CHAPTER 6 — El Alamein
After ten days at Maadi Camp 135 other ranks of 24 Battalion were transferred to 9 Training Brigade, leaving only Battalion Headquarters, Headquarters Company, and skeleton rifle companies reduced to an average strength of seven. Activity was necessarily restricted to fatigues, lectures, and purely specialist training.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam1 took command on 26 July. Captain Clarke,2 Lieutenant Turnbull,3 and Second-Lieutenant Boord4 all acted as Adjutant for short periods during the months of August and September. The Medical Officer, Captain Sutherland, had been assisting a wounded man from an ambulance during the action at El Mreir when a bakelite grenade fell from the soldier's pouch and exploded at his feet. Sutherland was wounded and evacuated to hospital, his place being taken by Captain Borrie.5
As far as the shattered 24 Battalion was concerned, war against the officially recognised enemy was in abeyance, but the men were now called upon to fight a subsidiary campaign against a less obviously formidable though more insidious foe. The contamination of food by flies was responsible for most of the dysentery and diarrhoea which were never wholly absent. The Western Desert had always bred flies in abundance, but the presence of armies, more especially along the railway line in the coastal region, had converted a pest into a plague. ‘Flies are at present Enemy No. 2’, read the warning in battalion page 120 routine orders,6 ‘but they can easily become Enemy No. 1 and cause casualties accordingly.’ Members of the Division's Field Hygiene Section visited each unit and gave instruction in anti-fly precautions, while a medical officer with a flair for the subliminal pointed out that ‘the psychological effect of killing flies and seeing them die is a great one’.7
It was only natural that some resentment should be felt by the New Zealanders at having been let down by British armour. Their criticism was directed against British generals, and they were inclined to think that the burden of war had been allowed to rest with undue weight upon Dominion troops. Anxiety for the safety of their homeland had been to some extent dispelled by the American Navy, but the presence of American troops in New Zealand gave rise to anxieties of another kind. While they fought abroad, strangers might consort with their women- folk. Sentiments, fears, or wishes that may not be more directly expressed are apt to be translated into rumour. It was whispered that the NZEF had been sold to Britain to raise money or reduce the national debt. When Mr. Churchill visited the Middle East and prophesied brighter days ahead, his words were taken by many of the troops to mean that 2 NZ Division would shortly return home; but all these symptoms of uneasiness were soon to disappear before the prospect of an action in which hope of victory rested on surer foundations than ever before.
In the second week of September the Division, having been relieved by 44 Division, left the line and moved to the coast near El Hammam, where it was rejoined some days later by 24 Battalion. By this time reinforcements had arrived, most of the men transferred to 9 Brigade had returned, many of the lightly wounded had rejoined for duty, and base units had been combed out to supply the combatant forces. As a result, 24 Battalion had a strength of 29 officers and 619 other ranks by the end of September. There were now three companies only in place of the previous four—A, commanded by Captain Aked, B by Captain Conolly, and C by Captain Yeoman. Major Webb was second-in-command; Major Stringer8 had taken page 121 over Headquarters Company, while Captain Clarke was Adjutant. Brigadier Clifton having been captured on 4 September, his place was taken by Brigadier Gentry.9 Sixth Brigade, reunited under its new commander, moved out into the desert in mid-September to take part in divisional manoeuvres.
The influence of a new commander, of striking personality and obvious ability, was already making itself felt throughout the Eighth Army. It was General Montgomery's declared intention to forgo all other forms of training in order to concentrate on rehearsing for a single vital operation, now imminent. He was concerned about the fitness of his men for the gruelling enterprise on hand, and made no secret of his doubts. ‘I am not convinced that our soldiers are really tough and hard’, he announced. ‘They are sunburnt and brown, and look very well, but they seldom move anywhere on foot and have led a static life for many weeks. During the next month, therefore, it is essential to make our officers and men really fit.’10
The process of being made ‘really fit’ was undertaken with drastic thoroughness and continued throughout the latter half of September. The manoeuvres culminated in an infantry attack, planned as nearly as possible to resemble the actual operation that the Division might be called upon to undertake. Artillery played upon an objective to which 24 Battalion advanced behind a barrage on a two-company front, with one company in reserve; 25 and 26 Battalions then passed through to a second objective. It was a reasonably accurate foreshadowing of what was to take place in a month's time. Safety was sacrificed in the interests of reality. A live barrage was used and, as is usual on such occasions, a few shells dropped short, but there were no casualties in the 24th. Sappers cleared gaps in the minefields and at dawn supporting armour moved up to support the infantry. A counter-attack then developed, to be met by tanks and anti-tank fire, after which 24 Battalion moved back to the coastal area in its own transport. So far page 122 as the troops were concerned ‘exhibit A’ had been the Sherman tanks, newly arrived on the scene of action, and sent out at the personal intervention of President Roosevelt.
We must now return for a moment to gather the threads of history on a larger field, and give a brief outline of events that led up to the battle of El Alamein. On the last day of August Rommel's forces had swept round 2 NZ Division's southern flank, confident in their General's assurance that two or three days would see them in Alexandria. Repulsed from the ridge of Alam Halfa as the turned north, the enemy had retreated under severe pressure to the western edge of our minefield belt, from which position General Montgomery had made no early attempt to dislodge him, being anxious to build up his own striking force rather than give battle before his preparations were complete. Foiled in this attempt to seize the Nile Delta, Rommel strengthened his defences, especially in the coastal region. From Mersa el Hamra on the western shore of Arabs Gulf, his lines ran south-west across coastal road and railway, bulged into a salient before the long, narrow ridge of Sanyet el Miteiriya, and then continued in a general southerly direction through Deir el Dhib and Deir el Shein, passing east of El Mreir, till his right flank was closed by the impassable Qattara Depression. The northern part of this line consisted of three defensive belts masked by minefields—the whole varying in depth from 5000 to 9000 yards. South of Deir el Shein the defences had been less systematically developed.
Reversing the procedure of accepted strategical method, Montgomery decided to destroy the enemy's holding forces first and deal with his armour subsequently. The 13th Corps would make two diversionary attacks in the far south, while 30 Corps delivered the main assault in the form of a two-handed punch between Tell el Eisa and Miteiriya Ridge. The northern, or right-handed blow was to be struck by 9 Australian and 51 Highland Divisions, advancing due west below the Tell el Eisa Ridge, while 2 New Zealand and 1 South African Divisions would drive south-west against the northern flank of the Miteiriya salient. The two armoured divisions forming 10 Corps would then pass through the corridors opened for their passage to meet and destroy the enemy armour. A gap of some two page 123 miles separated the northern and southern thrust lines. The battle was expected to assume three successive phases—‘the break in’, ‘the dog-fight’, and ‘the break out’. With the first phase accomplished, 2 NZ Division would revert to command of 10 Corps as part of the forces of pursuit. Such, in brief, was the plan of action that heralded the victory of Alamein.
Jaded spirits soon revived after Rommel's repulse from Alam Halfa, and the confidence inspired by a commander of genius increased almost daily as munitions of war poured into Egypt on a greater scale than ever before. Rumours of going home went out of circulation to be replaced by rumours of what was afoot behind the enemy lines. The Eighth Army had not only grown immeasurably stronger; it had come to realise its strength.
The decision to transform 4 NZ Infantry Brigade into an armoured formation was extremely popular among the New Zealanders, who felt that on occasions such as that of El Mreir page 124 they might expect more reliable support from armour operated by their own countrymen. Meanwhile, the British 9th Armoured Brigade was to take 4 Brigade's place in 2 NZ Division for the coming offensive.
For the ‘break in’ phase 2 NZ Division was to capture and hold part of the Miteiriya Ridge, starting its attack from a point immediately west of the Qattara track, with 5 and 6 Brigades on the right and left respectively. Advancing on a two-company front, 24 Battalion would capture the first objective in 6 Brigade's sector, 3000 yards forward of the start line, after which 25 and 26 Battalions would pass through its position and move to the final objective on a gradually expanding front. Contact would be maintained with 5 Brigade advancing simultaneously on the right, but on the left the South Africans were working on a different time programme and it could not be expected that 6 Brigade would get in touch with them till later in the operation.11 The final objective having been captured, the Divisional Cavalry would pass through 6 Brigade's forward positions and exploit to the south and south-east. The 9th Armoured Brigade would also pass through to exploit south or, if necessary, to help resist a counter-attack.
All day on 23 October the men of 24 Battalion lay hidden in slit trenches, covered over with groundsheets to prevent detection by aircraft. It was a trying ordeal, but they were tired after the long night march and, seeing what lay ahead, it was only wise to conserve energy. At 9 p.m. they left the lying-up area and advanced under a bright moon towards the start line over gently sloping, shingly ground, sparsely covered with scrub. About 9.30 the companies crossed the start line, marked with white tapes, and advanced to the opening line of the artillery barrage. At ten o'clock the guns switched from counter-battery, which they had been firing for a quarter of an hour, to open up on the enemy forward positions, the infantry lying flat while the change took place. The din of bombardment was terrific, and it seemed to the waiting troops that page 126 nothing could survive under so fearful a blasting; nevertheless, numerous flares were going up from the enemy's lines.
Behind the barrage, which lifted 100 yards every three minutes from 10.23 p.m. onwards, A and B Companies moved forward on the right and left, with C following in support along the axis of advance. The fighting transport had moved up from Alam el Onsol to come under direct control of Battalion Headquarters. Two companies of 28 (Maori) Battalion, temporarily attached to 6 Brigade, followed 24 Battalion to mop up whatever strongpoints should be overrun. A minefield and barbed-wire belt crossed the front laterally a mile or so beyond the start line, and towards it the battalion advanced, maintaining perfect order and direction over the journey's early stages. The ground was flat, bare of vegetation except for a few patches of scrub bush, and in many places covered with loose gravel. Generally speaking, opposition was slight until the vicinity of the minefield was reached, when shell and small-arms fire became increasingly severe. The enemy fought hard in small detached posts, firing till the last moment with machine and anti-tank guns and then trying to make his escape. As an indication of the line of advance, smoke and tracer shells were fired at short intervals along inter-brigade boundaries. The latter were exceedingly helpful, but the smoke bursts were hard to discern amid the dust raised by the bombardment.
On the right A Company, under Captain Aked, maintaining its correct direction, reached the objective with no great loss or difficulty, and advanced 200 yards beyond to clear up an enemy strongpoint. Lance-Sergeant Marshall12 was wounded early in the attack, but carried on to take command of 7 Platoon when its commander, Second-Lieutenant Butler,13 was also hit. Having led his men through the minefield, he was wounded a second time, and was eventually found sitting on the ground but still covering a small party of enemy prisoners in spite of his exhaustion. He was awarded the DCM.
On the battalion's left flank the South Africans had not yet come forward, and Captain Conolly's company (B) was page 127 exposed to the fire of an enemy unembarrassed by frontal attack. As a result, this company unconsciously edged away to the right and crowded on to Aked's men as it reached the objective. C Company, coming up in support, also drifted some way to the right, and left Battalion Headquarters advancing with no troops ahead of it. Regimental Sergeant-Major Cohen,14 who noticed the tendency and sent back word to Colonel Gwilliam of what was taking place, describes the incident:
This [loss of direction] most probably was produced by a combination of the lay out of the enemy's wire and defences and the lack of contact on the left which exposed our left flank to harassing fire and at the same time left it floating and unanchored. After observing this drift for a time on his compass and confirming the result by reference to the ‘I’ section compass in front, the RSM informed the CO who had also noticed the tendency. The RSM asked whether he should instruct the ‘I’ section guides to stick to the compass bearing or tell them to follow C Coy who were now coming on to the right front of Bn HQ. That is, whether to carry out the original instructions, even though this disorganised the Bn formation, or to return to station in the Bn formation and risk reaching the objective with the whole Bn seriously out of position. The CO decided to stick to the compass and sent a runner to C Coy to direct them to return to their correct position. The Bofors' tracer fired along 6 NZ Inf Bde's left boundary was at this time going over just to the left of Bn HQ (which was correct and confirmed the CO in his opinion) and continued to do so throughout the attack. Bn HQ thus continued to move on the line laid down in the original orders, in spite of the general drift to the right which became more and more marked as the attack progressed. Thus Bn HQ gradually shifted from its position in centre rear of Bn formation and became instead the left flank, and so exposed to an harassing fire from enemy positions in front of the Africans who had dropped well back, and with whom no contact was made until the following morning.
C Company's left flank now began to run into opposition. No. 13 Platoon encountered a machine-gun post and eventually destroyed it, assisted by men of the Maori Battalion, whose two companies were following on in rear. Sergeant-Major Cohen, who had come forward to see how the advance was page 128 going, was wounded in this action. The German survivors made off in the darkness and passed close to 14 Platoon, which mistook them for men of the Maori Battalion and allowed them to go by unmolested. At the time 14 Platoon was engaging the crew of an anti-tank gun, who joined the machine-gunners in their hasty retreat. The platoon commander, Lieutenant Ramsay,15 then went to the right with two of his men to discover exactly where the leading companies had got to. He writes: ‘We found A and B concentrated together, B at that time hotly denying they were off their course. Realising suddenly that the whole of the left flank of the Bn was open, I sent the runner back to advise Capt Yeoman and to let my sergeant, Alan Wetherill,16 know the position. Due to the fog-like smoke, the general confusion of the battlefield, and the shifting of Capt Yeoman's HQ, the runner got lost. After a delay Cpl Wishart17 and I set out but had a like fate and did not succeed in contacting Capt Yeoman until about 0200 hrs.
Meanwhile 25 and 26 Battalions moved up the brigade axis towards their start lines on 24 Battalion's objective, but visibility being very low owing to dust, smoke, and darkness, they both had great difficulty in finding the position. The 24th Battalion's leading companies were still slightly off the line and, moreover, had both exploited forward of their objective. As the barrage for Phase 2 of the attack came down, these companies drew back and a few of their men encountered the oncoming troops, but apart from this the second wave went through without making contact. ‘I personally did not see the second S L’, wrote Lieutenant-Colonel Fountaine18 of 26 Battalion in his report on the attack, ‘and very little of the 24 Bn when we passed through them owing to the dense smoke and dust. Visibility was very bad, about 20 yards at most, and maintaining contact was very difficult.’page 129
While the second wave went on to capture the final objective, A and B Companies of 24 Battalion were redisposed on their correct alignment. C Company moved to its proper position in support, but when Captain Yeoman made a reconnaissance at dawn he discovered that his men were occupying a minefield. ‘During that recce we followed Capt Yeoman walking about over the minefield, and it was not until a Carrier Cpl was blown up a hundred yards in front of us that we decided to take precautions. At the OC's request we did not commence digging until the engineers had had a day to clear most of the mines and set off the booby traps. It was not until we inspected the effect of these booby traps that we realised what might have happened! Some of them were made from a combination of teller-mine and captured British 500 lb bombs. One crater was 10 ft across.’19
On the morning of 24 October the forward battalions of 6 Brigade were on Miteiriya Ridge and contact had been made with the South Africans. Sappers came to clear 24 Battalion's company areas of mines, and when this was accomplished the work of digging in began. So far the total of casualties was eight killed and 72 wounded—a fairly high percentage when taking into account the fact that the battalion had been 180 below strength before going into action. Among the wounded were Second-Lieutenants Butler and Rawson20 of A and B Companies.
Only a few tanks succeeded in crossing the Miteiriya Ridge (on 5 Brigade's front) at dawn on 24 October, and these were soon withdrawn to rejoin the main body of the armour, which remained in hull-down positions behind the ridge all day. The attempt to break out was renewed the following night, when 9 Armoured Brigade advanced beyond the ridge, but the leading formation of 10 Armoured Division was caught at the minefield gaps by night-flying bombers and artillery. Several vehicles were set on fire and only a few tanks got through. The 9th Brigade remained forward next day, but the opposition was considered too strong for it to exploit to the south and page 130 it was withdrawn at last light. Farther north 1 Armoured Division was through the minefields in 9 Australian and 51 Highland Divisions' sector, but was also held up by the enemy anti-tank screen and made little progress. There was danger that the momentum of the attack would slow down and allow the enemy to consolidate in positions farther west. In view of this, General Montgomery decided to transfer his main effort to the north. Meanwhile, on the night 26-27 October, 25 and 26 New Zealand Battalions, in conjunction with the South Africans on their left, pushed well beyond the summit of Miteiriya Ridge to complete the capture of 30 Corps' final objective.
For 24 Battalion the three days succeeding the initial attack were comparatively uneventful. The reverse slope of Miteiriya Ridge was crowded with tanks and vehicles of 10 Armoured Division and 9 Armoured Brigade. Shellfire was heavy at times, but the battalion sustained no more than a dozen casualties, none of which were fatal. On 26 October the unit's area was heavily bombed but surprisingly little damage was done. Alarms were frequent. ‘One night from this position we saw a lucky strike of a stick of bombs on a long string of vehicles lined up nose to tail and ready with tank support to make a raid into the enemy held territory on our left. These vehicles were a few hundred yards in front of us, and a great many “bomb happy” soldiers made their way back from them through us to spread break-through rumours in the rear.’21
The time was now approaching for 2 NZ Division to be transferred to reserve, pending its move to the north, where General Montgomery had decided to make his breakthrough. On the night of 27 October 24 Battalion was relieved by South Africans and then taken in lorries twelve miles to the rear. For the next two days, during intervals of eating and sleeping, swimming parties were taken to the coast by motor transport.
The rest, however, was short. At 6.30 p.m. on 30 October 24 Battalion boarded lorries and was driven north-west across the desert to relieve a battalion of Cameron Highlanders of 152 Brigade, which lay facing the Sidi Abd el Rahman track, a few miles west of Tell el Eisa. ‘The drive was a nightmare. page 131 Through a breakdown my vehicle became the last in a hurrying convoy. It was dusk when we started and the dust of so many vehicles made visibility practically nil. The track was ill defined on the ground but signposted by cairns built along the side of the route. We cannoned off cairns, we bumped into the truck ahead, we bucked and banged our way uncomfortably but safely to the rendezvous where a guide led us through a gap in the minefield. Then our troubles started. Still last in the convoy, we lurched after the disappearing truck in front, lost it, crashed through the wire and ended up in two slit trenches. We got out and got back on to the road well lost. We got going again and a barrage of mortar fire opened up on our tail. Still we arrived. A little Scottie guide met us and led us out into the darkness. He said “a quarter o’ a mile” to his Coy HQ and we were warned to “keep silent”. We carried everything—boxes of ammo and grenades, picks, shovels, and greatcoats. We marched half an hour and a whispered conference with the guide made it clear it was now only a “quarter o’ a mile” to his Coy HQ. We had marched on for another long spell when another whispered conference established the fact that we were only “a quarter o' a mile” from his Coy HQ. At length we halted in the darkness by a large truck and waited while the guide disappeared bent double into the mysterious dark mouth of a dugout. A few minutes later a Scottie officer materialised and told us firstly that we were to be prepared for sudden bursts of machine-gun fire fired on fixed lines from two sides; secondly that the truck we were standing by was on a fixed line; thirdly that we really ought to lie down. We lay down.’22
Since the Camerons had four companies it was found necessary for 24 Battalion to form an additional one, and this was done by taking away a platoon from each of the existing companies. The extra company thus formed was placed under the command of Captain Seal.23
The relief was not completed until well after midnight, when the Aucklanders at once applied themselves to the essential page 132 task of deepening their slit trenches, the shallowness of which had been largely responsible for the heavy losses suffered by the Camerons at the hands of snipers. A Company occupied the central position, slightly forward, with B on its left and the composite company on its right. C was in rear on the extreme right. Deposited amid completely strange surroundings during the hours of darkness, both officers and men had lost their sense of direction and were doubtful of the exact position of either friend or foe. Dawn revealed an extent of apparently flat country covered with stunted scrub, but careful scrutiny disclosed the fact that, while our troops occupied the forward slope of a very gentle incline, the enemy held a low ridge just high enough to give him all the advantages of direct observation. The neighbourhood of his lines was littered with partially destroyed tanks, trucks, or carriers, and our men soon realised the extent to which these derelicts were infested with machine guns or snipers. The least movement in what came to be christened ‘Snipers Hollow’ drew instant fire upon the New Zealanders. Nor was the enemy alone to be reckoned with. While endeavouring to regain fire superiority Captain Aked noticed movement on his right front on ground that he had been given to understand was occupied by the enemy. Two B Company mortars were under his command and he at once ordered them to open fire. ‘At the first shot’, he writes, ‘two figures in gray shorts immediately started running and the mortar crew gave them a bit more hurry up. My phone then went mad and on answering I found Seal going mad. Bad show. However no one was hit, and at least it taught men not to wear enemy clothes.’
The situation was not without irony in that the men fired upon by B Company's mortars belonged to the platoon lately transferred from B to make up the composite company.
On the night of 28-29 October 9 Australian Division struck northwards towards the coast and drove a narrow wedge into the enemy's line that penetrated as far as the railway between Tell el Eisa and Sidi Abd el Rahman. Repulsing numerous counter-attacks against the newly-formed salient, the Australians made further progress towards the coast, threatening to cut off the retreat of a large body of German troops and page 133 giving the enemy to believe that the Eighth Army's main attempt was being made on the extreme right flank. General Montgomery then shifted the line of his thrust farther south. The operation known as Supercharge,24 presently to be undertaken, was designed to bore a hole in the enemy defences seven or eight miles south of Sidi Abd el Rahman, through which three armoured divisions would pass out into open desert, destroy the Afrika Korps, and then operate on the enemy's lines of communication. The 151st and 152nd Infantry Brigades, which now joined 9 Armoured Brigade under command of 2 NZ Division, were to carry out the actual attack, and it was on this account that 6 NZ Brigade had relieved 152 Brigade in the front line. The battalions of 6 Brigade, with their rifle companies now far below strength, were to form a firm base for the attack, but in order to be clear of the artillery opening line they would withdraw a sufficient distance to the rear some time before zero hour, and reoccupy their former positions after the barrage had moved on. The 9th Australian Division on the right and 51 Division on the left were to co-operate with subsidiary attacks.
During their two days spent in holding the line the men of 24 Battalion did not exist under the happiest conditions. Their trenches were filthy and infested with flies, having been previously occupied by several different units whose time and energy had been almost entirely devoted to fighting rather than cleaning. The position, as has already been stated, was overlooked by day, and by night enemy machine guns fired on fixed lines. German working parties could be heard plainly during the hours of darkness. These were fired upon, with results that could not be ascertained, though on one occasion a truck carrying a load of mines was set alight.
The night of 31 October-1 November had been originally fixed upon for Operation Supercharge, but at the last moment it had to be postponed for 24 hours, and not until 12.35 a.m. on 2 November did the companies of 24 Battalion begin their withdrawal to distances varying between 500 and 1000 yards. Flares fell round them as they moved out, and machine guns opened fire, but there were scarcely any casualties. Since zero page 134 hour was at five minutes past one, there was very little time in which to dig in. The ground was hard and few of the men had got down more than a matter of inches when our barrage opened. With the enemy's guns replying vigorously, they lay partially exposed, squeezing their bodies hard against the earth. The 24th Battalion was required to reoccupy its former position not later than 2.45 a.m., and fortunately when the time arrived for its return there was a slight lull in the shelling. In the darkness and confusion of battle it was no easy task for each unit to discover the identical position it had formerly occupied. The distance had to be carefully paced out, and compass bearings checked continually, but even so some of the platoons were still busy sorting themselves out at dawn. Armour of 9 Brigade was already moving forward behind the assaulting troops. ‘Dust thickened the air’, writes Second-Lieutenant Boord, describing the period of waiting and subsequent return. ‘Ahead was nothing but a thick pall and the air was thick with the smell of cordite. The flashes of the guns dimmed as the pall increased. The minutes ticked on. The world was just one thunder of noise…. I remember the buzz of bullets whipping over my head and thinking “well the Scotties must be in”. The next thing the Sgt was shouting “Come on chaps". I got up and yelled to him. It was 2.45 a.m. and we were due to return to our old positions. I tried to find Coy HQ and the other pln but they had moved off…. I set the compass, checked the lads, and then led them out back to our positions—no time to get lost this—the countryside seemed strangely altered—ghostly outlines of iron monsters showed up —squeaking and panting as they moved forward. Already tracks for transport were being established. We moved quickly and contacted the other pln just as it hit Coy HQ. The country looked very different under the glare of the gun flashes. What looked like tall shrubs in the dark were only stunted bushes.’
On the left 152 Brigade reached its objective by dawn; on the right affairs did not go so smoothly, and 151 Brigade was temporarily held up, but in spite of this 9 Armoured Brigade passed through the corridor and advanced to the track running south-west from Sidi Abd el Rahman. The ist Armoured page 135 Division then came through, and bitter fighting took place in which the tanks both inflicted and suffered heavy losses.
Having regained its former position, 24 Battalion occupied a firm base while the battle raged. There was little chance of sleep while the guns still hammered away, and in shallow slit trenches there was always the risk of being run over by a passing tank. At dawn the guns suddenly ceased firing and the silence seemed profound, though only by contrast with the previous din, as motor transport still rumbled by and the fire of small arms rattled continuously. Wounded Highlanders and batches of prisoners, mostly Italian, moved back to the rear. German shells now burst well forward of the position, and our men might walk about freely over ground where it had once been dangerous to show so much as a finger. Captains Aked and Yeoman had started off to explore the hidden machine-gun positions from which they had been so severely harassed when Yeoman was badly wounded by ‘an over from the tank scrap forward,’25 and the battalion lost an officer both capable and courageous. The armour still poured by; a sense of exultation was abroad; nor was it misplaced. By the evening of 2 November there were signs that the enemy's resistance was cracking at last.
Rumours of a move that night were confirmed when 6 Brigade was ordered to relieve 151 Brigade in the Division's northern sector. Having handed over to 7 Battalion Black Watch about midnight on 2-3 November, 24 Battalion started off on foot for its new destination. The actual distance was little more than two miles, but to avoid open country it was decided to move along tracks by a somewhat circuitous route. The arrangements for guides went awry and the companies had to find their own way as best they could. The five-mile march took nearly five hours owing to mistakes and losses of direction. At one time A Company was headed back just in time to prevent it marching into the enemy lines. The men were exhausted, having had little sleep in the past forty-eight hours, and during the numerous halts, while enquiries about the way were being made, they fell asleep where they lay. Then they kicked each other awake and moved on. It was nearly 5 a.m. when they reached the position held by 6 Battalion page 136 Durham Light Infantry, whom they were to relieve, and here also there was no little confusion. Not only were the guides provided for the incoming companies incapable of finding their way about, but the New Zealanders found their North Country speech hard to understand. The Durhams' slit trenches being inadequate and not well sited, the time allowed for rest could only be short, and digging began soon after dawn. The rather alarming discovery was made that a gap of 2000 yards existed between 24 Battalion and the unit on its right. During the morning some of our tanks appeared on the scene and drew down shellfire from German 88-millimetre guns, which killed two men of the battalion and wounded several others.
By this time the British High Command knew for certain that the enemy retreat had begun, and on 3 November our air force turned all its attention to the columns of transport moving west. But a screen of anti-tank guns still covered the withdrawal, and that night 5 Indian Brigade, under 51 Division, struck south-west below Tell el Aqqaqir. The attack went through; morning saw the salient widening and deepening; the day of rout and pursuit had arrived, with the New Zealand Division preparing to swing across the Rahman track well south of Tell el Aqqaqir, turn north-westward, avoiding battle if possible, and seal up the enemy's line of retreat through the bottleneck at Fuka.
Relieved in position at midday on 4 November, 24 Battalion marched back a mile or so to be picked up by motor transport and taken to 6 Brigade assembly area east of Tell el Aqqaqir. That afternoon the Division moved out through the minefield gap, heading south-west, with the armour leading and 6 Brigade in rear of the column. ‘Just before lunch we moved off and marched back about a mile in the thick dust of transport moving out. The RMT picked us up. We picked up our packs and blankets, had a drink of tea and then set off down the track past where we had lain under the barrage while the Highland Division26 had attacked. We formed into desert formation and about an hour before sundown rolled slowly forward over the battlefield of a day or so before. The page 137 first few miles were tough going—dodging slit trenches and soft sand. We passed wrecked Jerry tanks and blown ammunition pits—he must have had dozens of 88 mm guns—and then just as it got really dark we struck the Indian outposts and the open desert. We closed to maintain contact and rolled on into the night…. Morning found us beside a mass of vehicles including armour. We quickly sorted ourselves out and got into desert formation—5th Brigade preceded by the armour and then 6th Brigade. Desultory firing was taking place out in front, and soon batches of 10 to 30 prisoners began to stream in. Where they were sent to I don't know, but we soon moved. Fuka was our destination and the interception of the 90th Light Div. our object.’27
The old battlefield held pitfalls not always possible to avoid, and there were several minor mishaps. A Company's ammunition truck drove over a rise and dropped into a gunpit six feet deep, smashing its sump by the fall. The Company Sergeant-Major, who stayed behind with the driver, rejoined 36 hours later with the truck repaired, and described how, while they had been at work on the damaged vehicle, hundreds of Italians had come up to them asking to be taken prisoner.
During the night 5-6 November the enemy retreated from Fuka, but there was still a chance of cutting his line of escape at Charing Cross, in the hilly country south-west of Mersa Matruh. All day on the 5th the advance had continued with tanks in action away in the van, and at 8 p.m., when 6 Brigade halted for the night, it had arrived south of Fuka. The 6th of November saw no slackening in the pursuit; 50 miles were covered that day and by nightfall the brigade was close to the coastal escarpment south of Baggush. The armour had passed through Baggush itself. Charing Cross was little more than thirty miles ahead; only some stroke of fortune could save the fast-retreating German 90 Light Division, but at this juncture fortune intervened. Heavy showers came on in the late afternoon, and that night the men slept in trucks—cramped and uncomfortable. Next day the desert was a quagmire; 2 NZ Division was bogged down, unable to move, while the enemy continued his withdrawal along the road. The weather having page 138 cleared on 8 November, the Division moved forward once more, arriving in the afternoon at the southern approaches of Mersa Matruh. At first the place was thought to be still occupied by the enemy and preparations were made for attack, but reconnaissance proved that the birds had flown. The German rearguards had some cause for being grateful to the weather.
While the pursuit rolled on, 6 Brigade was ordered to remain for the present at Mersa Matruh, and early in the morning of 9 November A Company 24 Battalion marched into the town. Of the few Germans still remaining, some were busily engaged in setting booby traps, of which the place was found to be full, while others, doctors and orderlies, continued their work at the hospital as though nothing had happened. Some Basuto prisoners of war, members of an African labour corps captured earlier in the year, had already broken out and were looting and smashing indiscriminately. Intoxicated by sudden freedom, they at first defied all orders and only submitted eventually to a show of force. Colonel Gwilliam assumed the office of Town Major, and the battalion's remaining companies moved in the same evening. It was necessary to get rid of the large number of Axis prisoners as soon as possible, and a party from B Company left almost immediately to escort them to the rear.
For the next ten days the men of 24 Battalion spent their time in clearing up the wreckage of war and in routine training, swimming, and resting. Throughout this period, however, 6 Brigade was kept in a perpetual state of suspended animation by a series of messages from Divisional Headquarters. On 12 November warning orders were received to rejoin the Division. Next day Division was asked to say when movement orders were likely to arrive. No answer being received, the question was repeated two days later, eliciting the reply that no move was likely in the near future. That same night another message came to say that a move was probable on 18 November. On that date no confirmation of this warning was received, and having become sceptical concerning the whole affair, the Brigadier appointed a sports committee to organise a football tournament. The 19th of November came, and with it a message from Division asking whether orders to move had yet been received. A reply in the negative was returned, and the page 139 following day definite orders really did arrive from 91 Sub- Area, directing 6 Brigade to rejoin 2 NZ Division via the desert route.
|Casualties for El Alamein were:||Officers||Other Ranks|
|Died of wounds||–||4|
6 24 Bn RO, 4 Aug 1942.
7 2 NZEF Weekly Narrative.
9 Maj-Gen W. G. Gentry, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Greek), US Bronze Star; Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; commanded 6 Bde 5 Sep 1942-22 Apr 1943; Deputy Chief of General Staff (NZ) 15 Jul 1943-21 Jul 1944; commanded 9 NZ Bde (Italy) 11 Feb 1945-14 Jan 1946; Deputy Chief of General Staff 8 Jul 1946-20 Nov 1947; Adjutant-General 1 April 1949-31 Mar 1952; Chief of the General Staff 1 April 1952-.
11 ‘On the day prior to the attack I conferred with the Officer Commanding the South African troops, and he advised me that they did not intend to attack under cover of a barrage, but were going to place heavy artillery concentraions at certain known strong points of the enemy and then endeavour to dislodge the enemy from these strong points by an infantry attack. The attack therefor was not on a time basis, and meant that the infantry had to move backwards and forwards across their frontage in order to cope with the enemy's strong points in their sector. ‘—Letter by Lt-Col F. J. Gwilliam.
[The south Africans on 24 Bn's left flank, the Cape Town Highlanders, were oredered to capture three strongpoints at times should have kept them parallel with the New Zealanders' advance.—Narrator's note.]
16 2 Lt A. Wetherill, m.i.d.; born England, 14 Dec 1916; carpenter; killed in action 18 Oct 1944.
18 Col D. J. Fountaine, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Westport; born Westport, 4 Jul 1914; company secretary; CO 26 Bn 11 Sep 1942-30 Dec 1943, 8 Jun-16 Oct 1944; comd Adv Base 2 NZEF, Oct 1944-Sep 1945; wounded 19 Nov 1941.
19 Eye-witness account, Maj Ramsay.
21 Eye-witness account, Maj Ramsay.
24 The preceding operation had been given the code-name Lightfoot.
25 Letter, Lt-Col Aked.
27 Letter, 2 Lt Boord, 13 Nov 1942.