11. The Stand at Alamein
11. The Stand at Alamein
There was no sign of the enemy all the next day. Whether we had hit him so hard that he had to stop to reorganize, as some still think, or whether he had maintenance and supply difficulties, I do not know. Certainly the pursuit was vigorous as far as Fuka where the road was cut. In any case we were left in peace all the 29th, and next morning we moved to positions east of the Kaponga Box. We were in thoroughly good fighting order again.
We were told that Eighth Army would stand and fight on the Alamein line, which ran from the sea to where the Taqa plateau overlooked the impassable Qattara depression, a distance of only twenty miles. There was no fear of being outflanked. We heard that 1 South African Division under Dan Pienaar was holding the Alamein Box in the north and that an Indian brigade was in the Deir el Shein Box with 50 Division Group in a near position. Then came 2 N.Z. Division and south of us on the Taqa plateau was another Indian brigade. The armour was in support and the leading Australian brigade from Syria had arrived at Amiriya. In addition there were a number of ‘Jock’ columns, at this time called ‘Monthly’ columns, between us and the plateau. We made contact with ‘June’, ‘July’, and ‘August’. They were each composed of a battery of twenty-five-pounders and a company of motorized infantry and, acting independently as they usually did, had little fighting and no stopping value whatever. Nor could we ever find out where they were, which would have been annoying if they had been serious fighting troops. The whole position looked weak but it was reasonable to suppose that the enemy was getting weary and he was certainly at the end of a terrific line of supply.
I sent Alan McPhail to visit the Brigade Group on the page 139 Taqa plateau. He returned to say that they had no water, guns, or orders and did not mean to stay much longer.
Division called me very early on the 29th and said that Inglis had disappeared and I was to come up and take command. I handed over to Sam Allen and went at once. Gentry and I talked things over. He had no idea where Inglis had gone and I decided to see ‘Strafer’ Gott, the Corps Commander, who was near.
General Gott was in his Armoured Command Vehicle (A.C.V.), the first I had seen. He came out at once and walked a few yards clear of it. ‘Inglis has gone to Cairo’, he said, and handed me a letter. It was a short note from General Corbett, then General Auchinleck's M.G.G.S. I remember very clearly the opening sentence: ‘The Chief has decided to save Eighth Army.’ The note then went on to say that the South Africans would retire through Alexandria and the rest of us down the desert road through Cairo.
I asked what was meant by the first sentence. ‘It means what it says—he means to save the Field Army,’ the General said. He went on to explain: a general retirement and evacuation of Egypt was in contemplation and Inglis had gone to Cairo to arrange for the evacuation of 2 N.Z.E.F. rear installations and hospitals; he supposed we would go back to New Zealand. I protested that we were perfectly fit to fight and that it was criminal to give up Egypt to 25,000 German troops and a hundred tanks (disregarding the Italians)—the latest Intelligence estimate—and to lose as helpless prisoners perhaps 200,000 Base troops. Strafer replied sadly that N.Z. Division was battle-worthy but very few other people were and he feared the worst.
I returned to Division and told Gentry of this unpleasant conversation. We said nothing to anyone else and were both sorely perplexed and depressed. In the evening a provisional order for our retirement arrived from 13 Corps. It certainly envisaged the abandonment of Egypt.
Inglis returned on the afternoon of the 30th, nothing else of importance having occurred in his absence, and I returned to 5 Brigade. He drew a vivid picture of the confusion he had seen on the Cairo road and of the prodigious ‘flap’ in page 140 Cairo itself. This was the time of the famous Ash Wednesday when Middle East and B.T.E.11 were said to have burned many of their records and the Navy left Alexandria in haste. Paddy Costello, later one of our best divisional intelligence officers, was always very upset that the elaborate draft he had prepared for a handbook on the Italian Army was destroyed at this time. We heard all sorts of peculiar and perhaps libellous stories, such as the one that all the reserve store of binoculars had been thrown into Alexandria Harbour, but despite General Gott's warning I do not remember that we were particularly depressed. We thought it too bad to be true.
On 13 July I issued to 5 Brigade Group a summary of the operations of the Division from 26 June onwards. There were ninety copies, it was to be read to all platoons and equivalent sub-units and returned to Brigade Headquarters by midnight on 15 July. As in the meantime we took part in the disastrous attack on Ruweisat Ridge it is probable that few copies were so returned. The composition of the Brigade Group, typical then and for the rest of the African campaigns, is shown by the Distribution List. It was:
21 N.Z. Battalion.
22 N.Z. Battalion.
23 N.Z. Battalion.
6 N.Z. Field Regiment—24 twenty-five-pounders.
33 N.Z. Anti-Tank Battery—16 six-pounders.
43 N.Z. Anti-Aircraft Battery—16 Bofors.
7 N.Z. Field Company.
4 N.Z. M.G. Company.
5 N.Z. Field Ambulance.
The opening paragraph read:
This short survey of the operations to date of 2nd New Zealand Division in the present battle is prepared for the information of all ranks in and attached to 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade. It is not complete and many factors and circumstances are not known to the Brigade Commander.page 141
It gives an account of this period better than anything I could write after this lapse of time. After dealing with Minqar Qaim and the break-out the summary continues:
June 30th. 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade held Kaponga Box while 4th and 5th Brigades moved to positions east of it. The main enemy advance appeared to be directed along the south of the coastal road.
July 1st. During the day the enemy attacked the Box at Deir El Shein between us and the South Africans at Alamein and stormed it after several hours' fighting. The situation on this day was extremely grave and a further deep retirement seemed inevitable.
July 2nd. However, it was decided to fight on and gun columns were organized by both Brigades and engaged the enemy to the North. In the evening our tanks attacked and though unable to gain decisive success, inflicted loss and reduced the German tanks to 20 or 30 effectives (plus 100 odd Italians).
How important this tank counter-attack really was I do not know but it certainly appeared to check the enemy drive in the centre. At one time in the afternoon we were hopeful of great things, but Corps did not bring us into the battle and the affair ended in noisy but more or less harmless long-range interchanges between the opposing tanks. I went out to watch and was distressed to find several very slightly damaged Crusader tanks making no attempt to get back into the battle. One officer asked me if he should and was disappointed by my emphatic reply.
July 3rd. 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade had an outstanding success when 19th and 20th New Zealand Battalions with 4th and 5th New Zealand Field Regiments working in two columns and with the timely aid of our tanks pushed off the artillery of Ariete Division on and north of Alam Nayil, took 350 prisoners and destroyed 44 guns. Ariete had to be withdrawn. 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade moved quickly west of the Box and struck for the enemy flank at El Mreir. Though it was unable to get on to the whole objective, it would appear that the two operations were decisive in forcing the enemy to abandon his projected attack on the South Africans and re-group his forces.
These were two well-conceived operations and that of page 142 4 Brigade and the two field regiments, controlled by Steve Weir, the C.R.A., was brilliantly executed and most successful. Ariete, the Italian Armoured Division, was crippled by the loss of its guns and never again played any very important part. The enemy was attacked while advancing north of and past the divisional positions with the apparent intention of exploiting the serious gap made by the loss of Deir el Shein and the retirement of our armour after the fighting on the previous day.
I was with the Twentieth watching Steve's attack develop when I was recalled and given verbal orders to move west and south of the Kaponga Box, wheel northwards and seize the El Mreir depression, three miles north of the box and in rear of the enemy advance. The depression was thought to be unoccupied. In this curious country the occasional depressions, fifty feet deep and more and steep-sided, were tactical features nearly as important as the low ridges which gave the only possible observation. Once ensconced in one troops were very hard to hit or turn out.
We had to move round the box on a single track some seven miles, a distance which barely gave space to get the whole group moving at once. Some carriers led as an advance guard, followed by Brigade Headquarters, the Twenty-first and Twenty-second, the guns, and then the Twenty-third. Progress was slow and erratic owing to patches of heavy sand. About four in the afternoon the head of the column turned right and all filed down the northern side of a ridge three miles south of the depression with open desert and good going ahead. The carriers were nearly two miles ahead and there was no sign of opposition. The guns were miles and hours behind and I decided to go ahead without waiting. The two battalions filed down the track and deployed abreast into desert formation on a mile front. Sam Allen and John Russell stopped with me on the ridge and Brigade Headquarters was set up immediately south of it. We were in plain view from the hummocks that marked the southern edge of the depression but the deployment was completed without interference. About six I told Sam and John to go ahead, one on either side of the track that ran through El page 143 Mreir, with corresponding objectives just beyond the northern lip.
The battalions, the Twenty-first on the right, advanced at a steady pace for half the distance; and then suddenly there were four shell-bursts fairly among the Twenty-second, followed by salvoes from at least twenty guns. The battalions carried on with shells raining down. No trucks seemed to be hit though the fire was really heavy. Both battalions stopped short of the edge of the depression; we could see the infantry scrambling out and advancing and then in the gathering dusk could see no more. I ordered Walter to deploy his guns well forward on the plain, and the Twenty-third, now under Carl Watson, to take up positions covering them with special care for our open left flank, and I then went forward.
It took me some time to find John Russell. The Twenty-second had reached the southern edge of the depression without much loss but the northern edge was strongly held. John had judged it impossible to get on without a set-piece operation and was digging in. He was being heavily shelled and had his headquarters in a very unpleasant place. The Twenty-first had got two companies across and these were clinging on under the northern lip. It was impossible to reinforce them or push on because of heavy machine-gun fire sweeping down the depression from its eastern end. Casualties were not heavy, about thirty in all, but Ron Adams, a very good officer in the Twenty-first, had been killed.
While crawling back in the dark against the stream of troops and guns still coming into position, I decided reluctantly that it was unwise to make a night attack in strange ground with so little time for preparation, and that I would maintain pressure with the two battalions in and look for a flank with the Twenty-third next night.
July 4th. During the day 21st New Zealand Battalion struggled to get across the depression in its front but it met severe opposition from M.G.s difficult to locate and the companies across were unable to get really well established. They were later withdrawn under a smoke screen.
At 2130 hours 23rd New Zealand Battalion with heavy page 144 artillery support attacked across the front of 22nd New Zealand Battalion from West to East. Unfortunately, the enemy were not on the ground mostly shelled and attacked and less damage was inflicted than was hoped. The enemy, Pavia Div., shelled very heavily but our own total loss was only 17 and that of the enemy about 100.
22nd New Zealand Battalion had a very uncomfortable day and stood a lot of shelling but had small loss.
The gunners had good targets and were engaging them most of the day.
This was a most disappointing day for me. I went up to the Twenty-first early, crawled to the edge of the depression, and formed the opinion that though not comfortable the position could and should be held. I gave Sam authority to call on the guns direct, an unwise thing to do when there were reasonable communications and other units concerned, and went on to the Twenty-third to prepare a plot for its night affair. When I returned to Brigade some hours later I learned that the Twenty-first had called down a smoke screen and withdrawn its forward companies. This had to be accepted with so good and gallant a commander but I was unhappy about it.
The attack by the Twenty-third was even more disappointing. A daring carrier reconnaissance in the morning had discovered that the enemy right flank rested on the northern lip of the depression opposite our own left. I gave verbal orders to the Twenty-third to move by truck well out to the west, cross the depression, wheel right and sweep down the enemy position parallel with our own as far as the well-marked road and then return along the road. 6 Field Regiment was to fire a barrage working from west to east, parallel with our front, starting at 9.30 p.m. It was probably an over-elaborate plan and there was little time for preparation.
In the event the Twenty-third did not use its trucks, and so was late, and for some reason did not cross the depression but moved along the floor of it. Fortunately the Italian defensive fire was mostly too high or was directed on the Twenty-second and the battalion moved under it with slight page 145 casualties. Near the road Peter Norris's company struck and destroyed a big Italian outpost but that was about all the damage done.
I went up with John Russell to the Twenty-second forward post by the road. When our artillery opened Italian defensive fire came down on us and we had a highly unpleasant time for half an hour. I went on to the road and met the troops coming in, a good many rather rattled, but Peter Norris's company in perfect order. Peter was a gallant little officer whom I well remembered from parties and dances in pre-war days, and he was one of those fortunate few with the knack of always doing the right thing on a battlefield.
On the way back we ran into a slit trench and crushed a man lying in it. Ross and I, both rather shaken, got him into the car with difficulty, and left him at a Field Ambulance. Long afterwards we were sad to hear that he had died. We took two prisoners only in this affair, but they gave us the important identification of the newly arrived Pavia Division which had come down in great haste from the coastal sector. It was some satisfaction that our move had produced a violent reaction and so must have affected the enemy plan.
During the day the Stukas were active and Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group had some nasty bombing raids. The Brigade B. Echelon transport was also severely bombed.
July 5th. This was another day of shelling and 5th Brigade Headquarters and B. Echelon were severely bombed and strafed with some thirty casualties.
During the day it became evident that the enemy were in their turn reaching round our western flank and 4th Brigade came into position SW. of 5th Brigade. It was bombed en route and Col. J. R. Gray of 18th Battalion was killed and there were some thirty other casualties.
During the morning there were constant reports of enemy M.T. movements on our open western flank and some of infantry debussing there. One alarming message spoke page 146 of a line of infantry nine miles long! When this was checked it proved to be ‘nine miles away’.
4 Brigade, now under John Gray, who was senior to Jim Burrows, moved round behind us and came into position on the ridge echelonned behind our left flank. On the way it was attacked by some thirty Stukas. I saw the attack while with the Twenty-first and shortly afterwards Monty rang and said that he had heard that John Gray had been killed. I refused to believe it and told him to check up. Shortly afterwards he rang again: it was true enough, worse in fact than the first report—Brian Bassett had been killed with John, and Dick Chesterman and Mike Maloney as well, both of whom had been on my headquarters before going to the Maoris. Jim Burrows had resumed command. It was a sad blow. Sam Allen, for whom time was also running short, sat quietly for a while and then said: ‘It's a good death.’
We had our turn about midday. I returned from a round of the battalions and was angry to see a dozen trucks clustered round the command truck, a carelessness to which our numerous visitors were always prone unless carefully controlled. I spoke sharply and they dispersed. It was stiflingly hot and I lay down for a short rest in the shade of some waterproof sheets that Joe had rigged from the bonnet of the car. There were enemy planes about but none appeared dangerous to us. Suddenly there was the terrifying scream of planes diving directly on us out of the sun and almost simultaneously the howl of their bombs and the racketing thunder of their guns. I rolled two yards in an instant and fell into a slit trench on top of Ross. Simultaneously we heard glass and wood splintering as the car got a direct burst and then the roar of exploding bombs. It was all over in a few seconds. I got up, apologized inanely to Ross, and we surveyed the damage. It was not very much, the car windshield and the waterproofs were riddled and the clothes in the back were burning but the engine was undamaged; The command truck was damaged and an L.O. was slightly wounded; but thanks to the dispersal and good luck no other harm was done.page 147
July 6th. Small patrols from 22nd and 23rd New Zealand Battalions did good work in the evening and killed a number of Italians but took no prisoners.
This was a really quiet day and to fill in time I noted in my Field Service Message Book every slight event as it occurred. The day's notes give an idea of a quiet day at that period.
0650. Woke after peaceful night and instantly remembered that John Gray, Brian Bassett, and Dick Chesterman had been killed yesterday. All good friends and true soldiers. Joe brought a cup of tea. Slept on valise on ground by car.
0700. Tank fire in NE. surprisingly close. Went on to ridge but could see nothing in morning haze. No reports from Battalions. Our guns shooting quietly, harassing fire.
0730. Finished shaving and dressed in clean shirt and shorts. Joe remarked that one didn't often see Wogs on a battlefield. One has just gone to command truck.
0800. Walked 500 yards across wadi to breakfast. Found Wog was Major Danvers of Indian Cavalry, escaped and walked in from Daba. Fed him and then took him to my car, gave him water to wash and a clean shirt and shorts. Very flea-bitten. McPhail got his story and some information and Good took him on to Division.
0900. 5th Brigade guns shooting steadily. Little return fire. 4th Brigade guns to SW. shooting occasionally. Tank fight, not big, going on spasmodically to NE.
Am sitting in command truck, tidied up after yesterday. McPhail slowly posting up information on map. Have to get used to his deliberate ways. Fairbrother calling up units in turn, all had a quiet night.
0905. Have just told Monty to call on Battalions for strengths, personnel, carriers, and mortars.
0909. A stuttering officer from B. Coy. 25th in the Box arrives, very surprised and relieved to find us here. Wants ‘some dope from the platoon point of view as to which is which of the bangs we can hear’. Monty is trying to explain.
Shelling is still going on. Breakfast was tinned sausages, onions, and tea. Bit hard but held on to it and am fitter than at start of battle.
0924. Arrived at O.P. Sharp tank fire to NE. at intervals.
Medium guns in fortress shelling targets 15,000 yards to NW.page 148
My guns various targets to N. Day getting hotter and thick haze. Am running with sweat already but flies not so bad here.
0931. Firing to NE. renewed but not so intense. From O.P. on cliff can see NE. and W. round 180°. Stony desert. Horizon in haze … two miles ahead 5th Brigade vehicles sitting quietly. Occasional gun-flashes and white explosion splashes of shells.
0936. Off go the tanks again, hard. Area ahead of 21st Battalion being shelled. Must be our O.P.s or carriers. Now lifting on to right of 21st, four guns.
0940. Shelling increasing and now over 21st on open ground. One dud.
0942. Salvo of three, five hundred yards ahead.
0944. Salvo of four, three hundred yards ahead. All from North in open ground.
0946. Enemy shelling stopped. Mediums now shooting to NE. Visibility improving and several groups of enemy MT visible at various points in distance.
1000. Sudden heavy shelling of 21st from NE. Our guns replying.
1005. Stopped on us. Still heavy to NE. Six Kittyhawks passing.
1009. Kittyhawks strafing about six miles to NW. Heavy enemy AA. Started fourth pipe.
1030. All quiet. Matches finished. Returning to command truck.
Returned to command truck. Maoris and 20th coming up on our left later. Dick Chesterman jumped out of his truck right into a bomb burst yesterday. McPhail still pottering with his maps and Monty getting sarcastic.
1050. 23rd rang to say their carriers were being shelled by our guns. Monty rings 4th Brigade, the culprits, and tells them to stop.
1051. McPhail says ‘It's hot’.
1059. McPhail says ‘We've been fooled the greater part of our lives.’ No answers.
1100. Dasler says 50 Div. has one Brigade only. All just sitting flicking at flies. McPhail still playing with maps.
1101. 22nd report one three-ton truck destroyed in shelling last night.
1109. 6th Pipe. Matches pure phosphorus.
1115. Have three mouthfuls of tea and sweat it out at once. Discussions on shortage of talc.page 149
1120. Warned for conference at Divisional Headquarters at 1200.
1125. Arty L.O. arrives and he and McPhail discussing location of O.P.s.
1240. Back from Conference. Present—Inglis, Burrows, Hansen (C.R.E.), Weir, Clifton, Agar (Div.Sigs.), Gentry, myself. Inglis showed situation map and Corps plan to break through opposite our left. Doesn't look real. Role today, harass and make ground if possible.
Jim told me ill news that my nice little cousin Derek Paterson was killed by the same bomb that got Gray and Bassett. He had a very near shave himself.
1242. 22nd report cases of heat-stroke and exhaustion.
Monty and I in truck with many flies. Others gone to lunch, ours coming over.
1246. Officer of XIII Corps called asking way to Division. Nine Bostons going east.
1315. Had lunch. Salmon, tinned potatoes, and peaches. Twenty fighters strafing enemy on our front. Jim Watt called to enquire position.
1325. Hotter than ever. Not a sound. Many flies which I'm tackling with swatter.
1330. Eighth pipe.
1340. Everyone back from lunch. Discussion on prospects and reason for absence of air attacks today.
1420. Albert Cooper (4th M.G. Coy.) called. Says he should change his clothes, has to keep upwind of himself.
Staff Captain Dugleby called. Desultory conversation. Told him that he must not tell men they need not shave, on the contrary.
9th pipe. Hotter than ever.
1425. A little shelling. Can hear planes. Everyone looking for them. Have dropped four bombs on our guns.
1435. Have returned to ground sheet shelter to change into lighter footgear.
1450. Clouding over and a lot cooler. Going to visit battalions.
1730. Returned. Men dusty and thirsty but in good heart.page 150
Arranged raids with Walter and Russell. 22nd to raid feature at 863280 this evening. One platoon. Silent. Guns standing by to deal with any retaliation.
23rd to reconnoitre crossings over Deir el Qatani during night.
22nd to raid depression about bend in road at 867277 tomorrow similar lines.
Both cloak and dagger affairs, socks over boots, grenades, tommy guns, and bayonets.
1731. Message that 1st Armoured Div. attacking from East this evening and expect to reach 880 grid with exploitation in the morning. 5th and 6th Field Regiments to co-operate. New Zealand Division to exploit success tomorrow. Fanciful.
1745. 5th Field Regiment coming in. Hope they don't stop in our wadi.
1815. Gentry just gone. We have only 45 Grants and 100 tanks in the army. Getting cooler.
4th Brigade may do attack tonight. Talked Bill Gentry out of idea of making it too complicated.
1835. Have had tin of lukewarm beer. 5th and 6th Field Regiments have opened their three-hour bombardment to help 1st Armoured Division. Wind and dust make visibility poor and they are shooting by map. 5th Field hasn't been able to register. Show doesn't look very hopeful. Feel certain tanks won't attack in dark whatever Corps may order.
9th Australian Division has two Brigades up and is in reserve and all its guns up.
1900. Dinner. Bully beef hash, onions, and peaches, also a spot of Curaçao from remnants of our stock.
At O.P. Can see very little so talking to men.
1920–2300. In command truck. No need really but everyone talkative. Annoyed with 21st Adjutant because neither he nor Sam was near their 'phone.
2305. Bed. Almost immediately up to check some drivers. They were halted on ridge above me when there were some near explosions, and they dispersed in a panicky way.
Both raids were successful, except that each left a man missing.
The Twenty-second's party went 1,700 yards and came on about thirty trucks parked close together with about a hundred men standing about. When challenged the party lay flat and made no reply. They worked round behind the page 151 trucks and then charged in line right through the crowd, shooting, bayoneting, and bombing, and straight home. They lost one missing and one wounded and reckoned they hit at least thirty. The Twenty-third's party destroyed a truck and killed four Germans including an officer who would not surrender, and took one wounded German prisoner. They lost one missing and three wounded.
We heard nothing of any particular results from 1 Armoured Division's attack and suspected that it was not very resolutely pushed. This was before the time of the carefully prepared Montgomery battle with everyone thoroughly prepared and schooled for his share and success practically a certainty before the start.
4 Brigade put in its attack that night but found no enemy.
July 7th. 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade moved forward to west of and level with 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade but, in the afternoon, were threatened by a heavy force with tanks still farther to the west and withdrew in one bound to their previous positions. This left 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade's left flank exposed; there were several bickerings with enemy Armoured Cars, a good deal of shelling was sustained, and there was some anxiety. Overnight both Brigades withdrew to east of Kaponga Box and went into positions there, 5th Brigade next to the Box. This was a difficult move, many vehicles getting stuck in the sand and all had a restless night.
The outcome of these manœuvres was therefore that our attempt to outflank Rommel and strike for Daba had failed and the enemy in turn was going for our southern flank.
Despite this, the time gained must have been invaluable. 9th Australian Division got up and the armour has received reinforcements.
It is correct to say there was some anxiety. I was feeling very comfortable with 4 Brigade up on my flank when they made the most sudden movement back I have ever seen. Before long Jim came over to explain, bringing some tinned beer as a peace offering. Division had decided that he was about to be rolled up and ordered him to move back instantly, which is just what he did. The messages reporting the move and its reasons arrived very shortly after it started.
Until sunset I expected that the enemy would attack with page 152 the sun behind him and I made what dispositions I could. The Twenty-first and Twenty-second could not be moved in daylight and were in a delicate position. We were really heavily shelled but the anti-tank guns of the Twenty-third, boldly handled by Herbie Black, kept the armoured cars at a distance and even knocked one out. Without his usual reconnaissance the enemy would not attack and so we reached darkness in safety.
The night move was horrible. Every truck in the Brigade must have stuck in sand several times. It was not until well after daylight that the units were in their new positions and it was a good performance to be in so soon.
July 8th. Once more, everyone settled down to dig positions, the enemy closed up in our front but the day was comparatively quiet.
The night was marked by another night move which put the Division in a sounder position. 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade's front was long and the southern side could only be thinly held by 21st Battalion.
At least, I suppose it was a sounder position. It puzzled me considerably to decide how to hold it and we finished with 1 1/2 battalions facing north, half a battalion west, and one battalion south and other arms correspondingly disposed. The move, in the deep sand of the Deir Alinda, was exceedingly difficult and as usual Brigade Headquarters got lost for a while. Alan McPhail, on whom fell the duty of guiding us, was always careful and reliable and faultlessly gallant, but he had a bad habit. When he became uncertain of the route he would disappear without warning to look for some landmark, a cairn or such like, that only he knew about. An hour later it would become clear that he had got lost himself, the only clear thing in the situation, and Monty and I would go grumblingly and profanely on, according to our own inspirations. We never evolved a better method than this in Alan's time as I.O.
July 9th. Morning spent in digging again. Enemy stormed the box in good style but came no nearer. A patrol from 21st Battalion at night destroyed the crew of an Italian gun.page 153
We understood that Italians carried out the capture of the box. If they did it was a very good show and the fact that there was no opposition hardly detracted from the merit of the performance. I watched with appreciation from one of 22 Battalion's section posts: some air bombing, then a violent artillery concentration on a selected sector, and amid smoke and dust armoured cars, tanks, and trucks advanced rapidly, infantry debussed and ran forward, sappers picked up mines, the infantry assaulted, and all was over. If they were Italians they must have known the place was empty before they took it on. It was all very pretty and I was sorry someone was not there to deal with it properly.
The Twenty-first raid was extremely well planned and executed. Bob Horrocks, later killed on the Sangro, who commanded, was awarded an M.C., but it remains in my memory principally because of Sam Allen's model report. Nothing better could have been produced at any school of instruction. We showed copies to the other battalions and begged them to emulate it.
July 10th. A stormy day for 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade with the enemy closing in on three sides and a great deal of shelling by both parties. In the evening an enemy column pushed swiftly past our southern flank, between us and the Taqa Plateau and just before dark a small attack was checked by 21st Battalion's left company.
The position was again untenable, however, and during the night 5th Brigade leapfrogged through 4th Brigade and once more took up and prepared positions, this time facing north only.
The enemy put in a serious attack on 21st Battalion's empty position, witnessed only by one man who had overslept in a slit trench, and quite spectacular and successful.
This was a thoroughly harassing day. We were constantly warned by Division that we were about to be attacked and, with reports of enemy movement continually coming in from all three sides of the position, I was puzzled which way to look.
By this time the enemy were in possession of the Taqa plateau, which rose sharply three miles to the south. Possibly the waterless Brigade Group that Alan had found in the page 154 vicinity had gone off for a drink; anyway, the plateau had been given up without fighting. Some of our ‘Monthly’ columns were out south of us; they used to come in to our lines at night for a rest and then be very upset because we invariably moved. During the day there was always a certain amount of desultory shelling in the area and we heard of attacks to retake Taqa and more often of intentions to attack.
Apparently the Germans got tired of the situation; for this afternoon a column of armoured cars, guns, and lorries made a sudden, swift advance along the foot of the plateau driving due east. Everyone fired at them but they drove on through the shell-bursts unhurt and in the most gallant style. The ‘Monthly’ column concerned could do nothing but fall back rapidly. My guns were all sited to shoot to the north but some turned round and joined in. Still the column pushed on. I got a platoon of machine-gunners on trucks, ran out with them and opened with all four guns at ‘rapid’ rate at 3,000 yards. We must have got hits but the Germans unlimbered some field guns and before we could knock out the crews they had picked us up, got the range, and started point-blank fire for effect. It was no use staying and we scuttled back to shelter with great celerity. The gunners then shifted on to my headquarters which was rather exposed from the south and when I arrived back the place was fairly sizzling with bursting shells. Everyone kept cool, however, and we moved to shelter behind a nice big sand-hill with no one hurt. Then the Germans thought they had gone far enough, stopped, and settled down. Soon it was dark.
This was a most noisy and spectacular affair, and also quite harmless so far as I could see or hear. The attack on the left company of the 21st was probably nothing more than a patrol.
Still, as the brigade position was now decidedly uncomfortable, during the night we moved again, through 4 Brigade, and went into position facing north. At dawn next morning 21 Battalion's empty position was stormed. The enemy command must have thought us confoundedly elusive. The solitary soldier who had remained there arrived back very page 155 indignant with everyone concerned, his mates who had forgotten him and the enemy for having so violently attacked him, and gave us a vivid account of the transaction.
The night move was as difficult as ever and, as often, Brigade Headquarters got lost and was late settling in; but our drivers were really very good and in this awkward, complicated country the guiding was actually astonishingly accurate. By morning all was forgiven as usual and equally as usual the men were digging away in their correct positions.
1 It was customary to say ‘Middle East’, meaning Middle East Headquarters, and B.T.E., meaning ‘Headquarters, British Troops in Egypt’.