Chapter 15: The Dog Fight
There is no absolute measure of success or failure in war. Though a nation may win a war, when peace ensues it may find itself at a disadvantage. Of the success or failure of a military enterprise as such, however, final victory or defeat is the last judgment. Judged as a contribution to the outcome of the battle, the first night’s attack at El Alamein was the foundation of the victory, though judged only in terms of the objectives prescribed, the attack had not succeeded.
As observed in the last chapter, the main reason for the XXX Corps’ failure to take all its objectives up to the Oxalic line had been that the plan had asked too much of the infantry. Not even with unexampled skill and valour could tasks of such magnitude have been completely accomplished. Likewise the main explanation of the 8th Armoured Brigade’s failure to debouch into the enemy rear even though its bridgehead to the Oxalic line had been cleared was that the plan had demanded the impossible in requiring the armour to give battle on ground of its choosing in the enemy’s rear without becoming embroiled on the way, for the ground chosen and the routes from the Oxalic line to it had been fortified by the enemy against tank attack, contrariwise to the assumptions on which the plan had originally been based. To ordain that the armour should give battle on ground of its own choosing was one matter; to expect it to attack ground prepared by the enemy to resist armoured attack, quite another.
Faced with the problem that the bridgehead had failed to span the enemy’s zone of anti-tank defence the Eighth Army had several courses open to it to persuade the enemy’s armour to join battle so that it might be destroyed. The existing bridgehead could be extended to overreach the remaining tank-proof localities, a new bridgehead could be pushed through on a weaker part of the front, or the enemy could be enticed, by the methodical destruction of his infantry from the existing bridgehead, to launch attacks against ground already prepared in tank defence, as Montgomery’s exposition of his second plan had foreshadowed; or some combination of these courses might be tried. These possibilities should be kept in mind as the subsequent course of the battle is followed.
On the morning of the 24th the attention of the armoured commanders, the corps commanders and the army commander himself was attracted to the Miteiriya Ridge sector where the Oxalic line had been reached and lanes for the passage of armour cleared. General Freyberg, forward in his tank in the early morning, was perturbed at the reluctance of the 10th Armoured Division’s tanks to push forward. Unable to contact Lumsden, he sent a message to Leese, who thereupon came forward to see Freyberg. Leese and Freyberg reconnoitred the front together and then returned to Freyberg’s headquarters to confer by the “blower” with Montgomery. There Lumsden soon joined them, having seen nothing that
morning, it may be presumed, to diminish his dislike of issuing in line ahead through minefield lanes to attack an enemy gun-line. Freyberg, whose counsel the higher commanders probably valued more highly than anybody’s, thought that the attack should be resumed that night, which may have helped the corps commanders to reach the same conclusion. Montgomery probably needed no prodding to decide that the risks could, should and would be accepted. Montgomery told Lumsden that the 10th Armoured Division was to get out into the open and manoeuvre beyond the Miteiriya Ridge.
In outline Montgomery’s orders for the continuation of the battle were, with some modifications, to carry out by the morning of the 25th such of the tasks ordained for the 24th as had not been completed. The 9th Australian and 51st Highland Divisions were to secure the rest of the Oxalic line, the armour was to debouch by night and advance to the Pierson bound. The action of the armour, however, was not to be dependent on completion of the infantry tasks – the armoured divisions were to fight their own way forward. The 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions were to advance westwards, the 9th Armoured Brigade and the New Zealand division’s cavalry (armed with Honeys) southwards, all four armoured brigades to link on the Pierson bound. The thrust of the 9th Armoured Brigade was to prepare the way for later southward infantry thrusts by the New Zealand division. The 133rd Lorried Infantry Brigade from the 10th Armoured Division was to take over the part of the New Zealand front adjoining the Highland division. De Guingand later recorded that Lumsden was “obviously not very happy about the role his armour had been given” and Montgomery wrote that he told Lumsden to “drive” his divisional commanders.1 In the XIII Corps the 44th and 7th Armoured Divisions were also to carry out their tasks uncompleted on the first day.
By daylight that morning the 9th Division’s front had erupted with fire of every kind – fire from field guns, machine-guns, mortars and snipers directed at the infantry, high velocity fire aimed at the tanks, and fire from British tanks and guns in rear engaging targets. The pandemonium was to continue – with some periods of great intensity – for several days.
Soon after sunrise the forms of enemy tanks could be seen approaching from the west. The German 15th Armoured Division was coming in to make its first attack on the bridgehead. By 7.15 a.m. the tanks were reported about 1,000 yards west of the 2/48th’s left forward company and also forward of Trig 33. The battle-fire quickened. Soon the three Australian field regiments and the 7th Medium Regiment were firing pre-arranged concentrations on the areas into which the German tanks had moved and some Shermans in rear of the Highland division’s front and of the left flank of the Australians’ front were also engaging them. A little later lorried infantry appeared west of the 2/48th. In time the enemy armour drew back from its first encounter with the XXX Corps artillery and the Shermans’ long-range gunfire, leaving several tanks burning on the battlefield. Some Shermans were also burning.
The first big day-bombing attack by the Desert Air Force was allotted to the 9th Australian Division, which chose as target an enemy headquarters area 1,500 yards north of the northern flank of the attack. The bombing was timed for 8 a.m. The division had to indicate the target by smoke shells and to define the line of its own northern defences with blue smoke (from candles captured from the Germans). Although these signals were given, the 18 aircraft, flying at 18,000 feet and probably misled by the smoke on the 9th Australian and 51st Highland and 1st Armoured Divisions’ common battleground, dropped their 2,000-pound bombs on the 2/13th Battalion, 3,000 yards south of the target and 1,500 yards south of the blue smoke. But only four men were hit.2 It was an unfortunate prelude to very close and effective cooperation throughout the battle between the ground and air forces. Later that morning the RAF’s “tank-buster” squadron of heavily gunned Hurricanes attacked the Kiehl Group and reported that it had knocked out 18 of the Kiehl Group’s 19 tanks.3
On the northern flank the prospect at daylight had at once revealed that the tactical key to the security of the flank was Trig 29, north of Hammer’s battalion. Whitehead’s brigade, by comparison with other fronts, was faced by a less subdued enemy infantry, which the main artillery storm of the night assault had by-passed. Enemy artillery to the north was also active though most of its shelling was behind the forward battalions, but soon the enemy began patrolling to find the flank of the penetration.
Meanwhile sappers were busy throughout the day widening lanes, bringing the Diamond, Boomerang, Double Bar and Square tracks up to the foremost localities and clearing minefields from congested areas. In the evening hot meals were brought right up to the forward troops.
On the Highland division’s front the lanes of the northern corridor for the armour were being pushed forward. By 9.30 a.m., the tanks were deployed about the double Point 24 ridge to the south of the Australian sector and in action there. One successful daylight infantry attack by the Scottish was made in the centre of the division’s front on an enemy locality that had resisted during the night and in the late afternoon tanks of an armoured regiment cleared other defended localities to extend a mine-free lane to the Oxalic line. Towards sunset the enemy armour (15th Armoured and Littorio Divisions) attacked out of the sun, the main weight being directed more against the Highland than the Australian front. The gunfire battle furiously quickened and the Australians saw “Priests” in action for the first time. The firing continued until dark. Twenty to thirty tanks were destroyed on either side; but the Germans had to destroy British tanks in about the ratio of four to one if they were to retain a chance of avoiding armoured defeat, and that they did not do.
On the New Zealand front, tanks of the 9th Armoured Brigade and some of the 8th Armoured had fought a force of 30 to 40 enemy tanks during the morning until most of the British tanks had been knocked out.
The survivors then took up advantageous hull-down positions behind the crest of the Miteiriya Ridge.
At 4 p.m. the commanding officer of the 2/13th Battalion, Colonel Turner, and the adjutant, Captain Leach,4 were wounded, Turner mortally; both had to be evacuated. Major Colvin5 was promptly brought forward to take over and, on the way, received orders from Brigadier Wrigley for the renewed attack up to the Oxalic line, which was to open at 2 a.m. next morning. The 20th Brigade was to capture the ground originally assigned to the 2/13th on the first night, but the task was now to be carried out by two battalions, the 2/17th on the right, 2/13th on the left. The attack was to be made with full artillery support. After the Australians had secured their objective the 7/Rifle Brigade was to pass through, take Point 32 and form a bridgehead for the tanks beyond the Oxalic line.
Colvin found the 2/13th practically without officers, and General Morshead agreed to allow all left-out-of-battle officers to be sent forward. Early that night Sergeant Easter of the 2/13th, who had a reputation for cool and reliable judgment under fire, returned from a patrol which had failed to find any sign of the 1/Gordons on the battalion’s left.6 He expressed the opinion that there would not be much opposition to the night attack. Thereupon Colvin conferred with Colonel Simpson of the 2/17th and it was agreed to make a silent attack without artillery support. The 40th Royal Tank Regiment was to support the attack.
The attack by the two battalions was timed to open at 2 a.m. on the 25th. Just before it began a single enemy plane, probably looking for the armour, dropped a flare and then bombed the start-line, but without causing harm. The 2/17th on the right advanced with two companies forward, took the objective without having to fight for it and began to dig in. The battalion’s vehicles came forward but soon afterwards were shelled and bombed by aircraft. An anti-tank gun portee was set alight there and also an ammunition vehicle in the 2/13th’s area, both providing most unwelcome illumination. Some enemy posts nearby began harassing the 2/17th with machine-gun fire as reorganisation proceeded. In the right company Lieutenant Wray7 was a steadying influence walking through it all pipe in mouth while carrying a heavy load of mixed ammunition for one of his sections which had reported that it was running short. A vehicle in charge of Sergeant Cortis8 of the machine-gun platoon was hit and set alight, but Cortis coolly off-limbered a gun, got it into action,
engaged some of the enemy posts and silenced them. Captain McCulloch9 of the left forward company was killed by machine-gun fire and the company’s only remaining officer wounded; Sergeant Williams10 took command. The men were very weary and jaded, having been without sleep for 48 hours and throughout that time frequently under intense fire.
On the left the 2/13th had encountered machine-gun fire after about 500 yards but advanced through it. The right company surprised two posts and took the occupants prisoner. By 3.15 a.m. the troops were digging in on the objective with patrols out. The enemy began to lash the forward companies with machine-gun fire from close in front, but the 40th Royal Tanks came up behind and effectively engaged the enemy nests with tracer machine-gun fire. At 4.50 a.m. contact had been made with the Gordons on the left. By 7 a.m. shallow digging had been completed and supporting arms sited.
Before dawn the air was raucous with the noise of tanks approaching from the rear but the 7/Rifle Brigade had not yet appeared when the horizon showed the first signs of approaching day.
The break-out battle was soon to reach its climax. On the Highland front the main tank force of the 1st Armoured Division (2nd Armoured Brigade) had been moving up to the Oxalic line except on the division’s left where an enemy strong-point, which the division had lacked the strength to attack, still held out to the right of the gallant 7/Black Watch. It was beyond the Highlanders, however, where the southern bridgehead reached across the Miteiriya Ridge, that the battle’s most dramatic developments had been occurring that night. An hour and a half had been allowed to the sappers to clear lanes forward for each armoured regiment before, at 10 p.m., the guns fired the barrage behind which the three armoured brigades of the 10th Armoured Division were to debouch. The time proved all too short and the enemy, as could hardly have been otherwise, was expectant and ready for counter-strokes.
The 8th Armoured Brigade, in the centre, encountered the greatest misfortune. On one lane (Hat track) the enemy captured the mine reconnaissance party and the exit was covered by at least one 88-mm gun. The lane was abandoned. It was then decided that two regiments, the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry and 3rd Royal Tanks, would use the Boat track but
enemy aircraft reconnoitred with flares when the bombardment opened and the Notts Yeomanry were bombed with high explosive and incendiaries and shelled, so that the lane was soon illuminated by burning vehicles, in the light of which the column was harassed by enemy fire. It was decided that this lane was also unusable. The commander of the 10th Armoured Division, General Gatehouse, who was on the Boat track, had seen all this. Lumsden called for a report from Gatehouse.
Irreconcilable accounts have been given of the incidents that followed in which Montgomery, Lumsden and Gatehouse figured and the “friction of war” manifested itself and to which perhaps too much publicity has since been given. It must suffice to recount some salient facts that do not appear to have been disputed. Gatehouse feared that daylight would find his regiments exposed and vulnerable and likely to be shot to pieces by the enemy’s anti-tank artillery. Lumsden, who had no authority to break off the attack, reported this to army headquarters, which was also keeping closely in touch through report centres and by analysing what could be heard of the much-jammed radio traffic. De Guingand concluded that “a feeling in some quarters was creeping in which favoured suspending the forward move, a pulling back under cover of the (Miteiriya) ridge” and decided to take what was apparently regarded as a risk even on that battlefield. He woke the army commander and called a conference with the corps commanders for 3.30 a.m.
Three of the four armoured brigades to make the advance to the Pierson line had encountered no insuperable difficulties or problems beyond those to be expected in such a difficult operation. It is understandable, therefore, that the army commander should have decided that the operation should proceed, for he could expect at least some 400 tanks to debouch. He gave very firm instructions that they should. The original orders were partly changed, however, presumably in recognition of the fact that only one of the 8th Armoured Brigade’s three lanes – the Bottle track on which the Staffordshire Yeomanry were to debouch – was regarded as usable. One of the brigade’s three regiments was to advance and link with the New Zealand division’s 9th Armoured Brigade but the rest of the brigade was to remain on the Miteiriya Ridge and improve the gaps. After the conference Montgomery kept Lumsden behind and (he has since written) “spoke very plainly to him ... any wavering or lack of firmness now would be fatal. If he himself, or the Commander 10th Armoured Division, was not ‘for it’, then I would appoint others who were.”11
Gatehouse was no less averse than Morshead to accepting orders to commit his troops to operations which he thought unjustifiable but by comparison was less advantageously placed, not deriving his authority directly from a government. Lumsden wished Gatehouse to receive the instructions from the army commander himself. Gatehouse had gone back to his main headquarters so that he could be contacted by telephone, and there Montgomery telephoned him. Montgomery spoke “in no uncertain
voice” and nettled Gatehouse by ordering him “to go forward at once and take charge of his battle”.12
The orders were masterful. It remains to see what effect they had on the battle. On the left of the 9th Division’s area dawn on the 25th revealed the Queen’s Bays deploying among the infantry close to the end of the bridgehead, the tank commanders, dressed with great individuality for the hunt and bedecked with colourful cravats, standing up in their cock-pits unperturbed by the battle-fire’s cacophony and coolly surveying the terrain. There and for some considerable distance to the south the armoured brigade’s tanks sat about the foremost defended localities, the target of a vigorous bombardment, as if the limit of their advance had been reached. However hard and however often the “GO” button had been pressed on the army control panel, its impulses were not motivating these tanks whose commanders, though as brave as they were bizarre, evinced no intention to advance “at all costs” to the Pierson bound. Their presence there to do battle was not very welcome to the infantry who regarded the ground of the armour’s choosing as their own. Meanwhile about 6 a.m. part of the 7/Rifle Brigade had arrived in rear of the 2/13th’s forward companies where their vehicles attracted heavy fire, having insufficient space between the minefields for proper dispersal.
The enemy gunners were not too proud to shoot at sitting ducks. The carnage was terrible to watch. ... It was not long before a flood of casualties swamped the 2/13th R.A.P. which was already working at full pressure to cope with the unit’s own casualties. Captain Phil Goode and his men were equal to the occasion.13
Other Rifle Brigade vehicles which, as the Australians read the map and ground, appeared to have made not for Trig 33 but Point 29 farther south, were also stricken near Kidney Ridge behind which the Highlanders’ forward line had been established. Farther to the right, in front of the 2/17th Battalion, enemy infantry formed up to attack but were halted by artillery fire.
In the southern part of the XXX Corps front, however, the armour had advanced to places near the Pierson bound. The 24th Armoured Brigade on the right believed that it had two regiments on its objective (the third was in reserve behind the Miteiriya Ridge), though probably they were not in fact so far forward. The 8th, which had been pressing forward on its hard task while the generals had been conferring, had got all three of its regiments out by the Bottle track before the revised orders from Eighth Army Headquarters reached it. The Staffordshire Yeomanry, which had debouched first, was about the El Wishka ridge where soon after dawn concealed 88-mm guns put in hand a systematic destruction of its tanks.
The sappers of the New Zealand division had cleared and marked their lanes on time. The divisional cavalry (“Honey” tanks) on its way from the Oxalic line to its objective two miles to the south in an area southwest of El Wishka was soon met by intense fire. By 1.45 a.m. the regiment
had lost 5 tanks and 4 carriers. It withdrew at dawn. The 9th Armoured Brigade had passed through the gaps at 2 a.m. (one regiment using one of the lanes abandoned by the 8th Brigade) and advanced south and south-west almost to the Pierson bound.
In the deep south the operations of the XIII Corps had been less successful. The February minefield was cleared but a wide bridgehead had not been secured and the tanks of the 7th Armoured Division’s 22nd Armoured Brigade were shot up by anti-tank guns nearby while trying to debouch. Thirty-one tanks were lost and the exits blocked. A successful infantry attack was made in the Munassib Depression, but was very costly in loss of life.
The armoured battles that day, though on balance advantageous to the Eighth Army, achieved less than Montgomery had hoped. In the course of the day most of the tanks were withdrawn from the positions they took up in the early morning. On the right the Bays, who seemed unable to locate where the fire directed at them was coming from, soon withdrew to some place beyond the Australians’ ken (where they were in action later in the day); but farther south, in front of the Highland division, tanks of the 2nd Armoured Brigade remained out with the 24th Armoured Brigade to their left. On the left Gatehouse withdrew the 8th Armoured Brigade behind the Miteiriya Ridge about 7 a.m. when he learnt of the casualties it was taking. The main body of the 9th Armoured Brigade, which was in a depression overlooked by enemy on El Wishka and enduring damaging fire, remained out until the afternoon, when it was withdrawn behind the Oxalic line. It had suffered 162 casualties and many of its tanks were knocked out (all but 11, however, were recovered later).
Probing attacks rather than hammerhead punches were made by the Axis armour throughout the day all along the front, which was what Montgomery wanted. The 1st Armoured Division lost 24 tanks but claimed the destruction of more than twice as many of the enemy. In the struggle for armoured superiority the scales had been tipped further to the advantage of the British. The following tables enable a comparison to be made of British and Axis tank strengths approximately from formation to formation as they were disposed from north to south on the 23rd and 25th October (progressive totals being shown in brackets).
Eighth Army (as at midday)
(The table does not include a substantial number of tanks – e.g. cavalry units – in other than armoured formations.)
|23rd October||25th October|
|Formation Totals||Progressive Total||Formation Totals||Progressive Total|
|1st Armoured Division||169||149|
|10th Armoured Division||280||(449)||167||(316)|
|9th Armoured Brigade||122||(571)||92||(408)|
|23rd Armoured Brigade||194||(765)||135||(543)|
|7th Armoured Division||214||(979)||191||(734)|
|23rd October||25th October|
|Formation Totals||Progressive Total||Formation Totals||Progressive Total|
15th Armoured Division
21st Armoured Division
|Total North and South (excluding Trieste)||(493)||(392)|
|German armoured formations||249||159|
|Italian armoured formations (excluding Trieste)||244||(493)||233||(392)|
Although the figures are not exactly comparable, if one regards the critical tank strengths in the armoured break-out battle of X Corps as those of its two armoured divisions plus the 9th Armoured Brigade on the one hand and of the two German armoured divisions on the other, the fall in the British strength from 571 tanks to 408 may be compared with the German fall from 112 to 37 in the 15th Armoured Division opposite X Corps and from 249 to 159 overall.
Nevertheless the German anti-tank cordon had not been prised open. The armoured brigades had been unable to establish a firm base on the “chosen” ground onto which they had debouched because they had taken with them only light mobile infantry (used mainly to muster prisoners) who could neither seize the gun areas nor firmly hold the ground.
On the broader level, the men of the 10th Armoured Division had proved Montgomery’s belief that, with their own resources, they could fight their way through to an objective, but the enemy guns had shown that they could not stay there by daylight alone.14
The 9th Division had its share that day of the enemy counter-attacks on the bridgehead. On the northern front a German patrol was shot up in the early hours of the morning by the 2/48th Battalion and later, about 1.20 p.m., a strong infantry attack on the battalion was launched but defeated by artillery and mortar fire. Another attack on the 2/48th by about 300 infantry was thrown back towards the end of the day.
Attacks in which tanks were employed were made from the west against the 20th Brigade. Just after 7 a.m. 12 tanks followed by infantry in 50 troop carriers hove into view but were halted by fire from the artillery and the foremost British tanks. In the early afternoon tank attacks were made almost simultaneously on the 2/17th and 2/13th Battalions. The tanks were first seen on the 2/17th front where a remarkable fire-storm was soon raging. Deterred by the intensity of their reception they came to
a halt beyond two-pounder range, but 15 were hit by heavier weapons. The enemy put down a smoke screen through which another wave of tanks emerged to attack the 2/13th Battalion front. Colvin instructed the anti-tank gunners to hold the fire of their well-concealed 2-pounder guns until the tanks were within short range. About 800 yards from the foremost defences some tanks halted hull-down; the rest drove on. So well did the gunners bide their orders that it looked as if the tanks would pass through the front-line unopposed. Sergeant Bentley15 commanding the antitank platoon waited until the foremost was 40 yards away, then fired, whereupon the other anti-tank guns opened up and the first wave, all hit, came to a stop. In all 17 tanks were destroyed – nine by Lieutenant Wallder’s16 troops of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, five by Bentley and two by Private Taylor.17 The other tanks drew out of range but then waited while the infantry got ready to assault.
The enemy pressed the attack for an hour and a half on the 2/13th front and a further half-hour against the 2/17th. The intense fire that accompanied it took many casualties. The 2/17th, for example, lost 12 killed and 73 wounded through the day. Throughout it all the artillery observation post officers, Captain Jones with the 2/13th, Lieutenant Rodriguez18 with the 2/17th, stood up to observe and direct the gunfire
On the morning of the 25th Freyberg persuaded Leese and Montgomery to cancel the proposed southward infantry attacks of the New Zealand division. Freyberg thought that the main infantry attack had not failed by much to pierce the enemy’s defence girdle and that therefore a further westward infantry attack on the pattern of the first should be made to extend the bridgehead. Again the top commanders conferred at the New Zealand division’s headquarters. Montgomery decided about midday to cancel the New Zealand division’s “crumbling” operations because (according to Montgomery and de Guingand) they were likely to prove very costly, and instead to start “crumbling” on the northern flank, using the 9th Australian Division. The armour was to be withdrawn except on the north of the XXX Corps front (where the 1st Armoured Division took the 24th Armoured Brigade under command) and in the far south the XIII Corps was to go over entirely to the defensive.
Montgomery’s decision to attack in the north has usually been represented as a calculated switching of the direction of attack initiated after the failure of that morning’s armoured sortie so as to retain the initiative and keep the enemy dancing to the Eighth Army’s tune. It was not as clear-cut as that, however, for although the final orders for the switch were then given, the decision to begin the northward crumbling had been
foreshadowed earlier; and before the dawn that morning had revealed the peril to which the 8th and 9th Armoured Brigades had been exposed, Lieut-Colonel Hammer of the 2/48th had given his company commanders preliminary instructions for an attack to be made on Trig 29 next night. The 9th Division’s written operation order was issued at 1 p.m. The explanation of this switch given in the division’s report on LIGHTFOOT probably puts it in better perspective:
The only portion of the original plan still untried was the tentative portion for the cutting off and capture of the enemy between XXX Corps’ northern flank and the sea. Orders were given to 9 Aust Div through XXX Corps for this to proceed.
The 9th Division’s instructions were to begin attacking northwards towards the sea with the ultimate object of destroying the enemy forces in the salient that had been formed by the advancement of the Eighth Army’s northern flank. The 1st Armoured Division was also to continue its attack west and north-west and if possible to get to the rear of the enemy in the salient. Written instructions by the XXX Corps on the 25th required the 9th Division to attack and seize the Trig 29 area that night. As a diversion the 1st South African Division was to carry out at 10 p.m. an artillery program simulating an attack in its sector.
The tactical value of the hill known as Trig 29 had been appreciated before the battle opened. It dominated the northern flank, being the highest ground thereabouts, though by only 20 feet. The already too broad frontage of the first night’s attack could not be extended to include the hill but it had been chosen as the first exploitation task on that front. Morshead warned Brigadier Whitehead on 24th October to be ready to take Trig 29 and the warning, as we have seen, was passed down in turn to Lieut-Colonel Hammer and, by him, to his company commanders.
The 9th Division’s task was to seize not only Trig 29 but the spur and the forward slopes of the high ground running out to the east of it. In effect the northern front was to be advanced about 1,000 yards. It is of some interest to observe that the fronts to be defended on completion of the task by the division’s five bridgehead battalions (four up and one in depth) would extend on the west for about 5,000 yards and on the north for 4,000 yards.
The orders required Whitehead’s brigade to advance its whole northern front from Trig 29 on the left to the front edge of the enemy’s defence line on the right. North-east from where the 2/48th Battalion’s right company now sat, a strong enemy switch-line ran up to Thompson’s Post as a second line of defence against an attacker breaking through the front wire where it ran out to Point 23 (as the 2/15th did at BULIMBA) and then thrusting towards the coast road. The junction of the switch line with the front wire was an easily recognisable feature on ground and map – the Fig Orchard, which was down the forward slope of the ridge of which Trig 29 was the summit. The orders to the 26th Brigade were to employ the 2/48th and 2/24th Battalions – the 2/23rd still being held as a reserve behind the composite force – to seize Trig 29, the spur on the eastern side of Trig 29 pointing to the Fig Orchard, and the orchard itself. The
20th Brigade was to relieve the 2/48th on the part of the front it then held and the 24th Brigade to relieve Macarthur-Onslow’s composite force of three of its posts so that it could extend its front to link with the 2/24th Battalion on its objective. Whitehead allotted the left objective, the Trig 29 area, to the 2/48th and the Fig Orchard to the 2/24th.
Colonel Hammer of the 2/48th made a bold and original plan of fire and quick movement for what was to prove a model battalion attack executed with precision, vigour, and great courage. He planned to advance on Trig 29 under cover of a barrage with two companies forward and, just as the barrage lifted, to rush a third company on to the objective in 29 carriers and other vehicles. Ten carriers were to carry the two leading platoons of the mobile company; four carriers towing 37-mm anti-tank guns were to follow, and after them a troop of 6-pounder anti-tank guns with the third platoon mounted on the portees.19
After the 2/48th had begun to attack, the 2/24th was to form up in part of the area of the first phase of the 2/48th’s attack and thrust northeast, rolling up the flank of the switch line. Macarthur-Onslow’s force was to push its line of defensive posts northward to conform with the 2/24th’s new front.
A counter-attack was expected on the 2/48th’s front but did not develop. At dusk an enemy group was seen near the forward companies and fired on. Several Germans were killed and three captured including the acting commanders of the 125th Regiment and of that regiment’s II Battalion. The battalion commander had a map of the area to be attacked that night showing the enemy’s minefields and the disposition of his troops. The map showed that the track leading to Trig 29 along which Hammer’s carriers were to advance was free of mines; this was confirmed by Hammer’s interrogation of the prisoners. Interrogation also established that the Germans had just reinforced Trig 29.
To have captured the map was rare good fortune. When it was studied at Whitehead’s headquarters it revealed that the planned axis of the 2/24th’s attack ran straight along the leg of a minefield. The forming-up place and bearing of attack were therefore altered so that the sappers, instead of having to clear mines to a depth of 1,000 yards or more, would require to make only one gap 200 yards deep.
The 2/17th relieved the 2/48th at 10 p.m. on the 25th. The barrage opened at midnight and the leading companies of the 2/48th moved forward on foot, Captain Robbins’ company on the right, Captain Shillaker’s on the left. They pressed on through enemy defensive fire – which became particularly heavy on the right – to their intermediate objective some 200 yards short of Trig 29, and halted. Then the carriers under Captain Isaksson moving four abreast with Captain Bryant’s company aboard charged through with synchronised timing onto the smoky dust-shrouded centre objective as the barrage stopped.
When the carriers reached the spur the infantry leapt out and charged, one platoon moving left and one right while one went straight on to Trig 29. The surprised defenders were overcome but only after sharp hand-to-hand fighting. When Corporal Kennedy,20 for example, led his section against enemy posts that were engaging them with small-arms fire and grenades, the blast from a grenade knocked one of his men down; Kennedy helped him to his feet, dashed forward and killed two Germans with a grenade and farther on charged and bayoneted another German.
Bryant ordered one of his platoons to attack a troublesome post. Corporal Albrecht,21 leading his section to attack it, found that it was a dug-in tank. Albrecht charged forward and knocked out the crew with grenades, and though wounded by shell fragments and covered with blood, continued to lead and control his section, refusing to be taken back until it was firmly dug in.
Captain Robbins’ company on the right had taken heavy casualties from fire about 400 yards from the start and soon Robbins was the only remaining officer. The company pressed on nevertheless and secured its objective 1,100 yards from the start-line, taking 38 German prisoners.
Captain Shillaker’s company also had to fight its way to the objective. Lieutenant Taggart22 and four others in his platoon were killed attacking a series of posts that were holding up the company. The platoon became pinned to the ground and soon was only seven strong. Two of these, Private Gratwick23 (aged 40) and Corporal Lindsey,24 jumped up and raced forward to assault. Gratwick, with rifle and bayonet in one hand and a grenade in the other, charged the nearest post, threw in one grenade, then another, then jumped in with the bayonet. He killed all the occupants, including a complete mortar crew, then charged a second post with rifle and bayonet but, as he closed on it, was killed by a burst of machine-gun fire. Shillaker saw that Gratwick had unnerved the enemy and at once moved in and the whole position was quickly captured. The men began digging in very rocky soil.
As soon as the objective had been taken Colonel Hammer contacted Major Tucker and asked him to bring forward the vehicles loaded with consolidation stores, which were being held back along the track some 500 to 600 yards to the east of the point from which the attack had started. Just at that moment a stray shell hit a mine-laden truck which with five other trucks also loaded with mines exploded with an astounding detonation. Tucker was at first dazed, but soon got the undestroyed vehicles moving and sent Captain Potter25 back to “B” Echelon. Potter
returned with five composite reorganisation stores trucks. By first light 2,000 mines had been laid. Bryant’s company was facing north, Shillaker’s west. Edmunds’ company, on the battalion’s left, facing west and northwest, had linked with the 2/17th Battalion in the 2/48th’s old positions. The battalion was now firmly established, though only shallow trenches had been dug and everyone was very weary.
Meanwhile at 12.40 a.m. the two leading companies of the 2/24th had crossed the start-line, striking north-eastwards on the right of the 2/48th. It had been realised that an advance of 3,000 yards along a line of enemy posts was a difficult assignment but the army’s Intelligence service expected them to be held by Italians. On the contrary they proved to be mainly held by Germans, and where there were Italians there were usually Germans with them.
Major Mollard’s company on the right attacked along the frontal wire with one platoon in front of the wire and two on the left behind it. They fought their way forward without any serious check until less than 100 yards from the company objective when they were held up by a strong-post. This was assaulted and taken but not before Mollard had received a disabling wound. The post was found to have a garrison of more than 40 mixed Germans and Italians and to house an 88-mm gun. Captain Mackenzie26 led the company forward to its objective.
The left leading company under Lieutenant Geale27 had to advance the prescribed distance then move left, contact the 2/48th Battalion and dig in on the north-east spur of Trig 29. This the company did but Geale was badly wounded and Lieutenant Doughan,28 the only surviving officer took over. Doughan was wounded later in the day and Sergeant-Major Bailey29 then took command. A number of posts were taken. Sergeant Berry30 was foremost in the affray in the attack on three of these and took two positions single-handed.
Captain Harty (on the right) and Lieutenant Greatorex followed up the centre-line, then led their companies through the forward companies towards the Fig Orchard. Each had to overcome three posts on the way. Harty’s company took the Fig Orchard post, which was found to be a headquarters with offices sunk in the ground to great depth. Greatorex’s company overshot the Fig Orchard and came up near the outer edge of the defences covering the big defended locality known as Thompson’s Post. Both companies were troubled by anti-tank and mortar fire from a post 300 yards ahead. Harty and Greatorex reconnoitred to plan an assault. Greatorex was wounded (for the second time that night) and Sergeant-Major Cameron31 taking charge of his company got permission
to withdraw it – now numbering only 14 of the 63 who started – to alongside Harty’s.
The 2/24th had carried out a methodical destruction of the enemy as prescribed by the master plan, to which the number of enemy dead and of prisoners bore witness,32 but Colonel Weir, after going forward, decided at 4 a.m. that the battalion was too depleted to hold the extended front on which his men were digging in. The forward companies were therefore withdrawn about 1,000 yards where by 5 a.m. they had consolidated behind a reverse slope running north-west from Point 22 to Trig 29. On the right flank the composite force, which had been held up in its advance by fire from Thompson’s Post, found itself in an exposed situation.
On that night of much action the enemy launched an attack with infantry and a few tanks against the 2/13th Battalion, following up by dark the daylight attack that had failed. Three tanks were knocked out by Hawkins mines and Treweeke’s company knocked out two tracked troop carriers when they were within 60 yards. Artillery and infantry-weapon fire broke up the attack. At dawn the 2/17th discerned 12 enemy tanks sitting on a ridge to the north-west, where they remained all day, harassing the Australians with guns and small-arms fire and knocking out vehicles. On the left of the divisional front the 1st Armoured Division made its morning visitation and the Australians saw 30 Sherman tanks engaging the enemy.
No foolhardy attempt was made to push through the enemy gun-line and behind the coast salient.
On the 25th–26th the division had taken a total of 173 German prisoners, all from the I, II or III Battalions of the 125th Regiment and 67 Italians of the Trento and Littorio Divisions. The 26th Brigade reported its casualties for the night as 4 officers and 51 others killed, 20 officers and 236 others wounded and missing.33
The 51st Highland Division also attacked that night overcoming some remaining centres of resistance near the left of its front which, except on the right at Kidney Ridge, was then clear of enemy strongpoints about the Oxalic line.
At dusk on the 25th Field Marshal Rommel arrived back from Germany to take over, at Hitler’s personal request, the conduct of the battle and received discouraging reports from General von Thoma, who had been exercising command.
“Our aim for the next few days,” he later wrote, “was to throw the enemy out of our main defence line at all costs and to reoccupy our old positions, in order to avoid having a westward bulge in our front.” Rommel listened to the artillery barrage that night and learnt that “Hill 28” (Trig 29)34 had been taken – “an important position in the northern sector”.
“Attacks were now launched on Hill 28 by elements of the 15th Armoured Division, the Littorio and a Bersaglieri Battalion,” wrote Rommel, “supported by the concentrated fire of all the local artillery and A.A. Unfortunately the attack gained ground very slowly. The British resisted desperately. Rivers of blood were poured out over miserable strips of land.”35
Attracted partly by activity of the 1st Armoured Division, which seemed to the enemy to be directed north-west towards the coast road, the Axis forces directed their main efforts on the 26th and 27th to breaking their enemy’s new front on the northern flank. The attacks started on the 26th and were mounted with increasing frequency and vigour on the 27th, a day of many stresses for the Eighth Army but no disaster, during which the artillery was continually called on for defensive fire.
The 27th was marked by a day-long continuous struggle (wrote a battalion historian). ... Those who were there that day may recall the extraordinary rising and falling waves of sound. All the different weapons appeared to be co-ordinated to produce a definite rhythm ranging from diminuendo to deafening crescendo and it went on hour after hour.36
The enemy vigorously bombarded the 2/24th and 2/48th in their newly seized positions on the morning of the 26th and more heavily still on the morning of the 27th but several of the guns were counter-bombarded with the help of observation from Trig 29 and forced to move back. There, on the most heavily shelled ground on the whole front, Lieutenant Menzies37 maintained an observation post with little cover for several days, directing the fire that broke up many counter-attacks, some while the enemy was forming up. The value of Trig 29 was now plainly evident: from it one could see 4,000 to 5,000 yards in every direction.
The enemy’s first effort against Trig 29 was made on the afternoon of the 26th, when 300 infantry moved into positions 1,500 yards to the north but were dispersed by gunfire. The 2/48th Battalion had three field regiments and one medium regiment on call at that stage and was able to defend itself with devastating fire.
The western front of the 20th Brigade was also attacked on the 26th. Three attacks by infantry and tanks, the main weight of which fell on the 2/13th, were repulsed on the afternoon of the 26th.
The subsequent continuation of the northward Australian attack is usually ascribed to Montgomery’s having “spent the day of the 26th in detailed consideration of the situation”.38 It was, however, no more than a further implementing of the direction to attack northwards given on the 25th, though the consequential army regrouping no doubt resulted from Montgomery’s day of pondering. Morshead had been instructed on the 25th to plan further northward operations to be mounted after the attack on Trig 29 at midnight on the 25th–26th. Montgomery, attended by Leese and Lumsden, held a conference at Morshead’s headquarters at 11.30 a.m. on the 26th to hear his proposals. “On previous day,” Morshead recorded in his notebook, “I had received orders to ‘go north’ and to have my firm plans ready today. The army commander fully approved plans without alteration.” The 9th Division’s attack was to be made on the night of the 28th. But first, on the night of the 26th, further thrusts were to be made to the west near the boundary of the Australian and Highland divisions. The 7th Motor Brigade was to capture two features in the Trig 33-Kidney Ridge area known as Woodcock and Snipe.
That day in the course of a tour of the XXX Corps front Montgomery spoke to several formation commanders. Freyberg still advocated another broad-front infantry attack but represented that if his own depleted division mounted the attack, it would then be unfit for its intended role in the exploitation phase.39 Montgomery also visited Wimberley; it is unlikely that Montgomery found him much more anxious than Freyberg to mount another large-scale attack. By dawn that morning the Eighth Army had lost 6,140 men killed, wounded or missing. It had expended much of its
strength; but although some ramparts had been taken, the strong enemy front showed no sign of collapse. The impulse to break the deadlock would have to come from the army commander himself. A new strong punch would be needed.
By the evening of the 26th Montgomery had decided that the New Zealand division should be withdrawn into reserve and rested, that the 1st Armoured Division should also be drawn into reserve for refitting and relieved by the 10th and that he would rely on the 9th Division’s northward attack to retain the initiative. Consequently a substantial regrouping was to be effected on the night of 27th–28th. The northward shift of the 9th Division and the withdrawal of the New Zealand division would greatly extend the front to be held by other formations. The XIII Corps was directed to make available all the infantry it could spare for operations in the north and to extend its front to include the South Africans’ sector. The 4th Indian Division was to relieve the South Africans and they in turn to relieve the New Zealanders, who would be withdrawn. The 51st Division was to relieve the 20th Australian Brigade thus enabling the 9th Division to have one brigade freed from holding duties and available to attack.
These instructions were given by Leese to Morshead and the other divisional commanders on the night of the 26th. It has been said that Leese was anxious as to how the proposals would be received, but he already knew Morshead’s plans. He told the divisional commanders that the stalemate must be broken and that Montgomery had decided to follow up the Australians’ success by a further thrust to the north. The Australians must draw everything they could on themselves. “He glanced at Morshead and saw no flicker of hesitancy disturb that swarthy face.”40 Just after these orders had been given, however, Morshead received a cable sent from Australia two days earlier, the full import and intention of which were not very clearly expressed, but which could have been construed in a way which would have critically prejudiced Montgomery’s plans to break the stalemate.
On 14th October the Australian Government had considered two documents relating to the defence of Australia: a statement by the President of the United States to the effect that a superior naval force concerned solely with the defence of Australia and New Zealand could not be provided, and a memorandum from General Blamey drawing attention to the weakness of the Australian land forces available to resist an invasion if a naval reverse were suffered. The War Cabinet asked the Chiefs of Staff to report on the forces needed to defend vital areas on the Australian mainland. Next day, however, having been told that General MacArthur was of the opinion that the time had now come for the return of the 9th Division, the War Cabinet decided to press for the division’s return and to cancel the approval previously given for the dispatch of 6,000 reinforcements.
On 17th October Mr Curtin sent a cable to Mr Churchill (and a copy to President Roosevelt) requesting the early return of the 9th Division and setting out in detail the reasons for making the request. In brief they were:–
Australia was at present 22,000 men short of the number required for the present order of battle in Australia.
From 7,000 to 8,000 personnel per month were needed to replace wastage against a prospective intake of 1,100 per month. Eight infantry battalions had therefore been disbanded and a further decrease of eleven battalions was contemplated.
The extreme tropical conditions in New Guinea caused a heavy wastage of combatant personnel.
Three Australian divisions were already in New Guinea. No further Australian formations could be sent there because of the depletion of forces available for the defence of the mainland.
Thus it would not be possible to maintain the flow of reinforcements needed by the 9th Division in the Middle East; if left in the Middle East, the division would, in a few months, cease to be an effective fighting unit. General MacArthur had expressed apprehension at the shrinkage of Army combat troops consequent on the reduction of Australian formations.
The Government, the message stated, would not consent to the breaking-up of the 9th Division “by replacement of wastage from ancillary or other units” in the Middle East; but the division could be built up in Australia by disbanding other formations. The Government had consulted its Advisory War Council, which had come to the unanimous conclusion that the division’s return should be requested.
On 20th October the Australian High Commissioner in London (Mr Bruce) informed the Australian Government that the British Chiefs of Staff were examining the problem with a view to the 9th Division’s return at the earliest possible date but, owing to the operation which was then imminent and the part in it that had been allocated to the division, the date of its withdrawal from the front line depended on developments in the immediate future. Mr Curtin replied on the 22nd that it was essential that the Commander-in-Chief, in his use of the division, should have regard for the fact that reinforcements could not be provided either by dispatch from Australia or breaking up units in the Middle East. There the matter had stood when the battle (of whose planning Curtin knew nothing) opened next day.
On 24th October a message had been sent from Australia to General Morshead informing him of the Australian Government’s request for the early return of the division to Australia and stating that he was being informed of this so that he might safeguard the Government’s decision. This was the message that reached Morshead just after he had attended the conference at which Leese had announced Montgomery’s intention of continuing the northward advance. Morshead replied to the Australian Government that he would see the Commander-in-Chief as soon as possible. This he did at 11 a.m. next morning, the 27th October, at Montgomery’s tactical headquarters.
After the interview, Morshead reported to the Australian Government that Alexander had not hitherto been informed of its decision but had said
that he could not consider the division’s release at that time, as it was the main pin of the operations and without it the battle would collapse; of all the formations in the Middle East, it was the one (Alexander had said) that he could least afford to lose. Morshead added that Alexander had undertaken to arrange its relief as soon as the operational situation permitted but had drafted a signal to London which concluded as follows:–
9th Australian Division playing very conspicuous and important part in present operations and it would be quite impossible to lose their magnificent services until present operations are brought to a successful conclusion.
In reply, the Australian War Cabinet instructed Morshead to ensure that the Government’s wishes were kept constantly in mind; which Morshead assured them that he would not fail to do.
Next day (the 28th) Churchill telegraphed Curtin:
You will have observed with pride and pleasure the distinguished part which the 9th Australian Division are playing in what may be an event of first magnitude.
Just after 4 a.m. on the 27th an attack on the 2/13th was made by “at least a company of infantry” just in front of 15 tanks. “Put down Fremantle urgently” was the message to the artillery recorded in the battalion’s Action Log. The concentrated bombardment, with the infantry fire-curtain in front of it, broke up the attack. A second attack was easily repulsed. Later that morning a patrol under Lieutenant Pope was sent out to clear the front for 400 yards. Covered by the patrol, Private Burgess41 took a telephone and cable 300 yards farther out and observed the front from a derelict tank, sent back reports which enabled enemy salvage parties to be engaged, also an 88-mm gun to be bombarded (which the enemy then withdrew) and later, having seen a group of the enemy, went across towards Kidney Ridge nearby and guided back a carrier of the 7th Motor Brigade, which rounded up 30 prisoners.
It was on the afternoon of the 27th, after the enemy had reconnoitred the ground with four tanks, that the pressure on Trig 29 became intense.
The next effort by the enemy (wrote the historian of the 2/48th Battalion) commenced near Sidi Rahman Mosque, where a great many vehicles began assembling. Word of this was passed back, and our bombers came in and straddled the area, leaving spirals of black smoke curling skywards. ... Two hours later enemy troop carriers moved into dead ground 1,400 yards from our front, and were engaged by indirect fire from our guns. Thirty minutes later, enemy infantry estimated at one battalion strength formed up and advanced towards our troops. A great wall of fire was put down by our three regiments of artillery to check them, and the battalion joined in with mortars, machine-guns and rifles. Trig 29 and the surrounding area now came under a terrific bombardment as the Germans supported their attack. The position became so clouded with dust and smoke that the order was given for the mortars and artillery to cease fire in order to give the machine-gunners a clear view of the enemy. The Germans were driven back, and commenced to dig in eight hundred yards from the forward troops. Very heavy casualties had been inflicted. The night was filled with cries of the wounded. Patrols sent out later reported that the battlefield was strewn with enemy dead.42
The Germans’ left wing came up against the left of the 2/24th Battalion, where an attack with infantry and tanks was pressed with some determination but broken up by a combination of artillery bombardment and mortar and machine-gun fire. The right wing of the German attack came in on the 2/17th Battalion but was beaten off 400 yards out from the forward infantry. Simultaneously the enemy also attacked the Kidney Ridge area with a powerful armoured thrust.
The so-called Kidney Ridge was a depression with raised lips around which the enemy had developed a powerful locality. Its continued resistance was the main reason for the 1st Armoured Division’s failure to advance much beyond the Oxalic line to attack behind the salient as the Australians had hoped. The 51st Highland Division and the 1st Armoured Division had been cooperating in attempts to clear the area but these had been attended with much misfortune mainly because of a misreading of the map in one of these two divisions. Throughout that day, ensconced with 19 6-pounders on the left front of the ridge, men of the 2/Rifle Brigade had been in a position with little cover to which, owing to the same error, they had been misdirected; they were now cut off in rear. By the time of this last and heaviest attack by the enemy the desert around their outpost (appropriately named Snipe) was littered with tanks destroyed by them in earlier attacks. The attack was made straight at them and they broke it too, having knocked out in the day some 60 or 70 tanks and self-propelled guns, of which at least 32 were irrecoverable.43
That night the 2/Rifle Brigade withdrew after a relieving battalion of the 133rd Lorried Infantry Brigade had also lost its way. A second battalion of that brigade, which was to take another locality, also dug in on the wrong site and was overrun next day. By repelling strong armoured assaults without even field artillery support, the 2/Rifle Brigade had demonstrated that if the infantry front were pushed firmly forward and protected by anti-tank artillery the German armour could not throw it back. The 1st Armoured Division, however, in its efforts to secure Kidney Ridge was repeating errors of earlier days by sending out battalions to hold localities with open flanks when an advance on a broad front was needed. The efforts failed tragically, and the enemy was still on Kidney Ridge at the end of the month.
South from Kidney Ridge the remaining centres of enemy resistance about the Oxalic line had been cleared up on the night of the 26th–27th by the Highland, New Zealand and South African divisions. Thus the bridgehead originally planned to be seized had been captured, and had been extended in the north; but the enemy maintained an unbroken front to the west and the direction of the Eighth Army’s attack had now been switched to the north.
On Rommel’s return the enemy’s defence had assumed the character of vigorous forlorn-hope attacks, which suited Montgomery who preferred the enemy to counterattack rather than await attack on his own ground. Rommel’s first morning at the front revealed the 1st Armoured Division concentrating near Kidney Ridge after
night attacks had been made there and at Trig 29, which he interpreted as efforts to advance northwards to the coast road. He therefore ordered the 21st Armoured Division and part of the Ariete to a position south of Tel el Aqqaqir ready to counterattack. Artillery from the southern sector was sent north. The 90th Light Division was ordered forward from Daba and, with the 361st Battle Group, was put into the line south of Sidi Abd el Rahman on the night 26th–27th October, with the 159th Battle Group west of Trig 29 and the 200th Battle Group between Ghazal and the coast.
The strong counter-attacks on the 27th had resulted from orders by Rommel for attacks by the 90th Light Division against Trig 29 from the north and by the 21st Armoured Division against Kidney Ridge from the south. Infantry drawn from the 15th Armoured Division and 164th Division were to assist. The attack at Trig 29 was made by the 155th Battle Group which advanced only to 500 yards west of that objective. The heavy British artillery fire halted the infantry and Rommel ordered that the troops should go over to the defensive on the ground then held. The 155th dug in to the north-west of Trig 29, while the 361st Regimental Group of the 90th Light Division took up a holding position astride the railway line southeast of Abd el Rahman.
The policy, laid down by Montgomery on the 26th, of continuing the attack northwards towards the sea on the 27th and succeeding days, appears to have been originally embarked on as a crumbling operation with the general object of destroying the enemy in the salient by the coast, and not with the specific intent that the armour should debouch there. At that stage a break-out point does not appear to have been indicated, nor indeed had the planning evinced any haste to get ready for a chase. No immediate intention to break out along the coast road is suggested by the written orders nor by the narrative dealing with this stage in the 9th Division’s report:
With the Army Commander’s brief direction to “Attack North”, consideration was given to the staging of a further attack in this area on the night 27th–28th October. On the arrival of XXX Corps Operation Instruction No. 85 of 26th October, which ordered a policy of mopping up, and the completion of the capture of the final objective by all divisions on 27th October, it was decided to plan the further attack northwards on the night 28th–29th October – one night later.
In the plan submitted to the army commander by Morshead on the morning of the 26th, however, his intention had been to attack at once to seize and open up the main road from the enemy’s front-line westwards for three kilometres. Perhaps it was the contemplation of this plan that implanted the idea later tentatively adopted that the armour might next debouch along the coast road. A subsidiary object of Morshead’s plan was to secure the road and the area south of it for use by the division’s vehicles, thus shortening its long and exposed supply and evacuation routes.
The plan was an ambitious one. The task was to be accomplished in progressive phases and required the employment of all three brigades. For the operation the 23rd Armoured Brigade less two regiments was also placed under Morshead’s command and the artillery of the 51st, 2nd New Zealand and 10th Armoured Divisions and of three medium regiments was to be in support. Including the division’s own artillery there would be 360 guns.
In the first phase, the 20th Brigade was to secure the flanks of the northward advance. On the right the 2/13th Battalion was to advance
along the switch line and establish itself south of Thompson’s Post. On the left the 2/17th Battalion was to hold on to Trig 29 and the 2/15th to extend the western flank northwards by striking north from there. In the next phase, to be carried out by the 26th Brigade, the 2/23rd Battalion and 46th Royal Tank Regiment were to strike north-east from near Trig 29 to cut the main road about Kilo 113 and establish a firm base. Then the 2/48th was to advance eastwards alongside the road to attack in rear the enemy’s front line defences astride the road and capture them. The 2/24th would follow the 2/48th and capture Thompson’s Post from the north. Finally the 24th Brigade, as well as maintaining a firm base behind the original coast defences, was to capture the enemy’s outpost covering the main road in the Kilo 109 area and also the area north of the 2/48th’s breach, between the main road and the sea. For the attack the 2/3rd Field Company was to be in support of the 24th Brigade, 2/7th Field Company and 295th British Field Company in support of the 26th Brigade, and the 2/13th Field Company in support of the 20th Brigade.
Although the artillery provision was liberal, the guns were ill-sited to support the operations except those planned for the 2/13th Battalion (which were also to be supported by timed enfilade fire by the machine-guns of Macarthur-Onslow’s composite force). To support the northward advance the guns had to fire concentrations in enfilade; to support the attack eastwards, they had to fire in the face of the advancing infantry. For the latter phase the plan provided for timed concentrations about 200 yards deep receding ahead of the infantry.
Morshead. discussed his detailed orders with Leese on the morning of the 27th and had a further discussion on the operations with Montgomery in which he “stressed need for armour to support us on our left flank”. Morshead recorded in his diary that Montgomery agreed that these were the proper tactics but doubted whether the armour would manage it.
Morshead outlined his plan to his brigade commanders and others at a conference at 2 p.m. on the 27th. That afternoon Brigadier Windeyer resumed command of the 20th Brigade after an absence due to severe illness. Morshead’s final oral orders were given at a conference at 7 a.m. on the 28th and confirmed by a written operation order later in the morning. The attack was to be made on the night 28th–29th and the 20th Brigade, after its relief by the 152nd Highland Brigade, was to relieve the 26th so as to be in position to open the attack.
It may be readily assumed that on the 27th Alexander had discussed with Montgomery other matters than the future of the 9th Division, which may have had some bearing on developments on the 28th. So far all operations ordered and executed had been within the compass of the modified LIGHTFOOT plan expounded by Montgomery in his memorandum of 6th October:–
The task of 30 Corps and 13 Corps will be to undertake the methodical destruction of the enemy troops holding his forward positions.
30 Corps will walk northwards from the northern flank of the bridgehead, using 9th Australian Division, and southwards from the Miteiriya Ridge using the New Zealand, South African and 4th Indian Divisions. ...
I hope that the operations outlined ... will result in the destruction, by a crumbling process, of the whole of the enemy holding troops.
Having thus “eaten the guts” out of the enemy he will have no troops with which to hold a front. ... When we have succeeded in destroying the enemy holding troops, the eventual fate of the Panzer Army is certain – it will not be able to avoid destruction.
By the morning of the 28th, however, Montgomery had decided that a new break-out thrust would be made as soon as the 9th Division had completed its next “crumbling” phase. About 8 a.m. on the 28th Montgomery conferred with Leese and Lumsden and told them that he planned that the XXX Corps should then drive westwards along the axis of the road and railway to Sidi Abd el Rahman while the X Corps was to exploit westwards from the Australian left flank, holding off the enemy armour from XXX Corps. In brief, a break-out operation between Trig 29 and the sea was envisaged, and the front from Trig 29 southward was to go over to the defensive. It is remarkable that, if this break-out plan had been executed, the armour’s seaward flank would have been closed when it emerged and it could have manoeuvred in only one direction.
Before advancing along the road axis it would have been desirable if not essential, in order to provide a safeguard against enfilade fire from the hillocks near the sea, to capture first not only the road and railway to the north of the 9th Division and all ground south of the railway but also the whole area between the road and the sea. That indeed was the underlying and ultimate purpose of the next operation planned for the 9th Division, but the enemy defences between the road and the sea were not within the scope of the operation’s immediate objectives.
Later that morning Lumsden and Freyberg each had a long conference with Morshead, and Freyberg was subsequently warned by Montgomery that on completion of the Australian attack the New Zealand division should be ready to take over the sector and make an advance along the coast.
The relief of the 26th Brigade by the 20th Brigade on the night of the 27th–28th was made difficult by strong enemy counter-attacks on both the 2/24th and 2/48th Battalions at the time set for their reliefs and still more difficult by the late arrival of the 2/Camerons to relieve the 2/13th. The latter, which was to have proceeded across by foot, had to be fetched by transport waiting to take out the 2/24th, and was only just in time to complete the relief by dawn. The 2/17th on Trig 29 had previously been severely counter-attacked that morning and in the early afternoon but had driven the enemy off.
Both battalions of the 20th Brigade opened their attack at 10 p.m. on 28th October. The 2/13th on the right was a depleted unit, with rifle companies averaging only 35 of all ranks, and an exhausted one, after five sleepless nights. It had attacked on two successive nights, been counterattacked on the next two, and on the night preceding this attack had been on the move, arriving only just before dawn in an area overlooked and constantly shelled by the enemy. The troops crossed a start-line laid farther back than the plan provided but soon caught up with the barrage and had to pause until it lifted. The attack by the 2/24th on the 26th
October had cleared the enemy from the ground covered in the first phase except for some isolated survivors who offered no resistance, but the enemy, apparently aiming behind the shell-bursts of the British barrage, brought artillery fire down on the battalion transport and in the midst of the rear companies. The Fig Orchard, which was the first objective, was reached in 50 minutes. Captain Gillan’s company dug in close behind the orchard with battalion headquarters nearby. Soon Lieutenant Barrett’s44 company and Lieutenant Vincent’s passed through and continued down a track leading towards the coast. They took up position some 800 yards from Thompson’s Post, after having to move back about 50 yards because the protective artillery barrage was too close. Captain Burrell’s company then patrolled deeply ahead but without making contact.
With companies barely stronger than platoons, the battalion’s attack with two companies forward had inevitably been on a narrow frontage. The path taken missed enemy positions on the left flank, which now became troublesome, heavily mortaring battalion headquarters and Gillan’s company. Moreover the whole area was found to be strewn with anti-personnel mines. Casualties were mounting and it fell to Gillan’s company to deal with two enemy posts which were mainly responsible. The first patrol of 10 men under Lieutenant North45 met with disaster when a mortar bomb landed in its midst, killing or seriously wounding all except the commander. North returned and organised a second patrol to bring his men back. Colonel Colvin had meanwhile ordered Gillan to send out another patrol with firm orders to subdue the other post. Corporal McKellar, who was given the task, moved with ten others through a minefield, attacked with grenades two machine-gun crews giving covering fire to a mortar crew, and captured the guns and their crews. Next they rushed and overcame the mortar crew some 30 yards away and returned with their prisoners carrying the captured weapons. After one more post was silenced by patrol action it appeared that local opposition had at last been subdued. Meanwhile Burrell’s company had returned and dug in a short distance behind battalion headquarters.
On the left the 2/15th attacked northward from Trig 29. As the battalion was forming up it was heavily shelled and Colonel Magno and his adjutant were wounded, Magno mortally. Strange took command and led the battalion in a vigorous, well-executed attack. Advancing through machine-gun and mortar fire they encountered posts manned mainly by Italians 900 yards from the forming-up place, overcame them and secured their objectives. In the attack 89 Italians were killed and some 130 Italian and German prisoners were taken. No minefields were found and the vehicles had no difficulty in moving up. The battalion dug in. It had lost 6 killed, including Captain Jubb,46 a company commander, and 36 wounded; 3 men were missing. Soon after first light two enemy tractors
approached towing anti-tank guns. The guns and 22 Germans with them were promptly captured.
The fresh 2/23rd (Lieut-Colonel Evans) and the 46th Royal Tanks (Lieut-Colonel T. C. A. Clarke), who were to execute the advance to the main road, had trained together for semi-mobile operations. To gain surprise and save time Evans planned to advance to the objective with his assault troops (one company) mounted on the tanks and two companies following on his own carriers and those of the 2/24th. By the time the 20th Brigade attack began all were lined up ready at the forming-up place, there to await that brigade’s success signal. An alerted enemy was also ready. When the barrage opened and the advance started the tanks and carriers and the men mounted on them were exposed to sharp fire. Some of the tanks, not having the assistance of moonlight as broad as that laid on for the earlier attacks, missed the marked gaps in the home minefield and were immobilised. Others, according to the diarist of the 2/23rd, moved right and left contrary to instructions to search for others gaps and “an extremely confused situation” developed, into which the enemy pumped shot and shell from weapons of every kind. In the left company, in which casualties were severe and all the officers wounded, the company sergeant major, Warrant-Officer Joyce,47 rallied the survivors and led them forward without the tanks to overcome the foremost enemy positions in hand-to-hand fighting and take 40 prisoners; but elsewhere the attack did not progress.
It was decided to re-set the attack and the sappers were directed to widen the gaps, but much time was lost. “The difficulties of this period,” states the 9th Division’s report, “were added to by communications between the commanding officers of 2/23rd Battalion and 46th Royal Tanks breaking down and the headquarters of 26th Brigade and 23rd Armoured Brigade, which were situated close to each other, not being in touch.” So no doubt it appeared to the staff at divisional headquarters. Evans had lost touch because Clarke and most (if not all) of his squadron leaders had been wounded. Whitehead and Richards had gone forward together to keep closer touch.
After the gaps had been widened the advance was resumed until the tanks again reported mines Engineer sweeping operations were undertaken but failed to discover any. It was 12.55 a.m. before the tanks moved forward again, but then they came under fire from six 50-mm antitank guns, whereupon they dispersed taking their infantry with them. The enemy became very active and casualties mounted fast.
The operation was developing into the type of muddle for which there were several derisive epithets in common army parlance. Colonel Evans gathered what men he could – only 60 or 70 – and organised an attack which at 3.15, after a hard fight, took the main German position with its six guns and 160 men.48 About that time another group of infantry
and 15 tanks, who were out of touch with Evans, advanced east of Evans’ position towards the railway. After 800 yards they came under fire from German guns, including one 88-mm; nine tanks were knocked out and many of the infantrymen were hit. At 4 a.m. Evans reported that he was digging in about 1,000 yards forward of the original F.D.L’s because he had so few men and was not in touch with any responsible officer of the 46th RTR. The 2/23rd had suffered very severe losses in the attack, having lost 29 killed, 172 wounded and 6 missing. The casualties included 2 majors, 4 captains, and 10 lieutenants.
Meanwhile Brigadier Whitehead had made a new plan: to attack with the 2/24th and 2/48th Battalions from the area firmly held by the 2/15th. General Morshead made the 40th RTR available to him; but the 23rd Armoured Brigade could not at such short notice give a definite time for the 40th’s arrival at the forming-up place and it became apparent that the fresh battalions would probably have insufficient time to reorganise on their objectives before daylight. Morshead therefore postponed the attack and ordered Whitehead to ensure that the 2/23rd was securely established and made contact with the 2/13th on its right and 2/15th on its left: the 2/24th and 2/48th were to return to their lying-up areas. The few tanks of the 46th RTR still in running order – only eight – were withdrawn.
Dawn on the 29th found the 2/13th Battalion in an isolated, rather precarious position, with open left flank and a gap of 400 yards (protected, however, by an enemy-laid minefield) between the two left companies; opposite the gap were known enemy fortified posts, which might be still occupied. Behind the battalion there was an open flank for almost 1,000 yards.
From 7 a.m. onward heavy and accurate artillery fire fell on the battalion headquarters. Three shells penetrated the dug-outs; the third wounded and incapacitated Colonel Colvin, killed the adjutant, Lieutenant Pinkney,49 and wounded the anti-tank officer, Lieutenant Gould.50 Captain Jones, the command post officer, notified the catastrophe to Windeyer’s headquarters and the two forward companies through his radio links. The Intelligence officer (Lieutenant Maughan) who was the only officer left on the headquarters, asked brigade headquarters to find Major Daintree, the second-in-command, and in the meantime Captain Gillan had come across from his company to take charge. Major Daintree could not be found. Later it was ascertained that he had been wounded while organising the transport and evacuated. Thereupon Windeyer asked Morshead to make available Captain Kelly, a former adjutant of the unit, who was then serving on divisional headquarters. Morshead agreed and promoted Kelly to the rank of major. Kelly arrived in the afternoon and took command. Finding that the four rifle companies had between them only about 100 men, he reinforced them with men from “B” Echelon and
the Headquarters Company. Gillan later wrote: “To the dazed and battered troops, it was like a shot in the arm to see Major Joe back in the fold.”51
It was against the 2/15th and the 2/17th, however, that the enemy’s main efforts were directed on the 29th. Fourteen tanks stood hull-down near Trig 29 all day and the whole area came under tempestuous fire. After dawn it became evident that the enemy had only a confused idea of the Australian positions; several enemy vehicles drove into the Australian lines and were destroyed or captured. Later in the morning enemy infantry and tanks formed up and two counter-attacks in which both tanks and infantry were employed were directed at Trig 29 – one in the morning, and another in the early afternoon. The afternoon attack, which was made with greater determination, was sustained for three-quarters of an hour. Both were repelled, but on the second occasion not before six of the Australian anti-tank guns had been knocked out. At 5 p.m. the 2/15th and 2/17th sustained a still more determined attack launched at the junction of the two battalions; it was pressed until darkness fell. In coping with these attacks Colonel Simpson and his supporting artillery were greatly assisted by reports from Captain Dinning,52 who had moved across from his company headquarters to an exposed observation post
on Trig 29 to watch the enemy’s moves. It could be seen that dreadful casualties had been inflicted on the attackers. As the light faded the enemy could be observed digging in at distances varying from a quarter of a mile to a mile from the Australian front. Shortly after midnight one more attack against the 2/15th and 2/17th was thrown back. Later an Italian officer drove up with a truckload of Italian wounded to the 2/17th Battalion’s R.A.P. which was then crowded with wounded from the 2/15th.
Several more attacks were to be made before the enemy gave up the attempt to dislodge the 2/15th and 2/17th Battalions. The Australians’ training in quick and thorough consolidation together with effective artillery protection had provided the answer to the German practice of counter-attacking quickly rather than deliberately. The enemy, unless able to counter-attack within two hours or so of the capture of a position, had little hope of breaking the front of these battalions, depleted though they were, except by a deliberate set-piece operation.
At 11 a.m. on the 29th the 20th Brigade assumed responsibility for the whole northern sector and the 2/23rd Battalion was placed under Brigadier Windeyer’s command. After learning of plans for a renewed attack by the 26th Brigade on the 30th–31st, Windeyer ordered the 2/23rd to advance its positions 1,000 yards on the night of the 29th so as to link the north-east part of the 2/15th with the 2/13th. This was done without incident.
On the 28th, after noting the northward movement of British forces, Rommel had decided to withdraw still more German mobile forces from the southern sector and place them in the northern. By the end of that day the 15th Armoured Division had only 21 serviceable Mark III or IV tanks; the 21st only 45; the Italian divisions had a total of 196. Since the battle opened the number of Germans reported missing totalled 1,994, of Italians 1,660. In the 164th Division two battalions of the 382nd Regiment had been wiped out and the third had lost about one-quarter of its strength. One battalion of the 115th Regiment was now only 40 strong.
The main German units to the east of the positions taken up by the 90th Light Division west and north-west of Trig 29 were the I and III Battalions of the 125th Regiment holding the original front from Thompson’s Post across the railway and road to the sea and the II/125th Regiment in positions behind the original front line between the Trig 29 spur and the railway.
The Australian attack on the 28th–29th had breached the German line between the II/125th and a battle group (155th Regiment) of the 90th Light Division and overrun the XI Bersaglieri. Parts of the 15th Armoured Division and the Littorio Division were moved up to counter-attack.
The 90th Light Division assumed command of the northern sector next day, taking the 125th Regimental Group under command, and was ordered to form a new line, to be dug as quickly as possible and firmly held, from 10 kilometres south of Sidi Abd el Rahman to the coast four kilometres east of Sidi Abd el Rahman. (This was a line running from the south-west corner of the 9th Division’s sector in a north-north-easterly direction – skirting the flank of the 2/15th Battalion – to the coast north of the 2/23rd Battalion.)
The attacks on the 2/15th and 2/17th Battalions on the 29th were made by the 200th Battle Group, which had been ordered by the 90th Light Division to recapture Bir Sultan Omar and then to re-establish the German line west of Trig 29 breached by the 2/15th Battalion’s attack. The counter-attack failed but the remnants of the II/125th were extricated while it was proceeding.
The campaign narrative of the Armoured Army of Africa recorded that the heavy casualties suffered by the divisions of XXI Corps (154th Infantry and Trento) had made it necessary to commit almost the whole of the Africa Corps little by little to bolster up the northern sector.
It is interesting to see, from the enemy order of battle after the re-grouping on the 29th had taken place, the extent to which Rommel had denuded the other sectors to meet the threat posed by the 9th Division’s operations.
The apparent stalemate in the battle had caused uneasiness in London where it had been expected that the best generals the English army could produce, launching an attack with an enormous superiority of men and munitions, would by now have obtained the so passionately desired victory, which was to redress Britain’s record of military disasters in the desert before the joint American and British task force made its landing in North Africa. “I had my own doubts and my own anxieties as to the course of events,” Brooke has recorded, “but these had to be kept entirely to myself.”53 On the 29th Churchill, now alarmed that the battle might not after all prove “an event of first magnitude”, drafted a telegram (“not a pleasant one”) to Alexander, called an urgent Chiefs of Staff meeting to which Field Marshal Smuts was invited, and berated Montgomery to Brooke:
He had done nothing now for the last three days, and now he was withdrawing troops from the front. Why had he told us he would be through in seven days if all he intended to do was to fight a half-hearted battle? Had we not got a single general who could even win one single battle?
At the meeting Brooke defended Montgomery. To the criticism that for three days Montgomery had done nothing, Brooke
pointed out that he had withstood a series of fierce counter-attacks in which Rommel had suffered heavy casualties. ... As to the charge that Montgomery was withdrawing formations, had his critics forgotten, he asked, that the first principle of all offensive tactics lay in promptly creating new striking reserves for the next stage of attack.54
Smuts supported Brooke’s interpretation of the reports and the Prime Minister agreed that the disturbing telegram should not be sent. Instead another was dispatched which merely told Alexander that the situation justified “all the risks and sacrifices involved in the relentless prosecution of this battle” and that he would be supported in “all the measures ... to make this a fight to the finish”.55
On the same morning Mr Casey and General Alexander, attended by his chief of staff, General McCreery, visited General Montgomery’s headquarters to discuss what report should be sent to London on the progress and prospects of the battle. Casey’s proper inquiries were apparently received with some pique but Montgomery spoke with confidence, recalled his prediction that the “crumbling might take ten or twelve days” and declared that he was certain of success. The meeting also discussed
Montgomery’s plans for a new break-out thrust. The army commander’s intention, de Guingand has recorded,
was to launch this attack as far north as possible. Some of us felt, however, that better results would be gained by adopting a more southerly axis. The further north we went, the more Germans, mines and prepared defences would we meet.56
Montgomery has also stated that “such was indeed my design at the time”. McCreery expressed the opinion that the break-through should be attempted farther south.
During the morning the Intelligence service had deduced that the 90th Light Division had concentrated about Sidi Abd el Rahman, which induced Montgomery to discard his plan at once. He would continue the attack in the north but break through at the junction between the 90th Light and Trento Divisions and on the northern flank of the Trento.
But we had now achieved what Bill Williams had recommended. The Germans had been pulled against our right and were no longer “corsetting” the Italians. The Germans were in the north, the Italians together in the south; and the dividing line between them appeared to be just to the north of our original northern corridor.
I at once changed my plan and decided to direct the final blow at this point of junction, but overlapping well on to the Italian front. I took this decision at 11 a.m., the 29th October.57
The break-out operation was to be a decisive attack, called SUPERCHARGE and the plan, written that day, provided that it should be delivered on the night of 31st October-1st November. The intention was to destroy the enemy’s armour, force him to fight in the open and use up his petrol, get astride his supply route, force him from his forward airfields and thus “bring about the disintegration of the whole enemy army”. The main infantry break-out was to be commanded by General Freyberg and was to be executed by a specially composed “New Zealand” division to comprise two British infantry brigades – the 151st (from the 50th Division) and the 152nd (from the 51st Highland Division) – plus a Maori battalion (under command of the 151st) and the 9th Armoured Brigade. The armoured thrust, which was to be made through the New Zealand division’s new bridgehead, was to be carried out by the 1st Armoured Division, which would then comprise the 2nd and 8th Armoured Brigades and the 7th Motor Brigade. There were later some modifications to the original plan, including extending the depth of the initial penetration (to 6,000 yards). Moreover General Freyberg soon came to the conclusion that the two days allowed were insufficient for properly planning and mounting so large and complex an operation and Montgomery agreed early on the 31st to postpone the attack for one day to the night of 1st–2nd November.
It was essential to maintain relentless pressure on the enemy until the break-out operation took place and it fell to the lot of the 9th Division to do so by renewing its northward attacks. There were two purposes of immediate advantage that this might accomplish: to open up
the main road from the enemy’s original front-line as planned for the previous attack or to strike north from the division’s already protruded left flank to the sea and cut off all enemy forces to the east. Now that the break-through would be effected farther south, the opening of the road was not of paramount importance. Morshead decided to do both.
The plan for the next attack was therefore even more ambitious than the last. The operations to open the coast road were to be much the same as before except that not one but two battalions were to thrust back eastwards along the road through the enemy’s front-line to clear it and the battalion on the left was then to turn left and advance north to clear the enemy’s forward defences between the road and sea, which were previously to have been taken by the 24th Brigade. As before the 24th Brigade would capture the outpost locality covering the road at Kilo 109. Four battalions were to be used, one to cut the road, two to clear it and one to push through to the coast from where the road was cut, thus isolating the enemy holding the dominating ground north of the road.
As before, Brigadier Whitehead was to be in charge of the attack, which was to take place on the night of the 30th–31st October and would be carried out by his 26th Brigade less the 2/23rd Battalion, but with the 2/32nd and 2/3rd Pioneer Battalions under command and the 40th Royal Tanks in support. The 2/23rd Battalion, which held part of the front of the 20th Brigade, would provide the base from which the attack would be launched. The 2/32nd’s role was to be similar to that of the 2/23rd in the earlier attack. With an anti-tank battery and two platoons of machine-guns under command, it was to capture the enemy’s positions astride the main road about Barrel Hill58 (Point 11) and form defensive flanks to north, north-west and west. Behind this screen the 2/24th and 2/48th would form up and then advance eastward and capture the enemy’s defences not only astride the railway and the main road but also for 1,200 yards north of the railway. This done the 2/24th would attack Thompson’s Post, advancing south-west from the road, while the 2/48th attacked through Cloverleaf to the Egg feature on the coast. In the fourth and final stage the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion was to pass through the 2/32nd and advance northward from Barrel Hill to near the coast, mop up and finally reorganise facing east and west. The outline plan provided that the Pioneers should have the support of a battery of anti-tank guns and a platoon of medium machine-guns.
The vehicles of the attacking units would have to cross the railway embankment. The engineers planned to blow up the rails and push the earth of the embankment away with a bulldozer. A second field company – the 2/3rd – was attached to the brigade because the engineer tasks were to be so heavy. The artillery, to be controlled by Brigadier Ramsay, comprised 12 field regiments and 3 medium with a total of 360 guns.
Morshead issued his outline plan at 5 p.m. on the 29th and gave Whitehead his final plan and orders at 7 a.m. next morning. Morshead’s
notes for the latter conference indicate that he had then decided that the 26th Brigade should be relieved by the 24th Brigade on the night of 31st October-1st November and that he intended so to inform Whitehead. He also noted later: “Whitehead does not want any tanks.”
Between half an hour after midnight and dawn on the 30th, the 2/15th Battalion had been attacked four times. At one stage a penetration was made and the enemy almost reached the anti-tank guns. All attacks were finally repulsed and the line re-established. It had become very evident that an aggressive enemy had been reinforcing his strength in front of the 2/15th, close to where the 2/32nd was to establish the base for the 26th Brigade’s operations, and Morshead, who knew also that the 2/24th and 2/48th were reduced to less than half strength, came to the conclusion that any one of these three battalions might need help from reserves to complete its task. The 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion was therefore to be available as a reserve to help any one of them; only if not so required was it to carry out the role of cutting the enemy’s communications north of the coast road. The 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion therefore received instructions (aptly described by its historian as the “IF” plan) that it was to be ready to help the 2/32nd Battalion to take its objective if required; if not, then to be ready to help the 2/24th take Thompson’s Post, if required; if not then to be ready to help the 2/48th take the defences from the road to the sea; if not required for any of these things, then to carry out its original role of advancing north from the firm base to the coast.
Thus, in the new plan’s ultimate development, the earlier plan’s purpose of opening the road remained the prime object; the object of cutting what would then be the enemy’s only escape route by the sea-shore assumed secondary importance and was made contingent on the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion’s not being required to help with the prime object. To the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion, which with only three companies (the fourth having to remain with the composite force) would be fighting its first action as a unit in an infantry role with such indefinite, and indeed bewildering, prospects, it was not consoling to learn that the anti-tank guns and machine-guns previously allocated to its support would no longer be employed in that role; for obviously the location of these important arms for securing the firm base could not be left to be determined by the uncertainties that would decide the role of the Pioneers.
The 2/32nd Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Balfe) assembled for its attack on the night of the 30th, for which the accompanying barrage was to begin at 10 p.m. Before it started two officers of the battalion had been wounded by a sniper while reconnoitring – Major Joshua (who nevertheless carried on) and Captain Jacoby,59 wounded mortally. The two leading companies, commanded by Captains Huitfeldt60 and Eacott,61 set
off ten minutes after the barrage began but, encountering no strong opposition, soon caught up with it. The railway line – the intermediate objective – was reached in good time; 175 prisoners, nearly all German from the I/361st Battalion, had been taken. After a pause on the railway line to re-form the advance continued against heavier opposition, and casualties mounted. After the forward troops had crossed the railway Colonel Balfe and his wireless operator were on the railway line when six Germans moved forWard, evidently to surrender. One drew a pistol and shot Balfe in the arm. Balfe emptied his revolver into the Germans and made off.
When the final objectives had been reached, two companies remained in reverse slope positions covering the road while two moved left and occupied an area south of the railway facing west. The engineers were clearing mine-free tracks leading forward and had begun breaking down the 12-foot railway embankments to enable vehicles to cross, but the truck bringing their explosives and equipment had not arrived and they were reduced to doing the job with shovels and using Hawkins mines for explosive charges. Within the area captured by the 2/32nd Battalion was a blockhouse which had been used by the enemy as a main casualty station. Three German medical officers and their orderlies remained on duty. Field Marshal Rommel had always enjoined a scrupulous adherence to the rules of war. True to these traditions and those of their service, the German doctors and orderlies toiled that night and in the following days to minister without discrimination to the wounded of both sides as they were brought in. There they were soon joined by the 2/32nd’s medical officer, Captain Campbell,62 and his men and by Captain Grice63 and his section of the 2/11th Field Ambulance.
The 2/48th Battalion under Lieut-Colonel Hammer, the 2/24th under Lieut-Colonel Weir and the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion under Lieut-Colonel Gallasch64 set off in turn from the Trig 29 area, at 10.30, 10.40 and 11.00 p.m. respectively, in the wake of the 2/32nd Battalion, and each had some action on the way. Two platoons from separate companies of the 2/3rd Pioneers assaulting separately, and saved just in time from mistaking each other for the enemy by the inimitable profanity of their language, attacked one troublesome post to the left of the track leading to the 2/32nd and overcame it in close hand-to-hand fighting, taking more than 50 prisoners.
The battalions dug in near the 2/32nd while waiting to go forward, the area being harassed by fire. A platoon of the pioneers went over to help the engineers with their task of gapping the railway embankment. The enemy had begun closing in from the west and was soon raking the gap with fire. A platoon of the pioneers and a company of the 2/32nd
independently attacked the positions mainly responsible with eventual success and again some misunderstandings were sorted out by descriptive language.
Casualties were coming fast. Balfe was hit a second time and carried out and Major Joshua took command of the 2/32nd. A German 88-mm gun shot up many carriers and vehicles attempting to bring ammunition and stores forward and many did not get through, including those of one company of the 2/32nd. About 3.45 a.m., after three hours work by 50 men, the crossing over the railway was complete and the “A” Echelon vehicles of the 2/32nd companies north of the railway crossed over; but the enemy was now pressing along the railway from the west and bringing heavy fire to bear on the gap. The 2/32nd had been unable to link with the 2/15th on the left. The ground that the 2/32nd had taken up will henceforth be called the Saucer because that is what it was to look like when dawn revealed their situation to the men of the 2/32nd and that is what they, and others who later went there, called it. In the next two days the Saucer was to become the focal point in the struggle between the two armies.
The 2/24th and 2/48th, numbering scarcely 450 men between them, had meanwhile set off on their desperate eastward advance of 2,250 yards, marching to the sound of the guns – not to the distant sound of the enemy’s, but in the face of the close, harsh bombardment of their own – and were strewing the desert way of a long fight with fallen wounded and dead, yet sustaining still their forward progress, their soldierly spirit suffusing the performance of their task with a greatness transcending its purpose. The start-lines had been laid north from the railway to Barrel Hill, but not before the 2/48th had fought for the ground by clearing a neighbouring post. The barrage opened at 1 a.m. Because the battalions were to advance into the receding barrage, they had to keep 600 yards back from the fire-beaten zone, losing much of the benefit. There was some confusion at the start. The start-line was both harassed by enemy fire and shelled by the supporting artillery, who nevertheless were doing their best to carry out a most difficult task. The 2/48th were early at the forming-up place and, finding it under fire, moved forward and took cover. The 2/24th arriving subsequently but seeing nothing of the 2/48th thought they must have already started and pressed on. A fiasco at the very outset of the attack was averted by Captain Summerton, a liaison officer sent from 26th Brigade headquarters to ensure that the two battalions linked up. Arriving at the start-line but finding neither battalion on it, Summerton went forward along the 2/48th Battalion centre-line and found Hammer, who irately inquired where Weir’s battalion was and instructed Summerton to find Weir. Summerton returned to the start-line and proceeded along the 2/24th centre-line until he encountered a man with a radio set. Summerton then spoke to Weir who agreed to put his battalion to ground until Hammer’s battalion came up, whereupon Summer-ton moved across and reported to Hammer, attracting ill-aimed fire from
the 2/48th on the way. Consideration was given to organising a re-start with a repetition of the artillery program but, as that would involve much delay, both battalions moved on from where they were, intending to catch up with the barrage. Both adopted the now conventional procedure of advancing with two companies forward to an intermediate objective and then passing the rear companies through to complete the task. Both were soon knocked about by fire from anti-tank guns, heavy mortars and machine-guns; both successfully took their intermediate objectives (though not without fighting) but then found themselves advancing with ever-dwindling strength against ever-stronger opposition. As they fought their way on and one or other battalion or company heard its neighbour in trouble to right or left, groups from one crossed to the other to help.
In the 2/24th, which advanced with one section south of the railway line on the open right flank, the heaviest opposition was encountered on the left. Captain Harty’s company on the right had, by comparison, an easier passage.
Lieutenant Keamey’s65 company on the left had a stiff fight in which Sergeant Dingwall66 commanding the left platoon led his men against three posts in succession and overcame them. Then the other two platoons attacked a troublesome enemy strong-point on the left and Dingwall joined in, storming the post’s 88-mm gun and capturing it.67 Captain Mackenzie’s and Lieutenant McLeod’s68 companies (McLeod’s on the right) were meanwhile following up. Mackenzie’s company was caught by enfilade machine-gun fire which cut down several men and badly wounded Mackenzie. Lieutenant Nelson69 took command and soon had to come to the help of Kearney’s company, held up in front of the first objective. Some of the 2/48th also came over to help and the post was overrun, whereupon the following companies passed through.
McLeod’s company fought its way forward under increasingly heavy fire but this came mainly from posts in front of Nelson’s company, which had been held up by a German strongpoint; soon Nelson was wounded. The company sergeant-major, Sergeant Alleyne, took command and led the men through the wire but he too soon fell mortally wounded. Lieutenant McLeod brought his company across to help. Corporal Anderson70 charged one post single-handed, spattering the occupants with light machine-gun fire and killing all, but as McLeod’s men moved into the assault on the strongpoint anti-tank and heavy machine-guns firing pointblank put them to ground. McLeod, calling on his men to cover him, charged the gun crews with Bren gun firing but was shot down and killed. Sergeant Lewis71 who had taken command of the left company continued the attack in conjunction with men from McLeod’s company, overran another post and then with only nine men dug in to hold the ground he had taken. When McLeod was hit, Warrant-Officer Cameron rushed to his assistance but was also wounded. Finding McLeod dead and himself again in command of the company, the wounded Cameron led back the survivors, numbering only eight, to contact the rear company, where they dug in, covering the front between the road and railway.
Colonel Weir decided to concentrate his meagre force and, when they were gathered in, led them, 84 strong, to a position due north of Thompson’s Post. There they dug themselves in for all round defence. While there he received a message from brigade headquarters telling him that it had been reported – and how incredible it must have seemed to those
men! – that Thompson’s Post was unoccupied;72 the proposed barrage had therefore been cancelled and Weir was instructed to verify the report. Responding with fine leadership to a fearful mandate, Weir made himself the patrol leader and set out with 15 men to find out.
No less arduous had been the 2/48th Battalion’s road to its objective. Major Edmunds’ company on the right and Captain Bryant’s on the left led the advance. As they reached the road they ran into deathly fire, but with numbers dwindling pressed on and with hard hand-to-hand fighting for almost two hours forced their way through the enemy positions to the intermediate objectives. In the right company casualties came fast: Lieutenant Caple73 was killed assaulting a post, another platoon commander, Lieutenant Butler,74 was badly wounded and evacuated. Sergeant Ranford75 having taken command of his platoon led assaults on two posts, overcoming both, and on the second occasion damaging beyond repair two machine-guns and an 88-mm gun. Ranford, badly wounded, continued to lead his platoon, then only seven strong, until hit again.
The reserve companies also had to fight their way forward to the intermediate objective, having to deal with unsubdued enemy posts they the edge of the depleted forward companies’ path. Passing through they took the full force of the enemy’s mortar and machine-gun fire. Captain Shillaker leading the right company was soon badly wounded and Lieutenant Hamilton76 was killed. Sergeant Derrick led the company forward but it was forced to ground near the objective. Captain Robbins’ company on the left swung out to avoid a minefield and continued the advance, but the rest of the battalion lost touch with them.
After Caple had been killed and Butler wounded, Edmunds ordered Lieutenant Allen77 to deal with mortar and machine-gun posts that had brought his advance to a stand-still and as Allen led a successful bayonet charge against them in the face of whipping fire, Edmunds resumed the advance with only six men. Allen’s platoon took 15 prisoners but suffered severely; it was reduced to three men (including himself). On Allen’s right Edmunds led his six men in an assault on another post but was badly wounded by machine-gun fire as they moved in. Allen, who was also wounded, was the only officer remaining to command the company’s survivors, then numbering only five.
Battalion headquarters, coming up between Shillaker’s and Robbins’ companies, also passed through the original two forward companies and continued up the centre, but soon found themselves well ahead of the forward companies and began taking casualties from enemy fire from positions near the final objective. The Regimental Sergeant Major, Warrant-Officer Legg, led an assault by five men on a post but four were lost.
Meanwhile Captain Bryant, the only senior company commander apart from Robbins (who was still out of touch), brought up what was left of the two companies that had taken the first objective and took charge, amalgamating his with Shillaker’s company (now commanded by Derrick who, though he had been hit, was still carrying on) to form a composite company of 45 men, and then, accompanied on the right by Lieutenant Allen commanding the few survivors of what was Edmunds’ company, resumed the advance, organised a charge with grenades and bayonet, and overcame the post that had held up Derrick’s men.
Hammer had heard no word from Robbins, whose company had pressed on close to the objective, because Robbins had been killed and all his platoon commanders and his headquarters men had been either killed or wounded. The company had been caught in open ground as it approached the end of its advance and 16 men were killed assaulting the objective. When Robbins had been killed and the officers commanding the other two platoons severely wounded, Sergeant Kibby took command and organised an attack on the objective with the survivors, perhaps a dozen men, in two converging groups. The attackers were forced to ground within 20 yards of it. Kibby jumped up and charged, hurling grenades which silenced the post, but not before he had been caught by the enemy’s fire, which cut off the life of a soldier whose gallantry in this and earlier actions at El Alamein could not have been surpassed.78 So was the left objective assaulted on the ground that Major Mollard’s company of the 2/24th, attacking from the other side, had briefly captured some months before.
Colonel Hammer called a conference of all who were now acting as commanders of what remained of his battalion and ordered that the men were to dig in and hold the ground they had attained. The battalion, now reduced to 41 men, had no communications, all signal sets having been shot up and lines mutilated. He decided that he would make contact with the 2/24th Battalion to see whether it would be feasible to hold the ground where he was, north of the road, while the 2/24th held ground south of the road. Handing over command to his adjutant, Captain Reid,79 who had been thrice wounded, Hammer set off alone, armed only with a pistol, to find the 2/24th. Later he returned, having been shot through the face, but with two prisoners. He had found the headquarters of the 2/24th, but Weir was not there. He then ordered a
withdrawal to the blockhouse, saying that he believed the 2/24th would also be withdrawing.
Colonel Weir’s patrol to Thompson’s Post had penetrated the outer wire without incident but was fired on soon afterwards at short range. One man was killed; another was wounded as the patrol quickly withdrew. Private O’Brien,80 a stretcher bearer, turned back, however, and brought the wounded man out. The fire showed Thompson’s Post to be very much occupied.
When Weir returned to his battalion’s firm base, he was given an oral message to the effect that, because Hammer’s battalion was so depleted, Hammer proposed to withdraw; so Weir decided to do likewise. Hammer, on the other hand, had decided to withdraw only because after making contact with the 2/24th while Weir was absent leading his patrol to Thompson’s Post he had gathered that Weir had decided to withdraw. Still it was all for the best, and both battalions came back just before dawn to the Saucer. On the way, however, the 2/24th passed through a minefield of aerial bombs, two of which detonated. There were 28 casualties; Lieutenant Kearney and 11 others were killed and Colonel Weir so badly wounded that Captain Harty (who was a temporary captain of only three months’ standing) had to take command. The devoted O’Brien moved fearlessly among the wounded, dressing all 16. Later two of the battalion’s carriers came up and brought out these and other wounded just before first light.
Harty led back the 54 survivors of the 2/24th to the 2/32nd Battalion’s base where they took up a position on the left of the 2/32nd Battalion. Weir was taken to the casualty station at the blockhouse and Major Gebhardt took command after first light. Of the 206 men (including only five officers) with which the 2/24th had entered the attack, 42 had been killed and 116 wounded (though some of these were still carrying on); two men were missing. The battalion had taken 48 German and 14 Italian prisoners and a formidable array of weapons: one 88-mm gun, two 50-mm guns, two 20-mm guns, 12 Spandaus, one medium mortar, one light mortar, and seven howitzers.
Hammer had also withdrawn his few – his very few – to the base at the Saucer, where they dug in just to the east of the 2/32nd Battalion. The 2/48th Battalion had taken some 200 German prisoners. It had lost 47 killed and 148 wounded and 4 were missing. Among the 18 officers who took part in the attack only four now remained alive and unwounded. On 23rd October this battalion had 30 officers and 656 other ranks; of these 21 officers and half the men had since been killed or wounded.
The prisoners taken by the division in the operation totalled 544 of which 421 (including 7 officers) were German and 123 (including 5 officers) were Italian.
Hard though the infantry had toiled that night, still harder had been the labour of the stretcher bearers who had been tending the wounded
under fire all along the battalions’ long trail and bringing them back to the blockhouse in the Saucer. A high proportion of the 264 wounded in the two battalions were stretcher cases. Only 6 men were not accounted for that night and it is believed that not one of them was a wounded man left untended. Meanwhile the centre of greatest activity was the blockhouse – a long prison-like building used to house railway gangers in peacetime – where Captain Campbell, Captain Grice and the German doctors and their respective orderlies were together tending the wounded.
In the early hours of the 31st an important reinforcement reached the small Australian force of three depleted battalions astride the main road – one which was soon to play an important and possibly decisive role in a battle which was of some moment to the Eighth Army’s prospects of a successful break-out. The 289th Battery R.A., a battery of Rhodesian anti-tank gunners manning 6-pounders who had earlier been sent up from the XIII Corps to help with operations in the north and were now attached to the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, had been allotted to the 2/32nd Battalion’s support. In the dark their commander sited three troops (one being still in reserve) to cover, on the right, the approaches to the crossing from north and west – this troop’s guns being on either side of the crossing – and on the left, to prevent close envelopment of the 2/32nd Battalion’s left flank and rear by tanks moving round the front of the battalion’s protective minefield and through the gap between the 2/32nd and 2/15th Battalions. Here were two troops, one close to the railway and one farther out, in the gap.
Also in the Saucer next morning were three troops of Major Copeland’s81 9th Battery of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment – Lieutenant Kessell’s82 in support of the 2/32nd Battalion on its northern flank, “B” Troop and “C” Troop (in support of the 2/24th and 2/48th Battalions) being south of the railway.
For more than four hours the 2/3rd Pioneers, awaiting their summons to their first battle, had listened to the close and far bombardment of the battleground and the crackling automatic-fire signalling the hard fight of the 2/24th and 2/48th Battalions. When dawn was not far off, Colonel Gallasch asked for orders. A signal was received at 4.30 a.m. telling him by code word to attack at 4.25 a.m. and carry out his original task. Already the bombardment had opened. The company which had to advance farthest would only have what little time was left before dawn to complete an advance of some 3,000 yards and then seize and dig in on the ground it was to hold.
Compelled to commit the cardinal sin of hastening men into battle, Gallasch started his two forward companies at 4.35 a.m. from a start-line that ran east from Barrel Hill. The third had to consolidate nearby.
The leading company (Captain Owens83) advanced through heavy fire and perhaps a bit off course but reached the area of the first objective on time, having advanced 1,500 yards and taken some 30 prisoners and three machine-guns. It dug in and Captain Stevens’84 company passed through at 5 a.m., its objective being close to the coast. This company was soon halted by the supporting barrage, which was 200 yards ahead (some shells were falling short, about where the company was). The barrage remained stationary on that line. Already a lightening of the sky indicated the approach of day. The battalion had no communications to the rear; the signal officer had been badly wounded earlier; nor was there an artillery Forward Observation Officer; his truck had been blown up. When the bombardment showed no sign of ceasing Stevens decided that, since he could not reach the dunes and consolidate there before daylight, his men should dig in where they were, about a mile from the start-line and some 1,200 yards from the objective. Major Rosevear’s85 company had meanwhile consolidated in front of the forward slopes of Barrel Hill, but north of the road.
The greatest needs of the Pioneers, not having the anti-tank and machine-guns originally allocated to them, were good artillery support and their own support weapons and ammunition, but the forward companies had no artillery link and their “A” Echelon vehicles carrying their ammunition and heavier weapons had been held back at Tel el Eisa; and there, by standard battle procedure, they would continue to be held until the word summoning them forward was received.86 It did not come. (The transport was at Tel el Eisa because it had been hoped to move it forward by the coast road after the road had been captured!) The system may have been operating perfectly, but both watchfulness and initiative are sometimes needed to break through a system when it fails to achieve the prime object. That was not done for the Pioneers except by two men (one a sergeant) in charge of trucks, who broke away and drove their two trucks at best speed to arrive forward with their precious ammunition loads before it was fully light. There was some for Owens’ company but none for Stevens’. The situation in which the 2/3rd Pioneers now found themselves has been thus described by the unit’s historian.
It was now quite light and the Pioneers’ predicament soon became apparent to them and to the enemy. They were in a saucer, with the enemy holding the high ground on three sides of them and indeed in positions from which they could bring fire even into the rear of most of the battalion, whose supporting weapons were still on trucks held up on the other side of Tel el Eisa. What they could have done with those weapons and also with the additional anti-tank guns and machine-guns originally to be provided was nobody’s business. ... There they were, with no support and little ammunition, shooting at targets which mostly they could not see whereas the enemy could see every move and almost every man.87
There we shall leave the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion – the right flank of the Eighth Army – with its thin barrier of two companies reaching out for about a mile across the saltmarsh to the north and precariously hinged on its third company at Barrel Hill – the brittle wedge cutting off all the Axis forces in the coast sector; there for the time being we shall leave them while we see what was happening on “the other side of the hill”.
On the morning after the 26th Brigade’s previous northward attack Rommel had concluded that it would not be possible to hold the El Alamein position indefinitely and had therefore given instructions for preparations to be made for a withdrawal to Fuka. By the evening of 30th October reconnaissances and preliminary arrangements had been made. Rommel expected a British break-through thrust at any moment. His plan was to meet and delay it with his armoured and mobile forces so as to cover the withdrawal of his infantry next night. By the evening of the 30th his petrol supplies had improved, so he then issued orders to the 21st Armoured Division, which had been dug in to the west of the XXX Corps sector, that it was to become mobile next morning and hand over to the Trieste Division.
In forming its second defence line the 90th Light had disposed the 361st Regiment from the coast to the main road inclusive and the 200th Regiment south of the road in front (and west of) the 2/15th Battalion. In the first phase of the operations on the night of the 30th–31st the Australian attack came in near the junction of the right flank of the 125th Regiment (164th Light Division) and the left flank of the 361st Regiment (90th Light Division) to which most of the prisoners taken by the 2/32nd Battalion belonged. Next the main weight of the Australian attack (i.e. by the 2/24th and 2/48th Battalions) fell on the 125th Regiment’s left flank; the 357th Italian Light Artillery Regiment was overrun and all but one of its guns lost. Hearing and glimpsing the carriers bringing supplies to the 26th Brigade, the Germans reported and their command believed that a “strong force of British armour” had participated in the attack.88 The Australian attack to the coast had driven a wedge which cut off the 125th Regiment in the coast sector.
In the morning further reports reached Rommel that 30 British tanks had reached the main road and were attacking the 361st Regiment’s left flank. From the minaret of the Sidi Abd el Rahman mosque, which the Germans used as an artillery observation post, a dress-circle view could be obtained of the coast sector where the Australians had dug in. “I immediately drove up to Sidi Abd el Rahman,” wrote Rommel, “and set up my command post east of the mosque.” Rommel ordered an attack on the wedge to be made by the 21st Armoured and 90th Light Divisions and gave the command of the operation to General von Thoma. The attack would not be able to start until the 21st Armoured had completed handing over to the Trieste Division.
A situation map showing the 9th Division’s dispositions at dawn on the 31st, if one could then have been correctly drawn from the scanty information available, would have presented a vastly (and gravely) different picture from that expected to be seen on completion of the operation. The coast road was not open nor were the well-developed defences north and south of it cleared. It is strange that it could have been expected that they would be. The overprint map and all other information had given clear warning that the defences about the road were formidable. There are some indications that a belief had been
nurtured that the enemy was thinning out and might by then have been demoralised; but if there was some evidence to that effect there was more plain evidence to the contrary. A plausible explanation but not a sound exculpation later given for Morshead’s and the divisional staff’s underrating of the enemy defence was that the enemy had been inspirited to put up an unexpectedly strong opposition because the diversionary operations mounted by the 24th Brigade on the night on which the offensive opened had misled the enemy troops there into believing that by standing fast they had succeeded in throwing back a full-scale attack; but in the preceding days many Germans not so inspirited had displayed plenty of fight. “Crumbling” had indeed been continued and relentless pressure on the enemy maintained; at the cost, however, of crumbling two fine battalions, than which there were none better – British or German – in Africa, nor probably in the world.
Neither at Morshead’s headquarters, nor at Whitehead’s below the forward slopes of Trig 29, could an accurate picture be formed that morning of the situation to the north, where four weak battalions were soon to face a fiery ordeal. South of the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion’s outstretched arm was the 2/32nd Battalion, holding a line from the road at Barrel Hill south across the railway (disposed with about half the battalion on each side of the railway), beyond the left flank of which there was a gap of about a mile to the 2/15th Battalion. Behind the right of the 2/32nd Battalion’s positions south of the railway was the little band of men comprising the 2/48th Battalion, dug in facing north and east, with one post just north of the railway, and behind the left positions of the 2/32nd was the likewise depleted 2/24th in two localities about 200 yards apart. Major Gebhardt had come forward to the 2/24th at first light to take command.
Dawn revealed that an enemy locality had been penetrated and there were many isolated pockets which were quickly mopped up. The 2/32nd Battalion took some 200 prisoners. Major Rosevear’s company of the Pioneers, which found itself in the midst of an enemy position, took 47.
The two isolated companies of the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion received the enemy’s first attention. Captain Stevens’ company, holding no ground of vantage, and under observation from the enemy on the sand-dunes, was in the worst position. Stevens sent a patrol of 17 under Lieutenant Dunn89 to some dunes out in front to enfilade the enemy from the flank. Some of the men were cut down by fire. Lieutenant Dunn extricated the patrol but not before all the NCOs had been killed or wounded, and more casualties were suffered as they came out. Dunn was badly hit and Captain Owens went out and carried him back. Only four out of the 17 returned unwounded. Stevens’ company was pinned down, any move attracting fire, until about 10.30 a.m. when the fire ceased and a German officer approached under a white flag and advised surrender, as the alternative to annihilation. He was told, “If you want us, come and get us”;
some other remarks not in the best taste were also addressed to the
envoy. After he had withdrawn the Germans completed the company’s
encirclement and continued to lacerate it with fire throughout the morning.
Greater efforts were being made by the enemy to force the issue against the men in the Saucer to the south of Stevens’ and Owens’ companies, but the Australians had meanwhile received an important reinforcement. In the early hours of the morning the 40th RTR (Lieut-Colonel J. L. T. Finigan) less one squadron had been slowly moving northward, as sappers cleared a path for them, behind the enemy’s original front-wire, by the track past the Fig Orchard which ran north to the railway along the western edge of Thompson’s Post. About dawn, and not without mishaps, Finigan brought his squadron past Thompson’s Post and up to the 2/48th Battalion, by which time he had received orders that he was to support that battalion. There is some evidence that the purport of Finigan’s assignment was that Hammer and he should organise an attack on Thompson’s Post. Be that as it may, Finigan carried out to the letter his orders to support Hammer’s battalion and his tanks stayed beside the 2/48th through the day, two troops – no more had space for manoeuvre between the minefields – going into hull-down positions north of the railway.
The first German counter-attack was made about 11.30 a.m. Fifteen German Mark III and Mark IV tanks advanced north of the road and swung in between the road and railway near the Barrel track while infantry advanced on their right flank. The Rhodesians’ guns and the Valentines engaged them. The German tanks probably expected a “walk-over” and panic but met strong fire and steady defence and soon withdrew. The infantry attack was smashed by artillery and other fire.
Meanwhile Stevens’ company of the Pioneers had become more closely invested and had exhausted its ammunition stocks. Stevens visited Owens and between them preliminary arrangements for a withdrawal were made. Owens had telephone communication with Gallasch and sought authority for the withdrawal but Gallasch refused. About that time, soon after midday, and before Stevens had returned to his company, some German light tanks went over to help their infantry subdue Stevens’ unreasoning men, putting down a smoke screen to cover their advance. The men tried to extricate themselves; some got away, by which time Gallasch had authorised their withdrawal, but others were captured. In the meantime Owens had sent back a depleted platoon with the wounded, but remained in his position with the other two platoons and the headquarters of the other company. Later this group was in turn attacked by the tanks, which overran the positions, grinding them in; most were taken prisoner. Owens, who had at first eluded the enemy, went back to care for a wounded sergeant and was captured. Stevens, by feigning to be dead all day, escaped later in the night. The Germans soon freed the Pioneers’ German prisoners and made their captors captive. The count at the end of the day showed three officers and 43 others to be missing. Rosevear’s company in front of the ridge next came under fire and attack, but meanwhile Major
Copeland had redisposed the 6-pounders of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment and Lieutenant Kessell’s troop went into positions covering Barrel Hill. In this action against the 2/3rd Pioneers there were several notable instances of chivalrous consideration given by the Germans in withholding fire from men helping or carrying wounded.
The main attack on the Saucer was made in the early afternoon, again coming in from the northern side of the ridge. While the 6-pounders engaged the German tanks to the north, Valentine tanks south of the railway came forward to meet them. Two of the Rhodesian 6-pounders were put out of action but other Rhodesian guns knocked out four German tanks. The German tanks fought their way forward, knocking out many Valentines, and overran Captain Eacott’s company of the 2/32nd Battalion, grinding in the infantry positions and taking prisoner most of the company’s survivors. During the action the enemy attempted to bring forward an 88-mm gun but it was knocked out by an anti-tank gun and the trailer set alight.90 On each side several tanks were knocked out (but more British than German) and a Valentine and a German Mark III were in flames. In this action an anti-tank gun of the 2/3rd Regiment was put out of action. All the crew were killed or wounded. Of the three wounded Gunner Schwebel91 was the least disabled, though severely injured in arms and legs. Schwebel managed to get the other two wounded men across to the blockhouse. Typifying the spirit of the defence, he returned to the gun and had it ready to fire before the next attack. It was then hit again, whereupon Schwebel seized a Bren gun and fought with the infantry.92
It was decided to bring in the reserve squadron of the 40th RTR. The squadron arrived at Windeyer’s headquarters. Captain Williams93 then guided the tanks forward under fire, at first in a jeep and later on foot, to the 2/15th Battalion, whence most went on. Soon afterwards, however, the Valentines were withdrawn from the Saucer. No other comment need be made on the performance of the commanders and crews of the Valentine tanks in the fighting on 31st October than that of the historian of the 2/48th Battalion, which had earned the right to judge how others fought: “The courage of these men,” he wrote, “made their action one of the most magnificent of the war.”
About 4 p.m. the German tanks attacked again from the north but eight were stopped by gunfire and as the day ended they withdrew. They had, however, achieved part of their object by pushing the British off the road, for in a lull in the fighting towards 5 p.m. Rosevear’s company, isolated by the earlier break-through behind them, was withdrawn. That left the international blockhouse with its tireless workers in effect in a no-man’s land. From it the enemy had permitted casualties to be evacuated
throughout the day. When darkness fell the Pioneers reorganised and dug in close to the railway embankment on its south side. In the attacks on the Saucer that day, the Germans had repeatedly brought up infantry with their tanks but on each occasion the concentrated gunfire of the defence had dispersed the infantry.
Rommel had ordered the Africa Corps to attack between the road and railway so as to release the 125th Regiment, now practically cut off by the Australian thrust northward. The Africa Corps formed a battle group comprising about 15 tanks plus self-propelled guns, under Major Pfeiffer. It was to move to Sidi Abd el Rahman by 11 a.m. and thrust along or south of the railway. Later Rommel ordered that as the Australians had crossed the railway behind the 125th Regiment Pfeiffer was to attack north of the line to relieve it.
A counter-attack in the early morning by two companies of infantry of the 361st Regiment was halted by tank and infantry fire but the counter-attack by the Pfeiffer Group and 361st Regiment, which opened in the early afternoon, at first succeeded swiftly, 150 prisoners being taken and 18 tanks destroyed. Farther on the advance was halted by the defenders’ tanks and infantry. By 5.15 the 90th Light Division reported contact with the 125th Regiment on the coast but slow progress along the railway. By 7 p.m. the counter-attack had been halted. The 580th Reconnaissance Unit was keeping the corridor to the 125th open on the coast; but there was no contact with it along road and railway and the 361st Regiment, pinned down by the British artillery fire directed from observation posts overlooking its whole area, could not reorganise until darkness fell.
Although contact with the 125th Regiment had been effected along the sand-dunes near the sea, the British salient at Barrel Hill still posed a threat that they might again be cut off and therefore beyond reach if a quick withdrawal should become necessary when the British launched their unexpectedly delayed breakthrough attack.
It was not until late afternoon that it was known at Morshead’s headquarters just how weak the depleted battalions at the Saucer had become. It then became obvious that their strength was insufficient to maintain the defence of the place against a violently reacting enemy, but to have given up the ground seized would have accorded neither with the army commander’s plan nor with Morshead’s character. The relief of the 26th Brigade by the 24th as previously contemplated would have involved, if all had gone according to plan, merely a change-over between battalions which would then have been alongside each other; a relief at the Saucer, the most hotly contested ground on the whole front, where an attack might well occur while units were changing over, was another matter. But Morshead at once decided that it must take place. The orders were issued about 7.30 p.m. The relief, effected at night with transport using circuitous routes, was completed by 3.30 a.m., which reflected some credit on the division’s standard of staff work and training. The exhausted enemy did not attack while it was proceeding.
Brigadier Godfrey took over command of units in the Saucer from Brigadier Whitehead. The 2/28th Battalion – which Lieut-Colonel Loughrey had rebuilt after the Ruin Ridge disaster and moulded in so short a time into a first-rate combatant unit – relieved the 2/24th Battalion; the 2/43rd Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Wain) relieved the 2/48th.
The 2/32nd (now back in its own brigade) and the 2/3rd Pioneers were not relieved. Brigadier Godfrey established his command post in the Saucer.
The changes in dispositions that had been made in the Saucer under pressure of attack during the afternoon had not been known when the relief orders were issued, so that the fresh battalions arriving there by night found their instructions inapplicable and the situation confused. Colonel Loughrey acted with great vigour in consulting other commanders and having his companies quickly disposed, by his own siting, in tenable positions interlocking with the other units’ defences. The improvised dispositions adopted in the dark in a precarious situation on unreconnoitred ground were – in the words of a unit historian – “the ultimate in unorthodoxy”,94 but were to be proved next day and found not greatly wanting by the ultimate test of severest attack. The defended locality’s front-line (facing west) comprised one company of the 2/43rd astride the main road, then on its left two companies of the 2/28th between road and railway, then on the left of the railway the depleted 2/32nd Battalion, holding a flank out towards the 2/15th defences; the other three companies of the 2/43rd were in depth behind the two forward companies of the 2/28th, and the other two companies of the 2/28th were in depth behind the 2/32nd Battalion. Farther still to the left was the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion. The 2/43rd faced east and north (with its northern flank platoon on Barrel Hill), the 2/28th and 2/32nd northwest and west and south-west. Thus it was astride the road itself that the defence had least depth. The men dug themselves in as best they could but the ground was in many places unyielding nor had they any head cover.
The anti-tank defence was improved by disposing a troop of the 12th Battery’s guns with the 2/15th to cover the gap between that unit and the 2/32nd. (It was further strengthened next day when the reserve troop of the Rhodesian Battery was driven in helter-skelter and established south of the railway as an attack was imminent.) A minefield had been laid on the north-west side and the front was enfiladed from the 2/15th positions by machine-guns also brought forward during the night.
The survivors of the 2/24th and 2/48th, who had suffered more casualties during the day, were taken back to the original front-line on the coast sector (the defences opposite to which were still occupied by the enemy) to sleep the night and muster next morning at their saddest roll-calls ever.
Dawn on Sunday 1st November in the Saucer revealed to the incomers numerous enemy all around them, at distances only 800 to 1,000 yards away. The Germans were doubtless no less surprised than the Australians at what daylight revealed.
The enemy promptly opened fire with small arms, mortars, 88-mm guns firing airburst shells, and a variety of field guns. Most of the fire came from the west and north-west but some from the north-east and south-east. An artillery duel soon developed in which, of course, the Germans fared
worst, not only because they had fewer guns but because those they had were alarmingly short of ammunition. However it was the enemy’s turn next, it seemed, when at 8.40 a.m. 30 German dive bombers, escorted by 15 fighters, were seen making for the Australian position; but they were intercepted by British and American fighters and jettisoned their bombs on their own troops. Seven were shot down. The enemy’s infantry were seen assembling about 10 a.m. and at the same time it was reported that the British Intelligence service had intercepted a message from Field Marshal Rommel ordering the 21st Armoured and 90th Light Divisions to attack the Barrel Hill salient along the axis of the road and railway. The terms of the message indicated that Rommel thought only one strong-point remained, which would not withstand a resolute attack. Morshead drove down to the tempestuous Saucer and conferred there with Brigadier Godfrey.
Later in the morning more troops were seen moving south-east from Sidi Rahman. Against this dangerous British outpost presumed to be so weakly held the Germans at midday opened an attack which they were to sustain and press without much avail throughout that long day and into the night with a succession of determined and most desperate attempts to fulfil their commander’s injunction to destroy it. The brunt of the attacks came in between the road and railway on the 2/43rd and 2/28th Battalions, but the 2/32nd were also in the fire fight and, good neighbours as they were, judged it better to give than to receive. Their mortars were busy throughout the afternoon and very effective.
The first attack, made in the late forenoon by about a battalion and a half of infantry in conjunction with numerous tanks, was supported by sustained artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. At least eight 88-mm guns were firing air-burst over the Australians. Both then and throughout
the day the number of tanks employed could seldom be estimated because of the dust and smoke. As the assault was coming in, the enemy was attacked by a “football team” of bombers answering a call from the division. At 12.45 six tanks were closing in on the 2/43rd from the north-west. By 1.25 one platoon of the north-east company had been , thrust off Barrel Hill but the position was regained by prompt counterattack. Anti-tank fire had knocked out three German tanks and one 88-mm gun north of the 2/43rd.
In front of the 2/28th tanks advanced close to the forward companies, went into hull-down positions and fired mainly on the anti-tank guns. All four guns of Lieutenant Kessell’s troop of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment were knocked out. Soon 12 6-pounders and two 2-pounders had been put out of action. The forward troops who, in the opinion of the battalion’s diarist, were “not impressed by the close proximity of the tanks” met the challenge with sustained, accurate fire from all weapons. Casualties mounted but about 2.30 p.m. the German tanks apparently realised that their infantry could not get through and backed out. The Germans had singled out the Rhodesians for special attention. Eight of their anti-tank guns were put out of action. In a lull Major Copeland sent Lieutenant Wallder’s troop across the railway to replace them and Wallder managed to get his guns into action under the enemy’s observation and fire.
At 3.25 p.m. the enemy resumed the tank and infantry attack against the 2/43rd and 2/28th. This assault came in from the northern side and was pressed home against the north-west company of the 2/43rd commanded by Captain Hare, overrunning a platoon on Barrel Hill, which was captured. Hare was killed. Sergeant Joy, whose platoon had been partly overrun, reorganised his men and regained all the lost positions but one and eventually the enemy withdrew. On the 2/28th’s front the attack had fallen mainly on Captain Taylor’s company and Captain Newbery’s,95 both of whom proved inspiring leaders. The 2/28th had no artillery Forward Observation Officer nor line communication to the rear and therefore the artillery fire could not be directed to best effect. Some ground was given up but the attack was withstood and the forward companies held on.
Some of the German tanks pushed on past the Australian position down the road to the east towards Thompson’s Post. Later – about 3.50 p.m. – 27 tanks were observed north of Thompson’s Post. At the same time enemy infantry began forming up astride the road and railway about a mile or so to the west of the Australian positions, but were effectively shelled. The enemy next began probing, apparently seeking weak spots, after which an advance against the 2/28th was made by infantry riding on tanks and with several self-propelled guns coming forward to support, but the German infantry were quickly persuaded by accurate Australian fire to go to ground. Two self-propelled guns were soon knocked out.
By 5 p.m. the enemy appeared to have accepted failure of that attack but half an hour later tanks and infantry formed up to assault from the east while from the other side about 100 infantry advanced with determination between the road and railway. These were halted by steady fire and the attack from the east did not develop.
From about 7.15 p.m. brigade tactical headquarters was shelled continuously for about half an hour. Eventually it received a direct hit which mortally wounded Brigadier Godfrey, wounded Lieut-Colonel Risson, the chief engineer of the division, killed Major Copeland of the 9th Anti-Tank Battery and Captain Bishop96 of the brigade staff, mortally wounded Major Trenwith97 and wounded Major Carter98 (both of the artillery). The brigade major, Major Jackson, took charge and kept the headquarters operating.
At dusk, adopting the traditional German tactic of advancing out of the setting sun, tanks and infantry half concealed by dust and smoke attacked from the west while a simultaneous thrust was made from the north-east; covering fire was given from the ground seized on Barrel Hill. The force attacking from the north-east comprised at least three tanks and 15 lorry-loads of infantry. Again the attacks failed to penetrate the defensive fire.
The German onslaught continued after dark. An assault supported by an artillery bombardment was made at 8.30 p.m. and withstood, but the fire fight continued. Colonel Evans, appointed to take over the command of the brigade, arrived at 9.30 p.m. Soon afterwards all line communication to the Saucer and throughout most of the division was cut by British tanks moving forward through the divisional area. Still the fire continued to rage in the Saucer.99 Before it died down at 2.30 a.m. next morning an intense British gun barrage had opened up farther south. Operation SUPERCHARGE had begun.
The 20th Brigade was harassed by shelling throughout the 1st. When the German attack opened at midday the 2/15th, now commanded by Major Grace, was heavily shelled and the other battalions were also under intermittent fire. In the 2/17th an outstanding company commander, Captain McMaster, was mortally wounded.
On the afternoon of 1st November Colonel Macarthur-Onslow of the composite force had been warned to send machine-guns, anti-tank guns and two platoons of Pioneers to strengthen the right flank of the 2/43rd between the railway and the main road. The thin-skinned vehicles could not get through in daylight. When Captain Williams100 (2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion) reached the 2/43rd, Colonel Wain told him that as a result of the counter-attacks his battalion and the 2/28th were in so
confined an area that it was not advisable to bring so large a force forward; instead the detachment was sited in support between both battalions. It reached its position at 3.30 a.m. on the 2nd.
During the rest of the night of the 1st–2nd the battalions of the 24th Brigade were reorganised so as to give each battalion more room and to bring a reserve battalion back into a position in depth. The 2/43rd was now north of the railway with the composite force detachment to the east, the 2/32nd south of the railway with the 2/28th to the east. The 2/3rd Pioneers were on the left of the 2/32nd and linked with the 2/15th.
Throughout that fiery first day of November the infantry had received formidable support from the Desert Air Force, though targets were hard to find because of the dispersal of the enemy’s vehicles. Time and again the “football teams” of 19 bombers flew over in immaculate formation for pattern bombing and came back again and again, though a number were shot down. Fourteen attacks were made in the sector.
Stark evidence of the severity of the fighting was found next day when a patrol of the 2/32nd Battalion counted 200 enemy dead in front of that battalion’s positions. The saltmarsh beyond Barrel Hill was so closely pock-marked with shell holes that it would have been difficult to find a square yard that had not been cratered.
In the fighting in that area from 30th October to 2nd November the four battalions of the 24th Brigade had 487 casualties, most of which were received before Operation SUPERCHARGE began. The 2/43rd had 43 killed (and 7 missing), the 2/32nd 21, the 2/28th 13 (and 10 missing), the 2/3rd Pioneers 14 (and 46 missing).
Thus had the 9th Division carried out its “crumbling” mandate to attack northwards and to draw into the northern sector and upon itself as much of the enemy’s fighting strength as possible while the Eighth Army was making its preparations for SUPERCHARGE. That was the division’s contribution to the final break-out.
If SUPERCHARGE had been launched a little farther south so as to miss entirely the right flank of the 90th Light Division, which had been disposed opposite the 9th Australian Division, very few German troops other than of the armoured formations would have been encountered in the break-out. Merely to have drawn into, or kept in, the northern sector the 88-mm guns that were employed against the 24th Brigade all day on the 1st and to have destroyed two of them was in itself a tangible contribution to victory in the battle, for these guns, of which the enemy had not many, were his only effective artillery against the Sherman tanks.
Rommel had ordered a resumption of the counter-attack by parts of the 21st Armoured and 90th Light Divisions on the 1st to re-establish contact with the 125th Regiment and X Bersaglieri in the coast sector. It was to open at 11 a.m. and Point 24,101 10 kilometres south-east of Abd el Rahman, between the road and railway, was the objective. The 125th Regiment was to prepare to withdraw some time from the night of the 1st-2nd onwards. The 90th Division reported, however,
that Point 24 was still in German hands. The counter-attack succeeded in thrusting the enemy back over the railway and gaining contact with the 125th Regiment there. The forward troops of the 90th Light were then along the railway facing south with the right flank of the 125th on their left.
The plan for Operation SUPERCHARGE required the XXX Corps to launch an infantry attack to punch a corridor through the enemy defences to the west of the northern end of the original bridgehead. Through the corridor X Corps was to pass an armoured force into open country beyond, fighting its way forward if necessary.
The task of XXX Corps was to attack from the Tel el Eisa area on a front of some 4,000 yards and penetrate westward to a depth of 6,000 yards whence armoured and infantry patrols would thrust farther west to cover the break-out of the armoured divisions. In the van of the X Corps, armoured cars were to be launched through the bridgehead before dawn and fan out north-west, west, south-west and south, destroying everything they met. The first objective of the armoured thrust of X Corps was to be the general area Point 46-Tel el Aqqaqir – the old “Skinflint” line, the original objective of X Corps for the morning after the offensive opened.
It will be clearly understood (said Montgomery’s directive) that should 30 Corps not succeed in reaching the final objective ... the armoured divisions of 10 Corps will fight their way to the first objective.
The XXX Corps was to hold the 2nd New Zealand Division in readiness to take over the area of X Corps’ first objective so as to free the X Corps for offensive operations against the enemy’s armour or for a movement north-west towards Ghazal.
Determined leadership will be vital (said Montgomery’s order); complete faith in the plan, and its success, will be vital; there must be no doubters; risks must be accepted freely; there must be no “bellyaching”.
General Freyberg, as already mentioned, had been given the command of the infantry break-out operation, using his own New Zealand division but employing two British brigades and his Maori battalion as the infantry. On the right the 28th (Maori) Battalion was placed under the command of the 151st Brigade to take a suspected enemy position beyond Trig 29 and link with the 20th Australian Brigade to the north-east. The break-through was then to be made by the 151st Brigade on the right and the 152nd on the left, each with a regiment of tanks under command. The 9th Armoured Brigade, also under Freyberg’s command, was to pass through the infantry objective, continue the advance for some 2,000 yards and break into the enemy’s defences about the Rahman track. The 1st Armoured Division, now including the 2nd and 8th Armoured Brigades and 7th Motor Brigade, was to follow up the 9th Armoured Brigade’s attack, cross the Rahman track and defeat the enemy’s armour. The 51st Highland Division was to attack with one battalion on the left flank of the 2nd New Zealand and take Point 32. The attack was to be supported by 13 field regiments and 3 medium regiments. On the eve of
battle the 1st Armoured Division had 271 fit tanks, the 9th Armoured Brigade 132, the 23rd Armoured Brigade 111, the 7th Armoured Division (less the 4th Light Armoured Brigade, now detached) 84; the 7th Armoured Division was not participating in the thrust. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade had 74 (including 53 Stuarts).
The strengths of the enemy formations on the eve of SUPERCHARGE were believed to be as follows: 15th Armoured Division, 6,000 men, 25 tanks; 21st Armoured Division, 8,000 men, 125 tanks; 164th Division, 6,800 men; 90th Division, 7,800 men; 101st (Trieste) Division, 4,600 men, 30 tanks; 102nd (Trento) Division, 2,400 men; 132nd (Ariete) Division, 4,300 men, 140 tanks; 133rd (Littorio) Division, 4,200 men, 60 tanks.
German records give the numbers of tanks available on 1st November as: 15th Armoured, 56; 21st Armoured, 49; Trieste, 27; Ariete, 124; Littorio, 38. The enemy therefore had 105 German tanks and 189 Italian with which to oppose the 403 tanks of the 1st Armoured Division and 9th Armoured Brigade which would be employed initially in the break-out.
A force of 87 bombers opened the bombardment. At 9.15 p.m. they attacked targets round Tel el Aqqaqir, Sidi Abd el Rahman and Ghazal. There were big explosions and fires; later it was learnt that at Africa Corps headquarters the signals system had been put out of action.
The attacking battalions of the 151st and 152nd Brigades moved from the start-line on time at 1.5 a.m. on the 2nd with the 8th and 50th RTR close behind. The supporting barrage was fired by 192 guns in depth on a front of 4,000 yards, and an additional 168 guns shelled positions in front and on the flanks. The 152nd Brigade on the left took its objectives by 3.44 a.m., on time, but the 151st met strong opposition and it was 5.53 before it was able to report with certainty that it was on the final objective. The Maori battalion also had taken its objective – the strong-point west of Trig 29 – after hard fighting, and on the left flank the 2/Sussex and 5/Sussex had taken the enemy strong-point “Woodcock” on Kidney Ridge.
By the time the three armoured regiments of the 9th Armoured Brigade had reached the infantry objectives, however, their strength had been reduced from a total of 132 tanks to 94. The next phase of the 9th Armoured Brigade’s advance was postponed half an hour to 6.15 because one regiment arrived late, having been delayed by enemy action on the way and by various other troubles. The 3rd Hussars were to attack on the right, the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry in the centre, and the Warwickshire Yeomanry on the left. The 2nd Armoured Brigade of the 1st Armoured Division would be coming up behind to follow through.
The battles fought that day by the armoured regiments debouching from the SUPERCHARGE bridgehead were not great field victories, but they were the finally decisive engagements of the Eighth Army’s offensive. Not for two days did the enemy front break; but that it would eventually break had been rendered certain by the end of the day. That was not clear then, to the men who fought the actions, as it is today. Some experienced defeat, others felt baffled, not seeing beyond the rim.
If the British armour owed any battle debts to the New Zealand infantry, the 9th Armoured Brigade paid them dearly and liberally that morning in heroism and in blood. Directed by the Eighth Army’s plan and exhorted by their own resolute commander to proceed along a course which (to snatch another’s phrase soon to be quoted) led only to victory or death, they strove for a victory that was not to be theirs. All three regiments of the brigade attacked intrepidly and vigorously. At first they carried all before them.
The 3rd Hussars on the right, who had to advance one mile and three-quarters to a position west of the Rahman track, captured many prisoners and guns on the way but in the day’s first light were met by close-range anti-tank fire near the Rahman track and took heavy punishment. The Wiltshire Yeomanry in the centre succeeded in crossing the Rahman track before dawn but came under fire from all sides when it became light. Their tanks – mainly Crusaders mounting only 2-pounders – charged and overcame many guns and infantry positions but were soon shot to pieces by other guns more deeply sited and by a tank column of the 21st Armoured Division. Soon the regiment was reduced to 9 tanks, its commanding officer, second-in-command and three squadron leaders having all been wounded. The Warwickshire Yeomanry on the left (who moved too far south) also ran into destructive gunfire short of their objective and were soon reduced to seven tanks. The three regiments had destroyed at least 35 enemy guns but of their 94 tanks 75 were lost that day, most before the arrival of the 2nd Armoured Brigade, in the van of the 1st Armoured Division. The 9th Armoured Brigade, for all its valour, had perforated and fractured the enemy gun-line but had not broken through it.
The Royal Dragoons (armoured cars) broke out into the open, got well behind the enemy’s lines and began destroying dumps and vehicles and cutting telephone lines.
The 2nd Armoured Brigade arrived late after an advance of great difficulty and confusion – too late to help the 9th in its hour of greatest
need or to sustain the momentum of its thrust and exploit it. The orders authorised and, if read as a literal and unequivocal command, enjoined that it should still follow the same path, but General Briggs and Brigadier Fisher decided to deploy to meet an enemy counter-attack between the front of the bridgehead and the Rahman track (except that Fisher insisted that his brigade was already across the track). In the end the fortunes of Eighth Army probably prospered more by the course they took than if they had fought their battle from the master’s printed word. Though the 1st Armoured Division was not yet “astride the enemy’s supply routes”, it was near enough, and the enemy did attack in force in the late forenoon in the way Montgomery had planned from the outset. The battle continued through the day, and by nightfall it was believed that 66 enemy tanks had been knocked out – not an exaggerated claim like those made in CRUSADER, for in fact 77 German and 40 Italian tanks had been put out of action. The Axis forces could afford these losses less than the British their heavier losses. Still the enemy’s front had not been broken open and most British commanders other than Montgomery were beginning to wonder how that could ever be done. The Eighth Army was not hitting Rommel for six, nor even penetrating his outfield to the boundary.
That morning Montgomery had ordered the creation of a new infantry reserve of four brigades comprising one brigade from each of the 2nd New Zealand, 4th Indian, 50th (Durham) and 51st Highland Divisions and the dispatch of the 7th Armoured Division from the southern to the northern front. Since the British armour had not yet fallen upon the enemy’s rear, it was decided to strengthen the corridor at once and therefore to broaden it. The broadening was to be done mainly on the left (south) side and was to be effected by the 51st Highland Division. During the day the troops in the break-out corridor were reorganised so that the New Zealand division assumed responsibility north of the 299 Northing grid line and the 51st Division south of it. The South African division took over the 153rd Brigade’s sector to enable that brigade to relieve the 151st Brigade, which went into reserve.
In the evening two southward attacks speedily mounted by the 51st Highland Division were successful. One was made by the 2/Seaforth Highlanders and the 50th RTR and the other by the 133rd Brigade, the former against a defended locality on high ground almost two miles west of Kidney Ridge, the other against the area of the Snipe episode. No German forces were encountered (for which some credit can be given to the 9th Division) but 160 prisoners from the Trieste Division were taken at Snipe.
General Lumsden tackled the main problem of breaking through the enemy’s gun-line by deciding to attack it with his infantry of the 7/Motor Brigade. His plan was to breach the gun-line on the Aqqaqir Ridge by forcing a gap with infantry north-east of Tel el Aqqaqir on a front of two miles, through which the 1st Armoured Division would advance about three miles and a half; then the 7th Armoured Division was to pass through on the morning of the 3rd to Ring Contour 45 and thence to the
Ghazal railway station. Thus the movement was not to be an encircling one but still north-west, towards the coast and main road. The attack by the 7/Motor Brigade’s three battalions was made at 1.15 a.m. on the 3rd but except on the left was only partially successful. The two battalions in the centre and on the right were withdrawn before dawn.
The daylight operations on the 3rd began with a break-through attempt by the 4th/6th South African Regiment’s armoured cars, with which Montgomery had hoped to repeat the successes of the Royals, but they were unable to break out to the enemy’s rear. The main tank thrust of the day was made south-westwards by the 8th Armoured Brigade but they clashed with the Ariete Division and were again halted by the enemy s well-sited 88-mm guns. Superficially the situation on the second day after -42’”*rind Bde _3 Nov MILES
SUPERCHARGE was like that on the second day after LIGHTFOOT. By the end of the day the 1st Armoured Division had lost another 26 tanks and was still blocked. There were a number of signs that the enemy was close to breaking point but the Eighth Army was also fairly near the end of its tether.
The launching of SUPERCHARGE had soon alleviated the pressure on the 24th Australian Infantry Brigade in the Saucer.
The enemy’s first moves after daylight on the 2nd did not seem propitious. About 30 enemy tanks moved up on the right flank of the 2/15th Battalion just beyond range of its anti-tank guns – though one which strayed too close was hit – as if the intention was to strike at the right hinge of the SUPERCHARGE corridor where it adjoined the 20th Brigade, but the German tanks were engaged by the 8th Armoured Brigade on its move forward and later moved away. Soon afterwards Morshead went down to the Saucer and conferred there with Evans and Windeyer, perhaps
having in mind the possibility of cutting off the enemy by the coast; but no further hard tasks were given to the tired battalions.
Otherwise, apart from sporadic well-directed shelling, the 2nd was a quiet day in the Australian sector, though more movement than usual was observed in the enemy positions to the north near the coast. When news of the initial success of the new offensive began to arrive, General Morshead ordered Brigadiers Whitehead and Evans to take strong offensive action to prevent the enemy in the coast sector from extricating themselves. So on the night of the 2nd–3rd the three battalions of the 24th Brigade each sent out a strong fighting patrol of two officers and about 40 men. The 2/43rd’s was led by Captain Minocks and Lieutenant Perkins.102 It was to penetrate beyond Barrel Hill, ascertain whether the enemy was thinning out, and take a prisoner so as to identify his unit. It went out at 9 p.m. behind a barrage. On reaching the crest of Barrel Hill the men were lashed with fire and forced back after losing four killed, including both officers, and 10 wounded. Four others were missing, believed killed.
The 2/28th sent out two patrols, each about 20 strong. Lieutenant Boekeman’s105 patrol’s tasks were to inflict casualties, take prisoners and discover the enemy’s strength. It set out parallel to the railway line. After 150 yards the enemy sent up a flare and opened fire. The patrol pressed on another 450 yards and was then put to ground by machine-gun fire from directly ahead. Boekeman decided that the fire was too high, ordered a charge, and led the assault himself, shouting “Australia”; the others joined in. The attackers soon overcame five weapon-posts, bayoneting or shooting at least 15 Germans. Boekeman’s men occupied the captured weapon-pits and thence grenaded a further line of pits. Machine-guns and a light gun then opened up from a position 100 yards to the rear and the patrol promptly withdrew, having had two men wounded.
The 2/28th’s other patrol, led by Lieutenant Allan,106 was less successful. Its task was to probe 2,000 yards north-west. At 1,200 yards the patrol reached the enemy’s forward positions and pressed on under fire, overcoming posts and taking prisoners. After about 2,000 yards the centre of the patrol was halted by machine-gun fire and grenades but the men on both flanks went on and were soon out of touch. Allan was wounded by a grenade and ordered the men to get out. The patrol slowly withdrew in some confusion. Soon the Germans were closing in from all sides. Corporal Booth, himself wounded, ordered German prisoners to take turns
carrying Allan back; but first one, then another, and then a third were hit by German fire and both Allan and Booth were captured.107 When the patrol returned 10 men were missing.
Despite the vigour and valour with which these patrols penetrated deeply across the enemy’s routes of withdrawal from his positions near the coast, their action alone could not have sufficed to disrupt an organised withdrawal. The sound of heavy vehicles could be heard through the night (2nd–3rd), which suggested that it was to protect the first stage of a withdrawal that the enemy had put up such a dogged opposition to penetration of his ground.
For the 9th Division the 3rd November, the second day after SUPERCHARGE, was “a day of extensive daylight patrols, both in carriers and on foot”. The 2/43rd patrolled north and north-east from Barrel Hill and found that the enemy had withdrawn. No enemy movement was seen between Barrel Hill and the coast. The enemy’s forward defences seemed to be 1,300 yards west of the forward company of the 2/43rd. A German straggler who was captured said that part of the enemy’s force had been withdrawn from the high ground near the road.
The 2/15th Battalion sent out a carrier patrol under Captain Yates north-west to find the enemy, and also exchanged fire with infantry posts about 2,000 yards forward. Later the battalion advanced its forward
positions about 1,000 yards so as to keep in contact with the enemy and link with the Maori battalion’s front on the left.
The 2/17th reported that the enemy had abandoned his positions forward of the battalion during the night and withdrawn towards Abd el Rahman. The 3rd November, according to the battalion’s diarist, was the first day since 23rd October on which the battalion had not been shelled; the strain had been eased and “all felt that the beginning of the enemy withdrawal or collapse had begun”. The men were able to move about without danger and many went forward seeking souvenirs from German diggings. Carrier patrols ranged about and towed in enemy guns.
The Desert Air Force constantly bombed and strafed the enemy’s vehicles and defences. That morning 93 tons of bombs were dropped on Tel el Aqqaqir area alone. In the day the Desert Air Force flew 1,094 sorties and dropped 199 tons of bombs; its fighter squadrons lost 16 aircraft. The enemy managed to turn on two dive-bombing raids, one by 20 and the other by 30 escorted Ju-87’s. British fighters strafed the 2/43rd and 2/32nd in the afternoon; perhaps the fluidity of the battle farther south was some excuse. There were no casualties.
Interrogation of a prisoner revealed that all heavy weapons and antitank guns of the 125th Regiment in the coast sector had already been withdrawn and it was anticipated that the enemy would endeavour to complete the extrication of his forces next night. Morshead issued instructions in the early afternoon which provided for further offensive operations. From the original front-line the divisional cavalry regiment with an attachment of engineers was to open up, and to clear of mines, all five routes (including the main road) that led westwards from the old front line between Thompson’s Post and the sea, and was also to reconnoitre by day the enemy defences in that area. From the area of the Saucer attacks were to be made during the next night or early next morning on the enemy to the north-west – by the divisional cavalry north of the road and by the 24th Brigade and 40th RTR south of the road.
By the end of 2nd November the German divisions were very weary and their strength in both tanks and infantry was dwindling alarmingly. Again the Italian armour and infantry had proved disappointing and, according to the Africa Corps’ records, the Littorio and Ariete Divisions had begun to retreat.
Rommel decided on the 2nd that he should begin to withdraw to Fuka, which reconnaissance had confirmed to be a very suitable delaying or holding position. On the night of the 2nd–3rd he proposed to withdraw his X Corps, the Ramcke Brigade and XXI Corps to a line El Taqa-Qaret el Abd-Deir el Harra-Qatani. To the north the armoured divisions were to hold on a line from Deir el Murra to Sidi Abd el Rahman.
On the 3rd the mobile forces were to withdraw fighting to a line about half way from Rahman to Daba. After a further withdrawal the army would occupy the Fuka position. Infantry were to be trucked back to Fuka while the mobile forces formed a rearguard. It was evident, however, that there was now not enough transport to move all the infantry.
On the night of the 2nd–3rd and the morning of the 3rd preliminary moves for the Axis forces’ withdrawal to a line about the Rahman track to Deir el Harra and thence to El Taqa were put in hand. The formations were warned to prepare
for a further withdrawal. The transport of the infantry of XXI Corps to Fuka was ordered. Early in the afternoon, however, just after the withdrawal had been set in motion an order from Hitler arrived at Rommel’s headquarters:
“It is with trusting confidence in your leadership and the courage of the German-Italian troops under your command that the German people and I are following the heroic struggle in Egypt. In the situation in which you find yourself there can be no other thought but to stand fast, yield not a yard of ground and throw every gun and every man into the battle. Considerable air force reinforcements are being sent to C.-in-C. South. The Duce and the Commando Supremo are also making the utmost efforts to send you the means to continue the fight. Your enemy, despite his superiority, must also be at the end of his strength. It would not be the first time in history that a strong will has triumphed over the bigger battalions. As to your troops, you can show them no other road than that to victory or death.”
Immediately after this cheerful message had been received, the withdrawal orders were cancelled. Officers were posted on the coast road to stop the vehicles already moving west. All formations were ordered to defend their present positions. In some Italian units commanding officers experienced difficulty in reversing the direction of movement of their men, whose spirit had not been uplifted by the German leader’s exhortation.
To Hitler’s directive Rommel sent a frank reply:–
“The Italian divisions and 1st Air Force Brigade in the southern sector have been ordered to shorten the line by withdrawing behind the line El Taqa-Bab el Qattara – south of Deir el Murra and defending this line to the last. The German divisions in the northern sector are very heavily engaged in the Deir el Murra-Sidi Abd el Rahman sector against a superior enemy force. All German troops that could possibly be raked up have been thrown into the fight. Casualties so far amount to 50 per cent of infantry, anti-tank and engineer units and about 40 per cent of artillery. Africa Corps now has 24 tanks. Of the Italian XX Corps, the Littorio Armoured Division and Trieste Motor Division are almost wiped out. The Ariete Armoured Division was brought up from the southern sector on the night 2nd–3rd November and committed in close cooperation with the Africa Corps. We will continue to do our utmost to retain command of the battlefield.”
After unwillingly issuing these new orders Rommel sent off a staff officer to Hitler’s headquarters to report that “if the Führer’s order were upheld, the final destruction of the German-Italian Army would be a matter of days only” and that they “had already suffered immense harm because of it”.108
By noon on 3rd November Montgomery had decided to shift the main weight of the Eighth Army’s attack from a direct approach in the north to an enveloping movement southwards from the SUPERCHARGE bridgehead, where the defences were expected to be weaker. The main defended localities on the Aqqaqir Ridge, about Tel el Aqqaqir and for 7,000 yards to the south, were to be seized by infantry There the 7th Armoured Division (Major-General Harding) was to penetrate the Rahman-El Harra line and advance into the enemy’s rear. In the evening, having received from the Desert Air Force and other sources reports of enemy movements connected with the commencement of the subsequently halted withdrawal (but not knowing about Hitler’s victory-or-death order), Montgomery reached the conclusion that Rommel was about to make a general retreat, probably to Fuka, and therefore ordered the rest of the armour to be ready to drive northwards towards the coast road, while the New Zealand division was to advance west in the 7th Armoured Division’s wake in
preparation for a move against the Fuka escarpment from the south. The armour was again operating in three divisions, the 8th Armoured Brigade having returned to the 10th Division.
The infantry attack was to be made by the 51st Highland Division (to which had been added one of Montgomery’s reserve infantry brigades, the 5th Indian) and the 23rd Armoured Brigade (less two regiments). The Indian brigade, in an operation to be launched at great depth, was to make the breach on the left, 7,000 yards south of Tel el Aqqaqir. The objectives in the centre and on the right were given to two Highland battalions.
The infantry operations for this attempt to break through began at 5.45 p.m. on the 3rd when the 5/7th Gordons attacked for the centre objective but without artillery support because, owing to a chronic inability of armoured formations to read the map, the locality had been erroneously reported to be already clear of enemy. The attack was broken short of the objective.
The Eighth Army’s operations on 4th November opened at 1.30 a.m. with the long advance of the 5th Indian Brigade which
mounted a speedily prepared attack and quickly reached the Rahman track on a four-mile front, piercing the softer part of the screen to the south and thus outflanking the stronger resistance in the north.109
The dawn attack on Tel el Aqqaqir by the 7/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders succeeded with only light casualties suffered. A headquarters was captured. Then the taut, overstrained Axis defence ring sprang open, and the collapse was swift.
The 1st Armoured Division turned north-west to fight the last engagement with the German armour at El Alamein, and was held up by tanks and anti-tank guns not far beyond the Rahman track, where the two German armoured divisions had stationed themselves to execute Hitler’s stark order. The 10th Armoured Division’s 8th Armoured Brigade thrust west but did not push far past Tel el Aqqaqir. The 7th Armoured Division on the left crossed the Rahman track, struck north-west and fought and won a battle against the XX Italian Corps, including the Ariete Division. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade also debouched about Tel el Aqqaqir. The New Zealand and Highland divisions and other units appointed for the chase pressed with much mingling through the minefield gaps to get into the open. About midday the commander of the German Africa Corps, General von Thoma, was captured.
In the afternoon the 8th Armoured Brigade was ordered to advance on Daba by night to arrive there by dawn and by nightfall the armoured cars of the Royal Dragoons and the 4th/6th South Africans were both in the Fuka area, doing great damage and taking many prisoners.
By late afternoon the enemy was in full retreat. At 5.30 p.m. Rommel authorised a general withdrawal. That was the end of the battle of El Alamein and the opening of the pursuit. The depleted 90th and 164th
Light Divisions and the remnants of the German armour extricated themselves from the northern sector. The Italians in the south, lacking transport, had to be abandoned.
On the morning of the 4th the 9th Division found that only stragglers remained in the coast salient, but the enemy was then still holding a line about a mile west of the Australian positions. During the night, in addition to carrying out the prescribed patrolling program in conjunction with the divisional cavalry, the 24th Brigade had established a line of three posts from Barrel Hill to the sea to cut off all enemy to the east. It was soon evident, however, that the enemy had extricated nearly all his troops and patrols of the 9th Divisional Cavalry Regiment established that he had abandoned his original front line from Thompson’s Post across the railway and road to the sea. By 12.30 p.m. the 26th Brigade, advancing from the old Australian front line, had occupied Cloverleaf which had been the core of the enemy’s original defensive position on the coast sector. A company patrol of the 2/28th Battalion moved north from the Saucer to the coast then back 1,500 yards and found two German stragglers. In the afternoon the 2/43rd sent out a strong patrol which penetrated 1,000 yards before coming under fire.
It was decided to advance the front that evening and night close up to the new enemy line, the new Australian line to run north-east from the 2/15th Battalion’s front to the coast. The 2/13th was to come in between the right of the 2/15th and the railway, the 2/43rd to continue
the line across the road, with the 2/28th holding from the right of the 2/43rd to the coast; the 2/32nd to be to the rear. When Major Williamson,110 who was now in temporary command of the 2/43rd Battalion (Colonel Wain having been injured by shell blast), held an “orders group” conference to give instructions for the forward move, a shell landed in the midst of the group, killing 3 officers and wounding 4. The redispositions of all units were subsequently carried out without incident.
Patrols on the night of the 4th–5th from the 2/15th Battalion made no contact. At dawn on the 5th it was found that the enemy had gone from the 9th Division’s front. A carrier patrol from the 2/15th, led by Lieutenant Brown,111 followed up swiftly and captured 143 Germans who were waiting for transport at Sidi Abd el Rahman. A mobile company from the 2/15th was then ordered to occupy the high ground round Sidi Abd el Rahman, which it did without opposition, and the divisional cavalry was ordered to make for Ghazal.
Later the cavalry regiment (mounted, it will be remembered, partly in Crusaders and Honeys) was ordered to advance to Daba, clearing the intervening area of the enemy, and to hold Landing Ground 105 until the arrival of the 151st Brigade of the Highland division advancing from the south-east. This it did, handing over Daba and the landing ground to the Highlanders that evening. The 2/3rd and 2/13th Field Companies were sent to clear the landing grounds between Rahman and Daba of mines, and by the evening had declared them all safe. At 5.30 p.m. the 2/15th reported the last prisoners taken by the 20th Brigade and probably by the division-5 Germans, and 3 Italians of the Toscana Division (Wolves of Tuscany), then arriving from Greece.
Kesselring had arrived at Rommel’s headquarters on the morning of the 4th November and he and Rommel exchanged sharp words since Rommel believed that Hitler’s earlier order had been based on reports sent back by the air force.
“In actual fact,” wrote Rommel later, “the Führer’s order had been based on other, quite different grounds – as was to become increasingly clear as time went on. ... It was the custom at the Führer’s HQ to subordinate military interests to those of propaganda. They were simply unable to bring themselves to say to the German people and the world at large that Alamein had been lost, and believed they could avert its fate by a ‘Victory or Death’ order. Until this moment we in Africa had always had complete freedom of action. Now that was over.”112
On 4th November the Africa Corps had at first held the British armour. The 90th Light Division halted the attackers astride the coast road. But the British tanks (i.e. 7th Armoured Division), thrusting south-westward, broke into the XXI Corps and soon men of the Trento and Bologna Divisions were in full retreat. When these British tanks turned northward they struck the open flank of the Ariete Division which after putting up a stern defence reported that it was surrounded. By 2 p.m. the Africa Corps’ front had been pierced in many places.
At 5.30 Rommel ordered a general withdrawal to Fuka to avoid complete encirclement. In a report to Hitler and the Supreme Army Commander he said that the enemy in the northern sector had almost wiped out the forward troops. The Italian
troops had no more fighting value and some had been abandoning strong positions without orders. Mobile warfare offered the only opportunity of halting the enemy. If permission were granted he would make “a fighting withdrawal platoon by platoon to a new position running south from Fuka”.
That night Mussolini authorised withdrawal to Fuka but required an assurance that the non-motorised formations would be extricated. Next day a message was received from Hitler approving Rommel’s decision to withdraw.
The three abandoned divisions of the X Italian Corps (Pavia, Brescia and Folgore) had no option but to surrender. Only relatively few men of the other five Italian divisions managed to get away.
Rommel has described the calamitous situation in which his army then found itself. The traffic on the coast road between Fuka and Matruh was in “wild confusion”. Overhead the RAF “reigned supreme, flying one attack after the other against every worthwhile target”. His own headquarters were twice bombed and then were under fire from several British tanks. He ordered withdrawal to Matruh “with a heavy heart, because of the German and Italian formations still on the march”. He and his staff then moved off on a “wild helter-skelter drive through another pitch-black night. ... At that time it was still a matter of doubt as to whether we would be able to get even the remnants of the army away to the west. ... The bulk of the Italian infantry had been lost. ... The only forces which retained any fighting strength were the remnants of the 90th Light Division, the Afrika Korps’ two divisions – now reduced to the strength of small combat groups, the Panzer Grenadier Regiment Africa and a few quickly scratched together German units, the remains of the 164th Light Division. Tanks, heavy A.A. guns, heavy and light artillery, all had sustained such frightful losses at El Alamein that there was nothing but a few remnants left.”113
The Eighth Army had been presented with some chance of cutting off a sizable proportion of Rommel’s battered forces, whose withdrawal had been unduly delayed by Hitler’s intervention, for there were defiles in rear and limits to the speed at which the enemy’s soft-skinned vehicles could retreat along the clogged main road and few available subsidiary tracks. Such fruits of victory, however, are seldom earned without good planning and organisation, some audacity, great drive, and exceptional effort. None of these qualities was sufficiently displayed.
The 8th Armoured Brigade found the difficulties of the ordered cross-country night march to Daba insurmountable or the task too trying or themselves too tired. They soon halted for the night.
During that night (4th–5th November) there was much changing of orders. So bemused had the fatigued commanders and staffs become by the difficulties of breaking through that they were not balanced for the chase. In the event the 8th Armoured Brigade made for Galal and cut off some of the enemy. The 2nd Armoured Brigade made for Daba and found the enemy gone; the 22nd Armoured Brigade also moved up on their left in the same direction, to cut the road nearby, but halted when they found themselves too late for the enemy. Later in the day these and other formations, moved westward for varying distances on varying courses but despite problems created by his fuel shortages Rommel was never in danger of being encircled.
Some of the pursuing formations were delayed by real difficulties, some by imaginary ones, some by their own lack of impetus. None evinced
the initiative or drive needed to snatch the prize. Later the seasonal rains fell and the pursuit bogged down. The probability that this might occur any day was just one overlooked reason for moving with utmost speed.
There we shall leave the Eighth Army, for the 9th Division was not to accompany it to Tobruk, Tripoli and Bizerta.
News that the enemy had not merely withdrawn a bound but was in flight and that there had been mass surrenders in the south filtered through late that afternoon of 5th November to the Australians, numbers of whom had been “scrounging” in the enemy’s abandoned positions. Many flares, which the Germans and Italians used prolifically, had been found. One or two were fired after dusk. This touched off throughout the 9th Division’s area, as night fell, a spontaneous Guy Fawkes’ fireworks celebration of the victory, in which light signals and flares of every kind, both British and German, were shot into the sky.
British tanks entered Matruh on 8th November, the day on which the combined Allied landing took place in North Africa. A great victory had been won though some of the fruits had not been gathered. In England everybody from Prime Minister to charlady was overjoyed. The church-bells were rung.
The Eighth Army’s losses in winning the victory were 13,560 killed, wounded or missing, but about twice as many of the enemy were captured.114 The enemy left more than 1,000 guns and all but about a dozen of his tanks on the battlefield or the withdrawal route – about 450 tanks were left in the El Alamein area.
The 9th Division’s casualties in the battle were about one fifth of the total casualties of the Eighth Army. The final figures established after the war, when the “missing” had been dissected into prisoners of war, died of wounds and presumed dead, indicated that the number killed was more than 50 per cent in excess of the number then so reported. The division’s casualties from 23rd October to 5th November, as finally established, were:
|Killed||Wounded||Prisoners of War||Total|
The Battle of El Alamein was fought in three phases. The first two nights and days were a striving to accomplish the plan for the armour
to debouch into the open on ground of the Eighth Army’s choosing. In the next seven nights and days – the crumbling operations – the army faced and thrusted north; except in the first two of those days, the western front became in effect a defensively held flank to the 9th Division’s northward thrust. In the last three days the army again advanced westward, reverting to the aim of getting the armour astride the enemy’s communications, and on the third day it succeeded.
In the first phase of the battle the 9th Division bore with the other assault formations its share of the heavy fighting; in the long second phase – the dog-fight – the division bore the main burden of the attack; in the final phase, though not heavily committed, it was engaged on all three brigade fronts. The severity of the action is not easily imagined today. In the second phase, for example, the Germans made and the Australians withstood no less than 25 attacks against Trig 29.
The biggest contribution to the division’s success in defending the ground captured by it was made by the artillery of its own field regiments in conjunction with the field and medium regiments of other formations. Innumerable infantry counter-attacks were broken up by artillery fire before they could be pressed. The artillery also made an immeasurable contribution to the success of the infantry attacks. Another notable feature of the battle was the Eighth Army’s dominance in counter-battery work, which reduced night firing by enemy guns to a minimum. The 6-pounder anti-tank gun, on the other hand, proved to be by far the most effective static weapon against tanks.
Throughout the battle, by day and by night, some artillery action was occurring all the time, and heavy action for most of the time. In the 12 days of the battle the Eighth Army’s artillery fired more than one million rounds of 25-pounder ammunition, at an average daily rate of 102 rounds per gun (159 per gun on the XXX Corps front). The 354 25-pounders on the XXX Corps front fired 577 rounds per gun on the first night. The total rounds per gun fired on the XXX Corps front for the whole battle averaged more than 1,900 rounds. The Australian regiments fired almost 50 per cent more than the corps average, which reflects the 9th Division’s big share of the fighting.
The Eighth Army accomplished a Herculean labour though perhaps its efforts may not have always been directed to best advantage. Perhaps the army’s purposes would have been better promoted if the 9th Division had advanced west instead of north, at least after Trig 29 was taken, or if, after it had been decided not to launch SUPERCHARGE from the coast road, the division had advanced entirely northwards and not at all to the east. But had the division done either of these things it might have had to face an even stronger enemy reaction. It is not profitable to peer long into the dark of actions that were not fought.
On another score, the criticism may be levelled that to plan a methodical destruction of an enemy in well-prepared defences is not in itself tactically justifiable and that the process was carried beyond the point at which the consequential advantages to be thereby gained justified the cost. Was there
some touchstone then to discover that point clearly in the fog of the battle?
General Montgomery has also been criticised for his predilection for breaking through so far north near the source of Rommel’s southward communications. Strong grounds exist for contending that the decision to do so was a tactical error; but if SUPERCHARGE had achieved the success expected of it, the decision to strike hard at the base by the shortest route would have been acclaimed. Perhaps the battle could have been won without laying such hard tasks on the troops but the Eighth Army as it was before Montgomery remoulded it could not have accomplished the tasks that won the victory.
General von Thoma’s comment on Montgomery can be fittingly applied to his conduct of the battle:–
I thought he was very cautious considering his immensely superior strength but he is the only Field Marshal in this war who won all his battles.
In modern mobile warfare, the tactics are not the main thing. The decisive factor is the organisation of one’s resources – to maintain momentum.
What most distinguished General Montgomery’s operations from those of his predecessors (some of whom, it should be remembered, had to divide their attention between the army’s problems and wider responsibilities) was that his over-all plans derived their soundness from the soundness of the parts, which in turn was developed by thorough training that fitted men, units and formations for their tasks. The one-time revising author of the British Army’s standard text-book on infantry training saw to it that commanders, staff and men learnt their roles by realistic rehearsal.
Comparisons have sometimes been made between the Eighth Army’s achievements in the first desert offensive under Generals Auchinleck, Cunningham and Ritchie and in its second offensive eleven months later under Generals Alexander and Montgomery. Except that the fighting was against the same enemy commander at the same time of year and over similar terrain, such comparisons are not valid, for in respect of the problems presented and methods used the two offensives were almost as dissimilar as the battles of Thermopylae and Trafalgar. In General Auchinleck’s offensive the Eighth Army debouched across a part of the frontier that was virtually undefended into open desert where there were vast spaces over which the armoured formations could manoeuvre unhampered by fortifications or obstructions. When General Alexander’s offensive was mounted, however, there was no open flank; the areas within reach where armour could manoeuvre were very limited, and the routes to them blocked.
To Auchinleck and Montgomery, each in his time, was given a general superiority of arms, munitions and equipment over his adversary, but Montgomery had two pronounced advantages not given to Auchinleck. One was the mastery of the skies. Although in Auchinleck’s time the Desert Air Force had the edge on the enemy, it could not exercise such a pronounced influence on the ground battles. Montgomery’s other main
advantage was his more effective tank-destroying armaments, but this was greatly offset by the enemy’s ability at El Alamein to site his 88-mm guns to best advantage.
It is more to the point to compare the early summer battles at El Alamein with the autumn battle. Although the summer battles had by attrition halted the enemy advance, the several operations that in their aggregate effect had achieved this strategic reprieve were often individually failures in relation to their immediate aims. As a throwing-back operation, Auchinleck’s counter-offensive did not succeed, and indeed most forward steps taken had to be retracted.
Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief, was a director of operations, Montgomery, the Army Commander, a managing director. Auchinleck, less cautious and deliberate than Montgomery, may have been a better tactician; but because Auchinleck more often than not had bad managers whereas Montgomery managed well, Montgomery’s operations were, in their final outcome, more successful.
General Alexander and General Montgomery called on General Morshead on 4th November to express their appreciation of the 9th Division’s part in winning the victory. General Leese toured the division’s battlefield on the 5th, meeting many of the officers; several other of the army’s senior commanders likewise called on Morshead before they left. El Alamein to participate in the pursuit. Then congratulatory messages began to pour in and were promulgated in orders. They included tributes from the Governor-General of Australia, the President of the United States, General Blamey, General Montgomery and General Leese. Montgomery said that Morshead’s men had been magnificent and the part they had played was beyond all praise.
The recognition of the importance of the 9th Division’s fighting accorded in these messages, which were published throughout the division, profoundly revived and renewed the morale of the battle-weary troops, most of whom had lost several dear comrades in the ordeal. No tribute was more appreciated than the letter Leese wrote to Morshead on 6th November:
Now that we have a pause in the fighting I would like to write a line to congratulate you on the magnificent fighting which your Division has carried out, and to thank you personally for your great co-operation and sound judgment during the battle.
I would be very grateful if you would explain to the men the immense part they have played in the battle. It is perhaps difficult for them quite to realise the magnitude of their achievement as the main break-out of our armour was accomplished on another part of our front, thus could not be seen by them. But I am quite certain that this break-out was only made possible by the homeric fighting over your Divisional sector.
When it was no longer possible for the crumbling process to go on in the South you will remember that the Army Commander decided to continue with his crumbling policy in the North. This led to five days bitter fighting on your front. During this time your Division attacked four times and were counter-attacked incessantly by enemy infantry and tanks.
The main mass of heavy and medium artillery was concentrated on your Divisional front. It was obvious that the enemy meant to resist any advance along the coastal route, and as we now know, they concentrated the whole of the Panzer Corps against you in the Northern area.
Your fighting gave the opportunity for the conception of the final break-through in the centre, but this could never have been carried out if your front had been broken. The final break was, in my opinion, a very bold conception by the Army Commander, and one which he could never have carried out unless he was certain of the valiant resistance that would be put up by your Division. If the Germans could have broken your Division, the whole gun support of the attack would have been disorganised and its success vitally prejudiced.
It has been for me a very proud occasion to have an Australian Division serving in the Corps and I am very happy that this is to continue in the subsequent advance.117
Those fortuitous last few words about the subsequent advance may have had a more far-reaching effect than their author could have expected, for it was extraordinary that, when the division was at first left out of the pursuit, no spontaneous rumour arose that it was destined for Australia. The Australian Government’s request for its return had been kept a close secret. In point of fact the division’s future employment was still being debated between those who were directing the Allied war effort from Washington and London on the one hand, and the Australian Prime Minister and the Allied Commander-in-Chief of the South-West Pacific on the other, as will shortly be told.
The wide recognition given to the men’s achievements was reciprocated by them in their recognition of Morshead as a worthy leader. He had won both their confidence and their respect. Frequently they had seen him about the battlefield, from dawn on the first morning when he had visited the 20th Brigade after it had failed to secure the Oxalic line to that last fiery day before SUPERCHARGE was launched, when he had gone down to the Saucer; he had also been seen frequently by others in the field ambulances, which he had constantly visited during the battle, as later he often visited the base hospitals. Morshead had likewise a deep respect for the fighting men, but never forgot others. “Don’t forget to say a good word to the cooks,” he told his commanders at a conference soon after the battle.
On the morning of the 6th November, the advanced headquarters of the 9th Division moved back to the main headquarters position near El Alamein, and units moved across to bivouac areas allotted to them near the coast between Sidi Abd el Rahman and Tel el Eisa. Their first task, energetically put in hand, was to make the area both hygienic and safe. Unburied dead of both sides, but mainly of the enemy, were collected and reverently buried, the refuse around old Italian positions was cleared away, and a thorough combing of the area was instituted, to rid it of mines. A storm on the night of 6th November filled dugouts with water and blew down tents and hastily-erected bivouacs, but nobody seemed to
mind. Nothing could impair the men’s sense of relief and release from battle involvement. In the following week a great deal of work was carried out in salvaging equipment from the battlefield.
Morshead was summoned to Leese’s headquarters on the 6th and upon his return called his formation commanders to a conference at which he issued orders that the division less two brigades was to be prepared to move to Mersa Matruh from the 9th November onwards, and possibly later to Tobruk. Nothing came of the project, nor of a later one, appropriately called “Operation Hollywood”, that a party representing the division should be present at the formal entry into Tobruk. The force was to have comprised 630 officers and men from all branches of the service and to have been commanded by Lieut-Colonel Colvin of the 2/13th Battalion, who had commanded the same battalion in the last days of the siege.
On 13th November the division was warned that it was to be prepared to move forward to Sidi Haneish at any time from the next day onwards, but two days later it was removed from the command of the XXX Corps when the latter was given responsibility for the conduct of operations west of Benghazi. Next day General Morshead received this signal from General Wimberley of the Highland division:–
Have just heard with the greatest regret that you are leaving 30 Corps. We hope this will be very temporary as we do not at all like not having our friends and instructors near us.
Since the division was no longer on call for operational employment, Morshead decided that a program of progressive training six days per week, starting with individual training, and to include training of staffs and commanders, should be instituted at once. He gave instructions to that effect to brigade and unit commanders at a conference on 17th November, and a confirmatory written instruction was issued on the same day. Weapon training with live ammunition and instruction with live mines were to be included. In the subsequent execution of the training, interest and a sense of realism were created by using former enemy defences for tactical exercises.
The plans of General Headquarters for the 9th Division’s employment in the immediate future appear to have involved its return to Syria. General Alexander visited General Morshead on 19th November. The notes in Morshead’s notebook made in anticipation of the Commander-in-Chief’s visit indicate that Morshead intended to oppose this proposal vigorously and in particular a proposal (such as General Blamey had previously vetoed) to detach one brigade from the division. Among some of the arguments that Morshead intended to advance were that the Commanderin-Chief had previously promised that the division would return to Palestine on being withdrawn from the desert, that all the division’s installations, services and camps were there and that Australians were no good as garrison troops or as pseudo-policemen. “We shall be of infinitely greater service, whether in the Middle East or Australia,” he noted, “if we have an uninterrupted period of training, and training as a division.”
Morshead also intended to discuss the question of leave for his troops. The upshot of the conference was that Alexander agreed to the division’s return to Palestine and the granting of leave immediately. The first leave passes were issued to men applying for leave to visit friends in hospital.
A week later advanced parties left for Palestine, and for the next four days the troops were busy packing equipment and rehearsing speedy methods of embussing. It was ordered that all enemy equipment was to be handed over, which caused some annoyance; captured tents and mobile kitchens, among other things, had greatly added to the men’s comfort. Requiem Masses and Memorial Services were held at El Alamein Cemetery by most units, and on 30th November the move began.
The division journeyed to Palestine in 12 convoys, two leaving daily, each bivouacking by the roadside on the next three nights, and reaching the Gaza area on the fourth day. The leading convoys passed through the heart of Cairo; the troops, in their exuberance, fired captured coloured signal rockets and discharged smoke bombs in the main streets and some, having a liking for collecting the national head-dress of the Cairenes as souvenirs, whisked tarbooshes from the heads of indignant citizens as the trucks passed along.118 Consequently the later convoys were re-routed round the city.
By 9th December the whole division, with the exception of a few Bren carriers delayed on the railway, was established in the Australian base camps between Gaza and Qastina Leave to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Cairo was instituted. There has been so much adverse comment about the behaviour of Australian troops on leave that a paragraph published in routine orders throughout the division is noteworthy.
G.O.C. Cairo Area119 has stated that during recent leave, 9th Australian Division troops were the best behaved in Cairo. As a mark of his appreciation, he has arranged to welcome the first draft of 100 personally at Cairo Main Station on 7th December and to turn out the band of a Highland Regiment and provide refreshments for the first five drafts.120
Soon after his arrival in Palestine General Morshead visited the 6th Australian General Hospital at Gaza. After this there was such an influx of visitors to the hospital that the authorities had to restrict their numbers and units were given a daily quota. However patients at the hospital, if fit to travel, and patients of the Australian Convalescent Depot were allowed to visit their units in camp.
It has already been intimated that the war leaders of Great Britain and the United States showed reluctance to agree to Mr Curtin’s firm request that the 9th Division should return forthwith to Australia.
On 29th October, after the receipt of Morshead’s message, Mr Curtin had cabled Mr Churchill that it was of vital importance for the Government to get the 9th Division back; plans being made in the South-West Pacific were based on its being returned in good shape. He sought Churchill’s personal interest in securing the fullest cooperation of all concerned to this end. He also cabled the Australian High Commissioner in London, Mr Bruce, asking him to ensure that the division was not committed to another phase of the campaign. But on 1st November Curtin received a letter from President Roosevelt in which, while expressing his appreciation of the Australian Government’s concern at the absence of its forces in the Middle East, Roosevelt stated that he was convinced that the common cause would be best served by leaving the AIF in the Middle East. He could dispatch a United States division from Hawaii to Australia and assumed that this would obviate the need to call back the 9th Division; however it must be appreciated, he said, that the United States division might later have to be diverted to another area where its employment would be of greater advantage to the defence of Australia.121 Curtin referred the President’s letter to General MacArthur, who nevertheless advised that the Government should still press for the division’s return.
On 16th November, Curtin replied at length to President Roosevelt and indicated that his Government regarded the future employment of the division as absolutely governed by the obligation to fulfil the conditions previously laid down for its present use in the Middle East. Four days later the Australian Government heard from Bruce in London that planning of shipping for the return of the division had been held up pending further representations for its retention in the Middle East; but on 21st November it seemed that the Government had had its way, for Morshead cabled on that day that Alexander had told him that a firm decision had now been made that the division would return to Australia. A later cable from Churchill indicated that the division could not take its heavy equipment with it owing to demands on shipping and their effect on offensive preparations against the European powers. The Australian Government then sought General MacArthur’s and General Blamey’s comments on what difficulties this would involve.
Before these comments were available the Australian Prime Minister received on 3rd December a further letter from President Roosevelt, which again cast doubt on the 9th Division’s employment in the immediate future. While affirming his belief that the division should return at the earliest practicable date, Roosevelt stated that this date would depend upon two factors: first, the division should remain in the Middle East until the pursuit of Rommel’s forces had ended in final victory – a phrase which of course meant until the end of the African campaign; secondly, it should not be returned until its movement could be accomplished without too serious a drain on shipping. He thought the operations in the
Middle East would be concluded early in the year, when he would advocate its return; but the movement should include only personnel.
On 4th December, General Sturdee, the Australian military representative at Washington, cabled that the American Joint Chiefs of Staff had been considering the division’s future employment and appeared to be opposed to its return on military grounds, but might make a decision on other grounds. Meanwhile the Government had been advised by MacArthur and Blamey that the essential point was to secure the division’s return as soon as possible; the necessary equipment could be made available, if necessary, from American resources. On 8th December Curtin replied to Roosevelt’s most recent letter. After referring to the high rate of manpower wastage in tropical warfare and detailing the forces available in Australia, he said:
I wish you to know that we shall cooperate in the plan that you have outlined, which, as we see it, does not envisage the utilisation of the 9th Division for any further operations in the Middle East or adjacent areas. We look forward, therefore, to the fulfilment of the understanding that the 9th Division shall be returned to Australia as early as possible in the New Year.
He also suggested that about 3,500 tons of equipment should be brought back in the transports, including infantry weapons and a few items of specialised vehicles and stores. A summary of the message was cabled to Churchill.
Curtin’s essay in dialectics concluded the discussion. No attempt was made to dispute his interpretation. On 15th December Churchill informed Curtin that shipping would be arranged at the end of January for the return of the 9th Division with minimum equipment. “The 9th Australian Division,” he said, “would carry with them from the African desert a splendid reputation, and the honour of having played a leading part in a memorable victory for the Empire and the common cause.”122
On 17th December a new divisional colour patch was issued. It was shaped like a “T” but with the vertical stroke shortened. There was much speculation as to the origin of the “T” shape and some years later Morshead was asked to comment. He wrote:–
The “T” stood for Tobruk. The 9th Division was hurriedly formed and wore a collection of colour patches – oblongs, squares, circles, ovals. After coming out of Tobruk I decided we should have the one form but, knowing how attached the men were to their old colour patches, the change had to be unanimously accepted. If not, then there would be no change. Finally, but not altogether readily, it was accepted, nothing as far as I was concerned having been indicated that the “T” stood for Tobruk, nor, when informing the Commander-in-Chief in Australia, the late Field Marshal Blamey, of the change, did I make reference to Tobruk, but explained that a common colour patch was necessary and I had decided, as all other simple forms from
squares to circles, had long since been bespoken, on the combination of two oblongs, the larger one on top.123
General Morshead accompanied General Alexander when he opened the Haifa-Beirut railway on 20th December. In the building of this strategic rail link, which traversed the hilly Syrian coast with many miles of cuttings, embankments and tunnels, a major part of the work had been carried out by the Australian Railway Construction and Maintenance Group.124 Two days later a divisional parade was held at Gaza Airport. General Alexander, at Morshead’s invitation, took the salute.
The pride that the 9th Division had developed in itself and in its reputation was exemplified on that field in Palestine on the 22nd December by the smartness of the turn-out of every man and the exemplary marching and arms-drill of every unit at the parade.
“On a perfect day, in a setting of green fields – a vast contrast to the scenes of their exploits – over 12,000 officers and men of the 9th Australian Division formed up in line of units in close column an inspiring phalanx three-quarters of a mile long, the massed bands of the division drawn up in the rear.
“Clustered around the dais were the blue and gold uniforms of naval officers, beribboned generals from several Allied nations, the lighter blue uniforms of the RAF, the dresses of women guests, among whom were Lady Tedder and Mrs R. G. Casey who had flown from Cairo, the robes of four Sheiks and of the Governor of Sinai and here and there the tailored suits of diplomats.
“Flanking the dais were barriers behind which were nursing sisters from the near-by 6th A.G.H. in their scarlet capes and snow-white veils, V.A.D’s, W.A.A.F’s, detachments from every AIF unit in the Middle East not included in the 9th Division, recent reinforcements and, lastly, but proudest of all, the wounded in hospital blues who had come to watch their mates ‘bung on a show’. In front of the spectators was a row of white flags, each bearing the new ‘T’-shaped colour patch of a unit of the division.
“A cloud of dust heralded the approach of the car bearing General Alexander and General Morshead. On their arrival, the order ‘General Salute’ by the acting divisional commander, Brigadier Ramsay, brought the rattle and slap of the ‘Present’. The Australian flag was broken at the mast and in rotation the bands played a slow march for the Salute and the inspection, which General Alexander carried out standing in the back of an open car at the salute while the car traversed the whole of the front of the division.
“The long inspection completed, the men, now somewhat jaded, having been up since an early hour, and more than an hour on parade, listlessly resigned themselves to what might prove a long harangue, but with General Alexander’s words, ‘And great deeds have been done’ there was an imperceptible stiffening of shoulders; heads were held perhaps a little
higher as the general went on to extol their prowess as fighting men. They saw, not the assembled crowd to their front nor the rolling Gaza plains beyond, but as if through a haze, the sangars of Tobruk, the ridges of Tel el Eisa. There were memories of the brackish water, the myriads of flies and fleas, the interminable diet of bully beef, the oily margarine; nostrils filled again with the stench of death and the acrid fumes of explosives; they heard again the cries and groans of the wounded and dying, the scream of Stukas.
“At the conclusion of the address125 General Morshead took command of the parade. His order calling the parade to attention was probably the first order a large majority of those present had heard him utter. Then followed the tribute of thousands of fighting men to their dead – The Salute to Fallen Comrades. On the execution of ‘Present Arms’ all ranks, other than those armed with rifles, saluted. The flag was lowered as massed buglers sounded the Last Post, the last wailing note echoing and reechoing away in the distance, almost, it seemed, as if reaching those rows of crosses at El Alamein. Then Reveille, and the flag was raised. The massed bands played Advance Australia Fair and moved forward to a position opposite the dais whence to play the marchers past the saluting base.
“The division then marched past by groups in close column. Units moved to forming-up points at the end of the runway down which they marched, 40 abreast; showing that Australians’ parade ground discipline could equal their battle discipline. On past the saluting base, where General Alexander took the salute, they went; then wheeled away to assembling points where they had their midday meal before returning to the camps.”126
The next two days were spent mainly in preparations for Christmas festivities, and many parties were held in officers’ and NCOs messes. Christmas Day was spent in the traditional army manner; after church services a bounteous dinner was provided, rations being generously
supplemented with poultry, pork and the usual trimmings by the Australian Comforts Fund and grants from regimental funds. In a number of instances officers acted as mess orderlies in the men’s messes.
Boxing Day was also a holiday, but on this day commanding officers were called to a conference and informed that the AIF was to move from the Middle East. The movement was allocated the code name “Liddington”. Camp routine and training were resumed next day and quiet preparations for Liddington began under the strictest security measures. Those who needed to know of a projected move were told that the immediate destination would be Egypt, which was not incorrect as the port of embarkation would be there.
General Morshead left by air for Cairo with General Alexander, and later flew on to Eighth Army headquarters at Marble Arch beyond Agheila, also visiting General Leese at the XXX Corps headquarters and General Freyberg at Nofilia. Morshead’s visit was considered by some as an indication that the Australians would rejoin the Eighth Army for the advance into Tunisia, while others predicted that the division would train in Egypt for amphibious landings in Sicily and Italy. This theory gained some credence from the fact that senior officers were attending courses in combined operations on the Suez Canal.
As preparations for Liddington proceeded, however, it became progressively more apparent that a long sea voyage was ahead and that the direction would be south from the canal zone. Tanks, guns, and other heavy equipment were returned to ordnance depots and on 16th January the move to the canal area began. A divisional report centre was set up at Qassasin, and on each convoy’s arrival there vehicles were handed over to British authorities. After a day or two in this camp each group entrained for staging camps at Port Tewfik or El Shatt in the embarkation area to await arrival of the transports. Embarkation began on 24th January and continued until the 31st.127
As embarkation on each transport was completed, the vessel moved out, later to rendezvous off Massawa on the Eritrean coast. The ships were crowded, with little space for assembly, so the troops settled down to a routine of instruction, lectures, sport and P.T., to the extent that the limited deck-space allowed.
The convoy that assembled at Massawa was composed of the troop-ships Queen Mary, Aquitania, Ile de France, Nieuw Amsterdam and the armed merchant cruiser Queen of Bermuda. It left Massawa on 4th February closely escorted by a cruiser and several destroyers. Five days later the convoy broke formation and anchored off a group of small islands to re-fuel and take in water. The location of this secluded re-fuelling point was not disclosed to the troops. It was the Addu Atoll, a ring of coral islets in the Maldive group which, under the designation of “Port T”, had been developed since 1941 as a secret anchorage for the British and
Allied naval squadrons in the Indian Ocean. Re-fuelling continued throughout the night and the convoy was again under way by midday on the 10th.
Soon after leaving Addu Atoll the troops were enthralled when they saw the British Eastern Fleet – battleships and cruisers with attendant destroyers – lying a mile or so off course, a magnificent spectacle. A signal flashed from the flagship by Aldis lamp to the Nieuw Amsterdam read: “G.O.C. from C-in-C. Rommel will be relieved but the Japs will have the jim-jams. In case I don’t sight you again, au revoir until we meet in Tokyo.” Led by the Queen Mary, the big fast ships sailed on southwards unescorted into the southern Indian Ocean, bearing the men of the 9th Division to their homeland.
The date is 28th September 1959, the place Sydney. A funeral procession passes slowly through hushed streets. Thousands have come there. These men were once soldiers. Formed into unit groups, wearing their medals, they stand to attention now, silent while their great leader passes. He does not heed their tribute. Morshead is dead. Morshead who took a random collection of units, unhappily divorced from their parent formations, and moulded them into a proud, well-nigh unconquerable division. Morshead whose sense of duty and grasp of object made him always sure and firm and steadfast. Morshead never in doubt, never cast down; who never countenanced failure, never forgave, but never forgot to praise. Morshead who drove men almost to the point of desperation yet at the end won their acclaim. Whenever men speak of the 9th Australian Division’s feats at Tobruk and El Alamein, this great and resolute commander will be remembered. Its victories were his.