CHAPTER 11 — Minqar Qaim
MEANWHILE, in Matruh, the New Zealand Division hardly had time to look around to examine its new tasks under 30 Corps in the defence of the fortress, which Corps declared was ‘to be held at all costs’, before there was a sudden change of command and it was again under 10 Corps, which was taking over the fortress defences from 30 Corps, now ordered to reform and refit at Amiriya. The change of command, however, made little difference to the Division's responsibilities, and Signals continued to operate the fortress underground cable system for the principal divisional communications.
The western sector of the Matruh fortress was occupied by 4 Infantry Brigade, while 5 Infantry Brigade, with 26 Battalion under command, held the eastern sector. Sixth Infantry Brigade, with its two remaining units, was to be brought up from Amiriya, where it had been intended to hold it in reserve, and 24 and 26 Battalions would then occupy the fortress's out- posts, situated within the minefield itself. Suddenly, however, when these plans were about to be put into practice, yet another change in command occurred. Before 6 Brigade could commence its move forward from Amiriya, the Division was ordered to hand over to 10 Indian Division and be prepared to move in reorganised battle groups to the south of Matruh, and operate there in a mobile role under 13 Corps.
New Zealand Divisional Signals handed over the Matruh fortress communications to 10 Indian Division Signals on 25 June and made ready to move out that evening with Divisional Headquarters. Fourth Brigade Group was the first to leave the town; it was followed two hours later, at 5.30 p.m., by the Divisional Headquarters Group, which halted soon after nightfall ten miles to the south of Garawla and just east of the Khalda track, where it bivouacked for the night. Fifth Brigade Group left Matruh late that night and bivouacked at Bir Ali el Qadi, at the northern end of the divisional dispersal area. By this page 233 time the main formations of Eighth Army had been withdrawn behind the Matruh line. The enemy, already east of Sidi Barrani, had halted during the day, but resumed his advance, headed by 90 Light Division, that evening and was expected to reach the Matruh minefields early next morning.
The New Zealand Division spent the morning of the 26th preparing defensive positions and organising transport and supplies for the tasks of securing a box in the Minqar Qaim area to deny the escarpment to the enemy, and of operating mobile columns to attack and delay his advance. Soon after midday 5 Brigade Group left the dispersal area and moved to Minqar Qaim, where it set up its headquarters in a wadi close to Point 216. Headquarters 5 Field Regiment was established a short distance to the south-east of the brigade's position, with its guns deployed on the open plain beneath the escarpment. Fourth Brigade Group reached Bir Abu Batta at 6.40 p.m. and took up positions east of the Khalda track. It was here, late in the evening, that the brigade area was bombed and strafed by twenty-four enemy planes, seven men being killed and over fifty wounded. Among those killed was Signalman Dale,1 of J Section; Signalman Benton,2 who was among the wounded, died next day. While making a brief reconnaissance of the brigade area in a truck, Dale and Benton, both despatch riders, were caught unawares by the raiders swooping in over the area in the gathering dusk. A search was begun when they did not answer a rough roll-call of J Section's men after the raid, and Signalman Provan found them some time later. Dale had been killed instantly, and the truck was completely wrecked. Benton was taken immediately to an RAP in the brigade area, where a medical officer, seeing his wounds, shook his head and said it was unlikely he would see out the night.
Meanwhile, Divisional Headquarters had arrived in the area and, while halted on the fringe of 4 Brigade's position, had also been caught during the raid. There were no losses in Divisional Signals, although Lieutenant-Colonel Agar, had he been given to premonitions, might have expected some other misfortune to follow the narrowly averted debacle which had occurred page 234 that evening in the dispersal area at Bir el Sarahna. From the time of their departure from Matruh the evening before both Main and Rear Divisional Headquarters had been combined and had moved in one group. When the group was formed up at Sarahna ready to move off on the evening of the 26th, the Colonel had walked up and down the waiting transport to ascertain, in a more or less cursory way, that all his unit's vehicles were in their correct places in the column. At the last moment he had discovered, quite by chance from a casual conversation, that Divisional Headquarters was to split into two and that Rear Headquarters was about to move to a position some 17 miles to the east of Main Headquarters' projected location at Minqar Qaim. He had hurried off quickly to the G office truck at the head of the column and persuaded the GSO 2 to delay the move for a few minutes while Rear Headquarters' signals was extricated from the mass of assembled transport.
In due course Main Headquarters arrived at the escarpment and began to set up its offices on the flat below, about a mile west of the Khalda track. While the vehicles were still extending out to their dispersal positions in desert formation, orders were suddenly given to move several hundred yards south onto a low escarpment below the main one, and confusion set in afresh in Signals' area. By this time lines were already going out to 4 and 5 Brigades, and in the haste of Main Headquarters' second move there was no time to reel in the cable, so the lines were dragged along behind the signal office vehicle and were straightened out and tidied up when the headquarters finally settled down. Major Grant, OC No. 1 Company, when recounting the incident later, drily observed that ‘it was not a procedure to be recommended but it worked in this case, which was the only time it was attempted, to my knowledge, although the reverse idea of dragging the signal office switchboard behind a line-laying party had been known to occur, although quite unintentionally.’
Hardly had this little flurry settled down when Lieutenant-Colonel Agar was confronted with a fresh problem which, easy enough to solve in normal circumstances, was on this occasion a little different and considerably more difficult. He was page 235 accosted suddenly in the Divisional Headquarters' area by Brigadier Weir,3 the CRA, who asked him to lay lines from Headquarters Divisional Artillery to 4, 5 and 6 Field Regiments. There was nothing very difficult about this, especially as the CRA was ready to lead the cable-laying detachment to the regiments, but unfortunately the CRA's headquarters was lost and not in the place where it should have been at the head of the Divisional Headquarters' area.
On the arrival of Main Headquarters in its first position below the escarpment, Brigadier Weir had gone off to visit his field regiments. When he returned some time later, however, Main Headquarters had moved, and he found only his Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Norrie,4 who had remained at the old position with an A (wireless) Section detachment under Signalman Leonard5 to await the Brigadier's return. The small party, led by the Brigadier's jeep, set off in the darkness to find Divisional Headquarters, which they located after some difficulty on the low escarpment to the south, where it had settled down again after its hurried move. But when the CRA reached the head of the Divisional Headquarters' area, where his headquarters should have been, there was no sign of the Brigade Major or the vehicles of Headquarters Divisional Artillery. The Brigadier was worried and perplexed at the absence of his headquarters on the eve of a critical battle; Norrie could tell him little except that the headquarters had accompanied Main Divisional Headquarters when it moved from its first position below the escarpment.
Besides asking for a cable-laying detachment to lay out lines to the regiments, Brigadier Weir had asked Colonel Agar for an operating detachment to man the Headquarters Divisional Artillery exchange. Agar himself brought the detachments to the CRA's headquarters a little later, and from there the Brigadier led the cable-laying truck first to 5 Field Regiment, in page 236 5 Brigade's area near Minqar Qaim, and then to 6 Field Regiment, in the Divisional Reserve Group.
The Brigadier was up again before daylight, eager to be off in search of his errant headquarters, but half an hour after first light Major Hanna,6 the Brigade Major, came in with the headquarters' group, having spent an anxious night with 4 Brigade, in whose transport columns he had been caught up the previous night in the confusion of Divisional Headquarters' hurried move in the dusk. There were some mutual recriminations, but the Brigadier was too relieved at the recovery of his headquarters to expound his views of the incident at any appreciable length, and paused only briefly to dismiss the affair with a few terse and brusque comments in his inimitable manner.
The recital of these events serves as a convenient introduction to the manner in which the CRA acquired his own signal communications. Hitherto the normal divisional-brigade circuits had been used to keep him in touch with his regiments, which had invariably been deployed under the command of brigade groups. There had been much discussion between the GOC and the CRA on the question of employing the field regiments under the centralised control of the CRA, and earlier in the month, in Syria, these discussions had reached the stage where centralised control was to be tried out on the full-scale divisional exercise planned to take place at Forqloss. Colonel Agar was closely concerned with the question of the communications necessary for efficient centralised control of the Division's artillery fire power, and he and the CRA planned the inauguration of a separate CRA's exchange, which in addition to switching field regiment lines, would be connected by at least one junction circuit to the exchange switchboard at Main Divisional Headquarters.
No increases in signals establishment or equipment were involved in these separate artillery communications. Although Signals could ill afford at this time to extend its commitments, the additional communications were provided quite cheaply from D Section's resources, which were elastic enough to stand page 237 a small additional strain. Two switchboard operators, therefore, were detached for fulltime employment at Headquarters Divisional Artillery. B (cable) Section's contribution consisted of one 15-cwt cable-laying truck, which was detached as required on a part-time basis. For A (wireless) Section there was no additional outlay, because the employment of one No. 11 wireless set at the CRA's headquarters as a control set for the field regiments' wireless group and for use as the CRA's reconnaissance set had already been accepted as a more or less normal part of the Division's communications.
Another development in the artillery signal communications occurred on 26 June, but with a different trend. This was the disbanding of H Section (with 7 Anti-Tank Regiment), from which some men were to be absorbed into other signal sections and the remainder posted to Signal' left-out-of-battle group at Maadi Camp.
At 5 p.m. on 26 June 2 NZ Division passed from 10 Corps to 13 Corps, whose orders were ‘to secure a box in the area Minqar Qaim in order to deny the escarpment to the enemy and to operate all round with mobile columns to attack and delay the enemy advance’. By nightfall the Division was deployed in battle order along the escarpment: 5 Brigade Group held the most westerly positions around the slight salient called Minqar Qaim; the Divisional Reserve Group formed a protective screen for Divisional Headquarters just to the west of the Khalda track; 4 Brigade Group lay along 3000 yards of the escarpment to the east of the track.
Late that evening the enemy was reported to be only six miles west of the New Zealand positions, and during the night he breached the minefields south of Matruh and continued to move east in some force. To the south, a few miles away, lay 1 British Armoured Division, believed to have at the most 100 tanks.
The battle opened on the 27th with the sound of distant gunfire soon after dawn, but it was not until 8.30 a.m. that enemy fire began to fall in the Division's area. While the first shells were falling an enemy column led by a group of fifteen tanks was seen moving across the Division's northern front. The enemy's first ranging shells landed between Divisional page 238 Headquarters and 5 Brigade, and to these the New Zealand guns replied. The artillery duel continued throughout the day, and the enemy's fire, although not particularly heavy at first, increased gradually in intensity until towards midday it had inflicted many casualties and caused at least two groups of transport to disperse rapidly.
The brunt of the fire fell first on 5 Brigade's area. Unfortunately the brigade's transport, including a number of K Section's vehicles and the entire battery-charging equipment, became separated from Brigade Headquarters in the morning and was prevented by enemy intervention from returning. Earlier in the morning the Brigade Commander had decided that the headquarters' area was too congested and likely to attract fire, so he instructed his Staff Captain (Captain Dugleby7) to take all non-operational transport to a position in the lee of the Division, to move from there only if he came under fire, but on no account to lose communication with Brigade Headquarters.
Captain Dasler, OC K Section, remained with Brigade Headquarters, and with him were the forward control wireless set No. 11, the wireless set No. 9 which provided the rear link to Main Divisional Headquarters, the cable-laying truck, and a signal office detachment. Both wireless sets were dismounted from their vehicles and were dug in on ground which, owing to its rocky nature, afforded little protection. The section's second-in-command, Lieutenant Sidey,8 with two operators and a No. 11 set mounted in an 8-cwt wireless truck, had joined the B Echelon vehicles assembling on the flat about a mile to the north of the Brigade Headquarters' wadi. Here he had under his control the section's main battery-charging equipment, a 1250-watt set which, with the bulk of the batteries on the charging bank, was laid out on the ground alongside its 15-cwt truck. Although it is not known for certain, this set was probably the section's only charging equipment, as the small 300-watt Chore Horses (trade name), one of which was page 239 later to become a part of each wireless set's equipment, were then in extremely short supply, there being probably not more than half a dozen in the whole of the Division.
Sidey had no liking for his job with the B Echelon and preferred to remain with Dasler at Brigade Headquarters, but the Brigadier was adamant that none should remain in the headquarters' area unless he were needed there. Dasler, however, had foreseen certain difficulties in saving valuable section equipment should the headquarters be forced to move suddenly during the battle, and had contrived to retain his 3-ton signal office lorry by concealing it at the head of the wadi where it turned east out of sight of the headquarters. Later in the day Dasler brought this vehicle out and used it to carry out wounded sappers from the entrance to the Brigade Headquarters' wadi, where enemy artillery fire had inflicted several casualties on a minelaying party there.
About 10 a.m. Sidey took his driver and truck down to the transport assembly area. He had hardly arrived when artillery fire began to fall among the vehicles. In accordance with earlier instructions to move if shelled, the transport was quickly off the mark, hurried right across the front of the Division's positions, turned south near Abu Batta, and formed up again at Point 197, about three miles south-east of Headquarters 4 Brigade. It is understandable that the move was carried out in some haste, especially by K Section's battery-charging truck, on which the charging set and batteries had first to be loaded. No doubt the electrician and the driver of the truck did not wish to be left too far behind the rapidly disappearing transport group.
During the confusion of this hurried move a small incident occurred that was later to assume a greater significance than it would normally deserve. When the shelling first commenced, Sidey, who was some distance away from the battery-charging truck, jumped into a DR truck standing nearby and drove quickly over to the charging equipment to oversee its loading. The completion of the loading was the signal for K Section's vehicles to move off after the B Echelon transport. Sidey's own truck was standing close by and he told its driver to move with the rest, but the driver, apparently misunderstanding the order, page 240 drove off in the opposite direction and returned to the Brigade Headquarters' area. Sidey did not discover his truck was missing until the transport had reassembled at Point 197, but by then it was too late to do anything about it. In the back of that truck were two fully charged wireless batteries. Later in the day wireless communication to 21 Battalion at Bir Khalda and the B Echelon transport group south-east of 4 Brigade might have been more successfully sustained by the use of these fresh, fully charged batteries, but their presence was quite unsuspected by all at Brigade Headquarters except the driver of the truck, who had no inkling of their importance at that time.
About midday Dasler called the reconnaissance set from Brigade Headquarters and asked Sidey to send him a set of charged batteries. A curious thing then occurred. Sidey, instead of complying at once, as he was able to do, for some of the batteries had reached full charge, suggested that if Dasler would ‘leave it for another hour or so’ the rest of the batteries would be charged and he could then send them also. To this suggestion Dasler agreed! Perhaps he was misled by the smoothness of his wireless communications at that time, for all out-stations, including that with 21 Battalion at Bir Khalda some miles to the south, were maintaining communication with the control set at Brigade Headquarters at good signal strengths; but whatever the reason, by acquiescing in Sidey's suggestion he had unwittingly relinquished his last opportunity to replenish his failing battery power.
Early in the battle the enemy appeared to the north, which was the only direction from which the Division's positions enjoyed no protection whatever, and with little or nothing to impede his advance to the east, steadily enveloped the Minqar Qaim defences. Moreover, the powers of infiltration which his tanks and armoured cars gave enabled him to interpose between widely dispersed groups and dislocate even local supply lines. This is precisely what happened to 5 Brigade and its B Echelon transport.
Some time after Dasler's first request for batteries, Sidey was just about to remove the last of them from the charging bank and send them all off to Headquarters 5 Brigade, when enemy tanks appeared from the north-east. Fifth Brigade's B Echelon page 241 transport was almost in the direct line of advance of these tanks, which were approaching towards the eastern flank of 4 Brigade. Before the advance could be halted by 4 Field Regiment's guns, fire from the tanks began to fall among 5 Brigade's vehicles. The drivers appear to have been taken by surprise by the appearance of this new threat, and it is feared that the transport group's hasty movement towards the south to safety was spontaneous rather than orderly. Nine miles were covered before the leaders could be stopped and the vehicles regrouped. Now Dasler might whistle for his batteries in vain. Some hours earlier he could have had all the batteries he wanted.
Meanwhile, at Headquarters 5 Brigade, the effect of these dire events began to emerge, firstly in the Brigadier's inability to recover his troop-carrying transport, now prevented from returning to the area by the intervening enemy armour, and secondly in the failing strength of his wireless communications to his battalions, caused by the almost exhausted batteries and the capricious but well-known behaviour of wireless transmissions during the late afternoon and early evening.
The Brigadier's concern for communications to 22 and 23 Battalions was not great, however, because the lines to these units were in fair order; but 21 Battalion's position was not known, and its only means of communication with Brigade Headquarters was by wireless. The Brigadier did not require communication with the battalion until mid-afternoon when, at 3 p.m., the Brigade Major (Major Fairbrother9) spoke to Lieutenant-Colonel Allen by RT at good signal strength. But a little later, when Brigade tried to raise both 21 Battalion and B Echelon to instruct them to return to the brigade area by the most direct route, neither could be heard.
The need for wireless communication, even if it could be maintained for only a few minutes, was now urgent. Throughout the day enemy columns had been bypassing the Division's positions to the north and had attacked both 4 Brigade and the Reserve Group with tanks and infantry, and it was now obvious that the Division would have to retire before the enemy page 242 concentrations to the east became too strong. The original orders to the Division contained no ‘last man, last round’ injunction, but stressed only the need for a strong delaying action. This had been accomplished and plans were now being prepared for the Division to break out at nightfall to the east before a too formidable enemy force was able to build up in the wadi south of Bir Abu Batta, which lay east of the Khalda track and on the route by which the Division would have to escape if it was not to be entirely surrounded and captured.
About 7 p.m. Sidey managed to re-establish communication with Brigade Headquarters. The Brigade Major instructed the Staff Captain to bring the transport to the brigade area by the most direct route, but before the column could move a party from 21 Battalion appeared on the scene with the information that the route was closed by the enemy. The transport was now about 10 miles to the south-east of its former position at Point 197, from which it had fled on the approach of the enemy armour earlier in the afternoon, and over 16 miles in a direct line from Brigade Headquarters. It is not surprising, therefore, that Sidey's attempts to restore communication achieved such little success.
The wireless set No. 11 has a limited radio-telephony range, even when it is in first-class order and its batteries are fully charged. Its performance is affected to a marked degree by its unsuitable frequency range—4.2 to 7.5 megacycles—which is good for telegraphy during daylight but almost unusable for telephony during darkness, except at very short ranges. For telegraphy, too, the range is shortened considerably during darkness, being usually quite unusable between five and about 100 miles; beyond 100 miles, however, the sky wave puts down a strong stable signal.
During the transition periods between daylight and darkness, at dusk and dawn, signal strengths vary considerably, especially at the frequencies covered by the No. 11 set range. This is a physical phenomenon which can be compensated for only by knowledgeable selection of frequencies—known in wave propagation parlance as MUF (maximum usable frequency)—or by the erection of elaborate aerial arrays. Neither of these methods was available in the Western Desert in 1942; because of tactical page 243 reasons and the rapid movement of formations, the choice of aerials was restricted to simple vertical rod radiators, grossly inefficient devices except when extended to an effective height of a quarter of a wave-length, and to half-wave horizontal aerials suspended on light poles capable of being rapidly erected and dismantled. Moreover, the compromise device incorporated in the end circuit of the No. 11 wireless set to extend electrically the effective height of the vertical rod aerial, which is the set's normal equipment, by means of inductive loading, offsets to a large extent any advantage that would otherwise be gained by the use of a half-wave horizontal aerial.
The excellent maximum usable frequency data then being produced by the so-called ‘back-room boys’ in the United Kingdom and the United States10 had not reached the Division in 1942, and it is extremely doubtful whether anyone in Signals had even heard of it; but even if they had, the extremely limited allocation of frequencies allotted by higher formations by means of the block system would not have allowed any intelligent selection of maximum usable frequencies for more than one or, at the most, two wireless circuits in the whole of the Division.
During the night the transport column, moving in a north- westerly direction in a last attempt to regain the divisional area, encountered British armoured cars, at the first sight of which a part of the column turned and fled eastwards again. Sidey seized the opportunity to borrow an armoured car's wireless set No. 19 and make another attempt to re-establish communication with Headquarters 5 Brigade, but his efforts were of no avail.
Meanwhile, at Brigade Headquarters, the Brigadier and the Brigade Major were in an agony of impatience and anxiety because of their inability to make wireless contact with either 21 Battalion or the missing transport column. Although a brief restoration of the link to B Echelon earlier in the evening had enabled the Brigade Major to send a message instructing them page 244 to return to the brigade area at once, they had not put in an appearance. The Brigadier had sent out two liaison officers to take a message to the column, but they had been unable to get through because of the artillery and tank battle then being fought just to the south of the Divisional Reserve Group.
In accordance with the Division's plan for withdrawal to the east that night, 5 Brigade was to begin moving back from Minqar Qaim to the forming-up position near Divisional Headquarters at 9 p.m., but the Brigadier, bereft of his troop-carrying transport, appeared to be faced with the almost impossible task of moving his brigade on foot. Divisional Headquarters, however, was well aware of these difficulties, and hasty plans were made to carry the 5 Brigade units on as many of its vehicles as could take extra loads.
In due course the brigade reached the forming-up position. While the Brigadier and the Brigade Major were bustling about fitting their men here and there on this and that vehicle, Dasler came hurrying up and announced that communication had again been established with B Echelon. The Brigade Major hurried off to the set, which was again fitted into its vehicle, and leaning over the tailboard, took the microphone and put the headphones to his ears. Very faintly, but quite readable through the incessant hiss of atmospheric noise, the B Echelon operator's voice sounded as if from an immense distance. By this time Brigadier Kippenberger, summoned by Dasler, had come up and was standing nearby. There was now no time to bring the transport in, as the long line of vehicles in the divisional column, standing silently in the darkness under the midnight sky, was expected to move off at any minute. Major Fairbrother put the microphone down for a moment, turned to the Brigadier and said: ‘We haven't time to put this into RT code, sir. I'm going to let it go in clear.’ Then, as the Brigadier nodded agreement, he spoke into the microphone, enunciating his words carefully and distinctly: ‘Go east to Amiriya.’ He repeated this message several times and then, out of the vast remoteness of the night, a small faint voice acknowledged the message. Fairbrother put the microphone down, removed the headphones and moved away. A little later —a matter of minutes—B Echelon called again and sent an page 245 authentication challenge signal. While Dasler hunted quickly through the papers on the operator's bench for the answer of the day to the challenge, a message was sent saying: ‘Monty says so.’ A few minutes later communication failed again, and was not restored that night.
When the first message, ‘Go east to Amiriya’, was received at the B Echelon set, Sidey was unhappy about it. Firstly, it did not fit in with his expectations of the Division's movements. He knew that the Staff Captain was still searching his mind desperately for a plan that would take the transport back to the brigade area. Secondly, even although the Staff Captain, who was listening on the set at the time, said afterwards that he had recognised Fairbrother's voice, the message itself seemed to Sidey to be suspect, lacking as it did the usual security precautions imposed in the use of RT. Moreover, the incident took his thoughts instantly to a signals instruction he had seen only a few days before which said—he remembered the words clearly:
One method of deception much used by the Germans in the present operations has been the sending of false messages in English on our wavelengths. Signals should be on their guard against this.11
He therefore instructed the operator to send the authentication challenge signal of the day. But, instead of receiving in return the correct answering procedure, which would have established the identity of the distant station beyond doubt, a voice said: ‘Monty says so.’ Very soon afterwards communication failed again, so Sidey passed the message to the Staff Captain and added, as he was bound to do, that he could not guarantee its supposed origin because of lack of identification of the transmitting station. Sidey's idea, which was not so fantastic as some accounts of the incident tend to make it appear, was that the enemy, who might well have been aware of 5 Brigade's predicament, was seeking by a subterfuge to send the transport still farther east and so immobilise the brigade.
There was a conference on the spot between Captain Dugleby, page 246 Major Good12 (OC 6 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company), Major Lincoln13 (OC 7 Field Company), the brigade transport officer, and Sidey. Finally, a decision was made to ignore the message and remain in bivouac for the night.
Thus ended the day of battle for 5 Brigade, a day of much perplexity and anxiety, most of which had been brought about by the separation from the brigade of two of its major components and the uncertainty of communications between these two groups and Brigade Headquarters. The day ended, too, with the Division almost completely encircled by the enemy who, however, had not pressed his assaults with any determination. No direct attack had been made on 5 Brigade, but its gun positions had come under very heavy counter-battery fire throughout the day. Brigade Headquarters' area had also come in for its share of shelling, but casualties had been very light. In K Section there had been only one, Signalman McEwan,14 a despatch rider, who had been killed instantly by a shell which had fallen close to the signal office shelter.
At the eastern end of the divisional area, where 4 Brigade was deployed along the escarpment to the east of the Khalda track, several fierce armoured and infantry attacks were successfully beaten off during the day. In the late afternoon 28 (Maori) Battalion broke up the last attempt of the day to penetrate the brigade's defences, and soon afterwards tanks of 1 Armoured Division appeared from the south-west and took up a position on the escarpment overlooking the divisional area.
Fourth Brigade's positions were under heavy artillery fire for most of the day, but little trouble was experienced in keeping line communications intact. J Section, however, sustained heavy casualties, three men being killed and four wounded, two of them seriously. The first to fall was a lineman, Signalman Sarjeant, who was repairing a line termination at the signal page 247 office. At 5.35 p.m. Sarjeant, standing only a few feet behind the exchange operator, was killed instantly by a shell which burst close by. The exchange operator escaped unhurt, but there was considerable havoc in the signal office shelter.
Only a few minutes later Sergeant Ratcliffe15—like Sarjeant, one of J Section's original stalwarts—was severely wounded by a shell splinter while working in the open with some of his men repairing line faults in the headquarters' area. As he fell Ratcliffe called out to his companions: ‘Take cover, you chaps. I've got mine.’ He had indeed—dreadful multiple wounds from which his life ebbed away later that night in an RAP, where Signalman Provan had taken him in a DR truck. Ratcliffe, a pugnacious little man, had been a persistent rebel against authority but, for all that, was a likeable fellow and a good soldier. Several times that day more than one J Section man had watched his recklessness as he moved about in his jaunty manner in the open, and had said: ‘Shorty's asking for it today!’ But most linemen were like that, and Ratcliffe was merely typical of the breed of men like McIvor, Pemberton, Hanrahan, ‘Hippo’ Smith, and perhaps a dozen others in the unit who faced the daily hazards of their tasks with an unconscious devotion to duty, call it what they might in their own rough way.
For some time after Ratcliffe was taken away there was a brief lull in J Section's misfortunes. Many of the men were still busy at work repairing the damage to the signal office. By this time the shelling had died away into a desultory fire, which dropped odd shells and occasional salvos around the area. Preparations were now being made for the move to the forming-up positions for the attack planned to break open an escape route through the enemy who surrounded the Division.
Some vehicles had already been marshalled in readiness to move off from the brigade area and it was in one of these, J Section's 3-ton signal office lorry, that Provan came upon Signalman Hodge16 sitting alone in the dusk. Provan asked why he was sitting up there, a target for a stray shell. Hodge said that he had been instructed to wait in the truck, of which he page 248 was the regular driver, until the headquarters moved off. ‘But,’ Provan expostulated, ‘why do you have to sit up there like a silly bloody hen on a roost when you could wait just as well in a slit trench?’ Ken Hodge was a quiet-mannered fellow, but he had a streak of obstinacy in his nature. He had been told to wait in the truck, and wait in the truck he would, come what might. So Andy Provan climbed up beside him and said: ‘Now, look here, Ken…’ or words to that effect. Suddenly Signalman Irvine17 appeared. He looked up at the two and started the argument all over again. ‘What the hell are you two sitting up there for?’ he asked. Provan explained, so Irvine climbed up to try his way with Hodge. Provan had just turned aside to fill his pipe when the shell struck, detonating against the frame of the canopy and spraying the truck like an airburst. Hodge got the worst of it and died from loss of blood that night beside Ratcliffe in the RAP. Provan and Irvine were there too, bleeding from a dozen wounds.
In the Divisional Headquarters' area the day had started with the sound of distant gunfire soon after first light, but it was not until some hours later, about 8.30 a.m., that shells first began to fall in the area between Divisional Headquarters and 5 Brigade. The shelling gradually increased in intensity until at eleven o'clock the enemy was putting down a heavy fire. Lines to 4 and 5 Brigades and to the Divisional Reserve Group nearby suffered the usual damage which shell and mortar fire inflicts on ground cable, but there were no serious interruptions to communications, although wireless was frequently brought into use while breaks in lines were being repaired. With two exceptions, the usual communications were provided: line and wireless to both brigades and line to the Divisional Reserve Group, although there, too, an A Section wireless detachment stood by to take up its task should the group, by a sudden move or other contingency, become separated from Divisional Headquarters. Of the two exceptions to the normal scale of communications centred at Main Divisional Headquarters, one was the omission of a line circuit to Rear Division, which was page 249 located about 17 miles to the east of Minqar Qaim, but wireless was provided by means of a No. 11 set at Rear Headquarters working to the C control set at Main Headquarters. The other exception was the lack of line communication to 13 Corps, but in this case, too, wireless was used instead.
An additional feature of the Division's communications, which has been discussed earlier in this chapter, was the provision for the first time in battle of direct line communications between Headquarters Divisional Artillery and the field regiments. The CRA, under whom the GOC had for the first time agreed to place the whole of the Divisional Artillery, was anxious for the success of the new arrangement and encouraged with a few gruff words the scratch team from D (operating) Section under the command of Lance-Corporal Parker.18
The little detachment soon settled down in its new surroundings and after a time began to invent nicknames for those about them. Their former fellow workers of D Section became ‘those people who run the board at Main’, which wasn't a nickname but which had much the same effect with a slightly depreciatory sense. The CRA became ‘Steve’ to them in their private moments, which wasn't a nickname either but a mark of respect and affection disguised as an unpardonable liberty. The Brigade Major, Major Hanna, became, quite undeservedly, ‘Priority Bill’.
The success of the CRA's own line communications in their first trial in battle was neither spectacularly brilliant nor depressingly dull. Perhaps it can best be described in Brigadier Weir's own words:
…. 5 and 6 Field Regiments were connected to HQ NZA by line and radio right throughout the battle and the fire of these two regiments was, in a crude way, directed on occasions from HQ NZA. 4 Field Regiment was not connected by line but we were in touch by radio from time to time. 4 Field Regiment were so far away that they virtually fought under command of 4 Infantry Brigade. However, in so far as an actual battle was concerned Minqar Qaim was the first operation in which HQ NZA and its communications functioned under centralized control and was the forerunner of the very highly efficient organization which we built up at El Alamein.page 250
During the morning no direct attack threatened the Divisional Headquarters' area or that of the Divisional Reserve Group, but the enemy's shellfire, which had steadily increased in intensity, reached its peak about 11 a.m., and it was then that the first serious casualties occurred. Dispersion of vehicles and offices, generally, was good and this afforded considerable immunity from the heavy fire. Suddenly, however, a salvo of several shells crashed down close to the G office truck and the wireless remote-control annexe which, because of the hardness of the rocky ground, had not been sunk deep enough to afford more than the barest protection from splinters and blast. Its sides had been built up with sandbags, but both ends were open and it was through one of these that a hail of splinters passed, killing Signalman McKenzie19 and Lance-Corporal Matthews20 instantly, and wounding two others.
Soon after midday the enemy mounted his first armoured attack, but his tanks and some lorried infantry deployed on their left were halted by the guns of 4 Field Regiment. About three hours later another attack came in from the north-east against 4 Brigade, but the twenty tanks and about 200 troop-carrying vehicles were again driven off, this time from close range, to which the enemy was allowed to approach before the field and anti-tank guns opened up. While this attack was in progress another enemy column approached from the east and, passing to the south of 4 Brigade's defences, scattered the B Echelons of both 4 and 5 Brigades in confusion. This column continued in a general westerly direction and then approached the Divisional Reserve Group's positions from the south. By this time the attack on 4 Brigade from the north-east had been driven off, but shells now began to fall in the divisional area from the south. A number of Divisional Headquarters' and Reserve Group vehicles were caught between the attackers' and defenders' fire; it was in one of these, a D Section 3-ton lorry which was damaged slightly, that Signalman McGregor21 was killed by a shell.page 251
By about 6 p.m. the enemy's fire had slackened considerably and there were no more direct attacks on the Division's positions.
Preparations for the night move to break out to the east through the enemy concentrations grouped in and around a deep re-entrant just to the east of 4 Brigade's positions were now well under way. About 9 p.m. transport started to move into the marshalling area near Divisional Headquarters, and by midnight the columns were formed up ready to move; but because of the late arrival of one of the battalions at the start line for 4 Brigade's attack, it was about 1.30 a.m. before these columns started to advance.
Led by 19 Battalion, the infantry of 4 Brigade moved off silently in the moonlight with fixed bayonets and advanced towards the narrow neck of high ground which separated the two large re-entrants immediately to the south of Bir Abu Batta. The object of the attack was to clear the enemy from this neck so that the divisional transport could pass through and break out eastwards to safety, but because of the delay at the start line Brigadier Inglis, who had taken command of the Division when Major-General Freyberg had been wounded earlier in the day, decided to move around to the south of the attack and then turn east. First light would soon be upon them, and he planned to be well clear of the area by dawn and to have the Division on its way to the Alamein defences as quickly as possible.
As the divisional convoy moved off with its vehicles five to eight abreast and turned right to pass around to the south of Abu Batta, fierce fighting broke out to the east, where 4 Brigade had run into increasingly heavy fire after advancing about 1000 yards without opposition. At first the enemy's fire had been light, but it had quickly increased in weight as the New Zealanders bore down on him out of the night. Suddenly, as they approached close to his laager, they broke into a run and, yelling war cries, were quickly in among the startled Germans who, taken utterly by surprise, began an erratic and poorly directed fire from all sides of the encampment. Many tried desperately to escape in the darkness, while others, roused from their sleep by the clamour, were struck down as they climbed page 252 from their slit trenches to seize their arms. The New Zealand infantry swept through the laager and mopped up everything they encountered; soon they were on the eastern side of the re-entrant, where they reformed. The success signal was then fired to bring the transport up, and a little later the brigade was embussed and on its way eastwards along the planned line of withdrawal.
While this grim struggle raged in the re-entrant, where the fitful moonlight glinted on the steel of the few unstained bayonets among the many now clouded darkly with Aryan blood, and the cough of grenades punctuated the shrill whining of gears as trucks filled with panic-stricken Germans tried desperately to escape into the open, the divisional column, moving in close night formation, was still passing the wheeling point and following its leaders south. When the leading vehicles had gone about a mile and a half they came to a sudden halt as green flares soared into the sky immediately ahead of them. Naturally there was no reply to this challenge, nor was there time to give any orders to deal with this new threat lying across their path, for after a very short pause the Germans quickly opened fire. When the foremost vehicles halted, those in the rear closed up so that the column offered a highly vulnerable target to the fire which, judged from the amount of tracer from machine-guns and tank and anti-tank guns, came from a considerable enemy force. Very soon a number of vehicles were burning fiercely; their flames illuminated the scene and showed the German gunners the closely massed transport which had come surging down upon them. For a time there was confusion; some casualties occurred, and more vehicles were set alight by the now heavy enemy fire. But presently the head of the column was moving again and turning left, guided by the intrepid Lieutenant-Colonel Gray (18 Battalion), who could be seen by those nearest the head of the column standing up through the roof hatch of his staff car with his arm stretched out towards the east. Farther back, where others had not seen their leaders turn left, some vehicles wheeled right to get out of the line of fire, and others, still farther back, turned about and retraced their way northwards.
The leading group of the column was racing eastwards at page 253 high speed across very rough ground, but it had now emerged from the dreadful maelstrom of fire, and after a few miles it halted for a brief spell before continuing on towards Alamein. In this group were the vehicles of Divisional Signals. There was no opportunity at this stage to assess the losses in men and transport that might have occurred in the mêlée. These losses, as it turned out, were inconsiderable, but the adventures which befell some of the unit's men served for many a long day as lively topics of reminiscence.
The capture of the unit office truck was Signals' most serious loss; with it went the Adjutant (Captain Ayto22), the RSM (WO I ‘Red’ Murphy23), the orderly-room sergeant (Sergeant Thompson24), and three signalmen, of whom Walker,25 the driver of the vehicle, died of wounds in a German casualty clearing station somewhere near Sidi Barrani two or three days later. Several infantrymen of 5 Brigade, who had been placed hurriedly on the vehicle just before the column moved off, also went with Ayto and his men into captivity.
During the general confusion when the column encountered the main opposition, the office truck became jammed between two disabled vehicles, and Signalman Walker commenced backing and filling in an attempt to get it clear quickly. One or two other vehicles nearby, one of them an ambulance, had caught fire and were burning fiercely. While Walker was extricating his truck, Ayto and the others alighted and tried to rescue the wounded from the burning ambulance, but the fierce flames drove them back. They managed to pull clear another ambulance that had caught alight, and quickly beat out the flames.
By this time Walker had got his vehicle clear of its obstructions, and Ayto and the rest climbed aboard again. But the main column had disappeared and there were no other vehicles in sight, except those burning all over the area and lighting page 254 up the scene with their dancing flames. Ayto spoke sharply to Walker, telling him to get moving quickly, but there was no reply; Walker was slumped down under his wheel with a wound in his head. Ayto jumped out quickly and called for assistance to get him out of the cab. The vehicle was a 3-ton Ford lorry in which a raised steel engine hood occupied the centre of the cab, and Walker's body had fallen under the steering column and between the engine hood and the cab door. Several minutes passed before they got him out, and their chances of escape were diminishing quickly. They laid him on the ground and tried to revive him.
Just then a medical orderly approached and asked if some of Ayto's party could assist him with a number of other wounded who were lying about in the area. The last opportunity to escape had now passed, as enemy troops were closing in on the scene, so some of Ayto's men went off with the orderly. Sergeant Thompson and Signalman Stigley26 set about destroying all the security documents and unit records which the truck contained, while Ayto and Murphy, with Lieutenant Alpe,27 of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, who had just appeared on the scene, looked around for anything else they could disable before the Germans appeared. Murphy removed the breech block of a 25-pounder field gun and buried it, while Ayto and Alpe disabled the elevating gear of a Bofors anti-aircraft gun.
They then returned to the office truck, where they met Thompson with the last of the papers in his hand and just about to cast them on to the flames of a burning truck where he had destroyed all the others. Suddenly a German voice called out for them to put their hands up, but as the party walked towards their captors, Thompson managed to fling his last handful of papers on the fire.
Ayto and Alpe were immediately segregated from the men and, after a while, taken to the headquarters of a panzer division and placed under guard. About daylight the men were brought in in vehicles, among which was Signals' office truck, from which the men managed to acquire, unseen by their guards, page 255 a blanket and some other articles of kit. They were all herded together on the side of a small hill, and some were interrogated by the Germans. Meanwhile WO I Murphy moved among the rest and cautioned them in a low voice that they were to give no information except their names, ranks and regimental numbers. Soon afterwards Ayto was permitted to rejoin his men. His description of the treatment meted out to them is recounted in his own words:
About 9 a.m. the group comprised approximately eighty New Zealanders, two British officers from an armoured unit and a Canadian air force pilot. At this point the Commandant of the Panzer Division came forward with his Intelligence Officer as interpreter and then the New Zealanders were instructed to leave all their kit on the side of the hill and form up in three ranks. The Divisional Commander then said: ‘Tonight you New Zealanders fought us and didn't fight fair. You shot prisoners and bayoneted wounded and now we will show you that we can be just as hard as you.’ We were then searched one by one and had everything, even handkerchiefs, taken from us except the clothes we were wearing. We were then formed up in another position and some of the German NCOs fitted the butts to their machine-guns. It looked as though we were to be shot. One of the British officers, who was not concerned in this, went up to the Divisional Commander and spoke to him in German. I was able to ask him later what he said and he said that he told the German commander that he thought it would be a mistake to start shooting prisoners as from then on there would be no prisoners taken by either side. He was roundly told off for his interference. Whether this had any effect, or whether the whole thing was designed to frighten us I don't know, but we were told we would be left standing in three ranks all day as a punishment. At this stage four or five men were taken away to bury the dead at the point where the breakthrough had taken place the night before. Signalman McMillan was one of this party. When he returned the remainder had gone and he remained with the Panzer Division HQ and travelled with them when they advanced next day, coming under shell fire at Fuka from our own side. Next day he was taken back and met up with the rest of the orderly room staff in the cage at Tobruk.
The main group was left standing in the sun, the only relief occurring when a party was required to bury some of the dead and the wounded who had died on the spot. These tasks were page 256 given to those most affected by standing in the sun and in most need of relief. A little after midday the German supply column arrived. We were lucky in that the opportunity had to be taken to send us back and so we were spared the rest of the day standing in the sun. We were not allowed to take anything with us except our paybooks—not even water.
Ayto and his crew, although their misfortunes led them into a long and miserable captivity, were not the only ones in Signals to brush against the fringes of disaster during that night's frantic gallop through the enemy positions. In another part of the column Second-Lieutenant Collett,28 second-in-command of A (wireless) Section, rode a motor-cycle just behind Major Grant's staff car when the convoy moved off. In the midst of the enemy's heavy fire Collett, who was straining his eyes ahead for obstacles which would bring him down but over which heavier mounts might ride roughshod, suddenly felt some missile strike the rear part of his cycle, which immediately began to lose speed as the engine spluttered fitfully. He remained in the saddle, hoping that the engine might pick up again before his cycle, now yawing wildly from side to side, came to a stop. Suddenly, from out of the flame-shot gloom, a heavy truck bounded towards him, and before he could do anything to avoid a collision, it swept right over him and his cycle. Though dazed, Collett was quite unhurt, and for the next few minutes or so skipped nimbly from side to side to avoid being run down by the thick stream of transport which raced past.
After a time the vehicles began to thin out, and presently only one truck passed him every two or three minutes. He now began to feel lonely, and his fears of capture mounted rapidly. Then a 3-ton lorry filled with infantry appeared out of the night; it slowed down as it passed him, and he leapt on to the near running-board and clung desperately to the side of the cab. The enemy fire was still fairly heavy and coming from the right of the truck's course; from his precarious foothold on the cab step Collett watched in fascinated silence as the driver slammed on his brakes every now and then and brought the page 257 heavy vehicle to a grinding halt just as a stream of glowing tracer missiles flashed past a few inches in front of the windscreen. There was no lack of encouragement from the soldiers in the back of the lorry for this driver, who had reduced his split-second timing to a fine art. Soon, when the lorry had gained the safety of the silent desert beyond, it stopped, and Collett was able to leave his insecure foothold and climb inside.
Signals' adventures in that night of breath-taking incidents end with an account of Major Grant's escape with his driver and batman from his burning staff car, which was struck twice by enemy shells within a few minutes. The first, apparently an anti-tank shell, hit the rear of the car, exploded, and blew in the rear locker. Grant and the two signalmen scrambled out quickly, expecting the car to burst into flames at any moment. Nothing happened, but another shell struck a nearby gun quad, which immediately burst into flames and quickly incinerated its occupants. Grant and his companions could do nothing to help because of the intense heat, so they got back into their car and tried the engine which, to their surprise, started immediately. No sooner were they under way again than a second shell struck the car with a shattering explosion and the vehicle appeared to be enveloped in flames. Grant jumped clear through the roof hatch, while Signalmen Clooney29 and Green30 managed to get out through the doors.
The area was now brightly lit by the flames from their car and from several other vehicles burning close by. A machine gun started up from the darkness beyond the dancing flames, and a soldier who had joined them from somewhere just as they escaped from the car was wounded twice. Clooney was hit by a splinter from a shell or mortar bomb which burst nearby. They moved quickly out of the brightly lit area, and Grant set a course by compass to the east. Through his binoculars he could see a group of tanks some distance away, so they made as little noise as possible and worked their way cautiously page 258 along a low ridge, dodging from side to side of the crest whenever anything suspicious loomed ahead.
When they had progressed in this way for about half an hour, they heard another group of vehicles running the gauntlet of fire behind them. Guns crashed heavily again amid the crackle of small-arms fire, and one or two vehicles went up in flames, but soon the little party heard the column moving along the desert about 400 yards from their low ridge. Two of them ran as quickly as they could towards the transport and managed to intercept the last vehicle in the column. A challenge rang out and the hearts of Major Grant and his companions seemed to rise into their mouths in the sickening fear that, having eluded the enemy successfully, they were now to be shot down by friends. Grant called out quickly: ‘What about a lift?’ and the reply came back: ‘O.K. Come aboard.’ As he and his men climbed into the lorry, they were met by the congratulations of 19 Battalion men, who said that he and his party had appeared out of the night so quickly that they were thought at first to be German motor-cyclists.
3 Maj-Gen C. E. Weir, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939–Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941-Jun 1944; commanded 2 NZ Div 4 Sep-17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944-Sep 1946; Commandant, Southern Military District, 1948-49; QMG Army HQ Nov 1951-.
6 Lt-Col G. P. Hanna, OBE, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 21 Apr 1916; solicitor; BM 2 NZ Div Arty May-Nov 1942; GSO 2 2 NZ Div Nov 1943-Jun 1944, Oct 1944-Feb 1945; GSO I (Ops) NZ Corps 9 Feb-27 Mar 1944; CO 5 Fd Regt May-Sep 1945.
8 Maj T. K. S. Sidey, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 8 Oct 1908; barrister and solicitor; OC G Sec Sigs Aug 1942-Mar 1943, R Sec Jun-Jul 1943, L Sec Aug 1943-Apr 1944, 3 Coy Sep-Oct 1944, 2 Coy Oct 1944-Feb 1945.
9 Col M. C. Fairbrother, DSO, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde 1942-43; commanded in turn 21, 23 and 28 (Maori) Bns, Apr-Dec 1943; CO 26 Bn Oct 1944-Sep 1945; Associate Editor, NZ War Histories.
10 Interservice Radio Propagation Laboratory of the Joint Communications Board in collaboration with the Interservices Ionosphere Bureau and the National Physical Laboratory in the United Kingdom; the Australian Radio Propagation Committee; and the Carnegie Institution and National Bureau of Standards in the United States of America.
11 The italics are the author's; they emphasize that there was a good reason for Sidey's suspicions.
13 Lt-Col L. A. Lincoln, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 14 Sep 1902; civil engineer; OC 18 Army Tps Coy 1940-42; 7 Fd Coy Jan-Sep 1942; DCRE No. 8 Works RE Sep 1942-Aug 1943; CRE No. 56 Works RE Aug 1943- Nov 1944.
28 Maj D. K. Collett; Christchurch; born Gore, 30 Jan 1913; radio design engineer; wounded 27 Jun 1942; Signals Research and Development Establishment, UK, 1944; Radio Production Unit, Woolwich, 1945-46.