Battle for Egypt
CHAPTER 24 — Fighting on the Ridge
Fighting on the Ridge
SO many tasks confronted 4 Brigade at dawn and during the morning that there was little time for thought that the brigade might be in a hazardous situation. This attitude reflected the spirit of all ranks. They were confident that their part of the operation had been successful and that they had only to hold their positions and endure the hostile fire and discomfort for the short period needed to move up the artillery and British tanks. In the meantime, there was enough to do without worrying about other phases of the battle.
Three facts impressed themselves when daylight permitted the commanders to take stock of the position. The most forceful was perhaps the unaccustomed view of the enemy's rear area in which could be seen numerous guns and vehicles and groups of Italians moving about apparently aimlessly. The next was that within the rough perimeter taken up in the dark there was still a large body of enemy troops. Some of these had surrendered and had been left for collection by the supports. Others had been bypassed. The third definite impression was that the cover chosen in the dark was not effective in the light and that movement provoked enemy fire.
Fourth Brigade, however, had no thought of lying down under the fire and thereby surrendering the initiative. A number of sorties were made from the perimeter to destroy abandoned trucks and other equipment and to gather prisoners. But it soon became obvious that the German gunners had not fallen to the general panic. They also had good observation over the area and their well-directed and prompt fire made sorties by organised bodies too expensive. Individual men then carried on the work. Some of the Italians did not need rounding up. They came into the brigade area to escape the increasing fire of both sides.
Among the Italians were at least four who claimed the rank of general, including a General Lombardi, and about ten colonels. Credit for these captures was claimed by several parties from various units. This was to be expected as, in the confusion normal to the arrival of an assaulting force on its objectives, the same prisoners were often taken two or three times by successive waves or groups. Probably D Troop of 31 Anti-Tank Battery has the best claim. In the early hours, the troop drove into the middle of a headquarters' area when it was moving over a slight rise into cover from fire from the south. A solitary German opened fire with an automatic gun but was quickly dealt with by the troop's Bren-gunner. The surprised Italian staff showed immediate readiness to surrender. From the German records it may be inferred that the staff was part of the headquarters of Brescia Division.
Disposal of the prisoners was a problem. A sergeant of 18 Battalion at one time had 150 Italians in his care. Sappers of 6 Field Company had another 300 and ‘three surly Germans.’ When this second group was being mustered to be taken to the rear, the prisoners asked permission to fill their water bottles from drums on captured trucks. A certain irresponsibility that developed among the prisoners led to investigations. The drums had held wine.
In the opinion of 4 Brigade three thousand or more prisoners could have been taken in its area had the attack been supported as planned and the lines of communication been kept open. As it was, scores taken in the advance and sent back under light escort, often one man, either escaped or were released by the enemy left in the rear. Other groups of prisoners, held on the objective during the day, had to be left to their own devices when enemy fire fell heavily on the area. Many more who could easily have been captured north of the ridge if tanks or artillery had been available to give covering fire had to be allowed to drift back to their own lines.
Some of the prisoners were conveyed to the rear and handed over to the armour, the Indians, or New Zealand Divisional Headquarters, but no records were kept to show by which brigade or in what area the prisoners had been taken. The divisional intelligence summary of July stated that ‘By early morning 400 prisoners had been brought in’, and that ‘By 2.30 New Zealand troops had captured page 266 1600 prisoners.’ The records make no mention of a group of senior Italian officers and some Germans sent back by 4 Brigade during the morning.
There was a reverse side to the prisoner picture. Shortly after eight o'clock several men of 20 Battalion reported a long column of troops marching to the west, about a mile and a half to two miles to the south. Field-glasses disclosed that these men were wearing greatcoats, equipment which 4 Brigade had not carried in the advance. It was therefore assumed that the prisoners were Italians captured or bypassed in the advance and since released by their escort of German tanks. As the column was out of Bren-gun range, the Vickers were instructed to fire. By this time, however, more careful observation revealed that the column comprised British troops under enemy guard. This disconcerting sight would have been more so had it been known that it was 22 Battalion which was being marched off.
Concurrent with these activities, the brigade defence layout was being tidied. The anti-tank guns and the Vickers machine guns provided the backbone of the defence. Most of the guns had been in vigorous action since the brigade arrived on the ridge, directing their fire in the dark and in the early morning haze against the flashes of the enemy field guns, mortars and automatics. One target that engaged the early attention of the machine guns revealed itself as tanks which were thought to be preparing the enemy's expected immediate counter-attack. The anti-tank guns were called on and drove the tanks into hull-down positions. The anti-tank gunners at this stage also claimed that they had put another three tanks out of action. These were seen at a range of about 2000 yards to the south and were identified later as two Grants and a Valentine captured from the British.
The Germans often labelled captured tanks as Mark IIIs, and there is evidence that on the morning of 15 July Afrika Korps sent three Mark IIIs to help 15 Division.1 These tanks are not mentioned again in the enemy records and may have been 31 Battery's bag. On the other hand, there was a group of derelict British tanks in the neighbourhood which, in the later investigation, may have been assumed to be the battery's victims. Any doubt on this matter, however, should not detract from 31 Battery's actions, which may well have been a factor in deterring General Nehring from ordering 15 Panzer to push home an attack at that time.
These medium machine guns constituted the main defence of the brigade and their gunners earned high praise for the manner in which they kept their guns in action. The shelter of their shallow trenches was inadequate and they were under continuous fire from captured 25-pounders and also probably from 5·9-inch guns whose shells burst in the air. Notwithstanding their exposed positions and casualties, the Vickers gunners engaged enemy machine-gun and mortar posts and, at extreme range, the enemy's heavier guns and transport. They did much to sustain the brigade in most trying hours.
Disposal of the anti-tank guns was a more difficult problem. Of 31 Battery's 12 six-pounders which crossed the start line, 11 reached the ridge where they were dispersed in whatever cover was available around Point 63. Several of the guns at once went into action against the enemy to the west and south. The guns were still on their portées and were backed into ‘hull-down’ positions on reverse slopes for protection against the enemy's anti-tank fire. The guns, however, were vulnerable to mortar and small-arms fire and the crews suffered several casualties.
Later in the morning the battery commander, Major Nicholson,1 organised an anti-tank layout that included the infantry two-pounders. He sent C Troop near to brigade headquarters to cover the northern approaches and placed B and D Troops around Point 63 covering the north, south, and west. The two-pounders were also deployed with the battery troops.
Attempts to dig pits for the guns were abandoned in most cases. Positions offering the best fields of fire were invariably near the tops of the minor ridges where the rocky outcrops made digging too slow and laborious. These positions were also under enemy observation and movement of any sort provoked direct fire of all types. Even when on portée the guns had to be moved after each engagement as enemy retaliation was immediate and accurate. This fire was sufficient to keep most of the anti-tank gunners under cover when there were no targets peculiar to their trade. However, it also at times provoked them into retaliation.
The two-pounders had little action early in the day as few targets appeared within range and their ammunition was limited. When the infantry positions at the western end of the ridge were rearranged some of these guns were left in front of the perimeter because, in the words of 20 Battalion's anti-tank platoon commander, ‘There was just nowhere else to go.’ Any movement of the portées in the area drew immediate fire and several casualties to men, guns, and vehicles were suffered.
Although 4 Brigade arrived on the objective with twenty-one anti-tank guns, the anti-tank defences could not be much improved during the day because of the difficulties of the terrain and the enemy's good observation. The gun crews also believed that the British tanks would appear at any moment, and that when they arrived the guns would be switched from a defensive to a mobile role in support of an advance by the armour.
Some of the infantry dispositions were also rearranged in the morning. Daylight revealed that A and C Companies of 20 Battalion were separated from D Company and battalion headquarters on Point 63 by about a thousand yards of flat ground under enemy observation. In C Company, which had suffered a number of casualties in the dawn attack and had been under fire ever since, Captain Upham and most of his officers had been wounded. It was decided to withdraw the company as opportunity offered to the south-west of Point 63. After Upham had seen that the captured enemy guns had been made useless, he directed the company to fall back in small parties to the new area. During this movement several men were hit by machine-gun fire. Later in the day, one man drove back in a ‘pick-up’ and brought in the wounded who had been left behind.
A Company was given a new position to the north of Point 63. The move was started about 10.30. As groups of the company assembled in a shallow wadi they were fired on by artillery and mortars. When the fire eased the company was led in small parties to its final position. Here some of the men found abandoned enemy pits but the majority had to scrape what cover they could in very stony ground.page 269
While these moves were being made a report was circulated that the enemy appeared to be on the point of attacking. For some minutes there was a brisk exchange of small-arms fire, probably with 3 Recce Unit, which at that time was reporting on a reconnaissance of the ridge with the additional advice that it had engaged a company of the enemy which had withdrawn to the point. No attack developed, and after the new positions had been manned the men of 18 Battalion who had been with 20 Battalion were released to rejoin their own unit.
Towards midday conditions became very trying. In the exposed positions it was impossible to improvise shelter from the direct rays of the sun; water bottles were empty and could not be refilled as the men had to remain in the cramped cover of their shallow trenches and insecure sangars. Men who had taken over Italian pits found the dirt, the stench, and the flies so unbearable that they took the risk of searching for cleaner quarters, even to scraping fresh pits. Enemy activity slackened although observed fire was still directed against any movement. As midday passed, visibility became worse. Heat haze and shimmer and the dust raised by shellfire made observation difficult for any distance, especially towards the sun.
The condition of the wounded was especially trying. It was impracticable to collect the wounded at a central point where a regimental aid post might be established, nor was it possible to evacuate them to the rear. As the casualties mounted several small aid posts were set up by medical orderlies and other men. The wounded in the immediate vicinity were collected at these posts and made as comfortable as possible while awaiting their turn to be visited by one of the two medical officers with the brigade, Captains Swallow1 and Feltham.2
Typical of such shelters was that organised by two men of the machine-gun company, Sergeant Morgan3 and Private Luxford.4 They took it on themselves to carry those wounded early to a slight hollow, where with the help of some transport drivers they dug slits, improvised protection from the direct rays of the sun and made tea. At the same time the company's medical orderlies gave such aid as they could.
Another dressing station was made by the engineers near brigade headquarters. Of this post, Major Reid wrote:
The number of wounded was beginning to increase, and as we had no medical personnel with us we had to set up our own little advanced dressing station. Two small Italian tents were found and pitched in a little hollow, and our wounded carried in out of the sun. It was a terrifically hot day, with what seemed to be more than the usual number of flies. We had only our field dressings. … I had difficulty in finding a sapper to take charge of the wounded, but in the end arranged for one of the corporals to take over. We were sitting behind a sangar while I gave him his instructions when an air burst exploded overhead. The corporal was hit in the leg by a big piece of shrapnel and finished up in the advanced dressing station all right, but not in his intended capacity.1
Reid has also recorded:
To the rear of our position another makeshift dressing station had been established. The wounded were in shallow slit trenches or just lying on the sand in the full glare of the sun. Their position was most unenviable, and there was little we could do to ease their pain. Evacuation was not possible.2
At this stage, the early afternoon, there were probably about seventy wounded in the aid posts scattered throughout the brigade area. They were hanging on waiting for the tanks and support weapons and equipment to arrive. Word had got around that Brigadier Burrows had established wireless contact with Divisional Headquarters and had reported that the brigade was dug-in on the objective, and that he had been advised of early tank support.
The wide gap separating 4 and 5 Brigades on the ridge should have been filled by 21 Battalion with the 22nd in support. But 22 Battalion had ‘gone into the bag’ and the 21st was scattered far and wide, although parts were deployed with 18 and 23 Battalions. Yet while 21 Battalion was scattered and thus unable to fulfil its role in the brigade and divisional plan, it was not ineffective. Its main group played considerable havoc among the enemy.
1 The Turning Point, by Lieutenant-Colonel H. Murray Reid (Collins), p. 79.
2 Ibid, p. 81.
At a conference during the halt most of the officers considered they had reached the area of the objective. They pointed out that the rate of advance had been high as the men had tackled the opposition at the double. Further, the ground to the north appeared to slope downwards, suggesting that the crest of the ridge had been passed. Allen, however, refused to be convinced. He argued that the distance between the start line and the objective could hardly have been covered within the time. He therefore ordered the group to proceed still further.
It is impossible to determine precisely where the group halted. Had the advance been made only at the rate prescribed in the battalion orders, 44 yards a minute, the party would have been over the ridge at two o'clock. The soft sand and scrub which made arduous going for the infantry may have been in the shallow depression at the foot of the crest. However, there appears to be no doubt that the resumed advance, which was maintained for another three-quarters of an hour, carried the group up to two miles into the enemy area beyond the ridge and probably a little to the right of the axis of the advance.
A double-apron and dannert wire fence covering a minefield, and a large gun emplacement and the noises of tracked vehicles moving and truck engines being started, halted the group. These signs of the enemy convinced Allen that he had reached the expected main line of resistance on the ridge. He ordered Butcher to hold the men on the position while he went back to bring up the rest of the battalion. Allen also left instructions that if he did not return or the group was not joined by other troops within an hour, Butcher and his officers should confer on a further plan of action.
While awaiting the remainder of the battalion, Butcher laid out company defences and sent West-Watson and one man to reconnoitre the enemy position. As they were examining the fence, which continued unbroken for 200 yards on either side of the point of contact, they destroyed three trucks and took some prisoners.
About four o'clock, as there was no sign of the battalion commander or the other companies, Butcher decided to withdraw on the route taken by Colonel Allen. The group had not gone very far when it met Major McElroy, who had with him some of Headquarters Company, including the signals officer, Lieutenant Judd,1 and a few of his signallers, and Lieutenant Hawkesby2 and his platoon, No. 7 of A Company, which had become detached in the encounter with the Italian field battery. Like all other groups and parties moving on and about the ridge that night, McElroy and his men had had a fair share of adventure.
After moving through the first enemy defences and picking up 7 Platoon, McElroy led the party forward for about an hour on the 320 degree bearing, dealing with some enemy posts and taking several prisoners on the way. He then changed direction to due north for about a mile in the hope of converging on other parts of the battalion.
Instead of meeting friends, the party found itself ‘among limitless and undisturbed Italian transport.’ As he thought the group had either missed or overstepped the objective, and principally because his men had by this time almost run out of ammunition, McElroy decided it would be unwise to engage the enemy unless it became necessary. The Italian sentries were far from alert. Some challenged the party but appeared to take little action when their challenges were not answered. The New Zealanders then tried challenging first with ‘Qui va la?’ to which the sentries replied and allowed them to pass unmolested.
When he had satisfied himself that he was on the crest of the ridge, McElroy checked the ammunition. There was little more than about five rounds a man, a quantity obviously insufficient to hold a defensive position unsupported. McElroy thereupon led the party along the ridge to the east in search of other troops. On the way, he attacked a group of trucks in a wadi and took some more prisoners. This action provoked fire from both flanks of the party, which then moved further to the east into another depression.
The way forward from this depression was blocked by an extensive defensive position facing generally south. McElroy ordered the remaining ammunition to be evenly distributed and then directed a series of bayonet charges against the position. A small group of Germans about fourteen in number offered determined resistance until all were killed or wounded. Thereupon some thirty to forty Italian officers and several hundred other ranks gave up the fight.
As the wadi was under fire from British guns, the New Zealanders and their prisoners continued towards the east guided by an intelligence officer from 5 Indian Division who had been held prisoner by the Italians. On reaching the edge of the enemy's minefield, an Italian officer indicated the gap and the whole group passed through to be met by armoured cars from 30 Corps. McElroy handed his prisoners to 5 Indian Division before leading his men back to the New Zealand sector, where shortly after midday he reported to his own brigade headquarters.
Casualties in the group had been remarkly light since they had broken away from the main body of the battalion. Captain Ironside had been killed by a machine gun and about eight men had been wounded. Major McElroy officially reported that he handed over about 500 prisoners, but the total was believed to be more.
In contrast with many other encounters, these activities cannot be directly related to the enemy reports and actions. It is possible, however, that McElroy's move eastwards along the ridge was linked in the enemy's mind with the advance of the 3rd Baluchis on the extreme right. Afrika Korps recorded in its diary at 1.30 p.m. that ‘another piece of bad news is received; Pavia also retreats to the west. The situation grows more and more critical.’ The German Infantry Regiment 200 of 90 Light Division, which filled a gap between Pavia and Trento, was also apprehensive of an attack in its rear. Further, the movements of aggressive groups in the enemy's page 274 rear area in the early hours of the morning was doubtless disconcerting and added to the confusion, especially in the neighbourhood of Deir el Shein, a defensive area of great importance. In its daily battle report Panzerarmee said: ‘Had the enemy succeeded in capturing the work of Deir el Schein, the whole front of the Panzerarmee would have been split in two.’
The exploits of 11 Platoon of B Company, 22 Battalion, under Sergeant Elliott may be added to those of 21 Battalion, as they occurred largely in the same area about the same time and caused much discomfort to the enemy.
Upon the escape of the platoon from the tanks which rounded up his battalion and after having had the bullet wound in his chest attended to, Elliott deployed his sections on the far right flank of 23 Battalion alongside two platoons from the 21st under Lieutenants Shaw and Horrocks.1 Here they dug in under spasmodic fire, mostly from the north.
While thus engaged a report was received that a New Zealand officer was lying badly wounded somewhere to the north. Shaw sought a truck while Elliott took eight men to search the ground. As they left their positions, they were fired on from an enemy post in a slight depression about 500 yards distant. About half-way to this post heavy fire from the right menaced the search. Corporal Garmonsway2 took four of the men to deal with this opposition, while Elliott and the remaining three men pushed straight ahead.
As Elliott's party closed to within 50 yards of the first opposition, the Italians in the post, about eleven in number, ceased fire and put up their hands. Elliott found an anti-tank gun and some machine guns in the post. He was dismantling these when two supporting posts, one about 100 yards to the north and the other slightly farther away, opened fire.
It was now obvious to the attackers that they had penetrated a defended area. Whether to go on or withdraw became an urgent problem. Elliott decided that, in the circumstances, attack was the better form of defence. Shepherding their prisoners with them, the men moved on to assault the new posts. As these surrendered, yet another post on a gently rising slope ahead opened fire on the assailants and prisoners alike.
There were now about fifty prisoners. Sergeant Elliott sent one of his men back for reinforcements and with the other two worked his way up the slope. Once again there was new fire, this time from the left rear to the west.
Leaving his two men to engage the enemy ahead and look after the prisoners, Elliott dashed across 200 yards of open desert to engage this flank post. Heavy machine-gun fire forced him into cover behind an abandoned water truck near the post. When he sniped the enemy from this cover several of the defenders put up their hands, but the machine-gunner maintained his fire and succeeded in wounding Elliott in the thigh with a bullet that passed through the truck.
The shock of the wound compelled Elliott to rest for a few minutes, which he spent in watching his two men make their attack and then supporting them with fire. Next he dashed to the cover of a small hummock on his left closer to his own objective. From this position he lobbed a hand grenade into the post, and followed its explosion with a bayonet assault to dispose of the machine-gunner and take the rest of the defenders, about fifteen, prisoner. Taking these with him, Elliott made his way back to his two men and helped them to finish off the post they had been attacking.
A check of the prisoners revealed that they included two German medical officers, some German soldiers and over sixty Italians, some of whom had been wounded by their own men. By this time Elliott had received another wound in his leg, and one of his men, Private Jones,1 had also been wounded. Elliott now decided to withdraw.
On the way back he met Lieutenant Shaw with a truckload of reinforcements. Near the positions on the ridge, they were rejoined by Corporal Garmonsway and his men who, after accounting for three enemy posts, had collected another sixty Italians and a German officer and sergeant. Among them, the sergeant and his eight men had accounted for almost two hundred of the enemy, including the prisoners. It was well after midday when they regained their platoon position. Indian troops were then appearing from the south-east. Elliott checked on his men and handed the platoon over to Garmonsway before he was taken through the Indian lines to a dressing station.
For his leadership of the platoon when 22 Battalion was attacked by the tanks and his skill, example, and great personal bravery in the subsequent actions, Sergeant Elliott was awarded the Victoria Cross. His exploits were all the more remarkable in that he was still suffering from the after-effects of a bad bout of malaria. Corporal Garmonsway, who so ably supported his platoon leader, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.