Chapter 10: Germans Break In
PANZERARMEE completed its advance to the assembly area during the night 25–26 June and next morning. On the ground, it was lightly opposed by the squadrons of 7 Motor Brigade operating against the enemy’s southern flank on a wide front on the inland escarpment. These squadrons and patrols from 29 Indian Brigade were then the only British forces west of the Siwa road.
Zero hour for the attack on Matruh was five o’clock1 in the afternoon of 26 June, which would give about two and a half hours of daylight to reach and reconnoitre the defences. The moon would then provide enough light for 90 Light Division and Afrika Korps to make their encircling moves but not sufficient to disclose them fully to Eighth Army.
From the assembly area, Afrika Korps and 90 Light Division fanned out south-east in a triple thrust against the Siwa road and inland escarpment defences. The 90th Light Division, which had advanced one of its groups earlier to secure the small height Nizwat Qireida, west of Siwa road, moved on a front of four miles to a point midway between Charing Cross and the inland escarpment where it expected to find a gap in the minefield. The 21st Panzer Division was to breach the defences between 90 Light Division and the inland escarpment, and 15 Panzer Division was sent to turn the minefield on and below the escarpment.
The two pitifully small columns of 29 Indian Brigade covering the minefield were quickly and valiantly in action against this formidable array. Each group had a company of infantry, a field battery, a troop of anti-tank guns and two troops of light anti-aircraft guns. In the fashion of the time they were named after their commanders, ‘Gleecol’ (Lieutenant-Colonel Gleeson) and ‘Leathercol’ (Major Leather). They had a fluid role but definite, although impossible, orders to ‘prevent passage of the enemy through the southern minefield.’
The columns conducted a running fight with 90 Light Division until, at a quarter past seven, Gleeson reported that ‘100 tanks have broken through the minefield and are moving eastward.’ Leathercol
had been completely overrun, only a few men and guns getting away. Gleecol, according to a 5 Indian Division report, fared little better.
In the dusk, dust and confusion, Gleecol appears to have mistaken 90 Light Division’s tracked and other transport for tanks or associated 21 Panzer Division with the breakthrough. The German records carry no indication that 90 Light Division had any tanks at this stage. Besides the opposition of Leathercol and Gleecol, 90 Light Division was fired on from the outposts at Charing Cross and from 29 Brigade’s other positions on the inland escarpment. The German engineers, however, quickly cleared a passage through the minefield and the division sped eastwards. It was next heard of near midnight when it was held up by 151 Brigade about Bir el Sarahna. What had happened was not appreciated by any headquarters save that of 29 Indian Brigade, upon whom the blow had fallen.
The 21st Panzer Division, commanded by Major-General von Bismarck, a cousin of the ‘Iron Chancellor’, made a more cautious approach to the Siwa road. The hard core of the division was 5 Panzer Regiment with thirty tanks. Eight of these were damaged in the Siwa road minefields. One was repaired during the night, thus giving the regiment twenty-three tanks, the majority of them Mark IIIs, for the resumption of the advance next morning.
The 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of three battalions, with a total strength of under 1000 all ranks, provided the division’s infantry component.2 Each battalion had its own anti-tank guns and a small number of field guns, including self-propelled guns. Some of the field guns were captured 25-pounders. The main artillery strength was concentrated in 155 Artillery Regiment of three batteries equipped with light and heavy guns. The division also had an anti-tank unit, a panzer engineer battalion and a signals unit.
In contact with 90 Light and 15 Panzer Divisions, the 21st reached the minefield at a quarter past seven, sufficiently close to the escarpment to see British troops in position and to come under what was reported as strong artillery fire. The nearest British troops were 1 Mahrattas of 5 Indian Division on Bir el Hukuma, on the Siwa road near the face of the escarpment. They appear to have been responsible for holding up 15 Panzer Division, but about
half-past eight they were pushed off their positions by 21 Division’s infantry, supported by artillery. At the same time, the division’s tanks probed for gaps in the minefield. After having eight tanks damaged, the division went into hedgehog positions for the remainder of the night while its engineers cut gaps through the minefields.
There was some other fighting in the neighbourhood that night. A battle group of the Highland Light Infantry at Sidi Hamza, and the remainder of the battalion and the headquarters of 29 Brigade near Bir Sidi Hamza, were scattered by tanks said to have appeared on both sides of them. The assailants were probably from 15 Panzer Division. The 90th Light Division reported that during the night march part of its right battle group and the whole of the rear group had remained behind, having encountered enemy forces coming from the south. The Germans claimed that these forces had been pushed back and that 400 prisoners had been taken.
These engagements provided the ‘noises off’ heard by New Zealand Division at Minqar Qaim. They permitted Panzerarmee to report to Rome at midnight that the British forces had been pushed east of the Siwa road, and also encouraged another faulty appreciation of the situation. The enemy still had no inkling that the New Zealand Division had moved out of Matruh fortress and that it, or any other large infantry formation, was on the escarpment about Minqar Qaim.
New Zealand Division, however, was alert to the possibilities. Prompt advice had been received of the enemy breakthrough on the Siwa road and a number of patrols were sent out to the west and north as already mentioned. Under this protection against surprise, the Division worked throughout the night on its defences. The first contacts with the enemy were fortuitous encounters by parties making their way to Minqar Qaim.
When the Division moved out of Matruh, the Divisional Cavalry Regiment was still without its tanks and carriers, which were being railed from Syria and had been held up at Alexandria. It was decided, therefore, to equip B Squadron with carriers and transport available in Matruh and to send the remainder of the regiment to Fuka to reorganise. B Squadron left Matruh late in the afternoon to join the Division. Heavy traffic on the road and enemy air raids made progress so slow that Garawla was not reached by the first carriers until nine o’clock. There a halt was made for two hours to permit the squadron to close up. The march was resumed shortly before midnight, and at 1.40 a.m. the squadron in the dark ran into a ‘German column which included 15 Mark IV tanks.’
Two carriers were damaged by fire from this column and had to be abandoned before the squadron could disengage by a rapid detour to the east. When clear, the squadron turned south again. On this stage of the journey it encountered British field artillery, later identified as 293 Battery of 74 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. The battery was urged to accompany the squadron to the Division but stayed in the area to support the Durham Light Infantry of 151 Brigade. Later in the morning the battery was knocked out by 90 Light Division and its personnel taken prisoner.
B Squadron’s positive identification of fifteen Mark IV German tanks illustrates the tank consciousness of the British troops at the period. The only enemy in the vicinity at the time of the encounter was 90 Light Division, which did not have any tanks on its establishment. Nor, according to the division’s diary which gives the composition of the battle groups, were any tanks attached to it for the attack on Matruh. Moreover the two panzer divisions had thirty-nine serviceable tanks all told on 27 June, of which no more than half a dozen were Mark IVs.
Unquestionably, the squadron had a fight. It is possible that in the dark it was mistaken for the enemy by a British Crusader tank command. British tanks were in the neighbourhood. The 293rd Field Battery lost some men when its gun positions were overrun
by Crusader tanks withdrawing under enemy anti-tank fire at 2 a.m. on 27 June. It is also possible that the squadron was the victim of German anti-tank guns fired from portées or perhaps of self-propelled guns, but it is doubtful whether any part of 90 Light Division was so far east at the time.3
A party of twenty-eight drivers from 6 Field Regiment traversed the same area as B Squadron without any vicissitudes, except the trials of searching the depots at Matruh and on the coast for twentyeight six-pounder anti-tank guns for the Division and of a prolonged journey for which it had not been prepared with clothing and rations. Another group of seven men and an officer from the regiment was not so fortunate in its attempt to rejoin the Division from Matruh. It ran into Germans driving British anti-tank portées and was made prisoner.
When B Squadron and the anti-tank guns party reached the Division they could merely confirm happenings then apparent from Minqar Qaim. From this grandstand, the Division could see forces moving across its northern front with signs of battle beyond.
The 21st Panzer Division left its hedgehog positions west of the Siwa road at 7.30 in the morning of 27 June. An hour later it was through the gaps cut in the minefields and had reached Bir el Gibb. There it turned south-east towards Abar Zahya. On the way the division noted and reported what it took to be British tanks on the inland escarpment. It was also advised that 15 Panzer Division was involved in a battle with strong British tank forces well up on the escarpment. This engagement is not mentioned in 1 Armoured Division’s detailed log of the day.
Reports of British tanks on the escarpment appear to have given Afrika Korps Headquarters some concern. Instead of finding only reconnaissance units of the British armour west of the Khalda track, as it expected, the Korps headquarters had a report of forty to fifty tanks with six batteries in the neighbourhood of Karima, six miles west of Minqar Qaim. This news was flashed to 21 Panzer Division with the additional note: ‘We are worried about 21 Pz Div.’ Afrika Korps Headquarters, however, had little cause for anxiety as, at that time, Rommel was travelling with the division. He appears to have been satisfied with the progress and position of the division for he extended its orders to include cutting the ‘escarpment descent’ south-west of Bir Shineina. This was a preliminary move to cut the line of retreat of the British armour on the escarpment.
It was also an example of taking advantage of circumstances as they developed.
These additional orders were given more than half an hour before the divisional headquarters learned there was something substantial on its right flank on the escarpment. Although flanking artillery and tanks had come into action some time before, it was not until eleven o’clock that the division reported to Afrika Korps that a large concentration of motor transport of approximately divisional strength had been sighted. The significance of the concentration apparently did not strike General von Bismarck for, after passing on the suggestion that ‘this would be a promising Stuka target,’ he left further action to his flank guard while he carried on with the main body to Bir Shineina, which was reached by his infantry half an hour after midday.
From dawn, the New Zealand Division had been paying special attention to the activity on its northern front. It had seen considerable movement in the neighbourhood of Raqabet el Sikka where 151 Brigade still held up 90 Light Division. British tanks which passed through 28 Battalion on their way westwards, and other sources, gave news of the presence of the enemy north of the Division and of the fighting.
An interesting report, and also a small but useful reinforcement, was brought to the Division by Major D. J. M. Smith, second-in-command of 1/4 Battalion, The Essex Regiment, who during the night had traversed the greater part of the battle area and had had some tense moments with the enemy.
With an infantry company and section of carriers from his battalion, a troop from 121 Field Regiment, a troop of anti-tank guns, an ambulance car and a wireless link, Major Smith was sent from 5 Indian Brigade of 10 Division in Matruh to patrol the minefields south of Matruh, harass the enemy and establish contact with 5 Indian Division and its 29th Brigade. Moving from the fortress down the Siwa road, the column found that the minefield had been penetrated and ran into 90 Light Division. It broke clear of artillery and machine-gun fire and then passed eastwards along the south face of the fortress. Moving south again, it was attacked a little before dusk by enemy aircraft and at the same time was fired on by enemy mortars. The mortars were silenced by the column’s guns. The column carried on after dark and encountered two enemy laagers, from one of which it captured a German officer.
This band of stalwarts, after searching in vain for 5 Indian Division, came into the New Zealand lines at 7 a.m. The Division was happy to advise 10 Indian Division: ‘Your Smith column reported here 0700 intact except for 2 anti-tank guns broken down –
remaining under command.’ The column was ready to join the New Zealanders. The infantry and carriers went to 19 Battalion and the guns to 4 Field Regiment.
Thus spurred to increased vigilance and activity in completing the defences, the Division awaited events. At 8.30 the enemy opened the Battle of Minqar Qaim with artillery fire from a column about five miles north of the escarpment. Although it was not positively identified, the column was almost certainly from 90 Light Division, then completing the overrunning of 151 Brigade’s forward positions and moving eastwards preparatory to descending to the coast road. The 21st Panzer Division at that hour was still at Bir el Gibb, 15 miles to the west.
The enemy action against the Division provoked suitable counter-measures. The defences on the face of the escarpment were strengthened with a troop from 4 Field Regiment, and a column comprising 30 Battery of 6 Field Regiment and two sections of carriers from 18 Battalion under the battery commander, Major Lambourn,4 was sent towards Bir el Haswa to engage the enemy guns at closer range.
Upon the appearance of a German tank column, the enemy battery yielded the target to it and moved off to the east. Under the fire of the tanks, Lambourn conducted a fighting withdrawal troop by troop back to the Division. The foray cost 30 Battery five men killed.
The tanks heralded the arrival of 21 Panzer Division. Increasing heat haze and dust raised by the artillery action and movement of transport over the desert deprived the Division of its grandstand view of the lower ground, but it was left in no doubt of the proximity of considerable enemy forces. About 10.30 a.m. a 28 Battalion carrier patrol sighted an enemy column of up to a thousand vehicles, carrying lorried infantry and led by tanks, moving on a front a mile wide. At a range of roughly three miles, the enemy opened fire on the Division with captured 25-pounders, their own 210, 105, and the notorious 88-millimetre guns.
In spite of the vigour of the artillery on both sides, casualties numerically were light. The 21st Panzer Division did not record or report the action, and its diary makes no reference to three tanks put out of action and three others damaged which 30 Battery claimed. Most of the enemy fire fell in 5 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters’ areas. One shell which destroyed the signals’ remote control wireless-telephone annexe also killed five and wounded seven of Divisional Headquarters’ staff. Among the killed was
Lieutenant-Colonel Ross,5 the AA and QMG, a highly-skilled staff officer whom the Division could ill afford to lose.
Another serious effect of the enemy’s fire was felt by 5 Brigade. The brigade’s B echelon transport, with two platoons of 6 Reserve MT Company and headquarters of 7 Field Company, was dispersed forward of the escarpment under orders to move if shelled. The enemy action impelled departure at high speed east across the Division’s front and up the escarpment near Bir Abu Batta to a supposedly safer spot. In their haste, the officers failed to note that they were taking with them an essential part of 5 Brigade’s fighting equipment, the battery-charging plant of the brigade’s signals.
The action at this period is perhaps given better perspective by the phlegmatic manner in which it was treated by the engineers of the field companies and field park. They carried on to complete their minelaying across the Division’s northern front and eastern flank. The steadfastness of the Field Park Company was especially meritorious, as minelaying was an unusual task for the unit and dangerous for men not fully trained in the work. Inspiring examples were set by Major Anderson,6 the company commander, and Sergeant Duckworth.7 Neither they nor their men were deterred even when a shell exploded a truck of mines, damaging other trucks and causing casualties.
A section of 7 Field Company on 5 Brigade’s front was equally calm under a severe trial. It was fired on by the tanks which had forced the 30th Battery column to withdraw. Although five sappers were killed and four wounded in a few minutes, Lieutenant Foster8 encouraged the others to continue the work. When at length the section was ordered to withdraw, Foster sent the survivors to safety but stayed behind himself to bring in a truck of wounded and equipment.
Although enemy lorried infantry had been seen lining up as if for attack, the artillery fire slackened towards midday and the main enemy forces passed to the north-east of the Division. This was in accordance with the order received by General von Bismarck to reach Bir Shineina. Some artillery, tanks and infantry were left on and west of the Khalda track fronting the New Zealand Division and flanking 21 Panzer Division’s axis of advance. From Bir
Shineina the division commanded the descents from the escarpment east of Minqar Qaim. Von Bismarck appears to have thought this was enough, for he contented himself with a report for transmission to Rommel that the ‘descent between the road and Bir Shineina has been cut’ and that an ‘enemy group of considerable strength is on the escarpment track.’ This lack of enterprise may be contrasted with the attitude of 90 Light Division, whose commander and chief staff officer had decided before the advance that, if stubborn resistance were encountered, they would push on without awaiting army orders. No attempt seems to have been made by von Bismarck even to learn which British formation had been found from Eighth Army’s resources to sit in obvious strength at Minqar Qaim.