Chapter 17: Thrusts, Parries, and Plans
ROMMEL commenced regrouping on 4 July under cover of Luftwaffe attacks mainly against the New Zealanders’ threat to his southern flank, and of local tank and infantry actions with 1 Armoured Division on Ruweisat Ridge. He received his greatest help, however, from Eighth Army’s slowness in divining his intentions and its failure to perceive that during the greater part of the day much of Panzerarmee was unbalanced. Afrika Korps, especially 15 Panzer Division, was nervous and apprehensive of a British counter-attack. No action, however, was taken by any British commander to give Panzerarmee the jolt that might have made it reel. By evening the opportunity had passed. Rommel still retained the initiative.
From first light until the evening, when an anti-tank screen on the Alamein- Himeimat tracks was encountered, 1 Armoured Division probed westward along Ruweisat Ridge. Many of the division’s tanks were mechanically unsound and troubles with wireless sets and batteries made control difficult. Both brigades and 50 Division’s Ackcol battle group north of the ridge had a number of engagements with Afrika Korps’ few tanks and infantry. These engagements and enemy transport movements led to the conclusion that Panzerarmee was thinning out. But there was nothing to suggest preparations for a general withdrawal.
In the course of the contacts an incident loosed a spate of rumours throughout Eighth Army that the Germans had had enough. Early in the afternoon 22 Armoured Brigade reported that 600 German infantry had attempted to surrender. The British tanks were halted and an officer went forward to receive the surrender. The report said that a German 88-millimetre gun then opened fire on the British and also on the German infantry, thus preventing the surrender. Some of the Germans were captured and heavy casualties were inflicted on the remainder. A subsequent report said that between 100 and 200 men of the German 115 Lorried Infantry Regiment surrendered to Robcol, another of 50 Division’s battle groups.
The affair remains one of the mysteries of the battle. Auchinleck thought the attempted surrender was an enemy ruse. The Germans, who heard the reports over the British broadcast, officially denied
that it had occurred. There is no doubt, however, that 22 Brigade’s report had some substance, although the figures quoted must be accepted with reserve. The exact numbers of the regiment concerned are not available, but all enemy units were considerably under strength at that period. It was extremely unlikely there would be up to 600 men in a compact body. A possible explanation is that some men attempted to surrender but changed their minds when the German gun intervened, and that the divisional commander hushed up the incident.
Shortly after midday, New Zealand Division received from 13 Corps orders for its part in the projected counter-attack should Rommel withdraw. The Division was to be ready to advance on Daba, cut the coast road west of the town, capture the landing ground, and then operate mobile columns against any enemy within striking distance. On its left 7 Armoured Division, with 7 Motor Brigade and some tank units to be provided by 30 Corps, was to have the task of securing the Fuka defile and then harass the enemy’s communications from the south. The 5th Indian Division columns were to be in corps reserve ready to assist 7 Motor Brigade at Fuka and take over the defile.
The orders then said:
The pursuit will be carried out with the greatest vigour. Problems of supply will be simplified by stripping the pursuing force of all unnecessary personnel and vehicles. As large reserves of petrol, water and ammunition as possible will be carried with pursuing force. Captured material and supplies will be used to the greatest extent possible.
New Zealand Division was already stripped for highly mobile operations and there was little to do other than await the executive order to move and, in the meantime, suffer the enemy bombing attacks which came intermittently throughout the day. The most damaging of these occurred at 9.30 in the morning, when a small force of Stukas with a fighter escort descended on Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group. Several men were killed, more were wounded, and a quantity of transport, including five of 5 Field Regiment’s vehicles, was destroyed or damaged. Another raid in the afternoon, this time by Me.110s, was less effective.
In its area to the east of Kaponga, 4 Brigade received some desultory long-range shelling, to which 4 Field Regiment replied by firing on transport, tanks, and any hostile batteries which could be located. Two major air raids were made on the brigade, one in the middle of the afternoon and the other toward dusk. Casualties were few although some vehicles were destroyed or damaged. It is recorded that mail from New Zealand was being distributed to 19 Battalion when the second raid occurred, and that, when the
attack passed, the men found the light from a burning ammunition truck convenient for reading their letters.
At Himeimat 6 Brigade was subjected to ineffectual high-level bombing. The units of the brigade spent the day in reorganising on a three-company basis, the transport and spare weapons from the three companies to be ‘left out of battle’ being distributed among the remainder. The LOB companies, A of 24 Battalion, D of the 25th and C of the 26th, were sent to Maadi. The reorganisation was completed by evening and the brigade, especially its commander, Brigadier Clifton, waited hopefully for a role with the rest of the Division.
In contrast, 5 Brigade at Mreir had a day of suspense and activity. Daylight revealed that some of the positions taken up in the dark the previous night were insecure. The 22nd Battalion, dug in on a forward slope west of the track, was under direct artillery observation. On its right 21 Battalion, which had crossed to the far side of the depression in the early morning, had its flanks more or less in the air. It was considered, however, that the positions could and should be held pending further operations. But as the light improved C Company of the 21st, on the extreme right flank, came under increasing fire from machine guns, mortars and snipers, which could not be subdued from the battalion’s positions or without claiming an unprofitable share of 6 Field Regiment’s attention. Lieutenant-Colonel Allen therefore withdrew the company to the southern lip, the movement being covered by two regimental concentrations by the guns.
During the remainder of the day any movement by either side immediately brought down artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. There was also considerable air activity. Three times between noon and three o’clock, the brigade’s B echelon was bombed by Stukas for the loss of five men killed, fifteen wounded, and five trucks damaged. Royal Air Force Boston bombers on similar duty against the enemy and fighter interception of the Stukas were compensating sights.
The brigade’s open western flank, thinly covered by patrols supplied by A Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry, caused some anxiety. The squadron was reinforced with carriers of 23 Battalion, and several reports were received of a stream of enemy vehicles moving into the Mungar Wahla area some five miles to the west. This enemy did not evince immediate interest in the brigade. Its proximity, however, suggested caution and also speed in clearing up the situation at Mreir. To this end Brigadier Kippenberger, after satisfying himself that the forward battalions could hold their positions, went ahead with plans for using 23 Battalion in another night attack.
A daring carrier reconnaissance in the morning disclosed that the enemy’s right flank rested on the northern lip of the depression opposite 5 Brigade’s left flank. This was the open flank Kippenberger had in mind when he decided the night before not to press home the initial attack. The new plan, briefly, required Watson to take 23 Battalion in its trucks well to the west of the brigade positions, turn north across the depression, and then, when behind the enemy line, swing right and sweep down on the enemy to the well-defined Alamein track, along which the battalion would return to the brigade area. The attack would be supported by 6 Field Regiment firing concentrations from west to east on the northern lip when the infantry had completed their turning movements and were ready to pounce.
Lack of time for preparation, particularly for reconnaissance of the going and plotting a secure route, prejudiced the enterprise. In the event, bad going proved the greatest obstacle to success. The battalion became stuck in the dark in soft sand on the floor of the depression and did not reach the projected turning point beyond the northern lip. As the start line could not be reached on foot within the time available, the three rifle companies were formed up to advance along the floor of the depression. With A Company on the left and D on the right on a front of 900 yards, and with B in reserve, the battalion synchronised its advance from the new start line with the first lift of the concentration.
No opposition was met in the first 2000 yards of the advance. Then enemy troops on and about the northern lip opened fire with mortars, machine guns and rifles, and were quickly supported by artillery. The fire, however, did not unduly disturb 23 Battalion, which pushed on until it reached the Alamein track. Enemy sections were found in trenches covering the track. These were attacked with bayonet and hand grenades.
By midnight the whole of the battalion was at the track and it then withdrew southward on to 22 Battalion. In spite of shellfire on the road, the withdrawal was accomplished without material loss. Two prisoners from Pavia Division and a Breda machine gun were brought back. The battalion reported that two other Bredas and their crews had been destroyed and that a large number of casualties had been inflicted. Fifth Brigade’s losses in the action were two killed, ten wounded, and five missing. No doubt 23 Battalion was unlucky in missing the Italian main positions, but fortune was with it in that the Italian fire was mostly too high or was directed on 22 Battalion’s known posts.
These early operations by 5 Brigade at Mreir have been linked in some reports and analyses with 13 Corps’ projected counter-attack
against Panzerarmee’s rear. They constituted in fact an isolated affair, ordered in the first instance by General Inglis to trap the fleeing remains of Ariete Division, and then, on the brigade’s own initiative, to disconcert the enemy with a characteristic New Zealand raid. It is true that at 8 p.m. on 4 July Inglis was told by Gott that the attack by 30 Corps in the north had been postponed and that the New Zealand Division should restrict its activities to a ‘limited advance’ by 5 Brigade. This order may be better interpreted as an instruction to the Division that, while it was not to move on Daba in the meantime, there was no need to interfere with 5 Brigade’s business at Mreir. It will be shown in more appropriate sequence that, plans, orders, and reports to the contrary, no substantial effort was made at this period to counter-attack Panzerarmee let alone initiate a counter-offensive against its communications.
By nightfall on 4 July Panzerarmee had completed only part of the first stage of its regrouping. In the centre, 90 Light and 15 Panzer Divisions extended their right and left wings respectively to cover a gap caused by the withdrawal of 21 Panzer Division to the Alam el Dihmaniya area. Recce Units 3 and 33 were sent to the neighbourhood of El Kharita, some nine miles west of Kaponga, and Recce Unit 580 to Mungar Wahla to operate against the flanks of a British turning movement. These were probably the forces seen by the Divisional Cavalry patrols operating with 5 Brigade at Mreir.
Rommel intended Pavia to relieve 90 Light Division, which he planned to concentrate in Deir el Harra during the night 4–5 July. Advanced units of Pavia were taking over 90 Light’s positions and the route to Deir el Harra was being reconnoitred when orders were received early in the afternoon postponing the relief. This move, and one projected for 21 Panzer Division, have some interest for New Zealand Division.
Brescia was undoubtedly the chief victim of 5 Brigade’s assaults at Mreir but it was thought at the time that, as the prisoners taken were from Pavia Division, the assaults must have upset the relief of one division by the other. The German records show, however, that there were some companies of Pavia attached to Brescia and it must have been on these companies that 23 Battalion’s attack fell. Fifth Brigade’s aggressiveness caused Afrika Korps to order a detachment from Kampstaffel Kiehl to support the Italians at Mreir.
Rommel’s dislike of the threat to his flank is evident from orders given to 21 Panzer Division. At 11 a.m., while it was being relieved,
the division was told to form two forward detachments which were to start immediately, one to Alam Nayil and the other ‘to attack from the east the enemy opposing Brescia at El Mreir.’ The orders added that the rest of the division was to follow the forward detachments by 4 p.m. at the latest. Afrika Korps’ diary hints at the urgency of these operations with the entry: ‘The instructions are repeated by W.T.’ Again, when 15 Panzer Division protested that it would be unable to hold the extended sector unaided, it was told in no uncertain terms that the relief must go on.
In the event, the attack towards Alam Nayil was cancelled when 21 Division reported that the British forces in the area (columns of 7 Motor Brigade) were too strong to be subdued without a set battle. Afrika Korps’ diary also records at 9.35 p.m. that ‘as the battle group which was to roll up the enemy in front of Division Brescia could not carry out this task, its withdrawal is ordered.’ No reasons are given. Had the attack been made the proposed axis of advance would have deposited about ten tanks on 21 Battalion’s right flank. Almost certainly, the assault would have been supported by the army heavy artillery deployed north-east of Mreir as these guns were called on to repel 23 Battalion’s raid. Incidentally, Littorio Armoured Division was also within easy striking distance north-west of Mreir.
At daybreak on 5 July Rommel had Panzerarmee on a thinly-held line from the coast to the southern slope of Ruweisat Ridge, where the line turned westwards to Mreir. In the north XXI Corps, with Sabrata and Trento Divisions, was opposite the western face of Alamein Box held by the South African 3 Brigade. Then came 90 Light, opposed by 1 and 2 South African Brigades and Ackcol, a 50 Division battle group. Next there was a gap, covered only by flanking fire, to 15 Panzer Division, which had 1 Armoured Division, two more 50 Division battle groups, and 24 Australian Brigade on its front. The line was then carried westwards by 21 Division to the Italian X Corps’ divisions, Brescia and Pavia. Trieste Motorised Division was about Deir el Shein and the remains of Ariete were behind it.
Regrouping plans for the day required 21 Panzer Division to extend its flank to relieve Pavia and to usher this division into two strongpoints to be built behind 15 Panzer Division. Nothing more was done about the projected relief of 90 Light or with a proposal that Brescia should take over from 15 Panzer. The Italian infantry left about the frontier in the drive to Alamein were to be brought forward with all speed to release the armour and motorised formations for mobile operations. The divisions were advised that reinforcements were being flown from Italy to Tobruk.
There was a fly in this ointment for their wounds. Each division was to assign twenty-five trucks with which the Army would run a shuttle service to bring the reinforcements forward. When, on top of this, Afrika Korps was required to put a new regiment, IR 382, on wheels and each division was to find fifty vehicles for the Luftwaffe, the protests were too loud even for Rommel to withstand. The 21st Division was particularly incensed and listed in its diary six reasons why it refused to hand vehicles to the Luftwaffe. Those concerning the division’s own shortages in trucks and trained drivers could not be questioned, but there were suggestions of indiscipline and lack of perspective in the statement: ‘All the vehicles taken by the division in Tobruk have been appropriated by the O.C. of army supplies.’ Such a view, however, is probably characteristic of most front-line formations.
Late on 4 July Eighth Army was vaguely aware of the enemy regrouping and made new plans based on the deduction that Rommel was concentrating his best troops in his right centre with a view to outflanking the coastal positions. The reported construction of defences as far back as Sidi Abd el Rahman suggested that Rommel intended to hold his positions until sufficient supplies and reinforcements were brought forward to ensure the success of a further attack. Early in the morning of 5 July Gott called on the New Zealand Division with details of the revised Army and Corps’ plans, of which the keynote was: ‘Eighth Army will attack and destroy the enemy in his present positions.’
The plans differed from those previously issued in that, instead of driving deeply into Panzerarmee’s rear, 13 Corps was to roll up the enemy from his southern flank while 30 Corps held the road eastwards, but ready to attack if and when opportunity offered. In the new scheme, New Zealand Division was to advance on a line from west of Kaponga to the Sidi Abd el Rahman railway station, with 5 Indian Division on its left directed to Ghazal station. Seventh Armoured Division, taking over 7 Motor Brigade and 12 Lancers from 30 Corps, was to deploy along Ruweisat Ridge to protect 13 Corps’ right flank. The division was then to keep pace with the infantry attack and be ready to make a dash for either Fuka or Daba.
New Zealand Division’s first duty was to put itself in position for the attack. General Inglis ordered 4 Brigade to take 28 (Maori) Battalion in Kaponga under command and move at once round the south of the box to Qaret el Yidma. Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group were to follow and occupy positions behind the brigade. Sixth Brigade was ordered to reoccupy Kaponga by 4 p.m.
Fourth Brigade left its forming-up area shortly after 10.30 and moved south over country badly broken by wadis and escarpments to the neighbourhood of Raqabet el Retem, where it turned due west. The group had negotiated an escarpment on to more even going over a stony area of open desert when enemy aircraft dived out of the sun on to the columns of vehicles.
This was a successful raid from the enemy’s point of view and one of the most unfortunate suffered by the Division. Brigadier Gray and Major Bassett,1 his brigade major, were killed. The liaison officer from 28 Battalion, Lieutenant Maloney,2 died of wounds, and three other ranks in Brigade Headquarters were killed. In 28 Battalion Major Chesterman3 and 14 men were killed and 21 others wounded. Two men were killed and 14 wounded in 4 Field Regiment, and 1 was killed and 6 wounded in 20 Battalion which was leading the brigade, making a total of 24 killed and 41 wounded. Fourth Field Regiment lost one of its guns. Several vehicles of the group were destroyed and many damaged.
Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows again assumed command of the brigade, his place in 20 Battalion being taken by Major Manson.4 Captain Pearson5 was made brigade major. At this stage, the only officer in the group who knew its destination was Captain Sullivan,6 the intelligence officer of 20 Battalion, who was plotting the route and acting as guide. Burrows had to take command without knowing where the group was going and what it was to do when it arrived at its destination. This fault in disseminating information was common in the Army at this period. It was due mainly to excessive zeal concerning security but sometimes to procrastination.
After burying the dead and attending to the wounded, the brigade continued its journey to the Alamein-Abu Dweis track, where it turned north to Qaret el Yidma which was reached about three o’clock. The three battalions were deployed roughly in line, with 28th to the north-east, 20th to the north, and 19th to the north-west of Brigade Headquarters, which was set up on a slight rise to the south-east of the depression. Three more air raids were made on the group. Although some vehicles were damaged, casualties among the men were slight. A 500-pound bomb was
dropped close to 19 Battalion’s headquarters but did not explode until the engineers fired a charge under it.
Sixth Brigade reoccupied Kaponga late in the afternoon and was greeted with fire from enemy 105-millimetre guns. Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group, the latter now commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam,7 left Deir Alinda in the evening to take post behind 4 Brigade. The Reserve Group had some difficulties with the going and did not reach its area until after midnight.
While these moves were being made, 5 Brigade remained on the south side of Mreir ready to move at thirty minutes’ notice. There were several exchanges of artillery fire until the heat haze after midday made observation too difficult. About the same time as 4 Brigade suffered its heavy air attack, four men were wounded and six vehicles severely damaged by bombs dropped on the brigade headquarters. These losses were annoying as special orders had been issued in the brigade concerning the dangers of concentrating transport in exposed positions. At last light the enemy bombarded the forward battalions, possibly to discourage another night raid.
It would be reasonable to suppose that at this stage all thoughts throughout Eighth Army were concentrated on attack and fulfilment of Auchinleck’s order to ‘destroy the enemy in his present positions.’ On the contrary. On 5 July the Division received a further order from 13 Corps on a new Army plan for withdrawal in the event of the collapse of the Alamein Line. Under the revised plan, 30 Corps was to retreat to Alexandria by the coastal roads while 13 Corps fell back on Cairo by the desert routes. New Zealand Division would remain with 13 Corps and retreat by desert routes to Wadi Natrun.
The order8 contained a warning that it was not ‘to be interpreted as a weakening of our intention to hold the present position or as an indication that our efforts have or are likely to fail.’ Nevertheless it was unlikely to inspire confidence in the projected operations. It made a platitude of the intention paragraph of Eighth Army’s attack order and encouraged the dangerous looking-over-the-shoulder policy. Moreover, while the provisional plans for further retreat were being circulated, Auchinleck was confidently reporting to London that the enemy had been forced ‘temporarily at any rate to abandon his offensive plans’, and that Eighth Army was ready at once to pursue and cut off the enemy if and when he starts to go.’9
During the night 5–6 July, Auchinleck became more impressed by the increasing strength on Rommel’s right wing about Mreir and revised his plans. New orders issued in the morning of the 6th offered Eighth Army alternative proposals for a general attack to be mounted on or after the following day.
The first proposal, known as LUKE, required 1 Armoured Division to pass through the New Zealand Division and, moving north on the New Zealanders’ open left flank, turn eastwards behind Mreir to attack the enemy’s positions in co-operation with diversionary attacks by 30 Corps. New Zealand and 5 Indian Divisions were to co-operate by increasing their pressure to the north and by being ready to exploit any success gained by the armour. The alternative proposal, REVELATIONS, gave 30 Corps the main role with a general attack westwards, New Zealand Division and 5 Indian Division again to co-operate with pressure to the north.
When Gott made his customary visit to the New Zealand Division during the morning he left the impression that the alternative plan would be adopted. However, at half past three, he sent an instruction cancelling both proposals in favour of a further plan. This required 1 Armoured Division, with two companies of the Australians and some of their brigade’s anti-tank guns, to make an attack that night along Ruweisat Ridge as a preliminary to securing the ridge to Point 63,10 south of Deir el Shein. New Zealand Division was called on to support the attack with artillery fire ahead of the armour, and to increase its readiness to exploit success by moving 4 Brigade to positions level with those held by 5 Brigade.
In 30 Corps’ orders for this operation, Major-General Morshead, commanding 9 Australian Division, was told that if he considered there was insufficient time to prepare for the attack he was to ask for a postponement. In the event, 30 Corps postponed the attack and advised 13 Corps, but the information did not reach New Zealand Division in time to stop it from carrying out its allotted part. The guns of 5 and 6 Field Regiments and the detachment of 64 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, fired concentrations on the areas defined in 13 Corps’ orders. No doubt, as General Inglis noted in his diary, this was a waste of ammunition, but Afrika Korps’ headquarters in Deir el Abyad, 15 Panzer Division, and Briehl battle group from 90 Light Division, which were at the receiving end of the bombardment, had an uncomfortable period according to their reports.
Normal consolidation and harassing duties occupied the Division throughout the day. The artillery was active chiefly against
transport moving westwards and then south opposite the Division’s open flank.
For 4 Brigade’s advance, General Inglis set a feature overlooking the Mungar Wahla depression as the objective, with exploitation across the eastern edge of the depression. It was agreed that the attack should be made silently under cover of darkness, but that 4 Field Regiment should advance battery by battery ready to support and to cover the infantry on the objective against counterattack. The infantry were to advance on foot. Zero hour was 3.30 a.m. on the 7th, but the brigade was not to move unless it received a confirming order from Division before 1.30 a.m.
Burrows decided to attack ‘two up’ with 28 Battalion on the right, 20th on the left, and 19th in reserve. The leading battalions were ordered to halt on the main objective and consolidate. Exploitation was given to 19 Battalion which, after mopping up any enemy posts bypassed by the leading units, would move over the depression. Thus, at dawn, the brigade, fully covered by the field regiment and anti-tank guns, would be deployed in an arc on high ground overlooking the enemy-held area to the north.
The go-ahead signal was received from Division at 11 p.m., with zero hour advanced half an hour to 3 a.m. The battalions started to form up at one o’clock and moved off at ten minutes past three with enemy flares in the direction of the objective as an additional guide. The distance to be covered had been calculated at 3200 yards. This was paced in the dark and brought 28 and 20 Battalions fairly on to the objective. No opposition was met and there were no signs of the enemy other than the flares to the north. The 19th Battalion was close up and, having no mopping up to do, passed easily through the leading troops to reach the high ground on the far side of the depression. There was still no contact with the enemy, and with an hour to go before dawn the brigade dug itself in. Fourth Field Regiment had all its guns in position before dawn.
Daylight revealed a tactician’s dream target. Some 600 to 700 yards north of 19 Battalion, the enemy was engaged in his morning chores as if all were peace in the world. According to a report, the enemy
was completely oblivious to our presence and it was very interesting to watch his troops getting up, folding their blankets and preparing the morning meal at their slit trenches.
This peaceful scene was violently disturbed by 4 Brigade. Light machine-gun fire from the rifle companies grounded all the enemy within range. A troop of four 75-millimetre guns in plain view about 1000 yards away was engaged by 19 Battalion’s mortars and a machine-gun platoon to such effect that it did not fire a shot.
Tanks and trucks clearly visible in the distance were dealt with by the field batteries.
By eight o’clock the enemy had recovered sufficiently from his surprise to engage 19 Battalion with mortar and small-arms fire. Carrier patrols on the flanks reported preparations for a counterattack. The field guns and all other available weapons in the brigade were turned on the assembly areas and dispersed the enemy infantry. The fire fight was kept up throughout the morning until the heat and haze of midday brought a calmer atmosphere.
Panzerarmee’s battle report of 7 July establishes Littorio Armoured Division as 4 Brigade’s opponents. The report says: ‘On 7 July, towards noon, elements of the New Zealand Division broke into the positions of the Littorio Division; during the afternoon they were forced out again.’ The obvious error in the time of the assault is offset by the correct appreciation of the time of withdrawal and may be construed as evidence of the brigade’s aggressive spirit in the morning.
Fifth Brigade was also active during the night with fighting patrols. Second-Lieutenant Grant,11 of 23 Battalion, took 12 Platoon north-west to reconnoitre Deir el Qatani and do any damage possible. The platoon found an outpost of Recce Unit 580, destroyed a truck, killed four Germans, including an officer who would not surrender, and returned with a wounded prisoner for the loss of one man missing and three wounded.
Lieutenant Perks12 took 22 Battalion’s 18 Platoon about a mile up the Alamein track and came upon about thirty trucks parked closely, with many men standing around. Challenged, the platoon went to ground without making reply. It then worked silently to the rear of the trucks and charged in line through the crowd, shooting, bayoneting and bombing, and so home again. Casualties were one missing and one wounded, against which the platoon claimed about thirty of the enemy put out of action. Both patrols were ‘cloak and dagger affairs, socks over boots, grenades, tommy guns and bayonets.’13
While 4 Brigade was moving to its start line, Divisional Headquarters received from 13 Corps at 2.50 a.m. an emergency operations signal which suggested the possibilities of more extended action. The message said there were indications that the enemy might be pulling out and withdrawing westwards. Corps required New Zealand and 7 Armoured Divisions to continue providing protection for 30 Corps’ southern flank and to harass the
enemy. But should circumstances allow, they were to be ready immediately to put into effect the plan for driving deeply into the enemy’s rear at Daba and Fuka. The two divisions were also ordered to push patrols forward fast at first light and make every endeavour to obtain and pass back information of enemy westward movement during the night.
Daylight, however, brought the Division information of a totally different nature. Headquarters learned that 1 Armoured Division had not attempted the attack along Ruweisat Ridge the previous night, thus incidentally fulfilling Brigadier Kippenberger’s prophecy that the tanks would not attack in the dark whatever Corps might order.14 The advance to Mungar Wahla and the artillery bombardment, therefore, had been to no purpose. The Division’s appreciation of its new position was not comforting. The operations map at headquarters showed, in the words of a senior staff officer, that ‘the Division was sticking out like a sore thumb miles away from any other substantial part of the Army.’ This situation, when linked with reports of further enemy movements southwards past the Division’s open flank and of tanks in that neighbourhood, caused General Inglis to warn 4 Brigade shortly after dawn to be ready to withdraw to Qaret el Yidma.
Later, Inglis learned from the Corps Commander that Army Headquarters was concerned about the gap between the two corps in the area Alam Nayil, Deir el Hima and Munassib. An enemy drive in that general direction from the south-east corner of his salient might cut off 13 Corps. Accordingly, it had been decided that New Zealand Division should ‘take ground to the eastward’, as Auchinleck says in his despatch,15 or, as Gott said, 13 Corps should shorten its front. In other words, the idea of attacking was given up.
Gott ordered the regrouping of the corps to be made in two phases. Columns of 7 Motor Brigade and 5 Indian Division were left to observe and harass the enemy on the western flank, while New Zealand Division reassembled in the area east of Kaponga to Deir el Munassib, facing generally north so that its guns might operate against the enemy on Ruweisat. The reshuffle involved another abandonment of Kaponga, in which a small guard and demolition party were to be left until relieved by a column from 7 Motor Brigade.
As the first phase of the reorganisation had to be completed by six o’clock the next morning, the withdrawal of 4 Brigade to Qaret el Yidma became a necessity rather than a matter of discretion. Orders were given shortly after midday and the move was started
about three o’clock. It was completed within two hours. The only enemy interference was by air attacks in which three men of 20 Battalion were wounded. Fifth Brigade was not given notice of the withdrawal and was somewhat disconcerted by the re-exposure of its left flank. Shortly afterwards, however, it received its own orders to break clear from Mreir and move during the night to the neighbourhood of Kaponga.
The night move of the Division over the broken country was strenuous for all concerned. Divisional Headquarters started at 7.30, and although Tactical Headquarters was reopened at Munassib at 3 a.m., it was nearly first light before the whole of the group reached the new position.
Fifth Brigade sent its B echelon transport with B Company of 5 Field Ambulance to move independently around the west and south sides of Kaponga, while the rest of the group took a more direct route past the northern and eastern faces of the box. The start was made shortly before nine o’clock under enemy shellfire, which killed one man, wounded three, and damaged more trucks. The brigade now had a high proportion of damaged trucks which had to be towed. Difficulties with these and with patches of soft sand which were unavoidable in the darkness hampered the movement. However, by 2 a.m. Brigade Headquarters was set up near the Kaponga- Alinda-Munassib track to the south-east of Kaponga, and by dawn the three battalions were deployed with 23rd facing east, 22nd the north, and 21st guarding the southern approaches.
Fourth Brigade left Qaret el Yidma at 9.30 p.m., with 20 Battalion in the lead, to make a march of nearly 20 miles to the positions it had occupied earlier in Deir el Munassib. It was after daybreak before all the units arrived at their destination. The Divisional Reserve Group made an early morning march from 2.30 a.m. until shortly after dawn to take post in Deir Alinda, about a mile and a half south-east of 5 Brigade.
Once again 6 Brigade was given a reserve role, but on this occasion it was ordered clear of the battle area to Amiriya, which was reached on the afternoon of 10 July. A platoon from A Company 25 Battalion under Major Hutchens16 was left to hold Kaponga until it was relieved by 7 Motor Brigade.
Thirteenth Corps’ regrouping marked the end of the second phase of the Alamein operations, in which General Auchinleck credits the corps, and New Zealand Division, with having played the decisive part.
Auchinleck says in his despatch17 that on 2 July he ordered the corps to counter-attack by wheeling north with its right flank based on Kaponga, in order to deprive Panzerarmee of its power to deliver a concentrated blow against 30 Corps and to recover the tactical initiative for Eighth Army. This attack, according to the despatch, was started on the afternoon of 2 July and was continued until the 7th, the corps in the meantime ‘occupying El Mreir and approaching our former defensive locality at Deir el Shein.’ Rommel’s riposte, according to the despatch, was hurried entrenchment of his southern front and extension of his defences westwards to prevent his communications with Daba being cut.
Auchinleck then says:
I had no reserves with which to reinforce the 13th Corps and, in face of the rapidly stiffening enemy opposition, their advance came to a standstill. Although the operation did not succeed in rolling up the enemy and destroying him, as at one time I had hoped it might, it succeeded in drawing off enemy troops from the north, which greatly relieved the pressure on our right and centre and gave us time to consolidate these important sectors.
This is a fair inference from the facts as they were known to Auchinleck. Had he examined 13 Corps’ operations more closely, however, he might have revised his opinion. The truth is that 13 Corps constituted no more than a standing threat to Rommel’s flank and rear. It was never committed to a counter-attack, let alone having its advance brought to a standstill ‘in face of the rapidly stiffening enemy opposition’.
Apart from minor patrols, the New Zealand Division, the one substantial formation in the corps, was in contact with the enemy on only three occasions. Throughout 2 July and up to midday on the 3rd, the Division was acting defensively in support of 1 Armoured Division on Ruweisat Ridge. Ariete’s destruction on the morning of 3 July was due to the fact that the Italians walked blindly into trouble. The affair was no part of a 13 Corps counter-attack.
Further, 5 Brigade’s advance to Mreir was ordered by General Inglis for the express purpose of catching the escaping remains of Ariete. There was no suggestion that the brigade was fulfilling a counter-attack role in a corps’ plan. Again, the concentration of the remainder of the Division near Kaponga and in the Deir Alinda, and the moves to Qaret el Yidma and Mungar Wahla, were all preparatory to corps operations on an extended scale. Numerous plans were made by Army and Corps for action against the enemy’s rear and flank. Orders to execute them were never given.
On 2 July Rommel was spared the humiliation of knowing that his decisive attack on 30 Corps had passed unnoticed by Eighth Army. Thirteenth Corps’ ineffective operations, enlarged upon by Auchinleck, balanced the account. Rommel’s battle reports, checked with Panzerarmee’s operations, show that he persisted with his attacks against 30 Corps until the night of 3 July, when he was at last convinced that ‘a replenishment of men and material was urgently needed if the Panzerarmee was to continue to attack successfully.’18
Rommel paid close attention to his southern flank only after he had abandoned his attack in the north. He had then gone over to the defensive to cover regrouping in which the armoured and motorised formations were to be withdrawn from the front line and prepared for mobile operations. His intentions for the next phase were to attack ‘the New Zealand Division to the south, to destroy it and eliminate the standing threat from the south. Further, the occupation of the area as far as the Qattara Depression, and the seizure of the terrain to the east, of consequence to the defence, was to be carried out.’19
Subsequent reports show that 13 Corps’ activities had little impact on Panzerarmee. There are references to precautions to protect the flank, such as the assignment of Littorio and Recce Units 3, 33, and 580 to these duties. Parenthetically, it may be noted that the reconnaissance units had among them no more than 15 reconnaissance cars, 20 troop-carriers, and 12 British 25-pounders.20 These meagre units were responsible for the considerable transport movement so often reported on New Zealand Division’s open flank.
The enemy battle reports summarily dismiss the fighting. Thus, of 5 July, the report says: ‘No substantial actions took place, so that the improvement of the positions could go on undisturbed. Only elements of New Zealand Division undertook a thrust against Panzer Division Littorio.’ The report of the 6th records a raid against 90 Light Division and slight activity by the Recce Units about El Kharita. Fourth Brigade’s advance to Mungar Wahla and its alignment with 5 Brigade is mentioned as a minor engagement with Littorio Division. Apparently the Germans expected more of the New Zealanders for, in a report to the War Ministry on 6 July, General Rintelen at Italian General Headquarters commented that the Division ‘has shown very little initiative so far.’
Summed up, Rommel was defeated in the first phase at Alamein by 18 Indian Brigade and 1 South African Division. In the second phase, as noted by Eighth Army chronologists, he was defeated
chiefly by 1 Armoured Division, supported by 1 and 2 South African Brigades and battle groups of 50 Division. The armoured division throughout this period operated aggressively but not in a counter-attacking role, although on one occasion it was moving for this purpose when it became engaged with the enemy. Auchinleck correctly deduced that Rommel had been defeated in the north and on Ruweisat Ridge, but post-war examination of all the evidence, much of which, of course, was not then available, suggests he was not wholly correct concerning the cause. He believed Eighth Army had regained the tactical initiative, that Rommel had been forced to react to its movements and was being drawn to the south by 13 Corps, thereby laying himself open to a decisive blow on a weakened left, or coastal, flank.
Whether Rommel had unwittingly ceded the initiative or had had it taken from him is of less moment than that Auchinleck quickly saw that the enemy was making himself vulnerable on the coastal flank and might be made to dance to Eighth Army’s tune. So opened the third phase at Alamein, the Battle of Tell el Eisa. This in turn led to 13 Corps’ disastrous engagements on Ruweisat in which the New Zealand Division suffered severely. The net result of the fighting was a stalemate brought about by the exhaustion of both armies.
Because of the parlous state to which Eighth Army was further reduced physically, technically and in morale, Auchinleck’s policy in pressing these successive attacks has been questioned. He may have expected too much of Eighth Army in asking it to defeat Panzerarmee and pursue it to the frontier. Yet on some occasions Panzerarmee was placed in imminent danger of such decisive defeat on the spot that pursuit might not have been necessary.
Why Eighth Army was deprived of this success is the theme of the following chapter.