Battle for Egypt
CHAPTER 15 — Eighth Army Holds the Line
Eighth Army Holds the Line
PANZERARMEE'S attack got under way at 4.20 a.m. on 1 July when 90 Light Division, mounted and in desert formation, rolled forward in the dark and in a sandstorm for the gap between the Alamein Box and Deir el Shein. The division had a fighting strength of no more and probably fewer than 76 officers and 1603 other ranks. Its artillery was down to 19 field guns, including 4 British 25-pounders and 7 Russian 76.2 millimetre guns, and 32 anti-tank guns of which 2 were British six-pounders and 12 were Russian. This small force was expected to traverse the gap and place itself astride the coast road and railway and opposite the whole of the eastern face of the box.
Not surprisingly in a turning movement in the dark and in a sand-storm, the division got a little off course. At dawn, 6.10 a.m., two of the battle groups, Briehl and Marcks, became involved in a fire fight with the South Africans in the southern segment of the box. The division's diary leaves the impression that a continuation of the advance with the remaining units was contemplated but that it was decided the force would then be too small. Accordingly, Briehl and Marcks were disengaged about midday under cover of another sandstorm and were transferred to the right wing. The regrouping was completed about two o'clock. Half an hour later the division, again mounted and in desert formation, resumed the advance.
Four miles further on, 90 Light ran into the South African battle groups covering the gap. Failure to sight the groups in time to avoid or deploy against them is attributed in the division's records to the poor visibility due to the standstorm. Be this as it may, the division found itself under fire from field and anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns. Its nerve gave way. The diary says a panic broke out and that even parts of the fighting units rushed back. Disaster was averted only by the prompt action of the division's commander and the senior officer of the supply columns, who rallied the fleeing troops and restored them, with few exceptions, to their units, which proceeded to dig in. The diary adds: ‘The situation has been clarified, a rout prevented but the attack has broken down under the concentrated enemy fire.’
The division had another unnerving experience late in the afternoon when it judged itself, wrongly, to be the victim of a British page 156 tank attack which it claimed, again wrongly, was smashed before it was fully developed. An account of the day's proceedings closes with the comments: ‘As a consequence of the violent sandstorm, the division had gone off the axis of attack too far to the north-east, thus approaching the enemy strongpoint positions too closely. Apart from that, the division was short of heavy artillery. The divisional artillery detachment, with the 7.62 (Russian) and 8.62 (British) guns still in action, had not been able to pin down the enemy artillery.’
While this important phase of Rommel's plan was being nullified, Panzerarmee was suffering a more vital upset at Deir el Shein.
Rommel intended Afrika Korps, followed by the Italian XX Armoured Corps and later by an infantry division from X Corps, to bypass the British position he believed to be in Deir el Abyad. The course plotted for the armoured forces brought them within artillery range of Abyad but this potentially dangerous area was to be traversed in the dark. Rommel expected that by dawn his armour would be over Ruweisat Ridge and well clear of interference by British troops in the northern sector. He did not alter his plans when Afrika Korps intimated that it could not cross the start line until 7 a.m., an hour after dawn. Nor, apparently, was he concerned by the fact that XX Corps was not on hand to follow Afrika Korps.
Neither of the panzer divisions, 15 and 21, appears to have attached any significance to the discovery that Deir el Abyad was empty. Certainly they had a great deal else to occupy them. They had tangled with each other in the approach to the assembly positions. They were late in arriving there. They had to refuel. They were being urged on by Afrika Korps. And just as they were starting their advance they were subjected to what 21 Division described as ‘a colossal bombing attack.’
Afrika Korps had 55 tanks for the attack. Its artillery, divided between two regiments, was a mixture of 54 German, British and Russian field guns and howitzers. There were only 21 guns of various sorts for the two anti-tank detachments. Rifle Regiment 104, with 21 Division, had about 300 riflemen, a British and a Russian field gun, and 23 anti-tank guns, including four British. Rifle Regiment 115, with 15 Division, had about 200 riflemen, eight anti-tank guns, and two 25-pounders.
The Korps advanced in parallel columns, with 15 Division on the right. At a quarter to eight 15 Division sighted the Deir el Shein strongpoint and intimated its intention to attack. Before developing the assault, however, two captured officers of 50 Division were sent forward with a demand for the surrender of the strongpoint. They gave an impressive report of the strength and resources of Afrika page 157 Korps but were told the ‘brigade will fight it out.’ The attack was then mounted under the direction of Afrika Korps' headquarters.
The 18th Indian Brigade was in no condition to withstand the full weight of Afrika Korps. It had a temporary commander and its brigade major was newly joined after a year in the adjutant-general's branch at base. Two of the three battalions, 2/5 Essex and the 2/3 Gurkhas, had never been in action. During the previous three days, the men had averaged eighteen to twenty hours a day digging and mining on a scanty water ration. The commanders and staff had been up the whole night 30 June–1 July working out the new battle-group organisation and the position was cluttered with transport waiting to take the surplus infantry to the rear.
Mines had been put down around the perimeter of the deir, but the only completed minefield was on the north-west sector manned by the 4/11 Sikhs. The artillery was short of wireless equipment and cable, ammunition was short for both guns and small arms, and there had been little opportunity to train the infantry battalions in handling the two-pounder anti-tank guns.
The fight for Deir el Shein lasted from 11.30 in the morning until 7.40 in the evening, when 21 Division signalled Afrika Korps that the strongpoint had been taken. Unfortunately no one in Eighth Army outside 18 Brigade knew until early afternoon that the deir was being attacked. At 11 a.m. the brigade sent an ‘S.O.S.’ message to 30 Corps, but the call was not given any priority and was sent in cipher. It was not decoded at Corps Headquarters until five o'clock that night. At 1.30 p.m., however, the South Africans received a call for help which was sent immediately to 30 Corps.
On this, 30 Corps ordered 1 Armoured and New Zealand Divisions to intervene. Neither did so effectively. The British 4 Armoured Brigade, with the greater number of its division's tanks, was still stuck in soft sand north-east of 2 South African Brigade. It did not free itself until after ten o'clock that night. The 22nd Brigade, with only eighteen serviceable tanks, was on Ruweisat Ridge. This brigade made ready to move, but at 2.30 p.m. the counter-attack was called off as the division's armoured car regiment, the Royals, reported that all was quiet in Deir el Shein. At 4.30 p.m. General Lumsden ordered the brigade to move at once to the help of 18 Brigade. This appears to be the tank movement which caused some consternation in 90 Light Division. The brigade engaged the enemy near Deir el Shein from about five o'clock until darkness fell about eight o'clock, when it withdrew to laager on Ruweisat Ridge. It claimed eight enemy tanks for the loss of four of its own.
New Zealand Division played only a minor role in this opening phase of the battle. In the afternoon of 29 June while General page 158 Inglis was at Army Headquarters, General Norrie called on the Division and explained the plan for the defence of the southern sector. He required the Division to put out a mobile outpost line up to 12 miles west of Kaponga to cover itself and 5 Indian Division. Kaponga was to be held by a brigade group and the rest of the Division was to occupy Deir el Munassib as a base for mobile operations. In the course of taking up these new dispositions next morning the Division had some brief contacts with the assembling enemy.
Later it was arranged that if, as Auchinleck expected, the enemy attacked in the north, the Division should co-operate in the defence by sending mobile artillery columns to act against his flank. To this end a column of two batteries from 5 Field Regiment, two troops from 32 Anti-Tank Battery, a machine-gun platoon and a platoon of carriers, all under Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow, was organised. It is not clear from the records of 13 Corps and the Division when these arrangements were made, when the column was organised, and whether the role was more precisely defined. The facts, however, are that when HINDU, the code-word for action, was received by the Division shortly after two o'clock on 1 July, the column promptly moved out. But it moved only some two miles north over Alam Nayil, where it was still seven miles from Deir el Shein, did not fire a shot, and returned to its brigade area at dusk.
There was a little more action on 6 Brigade's front. Late in the afternoon the brigade saw through a sandstorm carriers and portées moving south-west and firing back into the haze. As visibility improved, eighteen to twenty tanks and a large number of trucks were seen at extreme field-gun range. The target was engaged by 6 Field Regiment until dusk. Although not identified at the time, the target was probably 15 Panzer Division moving across the southern face of Deir el Shein to meet the counter-attack by 22 Armoured Brigade. There is no truth in a number of reports that the Division was attacked and that the assailants were driven off by this artillery fire.
The situation at nightfall may be briefly stated. Trento Division and 7 Bersaglieri of the Italian XXI Corps were outside the western and south-western sectors of the Alamein Box, their attack at dawn having been easily repulsed by machine guns. Since then they had been largely immobilised. The 90th Light Division, which according to Rommel's plan should have reached the coast and enclosed the box from the east, had dug itself in in the gap between the box and Deir el Shein. Afrika Korps, instead of being behind the British 13 Corps from Munassib to Qaret el Himeimat, had gone into laager in its battle positions in Deir el Shein. The Italian XX Armoured page 159 Corps (Ariete and Trieste) was in rear of Afrika Korps near EI Mreir. As planned, it should have been enclosing the New Zealanders at Kaponga from the north-east. The Italian X Infantry Corps was at Abyad instead of astride Ruweisat Ridge. Littorio Armoured Division was in the neighbourhood of Tell el Aqqaqir.
On the British side all positions were intact except that of 18 Indian Brigade at Deir el Shein. The South Africans, however, were worried about the position of their 1 Brigade which was under fire from Ruweisat. They thought there was a danger of their flank being turned.
Impressions left on the rival commanders by the day's fighting are as important as the actual situation. In this respect, Auchinleck was much closer to realities than Rommel. His communique reported the repulse of enemy tanks and lorried infantry in all-day fighting with results ‘not unfavourable to us.’ A ‘temporary breakthrough in a defended locality’ was admitted, but the report claimed that ‘later the enemy tanks were driven off and engaged by our columns.’ According to General Norrie, Auchinleck took the loss of 18 Brigade and Deir el Shein ‘calmly and philosophically.’
The South Africans had no idea they had played a decisive part in thwarting Rommel. Their reports of the day speak only of engaging targets as they presented themselves or of firing on enemy transport. They had not the slightest suspicion that they had dealt 90 Light Division a severe blow, still less that the division had been thrown into a state of panic. This is understandable when it is recalled that a khamsin with its enervating heat and thick clouds of sand and dust was blowing throughout much of the day. Even during breaks in the storm, vision was restricted to the immediate front.
Contemporary records do not do justice to 18 Brigade. Auchinleck mentions its ‘stalwart resistance’ and that ‘the stand made by the brigade certainly gained valuable time for the organisation of the Alamein Line generally.’1 Post-war revelations of all the facts show that the brigade did much more than this. Tactically and administratively insecure though it was, the brigade fought with a vigour that upset Rommel's battle plan. Just as the fighting in July marked the turn of Allied fortunes in the Middle East, so the action of 18 Brigade on 1 July may be said to have marked the turn of the battle on the Alamein Line. Had Eighth Army been able to avail itself of the opportunity created by the brigade, a crushing defeat might have been imposed on Rommel.
1 Despatch, p.364
At 11.40 that night Auchinleck issued the following orders to 13 and 30 Corps:
General conduct of action on 2 July. Thought likely that the enemy will renew attacks on 30 Corps with view to taking high ground south of imayid station, the Gebel bein gabir. 30 Corps will prevent this with all available means.
Meanwhile 13 Corps will be prepared to attack north in general direction of coast road supported by all available arty of both corps and by such armoured tps as can be made available with a view to disrupting his attack and destroying his rearward tps, particularly arty.
This attack by 13 Corps will be ordered by C-in-C on codeword latton. The attack will begin two hours after codeword is ackd. For this attack 1 Armd Div will move to any jumping off place ordered by Comd 13 Corps.
Rommel, in contrast to his usual ability in sizing up a battlefield, drew a false picture on which he made plans his forces could not carry out.
Afrika Korps was primarily responsible for Rommel's first error on 1 July. General Nehring did not tell him the Korps had encountered a British strongpoint in Deir el Shein and that his two divisions were deploying for the attack. The first news Rommel received from the Korps after it had crossed the start line was a message at 12.55: ‘Advance of 21 Panzer is proceeding well.'Doubtless Nehring meant no more than that 21 Panzer was bombarding Deir el Shein and that its infantry had reached the wire defences, which it was trying to breach with Bangalore torpedoes.
The message, however, seems to have given Rommel the impression that the battle was virtually over. He had seen 90 Light Division enter the Alamein gap on its appointed course, and during the morning he had ordered Littorio to come well forward and to be under his command. At one o'clock, after receiving Afrika Korps' message, he signalled Littorio: ‘Advance goes well. 20 Corps and Littorio may expect to start pursuit towards 1400 hours. Direction of pursuit 290 left 5 [EI Hammam] 300 left 47 as far as road crossing 20 km south-west of Alexandria.’
So far from Panzerarmee being ready for further pursuit, 90 Light Division was still regrouping in the gap, Afrika Korps was fully engaged at Deir el Shein, XX Corps was about 12 miles behind Afrika Korps, and Littorio was so badly supplied that a staff officer made a laconic note on Rommel's signal: ‘Littorio has fuel for only 20 km, to Alexandria 150 km!’
Even by nightfall Rommel was unaware that his army had suffered a severe reverse. According to his daily report, he believed Panzerarmee had broken into the British front and had ‘enlarged the breach in a north-easterly and south-easterly direction with the aim of rolling up the enemy positions to the north and south.’ He page 161 expected that next day he would complete his plan of thrusting deep into 13 Corps' rear and of sending 90 Light Division round the Alamein Box to the coast. He ordered 90 Light to continue its attack by moonlight as far as the coast road, with the support of 3 Recce Detachment, his own Kampstaffel and XX Corps, which were to attack about 5.30 a.m. on 2 July. Afrika Korps was ordered to continue the attack to the south and south-east. Littorio was told to join XX Corps in Sanyet el Miteiriya and to be ready to move at 5.30 a.m. The XXI Corps, facing the Alamein Box, was ordered to attack at 5.30, and X Corps was told to take over the front held by Afrika Korps.
Thus the day ended with Rommel optimistic but blind to the realities of the situation. His spearhead, 90 Light Division, had been blunted and was likely to break against firm opposition. Afrika Korps, which had started the day with 55 tanks, now had only 37. The Italians were slow in moving and in some cases frankly sceptical of the prospects. Supply shortages so menaced Panzerarmee that Afrika Korps noted in its diary: ‘The supply position regarding fuel and ammunition is precarious. Replenishment is urgently needed’. But replenishment was not made. During the night British bombing attacks scattered the German supply columns.
Rommel's German forces suffered heavy material losses on 1 July and, in the case of 90 Light Division, their morale was affected. But the loss of time was more important. On 1 July 1 Armoured Division and 7 Motor Brigade were largely out of action. Next day both of these formations were ready for battle.
The 2nd July, and the second day of the battle, was even more fateful for Rommel and his Panzerarmee. It brought admissions and complaints from his German troops of fatigue, distress, depression, and distrust of the Italians, and compelled Rommel to doubt his ability to break through the line without resting and refreshing his army.
At five o'clock in the morning 90 Light Division got under way to enclose the Alamein Box and cut the coast road. According to the division's diary, the attack, which was launched against the South African battle groups without artillery preparation, was broken up ‘by the concentrated fire of all enemy weapons’ after an advance of a mile and a quarter. At 7.30 the division reported to Panzerarmee that it was not advancing as it was faced with ‘strong artillery and machine-gun fire.’ At eleven o'clock it said it was pinned down but would resume the attack, with the main effort on the right flank,‘after softening up by the army artillery.’ At page 162 1.30 p.m. Panzerarmee was advised that the attack had been called off in consequence of the departure of the army artillery.'
Rommel appears to have accepted these reports at their face value. They suggested a situation in the gap which could be redeemed by deploying additional forces. He cancelled Afrika Korps' drive to the rear of 13 Corps and ordered it to march east and then north to Alam el Dakar, where it was to make contact with 90 Division, reconnoitre to the east, and attack the Alamein Box astride the road and railway and thus open the coast road. Littorio was ordered to advance on Afrika Korps' left wing. The inside running nearest the box was given to 90 Division with the army heavy artillery. Zero hour was 4 p.m. The Italian XX Corps, earlier marked for the pursuit eastwards, was given the role previously assigned to Afrika Korps, and X Corps, with Brescia and Pavia Divisions, was ordered to occupy EI Mreir where, in conjunction with XX Corps' operations, it was to secure Panzerarmee's southern flank.
During the morning Auchinleck noted the continued concentration of the enemy forces in the northern sector. Although he was not aware of the causes, he correctly deduced that an attack was likely to be made in the afternoon with the object of isolating the Alamein Box, and that the time had come to counter-attack. At midday he ordered 30 Corps to stop any advance eastwards and 13 Corps, with 1 Armoured and New Zealand Divisions, to attack north through the Qaret el Abd area‘to destroy the enemy wherever he is met and to attack his flank and rear.’ This was the executive order for the latton operation envisaged in Auchinleck's overnight instructions.
The New Zealand Division was ready for whatever the day might bring. At 7 a.m. a column comprising 4 Field Regiment, four troops of anti-tank guns from 31 and 33 Batteries, a platoon from 2 Machine Gun Company and the three rifle companies of 20 Battalion, all under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows, was moving north. It was followed by a column from 5 Brigade comprising B Company and the carriers of 23 Battalion, 28 Field Battery and a troop from 32 Anti-Tank Battery, with Major Snadden 1 in command. Carriers from 21 and 22 Battalions covered the movements of both columns.
Rommel's concentrated effort to break the line and enclose Alamein Box started on time. This was its sole achievement. The 90th Division treated itself to an artillery preparation for half an hour before sending in its infantry. Their further advance was no more than 400 yards before they went to ground and dug themselves in. Littorio did not get up. Trento Division and the Bersaglieri of XXI Corps reported that their attacks on the box had been halted by violent artillery fire.
First Armoured Division was making its way south-west towards Kaponga to reach Rommel's rear when it sighted Afrika Korps moving east on Ruweisat. In compliance with Auchinleck's order to destroy the enemy wherever he might be met, the division, postponed its westward march and attacked, calling on the New Zealand artillery column to assist. Support was also given on the ridge by Robcol, a battle group from the relics of 10 Indian Division. These formations had no difficulty in halting Afrika Korps, whose, division were soon calling for help and explaining to each other and to Nehring why they could not advance. The engagement continued until nightfall when the armoured forces withdrew into laager.
So far from encircling and subduing the Alamein Box, Afrika Korps had advanced only two to three and a half miles from its start line over undisputed ground. It had lost eleven more of its tanks and there were now only twenty in 21 Division and six in 15 Division. Replacements for the latter, however, were expected from the repair shops that night. The Korps consoled itself for not having reached its objective with the customary diary note of defeated formations that it had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. The diary also had these interesting entries: ‘It must be remembered that for days past the troops have been in action day and night. Signs of fatigue become evident among leaders and troops alike. … During the night the English air activity is again very lively. The continued attacks by day and night harass our page 164 troops very much; nothing is to be seen of our own fighter protection.'
The 90th Division was more depressed. Its summary of the day in its war diary says:
There is nothing to indicate that the enemy is considering withdrawal. On the contrary, the impression is created that he intends to halt the assault of the German-Italian Africa Army in front of the Alamein Line with all the forces at his disposal. The German units, badly exhausted through the heavy fighting and the hardships suffered (day and night marches) during the preceding days and weeks, do not seem able to take this last fortress of the English in front of the Nile Delta with the available forces.
The enemy throws all the Air Force at his disposal against the attacking Africa Army. Every 20 or 30 minutes 15, 18 or sometimes even 20 bombers, with adequate fighter protection, launch their attacks. Although the visible success of these heavy and continuous bombing and low-flying attacks is negligible owing to the dispersion of the fighting—and supply—units, the moral effect on the troops is so much the more important. Everyone prays for German fighter protection, knowing only too well that the German Africa Force cannot advance so very quickly. Sometimes German fighters appear singly, greeted by the roaring applause of the troops, but naturally they are not in a position to attack such heavy formations.
The last hope that remains is the Italian Divisions (10th and 21st Italian Infantry Corps and the 20th Italian Motorised Corps) which, so far, have seen but little action and are therefore more fit. However, from such comrades there is but little to be hoped. The Italian I.R. 62 of the Division Trento, in position to the left and rear of the 90th Light Infantry Division, had received orders on 2 July to advance a little further inside the frame of the attack of the 90th Light Infantry Division, in other words, to attack on the left wing of the division. As it was learnt later on, eight 10-centimeter batteries had taken up positions and two infantry battalions had gone into the line but they neither fired a shot nor had they attacked, excusing this inaction with the words that they did not want to bring the enemy fire down on themselves.
Rommel and his Panzerarmee were spared the humiliation of knowing that their efforts were so ineffective that Eighth Army did not know it was being seriously attacked, let alone that a concentrated endeavour was being made to crash the gate to Cairo. British front-line reports of the day tell only of light shelling which developed into ‘fairly heavy’ shelling in the afternoon. The South Africans barely mention the Italian attacks supposed to have been halted by ‘violent artillery fire.’ The ‘concentrated fire of all enemy weapons’ and the strong artillery and machine-gun fire' reported by 90 Light Division is dismissed in the South African divisional report of the day as ‘light shelling by both sides.’ To this may be added the fact that 90 Division's casualties for the day were only 10 killed and 12 wounded. The ‘concentrated fire of the enemy’ which halted the division ‘after several hours of embittered fighting’ appears to have existed only in the imagination of the weary and page 165 dispirited Germans. First Armoured Division considered that Afrika Korps did not show its usual initiative.
In his report to London that night, Auchinleck briefly surveyed the day and added, ‘but the expected attack had not developed by last light though some enemy tanks were seen.’
Rommel admitted later that he had made ‘extraordinary demands’ on his forces, that he had ‘spared neither the rank and file nor their leaders,’ and that in the advance into Egypt ‘the deeds performed by officers and men reached the limits of human efficiency.’ But until the evening of 2 July he ignored the exhaustion of his troops. His decisions at this period show signs of personal strain. He appears to have fortified himself with the doctrine that success attends the commander who imposes his will on the enemy, and he expected his own strong willpower to manifest itself in his German troops.
That night Rommel still thought the victory might be won. He ordered the attacks to be resumed on 3 July. But all his orders to the striking formations had a significant addition: ‘from daybreak until 0900 hours [10 a.m. British Army time] test out the enemy positions and find out the weak ones.’ In effect, the orders admitted that Eighth Army could not be pushed out of the Alamein Line but suggested there might be some weak joints from which it might be prised loose.
Eighth Army rested for the night in its battle positions ready for further parry and counter-thrust tactics on the morrow. While so doing some minor reorganisations and regroupings were completed. As 9 Indian Brigade in its isolation at Naqb Abu Dweis was a hostage to fortune, Auchinleck withdrew it to Qaret el Himeimat to organise as a battle group under 5 Indian Division. He decided also that Kaponga fortress had served its purpose and might become a liability. New Zealand Division was ordered to reduce the garrison to a battle group, which was to hold the fortress for another day to cover the evacuation of stores and the demolition of the defences.
A battle group was organised of 6 Field Regiment, 28 Battalion, 33 Anti-Tank Battery, a troop from 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, a platoon from No. 3 Machine Gun Company, and an ambulance detachment. Lieutenant-Colonel Walter1 was given command with orders to ensure the destruction by any means other than fire of all stores, especially petrol, which could not be removed. Under cover of darkness, the rest of the brigade moved in trucks and afoot to Munassib.
This operation set in train further reorganisation within the Division to facilitate command and improve its effectiveness. The CRA's column, which was staying overnight in the battle area about Alam Nayil, was not a normal tactical formation in command, composition, or for supply. General Inglis decided to make it a 4 Brigade entity under Brigadier Gray, newly appointed to the command of the brigade, and to restore the 5 Brigade units to their own brigade command, which was also to assume responsibility for the battle group in Kaponga. Concurrently, the Divisional Reserve Group was reconstituted. Sixth Brigade infantry, considered by Auchinleck to be surplus under the battle-group policy, were marked for withdrawal to Maadi. Inglis, however, decided to keep them with the Division until the situation became clearer.