27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 11 — El Mreir
In another night attack the New Zealand Division was to capture the eastern end of El Mreir depression, while 5 Indian Division again attempted Ruweisat Ridge; 1 Armoured Division was to protect the southern flank and ‘frustrate any enemy counter-attack,’ and debouch to seize a line farther west.
For the assault 6 Brigade was given the support of the whole divisional artillery, a medium regiment and 5 Brigade's mortars and machine guns (4 Company); 18 Battalion was to cover the left flank with mortar and machine-gun fire (from 1 and 2 Companies). ‘This must have been the machine-gunners' night out,’ wrote Newland, ‘some 120,000 rounds being fired in about 3 hours.’ Eight guns of 1 Company and the six of 5 and 6 Platoons (which moved from 4 Company to 1 Company) fired on an enemy-held ridge about two miles south of the depression, and then lifted to maximum range for harassing tasks farther north. At the same time the twelve guns of 4 Company brought down fire on the eastern end of the depression.
Frazer says that prisoners taken after this attack ‘referred to one of these combined shoots as “whispering death”. They had no warning of its coming (the noise of the guns themselves was frequently lost among other noises) until the air was suddenly full of the horrid whispers and twittering of bullets coming from half a dozen different directions.’
Each battalion of 6 Brigade had under its command two Vickers guns from 3 Company mounted on Bren carriers. ‘Before the show,’ says Captain Hains, ‘Brig Clifton asked me if it was possible to mount MMGs on Bren carriers. I thought it was a good idea for some tasks and spent two days fitting one on and trying it out. Quite satisfactory.’ Each carrier had a crew of two machine-gunners and the driver (an infantryman).1 Two guns and four men from 8 Platoon were allotted to 24 Battalion, and four guns and eight men from 9 Platoon to page 246 25 and 26 Battalions. The rest of 8 Platoon, together with 7 Platoon, with six guns on 15-cwt trucks, were to follow with Advanced Brigade Headquarters.
All three battalions reached El Mreir. On the right the 26th crossed the start line at nine o'clock and in less than an hour the leading infantry were on the slope leading into the eastern end of the depression. The vehicle column—anti-tank portées, mortar carriers, ammunition trucks, and the two carriers with the Vickers (Corporal Winfield and Private Dudman in one, Privates Collis and Nevin2 in the other)—followed close behind the infantry.
They came up against tanks. A two-pounder portée and Winfield's carrier were told to creep up on one immediately in front, the Vickers to fire around the turret to keep it closed, and the two-pounder to knock out the tank. ‘We inched up and when only about 100 yards away fired a long burst with the Vickers,’ says Winfield. ‘The tank replied with MG fire which dented the plating of the carrier and pierced some water cans. A few seconds later the 2-pndr fired a shot. Almost immediately an answering shot from the tank scored a direct hit on the 2-pndr—which put paid to that lot.’ An ammunition truck had been set on fire and ‘was well alight before we and the 2-pndr had a go at the tank. We must have been perfectly visible to Jerry all the while because we were between it and the tank whilst firing…. The whole outfit drew back to get up speed before making a dash through. We made the dash. There was a terrific explosion. Collis's carrier had either struck a mine or been knocked out by anti-tank fire.’
Winfield's carrier got through, but was completely on its own. Its three occupants could hear the infantry fighting but not a sound from the other vehicles. Winfield told his driver to circle to the left and back towards the burning ammunition truck. They met nobody until they came upon Collis's carrier. Collis was standing up, his face blackened by the explosion, and was trying to get his gun and tripod off the carrier. His gun and crew, including the injured driver, were transferred to Winfield's carrier.
El Mreir, 21–22 July 1942
Winfield's party returned to headquarters, but did not learn for some hours what had happened to the infantry. The 26th Battalion, unable to make contact with the rest of 6 Brigade at El Mreir, and having encountered tanks, against which it could not defend itself, had withdrawn to 5 Brigade.
In the centre of the attacking force 24 Battalion got away at 8.30 p.m., and almost immediately ran into machine-gun fire, page 248 but quickly crossed a minefield, subdued the Germans beyond it, and reached the objective. The engineers cleared a gap through the minefield, and by 2.30 a.m. the transport was also on the objective.
Only one carrier-borne Vickers (with Corporal Burtenshaw3 and Private Pearse4) got through to support 24 Battalion; the other carrier (Corporal Pye and Private Green5) ‘developed a fault and would go only into high gear. The driver reported this to the carrier officer,’ says Pye, ‘and as we were under shellfire and also a bombing raid at the time the officer ordered us to go back. Being the senior cpl I offered to change places with Cpl Burtenshaw but he decided to stay where he was and was taken POW.’
The advance, says Pearse, ‘proved quite a nightmare as apart from the heavy shelling, etc., we had great difficulty in maintaining contact with the infantry who were virtually strangers to us and moved much more rapidly in the darkness through the depressions and minefields encountered. At times we were quite lost. Early in the show we came across Lieut Cliff Rollinson [1 Company] with his Vickers guns lined out in a depression doing what appeared to be a perfect indirect shoot….
‘After passing through the gap in the minefields we found ourselves for a short time together with a few other vehicles and an anti-tank gun or two. Later in the flashes and flare- lights we saw what appeared to be enemy gunners working round a field gun some three or four hundred yards away; I fired several bursts from the Vickers at them and no more was heard from that direction, but in the intense dark it was difficult to tell what was the result. It was too dark even to see the gun sights except by the gun flashes and we dearly wished we had a few rounds of tracer. This was our only target for the night. The driver then had a few anxious moments getting his carrier out as he could not get his machine into gear. The cartridge cases had piled round or into the gear selectors somehow but we eventually got going again and finally reached our objectives…. We searched round for a long time to find 24 Btn HQ….We were then detailed to attach ourselves to some anti-tank guns nearby to give support until further orders. We page 249 crawled into some enemy slit-trenches at 3 a.m. to sleep until dawn.’
On 6 Brigade's left rear 25 Battalion was shelled and machine-gunned in its assembly area and during its westward advance of about a mile in daylight to the start line, but got away to the north on time (8.30 p.m.) and by one o'clock had reached its objective, on the pipeline track about a mile south of the depression. The transport—including the two Vickers in carriers (Sergeant Cox and Private Beckingham with one, Privates Daly6 and Hambling with the other)—encountered mines soon after crossing the start line. A track was cleared and the column got through, but veered off course and might have headed into enemy country had it not been redirected by an infantry patrol.
Advanced Brigade Headquarters and the transport of the support weapons—including Captain Hains's company head quarters, 7 Platoon and half of 8 Platoon—followed 24 Battalion to the depression. Private Ross7 remembers the clatter of the Vickers shooting with 18 Battalion, behind whom they passed early in the advance. ‘We had heard nothing like it in the Libyan campaign and we had high hopes that the attack would be a success…. There was a terrific explosion not far from us….’ One of the Defence Platoon's trucks had been blown up on a mine. ‘Well after midnight we halted and dug slit trenches….’
About 4 a.m. Captain Hains reported to Brigadier Clifton, who ‘was at the blower of one of the liaison tanks8 and impressing their HQ with the necessity of tanks being up at first light. From what I gathered he was assured that the tanks would either be up with us or at least at the wire. I assumed that the Brig was worried about the noise of the tanks and wanted supporting tanks…. Soon after we arrived we heard tanks and one of the three liaison tanks went out west to investigate. It came back—with what information I do not know.’
When Brigadier Clifton learned that 24 Battalion was not in touch with the 26th on the right, he called up the 25th from the left rear with the intention that it should go into the 26th's page 250 position at dawn. During the 25th's move to the depression ‘we hadn't the faintest idea where we were, had been, or were going,’ says Beckingham. ‘This situation went on all night; at daybreak we had travelled what seemed to me about 100 miles, but actually we must have gone about four or five during our gyrations.’ When this group arrived about five o'clock, there were altogether some 600 men, twenty-one carriers, ten three-inch mortars, ten six-pounders, fourteen two-pounders and nine Vickers guns in the area originally taken up by 24 Battalion.
It was still dark, just before dawn, when the 25th moved out to take up a position on the right of the 24th. ‘We advanced about 300 yards when all hell broke loose.’
Enemy tanks in hull-down positions were shooting into the depression. They soon set fire to an anti-tank portée, but the crew very quickly put out the flames which were showing up the other vehicles, guns and troops. Before long, however, most of the transport was on fire. The anti-tank guns were still on their portées, and most of them were knocked out before they had a chance to fire a shot. For about twenty minutes the Germans saturated what seemed to them to be a surprisingly compact target area. ‘It was impossible to do anything but crouch low in our slit trenches while the whole area was swept with intense machine gun fire from the enemy tanks,’ says Ross.
During a lull some of the New Zealanders attempted to get away to the south or east, but the Germans reopened fire and their tanks came down over the rim of the depression, followed by a few guns and small parties of infantry. In what was now broad daylight and in open desert, few managed to escape.
Captain Hains's pick-up tried to get away eastwards to the Indian Division's lines, ‘but had only travelled about 100 yds when we ran into a group of enemy tanks at very close range,’ says Private Martin,9, the driver. ‘The truck was riddled, Prvt Brott10 and myself were wounded….’ Hains, Martin, Brott and Laird11 took cover in an Italian trench, and a few minutes later saw a jeep approaching; it too was shot up by the tank, and Brigadier Clifton and one or two others baled out an dived into the same trench. Not long afterwards the Germans rounded up 6 Brigade. The Brigadier, having removed his page 251 badges of rank, helped a medical orderly with the wounded and subsequently made his escape.
Private Forrest12 (7 Platoon) says his truck was set on fire and the gun crew captured. The other gun crew of this section tried to make a dash for it, but was also caught. During the lull in the firing the platoon commander (Lance-Sergeant Brown) and the other section decided to move back a short distance to a nest of unoccupied slit trenches. ‘By this time the firing had resumed and we embussed and moved back another short distance to await developments,’ says Ross. ‘No other trucks or men appeared to be able to escape and at daybreak the whole area behind us was burning furiously to the accompaniment of machine gun fire.’
They decided to return to their own lines. Brown's truck led the way. Fire from two or three tanks appeared to be going over the tailboard of the second truck, in which Private Burr13 was hit. The small convoy kept going, and while heading along a lane with wire on each side, this truck exploded a mine and was immobilised. While Caple14 and two others took shelter near the minefield, Ross, Arundel,15 Huddlestone,16 Henty17 and Hopkins,18 several of them carrying Burr on a blanket, made towards Brown's truck, which had continued out of the minefield and stopped on a slight rise. ‘Two Jerry tanks headed into the depression from the left of us but did not open fire,’ says Ross. ‘We thought this was because we were carrying a wounded soldier but upon nearing the Sgt's truck [we] found the reverse slope in the hands of German infantry.’ Brown's truck had been machine-gunned, and he had been killed and Lance-Corporal Helm wounded.
‘Our first job as P.O.Ws. was to bury a number of 18 Bn boys who, after advancing across a wide wadi, had been killed in front of the German position. One British tank advanced into this wadi in the morning but retired after being fired on page 252 by Jerry anti-tank guns. Later we were machine gunned by our own tanks when burying our dead. Towards midday Pte Burr died as a result of his wound. In the afternoon the position was plastered for some time by 25 pounders but no further casualties were suffered.’
While some of these shells were landing close and the Germans were taking shelter, Arundel and Bain19 ‘made a bolt for it but after a lot of dodging about and finally sheltering in a Jerry dugout with three Jerries who said they would surrender to us, we were picked up in the evening by the Germans returning to their dugout.’
Caple and his two companions found themselves surrounded by tanks until mid-morning, and were pinned down by shellfire from both sides for the remainder of the day. At dusk they walked out and asked the way from some infantry, who provided a truck to take them back to their own headquarters.
The section of 8 Platoon fared no better than 7 Platoon. ‘The position looked absolutely hopeless from the start,’ says Corporal Evans.20 ‘We stuck it out for about half an hour, and by that time it was obvious that there were only two courses open to us. Either to stay in our slit trenches till Jerry came and picked us up or make a run for it. Our platoon commander Lt Gumbley was not very keen on the running idea to begin with, but when the tanks started to move towards us, he changed his mind.’
Sergeant Bartlett21 says he counted at least thirty tanks. ‘Very shortly we were told to get out the best way we could. Our truck had one tyre blown out and was heavily laden with our equipment. “Baldy” Hanley22 our driver told me he would give it a go to get away.’ This three-ton truck was hit several times by armour-piercing tank shells, but was still ‘serviceable’ when Hanley reached his own lines.
The remaining fifteen men of 8 Platoon tried to get back on foot. It appeared to Evans ‘that there were between two and three hundred soldiers doing their best to get away on foot. All went well for a time, then more tanks appeared on both sides of us. Then some more showed up directly in front of page 253 us….’ Evans and Bartlett stuck together and kept going. The smoke of a burning vehicle gave them cover, under which they reached some infantry Bren carriers, which took them back to Company Headquarters. These two NCOs and Hanley were the only members of the section who evaded capture.
Burtenshaw and Pearse (also of 8 Platoon), with their Vickers in the carrier supporting 24 Battalion, ‘were obliged to surrender with the rest of the Kiwis around us.’
Cox's carrier was ‘right on the outskirts’. Cox sheltered in a small slit trench while Beckingham and the driver took the carrier some distance away behind a small hillock. When Cox saw the infantry being rounded up in the depression he ran to this hillock, and realising that the position was hopeless, decided to take his section back to headquarters. ‘In front of us and barring our way was a minefield. However I decided to risk it and led the way across the field with Daly's carrier following. When we had gone a short distance we noticed an anti-tank portee in the middle of the field. I directed Beckingham to drive the vehicle.’
Beckingham says that when he reached the portee an officer was sitting in the driver's seat trying to start the motor. ‘He asked me if I could drive and I replied in the affirmative. He then asked me if I would turn around and go back with him and see if we could get a shot or two in to maybe give the Inf some support. I agreed but was not too happy as I had seen the rest of the portees blown to pieces. We only moved about twenty yards in the direction of Jerry when either we hit a mine or Jerry lobbed a shell under the front wheels because I can remember seeing one of the front wheels going sailing through the air. I was knocked silly for about 30 seconds, and when I recovered myself I found that the officer was missing.’
Beckingham appeared to be unhurt when he rejoined Cox's carrier. Noticing that Daly's carrier was no longer following his own when it was clear of the minefield, Cox decided to go back to see what had happened, ‘but our driver refused to go back into the minefield. However Beckingham came to the rescue and took over the driving, although I don't think he had ever driven a carrier before. Then we found ourselves out of petrol, once again our luck was in, and we found a tin, which was poured hurriedly into the tank.
‘We then set off back into the minefield, following the tracks we had made previously. About in the centre of the field we came across the missing carrier stopped with Daly wounded page 254 and the others fairly groggy. We picked them up, turned around and headed out of the field.’ Apparently a mortar bomb had landed on Daly's carrier.
Beckingham ‘then drove like merry hell for our own lines.’ The carrier went through an artillery regiment and passed some British tanks heading in the opposite direction—miles too late of course!—and pulled up near an RAP, where Beckingham collapsed. ‘We delivered him and Daly to the Medicos, and Hambling and myself went back to platoon headquarters,’ says Cox. Beckingham was awarded the MM.
The battle of El Mreir cost the New Zealand Division over 900 casualties. Three men from 3 Company (Sergeant Brown and Privates Burr and Olsen23 were killed), a dozen wounded and twenty-eight captured;24 the company lost half its guns and several vehicles. Some of the survivors were transferred to 2 Company to replace 4 Platoon (captured on Ruweisat) and to bring 5 Platoon up to strength. The remaining thirty-six men, under Lieutenant Beard, were sent back to Maadi, where the company was built up again under Major Tong with men recruited from Headquarters Company, pay office, post office and other base units. After a brief, intensive training, including two days' field shooting, 3 Company returned to the Division on 13 August.
The 24th Battalion, which had lost the greater part of its rifle companies, also went back to Maadi to reorganise. Lieu tenant-Colonel Gwilliam relinquished command of the 27th on 25 July to replace Lieutenant-Colonel Greville, killed at El Mreir, as its CO. Lieutenant-Colonel Robbie, who had been waiting impatiently at Maadi, assumed command of the 27th and ‘set about the problem of getting myself back to the Bn.
…Fortunately for me Gen Inglis, who was in command whilst Gen Freyberg was convalescing, was agreeable for me to assume page 255 my command at Alamein.’ But the ‘large and cumbersome’ Battalion Headquarters was not welcome; only the CO and the Adjutant (Captain Hume), each with his driver and batman, the whole party in two vehicles (a car and a 15-cwt), were permitted to return (on 2 August), ‘so we didn't clutter up Div HQ and get under their feet.’ The two officers efficiently con trolled and administered the battalion. Robbie attended the Divisional Headquarters conferences, and his batman (Private McLean25 did his map work and telephone and signal work.
1 Lt Gumbley says: ‘The guns were mounted in the front of the carrier, part of the armour plating having been cut away to allow the gun to be mounted. Once mounted the gun had a very limited traverse, it was certainly mobile but against that it presented a very large target and could only be used for direct fire.’
7 Pte W. F. Ross; Kanieri; born Hokitika, 29 Dec 1916; mental hospital attendant; p.w. 22 Jul 1942; escaped 17 Mar 1945.
8 Three liaison officers from the armoured units detailed to portect 6 Bde against counter-attack accompanied Brig Clifton's advanced headquarters, two of them in tanks and the third in an armoured car
24 The New Zealanders captured at El Mreir were taken by Italian trucks to Benghazi, where some 1300 troops were ‘crowded onto an acre or two of ground under some palm trees…. conditions were appalling.’ says Pearse. Three weeks later ‘500 of us were … herded at tommy-gun point’ into the hold of a cargo vessel, the Nino Bixio. On the second day at sea the ship, although escorted by two destroyers and aircraft, was hit by two torpedoes, one in the engine room and the other in the hold in which the men were packed. The ship did not sink, but was taken in tow by a destroyer. Among the 118 New Zealanders who died were six machine-gunners: Cpl R. A. Ripley and Ptes H. Lang, P. M. MacPherson, E. W. Polhill, H.L. Small and W. H. Windle.