Chapter 6: Rommel’s Offensive Opens
The troops taking part in 6 Brigade’s raid and the two diversions were back in their lines before midnight, leaving various small listening posts and the standing patrol on Point 104 out in no-man’s land. The night, however, did not regain the customary level of relative tranquillity.
As early as 29 August General Montgomery had decided that the Army’s front was sufficiently manned and secure to deal with the type of attack he expected Rommel to attempt. The Alam el Halfa position was mined and dug and the mobile reserve had been built up to three brigades of tanks. Already he had begun the collection of reinforcements, supplies, and equipment in the rear areas in preparation for his own offensive, and now, concurring in the general opinion that the time for action by Rommel had passed, he directed that the formation of the special reserve he needed should commence. For this the New Zealand Division had to be withdrawn from its front-line position. Plans had already been prepared for a cautious exchange, spread over several nights, of the two New Zealand brigades by the two brigades of 44 Division on Alam el Halfa. When this relief was complete, 44 Division would resume command of its third brigade, 132 Brigade, already in the box. Although this division was less experienced and possessed fewer guns than the New Zealand Division, it was expected to hold without trouble the extensive and well designed ground defences that the New Zealanders had prepared. The two New Zealand brigades were to remain on Alam el Halfa, handily placed for any emergency, until the moon had waned and major action by the enemy was unlikely. After that reserve troops were to be brought up from the Delta to free the Division for its special training.
Just before he received Montgomery’s decision for the exchange to commence, Freyberg had agreed to a suggestion from Kippenberger that 22 Battalion should take its share in the front line by relieving 28 Battalion, whose men needed a respite from the trying conditions of their exposed sector. The men of 22 Battalion were in process of packing up on the morning of 30 August when the Corps Commander rang Freyberg to say that he and the Army Commander were agreed that the danger of an immediate attack was passing, if it had not already passed, and the relief of the Division could accordingly commence at once, to be completed by 4 September. The prelude to the withdrawal of the two New Zealand brigades entailed a complete exchange of sectors within the box between 5 and 132 Brigades so that the latter, now with some experience of front-line conditions, could be firmly settled into the lively sector facing El Mreir before the other two less experienced British brigades moved up to occupy the quieter fronts on the south-west and south. From this simple internal rearrangement for 44 Division’s benefit a legend arose, so fast did events move in the next twenty-four hours, that 5 Brigade was deliberately shifted to the southern sector in anticipation of Rommel’s offensive.
The relief by 22 Battalion was therefore cancelled and Brigadier C. B. Robertson of 132 Brigade was instructed to start thinning out his positions immediately so that his three battalions would be ready to move into 5 Brigade’s sector as soon as dusk fell. The method of relief meant that the southern front would be left unoccupied for some hours, but this was felt to be less important than the need to keep the El Mreir defences continually manned. The headquarters of the two brigades changed places in the afternoon, the system of communications built and manned by the New Zealand Divisional Signals enabling them to keep in touch with their battalions throughout. Before evening many of the English troops were on the march and, as soon as dusk gave cover from enemy observation, all available trucks of the few still kept in the box were pressed into service to shuttle back and forth between the two sectors.
As this exchange was in progress, 18 Battalion’s raid took place and the staff at Divisional Headquarters was assessing the information gained from the raid and its prisoners. Interrogation brought little of immediate value, though the natural volubility of the Italians had been so affected by the strain of battle and capture that it was difficult to stop the flow of words. The solitary German had rather arrogantly given his captors the impression that he was confident of early release at Rommel’s hands, but by the time he
reached the interrogating team at headquarters he had become more security conscious. The team, unaware of his previous arrogance, accepted his newly assumed ignorance. All in all, the identity and the questioning of the prisoners from both 28 and 18 Battalions’ raids gave no hint of any significant changes in the enemy’s dispositions or of an impending offensive.
But even before the prisoners had all been questioned, Divisional Headquarters received a warning that some unusual enemy activity was afoot. Shortly before midnight an urgent call came through the artillery wireless link with 5 Indian Division for the New Zealand guns to help with defensive fire across the western end of Ruweisat Ridge. The battalion of 2 West Yorks holding that front had reported that it was under heavy fire and its forward posts were falling back in face of an infantry advance. This action on the ridge only a few hundred yards north of 5 Brigade’s sector started up while 132 Brigade was still in process of taking over. Most of the men of 2 Buffs and 5 Royal West Kents had already been guided into 21 and 22 Battalions’ defences, the New Zealand occupiers of each post marching back to the rear as soon as their reliefs appeared. Relief of the exposed 28 Battalion area was purposely left to the last so that the other two battalions would have their defences and communications already organised. But, in its occupation of the quiet southern sector, 132 Brigade had not yet learnt to dispense with inessentials such as camp beds and mess tents and its inexperience aggravated the confusion inherent in such a large and complicated relief in the darkness. The planned timing became more and more upset as the exchange continued, to the extent that the companies of 4 Royal West Kents, on entering the brigade sector, found themselves entangled in the ebb and flow of the earlier reliefs and eventually reached 28 Battalion’s area rather late and in some disorganisation. Guides from the Maori Battalion were helping to sort out the incoming troops and lead them to the forward posts when the enemy attack opened against the West Yorks on Ruweisat. Some heavy concentrations of shells and numerous ‘overs’ that landed in the sector gave many of the newcomers their first direct experience of battle. The desert-wise Maoris escaped lightly but the men of the West Kents, many of them still in close formation awaiting allocation to their individual trenches, suffered numerous casualties. Several of the Maori officers and NCOs kept their men in the defences until the incoming troops had overcome any disorganisation caused by the shellfire, so that it was well after the appointed time before 28 Battalion was clear of the sector and following the rest of 5 Brigade to the southern front.
The enemy shellfire also caught the artillery reliefs. Careful liaison had been made on the CRA’s direction to ensure that the exchange of gun positions between 58 Field Regiment, RA, and 6 New Zealand Field Regiment should take place in such a way that the maximum possible number of guns would be able to fire in support of the front at any moment. One of the New Zealand batteries, the 29th, had been set a task in 6 Brigade’s raid and its relief was to wait until this task had been completed. With the other two batteries, the 30th and the 48th, the exchange of guns with 58 Field Regiment had begun on time and was proceeding smoothly when shells began to drop around 30 Battery’s gun pits. Some of the relieving guns had just been wheeled into the pits, others were still on tow, while several New Zealand guns and quads were being lined up in convoy ready for the journey out. The first shells caught many of the gunners above ground, causing several casualties, principally among the drivers standing by their vehicles. New Zealand casualties were two killed and four seriously wounded, but this total might have been higher had not two of the gunners, C. P. Carew1 and W. A. Derrett,2 the latter himself wounded, braved the shellfire to clear both guns and wounded from the danger area. The English gunners suffered more severely and several guns and vehicles of both regiments were damaged.
Having got away before the enemy fire started, both 21 and 23 Battalions had reached their new positions on the southern front by midnight, 21 Battalion taking over the sector due east of 25 Battalion and 23 Battalion manning the south-eastern corner of the box. On the eastern side, 22 Battalion, having unpacked its gear and reoccupied its trenches after the cancellation of the relief order of the morning, now came under 5 Brigade’s command. As this southern front had been left unguarded for some time, listening posts were immediately established outside the perimeter wire while the troops ‘shook down’ and settled in their new trenches. A strong force of carriers was sent out by 21 Battalion to cover the front, particularly of the central sector left unoccupied by the delay to 28 Battalion’s relief. It was not until shortly before dawn that the Maoris eventually arrived in this sector.
About the same time as the fire began on Ruweisat Ridge, 25 Battalion’s standing patrol on Point 104, left to its customary watching brief after its activities on 18 Battalion’s behalf had ceased, was brought to the alert by sounds of movement close by.
The carriers with the patrol drove forward to investigate and encountered a large force of infantry marching across the desert in open formation. After a brief exchange of fire, the enemy dispersed or went to ground, leaving five of their number, all Italians, to be captured by the carriers, which then returned to the point. Little significance was given to this encounter at the time, while news of it could not be immediately sent back to battalion headquarters as the patrol’s wireless was demonstrating its customary unreliability. It has never been established whether the Italian infantry were attempting one of the diversionary raids ordered by Rommel or were part of the main advance.
Half an hour after midnight Divisional Headquarters intercepted a message sent by 7 Armoured Division to 13 Corps, with information of a large column of enemy vehicles observed close to the westernmost of the minefields running south from Alam Nayil. Shortly after this the patrol on Point 104 heard the sound of vehicles approaching from the west but, with its wireless still working badly, was unable to pass the information back immediately. Further messages from 7 Armoured Division, passed on to 5 and 6 Brigades from Divisional Headquarters, brought a sense of tension, and at 1.19 a.m. the prearranged code came from 13 Corps to give warning that Rommel’s offensive had at last begun.
All other signals traffic throughout the Division was suspended to allow the alarm code, TWELVEBORE, to be sent to all units in the box. On this signal, trenches, weapons, and command posts were fully manned, while the engineers supervised the closing of the patrol gaps in the outer defences with mines and wire.
As the troops took station within the box, the men on Point 104, still unaware that the general alarm had been sounded, could hear the noise of vehicles increase until it seemed that one column was passing some way to the north and another closer to the south. Movement, dimly observed in the moonlight about 1000 yards off to the south-west, was engaged with nine rounds from the 3-inch mortars and bursts from the Vickers guns. Sound and movement then ceased. Unwilling to give its exact position away to a stronger force, the standing patrol waited quietly to let the enemy make the next move.
About the same time a small patrol was sitting in Deir el Angar, half way between Point 104 and 25 Battalion’s lines, guarding a wireless set whose operator was trying, unsuccessfully, to relay messages to and from the standing patrol. The corporal in charge, on climbing the low escarpment out of the depression to investigate the sound of voices, was confronted by a force of infantry
advancing in open order. His attempt to stop them by rifle fire brought immediate retaliation, in which he was wounded and taken prisoner. The rest of the patrol, below the escarpment, managed to escape on foot but left their truck and wireless set behind. On approaching their own lines, these men were fired on by over-alert sentries and it was some time before they could establish their identity, so that news that the enemy was in Angar in strength did not reach battalion headquarters until much later.
The Division, however, had already heard from 7 Armoured Division’s patrols that the enemy was lifting the mines in Deir Alinda, some five miles south-west of Alam Nayil. The southern sky was lit by flares dropped from RAF aircraft which, from directions relayed from the armoured car patrols, had begun to search out and bomb the enemy columns.
After about an hour had passed quietly, the patrol on Point 104 was preparing to send out a reconnaissance party when anti-tank, mortar and small-arms fire swept the area in such volume that the commander, Captain Weston, decided his small force was outnumbered and gave the order to retire. With the Bren-carriers screening the rear, the patrol made its way back to 25 Battalion’s lines, reaching the perimeter wire about 4 a.m. Some of the carriers, turning off to warn the relay party in Deir el Angar, had a sharp engagement with the enemy established there and did not reach the wire until dawn was almost breaking.
On receipt of TWELVEBORE, 21 Battalion tried to call up its carrier patrol on the wireless but could not establish contact. As the minefield gaps were being closed everywhere and the defences were alert and ready to fire on any unheralded arrivals, the officer in command of the carrier platoon set out to find the patrol. His carrier, however, ran over a mine, he was mortally wounded, and his crew had difficulty in returning. The patrol in fact stayed out until nearly daylight, observing from the eastern end of Deir el Angar a large force of the enemy busily digging defences in the depression, and eventually returned through 25 Battalion’s sector with valuable information on the enemy’s locations.
The opening of Rommel’s bid to regain the initiative from the British on the evening of Sunday, 30 August, thus coincided with a night of more than usual activity for the New Zealand Division. While the Panzer Army was crossing its start line, one New Zealand brigade was embarking on a major raid involving all three of its battalions, with up to 200 of their fighting men out in no-man’s land engaged on the main operation and its diversions. The other two brigades, of about 2000 men each at this time, were in process of exchanging sectors.
General Freyberg, after spending the Saturday afternoon at Army Headquarters in discussion of the relief arrangements, returned to his headquarters to note in his diary that the Army staff ‘seem to have taken it for granted that Boche is not going to attack this moon – I don’t know whether that is right’.3
The Sunday, a very hot and windless day, was occupied with detailed discussion with his own staff on the relief plans, rearrangements necessary if reinforcements were not quickly forthcoming from New Zealand, and such points as seaside camps for bathing and canteens in the training area. In expectation of leaving 13 Corps’ command, Freyberg dined the commander, Horrocks, at the headquarters mess and then drove to 6 Brigade’s sector to keep an eye on 18 Battalion’s raid. Though the volume of the supporting fire for this raid seemed to set the pattern for a very noisy night along the whole front, no one as yet took the unusual amount of fire returned by the enemy as having any particular significance.
A certain amount of apprehension was naturally felt when the first news of the heavy shellfire on, and south of, Ruweisat reached Divisional Headquarters, and A Squadron, 46 RTR, with other available elements of the mobile reserve, was warned to be ready for action. With nothing further to indicate an attack on the New Zealand perimeter and only scanty information from 5 Indian Division, no further action was taken, and it was not until after TWELVEBORE had been signalled and the general pattern of Rommel’s plan began to emerge that the activity on Ruweisat could be seen in perspective. Gentry’s comments to Freyberg on the latter’s return to the Division early in August were shown to have been well founded, for a limited raid by a small force of Germans proved how easily the ridge sector might have let the Panzer Army into the middle of Eighth Army’s static defences.
Rommel, unaware of the strict doctrine of caution and immobility imposed by Montgomery, had felt it necessary for the initial movement of his right hook to be covered by a series of diversions on the main front, designed to pin down troops who might otherwise be transferred to help block his striking force. He had therefore ordered all sectors of his front to prepare hit-and-run diversionary raids, the first waves to go forward just before midnight, and the second and third at approximately two-hourly intervals. In the event only one raid, that against the Indians on Ruweisat, was repeated according to the information available.
In the northern part of the front, German troops of 164 Division set off on their first raid before midnight but, on reaching the Australian defences, were met by such devastating fire that they were driven back in disorder with numerous casualties and the loss of several prisoners to the Australians.
Similar raids planned against the front further south were upset by aggressive action by the South Africans, who themselves had chosen this night for a raid to gather prisoners on the same pattern as 18 Battalion’s operation. This overran a sector held by Italians of Trento Division and brought in some fifty-six prisoners at a cost of nineteen casualties. Diversionary patrols to the north and south of the main raid encountered enemy patrols which withdrew when attacked.
In the central sector, Germans of the Ramcke Parachute Brigade and Italians of Bologna Division set out about 11 p.m. to create a diversion across Deir el Shein and the western end of Ruweisat Ridge. As the main offensive had started, Panzer Army had relaxed its restrictions on the expenditure of ammunition and Ramcke Brigade took advantage of this by arranging artillery support on a lavish scale. Not much is known of the Italians’ part in the action but it would appear that, after advancing through Deir el Shein, they ran into defensive fire and scattered. A prisoner collected in this area admitted that he was from a flame-thrower unit, the Guastatori, attached to Bologna Division, but softened any repugnance which might at this period of the war have attached to his calling by adding that none of the flame-throwing equipment had yet reached the front.
The German parachutists, on their first aggressive action in Africa, advanced under their supporting shellfire against the western tip of Ruweisat, where 2 West Yorks of 9 Indian Infantry Brigade held the narrow and difficult sector with four understrength companies. Listening posts ahead of the main defences fell back to give warning that infantry were advancing behind the shellfire. Within a few minutes of the despatch by the battalion commander of the SOS signal for prearranged artillery defensive fire, both South African and New Zealand guns joined 5 Indian Division’s artillery in laying down a curtain of shells across the front of the West Yorks’ positions.
The guns were stopped as soon as it was seen that no enemy had penetrated the shellfire, and when the dust had settled, the desert appeared empty. After a period of relative quiet, a platoon from 2 West Yorks was sent forward to investigate and reoccupy the listening posts, but the men had hardly left their trenches when they were met by heavy fire, mainly from automatics. Before they
could regain their lines, the sector came under another bout of shelling and mortaring, behind which enemy troops again advanced to overrun the West Yorks’ D Company. A period of confusion followed as fire was brought to bear to isolate D Company’s area while a counter-attack force of infantry and Valentine tanks was collected. Before this force was ready, however, it was found that the enemy raiders had retired. One platoon of D Company was discovered still in position, having withstood the enemy attack and the defensive fire, but about twenty-five men from the battalion and twenty-four anti-tank and machine gunners were missing, most of them taken prisoner. Other casualties in the battalion were unexpectedly light, two men killed and nine wounded. All evidence, including the identity of several corpses, indicated that this raid was a purely German affair, carried out by the Ramcke Brigade parachutists without Italian assistance.
That diversions were planned against the New Zealand front is certain, but what happened to them does not emerge from either British or enemy records. It was fortunate for the Division that the parachutists concentrated on their raid along Ruweisat and did not attack further to the south, where they might have caught 5 and 132 Brigades in the middle of the relief. It is more than probable that 18 Battalion’s raid and the diversionary fire supporting it upset any plans made by the Italians on this part of the front, while the movement seen and fired on by the standing patrol on Point 104 before the main attack was possibly intended as diversionary activity by the Italians in the Qattara Box area.
In spite of private opinion that the Axis operations had been postponed until the next full moon, vigilance in Eighth Army had not been relaxed to any extent. The warning that brought all formations to the alert was in fact received with some relief, for the tension of anticipation felt before the defences had been completed had given way to a mild state of anti-climax as the troops saw another month of the heat and discomfort of the static war stretching ahead of them. Action was now welcome, especially as there had been time for Montgomery’s energy and crisp decision to permeate his army thoroughly. Morale was high, though not at that imprudent level of self-confidence prevailing before the Libyan and Gazala campaigns.
The last intelligence summary issued by GHQ Middle East before the battle opened, and based on information received up to the evening of 27 August, listed the signs of the imminence of an
offensive and the form it might take. The air-dropping of pamphlets addressed to Indian and Dominion troops, carried out immediately prior to earlier operations, had lately occurred. Information extracted from prisoners and deserters, though generally indefinite, carried hints of preparations for an advance starting in the south and driving to the north-east. Air reconnaissance had not as yet been able to note any major changes or movement behind the enemy front line but it had brought news of the safe arrival of a tanker at Tobruk, from which piece of information GHQ assumed that the Panzer Army’s known fuel shortage had been eased if not overcome.
The summary drew the obvious parallel between the Gazala offensive in May and the expected attack, suggesting that Rommel would take similar deceptive measures for the concentration of his mobile assault force and arrange a similar programme of demonstrations or diversions on the main, static front to draw attention from the south. It anticipated that the three German divisions of Africa Corps would lead the mobile force, leaving 164 Division and the Ramcke Brigade to bolster the Italian infantry on the static front. Nothing in the nature of airborne operations was expected of the paratroops, German or Italian, known to be in the front, at least not immediately, as ‘it is difficult to see what effective part the dropping of a small unit of parachutists could play in the first phase of a desert battle’.
The estimate of enemy strength in this summary gave the Germans a striking force of 25,000 men with 230 tanks and a holding force of 18,000 men. The Italian striking force, ‘if that title can be granted to those who follow after’, was thought to be about 17,000 with 200 tanks, most of them mechanically unsound, and a holding force of 22,000 men. The total strength of the Panzer Army was thus thought to be 82,000 men and 430 tanks.
This summary is evidence that British intelligence had managed to draw a remarkably close picture of Axis intentions and strengths. The enemy records show a front-line strength at this time of approximately 41,000 Germans and 33,000 Italians, of whom about half the Germans and less than half the Italians belonged to the formations of the mobile force. Of the Axis total of 514 tanks, 233 were German under Africa Corps’ direct command, and 281 Italian. A number of the Italian tanks were retained to support the infantry defences and did not take part in the advance.
Against these enemy totals, the Eighth Army could now muster in the front areas about 693 tanks, of which 517 were in the armoured and motorised brigades and the remainder with the
divisional reconnaissance regiments (such as the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry who had 28 Stuarts) and in immediate reserve.4 The British artillery had little advantage of guns over the Axis, but a considerable superiority in supplies of ammunition. Theoretically each British infantry battalion had its anti-tank platoon with eight two-pounder guns, and each division its supporting regiment of 64 six-pounders, but not all the anti-tank units were up to establishment. The field regiments mustered over 300 25-pounders all told, and there were several batteries of medium guns at the front. The Axis was well equipped with anti-tank guns up to 50 mms and had probably more, as well as a greater variety of, field and medium guns, including a number of captured 25-pounders. The striking force, including 90 Light Division and 10 Italian Corps, disposed of over 300 guns of 75 mms and above, of which more than fifty were the dreaded 88s.
In men, including those manning the front and easily available in reserve, the Eighth Army had a two-to-one superiority, together with a handy base from which, in an emergency, further reserves of men and over 200 tanks could be mustered and equipped. In comparison, Rommel had few reserves on African soil, either of men, tanks, ammunition, transport, or petrol; even his food and water supplies were not over plentiful.5