Chapter 23: The First Disaster
THE time is a quarter past five. Dawn has broken. Every minute brings a perceptible increase in the light. Within another quarter of an hour, New Zealand Division will receive a tragic blow, the first of a series. Ere it falls, there is time for a quick survey of the battle zone, to record briefly other movements and operations during the night to present a complete picture. But it is vital in understanding subsequent events that it should be noted that this picture as a whole was not then available to any formation commander on either side.
On the right, 5 Indian Brigade had crossed its start line at midnight. By first light 3/10th Baluch Regiment was near the ridge, but on its left the 4/6th Rajputana Rifles were in trouble. This battalion had missed direction in the approach to the start line, and soon after it had run into the enemy Strongpoint No. 1. Control and cohesion had been lost and at dawn the battalion was still pinned down.
In Deir el Hima, about two and a half miles behind the Indian Brigade’s start line and to the right of the inter-corps boundary, 2 Armoured Brigade awaited orders to advance. Its companion brigade, the 22nd, which was to protect the New Zealanders’ left flank against interference by enemy armour, was in the vicinity of Alam Nayil. It also was awaiting orders. New Zealand Division had expected that both brigades at first light would be up with the leading infantry.
Headquarters New Zealand Division had moved during the night from Deir el Muhafid to the position vacated by 5 Brigade Headquarters in Deir Umm Aisha, and at first light was preparing to advance further along the axis of attack. The code word DOG, announcing penetration of the enemy’s forward positions, had been received from both brigades but later than had been expected. This, and the continued noises of battle in which heavy mortar and tank-gun fire could be recognised, suggested to headquarters that the enemy defences were in greater depth than had been suspected.
The Division’s diary records that 4 Brigade signalled the capture of the objective with the code word TIGER at 4.15 a.m. The report, if it was received at that hour, was a little premature in so far as it
applied to the whole brigade. However, General Inglis knew at dawn that 4 Brigade was on the objective, and from 5 Brigade Headquarters that brigade’s leading troops were believed to be there but that the situation was not clear.
Divisional Reserve Group had been under half an hour’s notice during the night and had been warned to be ready to move at 1 a.m. to its allotted area in Alam el Dihmaniya, about half-way between the start line and the objective and to the left of 4 Brigade’s axis of advance. There it was to protect the Division’s left flank. The order to move was sent some time later, and it was not until between 3.30 and four o’clock that the group started its advance. At 5.40, when the leading troops of 26 Battalion were about a mile and a half short of their objective, progress was stopped by the enemy in Strongpoint No. 3 and subsidiary posts linking that strongpoint with No. 2. Lieutenant-Colonel Peart1 thereupon deployed the battalion for defence with B Company facing northeast, A north-west, and D west. A and C Squadrons of the Division Cavalry were ordered to cover the group’s western flank and B Squadron was left to patrol the Division’s southern flank.
These dispositions were being taken up at daybreak. As the light improved, the group was under enemy fire of varying intensity from all sides except due east and south.
Fourth Field Regiment and 4 Brigade’s Rear Headquarters were also in this neighbourhood at dawn. They had crossed the start line in the dark in response to a signal from Brigadier Burrows to come forward, but they had soon discovered that the enemy still controlled the ground well south of the ridge. Posts that had survived the night assault and others to the west contested the advance. When progress became impossible, Rear Brigade Headquarters took up a position about a mile and a quarter east of 26 Battalion and 4 Field Regiment deployed between them. The congestion of guns and vehicles in the area was such that 5 Field Regiment, in the Reserve Group, could not be brought forward. At dawn the regiment was deployed in support on Alam Nayil.
Up on the ridge, Brigadier Burrows was awaiting the arrival of the expected tank and artillery support. He had the anxieties natural to the circumstances but as yet no cause for alarm. His subordinate commanders, however, were making the startling discovery that the ridge was almost solid rock and therefore unyielding to the picks and shovels of the infantry and the anti-tank troops. Cover hardly worth the name, let alone the effort, could be obtained
by individual soldiers only by scratching away the few inches of sand and gravel and making small sangars of such loose stones as could be found. Few, if any, of the enemy’s fire positions were useful, while those that had been occupied by Italians repelled because of lack of attention to the first principles of sanitation and hygiene.
No one in Eighth Army had thought to pass on to New Zealand Division the information that Lieutenant-General Norrie had earlier placed 18 Indian Brigade in Deir el Shein because it was impossible for infantry to entrench themselves on the better tactical feature of Ruweisat.
There was still a big gap between 4 and 5 Brigades in the area supposed to have been occupied by 21 Battalion. No one knew what had happened to the battalion other than vaguely that it was somewhere out in front. The full story is to be told later, but it may be stated here that at dawn the largest group, now under the command of Major McElroy, was about two miles in front of the crest of the ridge, and that Lieutenant-Colonel Allen was lying mortally wounded in a temporary aid post set up by two stretcher-bearers in the area occupied by the battalion’s company close to 19 Battalion.
On the right of the Division’s sector, 22 and 23 Battalions had the satisfaction of having completed the first part of their task. They were in touch with each other by runner but not with brigade headquarters. However, they had been visited by Brigadier Kippenberger and had seen him depart to hasten the advance of the support weapons. Like the support columns of 4 Brigade, these at dawn were in difficulties.
In the dark and under spasmodic fire, Major Fairbrother had taken 5 Brigade Headquarters and the infantry support weapons forward to Point 65. Here the Brigade Defence Platoon had been sent to deal with obnoxious enemy posts on the right flank. The enemy interference did not stop nor did the platoon return. As dawn broke, the vehicles came under such fire that Fairbrother had to withdraw the column. Before doing so, he ordered a platoon of machine guns, some Bren carriers, and a troop of two-pounders to make an effort to join the infantry on the ridge.
The column withdrew to the slight shelter offered by a depression later to become well known as ‘ Stuka Wadi’. The wadi was about half-way between 5 Brigade’s start line and Strongpoint No. 2. Here Fairbrother found 6 Field Regiment. The regiment had crossed the start line about four o’clock. After advancing about two miles, a quad of 30 Battery which was leading received a direct hit from a shell, some of the personnel being wounded. On this evidence that the enemy was occupying the ground ahead, the advance of the
regiment was halted. When the enemy fire continued, the guns were withdrawn to Stuka Wadi where, at first light, they were deployed while reconnaissance groups were sent forward. None of these succeeded in penetrating the enemy positions or in making contact with the OP parties which had advanced with the infantry.
Such was the general situation at the break of day. Groups of men in varying numbers and vehicles appeared to be wandering aimlessly in the area between the ridge and the halted artillery and transport columns. But appearances were deceptive. Some of the parties and vehicles were enemy seeking to escape. Others were captive. Some were New Zealanders held by the enemy. Still others were New Zealand groups striving to rejoin their units.
Prisoners and captors changed roles with the gathering light. Thus the platoon of machine guns sent forward by Major Fairbrother, No. 11 of 4 Machine Gun Company, rescued the Brigade Defence Platoon which had penetrated an enemy position. The platoon had found itself surrounded on all sides. The commander had surrendered in the confident anticipation that not only would he avoid unnecessary casualties but that his captors would become captives when daylight revealed their isolation.
While the battlefield at daybreak was untidy and strewn with loose ends, there was no apparent cause for alarm. So far as the forward commanders could discern, the situation appeared to be more or less normal, or only what was to be expected at that stage of a prolonged fighting advance in the dark against an entrenched enemy. The remainder of the battle plan had yet to be developed. The guns and tanks were due on the ridge, but it was still too early to say they were late in arriving. They should show up at any moment to unfold the next phase of the plan and make the victory complete and decisive.
These sustaining thoughts, however, were valid for only a few minutes. In the growing light but before the sun rose, the enemy delivered a powerful, devastating blow.
The companies of 22 Battalion had barely completed deploying and few of the men had dug more than the scantiest cover when enemy tanks, making good use of the natural cover, cautiously approached the ridge from the south. Their numbers cannot be stated precisely, but the most reliable estimates suggest there were eight to ten. They advanced in two groups, one against the battalion’s western flank and the other swinging to the east to enclose the eastern flank.
In the half-light the tanks could not be easily identified. Many of the New Zealanders were certain that they must be the expected British armoured support. Before they could be clearly recognised
by their markings, the tanks opened fire with their machine guns. Streams of bullets swept low over the battalion, forcing the men to hug the ground in the scratchings of weapon pits and behind the stones of uncompleted sangars. The limited value of this shelter was further reduced because the posts were being constructed as cover against fire from the opposite direction. Above the staccato br-r-r-r-p of the German machine guns, the bullets sweeping over the position created the sizzling noises of a giant frying pan. As the tanks closed in, enemy anti-tank guns in unsubdued posts in the vicinity joined in the action and Italian infantry came out of hiding to add to the volume of fire.
Lieutenant Ollivier’s four six-pounders were still on their portées when the action opened and he had no time other than to swing them round to bring them to bear on the tanks, which were only about 1000 yards away when he ordered the troop into action. In the first few moments of the fight and before the gun had been brought to bear, the first of the six-pounders received a direct hit from one of the tank guns which set the portée on fire. Two of the crew tried to smother the flames with sand but were compelled to desist by the heavy tank-gun and machine-gun fire. The crew of gun K2 claimed one tank set afire before shells and bullets from the flank wounded the gun sergeant and put the gun out of action.
While the whole of K Troop worthily upheld the finest traditions of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, two gunners on K3 may be specially mentioned. The layer was wounded soon after bringing the gun into action, but not before he had hit a tank. Gunner Davies,2 the loader, took his place and Gunner Paulger3 took up the loading. These two carried on, claiming two more tanks, oblivious to the fact that the bedroll and ammunition on the portée were burning. By this time both the gun commander and Davies were wounded. An order was given to abandon the gun. Davies climbed down, but Paulger stayed aloft to throw off the burning material. Davies then climbed back into the layer’s seat and got away several rounds before a direct hit on the gun made it useless.
Still under heavy fire, Paulger took the driver’s seat and essayed a dash with gun and portée for the shelter of the ridge to the north. On his way he heard that the sergeant of another gun crew had been left behind wounded. Paulger thereupon returned with the portée to find him. While making the search, a tank nosed over a slight crest less than 400 yards away and put two shells into the portée’s engine, forcing Paulger to dash to cover on foot.
The last of the guns, K4, claimed a tank before an armour-piercing shell killed the gun-layer, wounded the sergeant, and put the gun out of action.
This action between the guns and tanks lasted probably no more than fifteen to twenty minutes. Several of the tanks were hit and probably two of them were damaged beyond repair.4 K Troop lost its four guns, one man killed and four severely wounded, besides several men with lighter wounds. Of the survivors, ten escaped over the ridge and rejoined the Division later in the day. The remainder, including the troop’s two officers, were taken prisoner.
With the destruction of the guns, the tanks closed on 22 Battalion. Some of the men had supported the guns with their rifles and Brens, but in its exposed and unprepared position under the storm of machine-gun fire, the battalion could do nothing effective. When the tanks loomed above them, men rose in increasing numbers with their hands up until Major Hanton and his adjutant, having destroyed the battalion’s records and documents, came forward and made the surrender official. The tanks also surrounded 23 Battalion’s headquarters and captured it with Lieutenant-Colonel Watson.
According to the Division’s casualty return, a total of 21 officers and 334 other ranks were taken prisoner, the details being: 22 Battalion, 14 officers and 261 other ranks; 23 Battalion, 3 and 55; 33 Anti-Tank Battery, 2 and 13; 7 Field Company, 2 and 5.5
A private of C Company, after describing the gun v tank fight, has left this record of the final minutes:
The end was getting close by this time. The tanks came rumbling and clanking towards us with nothing to stop them. Their machine guns were going all the time at anyone they saw moving while behind them were infantry and more tanks. We could do nothing but kept hoping some of our own tanks would turn up to the rescue. ... Some of our chaps were right under the monster (the leading tank) and I can still see clearly the silly little bits of white paper they waved for a white flag. Then all seemed to rise out of the desert with their hands up. I think we all felt rather silly and self-conscious. Dick, Joe and I walked over to the tank trying to crack jokes but without much success. ...
The tank commander was sitting up on the turret looking cool and efficient with his earphones still on his helmet and an eagle and swastika on his right breast. He spoke good English and told us to go over to another tank where the prisoners were collecting. ... Some of our men had been escorting about 30 Italian prisoners. The boot was now on the
other foot. The Italians helped to line us up and they didn’t fail to see the joke.
As we got to the next group of tanks a bit of looting was starting and I saw an Italian grab a watch from a chap in front of me. We were all searched. An Italian sergeant searched me. He was a friendly man. ... A German stretcher bearer attended to our wounded. An ambulance and a truck also arrived for them. They were in a great hurry to get us out of it. ...
Major Hanton and several of the men insisted on their right to retain personal possessions and were roughly treated in consequence. The German commander was in a hurry to get his prisoners away and told Hanton that, if he and his men would consider themselves prisoners of war, they could keep their water bottles but must throw away the rest of their equipment and arms. The men were then quickly formed into groups and, under guard of the tanks, were marched off in columns of threes at a fast pace due west across the desert south of the ridge. The column of prisoners, although not recognised as such, was seen by 4 Brigade and fortunately was not fired on. It passed through an enemy gun area where the number of British trucks in use was noted. Nearby, at what appeared to be a German headquarters, probably that of 15 Panzer Division, many of the men claimed that they had recognised Field Marshal Rommel. It is very doubtful whether they saw Rommel. The enemy at this time had only a very confused idea of events and the German records are clear that the duty of restoring the situation had been left to Afrika Korps. Had Rommel been with 15 Panzer Division at that hour, it is difficult to believe that he would not have received the report of the tank commander and ordered the division to take immediate advantage of the New Zealanders’ state of unbalance. The tank column’s action was good from the German point of view. It would have been better had the commander probed the other positions on the ridge and exploited his success.
Other troops on the ridge did not realise immediately the extent of the disaster, and it was not until much later in the day that 5 Brigade Headquarters received authentic news that practically the whole of one of its battalions had been ‘put in the bag.’6
The Germans did not get everybody away from the neighbourhood of 22 Battalion’s position. They had captured Captain Thompson,7 18 Battalion’s medical officer, who with the regimental aid post truck had followed the night advance picking up wounded. Thompson insisted on attending to the wounded, and three Italians
were placed in charge of the truck with instructions to load it with wounded and follow the prisoner column. Thompson thwarted this move by having the rotor arm removed surreptitiously from the truck’s distributor. For some hours he collected and treated wounded, his truck parked close to an enemy battery which became a target for New Zealand guns. Later in the day, when the Italian guards showed willingness to leave the exposed position, Thompson had the distributor reassembled and the truck, loaded with wounded and the guards, was driven safely to the New Zealand lines.
Corporal Blackett,8 the aid post corporal of 22 Battalion, and five stretcher-bearers who had collected two stretcher cases and eight walking wounded were also left behind by the tanks under Italian guard. As the area came under shellfire, Blackett had the wounded removed to an abandoned Italian aid post. When the shelling increased, the Italians retreated hurriedly, leaving the stretcher-bearers and wounded to their own devices. Later in the day they were recovered by three carriers from 21 Battalion and brought to the rear. Although these carriers, which had been sent forward by Major Fairbrother, did not reach the ridge, they brought back the first detailed stories of the capture of 22 Battalion.
No. 11 Platoon of 22 Battalion’s B Company, commanded by Sergeant Elliott,9 was also fortunate enough through his courage and initiative to avoid capture. The nineteen men of the platoon were digging in on the battalion’s extreme right or eastern flank when Elliott saw tanks and infantry approaching from the south-west. He conferred with neighbouring platoon commanders, who suggested that the tanks were the expected British armoured support. As he regained his platoon area, Elliott was left in no doubt that the tanks were enemy. He could see their markings, and their fire inflicted a bullet wound across his chest.
As the position was obviously untenable under tank attack, Elliott ordered the platoon to move by section rushes to the shelter of a low ridge 300 yards to the north. Although bullets whipped about the platoon, it gained the ridge without loss but had to move further on to avoid the line of fire of one of K Troop’s guns and the tanks. The platoon saw the destruction of K Troop and watched their battalion being rounded up and marched off. It was joined by men of 21 and 23 Battalions who also had moved northwards to escape the tanks. Elliott’s wound was dressed, and he then deployed the platoon on 23 Battalion’s right flank alongside one commanded by Lieutenant Shaw10 from 21 Battalion.
This incident was the beginning of a series of stirring deeds which earned Sergeant Elliott the Victoria Cross, a story which belongs to a later phase of the narrative.
When Brigadier Kippenberger left 23 and 22 Battalions to return to his headquarters he was well pleased with the situation.11 But his satisfaction was short-lived. He had barely drawn clear of 22 Battalion in his carrier when ‘a solid shot screeched overhead in a streak of flame. I poked my head up and to my horror saw in the half-light five tanks, 300 yards away, heading towards us and all shooting hard, spitting flame like dragons.’12
This encounter completely changed his view of the situation. The problem now was not merely one of consolidation and sending forward the support weapons, but of finding the British tanks and getting them up ere the enemy tanks fell on the exposed battalions on the ridge. The carrier was turned half-right to avoid the enemy fire only to run into another three tanks a hundred yards away. Turning again, the carrier made for the gap between the two groups of tanks, and at its top speed of twelve miles an hour, the best the driver could get out of it, drove through the cross-fire without injury to the vehicle or occupants. The two liaison officers with the brigadier also got clear, although one jeep was hit and the officer had to make his way back on foot.
Looking back, Kippenberger saw K Troop in action. He was well aware that against the number of tanks he had seen the four guns were not likely to last long. The speed of the carrier on its way back to headquarters seemed in the circumstances to be exasperatingly slow. Kippenberger met Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch who was searching for his 18th Battalion, and after noting dead, wounded, and abandoned equipment about Point 65, pressed on through 6 Field Regiment in Stuka Wadi and eventually found his staff and headquarters. He approved Fairbrother’s action in withdrawing the headquarters and vehicles and the arrangements he was making to push the support weapons forward. He then went on to report to General Inglis, who was in Deir el Muhafid awaiting the establishment of headquarters further forward.
From Inglis Kippenberger learned that Divisional Headquarters had received only scant and vague reports of the fighting and of the situation on Ruweisat. He gave all the information he had, stressing the decisive fact that the troops on the ridge were being attacked from the rear by tanks. Inglis could give only an approximate location of 2 Armoured Brigade. With instructions to find the brigade and urge it forward to the support of the troops on the
ridge, Kippenberger set off again. With the perversity that often seems to mark such occasions, his car engine was missing in one cylinder and its best speed was about ten miles an hour.
Kippenberger, who was accompanied by his intelligence officer, Captain McPhail,13 found the armoured brigade north of Deir el Hima. His reception was far from encouraging. Rather it was enough to cause despondency. The meeting is thus described in Infantry Brigadier:14
After ages, perhaps twenty minutes, we reached a mass of tanks. In every turret someone was standing gazing through glasses at the smoke rising from Ruweisat Ridge four miles and more away. I found and spoke to a regimental commander, who referred me to his Brigadier (Brigadier Raymond Briggs). The Brigadier received me coolly. I did my best not to appear agitated, said that I was Commander of 5 New Zealand Infantry Brigade, that we were on Ruweisat Ridge and were being attacked in the rear by tanks when I left an hour before. Would he move up and help? He said he would send a reconnaissance tank. I said there was no time. Would he move his whole brigade?
While he was patiently explaining some difficulty, General Lumsden (commanding 1st Armoured Division) drove up. I gave him exactly the same information. Without answering he walked round to the back of his car, unfastened a shovel and with it killed a scorpion with several blows. Then he climbed up beside the Brigadier, who was sitting on the turret of his tank. I climbed up beside them and McPhail stood within hearing. The General asked where we were and the Brigadier pointed out the place on the map. ‘But I told you to be there at first light,’ General Lumsden then said, placing his finger on Point 63. I jumped down and did not hear the rest of the conversation but in a few minutes the General got down and in a soothing manner which I resented said that the Brigade would move as soon as possible. I asked for urgency, which both he and the Brigadier promised, and drove off.
The British historical narrative of this period says:
2nd Armoured Brigade had meanwhile been waiting to advance but by 0615 hours it had received no orders to do so. At 0625 hours Brigade Headquarters received through 6th Royal Tank Regiment a vague report that the New Zealand forward troops were being attacked by tanks and at 0635 hours the brigade therefore advanced with 3rd/5th Royal Tanks on the right, 9th Lancers in the centre and 6th Royal Tanks on the left.
The differences between this record and that given by Brigadier Kippenberger, who is supported by Captain McPhail, are most marked. So far from the brigade commander receiving ‘a vague report’ from one of his regiments, he and his divisional commander had precise information and a definite request for urgent assistance from Kippenberger. The British account implies that the brigade advanced promptly, that is within ten minutes of the alleged report
from 6 RTR. This report, if it was made, must have come to hand while Kippenberger and Lumsden were at brigade headquarters. It is remarkable that no mention of it was made at the time. The supposedly prompt advance may also be contrasted with Brigadier Briggs’ offer to send a reconnaissance tank forward.
Further, it may be asked why the brigade was waiting for orders in broad daylight up to half an hour after sunrise and about five miles distant from the ridge when, according to Lumsden and as expected by Inglis, it had been told to be at Point 63 at first light. Perhaps it should be recalled that Lumsden’s written orders did not prescribe any specific directions in time and place for the brigade. Whether he amplified these orders with verbal instructions is not known. At Deir el Hima, however, he was specific enough, and he was not contradicted in the hearing of Kippenberger and McPhail.
The British narrative records the brigade’s difficulties in getting past unsubdued enemy localities, and adds that it ‘was thus too late to assist 5 NZ Brigade or to drive away the enemy tanks which were hampering consolidation. ... None the less by 1400 hours contact had been made with 5th NZ Brigade and 5th Indian Brigade.’
Headquarters of Afrika Korps and 15 Panzer Division appear to have had little better grasp of the situation at daylight than the headquarters of 13 Corps and 1 Armoured and New Zealand Divisions. Yet in spite of the confusion, the enemy was well aware of the vital fact that their centre had been broken and might collapse to the peril of the whole army unless the breach was sealed immediately. To this end, the front was scoured for reinforcements. At daylight the initiative still rested with 13 Corps and its formations but was about to pass to a few more energetic Germans.
Strangely, the enemy had lost New Zealand Division on 14 July. At the very hour when the New Zealanders were fighting their way through the Ruweisat defences, Panzerarmee was reporting to Rome: ‘2 NZ Div’s whereabouts is not known. The division is not in the front line.’15 This reflected on the intelligence service. The enemy had not noted the eastern movement of the Division from the Kaponga- El Mreir area to Munassib and Muhafid. The advance of a substantial infantry formation from Muhafid to the start line area on the afternoon of the 11th had been reported. Since then this mass, probably the largest on the front, had been under more or less constant air and artillery bombardment. A deduction that it was the New Zealand Division would seem to be logical.
The enemy, however, had evidence to confirm the presence of the Division in the offing. On 12 July one of 23 Battalion’s carriers, with Captain Mason16 and a crew of three, had not returned from a reconnaissance. It was found in the middle of the enemy defences, riddled with fire from all sides, on the afternoon of the 15th. In the carrier were the bodies of Mason and his men.
Although Rommel had taken special measures to protect his centre and had placed Brescia and Pavia Divisions under the supervision of 15 Panzer, the attack was a surprise. The Germans apparently were deceived by 13 Corps’ artillery programme. In contrast with voluminous entries for other days, 15 Panzer’s diary has for 14 July only the brief line: ‘Nothing to report except for artillery harassing fire.’ But from midnight onwards there was plenty to report.
According to the division’s diary for 15 July:
About 2300 hours [midnight Eighth Army time] the noise of fighting was heard from Brescia’s sector and inquiries were made of the liaison officer at Brescia divisional headquarters. He answered that nothing special had happened yet, but that the strong points were on the alert and the artillery and reserves had been alerted also. This report, however, came only from the forward Italian artillery; there was no contact with the foremost strongpoints, and the report was false.
The noise of fighting continued, and suddenly the report came in that fleeing artillerymen of Brescia Division had arrived at divisional battle headquarters. The three eastern-most strongpoints had been overrun without a single report from the Italians. By first light the enemy had advanced as far as Point 63, very close to Divisional Headquarters, and had knocked out some motor transport and guns belonging to the anti-tank unit which was in protective positions just forward of Battle Headquarters. No other troops of the division except the tanks had been directly attacked.
Afrika Korps Headquarters in Deir el Abyad also heard sounds of battle about midnight and was promptly advised by 15 Panzer Division that ‘an attack against Brescia is on its way and that the enemy has broken in on the left wing. Divisional Battle Headquarters of Brescia knows nothing of this penetration.’17 This early information of the break-in on the left wing probably came from 8 Panzer Regiment’s tank troops, which were seen or attacked by 23 and 21 Battalions as they burst through the strongpoints. Whether Afrika Korps established direct contact with Brescia or recorded in its diary information passed on by 15 Panzer is not clear. However, half an hour later at 11.30 p.m. [12.30 a.m.] the diary notes: ‘Only now Brescia has a report of this break in. Army is informed and D.A.K. is to restore the position.’
The South African translator of the diary reported that in the original against this last entry there are two pencilled lines in the margin, ‘evidently’, he comments, ‘to stress the strange fact that Brescia Headquarters received the news of the enemy break-in half an hour after it had actually happened.’ This may well be the case, as the next entries in the diary, made ostensibly at 1 a.m., record Nehring’s opinion that the penetration was only a local one made by a strong reconnaissance troop which was then ‘trying to find a way out.’ On the other hand, the marks may stress Afrika Korps’ responsibility for restoring the situation as subsequent entries suggest there was some argument with Panzerarmee on this question.
Be this as it may, at one o’clock Nehring saw no reason to alter the plans he had made for the conduct of the general battle on the southern front. At daylight 90 Light Division, operating on the 900 thrust line with six battle groups, including Group Baade from 15 Panzer Division, was to turn Groups Menton (SV 288) and Baade against Deep Well and capture that feature. Afterwards Baade was to stand by ready to swing north-east. These operations were being opposed by 7 Motor Brigade’s ‘monthly’ columns. New Zealand Division was aware of this threat to its rear but was not perturbed by it.
At two o’clock, roughly when the leading elements of the New Zealanders were emerging from the strongpoints, Afrika Korps again communicated with Panzerarmee Headquarters. The chief operations officer pointed out that an accurate appreciation of the situation was not possible and also that Afrika Korps, at the moment, had no reserves which could be used for a counter-attack. The bulk of the riflemen of 15 Division [ 115 Rifle Regiment in Group Baade] were with 90 Light Division, and 21 Panzer Division was still in the northern area.
This news does not appear to have impressed the chief of the army staff. He again told Afrika Korps that it must restore the situation and do so from its own resources. He refused to withdraw Group Baade from 90 Light but promised to reconsider the matter later. Nehring thereupon turned to Colonel Menny, now commanding 15 Division. He asked Menny to consider whether the recently arrived battalion of Infantry Regiment 382 then with Group Lindemann, Afrika Korps’ kampstaffel, could be used for a counterattack.
By 5.20, again according to the diary, Nehring had more definite information. Menny transmitted a report from the liaison officer with the Italian X Corps that Pavia’s strongpoints were still occupied by the British. Menny intimated that his own division then had a front running approximately from Point 63 south-south-east to the
group which was holding up the New Zealand Divisional Reserve Group. West of this line, his divisional artillery had taken up positions from which it could be withdrawn in time without loss of guns. Less precise but more alarming was the supposition at Afrika Korps Headquarters that the line of Brescia’s strongpoints no longer existed.
These facts and rumours led Nehring to believe that the penetration of his defences was greater than had been supposed. It seems, however, that he learned at daylight that some of Brescia’s strongpoints were still holding out. This being the case, the advance of Menton and Baade Groups on Deep Well would assume added importance as a means of easing the strain on Brescia. Nehring had no sooner reached this conclusion than he was advised that ‘the enemy, about one battalion strong, has established himself in Deir el Shein.’18 It then became clear to him that the situation could not be restored with the forces available to Afrika Korps.
The information concerning the Deir el Shein was sent by 15 Panzer Division and was received at five minutes to seven. The message said: ‘Enemy infantry (one battalion strength) and anti-tank established themselves in Deir el Shein.’ This was not quite correct. It seems that during the night one or more parties from 21 Battalion probably entered Deir el Shein to cause considerable alarm among the Italians there, and that this event was linked by 15 Division with the appearance of 4 Brigade and its anti-tank guns on the ridge overlooking the deir. The 20th Battalion was close to the deir.
The report, however, was substantially correct, and when it was transmitted to Panzerarmee was sufficiently alarming to cause that headquarters to view the situation more seriously. Within a quarter of an hour of Afrika Korps’ receipt of the report, Panzerarmee ordered 21 Division to ‘Have a force with tanks and artillery ready to operate in a south-easterly direction.’ The 3rd Recce Unit, then in the neighbourhood of Tell el Eisa, and 33 Recce Unit, on the the army’s extreme right flank at Himeimat, were sent to Afrika Korps with all speed. Later Baade Group was withdrawn from 90 Light Division and directed to the relief of the situation on Ruweisat.
In brief, the Germans saw at daylight a confused situation accentuated by swarms of fleeing Italians in the rear areas. These had so lost their discipline that even when they were threatened with German fire they would not rally. Communications with the forward positions on Ruweisat had broken down. Nevertheless, the breach in the line appeared to be closed although not tightly sealed.
Counter-attack was imperative but, in Nehring’s view, was possible only if reserves could be dredged from other parts of the front.
Nehring might have done better had he turned 15 Panzer Division’s few tanks against the infantry about Point 63 at daybreak. On the other hand, was it reasonable to think that the British would so bungle their attack that, after seven to eight hours of fighting, their infantry would be left naked and exposed on the objective unsupported either by artillery or tanks? Nehring evidently did not think so. But he did not repeat the error when he caught the New Zealanders in similar circumstances a few days later in a night attack on El Mreir.