Chapter 31: Succession of Disasters
THE time is just on five o’clock. The first signs of dawn are in the sky but it is still dark in the Mreir Depression. At the rear of 6 Brigade’s advanced headquarters, the riflemen of 25 Battalion move out to take up a position on 24 Battalion’s right preparatory to cleaning up the gap to the 26th. Officers of the 24th Battalion and in command of the anti-tank and machine guns are getting their men ready to move into the best defensive positions as soon as it is light enough to choose them. There is little noise. Just the shuffle of feet in the sand and over rocks, an occasional flare and a burst of tracer fire from an enemy machine gun.
An ominous quiet, maybe, but only if one knew what was impending. A German counter-attack was expected at first light. But first light was not the first tint of dawn in the distant sky. First light was light enough to see, to make an appreciation of where precisely the attackers had installed themselves and what they had with them, and then to make quick preparations to meet the counter attack in terms of the corps and divisional orders.
So it might be half an hour or a little longer after the first tinting of the sky before the enemy showed up. Peart, isolated in the presence of German tanks and without anti-tank support, knew he had cause to be apprehensive. But to the remainder of 6 Brigade, the situation was more or less normal after night attack. It was sticky, perhaps, yet not unduly so.
Around the lip of the depression and in positions on its floor German officers and non-commissioned officers of tank, anti-tank, artillery, machine-gun, mortar and infantry units were intent on the time. Their watches showed four o’clock, an hour behind British Army time, a quarter of an hour to zero. They knew approximately where the British forces lay in the depression and they had their guns laid roughly on the area. Five minutes, then ten minutes past the hour. Now they watched the minutes. At the quarter, signal and illuminating flares burst in the air and down into the depression poured machine-gun and anti-tank tracer, solid and high-explosive shells and mortar bombs, into the congested mass of men and vehicles, anti-tank guns, machine guns and carriers.
The fire came from all directions except on 6 Brigade’s axis. Some men thought it was deliberate, aimed fire; that the Germans carefully picked out the liaison officers’ tanks, the six-pounders and the two-pounders, and then the mortars and machine guns. That could not have been so. The target area was still in the dark and, even when burning trucks lighted the scene, it was next to impossible to choose particular targets within the mass. It was sufficient from the German point of view to fire into the area. Each bullet and shell was almost certain to hit something or, at the least, make innocuous any attempt to thwart the blow.
Riflemen went to earth and tried to use their rifles and Bren guns against the ring of fire. The spraying tracer compelled most of them to hug the ground. Those who could distinguish anything at all saw only the tops of tanks through the dust and in the half light. Vickers gunners, some on the ground and some still on trucks, tried to subdue the fire but without result. One after the other and some-times together, the guns were destroyed or their crews killed or wounded.
So also with the anti-tank guns. The crews got most of the guns into action but not for long. Heavy automatics on the German tanks pierced the gun shields, solid shot knocked out the guns or the portees, and the spraying machine-gun fire from in front and on the flanks took toll of the crews. The liaison officers’ tanks were destroyed and ammunition trucks blown up. Brigadier Clifton tried to get round the battalions to organise resistance but could accomplish little. Lieutenant-Colonel Greville was killed before he could do anything, supposing there was anything he could do.
The diary of 21 Panzer Division suggests that the Germans were surprised by the compactness and nature of the target. Whether this was so or not, they made the best of it. They saturated the area for about twenty minutes and then became more deliberate. About six o’clock, when it was full daylight, there was a momentary lull. Survivors sought to take advantage of the lull to break for the rear. On the appearance of groups of men running to the rear and to the east, the Germans reopened a heavy burst of fire from all directions. Then, with a flourish of Very signals, the tanks came over the northern rim of the depression, down the slope and into 6 Brigade’s positions. They were followed by a few self-propelled guns and small parties of German infantry.
The German tanks and infantry rounded up the survivors on the position and also most of the men who had tried to escape. These had little chance under the enemy fire in the open desert and in broad daylight. The story of escapes, including that of Brigadier Clifton, belongs to a later stage in the narrative.
Divisional Headquarters did not receive any direct advice of the attack on 6 Brigade. At eight minutes past six that Signals’ control office recorded that signals from the brigade’s advanced headquarters were heard at good strength but that communication could not be established. Twenty minutes later Lieutenant-Colonel Peart reported by telephone and was told by General Inglis that 24 Battalion was believed to be on its objective with brigade headquarters, and that therefore he should collect all available forces within his battalion and lead them back into the depression to support the 24th.
Then ominous reports and rumours started to come in. At 6.47 a.m., 2 Armoured Brigade reported that fifteen enemy tanks could be seen in the depression, the map reference being almost the point where 26 Battalion’s headquarters had been set up on its objective. The brigade said it was about to attack the enemy armour. Next, at 6.50, the Divisional Artillery headquarters passed on a report, presumably from one of its batteries, that either 24 or 26 Battalion was being attacked by tanks on its objective.
Survivors from 6 Brigade appeared with lurid stories of the brigade having been overrun and destroyed. Experience had taught the Division to treat such reports with reserve. In this particular case, the early arrivals had not seen the end of the counter-attack. By the time they got in, the noises of battle in the direction of the objective had died down and there were no signs of the brigade in retreat. The usual morning haze and dust limited visibility. Communications with the brigade were broken. Some efforts were made from the forward defences to reach the brigade but they were beaten back by fire. The conclusion reached from these factors was that the brigade’s situation was likely to resemble that of 4 Brigade at Point 63 on the morning of 15 July.
In the meantime, Inglis made inquiries concerning the action of the British armour. When he learned that it had not moved he telephoned 1 Armoured Division at 6.50, spoke to an officer whom he understood to be General Gatehouse,1 and
informed him he had not supplied promised support and inquired why and what he proposed to do. He replied that we had not requested any support. I informed him of our conversations with his staff during the night and that I had records of them. He then said we had not requested support through correct channels which, he alleged, were his LOs. He said he was ready to attack then.2
Instead of being at Mreir at first light or at least making an effort to get there, 2 Armoured Brigade was still stationary within Kippenberger’s 5 Brigade defences at 6.30, an hour and a half later
and long after 6 Brigade had been overrun. At 6.35 the 9th Lancers passed to its brigade headquarters a report that nine to fifteen enemy tanks were attacking the New Zealanders in 21 Battalion’s outpost area. The Lancers were then ordered forward to help the defence. According to their reports on the action, they encountered a minefield and were held up. A squadron of the 6th Royal Tanks was also sent forward. It missed the mines and advanced towards the eastern end of Mreir, where it lost three tanks from anti-tank fire.
The 26th Battalion saw something of the latter action. From Rear Brigade Headquarters, Peart sent his adjutant to collect support weapons and then went on to B Company in its position alongside 21 Battalion. The company commander, Major Walden,3 told Peart that he had given a tank commander details of the gap in the minefield through which the battalion’s vehicles had withdrawn and that some of the tanks had advanced part of the way towards the depression. Peart gave Walden orders to take his company forward as far as he could and then went on to make contact with the tank commander and artillery officers. They suggested that there was no suitable task for the infantry at that stage. Peart therefore stopped the company until he made his own appreciation. The time was about eight o’clock.
Peart subsequently reported that the tank and artillery duels were very fierce. He saw several British tanks on fire and also numerous fires in enemy-held territory. Some of these appeared to be three-ton trucks in the area of 25 Battalion’s objective. Peart thought the British tank advance was far too slow and that his infantry could help. When his adjutant arrived with four six-pounders, four two-pounders and four carriers, Peart ordered his riflemen to advance in well-dispersed sections ahead of the tanks.
The infantry advance was contested by only a few enemy posts which had been annoying 21 Battalion, and by midday the lip of the depression was occupied. Enemy infantry, vehicles, and two tanks were seen in the depression. The former were dispersed with rifle and Bren-gun fire. One tank was set on fire after it had been engaged by British tanks and mortars and the other was thought to have been hit as it withdrew. Reconnaissance by riflemen and observation from the lip indicated that the battalion’s objective was clear of the enemy, and preparations were in hand to occupy it when, at 12.45, Peart was ordered to withdraw and go under the command of 5 Brigade. As the Maori Battalion in the meantime had taken over the original defensive area, Peart took the 26th into brigade reserve.
Several of the British tanks followed Peart in his advance to
Mreir but their action was not vigorous. Walden said later that he told the tank officers that other German tanks were within range, and that they had informed him they were waiting until the German armour came over the lip of the depression and thus make better targets. It was only when the Germans failed to oblige that the British tanks moved forward until they could lay their guns into Mreir.
While this small infantry-tank action was being fought and the remainder of 2 Armoured Brigade was troubled by mines in 5 Brigade’s lines, 23 Armoured Brigade was fighting for its life.
During the night the brigade, reduced to two regiments (40 Royal Tanks on the right and the 46th on the left), was held in
5 Indian Division’s sector ready to advance along the 278 grid line between Point 63 and Mreir to its first objective, Point 59. New Zealand and Indian sappers were to clear a gap 2000 yards wide through the minefields up to the enemy defended localities. This gap could not be made.
In the evening six officers and sixty other ranks from 7 Field Company and 5 Field Park under Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson joined the engineers of 9 Indian Infantry Brigade on the scene of operations Daylight reconnaissance by Captain Page4 had revealed that the first 3000 yards in the New Zealanders’ part of the lane was clear. Page suspected that mines had been laid beyond this but enemy fire had prevented him from making a check. In this area, roughly south of Point 62 on Ruweisat, the clearing party found not only mines but an enemy determined to stop interference with them.
Some of the sappers managed to get into the minefield and to lift a few mines, but their activity provoked fire of all types from ahead and both flanks and also machine-gun fire from posts in their right rear on Ruweisat. It was obvious to Page that organised lifting on a wide front was impossible, and with his casualties he drew back out of range and reported to Hanson, who recalled the party to the starting point. Hanson decided to wait until the Indian infantry cleared out the opposition and then to resume the lifting. Contact with the Indian sappers had been lost during the withdrawal and little information could be had concerning the progress of the attack along the ridge. The sustained enemy opposition, however, suggested that the battle was not going according to plan. Hanson then ordered his officers to reconnoitre an approach to the minefield from a more southerly or south-easterly direction. This search brought the officers through 21 Battalion’s outpost, beyond which they were again held up. The Indian sappers could not clear more than about 1000 yards of their lane because of the failure of the assault against Point 63.
At 3.15 in the morning Gott’s headquarters reviewed the situation, with particular reference to the problem of whether 23 Armoured Brigade should make its attack. At this hour it was known that the minefield on the brigade’s projected axis of advance had not been cleared and it was doubtful whether a gap could be made within the time available. The position of the Indian Division about Point 63 and in Deir el Shein was uncertain. If these objectives could be taken and held, the gap could be made and the armoured brigade’s right flank would be secured against flanking fire from
Point 63. The news from 5 Indian Division, however, was not good, certainly not good enough to ensure the success of the armoured advance.
On the other hand, reports from New Zealand Division indicated that 6 Brigade had reached its objective in the depression. The condition of the brigade was uncertain and it was likely to be in trouble with the enemy tanks at first light. But the special arrangements made with 2 Armoured Brigade were designed to take care of precisely that situation. In this connection, it may be recalled that only half an hour earlier Inglis had spoken to Gott to make sure there would be no default on the part of the armour. At 3.15 Gott had no more reason than the New Zealanders to think that 2 Armoured Brigade would not carry out his specific orders.
Study of the general situation appears to have led 13 Corps Headquarters to the belief that the attack of 5 Indian Division along Ruweisat and the advance of 6 Brigade from the south against Mreir had compressed the main enemy forces into the area bounded by the northern lip of Mreir and Deir el Shein. While this concentration militated against the prospects of 23 Armoured Brigade on its projected axis – the 278 grid line between Point 63 and Mreir – it was likely to have opened a route to the enemy’s rear south of Mreir in the area traversed by 6 Brigade in its advance and covered by the New Zealand artillery.
This turn of events, although unexpected, might even improve 23 Armoured Brigade’s prospects. At the projected hour of the armoured assault, the enemy’s strongpoints about Point 63 with their artillery and anti-tank defences would either be taken or fully engaged by 5 Indian Division. The German tanks in the neighbourhood, if not previously wiped out by 2 Armoured Brigade, would be held off by that brigade and the New Zealanders’ anti-tank guns in Mreir. Thus 23 Brigade’s right flank should be safe until it erupted into the enemy’s headquarters and administrative area. Similarly, 22 Armoured Brigade and the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment, operating further south, should guard 23 Brigade’s left flank.
Gott took up this project with Gatehouse at 6.25. He suggested that 23 Brigade should move on the 276 grid, 2000 yards south of the original axis of advance, and that, if necessary, the start should be postponed from 8 a.m. until 8.30. The 276 grid ran a little to the north of 21 Battalion’s outpost and skirted the southern lip of Mreir. Gatehouse considered the attack should be cancelled, but Gott said there were good reasons to believe the Germans were apprehensive of an armoured thrust and ordered it to be made on the revised axis.
After discussions with his staff and commands and further talks, with corps headquarters, Gatehouse issued amended orders to 23 Brigade at 7.50. These instructed the brigade to take the 276 grid as its axis, to move with special reconnaissance for mines and, if these were met, ‘to treat them as an intermediary objective.’ The time of the issue of these orders is important. According to the corps’ operation order, the start time was to be fixed by corps headquarters and was to be not before 8 a.m. Events indicate that the brigade was standing by ready to move at that hour. In effect, it was in the slips, keyed up and ready to go. Because of a break in wireless communication, the two regiments received the order to advance without the amended details.
The two regiments, with approximately eighty-seven Valentines between them and each with one squadron in the van, crossed the start line about ten minutes past eight, and a little later New Zealand observers saw them ‘thundering past’ along the 278 grid, covered to some extent by a smoke screen put down on the ridge by the brigade’s own artillery. On the right, C Squadron of the 40th Regiment came under heavy artillery and anti-tank fire at the same time as it struck the minefield about the pipeline track. Here it lost seven tanks. By 8.40 the remainder of the regiment was engaged just north of Mreir, where ten more tanks were lost and the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Dunbar, mortally wounded. The attack was pressed and the objective, Point 59, was reached at about ten minutes past ten, but with only four tanks in C Squadron, five in B and six in A. This little group was severely engaged by fire from both flanks and also by German tanks from Mreir. By 10.30 only eight tanks were left and of these only five were fit to fight.
The 46th Regiment on the left met a similar fate. Its leading squadron and regimental headquarters lost four tanks on the pipe-line minefield and from fire from the eastern corner of Mreir. B Squadron then moved up on the right and lost four tanks on the mines. C Squadron swung to the south in an effort to find a way through but lost five more tanks to mines and anti-tank fire. The remainder of the squadron pressed on but, with the exception of two tanks, was not heard of again. By ten minutes past nine, A Squadron with only twelve tanks reached its objective. Here it met such intense tank and anti-tank fire that it was forced on to the remnants of 40 Regiment on Point 59. B Squadron had ceased to exist.
By eleven o’clock the two regiments had only twelve battle worthy tanks. Their plight appears to have been reported by patrol of the 10th Hussars from 2 Armoured Brigade which was
trying to make contact with New Zealanders in Mreir. By midday support from 2 Brigade had been arranged and the survivors of 23 Brigade were withdrawn. They mustered four tanks of 40 Regiment and three of the 46th. These were formed into a composite squadron and put under the command of 3/5 Royal Tank Regiment. In four hours the brigade had lost approximately 30 officers, 173 other ranks, and 80 tanks. A little more than half of the tanks were recovered later. The enemy’s losses were claimed as seven tanks.
The 23rd Brigade’s attack gave Afrika korps and Panzerarmee Headquarters a severe fright, more so than any other phase of the battle. Between seven and eight o’clock in the morning, Nehring thought the difficulties of the night had been overcome. Most of the lost positions had been recovered, the front was intact, and an imposing list of prisoners and equipment was being counted. The only doubtful spot seemed to be south of Mreir in the sector held by 18 Battalion. The Germans probably saw 22 Armoured Brigade and the Divisional Cavalry Regiment as well as a mass of transport in the neighbourhood. This concentration and the aggressive attitude of 18 Battalion caused Rommel to believe that a thrust to his rear might be made from this quarter. Rommel ordered Stuka attacks on the area, and Baade Group was directed to secure the minefield and stop any lifting.
Such satisfaction as Nehring might have had with the situation was shortlived. Both panzer divisions reported 23 Armoured Brigade’s, advance almost as soon as it started. Reissmann’s strongpoint on Point 63 signalled that British infantry supported by fifteen tanks were advancing, and 21 Division called 5 Panzer Regiment back to the north of Mreir. The 8th Panzer Regiment of 15 Division followed, except for a few tanks which remained in action against 2 Armoured Brigade to the east and south of Mreir.
The German tanks arrived too late to prevent Reissmann’s group from being overrun and the situation then became very confused as they tried to deal with the numerous sections into which 23 Brigade broke up. Communication between Afrika Korps and ,21 Division was lost and artillery units started to withdraw. Panzerarmee Headquarters ordered 90 Light Division’s reserve and Briehl Group to be ready to assist Afrika Korps, while Nehring, sensitive to the concentration in 18 Battalion’s sector, called for the Stuka attack. At 9.40, 21 Panzer Division urged 5 Regiment of attack to the east and rescue Reissmann’s troops. The regiment replied that it was itself in a precarious position as British tanks had broken through to its rear and it was also engaged with other tanks in a south-westerly direction.
For the next hour the squadrons and regiments on both sides were too busily engaged to keep their headquarters posted on the course of the action. Afrika Korps. sent a liaison officer to find out how 21 Division was getting on. He reported shortly after ten o’clock that British tanks were on the Stone track [Point 59, 23 Armoured Brigade’s objective] but that they were falling back. Not long afterwards, according to 21 Division’s diary, ‘Major von Heudeck sends the following message to Afrika Korps: “We shall do the job alright.” This message calmed down the corps and army both of whom had looked on the situation as hopeless.’
By this time, round about eleven o’clock, the situation had turned markedly in favour of the Germans. Derelict British tanks could be seen in large numbers, Point 63 had been retaken, and 21 Division was moving against Point 62 on Ruweisat. Rommel then suggested that the division should stop short of the height and make its tanks ready to counter-attack against the thrust he expected from 18 Battalion’s area. Nehring made this an order to 21 Division at midday, and about the same time the Italian tanks were instructed to concentrate to the west of the threatened sector.
As further reports were received of British tank losses and recovered positions, Rommel decided close on four o’clock to deal with the threat from 18 Battalion’s sector. His chief of staff advised Nehring that an attack would be made at 6.45 p.m. by two battalions of 90 Light Division and the tanks of Ariete and Littorio Divisions advancing north-east from Kaponga. Nehring had no sooner received this news than 15 Division reported a British tank attack against Warrelmann’s group which had been reinstated in its position immediately south of Mreir.
This was an effort by 2 Armoured Brigade to renew the attack through a gap 20 yards wide and about 300 to 400 yards deep in the minefield where the pipeline track dropped into the eastern corner of Mreir. The brigade, with 9 Lancers in the lead followed by 6 Royal Tanks, advanced to the gap at five o’clock. As the tanks fell into single file to pass through the narrow gap they were engaged by anti-tank, 88- and 105-millimetre guns. Two squadrons broke through, but in little more than half an hour they were in such a precarious position that they were ordered to withdraw. Under covering fire and a smoke screen 9 Lancers’. Grants reversed singly through the gap and the brigade pulled back in two stages into night laager. The operation cost eight Grant tanks destroyed and seven Grants and three Crusaders put out of action.
Also about this time, the enemy noted that the concentration of British vehicles in 18 Battalion’s sector was moving to the north. On this the projected attack by 90 Light Division and the Italian
tanks was cancelled. Afrika Korps warned its divisions that the British might attack along Ruweisat during the night. They were instructed to recover all of their old forward defensive localities and to prevent any interference with the minefields. The two panzer regiments, which had become very intermingled, were ordered to sort themselves after dark, after which 8 Regiment with Baade Group was to form an operational reserve near Bullet el Tor.
Apart from artillery action which was maintained throughout the day, New Zealand Division had little to do with these operations. Principal efforts were devoted to trying to find out what had happened to 6 Brigade and whether any part of the brigade might be still holding out in Mreir. As late as just on five o’clock 6 Field Regiment reported what appeared to be elements of 24 and 25 Battalions close to their objectives, and Divisional Headquarters asked 13 Corps to direct 2 Armoured Brigade to look for them in its attack. However, reports from survivors who came into the lines indicated that the brigade had suffered dire misfortune.
At a quarter to six when 2 Armoured Brigade’s advance failed, 18 Battalion was drawn back from its advanced position into defensive localities in the areas previously held by 24 and 25 Battalions. By nightfall the Division was holding a line of which only the southern end was in advance of its original defences. A casualty return sent to 13 Corps estimated 6 Brigade’s losses as over 1000 men, 12 two-pounder and 13 six-pounder guns, 29 carriers and 7 Vickers guns. Against these the Division had 64 German and 12 Italian prisoners.
During the night individuals and small parties from 6 Brigade who by various devices and subterfuges had avoided capture rejoined the Division. Among these was Brigadier Clifton.
As the German tanks were rolling over the brigade Clifton, with Captain Pemberton5 of 8 Field Company and two men, got away in a bantam which, however, was soon put out of action by enemy fire. The party dived for cover and saw another car and a carrier caught by the same enemy post. German tanks then came up and passed on. They were followed, Brigadier Clifton has recorded, ‘by a few lorried infantry, very excited, very worried, to gather the prisoners; there were several unpleasant incidents due to misunderstanding – in one case just deliberate murder.’
Clifton and Pemberton removed their badges of rank and helped the wounded. The German infantry did not interfere and the two officers gradually worked their way back to Mreir. On their way
they saw the German tanks return through the area to go into action against 23 Armoured Brigade. For the remainder of the day the two officers acted as assistants to Private McQuarrie,6 a medical orderly of 25 Battalion. McQuarrie stopped the German tank commander as he drove back through the battle area, and asked for medical assistance for the numerous wounded who had been left by their captors as too badly injured to walk to the rear.
To his everlasting credit [Brigadier Clifton further records], the panzer general said the battle was still on and nothing was possible immediately but that McQuarrie had his authority to demand assistance from any medical unit into the area.
Clifton, Pemberton, and McQuarrie collected medical supplies, water and stores from abandoned vehicles, dressed the wounded, gave morphia, and made constant brews of tea. The two officers brought in another dozen wounded from the area and buried many of dead. By the late, afternoon several fit and lightly wounded joined the group. German infantry, who busied themselves with salvage, did not interfere and as evening approached escape plans were made. Towards dusk, about 8.30, a truckload of Germans came up to take over the position for the night. On their appearance Clifton, Pemberton, and Lieutenants Rutherford and Holt7 went into cover. McQuarrie drew the German officer’s attention to his wounded and extracted a promise that medical help wold be given. The Germans then put soome lightly wounded men in a truck and drove off.
When the coast was clear, Clifton and Pemberton moved down the axis of advance and, after several adventures, escaped into the Maori Battalion’s sector. Rutherford and Holt were wounded and chose the shorter route direct to the east. Holt was wounded in the leg and thus could not make haste. The two officers also has to avoid German posts and at dawn were still in no-man’s-land and under fire from both sides. Eventually they reached safety with 5 Indian Division. McQuarrie stayed with his wounded until about midnight when, in response to his persistent demands, the Germans evacuated the casualties. While this was in progress McQuarrie slipped away and reached safety. The Military Medal he was awarded a had been well earned.