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Alam Halfa and Alamein

CHAPTER 17 — 13 Corps' Plans

page 240

13 Corps' Plans

ALTHOUGH there is no doubt that hopes were held of a measure of success in the efforts of 13 Corps, the composition of the forces within the corps, their varying degrees of training, the terrain and the quality of the defence through which any advance would have to be made, all militated against anything more than a successful diversionary operation. The corps had three divisions under its command, 7 Armoured, 50 and 44 Infantry Divisions. The armour comprised 22 Armoured Brigade and 4 Light Armoured Brigade, together mustering 71 Grants, 57 Crusaders and 86 Stuarts, and there were 190 armoured cars in the corps' command. Though both these armoured brigades had had long desert experience, this had all been on the old independent model, with little training in co-operation with infantry. Of the two infantry formations, 50 Division had suffered so heavily in earlier fighting that it had been threatened with disbandment but had lately managed to build up two of its original brigades, 69 and 151, though not to full strength, with reinforcements. For a third brigade it had 1 Greek Independent Brigade under command, an enthusiastic but neither a well trained nor well equipped body of men. The Home Counties formation, 44 Division, had lost 133 Brigade to 10 Corps as a lorried infantry group, and its two remaining brigades, 131 and 132, were under strength from losses sustained in the two operations into the Munassib Depression at the beginning and end of September. The corps also had under its command 1 and 2 Fighting French Brigades as well as a French ‘flying column’, all of whose equipment and training were incomplete. There were fourteen field regiments in the corps but several were under strength, so that they could deploy about 280 field guns, in addition to which the French had a battery of four medium guns.

Though its formations were thus not yet ready for complex or sustained operations, 13 Corps was set quite an ambitious task page 241 against a heavily mined front defended by German and Italian parachute troops and well supported by artillery and anti-tank guns. The armoured reserve of 21 Panzer and Ariete divisions had at least 70 heavy tanks to match the 71 Grants of 7 Armoured Division, and well over 200 lighter German and Italian tanks and captured Stuarts. Unlike 30 Corps, 13 Corps had superiority only in men and that only at the point of assault, for on the corps' front, stretching for nearly 20 miles, the Panzer Army deployed three Italian divisions and the German Ramcke Brigade to face the two British infantry divisions.

The plan agreed on between Montgomery and Horrocks was for 13 Corps to advance on a line to the south of Deir el Munassib, penetrate the Axis defences on the original British second and first minefields that were lost after Alam Halfa, and place the armour in behind these defences so that they would be untenable or easily ‘crumbled’. The corps would then clear the area as far as the old Axis line between the Qattara Box and Gebel Kalakh in readiness for a final break-out into the open desert beyond. It was on paper a minor edition of the 30 and 10 Corps' plan, but in execution it was limited by a reservation which practically precluded any chance of success. Although there was still a current of opinion in the Eighth Army that the southern defences of the Axis, with their preponderance of Italians and less well-knit strongpoint system, offered an easier nut to crack than the mine gardens of the north, Montgomery had chosen, for valid reasons, to make his main assault in the north. He was moreover committing all his armour on the opening day of the battle, leaving himself no armoured reserve, and though it is doubtful if he would have been prepared to switch forces from the north to reinforce success, however great, by 13 Corps, he was certainly prepared, even expecting, to strip 13 Corps of armour and infantry to reinforce the northern punch. So Horrocks, in spite of the elaborate plans he was encouraged to edit, loosed his corps to the assault under a strict injunction that the whole operation should be called off if 7 Armoured Division appeared likely to suffer heavy losses in tanks, an injunction which made Montgomery's policy – of setting out an armoured screen to hold off counter-attack while the Axis defences behind were ‘crumbled’ – well-nigh impossible of execution against even a mediocre defence. Diversionary action, to contain the Axis forces in the south and especially 21 Panzer Division, was in fact all that 13 Corps could expect to achieve.

The northern sector of 13 Corps' front, immediately on the left of 4 Indian Division, was held by 50 Division, with 1 Greek Independent Brigade in the south-west of the old New Zealand page 242 Box, 151 Brigade covering from Alam Nayil south-west along the old second minefield, and 69 Brigade holding the eastern end of the Munassib Depression. Next came 131 Brigade of 44 Division, reinforced with a battalion of 132 Brigade, and then 1 Fighting French Brigade was thinly disposed along the line of the old fourth minefield. The main body of the armour of 7 Armoured Division was held in the rear of this southern portion, with tank and armoured car patrols operating in the front line as required. The corps reserve consisted of 2 Fighting French Brigade and the other two battalions of 132 Brigade, which were in the rear of the northern part of the sector.

The corps plan in detail was for raids or simulated attacks as diversions by all three brigades of 50 Division, while the main attempt to breach the minefields was made to the south of the Munassib Depression, where one battalion of 131 Brigade was to advance to cover the northern flank as 7 Armoured Division made the breach. At the same time a mobile force from 1 Fighting French Brigade was to pass to the south of Himeimat, occupy the Naqb Rala plateau, isolate the Himeimat garrison and link up with 7 Armoured Division some three to four miles further north. The main operation presented several problems. The infantry, 1/7 Battalion, The Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey) of 131 Brigade, were to break into the main enemy defence line on the old British first minefield and cover the northern flank of the armour's advance. To do so, the troops had to move about three miles in transport and another three on foot to reach the enemy line at the same time as the armour, which had to travel about ten miles from the rear over four routes which, though lit and marked, included patches of very heavy going in soft sand. Each of the four columns of armour was to be led by detachments of 44 Reconnaissance Regiment (a carrier-borne unit of 44 Division which had received special training in gapping defended minefields), supported by engineers, anti-tank guns, Scorpions, tanks of the Royal Scots Greys (of 4 Light Armoured Brigade) and a company of lorried infantry from either 1 Battalion, The Rifle Brigade, or 1 Battalion, The King's Royal Rifle Corps. Each advance guard was followed by a column of tanks of 22 Armoured Brigade with field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery and by the armour's A Echelon vehicles carrying supplies to replenish the tanks. Each column, including its advance guard, consisted of over 200 vehicles. Behind these came four more columns of 4 Light Armoured Brigade.

Once through the mine-belts, the armour was to form a screen, 4 Light Armoured to the north and 22 Brigade to the south, to allow the infantry to consolidate the bridgehead. Later the two page 243 armoured formations were to move north-west towards Deir Alinda to screen an advance by 50 Division through Munassib to the line of the old ‘first’ minefield. The initial assault was to be supported by a fairly heavy artillery programme, commencing with a counter-battery shoot by about 130 guns and followed, as the assaulting groups met the enemy's forward line, by a form of creeping barrage, fired by four field regiments to cover an area some 2000 yards wide by 4500 yards deep and lifting in irregular leaps of 200 to 400 yards. This barrage was designed, and timed, to subdue the enemy covering the two mine-belts as gapping operations proceeded. The infantry advance of 1/7 Queen's, taking place off the north-east corner of the main barrage area, was to be covered by a creeping barrage fired by one regiment on a front of 550 yards to a depth of 800 yards. After the barrage was completed, the artillery was to maintain concentrations mainly on known posts along the northern flank of the armour's advance. The French operation against Himeimat had the support of two field regiments, firing mainly concentrations on call.

Owing to several factors, principally the broken nature of the ground and the wide dispersion of the positions on both sides, 13 Corps had not been able to secure the same detailed picture of the enemy's dispositions as was acquired in the northern area. Accordingly, as early as 17 October, a provocative shoot, by three medium batteries firing nearly 4000 rounds altogether, was commenced to encourage the enemy to disclose his gun positions by retaliation, while the field guns laid smoke and the infantry ‘demonstrated’ to suggest an assault in order to get the Axis forward posts to open fire. In spite of a chain of flash-spotting, sound-ranging, and observation posts, not a great deal was recorded for it would appear that the Axis troops, remembering Stumme's strictures on the wastage of precious ammunition, refused to be drawn. So it was that 13 Corps to some extent assaulted blind, in places against objectives not held by the enemy and at others against unexpected opposition.