Chapter 32: Price of Bad Planning
THE Battle of Mreir flickered out at dusk on 22 July, although there was a little activity on 30 Corps’ front the next day and another attack on Miteiriya was considered for the night 23–24 July. This project, however, was abandoned.
It is true, as General Auchinleck reported to London early on the 24th, that the attack ‘severely shook the enemy and caused him heavy losses.’ But the price to Eighth Army had been woefully high and out of proportion to the damage inflicted on Panzerarmee. New Zealand Division alone had nearly twice the casualties of 15 and 21 Panzer and Brescia Divisions. Thirteenth Corps had lost the use of two infantry brigades, the 6th New Zealand and 161st Indian, both composed mainly of men with desert training and experience. For a time the New Zealand and 5 Indian Divisions were reduced to practically one-brigade divisions. In addition, two-thirds of the newly-arrived 23 Armoured Brigade had been wiped out and there were also the losses suffered by 2 Armoured Brigade and 30 Corps.
In detail, the battle cost the New Zealand Division 69 officers and 835 other ranks, of whom 6 officers and 96 other ranks were killed, 2 and 42 died of wounds, 21 and 247 were wounded, 5 and 62 were wounded and taken prisoner, 34 and 381 were taken prisoner, and 1 and 7 were missing. The 24th Battalion, with a casualty list of 20 officers and 265 other ranks, suffered most. Then came 25 Battalion with 16 and 196, and the 26th with 8 and 124. The operations of 18 Battalion on the flank cost 5 officers and 62 other ranks, of whom 1 officer and 19 other ranks were killed or died of wounds.
The enemy casualty returns, although incomplete for the whole of the front, give details for the main sector of the battle. The 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions which bore the brunt of the fighting lost 45 killed, 122 wounded, and 222 missing. With Brescia Division’s losses of 1 killed and 50 missing, the total for the sector was only 440. The enemy’s tank losses cannot be computed. The 15th Division’s daily return on 21 July shows 19 tanks and the same number on 23 July, while 21 Division reported having 23 tanks on 21 July and 22 the next evening. These figures merely indicate that new and repaired tanks were reaching the panzer divisions in just
sufficient numbers to replace losses. British records show that 23 Armoured Brigade lost 80 tanks, 2 Armoured Brigade about 18, and 50 Royal Tank Regiment, which fought with 30 Corps, 23, a total of 121 of which, however, more than half were recovered.
Thus there was ample justification for Rommel’s congratulatory message to his troops: ‘I wish to express to officers and men my high appreciation of their stout fight during the victorious defensive battle of 22 July. I know that every new attempt of the enemy to attack will get such a thrashing.’ The infantry units of the two German panzer divisions, much inferior in numbers and equipment to the two infantry brigades which attacked them, were pushed back on one flank but held the other firmly. Then the two panzer regiments, 5th and 8th, with only forty tanks, made their usual counter-attacks on the assaulting infantry and broke them. Later, over 200 British tanks closed on Afrika Korps’ front and about half of them penetrated the defences. But by evening Afrika Korps had reformed practically on its original defensive line and had halved the British tank strength.
Nevertheless, Rommel was worried. He advised General Bastico, of the Italian Supreme Command in North Africa, that the situation had been extremely critical for the past ten days and, in spite of the success at Mreir, it would remain critical until the necessary reinforcements were with the army. Such reinforcements as had been received had been offset by losses. Rommel thought Eighth Army would continue its offensive, and if with its superior forces it succeeded in breaking through the thinly-held front, he would be faced with the decision either,
a. to fight to the last round in the parts of the Alamein line we still hold, but to allow the enemy after his breakthrough to push forward farther west as we will have no forces available to stop him. That will necessarily mean the final capitulation of the Army and thus the loss of North Africa.
b. to abandon the Alamein line, concentrate the mobile forces farther back to meet the enemy after his breakthrough, attack him, withdraw gradually to a line farther back and nearer the supply base, and thus save North Africa.
Rommel considered the second course the only possible one and he requested Bastico to give it his approval. Bastico agreed that the situation was serious, but not that it was critical. He affirmed that it was Mussolini’s plan and policy, and also that of the Italian Supreme Command, that the present line should be held at all costs. He referred Rommel to reinforcements coming forward and assured him that the Italian Supreme Command would do everything in its power to hasten their arrival. In the meantime, Mussolini wished Rommel to avoid all actions which would lead to unnecessary losses and exhaustion of the army. Bastico himself was quite sure that
‘thanks to Rommel’s excellent leadership the crisis would be overcome.’
This correspondence substantiates General Auchinleck’s belief that he had shaken Panzerarmee very severely and that the enemy could be smashed. Auchinleck, however, does not appear to have appreciated the real causes of the failure of his successive blows. In his report to London he candidly admitted that the attack had definitely failed in its object, but explained: ‘Lack of reserves contributed to failure to maintain momentum of attack and this limiting factor persists.’1 He maintained this view in his despatch.2
Faulty command and staff work was a greater factor in the defeats than Eighth Army’s lack of material strength. The weaknesses and misconceptions in the general plan for Mreir have already been pointed out. Good staff work during the battle might have overcome them. General Gott and his staff saw at least better prospects for 23 Armoured Brigade along the 276 grid and issued orders accordingly. The staffs of 13 Corps, 1 Armoured Division, and possibly also of 23 Armoured Brigade, failed to ensure that the amended orders reached the tank regiments.
The failure of 2 Armoured Brigade to move to the support of 6 New Zealand Brigade in Mreir at first light was not all due to lack of material strength or to want of training in infantry-armour co-operation. After the battle New Zealand officers did not hesitate to tell the tank officers what the Division thought of their inaction. Rejoinders gave the impression that the tank commanders were inclined to be ashamed. They said they would have been more than willing to help the infantry if they had known exactly what was expected of them and if they had been allowed to operate on their own initiative instead of waiting for orders.
Brigadier Clifton was perturbed when he found how sketchy was the briefing given to the liaison officers sent to him by the armoured brigades. The claims of the tank regiment officers that they would have helped ‘if they had known exactly what was expected of them’ suggests that they, too, either had not been briefed or had been given too vague a picture. This in spite of General Gatehouse’s under-takings at the corps conference on the 20th when Gott and Inglis had stressed and stressed again the imperative necessity of armoured support for the infantry at first light. Not only had Brigadier Fisher, of 22 Armoured Brigade, given similar undertakings on Gatehouse’s behalf at the New Zealand Divisional conference the next day, but during the night of the battle the Division had been almost constantly in touch with Corps Headquarters, 1 Armoured
Division and 2 Armoured Brigade, and had been assured that the promised support would be given. The failure to redeem the promises was not due to the tank crews or the squadron commanders.
It may be argued that even had 2 Armoured Brigade moved at first light it would have been too late to save Clifton’s brigade. But the arrangement was that the armour should be at Mreir at first light. There was ample time between the corps conference and zero hour to arrange a clear passage for the armour through the New Zealand defences and the gap to be cut through the enemy minefields on 26 Battalion’s axis. The staffs of the armoured formations took no steps to this end. Even after Major Walden, of 26 Battalion, had pointed out a gap, the tanks ran on to mines.
This veteran3 brigade’s hesitancy in tackling minefields and its suspicions of areas over which New Zealand transport had passed freely may be contrasted with the aggressive manner in which the raw 23 Armoured Brigade tackled the enemy mine barriers. These, as has been noted, were to be regarded as ‘intermediary objectives’.
The diary of the 9th Lancers, which the British Historical Section says was always written in a noticeably robust fashion, has the following entry on 23 July: ‘It is apparent that the length of time which the regiment has now been in the desert (seven months), combined with the constant battles and lack of sleep, is having its effect; most of us are at the extreme limit and it is getting hard even to think clearly. Yesterday three men – all normal stout-hearted men – went temporarily out of their minds and others were showing the same signs of mental and physical strain.’
The point occurs at once that the German tank regiments had been under similar, if not greater stress, and that they lacked little in endurance and energy at Mreir. But however that may be, no notice was taken in the planning from Eighth Army Headquarters downwards that troops who were to play a vital part in the operation might not be physically and mentally fit for the tasks given to them.
There is no doubt that General Inglis and the New Zealand Division were badly let down by 1 Armoured Division. Inglis mentioned this in a letter to General Freyberg on 27 July 1942, and added: ‘The result is that I have flatly refused to do another operation of the same kind while I command. I have said that the
sine qua non is my own armour under my own command.’ Inglis then went on to examine the time and other factors of consolidation on the objective after a night attack. I have tried to ram the following considerations home in connection with these long night attacks by infantry [he wrote].
1. Following a night attack by a brigade or more, at least one hour after first light is required to reconnoitre and plan a co-ordinated antitank defence. It takes another hour to site the individual weapons, and in good ground, a further hour to dig them in.
2. Until all this has been completed infantry is not in a position to defend itself against armoured counter-attack. There is also the field artillery to be tied up.
3. During this period, therefore, our own armour must be right on the spot to deal with the enemy armour.
4. If the advance is long and our own field artillery has to advance on to ground not occupied by us prior to the attack, it cannot site its batteries or fix its pivot guns until after daylight next morning. This emphasises the need for close support of our own armour during the period of consolidation.
5. I have given a minimum period of three hours for consolidation. I think the normal allowance should be five hours.
It is of interest that although Inglis appeared to make little headway with his representations at the time, these principles of armour under command and the time allowances for consolidation became standard practices in Eighth Army after the change in command.
In the meantime, Auchinleck was not dismayed by his further failure at Mreir. He intimated to London on 24 July: ‘My intention remains the same – to go on hitting the enemy whenever and wherever possible with the object of breaking him here.’4 To this end he organised a similar operation for 27 July in 30 Corps’ sector, where British and Australian infantry suffered severely for precisely the same reasons that caused the losses at Ruweisat and Mreir.
This record of the Battle of Mreir opened with a reference to illusions at Eighth Army Headquarters. It may well be closed with another example contained in the official account of the battle circulated throughout the theatre and sent to London in the Middle East Forces weekly intelligence summary:5
The week began and ended with British attacks on the enemy in the Alamein area. Though these attacks did not yield considerable territorial gains, they seriously worried the enemy and caused him many casualties. ... Our first attack started on the night 21–22 July. In the north Tel el Eisa was recaptured and a footing gained on the Mteiriya [sic] Ridge. In the centre, westward from the Ruweisat Ridge, the first objective was successfully reached and gaps were created in the enemy minefields; but exploitation by our armoured forces proved difficult and resulted in losses. Point 63, at the eastern [sic] end of Ruweisat Ridge, was stubbornly contested and finally left
in “no-man’s land”. The fighting on 22 July was exceptionally severe. Ten enemy tanks were seen burning and others were hit. The enemy infantry was severely handled and the bulk of 104 Lorried Infantry Regiment was either captured or killed.
In the south our troops gained a footing on the very difficult Taqa Plateau but later had to relinquish it. Where deep exploitation had proved impossible, it was generally found necessary at the end of the action to return to our original positions, since most of the area overrun by us was stony ground where digging was impossible without power tools and where our troops, unable quickly to provide themselves with cover, were subject to heavy fire. The operation yielded about 500 prisoners, most of them German, although the German infantry fought with outstanding tenacity.