances and bearings were necessitated by the way in which the objective swung across the front. This objective was merely a mark on the map; no geographical feature would assist its identification. All ranks were shown sketch plans indicating the direction and plan of the attack, the artillery barrage's lifts and the like. Never before had the men been so well briefed. Never had morale been so high. Practically every man prepared to carry a record load of ammunition. As Bob Wilson2 recalled the occasion later: ‘We packed our foodless pack with Bren and tommy mags—no time for food where we're going. Shorts and shirts should hold a few grenades, a sticky bomb is tied to someone's belt—a hell of a load but we're taking it!’
Immediately after dusk on the night of 23 October, the Eighth Army areas behind the front line became a scene of tremendous activity: all tracks, lit with their own distinctive signs facing to the rear—Sun, Moon, Star, Bottle, Boat and Hat—began to fill with trucks and tanks moving forward in their correct order towards the gaps the infantry and engineers were to clear. General Freyberg visited Battalion Headquarters and made a last-minute check on the numbers in the assaulting companies, their fitness and experience, the degree to which information had been circulated to all ranks, and the morale of the troops. At 8 p.m. the 23rd moved to its forming-up place. Then, as the companies moved to the taped start line, Brigadier page 200 Kippenberger spoke to various groups, saying ‘Good luck, boys’ and telling some of the officers: ‘We are privileged men to be here tonight participating in this first great Allied offensive’. He himself has recorded that ‘the responses were stirring: “We'll do it, Sir.” “We won't let you down, Sir.” “The Twenty-third will do it, Sir.”’
The battalion stepped off from the start line at 9.30 p.m., ten minutes before the guns opened twenty minutes of counter-battery tasks. For the infantry the feeling of excitement was intensified by the startling noise with which the guns settled to their work. Comments made at the time and later in diary entries give something of that mixture of surprise, delight and shock with which the men heard a great weight of metal screaming overhead. ‘With a crack like a thousand thunderbolts, the silence of the night was rent by the roar of the hundreds of guns in our support suddenly leaping into action as one man’. ‘Hell was let loose—the sky behind us was a blaze of fire’. ‘Every man of every unit on the Alamein line will never forget till his dying day the great bombardment on the night of the 23rd. It was beyond description, the air was filled with screaming shells and the ground fairly shook under us.’
When the infantry had advanced 1800 yards and were therefore still 200 yards short of the artillery opening line, they were ordered to lie down and wait. Once the bursting shells of the barrage were spotted, the battalion moved closer and was ready to go forward in its wake when it advanced at the rate of 100 yards every three minutes from 10.23 till 11.5 p.m., that is, for a distance of 1400 yards. At first there was no reply from the enemy, but soon shells and mortar bombs began to pour into the area through which the infantry had to pass. Smoke and dust rose in great clouds and, despite the moonlight, visibility was seriously reduced and keeping contact became a real problem, which was made worse by the casualties suffered by connecting files. Occasionally, men glimpsed the Bofors tracer shells which were being fired as aids to keeping direction on the inter-brigade and inter-divisional boundaries. Through the murk which was broken by the flash of the bursting shells of the barrage and the enemy's return fire could be seen the flares shot off by a worried enemy. The 23rd next came under some Spandau and small-arms fire from pits under and around the derelict trucks forward of the first enemy minefield. This opposition came from two or three listening posts manned by Germans and Italians. The first of these was overrun by 15 page 201 Platoon. When the Italians kept firing until the C Company men were within ten yards of them, Privates Slaven,3 Evans, Squire4 and Batchelor5 went in with all weapons firing, showed the enemy no mercy and wiped out the post. The other posts were similarly treated by other sections of B and C Companies.
By this time, casualties from shell and mortar fire were mounting fast. They were no doubt increased by the bunching which occurred as the difficulty of maintaining contact increased. ‘The air was filled with noise, terrific noise, and continuous noise,’ wrote one man later, and even shouted orders did not carry far. Speaking for his section in 14 Platoon, R. Wilson says: ‘We moved on and into trouble. Like lightning it struck and most of the leaders were down—rely on the unity of veterans now! Stan Bennett6 dumped our treasured Bren gun, smashed by shrap, grabbed a rifle no longer needed by its owner, Bill Tilson7 lumped the Bangalore torpedo, Shorty Dunlop8 still had the sticky bomb down his left buttock—we were still intact.’ As the 23rd approached the first minefield, A Company lost some of its connecting files and, while maintaining contact with 24 Battalion on its left, lost touch with the rest of the 23rd.
Since A Company did not link up with the other companies until twelve hours later, its fortunes may be conveniently followed separately at this juncture. The map overprints had shown more enemy posts on A Company's front than elsewhere and, after striking a listening post or two, the company came up against solid opposition in a company strongpoint in and behind the first minefield. The intense Spandau fire caused a temporary hold-up, especially as there did not seem to be much room for manoeuvre. Captain Pat Lynch, whose birthday it was that day and who had gone into the attack in the same joyous spirit in which he joined issue on the rugby field, gave the order to charge. He set a fine example by heading the attack on the first machine-gun post. Hit by a full burst of page 202 machine-gun fire, he was killed soon afterwards. But the attack swept on and, despite heavy casualties in 8 Platoon, the strong-point was taken. Lieutenant Fane Vernon, the company second-in-command, here sustained wounds from which he later died, while Second-Lieutenant Wally Johnson, Sergeant John Milne, and other men were also wounded about this time.
As on a previous occasion, Sergeant Ray Minson took over his platoon and completed the task of knocking out all enemy resistance in that locality. One of his men, Private Robert H. S. Harper,9 distinguished himself both in the attack and by volunteering to get in touch with the troops on the right and left. After failing to establish contact with B Company on the right, as it had moved forward, Harper re-established contact with 9 Platoon under Second-Lieutenant Andrew Cooper10 on the left and notified Cooper that he was the only officer left on his feet in the company.
No. 9 Platoon had gone forward until held up by another strongpoint, and it was suffering casualties from its machine-gun fire when ‘a runner from 24 came up to say that they calculated that we were past the line of the objective and were actually on the opening line of the Arty's second phase’. An original NCO of the battalion who had been recently commissioned, Cooper found himself in this, his first battle as a junior officer, forced to take command of a somewhat depleted company and make the difficult decision to withdraw to conform with the position taken up by the 24th. Aided by his sergeant, Bob Young, and by Corporal Gordon Shaw,11 who had been prominent throughout the attack, he managed to get the company organised in a firm defensive locality. Harry Sievwright12 materially assisted by the covering fire he supplied when Cooper's leading men were pulling back to join the 24th. After discussing the situation with Captain Ted Aked,13 the 24th company commander, Cooper sent messages via the two brigade headquarters to the 23rd as to A Company's position. But, as communications between 5 Brigade and the 23rd had broken down, these messages did not reach Colonel Romans.page 203
In the meantime, the remainder of the battalion had pressed on far past its proper objective. As they had advanced towards it, the leaders were constantly looking for the formidable enemy defences which the map overprints had led them to expect. The men carrying the large bangalore torpedoes were itching to use them, but the first wire they struck was a single strand and the next ‘fence’ was composed of two slack wires. There simply were no impenetrable defences such as they themselves had constructed in the New Zealand Box. Most men were more than half-way through the first minefield before they realised they were in it at all. Trip-wires attached to mines and large bombs made those who spotted them tread gingerly. Bill Tilson, a humorist in 14 Platoon, who had been carrying a bangalore torpedo, inquired at this point: ‘Do I have to lump this bloody useless bangalore any further? It restricts my spearing power!’
Some opposition was encountered in or to the rear of this minefield. Both B and C Companies came under machine-gun and other small-arms fire. Bob Wilson of 14 Platoon says: ‘Then suddenly we were amongst them—small narrow communicating trenches, dugouts, spandaus belted and bullets flew around. On we went, grenading, tommy gunning and Bren firing inside—no come out?—too bad!—for a mere handful of chaps had no option but to kill!’ Similarly, the leading B Company platoons, led by John Trotter,14 B's sergeant-major, who did consistently good work with grenade and bayonet, charged and quickly overran the enemy posts.
In the lull which followed, D Company, under Major Dave Cameron, and Battalion Headquarters, sadly depleted in numbers as a result of casualties from shell and mortar fire, joined the forward troops. Captain Robertson, commanding B Company, handed over the eight German prisoners who had survived the bayonet charge of his forward platoons. The Colonel and others expressed their satisfaction at capturing Germans and not Italians. But a handful of prisoners and a few dead seemed a pitifully small ‘bag’ for the breaking of the hard outer crust. The 23rd had met neither the obstacles nor the resistance its members had been given to expect.
At this point, Captain Robertson announced that he had identified a burnt-out aircraft as the one shown on the map overprint as being central to the 23rd objective. ‘Surely there are any number of crashed aircraft in the desert,’ commented page 204 another officer. Colonel Romans was not prepared to accept this aircraft as the one which would identify the objective. While he called in Captain Hoseit, commander of C Company, he consulted his Intelligence Sergeant, Tom Hutchesson,15 who assured him that the battalion was on the right axis of advance as he himself had been following the correct bearing on his compass. But Hutchesson held that, as the 23rd's objective was on a clearly defined rise, it must be further ahead. His description of the objective—and there was no rise where the unit was halted—was based on his knowledge of a plaster-cast model of the area that he had studied the day before. What he did not realise was that the contour lines such as the one along which the battalion's objective ran were ‘blown-up’ or magnified five times and the objective itself did not follow any observable feature on the ground. According to Hutchesson, the Colonel ‘looked in the direction we had been advancing, saw Miteiriya ridge looming up ahead and decided that was the only distinct rise … Colonel Romans stopped the discussion with “You see that rise ahead of you. That is your objective. Take it!”’ Others present heard the Colonel declare, after a brief discussion of the situation, ‘We haven't done any real fighting yet—let's get cracking.’ Then he gave the ringing order which was already, and was still more in the future to be, the slogan of the 23rd: ‘Push on! Push on!’ The 23rd pushed on.
Actually, Robertson was right and, when the artillery barrage stopped, the 23rd was on its correct objective, but, apart from the B Company commander, no one could really believe that the objective had been taken with so little fighting. Wise after the event, the historian is sometimes tempted to rationalise actions which arose from a fortuitous coincidence of circumstances. In this case, the reasons for this extraordinary action on the part of the 23rd must be examined, not to justify this serious, if gallant, blunder, but simply to explain why the unit did not halt where Robertson recommended, but instead pushed on to the brigade final objective. Although part of the explanation lies in the impulsive nature of the commanding officer and the ardour and enthusiasm for battle of those nearest him, various factors help to account for the decision taken. First, although great care had been taken, both in giving verbal and written orders to detail the number of paces and the distance from the start line to the objective, and several men were page 205 responsible for counting paces, when the halt came about 11.5 p.m. no one could say what distance had been covered. By a singular coincidence, not unknown in battle, all those responsible for counting paces had been killed or wounded during the advance. Thus, at Battalion Headquarters, the IO, Second-Lieutenant Arthur Bailey, his runner and two intelligence section privates were all counting paces and checking on distance. All four were wounded and dropped out. The same thing happened in the rifle companies. No one could report on the distance covered when the excitement of the assault on the forward enemy posts had passed.
Secondly, the 23rd officers all understood that the artillery barrage was to ‘stand’ about 200 yards beyond their objective as a guarantee against any sudden enemy counter-attack while the unit was consolidating. The ‘Trace as issued with Operation Order Showing Arty Fire Plan … for Operation Lightfoot’16clearly confirms that the infantry had good ground for expecting the artillery barrage to ‘stand’ and thus indicate their objective. This artillery trace gives the opening and lifting times for each line of the artillery barrage: thus, on the first objective, the legend reads ‘Arty Fire opens at hrs 2302 lifts at hrs 2305’, and, on the line 200 yards ahead, where the infantry confidently expected it to ‘stand’, it reads ‘Arty fire opens at hrs 2305 lifts at hrs 0055’. The infantry were therefore more than a little baffled when, after overcoming the opposition at the minefield, they could see and hear no standing barrage. Nor could anyone report having seen the smoke which the artillery fired on the battalion objective at 2300 hours. The general feeling of those nearest the Colonel confirmed him in his belief that the 23rd had stiffer resistance to overcome if it was to do its job. The blood of these fighting men was up. They had been told again and again of the terrific responsibility that was theirs to break into the enemy positions. Encouraged by the Colonel's ‘Push on!’, they went on to discover more enemy. As Blampied wrote later: ‘Of course, once we started we sort of had to keep going—we couldn't sit down in the middle of enemy sangars’.
Around 11.20 p.m., therefore, the 23rd resumed its advance—not with any definite intention of taking the brigade objective but quite unaware of the true location of its own. As the smoke and haze had cleared, the infantry were better able to see where page 206 they were going. Their advance for the next 600 yards or so was uninterrupted. But, as the front widened, one or two enemy posts on the left flank were missed by the leaders and later opened fire on the small Battalion Headquarters group at the rear. On approaching Miteiriya Ridge, B and C Companies came under fire. With loud shouts and the weapons of the men in front blazing, the forward platoons charged. On the right, C had some sharp fighting: Captain Bill Hoseit, the commander, and Captain Stan Wilson,17 the second-in-command, were both wounded, while Lieutenant F. D. Sutherland and several good men were killed. Second-Lieutenant Fred Marett was also lightly wounded but he carried on, took command of the company and led it to a successful occupation of a series of enemy posts and dugouts. According to Bob Wilson, ‘We pushed on linking with D Company. Freddie Marett, Eric Batchelor, Moss Squire, Bill Evans, Skin Irwin, Phil Burnett,18 Jim Slaven, Ian Thomson,19 Bill Tilson and I and a handful of others. More dugouts, more lead, more groans—we began to feel better.’
B Company also struck opposition, but, as the enemy in its sector were Italians, it quickly overran the trenches at the foot of the ridge. CSM Trotter, Sergeant Dave Jenkins, Corporal Payne20 and several others did good work with tommy gun and bayonet. Some of 11 Platoon got separated from the rest of the company and, not satisfied with what they had already accomplished, they pressed on to the other side of the ridge. Led by Second-Lieutenant John Kinder and Corporals Martin Svensson21 and Don Black,22 these men—and F. Sanders,23 W. Henderson,24 F. Nolan and J. Murdoch25 were prominent—killed quite a page 207 number before pulling back to join their comrades. D Company also came up into the fight and CSM Bob Buick knocked out the crew of a light gun and then swung this gun into action against other enemy posts. Most of the enemy encountered at this time were killed but over fifty prisoners were sent back to Brigade.
As the rear wireless link with Brigade Headquarters had broken down and the success signal rocket had been damaged by enemy fire and would not function, Colonel Romans sent Second-Lieutenant Lex Reeves, the signals officer, back to report that the battalion was on its objective and also to advise Captain Coop, the Headquarters Company commander, to bring up the supporting arms. At this time, Colonel Romans was out of touch with his companies and was acting on the sounds of jubilation to be heard in front. When he and the other members of Battalion Headquarters tried to join the forward infantry, they came under heavy Spandau fire from the left flank. As the five surviving members of the original nineteen in the headquarters group tried to outflank these posts, they heard the crash of bursting shells about 1200 yards to the rear. Soon they realised that this was 4 Field Regiment firing on the opening line for the second phase of the operation and that the battalion was away out in front of its own barrage. As Brigadier Kippenberger had insisted that, if communications broke down, an officer fully informed of the situation should be sent back with any important message, Colonel Romans now sent his Adjutant back to report that the 23rd was up to Miteiriya Ridge, and also to warn the advancing units to keep a sharp lookout for the battalion. Since only one field regiment was firing the barrage on the whole divisional front, which was widening as it advanced, the fall of shells was by no means thick. The Adjutant passed safely through it, met officers and men of 21 Battalion, and asked them to hold their fire until they had passed through the 23rd and to inform those on both flanks of the approximate location of the 23rd. At Brigade Headquarters, Brigadier Kippenberger received his report and despatched him with very definite orders to Colonel Romans to pull the 23rd back to its proper objective.
In the meantime, C, B and D Companies were well aware of the advance of the barrage. Most men were able to shelter in enemy slit trenches and gunpits and, as the prisoners taken were still with them, it was not uncommon for Germans and Italians to be sharing shelter with the New Zealanders. Some page 208 were unlucky in their choice of a deep slit trench: thus Sergeant Gilbert26 and Private Chambers27 found their trench to be an Italian latrine which had been only partially filled in. Naturally enough, the shelling seemed and sounded worse than it was. But ‘after what seemed like an eternity’, according to Blampied, the barrage passed on. Joe Murdoch, one of the B Company men out in front, later wrote: ‘The worst part was being caught in the creeping barrage but luckily no one was hit. It was a great relief to me when I raised my head and saw a smoke shell land not far in front of me, as I knew then that the barrage was going to lift. Our next worry was to contact the blokes of the other Battalion, before they started shooting us up. But we made that without any of us getting shot’.
In going forward, Colonel Romans and Sergeant Hutchesson successfully outflanked the machine-gun post which had been troubling them and took twelve prisoners. The CO then marshalled the troops and, in correct anticipation of the Brigadier's orders, was leading them back to their proper objective when the Adjutant returned. Before leaving the ridge, Captain Robertson had the pleasure of telling the 21st headquarters, as they shot off their success signal, that the 23rd had taken their objective for them. Of course, this was only partially true, as both 21 and 22 Battalions had some stiff fighting over the crest and their exploitation forward before dawn was marked by the fiercest fighting of the whole operation.
Back near their correct objective, the troops met their fighting transport, which had also experienced trouble. Early in the attack, the carriers and jeeps following Battalion Headquarters ran into the first enemy minefield before they knew of its existence. The engineers then cleared a gap which they and the divisional provost marked with tapes and lights, and Lieutenant Harry Low,28 with his mortar carriers, set out to find the battalion. The leading carrier struck a mine—outside the marked field—and suffered casualties. Captain Coop, the officer in charge of the fighting vehicles, passed through the gap soon after it was cleared and advanced to the unit's objective without finding Colonel Romans and his men. After reporting back to the Brigadier, he was carrying out a further reconnaissance page 209 when his truck was blown up on one of the unmarked mines and he suffered a broken leg. His sergeant, Jack O'Fee,29 took charge of the situation, dispersed the transport in the area forward of the minefield and thus cleared the way for the tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade. O'Fee himself next set about collecting those wounded men who had been unable to make their own way back to the RAP.
Consolidation now proceeded smoothly: the 23rd infantry dug in with C Company on the right, B on the left, and D in reserve. The unit anti-tank guns and those of H Troop 32 Anti-Tank Battery, and the guns of 12 Platoon 4 Machine Gun Company, were also nearly all sited and dug in by dawn on 24 October. The 23rd RAP was established on the east side of the first minefield and the Medical Officer, Captain Johnson,30 had an extremely busy time attending to the numerous casualties.
Early attempts to establish contact with A Company failed, but about 10 a.m. Private Stan Ralston,31 the member of the intelligence section attached to A Company, reported to Battalion Headquarters with the story and location of that company. Later, the CO directed A Company to take up a position forward of and covering the gap between B and C Companies. Apart from intermittent shelling and some ‘overs’ from the tank battle being waged in the west, the infantry had a quiet day. They were tolerably well pleased with the work of the preceding night. Thus Jenkins was able to write: ‘We actually struck little bother from enemy positions, and were hardly held up anywhere. We cleared out some dugouts and I sent Bob Grey32 and Len back with several German prisoners…. Plenty blunders were made and we went much further than our objective but the main job was done and done well. We got the tanks through. So it's their show now.’ It was a grand sight to see so many Sherman and Grant tanks rolling towards the enemy. Not so cheering was the sight of five tanks on fire where they had been hit by 88-millimetre fire when held up on a minefield on Miteiriya Ridge. No junction on the ground was established with the 5th Camerons, the nearest page 210 Highland Division unit on the right, but liaison was maintained. ‘It's good to hear the pipes playing in their lines,’ wrote one 23rd man.
With 33 killed, 143 wounded and 1 missing, the 23rd had the highest casualties of any unit in the Division during the attack on Miteiriya Ridge. This was a measure of the heaviness of the shell and mortar fire encountered rather than of the toughness of the enemy infantry. Dave Jenkins gives some idea of the seriousness of losses among NCOs: ‘I'm the only sergeant left in B Coy. Dave McKay, Mark Clay33 and Bob Manson34 all wounded … we are 13 strong in the platoon, we began the show with 27. Harry and Mac are the only NCOs besides myself in the platoon.’ The Colonel promptly made the necessary alterations in appointments. Major Cameron took over command of HQ Company, handing over D Company to Second-Lieutenant Dave Kirk.35 Captain ‘Sandy’ Slee took command of C Company and, for a short period later on, he had both C and D Companies under his command. Similar changes took place at all levels down to section leaders. WO II Bob Buick replaced WO I ‘Buzz’ Daly as RSM. The numbers in the four infantry companies were around half-strength or below until a small reinforcement arrived from Maadi some days later. The war diary gives company figures as HQ Company, 7 officers and 207 other ranks, A 1 and 53, B 3 and 52, C 2 and 33, and D 2 and 52. Of course, these figures include all ranks on company strength, including cooks, clerks and company quartermaster-sergeants and staff. In fact, on 24 October, the fighting men in C Company numbered only 22, a number which fell to 19 when three of the lightly wounded were evacuated.
The 23rd remained in the line till late on 27 October. For four days the men were spectators of the war, albeit spectators with ringside seats. Apart from a noisy but comparatively harmless air raid on 24 October, some shellfire each day, and a large dive-bombing attack on the evening of 26 October, the unit had little to report. Late on 27 October, a South African unit relieved all 5 Brigade units, which were transported back to the Alam el Onsol area, south-east of Alamein station.page 211
The battalion rested for the next three days. Some company groups went to the beach for swimming; all ranks changed their dirty clothes and checked and cleaned their weapons and equipment. The YMCA made free issues of fruit, chocolate and cigarettes. Patriotic parcels were distributed. A bottle of beer per man was issued on two successive days—and many of the shrewder characters knew how to get more beer or more than beer.
On 30 October Brigadier Kippenberger addressed the battalion. He gave a general account of the battle as it had been fought up to that date, explaining how, although all attacking divisions had taken at least part of their objective on the first night, the armour had run into deeper minefields and a greater depth in defence than had been expected. The result was that the ‘dogfight’ phase of the battle was still proceeding but the ‘break-through’ was to be expected within a few days. The New Zealand Division would then be employed in a mobile role, chasing the enemy out of Egypt or cutting off his retreat. He concluded that the New Zealanders had so far done all that had been asked of them, but, in view of their heavy casualties, they almost certainly would not be used again as assault troops in the Battle of Alamein. In an aside to some of the officers, the Brigadier referred to the 23rd's advance to Miteiriya Ridge and said: ‘I made only one mistake in giving my orders: I should have made the 23rd's objective Berlin.’
Of course, the men could appreciate all that the Brigadier had said, especially about casualties. There were few who did not mourn the loss of a friend. ‘It's rotten luck losing a chap like Tick—he was a great fellow, a close mate of mine, we had many good times together, he and Harry and I in England and on the boats and the various leaves here and our stay in Syria,’ wrote one man in typical comment on his personal loss. But, despite the inevitable sorrowing which accompanied such losses, the morale of the battalion was not seriously lowered. The complete rest out of the line, patriotic parcels, mail from home, and, above all, the realisation that at long last the tide was turning helped to maintain the spirits of the men. Blampied, who was not given to exaggerating, was able to write later: ‘Strange though it may seem, despite all that the battalion has been through and the casualties inflicted, I have never known before or since, a time when the morale of the men was so high as it was those days following the attack on Miteiriya Ridge. page 212 Maybe it was the glorious relief experienced of knowing that the long strain of waiting was over and at last the fight was well under way’.
Although the fight did not terminate as early as expected by some and the Australian and British divisions had much bitter fighting to do, the end was in sight. On 1 November the 23rd moved back towards the front line. It waited in an assembly area till 4 November, when the good news that the enemy had cracked and the Alamein line was broken was announced. In the early afternoon of 4 November, the New Zealand Division took up its mobile role and, preceded by the British 4 Light Armoured Brigade, headed west through the gaps in the various minefields with the intention of moving on Fuka, about 50 miles away, and cutting off as many of the retreating enemy as possible. At that time, the Australian infantry were still fighting in the north and the heavy tanks of the mobile force became involved in a battle not far beyond the line. All units carried eight days' water and rations as there was a possibility that, during the pursuit, they would be cut off from their normal supply services. Behind the armoured spearhead, the New Zealand divisional provost marked the thrust line with the black diamonds on iron pickets which were to guide New Zealand units all the way across North Africa from Alamein to Enfidaville in Tunisia.
The order of march should be noted. Fourth Light Armoured Brigade led, then came Main HQ 2 NZ Division. Fifth Brigade followed and, after a gap, came 6 Brigade. In 5 Brigade, 22 Battalion was followed by the 21st and the 23rd. In the 23rd a section of carriers led the way, then came Battalion Headquarters, A Company, C Company, a section of carriers, B Company, D Company, the anti-tank platoon, a section of carriers, the remainder of HQ Company, and part of B Echelon in the rear. Although sections of carriers were distributed through its length, the column had a weak tail, with few fighting troops in it.
As the 23rd moved westward through the former enemy positions about 4 p.m., plenty of evidence of the battle could be seen—knocked-out guns, burnt-out tanks of both sides, abandoned equipment, a few unburied dead, and later, in the evening, burning tanks and vehicles, which indicated how close behind the actual fighting the column was moving. A few lorry loads of prisoners and large groups of marching prisoners, mostly Italians, were also met. After dark the pace of the page 213 column slackened but the advance continued till about midnight. During the hours of darkness the rear vehicles closed up on those in front until all trucks were more or less nose to tail in a tightly packed column. A halt came about 2 a.m. to enable 6 Brigade to catch up. During the halt, and just when everybody was feeling drowsy, five trucks of Germans drew up slightly to the left rear of the battalion. The Germans, together with a few Italians who brought the total of the enemy party to approximately seventy, set up four heavy machine guns and a towed infantry gun and opened fire on the column of packed vehicles. At first, such was the surprise effect of this attack, no one in the rear vehicles appeared to know what to do. Most men naturally went to ground, where they lay flat, listening to the stream of bullets hissing past or pinging against the trucks. An ammunition truck was hit and the fire and explosions added to the confusion. But as soon as they could locate the enemy, the infantry of D Company, the fighting troops nearest the tail of the column, fixed bayonets and began to move in extended line against the enemy force. Meanwhile Lieutenant Harry Low, commanding the mortar platoon, had taken offensive action: he ordered the mortar carriers to turn about and the men to ‘mount mortars’. Unfortunately, the enemy picked up the battalion mortars and concentrated their fire on them. One mortar was knocked out and the mortar crews suffered heavy casualties. At one stage, men were holding a mortar barrel almost vertical in an attempt to bring their bombs closer to the enemy, but, as the mortar crews were being knocked out without apparently doing any damage, Low gave the order to cease fire. The spectacular 5th of November fire in the ammunition truck enabled the enemy to direct their shots more effectively. Low and other mortar men were wounded and others had to take over the task of driving off the enemy. B Company infantry were now moving to join their comrades of D Company; Lieutenant George Lawrence36 had two Bren carriers moving down a flank firing as they moved; some tanks from the Light Armoured Brigade began to rumble back to take part in the fight. Realising that they had stirred up much more opposition than they could cope with, the enemy took a hurried departure. As the enemy would appear to have merely blundered on the rear of the column in the dark, the 23rd was unfortunate in suffering so many casualties. In this more or less chance engagement the unit lost 6 killed and 16 wounded. It was small consolation that the enemy left 17 dead behind them.page 214
By daybreak on 5 November, the Division was on the move again. At the breakfast halt, the troops saw some hundreds of Italians, who had been left without transport by their German allies, moving back on foot to the prisoner-of-war cages. Occasionally, a few trucks of escaping enemy would heave in sight, shoot off a few rounds and then sheer off to the south and west. Captain Harry Dalton, the Quartermaster, was bringing up supplies in a small separate convoy. He went farther west than the rest of the unit, which had turned north towards Fuka. He was offered the surrender of some thousands of Italians, all of whom appeared to have a white cloth which they waved vigorously. He also saw masses of enemy transport moving west in what appeared to be a mad rush to escape. When fired upon by anti-tank guns, Dalton wanted to give fight, but the counsel of more cautious members of his party prevailed and his three trucks made their way north to join the unit.
After a series of starts and stops and short moves, the 23rd arrived about 5 p.m. at a gap in the large minefield about ten miles south of Fuka and, despite the intermittent shellfire of the German rearguard, passed quickly through. Fifth Brigade took up a position as a firm base preparatory to making an attack on Fuka. Preliminary plans to this end were cancelled on receipt of an order from General Freyberg stating that 5 Brigade was not to get heavily involved as it would be required for a fast move to seize the landing grounds at Baggush.
On the following morning, 6 November, the rains began to fall. The column moved forward about 23 miles, but the light rain of the morning turned to a deluge and the desert was transformed into so many lakes and lagoons. Soon trucks were sinking to their axles and further progress was impossible that day. On 7 November the rain continued unabated and the only movement of trucks was an attempt to form up for a forward move which simply had to be postponed another day. The mud increased, as did the misery of those troops who got wet and cold. Most of the men had to spend the nights of 6–7 and 7–8 November crowded in their trucks. ‘We were,’ wrote Jenkins, ‘just like cattle in a truck in winter weather in Southland and all the weapons and gear got plastered with mud’.
But, if physical conditions were disagreeable, the news was good. Details of the thousands of prisoners taken at Alamein and reports of the damage done by the Desert Air Force were coming in. The BBC reported that the Axis forces were being pushed page 215 back at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus, in New Guinea and in the Solomons. The Americans and the British First Army had landed in Morocco and were advancing to meet the Eighth Army. This was all very heartening, but the most amusing item was the announcement that the Germans and the New Zealanders were racing neck-and-neck across the desert. For once, the BBC was behindhand with the news, but it redeemed itself a night or two later when the 23rd men preparing to attack Mersa Matruh heard the BBC announce that Matruh had fallen. ‘This war moves quickly. We can hardly catch it!’ was the comment of one man.
On Sunday, 8 November, the sun shone again and the desert dried out quickly. Movement by wheeled vehicles was again possible. The battalion moved another 28 miles that day. Next day, with the going practically back to normal and with the 23rd striking the tarsealed road, some 63 miles were covered. The sights on the roadside continued to gladden the hearts of those who had seen their own trucks and equipment similarly treated by the Luftwaffe in Greece and Crete. Thus, Jenkins was able to write with pleasure: ‘What a sight!—miles and miles of wrecked and burnt out vehicles all the way. What a lathering the RAF must have given them! It means a lot to us to have him on the run like this and by now there must be few Huns safe on this side of the border.’ The enemy made no serious stand at any point east of the border. At 2 a.m. on 10 November the battalion was called out to make a dawn attack on Sidi Barrani. It was cold and dark when the men embussed to move forward. But no attack was necessary: Sidi Barrani fell to the 21st without a fight. For most of that day the battalion advanced in the desert south of the road with a view to outflanking the Halfaya position, but it was recalled to the main road.
In the early morning of 11 November, the 21st took some 600 prisoners with only two casualties to themselves at the top of Halfaya Pass. Although scattered mines made care necessary and progress slow, 5 Brigade advanced 38 miles that day. Egypt was now clear of the enemy and the Eighth Army was in Libya again. That afternoon the 23rd passed Musaid and all that was left of Fort Capuzzo, and stories were told and exchanged of the fighting of the previous year. Towards evening, acting on instructions from Brigade, Colonel Romans sent a patrol of twenty men under Second-Lieutenant Max Cross to discover if page 216 Bardia was occupied by the enemy, and, if so, in what strength. The patrol did not return till after daylight on 12 November, but it was able to report that the town was clear.
Later came news that the Germans were blowing up dumps in Tobruk and were moving back on the El Agheila position. That day General Montgomery sent a message to all his troops: ‘…today, 12 November, there are no German and Italian soldiers left on Egyptian territory except prisoners…. The prisoners total 30,000, including nine Generals…. Our task is not finished yet; the Germans are out of Egypt but there are still some left in North Africa…. On with the task, and good hunting to you all. As in all pursuits some have to remain behind to start with; but we shall all be in it before the finish.’ The New Zealanders had been with the vanguard of the advance up to this stage. Now it was their turn to ‘remain behind’ to reorganise and prepare for the tasks ahead.page break
Sgt A. C. Hulme, VC
Pte A. Freeman and L-Sgt C. Mclntosh, who escaped from Crete by barge
D Company lunch queue, Kaponga Box, September 1941
The battalion in desert formation on the move into Libya, 14 November1941
The parcels which saved our bacon.' At Fort Capuzzo, 8 December 1941
At Gazala: some 11 Platoon men play cards before the battle
Christmas dinner at El Adem
Peter Norris and Herbie Black at El Adem, March 1942. Both were later killed in action
23 Battalion officers at Maadi, April 1942
Back row(from left): Angus Ross, Peter Norris, Herbert Black, Fergus Begg, Fane Vernon, Paddy Lynch, Sandy Slee, Max Coop, lan Wilson, Ted Richards. Third row: Harold Richards, Duthie Hoggans, Bill Hoseit, Stan Read, Doug Cumming, ‘Tinny’ Ironside, Dick Orbell, Jim Ensor, Alan McPhail, Ralph McKinlay, Len Stubbs, Ken Armour. Second row: Tom Morten, Doug Reid, Ted Thomson, Sid Kelly, Reg Romans, Doug Leckie, Gordon Cunningham, Carl Watson, Mark Harvey, Dick Connolly, Bob Dawson, In Front: Charlie Mason, ‘Spot’ Wilson, Bill Cook, Harry Dalton, Robin Deans
Sergeants' mess, Maadi, April 1942
Back row (from left): Sgts Bowie, Merlo, Southern, Bevin, Hedwig, Irvine, Trotter, Trembath, Stokes, Kelly, Parfoot, Third row: Sgts Scott, Polkinghorne, McIntosh, Ball, Moncrieff, Buick, Mathie, Appleby, Worthington, Wilson, Gillan, Skillen. Second row: Sgts Loomes, Davies, Chubbin, RQMS Jenkins, RSM Daly, Lt-Col Leckie, Sgts Trewby, Hawtin, McDonald, Stammers, Le Lievre. Front row: Sgts Thomas, Woodbury, Blanchard, Canham, Cunningham, Anderson, Ron Phillips, Greig, Treleaven
In the Alamein Line, August 1942. From left: Capt Paddy Lynch, Romans, Capt Peter Norris, Capt Bill Hoseit. All were subsequently killed in action
1 The battalion's officers, with their appointments, on the eve of the Battle of Alamein, were:—Battalion Headquarters: CO, Lt-Col R. E. Romans; 2 i/c, Maj J. R. J. Connolly; Adjt, Capt A. Ross; IO, 2 Lt A. F. Bailey; MO, Capt A. R. Johnson; Padre, Rev R. B. Spence. HQ Coy: OC, Capt M. J. Coop; Lt H. J. Low (Mortars); 2 Lt W. A. Reeves (Signals); 2 Lt D. D. Foote (Transport); Lt W. H. Dalton (QM); 2 Lt G. Lawrence (Carriers); Capt R. G. Deans and Lt D. G. Grant (A-Tk); A Coy: OC, Capt P. L. Lynch; 2 i/c, Lt F. Vernon; 2 Lt A. F. Cooper; 2 Lt W. F. Johnson. B Coy: OC, Capt G. M. Robertson; 2 i/c, Capt S. Wilson; Lt J. W. Kinder; Lt J. L. Johnston. C Coy: OC, Capt W. Hoseit; 2 i/c, Lt C. A. Slee; Lt F. D. Sutherland; 2 Lt M. E. Cross; 2 Lt A. C. Marett. D Coy: OC, Maj D. B. Cameron; 2 i/c, Capt G. S. Cooper; Lt A. L. Fletcher; 2 Lt K. W. Clark; 2 Lt V. D. Kirk.
26 2 Lt R. G. Gilbert; born NZ 10 Sep 1914; hospital attendant.
29 Sgt J. A. O'Fee; Dunedin; born Fortrose, 26 Mar 1918; butcher; wounded 24 Oct 1942.