New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
CHAPTER 10 — Neap Tide in Egypt
Neap Tide in Egypt
On20 June 1942, the day Tobruk was captured and Misheifa again became the railhead, Headquarters 2 NZ Division opened near the beach ten miles west of Matruh. Fourth Brigade arrived the next day and took over the western Matruh perimeter from the Sidi Barrani road to the coast; 6 Field Company was ordered to ‘recce’ the mine belts and strengthen them where necessary. Fifth Brigade reached Matruh on the 23rd; the battalions covered the eastern perimeter and 7 Field Company shared in the mining. Rommel was nearing the frontier wire and the railway staff was being evacuated back as far as Charing Cross.
Fifth Field Park Company came into the area on 24 June with Rear HQ 2 NZ Division; 6 Brigade, including 8 Field Company, had been halted at Amiriya. It had taken just seven days to cover the 900 miles from Syria into Egypt—and the enemy was less than 30 miles away.
The intention was, at that date, to defend Matruh and every available sapper was working to restore the ‘Rabone Line’ that had been prepared against the first advance of the Italian Army. The decision to make Matruh a fortress like Tobruk was reversed in favour of keeping the Eighth Army mobile and fighting a battle of manoeuvre in the area between Matruh, El Alamein and the Qattara Depression. General Freyberg was instructed to organise his command into battle groups and deploy to the south of Matruh.
To make the Division fully mobile the infantry battalions were reduced to three companies and 6 Brigade at Amiriya was denuded of desert-worthy vehicles. Fifth Field Park Company sent its bridging and folding-boat trucks back to Maadi; sapper strength was reduced to approximately half. The LOB group, including the Divisional Postal Unit, less a section operating with 6 Brigade, also went back to Maadi. For the coming operations 5 Field Park Company was to move with Divisional Headquarters Group, 6 Field Company with 4 Brigade and 7 Field Company with 5 Brigade. Eighth Field Company stayed with 6 Brigade.page break page 281
Officers on the strength of Divisional Engineers companies on 14 June were:
Headquarters Divisional Engineers
5 Field Park Company
Capt K. Rix-Trott
Lt H. M. Scott
2 Lt E. R. Somerville
Lt H. F. Hamilton (attached)
6 Field Company
Capt B. S. Smyth
Lt P. W. de B. Morgan
Lt J. M. Dorreen
Lt A. Edmonds
7 Field Company
Maj L. A. Lincoln
Capt H. C. Page
Lt W. A. Scott
8 Field Company
Capt H. M. Reid
Lt K. F. Jones
Following a night of indiscriminate bombing, 25 June was a very full day; mines and stores were rearranged, to the accompaniment of repeated air raids, on the reduced number of trucks and by midday the sappers were ready to move at a moment's notice. They moved, but not in the direction expected.
Field Marshal Rommel was pushing aside such opposition as Eighth Army could muster and was heading for a four-mile gap between the main mine belts covering Matruh on the west and south; the last train had arrived from Charing Cross and the last railway operating sappers had ridden in on a rail motor-lorry soon after. Every yard of the New Zealand built Desert Railway Extension was now inoperable or in the hands of the enemy.
The trucks were emptied of gear and refilled with mines; 6 Field Company (Major Reid, vice Major Woolcott in hospital) was joined by 7 Field Company and, protected by 20 Battalion, began work at that period when the desert dusk momentarily separates daylight from darkness. It was very comforting, with German flares lighting the western horizon, to know that the 20th were lying silent and watchful in an arc across the gap.
‘Darkness set in as we settled down to work, and it was eerie out there by ourselves, with the enemy's lights illuminating the area at irregular intervals. We laid the mines to an unusual pattern in the hope of deceiving the enemy. Two rows were laid 10 yards apart on the enemy side of the field, another two rows 10 yards apart 200 yards further east, then another two rows 10 yards apart 200 yards further east still, finishing up with four rows 10 yards apart another 200 yards further east. This gave a total effective depth of field of 660 yards, and with the mines being laid in this way it gave the enemy a great deal of work before the pattern could be discovered. The supply problem as we moved ahead was very awkward, as more mines had to be taken forward as the field lengthened. Due no doubt to the new work at night and the nearness of the enemy, some of the drivers were a little nervous, with the result that three trucks were blown up on our own mines.1 Fortunately no one was injured, but the trucks had to be abandoned. Although we carried barbed wire and pickets to fence the field, time was page 283 so short that it was left unfenced. As things turned out in the end, this was all in our favour, as the Germans were well into the field and lost a large number of vehicles before it was discovered.’2
Sixth Field Company was making ready to leave when a truck loaded with 350 mines blew up. Two sappers on the truck were killed instantly and six others wounded, including Lieutenant Wheeler who was over 100 yards away. While waiting for the ambulances it was found that there was still a gap on the Indian sector as they had run out of mines. The upshot was that Lieutenants Dorreen3 and Chapman and a party of sappers had to stay and finish the job.
When 6 Field returned about 2 a.m. the Division had departed, the Indians were in command of the Matruh fortress but were preparing to move out, and nobody knew where the New Zealanders had gone.
There was no sleep for the sappers on account of marauding planes, nor for Major Reid trying to find somebody who knew the Division's whereabouts, nor for the rearguard minelayers who finally came out with 20 Battalion after daybreak and caught up with the company later in the day. With a rough idea as to where the Division might be, the company went via Smugglers' Cove to Garawla, then south to the concentration area, where the brigades were on the point of breaking out into desert formation preparatory to a move farther to the south.
The Division made for Minqar Qaim,4 about 25 miles south of Matruh. The Minqar Qaim feature itself is part of an escarpment parallel with the coast, and there is a wide but shallow valley that has its far side in the high country around Matruh. It will be remembered that the Railway Construction Group had to surmount this rise soon after leaving Similla. An anti-tank ditch and mine belts of varying antiquity opposed the passage of armour through the valley, but it must be stressed that to a determined enemy a minefield, like a road demolition, it only as effective as the amount of fire covering it. There was very little fire covering that stretch of mines.page 284
General Freyberg's instructions were, inter alia, to deny the Minqar Qaim escarpment to the enemy and to command with fire the approaches from both north and south of the feature. From Garawla a desert track ran right through the proposed position down to Bir Khalda, about 12 miles farther south. Besides being on a possible line of approach to the rear of the Division, Bir Khalda was on the site of a field maintenance centre stocked chiefly for the refuelling of armoured formations.
Twenty-first Battalion, with a battery of field guns, a troop of anti-tank guns and a section of 7 Field Company (Second-Lieutenant Galloway5), was sent down the track to Bir Khalda to defend the centre.
The troops had seen enough of the unending stream of trucks, page 285 cars and other vehicles fleeing from the stricken fields to know that Eighth Army was in a bad way, but that sorry state of affairs clearly did not apply to the RAF. Formations of from nine to twelve bombers were frequently overhead trying to stop the enemy avalanche—a very heartening spectacle to the formations waiting the enemy onfall.
But the RAF did not have complete control of the sky; the 21 Battalion column at Bir Khalda and 6 Field Company at Minqar Qaim were both bombed at dusk. Eleven of the 57 casualties suffered by 21 Battalion were sappers and there were two killed and seven wounded at Minqar Qaim.
By midnight 26 - 27 June 2 NZ Division was deployed in mutually supporting positions on top of and below the escarpment of Minqar Qaim with, facing north, 4 Brigade on the right, Divisional Reserve Group centre, and 5 Brigade left.
In the Charing Cross area German sappers were worrying their way through the minefields. The enemy plan was for 90 Light Division to encircle and isolate Matruh while 21 Panzer and 15 Panzer Divisions, advancing westwards on axes north and south of the Minqar Qaim escarpment, destroyed or forced back the British armour. Panzerarmee Command had no idea that 2 NZ Division was settling itself between the paths of the two armoured divisions.
The infantry was dug in by daybreak (27 June) and the engineers began laying mines. Sixth Field Company worked along the north-east approach to 4 Brigade with a mile-long belt of eight rows of mines, then dog-legged back to connect with another belt covering the left flank of 4 Brigade, the responsibility of 5 Field Park Company which, owing to the reduced strength of the field companies, had to do work unusual to a Field Park. Seventh Field Company was to protect the shorter two-battalion 5 Brigade front.
Sixth Field Company was finished before midday and had shifted all its trucks to the top of Minqar Qaim.
Fifth Field Park Company, working about one and a half miles in front of 28 (Maori) Battalion, was fired on as the approaching 21 Panzer Division began the demonstration that should have been the cue for the opposition to depart. The sappers knew it was dangerous for men not fully practised to fuse mines and had heard what happens when a truckload of mines explodes.
‘It was in great measure due to the personal example and inspiring leadership of Major Anderson that the protective page 286 minefield was laid before the enemy attack reached the FDL's at Minqar Qaim on 27 June 42. Despite the intensity of the enemy shelling of his parties and the development of the attack, 4,000 mines were rapidly laid. Where the shelling was heaviest Major Anderson was to be seen, encouraging his men and he, himself, fusing mines.’6
Sergeant Duckworth7 was a tower of strength to his Company Commander, for his calm manner inspired confidence in sappers working far beyond infantry protection. Both were later decorated with a DSO and MM respectively.
Upon the completion of the job the company withdrew behind the Reserve Group area.
Seventh Field Company had completed its job and was back in 5 Brigade's transport area at the bottom of the escarpment when enemy ranging shells began to fall too close for comfort and all the trucks, acting under instructions, withdrew to the vicinity of 4 Brigade's vehicle park on top of Minqar Qaim.
Soon afterwards No. 1 Section (Lieutenant Foster) was ordered to lay mines across the mouth of the wadi occupied by Headquarters 5 Brigade. They had every inducement to lay mines smartly for a 25-pounder battery which had gone out to inspect dubious visitors was falling back, attended by fifteen enemy tanks. The job was so clearly urgent that the mines were unpacked from their cases on the trays of the two trucks working towards each other from opposite sides of the wadi and then laid out roughly on the surface. Containers of firing mechanisms were put adjacent to the mines, which were then armed and placed in position. The running fight between the tanks and field guns came closer but the sappers carried on, and were half finished when they were fired on. Brigadier Kippenberger wrote later regarding this episode:
‘I watched with my heart in my mouth. Several batteries were now shelling the tanks almost hidden in dust and shell bursts. Suddenly one tank moved swiftly in towards us and opened rapid fire on the sappers with its gun and heavy machine gun, vicious looking tracer. The second shell hit one truck and killed five and wounded three. The other truck and its party went resolutely on until I could make them hear me and then came calmly in. One man ran back and drove in the damaged truck.’8page 287
The man who ran back was Lieutenant Foster, who was awarded an immediate MC for his coolness and determination. He was supervising the job under instructions from Major Lincoln and remembers the incident vividly. ‘When approaching our own lines, the damage to the other party was noticed so, instructing the truck to carry on, the writer, with Sapper Rex (Nobby) Brydon9 made his way at the double out to the other truck. On the way we were passed first of all by some of the other party still capable of walking, and later by Major Lincoln who had Sapper Meecham,10 severely wounded, on his back. Arriving at the truck a quick inspection showed that it would probably run, so loaded the wounded on and started for our lines. Sapper Brydon in the back attended to the wounded who were on top of the crates of mines, and from time to time shouted instructions to either “speed up” or “ease down” in accordance to his views of the situation…. Nobby was the heart of a group of old timers, always in trouble when in base, but the backbone of the Unit in the field. If things were sticky Nobby and his gang were always there.’
A battle badly begun is half lost. A change of plan and commander at the last moment; conflicting orders; two Army Corps fighting a battle independently of each other; sketchy communications, resulting in formations being unaware of what was going on a mile or so away; reflexes conditioned on one hand by a long retreat and on the other by a policy of being ‘The fustest with the mostest’, to resurrect an Americanism of the War of Independence, all contributed to another defeat, the fifth since the ‘Gazala Gallop’ began.
All through the morning a duel between German tanks and New Zealand gunners went on, while farther back 6 Brigade (and 8 Field Company) was moved forward from Amiriya to Kaponga. The enemy answer to the stubborn refusal of the unknown force to vacate the Minqar Qaim escarpment was to call forward the Italian XX Corps. Four enemy divisions were thus being employed against the New Zealand Division, and to help Rommel a little, 1 Armoured Division to the south of Minqar Qaim was most inexplicably told that the 2 NZ Division had been pushed out of Minqar Qaim or had withdrawn, and was ordered to withdraw also.11page 288
General Freyberg, who had already been informed that a last-man stand was not contemplated in the defence of Matruh and to withdraw at his discretion, was watching an attack on 4 Brigade when he was wounded and Brigadier Inglis took command.
At that moment, mid-afternoon 27 June, 6 Field Company was with 4 Brigade transport, 7 Field Company with 5 Brigade transport nearby, and 5 Field Park Company with Divisional Reserve transport.
Two enemy columns, coming in from the south and east, fired on the 300 vehicles comprising 5 Brigade transport and 7 Field Company. The drivers on their own initiative made off south at high speed and avoided capture or destruction.
The demonstrable fact that the Division was cut off from Matruh in the north, and the knowledge that 1 Armoured Division in the south was moving out, added up to the conclusion that if 2 NZ Division was to continue its interest in the war it would have to break through the encircling enemy by its own efforts.
Twenty-first Battalion was informed by wireless that upon relief by a squadron of Divisional Cavalry it was to rejoin 5 Brigade, but by dusk it had not arrived. It had in fact started back at 4 p.m., but was having a very busy time dodging enemy formations which had passed and circled round to the south of Minqar Qaim.
By now the plan to break through the ring around Minqar Qaim had been decided upon. Fourth Brigade was to arrange its battalions in arrowhead formation, advance unannounced by artillery and clear a road for the vehicles; first-line transport was to assemble in tight night formation in the assembly areas, with B Echelon and attached units following.
Fourth Brigade was able to so dispose itself, but the vehicles of 5 Brigade could not be found by LOs or contacted by wireless. Two battalions of infantry had perforce to be piled on to anything that had wheels, mostly artillery quads, limbers, and even on guns. Even the loaded engineers' mine trucks became transports. Infantrymen who would enter a bayonet charge with eagerness were very reluctant to take a seat on top of unarmed anti-tank mines. The grinning sappers told them it was quite safe but they were not believed.
Zero hour was 12.30 a.m., but it was over an hour later before the spearhead moved off, followed by Lieutenant Morgan with a twenty strong minesweeping party. No mines were found and page 289 the sappers waited at the agreed area for the trucks. Ahead of them and behind them there was complete silence, then a few startled bullets preceded a roar that was part Maori haka, part football yell and part cheer. Very soon grenades and bayonets were at work, then the success signal, two red Very lights followed by a green, climbed into the moonlight.
For 6 Field Company the drama was acted out of sight and the curtain had been rung down when they jolted through the gap. The trucks bumped along until daylight, when a halt was made for breakfast and reorganisation. The journey eastward continued until nine that night when, tired and stiff after twenty-one hours in the trucks, they bivouacked on the Alamein road that 8 Field Company had made a few weeks previously.
The Divisional Reserve Group, including the scrambled 5 Brigade, nine trucks abreast in close desert formation, had been drawn up level with and south of 4 Brigade. Zero hour passed and all eyes were straining into the quiet moonlight for the signal to move. They were still straining over an hour later.
Brigadier Inglis, apprehensive that the column would not get out of the encircled position before daylight, decided to take it south around the area of probable fighting while the enemy was involved with 4 Brigade, which, though so late in starting, must soon begin its action.
‘We turned away and hared S.E. until we ran into a flock of Hun tanks…. These were backed by mortars and machine guns, and they had a picnic, M.G.'s firing in lanes through our transport as we charged on to keep our appointments with the future. Two panzers crashed into the head of the column and opened rapid fire on anything in sight, which was enough to keep them busy for a week. Anti-tank gunners returned the fire as they went. The column kept on, zig-zagging, and cleared the heat forty five minutes after moving into it. At three we stopped…. We checked over personnel, finding the Field Park luck had not deserted us. The unit came out of that hot spot with only three wounded and five missing including 2/Lt Mandeno.
‘One P.U., one G.M.C. compressor and one Albion truck page 290 were missing, and one Tommy Bedford that had been attached to us at Matruh. The crews of the compressor and Bedford had jumped to other trucks when their own were hit.’
What Sapper MacFarlane did not know was that they had bumped a German tank laager. The front trucks halted, the others closed up and there was a wild mêlée, tanks firing blindly, anti-tank guns en portée replying, rifles firing at random and grenades exploding.
Part of the column turned left (north-east) and got clear; part, including 5 Field Park Company, turned right and got clear, then turned again to the east and safety. Part turned right around and began to retrace its steps.
Fifth Brigade transport, after its unscheduled breakaway, was halted by the Brigade Staff Captain, the Brigade Transport Officer and Major Lincoln about nine miles to the south. No answer could be got to wireless requests for orders and the column was moved some five miles to the east or away from the enemy.
There was actually no lack of orders telling them to return at once, but they were not picked up through one of those mishaps that defy precaution. Brigade Headquarters' batteries were running down, the charging sets were with the trucks, and although there were charged batteries available, those who knew where they were did not know that they were needed.
An attempt to return to Minqar Qaim before nightfall was frustrated by running into a tank engagement. Major Lincoln and the Staff Captain located another tank formation farther south cosily moving into night laager and quite unconcerned about what was going on a few miles away. The Kiwis asked for a tank escort to get them back to the brigade but the request fell on deaf ears. They returned to the column even more frustrated.
Towards midnight a weak signal was picked up from 5 Brigade telling the vehicles to go back to Amiriya. This was regarded as an enemy attempt to deceive, for a warning had earlier been issued that false messages were being circulated by the Germans on Eighth Army wavelengths. Nobody of course suspected that the Division was on the point of staging a breakout, and it was resolved to wait where they were until verification of the instruction was obtained. At first light Lieutenant-Colonel Russell, who had gathered up the stragglers who page 291 had turned back towards Minqar Qaim, met the lost 5 Brigade B Echelon, whereupon they safely journeyed eastwards together and harboured that night behind 4 Brigade, not far from Kaponga, where the Division was to assemble.
Twenty-first Battalion, almost given up as captured, had been told by an Indian formation that the Division was leaving Minqar Qaim that night and had later run into another formation, this time decidedly hostile. There was a sharp engagement between the unit carriers and enemy anti-tank guns; the battalion was divided by a wadi during its withdrawal and each part spent the last daylight hours searching for the other. Eventually each group sheltered behind friendly armoured formations. Both made a safe return to Kaponga, one that afternoon (28th) and the other the following morning.
A measure of the confusion existing in the highest echelons of command is the fact that 6 Brigade had been ferried from Amiriya to Kaponga Box with no supporting artillery and left there with very little transport. But this was remedied when 2 NZ Division was concentrated again.
Sixth Brigade was to put Kaponga in a state of defence. It found hordes of native labourers working under British direction, and they left as the Kiwis arrived. They were also taking two D8 bulldozers with them until Sergeant Bert Church13 commandeered them at pistol point. Eighth Field Company used Church's captures for cutting anti-tank scarps and ditches, and for digging trenches in which reserve ammunition and stores were placed and then covered again. The water supply was also taken over by the Company. Anti-tank mines for the defence were obtained from a dump at Alamein by Lieutenant Ken Jones,14 who secured four South African trucks for the purpose. Enemy bombers who were a nightly nuisance were enticed away by the trick of setting up piles of rubbish outside the box around drums of petrol and explosives. When the first bomb fell the petrol was exploded and drew the rest of the bomb load. The idea worked well until, by a mistake, the petrol was exploded before the first bomb was dropped.
The end of June saw the Division back into shape once more. There had been a lull in the enemy onfall enforced by the fighting about Matruh. The respite was used to deploy the only battle-worthy infantry divisions left to the Eighth Army page 292 in the last defences before the Nile Delta. First South African Division was entrenched in the Alamein ‘box’ or defended locality covering the road and railway to the west of the Alamein station; 18 Indian Brigade went into the depression of Deir el Shein, about midway between the Springboks and the Kiwis, and 2 NZ Division was about 20 miles inland in and around Fortress A or, as better known to the troops who had helped in its construction, Kaponga Box. There was another defended locality, Fortress B, on the edge of the Qattara Depression, but it was unfinished and not held for a determined defence so that there were wide lines of approach along the 40 miles between the unturnable flanks of the sea and the depression. A sine qua non to a successful defence was a strong armoured force to operate in the gaps between the infantry localities, but owing to casualties and the long retreat the available armoured force was neither strong nor in good shape.
The importance of escarpments and ridges will need no stressing after reading of Sidi Rezegh and Minqar Qaim, but notice must now be taken of depressions, desert phenomena roughly analogous to empty lakes of varying size and depth. They were in effect slit trenches that could shelter a battalion or perhaps a division with all its vehicles. Ridges a few yards high and depressions a few yards deep were complementary; one gave observation, the other protection. Both will be frequently mentioned.
Engineer locations on 1 July were: 8 Field Company with 6 Brigade in Kaponga Box, 7 Field Company with 5 Brigade, 6 Field Company with 4 Brigade, and 5 Field Park Company with Headquarters Divisional Engineers in the Munassib Depression (Deir el Munassib), nine miles or so south-east of Kaponga. Both brigades were prepared to move against an attack on Kaponga.
Should the Alamein defences succumb to the victorious Rommel there were plans to retire to the Delta, where further defences were being built. There were even plans to give up Egypt if necessary.
On 1 July the German commander opened the final phase of his conquest of Egypt with his five times successful manoeuvre of thrusting in the coastal area, then taking the rest of the defences in the rear. He found the Springboks in no mood to be pushed around; they had a division lost at Tobruk to avenge, and after two days' hard fighting little had been gained beyond overrunning 18 Indian Brigade and getting on to the western end page 293 of Ruweisat Ridge, halfway between Alamein and Kaponga. It ran east and west and its total occupation would seriously depreciate the value of Kaponga. Sixth Brigade was ordered to be ready to leave the fortress to a caretaker battle group. Transport would be produced from somewhere, and in the meantime 8 Field Company would dump surplus stores into deep trenches ready for their bulldozers to cover.
July the 3rd was a day of orders and counter-orders. The indications were that the invasion had been stopped at last and a counter-offensive was being considered. Every change in a liquid situation brought new movement orders for the fighting troops, but from the sapper angle what happened was as follows:
Sixth Field Company accompanied 4 Brigade to assist a New Zealand gun column north of Alam Nayil, where the Italian Ariete Division, under urgent orders to drive south-east and encircle the New Zealanders and anybody in the vicinity, was so bustled by a British armoured brigade that it split in two and its artillery component came into action against the Kiwi gun column.
The issue was resolved when 19 Battalion attacked from a flank and captured most of the Italian guns and many gunners and vehicles. The Ariete Division was never quite the same again. The sappers, beyond holding part of a defensive line in an infantry role, were not involved.
In Kaponga 8 Field Company, with new instructions, was waiting for 7 Field Company to take over. Some desert-worthy transport arrived and was loaded with stores, surplus ammunition was buried by the acquired bulldozers and, upon relief by 7 Field Company, the Company left Kaponga behind Brigade Headquarters through the gapped minefield. The sappers travelled about 15 miles through Munassib to the Himeimat area, where the withdrawn Indian garrison of Fortress B was concentrating and from where, the next day, Lieutenant Jones and 47 sappers were sent back to LOB camp.
Fifth Brigade was now required to intercept the gunless Ariete Division at El Mreir, a depression some five miles northwest of Kaponga. Lieutenant Scott,15 with three trucks and sixteen sappers, was detailed to accompany the brigade but did not get involved in the fighting that night and the next day in and on the far lip of El Mreir.page 294
The Ariete Division did not, as a matter of interest, come that way, but the pressure exerted against the inland enemy flank drew active retaliation from the enemy air force. Two 7 Field Company trucks were damaged, one a write-off, and there were two casualties, one fatal.
In the midst of these moves and counter-moves 5 Field Park Company built a PW cage for some 350 guests from the Ariete Division; the Company did not have to provide guards, for which there was gratitude—after the experience at Sidi Rezegh it was not a popular occupation. During the afternoon a subsection (Lieutenant Murray Scott16) escorted by a platoon from 19 Battalion had the interesting job of destroying enemy guns and vehicles on the late Ariete-New Zealand battleground. The Italians still had sufficient fire power to make work dangerous around what the Kiwi gunners had left after taking their pick of forty-four field guns, including five of our own 25-pounders, sundry vehicles and equipment captured in the encounter. Sergeant O'Brien17 searched the two square miles of battlefield and was awarded an MM for his courage and devotion to duty. The guns were destroyed by stuffing the muzzles with explosive and igniting it from a safe distance, while vehicles were dealt with by detonating a slab of gun-cotton against the engine. Trucks that were still runners made a welcome addition to the New Zealand transport.
By now it was the end of the day but not the end of the counter-marching. An exciting day was over and the troops were settling down for the night. Fourth Brigade was ordered to move into Kaponga, with 6 Field Company leading and Major Reid navigating. En route the destination was altered and the brigade bivouacked just outside the fortress minefield until daylight, whereupon it was deployed facing south, that is overlooking Munassib Depression. Sixth Field Company found itself again in the line on the right of 20 Battalion.
Fifth Field Park Company were not left to enjoy any sleep that night either. Eighteenth Battalion moved into the area and the sappers left on a bewildering roundabout march. First leg was ten miles south, which took over three hours, pulling trucks clear of treacherous sandy patches. After a short rest there were more moves until the Company ended up at midday (4 July) inside Kaponga.page 295
After the rushing hither and thither that has been indicated, the 4th was a quiet day. The enemy had been denied the shelter of El Mreir and 9 Australian Division, with Tobruk on its mind, had journeyed to Egypt from Palestine and was almost ready for the fray. Fifth Brigade was waiting for darkness to complete the capture of El Mreir.
These night operations were not very successful and by first light the position was largely as before—5 Brigade held one side of the depression and the enemy held the other. But a counter-offensive by Eighth Army was in course of preparation. If things went well, 2 NZ Division was to strike for Daba, hold the steep escarpment there and cut off the retreat of enemy vehicles along the coast road.
Sixth Brigade, under orders to go back into reserve, had its role altered as a result of the changing picture and 5 July saw it in Kaponga again, where 7 Field Company was still waiting for the return of its section away with 5 Brigade, and where 8 Field Company, having preceded the brigade, was heartily sick of being picked on by enemy raiding aircraft. The raids themselves were bad enough but the aftermath, the exploding of resultant unexploded bombs, UXB as they were called for short, called for a steady nerve. All sapper companies had this work to do from time to time and this was the way of it. Whenever a UXB was located or reported and its disposal required, a slab of about two pounds of gun-cotton was prepared with a length of slow-burning safety fuse. A driver with a very, accent on the very, reliable truck took another sapper to the scene of the demolition. The gun-cotton was fixed as close as possible to the bomb fuse, the igniter was lit and the truck with its occupants departed smartly.
Fourth Brigade was ordered to make a wide sweep out to the left rear of 5 Brigade, still at El Mreir, and was bombed twice on the move before it dug in at Qaret el Yidma. Another two-mile advance the next night (6 - 7 July) ended in a bloodless victory at Mungar Wahla. The Division was now poised for its strike for Daba. The enemy was also apparently poised to prevent any such thing, for the brigade was warned to get back quickly to Qaret el Yidma. The sappers had spent laborious hours in very stony ground building parallel rock walls for shelter and did not know whether to be glad or sorry that their ‘above ground trenches’ were not to be tested.
The return to Qaret el Yidma had scarcely been completed when another order came from Division to get behind the page 296 shelter of Kaponga again. The return by night was an arduous affair of winching trucks out of sand drifts. The sapper company led the way piloted by Major Reid, and soon after daybreak (8 July) the brigade was back in Munassib and wondering what a nice night's sleep would be like.
Fifth Brigade, also ordered to withdraw, had an equally trying night negotiating the 20 miles to Munassib.
There was another dispositional shuffle that put 5 Brigade in the Deir Alinda depression between 4 Brigade and Kaponga, and 4 Brigade into Muhafid Depression a little east of Munassib. While these moves were being performed in the profane darkness, 6 Brigade was preparing to retire once more into reserve and 8 Field Company, moving via Deir Alinda, Deir el Munassib, Himeimat and Burg el Arab, reached Amiriya on the 10th and camped next to the NAAFI, which was good judgment on somebody's part.
Seventh Field Company also left Kaponga with 6 Brigade and joined up with 5 Brigade again.
Fifth Field Park Company moved out during the night, dropped Lieutenant Somerville18 and ten sappers with three trucks at CRE Headquarters in Munassib, and arrived at Amiriya on the 11th to find that 8 Field Company had departed.
Major Currie and his sappers, now under command of 5 Indian Division, were preparing positions on Alam Halfa ridge, on the New Zealand line of retreat should the Alamein position go the way that Gazala and Tobruk had gone. Lieutenant Claridge19 and 24 sappers from 5 Field Park Company, plus the field company's compressors and crews from the LOB camp at Maadi, reinforced 8 Field Company.
It only remains to describe the changeover of Kaponga from New Zealand to German possession; the fortress from which so much was expected, and of which so little use was made, was abandoned soon after the sappers pulled out and an enemy patrol made cautious entry. Even German military efficiency sometimes slips for the next day (9th) Rommel personally directed a full-scale operation, infantry, artillery and air force, in a neat textbook movement and captured Kaponga all over again.
He describes in his memoirs how 21 Panzer, Littorio and 90 page 297 Light Divisions ‘broke through the southern part of the Alamein position penetrating to a point as far to the east as the break-through in the central sector had reached.’
It is a nice piece of irony that Kaponga which cost so much Kiwi sweat was used by Field Marshal Rommel as Advanced Headquarters. No doubt he and his staff approved of the bombproof concrete shelters and other amenities placed at his disposal.
That serio-comic operation was, according to some, the real turning point in the war in North Africa, for it was the last victorious march against the Eighth Army. In the morning 9 Australian Division attacked at Tell el Eisa. The Eighth Army had at long last changed over to the offensive, a fumbling and ineffective offensive in the beginning as 2 NZ Division found to its cost.
By the middle of the week the Australians had made their presence felt at Alamein, the enemy lapping around the Division from the north and south had been chased away by mobile columns, and the plan was now to capture Ruweisat Ridge and so provide a path for armour to strike at the enemy flank.
This is admittedly all very confusing, because preparations were being made on the one hand to attack and on the other to prepare a last-ditch stand at Wadi Natrun. The following note, which survived in spite of directions to the contrary, is informative:
Will you please send someone to Maadi to have in maximum readiness all bridging material such as small box girder and folding boats. If any difficulty over decking must improvise somehow. Also look around and ascertain where any other bridging material for 50 to 60 foot trestle bridges could be obtained, confiscated, pinched or as you would.
The General wishes to be in full readiness to cross El Nubariya Canal to North East of Wadi Natrun at several places and then proceed over Delta. Therefore at same time (not of same importance as preparation for bridging) some recce of routes across Delta would be useful.
It is hoped that these extreme measures will not be necessary but the General wishes to be fully prepared and insured.page 298
This is most secret and should not be discussed with Anyone except to tell them what to do. Give any reason but the right one.
Destroy this note.
F. M. Hanson
Meanwhile an assault by 2 NZ Division (13 Corps) and 5 Indian Division (30 Corps) on Ruweisat Ridge, about six miles north of Alam Nayil, the area where Ariete Division had met its Waterloo and where another tank engagement had since been fought, was being planned by Eighth Army.
Shortly, the result was an operation order which gave the eastern end of the objective to one brigade of 5 Indian Division and the western end to two brigades of 2 NZ Division; an armoured brigade would follow along the inter-corps boundary, while another armoured brigade would move behind the open left New Zealand flank. The actual attack would be a silent one by night, the Air Force and gunners would soften up the objective and the tanks would be in position to deal with counter-attacks by first light.
The occupation of the start line, with the infantry spread along the northern slopes of Alam Nayil and the engineers with Brigade Headquarters in the shallow wadis of the reverse slope, was completed late in the afternoon of 12 July Field Marshal Rommel was sealing off the Australian penetration near the coast and daily, until the conflict was resolved, the New Zealand/Indian attack, codeword Bacon, was declared off; finally, on the 14th the advance in the north was halted, but with the enemy strength now concentrated in that sector Bacon was on.
The engineer dispositions were, in 5 Brigade, for an officer and five sappers to accompany the headquarters of each battalion as a mine clearing and demolition squad. All carried explosive packs, i.e., small charges already made up with igniter, fuse and detonator ready to insert but carried in separate haversacks. Lieutenant Galloway was assigned to 21 Battalion, Lieutenant Foster to 23 Battalion and Lieutenant Scott to the supporting 22 Battalion. Lieutenant Standish,21 who had joined up in Syria from the Madras Sappers and Miners of 10 Indian Division, went at his own request as an observer with 22 Battalion. The rest of 7 Field Company was to stay near 5 Brigade Rear Headquarters.page 299
At 11 p.m. 1500 New Zealand infantry left their start line for the six-mile march across the shallow valley to the hardly discernible heave in the sandy flatness that was called Ruweisat Ridge. The first intimation the 7th Field Engineers had that the attack had been a success was the sight at midday on the 15th of a long column of prisoners marching eastwards; they did not know that another long column of prisoners was marching westwards—the greater part of 22 Battalion, including the sapper party, had been overrun by a few enemy tanks, while only four miles away British armour was waiting orders to advance. It was, as was the custom at that period, ‘in support’ and not ‘under command’, and fought according to its own rules.
The engineer set-up in 4 Brigade was somewhat different. Four sappers under an NCO were detailed to each battalion to locate, mark and clear mines; Lieutenant Edmonds22 with twenty sappers reported to the brigade artillery group with page 300 the same instructions; Major Reid, Lieutenants Dorreen and Morgan with twelve sappers, a PU and two 30-cwt trucks loaded with mines, moved with the brigade transport column close behind the support battalion. Lieutenant Chapman took the rest of the company back to Divisional Headquarters south of Alam Nayil.
Sixth Field Company had a very nasty time during the waiting period for they were nearest to and under observation from Kaponga, where enemy gunners were active and well supplied with ammunition.
The sappers, with Major Reid navigating, led the brigade transport column. For the first hour there was silence, with the engineers shivering in the coolness of the desert air as the drivers felt their way, as all drivers learnt to do, over unseen inequalities of the open desert. Apprehensive flares and faint yells from the infantry battle going on ahead of them halted the column from time to time. There was a longer halt while a single wire looped on pickets and suggesting a minefield was investigated and found to be a dummy. The column pushed on through empty field works, abandoned guns, quads, trucks and groups of Italians waiting for somebody to collect them.
Just on dawn the trucks were fired on from the open left flank and a barbed-wire fence could be seen against the skyline of Ruweisat Ridge. Machine-gunners smothered the enemy fire but no gaps could be readily found in the wire, and although the anti-tank portées managed to cross the ridge, most of the vehicles had to be left while the men sought cover.
They were actually in the selected brigade headquarters locality but it was an uninviting place. The ridge, flat and featureless, offered no concealment, the infantry were somewhere out in front and the dispossessed enemy had enough mortars and guns to make the spot decidedly unattractive. There was no immediate work for the sappers, so after enduring hostile attentions for some time from the lee of stone sangars, they found a better area behind Brigade Headquarters and occupied some deep trenches. There were a number of wounded lying about without attention, so a couple of small Italian tents were pitched and the wounded brought in out of the hot sun.
The position on Ruweisat was that on the right the Indian attack did not fully succeed but the two New Zealand brigades, depleted, were on their objectives; enemy strongpoints had been bypassed in the long night advance and were becoming actively page 301 hostile again and preventing the passage of supporting arms; some tanks that had been flushed in night harbour had been set on fire, but it was suspected that there were others in a strip of country not cleared by the attack, between the Indian and the New Zealand divisions. Both the surviving tanks and revitalised defended posts were more a nuisance than a menace, for the support tanks were due soon after daylight and would take care of the situation. The tanks were in fact ready and only awaiting orders to advance. It has never been satisfactorily explained why their orders never arrived until it was too late.
Lieutenant Foster and party returned from 23 Battalion during the afternoon; their services as engineers had not been required and the battalion was firmly in possession of its part of Ruweisat Ridge. There was no news of the party with 21 Battalion.
Headquarters 4 Brigade's area was under intermittent fire during the day but Major Reid's party, safely ensconced in their deep trenches, had only one man lightly wounded until about 4 p.m., when twelve tanks with lorried infantry were seen approaching from the west. The brigade defence platoon and everybody else in the vicinity stopped the enemy infantry, the tanks veered off and began to roll up the New Zealand infantry and an armoured car came straight at the sappers, the occupants throwing hand grenades into trenches as it came.
To quote part of a citation that resulted in an award of an MC, ‘Major Reid came forward by himself, threw back two Italian hand grenades which he had found in the area, and the armoured car moved away.’
By this time Brigade Headquarters and much of 4 Brigade had been rounded up and the only area not occupied by the enemy was towards 5 Brigade which, although it had lost its support unit, was still holding its objective. To stay any longer would be to go ‘in the bag’ with the rest of the brigade. The mixed party of engineers, defence platoon and oddments moved off at five paces interval and got safely away, but Lieutenant Dorreen was missing.
‘… we saw some of our tanks on the ridge to the south. Imagine our surprise and disgust on topping the ridge to see a large number of them all lying snugly below the crest. Here were the tanks we had been expecting, practically within range of our recent positions, and yet not one of them had come to our assistance. The crews were all very sympathetic with us and just yearning for a fight, but were sorry nothing could be done page 302 without orders. It made us mad to think that the tanks had been so close and that we had had no support from them. Had they moved forward over the ridge an hour before, the position undoubtedly would have been saved, as I understand there were no more than sixteen tanks to be dealt with. We were cut off for some hours, and lack of communication and knowledge of the forward situation evidently had been responsible for the hold up. As shells were still falling in this area and we considered we had had our share for the day we wasted no more time in argument, but continued our journey to the rear.’23
Fifth Brigade was withdrawn from the ridge that night (15th–16th) and Lieutenant Galloway reported in with his party intact. Lieutenant Standish, supposedly a prisoner with 22 Battalion, had already returned. When the German tanks stood off and covered the area with their guns he decided that if he just moved casually away he might have a chance, whereas if he ran he most assuredly would have been shot. The plan worked until he tried to board a portée that was making a dash for safety. A shell stopped the portée and a soldier, who appeared from somewhere, was wounded. Standish carried him to a patch of scrub which offered some shade and stayed with him until ‘after about an hour or so of milling around, the German tanks and infantry moved off and the depression was taken over by Italian troops. A NZ Fd Amb truck had meanwhile arrived, with a Dr Thompson24 in charge, and I managed to get my wounded pal who was now a bit delirious over to him…. at this stage we were being guarded by Italian troops and as the battle moved away so did the Italians until there were only three left, who were becoming friendlier and friendlier, until eventually everyone else having gone and the sound of battle being well away, these three Italians became our prisoners, instead of we being theirs. We all piled into the ambulance and Dr Thompson drove us back to our own lines, which we reached at nightfall after a rather exciting day.’
Standish was congratulated on his lucky escape but nobody was more pleased than Ben. Ben was a bull terrier owned by ‘Handle Bar Harry’, as Lieutenant Standish was known to all and sundry on account of a magnificent moustache he had grown in a competition. Ben, with his owner, had joined up in England at the outbreak of war; while his boss passed page 303 through an OCTU he had resided in a dogs' home and then, by divers unlawful means, travelled to India, served in the Iraq revolt and the occupation of Baghdad, against the Vichy French in Syria and was looking after a road in Persia (Teheran to Bushire) when the transfer to 2 NZ Division came through. Ben was on the Company strength, dived for a slit trench when planes were over, fought through the North African campaign, and died, mourned by all, of canine typhus in Italy.
So ended, with twenty all ranks killed, wounded or missing, the Engineers' share of a battle that began with high hopes, achieved temporary victory, and ended in utter defeat.
The Division reorganised and regrouped along a six-mile arc between Ruweisat and Alam Nayil, 5 Field Park Company was brought forward again and 6 Infantry Brigade relieved the shattered 4th. Two sub-sections (Lieutenants Miller25 and Andrew) commanded by Captain Pemberton were formed from forty-one sappers of 8 Field Company working at Alam Halfa and became the engineer component of 6 Brigade.
Fourth Brigade had in fact fought its last infantry battle and its last action in North Africa; it began training soon afterwards for a new role wherein each battalion became an armoured regiment in 4 NZ Armoured Brigade.
The four days from 16 to 20 July were taken up by the field companies in cleaning up the battlefield, or rather that part of it which we still held. Enemy guns were dealt with according to a recipe that did not conform strictly to the book of rules:
‘Routine for demolition, irrespective of orders, was firstly, personally salvage Binoculars and Lugers, then group automatics and similar weapons, remove and bash the sights and firing mechanism. Larger pieces of 47 and 88 m.m. the same routine plus putting a quantity of the propellant charges, usually adjacent to the guns, down the spout, then our charges with detonator, with a reasonable length of fuse, give a warning, pull the igniter and move off. We certainly cleaned up a pile of enemy weapons in the three days, as follows:—
2 — 88 m.m.
18 — 47 m.m.
27 — 25 m.m.
2 — Mortars
and 21 — M.G.'s.’26
Unexploded bombs were dealt with, gaps were made through enemy mine belts and new fields put down prior to lifting the rest of the enemy mines and stacking them for further use. It was a sad period for 7 Field Company. A truck with a load of Mark II English mines, first lifted from one of our fields and used by the enemy in his defensive layout, was being unloaded at the dump, which already contained many hundreds of such mines, when the whole stack went up. Six sappers and the RMT driver were killed instantly and the truck simply disappeared.
Another engineer job at this time was for small parties carrying explosive packs to go out with infantry patrols, including a very business-like raid by 24 Battalion. Lieutenant Andrew and party cleared the way for a carrier section supporting thirty raiders; while the infantry collected forty-odd prisoners, four field guns of various calibre and four machine guns were destroyed.
This feverish activity was intended to indicate that the Division was going to settle down behind prepared defences, but in fact Eighth Army, undeterred by the debacle on Ruweisat Ridge, was preparing for another and even more ambitious attempt to open the way for the armour to reach the rear of the invading enemy.
The 13 Corps battle was planned in four phases, the first being an advance along Ruweisat Ridge by 5 Indian Division, which still held the eastern end, and the capture by 6 NZ Brigade of the eastern end of the El Mreir Depression and ground to the north to Deir el Shein. While this was being done the CRE was to co-operate with the Indians in clearing suspected mines from a 2000-yard-wide gap between Ruweisat and El Mreir for 23 Armoured Brigade to exploit through. Phases 2 and 3 concerned the operations of 23 Armoured Brigade, and finally the Corps would pursue or deal with any remaining opposition.
Judged by later standards, El Mreir was hastily mounted and loosely organised. Brigadier Clifton had no direct command over the tanks which were to support his brigade and received his instructions only a few hours before the attack was due to be mounted, which was at 8.30 that night (21 July).
The resulting late orders to subordinate formations gave little time for detailed planning and liaison. The era was still to come when sappers worked to a precise mine-gapping, lane-marking drill, and when there was full appreciation of the page 305 necessity for a close tie-up between forward infantry, sapper gapping parties, provosts, unit support weapons and the ‘under command’ armour.
The brigade plan was to attack in the waning moonlight with two battalions up. An 8 Field Company detachment was to clear routes along the battalion axes while trucks of armed anti-tank mines would move with Brigade Headquarters. There are few more dangerous jobs than driving a truck loaded with armed mines into battle.
At least one 300-yard-deep minefield was to be gapped. A party commanded by Sergeant Bartholomew27 which had been working with 26 Battalion patrols was to clear a track for that unit. The rest of the 8 Field Company detachment were to move with 24 Battalion and clear three forty-foot lanes for the passage of its transport and the brigade fighting transport.
Lieutenant Miller and party were to remain working on the main minefield, marking, widening and maintaining the gaps, while Lieutenant Andrew and party were to carry on forward to deal with any further minefields.
Not long after zero hour, Captain Pemberton, after supervising both parties, joined Brigadier Clifton when his Brigade Headquarters appeared. Largely through the daring and inspiring leadership of Sergeant Bartholomew, who had already done sterling work with the battalion patrols and was later awarded a DCM, there was a track ready for the unit support arms, but the column had veered off course and ran into the field. Two carriers were blown up and an ammunition truck was set on fire. The blaze lit up the dusty desert and soon there were more trucks burning. In the depression itself 26 Battalion had run into a tank laager; there were enemy troops separating them from the rest of the brigade and, when it was almost dawn, Colonel Peart28 ordered his battalion to withdraw while there was still time. Two companies moved east and the others retraced their steps towards their start line.
The two detachments under Miller and Andrew had a narrow track ready for 24 Battalion's transport and were widening it under fire when the brigade column arrived and, packed nose to tail, disappeared into the smoke. Brigade Headquarters encountered another mine belt which was crossed after some page 306 delay. Andrews and party, who had arrived in the meantime, began to widen the lane. This took so long that, fortunately for them, they never reached the objective.
Down in El Mreir Brigadier Clifton was waiting for dawn to press on with the clearing of the depression. With him were Captain Pemberton, his driver-batman, Sapper Felix Brown, 29 and the mine-laden trucks. Pemberton suggested laying some mines, for a tank had been reported on the outskirts of the page 307 position, and asked for some infantry to help his batman, the truck drivers and himself to do the job. But our tanks would be along at the crack of dawn and it was considered that mines would be more of a hindrance than a help.
Concerning this situation Captain Pemberton wrote later:
‘24 Bn were thin on the ground, almost exhausted and it was quite dark. It would have been well nigh hopeless to get any sort of minefield laid around part of the perimeter even had infantry parties and guides been forthcoming. It was barely first light when the Panzers attacked and it seemed only a matter of minutes before our A/T guns were knocked out.’
The German gunners were aided by a chance shell that set a vehicle burning, and then another detonated a mine-laden truck which exploded with a roar and lit the whole area like lightning. Pemberton was wounded although he was over a hundred yards away.
It was now light enough for the enemy tanks to roll down into the depression and round up our helpless infantry. The support armour, as at Ruweisat Ridge, had not come forward.
The Indians were also not able to hold their initial gains on Ruweisat Ridge so there were no more phases to that operation.
The CRE's task in the Corps plan, to help test the ground between Ruweisat and El Mreir for mines, was undertaken by Captain Page with a party of approximately sixty sappers spread across a front of 1000 yards. Captain Page had ‘recced’ most of the area previously and a continuous field was not expected, but there was a definite likelihood of small scattered patches of mined desert.
There was no alternative but to advance in line at about ten paces interval, with each sapper searching some five yards to either side; following the men were a few heavily sandbagged vehicles. It was hoped that if there were patches of mines which the sappers did not detect, the drivers would not be hurt in the resulting explosions.
It was manifestly impossible to sweep such an area with mine detectors and the sappers had to depend on their eyes and a cloudless moonlight night. They could be certain that any minefields large or small would be marked, at least on the enemy side, by wire, rock cairns, rows of tins, stakes or something of the sort so that enemy tanks could recognise their own defences. But a sapper or a truck could be blown up before the boundary signs were detected. It is not unnatural that sappers became very expert in locating mines. A portion of a mine exposed by page 308 a sandstorm or a shell explosion, pieces of mine crates or fuses dropped in the darkness, a suspicious mound, often gave a clue. It was said that a sapper could smell a mine like a mouse could smell cheese. But if the night was dark or the field well concealed, the first sign was often a blown-up sapper or truck. The engineers well knew this and knew that it was a risk that must be taken.
The line moved slowly westwards to where it was expected to meet the infantry after the capture of El Mreir. There was scattered fire from the ridge where the Indians were attacking, and there were enemy tanks milling around in the distance but there were no New Zealand infantry. Captain Page reported this to Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson and the sappers were pulled back to the start line. Up to this stage no mines had been located. The CRE wrote later:
‘This seemed to indicate that my particular problem of clearing mines to the west was finished but it left me in a quandary as to what had become of 6 Bde. Following some further investigation we saw a wire which might have marked an enemy minefield, but as it was somewhat to the north of the axis of our route it did not appear of great moment. Had any of our own tanks been sent forward along our cleared lane to where we met the enemy tanks it seemed to us that the route taken by these enemy tanks could have been followed from this point.’
The further investigation mentioned by the CRE was a reconnaissance by Page and his officers, but because of heavy fire they were not able to approach the wire very closely. The failure of the Indian attack on the key position, Point 63 on the western extremity of Ruweisat Ridge, had prevented them from searching much of their section of the lane.
It only remains to state that when 23 British Armoured Brigade attacked along an axis between the New Zealanders and Indians, only seven tanks out of 87 reached their objectives. Mines and guns stopped the others, about half of which were later recovered.
Eighth Field Company's loss of 1 killed, 4 wounded, 5 prisoners of war (2 wounded) and 1 missing, 11 all told, 25 per cent of the number involved, including two of the three officers, was reduced by one when Captain Pemberton staggered in with the dawn next day. He, together with Brigadier Clifton, had managed to discard their badges of rank and, throughout the day, alternatively tended the wounded and shammed being page 309 casualties themselves. Pemberton did not have to sham very much for he had been hit by many splinters from the exploding truck and was in pretty poor shape. He did not clearly remember all the events of that day.
‘Details of that day are rather hazy,’ he says. ‘I remember helping “Sapper” George Clifton to support the chap with the wounded leg and our comical efforts while supporting him, to empty each other's pockets of personal bits and pieces and hand grenades practically right under the eye of a suspicious German with a tommy gun. I remember the cup of tea George and McQuarrie30 organised. I didn't watch the battle. I have hazy recollections of looking over the vehicles the enemy had not removed but clear memory of helping to bury Col Greville31 and of meeting and of later in the day saying goodbye to my Felix who was wounded in the leg looking after my interests and destroying maps in our PU as the enemy overran our area. Felix had been with me since early in the war and was a grand little man, very discreet, always extremely conscientious and loyal, a companion and friend—and I left him to go wounded into the bag because I could never have carried him. The next morning I talked to the CRE—what about I haven't a clue and I can hardly remember the trip by ambulance back to Alexandria.’
On 27 July there was one more attack, this time by 9 Australian Division in the north; again the infantry succeeded and were overrun by tanks. By this time the enemy had hardly any armour left fit to fight and the Eighth Army had hardly any infantry divisions fit to attack. But the over-all advantage still remained with Field Marshal Rommel, whose skilful use of smaller forces had blocked every lead made by General Auchinleck. The enemy appreciation describes the position exactly:
‘This successful defence against the enemy attacks on 27 July brought the summer defensive battles in the Alamein line to a close. Apparently the continued failures had convinced the British command that the Axis front could not be broken with the forces at its disposal, and it therefore discontinued attacking. Our casualties had not been light, but commanders and troops alike were more and more certain that our Alamein positions had withstood their hardest test.’page 310
For three months there was no large-scale fighting and the sappers, who more often than not had been used as second-class infantry rather than first-class engineers, came into their own. On account of the confused fighting and frequent moves there were no protecting minefields in the New Zealand area. This state of affairs was to be remedied forthwith.
Major Currie was ordered forward with the balance of 8 Field Company, less sixty-five all ranks LOB, to help cope with the work envisaged.
The CRE's plan was to mix mines and guile for the confusing of the enemy. The pattern laid down was to place two or three rows five to eight hundred yards ahead of the FDLs according to the lie of the land, and marked with wire on our side as in the normal way. Then a gap of three or four hundred yards was left before the unmarked main field of eight rows of mines, giving a density of one mine per yard of front, was put down close to the infantry positions where hostile night patrols were not likely to penetrate. In an attack the enemy armour would think that the only minefield was the far-out one marked with the wire in the usual manner. It was hoped that they would organise the clearing of the first mines, launch an attack on the infantry and go up in large numbers on the unmarked field.
The routine of minelaying on the Alamein line seldom varied. In the early afternoon haze an officer and a couple of sappers would go out into no-man's land, make quick compass readings and build small cairns of stones to mark the line for direction finding and boundaries at night. Such a small party was seldom accepted as a target, but all the same nobody lingered on the job. Sometimes the ‘wo-oof bang!’ of a field gun speeded up an already speedy job.
Back in the engineer lines mines were counted, checked and loaded on to the trucks; fencing wire, heavy hammers and iron pickets were loaded on other trucks. After dark the vehicles, in line ahead, would be driven across a maze of slit trenches and sleeping infantry to the stone cairns set up during the day. The fencing party would move along the line dropping material as it went, an eerie business, well knowing that Jerry was probably doing the same thing not so very far away. But it was comforting to remember that between them and Jerry were infantry covering parties…. First came the fence around the field and then the mine-carrying trucks and laying parties, one page 311 to each line of mines and generally six sappers to each party, working to a fixed routine:
1st Sapper paced the distance between mines and marked the spot with a pick.
2nd Sapper dug the hole with a shovel.
3rd Sapper placed the unarmed mine alongside the hole.
4th Sapper placed the exploder by the mines.
5th Sapper placed the mine in the hole and armed it with exploder and detonator.
6th Sapper buried the mine and scattered the surplus sand.
By the end of July a belt of mines had been laid around three sides of the New Zealand area, but not without further loss of men and trucks as extracts from the war diaries of the two Field Companies involved testify:
24 July. Major Currie32 and one sapper wounded when his truck ran on to an uncharted mine.
25 July. Three killed and eight wounded when a mine exploded.
26 July. Lt Galloway killed and two sappers wounded by mine explosion.
27 July. One killed and one wounded when a truck detonated an uncharted enemy mine.
Those not engaged with mines worked compressors in shifts to assist the infantry to sink their trenches in the solid rock under the few inches of sand, or exploded UXBs, or accompanied the infantry patrols which went out nightly to annoy the enemy and locate his minefields. It was now the height of one of the hottest summers on record and the sappers discarded more and more clothing until their uniform consisted of boots, shorts and pith helmets. The great disadvantage of the sappers' ‘working uniform’ was that it provided more landing grounds for the untold millions of flies that infested the battlefield during the hours of daylight. They were, to misquote the poet, ‘a very bloody plague’.
It was about this time that planes began dropping butterfly bombs in great numbers, thus adding another danger to the infantry and another chore to the sappers' daily tasks. The enemy pilots dropped overboard a container holding twenty-four bombs; the container opened during the descent and the bomb's outer covering was released and became a propeller, page 312 which unwound safety devices in the fuses and armed the bombs. Once safely on the ground the slightest movement would explode them. They were dropped in hundreds in the ensuing weeks, were heartily disliked by the infantry and left for the engineers to deal with.
Most of the urgent jobs were completed early in August but there were many miles of subsidiary mine belts to be worked on. August was an important month, for up to that date Eighth Army Command was still looking both ways; preparing to defend its present location and preparing for a possible withdrawal to the Nile Delta by way of an intermediate position along the Alam Halfa ridge.
General Freyberg, recovered from the wound taken at Minqar Qaim, returned to the Division on 10 August, and about the same time a change in leadership put General Montgomery in command of the Eighth Army. But perhaps of more immediate importance from the sapper viewpoint (there is some distance between the spheres of a sapper and a general) was the implementation of two Army messages:
No further issues of rum will be drawn after 31 July.
Until further notice four cans of beer will be available.
The new general met his commanders and said simply and positively that there would be no withdrawal and no surrender; the Army would fight to the last man and the last round right where it stood at that moment and in no other place. Work on the Delta positions was to be stopped forthwith; surplus vehicles were to be sent back and others dug in; the Alamein line was to be strengthened with all speed; any attempt to outflank from the south would be countered from Alam Halfa ridge, where the defences were also to be strengthened and reserve armour deployed.
The electrifying new strategy meant more urgent minelaying for the Field Companies. The Division had at this period a continuous mine belt on its western front facing from El Mreir and Kaponga, and another along the Alam Nayil ridge to the south. The proposal was now to surround the whole area with a belt of mines.
The garrison of the New Zealand Box, as it began to be called in spite of all orders to the contrary, was increased by the marching in to that 35 square mile area of the infantry, artillery and support arms of 132 Brigade of 44 Division. It had been only three weeks in Egypt and was grass green to desert warfare.page 313
Eighth Field Company worked flat out on the northern and eastern boundaries of the New Zealand Box; 5 Field Park Company, augmented by eighty sappers from 6 Field Company, alternated between minefields south of Alam Nayil and along Alam Halfa ridges; 7 Field Company was transferred to preparing new accommodation for Divisional Headquarters; and all the time compressor crews were helping the infantry to ‘make assurance double sure and take a bond of fate’. Towards the end of August there was some changing about of engineer personnel; 7 Field Company was due for a spell for they had been up in the ‘blue’ since their return from Syria, and the dirty bandages around their desert sores made them look more like walking wounded than working engineers. The sappers from 6 Field Company attached to 5 Field Park were withdrawn, and Major Woolcott was requested to assemble a skeleton company of 100 all ranks under the command of Lieutenant Goodsir and take over from 7 Field Company, which was to leave seventy-odd sappers (Lieutenants Foster and Page) attached to the CRE under command of Lieutenant Hamilton33 and bring the rest back to B Echelon area on Alam Halfa ridge.
These movements were completed by 28 August. Meanwhile there had been considerable disruption to the schedule of the enemy troops in El Mreir. During the night 26 - 27 August the Maoris had put on a two-company raid and Lieutenant Hamilton with twelve sappers had assisted by blowing gaps in the wire with Bangalore torpedoes. Demolition parties added to the Maori yells and snatches of haka the noise of exploding slabs of gun-cotton, as they demolished enemy machine guns whose crews had been cut down by automatics or had fallen to Polynesian bayonets. The Maori Battalion was very thorough with this weapon, and in the official report of the affair there is complaint that the enemy did not supply the expected opposition. However, thirty-five samples were brought back for identification—the real purpose of the raid. Sapper casualties were three wounded and one wounded and missing. The group then rejoined the Company at B Echelon, leaving only the sixteen sappers comprising the compressor crews attached to Engineer Headquarters. The CRE later passed on the 5 Brigade Commander's compliments:page 314
‘Acting OC, 7 NZ Fd Coy.
‘The Comd 5 NZ Inf Bde rang me offering his own and the congratulations of the 28 Bn to the men of the 7 Field Coy who took part in the very successful raid last night.
‘Brigadier Kippenberger said that the bangalore torpedo men never hesitated but proceeded straight out in front of the infantry and, despite the shelling and the proximity of the enemy, ample gaps were quickly blown through the enemy wire. Also, he stated that the demolition parties displayed dash and courage in pushing on with the first waves, seeking out anything to be demolished.
‘Will you please convey the Brigadier's remarks to the men concerned, and indeed, to your whole Company and will you also offer my heartiest congratulations.
‘It was a very good “show” and everyone is very pleased with the part which Lieut. Hamilton and his engineer parties played.
CRE 2 NZ Division.’
Little has been mentioned of Field Marshal Rommel since the virtual armistice by exhaustion that resulted after Ruweisat and El Mreir. In the ensuing weeks he had built up his resources faster than his enemy, but the time was close when he would have to go forward or retire in the face of growing British strength. He planned, therefore, to go forward.
By the middle of August his mobile formations had been withdrawn from their forward positions; during the last week of the month the panzer divisions moved by night to assembly areas; on the night 30 - 31 August they advanced to their start lines. The plan was to break through the minefields south of the New Zealand Box before they became too thick to be readily penetrated, and to fight a war of manoeuvre in the open desert before Alexandria, cutting off the Eighth Army.
The Africa Corps’ diary for 30 August surveyed the position with satisfaction:
‘2300 hours: After a pause of about three weeks Africa Corps once more advanced to the attack. During this time the strength of the Corps had been considerably increased. Morale was good and confident. The Panzer regiments had a total of 237 runners. The infantry regiments, which had had heavy casualties, were not yet up to full strength again. The artillery had its full establishment of guns, plus the newly arrived self-propelled field howitzers.’page 315
Eighth Army had appreciated that the attack was coming, the enemy concentrations had been correctly interpreted and counter-moves ordered. Twelvebore was the signal to put them into operation and only the date was unknown. Nightly eyes strained westwards for the red over white over green Very lights that the forward troops would fire in the case of an alarm anywhere along the front. The code-word twelvebore was circulated from Divisional Headquarters at 1.15 a.m. on 31 August and at 2 a.m. Panzer Corps was not so pleased with itself:
‘0200 hours: The advance halted as both divisions encountered minefields covered by enemy posts. The divisions immediately sent Panzer Grenadiers forward to the attack and brought up engineers to clear gaps. This wasted a great deal of time as the mines alternated between scattered single mines and thick fields. The country was also under hostile fire from mortars and MGs.’
Sapper parties already detailed closed gaps and were prepared to open others for patrols when wanted; trucks with mines and fencing material stood by to close the main entrance to the New Zealand Box, the 600-yard gap in the safe or eastern face. Swarms of butterfly bombs were delivered by enemy planes, some of which were seen to fall to the incessantly firing Bofors. Colonel Hanson was evacuated with dysentery and Major Anderson took over.34 And that was the engineers', and for that matter the infantry's share of the first day of Rommel's last throw. The artillery, though, hardly ever stopped firing.
It is difficult for seasoned troops to get excited over a battle they can't even hear very well, for Rommel had elected to force his way, covered by diversionary thrusts elsewhere, through a gap in the ten-mile space which separates Alam Nayil ridge and the tank-proof Qattara Depression.
As the Africa Corps’ diary suggests, it was not an easy passage, for in addition to minefields, real and dummy, there were formations of planes dropping bombs by day and by the light of parachute flares, mobile armour backstepping but firing hard as it went, and artillery of all calibres just waiting for targets.
The enemy timetable called for the early capture of Alam Halfa ridge and the consequent abandonment by Eighth Army of the whole Alamein line, but by last light (31 August) Alam Halfa was untaken and the attackers were on the defensive.page 316
September the 1st was also quiet in the New Zealand Box except for a report that the enemy might be trying to work around to the east of the position. The result was more work for the engineers. The gap in the eastern face was to be closed to 130 yards and the whole face stiffened forthwith. Every available sapper worked non-stop through the afternoon and early night preparing mines; the trucks were loaded by midnight and on the line soon afterwards. At 5 a.m. a relief took over, the last mine was laid at midday and the weary sappers went to sleep. In actual fact Rommel had decided that the job was too tough and was making preparations to withdraw.
The 2nd was quiet on the engineer front, but plans were being made to render the enemy withdrawal an even more difficult operation than his advance had been. The outcome was that 5 Indian Division on Ruweisat Ridge was to assume responsibility for the eastern face of the New Zealand Box, thus freeing 132 Brigade to take part, with 26 Battalion on its right and 5 Brigade on its left, in an advance as far as the northern edge of the depressions Alinda, Munassib and Muhafid. These were used by the enemy as his axis. The method was to be a silent attack with the bayonet and the time 10.30 p.m. on 3 September, the third anniversary of the declaration of war.
A working party from 8 Field Company (Lieutenant Hanger, two 13-strong sub-sections, two trucks and 600 mines) would first clear a lane in the containing mine belt then accompany 26 Battalion, which was to follow 132 Brigade for a short distance, then turn west and cover the right flonk of the attack behind a minefield that ran south from the New Zealand Box. The sappers were also to fill a reported enemy-made gap in the flanking belt and be ready to pass Divisional Cavalry through at first light should the situation warrant.
On the left sector 6 Field Company was to gap the mine belt. With 21 Battalion, which was to cover the left flank of the attack in a similar manner to 26 Battalion along a further north to south minefield, went a section to ‘recce’ the field and report on its condition. The rest of the Company, with the aid of B Company, 22 Battalion, was to put down a new mine belt between the Munassib and Muhafid depressions, that is on the left of the Maoris and at their junction with 21 Battalion. The wire where the gap was to be made was marked by Lieutenant Brady with some white cloth during the afternoon heat haze when visibility was at a minimum.page 317
Preparations for the attack were made against a background of explosive noises and earth shakings. The RAF, with practically unchallenged superiority, dropped during this peak day of the Battle of Alam Halfa over one thousand bombs weighing over three-quarters of a million pounds. This represents nearly a bomb a minute for the whole twenty-four hours—and some of them were 4000-pounders.
It is of course a truism that you cannot command all the air all the time and the enemy planes did their best to help their ground forces. They did most of the helping over the New Zealand Box by night, with nuisance raiding, tracer spraying, butterfly bomb dropping and banshee screaming as in the forgotten days of the Olympus line in Greece.
All this circus acting possibly had some effect on the apprentice 132 Brigade going forward to its first fight. There was, however, nothing circus-like about the continuous shelling and mortaring of the minefield gap. The enemy must have been aware of its location and purpose for he covered it to such good effect that the brigade transport was caught passing through the gap and became hopelessly disorganised. Lieutenant Hanger's party with Headquarters 26 Battalion got its share of the fire as they followed close on the heels of the British infantry. The engineers escaped casualties, but Colonel Peart commanding the 26th was mortally wounded and his headquarters disorganised. To make matters worse, of the 132 Brigade trucks that had managed to get through the gap, some were on fire, some had been abandoned and some were rushing aimlessly around and got mixed with the battalion transport of which 8 Field Company's section was a part.
Lieutenant Hanger writes:
‘We were chased from spot to spot by very heavy Mortar fire, about as bad as I experienced except for Moaning Minnies at Enfidaville!! We were not very happy with three trucks of mines as you can imagine…. We were eventually ordered out by Brig Clifton (over the blower). Told to get back behind the Ridge as quickly as possible…. my 2 I/C for the show CSM Jerry Gowan35 did a grand job that night.’
In 5 Brigade sector gapping the minefield did not begin until well after dark and was completed by 10 p.m. Enemy listening parties must have been very much on the qui vive for this gap also came under fairly heavy fire. Sixth Field Company, less page 318 Lieutenant Goodsir who travelled with 5 Brigade Tactical Headquarters, took its place in the brigade transport column. Soon after 1 a.m. 21 Battalion reported itself on its objective and the unit transport was sent forward, and with it Lieutenant Brady and No. 1 section of sappers. He writes:
‘My job was to recce the area in front of their positions and report on the state of an alleged mine field. It turned out to be a dummy field with no mines at all. This caused some consternation and I remember we had to recheck the area in daylight with the same result.’
Another hour passed, and then in response to a message from the Maori Battalion Lieutenants Edmonds and Hamilton took the rest of 6 Field Company, plus the 22 Battalion covering party, forward along the line of shaded lights set up by the Provost Section until they met the transport column that had preceded them. The Maoris thought to have been in the area could not be found; in actual fact they were down in the Munassib Depression, quite out of touch with everybody but having the time of their lives among the enemy transport.
The group probed about and finally returned to the end of the lighted axis. Meanwhile Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade, from odd reports, and by deduction from the too numerous fires in 132 Brigade's area that all was not well with them, ordered the sappers to return and B Company, 22 Battalion, to remain forward.
It is another story how 22 Battalion formed a line behind which the Maori Battalion was able to withdraw, how 132 Brigade was decimated by guns, mortars and small arms and never re-formed, how the attack was called off and how the enemy remained in command of the depressions until he completed his withdrawal.
Five days later 6 Field Company group was back at a rest camp near the beach at Burg el Arab. Fifth Field Park Company and 8 Field Company, plus 7 Field Company compressor crews, arrived the next day.
By 19 September, 2 NZ Division less 4 Brigade,36 after a week of rest, sea and sun bathing, entertainment and leave, was in ‘Swordfish area’ about 20 miles inland ready to begin training for the next round with Panzerarmee Afrika.
The tide was almost on the turn, for the Eighth Army, basking in its first success under Lieutenant-General Mont- page 319 gomery, and with General Alexander Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, was being prepared for an offensive designed to win North Africa from the enemy.
The enemy was now on the defensive holding a line with unturnable flanks, and broadly speaking the Montgomery plan was, in the tradition of 1914 - 18, an assault by infantry against his entrenched positions in depth to force a gap to pass the armour through.
Another method of the days of 1914 - 18 that was to be employed was a barrage—a moving wall of artillery missiles, behind the shelter of which the infantry would advance. It was considered that an attack by day would be too costly and, owing to the distances involved, an attack on a dark night too hazardous. The Eighth Army, therefore, would attack by moonlight, to be precise the night of 23 - 24 October, the night before full moon. But these were early days and few yet knew of the design for battle or the date proposed. Nor did the Divisional Engineers yet know precisely what their part would be, or how they would accomplish it.
4 The cliffs of Qaim.
6 Extract from citation supporting Maj Anderson's DSO.
23 Lt-Col Reid, op. cit.
26 Letter, Lt Standish.