Chapter 12: At El Alamein Under Auchinleck
On 30th June Rommel’s army was pressing on towards the last British defences west of the Nile Delta – the partly-prepared El Alamein position which obstructed the 30-mile neck of desert between the sea near El Alamein and the Qattara Depression. For some days troops allotted to its defence had been digging, wiring and laying mines while past them poured the transport of a retreating army.
A system of fortified locations had been laid out there and partly constructed in the months preceding the launching of the CRUSADER operation. The most developed stronghold provided all round defence for an area surrounding the El Alamein railway station and extending from the coast across the main road and railway and south into the desert for a few miles.
North of El Alamein railway station the coast road travelled along a low rise which lay between the railway and the narrow strip of salt marsh and sand dunes bordering the sea. To the immediate south only two noteworthy features emerged from a slightly undulant waste of sandy desert: the low ridges of Miteiriya and Ruweisat. South of Ruweisat the desert floor became rougher and was broken by sharp-edged escarpments and flat-topped hills nowhere rising to more than 700 feet. Cliffs defined the southern border of the desert tract on which the Eighth Army had chosen to stand; below them lay the waterlogged Qattara Depression, deceptively covered with a brittle sun-baked sand crust. South of the Qattara Depression, which could be bypassed only far to the west, and then only by going far to the south, stretched the soft and shifting sands of the Sahara, impassable by conventional military vehicles.
The plan for defending the El Alamein positions had long provided for three defended areas, or “boxes” to use the terminology then current, one about El Alamein, one about Bab el Qattara about 15 miles to the south and a third round Naqb Abu Dweis at the edge of the depression. The El Alamein Box had been dug and partly wired and mined; the Bab el Qattara position had been dug but not mined; at Naqb Abu Dweis little work had been done. Each box lay astride one of the three main lines of approach from the west: the El Alamein Box was astride the main road and railway, the Qattara Box astride the Barrel track leading from Fuka to the Cairo-Alexandria road, and the Naqb Abu Dweis Box astride passable country along the escarpment north of the Qattara Depression.
In the month since Field Marshal Rommel’s offensive had opened, the strength of the Eighth Army had been drastically whittled away. When Rommel attacked at Gazala it had comprised two armoured divisions (1st and 7th), four infantry divisions (1st and 2nd South African, 5th Indian and 50th British), and the 1st and 32nd Army Tank Brigades; the 10th Indian Division, 1st Armoured Brigade and 11th Indian Brigade were under orders to join it. On 1st July the army possessed only one complete
infantry division (the 2nd New Zealand1), one depleted infantry division (1st South African), one fairly effective armoured division (the 1st), two brigade groups (9th and 18th Indian), and numbers of battle groups or columns formed from the 7th Armoured and 5th Indian and 50th British Divisions. One complete and rested infantry division was on the way forward – the 9th Australian.
On 1st July the 1st South African Division was on the right of the British line with its 3rd Brigade occupying the El Alamein Box. The 18th Indian Brigade, newly arrived from Iraq, and under command of the 1st South African Division, was about Deir el Shein. The 1st Armoured Division was deployed between the El Alamein defences and the eastern end of Ruweisat Ridge. In the XIII Corps area to the south the 6th New Zealand Brigade was forward of Bab el Qattara with the remainder of the division some 10 miles to the east. The 5th Indian Division with one brigade – the 9th – was at Naqb Abu Dweis and the 7th Motor Brigade between it and the 6th New Zealand with patrols forward.
General Holmes’ X Corps headquarters had been sent back on 30th June to command Delta Force, which was being formed to defend Alexandria and the western edge of the Delta should the forward positions be lost. It was to Delta Force that the 9th Australian Division had just been allotted.
The 9th Division, the only battle-hardened formation at General Auchinleck’s disposal that was thoroughly rested, was over-strength in men but gravely short of equipment. It was deficient in transport; the tanks of the cavalry regiment were obsolete and 22 below the establishment; only one field regiment had all its vehicles; only one anti-tank battery had 2-pounders, and there were no 6-pounders.
General Morshead, with Colonel H. Wells, his senior staff officer, arrived at Cairo on 28th June, reported to G.H.Q. for orders and was there given the task of defending the Cairo sector of the Delta with his division and some local bodies capable of combat in emergency, such as the Officer Cadet Training Unit. Morshead next reported to the headquarters of British Troops in Egypt and sought the written plans for the defence but, as these could not be immediately located, made a personal reconnaissance and that night issued preliminary orders from the map.
In Henry Wells, Morshead had been allotted a worthy successor to Lloyd, who had been his chief of staff in Tobruk. When appointed to the AIF in 1940 Wells had 20 years of varied staff service behind him and had passed the staff college in the company of British officers beside whom he was now serving. He had demonstrated his energy and efficiency on the staff of I Corps throughout the operations in Greece and Syria. He had joined Morshead a few weeks after the withdrawal from Tobruk and they had now been together for about seven months.
It is interesting to note that on 29th June, after a busy day preparing plans, Morshead spent the night at the home of Mr R. G. Casey, British Resident Minister in the Middle East. The part in Middle East affairs played at this period by Casey, a notable Australian parliamentarian accorded Cabinet status by the British Government, belongs more to British war history than Australian. It must suffice to mention here that in addition to exercising responsibilities in relation to civil affairs and to the Middle East Supply Centre, which coordinated the administration and distribution of both military and civilian supplies, he was brought into consultation whenever the military situation in the Middle East seemed so critical as to have political implications. At a later stage, for example, we shall find him visiting General Montgomery’s headquarters ‘during the battle of El Alamein at a time when the British Government became restive at Montgomery’s failure to achieve an early break-through. General de Guingand, referring to Casey’s role in Auchinleck’s time, wrote later:–
I felt that Auchinleck did not make the best use of the Minister of State. I believe he thought, possibly unconsciously, that the politician was critical of his handling of the situation. It was a pity, because Casey was out to help, and would have responded wholeheartedly to the full confidence of the Commander-in-Chief.2
At a conference at G.H.Q. on 30th June Morshead received orders cancelling the division’s role as last-ditch defenders of Cairo and directing it to go at once to Alexandria. Meanwhile G.H.Q. had sent orders direct to Brigadier Tovell to take his 26th Brigade Group to Amiriya. These orders reached Tovell before he had received Morshead’s earlier orders about the defence of Cairo.
These were the days of what later became known as the “Cairo flap”, a widespread apprehensiveness that followed warning orders to headquarters in the Cairo and Delta district to prepare for a move and the hurried departure of the fleet from Alexandria. General de Guingand and others later wrote of the alarm and despondency caused by the burning of voluminous documents and records.3 The warning orders have usually been represented as precautionary only. Morshead’s diary notes of the conference on 30th June suggest that at that time the possibility of a move of Middle East Headquarters was not so unlikely.
Conference at GHQ. Owing to withdrawal to El Alamein line and attacks on it by Rommel, plans made for the defence of the Delta and Cairo, and for moving of GHQ eastwards. 9 Aust Div ordered to Alexandria forthwith. Holmes appointed command Delta Force but as doubt whether he was captured or not I was appointed in event his not arriving.
General Holmes did arrive and was given the command.
The division’s move to Alexandria was described in its report:–
It was a journey that few will forget. The opposing traffic moved nose to tail in one continuous stream of tanks, guns, armoured cars and trucks or jammed sometimes for hours, holding up the divisional convoys at the same time. One block alone lasted from 0400 hrs to 0900 hrs on 1 July but fortunately no enemy aircraft attacked.
The historian of an artillery regiment thus described the journey:–
Congestion on the Desert Highway that night considerably hampered the progress of the guns, going up. There were long delays, accidents owing to bad visibility. To clear the road-blocks, lame ducks had to be pushed off the bridge of bitumen into the yielding sand. Sometimes the retreating columns were not only nose-to-tail, but two and three abreast. All their personnel except the drivers – and often the drivers, too – slept where they sat. There were bits and pieces of broken units – here and there an anti-tank gun, here and there a Bofors, here and there a 25-pounder.4
On 1st July Morshead left Cairo at 2 a.m., arrived at Amiriya at 8 a.m. and established his headquarters first at El Mex, “but being unventilated caves and funkholes moved to camp at Sidi Bishr – an awful place”.5 He then gave to the two leading brigades, just arrived, their precise tasks of denying the enemy the approaches to Alexandria from the west and south-west. The 24th Brigade was to occupy the right sector with its flank on the coast and the 26th Brigade was to be on the left. The 24th Brigade
(Brigadier Godfrey) took under command a motley force that had been assembled in its area, comprising the remnants of the headquarters of the 150th Brigade, the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers (the machine-gun battalion that had been part of the Tobruk garrison in 1941), and 600 troops from five units, including 120 Czechs and 30 naval men. Some land-based naval guns were to be used for anti-tank defence. The brigade was to hold a line constructed by the Polish Brigade in 1940 and 1941 to cover the isthmus north of Lake Maryut. Its three battalions occupied the line on the 1st. By the 2nd the 26th Brigade too was in position, and all units were digging busily. The 2/48th Battalion recorded that its men were working in relays, some digging while others slept; and that, in common with other units round Amiriya, it was completing its war establishment in weapons and other gear by salvaging large quantities of equipment left there by previous occupants.
Morshead spent 2nd July in reconnoitring with Brigadier Tovell, Brigadier Godfrey and Colonel Wells the areas his two brigades had been ordered to defend. He was disconcerted at the preparations so far made and determined that civilian considerations were not to interfere with the establishment of proper defensive positions in a warlike manner. The ground to be held was too extensive for the troops available, but could be reduced by flooding, which would interfere with the local salt industry. Morshead set the engineers channelling to let the sea in and sought Corps approval, but the situation at the front became more stable before it was necessary to press the point. Morshead’s notes on his visits to the 24th and 26th Brigades on 2nd July indicate that his orders included the removal of all civilians from the areas taken up, the discontinuance of any works being done by Egyptians, the clearing of fields of fire by cutting down palm trees and fig trees in the areas, and the demolition of a building.
Although General Auchinleck hoped to halt the enemy advance at El Alamein, he was also determined, come what may, to keep his army in being. If the El Alamein area was lost he would fight farther back on the approaches to the Delta. If these were lost he would fight on the Suez Canal with part of his force while part withdrew along the Nile. Plans
were prudently made for such operations. Inevitably they became known to some, and subtly affected their morale.
Among Auchinleck’s subordinate commanders there were several opinions about the immediate prospects. General Norrie, of XXX Corps, has since said that to him “Alamein was the last ditch, and it was a real case of ‘Do or Die’, with every chance of stopping the enemy whose armour had been reduced to a mere shadow of its former self”.6 General Gott, on the other hand, seems to have thought more of the alternative. On the 30th he showed Brigadier H. K. Kippenberger, of the New Zealand division, a letter from Lieut-General Corbett,7 the Chief of Staff at G.H.Q., in which Corbett wrote that “the Chief” had decided to save the Eighth Army, and that the South Africans would retire through Alexandria and the rest through Cairo. Norrie wrote later that Major-General Pienaar of the 1st South African Division had been “openly saying that he thought it was wrong to stand at El Alamein, and that the best place was to go behind the Suez Canal”.8
The spirit in which General Auchinleck prepared to confront the enemy at El Alamein, however, was not downcast, even though he had with wisdom been planning a course to follow in the event of yet another failure. On the contrary, with his exceptional talent for perceiving his enemy’s difficulties, he judged that Rommel might over-reach himself (as the German High Command had also feared) and the opportunity be presented, not merely to halt him, but to throw him back. Auchinleck had on paper sufficient strength to take the initiative. He was resolved to seize it. Not all his battered formations were dispirited, least of all the New Zealanders, fresh from their break-out at Minqar Qaim. He had some battle-hardened but rested formations and some fresh troops from England.
Indeed, all was not well on the Axis side. The enterprising Germans, as they moved up to the El Alamein defences on the 30th, had only 1,700 first-line infantry and 55 tanks forward. Rommel was perilously short of supplies and largely dependent on what he had captured during the advance from Gazala. On the other hand he knew that his enemy was receiving men and weapons in large numbers and at last “there were already signs, in the new British tanks and anti-tank guns, of a coming qualitative superiority of British material. If this were achieved, it would clearly mean the end for us”.9
It seemed, therefore, that Rommel’s only chance of victory in the African war, was to press on as fast as he could drive his overtaxed troops. On the morning of the 30th he ordered the Africa Corps and the 90th Light Division to thrust forward before dawn next morning between the El Alamein position and Deir el Abyad. The 90th was then to wheel
northward and cut off the El Alamein Box while the Africa Corps swung south and took the XIII Corps in the rear. The Italian Trento Division was to attack El Alamein from the west and the Brescia to follow the Africa Corps. The XX Italian Corps with its one armoured and one motorised division was to deal with the Qattara Box. The Axis army was in new country. The advance would not only start in the dark but have to be made over unfamiliar ground.
Meanwhile in accordance with the tactical theories then in vogue on the British side, numbers of mobile columns had been formed. Two, each built round a battalion and two batteries of artillery, were formed in the South African division; only the 3rd South African Brigade was left in the box, whose eastern side was now undefended. The 50th Division was organised into three columns each possessing eight field guns. The 10th and 5th Indian Divisions also formed mobile columns
On the 30th the British northern rearguard passed through the El Alamein Box. The leading troops of the 90th Light followed and halted a few miles from the box where they were shelled and bombed. They made ready for the big attack ordered for the next day.
Events had moved so swiftly that Rommel’s Intelligence staff had an inaccurate picture of the British dispositions. They placed the X, not the XXX Corps, in the northern sector, and the 50th Division in the Alamein Box. They did not know that the 1st South African Division was forward. They placed an Indian brigade at Deir el Abyad instead of Deir el Shein and were unaware that two South African brigades were in the gap between Deir el Shein and Alamein. They placed the whole New Zealand division, instead of only one brigade, in the Qattara Box, and had the 1st Armoured Division west of that box whereas it was in process of moving into reserve about Ruweisat Ridge having only just arrived back from Mersa Matruh. In fact, coming back to El Alamein on the afternoon of the 30th, the 1st Armoured Division bumped against the Africa Corps in its assembly area for the attack Rommel was preparing to launch next day.
The British commanders expected the Germans to attack on the 30th1st and to thrust with their armour somewhere between the El Alamein Box and Bab el Qattara. If the attack fell on the northern gap, between the box and Deir el Shein, it was planned that the 1st Armoured Division (Major-General Lumsden10) would counter-attack from the north and the New Zealanders from the south. This plan was made at Eighth Army headquarters without appreciating that the 1st Armoured was dispersed as well as weary and in no shape to fight a battle next day.
The tired Axis forces attacked as planned on the 1st but made little headway. As a result of heavy going, a dust storm and powerful air attack the Africa Corps bogged down. The Corps then found, to its surprise, that Deir el Shein was occupied. Here was the fresh 18th Indian Brigade supported by nine Matilda tanks. The Germans became involved in eight hours of bitter fighting with the brigade which, unsupported by the British
armour, despite the optimistic prescriptions of army headquarters, was at length overrun and virtually destroyed; but the advance had been delayed and valuable time for counter-measures gained. Soon the Africa Corps had only 37 tanks running out of 55 that had opened the attack.
That afternoon the 90th Light Division came under the fire of all three artillery regiments of the South African division. The Germans halted and dug in but at 3.30 p.m., under persistent artillery fire from the South Africans’ guns to the north and east, the over-tried Germans began to panic and many men fled. At the end of the day the 90th Light’s diary recorded: “The situation has been clarified and a rout prevented, but the advance has broken down under concentrated enemy fire.” Next morning Rommel ordered the Africa Corps to abandon the southward advance and reinforce a renewed effort of the 90th Light to cut off the El Alamein position.
General Auchinleck was not unsettled by the disheartening loss of the 18th Indian Brigade. Although he had decided earlier that day that he was holding too wide a front and that the boxes at Naqb Abu Dweis and Bab el Qattara, garrisoned respectively by the 5th Indian and 2nd New Zealand Divisions, would have to be abandoned, on the night of the 1st he ordered preparation for a counter-attack from the south by the XIII Corps, employing the 1st Armoured Division and the New Zealand division.
Next morning the Axis infantry attack on the South African positions in the north was resumed at first light in dutiful compliance with the German commander’s exacting orders, but the 90th Light had lost heart and no real assault was made. The Italian X Corps (Trento Division and 7th Bersaglieri) to their north did no better. At midday, noting the continued northward concentration of the German forces, General Auchinleck confirmed the orders to the XIII Corps to attack the enemy’s flank and rear. In the afternoon the 1st Armoured set off on a preliminary move to the south-west but collided with the armour of the Africa Corps moving east, bent on its similar mission against the South African sector. The two armoured forces fought each other inconclusively until nightfall. In the south the Italian armoured forces, discouraged by air attack, had made no move.
Next day, 3rd July, marked the end of Rommel’s attempt to hustle the Eighth Army back from El Alamein before it could get settled. Rommel called for another effort from his flagging formations, though significantly they were told to probe for weaknesses first, and the over-spent 90th Light Division was permitted to dig in where it was. Once more the Africa Corps, which had only 26 tanks in running order (as against more than 100 in the 1st Armoured Division), was to thrust east to break in behind the South Africans, while the Italian XX Corps was to carry out the attack ordered the day before. Auchinleck’s plan was that the XXX Corps should hold its ground against the expected attack in the coast region while the XIII Corps threatened the enemy’s rear by executing the prescribed attack from behind Deir el Shein.
In the morning, probing for weak spots, the Africa Corps again bumped into the 1st Armoured Division, which then took up hull-down positions. The two armoured forces slogged it out astride the Ruweisat Ridge for the rest of the day. In the late afternoon, goaded by Rommel’s blunt and peremptory injunctions, the Africa Corps forced its way a short distance past the South African positions on their southern flank, but its will to fight on was spent.
Although the 1st Armoured Division could not disengage to carry out its intended left hook, the day was marked by a signal victory in the south which a New Zealand historian has described as “an outstanding episode in the Dominion’s military history”.11 Setting out in the morning for Alam Nayil, a typical cliff-walled outcrop emerging from the desert between the Ruweisat Ridge and the Qattara Box, the Ariete Division first brushed against the 4th Armoured Brigade and then came under fire from four New Zealand batteries.
This fire seemed so to disconcert the Italians that the 4th New Zealand Brigade (Brigadier J. R. Gray) attacked the Italian armoured division from the south. The leading battalion – the 19th – led by its carrier platoon advanced with fixed bayonets and captured some prisoners in an outlying group, and then made a systematic attack on a larger body of Italians of whom about 350 surrendered; 44 medium and field guns and many vehicles were captured there. Major-General Inglis, temporarily commanding the New Zealand division, at once ordered his 5th Brigade (Brigadier Kippenberger) to cut off the remainder of the Ariete at El Mreir. The brigade came under fire from the Brescia Division at El Mreir and eventually dug in.
That night Rommel realised that he had driven his staunch but dwindling forces to a standstill and decided to discontinue his attack on the makeshift British defence line for at least a fortnight. The fighting strength of each of his divisions, he reported on the 3rd, was no more than 1,200 to 1,300 men; the Africa Corps had only 36 serviceable tanks; he was short of ammunition.
On the morning of 4 July 1942 (wrote von Mellenthin of Rommel’s staff, after the war) the position of Panzerarmee Africa was perilous.12
Auchinleck, while aware that he had the upper hand, evinced less clairvoyance than usual and does not appear to have fully appreciated the enemy’s plight. Although on the night 4th–5th July he issued confident orders that the Eighth Army would “attack and destroy the enemy in his present position”, the confidence wore a little thin in the eyes of the New Zealanders next day when they received an order giving a new plan for withdrawal should the line collapse: the XXX Corps was to retreat by the coast to Alexandria, the XIII Corps (including the New Zealand division) inland to Cairo.
There followed a week of missed opportunities for the British, and thereafter more weeks of costly and mismanaged operations, yet for most
of that time Auchinleck was able to call the tune to both armies. The fault lay more in the execution of his plans than in their conception. Auchinleck had stepped down from the highest plane of command to undertake the day-to-day control of a formation that he had not first fashioned, tempered and hammered to perform its tasks in the way he desired. In the first place, its control and communications mechanisms were not geared or tuned to execute surely and swiftly the kind of flexible operations Auchinleck wanted; some parts of his command structure needed replacing, others redesigning. The kind of direct communication through report centres which Montgomery later instituted was needed to project a more accurate picture before the commander. In the second place the interpretations given to Auchinleck’s directions by the staffs of some subordinate headquarters, particularly Gott’s and Lumsden’s, resulted in orders that bore to the Commander-inChief’s conceptions but a shadowy resemblance, in which their original purpose was sometimes scarcely discernible.
On the 4th a series of confused and indecisive actions took place. Tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade probed along Ruweisat Ridge and overran part of the 115th Infantry Regiment (of the 15th Armoured Division). Some hundreds of Germans made as if to surrender, but their would-be captors were driven off by artillery fire. The Africa Corps’ war diary reported the 15th Division’s situation that day to be “most serious”. In retrospect it seems not unlikely that a resolute thrust from Ruweisat would have broken through.
That night Auchinleck gave the orders quoted above that the Eighth Army would “attack and destroy the enemy in his present position”. This was to be done by the XIII Corps which was to press round the enemy’s south-west flank and threaten his rear towards the coast road. But nothing much was achieved by the corps on the 5th, and for the Germans it was another precious day of reorganisation and of improvement of defences. On succeeding days, as the New Zealand historian has remarked:
Numerous plans were made by Army and Corps for action against the enemy’s rear and flank. Orders to execute them were never given.13
At 3 a.m. on 3rd July, the senior staff officer of X Corps, Brigadier Walsh,14 telephoned orders to the headquarters of the 9th Division near Alexandria that the division was to be formed into battle groups. One brigade group (less one battalion) was to be sent forward at once. Colonel Wells pointed out that the brigades lacked much essential equipment and that only one of the three field regiments was reasonably complete. Having been advised by General Blamey before his departure from the Middle East that the piecemeal employment of Australian detachments severed from the main formation should not be permitted, Morshead flew up to the Commander-in-Chief’s tactical headquarters, and sought an interview with Auchinleck. Before leaving, however, he gave directions that the 24th Brigade (less the 2/28th Battalion) should be prepared to move by 5 a.m.
next day provided that deficiencies in equipment and transport could be made good. After the war Morshead said that Auchinleck spoke to him very brusquely at the interview, and that the conversation went as follows:
Auchinleck: I want that brigade right away.
Morshead: You can’t have that brigade.
Morshead: Because they are going to fight as a formation with the rest of the division.
Auchinleck: Not if I give you orders?
Morshead: Give me the orders and you’ll see.
Auchinleck: So you’re being like Blamey. You’re wearing his mantle.
Auchinleck, who was in no position to allow operational plans to be delayed by differences which could only be resolved satisfactorily to his wishes, if at all, by the slow process of inter-Governmental representations, agreed that the whole of the 9th Division should be brought forward as soon as practicable and employed under Morshead’s command. Morshead was ready to agree to the temporary detachment of a brigade group of the 9th Division to the XXX Corps on this basis. After seeing Auchinleck, Morshead met Norrie of XXX Corps, stayed at his headquarters for three hours, and then flew back in a Lysander aircraft to his headquarters on the Alexandria racecourse.15 Meanwhile Wells had been busily completing arrangements for the equipment of the 24th Brigade. Some of the needed equipment was brought forward during the day.
At midday the division came under the command of the XXX Corps and on the 4th the 24th Brigade Group (less the 2/28th Battalion) moved forward with many stops and starts on a road still crowded with vehicles moving eastward. By nightfall the 2/43rd was digging in on Tel el Sham-mama and the 2/32nd was halted nearby. The staff of XXX Corps informed Godfrey of the 24th Brigade that he was to keep his group mobile in readiness for a quick move. Meanwhile the 2/28th Battalion remained at Amiriya, and the 20th Brigade had taken over the defensive position in front of Alexandria vacated by the 24th.
The Australians, with their memories of Tobruk where the enemy had commanded the air, were gladdened by the constant evidence of Allied air superiority. Numerous fighter formations and light bomber formations (of Bostons and Baltimores) with wheeling fighter escort passed overhead each day; but German fighters were still to be reckoned with, and there were many dog-fights, with honours often divided.
The request for an Australian brigade had come down from Auchinleck because he believed that Rommel might be about to withdraw; Auchinleck had given orders to prepare for a pursuit. Morshead chose the 24th Brigade as the one to be sent forward because that brigade alone had completed its training in mobile operations. Exploitation to El Daba was an optimistic feature of the plans not only for this operation but also for
most other major operations in which the division was to be engaged in the coming month; but on no occasion did the exploitation take place.
On the 5th, Auchinleck decided that he was not able to thrust the XIII Corps towards the enemy’s rear and instead ordered both corps to converge on Deir el Shein. Rommel had meanwhile withdrawn the Africa Corps, XX Corps and 90th Division from front-line positions. The front was now held with the Italian infantry of the X and XXI Corps so that his striking force could be rested and reorganised in preparation for a resumption of the offensive later on.
On 5th July the 24th Australian Brigade moved to Ruweisat Ridge (the 2/32nd about Trig 96 and 2/43rd about Trig 93) with the task of establishing a firm base from which the 1st Armoured Division and various columns comprising “Wall Group” (under Brigadier R. P. Waller) might operate. In its new position the 24th Brigade, directly under the command of XXX Corps, relieved the headquarters of the 50th Division
and a force known as “Stancol” which moved back to the Delta for reorganisation. The composition of “Wall Group” – an assortment of units from various formations, brought together “pending reorganisation” – illustrates the degree to which the commanders were still thinking in terms of improvised columns. Waller was nominally the C.R.A. of the 10th Indian Division. One column – “Robcol” – comprised one battalion, one field regiment, detachments of anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery and machine-gunners. “Squeakcol” possessed one battalion, a battery of field artillery and detachments of anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery. “Ackcol” was under the command of Squeakcol and included the 3rd RHA, three companies of Coldstream and Scots Guards and supporting detachments. Morshead, on whom General Blamey had impressed his aversion to improvised organisation, toured the front and did not like what he saw.
Discussion began on the 6th of a plan for the 24th Australian Brigade to make a raid with two companies on a ridge west of Alam Baoshaza with the object of damaging anti-tank guns, demolishing derelict tanks and vehicles, obtaining information and killing or capturing any enemy troops encountered. This done the raiding force would return, or alternatively would remain and consolidate, supported at dawn by tanks and 6-pounders. The alternative plan was conceived as a preliminary step in the Eighth Army’s latest plan for a general attack to dislodge the enemy, in which the XXX Corps would have the task of taking Ruweisat Ridge. Morshead had gone forward to the XXX Corps on the morning of 5th July and had reconnoitred the area of the proposed operation with General Norrie and Brigadier Godfrey. On 6th July he again reconnoitred with Norrie and, objecting to the consolidation plan on the score that effective artillery protection could not be given,16 had a long conference with the Commander-in-Chief.
Brigadier Godfrey maintained that the support required for the alternative plan could not be made available and, after “so much time had been fruitlessly spent during the conference that reconnaissances by subordinate commanders . .. could not be carried out”, he sought and obtained a postponement of 24 hours.17
The New Zealanders, who had a contemporaneous part to play in the army’s larger plan – to thrust westward with their 4th Brigade – were not informed of the postponement. On the contrary, just as the brigade was setting forth, the division received an emergency operations message indicating a possibility that the enemy might be pulling out to withdraw westwards and telling the division to be ready to drive through deeply into the enemy’s rear. The 4th New Zealand Brigade carried out its original orders with élan, shooting up the Littorio Armoured Division in its leaguer before breakfast and playing merry hell. Before the end of the forenoon, however, the volatile mood at army headquarters was exhibited in new orders to the New Zealand division, this time to draw back from the Qattara Box to a position from which its guns could reach the Ruweisat
Ridge; this doubtless pleased Morshead. What caused the army commander’s renewed anxiety for the gap between his two corps at this moment is a matter for speculation, but he appears to have recast his thoughts as to how the next phase of the battle would be fought. The plan for a two-pronged thrust south of the Ruweisat Ridge had been abandoned.
By the 7th Auchinleck, having concluded that his plan to drive through the southern flank of the Axis army had failed, had decided that he would use the fresh 9th Australian Division to attack on the northern flank, where, he was convinced, only Italian troops would be encountered. The 26th Brigade Group (less one battalion) had been moved up on 5th and 6th July to positions giving depth to the defence on the coast sector. Divisional headquarters moved forward on the 7th to an area near El Imayid station and resumed command of the 24th and 26th Brigades, leaving a reserve group holding the Alexandria defences. Next day a “tentacle” from Army Air Support Control joined divisional headquarters; another “tentacle” was operating with the 24th Brigade. These tentacles not only reduced the delay in obtaining air support but enabled information about the enemy to be swiftly passed to divisions and brigades.
The “Reserve Group” at first included the 20th Brigade and all units and detachments not included in the two-battalion brigade groups sent forward, but the 20th Brigade Group (again less one battalion) was called forward a day later and by 8th July the “Reserve Group”, which was put under the command of Colonel H. Wrigley of the Reinforcements Depot, comprised the 2/13th, 2/28th, 2/32nd and 2/3rd Pioneer Battalions, some other units and detachments and the “left-out-of-battle” personnel from the units sent forward. In future each unit was to leave out of battle a certain number of officers and men of all ranks, who were to remain in the “B” Echelon area when the unit went into battle; thus if a unit had very heavy losses there would be a nucleus round which it could be re-formed. In an infantry battalion, for example, the second-in-command, 6 other officers and 61 others of specified ranks or qualifications were left behind; this was a minimum, as it was also laid down that an infantry battalion was not to go into action with its rifle sections of greater strength than one NCO and seven men. Within a week each of the infantry battalions left behind was called forward to rejoin its brigade, leaving its “L.O.B.” personnel at Alexandria.
When visiting the XXX Corps headquarters Morshead had learnt from Norrie himself that Norrie was returning to England and would be succeeded by Major-General Ramsden18 of the 50th Division. Morshead would not have been surprised therefore when Ramsden called at his headquarters at 6 p.m. on 7th July to tell Morshead of his new appointment. In his diary for that day Morshead wrote: “Ramsden has been commanding the remnants of his division (50 Div) remaining forward = 3 companies
plus various artillery groups.”19 This entry suggests an initial uneasiness on Morshead’s part, who would not have appreciated being subordinated to a colleague whose responsibilities immediately before had been less than Morshead’s. Nor was the situation made easier by the fact that Morshead, by virtue of his responsibility for the whole of the AIF in the Middle East, held the rank of Lieut-general, which had not yet been conferred on Ramsden. In the subsequent operations Ramsden did not win Morshead’s confidence and Ramsden found Morshead an intractable subordinate. Morshead said after the war that Ramsden twice complained to Auchinleck about his attitude.
On the 7th the role of the 24th Australian Brigade was amended to provide for a raid by one company with a detachment of engineers. The task was given to Captain Jeanes’ company of the 2/43rd (Lieut-Colonel W. J . Wain) with 4 officers and 64 others, plus 20 sappers and 6 stretcher bearers. By 10.30 p.m. on the 7th the raiders had formed up at Point 71, whence they moved off at 11 p.m. After 1,400 yards the leading platoon (Lieutenant Grant20) reported the presence of enemy troops about 800 yards to the north-west and promptly attacked; the other platoons fanned out to right and left and joined in.
Under fire from a variety of weapons Lance-Sergeant Curren’s21 platoon thrust forward for about 700 yards destroying guns and vehicles and taking prisoners. Grant’s platoon moved a similar distance and its sappers destroyed three disabled British tanks – one Honey and two Grants – and a gun. Lieutenant Combe’s22 platoon destroyed a gun and tractor. Private Franklin23 in Curren’s platoon, who acted with great dash throughout the attack, recaptured a British carrier, killing two Germans, and drove it back to his own lines. By 3 a.m. the company was back at Point 71. Throughout the raid the enemy fired wildly and sent up many flares. Soon flares, blasting guns and blazing tractors illuminated the area. When it was over one Australian was missing and seven had been wounded, four anti-tank guns, one field gun, three damaged British tanks and six tractors had been destroyed, and at least 15 enemy troops had been killed and 9 prisoners taken – all Germans of an anti-tank unit. The raid had an inspiriting effect on the division and on neighbouring troops.
On the enemy side the raid produced far stronger repercussions than the attackers realised. The commander of the 15th Armoured Division threw in the divisional reserve to counter what was regarded as a serious attack. Before dawn 19 tanks of the 21st Armoured Division – half the available total – were moved to the area where a threat of deep penetration had apparently arisen. Next day Rommel ordered that officers of forward units must stay awake all night to avoid being taken by surprise.
The fourteen days’ respite from offensive tasks tentatively vouchsafed – on 4th July – to the Axis Army’s few and stalwart but overtaxed German troops was soon curtailed. The prime motivator, it should seem, was Mussolini who had come across to Africa on 29th June to be there when Egypt fell to Axis arms, and perhaps to lay the foundations for a second Roman empire in a region where Caesars had once fought and loved, and who had announced on 6th July from his headquarters far from the fighting line that if there was no further attack for ten or fourteen days the chance of exploiting British unreadiness would be lost and the light forces available would prove insufficient to push through to Cairo and the Suez Canal. On the other hand taking the shorter coast route and capturing Alexandria, he thought, would bring splendid prestige. A top-level discussion ensued of the alternative merits of Cairo and Alexandria as targets for a resumed offensive, but Cavallero and Rommel decided that the best course was to cut the Red Sea supply route by striking through Cairo, thus avoiding the many obstacles to an advance through the Nile Delta. The Axis forces had somewhat recovered their tank strength, having some 50 German and 60 Italian tanks. The 21st Armoured and 90th Light Divisions and the Littorio Division were assembled opposite the centre of the XIII Corps, where they were joined by the 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance Units brought up from the far south. They were told to advance to Alam Nayil and strike north on 9th July. To the north of them, astride the Ruweisat Ridge, were the 15th Armoured Division and the Trento Division of the Italian X Corps. Farther north, where the 9th Australian Division was soon to operate, the Italian XXI Corps held the line with the Trento and Sabratha Divisions.
As mentioned, Auchinleck had decided to abandon the Bab el Qattara Box, and on the night of the 7th–8th the New Zealand division had withdrawn. The Germans did not become aware of this until next afternoon. Their patrols in the evening confirmed that the box had been abandoned; but to Rommel this appeared too good to be true and, on the 9th, in dutiful compliance with the Field Marshal’s admonitions made in person at Africa Corps Headquarters, a full-scale attack on the “strong-point” was made by the two armoured divisions assembled for the offensive – one German and one Italian – using infantry, assault engineers, heavy artillery and tanks. The planned advance to Alam Nayil that morning was left to a detachment comprising part of the 5th Armoured Regiment, which was turned back by New Zealand artillery fire.
Having chosen to attack in the north, Auchinleck had ordered Ramsden to take the ridges of Tel el Eisa and Tel el Makh Khad, just south of the coast road. When these had been captured Auchinleck proposed that battle groups would advance south on Deir el Shein, and raiding parties attack the forward landing grounds about El Daba. The capture of Tel el Eisa was to be undertaken by the 9th Division; the 1st South African Division was to take Tel el Makh Khad. The 44th RTR with 32 Valentines was placed under Morshead’s command and the 1st South African Division was given 8 Matildas. The raiding force to make the foray towards
Daba comprised one squadron of tanks and one troop of armoured cars supported by a troop of field guns and another of anti-tank guns.
Where the black ribbon of the coast road issued from the Alamein Box, it traversed a flat, with a salt-marsh on the right, and continued on past a smooth-sloped white hill rising on the right to a height of almost 80 feet (Hill 26), which was the southern extremity of an elongated hill-feature stretching back across a saddle (Point 23) to a still higher feature, Trig 33. Below the steep southern side of Trig 33, the ground began to rise again gradually to rolling ground across the railway, shown on most maps as a ridge named “Tel el Eisa”. In a generally flat terrain the double-humped hill (Point 26 – Trig 33) lying between the sea and the road and railway was the dominating feature near the coast, providing as it did good observation not only southwards to the Miteiriya Ridge over the ground in front of the Alamein Box but also into much of the Eighth Army’s territory. On the other hand it shielded the coast tract against observation from farther west. The 9th Division’s task was to seize it and exploit south to the Tel el Eisa Ridge across the railway.
General Morshead conferred with General Ramsden and with General Pienaar of the South African division on the 8th, and on the 9th issued his orders for the attack, which was to open in the early morning of the 10th. The 26th Brigade was to capture and hold the features which have just been described. The brigade plan required the 2/48th Battalion to take the first objective, Point 26, and then to move on to the Point 23 saddle. Then the 2/24th Battalion, with the tanks, was to come up on the right over the sand dunes, swing left and take Trig 33. The 2/24th was then to exploit to East Point 24 south of the railway. The 9th Divisional Cavalry with one field battery under command was to be at 30 minutes’ notice to move forward from 8 a.m. on the 10th onwards.
Formidable support was to be given by artillery and aircraft. The division had the 7th Medium Regiment under command plus its own three field regiments, and such guns of the South African division as could bear were placed under the command of Brigadier Ramsay, Morshead’s artillery commander.24 There would be an air sweep over the area from 7.30 a.m. on the 10th plus bomber and fighter-bomber attacks.
Morshead’s tactical headquarters opened in the El Alamein fortress on the 9th and at dusk that day the attacking battalions moved to their assembly areas within the western perimeter of the fortress. Each battalion had under command a troop of anti-tank guns, a platoon of machine-gunners and some engineers, and, in support, a squadron of tanks.
The 2/48th Battalion, which was to open the operation by capturing Point 26, was commanded by Lieut-Colonel H. H. Hammer, who was to prove one of the most original and magnetic leaders of the AIF. When war broke out he was a major in a country light horse unit in Victoria. That was not a promising situation for one eager to obtain appointment to one of the first-formed divisions but Hammer “got away” in 1940 in
the Base Depot (A.G.B.D.). Thence just after the first Libyan campaign, to the pained surprise of the proud and veteran 16th Brigade, he was appointed its brigade major and served with it in Greece, and seven months thereafter. This colourful and buoyant commander, who had led the 2/48th since January 1942, gave his battalion a motto, “Hard as nails”, when he came to it, and the men gave it back to him, smarting under his strong hand until in action they found that his tight grip, his sureness and his quick decision protected them.
Hammer’s plan provided for an attack on Point 26 on a two-company front. To achieve surprise he decided that the first phase would be executed without artillery support and as silently as possible. There would then be artillery concentrations on Point 23, and the two other rifle companies would move through to the second objective. In the third phase the two companies on the left were to swing left to the Tel el Eisa station area and hold it.
On the move to the assembly area trucks carrying the 2/48th bogged in the salt-marshes beside the track and the consequent delay deprived the troops of the few hours of sleep the plan allowed for. The silent advance began at 3.40 a.m. A lone aeroplane was circling above.
Suddenly the night was lit up like day. The plane had dropped a parachute flare directly over the leading companies. The men froze, expecting the impact of a terrific outburst of fire. None came, and then the forward companies gathered momentum as they advanced, working their way along the ridge on either side of the crest.25
Before dawn broke, the Italians garrisoning Point 26 awoke to discover that they had been captured. Then a barrage of an intensity not heard before in the desert announced that the Eighth Army was making its first advance since the battle-tide had turned against it on the Tripolitanian frontier after CRUSADER. To veterans of the Great War, according to the Africa Corps’ war diary, it recalled the “drum-fire” of the Western Front. Artillery concentrations descended on Point 23 and, as daylight was breaking, smoke screens were put down on Trig 33. As soon as the guns ceased the two rear companies passed through and took Point 23 against only light opposition, capturing some prisoners including the commander of the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment. Some of the prisoners were caught in bed. So far-4,500 yards from the start-line – there had been no Australian casualties.
At 7.15 a.m. two companies swung south and, now under heavy shell fire, moved on Tel el Eisa station, 2,500 yards to the south-west. Captain Bryant’s company on the right and Captain Williams’26 on the left attacked with great dash. One platoon of Bryant’s company, for instance, charging with fixed bayonets, overran a battery of four guns, capturing 106 prisoners, mostly German. Here Corporal Hinson27 led his section with
bayonets fixed straight at two guns that were firing point-blank and whose crews did not surrender until the Australians were in the gun-pit. The companies reached the station, dug in and patrolled forward covered by the tank squadron until, about 9 a.m., six guns of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment arrived. About 40 dive bombers attacked Hammer’s headquarters on Point 26 ridge at 9.45, but everyone was well dug in and there was only one casualty. There were five more dive-bombing attacks that day by from 30 to 40 aircraft but little damage was done.
In the approach march the trucks carrying the 2/24th also got bogged in soft sand some miles from the forming-up ground, but largely as a result of the drive and energy of their commanding officer, Lieut-Colonel Spowers, whose tall familiar figure inspired confidence in everyone, the troops reached the start-line ahead of time. At 4.30 a.m. the 2/24th’s attack opened. There was little resistance until Point 26, already held by the 2/48th, had been passed on the left, but thereafter opposition increased. Throughout the advance Lieutenant McNamara’s28 platoon preceded the main body with the “commando role” of clearing the dunes of any enemy troops; the carrier platoon also ranged ahead. The carriers charged and overcame machine-gun posts and two anti-tank gun detachments whose Italian crews did not fire a shot.
At White Knoll a strong nest of machine-guns was encountered but was overcome by McNamara’s men and the carriers, reinforced by a
platoon from the reserve company. By 6.35 the men were digging in on Trig 33, whence Lieutenant Bell29 led his platoon forward and took four heavy guns and 100 Italian prisoners.
The plan provided that Captain Snell’s30 company, which had followed the main body from the start-line in trucks, should exploit to eastern Point 24, supported by two troops of tanks and by fire from a machine-gun platoon. Both tanks and machine-guns, however, were far to the rear, “hopelessly bogged” in the salt-marshes, so Spowers ordered the company to dig in on the reverse slope of Trig 33 and remain there. That afternoon at 5 o’clock 18 enemy tanks attacked across the salt-marsh to the west but most of them bogged and 14 were knocked out by anti-tank and artillery fire. Gunner McMahon31 towed his gun into action forward of Trig 33 and, even after three of his crew had been wounded and he himself hit in the leg and hand, continued to fire. He destroyed two tanks. Nine more tanks appeared on the southern slopes of Trig 33 and five of these were knocked out by the anti-tank gunners. The 2/24th Battalion lost 6 killed and 22 wounded in the day and took more than 800 unwounded prisoners and much equipment.
The 2/48th were also counter-attacked by tanks, though in smaller numbers; five, which appeared south of the railway line at 11 a.m., drove off the tanks that had been supporting the battalion. There the infantry had to endure very heavy shell fire, from which they sheltered in trenches that could be dug only a few inches deep because the ground was so rocky.
At 11.30 a.m. the 9th Divisional Cavalry (Lieut-Colonel H. E. Bastin) set out astride the main road to exploit to Sidi el Rahman and return to El Alamein station, but on high ground north of Tel el Eisa station the leading squadron came under artillery fire and found themselves threatened by the tanks that were engaging the 2/48th. Three hours later a bombing attack destroyed a carrier and caused seven casualties. The regiment was withdrawn during the afternoon.
At 2.30 p.m. ten tanks again attacked towards the 2/48th positions near the railway and ran over some of the shallow trenches in which the men lay. When they had passed some of the men hurled sticky grenades at them. Sergeant Haynes32 jumped out of his trench and planted a sticky grenade in a tank and then fell wounded. Fire from the field and anti-tank guns prevented the tanks from crossing the railway line and forced them back.
Thrice more the enemy tanks attacked, getting in amongst the slit trenches of both Bryant’s and Williams’ companies, but both companies, encouraged by the unflinching example of their commanders, held all their positions. On the last occasion the tanks reached the defenders’ positions near the station, but withdrew after the anti-tank guns had
knocked out six of the ten. When one crew leaped out and sought to escape Sergeant Longhurst33 of the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion tried to fire on them, but they were behind a slight rise. Longhurst then lifted the entire gun and tripod and, with the help of another man, brought fire to bear on the enemy, who promptly surrendered.34
Just before dusk, after two hours of shelling, the enemy mounted a further attack on the forward companies with both tanks and infantry. The tanks overran the forward posts of Williams’ company on the right. Hammer had anticipated such an attack and had arranged for a counterattack to be launched by a force, commanded by Major Tucker, of one company (Captain Shillaker’s35) plus two platoons. Williams’ company was in a critical position when the counter-attack went in at 8.30 p.m., but as soon as Captain Shillaker’s company arrived it charged, firing from the hip, and forced the enemy back across the railway. In this counter-attack Sergeant Derrick,36 who in the initial attack had led an assault on three machine-gun posts and captured many prisoners, attacked two tanks with sticky bombs and damaged them. When the fight was over Shillaker’s company had lost only one man killed and one wounded but 13 were missing from Williams’ company. By the next morning the 2/48th had suffered 39 casualties, but they had taken 89 German prisoners and 835 Italians and captured 27 guns of 35-mm to 75-mm calibre. In all the brigade knocked out 18 tanks and took 1,150 prisoners.
Farther south, on the 9th Division’s left, the South Africans reached Tel el Makh Khad, cleared it of enemy and then withdrew to the Alamein Box.
The German command reacted sharply to the attack of XXX Corps. At the main headquarters of Rommel’s army on the coast only a few miles to the west the “alarming news” was received that the Sabratha Division (whose infantry comprised only two regiments each of two battalions) had been put to flight. Lieut-Colonel von Mellenthin in charge at Rommel’s headquarters was “startled to see hundreds of Italians rushing past the Headquarters in the final stages of panic and rout. ... It was clear to me ... that Sabratha was finished37 – their artillery was already ‘in the bag’ – and something must be done immediately to close the road to the west.”38 He collected “headquarters troops” which included machine-guns, anti-aircraft guns, and some infantry reinforcements who happened to arrive, to plug the gap, which he later strengthened with the main body of the 382nd Regiment of the 164th Division, which was in course of arriving by air.
Rommel himself, who was in the south at Qaret el Abd to superintend the launching that day of his renewed offensive to reach Cairo and had heard the drumming of guns in the north with foreboding, also acted quickly. “To restore the situation the Commander-in-Chief brought up a quickly-formed battle group of 15th Armoured Division and his headquarters’ battle group (Kiehl Group). This force was to attack
the enemy’s southern flank and cut him off from Alamein stronghold. The battle groups advanced to the attack about midday but made very slow progress owing to terrific shell-fire from Alamein stronghold.”39 Meanwhile the Africa Corps was told to make only a limited advance in the south. The two battle groups employed in the north had 15 or 16 German tanks.
Early on the 11th “Daycol”, a raiding force built round a squadron of the 6th Royal Tanks, manning Stuarts, was sent out from the Alamein fortress towards Miteiriya Ridge to threaten the enemy’s line of communications. The column included a troop of 6-pounders, a troop of 25-pounders and a troop of armoured cars, all British; the 57th Australian Field Battery, a platoon of the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion and a platoon plus four carriers of the 2/23rd Battalion. It left its start-line at 5.30 a.m. Half an hour later, just short of its objective, it came under fire from about two companies of infantry. These were swiftly overrun and 400 Italians surrendered. But in the early afternoon a heavy artillery duel developed and at 1.30 Daycol withdrew, having destroyed eight Italian field guns and other weapons and taken 1,024 prisoners.
At 4.30 a.m. that day the 2/24th set out to capture East Point 24 which it had been unable to secure in the attack made the day before. It had formidable support: the fire of three Australian field regiments and one South African, and of the 7th Medium Regiment, and the support of a squadron of the 44th Royal Tank Regiment with 8 Valentine tanks, which were to assist in the later stages. Captain Snell’s company made the attack, reached the objective without a single casualty and took 500 prisoners. The tanks covered the company while it dug in. Thereafter the company was lashed with intense artillery and mortar fire and by the end of the day 25 men had been killed or wounded. At 6 p.m. Spowers decided to reinforce Snell. He appointed Major Budge to command all troops on Point 24 and at dusk sent Captain Monotti’s40 company forward. That day one company of the 2/23rd moved up to join the 2/24th and one joined the 2/48th.
All day the 2/48th had been under heavy shell fire but had toiled on, improving weapon-pits and laying mines Every concentration of enemy troops had been dispersed by heavy and accurate artillery fire.
A danger faced by those moving about in the thinly-held battle area was starkly illustrated by a misadventure to a group of officers who were returning from a conference at the 26th Brigade’s headquarters in the small hours of the 12th. This included Colonel Spowers who was returning to his battalion, Major Wheatley41 of the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion, Lieutenant Mulgrue of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment and a driver, all in a jeep. They did not arrive at their destination and next day examination of the jeep’s tracks showed that the driver, who had been following a track at the edge of the sand dunes fronting the sea-shore, instead of turning off to the left just east of battalion headquarters, had continued
on into enemy territory. Later it was learnt that all had become prisoners. Three nights later Captain Tivey42 of the 2/23rd Battalion drove into enemy territory at the same point and was captured.
The battle report of the Armoured Army of Africa gives the German version of the XXX Corps’ operations on the 11th including those of the 2/24th Battalion against Point 24:–
Early next morning the enemy again attacked after a very heavy preliminary bombardment. In this attack two Bersaglieri strongpoints, which had held firm the previous day, fell very soon. A battalion of Trieste which was committed to plug a gap was overrun and wiped out. This made the situation so serious that almost the whole of the army artillery had to be committed in the northern sector. Before evening all the other battalions of the Trieste Division were brought forward to the Point 21 area to seal off the advance. Reconnaissance Detachment 3 was moved into the area south-west of Point 2343 to prevent the enemy from breaking through to the west. “I was compelled to order every last German soldier out of his tent or rest camp up to the front,” Rommel wrote later, “for, in face of the virtual default of a large proportion of our Italian fighting power, the situation was beginning to take on crisis proportions.”44
On 11th July Rommel decided to smash the British penetration with a strong counter-stroke using the 21st Armoured Division. He brought the division up from the south on the 12th and decided to capture the Alamein Box next day and cut off the Australians on Tel el Eisa. “The attack was to be supported by every gun and every aeroplane we could muster.”45
In the meantime Auchinleck, noting that Rommel was transferring armour to the north, set in train preparations for an attack from the south and centre in the Ruweisat Ridge region similar to the operation which had been in contemplation when the 24th Brigade’s raid in that sector was being planned. The staff of Eighth Army, however, did not know that although one of the enemy’s armoured divisions and about 30 German tanks (approximately two-thirds of the total German tank strength) were in the north, the bulk of his armoured forces were still in the south under the firm command of the Africa Corps (Lieut-General Nehring) and poised to undertake the projected offensive as soon as the detachments in the north returned.
On the 12th the 9th Division enjoyed freedom from ground attack until the late afternoon but suffered artillery bombardment of mounting intensity as the afternoon wore on, particularly on the ridges of Hill 33. About 6 p.m. German infantry attacked in waves along the whole of the front of the 2/24th Battalion, of which Major Budge had assumed command, but were met by sustained artillery fire from the 2/8th Field Regiment and British howitzers. Captain Anderson’s company of the 2/23rd Battalion, with which the 2/24th had been reinforced, bore the brunt of the attack, fighting from exposed ground forward of Trig 33.
Private Buckingham,46 maintaining fire though with little cover, had first one and then another Bren gun shot out of his hands. Corporal Knight47 of the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion played a gallant part which inspired the men fighting from their shallow pits around him. Knight and his men carried their guns forward under fire to an exposed position on top of the hill. There they blazed away at the enemy, Knight often standing nonchalantly in front of his gun positions to pick out targets. He moved his guns seven times; nor were they ever pin-pointed by the enemy. But there were many casualties in the company and Anderson was mortally wounded when his trench was hit.
By 9 p.m. the attack – by Germans of the 104th Lorried Infantry Regiment – had died down. It was estimated that they left 600 dead and that the machine-gun platoon had accounted for most of them. Captain Harding48 took over command from Anderson and for the next five days led this battered company in most resolute defence of its vital ground.
On the morning of the 13th the 26th Brigade was warned to expect a strong attack by the 21st Armoured Division. Rommel’s plan for the day, however, was not to overrun the Australians but to cut them off by enveloping their rear, and although East Point 24 withstood two assaults with the aid of the concentrated artillery fire of five regiments, the main onslaught was made on the South African division south of the Alamein Box. As before, the South Africans held their ground.
On this day of anxiety the 9th Division received an order to move south to a position south-east of Jebel Bein Gabir, leaving the 26th Brigade under the South African division, but next day, after preliminary reconnaissances and moves, the order was countermanded: only the 20th Brigade was to go. The reason for these orders was not known then at divisional headquarters, but they resulted from Auchinleck’s preparations for a renewed thrust in the centre of the front along the Ruweisat Ridge. Auchinleck’s headquarters, the location of which was kept secret and never shown on any map, was to the rear of the chosen area for attack, and thus vulnerable should an enemy counter-thrust succeed in piercing the British front. The locality to which the 20th Brigade was to move was one of the mined defensive areas known as “boxes” and was just to the rear of Auchinleck’s headquarters.
Rommel ordered the 21st Armoured Division to attack the Australians again on the 14th. The night of the 13th–14th brought signs that an onslaught was coming the forward troops reported infantry and guns moving into position and the artillery fired on many targets. In midmorning of the 14th enemy infantry edged closer to the cutting area and to the southern slopes of Trig 33 and three German tanks came up near Captain Mollard’s49 company of the 2/24th to cover a party of engineers
who set about lifting the minefield. The infantry weapons could not counter the standover tactics of the tanks and no anti-tank guns were able to bring effective fire to bear on the German tanks in the positions where they had halted. Defensive artillery fire was called down, which was probably effective since the attack was not further pressed for some time. In mid-afternoon, however, and again as night fell, German infantry and tanks, using close infiltration tactics, attacked the two companies on East Point 24, the tanks crumbling the weapon-pits when they could. One incident must suffice to illustrate the spirit in which the defence was conducted. When two Bren-gunners were crushed in their pit, Private Dwyer50 leapt up and, while the fire-fight was at its height, dug them out in plain view of the enemy. The first attack was repelled by keeping the upper hand in the fire-fight – the tanks were kept closed up, one commander who poked his head up to have a look being promptly shot dead – and the defenders hung on against the second attack until night blinded the tanks and action ceased. Budge, realising that in their isolation and with flanks exposed the two depleted companies could not withstand sustained attack, ordered their withdrawal at 9.30 p.m., and having no transport they came out on foot. The anti-tank gunners took the breech-blocks from their guns; later they returned with towing vehicles and brought the guns out.
Some of the German tanks engaged in the attack on Point 24 afterwards moved across the front of the forward companies of the 2/48th about Tel el Eisa station. Failing to draw fire, eight of the tanks crossed the railway line and advanced on Point 26. They were then engaged by field guns, swung west to avoid this fire and came within close range of two Australian anti-tank guns. A brisk fire-fight developed in which all neighbouring infantry joined. Some tanks burst into flames and the rest soon withdrew. The 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment reported having destroyed seven of them in quick succession; four of these were hit by Sergeant Digby’s51 gun and three by Bombardier Muffett’s.52 Tanks of the 1st Army Tank Brigade were hurried forward ready to give support next morning. Dawn revealed ten burnt-out German tanks left on the battlefield.
Rommel had intended to renew the attack on Tel el Eisa in some strength on the 15th but the attack launched by Auchinleck on Ruweisat Ridge forced him to reduce the scale of the assault. Auchinleck’s general intention, as stated in his orders, was to break through the enemy’s centre and destroy the enemy forces deployed north of Ruweisat Ridge and east of the El Alamein-Abu Dweis track. The XXX Corps was to take the eastern part of the ridge, then attack southward from Tel el Eisa and take the Miteiriya Ridge. The XIII Corps was to advance by night to Trig 63 at the western end of the ridge and then exploit to the northwest. On the 14th it was decided to make the attacks that night; the two corps were ordered to reach their objectives by 4.30 a.m. on the 15th.
The orders of the XIII Corps and 1st Armoured Division giving effect to this clear if over-simplified directive had enunciated more limited objectives and purposes, however, and had discarded as though it had been useless or pious embroidery, the statement of the broad intention which should have given impulse and cohesion to the forces operating. Conferences had been held but had not produced a common understanding of how the formations were to work together. The New Zealanders thought that they had a promise of close and firm armoured support when they got on their objective, whereas General Lumsden’s understanding seems to have been that the armour need not come up unless nor until there was a call for its assistance. The two armoured brigades were not told to get up on the New Zealand division’s flanks but only to be prepared to move. As the New Zealand historian has commented:–
Moreover, the instruction to both brigades that they “will be prepared to move” implied a waiting role and allowed the brigade commanders a discretion which, with fateful consequences, they exercised in the operation.53
In the XXX Corps sector the assault was made by the 5th Indian Brigade. The leading battalion was held up east of Trig 63 and the second, which had come under very heavy fire, had to retire.
The 2nd New Zealand Division made the attack in the XIII Corps sector with its 5th Brigade on the right and 4th on the left. Setting out at 11 p.m. it reached minefields a little after midnight and soon the men were under machine-gun fire and illuminated by enemy flares. They pressed on leaving many posts – more than they knew – to be mopped up later. Shortly before dawn the 5th Brigade was on its objective but with its left battalion in some confusion; the 4th Brigade had reached its objective on the left but was also somewhat scattered. At dawn the New Zealanders were awaiting the arrival of the tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade, but both this brigade and the 2nd which was to support the Indians were well to the rear awaiting orders.
Among the enemy troops inadvertently bypassed by the New Zealanders were about eight tanks of the 8th Armoured Regiment. In the half-light of dawn, these came in on the 22nd New Zealand Battalion, which at first mistook them for the expected British tanks, and attacked. Eventually, after a fierce fight between German tanks and New Zealand anti-tank gunners, about 350 New Zealanders were taken prisoner.
In the morning, General Nehring commanding the Africa Corps and in charge on the southern front reported the attack at Deir el Shein to Rommel, who ordered German units to converge on the area of penetration: the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit and a battle group of 100 infantry (with supporting arms) of the 21st Armoured Division from the north and the Baade Group (a battle group of 200 riflemen with supporting artillery) and 33rd Reconnaissance Unit from the south. At 5 p.m., the group from the north and the 33rd Reconnaissance Unit, together with tanks at hand of the 15th Armoured Division, opened a counter-attack.
The Baade Group failed to get to the battle. The New Zealanders were too thin on the ground to cope with the onslaught and the British tanks behind them were still awaiting orders. The New Zealand 4th Brigade was overrun. At 6.35 p.m. some tanks of the 2nd Armoured Brigade went
forward to the edge of the battle and gave some support. At 10 p.m. General Gott of XIII Corps authorised Inglis to withdraw to a line from Trig 63 to a position south-west of Alam el Dihmaniya The New Zealand division’s exposure to the German armour and the failure of British armoured brigades (whose tank strength so greatly exceeded that of the Germans) to be there alongside to give battle left an aftermath of bitterness and distrust of the armour and also of the commanders responsible.
Up to a point the British attack had been a brilliant success. Some 2,000 men of the Brescia and Pavia had surrendered, and in Rommel’s words the “line south-east of Deir el Shein collapsed”; but the success was not exploited and Nehring’s prompt counter-attack turned it into a costly reverse. The 2nd New Zealand Division lost 1,405 killed, wounded or missing.
The fundamental fault was the failure to co-ordinate infantry and armour (wrote Brigadier Kippenberger later). ... The attitude of the armour commanders at that period was not helpful, but I do not think we of the infantry did nearly as much as we could or should have done to ensure that we fought the battle together.54
Meanwhile the 20th Brigade Group (Brigadier Windeyer) had moved on the afternoon of the 15th to the defensive positions close to General Auchinleck’s tactical headquarters. Late that night a liaison officer from Eighth Army was sent to Windeyer’s headquarters with orders that the brigade was to move at 5.30 a.m. next morning in three battalion groups, each in mobile box formation, to a position (Mubarik Tomb) behind the 5th Indian Division, against which an enemy counter-attack was expected. There the brigade formed next morning a hastily improvised and dangerously exposed defence line. These orders were given without Morshead’s knowledge. When Morshead learnt what had occurred, he telephoned General Auchinleck and said that he was dumbfounded that Auchinleck should have done this; it was opposed to their agreement, he said, and opposed to Morshead’s charter. Auchinleck agreed to return the brigade, but soon afterwards sent news that he was being attacked heavily, whereupon Morshead agreed that the return of the brigade should be deferred, but asked to have it back as soon as possible. The brigade was released and returned to the 9th Division on the 17th.
On the 15th the 26th Australian Brigade had been fairly heavily engaged when Rommel resumed the attack with the forces left to him after sending reinforcements to Nehring. During the night of the 14th–15th patrols of the 2/48th could hear German voices and the engines of vehicles on their front near Tel el Eisa railway station. These were fired on, and in the morning it was discovered that 15 German vehicles were close to the wire and two machine-guns and two anti-tank guns had been established at or near the railway station. There was a sharp fight in which 32 Germans were captured and others killed. The vehicles were captured but later destroyed after the ammunition and equipment they contained had been salvaged. That night a patrol from the neighbouring company of the 2/48th had attacked a German party lifting the minefield, taking seven prisoners.
Meanwhile in front of the 2/24th Battalion dawn on the 15th had revealed 10 enemy tanks and infantry in 70 troop carriers approaching Trig 33. At 7.30 a.m. after an intense artillery barrage an attack was made by some 35 tanks and about seven companies of infantry. The tanks came up to the foot of Trig 33 and fourteen tanks reached that feature but the following infantry were driven back by the 2/24th and later the tanks withdrew to dead ground. At 8.15 a.m. there was a second attack from the north with 25 tanks and this too was beaten off with the help of a counter-attack by light tanks of the 44th Tank Regiment. A third attack without tanks was repulsed after about half an hour’s fighting. A fourth attack by both tanks and infantry at midday was broken up by artillery and machine-gun fire. Ten German tanks were destroyed in the day and the Australians took 63 prisoners.
At 4.15 a.m. on the 15th the 5th Armoured Regiment was ordered to continue the attack against the Australians with such sub-units as were available. The II/104th Battalion advanced across the railway north-west of the cutting at 5.50 and at 8 o’clock 12 tanks of the 5th began thrusting from the west north of the railway
and by 2 p.m. reported that it had reoccupied the “former positions” but was being prevented by artillery fire from moving up heavy weapons.55
Later that afternoon this advance had to be broken off and the 5th Armoured Regiment moved south-east to meet the attack “south-east of the El Alamein Box” leaving one battalion of the 104th Regiment to hold on in the northern sector. The 5th was ordered to attack in the south-east at 4.30 on the 16th.
That night plans were made to recapture the double Point 24 feature next morning (the 16th) with two companies of the 2/23rd and five tanks. The attack succeeded brilliantly at first. Captain Cromie’s56 company with two troops of the 8th RTR set out at 5.20 a.m. At the railway cutting an enemy post brought two forward sections under heavy fire at close range. Lance-Corporal Bell57 promptly led his section to a firing position on the flank and himself moved out under fire and attacked the post with grenades and sub-machine-gun. Bell and his men swiftly silenced the post, which was manned by 30 Germans. By 6.30 a.m. Cromie’s company had taken East Point 24.
Captain Neuendorf’s58 company passed through Cromie’s with three troops of the 44th RTR and advanced under continuous shell, mortar and small-arms fire. Neuendorf, wounded in the hand, advanced calmly in front of his men exhorting them and controlling movement, keeping his company never more than 50 yards behind the leading tanks; when he ordered his men to lie he would remain standing. By 7.45 a.m. West Point 24 had been taken. On the objective, Neuendorf went through a belt of fire to give first aid to a wounded man and, while returning, was killed by a shell. The attackers had taken 601 prisoners of whom 41 were Germans, including three colonels, one a German.
The two companies were at once subjected to intense and accurate artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire and soon 90 of the 200 men engaged had been killed or wounded. The prisoners were all sent back and, at
11.30, Lieut-Colonel Evans, after moving about the whole area to see for himself, ordered a withdrawal because the area was commanded by the enemy and he could perceive no tactical value59 in it, he had no artillery support or Vickers guns, no anti-tank guns had arrived and casualties were mounting. The withdrawal “was carried out in a most soldierly and able manner without further casualties”.
The 2/23rd Battalion’s attack overran the sole remaining battalion of the Sabratha Division and a portion of a German battalion (I/382nd Infantry Regiment). The new situation, which the Africa Corps reported as “critical” at 7.25 a.m., caused Rommel to send for reinforcements from the Africa Corps in the south, which was just starting operations to exploit its victory at Ruweisat. From the south came the 33rd Reconnaissance Battalion, the Briehl Group from 90th Light Division and a battalion of the 104th Regiment. At 9.50 a.m. the 21st Armoured Division reported that flanking fire from the right made an advance impossible. At 1.40 p.m. the division ordered the 5th Armoured Regiment in the south to go over to the defensive. The commander of the 104th now had under command his I and III Battalions and also the recently-arrived 382nd Regiment (of the 164th Division), so that a formidable force of armour and infantry had been assembled round Tel el Eisa to envelop Evans’ two companies.
This action marked the end of the first phase of the 9th Division’s operations, in which one brigade, without heavy loss to itself, had taken and held the high ground west of the El Alamein fortress and north of the railway, inflicted about 2,000 casualties on the enemy and taken 3,708 prisoners.
The price paid by the Germans and Italians was exacted very largely by the accuracy and intensity of our artillery and machine-gun support (said the divisional report). This was the first time that the divisional artillery and machine-guns had fought beside their own infantry and for most it was their baptism of fire. ... This was the first occasion on which direct air support was available to the division. ...
The divisional artillery was under the command of Brigadier Ramsay whom we previously saw in command of the artillery at Mersa Matruh. Ramsay had served in the ranks of the artillery in the first AIF, had been commissioned after the armistice and by 1930 was commanding a field regiment (then still named a “field brigade”). When war broke out he was commanding the artillery of a division; he dropped a step in rank to form the 2/2nd Field Regiment and before coming to the 9th Division had been in command of the medium artillery of the corps. He was a schoolmaster and university lecturer and destined to fill the most senior posts his branch of the teaching profession offered.
The 9th Division was not to be permitted to rest. The thrustful Auchinleck had decided to relieve enemy pressure in the centre at Ruweisat by attacking next day on each flank. The northern blow was to be delivered by the 24th Australian Brigade, attacking with two battalions forward: it
was to capture Makh Khad Ridge and then exploit southwards for about 5,000 yards towards Ruin Ridge. The 2/32nd Battalion was to take Trig 22 (Makh Khad Ridge) in a silent night attack, and at dawn the 2/43rd was to pass through, followed by a squadron of Valentines of the 44th RTR, and capture Ruin Ridge 5,000 yards farther south. The tanks of the 44th plus a squadron of the 9th Divisional Cavalry with Crusader tanks were to protect the left flank and if necessary to assist at Trig 22. The attack was to be supported by the combined artillery of the 9th Australian and 1st South African Divisions and two British artillery regiments.
The 2/32nd Battalion which had the opening role had been commanded since February 1942 by Lieut-Colonel Whitehead, who had previously been in command of the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion, which he had formed and taken overseas. Whitehead had been commissioned in the regular army in 1916 and had served in France where in 1917 and 1918 he had commanded a machine-gun company. Staff service followed until 1922 when, in common with other outstanding young officers, he resigned from a service that seemed to offer few prospects and became a businessman. He served on in the militia and in 1939 was commanding a light horse machine-gun regiment.
The 2/32nd attacked with three companies forward. They left the forming-up place at 2.30 a.m. on the 17th and within a quarter of an hour were under fire from artillery, mortars and machine-guns. The commander of the right company (Captain Forwood60) reported at 5.15 that he thought he had overshot the objective – Trig 22. (In fact he was a good 1,500 yards beyond it to the south-west.) The centre and left companies secured their objectives. The battalion had taken some 160 prisoners. The three companies were on a front of 2,500 yards with gaps between them and there were strong enemy forces between Forwood’s company and Trig 22 where antitank guns and Lieutenant Cameron’s61 platoon of the 2/2nd Machine Gun
Battalion had been established. By 7 a.m. the crest of Trig 22 had been lost. Whitehead ordered his fourth rifle company, less a platoon, to counterattack, and by 7.45 it had regained the crest. At 8.45 the objectives were all secure. The squadron of the 9th Divisional Cavalry protecting the 2/32nd’s right, which was commanded by Captain Fyffe62 and had 7 tanks and 15 carriers, manoeuvred under direct enemy observation and anti-tank fire and knocked out some anti-tank guns and machine-gun posts. This was the regiment’s first tank action.
Meanwhile the 2/43rd (Lieut-Colonel Wain) had moved through at 6 a.m. on a two-company front with a third company 500 yards in rear astride the Qattara track. The leading companies advanced at the rate of 100 yards to the minute under severe shelling and reached Ruin Ridge about 7 a.m. The left company (Captain Gordon63) met strong resistance and had to fight its way through extensive enemy positions in broken ground. In the left section all were wounded except Private Dean64 who fought on alone with a Bren and eventually rejoined his platoon 1,000 yards farther on. Gordon’s company took 400 prisoners. When it reached its objective on Ruin Ridge at 7.3 a.m. it found that 19 enemy guns were firing across its front from only 300 yards away. Gordon led out the left platoon and some men of company headquarters and captured the gun positions, taking 150 more prisoners and damaging or destroying three of the guns; they could not destroy the rest unless they were to use up all their anti-tank grenades, which they refrained from doing, knowing that enemy tanks were around.
The right company (Captain Hare65) advanced 2,500 yards across ground torn by shell fire before meeting with small-arms fire from an enemy position. The troops marched on, firing from the hip, and the enemy surrendered. About 1,000 yards farther on machine-guns and an antitank gun were encountered. The Australians attacked from a flank and about 50 Italians ceased firing and stood up; the anti-tank gun fired two more rounds, whereupon its gunner was killed. When the objective was secured seven tanks and about 400 other vehicles could be seen beyond. Corporal Yendall66 went forward alone under observation by the enemy, pinpointing the enemy’s position and directing his platoon’s fire on to it.
From 7.10 onwards the company was attacked by tanks and infantry; but the 2/43rd now had no anti-tank gun support and ammunition was running low. The field artillery could not help because communications had broken down. Colonel Wain proposed an advance against a collection of enemy vehicles and guns 800 yards to the front, but the squadron of the 44th RTR had only six tanks left and its commander said that he
could not support an advance. Wain therefore, with Godfrey’s concurrence, ordered a withdrawal which eventually placed the 2/43rd on the Makh Khad Ridge on the left flank of the 2/32nd. The 2/43rd had destroyed 13 guns and 12 machine-guns and three heavy mortars.
The action around Trig 22 was meanwhile intensifying. The enemy began to shell the ridge heavily a quarter of an hour after the 2/32nd had recaptured the crest. Air-burst shells proved specially lethal; the diggings were so shallow, and without head-cover. At 10 a.m. tanks and armoured cars attacked but were driven off by fire from 2-pounders and a captured Breda manned by Corporal Leeson, who knocked out three vehicles before the enemy shot his gun out of action and wounded him. Leeson repaired the gun and remained to fight on, engaging vehicles and low-flying aircraft.
Mounting pressure necessitated some withdrawals and re-locations but the front was stabilised, except for a post the enemy had succeeded in establishing on Trig 22, and the 2/32nd was in touch with the 2/43rd on its left. In the evening Brigadier Godfrey gave Whitehead permission to reorganise on a line covering the track that followed the telegraph poles and linking with the 2/43rd’s positions astride the Qattara track.
The 24th Brigade had taken 736 prisoners who included men from both infantry regiments of the Trento Division, from one regiment of the Trieste, and from the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment (corps troops). It had achieved more that day than the local tactical importance of the ground taken would signify. The operation had far-reaching effects.
“Early that morning,” wrote the diarist of the Armoured Army of Africa, “2 strong battle groups of both brigades67 of 9th Australian Division attacked south-west along the Qattara track from the area Makh Khad ... overran the right wing of Trieste Division and the Bersaglieri strongpoint of XXI Corps and pushed forward quickly to area north of Sanyet el Miteiriya. A strong force had to be brought up from the central sector to seal off this penetration. ... Panzerarmee was thus forced to abandon its attempt to win back X Corps old positions in the central sector.”
The 24th Brigade’s attack had pierced the fronts of the Trento and Trieste Divisions. The former had lost an artillery unit, the latter a battalion. But Rommel had at hand the reserves he had called for after the 2/23rd Battalion’s attack on the preceding day and at once sent in the 33rd Reconnaissance Unit, part of the 3rd, and a battalion of the mobile Baade Group (detached from 104th Infantry Regiment), with the Briehl Group in support. Of no less importance, he summoned up more troops and ordered Nehring to go over to the defensive. The 90th Light Division was told to withdraw an infantry regiment from its front and send it north. The divisional commander decided that he could not pull out a whole regiment but dispatched the I/361st northward at 3.15 p.m.
On the 17th the enemy round Tel el Eisa was not happy although the 26th Brigade was not pressing hard. The 5th Armoured and 104th Regiments were withdrawn to their positions of the previous day and in the course of this move the II/104th Battalion lost heavily and was greatly dispersed.
Rommel wrote to his wife that day: “The enemy is using his superiority, especially in infantry, to destroy the Italian formations one by one, and the German formations are much too weak to stand alone. It’s enough to make one weep.”68
Thus for the third time the 9th Division’s aggression had caused the enemy to call off an intended thrust at the centre.
About 5 p.m. on the 17th enemy tanks launched a stronger attack than hitherto against the junction of the two Australian battalions. The defence on the 2/32nd front was encouraged by the outstanding gunnery of Lance-Sergeant Daley69 who, though twice wounded, kept his gun in action and knocked out six tanks. But two forward platoons of the 2/32nd’s left company were overrun, 22 men were taken prisoner and the two battalions lost contact. In the words of the brigade report, “an ugly situation seemed to be developing”; but a stable line was soon formed about 1,500 yards farther back along the telegraph line with the Qattara track marking the junction of the two units.
At 7.10 p.m. Major D. R. Jackson, Godfrey’s brigade major, returned from the forward battalions with news that the front was firm. Thereupon Godfrey ordered Major Cox, acting in command of the 2/28th, to attack that night and regain positions from which the other battalions had just withdrawn.
The 2/28th had only three rifle companies available – one was escorting prisoners. The three moved off on a front of 1,000 yards at 12.20 a.m. on the 18th and reached the objective about 1.30 a.m. They encountered only a few enemy infantry, and one tank, which was destroyed. The battalion had two men wounded. By 5 p.m. sappers commanded by Lieutenant Murray70 of the 2/7th Field Company working under small-arms and artillery fire – “pretty hot conditions”, wrote the diarist – had laid 2,500 mines across the front and added more during the night of the 18th–19th.71
The brigade was now in a triangular formation with 2/28th as the apex and with the other two battalions based on the line of the telegraph posts. It was not the best of dispositions because Point 22 jutted in between the right flank of the 2/28th and the front of the 2/32nd. Obviously further moves would have to be made, and at sunrise on July 18th a carrier patrol was sent out by 2/28th to seek further information. This patrol found the Spandau which was still firing its occasional bursts. It was sited inside a minefield and was manned by a lone German – a giant of a man .
whose face was set in an expression of grim determination as he maintained the principle of defence to the last man and the last round.
The carrier patrol also discovered that a German reconnaissance party in tanks and armoured cars was making a study of Makh Khad Ridge. A few minutes later the first airburst shell detonated above the 2/28th, and for the remainder of the day there was little respite. The battalion suffered more casualties on July 18th from 88-millimetre airburst than it had done from artillery shelling during its entire six months in Tobruk.72
Although there were exchanges of fire on the 18th, the enemy did not attack.73
By the 18th the 15th Armoured Division had only 9 serviceable tanks, the 21st only 19. The 90th Light Division was ordered to move into the northern sector. Its diarist recorded that, owing to the “complete collapse” of the Brescia, Trieste, Sabratha and Pavia Divisions, “a temporary crisis” had arisen.
On the evening of the 17th the 2/48th Battalion had staged a diversion aimed at disrupting the enemy’s preparations on Tel el Eisa Ridge. At dusk three sections of carriers set out, under Sergeant Jacka,74 crossed the railway line near the station, drove to East 24, on to West 24, and then returned. Artillery and machine-guns and mortars fired in support throughout the raid and the carriers spent 3,400 rounds engaging several posts, some from a range of only 40 yards. During the raid there was only one casualty, but at the rallying point on their return one section ran into its own minefield suffering six casualties and damage to three carriers.
While the 9th Division had been attacking in the Makh Khad Ridge area, columns of the 7th Armoured Division in the far south, though endowed with but a fraction of the XXX Corps’ weight of numbers and fire-power, had made several offensive thrusts and won some successes. The division reported that the enemy was thinning out in that region.
Adhering to the principle of envelopment from either flank, General Auchinleck issued an order on the evening of the 17th calling for a renewal of the flank attacks about the end of the month and for constant pressure meanwhile in all sectors; for example, XXX Corps was to destroy the Italians on its front. Next day, however, he issued a very different order. Now he planned to attack as soon as possible – about 21st July – at the centre, in the Ruweisat Ridge region, where the German main strength lay, with cooperating thrusts in the south against the left flank and into the enemy’s rear. The XIII Corps would break through at Deir el Shein, Deir el Abyad and Buweibat el Raml and thrust westward; then the fleeing enemy was to be pursued to Daba and Fuka. Simultaneously, to prevent the enemy from concentrating against the main thrust, the XXX Corps was to mount a new offensive in the north. In the few ensuing days before the army struck, much of the staff’s time was taken up with elaborate planning for the pursuit phase.
No marked change had occurred in the enemy situation to explain so great a change of concept, plan and expectation. In searching for clues to the new-born optimism, one notes that the Eighth Army had intercepted Rommel’s instructions to his forces in the centre to go over to the defensive; perhaps 90th Light Division’s embarrassment at being ordered to send a regiment north was also known. Moreover Auchinleck had available two fresh formations: the 161st Indian Motor Brigade from Iraq and the 23rd Armoured Brigade Group just arrived from England – the latter had arrived in the desert only as planning for the attack began. Auchinleck had 61 Grant, 81 Crusader and 31 Stuart tanks in the 1st Armoured Division, 150 Valentines and a few Matildas in the 23rd Armoured Brigade in addition to the close cooperation tanks of the 1st Army Tank Brigade. Rommel was believed to have only 31 German tanks (actually 38) and 70 Italian (actually 59). In air support, artillery and also in infantry strength, Auchinleck had, over his enemy, a remarkable superiority.
The XIII Corps plan for the initial assault required the 161st Indian Brigade to attack west along the Ruweisat Ridge for Trig 63, and the 2nd New Zealand Division, attacking from the south, to take the eastern part of the El Mreir depression, a locality to the south and south-west of Trig 33, but with a gap between. In the second phase the 23rd Armoured Brigade was to thrust westwards through the gap into the enemy’s headquarters and administrative area. This meant thrusting at the heart of the Africa Corps between its two armoured divisions. It was a role for which the eager spirit of the unblooded 23rd was suited, but not its tanks, nor the obsolescent little 2-pounder guns they mounted. The experienced armoured brigades were being husbanded for the pursuit when the defeated enemy fled, but it was odd that, in the battle intended to turn the scales, the faster and, in part, better armed tanks were to give close protection to the infantry and the slow Valentines and Matildas to break through.
The attack opened early in the night of the 21st. On the right the South African division seized a depression on the Indian brigade’s right flank; the Indian right battalion broke into Deir el Shein, but was thrown back; the left battalion was held up short of Trig 63. On the left the 6th New Zealand Brigade took its objectives. Again the New Zealanders were attacked at dawn by tanks; again tank support at dawn, which the New Zealanders understood to have been promised, had not been provided; again, despite planning attention to this very point and arrangements for closer liaison, a common intention between cooperating infantry and armoured units as to the method of operation had not been achieved. The New Zealanders lost 700 men including the brigade commander (Brigadier G. H. Clifton) who, however, escaped later in the day.
At 8 a.m. the reserve Indian battalion attacked, reaching Point 23, and the 23rd Armoured Brigade set off westward to win its laurels, losing tanks as it went, to mines, anti-tank guns, and tanks, but pressing on always in Balaclava spirit until each regiment reached its objective some three miles and a half west of the Indians’ forward infantry; by then one regiment had only 15 tanks left, the other 12. This gallant, though costly and
imprudent thrust threw the enemy into confusion, but he did not flee and the XIII Corps had no further punches planned for the day. About midday the survivors of 23rd Armoured Brigade were withdrawn with support from the 2nd Armoured Brigade; they had only 7 left of the 87 tanks with which they had set out, though more than half of those lost were later recovered.
Some further efforts were made by the XIII Corps that afternoon and night but the disaster could not be retrieved. The New Zealand division had lost 904, including 69 officers; after the accumulated losses of the two ill-planned and ill-concerted Ruweisat battles it required extensive re-organisation. The division was also “sourly discontented”75 and General Inglis wrote to General Freyberg:
I have flatly refused to do another operation of the same kind while I command. I have said that the sine qua non is my own armour under my own command.76
The XIII Corps had not been fighting the Eighth Army’s battle alone on that hard, disappointing day. The tasks undertaken by the XXX Corps were scarcely less formidable or ambitious. In addition to the seizure by the South African division of a depression to the north of Deir el Shein, the corps’ orders required a two-brigade infantry attack by the 9th Division followed by thrusts by armour and infantry no less daring than that prescribed for the 23rd Armoured Brigade, first 6,000 yards west then 4,000 yards south. The division was required to advance on all its fronts, to the west in both the north and the centre, and also to the south – onto the Miteiriya Ridge. Inevitably this required a number of thrusts that were not closely inter-supporting and a dispersion of the available artillery support over a wide front. The 1st Tank Brigade and the 50th RTR were placed under the division’s command and the South African artillery was to assist.77
The 9th Division’s attack was to be in three phases with two hours between the first and second phases to allow two field regiments to move forward to support the later phases. In the first phase the 26th Brigade on the right in the Tel el Eisa area was to make two thrusts – one straight out from the westernmost protrusion of the line at Trig 33, beside the coast road, to seize the next high feature, Ring Contour 25 (Baillieu’s Bluff), the other southwards across the road and railway again to capture the high rolling ground of the double Point 24 feature (or Tel el Eisa Ridge) – while the 24th Brigade striking out from the Tel Makh Khad region was to take the dominating ridge behind the double 24 feature
(from Cairn to Trig 22 on the map). When these objectives were taken, the 9th Divisional Cavalry would have the role of delaying any move by the enemy between the two brigades. In the second phase the 50th RTR was to take Point 21 on a ridge to the west of the 24th Brigade’s first objective, which would then be held by the 2/28th Battalion and in the third phase the 50th RTR was to seize Trig 30 on Ruin Ridge, which the 2/43rd Battalion would then take over. To free the 2/28th for its westward thrust, the 2/13th Battalion was placed under command of the 24th Brigade and was to relieve the 2/28th during the night before the attack. The 20th Brigade Group was to be prepared to exploit towards Daba from the night of the 22nd–23rd onwards.
Morshead was extremely critical of the tasks laid upon his division in the operation and took strong exception to the plan. The following note appears in his diary for 21st July:78
2 hours conference with Ramsden, during which I objected strongly to scope of my attack to take place tomorrow and several changes in timings. As result Commander-in-Chief sent for me and conference held at XXX Corps. Present Commander-in-Chief, Ramsden, D.C.G.S. (Dorman-Smith79) who took down notes! Commander-in-Chief explained plan of 13 Corps’ attack. I did not like our plan because of wide dispersion and difficulty to support and pointed out that our immediate objectives were much more difficult than realised by Army and Corps. Commander-in-Chief according to Ramsden was very annoyed and perturbed but he did not show it. He stressed that he realised he must have a willing commander. I stressed that my concern was a task which was reasonably certain of success and could be held and supported, and that my job too was to minimise casualties. Altogether it turned out to be rather like a family party.
This was almost certainly the interview described in The Desert Generals which the author of that work represents as occurring on 22nd July and relating to orders for 24th July – which could hardly have been true since the 9th Division’s orders for the attack a few days later were in substance orders to repeat an abortive attack about to be launched that very afternoon of 22nd July (just after the alleged time of the interview).80
In the few days before this operation began the forward battalions of the 9th Division had patrolled strenuously and there was little rest for anyone. The diarist of the 2/48th recorded that it was almost impossible to sleep by day because of the heat and flies, while the nights were occupied with digging and patrolling. The troops were very tired. Some relief was
being given by sending one man from each forward section to spend the day on the beach.
On the night of the 19th–20th a company of the 2/28th with 20 sappers of the 2/7th Field Company made a large-scale raid on enemy diggings about Trig 22. The patrol left at 12.25 a.m. and returned at 3.40. It encountered a tank which Sapper Gilson81 destroyed with a No. 73 grenade, killing three or four men in or round the tank.
The 26th Brigade was not relieved for the attack but had still to hold the salient in the north. Since the 2/24th and 2/48th Battalions had therefore to continue holding their fronts, they could spare only two companies each for their tasks and would be without reserves to reinforce if all did not go well. The brigade plan required two companies of the 2/24th and one of the 2/23rd to thrust beside and parallel to the coast road – the 2/24th companies to Ring Contour 25, the 2/23rd to Kilo 109 on the old track just south of the new main road – the 2/23rd Battalion (less the company mentioned) to take East Point 24 and, when this was secured, the 2/48th to take West Point 24.
In fine, 26th Brigade was to attack the defences by which the enemy blocked access along the main coast road which led into the enemy’s main headquarters area and on to Mersa Matruh, Tobruk and Tripoli – the enemy’s only supply line. As in the XIII Corps, the Eighth Army’s offensive was striking not at the enemy’s weak points but where he was likely to be strongest. With after-knowledge denied to the commanders who directed the battle, it seems that to strike beside the road with only three companies of infantry supported by two batteries of artillery was indeed optimistic.
Major Weir,82 summoned up from Alexandria on the preceding day to take command of the 2/24th Battalion, had called in at brigade headquarters on the way and was troubled at receiving orders to mount an attack next morning. As the 2/24th assault companies were waiting before dawn next morning for the start time to arrive, a Very light was accidentally fired, which probably alerted the enemy. When the attack started, the enemy artillery opened up almost immediately and
the companies went forward through devastating machine-gun fire. Captain Baillieu’s company on the right took heavy casualties. Captain Baillieu and his second-in-command (Captain Austin83) were in turn wounded and evacuated and the assault developed into uncoordinated platoon actions. Most sections got on or near their objectives only to find them swept by constant intense fire from flank or rear; but though unable to deal with it, they hung on. Soon all the officers had been hit except Lieutenant Austin84 who, having rejoined the battalion only the day before, found himself in charge, scarcely knowing the men; but with the help of the only surviving NCO, Lance-Sergeant Annear,85 Austin was able to exercise command.
On their left Captain Mollard’s company lost touch with Baillieu’s but managed to get onto its objective, on Ring Contour 25, which was also well covered by enemy machine-guns. There the ground was so rocky that they had difficulty in digging in. Sergeant Hughes,86 observing that two Spandaus were troubling one of his sections, crawled forward and with two rifle shots hit the No. 1 of each gun. The No. 2’s immediately replaced them, but with his next two shots, Hughes hit both, putting their guns out of action. Then Hughes tried to carry out the wounded leader of the section that the Spandaus had been engaging, but the man was shot and killed on Hughes’ back. Captain Mollard soon decided that his objective was untenable and side-stepped to the right towards Baillieu’s company, where he held on in a less exposed position.
Major Weir decided about 6.45 a.m. that the two companies, which he could not reinforce, would have to be withdrawn and ordered them back, obtaining Brigadier Tovell’s concurrence as soon as possible. At first difficulty was experienced in informing the right company but telephone communications were in time restored. When Lieutenant Austin received the order, he sent Sergeant Annear back with the survivors but stayed behind to assist in recovering the wounded and in so doing was himself wounded. The withdrawal order did not reach some outlying sections, who fought on until late afternoon and were overrun. Five officers of the 2/24th had been wounded and 20 other ranks killed; and 39 wounded were brought back; 14 other men known to have been wounded were missing; 6 were missing believed killed; and 15 others were listed simply as missing; 7 who had been wounded remained on duty.
The 2/24th believed that the 2/23rd’s company was to attack simultaneously for Kilo 109 and Captain Mollard had been much concerned, on the approach to his objective, at being unable to make contact with it. The company’s orders, however, were to start its advance only when the success signal was sent up over Ring Contour 25. This the company
did when the signal was given, under “terrible enemy fire”, and Captain Mollard, looking back from the ring contour, saw them struggling forward in dire straits.
The main attack of the 2/23rd south of the railway line had been made simultaneously, with two companies forward, behind a heavy artillery concentration. Round East Point 24 the dust made it impossible to see more than a few yards and a fierce fight developed. The success signal was fired at 6.20 by which time 24 German prisoners had been sent back.
At 5.55 news reached the 2/48th on its start-line--the railway at Tel el Eisa station – that the other battalions were on their objectives, whereupon it moved off round the left of the 2/23rd towards West Point 24, the right company (Captain Williams) going straight to the objective, the left (Captain Kimber) swinging out to come in on the left flank. The men soon came under intense shell and mortar fire but continued to advance, keeping formation and leaving a trail of fallen men on the desert. Wireless communication broke down. Almost a mile from the railway the advancing companies found themselves under fire from the enemy’s forward positions. Soon the right company had lost all its officers. In the left company only one remained and he was out of touch; the company sergeant-major, Sergeant Pryor,87 took command and led it forward. When the right company arrived within 100 yards of the enemy positions it was pinned down by accurate and intense artillery and machine-gun fire, particularly from the left. Private Gurney88 leapt up and charged across the bullet-swept ground, killed the three Germans manning a machine-gun post with his bayonet, then dashed on to a post 30 yards away, bayoneted two more Germans and sent back a third as a prisoner. Then a grenade hurled at Gurney blew him off his feet, but he got up, picked up his rifle, and charged a third post. He was bayoneting more Germans when a burst from another machine-gun killed him.89
Wounded men returning through battalion headquarters reported that their companies had been cut to pieces but Hammer thought the survivors would be pressing on and ordered a section of carriers forward to give support and obtain accurate information; so heavy was the fire, however, that the carrier crews had many men wounded and could not get through; nor could the vehicles carrying supporting weapons.
Hammer asked for support from tanks and at 11 a.m. nine arrived. Alacrity in getting help to his men was what the dynamic and resourceful Hammer expected of the tanks. His subsequent report on their response must be read with the reservation that the defence has not been heard.
The tank commander was given the task of supporting the attacking companies on to the objective (wrote Hammer). He asked for 30 minutes to move but the tanks actually took 4½ hours to cross the railway line – the time lag seemed almost impossible to explain. On crossing the line they found a small enemy minefield,
withdrew, held a conference, and moved forward to attack again. Two tanks moved gingerly forward and were knocked out by an enemy anti-tank gun, the only one seen in the area. The tanks then withdrew completely.
About 7 a.m. Private Hogan,90 who was with the left company, and had been wounded in the arm, had been left to guard nine Germans. Fire was so intense throughout the day that Hogan could not escort the prisoners back. They were within easy reach of their own weapons and only about 200 yards from their own lines but by his aggressive attitude and alertness, Hogan, though frequently sniped at from not far away, kept them under control for 14 hours and after dark brought them to battalion headquarters.
About 8 a.m. the Germans had meanwhile opened a heavy counterattack on the 2/23rd companies at East Point 24. The enemy made some progress against the left company (Captain Cromie) but it continued on fighting for three hours. Part of the other (Lieutenant McRae91) was able to hold the enemy at bay. Evans sent forwards his acting second-in-command (Major Urquhart92) in a carrier to tell the men at East Point 24 to hang on while the remaining company (“A”) came up to support them. Then Evans learnt that the 2/24th was withdrawing from the Ring Contour and his company advancing on Kilo 109 was out in the blue. At 8.30 “A” Company (Captain Harding) began moving to East Point 24. Urquhart had meanwhile reached East Point 24 but was killed on the way back, and so Evans did not know how matters stood. Out there, where doubt and anxiety brooded in many minds, a splendid job was being done by Corporal McCluskey93 in charge of a carrier whose initial task was to take a mortar detachment forward. Having done so, he returned for a load of ammunition, traversing hundreds of yards of shell and bullet-swept ground, and stopping several times to pick up wounded men. When he had gone back and delivered his mortar bombs he saw that communications were obscure and travelled the whole battalion front establishing contact between the company commanders. Again he loaded his vehicle with wounded but on the way back his carrier was hit. He was thrown out and stunned but regained consciousness, repaired his damaged carrier, still under fire, and carried on.
A runner from the company away to the right that had been advancing on Kilo 109 brought Evans news that the men were pinned down by withering fire, the company commander (Lieutenant McKoy94) had been killed and the other officers and half the company were casualties. Evans arranged a smoke screen to cover the withdrawal of the survivors and 30 men got back. Lieutenant Clarke95 who had taken over the command
of this company was himself wounded in the foot and could not walk. Rather than delay the withdrawal he remained and was brought in after dark by a fighting patrol.
After 8.30 a.m. radio communication with the left company of the 2/23rd had ceased. It fought on until 11, when a few men filtered back and reported that the commander, Captain Cromie, was dead, the second-in-command wounded and all other officers wounded and evacuated, but that the recently arrived “A” Company was barring further German progress towards East Point 24. Evans organised some 80 men to hold the battalion’s main positions between Trig 33 and the Tel el Eisa cutting.
The pressure on the left of Evans’ front was also felt on the right of Hammer’s where the leaderless “D” Company had lost cohesion, though scattered remnants clung to their ground throughout the day. Here, late in the afternoon, was a section of men led by Private Ashby,96 who had earlier taken command of his; section in the assault and with them had overrun several posts. Ashby and his men saw a Valentine tank knocked out. Germans nearby rushed across and took the crew and two members of Ashby’s section prisoner but Ashby opened fire with such accuracy that all the Germans were killed or badly wounded, so that their prisoners escaped.
In the late afternoon, the anxious Hammer at last got some information from the front when Sergeant Pryor, commanding his “B” Company, came on the air to say that they were holding on, though he could not say where he was because all maps were with dead or wounded officers. Hammer at once organised an emergency force from all available headquarters and Headquarters Company men and some 50 reinforcements who had just arrived, released his “A” Company (Captain Shillaker) from its defences, and sent it, plus a platoon of machine-gunners and a troop of anti-tank guns, to the aid of Pryor’s men. Just as they were setting forth, however, Pryor reported that he and his men had been surrounded, but would fight their way out. Shillaker’s company pressed on and met them coming back, then only 15 strong. Hammer ordered Shillaker’s company to reoccupy East Point 24, which they did during the night, consolidating with wire and mines.97
At the end of the day “A” Company of the 2/23rd was digging in near the railway cutting but two of the platoons were out of contact and Captain Harding was missing and believed to have been killed. In the battalion about 100 had been wounded and 50 were missing. Eleven officers had been killed or were wounded or missing, and the casualties among NCOs totalled 43.98
As the sun was setting on that desperate day on which these companies of the 2/23rd and 2/48th – infantry of finest mettle – after fighting so valiantly, and suffering so severely in casualties (not by capture but by
death and maiming) had been thrust from much of the ground they had taken, it seemed they might have fought to no avail. Yet by holding on to what they could, they had accomplished their assignment. By the morning of the 23rd it was evident that the enemy had withdrawn from round both East and West Point 24. The depleted 2/23rd was reorganised with only two rifle companies, one of which remained on East Point 24 while the other was between that point and the 2/24th. The 2/48th extended the line eastwards along the railway for some 3,500 yards.
The 24th Brigade’s operations on the 22nd had met with mixed fortune. The 2/32nd Battalion’s objective – Trig 22 – was known to be strongly held and patrols had tested a strong-post equipped with anti-tank guns and machine-guns along the telephone line to the north of the line of advance. Whitehead persuaded Godfrey to leave one company of the 2/43rd under his command for the attack; his own battalion, after the losses on 17th July, had been reorganised into three rifle companies each about 90 strong and weak in NCOs.
The attack was made with three companies forward and the start-line, which was 1,700 yards from the objective, was crossed at 5.30 a.m. after the supporting artillery had been firing for 15 minutes. Captain Sudholz’s company of the 2/43rd on the right was the first to be fired on; after 600 yards it was halted by heavy fire from the right and dug in; Sudholz was mortally wounded. The centre company’s commander, Captain O’Mara,99 was killed soon after the advance began and Lieutenant Bennett100 took command. It gained its objective taking some 20 prisoners, but was soon pinned down by fire. The left company captured three anti-tank guns in its attack but was held to the edge of the escarpment below Trig 22, where it dug in. Lieutenant Cameron, commanding the supporting machine-gun platoon, established his left section forward of the left flank and at 6.30, armed with only a pistol, charged a German machine-gun that was firing from a sangar and had caused many casualties. The machine-gunner fired until Cameron reached the post, then stood up and was shot by one of Cameron’s men. Cameron then turned the Spandau on to the Germans until it jammed.
On the right wing the 2/43rd company was under fire from two field guns in a fortified post. Whitehead decided to send his reserve company (Lieutenant Davidson101) to attack it, with support from artillery and mortars. Davidson’s men subdued the post and the surviving enemy troops retired north-west; later in the darkness engineers sallied out and damaged the two guns. At 9.45, after an enemy artillery bombardment, tanks and armoured cars struck at the centre company. Bennett and others were killed, part of the company was overrun and 66 men were taken prisoner. Eventually the tanks were driven off by artillery fire.
The tanks and armoured cars and two mobile guns next attacked round
Trig 22 and a long fight followed in which two armoured cars and the two mobile guns were put out of action. Finally the line was sited so that anti-tank guns could cover both sides of Trig 22, and further positions were chosen in ground suitable for digging and back from the crest. The brigade had taken 57 prisoners up to this stage, all German from the I/155th Infantry Battalion.
Morshead visited Godfrey at his headquarters several times during the day. Waiting there in mid-afternoon for news that the 24th Brigade had accomplished the first phase, Morshead learnt just before 3.45 p.m. that the 2/32nd’s hold on its ground was now secure and the 24th Brigade therefore ready to start the exploitation phase. On the other hand, as we have seen, the situation in front, on the double Point 24 feature, was fluid and obscure. Morshead conferred with Ramsden and the decision was made to cancel both phases of the ambitious thrusts by armour and infantry 2,000 yards west and 4,000 yards south, but to continue with the plan to exploit southward, with the object of gaining a footing on Ruin Ridge by dusk and consolidating during the night on the reverse slope.
As the 2/28th Battalion had been assembled and made ready to advance for the westward exploitation, Morshead decided that it should undertake the southward thrust, instead of the partly committed 2/43rd Battalion originally assigned. The 50th RTR with one squadron forward on a front of 600 yards, carrying one platoon of the 2/28th and engineers and followed by a second squadron 700 yards behind, was to advance at 6 miles in the hour to Ruin Ridge. This spearhead was to be followed by a troop of 6-pounders and a machine-gun platoon, after which would come the 2/28th Battalion on foot moving at 2 miles in the hour, and then the remainder of the 50th RTR group. The tanks were to halt in hull-down positions on the objective and were not to withdraw until the main body of the 2/28th had arrived. The 50th RTR had 52 Valentines in all.
Since Ruin Ridge had been similarly attacked only 4 days earlier, the enemy was unlikely to be unexpectant and the time for planning preliminary moves and giving orders was extremely brief. It was 5 p.m. before Major Cox of the 2/28th and his adjutant left brigade headquarters after receiving oral orders for an attack to start at 7. And between 6 and 7 o’clock a disturbing report arrived at Godfrey’s headquarters from an aircraft on reconnaissance that along 1,000 yards of Miteiriya Ridge 500 enemy vehicles were dispersed, infantry were digging in, and there were at least 20 gun positions. Godfrey passed the information on to Colonel Wells at divisional headquarters.
A penalty was to be paid for too much haste. There was no time for reconnaissance – scarcely sufficient even to pass quick orders down and get the men to the start-line. The platoon to ride on the tanks arrived just in time but got mixed up trying at first to mount the first wave of tanks instead of the second.102 The tanks, with the infantry aboard but not the
sappers, set off.103 Some 20 tanks were disabled by running onto a known minefield which, with better preparation and passing of orders, should have been avoided. The rest, accompanied by the carriers, pressed on to a further ridge which the tank commanders, having covered the distance prescribed for them, believed to be Ruin Ridge but perhaps may have been still some distance short. Some enemy were dislodged and sent back. The tanks waited for the 2/28th to come up.
The rest of the infantry, hurrying forward, came up late to the start-line but then strung out and attacked in perfect extended-line formation. “I watched advance of 2/28th Battalion,” wrote Morshead in his diary, “and all the indications of success were present.”
No news arrived until 10.45 p.m. from the 2/28th – its wireless van had been destroyed soon after crossing the start-line, but in the meantime, two hours earlier, about 50 German prisoners had arrived back in the 2/13th Battalion’s area. Line communication was then established and at 11.45 p.m. Cox reported having reached a ridge with a ruin on the left; the tanks had withdrawn and the infantry were now getting into position on the reverse slope. Ten Italian tanks were visible.
The 2/28th had taken 59 German prisoners including members of all three infantry regiments of the 90th Light Division and five Italians from the Trento, but had lost 2 officers and 52 others.
When the tanks returned, and leaguered farther back than had been
intended, Brigadier Richards104 of the 1st Tank Brigade, evidently suspecting that they had not reached the objective, went forward to investigate, and at 1.30 a.m. returned and announced that the 2/28th was some 3,000 yards short of Ruin Ridge. From this and other reports – five minutes later, for instance, Lieutenant Ligertwood,105 the F.O.O. with the 2/28th, reported that he considered them 2,500 yards short of the objective – Godfrey concluded that the battalion was deployed west of the road on a front of about 400 yards between Kilos 8 and 9.
That was substantially correct. Some ruins encountered during the advance had deceived some officers into thinking they had reached Ruin Ridge though far short of it. There the men had been ordered to halt, the battalion had dug in and the Intelligence officer had gone on to tell the tanks they were too far forward and to instruct them to return, which they did. For the raw 50th RTR it had been an unhappy introduction to battle; the regiment recorded the loss of 23 tanks.106 No explanation can be given of the battalion’s premature stop, evincing failure to keep prescribed distances firmly in mind and to check with care distances covered, except the effects of extreme fatigue, accentuated by constant air-burst shelling of the battalion over the preceding days.
Godfrey went forward about 4.30 a.m. with Richards, reached the 2/28th at dawn and ordered Cox to widen his front, put patrols well forward, make contact with the 2/32nd at Trig 22, and try to get as far forward as possible; by 9.23 the two battalions were in contact.
“If the results of this day’s fighting were disappointing from the point of view of objectives gained” (says the divisional report) “there was some consolation in the report from XXX Corps that the enemy had found it necessary to move the entire 90 Light Division, less some infantry but supported by elements of three Italian divisions, to hold his battered left flank.”
The war diary of the 90th Light Division described how their enemy, attacking south-west of El Alamein before dawn on the 22nd, penetrated a gap between the I/155th and I/361st Battalions and captured nearly a whole company of the 155th. After bitter fighting the Briehl Group, with the support of tanks from the 21st Armoured Division, counter-attacked and threw the enemy back with a loss of 23 tanks of which 12 fell to the Briehl Group.
The daily report of the Armoured Army of Africa, after referring to the losses as particularly heavy and the position as being extremely critical, added: “It is questionable whether the whole front will be able to be held any longer against such heavy pressure.”
The 9th Division which alone, it is pertinent to remember, had achieved valuable gains in the Eighth Army’s costly and abortive offensive was soon to be called upon for a further effort. General Auchinleck, knowing that his adversary was becoming gradually stronger and that time was therefore precious, was resolved, as he later wrote in his despatch, “to go on hitting the enemy whenever and wherever I could” and decided to attack again as soon as a new offensive could be prepared.
The object of the renewed attack, which was to be made by the XXX Corps, was to break through the enemy’s front on the Miteiriya Ridge between Ruin Ridge and Deir el Dhib, thrust north-west and achieve a decisive victory. The corps was strengthened by the addition of the 1st Armoured Division less an armoured brigade, the 4th Light Armoured Brigade and the 69th Infantry Brigade (of the 50th Division). The plan provided that the 1st South African Division would make a wide gap in the enemy’s minefields south-east of Miteiriya. By night the 24th Australian Brigade was to take the eastern end of Miteiriya and thrust northwest, while the 69th Brigade passed through to Deir el Dhib and made gaps in any further minefields; through the gaps the 2nd Armoured Brigade would advance to El Wishka followed by the 4th Light Armoured Brigade which would raid the enemy’s rear areas. This plan, which required two converging attacks, one southward, one westward, to be made from different places, exhibited a point of weakness in that the two thrusts would not be mutually supporting unless or until both were successfully accomplished. Moreover the corps plan as developed in detail seemed to conflict with Auchinleck’s orders to the corps to “avoid committing armoured formations in isolated action against superior enemy armoured forces”.
Auchinleck wished the new offensive to open on the night of the 24th–25th but Ramsden thought the South Africans were too tired for a battle by that date, and the commander of the 69th Brigade wished his men to have more rest. Ramsden and Morshead agreed that the attack should be postponed to the 26th–27th and a request to that effect was approved.
The 24th Brigade Group’s plan provided that the 2/28th Battalion Group, covered by artillery concentrations, would take Ruin Ridge and establish a strongpoint between the 24th Brigade’s left flank and the right of the 69th Brigade. When the 2/28th and the 69th Brigade had attained their objectives the 2/43rd Battalion was to advance and capture the ridge to the west of the 2/28th, with the support, if necessary, of the 50th RTR. If not committed to this task the 50th RTR was to attack westward and capture the area from Trig 30 to Point 27 near
El Wishka. The 20th Brigade Group was to be ready to join in the pursuit should the enemy withdraw.
On the 26th Auchinleck issued a Special Order of the Day:
Behind El Alamein
25 July 42.
To all ranks EIGHTH ARMY from C-in-C.
You have done well. You have turned a retreat into a firm stand and stopped the enemy on the threshold of EGYPT. You have done more. You have wrenched the initiative from him by sheer guts and hard fighting and put HIM on the defensive in these last weeks.
He has lost heavily and is short of men, ammunition, petrol and other things. He is trying desperately to bring these over to AFRICA but the Navy and the Air Force are after his ships.
You have done much but I ask you for more. We must not slacken. If we can stick it we will break him
STICK TO IT.
C. J. E. AUCHINLECK
By the evening of 25th July the British Intelligence believed that few Italian troops were left in the front line. The Trieste was thought to be west and south-west of Tel el Eisa and the Trento west of Miteiriya. These Italians were about 9,100 strong with 70 medium or field guns and 45 anti-tank guns, 15 armoured cars and perhaps 12 tanks. From the north the forward German units were believed to be: two battalions of the 382nd Regiment, the Kiehl Group and 33rd Reconnaissance Regiment, the 361st Regimental Group (two battalions), the Briehl Group, and the 200th Regiment. These totalled about 3,580 men and had from 106 to 120 guns in support including 26 to 29 88-mm weapons.
It was known that German troops were holding an area north-east of Ruin Ridge with light forces possessing a high proportion of machine-guns, anti-tank guns and a few field guns. An area south-west of the ridge was more strongly held and it was realised that, particularly to the south, the enemy would have tanks at close call. There was a minefield parallel to and generally east of the Qattara track on which many tanks had foundered in the previous two attacks and it was suspected that there was also one to the west of it.
On the 24th Morshead issued a general staff instruction which declared that the division’s battle cunning, developed to a high degree in Tobruk, had “gone a bit rusty”. He instructed, among other measures, that officers on reconnaissance should not make it obvious to the enemy that they were so engaged, that information should be got down to the troops swiftly, that the troops should be made to appreciate that supporting tanks could not remain on the objective for long without risking undue losses, and would leave the objective and rally in rear of the infantry; the tanks’ task in attack was to destroy the machine-guns--the infantry’s main enemy – the infantry’s task to destroy anti-tank guns and artillery which might hold up the advance of tanks.
The 2/28th Battalion had carefully planned and reconnoitred for its second attack on Ruin Ridge. The battalion crossed .the start-line – between
Kilo 8 and Kilo 9 – punctually at midnight 26th–27th July in bright moonlight with two companies forward on a front of 800 yards. The rate of advance was 100 yards in two minutes. Lieut-Colonel McCarter, commanding the battalion since the 23rd, had warned his officers that during the advance fire could be expected from the flanks and told them that the men must answer it by firing from the hip without changing direction or halting.
Eight hundred yards from the start-line the battalion came under fire from field guns, mortars and machine-guns. Among the casualties were the commander of the right forward company (Captain Carlton107), and the commander (Captain Stenhouse108) and one other officer of the right rear company. The vehicles bearing the supporting arms were fired on by anti-tank guns as soon as they began to advance and, when about Kilo 10, were halted by a minefield. Soon five vehicles, including three carriers, had been knocked out and some began burning.
By 1.10 a.m. the leading companies were on Ruin Ridge. The left rear company cleared its objective with a bayonet charge. Soon McCarter’s headquarters had been established about 900 yards north-west of the ruin. But all attempts to get the telephone cable past the minefield under heavy enemy fire had failed and the battalion’s wireless set had been destroyed. When the men began to dig in they found the ground hard and rocky and could only make shallow trenches about a foot deep. Three company commanders had then been wounded. The whole area was under heavy fire. And efforts to deal with the German weapons pouring enfilading fire across the minefield had failed.
As soon as a narrow gap had been made in the minefield six anti-tank guns, two carriers and a machine-gun truck had passed through, but now four vehicles were in flames there, brightly illuminating the surrounding terrain and blocking the gap. The remaining vehicles carrying supporting arms then returned to the assembly area, and the surviving carriers – five out of ten – began ferrying back about 50 wounded men and escorting back the prisoners, of whom 115 Germans and 12 Italians were eventually brought out. An urgent request for ammunition for the 2/28th was received by the 2/43rd, then occupying the 2/28th’s former positions, but did not reach Major Simpson,109 in charge of the 2/28th’s “A” Echelon vehicles, who had already gone forward to the start-line. Learning from Captain Masel, in charge of the carriers, that the battalion was on its objective, Simpson decided to attempt to take the ammunition through. He went ahead of the “A” Echelon transport with the ammunition trucks and drove “hell for leather” past the burning vehicles and through the mined area under bombardment by guns on the flanks. Seven or eight vehicles which swung right and followed the tape reached the objective,
but others hit mines and became easy targets for the enemy anti-tank guns. Blazing vehicles lit up the area almost like day.
When all men wounded in the advance had been evacuated, Captain Priddis,110 the regimental medical officer, whose regimental aid post was established in the assembly area, went forward with his stretcher bearers to the minefield to tend wounded men he had heard were still lying there, and continued administering to them in the beaten zone of enemy guns and the glare of burning vehicles until a German patrol took him and eleven patients prisoner.
The wireless set of the F.O.O. with the 2/28th, Captain Fielding of the 2/7th Field Regiment, was ineffective because of interference, and all other sets had been destroyed, so McCarter asked Fielding to return in his carrier to brigade headquarters and try to bring forward the ammunition trucks and telephone cable. On the way back Fielding twice challenged vehicles which turned out to be those of enemy troops who had closed in behind the ridge. He was killed when firing with his Tommy-gun on the second truck. The carrier was then disabled by a mine, but the driver, Gunner Manning,111 made his way under fire through the minefield, reached brigade headquarters and delivered the message he had heard Fielding receive. Godfrey ordered the 2/43rd Battalion to send its ammunition truck to the 2/28th while the artillery bombarded the German gun covering the minefield, but the attempt to get through failed.
Brigadier Godfrey had seen the success signals and knew of the messages sent back calling for ammunition. But apart from what Manning could tell him, the only information Godfrey received during the night came from a liaison officer, Lieutenant Head, whom McCarter had sent back at 2 a.m. to arrange communication by line or wireless. To Godfrey Head described the advance to the objective and reported that when he left the battalion it was consolidating but under fire from machine-guns on the left, an anti-tank gun and machine-guns on the right and a light gun in front of Ruin Ridge.
Dawn and the inevitable counter-attack were a dismal prospect for the 2/28th Battalion. Unless the lethal minefield block was forced and help brought quickly or the 2nd Armoured Brigade could break through after the 69th Brigade’s converging attack and arrive from the east, the West Australian battalion would be in dire peril.
At 2 a.m. the 69th British Brigade had advanced, but soon the leading battalion – the 6/Durham Light Infantry – came under fire and some men took cover in old slit trenches. “From this time onwards,” wrote the leader of a liaison patrol from the 2/28th, Lieutenant Rule, “the advance became disorganised and was made worse owing to the East Yorkshire Regiment passing through and mixing with 6 DLI.” Part of the brigade forced a small gap through the enemy’s front but in general the attack became disordered.
Then the enemy counter-attacked and both battalions were overrun,
The 2nd Armoured Brigade had been due to advance at 7 a.m. following the 69th Brigade, but at dawn its commander decided that the South Africans had not cleared a gap in the minefield wide enough to permit its tanks to move through. At 7 a.m. Morshead’s headquarters learnt that the brigade had fixed a provisional Zero hour for 7.30, but at 7.40 they were told Zero would be 8.15. At that time the artillery program for its advance opened.
At daylight on 27th July at 24th Brigade Headquarters the situation, though gravely perturbing because the 2/28th Battalion’s communications had been cut, did not appear irretrievable. The battalion was where it should be and had had time to consolidate its ground. The armoured thrust due to start at 7 should reach it soon, before Godfrey could bring help. But when Godfrey heard of the deferment of the armour’s attack, he ordered the 2/43rd at 7.29 a.m. to send a force including two carrier-borne mortars to destroy the guns covering the gap in the minefield. The force moved out about 8 a.m. but the guns were silent, so it bombarded the southern part of the minefield. Godfrey also sent Lieutenant Cook112 of his staff to try to make contact with the 2/28th, but Cook did not return. His vehicle was hit and wrecked and he had to take cover nearby, remaining out there until the morning of the 28th. About 8.25 a.m. the 1st Army Tank Brigade was asked to get ammunition forward to the 2/28th in two tanks, but by the time the commander of the 50th RTR reported for orders the situation had changed and the regiment was asked to attack to relieve the battalion.
At 8.45 a.m. it had been learnt that the 2nd Armoured Brigade’s advance had still not begun. Then suddenly, at Godfrey’s headquarters, the 2/28th Battalion’s wireless came on the air and began at 9.4 a.m. to pass a message. It was brief – only four words – but graphic. “We are in trouble.” In the next three-quarters of an hour a number of messages calling for artillery support were received and the guns fired on the areas indicated by McCarter, with one 10-minute interruption, when it was feared that the fire would fall on the 2nd Armoured Brigade. At 9.30 a.m., however, the 9th Division learnt that the armoured brigade had been held up on a minefield.
All night, near Ruin Ridge, anti-tank gun and machine-gun fire had lashed the minefield gap but the 2/28th, though constantly harassed by fire, had confidently awaited the 2/43rd Battalion and the 69th Infantry and 2nd Armoured Brigades.
Soon after 3 a.m. McCarter ordered Lieutenant Harrod113 to take out some men and silence a 50-mm anti-tank gun that was causing most of
the damage to vehicles in the gap in the minefield. Harrod led out four men but found that the gun was strongly protected by infantry, of whom two fresh truckloads were then arriving.
When no response came from Captain Fielding’s mission to get ammunition, Staff-Sergeant Lyall was sent back at 4.30 a.m. on the same errand but his vehicle struck a mine. Lyall and the driver of his truck got through eventually to 2/43rd Battalion headquarters, and reported the battalion’s situation and its need for ammunition and anti-tank gun support to Brigadier Godfrey by telephone.114
Just before dawn 18 trucks unloaded German troops on McCarter’s right flank. His battalion was out of communication, with no means of calling for artillery support and short of ammunition. The fire-fight became hotter but the 2/28th kept the upper hand. About 9 a.m. Captain Allen’s company saw tanks and armoured cars to the south-east. Thinking they were the expected British tanks, Allen drove out to meet them, but they proved to be German and Allen was killed. As if by a miracle, the signaller just then finished repairs to the battalion’s pack wireless and made contact with Godfrey’s headquarters. As the counter-attack came in, McCarter sent the series of messages already mentioned calling for artillery support, which soon came, and the Australian anti-tank gunners fought off the tanks and armoured cars, destroying eight of them. A 6-pounder gun on the right of the 2/28th’s position was served by the battery sergeant-major of the 12th Battery, McIlrick.115 He and his team of two fought the gun until it was knocked out, and Mcllrick killed.116
At 9.43 a.m. McCarter signalled to Godfrey’s headquarters “There are tanks all around us,” and a minute later, “You had better hurry up. Rock the artillery in.”
The 50th RTR began its attack to relieve the pressure on the 2/28th at 9.55 a.m. but met with disaster. The leading tanks reached Point 30 and a ridge near the Ruin but saw no Australian troops and were forced back by fire from a ring of anti-tank guns; 22 tanks were knocked out of which 10 were recovered later. The men of the 2/28th witnessed the debacle.
At 10 a.m. the cheering news was received at Morshead’s headquarters that the 2nd Armoured Brigade was dealing with an enemy pocket behind the 69th Brigade and was preparing for a full-scale attack, probably north through the 2/28th, but at 11.40 a message arrived that the armour “was not playing until infantry guaranteed the mines clear”. At midday the division was told that the attack had not started because the armoured brigade could not find the gap; “50 minutes later,” wrote Morshead afterwards, “we heard that they had discovered the gap but what they did
with it we never heard. Anyhow our battle had already been finished 3 [sic] hours before.”117
The 6th RTR had been checked by heavy fire before it got through the minefield. Eleven enemy tanks appeared but did not then attack. It is not of consequence to follow further the course of an operation which could no longer achieve its purpose. About 3 p.m. the commander of the 1st Armoured Division, Major-General Fisher,118 ordered the 6th RTR to withdraw when it was dark. At dusk the 11 enemy tanks advanced but were checked and the 2nd Armoured Brigade withdrew, the 6th RTR having lost three of its 41 tanks in the course of the day.
Godfrey had received the last signal from the 2/28th Battalion at 10.3 a.m. It said simply: “We have got to give in.”
Right up until 1000 hours (wrote the historian of the battalion) there had been no thought of surrender. The tanks were closing in from three directions, and Don Company on the forward left position was the first to be overrun. Immediately WO2 Fred Holding119 of “A” Company ... jumped from his pit to exhort his men to keep firing. As the tanks closed in on Battalion Headquarters a Bren gunner ran to an exposed position to open fire. His .303 bullets were useless against thick steel and he was shot down by one of the other tanks. The loss of this life convinced Lieut-Colonel McCarter of the futility of further resistance. He stood up in his weapon-pit, and with an upward wave of his hands signalled to his battalion to end the hopeless struggle.
Many of the men of the 2/28th were in tears as they were formed up into a column and marched off to captivity. The bitterness of the moment was aggravated when the column trudged into the artillery concentrations which were still being fired, and more casualties were suffered.
The final opposition did not end until early afternoon. One platoon from “C” Company, commanded by Lieutenant John Draper,120 was occupying a position on the forward slope of the ridge and well out on the right flank Unaware of the surrender and believing that the battalion had withdrawn to safety, this platoon fought until it was finally overrun by the tanks of the Briehl Group.121
The survivors were marched about five miles behind the German lines, then taken by truck to Daba.
Two officers and 63 other ranks of the 2/28th were known to have been killed or wounded, and 20 officers and 469 men were missing. The 69th British Brigade lost about 600 men.
After the battle the 2/28th was regrouped, for the present into two echelons: “A” – the operational element – comprised 98 all ranks organised
in two platoons; “B”, 105 all ranks, comprised mainly administrative people and drivers.122
The 2/28th thrust struck the 1/361st Battalion and the 1/200th (both of the 90th Light Division). The division reported that its positions were penetrated for five to seven kilometres and its forward battalions had heavy losses; part of the I/361st was wiped out. The advance of the 50th RTR was halted by the I/115th Battalion and the 33rd Reconnaissance Unit and artillery. Rommel ordered the usual swift counter-attack. The Briehl Group (the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit, an infantry battalion and anti-tank guns) and the 33rd Reconnaissance Unit were ordered to thrust north and the II/200th Battalion to thrust east, and a battle group of the Africa Corps comprising a tank unit, the I/115th Battalion and artillery was sent at 6.30 a.m. to the Deir el Dhib area. After the action 90th Light Division reported having taken about 700 prisoners, mainly Australian, and knocked out 20 to 25 tanks.
So ended General Auchinleck’s last attempt to dislodge Rommel’s army from the El Alamein line. Auchinleck’s efforts to exhaust the enemy forces had succeeded in exhausting his own. For more than a month afterwards neither of the opposing armies at El Alamein launched a major attack. Neither was strong enough. Rommel, commenting later, said of the situation after the failure of the attack by the XXX Corps:
It was now certain that we could continue to hold our front, and that, after the crises we had been through, was at least something. Although the British losses in this Alamein fighting had been higher than ours, yet the price to Auchinleck had not been excessive, for the one thing that had mattered to him was to halt our advance, and that, unfortunately, he had done.123
Auchinleck knew it would be necessary to pause and build up greater strength before attacking again. He reported to London to that effect, in a message that attributed part of his difficulties to the mixed composition of his forces which forbad detaching subordinate Dominion units and formations from parent formations.
On the afternoon of 27th July, the day of the disaster to the 2/28th Battalion, Dorman-Smith, Auchinleck’s Deputy Chief of the General Staff, had placed before the general a comprehensive appreciation of the situation together with proposals for reorganisation of the Eighth Army to prevent the repeated failure of the armour and infantry to cooperate effectively.124
In the course of this paper Dorman-Smith expressed the opinion that the Axis forces were not strong enough to attempt the conquest of the Delta “except as a gamble and under very strong air cover”. On the other hand none of the formations in Eighth Army was sufficiently well trained for offensive operations. The army’s best course for the present
was to combine a defensive policy with raids and other offensive gestures. “The cover plan should be such as would induce the enemy to strike prematurely, i.e. mid-August, say, between August 10 and 20. Meanwhile the army front should be strengthened, and so held that at least one formation could come into reserve and train.” It should be prepared to fight a defensive battle in the area El Alamein–Hammam. “To meet an enemy’s sortie developing into manoeuvre by the southern flank” the army should organise and train a strong mobile wing based on the 7th Armoured Division. Eventually – perhaps in the latter part of September – the army would have to renew the offensive and this would probably mean a breakthrough about El Alamein. “The newly arrived infantry divisions and the armoured divisions must be trained for this and for pursuit.” Auchinleck accepted this appreciation and its proposals.
Also on 27th July Auchinleck had made yet another change among his senior subordinates, calling forward Brigadier de Guingand, since February Director of Military Intelligence at G.H.Q., to replace Brigadier Whiteley as senior staff officer on Eighth Army headquarters. De Guingand has recorded that he was “considerably shaken”, having had no experience as a general staff officer in the field, and indeed having filled no post that was closer to a battle than G.H.Q. in Cairo. He tried to evade a task for which he considered himself unqualified but Auchinleck sharply ordered him forward and he went to an appointment in which he was to prove perhaps the most brilliant and successful of his kind on the British side.
It would be interesting to know what de Guingand thought of the prophetic appreciation which, on the day of his arrival at Eighth Army headquarters, was presented to the Commander-in-Chief by Dorman-Smith. We have his comment on another scheme produced about the same time, the so-called “O.P.” (observation posts) scheme, according to which the artillery was to be linked up and controlled from the O.P’s, thus to be concentrated in support of any threatened sector or sectors. De Guingand thought that “there was a great danger of the guns being driven hither and thither and confusion setting in”.
The various plans being worked out represented the state of mind of Eighth Army, or at least their High Command, at that moment (he wrote afterwards).125 They were still looking over their shoulder. Other defensive positions far to the rear were being reconnoitred ... if there is too much of this sort of thing it is most unlikely that the troops will fight their best in their existing positions.
Of his first days at Eighth Army headquarters de Guingand wrote: “I very soon found I was becoming overwhelmed by having to examine a number of such plans and schemes, both defensive and offensive.”
On 29th July Auchinleck discussed future policy with General McCreery,126 his adviser on armoured warfare, and proposed that in future each infantry division should include an armoured brigade and that the
Crusader tanks should be grouped in a light armoured division. “McCreery resisted these suggestions so stubbornly that Auchinleck ... told him that there was no further use for him if he could not fall in with his Commander-in-Chief’s intentions.”127
Morshead shared de Guingand’s uneasiness at the fluctuating state of mind of the High Command. “Auchinleck thought in terms of brigades and Jock Columns and was continually alternating between optimism and depression,” he said later. “I used to ask Wells ‘How is the barometer this morning?’”128 In Morshead’s diary for 5th August, the day on which the British Prime Minister visited his headquarters in the desert, appears this cryptic entry:–
Appreciation by XXX Corps. In effect we are to turn our shoulders eastwards!
Morshead’s diary entry for the next day (6th August) records that the corps commander visited him to talk of attack. The subsequent diary entry reads:–
He could not really give me the factors which brought about such a complete somersault (the barometer of Eighth Army has been wildly oscillating ever since our arrival). No stability, a wealth of plans and appreciations resulting in continual TEWTS. Fighting always in bits and pieces and so defeats in detail. Formations being broken up automatically – it has been difficult and unpleasant keeping 9th Div intact.
General Wavell came to see me and we had a long talk. ...
On 29th July Morshead on the occasion of a visit by Ramsden to his headquarters told his corps commander that he was not disposed to make any more attacks until he could be sure that the British armour would fight. He expressed the same views in writing on 4th August when he sent to the XXX Corps the report of the 24th Brigade on the attack on Ruin Ridge and listed “the factors contributing to this disaster”. These included the encountering of an uncharted minefield 900 yards from the objective, inability to establish communication, the occupation of an exposed position with both flanks open, and the failure of the 1st Armoured Division to join the battle. “It is vital that on the next occasion,” Morshead wrote, “our armour restores our lost faith in them. ... Until we can be certain about our armour we must have more limited and less exposed objectives than those in recent operations. The only justification for recent objectives was that our armour would effectively operate.”
Criticism of the armour by the infantry of the Eighth Army was unfortunately becoming fashionable. Some of it was merited but some unjust. There was a tendency to lay upon the armour the whole blame for failures that were in part infantry failures. Some criticisms rested on an unstated premise that an infantry formation could not be expected to hold to its ground against enemy tanks unless friendly tanks were alongside. Many of the German attacks, however, were made with not a large number of tanks and many such were successfully resisted in the 9th Division because its troops were imbued with the teaching Morshead had drummed into
them in Tobruk to lie low, hold to their positions, deal with any accompanying infantry and let the guns behind deal with the tanks if they passed. This prevented tanks from achieving sweeping successes and reduced them to a slow process of prising out infantry by twos and threes, in which they seldom persisted for long.
More criticism than praise of the tanks operating with the 9th Division has appeared in the story just told, but only because commanders were more prone to write reports of what went wrong than of what went well. The division was particularly well served by the 1st Army Tank Brigade whose commander, Brigadier Richards, was an old personal friend of Colonel Wells and worked closely with him to achieve effective cooperation. Some criticisms were made, moreover, by Australian commanders who lacked the knowledge and experience to appreciate the problems and limitations of tanks in battle. It was Richards himself who first sorted out what had gone wrong in the 2/28th Battalion’s first attack on Ruin Ridge and it is as well to remember that it was the infantry in that operation who failed to make the rendezvous.
It could not be said, however, that the armoured formations as a whole served the Eighth Army well in the battles just described. It is remarkable that the British won most of their successes by infantry attacks, the Germans most of theirs by armoured counter-attacks. German armoured formations almost always arrived where most needed, British almost never. The fault lay not in the men manning the tanks but in the commanders and the methods they used. Two defects stood out. First, the respective commanders of infantry and armoured divisions fighting a common battle made decisions independently without common purpose. Either the commander of an infantry division operating with armoured support would have to be given command of the armour or the corps commander would have to be in closer contact with the battle, exercising quick and effective command. Secondly, armoured formations were continually delayed or held up at minefields, the gapping of which had been made the responsibility of infantry formations. On a battlefield extensively sown with mines it was essential that armoured formations should be made fully responsible for clearing their own paths forward and be given also the trained men and equipment necessary to do the job. These defects were to receive attention in the days ahead and steps were to be taken to remedy them.
If the Eighth Army was uneasy in the last days of July and first days of August, its confidence was not undermined. It had stopped the enemy. It had thrown him on the defensive. It had wrested the Tel el Eisa hills from him – not a step perhaps so much as an edging forward for a foothold from which to lunge out on the long arduous trek to Tobruk, Benghazi, Tripoli and Bizerta. The long ebb of British military fortune had ceased. The tide had turned though the set the other way was not yet discernible.
Despite the virtual loss of a battalion, the 9th Division emerged from the battles fought at El Alamein under General Auchinleck, and perhaps uniquely so, a more self-confident formation than before, and a more efficient one. It was capable of being brought to a still higher pitch of
effectiveness provided that replacements for men lost in battle continued to come forward.
It will be recalled that when, in May, the Australian Government was considering whether to ask for the recall of the 9th Division to Australia (eventually to decide that the request should not be pressed because of the developing crisis in the Western Desert) General Blamey had pointed out that decisions on organisation and manpower allocation in Australia hinged on the decision to be reached concerning the 9th Division.
On 10th May Morshead had pointed out to General Blamey the need to consider the division’s future reinforcement. Blamey replied on 29th May that in view of the acute manpower position in Australia, he regretted that he could not send any further reinforcements at present. At that time the total strength of the AIF headquarters and units remaining in the Middle East was about 29,300 of whom 21,500 belonged to operational units. In addition there were 3,400 reinforcements in the Middle East, making a grand total of approximately 32,700. By the time the division returned to active operations, the grand total had decreased to 32,300 including 3,200 reinforcements. It was estimated that these reinforcements, though adequate to replace about four months and a half of wastage under normal conditions, would amount to only one and a half months’ supply under conditions of intense activity such as were then contemplated for the division. On 14th July the Adjutant-General in Australia therefore recommended the dispatch of about 6,000 reinforcements in three successive batches. A request for further reinforcements was received about the same time from Morshead.
The provision of reinforcements on such a scale would inevitably react on the build-up of forces in Australia and was therefore the subject of much discussion. On 16th July Mr Curtin informed the British Government of the difficulties that would face the Australian Government in maintaining the flow of reinforcements from Australia to the 9th Division. On 24th July Mr Churchill cabled Mr Curtin the text of a commentary by the British Chiefs of Staff on the possibility of withdrawing the 9th Division from the Middle East. The Chiefs of Staff pointed to the danger to the oilfields of the Middle East from a possible German break-through in the Caucasus, the extent to which the Middle East had been denuded of forces to meet the threat from Japan, and the efforts being made to reinforce the Middle East from the United Kingdom. It was their opinion that to withdraw the 9th Division “at the present time or indeed during this year (1942)” would endanger the safety of the vital Abadan oilfields, without which it would be impossible to maintain the British position in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean and might prove impossible to meet Australia’s oil requirements, 60 per cent of which came from there.129
Moreover the division’s transportation to Australia and replacement would involve a dangerous and unjustifiable shipping commitment. Mr Churchill said that he hoped that the Australian Government would be able to overcome the reinforcement difficulties; if not, he suggested that it would be necessary to fall back upon the expedient of making wastage good by breaking up ancillary units.
Japanese forces had been in New Guinea since the first week of March, when they had occupied Lae and Salamaua. On 21st July the Japanese made a landing at Gona, on the north coast of the massive island’s eastern peninsula, in the territory of Papua, posing a threat, soon to be realised, that an advance would be made across the peninsula to strike at the Australian administrative centre at Port Moresby. The Torres Strait dividing Papua from the Australian mainland is only 90 miles wide.
It was against that background that Churchill’s communication was considered by the Australian War Cabinet on 29th July. Next day Curtin replied to Churchill that it was disappointing that the review of the Chiefs of Staff dwelt at some length on the strategical position in the Middle East without mentioning the position in the Pacific. It was the desire of the Australian Government that the Commander-in-Chief of the South-West Pacific should have at his disposal all the Australian forces it could provide; therefore it would do no more than agree to an extension of the period for the temporary retention of the 9th Division in the Middle East. As General Blamey had advised against the breaking-up of ancillary units, approval had been given to the sending of reinforcements.
By the end of July, after four weeks’ operations, the 9th Division had suffered 2,552 battle casualties (including 127 officers). On 31st July Curtin approved of the early dispatch of 3,978 reinforcements, being sufficient for two months at the intense activity scale; he told the Advisory War Council, however, that there was to be no departure from the principle that all AIF forces abroad should return to Australia for employment in the South-West Pacific.
About a month later Morshead, presumably looking ahead to the division’s likely requirements when the Eighth Army launched its next offensive, suggested to Australian Army Headquarters in Melbourne that the two months’ reinforcements coming forward were not enough. In a cable sent on 27th August he represented that on the basis of recent experience it was essential to have available in the Middle East three months’ reinforcements at the “intense activity” rate. To achieve this, 3,569 personnel would be required after making good existing shortages and after taking into account the 4,000 reinforcements already in transit. In addition, one month’s reinforcements at the “intense activity” rate (2,544 personnel) should also be dispatched to allow for wastage during the period that would elapse before the arrival of the additional reinforcements. In brief, the early dispatch of 6,113 men was sought. It was also requested that thereafter monthly reinforcements be provided at the normal scale.
When Morshead’s message arrived in Australia, the operations being fought to resist the Japanese attempt to take the whole of Papua had reached their most critical stage. On the Owen Stanley Range’s jungle trails the outcome of the desperate fighting to halt and turn back the Japanese force advancing on Port Moresby hung in the balance, and at Milne Bay the Australian forces (including the 18th Brigade in its first operation since leaving Tobruk) had sustained some temporary rebuffs from the Japanese invading force. The need to employ more battle-hardened formations, and therefore AIF formations, against the Japanese forces in Papua and New Guinea was plain and pressing. Moreover the high sickness rate in tropical warfare at that time, before the problem of malaria control had been solved, was aggravating the manpower problem.
General Blamey recommended to the Commonwealth Government that, if it intended the 9th Division to remain in the Middle East, Morshead’s requests should be met. About the same time, however, Blamey represented to the Government that there was a need to increase the land forces in the South-West Pacific Area by a corps of three divisions. Mr Curtin on llth September made similar representations to the President of the United States. On the same day Curtin approved of the dispatch of the 6,000 reinforcements Morshead had requested but informed General Blamey that the future of the 9th Division was at present under discussion with President Roosevelt and Mr Churchill. Before these reinforcements embarked other developments were to cause Curtin to reverse his decision.