Battle for Egypt
CHAPTER 29 — Plans for El Mreir
Plans for El Mreir
PARADOXES and seeming illusions marked Eighth Army's thinking and planning leading to the Battle of Mreir which was fought during the night 21–22 July and throughout the following day.
For Mreir, as for Ruweisat, the Army orders stressed the destruction of Rommel's forces where they stood as the object of the operations. However, in case the destruction should not be complete and part of Panzerarmee should escape, elaborate plans were made for the pursuit of the fleeing elements. But while Eighth Army Headquarters thought in terms of Rommel's decisive defeat, it also thought of further disaster to the army and therefore of the need to build more and yet more defences back to the Nile Delta.
Thus on 15 July when 2 New Zealand, 5 Indian, and 1 Armoured Divisions were fighting on Ruweisat in pursuance of General Auchinleck's order to ‘break through the enemy's centre and destroy his forces’, two further orders were issued by Eighth Army concerning the back-area defences. One gave details of minefields to be laid down and the other ordered 20 Australian Brigade to take over the construction of defences on Alam Halfa.
This conflict of ideas concerning the outcome of the Army offensives was not the only paradox. Men and materials were diverted to works in the rear at a time when Auchinleck was complaining that lack of troops prevented him from maintaining the impetus of his attacks and exploiting successes. But if Auchinleck's offensive intentions at Tell el Eisa, Ruweisat, and Mreir were to be taken at their face value, the rear defences would not be necessary. The dangers of the first days at Alamein, when it was doubtful if Rommel's advance would be stopped, were past. It was strange that while the Commander-in-Chief was trying to inspire his army with confidence in its prospects, he should exhibit pronounced signs of scepticism.
The illusions were founded on faulty appreciations of Rommel's strength, the movements and dispositions of his forces, especially the German formations, the length of his front and the results achieved by Eighth Army's counter-offensives.page 320
Two Army orders were prepared for the Battle of Mreir. The first, issued on 17 July, said in its information paragraph: ‘During the last few days the enemy has been conforming to our movements. He is clearly sensitive about our occupation of Ruweisat Ridge and of the Tell el Eisa area.’ The second order was issued the next day. It cancelled the first and substituted a completely new plan. Its information paragraph said: ‘The Italian infantry formations are at present north of Ruweisat Ridge with the German armour centred about Deir el Abyad. The enemy has been moving his German forces north and south to conform to our threats.’ Additional ideas concerning Panzerarmee are contained in Auchinleck's despatch.1 Opening a review of the Battle of Mreir, Auchinleck says: ‘Having made the enemy extend his front and disperse his reserves to some extent, I thought the time had come to strike hard at the centre of his line with the object of cutting his forces in half.’
Whether Rommel had conformed or reacted to Eighth Army's movements and threats may be a question of opinion. The evidence, however, suggests that ever since he had first gone over to the defensive on 4 July to regroup, he had reacted to Eighth Army's attacks with sufficient vigour to upset its plans and make it do a great deal of conforming. His seeming threat to the centre from the Ruweisat salient had induced Auchinleck to withdraw New Zealand Division when it was poised at Mungar Wahla and Mreir against the enemy's rear. Rommel had prevented the Australians and South Africans on 10 and 11 July from taking the objectives essential to their planned eruption into his rear in conjunction with the projected advance of 13 Corps over Ruweisat in the night of 11–12 July. This, in turn, had induced Auchinleck to make 13 Corps' attack over Ruweisat on 14–15 July the main Army operation, one independent of any action by 30 Corps.
When the Battle of Ruweisat failed to achieve all that was hoped, Rommel's riposte was such that Auchinleck was compelled to order the Australians in the north and 7 Armoured Division in the south to act offensively to relieve the pressure on 5 Indian Division in the centre.2 The Australians had still to capture Tell el Eisa, and after taking Tell el Makh Khad and the ruin on Miteiriya Ridge, they had been compelled to fall back almost to their start line. In the south, 7 Armoured Division could not hold all of its gains and 5 Indian Division had had to give up Point 62 on Ruweisat.
1 Despatch, p. 366.
2 Ibid, p. 365.
How Eighth Army reached the conclusion that Rommel had been compelled to extend his front is difficult to understand. The extension in the period 5 to 9 July when he tried to envelop the British southern flank had been halted by the Australians' attack towards Tell el Eisa. Since then there had been successive withdrawals of the enemy forces in the south. This fact was clearly apparent to 7 Armoured Division's columns, and was confirmed by prisoners taken in attacks and by raiders and from wireless interceptions. An estimate of the enemy dispositions was circulated by 13 Corps on 18 July. Although it was out of date, being more true of the situation on the 15th, it recorded a belief that 361 Infantry Regiment and the remainder of 90 Light Division were shortly moving north from the southern sector. The fighting on Ruweisat and its environs on and after the 15th supplied additional confirmation of enemy concentration in the centre.
So far from having an extended front when the Battle of Mreir was projected, Rommel had contracted it. Against the strongest sector of this contracted front, a sector supported by the German armour, part of Eighth Army was now to be committed in yet another effort to win a decisive victory.
Eighth Army Operation Order No. 100, the first of the two orders previously mentioned, was issued in the evening of 17 July. It called for the envelopment of the enemy from both flanks on a date provisionally fixed as 30 July. In the meantime, 30 Corps, by means of local actions, was to destroy the Italian forces on its front, ‘as without these the Germans will be unable to hold an extended position and may give us an opportunity of surrounding them.’ Thirteenth Corps was to improve its positions on Ruweisat but without giving the enemy a chance of making a successful counterattack. The corps was also to press vigorously in the south with the object of holding the maximum number of the enemy in that area, and generally carry out all possible deceptive measures to focus Rommel's attention on the centre and south.page 322
In the main operation, to be carried out by 30 Corps with 4 Light Armoured Brigade and the newly arrived 23 Armoured Brigade under command, the objectives were to be Tell el Eisa, El Wishka and Sanyet el Miteiriya, followed by disruption of the enemy's rear south of the objectives and west of the Alamein-Abu Dweis track. Maximum fire support was to be given by 13 Corps, which was also to exploit north of the Barrel Track towards the Alamein-Abu Dweis track as opportunity offered and, with its mobile troops, to endeavour to envelop the enemy's rear. Depending on how the situation developed, 4 Light Armoured Brigade was to be prepared to move from 30 Corps' front around the southern flank and strike at Rommel's communications about El Daba and Fuka.
In the light of subsequent events, it might have been well had Auchinleck adhered to this plan. However, it had no sooner been committed to paper and issued than it was cancelled and a plan for an almost immediate attack in the centre by 13 Corps substituted. Why the change was made cannot be explained. Auchinleck makes no reference in his despatch either to the original plan or the change. No reason is given in the new Army order sent out on the 18th. There is nothing in reports from the front line or from wireless interceptions to suggest that the new plan was made to exploit an unexpectedly advantageous situation. It may be that Auchinleck was influenced by reports concerning the low state of the German panzer divisions and that he thought a decisive blow might induce them to withdraw and thus leave the Italians to be dealt with later. Against this is the fact that the German strength in men, guns, and tanks was overestimated by about 30 per cent.
Broadly, the new plan ordered 13 Corps to capture Deir el Shein, Deir el Abyad, and Buweibat el Raml (between Mreir and Mungar Wahla) and exploit westwards. At the same time, the enemy's southern flank was to be thrown back and his rear area to the west of Mungar Wahla attacked. The corps was also ordered to be prepared to pursue towards Daba and Fuka and cut off the enemy's retreat should he withdraw. Thirtieth Corps was ordered first to contain the maximum enemy forces on its front and to be ready, on call from Eighth Army any time after noon on 21 July, to capture Tell el Eisa and a series of named points to the south of Tell el Makh Khad, and then exploit to the west and south-west as opportunity offered. The corps was also to be prepared to pursue towards Daba with the maximum forces available.
1 Eighth Army Operation Instruction No. 102, 20 July.
At 9 a.m. on the 21st, Operation Instruction No. 103 giving details of army-air co-operation during the proposed advance was issued. The instruction included a list of eighty air landing grounds from Egypt as far west as Cyrenaica and the action to be taken by the ground troops on the capture of any of them. This instruction was followed at 12.30 by Instruction No. 104, covering the direct support to be given by the Royal Air Force before and during the initial attack. This may seem to be rather late in the day for the issue of such a vital order, but it was probably sent out in confirmation of arrangements made earlier. It is also possible that Army Headquarters had to await details of 13 Corps' plans before those for air co-operation could be finally settled.
The Royal Air Force undertook to bomb located targets to the west of the front until 7.15 p.m. that day and then turn three-quarters of its bombing force on to Point 63 and the eastern end of Mreir. The remaining bombers were to support the subsidiary outflanking operation against the Taqa plateau. During the night, bombing was to be confined to west of a line running through Kaponga to Mreir. Next day the air assault was to be directed against Miteiriya Ridge. After a breakthrough had been achieved, the area from Baggush to Garawla was to be kept clear of ground troops and reserved to the Air Force as a target.
The Army's last instruction reached the New Zealand units late on the 21st as they were about to go into the attack. It said:
The C-in-C directs that it be impressed on all ranks that the success of the forthcoming operations may depend on our denying the use of MT to the enemy. If possible enemy MT will be captured and used, but if there is any possibility of it falling into enemy hands it will be destroyed.
In broad terms (the details are examined later), General Gott divided 13 Corps' operations into four phases. In the first phase, to be carried out during the night 21–22 July, New Zealand and 5 Indian Divisions were to capture the eastern end of Mreir and the ground northwards to Deir el Shein. Within this area a gap 2000 yards wide was to be cut through suspected minefields. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was to cover the southern flank of the attack and 2 Armoured Brigade was to ‘be prepared’ to protect the infantry page 324 on their objectives against counter-attack. Phases 2 and 3, an advance in two stages to the Alamein-Abu Dweis track at the western end of Mreir, were given to 23 Armoured Brigade with such infantry and artillery support as might be required. Thereafter the corps was to be ready to swing north in rear of any enemy who might be still resisting 30 Corps or pursue if the enemy retreated.
As Eighth Army did not win even the first phase of the battle, it seems obvious there must have been flaws in the general idea or the planning, perhaps both. The paradoxes and illusions already discussed were in the background of the operation. Others emerge from detailed study of the plans.
The newly arrived 23 Armoured Brigade was given an important role. According to the author of The Rifle Brigade,
The preparations for the whole brigade were hasty in the extreme. They began to land on the 5th of July and on the 18th of July the battalion [7th Battalion, The Rifle Brigade] began to move out of Burg el Arab. Three days later they were in the forward area and in two more days they were in the middle of a major battle. Apart from deficiencies in equipment … there had been no time to learn about the desert, to practise navigation. … To move armoured brigades after a long sea voyage straight from the boat into battle is to invite disaster1
Less a regimental group deployed with 30 Corps, this raw and physically soft brigade in obsolescent Valentine tanks was committed in a sector where, on Eighth Army's own appreciation, it was certain to run into the veteran Afrika Korps. On its first day in battle the brigade was destroyed by the German mines, anti-tank guns, and tanks. The author of The Rifle Brigade says: ‘But in those critical days risks had to be accepted.’ There is no suggestion, however, in the Army, corps, or divisional orders, or at the several conferences preceding the battle, of any thought that a risk was being taken. On the contrary, the first Army order of the 17th says: ‘It is estimated that the 23rd Armoured Brigade will be ready to go into action about 20 July.’
But considered as a whole, the Army required much more time than Auchinleck gave it to assimilate his ideas and work out the details of his plans. Its commands and staffs had to clear their minds of the first plan and then absorb and pass on the details of a veritable spate of new orders received almost up to zero hour. The fact that many of the orders were conditional did not facilitate the command and staff work.
Auchinleck's expectation that his Army could pass quickly from the defensive to an offensive and pursuit invites comment. This is recognised as one of the most difficult operations in war. It is generally considered desirable to have fresh troops available for the final breakthrough and to give such impetus to the advance or pursuit that they will carry the remainder of the army with them. No such reserve was available at Mreir. True, Eighth Army had been attacking for several days in varying sectors and may, therefore, be said to have been on the offensive. But whatever the objectives, the attacks, in effect, were local operations. The successes had been offset by so many reverses that the fighting spirit, the élan of the Army, had not been raised to such an extent as to give it reason to believe that with another hard punch Panzerarmee could be sent reeling.
The fact that Auchinleck's advisers and planners had the opposite idea suggests their remoteness from realities. In their remoteness they produced plans and orders more fitting to a tactical exercise without troops than to a situation which should have been known to them.
New Zealand Division received its first advice of the projected operation late in the afternoon of the 19th, when General Gott called with an intimation ‘of [a] further attack—probably [the] day after tomorrow to give [the] armour another opportunity.’1 The corps' written order2 was received at 8.30 next morning.
1 Major-General Inglis' diary, 19 July.
General Gott defined his intention as ‘13 Corps will secure the track El Alamein-Abu Dweis between 869280 and 867276 and exploit to destroy the enemy forces.’ In a later part of the order, however, the attack and capture of the final ground objective, roughly three miles of the track due west of Mreir, was made subject to the enemy's reaction to earlier phases of the operation. The Indian Division's task in the first phase of the attack was clearly set out as the capture and consolidation of Deir el Shein and Point 63. By contrast, the ground to be taken by New Zealand Division was vaguely given as ‘thence south-west’ of Point 63. It was later defined as the eastern end of Mreir Depression. The infantry divisions were to arrange their own start lines within their present forward defensive localities and zero hour was set as 7.30 p.m. ‘probably 21 July.’ The 1st Armoured Division was ordered to protect the southern flank during the attack and to ‘be prepared to frustrate any enemy counter-attack up to dark.’ The task of 7 Armoured Division was given as ‘active harassing with particularly vigorous action from 7.30 p.m.’ and to ‘create a gap for 4th Light Armoured Brigade.’
The 1st Armoured Division was made responsible for carrying out the second phase of the attack, the capture of a line running south-westwards from Point 59 (two and a quarter miles west of Point 63) to the southern escarpment of Mreir. The division was to fix its own start line, and zero hour was not to be before eight o'clock in the morning after the initial attack. In addition to capturing the second objective, the division was also to protect the southern flank and maintain one armoured brigade in reserve. The two infantry divisions were ordered to occupy the ground won by the armour as rapidly as possible and consolidate.
General Gott's view of subsequent possibilities differed from that held by the Army command. He was not sure whether the enemy would continue to resist on the corps' front after the completion of Phase 2, and whether, if resistance collapsed, Rommel would retreat immediately or try to extricate his forces opposite 30 Corps in the northern sector. The corps' order endeavoured to provide for all these eventualities.
If resistance continued, 1 Armoured Division, supported by the artillery of 5 Indian and New Zealand Divisions, was to make another set-piece attack with the Alamein-Abu Dweis track as the probable objective. If resistance collapsed but enemy forces were still in front of 30 Corps, the armoured division was to break clear of Mreir Depression and move up the Alamein track to attack them page 327 in rear. At the same time, 7 Armoured Division was to move between Kaponga and Deir el Abyad to Sidi Abd el Rahman station to prevent the escape of the enemy in the northern sector. During these enclosing movements, 5 Indian and New Zealand Divisions were to consolidate on the second objective and mop up in their areas.
On the other hand, if Rommel initiated a general retreat all along the line, every effort was to be made to cut off and destroy his forces. To this end, 1 Armoured Division was to move on the centre line Mreir–Fuka escarpment with the task ‘as opportunity offers’ of preventing the escape of the enemy main and armoured forces. The 7th Armoured Division was to move to Fuka by the quickest route to prevent the enemy's escape. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was to pursue and harass as far west as Charing Cross, and the whole division was to be prepared to continue the pursuit as far as the frontier without pause. Also in this eventuality, 5 Indian Division was to secure Daba with a brigade of battle groups. New Zealand Division was to consolidate on the general line of the track between Deir el Abyad and Mreir and, as corps reserve, make itself ready to move westwards at short notice.
The order added that if and when the narrow envelopment or the pursuit developed, ‘all commanders must be prepared to act with extreme vigour. Without waiting for precise orders they must act within the spirit of these orders and carry out the pursuit relentlessly to the complete destruction of the enemy forces.’
As might be expected, these voluminous orders and the attempt to provide for every contingency after the initial battle had been won did not contribute to clear and precise direction. In retrospect, it seems that the higher commands and staffs would have been better engaged had they devoted more of their energies to ensuring against any possibility of failure in the first phase.
An intelligence summary giving the enemy strengths and dispositions as they were estimated at 8 p.m. on 19 July was circulated with the order. It showed 21 Panzer Division holding the Point 63–Deir el Shein area and 15 Division in Mreir and to the south, with 2 Battalion, 382 Regiment, on its right flank. Brescia Division was placed behind the panzer divisions in Deir el Abyad with Pavia on its northern flank. The Italian XX Armoured Corps (Ariete, Trieste, and Littorio) was shown as holding the Kaponga area. All this was reasonably accurate.
The estimated strengths of the German forces may be compared with a strength return compiled by the enemy on 21 July. The figures for the two panzer divisions, those of immediate concern to 13 Corps; are shown in the following table, the estimates being given page 328 first and the actual strengths according to the German return in parentheses below:
|Men||Guns||A-Tk Guns||Tanks||88-mm A-Tk Guns|
The summary also credited 90 Light Division with 3500 men, 20 field guns and 80 anti-tank guns, while 12,000 men, 75 field guns, 12 anti-tank guns, 29 tanks, and 44 88-millimetre anti-tank guns were credited to army and corps troops including 382 Regiment. The enemy report from which the strengths of the panzer divisions have been extracted does not give comparable figures for the other German formations. However, the report mentions that ‘at present we have 45 tanks and in the next four weeks 100 more can be made serviceable.’ Thus for the Battle of Mreir the Germans had 38 tanks forward and seven with the corps and army troops, against a total of 60 in the British estimate. The Italians had 51 tanks, or 19 fewer than they were credited with in the summary.
General Gott gave his divisions the whole of the morning of the 20th to make their tentative plans and then called the commanders to a corps conference at 1 Armoured Division's headquarters at 2.30 p.m. There he went through the corps' order paragraph by paragraph.
General Inglis was mainly concerned with the proposed zero hour and especially with the armoured support. He pointed out that at 7.30 p.m. the enemy would have the setting sun at their backs and thus the best observation of the day, while the attackers, looking into the sunset, would have no observation at all. He suggested that the opening of the artillery bombardment should be postponed until 8.30 p.m. and that the infantry should not move until a quarter of an hour later. These suggestions were accepted.
With the bitter experience at Ruweisat fresh in mind, Inglis went thoroughly into the question of armoured support. He said that 6 Brigade would attack the eastern tongue of Mreir during the night and that it would not be in a position to defend itself against enemy tanks until some hours after dawn. He therefore insisted that the British armour should be in Mreir at first light ready to deal with counter-attacks or with any enemy tanks overrun during the advance.
General Gatehouse, now commanding 1 Armoured Division, vice General Lumsden who had been wounded a few days earlier, offered to provide additional liaison officers with 6 Brigade Headquarters. Inglis accepted the offer but said it was not sufficient. In addition, page 329 reconnaissance tanks must be right up with the forward infantry and the armoured brigade should be in close support. Gott agreed that the reconnaissance tanks should be supplied, and Gatehouse gave an assurance that his supporting tanks would not at any stage be more than half a mile from the infantry. Inglis had to accept these arrangements, but before the conference broke up Gott recapitulated the role of the armour in the first phase as ‘to closely support and frustrate any counter-attack against 6 NZ Brigade.’
El Mreir: The advance and dawn counter-attack, 22 July 1942
1 NZ Division Operation Order No. 13, 21 July.
The obvious route for the assault was through 5 Brigade's sector on the front held by 23 Battalion but Inglis ruled that it would be too risky to add to the congestion in that area. In addition, it was believed that there was a minefield of some depth and strength on the route which might severely hamper the advance of the brigade, particularly its supporting weapons. Brigadier Clifton therefore was left with the choice of moving out from 26 Battalion's front, or of swinging his whole brigade out into the wide no-man's-land on to start lines facing north by north-east and at right angles to his forward defended localities. He proposed a compromise under which 26 Battalion would have a start line close to its defences, while 24 and 25 Battalions moved out into no-man's-land on to start lines in 26th's left rear. This decision was approved.
The chosen axis of advance offered the advantage of easy and quick deployment on the start lines without undue hindrance from the enemy or the risk of creating congestion and confusion within the Division's lines. It also brought the brigade square on to the objective. The main disadvantages were the length of 24 and 25 Battalion's approach marches—between 2500 and 3000 yards—and the fact that on the way to Mreir the brigade's left flank was likely to brush some enemy posts.
These posts were in the area held by advanced elements of Ariete Division, the Lindemann Battle Group and Huelsen Group. The defended areas had been located by patrols but they had not been probed. The posts, however, appeared to be widely scattered and were not considered a serious factor. It was thought that Clifton's proposed dispositions during his advance and on his objectives would take care of possible interference from this quarter. As an additional precaution, 18 Battalion was ordered to move to the area occupied by 6 Brigade Headquarters and, from 9 to 10 p.m., to cover the left flank of the brigade's advance with machine-gun and mortar fire. Later, with a battery of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, two troops from 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment and two companies of machine-gunners under command, the battalion was to move out to the left flank of the brigade. The Division's operation order states that the group's role in this second position was to cover the redeployment of 5 Field Regiment from Alam Nayil to the area vacated by 24 Battalion. Contemporary reports and comments, however, suggest that this was a secondary role to the prime task of covering 6 Brigade's flank and rear. As a further guard, patrols of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment were ordered to cover the group's southern flank from first light.page 331
Besides giving supporting mortar and machine-gun fire from 8.50 to 9.30 p.m., 5 Brigade was ordered to send one battalion forward to Point 69, roughly half a mile south-east of the eastern end of Mreir, before dawn. The remainder of the brigade was to be in divisional reserve. The engineers were instructed to co-operate with 5 Indian Division in clearing a gap 2000 yards wide between the crest of Ruweisat Ridge and Mreir up to the objective. This work was to be completed by 6.30 a.m. on the 22nd, after which the New Zealand sappers were to widen their portion of the gap to a mile south of their boundary with the Indians. The CRE, Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson, decided to supervise the operation personally and arranged with Divisional Signals for a No. 11 wireless set in a truck to be available to the lifting parties, which were to be drawn from 7 Field Company and 5 Field Park Company.
The artillery programme prepared by the CRA, Brigadier Weir, provided for timed concentrations on known enemy strongpoints on the brigade axis up to the first objective, and then a switch to the second objective, the programme to start at 5.30 p.m. and finish at 10.45 p.m. Each of the three field regiments was to reserve one battery for special tasks. The rate of fire was to be ‘troop fire 10 seconds’—one gun in each troop firing every ten seconds—for two to three minutes on stated targets. It was expected that the field regiments would fire about 2400 rounds of high-explosive shells.
Signals plans were prepared by Headquarters of Divisional Signals. The wireless plan linked 5 and 6 Brigades, the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, and General Inglis' reconnaissance set through No. 9 sets to Main Divisional Headquarters. The reconnaissance set could also be switched to connect with 13 Corps' tactical headquarters. The line communications provided for a cable to be laid from advanced headquarters of 6 Brigade back to the brigade's rear headquarters to join existing connections with Divisional Headquarters and 5 Brigade. The 18th Battalion was also to be linked by cable to Rear Headquarters 6 Brigade.
Brigadier A. F. Fisher, commanding 22 Armoured Brigade, represented Major-General Gatehouse at the conference and considerable pressure was put on him to move the supporting tanks forward during the night. He refused on the grounds that the tanks could not fight even in moonlight and were reluctant to move at all by night. He maintained this attitude even when Brigadiers Kippenberger and Clifton stressed that the German tanks moved and fought at night. Fisher also refused Clifton's request that one armoured regiment should be placed under his direct command for the advance. The infantry commanders had therefore to accept renewed assurances that the tanks would be ordered to move up in support as soon as there was light enough for them to move, and page 332 the arrangements Fisher made for tank liaison officers to be with 6 Brigade during its attack.1
In spite of this defect in the plans and a belief that the artillery preparation was insufficient,2 Clifton was sanguine concerning the success of the battle. He was specially warned by General Inglis, on the example of 4 Brigade at Ruweisat, against taking his headquarters too far forward among the assaulting troops. On the other hand, Kippenberger, with memories of the failure of the British tanks at Ruweisat fresh in his mind, was pessimistic. On his return to his command truck he turned everyone out except the brigade major and intelligence officer, and then ordered the following entry to be made in the brigade log: ‘The Brigadier has returned from the divisional conference and says there will be another bloody disaster.’3
1 The insistence of the armour commanders that they could not operate at night is surprising in view of the fact that on three occasions in the preceding eight months 1 Army Tank Brigade had made successful night attacks, having trained for the purpose. At Ed Duda on the night of 26 November 1941 two squadrons of 44 Royal Tank Regiment led 19 NZ Battalion in a completely successful attack, taking many prisoners and guns with the loss of one tank and two infantrymen wounded. At Bardia on the nights of 1 and 2 January, 8 and 44 Royal Tank Regiments led two South African battalions in completely successful assaults on strongly fortified German positions, in each case with very slight loss. These operations were apparently not sufficiently widely known, though it was known that the Germans’ tanks frequently operated and moved at night. On later occasions, at Tebaga Gap in March 1943, at Hammamet in April 1943, in Operation totalize in Normandy in August 1944, and at Rimini in October 1944, large armoured formations attacked at night with outstanding success. Special preparation and thorough training were of course necessary.—cf. an article by Major H. B. C. Watkins in the Army Quarterly, October 1953.
2 Brigadier Clifton's personal diary, 21 July: ‘Fair amount of artillery preparation but won't really be enough to help us in and must depend—as usual—on infantry mainly.’
An appreciation of the enemy in the opening paragraphs of 1 Armoured Division's operation order1 is of special interest. It notes that the ‘depleted German forces’ had been dispersed over the whole front among the Italians and that the German armour had been concentrated in the centre and the Italian armour to the south, and then continues:
The enemy has made strenuous efforts to deny us Ruweisat Ridge, and has tried to counter every fwd move by us in that area. There is no reason to believe that he will not vigorously resist an attack in that quarter. For this reason he has made strong pts in the areas Deir el Shein, El Mireir, Qaret el Abd [Kaponga], covered by FDLs running SW from Pt 64 (876279) [i.e., Pt 63] to the 87–27 intersection [Kaponga area] and by what are suspected to be extensive minefields.
Thus it is clear that the armoured division knew that the infantry and tanks would strike directly against the main concentration of enemy armour and that the initial phases of the operation were likely to be severe. The appreciation may be contrasted with 13 Corps' and Army orders, which briefly refer to the concentration of the German panzer divisions and, with the emphasis on pursuit, leave the impression that the all-important first phases would be more or less a walk-over.
General Gatehouse instructed 22 Armoured Brigade to protect New Zealand Division's southern flank during the actual attack by fire and, if necessary, by armoured action. After the capture or partial capture of the first objective, 2 Armoured Brigade Group was to prepare to frustrate any enemy counter-attack until Phase 2 began. For this purpose one armoured regiment was to be maintained on Ruweisat Ridge and the remainder of the group in readiness in the general area of Alam el Dihmaniya.
1 Armoured Division Operation Order No. 24, 20 July. The complete orders for the armour covering the whole of the operation required 12 pages of typing and 14 message forms. Only those parts of immediate concern to New Zealand Division are dealt with here.
Gatehouse made Phase 2 conditional on the successful clearing of the minefield and the necessary artillery support being available. Provided these conditions were met, the attack was to be made even if Phase 1 were only partly successful. He ordered 23 Armoured Brigade to be on its start line for Phase 2 by not later than 7 a.m. The start line was not to be crossed before 8 a.m., and then only on receipt of an order from divisional headquarters giving the exact time the advance was to be made.
A separate order for the subsequent phases of the operation was issued shortly before midday on the 21st. By this order 2 Armoured Brigade was to carry out Phase 3, the advance to the Alamein-Abu Dweis track, but at five o'clock, that is within four hours of zero, this arrangement was cancelled. The 23rd Brigade was made responsible for both Phase 2 and Phase 3 and 2 Brigade was given a reserve role.
The 5th Indian Division gave its 161 Motor Brigade the task of capturing the first objective. The 9th Indian Infantry Brigade was ordered to move through the captured positions in the wake of 23 Armoured Brigade's tanks and consolidate on the second objective.
In the third phase, the division was to help with artillery fire and in consolidating any ground won, or to start for Daba with a brigade of battle groups according to the way the enemy reacted. The 9th Brigade was made responsible for clearing the minefields in the divisional sector south of Ruweisat Ridge, and the 20th Field Company, Indian Engineers, was specially ordered to arrange for close co-operation in the work with the New Zealand engineers. It is of moment that the mine-lifting was made a brigade instead of a divisional task, and also that the work was given to a brigade which, with its engineers, was expected to move forward almost as soon as the gap was made in the minefield.
The condition and dispositions of Panzerarmee and Rommel's expectations are set out in a special appreciation he made on 21 July for his German superiors. Thus the situation at zero hour from the enemy point of view may be stated with unusual accuracy.
After mentioning that he had been compelled to go over to the defensive on 16 July, Rommel said the situation had eased as, by interspersing German units among the Italians, the danger of a breakthrough on a broad front in the Italian sector had diminished considerably. The crisis, however, continued, and would continue until enough forces were available to permit the front line to be page 335 occupied more densely, the mobile troops withdrawn into reserve for mobile defence, and the construction of obstacles on the front line completed.
The German forces were down to 30 per cent of their authorised personnel, 15 per cent of their tank establishments, 70 per cent of the artillery, 40 per cent of the anti-tank guns, and 50 per cent of the heavy anti-aircraft guns. Their fighting quality had also suffered through diminishing resilience, the result of uninterrupted campaigning, heavy casualties among seasoned personnel, and the lack of weapons, particularly armour and anti-tank guns. Newly-arrived reserves were inadequately trained. The mobility of the divisions had been impaired by the losses of mechanised transport and by the increased diversion of trucks for supply purposes.
Rommel said that in the disaster of 10 July Italian units approximating the strength of four divisions had been lost, and that the Italian forces were down to between 20 and 30 per cent of establishments in men and equipment. None of the Italian formations, except the artillery, could be regarded as an addition to Panzerarmee's fighting strength.
Reviewing the British forces, Rommel said that the 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions and 5th Indian Division had been badly mauled during the preceding operations [the fighting at Gazala-Bir Hacheim and in the retreat to Alamein]. Their fighting quality, however, had been considerably increased by recent reinforcement in men and tanks. The New Zealand and 9th Australian Divisions must be credited with extraordinary efficiency in battle as they had a long period of training and rest behind them. For this reason they were easily the best British infantry divisions at the time.
After acknowledging the mobility and versatility of the British field artillery and the heavy losses being inflicted by the Royal Air Force, Rommel looked to the future. He thought reforming the British divisions would proceed rapidly and that new units would be available. The 50th, 1st South African, and 5th Indian Divisions might be fully battleworthy by the middle of August, by which time another armoured division and an infantry division, ‘at present assembled in the home country for embarkation’, could be expected.
‘With the forces at present available in this war theatre,’ Rommel continued, ‘the enemy will hardly undertake a large-scale attack with a long-range objective. He will, however, attempt to continue with his recent tactics, i.e., attacks with a limited objective, namely the wrenching out of isolated front sectors, particularly Italian-occupied areas. These tactics will be the more employed as the enemy replenishment of the divisions progresses. After the arrival of the reinforcements, as soon as the British command has sufficient forces available, it can be expected to go over to the counter-offensive in page 336 order to eliminate the danger to Egypt and the Middle East caused by the advance of Panzerarmee.’
Rommel set out in detail his urgent requirements in troops and equipment and concluded his appreciation with a statement of his intention to remain on the defensive until his forces were fitted to resume the advance in the direction of Alexandria or Cairo. During this period small-scale attacks might be considered in the framework of mobile defence or with a view to improving the positions. Should the political situation render necessary a withdrawal of British forces from Egypt, the offensive might be launched at an earlier date. Should this not happen, it would be necessary to destroy the British field army, if need be in separate operations, before the breakthrough to Alexandria and Cairo.
To sum up the planning and situation as zero hour approached:
While Eighth Army Headquarters believed it had the whip hand of the enemy, it pessimistically strengthened the defences between the forward zone and Cairo. Auchinleck appears to have ignored the defeat on Ruweisat Ridge the previous week and to have drawn from the operation only the obvious conclusion that the enemy was sensitive in that sector.
It might be deduced from the Army order of the 17th, with its policy of first destroying the Italians in the north, that Army Headquarters had appreciated some of the lessons of the earlier battles in which the Germans had invariably supplied the only effective resistance and by their vigorous ripostes had denied complete success to the attacking forces. There was also the special, indeed the outstanding, lesson that the British armour was showing itself, to say the least, extremely reluctant to use its overwhelming weight to destroy the few remaining German tanks.
How little these lessons were appreciated became apparent when the policy of the 17th was so quickly abandoned in favour of a hastily-drawn plan for an attack by part of the Army against the enemy's strongest sector. This sector, Eighth Army Headquarters knew, was supported by the concentrated German armour. It seems that the revived optimism at headquarters converted by thought alone distant possibilities into probabilities and then into established facts. So, in a spate of orders which flowed to the troops right up to zero hour, the winning of the preliminary battle at Mreir and on Ruweisat became subordinated to its possible aftermath of rolling up Panzerarmee or chasing its remnants to the frontier.
The winning of the preliminary battle—first catch your hare—was not taken lightly by the divisions engaged. They planned their operations in detail so far as they could. But the plans with which page 337 they were required to conform did not permit them to concentrate on a knockout blow. On the contrary, the enemy was to be given a series of more or less light punches with relatively long intervals between them. The fighting since 10 July had revealed that the Germans were skilled in taking advantage of these intervals and in delivering hard blows in return.
Numerically, 13 Corps alone was strong enough to send Rommel's centre reeling with a concentrated knockout blow. Against four weak, tired, and widely dispersed battalions of the German 104 and 115 Infantry Regiments about Point 63 and in and south of Mreir and the remains of Brescia Division in Deir el Shein, it could put three infantry brigades, of which one, the 6th New Zealand, was fresh and up to strength. These could have the support of nine field regiments and one medium regiment, supplemented by the fire of 1 Armoured Division's guns as well as supporting fire from 30 Corps on the northern flank. Rommel was reduced to counting his guns singly, or at the most, in troops or batteries of three.
In tanks also, 13 Corps had an overwhelming numerical superiority. The 2nd Armoured Brigade alone had 123 Grants, Crusaders, and Stuarts against Rommel's combined total of 96 German and Italian tanks. The 22nd Armoured Brigade had roughly the same number and, in addition, the two regiments of 23 Brigade had close on 100 Valentines. Again, 2 Armoured Brigade had 60 Grants, which were superior to any of Rommel's tanks except his Mark III Specials, of which he had no more than six, and his Mark IV Specials, of which there were two or three but without ammunition.
Rommel was apprehensive of the increasing British strength. Although he considered the situation had eased, he doubted the ability of his army to withstand many more of the attacks of attrition to which it was being subjected. He did not know that Eighth Army was then thinking in terms of his complete destruction, or that he was on the eve of one of the best defensive victories of his career.