18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 20 — Disaster at Ruweisat
Disaster at Ruweisat
Next to Crete, the Ruweisat attack was the worst disaster of the war for 18 Battalion. In one way it was worse than Crete, for its tragedy came suddenly and unexpectedly, after an action which began well and had every promise of ending well. It was poor consolation to the battalion, and indeed to all the units who took part, that the failure was not their fault.
The night was clear, dark and still. The companies got off the mark well, filing forward quietly and confidently, much of the tension gone now that they were on the move. For an hour they advanced in good order and well up to schedule. Then suddenly things began to happen.
The enemy, 2 NZ Division had been led to believe, had his forward outposts three or four miles from the start line, and his main defences on Ruweisat Ridge itself. But this was not so; the Italian Brescia Division, it was discovered later, had pushed its front forward to within two miles of the start line and made ‘strongpoints’ right across the Kiwis' line of advance. About midnight our leading troops ran into wire and mines, flares went up all along the front, and Italian machine guns opened up on fixed lines.
The reaction in 18 Battalion was swift and uncompromising. In went the forward companies, yelling at the top of their voices, with rifle, bayonet and grenade. Guided by the tracer bullets, they closed with the machine-gun posts. The men of Brescia had little stomach for this sort of thing. Scores of them were shot or bayoneted, others fled or surrendered. Many were winkled out of their dugouts, some in night attire. The first round was New Zealand's at a cost of very few casualties.
But that was the end of 18 Battalion's orderly advance as a unit. The vigour of their onslaught took platoons and sections away in widely diverse directions. The rest of the night is a disjointed story of small confused actions which can never be told coherently, for nobody saw more than his own little corner of it.page 278
The main body of the company, after breaking its way through the first opposition, pushed on in two groups, mainly page 279 11 and 12 Platoons to the right and 10 Platoon to the left, plus some strays from 21 Battalion and a few of 19 Battalion who had evidently wandered off to the right of their own unit. For a time the advance continued in almost uncanny quiet; then, some distance on, more tanks loomed up, big German tanks this time. B Company rushed them, disabled and captured one, crew and all. ‘At this stage,’ says Voss, ‘we were all prepared to give the tanks a go after our initial success.’ Voss himself, one of those select few whose fearlessness had become a byword in 18 Battalion, went right up to one tank and attacked the tracks with a pick.
But a handful of infantry cannot cope with tanks, and B Company paid for its cheek. Major Playle describes what happened:
The other one got away & immediately started machine-gunning us. It cruised to & fro, its M.G.'s going constantly. Quite a number of us took cover behind the captured tank, but eventually its petrol tank was hit & it burst into flames, so we had to scatter. The whole area was lit up like day & many of our chaps were hit at that stage.
These few minutes took heavy toll. Lieutenant McGurk1 and several others were killed, many wounded, and the survivors scattered. A few groups which dodged the tanks pushed on and finally reached the objective, including about fifteen men under Sergeant Bill Kennedy of 10 Platoon and most of Burridge's2 12 Platoon; a few more came up later with 20 Battalion. Others, after a period of confusion, gradually banded together under Major Playle, who took them back towards the start line in obedience to orders from Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch. Day was breaking now, and everyone was nearly dropping with fatigue.
On the left, D Company also split up as soon as it got in among the Italians, and went surging forward through the strongpoint in little groups, mixed up with men from 19 Battalion who had appeared from nowhere during the fighting.page 280
It had particularly good hunting. ‘We struck a fairly thick patch of artillery,’ says Major Brett, ‘and there were a number of large dug outs in the area which we cleaned out with grenades.’ Like B Company, D could not regain cohesion even after some of its groups had smashed their way right through the opposition into the clear, but set out northwards in the general direction of the objective in a ragged, unconnected formation. No. 17 Platoon was fairly well together, but 16 Platoon was badly broken up and 18 Platoon in two main groups. Major Brett had with him an assorted party of about twenty, but had lost touch with all the platoons. Some men who had lost the company altogether joined up with 19 Battalion for the night.
D Company was lucky enough to miss the tanks that wrought such mischief in B Company, though at one stage towards the end of the advance tanks were heard pulling back on the left flank. There was no more opposition behind the strongpoint, and the men pushed forward in the same vast silence that had seemed so uncanny to B Company.
Then Major Brett reports:
We heard troops moving on our left … and found it was the 19th Bn—I found Syd Hartnell3 and suggested to him that I attached myself to his unit, together with what few men I had, until we reached the objective & then sorted ourselves out in the morning. We carried on thus and reached our objective on the Ridge at approx. the appointed hour…. Syd Hartnell gave me a position on his right flank.
Here Brett's handful of men dug in and settled down to await dawn. The rest of D Company arrived in dribs and drabs, Second-Lieutenant Ward4 with 17 Platoon, Lieutenant Behague5 with part of 16 Platoon, and Sergeant Harold Aitken6 with a few of 18 Platoon. Nobody had a very clear idea just where to go, so the parties dug in more or less where they happened to end up.page 281
When the forward companies gatecrashed the first defences, Battalion Headquarters and C Company were not far behind, and very soon afterwards, pushing on to follow B and D Companies through, they found their way blocked by lively and resentful machine guns left untouched in the free-for-all. The Intelligence truck and two wireless trucks with Battalion Headquarters came in for special attention from the left flank, so 14 Platoon of C Company was sent off to deal with the offending machine gun. But the machine gun turned out to be a tank; it opened a murderous fire, broke up 14 Platoon with heavy casualties and sent Lieutenant De Costa7 staggering back badly wounded to report. About the same time 13 and 15 Platoons made a series of small flanking moves, covering the machine-gun nests with Bren fire from the front and rushing the guns from flanks and rear. Both platoons lost men in these skirmishes, but once they got to close quarters the Ities surrendered with satisfactory ease. Having cleared away the immediate opposition, 13 and 15 Platoons paused for a breather and sent their prisoners back.
By this time Colonel Lynch had gone ahead to try to reorganise B and D Companies, which had both swung off course to the right. Nobody knew what was happening: the forward companies had disappeared, the wireless would not work, there was still firing to the right, trucks were burning here and there, a large body of 19 Battalion swung across Battalion Headquarters' bows apparently off course, and Captain Batty, left in charge of the small Battalion Headquarters group, decided to keep going on the correct bearing and fire direction signals to rally the companies. Just after that, to complete the general bewilderment, Battalion Headquarters and C Company lost touch.
Captain Batty describes the next part of Headquarters' advance:
It was quite eerie going forward by ourselves just 3 trucks & a handful of men….We kept firing signals on our Bren but all it did was attract a couple of tanks to us. We could hear them grinding towards us and they stopped and fired Very lights over us. We stopped too and hoped for the best. They were page 282 probably puzzled & perhaps our 3 trucks looked a bit like tanks too. Any way we decided to go on and as they didn't open fire we thought it safest to keep going.
Finally the party arrived at what it guessed to be the objective; the night was far spent and the men stumbling with weariness. There was no sign of anyone, friend or foe. Batty ordered the success signal fired to rally the battalion, and the men then settled down to wait for dawn and see where they were.
Just as the darkness began to lift, their solitude was broken by yelling and firing as part of 19 Battalion appeared over a rise to their right and took up position not far away. The spirits of Batty's party, very depressed by the lack of response to their success signal, lifted at once. They had the bad luck, while heading over towards the new arrivals, to lose the ‘I’ truck on a mine, but they located 19 Battalion Headquarters and were directed by Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell out to the right flank, where they found Major Brett and the handful of D Company already there. Brett took temporary command of the battalion, or such of it as was within reach.
To return now to C Company. After losing Battalion Headquarters, 13 and 15 Platoons were held up by tanks and more machine guns, and in the mix-up the two platoons parted company. No. 15 Platoon pushed on alone for a long way in the quiet period that followed the fighting, but got uncomfortably close to one of the blazing trucks that dotted the battlefield, and went to ground in some empty trenches, both to avoid the light and to work out where it was. Some time later it saw what looked like the success signal some distance away, and headed in that direction, but met 20 Battalion moving up and carried on with it to the ridge, arriving there just as day was about to break. No. 13 Platoon stumbled on Colonel Lynch and was directed by him back to the start line.
In C Company, just as in the others, many men had strayed during the scrimmage. One handful under Captain Sutton pushed on, joining in some of the small engagements as they went, and apparently overshot the objective, for they were ahead of Battalion Headquarters when the success signal went up. By this time they had linked up, quite accidentally, with page 283 Burridge's party from B Company. The whole group went back and found Brett's small ‘battalion’ on 19 Battalion's right flank.
Another party that reached the ridge was the ‘defence platoon’, a temporary platoon of reinforcements and odds and ends, which had started out just ahead of Battalion Headquarters and had had a night full of adventures in which it found itself at various times with B Company, 19 Battalion and 21 Battalion. Near the ridge the platoon seems to have split into two parties, one under Lieutenant Frank Nathan, the other under Sergeant Dick Bishop. Nathan and his men fell in with 20 Battalion and moved up to the ridge with it; Bishop's party finished up out on its own with nobody else in sight, so turned back and also tagged along with 20 Battalion.
The night's greatest mystery surrounds Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch. After going forward from Battalion Headquarters in the thick of the fighting he missed his own men, was for a time in touch with B Company, 21 Battalion, then lost it in the fighting round the German tanks. He seems to have gone back to rejoin Battalion Headquarters, but missed it in the dark. From then on various 18 Battalion men recall having seen him briefly here or there, and at one stage he sent the unexplained order by runner to Major Playle to meet him back at the start line; but nobody can clearly define his movements until nearly dawn, when he spoke to the commander of 5 Brigade not far south of Ruweisat Ridge. By this time his battalion was dispersed over miles of desert, and never had it been so scattered and bewildered.
To summarise the position at dawn. Nineteenth and 20 th Battalions had reached Ruweisat in fairly good order, and were taking up position round Point 63, along with a forward 4 Brigade Headquarters under Brigadier Burrows.8 On 19 Battalion's right flank, nearly a mile east of Point 63, in a page 284 shallow wadi facing north, was 18 Battalion's skeleton headquarters under Brett, with Sutton's few from C Company. The B Company groups under Burridge and Kennedy were on a little rise just above Battalion Headquarters, and the D Company platoons in a very exposed position between there and Brigade Headquarters. Farther left with 20 Battalion, very near Point 63, were Bush's 15 Platoon and the defence platoon. Other 18 Battalion men who had lost their companies were scattered in ones and twos among 19 and 20 Battalions. Behind the ridge were many more little groups, most of them hopelessly lost, either wandering round or waiting in such cover as they could find for daylight to show them where they were. Much of the battalion was back at B Echelon. Casualties had been at least 20 killed and 60 wounded.
Every surviving man in the battalion, no matter where he was, had one thing in common, and that was weariness. Weariness such as even soldiers seldom know, comparable with the weariness of the slog back from Kastania in Greece or over the Cretan mountains. Weariness made more intolerable by disappointment over the night's misadventures and by anxiety for the future. It was not a happy dawn for 18 Battalion.
And yet the unit had no reason to be ashamed of its performance. Bad luck had dogged it. Its commander had got lost, its wireless communications had unaccountably failed. Enemy tanks had appeared out of nowhere, and even without them the battalion had struck opposition against which no unit could hope to stay intact. It had run into the very heart of the Italian strongpoint, had ploughed its way right through, had killed or chased away many of the defenders, had captured nobody knew how many prisoners.
These prisoners, indeed, had been a curse. Almost every little group had captured its quota, often far outnumbering the captors. Some had been sent back under escort, but an attacking unit cannot spare many men to usher prisoners back; some of the groups had been forced to take their prisoners along with them, some had been lucky enough to unload them on to someone else (like Captain Sutton, who passed his batch over to the 19 Battalion provost sergeant despite the latter's protests), some had been so much at their wits' end that they had page 285 packed the Italians off unescorted towards the rear. Some prisoners had vanished into the night simply because there were too many of them to control. The men who reached the ridge still had some sheepish, docile Italians with them, harmless enough now, but hardly less embarrassing than they had been during the night. After daybreak, to make things worse, more Italians emerged from holes in the battalion's area to swell the captive throng. All that could be done was to herd them together as far as possible and detail the absolute minimum of guards to look after them. As things turned out, all these prisoners (except for a few sent back during the afternoon) were liberated by the Germans that evening.
The first job on the objective was to dig in, if possible, before it got too light. But here was another misfortune. The Ruweisat ground was diggable only for a foot at most; after that you struck hard rock. Some men could not get below ground level even after trying at several places, so did the best they could with built-up stone sangars. Some occupied old Italian trenches, but the characteristic filth of these was too much for most men, who preferred their own shallower, less secure slitties.
When day broke enemy infantry and trucks could be seen milling round on the opposite slope only a few hundred yards away, obviously at a loss to know what was happening. It was a sight to make your mouth water, and it cut everyone to the heart to have to sit there and, for lack of artillery and supporting weapons, do nothing about it. The 18 Battalion Brens opened up, but were met by shellfire so heavy that the gunners had to stop firing and get underground. Fourth Field Regiment opened at the enemy from away to the south, but it was firing at extreme range; some shells fell on the ridge, causing more casualties, and before long it gave up trying. Jerry was able to land his shells among 4 Brigade unmolested, including some 210-millimetre monsters—many of these, fortunately, were duds, but even so they hit the earth with a whoomp like an earthquake. Against all this the men on Ruweisat had only themselves and their infantry weapons, plus a few anti-tank and Vickers guns that had made their way up to the ridge by dawn. The Vickers, as usual, were invaluable. The anti-tank guns had few opportunities, but the six-pounders with their long range had an occasional crack at Jerry.page 286
Had these supporting guns not followed right on the heels of the infantry, so that they arrived on the ridge before full daylight, they would never have made the distance. As it was, the column came under fire from the south as it neared the ridge, and some portées were damaged. ‘After a few minutes of milling about,’ reports Second-Lieutenant McLeod,9 ‘the head of the column turned right and belted for some rising ground about a mile away. The rest of us followed and in a few minutes struck the rest of the Bn digging in on the objective.’ The two-pounders stayed on their portées in the Battalion Headquarters wadi, ready to go where they were needed.
The enemy south of the ridge, though broken through, decimated and disorganised, was obviously still in the fight. Machine-gun nests were active, and German tanks were cruising round the flat over which the Kiwis had fought their way. Some of 18 Battalion's wounded were unlucky enough to be picked up during the morning by these tanks; others evaded capture and eventually got safely back. A typical story is that of half a dozen men from 13 Platoon who, after lying low in old trenches all morning, enduring our own shellfire and expecting discovery at any minute, escaped early in the afternoon and rode back home in comparative comfort, due largely to the efforts of Private Alex Heron,10 who grabbed a truck from almost under the Germans' noses, loaded the party on to it, and set sail for the south. A German tank put a salvo of shells through the truck as it left, but with no lethal effect.
But that was in the afternoon, when Jerry's position south of Ruweisat was becoming sticky. In the morning his roving tanks held the upper hand there, and the 18 Battalion carriers, mortars and other A Echelon vehicles, following up at dawn not far behind the anti-tank guns, could not get through to the ridge at all.
The night battle and its aftermath, from the point of view of A Echelon, is described by Captain Phillips of C Company:
A Echelon … drove slowly along behind the attack…. The Bns moved silently off … then the usual wild yelling & cheering began & the tracer started to fly…. The firing would die down then start up again a little further fwd as the troops page 287 moved through successive defence areas. Our transport was slowly following along in fits & starts. The fighting continued into the night. At about 0100 … it was continuous all along the Bde front….
About 02-0300 the heavy firing died down & things were fairly quiet. Bde transport was halted & we caught a bit of sleep. Collect a few Itie prisoners who were dribbling back & waited for dawn when a hot meal had to go fwd—it never did.
At first light we found ourselves … in a low wide E. to W. depression…. Prisoners kept wandering back…. There were odd pockets of enemy still between us & the ridge & very few if any people got fwd….
Indeed, it is fairly safe to say that nobody got forward to Ruweisat that morning, though it was not for want of trying. Lieutenant McBeath tried to get through in a carrier soon after dawn, but came under fire from both flanks. Later in the morning several other parties of carriers tried with just as little success. Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch spent the morning making desperate efforts to organise and lead a relief convoy up to his forward companies with food and ammunition, but to no avail. The remains of the Italian strongpoint still lay like a watchdog across the path.
Meanwhile, the men on the ridge were spending a most unpleasant day, under fire almost continuously. Some of the groups that had arrived up with 19 and 20 Battalions made their way over nearer to 18 Battalion Headquarters, and a small makeshift battalion perimeter was formed. Even the short move over to the Battalion Headquarters wadi was fraught with danger—Lieutenant Bush, for instance, recalls that 15 Platoon ‘proceeded towards the wadi singly at long intervals but 2 were killed by shell fire in the process’. In general, nobody moved about unless he had to. Some of the luckier ones, or perhaps those with calmer nerves, spent part of the day sleeping off their night's exertion. Those who did not sleep found the hours fearfully long fighting off thirst, flies, heat and fright. Sergeant Kennedy reports:
It was a hectic day, but we kept a billy boiling and tea brewing all day, with materials looted from German trucks…. Jimmy Buddle11. of Hq. Coy did great work during the day, attending wounded and brewing tea.page 288
There was all too much scope for good work attending wounded, for there was a steady flow of casualties all day. The 18 Battalion RAP had strayed into 5 Brigade's area (where it had its own adventures, was captured and escaped again, and earned for ‘Doc’ Thompson12 the unit's first DSO), so the few medical orderlies with 18 Battalion on the ridge made a temporary aid post and cared for the wounded as well as possible on the spot. While the strongpoint south of the ridge still held its ground no wounded could be evacuated.
It was urgently necessary to clear away this offending strongpoint to open a way up to the ridge, so during the morning a mixed force of British tanks and Kiwi armoured cars tackled it, but not till mid-afternoon did it surrender. Then at last a few people were able to reach the ridge, though there was no point in sending up infantry reinforcements. What was needed was tanks and guns to take on the German armoured cars which were now snooping round north and west of the forward troops, obviously spying out the land for a counter-attack.
The first to come up was Colonel Lynch, who took advantage of the attack on the strongpoint to make another bid for Ruweisat, leading some 19 Battalion carriers full of ammunition. The little column ran the gauntlet of fire successfully, reached the ridge, and Lynch went to Forward Brigade Headquarters to report. Unfortunately, he never had the opportunity to rejoin his battalion.
Shortly after this Lieutenant McBeath and Second-Lieutenant McLean, with two 18 Battalion carriers, got up to the eastern end of Ruweisat, but when they tried to work their way along the ridge to the battalion they were shelled back. They joined the British tanks of 2 Armoured Brigade which were sitting below the crest of the ridge less than a mile from the battalion.
These tanks had from the beginning been the key to the success of the whole attack. They were, so the Kiwis clearly understood, to be up with the forward troops at dawn, both to protect them and to exploit north and west. But at dawn there was no sign of them, to the astonishment and wrath of the page 289 infantry on the ridge, who could see the enemy opposite apparently disorganised and ripe for the picking up, but without support could do nothing about it. Later in the day, when Jerry livened up and signs of a counter-attack became unmistakable, urgent appeals for help wirelessed back from Forward 4 Brigade Headquarters were answered by assurances that the tanks were on their way up and would be there in plenty of time to protect the infantry. Even an armoured liaison officer came up to 18 Battalion to raise hopes further. But that was as far as it went. Second Armoured Brigade, which quite early in the day had advanced to within a mile of 4 Brigade, simply stayed there until it was too late. Twenty-second Armoured Brigade had been deflected south-west by enemy strongpoints and tanks, and was miles away from 4 Brigade's left flank.
German armoured cars had first appeared on a low ridge a mile north of Ruweisat late in the morning. After midday they disappeared for a while—the early afternoon heat, so trying for the Kiwis, presumably caused the Germans to seek shade as well—but by 3 p.m. they were there again, driving up and down, having a good look at 4 Brigade's position, while guns behind them pounded Ruweisat. More than once Major Brett brought up the question of withdrawal with Brigadier Burrows, but the reply always was, ‘Stand fast, our armour will be here.’ The atmosphere on the ridge was breathless, every man with one eye on Jerry and the other on the eastern skyline where the British tanks were expected. By 4 p.m. a force of German tanks had assembled in full view, and Brigadier Burrows at last passed the word down to withdraw after dark. But now any chance of withdrawal had gone.
About five o'clock the shellfire rose to a climax as the German tanks moved in from the west. Haze, dust and smoke blotted out the view, and the shells kept every head down, so that 18 Battalion saw little of the tragedy farther west, the six-pounder anti-tank guns firing till they were knocked out one by one, then 20 and 19 Battalions helplessly rounded up. After overrunning these two battalions the tanks paused, and there was still a faint but heartfelt hope that by lying doggo the 18 Battalion men might escape notice until dark. But soon the page 290 tanks came on again, working their way along the ridge. Most of the outlying platoons and little groups of men managed to withdraw out of immediate reach. The two-pounder portées made a quick exit from the Battalion Headquarters wadi, only just in time, for two armoured cars arrived and patrolled the wadi entrance, trapping Battalion Headquarters while tanks came over the top and down through the position. ‘But for the armoured cars,’ says Captain Sutton, ‘we could have got out.’ A solitary two-pounder kept the tanks at bay for a short time, but that would have been impossible for long. ‘There was nothing for it,’ says Major Brett, ‘but to give in unfortunately, & we came out of our slit trenches at approx 5.40 p.m.’ There were eight officers and about forty NCOs and men.
Almost at the same time Forward Brigade Headquarters, only a few hundred yards from 18 Battalion, was attacked too. A lone armoured car charged across the area tossing hand grenades here and there; one fell beside a trench where most of the senior officers were assembled, wounding Colonel Lynch severely. A little later the Jerries came back and rounded up everyone there, Lynch among them.
Not long afterwards the tardy British armour arrived, swept the area and temporarily pushed the Germans back. Some men who had not been picked up were able to get away covered by the tanks, and some wounded, including those in 18 Battalion's makeshift dressing station, were sent back to safety, but the tank advance had by now lost most of its point—the position had already been lost, the prisoners whisked away, and the chance of exploitation had long gone. It could now be only a gesture on the armour's part.
Of the three battalions of 4 Brigade, 18 Battalion got off lightest. True, it lost a lot of men, including most of its remaining senior officers; but the German tanks' pause after overrunning 20 and 19 Battalions gave most of its survivors time to vanish over the skyline out of sight. There was no coordinated withdrawal, only little bands of men making their way generally eastwards until (if they were lucky) they ended up with 5 Brigade or 2 Armoured Brigade, or even with 5 Indian Brigade farther east. Some came under fire as they went, and suffered more casualties; at least one big party went too far north, got over to the wrong side of the ridge and was captured.page 291
Sergeant Bishop's story is typical of the adventures that befell the fugitives:
We made a bolt for it & under artillery & machine gun fire reached some Italian positions some two hundred yards away & holed up there in the hope that our tanks or artillery might appear…. However the enemy tanks were the only ones to appear so the only thing to do was to head out into the open. A fair amount of fire followed us but we spread well out & I doubt if any one was hit…. Were fortunate in finding a food dump where we loaded up … & were prepared to spend several days in the desert, if necessary. However after going only a couple of miles we noticed some of our own tanks on the right & headed for them…. Just before dark another two or three hundred stragglers rolled up.
Even more spectacular is the story of Sergeant Kennedy's escape with the remnant of B Company. This group, about fifteen strong, got out in the nick of time aboard an anti-tank portée, but was fired on by the enemy tanks and lost three killed (including GSM Norm Halcombe13) and two wounded. Some distance farther on the portée ‘conked out’; by great good luck there was another one handy, containing the Intelligence Officer (Lieutenant Burn14) and a few men. The whole party piled on to this second portée and set out again, but, as Kennedy writes:
The fun wasn't quite over…. We had to drive right through an enemy infantry position…. Our driver put his foot down, the Gerries opened up from front, right, left and rear, and every man on the truck returned the fire. We got through with one slight casualty. Then we found ourselves in another infantry position, but they proved to be a company of Indians, and we were safe, apart from hitting a mine and losing a front wheel.
Beside these tales of boldness and speed there are others of stealth and secrecy. Even inside the captured Battalion Headquarters area several men who lay low in slit trenches and sangars were lucky enough to escape being picked up, even with German tanks milling all about them. Those who got away with it stayed very quiet till after dark, then crawled away, in some cases right past the noses of the Germans, and escaped eastwards. There were even half a dozen 18 Battalion page 292 strays who escaped from 19 Battalion's area when it was overrun—according to one of them, they ‘strolled casually away, hid in a weapon pit until dark, and then made their way back to the Bde. lines.’ It sounds easy.
To go briefly over to the other side of the hill, the smashing of Brescia Division's line and the establishment of British troops on top of Ruweisat threw the German command into consternation. But this was not allowed to degenerate into panic.
All the mobile forces that could be spared were detached from their own divisions and sent off as fast as possible to reinforce 15 Panzer Division facing Ruweisat; both ends of the line had to be pared right down to danger point, but this had to be accepted to save the centre. We must admire the ruthlessness of a command that could take such a calculated risk, and the swift action that brought reinforcements rushing from north and south to converge on the threatened spot. Some of these reinforcements, pushing their way over unfamiliar stretches of ragged rock or soft sand, took all day to reach their goal, and if the British armour had done what was expected of it they would never have arrived in time.
First Armoured Division's failure was as astonishing to the Germans as to the Kiwis. The 15th Panzer Division, the formation on the spot, said that an attack by the British tanks early on 15 July would undoubtedly have broken right through. Had that happened, the history of the Alamein battle, and possibly of the whole war, might have been changed. But as it was, the tanks of 15 Panzer Division and the armoured cars of 33 Reconnaissance Unit were given time to strike first, and the whole Ruweisat operation, planned and begun so well, ended in nothing.
Meanwhile the men back with A and B Echelons had had an anxious day harassed by Stukas and gnawed with worry over what had happened to the rifle companies. From those who had lost their way and drifted back during the attack they heard of the fighting and the confusion in the night. But the greater part of the companies and Battalion Headquarters had vanished into the blue, and it was anybody's guess what had become of them until dusk on the 15th, when stragglers began to trickle back, bringing with them a mixture of fact and fancy that page 293 added up to disaster. The whole of 4 Brigade, said some, had been wiped out. Each little group seemed to consider itself the only survivors of 18 Battalion. So the atmosphere back in the rear area was one of justifiable dismay; the truth was bad enough without Rumour to embroider it.
The first reliable information, along with news of 18 Battalion's future, came from 4 Brigade that evening. The brigade would for the time go out of existence as a fighting force. The two hardest hit units, 19 and 20 Battalions, would go back to Maadi. Only 18 Battalion would stay in the field, and it would come under 5 Brigade's command. The men of 5 Brigade still up on Ruweisat Ridge east of 4 Brigade's objective would withdraw during the night, and a new line would be made about two miles south of the ridge, with 18 Battalion on the right flank, facing north.
In the very early hours of 16 July, therefore, the battalion's transport moved north-east to its new area. It was only a short move, but involved some of the usual shoving to get trucks out of soft patches, and dawn was breaking before the convoy reached its destination. The trucks dispersed and camouflaged themselves on a stretch of flat, featureless waste, where, during the morning, the remains of the rifle companies rejoined them, some on foot, some on trucks and portées lent for the occasion by 2 Armoured Brigade. Major Playle took temporary command of the depleted, depressed battalion.
The main task for 16 July, after digging in as best they could in that rocky ground, was to take stock. It was an unhappy task. Of the 250 men in the three rifle companies who had set out from the start line on the night of the 14th, only about a hundred now answered the roll. Of the rest, 30 were dead, 90 missing, for whom the best that could be hoped was that they were prisoners.
Almost irreplaceable was the loss of senior officers. Commanding officer, adjutant, two company commanders, all of them original 18 Battalion officers, had gone. Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch in particular was a grievous loss, and there was great regret in the battalion when, a few months later, word came through that he had died from his wounds.
Had he survived, Ray Lynch might well have been a first-rate battalion commander. He was a front-line soldier with an page 294 unusually keen tactical brain, impatient of base camp restrictions, efficient, methodical, yet easy and approachable in his manner. In Greece and Crete he led C Company magnificently; his MC for Crete was the only fighting decoration won by an 18 Battalion officer for either campaign. That his last battle and his only major action in command of 18 Battalion should have ended so inglonously was just another of the tragedies of Ruweisat.
1 Lt R. A. McGurk; born NZ 31 Aug 1906; company manager; killed in action 15 Jul 1942.
8 Brig J. T. Burrows, CBE, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Gk); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn May 1941, Dec 1941-Jul 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942-Jun 1943; comd 4 Bde 27-29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul-15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug-Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul-Aug 1944; Commander, Southern Military District, 1951-53; Commander K Force, 1953-54; Commander, SMD, 1955-60.
13 WO II N. I. Halcombe; born NZ 17 Nov 1913; wool clerk; wounded May 1941; killed in action 15 Jul 1942.