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Battle for Egypt

CHAPTER 20 — Armies Spar for Positions

page 213

Armies Spar for Positions

IN the main, both armies on 11 July sparred for positions from which to deal decisive blows.

On 30 Corps' front, 24 Australian Brigade and a squadron of 44 Royal Tank Regiment attacked Tell el Eisa at first light and completed the capture of the feature about midday with some 350 Italian prisoners. The strongpoint was consolidated and held against counter-attacks, after which the enemy appeared to with-draw to the west and south. Also during the morning, a column from 20 Australian Brigade with a squadron from 6 Royal Tank Regiment attacked out of Alamein Box on the track to Sanyet el Miteiriya. Near Bir el Makh Khad the column met heavy artillery fire and lost four guns and three tanks. The Australians withdrew into the box, but the tanks patrolled outside until early evening.

In the afternoon the South Africans sent a column of infantry, guns, armoured cars, and Valentine and Matilda tanks from the southern sector of the box toward Miteiriya. The enemy inflicted considerable casualties with shelling and bombing and the column retired to the box. Another attack by a South African infantry battalion through the Alamein gap was also stopped by the enemy.

At three o'clock Ramsden advised Army that although consolidation was well in hand it was not likely to be completed before night. Therefore, his proposed exploitation to Miteiriya and Deir el Dhib could not be made that night.

In the meantime, Gott made preliminary moves for an attack by 13 Corps over Ruweisat Ridge to Deir el Abyad, where he hoped to join hands with 30 Corps' exploitation forces. At first light on the 11th, 2 Armoured Brigade completed the occupation of the Alam Nayil feature. With this position firmly in hand, Gott called on Inglis at midday with orders for New Zealand and 1 Armoured Divisions to secure a start line running north-east from Alam Nayil to a point on Ruweisat Ridge three-quarters of a mile east of the junction of the northern extension of Barrel track and the eastern Alamein-Himeimat track. The start line, with New Zealand Division on the left, was to be secured immediately.

In the second phase of the operation to be known as bacon, a name which will recur frequently, New Zealand Division would be required to secure a bridgehead on Ruweisat at Point 63, a feature page 214 about half a mile south of Deir el Shein overlooking that depression and about a mile north of the eastern end of the Mreir depression. In a third exploitation phase, 1 Armoured Division would attack from the bridgehead to Deir el Abyad.

Gott said that the times for the second and third phases would be fixed later. Whether they would be carried out would depend entirely on 30 Corps' exploitation and the progress it made. He thought that bacon might be fought that night or at first light next morning.

Inglis considered the idea was sound if 30 Corps created the necessary favourable situation by its intended exploitation. But he was disturbed by the vagueness of Gott's plans. He pressed Gott for support from the armour, especially to cover the Division's left flank in its advance to Point 63 and to sustain the Division on the objective during consolidation.

Gott considered Inglis overestimated the risks and difficulties but he conceded in principle that the Division should have armoured support for its advance. This was defined in a subsequent instruction1 as ‘full fire support and flank protection from 1 Armd Div.’ Although Inglis was not told at the time, Gott's and Lumsden's notion of this support and protection was that 1 Armoured Division should wait in readiness on the start line until either enemy counter-action developed or it was decided whether and how the armour should be launched on its exploitation task.

Gott's information concerning the enemy on the ridge and in its neighbourhood was extremely scanty. Army and 13 Corps believed that only 15 Panzer Division was holding the ridge, with Trieste and Pavia Divisions to its west.

Rommel, however, had been paying special attention to the defences of the ridge. He had put Pavia astride the crest of the ridge, facing east, and Brescia on the approaches, facing south-east and south. To the west of Brescia and connecting that division with the area occupied by 21 Panzer Division, he put part of the German 382 Infantry Regiment, newly arrived from Crete. Direct command of this front was given to 15 Panzer Division, which was made responsible for seeing the Italians into their positions, strengthening the posts with some German troops, and for siting its artillery so that it could cover the approaches to the defences. All the positions were to be mined and wired, again under the supervision of 15 Division, which was told explicitly that it must not withdraw into a supporting position until this work was done.

When Gott was issuing his orders, Pavia, Brescia, and 382 Regiment were firmly placed, and 15 Panzer Division's tanks were

1 13 Corps' message No. 96 issued at 2.10 p.m. on 11 July in confirmation of Gott's verbal orders.

page 215 behind Brescia between Ruweisat and Alam el Dihmaniya, close to the western Alamein-Himeimat track. The division had about twelve tanks, the remainder having been sent north the previous day as a battle group against the Australians and South Africans. Part of the army artillery between Deir el Shein and Abyad and some German engineers and headquarters troops in the neighbourhood of Point 63 gave depth to the defence.

This was not all. The mobile forces operating under Afrika Korps were also handy while Gott was arranging his attack. The 5th Panzer Regiment, with practically all of 21 Division's thirty tanks, was in a series of small depressions west-north-west of Alam Nayil, roughly half-way to Kaponga, and Lindemann battle group from Afrika Korps Headquarters, which had been operating with the regiment, was about two miles further east below Alam Nayil. Littorio was near Kaponga. In the south, advancing towards New Zealand Division's rear, 90 Light Division with Recce Detachment 33 under command was at El Taqa, Gebel Kalakh, and Kaponga.

Rommel appears to have suspected that the British might make a thrust at Ruweisat while he was engaged in the north. Shortly after midnight on 10–11 July he sent orders to 15 Panzer Division that, ‘If the enemy makes a thrust the division will counter-attack on its own initiative. Any thrust, even by a superior force, must be halted. Fifth Panzer Regiment is also ready to operate in the gap [between the right flank of the fixed positions on Ruweisat and 21 Division's area centred on Kaponga].

Similar orders were sent to 21 Division, which Rommel contemplated diverting to the northern sector. The division was instructed to cover Kaponga with a mobile group, site 5 Panzer Regiment in the gap, to counter-attack on its own initiative, and to keep in close contact with Brescia and 15 Divisions.

Eighth Army, of course, could not be expected to know Rommel's orders, but it is a matter for comment that its information concerning a sector he had been strengthening for a week was so vague and that Gott was so ready to dismiss Inglis' suspicions and apprehensions. In view of these, it might be surprising that Inglis did not ask for more detailed planning and co-ordination of the operation but for the fact that he doubted whether the Division would be called on for bacon that night. The purpose of the operation, like that of each of the other moves made by the Division since it arrived at Alamein, was represented to him as being to assist, or poise himself to exploit, offensive operations by 30 Corps. This ‘condition precedent’ had not been fulfilled before and he did not think it would be on the present occasion. However, he welcomed page 216 the revival of the offensive spirit and thought that at that stage he should not do anything to restrain it. No harm would be done in securing the start line. Subsequent events would depend on developments in which he would have a decisive voice.

Now thoroughly accustomed to quick changes in plans and orders, taking up and abandoning positions, packing up and embussing, 4 and 5 Brigades commenced their move at five o'clock. On the right with three to five miles to go, 5 Brigade had 22 Battalion in the lead, 23 to the left rear, and 21 in reserve. Fourth Brigade on the left was led by 20 Battalion, with 28 to the right rear and 19 to the left rear.

Enemy reaction to the advance confirmed Inglis' suspicions concerning his strength and readiness to resist. Both brigades were heavily shelled on the debussing line, during the remainder of the advance on foot to the start line, and while taking up their positions. The start line was easy to define on the map; the almost featureless terrain made it hard to locate on the ground. The going was uneven and some units became mixed as the truck drivers avoided soft patches. Consequently, there was confusion on the debussing line and again on the start line. All this was visible to the enemy, who put down artillery concentrations and reported that ‘the whole of Brescia's, Lindemann's and 5th Panzer Regiment's front was attacked by an enemy force of an infantry regiment and at least 40 tanks.’ The enemy claimed that the attack was stopped by his artillery.

The 15th Panzer Division's diary, from which these notes are taken, also records that the ‘division expected the attack to be continued later in the night or at first light’, and that ‘the headquarters liaison officers kept observation over the battlefield.’ The diary also notes that application was made for air support, particularly against the British guns. It was probably in response to this appeal that 5 Brigade's headquarters was bombed shortly before six o'clock.

The advance is described in Infantry Brigadier:1

We set off in desert formation at 5 p.m., looking very impressive, passed through the tanks who seemed very surprised to see us, and came under heavy artillery fire. Parts of the Twenty-third on my left and the Maoris on Jim's. [Brigadier Burrows] right had lost direction a little and were mixed up and thickly bunched. The fire was heaviest on this target but heavy all along the front, the enemy gunners thoroughly roused and with the target of their lives. Several trucks were hit and there were many casualties, but we trundled steadily on for another mile. A mile from the assembly position both brigades halted and debussed. The men shook out into long, extended lines and went forward steadily and unflinchingly. It was an archaic sort of movement but it was beautifully done and a fine thing to watch. We did not have a single gun in action; the enemy gunners, unmolested, switched on to the infantry and fired their fastest; but the

1 p. 157.

page 217 men kept their seven paces intervals, never wavered, and trudged on line after line through the spouting bursts. From where I halted, ahead of the transport among some enthusiastic tank officers, I could see the whole of 5 Brigade and most of 4 Brigade. The advance went on steadily, disappeared into the wadi in which we were to assemble for the real attack, and halted.

Lieutenant-Colonel Love,1 commanding the Maori Battalion, and his adjutant, Captain Wood,2 were wounded in the advance, the former succumbing to his injuries some hours afterwards. Major Baker3 later took command of the battalion.

At 7.35 the brigades were advised that no further advance would be made that night but that bacon might be carried out at first light. Shortly before midnight, Division was advised by 13 Corps that 30 Corps would not resume major operations until the following night and that bacon would be off until then. In the meantime, the enemy was to be kept ‘guessing’ and the strongest pressure was to be applied along the front, particularly to the north and west.

Much earlier, however, Inglis had made up his mind that he would have to tell Gott that so far as New Zealand Division was concerned bacon could not be carried out that night. The advance to the start line in daylight had telegraphed the punch to the enemy, whose reaction clearly demonstrated that the opposition to an attack would be more in accord with that forecast by Inglis than by Gott. The advance to the start line had also been too long and too late to permit immediate night operations to be mounted. The start line itself was unsatisfactory because it was oblique to the objective. Further, no corps' conference had been held to arrange co-operation between the armour and the Division. The news of the postponement of bacon was therefore received with relief.

Nearly three days of suspense in which the Division hovered between offence and defence followed the first postponement of bacon. At 8.30 a.m. on the 12th, Division warned the brigades that the assault would almost certainly be made that night and that during the day the enemy was to be harassed with fire. But when Gott at ten o'clock made his customary morning call, both his information and his forecast as to when the next move would be made were vague. As, however, bacon was still contemplated, Inglis asked for a corps' conference which Gott held that afternoon at Headquarters New Zealand Division.

This conference had a more than usually decisive bearing on subsequent events. As will be shown in due course, New Zealand

1 Lt-Col E. Te W. Love, m.i.d.; born Picton, 18 May 1905; interpreter; CO 28 (Maori) Bn May–Jul 1942; died of wounds 12 Jul 1942.

2 Capt A. C. Wood, DCM; Wakefield; born Nelson, 24 Aug 1916; Regular soldier; wounded 11 Jul 1942.

3 Lt-Col F. Baker, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Kohukohu, Hokianga, 19 Jun 1908; civil servant; CO 28 Bn Jul—Nov 1942; twice wounded; Director of Rehabilitation 1943—54; Public Service Commission 1954—.

page 218 Division planned its attack on Ruweisat according to arrangements definitely made at the conference and ordered by Gott. But when the attack was made 13 Corps and 1 Armoured Division operated on almost completely different plans which were not made known to New Zealand Division. This is the key to understanding why disaster fell upon the Division four days later, and why Rommel was able to snatch a victory out of an impending decisive defeat.

Inglis was surprised when he learned the nature of the flank protection and support which Gott and Lumsden contemplated giving the Division. This was that 1 Armoured Division should remain at the start line until either the enemy counter-action developed or it was decided whether and how it was to be launched on its exploitation task. He refused to accept this plan and asked for tanks under the command of his brigades for close co-operation with the infantry. Gott and Lumsden in turn refused the request on the ground that 1 Armoured Division had not been trained in close tank-infantry co-operation.

Inglis thereupon asked that the armour should advance at first light, 22 Armoured Brigade to seal off the New Zealanders' open left flank and 2 Armoured Brigade to close up to the infantry on their objective on the ridge. When Lumsden demurred, Inglis stressed that such action was necessary to clear up any pockets of resistance that might be missed by the infantry in a night advance, and to deal with any enemy tanks that might be bypassed between start line and objective or which might intervene. It was also essential, he insisted, that the British tanks should support the infantry on the ridge against counter-attack while they were consolidating and until the New Zealand artillery closed up. He pointed out that the batteries would not be able to advance and take up supporting positions until daylight, and that in the meantime the infantry on the ridge would be beyond effective artillery cover.

After some discussion, Lumsden agreed to this action on the part of the armour and Gott ordered accordingly. Inglis also raised the question of the start line, a subject which had troubled Kippenberger and Burrows, but Gott refused to make any change.

These plans had hardly been made when, shortly after four o'clock, bacon was again declared off, and the Division was ordered to consolidate its positions in expectation of a stay of two or three days.

The whole of the 13th was devoted to improving the positions on the start line, notably by wider dispersion of units and companies, some of which Inglis considered were too close to each other. He was also concerned with the shallowness of individual posts and ordered that the slit trenches should be made deep enough to permit page 219 the men to fire from them standing. The practice of scratching mere depressions and heaping sand and stones around them was a by-product of the Division's constant movement and also of the difficulties of digging. Such cover could be made with comparatively little effort and, generally, was considered sufficient for a stay of a few hours. This attitude to defences was dangerous in that it created a tendency to look upon all positions as temporary until orders to the contrary were received. In the fluid fighting of the desert, the orders might be issued too late to be effective.1

The unexpected lull gave the Division time to attend to its economy. Pay became available, and from the YMCA and unit canteens which operated well forward, the troops bought the desert luxuries of chocolate, tinned milk, coffee and milk, and tinned fruit of all kinds, as well as cigarettes and tobacco above the weekly issue. The manner in which the canteens were run and their goods made available to the men in the front line was a feat of organisation and a great builder of morale.

A draft of over 1000 reinforcements from the base at Maadi was absorbed. From 27 June, the day of Minqar Qaim, up to 11 July no fewer than 888 officers and other ranks had been evacuated as battle casualties and a further 716 as sick, some of the latter later being classified as battle cases. Although the draft did not restore the Division to full strength, it helped to bring sub-units up to operational strength. General Inglis also ordered 6 Brigade to return to the Division, with the intention of restoring 18 Battalion to 4 Brigade and of providing reliefs.

In spite of considerable artillery activity on both sides, the impression on the 13th was one of relatively peaceful routine made more so by the almost complete absence of air attacks. The Luftwaffe was fully engaged against Alamein Box.

Then bacon came with a rush.

1 The German command was concerned with a similar failing in Panzerarmee. A few days previously, Afrika Korps drew the attention of its units ‘to the fact that effective defence requires the construction of positions without regard to the probable duration of the conflict.’—Afrika Korps' diary, 5 July.