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19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment

CHAPTER 14 — Back to the Western Desert

page 251

Back to the Western Desert

Today is yesterday returnéd.


On Jebel Emside the night of 15 June and the day following were loud with the bustle of breaking the camp which in the last three months had been so painstakingly constructed. Carrying, checking and loading equipment, and handing over the position to 1 Greek Brigade were not completed until late in the evening of the 16th; the battalion then settled down under the stars to spend its last night in Syria. During the day the CO had left with an advance party, and before the sun was astir on the 17th the rest of the unit, under Major Clive Pleasants, was on the move also—a move shrouded in secrecy.

Badges and titles had been removed from each man’s uniform; the New Zealand insignia had been obliterated from the trucks; the orders were sudden, and extraordinary precautions had been taken to prevent news of the Division’s going from leaking out. Despite all security measures, and almost before the battalion had had time to digest the news, a Syrian dealer in mess comforts arrived at Battalion Headquarters to claim his dues and two absentees made a timely return. However, at 5.15 a.m. on the 17th the battalion, travelling incognito, linked up with the other units’ transport columns along the Baalbek road, passed the starting point and, leading the 4 Brigade convoy, headed south.

The troops were in fine fettle and the trip became almost a gala occasion. Each vehicle with its complement of soldiers was a troupers’ wagon where tunes, tales, and songs shortened the miles which led to a destination unknown and a role unrevealed. Through a divisional order, all main centres were bypassed. The tall columns of the temples of Jupiter at Baalbek, thrusting up above the trees in the early morning sun, were the last glimpse of a place page 252 which will always hold pleasant memories for those who were stationed in Syria. By afternoon the convoy had crossed the border and was in Palestine; skirting the Sea of Galilee, the trucks ran into Tiberias then on towards the first day’s terminus at Tulkarm. Here the brigade laagered for the night at a well appointed transit camp. It had been a smooth and uneventful run. Two hundred miles had been covered; the trip was still a novelty and the journey had been enjoyable. There were no general duties, and after a meal the battalion slept until 3 a.m.

After an early breakfast the 19th again took up its position at the head of the brigade group convoy and the journey started once more. Within the hour the hard-won fertility of the Palestine of the Jews fell behind and the road ran through arid Arab territory. Lydda, Gaza, then Beersheba, and a halt was made for lunch. Twenty-five years before this inhospitable desert had been the battleground of an earlier generation of New Zealand soldiers, and when the trucks stopped outside the immaculate British cemetery at Beersheba many men strolled among the graves to stand silent for a moment before the thirty neat headstones which marked the last resting places of their own countrymen.

At Asluj, at still another transit camp, the brigade that night debussed, rushed for the showers and the Naafi, then after a very enjoyable evening slept until 2 a.m. while the trucks refuelled for the next leg of the trip. At 3.30, breakfastless and still sleepy, the battalion scrambled into its vehicles and was at the starting point ready to lead the brigade to a spot opposite Ismailia, which was the destination for the third day’s run. There was little interest in travelling now—the rolling yellow sand dunes of Sinai were the only scenery—and heat, dust, and flies marked the return to Egyptian territory. That evening all spare Syrian pounds were converted into Egyptian piastres, and as a final crushing blow the next day’s destination was announced as Amiriya.

At 5.30 a.m. on the 20th the brigade moved off, crossed the Canal, and headed for the Western Desert. Past Tel el page 253 Kebir, through the squalid Delta settlements, into Cairo and then on to the old familiar route past the Pyramids. It was the road which led to battle; along it, some 500 miles away, Rommel’s offensive was now rolling towards Egypt.

Rommel had not remained long at El Agheila after the successful British drive in the last days of 1941. By 21 January 1942 he was again on the offensive, and at the end of the month Benghazi once more fell into his hands. On 26 May he opened his attack on Eighth Army, which was holding the extended Gazala positions west of Tobruk. A panzer victory over the British armour on 12 June forced a retirement towards Tobruk. Now the fortress was once more threatened, and on last year’s grim territory around El Adem, Sidi Rezegh, Ed Duda and Belhamed the clash was renewed. Hard fighting was already in progress.

At Amiriya transit camp on the night of 20 June there may have been some disappointment about the destination of the battalion, but there was certainly no dismay about the prospect of battle ahead. Despite a scheduled early start for the Western Desert, discussion lasted long into the night when, lubricated by liberal supplies of Australian beer, groups of men made the most of their last opportunity to quench a thirst which would certainly remain unslaked until the end of the next campaign. Fresh from the serenity of Syria, suddenly deposited on the doorstep of a desert battle, the battalion took full advantage of what would be perhaps the last opportunity of mixing together for some time. Sleep could wait; on the long route up to the front there would be plenty of time to snooze in the trucks.

That night the trucks also took on a reserve supply of fluid—forty gallons of petrol per vehicle and two gallons of water per man. The endurance of the NZASC drivers had been outstanding; the battalion considered themselves fortunate to have again travelled in the trucks of No. 4 Company 4 RMT. Many of the same drivers who had successfully carried the unit through the campaign in 1941 were still at the wheels. Now, looming up ahead, there was another battle which would further test men and vehicles. Neither would be found wanting.

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At sunrise on Sunday the 21st the trek up to the front began and at sunset the battalion convoy stopped just outside the eastern perimeter of the Matruh fortress. Nine hundred miles had been covered in the past five days. For the first time during the trip picks and shovels came out and slit trenches were dug. When darkness fell there was a distant air raid, and with it an effective anti-aircraft accompaniment from the town. The last vestiges of peace were shattered. ‘Today is yesterday returnéd.’ Before the newly dug slit trenches could be slept in orders came to move. Simultaneously the wireless announced the startling news of the fall of Tobruk. Once more the 19th was in the war and once more the situation was serious.

After an uneasy night mainly taken up with moving and digging trenches, the battalion was ordered to occupy a position inside the Matruh Box. The move was watched by an enemy reconnaissance aircraft and it seemed certain that further attention from the air could be expected. The bombers waited for darkness, and despite heavy anti-aircraft fire dropped a large number of bombs. Fortunately none fell in the unit’s new area. Thereafter the raids were regular.

The battalion remained at Mersa Matruh until the afternoon of the 25th, standing to at 4.30 each morning and at 7.30 each evening. During this period the newly formed anti-tank platoon was issued with three two-pounder guns and portées. The pieces were badly rusted up, and before the recoil mechanism could be operated a Bren carrier was required to drag the barrel free of the carriage. The guns were finally restored to working order and later used effectively against the enemy. Battalion Headquarters now caught up with its office work, companies checked weapons and ammunition, and the men relaxed as frequently as possible in the blue Mediterranean. The bathing area was near the ‘Lido’, a spot at which legend states the alluring Cleopatra once swam and where in more peaceful times the lovelies from Cairo were wont to emulate their seductive sister.

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The four days spent at Matruh were tense with anticipation, waiting for the battle which all knew to be drawing nearer. For Eighth Army the campaign in the desert was not going well. On the 24th Rommel had crossed the Egyptian frontier, and next day reports indicated that his forward elements were only 40 miles away from Matruh. Down the road from the west the vehicles of the withdrawing forces came nose to tail. Orders were received for the New Zealand Division and other 13 Corps’ formations to move out and hold up the Hun as long as possible.

As the battle loomed all preparations were made to meet it. As was now obligatory, one company was chosen for withdrawal to Base. Hawke’s Bay drew the doubtful distinction of being left out of battle and, under the command of Major Cyril Latimer, pulled out immediately. Feelings among the men of that company and those they left behind were mixed. All now knew that the battalion would be involved in a situation of unparalleled seriousness. The Hawke’s Bay men were loath to go. Yet all of them who had known action, the trials and the terrors of battle and the extreme hardships of desert warfare, would honestly admit relief at this further respite. In a few days they were back in Cairo enjoying a surfeit of leave in a city now almost deserted by their countrymen. Later, as the wounded began to trickle back to Helwan hospital, the Hawke’s Bay men, always hungry for news of the battalion, became frequent visitors to the wards. Soon the wisdom of the system which had kept them out of the fray would become obvious.

On 25 June, from midday to 3 p.m., the battalion (less Hawke’s Bay Company), in full fighting kit, stood by its transport waiting the order to move. While waiting for final instructions the men watched an amazing display by a lone enemy raider who, defying a torrent of ack-ack shells, cruised around and bombed where he wished; after setting on fire two fuel trucks he flew away, apparently quite unscathed. The pilot was a brave but very lucky man.

Leaving the fortress and heading south, the 19th linked up with the rest of 4 Brigade Group and continued southwards. During daylight formations of Bostons flying west, page 256 and returning again in a remarkably short time, were an encouraging sight. Below the air cover the New Zealand columns rolled on unhindered. At midnight the formation laagered. At first light the following morning the battalion took up a position on the left flank of the brigade and faced south-west. The 20th Battalion moved to the right flank and 28 (Maori) Battalion to the centre, facing north-west. Fifth Brigade was laagered to the north-east of the position, and out in front were reconnaissance patrols. Throughout the morning and for the greater part of the afternoon Boston bombers were frequently overhead. No sign was seen of the enemy on the ground or in the air.

During the late afternoon the 19th, moving on a bearing of 165 degrees for a distance of about 10 miles, took up a position facing south along a low escarpment. Some excitement soon developed. A strange force including some tanks could be seen on the escarpment further south. They had just been identified as friendly when a flight of thirty-five enemy bombers came out of the setting sun. Fifteen of them peeled off and attacked the battalion position. Their bombs caused only one casualty in the unit though 4 Field Ambulance, to the north of the battalion, suffered more severely. The 19th had its second casualty when, in the confusion caused by the raid, Private ‘Darkie’ Thompson,1 who was sheltering in a slit trench, was run over by a ‘bug’.

The rest of the night was quiet and at 4.30 next morning the battalion again moved, this time some 1500 yards west to fill the gap between 4 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters at Minqar Qaim. By 8 a.m. the unit was in position, company areas had been defined, and digging then began. At midday the first enemy shells arrived and a spirited artillery duel developed. The enemy was using captured British 25-pounders to augment his own guns. It was six months since the majority of the Division had been under shellfire. In the battalion the reaction of steady confidence was gratifying—‘It’s turned out nice again Corp’ called an page 257 unseen Bren-gunner from a forward weapon pit to his section leader. With the arrival of the first shell the whole of the unit was alert and ready to take on the targets which might follow.

While the artillery roared the enemy moved up concentrations of tanks, guns and lorried infantry. By late afternoon the Division was surrounded and the enemy was attacking simultaneously from the south and north. Five separate assaults were launched and had been beaten off before darkness. The whole of the Division’s area was meanwhile raked with every kind of fire, but its own guns were replying effectively and the perimeter was soon ringed by burning enemy vehicles. Its casualties, however, had been considerable and Divisional Headquarters had suffered severely during the afternoon, the GOC himself being wounded while watching the enemy attacks from a forward position. Brigadier Inglis left Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows2 in command of 4 Brigade and went to take over the Division, which meanwhile kept up its vigorous retaliation until darkness fell.

In the 19th area the mortar platoon and the anti-tank platoon had had a busy time. The latter’s two-pounder portées were on the move and in action continuously on all sides of the position. All enemy transport was kept at a respectful distance and one armoured car, a motor-cycle, and probably one tank were accounted for. Late in the afternoon an unlucky shot set fire to one of the portées. It caught fire and burnt out, much to the chagrin of its commander and crew. Beneath the seat of the towing truck was an unbroached bottle of whisky.

At nightfall the artillery fire virtually ceased and a British ambulance approaching from the north was permitted to drive in to the battalion area. It was driven by a German who had with him a wounded companion. Companies now page 258 pushed out offensive patrols. It was evident that the Division was in a very difficult situation, and the Battalion Commander received verbal orders that an attempt would be made that night to break through the encircling enemy.

At last light a Bren carrier patrol under Captain Frank Stewart and Sergeant Joe Carmichael3 made a reconnaissance towards Bir Abu Batta. They were fired on by enemy tanks and one carrier was damaged and the rest forced to take shelter. Stewart continued on foot to confirm the reported heavy concentration of enemy in that area. At 11 p.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows gave his orders for 4 Brigade to attack the enemy position at the re-entrant south of the cistern: ‘Bde night attack in the following order: 19 Bn, front. 28 Bn, right rear. 20 Bn, rear left of 19 Bn, to rest on escarpment. Starting line FDL of Taranaki Coy 19 Bn.’ It was to be a silent attack with the bayonet, the tried and proven method which had so often got the New Zealanders out of their difficulties and brought disaster to the enemy.

Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell called the 19th orders group together at 11.15 p.m. and the battle formation of the battalion was laid down as Wellington Company (Captain D. S. Thomson) right front, Taranaki Company (Captain H. G. Wooller) left front, Wellington West Coast Company (Captain W. E. Aitken) right rear, and the company of the Essex Regiment (Captain W. J. Young) attached to 19 Battalion, left rear. The battalion frontage was 300 yards, its depth 200 yards, and the success signal two red flares and a green. The attack was a desperate venture, but on the return of the OCs the companies heard the news and moved out quickly and confidently to the start line. Here there was a long wait and the men lay down in formation as they had been drawn up—a silent, thoughtful pause before battle, with more than the usual anxiety for commanders, for as the minutes ticked by it was evident that things were not going to plan. The Maori Battalion was late. At last the long-awaited order was given and the 19th got up and moved noiselessly forward in good heart, page 259 determined, orderly and grim. While the three battalions of 4 Brigade were preparing for the attack, the brigade transport (with the wounded aboard), under Major Pleasants, made ready to move forward on the success signal which was expected within the hour.

Black and white map of army positions

Battalion positions at Bir Abu Shayit and route of break-out by 4 Brigade and 28 (Maori) Battalion on night 27–28 June 1942

It was 1.45 a.m. on 28 June when the brigade crossed the start line. The attack was on and the Hun, still unaware of the movement which menaced him, was sending up only a few routine flares. It was full moon, and at times the advancing men seemed to be going forward in daylight, but their advance was not detected. Approximately 2000 yards had been covered before the first contact was made. Pandemonium then broke loose.

The 19th went in from the west and the Maoris, finding few enemy in their path across the depression, charged over from the south. Simultaneously the 20th dropped down from the escarpment into a wadi on the left. The enemy, with attackers converging on him from all quarters, fired frantically with every weapon he could command, but the attack could not be halted. There were no orders and no urging; the whole brigade surged forward spontaneously, page 260 cheering, firing, bombing and bayoneting as though each man was fully aware that the fate of the New Zealand Division depended upon his actions that night. The tornado of fire in the re-entrant did nothing to check the determined rush. The Germans were rattled, obviously taken unawares. Many were still in their blankets, but all fought well, firing wildly from beneath vehicles, from slit trenches, from the tonneaus of cars and the backs of trucks. Some of their transport tried to escape to the north but Bren-gun fire, bakelite grenades, and sticky bombs added weight to rifle and bayonet, and many vehicles and much equipment were destroyed. Firing from the hip our Bren-gunners did devastating work, their bullets penetrating the fleeing trucks. The enemy tried every trick to get clear: some, climbing beneath the now wrecked transport, wedged themselves in, hiding between axle and tray, but even this method was unavailing and, once discovered, a grenade tossed underneath each vehicle took further toll. Burning petrol now lit up the whole area.

When enemy opposition had almost ceased Captain Thomson, who had boldly led his company to the east of the depression, sent up the success signal. The triumphant roar from the troops was led by the tall figure of Colonel Hartnell who, armed with rifle and bayonet, had gone through with the attack. His headquarters, keeping pace with difficulty with his long-legged stride, heard during that hectic hour but one laconic order—given to a Bren carrier commander—to go ahead and locate the forward companies. Before it could be carried out two red Very lights followed by a green signalled victory; the action was over.

Simultaneously with the success signal the brigade transport convoy moved forward and the attackers, picking up as many as possible of their own wounded, made for the rallying and embussing area. Orderliness now replaced pandemonium. Units and companies quickly sorted themselves out while the trucks came on. A fusillade from the right rear seemed to spell trouble, but the few troops on the transport vehicles, fired at by enemy elements to the north, vigorously returned their shots as the column veered page 261 off at speed, turned in again, and finally halted at the prearranged area where the attacking troops were waiting. As the convoy arrived an enemy heavy machine gun, firing on a fixed line from a distance of about 400 yards or so, opened up. One of the 19th Bren carriers went out and silenced it as embussing began. The operation did not go on undisturbed, however, for now long-range anti-tank and heavy machine-gun fire from the north quickly put two vehicles—Major Pleasants’ pick-up and Taranaki Company’s cooks’ wagon—out of action and gave added urgency to the move. Men scrambled aboard any transport handy. Major Pleasants rescued the wireless set from his pick-up and the convoy moved off, heading south-east at its best speed and under the direction of 4 Brigade Headquarters. One of the Essex Company’s trucks refused to start but Private Bert Whittaker,4 driver of the 19 Battalion petrol wagon, stopped, hitched on a tow-line, and the British vehicle and its occupants were brought safely away.

On other trucks the wounded were made as comfortable as possible. Tired troops clung precariously to cabs and portées as the convoy bumped rapidly onwards across the stony desert. It was a wild, uncomfortable ride and there were times when sharp detours had to be made to avoid enemy concentrations; but the Division was clear of the encircling panzers. Dawn broke three hours later on a strangely impressive scene. For miles and miles, right out ahead to where the desert and sky met in an indeterminate horizon, a moving mass of vehicles fanned out from their nose-to-tail night columns and went forward in open desert formation. After a short halt the brigade did not stop again until darkness fell. The Alamein defences were but a few miles further on.

To the 4 Brigade Group the Bir Abu Batta break-out from the encircled Minqar Qaim position is a proud battle honour. The 19th Battalion shares this honour with ¼ Essex Regiment, whose company under Captain Young fought side by side with the 19th companies. This tricky night operation was for some of the Essex men their first action. page 262 They fought magnificently and, once back on the embussing area, formed up and marched to their transport in the traditional—and under the circumstances most impressive—parade-ground manner of well-trained British troops. Elated by their share in the general success, they made no secret of their admiration for the battalion with whom they had served, and the men of the 19th were themselves pleased to have had the Essex Regiment with them. This was the second occasion in which the battalion had been closely associated with the Essex Regiment in the Desert. In both the 1941 and 1942 campaigns relations between the two units had been happy. At Ed Duda and at Minqar Qaim the honours and the hardships were shared equally by troops from the United Kingdom and from New Zealand.

The night of 28–29 June when the huge convoy halted and laagered was memorable for many things. It was a busy night, yet a night of peace and keen appreciations. The first task was to evacuate the wounded who had stoically endured the long and uncomfortable journey in the bumping trucks. The second was to sort out companies and platoons, with the inevitable roll-call and preparation of lists of killed, wounded and missing. The third, at which the cooks performed miracles, was to prepare a hot meal—the first hot food the men had had for over twenty-four hours. There were the usual slit trenches to be dug, pickets to be posted and vehicles to be tended; and while all this work went on there was conversation—a safety valve to release reaction after the battle. Many stories and experiences were swopped, for impressions of the battle were still vivid. One, shared by all, concerned the enemy’s lavish use of tracer. Some men swore that they were able to step or jump over the streams of bullets that criss-crossed the battlefield. Many undoubtedly owed their lives to the fact that the enemy machine-guns, firing on fixed lines, thus disclosed their positions.

The fate of the wounded who in the darkness and confusion had been left behind was discussed. Some well-known faces failed to show up during the check that night, and the final tally of casualties sustained by the battalion at page 263 Minqar Qaim and Bir Abu Batta showed 13 killed in action, 8 died of wounds, 8 wounded and 1 unwounded left behind and afterwards taken prisoner, and 9 missing. Forty-six were wounded during the engagement but were successfully evacuated. Among the men whose loss the battalion mourned were Lieutenants Cross5 and Dix,6 the RSM WO I Wilson,7 and the stalwart signals corporal, V. E. R. Horne.8 True, the total losses were surprisingly light but the gaps were sorely felt. Though there was no lack of good men to fill the vacant appointments, old hands were always missed.

Back at Bir Abu Batta the dawn disclosed a grim spectacle. The whole area was thick with German dead and wrecked enemy transport. The plight of the New Zealand wounded left behind was a sorry one for the Germans were bitter in defeat. Some of our men received little mercy at their hands and were forced to spend the long, burning day without cover, food or water, and were harassed by frequent searches during which they were roughly handled by the enemy guards. Cigarettes, water bottles, and all personal possessions were taken from them, and the fate of at least some of the group seemed to be sealed when their captors, lining up those who could stand, talked of shooting. A high-ranking German officer arriving on the scene restored reason among the guards, whose prisoners were shortly afterwards turned over to the Italians.

During the night attack on Bir Abu Batta 4 Brigade took very few prisoners. The operation was not one which could afford encumbrance for the stakes were high. The attackers had but one objective: to blast a lane through the encircling enemy and allow the Division to escape. The New Zealanders were on their own. No help could be expected from 13 Corps for 1 Armoured Division, badly battered in page 264 previous engagements, was unable to send tanks in support. A swift, decisive assault and an undisturbed withdrawal were the two tactical requirements. At Bir Abu Batta they were both fulfilled.

The 19th brought back to the Alamein Line but two prisoners. They were found during the halt next morning clinging precariously to the back of a portée. In one of the prisoners, a very scared snowy headed German youth of perhaps 18 years, his unit, 617 Motor Anti-Aircraft Battery, lost a promising soldier, for if he was as eager to please his officers as he was his captors, his future must surely have been bright. He was an excellent cook, and the company which held him was sorry when the time came to pass him back to Brigade.

The presence of the New Zealand Division in the Western Desert surprised the enemy Intelligence and the official German reports of the encounter complained that the attack had been made by ‘thousands of drunken New Zealanders’. Rommel’s advance had been halted and one of his panzer divisions disorganised.

On 29 June the New Zealand Division reorganised and prepared for the next round. Along the Alamein Line, from the coast to the Qattara Depression 35 miles south, defensive positions were pushed ahead with vital urgency. Minefields, strongpoints, and anti-tank gun and machine-gun posts were being rapidly added to the already partly established defences. Thirteenth Corps took over the southern half of the line while 30 Corps concentrated on the defence of the northern sector. The battle-weary Eighth Army was doggedly on the defensive, for on this new line hung the fate of the Middle East. It was a crucial period.

In Cairo itself there were feverish preparations. Base camps and L of C9 units were combed for fresh troops for the forward area. Headquarters and installations in Cairo and Alexandria were organised for anti-paratroop and anti-sabotage work. A considerable section of the Egyptian population now made no secret of their sympathies. A further German victory would almost certainly be the signal page 265 for an open breach, for Farouk had no love for the British. Plans were prepared to deal with both situations.

The spectacular advance of the Afrika Korps had not been without tactical disadvantages to Rommel. Former positions were reversed and the maintenance of long supply lines now became his headache and not Auchinleck’s. But his tried Panzer Army was confident that it could crash through to the Nile.

At first light on 30 June Colonel Hartnell was called to 4 Brigade Headquarters and received orders to take out a mobile column to the east to cover the withdrawal of forces of the brigade into the defensive area of the ‘Kaponga Box’, where 6 Brigade was already established. The column moved out early in the morning forward on to the high ground covering the enemy approach. The force consisted of a skeleton headquarters (CO, Intelligence Officer, two members of the ‘I’ section, two battalion signallers with No. 18 set, two signalmen from J Section Divisional Signals with No. 11 set), Wellington Company and Wellington West Coast Company, one platoon from 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion (Lieutenant Evans10), a 25-pounder battery from 4 Field Regiment (Major Bevan11), plus one section of Bren carriers.

An enemy OP with several six-wheeler cars and a light tank withdrew as the force moved into position on the high ground at Hager el Ghurab to link up with a Divisional Cavalry squadron operating to the north. From this feature enemy columns out in front were kept under observation all day. Except when disturbed by RAF bombing raids they did not appear to be moving, and at nightfall a reconnaissance revealed that all our troops were now clear of the road below. The mobile column therefore withdrew inside 6 Brigade’s position and rejoined the battalion next morning.

While the mobile force was away the unit welcomed back page 266 to its ranks six men whose fate had been unknown since the 27th, when the first enemy attacks on Minqar Qaim began. During that morning the reserve section of Bren carriers had been sent out south of the battalion position on a reconnaissance and to act as FOPs for the artillery. Of the three carriers which went out only one returned, and as the other two were last seen being pursued by enemy tanks there seemed little reason to believe that they had made good their escape through the panzers which ringed the position. Fortune had favoured them, and Corporal Mac Opie,12 one of their number who kept a diary, was able to give the following report:

The men involved were: No. 1 carrier, Sgt F. V. (Frank) England, Pte W. J. (Paddy) Doonan (driver), Pte J. (John) McFadgen (gunner). No. 2 carrier, Cpl C. M. (Mac) Opie, Pte C. C. (Colin) McPherson (driver), Pte R. L. C. (Len) Brown (gunner). No. 3 carrier, Cpl A. R. (Wyn) Gibson, Pte R. V. (Ray) Ryan (gunner), Pte I. E. (Ian) Archer (driver). We were reserve section and were sent out to do a reconnaissance to the south for Capt D. S. Thomson of Wellington Company. We never got back to the Platoon from there for we were sent on again as a FOP for 46 Bty. It was a very hot day and we parked under the lee of a small escarpment, leaving one man on guard in a sanger to observe east with glasses while another man was posted round the corner to observe to the south. Len Brown was on guard in the sanger when he saw something coming out of the haze close to an abandoned staff car (7th Armd Div) which we had passed during the morning. He called out and as he did so we watched some 2-pounder portées—British pattern—pull up and turn with their guns pointing towards our position! Not so good. At the same time there emerged from the haze some Mark IV enemy tanks.

My reactions were that our artillery observers must have seen these happenings as they were located quite close to the scout car mentioned before and we ourselves could see the car quite plainly. It was obvious, however, that our next job was to get out of it as quickly as possible and head back to the Bn for the tanks were advancing up the Wadi between us and the NZ positions.

By this time we had roused the rest of the boys, started our carriers and, taking a zigzag course, we ran away flat out west. The tanks pursued firing all the while—both big and small page 267 stuff—but we were lucky and got up the big escarpment OK. Wyn Gibson’s carrier, however, stopped about 200 yds short of the crest. We went back on foot and poked our heads over to see what had happened to him but he was crawling along towards the Div and the Huns seemed to be leaving him alone. They were still concentrating on us so we kept going and joined up with an Armd car which had just been chased off the top; he took us with him to his command truck. Here the English Col in charge told us that we had better tag along with him as he was pulling out to go south then east. The enemy were concentrating to the west. We took his advice but Frank England’s carrier was towing mine which had cut out the generator and by the time we turned east the Armd cars proved too fast for us, but we did not worry as it seemed clear that we were now on the main convoy route back.

At dark, we joined up with the ‘B’ echelon column of the 7th Armd Div where we had a hot meal. They did not believe us when we told them we were Kiwis and as our carriers had no fernleaf on them, and we were wearing no shoulder titles, it was difficult to convince them. However, during the meal their RSM came along with the announcement that the NZs were in the Desert and engaging Jerry now. The whole crowd of Tommies—about 40 or 50 men—set up a chorus of ‘Good old Kiwis’ and gave three cheers for the NZ Div. We felt very proud.

That night after a half hour’s sleep we got hurried orders to move as we were supposed to be on the direct line of advance of a German tank-supported tank supply column coming up from the south. This time my carrier was towed by a big breakdown truck but at dawn the truck had to leave us for the going had been very rough, so we transferred to their column’s only protection: a Stuart tank with a jammed turret, a two-pounder gun which would not fire and no machine guns. Their only armament was a Tommy Gun with a 100 round magazine! After travelling 52 miles that day we were fortunate enough to come across an abandoned carrier. We retrieved the generator, battery, tools, track pins, etc., set fire to it and then made the necessary repairs to my bus.

Late that afternoon as we headed east in the British convoy two ME 110s cleaned up five trucks. A Hurricane on his way home came down to investigate and one of the 110s shot him down in flames. However after that the Luftwaffe left the convoy alone and we travelled all night, passing through the wire gap in the Fuka minefield at 11.30 p.m.

At dawn we leaguered, cooked a meal, talked things over and decided to try to get back to the Div. Word came through that page 268 Fuka was in German hands so we headed for Alamein via Daba, having first fueled up at a British dump and at the same time taken aboard good stocks of tinned food. We had nearly reached the escarpment when a South African Armd car dashed up and announced that they expected Jerry at any time and that we had better clear out east. We hit the main road again at 7.30 p.m. and were about 13 miles west of the Alamein Rd which we picked up before halting. Italian bombers were doing a shuttle service bombing and strafing up and down the road all night; so once more sleep was out of the question.

At dawn we started off along the road inland and had a good find in milk and sugar on an abandoned ration truck. We had just come across a new Bren Carrier which had also been abandoned when the Carrier Platoon from 26 Bn arrived on the scene. They were on the way to the rail. They invited us to go with them but as a 27th Bn officer told us that the 19th were away inland we refused the invitation and after some searching, 3 hrs later met up with our own Unit. It was then June the 30th.

On 1 July 4 Brigade was established in Deir el Munassib. The new month opened with pitiless temperatures and in the wadi where the 19th took up its new position the heat was terrific. Shade was difficult to contrive for there was no material from which shelter could be constructed. The sun beat down into the shallow slit trenches, where in the pause before further action the men tried to catch up on their sleep. Out in front of the position, patrols riding in hot, oil-drenched Bren carriers watched a tank battle develop around Deir el Shein where, unknown to them at the time, 18 Indian Brigade Group was making a gallant stand against the Axis’ first attack on the Alamein Line.

The night proved cooler and was mercifully quiet. The battalion, pleased with the news that it would remain in its present inconspicuous position for another twenty-four hours at least, settled down to sleep. During the darkness a British armoured brigade rattling its way forward through the area added a further sense of security to those badly needed hours of rest. The morning dawned without disturbance, and the first enemy action seen during 2 July was a flight of bombers which unloaded their cargoes before reaching the battalion area. During the afternoon rumours of an impending enemy armoured attack created a certain amount of tension, page 269 and some heavy detonations seemed to signal an approaching battle. On investigation these proved to be nothing more than a nearby unit practising with spigot mortars. The day passed without further incident and the night was again quiet.

At 7.30 a.m. next day sudden orders were received for the battalion to move out and destroy an enemy concentration then being engaged by a mobile column under the command of Brigadier Weir,13 CRA 2 NZ Division. The action was taking place approximately six miles to the north. Barely an hour and a half later the 19th was on the spot. The approach was made in MT, Wellington Company leading, Wellington West Coast Company on the left flank, and Taranaki Company on the right flank. Once within striking distance the companies debussed, and the enemy was discovered to be in a slight depression with some supporting arms further away over a crest to the south. The battalion mortars went into action immediately and their shooting was excellent: two enemy ammunition trucks and an 88-millimetre gun and portée were set on fire within the first two minutes. Wellington and Taranaki Companies went forward in battle order until, going over the slight rise towards the depression, they came under heavy machine-gun and mortar fire. In addition to his usual weapons the enemy was using captured Brens. Our infantry, going to ground immediately, engaged any targets visible until the supporting machine-gunners of No. 4 Platoon 27 Battalion were brought up. One section of these MGs gave overhead fire; the other went forward with the companies, got into position and gave close support to the attackers. The combined fire from the battalion’s four anti-tank guns, all its mortars, and these attached machine guns had a devastating effect on the opposition and their fire weakened. Three tanks and several trucks and guns attempting to escape north were engaged by the anti-tank platoon, and at the page 270
Black and white map of an attack

Attack on enemy concentration, 3 July

same time the forward companies came to grips with the enemy infantry posts. These quickly surrendered. The reserve company (Wellington West Coast) was now put in and the whole enemy concentration overrun.

The bag for this successful engagement was 352 badly shaken prisoners, mainly Bersaglieri and gunners of page 271 132 Artillery Regiment, twelve 105-millimetre, eleven 88-millimetre, and sixteen 75-millimetre guns, five British 25-pounders (one of which had received a direct hit from one of our anti-tank guns), a number of 20-millimetre dual-purpose guns plus many mortars, machine guns, and ack-ack guns. Trucks, ammunition, and a quantity of valuable medical supplies completed the booty, while an enemy tank knocked out by our anti-tank platoon was a heartening sign of the effectiveness of the two-pounder in its new role as a battalion weapon.

As soon as the engagement was over orders were received by the 19th to withdraw to the area occupied by Brigadier Weir’s mobile column. The battalion, in the highest spirits, embussed once more. Its attack had been a decisive and well executed operation, impressive in its marked success and in the co-ordination between the infantry and its supporting weapons. Our casualties were two killed—Privates ‘Lofty’ Plant14 and Laurie Ryder15—and thirteen wounded. The enemy had suffered severely, not only at the battalion’s hands but in the earlier bombardment he had received from the guns of 4 Field Regiment. Later in the afternoon a patrol with sappers attached visited the scene of the engagement and completed the demolition of the heavier weapons. The four serviceable 25-pounders were recovered and put into commission by our own artillery. The battalion signals platoon, too, scored a truck to replace one lost at Minqar Qaim, as well as a useful quantity of Italian line equipment.

This action and attacks made elsewhere on other parts of the front drew off enemy strength from the north and relieved the pressure on the right and centre of the new line at a crucial period during its consolidation. They also brought the wrath of the Luftwaffe against the forward troops.

On the morning of the 4th the 19th rejoined the brigade and a short move was made to the north-west. On settling page 272 down again the battalion had only just dug in when a patrol of Stukas appeared overhead. Their target turned out to be Corps’ and Divisional Headquarters’ areas, and on this occasion the unit luckily escaped unscathed. But the noise of the bombing had scarcely subsided when enemy artillery began to shell the brigade area. The 4th Field Regiment’s guns were quick to reply and an artillery battle went on for about two hours. It died down about noon and the position remained quiet until 2.50 p.m., when Stukas and Junkers selected the 4 Brigade area as their target for the afternoon. All the surrounding ack-ack batteries went into action immediately and succeeded in keeping the raiders well up, but the battalion area received a heavy concentration of bombs and there were fifteen casualties—sixteen including ‘Major’, the regimental mascot. ‘Major’ was evacuated from the field through the normal medical channels, his field medical card being tied to his collar on which he proudly wore his identity discs as No. 1 dog of the New Zealand Division and the three pips indicating his captain’s rank.

During this raid two trucks, including one fully loaded with ammunition, were also hit, but Private ‘Johnny’ Trye—whose daring exploits in the recovery of MT under fire were now almost legendary—again distinguished himself by calmly walking out amid the falling bombs and exploding ammunition and driving away from the danger area another unit truck which but for his cool action would have been burnt out also. The ammunition truck was still burning when darkness fell. It provided illumination for reading an eagerly awaited mail from home which was distributed with the evening meal. There were no further alarms or visitations in the 4 Brigade position that night, but to the north-west of El Mreir Depression 5 Brigade went into action against the Pavia Division and inflicted further casualties on the luckless Italians.

The early morning of the 5th was still quiet and all ranks made the most of the rest period, but by 11.50 a.m. 4 Brigade was on the move once more. In desert formation it headed round the south of the Kaponga Box to take up page 273 a position on its west side. En route eight Me110s bombed the convoy, catching the right-flank vehicles and inflicting severe casualties. Among the many killed were the Brigade Commander, Brigadier John Gray,16 and the Brigade Major, Brian Bassett.17 The death of Brigadier Gray was a bad blow to 4 Brigade. As one of its senior battalion commanders he had, on arriving back with the Division after a course in Palestine, taken over the brigade from Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows, who had carried on from Minqar Qaim until reaching Alamein. Gray was now succeeded by Brigadier Burrows. In this raid Lieutenant Jack Evans, who had commanded the 27 MG Battalion platoon attached to the 19th and had given such stalwart support to the unit during its previous engagements, was also killed.

The Luftwaffe continued to shower 4 Brigade with its unwelcome attentions for the rest of the day, and when at 2 p.m. the battalion was in position near Kaponga it was discovered, with some dismay, that the area chosen was almost solid rock and quite undiggable. Fortunately the next two raids passed overhead, but in the evening two further flights of bombers straddled the battalion area but caused no damage or casualties. A 500-pound bomb dropped near Battalion Headquarters by the last of the Heinkels failed to explode. It was given a wide berth, and when a party of sappers arrived to attend to its disposal an interested audience, keeping at a safe distance, were well under cover when the explosion came. The CO, however, had a very narrow escape. Unaware of what was happening, he arrived back from a reconnaissance to find his headquarters deserted, and climbing into a slit trench in an attempt to raise an answer on an unattended phone, he had just knelt down when the explosion occurred. The bang was louder than any bomb explosion previously encountered, and the effective range of one of these monsters was page 274 clearly demonstrated. During one of the bombing raids a nearby ack-ack battery suffered severely and the battalion’s stretcher-bearers and RAP staff were kept busy assisting the casualties. The enemy was now dropping heavy stuff and his Air Force was more in evidence than ever before during the desert battles.

At this time 150 bomber and 500 fighter sorties a day were being flown by the RAF. Along Rommel’s line of advance good targets awaited our pilots, and if the forward units at Alamein were suffering under the spite of the Luftwaffe, the panzers too were taking a battering. Daba, Fuka, Sidi Haneish, and all enemy concentration points out in front were subjected to continuous harassing by our Air Force, whose chief role was to inflict as much damage as possible on the advancing columns and so give Eighth Army time to strengthen its line and to pass from defence to attack. Every hour gained was valuable and the sky offered a far more profitable field than the ground, where our forces, sorely short of armour, were reorganising and regrouping.

The Alamein Line was much extended and its defences still loosely knit. Battle groups weak in numbers and almost without armoured support were holding key positions. It was an anxious time, but nevertheless many successful attacks were pushed out against the enemy and he was forced to entrench. For the first time the desert war showed signs of becoming static.

The few dominating features in the battle area—features hardly worth the names of hills or valleys—became of prime tactical importance. In the centre of the line Ruweisat Ridge and Alam Halfa loomed much larger than their actual size. Both would shortly be the objectives in bloody battles. On the first, in a few days’ time, 4 NZ Infantry Brigade would end its desert career; from the second, two months later, Rommel’s forces recoiled and never recovered.

The battalion remained in position until the 7th, when at 30 minutes past midnight it joined the other units of 4 Brigade in a night advance to Point 59, some miles to the north. An attack on an enemy force feared to be menacing the flank of 5 Brigade was to be made at first light. The page 275
Black and white map of army movement

Advance to Point 59 and engagement on 7 July. The strongpoint comprised a troop of anti-tank guns, 3-inch mortars, medium machine guns, a rifle platoon, and an artillery OP

page 276 plan was for 20 and 28 Battalions to lead on to the southern edge of a shallow depression and take up a position there while the 19th, leapfrogging through them, was to go on to the objective, which was on the opposite (northern) side of the depression. The leading units started off at 1.30 a.m. and the battalion followed at 2.15, moving due north. Passing through 20 and 28 Battalions, it was learned that they had got on to their objective without making any contact with the enemy. The 19th kept on advancing according to plan and, still without meeting any enemy opposition, arrived on Point 59 about an hour before dawn.

Companies were disposed as follows, all positions being along the edge of a low escarpment. Wellington West Coast was on the left; Taranaki Company, centre; Wellington Company, right. At first light the unit transport under Major Pleasants was to come forward and disperse in the depression under an escarpment some 400 yards south of the battalion position. Supporting weapons were now set up and sections got into fire positions. The light brightened, and to the intense astonishment of the whole unit it was seen that considerable enemy infantry forces occupied the low ground to the north and had a 75-millimetre battery established on the high ground to the north-east. The enemy was completely oblivious to the presence of the battalion, and it was with a feeling of unreality that our troops watched his forward elements—barely 600 yards away—rubbing the sleep from their eyes, folding their blankets, and preparing breakfasts alongside the slit trenches from which they had just risen.

While our infantry watched the enemy at his early morning interior economy, a strongpoint which had been quickly established at a suitable spot on the right of the battalion line opened fire. Here the unit’s 3-inch mortars and the attached machine-gun platoon from No. 2 Company 27 MG Battalion (Major C. C. Johansen18) had set up, and with the range at approximately 1000 yards, their first bursts had such a telling effect on the enemy artillery that his guns page 277 never got into action. Simultaneously the infantry with LMG and rifle fire pinned the enemy infantry to the ground and inflicted heavy casualties on the startled Jerries. Our own artillery, whose battery positions had been established in the rear of the infantry, engaged enemy tanks and trucks which were clearly visible in the distance. Carrier screens operating to the east and west of the 19th line reported all hostile movements and gained much information; they were the means of preventing an enemy counter-attack from developing, and throughout the whole action the Hun was kept completely at our mercy.

During the morning 4 Field Regiment’s guns were constantly active. They harassed the enemy at every point where he showed any signs of activity. The 19th Battalion strong-point and the artillery did some excellently co-ordinated shooting. Though at one stage during the morning the enemy managed to get some mortars into action and brought fire to bear against Wellington West Coast and Taranaki Companies, most of his weapons were soon silenced and our casualties for the engagement were surprisingly low. The only man killed was Private Dick Hooper,19 whose carrier was hit by an anti-tank shell. Seven other men were wounded.

At 2.40 p.m. the brigade was ordered to withdraw for a heavy force of enemy tanks was reported to be assembling to the west. The withdrawal was successfully carried out, the 19th bringing up the rear. A sharp air attack—which fortunately caused no damage or casualties—and the sight of a heavy concentration of enemy shells landing on the position which the unit had just vacated were the only incidents of note during the return journey. Within an hour the 19th was back in its former area.

The co-ordination achieved during this action of 7 July was commended by the Brigade Commander. The battalion’s 3-inch mortars, the attached MMGs (No. 5 Platoon 27 MG Battalion), the 4 Field Regiment’s anti-tank guns, a rifle platoon from Wellington Company, and page 278 an artillery OP constituted the garrison of the strongpoint. These elements, plus the Bren carriers, achieved a programme of observed fire which rendered all enemy attempts at counter-attack or retaliation ineffective.

Back in the battalion’s position our artillery was again active and during the evening enemy bombers passed overhead several times. A large tank force was reported to be advancing around the flank of the Division’s position, and orders were received from Corps Headquarters for a move towards the rear. Up to this time the Division had been on the flank of 13 Corps, whose extended front was but thinly manned and stretched as far north as Deir el Harra. There was a gap between the right of 13 Corps and the left of 30 Corps about Deir el Hima, and into this gap the Division was now being moved. The route lay back around the south of Qaret el Abd, and after a strenuous all-night move in which the exhausted drivers of the 4 Brigade vehicles had to strain every nerve to keep awake, the unit arrived and took up its position in the new area.

The troops were tired and units lay up for the day. The QM took the opportunity to issue fresh clothing, a much-needed hot meal was prepared, and with appetites whetted by several days’ short commons the meal was tackled with gusto. The rest too was appreciated and, fortunately, during the day there was little enemy action to disturb it. At 8 p.m., however, the 19th was required to move on once more. Advancing two miles to the north and facing north, the battalion dug in in darkness in the Alam Nayil area.

The following day (9 July) was spent in improving the fighting slits, which had to be dug in almost solid rock, a disheartening and wearying task. Still, it was a reasonably quiet day with the RAF much in evidence above. Six huge Liberator bombers were watched with great interest as they flew by, and as this was the first appearance of these huge machines, there was much speculation about what they were. The weary infantry raised a cheer at this convincing evidence of our increasing strength in the air. It was not until evening that the enemy opened his hate with a dive- page 279 bombing attack by eight of the detested Stukas. There were several casualties and Private Phillips,20 a popular member of the ‘I’ section, was killed. Later in the evening the sounds of a fierce tank battle somewhere out in front could be clearly heard, but to offset this disturbing din flights of Wellington bombers roaring overhead all night indicated that Rommel’s newly captured supply port at Mersa Matruh was receiving attention from the RAF.

On the 10th an alteration in the battalion position was ordered: Taranaki Company shifted from the right to the left flank and linked up with 28 (Maori) Battalion, while Wellington West Coast Company on the right of the position made contact with 20 Battalion. Out in front of the 4 Brigade area unit Bren carriers kept constant patrol and maintained touch with 7 Motor Brigade, which was operating five ‘Jock’ columns south of the position. During the day our artillery was kept busy but there was little retaliation. The enemy occupied the Kaponga Box, which had been abandoned by 4 Brigade the previous day, and was now pushing on to Qaret el Himeimat. These advances seriously threatened the Alamein Line. The 5th Indian Division was therefore moved up to relieve 1 Armoured Brigade on the eastern end of Ruweisat Ridge, which dominated the northern sector and was the most important tactical feature in the whole line.

On 11 July German forces had succeeded in establishing positions on the western ridges of the Ruweisat salient and had already set up several tank harbours in the rough ground to the south. Our armour was giving battle, and on the Alam Nayil ridge the troops of 4 Brigade were wakened in the early morning to the din of a tank clash taking place to the north. At 3 a.m. the New Zealand artillery joined in the battle and for almost two hours sent over salvo after salvo. During the morning the battalion area was twice bombed but otherwise the day was quiet until 5.30 p.m., when 4 and 5 Brigades moved to attack north along Alam Nayil.

page 280

Proceeding on a bearing of 330 degrees from 20 Battalion’s forward positions, the 19th advanced in transport for approximately a mile, then debussed and went forward another 600 yards on foot. All unnecessary vehicles were sent back and a temporary rear Battalion Headquarters established while the advance took place. During this move 23 Battalion of 5 Brigade became the target for an extremely nasty enemy artillery bombardment which later embraced 4 Brigade. The 19th, 20th and 28th Battalions, however, went steadily forward and, despite heavy artillery and mortar fire, reached their objective and dug in. This advance was a fine example of unflinching obedience to orders: a steady, controlled movement with a purposeful occupation of prearranged positions at its end. It was watched and favourably commented on by members of 1 Armoured Brigade whose tanks were harbouring close to the debussing point. The 19th and 20th had casualties.

At 3 a.m. a further move of 1000 yards was made and a fresh area occupied. Our armour, meanwhile, was concentrating in the rear, and the battalion Bren carriers, which were running a shuttle service between Rear HQ and the forward battalion positions, reported gleefully that some 180 tanks—Grants, Lees, Stuarts, Crusaders—were in a handy position to add weight to the final attack which was expected to take place the following day.

The 12th July dawned clear and the day was intensely hot. Both water and rations were scarce, and as the enemy artillery was active it was difficult to get supplies up to the infantry. However, just after midnight rations were sent up to the forward troops, and the first batch of reinforcements—some 92 other ranks—joined the battalion and went out to their companies that night.

During the day Lieutenant Hugh Flower21 was ordered to report to Brigade Headquarters for briefing for a special mission. On his return to the battalion he selected fifteen men from Wellington West Coast Company to accompany him on a tricky reconnaissance patrol which would be page 281 carried out as soon as darkness fell. They were to go right through the enemy FDLs on to Ruweisat Ridge over five miles away, and observe and report on the position of minefields, wire, and enemy troops. Along the route which the patrol was to take, 4 Brigade would shortly move to attack and occupy Ruweisat. Careful compass bearings were given and, loaded into the 15 cwt truck of No. 11 Platoon, Wellington West Coast Company, Flower and his men set off on their mission.

Progress for the first three miles was slow. The truck crawled along without attracting attention then finally bogged down in deep sand. For a breathless few minutes all struggled to release it, for the patrol was now among enemy transport and German voices could be heard close by. Once out of the sand they proceeded on their route unmolested until Flower, judging that any further advance would have to be done on foot, ordered a halt.

Leaving three men to watch the truck, with orders to return to the battalion on the same route as they had come if the patrol did not get back at a stated time, the rest set off through the enemy lines. Lightly equipped and wearing rubber shoes, they moved noiselessly along their bearing until the voices of German troops could again be clearly heard. The patrol commander and Private Bill May22 now went on for a further 2000 yards, passed through further enemy posts, and moved about in the rear of the enemy’s position observing.

Having done as much as time and darkness permitted, they retraced their steps, picked up the rest of the party on the way, and arrived back at the truck without difficulty. They headed back to Battalion Headquarters, arriving just before dawn, reported the way clear of wire or minefields and gave, as far as was possible, the location of the enemy FDLs. Two days later the battalion moved along the same route into the attack.

In oppressive heat and choking dust the troops worked hard during daylight on the 13th to improve cover and page 282 battle positions. At night strong patrols were sent out along the whole front. It had been an exhausting forty-eight hours: scorching hot days with continuous shelling and bombing; nights taken up with movement and digging; and rations and, worse still, water had been scarce during the whole period. An outbreak of ‘Gyppy tummy’ added to the discomforts of many of the weary troops. Nevertheless the battalion was in good heart and made the most of its opportunities to contact other members of the brigade who were in positions alongside. Some amusing stories over events of the past week were exchanged. The Maoris, in particular, had had several unusual experiences. During the midnight advance to occupy the Alam Nayil ridge one of their vehicles had become bogged. As several of them helped to push it out they were assisted by some Italians who, pushing and chatting in their own tongue, were quite oblivious to the fact that they were helping their enemies. The Maori Battalion, too, had captured a German prisoner who, as a continental woolbuyer, had several times visited New Zealand before the war. He talked freely to his captors saying, among other things, that ‘between our officers and the New Zealand 25-pounders we haven’t known whether we were on our heads or our feet lately.’

The battalion’s Bren carrier platoon came in for wide praise. In heavy shelling the carriers had made many trips to the forward positions, carrying rations and ammunition and taking back wounded; as links between Battalion Headquarters out in front and B Echelon and Brigade Headquarters in the rear they had done outstanding service. Communications were difficult at all times and line communication in particular was almost impossible. The brigade wireless link was at this time set up in a slit trench with the aerial rod of the No. 11 set poking up some 12 feet above the ground. The mast seemed to attract fire, and Signalman Bradnock23 from J Section, Divisional Signals, repairing for the second time the broken sections of his aerial, treated the nearby troops to an amusing page 283 diatribe as he worked. ‘Brad’ was good value and the 19th, to whom he had been attached on several occasions, regarded him with affection. His pungent comments during times of stress lessened the tension and brightened the mood of all who were within hearing.

The new reinforcements posted to platoons settled down in a soldierlike manner and, despite the uncomfortable situation, quickly demonstrated that their morale was high. They were a valuable addition to the thinning ranks of the battalion’s rifle companies. The 19th was well under battle strength. The company from the Essex Battalion was no longer attached, Hawke’s Bay Company was LOB, and the casualties sustained over a month’s fighting had been considerable. It was well known that the impending attack would demand the utmost from the whole of the brigade. All ranks were on their toes. The attack failed to develop as expected on the 13th, but Bostons and Hurricanes flying almost continuously in the enemy’s direction during daylight and after dark were judged by the troops to be a good omen for the following day.

On the 14th the unit endured another blazing day in the discomfort of oven-hot slit trenches. Enemy shelling had eased considerably but two Stuka raids, one with eighteen planes equipped with screamers, filled in the gaps and made rest difficult. During the afternoon orders for the attack on Ruweisat Ridge were issued. It was to be another night show. The 4th and 5th New Zealand Brigades and 5 Indian Infantry Brigade were to do the job. The 1st Armoured Division in support would advance in a westerly direction and, with its right flank on the ridge, would at dawn exploit the infantry successes and mop up any resistance remaining in the south, so leaving the way clear for the New Zealand gunline and Divisional Headquarters to move up within operating distance of the forward troops holding Ruweisat.

Fourth Brigade’s objective was the westward end of the ridge, including Trig 63, and its attack was to be made with 18 Battalion forward, 19 Battalion echeloned rearwards and left, and 20 Battalion in reserve. The infantry were expected to encounter outlying enemy posts three miles page 284 short of their objective, to go through them, capture the ridge, consolidate, and with the assistance of 2 Armoured Brigade hold the feature against counter-attacks. Each
Black and white map of army positons

Ruweisat Ridge, situation at dawn, 15 July 1942

attacking battalion was to take with it three trucks only: a wireless van with the brigade link, an artillery forward observation truck, and a vehicle for wounded. Anti-tank guns were to move with the reserve battalion, while unit mortars, Bren carriers, etc., were expected to join their battalions at first light when the artillery, too, would come up on the position.

At 10 p.m. the 19th moved out to the start line, reached it after a half-hour march, and formed up as follows: Wellington West Coast Company (Captain W. E. Aitken) right forward, Taranaki Company (Captain B. R. Dill) left forward, Wellington Company (Captain D. S. Thomson) left rear, Battalion Headquarters right rear, with the three vehicles following behind. At 11 p.m., on a bearing of 320 degrees, the battalion moved to the attack. Companies picked up their weapons, shook out into battle order and page 285 went forward. The men, grim and uncomplaining, gave no indication of the exhausting days they had just endured; the pace was regular; the formation good; the glint of fixed bayonets gave the only indication of what lay ahead. It was a long approach march, but sterling compass work and accurate pacing on the part of the direction men from the ‘I’ section under Lieutenant Bob Wood24 ensured a square and uniform front, a factor which had an important bearing on the success of the first clash.

It soon became obvious that opposition could be expected much sooner than was first anticipated, for after the attackers had covered about two miles the enemy, by extensive use of flares, discovered the advance of the forward companies. They were then about 250 yards from his forward positions. A hail of fire met the leading troops, but there was no slowing of the advance and hand-to-hand fighting soon developed. These encounters were to be repeated right up to the objective for the enemy was now organised in depth throughout the whole area. The initial clash caused casualties in all companies, but soon after our men had closed with his infantry-supported machine-gun posts the enemy began to surrender. Most of the opposing troops were Italians, and in a short time the 19th was through their first defence line and among their artillery and transport. There was no time to round up prisoners, and the rudely awakened and badly scared Italians wandered aimlessly about while the battalion reformed.

In the confusion of the first encounter Brigade Headquarters lost touch with the battalions and the battalions, heavily engaged, had no inter-company contact. Wireless communication was never established for the cumbersome and temperamental No. 18 infantry pack set was not robust enough to stand the racket; though the 19th signallers carefully netted their stations before the attack, the sets did not stay adjusted and interference made renetting on the move impossible. The wireless van with the brigade link had been hit early in the engagement and none of the battalion page 286 transport got up with the unit after the attack started. Companies were rallied by a prearranged signal—‘Single shot flame tracer from a Bren gun fired straight into the air’—and the advance went on again.

The other battalions, too, had had some stiff fighting, and at this stage the 19th was joined by 60 men from the 18th who, under Major Brett,25 formed themselves into a composite company on the battalion’s right flank after having become detached from their own unit during the initial encounter. This company continued on to the objective with the 19th, which arrived on Ruweisat after further fighting about an hour and a half before dawn. Wellington West Coast Company exploited forward into a small depression, then all companies immediately set about putting their areas into a state of defence.

The successful completion of the first part of its formidable task had cost the 19th some sixty all ranks, and with the first glimmer of daylight reorganisation began. Companies were disposed as follows: Wellington West Coast Company on the north side of the ridge, facing north; Wellington Company on the south side of the ridge, facing south; Taranaki Company linking the two and facing west; while the troops attached from 18 Battalion were in position watching the east and acting as reserve. The whole area was just east of Trig 63. Fourth Brigade Headquarters was sited slightly east of 19 Battalion Headquarters and in the area occupied by the composite company under Major Brett. A sparse minefield with well-defined tracks inadequately covered its approaches, while a single concertina barbed-wire obstacle gave further slender protection. Unfortunately there were no mines and no wire with which to make these obstacles more effective, and 6 Field Company NZE (Major Reid26) occupied an infantry position as brigade defensive page 287 troops, a role which they carried out with distinction during the whole of the Ruweisat operation.

As the light increased heavy firing broke out to the south-west and on contact being made it was found that 20 Battalion was having difficulty in getting on to its objective. All available light machine guns in the 19th’s area were immediately brought to bear on enemy machine-gun and mortar posts which could now be seen engaging 20 Battalion, and their fire quietened the enemy. A small force of vehicles broke off from the advancing troops and came up on to the ridge at high speed. These proved to be the medium machine guns under Major Johansen and some six-pounder anti-tank guns under Major Nicholson,27 and these weapons got into action very smartly. The added weight to the battalion’s fire enabled control to be established over the area, and the 20th were then able to continue up on to their position on the ridge. Brigade Headquarters and the rest of the anti-tank guns put in an appearance shortly afterwards, and all supporting weapons immediately engaged the confusion of enemy troops and transport which could be seen trying to escape from Deir el Shein. In the first few minutes they knocked out three enemy light tanks which had shortly before put in an appearance and began to harass the area. An enemy 20-millimetre dual-purpose ack-ack and anti-tank gun in Wellington Company’s area, manned by our men who had captured it after killing the original German crew, also did its share in the long-range work. The gun had cost the 19th several men killed, for the enemy crew had made a valiant stand and had continued firing until our forward troops were on top of them.

The battlefield, which had been previously strongly held by the enemy, was littered with vast quantities of guns and equipment which had been abandoned by the Italians. Burning vehicles included a tank, which had brewed up when one of our men tossed a grenade into its turret, and page 288 a large number of trucks set on fire by our advancing infantry; these and the three tanks knocked out by the anti-tank gunners created a pall of smoke over the area. There were scattered enemy parties still roaming about to the west of the position and it appeared that a counter-attack was being organised. This was discouraged by fire from the brigade position, but it soon became evident that there was still some well-sited artillery out in front, and it was not long before the troops on the ridge came under accurate fire from 88-millimetre guns whose airburst and delayed action high-explosive shells made the position most uncomfortable.

It was clear that large pockets of enemy to the west, and to a lesser degree to the east, had escaped the night attack. They were now effectively preventing our artillery, mortars, and Bren carriers from coming up. The situation was serious and enemy shelling was steadily increasing. Still, the armour was expected to put in an appearance at any time, and meanwhile the troops on Ruweisat were fighting back with all the weapons they could bring to bear. Digging was extremely difficult, the whole area having a shelf of rock about a foot below the surface. Tools, too, were short. ‘Bouncing B’s’—shells which bounced on impact and exploded in mid-air—were particularly troublesome. The few phone lines laid immediately companies had got into position were quickly cut, and repairs soon became impossible. Lack of adequate protection resulted in a steady toll of casualties. However, despite every disadvantage, the 4 Brigade units were in high fettle and sent out patrols, brought in prisoners, and did everything possible to enable the success of the attack to be fully exploited once our armour came up.

Throughout the morning enemy pressure steadily increased. The senior officers—including four generals—among the many prisoners taken were sent back to Divisional Headquarters. Those from the 19th were sent back under a corporal’s escort—a sufficient guard, but in rank somewhat below the exalted station which army etiquette demands shall accompany such high-ranking prisoners. Still, the page 289 Italians themselves were in no mood for niceties; the area was being fiercely shelled by their own compatriots and they were glad to get out of it. Two of these officer prisoners, with arms entwined, wept hysterically as they went. At the time German airburst fire was playing havoc with the crews of our anti-tank weapons, but these were gallantly kept in action and the enemy armour, which had now put in an appearance, kept its distance.

By midday the position of 4 Brigade was grim; the 19th area was being shelled from almost point-blank range, and more and more men were being killed and wounded. The dressing station was under fire and it was obvious that only early intervention by armour could restore the situation. So close was the enemy now that two Wellington West Coast Bren-gunners were able to fire on a German officer directing a mortar sited to the north of the position.

Still the armour failed to arrive, and with every hour’s delay the hard-won success of the night attack became less and less possible to exploit and the defenders of Ruweisat Ridge were slowly but surely being exterminated. Messages to Divisional Headquarters from 4 Brigade, giving notice of an enemy armoured attack threatening from the west, brought the reply that our tanks could be expected in the sector almost immediately. They never showed up, and it was galling to watch what might have been an outstanding victory being slowly turned into a costly defeat. The immense damage which could have been inflicted on the disorganised enemy to the north of the position, had our armour been close on the heels of the infantry, was apparent to all, but as the day wore on the great mass of transport and equipment abandoned during the night by a terror-stricken foe was being recovered.

Without artillery or mortars and under heavy fire, the brigade could do nothing to intervene and the enemy had the field to themselves; with typical German thoroughness they were taking full advantage of the situation. Using two captured tanks, the panzers were making a deliberate and careful reconnaissance of the perimeter of the whole of the 4 Brigade area. From 19 Battalion head- page 290 quarters these two tanks were seen steadily working round the position and halting hull down while observing. Their reconnaissance covered a period of several hours. They were in no hurry to attack and were clearly leaving nothing to chance. Meanwhile the lot of our troops—shared by the many prisoners they had taken—was highly uncomfortable. Constantly under fire and almost without cover, scorched by the sun, choked by dust and irritated by fumes and smoke from burning vehicles, short of food and water, the 4 Brigade defenders of the ridge were in desperate straits. They were trapped—still fighting—but against odds which could not be coped with by unsupported infantry.

At 3 p.m., however, it seemed that salvation was in sight for a liaison officer from 1 Armoured Division arrived at Brigade Headquarters where a conference of harassed unit commanders was in progress. He brought good news—our armoured forces were proceeding in strength west along the southern slopes of Ruweisat Ridge and were now barely three miles away. An outline of the situation was quickly given him and he was sent hurriedly back to report to his tanks. Aid was now at hand.

Almost an hour passed, and just before 4 p.m. 20 Battalion notified Brigade of an impending enemy attack on its position. The armour were immediately informed, messages being sent to their commander by their own LO and one of the brigade staff. The whole area at this time was under murderous fire. A thick pall of smoke was drifting across the front and to the west; with the setting sun, the dust of battle and the smoke of burning vehicles, carried on to the position by a light westerly wind, rendered visibility in that quarter almost nil. Still, our surviving anti-tank gunners were engaging anything out in front which moved. They held off the attack. The armour was expected to put in an appearance at any minute and at Brigade Headquarters dispositions for the night were being discussed. Confident that the tanks would soon arrive, 4 Brigade made ready to assist them to exploit.

Forty more precious minutes ticked by, then the panzers suddenly delivered their coup-de-grâce. Using the covered page 291 approach given by the poor visibility in the west, and adding to the already heavy smoke screen by setting further derelict vehicles on fire, the German tanks, some flying British recognition pennants, came up, got into position and, supported by heavy shelling from the north, attacked. Despite desperate fighting the whole area was overrun in a few minutes. About a dozen eight-wheeled armoured cars and some captured Bren carriers were used to round up our infantry after their brief gallant fight, and practically the whole of the surviving members of 4 Brigade were captured. Armoured car crews covered our men, holding them with the threat of machine-gun fire. At the slightest sign of a break they opened fire or hurled grenades and so kept their prisoners powerless until lorried infantry, who came up in armoured troop-carriers, shepherded them away. Most of our wounded were left where they lay, and though several attempts were made to bring them away this was not permitted.

Unmolested, the Germans ranged the ridge at will, and our own tanks but half a mile away to the east did nothing to restore the situation. Enemy light armoured forces combed the area thoroughly, gathering in any who had eluded the first attack, and when men and guns were all captured the whole force rallied towards the headlighted guide truck which had marked the axis of its advance.

Of the last few minutes on Ruweisat Ridge Captain Dill (OC Taranaki Company) writes:

In odd lulls things stand out—Lt Colin McLernon,28 Bde LO, and driver were quite unhurt when their jeep blew up on a mine not far behind us. Vague memories of a portée screaming back through us—whether going back for more ammunition or getting out at the double, we could not decide.

It must be remembered that the infantry had only Brens, Thompson subs, rifle and bayonet and the odd grenade. No anti-tank weapon at all.

Between 1500 and 1600 hours the shelling eased a bit and gradually gave way to high velocity and machine gun fire.

Forward sections reported tanks. These came on through the haze flying our pennants of the day. Then as they got page 292 more visible we recognised them as German eight wheel armoured cars.

The vickers were scuppered—the anti-tanks had gone or were silenced, the armour turned and snuffled in and about the small wadis ahead and to our left. We had very little vision of what was going on in front of WWC Coy until we noticed small groups standing up.

Next the cars in front of us turned towards us and closed in with the commanders sitting up as large as life through the turrets. They did not stay there long—everything closed down with a clang as the air seemed to scream full of lead. We lay low—watched and waited. The two platoons on the right stood up, there were two cars right on top of them. I turned to see Bn HQ packing up. There was a little fire burning, probably in the IO’s slit. Turned again and saw a white rag—or was it a red cross?—fluttering in Bde HQ area. I could have wept. A darned great ugly eight-wheeler rolled up towards our little Coy HQ group. I buried my glasses and old revolver—and stood up.

It was 7.30 p.m. before our armour opened fire. The German tanks, then moving back in bounds, avoided an engagement. So ended the battle of Ruweisat Ridge for 4 NZ Infantry Brigade. The operation which had begun so well had finished in disaster. Chagrin and bitterness was the lot of the men who had won and stubbornly held the ridge. Now prisoners of the Afrika Korps, they were herded out of the area and whisked away westwards by German transport. Once out of the forward line they were debussed and formed up to march wearily to the first of the many wire cages which were to be their lot for the next three years. As a final touch of irony, the long line of prisoners moving slowly westwards was attacked by the RAF.

The German was evidently still smarting over his earlier defeats at the hands of the New Zealanders, and once back in the rear areas the treatment meted out to our men was anything but pleasant. Officers in particular were singled out for special attention, and on the evening of the 16th at a panzer headquarters the German GOC and his staff officers turned on a display of Nazi tantrums which they no doubt imagined would terrify their prisoners. Spitting and shouting, they stamped up and down a line of New Zealand page 293 officers who stood awaiting interrogation. One of them in broken English screamed: ‘In Greece and Crete the New Zealanders fought like gentlemen but now they fill themselves with cognac and fight like Bolsheviks.’ Captain David Thomson, who was captured late in the evening, had his shoulder straps and badges of rank ripped off his uniform—an extreme insult from the Germans’ point of view—and was told that he was no longer an officer. His pack was torn from his back and he was allowed to take nothing from it, not even his wife’s photograph. Products of Hitler’s hysterical new order, these German officers showed none of the traditional Teutonic impassiveness.

Not all of 19 Battalion went into the ‘bag’, for there were some notable escapes after capture and some of the unit managed to elude the attackers altogether. Approximately two platoons from Wellington Company got clear when Captain Thomson, realising that the armoured rush was about to start and that his unsupported infantry were right in the tracks of the oncoming tanks, withdrew them about 100 yards into a slight depression. Here they remained undetected by the enemy but Thomson himself, going out in an attempt to bring in more men, was captured. Four members of the signals platoon got away in an Italian ‘bug’ which they had salvaged earlier in the day. As they ran off the ridge they were shot up by an armoured car and also mortared, but though hit the vehicle kept going. Driven by Private Cliff Lunn29 with Privates John Pike,30 Harry Toho, and ‘Spike’ Moloney31 as passengers, it brought them and their equipment to safety. ‘Benito’ the bug, with its bullet-torn body, became a centre of attraction at Amiriya when the remnants of the unit were collected once more.

Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell had a double escape. He was at a Brigade Headquarters’ conference when the attack took place. The brigade staff and stragglers were organised page 294 and manned a hurriedly formed line, and when this position was finally overwhelmed Colonel Hartnell, with Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch32 (18 Battalion) and his batman, lay doggo in a slit trench. A passing armoured car threw in four hand grenades and Lynch and his batman were severely wounded. The 19th’s CO, however, was untouched. Later when trying to get clear, he with several others was rounded up by the German armour. Just at that juncture, however, some of the British tanks appeared, and taking advantage of the preoccupation of the enemy he went to ground and escaped. Several of the rest of the group who were too well covered by the enemy to try to break away had the additional humiliation of watching our tanks withdraw again, while a German officer speaking perfect English sneered, ‘There goes your gallant British armour.’

During the early hours of darkness Colonel Hartnell retraced his steps, traversed the 19th position, and then went on to the spot where Brigade Headquarters had been located. Here he met Brigadier Burrows who had also eluded his captors. Together they collected a few other survivors who appeared from various hiding places and, salvaging two trucks, put on board what wounded they could find and began to withdraw. Unfortunately the trucks attracted attention and were soon surrounded by four enemy armoured cars and two Bren carriers. Some of the party judged the Bren carriers to be ours and on running towards them were quickly taken prisoner. The Brigadier and Colonel Hartnell lay on the ground in the darkness and so escaped attention. Both later escaped separately to the east.

While the 4 Brigade infantry were in occupation of Ruweisat Ridge, Brigade Rear Headquarters and B Echelon were moved up to a position slightly forward of Alam Nayil, arriving there at approximately the same time as the forward troops got on to their objectives. During daylight on the 15th this group was regularly bombed and suffered several Coloured map of Mediterranean Sea page 295 casualties. The news of the progress of the attack was vague and disturbing. The artillery and unit Bren carriers, mortars, etc., had not got forward as planned, and it was soon clear from the few reports which came from the forward areas that the infantry were in a precarious position. Fearing that the ammunition carried into battle on the man would be expended, Major Pleasants organised a Bren carrier service to take out extra supplies of small-arms ammunition and some sorely needed water. Despite severe shelling and mortaring, several of the 19th carriers (Second-Lieutenant Hislop33) successfully made the trip. Their arrival on the ridge was greeted with cheers, but the news that those men who returned brought back was grim. Without artillery support and with the armour failing to carry out its role, the debacle out in front could have only one ending. Shortly after dark a trickle of survivors coming in confirmed the worst.

Pleasants immediately went out alone on foot in an attempt to find and bring in any other men of the 19th who might have escaped. His was a forlorn mission, and on his return late that night orders were received to move south and east to a spot close to rear Divisional Headquarters. It was a sad convoy which set off into the darkness. The empty trucks and the few battle-scarred Bren carriers left the area and began the first leg of a miserable journey which was to end back at Base. On Ruweisat Ridge the 19th had lost approximately 248 other ranks and 12 officers; sick at heart, the survivors answered next morning’s roll-call. During the day a few more men drifted in until finally the battalion strength stood at 12 officers and 325 other ranks, of whom the great majority were in Headquarters Company. Of the rifle companies, Wellington mustered 61, Wellington West Coast 21, while Taranaki’s roll showed only 17 names.

In the early afternoon a further rearward move was made and to the accompaniment of two brief bombing raids the remnants of the battalion dug in and wearily but luxuriously —with boots off for the first time for many days—settled down to sleep. That evening 6 NZ Brigade moving up to page 296 the front from Amiriya took over all the unit’s three-ton transport, its Bren carriers, and all weapons except rifles and pistols. The 19th were now definitely out of the fighting, and the following day (17 July) set off for No. 4 camp at Amiriya. A swirling dust-storm caused the convoy to split in two en route but both sections arrived before the evening meal. Sixty dozen cans of beer were distributed with the food and the men bedded down early, sleeping in tents and, for the first time for over a month, taking their rest without the monotonous formality of digging in.

On Saturday the small area required to accommodate the battalion was put in order and the melancholy task of sorting out the gear of the missing members of the unit was begun. The survivors in bitter mood discussed Ruweisat. It was the all-absorbing topic, the sorry climax to a campaign in which the 19th had acquitted itself well. Of the many engagements of the past month, none held such possibilities as the part played by the 4 Brigade units in their capture of their objectives on the ridge. Not without reason did the men lay the blame for the near extinction of the brigade on the unwilling tracks of 1 Armoured Division; nor have the years dimmed their resentment. Whatever the factors dictating the lack of offensive action on the part of the tanks during the daylight hours of the 15th, the infantry who were there cannot forget that 4 NZ Brigade was rolled up by a light German armoured force while our armour, superior in weight and numbers, stood by without attempting to intervene.

Some tanks halting in the Amiriya area that morning were treated with open contempt by the 4 Brigade men. Their crews admitted being near Ruweisat during the 15th and resentfully endured the insults which were heaped upon the proud name of their corps. One of their NCOs finally spoke up and in a broad Lancashire drawl said: ‘Ee lads we know how you feel—but it’s not our lads won’t fight, it’s muckin’ HQ won’t let them.’ It was learned later that on the morning of the 15th 1 Armoured Division had lost its commander, wounded; perhaps in the confusion of the occasion the original plan was temporarily forgotten. At page 297 all events the British armour had proved its worth and courage in many previous battles, and was not found wanting in the fierce fighting which took place in the subsequent phases of the Battle of Alamein.

The LOB company (Hawke’s Bay) had been on its way up to reinforce the battalion when the Ruweisat operation was in progress. It now joined up with the remnants of the unit at Amiriya and with these survivors formed the backbone of a new 19 Battalion—a battalion which was destined in the future to play a much different role. When it next took the field it would be an armoured unit. It was fortunate indeed that Hawke’s Bay Company remained intact, for at the time all available men were being rushed to reinforce units in the line. During July Eighth Army had over 13,000 battle casualties; since its return from Syria 19 Battalion alone had lost 23 officers and 369 other ranks, with a further 38 men evacuated sick. Eighth Army, in its all-out effort to establish and hold the Alamein Line and to wrest the initiative from Rommel, had become dangerously weak; the whole of the Middle East command was being combed for fit men to reinforce it. Now, however, the Axis no longer boasted loudly of invasion and conquest, for Rommel, within a few short miles of his goal, had been held at the Alamein Line.

After a short address by the CO, in which he outlined the background for the recent actions and expressed pride and gratification for the manner in which all ranks had acquitted themselves, leave began. Of the Ruweisat survivors, 30 per cent left immediately for Alexandria and the rest of the unit packed up in preparation for the return to Maadi. Before moving out the 19th said goodbye to Major Clive Pleasants, MC. He had served continuously with the unit since 1939 in all capacities from company officer to unit second-in-command and had earned a high reputation for solid soldiering. His doggedness and bravery during the campaigns in Greece and Crete had become a byword in the battalion. He left to command 18 Battalion—still at Alamein—and all ranks wished him well.

page 298

On 21 July the unit arrived back at Maadi, occupied an area adjacent to the Pall Mall theatre, and made the most of the amenities which the now well-found camp provided. The transfer from dreary Amiriya had been surprisingly sudden—no doubt accelerated by the unorthodox but effective action of a 19th officer (Captain Jack Hutchinson34) who was acting Staff Captain for HQ 4 NZ Infantry Brigade. On the Brigade Commander’s behalf he sent to Divisional Headquarters a signal bearing the prefix MOST IMMEDIATE, asking permission for the move. This message took priority over all other traffic and the desired result was achieved in short order. This prefix is used only on very urgent and important messages and is not often seen on signal traffic in the field. No doubt the battle-weary troops back in Maadi, enjoying their first shower for over a month, would have been unanimous in their opinion that the circumstances fully warranted the use of any priority which might hasten their return to such luxury. Captain Hutchinson in due course found a somewhat less appreciative reception awaiting at Divisional Headquarters.

Personal comfort, refitting and refurbishing, mail and correspondence, bazaar shopping, relaxing at the New Zealand Club, reading, and in camp the nightly picture show —these were the chief activities during the first few days in Maadi Camp. The old hands made the most of the calm of Base after the hectic month they had spent in continuous movement and fighting in the Western Desert. Reinforcements came and went almost before their presence was noticed; they were sent up to the units still at Alamein, and only those ex-members of the battalion who after wounds or sickness were discharged from hospital remained with the 19th. In the Naafi among the beer mugs and the peanuts, groups of men talked and argued over the engagements in which they had just taken part. The old question, ‘What is happening?’, was now framed in the past tense, and added also was the further burning question, ‘Why?’. On the page 299 27th in the Pall Mall theatre some of these answers were given.

The CO’s talk on the campaign in the Western Desert was greatly appreciated. With the aid of maps prepared by the ‘I’ section, he outlined the moves from the New Zealand Division’s first encounter at Minqar Qaim until the attack on Ruweisat Ridge. It was characteristic of the New Zealand soldier that he felt no fealty for a commander whose plan he did not, at least to some extent, share, and these talks on current events and tactics, both before and after battle, were avidly absorbed by all ranks and always critically discussed. The sequel to Ruweisat was now known. By an outstanding feat of arms the Division, with 5 Indian Infantry Brigade, had not only secured for Eighth Army invaluable OPs on the Ruweisat feature and gained important ground to the west, but it had also taken some 2000 prisoners. The enemy persisted in his efforts to gain the ridge by trying to dislodge the Indians on the 16th—the morning following the overrunning of 4 Brigade. This time, with the assistance of 2 Armoured Brigade and a heavy concentration of artillery, he was beaten off on three successive days. Then, on the 21st, 5 and 6 NZ Infantry Brigades and 161 Indian Infantry Brigade attacked again; once more the attack was successful, but next day the New Zealand and Indian infantry were counter-attacked and overrun.

Nevertheless the total gains made by the two attacks on 14 and 21 July were considerable, and though costly were a vital contribution to the plan upon which the defence of the Alamein Line was based. The desert war was now static. Close to its own supply bases the hard-hit Eighth Army could now concentrate on reinforcing and re-equipping in preparation for the offensive that would drive the Axis armies from North Africa.

But for 19 Battalion the desert war was over, and back in Base Camp its members followed the progress of events at the front with a certain wistfulness. Some could already foresee the day when a reproach, not lightly to be borne, page 300 might be levelled against 4 Brigade— for of the hard campaign which would culminate in the final defeat of Rommel, the rest of the Division, like Henry IV, could say, ‘We fought at Arques and you were not there.’

The 19th Battalion sustained just under 50 per cent battle casualties in this campaign. Of the total of 781 all ranks on strength, the following were casualties:

Officers Other Ranks
Killed in action 2 25
Died of wounds 18
Missing 7
Wounded 9 115
Wounded and prisoners of war 2 22
Prisoners of war 10 182
Total 23 369

1 Tpr D. J. Thompson; Petone; born Napier, 8 Jul 1916; labourer; twice wounded.

2 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Greek); Korea; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn Dec 1941-Jun 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942-Jul 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; Commandant, Southern Military District, Nov 1951-Oct 1953; Commander K Force Nov 1953-.

3 Lt A. H. Carmichael; Palmerston North; born Riverton, 10 May 1917; farm employee; wounded 14 May 1944.

4 Tpr C. H. Whittaker; born NZ, 29 Aug 1912; upholsterer.

5 Lt K. A. V. Cross; born Australia, 16 Jun 1913; radio dealer; killed in action 28 Jun 1942.

6 Lt H. R. Dix; born Raetihi, 6 Sep 1916; clerk; killed in action 28 Jun 1942.

7 WO I R. A. H. Wilson; born NZ, 11 Nov 1913; Regular soldier; killed in action 28 Jun 1942.

8 L-Cpl V. E. R. Horne; born NZ, 26 Mar 1908; clerk; wounded May 1941; killed in action 28 Jun 1942.

9 Line of Communication.

10 Lt J. C. Evans; born New Plymouth, 20 Nov 1913; auctioneer; killed in action 5 Jul 1942.

11 Maj T. H. Bevan, DSO, m.i.d.; Onehunga; born London, 27 May 1909; builder; battery commander 7 A-Tk Regt and 4 Fd Regt; wounded 17 Dec 1942.

12 Lt C. M. Opie; Alton; born Christchurch, 31 Dec 1913; shephered.

13 Maj-Gen C. E. Weir, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ, 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939-Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941-Jun 1944; commanded 2 NZ Div 4 Sep-17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944-Sep 1946; Commandant, Southern Military District, 1948–49; QMG Army HQ Nov 1951-.

14 Pte S. A. Plant; born Wellington, 20 Apr 1918; salesman; killed in action 3 Jul 1942.

15 Pte L. E. Ryder; born Nelson, 1 Jul 1916; railways clerk; killed in action 3 Jul 1942.

16 Brig J. R. Gray, ED, m.i.d.; born Wellington, 7 Aug 1900; barrister and solicitor; CO 18 Bn Sep 1939-Nov 1941, Mar-Jun 1942; comd 4 Bde 29 Jun-5 Jul 1942; killed in action 5 Jul 1942.

17 Maj B. I. Bassett, m.i.d.; born NZ 12 Sep 1911; barrister and solicitor; BM 10 Bde May 1941; BM 4 Bde Aug 1941-Jan 1942, Jun-Jul 1942; killed in action 5 Jul 1942.

18 Maj C. C. Johansen, m.i.d.; Plimmerton; born Norsewood, 2 Oct 1910; civil servant; company commander 27 MG Bn 1941–42; p.w. 15 Jul 1942.

19 Pte R. K. Hooper born London, 11 May 1908; bee farmer; died of wounds 7 Jul 1942.

20 Pte B. G. Phillips; born Foxton, 1 Sep 1910; solicitor; killed in action 9 Jul 1942.

21 Capt H. F. Flower, m.i.d.; Oroua Downs, Foxton; born Christchurch, 2 Oct 1915; stockman; p.w. 15 Jul 1942; escaped Modena, 15 Sep 1943.

22 Pte J. M. May; New Plymouth; born NZ, 6 Mar 1908; salesman; p.w. 15 Jul 1942.

23 Cpl W. J. H. Bradnock; Levin; born Wellington, 5 Oct 1912; exchange clerk.

24 Maj R. M. Wood; Sydney, NSW; born NZ, 12 Aug 1914; clerk; p.w. 15 Jul 1942; escaped Modena, 15 Sep 1943; company commander 22 Bn 1945; 2 NZEF PW Reception Group (UK) May-Nov 1945.

25 Maj C. L. Brett, EM; Gordonton, Hamilton; born Cambridge, 4 Oct 1906; stock and station agent; company commander 18 Bn 1942; wounded Mar 1941; p.w. 15 Jul 1942.

26 Lt-Col H. M. Reid, MC and bar, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Auckland, 21 Mar 1904; civil engineer; OC 6 Fd Coy Jun-Aug 1942; 8 Fd Coy Aug-Dec 1942; comd NZ Forestry Group (UK) Jul-Oct 1943; attached Air Ministry Dec 1943-Feb 1944; twice wounded; wounded and p.w. 16 Dec 1942; released Tripoli, 23 Jan 1943.

27 Lt-Col S. W. Nicholson, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 22 Feb 1914; customs agent; CO 5 Fd Regt Oct-Nov 1944; 7 A-Tk Regt Dec 1944-Mar 1945; 6 Fd Regt Mar-May 1945.

28 Capt C. R. McLernon; Gisborne; born Gisborne, 3 Jun 1912; oil driller; p.w. 15 Jul 1942.

29 Pte C. W. Lunn; born Wellington, 12 Jan 1915; truck driver.

30 Pte J. Pike; Auckland; born Gisborne, 9 May 1916; advertising salesman.

31 Cpl L. Moloney; Bay View; born Wairoa, 28 Apr 1916; freezing-works hand.

32 Lt-Col R. J. Lynch, MC; born Waihi, 24 Oct 1909; sales manager; CO 18 Bn 29 Jun-15 Jul 1942; wounded and p.w. 15 Jul 1942; died of wounds while p.w. 26 Sep 1942.

33 Maj R. J. Hislop; Stoke; born NZ, 5 Jun 1914; mechanic.

34 Maj J. H. Hutchinson; Lower Hutt; born South Africa, 6 Jul 1910; salesman.