CHAPTER 13 — Eighth Army Conquers
Eighth Army Conquers
After the costly encounters at Ruweisat and El Mreir, 5 and 6 Brigades settled down in static positions near those two features. Minefields were laid all round the area, which now became known as the New Zealand Box. Petrol Company ran a daily shuttle service to the rear of it, between the replenishment point at Deir Daayis and 86 FMC. On the return trip the trucks took back prisoners, walking wounded, and miscellaneous ‘cargoes’ as instructed by HQ Command NZASC.
This settled routine gave our driers time to improve their own defence arrangements, by digging better slit trenches, sandbagging the engines of stationary vehicles (cooks' trucks, QM truck, Headquarters office vehicle, Workshops vehicles, and so on) and attending to camoflage. The nets had not been used since Syria; for it was thought that even the dumbest enemy pilot would feel obliged to investiGate Patches of vivid greenery (which the nets then represented) displayed in the open desert. Sand-coloured garnishing was drawn from Ordnance and all hands set to work on decorating.
These tasks proceeded, under trying conditions, in the early days of August, when temperatures ran extremely high, and the usual afternoon breeze served only to raise unpleasant clouds of dust and irritate the flies. Petrol Company's war diary notes that the insects were now at the height of their ferocity, and at their densest numerically. All manner of devices were employed against them, including some Heath Robinson contraptions invented (but never patented) by our zealous askaris, and the use of pet chameleons, whose quick-darting tongues accounted for quite a few. Meanwhile the men grew lean and gaunt, and there were many cases of jaundice. Workshops detachments carried on under somewhat better conditions at Amiriya and Maadi, though the former area was then receiving much attention by night from the page 228 Luftwaffe. This, and the noisy reprisals from the area's heavy barrage, made sleep impossible.
On 3 August Major Forbes departed for Maadi to conduct Courts of Inquiry, and Captain Washbourn took over as acting OC. When Forbes returned, on 7 August, he brought a pleasant surprise for his officers—a thermos flask full of ice-cream from Base, where both the Pie Factory and the Ice-cream Depot (General Freyberg's ‘pet babies’) were proving most popular. On 6 August came information that attacks were expected, by enemy parachutist, on our B Echelon transport; so Petrol Company stood-to between the hours of 5.30-6 a.m. and 8.10-9.30 p.m., with platoons and Headquarters instituting patrols.
But the expected ‘visitors’ failed to arrive. Next day there was much air activity over the Company area, with many thrilling duels and low-level sweeps by RAF fighters. One Petrol Company observer wrote: ‘Yesterday morning I had a pretty good view of one of the best dogfights ever. The only trouble was that some of the planes were very close to the ground and there was quite a bit of lead etc flying around. Some of our blokes broke all records in getting under trucks but I was too damned interested in seeing whether one of our fighters was going to land a “Schmidt” as he chased him down over our truck-tops—and I was quite disappointed when the Jerry got away. The air is full of planes most of the day and 99% of them are ours.’ This, of course, is an exaggeration. Nevertheless, the RAF was indeed gaining the ascendancy; and eventually so many Stukas were shot out of the skies that this once-dreaded attacker, with its screaming dives and its deadly bomb-loads, was seen no more over the Western Desert.
August 1942 brought vital changes in the command of Eighth Army. Prime Minister Churchill, and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff,1 worried about the way things were shaping in the desert, stopped over in Egypt while en route to Moscow and called at Army Headquarters. Shortly after this visit, Lieutenant-General B. L. Montgomery (‘bounding with self-confidence and capable of instilling this confidence to all those under his command’) was appointed Army Commander. page 229 He arrived in Cairo on 12 August. Three days later, Alexander replaced Auchinleck as C-in-C Middle East Forces, and from that time Eighth Army never looked back.
Meanwhile our own GOC, now recovered from a neck-wound received at Minqar Qaim, had resumed command of 2 NZ Division, a title allotted during the previous month to the Division in the field, when our men at Base became 6 New Zealand Division—all part of a deep, dark plot to foozle the enemy's Intelligence. In the second week of August came a most popular order: leave for all troops, by rotation, to Cairo or Alexandria. The first batch from Petrol Company left the Western Desert on 11 August, and soon most were wallowing in unaccustomed luxury.
‘We went into a pub’, writes one, ‘and had a feed of real fresh food—and did I enjoy it! Started off with a beer, then tomato soup, followed by filleted sole, then roast chicken, beans, chips and green peas, followed up with fruit salad and cream. We could hardly stagger out.’ The more abstemious went for bathes, shouted themselves haircuts, and let the street Arabs furbish their neglected footwear. Most men bought presents (with an eye to Christmas) for the folk back home.
Then, all too soon, it was ‘back to the blue’ again, to prepare for Rommel's next and last thrust against the Alamein line. Montgomery writes: ‘I understood Rommel was expected to attack us shortly. If he came soon it would be tricky, if he came in a week, all right, but give us two weeks and Rommel could do what he liked; he would be seen off and then it would be our turn. But I had no intention of launching our attack until we were ready; when that time came we would hit Rommel for six right out of Africa.’2
It was anticipated that Rommel would attack towards the end of the month, at the full-moon period, and that his main force would be directed at our southern flank. Such a move would menace the New Zealand Box; so this position was organised for defence in depth. More than a squadron of Valentine tanks came under 2 NZ Division command, to support our infantry when we counter-attacked. As part of an arrangement to relieve the Division by 44 (British) Division, page 230 5 Brigade was moved down to the southern area, its place in the north-west corner of the Box being taken by 132 (British) Brigade, now under 2 NZ Division's command.
This change-over was completed on the night of 30-31 August, by which time Rommel had commenced his attack. Meanwhile Petrol Company had already ‘met up’ with men of the new Tommy division, now in the New Zealand area. On 15 August Commander NZASC instructed that 44 Division was expected to arrive next day, and that NZASC was to provide it with all supplies, POL and water until it had settled in. Its 132 Brigade Group Company, RASC, was to come under the command of HQ NZASC and would be parked in NZASC's second-line area. All assistance was to be given to 44 Division's RASC, particularly with regard to desert warfare (which was new to them) and its application to motor transport. Certain officers and NCOs were to be detached from NZASC companies to help with this ‘running in’. On 16 August Captain Briston, RASC, the Ammunition Officer of 132 Brigade Group Company, reported to Petrol Company's headquarters as advanced party for his company and was shown the area they would occupy, between our Divisional Ammunition and Divisional Petrol Companies. Nine days later Sergeant G. S. Williamson was detached on loan to 132 Brigade Group Company.
During the build-up for the expected battle Petrol Company took part in an exercise, on the night of 19-20 August, which involved refilling the Division's first-line transport by night. This was planned as a ‘two-platoon job’, with Lieutenant Browne taking charge of 1 Platoon (in addition to his duties as Divisional Petrol Officer) vice Captain Latimer, then away with a leave party. Prior to the exercise, platoon officers with their NCOs ‘recced’ the route, which ran via the ‘C’ track approximately north-west from 86 FMC to Bir el Themid, then south-west to the replenishment area at Point 106. The Company vehicles lay up in rendezvous during the late afternoon, then proceeded at 7.30 p.m. ‘according to plan’.3
In the preceding week a working party and six trucks from Petrol Company, under Staff-Sergeant Parkin,4 had been busy page 231 laying down dumps at various points to aid the general battle plan. By 15 August they had completed their programme, as follows: at Alam Halfa (two dumps), 3000 gallons MT plus oils and lubricants, 450 gallons HOP plus M 400; Bir Gaballa (two dumps), 1000 gallons MT plus oils and lubricants, 150 gallons HOP plus M 400; Alam el Khadim (three dumps), 6000 gallons MT plus oils and lubricants, 900 gallons HOP plus M 400. Another Petrol Company detachment, of ten trucks under CSM Cooper, helped with the transfer of troops during the last few days and nights of August, when 5 Infantry Brigade moved south and was replaced by 132 Brigade of 44 Division.
Cooper had some interesting experiences, and his report is quoted further on. Meanwhile let us look at the general plan for the impending battle—‘the first and typical Montgomery battle’, as Kippenberger calls it, and the one which was to ‘see Rommel off’. Key feature in the plan was the Alam Halfa ridge, several miles to the rear of the Alamein line, and south-east from Ruweisat Ridge.
From the reports of his Intelligence staff Montgomery expected that after a break-in on the southern flank the enemy would swing left and direct his armour towards the Alam Halfa and Ruweisat ridges. Montgomery therefore decided to hold the Alam Halfa ridge strongly with 44 Division and place his own tanks in the area between its western end and the New Zealand positions in the main Alamein line. So, on the morning of 1 September, when the enemy wheeled north as anticipated, there were about 400 tanks dug in to meet him, protected by a screen of six-pounder anti-tank guns. This armour was not to move. The plan was for the enemy to beat up against it and suffer heavy casualties.
And that is exactly what happened. Montgomery had made his extreme south flank mobile, with 7 Armoured Division there holding a wide front. When the attack came they were to give way before it and, after the enemy had wheeled, harass his rear and generally ‘shoot him up’ from the south and east. The Desert Air Force, assisted at night by flare-dropping aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, also took a hand, adding to the destruction. Within a few days Rommel had suffered so page 232 heavily in tanks and soft-skinned vehicles that he had to withdraw.
The enemy advance swept past to the south of the New Zealand positions in the early hours of 31 August. Our artillery opened up, and his replied. Apart from that, and frequent bombings throughout the day, Jerry left us unmolested. The Bofors in our area brought down several Stukas, while the Desert Air Force, now working in close co-ordination with the ground forces, pasted the enemy's advancing columns mercilessly. That night the whole area was alight with flares, released by both air forces; and for the first time our troops, including Divisional Petrol Company, made the acquaintance of ‘butterfly’ bombs. These nasty little objects, about the size of cricket balls, scattered like peas from a metal ‘pod’ and then burst individually in a sputter of small explosions. Primarily anti personnel missiles, they were meant to bounce into dugouts and slit trenches.
For the next few days the pattern of events in the New Zealand sector showed little change. By 2 September the head of the enemy advance had passed well to the east of us. Jerry was taking a terrific pasting from tanks, air, and artillery and had, in fact, by then shot his bolt. Slowly and stubbornly he began to pull back.
Montgomery ordered a southward thrust from the New Zealand area to try to close the gap in the minefields through which the enemy had penetrated. In this action, which commenced at 10.30 p.m. on 3 September, our Division with 132 Brigade of 44 Division under command attacked positions held by the German 90 Light Division and Italy's Trieste Division. Although 5 Brigade gained its objective—with 28 (Maori) Battalion again distinguishing itself—our other two brigades were held up. Heavy enemy counter-attacks next day were repulsed, but during the night (4-5 September) our infantry were withdrawn from their exposed positions.
By the evening of 5 September Rommel had pulled his main force back to the minefield area, where he turned to make a stand. Montgomery called off the battle (at 7 a.m. on 7 September) and left him there. It suited our book to have Rommel's forces massed on the southern flank, because Eighth page 233 Army's commander had already begun planning for his own big offensive, which would be launched farther north. Thus the Battle of Alam Halfa ended in the way Montgomery wanted; and he quotes the German historian, von Mellenthin, who was on Rommel's staff at the time, as pronouncing this battle ‘the turning point of the desert war, and the first of a long series of defeats on every front which foreshadowed the defeat of Germany’.
Other incidents affecting Petrol Company that month included a leaflet raid on 1 Platoon during the night of Friday, 22 September; and next morning our drivers learned from the pamphlets that the Italians and the Germans had no quarrel with the New Zealanders, and that if we were in the war just for adventure we should go back to our homes which the English were taking from us. This and similar ‘information’ caused much mirth among our men and helped to raise their morale. The pamphlets were eagerly sought as souvenirs, and we hoped the enemy would send more.
On 25 August the YMCA mobile canteen visited our lines; and their Mr Harry Lawson, who was attached to Divisional Petrol Company in Syria but had been wounded during the early part of this campaign, was welcomed back and attached for rations. Padre Holland also called that day. On the way his vehicle broke a spring, which our Workshops replaced. On 25 August, too, Driver R. D. Janes5 had his truck set on fire while loading petrol from the tray of a ‘Mac’ truck at 86 FMC. The fire originated in the ‘Mac’, but Janes's load of petrol was quickly ablaze. Strenuous efforts by NCOs and drivers of No. 1 Platoon saved the vehicle and part of its load, damage being confined to paintwork, a burnt canopy and two spare tyres. To cap this day another flight of mosquitoes, wind-borne from the south, launched a full-scale attack after dark.
Report by WO I A. B. Cooper on Transport Detail, 29-31 August, 1942
Left Coy area with 10 × 3 ton lorries of No 1 Pl at 1535 hrs. Arrived at junction of ‘Y’ track, the rendezvous for the convoy at 1555 hrs. By this time had picked up 14 × 3 ton lorries of 4 NZ Res page 234 MT Coy, who followed my trucks to the rendezvous. Here 7 × 3 ton Sup Coy lorries were met. Capt Pool,6 who met the convoy at this point, informed me that in the absence of 2/Lt Rich7 (4 Res MT) I would be responsible for taking the convoy forward to the north-east gap in the minefields, 11 miles from Rear Div junction, where we were to be met by 22 Bn guide. Left rendezvous 1620 hrs. Picked up 2/Lt Rich at 1650 hrs along ‘Y’ track. Changed on to ‘Z’ track at 1700 hrs and continued on until reaching the north-east gap in the minefields at 1740 hrs, where we were met by 22 Bn guide. Moved into Bn area at 1750 hrs. We were then informed the changeover was cancelled but we were to stand by. 2/Lt Rich contacted GSO 1, who instructed that we were to stay the night and probably all the following day. He stated that CNZASC had been informed and was in complete agreement. Rations would be brought forward following day. Lorries were then further dispersed and we settled in for the night. I queried the POL situation of the convoy, and found this had been taken care of. At 2145 hrs the Artillery started a barrage. Much to our dismay we discovered we had parked amongst a battery of 25-pounders, and sleep was out of the question. Orders could be heard plainly being given by GPO to Sec Comdrs and from them to the guns. They were apparently using a new flashless powder, for all was in complete darkness throughout the firing and the only thing to be seen was the flash of shells exploding ahead. It seemed as though batteries took turns at putting down the barrage as firing from the battery alongside us lasted only about 4 minutes, and then passed off down the line to another battery. Later our neighbours took up the role again.
Reveille 0620 hrs. A series of all types of weapons going off all round us, the nearest being a matter of feet away, made a very rude awakening. Breakfasted with ‘C’ Coy 22 Bn at 0730 hrs. Rather a late hour, but fires cannot be lit to arrange breakfast any earlier. Mr Rich informed me he was moving back to Coy area and would be back about 1200 hrs. About 1000 hrs a few German recce planes with fighter escort appeared over the area. All AA guns in neighbourhood opened up, including Bofors, but met with no success. At 1215 hrs received orders to leave, and at 1230 hrs moved out of area to pick up 132 Bde (4 and 5 Royal West Kents, and 2nd Buffs). Task should be completed 10-11 p.m., when 5 NZ Inf Bde would take us over. All vehicles were ordered to rendezvous at 22 Bn when task finished. At this time I was riding in the rear page 235 truck, the convoy being led by an officer from 132 Bde HQ acting as guide. On catching up with this officer I found that he had directed the vehicles to three Bns with guides, but could not give me any information as to the whereabouts of the Bns. However, I contacted 132 Bde HQ and ascertained the locations of the Bns. At 4 Royal West Kents I located eight 4 Res MT vehicles. I arranged lunch for them and instructed them as to the RV position and what their tasks would be. Continued on to 5 Royal West Kents, where I found 9 vehicles (7 Sup Coy, 2 RMT). Thence to 2 Buffs, where we picked up 2/Lt Rich and 11 vehicles (10 Pet Coy, 1 Res MT). Repeated arrangements, and then had lunch. Four vehicles had been detached earlier on an undisclosed task, and three of these were located at HQ 132 Bde and the other at 2 Buffs, so all vehicles were accounted for. Pet Coy vehicles loaded in Buffs area and proceeded three miles on a bearing of 243°. Load carrying between old and new areas continued for remainder of afternoon until 1715 hrs. Where possible vehicles were backloaded in an endeavour to save time on night's task. Moved to ‘C’ Coy, forward Coy of 21st Bn at 0600 hrs. The artillery started their ‘hymn of hate’, apparently a safeguard to keep the enemies' heads down while the forward Coys changed over. Lifted ‘C’ Coy at 1900 hrs and proceeded to new area, arriving 1950 hrs. Both tasks now completed, I collected 7 Pet Coy trucks, two being still on detail (one of which had finished earlier and been sent to 22 Bn area). Left for RV, 22 Bn at 2030 hrs, arriving 2120 hrs. At 2145 hrs the Artillery commenced a proper show, and were firing from all sides of us. Both the RAF and the Luftwaffe joined in later, and the enemy, not to be outdone, opened up with their artillery.
Sleep impossible with shelling and bombing, and at about 0300 hrs artillery (which had moved into the area we were occupying) opened up for an hour or so, then some guns switched about to the rear of us. Found out later that 20 enemy tanks had broken through. Reveille 0620 hrs, breakfast 0700 hrs. Picked up the truck which had been sent early previous night to 22 Bn, leaving one vehicle short. After being assured by 2/Lt Rich that he would look after the latter truck as he had still to collect 10 of his own and the Sup Coy vehicles, I left with 9 × 3 ton on return journey to Coy. Met our missing vehicle which then joined my convoy. Arrived back in Coy area 0940 hrs. There was no mechanical trouble experienced during the whole detail.
The ‘Y’ track mentioned in CSM Cooper's report was a narrow, bumpy road which led to the replenishment area. At 7.30 a.m. on 1 September, Lieutenant Browne set off along this track with 2 Platoon; but they were soon held up by enemy shelling. Some 400 yards to the left, ‘Z’ track was being heavily page 236 bombed, as was the Alam Halfa feature 800 yards away on the right.
Lieutenant Browne drove through to Rear Divisional Headquarters, where he was told that units were to go forward as usual to the replenishment area and to pass the point being shelled as quickly as possible. But that wasn't so easy. Already a Divisional Supply convoy blocked the track ahead of Petrol Company's platoon. Soft sand prevented dispersal, and trucks had to move in single file. Speeding up was out of the question, at least until the track ahead was clear. With so many Jerry planes about, the situation was decidedly sticky.
Shelling ceased as the Petrol Company convoy moved forward; but it was again held up by blast and shrapnel from the nearby bombing. Eventually 2 Platoon safely reached the replenishment area, where its vehicles were sorted out and a petrol point established at 10.30 a.m. The point closed at 11.30 and the convoy returned to Company Headquarters without further incident. There Major Forbes advised that Rear Divisional Headquarters, after coming under fire from 5.9s and 25-pounders, had moved to a new position between ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ tracks. No. 86 FMC had also shifted, some 16 miles north-east, to a more comfortable position near Burg el Arab. That afternoon 2 Platoon refilled from the new location, where the POL Section, our war diary records, ‘was actually located on the reference given’.
By this time the German advance had got well under way. Hostile tanks, guns and lorried infantry could be seen moving up; the noise of battle clamoured all round—unpleasantly close to Petrol Company. That evening the Company was placed in a state of readiness to move, in case the enemy broke through. But a week later we were still in our old positions, with the operating platoons doing ‘business as usual’, and supplying POL to the same replenishment area. By 5 September, No. 86 FMC had come back again to its former area.
The Company moved at 1.30 p.m. on 9 September under Captain Washbourn. Major Forbes had gone on ahead to ‘recce’ the new area. The day was hot, and a brisk breeze whipped up a blinding sandstorm. This, with the dust from the moving vehicles and the rough nature of the track, made the page 237 going extremely unpleasant. But spirits were high. Eighth Army, we knew, had won a smashing victory. The whole Division was pulling out for a rest, with prospects of leave to Cairo or Alex. This was to be followed by a stern period of training, and even sterner tasks ahead. For the C-in-C was determined to lose no time in taking the offensive. His intention was to destroy the enemy in his present position, where he was farthest from his own bases and nearest to ours. A decision would be forced at El Alamein, where we would have the best opportunity of developing our full strength.
Already 300 Sherman tanks had arrived from America, so that we now had for the first time a tank which was equal in armour, armament and performance to the best tank in the Africa Corps. It was proposed to equip six armoured brigades with them. All told we would have almost double the number of the enemy tanks, and an infantry strength that was the greatest Eighth Army had yet put into the field. New British divisions were arriving in the Delta area, in addition to replacements for losses, thus enabling existing units to be brought up to strength. The New Zealand Division was reorganised into a ‘new model’ formation, with the British 9 Armoured Brigade under command. Fourth Brigade had gone back to Maadi to become an armoured formation.
September and early October also saw a great build-up of Eighth Army's artillery, on which it was intended to rely heavily in the positional battle ahead. All this was backed by seasoned administrative staffs, and by a vast ‘rear services’ army comprising 300,000 base troops, half a million civilian employees, and contracted labour to the tune of about another million and a half. The RAF had established complete air superiority, while both it and the Royal Navy played havoc with enemy shipping bound for North African ports.
Such were the preparations for the great Alamein battle; and Eighth Army's chances had never looked brighter. We now had the men, the materials and the leaders; and already we had had—in the Alam Halfa engagement—a goodly taste of victory. Thoroughness was the keynote to all our preparations, and troops were trained under conditions and on terrain similar to those they would find in the actual battle.page 238
Petrol Company shared in the training and preparations, including a vast complex movement of vehicles and ‘dummies’ designed to deceive the enemy concerning the time and place of the coming attack. After ten days of sweet dalliance by the sea near Burg el Arab, the bulk of the Company returned to the desert, where a detachment had remained on petrol supply duties. There, also, went Workshops Headquarters and their No. 11 Section, which was replaced at Maadi by No. 12. Workshops' Nos. 13 and 14 Sections resumed normal duty at HQ NZASC and Amiriya respectively.
Soon the Company was grappling with the details of a plan to replace ‘flimsies’ (the standard 4-gallon tin container) with pressed steel jerricans. This scheme commenced on 28 September when Corps made provision for the issue daily of 15,000 gallons in 3750 of the new containers. Our Company was allotted 11,000 gallons or 2750 cans, to be drawn from 200 FMC at 2 p.m. Loads were standardised at 640 gallons (160 cans) per lorry. But the Corps requirement that these cans be used in ‘sets’, with each set ‘marching’ to fixed points—second line, B Echelon, first line—and back again on fixed days, proved impracticable. It took no account of fluctuations in the daily demand for POL within the Division, and the fact that POL is not consumed like water, provided for and fixed as a daily ration.
Further confusion was caused by a 2 NZ Division instruction (at variance with the Corps plan) which emphasised that all jerricans drawn by consuming units were to be returned to the petrol point on the day following issue from Divisional Petrol Company. As a result, some units returned full cans next day. These and other absurdities were eventually ironed out, and the returnable jerrican, with its many advantages, later came to stay.
On 3 October Captain Butt8 marched in to replace Captain Latimer, posted for a tour of duty at Base. The same day a freak hailstorm, with stones as large as pullets' eggs, sent drivers scurrying for shelter or their steel helmets. That day, also, was remembered by First Echelon men—survivors of the original ‘Thirty-niners’—as the third anniversary of their page 239 entering camp in New Zealand. On 6 October the issue of an extra blanket heralded the approach of yet another desert winter. On the 11th Captain F. Trewby returned to the Company, vice Captain Torbet, transferred to HQ Command NZASC.
From now on, harbingers of the impending battle came thick and fast. The Company drew stores, on 11 October, for three days' battle ration. All water tankers and trailers were filled (at Amiriya) and sealed as reserves, current needs being met by a daily issue, in tins, from a water-point. Commander NZASC advised that four trained anti-tank gunners were coming from Base for each NZASC Company, and that four anti-aircraft men from each Company would go back to take an anti-tank course.
On 17 October Petrol Company received orders to dump in a forward area, near Point 32, sufficient POL to take all the Division's tanks and carriers 50 miles. This was done next night by a No. 2 Platoon detail under Sergeant Jenkin, their load comprising 2500 gallons of MT petrol, 640 gallons HOP and a load of ‘mixed oils’—M 400, M 220, C 600 and M 160. As the convoy approached the dumping area a light was seen flashing in the distance. This was thought to be a signal to guide some RASC transport following behind our own. It came, however, from a line of infantry, advancing in battle order in a northerly direction. Our convoy passed through without challenge, then drove on through a line of advancing tanks— again without being held up or shot up. Nine dumps were laid, each one-tin high, and dug in to half-tin depth. They were covered first with dunnage, then sand. While this was proceeding, as instructed, ‘under cover of darkness’, there was no lack of light from the flares sent up by the troops continuing their manoeuvres all round the area.
From the middle of October the Company was kept much on the move—all part of the ‘giant deception’ plan to mask the build-up for our coming offensive and conceal the true location of units and formations now moving up to their battle positions. At each move, Petrol Company took over an area vacated by portions of either 8 or 9 Armoured Brigades, and our vacated areas were taken over by the armoured units. page 240 Sometimes we foozled ourselves; as, for example, during the heavy dust-storm of 16 October.
By 2.30 p.m. this had blotted out everything. And the OC, in attempting to reach his Company Headquarters orderly room, travelled between Divisional Supply Company (to our north) and Divisional Ammunition Company (to the south) without striking Divisional Petrol Company at all! Another officer started out at 5.30 p.m. in his PU, seeking the officers' mess—a distance of 50 yards. He missed his objective, travelled from one neighbouring unit to another without encountering any Petrol Company vehicle, and finished up two hours later— back at his own tent! Every desert soldier, of course, can recall some like experience (not always due to grog) of ‘travelling in a circle’ and ending at or near the point where he began.
When the Company finished shuffling around, on 23 October, its headquarters was located beside the railway line near Burg el Arab. Throughout that day, and the previous one, fighter sweeps moved westward continually, and after our arrival aircraft continued to pass over throughout the night. Petrol Company's war diary notes that ‘a terrific artillery bombardment was heard from 2100 hrs9 onward’. For our men in the desert, another ‘show’ had started. For a world, tensely waiting, this signalled the commencement of the crucial El Alamein battle.
Details of that battle are now well known; its classic phases of break-in, dogfight, break-out and pursuit have often been described. And all, at first, went ‘merry as a marriage bell’. The New Zealand Division fought as a spearhead, helping 30 Corps to punch a narrow hole through the deep German defences in the north. Petrol Company's No. 2 Platoon, under Captain Washbourn, ran a 24-hour petrol point service for the Division, at the site of its forward dump, first using up the dumped petrol there, then refilling each truck as emptied by reloading at 14 L of C. On several successive nights bombs were dropped to the north and south of the dump area; and although 2 Platoon increased their dispersal to 250 yards between vehicles, some trucks were struck and slightly damaged by splinters.page 241
No. 1 Platoon, meantime, remained fully loaded in the Company's rear area at Burg el Arab, ready to move forward when called on. Sports gear was unpacked, goalposts erected. The Company played football, cricket, baseball, staging inter-platoon contests; meanwhile one of the world's great epic dramas was being enancted less than 40 miles away.
By the end of October there was still little change in Petrol Company's situation.10 In the battle area the ‘break in’ had succeeded; the ‘dogfight’ was proceeding; plans for the ‘break out’ were under way. In this, 2 New Zealand Division, with two British infantry brigades under command, was again allotted a leading role. Operation supercharge, launched at 1.5 a.m. on 2 November, was a brilliant success, the attack proceeding, General Freyberg says, ‘like a drill’.11 It was supported by the greatest artillery concentration yet laid on in North Africa, and by aggressive fighter and bomber action by the RAF.
Next day there were signs that the enemy was beginning to crack. General Freyberg personally reconnoitred the front, where he saw a great change. The Divisional Cavalry reported the enemy to be moving back in the north; everything seemed to point to a general withdrawal. And so confident was our General of the enemy's undoing that he cabled this opinion to the New Zealand Government. At 2.15 p.m. the Division was warned to ‘prepare to take part in a mobile operation’. Next day (4 November) the Division struck westward, moving through unmistakable signs of a defeated enemy—burnt-out vehicles, abandoned headquarters, tanks and guns destroyed, large and small groups of prisoners marching eastward under escort. The enemy had cracked, and the pursuit was on. A badly-beaten Rommel was being ‘seen off’; and that afternoon he lost the commander of his Africa Corps (General von Thoma), captured while trying to ascertain just exactly what was going on.
Like hounds on the scent, mobile elements of Eighth Army raced westward, the intention being to outflank the retreating page 242 enemy from the south. Baltimore bombers and fighter squadrons of the Desert Air Force attacked transport columns withdrawing along the main road north of the escarpment. Our Division now was not to get itself too heavily involved, but to try to head the enemy off and bottle him at Fuka. To aid this movement, and subsequent ones, Petrol Company's load-carrying capacity was stepped up by attachments from the RASC and from 4 and 6 Reserve MT Companies. Thus when the pursuit began we had in all 78 load-carriers, increased shortly afterwards to 113.
On 3 November the Company moved up to the area of the forward petrol point which 2 Platoon was still running south-west of Alamein railway station. There 1 Platoon made petrol issues to quit stocks that had been on their trucks for some time. At this stage jerricans had not yet come into general use, and there was still considerable leakage from the ‘flimsies’. At 3.30 a.m. the previous day Lieutenant Browne, with Sergeant Faulkner12 and Driver Streeter13 (Don R), had taken thirteen trucks forward to establish another petrol point specially for refuelling AFVs. They arrived in the area at 7.15 a.m. and found it very congested with forward-moving traffic. Browne recalls that during breakfast, at 8.30, a large number of Me109s appeared and were immediately engaged by a heavy AA battery nearby. The noise of the gunfire caused some consternation and everyone jumped a few inches in the air when the first salvo went off unexpectedly. It was quite interesting, he remarks, to watch other people throughout the day who were caught unawares by a salvo!
For the next few days the Company, and the petrol points, strove to keep up with the westward-moving Division. Early in the afternoon of 5 November, Commander NZASC ordered all Petrol Company vehicles with full loads to assemble immediately for a move forward to Alam el Halif, about 11 miles south of Galal, where a replenishment area was to be opened at 5.30 p.m. next day. They joined a convoy of 200 ASC vehicles under the Senior Supply Officer (Major Bracegirdle) with an armed guard consisting of 4 Company, 27 (MG) page 243 Battalion, and three armoured cars. In their wake went Company HQ, Workshops, and all other Petrol Company vehicles except the ‘empties’ which Sergeant Jenkin had taken back for a refill at 202 FMC.
Bracegirdle's convoy struck heavy going. Owing to the congestion of traffic on all routes leading west it got away to a late start. The night was pitch-black, moonless. Lieutenant Browne records: ‘Moved through minefields in shocking conditions with transport everywhere and dust and darkness completely obliterating vehicles in front. Eventually got through minefields and found half of Coy had gone astray. Capt Butt went back to find them. Major Bracegirdle decided to stage for night.’
By then it was midnight and the main convoy had advanced along the Boomerang track as far as the Divisional axis turn-off. Gunpits and slit trenches everywhere made further progress hazardous. While entering Petrol Company's staging area a No. 1 Platoon truck ran over a land mine which blew a front wheel off. The driver was uninjured. Shortly afterwards, Second-Lieutenant MacShane's jeep ran over a mine, resulting in the death of that popular and promising young officer, and slightly injuring his driver, ‘Hori’ Perston. A noisy night followed, with enemy aircraft active, and sundry arms in the neighbourhood retaliating. One bomb fell in Petrol Company's area, peppering the QM truck with shrapnel and blowing CQMS ‘Lew’ Asher's bivvy tent in on top of him as he lay in a slit trench.
On the morning of 6 November, Petrol Company held a large but informal parade to pay their last respects to Second-Lieutenant MacShane. A grave was made in the area and a padre conducted the burial service. Major Bracegirdle's convoy then resumed its march, reaching Alam el Halif at 11.30 a.m.
Our drivers dispersed their vehicles in the replenishment area, dug slit trenches and prepared a meal. They then settled down to the usual business of maintenance while awaiting the arrival of the customers. For although the Division had stocked up for about 200 miles before leaving the Alamein area, it would now need every available drop of ‘juice’ for the big hunt page 244 westward. The convoy issued 13,700 gallons of petrol, besides rations and water, and the replenished B Echelon vehicles then set out to return to their units.
Lieutenant Browne departed with the empty ASC trucks to refill from 204 FMC at El Daba. Heavy rain had fallen and left the ground very sodden. The trucks took three hours to reach Galal. There they staged for the night and were bombed, without mishap to men or vehicles, although incendiaries, ‘butterfly’ and anti-personnel missiles were dropped. At first light on 7 November Browne moved on to 204 FMC and reloaded. There he learned that 2 NZ Division was now under 10 Corps, and that the best way back to Halif was via Fuka. Arriving there, he found it impossible to get his vehicles through to the desert owing to water covering the low-lying ground. He decided to disperse his transport on the Fuka aerodrome while he set out alone for the Advanced Division replenishment area. He found Captain Butt six miles south of the replenishment point ‘in shocking conditions, all vehicles being stuck’. He then returned to Fuka aerodrome, arriving at 11.59 p.m. after being held up in traffic.
Meanwhile the balance of Petrol Company, led by Lieutenant Burkitt, moved up on 7 November to establish a petrol point in the Baggush landing-ground area. Major Forbes had reconnoitred ahead, trying to contact Browne's detachment. Rain fell throughout the journey and many trucks became bogged. Nevertheless, the Company's load-carriers succeeded in reaching the appointed area, and opening their petrol point with a stock of 43,000 gallons, by 4 p.m. By nightfall neither Browne nor Forbes had returned to Company Headquarters, so Burkitt dispersed his vehicles as best he could, in a sea of mud.
That day Major Bracegirdle's column, which still included a number of Petrol Company vehicles, was struggling on from Alam el Halif in an effort to join our Company at the replenishment area by 3 p.m. as ordered. When it became clear that he could not keep this assignation, owing to the condition of the ground, Bracegirdle was instructed by HQ 2 NZ Division to guide unit and brigade representatives to the Petrol Company vehicles; these representatives were then to guide the NZASC petrol-carriers to units so that issues could be made in unit page 245 lines. For the Division (also bogged down) was by now desperately short of petrol. None had been drawn on 7 November from our Company's petrol point by first-line transport; and the B Echelon vehicles which had replenished the previous day at Alam el Halif had not yet returned to their units. They too had got stuck in the prevailing mud and slush.
Eventually, by one means and another, all units of 2 NZ Division received petrol and rations before resuming their westward advance on 8 November. But the weather, obviously, had played into Rommel's hands, bogging down three Eighth Army divisions and saving his Panzer Army from likely annihilation. The pursuit was resumed by Eighth Army's 10 Corps, which, as we have seen, now included 2 NZ Division. Lieutenant Browne's detachment got through to the Division just as it was beginning to move. He was able to serve 4 Field Regiment with 1800 gallons, and then had to ‘tag along’. He found the going very bad, with vehicles, guns, etc., still getting stuck over a wide area. After moving eight miles in five hours he halted his convoy for the night.
Early on 9 November, Browne caught up with Divisional Ammunition Company and supplied 1800 gallons. He then plugged on through soft going and overtook the rest of the Division about five miles east of the Siwa Track. There Lieutenant-Colonel Hillier14 (AA & QMG) instructed him to go on through the Division and give petrol to any units that were short. Next morning his convoy reloaded with 8000 gallons from No. 103 Petrol Depot in Matruh, after which they rejoined the Company, now concentrating at Kilo 120, on the main road near 208 FMC. Before dawn on 11 November, 110 men of 21 Battalion stormed the formidable Halfaya Pass and surprised an enemy rearguard still holding out there. At the cost of only two casualties our men took 612 prisoners and all their equipment.
Thus ended the enemy's last attempt at resistance in this phase of the campaign. The frontier posts of Sollum, Capuzzo, Bardia, and Sidi Azeiz were not contested. In the space of a week Eighth Army had chased the enemy right out of Egypt; page 246 and while armoured forces continued the pursuit, our Division stayed put in the Bardia area for reorganisation and training. News of another great success—the landing in North-West Africa of a large Anglo-American force under General Eisenhower, added to our elation. As these troops moved up and Eighth Army pressed westward, the enemy stood to be caught in the closing jaws of a gigantic pincer.
For several weeks Petrol Company remained in an area midway between Bardia and Fort Capuzzo. On 13 November Staff-Sergeant O'Connor marched out to Base, as a candidate for OCTU. On the 15th, Petrol Company's war diary noted that ‘continual streams of transport now passing through Coy HQ area as a short-cut to the Trigh Capuzzo make Coy HQ like Willis Street on a Friday night. HQ Orderly Room now an information bureau, judging by the constant streams of all nationalities requesting advice as to the location of their units.’ Three days later Company Headquarters, still craving privacy, moved a quarter-mile north ‘to get away from track to BSD which has now become a main thoroughfare’. The weather turned cold, sometimes wet. Battle dress and woollen underwear were issued—also a fourth blanket. Sports teams and committees began functioning again. Parades and inspections reared their ugly heads.
But soon once more it was ‘goodbye to all that’. On 4 December the Division set off west, on a long ‘hike’ right across Cyrenaica. Again our mission was to outflank Rommel, who had halted and dug in at El Agheila. Here, as at Alamein, the northern end of his defence line abutted the sea; to the south there were marshes and soft sand, around which our Division was to move in a wide encircling movement to contain the enemy while other Eighth Army formations made a frontal attack. This ‘left hook’ involved a 350-mile approach march across the desert to El Haseiat, via El Adem, Bir Hacheim, and Msus. Divisional Petrol and Divisional Supply Companies went on ahead, to make issues to Divisional units as they passed through El Adem. Our Company then replenished at Tobruk and followed on.
This was a ‘tall order’ and well beyond the scope of our one Company, even with its 4 and 6 RMT attachments. So Colonel Crump arranged for 100 3-ton lorries (fifty from each New Zealand infantry brigade) to pick up 60,000 gallons of POL from 106 FMC at Agedabia and dump it in the Petrol Company area. The complete petrol plan—on which the success of the left hook depended—was thus outlined on 9 December:
|Issues by Petrol Company on 9 December||45,000 gals|
|No. 2 Platoon dump in area 10 December||20,000 gals|
|100 brigade trucks in area 10 December||60,000 gals|
|Company holding, in four platoons||80,000 gals|
On 10 December, with Divisional units fully alive to their instructions regarding POL, large concentrations of vehicles had collected in the replenishment area. The congestion was accentuated by the continual arrival of loaded convoys. The first batch of seventeen 3-ton lorries (10,000 gals) was disposed of within ten minutes, the second group equally quickly. By 3.30 p.m. 32,000 gallons had been issued and 19,480 gallons dumped in the Company area. At 4 p.m. Captain Blanch15 brought forty 3-ton lorries with 25,600 gallons, and by 5 p.m. this, too, had been disposed of. An hour later a review of the POL situation showed total issues for the day at 76,938 gallons, with known requirements still to be satisfied at approximately 5000 gallons. The required amount was supplied next day; and our Company, with its four platoons fully loaded, as instructed, moved south with the Division on the next stage of its journey.
This move took the New Zealanders 30 miles. Then, on 13 December, led by 4 Light Armoured Brigade, which came under command of the Division in the assembly area, they swung south-west to Chrystal's Rift. The famous ‘left hook’ to outflank Rommel at El Agheila, the strongest defence position in Libya, and the high-water mark of the Desert Army's two previous advances there, had now begun. The route, through soft sands and salt marshes, treacherous for wheeled traffic, had been ‘recced’ by the Long Range Desert Group and a British armoured-car patrol. Secrecy was the keynote of operations now, and a strict radio silence was imposed.
On 13 December the Division crossed Chrystal's Rift and next day struck north-west, its thrust-line marked as usual by our Divisional Provost Company with the familiar black-diamond signs. As the last units passed them by, the signs were lifted and replaced by petrol tins bearing the Division's fernleaf emblem. The going had been tough for most of the way, particularly when approaching Chrystal's Rift, named after the British armoured-car officer who had discovered it. This feature was a wadi, six miles broad, with precipitous sides. Bulldozers had been used to cut a narrow track, through which our tanks and vehicles, now numbering 3000, funnelled in page 249 three long columns. Once across they fanned out again into desert formation.
For the night move of 14-15 December, which took us across the Marada track, running south from El Agheila, the Division with its supporting armour again closed in to the familiar three-lane ‘column of route’. All, that is, except Divisional Ammunition Company. Preserving a rugged individuality, and travelling immediately ahead of Divisional Petrol Company, they adopted a seven-lane formation, which, according to Petrol Company's war diary, ‘proved difficult from the start, as the centre lanes were much shorter than the two outsides, and therefore to keep contact with their rear vehicles in the darkness it was necessary to run practically into the middle of Div Amn’. The plaint continues:
This led to a certain amount of confusion when narrow defiles had to be passed through and the convoy closed in, as the last few trucks of the outside lanes of Amn Coy found themselves in with Pet Coy and tried to race through. However, topographical conditions eventually forced the convoy into column of route, and once this formation was adopted the going became faster and more orderly. Halt made at 2010 hrs, and again Div Amn took up their seven-lane formation. This time the result was even more chaotic than previously. A lot of soft ground had to be traversed and many trucks became bogged.
As trucks behind realised that the convoy had not stopped there was a general scrambling past on each side of the fallen vehicle until the convoy was packed into a solid mass with a spirit in the air of every man for himself. Atop a rise the convoy was passing adjacent to a fiercely blazing truck (later found to be a No 2 Platoon load-carrier which had caught fire with its petrol load aboard earlier in the evening). And here, with the whole convoy of trucks side by side and nose to tail, a halt was made for no apparent reason for more than fifteen minutes. Whoever was responsible for stopping a solidly-packed convoy of supplies so precious to the Division beside a beacon which could be seen for miles could not be too severely dealt with.
Fortunately, the Luftwaffe was having a night off. Our Company bedded down at 10.35 p.m., resuming its march next morning. At 3 p.m. the Administration Group, now under command of Major Ian Stock,16 received notice of page 250 enemy troops on the northern flank of the Divisional axis, so the Group moved south, then west, the head of its column drawing level with 5 Brigade (which was to give it protection) two hours later. After a brief halt vehicles were closed up, and another night move commenced—north-west for 25 miles, back on to the Divisional axis. Petrol Company, with the rest of the group, dispersed their vehicles, with pickets posted, since there was some uncertainty about our exact position and that of the enemy. At 9 p.m. hostile tanks were reported in the neighbourhood, so Admin Group was ordered to move again, ten miles back along the axis track. There the convoy dispersed and bedded down—only to be roused out again at 3.45 a.m. and told to pack and be ready to move at dawn.
While the Admin Group was thus ‘kafoofling’ around, the Division's fighting troops, having completed their long circuit to get in behind the enemy, were preparing to cut his escape-route. For, under strong British pressure from the east, Rommel had already begun to abandon the El Agheila positions and was again intent on heading west. His rearguard, as usual, was the formidable Africa Corps. So, after nightfall, Freyberg ordered 6 Brigade to move north, cut the road, and thus ‘box’ the enemy's remaining forces. But stern opposition from elements of go Light Division, and the difficulty of taking up positions in strange country in the dark, thwarted this move.
Fifth Brigade's role was to follow 6 Brigade and take up positions on its flank. But difficulties of terrain, and the nearness of our Admin Group with its mass of soft-skinned vehicles needing protection, caused Freyberg to halt 5 Brigade some distance short of 6 Brigade, leaving a wide gap. In his desperate plight the enemy was quick to take advantage. Next morning 15 Panzer Division, which had spent the night only a few miles east of 2 NZ Division, raced through the gap and escaped to Nofilia. During the night, while go Light Division was fending off our 6 Brigade, 21 Panzer Division had also escaped, along the main road. So run the fortunes of war. But this experience was a galling one for our Division, which had come within an ace of ‘bagging’ the much-vaunted Africa Corps.
On 17 December the New Zealand Division essayed a further small ‘left hook’ around the enemy positions at Nofilia. page 251 Fifth Brigade made a spirited effort to get astride the road, but soft sand and a determined German flank guard prevented them. Again the enemy—highly sensitive to these outflanking movements—slipped away, to defensive positions he was preparing near Buerat. He left 15 Panzer as a covering force at Sirte. Our light armoured forces still harassed him, but Eighth Army had now reached its limit for any large-scale advance because of administrative problems. Nofilia was 260 miles from Benghazi (our advanced supply base) while Sirte was another 80 miles farther on. It would take at least a fortnight to get enough supplies, especially of petrol, for a non-stop advance on Tripoli, the next sizeable port.
So our Division settled down in the Nofilia area, to celebrate another Christmas (desert fashion) and build up reserves for the next big push. That we were going on to Tripoli (the dream and Mecca of all Western Desert campaigners) the Army Commander had told us. And while no one now doubted Eighth Army's fiery commander, what worried us was who would get there first. Already the LRDG, under Eighth Army command, was reconnoitring the unknown country ahead, seeking routes and landing grounds. And, as time went on and preparations developed for the Buerat encounter, our keenness to gain the coveted honour of being the first Allied troops in Tripoli increased.
December the 24th dawned dour and windy. Petrol Company's war diary notes: ‘there was little in the way of alcoholic stimulants to enliven the proceedings, and the only occurrence which made this Christmas Eve any different from other days was a heavy influx of Christmas parcels which Dvr Anderson,17 our postal clerk, had a busy time distributing. If only the people at home could see the eagerness with which their parcels are greeted here it would do their hearts good.’
Christmas Day was declared a holiday for all, after a church parade at 10.30 a.m. at which the Colonel was present. Padre Holland conducted the service. Following that, Colonel Crump gave an address in which he (on behalf of the GOC and himself) thanked the Company for the work it had done, page 252 stating that the NZASC had created a record unexampled in this, the last, or any previous war. He gave a résumé of Petrol Company's work since Crete, and forecast an expansion of the Company in the near future. He gave a hint as to our future operations, stressing the vital importance of petrol. He also pointed out that though the Division had just covered between 600-700 miles, the Petrol Company platoons had travelled over 1400 miles in their successful efforts to keep it supplied with POL. Much of our success was due to the mechanical maintenance of the vehicles, and this, he predicted, would probably prove of even greater importance before the campaign was finished.
The cooks did great work in all platoons and prepared dinners well worthy of Christmas Day. Pork was on the menu, and even Christmas puddings, these including a good dash of rum among the ingredients. Major Forbes visited all messes and sampled the cooking, completing his tour at Company Headquarters, where he joined Headquarters' officers and sergeants in their worthy efforts to act as waiters at the men's mess. All ranks throughout the Company were loud in their praise of the cooking, which certainly was a fine performance in view of the difficult conditions under which the cooks had to work. The afternoon was spent in sleeping off the effects of over-eating. One bottle of beer per man was the total issue of alcohol, so there was no insobriety in the camp. The cooks rounded off the day by turning on a good tea, which included a fruit salad. The officers and sergeants had their Christmas dinner in the evening.
When 1943 came in, Petrol Company was still ‘on the beach’ at Nofilia, 1200 miles from the Suez Canal. Hardy types took their first dips in Tripolitanian waters; others boiled up sea-water in petrol tins to wash shirts, socks and grubby bodies. For work there was vehicle maintenance and overhaul, plus a daily drag to and from the FMC, laying up petrol for another 350 miles. Sport got going again, the big event for Petrol Company being its rugby contest with 28 (Maori) Battalion on 31 December. This was played on 28 Battalion's ‘home ground’ 30 miles away, since our team had had no time to construct a field, or even to have a practice page 253 game. Nevertheless, by half-time we had a 5-3 lead on the Maoris. A penalty in the last fifteen minutes put them one point ahead, and so the game ended after a valiant tussle. Petrol Company's points came from a try by Sergeant Faulkner, converted by Corporal Haworth,18 in the first fifteen minutes of play. Both of 28 Battalion's scoring efforts were the result of penalties.
1 General Sir Alan Brooke, later Field-Marshal Lord Alanbrooke.
2 The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Montgomery, pp. 101–2.
3 According to some. According to others, this ‘show’ was a TABU. For explanation of the term, ask any soldier.
9 Actually 2140 hrs, 9.40 p.m.
10 On 27 October Petrol Company sustained its first casualty in this campaign, Lance-Corporal L. Blucher, of Workshops Platoon, being wounded while carrying out salvage operations in a minefield.
11 Despite the GOC's enthusiasm, there were some hitches. For example, one of the British infantry brigades did not take its final objective, and the armour did not debouch into the open. Nevertheless, supercharge ‘turned the trick’.
16 Maj I. E. Stock, MBE, ED, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 24 May 1914; clerk; OC Sup Coln Nov 1940-Mar 1941; OC 4 Res MT Coy Jun 1941-Sep 1943; OC NZ Admin Gp Oct 1942-Sep 1943; OC NZ VRD, Bari, Sep-Dec 1943.