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Battle for Egypt

CHAPTER 30 — Advance of Sixth Brigade

page 338

Advance of Sixth Brigade

THROUGHOUT the 21st the Royal Air Force bombed Afrika Korps' sector on a scale described by 15 Panzer Division as ‘hardly ever seen before.’ The division surmised that an effort was being made to knock out headquarters and guns in preparation for an attack. The evening ‘rolling bombing’ attacks and increased artillery fire were noticed by 90 Light Division, which recorded in its diary that it ‘is prepared for anything and awaits an attack.’ These and other reports of increased British reconnaissance during the day, and what at the time were described as ‘local thrusts’ towards Kaponga and Deir el Shein, caused Panzerarmee Headquarters to report that night: ‘It was not impossible that the enemy would try to launch another major attack in the central sector.’

Thus the enemy appears to have been on the alert when, between 8.30 and 9 p.m., 6 New Zealand Brigade and 161 Indian Motor Brigade moved into the attack under cover of artillery, mortar and air bombardment. Until about midnight the battle proceeded more or less according to plan. Thereafter it broke into a series of disconnected incidents. These are difficult to follow unless the picture of the operation as a whole is first drawn in broad terms.

The Indians attacked with two battalions forward and one in reserve. The forward battalions could not take their objectives and suffered so severely that they had to be withdrawn. A later attack by the reserve battalion captured Point 63, which was held during the morning until the failure of operations elsewhere also compelled withdrawal.

All three battalions of 6 Brigade reached Mreir. On the right the 26th ran into German tanks, some of which were destroyed. The battalion was unable to make contact with the remainder of the brigade and, because of its casualties and its inability to defend itself, withdrew on to 5 Brigade before first light. In the centre, 24 Battalion was joined by brigade headquarters and 25 Battalion. At first light enemy tanks which had been firing on them during the night closed in. Only a few officers and men got away. The 18th Battalion group on the left flank was driven back by tanks, but held its main position until it was ordered to withdraw.

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After an early morning consultation between Gott and Gatehouse, 23 Armoured Brigade was sent on its mission, notwithstanding that the gap in the minefield had not been cleared and the situation in Mreir Depression was unknown. The two regiments of the brigade made a latter-day Balaclava charge with guns to the right, left, and in front of them and the further striking parallel of a mistake in orders. The objective was reached, but the brigade was so shattered that the remnants had to be withdrawn by midday. Although 13 Corps and 1 Armoured Division were advised during the night that tanks in Mreir were attacking 6 Brigade, 2 and 22 Armoured Brigades waited until after daylight before they moved. By that time the infantry in Mreir had been overrun.

On 13 Corps' right, the South Africans secured a small depression to keep 30 Corps' left flank level with 13 Corps. In the northern sector, attacks by the Australians to assist 13 Corps' operations were only partly successful. The eastern end of Tell el Eisa was taken and held, but the feature itself could not be captured. The south-eastern end of the Makh Khad ridge was also captured. A hastily prepared attack against Miteiriya in the afternoon of the 22nd failed with the loss of half of 50 Royal Tank Regiment's tanks. In the south, the enemy stopped 69 Brigade from taking the features which blocked an advance by 4 Light Armoured Brigade and 7 Motor Brigade to Panzerarmee's rear.

It was still daylight when 24 and 25 Battalions moved with widely dispersed sections from their defences to the assembly areas and start lines in no-man's-land. Huelsen Group, and probably Lindemann, saw the movement and engaged it with artillery and machine guns. The fire did some damage but generally was more disconcerting than anything else.

A little trouble of a nature fairly frequent in desert operations was experienced in adjusting the start lines chosen from the map to the situation on the ground. Reconnaissance by the intelligence officers of both battalions in the afternoon disclosed that the map lines were in full view of the enemy. They laid out new lines in the cover of a small depression about 400 yards south of 24 Battalion's map line. As this brought the battalions side by side instead of in echelon as the brigade plan required, another line further in rear was fixed for 25 Battalion later in the afternoon. These changes caused a little confusion and delay to one of the 25th's companies.

Having a much shorter distance to go, Lieutenant-Colonel Peart held 26 Battalion in its defences until dark. The battalion was shelled in the evening and also had the misfortune to receive a few bombs the Royal Air Force intended for Mreir. The start line was page 340 crossed at nine o'clock, and fifty minutes later the leading troops, A and D Companies, reached the slope leading down into the eastern end of the depression. In the advance they encountered only a few isolated posts which were quickly subdued.

Confused fighting developed with infantry posts in a minefield on the lip of the depression and then with tanks as the companies moved down the slope to their objective. Lieutenant Williams1 knocked out one tank with a sticky bomb and another was thought to have been damaged. The tanks withdrew across the floor of the depression but continued firing. By this time casualties were mounting and many men had lost touch with their companies. In D Company, which had been the first to meet the tanks, most of the officers including the commander, Captain Young,2 were either wounded or missing. The remnants joined A Company under Captain Richards3 on the objective. A quick count revealed that the combined force had been reduced to about thirty-five men. Richards laid out a defensive area pending the arrival of B Company in reserve and battalion headquarters.

By eleven o'clock B Company, which had encountered little opposition and suffered only a few casualties, was in position behind Richards, and Peart had set up his battalion headquarters. The vehicle column was not so fortunate. It had deviated from the axis of advance into the minefield, in which two carriers were blown up. While search was being made for the gap being cleared by the engineers, tanks destroyed a two-pounder portée and the battalion's ammunition truck, including the reserve supply of sticky bombs. The column was withdrawn under this attack. When eventually the gap was found another two-pounder was lost on a mine.

While the battalion was consolidating its position, patrols endeavoured to make contact with 24 Battalion and brigade headquarters. The first patrol returned half an hour after midnight with the disquieting report that it had been unable to find any other New Zealand troops but that four enemy tanks were close to B Company. Peart did not have to reflect deeply to realise that his battalion was in a precarious situation. But there was no lack of spirit in the 26th. Infantrymen stalked the tanks and set one of them on fire with a sticky bomb. In the light of the flames, a two-pounder which had just arrived engaged another tank. Heavy return fire put the two-pounder out of action and forced the infantrymen into cover.

1 Lt-Col J. R. Williams, DSO, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 27 Jul 1911; solicitor; CO Div Cav Bn Jan–Apr 1945; three times wounded.

2 Capt R. M. Young; Christchurch; born Palmerston North, 24 Jun 1913; solicitor; wounded and p.w. 22 Jul 1942.

3 Lt-Col E.E. Richards, DSO, m.i.d.; Nelson; born Kumara, 6 Dec 1915; civil servant; CO 26 Bn Dec 1943–Apr 1944.

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More patrols were sent out and Peart also sent his adjutant, Captain Hall,1 with Captain McKinlay,2 in a carrier down the axis of advance to report the situation and bring up support. Hall reached Rear Brigade Headquarters at three o'clock and over the telephone gave General Inglis Peart's appreciation of the situation. He learned that Division had been advised at midnight that the battalion had reached its objective and had encountered tanks. Inglis told Hall that he had ordered Brigadier Clifton to send some six-pounder guns to the battalion, and that he had been in contact with 1 Armoured Division which had promised to have its tanks in the depression at first light. Hall was to go back and give this information to Peart.

After collecting some carriers and a supply of sticky bombs, Hall and McKinlay, with the battalion's doctor, Lieutenant Rutherford,3 set out for Mreir which was reached just before first light. On the way Rutherford was dropped to attend the crew of one of the carriers which was blown up by a mine.

About four o'clock Peart called his remaining officers together to discuss the situation. All the patrols had reported that they had met only enemy. They had not found any sign of other parts of the brigade. They had als definitely established that there were at least eight or nine enemy tanks within a few hundred yards of the battalion. There might even be more, as a German prisoner had volunteered the information that 23 tanks had laagered in the depression. Peart was sure the Germans would counter-attack about five o'clock as soon as it was light enough, and that his battalion, in its depleted condition and without anti-tank guns, would not survive more than a few minutes. Before taking the drastic step of ordering a withdrawal he sent an officer and two men to make a fast sweep through 24 Battalion's objective. The patrol returned just before 4.30 with a report that it had not found any sign of friendly troops to the west. Peart thereupon ordered the battalion to retire. Although it was daylight before the last troops cleared the depression, the enemy did not interfere except with some smallarms fire. The Germans were then engaged in overrunning 24 and 25 Battalions and brigade headquarters.

On the way out Peart met Hall, who gave him General Inglis' message. As there were still no signs of British armoured support or of the six-pounder anti-tank guns, Peart carried on with the

1 Capt H. J. Hall; Christchurch; born Timaru, 8 Sep 1912; architect; wounded and p.w.4 Sep 1942.

2 Maj A. R. McKinlay; Lawrence; born Lawrence, 21 Mar 1914; assistant company manager.

3 Capt A. M. Rutherford, MC and bar; Lower Hutt; born Dunedin, 27 Mar 1915; medical practitioner; wounded 22 Mar 1943.

page 342 withdrawal. He directed B Company, which was still relatively intact, to take up a position by Point 69 on the left of 21 Battalion's outpost and to co-ordinate its action with that battalion against any counter-attack that might develop. The remainder of the 26th were taken back to the battalion's original area. Peart then went on to the brigade's rear headquarters whence he reported his actions to General Inglis.

In his dispositions for 24 Battalion's advance, Lieutenant-Colonel Greville took precautions against interference by the enemy on his left whose strength was not known. He put D Company on the right, followed by part of battalion headquarters. B Company led on the left, with C Company following with the special duty of guarding the left flank. Greville took a small tactical headquarters forward with D Company. All companies were ordered to check the direction of advance independently.

The leading companies crossed the start line at 8.30 and almost immediately ran into bursts of machine-gun fire, probably from Huelsen Group. Some of the fire appeared to follow the advance but most of it was on fixed lines revealed by tracer bullets. This fire was negotiated with few casualties, but shortly afterwards a minefield with a number of enemy posts on a slight rise was encountered. The minefield was crossed quickly and the opposition subdued. The enemy in these posts cannot be definitely identified. They may have been the left-flank posts of 2 Battalion, 382 Regiment, in Huelsen Group.

It seems clear, however, that within a few more minutes the battalion was fully engaged with the remains of 3 Battalion, 115 Regiment, which, behind a minefield on the lip of Mreir, was covering 5 Panzer Regiment's laager. The battalion was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Warrelmann, who had been commissioned in 1934 after thirteen years' service in the ranks. Most of his service in Africa had been with a machine-gun battalion and he had been given his present appointment in April 1942. Warrelmann held the German Cross in Gold and two Iron Crosses. He was reported on as a very keen, vigorous, strong-willed character who had difficulty in controlling a hasty temper. He was considered a good tactician and an excellent commander in action.

Warrelmann's group could not stop 24 Battalion but it exacted a heavy price for its positions. On the right, D Company spread out in trying to clear up the area and became scattered. Machine guns firing on fixed lines caught many of the men, and the company commander, Major Beyer, and several of his officers were wounded. The survivors were rallied by the company sergeant-major, WO II page 343 McLauchlan,1 and were taken forward by the intelligence officer, Second-Lieutenant Wilcox,2 who had caught up. Wilcox carried on to the objective against light and scattered opposition. In a quick reconnaissance he discovered an isolated platoon from 25 Battalion on his left and his own battalion's transport group some distance behind. Through the No. 18 wireless set with the carrier platoon he established contact with Greville, who directed him to bring D Company on to battalion headquarters, whose position would be indicated by flare signals. Wilcox completed this mission about 2.30 a.m.

B Company on the left was more intent on pushing through to the objective than on mopping up. Led by its commander, Captain Conolly,3 the company charged the enemy posts with great dash and was soon through the defended area. Conolly was wounded, and although he tried to carry on he had to hand over the company to Lieutenant Brash,4 who pushed on with about twenty-seven men. On the objective, Brash had defences dug on the reverse side of a slight rise and put two men on the crest as observers. They reported that enemy tanks and troops were not very far off down the forward slope. Patrols located other enemy to the west and battalion headquarters to the rear, to which Brash then led his small force.

One of B Company's platoons had broken away from the main group in the fighting, probably towards the numerous enemy posts on the left flank. When it tried to resume the advance it found itself almost surrounded. It broke clear and eventually worked its way back to Rear Brigade Headquarters.

C Company became more tangled with the enemy than the others. Its movements are obscure but it seems to have been drawn to the left instead of following B Company. On this route it had to fight its way forward along the line of the enemy. The commander, Captain Beesley,5 was killed and the company suffered severely. The survivors broke into small groups, some of which succeeded in rejoining the battalion on the objective. Others made their way back during the night.

In spite of some confusion concerning the battalion and brigade axes, the sappers of 8 Field Company did a good job in clearing passages through the minefields, with the result that Greville had his transport on the objective by about 2.30. His force now comprised

1 WO II R. McLauchlan; born NZ 18 Aug 1915; Regular soldier; p.w. 22 Jul 1942; died while p.w. (Benghazi) 9 Oct 1942.

2 Capt N. B. Wilcox; Auckland; born Waihi, 3 Jan 1914; insurance inspector; p.w. 22 Jul 1942.

3 Lt-Col J. Conolly, DSO, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Waihi, 15 Aug 1908; school teacher; CO 24 Bn 16 Dec 1942–5 Feb 1944, 20 Mar-22 Apr 1944; wounded 21 Jul 1942.

4 Capt D. G. Brash; New Plymouth; born NZ 2 Nov 1916; clerk; p.w. 22 Jul 1942.

5 Capt J. Beesley; born England, 7 Mar 1909; hairdresser; killed in action 21 Jul 1942.

page 344 about eighty riflemen, ten Bren carriers, four 3-inch mortars, seven two-pounder and four six-pounder anti-tank guns, and two Vickers guns. Greville disposed the force as best he could in the dark and gave orders to dig in before dawn. He sent his adjutant, Captain Turtill,1 in a carrier to make contact with 26 Battalion in whose area tracer machine-gun fire could be seen. Turtill unfortunately ran into an enemy post and was taken prisoner.

About 3.30 the battalion was joined by Brigadier Clifton with the brigade headquarters' vehicle column. The support weapons brought by the brigadier were handed over to Greville, but as it was impossible to site the anti-tank guns in the dark most of them were left either on portée on the ground to await dawn. At first light, about five o'clock, 25 Battalion reached the area, and enemy fire, which had been spasmodic for some time, increased considerably.

The 25th Battalion on the brigade's left rear was shelled and machine-gunned in its assembly area and on the start line but got away in good order and in good time. Lieutenant-Colonel George2 put A Company on the right and B on the left, with C Company in reserve behind B. The leading companies encountered the machine guns which had engaged 24 Battalion in the early stages of that battalion's advance. These were quickly dealt with by bullet and bayonet but, as so often happened in night fighting, some cohesion was lost. Parts of A Company in the course of the fight moved to the right and found themselves with 24 Battalion, with whom they continued the advance. This spreading of the front left B Company without contact on its right flank and caused it to lose one of its platoons, which carried on into Mreir past the battalion's objective on the pipeline.

By one o'clock most of A and B Companies and battalion headquarters were on the objective, from which they cleared confused groups of Germans and Italians. Lieutenant-Colonel George laid out preliminary dispositions and then sent runners to bring in the battalion transport and to find C Company. The vehicle column had some trouble with minefields and soft going, and on one occasion it was disclosed to the enemy by flares dropped by the Royal Air Force, a truck being set on fire. The initiative of Corporal Broad,3 an ex-sapper serving with the battalion, in clearing a track through the mines permitted the column to continue its advance until it met a battalion patrol when it was on the point of bypassing the objective and moving into enemy territory.

1 Capt K. S. Turtill; Auckland; born England, 20 Feb 1914; schoolmaster; wounded and p.w. 22 Jul 1942.

2 Lt-Col C. D. A. George, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 9 Mar 1906; draper; CO 25 Bn Dec 1941–Jul 1942; p.w. 22 Jul 1942.

3 Cpl J. E. Broad; Wadestown; born NZ 14 Sep 1912; purser; p.w. 22 Jul 1942.

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Colonel George now had about eighty riflemen of A and B Companies with some stragglers, seven two-pounders, one six-pounder (the other three attached to the battalion had become stuck in soft sand during the advance), two mortar detachments in carriers, most of the battalion's carriers and two Vickers guns in carriers. In compliance with orders received from Brigadier Clifton just before the transport arrived, the battalion closed on 24 Battalion and brigade headquarters in Mreir at dawn as the enemy was about to mount his counter-attack.

The missing C Company had a night of adventure in the enemy's rear. After passing through the first minefield, the company came under very heavy machine-gun fire from its left, the volume of tracer bullets being great enough to light the desert and force the riflemen to hug the ground. As soon as he had taken stock of the situation the company commander, Captain Wroth,1 shouted to the men to run forward. With a sharp sprint most of 14 and 15 Platoons and company headquarters cleared the beaten zone. Casualties were extraordinarily light but the whole of 13 Platoon was missing. Some of the men said they had seen the platoon swing to the left to engage the enemy.

Rather than wait for the missing platoon which he thought would catch up, Wroth pressed on after the battalion with which he was now out of touch. Signs of recent and hasty evacuation of enemy trenches suggested that the leading companies could not be far ahead. When he failed to find the battalion, Wroth assumed from the flat and stony nature of the ground that Colonel George had moved further forward in search of a better defensive area. About 1000 yards ahead of the track, Lieutenant Matthews2 sent a section to investigate a position seen on the left. As the section closed in, it was greeted with cries of Kamerad and then with fire, whereupon Matthews led the remainder of the platoon in a bayonet charge which, for the loss of two men, accounted for about eight enemy killed and wounded and the hurried withdrawal of about twenty more with a light tracked vehicle. Matthews put an abandoned anti-tank gun out of commission with blows from a rifle butt.

Attracted by sounds of activity to the north, Wroth continued the advance until his company was nearly two miles beyond the point at which it had crossed the pipeline. Here he found himself in desert illuminated by the Royal Air Force and close to considerable activity. While Wroth and his officers were considering this situation they heard tanks starting up. Then they saw an enemy

1 Maj C.S. Wroth, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 6 Mar 1915; Regular soldier; BM 6 Bde Oct–Nov 1944; Camp Commandant, Burnham MC, 1947–48.

2 Capt R. H. Matthews, m.i.d.; Hatuma, Waipukurau; born Gisborne, 22 Dec 1913; shipping clerk; wounded 22 Mar 1943.

page 346 staff car circle the company and tanks following in its tracks. Without further ado, Wroth withdrew the company at the best possible speed.

The withdrawal was made amidst a display of fireworks from enemy flares which seemed to rise on all sides. Near the pipeline the way back was blocked by a convoy of trucks and tanks. As the ends of the column were out of sight, Wroth led a breakthrough with the company converging at the double on a truck at which a grenade was hurled. A sticky bomb was also thrown at a tank. The suddenness of the onslaught so disconcerted the Germans that four of them surrendered and the company got clear without being fired on. Wroth then took his men to the east on to the brigade axis with the intention of rejoining his battalion at first light, but when he learned of the debacle in Mreir he marched the company back to its original position.

A misunderstanding concerning axes of advance and difficulties with minefields hampered the advance of 6 Brigade Headquarters. Brigadier Clifton ordered the brigade axis to be about 600 yards to the east of that of 24 Battalion, but the battalion's intelligence officer had the impression that brigade headquarters was to follow his unit and the brigade sappers went with him. The misunderstanding caused the brigade reconnaissance party to lose its two vehicles on an uncleared minefield and compelled the brigade headquarters and transport to follow 24 Battalion.

While waiting for 24 Battalion's vehicles to pass through the gap in the first minefield, Clifton investigated firing to the west and found a party from 18 Battalion withdrawing into the minefield under threat from about five enemy tanks. These were probably from Ariete Division. As the party had used what little equipment it had had for countering tanks, the brigadier left three six-pounder anti-tank guns to help the 18th in keeping the gap open.

Clifton had with him three liaison officers from 2 and 22 Armoured Brigade headquarters and 6 Royal Tank Regiment, the unit specially detailed to protect the brigade against counter-attack. He had been perturbed when he found that these officers had been detailed to him without being fully briefed on the operation. However, the manner in which they handled their vehicles, a Crusader and a Honey tank and an armoured car, strengthened his belief that the British armour would have no trouble in moving in the dark to his support if required. The presence of the liaison officers' tanks was possibly a reason why the brigade column was not challenged by the enemy as it made its way forward in single file through rocky outcrops and abandoned defences. The column's worst misfortune was the loss of one of the defence platoon's trucks, page 347 which was blown up by a mine on a track previously negotiated by two jeeps and the two tanks.

Throughout his advance Clifton was in constant touch by wireless with the battalion transport columns, but these were not in contact with their rifle companies. Shortly after one o'clock he reported through Rear Brigade Headquarters that he had reached the pipeline. A little over an hour later he was in wireless contact with Greville, who fired a green over green light signal to give the brigade column a bearing on which to continue its advance. The rendezvous on 24 Battalion was reached about 3.30.

When Clifton learned that 24 Battalion was out of touch with the 26th, he called up 25 Battalion with the intention that at dawn it should move towards the 26th's area. He then reported to Division that he had reached 24 Battalion's objective and asked Colonel Gentry to ensure that tank support came up quickly. At the same time he asked a tank liaison officer to call his headquarters. Clifton climbed on to the tank and heard this officer report the situation with a request for tank support at first light.

By now firing in the depression had decreased to sporadic bursts of tracer from the enemy machine guns. The New Zealanders were digging in as best they could, but in most places a rock shelf a few inches below the surface sand prevented the excavation of effective trenches. The majority of the crews of the support weapons were awaiting light before siting and digging in their weapons. As was usual at that hour, the weaker wireless sets failed but brigade headquarters had communication with Divisional Headquarters through its No. 9 set. The line cable to a forward signals office had not come up and Captain Laugesen1 and five of his men from L Section of Divisional Signals went back to find it. They did not return and were later reported missing.

When Lieutenant-Colonel George arrived with 25 Battalion just on five o'clock, the number of officers and men in the group, including headquarters, the crews of the support weapons and drivers, was about 600. In detail, there were approximately 160 riflemen and 22 carriers, 10 3-inch mortars, 10 six-pounders, 14 two-pounders, 10 Vickers guns. All these men, weapons, and vehicles were congested in the relatively small area taken up originally by 24 Battalion's depleted companies.

In spite of a few breaks in communications due to the normal hazards of operations, a constant flow of reports from main and secondary sources came into Divisional Headquarters during the

1 Capt N. W. Laugesen; Christchurch; born NZ 4 Dec 1903; real-estate agent; killed in action 22 Jul 1942.

page 348 night. These gave General Inglis and his staff a remarkably clear picture of the progress of the battle up to the enemy counter-attack at dawn. Brought together as a log of events, the reports, with notes of action taken upon them, fill no fewer than six closely typed foolscap sheets.

General Inglis had prompt advice that the three battalions were advancing steadily under light shelling and that the engineers under Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson were clearing the main gap through the minefields for the passage of 23 Armoured Brigade. At twenty minutes to eleven, he had an encouraging report from an interception of a German wireless message recording that their right flank had been broken into and that their artillery and anti-tank guns were retiring. Just on midnight a message was received from Brigadier Kippenberger that 26 Battalion had reached its objective but had been attacked by tanks.

Kippenberger, with Lieutenant-Colonel Harding1 who had taken command of 21 Battalion after Allen's death, was watching 6 Brigade's advance from the battalion's outpost. He had noticed that the rate of advance had not been as fast as had been expected and that the infantry would be well short of their objectives by the time the artillery programme finished. He had thereupon arranged for the artillery to repeat some of its later fire tasks.

Besides giving the information that 26 Battalion was on its objective and had been attacked by tanks, Kippenberger told Division that although some enemy tanks had been knocked out, a considerable number of them remained in Mreir. He closed his report with the message: ‘Our tanks are urgently required before daylight.’ On this, Colonel Gentry tried to telephone 1 Armoured Division but, finding the line had been broken, transferred the call to 13 Corps' tactical headquarters. He also closed his report with the statement: ‘It is absolutely essential that our tanks are on the edge of Mreir depression by first light to deal with enemy tanks milling round in the depression.’ This conversation is recorded as having taken place at thirteen minutes past midnight.

At 1.25 a.m. General Inglis himself spoke to 13 Corps. He confirmed the presence of enemy tanks in Mreir, and added that while 26 Battalion was on the objective, ‘they are worried as to the situation in the morning.’ Shortly afterwards, three delayed reports were received from Clifton concerning the progress of his brigade. Against the last of these, at five minutes past two, the Divisional diary notes: ‘After our experience on 14–15 July we

1 Brig R. W. Harding, DSO, MM, ED; Kirikopuni, North Auckland; born Dargaville, 29 Feb 1896; farmer; Auck Regt 1916–19; CO 21 Bn 10 May-12 Jun 1942, 18 Jul 1942–30 Apr 1943,14 May-4 Jun 1943; comd 5 Bde 30 Apr-14 May 1943, 4 Jun-23 Aug 1943; twice wounded.

page 349 wanted no repetition of what happened at Ruweisat and were doing all we could to ensure the armoured co-operation that had been laid on.’

To this end, Gentry at 2.15 telephoned the brigade major of 2 Armoured Brigade, giving him an appreciation of the situation and again closing with the urgent representation: ‘It is essential that our tanks are at the depression at first light.’ This conversation left an impression that the brigade might not move without explicit orders from its divisional headquarters. To make sure that there would not be any delay on that account, Gentry immediately rang 1 Armoured Division, to whom he recalled the experiences at Ruweisat and then asked that orders should be given to the brigade to be up with the infantry at first light.

Half an hour later, at 2.50, Inglis telephoned Gott to make certain that the armour would not be ineffective through any lack of orders passed through the correct channels from Corps Headquarters to the brigade. As a further reassurance, Inglis also spoke to 1 Armoured Division. He was told that the armour, without fail, would be at Mreir at first light.

About half an hour before first light, say 4.30, is a convenient moment for looking at the situation as it was seen by Divisional Headquarters. Advanced Brigade Headquarters and 24 and 26 Battalions were on their objectives, and a message was on its way to Clifton approving his action in calling 25 Battalion forward to the depression. All three battalions had suffered casualties but there was nothing to suggest these were heavy. Some transport had been lost, but again the price had not been severe. True, Hall's report at three o'clock concerning 26 Battalion had not been reassuring. However, after he had left his unit, the 24th had arrived on its objective, and with the six-pounder anti-tank guns Clifton had been directed to send over, Peart should not be badly placed. Division had not been told that 24 and 26 Battalions were still not in contact with each other, nor had it been given any indication that Peart was contemplating withdrawing.

Apart from the normal anxieties of a commander in a battle, Inglis' only real cause for worry lay in the proximity of the German tanks to 6 Brigade. Everything now depended on the British tanks being up in time. However, there was no suggestion that the armour was being or was likely to be difficult. On the contrary 13 Corps, 1 Armoured Division, and 2 Armoured Brigade had been made fully aware of the situation, communications with them were good, and there was every reason to believe that the tanks would move according to plan. Elsewhere on the Division's front, 18 Battalion was having a little trouble but was secure, and the engineers, page 350 although under mortar and machine-gun fire, were clearing the main gap in the minefield. Not much was known about 5 Indian Division's sector except that the first attack had been held up and that another one was to be made at dawn.

Lieutenant-General Nehring at Afrika Korps Headquarters and his German staff officers and commanders were extraordinarily calm as well as energetic during the night. Their resolution and action were in marked contrast to the despondency, sometimes approaching despair, reflected in their diaries, reports, and orders of the night of 15–16 July. Depleted strengths and the effects on morale of the exertions of the previous weeks caused concern, but there was a confident note in a special report on 15 Panzer Division submitted on 21 July by Colonel Crasemann, who had just taken over the command. In Crasemann's opinion the division needed only a short period of rest, the allocation of a few energetic commanders and some important items of equipment, to regain its old form. Crasemann then added: ‘The feeling that the German soldier is superior to the opponents he has so far met has not been lost, even after meeting the best of the English troops, the New Zealanders and Australians.’

Although the logs of Afrika Korps and 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions do not record as many messages and reports as were received by New Zealand Division alone, they were sufficient in number, promptness, and accuracy to give Nehring a fairly clear idea of what was happening. This was due probably to the fact that his front-line commanders were Germans who kept their heads although many of their positions were overrun. The successive encounters of 26, 24 and 25 Battalions with Lindemann, Huelsen and Warrelmann Groups, the intervention of Ariete's tanks against 18 Battalion, the actions of 5 and 8 Panzer Regiments, and the progress of the attack against Point 63 may all be traced both as to time and place in the enemy reports.

At 1.30 in the morning, Nehring ordered counter-attacks to be suspended until dawn as the situation over the whole corps' front had a number of obscurities. He knew gaps had been torn in the front but not their extent. Nor did he know how seriously his infantry units had suffered. At that hour, 15 Division's tanks were engaging 6 Brigade in and south of Mreir and 21 Division's armour was making ready to move down to the depression to assist. The reserve infantry battalion of 21 Division was moving forward to help at Point 63, cover artillery units which had been forced back, and provide a connection with 15 Division which had been broken by the pressure on Warrelmann Group. Nehring himself had ordered Baade Group to move up the pipeline track from Kaponga, having page 351 earlier refused to place the group at the disposal of 15 Division on the grounds that the division still had a reserve of two companies uncommitted.

The German records refer to these operations as counter-attacks. Whether they were counter-attacks or merely stiffening resistance cannot be said. The Germans did not like night operations and, although they often resisted strongly at night, as a rule they left counter-attacks until dawn. In fact, in 13 Corps' plans, the first phase of the battle was based on the belief that the enemy would follow his usual practice of not attempting a counter-stroke until it was light enough to see. By that time, according to the plans, the British tanks would be up with the infantry.

It seems likely that while the German tank regiments were willing and were preparing to hit 6 Brigade in the dark, the isolation of 26 Battalion was not due to any counter-attack. Rather, it may be attributed to the absence of direct pressure on the enemy forces in the gap between the battalion and the rest of the brigade.

Nehring recognised that the penetration into Mreir was the most dangerous threat and he ordered his two panzer divisions to wipe it out with a counter-attack starting at 5.15 a.m. At 2.15 he sent the following orders:

21st Panzer Division will restore the situation on 15th Panzer Division's sector [i.e., the penetration into Mreir]. It will advance at 0515 hours and attack the flank of the enemy penetration, moving in a general southerly direction. For this action, the 15th Panzer Division troops in the northern sector will be under command of 21st Division.

15th Panzer Division with Baade Group under command will attack with the same object as 21st Division. It will advance in a general north-easterly direction astride the water pipeline track and establish contact with 21st Division. Its right flank will be echeloned back. 20th Corps has been asked to send Ariete's tanks forward in support of the attack on the right rear.

Nehring's intervention and the preparations of the panzer divisions for their counter-attack were responsible for the marked decrease in activity in Mreir which was reported to New Zealand Division at this period.