CHAPTER 8 — Victory in Egypt
Victory in Egypt
Fifth Brigade was relieved by the Greek Brigade, and on the night of 8-9 September 21 Battalion marched for three hours non-stop to the staging area, where trucks were to pick up the troops at first light. Perhaps ‘marched’ is not quite the word; it was more of a shuffle, with heads down and feet dragging under the weight of arms, ammunition and accoutrements.
A few hours after the transport arrived 21 Battalion was on a beach only 37 miles from Alexandria, and the war seemed a million miles away. Everybody swam in the Mediterranean, lazed among the sandhills, or slept in the sun. The YMCA set up a continuous service of tea, lime-juice and cakes, and everything was on the house. In the evenings the Naafi bars and the regimental canteens did their part in reviving their desiccated customers. Blokes met blokes from other units and swopped items of news about other blokes: who was wounded and who was not, and who would never again share another bottle of Pilsener. Groups were formed where everybody tried to speak at the same time and nobody listened. Songs were sung, hands shaken and cigarettes shared, though there was no lack of smokes, and tangled nerves untangled themselves. There was daily leave to Alexandria and four days' leave plus travelling time to Cairo for those who wanted it. The Kiwi Concert Party performed twice daily. Men returned to normal again. The holiday ended on the 19th, when the Division moved into a training area 40-odd miles inland.
Weapon training, musketry and hardening-up marches, which generally included a limited night march on a compass bearing, were interrupted by a divisional exercise. It was an exercise with minefields and wire, close-support artillery, machine guns and tanks. There was everything except a real enemy. When the moon came up gaps were cleared in a real minefield, wire was gapped—with bangalore torpedoes—and the assaulting infantry advanced at a predetermined number page 195 of yards a minute behind a creeping barrage. After the objectives were taken and consolidated tanks came up in support, anti-tank weapons, mortars and machine guns moved along lighted tracks through the minefields and dug in. It was all very impressive and mystifying. After the battle was over and before they settled down for a couple of hours' sleep, the situation was canvassed by every Kiwi taking part in the exercise. The known facts were that during the night advance they had attacked and captured a ridge, or rather what passes for a ridge in the desert, and had dug in on each side of it. The corollary followed naturally that there was another ridge somewhere that was scheduled for capture in the not-distant future. And no silent bayonet and tommy-gun affair either, but a full-dress show with orchestral accompaniment. Rumours had been circulating of new tanks. Some swore they had seen them. They were bigger and better than Jerry's and moved like steel greyhounds. Their armour was so tough that shells bounced off them like tennis balls against a brick wall, and their cannon could blow a panzer apart before it could get within range. New guns were landing at Alexandria by the hundreds and fresh troops by the hundred thousand.
As the weeks went by the tension mounted; the certainty of an early attempt at what Rommel had failed to do was accepted without qualification. Only two questions remained unanswered: when and where? Were we to attack in the north, where on account of the rail and road systems the defences were strongest, or in the south, where Rommel had failed to turn our inland flank? Were we to claw a way through his minefields and attempt an envelopment, or attack straight ahead and force him off the coast road. An Eighth Army general order made it very plain that there was tough fighting ahead:
This battle for which we are preparing will be a real rough house, and if successful will mean the end of the war in North Africa. It will be the turning point of the whole war, therefore we can take no chances. There will be no tip and run tactics in this battle; it will be a real killing match—the German is a good soldier and the only way to beat him is to kill him in battle.
The decision had been taken to attack in the north, where page 196 Eighth Army held the Tell el Eisa Ridge, and the capture of Miteiriya Ridge would give a four-mile-wide corridor partially protected against counter-attack by the enemy's own minefields. The 2nd New Zealand Division, with 51 Highland Division and 9 Australian Division to its north and 1 South African Division to its south in 30 Corps' sector, were to make the initial breaches in the enemy line. The New Zealand and South African objective was Miteiriya Ridge. It was intended to make two lanes for the armour, one through the Highlanders' and Australians' sector, the other through the New Zealanders'. Tenth Corps was to advance along these two lanes, with 1 Armoured Division on the right and 10 Armoured Division on the left. The engineers would clear the way for the armour to get through and engage the panzer divisions.
Little by little the information was released to Brigade, then to battalion commanders, and finally down to the rank and file. The assaulting troops were to advance behind a creeping barrage, the first divisional barrage in North Africa. Stonks and concentrations were old friends—and old enemies—but a moving wall of shellfire was something new. It was so new that it had not been used since 1914-18. In effect it was to be the Battle of Messines over again, with the enemy holding the hill and knowing something of the preparations being made to remove him. But it was to be Messines with all modern methods besides the barrage—minefields, tommy guns, anti-tank guns, mobile field guns, armoured cars, tanks, wireless, and the RAF.
Suspense keyed up by rumours increased as October wore on and the training pace slackened off. The stalemate had to be ended, the series of defeats and half-successes stopped. Rommel and his panzers had to be chased out of Egypt.
Did you know that Div Cav have been issued with maps for as far west as Sidi Barrani? The tote is due to close any time now. Tomorrow night for a moral according to the Battalion Sigs who know everything. The transport is all jacked up for a quick move the night after tomorrow. Not while the moon's up. The whole show's off for a month and the brigade is going back to the beach….
The brigade did move back to the beach on 15 October, and page 197 21 Battalion spent the time until the 2oth route-marching in the mornings and swimming in the afternoons. At this time its officers were:
2 i/c: Maj H. M. McElroy
Adj: Capt G. E. Cairns
IO: Lt R. B. Abbott
QM: Lt A. C. Pryde
Padre: Rev J. C. Draper
OC: Maj W. Dickson
Mortar Pl: Lt G. W. Greensmith
Carrier Pl: Capt K. G. Dee
A-Tk Pl: Lt B. T. Robertson
Lt G. S. Rogers
2 Lt J. P. Stranger
Transport Pl: Lt W. F. N. Gardner
OC: Capt B. M. Laird
Lt K. C. West-Watson
Detached: 2 Lt J. Lloyd (LO 5 Inf Bde)
An operation order issued by 21 Battalion on 21 October said it was intended that the battalion was to attack and capture an area at the north-western end of Miteiriya Ridge and facilitate the passage of 10 Corps. The attack by 5 Infantry Brigade was to be carried out in two phases, with a pause of 100 minutes between the first and second. Zero hour for Phase 1 was to be 10 p.m., at which time the artillery would fire on the enemy forward defended localities. The 21st Battalion was to operate in Phase 2. D-day was to be notified later.
Before the attack 21 Battalion was to be prepared to move from its lying-up area to the start line at nine o'clock. The start line was to be marked by the ‘I’ section with white tape and lamps to indicate the company boundaries. The battalion was to attack with A Company on the right, B Company in page 198 the centre, C Company on the left, D Company behind A, and Battalion Headquarters behind B. In each company two platoons were to be extended at intervals of five paces, and the third platoon was to have its sections in file in the rear. Company headquarters was to be in the centre. A troop of six-pounder anti-tank guns and a platoon of medium machine guns would be under the command of 21 Battalion. The unit on the right would be 7 Battalion Black Watch (51 Division), and on the left 22 New Zealand Battalion.
The starting time for 21 Battalion was to be 12.55 a.m., when the forward troops were to cross the start line, and the rate of advance was to be 100 yards in three minutes. There was to be a pause from 1.40 to 1.55 a.m. One company of 28 (Maori) Battalion was to move in rear of 21 Battalion with a mopping-up role.
After the final objective had been captured D Company was to exploit to the enemy area, but its patrols were to be back within the company area by 4.30 a.m. The company was to carry 24 prepared charges with which the patrols were to demolish enemy weapons that could not be converted to battalion use. Reorganisation was to proceed on the final objective in depth to resist counter-attacks supported by tanks, and all companies were to be sited with their forward elements 1000 yards beyond Miteiriya Ridge.
The vital part which pockets of resistance would play in obtaining victory had to be impressed on all ranks. There was to be no surrender and troops cut off were to continue to fight.
The battalion left during the night of 21-22 October, moved ten miles by lorry to the rear dispersal area, and dug in before dawn. Already the field guns had been dug in by night and the wheel marks smoothed away. Gun after gun, hundreds of guns, had been hauled forward by their tractors and unhooked on the precise spot selected in advance. Guns and ammunition were camouflaged and the gunners waited under cover for the order to open fire.
The infantry moved up the next night to within easy distance of the forming-up line. In front there was still silence and unsuspecting security—just the usual flares, the intermittent crackle of spandaus, occasional chatter of machine guns, and page 199 an odd shell from energetic gunners on either side. To quote the communiques of an earlier war, it was ‘all quiet on the western front’.
All that day, while artillery men pored over maps and calculated distances; while tank crews checked engines, cleaned sights and oiled bearings; while engineers double-checked mine detectors; while hospitals and advanced dressing stations arranged blankets, stretchers and dressings; while officers conferred and confirmed their arrangements; while all these things were being done, the infantry lay low.
When dusk fell the hidden troops emerged from their holes in the sand and stretched their cramped limbs. Shortly afterwards a hot meal was brought to them. There was purposeful movement in all directions, while the gunners stacked ammunition from the camouflaged dumps in readiness at the gun positions. First-line vehicles and anti-tank portées began moving along their allotted tracks, clearly defined by lights glowing behind the insignia of each track—Sun, Moon, Star, Boat, Bottle, and Hat. Farther back and moving to a strict timetable tanks rumbled, heaved, and clanked.
The curtain was due to rise at 9.40 p.m. The overture was to be 15 minutes' concentrated fire against suspected battery positions by 480 guns, after which the enemy forward defended localities were to be pounded until 10.23 p.m., when the divisional barrage was to begin to lift one hundred yards every three minutes.
The 23rd Battalion, which was to carry out Phase 1 of the 5 Brigade task, the advance to the first objective, went forward to its start line. Its job was to penetrate the enemy forward defences 2000 yards away to a depth of 1400 yards and clear the way for 21 and 22 Battalions to storm the ridge in the brigade's sector.
The minutes ticked on towards 9.40. Watches were held face up to the moon and the time checked and rechecked. One minute to go, 30 seconds, 20 seconds, ten seconds, five seconds, three seconds—the small hands on the watches flickered three more times, then spurts of flame tore red holes in the moonlight and the air was shivered and blasted with noise. The whole sky was a dancing, flickering sea of scarlet. A bank of dust rose page 200 in the west as roaring destruction fell on its target. More destruction winged its way forward as bombers made their targets and turned in a wide circle back to their landing strips and another load. There was a five-minute pause while the guns laid on the first line of the creeping barrage. Then the racing motors and whirling propellers overhead filled the night with rushing noises and the sharp tang of burnt cordite drifted like battle incense across the desert.
It was bright moonlight when the assaulting companies of 21 Battalion moved through the lane in our forward minefield that the engineers had already opened for 23 Battalion. The order of march was A, B, C and D Companies, followed by Battalion Headquarters. While the battalion was marching up to 23 Battalion's objective, which was the approximate start line for the second phase of the attack, the engineers were already clearing vehicle routes through the enemy mines, and Lieutenant Abbott and Corporal Bill Marshall1 were putting down the start-line tapes.
They were having a very uncomfortable time with their tapes and lights, for enough guns and mortars were unsilenced to make the laying of the lines hazardous. It was largely their work here that won Abbott an immediate MC and Marshall an MM.
The battalion arrived just as the laying was finished, and the companies were led out and put on the line by Lieutenant Abbott. Up to this time casualties were light, not more than six or seven wounded. The men waited flat on the sand until it was time to move, and listened to the crash of bursting shells in front. The blast as they exploded made it hard to breathe. Every now and again, when there was a slight lull, the music of the pipers leading 51 (Highland) Division into battle drifted down from the north. It was a grand sound.
At 12.50 a.m. 21 Battalion began to move forward, each company on its own bearing. As they went on so the front widened. A Company's bearing was 251 degrees, B Company's 249½, and C Company's 248; D Company followed A Company on the right flank. The front widened for the gunners page 201 as well as for the assaulting infantry; whereas at the first objective each gun had a front of 24 yards, on the final objective its front was 46 yards. Under these conditions it was inevitable that some enemy posts and batteries would escape and that defensive fire would increase as their forward lines were pierced.
Contact was maintained with both flanking battalions until the 15-minute pause at 1.40 a.m. Navigating was done by companies and was checked by the ‘I’ section at the head of page 202 Battalion Headquarters through the inter-company wireless links. At this stage Major Smith2 found that touch had been lost with 22 Battalion on the left flank. He put his reserve platoon (No. 15) into the gap and re-established contact. The Black Watch was still up with A Company on the right.
As soon as the ridge proper was reached the fighting really commenced. A Company lost Captain Butland,3 Lieutenant Catran, and eleven men killed by anti-personnel mines, machine-gun and mortar fire. Lieutenant West-Watson moved forward from D Company, took command, and was himself soon a casualty. Captain Marshall was killed in B Company, leaving Major Smith (C Company) the only company commander to reach the objective. The subalterns and NCOs, of course, were more than equal to the occasion.
When Lieutenant Catran was killed Sergeant Duncan Klaus4 took command, rallied the platoon and led it coolly through the intense fire; Sergeant Bramwell5 and his platoon ran into a whole nest of machine guns, but he left two sections to engage them while he led the third to a flank and rushed the post. Most of the crew were killed and the guns captured. C Company had a relatively easy passage on the left but, when 14 Platoon was held up, Lance-Corporal de Stigter6 stalked the machine gun responsible and took the crew prisoner. Slowly and methodically the opposition was silenced as post after post was rushed and the German occupants bayoneted or shot. There were not many prisoners.
C Company was first to report to Colonel Harding that it was digging in on the objective; then B Company reported that Lieutenant Eady7 had taken command and was consolidating. Finally A Company was contacted through B Company and said it was reorganising in its appointed area. The success page 203 signal was put up at 3 a.m., runners were sent back to Brigade Headquarters with the information, and wireless communication was also established with Brigade.
After Lieutenant West-Watson had been wounded, D Company lost formation in the dust and murk behind the assaulting troops. Corporal McManus8 gathered up as many of 17 Platoon as he could and led them forward. Sergeant Blakey9 took command of 18 Platoon when Second-Lieutenant Stranger10 was wounded. When he arrived at the objective McManus had only five men with him, but after scouting around found fragments of 16 and 18 Platoons. Lieutenant Robertson then arrived with part of 16 Platoon and merged the lot into one platoon, with McManus the sole NCO; there were 23 men altogether.
Robertson then led his one-platoon company forward on patrol. They had several clashes, took approximately ninety prisoners, killed and wounded many more, and blew up four 105-millimetre field guns, some anti-tank guns and some machine guns. Unfortunately time was too short for thoroughness, all patrols having to be in before the armour was due to go through at 4.30 a.m. They returned on time, with their prisoners, to their reserve position behind A Company, at a cost of only one wounded.
About forty prisoners were taken in the battle for the ridge-top which, added to D Company's bag, made approximately 130 for the attack. Sergeant Moyle,11 acting commander of the battalion's signal platoon, was kept very busy from the initial move off keeping touch with linked sub-units and then, during reorganisation on the ridge, keeping inter-battalion communications open. Owing to casualties in his platoon he was continually out mending wires broken by shellfire and checking company wireless sets. All companies were quickly on the air and shortly afterwards telephone wires were laid to Battalion Headquarters.page 204
The 21st Battalion, spread along the flat in front of the forward slopes of Miteiriya Ridge, worked steadily to get dug in before first light at 6.30, when counter-attacks could confidently be expected. It was hoped most fervently that support weapons would be up in time to deal with the tanks that would come with the dawn.
The enemy consistently searched the battalion area with mortars and swept it with machine guns, but neither prevented the stretcher-bearers from searching for wounded and getting them to the RAP in the shortest possible time.
The actual situation on 2 New Zealand Division's front was that 5 Brigade had taken its final objective but 6 Brigade was not quite up on the left flank. The north-western end of the ridge was firmly held, but neither the Highlanders nor the South Africans on the flanks were in full possession of their objectives. Only a few anti-tank guns were up and only a few tanks had passed through into the open.
The 21st Battalion was actually holding part of a salient that bit deep into enemy territory, and old soldiers did not view the prospect at dawn with much favour.
Corporal de Stigter's diary paints a realistic picture:
The show did not look good to us the next morning [24th]; our tanks had not made their appearance, our “scorpion”, a Matilda tank with flailing chains attached in front to explode Jerry's mines, blowing up [on one] itself. There was a lot of machine gun fire coming from both our flanks and to our rear, the bullets going over our heads, and it looked to us as if we were too far forward. Actually 20 tanks did come through, but they went south to assist the 22nd and 6th Brigade. We stood to, expecting a counter-attack by Jerry all day, but it never came, and by early next morning [25th] we had all our supporting arms with us: 27th MG, 7th Anti-Tank and quite a number of tanks. The first tank to come my way was a Crusader, which we gave the appropriate signal to, but it came on, so I told my offsider Marsh Burrell12 to get down, and just in time. They gave us 70 odd rounds from [their] Besa machine gun, from 15 ft. off, only the depth of the trench saving us. The tank commander then ordered the driver to run the tank into our trench, but the rest of the section then made themselves heard, not being in the line of fire.page 205
The Tommy officer was very apologetic, but he was quite sure all our area was still held by the Hun; he now did us a good turn by stopping the machine gun cross-fire, which came from a section of 27th MG Bn attached to the 6th Brigade. C Coy HQ chaps found quite a bit of loot, including a piano accordion and a luger or two.
There was actually an attempt to counter-attack soon after daylight, but the forward troops did not know of it for the enemy armour was kept at a distance by the Divisional Artillery, which had observation posts on the ridge, and by a concentration of tanks firing from hull-down positions behind the ridge. Five enemy tanks were knocked out and one of our Crusaders was disabled by a mine near Battalion Headquarters. The gunner continued to use his Brownings in support until our machine guns arrived, when the derelict was converted into a machine-gun control post.
Enemy fire lessened during the day, but there were tank battles and distant infantry movement at intervals. Once a party infiltrated into a wadi about 300 yards in front of the battalion's forward positions, but was dislodged by captured Italian mortars.
As de Stigter says in his diary, by daylight on the 25th the battalion was consolidated with all supporting arms in position. Probably the enemy had too many other preoccupations to attempt to recapture Miteiriya Ridge. There was, however, one enemy post that kept up an intermittent sniping with short bursts of small-arms fire. Sergeant Bramwell decided to remove the nuisance and, as soon as it was dark enough, led a fighting patrol which captured the post, together with ten prisoners and two machine guns. The rest of the night was reasonably peaceful and the ration trucks were able to get up into the company areas. The hot meal put new life into the troops, and when the trucks departed they took the thanks of the battalion back with them. Arrangements for 28 Battalion to relieve the 21st after daylight were postponed until the following night (26-27 October).
The morning was enlivened for Sergeant Klaus and his platoon by the approach of three enemy trucks which had evidently mistaken their way. They were permitted to come quite close page 206 before they were fired on, when two of the three were knocked out and twelve prisoners and three anti-tank guns captured. The rest of the day was occupied in watching tank battles and dodging shells meant for the tanks manoeuvring in the unit area.
Nothing of note occurred on the battalion front until midnight, when C Company rang through to Battalion Headquarters reporting that an enemy minelaying party could be heard working about 600 yards in front of the forward positions. An artillery concentration was put down on the area, whereupon the enemy moved closer to our positions to avoid the shelling. C Company plastered him with captured mortars and drove him back again.
The 26th followed much the pattern of the previous day until about five o'clock in the evening, when another attempted counter-attack was repulsed by the tanks and a terrific artillery concentration before it got within range of infantry weapons. The Maoris came up after dark, took over the battalion area, and waiting guides led 21 Battalion back to the vicinity of the original front line behind the first enemy minefields.
The 21st Battalion's share in the Battle of Alamein was over. All the assaulting companies had lost heavily, A Company particularly so. Including two company commanders (Captains Butland and Marshall) killed, the battalion's casualties totalled 128 all ranks, and there were no replacements. Platoons and companies were merged, D Company was disbanded, the Anti-Aircraft Platoon became 15 Platoon C Company, and the companies were commanded by Captain Roach (A Company), Captain Moore13 (B Company) and Captain Smith (C Company).
Brigadier Kippenberger addressed the troops informally and with maps outlined the part played by 5 Brigade. He congratulated the battalion on the manner in which it had done its part, and gave a summary of the general situation to date and the probable role of the Division in the near future. He mentioned that the Division would be treated a little easier for a while, that it would be trailing along and would be used only for a definite coup de grâce.page 207
The original plan had been to make the major armoured thrust south-west from Miteiriya Ridge after the New Zealand Division had cleared the way, but there was still too much opposition for the armour to break through. The main thrust was then shifted to the north, but was again foiled in spite of 9 Australian Division's fierce efforts to open the way. It was not until 2 November that the enemy finally broke. Next day the Germans were in full retreat behind the protection of a strong anti-tank screen. Owing to lack of transport, the Italians in the southern sector were left to their fate, which for thousands of them was the prisoner-of-war cage. By dawn on 4 November the rearguard had been pushed off its line, and 21 Battalion received a warning order to be ready to move at 15 minutes' notice.
Just before midday the order to move came. With 4 (British) Light Armoured Brigade under command, the New Zealand Division was sent in a wide sweep to the south, with orders to press on and secure the escarpment at Fuka, some fifty miles to the west. The importance of the assignment lay in the fact that the escarpment, over 300 feet high, was almost impassable except on the axis of the road and railway. The alternative of a wide detour to the south was unthinkable to an army retreating by the quickest and shortest route. If the Division could get across the desert more quickly than the enemy could move along the road, his rearguard at least might be cut off.
All tracks westward at Alamein were congested beyond description and were a bomber's dream, but the RAF was there to see that the dream did not come true. As a matter of fact the Luftwaffe was too busy trying to protect its own disintegrating war machine, which was suffering a non-stop aerial bombardment, to pay overmuch attention to the congestion of transport.
Fifth Brigade moved from near the Alamein station to the divisional deployment area beyond the minefields. It was a nightmarish business trying to keep formation on account of the traffic. Once the deployment area was reached, however, the column was reorganised and left at a quarter to four in the afternoon, prepared to travel all night to Fuka.page 208
There were, however, other units in the war besides those of 5 Brigade. Owing to a late start, the tremendous congestion and the consequent further delay, the light armour had reached its laager area about 15 miles south of Daba before the tail of the Division had got properly under way.
The story has been told that when it was reported to Rommel that a mass of armour and lorried infantry was pressing westward towards his rear, he refused point-blank to believe it. He considered that the British were too cautious for such a manoeuvre, and that it must be the Italian Trieste Division retiring across the desert. General von Thoma attempted to convince his chief by going out on a personal reconnaissance, but was himself captured.
Fifth Brigade Group halted about midnight behind 4 Light Armoured Brigade in the Alam Damanhur area and waited for 6 Brigade to come up. Before its arrival there were less welcome visitors; either by accident or design five or six enemy trucks approached from the south and opened fire. There were some losses in the other battalions, but the fire directed towards 21 Battalion was too high and, before the guns were depressed, the troops had gone to ground. Fourth Light Armoured Brigade, out in front of the column, returned the fire, but in the darkness could not avoid shooting into 5 Brigade.
Sixth Brigade and 9 Armoured Brigade joined up before daylight and the drive was continued. At approximately 7 a.m. 4 Light Armoured Brigade engaged some German tanks, knocking out seven and capturing two, and three hours later the brigade captured the headquarters of the Italian Trento Division. Towards midday the advance was held up on the high ground south of Fuka by an enemy rearguard including tanks and guns, which necessitated the deployment of our artillery, and it was late in the afternoon before 21 Battalion was able to move again. The enemy had been operating behind a minefield, part of which was found to be dummy, and which was crossed by 4 Light Armoured Brigade. The 21st Battalion transport was shelled while passing through the minefield gap, but escaped any injury and reformed on the far side. Fifth Brigade pushed on behind the armoured brigade until nightfall, when it was still ten miles to the south of where the road page 209 climbs the Fuka escarpment. The Brigadier decided that the distance was too great to cover and take up a position before first light, and he ordered a halt for the night. The brigade dug in along the crest of a wadi with three battalions facing north, the 22nd on the right, the 23rd in the centre and the 21st on the left, and with the 28th in reserve facing west. Carriers formed a screen, double pickets were posted and outposts sited. The attempt to seize the bottleneck at Fuka had failed and the enemy was free to withdraw, which he did, enthusiastically harassed by the RAF.
Fifth Brigade was not ordered forward towards Baggush, the next stage of the pursuit, until late in the afternoon of the 6th. The sky darkened in the morning and a light drizzle developed into steady rain. The task was to move 20-odd miles west and, if necessary, prepare to capture the high ground overlooking the airfield at Baggush. The rain continued and movement became increasingly more difficult, but the enemy had withdrawn from the area, and 21 Battalion closed in at 7 p.m. and halted for the night. There were few to remember it, but precisely 13 months earlier the battalion, reformed after Crete, had arrived in the same area on the same mission—to help end the war in North Africa.
The rain fell in torrents all night and by daylight on 7 November all vehicles in the brigade were glued to the desert like flies on a treacle sheet. And all that day the enemy retreated westward along the only tarsealed road across the saturated desert.
Nothing lasts for ever. The rain stopped, and in the morning (8 November) 21 Battalion hauled its bogged vehicles onto firm ground, dried its clothes and blankets, had an early hot lunch, and was on the move by 1 p.m. Matruh was the next objective, and to that end the Division was to concentrate near Minqar Qaim. If the enemy still held the fortress, 6 Brigade was to attack it from the west, while 5 Brigade feinted from the south. The enemy already had departed westward, however, and consequently 21 Battalion got to within forty miles of Sidi Barrani before darkness next day.
The general situation during the night of 8-9 November was that the enemy was withdrawing to the frontier area, 7 Armoured page 210 Division was advancing inland and south of Sidi Barrani, and 1 and 10 Armoured Divisions and 2 New Zealand Division were in the Matruh area. A thousand miles or so further west British and American forces under General Eisenhower were landing on beaches in North-West Africa.
The New Zealand Division continued the pursuit on 9 November, sometimes in columns along the road, sometimes in desert formation alongside. Sixth Brigade remained to garrison Matruh and 5 Brigade became the only infantry formation with the Division. The next morning (the 10th) 21 Battalion was detached to clear Sidi Barrani. The enemy rearguard had vacated the town and little opposition was expected. The battalion shook out into desert formation and, with the carriers and anti-tank platoon deployed ahead, occupied the place without any opposition whatsoever. About forty prisoners were rounded up, B Company was left to guard an airfield still covered with bogged and damaged planes, and by midnight the battalion had regained its place at the head of the brigade column, 78 miles farther west than it had been in the morning. The tired troops had not been two hours asleep before they were roused again and told that Halfaya Pass had to be cleared before daylight.
The frontier between Egypt and Libya starts on the coast north-west of Sollum, runs south-west to Sidi Omar, and continues in a general southerly direction into the inner desert. East of the wire fence marking the boundary stands a 600-foot-high escarpment that extends in a general south-easterly direction into Egypt. There are only two routes for wheeled traffic over this obstacle, one where the main road passes Sollum and winds in hairpin bends up the cliff to the plateau above, the other through Halfaya Pass, less than two miles inland. Against a force approaching along the coast from the east Halfaya was a strong defensive position which, if resolutely held, would either have to be outflanked from the south (which was being done by 7 Armoured Division) or stormed.
Fourth Light Armoured Brigade, still in its role of leading the advance of the New Zealand Division, had deployed to attack the enemy near the foot of the pass, whereupon he had withdrawn to the top of the escarpment. The main road up page 211 the escarpment at Sollum had been effectively destroyed, but as far as was known the enemy had not blocked Halfaya Pass beyond probably renewing its minefields.
Colonel Harding had been warned early in the afternoon that he might be called upon to take Halfaya Pass. There was a motorised battalion (1 Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps) with 4 Light Armoured Brigade, but it had comparatively few assaulting infantry. About 6 p.m. word came from the armoured brigade that it would be able to force the passage without assistance. The subject of 21 Battalion's proposed attack was thankfully dismissed, for it had been a long tiring day with no sleep the previous night. Harding left Divisional Headquarters when the word came in from the armour that the services of the battalion would not be required.
Meanwhile Brigadier Roddick, commander of the Light Armoured Brigade, set about bustling the enemy off the escarpment. He found the road mined and lost three tanks. After dark two small patrols from his motor battalion were sent up the pass to locate the enemy, whom they found in too great strength to attack. They then took up a defensive position just below the top of the pass.
About 2 a.m. Brigadier Kippenberger was wakened by an officer with a message from Brigadier Roddick asking that some troops be directed to clear a passage for his tanks. It was vital that the road be opened before first light disclosed the hundreds of vehicles converging on the entrance to the pass, like the crowd around the early gates to a Rugby test match. What the guns along the top of the escarpment could do in daylight to the lines of trucks on the coastal plain below did not bear contemplation.
The sombre bulk of the 600-foot escarpment silhouetted against the starlit sky was not an inviting spectacle. Halfaya had resisted a full-scale attack in 1941 and in the second Libyan campaign its strength had been conceded. Rather than risk a reverse at the beginning of the operation the Eighth Army, of which the Division had been a part, had made a wide detour into the desert. Even when attacked from its most vulnerable direction, the Halfaya garrison had been the last to surrender, and then only after being surrounded, pounded from the air, and short of water.page 212
There was, however, a great difference between the circumstances governing the operations. This time the enemy was retreating as fast as his wheels could turn, and all reports suggested that Rommel intended to evacuate Cyrenaica. No matter what the Afrika Korps's intentions were, the rearguard commander was entitled to expect a full-scale deployment, a preliminary bombardment before the assault, and another breathing space for the harried main body.
Brigadier Kippenberger's plan did not envisage any of these refinements. A surprise assault in the dark with the bayonet might disorganise a defence by its unexpectedness; particularly if the rearguard was Italian. If it was German, the inference did not follow so readily, but there was only one way to find out.
Time was short and 21 Battalion was the nearest to the pass. There were not many bayonets available for the attack. The casualties sustained at Alamein had brought the rifle companies to less than half strength; instead of four companies each 120 strong, there were only three with an average strength of 55, and one of them was away at Sidi Barrani. There were no maps and no air photographs. The only precise information was that a weak platoon of the KRRG was on the road near the top and that the opposition was too strong for it to engage with any hope of success. The enemy was estimated to be about a company strong, but it was only a guess and could be wrong—very wrong. With the exception of Major Smith, who had been up the pass the previous year, nobody had any idea of the terrain beyond the top; but 21 Battalion was used to dropping in unannounced on enemy strongpoints, and the assignment was taken philosophically by the stiff and sleepy Kiwis. Within fifteen minutes of being wakened, A and C Companies were embussed and ready to move off. As no supporting arms could be taken, a few sticky bombs were carried in case of tank trouble. Greatcoats were to be left in the trucks after debussing.
The two companies were on the move by 3.45 a.m., passed through the baffled armoured brigade, and debussed at the foot of the pass, where Brigadier Kippenberger was waiting with Brigadier Roddick.
Though their numbers were small, 110 all ranks altogether, page 213 Kippenberger thought they were sufficient, but this view was not shared by Roddick when he saw how it was intended to clear the road for his tanks.
Brigadier Kippenberger's instructions to Colonel Harding were short and succinct—put out an advance guard and point like in the Territorial training days and go in with the bayonet. Harding's reply to a question as to what might be expected was even shorter: ‘Fight and find out.’ The order of march was Major Smith and the guide (an officer from the KRRC), followed by C Company with Bren-gunners leading, then Battalion Headquarters (Harding and two signallers), and finally A Company, led by Captain Roach.
The march up the silent road that wound and twisted up the spur was a nerve-racking business. The road was mined, as the damaged tanks at the bottom demonstrated, and there might also be anti-personnel mines with trip-wires hidden by the darkness. Finally, for a certainty machine guns and artillery were mounted on the escarpment. It was the fervent hope of everybody that the sound of the surf breaking on the beach a couple of miles away would smother the noise of feet stumbling in the dark.
The KRRC platoon was met coming down and passed on what information it had, which was negligible. It had been holding a covering position near the top and was under instructions to vacate it by 5 a.m. The enemy was in position facing the road as it emerged on to the plateau, and the sound of a motor cycle going from post to post had been heard.
C Company halted at the spot where the English post had been established, and Major Smith and party went forward to make a quick reconnaissance. The road, which at that point turned right for a couple of hundred yards before again turning left, was clear, though sounds of moving men and vehicles could be plainly heard. Colonel Harding and the company commanders held a short conference and decided that the road at the second turn would be the inter-company boundary, with A Company on the right and C on the left. The darkness was a few shades lighter by then and the skyline indicated higher ground ahead.
A Company moved quietly along the road and formed up page 214 beyond it. C Company, with its right flank resting on the axis of advance, was soon in position, but first Sergeant Jennings14 was detached with a few men to act as protection for the CO and his two-signaller headquarters, as well as battalion reserve and collection-post guard.
The sky was beginning to lighten when the attack went in. There was a 30-yard rise to the final end of the pass, with trenches and dugouts scattered over it. C Company stumbled into one almost immediately and fifty sleeping Italians were wakened abruptly. They did not want to be shot and went quietly along to Battalion Headquarters, now established on a low mound on the left of C Company.
A Company soon found its line of advance blocked by a deep, steep-sided wadi, and Colonel Harding told Captain Roach to take his company through C Company, which had found more trenches full of Italians who were surrendering without much trouble. The need for silence was over, and Roach issued a string of commands seldom heard on a battle ground: ‘Men, halt, left turn, quick march; halt, right turn, go through.’ The unusual manoeuvre ‘go through’ took A Company through the left of C Company, which was still busily winkling prisoners out of trenches and dugouts.
Transport could be heard moving in front and Roach decided to keep on going straight ahead instead of working over to his own area on the right. His right flank was protected by the wadi he had withdrawn from, and Lieutenant Chalmers15 was told to take his platoon of 14 men along the edge of the escarpment to protect the company's left flank; the rest of the company advanced towards the noise of vehicles. Soon trucks could be seen in the growing light about 200 yards ahead and the company went slowly towards them, firing their rifles and light machine guns from the hip. There was some fire in return, but as the troops closed in white rags began waving from trenches and from behind the trucks. Five trucks and 40 prisoners were sent back under escort and, with the area apparently clear, A Company did a little systematic ‘searching’ in the scattered dugouts.page 215
A sharp exchange of fire from the direction Chalmers had taken was making Roach uneasy, but the appearance of eight more trucks towing anti-tank guns through a minefield ahead indicated immediate action in that direction. Lance-Sergeant Steiner and Private Kirkcaldy,16 who were furthest out in front, stopped the convoy with a few shots, and the arrival of the rest of the company produced the desired effect. The Italians debussed and went to ground, and soon another 180 prisoners were added to the bag.
Our central sector now seemed to be well cleaned up and our boys were searching in old dug-outs, finding an occasional very scared Italian and looking eagerly for souvenirs. A large cemetery in the area was a grim reminder of previous fighting that had taken place in the same locality. We were preparing to return for breakfast when we were surprised to see a convoy of enemy transport approaching towards us from the south. There were 8 or 9 trucks in all, and each one was towing a small but useful anti-tank gun. Troops were also packed in the vehicles. Our own men were by this time so scattered that there were no more than 20 of us remaining, but we immediately prepared for another round up. The leading truck drove directly to two of our men who were 50 yards ahead and unaware that it was enemy transport. A gap of only a few yards separated them and immediately our men realised who they were they opened fire. Simultaneously all that remained of our central party moved forward with all weapons again firing. The whole convoy again debussed and went to ground, white handkerchiefs from beginning to end and a procession of officers and men walked toward our lines. Another bag of booty and we now considered our job was finished. We climbed aboard the enemy trucks and drove back to our starting line where the prisoners were being guarded.
As the position now seemed secure, with anti-tank guns sited and 4 Light Armoured Brigade starting to move up the road, Roach was able to allay his anxiety about 8 Platoon, which had also decided the show was over and was returning with a column of approximately 250 prisoners.page 216
The country was open and fairly level, but we were able to cross the minefields before visibility was good enough for the enemy to see what was happening … I could see a number of enemy positions between 2 and 3 hundred yds out on our left…. I shouted to Chalmers that I would work out to the left to attack the positions…. By the time we had crossed another minefield we were separated from the Platoon [Corporal Ellery's section consisted of two men and himself] by about 250 yds. Opposition was not strong until we were about to step over the wire on the edge of the field and it appeared then that they had decided to put up a fight for it so we had to take hasty cover and return their fire. There was some fast shooting for a while, but it was not long before we saw a white flag appear, and most of the firing ceased. I felt a bit uneasy at this stage … but realised that if we did not do something they would think we were afraid to go after them, so I ordered Hill19 and Percival20 to try to cover me if possible while I went out to collect them … after going about two thirds of the way, I saw a couple of Itis in a small dugout, so I collected them and made them walk in front of me … [and] waved for Hill and Percival to come on.
The first two dugouts yielded about 35 prisoners and after that it was just a matter of scouting around. The three New Zealanders ended up with 143 of them, including seven officers. When they were sure there were no more, they took the prisoners over to where the platoon had collected another hundred or so.
Meanwhile C Company, with its line of advance somewhat obstructed by A Company, was not idle. In the growing light the area was seen to be dotted with deep dugouts that needed doing over. The usual method was applied: after a grenade or a burst of automatic fire into the entrance, the attacker waited for results. About this time Major Smith saw five tractor-drawn guns on a ridge beyond the wadi that had blocked A Company, and told Second-Lieutenant McLean21 page 217 to go after them. The platoon clambered on a captured anti-tank portée and set off at top speed, but the tractors were already attached to the guns and, although fire was opened in the hope of bringing the drivers down, the distance and the poor light were in their favour. They were the only enemy that got away after being seen.
Sergeant Jennings, still in reserve, saw a group of vehicles beyond a minefield and about 700 yards distant preparing to make a break. He took three of his platoon and went after them. The four New Zealanders were seen when about halfway across the mines and were fired on, but their return fire soon silenced the opposition. On the far side of the minefield they found an abandoned truck and, with a Bren-gunner in the cab, two riflemen in the back and Jennings driving, they rounded up the vehicles with some unorthodox fire-and-movement tactics. Their bag consisted of five trucks, two anti-tank guns, some machine guns and about fifty prisoners. Colonel Harding told Jennings that he was very lucky to be alive as he and his party had walked through an anti-personnel minefield.
Sergeant Kelly,22 with the remaining platoon of C Company, had carried straight on collecting prisoners without much opposition. A string of them arrived at Company Headquarters about the same time as Colonel Harding, who was prowling around keeping his finger on the pulse of the action. He was amazed to see the single guard was unarmed and was a little terse about it, but Private Maru23 pointed to an Italian who was carrying the Bren gun and said airily, ‘It's all right, sir, I have unloaded it.’ It was supposed to be one of the few times that words failed the Battalion Commander.
At that point the operation had developed into the collection of prisoners, most of whom seemed only too glad to be out of the war. Kelly and his platoon occupied themselves in running a transport service with captured Lancias and collected all the Italians in C Company area into one group at the head of the pass.page 218
Lieutenant-Colonel Harding, who was awarded the DSO ‘For his quick decision, resolution and inspiring leadership when hesitation would have led to a very dangerous situation’, has admitted to experiencing one very bad moment. In describing the action he wrote:
It looked as if the show was successful, so I tried to get a message through [to Brigade Headquarters] but the tanks were warming up and nattering on their sets, and there was too much interference. I therefore sent a runner on a bicycle (Italian) to report the pass was clear to Brig Kip.
However, a Lt-Col of 4 Armd Bde arrived and I gave him the story. He asked why no message and I said your so and so tanks drown everything. He laughed, turned his Dingo and shot down the pass at top. Put the wind up me.
The armour began rolling up and I got a ride forward to report to Brig Roddick who had halted his Tac HQ about one mile from the top. My bn HQ (2 Sigs) remained put to answer enquiries and stop the cook truck if and when it arrived.
Reported to Brig and he asked ‘how many prisoners’ and I said ‘about 5 or 6 hundred’. He said ‘Nonsense’. So I invited him to look round. He said ‘Very good show’ and shook hands.
One of his Lt Cols wanted some trucks so I told him to help himself. He expressed gratitude and some surprise at my ready acquiescence.
Had the usual job of collecting the troops after a show and then started the prisoners down the pass. They looked like a long black snake. Brig Kip and the General came up and got the low down from me. Both expressed pleasure that the show had gone so well and they congratulated the Bn.
The excitement had died down now and we were a hungry tired dishevelled lot. The high light of the morning was the arrival of the cook truck and my jeep. After a shave, polish boots and a meal I felt much better. So did the troops, they had found some cognac.
Headquarters Company and the rest of Battalion Headquarters, who had not been wakened in the night and knew nothing of the Halfaya action until they found the assault troops missing, moved off in column along the road to Sollum but found the Sollum hill route impassable. Priority up Halfaya was obtained and they joined the night fighters, who while waiting for breakfast to be brought up had spent the time page 219 making rude remarks about some Bofors guns firing at enemy planes from the foot of the pass. Their shells were exploding too near for comfort.
After crossing the frontier into Libya 5 Brigade was instructed to push on westwards along the Trigh Gapuzzo towards Sidi Rezegh, but this move was cancelled early in the afternoon, and the brigade turned off to the north to disperse for the night in the vicinity of Sidi Azeiz. Next morning (12 November) the brigade moved to the Bir Belchonfus area, on the high ground south of the Bardia-Tobruk road. The troops were warned that they might be there three days and were told to make themselves comfortable in the meantime. Actually they stayed three weeks.
The GOC-in-C Eighth Army, General Montgomery, issued a personal message on 12 November to be read to all men in the army. In it he said:
When we began the Battle of Egypt on 23 October, I said that together we would hit the Germans and Italians for six right out of North Africa.
We have made a very good start and today, 12 November, there are no German and Italian soldiers on Egyptian territory except prisoners.
In three weeks we have completely smashed the German and Italian army and pushed the fleeing remnants out of Egypt, having advanced ourselves nearly 300 miles up to and beyond the frontier.
The following enemy formations have ceased to exist as effective fighting formations:
|Panzer Army||15 Panzer Div|
|21 Panzer Div|
|90 Light Div|
|164 Light Div|
|10 Italian Corps||Brescia Div|
|20 Italian Corps||Ariete Armd Div|
|Littorio Armd Div|
|21 Italian Corps||Trento Div|
The prisoners captured total 30,000 including nine Generals.page 220
The amount of tanks, artillery, anti-tank guns, transport, aircraft, etc., destroyed or captured is so great that the enemy is completely crippled.
This is a very fine performance and I want, first, to thank you all for the way you responded to my call and rallied to the task. I feel that our great victory was brought about by the good fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire rather than by anything I have been able to do myself.
Secondly, I know you will all realise how greatly we were helped in our task by the RAF. We could not have done it without their splendid help and co-operation. I have thanked the RAF warmly on your behalf.
Our task is not finished yet. The Germans are out of Egypt, but there are still some left in North Africa. There is some good hunting to be had further to the west, in Libya; and our leading troops are now in Libya ready to begin. And this time, having reached Benghazi and beyond, we shall not come back.
On with the task, and good hunting to you all. As in all pursuits some have to remain behind to start with; but we shall all be in it before the finish.
The battalion's casualties between 23 October and 11 November 1942 were: 42 killed and died of wounds, 91 wounded, and two prisoners of war (one of them wounded), a total of 135.
8 2 Lt T. McManus, DCM; Waihopo; born NZ 15 Jun 1913; farmer; wounded 27 Jul 1942.