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Alam Halfa and Alamein

CHAPTER 24 — The Break-out Fails

page 292

The Break-out Fails

ALTHOUGH the impetus of the infantry's night advance had not been followed up by the armour of 10 Corps, this was not clearly understood at Army Headquarters until well after daylight on 24 October when the various and often conflicting reports of the course of the battle could be studied against actual visual observation of the ground. In the Australian and New Zealand sectors fairly good contact was maintained throughout with the foremost troops, who could thus be placed with some accuracy on the map, but the constitutional weakness in liaison between armour and infantry prevented the leading tank units from checking their estimated positions with the infantry around them. At the armoured headquarters, commanders and staff naturally preferred to take the often over-sanguine reports of progress sent in by their own men rather than the doubts of such progress held by the infantry headquarters. This failure of effective liaison was bad enough over all of 30 Corps' front but showed at its worst in the Highland Division's area. Here, even by ten o'clock, the divisional com-commander was still not in touch with some of his troops, while attempts to place his known positions on the map were bedevilled by disagreement with 1 Armoured Division over map reading. Offers by Eighth Army headquarters to send a survey party to settle this dispute seem to have touched the pride of both divisions, so that uncertainty remained until artillery observers in the course of their duties showed that the infantry's resecting was less inaccurate than that of the armour, which in fact was up to 1200 yards out. Until this was settled the artillery groups of armour and infantry were unable to co-ordinate any plans.

With the coming of full daylight aircraft of the Royal Air Force streamed over the line to continue their offensive as planned, with attacks on landing grounds to keep the Axis air force grounded and with heavy raids on the area in which it was page 293 believed 15 Panzer Division would be concentrating for a counter-attack. On the ground the Panzer Army's artillery, recovering from the pounding it had received under the British counter-battery fire, began to lay salvoes along Miteiriya Ridge and the ground to the east, firing mainly by observation of vehicle concentrations and movement. Eighth Army's flash-spotting organisation then came into action to record that several of the known enemy batteries still had guns able to fire and that some previously unknown batteries were in action. For a time the Panzer Army gunners were allowed to remain almost unmolested as many of the British guns were being brought forward and surveyed into new positions, while others had to be given a much-needed rest and overhaul; each of the medium guns, for example, had fired some 260 rounds in about six hours during the night and needed mechanical adjustments and their crews needed rest. It was not long, however, before sufficient batteries of both field and medium guns were ready to make use of the flash-spotters' observations to lay ‘bombards’ of predicted fire on each of the enemy batteries in turn. The resulting decrease in hostile fire brought the curious impression, held by Freyberg among others, that the Panzer Army guns had shot off their stocks of ammunition on hand as a prelude to withdrawal.

Along the newly established front sporadic firing broke out as daylight exposed tanks, vehicles and infantry to hostile observation. In places Axis troops were still occupying defences within throwing distance of the positions taken up by the attackers, but as first the infantry and later the tanks and artillery fired on them, a no-man's land of varying width gradually became defined.

In the Australian sector heavy exchanges of fire occurred as the troops on the north, mostly Germans, turned to cover their newly exposed southern flank. The Australians on this line held firm, though menaced by several minor counter-attacks, and even managed in places to improve their positions. On the left flank of the western objective Valentines of 40 Royal Tanks moved up in front of the infantry to cover the depleted 2/13 Battalion. Along the boundary of the Australian and Highland sectors, the tanks of 1 Armoured Division, nowhere in close contact with the enemy, ignorant of what was going on around them, and uncertain of their positions, made tentative efforts to advance further but soon halted when they met mines and some enemy fire. They then engaged vehicles and troops at long range to the west. This division later claimed that its advance had been hindered mainly because it had encountered scattered mines instead of the neatly-bounded belts it had been led to expect. Its leading columns had in fact almost reached the limits gained by the infantry around them, though page 294 rather late, and its failure to fulfil the plans lay mostly at the door of the elaborate minefield task forces which, though designed to drive gaps through minefields against opposition, had failed to do so except where the Highlanders had reduced most of the opposition beforehand. To this cause there was allied both poor navigation and complete lack of liaison with the infantry.

plans for military operations

the operations of 30 and 10 corps, 24–26 october

At 7.15 a.m., as two companies of 2/17 Australian Battalion were preparing to move into the gap between 2/48 and 2/13 Battalions, observers reported the signs of a counter-attack from the west. Under increasing enemy fire the Valentines ahead of 2/13 Battalion withdrew through the infantry, while tanks of the Bays to the left rear deployed for action and a call for defensive fire was sent to the artillery. At least five field regiments responded, causing the enemy to disperse hurriedly. As this excitement died down, part of a flight of aircraft, including a number of USAAF Mitchell bombers briefed to attack a suspected enemy headquarters page 295 further north-west, unloaded their bombs on 2/13 Battalion. With the Valentines moving up and then withdrawing through their lines, and tanks of 2 Armoured Brigade milling about on their flank, this battalion's positions were under constant enemy shellfire so that the men spent a very trying day.

To the south of the Australian sector, the Highlanders were gradually sorting themselves out. Daylight disclosed that at least three main enemy posts still held out between the right-flank troops and the final objective. The divisional commander accordingly decided to use 2 Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders, from reserve in a daylight attack, with artillery support and the use of any available Valentines of 50 Royal Tanks. Action was initially delayed by instructions from 30 Corps to co-ordinate the plan with the efforts of 2 Armoured Brigade to get the latter's tanks forward, and further delayed by the discovery that the tank regiments were not where their reports indicated. Finally it was arranged for the Bays, the armoured brigade's right-flank regiment, to advance on the right, while the other two regiments, 9 Lancers and 10 Hussars, followed the Seaforths who were to attack two strongpoints to the west. At the same time Valentines of 50 Royal Tanks carrying men of 51 Reconnaissance Regiment were to swing wide to the left and take another post that lay to the left rear of the Seaforths' objective. Though the armoured regiments claimed they were given little time for preparation or reconnaissance, 2 Seaforths, short of one company that missed the start line, set off at the appointed time, 3 p.m. Closely following up concentrations fired by their own divisional artillery (the help of 1 Armoured Division's artillery being refused owing to the continuing disagreement over map reading), the Seaforths advanced with considerable dash to overrun both strongpoints but at the cost of eighty-five casualties. The Valentine force of seventeen tanks, with thirty men of the Reconnaissance Regiment, ran into fire from a post further to its left front and, with the loss of seven tanks mostly on mines, withdrew without gaining its objective, though its action was thought to have drawn fire away from the main attack.

The Bays, having earlier indicated their position to the enemy by long-range firing, set off due west on the right but soon were stopped by mines and anti-tank gun fire, some reputedly from 88s. With the loss of six Shermans they fell back, but then received orders from their brigade to turn south and follow the Seaforths. Meanwhile 9 Lancers, not sure of their position and delayed while two minefields were gapped, failed to make contact with the infantry and pulled over to the north, only to meet the Bays page 296 coming south. Both regiments then began to probe gingerly in a north-westerly direction. The third tank regiment, 10 Hussars, tacked its way up to avoid minefields and appeared unexpectedly on the left of the Seaforths' objective. As daylight began to fail, 2 Armoured Brigade claimed that the Bays and Lancers were in the vicinity of the final objective with 10 Hussars to their left rear. On orders from 1 Armoured Division that the regiments spread north to make contact with 2/48 Australian Battalion, the regimental commanders reported that their surviving tanks were too thin on the ground for further dispersion, so the armoured division called up 7 Motor Brigade to fill the gap. Overnight, 7 Battalion The Rifle Brigade came forward and dug in on the Australians' left rear, but 2 Battalion The King's Royal Rifle Corps, intended to extend the front further south, stopped behind the rifle battalion.

It would seem that the tanks were neither as far north or west as they claimed, for the Australians were preparing to repeat the final tasks of the artillery programme of the previous night to allow 2/13 and 2/15 Battalions to advance after dark to the objective. Had the Bays and Lancers been where claimed, and especially if they had spread north as ordered by 1 Armoured Division, they would have been well within the area of the artillery fire. In arranging their fire programme the Australians either must have been unaware of the movements of the armour or more likely knew by observation that the tanks were clear of their sector. In the event Australian patrols at dusk found the area vacated except by a few enemy stragglers, so that artillery support was not needed and both infantry and tanks were on the final objective overnight.

The story of 2 Armoured Brigade illustrates the weaknesses from which Eighth Army still suffered, weaknesses in communications, liaison, and particularly in understanding of the role of the armour in the plans. Instead of assisting 51 Division to clear its area and organise a firm front, 2 Armoured Brigade in fact took the path of least resistance, which led it from, rather than towards, a common front with 10 Armoured Division.

On the rest of 51 Division's front, the confusion following the night advance was being slowly ironed out, but movement in the sector was still greatly hindered by observation and fire from the large enemy pocket remaining in the centre of 154 Brigade's objective. On the far left the two companies of 7 Black Watch well forward against the New Zealand sector found themselves caught up in the tank engagements being fought on their front.

page 297

The New Zealand front was perhaps the strongest and best ordered in 30 Corps for, although short of the objective on the left, it was manned as a continuous line by the four infantry battalions in contact with each other. Both 5 and 6 Field Regiments had observation posts set up on the ridge before dawn and in contact with the infantry. Communications to the rear were quickly established, although signal lines were constantly being cut by both shellfire and the mass of tanks milling about behind the front, while wireless was initially somewhat erratic. Through valiant efforts by the Division's signal linesmen, and by using alternative radio links, the observation officers were able to get their calls for fire answered by the guns within a few minutes. As no immediate counter-attack developed to call for defensive fire, the first calls were on targets of movement and gun positions disclosed by the fast-growing light.

Although the infantry had arrived in time to get dug in before dawn, the masses of vehicles following behind took some time to be sorted out as the various groups were led from the gapped routes to the battalion and company positions. In the unavoidable confusion, and often through impatience to carry out the tasks required, a number of the drivers ran off the cleared routes and immobilised their vehicles on minefields; others lost their way and waited for guidance. Altogether probably as many as half or more of the support weapons – anti-tank guns, mortars, machine guns – failed to arrive in time to be properly sited and dug in before daylight exposed them to enemy fire. However, the mass of tanks closely following the infantry advance more than made up for any shortage of support weapons. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry were out ahead of 22 Battalion, where they were joined a short time later by the Crusader squadron of the Staffs Yeomanry of 8 Armoured Brigade. Unfortunately, in manoeuvring through the battalion area, nine of these tanks had run off the marked route and were immobilised by mines; though some of the crews continued to man their guns, these nine sitting ducks soon became a target for enemy fire and several were set alight. The plight of these tanks may have deterred the rest of the Staffs Yeomanry, who remained behind the ridge.

Further to the south, the Crusader squadron of the Notts Yeomanry (of 8 Armoured Brigade) came up on Boat track in the right of 26 Battalion's sector just as the sky was lightening. At this point Miteiriya Ridge commenced with a short but definite rise which made a false crest to those approaching from the east, and from this rise the ground rose imperceptibly to the true crest some distance farther on. The infantry had their foremost positions page 298 beyond the true crest on a forward slope overlooking the wide, shallow valley to the west. On surmounting the false crest the Notts Yeomanry Crusaders raced forward, but only three managed to cross the true crest, the remainder being immobilised on scattered mines. These three stayed in support of C Company of 26 Battalion, attracting more and more enemy fire until one was knocked out; the other two then withdrew under smoke, much to the infantry's relief. The enemy gunners then gave their attention to the mined tanks on the top of the ridge, several of which were set alight during the morning.

Meanwhile, as these first attempts to cross the ridge were being made, the remainder of the three brigades of armour banked up in the New Zealand sector, blocking the minefield gaps on the routes up and hindering free movement across the front. It is recorded that some of the tanks fired on the New Zealand infantry in reserve positions. Many of the men in positions behind the ridge went to the trouble of laying out old tins and lengths of barbed wire to simulate minefields in order to deter the milling tanks from overrunning their slit trenches.

Such was the press of vehicles that the Divisional Cavalry, attempting to cross from behind 6 Brigade's front to reach the gap reported in 22 Battalion's sector, could make little headway, and about 7.30 p.m., on Freyberg's orders, moved back to the rear. Even in the rear the congestion was such that the advance party of 4 Field Regiment, searching for an area to deploy the guns in the vicinity of the first objective, had to turn south into the South African sector. Here the party encountered a still unsubdued enemy post whose occupants continued to fire until the arrival of a Bofors anti-aircraft gun. One shot from this gun, however, brought the surrender of twenty of the enemy. Later in the morning the regiment lost about thirty men when heavy shellfire fell on one of the batteries as it was moving through the minefields in this area.

At 7 a.m. Freyberg considered that there was still an opportunity for the tanks to break out en masse as planned provided a supreme and immediate effort was made. From his command tank, a stripped-down Stuart in which he had set off before five o'clock to tour the divisional sector and see conditions at first hand, he first instructed Brigadier Currie of 9 Armoured Brigade to rally his regiments and reconnoitre a route to the gap in 22 Battalion's sector, and to join the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry tanks that were there. He then called up his GSO I, Colonel Queree, at Tactical Headquarters to take steps ‘to get the battle moving again’. His exhortations were passed by Queree to 30 Corps, who passed them on to page 299 10 Corps and so down to 10 Armoured Division, who replied, by the same channels, that the armour was held up by the congestion in the New Zealand sector. This reply far from satisfied Freyberg, who was sure that any delay caused by the congestion could be overcome with drive and determined leadership. He therefore told Currie to make for 22 Battalion's gap, ready to break over and beyond the ridge, while he whipped up 10 Armoured Division to follow. He had by this time learnt from Brigadier Kippenberger of the uncongested northern route leading to 21 Battalion and arranged to have guides placed on this track to lead 10 Armoured Division forward.

Currie himself was only concerned to be given a definite objective. He signalled that there were about forty enemy tanks in view and that he was prepared to lead his brigade over the ridge straight away, but wanted to know if the other armour would assist and if his artillery liaison could be improved. This latter trouble took some time to settle, though it was later found that observers from 4 Field Regiment were well forward and in fact directing fire but not in close contact with the tank regiments. What definite objective Freyberg gave Currie is not clear though it seems it was the original objective of the plan. However, he told him to push on as quickly as he could as 10 Armoured Division was being urged to follow. He then rang Queree to get action from 30 and 10 Corps to ‘move mass of tanks here doing nothing’.

Queree had meanwhile managed to speak direct to his opposite number in 10 Armoured Division, to whom he repeated the information already passed along the channel of the two corps headquarters, i.e., that the congestion was not caused by New Zealand transport but by the lack of decision and action by the columns of the armoured division. He emphasised that a clear route, with guides available, was open on the right of the sector and that 9 Armoured Brigade was preparing to break over the ridge into the open, with 8 Armoured Brigade handily placed behind it and awaiting orders from its own division before following. This conversation between the two staff officers, however, did little more than ensure that the headquarters of the armoured division was made aware of Freyberg's appreciation of the situation and his proposals. All attempts to get in touch direct with the armoured corps' commander, Lumsden, or the divisional commander, Gatehouse, failed as both these officers were on the move, Lumsden apparently visiting 1 Armoured Division's sector while Gatehouse, according to his own headquarters, was thought to be ‘up forward’ establishing a tactical headquarters. However, a message eventually reached Queree from 10 Corps, relayed through 30 Corps, that page 300 Lumsden had decided that 10 Armoured Division was not in a position to support 9 Armoured Brigade's sally and that no further armoured advance would be made meanwhile.

The time lag involved, of some three hours since Freyberg first advocated an immediate advance, naturally caused some concern to General Leese at Headquarters 30 Corps, through which most of the messages were being relayed, and at 10.45 a.m. he appeared in person at the New Zealand headquarters. Here he learnt that an enemy counter-attack thought to be impending against 5 Brigade had died away under fire from tanks and artillery, but that movement and concentration of troops and vehicles made it appear that another attack might be coming against 6 Brigade's front. Leese's reaction to this was that Miteiriya Ridge should be made secure and that a plan for the two corps should be prepared for the afternoon. He then joined Freyberg in a tour of the sector as far as the ridge.

Meanwhile Queree received a long message from 10 Armoured Division, which claimed that two regiments of 8 Armoured Brigade were on Miteiriya Ridge but not in contact with 9 Armoured Brigade, and that earlier information sent about 1 Armoured Division's situation had been incorrect, this division in fact having been stopped by mines well short of the earlier-reported positions. The message continued that Gatehouse now proposed passing 24 Armoured Brigade across the rear of 8 Armoured Brigade to make contact with 1 Armoured Division and cover the right flank of the New Zealand sector. He was against continuing the advance until the right flank was secure unless there was a definite objective as, from the amount of anti-tank fire, he anticipated heavy tank casualties once the armour left the security of the ridge. Having been told by his corps commander, Lumsden, to give the New Zealand Division as much assistance as possible, he proposed staying along the ridge to intervene against counter-attack while preparing for a new operation to take place either that night or the next day after the enemy's anti-tank defence had been subdued by artillery fire.

The actual sequence of orders given to the armour and of the movement of the various groups of tanks during this morning is difficult to disentangle. According to the British official narrative, on an order given by Lumsden just before 7.30 a.m., 24 Armoured Brigade sent its 47 Royal Tanks up on 8 Armoured Brigade's left, where it reached the ridge and was in engagement with enemy tanks. There is no mention of this regiment's arrival in the New Zealand records but it may have passed unnoticed among the mass of tanks of 9 and 8 Armoured Brigades, most of which were concentrated in the sectors occupied by 22 and 26 Battalions. Then, page 301 the British narrative records, at 9.35 a.m. Lumsden called on 24 Brigade to advance north-west behind the New Zealand front and attack the enemy holding up 1 Armoured Division. There was a movement of tanks in this direction in the rear of the New Zealand sector, probably with 47 Royal Tanks in the lead, but 24 Armoured Brigade does not seem to have moved far enough to cross into the Highland sector, possibly because of the modification of the order, on the lines given by Gatehouse to Queree, to guard the New Zealand right flank. Lumsden was apparently giving orders direct to Gatehouse's brigades because the latter could not be contacted and, as can be seen, neither Freyberg nor Leese knew fully what the armour was planning to do until shortly before midday when, on their tour of the sector, they encountered Gatehouse in person.

On returning to the New Zealand headquarters, Leese immediately called up the Army Commander, his side of the conversation being recorded as follows:

I have seen Bernard [Freyberg] and Gatehouse and I understand Herbert [Lumsden] has talked to you in the last hour. There is one Bn of 9 Bde over the ridge. On the left inf are in touch with SAs and an attack is developing. B. is confident that he could get on. The Wilts in front appear to have run on to some mines on his right – rest of Bde is behind ridge. He thinks he could go well through provided one of Gatehouse's brigades goes with him. G. says Royals1 A/Tk weapons and anything that puts its nose over the ridge gets shot up. G's main preoccupation at moment is to get 10 Armd Div into position to receive attack from someone else … I think we damn well do. He keeps on saying he is trained for a static role. I think that is getting above him. I have told Bernard to hold a meeting with G. and Brigs. I am placing whole Corps arty at his disposal and am suggesting that under smoke they try and do something later in day. What did Herbert say, Sir? That is happening…. You want them to get into position so that they can manoeuvre on the far side of M. Ridge…. Right I shall do that. I shall find out earliest time Corps arty can be ready…. The northern one is not complete – attack goes in at 1200…. Bernard thinks he is moving off. They did a hell of a lot of shooting up this morning. He may be shooting off his ammunition. M. Ridge was full of hate but now there is hardly anything happening.2

As this conversation concluded, Lumsden appeared at the New Zealand headquarters. Both corps commanders then agreed that, if the Army Commander insisted on a further tank advance, the sooner it took place the better. On the arrival of a liaison officer from Freyberg, who had meanwhile gone forward to see Currie and Kippenberger, to offer the combined advice of the two brigadiers that the operation should take place after dark, a start was page 302 made on the details of the plan. A call from Montgomery at 2.15 p.m. was taken by Lumsden, who emphasised that the operation would certainly be costly in tanks but that he was willing to attempt it.

Plans were then prepared for the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry and 9 Armoured Brigade to advance after dark behind a creeping barrage while 8 and 24 Armoured Brigades, supported by timed concentrations, made for their original lightfoot objectives, the whole operation to be supported by the combined artillery of the two corps of some 300 guns.

As the commanders were attempting to co-ordinate their actions, there were several alarms of impending counter-attacks on the New Zealand front. From daybreak until the middle of the morning, enemy fire built up in intensity with 88-millimetre and other guns searching along the crest of the ridge and behind it, while smaller calibre anti-tank guns from the nearer defences let fly at any tanks that showed their turrets above the crest.

The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry and the other tanks immobilised on mines drew a great deal of fire on to 5 Brigade's area, particularly on 22 Battalion, much to the infantry's discomfort, and there was a certain amount of relief when, shortly after midday, the four remaining runners of the Yeomanry were withdrawn into cover. The regiment's casualties to this time were 10 killed or missing and 32 wounded (including the Commanding Officer and seven other officers).

By midday the enemy's shelling had almost died away, although any vehicle moving into view on the ridge still drew immediate fire. On the counter-attack alarms, which waxed and waned about every two hours from seven in the morning until four o'clock in the afternoon, the British guns laid observed fire on any concentrations reported by their observers while preparing for the planned defensive tasks should the enemy forces approach the ridge. Every enemy movement, however, appeared to disperse under fire and none came close enough to be a real threat to the infantry. A count of prisoners taken on the New Zealand front gave a total to date of approximately 250, made up of infantrymen of 382 and 62 Regiments with a few men from artillery and other units. Nearly half of the total were Germans.

There is little doubt that troops of the Panzer Army facing the New Zealand front intended to counter-attack. Orders were given early for the positions lost overnight to be recovered and, according to the German records, advances were aimed during the day at the New Zealand right flank from two directions, one from the southwest by elements of the Battle Group South and the other from the page 303 north-west by mainly Italian forces. Little is known of the Italian effort, even the Eighth Army's observation reports failing to mention that it was seen or fired on. The German force from the south-west consisted of two tank companies of 8 Panzer Regiment (of up to thirty tanks all told), with possibly some Italian tanks, accompanied by a mixed group of German and Italian infantry and artillery. Starting early in the morning this force progressed very slowly, and though it claimed it drove the British back and retook some of the defences, these latter could only have been positions from which the defenders had retired in the night under threat from exploiting patrols or the sight of tanks on the ridge. By mid-afternoon contact was claimed with some of the still unsubdued posts facing the Highland Division to the northwest of 5 Brigade, and this seems to have been the farthest point reached. The German records dealing with this force illustrate the state of chaos and uncertainty prevailing among the remaining defences facing the New Zealand front, and add point to Freyberg's appreciation that a further advance would sweep through the Panzer Army's defences in the way the original plan envisaged.

The Panzer Army directed its attack to this particular point to close a gap caused by 5 Brigade's overrunning of 2 Battalion of 62 Infantry Regiment (Trento Division) sandwiched between II and III Battalions of 382 Regiment. The outposts of II Battalion, 382 Regiment, had been driven back by 6 Brigade but had apparently re-formed in some order, while III Battalion facing the Highlanders was still holding on to much of its main defence area. Had the attack been directed further north, to recover the positions of 3 Battalion, 62 Regiment, it might have met with more success, but because many of the positions on the Highland Division's sector were still holding out, Panzer Army Headquarters felt that the danger lay in the deeper penetration made by 5 Brigade.

The lack of drive by the counter-attack force possibly showed the effects both of Rommel's absence and the defensive attitude engendered by the Panzer Army's policy of static defence in fixed positions. There is no doubt, however, that the real cause of its failure to develop into a threat lay in the fact that, for once, the British army had ensured that the objective was covered by strong artillery support and by a force of tanks well forward at first light to act as anti-tank defence. The counter-attack force was first harassed from the air as it formed up, then subjected to heavy concentrations from the field guns as it moved off and, on further advance, its vehicles came into range of the 75-millimetre guns of the Shermans and Grants. This was sufficient to break its impetus, for only a few infantry came within range of the small-arms of the men in the defences and the tanks' machine guns.

1 The 10 Armoured Division's armoured car regiment which had lost two cars to anti-tank guns while trying to reconnoitre to the south-west from the New Zealand front.

2 GOC 2 NZEF/45.