Chapter 9: Operation BERESFORD
The third day of September ushered in the third year of the war in the west. In the rear areas and in some of the Eighth Army headquarters the day was observed by prayer services. For the troops in the front line there was little opportunity to join in the observances for, though there was relatively little ground activity, no one was yet sure of the Panzer Army’s intentions and all positions were fully manned. In the air 200 bombers and 574 fighter sorties were flown by the Desert Air Force, with altogether some 1036 bombs dropped on the Panzer Army.
Patrols from all three of the brigades of 10 Armoured Division and the columns of 7 Armoured Division probed forward cautiously as soon as it was light, only to encounter fire from a thick screen of anti-tank guns covering the north and east of the Muhafid Depression, and running thence for some distance to the south. Ground and air observers reported that, behind this screen, several large groups of vehicles were either stationery or appeared to be moving slowing westwards. Once the enemy’s intentions, or rather lack of definite intention, had been established by the early morning patrols, Montgomery issued the following orders.
1. There was to be no forward movement from the main battle positions except by patrols.
2. The armoured car ring was to close round the enemy and picquet him.
3. Strong patrols were to operate against any enemy MT.
4. 13 Corps was to proceed vigorously, methodically and carefully, with the plan for closing the gap from the N.Z. Box to Himeimat.
Under these orders, the British heavy armour was content to keep the enemy under observation and fire. The light armour and armoured car columns were more vigorous but, with no plan or direction to follow up success, they did not seek for weak spots in the anti-tank gun screen but merely probed forward until they drew
fire. In several skirmishes both sides suffered casualties to men and vehicles, but in the majority of the encounters the troops of the Panzer Army stood firm until the British columns retired.
Later in the day 7 Armoured Division was offered the opportunity of more aggressive action as its share in the closing of the gap between Himeimat and the New Zealand Box. To tie in with the New Zealand advance southwards, intended for the coming evening, Montgomery instructed 13 Corps to send strong columns to operate from Samaket Gaballa against the Panzer Army’s southern flank. Air reconnaissance was already indicating that the enemy might be withdrawing, though General Horrocks himself felt that it was yet too early to assume that such a withdrawal was a ‘definitely established fact’.
When Horrocks passed the orders on to 7 Armoured Division with the detail that both 7 Motor Brigade and 4 Light Armoured Brigade were to take part, the value of the scheme for a two-pronged attack meeting at Himeimat – and the impractical thinking still prevalent in Eighth Army – became clear. The commander of 7 Armoured Division immediately pointed out that, to engage the enemy between Gaballa and Himeimat, his columns would have to traverse some of the worst of the desert going, so difficult indeed that wheeled vehicles could only follow certain limited tracks with no room for manoeuvre. A compromise was eventually reached, that 7 Motor Brigade should press from the east in the better going north of Gaballa while light tanks and carriers of 4 Light Armoured Brigade attempted to reach Himeimat. The discussions made it clear that little could be expected from the southern prong of the pincers. Of the 27 Crusaders and 50 Stuarts with which the light armoured brigade had commenced the battle, only about one in three was still in running order.
Such a light force, operating in difficult country and with no infantry or gun support, was not likely to make much impression on the Panzer Army’s flank. In fact, in one of the first engagements, a column of Stuart tanks was attacked and driven off by tanks of Ariete Division which had been directed to help cover this southern front.
During Eighth Army’s methodical and careful, but not very vigorous, preparations for closing the gap, the Panzer Army took full advantage of its opponents’ caution to stage a leisurely and ordered withdrawal. In the early dawn of the 3rd, 15 Panzer Division and the Reconnaissance Group, pivoting on 21 Panzer Division, swung steadily back until their front ran in a north-south line facing east. Behind an anti-tank gun line the three groups then continued to retire to the west. By midday Africa Corps
felt safe in ordering Littorio Division, then left on the extreme eastern end of the line of troops covering the northern flank, to thin out and eventually withdraw into reserve. The Italian motorised division, Trieste, holding the front west of Littorio, was then to conform with the withdrawal of the eastern flank by stepping back into the Muhafid – Munassib depressions and relieving 90 Light Division.
As had happened before, the Italians failed to act with German efficiency. In spite of attempts by 21 Panzer Division to coordinate the Italians’ withdrawal with its own, Littorio reacted with unexpected alacrity to its orders, prompted possibly by the fact that, in holding the north-eastern corner of the Panzer Army’s front, it was coming in for more than its share of British fire. The Italian tanks, in fact, withdrew so smartly that they triggered the next phase of the retreat, Trieste’s relief of 90 Light Division, well ahead of schedule, so that, when 21 Panzer Division’s patrols tried to find contact with the troops on their north, they found only empty desert.
By the evening of the 3rd, when Eighth Army was getting ready for its counter-attack, the Panzer Army’s retirement had progressed even further than its plans demanded. The Reconnaissance Group was falling back on Folgore Division’s positions around Himeimat, while 21 and 15 Panzer Divisions’ rearguards were on a north-south line running from the south-east corner of Muhafid. This depression itself was thinly occupied by patrols drawn from 21 Division’s reconnaissance and anti-tank companies, who were out of touch with any troops on their west. In the western end of the depression there were some guns of the army artillery, including some 88-mm, and scattered troops of 90 Light Division, all awaiting relief by Trieste Division. In the neck of desert between Muhafid and Munassib and in Munassib itself, Trieste had surprised 90 Light Division by its early arrival and the relief was under way, one battalion group of the Germans having already moved out before dusk.
Between the north-west of Munassib and Deir el Angar, the newly prepared defences were still held by detachments of German and Italian parachutists of Ramcke Brigade and Folgore Division. Two battalions of Brescia Division held Angar, with other units of this division linking the defences with the Qattara Box.
Two armoured regiments of 21 Panzer Division, with up to sixty tanks in going order, were laagering immediately to the south of Muhafid, with another sixty tanks of 15 Panzer Division
only a few miles further south. The battalion groups of 90 Light Division were forming up in Munassib on relief and travelling back to laager about two miles further west.
The main route used followed the track through Deir Alinda and, with supply vehicles for the panzer divisions and Trieste, the transport of 90 Light and the tanks of Littorio all converging on this route as soon as dusk offered cover from air attack, the minefield gaps along the way caused numerous traffic jams throughout the night.
Opinion in the Eighth Army on the evening of 3 September, according to the records of the time, ranged from the hyper-cautious, in which the enemy’s withdrawing was seen as a gathering of his forces prior to a further advance, to the extremely sanguine view that Rommel had had enough and was getting out while the going was good. Either to hinder the preparations for a renewal of his offensive or to hasten his going, a hearty blow struck at this time seemed indicated. Although the commander of 7 Armoured Division had made clear his inability to take effective action from the south, Montgomery decided to proceed with the attack from the north, through the New Zealand Box.
The development of the plans for this northern prong of the pincers is of interest. As soon as the probability of an enemy advance round the south of the box had been accepted, planning included numerous suggestions for cutting off the Axis spearhead or disorganising the lines of communication. For any such operation the New Zealand Box presented the most suitable base. The Panzer Army’s advance was less than twenty-four hours old before Horrocks had warned Freyberg that some limited operation might be expected of him to gain control or observation over the line of depressions that lay some three to four miles south of the box.
With no specific task or objective given him, Freyberg discussed the possibilities with his brigadiers. At that time there was a quite justifiable fear that the box might be attacked from the west, south, or south-east, so that neither of the New Zealand brigadiers was willing to carry out operations which might disorganise the carefully prepared defences. The most that came of the discussion was an offer from Kippenberger for the use of 22 Battalion as a mobile column, provided the British armour would guarantee the eastern face of the box.
Montgomery, however, saw the proposed operation as something more than limited action by a mobile column and had already developed his scheme for a pincers movement from north and south. Freyberg, on presenting his mobile column proposal to Horrocks, was accordingly told to consider instead a major advance by one of the two New Zealand brigades to tie in with operations by 7 Armoured Division.
This matter was discussed on 1 September, when the Panzer Army was so placed that it could have turned all its strength against the New Zealand Box with the rest of 13 Corps as spectators, and Freyberg objected strongly to the new proposal. He pointed out that, if one of the two New Zealand brigades moved into the open, it would mean abandoning the whole conception of the box as the southern bastion of the line, with its well-planned infantry defences, minefields, and artillery layout. Moreover, he had grave doubts of the effectiveness of any action by 7 Armoured Division’s columns, especially after their behaviour the previous day when they had abandoned the ground immediately to the south of the box well before the enemy approached.
Horrocks replied to the objections with a vague offer of armoured assistance to protect the eastern flank and a concrete offer of another infantry brigade placed under Freyberg’s command so that the three brigade sectors could still be maintained while one brigade advanced to the south. Though later developments show that there was some misunderstanding over the use of the extra brigade, the general principle was agreed, Freyberg leaving on record his opinion that the area between 5 Brigade and the depressions could be regained with little difficulty as the enemy had still not occupied it by more than light patrols, but that any further advances into and beyond the depressions would meet strong resistance.
Agreement set going the ‘general post’ of brigades between the Delta and the front as already recorded. Freyberg was told that an Indian brigade would join him late on 2 September and that the advance would commence that night with, as its objectives, the ground between either the first or second minefields on the west, the fourth field on the east and the 265 grid line as the southern limit initially. If the second minefield was chosen as the western boundary, the area gained would have to be extended to the first field as soon as possible to provide a wide base for another advance to occupy the depressions.
As the planning proceeded on its various levels, enemy tanks and infantry had been closing in on the south-eastern corner of the New Zealand position, thus cutting off access to the first objective except through the already crowded and congested box. This brought to light the misunderstanding mentioned earlier, for Freyberg had envisaged feeding the Indian brigade into the objective round the outside of the box, thus leaving his own defences undisturbed, while Horrocks thought he had made it clear that one of the New Zealand brigades was to carry out the advance. Though Kippenberger agreed that his brigade, from its position and knowledge of the ground ahead, was the logical choice, neither he nor Freyberg liked the thought of the disorganisation that would ensue, and the risk if the enemy should attack, when the Indian brigade was brought through the crowded box for a hurried relief to free 5 Brigade for the advance.
Freyberg then set his staff to prepare a plan for passing the Indians through 5 Brigade, the latter to prepare routes, open gaps in the minefields, and generally act as guide. But as soon as Horrocks passed the outline of this plan to Army Headquarters, he was told it would not do. The army’s intention was for the Indian brigade to be used to extend 5 Indian Division’s front southwards to release one New Zealand brigade. This agreement had been embodied, though not very plainly, in the original proposal passed on from the army by 13 Corps and should have been followed by both Horrocks and Freyberg from the start. However, early on the 2nd, the Division learnt from Corps that the operation was to be postponed for twenty-four hours, thus permitting less urgency in the preparation of the plans. The reason for the postponement is not clear but it seems to have been caused mainly by delays in the various movements designed to release 5 Indian Brigade to the New Zealand command.
Freyberg immediately called a conference at his headquarters to redesign the plans and, while this conference was in session, he received a message from Corps which made it quite clear that Horrocks wished the attack to be carried out by New Zealand troops; that is, that the Indian brigade should relieve 132 Brigade, and the latter should then relieve one of the New Zealand brigades. Freyberg, however, was still against such a double set of reliefs under the prevailing circumstances and, backed by his brigadiers, was also against an advance by a single brigade. As he himself pointed out at the time, there had not yet been an armoured battle other than a skirmish or two and the full weight of the Panzer Army’s armour could easily be loosed at the narrow salient that one
brigade might gain between 5 Brigade’s front and the depressions, and at a time when the double relief was placing the whole defence plan of the box at a disadvantage, especially in the artillery layout and communications. But for a two-brigade advance, Horrocks’ proposals could only be fulfilled by having 132 Brigade relieve 6 New Zealand Brigade, thus endangering the whole western front of the box in the event of an enemy attack from that quarter, an event which in most minds was still a possibility.
With these points in mind, the morning’s conference evolved a plan which, with some minor modifications, was eventually approved by Corps and Army. It started with the relief by 5 Indian Infantry Brigade not only of 132 Brigade but of 6 Brigade’s northern sector held by 26 Battalion. This battalion was then to extend 6 Brigade’s front to the south of Alam Nayil, at the same time providing cover for the flank of the main operation, in which 132 Brigade passed through 6 Brigade and occupied the ground to the edge of Deir Alinda, while 5 New Zealand Brigade advanced to a line which had its right flank on Munassib and passed through Muhafid to follow the fourth minefield back to the corner of the box. In this form Freyberg felt certain the operation could be carried out ‘with good results’, provided no warning either by too obvious firing or patrolling was given the enemy. The dangers inherent in the movements involved were still valid and he felt it essential to keep at least part of 6 Brigade in its defences while all other troops in the box were on the move. The Indian brigade, which had considerably fewer machine guns and anti-tank guns than the Corps Commander had led him to understand, was to take over a sector in which all its three battalions would be in the front line, while 5 Brigade after the conclusion of the advance would be fully extended in garrisoning the eastern flank and the southern extension. Accordingly, Freyberg asked for the cooperation and possible assistance of the British armour.
Horrocks, on receiving details of this plan, telephoned Divisional Headquarters to object to the use of 132 Brigade, on the grounds that Montgomery intended to bring forward the headquarters of 50 Division to take over the New Zealand Box with 132 and 151 Brigades under command as soon as the New Zealanders were ready to advance beyond the depressions in the second stage of the operation. The GSO I, Colonel Gentry, who answered the telephone in Freyberg’s absence, pointed out that, if 151 Brigade relieved 6 Brigade to allow the latter to take part in the second stage, some troops would still have to hold the ground won by 132 Brigade in the first stage, and this could best be done by having 132 Brigade face west as soon as 6 Brigade passed through to continue the
advance to the south. He also drew attention to recent comments that Dominion troops were receiving a disproportionate amount of publicity and suggested that valuable propaganda lay in the use of such English troops as the Kentish battalions of 132 Brigade. Finally, he pointed out the dangers from counter-attack invited by both stages of the operation and reiterated Freyberg’s request for a definite plan of cooperation by the British tanks on the eastern flank. Unable to offer any such plan because of Montgomery’s ruling that the armour should remain in its prepared positions save in extreme urgency, Horrocks then agreed to the New Zealand proposals.
This conversation took place in the late afternoon of 2 September and before nightfall Horrocks had learnt from Eighth Army that the headquarters of 50 Division would not be available, and that Freyberg would have to retain command not only of the New Zealand Box but also of all ground won in both stages of the advance. This permitted more freedom in the use of the available brigades and Horrocks sent the Division a signal agreeing to the plans for the first stage and, possibly influenced by Gentry’s talk of propaganda, suggesting the use of 151 Brigade for the second stage. Detailed planning then went ahead for the first stage but, for the second, Freyberg still felt that any plans were likely to be premature, at least while the German armour was still intact.
All the discussions and arrangements leading up to what was first called Operation WELLINGTON and later BERESFORD indicate that it was intended as a probe to test the enemy’s reactions. No plans were prepared in advance for the powerful force of the British armour to assist, either before or during the action, by containing the German panzer divisions or by warding off counterattacks. Nor were the armoured formations briefed to action should the infantry advance open the way to greater success. The New Zealand infantry, thrusting forward into the lifeline of an as yet undefeated enemy, was given two squadrons of Valentine tanks.
On the morning of the 3rd, the Corps Commander held a conference at the New Zealand headquarters attended by the commander of 5 Indian Division, Major-General H. R. Briggs, together with Freyberg, his CRA, Brigadier C. E. Weir, and Colonel Gentry. Some small details of the plan for the first stage were altered but the main topic of discussion was the extension of the Indian sector to follow the success of the first stage.
A divisional conference was held immediately afterwards when the plans emerged in their final form. On the right, 26 Battalion was to extend 6 Brigade’s western front for about two miles south from Alam Nayil along the first minefield. With its right flank thus covered by 26 Battalion, 132 Brigade was to advance with two battalions between the first and second fields and a third immediately east of the second field, with the edge of Deir Alinda and the western end of Munassib as the brigade objective.
Fifth Brigade was to send one battalion down the line of the third, or so-called ‘dummy’, minefield to occupy the neck of desert between Munassib and Muhafid, while another extended the eastern flank of the box down to Muhafid. The other two battalions of 5 Brigade were to be ready to reinforce or support the advance. The squadron of tanks already under New Zealand command, A Squadron of 46 Royal Tank Regiment, was to support 132 Brigade, and another squadron from 23 Armoured Brigade, B Squadron of 50 Royal Tank Regiment, was sent in late that afternoon to work with 5 Brigade. Each squadron mustered about fifteen Valentines.
To avoid letting the enemy be forewarned of the advance, no artillery barrage or concentration was to precede the infantry though the guns prepared tasks to cover the newly gained front.
The English brigade’s guns were still sited in the north of the box with tasks mainly to cover the western front, so 4 New Zealand Field Regiment was placed in support of 132 Brigade while 6 Field Regiment continued to support 5 Brigade.
As the Air Force had been bombing the depressions regularly since the beginning of the offensive, it was not expected that air activity would give the enemy any warning of the infantry operation but would rather draw attention away from it, so the Corps Commander arranged for air action in the early part of the night to be concentrated on the objective and the ground further south.
All this, however, did not complete the plans. It was known from observation and patrols that the main part of the advance would cover ground that had not yet been occupied in any strength by the enemy, but 26 Battalion’s new front would lie close to the east of Deir el Angar, where the enemy had been extremely busy digging defensive positions since the first night of the offensive. It was therefore thought necessary that some sort of diversionary activity against Angar would help 26 Battalion and plans were made for both 18 and 25 Battalions to raid the depression from the north.
To most of the New Zealand troops, seeing things in simple patterns and buoyed by the new spirit of decision in the army, Operation BERESFORD was the opening move of the awaited and logical counter-attack that had to be made against the Panzer Army. To Montgomery at the head of affairs the operation was a minor or limited manoeuvre to test Rommel’s reactions. Between these two extremes there was an area of confusion of thought which led to some extent to a confusion of aim.
Freyberg himself has left it on record that he was not keen on ‘probing further south’, that is, beyond the first objective into and beyond the depressions. The Corps Commander, on the other hand, having settled the conflicting proposals for the use of the various brigades and accepted Freyberg’s plan for the first stage, put considerable enthusiasm into planning further advances. Then there arose the problem that so bedevilled Inglis at Ruweisat and El Mreir – the use of the British armour. Montgomery, following his plan of caution, was not willing to commit the heavy armour, but Freyberg was unwilling to accept Horrocks’ plans unless they included the commitment of the tanks.
While the Africa Corps tanks remained in force to the east of the southern minefields, any major advance to the south of the New Zealand Box would have jeopardised the policy of maintaining fixed defences, unless the whole operation could have been carried out by reserve forces not only of infantry but of armour as well. Freyberg realised this, as his arguments on the planning make evident. Horrocks either did not appreciate the dangers or was willing to take the risk, for both the record of his comments and his planning indicate that he was looking forward to a major operation in which his corps would decisively rout the Panzer Army. In the varying attitudes, the first stage of Operation BERESFORD lost some of its relative importance and was accepted as a simple advance, likely to be only lightly opposed if at all, from which a major attack might, or might not, be launched. This explains much in the planning, including the employment of an untried brigade.
Fifth Brigade’s plans were drawn with care by Kippenberger on his experiences in the July battles. Although he had four battalions under command, he decided to use only two of them in the initial advance, giving 28 Battalion the task of occupying the ground between the Munassib and Muhafid depressions, while 21 Battalion extended the eastern flank of the box to link up with the Maoris. He intended to use his other two battalions according to how the
situation developed. One company of 22 Battalion was to help the engineers in clearing and laying mines and a company from 23 Battalion was to guard the start line. Only a narrow gap was to be cut in the wide defensive minefield through which all the assaulting troops and their transport were to pass. Immediately behind this gap a large dugout was prepared as a tactical headquarters with communications joined into the divisional network.
At dusk on the 3rd, sappers of 6 Field Company, assisted by men of B Company, 22 Battalion, were to start cutting the 12-foot lane in the wire and minefield on 28 Battalion’s front. Then A Company of 23 Battalion was to move through and cover the start line on the south of the gap against surprise by enemy patrols. Next, 21 Battalion was to pass through and line the eastern side of the objective, where little or no opposition was expected, and the Maoris were to follow and proceed due south to the edge of the two depressions. Meanwhile 22 Battalion was to leave its defences and bivouac close to the new tactical headquarters as immediate reserve, and all the various vehicles – the tanks of B Squadron, 50 Royal Tank Regiment, anti-tank guns, mortar and Bren carriers, engineers’ trucks with mines, and similar transport needed for the operation – were to form up in groups ready to be despatched through the gap like trains in a marshalling yard. In fact, most eventualities that could be foreseen from past experience were covered by 5 Brigade’s plans.
Brigadier Robertson of 132 Brigade had been visited by Freyberg during the day and, on the latter’s advice, discussed his plans with Kippenberger, who pointed out how experience had shown the value of a stationary headquarters with good communications, and with reserves and support vehicles within easy call. The English brigadier must have considered that the conditions under which his brigade had to operate did not allow for this method. His men had quite a long march from their bivouac area through 6 Brigade’s sector to the start line, and another march on to the objective. As everyone, including Freyberg, gave him to understand that he need expect little opposition until his troops reached the line of the depressions, he planned to keep his headquarters moving close behind his battalions until he reached a convenient and central point in the sector to be occupied. The long march also gave him grounds for rejecting Kippenberger’s advice that picks and shovels be carried by the infantrymen and not brought up in bulk on trucks.
He was, however, talked out of a proposal to have the supporting Valentines of A Squadron, 46 Royal Tank Regiment, lead the advance.
The final plan was for the brigade to travel in all available transport through 25 Battalion to a start line parallel to and about half a mile outside the defensive minefield on the south of Alam Nayil. Here the brigade was to move forward in battalion groups for about a mile to a ‘debussing point’ where the groups were to deploy for the remaining advance to the final objective, a distance of about a mile on the right and a mile and a half on the left. The orders gave 5 Royal West Kents the right flank, with a front of 500 yards, and 4 Royal West Kents, reinforced by B Company of 2 Buffs, the left with a slightly wider front. The other three companies of 2 Buffs were to advance down the eastern side of the ‘second minefield’, conforming to the movements of the main part of the brigade. The Buffs were to have one troop of the Valentines in support, the remainder of the tanks following 4 Royal West Kents. It seems probable that the brigadier intended to halt his headquarters at or near the debussing point, where it would have been practically in the centre of the new sector he expected to occupy.
The share that 6 Brigade took in the operation was larger than would appear in the orders. It had the task of preparing sufficient routes through its sector for the passage of 132 Brigade and 26 Battalion. This included clearing and taping gaps in the inner minefields surrounding 25 Battalion’s area, marking the routes with coloured lamps, clearing three gaps in the perimeter minefield, two between the first and second minefields and one east of the second, and surveying and marking the start lines. There were also the two diversions to be provided by 18 and 25 Battalions, as well as the major task entrusted to 26 Battalion of following the English brigade to form a front facing west along the inner side of the first minefield.
Many of the preparations had to be started in daylight in areas over which the enemy held observation of some degree. The start lines were laid out during the day and work started on the gaps in the inner minefields. The sappers in charge of the clearance had earlier stated that they would find it difficult to open the gaps in the outer minefields between the fall of darkness and 132 Brigade’s scheduled time of arrival, so some preparatory work was started on these gaps before the sun had set.
Operation BERESFORD, on the extreme south-western corner of Eighth Army’s front, took place on an arc over ten miles in length along the northern edges of the four depressions, Angar, Alinda, Munassib and Muhafid. As so often happened at this period, though the planning was generally sound, few of the arrangements developed according to plan.
The night was probably the noisiest experienced by the New Zealanders in the box. Dusk had hardly fallen before the glowing orange flares of the Air Force’s Albacores commenced to blossom over the depressions, followed by the thump of bombs. As if in retaliation, but in fact under arrangement between Rommel and Kesselring to help cover the night’s bound of the Panzer Army’s withdrawal, Axis aircraft flew over the Eighth Army in greater strength than previously. Although this effort spread past Ruweisat Ridge to the north and over the British armour to the east, the New Zealand Box came in for the major share of the bombing and most of the noise. From the ground it appeared as if the Luftwaffe was sending over a succession of lone bombers, each of which circled until its stock of bombs, mostly dropped singly rather than in sticks, was exhausted, when it would give way to its successor. Some of the bombers were equipped with ‘Banshee wailers’ which screamed as they dived, and most of them interspersed their bombing with haphazard bursts of tracer.
Damage sustained in the box was negligible. Though some of the newcomers among the Division were affected by the Banshee screams, the haphazard bombing and the tracer fire, seasoned troops were hardly disturbed. The greatest nuisance value came from the canisters of butterfly bombs dropped in some profusion, those that fell on tracks or defence positions presenting a hazard until found and exploded. Fortunately many of these were duds and others exploded prematurely on impact. Of the Banshee bombers the Maori Battalion’s diary noted: ‘... Then they sent a plane which was fitted with a siren – it careered madly across our positions screaming in an eerie fashion, intended perhaps to panic our troops; it sounded bad but one gets used to it. ...’
Of the Luftwaffe’s effort the Panzer Army’s diary records:–
The Luftwaffe attacked the enemy concentrations at and east of Alam Nayil with good effect. It also made a night attack on 10 Indian Division which seemed to have considerable effect. It was believed to have smashed a large troop concentration intended for an attack southwards against Brescia Division. ...
But Africa Corps was less enthusiastic about Kesselring’s assistance with an entry, ‘From observation, the attacks did not seem comparable with the enemy’s night bomber raids’.
Possibly because of observation of unusual activity in the New Zealand Box, the enemy commenced to search the south-west perimeter of 6 Brigade’s sector at 6.20 p.m. with fire from field guns and mortars. This fell at first mainly on 25 Battalion’s C Company area, where it did not greatly hamper the preparations.
At 8.30 p.m. the Desert Air Force commenced ninety minutes of continuous bombing over the Munassib area. At this time the men of 21 and 28 Battalions were leaving their defences to assemble before passing through the 5 Brigade gap, and the leading troops of 132 Brigade were entering 25 Battalion’s sector. Shortly afterwards the first of the almost continuous stream of enemy aircraft which came over during the night dropped some bombs near Divisional Headquarters. By 9.30 p.m. 26 Battalion was also on the move and the Vickers gunners with 6 Brigade had started a programme of harassing fire on the Deir el Angar area to keep the enemy’s heads down. The field guns were also laid on the same area ready to fire should the enemy show signs of interfering with the forming up of the assaulting troops.
The infinite variations that the human element can play on the most carefully laid plans appeared early. Kippenberger, intending to visit his two assaulting battalions as they assembled in their sectors, was prevented from so doing when he and his staff had trouble in the darkness in locating the newly prepared tactical headquarters from which the battle was to be conducted. Meanwhile, 21 Battalion’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel R. W. Harding, led his men at the appointed time to the minefield gap only to find that the sappers of 6 Field Company had not quite completed clearing the mines. The infantry then went through, some by a patrol gap further to the east, and the battalion transport followed as soon as the main gap was cleared, but on assembling his men on the start line, Harding found himself a company short. This company, B Company, had been the last in the order of march and, failing to keep close to the troops ahead, had arrived late at the gap to see the men of 28 Battalion filing through. Rather than cause confusion, the company commander held his men back until the Maoris were clear before hurrying after the rest of his unit. In 28 Battalion’s lines, when the companies assembled for last-minute instructions, two platoons of one company from the defences close to the gap were missing. Hurried arrangements to make up the missing numbers from spare men of Headquarters
Company had to be as hastily undone when the two platoons were found on the start line, having made their way there direct to save a double journey.
However, by the appointed time, 10.30 p.m., 21 Battalion had set off, leaving guides to wait for B Company, while 28 Battalion had shaken itself out and was on its way to the south. As the final details of 132 Brigade’s plans had not been received, no method of contact had been arranged between the Maoris’ right flank and the Buffs on 132 Brigade’s left.
Similar troubles beset 132 Brigade but did not straighten themselves out so simply. As the troops reached 25 Battalion’s sector, each group was supposed to select its respective lighted route to one of the three main gaps. Inexperience in night travel under such conditions, the customary congestion at the gaps through the inner fields, as well as the sporadic fire and bombing brought considerable delay and confusion. The Buffs’ column was least affected and reached the gap east of the second minefield on time, to pass through and wait for word that the rest of the brigade was ready. The two West Kent battalions became considerably disorganised, with trucks on the wrong routes and often, in losing the way, becoming stuck in the soft sand or in the minefields. Several casualties to men and vehicles from the enemy fire or mines stretched the delays so that, at 10.30 p.m., when the battalion columns should have been lined up on the start line, there was a confused mass of men and trucks on both sides of the gaps, with officers and NCOs, both English and New Zealand, working hard to get order out of the chaos. The leading troops of 26 Battalion, coming up behind, found the centre gap, through which their vehicles were supposed to pass, completely blocked, and the commander then gave orders for the transport to try to follow the infantry through the right-hand gap.
Some order was being gained and the assaulting battalions of 132 Brigade were beginning to form up on the start line when the field and Vickers guns opened up in support of 18 and 25 Battalions’ diversionary raids, causing the enemy to retaliate with increased fire on the perimeter minefield. Fortunately the start line was out of the main area of fire. The brigade hastily completed its deployment and, almost an hour behind the scheduled time, set off away from the enemy fire into the open desert to the south. The Valentine tanks, with which all contact had been lost for some time, eventually found their way through the centre gap and followed on behind the brigade. Two squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry, whose task was to follow the brigade with a possible exploitation role into Deir Alinda, were
held up so long that the regiment’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Nicoll1 decided to send only one troop forward with instructions to report back to him.
The increase in enemy fire caught many men and vehicles of the rear elements of 132 Brigade still on both sides of the minefield. The confusion was not helped by several drivers who left their vehicles or tried to drive back into the box. The infantry of 26 Battalion, marching in file close to the tape on one side of the western gap so as not to interfere with the passage of vehicles, got through with only minor casualties until a salvo of mortar bombs landed among the battalion headquarters group bringing up the rear. The commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Peart,2 was mortally wounded, three men were killed and several wounded. The adjutant, Lieutenant Barnett,3 then took charge and, with the assistance of Second-Lieutenant Buchanan,4 who stayed in the gap under fire to direct the traffic, managed to get the battalion transport column in order and on its way to the start line.
Meanwhile the companies had reached the start line to find the area still occupied by confused groups of the tail of 132 Brigade. As these groups moved on, the battalion followed, keeping to the right of 132 Brigade’s route, and only a half hour behind its planned starting time. The transport column, led by the adjutant, brought up the rear, to halt about a mile south of the gap where a temporary headquarters was established.
The two diversionary raids had been timed to meet the enemy at 11.30 p.m., that is, one hour after 132 Brigade should have passed over its start line and half an hour after 26 Battalion’s start. Any postponement, with all its alterations in timing for the supporting fire, would have been difficult and, in the event, with the uncertainty over the possible length of the delay of the main advance, virtually impossible. The raids, therefore, were set going on the original plan, and though the enemy’s retaliation did not help the confusion in which 132 Brigade had already fallen, the intention behind the diversionary action was probably achieved. The defences prepared in the Deir el Angar area by the Panzer Army
since the commencement of the offensive had been gradually extended to a point within a mile of the south-west corner of the New Zealand Box. Enemy action from this point, either by fire or raids, could have seriously interfered with the forming-up of 132 Brigade and 26 Battalion on their start lines. To divert the enemy’s attention, therefore, it was planned that B Company of 25 Battalion from reserve should pass out through a patrol gap in C Company’s sector and advance on Angar on a north-south course, while a strong force from B and C Companies of 18 Battalion from their defences to the north should move down a parallel course about 1000 yards further west. Timings were arranged so that both parties should reach the northern edge of Angar at 11.30 p.m. at the end of a ten-minute concentration by field and Vickers guns. The supporting fire was then to lift into the depression to allow the raiding parties to assault the posts on the northern lip.
The 18 Battalion force started on time but B Company, 25 Battalion, was held up at the patrol gap for some minutes to allow the enemy’s searching fire along the perimeter to move on. Owing to this delay, this company, under the command of Captain Weston, was still some 300 yards to the north of the depression when the supporting fire lifted. Further advance was met by such a volume of fire from all types of weapons that Captain Weston, deeming the necessary element of surprise lost, ordered an immediate withdrawal. Through a curtain of mortar bombs falling across their line of retreat, the men reached the box with four wounded and twenty-eight missing. Several of the missing turned up later but about twelve, including several wounded, were taken prisoner.
The 18 Battalion force reached the edge of the depression just as the supporting fire lifted to find itself between two defensive positions. Charging the posts nearest to them, the men broke into small groups and for some time a mêlée of hand-to-hand fighting developed. When the three officers of C Company became casualties the company sergeant-major, WO II Fletcher,5 set off to regain control and in the process led attacks against several positions. Within half an hour all opposition in the vicinity had been overcome, and through the company’s wireless, which had unexpectedly remained throughout in working order, the force received the battalion commander’s order to withdraw. Sergeant-Major Fletcher again distinguished himself in organising the withdrawal, in which he was helped by some heroic work by medical orderlies and stretcher-bearers, to the end that all the
wounded and a number of prisoners were successfully brought through the fire that the enemy still maintained along the minefield. The raid cost about forty casualties, of whom eight were killed, including two officers, against an estimated loss to the enemy of 250 killed or wounded and 52 of ‘Benito’s worthies’ belonging to Brescia Division brought back as prisoners. From A Company’s action on the opening night of Rommel’s offensive and this engagement, it was plain that 18 Battalion had mastered the art of night raiding. Together the two actions, according to acceptable estimates, brought the enemy a loss of nearly 400 men, of whom over eighty were prisoners, against a loss to the battalion of fewer than fifty.
As the two diversionary raids were taking place, the initial stages of the main advance continued unchecked. Away on the left flank, C Company of 21 Battalion had already, by 11.30 p.m., reached the area of its objective without finding any enemy and the other companies of the battalion were close behind.
The Maoris, unaware that 2 Buffs on their right had started late, marched steadily southwards towards the bomb flashes and soaring tracer where the Desert Air Force was operating over the depressions, the only sign that enemy were nearer coming from occasional bursts of machine-gun tracer away on the right flank. The order of march of 28 Battalion was uncommon. The men of C Company were in the van, spread out over a front of about 1000 yards with orders to break through any isolated outposts encountered, but to go to ground when the main defence line was met. The other two companies, D on the right and A on the left, with battalion headquarters in the middle, followed in closer order with the role of assaulting as soon as the enemy disclosed his positions on the appearance of the C Company screen.
A few minutes before midnight C Company encountered the first opposition, a group of three machine-gun posts whose fire was quickly subdued, the men of the company then passing on. It so happened that battalion headquarters followed through this area and, coming under rifle fire, made a search which brought in several of the enemy missed by the screen ahead. From this point on the speed of advance slowed as the battalion found itself crossing a stretch of desert dotted with newly constructed but unoccupied weapon pits and sangars, all of which had to be examined. This search caused C Company to lose any of the cohesion that it might still have maintained, so that it was no longer the evenly spaced advance guard of the commander’s plan.
As the men probed forward, they ran into some occupied posts and, as soon as these opened fire, the whole enemy front came to life. Lieutenant-Colonel Baker, well forward in the centre of his men, then blew the prearranged blasts on his whistle to indicate that C Company was to go to ground while D and A Companies passed through to the assault. But in the crackle of rifle and machine-gun fire and the crump of mortar bombs it is doubtful if more than a few men heard these signals. In any event the men needed no urging, for D and A Companies surged forward in a charge that took them right among the enemy.
By this time C Company had ceased to exist as a formed body. Some of the men may have obeyed orders to go to ground and engage the enemy by fire, but few could have resisted joining in as the other two companies charged by. The company commander himself, Captain Keiha,6 had been trying to establish contact with his men on the left flank when the firing commenced, and found himself faced by a number of posts containing anti-tank guns and automatics around the western end of the Muhafid Depression. Personally joining in with the men around him in attacks on these posts until all immediate opposition had been silenced, the company commander called a halt for reorganisation, only to discover that the troops he was leading comprised his company sergeant-major, his batman, two stretcher-bearers, two of his own riflemen and two stragglers from A Company.
About this time there occurred one of those unfortunate actions that are probably the basis for the complaints noted in German reports that the New Zealanders did not ‘fight fair’. Keiha’s small group had been almost overwhelmed by enemy troops who wanted to surrender, and had had some trouble discriminating between those leaving their trenches with the intention of offering themselves as prisoners and those merely moving to better cover to continue the fight. In the heat of the battle a party of prisoners collected by one man was fired on by the others, several being killed or wounded. Eventually the surviving prisoners were sent back in charge of two of the riflemen, but the escort lost direction and ended up in the enemy lines.
In a quick search around, in which he gathered up another ten men, mostly of his own company and some wounded, Keiha discovered that he was close to the lip of the depression, on the floor of which vehicles were on the move. Thinking they might be from 21 Battalion, he led his small party down the slope towards the nearest trucks only to be met by fire from automatics.
An immediate bayonet charge disposed of this opposition and, though some of the trucks managed to drive off, several were caught and immobilised. While this action was taking place, Keiha’s party was joined by a lieutenant and six men from A Company.7 These new arrivals had no idea where the rest of the battalion was, so Keiha decided the best thing he could do would be to turn back to the north to find either 21 Battalion’s right flank or his own battalion’s support column. After picking up several stragglers, mostly wounded, the party heard the noise of tracked vehicles, identified after a cautious reconnaissance as the 28 Battalion’s carriers which had been following some way behind the infantry with the role of exploiting into the depressions. Two of the carriers were loaded with the wounded and, with Keiha accompanying them, returned to brigade tactical headquarters. As no definite information had as yet come from Baker, Kippenberger sent Keiha back to gather up all the stragglers he could find and set up a defensive position in touch with 21 Battalion’s right flank. This he did, with a force consisting eventually of over thirty men, in the area of Point 100. About dawn he was able to make contact with his own battalion headquarters.
On the initial impact with the main enemy line, D Company’s commander, Captain Awatere,8 having earlier lost contact with the screen of C Company’s men ahead, presumed they had gone to ground as planned and immediately gave his men the order to assault. The two leading platoons separated against posts ahead, No. 16 Platoon on the left losing touch with the rest of the company for some hours. The remainder of the company battled its way through the enemy’s defences and set to work to roll up the line, thus working farther and farther to the west until the company must have been fighting on the objective originally allocated to 2 Buffs. It was a fight in which sections and platoons worked in coordination with outflanking movements and frontal attacks, and the Maoris’ natural aptitude for such battle was allowed full play.
Eventually, with several men killed and most of the survivors wounded in greater or lesser degree, the impetus of the advance slackened. The enemy then rallied and brought up mortars which, from behind a ridge, laid down a heavy barrage. Awatere, realising that his men’s enthusiasm had carried the company too
far to the right, pulled them back and, setting up a temporary headquarters, had the wounded gathered in while runners were sent to find Lieutenant-Colonel Baker. The walking wounded set off to the north, to encounter a carrier patrol from 2 Buffs. After some erratic navigation which took them almost back into the enemy’s lines, the carriers delivered the wounded safely at Brigade Headquarters.
With about thirty-two fit men left, Awatere followed after his runner, eventually finding Baker in process of setting up his headquarters close to the point where the track from the north entered the Munassib Depression. Enemy posts on this track had earlier been dealt with by 16 Platoon which, on its separation from the rest of D Company, had followed the track down into the depression, overcoming on the way two machine-gun posts and an 88-mm gun manned by Germans. Turning west along the floor of the depression in the hope of rejoining the rest of the company, the platoon caught up with a number of enemy trucks whose drivers, alarmed by the firing on the escarpment above them, were on the point of driving off. Bayonet charges by the platoon accounted for those of the drivers who stayed to fight and nearly twenty trucks were put out of commission. After some further skirmishing, the platoon made contact with A Company, which was holding a small knoll on the floor of the depression.
This company, under Captain W (‘Ben’) Porter, had been within sound of Baker’s whistle when the first opposition was met. It had immediately charged through the middle of an Italian defence position, collecting fifteen prisoners on the way, and had then been called to a halt by Porter as he estimated he was on his objective, the neck of ground between Muhafid and Munassib. However, Baker appeared in the rear and, disagreeing with this estimate, ordered the company to continue and join up with D Company. As it advanced, it came under fire from two armoured cars which were assailed by the men who, jumping on the outside of the vehicles, fired through the slits in the armour and managed to put both cars out of action. Heavy firing to the right indicated where D Company was engaged, so Porter led his men west along the slope of the escarpment. Three 88-mm guns with covering machine-gun posts were encountered and dealt with, one of the gun positions being attacked single-handed by Sergeant Davis.9 In the hope of salvaging these guns, the Maoris did not
stop to demolish them; but of the four captured, three by A Company and one by D Company, only one was salvaged, one was used later by the Maoris and then destroyed, and the other two were recovered, damaged but repairable, by the Germans.
Following up the retreating enemy, the men of A Company swarmed down over the floor of the depression, attacking all who tried to oppose them and destroying numerous trucks with grenades or Bren fire. During the course of its advance so far, the company had had remarkably few casualties, but numerous men had lost contact with the headquarters in the darkness. Among these was Second-Lieutenant Marsden10 and some of his platoon, who eventually joined forces with Keiha on the left flank. Others straggled back to join D Company or battalion headquarters and a few wandered into the enemy’s lines, but Porter eventually rallied about two platoons and established a position on a small knoll that rose from the floor of the depression some distance out from the northern escarpment. Here, using improvised flares, the men found constant activity in firing on troops and vehicles that passed unsuspectingly close to the knoll. About 2 a.m. the company was reinforced by the lost platoon of D Company.
Porter had already sent runners to follow the escarpment back to battalion headquarters and report his position. About half an hour after the D Company platoon arrived, the runners reappeared guiding the rest of D Company, which had been sent by Baker to link up and form a defensive position ready for daylight. Both Porter and Awatere, however, agreed that the knoll was well to the west of the battalion’s proper objective, so they decided to move back at once to the east so that their men could dig in before the day broke. On the way they gathered in several stragglers and added a few more wandering Italians to their bag of prisoners. After a conference with Baker, they set out their company positions across the track at the point where it ran down into the Munassib Depression. In soft sand on a forward slope that overlooked the depression, the men set to with a will to dig in before daylight should expose them to enemy fire.
As the Maoris were playing havoc with the enemy in Munassib, 21 Battalion had marched on to its objective along the inner side of the fourth minefield with very little incident. Defence positions had quickly been laid out, the men commenced to dig in, and
support weapons had been called up. Only one platoon of the battalion saw action. Set on the extreme right under orders to maintain contact with 28 Battalion, 18 Platoon of D Company, under Second-Lieutenant P. Robertson,11 encountered some isolated enemy posts. Joined by a group of Maoris, the platoon fought through this opposition until it reached the edge of the Muhafid Depression. Halting there to take stock of his situation, Robertson was disconcerted to find that the men of 28 Battalion with him had completely lost contact with their own battalion. Casting back east along the top of the escarpment, he had to overcome further opposition before joining up with his own D Company, to whom he delivered his bag of some fifteen mixed German and Italian prisoners. As his men were digging positions on the east of Point 100, he was joined by Keiha, with the remains of C Company of 28 Battalion, who extended the line to the west of the point.
The carrier force moving up behind 28 Battalion and met by Keiha had been despatched by Kippenberger at 1.25 a.m. on a request over the wireless from Baker, one of the half-dozen occasions during the night when the wireless between the battalion and brigade worked properly. The force consisted of all 28 Battalion’s carriers and two sections from 21 Battalion, a total of some eighteen vehicles, under the command of Second-Lieutenant Hayward.12 The carriers’ first task was to deal with a 20-mm gun, somehow missed in the advance and now firing on an ambulance which the Maoris’ medical officer, Captain Cumming,13 was taking forward in order to set up an aid post close behind the objective. With the gun and its five-man crew silenced, Hayward led his carriers forward until they were stopped by a minefield from which machine guns opened fire on them. Five posts altogether were dealt with, but in the necessary manoeuvring Hayward found his force too unwieldy for easy control in the darkness and accordingly sent the six carriers of 21 Battalion back.
A route having meanwhile been found that avoided the mines, the remaining carriers drove on until they were halted by Keiha and his men. Two of the vehicles were then left to take the wounded back while Hayward led the rest down into Munassib.
In the depression some nine enemy trucks were shot up but no sign of the battalion could be found. Hayward eventually decided to retrace his route with the idea of getting in touch with 21 Battalion’s right flank and starting his search again. On the way back he met the column of Valentines of B Squadron, 50 Royal Tank Regiment, leading the support weapons and transport of his battalion.
This column had been sent off about an hour behind the carriers after Kippenberger had received a wireless request from 28 Battalion for its minelaying detachment of sappers, from which request he deduced that the battalion must be on its objective. Shortly after this two officers from the battalion had arrived at tactical brigade headquarters with the news that the troops had reached Munassib but were out of touch with any units on their flanks.
The column, which kept good contact with Brigade Headquarters through the powerful wireless sets in the tanks, was led by Captain Bennett,14 28 Battalion’s liaison officer at brigade, who travelled in a jeep beside the tank of the squadron commander, Major J. Hughes. Behind them came the dozen Valentines of the squadron, followed by two sections of 22 Battalion’s Bren carriers and a long tail of vehicles, including anti-tank portées, trucks with the battalion’s mortars, reserve ammunition and rations, as well as the mine trucks of the 6 Field Company detachment, who were to mine the new front, and the sappers’ escort, B Company of 22 Battalion.
Captain Bennett at first followed the shaded lights already set out by the provosts along the brigade axis, which ran due south from the minefield gap. For a reason never explained, the lights which should have continued for about two miles were not visible much beyond half that distance, but Bennett continued to lead by compass after the last light had been passed. At one time aircraft dropped flares over the column, causing many of the soft-skinned vehicles to scatter. No bombs were dropped on the column itself but it took some time to get the vehicles reassembled in order.
Just before 4 a.m. both Bennett and Hughes became worried because they had not yet found any signs of 28 Battalion, so they halted the column and called up Brigade Headquarters on the wireless. Their call coincided with one of the rare moments when 28 Battalion’s wireless worked successfully and Baker himself came on the air. In a conversation, relayed between the two wireless links and much of it in Maori, Baker offered to fire two white
Very lights, the only colour he had, on which Bennett could take a bearing. With all eyes turned to the south where the enemy’s customary pyrotechnic display of flares of all colours was in full spate, two white flares soared up off to the south-west. Though they were well away from the direction expected, this could be explained if the tank column had deviated to its left while the Maoris, according to the information received from Brigade Headquarters, had been drawn to their right. When no similar pair of white flares appeared elsewhere, Bennett prepared to lead the column forward on the new bearing. Just then, Hayward’s carriers appeared and were formed up with 22 Battalion’s carriers between the tanks and the soft-skinned vehicles.
A short distance had been travelled when one of the leading tanks ran over a mine. Hardly had the others halted when heavy fire from anti-tank and machine guns swept over the column. The trucks in the rear immediately dispersed into the sheltering darkness, but the carriers, and Bennett in his jeep, sheltered behind the line of tanks.
The role of the Valentines, in the brigade plan, had been to support the infantry at first light and to do any exploiting that might be feasible, but Major Hughes must have felt that his main task was to reach the infantry. Whatever his thoughts, he engaged the enemy until several of his tanks had been put out of action either by mines or by enemy fire. He then led the remainder off to the south as if to outflank the enemy position, but in doing so took them into that part of the fourth minefield that lay in and around the Muhafid Depression, where some more of the Valentines fell victim to mines.
Meanwhile, Hayward and Bennett, with no communication with the tanks and uncertain what action Hughes contemplated, directed the carrier force to follow the tanks and help if possible while they turned back to round up the transport convoy. With the vehicles re-formed in some sort of order, Bennett was preparing to lead them on a roundabout route to avoid the enemy position when some of the carriers returned to report that there were mines and more enemy on this route. He therefore turned the column about and dispersed it some distance to the rear.
Of the tanks’ first engagement, Captain Bennett later recorded:–
I cannot speak too highly of the courage of Major Hughes and the men of his tanks. ... It was night time and there was very little they could see. ... Yet I saw Major Hughes’ tank gather up speed and charge straight into the unseen enemy positions with every tank doing likewise. The last I saw of them they were charging with all guns blazing.
This was in fact the last seen of most of the squadron. What exactly happened, as well as the location of the engagement, has been difficult to determine, but it is known from the German records that the squadron came up against 7 Troop of 25 AA Battalion, manning two 88-mm and several 20-mm anti-tank guns. This troop had somehow been missed in the advance, though the Maoris had overrun all the 88-mm guns of its companion troop, No. 8. The diary of 135 AA Regiment states:–
7 and 8 Troops were involved in heavy fighting after enemy troops broke into our lines. During the action all the 88-mm guns of 8 Troop were knocked out and their crews fell into enemy hands temporarily. 7 Troop came into action with all its guns and cleared the enemy off the battlefield before daybreak. At 0700 hours the enemy launched more infantry and tank attacks which were beaten off. Before 1000 hours eight enemy tanks were knocked out. ... Casualties (nearly all in 7 and 8 Troops) 28 killed, 26 wounded, 11 missing. ...15
Just before daybreak some of the Valentines were seen still in action down in the Muhafid Depression. Four of them finally limped back and these, together with two damaged early in the action and repaired, constituted 5 Brigade’s armoured defence for the following day. Twenty-two men of the squadron were killed, wounded, or missing, Major Hughes himself being among those killed. The gallantry displayed by the men handling these lightly armed Valentines – the two-pounders they carried were already considered obsolescent – and their willingness to ‘mix it’ with the enemy did much to restore the infantry’s faith in the British armour. Their courage, however, should not obscure the fact that their action served little purpose tactically. It pointed the complete lack of cooperation between the armour and other arms and the futility of tank operations without infantry support, for the small pocket of enemy barring the route to 28 Battalion could almost certainly have been overcome by concerted action; Bennett could have quickly called up some infantry – the company of 22 Battalion was only a little way back in the column – and they, with the carriers and tanks working in cooperation, could have dealt with a much stronger defence. As it was, once the tank commanders closed their turrets, Bennett and Hayward could do little to assist.
While the carriers formed a screen, Bennett re-formed what he could find of the transport column and, on orders from Brigade Headquarters, withdrew the column about a mile and dispersed it. Meanwhile the sapper party and B Company of 22 Battalion had broken out of the column with the intention of moving west and
then south to avoid the enemy pocket. However, on meeting some members of 28 Battalion who indicated that the battalion was isolated in Munassib, the infantry commander, Captain MacDuff,16 managed to get a message passed on to Brigade Headquarters through his battalion wireless link, to be told to send the sappers back but to take his company forward to 21 Battalion’s right flank and extend the line west from Point 100. As dawn was showing in the east, the company dug in beside Keiha’s group where some of the support weapons from the transport column had been deployed, including four two-pounders of 28 Battalion’s anti-tank platoon and three six-pounders of 32 Anti-Tank Battery. The Bren carriers extended the line to the west, one carrier patrol reconnoitring far enough west to discover the position of 2 Buffs.
At the same time as B Company was ordered forward, Kippenberger also sent 22 Battalion’s composite company, C/D Company, which had been waiting by tactical headquarters, off to continue the line along the Point 100 ridge.
At the time the Maoris met the enemy line, the main force of 132 Brigade, having run the gauntlet of the fire round the minefield gaps, was advancing unopposed southwards over the open desert. Anticipating that the enemy would not be met in any strength, at least until they reached the northern edge of Deir Alinda, the two Royal West Kent battalions were moving in compact groups with company trucks carrying picks, shovels, mines, and other impedimenta, well up with the infantry. Close behind the two battalions came the brigade headquarters column of thirty to forty vehicles.
The Maoris’ battle, some two or three miles off to the south-east, was hidden by the contours of the ground and its noise was overlaid by the Air Force bombing and enemy anti-aircraft fire along Alinda and Munassib. The going was good over a hard and stony patch of desert and, about half an hour after midnight, in a spirit of extreme confidence, the West Kents had just topped a slight crest and started down the slope beyond when heavy fire from all types of weapons crashed into their close-packed columns. Within moments several trucks were burning, one carrying ammunition or mines exploding in a brilliant blaze which lit up the lines of men and vehicles. Details of 132 Brigade’s actions similar to those
recorded of 28 Battalion are necessarily lacking, but there is evidence that some of the officers and NCOs attempted to rally the men around them to assault the enemy ahead. For many of the men, however, this was their first experience of battle at close quarters. On the bare, flat desert, brightly lit by the burning trucks, and without tools for digging in, they felt as exposed as in full daylight to the enemy gunners. Even those small groups held under some control began to disintegrate as drivers and infantrymen sought the protection of the darkness to the rear. Soon the brigade ceased to exist as a fighting force.
The headquarters column, brought to a sudden halt just behind the crest, found itself at first sheltered from the direct fire of machine-gun and anti-tank tracer. Possibly for the same reason, the brigade commander was not fully aware of what was happening over the crest for his first reports to Divisional Headquarters were couched in such terms as ‘having a party’, which did not indicate the seriousness of the situation. He soon found that, though the brigade wireless was undamaged, he could not raise either of the battalion headquarters on the air, and he accordingly set off in a Bren carrier to see the situation for himself. It is believed that he found the commander of 4 Royal West Kents and told him to hold his position or withdraw at his own discretion. On his way across the front to look for 5 Royal West Kents he was badly wounded and later evacuated.
A picture of the action emerges from an account given by Major Bevan17 of 4 New Zealand Field Regiment, detailed to act as liaison officer between the brigade and the field artillery. He estimated that the infantry were only a ‘few hundred yards’ ahead of the brigade column with which he travelled when the enemy fire commenced.
We were under intense m.g. and s.a. fire and the tracer was coming through them and over our heads. ... We stayed on the ridge all night being mortared and shelled all the time. Every time another truck went up in flames, we moved just far enough to get out of the worst of the light. This was fairly frequently and there were not many trucks left by morning. The situation in front was very obscure. Brigade had no communication with any of its three battalions, no phone, no wireless, no runners, until after dawn. The Brigade wireless trucks were not hit and they must have been in touch with N.Z. Div. all the time. I was in touch with my battery and regiment throughout.
After the brigadier was wounded, the brigade major, believed to have been Major R. J. Murphy of the Buffs, took command, and of him Bevan wrote:–
It was bad luck for him that his first action should have been such a mess. He was willing to take any advice except that he would not move off that ridge. I wanted him to move back a few hundred yards on to the back slope where his vehicles – and mine – would be safer from observation and gun fire, but he would only say ‘I won’t retreat’. A few infantry straggled back during the night with wild tales that the battalions were wiped out and it seemed pretty certain they were in a bad way, or at least pinned down in the open, and I suggested artillery concentrations on the enemy positions as marked on the map and actually fired at least two Div. concentrations. I hope they helped. ...
During the night parachute flares were dropped. ... and we expected bombs but none came. ... The flares showed us up to the enemy gunners however. About half an hour before first light I at last convinced the brigade major that unless he moved off the ridge he would lose all his vehicles at dawn and that he was useless without his wireless trucks. He agreed to move ... and asked me to lead. ... I got them lined up and led them to a position about 400 yards from the minefield gap and dispersed as it got light. I had wirelessed for ambulances and they were there to pick up our wounded. ... There we were with a brigade headquarters and no brigade. ...
Part of the brigade major’s reluctance to move his headquarters may have stemmed from a belief that some of his brigade, though out of touch, was still in action. The enemy’s defensive fire abated considerably after the first outburst but never quite ceased for some hours, while at times some real or imagined alarm would set the whole Axis front to sudden outbursts of fixed-line machine-gun fire and mortaring. The enemy records do not indicate that the defences here were broken into or that casualties were suffered to any extent, but they claim 200 prisoners for this night, of whom about 150 must have been men of 132 Brigade. Such a number cannot be accounted for merely by stragglers who, inexperienced in desert movement at night, wandered into the enemy lines, and it seems probable therefore that more than one group of the brigade broke through the enemy outposts to be surrounded further back.
About 3.30 a.m. Divisional Headquarters received a message emanating from either Bevan or the brigade major with the news that 2 Buffs, beyond the second minefield, were believed to be on their objective but that the other two battalions were disorganised, their positions confused and insecure. A quarter of an hour later, the brigade’s intelligence officer, who had led the brigade’s advance ‘in a jeep with a red lamp fixed to a pole and shining backwards’,18 appeared at 26 Battalion’s headquarters and from there rang Division to give what he knew of the story, and to report that he had 100 to 150 men of 4 Royal West Kents who had no ammunition, few weapons, no transport, and were in a bad way generally.
General Freyberg was obviously unwilling to accept at their face value the scanty reports he received of 132 Brigade’s disintegration. At 4.15 a.m. he issued an order for the brigade to reorganise on the line he understood it to be holding, the line in fact that it had reached when it came under fire, and for 26 Battalion to extend its southern flank to meet the brigade’s right. It is certain that this message did not reach the brigade headquarters before it was taken back near the minefield gap, and by that time the general situation was less obscure so that a more realistic defence line could be planned.
The column of 2 Buffs, less its B Company, had conformed to the start of the rest of the brigade but, isolated by the second minefield and with only erratic wireless communication, knew little of events on other fronts. When the heavy enemy fire broke out on the main front, the battalion commander halted his men while he tried unsuccessfully to find what was happening on his flanks. On resuming the advance, the column came under some fixed-line defensive fire from the right flank and, when still about 1000 yards short of the objective, some scattered fire from ahead. With a battle apparently raging to his right rear, the commander called another halt. Patrols into the minefield on the right met only enemy fire, while a carrier patrol into the open desert on the left helped a group of wounded Maoris to the rear but returned with little useful information. Increasing light disclosed the leading troops on a forward slope from which, coming under enemy fire, they withdrew on to the main body of the battalion. Just after dawn, Captain McPhail,19 the intelligence officer of 5 Brigade, arrived with an order that the battalion should come under Kippenberger’s command.
The subsidiary operation by 26 Battalion to protect 132 Brigade’s western flank went off smoothly at first. Two of the companies, A and B Companies detailed to establish the northern and central sectors of the battalion front along the first minefield, reached their positions without meeting opposition and quickly started to prepare defences. Enemy posts to the west, where 18 and 25 Battalions’ raids had just finished, were jittery and sweeping the
ground with bursts of fire, but this did not greatly interfere with the two 26 Battalion companies. Contact was soon established with the headquarters that Lieutenant Barnett was setting up a short way to the east of the junction of the two sectors. However, contact with the third company, C Company, which was to hold the southern sector and provide a link with 132 Brigade’s front, could not be made.
As 26 Battalion was settling in, stragglers from 132 Brigade commenced to drift into the area in ever increasing numbers, causing considerable concern to the depleted staff at battalion headquarters, who had already spent much time earlier helping to sort out the brigade’s transport confusion. Patrols scouting to the south, both to find C Company and obtain first-hand information of 132 Brigade, returned to say that no organised bodies of men could be found between the battalion and enemy defences to the south, though the commander of 4 Royal West Kents was met by one patrol as he was trying to round up some of his battalion. After the brigade’s intelligence officer arrived at 26 Battalion’s headquarters and had given his story to Divisional Headquarters, a message came from General Freyberg to tell 26 Battalion to take command of any 132 Brigade stragglers in the battalion sector. With the arrival of Major Walden20 of B Company, who left his company under his second-in-command, to assume command of the battalion, Lieutenant Barnett found time to help some of the English officers and NCOs gather together a party of about fifty men who had retained their equipment and whose morale still seemed sound. This group was sent off to the south to link up with C Company but apparently ran into enemy positions and scattered.
News had come in that the supporting weapons, including some New Zealand anti-tank guns, which were to follow 132 Brigade’s column, had run into mines or been otherwise delayed. Major Walden then decided that he would have to provide the protection for his own southern front, so called up all the anti-tank guns, 3-inch mortars and Bren carriers that could be spared, to form a screen across the south of A Company’s sector as far as possible towards the second minefield. The carriers, patrolling to the east, found the headquarters of 132 Brigade, so that direct contact was at last established between the brigade and 26 Battalion. Some of the Valentines of A Squadron, 46 Royal Tank Regiment, were also found, as well as other parties of troops of various arms, all of whom were brought into the defensive screen.
The ground over which 132 Brigade had advanced remained under shell, mortar, and machine-gun fire of varying intensity, with aircraft circling overhead to drop flares and a few bombs, until about 4 a.m., when the enemy’s activity began to die down. By dawn of 4 September the whole front was relatively quiet.
Just prior to dawn, Brigadier Clifton set off from the box to visit 26 Battalion and from there was directed on to 132 Brigade headquarters. Returning to give 26 Battalion instructions for providing extra cover for the southern front, he took Major Walden in his jeep to reconnoitre the front, and particularly to find C Company. Seeing some khaki-clad troops above ground off to the south, Clifton told his driver to make for them, only to discover the troops were Italian parachutists of Folgore Division. The two officers, the driver, and the wireless operator were all taken prisoner and with them the enemy collected a number of documents and marked maps. The latter’s value was lessened by the action of the driver who, when he realised capture was imminent, did his best to obliterate the chinagraph markings on the talc overlay of the brigadier’s situation map. The operator, attempting a last-minute call, had his set smashed by a rifle butt. The only witness to this capture on the New Zealand side was an artillery observation officer, who saw the jeep surrounded by troops but did not realise who the occupants were. Clifton was renowned for his mobility so that it was some time before the staff at 6 Brigade Headquarters became concerned over his absence.21
Apart from the story of C Company, 26 Battalion, to be told later, the actions during the hours of darkness of all the main parts of Operation BERESFORD have now been described. At dawn, most of the stragglers of the 18 and 25 Battalions’ raiding parties who had not been taken prisoner were back, the wounded seen to, prisoners sent back to Divisional Headquarters, and the two battalions were firmly settled in their box defences. B Company of 26 Battalion carried the new defence line south from Alam Nayil along the eastern edge of the first minefield, with A Company stretching further south, each company holding a front of some one thousand yards. The men were dug in, with anti-tank guns and mortars in support and observation officers from both field and medium artillery in good vantage points. From the rear of A Company’s sector eastwards to the second minefield, a thin screen of carriers kept observation over the front while, behind them, a
few anti-tank guns and mortars were being dug in and efforts made to get tools, weapons, and ammunition to hastily reorganised groups of 132 Brigade’s men who were being disposed to protect the support weapons. Of the three troops of Valentines of A Squadron, 46 Royal Tank Regiment, more than half had fallen victim during the night to mines, enemy fire, or other causes. The survivors took up positions behind the carrier screen.
Some way further south and immediately east of the second minefield, with two of their attached Valentines in running order and with few casualties to either men or vehicles, 2 Buffs were halted, under some enemy fire, in what might be called attenuated march order. Uncertain whether he would be expected to stay or withdraw, the commander had not yet set his men to dig in. Captain McPhail, arriving just as dawn was breaking with orders for the battalion to come under 5 Brigade’s command, advised the commander to pull his leading troops back from the forward slope where they were under direct enemy observation and fire, to lay out defences on and behind the crest of the ridge, and to disperse his transport further back. McPhail recorded his impression that the battalion appeared to be ‘very green’, its inexperience not helped by lack of communication, and consequently instructions, from its brigade headquarters.
Shortly after McPhail joined 2 Buffs, a patrol of 22 Battalion’s carriers appeared and these, together with carriers from both 23 and 28 Battalions, began to patrol the gap more than a thousand yards wide along the ridge to the point where B Company of 22 Battalion was taking up a defensive line. As earlier recorded, this gap was narrowed when C/D Company of the battalion moved on to the right flank of B Company shortly after daylight.
From B Company’s positions, a fairly solid and well-supported front ran through Point 100, where Keiha’s collection of C Company, 28 Battalion, had dug in, northwards along the fourth minefield back to the box. This eastern front was held by D Company, 21 Battalion, on the right, C Company in the centre and B Company on the north.