27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 10 — Ruweisat Ridge
El alamein is a solitary little station on the Western Desert railway about 60 miles from Alexandria. Just to the north, between the railway and the sea, the road runs along the low ridge which separates the coastal dunes and salt marshes from the almost featureless waste which extends nearly 40 miles inland to the 600-foot precipices flanking the Qattara Depresion, an obstacle to heavy vehicles. There, on the Alamein Line, across this neck of land between the sea and the Depression. Eighth Army halted the Axis invasion of Egypt.
The Alamein Line was not an unbroken line of fortifications: it originally consisted of three defended areas 15–20 miles apart. In the north 1 South African Division was entrenched in the Alamein Box, around the railway station; in the centre the New Zealand Division occupied Fortress A (the Kaponga Box) at Bab el Qattara, a track junction in a defile between low escarpments; at Naqb Abu Dweis, near the edge of the Qattara Depression, 5 Indian Division, reduced to the strength of a small battle group with hardly any artillery and short of water held Fortress B but was soon withdrawn. Another Indian formation (18 Brigade) was brought into the gap between the South Africans and the New Zealanders and dug in at Deir el Shein, a shallow depression just north of the western end of the barely perceptible Ruweisat Ridge. The gap south of the New Zealanders was the responsibility of mobile columns.
Sixth Brigade, reinforced by the Maori Battalion, defended the Kaponga Box; 4 and 5 Brigades, having sorted themselves out after their dash back from Minqar Qaim, went to Deir el Munassib, a shallow depression nine miles to the south east, whence mobile columns could go forward to defend the approaches to the fortress. On 30 June 3 Company rejoined 6 Brigade; the other three companies remained with the formations with which they had fought at Minqar Qaim. 1page 220
Under the protection of a sandstorm Rommel flung his troops against the northern part of the Alamein Line on 1 July. The 90th Light Division was brought to a halt by the South Africans and panicked under shellfire, and at Deir el Shein the Indian brigade held out valiantly until evening before being overwhelmed by Afrika Korps. Farther south the New Zealanders, apart from shelling tanks and other vehicles at extreme range when visibility permitted, were scarcely involved. A column, which included 25-pounders, six-pounders and 11 Platoon, was sent out to the north early in the afternoon.
‘During one halt with this gun column,’ says Lieutenant Frazer, ‘when we had our guns off trucks and were trying to distinguish friend from foe in the haze, smoke and dust which enveloped Deir el Shein and all around it, we found ourselves being circled by two ME 109's. As we watched they came in at our guns from 30–40 feet, one tailing the other. We had grabbed whatever weapons were nearest to hand and now let fly as they roared at us. I saw the smoke trace of one of our incendiaries … plunge into the base of the wing of the leading plane; there must have been other hits as well, including Dick Gallagher's pistol, at that close range. The ground was bare and flinty and we were not dug in; only afterwards did we think what a mess these two planes would have made of us had they opened up. However, they didn't, they must have been in doubt as to who we were in the remarkable mix up of opposing forces that day.
‘Towards dusk we withdrew to Deir el Munassib with the unhappy feeling that all had not gone well with the Indians at Deir el Shein that afternoon and we had been unable to help.
‘Late that night, as we were sleeping alongside our trucks … a 15 cwt stumbled into our laager with a British Lieut. Colonel and half a dozen Indian soldiers on it.’ They had managed to get away when 10 Indian Division had been cut off at Mersa Matruh on 28 June, and were certain that by this time Rommel would have been at Alexandria and the Suez Canal; they had been hoping to get through to Sinai. ‘When we told them that 8th Army was still very much in being and hitting back all the way up to Alamein the Colonel pulled a tin of beer from his truck and insisted on sharing it, with the heartfelt toast: “Well, here's the best piece of news I have ever had in my life.”’page 221
From shortly after daybreak on 2 July the 25-pounders shelled enemy groups passing on the northern side of the Kaponga Box, and the retaliatory fire fell mostly among 24 Battalion, which was supported by 8 Platoon on the northern perimeter. ‘The arrival of the German armour and transport … was a sight worth seeing and we had what might be called a grandstand seat at this spectacle and it made us realise that we had a hard row to hoe ahead of us,’ says Lieutenant Gumbley.
‘A Wadi about 1,000 yds. in front of our position was quickly occupied by German mortars and they promptly started to liven things up. Owing to the hard rocky surface of the area the fragmentation of the bombs was from our point of view very poor. Fortunately the chaps kept their heads down and our only casualty was Cpl. Midgley 2 who lost an arm.’ A carrying party was reluctant to distribute rations and water under fire, so Midgley took the much-needed stores round his section himself and was wounded while doing so; such contempt for danger earned him the MM.
Two gun columns sent out to the north were amalgamated under the CRA (Brigadier Weir 3), who then had four batteries of 25-pounders, some anti-tank guns, four rifle companies and 6 Platoon. The British armour met German tanks just north of this force and called upon the New Zealand guns for support. After what seemed to be an indecisive action the British laagered for the night—and 6 Platoon was ‘very surprised to see on a battlefield the parade ground drill for dismounting from a tank.’
Early next morning the CRA's column opened fire on vehicles moving in a southerly direction towards Alam Nayil ridge. The enemy halted and replied, but obviously the New Zealanders were getting the better of it. Brigadier Weir called for an infantry attack, and 19 Battalion headed northwards at top speed. Some Bren carriers drove ahead through a small group of enemy vehicles, which so unnerved the Italians that they went forward to surrender to the infantry, who had debussed and were advancing on foot with fixed bayonets. The main body of the enemy opened fire with mortars and machine guns.page 222
The Vickers of 4 Platoon were brought up, and while one section fired over the heads of the infantry, the other went forward to give closer support and found good targets at ranges from 1700 to 3000 yards. ‘Ammo 28 belts…. Results observed on enemy arty, mortars, transport and infantry,’ the platoon reported. Lieutenant Blue's 4 platoon (6) with the CRA's column also had excellent shooting. Against the combined fire of the Vickers, mortars, two-pounders and small arms the Italians ‘didn't have a show’; some escaped, but many waited to be rounded up by the infantry.
The bag was astonishing: 352 prisoners, twelve 105-millimetre, eleven 88-millimetre and Russian 76.2-millimetre, sixteen 75-millimetre guns, five British 25-pounders, some 20-millimetre dual-purpose (ack-ack and anti-tank) guns, many mortars, machine guns, trucks, ammunition, and a quantity of medical stores. The New Zealanders, in fact, had captured most of the artillery of the Ariete Division, at the cost of 20-odd casualties. Three men in 4 Platoon had been wounded.
While the New Zealanders wrought havoc among the Italian division's guns and transport, the British armour drove back its tanks. Farther north the Germans succeeded in gaining some ground on Ruweisat Ridge, but it was the last effort of their declining strength; they were utterly exhausted, reduced to about thirty tanks, and critically short of ammunition. Rommel's victorious march from Gazala, begun five weeks earlier, had come to an end.
‘We had all had it properly, on the move all the time, off trucks, dig in, brew up, on trucks, off trucks, dig in, etc. Has anyone ever found out why we were messed about so much … we must have moved dozens of times without purpose it seemed,’ writes Private Humphreys. 5 And that is how the next week or so appeared to most of the New Zealanders.
On 3 July 6 Brigade, leaving the Maori Battalion in possession of the Kaponga Box, withdrew south-eastwards to Himeimat; 9 Platoon stayed with the Maoris, and the rest of 3 Company joined 1 Company in Reserve Group, which moved a short distance north-westwards from Munassib to Deir Alinda. Meanwhile 2 Company, with 4 Brigade, after going north to Alam Nayil, headed west to laager on the eastern side of the page 223 Kaponga Box; and 4 Company, with 5 Brigade, went south and west of the box and then north to the El Mreir Depression. No doubt there were very good reasons for all these moves. In any case there was a definite purpose behind 5 Brigade's manoeuvre: it was to attempt to get round the enemy's south-west flank.
This brigade got away from Munassib before midday, but made slow progress through patches of soft sand. South of the western end of the pear-shaped El Mreir Depression 21 and 22 Battalions deployed, and Brigadier Kippenberger ordered them to advance to objectives just beyond its northern edge.
The Italians, with an unrestricted view of the brigade approaching, began to shell the two battalions before the infantry debussed. The men left their vehicles and continued on foot. On the left 22 Battalion reached the southern edge of El Mreir, but found the far side was strongly held and came under such heavy fire that it had to dig in. The supporting Vickers of 10 Platoon ‘had a pretty sticky time getting in, having to pass through shellfire,’ says Lieutenant Rose. ‘Colonel Russell 6 asked me if I could shoot up enemy mortars and artillery who were shelling our rear heavily and preventing our own arty. from coming into position and giving me support. 10 Platoon went well forward and the guns went into action on open ground well in front of the infantry. Shooting was pretty good on mortars and bunched transport also well out in the open. We were able to quieten them down sufficiently to let our own arty. into position.
‘During the afternoon, a flat topped vehicle (something like a Portée) came around our left flank, together with one or two staff cars. German and Italian officers could be seen standing up and observing our positions through glasses. We were able to chase them off pretty smartly. At dusk we retired to the rim of the depression and dug in there, two guns on either flank of the 22 Bn.’
On the right 21 Battalion found cover behind a rise in the ground that was actually the southern lip of the depression, and 12 Platoon was ordered forward to assist. ‘Neither I nor my NCOs,’ says Lieutenant McAneny, ‘could locate the enemy positions but we ourselves were obviously under enemy observation as we were being continuously mortared…. our task was to endeavour to locate enemy mortar positions and silence them.page 224 page 225
I ordered various ranges and switches but could not even observe strike. I reported the position to Colonel Allen 7 who ordered [the platoon] to continue its effort which we hoped would help in keeping some of the enemy under cover. Later in the afternoon the mortar fire became concentrated and the Colonel ordered me to withdraw 12 Pl, specifically stating in view of the particularly heavy fire, that the position was to be evacuated by crawling out. This afternoon was a very trying one, especially for the lower gun numbers who had long waits in scanty cover. It was not possible to dig guns in as time and the steady fire of the enemy did not permit.’
The withdrawal was arduous, but was successfully accomplished, and the platoon was ordered back several miles for the night. Next morning it was told to return to the position it had occupied the previous day to support an attack by 21 Battalion, but McAneny protested because he considered there was ground better suited for the purpose, so the siting of the guns was left to him.
The attack began about 6.30 a.m. The infantry were advancing with fixed bayonets when 12 Platoon mounted its guns. McAneny arranged with several platoon commanders that he would fire when their men went to ground, and when the Vickers stopped the infantry would make another dash. ‘We carried on on these lines under mortar and small arms fire for a time and then fired forward at longer range as 21 Bn troops disappeared from view down a slope, but could not pick up definite targets. The fire of the enemy was very heavy and 12 Pl suffered several casualties.’ Privates O'Donoghue 8 and Muir 9 later died of the wounds they received.
McAneny saw two men well forward on rising ground; they appeared to be gesticulating to him to go to them. ‘I was not satisfied that my fire was effective and rather than send someone else I decided to go forward myself and reconnoitre.’ The two men turned out to be a forward observation post for the 25- pounders, whose telephone line had been cut. ‘They pointed out to me a heavy enemy mortar position which was well concealed. After taking bearings and ranges I immediately set page 226 off back to the guns, but the great difficulty was to retain that very small rocky enemy gun pit in my mind in a country devoid of land marks. On the way back I turned many times to make sure I still had the spot and eventually got to the guns after being blasted over a couple of times by mortar bombs.
‘It was necessary to quickly shift the guns which were re-sited on open ground but owing to the slightly rising terrain in front, the gunners could not see the enemy mortar position.’ By standing up McAneny could see it, however, and he laid each gun in turn on the target and opened fire. ‘I think the range was about 2500 yards … and strike was immediately observed dead on. It was then I was wounded…. I heard afterwards that the enemy mortar was silenced by 12 Pl's fire.’
McAneny was awarded the MC, and Sergeant Knox, who took command and kept the platoon in action in an exposed position, the MM.
Two companies of the 21st succeeded in reaching the foot of the escarpment on the far side of the depression, but were later withdrawn under the cover of smoke from the artillery, and that night 23 Battalion attacked from west to east across the front of the 22nd, but achieved little beyond destroying an Italian outpost. At dawn on 5 July 5 Brigade was still occupying the positions it had held the previous day; and there it remained, frequently shelled and attacked from the air, until the evening of the 7th.
During one of several dive-bombing attacks on the B Echelon transport 4 Company's water-cart (a three-tonner with a tank on the tray) was set on fire, but was saved by Privates McColl 10 and Lovett, 11 who unloaded some hot petrol cans and, driving slowly, threw sand on the burning tyres.
‘This was some of the most accurate dive bombing we had experienced,’ says Frazer. ‘Fortunately we were well dispersed on an old bivouac area with a number of tent holes scattered about. We had cut away one of the sides of some of these holes and had driven the trucks into them so that the engines and bonnets were just under ground level; while a lot of damage was done to the cabs and back ends of vehicles the engines and radiators were protected.’ Major Cooper's pick-up, about the only vehicle which was not nose down in this manner, was page 227 knocked out. The shelling and bombing caused several casualties, among them Private Dewar, 12 who died of wounds.
Plans and alternative plans were prepared; orders were issued, amended, superseded, or cancelled. ‘The main impression left,’ says Cooper, ‘is that of uncertainty and apparent confusion— order and counter-order until it seemed we were in complete disorder, and my inability to let my company have some definite knowledge of our position.’
Orders were given on 5 July for 4 Brigade to take 28 Battalion under command and go round the south of the Kaponga Box to Qaret el Yidma, for Divisional Headquarters and Reserve Group to follow, and for 6 Brigade to reoccupy the box.
The previous day 4 Brigade had been shelled by 25-pounders with very little result. ‘Is this the usual thing with the 25 pdr or is it the way that Jerry is using it,’ asked Lieutenant Newland. ‘We hope that it is the way he is using it & not the fault of the gun…. We also had two very heavy air attacks, we suffered no casualties from these but had a little damage done to vehicles. Within two hours these trucks were fit for the road again. Our QM, Lieut Murie, 13 arrived on a visit just in time to receive one of these raids … however it was very good to meet someone who had at least some more recent news.’
The Maori Battalion (accompanied by 9 Platoon) left the Kaponga Box to join 4 Brigade, and about 10.30 a.m. on the 5th the augmented brigade set off in a southerly direction through country broken by wadis and escarpments. ‘This trip was a bad one, the going being up and down the escarpment and the ground varying between soft sand, hummocks and very rocky, with now and then some good going.’
The convoy turned west and was travelling over a stretch of open, stony ground when aircraft dived out of the sun. The brigade commander (Brigadier Gray) was one of the twenty-seven killed, and about fifty were injured. One of 4 Platoon's trucks was caught, and among the men on it, Lieutenant Evans 14 and Privates Carswell 15 and Sciascia 16 were killed and nine page 228 wounded. Two men were wounded in 9 Platoon. The dead were buried and the wounded attended to before the brigade continued westwards to the Alamein-Abu Dweis track, turned north, and reached its destination in mid-afternoon after a journey of about 24 miles altogether. Aircraft attacked three times again, but the machine-gunners had no further losses that day.
On 4 July, when Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam arrived to take command of Reserve Group, 3 Company reported ‘Intense hostile [air] attacks were sustained all day until dusk. There were six attacks….’ Both 1 and 3 Companies had casualties. The group, following Divisional Headquarters in the evening of the 5th, struggled through soft sand and reached its position south of 4 Brigade after midnight. Sixth Brigade, meanwhile, reoccupied the Kaponga Box, with 1 Company among its supporting arms.
The 1st Armoured Division was to attempt an advance on Ruweisat Ridge on the night of 6–7 July, and 4 Brigade was to push northwards until it was level with and west of 5 Brigade, so that the New Zealanders could support the British armour and exploit success. Late that night this operation was cancelled, but because of an undisclosed failure in staff work the news of the cancellation did not reach 4 Brigade, which advanced to Mungar Wahla.
The leading troops of 20 and 28 Battalions reached their objectives without making contact with the enemy. Going through to exploit, 19 Battalion crossed a shallow depression at the eastern end of Mungar Wahla and reached the high ground to the north about an hour before dawn, still without opposition. Major Johansen took 5 Platoon out on the right flank (near Point 69). While the rest of the platoon halted in a small wadi, Johansen, Lieutenant Price 17 and Corporal Fraser 18 climbed up onto a sand dune, from which they could see hundreds of Italians getting up, shaking their blankets and preparing breakfast. The nearest were about 300 yards away, the farthest another 700 yards. Fraser could not believe his eyes and asked, ‘Is that the enemy?’ Johansen says it was ‘an absolutely perfect target for enfilade fire … the best target I ever saw, and I saw some pretty good targets at times.’page 229
The four Vickers were ordered up onto the rise and began a direct shoot. This was the signal for 19 Battalion to open fire. It was ‘a proper massacre’, but by eight o'clock the Italians had recovered sufficiently to reply with mortars and small arms, and appeared to be forming up for a counter-attack. They did not have the slightest chance.
Fourth Brigade's advance served no purpose: the British armour had not moved on Ruweisat Ridge. The brigade was exposed to tank attack and therefore was ordered back to Qaret el Yidma, where it arrived without trouble before dark. The Division was now in danger of being cut off should the enemy on Ruweisat thrust south-eastwards towards Munassib. Fourth Brigade and Reserve Group returned to Munassib and Alinda, and 5 Brigade retired from El Mreir to Deir el Angar, east of the Kaponga Box.
Fourth Brigade's journey of about 20 miles took all night and ‘was a ghastly one,’ says Newland. ‘We encountered soft sand, hard rocks, hummocks, in fact all the types of ground necessary to make a night journey even more unpleasant than it should be.’ ‘One of the most important things during this period,’ says Major Cooper, ‘was the work of drivers and attached LAD personnel in keeping the vehicles going. They worked tirelessly under the worst possible conditions, with a desperate shortage of spares and the knowledge that replacement vehicles were extremely scarce. That they succeeded in keeping us mobile was amazing.’
Next night (8–9 July) the Division ‘side-slipped’ to the east to take up what were believed to be sounder positions, with 4 Brigade at the western end of Deir el Muhafid, Reserve Group in Munassib, and 5 Brigade on the Munassib-Alinda track.
Again 6 Brigade vacated the Kaponga Box and went into reserve—this time right back to Amiriya. A rear party, consisting of a company from 25 Battalion under Major Hutchens, 19 a few Bren carriers and six-pounders and 2 Platoon, was left to hold the fortress until relieved by 7 Armoured Division. Just before dusk a small enemy force approached the box from the north, but retired without attempting to close with the defenders.
‘We went out to the positions before daybreak next morning [the 9th] thinking we might get in some shooting,’ says Lieutenant Pleasants. ‘As the light came we observed an enemy page 230 patrol approaching the Northern entrance. By taking a circular route in the 15 cwt trucks we thought we could race them to the positions and prepare a reception. We had reached the foot of the small escarpment at the entrance and debussed ready to carry the MMG forward when the Germans complete with a light machine gun poked their heads over the top about 50 yds away … we left. Fortunately there were no casualties. The platoon went into action about 300 yds to the rear. One section was left to give covering fire whilst the other moved round to the flank to enfilade the German positions. What promised to be an interesting action was broken up with the arrival of a couple of Armd Cars from 7 Armd Div. The Germans broke off the engagement and departed westwards at high speed.’
No relief party appeared at the appointed time, and the enemy could be seen closing in from the west and north. A strong force approached the corner where the machine-gun post had been. The last New Zealanders withdrew, and Pleasants took his platoon back to 1 Company (which had returned to Reserve Group). Not long afterwards the Germans and Italians launched an assault with tanks, infantry and artillery and captured the unoccupied fortress.
Early next morning (the 10th) a terrific artillery bombardment was heard to the north; about 20 miles away the guns heralded an attack by 9 Australian Division, which had been brought down from Syria. The Australians progressed as far as Tell el Eisa, but this did not lessen activity on the New Zealanders' front. Soon after daybreak a strong force including tanks occupied Alam Nayil ridge, about three miles from 4 Brigade. An attack seemed imminent, but did not eventuate; the enemy, after being shelled and bombed, withdrew later in the day.
‘This was a thoroughly harassing day,’ writes Brigadier Kippenberger, whose 5 Brigade was on the south-west flank. ‘We were constantly warned by Division that we were about to be attacked and, with reports of enemy movement continually coming in from all three sides of the position, I was puzzled which way to look…. This afternoon a column of armoured cars, guns, and lorries made a sudden, swift advance along the foot of the [El Taqa] plateau, driving due east. Everyone fired at them but they drove on through the shellbursts unhurt and in the most gallant style….’ 20 They unlimbered some field guns and opened fire. From a dug-in position on fairly high page 231 ground about 2500 yards away 11 Platoon had a perfect view of them. ‘After about half a dozen bursts from our guns,’ says Frazer, ‘we saw the enemy infantry scuttling to their trucks and trying to escape back to the West. They abandoned the two guns and two of their lorries which they made one subsequent unsuccessful attempt to recover.’
Despatched from 4 Brigade to support the 5th, 4 Platoon also did some shooting against the armoured cars and lorried infantry. ‘…our guns went into action in real copy book style straight off the trucks on the ground,’ says Sergeant Boyle. 21 ‘…we must have caused some damage as we had return fire of mortars & M.G. but they fell short…. Darkness was soon upon us and the guns were then set for night firing.’ But orders came to return to 4 Brigade.
Fifth Brigade's position was now untenable, and during the night it leapfrogged through 4 Brigade and dug in facing north.
This repeated taking up and abandoning of positions, the many withdrawals and the lack of information bewildered the troops, but the thought that they were beaten did not enter their heads. Major Cooper recalls that ‘the stories, possibly exaggerated, of base wallopers burning papers and generally doing their scones, caused them vast amusement.’
The latest plan called for an attack north-westwards over the western end of Ruweisat Ridge to Deir el Abyad. It was to be in three phases: in the first the New Zealand and 1 Armoured Divisions, with the New Zealanders on the left, were to secure a start line running north-eastwards from Alam Nayil; in the second the New Zealanders were to capture a bridgehead on Ruweisat at Point 63; 22 in the third the armour was to exploit to Abyad.
The two New Zealand brigades packed up, embussed, and began their advance at 5 p.m. on the 11th. They were visible to the enemy, who shelled them very heavily. The infantry debussed, advanced steadily on foot and took up their positions.
Ready to go forward when required to consolidate on Ruweisat, 4 Company stayed in reserve on wheels in 5 Brigade's debussing area. After going about three miles, 2 Company waited most of the night before despatching two platoons to page 232 support 4 Brigade infantry (on the left). ‘… it was dark & as we didn't know the country & the infantry were still trying to advance we rested with the intention of getting into position just before dawn,’ explains Newland. ‘Our infantry had made top of the [Alam Nayil] ridge without trouble but on proceeding down the slope on the northern side came under terrific arty fire and had to go to ground.’ At 3.30 a.m. Johansen left with 5 and 6 Platoons to go into position with the infantry. ‘Couldn't find them & wandered all over the desert, contacting all sorts of people & units. Finally found 4 Bde infantry at eight & put 5 Pl on 19 Bn flank & 6 Pl on 20 Bn flank.’
The attack on Ruweisat, after being contemplated for first light on the 12th, was postponed, and for nearly three days the New Zealanders waited in suspense under steady shellfire, of which 4 Brigade bore the brunt. There were many casualties.
The 13th was remarkable for the almost complete absence of air attacks. The Luftwaffe must have been busy elsewhere, but returned next day. This time the machine-gunners with Reserve Group (which had moved into position behind 4 Brigade and north of Deir el Muhafid) were badly hit. Private Humphreys (3 Platoon), one of those wounded, had dug his slit trench ‘on the top side of a hill…. We were unfortunate, however, in that the ack ack chose to site their guns quite close to us. In the late afternoon some one said casually, here come our Bostons again. They looked fine flying in that formation we knew so well, but as they got closer we heard them, there was still a doubt, but as they were almost above they peeled off one by one, and came in at us (Stukas had fooled us). We were horrified to see the bombs dropping from these 14 Stukas 23 coming straight at us. We scattered and dived into our holes, cursing the ack ack for bringing this load of hate down on us. All the planes got away with it and really plastered us.’ Corporal Hore, 24 Lance-Corporal Stagpoole, 25 and Privates Hakaraia 26 and Glasson 27 were killed, and several wounded; two of 1 Company's trucks were hit and two Vickers lost.page 233
The attack on Ruweisat Ridge (operation bacon) was finally ordered for the night of 14–15 July. The two New Zealand brigades, the 5th on the right and the 4th on the left, were to advance about six miles on foot without artillery support until first light, by which time it was expected that they would be on their objectives.
In some preliminary reorganisation 18 Battalion relieved the Maoris in 4 Brigade, and 26 Battalion, brought forward from 6 Brigade (still at Amiriya), replaced the 18th in Reserve Group; the Maoris were sent back some 13 miles to the rear to prepare defences at Alam Halfa, a curious role on the eve of an attack.
The leading infantry crossed a start line at 11 p.m. and after going about two miles encountered a minefield. The enemy put up flares and opened fire, mostly with machine guns, but the two brigades fought their way through with rifle, bayonet and grenade, and pressed on to their objectives, leaving some posts unsubdued. On 5 Brigade's right 23 Battalion reached the ridge without much trouble; on the left 21 Battalion cut its way through a strongpoint, destroyed a couple of tanks, killed the crews of two more and overran some artillery, but broke up into several separate groups; the reserve battalion (the 22nd) reached the southern slope of the ridge. On 4 Brigade's right 18 Battalion attacked the enemy wherever he was found, and like the 21st lost cohesion; 19 Battalion veered from the left to the right, but arrived intact on the ridge, and by dawn the reserve battalion (the 20th) was on the left flank.
Fourth Brigade transport had been divided into two groups before the advance began. Some of the engineers, anti-tank guns, 4 and 5 Platoons and Defence Platoon followed 20 Battalion; the rest of 2 Company and the engineers, also the carriers and mortars, waited at B Echelon for orders to join the assaulting troops. Major Johansen and Lieutenant Newland accompanied 4 and 5 Platoons.
Ruweisat Ridge, 15 July 1942
‘Four enemy MG posts and possibly three tanks all opened fire together,’ says Brigadier Burrows. ‘I had gone forward to the head of 20 Bn … and felt somewhat dismayed at the new development. Our A Tk vehicles looked an easy mark for tanks. I shouted to the 20 Bn to go straight in with the bayonet and heard Charlie Upham 30 leading C Coy forward in grand style. His Coy must have dealt immediately with two posts. The tanks were hard to see but were moving away. A Tk vehicles were now moving over the crest of the Ridge. Still being fired on by two enemy machine guns the infantry unfortunately tried to get over in another spot and were faced with wire. However our MG officer [Johansen] saved the day. He dismounted two of page 235 our MGs and took on the remaining two German guns, one of which was about 400 yds away and the other about 700 yds. In very short time he quietened them both and had set fire to a couple of vehicles.’
Johansen, who had been walking in front of his own vehicles so as to keep in touch with the infantry, says ‘we had about 200 yards to go … we went to ground. I bawled to the guns to fire at the origin of the tracer….’ Sergeant Jessep 31 (4 Platoon) says he ‘ordered No 1 Sect into action…. L/C Herrington 32 and I think Cpl Millar were the No 1's on the two guns.’ They opened fire immediately over open sights. At the first glimmer of dawn, Johansen continues, ‘to our horror we saw two or three tanks…. I gave the embus signal…. I jumped onto the bumper of the first truck [Jessep's] and clung to the radiator cap…. We headed for the saddle [east of Point 63]….’
By this time 5 Platoon was able to give this section excellent supporting fire while it was making for cover, which it reached safely. Later in the morning Brigadier Burrows sent a message expressing his thanks ‘to those concerned for such an excellent job.’
On Ruweisat, which was found to be almost solid rock, the men scratched shallow holes in the few inches of sand and gravel and built small stone sangars. The machine-gunners went into position around Point 63, where they covered all approaches to the western end of the ridge. On the high ground just south-east of the point No. 2 Section 5 Platoon was able to fire to both the north and the south, and on the northern slope No. 1 Section had an arc of fire from the north-east to the west; 4 Platoon, west of Point 63, had arcs of fire extending from the north right round to the west and the south.
The Vickers ‘constituted the main defence of the brigade and their gunners earned high praise for the manner in which they kept their guns in action … they were under continuous fire from captured 25-pounders and also probably from 5.9-inch guns whose shells burst in the air. Notwithstanding their exposed positions and casualties, the Vickers gunners engaged enemy machine-gun and mortar posts and, at extreme range, the enemy's heavier guns and transport. They did much to sustain the brigade in most trying hours,’ says J. L. Scoullar in Battle for Egypt.page 236
4 and 5 Platoons on Ruweisat Ridge
‘It was inspiring to see the M.G. boys putting up such a grand show and to watch their calm deliberation as they spotted target after target and destroyed it. Theirs was an effort of utmost gallantry,’ an anti-tank gunner later told an interviewer. ‘One vivid impression of mine,’ says another anti-tank gunner, ‘was of a lone machine-gunner firing his Vickers. He was really annoyed and was firing very long bursts almost of belt length.’
To conserve ammunition (which ran out early in the afternoon) Johansen issued orders that the guns were to shoot only when they were certain to kill.
Hundreds of prisoners had been taken during the advance and sent back to the rear, and many Italians were still trying to give themselves up, but some of the captured men escaped or were released by the enemy still holding out south of the ridge. Shortly after eight o'clock a long column of men was seen marching westwards a mile or two to the south. At first they were thought to be Italians who had been recaptured or rescued by the Germans, and the Vickers were ordered to fire on them, but before they did so the troops were identified as British under enemy guard. It was not known then that these were 350 men from 22 Battalion who had been overrun by German tanks at dawn and were being marched into captivity.
Johansen spent most of the afternoon assisting Brigadier Burrows at his advanced brigade headquarters, and Newland ‘carried on what little could be done with the Coy.’ Communications with the B Echelon group (which included Company page 237 Headquarters and 6 Platoon) had been cut and ‘we patiently waited for someone to get through to us fetching sorely needed ammo etc,’ says Newland. ‘The infantry were just about out of grenades, the MMG Pls wanted their remaining troops up quickly having had several guns knocked out as the shelling grew more severe.’ A few rounds were collected here and there, but not enough to keep the Vickers going. The heat haze, shimmer, and the dust and smoke raised by the shellfire made observation difficult. The inadequate trenches and sangars gave no protection from the sun, and the empty water bottles could not be filled. The flies were maddening, and the stench in the filthy pits recently vacated by the Italians was almost overpowering.
These conditions were especially trying for the wounded, among them Privates Gilmour33 and Mangham,34 who could not be evacuated. No doctors or ambulances were available, but Sergeant Morgan and Private Luxford35 enlisted the aid of the drivers to make an RAP, which Privates Reichel36 and Yeatman,37 medical orderlies, were called upon to run. Under Morgan's and Luxford's guidance, the wounded were brought in for attention. Before long primuses were boiling water commandeered from various sources, the wounded were washed and bandaged, and each provided with shade and shelter. Luxford also distributed tea and ammunition to 5 Platoon's gun team. Under such hazardous conditions this was, says Lieutenant Price, ‘a voluntary effort worthy of the highest praise and recognition.’
Towards dawn on the 15th 5 Brigade's support weapons— the anti-tank guns, carriers, mortars and Vickers—were waiting with Brigade Tactical Headquarters for the order to go forward to the infantry on the ridge. The Brigade Defence Platoon had been sent out to deal with some enemy posts interfering with page 238 the column's advance, but the hostile fire had not been subdued and the platoon had not returned. Brigadier Kippenberger was somewhere up forward. It was getting late, so the Brigade Major (Major Fairbrother38) told Lieutenant Frazer to try to get through to 23 Battalion with his (11) platoon and some carriers and two-pounders. The main column turned about and withdrew a mile and a half to the shelter of a slight depression (later known as Stuka Wadi). On the way back Private Drennan39 was killed by machine-gun fire.
Small-arms and tank fire passed over and through Frazer's small group of vehicles as they traversed a zigzag track on a forward slope, but they got clear of this without casualties and continued on, striking a minefield but skirting it safely, and then coming upon two German tanks about 200 yards away. Sergeant Homer, noticing the tanks swing their guns, ‘directed us very speedily to a very shallow depression—only a large sized saucer—on our right where we set up the guns,’ says Corporal MacLean. ‘It wasn't even deep enough to look like hiding the trucks (15 cwts).’ Fortunately the tanks, apparently unable to recognise the New Zealanders in the murk, did not fire at them. Two Crusaders arrived on the scene and knocked out one of the German tanks, and the enemy in turn shot off the tracks of one of the Crusaders.
The Vickers opened up on four guns which were in action about 3000 yards away and although his OP was in a very exposed position, Sergeant Cross directed his section's fire with telling effect. The artillery also registered on the guns, forcing the crews to abandon them, and the Vickers, shooting at the retreating enemy, knocked out one of their trucks.
Cross remembers watching a two-pounder anti-tank gun, still on its portée, engaging two tanks. ‘The 2 pr crew were magnificent and I'm sure were instrumental in saving us from being overrun … although they were forced to withdraw…. We felt a bit lonely and out on a limb….’
An Italian medical orderly came in to say he had wounded who needed attention. ‘So he brought one or two in, under escort (by us),’ says MacLean. ‘We were surprised how close page 239 they were. The Ities started converging on us in droves. If they rushed us, we wouldn't have had a chance. I think we counted roughly 150. Then in the distance several grey jerseyed and khaki shorted figures approached headed by 2 German officers.’ This might have been a German ruse to get close enough to shoot the machine-gunners. The ‘grey jerseyed and khaki shorted figures’, however, were 5 Brigade's Defence Platoon. Lance-Corporal Bertinshaw40 went forward to bring them in. One of the German officers said he realised Germany had lost the war.
Cross escorted the prisoners to Company Headquarters at Stuka Wadi, where ‘the Stukas came over and I unfortunately observed a direct hit on a Bofors gun crew.’ On the way back to 11 Platoon Cross saw a wounded New Zealander in a minefield, went to his rescue and took him to a doctor who was with the Crusader tanks parked in the depression forward of the zigzag track.
Going farther forward, 11 Platoon passed through large groups of Italians and a few Germans who were wandering around apparently just waiting to be picked up. About midday the platoon arrived among Italian sangars near the top of Ruweisat Ridge, set up its guns, and not long afterwards had a ‘short sharp taste’ of 25-pounder fire. ‘Luckily the Ites had dug deeply and no direct hits were recorded,’ says Cross. ‘The “daisy-cutter” effect of the 25 pr fragmentation was terrific and would have wiped off everyone above ground.’
In the afternoon 5 Indian Brigade (on the right flank) made contact with 5 NZ Brigade, which opened up a route for some anti-tank guns, carriers and mortars to get through, but only a few carriers had succeeded in delivering ammunition to 4 Brigade; the other vehicles were unable to reach the ridge from the south. When at last the enemy strongpoints began to surrender and the British tanks were reported to be advancing, it was too late.
After a day of ‘extreme anxiety and frustration’ Sergeant-Major Macartney (2 Company's CSM) learned that some trucks intended to try to get through early in the evening, so went out with his three-tonner loaded with ammunition and supplies in the hope of joining up with them. ‘We had moved only a short way, when we met men and vehicles streaming back page 240 towards us, and some of the men told us the show had collapsed.’
The men on the ridge had seen the enemy getting ready to counter-attack, but had been powerless to do anything about it. Just on five o'clock armoured cars had struck swiftly against 20 Battalion from the south-west. ‘Although a great effort was made by all to stop them by fire,’ says Newland, ‘the enemy came on & before long had taken the ridge where 5 Pl had been in posn.’ Tanks, self-propelled guns and half-tracked vehicles carrying troops attacked from the west. The defending anti-tank guns, after getting away a few shots, were either destroyed or driven back, and the infantry surrounded and forced to surrender. ‘The 19 Bn likewise was being rolled up. A stand was made at [advanced] Bde HQ & on the ridge where the engineers were in position. Both these efforts were of no avail, the enemy closing in from all sides.’ Nevertheless the Germans were turned back by the British tanks before they could penetrate as far as 5 Brigade.
Newland and thirty-one men of 2 Company were among those who evaded capture; they took with them two Vickers and tripods and one pick-up. The company lost two officers (Johansen and Price), forty-one other ranks, some of whom were wounded, six guns and tripods complete with equipment, one pick-up, four 15-cwt trucks and three three-tonners. Twenty-six of the missing men were from 4 Platoon, only eight members of which escaped.
No. 1 Section 5 Platoon, on the forward slope of the ridge and not dug in, was compelled to abandon its equipment. No. 2 Section made a praiseworthy getaway. ‘Taking their gun with them one sub-sec made off a little distance before coming into action being covered by the other gun of the section. As soon as the two guns were in action the more forward one pulled out under cover of the other gun. After making progress in this manner for some distance Cpl Fraser found a truck that had been left by the Italians earlier in the day, collected both guns & the gun teams & made off to safety, picking up stragglers of several other units on the way.’page 241
After being captured Brigadier Burrows and Major Johansen escaped and were about to lead a party along the northern side of the ridge to safety when they were joined by Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell,42 who had also escaped. They had not gone much farther, however, when an armoured car appeared in the dusk. The Brigadier, Hartnell and another man slipped away, but the rest of the party were taken prisoner.
Corporal Millar and Private Lord43 stayed hidden in their gunpit for about an hour and a half after others of 4 Platoon had been rounded up by the Germans. ‘Jack and I,’ says Millar, ‘were lying in this gunpit hardly daring to breathe when several Germans appeared above us and began to look menacing. We got out…. I managed to collect my water-bottle (empty), my small haversack, and an old blanket which we had had over the Vickers to keep the sun off us. Each one of these items proved themselves of tremendous value later on. As indicated by the Germans we were now to start to catch up on the large body of prisoners taken before us who were now half a mile away across the desert. There was no chance for us to disappear for there were enemy troops everywhere, but on the way we searched a number of abandoned Italian trucks and a few of our own for water to fill up our bottles but we were out of luck—although there were water-tins all around they were all empty. We finally joined on the tail of our fellow prisoners and carried on marching—or should I say—shuffling, for everyone was almost done, very thirsty, affected by the hot sun, and the desert here was very soft deep sand. It was an effort to drag one foot after the other….
‘At one stage we had to pass right under the muzzles of a battery of heavy artillery which was still in action….
‘Just as it was getting dark our column stopped for a rest; everyone fell down as if dead…. While we were still resting a squadron of the RAF came over and despite terrific fire from the a/a came in to drop their bombs on the German transport. For us sitting out in the open it was a most unhappy experience….
‘The column started to move again soon after that. We kept going until about ten or eleven o'clock…. I was amused once when the fellow next to me said, “It won't be long now for page 242 I can smell water.” I told him I would believe it when I saw it. Anyway it must have been another hour before we came to the water—it turned out to be a vague black shape in the darkness —merely a dump of water cans. As I was for once at the head of the queue, I was lucky to have an issue of water which although only less than half a mug and we could have drunk several water-bottles full, was better than the misfortune of some of our fellows who did not get any…. we just lay down to sleep where we were; I thought I had never been more tired.
‘We woke up late next morning much refreshed and though we had another small water issue, were soon very uncomfortable with thirst, and also the heat of the sun was beginning to become very trying. Allan [Parker44] luckily had acquired an Italian groundsheet, and this we moored at each corner to the stunted sage bushes growing there to make some kind of a shelter. The sheet was only a few inches from the ground, and all the same we lay under it feeling most grateful for this small mercy, for most of the men had no shelter at all….
‘As time went on most of us became almost delirious with the thirst and would get up and wander around for no reason at all. Many times fellows like this would imagine they saw trucks coming across the desert with water for us, they would call this out and everyone would spring up, only to find it was a dream….
‘Some time after midday a fleet of Opal trucks did arrive and as soon as they had stopped we staggered over to them in search of water, which, I am happy to say, was there on each vehicle. It was actually their emergency ration, but I will say the Germans were good with it and gave us all we wanted almost. Very soon after we got aboard them the trucks moved off in column.
‘Towards the evening we arrived at Daba where we entered a POW compound which had originally held Italian prisoners during the first Libyan campaign in 1940. It was a little ironical.’ The New Zealanders were taken back in stages through Mersa Matruh, Sidi Barrani, Tobruk and Derna, and reached Benghazi on 20 July. Later, after weeks of hunger in filthy compounds, they were shipped to Italy.45page 243
When the Germans counter-attacked Ruweisat Ridge, 11 Platoon was unable to bring its fire to bear on the armoured cars because they were on the other side of the ridge, and many New Zealanders were ‘mixed up in it all.’ After dark, when all was quiet, 11 Platoon (under Sergeant Homer) moved farther east to spend the night near the Indian brigade and the British tanks, while Lieutenant Frazer, accompanied by Sergeant Cross (who knew the route well after having already made the trip twice), went back to Headquarters 4 Company to report on the situation on the ridge. When Frazer and Cross returned to the ridge, they could not find their platoon, and as they were required to guide the surviving infantry of 4 and 5 Brigades to Headquarters 5 Brigade, they could only hope their own men would follow. Early next morning 11 Platoon turned up, looking ‘none the worse for having been deserted in this way.’
Their conduct during the battle won Frazer the MC and Cross the MM.
Ruweisat cost the Division over 1400 casualties. The machine-gunners' losses,46 apart from those on the ridge, included men killed and wounded air attacks. Several raids, one of them by more than thirty Stukas, caused one or two casualties in 1 and 3 Companies (which were with Reserve Group south of the ridge) and one killed (Private Morgan47) and three wounded in 6 Platoon (with 4 Brigade's B Echelon). Headquarters 4 Company suffered more severely. The Stukas ‘came in out of the setting sun,’ says Lance-Corporal Lawrie. ‘Another large truck came along and unfortunately stopped next to our LAD vehicle —and made this a sitting shot.’ Privates Single48 (an ordnance man) and Tipa49 received injuries of which they later died; the CSM's truck, loaded with ammunition, was destroyed and Sergeant-Major Booker, Lance-Corporal Lawton50 and Private Brooks51 were killed and at least six wounded.page 244
The Division reformed in the vicinity of Stuka Wadi, with 5 Brigade on the right and Reserve Group on the left. Fourth Brigade, with the greatly depleted 19, 20 and 22 Battalions, was sent back to Maadi to refit and reform; 6 Brigade was brought forward from Amiriya to take over in Reserve Group's sector, and the Maoris came back from Alam Halfa. The platoon and a half that remained of 2 Company joined 4 Company, which continued to support 5 Brigade; 3 Company stayed with Reserve Group (in which 18 Battalion replaced the 26th); 1 Company joined 6 Brigade.
Raiding parties and infantry patrols were sent out to harass the enemy at night, and the troops were little disturbed in the daytime except by the dive-bombing and shellfire. The machine-gunners had further casualties during the next few days of Stukas, shelling, dust, heat, flies and stench.
1 2 Coy with 4 Bde, 4 Coy with 5 Bde. Div Res Gp ceased to exist when 18 Bn (with which 1 Coy remained) reverted to the command of 4 Bde and 6 Fd Regt to 6 Bde, but shortly afterwards Div Res Gp (again including 1 Coy) was revived with the role of protecting Div HQ.
3 Maj-Gen C. E. Weir, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939–Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941–Jun 1944; comd 2 NZ Div 4 Sep–17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944–Sep 1946; Commandant Southern Military District 1948–49; QMG Army HQ Nov 1951–Aug 1955; CGS Aug 1955-.
7 Brig S. F. Allen, OBE, m.i.d.; born Liverpool, 17 May 1897; Regular soldier; CO 2 NZEF Sigs Sep 1939–Sep 1941; 21 Bn Dec 1941–May 1942, Jun-Jul 1942; comd 5 Bde May–Jun 1942; killed in action 15 Jul 1942.
19 Lt-Col R. L. Hutchens, DSO, m.i.d.; Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Hawera, 26 Nov 1914; civil servant; CO 27 (MG) Bn 29 Feb-8 May 1944; 26 Bn May–Jun 1944; 24 Bn Jun 1944–May 1945; wounded 21 Jul 1942.
‘After the German troops took over our R.A.P.’ says Mangham, ‘they put a captured 256 Pdr on each side. We were there for 6 days before being moved to Fuka.’
38 Brig M. C. Fairbrother, CBE, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde Jun 1942–Apr 1943; comd in turn 21, 23 and 28 Bns, Apr–Dec 1943; GSO 2 2 NZ Div Jun–Oct 1944; CO 26 Bn Oct 1944–Sep 1945; comd Adv Base 2 NZEF Sep 1945–Feb 1946; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories.
45 Nearly two years later, eight months after Italy capitulated on 8 Sep 1943. Millar was among those who regained their freedom. After dodging the Germans for some months in northern Italy, he entered Yugoslavia and was eventually flown to Bari, in Allied Italy.
46 As far as can be ascertained, 27 (MG) Bn's casualties on 15 Jul were six killed (including an attached ordnance man), 13 wounded and 43 prisoners (including several wounded).