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Battle for Egypt

CHAPTER 27 — Reflections

page 299


FIRST Ruweisat, as the battle is known in 2 New Zealand Division's annals, cost the Division 83 officers and 1322 other ranks, one of the heaviest casualty lists of its desert campaigns. Of these, only 14 officers and 276 other ranks were listed as wounded and safe. The remainder, 69 officers and 1046 other ranks, had been killed, taken prisoner, or were missing.

On the evening of the 15th the losses appeared to be even greater. There seemed to be few survivors of the rifle companies of 19, 20 and 22 Battalions; 18 and 21 Battalions were disorganised and their casualties were difficult to assess. Only 23 Battalion of the six battalions of 4 and 5 Brigades appeared to be fit for further operations.

General Inglis was particularly disturbed by the heavy losses in officers, especially among the senior commanders, who at that stage included Brigadier Burrows, Lieutenant-Colonels Lynch, Hartnell, Allen and Watson, and Major Hanton. It was not until later in the night that advice was received through 5 Indian Division that Burrows was safe. Hartnell and some other ranks also turned up next day, having spent the night with 2 Armoured Brigade and 5 Indian Brigade.

There was little if anything to put in the scale against these losses. Auchinleck says in his despatch:1 ‘Our tactical position in this very important part of the front was improved by the operation. Moreover, we took some 2000 prisoners, mostly Italians.’

The tactical value of the ground gained may be questioned. Even if the foothold secured on the eastern end of the ridge about Point 64 had some value, it was not worth the price exacted by the enemy from New Zealand and 5 Indian Divisions. The price was not mentioned in the despatch. Further, there was no reference in the brief survey of the battle to its object—to break through the enemy's centre and destroy his forces. The gains, if any, in the battle ill compare with the failure to achieve its object. Moreover, Rommel's riposte late on the 15th, continued against 5 Indian Division next day, compelled Auchinleck to order both 13 and 30 Corps to press

1 Despatch, p. 365.

page 300 the enemy on the northern and southern flanks ‘ in order to reduce the pressure on our centre.’ Instead of having destroyed the enemy, Eighth Army was again dancing to his tune.

The New Zealand Division was under no illusion that it had suffered a defeat and that the operation as a whole had been a ghastly failure. The Division, however, did not consider itself responsible in any particular for the turn events had taken. It believed it had carried out its part of the battle. Failure to consolidate the bridgehead, to beat off the counter-attacks to exploit, were attributed to the inaction of the armoured brigades.

Many men, and officers also, did not hesitate to accuse the armoured regiments from top to bottom of rank cowardice. The accusations were levelled principally against the regiments which had sat about Point 64 and even closer to 4 Brigade when it was being overrun. All the goodwill held by the Division for the tank formations was wiped out. The admiration of the tank crews expressed in letters written at Baggush after the Division's campaign in Cyrenaica was forgotten.

This criticism influenced relations with the armour until the October battle at Alamein. It was too bitter and too intense to be ignored or made the subject of only passing reference.1 But it may well be that the bitterest of the critics did not take sufficient account of the trials to which the tank crews and the armoured units had been subjected since the German offensive began and the disabilities under which they were still carrying on.

The tank squadrons had been in almost continuous action since 27 May and they had fought many gallant actions. The survivors of the battles in the Cauldron, at Acroma and Belhamed, officer and men alike, were physically and mentally weary. They had had no outstanding successes to hearten them and fortify their morale. Defeat and retreat had been their portion. Although there had been a certain amount of reorganisation and refitting, the armour was still a collection of fragments when compared with the well-knit regiments at the opening of the campaign in May.

To the men in the tanks, Ruweisat was but another of many similar engagements in which they were being expected to sacrifice themselves. They had not inkling, because they had not been told, that a decisive victory was being sought or that it was within their

1 ‘At this time there was throughout Eighth Army, not only in New Zealand Division, a most intense distrust, almost hatred, of our armour. Everywhere one heard tales of the other arms being let down; it was regarded as axiomatic that the tanks would not be where they were wanted in time.—Infantry Brigadier, p. 180.

In his despatch (p. 368) Auchinleck notes an impression among junior officers that ‘our armour had not altogether pulled its weight’ in the Crusader capaign, and he also expresses his disapproval of ‘the idea that the Royal Armoured Corps was an army within an army’

page 301 grasp. Some of the hesitation on the ridge may have been due to overestimation of the German tank strength. The armoured division had credited 15 Panzer Division with having about thirty-five tanks in the general area north of Point 63, with 21 Panzer not far distant. These were forces not to be taken lightly. The repeated desire to reconnoitre the position about Point 63 may have been due to a suspicion that the Germans were using their armoured cars to lure the British tanks on to one of their combined tank and 88-millimetre anti-tank-gun screens which so often had exacted heavy toll.

The inaction of the armoured brigades may be attributed to the orders of their divisional command. General Inglis has recorded that at the corps conference on the 12th, Lumsden agreed ‘rather grudgingly’ to his demand that the tanks should be up on the ridge at first light to support the infantry on their objective. Lumsden's written order to his division suggests that he went back on this agreement. There was nothing in the order to suggest that 2 Armoured Brigade was to be in 5 New Zealand Brigade's area from first light, nor was 22 Armoured Brigade told it was to give ‘close support’ to 4 Brigade. The armoured brigades might have been ordered to co-ordinate their first movements with those of the New Zealand brigades. Instead, they were given merely the permissive order ‘will be prepared to move’, a fatal expression in the circumstances.

On the other hand, there is Lumsden's statement to the commander of 2 Brigade in the presence of Brigadier Kippenberger and Captain McPhail: ‘But I told you to be there [Point 63] at first light.’ This statement deepens rather than clarifies the mystery. It implies that the brigade was to move in the dark through enemy held territory, an operation which, at that time, the British armour was notoriously unwilling to essay except under such dire compulsion as the retreat to Alamein. Moreover, Inglis had not expected that the tanks should advance to the ridge in the dark, only that they should be ready on their start line to move at first light.

It has to be said that 22 Armoured Brigade carried out its written orders, although these were not what New Zealand Division expected them to be. Part of the brigade operated against the enemy opposing the Divisional Reserve Group, while the major portion drove Ariete's few tanks back towards Kaponga and incidentally prevented Baade Group from moving north out of Deir el Angar into New Zealand Division's rear. But it might have done all this and also saved 4 Brigade had it been ordered to act in close support of the New Zealanders.

Examination of the tank role at Ruweisat has been undertaken at some length in perhaps a vain effort to explain the inexplicable. page 302 The principal object, however, has been to deal with the harsh but understandable accusations against the tank crews. The mere lack of either positive or permissive orders certainly was no excuse for the tank squadrons holding back in the clear emergency of the late afternoon of the 15th. But it should also be said that, like the New Zealanders, the tank men were victims of faulty higher command and staff work over which they had no control.1

Was New Zealand Division wholly blameless for the failure of the operation? This question agitated some officers at the time and has been the subject of much post-war inquiry and discussion. The main issue resolves itself into a series of questions.

Was Major-General Inglis justified in accepting Gott's plan and in committing the Division to the battle, or, as the question should be put, should he have taken the exceptional and dangerous course (to discipline and morale) of refusing to obey orders? What more could have been done by the Division in the planning stage to ensure success? Were the forces at Inglis' disposal sufficient? What more could the Division have done when daylight revealed that the advance of the supporting arms was held up? Could the situation have been righted from the Division's own resources? Should the Divisional Commander have kept a reserve in his own hands against emergency? Would the presence of the artillery and mortars in close support of the infantry on the ridge have made much difference?

The success of the New Zealand infantry in reaching the ridge and Panzerarmee's extraordinarily narrow escape from disaster indicate that Ruweisat was ‘on’. A deliberate, fighting, night advance over a distance of approximately six miles no doubt was the maximum possible distance for very good well-trained troops. Grounds for confidence in the ability of the New Zealand infantry to win their objectives in an attack of this nature were based on the actual experience of 4 Brigade in the Crusader campaign and its subsequent training enlarging that experience. Fifth Brigade under its previous commanders, Brigadiers Hargest and Wilder, had eschewed night attacks whenever it could in favour of dawn or daylight attacks. It, therefore, was not so directly prepared for Ruweisat as its sister brigade. But the troops of both brigades were determined and flexible in battle and thoroughly practised in night movements over the desert.

1 The South African official history, Crisis in the Desert, notes (p. 13): ‘… it is no secret that personal relations between some of the British commanders—particularly in the armoured divisions—could not have been worse, and there was a general tendency to regard orders as a basis, for discussion.’ (Author's italics.) Later, Lieutenant-General Montgomery checked this tendency with a forthright direction in one of his orders: ‘Protesting or belly-aching about the matter is forbidden.’

page 303

Inglis' doubts concerning Gott's appreciation of the strength of the enemy defences have been mentioned. In Inglis' opinion, however, the defences were not what textbooks would deem ‘highly organised’. He thought, as events proved, that they were much nearer what would be called ‘hastily organised’. The Division knew that both Germans and Italians fought poorly in this type of defences and against the kind of attack projected. Moreover, their use of tracer ammunition would help in pinpointing the defensive localities and in avoiding the lines of fire.

The question whether the Division could have done more in the planning stage to ensure success bears on Inglis' wisdom in accepting the role assigned to 1 Armoured Division. It is, however, only wisdom after the event to suggest that Lumsden's grudging agreement to his demands and Gott's orders for the armour at the corps conference on the 12th might have put Inglis on his guard. But it may be inferred that had 1 Armoured Division's emasculated order been closely studied when it was received at New Zealand Divisional Headquarters, Inglis would have had cause to doubt whether the armour intended to fulfil the role agreed upon.

Against this is a fact which was paramount in the Division's planning: Ruweisat was to be a corps' operation, directed and controlled by the corps commander. New Zealand Division could, as it did, suggest amendments to the corps' plan. But when the plan was adopted it was the corps commander's duty to ensure that it was carried out by his divisions. The basic cause of the defeat at Ruweisat was the failure of the corps command to co-ordinate the action of the infantry and armour. In the event, there were three commands on the one battlefield—13 Corps, New Zealand Division, and 1 Armoured Division.

Criticism implied in the question, ‘Were the forces at Inglis' disposal sufficient?’ seems to be inspired by what was forced on the troops instead of what was planned for them. The six battalions were not too small a force to break through the enemy defences and capture the ridge. They did both. But it was accepted that they could do so only on such a narrow front that they could not with certainty clear the approaches without leaving some mopping-up to be done in daylight. This was one of the reasons why it was insisted that the armour should be on hand at first light. Had the armour moved as was arranged, it is highly likely that its mere appearance would have caused the enemy in the unreduced strongpoints to surrender, while the few enemy tanks which had captured 22 Battalion might have run away without their prisoners.

New Zealand Division did not contemplate that its infantry would have to clear the approaches, capture the ridge and then, alone and page 304 unsupported, hold its objectives against armoured counter-attack. As General Inglis has said: ‘It would have been criminally stupid to launch … [the infantry] in that particular attack without the assurance of armoured support.’1

Students who have a clear picture of the battlefield from daylight until early afternoon will have little difficulty in suggesting ways and means by which the Division might have overcome its difficulties. Because he has been told, the student knows there were only a handful of determined Germans manning a few 88-millimetre and machine guns among Italians in the posts blocking the advance of the supporting arms. He knows there was nothing between these posts and the infantry on their objectives about Point 63. He knows there were no enemy tanks on the route to the ridge, and that the few tanks left to 15 Panzer Division had been in haste to leave the scene and were being far from active against the Reserve Group on the left. The student will also be aware of the weak and parlous state of the enemy forces beyond Point 63 and of the doubts, hesitations, and fears in the enemy command.

With this clear picture in mind, it is easy to succumb to the temptation of adopting the idea of some officers among the supporting arms that another infantry attack, this time supported by artillery, would quickly clear the route to the ridge. Means were at hand. The 26th Battalion might have been withdrawn from the Reserve Group or the Maoris brought back from Alam Halfa. Covering fire was available from 4 and 6 Field Regiments and 5 Brigade's mortars. The commander and staff of 5 Brigade could have been used to lay on the attack.

Such a clear picture of a battlefield, however, is seldom available to commanders. It was certainly not available at Ruweisat. After the customary clear light of sunrise, the fog of war became very dense. Smoke and dust from the artillery fire thickened the natural haze of the desert's midsummer heat. The curtain could not be penetrated by even the most powerful field-glasses. A fairly accurate picture might have been drawn had the signals communications functioned between the ridge and the start line. But they had broken down.

There were even more important factors. The student knows there was cause for apprehension, perhaps alarm, from daylight onwards. But what of the commanders? Burrows was content, as he had every right to be, on Point 63. His battalions had done well and had captured their objective with little loss. He knew the enemy tanks had moved off with some prisoners but he did not know that 22 Battalion had gone into the bag. The enemy reaction to his

1 Letter to War Histories, Ocotober 1952.

page 305 capture of Point 63 was below normal. On the right, 23 Battalion was reasonably happy as it consolidated. It had lost its commanding officer and may have noted the fate of 22 Battalion, but it was not being molested. The 21st Battalion was widely dispersed, but each individual group no doubt thought it was the only one separated from headquarters, and that the battalion position would soon be found. McElroy was annoyed rather than alarmed at his inability to find the rest of the battalion. In the meantime, he was creating alarm and despondency among the enemy as were Sergeant Elliott and his group. The commanders on the ridge realised that the artillery and the British tanks were overdue but they expected them arrive any minute. The haze, smoke, and dust that obscured the ridge from the start line also prevented them from seeing what was holding up the advance of the supporting arms. It was not until the waiting minutes merged into hours and morning turned to afternoon that they became apprehensive and then alarmed at the hazardous position in which they were exposed.

So also about the start line. There was no lack of vigour among the commanders to get forward. As has been mentioned, some thought of another infantry attack. But in the main, the idea was that the enemy were offering mulish and ignorant opposition rather than deliberate, determined defence, and that they would capitulate as soon as they realised what they were up against. Possibly different ideas might have been held had it been suspected that the British armour was not carrying out its agreed-upon role.

This knowledge, and especially the suspicions it created, were restricted to very few. But, although behind timetable, 2 Armoured Brigade had moved off in response to Brigadier Kippenberger's pressure. It was another of the perversities of Ruweisat that the tanks moved into 5 Indian Brigade's sector, where little if any progress had been made by the infantry in subduing the enemy posts. Much easier going and less resistance could have been found a few hundred yards to the left in New Zealand Division's area. The armour would have been too late to save 22 Battalion but it would have been on hand to do the remainder of its task.

The narrative of events shows that the enemy in Strongpoint No. 2 in 5 New Zealand Brigade's sector capitulated about two o'clock under the pressure of 6 Field Regiment's bombardment and the appearance of the British tanks on the flank. The tanks were probably the deciding influence and therefore a factor in a consideration of New Zealand Divisional Headquarters' action and decisions during the morning.

When General Inglis moved forward he took stock of the situation. He had reports from the various commanders concerning page 306 their difficulties, but all were trying to surmount them and none ‘belly-aching’. He also thought of mounting another infantry attack, but rejected the idea because there was ample armour well situated to do all that was required much more quickly and less expensively than infantry could hope to do it. The armour was then on the move, and in carrying out its tasks it would more or less automatically clear up the situation.

Another fact which led Inglis to rely on the armour was a belief that enemy tanks were still on the approaches to the ridge. It should be recalled that apart from Burrows' report that he had taken his objective, the only firm report Division had had concerning the situation on the approaches was from Kippenberger, who had seen the tanks moving towards 22 Battalion. No one knew what had happened after that, although no stretching of the imagination was needed to picture the possibilities, or rather the probabilities. In the circumstances, to use the infantry in another assault would have been to expose them to a double risk of heavy casualties—that of assaulting a defended position and of being attacked in turn by the German tanks. And, as Inglis has pointed out, it might only have meant ‘putting more infantry under the chopper’.

General Inglis, therefore, brought to bear all the pressure he could on the armour to galvanise it into action. Not until it was too late did he learn that the soothing assurances of action which met his approaches to 13 Corps and 1 Armoured Division were no more than that.

The considerations which led to the rejection of another infantry attack bear on the question whether Inglis should have kept a reserve in hand. During the night he had committed the whole of his forces, and in the morning he did not have the means to counter the unexpected—the unsubdued enemy posts which were strong enough to prevent the advance of the support columns. But although it was not under Inglis' command, a reserve was available in 1 Armoured Division. The specific tasks allotted to the armour did not preclude it from moving to New Zealand Division's aid on any part of the battlefield. Inglis had allowed for this at the corps' planning conference, at which he visualised the battle being fought under the corps commander's personal direction. Both divisions were to operate over the same ground, with New Zealand Division in the lead and followed by a powerful armoured force to take care of any emergencies.

It is a reasonable supposition that had 4 Brigade had the close support of 4 and 6 Field Regiments from daybreak it would have defeated the German counter-attack, even without any help from the British tanks. in spite of the haze and other difficulties, the New Zealand gunners would have had little ifficulty in overwhelming page 307 the few German guns which prevented the anti-tank guns with 4 Brigade from taking up better positions. It is problematical whether Lienau's armoured cars and 15 Panzer Division's tanks would have pressed their attack against vigorous opposition such as could have been developed by the New Zealand artillery and wellsited anti-tank guns. No doubt Nehring would have thought of something else, although it is difficult to see what more he could have done with the forces at his disposal that day.

To sum up, Ruweisat was a battle which should have been fought and won. The idea was good—and it was within the resources of Eighth Army. The battle was lost partly because of weaknesses in staff work in the planning stage, but more because on the decisive day the planned and expected corps' direction and control were not given. Certainly, New Zealand Division saw no sign of any such activity after the battle started.