Chapter 16: Defeat of Ariete Division
NEW Zealand Division’s destruction of the Italian Ariete Armoured Division on 3 July is an outstanding episode in the Dominion’s military history. The victory had wider repercussions than those felt immediately on the battlefield, where it was wrongly ascribed by the Germans as the principal cause of Afrika Korps’ further defeat. It seriously disconcerted both Germans and Italians and made the latter more fearful in subsequent conflicts with the New Zealanders. It increased German distrust of the fighting qualities of their allies and Italian cynicism concerning Rommel’s leadership. It was also possibly one of the main factors which led Rommel to plan an operation with the sole purpose of eliminating the New Zealand Division. The story of the occasion is best told in the perspective of the battle as a whole.
Overnight, the mobile forces of both armies lay close to their last battle positions of the previous day. First Armoured Division was about a mile and a half west of Alam Baoshaza, with 22 Brigade on the eastern end of Ruweisat Ridge and 4 Brigade in the lower ground to the south. Seventh Motor Brigade was a little farther to the south and roughly in line with the armoured brigades. The New Zealand column was on Alam Nayil, with its batteries deployed on the reverse slope and observation posts on the crest of the ridge.
First Armoured Division had a total of 120 tanks, 63 being in 4 Brigade and 57 in 22 Brigade. The tanks, however, were not in the well-organised units of 27 May. Rather, the British official narrative notes, they were a collection of fragments of units. All had administrative difficulties. For example, at two o’clock in the morning of 3 July when 22 Brigade received its detailed orders for the day, it reported that it had only just reached laager and that some of its tanks had strayed in the dark. Fourth Brigade also reported that it was still on the move and that so far it had not refuelled. Nevertheless, both brigades were ready at dawn to start again on the encircling march to the west and north in the 13 Corps’ counter-attack ordered by Auchinleck the previous day.
On the enemy side, 21 Panzer Division was on the northern slopes of Ruweisat and 15 Panzer in the valley to the south, Afrika Korps
as a whole being between Deir el Shein and the western track from Alamein to Qaret el Himeimat. The Italian XX Armoured Corps, with Ariete and Trieste Divisions, had moved forward. At dawn Ariete was deployed south of 15 Panzer, with Trieste to the left rear behind the Germans. The Germans, as has been previously
mentioned, had only 26 tanks. How many tanks the Italians had cannot be stated precisely. According to the Historical Section of the Italian General Staff, Ariete had 40 and Trieste 30 medium tanks on 30 June, but in the morning of that day XX Corps itself reported that it had only 15 ‘runners’. They had not been in action since then.
In numbers, therefore, 1 Armoured Division had a margin of 24 tanks over Rommel’s combined armoured forces. Against Afrika Korps, its most active opponent, 1 Armoured had an overwhelming superiority.
The day’s fighting began with an almost simultaneous advance at first light by the armour of both sides, 1 Armoured Division to the counter-attack, Afrika Korps probing for weak spots, and Ariete on its way to Alam Nayil. First Armoured Division saw the enemy moving forward on the general axis of Ruweisat Ridge and placing anti-tank guns in suitable positions. The British tanks thereupon took up hull-down positions, against which a series of attacks was made throughout the day. All were defeated without any severe fighting.
Rommel’s orders required XX Corps to send Ariete and Trieste to Alam Nayil as a preliminary to cutting off 13 Corps. He gave the corps the explicit instruction: ‘Ensure that the enemy positions are surrounded by making aggressive reconnaissances after daybreak.’ If Ariete received this instruction it did not obey it. Nor does the division appear to have taken elementary security precautions when on the move to make contact with the enemy. Shortly after starting, the division’s tanks became involved with 4 Armoured Brigade. The artillery of the division, comprising 132 Artillery Regiment and other troops, with about forty-eight heavy guns became separated from the tanks.
A few minutes after seven o’clock the movement was sighted from Alam Nayil, and at 7.15 the four New Zealand batteries opened fire on the main concentration of the enemy, then about four miles to the north-east of Alam Nayil. Ariete’s guns returned the fire, but it was soon evident that the New Zealand batteries had the upper hand. Thereupon Brigadier Weir called to Division for infantry to attack the concentration at close quarters.
By this time Brigadier Gray was ready with the remainder of 4 Brigade to move out from Munassib. His departure was hastened by the news from Alam Nayil, and at 9.15, with 19 Battalion in the
lead, the brigade defence platoon as a reserve and Brigade Headquarters in the rear, he took the eastern Himeimat– Alamein track which passed the Alam Nayil feature two and a half miles to the east. Some three miles along the track, reconnaissance disclosed the enemy about another four miles due north. The brigade was halted while 19 Battalion, still in transport, formed up with A Company in the lead, B Company to right, and D Company to the left rear. Screened by the carriers, the battalion drove at top speed for another three miles to deliver a surprise assault.
First contact was made by the carriers under Captain Stewart,1 who drove through a small group of enemy vehicles towards the main concentration. This swift assault so unnerved the Italians that, waving pieces of paper or white cloth, they came forward to meet the New Zealand infantry now advancing on foot with fixed bayonets. After dealing with the prisoners, the foremost infantry were halted near the captured vehicles when the carriers reported that they were pinned down by heavy fire from the main enemy concentration and needed help.
A Company, closely followed by D Company, moved to a low ridge about 900 yards to the east and south-east of the main point of resistance. The enemy had by now opened heavy fire with machine guns and mortars which the platoon of No. 2 Machine Gun Company endeavoured to subdue, one section firing over the heads of the companies moving to the flank and the other giving supporting fire from the south. The battalion’s three-inch mortars and four two-pounder guns were also brought forward. These engaged the enemy gun lines and, with the help of the small-arms fire, prevented the Italians from manning their artillery. Three tanks were also engaged by the two-pounders as they withdrew through the gun lines.
As this supporting fire developed, A and D Companies advanced over the ridge and down the slope under a certain amount of enemy fire. On the appearance of B Company from the south resistance collapsed. Part of the enemy escaped, but about 350 prisoners were counted and sent to the rear. Their captors described them as ‘a dirty, greasy unkempt mob, without fighting spirit.’
Captured equipment included twelve 105-millimetre guns, eleven 88-millimetre and Russian 76·2-millimetre, sixteen 75-millimetre and five 25-pounders, a total of forty-four heavy artillery pieces, as well as some 20-millimetre dual purpose (anti-aircraft and anti-tank) guns, mortars, and other small arms. One M13 Italian tank and another which could not be identified were found damaged and
abandoned. A mass of transport, of which no tally was taken, was also captured and absorbed by the Division to relieve its transport problem, but in contravention of Army orders which required all booty to be sent to the rear for redistribution on an army basis. Among the loads taken was a quantity of valuable medical stores and also goods the Italians had picked up from NAAFI and YMCA canteens abandoned in the retreat. New Zealand gunners put into commission a number of the enemy guns and four of the 25-pounders which were still serviceable. All badly damaged equipment, and that which was of no use at the time, was destroyed later in the day by 5 Field Park engineers under escort of a platoon from 19 Battalion.
The New Zealanders’ losses in the action were very light, only two men of 19 Battalion being killed and twenty wounded.
The Italian General Staff’s Historical Section takes up the story from the enemy’s point of view. It says:
The Division Ariete, having just arrived in the positions assigned to it at dawn on the 3rd July and without any support from the Division Trieste, which had been unable to occupy its respective positions owing to delays caused by aerial bombardments, had been compelled to face a concentric attack from the east, the south and from the west, launched by the 2nd New Zealand Division and supported by the 4th Armoured Brigade (1st Armoured English Division).
After strenuous resistance, with ammunition exhausted and practically all the guns lost and the left wing completely open, the remnants of Ariete withdrew to the assembly area of the Division Pavia.
The Division Trieste, on account of the delay, was unable to mount a counter-attack and received orders to assemble to the east of Alam Dihnamiya [Alam el Dihmaniya] in the rear of the German Panzer Divisions.
Another version of the affair is given in the Italian Army report of 5 July. This says:
The Division Ariete, which had been surprised on 3 July in its positions at Deep Well [ Alam Nayil] owing to a mistaken communication from the German High Command, which allowed the Division to assume that it was covered from the south and east by the German Recce Detachments 3 and 33 respectively, was withdrawn into the area of Deir el Dhib for reorganisation. Division Trieste was placed instead in the area of Deir el Shein to form Army Reserve.
The Germans, however, were under no more illusions than the New Zealanders concerning the vigour of Ariete’s resistance. In a confidential signal to Field Marshal Kesselring in Rome the following morning, Rommel said: ‘The fighting value of the Italian troops is so low that on 3.7, during an attack by inconsiderable enemy armoured forces, 360 men of Div. Ariete were captured without having offered resistance worthy of the name. In addition the division lost 28 guns and 100 M.T.’
Panzerarmee in its battle report for 3 July made Ariete the scapegoat for the failure to break through the Alamein Line. The report says:
Although the attack of the German Divisions had gained some ground, even on this day no decisive breakthrough had been achieved. The reason lay in the complete failure of Panzer Div. Ariete which had offered no serious resistance to the enemy attack, but had withdrawn immediately. The forces which had to take over the protection of the flank in Ariete’s stead were therefore not available for the assault which was to secure a breakthrough to the north-east.
Ariete’s destruction, however, was not such a decisive factor in the battle. Certainly, 15 Panzer Division did not throw its full weight into the morning attack because of the absence of flank protection, but in the afternoon attack the flank was adequately covered by 3 Recce Detachment. In Rommel’s plan for the day, this detachment was to follow Afrika Korps’ left flank and hold itself ready to pursue and overtake the British to the north-east. Panzerarmee, therefore, was wrong in asserting that 3 Recce Detachment’s revised role reduced the forces available for the assault which was to break through Eighth Army. The facts are that Afrika Korps was so worn out that a decisive success was beyond its grasp.
The Historical Section of the Italian General Staff ascribes Panzerarmee’s defeat on 3 July to ‘an erroneous calculation on the part of Rommel.’ The criticism is just of the day and of Rommel’s conduct of affairs from the time of his arrival at Alamein. In the light of events, Rommel might have done well on 3 July had he used Ariete’s substantial artillery to support the advance along Ruweisat Ridge instead of committing XX Corps to the drive south-eastwards to encircle 13 Corps.
Primary responsibility for the loss of Ariete rests with the corps and divisional commands. The two divisions, Ariete and Trieste, were supposed to move together. Only Ariete advanced. Adequate reconnaissance was not made. The division was permitted to become divided, thus inviting destruction if not making it inevitable. Ariete bared its neck. An axe fell with decisive speed.
When Major-General Inglis received news of the successful action against Ariete, he ordered 5 Brigade to intercept the fleeing remnants at El Mreir, then thought to be unoccupied. Previous orders to the brigade to take over Kaponga were cancelled and a column from 21 Battalion with a battery from 5 Field Regiment, made ready to help at Alam Nayil, was broken up.
The brigade left Munassib at 11.30 and at Kaponga was joined by 6 Field Regiment, 33 Anti-Tank Battery, and 43 Light
Anti-Aircraft Battery. It now had under command its own 21, 22 and 23 Battalions, the artillery enumerated, 4 Machine Gun Company, a company from 5 Field Ambulance, a section of the Divisional Provost Company, and K Section of the Divisional Signals. Seventh Field Company, which had accompanied the brigade from Munassib, was left at Kaponga to help the Maoris and 8 Field Company complete the demolitions. Cover for the movement of the column around the southern and western faces of the box was provided by 24 and 25 Battalions, whose evacuation of the box was suspended until late in the afternoon. Additional protection was supplied by the Maoris, whose patrols operated to the north towards Mreir.
Patches of soft sand on a single track hampered progress from the rendezvous at Kaponga. When the head of the column reached the junction of the Alamein and Barrel tracks at Duweir el Tarfa, the rear had hardly started moving. From the track junction, the ground fell away in open desert with good going to Mreir, plainly visible three and a half miles to the north. Brigadier Kippenberger was disturbed that the guns were miles away and, because of the bad going on the track, perhaps hours behind. The carrier screen, however, was two miles ahead and moving steadily over the clear country towards Mreir without signs of opposition. It was now near four o’clock and speed was essential if the enemy were to be intercepted. He decided, therefore, to accept the risk of continuing the advance without immediate artillery cover.
As soon as 21 and 22 Battalions cleared the ridge and were in open ground, they deployed abreast in desert formation on a mile front with the track as the axis of advance. An alert enemy in Mreir could not have failed to see the snake-like column moving over the ridge and the deployment, but there was at first no interference. The battalions were ordered to cross Mreir on either side of the track and take up corresponding positions on the far side of the northern lip of the depression.
Still in their trucks, the battalions were about half-way to the depression when four shellbursts in the midst of 22 Battalion proclaimed that the objective was occupied. The shelling quickly increased but failed to stop the advance. Short of the southern lip of the depression, the infantry debussed and continued on foot.
By this time 6 Field Regiment was coming over the ridge, and Lieutenant-Colonel Walter brought the guns into action, battery by battery, well forward and gave supporting fire. The regiment was covered by 23 Battalion, now commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Watson,2 who had special orders to watch the brigade’s open left flank.
The 22nd Battalion reached the southern side of the depression with little loss but found that the northern lip was strongly held. The artillery and mortar fire was so heavy that Lieutenant-Colonel Russell judged it impossible to continue without making a set-piece attack and he ordered the battalion to dig in. When the shelling eased after dark, the position was consolidated. On the right, 21 Battalion entered the depression and secured a slight escarpment on the main floor.
After a personal reconnaissance, Brigadier Kippenberger decided it would be unwise to make a further night attack in strange ground with so little time for preparation, and that it would be better to maintain pressure with 21 and 22 Battalions and look for a flank with the 23rd the following night.3
While 5 Brigade was engaged in these operations, Divisional Headquarters, the Reserve Group, and the Divisional Cavalry moved from Munassib a few miles north-west to Deir Alinda. Fourth Brigade, which had completed its regrouping early in the afternoon, also moved west from Alam Nayil and laagered shortly before midnight near the eastern side of Kaponga. Thus with 5 Brigade at Mreir, the groups at Kaponga and close by, and Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group in the Deir Alinda, the Division was fairly poised for its part in the Army operations planned for the next day.
Auchinleck was well satisfied with events on 3 July, although the counter-attack by 13 Corps against Panzerarmee’s southern flank and rear had not developed as he had hoped. At 6.40 that evening he signalled in clear: ‘From C-in-C to all ranks 8 Army. Well done everybody. A very good day. Stick to it.’ The New Zealanders, knowing only what had happened on their own front, thought the message applied solely to their action against Ariete. The Division’s operations, however, had been more spectacular than arduous, successful though they were. The burden of the day’s fighting had fallen on 1 Armoured Division, two small columns of 50 Division on the northern slopes of Ruweisat and, to a lesser extent, on 2 South Africa Brigade.
The solid resistance of these formations compelled Rommel to acknowledge that his exhausted army could not break through the Alamein Line without rest and refreshment. On 3 July he used the last ounces of their energy. He tried to flog them on with imperative orders but without avail.
The diaries of Afrika Korps and 21 Panzer Division reflect Rommel’s intensity of purpose. At 10.20 a.m. he is reported as
again ordering ‘90 Light Division to co-ordinate their attack.’ At 12.10 he instructed 15 Panzer Division to use its rifle units against the British tanks. Afrika Korps noted at the same time: ‘The Army repeatedly urges that the attack be carried forward.’ Within two hours, Rommel signalled Afrika Korps: ‘I demand energetic action by the whole of D.A.K.’ The 21st Division received this message as, ‘The C-in-C orders that the attack must be carried out with utmost energy.’ Ten minutes later the division heard 15 Panzer Division receiving the rough edge of Rommel’s tongue: ‘C-in-C demands that 15th Panzer Division carry out the attack at all costs and to the very end. Exert yourself to the utmost.’
But the situation in the afternoon was painfully apparent to 21 Division even if Afrika Korps’ headquarters and Rommel failed to appreciate it. ‘In spite of new instructions and orders, the attack does not gain further ground,’ the division’s diary says. ‘The fighting power of the division is exhausted. The battalions of Rifle Regiment 104 have suffered many casualties. Numerically the enemy tank force is superior to ours. The enemy throws in everything he had to stop our attack. For 1600 hours a new attack is ordered. ... The following order is issued to all units: “Attack will commence at 1600 hours. You will advance non-stop until the target is reached”.’
This attack, and yet another that followed in the evening, failed as had those earlier in the day. The great offensive started on 27 May, thirty-seven days before, had ended. Even Rommel was incapable of squeezing another effort out of his exhausted troops. A few minutes before midnight he sent the following order to all his formations:
Enemy counter-attack must be expected tomorrow, mainly from east and south-east, but also from south-west. Corps and divisions will organise themselves for defensive action and will hold their positions. D.A.K. is responsible for the defence of today’s line of attack. Regrouping during 4.7 can be anticipated.
In his report to the German High Command, Rommel said:
The strength of the enemy, our own decreasing fighting strength, and the most precarious supply situation, compelled us to discontinue for the time being attacking on a larger scale. A rapid moving up of personnel and equipment is most urgently needed. The fighting strength of the divisions at present amounts to no more than 12–1300 men. The Italian units are also very low regarding fighting strength. The bulk of the infantry are still in the rear army area and unmotorised.
Rommel disclosed his immediate intentions in the confidential message he sent to Kesselring:
The intention is first of all to hold the front and regroup in such a manner that 2 New Zealand Division can be encircled and destroyed, then to occupy
the oasis of Siwa with a highly mobile group. The Italian High Command has been asked to bring all available forces to the front in the shortest possible time so that the very thinly-occupied line can be strengthened. In order to ward off the enemy attacks which are already beginning it is urgently requested that 8.8 A/A batteries be sent.
General Auchinleck’s orders4 that night had a new note. He thought Rommel, to avoid defeat, might withdraw and in so doing ‘will probably go fast and far.’ The best signs of such an intention, he said, would be withdrawal from Deir el Shein and the removal of tanks from contact. If these happened, ‘the enemy will be pursued and destroyed.’ Leaving the coast road and railway to the Royal Air Force, 30 Corps would move westward with all speed, bypassing the retreating enemy so as to cut off and dislocate his formations. Thirteenth Corps would make an indirect pursuit with two columns, one to secure the landing grounds at Daba and block the road, and the other to secure the escarpment defile six miles west of Fuka.
The operation was to be known as exalted. It was indeed an exalted idea of the possibilities. Eighth Army had halted Panzerarmee’s advance only by the most strenuous efforts in spite of the enemy’s exhaustion. It was as nearly exhausted itself, and still an army of shreds and patches. Some formations might counter-attack effectively, but the Army as a whole was not fit to conduct a pursuit to destroy its foe. In the wisdom that comes with knowledge of events, it may be suggested that one of Rommel’s greatest errors was his failure to withdraw sufficiently far to entice Eighth Army out of the Alamein bottleneck. Auchinleck would have taken the bait. Panzerarmee’s recuperative powers had proved so superior that almost assuredly it would have turned on Eighth Army with every prospect of decisive victory.
While these plans were being made an important reinforcement, 9 Australian Division, reached Eighth Army. The division had been ordered from Syria on 25 June. It was the last infantry formation at Auchinleck’s disposal, and its transfer to the desert increased his anxiety concerning the dangerously weak northern front. The Australians were short of desert equipment and had to be held back until the deficiencies were made good. On 3 July they were placed under the command of 30 Corps, but, except in an emergency, they were not to be used without Auchinleck’s permission.