July 11th. By this time our armour was ready for action again and during the morning it swept west across the front of our positions and cleared the Alam Nayil Ridge.
It was hoped to get our infantry on to the Ruweisat Ridge by a night attack. At 1700 hours both brigades moved north in their lorries, debussed, and advanced to the intended assembly position. Heavy artillery fire was encountered and 23rd Battalion had twenty casualties.
Preparations were made for a night attack on the Ridge but cancelled.
In an astonishing way we now ceased entirely to worry about affairs to the south. We faced north and thought only of Ruweisat Ridge eight miles away. Inglis had sent the Divisional Cavalry to help ‘June’, ‘July’, and ‘August’, and we left the matter to them. Ruweisat Ridge, a long, bare, narrow ridge of an average height of 180 feet, ran east and west into the centre of the army position and gave enough command to make it of great tactical importance. Apparently Corps thought we might seize it by something in the nature of a coup de main.
During that morning of 11 July the armour cleared the Alam Nayil Ridge parallel with and seven miles south of Ruweisat and sat there among the Ariete Division's abandoned guns. The plan was a daring one and looked well on paper, or rather on the map, for there were no written orders. It was asking a great deal of the infantry. Two brigades were to move in trucks two and a half miles under fire to an assembly position, easily marked on the map but not so easily located on the ground. Then they were to form up and make a night attack without artillery support on an objective five miles distant. There was no time for co-ordination with the armour, through which we were advancing at right angles to the way it was page 157 looking and thinking. To be sure, until Montgomery's time there was little thought of co-ordination with the armour or little result of whatever thought there was, but there was no time even to attempt it. There was no time to do any proper reconnaissance—or any at all for that matter—to circulate orders, to let the men know what they had to do. I spoke to several company officers during the advance and found that they had not the faintest idea of the intention. There was no time to make proper arrangements for bringing up antitank guns or clearing and marking any minefields we might encounter or ensuring artillery support in the morning. In fact these matters were not very clearly thought about by anybody in those days. The whole operation was typical of Eighth Army's methods and ideas while it was dominated by what I heard one very senior officer describe as ‘the vested interests of the British cavalry’.
We set off in desert formation at 5 p.m., looking very impressive, passed through the tanks who seemed very surprised to see us, and came under heavy artillery fire. Parts of the Twenty-third on my left and the Maoris on Jim's right had lost direction a little and were mixed up and thickly bunched. The fire was heaviest on this target but heavy all along the front, the enemy gunners thoroughly roused and with the target of their lives. Several trucks were hit and there were many casualties but we trundled steadily on for another mile. A mile from the assembly position both brigades halted and debussed. The men shook out into long, extended lines and went forward steadily and unflinchingly. It was an archaic sort of movement but it was beautifully done and a fine thing to watch. We did not have a single gun in action; the enemy gunners, unmolested, switched on to the infantry and fired their fastest; but the men kept their seven paces intervals, never wavered, and trudged on line after line through the spouting bursts. From where I halted, ahead of the transport among some enthusiastic tank officers, I could see the whole of 5 Brigade and most of 4 Brigade. The advance went on steadily, disappeared into the wadi in which we were to assemble for the real attack, and halted.page 158
The anti-tank guns went forward and after a quick visit to the battalions, who were busily digging once more, I returned to my headquarters, now established where the transport had stopped. There I heard with unfeigned relief that the projected attack was cancelled.
Darkness, an unusually dark night, came on before we had all the wounded in. It was quite dark when a stretcher party stopped by the command truck and asked for the Maori R.A.P. We gave the direction of the nearest dressing station. ‘We've got the Colonel here’, one of the bearers said. I went out and found it was Tui Love, the gallant commander of the Maoris, desperately wounded. I spoke to him and thought he recognized me, but he died very soon. 5 Brigade had about forty casualties in this move which could have been made in the dark without loss.
We sent out patrols during the night. They all made contact and reported big parties of Italians thought to be laying mines. Everyone was now very tired, but not yet exhausted, and the hardest times were still ahead.
July 12th. The day was spent on the position reached in this advance, again under heavy shelling at times, mainly on 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade and again the projected night attack was cancelled. Patrols found many indications that the enemy was consolidating solidly on our front.
One of these patrols was an unintentional one by Angus Ross, one of the Brigade L.O.s. He went astray in his jeep somehow and was challenged by four Italians who then approached him incautiously. He shot them all with his revolver in a most efficient fashion and returned very pleased with himself.
During the morning Charlie Mason, 23 Battalion carrier officer, went off alone in his carrier and by evening had not returned. The battalion was very worried about him and searched earnestly all day.
Inglis came up and had a look at the forward positions. He quite properly pointed out that the Twenty-second, which had dug in where it had halted, was very much crowded. This was straightened out and with a somewhat page 159 guilty conscience I spent most of the day going round tinkering with everybody's layout and, no doubt, making a great nuisance of myself.
Our night patrols found big enemy working parties laying mines and shot up some of them. These were British mines lifted from the boxes we had so laboriously prepared at Bagush and the Naghamish Wadi in the previous year. They contained a high percentage of duds and infantry could walk over them with reasonable safety, though it gave one a tender-footed feeling to do so, and occasionally a man was lost.
We had a conference about the projected attack and heard with some scepticism that when we had taken the ridge our tanks would go through and exploit. I do not think anyone then realized how much training and care and forethought are required to get good co-operation between infantry and tanks. We merely cursed one another when it was not achieved. Nor was the problem of command dealt with: the tank brigadiers naturally and emphatically intended to keep their regiments under their own command and to act merely ‘in support’. In the absence of any clear direction from Army they had to be left with their way. We knew there were minefields to be passed but I do not remember any particular plan for clearing and marking gaps: at least there is no mention of the matter in 5 Brigade Orders. Fortunately the Italians had left some gaps on their own initiative and had also gone to the trouble of marking them.
We asked for air photographs but none were available and, though the request was repeated again and again, none were taken. So we knew very little indeed of what was in front of us. There was a disturbing suspicion that one of the Panzer Divisions was south of the ridge; if it was, then there was nothing to be done but go through it and hope that our tanks would be up in time to deal with it. We heard that 4 Indian Division, advancing on a converging bearing, would be on our right, but there was no more liaison with the Indians than with the tanks. The affair was a Corps attack delivered by one armoured and two infantry divisions, but there was no Corps conference for lower than divisional page 160 commanders and none of us had much idea what the other divisions were to do.
Code word for the operation was ‘Bacon’. Gentry rang in the afternoon and said ‘Bacon is off’.
We sent out patrols again that night. Again they reported large working parties and some successful shoots. Ominously, they also reported what they thought were German tank tracks.
Next morning I issued my summary. The final entry ran:
July 13th. Much valuable time has been gained. Our tanks and infantry forces are stronger and better organized than a fortnight ago. N.Z. Division has had 1069 casualties in the seventeen days, 500 in 4th N.Z. Infantry Brigade, 347 in 5th N.Z. Infantry Brigade. It has inflicted many more and has played a vital part in stopping the enemy onrush into Egypt.
This claim still appears to be justified. There was no sign of Charlie Mason during the day and we gave up hope. There was an unpleasant amount of shelling, again mostly on 4 Brigade, who reported a number of casualties. I had a lucky escape, being left untouched by a small shell which burst two yards away. We went ahead with our preparations but again in the afternoon Gentry rang and said ‘Bacon is off’.
The final conference was held at Divisional Headquarters at 10 a.m. on the 14th. The task of 5 Brigade was vividly defined as ‘to attack and capture Ruweisat Ridge from 880278 to excl. pt. 63, 876279’. This entailed an advance of nearly six miles and the seizure of the ridge on a front of 4,000 yards. On our left 4 Brigade was to advance alongside us and take the western portion of the ridge. 5 Indian Brigade was responsible for the balance of the ridge east of our right boundary. Its advance was begun from well out on our right and we saw nothing of it during the night. 1 Armoured Division was to secure the division's left flank in event of an advance from first light on the 15th; but 5 Brigade was warned that it must clear a suspected minefield about Point 63 (on the ridge) to permit exploitation by the armour at first light. As we broke up Inglis repeated this warning to me emphatically. I do not remember that any representative page 161 of the armour or of the Indians was present and was not aware of any arrangement made for liaison with them.
As to the enemy, we knew that their positions were in depth, extending to three miles south of the ridge, that minefields had been or were being prepared, that they had at least thirty-six field-guns south of the ridge, and that there were almost certainly some tanks. We were confident of victory in this battle, in which New Zealand Division performed one of its finest feats of arms and gained a magnificent success, yet which ended in disaster and bitter disappointment.
The Brigade conference was held an hour later. I gave verbal orders which were later confirmed in writing. With about 850 rifles available in the three battalions for the assault I had to take an objective 4,000 yards in length. It was accordingly impossible to sweep all the ground during the advance even though we would approach the ridge from an angle. I decided to drive through on a 1,000 yard front with two battalions, accepting the certainty that pockets of resistance would be left on the flanks of their advance, and to keep one battalion in reserve to deal with difficulties as they occurred. 4 Brigade and the Indians did much the same; we were not in touch on the start-line and the assault was, as a result, made by three separated brigade columns. We sorely missed the companies which had been sent back to Maadi.
Other details given were the start-time, 11 p.m.; the start-line, a line of green lights laid by McPhail on a bearing of 230° from a map-reference point; the axis of advance, 320° from the centre of the start-line; the rate of advance, two miles in the hour; and the location of Brigade Headquarters after capture of the objective, a Point 66, on some rising ground 2,000 yards south of the ridge. The axis of advance was to be marked by lamps placed by the provost section after Brigade Headquarters had passed through; tools and one day's water and rations were to be carried by the men; the password was ‘Speights’ (a popular New Zealand beer); and success signals were laid down, one or two red flares at five-minute intervals. The signals officer produced an intricate signals plan which I could not understand and unwisely accepted.
After the conference, at which there were no questions at all, John Russell came to me in some distress and said that his feet, always troublesome, had cracked up and he could not go into the attack. If John said he could not there was nothing more to be said and he departed to hospital forthwith. Sid Hanton, his senior company commander, took over for the battle.
Preparations went ahead all day but after three cancellations there was a feeling of uncertainty and, when ‘Bacon is on’ came through at 5 p.m., everyone was a little behind time. There was then a terrific scurry, and people were warned in great haste: ‘The show is on.’ I found that the signals arrangements were particularly behindhand. The divisional phone line which was to be tied to a line trailed out by us as we advanced had not arrived and never did arrive. Divisional Signals had been given a rendezvous and had accepted an eight-figure map reference instead of a guide, which does not always do in the desert. Theoretically, no doubt, it was page 164 Division's business to lay to us, so my signals officer had an easy conscience; but I had no communication with Division, except by a No. 9 wireless set carried in a van and quite certain to stick in the first patch of sand.
During the day my signals, on their own initiative, had laid a line to the nearest armoured brigade, which we surmised was the one that would pass through us. I now at the last moment decided to go off and see the Brigadier. It was infuriating to find that some idiot on Division had ordered this line to be taken up and that this had been done without reference to Monty or me. There was no certainty of finding the Brigadier quickly in the gathering dusk without this line to follow and the idea had to be dropped. I should, of course, have gone earlier and perhaps he should have come to see me.
At last light we found that the Twenty-first had ordered all its tools to be loaded in the platoon trucks and my last words with Sam were to order him to cancel this and carry tools on the man.
The anti-tank guns that were to move behind the Twenty-second, thirty-six of them all told, inexcusably failed to find that battalion and in the end most of them joined the transport behind Brigade Headquarters while some got hopelessly lost. This was the most disastrous of all our mishaps.
We made our final preparations, put on clean clothes, filled water bottles, loaded revolvers, wrote short notes home and had a late meal, with the feeling of tension usual just before battle. While the Brigade transport was forming up, Alan McPhail, who was to guide us to the start-line, went off to find his green lights. He got lost. He had asked Monty to flash a torch in five minutes for him to return on, but he mistook gun flashes (our guns were firing a few concentrations) for the torch flicker and he did not find us for many hours.
Odd things always go wrong in the preparations for a battle and the only course is to be patient, correct them as far as possible, and remember them for future reference. More than usual went wrong in the preparations for this unlucky battle.
We waited more or less resignedly for Alan and then moved to the start-line without him. The Twenty-first and page 165 Twenty-third, whom I had wanted to see off, had moved. The Twenty-second was resting, waiting twenty minutes before its time to move. Monty and I walked along the line, always a poignant experience before an assault. The men were quiet, those I spoke to cheerful and resolute. Most were veterans, for the Twenty-second had had much fighting without ever being involved in a disaster. All three battalions had some reinforcements who had arrived during the afternoon.
The battalion stood up, there was a jingle and rustle of equipment, and then it moved silently forward, hearteningly orderly and resolute-looking. We waited ten minutes and then moved, a solid mass of cars, trucks, carriers, portées, wireless vans, at less than walking pace, Monty leading with my car immediately behind him.
Forty minutes after we had started, at ten minutes after midnight, fighting flared up on the Twenty-third front. A moment later it had spread to the Twenty-first, tracer criss-crossing as the Italians fired on their fixed lines, a steady chatter of automatics, crunching of mortars, and, as the infantry closed, the coughing of grenades and sometimes faint, distant yells. The enemy guns opened, apparently not on any set defensive task but spraying the desert with many shells falling close to us. At about the same time we could see the tracer on 4 Brigade front and could hear the noise of its battle opening. From now on until 4 a.m. fighting was continuous but the advance was never checked.
We followed very slowly with frequent halts. Once on the right there was a check and for twenty minutes a dazzling display of fireworks where some group of posts was fighting it out. But the infantry this night were inspired, there was suddenly silence and blackness where the sparks had been flying and the advance went remorselessly on. Post after post collapsed but there seemed to be no end to the resistance. I wondered how long the men's high endurance would last but no call for help came back and the Twenty-second was never called on.
Communications broke down almost at once. The line from Division did not arrive and I understood the signals page 166 officer had gone to find it; at any rate he disappeared. The No. 9 set very early stayed in some sand as expected. Monty had in his car a No. 18 set to the battalions which worked well for a while. We had regular communication with the Twenty-second who said at intervals that fighting was going on ahead, that they were advancing steadily, getting some fire but no fighting. For a while we occasionally got the Twenty-third but before long lost all touch. There was complete contact with the Twenty-first, until to his consternation Monty discovered that the battalion's operator had gone to ground, had lost touch with Battalion Headquarters, didn't know where he was or where to go. He was, in fact, behind us. Monty conducted over the blower a short, sharp (very sharp) lesson on how to find the north star but it was useless. So we heard no more from the forward battalions.
Quite early I went up in a 22 Battalion carrier to the Twenty-second. I found it steadily plodding on in good order, but paying no attention to its job of mopping up. I told Sid Hanton to attend to it. Most of the way Monty and I walked ahead of the headquarters group with a mass of vehicles following us. Once we came on tank tracks. ‘These are fresh,’ Monty said. I thought of Crusoe and the footprint.
Somewhere about 4 o'clock we arrived at what we decided was Point 66 and halted. It was still dark. There were many dead and wounded Italians about, the wounded moaning pitifully but vainly. Monty and I stood for a moment and looked at one dead New Zealander, a mere youngster, lying half curled up and peaceful as a child asleep. Firing had died down. One of the L.O.s said the Twenty-second was halted close ahead. I sent him forward with an order to move forward and consolidate on the ridge, in rear of the leading battalions, who by the absence of fire appeared to have reached their objective, though no message had come back from them. I lay down for perhaps a minute. Then fire broke out again, coming from several directions and passing over our heads. Assuming that it came from posts that had been missed I sent the brigade defence platoon to mop up the nearest, on our right.page 167
Then I decided to go forward to the battalions while headquarters was being set up and these posts disposed of. I travelled in the 22 Battalion carrier and took with me two L.O.s and the troop of six-pounders which had been attached to Brigade Headquarters under Mick Ollivier. Almost at once we came under heavy fire, disconcertingly heavy. I thought that the Twenty-second had not mopped up very cleanly, but the fire was high and with several narrow escapes we pushed on and to my delight soon came on the Twenty-second, halted in close order immediately south of the ridge and exactly where and how I wanted it. This was at 4.40 a.m. with the first streaks of dawn appearing and the light growing each minute.
I told Sid Hanton to get deployed quickly and pointed out to him roughly the areas to hold. I also told him to send a platoon back to deal with the posts that had shot at me and which were now firing towards the rear of the battalion. A hundred yards ahead I found 23 Battalion Headquarters. Carl Watson had gone forward but someone told me that the battalion was on its objective 700 yards to the north. I decided not to wait to look for the Twenty-first from whose direction a long column of prisoners was winding south, but to go back and hurry forward the anti-tank guns which I had expected to find with the Twenty-second. We went back through the Twenty-second which was breaking out from its close formation.
I felt very pleased with the situation, though quite reluctant to pass again through the surprisingly heavy fire that continued south of the ridge. I stopped for an instant to speak to McLernon, I.O. of the Twenty-second. The L.O.s, Ross and Carnachan, sprinted ahead in their jeeps. We followed and within a chain a solid shot screeched overhead in a streak of flame. I poked my head up and to my horror saw in the half-light five tanks, 300 yards away, heading towards us and all shooting hard, spitting flame like dragons. Poor Twenty-second! I told my driver to bear half right and step on it: the only hope was to get out and find our own tanks. ‘O.K. but I can only do twelve miles an hour,’ he said. I sat down low beside him and thought how difficult page 168 the war was getting. Streams of fire passed two feet overhead and every instant I expected the knock-out. After a few yards I looked over the side again and there to the right were three more tanks, a hundred yards away and also firing furiously. We turned left and under a sheet of tracer ran safely through the gap of perhaps 200 yards between the two groups. Too late one of the tank gunners corrected his elevation and the last shot fired at us covered us with a shower of sand. Both L.O.s got through, though Angus's jeep was hit and he had to walk, which must have presented some difficulties.
I stopped a few hundred yards on and looked back. Mick Ollivier's six-pounders were putting up a superb fight from their portées. One tank was blazing, but a dozen more were in action and the six-pounders couldn't last long. I turned and ran on, praying that by some miracle our tanks might be near enough to save the situation. We passed groups of prisoners hurrying back and met Ray Lynch, C.O. of the Eighteenth, looking very worried. He asked me if I had seen the Eighteenth and went on to find it. He succeeded and later died of his wounds as a prisoner. No sign of our tanks. We reached Point 66, which I recognized by the dead New Zealander. No sign of Brigade Headquarters or any of our transport. Almost frantic with helplessness we crawled on, scores of dead and wounded and abandoned weapons now visible. After we had passed through more clumps of prisoners and a battery digging in, a mile from Point 66 we came on Brigade Headquarters.
After my departure our mass of vehicles had come under heavy fire. Monty had stood it as long as possible and then, when he saw that some of the fire was coming from tanks, had very coolly led the whole group back in an orderly fashion to shelter in what we later called Stuka valley. He had just completed telling the bits and pieces of supporting arms where to go when I arrived and he was much relieved when I approved his action.
But it was broad daylight and still nowhere any sign of our tanks. I left my carrier, forgetting to get the name of its plucky driver, got into the car with Ross and McPhail and page 169 set off to find them. Nothing whatever would go right in this battle and the car would only run on three cylinders. We chugged slowly along, through transport and guns moving forward, and reached Divisional Headquarters; or rather, where it had been, as Inglis was there alone. He must have had a frightful night, for communications with both brigades had broken down. He explained that Headquarters had moved forward and, of course, it was no use his following till it was established. So he was having a quiet breakfast. What could I tell him? I thought both brigades were on their objectives but I was being attacked in the rear by tanks. Where was our armour? He was able to give me the direction and we crawled off at a maddening ten miles an hour.
After ages, perhaps twenty minutes, we reached a mass of tanks. In every turret someone was standing gazing through glasses at the smoke rising from Ruweisat Ridge four miles and more away. I found and spoke to a regimental commander, who referred me to his Brigadier. The Brigadier received me coolly. I did my best not to appear agitated, said that I was Commander of 5 New Zealand Infantry Brigade, that we were on Ruweisat Ridge and were being attacked in the rear by tanks when I left an hour before. Would he move up and help? He said he would send a reconnaissance tank. I said there was no time. Would he move his whole brigade?
While he was patiently explaining some difficulty, General Lumsden drove up. I gave him exactly the same information. Without answering he walked round to the back of his car, unfastened a shovel and with it killed a scorpion with several blows. Then he climbed up beside the Brigadier, who was sitting on the turret of his tank. I climbed up beside them and McPhail stood within hearing. The General asked where we were and the Brigadier pointed out the place on the map. ‘But I told you to be there at first light,’ General Lumsden then said, placing his finger on Point 63. I jumped down and did not hear the rest of the conversation but in a few minutes the General got down and in a soothing manner which I resented said that the Brigade would move as soon page 170 as possible. I asked for urgency, which both he and the Brigadier promised, and drove off.
We found on return that several batteries were digging in round Brigade Headquarters and there was a great congestion of vehicles, an ideal bomber target. Accordingly we moved along Stuka valley and established ourselves a mile farther east. No word of any sort had yet come back from the battalions, but the supporting arms had not got through to them and every movement forward of Point 66 came under heavy fire. The battalions were isolated on the ridge, without anti-tank guns or mortars or communications. There was no word of 4 Brigade except that it had sent prisoners back, had been abreast of us throughout the attack, and now was equally isolated. Jim Burrows and some of his staff were in fact forward with his battalions, and his Staff Captain was reorganizing a headquarters.
We spent a dreadful day of uncertainty and helplessness. The tanks arrived before very long, drove off the tanks of 15 Panzer Division without any difficulty, and settled down about a mile behind the rear of 4 Brigade, apparently without any clear idea of what to do next and certainly with no intention of exploitation. Big enemy pockets remained in the valley behind both brigades and every attempt to reach the ridge came under heavy fire. The field regiments got into position but their O.P. officers could not get through. McPhail and Dasler made repeated and most plucky efforts but were shot back each time. There were no infantry left to fight a way through with: even our defence platoon had disappeared. Everywhere there was confusion and uncertainty and a sense of frustration and helplessness that was desperately hard to fight against.
I went forward several times and gradually got a picture of the situation. On the right the Indians were plainly in possession of most of their objective, the eastern end of the ridge, and all was quiet there. Between them and 5 Brigade, near Point 64, there was still a big enemy pocket. There was a little shelling on where I supposed my troops to be, but I was fired on too heavily each time I tried to get through; and there was heavy and continuous shelling on page 171 the left of the 4 Brigade objective. I thought I could distinguish two distinct enemy pockets of resistance in the broad valley between us and the ridge. I wandered round trying to evolve a plan to get through and wondering what could be used for troops. Now I cannot understand why I did not ask for the Twenty-sixth from Divisional reserve but it was not a good day for me and it was probably required to guard our left flank. At intervals I returned to the command truck and asked for news; there never was any, nor had anyone any suggestions. McPhail and Dasler kept trying new ways to get forward and getting stopped by minefields or fire. Inglis came up and remarked that my headquarters were too far back, which was true enough; but there was nowhere else to go.
Early in the afternoon I realized that the pocket about Point 64 had been cleared. Troops were moving about quite freely in the vicinity. Shortly afterwards I watched a British company belonging to 5 Indian Brigade attack one of the pockets in the valley and capture it easily. This made it possible to reach the ridge via the Indian position. Dasler promptly got there with a No. 11 set and from him we got the first confirmation of what we had feared, that the Twenty-second had been caught by the tanks in close order and had nearly all been captured. Carl Watson was also missing and Peter Norris was in command of the Twentythird. Sam Allen had been killed and the Twenty-first appeared to be considerably scattered and not organized as a battalion. At about the same time as Dasler, McPhail led a column of anti-tank guns, machine-guns, mortars, and ammunition trucks on to the ridge by the same route. Reg Romans, second-in-command of the Twenty-third, also went round, took command, and soon reported cheerfully that he could hold his position. Despite the disaster to the Twenty-second the situation looked reasonably good. I felt sure that during the approaching night we would be able to reorganize and consolidate our substantial gains thoroughly. The Brigade had sent 1,300 prisoners back and there were reports of many more. At 5 o'clock there was still no news of 4 Brigade, which was plainly getting a heavy page 172 pounding. I was about to go up in a carrier and find Jim when Division rang with the startling news that 4 Brigade had been overwhelmed.
I spoke to Reg Romans again. He said he had 190 men and several anti-tank guns and was sure he could hold on. The Twenty-first on his left was in bits and pieces, though all hanging on. The ridge was solid rock and it was impossible to dig in properly, anti-tank guns in particular being hopelessly exposed. So despite Reg's brave opinion I changed my mind and when Inglis rang after dark and asked if I could hold my position, I said: ‘No, not now.’ Without argument he told me to withdraw. We did so without molestation and during the night reorganized and consolidated on the low ridge parallel with and 1,200 yards south of Ruweisat. I hope someone told 5 Indian Brigade that we were going.
I was called to a conference at Division at midnight. We sat round a table in a canvas lean-to against the side of the command truck. Inglis, Steve Weir, Bill Gentry, and myself, probably one or two others. We were all very weary. The picture looked nearly as black as possible.
In 4 Brigade, Jim Burrows was dead; this seemed the last blow. Ray Lynch, C.O. of 18 Battalion, was badly wounded and missing and Peter Pike had about a hundred men in hand from the battalion. Sid Hartnell, commanding the Nineteenth, was missing and there was only a handful of men left out of his rifle companies. All three rifle companies of the Twentieth, with my old friends Upham, Washbourn, and Maxwell, were gone completely. Charlie Upham was known to be severely wounded and there were stories of valiant deeds. Nearly all the anti-tank and machine-guns of the Brigade were gone and at best it could put 200 riflemen in line in the morning. There were of course the Headquarters Companies, but they were useless alone. In 5 Brigade the position was a little better. Sam Allen was dead and the Twenty-first was badly scattered, but I expected it to have a fair strength in the morning. Sid Hanton and his headquarters and all three rifle companies of the Twenty-second were gone except for one platoon. Carl Watson was missing but Reg Romans had 190 riflemen. I had lost only page 173 four anti-tank guns and could expect to put 400 riflemen in the line with a good supply of supporting weapons and my Headquarters Companies intact. The divisional artillery was complete and had plenty of ammunition.
With little discussion it was decided that we should consolidate on the line to which 5 Brigade had fallen back and extend it to the left. This gave us possession of most of the spoils of victory, including fifty-five guns; and it enabled us to support the Indians still on the ridge. In fact it largely made our losses worth while. The Twenty-sixth from reserve was attached to 5 Brigade and the Maoris were to be brought up to replace the Twenty-second. 18 Battalion was also attached to 5 Brigade and it was decided that the remnants of 19, 20, and 22 Battalions should be withdrawn to Maadi to reorganize. It was further decided that 6 Brigade should be brought up from where George Clifton was languishing in reserve, the Twenty-sixth reverting to it on arrival. Before we broke up a ring came through from 5 Indian Brigade that Brigadier Burrows was not dead, had escaped, and was with them. Sid Hartnell, also captured, escaped likewise and returned for breakfast with me in the morning.
So ended this bitterly disappointing battle. There has been little recrimination about it among the participants, though much discussion. I think we have all felt that the fault largely lay with us. A truly brilliant victory was achieved, honestly earned by the eighteen rifle companies who made the assault. It was thrown away and we lost four battalion commanders out of six and 1,400 of our splendid veteran infantry, half of them taken prisoner helplessly. It is not right to say that the operation was laid on too hurriedly: we had several days for preparation. There were failures with guides, rendezvous, and signals, and no doubt faults in planning, but these things happen to some extent in every battle and are part of the friction of war. They are cancelled out by the mistakes the enemy commits and by the initiative and valorous deeds of the fighting men, on which one cannot base a plan but which good troops will always produce. The fundamental fault was the failure to co-ordinate infantry and armour. That is impossible without a page 174 common doctrine, a sound system of intercommunication, and training together. The attitude of the armour commanders at that period was not helpful, but I do not think we of the infantry did nearly as much as we could or should have done to ensure that we fought the battle together.
The Division took 1,600 prisoners, but at one time my Brigade alone had over 4,000 in hand and 4 Brigade probably took more. Jim told me afterwards that when he reached the ridge at daylight there were 20,000 prisoners for the taking. Most of those who were captured were released by 15 Panzer Division in the morning, or by the late-afternoon counterattack on 4 Brigade. During the next week I had a count made of the captured material remaining in our possession. There were twelve 88 mm., forty-three other field guns, sixty anti-tank guns and mortars, and automatics beyond counting. There was also a very large number of dead, more dead Italians than on any other battlefield that I have seen, and many Germans, as the German gunners mostly fought to the death.
During 16 July we settled down in our new position along the rising ground 1,200 yards south of Ruweisat, all facing north. After a day or two, we realized that this attitude suggested an unnecessary suspicion of the Indians who were holding part of the ridge directly north of us; so we occupied a Point 69 and placed half the Brigade to face west. When George Clifton came in he took over the Twenty-sixth and prolonged the line southwards, 18 Battalion went into divisional reserve, and the Maoris joined 5 Brigade, in which they remained for the rest of the war.
We spent the day licking our wounds and trying to decide whether we had gained a victory or had been defeated. The great amount of captured equipment in our hands was a real comfort.
To our astonishment our defence platoon had turned up during the night, intact. Their commander was a very good and genuine officer who had shown much gallantry at Minqar Qaim and who served with credit until the end of the war; but on this occasion he had made an extraordinary decision. He led his platoon off to deal with the posts shooting page 175 at us near Point 66, as I told him to do, and in a few minutes found himself in the midst of an Italian position. Instead of attacking them with loud shouts and a show of determination, when they would have promptly surrendered, he decided that his first duty was to preserve the lives of his men, reflected that he was certain to be released by our troops in due course, and so surrendered himself with his men. In due course some of our troops did appear, the Italians found someone who would accept their surrender, and the situation was cleared up to the satisfaction of all parties. I was so astounded at this story, told with the utmost naïveté and a complete absence of uneasiness, that I was unable to say anything and never did anything.
I wandered about among the troops, who were on the whole in very good form and pleased with themselves, and to some extent pieced together the battalions' stories.
Some stretcher-bearers were left by the Germans to look after the Twenty-second's wounded. They told us that the battalion was attacked from the rear by about twenty tanks immediately after my departure and before it had properly shaken out. Ollivier's troop of six-pounders had fought for fifteen minutes until all guns were knocked out and the infantry, helplessly exposed under a hail of fire, had then surrendered with the tanks right on top of them. Satisfied with their success, the Germans did not follow it up by sweeping along the ridge and destroying the rest of the two Brigades, as they might easily have done. Instead they marched the battalion off in threes, with tanks on either side of and all round the column, past the rear of 4 Brigade and into their own territory. It was a humiliating and disastrous incident. One platoon only, under Sergeant Elliott and Corporal Garmonsway, escaped in some manner and fought its way back. Elliott was awarded a V.C. and Garmonsway a D.C.M. Incidentally, the bar to Upham's V.C. was awarded for his conduct in the night assault and during the 15th.
The Twenty-first had assaulted with an average strength of seventy-five in its three companies. It first met opposition at about 1.10 in the form of small posts which were quickly page 176 cleared and for an hour fought its way forward against continuous opposition. Then a laager of about a dozen tanks was encountered, engines running and crews in their places. They opened a wild but heavy fire and started moving in a confused manner, but were at once fiercely tackled by the infantry. Unfortunately the battalion was not carrying its anti-tank sticky-bombs and most of the tanks got away. A sergeant climbed on to one tank, shot the commander, who had his head out of the turret, and then dropped grenades inside while other men fired through the slits. The crew was destroyed and the tank set on fire. Having got the idea the men then shot the commander of another tank whereupon the crew was quick to surrender. The remaining tanks scattered under a hail of small-arms fire and grenades. One Mark IV in its panic knocked out another that it came on unexpectedly.
The incident, however, had broken up the battalion's formation and when the advance was resumed it seems to have been in four parties. One party of about forty under Sam Allen crossed the ridge and proceeded a long way north. On the way they shot scores of the enemy, a great many of whom were bolting in their transport, destroyed trucks and lorries as far as their means allowed, and finally halted close to a battery of very heavy guns. Survivors thought they were two miles past the ridge, which seems incredible. A consultation was held at which all the officers present except Sam expressed the opinion that they were far past the objective. Sam stuck to his opinion and with Staff-sergeant Phillips of the Twenty-third went back to collect and bring up the rest of the battalion. During its advance the party had found it impossible to deal with all the enemy who wanted to surrender but whom no one wanted to be troubled with. Sam and Phillips collected a large number on their return journey and when near the position one of them shot Sam. He died some hours later. Sam Allen was a regular officer, extremely regimental, correct and unsmiling on parade, a delightful companion and inimitable raconteur. We missed him for longer than soldiers usually miss their comrades.page 177
After waiting an hour the remainder of the party decided to come back. They met Harry McElroy, one of the Twenty-first company commanders, with a party of twenty-eight men, and at daylight reached the northern side of the ridge. There they discovered a wadi full of Italians facing south. McElroy lined up his party, evened up ammunition to five rounds a man, and charged. A number of Italians and a party of fourteen Germans were killed. The remainder, forty officers and 500 other ranks, surrendered, the full colonel in command weeping profusely. The prisoners were handed over to the Indian Brigade and so were not included in our tally. McElroy and his party remained on the ridge during the day. The remainder of the Twenty-first, in two groups, very much mixed up, got on to the ridge and remained there until withdrawn in the evening. Losses were not very heavy, somewhere about fifty.
The Twenty-third had an assaulting strength of 300 in its three companies. It had sharp fighting all the way and the two leading companies had lost forty men each when they reached the objective. The left company went through the tanks and a Private Clark set one on fire with a sticky-bomb. It blazed for hours. The rear company, under Peter Norris, was not engaged during the advance and was close ahead of the Twenty-second when that battalion was attacked by the tanks. Peter withdrew it somehow and took up position facing north. Until Romans arrived he was in command and he organized the position with notable skill and coolness. There was a good deal of shelling and mortaring during the day and when withdrawn the Twenty-third had had over a hundred casualties. When I saw the battalion on the 16th it was totally unaffected and perfectly fit for another fight.