CHAPTER 5 — El Mreir
Disaster hung like a storm cloud over the Eighth Army as the black month of June 1942 drew to a close. The battle of Gazala had been fought and lost, leaving no choice but retreat. Tobruk's hastily improvised garrison was overwhelmed, and the enemy, having crossed the frontiers of Egypt, advanced swiftly along the coastal railway. The 4th and 5th New Zealand Brigades moved south into the desert from Mersa Matruh to check the invader's progress. June the 26th found them at Minqar Qaim, and next day the enemy deployed round their perimeter; but they proved dangerous game for the hunter, and a trail of destruction marked the way they won through to safety in the small hours of the 28th. That same evening, with much honour and about 700 casualties, they halted close by the defences of El Alamein.
While the outcome of this hazardous exploit was still in doubt, 6 Brigade, hitherto held in reserve in accordance with the new policy of using less infantry, was ordered to man the fortress of Bab el Qattara, central strongpoint of the Alamein Line. Starting at midnight, 24 Battalion moved out across the desert and arrived at midday on the 28th at the fortress familiarly known as the Kaponga Box, situated on a small rock plateau that rose 30 feet above the flat surrounding desert. This was no great height, but it sufficed in a land of level open spaces to give observation over a great distance in every direction, and from outside no one could see within the fortress except through two small gaps. The defences were incomplete; water was stored in good supply, but there was no reserve of food. Apart from weapons brought in by the infantry, there were neither guns and ammunition nor mines. The enemy was not expected to arrive in any force before the morning of 30 June, though reconnaissance parties might well appear much earlier. Meanwhile remnants of the Eighth Army flowed past Kaponga Box. ‘The next 36 hours’, wrote Brigadier Clifton page 106 in his diary, ‘went like a snowball in Hades with a crazy mixture of hard work, extraordinary visitors, unanswerable problems, and, very far from least, amazing rumours, mostly left by the thickening stream of stragglers who rushed up in a cloud of dust, told their horrid news, grabbed a meal and a drink, then expressed regrets that urgent business took them further towards Alex.’
While these symptoms of retreat were being cured by reorganisation, it was imperative that focal points of resistance should be made secure, and to this end 6 Brigade applied strenuous efforts. The 24th Battalion was made responsible for the northern side of the fortress, while the 25th and 26th faced west and south. At the end of June 28 (Maori) Battalion arrived to take over the remaining eastern sector, by which time 6 Field Regiment and 33 Anti-Tank Battery were in position supporting the infantry. A supply of mines was obtained and laid without delay. Assisted by a large squad of South African Basutos, the New Zealanders toiled at making bomb-proof shelters, at wiring and camouflaging. By the time an attack might be expected the Kaponga Box was reasonably secure, but the troops within had not been entirely unmolested. Just before dusk on the day of arrival a lone enemy aircraft, cruising low, dropped a bomb near a truck loaded with mortar bombs, which began to explode one after another. The truck itself caught fire; periodical explosions prevented it from being put out, and it remained a flaming beacon to guide other bombers to the spot. These duly appeared and one of them released a stick which straddled the battalion's position, wounding three men and the Adjutant, Captain Reynolds. Nor were these the only casualties. While moving out of Amiriya a section of carriers had been misdirected to Mersa Matruh, where a near miss on one of the vehicles had killed four men. The survivors found their way to the fortress and rejoined the battalion a few days later.
The black month of June was over at last, and the first day of July broke to discover a thick haze which increased towards the afternoon. From the north came the sound of heavy gunfire. The passing throng of stragglers had first thinned to a mere trickle and then faded completely away. For a while nothing moved within sight. Suddenly into the empty foreground raced page 107 three carriers, firing back into the haze at some object invisible from the fortress. Our gunners stood by to fire at their pursuers as soon as these should appear. At this moment the haze thinned, and German tanks came in sight at extreme range but sheered off unharmed when the guns opened fire. The carriers passed rapidly into the fortress by the north gap and out again at the opposite side without stopping. Not till weeks later was it learned that they had manoeuvred thus designedly to lure the tanks within range of our guns.
Enemy armour passed by to the north and overran 18 Indian Brigade before being hunted back from Alam Nayil. The flank of this force was exposed to the fortress but at a distance too great for any but occasional harassing operations to be undertaken. The sight of enemy columns streaming past along the skyline with impunity was especially painful to the aggressively minded Colonel Greville, who had to be restrained by the Brigadier from leading out a force in person to shoot them up. Nevertheless there were occasional opportunities of cutting off stragglers. In the afternoon of 2 July the battalion's carriers and anti-tank guns went out to destroy two apparently deserted vehicles three miles away to the north. No sooner had the anti-tank guns opened fire, however, than enemy troops promptly emerged with their hands up; and a little later an enemy mortar section found sheltering in a shallow wadi was also taken prisoner. The bag was so unexpectedly large that there was some difficulty in transporting the prisoners home. Next day the battalion enjoyed a grandstand view of our guns going into action and a lorried infantry attack by 5 Brigade on enemy positions five or six miles away, near the western end of the El Mreir Depression.
The Eighth Army sorted itself out on the lines of El Alamein, fighting for time till Rommel should begin to feel the pinch of lessening supplies. Nevertheless the High Command had no intention of losing initiative by establishing permanent garrisons, and in pursuance of this strategy 6 Brigade moved out of Kaponga Box on 3 July to Qaret el Himeimat, some twelve miles to the south-east. From there A Company (Captain Aked1), whose men were still falling victims to the over- page 108 time put in by mosquitoes in the North Tunnel at Radjou, was sent back to Maadi as LOB troops. At this time there was some idea of using the New Zealand Division for operations farther north, but nothing came of the plan, and while 4 and 5 Brigades took part in desultory fighting the 6th moved back again to Kaponga Box. There it remained from 5 to 8 July, and then, having received orders to leave the battle area for Amiriya, it moved out on the first stage to its former position at El Himeimat, trekked eighty miles next day over heavy going in desert country to camp where the track led south from Burg el Arab, and finally arrived at Amiriya on 10 July.
At this point it may be mentioned that there had recently been an important change in the battalion's establishment. The Pioneer Platoon (No. 5) became the Anti-Tank Platoon, armed with eight two-pounder anti-tank guns. Previously the battalion had been armed with anti-tank rifles only. The new guns arrived on 30 June and the men at once applied themselves to learn the use of a weapon that it was hoped might assist in preserving them from another Sidi Rezegh.
After a week at Amiriya the battalion was sent off at short notice to that same part of the line it had so recently left, 6 Brigade relieving 4 Brigade, which had been overrun and badly mauled at Ruweisat Ridge on 15 July. The Aucklanders harboured in the desert east of El Qattara on the night of 16 July and moved forward next day to positions in the line, five miles south-east of a long, shallow tongue of sunken ground, stretching east and west, known as the El Mreir Depression. While 24 Battalion occupied one of the hollows or depressions with which this part of the desert is studded, the 26th held a similar position two miles farther north; and the 25th, which had left Amiriya a day later, came to Alam Nayil, some way in rear of the rest of 6 Brigade, and sent its anti-tank guns and a section of carriers to sit on 24 Battalion's left flank. The brigade was now concentrated, facing north-west.
Viewing events in perspective, one can scarcely avoid the conclusion that certain operations undertaken at this period of the campaign were ill conceived and ineptly planned. Of such a description at least was the attempt now contemplated page 109 in which 6 Brigade was to capture the eastern tongue of the El Mreir Depression as a preliminary to further advance and exploitation westward by 1 Armoured Division. At Ruweisat Ridge a week previously it had been amply, disastrously, demonstrated that infantry, on first gaining an objective, are peculiarly vulnerable to counter-attack unless immediately supported by their own tanks—more especially so after a night advance when dawn should find them in strange surroundings, imperfectly reconnoitred, with guns not yet sited. The only valid precaution was armoured support timed to arrive without fail at the critical moment; lacking which no infantry on earth could be expected to withstand the shock of a Panzer assault. A lesson had been given at 4 Brigade's expense. Was not one lesson enough?
Since the attack had to approach its objective along a course running obliquely to the enemy's line of defence, thus exposing 6 Brigade's flank to enfilade fire, it was decided to test and probe the enemy's position south of El Mreir. On the night of arrival a small patrol from C Company (Captain Beesley2) advanced three miles north-west and then withdrew after hearing voices speaking in Italian. Two nights later a far more ambitious operation was undertaken when a fighting patrol under Major Beyer3 (commanding D Company), consisting of 30 men from B Company (under Captain Conolly4, the Carrier Platoon, a troop of six-pounder anti-tank guns and a party of engineers, raided the enemy lines at Deir Umm Khawabir—a small depression three miles due south of El Mreir, and immediately in rear of a minefield by which the whole position was covered. The patrol left its start line at 8.30 p.m. with supporting fire from the Divisional Artillery. As the infantry broke into the hollow, the half light of dusk revealed enemy weapon pits, built up above ground. Throwing No. 69 grenades to stir up dust and create confusion, the patrol moved forward towards the pits to find Italians waiting with their page 110 hands up. Meanwhile the carriers followed through a gap in the minefield made by the engineers and fired upon anti-tank and machine guns to the left, silencing some of them at once. While prisoners were being rounded up and sent back, the engineers blew up a gun, believed to be an 88-millimetre, and two anti-tank guns; but resistance was stiffening. A carrier was completely wrecked by an anti-tank shell, and one of its occupants (Corporal Easterbrook5) killed. Enemy tanks were beginning to come up from the rear and fire, as yet ineffectively, upon men and vehicles of the raiding party. The patrol's object had been accomplished and it was high time to withdraw. So far everything had gone smoothly, but on the way back two more carriers were destroyed while recrossing the minefield and had to be abandoned, the driver of one of them being killed. All things considered, the infantry escaped lightly with one man missing and one wounded. Two 3-ton lorries were sent out towards the depression to help bring in the troops and prisoners, but when the party got back there were still some men missing who could not be accounted for. Major Webb and the engineer officer promptly set out in search of them with two Bantams, but as they approached the enemy's wire there were so many Very lights going up that they thought it wiser to leave the vehicles and proceed on foot. Striking the wire at a point about a mile north of where the raiding party had passed through, they made their way cautiously towards the gap, fully expecting to find patrols out and repairs in progress. To their surprise they found the gap still open and unguarded. The Italians were talking and calling out to each other as though ‘they fully expected the incidents of the night were finished. I am of the opinion from what I saw’, wrote Major Webb, ‘that had a second attack been delivered at between 0200 and 0400 hours, it would have met with a considerable measure of success.’ The tally of prisoners was eventually found to be 42, all belonging to 8 Bersaglieri Regiment of the Ariete Division, whose headgear, decorated with cocks' feather plumes, made excellent souvenirs with which most of the raiding party seemed to have provided themselves.page 111
The attack was planned to take place on the evening of 21 July, while to the north 5 Indian Division would make a simultaneous assault upon Deir el Shein. The 22nd Armoured Brigade would protect the New Zealand Division's southern flank by fire and, if necessary, by action, while 2 Armoured Brigade would stand prepared to frustrate any counter-attack that might develop against the infantry. Phase 1 of the operation was the capture by infantry of the eastern tongue of El Mreir, after which 23 Armoured Brigade would carry out Phase 2 by advancing westward along the northern lip of the Depression. Sixth Brigade's left flank would be covered by 18 Battalion, while on the right 5 Brigade would give supporting fire with its mortars and send one battalion (the 21st) to maintain contact with the right attacking battalion. This was the 26th, whose task it was to capture the eastern end of El Mreir. On its left was the 24th, which had been allotted a lion's share of work in the coming operation. Lying farther to the west, its objective must inevitably be more exposed; not only was it farthest away—a distance of three and a half miles from the forming-up point—but before it could be reached a succession of enemy strongpoints would have to be overcome. To the left of 24 Battalion and with its start line slightly in rear, the 25th was to advance half-way to the Depression and remain there in brigade reserve. All three battalions had under command two guns of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion mounted on carriers, while the 24th and 25th had each a troop of 32 Anti- Tank Battery.
The light was beginning to fade, but all movement was still clearly visible from the enemy lines as 24 Battalion began at 8 p.m. to trickle forward by sections to the forming-up point, some 2000 yards in advance of the defence lines, in one of the many shallow depressions. There was no longer any possibility of surprise, for the intention had been made plainly evident; enemy shell and machine-gun fire opened up while the men waiting for zero hour scratched out shelters as best they might. D Company (Major Beyer) was on the right and B (Captain Conolly) on the left, while C (Captain Beesley) was in rear of B. In this order the battalion moved forward page 113 in extended formation at the same moment that our artillery concentration came down in front of the enemy's minefield at 8.30 p.m. Behind Beesley's company came the machine guns mounted on carriers. Sections of the newly-formed anti- tank platoon followed the carriers, while behind them again came 32 Anti-Tank Battery's six-pounders.
In what was still only semi-darkness, tracer bullets rained fiery streaks through the advancing waves of men, though casualties at this stage were almost miraculously few. First resistance came a thousand yards forward, close around two isolated cairns where the bombardment had first come down, but it did not long survive the Aucklanders' charge. El Mreir Depression was masked by a minefield running from north-east to south-west, which the advancing troops encountered when they had covered a third of the distance to their final objective. The infantry crossed without difficulty but ran into machine-gun posts on the other side. While dealing with one of these Captain Connolly was wounded, but managed to go forward with his company for another thousand yards. Raking fire came from the left, for 25 Battalion was not yet up and, since the attack was being delivered diagonally across the enemy's front, this flank was exposed. The adjacent Deir Umm Khawabir had been held by Italians, but the troops now encountered were Germans of 382 Regiment, lately flown from Crete, who fought with the stubbornness to be expected from men of their race. All the way from the minefield to El Mreir were isolated strongpoints, echeloned in depth, each requiring to be captured in turn. Assault followed assault, made with the bayonet and led either by one of the company officers or Colonel Greville himself. Over a hundred Germans were killed during this advance, but the losses were not all on one side. Captain Beesley was killed and Major Beyer badly wounded before Greville, with his adjutant and no more than 15 men, arrived at 2 a.m. on the final objective.
About sixty more men came in during the next hour, and the battalion's fighting transport, having passed through a gap in the minefield cleared by engineers, arrived in the Depression at half past two. Thus, of the three companies that had left the start line well up to strength, there remained 70 or 80 rifle- page 114 men, supported by four six-pounder anti-tank guns, seven two- pounders, ten Bren carriers, two machine guns on carriers, and four mortars. A counter-attack by Panzers at dawn or soon after was something more than a possibility. What hope had this small force of survival if by any chance 2 Armoured Brigade should fail to come to its aid at the time of utmost need!
As yet there was no contact with flank or rear. Actually 26 Battalion had occupied the eastern tip of the Depression some time previously, but Colonel Greville, knowing nothing of this unit's progress and having no other means of discovering its position, sent his Adjutant, Captain Turtill,6 to reconnoitre eastward in a carrier and find out if possible where it lay. Turtill moved off into the darkness and was not seen or heard of again that night.7
Meanwhile Greville disposed his force for defence. From the south, whence the advance had come, the land sloped gradually down into the lowest part of the Depression, from the floor of which a low cliff, some 15 feet high, rose sharply, extending some way both east and west. Each company had been allotted a special position to occupy and consolidate, but companies could scarcely be said to exist any longer; forming up for all-round defence, the survivors scraped out shallow slit trenches in the sand, with the cliff lying 300 or 400 yards to their north. It was too dark to site the anti-tank guns. By this time Greville had got in touch with Brigade Headquarters.
On account of the difficulty likely to be experienced in maintaining communication with his forward troops between the hours of 3 and 4 a.m.—always recognised in the desert as the least reliable period for WT8 —Brigadier Clifton moved forward with his headquarters in rear of the attacking lines. Arriving at the minefield he found a gap successfully cleared, through which 24 Battalion's fighting transport was hurrying in single file, packed nose to tail. This was as it should be, but a threat was developing close by where a company of 18 Battalion, guarding the gap on its western side, was being page 115 pushed back into the minefield by German tanks. A closed gap might well mean disaster, so Clifton left three six-pounders behind to assist the harassed company and then passed on through the minefield. Captain Sutherland,9 24 Battalion's Medical Officer, now appeared with a truckload of wounded. Clifton directed him towards the gap, but thereafter found himself in need of direction. Since the battalion commanders' WT sets were all on carriers still moving forward with the fighting transport, he could only communicate with the transport officers, who could tell him no more of the battle's progress or the battalions’ whereabouts than he knew himself. His perplexity was at length relieved when Greville, being joined by his transport, at once called up Brigade Headquarters, announcing his position and arranging to guide Clifton thither by sending up green flares.
The Brigadier arrived in the El Mreir Depression at 3.30 a.m., bringing a few more six-pounders and machine guns to reinforce the defence. The situation was now fairly clear. Between 24 and 26 Battalions lay a gap of 1000 yards which somehow would have to be cleared before dawn—an undertaking obviously beyond the capacity of the sorely depleted 24th. Contact was now established with the 25th, which had reached its objective on the left but was unable to dig in because of hard rock. Clifton ordered this unit forward into the Depression, calculating that it would take an hour to get there. Attached to his headquarters were two liaison officers of 1 Armoured Division, one of them from 6 Royal Tank Regiment of 2 Armoured Brigade, specially detailed for immediate counter-attack. The Brigadier now ordered this officer to call his unit, report the New Zealanders' perilous situation, and request immediate support. The officer did so, with Clifton standing beside his tank. He afterwards assured the Brigadier that the message had been received, though subsequently no record of it could be traced.
Anxiety had long since been aroused at Divisional Headquarters, but on account of 26 Battalion rather than the 24th, whose position was not known till later. At 12.13 a.m. the page 116 GSO 1 New Zealand Division spoke to 13 Corps by telephone, explaining that 26 Battalion had run into tanks, and that it was absolutely essential that our armour should be on the edge of El Mreir Depression by first light. Thereafter further attempts were made at intervals to ensure support, at first for the 26th and later for the other two battalions. At 1.25 the Divisional Commander himself, Major-General Inglis,10 explained the situation to 13 Corps in greater detail. At 2.15 his GSO 1 spoke to 2 Armoured Brigade, stressing the urgent necessity for supporting tanks to be on the edge of El Mreir at dawn if a repetition of the affair at Ruweisat Ridge was to be avoided. Five minutes later the same officer got through to 1 Armoured Division and made the same urgent request. At 2.50 Inglis was again in touch with 13 Corps, giving the information that both battalions were now on their objectives,11 eight or nine enemy tanks were roaming about the Depression, and that 18 Battalion had run into five tanks just east of the brigade axis near the minefield. These, it might have been expected, would be dealt with by 22 Armoured Brigade, whose task it was to protect the New Zealanders' southern flank.
While requests and assurances were being exchanged between the higher commands, 24 Battalion, battered, exhausted, depleted, lay in a sandy hollow presenting scarcely any natural features likely to aid in its defence. All unknown to the New Zealanders, a Panzer division was harboured a few hundred yards away, behind the low cliff in front. Arriving at 4.45 a.m., 25 Battalion was directed by the Brigadier to move east at dawn and try to link up with the 26th; meanwhile the men might rest. The moon had gone down and it was too dark either to site the guns or reconnoitre the position. For the necessary defensive preparation an hour of daylight was needed. Would so long a respite be granted? The answer was not long coming.
Lt-Col Shuttleworth's car was machine-gunned by a German aircraft on 26 April 1941, south of the Corinth canal. The hole in the back window was made by the bullet that wounded the Adjutant, Capt W. R. K. Morrison (page 47)
Crossing the Wire into Libya, November 1941
Smoke of battle, Libya, as seen from a slit trench
On Sidi Rezegh escarpment, east of the blockhouse
Meanwhile the Commander of 2 NZ Division was explaining to the Commander of 1 Armoured Division that supporting tanks had not appeared on the edge of El Mreir Depression at daylight—to which the latter replied that he had not been asked for support through the correct channels.14
Including killed, wounded, missing and prisoners of war, 24 Battalion's casualties added up to 280—a huge total when the fact is taken in consideration that only three companies, consisting of 440 officers and men, made the attack, and that a number of men belonging to the non-fighting transport had remained in rear with B Echelon. Notable among the officers killed was Lieutenant-Colonel Greville, of the New Zealand Staff Corps, a member of that select minority for whom personal danger is a stimulant, battle an opportunity, and war itself a not wholly undesirable state. But many others, far less distinguished, died as bravely that night; not only adventurous spirits revelling in strife, but men peaceably inclined, for whom war was a necessary evil. More than a few of these performed acts of heroism which, being unseen, will go unrecorded.
On 24 July Brigadier Clifton, who among other adventures experienced during the previous forty-eight hours had been taken prisoner and afterwards escaped, addressed survivors of 24 Battalion where they were encamped a few miles behind the line. One hundred and forty were present, bitterly aggrieved at having been left so badly in the lurch. That evening they were taken in trucks to Amiriya, and thence next day to Maadi.
|Died of wounds||–||7|
|Prisoners of war (includes 2 officers and 19 ORs wounded and p.w.)||13||157|
1 Lt-Col E. W. Aked, MC, m.i.d., Aristian Andrias (Greek); Tauranga; born England, 12 Feb 1911; shop assistant; CO 24 Bn 4-8 Jun 1944; CO 210 British Liaison Unit with 3 Greek Bde in Italy and Greece, 1944-45.
7 Capt Turtill had become Adjutant when Capt J. W. Reynolds was wounded at the end of June. He was afterwards found to have been taken prisoner.
8 Wireless telegraphy.
10 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, VD, ED, m.i.d., MC (Greek); Timaru; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn, 1915-19; CO 27 (MG) Bn Jan-Aug 1940; commanded 4 Inf Bde 1941-42 and 4 Armd Bde 1942-44; commanded 2 NZ Div 27 Jun-16 Aug 1942 and 6 Jun-31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947-50.
11 Presumably 24 and 25 Bns.
12 Diary, Brig Clifton.