Chapter 2: The Alam el Halfa Defences
Alam El Halfa ridge lay some 12 miles behind the New Zealand Division’s line and ran generally west-south-west about ten miles from, and roughly parallel to, the coast. The terrain was common to that of most of the Western Desert, soft sand of varying depth in the depressions and folds changing to stony patches as the ground rose, with bare friable rock on the crests of the ridges where digging was arduous. Scattered throughout were patches of sparse stunted shrubs.
The highest point, Alam el Halfa itself, was some 132 metres (433 feet) above sea level. For some miles each side of this point the ridge maintained a height of over 100 metres. Immediately south of the ridge lay a wide shallow depression, the Deir el Agram, at its lowest only 50 metres over sea level. South from the depression the country rose steadily to the broken ground bordering the Qattara Depression, where it reached heights of over 150 metres.
Halfway between the Alam el Halfa ridge and the coast another parallel ridge, the Gebel Bein Gabir, was in effect an eastward continuation of Ruweisat Ridge (and often in Eighth Army documents called rather confusingly by that name). From the crest of the Gebel, which rose to a height of 90 to 100 metres, the ground to the north dropped rapidly across a narrow coastal plain to the sea.
The New Zealand Division’s interest in Alam el Halfa began as early as the first week in July when 5 Indian Division, directed to prepare a defensive position there, called for engineer assistance. Sappers of 8 New Zealand Field Company were sent to help on 12 July. By this date Major-General Inglis had been told that the area might become his responsibility and that he should accordingly
supervise the layout of the defences. The scheme, however, does not appear to have gone beyond the stage of discussion and proposal before the New Zealand Division became too closely involved in operations to take more than an academic interest in the ridge. On the eve of the Ruweisat attack, 14 July, the Maori Battalion was sent to reserve with orders to work on the defences, but had hardly settled down before it was recalled to the front. Most of the New Zealand sappers there were also called back about the same time and work on the defences seems to have languished until troops of 50 (British) Division, who had been working on the Nile defence line, were brought forward. The New Zealand responsibility remained, though treated as of secondary importance while offensive operations and plans continued.
An operation instruction1 was issued by Eighth Army on 28 July to ‘indicate future policy should Eighth Army be forced to act on the defensive or to withdraw’. This crystallised earlier proposals for a main zone of defence to which the troops from the present forward positions could fall back under pressure. The main zone had the Alam el Halfa ridge as its southern boundary and the coast as its northern. The eastern and western limits were, with some reason, not so clearly defined. This instruction also dealt with the possibility of a strong enemy force breaking completely round the south of the whole El Alamein defences, upon which event the Eighth Army was to fall back on the positions in course of preparation along the western edge of the Nile Delta between Cairo and Alexandria. The New Zealand Division’s terminus was the Wadi Natrun, a valley of some historical interest on the Cairo-Alexandria road.
To complement this Eighth Army instruction, Middle East headquarters prepared plans for the base troops and installations in Egypt to conform with the field army’s movement by withdrawing by two routes, one south along the Nile and the other across the Suez Canal into Palestine. Extensive inundations of the Delta were also expected to hinder the enemy’s progress and gain time for the base troops to win clear.
The last complete instruction signed by General Auchinleck for the Eighth Army, issued on 31 July,2 has already been mentioned. It directed that the army, adopting a defensive attitude, was to strengthen its defences, rest, reorganise, and train. It was accompanied by a detailed order,3 in effect a summary of previous plans, for withdrawal dependent on the ‘scale of attack and
warning received’, from the forward positions to a ‘main zone’. In this main zone, nine defended localities were noted as in preparation, with three new ones not yet started, to cover the western face of the zone. The basic garrison for each of these twelve localities was to be two infantry battalions with artillery and anti-tank support. Mobile battle groups were to operate in the gaps between the localities. This order gave the artillery for each locality as a field battery, that is, eight 25-pounders; in his later report4 Auchinleck increased this to a regiment of twenty-four guns. It seems evident that the allocation of a battery only was at first intended probably to spread the available artillery to the many tasks expected of it. The planned localities were scattered over a large stretch of the desert and, at a regiment in each, would have absorbed most of the artillery, and almost all of the infantry, available. This would have left the armour, still far from recovered from the long retreat and the July battles, with little artillery support to form the mobile columns guarding the wide gaps between the twelve boxes.
No large bodies of reinforcements were expected in the Middle East in the immediate future so that, implicit in the planning was the inevitability of withdrawal from the forward areas while the troops there were still organised and sufficiently intact to take over the main zone positions. In his book Operation Victory,5 General de Guingand attributes these plans to General E. E. Dorman-Smith, deputy Chief of the General Staff in the Middle East, who had been brought into Eighth Army Headquarters by Auchinleck in an advisory capacity. De Guingand states that he himself was unhappy about the planning, but as a newly appointed BGS to the army he could do little to influence it.
Whether the implications in the plan were clearly seen or not is uncertain, but Gott of 13 Corps took the liberty, when passing on the army instruction, of altering the terms ‘forward’ and ‘main’ to ‘main’ and ‘rear’ respectively for the two zones, and of otherwise changing the emphasis to a strong defence on the present front, with armoured counter-attack to drive back any enemy penetration of the New Zealand area, and a withdrawal to Alam el Halfa as merely a possible later contingency.
On 27 July Inglis was being asked by his two brigadiers if they could increase their local mining to cover all-round defence, but had to withhold permission until he could get 13 Corps to tell him the general policy. Two days later he drew from Gott the information that the policy was ‘defensive’ and that he could mine
the western and southern faces of the New Zealand Box. He was also told the general army plan, or at least 13 Corps’ version of it and, having reconnoitred the Alam el Halfa area, made a strong protest over the design of the defended localities. Quoting earlier experience to show that too great a reliance on mobile battle groups was likely to be misplaced and that small isolated boxes invited piecemeal destruction, he was emphatic that the positions indicated on the Alam el Halfa ridge as his responsibility were too small, and too far apart to be able to support each other, while the gaps were too wide for effective control by battle groups. Nor, in his opinion, could the Gebel Bein Gabir positions offer his area any support.
Confirmed in his belief that, under the state of training then existing in Eighth Army, an infantry division had to remain intact as a division and rely on its own strength in men and guns rather than on promised support by other formations, he was averse to breaking up the New Zealand Division into the small battle groups that the Alam el Halfa plan required. He therefore proposed to Gott that the position, which would have to withstand the initial impact of an enemy drive round the south, should be designed as a divisional defence area with the artillery under central control. For this he would need another brigade.
Gott agreed in principle and asked for a plan. Intensive reconnaissance of the ridge was begun by infantry, gunner and engineer parties. Meanwhile 21 Indian Infantry Brigade was called from reserve to work on Alam el Halfa and put under the New Zealand Division’s command on 2 August. By 7 August the Division was able to issue a plan acceptable to 13 Corps with some minor amendments. This divided the ten-mile stretch of the ridge, from Abu Shamla tomb on the west to Alam el Khadim on the east, into three brigade areas, of which the centre was to be held by the Indian brigade, while the west and east were to be occupied on withdrawal by 5 and 6 New Zealand Brigades respectively. The Indians, with some outside assistance mainly from the engineers, were given the task of digging, wiring, mining, and stocking all three localities. Although by this time numerous troops of the army had had a hand in digging up this area, much of what had been done did not fit the new plan so that the Indians had a formidable task ahead.
The discussions and arguments that culminated in the acceptance of Inglis’ plans for Alam el Halfa also brought to an end his command of the Division. He had been far from well for some time, and now the combined effects of jaundice, dysentery and an
infection of the eye, added to the strain of operations, brought on a bout of insomnia. With the welcome news that General Freyberg6 was recovering sufficiently from the wound sustained on 27 June at Minqar Qaim to return to the desert, Inglis prepared to tidy up the details of his command ready to hand over.
On 4 August he was called to the tactical headquarters of the Army, where the staff and senior officers were holding discussions on organisation and planning. Among those present was General Sir Ronald Adam, the Adjutant-General of the British Army, lately arrived from the United Kingdom. On returning to his division in the evening, Inglis confided to his diary that he was ‘rather dismayed’ by the outlook of certain of the officers. Attitudes, however, had already begun to show a radical change the next day when he was recalled to the headquarters to meet the Prime Minister, Mr Churchill, and General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Questioned on New Zealand problems, particularly that of reinforcement, Inglis was able to give details of the Division’s losses and reinforcement requirements but, with an incomplete knowledge of the negotiations between Britain, the Middle East and New Zealand, he was not in a position to advise on the New Zealand Government’s intentions. The concern for keeping the New Zealand Division up to strength and in the Middle East was emphasised by Auchinleck who, after the meeting, asked Inglis if he thought a ‘consultative trip’ to New Zealand by General Freyberg might be of value.
A test of the combined plans for the armour and infantry of 13 Corps was held at Corps Headquarters on 7 August, attended by Inglis and senior officers of the Division. The principal item in this staff exercise dealt with the withdrawal of the infantry, after an enemy penetration of the forward positions, to the main zone defences of Alam el Halfa under cover of a limited counter-attack by 22 Armoured Brigade. Details of this exercise show that the implication in 13 Corps’ plans, of a main zone to be strongly defended and a rear zone for a withdrawal in an emergency, had been subordinated to the original army plan of a forward zone likely to be overrun and a main zone into which the infantry would retreat and reorganise for the principal action of the defence. Inglis was not too happy with the result of the exercise as it showed weaknesses both in the time taken for the armoured counter-attack and in the difficulties of reorganisation in the main zone.
Having received news that Freyberg was likely to be passed fit by his doctors within a few days and would then resume command, Inglis obtained leave whilst at Corps Headquarters to hand over the Division to Brigadier Kippenberger so that he could return at once to Maadi. Before leaving the headquarters he heard Auchinleck announce that he was relinquishing direct command of the Eighth Army to General Gott. Back at his divisional headquarters, he handed over to Kippenberger and, early the following morning, 8 August, set off for the base camp at Maadi.