Chapter 3: The Days of Decision
If any point in time could justifiably be taken as the turning point of the war in the west, the phrase should be applied to the first half of the month of August 1942. In that short period decisions were made, plans formulated and action taken, all of which led inexorably to the destruction of the Axis hold on North Africa and to the assault on the European fortress.
By the end of July the joint United States–British planners had reached a workable compromise in the long-argued discussions on strategy. The operation first called GYMNAST, then TORCH, for a landing in French North Africa had been given priority over all proposed landings on the mainland of Europe. With this decision fixed, Churchill arranged to visit Russia, with a break in his journey at Cairo, as ‘The doubts I had about the High Command in the Middle East were fed continually by the reports which I received from many quarters. It became urgently necessary for me to go there and settle the decisive questions on the spot’.1 On 4 August the British Prime Minister landed in Cairo, where he was joined by a committee of talent which included Field Marshal Smuts, the Rt. Hon. R. G. Casey, Minister of State in the Middle East, Generals Brooke and Wavell, Admiral Harwood and Air Marshal Tedder. He brought a supply of bowler hats, and the committee’s task among other things was to advise on their allocation.
Auchinleck’s replacement was apparently accepted as a foregone conclusion, for there is no record of a single voice being raised on his behalf. Churchill, however, appeared unwilling to promulgate a flat dismissal of a commander who, whatever limitations he might have shown, had at least the right to claim that he had stopped the enemy at the gates of Egypt within a few days of taking over
command of the field army. Accordingly the Prime Minister came up with a Churchillian compromise by which Auchinleck could retain his title but lose the operational part of his command. To do this Churchill proposed that the present area be divided in two, with the non-operational theatre of Persia and Iraq to be called the Middle East, and the operational area of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to be called the Near East. There is little doubt that attempts to explain Eighth Army’s failures put the germ of this idea into Churchill’s fertile brain, for so long as the original Middle East had possible fronts in Persia and Turkey and an active enemy in Libya, the strain of deploying its insufficient forces for all contingencies must have been very great. Doubts of this new division of responsibilities were immediately expressed by the British War Cabinet and caused the Prime Minister to incubate the scheme while he and his committee dealt with the problems of the lesser generals. Several of them, from commands and staff, were selected for relief but, for the command of Eighth Army itself, the committee felt that too clean a sweep might lose the army’s confidence and lower its morale still further. After many discussions and interviews, Churchill accepted the proposal to elevate General Gott, of 13 Corps, to the command of the army. Though Gott admitted to Churchill that he was tired,2 his reputation as a calm leader in adversity was still high in British circles and any doubts of the efficiency of his handling of 13 Corps seem to have been confined to members of the Commonwealth contingents.
Gott’s appointment was confirmed and left to Auchinleck to announce at the end of the staff exercise at 13 Corps Headquarters on 7 August. With the promise of a few days’ leave before assuming his new role, the general left the exercise to board a plane on the nearby airstrip. As the aircraft, a Bombay transport, took off, it was shot up by a marauding enemy fighter and Gott was among those killed. His death was kept from the public for some three days, during which time Auchinleck, informed of Churchill’s compromise, wisely refused the command of the Persia-Iraq theatre. The subdivision proposals were thereupon shelved, to reappear later under the guise of the ‘Persia and Iraq Command’.3
Although Churchill commented that, by the death of Gott, ‘All my plans were dislocated’,4 the way had in fact been cleared for those drastic changes which the Prime Minister and his advisers knew were necessary but whose impact they had been trying to soften. The original selections tentatively made beforehand by
Churchill on the advice of the Imperial General Staff – General Sir Harold Alexander5 for the Middle East command and Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery for Eighth Army – could now be appointed without further argument, and Churchill and his advisers could turn their minds to the forthcoming encounter with Stalin.6
General Alexander reached Cairo from England on 9 August to receive instructions that he would assume the appointment of Commander-in-Chief of the complete and original Middle East theatre from 15 August, with a directive from Churchill to ‘take or destroy’ Rommel’s German-Italian army. The terms of this directive were passed on to General Montgomery, who arrived in Egypt on 12 August and, according to his memoirs, assumed the command of the army on his own initiative on the 13th, two days before he was officially supposed to do so.7
With a clear and incisive mind of his own, and no Middle East loyalties to cloud his judgment, Montgomery quickly grasped what others in less influential positions had known for some time – and what many of the troops themselves had dimly perceived – that offensive operations were doomed to failure until the diverse elements that made up the Eighth Army learnt to fight as a single body with a common aim on definite, unequivocal orders. To achieve this end, he replaced those staff officers whom he thought unable or unwilling to alter their ways, but otherwise he made no great outward changes. He accepted the temporary policy of offensive defence and the general plan of defence, but simplified all orders by removing the ‘alternatives’ in which Auchinleck had become so entangled. He accepted also the Army’s appreciation of Rommel’s intentions, an appreciation well illustrated in an intelligence summary issued by the New Zealand Division as early as 2 August:–
It is clear that the present, static, phase of hostilities will last only until one side or the other feels itself strong enough to launch a decisive attack. The problem is thus largely one of reinforcements. For a number of reasons, of which the chief is probably the heavy German commitments in Russia, the Germans in Africa do not seem to be receiving men and materials on the scale which the magnitude of the stakes might have led one to expect. On the other hand, they will probably resume the offensive at the first opportunity. They may very well apply again the tactic employed at Gazala, trying to contain the
greater part of our line with their less mobile elements while the armour and the more mobile infantry formations seek to break through and swing around to attack our main positions from the rear. The execution of such a manoeuvre would require less preliminary regrouping than was the case on the Gazala line, where the distances involved were much greater than they are here. In fact, the preliminary moves could be carried out overnight, and we cannot count on receiving from aerial reconnaissance much warning of an impending enemy attack.
As all these far-reaching decisions took shape, the mass of the Eighth Army went about its daily and nightly duties of digging, wiring, mining and patrolling, only vaguely aware that changes were in the offing. Churchill’s visits to the forward areas were naturally kept as quiet as possible and, though a few New Zealanders saw him in person, most of the men were unaware of his presence in the area until days later. The changes were in fact heralded for the Division by the arrival on 10 August of General Freyberg who, having been brought up to date on the desert situation by Inglis, spent most of the next morning listening to his GSO I, Colonel Gentry.8 Admitting that ‘much fog of war’ existed over the whole front, Gentry stated that the morale of the German troops was thought to be high but that of the Italians unlikely to stand up to any strain. Though little information could be acquired of Rommel’s supply position, it was expected that ‘Rommel’s temper’ would force an offensive soon, probably about the middle of August. This anticipation was borne out by information of the reinforcements lately received by the Panzer Army, which included a division ‘from Crete and other parts’ (i.e., 164 Division), 5000 parachutists used as lorried infantry, and ‘an enormous number of recruits’ for 90 Light Division. On Eighth Army’s defence preparations, Gentry pointed out the dangers of an enemy thrust along Ruweisat Ridge, where he considered 5 Indian Division was not strong enough. A breakthrough here would endanger the New Zealand Division’s northern flank and, though present plans were for a counter-attack by the available British armour, there was a strong possibility of a confusion of command as the tanks would have to be called on by 13 Corps to assist the New Zealanders, or by 30 Corps for the Indians, the boundary between the two corps running just south of the ridge. Of the two most probable lines
of attack, along Ruweisat or round the southern flank, Gentry himself thought that Rommel would choose the latter. Commenting on Eighth Army’s organisation, Gentry remarked that the army needed an armoured formation, trained and equipped with all arms similar to the panzer division, but that such a formation would not appear until a new approach was made to the employment of armour. Unless the cavalry attitude of the British armour was discarded, there was little hope of close cooperation between tanks and infantry.
With Inglis’ forceful reports on the July fighting fresh in his mind, Freyberg found that the conclusions drawn by his GSO I were close to his own thoughts and he left a forecast in his diary that the next battle would be a clash between tanks, with the infantry ‘in reserve ready to intervene’.
From these talks the GOC went to visit his two brigade commanders, Kippenberger and Clifton, but before he had time for more than a quick look at their areas he was called back to Divisional Headquarters by a message instructing him to take over the temporary command of 13 Corps from Major-General Renton of 7 Armoured Division, who had been holding the post since the decision to elevate General Gott to army commander. With some background knowledge of the imminent changes in the army appointments gained in Cairo before he left, Freyberg was moved to comment that his temporary command was ‘rather a waste of time’, though it is probable that the wider view obtainable from Corps Headquarters helped his understanding of the general situation. Brigadier Kippenberger once again took over the Division.
The following day Freyberg took a group of staff officers from the corps to inspect the Alam el Halfa defences. It is interesting to note that he found 21 Indian Infantry Brigade’s area, which was the most advanced of the planned boxes, to be already equipped with sixteen field guns and the same number of six-pounder antitank guns, together with dumps holding three days’ supply of water and 450 rounds for each gun.9 From Alam el Halfa he went on to visit 7 Motor Brigade, and then watched 22 Armoured Brigade practise deployment near Point 102 as part of a plan to cover the south-eastern flank against attack.
On 13 August the new army commander paid a visit to the headquarters of 13 Corps and then, with Freyberg, motored on to the New Zealand Division. Writing later of this period, Freyberg remarked that he was prepared to give Montgomery his confidence
because of comments he had heard which, though intended to be critical, made the new commander appear a man of forceful, if unorthodox, character. During their meeting Freyberg was at some pains to ensure that the powers of his charter were understood and to make clear that he was prepared to use those powers, especially against any proposals for breaking up his division into battle groups, columns, or other detachments. According to his recollections, he stressed his anxiety in the past with commanders who ‘had a mania for breaking up military organisations’, and added that he had seen numerous senior officers ‘sacked because they put their trust in the “Jock” columns, the brigade group battle, and the Crusader tank.’10 Much to Freyberg’s relief, Montgomery maintained his own dislike of the employment of troops in ‘penny packets’ and of tying them up in isolated boxes. In fact, so closely did the two generals agree in principle that Freyberg never had open recourse to his charter during the rest of the campaign in Africa.
On 14 August Freyberg held a corps conference at the headquarters of the New Zealand Division, where he gave out the official news of the changes in the army command and staff and of the imminent arrival of Lieutenant-General Horrocks to take over 13 Corps. He then told of General Montgomery’s agreement with the forecast that Rommel would attempt an offensive before the end of August, probably by an outflanking move round the Eighth Army’s southern flank. The new commander, however, had drastically pruned the plans of defence; no longer were there to be forward, main, or rear zones to cause confusion as to which was to be held and which could be evacuated. The Army was now to hold fast in its present forward positions, which were to be developed as a continuous line of self-contained infantry positions, dug, wired, and mined for all-round defence and stocked with all the necessary supplies. All transport not vitally needed was to be sent to the rear and the troops were to be conditioned to fighting the battle where they stood without thought of retreat to alternative positions.
The new policy considerably simplified the New Zealand Division’s tasks. Responsibility for the Alam el Halfa positions was to be handed over to 44 (Home Counties) Division, ordered forward urgently at Montgomery’s request from its task of preparing defences in the Nile Delta. This division was to occupy Alam el Halfa with two brigades and lend the third to the New Zealand Division to cover the southern side of the box. With 22 Battalion brought up from Maadi to hold the eastern face, the New
Zealand Box would then have all-round protection. If the enemy should attack before the new troops were settled in, reliance would have to be placed on 7 Armoured Division to guard the box’s open flanks.
Montgomery gave a rousing talk the following day to a gathering of officers at Eighth Army Headquarters, which at his instigation had been removed from its uncomfortable situation in the bare desert11 to more congenial surroundings by the sea at Burg el Arab. This speech, probably containing phrases used in earlier talks and repeated in substance by lower commands later, has been recorded in varying forms. The gist of it was that the longer Rommel delayed his anticipated offensive, the more certain the Army Commander was of having his forces so disposed as to repel the attack. He stressed his intention of not retreating from the present forward position, of keeping his formations intact and not committing them piecemeal. He so radiated confidence that Freyberg, on returning to 13 Corps from the talk, noted in his diary that he agreed with everything the Army Commander had said.
On 16 August General Horrocks arrived to take over 13 Corps, ‘full of optimism and ready to consider changes in the plans’.12 He had already been told by Montgomery that the corps’ dispositions were unsound and that he was to revise them immediately ‘so that you can defeat the enemy’s attack without getting mauled in the process. This is important, because if you have heavy losses you will interfere with the offensive I propose to launch as soon as I can form and train a mobile reserve. Then I shall hit Rommel for six right out of Egypt.’13
In the week after General Gott’s death, before the changes in command had become fully effective, daily life in the New Zealanders’ forward positions varied only in detail. On several mornings a heavy mist covered the desert, limiting visibility to a few hundred yards and lifting only when the sun was well above the horizon. As the mist dispersed, the sun beat down from a brassy, cloudless sky. Then, around midday, the wind often arose to bring a dust-storm that might last for some hours, the fine sand penetrating into every crevice of weapons, trucks and tanks and caking the sweat-stained faces of the troops. One of the worst of these storms occurred on the day Freyberg returned to the desert, 10
August, when visibility at two o’clock in the afternoon was less than 500 yards. In the heat and the dust, as the diarist of the Maori Battalion wrote, ‘both sides seemed listless and affected by the flies and the sun’.
The nights were spent on defence works and patrols. Movement noticed in and to the rear of the enemy’s front line brought an exhortation from Eighth Army to all formations that prisoners were needed for identification as it was suspected that considerable changes were taking place among the Axis front-line troops. Though the New Zealand battalions responded with numerous patrols every night in the week of 7–14 August, they failed to bring back a single prisoner, though their efforts cost several men wounded, two officers and one man killed and two men lost as prisoners to the enemy. Patrols from 7 Armoured Division operating further south suffered even greater casualties for the same lack of success.
On the night of 12–13 August there occurred what was probably the last illustration of the old methods of the army before the new influences began to be felt. In an operation hastily and locally arranged, with a lack of effective liaison between neighbouring troops and even between the two corps, 5 Indian Division planned an attack in about company strength on the Axis posts across the western end of Ruweisat Ridge. The operation appears to have been intended both to take ground in order to straighten out a ragged stretch of the front as well as to fulfil the army’s request for prisoners. Although the area of attack was right alongside 5 Brigade’s northern boundary, the New Zealand Division received no details until late, so late in fact that it had already prepared its programme of patrols and harassing fire for the night. This programme had then to be cancelled, particularly as some of the artillery fire would have fallen on the Indians’ area of operations, and new plans, including tasks for supporting fire for the attack, had to be hastily concocted and liaison established.
The raid commenced just before midnight but the assaulting troops found the enemy posts on their objective had been vacated. While waiting for reconnaissance to decide if they had in fact reached the correct objective, the troops came under heavy fire from front and flanks. It took the raiders two hours to extricate themselves and they returned with five men wounded and thirteen missing. Of those missing, the Italians manning this sector of the front claimed five as prisoners.
While the Indians’ raid was on, at least six New Zealand patrols were out on the front to the south of the ridge but, though they blew up a derelict tank used by the enemy as an observation post
and found evidence of new defence works, they had no direct encounter with any enemy working parties. The Axis troops in fact were by this time in such a state of alertness from the constant patrolling and harassing fire that they would open heavy fire on the slightest suspicion of sound or movement.
At first light on the 13th, enemy troops seen in the area of the Indians’ raid were subjected to heavy concentrations by the Indian and New Zealand 25-pounders. Enemy gunners then retaliated by shelling both 21 Battalion’s lines and the headquarters of 6 Brigade. In the afternoon they fired one of the heaviest concentrations seen for some time into the unoccupied hollow of Deir el Angar, off to the south-west of 25 Battalion’s sector. No casualties or damage of any consequence were caused in the Division’s area by this exceptional expenditure of ammunition, a display designed apparently more as a deterrent and to indicate that the Axis defences were alert than for any practical result. It made a sufficient break in the monotony to be commented on in several official and private diaries but, after it was over, the New Zealand front quickly settled back to its normal routine of daytime lethargy.
With Horrocks’ arrival, Freyberg returned to his division, permitting Brigadier Kippenberger to resume command of 5 Brigade. On the same day the advance party of 132 Brigade of 44 Division reached the box and commenced developing the defences of the southern face.
The coincidence of Freyberg’s return at the same time as Montgomery’s accession to the army command did much to restore the New Zealanders’ morale. Though Inglis held the men’s admiration for his many good qualities, he had not yet drawn the affection and trust which the almost legendary Freyberg possessed. He had been far from fortunate in the short period of his command when, with health deteriorating to the point where lesser men would have given up, he had had to stand the strain of the July disasters. His return to command his own 4 Brigade in Maadi Camp and Freyberg’s reappearance in the desert brought the feeling that the family life of the Division, disturbed for a time, was now back to normal.
Freyberg himself was undoubtedly the ‘head of the family’ of New Zealanders in the Middle East. On the basis of the perversity that calls all red-headed men ‘Bluey’, the six-foot general, the very bulk of whose presence was reassuring, was known to all his men as ‘Tiny’, with that affectionate lack of formality common to the dominions’ civilian-soldiers. The sincerity of his consideration for the welfare of his men, reaching out to the provision of such amenities as pie and ice-cream factories, brought him a measure
of trust and affection that has been accorded to few other force commanders. His popularity, moreover, remained through adversity and success.
Once back in the saddle, and accoutred with the spur of Montgomery’s directives, Freyberg had no trouble in stirring a lethargic Division to purposeful activity. Addressing his senior officers on 16 August, he first stressed his own agreement with the new commander’s approach to the problems of the desert war and then went on to explain the new policies in detail. The old desert complex of alternate advance and retreat was to be superseded by an entirely new outlook. The Eighth Army was to stand firm on its present positions against all attack while preparations were in hand for an offensive, for which no date or exact details could yet be given, but which was being planned on a scale designed to annihilate the enemy army and break the Axis hold on North Africa. On the present state of the British armour, Freyberg made the comment that, of the 300 tanks held by Eighth Army, the cruisers and Valentines were merely mobile two-pounder guns and only the 72 Grants were left to match the 200 heavy German tanks that Rommel was now estimated to possess. After this disheartening comparison he released the news of the 300 Shermans expected to reach the Middle East in the near future – tanks similar to the Grants but with the guns in the right place, better gun sights and generally better performance.
If, therefore, Rommel should attack within the next week or so, the situation would be difficult and much would depend on the outcome of the armoured battle. Until the mining of the New Zealand Box was completed and the attached brigade of 44 Division firmly in place, the Division could not rely on its flanks and rear being protected by the British armour for, in his view of the manoeuvres already carried out, it would take 22 Armoured Brigade about two and a half hours to open its counter-attack in the Division’s sector and the Division could be overrun before then. ‘We know what happens from experience.’
For every week the enemy’s attack was delayed, the Division’s defences and the army’s reserves would be so much the stronger, to the point when the British armour, free of any commitments to the infantry, could block a thrust round the flank and rear. As both the Australians and South Africans were holding strong defences, little danger was expected on their fronts, but the rocky Ruweisat Ridge sector, held by the Indians, was a difficult position to defend and constituted a danger to the New Zealanders’ northern flank. Because of this, three battalions of Valentines were to be stationed in support of this sector.
Freyberg then informed his audience that the Division was shortly going out of the line to train with armour under command ‘for the first time in our life’. The plan for Montgomery’s offensive entailed the gapping of the enemy’s line by a frontal attack, followed by the passage through the gap of an armoured division and the New Zealand Division, fully motorised and with an armoured brigade under command.
The General ended his talk by repeating the new terminology laid down by the Army Commander to replace certain expressions which had acquired undertones of meaning antagonistic to good morale. ‘Consolidating’, for example, had come to mean ‘sitting down and doing very little’, so was to be replaced by ‘reorganising’, with the meaning of gathering strength for further action. A ‘box’, in the Army Commander’s opinion, was something with a lid on it to hold the occupants down; in future it would be known as a ‘defended area’, a secure base from which to operate. The term ‘battle group’ was to be entirely forgotten now that divisions were to fight as divisions, and any force approximating the old battle group was now to be called a ‘mobile reserve’ intended for offensive purposes.14
Habit dies hard and, though ‘box’ and ‘battle group’ were banned from official use, the terms remained in common usage for some time to come.
The impact of the new Army Commander was quickly felt throughout all ranks of the Eighth Army. His clear orders and simple definitions were such as could be passed down the chain of command to reach the men in the ranks without the usual mutilation in the process. The simply stated policy of a determined defence to cover the period needed to prepare the offensive brought morale up at once, for it permitted numerous minor decisions, previously withheld in case of a change of plan, to be made on the small matters which affected the ordinary soldier. Each man’s slit trench, for example, ceased to be a temporary expedient, to be filled in and abandoned for another every few hours or days; it became a permanent fortification to be designed and improved with care, at least until Rommel’s attack had been beaten off. To the New Zealanders particularly, who had been so constantly on the move since they left Syria in June, the idea of some relative permanence was welcome. Instead of taking up the attitude of ‘she’ll do’, they could now put their ingenuity into siting infantry and gun positions with some thought; the engineers could plan their work and store up the wire and mines needed without the feeling that
tomorrow’s change of plan would make the work wasted. All activity within the New Zealand Box thus took on a new meaning and a new tempo. No longer was Inglis’ complaint valid, that he received little information and his corps commander seemed little better off, for Horrocks, following Montgomery’s lead, instituted conferences in which both a world and a local picture of the progress of the war was drawn and future developments discussed. Whenever possible, the substance of these conferences was passed on to the troops in the line, an innovation which helped the men to identify themselves with the army in which they served.
General Freyberg, on his return from convalescence to active duty in the field, not only had to deal with the preparations for a battle expected soon to be joined but he brought with him a domestic problem that needed to be resolved urgently if the Division was to take its part in Montgomery’s plans. The last body of reinforcements from New Zealand had reached the Middle East before the Libyan campaign at the end of the previous year. Since then the Division had been living on its fat. Back home in New Zealand the entry of Japan into the war and her initial successes had brought about a sudden acceleration in the Government’s plans for putting the economy on a full wartime footing, and this in turn emphasised how carefully the Dominion’s limited manpower would have to be deployed if the demands were to be met for civilian production, home defence, and overseas operations both in the Pacific and the Middle East. Though the fear of direct invasion had begun to recede as the United States gathered her forces in the early months of 1942, this fear remained sufficiently strong in some quarters for the Government to hesitate in coming to a firm decision whether to retain, and maintain, the expeditionary force in Egypt, or to follow Australia’s intention of concentrating activities in the Pacific. Influenced by a personal plea from Churchill based on reasons of shipping difficulties and Allied morale, and also by the Australian decision to leave one division temporarily in the Middle East, the Prime Minister was able to assure Freyberg, in cables sent in March and April when the Division was out of action and the need for reinforcement consequently not urgent, that the Division would stay where it was, though it might have to suffer a reduction in size. No time limit, however, was put on this assurance.
The June and July operations and the hard desert conditions had since brought severe losses in both battle casualties and sickness and, though only two brigades were left in the field, it had been necessary to comb the base camp in Maadi for any fit men, to disband several small units, and call in detachments lent to the British for special duties. Even then, few units of the Division were up to strength and by August the bottom of the reinforcement bucket had become visible.
Faced with the situation that the Division would either have to be withdrawn from active operations or be reinforced, the New Zealand Government was more or less forced to a decision. On 5 August, in cables to both Churchill and Freyberg, the Government announced that a draft of over 5000 men would be allocated to the Middle East, 2500 to be despatched at once and the remainder later.
But between March and August much had happened in the Middle East and more was likely to happen in the immediate future. Freyberg had now to point out that by the time the first draft could arrive his division would be requiring at least 4700 men. Back in New Zealand there was a complete tank brigade, originally destined for the Middle East but held for home defence when Japan entered the war. Though in a draft appreciation on the Syrian situation written about the end of May, the General had commented that his chance of getting the armoured brigade had receded to ‘nothing more than a pious hope’,15 he had continued to ask for it and he now suggested that, as well as a draft of general reinforcements, this complete brigade could be sent over without delay, possibly unencumbered with its equipment, which he thought might be procured in the Middle East.
Army Headquarters in Wellington, faced with the task of allocating the limited manpower available to all the various demands made on it, declared Freyberg’s request excessive and countered with a proposal to send the complete tank brigade, equipped with most of its Valentine tanks and technical vehicles, provided the General would agree to breaking up one of his infantry brigades to form a reinforcement pool. This proposal had considerable merit for it would have meant that the Middle East division would be provided with a ready-made armoured formation, complete with technicians and tradesmen, in much less time than was likely to be taken in converting, training and equipping one of the infantry brigades. The men of the tank brigade, moreover, were mostly young, single, and anticipating going overseas.
Yet, against the logical arguments submitted from Wellington, Freyberg had other points to consider. The troops in the Middle East had already developed such an esprit de corps that there might have arisen strong resentment within the Division if one veteran formation – 6 Brigade was tentatively chosen for the block – should be eliminated in favour of a formed body of newcomers with fixed ranks and appointments. Furthermore, Freyberg himself was opposed to the basic tactical theory on which army tank brigades were formed, for, with their ‘infantry’ tanks, they were fundamentally designed as protective troops with the emphasis on defence. What the General wanted under his command was an offensively minded armoured brigade manning something better than Valentine tanks with their two-pounder guns.
While these proposals and counter-proposals were being cabled back and forth, Montgomery had taken over the Eighth Army and announced his scheme of establishing a mobile armoured reserve similar to the German panzer formations. His first choice for the infantry component of this reserve had fallen on the British 44 Division but, on learning that the New Zealand Division might soon acquire its own armour, he changed his plans, indicating to Freyberg that as soon as the situation permitted his division would be released from the front line for reorganisation and training with a British armoured brigade until the New Zealand armour was ready to take the field. The urgency of Montgomery’s plans, together with what he knew of New Zealand’s manpower problems, persuaded Freyberg to accept the offer of the complete tank brigade and, on 23 August, he cabled his willingness to do so and to disband 6 Brigade to provide a general reinforcement pool.
With such a measure of agreement following the protracted negotiations, Freyberg could confidently have expected the next cable from New Zealand to offer some indication that the tank brigade was preparing to embark. The offer to release it had been made on an appreciation by General Puttick16 that the threat of direct invasion of the country had become faint now that United States forces on Guadalcanal and the Australians in New Guinea had commenced offensive operations likely to cause the Japanese to consolidate their gains rather than extend the area of their conquests.17 Not all the members of the War Cabinet, however, were willing to accept this appreciation in its entirety, for the month of
August had seen the Savo Island battle in which four Allied warships, including the Australian cruiser Canberra, had been lost, while there were signs that the Japanese efforts to retake Guadalcanal were on the point of being intensified. Moreover, in an attempt to join New Zealand more closely into the Pacific war for political reasons, the Government had, rather rashly, agreed to supply a force to take part in the American operational theatre any time after 25 August. Though neither the role nor the size of the force likely to be required had been settled, its possible commitment at divisional strength had to be considered. The only formed bodies of trained men ready to take the field at short notice were the two under-strength infantry brigades lately returned from Fiji on relief by United States forces, and the tank brigade. The armour, however, was the nucleus of home defence. The War Cabinet therefore voted against the despatch of the complete tank brigade ‘until the situation in the Solomons had clarified’,18 but agreed to release one tank battalion and sufficient general reinforcements to satisfy Freyberg’s immediate needs.
Although this decision cut across their previous plans, both Puttick and Freyberg accepted it immediately so that arrangements could be commenced with the United Kingdom for shipping and escorts. It was eventually agreed that the draft should be 5500 strong, including the men of 3 Tank Battalion.
The cable giving the War Cabinet’s decision reached Freyberg on 31 August when his attention was concentrated on the Alam Halfa fighting. In the stress of immediate events he left no recorded comments on it, but there is no doubt he greeted the news with considerable relief, as at last he had something definite to work on. The decision in fact saved him from having to break up 6 Brigade and permitted him to start planning to convert 4 Brigade from infantry to armour. As he proposed to use the trained men and technicians of the tank battalion as instructors and as a nucleus for turning the three infantry units, 18, 19 and 20 Battalions, into armoured regiments, he suggested to New Zealand that, rather than break up the formed 3 Battalion, a similar total of trained men be drawn from the whole tank brigade so as to leave a cadre on which the three battalions could be quickly rebuilt. This suggestion was not accepted by Army Headquarters in Wellington on the grounds that all preparations, including the release of men on final leave, had already begun in 3 Battalion. Though this was all settled in the first week of September, shipping difficulties caused the draft, called the 8th Reinforcements, to be held in New
Zealand until 12 December. The Valentine tanks were left behind, as on 2 October the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs was able to inform the New Zealand Government that the necessary equipment for an armoured brigade, including Crusader Mark III, Grant and Sherman tanks, would be available in the Middle East by January 1943. In fact, when the trained tank men of 3 Battalion reached the Middle East early in the New Year, they found the ex-infantrymen of 4 Brigade well on the way towards their conversion to armour. Meanwhile the rest of the 2nd Division continued to live on what was left of its fat.19