New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
CHAPTER 12 — The Turn of the Tide
The Turn of the Tide
Mention has been made of the plan to breach the enemy line—in essence, an assault by infantry behind a barrage. Through the gap thus to be created, armour would advance and decide the issue. To this end, while Rommel had been held along the Alamein line, hundreds of the latest American Sherman tanks, thousands of reinforcements for the depleted divisions, untold numbers of vehicles and enormous stocks of supplies had been pouring into Egypt.
But before the tanks could enter the battle, tracks must be cleared through mined areas, known or later discovered. A minefield, as the reader will remember, is an area in which an unknown number of anti-tank mines have been buried in unknown patterns but in sufficient quantity to prevent the passage of vehicles. Up to that date it was reasonably safe for men to walk through a mined belt, for the anti-tank mines were designed with a firing device that would withstand the weight of a man walking on them but would actuate under a vehicle crossing the pressure plate.
The engineers were to ensure that lanes were made at the places and by the times laid down in operation orders, the synopsis of a coming battle. So it was that the Field Companies which had for months been putting obstacles in front of the enemy armour must now train in lifting mines in both our own and the enemy's minefields for the passage of our own tanks.
They had the example of the German engineers who had proved, both in the ‘Cauldron’ battles earlier in the year and during the attempt to outflank the Alamein position, that it was feasible to make gaps quickly through mined belts in moonlight and under fire.
But before mines could be lifted they had to be located and there were three methods of doing this. The first and most logical was to look for them; it is difficult to disguise work done by night over a large area and, providing it was not too dark, sappers could read the signs indicating their presence. Sometimes the wind would help by exposing part of a mine, page 342 page 343 sometimes shelling would dislodge tell-tale evidence. By these and other methods mentioned in a previous chapter an unmarked field could generally be found.
The position of individual mines was a different matter and was tackled, in the absence of mechanical aids, by sappers working shoulder to shoulder and prodding every few inches of ground with their bayonets—slow work and primitive, used only as a last resort.
Finally there was the mine detector, which emitted a humming sound until the search loop entered the magnetic field of a metal object when it would either, according to its make, damp down altogether or change sharply in tone. Mine detectors, however, were of too delicate a construction to stand up to battle conditions without frequent and skilled adjustment. There were some doubts as to their efficiency in wet weather. Also the enemy, who had thousands of our mines converted to his own use, was already experimenting with a mine in a non-magnetic wooden box fastened with a minimum of nails and very difficult to locate. As a corollary, causing an unavoidable waste of time, mine detectors found scraps of battlefield debris such as shell fragments, food tins and the like. Another very definite shortcoming from the point of view of the operator was that, with earphones on and well fitted, the normal noises of the battlefield were to a large extent shut out. He had to remain standing to work the detector, and the sight of everyone else diving for cover when the occasion demanded, but about which he knew nothing, was a test of a steady nerve.
The sappers' difficulties did not end with the finding of mines; in many cases these were fitted with anti-lifting devices commonly known as booby traps and often had several methods of firing, including nearly invisible trip-wires. Before being lifted, mines were made safe by defusing or relocking the safety devices—a risky business even if the lifter was an expert.
Much thought had been given to the problem of making quick gaps across danger studded country and the Eighth Army School of Minefield Clearance, with Major Currie as Commandant and Chief Instructor, had been set up in a quiet piece of desert at Burg el Arab to teach a drill that had been evolved for the purpose. Every CRE in the Eighth Army had put forward suggestions from which a standard drill was prepared, but it was left to each commander to make such variations as he thought necessary.page 344
The standard drill envisaged a gapping detachment of 1 officer and 44 other ranks comprising:
|Recce Party||1 officer, 1 NCO and 3 ORs|
|No. 1 Party||1 NCO and 9 ORs tape laying|
|Nos. 2 and 3 Parties||1 NCO and 9 ORs detecting|
|No. 4 Party||1 NCO and 9 ORs stores and reserves|
Headquarters Divisional Engineers' drill used a team of thirty-five men to clear a gap eight yards wide, which was considered sufficient for wheeled vehicles. A 16-yard gap was thought to be the minimum width that tanks could pass through at night. Signal cables were laid on the right-hand side of the initial lane and all widening was done to the left. Every sapper was trained in all duties for it was seldom that a lifting job under fire did not entail casualties.
Upon completion of the first lane each side was fenced with iron pickets and barbed wire and lighted with lamps shaded so that they could be seen only from the rear. These lamps were the flat, dry-cell battery, bicycle type and hung in pairs; they showed a green light for the safe side and amber for the dangerous or uncleared side. They were highly regarded by the infantry, who thieved them at every opportunity. By day the markers were pickets with a crosspiece painted white and red. Red lights were not used because they could be confused with vehicle and tank tail lights.
This was known as the ‘quiet routine’, but when concealment was not important or when the mines were more than usually dangerous to handle, i.e., when they were booby-trapped or were our own shifted from other fields, they were often blown in situ or several were sent up together with a line of primer cord and an exploder.
Trials were also being made with prototype devices for finding and exploding mines by remote control. They are described by Lieutenant-Colonel Murray Reid, who, as a company commander, came to know both them and their faults intimately:
‘It [a Pilot vehicle] consisted of an old truck with no cab, on which had been built a sandbagged box to protect the driver and his mate. The truck was driven backwards by remote controls from the protection of this box, and pushed three big spike-studded concrete rollers, which were held in place by arms projecting from the rear of the truck. The spikes projected about six inches from the rollers and pressed into the sand to explode any mines touched. The machines were designed to find mine- page 345 fields and not to clear tracks through them, so, to prevent our trucks from being damaged on unmarked fields, the Pilot Vehicles were to lead the way.’1
Once the danger area had been located there was a Scorpion that provided its own lane. Again quoting Colonel Reid:
‘Experimental tanks in the area had been fitted with ingenious flail devices attached to the front of the tanks. As each tank advanced this device was revolved at high speed and caused wire ropes and chains shackled on to a roller to beat the ground with sufficient force to explode any mines encountered, the mines exploding harmlessly in front of the tank. The roller was held about six feet in front of the tank and three feet above the ground, with the wire ropes attached to the roller in such a way that the whole of the area in front of the tank was beaten by the flails. The separate motor installed on the tank to revolve the roller proved unsatisfactory, as it overheated badly, and the machine could not work continuously for more than 500 yards. With improvements it was hoped to develop a similar machine which would prove satisfactory under all conditions. This idea had great possibilities, especially from the sappers' point of view, as if we could get tanks to clear gaps through minefields we could anticipate a much longer life.’
The Scorpion was to be for use in an emergency, such as when an unexpected minefield was encountered and no sappers were available, or where enemy fire prevented men working in the open. Their primary role was to act like minesweepers to warships and clear the way for tanks that might need a track through a field in the course of an engagement. In actual use, however, they performed indifferently, for the flails did not beat tracks wide enough unless several Scorpions were used in echelon and in the dust and smoke of battle this was quite impossible. Perhaps the most unsatisfactory feature of the Scorpion was that the engine operating the flails was too light. This auxiliary motor, a V8 Ford in a small armour-plated housing attached to the right side of the tank, had space for the motor and operator but not enough for the circulation of cooling air for the radiator. The result was often that a motor overheated or clogged with dust and was rendered unserviceable. The ‘Scorps’ had British crews but the Field Companies to which they were from time to time attached supplied the operator for the auxiliary equipment. It was not exactly a safe job but there was never a lack of volunteers.page 346
The enemy contribution to the complexity of the modern battlefield was the ‘S’ (anti-personnel) mine which was scattered among the anti-tank mines. It could be operated by pressure or pull igniters and from the technical point of view was a beautiful piece of precision engineering. The S-mine was really a small mortar five inches in height and four inches in diameter which fired a double-walled container holding about 350 steel balls and a bursting charge. A delay device exploded this container, according to the nature of the ground, from three to five feet in the air. The range of the shrapnel and case fragments was up to 200 yards and they were lethal up to 100 yards—a very deadly weapon.
We too, of course, possessed anti-personnel mines, but they had been seldom used in the desert and were never the equal of the S-mine. It was not until the doctors reported the presence of pellets in new wounds that the enemy's use of shrapnel mines became widely known.
The sappers spent the better part of the first week at the training area in covering, with painstaking accuracy, some hundreds of acres of desert with dummy minefields, gun emplacements and infantry positions. Only very senior officers in the Division knew that the practice battlefield was a replica of the German defences in front of Miteiriya Ridge. The Australians already held Tell el Eisa ridge and the Eighth Army plan was to make a break-through between that feature and the nearby Miteiriya Ridge. The infantry brigades, with appropriate supporting arms under command, deployed in the moonlight of a September night and took part in a full dress-rehearsal of the real thing.
The engineers, using Bangalore torpedoes on their previously erected wire obstacles, cleared passages for the infantry, and after the troops had passed through they cleared and marked lanes in the minefields beyond for the passage of supporting arms. Finally they laid protective minefields for the infantry digging in on their objectives. At lectures and conferences the lessons of the mock battle were digested and solutions to problems worked out.
A large and detailed model of the proposed battlefield had been built for General Freyberg's use by Headquarters Divisional Engineers, and as the weeks went by the officers who studied it were more and more junior. Each sapper section had laid extensive dummy minefields near its lines and concentrated page 347 on the drill for clearing along a given bearing 40 ft lanes through two of these in succession. They practised by day and by night until each sapper was thoroughly conversant with every job in the team and until every sapper was thoroughly browned off with mines and their attributes.
The intention was to create two corridors between Tell el Eisa and Miteiriya ridges for the passage of two armoured divisions. The Royal Navy and the RAF had virtually denied enemy replenishment by sea and the RAF had obtained air supremacy; on land there were to be diversionary attacks from Ruweisat Ridge of evil memory down to the Qattara Depression.
The New Zealand attack on Miteiriya Ridge was to be carried out by the two infantry brigades; the flanking divisions were 51 Highland Division, right, and 1 South African Division, left, while north of the Highlanders was 9 Australian Division—four divisions from four countries. The job was to break through a position defended with minefields three to five miles deep, covered very adequately with artillery and mortars and held by a tenacious and inventive enemy.
To exploit success to the south and for the protection of the infantry which could expect armoured counter-attacks, 9 Armoured Brigade was placed under command of 2 NZ Division thus ensuring that there would be no more Sidi Rezegh, Ruweisat Ridge or El Mreir disasters, or as General Freyberg put it in a report to the New Zealand Government, ‘… and days of infantry being overrun by enemy armour as on 1 December 1941 and 22 July 1942 which brought long lists of prisoners are, I hope, past.’
The necessary lanes for the passage of 9 Armoured Brigade, two in each brigade area, were the responsibility of the CRE. A separate lane for 10 Armoured Division that was also passing through the New Zealand sector was to be cleared by that Division's own minefield task force.
In the New Zealand sector one battalion in each brigade was to capture the first objective, which was just beyond the first enemy minefield; in the second phase two battalions in each brigade were to advance to the far side of Miteiriya Ridge.
Colonel Hanson's intention was that the first and probably the largest enemy minefield would be cleared by one sapper party and any others by a second party, which meant using eight of the nine sections in the three Field Companies. The allocation was: 7 Field Company (Major C. F. Skinner), with page 348 No. 3 Section (Second-Lieutenant St. George2) of 6 Field Company under command, to clear the lanes in 5 Brigade sector; 8 Field Company (Major H. M. Reid), with No. 2 Section (Lieutenant Claridge) of 6 Field Company under command, to clear lanes in 6 Brigade sector. Company Headquarters, 6 Field Company (Major Woolcott) and No. 1 Section (Lieutenant Morgan) were to remain with the Divisional Reserve Group.
Fifth Field Park Company (Major Anderson) had also trained in mine detecting and lifting as well as carrying out its normal supply functions—functions that to this date had largely been laid aside in favour of Field Company work. Workshop Section was particularly busy making mine markers and lane markers and also helping the LAD to fit up trucks for Divisional Signals; Stores Section had its hands full distributing and taking back tapes, lamps, sandbags, explosives, picks and shovels from the Field Companies and infantry brigades according to the training that was going on.
On 12 October twenty sappers (Lieutenant Somerville) were sent on a job near the Alamein railway station building shelters for Divisional Headquarters and burying cable leading there- page 349 from to prevent damage from enemy shells and from our own tanks. The next day twenty sappers (Lieutenant Pickmere) joined the Divisional Reserve Group on a very hush-hush mission. The word Scorpion had scarcely been breathed at that time and the new ‘minefield busters’ were kept hidden from view behind walls of scrim. They did not inspire much confidence in the mechanically minded sappers for the radiator and flail engine faced backwards, which gave the engine a very short running time before it overheated; all the extra fitments were only clamped or welded for it had been forbidden to drill holes in the obsolete tanks; and it was not possible to see from the interior of the Scorpion because the flails churned up so much dust that visibility was restricted. It was only after a night at the NAAFI that there were dreams of winkling out machine-gun nests, with the flails flat out and mines exploding all over the place.
Another detachment, five sappers commanded by Sergeant J. F. Smith,3 was detached to the Divisional Cavalry for dealing with mines encountered on patrols, also for hasty demolitions of tanks and guns.
The rest of 5 Field Park Company (Lieutenant Jones) became the LOB group and with the other units' surplus transport took part in exercises calculated to deceive the enemy into thinking that an outflanking move was being initiated. They careered over the desert creating clouds of dust while drivers and their passengers muttered about being messed about as usual.
On 21 October the Division began the move from the Swordfish training area to the Alam el Onsol assembly area, about 12 miles behind the start line. From there units of Royal Engineers had formed and marked six tracks leading to the forming-up places, and of these tracks the New Zealanders were allotted the use of four, known by the signs placed at frequent intervals as the Star, Bottle, Boat and Moon tracks. At night these tracks were defined by lamps placed under empty petrol tins, out of the near side of which had been punched the outlines of the object which gave the track its name. For many miles around the desert had been dotted with dummy vehicles for the benefit of enemy ‘recce’ planes, whose pilots no doubt diagnosed them for what they were—but it was hoped that they did not realise that nightly the dummies were changed to real vehicles or became the camouflage for dumps of ammunition.page 350
The next afternoon all ranks gathered around their Company Headquarters while General Montgomery's pre-battle message was read to them; the pending operation was explained in general and the part they were to play was described in very great detail. From the start line to the infantry objective on the far side of Miteiriya Ridge was about three and a half miles; there would be 104 guns supporting the Divisional attack, some on known, likely or supposed defensive posts and some by way of a creeping barrage. This would be the first time a barrage, a number of guns covering the front and lifting their range at predetermined times, had been used on such a scale in North Africa. Barrages large or small did not concern the sappers, but what was of interest was the information that a troop of Scorpions had been placed under the command of each brigade to be used only if the engineers could not get the enemy belts gapped in time.
That night the sappers moved, with their brigades, from the Onsol area to lying-up areas just in rear of the infantry start line. In 5 Brigade two lanes were to be cleared 500 yards apart for the unit supporting arms and the tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade. Tenth Armoured Division, which was to break out after the infantry had captured the ridge, was responsible for its own lanes. No. 3 Section, 6 Field Company (Lieutenant St. George), right lane, and 2 Section, 7 Field Company (Lieutenant Page), left lane, were to clear as far as the west side of the first enemy field, whereupon 3 Section (Lieutenant Standish) right and 1 Section (Lieutenant Foster) left were to pass through and carry on to the infantry objective. A small party of sappers would accompany 23 Battalion as far as the minefield and place there at an agreed spot a shaded light for the guidance of the clearing parties. In order to get the vehicles off to a flying start, gaps were made through our own minefield and the greatest care taken to leave no traces for prying enemy patrols.
After lying up throughout the hours of daylight on 23 October, the crucial test was at hand. At about 9 p.m. 23 Battalion, which was to take the first objective some two miles forward, passed the waiting sappers; soon afterwards there followed the two companies of Maoris who were to mop up on each brigade sector. Bright moonlight bathed the silent desert, while out to the west the silhouette of Miteiriya barely broke the flatness of the skyline. ‘Yet still war seems on either side to sleep.’
At 9.40 p.m. from the sea to Ruweisat Ridge and from Ruweisat to the Qattara Depression belching gun barrels turned page 351 the moonlight red; an avalanche of missiles screamed westwards; magically, lights appeared in the cleared gaps when the need for concealment had passed.
The Maoris left the start line at 10.23 p.m., following 23 Battalion with the sappers close behind. Missed strongposts were to be eliminated as quickly as possible to give the working engineers a clear field; there were no interruptions from this cause for Maoris are very proficient at such jobs.
Lieutenant St. George, on the right-flank lane, writes:
‘At 1800 hours on 23 October we moved up to the start line which was taped and waited for zero hour. I went up and inspected the gaps on our own minefield and also checked slit trenches, which could put our trucks out of action if not marked. While on this check, I met Major Skinner and we were discussing how much time was left, when the first 25 pounder shot practically parted our hair, or so it seemed. With the sky lit up from horizon to horizon with flickering gun flashes as the great barrage really got cracking, it was a sight Major Skinner or I will never forget.
‘As we were third off the mark after the attacking infantry and the mopping up Maoris, I walked back and gave the order to start up. We sent out small recce party, of I think 3 sappers and Sgt Hill,4 with the mopping up Maoris and they had a blue light to plant at any minefield they could find to keep the section on line.
‘“Battle Order” was 1 officer and 37 O.R.s spread out in two ranks in extended order with myself in centre of front rank and Sgt. Johnny Brown5 in centre of rear rank. Then a three ton truck with our explosives and gear. If our recce party missed a minefield which of course did not show in the desert, we hoped to find it by someone in the extended ranks stumbling on a mine and thus giving us a clue.
‘The whole scene was rather unreal to me and I kept getting an impression of a cinema scene with the large moon shining, the flat plain, the terrific noise of the barrage and the red coloured blobs, which were German shells landing but which of course were noiseless in the general din.’
A salvo of these unheard shells landed among the section, wounding St. George and his batman, and Sergeant Brown took charge. His truck became mixed with carriers and unit transport page 352 which had lost direction and were milling around. He got clear and caught up with the section before they began clearing the first enemy field. Sergeant Brown was awarded a DCM for his resource and leadership in getting the lane through and ready for traffic at a cost of five more wounded.
Owing to the fact that the New Zealand sector widened as the ridge was approached, the sappers had to change direction during the advance. Lieutenant Standish, whose section passed through Brown's men, put on record:
‘I had to change direction in no man's land which was a tricky operation I remember, due to poor visibility and steering points, much smoke and dust, mortar bursts etc., and carry on in the north lane which had been successfully opened through the first minefield. Anyway we proceeded fairly smoothly opening up and continuing the north lane, clearing gaps through two more belts of mines and we finished up immediately behind the FDL's … which was just below the ridge.’
Lieutenant Page, a quarter of a mile to the south, sketches a background:
‘… the comparative silence while waiting on the start line, followed by the terrific din of the barrage the like of which had never been heard before [in North Africa]. The word to move and the first sight of the approach march as we moved over the brow of the hill, splashes of artillery fire and the tell-tale tracer of small arms. The difficulty of concentrating on keeping accurate line and direction, counting paces etc., in the general racket and amidst the smoke and dust of shell fire. The feeling of relief on sighting a small green light indicating that our small recce party had found the first indication of mines…. The appearance on the job of OC Jerry Skinner and the encouragement he gave to all concerned at a vital stage. The realisation that the hours of training we had done were paying dividends…. The gradual easing of the fire and finally the moment when the job was done, the gap opened, tested and the first support weapons rumbling through.’
The support weapons were rumbling through at a cost of five sappers wounded. Sappers Dolheguy6 and Taylor7 were awarded Military Medals for courageous work with mine detectors. Both refused relief from a job that did not permit shelter from bullets or shell splinters.page 353
With Page's gap through, Foster's sappers moved forward and started on their job when the second field was located. The compass bearing they were following took them diagonally through the field and it became apparent that they would not get clear before daybreak. Scorpions were waiting in reserve at the first gap and Lieutenant Foster went back for them. He found there were only two out of the original three that had started out that night. The second one got off centre a bit and blew off a track but the third one made up for everything:
‘With the Scorpion attachment working there was absolutely no visibility forwards—just a column of thick dust and stones. I got into the open hatch of the tank and navigated by sighting backwards. Our detector gang worked in widening the gap and the marking crew followed on. In spite of frequent stops, the auxiliary motor finally seized up just short of the objective—Miteiriya Ridge, but the tanks and supporting weapons were through before daylight.’
The Company, less No. 3 Section dug in behind 21 Battalion, was concentrated behind the southern gap in the first minefield.
In 8 Field Company, covering the 6 Brigade sector, Major Reid's plan was for No. 2 Section (Lieutenant Miller) to open up the north lane as far as the first infantry objective, where 24 Battalion would halt and where 26 Battalion would follow through on the right half of the brigade front and capture the ridge. No. 3 Section (Lieutenant Andrew) would continue the lane behind 26 Battalion.
The south lane was to be pushed through to the first objective by No. 2 Section, 6 Field Company (Lieutenant Claridge), and then No. 1 Section (Lieutenant Hanger) would leapfrog through behind 25 Battalion, which was to complete the occupation of the brigade sector.
The field was not marked on our side and Miller and Claridge went forward with the first infantry wave to place a beacon light at the approximate boundary as a guide for the sappers. On the way back to their sections Lieutenant Miller was mortally wounded and Sergeant Allen8 took charge of No. 2 Section.
Company Headquarters followed behind the north lane clearing party, accompanied by a detachment of Divisional Signals who were running a line forward and who also had a wireless set rigged up in a Bren carrier in case of mishaps. In front of the sappers a pilot machine was searching for mines, but in the page 354 event it was the OC who found the first one with his jeep. He was out of it at the time and, although the vehicle was wrecked, the driver escaped with a shaking.
Sergeant Allen's section made such good time through the first enemy minefield that Major Reid altered his plan and told him to carry on while No. 3 Section widened the lane to the required forty yards. The section disappeared into the smoke and dust and were nearly on the final objective when there was an explosion so loud that it momentarily drowned the barrage. A trip-wire had exploded a 500-pound bomb—one of our own used by the enemy—killing Sergeant Allen and three others and wounding twelve more, nearly half the section at one blow. Other booby-trapped bombs were found later spread over the minefield with wires radiating from them like the web of an evil spider. The remnants of the section were sent back to the first gap and Lieutenant Andrew's party brought forward. Andrew, trying to fight off a severe attack of jaundice, then led his section to where a second minefield had been located at the foot of Miteiriya. It was in this belt that Andrew found the first S-mines that the sappers had knowingly encountered; the forward field had probably been left clear of them so that patrols could move about freely. The sapper officer went ahead of the minesweepers and disarmed the new menaces. It was a very tricky operation at any time and in the dusty moonlight extremely hazardous, for there were only three little wire prongs to be seen and some were connected to nearly invisible trip wires. He was awarded an MC for his coolness and leadership.
The lane was opened by 5 a.m., No. 2 Section widening it while the others searched for safe vehicle dispersal areas. There was another belt of mines on the forward slope of the ridge in the 26 Battalion area and the sappers were preparing to move over the crest and tackle it in daylight when they were stopped by the Brigade Commander. Nobody would have lived long above ground on that bare slope in daylight.
Claridge's south lane was not quite ready when Lieutenant Hanger arrived so the section lent a hand to get the waiting tanks and unit vehicles through. Hanger writes:
‘We eventually went forward a bit behind time but caught up a bit until we found mines, then mines and more mines!! Were getting a bit of hurry up from by-passed MG points at this time (from the South African area where the advance was not going well). Somewhere about here Major Murray Reid page 355 and Lt Ralph Pickmere turned up with some flail tanks which proceeded to get stuck in our Gap. Much cursing and telling God all about it as we then had to set to and clear a new gap to get around the damned things…. We battled on until first light but as 25 Bn had not reached their final objective (they had dug in half a mile short of the crest of the ridge) we had to stay put. Had a fair bit of curry at first light from Jerry anti-tank overs which were just clipping the ridge above us and then carrying on to make the job of eating breakfast a little uncomfortable.’
Successful mine clearing under fire at night in the smoke and dust of a desert battle requires intensive training, very careful planning and stout-hearted sappers inspired with the doctrine that while one sapper lived mine clearing would go on. All through that hectic night the CRE, his headquarters officers and a South African liaison officer moved around the battlefield noting the progress of the mine clearing and getting messages back to Divisional Headquarters. Colonel Hanson relates this story:
‘I don't think my Orderly Room corporal will mind my telling you of a little incident on the night 23rd October. He had never previously been right up at the front end in the minefields in a battle and he asked if he could act as my bodyguard as he said, as I went round the mine clearing platoons. He was a stout fellow and I said he could come. Some time in the middle of the night when he and I were moving across country from 7 Fd Coy front to 8 Fd Company we seemed to get ahead of the Sappers and the mopping up Maoris and ran almost on to an enemy machine gun. We were quite close. I told the Orderly Room Corporal to wait until the enemy opened fire again and then let him have it with his Tommy gun. It was then that we found that he had come without any ammo. It took him a long time to live this down. As usual I had my pockets full of grenades. It took only one grenade from each of us to make two Huns surrender. We moved back and handed them over to the Maoris.’
The situation at daybreak was that the Australians were partially on their objective, the Highlanders partly on theirs, the New Zealanders not quite all on theirs and the South Africans held half their part of the ridge.
Behind the fighting troops the New Zealand sappers were the only ones with their lanes cleared right up to their infantry. page 356 Tenth Armoured Division, owing to changed orders, did not clear its lane through the New Zealand sector that night but used the Divisional lanes instead.
The attached 5 Field Park sappers moved out with the leading Divisional Cavalry squadron which was to exploit to the south-east. It was not long before a belt of mines was encountered, but the area was so covered with fire that the sappers were not called on and the cavalry returned to the shelter of Miteiriya Ridge.
Tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade tried to cross the minefield but some were blown up and the rest returned. The net result was that neither armoured division of 10 Corps, on which high hopes had rested, was able to break out.
Meanwhile Divisional Reserve Group, comprising among others Lieutenant Pickmere's party and 6 Field Company less two sections, moved up during the night and dispersed behind the first enemy minefield on the left of 5 Brigade sector. Seventh Field Company, less No. 3 Section dug in behind 21 Battalion, was dispersed east of the south gap in the first minefield near Brigade Headquarters; 8 Field Company was dispersed near Lieutenant Hanger's section east of the second field.
Ninth Armoured Brigade and some tanks of 10 Armoured Division were deployed hull down along the ridge, which no doubt accounts for the absence of counter-attacks—an invariable concomitant of former battles.
Another plan for tank exploitation after dark did not involve the engineers except that a lane had to be opened through the field on the forward slope that 8 Field Company had been ordered not to attempt in daylight.
The instructions were for 6 Brigade to mark the route as far as the edge of the field, where the sappers would take over. An artillery programme to deaden the sound of tank movement was to open at 10 p.m. and the lane had to be cleared, lighted and marked by half past nine, that is half an hour before the guns opened. No. 1 Section, 6 Field Company (Lieutenant Morgan), was to do the work. The Company, less No. 3 Section which reported back the next day (No. 2 had already returned), was dispersed near a British tank regiment, or rather the tanks had moved in on the sappers to the latter's intense discomfort, for enemy gunners had the range very accurately indeed.
Late in the afternoon No. 1 Section was ordered to report to Company Headquarters immediately, an order they were happy page 357 to obey with alacrity. It was not, however, possible to let Lieutenant Morgan, who was somewhere ahead in one of the tanks, know about the change in dispositions.
Shortly before dusk the section, commanded by Major Woolcott in Morgan's absence, set out to locate 26 Battalion Headquarters in whose area the gap was to be made. It was some time before the infantry battalion headquarters was located; consequently the sappers started on their job much later than had been intended. Major Woolcott left Sergeant Johnnie Lawrence9 to get the work started while he went ahead with the ‘recce’ party, but he had not gone many yards when he was mortally wounded by a booby trap or S-mine.
Sergeant Lawrence wrote:
‘A party of the boys carried Major Woolcott back to the infantry lines and once more we attempted to get cracking on the gap. Unfortunately the explosion of the booby trap awakened a Jerry machine gunner somewhere out ahead of us and he kept us pinned to the ground by sporadic bursts of fire in the direction from which he had seen the flash. We did make a little progress in spite of this bloke but it was not until the Bn. machine gunners opened up at him and silenced him that we were at all happy about things particularly as 2200 hrs was fast approaching.
‘We had just seen the leading tanks through our gap in the minefield and, incidentally breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief that we had not missed any mines, when the Jerries started a bombing raid. One of their first bombs started a fire among the trucks and tanks and from then on things got pretty hot. We had finished our job and there was no sense in hanging around in such unhealthy surroundings so we set off for our transport.
‘I cannot remember much about the actual clearing of the gap except that we were still not through when our own artillery started their barrage. We had many anxious moments before the last marker lamp was placed in position but, fortunately, no casualties due to our own guns.
‘There is one thing that stands out most vividly in my mind and that is the splendid manner in which the men rallied round and pressed on with the job in spite of all the mishaps we encountered. Had they faltered at all we would not have made it.’page 358
Four casualties suffered by the section brought the company list of killed, wounded and died of wounds to fourteen all ranks.
Part of Lawrence's DCM citation reads:
‘After his field company commander had been fatally wounded, Sgt Lawrence immediately assumed control, rallied the men and pushed on with the work. When the artillery fire came down on the minefield in preparation for the advance of the armour, the gap was still incomplete. Under the barrage and the enemy fire Sgt Lawrence encouraged and directed his men and completed the gap just in time to pass the advancing tanks through. It was in considerable measure due to his vigorous leadership and gallant example that the gap was completed and lighted to allow Div Cav and 9 Armd Bde to move through without delay or hindrance.’
In the event the armour again failed to breach the enemy defences and the exploitation was abandoned. But further limited gains by the Australians had increased the danger to the enemy of being pinned between them and the sea.
The sapper command was reorganised. Major Anderson went to 6 Field Company and was joined by Lieutenant Goodsir (promoted captain) from 7 Field Company as second-in-command, and by Lieutenant Hermans10 from Divisional Headquarters.
Captain Rix-Trott (promoted temporary major), who had been attached to 5 Field Park Company, took command of that company but lost Lieutenant H. M. Scott (promoted captain) to 7 Field Company and Lieutenant Pickmere to 8 Field Company. Lieutenant Andrew was evacuated sick and the sadly depleted No. 2 Section, 8 Field Company, was temporarily divided between the other two sections. The Engineer command was then:
Headquarters 2 Divisional Engineers
5 Field Park Company
Lt K. F. Jones
Lt E. R. Somerville
Capt H. F. Hamilton, LAD attached
6 Field Company
7 Field Company
8 Field Company
Lt P. B. Wildey
Lt T. Hanger
Lt A. R. Pickmere
For the sappers 25 October was another day of clearing up the area. Sergeant Smith's Divisional Cavalry detachment of 5 Field Park Company worked by night clearing the way for tank transporters to remove some twenty-odd disabled tanks. Two sappers and Sergeant Smith were wounded but the sergeant, after receiving treatment, was able to carry on.
It was also a period of dust-storms obliterating the area, of captured Italians marching through the lines and of an onfall by voracious flies.
The sappers found hanging around on the edge of the battlefield something of an ordeal and would rather have been either right in or right out, preferably the latter. They were surrounded by artillery which fired by day and by night, making sleep impossible and also inviting retaliation both from the Luftwaffe and from the enemy gunners. Luckily both appeared to be too busy in other areas.
Sixth Brigade and the South Africans were to straighten the line by getting on to their original objectives during the night 26 - 27 October and 8 Field Company was ordered to be ready to assist by clearing a minefield behind and putting down another in front of the new FDLs. No. 3 Section (Lieutenant Pickmere) was to work with 26 Battalion on the right of the brigade and No. 1 Section (Lieutenant Hanger) with 25 Battalion on the other flank. Both section commanders, each with three sappers, were to accompany the infantry and reconnoitre page 360 out ahead of the final objectives to see if there were any mine belts that might serve to protect our men, or whether a thin line of mines would have to be put out before first light. The barrage would open at 8 p.m., and Major Reid would have the two sections waiting with the other unit transport near a gap made by 5 Field Park Company on the top of the ridge. As soon as the success signal went up they would pass through the gap and get to the new positions at the double.
Lieutenant Pickmere found his tour of duty with an assaulting infantry battalion very full of incident:
‘We left the shelter of our slitties and were soon strung out in a well dispersed line along the ridge and advancing at walking pace in three waves—about 50 yards between each. Crossed a trip wire and were in a minefield where I picked my way fairly carefully but the infanteers walked on regardless…. Then all of a sudden things began to happen—tracers flying in all directions, explosive bullets cracking around us and ricochets zipping about off the flinty desert. The infantry loosed off a few rounds from their bren guns but kept on advancing. We crouched down to see what was going to happen and then got cautiously up again, Bill Webb11 leading the way. He was used to this sort of thing having transferred to us from the infantry and didn't turn a hair. (A Coy was forced to ground by flanking machine guns, lost heavily and were eventually withdrawn.) Meanwhile Bill Webb had crawled over to me and we swapped views on the situation—I think for two pins he would have stormed the machine gun nests on his own, but we finally decided it was no business of ours—we were there to do a job after the infantry had done theirs and silencing enemy infantry was definitely not one of our roles.’
After narrowly escaping being taken prisoner, Lieutenant Pickmere reported to Battalion Headquarters and was told that there was little chance of being able to make a forward reconnaissance that night. His whole party had escaped casualties and he led them along the ridge, where he met Major Reid who was out looking for them.
Lieutenant Hanger had much the same experience with 25 Battalion. The section remained with the rest of the transport below the crest of the ridge while he and Sergeant Derrick Campbell12 went forward with the infantry, who occupied their page 361 objective but were only able just to hang on. ‘We had to take cover in some Eyetie sangers. Incidentally these were full of yabbering Latin gentlemen whom we took prisoners. After some time Major Reid came forward and ordered us back as it was getting too near first light.’
Meanwhile Reid had got a tank to come forward and silence the fire covering the minefield gap and the support arms field through. Colonel Bonifant,13 commanding 25 Battalion, who had returned from the forward area about this time, ‘considered it was madness to try and take our mine trucks forward as they were loaded with gelignite mines. Needless to say, we did not try to make him change his mind. The Colonel's main worry was how to get his anti-tank guns and mortars forward as soon as possible in order to have them dug in before daybreak. The minefield on his line of advance had not yet been breached, so we walked forward and inspected the field with the idea of towing the guns through between the mines. I picked up a few mines which were plainly visible, as we marked the route with a tracing tape. The anti-tank guns were unloaded from the portees and tied behind jeeps; then, with the Colonel and myself leading, the carriers and jeeps followed us through the field quite successfully.’14
Eighth Field Company returned to its lines and the next morning handed over to a South African company and rejoined other units in Brigade A Echelon area, some 16 miles in the rear.
The hostile gun lines, minefields and armour still prevented a breakout and it was decided to leave the too tough Miteiriya area and, by an assault with the last of the fresh infantry brigades, capture a bridgehead south of where the Australians had created—for the enemy—an uncomfortable bulge which threatened to pin him against the coast.
The two brigades, 151 and 152 British, supported by 23 Armoured Brigade, all under command of the New Zealand Division, were to advance two and a half miles; then 9 Armoured Brigade was to carry on and break up the final enemy gun line on the high ground at Tell el Aqqaqir.
Topographically Tell el Aqqaqir was of little account, but page 362 in that area of almost flat desert it was of profound military importance. On Tell el Aqqaqir was the final enemy defensive line, and from Tell el Aqqaqir 1 Armoured Division was to deliver the coup de grâce.
All Engineer company commanders and seconds-in-command met Colonel Hanson in a tent where a plaster model of the area was housed and studied the task. It was not an inviting prospect: the ground was unfamiliar, there was no time for reconnaissance and there was no clear information about the position and depth of minefields. It was, however, made abundantly clear that this was it—if there was no break-through this time it would be stalemate at Alamein again. At higher level it was decreed that the assault was to proceed at any, repeat any, cost. Ninth Armoured Brigade was to pass through the infantry on their final objectives and fight its way to Tell el Aqqaqir. It was to stop for nothing once it was through the mines, and it was over to the Engineers to get them through. General Freyberg's dictum, ‘The operation fails if we fail to get the armour through. Whole success depends on that’, meant that it was the job of the sappers to see that the operation did not fail.
The whole strength of the Field Companies was thrown into the effort and in the early darkness of 30 October they left in convoy for the new assembly area west of El Alamein railway station on the south side of the Australian bulge. It was the kind of night that shortened drivers' lives—unfamiliar ground along a broken-up track and through dust clouds that blackened the night so that visibility was a matter of inches, with each truck hard on the tail of its leader to avoid getting lost.
The sappers rested that day (1 November) while the commanders attended conferences. As the whole area had been well behind the enemy lines a few days earlier, there was not the same Intelligence about minefields that had been available for the first attack. It was thought likely that at least two belts of mines existed in front of the enemy gun line at Tell el Aqqaqir. Royal Engineers would clear the way to the infantry start line, where the Kiwis would take over and gap and light five lanes, two in each brigade sector and one along the inter-brigade boundary.
The infantry commanders were ordered to bypass any strong-points that the barrage, three times heavier than the first one, might miss; it was made plain to the tank commanders that if page 363 the engineers failed them, they must charge the minefields and take the consequences—some armour must be in a given area by a given time.
The sapper commanders held their conferences then told the men what was expected of them and the cost of failure. Briefly, the Divisional plan was for 151 Brigade, right, and 152 Brigade, left, to make the assault, each on a two-battalion front of about a mile. Twenty-eighth (Maori) Battalion was to clear a suspected enemy position on the right and so protect the flank of the advance, while a British unit was to do likewise on the left. Scorpions and Pilots were being provided and lanes up to the present forward defended localities were being cleared, lighted and maintained by 51 (Highland) Division.
Colonel Hanson's engineer plan was for 7 Field Company to clear and mark the two northern lanes, 6 Field Company the central route, and 8 Field Company the southern lanes. At 0.55 a.m. on 2 November, after guns had been firing most of the night, the barrage began to roll and the infantry began to advance. The five sapper parties followed close behind.
Lieutenant Standish, responsible for the northernmost lane, found employment 600 yards from the start line and No. 3 Section went into action:
‘We cleared a lane—not many mines—the distance required, with tanks following immediately behind us. When I thought we were through all the mines and had gone the distance ordered, I told the leading tanks, and all the tanks, about 30 of them, carried on past us to support the infantry who were having a pretty rough time…. I was getting hectic messages back from the infantry to hurry the tanks up as much as possible. This was altogether a pretty sticky show and we had some casualties, I forget how many…. Visibility was so bad in this show I remember, due to smoke and dust etc., that we left continuous white tape along the ground behind us as we went forward so that the tanks could see to follow us. There was supposed to be tracer to steer us, but we could never see it and had to go by compass.’
No. 2 Section (Lieutenant Page) were in trouble right from the start; they were under fire before they reached the start line and their trucks were soon burning. Page writes:
‘Things got a bit disorganised for a time and meanwhile the support vehicles started to bank up behind us. Eventually on foot and with what blokes and gear we could muster we set forth with the pack hard on our heels. Fortunately we did not, page 364 initially, encounter any mines but were in trouble almost immediately with pockets of [enemy] machine gunners in burnt out vehicles and gun pits. These fellows had been left behind by the advancing infantry. When a hold up of this nature occurred the support vehicles would come to a halt a few yards behind us. The drill was then evolved to bring one forward to shoot out the obstruction, move on to the next and repeat the process. The prisoners that accrued in the meantime we faced in the general direction of our lines and sent on their way.
‘We were making fairly heavy weather of it in this fashion when we discovered, I don't remember how, that John Standish was ahead of us with his lane on the right. He was going ahead according to plan, his line of advance was taped, and there didn't appear to be anybody using it at this stage of the proceedings. The obvious thing to do seemed to change direction right with our column and lead them on to the taped line. This was done but not if I remember rightly, without argument about lines of approach, etc. From this point on things went reasonably well. To my mind this was John Standish's night, he did a great job.’
Lieutenant Page was awarded an MC for his inspiring leadership and initiative during the battle. Casualties for the night were two killed, thirteen wounded, three missing. Major Skinner's car went up on a mine but he escaped with bruises and scratches.
Major Anderson detailed No. 3 Section to do the gapping for 6 Field Company. Lieutenant St. George had not been replaced and Sergeant Brown still commanded, but in view of the importance of the assignment the company second-in-command (Captain Goodsir) took over the conduct of the operation.
The section took its place behind the advancing infantry, who were soon lost in the dust and smoke of the barrage. There was no delay at the first minefield, which after a quick examination appeared to be a dummy; how the second field was discovered is explained by Captain Goodsir:
‘Some hundreds of yards further on we ran into mortar fire and then heavy anti-tank and machine gun fire at very close range without having visually detected any suggestion of a minefield. While we were pinned down Sgt Brown came up from the rear and reported that the two right hand trucks had gone up on mines.’page 365
Brown was told to return to the trucks and look out for the section, which would be sent back in small parties to avoid further casualties beyond the several already sustained. Captain Goodsir saw the last sapper moving back and made another quick search for his reconnaissance party before he followed them. Instead of a gapping team organised and working he found Major Anderson and a few sappers clearing the lane by themselves. The explanation was that Sergeant Brown had been wounded and evacuated, while the men, with nobody to command them, had dispersed and taken what shelter they could find. It was fortunate that Major Anderson and Lieutenant Hermans had arrived in the former's jeep. Hermans was sent forward to try to find Captain Goodsir, who at that moment was himself looking for his ‘recce’ party before returning. Major Anderson found that:
‘Things were not so good. Sgt Alan Freeborn15 (our Orderly Room Clerk) was with me and we had to take over the platoon. We taped the line, made a hasty recce for mines, lifted about a dozen and it was then that we used the Scorpion. It blew only one mine in passing the gap.’ As a matter of fact it also nearly ‘blew’ Captain Goodsir, who had been missed by Lieutenant Hermans and was returning after his fruitless search.
The leading tanks, waiting impatiently for a cleared lane, were asked to subdue the enemy fire while the reserve section was brought up and the scattered No. 3 Section collected again. The sight of Sergeant Lawrence calmly getting his gapping team working so restored the confidence of the rather shaken men that they joined in the visual search for mines. Captain Goodsir took command of the augmented reserve section while Lieutenant Morgan stood by with the transport and spare men. In the morning they found that they were sharing the same piece of desert with about a hundred Italians who had decided early in the night that silence was golden.
By this time the gap had been proved, the enemy fire silenced, Lieutenant Hermans had returned from his quest for Captain Goodsir, and the advance resumed. Time was running short but the ground appeared more open and the sappers cracked on the pace. Smouldering hessian camouflage and two upturned anti-tank guns explained the lack of opposition after the pandemonium of a short time earlier. Major Anderson and Lieutenant Hermans went on ahead in the scout car to get the lie of the land. Lieutenant Hermans wrote:page 366
‘We pressed on with our scout car in the lead and “Andy” getting a bit concerned because we were a bit behind schedule and time was running out. I was scanning ahead with my binoculars and remarked to Andy that there seemed to be some peculiar troop movement ahead with people moving out of our way and going out to our flanks. I couldn't make out what the “infantry” were doing…. we came upon a derelict vehicle a hundred yards or so to our left and there seemed to be somebody taking cover behind it. We paused to take stock of the position and lo and behold! a platoon of infantry came up from our rear, deployed, and advanced on the derelict…. the picture was beginning to unfold. Instead of being ahead of us the infantry was behind us and the troop movement I had observed was the enemy forward troops getting out of the way when they saw or heard the column of tanks rumbling along behind us. We were just a bit lucky the tanks had caught up with us when they did or things would have been very sticky.’
Regarding the tanks, Major Anderson says:
‘We were in contact with the tanks all the way. In fact they were treading on our heels and the Brigadier used to give me Hell whenever there was a brief hold up. We marked the route with green lamps every tenth of a mile—by speedo—and the first tank to pass always knocked the lamp over. I had several “Where the b—— h—— are your lamps” from the Brig.’
With the armour out in the open and the sky starting to lighten, the section returned to the trucks and began to dig in. Something white attracted attention and Lieutenant Hermans went to investigate. He returned with three very nice Biretta pistols and four very shaken Italians from a dug-in tank that was flying a white flag.
The reason for the extraordinarily heavy fire the company had encountered was made clear at daylight. They had missed a 50-feet-wide gap through the enemy minefield by yards and the gap had been covered by the tank, several anti-tank guns and supporting machine guns, all of which our tanks had put out of action. The minefield was put down with our own Hawkins mines hastily but effectively concealed beneath clumps of desert scrub. When the scattered No. 1 Section had been collected in the daylight it contained the lost ‘recce’ party. They had not seen the mines but had run into one of the anti-tank guns, which they captured and held the crew prisoner. page 367 They were then captured themselves by other Italians until the fire of our tanks presented the opportunity of parting from their captors. The cost to 6 Field Company of the night's operation was five wounded and one died of wounds, all from No. 3 Section.
On the left of the attack 8 Field Company had a complicated route to follow before it could form up behind 152 Brigade and in front of the tanks, anti-tank guns, carriers and assorted vehicles that carry the supporting arms of an assaulting force.
Lieutenant Pickmere (3 Section), right, and Lieutenant Hanger (1 Section), left, advanced with their sappers in two lines fifty yards apart and with their sandbagged trucks following in line abreast. There was no information as to where mines might be found and the idea was that if the sappers prodding in front with their fixed bayonets missed the mines the trucks would connect and, by the resulting explosion, disclose the field. The keenest eyes could see no signs of disturbed sand, but the ground was hard and stony and the half-moon obscured by cloud made the going slow.
The terrific din of the barrage drowned the noise of incoming missiles and five men went down—two killed—when something exploded between the two lines. The sappers carried on until it seemed that they would be up with the forward infantry without finding anything. There were no explosions in the line of transport following so nothing had been missed. At last there was a Dingo car that had obviously hit a mine, and when Pickmere went to investigate he saw half buried some lengths of what appeared to be steel rail. On closer inspection it turned out to be a new type of mine—an Italian V3 anti-personnel as well as anti-tank mine, and the first encountered.
While the sappers were getting ready to give the new nuisances the primer cord treatment because nobody knew anything of their mechanism or characteristics, Lieutenant Pickmere explored the belt and found that it was only about one hundred yards wide and that beyond it the track-marks of German tanks were clearly visible. Major Reid came up at this time and the two walked perhaps a quarter of a mile farther west until they were quite convinced that it was now clear country.
‘When we came back the lane clearing was going well and it was not long before the sappers had the 8 or 9 mines and suspicious objects which had been located in the first 8 yd strip all set to blow up—a charge of gelignite on each and the whole page 368 connected with primer cord. We made the mistake of placing our small blistering charges of gelly on the centre of these long mines instead of over one end where the mechanism was; with the result that 2 or 3 did not go off when we detonated the line and we had to have several attempts at them. All this was wasting valuable time while the tanks were impatiently waiting to get through. Major Reid finally came up, lifted the remaining ones holus bolus and threw them clear of the lane.’
Lieutenant Hanger had some unexpected assistance on this occasion:
‘Had more luck this time as we caught the Hun laying the minefield and I was able to make them pick up a few and we were able to clear our gap pretty smartly…. My main trouble was a dug in tank firing 88 AP straight up our lane. A little disconcerting to have a white hot AP shell whizzing past your nose periodically through the night. One of my other troubles was a Tommy Col. who wanted to halt his tanks in the gap while he talked to his Brig. on the blower. However, after using a bit of good Kiwi language not usually used on a senior officer we got him moving.’
Ninth Armoured Brigade, which 6 Field Company had seen safely through the minefield and which was to use the infantry objective as its start line and then, with the aid of a barrage, advance a further mile before first light and smother the enemy gun line, did not fully succeed in its mission. It did not reach its final objective although it knocked out at least seven 88-millimetre and thirty other guns, plus a dozen tanks, after an all-day fight. The Brigade Commander had been ordered to accept if necessary 100 per cent casualties to make good his objective, and that is very nearly what happened. The brigade left the assembly area with 133 tanks, many of which were patched up battle casualties with strange crews; some dropped out during the 25-mile approach march and it was not known exactly how many went into battle that morning, but when they were reorganised into one regiment only 35, which included some that had got up during the morning, could be mustered.
The brigade report on operations has a good word for the New Zealand sappers in spite of the trouble with the lamps:
‘In the centre R Wilts had been seriously held up by a field of Hawkins mines irregularly laid by our own troops,16 in the clearing of which 6 NZ Fd Coy NZE, whose work throughout page 369 this operation had been of superlative quality, lost many casualties in personnel and vehicles…. The work of the sappers in lifting minefields in the dark and under enemy fire was beyond all praise, and without them the armour would never have been able to advance.’
The battle went on all day and after dark (2 - 3 November) No. 2 Section, 8 Field Company (Lieutenant Wildey), and No. 1 Section, 7 Field Company (Lieutenant Foster), laid a protective minefield in front of the Maoris. There was no enemy interference for the reason, unknown at the time, that Rommel was too busy packing up and organising a fighting withdrawal. His first step was to put a holding force on the Fuka escarpment. The Desert Air Force was not making his problem any easier and armoured-car elements were beginning to worry at his communications. If a break-through occurred on a large scale the Italian divisions, having no transport, would have to be left as souvenirs of the battle. The large-scale break-through did occur and the Italians were left to contemplate an eventual safe return to sunny Italy.
The sappers passed the third day of the month widening lanes and destroying derelict tanks and captured guns. A gap had been forced through the enemy defences at last and General Freyberg was told to get his division concentrated as soon as possible after first light (4 November) and block the retreat through the Fuka position. For this assignment he was given 4 Light Armoured Brigade in addition to 9 Armoured Brigade, reduced now to a composite regiment.
The Field Companies reverted to the command of the brigades: 7 Field Company to 5 Brigade, 8 Field Company to 6 Brigade, 6 Field Company to 9 Armoured Brigade; 5 Field Park Company was divided into a water and demolitions party (Corporal Purvis17) attached to Engineer Headquarters, a battle group to move with Divisional Supply Column and a rear party with Divisional Reserve Group.
Fourth Light Armoured Brigade, whose mission was to cover the Division during the advance, passed through the narrow gap soon after daybreak; 9 Armoured Brigade had collected its components under nearly impossible conditions. They were spread all over the battlefield, where columns were crossing each other's lines of advance in the darkness and each moving object created its own smoke screen of dust. Sixth Field Com- page 370 pany eventually found its place and the column began to move south-west in a wide sweep south to avoid the battle 1 Armoured Division was still waging to the north.
Main Divisional Headquarters, which included Divisional Engineer Headquarters and part of 5 Field Park Company, went next, followed by 5 Brigade with 7 Field Company during the afternoon, and finally about dusk 6 Brigade (with 8 Field Company) got clear of the forward defended localities.
By this time 6 Field Company was about 30 miles to the west and roughly south of Fuka searching for mines in the brigade area. Before daylight (5 November) and after sundry clashes with columns of escaping enemy the Division was concentrated and deployed for an advance on Fuka.
It was not a quick advance, for 4 Light Armoured Brigade in the lead had several skirmishes with withdrawing hostile columns. About eight miles south of Fuka it ran into a really solid rearguard and had to call up artillery support before it could be chased away. Brigadier Kippenberger was told to get 5 Brigade across the road if it could, but not to get involved in heavy fighting. By the time the brigade was deployed touch had been lost with the armour and it was too near last light to risk a move in the dark without support. Seventh Field Company took its place in the brigade perimeter and in the morning the Division was directed on the escarpment south of Baggush. Sixth Field Company followed 9 Armoured Brigade towards Sidi Haneish, but by the time the high ground above the well-known railway station was reached it began to rain. The sappers ‘recced’ a route down the escarpment for the tanks and artillery, some of which went off looking for enemy. The rain developed into heavy showers and some of the vehicles got stuck. The Divisional vehicles were also slowed down by the spreading rain and Baggush was not reached before darkness stopped the movement. The rain reached cloudburst intensity during the night and by first light nearly every vehicle was immobilised in bog.
The continuing threat of being outflanked was completely removed from the many cares besetting the retreating enemy, who of course could move at will along the tarsealed coastal road. Perhaps not exactly at will for the position in Greece was reversed; it was Panzerarmee that was streaming along the only road and the RAF which, almost without hindrance, was harrying it ceaselessly but with little effect.page 371
Much of 10 Corps, of which 2 NZ Division was a part, was immobilised for thirty-six hours while Panzerarmee delivered itself from the threat of being cut off.
Conditions were almost normal again by the afternoon of the 8th and the Division concentrated between Matruh and the escarpment of Minqar Qaim, where it had been surrounded and had broken out in June. Only five months had passed since that wild charge through an exulting enemy and the long drive back to the shelter of the Kaponga Box. Now it was Jerry's turn to do a Gazala gallop. Sapper experts on the conduct of war declared that Rommel would not stop, really stop, until he was back behind his old position at El Agheila. Others said what about Tobruk? We needed that harbour for stores and he might stop there. Remember Sidi Rezegh? Some of them remembered Sidi Rezegh all right and so the verbal battle waxed and waned.
The immediate objective was Matruh but 1 Armoured Division, having moved swiftly along the coastal road, saved the Kiwis the trouble of taking it and 6 Brigade was told off to garrison the place until relieved. Meanwhile 5 Brigade would get on with the war.
Major Reid sent No. 3 Section with 24 Battalion, which was the brigade advance party. They left on the morning of the 9th to look for and disarm booby traps, wondering the while if isolated pockets of resistance were still holding out. They found, however, not without satisfaction, that they were not the first troops into Matruh and that a naval detachment was already operating the waterfront. The section split into four and scoured the place without finding any booby traps and then camped around the old YMCA buildings.
The sappers had news for the rest of the company when it arrived with 6 Brigade the next day. There were dumps of rations that the enemy had tried to destroy with burning petrol. The tins in the centre of each heap had escaped damage, and with hordes of hungry infantry around the place some fast work was indicated. Enough stuff was collected to supplement the ordinary rations for weeks—delicious green peas, cabbage, potatoes and stewed meats. War, contrary to the American dictum, was not all hell.
The town had been left in a disgraceful state with masses of flies hovering over houses that had been used as toilets. Working parties from the local prisoner-of-war cage were requisitioned to clean up, whereupon the plague of flies abated.page 372
For some days the sappers were employed in locating, lifting or marking minefields on the Siwa-Matruh road, the same belts that they had helped to put down before the Minqar Qaim action. It was found that a lot of mines had been lifted for re-use by the advancing enemy, but the number of derelict vehicles still there indicated that the mining had not been ineffective.
In the event 5 Brigade did not have to worry about Sidi Barrani and after a lot of trouble elbowed its way on to the debris-strewn coast road and pushed on for the border.
Sixth Field Company ceased to be under command of 9 Armoured Brigade and after two days' searching caught up with the Division at the bottom of Halfaya Pass. In the offensive of the previous November the Kiwis had outflanked the solidly-held escarpment of which this pass was a part, and 5 Brigade had settled in behind the defences from Halfaya Pass to Bardia while the rest of the Division went on to Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed of evil import.
An armoured division was again coming in behind this forbidding border escarpment from the south, but in the meantime vehicles were stacking up hourly on the plain at the foot of the obstacle. Twenty-first Battalion opened up the pass during the night 11 - 12 November, when 7 Field Company got to work on the mines. Apart from the winding length of the pass which yielded twenty Tellers, three 40-foot gaps were made through a field at the top. The mines were buried deeply, difficult to detect and booby-trapped with cunning variations; some were laid double with a thin layer of earth separating them so that the simple sapper taking up the top one would think he had removed the menace to the first vehicle that came along. Another variation was one deeply buried mine with a second a few feet away not so deeply down, but connected to the first one so that a pilot vehicle passing safely over No. 1 and exploding No. 2 would then receive the explosion of No. 1. One Pilot was caught in this manner. In this trial of wits, where a mistake meant a probable trip to hospital and a possible memorial service, the sappers gave their German opposite numbers full marks.
Fifth Field Park was at this period cleaning out wells contaminated with oil at Buq Buq, and it then pushed on to lend a hand with its compressors on the Sollum road that winds up the escarpment above the jetty, where during the Wavell offensive two years earlier 19 Army Troops Company suffered its page 373 first casualties while unloading water drums. Sixth Field Company sappers were filling in a 5000 cubic yard crater there, assisted by a section from 7 Field Company and a company of Maoris. They also knew the place well for they had ‘recced’ down the road from their positions on top of the escarpment during the previous campaign. The job took three days and two nights and would have taken longer if two more prepared demolitions had not failed to explode.
The vehicle supply line could not maintain more than a limited number of formations beyond the Egyptian border until the damaged desert railway could be restored, and the New Zealand Division was to drop, temporarily, out of the chase. It was therefore dispersed between Sidi Azeiz and Menastir, localities that need no further description. The troops stayed there for three weeks.
Water was the only necessity that was available in the area, for the retreating enemy had not been able to destroy the sources of supply. Major Currie, back with Engineer Headquarters after his encounter with an uncharted mine in July and his term as Commander and Chief Instructor of the Eighth Army School of Minefield Clearance, reconnoitred the Capuzzo, Bardia and Gambut areas and reported that the demolitions of the Eighth Army in June and of the enemy in November had in the main been directed at pumping and storage facilities. The pumphouses and all valves had been removed; nevertheless 5 Field Park Company, which had been assigned to the job, was producing water with its own pumps within four hours of getting on to the site at Bardia. In this it had some local knowledge, for pumping water up the 1000-foot escarpment at Bardia had been one of its first operational tasks in the Wavell offensive.
The task of 6 and 7 Field Companies was to provide a good two-way road through a very rough and rocky wadi that originally had been crossed by a multi-span concrete bridge. Eighth Army had prepared it for demolition but, possibly hoping to return soon, had not blown it. The enemy had repaired the omission and the bridge was a total wreck. After completing this they mended roads, cleared mines away and produced football grounds where needed. The last were needed all over the desert for every unit screamed for a football ground guaranteed free from mines. Eighth Field Company arrived with 6 Brigade on 22 November and shared in the work.page 374
Field Marshal Rommel, meanwhile, was making a fighting withdrawal and was being seen off at Tobruk, Derna and Benghazi en route for his hide-out at El Agheila, across the bulge of Cyrenaica some 400 miles to the west.
Such was the position of the Division at the end of November, but short mention must be made here of non-divisional units which are treated more fully in Chapter 14.
Eighteenth Army Troops Company was flat out recommissioning the water pipelines and had two water barges transferring water from ship to shore at Matruh.
Sixteenth and 17th Railway Operating Companies, with the help of an Indian and an RE operating company, were again working the 400 miles of track between Alexandria and Tobruk, where the enemy had obligingly added a few more miles of line into the port.
Casualties for the period 23 October to 4 November were:
|5 Field Park Company||5 wounded|
|6 Field Company||4 killed, 19 wounded|
|7 Field Company||2 killed, 22 wounded|
|8 Field Company||10 killed, 16 wounded|
1 The Turning Point, pp. 176-7.
13 Brig I. L. Bonifant, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d.; Adelaide; born Ashburton, 3 Mar 1912; stock agent; CO 25 Bn Sep 1942-Jan 1943; Div Cav Jan 1943-Apr 1944; comd 6 Bde 3-27 Mar 1944; 5 Bde Jan-May 1945; 6 Bde Jun-Oct 1945.
14 The Turning Point, pp. 198-9.
16 The report is mistaken here. As has been explained, the field had been put down by the enemy with our own Hawkins mines.