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Alam Halfa and Alamein

CHAPTER 32 — The Pursuit

page 425

The Pursuit


AS day dawned on 4 November, the set-piece battles of Alamein were finished. Montgomery could justly claim that his forecast of a twelve-day dogfight, to crumble the Panzer Army's fixed defences, had proved true.1 It was perhaps fortunate that the British armour, in spite of its repeated attempts, had not managed to break out earlier as the planning had envisaged, for this failure had prolonged the battle of attrition in the form in which the Eighth Army had the advantage. When, after the false start interrupted by Hitler's order, Rommel at last managed to get his army moving on the now unavoidable withdrawal, it soon became clear that, had the Panzer Army fallen back earlier when it still had cohesion and control, the British advance might have been slow and laborious. Montgomery has indicated in his writings that such an advance was in his mind, an advance consisting of bringing his superior weight of tanks and artillery methodically against each bound of withdrawal taken up by Rommel and, in fact, such was his method later. But in the initial stages of the enemy withdrawal, the inherent weaknesses in the Eighth Army became obvious. The British armour, as Montgomery had feared, ‘swanned’ about the desert, out of coordinated control in several fruitless encircling movements, while powerful armoured columns were at times held up by weak German rearguards which resisted only because they had no petrol for further withdrawal.

As one army fell back in some confusion and the other followed up across a desert noteworthy for its lack of easily recognisable landmarks, it is only to be expected that records of movement and event should be hazy in details of time and place. Many of the Panzer Army's surviving records are reconstructions made after the

1 Memoirs, p. 126.

page 426 originals were destroyed, deliberately or by battle, and cannot easily be correlated with the Eighth Army's accounts of running fights and rearguard actions.

The day broke with a ground mist hiding much of the front. Though news of the occupation of Tell el Aqqaqir had been passed around, no one on the British side knew whether the mist would lift to disclose the congestion in the SUPERCHARGE salient to enemy fire.

When the mist dispersed shortly after the sun arose, it became obvious that the enemy had gone except for some distant guns on the north-west which fired on Australian patrols and sent some random rounds towards 6 Brigade and the Maori positions. The German records disclose that on the northern flank 90 Light Division, under orders to prevent a breakthrough along the coastal road, had placed rearguards about Sidi Abd el Rahman while its main body withdrew on Ghazal. South of the road and covering a front of about five miles, 21 Panzer Division mustered possibly twenty tanks in battle order. Next, on an inconspicuous rise known as Tell el Mansfra, the Africa Corps Headquarters Battle Group (Kampfstaffel), with no more than ten ‘runners’ at the most, sat slightly in advance of its neighbours. Some six or seven miles to the west of Tell el Aqqaqir, 15 Panzer Division had as many as 27 ‘runners’ and the 17 survivors of Littorio Division. Still further south, and probably to the west of Africa Corps' north-south line, Ariete had joined the survivors of Trieste, the two divisions coming under 20 Italian Corps and mustering probably over 100 tanks, many of which, however, were in immediate need of repairs and maintenance.1 To the south of this armoured front, troops of Trento and Bologna divisions of 21 Italian Corps were supposed to be holding a position by Sidi Ibeid but, without transport, ammunition, or stores, were in fact in complete disorder.

Montgomery's provisional plan of the previous day had been for the New Zealand Division with its attached armour, under command of 30 Corps, to follow the route taken by the armoured cars of the Royals and South Africans in a wide encircling movement round the south of Aqqaqir to gain the Fuka escarpment pass some 45 miles to the west, while 10 Corps' armour made a shorter and sharper wheel of 10 to 15 miles to cut the coast road about Ghazal. In this way he hoped to bottle up the rearguard, in which he assumed

1 All these tank strengths are estimates but are close enough to indicate the opposition facing Eighth Army.

page 427 the panzer forces would play the major part, against the coast while the New Zealanders cut off the fleeing remnants of the infantry. Lumsden, whether with Montgomery's agreement or not is uncertain, had intimated to his divisional commanders that they might be directed on Fuka but, during the night, as the attacks towards Aqqaqir were proceeding, he issued an instruction for an advance merely to outflank the enemy without specific directions. All the evidence shows that, up to this time, no one in the Eighth Army had an inkling of the disorganisation caused by Hitler's order and Rommel's indecision in disobeying it, or of the low fighting state to which the Panzer Army had fallen. The resistance met by 9 Armoured Brigade in the SUPERCHARGE operation was still fresh in the armour's memory.

As far as can be ascertained, the orders on which the armoured divisions acted were for 1 and 10 Armoured Divisions, on right and left respectively, to probe west from the salient while 7 Armoured Division advanced to the south-west across Aqqaqir, prepared to swing north against the flank of any opposition met by the other formations.

Montgomery's desire to fight a tidy battle was this morning flouted by circumstances. By following the precept of concentrating his attack at one point, he had channelled all his mobile forces, with their massive attendant tails of support, administration and supply columns, along the tracks leading into and through the narrow salient. When word got around that the enemy had gone and the advance was starting, groups of vehicles tried to press forward to be in at the kill while others, obediently awaiting definite orders, blocked the tracks. The confusion and congestion, already bad, reached a peak this morning and it was only by the exertions of the control posts, aided by senior officers, that some sort of traffic order was gradually made out of the chaos as the day wore on.

One of the first to find his way clear of the confusion was General Freyberg who, fully convinced that the enemy had ‘cracked’, hurried out with a small reconnaissance group to test the route round the south of Aqqaqir. Impatient orders to get the divisional column following in his wake brought the news that 4 Light Armoured Brigade, due to take the lead, was still near Alamein station jostling for its share of the tracks; 5 Brigade was waiting at the base of the salient for the light armour to pass, while 9 Armoured and 6 Brigades were still in the defences on the north-west corner, the latter waiting for its transport which was held up in the rear.

page 428
In the salient itself, all three armoured divisions1 had begun to assemble at first light in columns which at points intersected each other. About 6.30 a.m. 11 Hussars led 7 Armoured Division towards Aqqaqir, but the need to sort units from the congestion in the morning mist, as well as patches of heavy going on the route, delayed progress so that it took nearly two hours for the head of the division to reach the ground won overnight by 5 Indian Brigade. Further north, 1 Armoured Division managed to get itself in some sort of order by the time the mist dispersed and then, about 7.45 a.m., 12 Lancers cautiously advanced due west at the head of 2 Armoured Brigade. On Lumsden's order, 10 Armoured Division began to assemble facing west on 1 Armoured Division's southern flank but did not move immediately. Shortly after eight o'clock the

1 The order of battle of the main components of 10 Corps' pursuit force was:

  • 1 Armoured Division

    • 2 Armoured Brigade

    • 7 Motor Brigade (lorried infantry)

      • 2 Rifle Battalion

      • 7 Rifle Battalion

      • 2 KRRC

    • 12 Lancers (armoured cars)

  • 7 Armoured Division

    • 22 Armoured Brigade

      • 1 Royal Tanks

      • 5 Royal Tanks

      • 4 CLY

      • 1 Rifle Battalion (motorised infantry)

    • 131 Lorried Infantry Brigade

      • 1/5 Queens

      • 1/6 Queens

      • 1/7 Queens

    • 11 Hussars (armoured cars)

  • 10 Armoured Division

  • Armoured Car force

    • Royal Dragoons

    • 4/6 South African Armoured Car Regiment

    • 3 South African Armoured Car Regiment

page break page 429 armoured cars of 2 Derbyshire Yeomanry, followed by the Royal Scots Greys of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, managed to thread their way out of the confusion to a point south-east of Aqqaqir, but here Freyberg held them back until the rest of his force could be organised.

plans for military operation

Except for a little long-range artillery fire, all this initial movement by the British armour met with no organised opposition though increasing numbers of the enemy were encountered, most of whom, both German and Italian, had obviously missed the general withdrawal and, on the appearance of armoured cars and tanks, willingly surrendered.

The first clash with the enemy's new line came in the middle of the morning when 22 Armoured Brigade, leading 7 Armoured Division, had travelled some miles down the Rahman Track from Aqqaqir and then turned to the west. At the turn it came under 88-millimetre fire. As the brigade halted to deal with this fire, the divisional commander, Harding, ordered the rest of his column to keep going further south and swing round 22 Brigade's left flank. However, it soon become clear that the division was up against an extensive line of tanks backed by numerous guns, too strong to rush and too dangerous to leave menacing the division's line of advance. Harding therefore called up his field and anti-tank guns and settled down to a long-range duel. This enemy force seems to have been mainly the 100 or so tanks of Ariete Division with 20 Corps' artillery, including some 88s, to back them up. There may also have been a few surviving tanks of Trieste, while the seventeen tanks left to Littorio and positioned on 15 Panzer Division's right flank were possibly drawn into the battle. Numerous parties of Italian infantry as well as some of 164 Division, in process of re-forming before being distributed among the panzer formations, were also caught up in the battle. When Ariete reported the engagement to Africa Corps, a battalion group was sent by 15 Panzer Division to fill the gap between its right flank and the Italians. The role of 20 Italian Corps was to guard the Panzer Army's right flank against encirclement and, according to the German records, Rommel was at first confident that, with over 100 tanks, the Italians would fulfil their task.

In the meantime, 2 Armoured Brigade of 1 Armoured Division had advanced slowly due west from the SUPERCHARGE salient and was heading for the rise at Tell el Mansfra, where Africa Corps' Kampfstaffel, of a few tanks and anti-tank guns, was filling the gap between the two panzer divisions. With the Corps Commander, von Thoma, present in person, the battle group put up an exceedingly fierce resistance in which several British tanks were knocked out, including that of 1 Armoured Division's commander, Briggs, page 430 who then halted his armour while he called up his field artillery to suppress the enemy's fire. Under both tank and field-gun fire, the enemy resistance broke, five tanks and a few guns managing to withdraw, according to the German records. The corps commander was taken prisoner, along with several hundred German gunners and infantrymen who were sheltering in nearby trenches. Though the engagement ceased and von Thoma was captured shortly after midday, 2 Armoured Brigade does not appear to have advanced much further in the afternoon, possibly through meeting fire from the panzer divisions on its flanks.

Gatehouse's 10 Armoured Division, comprising 8 Armoured Brigade and 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade, had meanwhile assembled during the morning and, having extricated itself from the confusion in the salient, reached the Rahman Track just to the south of 1 Armoured Division's line of advance by midday. Lumsden then decided that, as both 1 and 7 Divisions seemed likely to be held up, Gatehouse should attempt an encircling movement to the south, though this meant that his columns would have to cut across the routes being used by 7 Armoured Division and the New Zealanders. However, enemy dive-bombers put in one of their rare appearances this day, causing the division to disperse in some confusion, and it was late in the afternoon before 8 Armoured Brigade set off down the Rahman Track. Then, coming in sight of 22 Brigade's battle off to the west, the brigade halted to reconnoitre and finally laagered for the night about three miles west of the track.

By the end of the 4th, therefore, the three armoured divisions of 10 Corps had advanced only a few miles west of the line gained in SUPERCHARGE. Unaware of the true state of the Panzer Army, Lumsden was in fact following the original policy laid down by Montgomery in which the armour, after breaking out, was to position itself to invite armoured counter-attack. It was on this policy that the shallow outflanking movements of the armour were based.

Had the Africa Corps stayed to fight to the last, this method would have paid off. But what the Eighth Army could not, and did not, know was that, shortly after von Thoma's capture, Rommel's common sense finally overrode his loyalty to Hitler. Although neither 21 nor 15 Panzer Division had been directly engaged, reports of massed tanks facing them and attacking 20 Italian Corps on the southern flank caused him to issue in mid-afternoon an order that there was no longer any need to hold out to the last man or to permit unnecessary sacrifice, an order which may have reflected his personal feelings over the loss of von Thoma. He then issued detailed instructions for a withdrawal at dusk to a first bound on a line running south from Daba, where the formations were to set page 431 out strong rearguards to cover further retreat to the Fuka area. Both these bounds were for assembly and reorganisation, with no suggestion of prepared lines of defence. It is clear that Rommel was waiting to see what he could salvage of his army and what the British would do, and he hoped, or believed, that they would follow up as cautiously as was their custom.

However, there was one man in the Eighth Army who was impatient for bold action. Having gone forward and personally seen the quantities of guns, vehicles and equipment both destroyed and abandoned, and the groups of dispirited prisoners accumulating in ever increasing numbers, Freyberg was sure that the enemy was on the point of slipping away and was fretting to get his divisional column on the move. Whether he expected to carry out the major encirclement of the Panzer Army unaided is unlikely, but he certainly hoped to block its retreat in time to allow 10 Corps to finish it off. His orders from 30 Corps were for a fast advance, avoiding engagements, on a line south-west from the salient to Sidi Ibeid, and thence north-west along the old Barrel route to the Fuka escarpment and north to Fuka itself, a total distance of some 60 miles. He was warned that at Fuka he might be cut off and have to be supplied by sea, a warning that illustrates the thinking of the time.

In spite of his impatience, Freyberg had first to assemble his force, a task made no easier by the congestion on the salient routes. The Division's order of battle, with the approximate positions of the various components early on the 4th, was as follows:

HQ 2 NZ Div (Main HQ to the rear of the salient, and Tac HQ on the move forward)
HQ 2 NZ Div Sigs
9 Armd Bde in support of 6 NZ Bde in the north-west and north of the salient
Warwick Yeomanry Composite Regt
4 NZ Fd Regt
31 NZ A-Tk Bty
41 NZ Lt AA Bty
6 NZ Fd Coy
166 Lt Fd Amb
2 NZ Div Cav in the salient and to the rear
4 Lt Armd Bde moving forward from its laager about three miles east of Alamein station
Royal Scots Greys
4/8 Hussars
2 Derby Yeomanry
Fd Sqn, RE
Lt Fd Amb page 432
5 NZ Inf Bde between Alamein and Tell el Eisa except for 22 Bn (in the rear of the salient), 28 Bn (on the north flank), and artillery and other detachments scattered through the salient and by brigade headquarters
21 NZ Bn
22 NZ Bn
28 NZ (Maori) Bn
5 NZ Fd Regt
32 NZ A-Tk Bty
42 NZ Lt AA Bty
2 Coy, 27 NZ (MG) Bn
7 NZ Fd Coy
Coy 5 NZ Fd Amb
6 NZ Inf Bde in the north-west defences of the salient
24 NZ Bn
25 NZ Bn
26 NZ Bn
6 NZ Fd Regt
33 NZ A-Tk Bty
43 NZ Lt AA Bty
3 Coy, 27 NZ (MG) Bn
8 NZ Fd Coy
Coy 6 NZ Fd Amb
27 NZ (MG) Bn (less two companies) with Main HQ 2 NZ Div
7 NZ A-Tk Regt (less three batteries)

(Note: Four platoons of 4 NZ Res MT Coy were needed to make the infantry of 5 Bde mobile, and three platoons of 6 NZ Res MT Coy had to drive through the salient to pick up 6 Bde's infantry.)

The Division's original orders were for 4 Light Armoured Brigade to deploy at 8.30 a.m. on the east of Tell el Aqqaqir, ready to advance to Sidi Ibeid. The Warwickshire Yeomanry Composite Regiment of 9 Armoured Brigade with the Divisional Cavalry was to assemble by nine o'clock and await orders, while Main Headquarters, the Reserve Group and 5 Brigade were to be ready to move by ten o'clock and 6 Brigade by midday.

As earlier related, some of 4 Light Armoured Brigade reached its deployment area on time, but the whole of the brigade was not assembled until after ten o'clock. Freyberg meanwhile had been trying without much success to get information on the progress of 10 Corps, but he at least knew from his own reconnaissance that 7 Armoured Division had met opposition close to his proposed line of advance. Some time after 10.30 a.m. he sent the armoured cars of the Derbyshire Yeomanry to find a route round the south of the battle and later despatched the tanks of the Royal Scots Greys.

Gradually throughout the day the various groups of the New Zealand force assembled and threaded their ways through the congestion and the gaps in the minefields before opening out into widely page 433 dispersed desert formation. In his diary Freyberg described the gaps as

feet deep morasses of dust which spouted up in front of and into the vehicles. By this date thousands of vehicles and hundreds of guns and tanks had pounded the loose fine-grained surface of this part of the desert into something resembling discoloured flour. What will it be like if it rains? 9 Armd Bde and 5 Bde moved up and the congestion of vehicles in the forward area would have done credit to Piccadilly. Fortunately the RAF ruled the skies. Div [Headquarters] moved up at 1100 hours and squeezed into the crush….1

Though many of the divisional groups moved up along Boomerang and Square tracks, it is uncertain exactly where they broke out into the open, but their guiding sign was the black diamond used to mark the Diamond track which led into 6 Brigade's defences. From somewhere near the end of this track a party of New Zealand divisional provosts with engineers had set off early to find a minefree route, which led in a southerly direction round the east of Aqqaqir and then turned north-west along the path of the reconnaissance group of 4 Light Armoured Brigade. At first these ‘Diamond signs’, of black painted tin set on iron pickets, were placed at frequent intervals, but once in the open one sign sufficed for every 700 yards. Thus marked, the Diamond Track eventually stretched from Alamein to Tripoli.

Shortly after midday 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported to Divisional Headquarters that the Greys in the lead had halted against opposition. At this time Freyberg was holding a conference with his brigadiers, but before the conference broke up the Greys had signalled that they had taken the surrender of 300 prisoners with 11 guns. It would appear that, on swinging round the south of the Italian tanks which 7 Armoured Division was engaging and then turning to the north-west, the Greys had come under fire from the 20 Corps artillery sited behind the tank line. The artillery had put up a token fight, but had soon ceased fire once the Greys worked round to the rear.

At the divisional conference Gentry of 6 Brigade proposed an all-night advance to reach Fuka by the early hours of the morning, asserting that the men of the Division had waited for three years for such a victory as was now offered and would willingly endure the strain of a long night drive. Kippenberger of 5 Brigade was more cautious, fearing that in the dark and unknown going, the formations might become separated and be left in some confusion by morning. Freyberg himself was full of confidence that the enemy was on the point of breaking and, though 7 Armoured Division was still fighting not far away, he decided to get his column clear of

1 GOC 2 NZEF/45.

page 434 the confusion and the fighting, and out into the open desert where concentration would be easier. He therefore set off with his Tactical Headquarters to catch up with the light armour, leaving orders for the rest of the force to follow as soon as possible. Main Headquarters, the Reserve Group, 5 Brigade and 9 Armoured Brigade cleared the minefields by late afternoon but 6 Brigade, having to wait for its transport to negotiate the congestion in the salient, did not get going until 6 p.m.

Carrying eight days' water and rations, 360 rounds for each field gun, and petrol for 200 miles, the New Zealand vehicles, though heavily laden, made good progress once they drew clear of the powdered sand of the battle area and reached the hard sand along the Barrel Track. Of the journey, Freyberg, riding on the outside of his Stuart tank, entered in his diary:

… we began to pass through enemy positions and tanks of the Panzer Divisions which will fight no more, burning transport, and large calibre guns. It was a change much appreciated to speed across open desert away from the dust heap of the Alamein front. As the Div swept south-westwards the guns of the tanks and arty were in action to the north where the British armour were fighting the Panzer rearguard. 4 Lt Armd Bde was ahead. Behind them marching apparently quite cheerfully were columns of PWs with a solitary armoured car or truck as an escort, carrying a few wounded and a single guard armed with a Tommy gun. We passed an infantry [? artillery] position almost intact with guns in position and ammunition boxes empty….1

During this afternoon, 22 Armoured Brigade continued its action against the Italian 20 Corps until dark but it is hard to say how this battle really went. The German records, including Rommel's own account, give the impression that Ariete Division, fighting gallantly to the last tank, was completely surrounded and annihilated. Yet 22 Armoured Brigade claimed only 29 tanks destroyed and 450 prisoners, against a loss of one tank and a few casualties, while events next day indicate that quite a large part of the Italian force managed to disengage overnight. The Italian stand at least deterred 10 Corps from the encircling movement Lumsden had proposed and allowed Africa Corps an unimpeded withdrawal overnight.

Some ten miles past Sidi Ibeid and 15 miles due south of Daba, Freyberg halted 4 Light Armoured Brigade as dusk was falling, to allow the rest of the divisional force to catch up. Though the commander, Brigadier Roddick, wanted to carry on to the Fuka escarpment, Freyberg had learnt through 30 Corps of an intercepted message that 15 Panzer Division was also making its way to Fuka.

Liaison officers were sent back to find the other formations and, by the use of wirelessed directions and flares, 5 Brigade was guided

1 GOC 2 NZEF/45.

page 435 to the laager by midnight. No sooner had this brigade halted than a minor battle ensued at the tail of its long column. A party of Germans approached one of the rear vehicles apparently to ascertain if the column was friendly or hostile, and the signals officer in the truck did his best to make them believe he was Italian. As the enemy moved off apparently satisfied, this officer went forward on foot to warn 23 Battalion ahead, but before he could regain his truck firing broke out and a rather wild battle ensued. The mortar platoon of 23 Battalion took the initial brunt of the fighting, first using rifles and then getting their mortars into action against fire from automatic weapons, and probably from a light anti-tank or infantry gun which accounted for one of the mortars. Carriers and 4 Light Armoured Brigade's tanks, as well as infantry of 23 and 28 Battalions, then joined in, upon which the enemy withdrew, taking eight men of the Divisional Signals with them as prisoners, and though chased by several vehicles, got clean away. It was later estimated that the enemy party was about seventy strong, probably a group of Ramcke parachutists searching for transport or petrol. The alarm brought some indiscriminate firing, even Divisional Headquarters some distance away coming under fire, and casualties were recorded as 8 men killed, 5 missing, 26 wounded and 8 taken prisoner; of these last, seven subsequently were recaptured or escaped. The enemy left 17 bodies behind.

Freyberg had been under pressure from Roddick and other enthusiastic members of his staff to continue the advance through the night, but this small battle convinced him of the need to get his force concentrated and organised before going any further and he decided to wait for the rest of the force. The firing had set alight an ammunition truck belonging to 23 Battalion and this continued to blaze for some hours, providing a handy beacon for 9 Armoured Brigade and 4 Field Regiment when they drew near the divisional laager. It was still burning when, only two hours before dawn, the head of 6 Brigade's column arrived.

Montgomery's intentions for the night of 4–5 November were for 1 and 7 Armoured Divisions to keep the enemy facing them in engagement while the New Zealand column continued to Fuka, and 10 Armoured Division, following inside the New Zealand wheel, cut the coast road halfway between Daba and Fuka. However, the evening reconnaissance reports of vehicles massed in retreat between these two places, and other indications, convinced him that the opposition to the armour was likely to fade away overnight and he accordingly told Lumsden to push on boldly everywhere, using the Royals and South African armoured cars to act as a delaying force page 436 on the Fuka escarpment until the New Zealand column could get there.

As the night wore on, Lumsden issued a number of orders, presumably based on information sent back by his divisions. He told 1 Armoured Division to stay in engagement with the enemy ahead while 7 Armoured Division, having reported its victory over the Italian armour, drove for the high ground south-east of Daba. Then 10 Armoured Division was to cut the road between Daba and Fuka with its 8 Armoured Brigade, but its lorried infantry was to take up a position south of Daba. Just before dawn, and before the armour broke night laager, Lumsden changed these plans, instructing Gatehouse to send his lorried infantry direct to the Fuka escarpment pass, where it would be joined as soon as possible by 8 Armoured Brigade, while 1 Armoured Division moved directly to Daba with 7 Armoured Division on its left. As Lumsden gave many instructions in face-to-face discussion or conversation over the wireless, not officially recorded, it is possible that there were further variations of his orders.

No clear exposition of 10 Corps' plans reached Freyberg and it was only later in the day that he learnt of them through contact with the armoured formations themselves. Accordingly, as the sky lightened early on the 5th, he sent 4 Light Armoured Brigade to lead his column, ignorant that he was sharing the rush to the Fuka escarpment with three armoured car regiments1 as well as the lorried infantry and armoured brigades of 10 Armoured Division.

Montgomery's misgivings about what might occur if his mobile forces passed beyond centralised control now began to prove well founded. Some time during this morning he told Lumsden to take the New Zealand column under 10 Corps' command, but Freyberg did not receive news of this change until some hours later. At 10.40 a.m. he was in receipt of a 30 Corps order repeating the Fuka assignment, and adding the extra task of sending a detachment to the Qasaba landing grounds that lay some 15 to 20 miles further west.

Much had happened before this order arrived for, only an hour after setting out from the night laager, the Greys encountered an enemy force reported to include twenty German tanks. This must have been the panzer regiment of 15 Panzer Division which had been travelling only a few miles ahead on the same course as that taken by the New Zealanders. According to the Africa Corps message log, the division had up to twenty-seven runners on the 4th and suffered no casualties by battle overnight, but this day it

1 3 South African Armoured Car Regiment had been sent out to join the Royals and 4 SAAC Regiment.

page 437 began a rearguard action soon after daylight. About midday (Eighth Army time) it reported to Africa Corps that its strength was down to 8 tanks in running order, 200 infantry, 4 anti-tank, 12 field, and no heavy anti-aircraft guns, i.e., 88-millimetre.1 How much of the panzer division's losses were due to battle and how much to mechanical failures or lack of petrol is uncertain for the Greys claimed only six or seven of the German tanks, including two captured intact.

While the Greys were in action some vehicles appeared on the south of the New Zealand column and opened fire when the commander of 4 Field Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart,2 left the column to identify them. When the tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade returned the fire, most of the vehicles drove off at high speed, leaving two trucks behind from which Colonel Stewart took the surrender of about sixty men. About the same time 1 King's Royal Rifle Corps, the motorised infantry of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, turning to the north to investigate a body of men and vehicles, was met by numerous white flags. Among several hundred Italian and German infantrymen and gunners captured here, the riflemen found the commander of Trento Division with most of his senior officers and staff.

By the middle of the day the New Zealand column was stretching out over several miles of the desert. After the enemy facing the Greys had broken off the engagement and retired, the armoured cars took over the lead and were close to the point where the Barrel Track swung north towards the escarpment pass. About this time enemy aircraft swept down the column to drop a few bombs on 5 Brigade. Several men were wounded but the Bofors gunners got quickly into action, claiming hits on two Messerschmitts.

Just a few miles east of the pass, the leading vehicles, with which General Freyberg himself was then travelling, were halted by shell-fire. Reconnaissance established that this shelling came from two enemy groups. One of them, probably Voss Group of armoured cars, artillery and possibly a few tanks, was close to the lip of the escarpment pass, and the other, of 15 Panzer Division's rearguard, was on high ground to the west. Together the two groups dominated the approaches to the pass, while Voss Group was in a position to fire on vehicles negotiating the track down the escarpment to the coastal plain.

Freyberg had by this time decided not to use the pass but to keep on the top of the escarpment and follow it round to the west

1 GMDS 25869/9–11.

2 Col G. J. O. Stewart, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 22 Nov 1908; importer; CO 4 Fd Regt Aug 1942–Mar 1943, Dec 1943–Mar 1945; CRA 2 NZ Div 22 Feb–16 Mar 1945; wounded 3 Mar 1943.

page 438 of Fuka, with the Sidi Haneish landing ground and the Division's old defences at the Baggush Box as his objectives. From this point he could control the chain of desert landing grounds south of Baggush and operate westwards to the Qasaba grounds.

As the Derbyshire Yeomanry probed forward to find a way between the two enemy groups, they met a marked minefield running north and south. The armoured brigade's tanks and vehicles then began to bank up behind the armoured cars and the enemy fire increased, so Freyberg called on Brigadier Weir to deploy the artillery. Under the fire of the field guns, the enemy group on the west withdrew, on which the armoured cars followed up and found a gap, probably the one the enemy had used. Passing through, though still under fire, the armoured cars came in sight of a large concentration of vehicles, stretching several miles to the west behind the northern group of the enemy. According to the German records this must have been the main body of 21 Panzer Division, then beginning to suffer from an acute shortage of petrol. Both to deny the pass and observation over the coastal plain, and to extricate themselves from their precarious situation where they might be encircled and cut off from expected petrol supplies, the German forces opened heavy fire, from medium and field guns as well as 88-millimetres, on all attempts by the British tanks to pass through the minefield gap. During this period of the afternoon several parties of stragglers, including a large body of Bologna Division, had given themselves up to the divisional column. The Division was also joined by the commander of 7 Armoured Division, Harding, who stated that he had been to Daba and found no enemy there.

What had actually happened further east was that 1 Armoured Division had reached Daba in the morning and had met with some resistance. The tanks of 2 Armoured Brigade had then cut the coast road to the west, while 7 Motor Brigade had laid on an attack which netted numerous guns and vehicles and much equipment but only a small bag of prisoners. Harding with his division had then appeared and, anticipating Lumsden's next orders, had led his men back into the desert and on to the New Zealand route. In the meantime 8 Armoured Brigade (10 Armoured Division) had somehow cut ahead of the other two divisions to reach the coastal road at Galal, halfway between Daba and Fuka. Here it was just in time to catch the enemy flushed by the other divisions, the only sizable body caught by any of the British encircling movements. After having dealt with some small parties of stragglers, the brigade waited as a large column of tanks, trucks and marching men came unsuspectingly straight towards it. Under fire at almost point-blank range, the enemy was thrown into confusion and offered little resistance. page 439 The total of tanks accounted for here by 8 Armoured Brigade was put as high as 14 German and 29 Italian. About 1000 prisoners were taken as well as numerous guns and vehicles in good order. It was generally accepted in the Eighth Army that this engagement completed the annihilation of the Italian 20 Corps which 7 Armoured Division had begun the previous day, but, according to the Rommel Papers, elements of this corps with ‘about ten tanks’ were in Matruh on 7 November.1 As the German records do not mention either the composition or the loss of this group at Galal, it was probably not part of any formation but a mixed group of rear and front-line troops, including German and Italian technicians and tanks from the Daba workshops.

From Harding the New Zealand staff learnt that he intended to cut round the left of the Division and secure the landing grounds on the south of Sidi Haneish and cut the coast road. It is uncertain if Harding was at this time able to pass on the full extent of 10 Corps' latest plans. Lumsden had in fact realised at last that the narrow wheels of his armour had encompassed mainly laggard Italians and few combatant Germans, and that the main striking force of the Panzer Army was slipping from his grasp. After telling 10 Armoured Division to clear the coastal plain as far as Fuka, taking care not to engage the New Zealand column by mistake, he sent 1 Armoured Division on a last desperate, and almost impracticable, sweep. Shortly before 2 p.m. he sent a radio message to Briggs with instructions to despatch Fisher's 2 Armoured Brigade, then in laager on the west of Daba, on a 70-mile trek to Bir Khalda, which lay a few miles south of Minqar Qaim and some 35 miles as the crow flies south of Matruh township. From this point the brigade was to operate towards the north to block the routes leading west out of Matruh.

Such a manoeuvre might have had an element of success had Lumsden told Harding and Freyberg to engage and contain the enemy facing them in order to give Fisher's brigade time to get into position, but these two commanders appear to have been unaware of this new plan and its implications. They continued with their aim of cutting the coast road in the Baggush - Sidi Haneish area where 10 Corps Headquarters, from air and ground reports already received, should have known that few of the enemy would be entrapped.

Freyberg's appreciation of the situation in his immediate area was that the enemy group on his north-west would probably try to break out to the south-west after dark. On this basis he gave

1 Rommel Papers, p. 343.

page 440 4 Light Armoured Brigade orders to take the ‘high ground’, presumably that to the north-west of the minefield gap, while 9 Armoured Brigade was to get through the gap and deploy facing north, all to be completed before dark but all qualified by an ‘if possible’. The Divisional Cavalry was to cover the north on the eastern side of the minefield, 6 Brigade was to stay in reserve at the rear of the divisional column, but 5 Brigade was to attempt the passage of the gap and take the ‘high ground’ if the light armour failed to do so. What Freyberg had in mind is doubtful, for the deployment he ordered would have left the enemy a clear route of withdrawal to west or north-west, but he may, at the time he issued the orders, have been expecting Harding's 22 Armoured Brigade to come up on his left.

In the early afternoon the New Zealand guns fired a smoke screen to cover infantry and sappers of the light armoured brigade, who removed the wire and pickets bordering the minefield and marked a route in which apparently no mines were found. The tanks, well dispersed against the enemy's shellfire, then drove through and turned north, where they rounded up about 150 of the enemy, mostly Ramcke paratroops. The advance of the armour drew the attention of most of the enemy gunners away from the gap, so that just before dusk 5 Brigade, travelling in column at high speed, navigated the gap without casualties or damage, and halted in a hollow sheltered from enemy observation. After darkness fell, the brigade moved some way further north in order to clear the exit from the gap and to make contact with the armour. However, no other part of the New Zealand column followed for some hours. Brigadier Kippenberger recorded that his instructions from Freyberg were to harass the enemy but not to get involved with ‘the still powerful German armour’,1 a remark which helps to explain the caution exhibited by individual commanders but hardly condones the lack of concerted action. In his short night move, Kippenberger had lost touch with his artillery, 5 Field Regiment, and was unable to make contact with the headquarters of 4 Light Armoured Brigade. Estimating that he was still ten miles from the coast road he decided that, without guns or armour, his brigade should stay in a defensive laager overnight.

At 9 p.m. Freyberg conferred with his two brigadiers still east of the gap, that is, Gentry of 6 Brigade and Weir of the artillery. He told them that his intention was to proceed at daylight direct to the escarpment overlooking the coastal strip to the east of the Baggush Box area, with 9 Armoured in the lead, followed by 6 page 441 Brigade and the Divisional Artillery. The other two brigades, whose whereabouts were uncertain, would be collected on the way. He also stated that 22 Armoured Brigade1 would be operating on his division's left, its objective the escarpment to the west of Baggush. This last statement indicates that Freyberg had now received more detailed information of 7 Armoured Division's progress and intentions than Harding could have given earlier in the day. Roberts' brigade had in fact reached the minefield some miles to the south and, without enemy interference, had quickly found that there were no mines between the fences. However, no sooner was it through than it found itself short of petrol. About seven o'clock the brigade laagered, some ten miles south-west of the New Zealand position, to wait for petrol and its lorried infantry, 131 Brigade, which had become disorganised in attempting to catch up and was scattered over many miles of the desert route.

How much more of 10 Corps' plans Freyberg knew at this time is uncertain, nor is it certain that he knew he had been transferred to the corps' command. In fact, the wireless message issued by Lumsden just after midday and giving the latest plans reached the New Zealand Division just twenty-four hours after it was despatched. However, he must have gained some information from Harding and, not long after his conference with Gentry and Weir, he received first-hand news of 1 Armoured Division's plans when a column of trucks and carriers suddenly tangled with the divisional laager. This turned out to be part of 7 Motor Brigade on its way to join 2 Armoured Brigade at Bir Khalda.

The orders for 1 Armoured Division to proceed at once to Bir Khalda were issued by 10 Corps shortly before 2 p.m. and received by the division within half an hour, according to the available records, but for some reason the division was not ready to start until 6 p.m. Admittedly the difficulties, of communication, replenishment and preparations, were great at this period, but the late start meant that even 12 Lancers in the lead had not gone far before dusk made travelling hazardous. In fact the tail of the divisional column was not able to get clear, before dark, of the maze of old defences, slit trenches, minefields, and criss-crossing tracks in the well-occupied coastal strip. However, the division ploughed on gamely on a gruelling all-night march, which took the head of the column some 55 miles by dawn. The Lancers and 2 Armoured Brigade, still some miles short of Bir Khalda, were finally halted by lack of petrol shortly after sunrise, with the rest of the division spread out over more than 20 miles of the desert to the east.

1 Under Brigadier G. P. B. Roberts.

page 442

During the morning of 5 November, Rommel seemed at first to think that his Panzer Army was in better shape than it actually was, due perhaps to early messages from Africa Corps and 90 Light Division which gave an appearance of some order in the withdrawal, while news of how far or fast his opponents were following up was scanty. First thing in the morning he established his headquarters two miles south-west of the Fuka landing ground and, while there, received authorisation from Hitler and Mussolini for a withdrawal, with the proviso that the non-motorised forces would be extricated.

We could do nothing but shrug our shoulders, for extricating the infantry was precisely what the original order had prevented us from doing…. Now only Fate could show whether the British would permit us to stay at Fuka long enough for the Italian and German infantry to catch up.1

He then let his staff issue an order that the Fuka position, that is, an imaginary line running due south from Fuka station, was to be defended to the last man according to Mussolini's directions, together with a sharp reminder to the Italians to get their surviving formations organised on that line. Driving north to the road, he watched vehicles streaming past under constant air attack, and returning into the desert he found Africa Corps in engagement with a British column. Back at his headquarters, he took to a slit trench when the Royal Air Force made two bombing runs over the area, having apparently located the headquarters position through wireless intercepts.

By this time he must have realised, from all that he had seen and heard, that most of 10 and 21 Italian Corps could be written off. Africa Corps had already warned that it was in danger of being outflanked from the south, and then ‘several Sherman tanks came in sight and opened fire on everything they could see. We apparently no longer had any troops between us {Panzer Army Headquarters} and the British.’2 The Panzer Army narrative goes on to recount that in the afternoon a breakthrough by strong tank forces between 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions could not be prevented while Voss Group was tied down by a strong tank force, and as there were no more reserves and little petrol, no counter-attack was possible.3

As no British forces, except for armoured car patrols, were far enough west to engage Africa Corps at this time of the day, the Corps must have been reacting to the tentative probings of the New Zealand column. The Sherman tanks that fired on Rommel may have been armoured cars or the tanks of 4 Light Armoured Brigade that captured the Ramcke troops. Whoever they were, the situation

1 Rommel Papers, p. 338.

2 Ibid., p. 339

3 Panzer Army narrative, GMDS 34375/1–2, pp. 44–5.

page 443 was enough to persuade Rommel to accept Africa Corps' proposals for retreat by another bound to Matruh. Accordingly, he gave orders for any available remnants of 10 and 21 Italian Corps to occupy the Matruh defences, and for 90 Light Division and Africa Corps to retire on the minefields along the Matruh-Siwa road to a point just south of Charing Cross, covered by rearguards supplied by 90 Light Division at Garawla and to the south.

By the timing of messages issued by its headquarters, 15 Panzer Division began to retire almost as soon as the New Zealand column arrived to face it across the dummy minefield and, after dark, it made all speed for the Siwa track. Both Africa Corps Headquarters and 21 Panzer Division seem to have waited until later in the day, when the panzer division set off but got no further than the vicinity of Qasaba before it ran out of petrol, and Corps Headquarters moved north towards the main road. Voss Group, which must have been responsible for most of the spasmodic fire on the New Zealand forces, joined 21 Division after dusk. Through poor communications in its direct link with Panzer Army headquarters, 90 Light Division did not learn of the orders until well after dark and its assembly was then hindered by heavy bombing of the coast road. Attempts to disperse its columns on the desert tracks running parallel with the road met trouble with the old minefields, but it finally managed to collect its units, spread between Fuka and Sidi Haneish, and despatch them to Matruh by dawn, leaving a rearguard at Garawla.

On the morning of the 6th, therefore, the New Zealand forces were preparing to advance to the north, with 22 Armoured Brigade a little way behind on the left, to meet the coast road at a point where only a few laggard Panzer Army troops might still be cut off, while 1 Armoured Division was some 25 miles or more away, deep in the desert to the south-west, but well placed to attack the still critical road junction at Charing Cross had its men and machines not been so fatigued by their long night journey. Off to the south and west of Charing Cross, 4/6 South African Armoured Car Regiment, having reached this area the previous evening, reported that its operations were impeded by the mass of prisoners it had so far collected.

At first light Freyberg sent the Divisional Cavalry through the minefield gap with orders to screen the advance of 9 Armoured Brigade and 6 Brigade to the escarpment overlooking the Sidi Haneish landing ground. As the armour was filtering through the gap, a column of vehicles came from the north-east, apparently intending to pass round the south of the divisional laager area. Before the column could be identified, armoured cars and troop-carriers on its flank opened a rather indiscriminate fire obviously intended to page 444 cover the passage of the soft-skinned vehicles. The New Zealanders, however, were now not so ready to be taken by surprise and the men of 25 and 26 Battalions immediately returned the fire with Brens and rifles while the six-pounders of 34 Anti-Tank Battery and the two-pounders of 25 Battalion swung into action. Then the men of 3 Machine Gun Company of the Reserve Group, with their Vickers guns firing from their vehicles, and the carriers of 25 Battalion raced out in an attempt to head off the enemy. Although a portion of the column escaped, a large number of prisoners was collected, variously estimated at from 400 to 600, mostly Italians but including 100 men of 90 Light Division. Among the enemy were some fifty British troops, together with some of their vehicles, who had been captured the previous evening while bringing up supplies for 7 Armoured Division.

This incident was over before the Cavalry and armour had negotiated the gap so, leaving the prisoners to the Reserve Group, 6 Brigade followed without delay, the whole force advancing steadily in a north-westerly direction throughout the morning. No opposition was met, and shortly before midday the leading Cavalry patrols reached the high ground overlooking the Sidi Haneish landing ground.

Back in the desert, Freyberg had called Kippenberger and Roddick to a conference just after ten o'clock to give them instructions to move up on the right of the two leading brigades towards the south-east corner of Baggush Box. However, news from the patrols soon made it evident that the enemy had slipped away and, with petrol running low and the going becoming increasingly difficult, neither brigadier felt the need for haste.

Earlier in the morning, pilots of the Desert Air Force had met low cloud and rainstorms along the coast. As the day advanced the rainstorms increased in volume and frequency, spreading steadily inland. The Daba landing grounds from which the fighters were operating became unusable, so that the fighters had to return to all-weather fields well behind the Alamein line. When air reconnaissance revealed that the road east of Matruh was clear of traffic, unescorted light bombers, relying on the low cloud for cover, were sent to attack the road from Charing Cross to the Sidi Barrani area.

On the New Zealand left, 22 Armoured Brigade had set off early from its laager deeper in the desert. An enemy column, possibly the survivors of the one that 6 Brigade had engaged, passed across the line of march but drove off to the west before it could be identified; but a second group of vehicles, which seems to have been the rearguard of Voss Group, was engaged and some prisoners taken. These two incidents, allied to a shortage of petrol, page 445 delayed 22 Brigade's advance so that the brigade was still a good ten miles or more from the coast when, about midday, its supply trucks caught up and it stopped to refuel. Meanwhile, 1 Armoured Division at Bir Khalda, its tanks in need of maintenance and petrol, made no move before midday. Although some of its lost B Echelon vehicles appeared, they carried far from enough petrol to move the whole of 2 Armoured Brigade, while the main RASC petrol column was still struggling through bad going some 50 or more miles back.

Montgomery himself had driven forward during the morning along the coast road in an attempt to ‘ginger things up’. Here he met Gatehouse of 10 Armoured Division, whose leading troops were reported to be through Fuka just before noon. Montgomery ordered Gatehouse to halt his men and clear the area to his rear of stragglers, and at the same time to despatch all the petrol he could spare to 1 Armoured Division. About one o'clock Lumsden appeared at Freyberg's headquarters and, while lunching there, stated that he hoped to get 1 Armoured Division into Matruh before the day ended, and that he was sending 7 Armoured Division to the west of Matruh. He ordered Freyberg to occupy and clear the landing grounds in the vicinity of Baggush and, once the Royal Air Force was operating from them, to clear the area from Baggush to Charing Cross.

The opportunity of encircling the fighting units of the Panzer Army at Matruh passed during the afternoon of 6 November when the weather joined hands with the caution of the Eighth Army's commanders in exploiting their victory. All along the coastal belt the morning's rainstorms developed into a steady downpour which the desert sands were soon unable to absorb. On the escarpment plateau widening pools filled the hollows where the sand lay deep, turning them into morasses impassable to most vehicles and then, overfilling, gouged channels down to lower levels. Only on the rocky ridges was travel possible, but many of these soon stood isolated like islands in the sea of rain. From the escarpment, miniature waterfalls cascaded down to the coastal plain to form streams which swept across the road and railway towards outlets through the sand dunes on the beach.

As the New Zealand brigades drove north towards the road, first the trucks with only rear-wheel drive, then those with four-wheel drive, fell behind. As each truck sank to its axles in the wet sand, the men aboard dismounted from the shelter of cabs and canopied trays and, in the cold persistent rain, dug channels for each wheel. With camel thorn, sand trays, discarded enemy tents, or anything that would help the wheels to grip placed in the channels, page 446 the men hauled and heaved their vehicles to firmer ground. At first the tracked carriers and tanks were able to tow some of the wheeled vehicles, but soon too many trucks were immobilised and even the tracked vehicles were finding the going treacherous. The rearmost vehicles, driving over ground whose crust had been churned up by those in front, were the first to succumb, so that before long the brigade columns were stretched over many miles of the desert. By late afternoon the men in charge of most of the heavy trucks carrying troops and stores had given up the struggle and the advance slowly ground to a standstill.

In the van, however, two squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry which had reached the rim of the escarpment worked their way with some difficulty down cuttings that led to the Baggush Box, where the Division had been encamped less than a year ago. Crossing the railway on to the main road, one squadron made its way to the Box defences and the other to the Sidi Haneish landing ground. In neither area was there any sign of opposition, though German and Italian stragglers were found as well as quantities of equipment, much of it in good condition. Several hundred Indian prisoners were released from a compound by the landing ground, where the Cavalry also discovered a large stock of petrol with which they filled up their vehicles. When some of the Warwickshire Yeomanry's tanks and 4 Field Regiment's guns followed down the escarpment, the whole force started up the main road to the west. After covering a few miles, the regiment received orders to rejoin 9 Armoured Brigade Headquarters which had halted on the escarpment above Sidi Haneish. The rain had increased by this time and it was with some difficulty that the heavier vehicles ascended the escarpment to the brigade laager. Some of the armoured cars of the Derbyshire Yeomanry, of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, had also gained the road and, receiving no orders to return, stayed to laager by the railway station.

As the New Zealand columns struggled forward in the afternoon, 11 Hussars of 7 Armoured Division, on a parallel course a few miles to the west, were reconnoitring ahead of 22 Armoured Brigade. The Hussars fired on a group of vehicles, probably the headquarters of Africa Corps, which retreated rapidly to the north-west; following up, the armoured cars observed a larger group, including some tanks, stationary to the south-west. This force consisted of the remnants of 21 Panzer Division, with up to thirty tanks,1 and Voss Group, waiting for petrol in the vicinity of the Qasaba landing grounds. Under cover of the reduced visibility brought by the afternoon's rain, tanks

1 Rommel Papers, p. 343. It would appear that the panzer divisions had collected a number of tanks from the rear workshops as they withdrew.

page break page 447 of 22 Armoured Brigade followed the Hussars and actually turned the flank of the Germans, who were expecting an attack from the south or south-east. According to the German records, the panzer division was unable to deploy its tanks where they were needed through lack of fuel, and an artillery unit, after firing at the British tanks over open sights, was overrun. The British commander intended to work round the rear of the German force but the increasingly poor visibility and the flooded going prevented much movement, so that night fell with the two groups of tanks still firing at each other.

plans for military operation

Away at Bir Khalda, Briggs was still trying to get 1 Armoured Division assembled ready for an advance on Charing Cross, but when his petrol columns were still reported to be many miles to the east, he sent 2 Armoured Brigade off, but without the Bays whose petrol was extremely low. Although not quite so badly affected by the rain as the forces nearer the coast, the brigade made slow time over the broken ground south of Minqar Qaim. At a halt in the late afternoon when it was still east of the Siwa road and some 15 to 20 miles south of Charing Cross, the brigade found that the heavy going had used up most of its petrol so, with the ground becoming increasingly waterlogged, it laagered where it stood. By nightfall elements of 1 Armoured Division were extended from 2 Armoured Brigade, south of Charing Cross, to the divisional headquarters at Bir Khalda, and for many miles to the east, with tanks and trucks out of petrol or stuck in the wet sand.

Wireless communication on 6 November was probably the worst experienced in the campaign. Although the Eighth Army was now well equipped with transmitter/receivers of relatively good quality, so that detached units and supply columns should theoretically have been able to keep in touch with their parent formations, all wireless contacts had suffered for various reasons since the pursuit began. The great distances involved were of course partly responsible, as was interference from the enemy's radios, but the main fault lay in what might be called ‘over-indulgence’; spread out as they were and on the move, everyone in the pursuit forces with a set available—and that included practically every tank, armoured car, supply column, and all the various headquarters, high and low—was either asking for or sending instructions or information all through the day. On this particular day the weather also took a hand, with atmospheric interference which at first was intermittent, apparently preceding each rainstorm, and then in the afternoon became continuous, blotting out reception almost completely in many wireless sets.

page 448


If the Eighth Army's pursuit forces found 6 November a trying and exasperating day, for the Panzer Army it was a time of near-panic and depression. As the fighting troops moved back on Matruh, the German commanders realised that this important forward base, with its stores and workshops augmented to congestion by materials brought from further east, would have to be evacuated as quickly as possible. Leading west and south from Matruh there were several routes threading their ways through the uncharted minefields of past campaigns and deep in soft sand through constant use, so that they could not take any great volume of traffic at any speed. As the rain increased these tracks turned into quagmires, forcing all vehicles leaving the area on to the main tarmac road. But this portion of the road, as the New Zealanders had found to their cost in June, was lined on both sides by mines from Matruh to Charing Cross and beyond so that movement off the tarmac at any point was hazardous.

The situation met by the New Zealanders when moving against the Eighth Army's retreat some six months earlier was now to be repeated along this same stretch of the road. Rommel's own account was as follows:

Conditions on the road were indescribable. Columns in complete disorder—partly of German, partly of Italian vehicles—choked the road between the minefields. Rarely was there any movement forward and then everything soon jammed up again. Many vehicles were on tow and there was an acute shortage of petrol….1

The diaries of the Africa Corps and lower formations offered an even worse picture, of officers in panic, drivers out of control, trucks and guns being demolished and just abandoned to block the narrow road, and of the summary execution of offenders. As the Eighth Army had been saved on this same stretch of road by the Luftwaffe's inability to keep up with Rommel's ground advance, so the Panzer Army was saved by the weather, but to a lesser extent. Although the rain-soaked forward landing grounds put the area out of the range of fighters and fighter-bombers, the Desert Air Force's light bombers made numerous sorties and found occasional breaks in the cloud through which they bombed and machine-gunned the road through Charing Cross.

By this day Rommel, having relinquished any hopes he may have held that some of the lost groups of his army might reappear, could now make a candid accounting of the pitiful handful of fighting men on whom he could rely. To add to his worries, after hearing that

1 Rommel Papers, p. 340.

page 449 ships had arrived in Benghazi on 4 November with 5000 tons of petrol, a belated reply to his earlier urgent demands but still welcome, he was then told that nearly half this quantity had been lost through British air attacks. When an envoy from Cavallero appeared, Rommel stated flatly that his available force could do no more than delay the British advance east of the Egyptian frontier. However, his spirits rose when so little happened on 6 November for he wrote, ‘During that day, we succeeded in forming a fairly firm front and beat off all enemy attacks. Although the enemy must have been aware of our weakness, he still continued to operate with great caution.’1 He then proposed to reorganise his motorised forces to hold Matruh for a few days while defences were prepared at Sollum.

The presence of British armoured car patrols to the south and south-west of Charing Cross had earlier been reported but Rommel discounted this danger. Towards evening, however, a force of tanks, obviously 2 Armoured Brigade, was observed in the same area, and 15 Panzer Division, which had just settled down with its back to the Charing Cross minefields, became worried lest it be outflanked and bottled up. Then, at dusk more bad news arrived in messages from 21 Panzer Division. With petrol drained from all bogged or damaged tanks and trucks, which were then demolished, the division had begun to fall back under cover of darkness from the danger of encirclement by 22 Armoured Brigade. The heavy going caused more vehicles to break down or become bogged, these in turn being demolished or abandoned, and soon the petrol of the remaining vehicles was exhausted. Somehow the division met a supply column carrying fuel and, after an arduous all-night drive, reached the Africa Corps area in the vicinity of Charing Cross by daylight on the 7th. How this journey was accomplished on a night when most other desert traffic was at a standstill remains a mystery, but it left 21 Panzer Division with a total strength of four tanks, a battalion of infantry, and skeleton units of field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery, engineers and signals.


For the majority of the men of both armies the night of 6–7 November was memorable for the discomfort it brought. Although the heavy downpours became less frequent as darkness fell, light showers and drizzle persisted throughout the night. In the New Zealand column there were few men who had not already become soaked to the skin in their efforts to push and haul their vehicles

1 Rommel Papers, p. 341.

page 450 through the wet sand. Such activity ceased towards last light which, with the heavy clouds above, came early and thoughts turned to food and rest. In the tanks and carriers, the crews improvised covers to keep the rain out and huddled in their seats. The infantry's 3-ton trucks, loaded with reserve ammunition, weapons, water and rations, could offer cover from the rain but little comfort to the men crowded aboard. There were few places on the sodden ground where bivouac tents could be erected. As for a meal, the heavily laden cooks' trucks, following the units they served, were among the first to succumb to the wet sand and were in many cases miles to the rear.

In spite of orders for the conservation of fuel, the lights of many petrol and sand fires flickered through the rain squalls just before blackout time as billies were hastily boiled and reserve rations or hoarded tins from Patriotic Fund parcels produced and shared around. Then, grumbling impartially at the conduct of the war and the weather, the troops retired to whatever cover they had devised from the drips and runnels of rain, and even welcomed being disturbed to take a turn at sentry duty. And at 2 a.m. the Eighth Army put its clocks back an hour.

Dawn on the 7th showed clearing skies but the sand had been too well soaked to dry out quickly. Although tracked vehicles and the lighter types of wheeled vehicles such as jeeps and staff cars were able to move provided they avoided the worst of the wet areas, no formed body of the Eighth Army could move any distance without constant halts to dig and winch out the heavier trucks and guns. Moreover, having used up more than their estimated consumption in attempts to keep going the previous day, most groups were running low in petrol. Replenishment, however, proved difficult, for the New Zealand ASC columns bringing up supplies and the Division's B Echelon trucks which ferried the supplies from the replenishment points to the brigades and units were themselves hampered by the waterlogged going. The main supply column, commanded by Major Bracegirdle,1 the Division's Senior Supply Officer, had left the Alamein area in the afternoon of the 5th, intending by that evening to set up a replenishment point on the Division's axis south of Galal. Caught up in the still-thick traffic flowing after the pursuit forces, the convoy, which included 5 Field Park Company, 4 Company of 27 Machine Gun Battalion, and a guard of three armoured cars and amounted in all to some 200 vehicles, had not threaded its way out through the enemy's old defence lines by nightfall when the thick dust and the danger of mines and abandoned weapon pits brought it to a halt. Next morning it reached the

1 Lt-Col O. Bracegirdle, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 14 Aug 1911; clerk; 2 i/c HQ Comd NZASC, Nov 1943–Jun 1945.

page 451 appointed rendezvous, some eighteen hours late, to find only one B Echelon truck waiting to draw supplies. More divisional transport arrived in the afternoon, together with Lieutenant-Colonel Hillier,1 the Division's AA & QMG. Loaded with 13,700 gallons of petrol as well as water and rations, the B Echelon trucks set off for the Division and, after arranging for another replenishment point for the afternoon of the 7th at a landing ground on the escarpment south of Baggush, Hillier followed.

As the earlier rain showers turned to a solid downpour, Bracegirdle began to doubt whether his supply convoys could keep the new rendezvous and accordingly set off to find the Division. On the way he overtook Hillier, whose vehicle had become stuck in the wet sand. With considerable difficulty the two officers reached the Division, only to find that few of the B Echelon trucks had made the journey and that the division was practically out of petrol. Urged by the possibility that the weather might improve and the advance be resumed, Bracegirdle first collected a number of guides from the various units and showed them the position of the proposed replenishment area on the landing ground; he then made his way to the main road. Fortunately, while other vehicles of his column had gone back to the Alamein area to refill, the petrol-carrying section had been sent to Daba and was already moving up the main road. Bracegirdle then led it by a route of hard going that he had found from the road to the landing ground, arriving just as night fell, but owing to the difficult conditions, only a little petrol was issued to units after dark.


Some time during the night of 6–7 November, and before the effects of the heavy rain had been appreciated, new orders were sent out by 10 Corps. Although some of the details are not clearly recorded, Lumsden's new proposals were for 10 Armoured Division to advance along the main road to deal with any forces holding out at Matruh while the New Zealand and 7 Armoured Divisions joined 1 Armoured Division in the Minqar Qaim - Charing Cross area. From this point, one formation was to block escape from Matruh while the others moved through the desert to encircle Sidi Barrani and Sollum.

As far as is known, the major part of 1 Armoured Division, bogged and short of petrol, made no major move on the 7th, but 7 Armoured Division managed to struggle to a point a few miles east of Minqar Qaim, passing on its way the tanks and trucks

1 Lt-Col A. E. Hillier, OBE; AA & QMG 2 NZ Div Jun-Nov 1942; formerly served in British Army.

page 452 wrecked or abandoned by 21 Panzer Division.1 On the main road the leading troops of 8 Armoured Brigade (of 10 Armoured Division) drew level with the New Zealanders on the escarpment above Sidi Haneish.

The New Zealand orders based on Lumsden's plans and issued shortly after midnight gave Minqar Qaim as the immediate objective, from which point the Division was to force a passage through the minefields to the west. Acting on these orders and in spite of the weather, Roddick attempted to lead 4 Light Armoured Brigade, then a few miles south of Baggush, due west across the desert, but he soon found progress too slow and costly in petrol. The armoured cars of 2 Derbyshire Yeomanry, which had stopped overnight at Sidi Haneish station, were then sent west along the main road to see if any of the tracks leading inland from the road might be passable. In the vicinity of Garawla, the cars came under anti-tank gun fire and withdrew. Efforts were made to get the nineteen remaining tanks of the Warwickshire Yeomanry to follow up the armoured cars but these ceased when it was realised that, though the tanks and the Divisional Cavalry's tracked vehicles, topped up with captured petrol, were able to move, the guns of 4 Field Regiment and the wheeled vehicles of 9 Armoured Brigade were either stuck in the sand or out of petrol. For the same reason, the two infantry brigades, further south in the desert, were immobile and there is reason to believe, though there are no recorded orders to this effect, that Freyberg was unwilling to let part of the Division advance without the whole, not only because of the danger of enemy action but also of the danger that he might lose command of his armour to one of the armoured divisions.

In the late afternoon tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade moved up the main road past the New Zealanders on the escarpment at Sidi Haneish and past the roadblock that had stopped the Derbyshire Yeomanry earlier. The enemy outpost, however, had fallen back to a stronger rearguard position at Garawla, where heavy machinegun and anti-tank gun fire met the British tanks. As the state of the ground made an outflanking move off the road practically impossible, and an advance by the tanks in single file along the road offered too vulnerable a target, the brigade commander called up his infantry, 1 Battalion of the Buffs. The infantry deployed over the sodden ground against defences which stretched across the road and some way to the south, but made little headway before dusk, when the attack was called off.

1 In the engagement the previous evening and the follow-up this day, 7 Armoured Division claimed the capture or destruction of 15 tanks and 7 heavy guns and a bag of 2000 prisoners.

page 453

For the Panzer Army the rain proved a mixed blessing. It gave a short but valuable respite in which the chaos of supply and fighting troops on the road from Matruh westwards could be partially sorted out under the cover of the cloud which hindered the British air efforts. It also gave the fighting formations a chance to rest, reorganise and distribute supplies. Well before daylight on the 7th, on Rommel's order to hold Matruh for as many days as possible, the Panzer Army headquarters instructed 90 Light Division to deploy from Garawla across to the Siwa road, with Voss Group on its south, to cover the assembly of 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions in the Charing Cross area. When this order arrived, 90 Light Division had already recalled its rearguard at Garawla and was preparing to retire through Charing Cross. The division then sent 220 Reconnaissance Unit to establish a roadblock east of Garawla and 361 Infantry Regimental Group to back it up. The reconnaissance unit fell back during the day under attack but 361 Regiment held until nightfall, claiming heavy losses inflicted on tanks and infantry which engaged it. In Matruh itself, the fighting troops found that many of the stores and installations on which they relied for replenishment had been removed or demolished in the previous days' panic. To meet immediate requirements, petrol had to be sent by air from Benghazi to Sidi Barrani and then taken up in trucks. By this means enough arrived on the 7th to give Africa Corps 100 kilometres of travel, sufficient to ensure another bound in the retreat. Then news reached Rommel that Colonel Ramcke had arrived near Sidi Barrani with 600 survivors of his parachute troops after an epic journey deep in the desert, during which they had fought several engagements and captured enough vehicles and petrol to keep going.1

Although the wet weather allowed the Panzer Army's transport already on the main road to keep moving back, it also caused heavy losses of sorely needed vehicles which were travelling off the road. When such vehicles became bogged, the men aboard destroyed or just abandoned them, and often jettisoned their weapons; they then made for the main road to thumb lifts on the already overcrowded trucks passing by. In this way German rear-line troops and Italians of all units and formations became so inextricably mixed that the control points on the road found it impossible to re-form any of the Italian fighting units, and Rommel had to tell 20 and 21 Italian Corps to get their men back as quickly as they could to Buq Buq and Capuzzo before attempting to organise them.

The low cloud and the soggy ground hindered the Panzer Army's reconnaissance so that the presence of the British armour in the

1 On 20 October, Ramcke Brigade's ‘ration strength’ in Africa was 4610, of whom more than 2000 were listed in the Panzer Army records as casualties by the end of November.

page 454 Minqar Qaim area was not detected until the middle of the afternoon, when air reconnaissance reported a column of tanks 30 kilometres south of Matruh and armoured cars 40 kilometres further west. Stukas and fighters sent up claimed four tanks or armoured cars destroyed, but this claim was counter-balanced by news of another tanker sunk in Tobruk harbour and of naval gunfire on the Halfaya and Sollum passes. Realising that a stand at Matruh would only last until the desert dried out, Rommel decided to take what advantage was left of the wet going to whip his fighting formations back overnight for some 70 kilometres along the main road.


When the meteorologists forecast that the rain was passing and the weather would clear, the ‘old desert hands’ knew from their experience that a few hours only of wind and sun would make the desert navigable again except perhaps in the sandiest hollows. With the best part of four divisions almost encircling Matruh, the Eighth Army knew that the reduction of the defences there would be only a matter of time. What air and ground reconnaissance had been possible during the stormy period all confirmed that an almost unbroken line of transport had been moving west from the town. This and other signs seemed to indicate that the enemy might be leaving the area to no more than a delaying rearguard.

Accordingly, early on 8 November, Eighth Army issued a new set of orders in which 30 Corps was to move up and assume responsibility for clearing the ground up to Baggush, and 10 Corps was to drive hard to the west with its main line of advance along the railway on the inland plateau. The armoured corps' main tasks were to clear the landing grounds at Misheifa, to the south of Sidi Barrani, for Air Force use, and then to encircle Sollum from south and west and clear the landing grounds at Sidi Azeiz to the west of Bardia.

On receipt of these orders Lumsden told 7 Armoured Division to start as soon as it could along the railway with Bardia as its possible objective. The New Zealand Division was to clear up any resistance left at Matruh and then send 4 Light Armoured Brigade and one infantry brigade along the main road through Sidi Barrani to approach Sollum from the east. The rest of 10 Corps was to reorganise and replenish, ready to follow.

Sunday the 8th of November dawned fine and clear. The morale of the pursuit forces, depressed to some extent by the rain, the hard travelling and inability to come to grips with the enemy, rose with the sun and then rose again when news began to spread of the page 455 torch landings in North Africa. Already much of the desert had become passable and the New Zealand replenishment point, established overnight on the landing ground south of Baggush through the admirable efforts of officers and drivers of the NZASC, became a scene of activity as petrol, rations, and water were distributed. Over 50,000 gallons of petrol alone were issued during the morning.

Freyberg's orders were that the brigades should move as soon as they were replenished to a concentration area north of Minqar Qaim. From this area 5 Brigade was to feint towards Matruh from the south while 6 Brigade attacked from the west. On the fall of the town, 6 Brigade was to clear and occupy the defences, assuming control until relieved by 51 Highland Division, while the rest of the Division, using the main road, cleared the coastal plain as far as Sollum.

With many trucks still bogged to the axles and having to be towed or dug out, few of the units had completed their replenishment and assembly when Freyberg left, at 8.30 a.m., to attend a 10 Corps conference in the Baggush Box. While he was there, news arrived that a force of 1 Armoured Division, unaware of the latest orders, had penetrated the Matruh defences and had encountered no organised resistance east of Charing Cross. Freyberg also learnt that 7 Armoured Division, having received the new orders, had moved out at daylight from its laager to the east of Minqar Qaim and had already crossed the Siwa road some miles south of Charing Cross. Further reports coming back during the day showed that the division was making good time in spite of occasional patches of heavy going. By nightfall its leading troops had travelled over 60 miles to reach the railway line only a few miles east of the Misheifa area.

The New Zealand advance was considerably slower. The reconnaissance group of 4 Light Armoured Brigade had set out early but had come up against a minefield on the flat below Minqar Qaim. Unable to find a passable gap, the group finally led the brigade on to the high ground to the south and along 7 Armoured Division's route to the Siwa road. Divisional Headquarters and the two infantry brigades left late in the morning, using the track to the north of Minqar Qaim, along which many of the men had watched the enemy's columns trying to encircle their positions the previous June. Patches of still wet ground and suspected minefields slowed the progress of the infantry's heavily laden trucks, offering the opportunity for some of those who took part in the Minqar Qaim fighting to revisit the battlefield. It was getting dusk before contact was made with 4 Light Armoured Brigade. Bringing up the rear, 9 Armoured Brigade, travelling due west from its laager above Sidi page 456 Haneish, ran foul of the difficult wadis around Qasaba and halted at nightfall several miles east of the rest of the Division.

Freyberg, after an eventful trip back from Baggush during which his escort had to open fire on a party of Germans before they would surrender, rejoined the Division in the afternoon with the latest orders. These were for an advance along the main road to Sidi Barrani and Sollum the next morning, with 4 Light Armoured Brigade in the lead. This brigade was to send a party to occupy and garrison the Misheifa landing ground, a curious task in the light of 7 Armoured Division's orders and progress, and one which may be explained by a confusion in the records between the landing ground just south of Sidi Barrani and that at Misheifa some 30 miles further south. While the rest of the Division followed the light armour, 6 Brigade was to move into Matruh, its brigadier, W. G. Gentry, taking over the task of Town Major in charge of prisoner-of-war cages, dumps and installations until relieved by 51 Division.

The Panzer Army had only just got its tail clear of Matruh before the Eighth Army moved in. Split up into small groups to lessen the danger of air attacks, and mixed up with the last supply columns to leave the township, Africa Corps had filtered most of its vehicles on to the main road before dark on the 7th. Progress was slow as the road in places had been washed out by the rain. Numerous vehicles were lost by Royal Air Force bombing and strafing and more were abandoned when, dispersing off the tarmac under air attack or negotiating the washouts, they became bogged. Acting as rearguard, 90 Light Division reported that it had destroyed anything of value left in the township and harbour before its own rearguard troops pulled out almost at dawn on the 8th.1

Because of Rommel's sudden decision to pull back from Matruh instead of holding for some days longer, the fighting formations' withdrawal crowded the transport already on the road up against the bottlenecks of the Halfaya and Sollum passes, both of which had become extremely difficult through the effects of the heavy rain. The two panzer divisions overnight reached a point east of Buq Buq, where they were halted by the congestion on the road further west. Here Rommel learnt from his Quartermaster that it would take two more nights to get the army over the two passes and, because the old minefields east of Sollum restricted dispersal against air attacks, it would be best to keep the columns spread out as far to the east as possible. He then gave orders that the Sidi Barrani - Buq Buq area should be held until the morning of the 10th. On

1 The scale of demolitions and particularly booby traps increased steadily after 7 November, on which day Major-General Karl Buelowius became Chief Engineer to the Panzer Army. In February 1943 Rommel recommended his promotion for his ‘outstandingly careful and anticipatory actions’ in the retreat.

page 457 receipt of these orders, 90 Light Division set up a roadblock some 15 miles east of Sidi Barrani with Voss Group watching the desert to the south.

Rommel had already learnt of the Allied armada approaching the coast of Africa and later this morning he received news confirming the landings. He must also have been told, or perhaps he had knowledge of Axis plans for such an event, that Axis forces would occupy Tunisia, for otherwise he might just as well have driven down the road to meet Montgomery. In any case he realised that the chances of receiving reinforcements for his Panzer Army were now even slimmer than they had been and that Mussolini's latest order, to defend Sollum, was quite impracticable. The best he could do would be to make a steady withdrawal from base to base round the bulge of Cyrenaica to Agheila, where the terrain offered a chance of holding a short front. The desert route across the bulge was out of the question owing to the petrol situation and the state of the Panzer Army's vehicles. The need to explain his action in disobeying Mussolini brought an assessment of the troops available for the defence of Sollum, which amounted to 2000 Italian and 2000 German fighting troops, 15 German antitank guns, and 40 German field guns with some Italian artillery. For a mobile reserve to cover the wide open southern flank of the Sollum position he could muster 3000 German and 500 Italian troops, 11 German and 10 Italian tanks, and German artillery consisting of 20 anti-tank, 24 anti-aircraft and 25 field guns.1

Towards evening Rommel himself drove back to Sollum to find that the congestion, under forceful control, was easing and vehicles moving in a steady stream over the two passes, the steep Halfaya pass a few miles west of the village and the zigzag road at the village itself. From 90 Light Division he learnt that only armoured cars had approached the rearguard east of Sidi Barrani, but had fallen back after two had been knocked out. So, unless the British moved with unaccustomed speed, there was now a chance that Africa Corps and 90 Light Division might be able to use the good going of the main road rather than the desert route through Habata to pass the frontier wire. Good demolitions and small holding forces at the passes and suitable points on the road further west might then allow time for the Panzer Army with its drawn-out tail to be organised and stepped back to Benghazi before the British could prepare a force to cut across the bulge of Cyrenaica. Throughout the night of 8–9 November a steady flow of vehicles climbed the two passes, in spite of heavy bombing. By morning only about 1000 of the rear-line trucks were still east of the escarpment.

1 Rommel Papers, p. 347.

page 458

On the evening of the 8th, Freyberg issued a detailed order for the Division to move at first light next morning, with 4 Light Armoured Brigade in the lead, followed by Divisional Headquarters, the Reserve Group, 5 Brigade and 9 Armoured Brigade. As soon as the last of the column passed Charing Cross, 6 Brigade was to move up the road into Matruh. Before it was completely light, a detachment of the Divisional Provost had marked a route with the black diamond sign through the minefields on to the Siwa road. Following the signs, 4 Light Armoured Brigade travelled up the road to Charing Cross and then turned west on to the tarmac. At this crossroads, surrounded by the old uncharted defensive minefields, skeletons of British vehicles lost in the June retreat lay side by side with bombed, burnt, and abandoned Axis transport, in places lining the road verges like a fence. Behind the armour the Divisional Headquarters column was followed by 5 Brigade in the order of 21 and 28 (Maori) Battalions, 5 Field Regiment, 5 Field Ambulance, 23 and 22 Battalions, and ancillary units. With no deployment possible off the route, the vehicles moved in single file so that it was high noon before the way was clear for 9 Armoured Brigade. The tanks of the Warwickshire Yeomanry, however, were nowhere in sight, having been delayed by petrol and mechanical troubles, so the Divisional Cavalry led the rest of the brigade, leaving the tanks to follow later.

Although in the rear of the Division's column the journey was one of stopping and starting, the head of the column advanced fairly rapidly until the afternoon when, some 15 to 20 miles short of Sidi Barrani, 4 Light Armoured Brigade's leading vehicles came under artillery fire. For the loss of one Stuart tank, 4/8 Hussars surrounded one outpost, taking 150 prisoners of 90 Light Division, but were then engaged by stronger positions further west. On hearing of this resistance, Freyberg told Kippenberger to speed up his advance by opening 5 Brigade into desert formation off the road, but hardly had this been done before the brigade encountered mines and its vehicles had to be channelled back on to the tarmac again. As dusk fell the Division's vehicles were stretched over more than 50 miles of the road, so Freyberg told Roddick to disengage and laager until the Division could be concentrated.

As the leading brigades were threading their way past Charing Cross, the commander of 24 Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam, on instructions from Gentry, took his A Company and a party of engineers into Matruh to report on conditions there. On reaching the area of buildings, dugouts, and dumps which surround the harbour, the men of the 24th found a surprisingly large number of page 459 the enemy still in occupation—engineers who had been working on last-minute demolitions and booby traps, doctors and medical orderlies caring for the sick and wounded in a field hospital, and innumerable stragglers, some unaware that they had been left behind and others just waiting to be taken prisoner. There was no resistance, but a compound of Basuto labour corps troops had to be forcibly restrained, when released, from looting, rioting and attacking the enemy. When he heard that Gwilliam could do with assistance, Gentry himself drove into the town with a party of provosts, field security men and more engineers, and after the tail of the Division had cleared Charing Cross, the whole of 26 Battalion and the remainder of 24 Battalion followed. Before sunset 26 Battalion had occupied the Egyptian Barracks by the lagoon and 24 Battalion had taken up quarters on the east of the harbour. The whole of the defence area by this time was full of activity as supply columns came in along the main road from the east to establish replenishment points, engineers searched for booby traps and demolition charges and started to repair the damage to the wharf installations and railway, and prisoners were rounded up and packed aboard empty trucks to be taken to cages further east, while from the sea light naval vessels arrived with petrol in drums.

The next day 25 Battalion, which had been held up by the mass of other traffic attempting to get on to the main road at Charing Cross, moved into Matruh to take up quarters by the lagoon. Though initially intended to rejoin the Division within a few days at the most, and kept on short notice to do so, 6 Brigade remained in Matruh until 20 November, when it moved up to the Bardia area. This was partly because the brigade was not needed for action and partly to ease the supply problem. Matruh appeared to be damaged more by British air action than by the Panzer Army's, attempts at demolition, and in its scattered buildings and dumps a surprisingly large quantity of material was recovered in usable condition, both of enemy stocks and British stores left behind in the June retreat. One partially damaged store of the Egyptian barracks was piled to the roof with Italian boots; nearby was a heap of British spigot mortars, and elsewhere were found quantities of medical equipment, machinery, and tinned food, of both British and enemy origin, as well as much Italian issue wine of the type known to the Eighth Army as ‘plonk’ or ‘purple death’. With periods allowed for swimming and sport, the men of 6 Brigade spent the waiting period in Matruh in tidying up the area, unloading vessels at the landings, and assisting in the railway yards. The first train from Alexandria reached the station on 14 November.

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When 4 Light Armoured Brigade halted against the opposition east of Sidi Barrani late on the 9th, the rest of the New Zealand Division, strung out behind on the coast road, had to keep going throughout the night to catch up. After his brigade's unsuccessful attempt to travel off the road, Kippenberger had hurried ahead with his leading troops but at dusk was still some miles behind the armour. He then called a halt to get the brigade concentrated, but it was midnight before the tail of the brigade drew up and the advance could be resumed.

A first-light reconnaissance on the 10th by 4 Light Armoured Brigade revealed that the opposition had melted away overnight. In fact, according to its war diary, 90 Light Division had fallen back in the middle of the previous afternoon, its rearguard of 361 Infantry Regiment being chased by an armoured force, of which four tanks and four armoured cars had been destroyed in a battle in which its own losses had been considerable. As no other battle appears to have occurred in this area, 90 Light Division's report must refer to the loss of its rearguard outpost to 4 Light Armoured Brigade, which reported one light tank as its only casualty. By the evening of the 9th, the main body of 90 Light Division was just east of Buq Buq, some 20 miles west of Sidi Barrani, under orders to hold firm overnight in order to let Africa Corps negotiate the escarpment passes. In spite of widespread attacks by the Desert Air Force on Sollum, Halfaya, Capuzzo and Bardia, the Panzer Army's withdrawal had become more orderly now that the Italians and supply transport were west of the two passes, so that the two panzer divisions were able to ascend the passes during the night. By dawn of the 10th, only the light division and some artillery units were still east of Sollum.

By this time 7 Armoured Division, following a route to the south of the railway reconnoitred the previous evening by armoured cars, was approaching the frontier with the intention of making a wide sweep to west and north to encircle Capuzzo. On the coast, 4 Light Armoured Brigade set off at daylight, cutting across the desert in a direct line for Buq Buq and passing the Sidi Barrani landing ground, which was found littered with abandoned and burnt-out Axis aircraft, vehicles and equipment. Having caught up with the armour in time to follow its daylight advance, Kippenberger found that the unrestricted travel in open formation over the desert caused his leading transport to overrun the armour's tail, so called a short halt for breakfast. At 8.30 a.m. the brigade resumed its march, after detaching 21 Battalion to move on the coast road into Sidi Barrani village. Here some forty of the enemy, offering no resistance, were page 461 rounded up, after which the battalion hurried west on the road to join its brigade. Its B Company, however, was left to occupy the landing ground, some two miles inland, with orders to start clearing it for Royal Air Force use.

About nine o'clock the armoured cars of the Derbyshire Yeomanry came in sight of vehicles and guns on the road just to the east of Buq Buq. As the armoured brigade halted and deployed to engage the enemy, 5 Brigade's tactical headquarters drove up just in time to receive the ‘overs’ from the enemy guns. Freyberg, whose tactical headquarters had kept pace with the armoured brigade, then told Kippenberger to take his brigade to the south, presumably on the Buq Buq - Habata track, and to climb the escarpment, following it to the north-west to reach the top of Halfaya Pass. Kippenberger immediately sent 23 Battalion off to lead the way, with instructions to travel at maximum speed and to fight if necessary. In this way Freyberg hoped to cut off at least the end of the enemy's tail, for the occupation of the escarpment above Sollum by one determined battalion could deny the enemy's escape up the two passes for some time. However, it was after midday before the orders had been issued and the necessary preparations made. The battalion, with brigade tactical headquarters, then set off, while the rest of the brigade assembled ready to follow, but the leading troops had covered only about seven miles of extremely bad going when Kippenberger received orders from Freyberg to return on his tracks. On gaining the main road, the column had considerable difficulty in forcing a space for itself in the almost stationary press of vehicles that had piled up nose to tail along the 20 miles between Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq.

Freyberg's cancellation of the outflanking move had been brought about by the receipt of news that 7 Armoured Division had already passed through Habata on the inland escarpment with Capuzzo as its objective, as well as by the fact that the enemy rearguard on the main road had begun to fall back just before 4 Light Armoured Brigade's tanks, working their way through the desert south of the road, could cut off its escape.

It would appear that all 90 Light Division's troops still on the coastal plain, including the rearguard, hurried back over Halfaya Pass to join the main body in laager a mile or so west of the top of the pass. This enabled 4 Light Armoured Brigade to advance and helped to ease the congestion on the road, but, about ten miles west of Buq Buq, the tanks met the old minefield laid early in the war as part of the Egyptian frontier defences. It was now late afternoon, and as the tanks, still travelling on the desert south of the page 462 road, reconnoitred for a gap, they came under shellfire. This fire came from a Panzer Army artillery group which, through lack of liaison, had been left unprotected and unaware that it was the last enemy force still on the coastal plain. The tanks deployed behind the minefield and returned the fire, upon which the enemy guns were hastily withdrawn under a smoke screen. As dusk began to fall the Derbyshire Yeomanry's armoured cars found a gap in the mines and led the brigade through. While this engagement was occurring, enemy aircraft flew down the main road to drop several bombs which fell close to one of the New Zealand artillery columns, damaging some vehicles and wounding three men.