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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

III: Ruweisat Ridge

page 21

III: Ruweisat Ridge

‘With a view to dealing them a lethal blow and removing this perpetual threat to the flank’, Field Marshal Rommel on 9 July sent a force against the New Zealanders whose aggressive action was endangering the open southern flank of his defence line. This was to be the final task for his German troops before they were withdrawn for a period of rest.

During the previous week, when the German-Italian army after its 400-mile advance from Gazala had at last been stopped by the Eighth Army in the narrow strip of desert between the coast at El Alamein and the Qattara Depression, Rommel had set his five Italian infantry divisions —Sabrata, Trieste, Trento, Pavia, and Brescia, in that order—to construct defences along a front stretching about fifteen miles inland from El Alamein. Behind this front his battle-worn armoured and motorised forces—15 and 21 Panzer Divisions, 90 Light Division, and the Italian tank formations, Ariete and Littorio—were to be re-equipped and reinforced before they resumed the thrust to the Nile.

The operation against the New Zealand Division had hardly got under way when the British attacked unexpectedly along the coast, overrunning Sabrata and part of the Trieste divisions. Most of the German tanks were sent hurriedly to deal with this new danger, leaving the weak mobile columns of 90 Light Division, reinforced with the infantry of 15 Panzer Division and the Italian tanks, to continue operations in the south.

Between these northern and southern areas of operations Italian infantry had been steadily advancing the line of the defences. This central sector was cut at right angles by a line of low, unimposing ridges, running for some ten miles east and west and known as Ruweisat Ridge, which had a tactical value for both observation and cover. To the immediate south of this ridge infantry of Brescia Division were building a line of strongpoints facing to the south-east. On the ridge itself and northwards Pavia's infantry were digging in. In support of the Italians were several detachments of German field and anti-tank gunners and about thirteen tanks belonging to 15 Panzer Division. Only the eastern tip of the ridge, where it flattened out to merge with the surrounding desert, was held by the British.

Some hours before dawn on 15 July intense rifle and machine-gun fire broke out in the central sector. At the headquarters of 15 Panzer Division and of Afrika Korps some miles behind the page 22 front line, it was at first thought that the British were increasing their patrol activity to divert attention from the operations on the coast. Reports from the headquarters of the two Italian divisions, Pavia and Brescia, brought only the information that communications with their advanced strongpoints had been cut.

Soon Italian infantrymen came streaming back in the darkness. Then, joining in this disorderly retreat, came some of the gunners who had been manning the heavier guns well behind the front line. The rumour was spread that Brescia Division's front had been pierced and that Pavia's defences were being attacked in the rear. By this time communication with both the Italian divisions'headquarters had broken down.

While awaiting reliable information from their liaison officers attached to the Italians, the German staff still held to the opinion that a strong raiding party had broken into the defences and was trying to fight its way out again. This opinion was maintained even when survivors of German anti-tank detachments reported in with the story that their positions had been overrun and many of their guns destroyed.

At dawn German anti-tank gunners protecting the battle headquarters of 15 Panzer Division found themselves directly attacked. Daylight disclosed enemy troops digging in around Point 63 on the western end of Ruweisat Ridge, less than two miles to the east of the battle headquarters. All available men from headquarters—machine-gunners, engineers, drivers and orderlies—were immediately mustered to support a counter-attack by the four tanks of the headquarters battle group. Against heavy and accurate anti-tank and small-arms fire this counter-attack made little headway.

Then, a short distance to the south of the area of this engagement, the Panzer Division's small force of tanks appeared escorting a column of about 250 prisoners from 22 NZ Battalion. The tank commander reported that enemy infantry had fought their way through his night laager, damaging several tanks, but that as soon as it had become light enough to operate, his surviving tanks had reformed and made a quick counter-attack, to which the infantry had surrendered after their anti-tank guns had been destroyed.

Having delivered their prisoners, the tanks took up positions to the south of Point 63 to intercept the enemy force on the ridge on the line of its anticipated withdrawal. Full daylight, however, revealed that the enemy's operations had been much more than a mere diversionary raid. South of the ridge Brescia Division's defences had disintegrated except for some isolated posts that had somehow survived the night attack. Farther to the north-east Pavia Division's sector had been reduced to one strongpoint area by Point 64, on the eastern end of Ruweisat Ridge. From that point westwards enemy infantry appeared to be occupying the ridge. In the south- east British tanks could be seen deploying as if in preparation for an armoured thrust through the newly gained positions on the ridge.

On the north side of the ridge, where the demoralisation of the men fleeing from the forward areas had communicated itself to those in the rear, the Italian defences were in utter confusion. Few Italian officers could be found, so that the Germans had to take over and restore discipline. But even under threats of the severest punishment only a few of the men could be persuaded to re-occupy the infantry posts and gun positions.

After the first unsuccessful counter-attack against the British force on Point 63, the Germans ordered that all possible fire power should be brought to bear on the ridge in order to force page 23 the enemy infantry to retire before their tanks could arrive. The force holding Point 63, now identified through the capture of several prisoners as part of the New Zealand Division, showed no signs of withdrawing, but at the same time the British tanks were advancing only slowly, appearing to confine their attention to those posts which, missed in the night advance, had now rallied and were putting up a spirited resistance.

In the middle of the morning 15 Panzer Division was reinforced by 3 Reconnaissance Unit, which had hurried down from the extreme northern front. This unit, whose main strength consisted of about ten armoured cars and some captured British 25-pounders, first helped to increase the volume of fire against Point 63. When it became clear that no British tank attack was likely to come against this part of the front for some time, the unit moved to assist Pavia's surviving strongpoint, farther east along the ridge, against a threat by infantry and tanks.

No further reinforcements were received by the defenders until much later in the day. The 21st Panzer Division, still fully engaged in the north against the Australian salient, had difficulty in releasing any of its troops, but eventually sent off a small force of about one hundred men with some artillery under the command of Colonel A. Bruer.1 From the area of 90 Light Division's operations in the south, Afrika Korps recalled the infantry force of 15 Panzer Division commanded by Colonel E. Baade,2 and also 33 Reconnaissance Unit, to reinforce the central sector. The latter unit, with a journey of nearly twenty miles over rough going from its position on the army's extreme southern flank, tried to cut across country but ran into British tanks that had moved westwards across 90 Light Division's northern flank. The unit then had to retire some distance to the west to disengage from the tanks and only reached 15 Panzer Division's area in the middle of the afternoon.

Colonel Baade's force, with not so far to travel, arrived even later. With the order for his recall, Afrika Korps had sent another order instructing 90 Light Division to disengage from the enemy on the east and to wheel northwards against the rear of the New Zealand Division. Through some confusion in these orders Baade acted on the instruction intended for 90 Light Division. While the division continued to attack to the east Baade withdrew his troops and, taking the eleven remaining tanks of Littorio under his command, wheeled to the north. Here his progress was halted by a force of British tanks backed by strong artillery fire.

Made aware of this misunderstanding by progress reports, Afrika Korps sent imperative messages for 90 Light Division to turn its attention to the north and for Colonel Baade to make all speed for Point 63. But by this time the British tanks had progressed westwards across Baade's front, so that he too had to make a wide detour to the west before he could reach 15 Panzer Division's sector.

As these three groups of reinforcements—Bruer group from the north, 33 Reconnaissance Unit and Baade group from the south—were converging on the central sector, British tanks had been advancing slowly but steadily over the area to the south of Ruweisat Ridge. The isolated posts in Brescia's sector had fallen one by one, and in the middle of the afternoon an infantry attack with tank support overran the southern part of Pavia's remaining strongpoint page 24 around Point 64. The rest of this strongpoint was saved only by the vigorous action of 3 Reconnaissance Unit.

The situation was becoming grave. The British, now in clear possession of the ground to the south of the ridge, were increasing their efforts to send supplies and reinforcements to the troops holding it, and more than fifty British tanks were reported to be deploying over a wide front. Afrika Korps therefore ordered an immediate counter-attack against the enemy force on Point 63 before reinforcements could reach it. As 15 Panzer Division assembled the troops available, mostly engineers and anti-tank and machine-gunners, they were joined by 33 Reconnaissance Unit.

With the sinking sun behind them the armoured cars of the reconnaissance unit, with the few remaining tanks of the Panzer Division, then drove east against Point 63 under a bombardment of all the available guns. Obscured by smoke and dust the armoured cars quickly broke into the defences, closely followed by the rest of the assaulting force. The defenders, infantry of 4 NZ Brigade, offered a determined resistance for the short time that their ammunition lasted but, once their anti-tank guns were silent, were forced to surrender.

As the prisoners, about 400 in number, were being rounded up, the area came under fire from British tanks farther to the east—and also from Italian gunners on the north who had apparently failed to follow the course of the action. Under this fire and with several armoured cars and tanks damaged, the assaulting force was unable to advance past Point 63. Some of the troops on the right wing, however, had passed to the south of the defended area and penetrated some distance to the east, where they were met by the advance of a few British tanks. Falling back in some confusion, these men were halted and reformed by Bruer group which was only now moving up in support on the right flank. Still more to the south, Colonel Baade, having seen the British tanks advancing, had halted his infantry to prepare a defence line when a firm order from the Corps Commander, General Nehring,3 brought him up on Bruer's right flank for a resumption of the attack.

This second wave of the assault, commencing at dusk, coincided with a withdrawal of the British tanks and carried the attack past Point 63 to subdue the final core of resistance round the headquarters area of 4 NZ Brigade. Beyond this area the attack came under heavy artillery and tank fire. Reduced now to fewer than a dozen armoured cars and tanks and about 200 infantry, the German force could make no more headway. As darkness fell the troops took up positions for the night along the pipeline track that ran north-eastwards from the Qattara Box towards El Alamein. By this time the tanks of 21 Panzer Division, summoned urgently from the north, were arriving in the area to the north of the ridge.

Early in the morning of 16 July the assault was resumed with 21 Panzer Division's assistance. Though not all the ground lost could be retaken, the most dangerous area of the British penetration, Point 63, had been won back and sufficient of the ridge could be occupied to allow the defensive line to be reformed.

For these few days the strength of the German-Italian army had been at its lowest; the men were tired, equipment was worn, supplies and reinforcements were coming forward very slowly. page 25 Italian morale was at breaking point. Only by the constant redeployment of his small German forces had Rommel managed to give his front an appearance of greater strength than it actually possessed. And this constant movement was made possible only by the ever-willing response of his battle-worn German troops to each new demand made upon their endurance.

In the accounts of the battle for Ruweisat Ridge, it is the two lightly armed reconnaissance units who are credited with holding off a whole British armoured corps during the day and with initiating the successful counter-attack. Although this story may not have been entirely accurate, its circulation served to restore any weakening of morale and pride among the German troops.

Of the battle the Panzer Army battle report recorded:

If the enemy had succeeded in capturing the Deir el Shein fortifications (a mile and a half north of Point 63), the whole Panzer Army's front would have been split in two…. to which 15 Panzer Division's intelligence report added:

It was most astonishing that the enemy could not exploit his penetration to a break-through by pushing his tanks forward….

Sources: Panzer Army (Africa) battle reports.
15 Panzer Division's intelligence reports.
21 Panzer Division's battle reports and war diary.
90 Light Division's war diary.

1 Awarded Knight's Cross when acting commander of 21 Panzer Division on 22 July 1942; ‘Good tactician… with special talent for organisation’; captured by the French in Tunisia in 1943.

2 A private in 9 Uhlan Regiment in 1914, Baade rose to lieutenant-general in 1944; decorated in both wars; ‘A strong personality… not always easy to handle’.

3 Commanded Afrika Korps in the summer offensive of 1942; captured by Russians in 1945 when commanding 1 Panzer Army.