Battle for Egypt
CHAPTER 33 — Reorganisation
NEW Zealand Division was sourly discontented in the aftermath of Mreir. Few men and even fewer officers retained faith in the higher commands of the Army. The majority believed that whatever Eighth Army attempted, Rommel did better. They knew there was an element of luck in battle. They acknowledged that fortune could turn against even the most skilful commanders, that at times they might have a run of bad luck. Such commanders did not forfeit the confidence of their troops. This characteristic of British troops in adversity, the spirit of fair play, was shared by the New Zealanders. But now experience and observation had convinced the Division that luck was not the issue. The Army was the victim of bad management.
Unfortunately, this critical attitude was not directed solely at the higher commands. The good name of the Division suffered in criticism of the fighting qualities of the other divisions. Disparaging comment and sarcastic gossip spread to the point where official action had to be taken. Thus Brigadier Clifton in a memorandum to be promulgated to all ranks in his brigade said:
Our belief in the fighting efficiency of 2 NZ Div is to be encouraged. But we must not carry it to the degree of imagining that we are fighting this campaign on our own, slightly hampered by second rate troops on either flank. The proud record of the Indian divisions, who have fought gallantly and continuously before and since our entry, should indeed set us on our mettle. They have suffered battle casualties heavier than ours, but they are professional soldiers not “in the news” and we do not hear about them over the BBC. Remember we are all fighting with one purpose—to win this war. If we cut out criticism and pull together we shall win more quickly. Do your best to help.1
Instead of being satisfied with the credit given to them by all other soldiers in Egypt, many of our men are trying to insist on it by blaming or disparaging everyone else. Letters from the men of the Division show that many men are blaming impartially the South Africans, Indians, British, and the armd formations, and by implication are boasting that we are the only good troops in Egypt. Many of the men in Base, who have taken no part in the fighting or very little, have disgraced themselves and the Divisionpage 371 by unseemly boasting and insulting conduct in Cairo. Leave it to others to praise us. Everybody in Egypt is willing to give us full credit and we need not boast.
1 Confidential circular to all officers, 31 July.
It must be remembered that we have seen very little of the fighting of other units. We did not take part in the great battles in Libya from 26 May onwards and many of the troops whom we are freely insulting have been continuously in the field since then. We were disappointed in the action of the Armour in failing to support us, disappointed and bitter. We do not know what difficulties prevented them, but we do know that many of the men whom we have freely charged with cowardice have had their tanks destroyed under them half-a-dozen times and that almost every armoured unit, owing to losses is an amalgamation of several units. We freely blame the South Africans for losing Tobruk but we have not shown yet that we ourselves can face and defeat a Stuka bombardment and concentrated tank assault of the violence that they had to meet.
I appeal to all men in the Bde to remember that we know only too little of what other units have done and suffered, that we are fighting the Germans and Italians and not the South Africans, British or Indians and that careless, ignorant, and thoughtless talk of the description that has been common does tremendous harm to our cause and to the good name of the New Zealand Division.1
Such conduct was not characteristic of New Zealand soldiers. They could do their share of ‘bitching and belly-aching’, to quote Field Marshal Montgomery in a later context. They were ready to bait or ‘take a rise’ out of the men of other divisions. But as a rule they did so with a grin or a friendly twinkle in the eye that took the sting out of comments. They were willing to take as good as they gave. There is no doubt they considered that they had been badly let down at Ruweisat and Mreir. Yet it is questionable whether their talk and comments would have been so bitter, so harsh, so biting, so boastful, if the conditions under which they existed after Mreir had not been so exhausting. Much of the gossip, so harmful that it had to be stopped, was but a relief to the pent-up feelings of outraged nature.
The Egyptian summer was reaching its peak. Few clouds tempered the sun's burning rays. The flat, featureless sand reflected the heat. There was no natural shade in any form. In the forward defences and for some distance to the rear, improvised shade had to be set below ground level to escape enemy observation. Whether it was hotter in a shaded hole or in the direct rays of the sun was debatable. Water was scarce. At times the ration was down to a water-bottle a day for all purposes—half a mugful for a wash and shave and the rest for drinking. The Army. Service Corps did its utmost to relieve the shortage and when the front became stabilised brought up small supplies of beer, usually American canned.
Flies were perhaps the worst plague of all. But for them the heat and dust might have been endured with greate equanimity. The plague, and the men's reactions to it, is well described in Journey Towards Christmas:1
The foul and dismaying thing about the Alamein flies was their oneness. None was separate from its fellows any more than the wave is separate from the ocean, the tentacle from the octopus. As one fly, one dark and horrible force guided by one mind, ubiquitous and immensely powerful, they addressed themselves to the one task, which was to destroy us body and soul. It was useless to kill them, for they despised death and made no attempt to avoid it. They existed only in the common will, and to weaken that we should have had to destroy countless millions of them. None the less we killed them unceasingly. We killed them singly and in detachments with fly swats, and the dead lay so thick in our lorries that we had to sweep them out several times a day. We set ingenious traps for them, and they filled the traps, the living feasting ghoulishly on the dead. We slew them in mounds with our bare hands until the crunch of minute frames and the squish of microscopic viscera, felt rather than heard, became a nightmare. But what was the use? Their ranks closed at once and they went on with the all-important task of driving us out of our minds.
Although they had a common brain and a common purpose not all were identical in appearance. About one in a thousand was larger than his fellows and of a lovely bottle-green colour. These, so the story went, and doubtless it was true, were corpse-fed. One could only suppose that the Intelligence in charge of the operation had introduced them for the moral effect, which was considerable.
Flies are attracted by any light surface, and our towels and the sunbleached canopies of our lorries were speckled as with black confetti. Flies crave moisture, and you knew from watching your friends—and the knowledge was disproportionately humiliating and disgusting—that you too were walking around with half a hundred miniature old-men-of-the-sea clinging dourly to the back of your damp shirt. And when you shut your eyes—this is the plain truth—flies tried to open them, mad for the delectable fluid.We couldn't always be killing them, but we had to keep on brushing them away, otherwise even breathing would have been difficult. Our arms ached from the exercise, but still they fastened on our food and accompanied it into our mouths and down our throats, scorning death when there was an advantage to be gained. They drowned themselves in our tea and in our soup. They attended us with awful relish on our most intimate occasions.page 373 They waited until our hands were full—they liked us best when we were lying beneath a lorry busy with spanner or grease gun—and then they rushed us, feet and suckers working furiously, inflicting a hundred pricks and stings. …
On 29 July while the plague was at its peak—a peak that was to be maintained effortlessly for more than two months—we were visited by a swarm of mosquitoes. For some hours we waded through a warm, whirring mist, every particle of which was able to raise a blister. This would surely have driven us mad before long, but the wind changed and the mosquitoes went away, leaving the field to the flies.
To the flies and the desert sores.
The satanic cunning (‘But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh’) was evident in these noisome ulcers. The least scratch was enough to cause them and they took rather less than a fortnight to expand round a suppurating centre to the bigness of a slice of lemon. They were irksome and humiliating rather than painful (‘My flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust; my skin is broken and become loathsome’) and they took weeks, months sometimes, to heal, and when they did they left scars that remained for over a year. Nearly everyone you saw had an arm or a leg bandaged and the knuckles of both hands ringed with filthy scraps of sticking-plaster.
Bad as were the conditions over the whole of the Divisional area, Llewellyn and the men in the transport companies had a slight advantage over the troops in the front line. The transport men could move about in the daytime. They could do something, however little, to ameliorate their lot. The forward defensive localities were under constant enemy observation which precluded all but stealthy individual movement. Only a few men in exceptional positions could improve their slit trenches in the daytime. The remainder could only sleep, smoke, clean weapons, write letters, gossip—anything at all to pass the long, hot days until dusk brought relief from the heat and the flies. It was an atmosphere to breed discontent. Like the cannibalistic flies, discontent fed on itself. The brain-cleansing influence of work was not available in the daytime. Even after a night of hard labour, tiredness was not always sufficient opiate to give relief from the oppressions of heat, dust and flies.
These conditions were not peculiar to the New Zealand sector. They prevailed over the whole front. They were suffered by friend and foe alike. Thus they do not excuse the New Zealanders' attitude to the other divisions. Yet they were a cause. They were as fuel to the fires of bitterness already well fed by certain knowledge that the Division had been twice let down within a week, by a sense of frustration, by lack of confidence in the higher command, by thoughts of whether any further effort would be worth while.
After Mreir the New Zealand Division settled down in a sector which it was later to develop as the New Zealand Box, and which page 374 was to become an important factor in defeating Rommel's last effort to reach Cairo and the Delta.
In the afternoon of 23 July General Inglis conferred with his brigade commanders on the state of the Division and the reorganisation of the brigades. The strength of all the rifle battalions was low. Few reinforcements were available. The base camp at Maadi had been combed for surplus men but many of those sent forward were not suitable for infantry work. The 19th and 20th Battalions were at Maadi reorganising and building up their numbers after Ruweisat. It was decided to send 24 Battalion, which had lost practically the whole of its rifle companies, to join them. The remnants of the battalion moved to Amiriya on the 24th and to Maadi on the 25th. Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam took Greville's place in command.
In 25 Battalion the surviving riflemen of A, B and C Companies were placed in C Company, and D Company which had been left out of battle was ordered forward from Maadi. Under Major Burton,1 formerly second-in-command, the battalion with a strength of 362 all ranks took over its former defences in 6 Brigade's sector on 25 July. The 26th Battalion, with a total strength of 435, was returned to the command of 6 Brigade in its old sector on the 23rd. The 18th Battalion, which had moved into 24 Battalion's sector on its withdrawal from the flank position in the evening of the 22nd, was left under 6 Brigade's command. It had a strength of 15 officers and 392 men.
In 5 Brigade the main change was the relief by 26 Battalion of the 28th, which was moved during the night 23–24 July to the brigade's right flank facing north towards Ruweisat. The brigade had 29 officers and 586 other ranks in 28 Battalion, 17 and 426 in the 21st and 19 and 572 in the 23rd, a total of 65 and 1584, roughly 400 more than 6 Brigade.
1 Lt-Col H. G. Burton, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Christchurch, 1 Dec 1899; plumber; NZ Mounted Rifles 1918–19; actg CO 25 Bn 23 Nov – 6 Dec 1941; CO 25 Bn 24 Jul–11 Sep 1942; CO 1 and 2 Trg Units, 1944.
Concurrent with the reorganisation, the men were set to the task of cleaning the Division's sector in the interests of elementary hygiene. The dead were buried, all Italian slit trenches were filled in, and rubbish was buried or burned. Fighting patrols were sent out at night to check the enemy positions, harass his outposts and obtain control of no-man's-land. Works plans were also made to strengthen and improve the defences. With the fall of darkness, the sector came to life. Ration parties came up and the engineers appeared with their compressors and loads of mines and wire. Throughout the night there was the roar and rattle of compressors, bursts of fire from the patrols, the fixed-line tracer fire of the enemy machine guns, harassing fire from the Divisional artillery and the noises of transport. As dawn neared, the patrols came in, the engineers packed up, and the transport moved to the rear. At dawn the infantry stood to in their slits, the desert would be practically clear of movement, and often there would be an uncanny quiet.
On 25 July General Auchinleck issued a special order of the day addressed ‘To all ranks Eighth Army from C-in-C.’ The order said:
You have done well. You have turned a retreat into a firm stand and stopped the enemy on the threshhold of Egypt. … You have wrenched the initiative from him by sheer guts and hard fighting and put HIM on the defensive in these last weeks.
He has lost heavily and is short of men, ammunition, petrol and other things. He is trying desperately to bring these over to Africa but the Navy and the Air Force are after his ships.
You have borne much but I ask you for more. We must not slacken. If we can stick it we will break him.
stick to it
C. J. Auchinleck,
This order was issued at the same time as Auchinleck's plans for what was to prove his last throw at Rommel. Both order and plans appear to recognise that Eighth Army was near, if it had not already reached, the end of its tether. The intention in the new plan was more modest than its predecessors. After stating that it was essential to strike the enemy hard and quickly before he had time to build up his strength, the intention was stated as ‘To disrupt and disorganise the enemy's army with a view to its eventual destruction.’1 The operation was designated manhood.
1 Eighth Army Operation Order No. 105, 25 July.
The pursuit paragraphs of the order had the tone of ‘just in case’, as if there were now little hope that Rommel might withdraw but that it would be as well to be prepared. Both corps were told that if the enemy yielded the field they were to pursue towards Daba and Fuka, with 4 Light Armoured Brigade directed on Fuka and 1 Armoured Division on Daba. The pursuit instructions in the operation order for Mreir would also apply. They were not amended or modified in the light of the losses suffered by the New Zealand, 5 Indian, and the armoured divisions at Mreir.
Generals Gott and Inglis discussed the operation in the afternoon of the 25th. On this occasion Gott listened attentively while Inglis expounded his views on the vulnerability of infantry in the first few hours of daylight after a long night advance, and the necessity for prompt and effective armoured protection at this period. Although New Zealand Division had only a subsidiary role in the new operation, Inglis firmly impressed on Gott that he would not allow the Division to be used in another battle like Ruweisat and Mreir unless he had greater control over the deployment of the armour. There is no record of whether Gott endorsed these views or conveyed them to Army Headquarters. In the event, MANHOOD failed because once again the armour did not support the infantry on their objectives.
In happier circumstances, New Zealand Division would probably have enjoyed its task of deceiving Rommel, of ‘pulling his leg’. During the night 25–26 July patrols from 23 and 21 Battalions, under Lieutenants Bailey1 and R. A. Shaw respectively, reconnoitred the enemy defences south of Mreir and ‘accidentally dropped’ an envelope, a newspaper cutting, and a hat badge ostensibly belonging to men of the British 69th Infantry Brigade. It was hoped that when the enemy found these clues, as he must, he would believe that the brigade had been shifted from the southern to the central sector whereas it was on its way north to attack towards Deir el Dhib.
It may be said here that these deceptions had some effect on the enemy, the chief victim being 90 Light Division. This division recorded in its diary that two columns of British vehicles and some thrusts by isolated reconnaissance cars had been seen on the Taqa plateau in the afternoon and evening. At dusk strong artillery fire had fallen on Kaponga, and 20 to 25 vehicles, including tanks, had pressed forward to within about a mile of the defences under a smoke screen. By dark the tanks had dispersed in a semi-circle around the box to the north-east. An observation post had reported that ‘strong motor noises’ could be heard coming from behind the tanks. This activity led the division to the conclusion: ‘It must be expected that the enemy, after his abortive attempt to break through in the north on 22 July will now attempt a similar operation against the [Kaponga] work or possibly against the units of Trieste operating in the south.’
The diary adds that the division and Trieste and Littorio units stood to but that, except for some bombs on Kaponga and in Trieste's sector, the area remained quiet and the tanks withdrew. At 9.30 p.m., when reports were received of artillery ‘drum fire’ in the north, the division noted: ‘The enemy does not seem to intend an attack on Kaponga but further north, with uninterrupted bombing attacks on the entire southern sector to pin it down.’
Afrika Korps had reports of the operations against Kaponga but its diary has no mention of the other deceptive measures taken by New Zealand Division. Briehl Group, 33 Recce Unit, and later a battle group from 15 Panzer Division were sent north to deal with 30 Corps' attack. Whether Afrika Korps considered these forces sufficient to meet the attack, or whether it was apprehensive of a further thrust in the centre and therefore refrained from thinning it out, cannot be said.
Apart from the fact that the main operation by 30 Corps marked the end of Auchinleck's local offensives, the New Zealand Division had only a more or less academic interest in that part of the battle. The planning was conspicuous for its lack of information concerning the enemy's dispositions, notably the location of his artillery and minefields, and also in the arrangements for co-ordinating the activities of the several formations taking part. This was especially page 378 the case in clearing, marking, and reporting the gaps in the minefields for the passage of the infantry's supporting arms and the armour. Commanders complained that they had been given insufficient time to plan in detail, even though at the instance of 69 Brigade the attack was postponed from the night of 25–26 July for twenty-four hours.
The 24th Australian Brigade was given the task of establishing its 2/28 Battalion on Miteiriya Ridge, after which 2/43 Battalion, supported by 50 Royal Tank Regiment, was to exploit north-west. The objective was won at 2.50 a.m., but as the minefield had been imperfectly gapped the supporting weapons and ammunition could not be sent forward. From three o'clock onwards the battalion was under heavy fire mainly from machine guns. At 9.45 the Germans counter-attacked with tanks and overran the battalion. At ten o'clock 50 Royal Tank Regiment was ordered forward to support the 2/28th and 1 Armoured Division was advised of the situation. The Armoured Division intimated that it could not give any help as its 2nd Brigade was held up by mines. The 50th Tanks, however, got through, but when it found there were no infantry left to support, the regiment withdrew on 2/43 Battalion which was digging itself in some two miles in rear. The regiment claimed two enemy tanks against the loss of thirteen of its own, principally to anti-tank fire. The Australians lost some 400 men, and by afternoon the brigade was occupying the position from which it had started.
The 69th Brigade attacked with a Durham Light Infantry composite battalion on the right and the 5th East Yorks on the left. Both units encountered machine-gun and anti-tank fire from the start. They lost cohesion in imperfectly marked mine gaps but the rifle companies pressed on and appear to have reached their objectives about 8 a.m. From four to eight o'clock they were out of touch with their brigade headquarters owing to the loss of the Durham's wireless truck and cable lorry and the fact that the Yorks' battalion headquarters had lost contact with its companies. The Durham's support group was held up in the minefield by anti-tank fire and that of the Yorks by mines. At ten o'clock the isolated rifle companies of both battalions were overrun by tanks, only a few men escaping. The brigade's losses were estimated at 600, a large figure in view of the fact that all the battalions had been much under strength at the start of the battle.
The advance of 2 Armoured Brigade in its exploiting role was twice postponed while the attached engineers reconnoitred the minefields and gaps. It was not until 10.45 a.m. that 6 Royal Tank Regiment was ordered to attack, but with the modified task of assisting 69 Brigade and thereafter moving against enemy tanks reported near Miteiriya. The regiment became entangled in the page 379 minefield under anti-tank fire and could not make headway. Shortly before two o'clock Major-General Fisher, now temporarily commanding the Armoured Division, learned that 69 Brigade had lost its forward battalions. He asked 30 Corps for fresh instructions as he considered there was no longer any objective for the armour.
By about three o'clock it was apparent to 30 Corps that MANHOOD had failed in every aspect, and with Auchinleck's concurrence all formations were ordered to withdraw to their original positions.
Reporting to London early next morning, Auchinleck said that the failure probably marked the end of the second phase of the Alamein battle. It seemed now that the enemy had been able to consolidate his positions and to lay extensive minefields covering most of his front. Eighth Army was without reserves of infantry. These could not be produced except by reinforcements or extensive readjustments of formations now in the line which, apart from basic difficulties due to the mixed composition of the force ‘which forbids detachments of subordinate Dominions units and formations from parent formations’, was not easy owing to the length of the front and the need for maintaining a firm hold on vital localities.
Auchinleck added that all possible means to produce fresh offensive power were being explored and every effort would be made to regain the initiative, but a pause in activity and a consequent stalemate might be unavoidable. The enemy had not now an open flank, so that infantry would be needed to open the way for mobile troops to act against his rear. Auchinleck also mentioned that he would send a considered appreciation of the situation to London as soon as possible.
By this time, however, events were beginning to move out of Auchinleck's control. All through the retreat and in the stand at Alamein, Mr Churchill had given Auchinleck full support and every encouragement. But it seems to have become increasingly obvious to the Prime Minister that all was not well with the command in the Middle East. His doubts were fed continually by the reports he received from many quarters. Eventually, on 28 July, Churchill suggested to the King and Cabinet that he should visit the command and settle the decisive questions on the spot. Accordingly, he left England by air on 2 August for Cairo, having previously arranged for Smuts and Wavell to meet him there.
Gott's appointment to the Army command may seem astonishing in the light of his record. It should be noted, however, that the measure of his responsibility in the successive failures on the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line, in the retreat and in the July fighting, was not known at the time. At least it was not fully appreciated. The enviable confidence with which he ignored facts as well as difficulties impressed his superiors, his staff and subordinates, and seems to have communicated itself to the Prime Minister. Churchill supports Gott's selection on the grounds that the feelings of Eighth Army could not be overlooked. He thought the men and commanders of every grade might consider it a reproach if two new generals were brought out from England to supersede all who had fought in the desert.
In the event Gott was not to have the command. On 7 August, the day after he had received news of his appointment, he was killed when the aircraft in which he was taking off from a forward airfield for Cairo was shot down. Thereupon Lieutenant-General Montgomery2 was sent for.
Alexander reported to Churchill in Cairo on 10 August and Montgomery arrived in Cairo next day. With the concurrence of General Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the Prime Minister gave Alexander the following directive:
Your prime and main duty will be to take or destroy at the earliest opportunity the German-Italian Army commanded by Field-Marshal Rommel, together with all its supplies and establishments in Egypt and Libya.
You will discharge or cause to be discharged such other duties as pertain to your Command, without prejudice to the task described in Paragraph 1, which must be considered paramount in His Majesty's interests.
Alexander and Montgomery gave Eighth Army the leadership it deserved. How they executed the Prime Minister's directive, and the part played by the New Zealand Division, make the theme of the succeeding volume.