Chapter 6: Forced March to the Desert
GENERAL Freyberg was reconnoitring the mountains of south-west Persia in view of possible operations there when, in the evening of 10 June, he heard on the broadcast news service that Bir Hacheim had been evacuated. These adverse tidings so impressed him that he remarked to Colonel Gentry1, the G1, that the Division would be wanted in a hurry in the Western Desert. General Freyberg decided to fly to Cairo and to send his staff officers to Syria at once with orders to prepare the Division to move secretly and with the utmost speed.
Arriving in Cairo in the evening of 13 June, Freyberg reported to Middle East Headquarters. He was greeted by Auchinleck with the remark: ‘I want to talk to you. You are to move your division at once to the Western Desert and concentrate near the frontier.’ After the situation had been outlined to him, Freyberg decided that this was a case for exercising his discretionary power to commit the Division without awaiting the prior consent of the Government.
Orders for the move reached the Division next day. As security measures, shoulder titles and hat badges by which the Division could be identified were removed, unit location signs and all tents were left standing, farewell parties were forbidden, and the divisional signs on transport were painted over before each convoy left.
In spite of these precautions, the news leaked out. A Syrian dealer, who had lent furniture to the officers’ mess of 19 Battalion, called to collect his furniture and account before many of the officers of the unit knew that a move impended. Natives in the Divisional Cavalry Regiment’s area wished the regiment farewell ‘and good shooting in Libya.’ Officers and men in all units speculated concerning their destination. Some asserted they knew officially they were going back to the desert, others guessed their destination, while some optimistically believed the Division was moving to the Canal
to embark for New Zealand. As all ranks followed the war news closely it is probable that most suspected the reasons for the move. As a soldier remarked in a letter a few days before, apropos of the battle in the desert: ‘It is about time the Division was invited to the party.’
Stirred by the urgency of the call, the Division showed what it could do when it was in a hurry. Main Headquarters left Baalbek at 6 a.m. on 16 June and reopened a few miles west of Mersa Matruh at 9 p.m. on the 20th, having taken only four days 15 hours to make the journey by road, a distance of approximately 900 miles. Convoys of 4 and 6 Field Regiments and 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment left the Bekaa valley on the same day as Divisional Headquarters and, following the same route but with different staging points, reached Mersa Matruh on 21 June, in five days. Fourth Brigade, with 6 Field Company and 7 Anti-Tank Regiment in its convoy, got under way on 17 June and reached the vicinity of Mersa Matruh on the night of the 21st, having taken only four days 18 hours to cover the distance. The 28th (Maori) Battalion did the journey by rail from Haifa and was in Mersa Matruh in about two and a half days.
Fifth Brigade was already on wheels in the desert east of Aleppo carrying out brigade exercises, when it received orders to concentrate in Djedeide fortress. The move to the fortress was a good rehearsal for the days to come, as the brigade had to move in intense heat and find its way over difficult wadis and through many village bottlenecks in making the most direct route to Djedeide, where it arrived on 16 June. Because the roads were fully occupied, the brigade had to stay in Djedeide for another day, which was spent in repairing vehicles, drawing rations and in other preparations. With reinforcements from Advanced Base, the brigade group, including 5 Field Regiment and 7 Field Company, began the move to the desert at 4 a.m. on 18 June in transport supplied by 4 RMT Company. Following the road taken by the previous convoys, the main party reached Smugglers’ Cove at Mersa Matruh on 22 June, little more than four days later. Fifth Field Regiment rejoined on 23 June and 5 Field Park on 24 June.
Sixth Brigade, in the Aleppo area, had a company from each of its three battalions in the rest camp near Latakia when the orders for the move were received. These companies had to be recalled and the brigade had then to hand over to 20 Brigade of 9 Australian Division. With the assistance of 6 RMT Company, the relief was completed by 18 June and next day the brigade commenced its move. The 26th Battalion went by rail and arrived at Mersa Matruh on 22 June. The other units of the group travelled by road and were halted at El Amiriya on the 25th.
Middle East Headquarters expected that ten days or more would be required to concentrate the Division in the desert. It is a tribute to the excellence of the staff work, the physical fitness and discipline of the units and the high standard of maintenance in the Division’s ageing transport, that the task was accomplished well within the period. As in March 1918 when the New Zealanders in Flanders were called upon in a hurry to help stem an enemy attack, the Division was dispersed over a wide area when the movement orders were received. Several Army units attached to the Division had to be disposed of and arrangements made to leave the Division’s two malaria control units, 36 Survey Battery, and the Salvage Unit in Syria. Congestion on the roads and the small facilities of the staging points prevented concentration to move as a Division. Timetables had to be prepared for the movement of units and groups by road and rail, and in such order that they arrived in the concentration area ready to go into battle.
As soon as the Division reached the desert road out of Alexandria, it encountered Eighth Army in retreat. Transport of 1 South African Division, moving head to tail to the Alamein defences, filled the road. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment, which had a particularly arduous journey from Syria and was the last unit to arrive, ran into other Eighth Army convoys seemingly devoid of order and discipline. Hundreds of vehicles were parked along each mile of the road and a constant stream of traffic moving in the opposite direction, estimated at 750 vehicles each hour for the whole day, impeded progress.
The congestion became worse as the units and groups neared Mersa Matruh. Some senior officers bitterly described Eighth Army as a rabble. They were then meeting the flotsam and jetsam of an army in headlong retreat. These troops were at a loss to understand why an army which had been promised victory had been so incontinently defeated. Another factor was the perverse, pawky humour of the British soldier who, in times of stress, finds an outlet for his feelings in the Cockney habit of delighting in the worst possible news and rumour. ‘You are going the wrong way, chum!’ was typical of the greetings given the Division as it moved forward. To the fresh, physically fit New Zealanders the greeting was more irritating than humorous.
Nevertheless, Eighth Army was in a bad way. How bad, the Division had yet to learn.
As the Division moved by road and rail to its concentration area west of Mersa Matruh, it became involved in a situation which was changing rapidly and still deteriorating.
On the withdrawal of Eighth Army to the frontier, General Ritchie relied on Tobruk to hold the attention of some part of the
enemy’s armour and thus give time to re-equip and reorganise the British armour. Eighth Army would then relieve Tobruk and pass to its counter-offensive. On the night of 20 June, however, when it was apparent that Tobruk was about to fall, Ritchie realised that Rommel would be free to concentrate his full weight against the frontier defences. These positions were untenable without a strong mobile armoured force operating on the open desert flank. He therefore sought permission to withdraw to Mersa Matruh.
Auchinleck was reluctant to abandon the frontier. He pointed out to Ritchie that the argument that an armoured reserve was essential to the successful defence of the frontier applied with equal force to the Matruh position, which could easily be isolated by a movement past its southern flank. In Auchinleck’s opinion withdrawal from the frontier was a question of general policy to be decided in consultation with the other two Commanders-in-Chief. In the meantime, since Ritchie alone was in a position to know whether the immediate situation made it imperative to withdraw, the decision was left to him.2
Ritchie decided to withdraw to Matruh in the belief that with the time thus gained it would be possible to build up an armoured force. This decision was subsequently endorsed by the Middle East Defence Committee, but ‘he was instructed to prepare to fight a decisive action round Matruh and to delay the enemy as far west as possible with a covering force.3 Command of the covering force was given to Lieutenant-General Gott, 13 Corps. Lieutenant-General C. W. M. Norrie, with 30 Corps Headquarters, was sent to organise the Matruh position until he was relieved by Lieutenant-General W. G. Holmes and 10 Corps Headquarters from Syria. Norrie was then to take 30 Corps Headquarters to control the completion and occupation of the El Alamein defences, 120 miles to the east.
General Freyberg left Cairo on 21 June for the desert. He called at Middle East Headquarters to hear that Tobruk had been lost and that the situation ‘was said to be obscure.’ He had no inkling of a change in the plans for the Division and believed it was still to concentrate on the coast ten miles west of Matruh and move to the frontier to come under 30 Corps. Only when he arrived at Matruh and reported to 30 Corps by telephone did he learn that the plans had been altered and that the Division was to go into the Matruh box. Occupation of the box was urgent, but there was then no state of emergency.
The Matruh defences consisted of a fortified perimeter, a covering position to the west of the town at Charing Cross near the edge of
the coastal escarpment, and a detached strongpoint about 20 miles to the south on the inland escarpment near Minqar Sidi Hamza. A deep minefield ran south from the coast to Charing Cross and then turned eastward. There were two other minefields separated by a gap of about six miles between Charing Cross and Sidi Hamza.
The defences had been built early in the war against the advance of the Italian Army under Graziani. Since then there had been no occasion to divert labour and materials to keep them in repair. The anti-tank ditch and most of the positions were full of sand and camouflage was almost non-existent, but Army Headquarters was advised by the CRE, Matruh, that once the posts were occupied they could be made defensible within forty-eight hours. Many of the mines were sensitive and all fences, whether marked as minefield fences or not, had to be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Posts were short of water containers, which were stated to have been filched by previous occupants.
Pending the arrival of the remainder of the Division, 4 Brigade Group, under Brigadier Inglis,4 on 22 June took over the defence of the fortress perimeter from the Sidi Barrani road to the coast, and 20 Battalion, with 28 Field Battery and a troop from 31 Anti-Tank Battery, was sent to the outpost at Charing Cross. The battalion was joined next day by a platoon of Bren carriers from 6 Brigade. Orders were given to 4 Brigade to establish road blocks with anti-tank defence in depth, to take full battle precautions with sections dispersed, and, at night, to post double sentries and patrol the front of the positions.
While 4 Brigade was moving into its sector, unit commanders of 5 Brigade Group arrived and with Brigadier Kippenberger made a daylight reconnaissance of the eastern sector preparatory to occupying it by moonlight. Each of the brigades had four battalions, 28 (Maori) Battalion being under 4 Brigade and 26 Battalion, from 6 Brigade, under 5 Brigade. In the completed scheme 6 Brigade, less one battalion, was to take over the western outposts and Divisional Cavalry was to cover the northern and eastern ends of the minefields. Other troops provisionally allotted to Matruh were 5 Indian Division, with one brigade group only, and 151 Infantry Brigade from 50 Division when it should be released from the covering force.
On 23 June all the troops were working with a will restoring the defences. The engineer companies had to meet incessant demands
for sandbags, coils of wire and pickets, and their minelaying sections had to mark and improve existing minefields and put down new ones. Divisional Signals took over the communications of the fortress, and 4 and 5 Field Ambulances were called upon to treat casualties from the battle area almost as soon as they opened their stations.
At this period 7 Anti-Tank Regiment was replacing its two-pounder guns with the new six-pounders as they became available, the two-pounders being handed over to the newly formed anti-tank platoons of the infantry battalions. A school to instruct the infantrymen in the use of the guns was opened by 95 Anti-Tank Regiment at Smugglers’ Cove, but the course was cut short when the role of the Division was changed.
A light note in an otherwise serious occasion was provided by 4 Brigade Band. The band had been ordered to make its way to Maadi by any available means but could not find transport either by road or rail. It filled in the time with marches through Matruh. This apparent disregard of the prevailing spirit of alarm caused considerable comment, the sight and sound of a band display surprising many of the retreating British and South African troops who, the band’s diary notes, ‘seemed to expect the enemy over the escarpment at any moment.’
Until this time, however, the only signs of the approach of the enemy had been the increasing number of bombers over the rear areas and the trains and convoys filled with men and materials being taken to the rear. All the roads leading into and out of Matruh were jammed with traffic moving back. On its way to Charing Cross, 20 Battalion had great difficulty in moving against the solid stream of transport in retreat – ‘ a weird mixture of vehicles that were being driven, towed or pushed, nose to tail and four abreast’ – that converged from the Siwa and Sidi Barrani roads in a confusion which was increased when enemy bombers appeared over the crossroads.
Although General Freyberg had put the Division into the fortress and had set it at work restoring the defences, he had made up his mind that he would not permit it to be held in the Matruh or any other box. He regarded box defences as traps in which isolated defenders were overrun by the enemy at his convenience. He also doubted whether in the prevailing circumstances Matruh could be held. A suggestion that the Division might support the defence of Matruh from the adjacent Naghamish Box, a wadi incorporated in the ‘Kiwi’ anti-tank ditch dug by 4 Brigade in 1940, was equally disliked.
On more specific grounds, Freyberg thought it wrong to confine the highly trained, mobile New Zealand Division in a fortress. The Division was up to strength in men and arms, it was the only complete division then available in the desert, and in numbers and fire power was the equal of any other two divisions in Eighth Army. Some additional transport, however, was needed to make it fully self-contained.
Freyberg put these views to General Norrie, 30 Corps, and again to General Holmes, 10 Corps, when the latter took command of the fortress on 23 June. That afternoon he went with Holmes to Ritchie’s headquarters prepared to bring the issue to a head. He was ready to say that the New Zealand Division would be thrown away if it were kept in the Matruh fortress, and that, if necessary, he would refer the matter to the New Zealand Government. He told Holmes he realised this attitude might precipitate a crisis, but that risk would be taken for the sake of the Dominion and the Division.
Holmes saw Ritchie alone. When Freyberg was called in he was told the Division would be relieved in Matruh by 10 Indian Division, then withdrawing from the frontier, and would have a mobile role in the desert. Freyberg was impressed by Ritchie at this interview. It was obvious that he had had a very trying time, but he was calm and deliberate. If he knew that he was about to be relieved of his command, he showed no signs of the knowledge.
There was another matter that disturbed Freyberg. He had learned the previous day that all infantry divisions were to be reorganised forthwith into battle groups. The basis of each group was to be a battery of 25-pounders and two infantry companies, in which the sections were to consist of one non-commissioned officer and five privates. The groups would include troops of anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, carrier, mortar, machine-gun and infantry anti-tank platoons, a sub-section of engineers, and an ambulance detachment. Each group was to be commanded by a battalion or field regiment commander with a skeleton headquarters, three groups to be in a brigade and three of the brigades in a division.
The New Zealand brigadiers and other experienced officers were again at one with their GOC in rejecting this organisation, which was merely a variation of the brigade group.5 Orders on co-ordination, mutual support and attacking the enemy’s flanks and rear, notwithstanding, there was in their opinion no surer way of losing a battle than by dispersing the army’s resources in small packets over the landscape. Freyberg advised Army and Corps that if the
New Zealand Division was to take part in the approaching battle it would fight as a division. As organisation was expressly reserved to him in his ‘charter’, there was little they could do about this intransigent attitude. The need for the Division in the battle was more pressing than a question of organisation.
The Division, however, had to undergo considerable reorganisation before it could undertake the proposed mobile role. Its own organic transport, that of a standard infantry division, was sufficient to sustain it in a static battle. With its own Reserve Mechanical Transport companies and the supply columns maintaining a shuttle service, the Division could be kept mobile in an advance, or when the enemy was not pressing. But these resources could not lift the Division and its equipment in one load. In the situation then impending, it was imperative that the Division should be completely self-contained in transport.
As a quick solution of the problem, it was decided to borrow vehicles and to reduce the infantry component of the Division to the transport available. At a divisional conference on 24 June, 6 Infantry Brigade, to Brigadier Clifton’s undisguised chagrin, was ordered to concentrate at Amiriya and to send 6 RMT Company and as much as possible of its unit transport to the Division at Matruh.6 Each of the seven other battalions of 4 and 5 Brigades and the Divisional Reserve Group was ordered to send one company to Maadi. Headquarters and the signals section of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, 4 Field Hygiene Section (less twelve men distributed between 4 and 5 Field Ambulances), 4 Brigade Band, and the Divisional Postal Unit were also ordered to Maadi. With a number of trucks borrowed from 10 Indian Division, which was to have a static role in Matruh, and some from Eighth Army, the reduced Division was made complete on wheels.
It may be mentioned that experience convinced a number of officers that in the desert, at least, the standard infantry division had too many infantrymen for adequate support by the field and anti-tank guns. In the operations to which the Division was then being committed it could not have achieved more had it had all its infantry and full transport them, and it is certain the losses would have been greater.
For movement only, the Division was divided into four groups:
DIVISIONAL HQ GROUP
HQ NZ Division
Divisional Defence Platoon
5 Field Park Company
Administration Services, or Rear HQ (to operate from Matruh area)
4 INF BDE GROUP (Brigadier Inglis)
HQ 4 Inf Bde (with Light Aid Detachment)
4 Bde Defence Platoon
28 (Maori) Bn
4 Field Regiment
31 A-Tk Bty
41 Lt AA Bty
6 Field Coy
2 MG Coy
4 Field Amb
5 INF BDE GROUP ( Brigadier Kippenberger)
HQ 5 Inf Bde (with LAD)
5 Bde Defence Platoon
5 Field Regt
32 A-Tk Bty
42 Lt AA Bty
7 Field Coy
4 MG Coy
5 Field Amb
DIVISIONAL RESERVE GROUP (Lieutenant-Colonel J. R. Gray, 18 Bn)
6 Field Regt
33 A-Tk Bty
43 Lt AA Bty
1 MG Coy
All surplus gear, including one blanket from every man, unessential kit and clothing, anti-malaria stores brought from Syria, and unwanted secret codes and documents were collected and sent to Maadi. The Divisional Supply Company collected and filled 10,000 water containers and, in the three days from 23 to 25 June, issued 47,777 rations as normal supply and to make up deficiencies in the three-day reserve to be carried by the Division. The daily water ration for each man was fixed at three-quarters of a gallon. Unless wells and cisterns were found, this ration was to meet all requirements – drinking, washing, cooking, vehicle radiators and all other uses.
Relief by 10 Indian Division was to be completed by the night 25–26 June, when the Division would move to the escarpment south of Matruh in the vicinity of Minqar Qaim, carrying water and rations for three days, petrol and oil for 200 miles, and first-line ammunition.