Chapter 5: Patrols and Raids
Through the time of Freyberg’s return to the Division and Montgomery’s accession to the army command, the pattern of night patrolling was being tested and developed by the New Zealand troops. Up to the 14th, the lion’s share of this work was undertaken by 6 Brigade, but by that date 5 Brigade had dug, wired, and mined its defences well enough to have men free at night for more than the limited reconnaissance and standing patrols whose main task had been to protect working parties from sudden aggression. Under the insistent requests for prisoners, C Company of 23 Battalion sent out a fighting patrol on the night of 14–15 August to attack a post on the edge of El Mreir. Well led by Lieutenant Garbett,1 the patrol charged a group of slit trenches and withdrew successfully with an Italian soldier of 39 Regiment of Bologna Division.
At daybreak next morning observers in 28 Battalion’s front-line posts saw an estimated 200 men moving in the area of the position attacked and, thinking a reprisal was being prepared, called on 6 Field Regiment for defensive fire. The field guns opened up within a few minutes of the call being sent, demonstrating how quickly and effectively defensive fire could now be provided. After the dust had subsided, there was no sign of the enemy troops who, it was later thought, were merely a reinforcement or relief party that had been caught by daylight before they had settled in to their allotted trenches.
The wide expanse of unoccupied desert facing 6 Brigade’s sector, besides allowing patrols from both sides to wander almost at will, also offered considerable scope for experiment by enterprising members of the brigade. Patrolling was one way, and almost the
only way in the line, of training the replacements sent up from the Maadi base camp to fill the gaps in the brigade’s ranks caused by casualties, injuries and sickness. Though a number of these men were original members returning from hospital (often not fully recovered, so pressing was the shortage of trained men), many were clerks, orderlies, or drivers, who had forgotten any infantry training they might have received when they first joined the army. Such men, Brigadier Clifton claimed, only had to join a few night patrols to show their worth. For this reason, as well as the orthodox one of keeping a check on the eastward expansion of the enemy’s defences, 6 Brigade was encouraged by its brigadier to flood the desert each night with patrols of all types.
The width between the opposing lines in this sector is illustrated by the fact that 25 Battalion was able to maintain, day and night, a standing patrol at Point 104, a small rise off the western end of Deir el Angar, some four miles south-west of the battalion’s positions and about the same distance south-east of the Qattara Box.2 The nearest enemy defences on the west were originally about three miles distant. During each day a section of three Bren carriers kept hull-down positions behind the point, where their safety from sudden attack was to some extent assured by the presence of armoured cars of 7 Armoured Division which patrolled as far north as this point.
After dark it was customary for a relief section of carriers to drive out escorting a truckload or more of infantry, who used partly prepared defences around the point as a listening post or as a base for further patrolling. Three-inch mortars on carriers, Vickers guns in trucks or carriers, and anti-tank guns towed by jeeps were also driven out at night to lay harassing fire on the enemy working parties which were pushing their defence works closer to the point on the north and west. Although similar listening posts were set out elsewhere on the brigade front, none was manned so strongly or consistently as Point 104.
The success of 5 Brigade’s first attempt to bring back a prisoner by garnering one relatively unimportant Italian did not satisfy the demands of the army’s intelligence staff, who were keen to confirm the persistent rumours and scraps of information that German paratroops had been brought into the front line. It was left to 6 Brigade to confirm the rumours, for on the night of 16–17 August a small patrol from C Company, 26 Battalion, returned triumphantly with a man from the Ramcke Parachute Brigade. The patrol, under Lieutenant Galloway,3 had in fact swung to the
north off its intended course and approached close to the edge of the target area which the artillery were ‘plastering’ in support of a 23 Battalion patrol. A small party of Germans, discreetly moving away from the shelling, crossed Galloway’s path and he immediately gave his men the order to attack. A brisk fight at close quarters ended when the two parties lost touch in the darkness, but the patrol managed to isolate one German who then surrendered.
The artillery fire which brought this paratroop prisoner by accident rather than design was being laid down for a raid by a 23 Battalion patrol on a troop of enemy guns believed to be situated on the south side of El Mreir. With extra support from 3-inch mortars in 28 Battalion’s lines, a platoon had set out, its advance carefully timed to reach the objective as the supporting fire ceased. All went according to plan except that no guns were found, only empty pits with ammunition boxes scattered around.
The success of Galloway’s patrol encouraged Brigadier Clifton to try out a method which, it was hoped, might recapitulate the same conditions by design. This involved the firing of a ‘backwards barrage’ whereby the 25–pounders commenced by laying a barrage on the rear of an enemy position and then gradually reduced the range, thus encouraging any of the enemy who did not appreciate the shelling to walk forward from their trenches into the arms of a patrol waiting hidden close to the finishing line of the barrage. In the first, and it is believed only, trial of this scheme, the patrol, comprising two platoons of A Company, 26 Battalion, was able to get within sight of the objective where a number of troops were busily digging defences, but, when the ‘backwards barrage’ had only just commenced, the enemy hastily downed tools and ran back through the shelling. Through lack of communications the patrol was unable to tell the artillery to lift its range or cease fire.
While 6 Brigade was experimenting, 5 Brigade continued with more orthodox methods. With artillery fire on previously selected targets, two strong fighting patrols were sent out with instructions to make for the area where the shells were bursting and attack as the fire ceased. Both patrols, however, encountered heavy defensive fire from positions outside the target area and were repulsed with the loss of two men killed, and an officer and another two men wounded.
With a certain ennui from the lack of activity during the long hot days, men of the Maori Battalion tried to break the monotony by putting in operation a damaged Italian 75-mm gun found abandoned on their front with a supply of ammunition handy. With broken wheels, the gun was precariously propped up on old
ammunition boxes and was sighted for direction through the open breech and for elevation by trial and error. Before the scratch crew had really mastered the elements of such gunnery, enemy retaliation became so unpleasant to everyone in the vicinity that the men’s commander ordered the gun to be dismantled. The men had some small recompense when, shortly after dark, a lone Italian walked into their lines to give himself up.
The Maoris’ enterprise might have been allowed to continue had not the same day been chosen for a counter-attack exercise for dealing with an enemy penetration along Ruweisat Ridge on 5 Brigade’s northern flank. The Valentines of A Squadron, 46 Royal Tank Regiment, came up from reserve, to be joined by a company from each of 21 and 23 Battalions, and with carriers, mortars, Vickers guns and six-pounders in support, advanced against a selected sector on the boundary with 5 Indian Division. The exercise proved valuable for checking weaknesses in the planning and execution, and was made more realistic when the unorthodox gunnery in 28 Battalion’s lines broke the normal sun-drenched lethargy of the front and caused the enemy to take a closer interest in the activity in the brigade sector.
The failure of the ‘backwards barrage’ did not exhaust Clifton’s ingenuity and he now proposed to 18 Battalion that it experiment with a patrol equipped with its own support in the shape of 3-inch mortars mounted on carriers. A fighting patrol from the battalion was followed by two carrier-borne mortars, moving in bounds, until the leading men reported enemy ahead. The patrol then closed up quietly on the enemy, the mortars were brought within range and, at a given signal, opened fire. Owing to an overestimation of the range, the mortar bombs, about sixty fired at a rapid rate, all fell behind the target. The enemy quickly manned his defences and swept his front with machine-gun fire, so the patrol leader discreetly withdrew his men before their presence was discovered.
Greater success was anticipated by 18 Battalion on the night of 20–21 August for a raid which had been planned with a great amount of care. Previous reconnaissance had discovered that an enemy post in course of preparation was relatively isolated and could be outflanked. The post was pinpointed with some accuracy and ranged by the artillery in daylight. At dusk a patrol from B Company set out and, unobserved in the bright moonlight, reached the chosen outflanking position. Here the men waited for the artillery concentration, which was timed for moonset to give them the cover of darkness during their assault and withdrawal. From
their cover the men watched the enemy at work until the moon began to set, when the working party packed up its gear and marched off. As the moon went over the horizon, the shellfire began – to fall on the empty desert.
A similar plan was tried the same night by 25 Battalion further to the south. This time the patrol successfully infiltrated round the flank of its objective, only to find itself sandwiched between the working party it intended to attack and a covering patrol. In a brisk engagement, the officer leading the patrol, Second-Lieutenant Budd,4 was killed and one man went missing before the patrol extricated itself just in time to avoid the timed shellfire.
While these raids by 18 and 25 Battalions were taking place, 26 Battalion was busy with a scheme for daylight harassing. During the night signallers extended the telephone cable for a mile or so ahead of the lines to a point overlooking the Khawabir Depression and established an exchange in touch with battalion headquarters, 5 Field Regiment, and the Vickers guns of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion. At the same time a six-pounder anti-tank gun was towed out by a jeep and two 3-inch mortars taken up in carriers. With an artillery observation officer at the telephone and a covering force of a platoon of infantry, the harassing party waited for dawn. As soon as it was light enough for movement in the enemy’s lines to be seen, fire was commenced but, by some misunderstanding of the plan or of the observation officer’s instructions, the field artillery opened its shooting with the smoke shells intended to cover the withdrawal. The enemy’s line was quickly shrouded in smoke so that no results of the fire could be observed and, under heavy but fortunately ill-directed enemy retaliation, the force had to retire in some haste. No casualties were sustained, but on the way back the jeep towing the anti-tank gun ran over a mine in a newly laid but as yet unmarked extension of the perimeter minefield, one man being killed and another wounded.
A curious incident occurred on the following night, 21–22 August, when a patrol from 18 Battalion, reconnoitring from north to south across the front, returned with the uncommon news that it had seen a large enemy patrol moving in the opposite direction. The light from parachute flares being dropped by Royal Air Force bombers over El Mreir had made a surprise attack hazardous and the patrol leader had prudently kept his men down on the ground until the enemy had passed. A patrol from 25 Battalion, traversing the same ground from south to north, also reported the presence of an enemy party but claimed that it had been coming from the north. The 25 Battalion patrol, also deterred by the aircraft flares
and the strength of the enemy, took avoiding action. The next night 25 Battalion set an ambush in the hope that the enemy might use the same route again but nothing was seen. It was not until the two patrol reports were later examined at Brigade Headquarters that the obvious conclusion could be drawn.
The extensive use of parachute flares, whose light discommoded the men on patrol and added another hazard to their activities, inaugurated an offensive by the Desert Air Force planned to disrupt and harass the preparations for Rommel’s expected attack. Starting on the evening of 21 August, the weight of the bombing was stepped up each night thereafter, the targets being mainly concentrations of vehicles behind the southern half of the line, especially in the El Mreir Depression and the Qattara Box. Although, according to the German records, this bombing did not interfere greatly with the preparations, it had a considerable effect on morale and gave evidence that the British were anticipating an attack. The German-Italian air force, husbanding its resources and especially its petrol, seldom appeared in any strength day or night. It confined its activities to reconnaissance flights, fighter patrols to chase away RAF reconnaissance, erratic and mostly ineffective night bombing, and some hit-and-run raids in daylight by fighters or fighter-bombers. During the second half of August, hardly a single Stuka was seen within range of the New Zealand Bofors batteries. The Division suffered only five casualties by air action during this period.
On 22 August a practice was held of a plan in which A Squadron, 46 Royal Tank Regiment, carrying Vickers guns on its Valentines and accompanied by six-pounder guns and two troops of the Divisional Cavalry, made a mock counter-attack against an assumed enemy breakthrough in 6 Brigade’s sector. This exercise was watched by General Freyberg and other senior officers, who recommended certain modifications on which the practice was repeated.
It was on 23 August that General Montgomery made his first detailed inspection of the New Zealand Box. Of this visit, the commander of 22 Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Russell,5 wrote home:–
We had the new Army Commander around my area yesterday and he was most impressive – looked as if he knew his own mind and meant to see things were carried out on the dot. Small, quiet-spoken and tight-lipped with an eye that saw more than the obvious so I shall be surprised if he does not produce the bacon. This W.D. has certainly produced a number of bowler hats for British Generals and by the process of elimination we must get the goods soon. ...
As well as visiting all the brigade areas, Montgomery toured the front lines of both 25 and 18 Battalions, but an extension of the tour further north along the front, into the area under close enemy observation, was discouraged by General Freyberg. The Army Commander left the Division with the impression that he was expecting an attack at any time and was confident that it would be beaten off. He also left the feeling that he was not too happy over the results of the army’s patrolling, at least in so far as the collection of prisoners for identification was concerned. No changes of consequence behind the enemy’s lines had been noted by air reconnaissance, yet this negative evidence could hardly be reconciled with the mass of other information which pointed to an impending offensive. The Army Commander therefore deemed it essential that every effort should be made to see if any alterations were taking place in the Axis front line, especially in the comparative numbers of Germans and Italians manning the front.
The New Zealand troops, however, had begun to find their night patrolling for prisoners a frustrating experience in which luck played a large and elusive part. Enemy working parties could be located with comparative ease by the noise of picks and shovels ringing on the rocky ground in the still night air. In fact, the Axis troops seemed to dislike working in silence and were inclined to talk loudly, shout and sing, especially the Italians who obviously found company in noise. But the patrols could seldom get within assaulting distance without alerting a sentry and running the gauntlet of a deluge of machine-gun fire from covering troops who were often supported by tanks or armoured cars. Even an idea that had seemed so promising, a raid with wireless-controlled artillery support, had by now been shown to make too many difficult demands, its principal requirements being a more reliable wireless set and better navigation, neither of which could be obtained at short notice. However, one last effort was tried on these lines on the night of 24–25 August. Having found by earlier reconnaissance an unprotected route round to the rear of a position on which the enemy was working, Lieutenant Baird6 led out a patrol from A Company, 26 Battalion, with a signaller carrying a No. 18 set. Creeping unobserved round the back of the working party, the patrol prepared to charge straight through the position and pick up whatever it could in the way of prisoners, documents, or identifications from the dead, as soon as the supporting shellfire ceased. The 18 set then decided to demonstrate its characteristic
unreliability, and as the signaller sat patiently trying to raise the artillery control, another party of the enemy came up on the rear of the patrol. After a short but spirited engagement, the patrol broke clear, with no prisoners but with four of its own men wounded, including the leader who later died of his wounds.
Montgomery’s visit to the New Zealand Division and his discussions with Freyberg and his staff brought an immediate reconsideration of the methods of patrolling. Most of the commanders in Eighth Army were agreed in expecting the battle to open at any moment with a repetition by Rommel of the pattern of his Gazala advance in May with a hook round the southern flank. They also anticipated that, as at Gazala, Rommel would attempt to open a direct channel between his fixed defences and the spearhead of the hook. The obvious route for such a channel lay along Ruweisat Ridge. A small amount of evidence, such as the capture of the German parachutist by 26 Battalion, indicated that German troops might be taking over the sector on the west of Ruweisat and around the El Mreir Depression, and Montgomery suggested to his corps commanders that a major raid on this area might both prove if the Germans were concentrating there and disorganise their preparations.
The Indians on the ridge itself were badly placed to conduct such a raid, for their sector was confined and difficult to operate in and might at any moment have to bear the brunt of the Axis attack. The 5th New Zealand Brigade sector immediately to the south offered fewer difficulties and Freyberg put the suggestion to Brigadier Kippenberger. The brigadier, who was concerned over the lack of success of his patrols but had been unable to devise any improvement with the means at hand within his brigade, saw the suggestion as the opportunity to carry the small artillery-supported patrol the logical step forward. He immediately asked Freyberg what artillery would be available, and was told that he could have the direct support of all the field and medium guns under New Zealand command as well as 5 Indian Division’s field artillery, a total of nearly 150 guns.
The sum of information brought back by the brigade’s nightly patrols indicated that the enemy’s defences projected in a small salient around the eastern lip of El Mreir, with a line of wire, in some stretches as thick as three coils of dannert, covering groups of weapon pits on the top of the escarpment. Down in the depression there were other groups of pits not so strongly wired.
Minefields covered the front but they were sown, according to the patrol reports, mainly with anti-tank mines. South of this salient, the enemy line swung back to the west quite sharply before turning south-west along the pipeline towards the Qattara Box. This layout decided Kippenberger to try out a method with which he had experimented early in July, of a sweep along the enemy’s front instead of a head-on assault. His earlier attempt, mainly through lack of detailed information of the enemy’s positions, had been only partially successful but now most factors seemed favourable.
It was almost inevitable that he should choose 28 Battalion to carry out the raid. Having sat in their defences overlooking the area for so many days and patrolled over it at night, the men of the battalion knew the ground well. Moreover, they did not take happily to their forced inaction and were only too ready to let off steam.
On the previous night, 23–24 August, a mixed patrol from 23 and 28 Battalions had reconnoitred a site for an advanced observation post to the south of El Mreir and had helped signallers lay a telephone line to the post. On the evening of 24 August a platoon from A Company, 23 Battalion, manned this post in telephone communication with the brigade network while the commander of the Maori Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Baker,7 led a party of four of his officers and his RSM north from the post to choose the ground for the raid in line with the brigadier’s general plan. Then, with the cooperation of the brigade and artillery staffs, a detailed plan was prepared for an infantry assault under relatively massive artillery support for the night of 25–26 August.
In general terms, the plan was for two companies of 28 Battalion to march out along the south of the enemy salient, form up facing north and follow the artillery fire through the tip of the projection before turning east back home. A patrol from 23 Battalion was to occupy the observation post and thus provide a screen on the west of the start line. The final artillery arrangements provided for 104 guns to fire 6000 shells on the path and flanks of the line of assault, while other guns laid harassing fire elsewhere on the divisional front as diversions.
At 9 p.m. on 25 August, 23 Battalion’s covering party, consisting of 7 and 12 Platoons under the command of Lieutenant I. M. Wilson,8 set off through the Maori lines and passed out through C Company’s patrol gap in the wire and mines. It was a calm moonlit night with occasional cloud and almost ominously
quiet, the only noise coming from the customary erratic bursts of automatic fire on fixed lines with which the enemy proclaimed his wakefulness. An hour before midnight Wilson’s men were disposed around the observation post, covering the west and south of the start line. The Maori Battalion’s intelligence section followed the covering party to lay out a line of white tape to mark the start line, some 300 yards to the south of the enemy wire and 500 yards west of the patrol gap.
Meanwhile A and B Companies of 28 Battalion began to assemble in C Company’s area. Here they were joined by Lieutenant Hamilton9 of 7 Field Company with twelve of his sappers carrying Bangalore torpedoes and made-up charges for demolishing captured weapons. The brigadier, who established a tactical headquarters at the Maori headquarters while the raid was on, then addressed the men, telling them of the importance attached to the operation, what it was hoped to gain, and the need for prisoners rather than scalps. After Lieutenant-Colonel Baker, the Maori chaplain, and the Roman Catholic padre had all spoken, it was time to move. Led by guides, the two companies set off through the patrol gap and lined up on the start line, facing north, A Company (Captain Porter10) on the right with one platoon forward and two in reserve, B Company (Captain Pene11) with two platoons forward and one to the rear. The engineers in four groups, each with a Bangalore torpedo, were spaced across the front and the battalion commander with a small tactical headquarters took his station in the centre.
The quiet of the night was broken sharp on 4 a.m. as the supporting guns opened fire. The men walked steadily forward until halted by their officers as they reached the edge of the shellfire, where one or two shells, falling wide of the target, caused the first casualties. Soon the burst of smoke shells indicated that the guns were lifting to their second target area further north and the troops prepared to advance. As the smoke, added to the dust raised by the shelling, had by now completely obscured the coils of dannert wire marking the enemy’s defences, the Maori officers called on their men to make for the flash of the exploding Bangalores. The sappers went steadily ahead into the murk, to lay their torpedoes so well that gaps up to twenty feet wide were blown in the wire. As each explosion lit up the night, the nearest of the assaulting troops charged through the resulting gap with yells and
war-cries, to encounter a number of shallow sangars which were quickly overrun. The few occupants who offered resistance were shot or bayoneted, encouraging the majority either to hold up their hands or to run back into the artillery fire falling behind them.
The men of A Company, working their way along the lip of the escarpment, found a thin line of sangars just inside the dannert wire manned by Italians with rifles and light automatics. Resistance practically collapsed at the sight of the Maori bayonets, so that the company caught up with the supporting artillery fire and had to wait until the guns lifted to their next task. Within half an hour of leaving the start line, Captain Porter found himself on the company’s objective and set to work to gather up his men and their prisoners. A distinctive flare he had arranged for his own defence headquarters in the box to fire at intervals gave him a guide for direction and, crossing the dannert wire at a place where it was only one coil thick, he led the men to the east. The supporting artillery fire had now ceased and enemy mortars from further west came to life, laying defensive fire on no-man’s land and causing some casualties among the men of A Company and their prisoners.
On the left flank, B Company advanced down to the floor of the depression where the artillery fire had raised a pall of dust. Fire from a strongpoint on the left, quickly overcome, drew the company off its true northerly course, and it was not until Captain Pene noticed that he was on the left of a small knoll on which artillery fire was falling, when he should have been on its right, that he realised how far his company had been drawn off course. Unwilling to slow the impetus of the advance, especially as there were machine-gun posts ahead, he continued to lead his men forward until they met the pipeline, overcoming several groups of sangars on the way. By following the pipeline to the north-east, he regained his correct objective, where he was joined by Lieutenant-Colonel Baker. The two officers then decided to return down the correct line of advance to pick up any wounded and stragglers. Back on the start line, B Company withdrew through the enemy’s defensive mortar fire, followed by 23 Battalion’s covering party. By 5 a.m., an hour after the opening of the artillery support, all the troops taking part in the raid were back in the box.
Casualties in 28 Battalion, caused as much by the men overrunning the supporting fire or by shells falling short, were reported as two killed, fourteen wounded and six, including an officer, missing; of these six it was later ascertained that the officer and four men had died and one wounded man was taken prisoner. The
engineers, who after blowing the wire demolished one or two heavy machine guns, had two men wounded and one missing, later known to have died of his wounds.
In return for their losses the Maoris estimated that they had left behind them about sixty enemy dead and they brought back forty-one prisoners, of whom about half a dozen were wounded.
The fit prisoners were hurried back to Divisional Headquarters, where a special interrogation team had been assembled to get immediate assessment of any information forthcoming. All the prisoners turned out to be from 10 and 12 Companies of 39 Infantry Regiment of the Italian Bologna Division. Most of them were described as ‘poor physical types’ and, shaken by the heavy shellfire and the Maori bayonets, were willing to tell all they knew rather than stand on their rights under the Geneva Convention. But the information they offered of surrounding dispositions or Rommel’s plans was disappointingly scant. The absence of any officers among such a large batch of prisoners was surprising and none of the men who took part in the raid could clearly recollect seeing any Italian officers during the action, though some thought they had seen officers running to the rear. The prisoners took the absence of officers as a matter of course.12
In spite of its seemingly meagre intelligence results, the raid had at least proved that an important sector of the Axis front was held wholly by Italian troops who, moreover, had not yet made any preparations for a share in an offensive. One certain result, judged by the number of prisoners and the estimated total of killed and wounded, was the elimination of two full companies of Italian infantry.
The raid, one of the first major engagements undertaken under the new army command, was considered a model on which future operations of this sort should be based. Messages of congratulation to all concerned in the planning and execution of the operation were received the following morning. Captain Porter was awarded a bar to his Military Cross for his leadership and Sergeant August13 of his company received the Military Medal.
The raid had in fact been more successful than anticipated. The following morning observers in the box reported that ambulances were moving in the depression, but no attempt appeared to have been made to bring up reserves to man the overrun defences.
Freyberg accordingly directed Kippenberger to advance his line to the edge of the depression and prevent the enemy from reoccupying the point of the salient. However, as Kippenberger records, he had seen ‘the operation as a raid only and was not prepared, either mentally or with troops’, to take advantage of the opportunity.14 He immediately called on Lieutenant-Colonel Baker to send troops forward, but Baker could not promise swift enough action as his men had already dispersed to their front-line defences in case the enemy turned on a counter-attack. He suggested it was a job for the reserve battalion and Kippenberger turned to Lieutenant-Colonel Harding15 of 21 Battalion.
The opportunity for the operation was decreasing with every hour of daylight so it was decided to send one platoon only, to be reinforced if it succeeded. No. 12 Platoon of B Company was chosen, led by Lieutenant Eady16 and accompanied by an observation officer from 6 Field Regiment, Major Lambourn.17 As the platoon marched through 28 Battalion’s lines, it was joined by a guide supplied by 28 Battalion, Lieutenant Waaka,18 who had taken part in the raid.
Burdened with weapons, picks, shovels, and the other impedimenta necessary to enable them to consolidate defences, the men of 12 Platoon passed through gaps in the Maori wire and, well dispersed, set off for the depression. Their way lay over a flat expanse of desert, overlooked by enemy positions on the higher ground to the north-west. As soon as they started, enemy machine guns came to life, to be joined later by mortars which laid a belt of defensive fire behind them. By the time the leaders had reached the enemy’s wire, most of the platoon had been forced to ground in the scanty cover available. The three officers agreed that it would be impossible to dig defences in daylight under the enemy fire and that little purpose would be served by keeping the platoon in the open. Major Lambourn accordingly called by wireless for artillery fire on the enemy mortars and machine guns. As the 25-pounders opened up, assisted by fire from the Vickers guns in 28 Battalion’s lines, the enemy fire slackened sufficiently to allow 12 Platoon to filter back without serious casualties.
All this activity on 5 Brigade’s front brought very little retaliation from the enemy. His artillery, seldom in evidence lately, shelled 28 Battalion’s area in the morning with some heavy concentrations which fell mainly on A Company without causing any casualties, but by midday the whole front had settled down to its normal torpor which lasted throughout the heat of the afternoon. Nor was the enemy apparently in a hurry to reoccupy his forward posts, for a patrol from 21 Battalion out after dark found the gaps blown in the wire by the Bangalores unrepaired and the sangars on the lip of the depression unoccupied.
On the morning of 27 August, without warning, extremely heavy shellfire commenced to fall on the Maori positions, so heavy that the whole Division and most of Eighth Army were called to the alert in case the shelling was a prelude to the expected offensive. After an estimated 2000 shells had fallen within the period of an hour, the shellfire stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and the front resumed its normal state of relative peace. It was later thought that the shelling was intended to cover the movement of reliefs and reinforcements and the reorganisation of the El Mreir defences. Under the concentrated fire well-dug slit trenches proved their worth; apart from some minor injuries caused by flying splinters, only one major casualty was recorded in 28 Battalion – one man killed when a shell fell directly into his trench.
Whatever the reason behind this shelling, patrols on the following night found the gaps in the enemy’s wire still open and no troops in the forward posts. Accordingly, for the night of the 28th–29th, it was arranged that 21 Battalion should send out three fighting patrols in the hope that they might catch the enemy off guard and bring back some prisoners to identify any new units in the line. A powerful artillery support programme was arranged, with the four field regiments in the box and one from 5 Indian Division firing in support of the patrols, while the Indians’ other two regiments fired harassing tasks immediately to the north of the depression. In the event, the patrols were a night too late. Two found the gaps in the wire had been filled and, though they engaged enemy posts behind the wire, they were unable to break through and get to close enough grips to gather prisoners. The third patrol was stalking an enemy working party when the recall signal, a red flare fired from 28 Battalion’s lines, brought all three parties back in haste to avoid getting caught in the artillery fire planned to cover their withdrawal. Losses were three men missing and four wounded. For half an hour after their withdrawal, the enemy laid heavy defensive fire across his front.
The night of the Maoris’ raid saw unusual activity in the rear part of the box when, after unidentified aircraft had been heard overhead, several reports came in, principally from men in the headquarters area of 25 Battalion, that suspicious objects had been seen silhouetted against the moon. As this was before the era of flying saucers, and as the presence of German paratroops had lately been confirmed, a parachute alert was ordered in 13 Corps’ sector. Headquarters staffs and the NZASC troops manning the replenishment points east of the box stood to and both 22 Battalion and 132 Brigade sent out search parties. The floating objects were quickly found to be nothing more than small pamphlets carrying a message unintelligible to the New Zealanders; written in Urdu, it was an Axis exhortation to Indian troops to change sides. At this period, in spite of the New Zealand Division’s activities, which included the loss of several prisoners from patrols, the Africa Corps intelligence staff believed that the Division was further to the rear and that the box was occupied by Indian troops.
Although on this same night, 25–26 August, most of the artillery had tasks in support of 5 Brigade’s action, 6 Brigade sent out several reconnaissance patrols while 25 Battalion’s standing patrol at Point 104 fought a minor battle. The previous night an enemy party had stumbled on the standing patrol and, after firing a few shots, had retired. This night a force, estimated to be as many as forty strong, took up positions within range and engaged the standing patrol for nearly two hours with machine-gun and mortar fire. After the firing had died down, with no major casualties to the patrol, the carriers followed up the enemy party as it withdrew and collected an Italian deserter.
The next night the standing patrol was reinforced and an ambush was laid west of the point in the hope of catching the enemy if he repeated his tactics. A clear sky with a bright moon and flares dropped by the RAF over the Qattara Box area made the night almost as light as day but no enemy was seen. On the night of the 27th–28th, the patrol was again reinforced, this time with five carriers, a section of 3-inch mortars, and a six-pounder anti-tank gun. A listening post set out some way west of the point reported back just after midnight to say that an enemy party was moving across the front. The carriers, setting out at once, missed the enemy but continued their search in the dark some way to the west, until they came up against a belt of wire behind which there were occupied enemy defences. On being fired on by the carriers, the enemy replied with heavy mortar fire, under which the carriers withdrew on to Point 104.
The following morning, the 28th, Brigadier Clifton’s harassing of the enemy continued as all three battalions sent out Vickers guns, mortars and anti-tank guns into no-man’s land before dawn to catch the enemy at his early morning chores. This morning, however, enemy retaliation was quicker and stronger than previously and a considerable number of smoke shells had to be fired by 5 Field Regiment before all the weapons were brought back into the lines. As on most mornings, armoured cars of 7 Armoured Division were operating across the southern part of the front, coming as far north as the line of Alam Nayil – Qattara Box. Their presence this particular morning, added to 6 Brigade’s harassing fire, for some inexplicable reason caused the Germans of Ramcke Brigade to fear an attack. The brigade reported to Africa Corps that up to thirty armoured cars were advancing from Point 104 and asked for fire from the Corps artillery, the parachute brigade having no field or medium artillery of its own.
With 5 Brigade’s raiding parties occupying so much of the supporting artillery on the night of 28–29 August, 6 Brigade confined itself to reconnaissance patrols, who noted that the enemy troops were keeping close in their defences, with very few of the customary chattering working parties above ground. They also observed an unusual number of enemy patrols on the front. The next night, while patrols from 26 and 18 Battalions reconnoitred the ground for future operations, 25 Battalion’s standing patrol on Point 104 laid diversionary fire from carriers and 3-inch mortars on the Qattara Box area, receiving unusually heavy machine-gun fire in retaliation. Once again, poor communications prevented the patrol from calling for artillery support for, although a vehicle-borne No. 11 set, a more powerful type than the No. 18, had been borrowed from the artillery, even this was unable to overcome the peculiar atmospheric conditions of the desert night.
The standard of patrolling in the New Zealand Division during the August lull was not of a very high quality if it is judged by the results in terms of the efforts involved. The main reason for the nightly patrolling was the gathering of information; minefields, wire, and enemy trenches were plotted by rough and ready surveying by means of compass and pacing; the identity of the enemy troops in each small sector was sought through the capture of prisoners, the discovery of discarded equipment, uniforms, or
papers, and by recognition of the language, German or Italian, spoken by working parties. The smallest scrap of information had its value in the picture drawn by the intelligence staffs.
There was, however, a secondary purpose, fulfilled to some extent by the very number of patrols sent out each night. It was essential to dominate no-man’s land and to deter the enemy if possible from extending his defences towards the east by constant interference with his working parties. This was all part of Eighth Army’s harassing policy, a policy which, as far as the New Zealand Division was concerned, had its value in maintaining morale among the infantry, for whom it was the only aggressive activity offering.
This was the first time in the war that the New Zealand Division had experienced anything approaching static trench warfare and, although the men had developed an aptitude above the average for activity at night, they had not been given the training that could have put a sharp edge on their patrolling. The customary procedure was for a patrol to be taken by truck to some known point in the desert where a landmark such as a burnt-out tank, or even a less conspicuous object, had been surveyed in with reasonable accuracy. Then, on a compass bearing and counting paces, the patrol would set off for an objective which had been observed by day or reported by a previous patrol, in either case probably with a considerable degree of inaccuracy. If the patrol was for reconnaissance only, the results of its night’s wanderings depended mainly on the leader’s ability to march on an exact bearing and record the pacing, and especially to bring back a connected record of the route followed, without gaps caused by alarms and excursions when bearings and counted paces were likely to be forgotten. Early patrol reports at this period were so bad that special forms were devised to get patrol leaders to remember and record the essential points of time and distance. Surviving reports, even on these forms, seldom allow the course of a patrol to be traced with any certainty. Similar reports during the Italian campaign are models of accuracy in comparison and show how much had to be learnt.
For fighting patrols, sent out to make contact with the enemy and gather identifications from the dead or from equipment, or by capturing a prisoner, the need for such accurate recording was not so great, but good navigation, to bring a patrol to the point previously observed where a weakness in the enemy’s defences could be exploited, was often the main factor in success or failure.
One drawback, and one over which the men themselves had little control, was inherent in all patrolling. The desert here was relatively flat, surfaced with patches of hard stones alternating with
soft sand and with only occasional patches of low scrub. Close approach to an alert enemy therefore was extremely difficult and silent movement was practically essential. Yet most of the men were equipped with iron-shod boots, and with weapons and other gear never designed for silent movement. Many of the officers, by the end of August, had equipped themselves with soft-soled desert boots, and some of the battalions had acquired a small store of similar footwear which was issued to the most deserving patrols. Sandshoes, issued by the army for sports, were tried out but were found uncomfortable on the sharp, rocky patches and generally unsuitable, with little wearing capacity. The wearing of socks over army boots, though a good expedient, had many and obvious drawbacks.
It was partly because of the noise, unavoidable when a patrol was wearing standard army equipment, that the system of covering fire from artillery, mortars or machine guns was first tried out; though such fire often kept the enemy alert, it drove his pickets to ground and lessened the chance of their attention being drawn to suspicious sounds.
Covering fire, however, had to be closely coordinated with a patrol’s movements and for this purpose much experimentation was carried out with the two standard types of radio transmitter-receivers used by the Division. The No. 18 set, compactly designed to be carried by one man and issued to infantry battalions for internal communications, proved to have too many inherent weaknesses to overcome the climatic and atmospheric conditions peculiar to the desert, especially over the distances involved on 6 Brigade’s front. Even the vehicle-borne, and more powerful, No. 11 set could not be relied on. To overcome the problem of distance, trials were made of relay sets between patrols and their bases, but even this method failed to provide certain communication. Moreover, at the rare times when communication was clearly established, the accuracy of the supporting fire depended wholly on the accuracy of the patrol’s navigation and, with all the chances involved in night navigation over the almost featureless desert, it is not surprising that the supporting fire seldom fell exactly where the patrol wanted it – and Clifton could write in his diary, ‘Our patrolling did damn-all as usual’.
The fundamental faults of training and equipment could not be remedied on the spot so that it was only natural that commanders, continually pressed to produce prisoners, should consider ways of eliminating the hazards of poor navigation and uncertain communications. The only means at hand lay in organisation and planning and it was thus that the small fighting
patrol, setting off with a minimum of orders to try its luck, gave way first to the various experiments in supporting fire and finally to the planned raid in company, or greater, strength on a timed schedule of movement and artillery fire. Once this lesson had been learnt, the New Zealand Division staged two minor operations which brought in many more prisoners than all the small patrols together had managed to collect. The first of these operations, by the Maoris against El Mreir, has already been described. Its success encouraged Clifton to set his men a similar task.19
At a conference held at Headquarters 6 Brigade on the 27th and attended by General Freyberg and the CRA, Brigadier C. E. Weir,20 Clifton outlined a suggestion for a raid by two companies of 18 Battalion, with diversionary operations by the other two battalions on the north and south of the area of attack. However, on a close study of the enemy’s line as plotted by the nightly reconnaissance patrols, with additional information gained from air photographs, it was found that on 6 Brigade’s front there were no salients similar to El Mreir for which the method used by 5 Brigade, of an attack across the enemy’s front, could be employed. This was confirmed by special reconnaissance patrols sent out on the two following nights, so the plan was altered to a raid by one company directly at the enemy posts in the long shallow depression, Deir Umm Khawabir, to the north-east of the Qattara Box. A heavy artillery programme was prepared to give concentrations on the area to be raided, with neutralising fire on nearby positions from which the enemy might interfere with the assault, while both 26 and 25 Battalions prepared diversionary action on their fronts.
The operation began early on the evening of 30 August when 25 Battalion sent out two platoons of infantry, two anti-tank guns, six carriers, three 3-inch mortars in carriers, and a platoon of Vickers guns, all under the command of Captain Weston21 of B Company, to the standing patrol position at Point 104. With infantry and carriers providing protection, the weapons were sited
on convenient spots close to the point and laid initially on the high ground, including the spur known locally as ‘Maori Ridge’, off the south-east of the Qattara Box.
Similarly, 26 Battalion sent out a patrol to cover two 3-inch mortars and two platoons of Vickers guns to a selected point about 1000 yards west of the FDLs. These weapons were laid on the rising ground along the northern edge of the Deir Umm Khawabir, while a small fighting patrol under Second-Lieutenant Hansen22 advanced towards the same area in the hope of gathering a prisoner in the confusion immediately the firing ceased.
Meanwhile, A Company of 18 Battalion, under the command of Captain Pike,23 left its defences and, in light battle equipment, filed out through a patrol gap to march some two miles to a previously reconnoitred breach in the wire surrounding the main enemy minefield in Deir Umm Khawabir. Here they waited for the supporting artillery fire.
The movement of all three battalion parties was timed so that they would be ready for action by 9.30 p.m. At this moment one battery of 5 Field Regiment started firing on the Maori Ridge area, to be joined by the weapons around Point 104. A quarter of an hour later the mortars and Vickers of 26 Battalion’s patrol opened up on their target, and at the same time the whole of 5 Field Regiment, one battery of 6 Field Regiment, and a troop of 64 Medium Regiment – about 40 guns in all – commenced firing on the path of 18 Battalion’s raid. At 10 p.m. this shellfire lifted for 300 yards, the lift being signalled to the waiting assault party by two rounds of smoke from each 25-pounder. Captain Pike then led his men into the smoke and, with bayonets, tommy guns and grenades, A Company attacked the line of sangars behind the wire. The occupants, mainly Italians, were still hugging the bottoms of their sangars to shelter from the shellfire and were not given time to recover and man their weapons. Many were killed, but those showing clearly that they were prepared to become prisoners were rounded up and led to the rear. As the immediate defences were being dealt with, firing broke out from a supporting post in the rear. Sergeant Goodmanson,24 who knew the layout of the defences from earlier patrolling, gathered a group of men and led an attack on the supporting position, overrunning a machine-gun post and then engaging and destroying an anti-tank gun and its crew. With twelve prisoners in hand, he rejoined the main group and the
company set off for home. The whole engagement had lasted less than an hour and resulted in an estimated forty of the enemy killed or badly wounded, thirty-two Italian prisoners, of Brescia and Folgore divisions, and one German of Ramcke Brigade, to balance only three men at all seriously wounded in A Company.
While the main raid was in progress, two batteries of 5 Field Regiment switched their fire to 26 Battalion’s objective and at 10.20 p.m., when all supporting fire ceased, Second-Lieutenant Hansen led his patrol through the enemy wire, only to encounter an enemy tank under whose fire he wisely withdrew.
The expenditure of ammunition for this one operation amounted to a total of 400 rounds from the medium guns, 4000 25-pounder shells, 410 3-inch mortar bombs, and 36,000 rounds from the Vickers guns.