Chapter 1: The Opposing Armies
The heat of the summer sun beating down on the Egyptian desert, the fine dust that rose with any wind or movement, and the legions of flies made August in the Alamein line almost unendurable. The men of the British Eighth Army and the German-Italian Panzer Army of Africa, facing one another across an ill-defined no-man’s land, were settling in to a period of static warfare as the several inconclusive actions of July petered out.
On 30 July 1942 the brigade major of 6 New Zealand Brigade had written in his diary:–
Tour FDLs and examine minefields. Troops a bit lethargic but cheerful enough. Slit trenches shallow but men show no concern. Say that rock is hard and compressors few. ... Dearth of information criticised. ... Weather very hot. Visibility bad. Little activity. ... 2000 hrs mild shelling of Bde HQ area, followed by quiet night.1
The men of 6 Brigade were fortunate in that they faced the enemy across a no-man’s land measured in miles. In 5 Brigade’s sector and further north, where the fronts converged until they were in easy range of mortars and small arms, lethargy was less evident. Here, movement in daylight was hazardous but, with the fall of darkness, the desert became alive as men rose from cramped slit trenches to arm themselves with picks and shovels. Some worked on their own ‘slitties’, deepening them to the four to five feet laid down in orders; others worked with the sappers who brought up their compressors and truckloads of barbed wire, pickets and mines; while, behind the front, still others worked on gun positions, headquarters, supply dumps, medical aid posts – all the various tasks of digging that occupied the soldiers’ time more than the actual fighting.
On the low ridges, Tell el Eisa, Miteiriya, Ruweisat and Alam Nayil, the men digging and driving pickets for the barbed wire cursed at the intractable rocky ground. Digging was easier in the hollows where the sand lay deep, ground to dust by the passage of innumerable vehicles and the explosions of shell and bomb, a dust as fine as sifted powder which followed even the lifting boot.
All through the night, in the no-man’s land between the two lines of toiling men, patrols crept quietly about their missions of observing and interrupting the other side’s work. At intervals a sudden staccato outburst of rifle and automatic fire and the crump of mortar bombs would break the silence as real or imagined foes were seen by the men protecting the working parties. Possibly another corpse would be added to those already lying unburied and untended between the lines.
From the dark sky overhead came the rhythmic pulse of bombers searching for gun-flash or other tell-tale sign on which to drop their bombs. Then the gunners, unhurriedly loading and firing the field or medium guns to harass an unseen enemy, would pause in their task, as the aircraft passed close overhead, to listen for the first faint whisper of a bomb.
It was during the hours of darkness that reinforcements and reliefs moved into the front line, passing the lightly wounded and the sick, sufferers from the prevalent desert sores, ‘Gyppo tummy’, jaundice, or malaria, who were making their way back to the medical aid posts. Trucks criss-crossed the desert, each with its plume of dust to thicken the gloom into which the drivers peered for signs of minefield or slit trench, as the army services went about their business of replenishing rations, water and ammunition.
Before the first hint of dawn appeared, all this nocturnal activity slackened off. Patrols, working parties, and their guards moved quietly back to their own lines, the infantrymen slipping into their narrow slit trenches, often to wake their more fortunate comrades who, not detailed for nightly tasks, had managed to get a few hours’ sleep in the cool of darkness.
As the sun rose behind the Eighth Army, the men of both sides ‘stood to’, ready for a dawn assault. One observant diarist noted that the flies stayed abed for twenty minutes after the official ‘first light’; after this short respite, they appeared in their myriads to add their unpleasant attentions to the heat and the dust and the discomforts of the day until the sun set behind the Panzer Army.
Throughout the day the British artillery fired on known, observed, or suspected targets such as gun and infantry positions, groups of
trucks or tanks, and the tracks by which the enemy’s positions were supplied. Especially on a calm, clear morning with the sun rising behind them and visibility in their favour, the field gunners and the men manning the Vickers machine guns were very active. The Eighth Army, with its base installations so close to the front, was never really short of ammunition at this period. The German-Italian army was already beginning to feel the strain of its long haul from the rear, and its artillery consequently confined itself to occasional salvoes on observed movement and a routine of dropping a few shells on headquarters areas or cookhouses, the shelling of the latter often coinciding with normal mealtime hours.
Except for the unequal artillery duel, and the occasional local vendetta with mortars and machine guns between opposing frontline posts, the hot days dragged on uneventfully for most of the men in the Alamein line. Incident was provided by British bombers passing overhead, sometimes to unload their cargoes on the Axis front in plumes of dust and smoke, sometimes to disappear into the blue of the desert sky on their way to more distant targets. At intervals groups of British fighters patrolled overhead as if daring the Luftwaffe to come and do battle, but many a day passed when only the occasional Axis fighter or reconnaissance plane was seen. The British fighters usually gathered in strength as the summer sun sank over the western horizon, the time when Stuka and Messerschmitt preferred to come roaring out of the sun for a hit-and-run raid.
Water was one of the biggest problems for both sides. Eighth Army had the pipeline from Alexandria, with branches leading off at several points. Supplies were drawn off by water trucks which took their loads to distributing points behind the line, where two-gallon cans were filled to be taken further forward. In this way a small but regular ration, of at least one water-bottle a day, reached each man in the front line. The water, though flat and chemically treated, was quite palatable. The Germans and Italians had to draw the bulk of their water from old wells and cisterns along the coast, many of which had been damaged or polluted during the earlier fighting. Much of the water was brackish and, with the addition of chemical treatment and oil pollution, was the subject of complaint, not only by the Axis troops but by their prisoners, who were unwilling to believe that the water offered by their captors was the standard issue in the Panzer Army. The Germans also complained that the distribution at the water points
under Italian control was badly organised, wasting both time and water.2
The Panzer Army also suffered from a steadily deteriorating transport system as the captured British trucks which had made up for its own losses became unusable from lack of spare parts. Replacements from Europe were too few to keep up with the growing needs of the army so that the available vehicles were of necessity overloaded and over-driven to the stage where drivers complained of the lack of time permitted them to service their trucks.
The Italians were nominally in charge of the supply system and there is a suspicion that they overestimated their own needs at the expense of the Germans; one German left a record of his humiliation at having to beg food and water from his Italian companions-in-arms. In the Italian army, the requirements of other ranks took a very second place to those of the officers, while their standards of hygiene made their defence positions much more unpleasant than they need have been, besides providing breeding grounds for the flies that the men of the Eighth Army, a few hundred yards away, were trying with considerable trouble and ingenuity to eliminate.
In one particular respect the troops of Eighth Army were more fortunate than their opponents. Both sides were too thin on the ground, with too few reserves, to be able to release their front-line troops for more than short spells of leave. The Germans and Italians set up rest camps on the coast within a day’s journey of the front where their men could enjoy swimming in the Mediterranean, home-made entertainment and sport, while being fed by army cooks. Luxuries were rationed because of shipping difficulties and there was no chance of contact with civilian life. The only change lay in relaxation from the strain of the front line. But the men of Eighth Army had the fleshpots of cosmopolitan Egypt at their back door. The thriving cities of Cairo and Alexandria could still offer most of the luxuries and amenities of civilian life, hardly yet affected by rationing. The services clubs, the welfare organisations, and the base camps competed to keep the men away from the less desirable facets of Egyptian civilisation. Many of the troops had civilian friends whom they could visit; all could, if they wished, have contact with civilian life, sordid or sublime. The ‘four-day’
leave scheme commenced by the New Zealand Division early in August was typical of arrangements throughout Eighth Army. A percentage of the men of each front-line unit was withdrawn for six days, the first and last being taken up in travel to and from the desert, the remaining four being spent as each man wished. He could stay at his own expense – and there had been little drain on paybooks over the last few weeks – at a club or hotel ‘in bounds’ in Alexandria or Cairo, or he could take free board and lodging at a special leave area in the Maadi base camp. Here a battery of cooks, rostered for duty throughout the day, prepared large meals on order from an almost unlimited supply of choice rations; a beer bar treated the ordered hours of opening and closing with little ceremony, new and clean clothing could be drawn from a surprisingly acquiescent quartermaster; the canteens, cinemas, and other amenities of the camp were at hand, transport available into Cairo, and conducted tours provided to places of interest. It is doubtful if any ‘grim dig’ in the throes of leave in the ‘Pole Nord’ or the ‘Pam Pam’ cabaret wasted a breath of sympathy for his opposite number who might be spending an ordered day in the spartan simplicity of a Panzer Army rest camp.
Even had the men of Eighth Army been generally aware of their advantages over the Axis troops, this would not have been enough to lift the weight of frustration and uncertainty that had increased since the July fighting died down. When Rommel had moved forward to the attack at Gazala on 26 May, Eighth Army had entered the battle with extreme confidence from general to private. After the first few days of varying fortune, the army had met disaster after disaster that outstripped even the longest-term plans prepared beforehand, while hastily concocted plans failed to catch up with events. Perhaps the greatest blow to morale had been the fall of Tobruk, the story of whose defence in the previous campaign had become a legend. Although the Middle East command had agreed that the fortress should not be again defended as an isolated outpost, the disintegration of Eighth Army had been so rapid that Tobruk was isolated and its defenders overwhelmed before any firm decision had been taken to withdraw the garrison. It could be said with justice that for a time Eighth Army had ceased to be an army, so that plans of army action made by the commander, General Ritchie, and later by General Auchinleck, had little value. Even corps’ control was uncertain, as the stories of Matruh and Minqar Qaim make evident. It was hardly an army, but rather individual units and formations acting with little concert, that finally, at El Alamein, stopped an enemy exhausted by victory.
Though coordination between his two corps and between the formations within those corps was far from complete, General Auchinleck had managed during July to regain a measure of control over his command. This he did more by his determination to hit the enemy ‘whenever and wherever possible’3 than by any policy designed to weld his army into a whole. As he mounted attack after attack in July, none gaining worthwhile ground but all adding to the list of casualties, especially in prisoners, the lack of coordination became more and more obvious. Both the Australian and New Zealand divisions, which had not endured the long retreat but had come into the fighting fresh and sanguine, began to suffer in morale, while the cynicism of the mass of the army towards its leadership became very pronounced, bringing with it a rise of inter-service criticism.
In the space of seventeen days up to 27 July, when Operation MANHOOD4 broke down, General Auchinleck had ordered an almost continuous series of attacks, using Australian, British, Indian and New Zealand formations. They brought Eighth Army about 12,500 casualties, about a third of whom came from the New Zealand Division, for a nearly equivalent casualty total in the German-Italian army.
If, as Auchinleck implied in his despatch, the July operations were designed to withhold the initiative from the enemy, they were successful. But, with this simple aim, they could have been just as great a success with much less loss. Designed as they were with a much wider aim, they demanded a degree of coordination which the formations within the Eighth Army were unable to offer. Though minor criticisms of the handling of brigades and divisions at this period might be made, they would have little value, as the conduct of the operations was strictly conditioned by the plans issued by Army Headquarters and accepted by the two corps.
Several commentators on this period5 have contended that Auchinleck was handicapped by the Commonwealth composition of his forces and it is beyond question that, as Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, he had to cope with his share of such problems as the Australian Government’s pressure to recall its troops to the Pacific and New Zealand’s difficulties of manpower and reinforcement. But for the second part of his dual role, the command of Eighth Army, these problems should not have intruded. Some of the Commonwealth commanders were men of strong personality, often outspoken in criticism, and justifiably so
as things turned out, but in the particular events of July they had little or no influence on the initial planning. In the actual field operations, they committed their troops unconditionally and fulfilled their share faithfully, often practically to the letter of the plans. Analysis of the events leads to the conclusion that the principal factor responsible for the mounting casualty lists of July lay in Auchinleck’s failure, in his role as army commander, to understand early enough the limitations of the armour, a purely British command, and the lack of training in cooperation throughout his army.
The July battles roused considerable criticism within the army, criticism not confined to the three Dominion divisions involved. For the New Zealanders’ part this culminated in the statement by Major-General Inglis,6 then commanding the Division, to Lieutenant-General Gott, commander of 13 Corps, that he would have to refuse the use of his division in another operation if the plans followed those of Ruweisat and El Mreir.7 The sum of such criticism was probably as much a factor as the state of the army in persuading Auchinleck to go over to the defensive at the end of July.
On the enemy side, Rommel was more than once doubtful if his line would hold. In most cases his Italian infantry absorbed the brunt of the attack, allowing time for detachments of the German Africa Corps, trained in the cooperation of all arms, to be thrown in at the danger points. From the information available it seems clear that Eighth Army was unaware of the extent of the strain put upon the Panzer Army, nor did it realise how desperate were the methods by which Rommel had maintained his line.
Once the troops on both sides learnt of their commanders’ decisions to remain on the defensive for a period, they settled down to making the best use of the ground they were occupying until the two front lines began to take on a definite design, each with its epidermis of wire and mines covering the forward section and platoon weapon pits, and each company sector with an inner skin mined and wired for all-round defence. From the section posts a maze of tracks like fine veins ran through the defences back to
company, battalion, and brigade headquarters and on to join the main arteries of the supply routes.
On the British side of the defences, the white sand dunes along the coast to the west of the El Alamein railway station and the newly won sector stretching out towards Tell el Eisa were held by 9 Australian Division, which had two brigades forward and one in reserve further back along the coast. The El Alamein box and the flat desert immediately to its south were occupied by 1 South African Division with all its three brigades well up. Ruweisat Ridge was occupied by 5 Indian Division on a front so narrow that there was room to deploy only one battalion forward, with a second well to its right rear on the flat ground north of the ridge.
Life on this rocky ridge was uncomfortable, wearing and dangerous. Being overlooked by the Germans and Italians, the troops lived an underground existence. No one in the forward positions could move with safety during daylight, and the men sat cramped in their trenches. Dusk and nightfall afforded a relief, and the men took exercise and stretched their limbs. By night, reconnaissance and fighting patrols had to be found to report on the enemy dispositions and activities and to deter enemy mine-laying parties.8
The Australian, South African and Indian divisions made up 30 Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General W. H. Ramsden.
On the south of the ridge in the stretch of desert over which it had advanced and retreated in July, the New Zealand Division, under the command of Major-General Inglis, had already begun to construct what became known as the New Zealand Box. With its western front covering the five miles from Ruweisat to the Alam Nayil feature, the ‘box’ constituted the southern end of the fixed defences of the Alamein line. To the south of the New Zealanders, armoured cars and mobile gun-columns of 7 Armoured Division patrolled the broken desert as far as the edge of the impassable Qattara Depression. These two divisions formed 13 Corps, which was commanded by Lieutenant-General W. H. E. (‘Strafer’) Gott.
All the infantry divisions were to some extent under strength through losses by sickness and battle during July, though none was quite so low in numbers as the New Zealand Division. With all three battalions of 4 Brigade9 as well as 22 Battalion back in the Maadi base camp reorganising after their losses in the Ruweisat operation, the Division held its long front with two brigades only and no infantry reserve. At the end of July the three units of 5 Brigade, 21, 23, and 28 (Maori) Battalions, together mustered some 1600 men, and 18, 25 and 26 Battalions in 6 Brigade slightly fewer. Small parties of reinforcements were, however, arriving
daily, drawn from men recovered from wounds and sickness with a few thinned out from base jobs.
The British armour was reorganising along lines proposed by Auchinleck, with 22 Armoured Brigade in process of becoming the heavy armoured formation manning all the available Grant tanks and completing its strength with Crusaders. The Valentines were concentrated in 23 Armoured Brigade, and 4 Light Armoured Brigade was being equipped with Stuarts and the remaining Crusaders. The exact total of ‘runners’ available at the end of July is not known but, excluding the light Stuarts or ‘Honeys’, the Eighth Army could have mustered and manned considerably more than the Panzer Army, which had about 150 German and 50 Italian tanks in running order at this time. During the reorganisation, the bulk of the British armour was held close behind the centre of the line, handily placed to move to the assistance of either corps. General Auchinleck, since taking over direct command of Eighth Army from General Ritchie on 25 June, still combined the duties of Army Commander and Commander-in-Chief, Middle East. On 31 July he gave his two corps commanders an instruction which commenced:–
In view of our present strength in relation to the enemy’s, I have reluctantly decided that Eighth Army must adopt a defensive attitude until we have so built up our strength as to enable us to resume the offensive.
The date by which we will be able to resume large-scale offensive operations will depend on such factors as the speed of our own and the enemy’s reinforcement. We must, however, meanwhile, be prepared to take advantage of any mistake made by the enemy and to inflict on him the maximum inconvenience and loss, by local offensive operations, active patrolling, and ‘deception’ schemes. It is of supreme importance that the enemy shall NOT be allowed to develop his plans for offensive or defensive action unhindered.
In the same document, Auchinleck estimated that Rommel might before long regain air superiority and, reinforced by an airborne regiment, might then take the offensive by a sweep round the south end of the line. He warned that the Eighth Army’s southern flank should not be mined so indiscriminately as to hinder a counter-attack in strength against the enemy’s flank by the British armour, ‘to be husbanded until the opportunity for a major offensive arises’. Following this instruction, the Army Commander issued an amended version of the previous plans for defence in forward and main zones.10
Though the Middle East command had been promised at least two new infantry divisions, 300 of the new Sherman tanks, and some American anti-tank artillery, as well as air reinforcements, little of all this would be ready for battle before the end of August.11 Auchinleck accordingly did not expect to be able to mount another offensive until the full-moon period in the middle of September. He anticipated correctly that Rommel would not stay passively on the defensive for so long, but the sources of information on which he might forecast the Panzer Army’s intentions were at this period extremely meagre. While the Axis intelligence organisation had many opportunities for checking on British shipping making the long journey between the United Kingdom and Suez, and the Delta’s teeming millions harboured a host of informers able to pass on news of the landing of men and equipment, the British had few means of keeping a close tally of Axis troop movement by sea and air over the narrow Mediterranean.
The Eighth Army therefore had to rely to a great extent on information to be gained in the front line. Visual observation and wireless interception, though valuable, were far from capable of drawing a clear picture of the complicated interlacing of German and Italian units. It was necessary for this picture to be drawn in detail before any significant alterations, possibly presaging an offensive, could be understood. To this end the Army Commander ordered a policy of vigorous and constant patrolling by all front-line troops, both to reconnoitre the extent of the new defences being laid out and to learn the identity of the Axis troops holding each sector.
The Germans and Italians then had to cope with a constant stream of British patrols who watched, listened to, and often attacked, their working parties. Every night more details of the Axis defences, newly dug trenches, stretches of wire and minefields were collected and plotted on Eighth Army’s maps. But prisoners for identification of the Axis units in the line were rarely secured as the policy of day and night harassing kept the enemy constantly alert.
Facing Eighth Army across a no-man’s land which became daily more clearly defined as the fixed defences grew, the Panzer Army of Africa under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had a nominal strength of four corps, one German and three Italian. As the Italians’ martial ardour and reliability in defence varied unpredictably, Rommel allocated sectors of the front to the three Italian corps with responsibility for administration, but by
interspersing his German infantry almost to the extent that a German platoon was dug in beside each Italian company, he and his German commanders were able to maintain close control over the whole front without making it too obvious that the Italian corps commanders held little tactical responsibility.
The dispositions of the German and Italian infantry were being altered daily at the beginning of August as Rommel fitted the available infantry into the front in order to release the three Africa Corps formations, 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions and 90 Light Division, to rest and reorganise as his mobile reserve. Elements of the German 164 Light Division had been arriving for some time and they were put into the coastal sector to relieve infantry of 90 Light Division. These troops shared with 21 Italian Corps the sector which ran from the sea south to Deir el Dhib.
The next sector, from Deir el Dhib to the Qattara (Kaponga) Box, was held by 10 Italian Corps, bolstered by infantry detachments from all three Africa Corps divisions. South of the Qattara Box, Trieste Division of 20 Italian Corps shared the front with the remaining infantry of 90 Light Division. The main body of the armour was held in the central sector.
Reinforcements received during August included the rest of 164 Division,12 the Ramcke Parachute Brigade and the Italian Folgore Parachute Division, the German parachutists being placed in the central sector and the Italian in the southern.
The Panzer Army had been so close to the limit of its endurance after the Eighth Army’s MANHOOD operation of 27 July that it was unable even to think in terms of ‘offensive defence’. To allow its reserves of men and material to be built up, it was forced to take as passive a role as its opponents would permit. A steady trickle, though still only a trickle, of German infantry reinforcements was coming over by air, but the Allies’ sea and air offensive against the supply routes was preventing vehicles, heavy weapons, ammunition, petrol, and food being shipped over in large quantities. On 2 August the quartermaster of the Panzer Army reported that his stocks in hand were sufficient for only two days of heavy fighting, and that this reserve would not increase until more supplies were shipped over to him than the mere replacement of daily usage.
Rommel, however, was only a field commander. For all his requirements he had to travel the ill-defined and complicated path of German-Italian relations, in which politics and personalities loomed larger than strategy. Hitler alone could have solved his problems but, ever since the drive on Suez had stalled, what little
interest Hitler and the German High Command had felt in the African venture had waned. They were naturally more concerned with the immensely larger and more important campaign in Russia and considered with some justice that, having lent Rommel and his armoured corps to the Italians in exchange for an Italian contribution of dubious value to the Russian front, it was now up to the Italians to deal with what, after all, was their own particular sector of the Axis battlefront.
The Italian supply organisation, on which Rommel had therefore to rely for almost all his needs except for the few German troops brought in by air, was corrupt at its source and inefficient throughout. Unable to provide their own fighter cover and, in the clash of interests, unable to persuade the Germans to do the job for them, the Italians had tried to avoid the ports of Tobruk, Bardia and Matruh, which were within easy reach of the British air bases in the Middle East. Instead, they preferred to run their shipping whenever possible to Benghazi or Tripoli where it was less subject to air attack, accepting the fact that the long road haul to El Alamein wore out the already inadequate transport available and used up vast quantities of the petrol landed. Nor did they take happily to Rommel’s suggestion of operating a fleet of coastal barges servicing Matruh to save the road haul. By the middle of August, pressure from Rommel had the effect of diverting shipping carrying German supplies to Tobruk and improving the coastal service to Matruh.
Perhaps not all the fault can be laid on the Italians for, from the German records, it is hard to avoid the impression that the two men who might have helped Rommel, Kesselring and the liaison officer in Rome, von Rintelen, failed to give him wholehearted support. Kesselring, a field marshal senior to Rommel, held the German appointment of Commander-in-Chief South and commander of the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean, a curious combination of appointments which gave him a sort of watching brief over both the Italian and German land forces and absolute control over the air forces within the limits of strategy and politics imposed by Hitler and Goering. With such standing and influence as should have enabled him to put pressure on Germans and Italians, Kesselring seems to have paid lip service to Rommel’s aims while taking little positive action to assist. Von Rintelen, in a politico-military position as German liaison officer with the Italian supreme command, was more concerned with the political side of his appointment.
The stalemate on the Alamein line and the slow reaction to it from above brought home to Rommel the relative unimportance
of his command. His requests for reinforcements had been partially fulfilled by the arrival by air of most of 164 Division and the promise of a brigade of paratroops, but the airlift, by a fleet of some 500 planes, was leaving much essential equipment still on the north shores of the Mediterranean at the mercy of Italian shipping. The Italians for their part were promising much but fulfilling their promises with exasperating slowness. As promises failed to materialise or delivery was delayed on one pretext or another, Rommel began to see that he would have to fight a hard and frustrating campaign against apathy and disinterest in his rear as well as a battle against the enemy in front.
No charge of ignorance or disregard of logistics can be sustained against Rommel in this period. As he faced the decline in importance of his own command, he was fully aware that the African front was the only theatre of operations in the west in which the British were actively engaged. He had had word through German intelligence sources that the Middle East was being reinforced as quickly as the long voyage round the Cape of Good Hope would permit. Other information, backed by prisoners’ statements and the finding of American equipment on the battlefield, led him to think that direct American assistance to the theatre was imminent. Once it had been made clear to him that the strength of his own army would be limited, he had no alternative but to plan to attack as soon as he could, even if this meant starting operations with the minimum of reserves and supplies. To let the British take the initiative would be inviting defeat as their reserves would outlast his. To retreat would only postpone the ordeal.13
With characteristic energy, Rommel set to work to build up a striking force from the means to hand. He knew that Allied convoys were expected to reach Suez in September, and this set the full-moon period in the last week of August as his deadline. For detail of Eighth Army’s dispositions he was content to rely on observation, the identity of the occasional prisoner captured while on patrol, and his wireless intercept service. The British custom of holding the front in closely defined divisional sectors made his task easier and the Panzer Army was soon able to draw a reasonably correct picture of the Eighth Army front.14 Further detail was unnecessary for only a very obvious increment in the Eighth Army’s strength would have caused Rommel to change his plans.
So the Axis infantry, under orders to maintain a passive defence and keep the expenditure of warlike stores down, endured the British harassing, only retaliating when directly attacked. The
German troops were too few and too busy to be wasted on unnecessary patrolling. The Italians were not at their best at night. On the open southern front where the Germans might have patrolled to advantage, Rommel ordered that any reconnoitring should be restricted until a few days before his offensive opened, so as not to draw attention to the route he expected to take.
The point where the pipeline, built by the British to serve the Qattara Box, crossed Ruweisat Ridge was one of the focal points of the July battles. The Eighth Army had managed to push its front just across the pipeline but the Axis had clung tenaciously to the extreme western end of the ridge. For the observation offered over the surrounding desert, both armies held determinedly to as much of the narrow ridge as they could, and by the end of July the opposing trenches were hardly more than a stone’s throw apart.
From the ridge the pipeline, or what was left of it, ran southwest out of the British positions to enter the El Mreir Depression. Apart from a thin ring of defence posts around the eastern lip of the depression, Rommel had been content to let his front follow the pipeline in its south-westerly course to the Qattara Box. In Eighth Army, 13 Corps for reasons of tactics and economy in troops had not closed up on the Axis front but had dug in on a north-south line from the ridge to the slight eminence of Alam Nayil. In the New Zealand Box, its western front commencing just south of Ruweisat near the point where the pipeline ran into no-man’s land, 5 New Zealand Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Kippenberger15 held the northern sector with a front of nearly two miles. On the right 21 Battalion faced the El Mreir defences under observation of the enemy on the western end of Ruweisat, so that movement by day was only a degree less hazardous than in the Indians’ positions on the ridge itself. In a less exposed sector on 21 Battalion’s left, 23 Battalion looked over the widening no-man’s land caused by the divergence of the opposing lines from El Mreir southwards. The brigade’s third unit, 28 (Maori) Battalion, was in close reserve behind the front and on 2 August exchanged sectors with 21 Battalion.
South of 23 Battalion, 6 New Zealand Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Clifton16 held a front of some three miles with its three battalions in line, 26 Battalion on the right, 18 Battalion in the centre, both facing west, and 25 Battalion on the left across the Alam Nayil feature facing both west and south. Between this last battalion’s positions and the Axis posts covering the Qattara Box, no-man’s land was more than five miles wide.
This expanse of open ground, while it made conditions in 6 Brigade’s sector less uncomfortable than in the northern sector, also brought the need for constant reconnaissance in case the Axis troops should try to edge their line forward. Brigadier Clifton, assisted by the relative security of his sector, took Auchinleck’s policy of ‘offensive defence’ to heart and quickly arranged a full programme of nightly patrolling and daylight harassing. With the incentive of a direction from Inglis that identifications of the enemy on his front were urgently needed, he instructed his three battalion commanders to step up their patrol activities on the last night of July.
An unrecorded number of patrols, but no less than three or four from each battalion, set out this night. Most of them failed to encounter the enemy but brought back useful scraps of information on areas of mines, wire and unoccupied trenches. A few got close to enemy working parties but, coming under fire from covering troops, had to withdraw. Only one was successful in bringing back an identification.
Working north-west across 5 Brigade’s front, a 26 Battalion patrol of about a dozen men from 14 Platoon, C Company, led by Lieutenant Fraser,17 crept up on a group of Germans digging defences along the pipeline. With bayonets fixed and tommy guns blazing, the patrol then rushed the enemy, killing or wounding a number and taking two prisoners. The survivors and probably a covering post then opened fire, forcing the patrol to withdraw in haste. In the confusion one of the prisoners tried to escape and was shot, but, with three wounded men helped by their companions, the patrol regained the company lines with its surviving prisoner, a man from 115 Infantry Regiment of 15 Panzer Division. According to the German records, a New Zealand raiding party of over fifty men was driven off this night with difficulty.
Encouraged by 26 Battalion’s success, a strong patrol from 25 Battalion was sent out the following night to attack a post near the Qattara Box. The patrol was joined by ‘August’ column, one of 7 Motor Brigade’s mobile parties of guns and armoured cars, which was to give covering fire and protect the vehicles. The infantry, in a silent approach, got right up to the enemy wire and lobbed over hand grenades preparatory to rushing the defences. The grenades, faultily fused, failed to explode but brought the enemy to the alert. Extremely strong defensive fire, spreading across the enemy front, caused this patrol and several others working further to the north to withdraw hurriedly.
This immediate and coordinated reaction to the British patrolling was the result of instructions given by the Panzer Army to tighten up its defensive measures by the use of stronger covering patrols, together with armoured cars and light tanks, for the working parties. By 2 August New Zealand patrols were reporting that they were unable to get within striking distance of the enemy working parties because of the heavy machine-gun and mortar fire let loose at any suspicious sound or movement.
The Axis troops had also begun to thicken up their minefields with anti-personnel ‘S’ mines, a device about the size of a Mills grenade set to spring out of a container buried in the ground and then explode in shrapnel at chest height. These ‘S’ mines were activated by three thin wire prongs which rose a few inches above ground and were extremely difficult to distinguish even in daylight from short vegetation or battlefield litter. They could also be worked by trip-wires attached to ‘push-pull’ igniters so that the slightest movement of the wires set off the ejecting mechanism. Some hundreds of these mines were laid in the Ruweisat and El Mreir sector at this time. The Axis troops also tried the use of searchlights mounted on trucks, the beams being swung across the front at ground level at irregular intervals, and the trucks constantly changing position to avoid being fired on.
The continuous pressure of Eighth Army’s patrolling, added to the constant day and night harassing fire, thus had the result within a few days of causing the Axis troops to improve their defences and maintain such a state of alertness that small hit-and-run patrols were more likely to suffer casualties than gather prisoners. When this became clear, Eighth Army’s thoughts turned towards planned raids in place of opportunist patrols. With the greater freedom from enemy interference enjoyed in his sector, Clifton was one of the first to turn this planning into action by sending out raiding parties whose routes were covered by standing patrols equipped with wireless linked to the artillery. The idea was that the raiders
should creep close to an enemy position, pass a signal back for the guns to bombard it, and then assault while the defenders were still in confusion. Several abortive attempts were made before a clear-cut and definite method evolved. On the night of 5–6 August, one patrol encountered a tank but its wireless failed, and another, with apparently good wireless communication, failed to find the enemy. The following night 25 Battalion sent a patrol to the south of the Qattara Box and 18 Battalion one to the north. The former was given the task of making its approach to the objective coincide with the end of a shoot by the medium guns, while the latter took with it four Vickers guns and two 3-inch mortars which were expected to give the necessary covering fire. A last-minute change in the timing for the gunfire upset the 25 Battalion patrol’s plan, and immediate enemy retaliation to the fire of the mortars and Vickers guns prevented the 18 Battalion patrol from closing with its objective. The Axis troops, in fact, gave a demonstration of how seriously they took their defensive measures by blazing away spasmodically throughout the rest of the night with field guns, automatics and mortars, so that several small patrols reconnoitring in no-man’s land deemed it wiser to return within the New Zealand lines.
A new gadget was received at this time which, it was thought, would provide a means of dealing with the armoured vehicles used by the Axis to cover the working parties in the front line. This was a parachute flare to be fired from the standard infantry 2-inch mortar. Experiments by armoured car crews of the Divisional Cavalry using derelict vehicles in no-man’s land showed that the flare could illuminate a tank at night at a distance of 400 yards for sufficient time for several shots to be fired from an anti-tank gun. Danger lay in the wind drifting the flare back over the gun. After watching these experiments, Clifton fostered a plan for adding an anti-tank gun and a 2-inch mortar to a raiding party. However, the large element of luck necessary for the success of this scheme remained elusively absent and never, as far as is known, did any men of the brigade manage to site a gun, unobserved, within 400 yards of an enemy tank – with the wind in the right quarter.
Daylight activity in the first week of August was confined mainly to exchanges by the artillery, the weight of fire coming from Eighth Army. In the New Zealand sector, 5 Brigade’s area was too exposed to allow much activity beyond standard firing by the 25-pounders, but 6 Brigade’s distance from the enemy permitted Clifton considerable scope for experiment in ‘offensive defence’. Observers in the brigade area reported that, with the lightening dawn sky behind them, they were able to see numbers of Axis troops appearing above ground to shake out blankets and perform
their morning chores. On coming under fire, the men had gone to ground and tanks or armoured cars had appeared as if to cover the infantry against a possible dawn assault. The brigadier therefore elaborated his orders for dawn harassing fire with a plan designed to catch the armoured vehicles. Anti-tank guns were to be taken well into no-man’s land overnight, the dawn shoot was to occur as usual, and the anti-tank guns were then to catch the armoured vehicles as they appeared.
This plan was given its first major trial on the morning of 2 August. Two six-pounders of 31 Anti-Tank Battery and Vickers guns from the machine-gun companies were driven out overnight and carefully sited behind a screen of infantry and Bren-gun carriers. As soon as the dawn light gave sufficient visibility, the Vickers gunners opened up on Axis troops they could observe in the Qattara Box defences and the Khawabir Depression. This fire was the signal for 5 Field Regiment and 64 Medium Regiment to lay a five-minute bombardment on the same areas. The Vickers men felt sure that they had caught some of the enemy in the open but the enemy lines disappeared in a cloud of dust as soon as the artillery shells landed. The enemy then retaliated with such heavy defensive fire that the anti-tank and machine gunners and the infantry suffered several minor casualties and had considerable difficulty in regaining their lines.
Though this experiment was repeated later with variations, the anti-tank gunners never managed to get their sights on a tank within range. Clifton maintained his routine of visiting the artillery and machine-gunners’ observation posts at first light to spur them to action, and the Axis troops must have found the regular dawn harassing very unpleasant, but from the complete lack of reference in the German unit records, it seems unlikely that the shooting caused much damage. It was probably accepted in the same way as the British troops accepted the occasional Axis strafing, as one more unpleasant desert condition to be endured.
As the New Zealand troops went about the job of ‘rotating’ the enemy, in the current slang, the Australians, South Africans and Indians were also experimenting with similar methods of offensive defence. No sector of the Axis front was secure from probing patrols at night, while during the day observers in Eighth Army watched continuously for targets on which the artillery, mortars, or machine guns could be laid. With no real shortage of ammunition, the British guns used ten or more shells to reply to each one fired by the Axis. Only in small-arms ammunition and Very lights did the enemy practise no economy for, all along the front, the hours of darkness were punctuated with soaring flares and the sudden chattering of machine guns.