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Private J. D. Caves: The Long Journey Home

Second Battle of Ruweisat Ridge

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Second Battle of Ruweisat Ridge

"No one had visualised being captured, least of all after a successful attack."

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Timeline of Events

28 June 1942

24 Battalion sets out for the Alamein line.

15 July 1942

Denis' last letter to Jean before capture.

22 July 1942

Denis was captured in the Second Battle of Ruweisat Ridge when two New Zealand infantry battalions successfully attacked the El Mreir depression at night but the next morning were overrun by two Panzer divisions.

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Denis' unit, B Company, 24 Battalion, 6 Brigade, 2 NZ Division, was moved into the Alamein defensive line and fought at El Mreir in the second battle of Ruweisat Ridge in July 1942.

Excerpt from Early Battles of the Eighth Army

This passage provides an overview of the second battle of Ruweisat Ridge.

In July 1942 there were six battles fought around the Alamein line, followed ultimately by the November 1942 Battle of El Alamein under Montgomery after which the Eighth Army never lost another battle.

Auchinleck's third offensive had failed - and failed disgracefully. "There is nothing in the whole record of the Afrika Korps" states Ronald Lewin bluntly, "to compare with the abandonment of the New Zealanders naked before an armoured attack in the opening stages of the first Ruweisat battle."

This remark refers to other New Zealand brigades, and not Denis' 6th Brigade, which would be called into action for the Second Battle of Ruweisat Ridge.

There would be even greater waste in Auchinleck's fourth offensive, the Second Battle of the Ruweisat Ridge, which began in the evening of 21 July. Its objective was declared to be "cutting Rommel's battle front in two parts."

The main assault was again to be carried out by XIII Corps. 6th New Zealand Brigade would attack from the south against the El Mreir Depression lying to the south-west of the Ruweisat Ridge, while 161st Indian Motor Brigade from the 5th Indian Division attacked from the east. The infantry would be assisted by 1st Armoured Division. The armoured brigades were not, however, intended to advance before first light on 22 July. Much criticism has been levelled against their commanders for being unwilling to move at night when the Germans had no compunction about doing so, but there was the important difference that the British tanks would have to make their way through enemy minefields.

In addition to their other tasks, 6th New Zealand and 161st Indian Motor Brigades were to clear a gap in those minefields.

Such was the plan, but not the realization. During the night of 21-22 July, 161st Brigade seized Deir el Shein, only to be driven out by counter-attack; it failed to capture Point 62. 6th New Zealand Brigade, after ferocious fighting which cost it 200 casualties, secured the eastern part of El Mreir, but the tanks did not move up to support it in time. In consequence at 0515 on 22 July, Nehring fell on the New Zealanders with both 15th and 21st Panzer and shattered them. Some 700 men were killed, wounded or captured, and twenty-three guns were lost.

This is where Denis was captured, in the El Mreir Depression, where New Zealand infantry, after a successful night attack, were yet again unsupported by British armour when counter-attacked by Panzer divisions.

There was some excuse for the ineffectiveness of the British armour. On 18 July another successful Luftwaffe attack had wounded both Lumsden and Briggs. Command of 1st Armoured Division was therefore given to Gatehouse, now a major general, but he only arrived at the front from the Nile Delta on the evening of the 20th and he also was wounded at about 0900 on the 22nd, his place being taken by Brigadier Fisher. Yet it is hardly surprising that, in the bitter words of Major General Howard Kippenberger, commander of 5
Eighth Army Infantry 'dug' in the desert.

Eighth Army Infantry 'dug' in the desert.

page 58Brigade: "At this time there was intense distrust, almost hatred, of our armour. Everywhere one heard tales of the other arms being let down; it was regarded as axiomatic that tanks would not be where they were wanted on time."

So ended "Second Ruweisat", which Auchinleck had code-named Operation Splendour. The Eighth Army Commander had no doubt who was responsible for its failure. In a report to Brooke on 25 July, he would complain that: "The 23rd Armoured Brigade, though gallant enough, lost control and missed direction. The infantry too, seem to have made some avoidable mistakes. Perhaps I asked too much of them."

Others took a different view. "My opinion" declares Kippenberger, "was that we would never get anywhere until the armour was placed under command of infantry brigadiers and advanced on the same axis as the infantry. We fought one more unsuccessful battle on the old lines and then the principle for which I argued was adopted."

Auchinleck's fifth offensive, the Battle of the Miteirya Ridge began at midnight on 26-27 July, and unbelievably it repeated all the errors made in the two previous disasters.

Excerpt from Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War

This passage describes the battle from the perspective of Denis' 24 Battalion.

Disaster hung like a storm cloud over the Eighth Army as the black month of June 1942 drew to a close. The battle of Gazala had been fought and lost, leaving no choice but retreat. Tobruk's hastily improvised garrison was overwhelmed, and the enemy, having crossed the frontiers of Egypt, advanced swiftly along the coastal railway.

6 Brigade, hitherto held in reserve, was ordered to man the fortress of Bab el Qattara, central strongpoint of the Alamein Line. Starting at midnight, 24 Battalion moved out across the desert and arrived at midday on 28 June at the fortress familiarly known as the Kaponga Box, situated on a small rock plateau that rose 30 feet above the flat surrounding desert. This was no great height, but it sufficed in a land of level open spaces to give observation over a great distance in every direction, and from outside no one could see within the fortress except through two small gaps. The defences were incomplete; water was stored in good supply, but there was no reserve of food. Apart from weapons brought in by the infantry, there were neither guns and ammunition nor mines. The enemy was not expected to arrive in any force before the morning of 30 June, though reconnaissance parties might well appear much earlier. Meanwhile remnants of the Eighth Army flowed past Kaponga Box. 'The next 36 hours', wrote Brigadier Clifton in his diary, 'went like a snowball in Hades with a crazy mixture of hard work, extraordinary visitors, unanswerable problems, and, very far from least, amazing rumours, mostly left by the thickening stream of stragglers who rushed up in a cloud of dust, told their horrid news, grabbed a meal and a drink, then expressed regrets that urgent business took them further towards Alex.'

A Crusader tank passing 24 Battalion positions at Alamein.

A Crusader tank passing 24 Battalion positions at Alamein.

The 24th Battalion was made responsible for the northern side of the fortress, while the 25th and 26th faced west and south. At the end of June 28 (Maori) Battalion arrived to take over the remaining eastern sector, by which time 6 Field Regiment and 33 Anti-Tank Battery were in position supporting the infantry.

In the afternoon of 2 July the battalion's carriers and anti-tank guns went out to destroy two apparently deserted vehicles three miles away to the north. No sooner had the anti-tank guns opened fire, however, than enemy troops promptly emerged with page 59
Ei Mreir, plan of attack and dispositions on 21 July 1942.

Ei Mreir, plan of attack and dispositions on 21 July 1942.

their hands up; and a little later an enemy mortar section found sheltering in a shallow wadi was also taken prisoner. The bag was so unexpectedly large that there was some difficulty in transporting the prisoners home.

6 Brigade moved out of Kaponga Box on 3 July to Qaret el Himeimat, some twelve miles to the south-east. Two days later the 6th moved back again to Kaponga Box. There it remained from 5 to 8 July, and then, having received orders to leave the battle area for Amiriya, it moved out on the first stage to its former position at El Himeimat, trekked eighty miles next day over heavy going in desert country to camp where the track led south from Burg el Arab, and finally arrived at Amiriya on 10 July.

After a week at Amiriya the battalion was sent off at short notice to that same part of the line it had so recently left, 6 Brigade relieving 4 Brigade, which had been overrun and badly mauled at Ruweisat Ridge on 15 July. The Aucklanders harboured in the desert east of El Qattara on the night of 16 July and moved forward next day to positions in the line, five miles south-east of a long, shallow tongue of sunken ground, stretching east and west, known as the El Mreir Depression. While 24 Battalion occupied one of the hollows or depressions with which this part of the desert is studded, the 26th held a similar position two miles farther north; and the 25th, which had left Amiriya a day later, came to Alam Nayil, some way in rear of the rest of 6 Brigade, and sent its anti-tank guns and a section of carriers to sit on 24 Battalion's left flank. The brigade was now concentrated, facing north-west.

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Viewing events in perspective, one can scarcely avoid the conclusion that certain operations undertaken at this period of the campaign were ill conceived and ineptly planned. Of such a description at least was the attempt now contemplated in which 6 Brigade was to capture the eastern tongue of the El Mreir Depression as a preliminary to further advance and exploitation westward by 1 Armoured Division. At the first battle at Ruweisat Ridge a week previously it had been amply, disastrously, demonstrated that infantry, on first gaining an objective, are peculiarly vulnerable to counter-attack unless immediately supported by their own tanks-more especially so after a night advance when dawn should find them in strange surroundings, imperfectly reconnoitred, with guns not yet sited.

The only valid precaution was armoured support timed to arrive without fail at the critical moment; lacking which no infantry on earth could be expected to withstand the shock of a Panzer assault. A lesson had been given at 4 Brigade's expense. Was not one lesson enough?

The Plan:
Night of 21 July attack on El Mreir Depression.

Phase 1 of the operation was the capture by infantry of the eastern tongue of El Mreir, after which 23 Armoured Brigade would carry out Phase 2 by advancing westward along the northern lip of the Depression. The 24th had been allotted a lion's share of work. Its objective was farther to the west and more exposed. It was farthest away, 3 and a half miles, and before it could be reached a succession of enemy strongpoints would have to be overcome.

The light was beginning to fade, but all movement was still clearly visible from the enemy lines as 24 Battalion began at 8 p.m. to trickle forward by sections to the forming-up point, some 2000 yards in advance of the defence lines, in one of the many shallow depressions. There was no longer any possibility of surprise, for the intention had been made plainly evident; enemy shell and machine-gun fire opened up while the men waiting for zero hour scratched out shelters as best they might. D Company (Major Beyer) was on the right and B (Captain Conolly) on the left, while C (Captain Beesley) was in rear of B.

In this order the battalion moved forward in extended formation at the same moment that our artillery concentration came down in front of the enemy's minefield at 8.30 p.m. Behind Beesley's company came the machine guns mounted on carriers. Sections of the newly-formed antitank platoon followed the carriers, while behind them again came 32 Anti-Tank Battery's six-pounders.

In what was still only semi-darkness, tracer bullets rained fiery streaks through the advancing waves of men, though casualties at this stage were almost miraculously few. First resistance came a thousand yards forward, close around two isolated cairns where the bombardment had first come down, but it did not long survive the Aucklanders' charge. El Mreir Depression was masked by a minefield running from north-east to south-west, which the advancing troops encountered when they had covered a third of the distance to their final objective. The infantry crossed without difficulty but ran into machine-gun posts on the other side. While dealing with one of these Captain Connolly was wounded, but managed to go forward with his company for another thousand yards. Raking fire came from the left, for 25 Battalion was not yet up and, since the attack was being delivered diagonally across the enemy's front, this flank was exposed. The adjacent Deir Umm Khawabir had been held by Italians, but the troops now encountered were Germans of 382 Regiment, lately flown from Crete, who fought with the stubbornness to be expected from men of their race. All the way from the minefield to El Mreir were isolated strongpoints, echeloned in depth, each requiring to be captured in turn.

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British Valentine tank that could have saved 24 Battalion.

British Valentine tank that could have saved 24 Battalion.

Assault followed assault, made with the bayonet and led either by one of the company officers or Colonel Greville himself. Over a hundred Germans were killed during this advance, but the losses were not all on one side. Captain Beesley was killed and Major Beyer badly wounded before Greville, with his adjutant and no more than 15 men, arrived at 2 a.m. on the final objective.

About sixty more men came in during the next hour, and the battalion's fighting transport, having passed through a gap in the minefield cleared by engineers, arrived in the Depression at half past two. Thus, of the three companies that had left the start line well up to strength, there remained 70 or 80 riflemen, supported by four six-pounder anti-tank guns, seven two pounders, ten Bren carriers, two machine guns on carriers, and four mortars. A counter-attack by Panzers at dawn or soon after was something more than a possibility. What hope had this small force of survival if by any chance 2 Armoured Brigade should fail to come to its aid at the time of utmost need!

Meanwhile Colonel Greville disposed the survivors of 24 Battalion for defence. From the south, whence the advance had come, the land sloped gradually down into the lowest part of the Depression, from the floor of which a low cliff, some 15 feet high, rose sharply, extending some way both east and west. Each company had been allotted a special position to occupy and consolidate, but companies could scarcely be said to exist any longer; forming up for all-round defence, the survivors scraped out shallow slit trenches in the sand, with the cliff lying 300 or 400 yards to their north. It was too dark to site the anti-tank guns.

By this time Greville had got in touch with Brigade Headquarters. Brigadier Clifton arrived in the El Mreir Depression at 3.30 a.m., bringing a few more six-pounders and machine guns to reinforce the defence. The situation was now fairly clear. Between 24 and 26 Battalions lay a gap of 1000 yards which somehow would have to be cleared before dawn-an undertaking obviously beyond the capacity of the sorely depleted 24th. Contact was now established with the 25th, which had reached its objective on the left but was unable to dig in because of hard rock. Clifton ordered this unit forward into the Depression, calculating that it would take an hour to get there. Attached to his headquarters were two liaison officers of 1 Armoured Division, one of them from 6 Royal Tank Regiment of 2 Armoured page 62Brigade, specially detailed for immediate counter-attack. The Brigadier now ordered this officer to call his unit, report the New Zealanders' perilous situation, and request immediate support. The officer did so, with Clifton standing beside his tank. He afterwards assured the Brigadier that the message had been received, though subsequently no record of it could be traced.

The brigade officers desperately tried to ensure that the Armoured Brigades were in position to provide cover before dawn. While requests and assurances were being exchanged between the higher commands, 24 Battalion, battered, exhausted, depleted, lay in a sandy hollow presenting scarcely any natural features likely to aid in its defence. All unknown to the New Zealanders, a Panzer division was harboured a few hundred yards away, behind the low cliff in front. The moon had gone down and it was too dark either to site the guns or reconnoitre the position. For the necessary defensive preparation an hour of daylight was needed.

Would so long a respite be granted? The answer was not long coming.

At five o'clock a carrier charged across the hollow and a voice shouted the alarm - 'Stand to! Tanks! Lots of the Bastards!' It was true enough. The Panzers had come to life and were rolling forward to the cliff's edge, where they stopped and let fly into the Depression. Shooting blind at first, they chanced to hit and set on fire a six-pounder portée, which flared up and illumined the whole scene. Then they saw the liaison officers' tanks, 'and the red hot solid shot tore through them with thuds like hammer on anvil. A modern version of the Wild West attack on a caravan - flaming trucks, tracer bouncing - men dying - ammo blowing up…. Some of our anti-tank guns fired back at the flashes on the skyline, only to be deluged with heavy machine-gun fire and knocked out. Their shields couldn't take it.' The hollow was crowded with troops caught unprepared.

Unable to hit back for the moment, the New Zealanders knew that a chance might come as the attack developed further. In this expectation Colonel Greville was calling to his men to keep down and wait for the infantry, when he was shot through the head and killed instantly. The German tanks stayed firing from the cliff top for some time before coming on. The bank could be descended only in certain places, and the Germans had evidently mistaken the liaison officers' tanks for an armoured force. Indeed it was a natural conclusion on their part that no infantry would be placed designedly in so suicidal a position without armoured support. But the climax was not long delayed. Daylight had come; the anti-tank guns were all silenced and the infantry cut to pieces by gunfire at close range, when the Panzers poured over the bank and rolled forward. Passing straight on, they took little notice of the infantry at first, being still convinced that they had an armoured force to deal with. Some of our men contrived to escape in vehicles, while others not so fortunate made off on foot, but in broad daylight with two miles of rising ground to cover they had little chance of reaching safety. Lorried infantry followed the German armour, and so ended this disastrous fiasco.

Meanwhile the Commander of 2 NZ Division was explaining to the Commander of 1 Armoured Division that supporting tanks had not appeared on the edge of El Mreir Depression at daylight-to which the latter replied that he had not been asked for support through the correct channels.

Including killed, wounded, missing and prisoners of war, 24 Battalion's casualties added up to 280 - a huge total when the fact is taken in consideration that only three companies, consisting of 440 officers and men, made the attack, and that a number of men belonging to the non-fighting transport had remained in rear.

Casualties were:

Officers Other Ranks
Killed 4 42
Died of wounds 7
Wounded 3 54
Prisoners of war 13 157
Total 20 260

Denis was one of the 157 'other ranks' of 24 Battalion taken prisoner at the Second Battle of Ruweisat Ridge when his Battalion in the El Mreir Depression was stranded without British armour support and overrun by German Panzers on the morning of 22 July 1942.

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Denis' war medals, left to right: 1939-45, Africa Star, Defence Medal, 1939-45 Medal, New Zealand Medal.

Denis' war medals, left to right: 1939-45, Africa Star, Defence Medal, 1939-45 Medal, New Zealand Medal.

Excerpt from Official History of New Zealand in the second World War

The vast majority of 2 NZEF casualties in this period were lost in actions on the Alamein Line in July 1942.

The first of these was an attack on the western end of Ruweisat Ridge by 4 and 5 Brigades, which found themselves on the morning of 15 July in possession of their objective but, as our own tanks did not come up, completely at the mercy of the enemy armour: 22 Battalion was overrun almost immediately, and so by evening were 19 and 20 Battalions. The incidents of capture were a recapitulation of Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh. An infantryman's diary tells the story:

"The tanks having knocked out our guns, came rumbling and clanking towards us with nothing to stop them. Their machine guns were going all the time at anyone they saw moving, while behind them were German infantry and more tanks. We could do nothing, but kept hoping that some of our own tanks would turn up to the rescue; alas we were alone in the desert. A big Mark IV was only about seventy yards off me by this time … I only had a rifle and had seen two pounder shells bouncing off the tanks …."

As on previous occasions no one had visualised being captured, least of all after a successful attack. It came as a shock to see our men with their hands up, and one man puts it, 'I think we all felt rather silly and self-conscious'.

A week later almost the same thing happened to the infantry of 6 Brigade. In a night attack they captured the eastern portion of the El Mreir depression, only to be sacrificed to enemy armour in the morning; Brigade Headquarters, 24, 25, and 26 Battalions suffered heavily. Some 1700 New Zealanders were taken prisoner in these two engagements-a sad and undeserved fate for troops who had played a notable part in the defence of Egypt and had faithfully carried out their orders.

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1970's article from the New Zealand POW Magazine.

1970's article from the New Zealand POW Magazine.

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