CHAPTER 11 — The Race for Egypt
The Race for Egypt
The move back to the Western Desert was the first of several secret ones made by the Division. To anyone taking part in it the secrecy appeared futile and ridiculous though the idea caught the imagination of the troops, who studiously painted out all identification marks on their vehicles, hid their hat badges and shoulder titles, and in Div Cav—and in other units too—even went so far as to forego rolling their own cigarettes, a distinguishing habit of New Zealanders.
While these precautions were being taken it was rather disconcerting for the officers' mess to be suddenly visited by the civilian contractor who had been hiring out equipment, with the demand for the return of all his furniture and full payment; it was disconcerting to the men to have the complete population of a village, in an effort to be friendly, wish them farewell and ‘good shooting in Libya’ when they themselves did not know their actual destination. Odd men throughout the Division who were AWL,1 having heard through quite unauthentic sources of the move, suddenly decided to stage a prodigal's return.
And yet, despite all this, it was understood a full month later that General Rommel refused to believe that 2 New Zealand Division was not in Syria.
To the majority of Div Cav, despite the wishful rumours about going home, it soon became obvious that they were headed for Libya again, and by the time they had crossed the Suez Canal there was no gainsaying this. Before they had left Rayak, those with the AFVs had guessed their destination because, on the 18th, they were ordered to exchange twenty of the best carriers for old ones from 5 Brigade. It was obvious that the brigade was going straight to a forward area while Div Cav would be following on after re-equipping.
The regiment became split into three main components for the move, two travelling by rail and one on its own wheels. These three groups soon got so completely out of touch with each other that, at one stage, the regiment was spread the full length of Palestine; at another it was strewn between Daba, page 180 Maadi and Kantara; at another it was strung out between Mersa Matruh and Alexandria, with part of the latter group en route for Abbassia. And all the while no one part of the regiment knew where in the Middle East were the rest. It was midsummer, with heat so oppressive that at times truck drivers were in trouble through petrol vapourising in the fuel lines. At one stage an AFV party, mainly C Squadron's, was detrained and, with no apparent prospect of railway trucks to carry them onwards, the men were left sweating in the filth of a railway siding at Haifa, with no washing facilities, with only reserve rations, haunted by the smell of the cool sea only a few hundred yards away, tantalised by the thought of iced beer in the town just as close the other way, and with the temperature one of Haifa's highest on record.
The motor transport left Syria on 20 June, the day before Tobruk fell—the news of its capitulation accelerated the Division's move and caused the Divisional Cavalry to be sent straight to the desert mounted on all the oldest AFVs in the Division. Driving as much as possible in the cool of the mornings and pausing only at Tel el Kebir to draw some new trucks, the convoy arrived at Maadi on the afternoon of the 23rd. The very next morning it left for Matruh, arriving on the afternoon of the 26th. Here the regiment found the advanced party under the CO, together with the first rail party, mainly the A and B Squadron AFVs, which had outstripped it, all settled in amongst the lovely white sandhills between the sea and the salt lagoon. One could not have wished for a better camping place after such a hectic week. The convoy had literally to force its way against the bulk of the Eighth Army's transport streaming eastwards; streaming in full retreat but not quite routed; not quite in a panic yet thoroughly disorganised, and with every soul startled to see troops driving westwards.
There was no news of the second rail party, which was by then being aimlessly shunted back and forth at Alexandria. It had managed to get away from Haifa after two days' purgatory, and then only through the efforts of the civilian station- master who managed to find enough trucks. Then, discovering a ‘first priority’ in the Middle East, it made a very fast trip as far as Tanta, in the middle of the Nile Delta, before the general confusion slowed it down again. Arrived at Alexandria, the old Mark VI tanks had been unhooked and railed back to Abbassia in the hope that they would be exchanged for General Stuarts; but these never materialised. It was a good riddance, page 181 however, and some days later the drivers arrived in six 3-ton trucks, destined for delivery at an enemy-held point, which were avidly taken over by Div Cav.
By 25 June the enemy were well across the Egyptian frontier; indeed they were at Sidi Barrani in force. General Freyberg, deciding that he would not throw away mobility, his most valuable weapon, took the Division out of the Matruh fortress that evening. The 6th Brigade was held back at Amiriya; the 4th and 5th Brigades he led out to a place 25 miles to the south. Here, at Minqar Qaim, the two brigades dug themselves in round the edge of a rocky plateau to wait for the Africa Corps.
The Divisional Cavalry was not yet organised enough to be considered a fighting force so, until it was complete, it was left in Matruh, now occupied by what remained of 10 Indian Division which had scrambled back from the frontier. Tucked away near the beach, away from the strained atmosphere of retreat, the men were content to drink in the clear sunlight and the fresh Mediterranean breeze. The Division was ‘out there somewhere getting its feet planted’ ready to deliver the enemy a smashing blow some time and, with any luck, the rest of the regiment would soon arrive and enable Div Cav to get organised and cruise off down in time to help in the delivery of that blow.
That was the general feeling on the 26th. Imagine, then, the dramatic moment when Lieutenant-Colonel Nicoll opened his conference with the words: ‘Gentlemen, we now constitute the front line.’
The fighting strength of the regiment was twenty-four carriers, half of which were anything but new, and six Mark VI tanks in such unreliable state that it was decided then and there to abandon them. There was no question of just waiting for the other AFVs. The CO decided to pool all the carriers to make Major Sutherland's B Squadron up to full strength and send it hot-foot down to the Division. He sent his second-in-command, Major Garland, straight back towards Daba to try to locate C Squadron and get another allotment of carriers. He found twenty-one new carriers still on rail at Fuka and, as nobody seemed interested in them, he had them removed and sent up the road in charge of some of the second rail party, whom he also met at Fuka, together with a message to the effect that he had located the remainder at Amiriya.
B Squadron—as the squadrons were rather mixed up it will be best for the next week to identify them by their commanders page 182 —got moving back along the main road to Garawla, from where it was to strike southwards to the Division. Unable to take to the desert owing to the minefields of the Matruh fortress, Major Sutherland found it impossible to keep the squadron together in the congested traffic and his perplexities were further increased by constant dive-bombing attacks. The result was that, having led off from Matruh at 5 p.m., he took four hours to travel the 12 miles to Garawla, and the tail of the squadron took six hours. From here the route followed the Siwa telephone line, the first few miles of this line running through rather broken country. It was almost full dark when the squadron met, on its right, some unidentified tanks which opened up with a hail of machine-gun and anti-tank fire. Two carriers were lost, including the OC's, but without serious casualties, before the column could turn left and scuttle off into the dark. This move also divided the squadron into two, of which Dan Ormond assumed command of the second part and continued to lead it out to Minqar Qaim. Having assured himself that there was no serious damage, Sutherland also pressed on and almost immediately ran into a regiment of 25-pounders, whose CO he asked to return the fire but who assured Sutherland that they were a British armoured regiment who were ‘always trigger-happy in the dark’. He was probably correct but, being over- confident, he refused all suggestions to accompany the squadron to Minqar Qaim. He must have been pleased with his decision for, at first, wherever Sutherland moved he was fired upon, until he found a shallow wadi where he could lie low until daylight. By midnight the gunner Colonel would have been of a different mind about moving, as elements of the German 90 Light Division overran his laager while Div Cav had to stand helplessly by, unable to tell friend from foe, and listen to the gunners being rounded up.
As soon as the eastern sky was grey Major Sutherland and Captain Wynyard reconnoitred either side of the depression and found that they, too, were surrounded by tanks.
These were more thinly grouped on the eastern side so, risking the failure of cold engines, Sutherland decided to make a dash for it. He succeeded in breaking away though the enemy, despite the surprise, sped him on the way with heavy shellfire, first from the tanks and then from what was probably those beautiful new 25-pounders which really should have been with the squadron. Reward for boldness: only one carrier hit, but not disabled, and one DR was wounded and made prisoner.page 183
Sutherland arrived about 8 a.m. at Divisional Headquarters, where he found Ormond with the other half of the squadron who had suffered the same experiences, countering them with exactly the same tactics—tactics which both had learned in the LRDG.
The squadron was then sent to some higher ground farther south, Bir Khalda, to relieve 21 Battalion of the task of guarding that flank of the Division's position. Patrols were sent out to the south and west of Bir Khalda, where they spent all day investigating any vehicles moving in the area and watching the Division repulse attacks as its whole position gradually became surrounded. Major Sutherland had left Lieutenant Murchison at Divisional Headquarters to maintain a wireless link but, as the day advanced, communication became impossible owing to the number of different wireless groups, including the enemy's, being on the same frequency and jamming each other.
By seven o'clock in the evening the Division was almost surrounded, the General had been wounded, and Brigadier Inglis,2 now in command, had decided on his famous break-out through the enemy laagers. Murchison, having had to break through the enemy cordon in his little truck, brought this news to Sutherland, together with the information that the Division's next defensive position would be round Fortress ‘A’, a defensive box south-west of El Alamein.
Now, on his own initiative, Sutherland decided to make for the fortress by a course right out to the south, to the very edge of the Qattara Depression, and then along it. Thus he could be sure of simply disappearing into the ‘blue’ well away from any chance of confusion in the dark with the divisional columns as they broke free, and secure in the knowledge that he would be traversing country that the enemy would be shy of entering. During the day he had gathered under his wing some eighty vehicles, mainly from British units that had become disorganised. These he formed, with his own squadron, into three columns. Thanks to the efforts of Bob Dillon, the squadron quartermaster, who had previously obtained about 600 gallons of petrol from an Indian unit, Sutherland found that he would be able to make the journey just comfortably.page 184
After dark he formed up his columns very closely with himself at the head of one, Jim Wynyard of another, and Dan Ormond of the third. At the rear of each column he placed a troop of the best carriers, all in wireless touch with the head, their duties being to keep control of any stragglers or destroy any vehicles which broke down.
Mention must be made here of the wireless operators who kept their sets working throughout the night. In particular, there was Owen Wares3 who had operated his set all the way from Matruh, all through the next day against the strain of bad interference and, refusing relief, all the following night, back to the Alamein positions. It was an exhibition of great stamina in a man who had foregone a lot—he had even resigned a commission in the RNZAF—to get to grips with the enemy. His fighting career was painfully brief (about ten days) and his life did not last long after that: he was drowned among a shipload of prisoners of war who were sunk en route to Italy.
The squadron reached the edge of the Qattara Depression in the early hours of 28 June and then turned east towards the El Taqa plateau where the southern end of the Alamein line was to be. Actually the course led a little more to the left and met the track from Alamein and Fortress ‘A’ a little north of the fortress—one may as well call it by the name which it was given by the New Zealanders, the Kaponga Box—and turned down the track to the Box, where Sutherland found Brigadier Clifton with his 6 Brigade Headquarters.
The following morning, the 29th, witnessed another joyful reunion. B Squadron imagined that everybody whom they last saw in Matruh would have been soon surrounded and would now be prisoners of war. Those of the regiment who remained in Matruh thought the same of B Squadron for, on arriving at the Alamein positions, all that Lieutenant-Colonel Nicoll could gather was that the G.1, Colonel Gentry,4 had sent the liaison officer off on a decidedly risky mission through the enemy lines with instructions to his OC to withdraw to Kaponga, after which the squadron had simply disappeared.page 185
Nicoll with the wheeled transport—all he had left—had got through from Matruh only by the narrowest of margins. He had become decidedly restless and, at 9 a.m. on the 27th, had led off towards Fuka. There was little traffic on the road so the convoy enjoyed something comparatively rare for that week —an easy trip on a main road. The Indians were in action south of the road at Garawla but the Div Cav managed to slip by unscathed less than an hour before the road was cut. At Baggush Nicoll met the new carriers coming along to meet him and these he took back to Fuka, where he halted the convoy for the rest of the day. Here, while the A Squadron men busied themselves preparing the new carriers for battle, a patrol went out to the south-west but gleaned only the rather depressing, though unsubstantiated, news that the Division had been surrounded and overrun and the General critically wounded.
To the CO it seemed that his one serviceable squadron was lost, but he had some encouragement in the new carriers, sufficient to make up another squadron.
He sent his Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Fisher,5 off to find 13 Corps Headquarters and at 1.30 a.m. on the 28th this officer arrived back with happier news from a British armoured car regiment, namely that the Division was not yet overrun but was withdrawing. There was also a report that an enemy tank column was headed for Fuka.
Having allowed most of his men to sleep, the CO somewhat unwillingly decided that it was time to move on again, and at 3 a.m. he began to dribble the regiment back towards Daba in small groups, the last of which was there by daylight. There they spent the 28th, thus again keeping clear of the confused state of affairs behind them whilst being in a position still to give warning of any unexpected enemy approach. One troop was still on the escarpment west of Fuka, and by the middle of the afternoon this patrol was back to say that the enemy column would be by then at Fuka.
Again it was time to move back; this time to within seven miles of Alamein, and here the regiment laagered between the road and the railway. The Kaponga Box was now within reasonable wireless distance, so Nicoll immediately drove off there with a set to establish a link. There he found Divisional Headquarters, which had arrived back from Minqar Qaim, but no B Squadron nor any news of it.page 186
At daylight on the 29th the CO ordered the regiment to join him behind Divisional Headquarters. The column arrived from one direction not two hours before Jimmy Sutherland arrived, exultantly leading his squadron, from another.
All through the Division the same joyful reuniting was going on as parts of units or parts of brigades rolled triumphantly back, drawn straight to Divisional Headquarters as if by some uncanny form of magnetism. Though it had fought and retired; though it had lost for a while its dashing warrior General; though the rest of the Army was looking over its shoulder and considered the Kiwis just a little demented to be looking forward, the Division had won.
Nothing, nothing at all, could beat it at this moment.
1 Absent Without Leave.
2 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, VD, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk); Hamilton; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn, 1915–19; CO 27 (MG) Bn Dec 1939-Aug 1940; comd 4 Inf Bde, 1941–42, and 4 Armd Bde, 1942–44; GOC 2 NZ Div, 27 Jun-16 Aug 1942, 6 Jun-31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50; Stipendiary Magistrate.
4 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 1943–44; comd 9 Bde (Italy) 1945; Deputy Chief of General Staff, 1946–47; Adjutant-General, 1949–52; Chief of General Staff, 1952–55.