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Battle for Egypt

CHAPTER 25 — Enemy Prepares Counter-attack

page 276

Enemy Prepares Counter-attack

AFTER the loss of 22 Battalion, 5 Brigade was represented on the ridge by only about 200 riflemen, comprising some 120 men of 23 Battalion from A Company with elements of B and Headquarters Companies, approximately a platoon from each of A, B, and C Companies of 21 Battalion, and Sergeant Elliott's platoon of 22 Battalion. A recaptured two-pounder manned by a scratch crew was the group's only anti-tank defence. Other 5 Brigade men, notably those organised by Captain Wallace of 21 Battalion, were in 4 Brigade's sector and were commanded by that brigade.

Upon the capture of Lieutenant-Colonel Watson, Captain Norris, as senior officer, took command of the mixed group and laid out a position in which the men dug in to await the arrival of the supporting weapons and British tanks. The western end of the area was taken by 23 Battalion with the other platoons to the east. The position was under fire from several directions. Elliott's exploits disposed of annoying posts to the north and Lieutenant Shaw made further patrols of the same area and brought in more prisoners. Any attempt to move to the south or south-east, however, was stopped by heavy fire. As he had no wireless communication with brigade headquarters, Norris could not send a situation report or receive further orders. Later, a patrol searching for 21 Battalion located Wallace's company and 4 Brigade, whereupon Captain Marshall went to Brigadier Burrows, through whom he sent a report to Divisional Headquarters on the No. 9 wireless link. Burrows gave him the latest advice from Division—that tanks were on the way up and that the infantry were to hold their positions until they arrived.

In the meantime, repeated attempts were being made by 5 Brigade Headquarters and the commanders of the supporting weapons and supply columns to find a safe route to the ridge. These efforts were frustrated by determined enemy in Strongpoint No. 2, from which such a volume of fire was directed on the flat, exposed area south of the ridge that the advance of even single vehicles was prevented. In this area, however, good work was done by 11 Platoon of 4 Machine Gun Company commanded by Lieutenant Frazer,1 who had been sent

1 Maj K. J. Frazer, MC, m.i.d.; Gambia; born Auckland, 28 Jul 1914; clerk; wounded 15 Apr 1945; Colonial Service.

page 277 forward by Major Fairbrother when he withdrew the brigade vehicle column.

The platoon had gone only a short distance when three enemy tanks were seen. After the tanks moved off, Frazer set up his Vickers guns and engaged an enemy gun position about 3000 yards away. When British artillery also ranged on the same position and forced the enemy to abandon their guns, No. 11 Platoon continued to fire on the retreating men. On examining the abandoned area, the machine-gunners rounded up a party of Italians who were holding the Brigade Defence Platoon prisoner. Frazer and his men remained well forward for the rest of the day in an isolated and very exposed position and engaged guns and strongpoints that were blocking communications with the ridge.

As soon as 6 Field Regiment had deployed its guns in Stuka Wadi, battery observation parties reported that several centres of resistance stretching south-west from Point 64 on the ridge could be seen. One of the main centres was later identified as probably the German core of Strongpoint No. 2. It was a little to the north of the regiment's gunline and practically on the Division's axis of advance. The 25-pounders were turned on the position a few minutes after daylight. Later in the morning some of the Divisional Cavalry's Stuart tanks were put against the position under cover of the field guns in the hope that the enemy would surrender. The enemy, however, fought with spirit and drove the light tanks off.

Major Sawyers,1 commanding 48 Battery, then tried to arrange an infantry attack but was informed that no infantry were available. He thereupon collected a scratch force from all the men who could be spared from the battery and led it against the enemy, calling on them to surrender. Once again the resistance was firm and the gunners had to withdraw. Fire from the 25-pounders was now intensified, so much so that the strongpoint, about 500 yards long by about 300 deep, received over 1000 rounds from 48 Battery alone. This settled the issue. Between one and two o'clock white flags were shown in the defences and Sawyers advanced again to take the surrender of about 20 Germans and 160 Italians.

The strongpoint was protected by a minefield and contained a large number of machine guns and several anti-tank guns, including two 88-millimetre guns probably from 6/25 Battery of the German 135 Anti-Aircraft Regiment. The gunners recovered one of their trucks and Captain Pountney2 and his driver, who were lying

1 Lt-Col C. H. Sawyers, DSO, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Aust 17 Feb 1905; sales manager; CO 14 Lt AA Regt Dec 1943; 5 Fd Regt Aug–Oct 1944, Nov 1944–May 1945.

2 Lt-Col J. A. Pountney, MBE; Korea; born Hamilton, 17 Feb 1915; Regular soldier; 6 Fd Regt1942; wounded 15 Jul 1942; GSO 2 RNZA. Army HQ, 1951–54; CO 16 Fd Regt, Korea, Apr–Nov 1954; Commander K Force, Nov 1954–.

page 278 wounded in a slit trench nearby. Pountney reported that his observation party, which had moved forward with the infantry in the first advance, had run into the enemy position in the dark, and that all except himself and his driver had been killed by small-arms fire. The two survivors, both wounded and made prisoner, had spent a very uncomfortable morning under the fire of their own guns. The gunners also collected the bodies of Captain Mason and his men from 23 Battalion who had been killed three days previously when on a carrier patrol.

As this post gave in, other posts along the inter-corps boundary fell to 5 Indian Brigade. After their initial failure during the night, the 4th Rajputana Rifles had reorganised near their original start line. At 11.20 a.m. the battalion attacked again and by two o'clock, with help from the tanks, had overcome most of the resistance south of the ridge. By 2.30 it was reported that the Indians had made contact with 5 New Zealand Brigade on the ridge and were digging in around Point 64.

These successes opened a route to 5 Brigade's forward troops through the Indian sector. The progress of the Indians had been watched by Brigadier Kippenberger, and as soon as the route was opened several groups of vehicles left for the ridge. In one of the first of these groups was Captain Dasler,1 the brigade signals officer, who took forward some wireless sets through which he gave to brigade headquarters the first comprehensive account of the day's events on the ridge. Captain McPhail, the brigade intelligence officer, led the first column of anti-tank guns, carriers, mortars and ammunition through to the ridge. Several of these vehicles and those following were held up by minefields, actual or suspected, but the majority reached the area south of 23 Battalion by four o'clock. At the same time, Major Romans,2 second-in-command of 23 Battalion, went forward and took over from Captain Norris.

Fourth Brigade's support columns made equally strenuous efforts to break through to the ridge. They were more fortunate than 5 Brigade in that they had some communication with the advanced headquarters. The links, however, were tenuous. Fourth Field Regiment received a few messages from its forward observation officers, but the No. 11 wireless set with Rear Brigade Headquarters could not maintain communication with the set with Brigadier Burrows. An attempt to supply the observation officers with a new wireless set by carrier was frustrated by the enemy. The only channel then left was from the ridge to Divisional Headquarters,

1 Maj R. Dasler; Christchurch; born Oamaru, 26 May 1912; mechanician; OC 3 Coy 2 NZ Div Sigs Jul 1942–Jan 1943; 4 Sqn Sigs Jan–Jun 1943.

2 Lt-Col R. E. Romans, DSO, m.i.d.; born Arrowtown, 10 Sep 1909; business manager; CO 23 Bn 1942–43; twice wounded; died of wounds 19 Dec 1943.

page 279 which relayed the messages first by wireless and later by cable to Rear Brigade. When the cable was broken too often by traffic, shelling and bombing, Divisional Headquarters supplied a No. 9 set. Such was the perversity of the occasion that the operator could not break in on the almost continuous flow of high priority messages on the set's wavelengths.

In spite of these difficulties, the artillery responded to a call at 8.13 a.m. for a concentration on targets in Deir el Shein at a range of about six miles. This was within the range of supercharges but the shells fell short. It proved impossible to give the necessary corrections and the regiment was compelled to desist from its efforts to give direct support. Thereafter it gave attention to targets closer to hand.

During the morning the carrier officers of all three battalions led parties forward. They were forced to return, chiefly by the fire from Strongpoint No. 3 in front of the Divisional Reserve Group, the flank posts of Strongpoint No. 2, and enemy tanks near the route. By midday some of 22 Armoured Brigade's tanks, squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry, and the artillery were fully in action against these posts and several small groups of prisoners were brought in. In the early afternoon Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch decided to make a final, determined dash for the ridge under cover of these actions and 6 Field Regiment's bombardment in 5 Brigade's sector. He set out about two o'clock with a section of 19 Battalion's carriers loaded with ammunition. He left instructions that, should he not return or send a report within an hour, the other columns should follow him.

The venture was hazardous but succeeded. Lynch delivered his ammunition and then resumed command of 18 Battalion. However, all attempts by wireless and runner to send back word of his safe arrival were unsuccessful. When the stipulated interval had expired other convoys set out for the ridge. Some of the vehicles in the first of the columns neared the ridge only to be compelled by enemy action to withdraw through 5 Brigade's sector. Others became involved in fire between the British tanks and the enemy and had to fall back.

By this time 5 Brigade had a route to the ridge and the enemy in the main post opposite the Divisional Reserve Group had surrendered. This post yielded 100 prisoners and six anti-tank guns. Later another 37 prisoners were rounded up. Concurrently, it was reported that British tanks were advancing to the north-west. This was encouraging, although it was noticed that the tanks did not advance until the enemy posts began to fall. However, the circumstances seemed favourable for advancing all the support columns. The hours of anxiety appeared to be ending.

page 280

But it was now too late. No sooner had 5 Brigade's columns reached the ridge than the enemy showed signs of mounting a counter-attack. The situation ahead of 4 Brigade's columns became so obscure and the reports of returning drivers were so ominous, that it was decided to defer the advance until definite information could be received concerning the position on the ridge. About the same time, Divisional Headquarters advised that the enemy was attacking towards Point 63 and that British tanks were moving forward to assist.

Although the enemy posts on the approaches to the ridge yielded perhaps a little too readily when subjected to pressure, their resistance until the early afternoon was of some value in giving General Nehring time to draw in reinforcements and mount a set-piece counter-attack. Nehring's decision not to commit 15 Panzer Division's few tanks and the recently-arrived battalion of 382 Regiment in a counter-attack when Point 63 was lost, or at daybreak, can be criticised only in the light of after-knowledge. The tanks were then plugging the gap. They might have been used offensively at first light and it is practically certain that, with the support of the German infantry and the guns still available, they would have had little difficulty in overrunning, perhaps annihilating, the New Zealanders on the ridge.

But at this time Nehring knew only that the British had broken through his front into the heart of the defences. He did not know the strength of the assailants. However, the tanks which captured 22 Battalion could report that there were anti-tank guns on the ridge, a fact leading to the reasonable deduction that the British were present in force and had other support weapons at hand. As has been already mentioned, Nehring discussed with Colonel Menny, commanding 15 Division, the possibility of using 382 Regiment for a counter-attack. This was just on three o'clock. The diary entry refers to the discussion as ‘detailed’ and to ‘the’ counter-attack.

The wording of the entry suggests that Nehring had ruled out the possibility of an immediate counter-attack. In so doing, he would probably be influenced by cardinal principles in defensive tactics laid down by Ludendorff in 1917 after a close examination of the defensive campaigns on the Western Front in that and the previous year. Ludendorff issued an inflexible order that an immediate counter-attack was to be undertaken only on the initiative of the commander in the front line and that ‘immediate’ was to be interpreted literally. If the front-line commander applied to a rear headquarters for permission to counter-attack, refusal was to be automatic. According to Ludendorff, the delay in seeking permission would give the enemy time to consolidate and thus be ready to beat page 281 off a hastily prepared counter-attack. Failing an immediate riposte by the front-line commander, the counter-attack was to be delayed until it could be mounted as a prepared set-piece battle.

The New Zealanders were familiar with this practice. Experience had taught that if the counter-attack did not come within an hour of winning an objective, it would be mounted later in more formidable form. Note of this was taken in the orders for Ruweisat that at least two-thirds of the artillery were to be ready to support the infantry on the objective at first light and in the expectation that the British tanks would be up at the same time. The knowledge that a heavy counter-attack would surely come gave urgency to the task of clearing the approaches to the ridge.

Nehring was not a commander to be upset by an emergency. Confidential reports by his superiors criticised him only for ‘his coldness of character which keeps subordinates at a distance.’ Otherwise, he was described as ‘a man of clear judgment and mentally active’; ‘very intelligent, good commander with good tactical and strategical knowledge’; ‘has shown caution and great personal bravery in many difficult situations’; ‘remains cool in the most critical situations’; a commander with ‘strong nerves and good judgment.’

Some years after the war when the facts of Ruweisat, especially the details of German strengths and moves, became known, a senior New Zealand officer observed: ‘It is heart-breaking to see how close we were to overwhelming victory.’ Nehring had a large share in causing that heartbreak.

Nehring appears to have done little during the hours of darkness except rely on 15 Division to stabilise the front and consider what he could do to comply with Panzerarmee's orders that he must restore the situation with his own resources. With dawn he seems to have decided that an advance by 90 Light Division would turn the scale. At 6.45 he advised the division: ‘It is most important for Baade and Menton [the division's battle groups nearest Deep Well] to advance and relieve the pressure on Brescia.’1 This was no more than a note of urgency in the operations projected for that day. As has been mentioned, New Zealand Division was unconcerned about these activities towards its rear.

Within another ten minutes, however, Nehring had reason to change his mind. At 6.55, 15 Division reported: ‘Enemy infantry (one battalion strength) and anti-tank have established themselves in Deir el Shein.’ This was a turning point. The fact is not recorded, but it seems to be clear that Nehring conveyed this serious news to Panzerarmee, which now accepted his view ‘that the situation

1 Unless stated otherwise, this and subsequent orders and reports are quoted from Afrika Korps' logs of messages in and out on 15 July.

page 282 cannot be restored with the forces available.’ At seven minutes past seven Panzerarmee ordered 21 Panzer Division to ‘Have a force with tanks and artillery ready for use in a south-easterly direction.’ Concurrently 3 Recce Unit, which was operating between 21 Division and the Australians at Tell el Eisa, was sent to Afrika Korps.

A quarter of an hour after sending the report concerning Deir el Shein, 15 Division gave its dispositions and added, ‘All troops engaged in heavy defensive action. Relief urgent.’ Still another quarter of an hour later, at 7.25, the division reported: ‘Enemy tanks attacking 15th Panzer Division from the south-east. We have protective posts out to the south.’ As a riposte Nehring ordered his headquarters battle group, Lindemann, to ‘Attack the enemy north of you immediately.’

These reports indicate the aggressive nature of 4 Brigade's and Divisional Reserve Group's preparations for holding their respective areas, especially the sorties from the brigade's perimeter to secure prisoners and destroy enemy equipment. The tank attack reported was probably the initial moves of part of 22 Armoured Brigade or of the Divisional Cavalry in the neighbourhood of the Reserve Group. Lindemann's attack was not pressed. It may have been the small attack by three tanks which was engaged first by the machine-gunners and then by 31 Battery from Point 63.

Nehring now brought to the scene two small units which were destined to play decisive parts in the battle. These were 3 Recce Unit, commanded by Second-Lieutenant H. Schroetter, and 33 Recce Unit under Captain D. Lienau. Schroetter was not yet 22 years old. He had fought as a private with his unit in France in 1940 and had been commissioned in February the following year. He was reported to be ‘a good, energetic front-line soldier’ who ‘gives clear orders, makes decisions and carries them out with vigour.’ Lienau had celebrated his 28th birthday in the fighting about Acroma and Tobruk and had done all his active service with reconnaissance units. The confidential reports on him are not available but his decorations and promotion suggest that Panzerarmee thought well of him. He held the Iron Cross, Classes 1 and 2, when he came to Africa and in October 1942 he was awarded the German Cross in Gold. In February 1943 he was promoted major, an unusually swift advance in an army notoriously slow in promotions. The equipment at the disposal of these young officers cannot be stated precisely, but it may be recalled that earlier in the month the three reconnaissance units of Panzerarmee had only fifteen armoured cars among them, a troop each of captured 25-pounders and some lorried infantry.

Schroetter was operating with Rommel's Kampstaffel Kiehl against the Australians at Tell el Eisa when Panzerarmee placed him page 283 at the disposal of Afrika Korps shortly after 21 Division was ordered to prepare a battle group to move to Ruweisat. He travelled quickly and at 8.40 advised Afrika Korps: ‘We are three kilometres west of Point 63 with good observation north-east and south-east. Point 63 is occupied by the enemy. A few infantry and four anti-tank guns seen. No more movement seen on the enemy side from divisional headquarters.1

Schroetter was then ordered to make contact with 200 Regiment and Trento Division's batteries which were still in the line north of the eastern end of the ridge. While making his way to this area, he reported at five minutes past ten: ‘Enemy infantry in company strength one kilometre south-west of Point 63. We engaged them and they withdrew to Point 63.’ The withdrawal was probably Schroetter's mistaken impression of 20 Battalion's regrouping. He is next mentioned in the German records at 11.50 when he was ordered to ‘Push southwards to take Point 63 south of Shein.’ Schroetter, however, did not report compliance with the order and there is nothing in 4 Brigade's records to suggest that an armoured car attack was made about that hour. It may be that this young commander ‘who makes decisions and carries them out with vigour’ thought there was more urgent business further east where 3 Baluchis were then advancing to their objective. He was in the neighbourhood of the junction of Barrel Track and the western Alamein-Munassib track in the early afternoon, when he reported 2 Armoured Brigade's advance against Pavia Division.

In the meantime, Nehring had reached out for further reinforcements for the sector. About 8.40 he ordered 90 Light Division by telephone to send 33 Recce Unit to the north at once and to direct Baade Group to the north. Lienau was then in the Himeimat area on the extreme southern flank. The division's executive order did not reach him until about an hour later. It stated forcefully, if somewhat vaguely: ‘Withdraw whole unit immediately. Take your patrols with you. Report when you are assembled.’ These instructions must have been amplified, for Lienau left almost immediately for El Mreir, some 20 miles distant over bad country, which he reached in the middle of the afternoon.

During most of the morning 90 Division continued its probing against Deep Well, but at 9.50, in response to Nehring's instructions, it instructed Baade Group to ‘Advance north. Of paramount importance.’ This was apparently too vague for Colonel Baade, who ten minutes later asked the division: ‘What do you mean by advance north? What is our objective and what is the object of the move? Our previous job is completed.’

1 Presumably 15 Panzer Division.

page 284

Such forthrightness seems in keeping with Baade's characteristics as they are noted in the confidential reports. These describe him as a ‘strong personality, extremely independent nature’, and again as an ‘outstandingly forceful personality.’ He was said to be ‘not always easy to handle’ and ‘often too impulsive and touchy.’ All of his superiors, however, agreed that Baade was a sound, practical front-line soldier. On the eve of Minqar Qaim he had been given the Knight's Cross to add to four Iron Crosses and the German Cross in Gold. He was then 45 and commanded the 115th Panzer Grenadier Regiment in 15 Panzer Division. The New Zealanders were later to encounter Baade in Italy at Cassino.

On the present occasion, Baade had been detached with the two battalions of his regiment from 15 Division to operate as a mobile infantry column with 90 Light Division. He had about 200 riflemen and some light anti-tank and field guns. Small though it was, the value of the group as a fighting force was considered high according to the tenor of the messages sent it.

In spite of the urgency of his call, Baade did not moye very quickly. He had, of course, to withdraw his troops from the operation in conjunction with Menton Group against Deep Well and put them into desert formation for the move. But it took him two and a half hours to travel little more than two miles into Deir el Angar to a point about two miles south-west of Alam Nayil. On the way he took under command Littorio's Rochetti Group of eleven tanks. From the enemy records it may be inferred that in this Baade acted with characteristic initiative as the only reference is a somewhat bland intimation to 90 Light: ‘Taking Rochetti Group north with us.’

From Deir el Angar Baade intended to advance due north against the rear of the New Zealanders, but he found his way barred by ‘A very strong enemy force with tanks in front of us to the north; 15 tanks and 300 vehicles seen.’ These tanks were from 22 Armoured Brigade, then guarding the New Zealand left flank, which had sighted the remains of Ariete's armour and were chasing them back towards Kaponga. The vehicles Baade saw belonged to New Zealand Division and would readily be associated in his mind with the tanks on his front. Under Afrika Korps' orders, Baade turned left to Kaponga to avoid the British tanks and was then given as his immediate objective an assembly area in rear of 15 Panzer Division's headquarters to the east of El Mreir. As an inducement to hurry, Nehring advised him that ‘The C-in-C expects that it will decide the day if you arrive quickly.’

By this time Nehring had planned his counter-attack but his diary indicates that he was becoming extremely anxious. At midday, the page 285 diary notes, ‘The situation is decidedly critical. Everything depends on the prompt arrival in time of the units detailed for the operation.’ Again, at 1.30, ‘The situation grows more and more critical.’ The fears were aroused by a report from 15 Division that ‘The Italians have abandoned Brescia's westerly strongpoints. We have threatened to fire on them but it has done no good. A company of German engineers has been pushed forward.’ The strongpoints were probably those in the nest in front of the Divisional Reserve Group which, at the hour of 15 Division's report, were being assailed by British tanks and the New Zealanders, supported by 4 and 5 Field Regiments. The second diary entry was inspired by ‘another piece of bad news—Pavia also retreats to the west.’ This entry may be associated with the activities of the 3rd Baluchis and the British tanks on the eastern end of the ridge.

These anxieties were reflected in an order to 90 Light Division to give up its operations in an easterly direction and turn north with all available forces. It seems, however, that Rommel and Nehring were not confident as to the outcome of this move, for when they were next in touch, shortly after two o'clock, Rommel agreed that if strong pressure developed the division should withdraw on Gebel Kalakh, some nine miles to the rear and south of Kaponga. Rommel also intimated at this time that he had ordered the whole of 21 Panzer Division to return to Afrika Korps.

Nehring's plan was issued direct to the several units between three and three-thirty. He ordered Lienau's 33 Recce Unit to advance along the top of the ridge, capture Point 63, and then move further along the ridge to the pipeline crossing which was to be secured and held. Schroetter was instructed to move against the eastern end of the ridge and Baade to advance ‘more or less along the old line of Brescia's strongpoints.’ The attack was to be supported by 15 Division's artillery.

Shortly after the orders were issued, 21 Division's battle group which had been made ready in the morning arrived. Known as Group Bruer, it comprised a battalion about 100 riflemen strong, six machine guns, and six light anti-tank guns. Nehring strengthened the group with the 1st Company, 39 Anti-tank Detachment, less three guns. He noted in his diary, ‘Up to now this company had been kept back in the vicinity of Korps battle headquarters as a last reserve.’ The specific tasks given to Group Bruer are not recorded except that ‘it will be thrown in immediately to the south of Ruweisat.’ Events suggest it was kept fairly close to the ridge. Nehring also appears to have placed two companies from 382 Regiment at the disposal of 15 Division.

Strangely, Nehring did not set a time for the counter-attack in his recorded orders or forecast it in his diary. The diary, however, notes page 286 in the midst of a number of other entries at four o'clock: ‘The attack begins.’ Although doubtless only a coincidence, it is of interest that during the afternoon a German officer held by 19 Battalion proffered the information that an attack was likely to begin after four o'clock and then set to work energetically to improve his slit trench.