Alam Halfa and Alamein
CHAPTER 3 — The Days of Decision
The Days of Decision
IF any point in time could justifiably be taken as the turning point of the war in the west, the phrase should be applied to the first half of the month of August 1942. In that short period decisions were made, plans formulated and action taken, all of which led inexorably to the destruction of the Axis hold on North Africa and to the assault on the European fortress.
By the end of July the joint United States–British planners had reached a workable compromise in the long-argued discussions on strategy. The operation first called gymnast, then torch, for a landing in French North Africa had been given priority over all proposed landings on the mainland of Europe. With this decision fixed, Churchill arranged to visit Russia, with a break in his journey at Cairo, as ‘The doubts I had about the High Command in the Middle East were fed continually by the reports which I received from many quarters. It became urgently necessary for me to go there and settle the decisive questions on the spot’.1 On 4 August the British Prime Minister landed in Cairo, where he was joined by a committee of talent which included Field Marshal Smuts, the Rt. Hon. R. G. Casey, Minister of State in the Middle East, Generals Brooke and Wavell, Admiral Harwood and Air Marshal Tedder. He brought a supply of bowler hats, and the committee's task among other things was to advise on their allocation.
1 Churchill, Vol. IV, p. 408.
Gott's appointment was confirmed and left to Auchinleck to announce at the end of the staff exercise at 13 Corps Headquarters on 7 August. With the promise of a few days' leave before assuming his new role, the general left the exercise to board a plane on the nearby airstrip. As the aircraft, a Bombay transport, took off, it was shot up by a marauding enemy fighter and Gott was among those killed. His death was kept from the public for some three days, during which time Auchinleck, informed of Churchill's compromise, wisely refused the command of the Persia-Iraq theatre. The subdivision proposals were thereupon shelved, to reappear later under the guise of the ‘Persia and Iraq Command’.2
1 Churchill, Vol. IV, p. 414.
3 Churchill, Vol. IV, p. 418.
General Alexander reached Cairo from England on 9 August to receive instructions that he would assume the appointment of Commander-in-Chief of the complete and original Middle East theatre from 15 August, with a directive from Churchill to ‘take or destroy’ Rommel's German-Italian army. The terms of this directive were passed on to General Montgomery, who arrived in Egypt on 12 August and, according to his memoirs, assumed the command of the army on his own initiative on the 13th, two days before he was officially supposed to do so.3
With a clear and incisive mind of his own, and no Middle East loyalties to cloud his judgment, Montgomery quickly grasped what others in less influential positions had known for some time—and what many of the troops themselves had dimly perceived—that offensive operations were doomed to failure until the diverse elements that made up the Eighth Army learnt to fight as a single body with a common aim on definite, unequivocal orders. To achieve this end, he replaced those staff officers whom he thought unable or unwilling to alter their ways, but otherwise he made no great outward changes. He accepted the temporary policy of offensive defence and the general plan of defence, but simplified all orders by removing the ‘alternatives’ in which Auchinleck had become so entangled. He accepted also the Army's appreciation of Rommel's intentions, an appreciation well illustrated in an intelligence summary issued by the New Zealand Division as early as 2 August:
It is clear that the present, static, phase of hostilities will last only until one side or the other feels itself strong enough to launch a decisive attack. The problem is thus largely one of reinforcements. For a number of reasons, of which the chief is probably the heavy German commitments in Russia, the Germans in Africa do not seem to be receiving men and materials on the scale which the magnitude of the stakes might have led one to expect. On the other hand, they will probably resume the offensive at the first opportunity. They may very well apply again the tactic employed at Gazala, trying to contain the
1 ‘He was the youngest major-general in the Army when he was promoted on 16th October 1937. He replaced the previous youngest general officer of that rank, Sir Bernard Freyberg V.C., who had retired because of a period of ill-health from which he afterwards recovered, and who was to be one of Alexander's most distinguished subordinates in the Mediterranean campaigns.’—Hillson, Alexander of Tunis, p. 66.page 28 greater part of our line with their less mobile elements while the armour and the more mobile infantry formations seek to break through and swing around to attack our main positions from the rear. The execution of such a manoeuvre would require less preliminary regrouping than was the case on the Gazala line, where the distances involved were much greater than they are here. In fact, the preliminary moves could be carried out overnight, and we cannot count on receiving from aerial reconnaissance much warning of an impending enemy attack.
3 Montgomery, Memoirs.
1 Maj-Gen Sir William Gentry, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1920–22; GSO II NZ Div 1939–40; AA & QMG 1940–41; GSO I May 1941, Oct 1941–Sep 1942; comd 6 Bde Sep 1942–Apr 1943; Deputy Chief of General Staff (in NZ) 1943–44; comd 9 Bde (Italy) 1945; DCGS 1946–47; Adjutant-General, 1949–52; Chief of General Staff, 1952–55.
With Inglis' forceful reports on the July fighting fresh in his mind, Freyberg found that the conclusions drawn by his GSO I were close to his own thoughts and he left a forecast in his diary that the next battle would be a clash between tanks, with the infantry ‘in reserve ready to intervene’.
From these talks the GOC went to visit his two brigade commanders, Kippenberger and Clifton, but before he had time for more than a quick look at their areas he was called back to Divisional Headquarters by a message instructing him to take over the temporary command of 13 Corps from Major-General Renton of 7 Armoured Division, who had been holding the post since the decision to elevate General Gott to army commander. With some background knowledge of the imminent changes in the army appointments gained in Cairo before he left, Freyberg was moved to comment that his temporary command was ‘rather a waste of time’, though it is probable that the wider view obtainable from Corps Headquarters helped his understanding of the general situation. Brigadier Kippenberger once again took over the Division.
The following day Freyberg took a group of staff officers from the corps to inspect the Alam el Halfa defences. It is interesting to note that he found 21 Indian Infantry Brigade's area, which was the most advanced of the planned boxes, to be already equipped with sixteen field guns and the same number of six-pounder antitank guns, together with dumps holding three days' supply of water and 450 rounds for each gun.1 From Alam el Halfa he went on to visit 7 Motor Brigade, and then watched 22 Armoured Brigade practise deployment near Point 102 as part of a plan to cover the south-eastern flank against attack.
On 14 August Freyberg held a corps conference at the headquarters of the New Zealand Division, where he gave out the official news of the changes in the army command and staff and of the imminent arrival of Lieutenant-General Horrocks to take over 13 Corps. He then told of General Montgomery's agreement with the forecast that Rommel would attempt an offensive before the end of August, probably by an outflanking move round the Eighth Army's southern flank. The new commander, however, had drastically pruned the plans of defence; no longer were there to be forward, main, or rear zones to cause confusion as to which was to be held and which could be evacuated. The Army was now to hold fast in its present forward positions, which were to be developed as a continuous line of self-contained infantry positions, dug, wired, and mined for all-round defence and stocked with all the necessary supplies. All transport not vitally needed was to be sent to the rear and the troops were to be conditioned to fighting the battle where they stood without thought of retreat to alternative positions.
Montgomery gave a rousing talk the following day to a gathering of officers at Eighth Army Headquarters, which at his instigation had been removed from its uncomfortable situation in the bare desert1 to more congenial surroundings by the sea at Burg el Arab. This speech, probably containing phrases used in earlier talks and repeated in substance by lower commands later, has been recorded in varying forms. The gist of it was that the longer Rommel delayed his anticipated offensive, the more certain the Army Commander was of having his forces so disposed as to repel the attack. He stressed his intention of not retreating from the present forward position, of keeping his formations intact and not committing them piecemeal. He so radiated confidence that Freyberg, on returning to 13 Corps from the talk, noted in his diary that he agreed with everything the Army Commander had said.
On 16 August General Horrocks arrived to take over 13 Corps, ‘full of optimism and ready to consider changes in the plans’.2 He had already been told by Montgomery that the corps' dispositions were unsound and that he was to revise them immediately ‘so that you can defeat the enemy's attack without getting mauled in the process. This is important, because if you have heavy losses you will interfere with the offensive I propose to launch as soon as I can form and train a mobile reserve. Then I shall hit Rommel for six right out of Egypt.’3
1 Placed there in reaction to criticism similar to General Gordon's remark, ‘If you wanted to find Her Majesty's forces you would have to go to Shepheard's Hotel at Cairo.’—General Gordon's Khartoum Journal.
3 Horrocks, article in Picture Post, 1 Apr 1950.
The nights were spent on defence works and patrols. Movement noticed in and to the rear of the enemy's front line brought an exhortation from Eighth Army to all formations that prisoners were needed for identification as it was suspected that considerable changes were taking place among the Axis front-line troops. Though the New Zealand battalions responded with numerous patrols every night in the week of 7–14 August, they failed to bring back a single prisoner, though their efforts cost several men wounded, two officers and one man killed and two men lost as prisoners to the enemy. Patrols from 7 Armoured Division operating further south suffered even greater casualties for the same lack of success.
On the night of 12–13 August there occurred what was probably the last illustration of the old methods of the army before the new influences began to be felt. In an operation hastily and locally arranged, with a lack of effective liaison between neighbouring troops and even between the two corps, 5 Indian Division planned an attack in about company strength on the Axis posts across the western end of Ruweisat Ridge. The operation appears to have been intended both to take ground in order to straighten out a ragged stretch of the front as well as to fulfil the army's request for prisoners. Although the area of attack was right alongside 5 Brigade's northern boundary, the New Zealand Division received no details until late, so late in fact that it had already prepared its programme of patrols and harassing fire for the night. This programme had then to be cancelled, particularly as some of the artillery fire would have fallen on the Indians' area of operations, and new plans, including tasks for supporting fire for the attack, had to be hastily concocted and liaison established.
The raid commenced just before midnight but the assaulting troops found the enemy posts on their objective had been vacated. While waiting for reconnaissance to decide if they had in fact reached the correct objective, the troops came under heavy fire from front and flanks. It took the raiders two hours to extricate themselves and they returned with five men wounded and thirteen missing. Of those missing, the Italians manning this sector of the front claimed five as prisoners.
While the Indians' raid was on, at least six New Zealand patrols were out on the front to the south of the ridge but, though they blew up a derelict tank used by the enemy as an observation post page 33 and found evidence of new defence works, they had no direct encounter with any enemy working parties. The Axis troops in fact were by this time in such a state of alertness from the constant patrolling and harassing fire that they would open heavy fire on the slightest suspicion of sound or movement.
At first light on the 13th, enemy troops seen in the area of the Indians' raid were subjected to heavy concentrations by the Indian and New Zealand 25-pounders. Enemy gunners then retaliated by shelling both 21 Battalion's lines and the headquarters of 6 Brigade. In the afternoon they fired one of the heaviest concentrations seen for some time into the unoccupied hollow of Deir el Angar, off to the south-west of 25 Battalion's sector. No casualties or damage of any consequence were caused in the Division's area by this exceptional expenditure of ammunition, a display designed apparently more as a deterrent and to indicate that the Axis defences were alert than for any practical result. It made a sufficient break in the monotony to be commented on in several official and private diaries but, after it was over, the New Zealand front quickly settled back to its normal routine of daytime lethargy.
With Horrocks' arrival, Freyberg returned to his division, permitting Brigadier Kippenberger to resume command of 5 Brigade. On the same day the advance party of 132 Brigade of 44 Division reached the box and commenced developing the defences of the southern face.
The coincidence of Freyberg's return at the same time as Montgomery's accession to the army command did much to restore the New Zealanders' morale. Though Inglis held the men's admiration for his many good qualities, he had not yet drawn the affection and trust which the almost legendary Freyberg possessed. He had been far from fortunate in the short period of his command when, with health deteriorating to the point where lesser men would have given up, he had had to stand the strain of the July disasters. His return to command his own 4 Brigade in Maadi Camp and Freyberg's reappearance in the desert brought the feeling that the family life of the Division, disturbed for a time, was now back to normal.
Freyberg himself was undoubtedly the ‘head of the family’ of New Zealanders in the Middle East. On the basis of the perversity that calls all red-headed men ‘Bluey’, the six-foot general, the very bulk of whose presence was reassuring, was known to all his men as ‘Tiny’, with that affectionate lack of formality common to the dominions' civilian-soldiers. The sincerity of his consideration for the welfare of his men, reaching out to the provision of such amenities as pie and ice-cream factories, brought him a measure page 34 of trust and affection that has been accorded to few other force commanders. His popularity, moreover, remained through adversity and success.
Once back in the saddle, and accoutred with the spur of Montgomery's directives, Freyberg had no trouble in stirring a lethargic Division to purposeful activity. Addressing his senior officers on 16 August, he first stressed his own agreement with the new commander's approach to the problems of the desert war and then went on to explain the new policies in detail. The old desert complex of alternate advance and retreat was to be superseded by an entirely new outlook. The Eighth Army was to stand firm on its present positions against all attack while preparations were in hand for an offensive, for which no date or exact details could yet be given, but which was being planned on a scale designed to annihilate the enemy army and break the Axis hold on North Africa. On the present state of the British armour, Freyberg made the comment that, of the 300 tanks held by Eighth Army, the cruisers and Valentines were merely mobile two-pounder guns and only the 72 Grants were left to match the 200 heavy German tanks that Rommel was now estimated to possess. After this disheartening comparison he released the news of the 300 Shermans expected to reach the Middle East in the near future—tanks similar to the Grants but with the guns in the right place, better gun sights and generally better performance.
If, therefore, Rommel should attack within the next week or so, the situation would be difficult and much would depend on the outcome of the armoured battle. Until the mining of the New Zealand Box was completed and the attached brigade of 44 Division firmly in place, the Division could not rely on its flanks and rear being protected by the British armour for, in his view of the manoeuvres already carried out, it would take 22 Armoured Brigade about two and a half hours to open its counter-attack in the Division's sector and the Division could be overrun before then. ‘We know what happens from experience.’
For every week the enemy's attack was delayed, the Division's defences and the army's reserves would be so much the stronger, to the point when the British armour, free of any commitments to the infantry, could block a thrust round the flank and rear. As both the Australians and South Africans were holding strong defences, little danger was expected on their fronts, but the rocky Ruweisat Ridge sector, held by the Indians, was a difficult position to defend and constituted a danger to the New Zealanders' northern flank. Because of this, three battalions of Valentines were to be stationed in support of this sector.page 35
Freyberg then informed his audience that the Division was shortly going out of the line to train with armour under command ‘for the first time in our life’. The plan for Montgomery's offensive entailed the gapping of the enemy's line by a frontal attack, followed by the passage through the gap of an armoured division and the New Zealand Division, fully motorised and with an armoured brigade under command.
The General ended his talk by repeating the new terminology laid down by the Army Commander to replace certain expressions which had acquired undertones of meaning antagonistic to good morale. ‘Consolidating’, for example, had come to mean ‘sitting down and doing very little’, so was to be replaced by ‘reorganising’, with the meaning of gathering strength for further action. A ‘box’, in the Army Commander's opinion, was something with a lid on it to hold the occupants down; in future it would be known as a ‘defended area’, a secure base from which to operate. The term ‘battle group’ was to be entirely forgotten now that divisions were to fight as divisions, and any force approximating the old battle group was now to be called a ‘mobile reserve’ intended for offensive purposes.1
Habit dies hard and, though ‘box’ and ‘battle group’ were banned from official use, the terms remained in common usage for some time to come.
General Freyberg, on his return from convalescence to active duty in the field, not only had to deal with the preparations for a battle expected soon to be joined but he brought with him a domestic problem that needed to be resolved urgently if the Division was to take its part in Montgomery's plans. The last body of reinforcements from New Zealand had reached the Middle East before the Libyan campaign at the end of the previous year. Since then the Division had been living on its fat. Back home in New Zealand the entry of Japan into the war and her initial successes had brought about a sudden acceleration in the Government's plans for putting the economy on a full wartime footing, and this in turn emphasised how carefully the Dominion's limited manpower would have to be deployed if the demands were to be met for civilian production, home defence, and overseas operations both in the Pacific and the Middle East. Though the fear of direct invasion had begun to recede as the United States gathered her forces in the early months of 1942, this fear remained sufficiently strong in some quarters for the Government to hesitate in coming to a firm decision whether to retain, and maintain, the expeditionary force in Egypt, or to follow Australia's intention of concentrating activities in the Pacific. Influenced by a personal plea from Churchill based on reasons of shipping difficulties and Allied morale, and also by the Australian decision to leave one division temporarily in the Middle East, the Prime Minister was able to assure Freyberg, in cables sent in March and April when the Division was out of action and the need for reinforcement consequently not urgent, that the Division would stay where it was, though it might have to suffer a reduction in size. No time limit, however, was put on this assurance.page 37
The June and July operations and the hard desert conditions had since brought severe losses in both battle casualties and sickness and, though only two brigades were left in the field, it had been necessary to comb the base camp in Maadi for any fit men, to disband several small units, and call in detachments lent to the British for special duties. Even then, few units of the Division were up to strength and by August the bottom of the reinforcement bucket had become visible.
Faced with the situation that the Division would either have to be withdrawn from active operations or be reinforced, the New Zealand Government was more or less forced to a decision. On 5 August, in cables to both Churchill and Freyberg, the Government announced that a draft of over 5000 men would be allocated to the Middle East, 2500 to be despatched at once and the remainder later.
But between March and August much had happened in the Middle East and more was likely to happen in the immediate future. Freyberg had now to point out that by the time the first draft could arrive his division would be requiring at least 4700 men. Back in New Zealand there was a complete tank brigade, originally destined for the Middle East but held for home defence when Japan entered the war. Though in a draft appreciation on the Syrian situation written about the end of May, the General had commented that his chance of getting the armoured brigade had receded to ‘nothing more than a pious hope’,1 he had continued to ask for it and he now suggested that, as well as a draft of general reinforcements, this complete brigade could be sent over without delay, possibly unencumbered with its equipment, which he thought might be procured in the Middle East.
Army Headquarters in Wellington, faced with the task of allocating the limited manpower available to all the various demands made on it, declared Freyberg's request excessive and countered with a proposal to send the complete tank brigade, equipped with most of its Valentine tanks and technical vehicles, provided the General would agree to breaking up one of his infantry brigades to form a reinforcement pool. This proposal had considerable merit for it would have meant that the Middle East division would be provided with a ready-made armoured formation, complete with technicians and tradesmen, in much less time than was likely to be taken in converting, training and equipping one of the infantry brigades. The men of the tank brigade, moreover, were mostly young, single, and anticipating going overseas.page 38
Yet, against the logical arguments submitted from Wellington, Freyberg had other points to consider. The troops in the Middle East had already developed such an esprit de corps that there might have arisen strong resentment within the Division if one veteran formation—6 Brigade was tentatively chosen for the block—should be eliminated in favour of a formed body of newcomers with fixed ranks and appointments. Furthermore, Freyberg himself was opposed to the basic tactical theory on which army tank brigades were formed, for, with their ‘infantry’ tanks, they were fundamentally designed as protective troops with the emphasis on defence. What the General wanted under his command was an offensively minded armoured brigade manning something better than Valentine tanks with their two-pounder guns.
While these proposals and counter-proposals were being cabled back and forth, Montgomery had taken over the Eighth Army and announced his scheme of establishing a mobile armoured reserve similar to the German panzer formations. His first choice for the infantry component of this reserve had fallen on the British 44 Division but, on learning that the New Zealand Division might soon acquire its own armour, he changed his plans, indicating to Freyberg that as soon as the situation permitted his division would be released from the front line for reorganisation and training with a British armoured brigade until the New Zealand armour was ready to take the field. The urgency of Montgomery's plans, together with what he knew of New Zealand's manpower problems, persuaded Freyberg to accept the offer of the complete tank brigade and, on 23 August, he cabled his willingness to do so and to disband 6 Brigade to provide a general reinforcement pool.
1 Lt-Gen Sir Edward Puttick, KCB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Timaru, 26 Jun 1890; Regular soldier; NZ Rifle Bde 1914–19 (CO 3 Bn); comd 4 Bde Jan 1940–Aug 1941; 2 NZ Div (Crete) 29 Apr–27 May 1941; CGS and GOC NZ Military Forces, Aug 1941–Dec 1945.
Although this decision cut across their previous plans, both Puttick and Freyberg accepted it immediately so that arrangements could be commenced with the United Kingdom for shipping and escorts. It was eventually agreed that the draft should be 5500 strong, including the men of 3 Tank Battalion.
1 For further details of the reinforcement and manpower problem see Documents, Vols II and III; Gillespie, The Pacific; Wood, The New Zealand People at War: Political and External Affairs; Stevens, Problems of 2 NZEF; CGS files, ‘Recommendations to Minister of Defence and War Cabinet’ and ‘NZLO London, Cables’; and GOC 2 NZEF/23, 24, 26, 38, 39.