Chapter 4: Axis and Allied Plans
As the British leaders were diagnosing the ailments of the Middle East command, the opening days of August brought decisions for the Axis which indicated, though very faintly at first, that the Panzer Army might soon be forced to dance to the Allied tune.
In the top levels of command in the Panzer Army there was no need for any sweeping changes. Rommel had the confidence of Hitler and the German General Staff, and if they contributed little help, they offered little interference. He himself had confidence in his German subordinates and appears to have accepted his Italian commanders, over whose appointment he had little influence, for what they were worth. Morale in the Panzer Army, though it had recovered from its low level of July, still ranged over a wide scale. The mass of Italian infantry was far from happy with the conditions of heat, discomfort, and danger in the front-line trenches, but the armoured troops and the newly arrived Folgore parachutists were in much better heart. Of the German troops, the new reinforcements were generally keen to show their mettle – though Rommel himself complained that too many of them were not up to the standards of physique and training of his original men. The old hands of the Africa Corps were showing signs of strain after their long spell in the desert, for few of them had managed to get leave to Europe in the preceding two years. But, whatever their state, the majority of the army was still willing to follow Rommel wherever he led.
Even before the fresh wind of change had begun to blow in the Eighth Army, Rommel was completing the plans for his next offensive. Churchill’s visits seem to have passed unknown at the
time to the Panzer Army but on 7 August, the very day that success and tragedy came to General Gott, Rommel called his senior commanders together to be briefed on his intentions. By setting the full-moon period at the end of the month as his deadline, he gave a sense of urgency to the Axis preparations.
Rommel chose to continue the land offensive into Egypt deliberately. He was well aware that his drive to Alamein had been made at the expense of leaving the island fortress of Malta to threaten his lines of supply, and that several of the Axis leaders, particularly the Italians, believed that the island should now be eliminated before land operations continued. Whether the Italians’ strategy was based on sound logistics or wishful thinking conditioned by a desire to add Malta to the Roman Empire, they could point to the island whenever Rommel complained of his supplies and say, in effect, ‘we told you so’.
But Rommel’s reasoning was sound. He was an army commander only and, though debates on strategy might be swayed by his forceful arguing, the final decisions were not his. Admittedly he had earlier in the campaign forced a decision against the seaborne operation, in which he was likely to play a subordinate part, by continuing the land offensive in which he was the de facto commander, but this had only been possible because of indecision in the command structure above him. Now, in August, to add to the forcefulness of his character, he had logic on his side. The sum of his information was that the British were preparing to pour men and materials into the Middle East in quantities greater than he was likely to receive. He was cynically aware that, though the subjugation of Malta would ease the supply lines, the consequential increase reaching him would at first be relatively small, and certainly not enough to enable him to catch up with the head start the British would gain during the pause in land operations while the island was being dealt with. It was already clear to him that Hitler would not willingly divert aircraft and troops from other theatres, so that operations against Malta would be mainly Italian, with his Panzer Army taking a share or at least forgoing reinforcements and supplies it might otherwise receive for the land advance.
The situation in Russia must also have come into Rommel’s thinking. At this time both Axis and Allied leaders saw the possibility of a German advance into the Caucasus. On 8 August German forces occupied Maikop in the oilfields1 and on the 25th the swastika flag was planted on the highest peak in the Caucasus, while advanced guards had reached the Volga near Stalingrad.
The further Rommel progressed round the shores of the Mediterranean, the sooner the secondary African theatre would be linked with Hitler’s main strategical objective, the Russian and Middle East oilfields. And, with every mile gained past the Suez Canal, Malta’s nuisance value diminished.
In short, any operations against Malta should have been undertaken for Rommel’s benefit, but not at his expense. This was partially recognised for, throughout June and July, the island had been so pounded by the Axis air forces that its defensive aircraft and supplies were almost exhausted and its potential as a base against Axis shipping was diminishing daily. The last Allied convoy to the island had sailed in mid-June, but Axis sea and air action had allowed only two merchantmen to get through to Valetta.
Through Axis intelligence and other sources Rommel must have had more than an inkling of Malta’s condition, but what he did not know was that Churchill, before leaving the United Kingdom for the Middle East, had persuaded the Admiralty to risk another attempt to run the blockade of the island. To Churchill, Malta stood as a keystone of Allied strategy in the Mediterranean. Its occupation by the Axis would have jeopardised all the schemes for which he had been battling in Allied councils, for landings in French North Africa and assaults on the ‘soft under-belly of Europe’. For this, more than for its value against the Axis sea routes, was it necessary to revitalise the island’s garrison.
So, while Rommel left the problem of Malta to the Luftwaffe and the Italians and turned his mind to his land offensive, the promised convoy, code-named PEDESTAL, passed Gibraltar on 10 August. On the same day a dummy convoy sailed westwards from Port Said, to disperse under cover of darkness, its merchantmen returning but the escorting warships continuing towards the Aegean where, on the 13th, they bombarded the island of Rhodes. The main convoy was quickly picked up and shadowed by Axis aircraft which reported troopships among the merchantmen, news which brought the Axis forces in North Africa to the alert in case a landing was to be attempted in conjunction with a sortie by the Eighth Army. Troops were withdrawn from the front to guard vulnerable points on the coast and Rommel gave 21 Panzer Division the task of repelling any landings in the forward zone. By the evening of the 13th the convoy’s destination was obvious and the state of alert called off.
Although four warships of PEDESTAL were sunk and several damaged, and only five of the original fourteen merchant ships reached Valetta harbour, the operation was on balance a success.
With Axis aircraft diverted from their customary raids on the island to deal with the ships, the opportunity had been taken to fly in two groups of Spitfires from the aircraft carrier Furious. This reinforcement of the air defences, together with the stores landed by the five surviving ships, revived Malta’s fighting power so that, during the following three months, it played a decisive part in the defeats of the Panzer Army at Alam el Halfa and El Alamein. PEDESTAL was the last major convoy to run the gauntlet to the island.
Apart from the courage and determination of the men of the Royal and Merchant Navies, the failure of the Axis to destroy or repulse the whole convoy was due in great measure to Hitler’s concern in keeping the Nazi jackboot hidden as yet from the Fascist jackal. Had the sea and air forces of the two Axis powers been under complete German control, the operation against the convoy would certainly have been much more thorough. As it was, there was a fateful lack of coordination between all the services to the extent that, though ships of the Italian Navy put to sea, they were either recalled or diverted to shadow the warships of the dummy convoy in the eastern Mediterranean. This was done at Kesselring’s instigation on the grounds that there were insufficient fighters to cover both a naval force as well as the bombing force operating from Sicily over the convoy.
Rommel soon felt the effects of Malta’s revival. While the convoy battle was on, few Axis ships braved the passage to North Africa. After it was over, the Axis air forces sat back to lick their wounds and, against the island’s reinforced air defences, never again managed to reach the air superiority they had previously enjoyed. The breathing space gave the Allied aircraft and submarines based on Malta the chance to take the initiative just at the time Rommel was in greatest need of those heavy stores which could be brought over only by ship.2
Troops of the Ramcke Parachute Brigade, being flown to Africa from Greece, were accumulating in the rear areas awaiting the transport by sea of their heavy weapons and equipment. These men were needed urgently in the field to relieve the infantry of 15 Panzer Division who were still holding front-line positions in the El Mreir sector. To get them there was only possible by calling
on the already overworked supply services of the Panzer Army. Crammed into spare spaces in supply columns and in trucks borrowed from other units, the parachutists were ferried to the front with their light equipment and none of their own vehicles or artillery. Once at the front, their daily supply and their normal transport needs presented a continuing problem which could only be met by improvisation. They were even short of field kitchens.
Since the beginning of July, when the Panzer Army had reached its lowest ebb, its strength had grown, reinforcements offsetting losses, by some 10,000 Germans and a like number of Italians by the middle of August. Each new arrival was adding to the burden of a supply organisation that, in its whole length from Europe to the front, had never been sufficient in itself to cope with the German–Italian army’s needs and had only been saved from collapse earlier by the quantities of British stores and transport captured in the advance into Egypt. By mid-August the organisation was creaking badly.3
The relief of the assault formations from the front line was complete about 16 August when most of Ramcke Brigade and units of the Italian Bologna Division took over from the remaining infantry of 15 Panzer Division. The assault formations, 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions, 90 Light Division, and the Italian 20 Armoured Corps, were then spread out behind the front, with counter-attack roles in an emergency but occupied mainly with general reorganisation, servicing vehicles, and collecting the reserve stocks of ammunition, stores, and petrol needed for the coming offensive. Under the circumstances, this was a slow process in which German organisation was continually falling foul of Italian inefficiency. The need for economy in daily expenditure was carried to the stage where the New Zealand Division could report that, between 17 and 26 August, hostile shelling was ‘practically non-existent’.
Once General Montgomery had simplified Eighth Army’s battle policy, reserves and reinforcements previously allocated to rear lines of defence became available for the main battle and planning could proceed to greater purpose. The two corps of the army faced differing tasks. In the north, 30 Corps was not expected to have to fight a battle of manoeuvre and, apart from the placing of reserves to deal with a penetration of the front, its main task was to make its defences as impregnable as possible.
The southern part of the line under 13 Corps had, however, to anticipate an assault of greater variety. The New Zealanders’ defended area – which in spite of repeated admonitions from above continued to be known as ‘The Box’ – had to be prepared to withstand attacks from west, south, and east, and possibly from the north as well. The two brigades of 44 Division on Alam el Halfa had a similar task, while the rest of the corps dealt with the enemy’s manoeuvring. The essence of the new corps plan was for the New Zealand Box and Alam el Halfa to be as strongly manned as the available infantry allowed, with the gap between the two infantry areas covered by all the tanks that could be mustered. From this relatively central position the main armoured force would be well placed to support any part of the front that should be threatened.
On the open ground to the south of the box, the light tanks and mobile columns of 7 Armoured Division were to harass and delay the enemy’s advance across a series of minefields that were already being laid with all speed on a design intended to block the easy routes and increase the natural hazards of this part of the desert.4 The ‘first’ or westernmost of these minefields led off from the south-west corner of the New Zealand perimeter minefield in a general southerly direction, with a pronounced bulge to the west, as far as Himeimat. The ‘second’ field began at the Alam Nayil feature, about a mile and a half from the first field, and ran at first to the south-east, but soon swung back to the south until it merged before reaching Himeimat with the first field. What was known to the New Zealanders – and so-called in this account – as the ‘fourth minefield’ started just to the west of the south-east corner of the box and ran down to Deir el Muhafid. The ‘third’ field, originally designed as a ‘dummy’ with no live mines, ran roughly parallel to, and some one to two miles west of, the fourth field. The spaces between the first and second, and second and fourth fields, apart from the deceptive wire and other signs of the dummy
field, were clear as far as the depressions Alinda, Munassib and Muhafid, but from here southwards the main lines of mines were joined by a maze of lateral fields and projections until they merged into one definite field by Himeimat.
Extensions were planned to take this field as far as the edge of the Qattara Depression, and two other fields had been started away to the south-east of the box, but only isolated portions of these extensions had been laid by the end of August. (Several British records ignore the dummy field and refer to the fourth field as the third, and the incomplete fields on the south-east as the fourth.)
By the third week in August the three main fields from the box to the depressions had been finished for all practical purposes, each some 200 to 1000 yards wide according to the terrain and of a varying pattern of a core of ten or so rows of closely spaced mines inside two belts more widely spaced. From the depressions to Himeimat the mines were continuous except for narrow patrol gaps and, though the fields grew thinner the further south they went, they made a difficult obstacle for vehicles by reason of their maze-like pattern. The ground to the south of the box and the depressions were held by 7 Motor Brigade, and from Himeimat to the Qattara Depression by 4 Light Armoured Brigade.
A week after Freyberg’s talk to his officers, when Rommel’s offensive had still not materialised, the new commander of 13 Corps, General Horrocks, issued a personal memorandum which shows how under Montgomery’s purposeful leadership the army had begun to get a firm grip of events. This memorandum predicted the full moon on the 25th or 26th as the omen for the opening of the attack, and the southern flank ‘between the left of the New Zealand Division and the left [ sic] of 7 Armoured Division’ as the route of the Panzer Army’s advance. It summarised intelligence reports to offer the opinion that Rommel was not as confident of the outcome as he had been in the past but was prepared to ‘take a very hazardous chance’ before the mounting British reserves swung the odds too heavily against him. Further influence of the new leadership showed in a paragraph: ‘The importance of this battle and the way we propose to fight it should be explained to all ranks. ... This is vital. We have a good plan with every chance of success and provided the men realise this they will fight with confidence and intelligence . ...’ The pernicious practice of internal criticism, such as the infantry had become accustomed to expend on the armour, was to cease, while staff officers were forbidden ‘to bellyache’, an expression used by Montgomery to describe a habit developed in Eighth Army whereby, for example, a divisional staff
officer would ring the corps staff to question or complain about orders, and possibly arrange for them to be watered down without bringing his action immediately to the knowledge of his commander. Horrocks’ memorandum also laid emphasis on the importance of the immediate passing on of military information to enable a full picture of operations to be available at all headquarters. In the fluid battle expected on the southern flank, effective air operations and the deployment of the armour depended on the fullest possible information of the enemy’s movements.
When General Freyberg passed on this memorandum to his senior officers at a conference on the following day, 24 August, he told his listeners that, though Rommel’s coming offensive would appear similar to his right hook at Gazala in May, the Eighth Army was now in a more advantageous position, particularly as the system of brigade groups in isolated boxes had been scrapped and replaced by divisional areas from which a great volume of artillery fire, under central control, could be brought to bear on any threatened sector.
From 16 August, when 44 Division relieved the New Zealand Division of the responsibility of the Alam el Halfa positions, the defences of 13 Corps improved daily. The Alam el Halfa feature itself was occupied by 133 Brigade and Alam el Khadim, some five miles to the east, by 131 Brigade, both formations developing the defences on the lines commenced by the New Zealand Division. The two areas were linked by a thick minefield.
The three battalions of 132 Brigade were in their positions within the New Zealand Box by noon of the 18th, with 2 Buffs on the west alongside 25 Battalion on Alam Nayil, 4 Royal West Kents in the centre, both facing south, and 5 Royal West Kents on the east by Deir Umm Aisha facing both south and south-east. The brigade had its own artillery, 58 Field Regiment, RA, but was short of anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. Several six-pounders of 34 and, later, 32 Batteries of 7 New Zealand Anti-Tank Regiment and three Bofors guns of 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery were therefore placed under its command. Prior to the arrival of the English troops, this front had been covered by a force of Divisional Cavalry in armoured cars and Stuart tanks, supported by a detachment of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion. The machine-gunners returned to their battalion but the Cavalry continued to patrol outside the perimeter in contact with the columns of 7 Armoured Division.
Following Montgomery’s order for the removal of inessential vehicles from the front, all the trucks not needed for the daily servicing of the box were sent away, eventually to settle in an area
known as ‘Swordfish’, some 45 miles to the rear near Alam Shaltut on the west of the main Cairo-Alexandria road. At the same time thirteen Valentine and two Matilda tanks went into laager near Divisional Headquarters to provide the armoured reserve requested by General Freyberg. These tanks, forming A Squadron of 46 Battalion, The Royal Tank Regiment, were joined by two troops of the Divisional Cavalry and two platoons of 27 MG Battalion, the whole force coming under command of the squadron commander, Major Boyd-Moss.
The headquarters of 132 Brigade took over the dug-in position which had been occupied by Divisional Headquarters since July, the latter then being transferred to another set of dugouts newly prepared in the north-eastern corner of the box, hard by the gap where the main track in and out of the box ran through the enclosing minefields. With the arrival on 20 August of 22 Battalion from Maadi to occupy the eastern flank, between the main gap and the left of 5 Royal West Kents, under 132 Brigade’s command, all sides of the box were now defended. On the same day Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson,5 the CRE, reported that his engineers, assisted by parties of infantry and working throughout the day and night, had completed the main defensive minefields. The sappers’ work, however, did not stop here for, as more mines and wire became available, existing fields were improved and thickened and new fields laid. To protect the northern side of the box against a breakthrough along Ruweisat Ridge, a secondary field was completed between 20 and 22 August by sappers of 8 Field Company working in continuous shifts with the help of infantrymen of 23 Battalion. A tactical field was laid to give all-round protection to 25 Battalion’s sector on Alam Nayil, and then the engineers concentrated on the southern and eastern sides where the perimeter minefield was weakest. The final plan of the box showed a complicated pattern of interlocking minefields surrounding company positions on the western flank and a wide perimeter belt with few internal fields on the southern and eastern sides.
The sense of purpose that now had permeated through Eighth Army was heightened at this time by the reappearance of Mr Churchill who, on his way back from Russia, called in on the army to see how the changes he had inaugurated had worked out. Representatives from New Zealand units, including most of those
who had lately received decorations for gallantry, gathered at the headquarters of 13 Corps on 20 August to hear the Prime Minister say:–
I am very glad to have this opportunity of visiting the Desert Army and I certainly would not dream of going away without seeing the New Zealanders commanded by my old friend of many years’ standing, General Freyberg.
In England not long before I left I heard someone say the New Zealanders were ‘a ball of fire’. It was said by someone quite impartial who had a great opportunity of assessing your worth. You have played a magnificent part, a notable and even decisive part, in stemming a great retreat which might have been most detrimental to the whole cause of the British Empire and the United Nations.
I know that on the other side of the world in your homes in New Zealand all eyes are fixed on you. But even more eyes in England watch you fighting here with equal solicitude. I wish you good luck in the great days that lie ahead – perhaps not so far ahead – of you.
We share the pride that your Dominion feels in the great services you are rendering and in the contributions you have made in this war as in the last, to the pages of British Imperial history. You will be cherished by future generations who, through your exertions and sacrifices, will go forward to a better and a fairer and a brighter world.6
At the time Churchill was speaking to his desert audience, Rommel and his officers were gathering not many miles away to the west to hold a staff exercise on their proposed offensive. No date was yet settled for the attack, though it was known that it would have to start before the end of August or wait for the September full moon. Plans, however, were made to concentrate the mobile formations over a series of nights in such a way that movement would be as inconspicuous as possible.