CHAPTER 14 — The Alamein Offensive
The Alamein Offensive
ON 10 September 2 New Zealand Division was relieved in the central sector of the Alamein Line by 44 (Home Counties) Division and a Greek brigade and was withdrawn to a rest area near Burg el Arab. As many officers and men as possible were given four days' leave. Those who remained in the rest area, which lay among the silver sand dunes on the coastal side of the main road, spent the four days in a sort of ‘easy duty’ routine, waking when they pleased, playing cards, mending and washing clothes, and drinking beer brought to them from Alexandria and Cairo in great white wooden cases, each containing four dozen bottles. At night they rigged their bivouac tents in the lee of the dunes to take shelter from the keen night sea breezes, because the summer was waning now and the sun had lost its fierce noonday heat which once baked the hard earth like a hot brick. Some of the men, more hardy than their fellows, disdained overhead shelter and slept in the open on the crests of the dunes, from which, when they awakened in the mornings, they raced nimbly down to the wide sandy beach and plunged into the warm sea. By some mysterious and unspoken accord between cooks and men, punctuality at mess became a matter of individual inclination.
In the Divisional Signals' area decimated signal office detachments operated skeleton signal services that served to keep Divisional Headquarters and the various groups in touch with one another for administrative purposes and to preserve communications in operation against a sudden emergency.
On 19 September the structure of the Division underwent a major change when it was reorganised on the new model of two infantry brigades and one armoured brigade. In the absence of 4 Brigade, which was then at Maadi and about to be converted into an armoured formation, the armour was represented by 9 Armoured Brigade, which consisted of three British regiments (3 Hussars, Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, and Warwickshire Yeomanry), each of them newly equipped with American Sherman and Grant tanks armed with 75-millimetre cannon and secondary armaments.
Very soon preparations were in hand for a full-scale divisional exercise, which was planned to be carried out under conditions and on terrain as similar as possible to the Miteiriya Ridge sector, in the northern portion of the Alamein Line, where the Division was to launch itself against the German and Italian defences one month later.
In Divisional Signals these preparations included a thorough examination and assimilation of the lessons brought into sharp relief by the failures which had marked operations like the Ruweisat and El Mreir battles of July. This was a responsibility which fell upon Lieutenant-Colonel Grant, who assumed command of the unit from Lieutenant-Colonel Agar on 22 September. Agar had at last succumbed to the effects of fatigue and overwork which had assailed him for two extremely trying Egyptian summer months and had been evacuated with jaundice to 1 NZ General Hospital at Helwan.
The lessons were easy enough to interpret, but much more difficult to assimilate. Most of them had to do with almost the entire class of equipment the unit used at that time: its limitations, particularly those of the useful range of operation of the No. 11 and No. 18 wireless sets; the comparative durability and speech-level ranges of British D Mark III and D Mark page 307 VIII and American E Class field cable; the incomparable superiority of the American 12-line BD 72 switchboard over the British 10-line universal-call unit; and the still unsolved problem of the high mortality rate in battery-charging engines, both 300-watt and 1260-watt, under tropical conditions.
Battery-charging sets—represented in the 1260-watt class by a wide variety of makes—were in such extremely short supply in the Middle East in 1942 that brigade and field regiment signal sections had less than 30 per cent of their normal field scales. Moreover, those sets they did have were in such a precarious state of mechanical disrepair that each had to be continuously nursed along with reduced charging loads to stave off as long as possible the inevitable breakdown and consequent interruption to wireless services. So serious was this situation that on one occasion during the operations in July and August Lieutenant-Colonel Agar averred that one serviceable 1260-watt charging set might be reckoned as worth ten wireless sets. Many of the sets' mechanical defects were inherent in their designs; for example, couplings between engines and generators on the 550-watt Jap sets were insufficiently robust and broke down frequently. No internal-combustion engine will continue to run efficiently under desert conditions unless it is fitted with an air filter at the intake duct; none, or very few, of those in use in the Division at that time had air filters. The sets' cooling systems suffered, too, from the necessity of operating the engines in pits and slit trenches to protect them from damage from flying shell and bomb splinters.
The arrangement of sets and office tables in the ACVs varied in the three headquarters, but in that at Main Divisional Headquarters the forward command radio-telephony control set was located near the front of the vehicle and the radio-telephony link set to Corps Headquarters was at the rear. Along the sides of the vehicle were fixed large expanses of talc or celluloid-covered maps, and on these British and enemy dispositions were shown in different colours. About midway along the interior were placed the tables at which the G 1 and G 2 staff officers worked. The GOC was rarely in the ACV, of which the GSO 1 was the ‘master’. Later, when caravan-office lorries of the unarmoured-command-vehicle type were introduced for the use of senior staff officers, the GSO 2 became the acknowledged master of the ACV.
Another valuable addition to the unit's transport was a fleet of six new 10-cwt four-wheel-drive wireless vans, obtained from the CSO 10 Corps by Lieutenant-Colonel Grant by the same ‘highly mobile’ argument which had secured the ACVs. They replaced the old-style ‘bread-van’ 15-cwt two-wheel-drive trucks which had proved to be almost undesertworthy in the soft-sand stretches of the central sector of the line because of their habit of embedding themselves to the axles in soft patches and resisting all efforts at extrication. These new vans, besides their four-wheel drive, had sufficiently powerful engines to provide adequate traction in soft going, and were sleek and trim looking, with sufficient interior headroom for two operators to work comfortably. Their suspension springing was sufficiently resilient to permit operators to write in reasonably legible hands while they were moving at a fairly smart pace. Altogether, they were a considerable improvement on the clumsy, lumbering ‘bread-vans’ and the cramped 8-cwt ‘pick-ups’ with which both operators and the staff had borne so long and patiently.
Full-scale divisional and brigade exercises commenced on page 310 26 September and continued into the opening days of October. Bad going was deliberately chosen for these exercises, and it was really difficult. It tested the new transport seriously, but demonstrated that Signals could keep up, and that wherever mobile headquarters could go there also would be their wireless communications.
On 14 October the Division moved off from its training area near Wadi Natrun and staged at Imayid. There were now only nine days to go before the Great Encounter, and preparations began immediately for the movement of formations and units forward to the northern sector of the line.
Both sides were firmly established behind carefully prepared and extensively mined positions, with the German defences extending back in considerable strength and depth. The Eighth Army plan, compressed into a few words, was to punch a hole in these defences with infantry, pass the armour through to overrun the enemy's gunline behind his rearmost defensive belt, destroy his armoured formations, and exploit to the west. A simple and effective plan, but the essence of its success lay in the achievement of tactical surprise.
At the same time that the main assault was launched in the north, diversionary attacks were to be made in the south and along Ruweisat Ridge in the central sector to pin down the widely dispersed armour—15 Panzer Division and the Italian Littorio and Trieste Divisions were in the north and 21 Panzer Division and the Italian Ariete Division in the south. Simultaneously, a Royal Navy demonstration off Ras el Kanayis was to hold the attention of 90 Light Division, deployed on coastal protection duties at Ghazal.
In order to deceive the enemy as to the actual point of impact, Eighth Army's plans included deceptive measures prepared and executed with considerable ingenuity and skill—so skilfully and with such ingenuity, in fact, that the German commander1 was completely outwitted.page 311
The principal features of this deception programme were the confinement to the hours of darkness of all moves of formations and units from the staging areas to the assembly areas and from the assembly areas to the forward areas, the gradual building up over several days of dummy offices, vehicles, and gun positions in the forward areas so that the sudden appearance of large concentrations of transport and headquarters installations would not disclose British preparations to enemy reconnaissance aircraft, and the setting up of working wireless groups in the training areas in the rear to maintain a normal level of signal traffic between ‘mock’ headquarters of corps, divisions and lower formations.
An enormous amount of detailed planning went into the practice of this wireless deception. Averages for signal traffic levels for the preceding two or three months were carefully worked out and allotted to each day of the deception period in corresponding quantities so as to give verisimilitude to the false traffic. The use of dummy ciphers for this traffic was not permitted and all dummy signal messages were first written out in English and then enciphered in the normal manner so that enemy intercept services would not discover the ruse by an inopportune discovery that faked ciphers were in extensive use.
From 1 October wireless silence periods of thirty-six hours were imposed each week throughout the whole of Eighth Army. The idea of this was to accustom the enemy to the appearance of more or less regular periods of silence on normally busy wireless groups so that when formations began to move, under a strictly enforced wireless silence, from training areas to staging areas, from staging areas to assembly areas, and from there to dispersal points in the forward areas, the mass migrations would be completely concealed from the enemy intercept services. Meanwhile the dummy wireless groups would get to work and fill the air with their spurious traffic, so that Herr Rumpelstiltskin at his little intercept set would continue to wonder at the Englander's lack of guile and imagination.
To ensure proper supervision and execution of the scheme and to preserve its deceptive nature in the finer details, selected staff officers remained behind at the mock headquarters with page 312 the wireless operators. An essential part of their duties was to speak in radio-telephony over the various circuits and pass dummy messages constructed in the current RT codes.
On 16 October Second-Lieutenant Wilton2 took one of his B (cable) Section layer parties forward to the site where Main Divisional Headquarters would be located when the battle opened on the 23rd, and began to lay Main Division-brigade lines. An edict which first appeared in Eighth Army's orders and which then percolated down through the strata of command, repeated successively in corps, divisional and finally brigade orders, stated that the means of communication were to be duplicated and reduplicated to ensure the quick passage of information once the battle was joined. But ground cable, no matter how many times its routes were duplicated, might just as well not be laid at all in a congested battle area where it would be exposed to every conceivable danger of destruction from armour tracks to shell and mortar fire and blast. So the lines were buried—sunk a foot in the ground all the way forward from Rear Divisional Headquarters to the headquarters of brigades, and down to troops of field regiments. To do this a ‘rooter’, a sort of mole plough, was lent to formations by Eighth Army Signals. It ploughed a trench 12 to 18 inches deep and was drawn by a tractor. After the cables were laid working parties filled in the trench. Altogether, between 16 and 20 October, B (cable) Section trenched and buried 40 miles of cable in this way in the divisional area.
The planning of signal communications, which of course could not commence until after the publication of 2 NZ Division's operation order on 19 October, was the most severe test the unit had undertaken so far in the war. Throughout the whole of that night Lieutenant-Colonel Grant and his Adjutant (Captain Foubister) worked steadily on the preparation of Signals' operation order, planning line routes, allocating wireless frequencies, and setting out the tasks of detachments in great detail. When the plan was finished they checked and rechecked it with great care: frequency allocations—especially those to 9 Armoured Brigade, where wireless communications page 313 were of vital importance—locations of formation and unit headquarters, and the great mass of detail relating to the construction and routes of junction circuits to traffic-control exchanges, timings for wireless listening watches and breaking of wireless silence, the extraction and issue to signal offices and headquarters' offices of code-sign lists for armoured regiments, infantry brigades and battalions, and field and medium regiments and batteries. Finally, there was the translation of the complex overall signal plan into line and wireless diagrams which, when completed, appeared as immense and seemingly intricate networks of circuits radiating forward to brigades and the armour, rearwards to Corps Headquarters, and laterally to neighbouring formations.
Although infantry battalions did not move into their forming-up positions until the night before the attack, skeleton headquarters and the forward signals group of Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division were in position early in the afternoon of the 21st, having dribbled forward in small groups from the staging area all that morning, turned off at the Qattara track, crossed the railway line and settled in a short distance west of the track and midway between Sun and Moon tracks.
Sun and Moon tracks were two of a series of specially constructed tracks which led from Alam el Onsol, ten miles to the rear, where the Division's fighting transport was already begin- ing to concentrate, to the eastern edge of the British minefield. There were six of these tracks all told, Sun, Moon, Star, Bottle, Boat and Hat in that order. With Sun track, the northernmost, near the main road, they lay in a more or less parallel pattern at intervals varying between 200 and 3000 yards. At intervals along each track its own distinctive sign, cut to shape from sheet metal, was erected on a short staff supported in a cairn of stones. The signs were all on the northern side of the tracks, so that traffic moving west had them always on its right-hand side. These were the routes along which the fighting transport would move forward after dusk on the night of the attack; along them too would come the armour, which was to debouch at first light the following morning from the objectives to be won by the infantry on the rocky, boulder-strewn south-western slopes of Miteiriya Ridge.page 314
The four infantry divisions which comprised 30 Corps occupied sectors facing the enemy defences from the sea to the southern part of Miteiriya Ridge. In the north was 9 Australian Division; next came 51 (Highland) Division, tense and expectant for the revenge it was about to inflict for the defeat it had suffered at Rommel's hands at St. Valery in June 1940; then came 2 New Zealand Division, which also had some old scores to pay off; and on the left was 1 South African Division. Altogether there were nearly 1000 guns; of these 104 were in the New Zealand sector and comprised the New Zealand Divisional Artillery, one Royal Artillery field regiment, and one Royal Artillery medium battery.
The New Zealand Division's attack was to be launched with two brigades, 5 Brigade on the right and the 6th on the left. Its two main tasks were to capture Miteiriya Ridge and hold its south-western slopes between its north-western extremity and the Division's left boundary, and to hold the passage open for 10 Corps' armour to pass through. A third possibility was envisaged in the exploitation of success to the south and south-east if the two main objects were achieved according to plan.
At precisely 9.40 p.m. on 23 October—the hour at which the artillery preparation against known enemy gun positions was to commence and five minutes after the infantry had moved off from the start line towards the enemy's forward defences— the horizon rippled and sparkled with hundreds of bursts of fire as the guns burst into perfectly synchronised action. As the flashes scintillated on the dark curtain of the night the guns settled down to a thunderous din in which conversation in normal tones was quite inaudible, even at distances of several hundred yards from the nearest battery positions. In the background the duller but ominous thudding of the mediums sounded, while to the north the corps' artillery behind the Highlanders and Australians grumbled incessantly.
At 9.55 p.m., after fifteen minutes of hammering at the enemy guns, the artillery fell silent for five minutes, and then, at zero hour, struck again, this time on the enemy forward defended localities, where the curtain of fire hung for twenty minutes while the infantry closed up to the barrage.
Both 5 and 6 Brigade Headquarters were sited well forward, page 315 almost on the start line and within a few hundred yards of each other. The initial attack to seize the first objective was to be carried out by one battalion from each brigade, the 23rd on the right and the 24th on the left. When they had reached and captured the first objective, which lay 3400 yards from the start line and on the far side of the first enemy minefield, the advance was to pause for an hour, after which the remaining two battalions from each brigade were to pass through and attack the second and final objective on the bare south-western slopes of the ridge.
On the right, in 5 Brigade's sector, 23 Battalion stepped off across its start line promptly at 9.35 p.m. and advanced towards the first enemy minefield, 2000 yards away, where (at ten o'clock) the artillery barrage would play for twenty minutes on its opening line and then lift forward, ahead of the infantry, 100 yards every three minutes.
A K Section line detachment under Corporal Barron followed in the rear, extending the brigade line by means of an ACL3 No. 3 mounted in a jeep. This method of extending the line forward had been chosen because it would enable cable to be pulled off the layer at the minefield by hand and thus avoid endangering the vehicle. At 10.55 p.m., almost an hour after the standing barrage began to fall on the enemy's foremost defences, Barron called Brigade Headquarters on his line and reported that, judging by the amount of cable he had expended, his party was one mile out. The account of the line party's adventures during the attack is best given in Barron's own words.
Sheridan,4Simpson5 and myself started off from Brigade HQ, keeping the 23rd in sight until we struck a bad patch of shelling where Simpson was wounded by a shell which also cut our line right at the layer. We sent Simpson walking back and Sheridan and I carried on.
We were laying our line approximately 100 yards north of the page 316 axis (I had had the experience of laying on or near a track) and by this time the leading group of Engineers was on our left travelling parallel with us. It was very bright moonlight by this time and when we came to the first enemy minefield we could plainly see the odd mine. I spoke to the BM [Major Fairbrother] at brigade on the line and he told me to push on…. I thought at the time as there was no infantry fighting ahead, what's the use of two of us carrying the wire. We could only carry a mile and then we have to come back for more probably just when more wire and the phone might be useful. I had a walk across the field and the Engineers said they wouldn't be long [clearing the gap].
I'm pretty certain that Coop6 had not brought the support arms up when we got through the field and got cracking again. We had been told that the 23rd would be digging in just through and to the right of the gap in the field so we went through and about 250 to 300 yards right of the axis and then travelled parallel with it again. Came upon a crashed plane where BM or someone informed me was the centre of 23 Battalion area. Not a sign of 23rd. 22nd passed us then. I was speaking to the BM telling him 23rd weren't there and that I had passed the place where they should have been. All he said was that I was talking rot and I was going to tell him that I would get Skinner7 of the Engineers to speak to him if he wanted the truth from an officer when my line was cut by some shelling. By this time we could see our shells landing in front of the 22nd Battalion so reckoned the 23rd must be in front of the barrage. Coop came and used the phone and told the BM what was happening….
Anyway, we carried on, then stopped to put a new coil of wire on and Sheridan pointed to something nearly under the back wheel and asked me what it was. One look was enough for me to recognize a French type mine. Then when we had a good look we saw we were about sixty yards or so into a minefield. The Engineers by this time had struck it too so I walked across and asked Skinner if he wanted to speak to the BM. He used the phone and got me to confirm his statement as to the distance we had travelled. We had laid practically a straight line and I told him what length of wire, also what distance I reckoned, as by that time I could judge fairly accurately what distance a mile of wire would lay.page 317
I went ahead a little way through the field, saw we were at the ridge and also saw the 23rd coming back. Told the BM or Brigadier. He told me to get Romans8 who spoke to him on the phone. I think Coop might have had an 18 set in the back of his truck but I think it was just before 23rd came back that his truck got hit by a shell. Anyway, Jack McKee9 had a set in a carrier and was with the Engineers all the time and Coop or no other wireless truck was in front of them.
When daylight came we took our line through the field but couldn't hook up to 22nd as their CO [Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell10] wasn't there and no one else would say where they wanted the phone. CO did eventually turn up and after about an hour decided where he was going to have his headquarters.
Every time I spoke to the BM or the Brigadier they wanted a report on the fighting. Told them every time there was nothing doing on our front but a lot of small arms [fire] to the right. When I say nothing I mean there was only an occasional flare up for a moment or two….
[Mine] was the first vehicle after the Engineers' two 3-tonners [to pass through the minefield gap] and it was only a matter of twenty minutes after that that I told the BM I was past the 23rd final objective.
My line was only cut twice but of course while we were laying we couldn't keep on speaking to the BM. I think he did tell us to ring him every ten minutes or so and perhaps I did let him wait a good long time sometimes as I couldn't see much use in ringing when there was nothing to report and when there was he didn't take any notice of what I told him.
It was a very easy night for us that night; all the luck was with me. That line of ours seemed to have a charmed life as it wasn't because of any shortage of enemy shelling that it didn't get cut more often….
Back at Brigade Headquarters the staff waited, after 23 Battalion had crossed its start line, with the ill-concealed impatience that is a human failing on the eve of great events; but as page 318 the minutes lengthened into hours without any word of the progress of the advance and with no sign, in the thickening haze which rose over the front to obscure the bright moonlight, of the success rocket which was to be fired by the 23rd when it reached its objective, impatience strengthened into anxiety and perplexity. About 11.30 p.m., half an hour after the battalion should have reached its objective on the western side of the first enemy minefield, news reached Brigade Headquarters—it is thought from a No. 18 set with a section of 6 Field Company, although the evidence is scanty and unreliable—that the right-hand gap in the minefield was clear. Brigadier Kippenberger immediately ordered the battalion's transport, under the command of Captain Coop, to go forward by that route.
Meanwhile 23 Battalion had crossed the first enemy minefield at 10.30 p.m., and fifteen minutes later both the CO and the Adjutant had agreed that they must have reached their objective. At this stage the battalion signals officer reported that the terminal No. 11 set had broken down and that the battalion had no communication with Brigade Headquarters. It was subsequently discovered that the jeep in which the set was mounted, together with the mortar carriers and the commanding officer's jeep, had been held up by an unmarked minefield; thus, the interruption to wireless communication was only temporary. Several hundred yards in the rear Barron and Sheridan were still bringing the brigade line forward and soon after eleven o'clock, when they reported to Brigade Headquarters that they were 2000 yards out, encountered the first mines on the eastern fringe of the enemy field. A few minutes later, about 11.30 p.m., the Engineers had cleared the gap and Barron passed through. But on the western side, in the place which he recognised from earlier instructions as the battalion's objective, he found no one. He rang back on his line and reported what he had found, or rather, had not found; this was just as inexplicable to the brigade staff as it was to Barron and accounts for their frank disbelief of his statement.
Shortly afterwards Captain Coop arrived at the gap with his transport. Both he and Major Skinner, OC 7 Field Company, spoke to Brigade Headquarters on Barron's line and confirmed that 23 Battalion was nowhere to be seen in its objective area.page 319
Actually the battalion was ahead of its objective—and had been since 11.15 p.m. It was in front of the standing artillery barrage, which was playing on the line of the first objective for an hour before lifting forward for the second phase of the attack. Lieutenant-Colonel Romans sent his adjutant back to Brigade Headquarters at 3 a.m. to bring the battalion's fighting transport forward, and then went forward himself to find his infantry, which was pressing on towards the final objective. He managed to collect his companies and led them back to their own objective, where they dug in in readiness to meet counter-attacks. Battalion Headquarters was established at 2 a.m. and line communication opened with Brigade Headquarters.
For the manner in which he laid the brigade line close up behind 23 Battalion in its advance towards its objective, Corporal Barron received an immediate award of the MM. His exemplary coolness under fire and standard of leadership enabled him to carry out his difficult task with success; his initiative in passing back valuable information to Headquarters 5 Brigade during the attack gained specific mention in the citation.
On the left of the divisional sector 24 Battalion crossed its start line at 9.30 p.m. in the first phase of 6 Brigade's attack. At first it encountered hardly any fire, but as the advance continued the leading companies swung too far to the right, thus leaving Battalion Headquarters exposed to fire from enemy positions which had been missed by the left-hand company. While the leading companies approached the first objective, Battalion Headquarters came to a halt in an enemy minefield, and it was here that it attempted unsuccessfully to communicate with Headquarters 6 Brigade by means of the terminal No. 11 set manhandled forward by its L Section operators.
Meanwhile the Engineers, accompanied by a carrier in which was mounted a No. 11 set manned by a K Section operator to pass back information to Headquarters 6 Brigade on the progress of clearing gaps in the minefield, were following close on the heels of the infantry. They cleared the first gap quickly, passed through, and pressed on towards 24 Battalion's objective on the western side of the field. As they approached it they found page 320 that they were a little too close to the standing barrage on the line of the first objective, so halted and waited until the guns lifted forward again. As the barrage lifted forward, however, a number of shells fell short and landed among the Engineer party, one of them scoring a direct hit on L Section's cable-laying jeep and putting it and its equipment completely out of action. This put an abrupt end to the usefulness of the line which had been laid forward from Headquarters 6 Brigade up to this point, and together with the failure of the battalion's terminal No. 11 set, completely severed communication between Battalion Headquarters and Brigade Headquarters.
The same shell which destroyed the cable-laying jeep also wounded the operator of the No. 11 set in the Engineers' carrier, a K Section man, Signalman Baugh.11 His neck wound bled profusely, and although some of the Engineers had great difficulty in stemming the flow of blood and tried to persuade him to leave the set and be sent back to the rear, Baugh refused to go and insisted on operating the set until a relief operator could be sent. For two hours, although he fainted twice and had violent fits of retching, Baugh continued to pass back information from the OC 8 Field Company (Major Reid12) to Brigade Headquarters until he was relieved by an operator sent up from K Section. For his gallant conduct Baugh received an immediate award of the MM.
The second phase of the attack, in which two battalions from each brigade passed through the first objective, commenced at 12.55 a.m. on 24 October, when the standing artillery barrage began to lift forward. On the right of 5 Brigade's sector 21 Battalion crossed its start line and followed close up behind the barrage, encountering shell and mortar fire which increased in intensity as the battalion neared Miteiriya Ridge. A few minutes after 3 a.m. the infantry companies reached their objective and began to dig in.page 321
On the left of 5 Brigade's sector 22 Battalion sustained several casualties before it had crossed its start line. Some of these were caused by slight enemy shell and mortar fire, and some by shorts from the artillery barrage. The battalion maintained a steady advance against considerable opposition, especially in the centre and right of the sector, which intensified into heavy shell and mortar fire as the forward companies moved up the north-eastern slopes of Miteiriya Ridge. All four companies joined in the final attack on the crest of the ridge, and by 2.35 a.m. the battalion was in possession of the final objective.
In 6 Brigade's sector, on the left of the divisional front, 25 and 26 Battalions crossed their start lines about 11.40 p.m. During the early stages of the advance 26 Battalion, on the right, encountered negligible resistance, but met heavy fire on the ridge. Battalion Headquarters, which was moving at the head of the reserve company, came under heavy fire as it approached the ridge and sustained several casualties. A direct hit from a shell disabled the terminal No. 11 set and, since the L Section cable-laying party had not yet reached the ridge with the brigade line, reduced the battalion's communications to the rear to the use of runners. Two L Section signalmen went back to Brigade Headquarters to get new parts for the No. 11 set, which was again in operation by 6.30 a.m.
On the left of 6 Brigade's sector 25 Battalion advanced against only slight resistance but, like 22 Battalion, suffered some casualties near the start line from shells falling short in the barrage. After continuing for a little over 3000 yards the battalion halted at a marked minefield, mistakenly presumed to be its objective. At daybreak, however, the forward companies were found to be 800 yards short of the actual objective and some distance to the north of their proper positions.
The normal communications for the battle were augmented by carrier pigeons from an Eighth Army loft, supplied in pairs to infantry brigades, Divisional Cavalry, and Tactical Headquarters 2 NZ Division. Early on the 24th two of these birds were released, each carrying a situation map and a report, one from the GOC's tank at Tactical Headquarters and the other from Headquarters 6 Brigade. The first, that from Tactical Headquarters, was wounded in flight, but managed to make its page 322 way to the rear, where it was picked up near Tactical Headquarters Eighth Army and returned to its temporary loft at Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division. The second bird reached Eighth Army unharmed with early and valuable information.
By 7 a.m. on the 24th Miteiriya Ridge was in New Zealand hands, except on the left where 25 Battalion was halted some distance short of the final objective. The armour, however, had not managed to get far enough forward to press on. Both the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry of 9 Armoured Brigade and Staffordshire Yeomanry of 8 Armoured Brigade (the leading formation of 10 Armoured Division) had crossed the ridge, but had sustained heavy casualties in tanks and were withdrawn. Throughout the day the New Zealand positions were heavily shelled, but the enemy failed to mount the expected large-scale counter-attack, being no doubt daunted by his own minefields on the ground which he would now have to traverse and the presence of heavy tanks right up behind the ridge.
At Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division the day of the battle had started well for Signals. Early in the morning eight new charging sets arrived from Eighth Army Signal Park and were quickly allotted to sections. Their arrival, even at that late hour, was hailed by brigade and field regiment signal sections as a providential release from the continual fear of the last few months that wireless communications would soon fail completely for the lack of serviceable battery-charging equipment.
The day passed quietly, with movements of men and vehicles restricted to the barest minimum even in the Divisional Headquarters' area. At 9 p.m., one hour before zero, all wireless circuits assumed a continuous listening watch in readiness for the breaking of the long wireless silence when the brigades moved into the attack and made contact with the enemy. At twenty minutes to ten came the sudden crescendo of fury from the Corps' artillery. At six minutes past ten communication failed suddenly on both lines to Headquarters 5 Brigade, despite the buried cables, but contact was quickly restored through Headquarters 6 Brigade and the brigades' lateral lines.
Twenty minutes after zero hour—the time when the infantry reached the standing artillery barrage on the enemy forward page 323 defences—wireless silence was lifted and communication was established at maximum signal strength to all stations on the Division's forward control groups except Divisional Cavalry.
Midnight passed without any major interruption to either wireless or line communcations, except for a brief disconnection in the line to Tactical Headquarters 9 Australian Division in the northern sector. Soon after 1 a.m. two reports, the first from 5 Brigade and the other from 6 Brigade, stated that they had line communication forward to the gaps in the enemy minefield. Both 5 Brigade's lateral lines, to the left brigade of 51 (Highland) Division on the right and to 6 Brigade on the left, were working satisfactorily, and so were the CRA's circuits to 4, 5 and 6 Field Regiments. The lateral lines between regiments, however, failed suddenly at 1.15 a.m., but were quickly restored and the regiments were again in communication fifteen minutes later.
Sixth Brigade's lateral line to the South African brigade on its left appeared to be disrupted from the beginning of the battle, and the South Africans, whose responsibility it was to maintain it in repair, apparently failed to do so. About one o'clock, therefore, L Section sent off a patrol to locate the fault and bring the line back into communication. The patrol consisted of one man, Sergeant Compton.13 It was a surface cable, and Compton ran it through his hands as he plodded his way towards the South African sector. He reached the brigade's signal office without finding any trace of a fault and entered to find the South Africans sitting about talking and drinking tea and apparently quite unconcerned at the line's failure. Compton was angry and tired and his comments left the South Africans in no doubt as to his attitude. He returned to Headquarters 6 Brigade, to find on his arrival that the line was again in working order.
By 3 a.m. brigade lines were being carried forward quickly to battalions near the final objective, but L Section had great difficulty in keeping its circuits intact forward of 24 Battalion's position at the first objective because of damage by tank tracks and shelling. Throughout the day lines to 24 Battalion and to 25 Battalion, the latter on the left where it was halted short page 324 of the final objective, were maintained without very much difficulty, but that to 26 Battalion, on the right of the brigade's objective, did not reach Battalion Headquarters and was still not through by 5.15 p.m. that evening. These lines in front of brigades, of course, were surface cables and were not protected like the buried routes in the rear. In 5 Brigade line circuits suffered only brief dislocations throughout the 24th, so that terminal wireless sets at battalions were able to close down to give operators reasonable periods of rest.
By late evening on 24 October Main Divisional Headquarters' communications had stabilised sufficiently to permit the administrative and wireless-telegraphy forward-control groups to revert to listening watches, subject of course to the now well-drilled proviso that all sets would reopen communications immediately on the failure of lines. But there was little apprehension on this score. Except for brief interruptions on some lines, the buried cables had provided good stable circuits throughout the battle as far forward as brigade headquarters. Wireless, too, had worked well and sustained all expectations of the reliability of the No. 9 set.
Signals suffered very lightly in casualties in the first phase of the attack. There were none at Main Divisional Headquarters and the field regiments, except in E Section, where Corporal H. L. Smith's line detachment ran on to a trip wire connected to a booby-trap disguised as a 44-gallon drum. Smith was sitting beside the driver of the truck and saw the trip wire just as they were almost on it. By some sixth sense he divined danger and yelled to the driver to stop. But he was too late and the drum full of explosive completely destroyed the vehicle. Smith and his four companions were all wounded, three so seriously that they died later, Signalmen McCann14 and Carter15 that day, and Signalman McDonald16 next day. E Section's high proportion of casualties, in comparison with those of other sections, was no doubt due to 4 Field Regiment's page 325 employment in support of 9 Armoured Brigade. The regiment moved into the mine and booby-trap infested areas forward of the infantry start line soon after 3 a.m. on the 24th and by daylight had reached the north-eastern slope of Miteiriya Ridge. In L Section there was only one loss, Signalman Lorimer,17 a wireless operator with 26 Battalion's No. 11 set, who was killed early on the morning of the 24th. By good fortune K Section survived the attack without loss.
On 24 October a decision was made to continue the offensive that night in an attempt to break the enemy gunline and pass 9 Armoured Brigade and 10 Armoured Division through. At 10 p.m. the attack started off, led by Divisional Cavalry. The enemy, who was expecting the attack, dropped parachute flares over the minefield gaps and bombed and shelled them incessantly, but about 2 a.m. on the 25th Divisional Cavalry, 9 Armoured Brigade, and part of 10 Armoured Division had crossed the ridge. Divisional Cavalry was withdrawn at daybreak, but 9 Armoured Brigade stayed forward of the ridge all day to discourage counter-attacks, although it lost some tanks. Gradually the front became static again, with considerable shelling by both sides. Dust and smoke still hung over the battlefield, so that visibility and observation became almost negligible. The enemy attempted several probing attacks with tanks and infantry, but all were thrown back, and night fell without any major engagements having occurred.
Meanwhile, at a conference at Main Divisional Headquarters, the GOC had informed his formation commanders that exploitation to the south was no longer possible. The initial attack had just failed to push the enemy off his gunline, and now 10 Armoured Division was to be withdrawn from the New Zealand sector to join 1 Armoured Division farther north, where the Australians were to attack northwards towards the coast on the night of the 25th. In the meantime the New Zealand Division was to reorganise its front for defence.
In due course the Australians attacked vigorously and captured their objectives, but the armour was still not able to page 326 burst through the enemy gun screen. Tenth Corps was then temporarily relieved of its task of breaking out, and plans were immediately made for another large-scale attack by 30 Corps to force a breach. The New Zealand Division was instructed to secure its front against any form of counter-attack and to co-ordinate its flanks with I South African Division on the left and 51 (Highland) Division on the right. Accordingly, that night (26-27 October) 25 and 26 Battalions put in an attack, reached their final objectives and straightened the New Zealand line. In this operation Headquarters 6 Brigade did not move, so L Section had little to do except continue to maintain its shell-torn lines and extend those of 25 and 26 Battalions forward to their final positions.
The New Zealand Division was withdrawn from the line on the 28th and its sector was taken over by I South African Division. The New Zealand Divisional Artillery, however, remained in the forward area to support further attacks by the Australians in the north. By midday on the 28th Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division was established slightly to the north of Alam el Onsol, where lines were immediately laid to formations and wireless closed down to listening watches. During the period of planning for supercharge, which was the code-name for 30 Corps' second assault, every possible opportunity was seized to rest the men after their labours of the preceding four days. Swimming parties were sent off to the beach, and the Quartermaster produced a free issue of beer for all ranks of Divisional Signals.
Late in the afternoon of the 30th the Divisional Headquarters reconnaissance group and forward signals left Alam el Onsol and moved forward to the new battle position of Main Divisional Headquarters. They were followed very soon after by the main group, and by 7 p.m. Main Divisional Headquarters was established within a mile of its position at the opening of the Alamein battle on the 23rd. The attack, which was originally planned to take place that night but was postponed until the early hours of 2 November, was to be a ‘rip-split-or-bust’ affair, and the General made it plain that there were to be no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ or, as General Montgomery would have put it, no ‘belly-aching’. General Freyberg, who had only two page 327 moods in battle—pugnacity and optimism—wore his most bellicose look as he explained that it was to be an ‘all in’ effort. General Montgomery would have called it a ‘gut-tearing process’.
The New Zealand order of battle was impressive. In addition to the Division's normal composition there would be under its command 9 and 23 Armoured Brigades and 151 (Tyneside) and 152 (Highland) Infantry Brigades; the Divisional Artillery was to be reinforced by seven field regiments of 1 and 10 Armoured Divisions, two field regiments of 51 (Highland) Division, three medium regiments of Royal Artillery, and one field regiment of 9 Australian Division. The infantry assault was to be made by 151 and 152 Brigades and 28 (Maori) Battalion, supported by a carefully timed creeping barrage and shelling of enemy positions in the path of the advance by 360 guns.
Signal communications for the operation followed the same general pattern as that for the initial attack. All lines as far forward as headquarters of brigades and as far to the rear as corps headquarters were buried, but this time there was only one circuit to each formation. Much more extensive use was made than formerly of the two Eighth Army exchanges, Victoria and Waterloo, which were primarily switching exchanges to enable formations to be connected quickly to the numerous traffic-control posts on the tracks along which the armour approached the forward area. On this occasion both exchanges were connected to almost every formation headquarters in 30 Corps and thus became the nerve centres of the line-communication network of the corps. Both lay fairly close up near the forward area and were manned by Eighth Army Signals. From Waterloo lines ran to both 151 and 152 Brigades, and these were strapped through to Main Divisional Headquarters to give direct communication with superposed Fullerphone circuits. Victoria acted as the switching centre for higher and subordinate formations in the rear, where the armour lurked in readiness to hurl itself forward when the infantry had hewn a passage through the enemy's positions.
At five minutes past one in the morning of 2 November the concentrated fire of the artillery fell like the crack of doom on the enemy's forward defences, and 151 and 152 Brigades page 328 moved forward to the assault. On the left 152 Brigade met little opposition, and its advance continued without a hitch. Its line communications were remarkably stable and suffered very few disruptions. On the right, however, the Tynesiders ran into stiffer resistance, and Brigade Headquarters was soon out of touch with the leading battalions. Consequently it was not until 6 a.m., five hours after the attack began, that 30 Corps could be informed that 151 Brigade had reached its final objective.
During the night 9 Armoured Brigade crept forward slowly along the lanes cleared of mines by New Zealand engineers, but it was delayed by enemy opposition and at 5 a.m. was ordered by the GOC to push on regardless of mines to its objective just west of the Rahman track. At first light the brigade found itself right in the German gunline, and, in a gallant action at close quarters, lost most of its tanks but knocked out many of the enemy guns. The enemy counter-attacked with his armour from the north, west and south-west, but was halted by 1 Armoured Division and the artillery of 10 and 30 Corps, and suffered such crippling losses that Rommel decided to withdraw from the Alamein Line. Meanwhile, the Royal Dragoons, an armoured car regiment which had broken through in the dawn mist, was sending ebullient reports of the havoc and desolation being wrought among German and Italian soft-skinned transport in the rear areas.
That night 6 Brigade relieved 151 Brigade in the north of the bulge; it was a very difficult relief, carried out with no moon and no exact knowledge of the positions of 151 Brigade's battalions.
During the morning of 3 November General Freyberg made a tour of the front and decided that the battle was over at Alamein. Early that afternoon the Division received a warning order to be ready to embark on mobile operations. The GOC spoke to the Army Commander by telephone and said that he was ready to go and asked for additional armour. As a result the Division acquired 4 Light Armoured Brigade, which led the way out through the gap next day.
At the gap the traffic congestion was almost chaotic owing page 329 to the absence of any attempt at traffic control, and it was late afternoon before the Main Divisional Headquarters' group was through and able to shake out into desert formation. The tracks leading to the gap from the east were now feet deep in thick grey dust, which rose in dense, choking clouds as the long lines of hurrying vehicles plunged through the deep drifts. The huge tanks dipped and reared like ships taking water over their bows in a heavy sea, and their crews sat in their turrets like grey ghosts peering forward with red-rimmed eyes through the dust. Other grey ghosts scurried by in jeeps with windscreens thrown wide open for visibility; the wind whipped their smarting eyes, from which tears ran down their ashen faces like rain rivulets on a dirty window pane. Suddenly, however, they were out on the hard, pebbly desert and turning south-west on the first stage of the Division's wide sweep around the enemy's flank to Fuka. An hour later Divisional Headquarters passed a large group of disconsolate prisoners trudging wearily in disorderly array towards the north-east—six or seven hundred dispirited Italians escorted by one lone South African armoured car.
The column changed course slightly, continued a little south of west for a time, and then swung north-west towards Fuka. Divisional Headquarters halted behind the armour about 7.30 p.m., and the men hurriedly set about preparing the evening meal. After midnight, when 5 Brigade had arrived, machine-guns opened fire some hundreds of yards to the south-east and sent tracer soaring over the column, to fall a short distance to the north. At first no one paid very much attention, except to make occasional amused comments about ‘bloody Maoris again with some new spandaus’. Soon, however, the unseen gunners shortened their range and the fire began to fall among the vehicles. Amusement changed quickly to concern as the tracer curved over gracefully in the darkness and splashed viciously on the hard stony ground. Some men took cover behind the off-side front wheels of vehicles, while others, the incurably nervous, assumed airs of nonchalance and cast furtive glances about to see where a fold in the ground might afford some cover. The fire continued steadily for some time, and it soon became plain that the much-maligned Maoris were in no page 330 way to blame for the now uncomfortable situation which existed at the head of the divisional column.
Suddenly, from the small group of tanks whose dark silhouettes showed against the dim star glow of the northern sky came the dry, crunching sound of tracks as a tank swung round and lumbered slowly off into the night. Some time passed. From another of the tanks standing silently in the gloom at the head of the column, a calm, unhurried and mellifluous County voice was heard in the still night air speaking into a wireless set's microphone: ‘Hullo, Freddie. Hullo Freddie. Have you anything to report? Over.’ Apparently Freddie had seen nothing yet, for the voice sounded again: ‘Hullo Freddie. Hullo Freddie. Have you anything to report? Over.’ There was silence for several minutes, then suddenly the heavy machine guns of the invisible Freddie's tank yammered stridently in the night, and a stream of vivid tracer formed a wide arc towards the low ground near the tail of the column, where Freddie had apparently seen something to rouse his suspicions.
The enemy fire was irregular now, coming in erratic bursts, but still falling in among the vehicles at the head of the divisional column. The voice took the air again: ‘Hullo Freddie. Hullo Freddie. A little more to the left. Over.’ The tank's guns chattered again in several spiteful bursts until suddenly, about two or three hundred yards down the column, a small flame flickered in the darkness and burst quickly into bloom as an ammunition truck caught alight. The burning vehicle belonged to 5 Brigade's column and, intelligence of this mishap having come quickly by some means to the head of the column, the voice spoke again: ‘Hullo Freddie. Hullo Freddie. Don't do that Freddie. The New Zealanders don't like it. Over.’ The tank's guns had fallen silent, and presently it trundled back out of the night and melted again into the dark mass of shadows beyond the armoured command vehicle in front.
Meanwhile, at the rear of the column, K Section, or rather, a portion of it, had become involved quite involuntarily in a lively little skirmish between a small isolated German party and the 23 Battalion carrier platoon. This section's troubles had started late in the afternoon, when 5 Brigade, after a long wait at the heavily congested minefield gap, had gone through page 331 in clouds of swirling dust into the open desert. The dust had caused fuel-pump trouble in many vehicles, and a couple of hours later K Section's signal office three-tonner had faltered and jerked to a halt. The trouble had soon been rectified, but late in the evening, just as the laggard had caught up with the tail of 23 Battalion's column at the rear of 5 Brigade, its engine had stopped again and it had to be taken in tow.
About midnight the column had halted and K Section's second-in-command, Lieutenant Catley,18 who had been riding with his driver in the cab of the three-tonner, snatched some sleep. In the back of the lorry the five or six K Section men who comprised the signal office detachment were also soon fast asleep. The door of the cab was suddenly wrenched open, a head appeared and a German voice said hopefully: ‘Italiano?’ Catley, awake and alert in an instant, replied with great presence of mind: ‘Si. Si.’ The head started to withdraw, but the driver was awake now and gave vent to his feelings with a very vulgar expletive, whereupon the head vanished quickly. The next second the muzzle of a rifle appeared inside the cab and a voice said: ‘Hands up!’—in English. Catley made a quick grab at the rifle, but missed, and it was withdrawn quickly, the intruder making off at a run.
Catley jumped out and went to 23 Battalion's column to warn the troops that an enemy party was in the vicinity. As he turned back to rejoin his vehicle he heard a voice call out that some ‘bloody Ites wanted to surrender’. Thinking he would encourage them to come in quickly, he drew his pistol and fired a shot across the front of a shadowy group of men whom he could see approaching about fifty yards away. This was the signal for a burst of automatic fire from the group, who were not Italians but a party of determined Germans with no thought of surrender.
The fight didn't last long, although the signal office detachment tumbled out and returned the fire with their rifles. Several signalmen were wounded in the first hail of automatic fire, and Catley went down with a wound in his thigh. There were several more bursts of fire, and presently the Germans closed in and page 332 took some prisoners whom they hustled along quickly to several trucks waiting nearby.
They were just about to put the prisoners aboard and make off when ‘Freddie’ opened up with his tank guns from near the head of the Divisional Headquarters' column. In the confusion that followed Catley, Lance-Corporal Petrie,19 and a battalion orderly, Private Leith,20 went to ground among some camel-thorn bushes and hid from sight. Bullets were now whizzing about like angry wasps, and suddenly ‘Freddie’ scored his hit on the ammunition truck, which cast a bright glare over the surrounding desert. In this light a German officer, who happened to pass close to where Catley and his two companions were hugging the ground (and cursing the 23 Battalion carriers for being so tardy in putting in an appearance), saw them and hustled them off to where the enemy trucks were about to start. Just then the 23 Battalion carriers arrived, and Catley and two other wounded men were bundled into a truck full of sweating German infantry. The Germans were ill-tempered and jittery, and Catley, who had a working knowledge of German, was able to study at close hand the Afrika Korps in flight.
At daylight the Germans were still travelling swiftly westwards. Whenever RAF planes appeared they behaved very nervously, and on one occasion, when two or three fighters swooped suddenly from nowhere over the little convoy, the trucks jerked to a halt and the Germans leaped out and burrowed into the sand, with their broad backsides reared skywards. Poor Catley and his companions could not move because of their wounds; they lay in the truck and listened breathlessly to the roar of the planes, expecting every instant to hear the cannon shells ripping through the vehicle's canvas canopy. Soon the planes went away and the Germans returned to their places, grinning sheepishly and explaining to one another in high relief: ‘Unsere’ [‘Ours’].
A little later more aircraft appeared; this time they were not friendly but RAF, and the Germans grovelled in real earnest to escape the withering hail of machine-gun fire. When the page 333 planes had gone they returned again to their truck, this time with no sheepish grins but with grim, set expressions on their faces. Catley could not resist the opportunity for a jibe; he raised himself on one elbow and addressed the German sergeant: ‘Unsere!’ The German stared for a moment and then turned and grinned at his companions.
Some of the trucks had been disabled in this little affray. Their German occupants debussed quickly and ran frantically after the other vehicles, while their former captives decamped smartly in the opposite direction and eventually joined British units.
Next afternoon the convoy was intercepted by British armoured cars. The trucks ground to a halt, and soon the captives heard the Tommies giving the Germans the rough side of their tongues in homely North Country accents. The armoured car troop leader was rather reluctant to take Catley along with him, as he was eager to push on westwards and run more quarry to earth. He suggested hopefully that Catley and his two men should remain with the Germans, whom he said were bound to be picked up again farther to the west, but Catley, having had enough of German company, climbed painfully out of the truck and, with his two companions, watched the cars herd the enemy vehicles away to the west. They then hobbled slowly eastwards, taking advantage of occasional hitch-hikes, until they reached a British dressing station where their wounds were treated.
Most of the K Section men who had been captured with Catley at the rear of 5 Brigade's column the previous night managed to escape or were released by British armoured cars, but Lance-Corporal Petrie, whom the Germans had mistaken for a wounded man because of a bandage wrapped around a boil on his leg, was taken to a German dressing station and then on to a prisoner-of-war cage. Petrie was curiously unlucky in this incident. He had had his boil for some time—it was the last of a number that had troubled him for months—and the medical officer to whom he had taken it for attention had pooh-poohed any suggestion that he should be sent out to a casualty clearing station until the infection cleared up. The Germans, however, were a little more solicitous and took Petrie's bandage page 334 at its face value, so that he was hurried off to the German dressing station instead of being given a sporting chance to escape with the other K Section men.
Some time before Catley's encounter with the German party another misfortune had befallen K Section. It was after nightfall and 5 Brigade was moving in very close formation, with perhaps eight to ten vehicles abreast and nose-to-tail in columns that stretched back interminably to the rear. In the central column and about 100 yards from the leading vehicles, Brigade Headquarters' armoured command vehicle loomed high above the surrounding sea of transport. The brightness of its electrically lit interior was in sharp contrast to the darkness of the desert night outside, relieved only by the dim glow of the stars and throbbing with the murmur of a thousand smoothly running engines. Officers sat at tables facing wall maps, and the wireless sets buzzed steadily, dropping intermittently into low growls as the motor-generators took the load when the operators pressed their keys. The great vehicle rode smoothly as its driver pushed it steadily through the night, and the whirr of the huge tires on the desert gravel came only faintly to those within.
Suddenly there was a muffled report, followed instantly by a shriek of escaping air, and the big vehicle lurched violently and stopped with a pronounced list to the left. There was no spare wheel, and as it would take considerable time to repair a blowout, a 3-ton lorry was brought alongside and the maps and documents were quickly transferred to it. Two K Section wireless trucks were brought up and their sets took over the brigade's forward control group and the rear link to Main Divisional Headquarters. In ten minutes or so the column was on the move again, leaving the ACV in charge of Corporal Banner,21 K Section's electrician, and the driver-mechanic, Signalman Moir,22 to await the arrival of the LAD from the rear. Soon afterwards the brigade column, guided by Very lights to direct it to the divisional rendezvous, closed on the Divisional Headquarters column, which had halted a few miles ahead.page 335
Some time later the crew of the ACV reported by wireless to Headquarters 5 Brigade that the tail of the brigade group had passed without any sign of the LAD. Captain Shirley, OC K Section, worried that he might not see his ACV again, wire- lessed the corporal to bring it in slowly on the flat tire. Long signals were sent out to enable Banner to take a bearing on his homing loop, and to make doubly sure, Shirley persuaded the brigade staff captain to part with a huge rocket which had originally been intended for a success signal in the Alamein battle, and which Shirley now used as a beacon. The rocket left the ground with a mighty roar, startling the dozing occupants of nearby vehicles into instant wakefulness. It soared high into the sky and burst into a brilliant constellation on which Banner was able to check the bearing taken on his homing loop.
Shortly afterwards Catley and the Germans started their private fracas at the rear of 5 Brigade's column. The machine-gun fire was fairly lively, and bullets whipped between the wheels of vehicles, so Shirley climbed into a jeep to raise himself above the low-flying missiles, and wondered what he was going to say in his letters of condolence to the next of kin of the men in the ACV, now cut off from the brigade. After a time he went to a wireless truck to see how they were faring, and arrived just in time to take an RT message from Banner, who said: ‘On fire…. cannot transmit…. smoke…. Off.’ Shirley switched his set to ‘send’ and yelled ‘Say again!’ several times, but there was no response.
When Banner received his instructions to bring the ACV in slowly on the damaged tire, he told Moir to get going. All went well until the tire, which had become overheated, burst into flames. The fire quickly spread to the engine, but the crew managed to put it out before any serious damage occurred. Banner then decided not to go on, but to wait until some LAD turned up. The K Section men, with their wireless sets, were picked up later by an English unit, carried some distance and set down again in a completely uninhabited spot which someone said lay on the route New Zealand Rear Headquarters would follow. Luckily news of their predicament somehow reached Headquarters Divisional Signals, which by that time page 336 was about ten miles farther to the west, somewhere near Fuka. Captain Dasler, OC No. 3 Company, immediately despatched his quartermaster-sergeant, Staff-Sergeant Kruck,23 to pick them up and return them to K Section at Headquarters 5 Brigade. Kruck had an 8-cwt truck and a half-tracked vehicle which three German prisoners had ridden in to Divisional Headquarters the day before; it was a weird looking contraption, best described as a motor-cycle with two caterpillar tracks instead of a rear wheel. It towed three small trailers, and into these Kruck loaded the four K Section men and their gear and led them to Headquarters 5 Brigade.
Meanwhile Signalman Moir, whom Banner had left in sole charge of the disabled ACV, spent his time moping about and going outside occasionally to watch for passing transport. Presently he saw a group of men approaching on foot. He needed no second look to see that they were Italians, and knowing their treacherous habits when the odds were heavily in their favour, he hastened inside the ACV and made all the doors fast. The Italians soon came up, and Moir could hear them trying to force an entry. Reflecting that they were only Italians and therefore unlikely to show much stamina against a surprise move, he conceived a plan. Seizing a tommy gun, he opened the roof hatch carefully, sprang out suddenly on to the flat roof and brandished his weapon. The Italians surrendered without a shot being fired, but Moir did not want prisoners on his hands. ‘B—r off!’ he roared, and the Italians took to their heels.
Early on the morning of 5 November the Division moved off towards the high ground to the west of Fuka. During the afternoon 4 Light Armoured Brigade encountered opposition from an enemy position covered by a minefield which ran south from the Fuka escarpment, and some delay occurred while the Divisional Artillery was deployed and brought into action. Fifth Brigade was called up and sent northwards after 4 Light Armoured Brigade, which had gone to cut the road. They could not prevent the enemy from withdrawing that night.
At first light next morning the Division was on wheels again page 337 and moving quickly towards the high ground south of Baggush, but light rain which began to fall during the morning developed later into a deluge and turned the desert into a quagmire in which vehicles soon sank to their axles. For the rest of that day and the whole of the next the Division was immobilised in the mud and separated from its supply column, struggling slowly forward several miles to the east. The chase was resumed on the 8th, but the enemy, who had had the sealed surface of the coastal road for an escape route, was now scurrying westwards in full flight towards the frontier.
Mersa Matruh was reported to be clear of the enemy and was occupied on the 9th by 6 Brigade. Next day the Division reached the foot of Halfaya Pass, which was captured at dawn on the 11th by 110 men of 21 Battalion, with only two casualties. The Division then climbed the long winding road up the pass and crossed the frontier into Cyrenaica, where it stayed in bivouac in the Menastir area until 5 December.
1 Field Marshal Rommel had left Africa for Europe on 23 September and did not return until the British offensive had been in progress two days. General Georg Stumme, who was appointed acting commander in Rommel's absence, died of heart failure while on a reconnaissance in the morning of 24 October, and the command was taken over by Lieutenant-General Ritter von Thoma (commander of the Afrika Korps) until Rommel arrived in the evening of 25 October.
2 Maj E. J. Wilton, m.i.d.; Thames; born Thames, 6 Jun 1915; postal official; OC B Sec Jun-Oct 1942, E Sec Apr-Jun 1943, D Sec Aug 1943-Apr 1944, L Sec Dec 1944-Feb 1945, HQ Coy Feb-Mar 1945, 2 Coy Mar-Apr 1945.
3 Apparatus cable-laying.
10 Col T. C. Campbell, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Fiji; born Colombo, 20 Dec 1911; farm appraiser; CO 22 Bn Sep 1942-Apr 1943; commanded 4 Armd Bde Jan-Dec 1945; Area Commander, Wellington, 1947; Commander of Army Schools, 1951-53; Commander Fiji Military Forces 1953.
12 Lt-Col H. M. Reid, MC and bar, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Auckland, 21 Mar 1904; civil engineer; OC 6 Fd Coy Jun-Aug 1942, 8 Fd Coy Aug-Dec 1942; CO Forestry Group (UK) Jul-Oct 1943; attached Air Ministry Dec 1943-Feb 1944; twice wounded; wounded and p.w. 16 Dec 1942; released Tripoli, 23 Jan 1943.