27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 12 — The New Zealand Box
The New Zealand Box
The Division, its infantry strength reduced by the disasters at Ruweisat and El Mreir to little more than one brigade, settled down in what became known as the New Zealand Box, south of Ruweisat Ridge and facing the enemy between El Mreir and the Kaponga Box. In the southern part of this sector 1 and 2 Companies supported 6 Brigade; in the northern part 4 Company remained with the 5th. 1
The Division faced the enemy across a no-man's-land no more than half a mile wide at the northern end of the front, and two miles wide at the southern end. The forward positions were under constant observation, and men moved cautiously and as little as possible in daylight; they spent long hours in their slit trenches swotting the flies, cleaning their weapons, gossiping, reading, sleeping, or ‘sitting just waiting for something to happen’. The mid-summer heat reached its peak; there was no natural shade, and the slightest wind raised the dust.
At night the engineers laid mines and assisted with their compressors and explosives in the excavation of weapon pits and dugouts in the hard, rocky ground; vehicles brought up rations and water (each man received a bottleful a day for all purposes—shaving, washing and drinking); patrols went out to reconnoitre and raid the enemy. Before daybreak the engineers and transport went back to the rear and the patrols returned to their own lines. The front was quiet again, except for occasional exchanges of shellfire or perhaps an air raid.
The machine-gun companies needed telephones, signal equipment, and spare parts for their guns. Eventually these and other necessities were obtained: when four tripods arrived on 3 August, 1 Company was complete with twelve guns for the first time since 28 June. But most of all they needed reinforcements. A company could function fairly well with 126 men (twenty-nine fewer than establishment) and could only just manage in a static position with 105, provided that at least sixty of these were gun numbers. At one stage 4 Company had page 257 fewer than 100 and 1 Company was nearly as weak. Company strengths were built up to 120-odd, but some of the unfit men should not have left Base. Dysentery and jaundice depleted the ranks; desert sores festered and took ages to heal.
Scarcely a day passed without some shelling, but towards the end of July Newland observed that ‘we only get three or four bombardments a day now, each probably averaging about 8 to 10 shells at a time’; and later he remarked, ‘What damage Jerry thinks he is doing we don't know; for about a month now he has been giving us a tickle up each day and in that time has collected no vehicles and only about ten men wounded, we ourselves having only one.’
That casualties were so few is surprising, for the machine-gunners were not idle. Together with the mortars and artillery they supported patrols and fired regular harassing tasks. ‘Brigadier Clifton called us “my killers” and delighted in sending us … out through the minefields in the early hours to harass the enemy at dawn,’ says Clemens, of 4 Platoon.
The Brigadier mentions the machine-gunners in his own diary: ‘Out at 0632 [on 31 July] to shoot up Hun fwd posts, with 4 Vickers and 16–25 prs. Had a grand half hour. Got them so rattled that they fired off all their defensive fire in every possible direction….’ About the same hour a couple of days later he watched a shoot by the field and medium guns and the Vickers on Kaponga Box: ‘all ticked over nicely.’ That evening he ‘sent 8 Vickers out from Geoff Kirk's  coy to shoot up [Kaponga] Box…. they had a good run and actually got five tanks shooting back at them!’
When the Brigadier went out on 5 August to the Point 104 locality, about two miles out from the south-west corner of the New Zealand Box, he ‘met M.G.'s coming back—Geoff and four guns—who had helped rotate the area shot by [field] guns. Enemy arty def. fire all over the place…. More shooting at night [on 10 August] with Vickers and 25 prs. Took on enemy strong point at 3500 yds at 2200 hrs and got good shooting. … Excellent show at 0645 [on the 23rd]. MMGs Arty and Inf from 26 [Battalion's] area. No casualties our side and prob. 30 Boche….’
For one of these shoots 4 Platoon set out at half past four in the morning and opened fire a couple of hours later at a group of men who left their anti-tank guns to collect their breakfast. The enemy broke and fled. The artillery joined in and raised so much dust that it was impossible to tell what page 258 damage had been done, but next night a patrol found enemy dead at the abandoned target area.
On a similar task a few nights later the platoon came under small-arms fire and ‘considered ourselves lucky to get out with no casualties. Like all our other night shoots, no sooner do we open up and Jerry lets go in all directions, disclosing his positions. Boys get a great kick out of this, just so long as it is going the other way—tonight most of it came the wrong way, at us, more by accident….’
One morning 4 Platoon's fire fell right on the target ‘and a couple of bodies were seen to be dragged away.’ Brigadier Clifton was ‘also nearly dragged away as he was forward of the guns observing and unfortunately some of our shots fell short and around him. Own Inf. upset about this also as they were forward of guns and were kept in their holes by our own fire. On investigation ammo. was found to be faulty and barrels also beginning to key hole.’ Some thought the Mark VIIIZ ammunition was causing the heavy wear and tear on the guns, but the barrels themselves may have been faulty.
Second-Lieutenant Wells 2 (5 Platoon) went out before dawn one day with an artillery OP protected by an infantry patrol; his platoon had been all night in a forward position. ‘At dawn,’ he says, ‘I found a great target (about 20–30 men) but before I could get the guns firing the Arty had messed things up by smoking the area.’ Two mornings later, when Sergeant Gainey 3 had the guns forward and Wells was again with the OP, the artillery waited until the Vickers had fired a good burst. A group of men who appeared to be getting up from their slit trenches went to ground, but Wells saw that the first bursts and the subsequent fire landed right among them. The OP party was detected and hotly engaged by small arms and mortars, so called for rapid fire by the machine guns and smoke from the artillery, and beat a hasty retreat. Everybody got back safely.
When Second-Lieutenant Blue (6 Platoon) also did some indirect shooting by wireless from an OP, the Vickers fired on a group of men who could be seen moving about, and although the artillery—‘in for their chop’—obscured the target two minutes later, the shoot was declared a good one indeed; casualties were claimed with the first burst.
Meanwhile 1 Company (less 1 Platoon, with 2 Company) had been withdrawn on 5 August into divisional reserve for a much- page 259 needed rest, and four days later had become part of Reserve Group, under Lieutenant-Colonel Robbie's command; on the 13th this group was joined by 3 Company from Maadi. The medical officer (Captain Adams) and Padre Underhill arrived at Battalion Headquarters.
‘We will fight the enemy where we now stand; there will be NO WITHDRAWAL and NO SURRENDER. Every officer and man must continue to do his duty as long as he has breath in his body,’ declared General Montgomery, who replaced General Auchinleck as Army Commander on 13 August. Eighth Army barred the way to Cairo, Suez and Alexandria, and was to stand fast; later it was to take the offensive and destroy the enemy. If the Army wanted to retreat, it would have to do so on foot. All troop-carrying transport and all vehicles not essential for reconnaissance, supply and maintenance were sent a long way back to the rear, the New Zealand transport 45 miles to the ‘Swordfish’ area. This left each machine-gun company with a pick-up, a 30-cwt and a three-tonner for its headquarters, and one 15-cwt for each platoon. 4
General Freyberg resumed command of the Division, which was strengthened by the inclusion of a British brigade (the 132nd) and the return of 22 Battalion. Because 132 Brigade was new to the desert, some men were attached to corresponding New Zealand units for indoctrination. Several machine-gun officers and NCOs from a company of 6 Battalion Cheshire Regiment spent a day or two with the New Zealand machine-gunners. ‘The object,’ wrote Captain Newland, ‘is for them to get some “local colour”—they'll get it too if they listen to some of the yarns that our fellows put over.’
The New Zealand Box was organised for defence in depth, strongly mined and wired. On 22 August 4 Platoon was with- page 260 drawn from 26 Battalion (which 5 Platoon was to support as well as the 18th) to prepare new gun positions farther back. With only one truck, the platoon had to move in relays. It worked strenuously in the heat of the day in an endeavour to make some impression on the digging. ‘Toughest ground we have struck so giving it up until compressor arrives.’ When the compressor arrived the platoon worked all night, and it was not until the 27th that it completed the gunpits.
Early next morning Lieutenant Morgan took No. 1 Section along what appeared to be an easy track to 18 Battalion, but the truck strayed into a minefield and was blown up, fortunately without damage to the men and guns, and the journey had to be completed in a borrowed pick-up. At 18 Battalion each gun was mounted on the back of a carrier, facing to the rear, the idea being that the carrier would back up a slope until the gun just cleared the crest. At daybreak, when the two carriers were in position, the Vickers fired at troops carrying rations. The patrol returned without a casualty.
A squadron of 46 Royal Tank Regiment (thirteen Valentines and two Matildas) came under the Division's command ‘to prevent a small break through on our front by enemy tanks turning into a rout,’ 5 and trained for its counter-attack role with six anti-tank guns towed by portées, two platoons from 3 Company, and six Bren carriers. Major Tong and the squadron commander worked out a method for carrying a Vickers gun, an NCO and two gun numbers, with sixteen belts of ammunition, on the back of a tank, and practised the drill with 7 Platoon riding on the tanks and 9 Platoon accompanying them in trucks. The squadron then rehearsed with 6 Brigade. On receiving a call from the infantry, the tanks and attached weapons went forward swiftly; the tanks dropped the Vickers at selected spots, went up to hull-down positions behind a minefield to cover the supporting weapons while they took up position, and then retired through them to rally farther back. General Freyberg and Brigadier Clifton appeared to be impressed, but the latter recorded in his diary: ‘Still carrying MGs on back [of tanks] which is poor in my opinion. Too slow and too vulnerable. We'd rather had two 30 cwts.’ This technique of the machine-gunners riding on tanks was not tested in battle.
Before dawn on the 26th two companies of Maoris raided the eastern end of the El Mreir depression, exterminated two com- page 261 panies of Italians and took thirty-five prisoners. Early in the afternoon of the following day ‘we were subjected to the heaviest shelling any of my  Pln or for that matter any of the Maori Bn. had experienced,’ says Lieutenant Gardiner. 6 ‘It lasted over an hour and caught very few. The damn things landed all round my HQ., not one but dozens, with three or four within 15 yards. And holes—they were over one's knees in solid rock. I guess it was our lucky day.’
Frequently 3 Platoon sent a section of guns to Point 104, outside the Box. Usually the section left before dawn, stayed out there all day and returned at dusk. A shallow, disc-shaped wadi rose to a low ridge, which gave cover for the vehicles; Point 104 was a lump on this ridge commanding a view of part of the enemy lines.
‘What good it did, I don't know, but we fired a lot of ammo,’ writes Private Andrews. 7 ‘We used to see some good targets, but mostly out of range. Most of our shooting was done just at dawn, & again at dusk, when we judged the enemy would be having their morning & evening meal, hoping to catch them above ground, & be of considerable nuisance to them. Then, again we would sometimes do a planned shoot in support of both large & small raids by the Infantry. We went out so often, that I know our constant dread was that Jerry would forestall us with a large patrol, and be waiting for us some morning. Luckily, he didn't, because he could have killed, or captured the lot of us, before we got our guns off the trucks…. I don't think any one of us relished the idea of going—too much like being out on a limb.’
In the evening of 30 August, when 6 Brigade raided Deir Umm Khawabir, 2, 4 and 5 Platoons went forward with infantry patrols and mortars to assist, and 3 Platoon went out to Point 104 with a strong patrol which also included infantry, two anti-tank guns, three mortars and some carriers. The Vickers fired many thousands of rounds (up to 12,000 a platoon) in less than an hour; the mortars fired over 4000 bombs, the 25-pounders 4000 shells, and the medium guns another 400 on and around the raiders' objective. Sixty-eight men from 18 Battalion passed through the minefields and assaulted the sangars and weapon pits, killed or wounded forty of the enemy, and captured a page 262 German paratrooper and thirty-two Italians. The enemy shelled the New Zealand positions, concentrating mostly on the artillery.
After midnight the patrol at Point 104 could hear vehicles approaching. The mortars and other weapons opened fire, upon which all sounds of movement ceased. The enemy, who had gone to ground, soon directed a concentration of mortar, anti-tank and small-arms fire at Point 104. The patrol was ordered to withdraw.
After firing a few belts from Point 104 earlier in the night, 3 Platoon had retired about a quarter of a mile and had gone to bed; it had intended to stay until the first light of dawn. ‘We were woken by the sound of foreign voices nearby,’ wrote Private Bell. ‘I'll be blowed if it wasn't a party of Jerries or Ities digging in. Then shelling and mortar fire began all round us. We thought we were cut off. Anyhow Russ. Brown 8 decided to try and go back to our lines.’
‘I have some very vivid recollections of that night,’ says Andrews. ‘All hell seemed to have broken loose, & we packed up and made a run for it down the wadi. It was the first time the Enemy airforce used parachute & “Xmas tree” flares over us, & the wadi was lit up as bright as day, making us feel mighty conspicuous. There was a mighty rumbling of massed enemy tanks & transport moving up, mostly on the [Qattara] depression side…. The wadi was heavily mined, and the sappers, not knowing we were out there, had just finished closing the gaps. However, we convinced the sappers we weren't Huns, & they lifted some mines & let us back through.’
That same night 5 and 132 Brigades completed changing places, the New Zealanders going to the Alam Nayil ridge on the southern side of the box and the British troops to the sector facing El Mreir, as a preliminary to the intended relief of the New Zealand Division by 44 Division. Advance parties arrived from the Cheshires, who were to take over from the New Zealand machine-gunners. The relief, however, was cancelled. Not long after 1 a.m. the codeword twelvebore was received: Rommel had begun an offensive.
The box, a rectangle of minefields, was solidly dug in and page 263 had ample stocks of ammunition. The three brigades (seven New Zealand and three British battalions) were supported by four field regiments (about ninety-six 25-pounders), probably a dozen medium guns, thirty ack-ack guns, 140 two-pounder and six-pounder anti-tank guns, at least 150 two-inch and three-inch mortars, and between fifty and sixty Vickers guns. Artillery stationed outside the box could also shoot on the New Zealand front.
A Cheshire machine-gun company supported 132 Brigade on the western front facing El Mreir; 1 and 2 Companies were with 6 Brigade in the south-west corner of the box, and 4 Company with 5 Brigade on the southern front; 8 Platoon was with A Squadron Divisional Cavalry covering the easternmost minefield running south from the box, and the rest of 3 Company with the squadron of Valentine tanks, the mobile counter-attack force.
News of the enemy's approach reached the Division before 2 a.m. on 31 August, and an hour later the artillery and 2 and 6 Platoons opened fire on several hundred Italians in Deir el Angar, about a mile and a half from 6 Platoon. The Italians dug in, and when daylight came were seen moving about their sangars; 6 Platoon cut short this activity. The Vickers had some excellent shooting.
The Italians were protecting the flank of the columns advancing through the minefields farther south. These minefields were a far more serious obstacle than the enemy had expected. His tanks made very slow progress, and after emerging into open country next day were further delayed by soft sand; they were bombed mercilessly by the RAF and constantly shelled by the artillery along their flank. By evening, when they had covered only about 24 miles in twenty-four hours, they faced the Alam Halfa defences and three brigades of British tanks. The panzer divisions did not have sufficient fuel to manœuvre or advance farther—they had barely enough to take them back to their own lines. The ships bringing the promised supplies of petrol from Italy and Greece had been sunk or turned back. Before the battle was properly joined, Rommel decided to withdraw.
During the morning of the 31st the New Zealand artillery shelled the targets to the south, and some sporadic fire was returned. The shelling died away about midday, when a dust-storm prevented observation, and the troops rested as best they could in the heat and dust.page 264
In mid-afternoon one of Divisional Cavalry's mobile columns operating south of the box withdrew through 8 Platoon's position, and was followed by a few shells. ‘About this time,’ says Lieutenant Gibson,9 ‘we were advised that the main enemy thrust was south of Deir Muhafid.’ His platoon was overlooked by the high ground north of Muhafid, so was pulled back and dug in on a ridge about 1000 yards south of the box. A Squadron's tanks and carriers were in hull-down positions behind it.
That night some vehicles drove up close to the wire about half a mile from Sergeant Homer's section of 11 Platoon (with the Maori Battalion), and a hundred men debussed. The Maoris opened up with rifles and Bren guns, and the enemy replied with small arms and light anti-tank guns. The Vickers fired on fixed lines and dispersed troops who could be seen in the moonlight. The enemy retired.
Next morning (1 September) some Germans drove up in a captured pick-up flying a Red Cross flag. ‘It fooled us for a while,’ says Gardiner, ‘but when it appeared to be getting too inquisitive, we opened up. So also did an anti tank gun, and how they [the enemy] got back goodness only knows.’
It looked as though the enemy was trying to work his way between the British armour and the eastern side of the New Zealand Box. He was discovered digging in on the reverse slope of a ridge about 2000 yards south of 8 Platoon, which engaged vehicles whenever they came within range on a track along the top of the ridge and stopped two trucks and forced a light gun to pull back off the crest. General Freyberg visited the platoon and complimented the gunners on their shooting.
There was a lull during the usual midday dust-storm, but in the afternoon German and Italian tanks, guns and troop-carriers, advancing north from Muhafid, were engaged by British tanks and scout cars, British and New Zealand artillery, and Divisional Cavalry. A spandau in a well-concealed position sniped ineffectually at 8 Platoon, and a captured two-pounder on a portée kept popping up on the ridge to the south and sniping at the tanks until discouraged by a few bursts from the Vickers.
Several enemy tanks crossed the ridge, and about half past four a company of infantry began moving slowly over the crest. As they advanced they were engaged by 8 Platoon and A Squadron's light tanks. After a while Gibson received a message from page 265 the commander of the tank troop asking when his platoon was pulling out. Squadron Headquarters had ordered a withdrawal, but had forgotten that 8 Platoon was without wireless. It was quickly arranged that the tanks should cover the platoon, and the machine-gunners grabbed their guns and equipment and made off at high speed.
Little happened during the next day or two. A Junkers 88 which had been set on fire by the ack-ack crashed onto a 4 Platoon truck parked in a vehicle pit and destroyed the truck and its contents. A fighter, flying low into a wadi in front of 11 Platoon, was brought down by Vickers fire. ‘There had been a slight sand-storm during the night & the majority of the gunners had their guns stripped for cleaning,’ says Lance-Corporal Bertinshaw. ‘Fortunately the No. 2 gunner, Pat Paul,10 & myself had just re-assembled our gun when a German Messerschmitt dived away from a dog-fight, apparently out of ammunition, for it appeared to be undamaged, and headed for home along the wadi. We did not have to elevate the gun. I fired perhaps 60 to 80 rounds as I followed it along. Pieces flew off the plane & it crashed in a cloud of dust about a mile beyond. It did not catch fire.’ The pilot made off towards his own lines.
Eighth Army planned a southward advance from the New Zealand Box to the northern edges of the Alinda, Munassib and Muhafid depressions, which would threaten the enemy's supply route and line of retreat. The attack was to be launched on the night of 3–4 September by 132 Brigade (on the right) and 5 NZ Brigade, with 26 Battalion covering the 132nd's right flank.
The enemy began his retreat. He directed the full weight of his air force on the British positions north of his withdrawal route, and of course the New Zealand Box came in for most of this. The bombs, including ‘butterfly bomb’ canisters, were dropped indiscriminately, and the strafing seemed to be aimless. Parachute flares lit up the desert, and aircraft with sirens screamed overhead. It was a noisy, sleepless night, but little damage was done.
The raid on Deir el Angar and some harassing fire by 2 Company were supposed to distract the enemy while 132 Brigade formed up for the attack. Unfortunately the brigade was late in getting started; while the troops were passing through the minefield gaps and forming up on the start line they were bombed and shelled by an enemy who had been brought to the alert. The brigade began its attack, but met opposition on a ridge north of Deir Alinda and fell back without having reached the objective.
The role of supporting 26 Battalion, on the 132nd's right flank, was allotted to 4 Platoon. ‘We were told there would be no Artillery support, there was a good track through the minefield which would be lighted & taped by the Provost Corps, & the enemy would not be able to cover it,’ says Corporal Clemens. ‘Things went OK for a time & then we came upon apparently the 132 Brigade jammed nose to tail ahead of us & there we sat for a time while Jerry really plastered us.’
The rifle companies of 26 Battalion managed to get through one of the two minefield gaps, and the transport and support weapons (including 4 Platoon), diverted from the other gap, also got clear. Two rifle companies reached their objectives on the eastern edge of the westernmost minefield running south, but the third company was out of touch. The support weapons stood by Battalion Headquarters. At first light Brigadier Clifton arrived and set out in his jeep to look for the missing company. ‘We watched him go, not to return,’ says Clemens. The Brigadier was captured by the Italians. The missing company, after fighting its way through some outposts, found the enemy on all sides and was eventually overrun.
Meanwhile 4 Platoon was told to bed down and be prepared to move up at dawn to support the infantry. After dawn Lieutenant Morgan went forward to a large vehicle pit which made a good observation post. While going up with Sergeant page 268 Gould to report, Lance-Sergeant Tritt was killed by a mortar bomb, and Clemens was called on to take his place. Gould set about getting a section of guns into position on the left flank.
When Clemens arrived Morgan told him to look down into a depression below them. ‘There must have been 500 troops milling about & I thought laying minefields,’ says Clemens. ‘I was a bit slow in the uptake & took it for granted they were ours. Mr. Morgan soon put me wise & told me to get my two guns up on the high ground about 50 yds to his right & get stuck into them. We had little trouble finding vacant sangars & here we set the guns up. Jack Collis and Jack Caple were the No. is…. There was no need to give fire orders—it was Gun Control with swinging traverse. Well, they fired rapid, belt after belt & caused consternation below…. I doubt if a better Machine Gun target appeared during the whole war….
‘Unfortunately Caple's gun developed a persistent stoppage & he lost valuable firing time clearing it. There was an RAP truck in the midst of the target & the Itis who had been hit rushed around it for protection. One of them climbed up on it to hold out the Red Cross Flag. At my orders we momentarily stopped firing, I thinking that perhaps they were an Ambulance Corps of some description….
‘We commenced firing again but almost simultaneously mortars commenced falling all around us, fired from some higher ground than ours on our flank. So severe was the mortaring & so persistent that we dared not raise our heads above ground. The remains of our dream target soon disappeared under this protective fire & from then on to dark we were pinned down by mortars right on the spot but which caused no casualties.’
Gould's section, some distance away, did not see the target engaged by Clemens's section.
The two assaulting battalions of 5 Brigade, after passing through the southern minefield of the New Zealand Box, were to advance down a corridor between two minefields, 28 Battalion to the northern edge of Munassib and 21 Battalion to the northern and western edges of Muhafid. Until called forward, their transport and support weapons and a squadron of 50 Royal Tank Regiment waited near the minefield gap.
A report reached Brigade Tactical Headquarters that 21 Battalion was on its objective, and its transport and support group—anti-tank guns, mortars and 10 Platoon—set off about page 269 1.30 a.m. They met anti-tank and machine-gun fire, which fell short or passed a few feet overhead without doing any damage. When they reached Battalion Headquarters, they were told that the success signal had been fired prematurely and because the radio telephone was not working the battalion had been unable to tell them that it was too soon to go forward. They were sent back out of the fire they had encountered until it was time to guide them forward again. ‘We were hardly under way,’ says Lieutenant Halkett,11 ‘when enemy aircraft screamed overhead dropping flares, 2 KG incendiaries and light anti-personnel bombs. The latter were going off like fire crackers all around us. Some confusion resulted but we were soon moving forward again, having had a fright but no casualties to 10 Pl.’
Halkett learned that 21 Battalion had met more resistance than had been anticipated and had not captured the whole of its objective; it was not in contact with the Maori Battalion on the right. ‘As daylight was near I suggested that 10 Platoon go forward to our planned positions or as near to them as it was reasonable. We had only gone forward about 250 yards when we met 2 or 3 men of D Coy 21st who informed us that they were the most forward section of D Coy in the area. As daylight was close 10 Pl selected a platoon position, unloaded and proceeded to dig in into what proved to be hard going. The platoon trucks were sent back to our previous area (under Sgt Hellyer12). At first light we were able to speed up our digging and before any enemy action occurred we were about 2 ft. down.’
The platoon opened fire about 6.30 a.m. Two German officers, about 1000 yards away, were scanning the area through their glasses, and made a most undignified retreat when the four Vickers began shooting at them. Much to everyone's disgust they escaped. The Vickers fired intermittently at scattered infantry and an observation post under a knocked-out 88-millimetre gun. ‘Some of our spare numbers did a little rifle work at a few individuals as close as 300 yards.’
The Maori Battalion's attack went too far. The Maoris charged down the slope into the Munassib depression and disposed of all the enemy who stayed to fight; they took over a hundred prisoners and maimed and killed several hundred Germans and Italians. But at daybreak they were still disorganised and too far forward.page 270
The squadron of tanks and the support group (including 11 Platoon) were still waiting to go forward about 2 a.m. ‘We were all getting concerned in case the lateness of start would not let us get dug into our proposed positions in Enemy territory before first light,’ says Lieutenant Gardiner. ‘During this period the area was constantly lit up by parachute flares and we were subjected to Air Burst shelling. There were no 11 Pln. casualties but several Maoris were killed and wounded.’
About half past two the tanks, having negotiated the minefield gap, set off along the line of lights the provost had laid to mark the route; they were led by a jeep containing Captain Bennett13 (liaison officer at Brigade Headquarters) and anothe Maori officer, and were followed by the support weapons and transport. They unexpectedly came to the end of the lights, but continued to advance on a compass bearing. It became clear to the crew of Gardiner's pick-up, in which a tank compass had been installed, that they were swinging well off their course. The column stopped. ‘I went up to see what was happening,’ says Gardiner, ‘and it was admitted by the leaders that we were lost.’ The column reported to Brigade Tactical Headquarters by wireless from one of the tanks. A few minutes later the Maori Battalion came on the air and was asked to fire flares as a guide. Two white flares went up. They may have been fired by the Maoris, but some believe the enemy overheard the wireless conversation and fired them.
‘Anyway we got back into our vehicles and proceeded towards where the flares went up…. We had not gone a great distance when we ran into what appeared to be a perfect ambush. A veritable hail of tracer met us in the quarter light at extremely close range and looked for all the world like the waterfall act on the usual 5th November show…. We all dived out of our trucks into the sand to make ourselves as scarce as possible until organised. I went across to the Tank leader to see what h proposed and his words were “We will charge the bastards” which he proceeded to do almost immediately, standing up in the turret of his tank. They had gone no distance before he stopped one front on. I understand they were done over pretty severely. However with our thin skinned stuff there was very little we could do. I went around the gun crews and told them to get back on to their trucks and beat it back to an area at the right of the opening in the wire where we could reform page 271 and then decide what to do, as we were quite useless where we were.’
The pick-up and two gun trucks got back, but the other two were missing. Gardiner set out in a carrier to look for them. ‘The anti tank stuff had died down but there was still plenty of Spandau and rifle fire about. We got back into a shallow depression a little way removed from the ambush where we found the other two trucks helping to pull each other out. They were almost on hard stuff when I arrived and despite the fact that there was nothing I could do they seemed very pleased to see me.
‘When I got the whole team together and incredibly enough completely intact—not even a puncture and only an odd bullet hole—we found ourselves alongside 21 Bn.’ Gardiner told his story to the CO (Lieutenant-Colonel Harding14), who said the platoon had better dig in with the 21st. ‘It was then getting light so I sorted out a gun line [near Point 100] which of necessity had to be in a hollow and started the lads digging. The Hun then started to do us over and believe it or not some shrapnel actually hit shovels and we suffered no casualties.
‘Sgt. Mel. Homer assisted me in digging and organising an O.P. on the ridge immediately to our front from which it would be possible for me to conduct an indirect shoot and still give the Maoris some support, as well as supporting 21 Bn. We were actually in a minefield (the O.P.). We were hardly set when the Maoris started pulling out on foot bringing their wounded back with them. At this stage Brig. Kippenberger drove up the hill in a jeep and we had to wave vigorously and run like mad to stop him driving on to the minefield.’
The Maori Battalion was withdrawn from a very exposed and isolated position, going back behind a line taken up by 22 Battalion, and 11 Platoon was ordered to return to Company Headquarters.
Enemy activity to the south and south-east increased after 11 Platoon's departure. Halkett reconnoitred to the right of Point 100, the immediate vicinity of which seemed to be cluttered up with an artillery mobile observation post and some soft-skinned vehicles. When he returned to 10 Platoon's gun positions he found that Brigadier Kippenberger had left page 272 orders for the platoon to move up to the Point 100 area where, he had said, some good shooting could be had.
Sergeant Hellyer, who had heard the guns firing and anticipated their requirements, drove up with ammunition and rations. The Nos. 1 and 3 gunners of each team went ahead to change some enemy sangars to the south-west of Point 100 so that they would face in the opposite direction. No. 2 Section's guns were loaded on Hellyer's truck and were about to be signalled up when the enemy put down very heavy shellfire, which cleared Point 100 and made it impossible for the section to move. Halkett decided to abandon the attempt to occupy the sangars until dark. While the men were coming back Private Dixon15 was wounded and the medical orderly made a 300-yard dash under fire to attend to him.
Evidently this shellfire was in support of a counter-attack. Enemy troops began to advance from the south onto the ridge near Point 100, and some tanks came into the sangar area. No. 1 Section opened fire while No. 2 unloaded its guns and went into action in its former position. ‘The enemy infantry were most persistent and advanced group after group into the fire of our 4 guns at 1000 to 1200 yards ranges,’ says Halkett. ‘His determination was to be admired. The survivors of these group attacks all fled … and disappeared over the crest.’ By one o'clock the counter-attack had been completely defeated by the machine-gun and mortar fire and some heavy artillery concentrations. The Vickers, which swept beyond the crest over which the enemy had retreated, fired over 8000 rounds altogether.
‘We had had rather a hectic time and the presence of the tanks on the right of Point 100 was disconcerting,’ says Halkett. ‘However 4 were promptly knocked out by our anti tank guns and we experienced very little fire from any of them.’
Hellyer left for the ADS with Dixon and some 21 Battalion wounded. Shellfire gave them a lively trip.
In mid-afternoon infantry, tanks and armoured cars assembled on the ground between the Munassib and Muhafid depressions for another attack on 5 Brigade's southern front, but the troops and vehicles who approached were soon beaten off by the mortars and 10 Platoon, which fired only 2000 rounds this time. The enemy did not press the attack after a heavy artillery concentration was brought down on him.
Although these counter-attacks had been so crushingly de- page 273 feated, the Division had not secured its full objective, and a lodgment short of the rim of Munassib served little purpose. It was decided, therefore, to withdraw after dark. With 26 Battalion 4 Platoon returned to 6 Brigade's sector. The 151st (British) Brigade was brought into the box to take over 5 Brigade's former position on Alam Nayil ridge, and 3 Company, which had gone there early in the day as part of the counter- attack force,16 came under 151 Brigade's command. Fifth Brigade went farther back to the eastern perimeter of the box, where 10 Platoon rejoined 4 Company next day.
About half of the battalion's casualties in this battle had occurred in 3 Company when Lieutenant Mathews17 and Private Horn18 had been killed and two or three wounded during a dive-bombing attack by thirty aircraft.
By the evening of 5 September the enemy had retired into the minefields between Deir el Munassib and Qaret el Himeimat, a hill that stood out on the skyline farther south. Two or three days later the battle was called off. Rommel's final attempt to break through the Alamein Line had ended in the gain of four or five miles of desert on the southern flank, and he had no chance now of reaching the Nile Delta.
The next few days were tedious and trying. The heat was excessive, and the flies, despite all the measures taken against them, seemed as bad as ever. The shelling continued, and the RAF and Luftwaffe were both very busy.
While patrolling with Divisional Cavalry in the area where 132 Brigade had failed in its attack, 8 Platoon picked up an abandoned British gun truck complete with a Vickers gun and stores. After taking over 8 Platoon's role with Divisional Cavalry, 10 Platoon participated with the artillery in a shoot intended to make the enemy reveal his dispositions south of Point 100. ‘We did a hit and run show,’ says Halkett, ‘and fired 8000 rounds in 10 minutes … and got away without retaliation. The retaliation came when we were clear and drove some of our light tanks from the area [near Point 100] from page 274 which we had fired.’ The enemy also shelled a ridge which until then was believed to be in his hands.
Rumours had been rife since the end of August that the New Zealand Division was to be pulled out of the line. When an officer from the Cheshires arrived at 2 Company in the afternoon of 8 September to make arrangements for taking over the machine-gun positions next day, the company diarist recalled the previous visit by officers of this unit for this purpose: ‘We wonder whether this will be like the last one, however we retired [to bed] that night full of hopes.’ Next morning was heralded by a salvo from the enemy artillery, ‘but today we didn't mind, although the awful thought was in the back of our minds, be a b— to be hit on the last day.’
The Division handed over the New Zealand Box to 44 Division and proceeded to the coast between Burg el Arab and El Hammam. The troops unloaded their transport (which went back to ‘Swordfish’ group) and settled down comfortably in the sandhills near the sea. Those who did not go on leave to Cairo for four days or to Alexandria for the day bathed and relaxed on the beach; it would be hard to say who benefited the most.
4 The approved scale of transport for a company at that time was two pick-ups, 15 15-cwts, three 30-cwts, four three-tonners and six motor cycles.
‘The Bn possessed its complete transport only for March and April 1941 (only 3 weeks in action), for another 3 weeks in October-November 1941, and not at all in 1942,’ says K. H. Hume. ‘It had no jeeps till October 1942. In 1941, Pl comds. did recces in Dodge PUs! All the rest of the time till Oct 1943, its tpt group was scratching for equipment, using second hand or worn out vehicles or trying to make one three tonner do the work of three 15-cwts!’
This ‘lack of transport of a suitable type,’ says R. I. Blair, ‘seemed to be with us throughout the war and consequently had a great bearing on just how much we could achieve.’
The machine-gun battalion, of course, was not the only unit which suffered from the lack of proper equipment and transport.
14 Brig R. W. Harding, DSO, MM, ED; Kirikopuni, North Auckland; born Dargaville, 29 Feb 1896; farmer; Auck Regt 1916–19; CO 21 Bn 1942–43; comd 5 Bde 30 Apr–14 May and 4 Jun–23 Aug 1943; twice wounded.
16 When A Sqn 46 RTR left to support 132 Bde's attack, Maj Tong assumed command of what remained of this force: 3 MG Coy (1, 7 and 9 Pls), two troops (later three) of anti-tank guns, six carriers and A Sqn's B Ech.