Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II
174 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence
General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence
We are now outside Tobruk. Our advance from the Alamein position took just over a week, during which British armoured formations and the 2nd New Zealand Division drove the defeated enemy from Egypt. I am taking advantage of a short lull to cable a brief report for publication in the hope that it will give the people of New Zealand a connected story of the battles in which the 2nd New Zealand Division has been engaged.
When the German attack in August failed to pierce the Allied position at Alamein, the enemy had either to stake all on holding his line with its difficult communications or go right back. Rommel decided to stay, and while Eighth Army trained for the attack the enemy extended his minefields and prepared defences in great depth. The nature of the country, the extent of the minefields, and the number of automatic weapons made a daylight attack extremely hazardous, while a night attack was most difficult owing to the depth to which it had to penetrate. The best solution, therefore, was to attack in moonlight, and the October full moon was fixed for the offensive.
The Division was withdrawn from the line on 11 September after taking part in the battles of Minqar Qaim, Ruweisat Ridge, and Alamein—nearly three months in the front line during the heat of the Egyptian summer. The men were tired, but after a short break they started to train for the next exacting battle. Spirits were high for we were about to attack. On ground similar to the ridge we were to attack, we rehearsed during the September full moon with tanks, artillery, and all infantry supporting arms firing live ammunition. The spirit of optimism increased as the infantry, artillery, and the new heavy tanks trained together. The remaining two weeks were used to correct shortcomings and improve technique. Nobody doubted our ability to capture Miteiriya Ridge. We felt confident the infantry would overcome any opposition in a night attack. The problem was to lift the minefields and get forward the vehicles of the supporting arms and the tanks. If we could achieve this, no enemy counter-attack could succeed against our defences of six-pounder and two-pounder anti-tank guns and heavy tanks in hull-down positions ready to prevent our infantry from being overrun.
On 14 October we ceased training and started to assemble for the attack. For days before the attack the ASC companies under the page 137 command of Colonel Crump1 were bringing ammunition and supplies up to the front line.
To achieve surprise, deception and camouflage played a large part in our preparations. Guns and ammunition were brought up and dug in by night. The guns had been calibrated and surveyed in so that they would not need to open fire to register and thus give away their presence.
The infantry brigades brought up before daylight on the 23rd lay waiting all day for the attack that night while their transport was withdrawn. At dusk on 23 October the routes from the back areas to our front line began to fill up in orderly sequence with anti-tank guns, Bren carriers, mortars, and tanks to support the infantry, and behind them again there rumbled up the heavy tanks and transport of the British armoured divisions. It was brilliant moonlight. Every man was tense as zero hour approached. Suddenly, with a single crash, over 500 guns opened fire in the greatest barrage seen in Africa. The opening roar of the guns was the sign for the assault infantry armed with rifle and bayonet, tommy gun and Bren, to move to the start line, and half an hour later they went forward with the barrage. The 5th Infantry Brigade was on the right, commanded by Brigadier Kippenberger, and the 6th Infantry Brigade on the left, commanded by Brigadier Gentry. The attack was planned in two phases. The 23rd Battalion on the right and the 24th Battalion on the left were to capture the enemy's forward defences. The Maori Battalion had the role of mopping up centres of resistance left in the course of the advance. The 21st and 22nd Battalions on the right and the 25th and 26th Battalions on the left were to leapfrog over the first two battalions to capture the final objective, Miteiriya Ridge. The enemy defences were manned by German infantry, and throughout the 6000-yards advance strongpoint after strongpoint had to be taken at the point of the bayonet. In clouds of dust and smoke the inevitable uncertainty of war prevailed (in some companies all the officers became casualties) but the attack went on. For hours the situation was obscure, but at last signals came back from one battalion and then another, ‘We are on the objective’.
1 Brigadier S. H. Crump, CBE, DSO; CRASC, 2nd NZ Division, 1940–45; commanded rear party organisation in Mediterranean, 1946–47; commanded 2nd NZEF (Japan), Jun-Sep 1947; on staff of HQ BCOF and NZ representative on Disposals Board in Japan, 1948–49.
While the infantry assault went forward, our engineers and provost followed close behind. The success of the attack depended on the skill and determination with which they lit tracks on the line of advance and detected and lifted all the mines and booby traps on the whole route from our own front line to the final objective. Great credit is due to the Divisional Engineers under Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson2 and to the provost personnel for their vital work. Anti-tank guns and infantry weapons were rushed along the lit routes to be dug in on the objective before daylight. The tanks followed, and by dawn we were ready to meet the Panzer counter-thrust.
During 24 and 25 October the fighting on Miteiriya Ridge continued, but both brigades, supported by artillery, anti-tank guns, machine guns and tanks, held all ground, and on the night of 25–26 October the 6th Brigade went forward in another determined attack which consolidated the position. I wish to pay tribute to the gallant support of the tank regiments of the 9th Armoured Brigade under Brigadier Currie3 who went into action with us for the first time.
We held the line until 27 October, when we handed over the sector to the 1st South African Division for a short relief before returning to the line alongside the Australians, who had been attacking continuously and most successfully along the coast.
On the night of 1–2 November we attacked again to breach the enemy position for our armour to sally out. To conserve the strength of our infantry brigades weakened by losses in the earlier attacks, General Montgomery placed the Tyneside Brigade and the Highland Brigade under command. These two brigades and the Maori Battalion attacked, supported by an even greater concentration of artillery than in the first attack, under the command of our CRA, Brigadier Weir. By the end of the attack the gunners had fired nearly 8000 rounds per gun without rest during the ten days of battle.
1 Brigadier P. A. Ardagh, CBE, DSO, MC; OC Surgical Division, 2nd NZ General Hospital, Aug 1940 – Oct 1941; commanded 1st NZ Casualty Clearing. Station, Nov 1941 – Jan 1942, Feb–May, 1942; commanded Mobile Surgical Unit, 9 Jan – 27 Feb 1942; ADMS 2nd NZ Division, May 1942 – Feb 1943; seconded to British Army for duty as DDMS, 30 Corps, Feb 1943; died in United Kingdom, 6 Apr 1944.
2 Brigadier F. M. H. Hanson, DSO, OBE, MM; commanded 7th Field Company, NZ Engineers, Jan 1940 – Aug 1941; Commander Royal Engineers, 2nd NZ Division, Oct 1941 – Apr 1944, Nov 1944 – Jan 1946; Chief Engineer, 2nd NZEF, 1943–46.
3 Brigadier J. C. Currie, DSO, MC.
The role of the armoured divisions was to seek out and destroy the Panzer divisions, while the 2nd New Zealand Division and the British 4th Light Armoured Brigade, comprising tanks and armoured cars under our orders, were to move west, avoiding the armoured battle to the north, and cut the enemy communications at Fuka, 60 miles behind the enemy line. It was a difficult manœuvre, especially as the majority of our battalions had to embus from positions in the front line. Congestion and shelling at the gap and an armoured battle en route delayed progress, and when darkness came the brigades were still miles apart. Concentration by night in unknown enemy country, 25 miles behind his line, is a difficult operation, and it was not till two hours before dawn on the 5th that all units had concentrated, using as an assembly beacon a blazing ammunition lorry hit by enemy fire in a night skirmish.
Before dawn on the 5th our advance continued, the force moving in desert formation over open desert with armoured cars and tanks ahead. At daylight we encountered a column of the latest type of German Mark 3 and 4 tanks, eight of which the 4th Light Armoured Brigade surprised and disposed of in as many minutes. Fires and explosions from enemy dumps on the coast could be seen during the day as we moved westwards, and reports of precipitate retreat were received. Later in the day our tanks and artillery drove off the rearguard covering the Fuka position.
On 6 November we were directed on Baggush, where unfortunately a heavy storm turned the desert into a morass, and all wheeled transport not using the coastal road was bogged. The enemy made full use of this respite but had to leave behind many guns and trucks caught in the mud.
On the 8th the weather improved and we pushed on, passing within sight of our June battlefield at Minqar Qaim. The enemy at this stage had evacuated Matruh fortress and the Division and attached troops were directed on Sidi Barrani.
Sidi Barrani was occupied on the 9th, and on 10 November we advanced on the heavily defended escarpment at Halfaya. The pursuit continued along roads strewn with all manner of wreckage and abandoned vehicles, eloquent tribute to the RAF, whose fighters and bombers had given the Army magnificent support throughout the battle.
Below Halfaya escarpment our light armoured advanced guard was held up by the enemy covered by a minefield, but as we deployed page 140 to attack the enemy withdrew. By dark on the 10th the 5th Brigade moved forward through the minefield to the support of the 4th Light Armoured Brigade. Halfaya, the last of the Axis fortresses to fall last year, is a formidable defensive position. A surprise attack was decided on, and just before daylight on Armistice Day 110 men of the 21st Battalion went in with Bren guns and bayonets. It was a complete success. We had one killed and one wounded and took 612 prisoners, some German but mainly Italians of the Pistoia Division, whose motto is ‘Valiant even unto Death!’ Sollum fell automatically and Egypt was clear of the enemy.
The enemy is still retreating and we are now waiting to go forward to the final objective.
Your Division has again added to its record by a series of battles and operations which reflect the greatest credit on Brigadiers, commanding officers, and junior commanders for the way they have trained and commanded during battle. The courage and tenacity of our fighting soldiers remains of the highest order. The training, equipment, and efficiency of the Force has stood the test of a most exacting campaign1 and we look to the future with confidence.
I am sending this from my office truck. An official and detailed account of the campaign with maps, diagrams, and lessons is in course of preparation.
1 New Zealand casualties in the Battle of Egypt (20 Jun – 21 Nov 1942) were:
|Died of wounds||414|
|Died on active service (includes deaths through sickness, accident, &c.)||50|
|Prisoners of war (includes 250 wounded and prisoners of war and 36 died of wounds while prisoners of war)||1950|