CHAPTER 9 — Recall to the Desert
Recall to the Desert
When Rommel began his eastward drive on 26 May his plan was to seize Tobruk in three days and punch straight through to the Egyptian frontier. His timing plan broke down, but he achieved his purpose.
He attacked with two forces: one, substantially Italian, made a feint frontal attack on the Gazala line; the second, a German and Italian mobile column, bypassed Bir Hacheim and drove in from the south-west. While the Italians probed at Bir Hacheim, the enemy tanks joined battle with the British armour near Knightsbridge, and the celebrated ‘Cauldron’ battle developed. British counter-attacks failed, but with the Italians unable to dispose of Bir Hacheim, the enemy's supply position was critical.
The New Zealanders were now on their way south from Syria. While these events had been taking place, the Division had been contemplating meeting an attack from another direction; the Germans were making a drive in Russia, too, and their objective was reported to be the Persian oilfields. General Freyberg had made a reconnaissance in Persia as a preliminary to the possible use of the Division in the defence scheme.
The recall order reached the Division on 14 June, and through the signal lines went the movement orders to the scattered units. An administration group order issued on 16 June gave information of a divisional move on the 18th.
Movement south began on 16 June with supposed secrecy. Units left their signposts standing, painted out their fernleaf emblems on vehicles and removed badges and flashes, but the civilians were not deceived. More than one unit received a farewell delegation and was wished good shooting.page 204
Down the bitumen military road that traced a winding course through Syria, Palestine, and the Sinai Desert streamed columns of yellow trucks. As they skirted the Sea of Galilee, heat beat down from an open sky and struck up from the road with the intensity of a blast furnace. Metal on vehicles became too hot to touch; overheated engines died as the trucks dragged their way out of the valley of Galilee and a string of trucks making progress in fits and starts littered the roadside.
Supply Company, with Quirk as convoy commander, started the journey on 18 June; Nos. 1 and 2 Platoons had been detached, 1 Platoon for transport duties with 18 Battalion and 2 Platoon for supply duties with a New Zealand artillery group. In the scorching heat of the second day's march—through the Jordan Valley—a despatch rider, Lance-Corporal Halliday,1 fell from his motor cycle and received fatal injuries. They were long, gruelling days for drivers, with never enough time for rest, and the man behind the wheel could be seen slapping himself to keep awake, while the spare driver would be sound asleep, perhaps with his head banging against the steel door of the truck.
The convoy rolled down through the picture postcard Sinai Desert on 21 June, and in mid-afternoon the tapering pinnacles of the Ismailia memorial came into view. At Ismailia it was learned that five days' hard rations were to be loaded; it was now clear that the Western Desert was the destination. Clearing Ismailia at daybreak—5 a.m.—the convoy crossed the Canal and some hours later was streaming nose-to-tail through Cairo, where the urchins were shouting ‘Saieda, Kiwi,’ and the newspaper vendors were doing a brisk business with months-old newspapers. Buying as their trucks were on the move, the men could do little about it, but the man who bought a paper with an empty cigarette carton at least held his own. Beyond Cairo the convoy ran north along the Alexandria road, with the desert, a glaring yellow, on either side.page 205
At Amiriya reserve water—two gallons a man—was drawn and vehicles refuelled. No. 4 Platoon drew and filled 10,000 water containers and thereafter became the water platoon, and in the hard desert fighting to come was to play an important role.
The next morning—23 June—the convoy turned past the signboard that said simply, ‘Western Desert’, and began the run westwards. It ran headlong into an army in retreat. East and west along the black ribbon of road the New Zealand vehicles stretched into the shimmering haze, wheels sucking at the melting tar, engines roaring in the heat. On the other side of the road and in the choking, dusty desert on either side flowed a clattering horde of transport: rattling, clanking flats carrying smashed tanks; scammels with battle salvage—twisted metal, wheels, pieces of guns; RAF road transporters with planes and sections of planes; ambulances, their bold red crosses on white circles standing out in the forlorn, battered procession; an occasional impatiently jostling staff car; and battle-scarred trucks, from which bearded, red-eyed drivers stared vacantly at the tail of the vehicle ahead. It was as though the whole Eighth Army was routed and on the run.
It was a sobering, depressing sight. There was no end to them; each wreck was a mark of defeat, and each listless man the personification of fatigue and failure. Here and there a new tank, a new Bren carrier or a new armoured car suggested that not only the defeated but the undefeated, too, were in flight.
‘We began to wonder,’ Quirk wrote in his diary, ‘whether we would meet Germans.’
But Mersa Matruh, reached at 7 p.m., presented a different aspect. Here New Zealanders were going about their tasks and finding time for a swim, and there was an atmosphere of quiet confidence. The company went to its allotted area at Smugglers' Cove, and 5 Platoon, which took over 4 Platoon's supply work, immediately drew in bulk from 14 BSD and issued 14,313 rations to the Division. No. 5 Platoon camped on the supply point in Matruh.
The company had covered 1000 miles in five days with very little mechanical trouble.page 206
The enemy crossed the Egyptian frontier on 24 June. Eighth Army prepared to meet him at Mersa Matruh, and 4 and 5 NZ Brigades, the first two brigades of the Division to reach Egypt, took up positions in the Matruh defences. Then the Division's role was changed, and it was ordered to hand over to 10 Indian Division and move south in a mobile role. Abruptly there was another change. On the evening of 25 June General Auchinleck took over direct field command from General Ritchie, and deciding that he had too few troops to shield Matruh's open flank, reversed the decision to stand here and ordered a withdrawal to the Alamein Line. The New Zealand Division was now ordered to the Minqar Qaim area, where it was to deny the escarpment to the enemy and to command with fire the approaches from the west. Its role was to fight a delaying action.
The two brigades moved on 26 June. They had received from Supply Company sufficient rations and water to last for three days, petrol and oil from Petrol Company for 200 miles, and first-line ammunition from Ammunition Company. Air activity on this day indicated that the enemy was close.
During the three days 24, 25 and 26 June Supply Company waited and worked with the rest of the administration group at Smugglers' Cove. On the first night and morning—24 June—bombers and dive-bombers made a few raids on Matruh—‘Particularly cheeky one at 5.30 who dropped one close by on the Egyptian Barracks.’
After the long trek from Syria, drivers checked over vehicles, No. 1 Platoon, less thirteen trucks, remaining with 4 Field Regiment. No. 2 Platoon rejoined the unit, and 4 Platoon returned with its water cans. A platoon less fifteen trucks of 6 RMT, commanded by Captain Smith,2 marched in for water duties. No. 5 Platoon drew in bulk from 14 BSD and with air-raid alarms sounding continually issued 13,416 rations to units.
Lieutenant Lyon took a convoy to a convalescent depot west of Matruh. The only group going west against the still strongly flowing tide of transport, the company men were page 207 constantly told, ‘Heh, you're going the wrong way, mate.’ After collecting wounded from the depot, Lyon was returning to Matruh when he encountered an English red-cap diverting all traffic to the south track. Lyon objected that he had ‘sick jokers’ in the back.
‘All right, sir,’ said the military policeman, ‘the New Zealanders are in Matruh. You can go in.’
‘I didn't say anything about New Zealanders,’ said Lyon.
‘Sir,’ the MP replied, ‘there are only two nationalities that have jokers, and the Australians are in Syria.’
On the 25th, as the Division prepared to move out into the desert, 5 Platoon again drew in bulk from 14 BSD, and with an eye cocked on the sky made an ‘impromptu’ issue of 20,048 rations, completing the units' three days' reserves. Over the three days 23, 24 and 25 June the platoon had issued 27,777 rations.
For its own use the company drew five 50-cwt trucks, two water carts and two 15-cwts, and in addition some 50-cwts for 4 and 5 Field Ambulance units. A Petrol Company detachment under Captain Latimer came under command.
Fifteen three-tonners and twenty-eight men were detached from the company for general duties with 4 Field Regiment. Burgess, who took them over, was told that the trucks only, without an officer, were required, and he returned to the unit. Then it was decided that only eleven vehicles were wanted, and the remainder were on their way back to the company when a despatch rider overtook them with the information that they were wanted by 5 Field Regiment. Company Headquarters was not informed of this change, and the four trucks and men so diverted were later posted as missing.
The Division's fighting units left Matruh for the south during the day.
At 12.30 p.m. two planes roared over and put a stick of bombs apiece across the Petrol Company depot adjoining the supply point, killing twelve men and burying others in a dugout. As the fire took hold, heavy black smoke rolled across the area.page 208
The 26th June was a day of tension. There were signs of impending evacuation—many people were, in fact, disappearing—and no orders were forthcoming from Rear Division. In the morning Quirk shifted his supply point to near the water point on the Matruh waterfront. Issues were made to units still at Smugglers' Cove, and in the afternoon 4 Platoon (water) and 5 Platoon (supplies) went out to the Minqar Qaim positions and issued 15,570 rations near the telegraph line. The runner was late and held up the issue, and it was 10 p.m. before the platoons returned to the company area.
The tension was growing. Earlier in the day Quirk had seen officers at Fortress Headquarters burning papers, and when he and Nelson3 went down to the Lido for a swim at 7 p.m. they found the beach deserted. The town, too, was deserted, and at the water point they found that all the English troops had left, and a sole New Zealand sapper was in charge. There was an uneasy atmosphere everywhere, to which a nearby Bofors crew contributed with the information that they were in an anti-tank role, protecting the road running past the camp.
To cap it all, the Naafi, at which a few hours earlier Corporal Reynolds4 had spent £40 of the unit's canteen funds, was thrown wide open, and Supply Company trucks came back loaded to the canopies, two down on their springs under the weight of crates of tinned beer. The haul included a complete set of cricket gear, which was to be useful later.
There was a nice balance of arguments for staying and going. To stay might court capture; to go might be desertion of duty. Quirk sent a despatch rider to Pryde with the information he had gleaned during the day, and suggested that as a precaution 5 Platoon should be withdrawn from Matruh to join the company at Smugglers' Cove.
When most of the men had turned in for the night, Pryde still found the requirements of duty too strong to take his unit out. ‘In the absence of orders from Comd NZASC, could not at that time justify withdrawal of the company page 209 to the east,’ the war diary records. A Divisional Signals detachment was unable to contact either Main or Rear Divisional Headquarters.
Supply Company butchery at Aleppo
Flood in the desert south of Fuka
On the ‘left hook’, El Agheila
Rawle, meanwhile, had gone out with 4 Platoon to pick up empty water cans from a dump on the telephone line at Garawla. Flares to the west looked uncomfortably close. He returned to the unit in the early hours of 27 June to find a conference in progress. Pryde, at 2.30 a.m., had recalled 5 Platoon from its position in Matruh, and when leaving the town Quirk saw no guards or even any soldiers. At 4 a.m. Pryde called a conference of officers, and it was to this that Rawle brought news of the flares. The radio truck was still unable to raise Rear Division, and in view of the apparent nearness of the enemy, it was decided that it was advisable to move. But still another problem faced Pryde: although it was clear that rear units were leaving Matruh, it was not known whether the final stand was to be here or not, and there was some debate on whether the company should draw from 14 BSD or whether these rations would be required for the forces in the area. Pryde decided to load up all available trucks, an important decision that was to save the supply situation during the confused period when the Division came scurrying back to the Alamein Line.
Everyone went off for an hour's sleep. During the morning the company loaded up with two days' rations—26,200— and 30,000 gallons of petrol and filled all available water containers. At 14 BSD Indian sappers were preparing to destroy the dump, but with inflexible regard for orders the issuers would not substitute canned fruit for dried fruit. The fact that it would be blown up in an hour or so didn't matter.
Still no word had come from Rear Division. Throughout the previous night heavy gunfire had been heard, and this appeared to be drawing constantly closer. The Division was, in fact, now engaging the enemy.
At 10 a.m. it was reported that Lance-Sergeant Hardaker,5 of Petrol Company, had been killed in a road accident page 210 nearby, and a burial party consisting of Padre Holland, Morris, Barnett,6 and three others from Supply Company drove into the British military cemetery near Matruh. There was not a sign of life in the town, and clouds of smoke billowed from demolitions. The only sound was distant gunfire.
In the meantime Pryde had despatched Burgess to find Brigadier Crump. He went looking for him in the Minqar Qaim locality, found him about midday and told him Pryde had received no messages concerning a move, and that in view of enemy movements Pryde considered the company should go. Crump told Burgess that the company was to be ready to move immediately, but that it was to await a signal.
While Burgess was away, a new worry developed at Smugglers' Cove. An English officer came back to the cove with a report that he had been fired on at Qasaba and that the road was cut. Latimer was sent out to check the report. He returned with the information that the road was open, although the enemy was only seven miles from the road and was being lightly opposed by a Hussars regiment. An immediate decision was made to move.
A report that the road was cut also reached Brigadier Crump at Rear Division. He was unable to obtain the co-operation of Corps to clear it, nor was he able to obtain confirmation that there was a block. He thereupon radioed NZASC companies to come out.
This radio-telephony message reached Supply Company after the decision to get out was made and while it was drawing supplies and water in preparation for its move, which took until 1 p.m. The company's ciphers, however, were not to be found, and it was not known until later that this was the movement order; its instruction was for the company to move to the Fuka area, vehicles carrying the following day's replenishment to rendezvous with the senior supply officer, Major Bracegirdle,7 at the railway crossing at Sidi Haneish.page 211
Clearing Smugglers' Cove at 2 p.m., Supply Company moved east past where anti-tank guns were sited by the road. With near-perfect convoy discipline, every vehicle keeping its 100 yards' distance, the convoy moved east towards Sidi Haneish. Overhead there was the drone of aircraft, but not until the company was near Sidi Haneish did an enemy plane attempt to molest the convoy. It was driven off by British fighters.
At Sidi Haneish siding vehicles were dispersed while the evening meal was prepared. Afterwards all vehicles carrying supplies, petrol, and water were left under Bracegirdle's supervision, and the rest of the company and attachments moved to a point 20 miles south of Fuka, reached at 10.30 p.m.
The detached group, under Morris, together with a Petrol Company detachment under Captain Jones,8 set off from Sidi Haneish at 6.30 p.m. on a bearing of 210 degrees. Ahead there was bombing, and behind aerial cannon fire could be heard hammering over the road. Wrecked aircraft seemed to be everywhere, and as the convoy moved southwest across the open desert a Hurricane plunged down close by, shot down by a Messerschmitt. After 16 miles' travel the company reached Rear Division at 10 p.m. Here it was ordered to link up with a Petrol Company detachment under Second-Lieutenant Burkett,9 the whole ASC group to come under the command of Morris. The group was then ordered to move three miles south and four miles west and await the arrival of divisional unit vehicles to replenish. And here, during a night of alarms, it waited.
While Supply Company had been moving back and preparing to replenish the Division, the Division itself had been engaging the enemy at Minqar Qaim. During 26 June, when Supply Column had been waiting and wondering at Smugglers' Cove, the closest enemy forces had been just beyond Charing Cross; they consisted of 90 Light Division in the north, 21 Panzer Division in the centre and page 212 page 213 15 Panzer Division in the south. On the 27th these forces began to describe a circle around the Minqar Qaim positions, moving in a clockwise direction between Matruh and the New Zealand Division.
After earlier shelling, the first enemy troops appeared through the dusty, hazy heat to the north about 10.30 a.m. No attack developed, but fire was exchanged, and 5 Brigade transport in an exposed position north of the escarpment moved hurriedly, as it had been ordered to do if endangered. By 11 a.m. shelling was heavy, and soon after midday, after sending over ranging air bursts, enemy guns poured in a steady fire that was directed mainly at the New Zealand batteries. Attacks developed, and the New Zealand guns found plenty of tank targets to engage. The battle became mainly a duel between the Division's guns and enemy guns and tanks, and attached Supply Company vehicles, carrying ammunition for the guns, were moving back and forth across exposed ground, almost groaning under the weight of their loads. The attacks continued, and about 4 p.m., when enemy fire was intense, the truck of Watson10 and Mitchell,11 who were serving 4 Field Regiment's guns, was hit by a shell, Mitchell being wounded. An hour later a truck driven by Dillon12 and Shea13 was also struck and both men were killed. The truck was destroyed by fire. In 5 Field Regiment's lines Duncan14 was wounded in one leg, but carried on until he was forced to give up when, during heavy shelling, he was again wounded, this time in both legs. Shaw15 was also wounded, and a Supply Company truck destroyed.page 214
Towards dusk shelling died down, and a reconnaissance showed that the main enemy tank formations were preparing to laager. A strong force of between 300 and 400 vehicles was seen entering the Bir Abu Batta re-entrant to the east to shelter. The Division at the end of the day was encircled except for an area in the south-west where 1 Armoured Division was operating. Clearly the New Zealand Division would have to retire before the enemy forces to the east became too strong. In any case the Minqar Qaim position was losing its value; the guns, because of the high rate of fire during the day, were down to thirty-five rounds each and once the batteries were silent the New Zealanders could do little to hinder the enemy.
The Division might have been able to escape by making a wide sweep to the south, but the going there was bad and a break-out to the east was planned. Fourth Brigade was to clear a gap, and its transport and 5 Brigade were then to pass through. Fourth Brigade infantry would then remount its transport and head off to the east.
Transport was a critical problem; most of the second-line vehicles had been forced to make off for a safer location to the south, and efforts to locate them or raise them on the air failed. Every man who was not fighting, therefore, was stacked away on everything that was available: portees, quads, ammunition and petrol carriers, any first-line transport on hand.
Fourth Brigade's task was to attack the enemy group that had been seen entering the Bir Abu Batta re-entrant; 19 Battalion was to lead, with 20 and 28 (Maori) Battalions in file on each flank. The Maoris were late arriving, and not until 1.50 a.m., more than an hour later, did the attack go forward. In the moonlight, with bayonets fixed, the infantry descended on the sleeping laager in Bir Abu Batta almost without warning; the first men to reach the lip were met with light fire, and as one man and without orders the three battalions broke into a run with a shout, the two flanking units fanning out. In a few minutes the depression was a bubbling cauldron of tracer as the enemy fired wildly and blindly. With bayonets, rifles, tommy guns, Bren guns and grenades, the New Zealanders swept through the wadi.page 215
Anxiously waiting, the men on the transport could see the battle flare up. Heading the divisional and 5 Brigade transport, drawn up parallel with 4 Brigade's waiting column, Brigadier Inglis decided to wait no longer. He moved off, and swung south. Before long, flares went up ahead, and the transport halted. As the challenge was not answered, the enemy group opened fire, and for some confused minutes the packed vehicles stood stolidly as a glorious target. Several vehicles, including an ammunition truck, burst into flames. Then the transport scattered: Inglis led one group east and eventually cleared the area; another group, eventually led home by Lieutenant-Colonel Russell, first rebounded in the direction from which it had come; and a third swung west and was gathered in by Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow16 and brought to safety.
Fourth Brigade transport, meanwhile, had moved as planned. As it began to move forward, Driver Mitchell, of Supply Company, saw an unattended New Zealand ambulance and darted across to it. Starting up, he joined the column. He later found a dead German in the back.
Fourth Brigade's action went like clockwork. As the transport growled past the southern end of the battle area, the infantry fought their way clear and embussed, and away the brigade went. A few miles to the east an enemy concentration opened fire from ahead, and the column swung south and then east again. By daylight it was well clear of the enemy and could halt for breakfast.
Waiting at the supply point in the desert, the ASC group under Morris could hear the battle clamouring to the northwest, but knew nothing of what was happening. Quirk was shivering under his blanket and trying to sleep when an artillery officer appeared out of the night and announced that the Division had been ambushed and cut up, and was scattered all over the desert. Stragglers, presumably from the scattered 5 Brigade column, began to drift through at page 216 5 a.m. with alarming stories of being the sole survivors of the New Zealand Division. It was impossible to obtain accurate information from them, and Morris went off in search of Rear Division for further orders. All he could find at its location of the previous night were a few tanks of 1 Armoured Division.
While Morris was away, a message was brought to the ASC group from Crump ordering it to move 20 miles east as soon as possible, and Morris returned to find the convoy already preparing to move. There was a fair amount of assorted transport going east as the convoy moved off. At the end of 20 miles the vehicles halted, and a hot breakfast was prepared.
The group was now south of Fuka, where the rest of the Division was to have met up. Morris at last located Headquarters NZASC and was instructed to send his petrol-carrying vehicles on with Rear Division, but to take the ammunition, water and supply trucks and endeavour to find 4 and 5 Brigades. Two hours later 4 Brigade, moving east with a tank screen, was found. The ASC convoy joined the brigade, and moved back towards the Alamein Line across the hot, stony desert. The brigade halted at 9 p.m. near Deir el Qatani.
While this detachment was chasing the Division about the desert, the rest of Supply Company was moving back near the coast. On the night of 27–28 June it bivouacked 20 miles south of Fuka. At 8 a.m. on the 28th large groups of transport were seen to the north and south moving eastward at a good clip. It was obvious that a large-scale withdrawal was in progress, but as it had been intended to meet up with Morris's group here, Supply Company remained where it was. A church service was being conducted when Bracegirdle arrived with word that the company was to move east immediately to a point south of Alamein. ‘No time was lost in moving,’ noted Padre Holland.
As the company was moving away the headquarters trucks encountered a quad, with two limbers in tow, that had been halted with both rear tires blown out. Sergeant Boanas assured the artillerymen that the workshops truck would page 217 be along in a moment, but discovered too late that the unit was not in arrowhead formation, as he had thought, but in echelon. The Supply Company men stayed to help switch the tires from a trailer to the quad, and then set off after the unit. They did not find it again until the 29th.
In bright moonlight the cooks lit the burners, and throughout the dispersal area men were busily pumping up primuses. One primus flared up. The time was 8.55 p.m. and men were moving in towards the canteen truck for the nine o'clock BBC news; about twenty-four were already clustered about the radio. Four planes passed to the east, but they were showing lights and were assumed to be friendly. Three minutes later the planes came screaming in, and a stick of bombs sprouted across the area. The canteen truck dissolved in a roar and a cloud of dust and smoke, and a Company Headquarters vehicle burst into flames. About twelve planes pounded the area for 40 minutes.
On the ground there was a scurry. As the burning truck lit up the area and gave the planes an ideal target, prompt orders were given to platoon commanders to move sub-units away independently five or six miles to the east, but a minefield stretching north and south was a barrier. A hasty reconnaissance located a passage, and vehicles streamed through to spread across the desert. Within two hours the company was safely dispersed again.
Lieutenant Watt, meantime, had gone off in search of an ambulance; but while he was away an American Field Service ambulance, whose driver had seen the fire, arrived and took away the severest casualties. Later New Zealand ambulances came for the rest. Ten men were killed when the canteen truck was struck, and altogether twelve men were evacuated wounded, of whom two died. Those killed were Corporals Macdonald17 and Cornish,18 and Drivers page 218 Cork,19 Clarke,20 Mathews,21 Scandrett,22 Harley,23 Lynch,24 McLeod,25 and Goulden.26 The two who died later were Drivers Campbell27 and Sheehan.28
As 4 and 5 Brigades came bursting out of Minqar Qaim, 6 Brigade moved up from Amiriya to the Alamein Line and on 28 June took up a position in Fortress A, otherwise known as the Kaponga Box. As this brigade was making itself at home, the first scattered remnants of 4 and 5 Brigades came streaming in with fanciful stories of what had happened to the rest of the Division. Later more organised groups arrived, and by nightfall the New Zealand Division was more or less complete and intact behind the Alamein defences. And there was the significance of the Minquar Qaim action: unlike other units that had had to carve their way out, the New Zealand Division came through virtually unscathed and was immediately able to turn about and face the enemy.
As the enemy, his eyes on Alexandria, moved forward from Matruh, the thinly-held Alamein Line, less than 40 miles long and bounded on the north by the sea and on the south by the impassable Qattara Depression, lay across his path. At the head of the enemy advance came the three German divisions, 15 and 22 Panzer and 90 Light. To oppose them Eighth Army had 1 South African Division in the Alamein Box on the coast, the New Zealand Division in page 219 and by the Kaponga Box—or Fortress A—20 miles to south-south-west of this, and fifteen miles further in the same direction a small Indian brigade group in Fortress B, on the edge of the Qattara Depression, with little artillery and short of water. The three boxes left two gaps to be plugged: that in the north was filled by 18 Indian Brigade and that in the south by 7 Armoured Division.
On this general line Eighth Army parried, thrust and cut for almost four months. In the first few days the enemy tried to plunge straight through, but when he failed the line became largely static; salients swelled and shrank, the line buckled this way and that, but in general neither side gave or gained ground until the victorious October attack.
On 28 June the enemy was cautiously following up the precipitately fleeing Eighth Army, and 6 Brigade, in the Kaponga Box, was told that he was expected in thirty-six hours. His aircraft were probing ahead, however, and on the night of 28–29 June struck at any visible target in the fortress area.
In the light of the 29th Supply Company found it had lost one three-tonner and that five others were damaged—punctured radiators, petrol tanks, tires and so on.
At 10.30 a.m. Morris's composite group opened a supply point on the eastern side of the fortress on a track leading to Alamein. In an area bristling with artillery and anti-tank guns one day's rations (12,565) and water were issued. Because of the long mileages covered by trucks, the full 30,000 gallons of petrol had to be issued and a further 19,000 gallons obtained from a South African unit before all demands could be met. Of the 26,272 rations brought out of Matruh, Supply Company now had 13,707 left.
The issuing, done in bulk direct from trucks, went on throughout the scorching day. At 6.30 p.m. Headquarters NZASC instructed Company Headquarters and all detachments to move to a new location four miles east of the fortress. Only 1 Platoon, partly empty from issuing, and 5 Platoon were able to move, however. Company Headquarters and other platoons, including those still issuing, were too far away to act on the order. They moved next morning.page 220
In the blistering heat of a wadi, issuing again went on throughout the 30th. Sappers were erecting wire nearby, and a long series of blasting charges on a ridge caused a minor scare at the supply point. The water, ammunition and petrol companies promptly moved off, leaving the supply detachment with the supply point to itself.
Another detachment from Supply Company, meanwhile, drew from 86 FMC the first replenishments since leaving Matruh. During these important two days, therefore, the Division had been sustained by that vital, last-minute loading up.
On the morning of the 30th the Division sorted itself out. To man completely its four-battalion box, 6 Brigade had taken 28 Battalion under command, and 4 and 5 Brigades and Divisional Headquarters moved to the Munassib Depression, nine miles to the south-east, from where mobile columns could operate. At 12.45 p.m. Supply Company was instructed to move to Point 78, just over 22 miles away and 12 miles to the east of the Munassib position. Soft sand bogged down many vehicles, and the company had to bivouac for the night five miles short of its objective. It moved forward next morning to join the rest of the ASC companies.
On 1 July, with the New Zealand Division now settled down, Supply Company got its affairs into order. So that all units would have two days' reserves, it issued 32,827 rations and 9598 gallons of water.
In the north on this day the enemy was assaulting the Alamein Box, but in the New Zealand sector all that was to be seen was a large group of enemy tanks and motor vehicles at extreme field-gun range. From 25 Battalion's positions a vast, smoke-shrouded plain could be seen to the north-west, dotted with shadowy vehicles that moved about like aimless ants.
Supply Company saw little to worry it at the supply point, but a Messerschmitt returning home skimmed over at about fifty feet. Quirk, in his truck, ‘waited for the squirt. Watched him turn around and come back just behind me. Could see the pilot's face. In the excitement one of my trucks nearly caught fire when some bags got against the page 221 exhaust.’ While the Messerschmitt still whined low overhead, Staff-Sergeant Fry29 leaped from his truck and beat out the flames with his hands, receiving burns. The convoy reached home unscathed.
On 2 July the Indian brigade was withdrawn from Fortress B, making the New Zealand positions the southern flank of the line.
As the enemy pummelled the northern positions, Eighth Army prepared to counter-attack from the south. The 19th Battalion came out from Munassib and in a highly successful attack on the 3rd raked in 350 Italian prisoners from the Ariete Division and a large quantity of equipment. Two 19 Battalion men who escorted them back found them ‘a dirty, greasy, unkempt mob, quite without fighting spirit,’ and Quirk, who had 130 of them ‘dumped’ on him suddenly at the supply point, described them as a ‘poor lot’ and wondered, ‘could we be retreating from this trash.’
Sixth Brigade, meanwhile, was withdrawn from the Kaponga Box, Supply Company transport assisting with the move.
Over the next few days 4 and 5 Brigades pushed out into a salient; 5 Brigade on the night of 4–5 July attacked Italians in the El Mreir Depression, and 4 Brigade moved up abreast of it to the west. Then, as the enemy began to outflank the position, the brigades were drawn back on the 7th.
It was decided now to establish the line east of the Kaponga Box to shorten the corps front. And for a while the line became stable.
Throughout all these moves and counter-moves, Supply Company had been shifting, too. On the evening of the 4th it was ordered to move seven miles due west of Point 78, where it would presumably be more conveniently placed for the two attacking brigades. As it was moving, Stukas were bombing Divisional Headquarters, and a damaged machine drifted down about a mile away, crash-landed and nosed over. A vehicle went out and picked up an immaculately dressed and extremely reticent German pilot. He was page 222 later handed over to the Intelligence Officer at Divisional Headquarters.
Soft sand again bogged down the unit after it had gone only four miles, and the move was completed next morning. Company Headquarters was established at Mirbat Aza.
The replenishment area was now three miles south-east of the Kaponga Box, which placed it more or less south of the El Mreir battle area. On the 6th the supply convoy, moving in front of the artillery and over a ridge, drew the unwelcome attention of enemy artillery. Behind time on this day, the company convoy found the unit vehicles waiting without much regard for dispersal principles, but Stukas that dive-bombed and machine-gunned the area ‘caused most to shift and many to take to the hills’. There were no provosts for a while, and there was further delay while order was restored.
The 7th July was a day of alarm and despondency. News that the Division was pulling back gave the inference that Eighth Army was on its way again. And Lieutenant Triggs30 came up from Base with reports of a ‘terrific flap’ and destruction of records. But the next day brought more reassuring tidings, and everything returned to normal.
Supply Company was now getting into its stride. As different from the Second Libyan Campaign as that campaign had been from the Greek debacle, the stand at Alamein brought the company into a semi-static role, and for the first time since it was formed almost three years previously it was operating in very much the manner in which it was designed to operate—behind a more or less fixed line as the final supply link in the line of communications.
But it was not working entirely as the good book said it should. Very early in the campaign—on 2 July—it developed a new supply point technique that shuttled vehicles through with the streamlined efficiency of a snack-bar service. The supply trucks were formed into a broad U, with vehicles 150 yards apart and the mouth of the U measuring 400 yards across. At one end of the U a control point regulated the flow of unit vehicles and checked off units as they passed. The vehicles would work around the U, picking page 223 up a different commodity from each truck and emerging at the far end fully laden.
And so, day by day, the steady work of providing three daily meals and water for sufficient men to form a sizeable town went on under the blazing mid-summer sun: rations were drawn from a field maintenance centre, carried forward and issued; water was drawn from a water point, carried forward and issued. And this was necessarily done to some sort of a timetable; ‘some sort’, because the records show that some delays were inevitable. In an organisation like the Army it is rarely that everything can go as planned; there are too many hostile people doing their best to ungum the best-laid schemes and, on the friendly side, too many ways in which misunderstandings and errors can upset arrangements.
But as the Division's provider, Supply Company (to which the Divisional Postal Unit was attached on 8 July) kept up a daily routine in a manner that drew the approval of Brigadier Crump when he visited the supply point on 13 July.
He would not have been so pleased the following day, when the penalty for being late was exemplified. No. 2 Platoon had unloaded supplies at the replenishment point, leaving 5 Platoon to break bulk and issue. No. 4 Platoon of 6 RMT, attached for water duties, arrived late, and there was an unhealthy cluster of impatient vehicles in the replenishment area when, around noon—half an hour after the supply point should have completed its work and closed down—eighteen Stukas screamed down from the hazy sky and ‘started in on the water section’. Bomb bursts belched and billowed, then the aircraft came round again with tearing machine guns. In the Ammunition Company area two burning trucks showered out fireworks; one contained high-explosive and the other three-inch mortar ammunition. The petrol and supply points escaped with minor damage, but both the water and ammunition points suffered severely. The badly dispersed B echelon transport also caught its share, and among the trucks hit was one containing reinforcements, some of whom were killed. Total casualties were twenty-one killed and about fifty wounded; page 224 these included three Ammunition Company men who were killed.31 Issuing was resumed as soon as the attack ceased.
In spite of such incidents as these, however, the supply lines were now acknowledged to be working smoothly, and the company as early as 10 July had begun to supplement its normal ration work by bringing up welcome cargoes of beer, cigarettes and other luxury items from Alexandria. Beer, incidentally, was a hazard in itself, as it drew B echelon transport to the supply point like flies to meat, and it became a strenuous task when beer was on issue to keep adequate dispersal.
Both sides were preparing for offensive action in mid-July. On the 14th the New Zealanders went into action again when 4 and 5 Brigades attacked and secured Ruweisat Ridge. Although supporting tanks were unable to reach them, the infantry clung to the ridge throughout the next day, but towards evening enemy tanks overran 4 Brigade units, and that night a withdrawal was ordered. Just a week later—21 July—the New Zealanders again attacked. With heavy air and artillery support, 6 Brigade attacked at dusk and secured its objective, but at daylight on the 22nd tanks again overran the lonely infantry. On the 27th Eighth Army tried again with attacks in the north while the New Zealanders made a diversionary feint in the south, but this also failed, and when August came the line was static.
With minor scares and occasional moves, Supply Company finished out July in routine manner. The men often worked within sight and sound of battle, and there was occasional air activity, both British and enemy, and occasional bombing. The Ruweisat Ridge attack of 14 July brought in a swarm of German and Italian prisoners, badly clothed and thirsty.
The daily issue now included rum, and in general the rations were good. A sample, issued on 21 July: sixteen ounces of M and V, twelve ounces of bread, four ounces of sausages, two ounces of tinned fruit, one ounce of margarine, three ounces of sugar, two ounces of milk, one ounce of cheese, three-quarters of an ounce of tea, and ten cigarettes. Beer was also a regular item, but was a charge against page 225 unit funds and was not an issue. Later in the month fresh limes were issued. An unusual demand from the troops was quicklime; the Italians had buried the dead just below the sand, and the stench was bringing in hordes of already insufferable flies. Lime was issued on 31 July.
July was a month of discomforts. The weather swung full circle from chilling morning mists to blazing noon heat. Flies were maddening, and on the night of 28–29 July mosquitoes came over the battle area in a cloud, apparently blown by an unusual wind. And, as a final burden to morale, mail was woefully out of date. It was noted on 30 July that Aulsebrook's biscuits then being issued were packed in the previous April, making them of more recent vintage than the latest mail received.
The first day of August was hot and calm. Operating now from Deir el Agram, Supply Company was working largely to routine. It was a month of inactivity, of almost casual exchanges of fire. The main enemy now was discomfort in the form of flies, heat and tedium; from their inhospitable rocky positions, the troops looked through the dust and shimmering haze, and waited.
But it was a month of changes, significant changes. Beneath the somnolent heat both armies were preparing—the enemy to drive on Alexandria and Cairo, Eighth Army to destroy the Axis forces. Lieutenant-General B. L. Montgomery became Army Commander, and General Sir Harold Alexander became Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Forces. More men, fresh materials, better weapons were arriving. And—the unlikeliest of all visitors in this barren spot—Mr Churchill spent some days of August looking around the desert.
Even for a new broom, Montgomery swept exceedingly clean. His presence was felt immediately throughout Eighth Army. To those with whom he came into contact he brought a new spirit of resolution; and to those who did not see him he made his intention and mood clear with an order that troop-carrying transport was to be sent back, and dumps of supplies and ammunition formed within units.
From 13 Corps on 15 August came an order that three days' supplies were to be dumped. This was superseded page 226 two days later by an order that come through 2 NZ Division Administration Instruction No. 13, which said:
Six days' normal battle rations will be dumped in defended localities.
All battle rations at present held by units will be dumped; the balance will be drawn from NZASC.
NZASC will issue three days' vehicle rations. These vehicle rations will be carried by unit B echelon.
These supplies and ammunition reserves were to be dumped and buried, and normal daily replenishments were to continue. The positions now being prepared could thus withstand long attack, if necessary, without replenishment.
The loading up of Supply Company trucks at 86 FMC on 17 August went on until well after dark. The next day, while harassed quartermasters fired questions at equally harassed Supply Company men, the issue—a record to date—was made. ‘I just stood in front of the office truck all day and talked and explained to people what and why [about] the ration situation,’ Quirk wrote in his diary. ‘Messes [Messerschmitts] came down close and gave us a slight scare.’
At the end of the day the issue, which included that to 132 Brigade of 44 Division which was attached to the Division, totalled: fresh 11,669; hard 4788; vehicle 35,763; battle 47,968; total 100,188. In addition, 14,158 gallons of water were issued.
Its task done, Supply Company was withdrawn 12 miles to the north-east to a point eight miles almost due south of El Ruweisat station. B echelon vehicles went some 25 miles further back to Swordfish area. But while the B echelon transport was shifted to add tenacity to the Division's resistance, Supply Company was moved because Deir el Agram was now being prepared to ‘receive’ the enemy. These preparations were reflected in an instruction from NZASC Headquarters on 22 August that from that date a signal despatched at 7 a.m. each day would inform whether the track to the replenishment area, still in Deir el Agram, was safe.
Signs of preparations were to be seen everywhere. On 24 August Quirk described in his diary the routine trip to the replenishment area:page 227
Up early and away to replenishment area by new track inside the fortified area. Z track being made, interesting trip, and the going was not as bad as I expected. Dummy camps, with dummy men on latrines, etc. Signs of enemy bombing. Everything delivered without much fuss…. Home for lunch, and then shifted to our new area. Just dust and sand and many tracks…. Terrible crowding as we were breaking bulk. 25 pounders everywhere as three full regiments just arrived. Going to be something doing here. New guns, and digging in near us as we worked.
Supply Company was getting in the way again. The move, one mile to the north, had been made to give armoured units a clear area, but even in its new area the company had artillery digging in among the biscuits.
While all these preparations were going on, there were small changes in the Supply Company's sphere, too. ‘Hard tack’ was being replaced or supplemented by fresh New Zealand meat, fresh vegetables, tomatoes, cucumber, limes and bread. The rum had caused some sickness, probably through an overdose, and was reduced to a twice-weekly issue and cut to 1/160th of a ration a man instead of the standard 1/64th, or half a gill.
Another change was the attachment of four men from Ordnance who formed the nucleus of an advance ordnance depot in the replenishment area.
In addition to its normal work of supplying the Division, Supply Company took under its wing the newly arrived 132 Brigade; the company carried out the joint task of supplying the brigade until the British unit could get its own RASC operating and of training the RASC men in desert craft. Equipped with two-wheel-drive trucks and hopelessly inexperienced in desert driving, the RASC drivers made hard work of the soft sand, and their dispersal was recorded as being ‘appalling’. On 20 August Morris was attached to the brigade's RASC as an instructor, and on the 26th an exchange of drivers was made: twenty-nine RASC men joined Supply Company and the same number of Supply Company men went to the brigade.
As August began to run out rumour of an impending enemy attack came through. Among other things, the supply point was a gossip point, and day by day there were odd page 228 snippets of information: stories of impending attacks, of impending leave, of impending enemy movement. And much of it was surprisingly accurate. On 26 August there was word of imminent enemy action. The Maoris had been out on patrol the previous night and brought in forty Italian prisoners, who were reported to have said that the attack was supposed to start the previous night but the Germans had postponed it. They had told the Italians that they would be in Alexandria in a fortnight—or the British would be in Tripoli in a month.
This, in general, was the situation; the timing was far out, but the alternatives were just what faced the enemy. He was now preparing to make a bid for the first.
Two days after the garrulous Italians in the replenishment area talked about Rommel's coming attack, General Montgomery talked about it too. To a conference of his officers he said, ‘There will be no withdrawals—absolutely none—none whatever—none.’
On the ‘other side of the hill’, Rommel's ideas were different. Just before he launched his attack, his order of the day stated, ‘Today the army, reinforced by new divisions, will launch a new attack in order finally to destroy the enemy.’
He attacked just before midnight on 30 August. Using almost all his armour, the best of his infantry, between 3000 and 4000 lorries and large numbers of guns, he struck through the southern minefields. He planned to turn north behind Eighth Army's line, destroy or drive away the British armour, and then crush the infantry. If he failed to reach the coast in his first drive, he hoped to lure the British tanks into a counter-attack and then destroy them with his anti-tank weapons.
Eighth Army had prepared its positions to meet just this type of attack. Entrenched infantry and guns and tanks in hull-down positions, forming a line facing south, waited to sweep the area over which the enemy must approach.
The New Zealand Division was in a box on the west end—or right—of this line. The box faced west, south and east, like a fortress turret, with 5 Brigade facing south, page 229 132 Brigade (the British formation under command) facing west, and 6 Brigade, between the other two brigades, facing west, south-west and south.
After passing through the minefields south of the Division the enemy swung northwards against the Alam Halfa positions. There, practically immobilised by the lack of petrol—promised stocks did not arrive—he faced the British armour, which had been ordered not to fight in the open but to hold its positions. On 1 September the enemy's transport was packed in a fine massed target for guns and aircraft, and evasive action was hindered by soft sand; he had to waste precious fuel unbogging vehicles. The punishment continued on 2 September, and on the 3rd the enemy fell back behind a protective screen of guns. That night 132 Brigade and 5 NZ Brigade attacked south to gain observation over the Deir el Munassib depression. Despite heavy casualties they gained part of their objectives. The 10th and 7th Armoured Divisions slowly followed, and when the line was restored Rommel's last chance was gone. His strength was wasted, and Eighth Army stood as firmly as ever.
But it didn't seem quite as rosy to those who know only what they were able to pick up. For once the supply point failed to yield reliable information, and there was a vague feeling of disappointment that the enemy had slipped away again. Alam Halfa, a static battle and a static victory, did not proclaim itself with an exhilarating advance, and to men whose only certain guide to their army's fortune was movement forward or backward it looked like another profitless stalemate.
From the beginning it was very evident to rear units such as Supply Company that the enemy was making a forceful bid. The sky was full of black-crossed wings, and bombs and machine-gun fire rained on surrounding ridges and roads. Brigadier Crump was at the supply point on 31 August, the first day of the battle. He was told by ‘Tich’, the Maori ration corporal, that now the battle had started the Maoris wanted battle rations; they were short of transport, and it was better to carry rations in the stomach.
‘What about in two days' time?’ asked the CRASC.
‘Plenty of macaroni and spaghetti,’ was the answer.page 230
On 1 September 86 FMC, from which the company had been drawing, had disappeared, but it was found near Burg el Arab, 18 miles back, thoroughly disorganised.
In the circumstances the move was prudent. Nearer the front it was becoming lively. As he pressed into the salient the enemy brought Y track, the narrow, bumpy road to the replenishment area, under fire. Soft sand prevented dispersal and meant that vehicles had to crawl in single file, unable to scatter or speed up if fired on. A small convoy carrying cigarettes and tobacco, having waited for the signal to go, was halted for an hour on the track until shelling ahead had ceased. As it slackened, Lieutenant Nelson, leading the convoy, began to rush his trucks through, but twice had to halt and go to ground. Bombs were thundering on Z track, 400 yards to the left, and on the Alam Halfa feature, 800 yards to the right.
At the replenishment area everything was quiet, ‘except QM's, who close in on us from all sides,’ Nelson noted in his diary. ‘We off-load most of the stuff on the ground, and have provost on job dispersing. Units still crowd, and some have moans. But things are crashing all around us, and we are trying to dish this stuff out….We finish by 1200. More bombing on Halfa. Plane down in old R. Div area. Cup of tea, and Home.’
Throughout the day air activity was intense; Bostons and Baltimores were running a ‘ferry service’ to the west, and overhead fighters moved willingly in dogfights.
The battle seemed to be clamouring all around as the replenishment convoy crawled nervously along the track on the 2nd. At the congested replenishment area there were ‘tanks, vehicles, guns everywhere. 25 pounders blazing away and Jerry shells coming back.’ Black-rimmed bomb craters scarred the whole area. As the company convoy was pulling out for the return journey, enemy bombs thundered away to the right, and a vast pall of dust and smoke floated up towards where black ack-ack rosettes were chasing the planes across the sky.
The 3rd September was another noisy day, with the RAF's ‘ferry service’ still roaring overhead. Next day the run up to the replenishment area was peaceful, and air activity page 231 was lessening. On the 5th 86 FMC found the situation reassuring enough to move forward to its old position again. That day Supply Company issued its millionth ration of the campaign.
Eighth Army now turned its attention back to the task of building up for its own offensive. There was now time for the troops to relax.
There was some cleaning up to be done, too. In the wreck-strewn battle area, among the disembowelled tanks, burnt-out transport and wrecked aircraft, English troops salvaged and buried with a sang-froid that in at least one instance amounted to a sublime naiveté. While passing through the area Quirk paused to watch a squad at work on a destroyed German tank, whose driver was ‘rotting at the controls’. Two voices came clearly to him.
‘B—-collar bone, Percy.’
‘Don't be—-silly. It's his knee cap, Alf.’
‘Dig him out anyway. What a—-smell. Have a good look for some ackers, Percy.’
The New Zealanders were withdrawn on 10 September and began a period of leave and training. Fourth Brigade went back to Maadi to train and equip as an armoured brigade. The British 151 Brigade replaced 132 Brigade, which was badly battered in the Alam Halfa battle, as part of the Division.
While some Supply Company men were released on leave, the main part of the company moved to the beach five miles west of Burg el Arab and for six days enjoyed the luxury of the sparkling Mediterranean.
Then, the rest over, the Division knuckled down to preparing itself for its role in the battle that was to be the turning point of the war. With some bitterness the New Zealanders saw men of 9 Armoured Brigade, which was to join the two New Zealand brigades to form a separate formation, painting fernleaves on their tanks. The failures of British armour in the earlier Alamein days rankled, and rightly or wrongly the New Zealanders believed that if there were New Zealanders in the tanks they could have confidence in their armour. But the days of this arrangement were still a long way off.page 232
This distrust, however, was broken down with fraternising and a general programme of mixing and combining in exercises. When it came to battle, the tanks did everything any infantryman could have expected of them.
The Division was sent into an ‘attack’ in conditions resembling as closely as possible those that would be encountered in the actual battle. As the preliminaries were carried out in the bright moonlight of the night of 25–26 September Supply Company floundered through soft going to a replenishment area and—in contrast to an earlier attempt at the unfamiliar task of issuing at night—issued 11,378 hard rations, 1350 fresh rations and 11,578 gallons of water without a hitch.
On 3 October the weather turned on a freakish display. Late in the afternoon flocks of birds were seen hurrying to the east, and behind them came a yellow-tinged black cloud. Then an impenetrable duststorm, through which thunder rolled, blacked out the landscape and unbelievably great hailstones ‘as big as Wog eggs’ pelted down, shredding the fabric top of a car. When the storm passed the men had the unusual experience of sucking ice in the desert.
On 10 October the water section was pleased to receive, in exchange for its flimsies, robust pressed-steel containers.
There were now some strange sights to be seen about the desert: plywood and canvas trucks and tanks, and trucks dressed as tanks and tanks dressed as trucks. Quirk came back to the unit one day vastly amused at having seen a tank (dressed as a truck) and a truck (dressed as a tank) ironically offering each other the right of way. Supply Company itself had a hand in this deception plan when Pryde assumed command of Swordfish area on 16 October. Each night dummy vehicles and tanks would be moved to create, for the benefit of enemy reconnaissance planes, the illusion of ground movement by real vehicles, and during daylight hours British trucks, equipped with beaters similar to the drum and chain arrangement fitted to the Scorpion tank,32 stirred up dust to simulate the movement of large mobile groups.page 233
The last pre-battle issue was made on 22 October. It consisted of two days' battle rations, 30,883. Units now carried three days' rations and water in addition to normal reserves, thus making it unnecessary for replenishment transport to clutter up the tracks to the front during the battle. That night the infantry moved up Star, Bottle and Boat tracks, each distinctively marked with its lighted symbol—there were also Sun, Moon and Hat tracks—and by daylight were safely concealed in their positions.
Supply Company, its work done for the meantime, remained far away to the south-east until the following day, when it moved up a track via Alam Shaltut to the coast road, thence west past Burg el Arab to a point near the railway line just west of the gypsum factory.
The stage was set for the battle of Alamein.
16 Col K. W. R. Glasgow, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wellington, 15 Nov 1902; headmaster; CO 14 Lt AA Regt 1941, 5 Fd Regt 1941–43; OC Troops 6 NZ Div May-Aug 1943; GSO 1 NZ, Maadi Camp 1944; Rector, Scots College, Wellington.
31 This was the worst bombing NZ Div ever suffered.
32 The Scorpion tank, which threshed the ground with chain flails, was used to clear a path through a minefield.