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26 Battalion

Chapter 7 — The Battle for Egypt

page 148

Chapter 7
The Battle for Egypt

THE situation had become very serious. After the reopening of the Axis offensive on 26 May the Eighth Army had suffered a series of reverses. Enemy armour had broken through the Gazala line, forcing the Allies to withdraw. Both sides lost heavily in the fighting which followed, but the enemy retained the initiative and continued to drive towards the Egyptian frontier. The New Zealand Division, less 6 Brigade, formed part of a delaying force based on the old Matruh defences, while farther east other Allied forces were reforming along a line which ran roughly north and south through the El Alamein station. Subsequently, after the departure of 26 Battalion, the Division was relieved at Matruh by 10 Indian Division and moved about 20 miles south to Minqar Qaim. Sixth Brigade's transport was sent forward to assist it to carry out a mobile role.

During 24 and 25 June the troops at Amiriya listened eagerly to the BBC news bulletins and watched with some dismay the continued streams of eastbound traffic. Although there did not seem to be much panic, the columns were disorganised. Guns and ambulances intermingled with all types of vehicles, many of which were being towed. The roads were still packed with transport the following day, the 26th, when 6 Brigade left Amiriya and marched under a blistering hot sun to the Agami beaches on the outskirts of Alexandria. The battalion camped on sand dunes or in concrete pillboxes close to the sea. That evening Lt Carson,1 the IO, arrived back from Matruh with the rearguard party. He brought back news of events farther west and confirmed the rumours that the enemy had crossed the Egyptian frontier.

Before the battalion had been 24 hours in its new camp orders were received to move forward to the Alamein defences. About seventy men were on leave in Alexandria and trucks were sent into the city to collect them. The drivers knew most of the
Black and white photograph of a mosque

The mosque at Sidi Rezegh

Black and white photograph of soldiers resting

Some of the Battalion survivors of the Libyan battles

Black and white photograph of soldiers having a meal

Meal time at Baggush

Black and white photograph of soldiers in an exercise

Training at Kabrit for combined operations

page 149 haunts of New Zealanders, and in surprisingly quick time all the men were back at the beach. Soon afterwards the battalion embussed in South African lorries and moved off westward with the rest of the brigade. That night the troops bivouacked in the desert about ten miles south of Alamein station and six miles from the Bab el Qattara, an area prepared as a defensive ‘box’ and known as Fortress A or the Qattara Box. Early the next day, 28 June, the brigade occupied this fortress and the transport returned to its base. Battalion and company sectors were allotted, and all ranks were soon busy digging into the stony ground or helping with the many tasks necessary to make a defensive position. At this juncture 6 Brigade was without supporting arms, except those contained in the three battalions, and was short of mines, ammunition, and rations. The pipeline which ran through the area was badly corroded in places and provided only a trickle of water. On the same day came news of the Division. During the previous afternoon enemy forces had encircled it, but it had escaped by driving through the German lines after dusk and was now reforming at Alamein. General Freyberg had been wounded and Brig Inglis2 was in command.

The Box was oblong in shape, its perimeter consisting of ridges varying in height. Numerous wadis and folds crossed the area, offering some cover to the few thin-skinned vehicles. The 26th Battalion took over the southern sector and Col Watson placed the companies in a rough semi-circle, A Coy facing west, B Coy south-west, and D Coy south. C Coy and HQ Coy were stationed in reserve behind the flanking companies. The last two days of the month were busy for everyone. Most of the digging was completed and the pipeline repaired. Supplies were received and mines laid around the perimeter of the Box. Meanwhile, the rest of the Division assembled in the area and 28 Battalion moved into the eastern corner of the Fortress. page 150 Colonel Peart returned and resumed command. Sixth Brigade carriers, including those of the battalion, had been placed under command of Brig Winsor and, after several brushes with the advancing enemy, covered the evacuation of El Daba. The Carrier Platoon rejoined the battalion on 4 July; it had with it eight new carriers, which had been found on trucks on the railway with no owners.

At this juncture the Eighth Army's line of defence was based on three strongpoints, with mobile forces covering the gaps. First South African Division occupied the defences at Alamein; 2 NZ Division manned Fortress A at Qattara; and remnants of 5 Indian Division occupied Naqb Abu Dweis on the northern fringes of the reputedly impassable Qattara Depression. During the first three days in July the enemy made several attempts to breach the line, but although he made some penetration between the central and northern sectors he failed to dislodge the South Africans. Enemy activity in the vicinity of Fortress A was slight. A few shells landed in the battalion sector but caused no damage. Hostile reconnaissance parties were sighted in the distance a number of times but they did not attempt to approach the defences.

On the 3rd the Italian armoured Ariete Division made a threatening move northwards of Fortress A, but it ran into heavy fire from a mobile force of New Zealand artillery and infantry and suffered serious losses in men and guns. To disorganise Rommel's troops still further, 5 Brigade was ordered to attack and capture the El Mreir Depression, which lay several miles north of the Box and south-west of the enemy salient on Ruweisat Ridge. To support this attack 6 Brigade was to leave its position and move back to Divisional HQ to act as a mobile reserve. Only skeleton forces were to be left behind.

No explanation was given the battalion and, somewhat surprised by the order, the troops prepared to leave the Box. Transport arrived about 11.30 a.m. on the 4th, and within an hour the vehicles were widely dispersed near Qaret el Himeimat. The rest of 6 Brigade arrived at intervals during the day. In accordance with the policy of maintaining battalions on a three-company basis, partly because of shortage of transport and partly to achieve greater mobility, C Coy was detached and sent page 151 to Maadi. There were many in the company who sought immediate transfers to other companies. General disappointment was felt that the battalion should be divided in this way. Meanwhile, 5 Brigade had succeeded in gaining a hold on the El Mreir Depression and 4 Brigade had moved forward to cover its left flank. Sixth Brigade was ordered to return to its former position in Fortress A.

By dusk on the 5th the brigade was back in the Box. The absence of C Coy necessitated a slight readjustment of positions and in some instances new trenches had to be dug—an unpopular decision. Two days passed uneventfully. A small enemy convoy was sighted west of D Coy, but desert haze prevented observation of the results of the artillery fire directed on it. Early on 7 July 4 Brigade advanced north-west towards Mungar Wahla and by daylight was on its objective. Later in the day a change in the situation brought about the withdrawal of both 4 and 5 Brigades, and during the night they moved back east of the fortress area. Sixth Brigade was also ordered to be ready to abandon its position. The southern strongpoint held by Indian troops had already been abandoned, and the Alamein Line was being shortened.

The news of the impending move caused a fresh outbreak of rumours in the battalion sector, the most persistent of which sent the brigade to Maadi for a rest. The evening passed without a confirming order, but as Col Peart expected that the move would be made under cover of darkness, all ranks were astir by 3 a.m. Trucks moved into the sector, were loaded, and then dispersed again. The hours passed. At 7 a.m. the orders were still awaited, so the cooks' trucks were unloaded and breakfast served to the hungry men. Finally, at 9.30 a.m. orders arrived, and the battalion moved to an assembly area near Qaret el Himeimat to await the arrival of the rest of the brigade. When the journey was continued early on the following morning (9 July), it was generally known that 6 Brigade was returning to Amiriya to form part of the general reserve. That night the battalion bivouacked near Burg el Arab, and in the morning the convoy continued on to its destination.

This had been the battalion's eighth move since its arrival from Syria three weeks earlier. Knowing little of the reasons page 152 for these seemingly unnecessary moves, many of the men expressed some feeling on the matter. All ranks were fit and ready for action after their long spell in Syria and had not expected to be withdrawn during such a crucial period. The Qattara Box had been abandoned and all their hard work had gone for nothing. Still, nobody objected strongly to the spell at Amiriya, for it offered a pleasant break from desert conditions. Fresh fruit and vegetables reappeared on the menu and leave was granted to Alexandria. The comments persisted, however, and pessimists forecast that the spell would be short. At a battalion parade on the 13th the CO addressed the men, explaining some of the mystifying moves. Brigadier Clifton also gave a résumé of the general tactical situation and spoke of possible future roles for the brigade. During 6 Brigade's absence the Division, after move and counter-move with no serious fighting, had taken up a position east of the Box and south-east of Ruweisat Ridge, which was still partly held by the enemy.

* * *

The pessimists were right. On the day of the parade the battalion was ordered to move forward and join the Divisional Reserve Group to permit 18 Battalion to rejoin 4 Brigade. Ninth Australian Division had arrived from Palestine and taken over the coastal sector of the Alamein Line, and by attacking along the coast had drawn off some of the enemy forces previously stationed around Ruweisat Ridge. This ridge, a long, narrow fold in the desert, jutted into the Eighth Army's defences. Some twenty to thirty feet above the surrounding desert, it commanded observation over a wide area and was of tactical value to both sides. The 4th and 5th Brigades were to attack and capture the western half of the ridge, leaving the eastern end not already held to be taken by 5 Indian Division. Success would enable British tanks to exploit westward and circle to cut the enemy's lines of communication. It was expected the New Zealanders would have to overcome fairly heavy opposition.

By nightfall on the 13th the battalion was bivouacked about 35 miles east of Divisional HQ. In the morning it moved forward and joined the Reserve Group in a sector south of the forward brigades, the companies moving into positions recently page 153 vacated by 28 (Maori) Battalion. Before long the men were chipping into the hard rock pan. Digging slit trenches in the heat of the day always caused a lot of cursing, and it seemed to the men that the battalion was fated to strike the rockiest parts of the desert. Later in the day the value of deep trenches was emphasised when several Stukas dive-bombed the position. Several men were caught in the open and three were wounded. Altogether it was an unpleasant day. Not only was it particularly hot, but innumerable flies hovered in and around the trenches. A light dust-storm swept the area and covered everybody and everything with a layer of fine sand. After dusk the air became chilly.

The assault on the ridge by 4 and 5 Brigades was scheduled to begin after dark. The Reserve Group was not to move forward until the attacking brigades had consolidated on their objectives. It would then take up a position about two miles south of the ridge and guard against a counter-attack from the south or south-west. There was little likelihood of any move until early on the 15th, but Col Peart decided to leave nothing to chance and ordered company commanders to have their men ready by 11 p.m. But it was 3 a.m. before the order was received and the transport moved from its harbour to embus the men. Travelling in desert formation the battalion made slow progress, and by daylight only six miles had been covered. The troops debussed and formed up to march to the new sector about two miles away.

No opposition was expected, but as B Coy in the lead neared the sector it encountered spandau fire directly ahead. More surprising still, enemy tanks were clearly seen on the western end of the ridge which was to have been captured by 4 Brigade. These tanks opened fire on a burnt-out tank which lay close to the spot selected by the Signal Platoon as its headquarters. The enemy's fire did not prevent the companies from taking up their positions: B Coy to the right, facing north, A Coy alongside, facing north-west, and D Coy on the left flank, facing west and south-west. Battalion HQ and HQ Coy dug in behind A and B Coys. The ground was slightly undulating and afforded little cover for vehicles. Fortunately anti-tank guns were soon in action and the enemy tanks lumbered out of sight.

page 154

The platoons were still digging in when the enemy began to shell and mortar the sector. B Coy on the right flank bore the brunt of this, and before the day was over reported five men wounded. Several vehicles were damaged, including the battalion orderly-room truck. Enemy aircraft appeared at intervals and Stuka dive-bombers damaged two more trucks, one of which carried a quantity of beer. All was lost. The annoying part of this loss was that the beer should have been distributed the day before. Late in the afternoon Ju88s bombed the area and several men were injured by flying splinters. The only cheering note was the sight of 37 prisoners from the Ariete and Brescia divisions being brought back into the lines by the Carrier Platoon, which had been on reconnaissance north of the sector.

It had been assumed that the fighting on Ruweisat was over except for mopping up. This had not been confirmed, and the presence of enemy tanks early in the morning and the severity of the shelling and mortaring had caused some apprehension. Later, reports of what had happened filtered through. Both brigades, despite heavy casualties, had succeeding in driving the enemy from the ridge and had taken many prisoners. Unfortunately enemy tanks bypassed during the night caused havoc at dawn. British tanks which were to have supported the New Zealanders did not arrive, and the hard-won successes were being gradually lost. At 4 p.m. it was reported that 4 Brigade had been overrun and that 5 Brigade was being hard pressed. General Inglis ordered a general withdrawal to the line of the Reserve Group's positions. At nightfall enemy attacks subsided, and 5 Brigade disengaged and fell back to take up a position on the right and north-east of 26 Battalion. The remnants of 4 Brigade arrived in driblets throughout the night and moved through to the rear.

The 16th and 17th July were anxious days, for it was feared the enemy might attempt to follow up his success and the battalion was poorly equipped to meet a tank-supported attack. Fourth Brigade, less 18 Battalion, had been sent to Maadi to reform, and 22 Battalion, which had also suffered heavy losses, accompanied it. Sixth Brigade had been sent for and was expected to arrive during the 17th to take over the Reserve page 155 Group's sector. No attack eventuated, the enemy being content to shell and mortar the sector at intervals. Enemy aircraft bombed the area on several occasions, generally at meal times, but caused little damage. Altogether seven men were wounded and several vehicles damaged or destroyed during the period. Patrols were sent out at irregular intervals but they seldom encountered the enemy. Lieutenant Talbot3 failed to return from one of these and it was later ascertained he had been killed.

About four o'clock on the afternoon of the 17th 6 Brigade arrived, and about an hour later 24 Battalion was moving up on the left of D Coy. Brigade HQ was set up close to Battalion HQ, which later moved closer to A Coy. The Reserve Group, joined by 25 Battalion, moved back. At tea that night two cans of beer per man were distributed and quickly consumed. The three days had been hot and trying, and four sweltering hot days followed. In their trenches the men were besieged by flies, which hovered around in their thousands. The cooks worked under difficult conditions, and many a cooked fly found its way into a mess tin. Shelling and mortaring continued as before and airbursts caused a number of casualties, with B Coy suffering most. One man was killed and ten wounded. After dusk on the 19th 23 Battalion took over the right-hand platoon's sector. No. 8 Platoon moved into reserve and No. 11 into the former's position.

These four days saw some of the most active patrolling carried out by the battalion in the desert. Each night several parties were sent out in different directions, some to points over two miles from the lines. In most cases they were reconnaissance patrols, never more than a section strong. The patrols went to extraordinary lengths to avoid detection: anything likely to rattle or shine was left behind, socks were worn over boots, and sometimes the men blackened their faces. Although the battalion had done little of this type of work before, casualties were fairly light. Two men were killed, another wounded, and five taken prisoner.

Two fighting patrols, each of platoon strength, were sent out to test the enemy's strength in certain areas. The first of these, page 156 No. 16 Platoon led by Lt Gifford,4 travelled north-west about 3000 yards before it encountered the enemy. The platoon immediately attacked with rifle, bayonet, and grenades. In the sharp engagement which followed over a dozen enemy were killed and others wounded. Two NCOs from the 382nd Infantry Regiment, only recently arrived from Crete, were taken prisoner. The attacking party did not escape unscathed: one man was killed, another wounded, and four taken prisoner. Sergeant Tither5 received a nasty abdominal wound early in the fighting, but continued to use the bayonet with vigour until the Platoon Commander gave the order to disengage. Later, weakened by his wound and in great pain, the sergeant found he was unable to keep up with the others. He refused to allow any of the men to remain with him for fear that at daylight their presence would attract hostile fire. Much later in the morning he reached the lines alone and exhausted.

The second fighting patrol was drawn from 7 Platoon, led by Lt Allen.6 It also went out in a north-westerly direction. As the patrol was about to engage an enemy working party it came under fire from the rear. The platoon returned the fire, but realising that the element of surprise was gone, the Platoon Commander gave the order to retire. No casualties were suffered. Several small patrols ventured out in daylight, but most of them ran into trouble of some sort. After lunch on the 18th Lt Clubb and two men from 17 Platoon set out to investigate three British tanks which had been disabled in the fight for Ruweisat Ridge. No sooner had the party reached the tanks, which were a considerable distance from the lines, than it was pinned down by machine-gun fire. Folds in the ground were the only cover available, and when one of the party, L-Cpl Skinner,7 attempted to change his position, he was killed by a machine-gun burst. The other two remained still until after dusk; they brought back valuable information, including the page 157 location of three 88-millimetre guns and several machine-gun posts. In this manner a great deal of information about the enemy was pieced together and was the subject of a congratulatory message from the Divisional Commander.

On 21 July another attempt was made to gain a decision in the Ruweisat-El Mreir area. Plans were drawn up for a night attack on both features by infantry, followed by armoured exploitation at dawn. The 161st Brigade (5 Indian Division), which already held the eastern end of Ruweisat Ridge, was to attack westward while 6 Brigade seized the El Mreir Depression, which lay south-west of the ridge and ran almost parallel to it. Sixth Brigade's task was not easy. To accomplish it the attacking battalions would have to form up in no-man's-land and advance northwards through a minefield with their left flank brushing against the enemy's FDLs.8 Little was known about the forces likely to be encountered, although it was expected the enemy would react strongly. No air photographs were available, but reconnaissance reports gave the impression that few, if any, tanks would be encountered but that a tank-supported counter-attack could be expected. For this reason the non-arrival of 2 Armoured Brigade, which was to be in support, could imperil the success of the operation.

Colonel Peart received orders on the morning of the attack. The 24th Battalion, with 26 Battalion on its right, was to advance on the objective, while 25 Battalion and 18 Battalion (attached) protected the open left flank. The attack was to begin at 9 p.m. and would be preceded by heavy artillery concentrations on known or suspected enemy strongpoints. Fifth Brigade was arranging for additional supporting fire, and one company of 21 Battalion was to move nearer the depression to preserve a link with 26 Battalion. Each battalion was to form up on a different start line, and there was little likelihood of contact between 24 and 26 Battalions during the 4200-yard advance. The Colonel decided to attack on a two-company front with A Coy on the right and D Coy on the left, Tac HQ and B Coy following close behind. The supporting arms— carriers, mortars, two-pounders, and a platoon of machine-gunners from 27 MG Battalion—formed the greater part of the page 158 transport column, which was placed under the command of Capt McKinlay.9 This group, which also included the ammunition carriers and several unit vehicles, was to follow a party of sappers detailed to gap the minefield.10

Throughout the rest of the morning and the afternoon the troops were busy with preparations. Ammunition and reserve rations were distributed and each platoon was given a number of ‘sticky bombs’. Platoon commanders were given their orders. Compasses and watches were checked. Late in the afternoon Wellington bombers passed overhead to bomb the western end of the depression. Some of their bombs exploded uncomfortably close to the battalion lines. Shortly afterwards 24 Battalion began assembling on its start line. It was still daylight, and the movement of men and vehicles attracted heavy enemy fire and probably gave warning of the impending attack. The firing slackened off at dusk, and all was quiet as the battalion moved forward to its taped start line. It was very dark and visibility was limited to a few yards, but the companies had plenty of time to get into position.

At 8.45 p.m. the 25-pounders opened fire. It was an impressive display. The sky was lit up by gun flashes and the ground reverberated to the explosions. This was something new to the troops. For more than two-thirds of the men this was their first action; half deafened by the sound of the crashing shells and the roar of the guns, they lay waiting, somewhat apprehensively, for the order to advance. Dust and smoke reduced visibility still further, and when at nine o'clock A and D Coys began to move forward, both companies were forced to travel in fairly close formation.

The two companies quickly disappeared into the murky darkness, and Tac HQ and B Coy followed. For a while all was page 159
Black and white map of army movement


quiet except for 5 Brigade mortars and Vickers guns firing into the depression. As the leading troops neared the enemy minefield which ran close to the objective, they came under enemy page 160 mortar and machine-gun fire which caused some casualties. The fire was not heavy enough to hold up the advance, but more trouble was encountered at the minefield itself. The wire marking the minefield was booby-trapped and the IO, Lt Carson, tripped it. The explosion was a signal for a hail of small-arms fire from enemy infantry dug in along the rim of the depression, who had apparently been expecting the attack. The troops dived to cover and the fire passed harmlessly over their heads.

Minutes passed. From the depression came the sound of revving engines. Then, during a lull in the firing, the resonant voice of Capt Richards11 was heard urging his men to charge. The leading platoons of both companies scrambled to their feet and fought their way over the low ridge into the depression, shouting and cursing, firing at anything that moved. It was so dark that it was difficult to distinguish friend from foe. The four platoons pressed across the basin, overrunning post after post. Some of the enemy tried to get away in trucks but few succeeded. The strongest opposition came from the eastern end of the feature, and in the mad rush 18 Platoon swung to the right and finished up almost in front of A Coy. No. 17 Platoon also swung right and continued on until it was out of touch with either company. A Coy, though somewhat scattered, retained its original formation.

It had been expected that the attacking infantry would have to clean up a number of anti-tank gun posts, but none was seen. A few tanks had been encountered during the charge across the basin, and individual attempts were made to knock these out with sticky bombs but without much success. Lieutenant Williams12 planted two bombs on one tank and others tried to do the same, but it was dangerous work and casualties resulted. Meanwhile, heavy machine-gun and mortar fire forced the troops to take cover. Some occupied abandoned trenches and others crouched down behind low ridges. A Coy was centred around a ridge in the centre of the basin but the D Coy platoons page 161 were scattered over a wide area. When Capt Young13 attempted to locate his forward platoons and reorganise his company, he ran into machine-gun fire from a tank and was severely wounded.

It soon became apparent that the battalion had fought its way into the middle of a tank laager. Some tanks were still moving around in the basin and many more were hull-down along the northern lip of it. Platoons soon used up their stock of sticky bombs and had no choice but to wait helplessly until further supplies arrived. Casualties had been fairly heavy, and men continued to be hit as the enemy mortared and machine-gunned the area from positions some distance away. On the north side the platoons were in close contact with enemy infantry, who lobbed grenades and poured a heavy volume of fire on the crouching New Zealanders. The enemy tanks were not inactive and red tracer from their machine guns criss-crossed the basin.

Realising there was little else to do but hang on until the supporting arms arrived, Capt Richards began organising the troops in the basin into some sort of defensive position. D Coy was obviously scattered, and there was no sign of 24 Battalion on the left flank. The situation was unchanged when Col Peart arrived and set up his headquarters with A Coy. Tactical HQ and B Coy had been delayed by heavy defensive fire along the line of advance and both had suffered losses. B Coy had remained on the south lip of the depression and was digging in there. Unfortunately the wireless set to Brigade HQ had been damaged during the advance and the only means of communicating with Brig Clifton was by runner. (As it happened the Brigade Commander was in a similar position and had also lost his wireless.) A small patrol was sent out to locate 24 Battalion, but it ran into enemy troops and was forced to retire. Subsequent patrols also failed to make contact.

By using company sets the Colonel was able to communicate with the transport column, which was in difficulties. It had swung too far to the right during the advance and had run into the minefield. Two carriers were blown up, and later, to make page 162 matters worse, the ammunition truck was hit and set on fire. This was a serious loss for on the truck was the much-needed supply of sticky bombs. The burning vehicle attracted the attention of enemy gunners and before long several more lorries were hit. Seven anti-tank guns were with the column, and the CO ordered the gunners by wireless to open fire on the enemy tanks. Only a few rounds were fired as it was impossible to judge the range.

As it was going to take some time to extricate the guns and vehicles, Capt McKinlay went forward to acquaint the Colonel with what had happened. The minefield was much more extensive than had been expected and a big task lay ahead of the small party of sappers. Lieutenant Fraser,14 the anti-tank officer, accompanied him as far as B Coy and then returned to get his guns forward. Subsequently one gun was blown up on a mine and several sappers injured. It was nearly daylight when four of the guns reached B Coy.

By this time the battalion was almost ready to withdraw. When Capt McKinlay reached Tac HQ shortly after midnight he found the CO very worried about the lack of support, particularly the non-appearance of 24 Battalion. No news had been received from this battalion or from the Brigade Commander. Patrols sent out to locate them all returned with a similar story—enemy troops were holding the ground west of the battalion. Having learned that the ammunition truck had been lost, and realising that his troops would have to have some form of protection against tanks before daylight, the CO sent the Adjutant and Capt McKinlay back to Rear Brigade HQ. They were to try to find out what was happening and bring back a load of sticky bombs. The doctor was also required forward to give urgent attention to wounded who could not be moved because of the heavy fire. The two officers arrived at Rear Brigade HQ to find that nobody there knew any more than they did. Communications had broken down completely, but it was obvious from the large number of casualties being brought back that 24 Battalion had run into heavy opposition. page 163 Captain Hall15 rang through to Divisional HQ and explained the precarious nature of the situation to Maj-Gen Inglis. The GOC gave orders for the battalion to hold on as the armoured support was on the way. Meanwhile, Capt McKinlay had collected four carriers, two of them loaded with sticky bombs, and shortly afterwards the party set out for Tac HQ accompanied by Lt Rutherford.16 On the way one of the carriers struck a mine and the driver was wounded. The doctor stayed behind to attend to the wounded man while the others continued on with their precious load. They arrived at the depression just before dawn to learn that Col Peart had already given orders for the troops in the basin to retire. Several factors had contributed towards this decision. Enemy infantry, supported by tanks, had worked back into the depression and were rounding up scattered sections of the two companies. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the battalion would suffer a similar fate unless the British tanks arrived before first light. Four enemy tanks were reported in B Coy's area. In the basin it had become increasingly dangerous to move around. Armoured vehicles were moving about in the vicinity of the northern edge of the depression, and it seemed probable that the enemy was only waiting for dawn to make a sweep over the area. Casualties had been heavy and were steadily mounting. As a last resort Lt Boyd17 and two other ranks had been sent to locate 24 Battalion. Twenty minutes later they returned to report complete failure.

The Adjutant's news did not alter the Colonel's decision. Sticky bombs were not much use in daylight and four two-pounders could not be expected to stem a tank-supported attack. It was almost dawn and there was no sign of the British armour, so the order was given to withdraw completely from the area. Within a few minutes the troops were on the move, running in small groups across the uneven ground. Machine-gun and mortar fire followed them. The remnants of A and D Coys page 164 retraced their steps towards the start line, while the Colonel led B Coy and Tac HQ towards 21 Battalion HQ, east of the depression. The withdrawal was completed with only one casualty, one officer being severely wounded on the booby-trapped wire.

In the 21 Battalion area were the British tanks for which the battalion had waited so anxiously. They moved off in the direction of El Mreir soon afterwards. The CO continued on to 5 Brigade HQ, where he communicated with the GOC and was ordered to reoccupy his position with whatever forces he could muster. The General said that the British tanks were already entering the depression. Leaving the Adjutant to collect and bring forward all the supporting arms he could muster, Col Peart hurried back to B Coy and personally led the leading section towards the depression. It was broad daylight, and as the company ran forward, section by section, it came under fire from enemy machine-gun posts east of the objective. These were quickly overrun, and the company finally took up a position along a ridge about 300 yards east of its earlier position.

From this position the company could look along the depression and watch the tank battle, and also drink the hot tea brought forward by CQMS Jones.18 Colonel Peart went forward and spoke to the tank commander, who stated that he could see no need for infantry. Many of the British Valentines had been knocked out on the minefield and those which did get through were no match for the heavier-armoured German tanks. The six-pounder anti-tank guns which accompanied the Valentines and the battalion's three-inch mortars did much more damage, and the enemy slowly withdrew. In the distance a number of trucks were burning, strengthening the belief that the rest of 6 Brigade had met trouble.

Shortly after 1 p.m. the company was ordered to withdraw to its original sector, where the battalion was to come under command of 5 Brigade. Colonel Peart was advised that his men would be sent out for a short spell. Later the troops embussed and moved several miles to the rear, where Capt Wilson was waiting with a hot meal. This brought to a close the battalion's
Black and white photograph of vehicle movement

The Battalion convoy on the road from Palmyra, Syria

Black and white photograph of soldiers at a water source

A burst pipe at the Qattara Box gave plenty of water for those with containers

Black and white photograph of the inside of a vehicle


Black and white photograph of a desert


page 165 first action since November 1941. Although small parties of men were still drifting in from the depression, it was obvious that the casualties had been heavy. The final count revealed that 31 men had been killed or mortally wounded, 63 wounded, and 68 taken prisoner—16 of those taken prisoner were also wounded. Nine officers were listed as casualties. D Coy had lost 65 men, A Coy 57, B Coy 21, and the specialist platoons 19—a total of 162 men and a third of the fighting strength of the unit. Nos. 16 and 18 Platoons had been captured almost intact. No. 17 Platoon, under Lt Harvey,19 although separated from the rest of D Coy and A Coy throughout the night, managed to escape through 21 Battalion's lines. It had not been a satisfactory attack in many respects although the troops—and it was the first action for most of them—had fought well. Various things had gone wrong, but everyone felt that had the British tanks come forward at first light the depression would have been held despite the losses.

The evacuation of wounded had been left in the hands of Sgt Branks20 and his team of stretcher-bearers. They had done a splendid job. Although suffering from bomb-blast himself, the sergeant had continued with his work until the troops withdrew from the area. He ranged up and down the forward area in a truck, picking up the wounded as they were brought out of the basin by the stretcher-bearers. More often than not the area was under heavy fire, but none of the stretcher-bearers showed any reluctance to continue. In the minefield the driver of the Signals van was doing a similar task carrying out the wounded from that locality. Altogether over seventy wounded were evacuated during the night.

Later it was learned what had happened to the rest of the brigade. The 24th Battalion, deeper inside the enemy positions, found itself in a similar predicament to 26 Battalion and suffered very heavy losses both before and after it reached the depression. For this reason it was unable to extend east to link up with A and D Coys. Later the Brigade Commander had page 166 ordered 25 Battalion to come forward and plug the gap as soon as it had finished its original task. It was almost daylight when this battalion approached the depression, and before vehicles and troops could disperse enemy tanks overran the area, setting many of the trucks on fire. Very few of the infantry were able to escape. Brigadier Clifton was captured but managed to escape the following night.

The day following the attack was spent resting in the reserve area. The heavy losses suffered necessitated some reorganisation within the unit. The remnants of D Coy, plus its B Echelon personnel, were absorbed into A Coy, and C Coy was ordered up from Maadi. After dusk the battalion returned to its former position in the line, A Coy taking over the right flank and B Coy moving into D Coy's old sector. The 18th Battalion came forward on the left flank in the place of 24 Battalion, which had been sent to Maadi to reorganise and reform. When C Coy arrived on 25 July it took up a reserve position behind A Coy. All three brigades had suffered heavy losses in the last few weeks. Fourth Brigade was reforming in Maadi, and for the next six weeks 5 and 6 Brigades occupied a sector of the Alamein Line.

The Division's role was defensive. During this period efforts were made to make the ‘New Zealand Box’, as it was known, an impregnable fortress. By the end of August minebelts and wire entanglements surrounded it and the supporting arms were sited so that they could give ready assistance to any threatened area. The troops dug in properly, compressors being used to break up the hard rock pan. General Montgomery became the Eighth Army Commander, and one of his first actions was to order all troop-carrying transport to the rear. This effectively silenced rumours of another withdrawal. As the weeks slowly passed increasing evidence was seen of American assistance. Flight after flight of Mitchell bombers flew overhead, and leave personnel returned with stories of the arrival of shiploads of American tanks and supplies.

The battalion sector was in a depression, with a ridge forming the north-western and western perimeters. Unbelievably hot in the daytime, the area was a home not only for the troops and for enemy shells but also for the flies. These persistent pests page 167 appeared everywhere and in incredible numbers. A sweep of the hand might kill scores but hundreds took their place. Frequent dust-storms added to the general unpopularity of the area. Early in August B Echelon was plagued by large numbers of mosquitoes. There was no water for miles, and rumours circulated that the enemy had dropped the pests from aircraft to increase the sickness rate. Finally it was decided that they had been blown across the desert from the Qattara Depression by a strong southerly. Everyone at B Echelon hoped for another strong wind to blow them back again.

Enemy activity along the front was confined to desultory shelling and mortaring, which generally became heavier around dusk and at dawn. Few casualties were suffered. An unusual number of dud shells came over; they were attributed to the work of resistance workers in German factories. Enemy planes appeared on many occasions, but they generally flew at too great a height to be easily identified. On one occasion five Ju88s flew low overhead as they headed towards the enemy lines. Everyone for miles around opened fire and three were shot down.

Patrolling continued as before. Scarcely a night passed but one of the companies had men probing deep into enemy territory. The patrols were usually on reconnaissance, and by the end of the period a larger dossier of information about enemy troop dispositions, the location of minefields, guns, etc., had been collected. Fighting patrols were sent out, and on other occasions mortars and anti-tank guns were set up in no-man's-land to shoot up reported enemy posts. Brigadier Clifton took a very active interest in this work and on one occasion was heard to offer a patrol two cans of beer for a German prisoner and one for an Italian. Towards the end of the period the enemy reacted strongly to these excursions into his territory and patrolling became much more dangerous.

C Coy provided the three fighting patrols, each of platoon strength, and A Coy one of company strength. The first patrol, 14 Platoon led by Lt Fraser,21 was the most successful. Setting out after dark on 31 July, the patrol travelled north-west about page 168 3000 yards and encountered a large enemy working party. The platoon immediately attacked, throwing grenades and following up with the bayonet. Twelve of the enemy were killed and others wounded, at a cost to the platoon of three wounded. Private Bob Miles,22 a popular member of the battalion football team, grabbed one German by the scruff of the neck and brought him back to the lines.

Nine days later Lt Ainsley23 led 13 Platoon on a similar mission. After passing through the gap in the minefield the party travelled west for about two miles, cutting two telephone cables on the way. Hearing a noise close ahead, Ainsley gave the order to attack. Within a few minutes an enemy machine-gun post had been silenced, but the patrol came under heavy fire from a ring of other posts surrounding it. The platoon silently began to crawl back the way it had come, leaving three men behind. Lieutenant Ainsley and one man had been killed, and a third soldier was taken prisoner.

When Lt Baird24 took 15 Platoon out on patrol over a fortnight later, the enemy was waiting for him. The patrol was subjected to heavy machine-gun fire, and withdrew with difficulty with four of its number wounded. The Platoon Commander died of his injuries, and the battalion lost one of its most popular and efficient officers. A Coy's fighting patrol did not make contact with the enemy, although listening posts were able to gain some valuable information. The size of the party and the unavoidable noise made it difficult to achieve the element of surprise so essential to patrolling.

Seven officers and 35 other ranks were posted to the unit early in August and they helped to bring company strengths back to something like normal. The sickness rate was high. By the end of the month everyone was showing the effects of the long spell in the desert. The healthy appearance of the men, so noticeable after the spell in Syria, had gone. All ranks fell victims to painful desert sores which inevitably followed a cut or bruise. Jaundice and stomach ailments took a heavy toll and page 169 the evacuation of sick men to hospital made the task of those left behind much harder. Major Thomson, who had commanded C Coy for a long period, was evacuated to hospital and his place was taken by Capt Horrell. Later Capt Horrell was sent to hospital and Capt Hall was given the command, Lt Barnett25 becoming Adjutant.

The incidence of these desert sores prompted the title of 6 Brigade's daily news sheet Desert Saws. This paper was very popular amongst all ranks, for besides the latest war news it also contained humorous articles, poems, and jokes to provide relief from the general monotony. Social amenities did not exist and it was left to the men to provide their own entertainment. A unit concert was held, one of the items being Pte R. T. Street's Black and white photograph of a music sheet ‘Fly Flappy’, a song that will long be remembered by the battalion. Practically no leave was granted. During August two parties of 20 men went to Alexandria and Cairo for a six-day spell.

Although there had been a lull along the front for nearly six weeks, the troops knew that sooner or later one side would take page 170 the offensive and that they would probably be drawn into the action. Rommel made the first move. On 30 August the attention of all ranks was drawn from the fighting in Russia and the Pacific to events closer at hand. This time Rommel did not attempt a frontal assault but made his thrust against the southern sector below the New Zealand Box. Armoured spearheads breached the minefields and broke through the light mobile screen behind them. Before long the enemy had swept around east of the New Zealanders up against the exposed left-rear flank of the Eighth Army. To meet this threat the divisional defences had to be turned to face south-east. Fifth Brigade moved around to the left rear of 6 Brigade, facing south and south-east, and 132 Brigade (44 Division), a recent arrival in Egypt, moved in on the right of 26 Battalion.

The enemy penetrated deep into Egypt but was unable to continue his sweep towards Alexandria. His attack had been anticipated and armoured units and anti-tank guns had been sited to block his advance. The RAF and artillery concentrated on the enemy supply lines which had to pass through the gap between the New Zealand Box and the Qattara Depression. Within four days the enemy was beginning to pull back, and plans to inflict as much damage as possible on the retreating force were put into effect.

On 2 September 151 Brigade (5 Indian Division) relieved 132 Brigade and 26 Battalion. The relief was completed after dusk, and by 11 p.m. 4 Battalion Essex Regiment was occupying the battalion sector and the battalion was stationed near Divisional HQ. Next morning Col Peart received orders for an attack. It was to be made after dusk on a two-brigade front, with 132 Brigade on the right and 5 Brigade on the left. They were to advance south from the Box through the minefields and attack towards the Munassib Depression, two miles away. Elements of the German 90th Light Division and some Italian troops were reported to be holding the northern lip of this feature, the possession of which would provide direct observation for artillery fire on the retreating enemy. The advance was to be silent, for it was hoped to have the infantry and their supporting arms through the minefield gaps before the enemy was aware an attack was imminent. Artillery OPs would ac- page 171 company the infantry to give support if required. The 25th Battalion was to gap the minefield, and 18 Battalion was to stage a limited diversionary attack westward from its sector.

Black and white map of enemy infiltration

The enemy thrust 30 August–3 September 1942

Colonel Peart's orders were to secure the right flank of 132 Brigade. The battalion was unlikely to encounter much opposition in doing this as it would only be filling the gap between 132 Brigade and the continuation of the minebelts extending south from the New Zealand Box. The enemy had gapped this minefield in the vicinity of the Munassib Depression on 30 August, but it was reported that his forces had not attempted to extend northwards. It was a wide front to cover from the depression in the south along the length of the minebelt, and Col Peart decided to commit all three rifle companies.26 The page 172 supporting arms were to cover any gap between 132 Brigade and the southernmost company.

The companies were warned to be ready to move at 9.30 p.m. so that they could reach a rendezvous south of the minefield gap by zero hour—eleven o'clock. From this point they would move towards their respective objectives—B Coy almost due west towards the outer minefield, A Coy close to a small depression (Deir el Angar) several hundred yards to the south, and C Coy farther south to a position on a rise near another depression, Deir Alinda. Battalion HQ was to be set up about 1500 yards south of the gap, and the supporting arms, excluding those with companies, would be sited in the vicinity.

The rest of the day passed quickly. Company commanders studied the plan and completed internal arrangements. Shortly before dusk 132 Brigade began marching towards the minefield gap which had already been taped. As they passed the Tommies commented on the size of the New Zealanders' picks and shovels and seemed amused when told each soldier carried one or other into action. There was no delay on the forming-up line, and punctually at 9.30 p.m. the battalion moved off in two columns towards the minefield gap. The rifle companies, led by B Coy, formed the right-hand column, and Battalion HQ and the supporting arms comprised the other.

As the two columns moved through 25 Battalion and entered the minefield gap they encountered heavy mortar and artillery fire which caused a number of casualties. Enemy planes were dropping anti-personnel bombs, and it was evident that the enemy was aware of the location of the gap and that an attack was imminent. The British infantry were through the gap, but their transport and supporting arms were still in the area and hopelessly disorganised. This did not delay the infantry column to any extent but effectively held up the supporting arms. The confusion was worse at the south end of the gap. British trucks were rushing in all directions; some had been abandoned and others were on fire. The shelling was very heavy and the companies had difficulty in maintaining contact and keeping going. More men were hit, including Col Peart. Lieutenant Barnett was close at hand when the Colonel fell and realised that he page 173 was very seriously injured. Sergeant Lock,27 of the Provost section, found an empty jeep and set off with the Colonel to the RAP. This NCO, who had an uncanny sense of direction, soon found the RAP and was back with the Adjutant soon afterwards. It was after eleven o'clock by this time and the companies were on the move towards their objectives. Lieutenant Barnett promptly took control and tried to reorganise the 132nd Brigade transport so that the battalion column could get through and set up Battalion HQ. It was a slow job made more difficult by the darkness and the heavy shelling, but gradually with the help of others the Adjutant managed to get his column free. Leaving the others to disentangle the British transport, he set off on a compass bearing towards the hollow selected beforehand as the site for Battalion HQ.

By good navigation he landed on the right spot. Unit vehicles were dispersed and the supporting arms sited to cover the southern front. The enemy shelling had not abated, but by 12.30 a.m. this work was almost completed. At the minefield gap British and New Zealand officers were hard at work trying to move the British vehicles away from the danger zone. Many of the drivers were demoralised—it was their first action—and consequently they were hard to handle. The situation was made worse by the arrival of other transport which started to come back through the gap and block the passage of southbound traffic. Painstakingly the officers, including several from the battalion, sorted things out. All the while more and more trucks were being hit and each blaze seemed to attract heavier fire.

Meanwhile, at Battalion HQ the Adjutant was faced with another and more dangerous situation. Even as the supporting arms moved into position, troops of the assaulting West Kent battalions came streaming back into the area. They seemed hopelessly disorganised. Some of them were unarmed. Their story was soon pieced together. Having had little desert training, the two battalions had advanced in close formation towards their objectives. After suffering some losses in a minefield and from hostile shelling, they ran into a merciless hail of lead from machine-gun posts directly ahead of them. Their entrenching page 174
Black and white map of an attack

Attack on enemy flank 3–4 September

tools proved too small to be of use, and with little cover available they had broken after suffering very heavy casualties. Many of their officers had been killed or wounded, and companies and platoons became badly disorganised as they retired.

Lieutenant Barnett made strenuous efforts to reorganise the British troops, not so much to get them to return to the attack but so that they could cover the gap. It was a critical period. No word had been received from the forward companies, and in view of the situation on their left some anxiety was felt for their safety. The Brigade LO, Lt Buchanan,28 and Lt Piper,29 the newly appointed IO, set out to locate them. Within half an hour they had found A and B Coys, both of which had reached their objectives without meeting opposition. Desultory shelling was going on, but the men were well dug in and were not page 175 suffering casualties. Major Walden was informed of the Colonel's injuries and immediately left for Battalion HQ, Lt Boyd being left in charge of B Coy. Buchanan and Piper could find no trace of C Coy in the area where it was expected to be, and thought that Capt Hall might have gone too far to the south. The area was quiet, and this allayed any feeling of anxiety.

Battalion HQ was still occupied with 132 Brigade, At this juncture it was not known whether the left flank battalion of the brigade, the 2nd Battalion of the Buffs Regiment, had also pulled back with the others. Hours passed and the New Zealand officers could do little to alter the situation. Heavy shelling made the task harder. In the meantime signallers laid lines to A and B Coys, which reported that enemy shellfire was becoming heavier. The anti-tank platoon and the reserve detachment of mortars, together with some from 132 Brigade, were moved south of Battalion HQ to cover the front. Brigade and Divisional HQ were advised of the position, and a request was made for tank support to deal with an expected enemy counter-attack at dawn. Sixty men from the West Kent battalions were collected and sent south to link up with C Coy. They never reached their destination. The New Zealand Intelligence corporal who accompanied the party stated that it met very heavy fire and within a few minutes was so scattered that it was impossible to collect the men together again.

With the situation more settled, although not very secure, efforts were made to locate C Coy. Scouting parties were sent out from A Coy and Battalion HQ, but they all reported failure. At dawn the position was unchanged. Enemy shelling became much heavier and it was dangerous to move far from a trench. Artillery support was requested and smoke shells were fired around a number of suspected enemy OPs. When Brig Clifton arrived at Battalion HQ about 7 a.m., the shelling had eased off. The Brigade Commander arranged for the battalion carriers to move south to help cover the open front, and then, accompanied by Maj Walden, set out in a jeep to locate the missing company. At eight o'clock an artillery OP forward of Battalion HQ reported sighting a jeep surrounded by Italian page 176 troops south-west of A Coy. It was feared, and later found to be true, that the two officers had been captured.

For the second time within a few hours Lt Barnett became acting Battalion Commander. He had already accomplished a multiplicity of tasks which do not normally come within the scope of an Adjutant, and his troubles were not over. From the companies came messages indicating the enemy was preparing to counter-attack. Appeals for tank support were unavailing. The Divisional Artillery stationed behind the southern escarpment was mainly occupied with the open front. As the morning wore on more reports of enemy preparations were received. Italians were forming up west of A Coy and tanks were moving about south-west of B Coy. Enemy reconnaissance patrols approached both companies and were engaged by the forward platoons. Fortunately at this juncture and FOO of 64 Medium Regiment RA arrived at Battalion HQ and was immediately sent to B Coy HQ. Fire from this regiment broke up the enemy concentrations and effectively delayed the counter-attack.

Shortly after midday Maj Richards arrived at Battalion HQ and assumed command, Lt Harvey taking over A Coy. The Major found that all communication to Brigade HQ had been lost, and soon afterwards he left to discover if the battalion would withdraw from its salient. In his absence the Adjutant carried on as before. Enemy shelling, which had gradually eased off during the morning, began again at 1 p.m. It became so heavy that at one time it was feared it might be the prelude to a counter-attack. The 25-pounders and medium artillery fired heavy concentrations on danger points, and after a while everything returned to normal. At 1.30 p.m. Lt A. J. Fraser arrived with news of C Coy.

The company had suffered heavy losses around the minefield gap early in the night, and in the confusion the attached signal and RAP personnel had become separated from it. This was a serious loss, for with the signallers went the No. 18 set. The company continued on towards its objective and reached it without much difficulty. At dawn it was a different story. There was no sign of friendly troops, and the three platoons were heavily engaged on three sides. Patrols were sent out to locate A Coy. Throughout the morning the company was fully en- page 177 gaged in a little battle of its own. By midday supplies of ammunition were very low and the position was fast becoming desperate. Because of his heavy casualties Capt Hall could ill spare men to establish contact with Battalion HQ. Three small patrols were sent out and Lt Fraser's was the only one to succeed.

From Fraser's story it was clear that C Coy was some distance south-west of its intended objective and obviously in grave danger of capture. [All reports seem to indicate that the bearings given Capt Hall were based on a map which showed the north-south minefield in the wrong position.] Lieutenant Barnett realised that it was going to be difficult to extricate the company with the enemy in such close contact. Arrangements were then made for 64 Medium Regiment to lay a smoke screen around the reported location of the company. The guns were about to fire when a sudden dust-storm obscuring visibility caused a postponement. The storm also prevented Capt McKinlay and Lt Fraser from reaching the company with three carriers. When it subsided the carriers made another attempt, but ran into accurate anti-tank fire which destroyed one vehicle and forced the others to withdraw. By this time several other C Coy men had reached A Coy; they reported that the company was almost surrounded and that Capt Hall intended to withdraw at dusk.

Major Richards returned to Battalion HQ at 4.30 p.m. with news that a withdrawal would begin as soon as it was dusk. For the forward platoons it was a long wait. They could see enemy movement in the distance. As each threat developed it was broken up by concentrated fire from the supporting arms. The enemy stepped up his shelling and mortaring as the light began to fail, but when the first company began moving back through the gap at 8.30 p.m. the fire had almost ceased. The rest of the battalion followed at intervals, Battalion HQ and the supporting arms bringing up the rear. By midnight the troops were back in the reserve area they had left little more than twenty-four hours before. Major McQuade took command of the battalion, the fifth officer to assume this duty in one day. Although the battalion had fulfilled its role and 5 Brigade had inflicted heavy casualties, the success of the attack was to some page 178 extent nullified by the losses suffered by 132 Brigade. From the battalion's point of view the operation was not a success for C Coy was still missing and had, in fact, been captured.

All day Capt Hall had waited for some sign from Battalion HQ and for the return of the patrols he had sent out. Late in the afternoon enemy gunners ranged on the company, and shortly afterwards the area was pounded by heavy and sustained concentrations. The fire was too heavy for a withdrawal to be attempted, and this plan had to be abandoned. Enemy infantry attacked in force, and although the small party put up a spirited fight it was soon overwhelmed. Twelve men managed to escape, and later they joined the nine others of the company already safe behind the minefield gap. The remaining 21 were captured. Six, including Capt Hall and the remaining platoon commander, were wounded.

Altogether this company had suffered 53 casualties—12 killed, 11 wounded, and 30 taken prisoner. In comparison the rest of the battalion had escaped lightly. HQ Coy had lost 13 men and B Coy 12. The battalion casualties were 19 killed or mortally wounded, 28 wounded, and 33 taken prisoner—a total of four officers and 76 other ranks. Colonel Peart had died of wounds. The loss of three of the battalion's senior officers (Col Peart, Maj Walden and Capt Hall) at this stage of the war was a heavy blow, for all three had been highly efficient and popular. Colonel Peart had won a well-deserved DSO for his part in the El Mreir action and had built up an impressive record in earlier campaigns with 18 Battalion.

In an action in which Battalion HQ personnel had been called on to cope with duties normally outside their scope, Lt Rutherford and the RAP staff excelled themselves. The doctor was quickly on the scene when trouble occurred around the minefield gap, and although the area was under heavy fire he attended to many of the wounded on the spot. Later he set up his RAP near Battalion HQ and, together with his sergeant, scoured the area for wounded, visiting both A and B Coys before Lt Barnett was aware of their location. When the ambulances of 132 Brigade were blown up on mines and its medical supplies lost, the doctor and his men worked unceasingly attending to the many casualties of that brigade. Altogether over page 179 200 wounded were treated in the RAP within 24 hours. This also meant extra work for the stretcher-bearers and those responsible for the evacuation of the wounded. Although he was under no obligation to come into the firing line, Mr. Gray of the YMCA paid many visits to the RAP and evacuated wounded to the rear.

As quickly as he had broken through, the enemy withdrew from his southern salient. His venture had been costly for he had lost many tanks at a time when they were vital to him, particularly as the Eighth Army was receiving more tanks, planes, and men as each day passed. Everyone in the battalion was hoping the Division would be withdrawn for a rest, but on 5 September orders came to return to the old sector in the Box. The changeover was uneventful and the men settled down to their earlier routine, sweltering in the heat all day and patrolling after dusk. There was little to report. The enemy had withdrawn behind his own minefields and was content to mortar and shell the sector at odd intervals each day. Allied planes appeared in ever-increasing numbers, and occasionally the monotony was broken by a dogfight overhead.

On 8 September came the news all had been waiting for— the Division was to be relieved by 44 Division and a Greek brigade and was to move to a rest area near the sea. An advanced party left Battalion HQ early on the 10th. B Echelon left during the afternoon and was followed late that night by the main body. After a bumpy and uncomfortable trip across the desert, the convoy turned on to the tar-sealed main road and by 6 a.m. had reached the rest area near Burg el Arab. Sixth Brigade's area extended along a sandy escarpment only 250 yards from the sea. Battalion HQ, company headquarters, and cookhouses were set up on the south side of the ridge, and the troops pitched their tents on the ridge itself or in convenient hollows. Company strengths were low. Of the 773 men who had travelled down from Syria, plus those subsequently posted to the battalion, only 405 remained. Sixty-seven had been killed or mortally wounded, 133 wounded, and 104 (including 22 wounded) taken prisoner. The remaining 64 of the 368 page 180 casualtics had been evacuated to hospital through sickness. In addition to Col Peart, the battalion had lost five company commanders and fifteen other officers. There were many gaps to be filled before it would be ready for another spell in the line.

Nine pleasant days were spent by the seaside. During the heat of the day swimming was the most popular pastime. At nights there were picture shows, concerts, and performances by the Kiwi Concert Party. The 6th Brigade band ran a number of impromptu open-air concerts. Many of the men recorded greetings which were subsequently broadcast in New Zealand. The highlight of the spell was the leave scheme. Every three days about 80 men left on a six-day trip to Cairo or Alexandria. Day leave to Alexandria was also granted.

A number of changes in command took place. Lieutenant-Colonel Fountaine,30 from 20 Battalion, was appointed Battalion Commander. His first task was to reorganise the unit on a three-company basis, with a full complement of specialist sections and platoons. The arrival of 273 reinforcements enabled this to be carried out. Major Morten,31 from 23 Battalion, became second-in-command and Capt L. G. Smith took over B Coy. On his return from hospital Capt Horrell resumed command of a newly-formed C Coy. Brigadier Gentry32 was the new Brigade Commander.

Early on 19 September the battalion embussed on RMT and moved south to a divisional training centre, known as Swordfish area. The Carrier Platoon was already there, having moved direct from the New Zealand Box after the relief. Company areas were selected and the troops spent the rest of the day settling in, pitching their tents on or near some low ridges. Coloured map of the Mediterranean Sea page 181 Training began almost immediately with a divisional exercise. Although the troops were unaware of it, this exercise was a rehearsal of the assault already planned against the German defences on Miteiriya Ridge. The 9th British Armoured Brigade came under command of 2 NZ Division and trained with it. In the exercise many new features were introduced. The troops advanced through minefields behind a creeping artillery barrage. Behind the infantry, sappers gapped the minefields to enable the tanks and supporting arms to join the infantrymen on the objective. Provost detachments marked the minefield gaps and the areas of advance with lights. Bofors guns fired tracer along the line of brigade boundaries to assist the infantry to maintain direction.

After the exercise was over the real training began. Platoons, companies, battalions and, last of all, brigades practised again and again their particular part in the planned assault. Much of the work was new and therefore interesting. Moreover, each soldier knew what he had to do and why, and this stimulated interest and made the exercises more successful. Those who had fought at El Mreir were quick to note that the tanks were to move at night so that they could join the infantry before and not after dawn. Signallers and wireless operators received special training to improve communications. As the days passed the men became more confident, and the brigade exercise was an unqualified success.

On the last day of September a special brigade parade was held in honour of the Eighth Army commander. After the march past General Montgomery inspected the troops and presented decorations won in recent actions. He also congratulated the brigade on its fine record and its steadiness on parade. A few days later National Patriotic parcels were distributed. These were very acceptable at this period, when all ranks were living under hot and trying conditions. Captain Wilson sprang a surprise one night at tea-time, the cooks serving fruit and ice-cream. Except for two heavy rainstorms which almost washed out the camp, and an unpleasant hailstorm, the weather was fine. The days were hot and the nights cold. Dust-storms were a nuisance, and it was impossible to keep gear or food free of fine particles of sand.

page 182

By the middle of October training was completed, and on the 15th the battalion returned to Burg el Arab. Everyone knew that the return to this seaside resort was but a stepping stone to the line. General Montgomery had indicated in his speech that the Eighth Army was almost ready to attack—and attack to win. On the 17th officers attended a conference at which they were able to study a plaster model of the front. The plan to breach the enemy's defences was explained in some detail By the seashore rumours were circulating freely, while overhead passed flight after flight of Allied bombers and fighters. On the 20th when orders to move to a forward area were received, nobody was surprised. Everyone knew that this time the role would not be defensive.

1 Maj W. H. Carson; Dunedin; born Kaitangata, 11 Jun 1906; barrister and solicitor; wounded 22 Jul 1942.

2 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, VD. m.i.d., MC (Greek); Timaru; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; commanded company in 1 Bn NZ Rifle Bde and in NZMG Bn 1915–19; CO 27 (MG) Bn Jan–Aug 1940; commanded 4 Bde 1941–42 and 4 Armd Bde 1943–44; commanded 2 NZ Div 27 Jun–16 Aug 1942 and 6 Jun–31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50.

3 Lt S. Talbot; born England, 4 May 1906; school teacher; killed in action 16 Jul 1942.

4 Lt G. P. R. Gifford; born NZ 26 Jun 1916; civil servant; killed in action 22 Jul 1942.

5 Sgt M. C. Tither, MM; born NZ 24 Feb 1913; school teacher; wounded 18 Jul 1942; killed in action 7 Jan 1944.

6 Capt L. B. Allen; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 29 Apr 1909; stock auctioneer; p.w. 22 Jul 1942; released 29 Apr 1945.

7 L-Cpl J. J. Skinner; born NZ 1 Jul 1916; storeman; killed in action 18 Jul 1942.

8 Forward defended localities.

9 Maj A. R. McKinlay; Lawrence; born Lawrence, 21 Mar 1914; assistant company manager.

10 Appointments on the eve of the attack were:

  • CO: Lt-Col J. N. Peart

  • 2 i/c: Maj H. G. McQuade

  • Adjt: Capt H. J. Hall

  • QM: Capt F. W. Wilson

  • IO: Lt W. H. Carson

  • TO: Lt A. W. Barnett

  • A Tk: Lt J. I. D. Fraser

  • OC A Coy: Capt E. E. Richards

  • OC B Coy: Major E. F. Walden

  • OC D Coy: Capt R. M. Young

  • OC HQ Coy: Capt H. J. H. Horrell (acting)

  • Signals: Lt K. W. Hobbs

  • MO: Lt A. M. Rutherford

  • Padre: Rev. Fr. J. S. Kingan

11 Lt-Col E. E. Richards, DSO, m.i.d. (2); Nelson; born Kumara, 6 Dec 1915; civil servant; CO 26 Bn 30 Dec 1943–30 Apr 1944.

12 Lt-Col J. R. Williams, DSO, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 27 Jul 1911; solicitor; CO Div Cav Bn Jan–Apr 1945; wounded three times.

13 Capt R. M. Young; Christchurch born Palmerston North, 24 Jun 1913; solicitor; wounded and p.w. 22 Jul 1942.

14 Capt J. I. D. Fraser; Wakaroa; born Auckland, 12 Apr 1919; storeman; wounded 22 Jul 1942.

15 Capt H. J. Hall; Christchurch; born Timaru, 8 Sep 1912; architect; wounded and p.w. 4 Sep 1942; released 29 Apr 1945.

16 Capt A. M. Rutherford, MC and bar; Inglewood; born Dunedin, 27 Mar 1915; medical practitioner; wounded 22 Mar 1943.

17 Maj B. Boyd, MBE, m.i.d.; Trentham Military Camp; born Dunedin, 21 Apr 1918; clerk.

18 Capt D. W. C. Jones; Waimate; born Dunedin, 6 Nov 1912; shop assistant.

19 Maj D. P. W. Harvey, MC, m.i.d.; Picton; born Havelock, 4 Feb 1918; clerk; CO (temp) 23 Bn Sep–Dec 1945.

20 Sgt A. E. Branks, MM, m.i.d.; born Invercargill, 23 Oct 1907; ambulance driver; accidentally killed 4 Apr 1944.

21 Maj A. J. Fraser; born NZ, 8 Mar 1905; school teacher; killed in action 17 Mar 1944.

22 Pte B. G. Miles; Hapuku; born NZ, 13 Aug 1918; labourer.

23 Lt P. C. Ainsley; born Hastings, 21 Jan 1913; shop assistant; killed in action 10 Aug 1942.

24 Lt J. R. Baird; born NZ, 14 Mar 1916; painter and paperhanger; died of wounds 25 Aug 1942.

25 Lt-Col A. W. Barnett, MC; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 13 Oct 1913; draper; CO 25 Bn 23 Apr–18 Oct 1945; commanded (temp) 6 Bde 19 Oct–1 Dec 1945; wounded 2 Nov 1942.

26 Battalion appointments at this time were:—

27 Capt A. R. G. Lock, DCM, MM, m.i.d.; Rotorua; born Masterton, 4 Jan 1914; carpenter; wounded 24 Oct 1942.

28 Capt N. Buchanan, MC; born Scotland, 6 Dec 1916; pastrycook; died of wounds 17 Dec 1944.

29 Maj D. C. Piper; Ashburton; born Oamaru, 11 Sep 1910; clerk.

30 Col D. J. Fountaine, DSO, MC, m.i.d. (2); Westport; born Westport, 4 Jul 1914; company secretary; CO (temp) 20 Bn 21 Jul–16 Aug 1942; CO 26 Bn 11 Sep 1942–30 Dec 1943, 8 Jun–16 Oct 1944; commanded Advanced Base, Oct 1944–Sep 1945; wounded 19 Nov 1941.

31 Lt-Col T. B. Morten, DSO; Little River; born Christchurch, 30 Sep 1913; shepherd; CO 25 Bn 28 Jan 1943–29 Feb 1944; wounded 15 Jul 1942.

32 Maj-Gen W. G. Gentry, CBE, DSO and bar, MC (Greek), US Bronze Star, m.i.d.; Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; commanded 6 Bde 5 Sep 1942–22 Apr 1943; Deputy Chief of General Staff (NZ) 15 Jul 1943–21 Jul 1944; commanded 9 NZ Bde (Italy) 11 Feb 1945–14 Jan 1946; Deputy Chief of General Staff, 8 Jul 1946–20 Nov 1947; Adjutant-General, 1 Apr 1949–31 Mar 1952; Chief of the General Staff 1 Apr 1952–.