27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 13 — The Battle of Alamein
The Battle of Alamein
Eighth Army built up a powerful striking force and prepared to take the offensive. Thousands of reinforcements arrived from the United Kingdom,1 300 Sherman tanks from the United States, and hundreds of field and anti-tank guns and thousands of vehicles of all kinds from overseas or the repair workshops; enormous stocks of ammunition, petrol and food were accumulated. The enemy of course was aware of this growing strength and expected an attack, but elaborate precautions were taken to prevent him from guessing where and when the blow would fall.
After about a week of leave and relaxation the New Zealand Division, reinforced by 9 British Armoured Brigade,2 moved south into the desert to rehearse its role as one of the assaulting divisions. The rehearsal was conducted under conditions as similar as possible to the actual attack. Minefields were laid in positions corresponding to those expected to be found on a ridge in the enemy's defences; the field guns were moved forward during darkness to surveyed positions and were dug in and camouflaged; the two infantry brigades advanced at night behind a creeping barrage in accordance with a timed artillery programme, and tracer and smoke were fired to assist the troops in keeping direction; the sappers blew gaps in the wire with bangalore torpedoes and lifted the mines (which they had laid themselves); lanes were marked and lighted, and the anti-tank guns, Bren carriers, mortars and machine guns were guided through. Before daylight the infantry and supporting weapons consolidated on the objective, in front of which the sappers laid a defensive minefield, and the tanks were brought forward in support.
Brigade manœuvres and other exercises followed. Wireless communication, provided for the first time between the machine- page 276 gun platoons and company headquarters, worked very satisfactorily.
The First Echelon veterans celebrated the third anniversary of their arrival at Burnham Camp, and to mark the occasion 4 Company had a ‘big flare-up’. The cooks, who had built an oven, turned on a very good dinner, and the hilarious evening was succeeded by a dismal grey morning with numerous hangovers, but a company route march ‘straightened out a few of the kinks.’
Two sergeants of the Army Field Photographic Unit, who wanted photographs of the ‘real thing’, visited 10 Platoon, and by the judicious use of gelignite cunningly sited to simulate shellfire obtained some effective still and moving pictures.
The New Zealanders returned to bivouac areas on the coast, where a sandstorm was followed by very heavy rain and a high wind. A few bivouac tents were flooded. Lieutenant-Colonel White, having recovered from the wound he received in November 1941, assumed command of the battalion on 16 October, and Major Robbie became his second-in-command. The next few days, says the new CO, ‘were spent in a welter of conferences, studying of orders and maps….’ He attended a conference of unit commanders at which General Montgomery explained the plan for the offensive. ‘He said that the Hun could and would fight hard but that if we kept up the pressure he would crack in 10 to 14 days—we were not to expect immediate spectacular results.’ Later the story was passed on to the company commanders, and then to the platoon commanders, and two days before the battle the men were told. By that time the LOBs (including the seconds-in-command)3 had left for ‘Swordfish’ area, and the trucks had been packed. Once again the transport was heavily laden; the companies held six days' reserve of rations and water.page 277
On the night of 21–22 October the Division moved up towards the front, the northern part of the Alamein Line, and for the next two days 3 Company (with 6 Brigade) and 4 Company (with the 5th) lay doggo in their slit trenches in an assembly area; the rest of the battalion (which together with an anti-tank battery and two companies of engineers formed Reserve Group under Lieutenant-Colonel White's command) was in a staging area about 15 miles farther back.
The evening of the 23rd was still and clear and illuminated by a full moon. Reserve Group, the last of the operational troops, moved forward along its allotted track, 4 and when held up by the traffic in front of a 25-pounder gunline, was ‘politely told to shift away a bit or the muzzle blast might prove annoying, as the barrage was due to start.’ At 9.40 p.m. the whole of Eighth Army's artillery, 908 field and medium guns, simultaneously opened fire. ‘I could never imagine a more infernal racket. The concussion made your whole body vibrate….’ The ground shook and the flashes were incessant all along the horizon.
Eighth Army held the Tell el Eisa ridge, a mile or two from the coast, and intended to secure the Miteiriya Ridge, a long, gently sloping, narrow feature farther inland; flanked by these two ridges, four infantry divisions of 30 Corps were to make a breach six miles wide in the enemy defences, through which two armoured divisions of 10 Corps were to pass to engage the enemy armour. In operation lightfoot 9 Australian and 51 Highland Divisions, advancing due westwards, were to form a corridor for the passage of 1 Armoured Division; 2 New Zealand and 1 South African Divisions, advancing south-westwards onto Miteiriya Ridge, were to form another corridor for the passage of 10 Armoured Division. At the same time 13 Corps was to make diversionary attacks farther south.
While the artillery was shelling the enemy batteries, 23 Battalion (5 Brigade) on the right and 24 Battalion (6 Brigade) on the left advanced into no-man's-land. At ten o'clock the guns began to bombard the enemy's foremost defences, and twenty-three minutes later the barrage began to lift forward 100 yards every three minutes. Keeping close behind the bursting shells, the infantry crossed ground sown with mines and booby page 278 traps and met hostile fire, but overcame German and Italian strongpoints and reached the first objective, about two miles from the start line.
The second phase of the attack began at five minutes to one. The opposition grew stronger, but on the right 5 Brigade, advancing approximately another two miles, captured the whole of its final objective; 21 and 22 Battalions both exploited beyond the ridge. Sixth Brigade was partially successful: 26 Battalion reached the forward slope of the ridge, but the 25th (on the left) stopped short of the crest with about half a mile to go. Mortar and machine-gun fire came from the left flank, where the South Africans were well short of their objective, and shellfire came from El Wishka ridge farther west.
Behind the infantry the sappers, sweeping with their mine-detectors and assisted by Scorpions (tanks fitted with chains which threshed the ground in front of them), cleared two lanes through the minefields in each brigade's sector for the passage of the anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns, which waited for the infantry success signals.
‘We are only a hundred yards in front of our 25 pounders,’ wrote Lieutenant Halkett (10 Platoon). ‘The flash and concussion is terrific and we are much too close for comfort…. We are packed nose to tail almost and we are lucky nothing lands in our area. We are off trucks hugging the ground. This sort of waiting is most trying on the nerves of all of us. Cordite fumes and smoke have now spoiled a perfect night and visibility is becoming poorer as we wait.
‘At 0315 hours success signals are reported and we climb aboard our gun trucks and they start to grind slowly forward. We pass through our own minefields and then the first enemy ones. The track is well taped and the lights are excellent. As we [21 Battalion's A Group] near the first objectives of the infantry enemy shelling starts, some falling fairly close. Harassing stuff which was intermittent for the remainder of the darkness….
‘We pass through the first wave of our infantry who are reversing the captured enemy positions and consolidating the gains to here. On to the next mined area where we get our first check as the minefield is not cleared yet; but our engineers are confident that the check will be slight. This is serious for us as the tanks are to come through almost on our heels and trucks cannot argue with 40 ton tanks…. The shelling is thickening up and is unpleasantly close. While waiting we page 279 scratched shallow slitties to shelter in by lying flat. The tanks start to arrive so everybody clambers aboard truck or stands in his shelter.
‘We are now in the way of the tanks who have priority and 21 Bn A Group are ordered out; to go back and make their way in through the Highland Div area on our right flank…. First light is near as we start to follow the Scotties’ taped route. Scottie casualties are in evidence. Theirs was a hard fight. The track is well marked and is being widened by the Scottie infantry. We are making good time and just before sunrise we are waiting orders on the right rear of 21 Bn HQ in a booby trapped area. Fortunately when the sun comes up it shines in the enemy's eyes. We are starting to be shelled and mortared heavily. There are some casualties in A Group but none in 10 Pl. 21 Bn HQ orders us out as we have no chance of getting into position in daylight and the infantry are partly protected by our tanks.
‘We return through the Highland Div area, making a run for it. When clear of the track we turn South but when passing through an old mined area my third truck goes up on a mine. A dirty black cloud of smoke with figures staggering about in it…. Leitch 5 is badly wounded and the truck is a write off. Loads are readjusted and we rejoin A Group.’
The 22nd Battalion's support group was also delayed in the minefields and arrived late, and only two two-pounders could get into a forward position; the rest of the anti-tank guns and 11 Platoon stayed behind the ridge. Back on the first objective 12 Platoon was with 23 Battalion. Two of 4 Company's trucks had been knocked out and six men wounded, of whom Private Jennings 6 later died.
The sappers working on the lane to 26 Battalion cleared a gap in a minefield on the northern side of the ridge, but were told not to go on to the minefield on the other side because it would soon be daylight. The tanks of the Warwickshire Yeomanry, in support of 6 Brigade, attempted to pass through the last cleared gap at the same time as 26 Battalion's transport, which caused some confusion and delay, and as it was then too late to send the support weapons to the infantry on the forward slope, a gunline was formed along the crest and the reverse slope.page 280
‘We arrived at our likely position later than expected,’ writes Lieutenant Gardiner (8 Platoon). ‘Dawn had broken. As a result we were under fire—M.G. shell etc—and had to get below ground as soon as possible. I was instructed to cover the minefield and take up a forward position in the [600-yard] gap between 25 &- 26 Bns. A quick recce showed a position on the crest & of course just our side of Miteiriya Ridge.
‘I instructed the lads where to put the guns & they needed no urging to get the holes dug. While this was going on I moved out forward to find out what I could i.e. who were on flanks, field of fire etc., and in lieu of a Tommy Gun which I did not have, took a rifle and bayonet. Huns were here & there in odd shell holes but they had no fight left in them & were actually sheltering as much as possible from their own fire being on the forward slope. With the stuff floating about it was difficult to get them out of the holes—to say nothing of language difficulties. However they seemed to understand a few well known Australian adjectives and once on their feet, I had to run to keep up with them as they soon appreciated the fact that it was much safer on our side of Miteiriya ridge than the exposed side.’ Gardiner brought in five prisoners.
On the left flank of 25 Battalion 7 Platoon went into an indirect fire position, while back at the first objective 9 Platoon was with 24 Battalion.
Two squadrons of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, in support of 5 Brigade, reached the ridge at dawn, and although some tanks were blown up on mines, a dozen or more crossed the ridge and were joined by others from 10 Armoured Division. They engaged a strong force of German tanks—which did not close in on the New Zealand infantry as they had done so often in the past. Many of the British tanks were knocked out or blown up on mines before the survivors retired behind the ridge.
Reserve Group dug in its guns to form a defensive position in the ‘middle distance’, covering a gap in the first enemy minefield in 5 Brigade's sector. In the smoke and dust little could be seen of what was happening out front: glimpses of tanks hull-down behind the ridge, burning vehicles, and occasional bursts of flame. Some shells came over but did no damage.
All day bombers in formations of eighteen flew over, dropped their loads while still within sight and then returned to the rear. Few enemy aircraft were seen until next night, when ‘We page 281 were dive-bombed by planes with screamers on,’ wrote Lieutenant-Colonel White. ‘You should have seen the reception those planes got, and heard it. Tracer of all colours was going up from all directions.’
Reserve Group would not have an operational role until the break-through had been achieved. The CO was convinced that, had he been permitted, he could have found useful employment for his guns. ‘As the first day developed,’ he says, ‘it was obvious that the attack was held up & it seemed to me that we in the Div Res Gp could be of effective assistance even from where we were with the range of our VIIIZ Ammo. Clearance offered no problem. Miteiriya Ridge as is well known was only a slight swell in the general flatness. Plentiful stocks of ammo. were held. If we were brought into action our planned role (now seemingly remote) need not be jeopardised. I made my way to Div. H.Q. & suggested to one whose job it was to know about such things that I could be of assistance….’ The offer was not accepted.
Reserve Group moved back two nights after the attack began to a less exposed location where the transport could disperse.
The troops on Miteiriya Ridge were shelled, mortared, machine-gunned, sniped at, and occasionally bombed, but they were not counter-attacked, although it appeared that they might be when enemy infantry came forward and spread out along the front.
At daybreak on the 24th 8 Platoon was still digging in when about 120 tanks came up to within 20 or 30 yards of the crest of the ridge. Gardiner says ‘they were hull down to fire just over the crest (& through our gun line)…. When the Hun started to fire at the tanks and they retaliated we became useless. However we couldn't withdraw as a gap would have been left if the Tanks retired. We therefore dug holes in the soft sand by the Tanks and sat tight leaving a man to each gun pit more or less on guard.’
‘Gardiner, together with his rangetaker (Private Black7), established an observation post in a derelict tank in the minefield 150 yards forward of his guns, and kept 26 Battalion fully informed of developments by wireless and telephone.
‘Another factor which prompted me to retain my gun positions was that the [commander] of the Tanks was insistent that page 282 they were going to move forward—most likely in the early evening.
‘From the activity I saw on the Hun front during the day, the bringing up of gear etc, one felt that they were getting ready for a set piece attack, in fact I will always remain convinced that our action in getting the tanks to sally forth eventually [next night] had a major bearing on the battle & certainly scotched any possibility of a counter attack in the Sector.’
As there was no infantry near 7 Platoon and no sign of the South Africans, this platoon's guns had to shoot on the exposed flank as well as to the front, and to accomplish this Lieutenant Beard, accompanied by his rangetaker (Private Brehaut8) and batman (Private McLeod9), dug an OP forward in the minefield under mortar fire. Early in the morning the platoon began an indirect shoot at sangars and small groups of infantry about a mile away. It also knocked out the crews of two field guns and later destroyed the guns. Beard took some prisoners. About 1 p.m. a figure with a walking stick came in and identified himself as an officer of the Cape Town Highlanders (the South African battalion that was supposed to be on the flank). He was sent under guard to Headquarters 25 Battalion.
Late in the afternoon No. 2 Section went farther forward, where if necessary it could fire on fixed lines across 25 Battalion's front, but no such fire was called for that night. Beard was injured when a tank ran over his OP in the darkness, and Sergeant Read10 assumed command of the platoon. Beard's driver (Private Davis11) was mortally wounded by a ricocheting anti-tank shell.
Corporal Hunter died after an anti-tank shell, or part of one, struck him while he was standing in his slit trench; he had just made tea for the gun crews.
Miteiriya Ridge, 25 October 1942
A supply column for 10 Armoured Division was packed close together near a minefield gap behind the ridge—possibly it was going to refuel the tanks which had not yet gone forward— when a truck near the front was set on fire by a shell or mortar bomb. This attracted enemy aircraft, which came over singly to bomb the vehicles carrying ammunition, petrol and troops. A stick of bombs caught 9 Platoon, which had been ordered forward from 24 Battalion to support the 26th and had dispersed on clear ground. A gun truck was destroyed and Privates Anderson,12 Kidd,13 James,14 and Wood15 were killed, and Medland16 and MacMillan17 mortally wounded. The Vickers and tripod page 284 were saved. Two of the platoon's guns joined 8 Platoon in the gap between 26 and 25 Battalions.
The 100-odd tanks which had been shooting over the machine-gunners' heads during the day were still there, although Gardiner had expected them to leave at 10 p.m. and be clear by midnight. He made inquiries and eventually found four majors (probably squadron commanders); their CO was missing and they were arguing as to who was to lead the way. After listening for a while Gardiner told them ‘most strongly that we had got our objectives with heavy casualties and if they with all their armour did not go forward that night we should most certainly lose the hard earned ground.’
The artillery barrage had stopped, but the tank commanders agreed to advance with the promise of covering fire from the Vickers. The machine-gunners placed guiding lights in the minefield gap on top of the ridge immediately in front of their gunline, and Private Black climbed on to the leading tank and guided it through. Dozens of tanks went through this opening; others went through another gap well to the north. When the last tank was clear, the six Vickers of 8 and 9 Platoons gave covering fire against anti-tank guns up to two miles away. During this shoot Corporal Farrell's gun (he was acting as a No. 1 gunner) exploded and blew out its breech, but miracu- lously he was not hurt.
The Vickers engaged every target that offered. One of the best shoots by Gardiner's six guns on the 25th was at forty men led by two motor cycles and followed by three trucks. Some of the enemy fell as soon as the Vickers opened fire and the others were not slow in taking cover; they did not advance again.
Early in the evening 9 Platoon was detached from 8 and took up a position about half a mile to the left. Both sections of 7 Platoon were now on the forward slope. The infantry was dug in behind the ridge, and the three platoons of 3 Company, therefore, were front-line troops.
Next day a battery of captured 25-pounders about two miles away was silenced by a quarter of an hour's fire from 8 Platoon. Lance-Sergeant Cattanach18 and Private Black tried to stalk a machine-gun and sniper post, and although they failed to get it, the post did not fire again that day. Infantry advancing from pits were engaged by 9 Platoon, and when the artillery prevented page 285 the enemy from getting back the platoon raked the area with nine belts from each gun.
From the morning of the 25th until the night of the 26th the machine guns and the tanks held 6 Brigade's part of the ridge. ‘I do think,’ says Major Tong (who was at the gun positions), ‘that credit should go to the Guns for the part they played in not giving the Enemy a chance to mount a counter attack.’
The tanks' penetration into enemy territory on the 25th probably disorganised any local counter-attack that might have been intended, but they did not get very far against the anti-tank defences. Those from 10 Armoured Division soon returned, and about forty from 9 Armoured Brigade were recalled later in the day. The attempt to exploit southwards was then abandoned and the main weight of the attack switched to the northern corridor.
Not until the night of the 24th–25th had it been possible to get most of 5 Brigade's support weapons into position. By dawn 10 Platoon, having returned by the original route to 21 Battalion and having been directed to a likely machine-gun position, was dug in ready for business in the minefield at the north-western end of the ridge. Halkett's OP, in the lee of a knocked-out Crusader tank on the forward slope, was connected by a field telephone with the gunline. ‘The area was a machine gunners' dream,’ he says. ‘Targets everywhere. Guns, transport and troops in their vicinity. Our Vickers were slightly decrested and we did all our firing indirect as a platoon. Ranges 2000 yards to 4750 yards. We went to work methodically and soon had the enemy infantry and gun crews hunting cover. Observation was excellent and we took on the most active targets one by one. By midday good targets were scarce as the enemy had suffered quite heavy (observed) casualties.’
The platoon kept a reserve of ammunition in case the enemy counter-attacked, and when stocks were beginning to get low Sergeant Barclay19 opportunely arrived with a fresh supply. Visibility was very poor in the afternoon, when the platoon spent much of the time keeping under cover from overs, of which it seemed to receive more than its fair share, from the tank battle. Movement in the gunline, unless carefully concealed, attracted fire from a light machine gun towards the right rear, where the Highlanders were supposed to be. Halkett's OP was rather prominent, ‘and we almost got used to the odd page 286 spatter of LMG fire from a well concealed gun on our right front.’ The rangetaker (Private Humphreys) and Private Forsyth,20 who acted as runner-observer, were busy men, especially Forsyth, whose telephone line was cut several times by shell and mortar fire, which necessitated his carrying messages by hand.
Fifth Brigade had received a warning order in the evening of 24 October that it was to be relieved by 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade next day. No such relief took place, but the expectation that it might do so caused some confusion in which 11 Platoon became involved. Three rifle companies of 22 Battalion were withdrawn to the transport area near Brigade Headquarters in the morning of the 25th, and 11 Platoon went back with them; only A Company remained on the forward slope of the ridge. The machine guns were ordered back to the ridge in the evening and dug in on the forward slope about 150 yards in rear of this company. They did a successful shoot against what appeared to be engineers laying or clearing mines in broad daylight, and found other good targets during the next two days; they scored hits on men and vehicles with direct fire.
Sixth Brigade and the flanking South African brigade attacked south-westwards from Miteiriya Ridge on the night of 26–27 October to complete the occupation of their original objectives and straighten the line.
The plan required that 7 and 8 Platoons should move forward with 25 and 26 Battalions and also give supporting fire for the attack. After checking the gun positions with his platoon commanders, however, Major Tong was convinced that the task could be done more efficiently and with fewer casualties if the guns remained in their commanding position on the ridge, where they could support with overhead fire and engage known targets. He therefore arranged with Brigade Headquarters that they should not go forward.
The artillery barrage opened at ten o'clock in front of 25 Battalion, which exploited beyond its objective, and by two o'clock the supporting anti-tank guns and mortars were in position.
On the right 26 Battalion's advance was supported by artillery concentrations and overhead fire from 8 Platoon and the three-inch mortars (which were under Gardiner's command page 287 for the purpose). The infantry met unexpected opposition. Two companies could not get forward and withdrew, and the third (B) held ground about a quarter of a mile to the right front. Gardiner considered that two or three spandau nests were responsible for the hold-up and suggested that the battalion use its Bren carriers to ‘root’ them out. The suggestion was not adopted, but seven carriers were brought up and disposed along the ridge near 8 Platoon.
Because of some talk of the strong possibility of a counter- attack, the Vickers were fully manned for the remainder of the night, and Hawkins grenades were on hand to close the minefield gap if necessary. The machine-gunners lighted the gap to assist the anti-tank guns through to support B Company. A Crusader tank came up to help, and Black got in with the tank commander to direct him forward if necessary. The hostile fire died down and the anti-tank guns went quietly into position.
The Vickers were in action again at dawn, when 8 Platoon's first target was a battery of captured 25-pounders, probably those the platoon had engaged the previous day; they had gone farther back, but their gun flashes were seen, and the tops of three trucks were in view above the crest. Immediately the Vickers opened fire the 25-pounders stopped and the trucks departed.
The spandau sniper whom Cattanach and Black had stalked the previous day began shooting again in the afternoon; he was too close for searching fire by the Vickers, but the mortars kept him quiet. A shoot of twelve belts from each of 7 Platoon's guns drove the gun crews from an artillery position. A group of infantry went swiftly to ground when 9 Platoon opened up, and later some of them were seen retreating.
The Maori Battalion relieved the 21st on the night of 6 Brigade's attack. Next morning an artillery OP officer from the Highland Division joined 10 Platoon, ‘and we got together and did some combined shooting which completely silenced a group of 88s about 3500 yards out,’ says Halkett. ‘We made a good team until late morning firing at suitable targets, mostly gun positions. About midday the enemy started to withdraw his infantry from our left flank and beyond. During the next two hours we had a machine-gunners’ picnic. Infantry in the open. We gave them all we had and could see several tumble over every time we fired. We prevented them getting back and drove them across our front and forced the remnants to surrender to page 288 the Scotties on our right. We used 22,000 rounds to do this by indirect fire.
‘Continuous firing was having its effect on our platoon guns and barrels were short. All our gun water had been used and nearly all our drinking water had been used in the guns. It was fortunate that Sgt Barclay arrived at this stage with ammunition, water and our reserve barrels. During the lull which now developed our guns were overhauled one by one, sights and barrels getting special attention.
‘A little later the enemy LMG which had been well concealed on our right front and had caused the OP some unpleasant moments was located. Careful preparations were made to fix this pest for keeps. We opened up on it but one of our Vickers started to drop shorter with each burst and before we could stop its crew from firing its shorts struck the crest about 25 yards in front of its position. The Germans had tried hard to locate us and had kept searching the general area with shellfire. This was their chance and they took it. During the next half hour we had everything but the proverbial “Kitchen stove” thrown at us…. Ellis21 was badly wounded in the face and was evacuated by stretcher as soon as possible to 28 Bn RAP. Eleven shell holes over 2 ft deep were counted in the rocky ground between the two flank guns after this shelling, which was the heaviest I ever experienced during the Alamein affair.
‘Visibility had become poor and no more shooting was done by us.’
The following night (the 27th–28th) the New Zealanders were relieved by the South Africans on Miteiriya Ridge and went back into reserve at Alam Onsol, about 15 miles to the rear, where they made up for the lack of sleep and the strain of the last four days and five nights.
In the fighting on Miteiriya Ridge ten machine-gunners had been killed and eleven wounded—not many casualties if compared with the losses at Sidi Rezegh and in other desert battles. This might be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that the fighting had been less mobile. The German armour did not get the chance to counter-attack as it had done at Sidi Rezegh, Ruweisat and El Mreir. Also the troops had better knowledge of what they were to do—information had been passed right down to platoons before the battle.page 289
On Miteiriya Ridge Gardiner won the only DSO awarded to a New Zealand machine-gun officer in the Second World War, Halkett and Beard the MC, and Cattanach, Black and Forsyth the MM.
Eighth Army planned a fresh assault—supercharge—to breach the defences just south of the Australian sector. Under the control of the New Zealand Division, 151 (Durham Light Infantry) and 152 (Highland) Brigades were to advance 4000 yards on a front of 4000 yards, and 9 Armoured Brigade was to pass through and penetrate the enemy gun screen at Tell el Aqqaqir. The 1st Armoured Division was then to break out from the breach.
A preparatory step was for 6 NZ Brigade to relieve 152 Brigade in the line. Replacing 3 Company, 2 Company left Alam Onsol with 6 Brigade in the early evening of 30 October and travelled along the main road past some artillery which had just begun a barrage in support of an Australian attack near the coast. The New Zealanders took over from the Highlanders, and the Vickers were dug in before dawn. After a couple of days of inactivity a machine-gunner complained of being ‘filthy all over … frightened to move lest he stops something, no thought of hygiene.’
For the attack the battalion, less 2 and 3 Companies, was placed under the command of 151 Brigade, which was to advance on the right of the 152nd. ‘The first orders were for 1 and 4 Coys only to be under command of 151 Bde,’ says Lieutenant-Colonel White. ‘However I pointed out that, with 2 and 3 Coys already allotted to N.Z. Bdes, Bn HQ was free— Div Res Gp having ceased to be—and I suggested that we also should go to 151 Bde. By the time the orders were amended 151 Bde had already moved. Thus it happened that I was absent from the briefing…. We had considerable difficulty in finding the Bde HQ next day.’22page 290
Captain Blair,23 who had just taken over 1 Company from Captain Joseph24 (who was ill), had no maps and ‘was completely in the dark, not knowing what was afoot.’ Before attending the conference at Headquarters 151 Brigade in the morning of 1 November, he went to 5 Brigade to get the picture clear in his mind. Major Cooper and the platoon commanders of 4 Company were also at 151 Brigade's conference, which (Blair thinks) ‘was the most amusing I ever attended and certainly the most unrehearsed…. I can distinctly remember the Brig. apologising for his staff who had incorrectly drawn an enlargement of the battle area and he asked the conference to visualise the whole map “up another square”.’ None of the New Zealand officers was satisfied with the briefing.
After nightfall the troops who were to take part in the attack began the approach march to the deployment areas behind the start line, and the tracks filled up with the tanks and transport of the supporting arms. The scene resembled that on the evening of 23 October. Thirteen field regiments and three medium regiments fired barrages and concentrations, and at five minutes to one on 2 November the two British infantry brigades began to advance. New Zealand engineers, following the infantry, cleared lanes through the minefields. Just before dawn the three regiments of 9 Armoured Brigade sallied forth, and despite great loss in tanks destroyed and damaged, charged and overran field and anti-tank guns, dug-in tanks and infantry posts. The 1st Armoured Division, however, did not succeed in breaking out into the open.
Behind the assaulting Durham Light Infantry, Headquarters 4 Company and 10 and 12 Platoons moved along the well-taped and lighted Diamond track (the northern lane); they passed through the British and then the enemy minefields, and halted about 800 yards short of the infantry objectives. The shelling, which had been spasmodic, increased as time went by. The two platoons waited while Major Cooper went forward to contact 8 DLI's headquarters. ‘We had an uneasy time of it,’ says Halkett, ‘but as daylight was near 2 Lt Kaye25 and I decided that as Maj Cooper had evidently been delayed and as no further orders had been sent back to us we should select alternative positions in our present area and be dug in as far as possible page 291 by first light. We would then be able to undertake any tasks we might be called on to perform.
‘Maj Cooper arrived back at first light and although he did not expect us to be dug in, he approved our positions and ordered them to be completed. This was in preference to our being caught digging in after daylight.’ A slight mist prolonged the time for digging in and by half past seven, when visibility had much improved, the machine-gunners could discern the infantry positions some 600 to 800 yards in front of them. ‘All our field of fire was slightly rising ground and would not be a good target area…. There seemed to be considerable confused movement on our front and our positions were fully manned in readiness to open up but until things became clear we could not fire.’
Enemy tanks approached from the right flank about half past eight and a tank battle developed. The infantry and the machine-gunners received a heavy dose of overs, and when the tanks reached the infantry positions, 10 and 12 Platoons and Company Headquarters came in for some heavy shelling. Cramond26 (a First World War veteran) and Elliott27 received wounds of which they both died that day.
‘We were not able to deal with any of the targets, although if we had been able to fire we probably would not have done much good, as we ourselves were having a thin time of it,’ Halkett continues. ‘The Durhams … were withdrawing some anti-tank guns and some of their infantry were drawing back. Over 20 enemy tanks came in amongst them. Shortly Maj Cooper (about 1300 hrs) gave orders for 10 and 12 Pls to withdraw. During the process all our trucks were spattered with splinters but fortunately we had no direct hits or casualties in 10 Pl. We drew back about a mile….
‘Things were looking very sticky at this stage but the arrival of some of our medium tanks from our left flank changed the complexion of things smartly. They seemed to plough into the enemy flank and in as many seconds 3 enemy tanks were going up in flames. The following enemy tanks and infantry seemed to melt away and the whole enemy counter attack fizzled out with no great casualties amongst our tanks as far as we could see. Our tanks now formed a protective screen for the infantry.’page 292
All contact had been lost with the Durhams, and 10 and 12 Platoons now had no tasks, so were ordered back to Battalion Headquarters. Dive-bombers knocked out one of 10 Platoon's trucks and wounded four men.
Lieutenant Morgan says that 11 Platoon, supporting 9 DLI (on the left of 8 DLI), ‘walked into a proper shambles.’ At dawn ‘Gerry fired everything he had at us.’ The guns were dug in under airburst shelling. The sections were about 30 yards apart and the trucks about 300–400 yards back. The platoon had no communication by wireless or telephone, and the only contact with the infantry was the Colonel himself, who wandered about in the open.
The crew of a nearby anti-tank gun were killed or wounded, and three stretcher-bearers who set out from an ambulance towards them received a direct hit by a shell and left practically no trace. The machine-gunners also suffered casualties. Corporal Paterson was killed and Lance-Corporal Bertinshaw wounded. Lance-Sergeant Hatherly, leaving his trench to attend to Bertinshaw, ran to the ambulance, some 200 yards away, returned with stretcher-bearers, and despite the shellfire, mostly airbursts, evacuated the wounded man. Hatherly, who was slightly wounded, stayed with his platoon. He was awarded the MM.
The Durham Light Infantry withdrew through 11 Platoon's gunline, and the tanks also drew back, shooting as they went. Nobody appeared to be in front of the machine-gunners, who nevertheless held their position. They fired in the direction of the enemy, but the Colonel allowed them to shoot only for short spells ‘because he thought we made too much noise.’
The third battalion of 151 Brigade (6 DLI) took up a position facing north on the northern boundary in rear of 8 DLI. Headquarters 1 Company and 1 and 2 Platoons, in support, were met by the transport officer on the Diamond track and guided to Battalion Headquarters. ‘Everything was most confused at this time it being completely dark and many casualties lying around without any MO or orderlies available to assist them,’ says Captain Blair. ‘I got a general idea as to where the Inf. Coys were and set off to find them. I finally met up with a forward Coy Comd. who more than had his hands full but he gave me sufficient information to allow me to get the two platoons off trucks and digging positions. At this stage Enemy transport was still milling around and it was difficult to decide just who belonged to who….page 293
‘The digging was hard and not completed by daybreak and we then discovered that we occupied a position in the FDLs and could see no Infantry near us except an Anti Tank gun and crew, about 5 yards from my then Coy. Hq. At about 0700 we could see a number of Enemy moving towards us and … both platoons had some very effective shooting at a range of approx. 600 yards and the result was that the Enemy movement stopped and then rapidly retired. About this time some transport loomed up in front of us and remained in view for some time and it was at this stage that we began to receive a little too many AP shells to be really comfortable. The Anti Tank gun in our area kept pointing in an easterly direction which appeared wrong to me and no amount of persuasion would alter their ideas, however one or two AP shells decided the issue shortly afterwards and no more interest in the battle was taken by the gun or crew.
‘Whilst the guns were engaged on the targets to our immediate front Lt Titchener28 [2 Platoon] came over to me and reported that he had seen the troops on our left flank leave their positions and withdraw and wondered what was going on. I told him to be prepared for anything and that I would go and find Bn. Hq. and see what the story was. I went back a short distance and fortunately found 6 DLI Hq…. I asked the CO if he had any information and told him some withdrawal had taken place on our left and he told me that he had received no orders to move so I went back to the platoon and we carried on.’
One of 2 Platoon's guns had been dug in in the darkness immediately behind some higher ground and could not fire with observation unless the No. 1 gunner stood up behind it. Titchener decided that this was a case for indirect fire and sent his runner (Walker) back to the trucks for the director, with which he attempted to zero the gun. He was wounded while standing in the open.
The trucks, which had not gone far from the guns before dispersing during the night, stood out conspicuously in daylight and were covered very effectively by ‘a very brave Hun sniper’ who remained hidden on the right flank all day. Some of the men who went back to get ammunition or for other purposes were pinned down for several hours. The company had no page 294 communications through the Durham Light Infantry, and the OC's jeep driver (Private Riddell) did his despatch rider's work under very trying conditions.
Lieutenant Crisp29 and Private Keyworth,30 of 1 Platoon, were wounded late in the morning. Corporal McInnes crossed the exposed ground to get his truck, and disregarding the shellfire and sniping, collected and evacuated both wounded and a German. He was awarded the MM. Crisp, who had received a slight head wound, returned to the company later in the day.
‘When we had a chance to look around and take stock,’ says Blair, ‘we discovered a foreign jeep among our transport and Jack Crisp was not slow to get out and slap a black diamond on it, thus claiming it as Coy. Transport. It was completely deserted but was full of Hymn books and a typewriter.’ A week or two later the jeep was returned to its rightful owner, a senior Eighth Army chaplain.
At nightfall on 2 November 10 and 12 Platoons were sent back to their former positions with 8 DLI, or as near as they could get. ‘We had an uneventful trip back and arrived after dark to meet some infantry from the Durhams who were marching out,’ says Halkett. ‘I located the officer in charge and he said that they had received orders that the show was off and they had been ordered out…. As we were still under command 8 DLI we withdrew to 27 Bn HQ to conform.’ That night 6 Brigade relieved the 151st, and the two machine-gun platoons, therefore, were ordered forward again to 25 Battalion, which took over from 8 DLI. ‘We reached our old positions which were now badly knocked about. It was quiet with only an odd enemy shell coming in. Some tanks and vehicles were still burning and this gave the area an odd effect.’
Having seen so very little of 9 DLI during the day, 11 Platoon was very relieved when 26 Battalion arrived to take its place.
German tanks knocked out near 3 Platoon at Medenine
During the halt at Sousse: J. A. Forsyth, W. A. Briggs, E. R. Jeyes, A. A. McCunn. H. S. Wells
2 Platoon in front of Takrouna
One of 2 Company's guns knocked out near Takrouna
Packing supplies for 3 Platoon on the Orsogna front: D. T. Grogan, H. I. C. Stuart and L. A. Atkinson
One of 8 Platoon's guns facing Orsogna at a range of 2800 yards
On Sfasciata Ridge. The track in the snow leads to part of 2 Company's gunline
The San Michele school (on the right) and the church in which 4 Platoon supported D Company 24 Battalion
In the hills south of Florence: B. A. McKenzie and G. P. Brown of 3 Platoon
10 Platoon packing up to leave Bellaria, on the Adriatic coast
Digging a gunpit near the Fiumicino River shortly before the advance to Cesenatico: D. C. McMath and N. O. Steel
The village of Pioraco in which the battalion was billeted
Ceremony at the Pioraco cenotaph on the Italian day of remembrance, 4 November 1944
Behind 10 Platoon's gunline across the Lamone River before 5 Brigade's attack. December 1944
Carrying their gun into position near Faenza: H. Low, N. H. Jorgensen and J. L. Pearse of 1 Platoon
Training as infantry at Esanatoglia: W. D. Saunders, G. T. Holden and K. B. Morrall
Waiting in Kangaroos before crossing the Senio River
Searching a German prisoner near Sesto Imolese after crossing the Sillaro River
After 24 Battalion's arrival Blair decided to move his platoons slightly to give them better observation from their gunlines. Later the tanks moved forward, ‘but appeared hesitant about going any further and we had a grandstand view of [as it appeared to Blair] a one sided tank battle in which we seemed to be losing heavily. The MMGs did not have much to do but the air was full for a few hours and we were very fortunate not to have suffered any casualties.’
The infantry were not so fortunate; nor was 4 Company. ‘During the morning,’ says Halkett, ‘an enemy 88 made things very uncomfortable with “air bursts” which kept us in our slitties. Late in the morning one shell burst just short of one gun position.’ Private McCartney,31 who had left his pit to brew tea, was killed, and two or three wounded had to be evacuated.
It is remarkable that the machine-gunners' casualties on 2 and 3 November did not exceed six killed and fourteen wounded.
Detached from 1 Company, 3 Platoon supported 28 (Maori) Battalion, which attacked in the early hours of 2 November on 151 Brigade's right flank to give it additional protection. Lieutenant Lowther32 decided to go with the CO (Lieutenant-Colonel Baker33) to reconnoitre for a suitable machine-gun position, and then to collect his platoon from the Maoris' B Echelon. ‘Everything started off all right,’ he says. ‘I went in with Col. Baker and after about 15 minutes I saw a feature on the left which appeared to be what I was looking for and went to look it over. It was occupied by some of the enemy and I was pinned down for some time by them. Shelling then started. … After two shells had landed very close, another must have been closer, as the next recollection I had was in our Australian page 296 Hospital.’ Colonel Baker was wounded about the same time.
The Maoris, in one of their typically fierce assaults, captured the area west of Point 29.
Now without its commander, who had been reported missing at 1 a.m., 3 Platoon went forward with the mortars. ‘We were stopping and starting and getting lost the whole bloody night,’ wrote Private Bell, a driver. ‘Shells bursting about us made things very unpleasant.’
‘[We] had to take to holes every so often,’ wrote Private Ffolliott-Powell.34 ‘The shelling was bad & got worse the closer we got to Jerry. His machine guns were busy too. We went here and there until we were properly lost. Eventually to our relief we found where we were to go & just managed to get dug in by dawn. Jerry artillery was giving us a very rough time but we were lucky & no one was hit. After dawn we discovered that some low heels were sniping at us but we couldn't locate them. All day we were shelled and sniped.’
Sergeant Taylor35 and Corporal Hargreaves36 went out to investigate some pits which were occupied by the enemy. The first pit was full of Germans, who promptly surrendered. Hargreaves was killed by a bullet and Taylor ‘got a slight hit just after…. knocked me silly for a while.’ He stayed with the platoon.
‘Eventually some armoured cars came along & we got them to root out the snipers,’ Ffolliott-Powell continues. ‘I went around with my Tommy gun rounding up waifs & strays. To our surprise there were over 100 of the swines quite close to us. A typical Hun colonel was in charge of them. He had ordered them not to surrender.’
Late in the afternoon, while driving his truck up to the gunline, Bell noticed somebody lying in a slit trench. ‘He was a Jerry, badly wounded, so I took him to the A.D.S. When I went back I found 6 more Germans, some wounded, crouched in a dugout. Then an enemy Spandau opened up, so I smartly joined the squareheads in the hole. One of them spoke English. He told me they were utterly sick of the war. I managed to get ’em on my truck while the Spandau gave us merry hell and drove them to the A.D.S. They were only boys.’page 297
In the evening Major Bennett, who assumed command of the Maori Battalion, reported to Brigadier Gentry37 and was told ‘to hang on till further instructions.’ All three platoons of 2 Company and some anti-tank guns were sent to strengthen the Maoris' defences, and the sappers laid mines along the front. ‘We were holding a very strong posn indeed,’ wrote Bennett. ‘Unfortunately the morning [3 November] arrived only to find that the Enemy had evacuated during the night.’
2 9 Armd Bde: Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, Warwickshire Yeomanry, 3 Hussars; equipped (on 23 Oct) with 36 Sherman, 37 Grant and 49 Crusader tanks. Altogether Eighth Army had over 1100 tanks fit for action, twice as many as the enemy.
3 The officers of the battalion on 23 Oct 1942 were:
2 i/c: Maj J. K. Robbie (LOB)
Adj: Capt K. H. Hume
QM: Lt W. D. Murie
MO: Capt A. B. Adams
Padre: Rev. F. W. McCaskill
OC: Capt L. A. Joseph
2 i/c: Lt D. G. Carnachan (LOB)
1 Pl: Lt J. E. Crisp
2 Pl: Lt H. D. Ball
3 Pl: Lt W. R. Lowther
OC: Capt I. S. Moore
2 i/c: Lt K. J. Frazer
4 Pl: Lt D. W. Farquharson
5 Pl: Lt K. Dixon
6 Pl: Lt N. G. Blue
OC: Maj E. J. Tong
2 i/c: Capt R. I. Blair (LOB)
7 Pl: Lt D. B. Beard
8 Pl: Lt N. F. Gardiner
9 Pl: 2 Lt T. K. Thomson
4 Six tracks named (from north to south) ‘Sun’, ‘Moon’, ‘Star’, ‘Hat’, ‘Bottle’ and ‘Boat’, according to the sign indicating each one, ran parallel to the main coastal road from the assembly areas to the forward defences.
22 Lt-Col White and the Adj (Capt Hume) ‘searched the battlefield all day on 2 Nov in my [White's] jeep occasionally coming across parts of our own companies and putting them on the right track for more ammo and so on, but it was not until we located some sort of HQ from which we followed a telephone wire to Bde that I was able to locate Bde HQ at last and formally report for duty.’ There was no wireless link between Bn HQ and the companies. ‘It proved a handicap on this occasion as 151 Bde could not get messages for me through to either 1 or 4 Coys and I had to rely on Coys sending messages back to me,’ says the CO. ‘When I tried to go forward and made arrangements to be met by guides from the Inf the guides were not there!’
33 Lt-Col F. Baker, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Kohukohu, Hokianga, 19 Jun 1908; civil servant; CO 28 (Maori) Bn Jul–Nov 1942; twice wounded; Director of Rehabilitation 1943–54; Public Service Commission 1954-.
37 Maj-Gen W. G. Gentry, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Greek), Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1920–22; GSO 2 2 NZ Div 1939–40, AA and QMG Oct 1940–Oct 1941; GSO 1 May 1941, Oct 1941–Sep 1942; comd 6 Bde Sep 1942-Apr 1943; DCGS (in NZ) Jul 1943–Jul 1944; comd NZ Troops in Egypt, 6 NZ Div and NZ Maadi Camp, Aug 1944–Feb 1945; 9 Bde (in Italy) Feb 1945-Jan 1946; DCGS Jul 1946–Nov 1947; AG Apr 1949–Mar 1952; CGS Apr 1952-Aug 1955.