Chapter 12: Twenty-four Tense Hours
A TIDY, orderly withdrawal in desert formation was envisaged in the tentative precautionary order issued by Headquarters New Zealand Division in the morning as the battle opened, and in the instructions of late in the afternoon before General Freyberg was wounded. Fifth Brigade was to be in the van, followed by Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group. Fourth Brigade and the Divisional Cavalry carrier squadron were to be the rearguard. Guides were to be sent to the Alamein Line for information on the minefields and brigade sectors and were to meet the Division at the rendezvous at Deir el Harra.
Some important differences in emphasis marked the two orders. The first stressed delaying the enemy as long as possible at Minqar Qaim and inflicting the maximum damage on him. Withdrawal would be made only if it were forced. While the Division’s ultimate destination was a prepared position in the Alamein Line, there was no suggestion it would go straight there or that it would not have further action in the retreat. The second order was precise that the move to Deir el Harra was to be made in one bound unless opposition was encountered. Against this possibility, the groups were ordered to take full tactical precautions while on the move.
The situation at dusk compelled a review of the plans which Brigadier Inglis discussed with the formation commanders and senior staff officers at a conference. As the road to the east on the projected line of withdrawal was barred by the enemy, the question was raised whether the Division should fight its way out on this line over Bir Abu Batta or bypass the enemy by moving south and then east. A disadvantage of the latter course was that it would take the Division in the dark with unreliable maps on a tortuous route over unknown country. The east route was over known ‘good-going’ to well-defined tracks. On these and logistical grounds Inglis decided that, although a fight to break out would be necessary, the eastern route was preferable.
A more important factor, and the decisive one, was the relation of the problem to the general Army plan. Brigadier Inglis considered that while a wide detour around the southern flank would ensure the safety of the Division, it would take the Division too far from
the fighting area. Thus it would be side-stepping its task of halting the enemy’s advance. Moreover, like General Freyberg, he believed it was high time the Germans received some discouraging punishment. They were at their thickest immediately east of 4 Brigade. A blow there would do them most harm and could be inflicted without jeopardising the Division’s move.
Having decided on the route, the next most important question was the nature of the attack to break out. There was not much choice. The artillery was down to thirty-five rounds a gun, including smoke and armour-piercing shell, and there was no possibility of additional supplies being received that night. Because of the shortage of ammunition, the enemy concentration at Bir Abu Batta, an attractive target, had not been engaged. The high-explosive shell left was not sufficient to support an attack, and if it were used it would do little more than advertise the Division’s intentions. Moreover, it was desirable to husband the artillery resources against the dangers of the march to Alamein and until contact was re-established with the supply services. Mortar ammunition was also short.
The alternative, a silent approach and then assault with bayonet, bullet and grenade, was accepted. Inglis gave the task to 4 Brigade under Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows. The brigade was experienced in the art of silent night attack which the Germans hated. Inglis had no doubt that the enemy could be taken by surprise or about the final issue. To attack and break through, doing all the damage possible on the way, was to his mind clearly the proper course.
Burrows was ordered to attack with the whole brigade on a narrow front and punch a hole through the enemy positions on a neck of ground between Bir Abu Batta and Mahatt Abu Batta. When the hole had been made the remainder of the Division would follow him. Zero hour was fixed at half past eleven, but at Burrows’ request a little later it was altered to half past midnight. He had little time to spare for making his detailed plans, issuing orders, and concentrating the brigade and its associated units.
Even with the breakout attack, the Division might have withdrawn tidily by groups but for another complicating factor. Fifth Brigade’s troop-carrying transport was ‘out in the blue’ and contact could not be established with it. Nor could contact be made with 21 Battalion at Bir Khalda. To preserve the thread of the main narrative, these matters will be dealt with in detail later. The problem was how to overcome the difficulty the brigade commander had reported. General Lumsden’s agreement to pass on word that the Division was withdrawing and to see out 21 Battalion and the transport solved one part of the problem. The other part was met by ordering 5 Brigade Group to put as many men as possible on its
first-line transport and anything else that would carry them, including the guns, and to bring the remainder on foot to the assembly area where they would be distributed among the Divisional Reserve Group vehicles. An inevitable consequence was that while transport would be provided for all men, 5 Brigade Group would not be mobile as a group and, therefore, it could not operate tactically.
Fifth Brigade was again unfortunate when moving to the Reserve Group’s area where the distribution among other transport was to be made. In order to avoid broken ground south of Minqar Qaim feature and to give the transport from the most western positions a clear run, it was necessary to clear a passage through the mines laid north of the defences. As only a few engineers were available, the mine-lifting had to be done by the infantrymen, many of whom had never lifted mines before, much less searched for them in darkness. They were not wholly successful and several vehicles were damaged when crossing an uncleared area. The explosions caused a number of casualties, C Company of 22 Battalion alone losing about twenty-five men when a carrier belonging to 5 Field Regiment was blown up.
Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows’ plans and orders for the attack were relatively simple in view of the heavy responsibility placed upon him and 4 Brigade Group. His task was considerably lightened, however, by the brigade’s experience in night attacks, the confidence and, strange as it may seem, enthusiasm for the operation. There were no obvious loose ends in plans or orders but, on the other hand, none of his commanders or staff had need to press for that attention to detail which wastes time when every fleeting minute has value.
The neck, or col, between Bir Abu Batta and Mahatt Abu Batta was about a quarter of a mile wide, a front suitable for a battalion but no more. The enemy, however, were also known to be in the Bir Abu Batta re-entrant on the face of the escarpment and might be expected on Mahatt Abu Batta. These were the decisive factors in choosing the dispositions for the attack, a broad arrow formation with 19 Battalion in the centre as the point, and 20 and 28 Battalions echeloned slightly to the left and right respectively to support the advance by flanking movements.
The brigade’s first-line transport was ordered to assemble in tight night formation behind the infantry, with the B echelon and attached units farther in rear. The field and anti-tank batteries of the group were placed on the flanks and across the rear of the transport column. So placed, they could give quick protection to the transport. Time would not be lost in deploying, and in the moonlight the guns could be fired over open sights at the close targets which, in the
circumstances, would be available. The batteries would also be handy to take up their positions for the march across the desert after the attack. The potential fire screen was further strengthened by mounting the Vickers guns of No. 2 Machine Gun Company in trucks and dispersing them around the transport column. Brigade Headquarters was to move in the centre behind 19 Battalion, and a field ambulance car was detailed to follow each battalion. The start line for the infantry, to be laid out and marked with screened lights by the brigade intelligence officer, was set across the forward defended localities of 19 Battalion.
Being closest to the forming-up area, 19 Battalion was first in position. It was deployed with A and D Companies in the front line. B Company was to the right rear of A Company, and Major Smith with his men of the Essex Regiment behind D Company. The battalion covered a front of between 300 and 400 yards, with a depth of 200 yards.
A period of anxiety then developed. The 20th Battalion was only beginning to show up and there was no sign of the Maoris. Zero hour approached and passed with 20 Battalion still moving into its assembly area. It was not ready until 12.45, a quarter of an
hour after zero. The battalion was deployed in column on a front of 200 yards with A Company in the lead, followed by C Company and part of Headquarters Company, with D Company in the rear. Each rifle company put two of its platoons on the left so that the greatest part of the battalion’s fire power was concentrated on the brigade’s northern flank.
Burrows had now to meet one of the sternest tests that can face a commander in battle. Should he wait for his remaining battalion or attack with what he had in hand? Further delay involved the risk that the Division would not be clear of the gap before daylight and might be caught by enemy tanks in the open and without adequate ammunition. On the other hand, an attack by two battalions might not be successful, in which case the whole Division would be trapped. There was the further danger that if the Maoris were left they might be lost.
Once before, at Maleme in Crete, Burrows had had to meet a like situation. His problem there was whether he should evacuate a vital area to reach another point at a decisive hour or await the relief whose arrival had been delayed? Then higher authority had told him to stay and try to make up the lost time with speed in movement after the relief. On the present occasion, part of the lost time might be retrieved through the impetus of an attack by three battalions. There would be less chance of making up lost time if the plans were revised and new dispositions made for an attack by only two battalions.
Burrows decided to wait and, because there was little else to engage his mind, suffer the additional anxiety of wondering whether the decision was the right one.1
The Maoris were not to blame for being late. The brief interval between the receipt of the brigade order and zero hour was a factor. Patrols on their front had to be recalled and also parties which were destroying abandoned enemy vehicles. The battalion had a long way to come. It is possible, too, there was something in a rumour that more than a few men were making an ‘investigation’ of what the enemy had left behind. Eventually, however, the battalion reached its assembly area but not until a quarter to two, an hour and a quarter after zero hour.
By this time Brigadier Inglis had become very concerned at the delay in launching the attack. He, also, was worried lest the Division would not be clear of the area before daylight. As time passed without any sign of action, he went forward to investigate, but as he reached 4 Brigade the advance started. He thereupon
returned and brought forward the remainder of the Division until the head of the column was level with and to the south of 4 Brigade transport.
In 4 Brigade company and platoon commanders spent the waiting time in giving final instructions and checking details. But many of the men were so nonchalant that they dozed in their positions. A non-commissioned officer of 4 Field Regiment recalled later that Minqar Qaim was one of the two places in the war where he felt perfectly happy. The other place, strangely, was Sidi Rezegh. His duty done for the time being, this young NCO climbed into his truck and promptly went into a deep sleep, from which he did not waken until the transport was passing through enemy fire. Then he woke with a start, to the relief of the driver who thought his passenger surely must have been killed.
As soon as the Maoris reached their start line, 4 Brigade advanced. Probably definite orders to move were received by the companies poised on their lines. No one remembers them. The start seemed to be automatic, as if a familiar spirit had whispered that there was a rendezvous to keep and it was time to be on the way. With bayoneted rifles at the high port and Bren and tommy guns ready for action, the brigade stepped forward. An occasional rattle of equipment, an occasional slither over an outcrop of rock, sounded above the muffled tread of heavy boots in the sand and dust. Each man was aware of the presence of his neighbour and of the march of a host.
A hundred yards passed, then two hundred; now five hundred and then a thousand yards were gone. The slit trenches and the defence positions which had spelt security during the day seemed distant in the rear. The brigade was in the open, naked and exposed. The ‘point of no return’ was passed. Whatever happened, the brigade must go forward. There was now no alternative.
Then the enemy sprang to life. A few odd shots swelled rapidly into a cacophony of fire from rifles, automatics of all types, and anti-tank guns. Lines of tracer bullets crossed and recrossed with the appearance of a perfect fire pattern. Apparently the Germans had been waiting. It seemed impossible for any troops to get among the enemy without suffering heavy casualties. What would happen? In the face of such a blaze of fire would the brigade check? Would it falter? There was only one chance. Close with the enemy as fast as possible.
Fourth Brigade did not falter. To quote from Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows’ report, ‘a most amazing and thrilling thing happened. To a man the whole brigade charged forward. No orders were
given; no urging forward by officers and non-commissioned officers. With shouting, cheering and war cries every man broke into a run as if he knew exactly what was expected of him.’
The shouting and cheering were more of a frenzied yell. The pent-up emotions of the last minutes on the assembly line and of the steady march were freed. The yell was heard above the din of the fire. It carried 4 Brigade as on a wave into the defences. With a few yards to go, some men checked as if to return the enemy’s fire and beat it down. What was their purpose, no one knows precisely, for check and sweeping on to close with bayonet, bomb and bullet were almost simultaneous.
On the right flank, the Maoris swung a little further out and drew level with 19 Battalion. From column, the companies changed into line and made short work of some machine-gun posts. On the main objective, the neck between Bir and Mahatt Abu Batta, little opposition was found by 19 Battalion. In a splendid exhibition of the characteristics of spirited troops, 19 Battalion immediately turned down into the Bir Abu Batta re-entrant to give 20 Battalion a hand. There, among the parked German transport, the greatest resistance was met.
Using bayonets, rifles, tommy guns, Brens fired from the hip and the newly-issued bakelite grenade, the two battalions penetrated into the centre of the close-parked laager. Here, for a few minutes, there was the ‘impassioned drama’ of war. No chances could be taken. Kill or be killed. The bayonet was used with terrifying effect. The German slumped in the corner of a trench or lying on the ground might be shamming. He might fire a shot or throw a grenade when backs were turned. A thrust or a bullet eliminated the risk.
In the slit trenches, most of the Germans had their boots off. Some were undressed. While some Germans attempted to surrender and some to make off by foot and in trucks, others fought hard. Machine-gunners who used the light of burning trucks or of deliberately lit petrol fires to help their aim were dealt with by the simple process of assault from all points except on the line of fire. Truck drivers used wheeled and half-tracked vehicles as tanks in efforts to overrun the attackers. Some got away, but most fell victim to bullets and bombs, including the sticky grenade.
The flashes of explosions, the blaze of burning vehicles, the smoke, dust and the yells and screams made an inferno through which 19 and 20 Battalions fought their way to the far side of the laager. They had punched the required hole. On the eastern side of the wadi, the companies and battalions reformed while the transport came up in response to the success signal. As the advance had been
drawn off its axis by the greater resistance on the left, the majority of the troops were some distance to the north of the embussing point. Spasmodic fire caused a number of casualties while the troops were marching to the transport and in embussing, but the now calmer troops quickly got into the trucks and the whole brigade moved off in night formation to the east.
In this climax to the Battle of Minqar Qaim, 4 Brigade added unfading lustre to the story of New Zealand arms. Proof was given, if proof were needed, that the New Zealand citizen soldier, adequately trained and equipped, was equal to any situation. Physical fitness was a factor. The men of 4 Brigade, since leaving Matruh on 25 June, had been travelling in trucks, marching or digging defences, with little time for sleep or even rest until the morning of 27 June. During that day they had stood the strain of continuous attack under a broiling sun. Their discipline – the discipline expressed in the willing subordination of the individual for the good of the whole – made them a proud command. This discipline, and their confidence, also made it relatively easy to impose on them one of the severest tests of battle – the evacuation of secure defensive positions for the hazards of open warfare attack.
Major Smith’s company of the Essex Regiment shared equally in the glory of the breakout as it had been steadfast in the trials of the day. Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows’ report closes with a special paragraph on the company. ‘I should like to pay a tribute to the company of the Essex Regiment which attacked with the leading battalion,’ he wrote. ‘The conduct of the men throughout was excellent. They attacked with the same fury that was shown by all troops and this assistance contributed considerably towards the success of the operation.’
For an action in which so many men distinguished themselves, decorations had to be sparingly awarded. But there were no two minds in the Division that it had the right to claim on behalf of one of its officers the most jealously guarded award, a bar to the Victoria Cross. Neither wounds nor enemy fire deterred Captain Upham2 from carrying out what he conceived to be merely his duty. That was the case in Crete when he had been given the Cross. In Bir Abu Batta he entered the thickest of the fighting and his men followed him. He saw a truck full of the enemy trying to escape. In spite of heavy automatic fire, he approached close enough to destroy the truck and all of its occupants with grenades. Although wounded in both arms, he continued to lead and control his company. The highest award for bravery, however, was not made for this
action alone. It came later for like conduct at Ruweisat. But the foundation of the Division’s claim to the signal honour was laid at Bir Abu Batta.3
While waiting for 4 Brigade to move and the remainder of the Division to assemble, Brigadier Inglis gave further thought to the problem of the breakout. His reflections led to the conclusion that while there was no doubt 4 Brigade would cut a gap and pass its own transport through, the alerted enemy might trap the remainder of the Division in the gap. By the time the divisional column entered the gap, the enemy on the flanks should be aware of what was happening. Whatever else they might do, they should at least be pouring fire into the gap.
The delay in getting 4 Brigade’s assault under way was also disturbing. Brigadier Inglis did not know how deeply the enemy was disposed about Bir Abu Batta and therefore how long 4 Brigade would take in breaking through. The midsummer night was short. The desirability of the Division’s being clear of the area by daylight presented itself as an imperative necessity when it was related to 5 Brigade’s dispersion in the transport of other formations. If a further emergency arose it would be difficult to put the brigade on the ground to fight. Certainly the operation could not be carried out with the speed an emergency would demand.
Inglis decided that while the enemy was apparently fully engaged about Bir Abu Batta, the remainder of the Division should bypass the battle area by moving south for about two miles and then turning east parallel with the route to be taken by 4 Brigade. The column would move in tight formation on a front of about 80 yards, and if any enemy were encountered it would crash through them on wheels.
This solution of the problem appears to be so bold, indeed so potentially risky, as to call for examination of the factors which led to its adoption. If nothing else, they emphasize the truth that almost every tactical problem is unique and must be solved on its merits, and that the art of war has no traffic with rules to be slavishly followed in every situation.
Inglis had not been impressed with the weight or vigour of the enemy’s attacks during the day. It was not likely, therefore, that resistance to the breakout would be stronger. Probably it would be weaker. As the enemy appeared to have disposed most of his forces for the night about Bir Abu Batta, his defences elsewhere should be thin. A surprise, solidly packed punch should break them.
The divisional column was suitably composed to deliver such a punch. It comprised about 900 vehicles and guns assembled nine abreast on a front of about 80 yards, with 18 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Gray) leading. The battalion had its Bren carriers and its platoon of two-pounder anti-tank guns deployed across the front. There was thus a front rank capable of delivering a heavy volume of fire if it were needed. The battalion’s troop-carrying vehicles were disposed in rear of this front line. The flanks of the column were held by 5 Field Regiment on the right and 6 Field Regiment on the left. Their guns and vehicles were disposed head to tail with the leading vehicles tucked in behind 18 Battalion’s flanking trucks. Some Vickers machine guns in their 15-cwt trucks were also on the flanks of the column.
Inside this array were packed Divisional Headquarters, the Divisional Reserve Group, two field ambulances, the detachment of American Field Service ambulances, some three-ton vehicles carrying the less severely wounded and 5 Brigade’s infantry on their A echelon, and the Reserve Group’s trucks. The mass was manoeuvrable but was far from a homogeneous entity like a brigade group which had practised night and day battle-manoeuvre on wheels. Control of the column was given to Lieutenant-Colonel Gray, whose car had a shaded guiding light fixed to its differential casing. This car, and that of Brigadier Inglis carrying the divisional commander’s flag on the bonnet, were the only ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles in the front rank.
Because no orders were given for a reconnaissance of the route and for advanced and flank guards, it may be thought that important principles of security were disregarded. This was not so. The enemy was quiet. If he were probed either by reconnoitring patrols or an advanced guard, he would be roused and thus the vital element of surprise would be lost. The hour was late, and any useful reconnaissance by patrols would have taken more time than could be spared. Again, in the dark, it would be difficult to maintain contact with an advanced guard sufficiently far ahead to give the main body real protection. If, as might be expected, the route had to be changed, advanced guard and main body most likely would lose touch with each other. Moreover, there was no question of giving the main body time to deploy and fight if the enemy were encountered, a course also made impracticable by 5 Brigade’s dispersion. Finally, as it would be necessary to know instantly whether any obstacle met was friend or enemy, it was essential to keep the projected route clear of any troops not readily identifiable in the dark.
It is somewhat ironical that a week later the Division was to deal the Italian Ariete Division a devastating blow because its commander
ignored the orthodox principles of security on the march in circumstances when they should have been closely observed.4
A few minutes before 4 Brigade made contact with the enemy, Inglis warned the brigade’s staff captain of his intentions and then told Gray: ‘I am going to take this column two miles south and then turn east and make a break parallel to the 4th Brigade one. If we strike the enemy, we will charge straight through on wheels. Pass that to your own battalion and the rest of the column. All vehicles to follow the head of the column whatever it does. Tell me as soon as you are ready to move.’
Unfortunately, these orders did not go right down the column. The staff officer responsible for passing them found he had time only to shout them to the next unit and jump into his truck as it moved off. As the head of the column swung away from 4 Brigade’s transport, some of the brigade’s drivers mistook the movement for that of their own group and joined up. Prompt intervention by Major Pleasants,5 leading the brigade transport, prevented a merging of the two groups and thus confusion, but a few of 4 Brigade’s vehicles went with the divisional column. Their absence caused some difficulty when the brigade embussed after the attack.
Again, as the rearmost units came up to the turning point they became aware of 4 Brigade’s battle ahead. Under the impression that their own column had run into opposition, they halted and sent forward carriers and guns. When, however, they found the route was clear they reformed and hurried after the column.
The head of the column had moved about a mile and three-quarters when Gray halted to intimate: ‘There is something just in front. I am sending a carrier section forward to see what it is.’ That ‘something’ was extra shadows in the dark about 80 to 100 yards ahead. Gray’s words were hardly spoken when the shadows opened fire to disclose themselves as tanks. In the light of their gun flashes and of a hit by one of 18 Battalion’s anti-tank guns
which fired off its portée, Brigadier Inglis saw a closely packed laager of tanks and trucks. The column had run into 21 Panzer Division’s tank laager.
The flanks of the laager could not be discerned and the tanks and trucks were so closely parked as to suggest a reef on which the divisional column would pile up if the laager were charged. Inglis thereupon ordered Gray to’turn the whole show left’, in other words to make the contemplated turn to the east. Under Gray’s lead, 18 Battalion conformed at once. Looking back across the angle of the wheel, Brigadier Inglis saw some burning trucks and strings of pink and green tracer shells floating over the column and gained the impression that the column was following in orderly array. This was not wholly correct, although there was not the confusion suggested in some contemporary accounts.
When the leading vehicles halted, those in rear continued moving forward until they could go no further. Thus the mass of transport became more compact. To many of the men in this mass the enemy appeared to be pouring on them a heavy volume of tank tracer shells and tracer machine-gun bullets. General Freyberg, who was a stretcher case in his caravan, which incidentally was hit, looked out to remark: ‘Another Balaclava.’ Some men jumped from their trucks to hug the ground. Some attempted to return the fire with their rifles and automatics.
It was soon noticed that the enemy fire was on clearly defined fixed lines. Most of the shells and bullets passed over the vehicles or down the lanes between. The men who hugged the ground in the lanes did so without hurt and regained their trucks by crawling or rolling to them. Even when burning vehicles, including petrol wagons, illuminated the scene, the Germans did not take advantage of the light to destroy the compact target. Losses were extremely low but included some of the vehicles, personnel and patients of 5 Field Ambulance, which was carrying about 300 wounded.6
Although the enemy failed to use the opportunity to inflict a heavy blow, the encounter caused the column to break into three more or less distinct parts. Most of the vehicles in the centre and on the left followed the command into the turn across the enemy’s front. Gray set a moderate, steady speed, but he had not moved very far before he was passed by the leading trucks, whose drivers appear to have put their feet hard down on the accelerators. The actual speed was not very high, but it was too great for the darkness and the rough ground and led to a stringing out of the column. It was probably this burst of speed and the efforts of the drivers
in rear to travel even faster to catch up, that gave diarists the impression that the column was thrown into confusion.7
Order, however, was soon restored when Brigadier Inglis pressed to the head of the column in his car and weaved to and fro across the front shouting to the drivers to slow down. When the column was well clear of the enemy it was halted and closed up, and a rearguard was formed under Brigadier Kippenberger with the main task of collecting stragglers and directing them. Most of these rejoined the column at a long halt made about seven o’clock for breakfast and attention to the wounded. It was then found that 5 Field Regiment and 5 Brigade’s A echelon had not arrived. They represented only a small proportion of the Division, but their absence caused considerable anxiety. With the reorganisation of the column after breakfast, the march to Alamein was resumed and completed without further incident.
Although separated from the Division, 5 Field Regiment was in excellent shape. It was on the right flank of the column in the move south from Minqar Qaim and was brought to a halt almost exactly opposite a point where the left flank of the enemy laager turned southwards. Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow8 quickly saw that if he remained immobile under the enemy fire, the Germans would have time to recover from their confusion and at the close range would probably devastate his formation. Burning and disabled vehicles on his left precluded a turn to the east with the remainder of the Division. A turn to the right was also impossible owing to the tight packing of his trucks and guns and the probability that his exposed flank would be raked by the machine guns he could see were firing on fixed lines.
The bend in the enemy line suggested the solution of the problem. Glasgow climbed to the top of his command car and gave the order and signal to advance and then ‘Right Take Ground.’ Drivers in his vicinity grasped the intention and acted promptly. This quick move was accompanied by rifle and revolve fire and so disconcerted the enemy in the immediate front that they abandoned their machine guns, thus permitting the column to make the ‘Right Take Ground’ manoeuvre without coming under enfilading fire. Other vehicles followed and a large body moved off at a rapid pace. As in the Divisional Headquarters column, the vehicles became strung out.
Glasgow thereupon pressed through to the front and within a few minutes the drivers picked up his signals and formed themselves into five compact columns behind his car. Speed was reduced to four miles in the hour and exceptionally good battle discipline was displayed.
Colonel Glasgow subsequently reported that the casualties were extraordinarily light, mainly because of the fact that the enemy tank and anti-tank gun fire which was maintained from the remainder of the laager during the turning movement was too high. To the best of his knowledge only two German prisoners were left behind and none of his own troops who had gone to ground at the halt had been run over on the resumption of the advance. In his view, the success of the desperate manoeuvre was due to the skill and nice judgment of the drivers and the steadiness of all under fire.
Breaking clear was one thing. What to do next was another. Glasgow first thought his best course would be to turn round and lead the group through the gap being made by 4 Brigade. Noises from that area, however, suggested that the fight was still going on, while enemy signal flares indicated that there were enemy groups between him and the gap. But the flares also showed that the German positions were not continuous. Glasgow decided that if the group travelled quietly and slowly it should be possible to slip between the posts to the neighbourhood of the Bir Khalda telephone line. Guided by the enemy flares, the group changed course no fewer than five times before it got clear. At one stage it passed a laager estimated to contain twelve to twenty German tanks only 20 yards away. The group was not challenged and Glasgow was tempted to attack, but as he did not know precisely what troops he had with him, he decided that the better course would be to get the group safely away and organised tactically before risking an engagement.
Shortly afterwards, Glasgow encountered an Indian unit disposed in a defensive position. He had some difficulty in establishing his bona fides with the Indian sentries who did not speak English, but eventually was permitted to pass. Two miles further east, the group was halted and all officers were called to the command car. Glasgow then discovered the composition of the force that had followed him. He had 22 field guns of his regiment, 6 anti-tank guns, 4 light anti-aircraft guns, 4 machine guns, 14 Bren carriers and 3 ambulances, all with their crews, and about 300 of 5 Brigade’s infantry disposed in trucks and the other vehicles of the group. In the faint moonlight, this mixed force rapidly reorganised into a powerful unit in desert formation. The advance was then resumed until first light when a halt was made in a deir for breakfast.
During this halt some twenty tanks of an unknown type appeared to the south and east. Major Stewart9 was sent in a carrier to investigate and the group was ordered to take up defensive positions. Glasgow said later that the preparation for action was one of the quickest and most efficient he had ever seen. The tanks were Honeys and were part of a battle group of Green Howards, field artillery, and South African anti-tank guns from 7 Motor Brigade.
After breakfast the march to Alamein was continued on a route a little to the north of the Qattara escarpment. In the late afternoon the group was met by Brigadier Inglis and Colonel Gentry and directed into a bivouac outside Kaponga.
This phase of the withdrawal was marked by an incident which increased the already high regard in which officers and other ranks of the New Zealand Medical Corps were held for their devotion to the care of the wounded. The regimental aid post vehicles of 5 Field Regiment, consisting of three trucks, were in the group carrying the more severely wounded. The regiment’s medical officer, Captain Bryant,10 had distinguished himself at Minqar Qaim by keeping his aid post open within a few hundred yards of the gunline and by moving round the gun positions to attend the wounded. He now decided that his patients in the trucks could not bear the jolts of a swift movement over the desert. He consulted Colonel Glasgow and it was agreed that he should take over the ambulances and any trucks needed and bring the wounded on slowly in his own time. Although there were cases of severe internal wounds and haemorrhage, Bryant saved the lives of all his patients.
The third of the groups into which the divisional column had become divided was not so well-found. It comprised trucks and other vehicles from the rear of the column which had turned about on the encounter with the laager and made a hasty departure from the scene. They were followed by Lieutenant-Colonel Russell, commanding 22 Battalion, who spent the remaining hours of darkness in collecting stragglers before setting out to the east.11
An historian of the Peninsula War says that the deep French attacking columns broke up from the rear, almost never from the front, when they came under the British fire. Those in front could see what was happening and feel they could do something about it, while those in rear could only sense the check, hear the noise, see
the smoke, fear the worst and feel helpless to do anything useful. The situation among the rear vehicles that night was probably very similar to that in the rear ranks of a French column.
It will be recalled that the order to charge through on wheels if the enemy were encountered did not go down the column when it was leaving Miniqar Qaim, and also that the rear vehicles were halted at the turning point until it was established that the battle noises ahead were being created by 4 Brigade. After this the rear vehicles hurried on to catch up with the divisional column. To do so they would have to travel at considerable speed, a task which at night calls for concentration on driving to the exclusion of thoughts on the tactical situation. In this frame of mind they closed on the remainder of the column.
A characteristic of night moves by large bodies of transport was probably another factor in leading to disorganisation. When a large column moves at night, all vehicles do not start simultaneously. The order to advance, as it were, trickles down the column, and it often happens that the leading vehicles have gathered speed and have moved a considerable distance before those in rear realise what has happened. This occurred in the encounter with the tank laager. The onward move of the head of the column and its turn to the east were almost concurrent with the outbreak of the enemy fire, but for varying periods the vehicles behind the leaders were immobile.
To the drivers in the rear the strings of tracer bullets and shells, the noise, the glare of burning trucks and the apparently prolonged halt seemed to have made it appear that the head of the column had run into a holocaust. But whatever the cause, some driver or drivers turning about created a general withdrawal of a block of vehicles. It was fortunate that there was a leader of Colonel Russell’s calibre on the spot to regain control.
At first light Russell led his party south-east and met 1 Armoured Division whose GSO 1, Lieutenant-Colonel Peake, gave him the location of 5 Brigade’s B echelon. Russell informed the transport officers of the events of the night, and taking command of the combined group, led it eastwards to find the Division.
The picture of the Division on the morning of 28 June was not attractive. Only a few hours before it had been a compact fighting formation ready for anything. Now it was dispersed in groups varying in size and composition far and wide over the desert.
Tactical Divisional Headquarters, with the greater part of the Divisional Reserve Group and portions of 5 Brigade Group, was making its way eastwards on the grid line prescribed by 13 Corps. At daylight Brigadier Inglis had sent General Freyberg to an airfield
near the coast from which a pilot hurried to Cairo to obtain an air ambulance. By evening General Freyberg was in 2 New Zealand General Hospital at Helwan. At midday Inglis sent a brief situation report to 13 Corps and then, handing over the column to Brigadier Weir, pressed on to make the Division’s dispositions on the new defence line.
Rear Divisional Headquarters was an entity at large in the desert rather than part of the Division. From midday on 27 June it had been cut off from the Division at Minqar Qaim and had been unable to push the supply columns through to the troops. From about five o’clock it had been completely out of touch with Tactical Divisional Headquarters. Rumours abounded, but it could not obtain any definite information about the Division’s position or intentions. In the circumstances Colonel Crump,12 commanding the New Zealand Army Service Corps, and Major Barrington,13 who had tried unsuccessfully to reach Minqar Qaim to replace Lieutenant-Colonel Ross at headquarters, decided to hold their overnight position. At daylight Rear Headquarters packed up and moved eastward toward Alamein and to find the Division.
Fourth Brigade Group was tactically complete except for gun ammunition. After embussing, the group had moved eastwards in tight night formation. Twice it had deviated from the planned route to avoid parties of the enemy, one of which shelled the group. After breakfast the march was resumed in desert formation, initially towards the first rendezvous near Fuka until contact was re-established with Division and orders were received to take the group to the Alamein Line.
Also making their way to Alamein by various routes were the columns led by Glasgow and Russell, the 21st Battalion group (now in two parties), B Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry which had been sent to relieve 21 Battalion at Bir Khalda, and some companies of the Army Service Corps near the coast. Finally, there was Captain Bryant’s pathetic convoy of wounded. These were the organised groups. In addition, there were some isolated trucks whose occupants had but one thought, that of finding their comrades at the earliest moment.
Thus during daylight on 28 June the Division was not available for operations. It could play no further part in the battle then
reaching its climax at Matruh, where 10 Corps was preparing to break out. General Gott had no knowledge of its fate until after midday. The Division’s departure from the scene was unknown at Eighth Army Headquarters, which believed it was still available under 13 Corps for action near Fuka to cover 10 Corps’ withdrawal. Army Headquarters was surprised to learn that Gott had sent it to Alamein.
Although the Division was widely dispersed and withdrawing, it was not making the retreat of defeated men. There was no thought anywhere of defeat. Rather, the firmly held belief was that the Division had given Rommel a hard knock and had upset his plan to encircle and wipe it out. Possibly each of the several groups and parties thought that it alone was separated from the Division and that it was only a matter of forming up again for another round. Thanks to the warning order of early on 27 June and the precaution of asking General Lumsden to pass on the information concerning the withdrawal, the group leaders knew in which direction to head. The Division’s discipline was well able to withstand the stresses being put on it.
All the fighting formations of the Division, including 6 Infantry Brigade, reached the rendezvous on the Alamein Line by midnight on 28–29 June, and the rear services were being re-established. The late afternoon and evening were hours of happy reunions and tales of adventure as group upon group and individuals came in and rejoined units and brigades. The arrival of 4 Brigade Group, its great mass of trucks moving in perfect formation, was a thrilling experience. It represented a solid core, the Division again in being. Fifth Brigade, too, was glad to see its transport come home but was even more pleased to greet 21 Battalion, concerning whose fate rumour had been rife.
That night the New Zealanders bedded down content, once more a fighting division ready for aught the morrow might bring.
An evil spirit bent on frustration seemed to hover over the 21 Battalion column on the Khalda track. Enthusiasm could hardly be expected for the prosaic task of guarding another formation’s field maintenance centre in the depths of the desert when the Division was about to engage in thrilling enterprises. Consequently, the column shared the reluctance with which the command of 5 Brigade detached it for the duty.
The column soon learned that it was still within the battle area. Near Bir Khalda, when transport was congested after climbing an escarpment, the column was bombed and machine-gunned by enemy aircraft which probably broke off from the formation which attacked 4 Brigade at Bir Abu Batta a few minutes later. The transport
scattered in all directions, but not before 14 men were killed, 45 wounded, and 14 vehicles, including three ammunition trucks of 27 Battery, destroyed. A further result of the attack was that only three of the battalion’s three-inch mortars could be provided with complete crews. Some of the wounded were evacuated in the two ambulances with the column and the remainder were removed by six more ambulances sent by the Division during the night. The losses were the heaviest suffered by any single battalion of the Division in one bombing attack.
The column was relieved in the afternoon of 27 June by B Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment under Major Sutherland,14 who also took the anti-tank guns and a troop of the field guns under command. With 21 Battalion and the remainder of 27 Battery, Lieutenant-Colonel Allen set out shortly before four o’clock to rendezvous with 5 Brigade’s B echelon, then believed to be still on the escarpment near Bir Abu Batta.
After travelling roughly five miles, the column was met by Captain Dugleby,15 Staff Captain 5 Brigade, who was following the brigade’s now dispersed transport. His information, by the time it reached Lieutenant-Colonel Allen, was to the effect that the brigade had been driven from Minqar Qaim by enemy tanks. When this news was proved false through the wireless link and by the timely arrival of 23 Battalion’s transport officer, who was also looking for the fugitive vehicles, the column got under way again. As it moved off, advice was received through a British armoured unit nearby that enemy groups were now in both front and rear, the latter probably being 3 Reconnaissance Unit.
As if this were not disturbing enough, it was found a few miles further on, when the column was halted to reconnoitre the ground ahead, that tactical formation had been lost. Most of the battalion’s carriers and some of the leading trucks had turned with the carrier commander, Captain Dee,16 when he had come down the column for orders. They were now in rear instead of leading the march. While tactical formation was being restored, the battalion intelligence officer, Lieutenant Abbot,17 returned from a reconnaissance with a report that he had been fired upon by the enemy. Major McElroy,18 commanding A Company, who had tried to push
on to the brigade from the first halt, also came back with information supplied by the commander of an Indian unit with 7 Armoured Division19 that the brigade was moving south from Minqar Qaim. Although the information was given in good faith, it had no foundation. It may be surmised that it was the sum of reports and deductions gleaned from the movements of 5 Brigade’s dispersing B echelon and 1 Armoured Division’s intention to move south to Bir Khalda. As it was then only about six o’clock, the information could not have been in response to the Division’s request to Major-General Lumsden to advise the units south of Minqar Qaim of the projected withdrawal.
Lieutenant-Colonel Allen’s cogitations on these matters were interrupted by the arrival of enemy armoured cars, trucks, and small guns which deployed for action. They were not identified but, again, were probably from 3 Reconnaissance Unit. Allen decided to turn west to seek the protection of the Indian column. To cover the turning movement, he sent forward the only two sections of carriers which had come up. Travelling fast and in line, the six carriers opened fire with their machine guns. The enemy permitted them to approach to within 200 yards and then subjected them to heavy fire from small arms, anti-tank guns and mortars. Four of the carriers were quickly put out of action. The remaining two picked up survivors and then withdrew to the battalion.
As the action opened, A Company wheeled to the left under fire. Seeing this movement and the return of the carriers, the rest of the battalion turned about and withdrew rapidly southwards, leaving Allen, two carriers under Dee, and one anti-tank gun and the troop of 27 Battery as the sole occupants of the field. While the battalion adjutant hurried off to stop the withdrawal, Allen directed the guns on to the enemy, their fire being supported by the two carriers. He then broke off the action and withdrew his small party to the area the battalion had occupied the previous night. There he was joined by McElroy and most of A Company. There was no sign of the rest of the column.
On learning from Major Sutherland that he was out of contact with the Division and intended to withdraw to the Alamein Line, Allen tried in vain to re-establish a wireless link and then decided to follow the cavalry squadron. About midnight he encountered the B echelon of 7 Motor Brigade, with which he harboured for the remainder of the night. Next morning he moved eastwards in its company. At a halt about eight miles south of the Fuka escarpment, he received news that the Division was on its way to the Kaponga
Box, to which point he then directed his course and arrived without further incident.
The remainder of the column had turned up about four hours earlier. It had been rallied by Major Adams,20 commanding B Company, who, after a fruitless effort to find battalion headquarters, set out eastwards and sheltered for the night with 5 Brigade’s B echelon and some British armour. Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson, CRE of the Division, who had been prevented from returning to Minqar Qaim after reconnoitring the southern front, travelled with the party. South of Fuka they met Major Crisp,21 a New Zealander on the staff of 10 Corps, on whose advice they continued to the Kaponga Box.
Major Sutherland took the cavalry squadron on a more circuitous route to rejoin the Division. Leaving Bir Khalda shortly before eight o’clock after handing over A Troop of 27 Battery to Lieutenant-Colonel Allen, he travelled all night along the northern edge of the Qattara Depression. Soft sand impeded progress, but on the morning of 28 June the squadron was on the firmer ground of the Taqa Plateau, from which it moved north to the divisional area.
The Divisional Cavalry Regiment, however, was not reunited until 30 June. The men left in Matruh when B Squadron moved to the desert moved from the fortress on the morning of 27 June and, at Baggush, met a detail with twelve new carriers. The combined parties then withdrew to Fuka, where the new carriers were prepared for use. In the early hours of 28 June, they gathered from reports and rumours that the Division had withdrawn and, accordingly, they also made their way to Alamein. The regiment’s rail party which had reached Amiriya on 26 June was caught in the confusion of congested railway sidings, but finally managed to extricate itself and unite with the last detail of the regiment, which had been drawing new equipment at Abbassia, and so rejoin the regiment.
Fifth Brigade’s B echelon is the last substantial section of the Division to be accounted for in the dispersion of 28 June. The precipitate withdrawals and failure of the transport to rejoin the Division were criticised at the time, and some inferences were drawn which fuller knowledge of all the circumstances would have corrected. The term B echelon may convey the impression of an organised and controlled entity. The composition of such an echelon, however, varied from time to time, as did the personnel within it. At Minqar Qaim 5 Brigade’s B echelon comprised trucks of the Reserve Mechanical Transport, the engineers and infantry battalions, a
heterogeneous collection of some 300 to 400 vehicles driven by men who were accustomed to acting on their own initiative rather than as a group.
There can be no doubt that exercise of individual initiative saved the transport when it was attacked in front of 5 Brigade on the morning of 27 June and again in the afternoon near Bir Abu Batta. Had the drivers moved in formation they would have presented the enemy with a target of his dreams. By rapid dispersal and moving at varying speeds they disconcerted the enemy gunners. Their discipline showed up in the manner in which they rallied on both occasions when seemingly clear of the enemy.
It was a misfortune that the transport took with it the battery-charging set of 5 Brigade’s signals. Batteries were being recharged when the first attack was made and the apparatus was driven away in a truck. Counsel of perfection suggests that the signals officer, Second-Lieutenant Sidey,22 might have returned the charging set and batteries from Bir Abu Batta. But he was not to know that the transport would be driven still further away from the brigade. He knew, however, that there were fully charged spare batteries at Brigade Headquarters which should suffice until the brigade and transport were reunited. It was again unfortunate that the truck driver in whose care the batteries reposed was unaware they were wanted. Such things happen in battle, as indeed they may in even the best regulated business.
When the transport was brought under control after the second dispersal, it was formed into a convoy to return to the neighbourhood of the Division. On this occasion there was indiscipline on the part of a few drivers. When some armoured cars appeared across the route these drivers broke away without orders, producing a disorganisation which was not straightened out until about five miles to the east had been covered. The assistance of a British armoured unit was sought to cover the return journey to the Division but it was unable to comply with the request.
After repeated attempts to get into touch with the brigade for orders, wireless contact was established at seven o’clock when the Brigade Major, Major Monty Fairbrother,23 instructed the transport to return by the most direct route. However, before the convoy could move it learned from 21 Battalion that the route was held by the enemy. When reconnaissance revealed that a battle was in
progress to the north, it was decided not to move until further information could be had from 5 Brigade.
Then followed the period when both Brigade Headquarters and transport tried in vain to get into touch with each other. Even a high-powered set borrowed by the transport from an armoured car failed to make contact. Eventually about midnight, when the men of 5 Brigade had been allocated to other vehicles, faint touch was re-established. The wireless link at 5 Brigade Headquarters was so weak that it was impossible to discuss the situation, use a code, or give the customary verification numbers. The best the Brigade Major could do in the circumstances was to give the simple order, ‘Go east to Amiriya’, a point well known to the transport, and the signals officer instructed the operator to use ‘Monty says so’, as verification.
This order was received with the deepest suspicion by the officers with the transport. They had no knowledge of the impending withdrawal of the Division. Only a few days before a warning had been circulated that the Germans were sending false messages in English on Eighth Army wave-lengths. Now, when the customary verification code numbers did not come back, the officers suspected an enemy ruse to misdirect the transport and so immobilise the brigade. Some imaginations were vivid enough to picture the brigade staff as captured and sending the order under the duress of German revolvers in their backs. The fact that anyone could possibly think the brigade staff would be so amenable did not contribute to calm appraisal of the circumstances when the events of the day were discussed later.
In view of the doubts and suspicions, it was decided not to move the transport until confirmation of the order was obtained. This was given early next morning on the appearance of Lieutenant-Colonel Russell, and the two groups then proceeded in company to join the Division.
German reactions to the escape of the Division from Minqar Qaim were philosophical concerning its effects on the campaign, but were bitter towards the New Zealanders. There was a somewhat whimsical idea that the Division should have recognised it was trapped, and that it had not played the game fairly in depriving Afrika Korps of the victory the Korps had arranged to garner next morning. Prisoners of war gathered the impression that some of the troops had celebrated the expected victory in advance. The bitterness was a reaction to the carnage in Bir Abu Batta. All formations and even Rommel himself were affected.
The diary of 21 Panzer Division records that at 28 minutes past two a ‘most immediate’ wireless message was received from
regimental headquarters of the Panzer Grenadiers ‘that, after an unexpected artillery preparation, the enemy attacked regimental headquarters and penetrated into the positions of the right wing of 1/R Regiment 104.’ The report clearly refers to 4 Brigade’s attack. The reference to an artillery preparation, of course, was wrong but may be attributed to the confusion. By the time the headquarters was alarmed there would have been enough grenade and other explosions to suggest a bombardment.
At first, divisional headquarters regarded the attack on Bir Abu Batta as a feint, ‘but,’ the diary continues, ‘it soon develops into a number of violent assaults launched on all parts of the front. The enemy tries, with all the forces at his disposal, to break through to the south in the direction of Khalda.’
An hour later General Bismarck reported to Afrika Korps that ‘all attacks have been completely repulsed. In some places, however, the enemy, supported by tanks, succeeded in breaking out. It is very likely that he escaped through these gaps with the bulk of his forces.’ This diary entry adds that the Panzer Grenadiers had been ordered to comb and mop up the terrain to the north of the escarpment, and that 1 Battalion ‘has suffered very heavy casualties as the enemy succeeded in surprising the battalion and cutting it to pieces in a hand-to-hand fight.’
The report is an unconscious tribute to the violence of the divisional column’s unexpected collision with the German laager south of Minqar Qaim. No comment is needed on the obvious errors in the report other than that they are normal to the confusion of a night action. It is striking, however, that Bismarck does not appear to have been concerned that, on top of his failure to carry out his intention of the previous evening to destroy the encircled enemy, he had now failed in his second intention of preventing a breakout. The confession that 1 Battalion had been surprised and cut to pieces is naive. But neither Rommel nor Afrika Korps took the division to task for permitting the prize to escape or dealt with 1 Battalion for the cardinal sin of being surprised in a battle position. Afrika Korps closes its diary note of the occasion with the laconic comment: ‘The encirclement was not a success.’
There was no philosophical consideration of the carnage which daylight revealed in Bir Abu Batta. The last sounds heard by 4 Brigade as it embussed after the breakthrough were the cries and calls of the wounded enemy. They came over the still air like the pathetic bleating of sheep disturbed in the night. But the agonising appeals for help aroused the Grenadiers to anger, which deepened when they found that many of their stricken comrades had multiple wounds plainly showing they had been bayoneted or shot, often both, several times.
Perhaps in the circumstances calm acceptance of the situation could not be expected of the rank and file. The division, however, had had considerable experience and had fought many night actions. At least its senior officers might have known that multiple wounds were common to hand-to-hand fighting, especially at night. If in the comradeship of arms, they were affected by the distress of their men and thus shared their feelings, a more detached view might have been taken by Afrika Korps’ headquarters. On the contrary, the Korps’ diary placed on record for all time the false charge: ‘During these actions violations of International Law, such as slaughter of the wounded, occur.’ Had the entry been made for propaganda purposes, or to arouse the fighting spirit of all ranks, it might be understood, although not condoned. There is nothing to suggest it was made otherwise than as a solemn statement of fact.
This view is supported by other circumstances. A belief which Rommel shared spread through Panzerarmee that the New Zealanders fought like gangsters, with no thought or understanding of chivalry. Discriminatory action was immediately taken against New Zealanders captured in the battle. They were separated from other prisoners, stripped of personal possessions and made to stand in the hot sun for six hours without rest. Personal indignities were also heaped on some of them. In subsequent battles on the Alamein Line, the Germans fought with an intensity strongly suggestive of a desire to ‘get even’ with the New Zealanders. The feeling was different from that usually held towards a foe whose fighting qualities are respected. Broadcasts from Berlin referred to the New Zealanders as ‘ Freyberg’s butchers’.
It is strange that Rommel did not make a personal investigation of events in the breakout as he had a high regard for the ethics and chivalry of war. He appears to have accepted the reports without question. When Brigadier Clifton was brought before him on his capture in the following September, Rommel gave vent to a harangue about the ‘gangster’ methods of the New Zealanders at Minqar Qaim. Clifton has recorded that Rommel listened to his explanations and, in the end, replied, ‘Well, that is reasonable and could happen in a night battle, but . ...’24
There is no need to defend let alone apologise for the actions of 4 Brigade in the breakout. Let it be repeated, it was a glorious feat of arms. But a false charge incorporated in the enemy archives cannot be passed over by anyone having access to all the facts, lest default in meeting the charge should be taken as an admission of guilt and thereby leave a stain on the proud record of a hard-fighting yet chivalrous division.
It should be added that the Division was not disturbed by the broadcasts from Berlin. The attitude was: ‘When the Germans bleat, you know you have hit and hurt them.’
Rommel had another wrong impression of the breakout. In his notes on the campaign in North Africa he made brief reference to meeting the New Zealand Division at Matruh and of his headquarters becoming involved in the breakout.25 The details supplied, however, show conclusively that the honour of disturbing him and of compelling him to move hastily to a safer area belongs to 50 Division which, during the night 28–29 June, broke out southward from the coastal escarpment.
Panzerarmee’s battle report of the day also erred in reporting that the New Zealand Division had broken out southwards from the fortress of Matruh.
Although the New Zealand Division had no further part in the battle of Matruh and the fighting up to the enemy’s arrival at Alamein, the principal features of the operations from 28 June to 1 July must be understood to appreciate the drama of the Alamein Line.
On the morning of 28 June the enemy quickly recovered his tactical aplomb after the confused events of the night. The Italian X and XXI Corps, attacking Matruh from the west and south-west, and 90 Light Division, which had cut the coast road five miles east of Garawla at 8.30 the previous evening, were ordered to close in on the fortress. Afrika Korps was directed to take up the pursuit eastwards, with orders to reach the area 25 miles south-west of Daba and to cut off the British motorised forces by a push southwards. The 3rd Reconnaissance Unit was instructed to advance south-east through Khalda. The Italian XX Armoured Corps, which had been under the command of Afrika Korps for the operations against 1 Armoured and the New Zealand Divisions on 27 June, was ordered to protect the supply routes on the escarpment about the Khalda track.
In contrast to the enemy’s grip of the situation, obscurity still reigned at all headquarters in Eighth Army. Auchinleck, at 6.15, greeted the morning with an urgent inquiry of both corps for their situation, and two hours later 10 Corps asked through Air Support Control for news of 13 Corps. But the perilous position in which his corps had been placed was apparent to Lieutenant-General Holmes. At 10.35 a.m. he sent a signal to Eighth Army giving the location of 50 Division as east of Wadi el Huraiqa, and stating that the two brigades of 10 Indian Division were being concentrated in
the area north of Wadi el Zarqa. He also said the enemy was astride the coast road. Holmes then stated that he was faced with the choice of an organised attack to open the coast road which would have to be made that night, a breakout to the south and then east, or the concentration of both his divisions to ‘fight it out.’ He said his choice was governed largely by the help he could expect from 13 Corps and asked if that corps could come as far north as Shararid. If not, was any other course possible? Holmes added that, in any case, it was impossible to expect organised bodies from 10 Corps to arrive at the Fuka line. If Eighth Army expected to reorganise on the Fuka line, a screen must be provided west of it. This was in reference to the ‘Pike’ plan of a further stand at Fuka.
The signal was not received at Eighth Army until 12.40, over two hours after its despatch. In the meantime, at 11.45, Auchinleck had sent the following message to his corps commanders: ‘1. The enemy intention today clearly is to attack north of Matruh and Baggush. Enemy detachments are reported to have reached Baggush. 2. 10th Corps will on no account be cut off in Matruh area but will withdraw towards the Fuka line keeping south of Qasaba [the coastal] escarpment. Immediate and bold action by both of you is essential.’
Even when Eighth Army received Holmes’ alarming signal of 10.35 a.m., more than two hours elapsed before a reply was sent. At ten minutes to three the following message was sent to 10 Corps: ‘No question of fighting it out. No time to stage a deliberate attack along the road for which there is probably no objective. You will slip out tonight with whole force on a broad front, turn east on high ground and rally El Daba. 13 Corps will cover you.’
The details of the last phase at Matruh are outside the scope of this work. Suffice it to say that a fighting breakout was made that night and that the remnants of 50 and 10 Indian Divisions with Corps Headquarters set a course for Alamein. On their way they were set upon by 21 Panzer Division with further heavy losses. The fate of the corps was unknown to the Eighth Army until parts dribbled into Alamein, from where they were sent to the Delta to rest, reorganise and refit.
With the overrunning of the last gallant handful of 29 Indian Brigade by 21 Panzer Division at Fuka the previous evening, only 1 Armoured Division, with the addition of 7 Motorised Brigade, was now left to oppose the enemy’s advance. On Army orders, three columns of the division had moved north from Khalda to help 10 Corps and strengthen the defence of Fuka, but they had arrived too late to intervene. The division, however, was effective in what proved to be its final role as rearguard. Fighting as brigades rather
than as a division, the three brigades, 4 and 22 Armoured and 7 Motor with its armoured cars, harassed Afrika Korps so much that Panzerarmee acknowledged that the delay in the arrival of the Korps at Alamein was due to the actions, ‘sometimes heavy and costly’, which had to be fought.26 The armour also engaged the Italian XX Corps to such effect that its divisions ‘were thrown into considerable disorder’, and ‘eventually it was necessary for the C-in-C to give a very sharp order to get the corps to move on.’27
In the meantime, 90 Light Division and the Italian X and XXI Corps moved eastwards from Matruh. After its strenuous performances, 90 Light decided it was entitled to rest and bathe in Matruh’s pellucid waters. But while the men were luxuriating in their first spell since the campaign opened a month before, Rommel appeared and ordered the division to resume the pursuit immediately.
At 6.15 a.m. on 30 June, Auchinleck, having realised the impossibility of halting the enemy further west, ordered the final withdrawal to the Alamein Line. At approximately the same time, Rommel gave his orders for the day’s march of Panzerarmee to assembly positions from which it was to attack the Alamein defences at four o’clock next morning.
Eighth Army’s stand at Matruh, and particularly that of the New Zealand Division at Minqar Qaim, created a belief that these were decisive influences in arresting the enemy’s advance at Alamein. Discussions of advantages gained at Alamein because of the supposed delay and casualties imposed on the enemy at Matruh generally neglect the reverse side of the picture, which shows Eighth Army as suffering another serious defeat.
Panzerarmee was occupied from two and a half to three days at Matruh, that is from about three o’clock in the afternoon of 26 June, when it left its assembly positions, to 1 p.m. on 29 June, when 90 Light Division resumed the advance on the coast road after the fall of the fortress. The net loss of time by the enemy, and by corollary Eighth Army’s net gain, was less. Allowance must be made for the time Panzerarmee would have required to traverse the area had its movement been opposed only by a rearguard. Afrika Korps’ operations suggest that up to one day might have been needed.
On this hypothesis, Afrika Korps would have been clear of Matruh and on the way to Alamein in the afternoon of 27 June instead of 28 June as was the case. The Korps provided the spearhead of
the advance for Matruh and, assuming similar delaying action by 1 Armoured Division to that which occurred, it would have arrived before Alamein on 29 June, or one day ahead of the actual time. This supposition may be challenged by the suggestion that even had the enemy armour reached Alamein on 29 June, Rommel would have had to await 90 Light Division and the Italian X and XXI Corps before making his attack. The facts are that, in spite of the fighting for the fortress of Matruh, these formations arrived in Alamein about the same time as the armour.
The battle of Matruh gained for Eighth Army at the outside a day and a half for manning and improving the defences on the Alamein Line. The price paid was heavy. Tenth Indian Division, which had arrived at Matruh in fairly good order, was so shattered that it had to be withdrawn to the Delta to refit. Only three eight-gun battle groups were left of 50 Division. Fifth Indian Division’s 9th Brigade was available for a small fortress role, but there was little left of the remainder of the division. The enemy claimed from the battle ‘more than 6000 prisoners and, in addition to large supply dumps, war equipment of all sorts sufficient for about one division.’28 Even though it may be idle speculation, reflection is inevitable on the difference the presence of these divisions and their equipment might have made to the opening phases of the battle on the Alamein Line when the enemy was stretched to the limit of his resources.
Major-General de Guingand records contemporary impressions concerning the value of the action at Minqar Qaim. ‘The New Zealand Division,’ he says, ‘had come straight up against the crack German Panzer 15 and 21 divisions, south of Matruh. Here a memorable engagement took place, and I believe this mauling of the enemy’s spearhead probably went a long way to saving the situation.’29
Afrika Korps’ tank states of the period, however, present another view. In its daily return for 25 June, 21 Panzer reported that it had 30 tanks. The return submitted in the morning of 27 June showed 23 tanks, a total which makes allowance for the losses in the Siwa road minefield the previous evening. Next morning, that of 28 June after Minqar Qaim had been fought, the division reported 20 tanks. Analysis of the returns shows that the division lost two Mark II and two Mark III tanks at Minqar Qaim. Of the tanks damaged in the Siwa road minefield, one was repaired sufficiently to join the march at first light and another, a Mark IV, appears to have joined the division during the action at Minqar Qaim. When the division arrived at Alamein it had 26 tanks.
The tank strength of 15 Panzer Division on the eve of the battle cannot be stated so precisely. Afrika Korps, however, reported on 25 June that it had about fifty serviceable tanks. As the strength of 21 Division on that date is known, 15 Panzer Division must have had about twenty tanks. After being in action against 1 Armoured Division throughout 27 June, 15 Division reported next morning that it had 17 tanks, two consumption units [fuel for approximately 130 miles], and half of its ammunition establishment. When the division arrived at Alamein on 30 June it had 25 tanks.30
A German cemetery at Minqar Qaim containing about 300 graves, most of them with the distinctive emblem of the Panzer Grenadiers, is the only guide to Afrika Korps’ losses in personnel in the battle. Probably all the Germans buried at Minqar Qaim lost their lives fighting the New Zealand Division.
The New Zealanders’ casualties in the engagement cannot be stated definitely either, as many of the unit returns for the period give only ‘blanket’ dates owing to uncertainty of the exact time the casualty occurred. Some time after the battle, however, 2nd Echelon compiled a return showing the Division’s losses for the period 20 to 30 June, that is from the commencement of the return to the desert to the day before the fighting started on the Alamein Line. These figures cover casualties from all battle sources, including bombing. They show:
|Killed in action||8||86|
|Died of wounds||1||55|
|Wounded and safe||23||641|
|Missing and prisoners of war||9||140|
The casualties in and around Minqar Qaim would account for about nine-tenths of the losses.
On this analysis of time factors and comparative losses it cannot be said that the Division’s stand at Minqar Qaim mauled the enemy spearhead or that it went a long way in saving the situation.
Although Minqar Qaim is thus shown to have had little effect on the battle of Matruh or on Rommel’s advance to Alamein, the stand and breakout added greatly to the prestige of the New Zealand
Division. A tribute was paid by Mr Churchill in the House of Commons on 2 July when he was replying to a challenge on the Government’s direction of the war, with particular reference to the reverse in North Africa. After stating that ‘most authorities expected that ten days to a fortnight would be gained by the withdrawal to Matruh,’ Churchill briefly referred to some of the steps being taken to rectify the situation. He then said:
Although I am not mentioning reinforcements there is one reinforcement which has come, which had been in close contact with the enemy and which he knows all about. I mean the New Zealand Division. (Cheers) The Government of New Zealand, themselves under potential menace of invasion, authorised the fullest use of their troops whom they had not withdrawn or weakened in any way. They have sent them into the battle where, under the command of the heroic Freyberg, again wounded, they have acquitted themselves in a manner equal to all their former records. (Cheers) They are fighting hard at this moment.31
There is, however, another aspect of Minqar Qaim which cannot be passed over. The Division must be identified with what has been described as ‘the flight of 13th Corps from Minqar Qaim’ and its consequent effect on Eighth Army’s direction of the battle. It has also been suggested that the Division’s arrival on the Alamein Line caused some surprise as it was not expected there so soon. The facts, as they have been brought out in this narrative, prove that New Zealand Division was ordered by 13 Corps to Alamein, that 1 Armoured Division covered the retreat of the remains of 10 Corps from Matruh, and that 13 Corps’ other component, 29 Brigade of 5 Indian Division, was finally wiped out at Fuka.
Nevertheless, 13 Corps’ direction of its part of the battle and the departure of New Zealand Division surprised Eighth Army. Brigadier Whiteley was examined on this phase of the battle by the Court of Inquiry into certain phases of the retreat and the battle of Matruh. Questions by the Court and his answers are given in full as they appear in the proceedings:
Q. At the time of the withdrawal from Matruh, 13 Corps were then in the area Qaim. Was it thought possible that 10 Corps could get out of Matruh unless 13 Corps held on to Qaim and Hamza?
A. No. The whole plan was that 13 Corps should attack north to help them out. My very firm impression is that the New Zealand Division, having been attacked and overrun, was ordered away. Who gave them this order, I don’t know. There was virtually nothing left of 13 Corps bar the very weak 5 Indian Division and, of course, the armour which was being very widely deployed in the south.
Q. I have read the reports of 10 Corps and there was no co-ordination of the withdrawal. 13 Corps just disappeared and left 10 Corps up the pole.
A. They had not been intended to go. When they pulled out that morning it was a great surprise.
Q. Commander New Zealand Division told me that he got permission to withdraw in the afternoon,32 whereas 10 Corps did not get it from Army until 2200 hours. Can you explain it?
A. I cannot. My contention is that it was not intended that New Zealand Division should withdraw at that time. I cannot understand how they got orders to withdraw in the afternoon. It was not the C-in-C’s intention.
When it was known that the New Zealand Division had withdrawn, Army Headquarters was very surprised. They were also surprised that 13 Corps had gone back. 10 Corps was left to fight its way out of a very difficult position. They had to get up the escarpment which was very difficult.
Q. It was intended then that 13 Corps should hang on to Sidi Hamza longer than they did?
A. Yes, very definitely. They were to hold the high ground until after 10 Corps had started.
This pertinent evidence should be read with reservations. Brigadier Whiteley was the only senior staff officer of Army Headquarters who appeared before the Court. Thus it fell to him to explain whatever shortcomings there may have been in the highest echelon. He was closely examined, but it would be unfair to infer from the examination that he was a reluctant witness or that he was in any way on trial. It would also be unfair to attribute to him, because of his frank statements and answers to questions, an undue share of responsibility for errors at Eighth Army.
Neither Lieutenant-General Gott nor his chief staff officer, Brigadier Erskine, gave evidence, a fact which the Court may have had in mind when it opened its report with the statement that, ‘Owing to their being engaged in active operations, certain commanders whose actions may appear to have been called in question were not able to attend the sittings of the Court and no evidence was taken on oath.’ Because of this and other circumstances, the Court made it clear ‘that its work should be considered as of an exploratory and preliminary nature only.’
Although even with these reservations all the circumstances point to 13 Corps’ responsibility, this is subsidiary to the fact that the failure to make full use of the Division at Matruh and in the subsequent retreat was not due to any fault of the Division. There is little profit except for students in re-fighting the battle. Yet it may be observed that had 13 Corps’ Tactical Headquarters remained on the scene to co-ordinate the operations of its divisions, Afrika Korps, which was much weaker in tanks, guns and infantry, could
have been dealt a punishing blow. Again, New Zealand Division was available for a further delaying action at Fuka had 13 Corps so desired. All that was required was an order to break out to Fuka, or the first rendezvous, instead of to Deir el Harra. Although the Division disintegrated in the breakout, it was as capable of rallying at Fuka as on the more distant Alamein Line.
The outstanding feature of Minqar Qaim was not its impact on the enemy or its contribution to Eighth Army’s operations, but that the Division escaped annihilation. The Division’s concentration on the escarpment made it vulnerable to air attack. Dive-bombers could have done much towards destroying the transport and silencing the guns. Very little, if any, protection was available from the Royal Air Force as its ground organisation was also moving back. Had the Division, its gun ammunition almost exhausted, been pinned to the ground by the destruction of its transport, it is difficult to see how it could have escaped the enemy armoured divisions assembling for the kill at first light on 28 June.