Chapter 19: Battle of Tell el Eisa
ROMMEL’S satisfaction with his progress and prospects in the south was dimmed on 10 July when 30 Corps broke into his defences in the north. He lost the Tell el Eisa mounds and, with them, artillery command of the Alamein Box. Eighth Army could now fire its guns into Panzerarmee’s headquarters area and had a salient from which it might debouch into Panzerarmee’s rear. The reverses were offset somewhat by the fact that in the late afternoon and next day the attack was halted and the line stabilised, Eighth Army thus being denied opportunity to exploit its success.
These physical results of the battle, although serious to the enemy, were not beyond repair. The worst feature, from Rommel’s point of view, was the revelation that his Italian formations were no longer able to hold their positions. Sabratha Division either surrendered or fled to the rear when attacked by the Australians. A battalion of Trieste Division was overrun and wiped out.
The first consequence of this revelation was that ‘Panzerarmee was forced to call off its very promising attack in the southern sector.’ It had then to accept as an obvious conclusion ‘that in future the German formations, weak in strength though they might be, would have to bear the brunt of the fighting alone.’1
Thirtieth Corps’ final plan for the operation required the Australians to advance roughly five miles along the coast road from Alamein Box to the area north of Tell el Eisa station, and then secure Tell el Eisa feature and the railway line south of the axis of advance. The South Africans were given two 15-metre contour features opposite the south-western segment of the box as their first objectives. From the line thus gained, both divisions were to exploit automatically into the enemy’s gun and headquarters area on the rising ground on either side of Sanyet el Miteiriya. A raiding party of Stuart tanks and armoured cars was attached to the Australians for operations against Daba landing grounds and the enemy workshops in the Sidi Abd el Rahman area.
A second phase of the battle envisaged full-scale operations to be ordered by 30 Corps with all available forces against objectives to be decided later. Thirteenth Corps was warned that it might have
an active part in the second phase, and on 9 July New Zealand Division was once again told to hold itself ready to carry out Operation SEEDLING, the outflanking advance to Daba and Rahman.
In the event, there was no automatic exploitation and consequently no second phase. The course of the battle is succinctly outlined in Panzerarmee’s battle report:
A reinforced brigade of the enemy with tank support attacked Sabratha Division north of the coast road after a very heavy bombardment lasting an hour. The Italian troops in this sector (whose artillery appeared to consist only of a light battery and a heavy unit) either surrendered or fled to the rear. Sabratha Division was almost completely wiped out or captured and lost all of its artillery except the heavy unit.
The first line of resistance to be established was only three kilometres south-east of Army Battle Headquarters [on the coast near Ras el Shaqiq]2 where machine-guns and anti-aircraft guns of Army Headquarters and elements of Infantry Regiment 382 (just arriving along the coast road) went into position. The enemy was stopped from penetrating further along the coast road. It was most unfortunate that this headlong flight allowed the enemy to advance so fast that Long Range Recce Company 621 was destroyed almost entirely.
To restore the situation the Commander-in-Chief brought up a hastily-formed battle-group of 15 Panzer Division and his headquarters’ battle-group [Kampstaffel Kiehl]. This force was to attack the enemy’s [30 Corps’] southern flank and cut him off from Alamein fortress. The battle-groups advanced to the attack about midday [against the South Africans on their captured contour features actually about three o’clock] but made very slow progress because of terrific shellfire from Alamein fortress. Two battalions of Trieste Division were brought forward to seal off the enemy penetration to the south and south-west [in the Miteiriya area].
Early next morning the enemy [ 24 Australian Brigade] again attacked [Tell el Eisa feature] after a very heavy preliminary bombardment. In this attack two Bersaglieri strongpoints, which had held firm the previous day, fell very soon. A battalion of Trieste which was committed to plug a gap was overrun and wiped out. This made the situation so serious that almost the whole of the Army artillery had to be committed in the northern sector. Before evening all the other battalions of Trieste Division were brought forward to the Point 21 area [west of Tell el Makh Khad] to seal off the advance. Recce Detachment 3 [transferred from the southern sector the day before] was moved into the area south-west of Point 23 [Tell el Eisa] to prevent the enemy from breaking through to the west.
As far as 13 Corps could perceive, the attack on 10 July had no immediate repercussions on the enemy in the southern sector. Both sides were awakened before dawn by the cannonading in the north, which veterans of the First World War in Afrika Korps said was ‘even stronger than the drumfire of the West Front.’3 Shortly after
daylight the enemy in the south was again on the move to create what has been described as a stormy and thoroughly harassing day, during which there were constant warnings of imminent assault and reports of enemy movements on all sides.4 The enemy’s records show that he was equally confused and harassed by the day’s events.
The 5th Panzer Regiment’s eastern wing was the first to show up against New Zealand Division. This force had approached Alam Nayil the previous afternoon and had withdrawn towards Alam el Dihmaniya under the fire of 4 Field Regiment. Soon after daylight it again advanced on Alam Nayil from Dihmaniya with a strength reported as twenty light tanks, followed at a distance by thirty to forty heavier armoured vehicles and lorried infantry. The estimated armoured strength was roughly twice that of 21 Division, which bedded down the previous night with only thirty-two tanks all told.5
The New Zealanders had only artillery observation posts on Alam Nayil ridge. These were vacated on the approach of the enemy, who went to ground on the ridge with his tanks well dispersed in hull-down positions. His intentions were not clear, but it seemed to the New Zealanders that he was either consolidating the position or preparing an attack. A little later enemy light tanks probed to the east of Alam Nayil. They were opposed by carriers, and then 4 and 5 Field Regiments put down regimental concentrations which appeared to halt any further attempt to advance.
Alam Nayil, however, was the wing’s objective. It had been told to seize the ridge and remain there at the disposal of 21 Division, which regarded the capture of the feature as an essential preliminary to the advance of the main body. At 7.10 a.m. the wing reported that it had taken the ridge and that it was under severe artillery fire. It also asked where the next attack would be launched. During the next hour it supplied the division with the information that thirty to forty British tanks supported by artillery were operating on its left front, and that infantry positions with anti-tank and field-gun support had been encountered on the higher ground south of Alam Nayil. The division was informed that the tank attack could not be continued without strong artillery support. On this the wing was instructed not to continue the attack, but to hold its positions with a flexible defence and to avoid casualties.
The enemy remained on Alam Nayil until early afternoon when, under an artillery and bombing attack, he withdrew slightly to the north-west. In the late afternoon, tanks of 1 Armoured Division came across New Zealand Division’s front and cleared the ridge.
Events were not so sharply defined on the Division’s western flank
where the main position, Deir Alinda, was held by 5 Brigade, with A and B Squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry providing a screen to the north, west, and south-west. March Column of 7 Motor Brigade was between 5 Brigade and Kaponga, July was south-west of the brigade, and August and April still further south. The active enemy comprised 21 Division, less 5 Panzer’s eastern wing, 90 Light Division and Recce Detachment 33. Littorio Division took no part in the day’s fighting.
The New Zealanders thought little of 7 Motor Brigade’s ‘monthly’ columns with their roving commissions, and the hit-and-run tactics imposed on them. It seems, however, that 5 Brigade owed much of its immunity from serious attack on the morning of 10 July to the operations of March Column, and possibly also of July Column.
The 21st Panzer Division’s main body moved at daylight with the intention of passing through Deir Alinda to Deep Well. This route was a little to the south of the axis of advance prescribed the previous day, and may have been chosen to avoid the British forces with whom there had been a brush in Deir el Angar. Within two miles of its start line, Rifle Regiment 104 reported that it was engaged in a skirmish with British reconnaissance troops, and an hour later, at 8.25, that 1 Battalion was pinned down in front of a strongpoint.
Fifth Brigade’s first contact with the enemy was shortly after ten o’clock when lorried infantry, supported by three tanks, approached 23 Battalion in the brigade’s eastern sector. This small force, which was easily driven off by the gunners of 6 Field Regiment, was probably 5 Panzer Regiment’s advanced guard. The encounter is not recorded by 21 Division in its diary, although an earlier entry against an appeal from the rifle regiment for tank support notes that ‘it would appear the Panzer Regiment has moved very far to the east.’
It may be inferred that March Column’s resistance, the encounter with 23 Battalion, and the reconnaissances of the previous evening gave 21 Division the impression that there was a strongpoint of considerable size from Deir el Angar to Deir Alinda and on to the high ground to the west between the depressions. Afrika Korps’ report to Panzerarmee that night supports the inference. The report says: ‘21st Division’s attack was halted by an apparently reinforced enemy group in dug-in positions and by heavy shellfire west and north-east of Deir el Angar. During the afternoon the division swung out to the south and launched a new attack in conjunction with 90 Light Division which was advancing from east of Qattaret el Diyura towards Raqabet el Retem.’6
This concentration of force to the south-west was seen by 5 Brigade when the midday heat haze dissipated. During the morning the brigade had heard desultory shelling to the south and conflicting reports of attacks and intentions to attack El Taqa. Then, early in the afternoon, Divisional Headquarters reported having intercepted a wireless message from Rommel to 90 Light Division urging it to advance.7 The concentration, the intercepted message confirming the presence of 90 Light Division, and the knowledge that there were only scanty British forces to the south suggested a danger of the brigade being cut off from the rest of the Division. There was an additional anxiety in the fact that all the brigade’s guns, in accordance with the 13 Corps order, had been sited to fire to the north towards Ruweisat Ridge.
A serious attack was not developed against 5 Brigade although there were some exciting moments. B Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry, which was patrolling the area south-west of 5 Brigade, came under fire and attempted to lure the enemy tanks into range of the New Zealand guns. A platoon of machine-gunners on trucks was taken out by the brigade commander to engage a 90 Light Division column of armoured cars, guns, and lorries which was making a swift advance along the foot of the plateau. The machine guns opened fire at 3000 yards but had to withdraw to the brigade area under the fire of enemy field guns which switched on to the brigade positions at six o’clock. Under the counter-bombardment of 6 Field Regiment and 64 Medium Battery, the enemy fire died down. An enemy patrol which came within 2000 yards of 21 Battalion suggested the imminence of an infantry attack and the brigade stood-to in its defences. However, nothing more happened, and with the fall of night all was again quiet.
New Zealand Division considered the attacks of 10 July lacked direction and vigour and that the quiet at dusk was due to the Germans believing they had gone far enough for the day. The impressions were well founded.
Shortages of equipment, particularly transport, and of personnel beset the Germans. On 10 July they were subjected to the additional trials of absentee direction, confusion of ideas and plans, undue apprehensions concerning the strength of the opposition, and what 90 Light Division bluntly described as ‘bad unit leadership.’8
Rommel’s presence at Kaponga in the early morning suggests that he intended to direct the operations personally. His rapid move to
the north and his call for German formations to plug the gaps and to counter-attack 30 Corps also suggest that he was aware of the danger on the coast, and that the threat would demand his personal attention. In the circumstances, he would have been well advised to have given command of the southern sector to General Nehring of Afrika Korps. Instead, while he was attending to details in the north, he also attempted to direct the operations of 90 Light Division and Recce Detachment 33 in the distant south.
Rommel’s order to 90 Light Division to reach its objective conflicted with an earlier instruction given to Afrika Korps. The division’s objective was the Alamein- Himeimat track south of Munassib, where it was to prolong the line to be reached by 21 Panzer Division. At 11.45 a.m., that is two hours before Rommel’s exhortation to 90 Light Division, 21 Division issued as a general instruction: ‘After today’s objectives have been reached troops will go over to the defensive. Reconnaissance in a south-easterly, easterly and north-easterly direction; contact will be made with both neighbours.’9 The authority for the order is not stated in the division’s diary, but the division is hardly likely to have changed an offensive to a defensive on its own initiative.
An hour later, however, Afrika Korps sent the following order to 21 Division: ‘According to Army instructions we are to form a definite eastern front in co-operation with 90th Light Division. It is not, therefore, absolutely necessary, but desirable to reach the objective west of Deir Umm Aisha [ Alamein- Himeimat track]. The north-south line held is to be defended, wired and mined. Material for this will be taken from the captured strongpoints.’10
This order was probably confirmation and amplification of a verbal message to 21 Division on which the division’s general instruction was issued. Be this as it may, it was unlikely to encourage the troops in brushing aside the opposition to reach the objective. In the event, 21 Division made no real effort to come to grips with 5 Brigade in Deir Alinda or to bypass the position by a wide outflanking move.
Besides the bad unit leadership, 90 Light Division attributed its lack of success to supply difficulties which held up the battle groups for many hours without fuel, ammunition, and water. These difficulties were created by the destruction through bombing and artillery fire of considerable numbers of the groups’ vehicles, and the inability of the division’s supply column to reach the area before the evening of 10 July. Consequently, the division’s diary notes, the attack ‘progressed only hesitatingly and spasmodically. Had the attack been carried out with more energy, it would have been
possible to drive the enemy units operating in the southern sector to the east.’11
The division, however, found some consolation for its inability to win through to its objective. A postscript to the diary of 10 July says: ‘As the position on 11 and 12 July shows it was actually a good thing that 90th Light did not reach its prescribed objectives on 10 July as otherwise it would have had its supply routes cut by enemy forces from the north and from the south.’12
On the British side on 10 July, Gott was more interested in preparations for co-operation with 30 Corps’ automatic exploitation than in the enemy advance on his front. On his daily visit to New Zealand Divisional Headquarters, he outlined his intentions and the further regrouping of 13 Corps which would be required. The plan called for an attack on Ruweisat Ridge by New Zealand and 1 Armoured Divisions. Inglis recorded later that at this stage when the enemy was weak the operation was easy and advisable, but he had told Gott he did not consider it practicable against thickened-up enemy without close support by the armour. He had then asked if he could have tanks under his command. Gott replied that none was available and that 1 Armoured Division had been trained to act independently and not in close co-operation with infantry.13
This was the first hint of the Ruweisat operations which were to prove disastrous to the Division. At this stage, however, the attack was to be merely a disconcerting operation in conjunction with the main operation – the automatic exploitation into the enemy’s rear by 30 Corps which was to pave the way for a second phase still to be decided. The Battle of Ruweisat became Eighth Army’s chief operation only when that at Tell el Eisa failed to achieve all the expected results.
Apart from the corps’ project, Inglis considered it desirable to bring the Division closer together. Gott ordered him to concentrate east of the Alamein- Himeimat track, with the Division’s left flank on Deir el Munassib and its right on the western edge of Deir el Tarfa. That night, on a route plotted and lighted by the Divisional Provost Company, 5 Brigade moved north-east to the right flank and 4 Brigade adjusted its defences to cover the now open western approaches. Divisional Headquarters established itself on the northern edge of Deir el Muhafid and the Reserve Group moved to a position south-east of headquarters.
The Division’s immediate role in the new sector required it to harass the enemy with mobile groups and thus control the
southwest face of Deir el Hima, and to cover the approaches to Point 102 to the north-east where 1 Armoured Division was to assemble. The Division’s southern and south-western flanks were watched by the 7 Armoured Division columns which also were moved east of the Himeimat track.
This reorganisation marked the close of the Division’s peregrinations in the southern sector. In whole or in part, the Division had been on the move almost continuously since its arrival on the Alamein Line on 28 June. The movements had been confusing and, in some degree, disheartening because they had failed to produce apparent material results. No one in the Division had a complete picture of Eighth Army’s plans and dispositions, let alone those of the enemy. The Division’s sense of frustration and its appreciation of the general situation were expressed by General Inglis in a letter to General Freyberg written on 11 July:
Gott of XIII Corps is very good, but the strategic direction of the show as a whole beats me and I think Gott agrees. Since we came into the Alamein line I have had orders to go to Daba and another time to Sidi Abd el Rahman to exploit attacks by XXX Corps. Those are the occasions on which I probed north-west but on neither occasion was there the slightest possibility of exploiting to the named places because the last-mentioned Corps provided nothing to exploit.
Both sides’ conception of ‘attack’ seems to be to shoot with artillery and stop when suitably shot up. The only trouble is that our (not NZ) mobile columns when approached have eastward leanings all the time. These columns are too weak in infantry, rather tired and have been retreating too long. They are scattered all over the landscape so that their own divisional headquarters never seem to know where they are or just what they are doing.
After mentioning the destruction of Ariete and the enemy advances in the southern sector, Inglis’ letter continued:
The Australian punch seems to me to have taken a wrong direction comparatively harmless to the enemy – perhaps even advantageous to him – and not at all the sort of thing we understood it was going to be. It was eccentric from us and gave us no chance to co-operate effectively from nearly 20 miles away. ...
The troops (NZ) are in good fettle. Every time we have had a go at anything it has come off. What we want now is the general battle decently tied up to give us a chance of doing something decisive. ...
Information from aloft is scanty and late. I get most of ours personally from Gott, and they seem to leave him a bit vague. ...
I feel very much that we need a commander who will make a firm plan, leave his staff to implement it, crash through with it; and once the conception is under way move about the battlefield himself and galvanize the troops who are looking over their shoulders. I think our arrival and initial performance did a lot to put heart into people, but, unless more is done, the effect won’t last. I feel that penny packets of enemy who could easily have been destroyed, have been allowed to make progress instead and that time has been frittered away over and over again.
The letter leaves the impression that Inglis, like many other commanders and staff officers who served under Gott, was susceptible to his charm and confident manner. Nevertheless it is remarkable for its clear perception of Eighth Army’s condition and needs when these were obscure not only to the enemy but in Eighth Army itself.