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Alam Halfa and Alamein

CHAPTER 20 — Advance by 30 Corps

page 252

Advance by 30 Corps

THROUGH Montgomery's firm stand, backed by Alexander, against various pressures to hasten the offensive, the Eighth Army's preparations were sufficiently complete in all major points on the day of 23 October for the orders for final assembly and forward movement to be issued with confidence. Most of the requirements for the type and length of battle foreseen were in the front line or ready to be brought forward, whilst the troops, including those for special tasks, were trained as well as time and opportunity had allowed, and their commanders had been briefed more fully than ever before.

Some details in the planning admittedly still gave cause for concern, as for example the reliability of the newly invented Scorpion flail tanks and the training of their crews, but where possible such weak points had been insured against: the use of the Scorpions was made subsidiary to the normal engineer methods of clearing minefields. Communications probably presented the biggest weakness, for the wireless sets then in use were notoriously unreliable, and the plans included the laying of telephone cable by special signal detachments, the use of signal rockets, and even carrier pigeons. But there was nothing that really warranted a delay for the month that would have coincided with the next full moon. A delay in fact would surely have staled the enthusiasm that had gradually built up within the ranks of the army.

In daylight of the 23rd, the army's cover plan provided that much of the normal supply traffic should be dispensed with in place of some of the preliminary movement of the assault forces, the altered pattern screened from observation by continuous fighter patrols provided by the Desert Air Force. This cleared the routes for the time when the sun began to sink below the western horizon and men, trucks, guns, and tanks moved out of concealment to assemble for the advance. From the front line in 30 Corps' sector to page 253 a point some miles in rear, the desert then saw such a concentrated flow of movement as it had probably never seen before. The best part of four divisions of infantry and two of armour, amounting to an estimated 100,000 men and 15,000 to 20,000 vehicles, converged on to the ten prepared tracks, Diamond, Boomerang, Two Bar and Square in the Australian area, and Sun, Moon, Star, Bottle, Boat and Hat further to the south.1

That the organisation was substantially sound was soon proved. Apart from some minor upsets when last-minute changes were imposed in the schedules of movement and routes, the various columns on each route formed up in the right order and generally kept closely to their timings in spite of the fact that the fine dust churned up by the vehicles sometimes made the darkness of the night almost impenetrable. Eventually all those units whose task was to advance without further orders crossed their start lines successfully, though other units farther to the rear, who had to wait upon reports of the degree of success gained, spent a trying night in long halts and short bursts of movement as news from the front filtered back.

Right up at the front the movement, mainly by men on foot, was brisk and up to time, first by the engineers and their covering parties who opened the prepared gaps in the last British minefield, and then by the assaulting infantry who filed through the gaps to fan out on the taped start lines. Visibility here was at first very good, with the full moon rising and few clouds in the sky, and the night was mild with a slight breeze. The silence in no-man's land was broken only by the occasional bark of one of the British batteries detailed to make a show of firing the normal night's harassing tasks and by the rarer salvo in reply from the enemy. The noise of the vast mass of Eighth Army's vehicles grinding their way along the tracks behind the front seemed to get lost in the desert's flat vastness.

Contrary to popular report, the guns at Alamein did not all open with a concerted roar. The first shells fired in the offensive were high airbursts sent over about 8.30 p.m. by one of the medium batteries to test the meteorological conditions affecting accurate shooting. Then, apart from the odd harassing salvo, the next activity occurred at 9 p.m. when 24 Australian Brigade in the page 254 coastal sector opened its diversionary programme, using a variety of light weapons, including twelve of the new 4·2-inch mortars operated by 66 Mortar Company of the Royal Engineers and fired in action for the first time in Africa. At 9.40 p.m., five minutes after the leading troops of the four assaulting divisions advanced from their start lines, the main artillery programme commenced with fifteen minutes of counter-battery fire, the forty-eight medium guns under 30 Corps laying a series of methodical ‘murders’ on the more distant Axis gun positions while most of the 424 field guns in the corps dealt in a similar manner with positions within their more limited range. These ‘murders’ were arranged so that each known enemy troop, usually of four guns, received about a hundred 4·5 or 5·5-inch shells in a two-minute burst, or an equivalent weight of 25-pounder shells. The pattern of this counter-battery fire was designed not only towards the destruction of the enemy's weapons and their crews but also to cause the utmost disorganisation of the lines of communication, replenishment and reinforcement. It ceased at 9·55 and for five minutes there was an impression of silence on 30 Corps' front, but an impression only for numerous Axis posts were laying down defensive fire with automatics and mortars, particularly in the coastal sector, where the first diversionary raid by the Australians was under way. In 13 Corps' area in the southern half of the line a counter-battery programme was fired from 9.25 to 9.50 p.m.

It was not until 10 p.m., when the assaulting infantry of 30 Corps were within a few hundred yards of the foremost enemy posts and the raiding parties and the main assault groups of 13 Corps were crossing their start lines, that searchlights pointing skywards behind Eighth Army's lines swung to intersect each other and give the signal for all the 900 field and medium guns to join in concert in direct support to the advance by concentrations and barrages. At the same time the first flights by the Royal Air Force began in direct support of land operations, some ninety bombers, including flare-dropping Albacores, and numerous Hurricanes equipped for night strafing, attacking mainly the Axis heavy and medium gun positions, all of which were out of range of the 25-pounders and many even beyond the range of the British medium batteries.

The initial response of the Axis was slow and weak under the sudden impact of the heavy shelling and bombing. The German records show that, though casualties were not very heavy and many weapons survived the ‘murders’, communications with the front-line positions were badly disrupted, so that for some hours the Axis command was unable to ascertain exactly where and how deeply the defences had been overrun.

1 This estimate is based on the following details. Approximately two brigade groups out of three in each of the Australian, Highland, and South African divisions had to move up to the front, as well as the whole of the New Zealand and the two armoured divisions, together with a large body of ancillary troops. The New Zealand Division (including 9 Armoured Brigade) had some 2800 vehicles, including its tanks, and nearly 16,000 men, most of whom, including medical and other rear services, moved after dark this night. The proportion of men to vehicles in the New Zealand Division was thus nearly 6:1; the ratio throughout 30 Corps could not have been much different.