CHAPTER 12 — The Alamein Summer
The Alamein Summer
For all intents and purposes the defence of the Alamein line started on 30 June. Again the Army was disposed in the defensive boxes and little ‘Jock’ columns which had proved so ineffective at Gazala.1 There was no doubt that the Army, dazed by heavy defeat and a long retirement before a persistent and energetic pursuit, was looking over its shoulder and possessed few offensive ideas. Indeed, the complete evacuation of Egypt, a crime shameful in its magnitude, was contemplated.
The various formations, some unbroken and some newly arrived, which took up positions on the Alamein line were able to maintain it chiefly by virtue of the fact that there were only about 20 or 30 miles of navigable country between the coast at El Alamein and the Qattara Depression. Because of this a reasonable line, though at first not thoroughly organised or properly co-ordinated, was formed. In the north 1 South African Division manned the prepared defences round El Alamein; 18 Indian Brigade, with the very weak 50 Division in support, held a position at Deir el Shein at the west end of Ruweisat Ridge. Farther south there was the New Zealand Division round the Kaponga Box aiming at keeping itself mobile and offensive, and to its south-west, at Naqb Abu Dweis, there was a further brigade of Indians. Between here and the Kaponga Box and operating from the Taqa plateau, at the edge of the Qattara Depression, the country was guarded by several ‘Jock’ columns, really only of a hit-and-run value and without much stopping power. These seemed to be independent of everybody and each other; so independent that two of them are credited with having begun one day by shelling each other for a short time while a similar enemy column looked on approvingly. Most certainly, to begin with, the Alamein line was such that it depended for its strength on the weakness of the enemy.
On 30 June various formations and units were still finding their way back, and the first task given to Div Cav was to put page 188 out a screen of patrols to the west and south of the Kaponga Box in order to identify friend from enemy. For its protection A Squadron was given two six-pounder anti-tank guns, while four 25-pounders were attached to B Squadron.
In the south A Squadron made contact with a column of the Free French which was following along the edge of the Qattara Depression, while to the right B Squadron met nothing but odd vehicles coming back. The squadron was able, however, to identify by its shellfire an enemy formation about ten miles away to the north-west.
On 1 July A Squadron, which had spent the night laagering by itself out on the Taqa plateau, continued patrolling in the same area as the day before and found the work rather trying since all sorts of Allied vehicles were still arriving, while all the time the squadron was expecting to greet an enemy column. The tension was not relaxed in any way when B Squadron, to the right, reported that it had at last made contact.
This squadron was shelled from the north while the forward patrols were reporting some approaching lorries. The squadron stood its ground until the six-pounders were able to open fire on the transport, forcing it to withdraw. This did not silence the shelling, however, and after suffering it for altogether an hour and a quarter, the squadron, forced to abandon a carrier which was undergoing urgent repairs, withdrew, still under heavy shellfire, to the Kaponga Box and then east to the RHQ position in Deir el Munassib.
That night the regiment was at last able to reorganise on its normal three-squadron basis, for Major Garland arrived to say that he had found the last train party, had brought it up, and that it was now laagered just a few miles to the east. He had found it on 26 June still on railway trucks, shunted on to a railway siding at Amiriya and to all intents and purposes abandoned. There it remained that night and all the next day cynically enjoying the confusion of traffic around the Amiriya crossroads. Confusion it was; retreat indeed, an ugly retreat at that. It appeared even worse when one got close enough to read the panic in the eyes of some of the transport drivers.
By 4 p.m. on the 29th Major Garland had been advised that it was hopeless to expect a train westwards as the rail was being kept open for eastbound traffic, so on his own initiative he off- loaded the vehicles. They were packed up beyond fighting capacity, but he produced sufficient, if somewhat apocryphal, authority to coax some 3-ton lorries out of the Army Reserve to page 189 carry the surplus material, and set off west. To attempt the main road was hopeless, choked as it was four-deep with traffic headed east, so Garland chose the desert route and managed to get almost to El Hammam before it was time to laager. On the 30th he forged ahead again until he made contact with some 20 Battalion carriers making rapidly eastwards. The officer in command of these reported that the enemy was right on his tail and told him that the Division was supposed to be to the south-east. Unable to keep up with the infantry carriers owing to the poor mechanical state of his own, he headed south-east, feeling almost beaten but hoping for the best. Towards dark he ran across an RASC unit with which he formed laager. As this unit was heading east in the morning and could only advise that the Division was supposed to be at a place now certainly in enemy hands, Garland decided to make off to the south towards this unit's brigade headquarters. He found it in the late afternoon of 1 July and from it ascertained the position of his own Division. Leaving his column under its original commander, Captain Rayner,2 he set off to find Divisional Headquarters. Half-way there he found Div Cav at Deir el Munassib. Next morning, 2 July, Captain Macdonald, who was to command C Squadron until Major Bonifant returned from a course, went out and guided Captain Rayner's column to Deir Munassib. Lieutenant- Colonel Nicoll at last had his regiment numerically complete.
All three squadrons were mounted on carriers, some of which for the next few weeks were a severe trial to the crews who had to keep them going. Some of the fighting vehicles, in RHQ for example, which had less immediate prospect of actual enemy contact, were trucks; but they had to do.
* * * * *
Rommel's first thrust came in the north. Meeting resistance there, he immediately adopted the natural desert tactics of feeling for the flank. So the first attack which the New Zealand Division sustained was not without its warning. The Ruweisat Ridge runs east and west through the Alamein defile. It is not particularly prominent but whoever stands on it has an uninterrupted view of the whole desert. North of the western end of the ridge there was the defensive position round Deir el Shein held by the Indian brigade. The enemy stormed this position on 2 July and by that evening had a foothold on the page 190 edge of the ridge. The transport which B Squadron had engaged that day probably carried lorried infantry trying to outflank Deir el Shein.
The 2nd July was a very critical day for the Eighth Army, indeed for the whole of the Middle East, for the enemy fixed a wedge in the very centre of the Alamein line, from which he could dominate the whole battlefield. By that evening he was exchanging fire with the New Zealand guns in the Kaponga Box to the south. The New Zealand Division was the one fresh formation in the line at the time and was not content to sit behind minefields until compelled to retire. Leaving 6 Brigade to hold the Kaponga Box, the other two brigades, each with its regiment of field guns, sent out columns to probe towards Ruweisat. While A Squadron maintained its watch to the west, B Squadron made and kept contact with the enemy to the north, and by the middle of the morning C Squadron, now also fit to move, came up to the right of B. The enemy thrust, feeling again for the flank, had come further to the south-west and was now taking in the Alam Nayil ridge. B Squadron lost one carrier to anti-tank fire and, the enemy being far too strong for the squadrons to attack alone, B and C Squadrons sat under what cover there was, watching for further enemy movement until our counter-attack developed. This came during the afternoon when a column under Brigadier Weir3 arrived and opened fire with its field guns in support of some British tanks attacking from the east along the Alam Nayil ridge. The counter-attack did not seem to make any substantial gains but it at least halted the enemy in the meantime.
The next move was to advance towards Alam Nayil from the south, and on the morning of the 3rd Brigadier Weir's force, with the help of the same British tanks, advancing from its right flank, put in a very spirited attack and took the position together with about 400 prisoners and 44 guns belonging to the Ariete Division. Since the force had business elsewhere the Alam Nayil ridge was left in charge of C Squadron, which had by now arrived to guard the captured guns until they could be demolished. In the early afternoon some sappers arrived up to do this. They packed the muzzles of the guns with explosives page 191 and, while these were being ignited, the squadron drove over the crest of the ridge out of sight. This move brought it within direct view of Ruweisat Ridge and the squadron found itself engaged by accurate gunfire from there. For a few minutes the situation was decidedly delicate for, in order to keep behind cover from the demolitions, the squadron had to accept shellfire from the enemy guns which were firing over open sights. Though the fire was accurate the squadron was able to do this without suffering any casualties, vehicles scuttling hither and thither independently until it was safe to slip back over the ridge again.
There was no form of close liaison with, or for that matter between, the three ‘Jock’ columns operating in the south, so A Squadron went out in the morning to reconnoitre round Gebel Kalakh, which lies between Kaponga and the Taqa plateau. Nor were movements within the Division properly co-ordinated at that time for, while moving out from Deir el Munassib, the squadron was shelled by 6 Field Regiment in Kaponga, fortunately without suffering casualties. Two troops ventured about eight miles to the north-west of Gebel Kalakh as far as the Qaret el Yidma, where they engaged some twenty trucks of a battalion of the Trieste Division. Of these trucks they destroyed two, capturing an Italian soldier and releasing three Indian prisoners.
Besides the success at Alam Nayil on the 3rd, the Division was interested in another action. The 5th Brigade swept round the Kaponga Box, swung north, and without completely taking the position, neutralised the infiltration into the El Mreir Depression about three miles south-west of Deir el Shein.
By these two moves the Division narrowed the wedge which the enemy had driven into the Alamein line, to such an extent as to make that foothold rather precarious and certainly unsuitable as a starting place for an attack north against the South Africans at El Alamein.
Of that first critical week it could be said that 3 July was the day in which most of the impetus was taken out of the enemy's efforts to reach the Nile Delta in one bound. At the time, the day's fighting did not seem so important since the whole situation still seemed so very critical. Besides that, one felt that the enemy had not been properly halted until he had been forced to retire, even just a little, along the whole line.
During the night of the 3rd it was decided that the Division would make a bold counter-stroke straight towards Daba and page 192 thus cut the head off the enemy's spear while it was still slender. The Divisional Cavalry was ordered at first light on the 4th to send one squadron north-west from its laager area at Deir Alinda. The squadron was to make contact with 5 Brigade at El Mreir before continuing on towards Daba; but it never got even as far as El Mreir, for at 7.15 a.m., still five miles short of this first bound, it was bowling along confidently with one troop out in front as ‘point’ when the troop was ambushed by a tank and some armoured cars. Two of the carriers were hit and one ‘brewed up’ immediately, their crews being taken prisoner. The troop leader, Lieutenant H. M. Laing, was badly hit and later succumbed to his wounds after being taken prisoner. The squadron commander, Captain Macdonald, was on the point of rushing the ambush—never a hard decision to make when you see your friends shot up before your eyes—when he was ordered to get his squadron under cover and wait. Later in the morning the squadron was relieved by two troops of B Squadron and retired again to Deir Alinda to wait for a different task.
With the El Mreir route blocked, the next strike towards Daba was from the Qaret el Yidma, whither A Squadron had sent patrols at midday. In the late afternoon Major Robinson, who had that day returned from a course and taken over command from his 2 i/c, Captain Handley,4 was given the order to set out towards Daba. Followed by C Squadron, he led the way through the Kaponga Box towards Mungar Wahla to the north-west. Once again the move came to a halt in its initial stages as, after dark, a heavy mist formed which badly affected wireless communications, and before very long both squadrons, completely out of touch with RHQ, were forced to stop.
Each day the enemy was bringing more and more pressure to bear on the southern end of the line and from 4 July for several days the Luftwaffe gave the New Zealand positions particular attention. Gun positions and the headquarters of brigade groups were the main targets for dive-bombing attacks, while some of the more forward elements had suffered strafing attacks by fighters. A Squadron had two men wounded this way on the 4th. But on the whole the squadrons were rather inclined to enjoy the Stuka attacks since their own harbouring areas were usually allotted on the edge of a brigade area and they were page 193 thus able to make much of the opportunities of shooting up the attacking aircraft without being unnecessarily embarrassed themselves.
It was just as well that A and C Squadrons had been forced to stop before reaching Mungar Wahla for the enemy was there in force and far too strong to allow a break-through. A Squadron approached as near as possible until it came under heavy shell- fire from the north, and spent most of 5 July reporting on enemy movement west of El Mreir. The squadron was thus forced to retire southwards, but not before one man, Trooper Kelly,5 had been killed, and to join the other two squadrons which had been enjoying a fairly quiet day near Qaret el Yidma waiting to be relieved by 4 Brigade Group. After that they had not much to do except for a certain amount of ‘duck-shooting’ against the Stukas which were in close attendance for the rest of the day.
By now it was obvious that the Division's attempt to reach Daba was to be opposed, since the enemy was firmly placed in front and trying to reach round our southern flank. The Divisional Cavalry's attempt to break out into the flat desert towards Daba had been easily contained and the squadrons had not even managed to relieve the pressure on 5 Brigade, which held only part of its El Mreir objective.
The 4th Brigade moved out between Mungar Wahla and El Mreir on the 6th, its front being patrolled in the morning by A Squadron and by B in the afternoon. That major part of the regiment not on patrol enjoyed a quiet day harboured near Qaret el Yidma. It was a busy day, too, for some of the crews as a number of the much needed carrier replacements had arrived and been issued, and it takes a crew several hours to transfer weapons and equipment from one carrier to another and fit it all out according to each man's fancy. The regiment was much heartened to see this new equipment arrive since some of the old carriers had done some enormous mileages. Their motors would begin to boil almost as soon as they were started up; oil consumption in them was such as to be most alarming, especially in view of the prospect of a long march towards Daba with replenishments temporarily cut off and breakdowns in enemy territory possible. But these dangers were now receding; drivers had gone back to bring up the first issue of General Stuart tanks.page 194
The day was quiet, however, for the fighting squadrons, for throughout the day the Division was closely attended by dive-bombers and the squadrons were spared the attentions of these only by virtue of the fact that they were neither attractive targets nor were they harboured close to suitable ones. Headquarters Squadron on the other hand, tucked in amongst Divisional B Echelon at Deir el Munassib, suffered much more, and it must be pointed out that a bombing raid in HQ Squadron is considerably more unpleasant than in the fighting squadrons, since soft-skinned vehicles do not give that feeling of security afforded by armour-plate. Nor are all the vehicles in HQ Squadron equipped with the small arms to throw something back. A barrage of small-arms fire, though it appears to take no effect, probably does; and in any case it is far less strain to stand up and shoot back when watching and considering each aircraft, quite often each bomb as it falls. So instead of a man's mind flooding over with fear from the thundering and howling, he could and did maintain a reasonable level of self-control simply by throwing back something lethal; he could watch the bombs, know when to duck for cover, and jump up and fire off another magazine. Indeed, a bombing raid could become almost exhilarating.
But in B Echelon he simply had to get down in a trench and make an effort to keep control of his sanity while every bomb seemed to be screaming down into the very small of his back.
The Division made one last attempt to reach out round the enemy's flank on the 7th. Before daylight the Divisional Cavalry received word that the way was clear for a drive towards the coast. The 4th Brigade moved up to be on the western flank of 5 Brigade, and B Squadron of Div Cav set out to form a protective screen to the north and west while 4 Brigade was moving towards the open desert. But the squadron soon found out that the way was not clear and that the enemy was there in some force. So the advance came to a halt again. More information was demanded about the enemy strength, so A and C Squadrons were also sent up into the patrol line. A Squadron went to the right of B, facing north, and C Squadron to the left, facing west. In the middle of the afternoon one of the B Squadron troops, trying to catch some prisoners for identification, lost its troop leader's carrier, and Lieutenant Jimmy Logan6 and page 195 all his crew were themselves made prisoner. Both A and C Squadrons spent much time investigating some twenty tanks which were reported to be working south round the flank of the Division, but all they found were two squadrons of South African armoured cars which had not seen any movement either; so it was assumed that the South Africans had been reported as the enemy tanks.
Enemy tanks did approach the Division, however—from the west and later in the afternoon. They came on in a most determined way but the C Squadron line stood its ground until the tanks had come well up and stopped. This brought them well within range of the guns with 4 Brigade, and these soon sent them scuttling back the way they had come.
That was the last of the Division's attempts to thrust diagonally across, and behind, the enemy's battle groups; none of these attempts had got very far. Had any succeeded, this would have been very decisive since the same battle groups were living from hand to mouth and, cut off from their supplies, could not have lasted long. Though this was not to be, however, the New Zealand Division, fresh and keen and therefore the most battle-worthy formation in the Eighth Army, did manage to focus the enemy's attention on itself and deal with that attention vigorously enough to halt the drive to the Delta, while at the same time providing time for the northern end of the Alamein line to become better consolidated.
The Division now had to fall back a little so as to conform better to the general line of defence. The 4th Brigade, in danger of having its rear attacked by the enemy's flanking movement to the south, had skipped back during the afternoon of 7 July protected only by the light Div Cav screen, and leaving in the air for an hour or so the western flank of 5 Brigade. Nothing happened before dark and this brigade was able to pull back under the same screen. The Kaponga Box was also to be abandoned, and as 6 Brigade withdrew from there, the Div Cav screen, still as divisional rearguard, began to come back.
By daylight the squadrons were passing just to the south of Kaponga, reluctant to be giving ground; and by 7 a.m. the last squadron was back in Deir el Munassib, where all hands were able to look forward to at least half a day's rest. Wireless operators were at this stage of the war very scarce in the regiment and some of them had done over twenty-four hours' continuous work. They were glad to switch off their sets and curl up in the sand for a few hours' sleep.page 196
Waiting there in Deir Munassib were fifteen General Stuart tanks for the regiment: a heartening sight, and those in the tank troops could hardly believe their eyes. The tanks were not brand new; indeed, some were in rather a poor state, particularly as regards their guns. But to think of them, those wonderful ‘Honeys’—each with a real quick-firing gun and racks full of 37-mm. shells—no one could be worrying about a bit of rust or dirt: just to think of the speed and the punch of them compared with anything the regiment had had before made one want to walk up and stroke them lovingly. Inside were the new No. 19 wireless sets with their greater range and better fidelity of tone and containing a proper internal communication— ‘i.c.’ from now on—for every man. The days of taps on the elbow and kicks in the back were gone; everyone now had a sensitive microphone and spoke to any other of the crew, and he could answer with words and—better still—query with words, rather than make mistakes.
There were five tanks to each squadron and more were on the way. At last the regiment could rearrange itself properly. The Quartermaster was released from his extra job of providing a rear link to Divisional Headquarters, and the forward link to squadrons was properly organised, with a special administrative link from the RSM and SSMs to the Quartermaster at B Echelon.
By the afternoon of the 8th the new arrangement was working smoothly, everyone was pleased, and aggressive thoughts reached a higher pitch. There was a sign that someone in authority had similar ideas, as a New Zealand anti-tank battery, less one troop, was attached to the regiment.
For A Squadron the spell lasted only till midday as it was warned to stand by for a job. The 5th Brigade had moved through the Deir Alinda with the enemy in close attendance and 22 Battalion was in need of a reconnaissance screen to its front. The squadron moved out early in the afternoon to gain and keep contact with the enemy. This it did and remained out to laager in the Deir all night.
Now that the enemy had been definitely stopped, the Eighth Army began to weld its line into something more solid. Valuable time had been gained in which the Australians had arrived and deepened the north end of the line behind the South Africans, so, in the south, the New Zealanders concerned themselves with consolidating their own part of the line. While this was going on Div Cav was employed to put out its protective screen. B page 197 Squadron worked forward until it gained contact with the enemy south-east of Deir Alinda, while A and C Squadrons worked north towards the Alam Nayil ridge. It was indeed found that these patrols were very necessary because the enemy followed close on the retirement of the Division.
It was while maintaining this patrol line that the squadrons had to gaze on a great cloud of greasy black smoke rising from the Kaponga Box. This was caused by a party of men who had completed the demolitions and set fire to the fuel which the New Zealand transport had been unable to lift when 6 Brigade withdrew. Soon after the enemy occupation of the Box (a classic full-scale attack following the textbook so closely that it even had an imaginary enemy!) A Squadron on the north-west corner of the patrol line found itself hard-pressed in Deir el Angar. Heavily mortared and shelled, it was forced to withdraw into the shelter of the northern banks of Deir Alinda.
As the Division worked itself into a sound defensive position the regiment was called upon unceasingly to keep up its screening operations. The three squadrons kept as close as they possibly could to the enemy without becoming unnecessarily involved. C Squadron spent 10 July watching enemy movement round and along the Alam Nayil ridge, while A Squadron, to the left of C, did the same. It was found impossible to move far either to the north or west as any movement in those directions was very soon discouraged by strong shellfire either from the Alam Nayil or the Kaponga positions. The two squadrons caused a certain amount of alarm when they both reported the same tanks advancing along the Alam Nayil ridge. The reports from both squadrons were forwarded to Divisional Headquarters as they came in. At Div HQ someone made successful arithmetic of them and our guns were very smartly turned on to the tanks, causing them to retire briskly.
B Squadron had again been entrusted the southern end of the patrol line where enemy tanks made a vigorous advance towards it. The squadron's troops made every effort to decoy these tanks within effective range of the Division's guns. They managed to do this quite successfully, but not without suffering themselves quite a considerable amount of shellfire from the tanks.
All three squadrons remained where they were for the first half of the night, thus maintaining a covering force while the Division rearranged its dispositions by withdrawing 5 Brigade page 198 further east through 4 Brigade. This move was completed by about midnight, allowing the regiment to retire also; and that move was completed by about 2 a.m. on the 11th.
Though having wrested the initiative from the Africa Corps the Eighth Army had not succeeded in making its northerly drive across the rear of the enemy, so the New Zealand Division undertook no offensive operations while the Australians made a frontal attack on Tell el Eisa in the north. The purpose of this operation, regardless of territorial gain, was to keep the enemy reserves of armour moving backwards and forwards along the front. The Eighth Army, with its shortened lines of communication, could better afford to do this than the Africa Corps, whose armour was by now sorely tried and replacements for which were almost impossible down such long lines of communication.
Thus it appeared to the New Zealanders that, having gained the initiative, it was to be thrown away again. The enemy was now facing the Division more or less on three sides. In the north he still had a strong foothold on the Ruweisat and Alam Nayil ridges and in the country between them. He faced the Division in the west from the recently evacuated Kaponga Box; and he was now gradually infiltrating through the El Taqa plateau into the Gebel Himeimat area south of the Division.
By 11 July the Australians had pushed out a salient along the coast road as far as Tell el Eisa and had the enemy worried. Just as against our advance in the south he had drawn the German infantry from the centre of the line to reinforce the Italians, so he did the same against the Australians' attack whilst still holding the salient of the western end of Ruweisat Ridge. This plan was a worry to the Eighth Army for there was also a very soft spot in the extreme south which was covered by light ‘Jock’ columns of 7 Armoured Division—these columns bore the names of months of the calendar—and by B Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry. Altogether it was not a good stopping force.
Once again an army commander found truth in the adage: ‘Attack is the best form of defence’. It was planned to straighten out the most embarrassing of these salients by an attack on the Ruweisat Ridge, and it was hoped that this attack would develop into the southern claw of a pincer which would link up with the Australian penetration in the north.
The first move was to clear the Alam Nayil ridge, and this was done during the morning of the 11th by the tanks of page 199 1 Armoured Division which swept along the ridge from the east. Then in the afternoon, 4 and 5 New Zealand Brigades advanced north towards Ruweisat as far as their intended start line. A and C Squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry had begun the day on a line running from the eastern end of the Alam Nayil ridge to the western end of Deir el Munassib. They had been unable to move far ahead of this line but, by the time the infantry had reached their objective south of Ruweisat, both squadrons had been able to advance. They took up another line, which still ran at an angle across the map, across the flat country between the Ruweisat and Alam Nayil features. There they remained as a screen to the brigades while they dug in. The stage was now set for the attack.
Meanwhile B Squadron had spent the day operating with three of the ‘Jock’ columns in exerting as much pressure as possible in the broken country south of the Division's area. The squadron's five tanks managed to penetrate well to the west as far as Qaret el Khadim and engage three tanks and three armoured cars, driving them away to the west.
For the next three days, until the attack on Ruweisat took place, the squadrons took up the same positions. The patrols felt forward each day until engaged by shellfire and then kept probing here and there to make sure that the enemy did not steal up to our infantry. On the 13th the enemy made his final infiltration into the Gebel Himeimat area, forcing the Motor Brigade to withdraw, so B Squadron was called back into regimental reserve; but the following day the five tanks in the squadron slipped out to the south-west to test and adjust sights and try out the new guns. They had some targets on the crest of a ridge and had been conducting a considerable little private war against them when, to their delight, they found that a great many of the shells, passing over the crest, had been landing in amongst some enemy lorried infantry, causing them acute discomfort and not a little consternation.
The Division now faced north whilst the big salient which the enemy had pushed into the line to the south was completely ignored by the New Zealanders, who left the care of that sector to the light armoured elements of 13 Corps, namely 7 Armoured Division and 7 Motor Brigade.
With everything facing this way in the Division, HQ Squadron was moved even farther west from its old position so as to get into Deir el Munassib and thus be right behind its own fighting squadrons when the Ruweisat Ridge had been taken.page 200
After dark on the 14th, A and C Squadrons formed up in close column behind the Divisional Reserve Group ready for the attack to begin. It was intended that they should follow this group forward until the morning, when the whole was to swing and face the western flank left open by the advance. It was planned also to send part of the two Div Cav squadrons forward through the enemy FDLs and co-operate with the tanks of 1 Armoured Division which, it was understood, were to work through from the east and push the enemy right off the end of the ridge.
That was the plan of the attack. Though it achieved substantial success it ended in disaster. The valour and dash of our infantry was to a great extent wasted by the complicated nature of the whole operation and by the failure of the armour to give the promised support.
In the morning it would appear that the same applied to 1 Armoured Division for its tanks were not within miles of the west end of Ruweisat Ridge. The infantry were on their objective but both brigades were isolated. One was without supporting arms and they were now being attacked from their rear—the south—by a strong force of enemy tanks. Ugly disaster stared them in the face.
With the approach of daylight the Reserve Group shook itself out and the two Div Cav squadrons took up positions right out on the left flank between the western ends of the Alam Nayil and Ruweisat ridges. Ahead of them they could see smoke rising from burning vehicles, while up on the ridge itself the infantry were beginning to suffer increasing mortar and shell-fire as they tried to consolidate their positions. Away to the east was a string of prisoners headed south-east.
The immediate prospect in front of the Divisional Cavalry was not good. Firmly entrenched behind its own minefields was a very strong pocket of enemy, including a number of tanks, through which the infantry had passed during the advance. At daylight these tanks, in their turn, attacked northwards and, overwhelming 22 Battalion, marched it off to the west almost complete. It was impossible to gain contact with 4 Brigade Headquarters on the ridge. Try as they might, in daylight, the squadrons could find no way through the enemy pocket until the early afternoon, when an infantry attack was organised to clear the pocket right out. The tank troops of both squadrons took part in this attack and one of them carried on up to the trig point 63 on the ridge, where it found the headquarters of 4 Brigade. This was about 3·45 in the afternoon; but the tanks did not stay there very long, coming back smartly to see if they could guide some supporting weapons up to the ridge ready for the counter-attack that was expected from enemy tanks from the west, and heralded already by severe shellfire.
But the support weapons never got there in time. The expected attack came in soon after the Div Cav patrols had left and, exposed as it was on the rocky ridge, the whole brigade, helpless, was overrun despite the presence of 1 Armoured Division not three-quarters of a mile away. It was small wonder that 4 Brigade, indeed the whole Division, was for a long time very bitter about anybody who wore the black beret.page 202
The Luftwaffe had reacted violently to the attack and all day on the 15th the Division had been subjected to intermittent dive-bombing raids. The chief targets were the guns and transport, so A and C Squadrons, being more isolated, were able to send up considerable barrages of small-arms fire without themselves being directly attacked; but B Squadron, in reserve in Deir el Munassib, was more in the thick of things. Even then it suffered only one casualty when a man was wounded by a piece of falling shrapnel.
After such a brilliant attack to gain the Ruweisat Ridge, after standing up to counter-attacks against such overpowering odds—the fighting alone earned two VCs—the Division had to suffer the disappointment of giving up its hard-earned objectives. Overnight the companies of 5 Brigade that had been spared in the counter-attacks were withdrawn to a line three-quarters of a mile south of the ridge, and by the morning of the 16th were dug in facing it on a line which later became the northern edge of the New Zealand defensive box.
From now until September the New Zealand Division was forced more and more by circumstances to conform with the Eighth Army's practice of shutting itself up in ‘boxes’. What remained of 4 Brigade returned to Maadi to reorganise while the other two brigades, with all the divisional troops, dug themselves in, in what became known as the New Zealand Box. The Divisional Cavalry, responsible only for its own protection for the first week, lived very quietly until it was given the task of watching the southern flank; and that faced the least aggressive of the enemy's forces. Three of the new tanks struck unplotted minefields but were recovered and repaired; otherwise life was uneventful except for the Stuka raids which arrived with Teutonic regularity, and which were given receptions ever increasing in warmth and accuracy, not only from the ground but also from above, where our fighters could be seen on their regular patrol all day. Nevertheless the bombers claimed some casualties in the regiment. Of these, three lost their lives. Sergeant Jack Riddell was killed and Corporal Russell Ferens7 and Signalman Russell,8 of C Section, Signals, attached to B Squadron, died of wounds.
Life became purgatory for friend and no doubt for foe, for the sun was hot and brazen and so was the light wind which page 203 each day breathed relentlessly across the rocks and sand, depositing a salty crust of dust on everybody's lips. On such moments— and they went on all day—one required double the strength of will to keep one's hands from the precious day's quart in the water bottle.
Until the desert was cleaned up there was a smell of rotting flesh all about. But the flies were the greatest trouble of all. They came in such numbers that they defied control and, being avid for water and sugar, they could not be driven away. If you waved your hand over something on which they were greedily feeding they just skipped high enough to dodge your hand before dropping back where they had been. Sometimes they were even too greedy to do that and appeared merely to duck their heads without even lifting their filthy snouts. They were suicidal in their greed, and cannibal too, for you could slap a dozen to death on your bare knee and in seconds as many more were feeding where they had been or were sucking the moisture from the still twitching bodies. In those days there was need to wake no man at dawn because, in a few minutes before sun-up, the first of the day's flies, still sluggish with sleep, were crawling over the most sensitive parts of his skin, his lips and eyelids, and as he opened his eyes they just jumped slightly and then settled down to try and steal the moisture from his tear- ducts. From then until dusk they were about in their millions. A man walking past presented a black mass on the back of his shirt where the flies were drinking up the moisture in his sweat, while a black swarm followed along waiting for a place to drink. Some men would bare their backs in self-defence, preferring the crawling brutes on their skin to the inevitable swarm attracted by the damp patch on their shirts. If a man's face was in the lee of the breeze they settled on it until he had only to purse his lips to trap them by the feet as they tried to steal his own precious saliva. If his hands were out of the sun for a moment they were damp, and he could transfix a fly with the point of a lead-pencil without looking down. If there was sugar on his food they would fly into his mouth in their desperate attempts to steal it.
Such is a plague of flies: they drink the sweat of the living and eat the dead for the sugar in their flesh. Truly they were the direct descendants of those that troubled the house of Pharaoh and the houses of his servants and corrupted all the land of Egypt.page 204
The MO never gave up looking for some means to combat the pest. Traps made of petrol tins and mosquito netting, though they caught, each one, literally gallons a day, seemed to make no difference. A dish of formalin and water was quite a help. The flies came down to drink and were overcome by the fumes; but the doctor's supply of formalin soon ran out. Every man had brought a mosquito net down with him from Syria but they had mostly been buried in the sand at Mersa Matruh, now 100 miles behind the enemy's lines. Some had been buried near Deir el Munassib and one or two men, much to the envy of the rest, had found their way back there to dig, and returned with the precious nets which they managed to rig up somewhere to give at least partial relief.
Lieutenant Logan arrived back on 18 July from what the war diary describes as ‘… a protracted tour of enemy territory’. Having been made prisoner during the attempt to get to Daba, he was held in a prisoner-of-war cage at Sidi Barrani, whence he escaped in company with some British officers.
One last attempt to gain a decision on the south end of the line was made on the night of 21 July when 6 Brigade tried to straighten out the salient at El Mreir with an attack from the south. The newly arrived British 23 Armoured Brigade was to follow this up in the morning of the 22nd with a strike westwards through the breach and deep into enemy territory. This was to be followed by an attack along Ruweisat Ridge by 161 Indian Brigade. Coinciding with 6 Brigade's attack, and to cover the rear, 18 Battalion was to make an attack westwards but well to the south of the brigade.
Once again the attack was fated before it began, and this only because we would not profit by our former experience at Ruweisat. The whole scheme was far too complicated. We had liaison this time with the armour, but insufficient co-ordination. The result was that the battalions reached their objectives in the depression but the armour again failed to give support. The tanks made a brave and brilliant attack in the morning but made it in the wrong place, ran on to a minefield, pressed on amongst murderous fire from several directions, and were more or less wiped out. Again the infantry were left at the mercy of the enemy tanks counter-attacking at first light, because most of the brigade's anti-tank weapons, having run on to a minefield in the dark, failed to arrive on the objective. In any case, those which did arrive had no chance to dig in before the enemy tanks attacked, and were quickly knocked out.page 205
The Divisional Cavalry had no part in this action, but in the morning of 22 July two troops were sent out to make contact with 18 Battalion. They were held up by an enemy pocket, and it was while considering how to get round this that the commander of one of the C Squadron troops, Lieutenant Thwaites,9 was killed. Jimmy had halted his troop just at the crest of some rising ground where he could keep the enemy pocket under observation and, while waiting developments, was making breakfast for his crew. He had the usual cooking gear of those days, page 206 an old ammunition tin with a fire-bar through it. Into this had been shovelled some sand; petrol had been poured on top and set alight. In this case Thwaites had done a dangerous thing. He had splashed some more petrol on the fire out of a tin. The whole lot caught alight and the resulting flames and black smoke attracted attention. A little while later when he was bending over the billy stirring the stew, a single shell landed literally at his feet.
After the El Mreir attack the third and last of the New Zealand brigades now found itself crippled by its losses, and the Division was incapable of further offensive action though it still had its full complement of guns and sufficient infantry to protect them. It still had its divisional troops, so that in defence it could deliver a considerable punch. Reluctantly, therefore, it became resigned to building a defensive box of mines and wire. In that box everything was dug in, even the Div Cav tanks and carriers, for they now had to take the place of infantry weapons. The regiment was allotted the southern end of the Box and took a line running east for 4000 yards from the Alam Nayil trig.
The line was manned by A and C Squadrons while B Squadron still kept a mobile role, patrolling south to Deir el Munassib.
Actually the regiment did not go to ground properly until the end of the month and, for the last week or two, squadrons were employed patrolling as far as Deir el Angar and a little north-west of the Alam Nayil trig, while the third squadron remained in reserve with RHQ to the north of Deir el Hima. It was decided, however, that since movement much past the eastern end of Deir el Angar or west of Alam Nayil was impossible, these patrols were achieving no more than attracting shellfire. Even when this movement was stopped the regiment still managed to cover its allotted ground with A and C Squadrons, thus keeping B Squadron and RHQ mobile against any emergencies. The two static squadrons moved up on to the Alam Nayil ridge on 31 July to begin digging in their vehicles. Any New Zealander hates the idea of enforced immobility but, of all units, the Divisional Cavalry liked being enclosed even less than being dismounted. There was small compensation for this disagreeable state of affairs in that 28 Battery, 5 Field Regiment, was attached to Div Cav and also 34 Battery of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment with its six-pounders.
Much disgruntled, the A and C Squadron men spent the first half of August digging pits for their vehicles and for the carriers' page 207 guns. They also laid a minefield along their front. These vehicle pits soon became a source of interest to the enemy fighter-bombers and were visited regularly each day.
The regiment was, however, never as completely fenced in as other units, for when on 14 August it was decided to enclose the Division fully with a minefield along the eastern side of its box, RHQ and HQ Squadron elected to remain outside the perimeter and actually there was less than half the numerical strength fenced in.
The days settled down to a dull routine. One was awakened by the flies and then had to compete with them to eat one's breakfast. Most people next began to think about their toilet and many found that this could be managed reasonably well, using no more water than could be held in a round 2-ounce tobacco tin. First the teeth were brushed, a function that can be performed with practically no expenditure of water. This was followed by a shave which left the water soapy. The hands could be cleaned by squeezing the shaving brush and rubbing the lather round and round them. This removed all the dirt, which came off in little rolls as the soap dried. A little of the remaining water was poured into one cupped palm to rinse the hands and face while the last of it could be used on alternate days to wash one knee or, as some preferred, to rinse dried sweat off the hocks.
For the first fortnight, August seemed to consist of nothing but digging; making defences or improving them—as much against the flies as against any human enemy. Until about ten in the morning the air was clear and visibility good—for whatever use that was to Div Cav now—and both sides did a certain amount of shelling. A visit could be expected about this time from enemy fighter-bombers, and two minutes before their scheduled time, those that remembered could be seen looking to their anti-aircraft weapons. After the flurry of the aircraft visitation things usually settled down to a fairly quiet day. The sun became more and more brassy, the sky pale blue, almost white hot, the whole desert began to shimmer, and strange mirages were to be seen in every direction. Asked for a report one midday, one of the B Squadron troop commanders replied: ‘Two London buses inverted, each supporting a haystack.’
The shrivelling wind lazed across the sand carrying its light haze of salty dust to settle on everyone's lips. Nature has subtle forms of torture, for if the precious quart in your bottle ever met those lips during the heat of the day, it was gone. The page 208 usual rule was not to broach the bottle until 4 p.m. when the day had begun to cool just a little; but it took strong self-discipline to practise this.
Each sluggish day the hours passed reluctantly. In the evenings several large-calibre reminders landed with a crump on the end of Alam Nayil ridge, indicating that it was high time to cook the last meal. Though it happened daily, this ranging caused only one casualty in Div Cav. Corporal Denz10 was killed on 9 August.
Only moments after the sun had burned its way below the horizon the air was fresh again; the flies were gone, the dust was gone, and spirits rose to normal again. Everyone began to move about and exchange pleasantries or drank their occasional beer issue. Sometimes there was an issue of rum which was usually added to the last cup of tinned coffee saved for the occasion. Anyone who had managed to hoard enough water slipped off his clothes in the dusk and enjoyed the pleasure, the almost sensuous pleasure, of a complete sponge down.
But the return of high spirits was short-lived. Within half an hour men were suddenly sleepy. They unrolled their bedding —but not before they actually needed it lest a scorpion might creep in too—and put it in their shallow pits, which were protection from the cold midnight wind as much as from shrapnel. Each one set the weapon of his choice (rifle, pistol, or hand grenade) in its usual place close-handy in case of surprise— those in the habit of saying their prayers found that these lost none of their sincerity when said as accompaniment to such mundane routine—and then crawled feet first between the blankets. This was the only really private moment of the day. So, gazing at the wealth of stars in the sky, a man could let his thoughts drift round to that sad, brave smile that had farewelled him on the other side of the world, as he slipped into a dreamless sleep. This usually ended all too soon with the crunch of feet as someone came to waken him for picket: or else it was those beastly flies again on his lips.
The only men not completely strange to the General Stuart tanks were those who had done courses while the regiment was in Syria and, since the Division's stay there was curtailed, this number was small. Quite the best way to learn about a weapon is by personal experience under battle conditions, but with such highly technical equipment as a tank, mistakes often cannot be page 209 foreseen. So, during the lull in early August, the tanks' crews took every chance to increase their knowledge, and most of them stole time to slip away to Deir el Ragil to try out their guns.
Eventually the sojourn as infantry came to an end. A and C Squadrons were relieved by regiments of the Buffs and the Royal West Kents, of 132 Brigade, 44 Division. This was on the 17th and 18th and it allowed the two squadrons to move out of the Box and join B Squadron and RHQ where they could breathe again the breath of freedom and feel happier to be able to move about a little.
The principal appointments in the regiment at this time were as follows:
|Commanding Officer||Lt-Col A. J. Nicoll|
|Second-in-Command||Maj J. H. Garland|
|Adjutant||Capt P. D. Hall|
|OC A Squadron||Maj H. A. Robinson, MC|
|Second-in-Command||Capt W. G. Handley|
|OC B Squadron||Maj J. H. Sutherland, MC|
|Second-in-Command||Capt J. G. Wynyard|
|OC C Squadron||Maj I. L. Bonifant|
|Second-in-Command||Capt R. A. M. Macdonald|
|OC HQ Squadron||Capt R. B. McQueen|
|Medical Officer||Capt J. R. J. Moore, NZMC|
|Padre||Rev. H. G. Taylor, CF|
Major Bonifant left the regiment on 15 August to join (and later to command) 25 Battalion and was replaced as OC of C Squadron by Wilson Handley, who became Major.
The New Zealanders had had wrought in them a certain amount of change by the three battles they had fought since coming back to the desert in June. They had arrived with their morale in a magnificent state, and the struggle to move up to Mersa Matruh against the tide of their own retiring army had, if anything, strengthened their spirit, until at times it was almost at a point of arrogance. The battle of Minqar Qaim forged them into a solid weapon. The two big spoiling battles which had followed, though they reduced the Axis momentum to a complete halt, were costly because they robbed the Division of its infantry and its offensive power, so that it was forced to adopt the tactics common to the Eighth Army at the time and curl up in a defensive box.
In some way or other this type of fighting induces an outlook decidedly defensive, and in one respect bad, because the moment page 210 a formation is shut up it begins to look over its shoulder for another defensive position behind. Aggressive ideas fade away. By the beginning of August the New Zealanders were catching this germ. They were indeed ordered to reconnoitre positions in another box behind them—a little closer to the Nile—‘just in case’; and all the time it was obvious that the next move would be started by Field Marshal Rommel.
Then one day things changed. One looked across the desert and noticed that there were not so many of the usual vehicles about. One of the C Squadron troopers strolled over to gossip with his next-door neighbours, a Bofors gun crew, and happened to remark that their lorry was gone. ‘Yes. They have taken it back to Burg el Arab and given us a load of A.P. instead!’
The trooper, a little puzzled to know how the gunners could retire to the other box if the occasion arose, tackled his troop officer a little later. ‘That's quite right. When the attack comes there will be no retiring. We shall fight here. And this tank too is now a pill-box. Just forget it has a motor.’
Overnight a breath of clean air from ‘Blighty’ had blown right through the Army. It appeared to be related to the rumours about a new Army Commander: ‘… a spartan little “joker”… who is going to smarten things up; who is going to see that everyone does his job where he stands—or else. There are going to be no more brilliant attacks ruined for want of armoured support at dawn: the support will be there. And in the meantime the reconnoitring of routes back to the alternative box at Alam Halfa is “out” because there is no alternative box. Rommel will be beaten—here—finish.’
Overnight General Montgomery became an oracle to the Eighth Army. Rommel would be attacking in the south— because ‘Monty’ said he would. He was going to be allowed round the southern flank and then be stabbed in the ribs. He was going to be beaten—Monty had said so—and that's all there was about it.
From that moment Rommel was beaten.
1 These columns took their name from their originator, Brigadier Jock Campbell, VC. They were, in effect, little armies in miniature; in strength, about two companies of infantry with a battery of field artillery and a troop of anti-tank guns. They were ideal for harassing or hunting a retreating force along but, carried away with their successes in this field, we were rather inclined to use them at any time.
3 Maj-Gen Sir Stephen Weir, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Bangkok; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939-Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941-Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 4 Sep-17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944-Sep 1946; Commander, Southern Military District, 1948–49; QMG, Army HQ, 1951–55; Chief of General Staff, 1955–60; Military Adviser to NZ Govt, 1960–61; NZ Ambassador to Thailand, Oct 1961.