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Infantry Brigadier

13. El Mreir

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13. El Mreir

We settled down at once to the routine of static warfare. After a few days' respite the Luftwaffe was now giving us its attention again, its main target being our gun lines in Stuka valley. My headquarters was outside the area of the heaviest concentrations but we were not neglected. For the next few weeks the Stukas came two or three times a day, between thirty and fifty at a time. There was always an attack in the early afternoon and another about sunset. We felt aggrieved when occasionally another was sandwiched in. They were very nasty and until the gunners thinned themselves and their transport out, they inflicted many casualties.

6 Brigade came up and extended our line to the south. George Clifton at once opened a series of raids and offensive patrols; I was content with a quiet life for the time being. The Eighteenth and Twenty-sixth left 5 Brigade, and the Maoris, under a new commander, Baker, came in. Three days after the battle, 21 Battalion was 408 strong, 23 Battalion 464, and 22 Battalion had gone back to Maadi with 273. Ralf Harding took command of the Twenty-first and Reg Romans was confirmed in command of the Twenty-third.

I readjusted my line so that the Twenty-first held a short but difficult front facing the eastern end of the El Mreir depression with a No Man's Land about 300 yards wide. Farther south, opposite 6 Brigade, No Man's Land was as much as 4,000 yards wide, giving only too much scope for alarms and excursions. The Maoris held the northern flank facing the portion of Ruweisat Ridge in enemy hands, with one company in an uncomfortable position on a flattish knoll in the centre of the intervening valley. The Twenty-third was fairly close up in reserve.

Reinforcements were hard to come by and were of variable page 179 quality. None had arrived from New Zealand since Japan came into the war in December 1941 and we were living on our fat. A great purge was carried out at Maadi, where it was laid down that only Grade 2 men were to be retained. Many a comfortable embusqué snugly installed as a mess waiter or storeman found himself in an infantry draft; many others, who were fretting as instructors or in other ways doing the oddly named ‘tour of duty’ at Base, came up very gladly. It was at this time that I received a ‘Report on Students who attended courses at New Zealand Signalling School for Battalion signallers’. Page 2 read:
23rd N.Z. BattalionMarksRemarks
10705 Pte. Fenton, E. J.NilBroke camp and marched out to
10755 Pte. Erickson, C. H.Nil2nd New Zealand Division
10943 Pte. Irving, F. C.Nilwithout authority.

I still retain it with pleasure for this was a bad time to come back to the Division for any but good men.

We set to work to lay minefields, to clear or mark the Italian minefields that we were sitting among, and to dig ourselves in. One truck carrying a load of mines struck a mine and blew up, leaving no trace of the laying party. The ground was very hard, and except in patches it was impossible to get deeper than eighteen inches without a compressor, so that most of the work had to be done at night and progress was slow. Summer was now at its height and the plague of flies at its worst. From ten in the morning until six in the evening, we sweltered and fretted, with one hand continuously waving the flies away. It was bad enough for us at headquarters where we could at least walk about, get into some shade, and rig up fairly fly-proof trucks for offices and messes. For the troops in the line, who all day long had to remain in their narrow slits, it was purgatory. After sunset the air became deliciously cool and pleasant and everyone came to life. The evening meal could be eaten and enjoyed and work done with some energy. The men remained cheerful and uncomplaining.

We buried the hundreds of dead and cleaned up and buried the filth that marks every Italian position. This made no appreciable difference to the flies but at least the odour page 180 of death that lay sickeningly over the battlefield disappeared. Charlie Mason's carrier was found in the middle of an Italian strongpoint, riddled through and through by anti-tank shells. Charlie and his crew were dead inside. It was difficult to understand how or why he had got so far.

Jim wrote to me from Maadi giving an account of 4 Brigade's battle. He spoke with bitterness of the way in which the tanks had sat 1,200 yards away and, despite promises and assurances, had allowed an inferior number of German tanks to overrun his brigade, with its anti-tank guns all knocked out and more than half his men already killed or wounded. At one time he had had four Italian generals as prisoners and he was certain he had captured at least a Corps Head-quarters, but all had been rescued by the Panzers.

At this time there was throughout Eighth Army, not only in New Zealand Division, a most intense distrust, almost hatred, of our armour. Everywhere one heard tales of the other arms being let down; it was regarded as axiomatic that the tanks would not be where they were wanted in time. It was impossible not to sympathize with the tank crews. They manned inferior tanks, either armed with the feeble two-pounder or, in the case of the well-armed General Grant, far too conspicuous a target. Their losses had been very heavy and it is a dreadful thing to be ‘brewed up’ in a tank. Many units were amalgamated because of their crippling losses. There was no doubt, however, that for a while their fighting spirit was low and they were resentful and sulky under the keenly felt criticism that they met and sensed everywhere. The atmosphere struck me as really dangerous and I did my best to check critics and put a strong curb on my own tongue. When General Harding, the Director of Training in the Middle East, an officer of great distinction then and afterwards, visited us and asked my opinion as to the causes of our recent set-backs, I spoke without reserve. For what it was worth, my opinion 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. Under command and on the same axis. In some operations I conceded that the armour commander should page 181 control and that the infantry employed should be under him and still both arms should operate on the same axis. We fought one more unsuccessful battle on the old lines and then the principle, for which I argued and which must have had some very much more influential protagonists, was adopted.

On the evening of the 16th some German tanks emerged from the El Mreir depression and moved slowly eastwards south of the ridge. They were met by a group of our own tanks and a typical tank battle broke out, both sides firing briskly at one another from behind cover at about fifteen hundred yards' range. We were sitting in the command truck and did not trouble ourselves to go and watch, but one of the Brigade runners did climb the rise to a viewpoint. He came back excitedly and reported that there was a regular battle on, and said with genuine astonishment in his voice: ‘Our tanks are fighting like hell!’ The implied disparagement was cruelly unjust but in our then state of mind no one thought it was. I went out and watched the affair. Before long the Germans withdrew and an absurdly inaccurate account duly appeared in the Intelligence summary.

On the same day we got our share of one of the Stuka raids. A Bofors gun had planted itself a hundred yards from our command truck on the previous evening. The crew threw up a flimsy stone parapet and had their meal. I strolled across for a yarn and suggested that they should at least give themselves a solid blast-proof wall; they could easily do it in a few hours. They were all tired and said it would do in the morning. I had enough on my mind and let it go at that. Next morning the troop officer called and I spoke to him; but gunners are inclined to think they know their own business and by midday nothing had been done. I then went across to the gun and gave the sergeant an order to get on with the job directly after lunch and keep going until I was satisfied. Normally I deprecated excessive precautions against air attack, having got the idea in Crete that over-emphasis thereon had something to do with the low morale of many troops there; but this I thought a case of crass negligence and foolhardiness.

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Directly after lunch the first Stuka attack came in, about forty strong. We were standing and watching them dive in succession on the gun lines when someone noticed that several Stukas had carried a little farther on and the leader was in the act of turning over to start his dive on us. There was an instantaneous scatter, each to his own slit trench. Mine was occupied and I ran on to another. Alan McPhail was already there but when he saw me he got out before I could stop him and ran somewhere else. The gun was firing furiously and the first bomber had released its bomb-load of four and was pulling out of its dive when I slithered into the trench and cowered in the bottom. The bombs screamed down and I heard the last round from the Bofors an instant before the first burst. There were four stunning concussions, the nearest almost smothering me with sand. I looked up and could see nothing for swirling clouds of smoke and sand but realized that the gun was silent. The next group was well away. I put my head up again and saw Alan standing at the side of my trench. He was looking at the gun, now visible again, with its barrel at a crazy angle, and no crew to be seen. ‘I've seen some terrible sights but —,’ he said, and ran over to it. He came back looking very white and said it was the worst thing he had seen; every one of the crew of eleven was dead and all dreadfully mangled. I looked later. The bomb had pitched a few yards away and a solid wall, such as they could have made with a few hours' work, would have saved them. I felt myself seriously blameworthy.

During the week following Ruweisat, the Indians made small attacks along and north of the ridge, without much success as far as we could learn. The Australians were fighting a grinding sort of battle at Tel el Eisa and on 22 July another attempt was made to gain a decision in the Ruweisat–El Mreir area.

This time 6 Brigade was to make a night attack on the salient of the El Mreir depression from the south, the same direction as that of my effort three weeks earlier. To do this the Brigade had to move out into the wide No Man's Land, form up with its left flank practically resting on the enemy front line and advance parallel with it. An armoured page 183 brigade was to join the infantry and exploit at first light, the same old story. After daylight 23 Armoured Brigade, newly arrived from England, was to advance westwards, south of the ridge, at right angles to the infantry attack and pass into the presumably shaken enemy lines north of the depression, with some very deep objective. Farther north and later still the Indians were to deliver another attack also westwards, along the Ruweisat Ridge. To add to the complexity, or perhaps to confuse the enemy as well as ourselves, 18 Battalion was also to attack westwards but south of 6 Brigade forming-up line. Our numerous guns were to fire concentrations during 6 Brigade's attack—there was still no thought of a barrage and no training in following one; 5 Brigade was to support with fire and be prepared to exploit—the normal order to give when you cannot think of anything really useful. 23 Armoured Brigade was unfortunately equipped only with the two-pounder Valentine. Numbers of its officers had been up to look at the front and had called on us. We were delighted with their refreshing keenness and their eagerness to fight.

I was very unhappy at the divisional conference. Again there was no Corps conference although this was a Corps battle, and we knew only at second-hand what the other formations concerned were to do. It is an immense help to hear the commander of a neighbouring formation say what he is going to do and how and why. It is essential, and elementary, that such details as starting-time and start-line, axes of advance, objectives, boundaries, lateral communication, artillery support, siting of headquarters, should be co-ordinated, if commanders are to help one another and do their best for their own troops. We knew very little indeed on these points.

But the principal worry, of course, was whether the armour would really be up in time to support 6 Brigade. The armour Brigadier was present and swore that he would be up, but though George pressed him hard he declined to consider moving at night. We knew that the German tanks moved at night and, in fact, George's patrols had several times bumped into them; but the Brigadier insisted that tanks page 184 could not move at night. This meant that with the best intentions and no mishaps or mistakes in map-reading or over routes or minefields, and no enemy opposition, there must still be an appreciable interval after daylight before the armour could arrive on the infantry objectives. If the infantry had three hours' daylight unmolested, they could get their anti-tank guns sited and dug-in, even in this hard ground, and once that was done they were always happy to look after themselves. But during those three hours they were vulnerable, in fact helpless. We would have been delighted to see 15 Panzer three hours after first light a week before.

I expressed my misgivings and had the feeling that Inglis was not very happy about the plan. But the tank Brigadier was emphatic and explicit with his assurances that his tanks would be there at daylight without fail, and George Clifton saw the difficulties only as matters to be overcome or circumvented. Inglis, on whom the responsibility lay, could hardly refuse to go on unless he was prepared to proclaim his distrust of the British armour and of the Corps command. He made the almost inescapable decision to go on, told Gentry to make sure the details were thoroughly tied up, and went out. George and I became involved in an unprofitable argument with the armour Brigadier and then the conference broke up.

I went back feeling profoundly uneasy. On return to my headquarters, I ordered everyone out of the command truck except Monty and Alan McPhail. Then I said to Monty: ‘Take this down: The Brigadier has returned from the divisional conference and says there will be another bloody disaster.’

We did our best to give support by fire as ordered. Our machine-gun company was placed so as to search every part of the depression that it could reach and every mortar in the Brigade was brought into 21 Battalion area. Heavy fire programmes were worked out with no stinting of ammunition, from zero to the time when the infantry could be expected on the objective, and then lifting beyond it. Most of our fire would inevitably fall on empty ground but it seemed page 185 certain that it would at least make unarmoured movement impossible within the enemy position. The Twenty-third was held in readiness to be thrown in if opportunity offered.

During the afternoon before the attack I called on Jan Peart, who had dressed my wound on Belhamed the year before, and who was now commanding the Twenty-sixth. He was most unhappy about the prospect and I did my best to get him to take a more optimistic view. We sat in his car and talked for a long while. He remarked that he was the survivor of the original senior officers of the Eighteenth: John Gray had been killed a fortnight earlier, Evans had been killed in Crete, John Allen had died on Sidi Rezegh, and Ray Lynch was known to have been desperately wounded when he was captured. Jan felt that his own time was short and said so, but it was not quite yet. In civilian life he was the Headmaster of King's College in Auckland. He was a sensitive man, nervy and yet cool in action, unhappy amid the sights and sounds of war, very able and modestly conscious of his own ability, and a most charming companion.

I decided to watch proceedings from Ralf Harding's headquarters, which was not more than 500 yards from the eastern lip of the depression, and for some reason I went up with Ross in the car instead of with Twigden in the jeep. On the way up we called on 23 Battalion. It was not yet dark, nor time for the attack to commence, when the enemy artillery opened up vigorously. Later, we heard the infantry had been seen, moving out to their start-lines in daylight. Our guns remained silent. The enemy fire was partly by observation on to 6 Brigade infantry and partly defensive on us. Accordingly, I was able to see what his defensive fire plan was on our front. It was laid in two clearly defined belts, one on and in front of our forward posts, the other 800 yards farther back. This was nice to know, but it meant that we had to pass through a beaten zone on our way to the Twenty-first. I thought it might be wise to wait a while. This early outbreak of fire was ominous, the chance of surprise was gone.

Zero hour arrived and our guns opened on their concentrations. Some were directed on the enemy batteries, but page 186 there was no perceptible slackening of their fire. 5 Brigade machine-guns and mortars opened with a tremendous racket. Ross had not been up to this area before and I was uncertain of the route though there was bright moonlight; so I asked Reg Romans for a guide, and of course he offered himself. We set off at a great pace, Reg leading. As we neared the beaten zone, I had a sudden access of caution; it really did look very dangerous. We stopped and took shelter in an old Italian sangar; Reg plunged on and disappeared. We filled in time looking through an Italian attaché case, crammed with maps, holy and erotic pictures. After a while, as the fire showed no signs of slackening, I screwed up my courage and we drove through, arriving at 21 Battalion Headquarters without any trouble, though a bit rattled.

I stayed there for several hours with Ralf Harding, trying to see what was happening and getting far too much of the shelling to be really happy. There was no sign of Reg, and I was very worried about him. Actually, having no bump of direction whatever, he had got lost, wandered out into No Man's Land, had some queer adventures, and returned hours later, very concerned about me.

We could see very little, only flashes and bursts in many directions. It was clear that 6 Brigade was having heavy fighting. We kept in touch with Brigade, Monty rang to say that Division was out of touch with 6 Brigade and was anxious to find out if we knew anything. We could see and hear that the attack was progressing slowly but little else. Our fire programme ended but I ordered part to be repeated as it was clear that the infantry were not yet on their objective. After the repeat, we carried on at a slower rate, for some ammunition had to be kept for the morning. We were concerned to see explosions and fires in the path of the advance.

Some time after midnight we could hear fighting going on in the depression, a few hundred yards away, rifles and Brens, grenades, and the flare of a fire that might be a tank set on fire by a sticky-bomb. I sent the Twenty-first carrier officer, Henton, who was killed in the next battle, to find the nearest battalion and get some information. He went off in his page 187 carrier through a gap in our minefields. He returned about 2 a.m., having found Jan Peart and got what information Jan could give him. The Twenty-sixth had reached the depression after hard fighting and there had found a number of enemy tanks. Two or three had been set on fire by sticky-bombs but the supply of bombs had run out, there were several tanks still prowling round, and the situation was uncomfortable. Peart had sent two patrols to make contact with the other battalions but neither had returned. There was still firing in the direction of their objectives. He was out of touch with his Brigade Headquarters, but he had more bombs coming up and thought he could hang on.

I rang Division with this scanty information. Inglis was relieved to hear this much and it did appear that the infantry had done their part and that, if the tanks were up in time, all would be well. Firing quietened down to a few odd shots. Both artilleries became silent. It was disturbing that there were many more fires out in the old No Man's Land, but when I returned to my own headquarters, about 4 a.m., I felt fairly optimistic.

Soon afterwards, while I was chatting to Monty over a cup of tea, 21 Battalion rang to say that Colonel Peart had withdrawn his battalion and it was reorganizing in our area. As daylight approached, Jan had become very uneasy. The truck carrying his reserve of sticky-bombs was blown up and with tanks in and among his troops he would soon be helpless. Renewed efforts to get in touch with his Brigadier or the other battalions failed. He had had 150 casualties. So he took the decision to withdraw and came out with 260 men.

At daylight Inglis, unaware of the fate of the other battalions, told him to go straight back. He made the attempt and, feeling that his action had been condemned, led the leading section himself. The enemy had reoccupied his positions, he came under heavy fire, and abandoned the effort. Jan was very worried, for this was the second time he had given up a position, the first being when he side-stepped the Eighteenth into Tobruk while the Twentieth was overrun at Belhamed. He thought Inglis would write him off altogether; page 188 instead Inglis recommended him for an immediate D.S.O. and he got it.

Soon after daylight, from wounded and a few stragglers who got in, it had become clear that there had been another disaster. After much hard fighting, all three battalions and Brigade Headquarters had reached the depression. The anti-tank guns and transport following them had run into a minefield and few or none had arrived. There had been no appearance of the tanks. The German tanks moving in the darkness, and some of them actually following the brigade through gaps in the minefield, had attacked at first light and the survivors, quite helpless, had surrendered. One battalion commander, Greville, had been killed, George Clifton and a second battalion commander, George, were missing. There was nothing left of the rifle companies of the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth except one company of the Twenty-fifth, which had lost direction and had not reached the depression; little was left of the anti-tank battery and there were heavy losses in transport. Most of Brigade Headquarters was missing with the Brigadier. There was not even the compensation of substantial captures of prisoners and equipment: plenty of captures were made but hardly any retained. The Eighteenth Battalion attack had succeeded after sharp fighting but this small success did not affect the situation and the battalion later fell back to its original position. Worst of all, we had again relied in vain on the support of our tanks and bitterness was extreme.

This unhappy story was only pieced together during the day. I went back to the Twenty-first about 10 in the morning and found that another disaster had occurred in the meantime. About 8 a.m., 23 Armoured Brigade had thundered past our northern flank at a great pace. ‘A real Balaclava charge,’ Ralf Harding said. They had come under crushing fire from several directions, had pressed on and run on to a minefield, had still pressed on and very, very few had come back. It was reported that some had broken through as far as a Corps Headquarters. There were many rumours about this affair but we never heard anything official. One was that the advance had been made on a bearing of 277° instead page 189 of along the 277 grid. If true, it would have made little difference. Eighty tanks were said to have been lost. One of the two eagerly awaited armoured brigades had been thrown away.

The third phase of this ill-fated operation started punctually at 11 a.m. when the Indians on Ruweisat Ridge attacked along the ridge. From 21 Battalion Headquarters I had a grandstand view at less than a mile. They had strong artillery support: either a ragged barrage or a series of heavy concentrations, probably the latter. The advance went forward smoothly for about a mile. It reminded me of a battle of 1916, waves following one another in good alinement. Then it halted under heavy fire and there appeared to be an attempt to consolidate, but digging was impossible on that stony outcrop. The men stood about helplessly for a few minutes and then the whole mass ran back, all the way to their starting positions. Some stubborn individuals refused to run and followed at a walk but the retirement could not be called anything but a rout. A few German infantry followed them up and reoccupied most of their original positions and the battle was over.

During the morning, the armoured brigade that was to have supported 6 Brigade was sitting about in our forward area and out in No Man's Land beyond. They had several tanks hit and after a while realized they were doing no good and departed. One angry regimental commander saw me and stopped to apologize about the affair. He said that he felt bitterly humiliated but I am afraid that I did not answer very graciously. When they had gone, the charred skeletons of about forty of 6 Brigade's vehicles remained on the sky-line.

I saw Inglis in the afternoon. He was angry almost beyond words, and swore that he would never again place faith in the British armour. I gathered that he had spoken very frankly to various people. All three New Zealand infantry brigades had now suffered crippling losses within a few days. 5 Brigade had come off best and it had lost almost a complete battalion. There was no question of our taking part in any more offensives for a while.

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George Clifton escaped and appeared at my headquarters for breakfast next morning. It looked like becoming a habit for our senior officers to get captured, escape, and have breakfast with me. The practice was continued by Russell Young, one of the Twenty-second company commanders. He escaped at Daba, tramped back and somehow got through both lines and reached the Twenty-third in time for breakfast with me. As I had twice found for myself, the most difficult part was getting back through our own suspicious posts. He was very indignant that I would not allow him to stay in the field but packed him back to Maadi, a walking skeleton.

Two infantry and two armoured brigades had been employed. They had made three unrelated attacks from different directions at different times. A single small Panzer division of some twenty or thirty tanks and a fifth-rate Italian infantry division easily dealt with all three attacks in succession and inflicted crippling losses.