Chapter 18: Both Armies Prepare Attacks
AUCHINLECK saw in Rommel’s switch southward an opportunity to crush Panzerarmee’s Italian left wing opposite Alamein Box, thereby retaining ‘the initiative we had gained’ and forcing the enemy ‘to continue ... to conform to our movements.’1
On 7 July 30 Corps, now commanded by Major-General Ramsden, formerly of 50 Division,2 was ordered to capture the Tell el Eisa mounds overlooking the Alamein Box and the enemy’s rear area. The Italian defenders were to be destroyed and success exploited south-west against Rommel’s communications and headquarters’ zones. The corps was permitted to use the newly arrived 9 Australian Division and 1 South African Division, each less a brigade group, and zero hour was fixed as 3 a.m. on 10 July.
Consequential regrouping in 30 Corps involved the relief of 24 Australian Brigade on Ruweisat by 5 Indian Brigade, which had reformed outside Alexandria. The return of this brigade was a marked step in the restoration of 5 Indian Division, which was to become New Zealand Division’s neighbour and close associate in subsequent fighting. At this time, also, 4 Light Armoured Brigade, later to become for a while almost an integral part of the Division, was created in a general reorganisation of the armour.
Auchinleck held that the Germans used their tanks as the decisive weapon in close co-operation with the other arms, while the Italian tanks were used either against unarmoured troops or to cover Afrika Korps’ flanks or rear. The British Grant tank was the equivalent of the German types and the Crusader, Stuart, and Valentine were the counterparts of the Italian tanks. In his reorganisation Auchinleck concentrated the Grants in 1 Armoured Division, whose main tactical functions thereafter would be to neutralise the German armour and to take part in decisive attacks with infantry and with the Valentines, which were not as mobile as the Crusader, Stuart, and Italian tanks. In defence and attack, the division was to be supported by the greatest possible concentration of artillery.
The Crusaders and Stuarts were passed to 7 Armoured Division with the role of striking at Italian armour and unarmoured troops, and of operating wide of the main battle and to a considerable depth. The division was not to be launched against German armour unless in exceptionally favourable circumstances. The armoured car regiments were sent to 4 Light Armoured Brigade to undertake offensive operations against exposed flanks and enemy installations far to the rear and, alternatively, to perform protective or reconnaissance tasks. The brigade was not designed to fight German or Italian armour.
In the meantime, Panzerarmee had completed most of its regrouping and had received assurances of supplies and reinforcements. By the night of 8–9 July Rommel had committed the care of the forward area in the northern and central sectors to the Italian infantry. In the north XXI Corps, with Sabratha and Trento Divisions, covered the Alamein Box and the gap into which 90 Light Division had penetrated. The X Corps had Pavia astride Ruweisat Ridge and Brescia carrying the line westward through Alam el Dihmaniya. The 15th Panzer Division, also astride Ruweisat, and the German heavy artillery, deployed in an arc around the southern and eastern faces of Deir el Shein, gave depth and strength to the defences in the central sector.
The 21st Panzer Division was again mobile on the tracks between Mreir and Kaponga. Littorio was to its right rear. Recce Unit 580 was south of Kaponga providing a link between the armoured divisions and groups of 90 Light which, with Recce Units 3 and 33, were probing eastwards towards Gebel Kalakh and El Taqa plateau against columns of 5 Indian Division and South African armoured car squadrons.
Afrika Korps now had 50 tanks, of which 32 were with 21 Division. The Italians had about sixty. Up to 5 July, 2250 German reinforcements had been flown to Tobruk, and by late on the 7th 1300 men had reached the forward area. Afrika Korps’ share of these up to 8 July was only 130, of whom 89 were posted to 21 Division and 41 to the 15th. Part of the reinforced 382 German Infantry Regiment had been landed at Matruh from Crete and was marching to the battle zone to join 21 Panzer Division. The Italians had been promised seven battalions, four artillery units and tanks, armoured cars and self-propelled guns for Ariete, Trento, Pavia, and Brescia Divisions.
Although Rommel was confident that with regrouping and replenishment he could wipe out Eighth Army, Mussolini, who was waiting behind the lines to make a triumphal entry into Cairo, was now not sure Panzerarmee could reach the Canal. He told a
conference at his headquarters on 6 July that if further attack were delayed from ten to fourteen days, surprise would be lost and it would not be possible to push light forces through Cairo to the Canal. He thought, therefore, that Rommel should concentrate on taking Alexandria first and use the port and base for later operations to the Canal through the Nile Delta. ‘Even if we do not reach this last objective,’ he said, ‘we will have Alexandria. This is an important centre, and its capture will make an impression on the world.’
Mussolini instructed his Italian generals to confer with Rommel. Marshal Cavallero disagreed with the suggestions. He said that although the advance to the Canal would now be more difficult, it must be made, otherwise the Delta would be very hard to defend. Alexandria alone was not of much use as it could hardly be used as a port unless Panzerarmee had possession of all the airfields between it and the Canal. An advance to the Canal via the Delta was too difficult – the Nile must be crossed near Cairo. In his view, Panzerarmee must reach the Canal and the area south of Cairo.
General Rintelen at Italian General Headquarters, from whose report to the German War Ministry these extracts have been taken, said he had agreed with Cavallero. He thought the most important thing was to defeat the British west of the Nile and to destroy them there as far as possible.3
Thus it was with the intention of smashing Eighth Army in its positions at Alamein that, on the morning of 9 July, Rommel sent 21 Panzer, Littorio, 90 Light, and the Recce Detachments against 13 Corps. They were to advance to the neighbourhood of Alam Nayil and there turn northwards to roll up Eighth Army into Alamein, where it was to be destroyed.
New Zealand Division spent only the daylight hours of 8 July in the areas to which it had moved from Qaret el Yidma and Mreir. Most of the men overtook arrears of sleep, but there was enough activity, news, reports, and rumours to prevent the day from being too restful and boring.
On the tactical side, the Division provided its own screen towards Ruweisat thus permitting the March, April, July, and August columns of 7 Motor Brigade to cover north and west of Kaponga. Freddy Column, consisting of 46 Field Battery, a troop of anti-tank guns and a company from 18 Battalion, occupied Alam Nayil, and Rufus Column, similarly constituted with 26 Field Battery as its core, moved into the area south-east of that feature. A Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry was sent to the north of Deir el Angar. The Cavalry found sixteen M3 (Stuart) tanks awaiting
them at Munassib and five were issued to each squadron. All the tanks, especially the guns, needed considerable repairs before they could be used. During the day the rear party in Kaponga was shelled and dive-bombed. At dusk the box was approached by twelve enemy trucks, which withdrew when fired upon.
On the administrative side, the day was notable for a change in the Division’s official designation to Second New Zealand Division, with the abbreviation ‘2 NZ Div’. This was part of a deception scheme produced by Middle East Headquarters earlier in the year to confuse the enemy on the number of formations in the theatre. Under the plan, base and training groups with their units were given titles and names similar to those of fighting formations.
In the original proposals for the New Zealand forces in the Middle East, it was suggested that the Division should become Second New Zealand Division and the base and training units should be known as Third New Zealand Division. Army Headquarters in Wellington, however, pointed out that New Zealand had a Third Division in Fiji and that the Territorial Force in New Zealand had been mobilised as the First, Fourth, and Fifth Divisions. Consequently, the base group at Maadi was given the title of Sixth New Zealand Division.
The change in names was circulated to the Division on 8 July by message, with instructions that it was not to be published in unit orders but might be communicated verbally to all ranks. Outside the Division it had some amusing repercussions. Morale in the base camps was raised considerably. Even hardened ‘base-wallahs’ preferred to be known as members of a ‘6 NZ Div’ unit rather than of a ‘base and training’ unit. Cynics, unaware of the high command’s plot, saw in the scheme an example of ‘empire-building’ and self-glorification among the base units. And in distant New Zealand a story was freely circulated that Rommel had been so deceived that he had told 90 Light Division during the advance to Alamein that it would not meet the veteran Division but only a hastily formed division made up from scraps at the base. People who liked additional details said 90 Light Division swallowed the story and was tremendously upset when it ran into the real, fighting New Zealanders.
Another news item circulated on 8 July was disquieting. This advised that the enemy had captured the Division’s radio-telephone code in some unexplained manner and that a new one was being prepared. Better news was of the success of a raid by April Column of 7 Motor Brigade on the Fuka airfield, where 200 rounds from 25-pounders were fired into forty dispersed aircraft and the landing ground installations. The Air Force sent a message that the flares put out by 4 and 5 Brigades at Mungar
Wahla and Mreir had been of great value as guides for night bombing of the enemy.
Early receipt of orders for the second phase of the corps regrouping made another pleasing feature in the day. This permitted daylight reconnaissance of the Division’s new areas, the marking of difficult routes with signal lamps, and the appointment of platoon and company guides. Consequently, when the Division moved that night, all units were in position before midnight, more than five and a half hours ahead of the time allowed for the operation. Fourth Brigade was deployed at the western end of Deir el Muhafid, the Reserve Group ahead of Divisional Headquarters in Munassib, and 5 Brigade on the Munassib- Alinda track. The artillery was deployed to fire to the north and north-west.
The Division’s left flank was covered by 7 Motor Brigade’s columns and its left rear by columns from 5 Indian Division.
In their varied experiences from Greece to Trieste the New Zealanders saw many odd incidents, but rarely one so entertaining and instructive as the enemy’s full-scale attack on the empty Kaponga Box on 9 July.
The prelude was staged the previous day. At 3.45 p.m. 21 Panzer Division reported to Afrika Korps ‘as a complete surprise that the enemy strong-point on the Qattara Track south-west of El Mreir has been taken.’4 This was the first the Germans and the Italians, who were supposed to maintain contact, knew of 5 Brigade’s withdrawal from Mreir the previous night. The news compelled Afrika Korps to cancel hurriedly a Stuka attack which was about to fall on 5 Brigade’s positions. A little later 21 Division reported that the Mungar Wahla area was also clear.
After making these investigations and reports, 21 Division reconnoitred southwards to Kaponga, sending against the box towards dusk the patrol reported that night by 6 Brigade’s rear party of a platoon from 25 Battalion. In a message to Afrika Korps at 10.50 p.m., the division said its recce troop had reported that Kaponga apparently had been evacuated and that several serviceable vehicles had been left behind. No mention was made of the patrol having withdrawn under fire, as was stated by the rear party. On a request for instructions, Afrika Korps ordered the division to leave a strong reconnaissance troop in the box, the troop to withdraw only if strongly attacked. At the instance of Panzerarmee Headquarters, the division was ordered just on midnight to put not less than one company with an artillery observation post in the box.
The next incidents in the comedy-drama reinforce the lesson that neither side in war has a monopoly of virtues and vices in
command and staff work. In spite of Afrika Korps’ prompt report to Panzerarmee the night before, it was not until Rommel telephoned Nehring at 7.10 in the morning that he learned that Kaponga appeared to have been evacuated. The tone of the Korps’ diary suggests that the succeeding few minutes were rather stormy. The diary notes: ‘It is regarded of the utmost importance that an immediate thrust be made so as to get a firm grip on the strong-point. This thrust, however, could not be ordered by Afrika Korps as, up to the present, the policy has been to defend the present southern front and to strengthen it by further mining. The long-range intentions of Army were unknown to Afrika Korps; moreover, the previous evening, Army had expressly approved the despatch of our strong recce troop to this place.’5
Rommel’s annoyance brought prompt action, for within ten minutes of his call coming in, Afrika Korps ordered 21 Division to form an advanced guard from the troops at Mreir and push it forward to Kaponga, covered by artillery. The task was defined as the ‘capture of the enemy strong-point which appears to be lightly held.’ Shortly afterwards, the division reported that its recce unit operating at the box ‘has retired to the north under pressure of superior enemy forces.’ On this, and possibly spurred by Rommel’s interest in the box, Nehring went to 21 Division to adjust details of the operations of the advanced guard.
The third act in the comedy opened at ten o’clock when Rommel arrived at the Korps’ battle headquarters and, according to the diarist, ‘starts nagging because the enemy strong-point is still not occupied.’ He took over the telephone and personally ordered 21 Division to attack Kaponga at eleven o’clock, with the support first of a howitzer battery from the Army artillery and later of three batteries of captured guns. He also demanded a report from the division on why it had not occupied the strongpoint in accordance with the orders issued just on midnight.
On Rommel’s departure the Korps’ staff officer in charge of operations varied the orders by bringing Littorio Division into the picture, with instructions to operate against the box from the west. And then Nehring on his return from 21 Division added the weight of another German battle group and co-ordinated the operations of flanking formations.
So it came about that late in the morning and throughout the afternoon, 21 Panzer Division and Littorio Armoured Division, directed by Afrika Korps Headquarters and supported by Stukas and part of the German army heavy artillery, rolled forward and carried out a full-scale attack with engineers, infantry, and tanks against the
empty fortress. Most of the operation was done by 21 Division, which complained that Littorio was slow in moving. Afrika Korps ordered 21 Division to make a left hook against the box. The attack was developed by 5 Panzer Regiment and 3 Battalion of Rifle Regiment 104 against the eastern and southern faces, while 1 Battalion was deployed against the outer defences near the Qattara track and 2 Battalion against the northern segment. Under cover of the artillery, the engineers lifted mines and blew and cut gaps in the wire, after which the infantry assaulted. At 6.15 the division reported that the strongpoint had been taken, ‘with the enemy falling back to the east.’6
Logical reasons other than those pertaining to the human frailties ever present in battle cannot be found for persisting with an armoured corps’ attack in full detail on the abandoned fortress. Possibly Afrika Korps and Panzerarmee Headquarters could see no apparent reason why the box should be evacuated and therefore decided to take precautions against surprise. But 21 Division knew from its patrol report of the previous evening that the British had gone. Even if this report was discounted, there is the overriding fact noted in the division’s diary: ‘At 1250 hours [1.50 p.m. British Army time] the foremost lines have reached the wire obstacle of the strong-point. It seems that the enemy has vacated the fortification.’7 It seems also that a corporal’s patrol could have verified this impression and thus avoided another five hours’ waste of time and substance in attacking a box from which there was not the slightest sign of resistance.
Fifth Brigade and 7 Motor Brigade’s March Column had grandstand seats for this exhibition of enemy tactics in assault. During the morning the 6 Brigade rear party had been relieved by a detachment from 21 Battalion under Major McElroy, pending the arrival of the 7 Motor Brigade column. When the enemy was seen closing the box, the artillery trucks carrying ammunition and the troops were sent out of the area, while McElroy withdrew to a good vantage point to watch developments. The attack was attributed to Italian bravado against a position known to be empty and was enjoyed as a piece of comic relief. No one had any idea that the operation had been ordered by Rommel and had been carried out mainly by the veteran 21 Division, or that the ‘capture’ of the box was regarded by Panzerarmee as a decisive event which precluded further efforts by Eighth Army to turn the flank.
After its ‘capture’ Kaponga was given to the custody of Littorio Division and Recce Detachment 580, while 21 Division regrouped under orders to advance to the Alamein-Munassib tracks. The route
prescribed for the division was through Deir el Angar, and thus between 5 Brigade and the Divisional Cavalry screen. Its objective was the area between 4 Brigade and the Divisional Reserve Group south of Alam Nayil to that occupied by Divisional Headquarters. Afrika Korps’ headquarters battle group, Lindemann, was put under the division’s command in Deir Umm Khawabir, north-east of Kaponga, to guard the left flank of the attack, on which there was a gap of about five miles to the nearest units of Brescia Division. In the south, 90 Light Division’s battle group Marcks, with a battalion from Trieste Division under command, and Recce Detachments 33 and 3 were ordered to push eastwards through and south of Gebel Kalakh to prolong the line on 21 Division’s objective.
Rommel did not press the advance that night. He halted it at last light with orders to resume the march at dawn. When 21 Division went into laager south-east of Kaponga, it claimed that Rifle Regiment 104 had pushed strong standing patrols far in advance. It was probably these patrols which probed into Deir el Angar and, with mortar fire, forced A Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry to withdraw slightly. The division’s situation report also suggests it was in contact with March Column to the north-west of 5 Brigade.
In the advance from Mreir to Kaponga, 21 Division left half of 5 Panzer Regiment to operate towards Alam Nayil. These tanks, with some infantry in trucks, were seen about midday moving across the Division’s northern front. By two o’clock some of the tanks reached the ridges north of Alam Nayil, close enough to threaten the infantry with Freddy Column. Under fire of the New Zealand guns, the tanks withdrew, 4 Field Regiment claiming two Mark IIIs destroyed. The only other enemy activity in the neighbourhood was an attack on 4 Brigade by a formation of Ju88 bombers at dusk, in which three men were killed and some trucks destroyed.
For the night New Zealand and 1 Armoured Divisions were given harassing roles to distract the enemy’s attention from the northern sector, on which 30 Corps was to attack in the early hours of the morning. New Zealand Division was ordered to produce maximum harassing and observed artillery fire on the front between the Alamein-Munassib track and Mreir up to nine o’clock, after which 1 Armoured Division would harass and patrol along Ruweisat Ridge. The artillery fire was then to be confined to the west and south-west of Mreir in conjunction with similar bombardments further south by the 7 Armoured and 5 Indian Division columns. The fire of these columns was to be intensified for half an hour after midnight as part of the deception plan.
New Zealand Division was also ordered to harass the enemy with patrols. Daylight reconnaissances were made, and after dark 4 and 5 Brigades each sent out three patrols of an officer with four or five
other ranks and some sappers in trucks. Fourth Brigade’s patrols penetrated as far as Alam el Dihmaniya and those of 5 Brigade reached the eastern edge of El Mreir. Newly dug infantry and gun positions told four of the patrols where the enemy had been, but only two of them found where he was then. The 21st Battalion’s patrol, commanded by Lieutenant Trounson,8 located an Italian gun position which it rushed. It was busy inflicting casualties when small-arms fire from other gun positions compelled it to withdraw. The patrol from 22 Battalion was fired on, but the approach of daylight and the distance to be travelled to its trucks prohibited investigation.
The patrols were hampered in their operations by the flares dropped by Royal Air Force bombers in the area ahead of the Division’s forward defended localities. In the fluid fighting of the period, the tactical bombing squadrons had great difficulty in distinguishing friend and foe, especially at night. To assist them the Division put out guiding lights made from petrol tins set in a ‘V’ which was directed towards the enemy. The lights were much appreciated by the bombing formations.9
Rumour later reached the Division that Major, like other veteran front-line soldiers sent to the base, transgressed the camp rules and was court-martialled and reduced in rank. Another rumour had it that his life was cut short at Maadi by a 3-ton truck. Major, however, survived Maadi and its temptations and moved with the Division to Italy. He died of pneumonia at Rimini.