Chapter 10: Enemy Counter-Attacks
Nearly two miles to the south of 22 Battalion’s line on the Point 100 ridge, the Maoris of D and A Companies watched the shadows lightening in the Munassib Depression, still in good heart from the undoubted success of their night attack, but slightly apprehensive of what daylight might bring. They had dug themselves weapon pits on a forward slope in soft sand, pits which could not be dug deeply as the sand easily caved in. The two company commanders, Awatere and Porter, were concerned over the failure of either the tanks, carriers, or other support to join them for their only weapons were rifles, Brens, tommy guns, and 2-inch mortars. Sergeant Davis had managed to re-site the 88-mm gun he had captured in the night and was prepared to operate it against enemy tanks. Numerous vehicles could be seen on the floor of the depression as the light increased, but it was difficult to sort out those which were ‘runners’ in enemy hands from those derelict or immobilised by the Maoris’ night activities or by Air Force bombing.
After he had fired the flares to direct the tanks, Lieutenant-Colonel Baker sent off a patrol to meet them and then returned to the battalion defences. Soon, however, he realised that dawn was not far off and the tanks had not yet put in an appearance, so decided to search for them himself. In his jeep he set off in a northerly direction and, in the fast increasing light, caught sight of two Valentines off to his right. As he turned towards them, the jeep ran over a mine, fortunately without injuring either himself or his driver. Continuing on foot, he found that the tanks had also been immobilised by mines, in the third, or so-called ‘dummy’, field, and from the crews he learnt something of the tanks’ action in the night. Baker next met Keiha, from whom he borrowed
transport to take him back to Brigade Headquarters. Here he found that Kippenberger had already decided, consequent on 132 Brigade’s failure to gain its planned objective, that the farthest forward he could hope to hold was along the low ridge running from Point 100 to the Buffs’ positions. Directing his brigade major, Major Fairbrother,1 to give the artillery the position of 28 Battalion as indicated by Baker on the map and arrange for a smoke screen to be laid in front of it, Kippenberger sent Baker off immediately to pull his two companies back under cover of the smoke through 22 Battalion’s line and re-form them in the rear.
Meanwhile the two Maori companies had been far from inactive. A small patrol sent to find 132 Brigade returned to report that contact had been made with 2 Buffs, who however were too far off for any effective liaison to be established. The riflemen had opened fire on any movement within range among the trucks in the depression, while Sergeant Davis got in some practice with his captured gun. The men at first were keen to make a sortie down into the depression, ostensibly to deal with numbers of enemy who were hiding among the vehicles, but as the light improved enemy fire soon kept them close to their shallow and insecure pits. A sudden break in the fire heralded the approach of a solitary soldier, laboriously making his way over the sand of the depression and waving a piece of white cloth. Earlier, during the night’s fighting, one party of the Maoris had been approached by a German officer who had arrogantly demanded surrender: a flare from a Very pistol had hurried him back to his own lines with his clothing singed. This time, the parlementaire with the white flag turned out to be a very weary private of the Buffs. He showed no inclination to return to captivity with any of the suggested answers to the demand he brought for capitulation.
After this incident, enemy fire increased and then a flight of Desert Air Force bombers scattered their load across the Maoris’ positions, fortunately without causing any severe casualties. After the dust of the bombing settled, the men could see light tanks or armoured cars forming up on the far side of the depression, with one of their number probing forward as if to reconnoitre the going. Captain Porter, sure that the customary German counter-attack was imminent, sent a runner to battalion headquarters asking if a smoke screen could be arranged under which the infantry might withdraw when the tanks approached. Before the runner returned, smoke
shells commenced to fall in and ahead of the two companies’ defences. The artillery had in fact laid on the screen so quickly that the shells were whistling overhead as Baker regained his headquarters. He got a message through to D Company, who began to withdraw at once, but the runner to A Company was unable to find Porter in the smoke. However, as the shelling coincided so exactly with his own request, Porter did not stop to worry how the smoke arrived so quickly but immediately started to gather up his men and lead them back. Passing through the line being formed by 22 Battalion, and picking up Keiha and his men, the battalion took up reserve positions in the box for the rest of the day.
The battalion’s casualties for this action were listed as 5 killed, 18 missing, and 54 wounded and safe. Of those missing, a few later reappeared but about half the number were made prisoner. Against this total of 77, the battalion claimed that it sent back over 100 prisoners and left 500 killed or severely wounded enemy on the field. The claim for prisoners was soundly based, for of the 108 that passed through Brigade Headquarters, all were sent in by 28 Battalion except for a few passed back by 21 Battalion, and in the capture of some of those Keiha’s men had a share. The second claim was accepted at the time as a reasonable estimate. It was possibly too high, but the enemy records offer insufficient detail to dispute it. Of the German troops involved, only 25 AA Battalion’s casualties have been found, a total of 70 for the two troops in action against the Maoris and the tanks. Other German prisoners were all from 90 Light Division and represented infantry, artillery, engineers and signals. Trieste Division, the biggest sufferer, reported to Africa Corps a list of 8 killed, 55 wounded and 40 missing, an absurd set of figures, for 89 prisoners from the division were checked through the headquarters of the New Zealand Division. It is certain that the Maoris overran many machine guns and other light weapons, either destroying them or bringing them back as booty, as well as capturing four 88-mm anti-tank/anti-aircraft dual purpose guns, of which two were recovered by the Germans. Estimates of the number of vehicles shot up ran between thirty and forty.
As the Maoris fell back, C/D Company of 22 Battalion was already digging in beside B Company, while A Company and battalion headquarters were on their way through the minefield gap to a reserve position behind the other two companies. Kippenberger, with Freyberg’s agreement, was going ahead with his plan to hold
21 Battalion’s positions and the ridge through Point 100, with 23 Battalion to cover the gap between 22 Battalion and the Buffs. The ridge itself, in reality no more than a break in levels where the flat ground south of the box tilted slightly down towards the depressions, was very exposed to enemy fire and, except for a small area around Point 100, did not give the desired observation over the depressions which the operation had been intended to secure. However, it gave the enemy a wide, bare slope with little natural cover over which to mount an attack and Kippenberger felt that, with about twenty two-pounder and six-pounder anti-tank guns already fully or partially dug in, the fire from the six surviving tanks, as well as a large volume of artillery fire on call, the position could be held against the expected counter-attack.
The day of 4 September began with a series of Stuka raids in which the engineers’ and anti-tank gunners’ lines in 5 Brigade’s sector were the main target. One raid arrived just as the cooks were serving breakfast, delaying the meal but causing little damage. Then a strong flight of Stukas dive-bombed the trenches vacated by 28 Battalion on the northern slope of Munassib. This was taken as the prelude to ground attack, and Kippenberger directed the leading troops of 23 Battalion to dig in quickly in the area they had reached, between 22 Battalion and the Buffs but slightly to the rear.
As the morning wore on, intercepted messages between enemy units as well as observers’ reports of tanks forming up in Munassib kept the southern front alert. Another flight of Stukas screamed over 23 Battalion, scattering bombs among the men digging in. All movement in the foremost positions, especially around Point 100, came under bursts of fire from guns and mortars. The counterattack, however, was slow in arriving, though intercepted enemy messages urging the local commanders to ‘counter-attack without fail’ made its eventual arrival certain. Every minute allowed the men of 22 and 23 Battalions to improve their defences and get more support weapons dug in. All signs, including observation of enemy preparations and intercepted messages, pointed to an attack on the sector held by 22 Battalion.
Further west, 2 Buffs’ area was under fire but the enemy to the south showed little signs of movement. Similarly, to the west of the second minefield, where strenuous efforts were being made to get the survivors of 132 Brigade organised into a continuous defensive line, there was nothing to indicate an imminent attack. Enemy fire here was occasionally heavy though much of it fell on the burnt-out trucks left behind by 132 Brigade, south of the new line. Sappers of 209 Field Company of the Royal Engineers, laying a minefield to cover the new positions, suffered heavily under fire from 88-mm guns using ‘bounce’ fuses and Major Bevan tried, unsuccessfully, to locate the guns responsible.
The enemy facing 26 Battalion on the west remained fairly quiet, at least for the first part of the morning. Several patrols from the battalion set off to locate C Company, but all met determined fire from posts across the south of A Company’s sector and were forced to return. The presence of these enemy posts, combined with the fact that no messages or runners came from C Company, made it appear probable that the company had been surrounded and captured. This assumption was strengthened when Clifton and Walden failed to return. When General Freyberg visited the sector and the brigadier had still not returned, the General called in Lieutenant-Colonel C. L. Pleasants,2 of 18 Battalion, to take command of 6 Brigade and arranged for the senior battalion commander to take over 132 Brigade. Lieutenant Barnett resumed responsibility at Headquarters 26 Battalion until relieved by Major Richards3 of A Company later in the day.
About 10 a.m. enemy fire on all the fronts increased in severity. Observers reported considerable infantry movement to the west of 26 Battalion and activity by both tanks and infantry in Munassib. The front-line infantry of 26 Battalion called for a sortie by tanks to shoot up the infantry, but as the Valentines of A Squadron, 46 Royal Tank Regiment, provided the key defence for 132 Brigade, this request was refused and the battalion had to be content with concentrations from 5 Field Regiment. Under this artillery fire the enemy infantry dispersed and went to ground. It seems possible that no attack was intended at this time, but that the enemy was merely reorganising the positions attacked during the night by 18 and 25 Battalions.
On 5 Brigade’s front, however, enemy activity continued to increase. Several tanks could be seen creeping out of Munassib from one hull-down position to another, with infantry dispersed around them. The line of advance led towards C/D Company’s positions on 22 Battalion’s right flank. Stukas appeared overhead but, except for some scattered bombs, left the front line unharmed when their attention was caught by the stream of vehicles using the minefield gap by Brigade Headquarters. Just before this
bombing, in which several vehicles were damaged and two men wounded, Kippenberger had driven through the gap to join 22 Battalion’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel J. T. Russell.
From a vantage point, the two officers watched the tanks advance to within 3000 yards of the defences. Kippenberger then returned to his headquarters, but no sooner had he arrived than Russell rang through, at 11.45 a.m., to say that the leading enemy infantry had advanced rapidly to within 500 yards of C/D Company’s foremost posts, with the tanks not far behind. The whole of the southern front was now under heavy shell, mortar, and machine-gun fire.
As the enemy attack drew closer, 22 Battalion’s 3-inch mortar detachment began to search the folds in the ground where the enemy infantry sheltered. Vickers gunners of 10 MG Platoon, which had earlier taken up a position near Point 100 with good observation of the ground to the south, came into action to thicken up the fire of 22 Battalion’s Brens and rifles, and some sections of D Company, 21 Battalion, with a view over the south, also joined in. Observation officers sent back targets for 6 Field Regiment, but the enemy was well dispersed and the artillery fire did not at first seem very effective.
When the turret of a tank appeared over a low ridge ahead, men of 22 Battalion holding a post slightly ahead of the main line began to leave their shallow trenches and run back, but prompt action by the battalion commander quickly had the men back in position.
By midday the whole of 5 Brigade’s southern front was alive with bursting shells and mortar bombs. The rising dust was pierced with a pattern of tracer from anti-tank and machine guns and only a strong breeze from the north saved the defence from being completely blinded at times in the haze of smoke and dust. The fire of the defenders held the enemy infantry off, but glimpses could be had of several tanks working close enough to charge and overrun the outlying posts.
Russell then called on Brigade Headquarters for more artillery support. Kippenberger, on his return from the battalion, had already asked the CRA to lay defensive fire across the path of the advance. He now repeated the request, with Russell’s plea for urgency. The CRA’s headquarters had nearly completed the necessary computations and orders, and replied that the desired support was ‘coming up’. At 12.45 p.m. it arrived. The CRA had chosen a strip of ground just west of Muhafid over which the
main body of the counter-attack force appeared to be passing. On this area, given the code-name of ARTHUR, he let loose a five-minute concentration from the forty-eight guns of two field regiments and several medium guns.
The full effect of this fire was not felt immediately. The spearhead of the attack had already closed with 15 Platoon of C/D Company on the left flank, where there was a slight gap between the two companies’ defences. The enemy troops, however, were unable to break in against the small-arms fire and, whenever they went to ground, the 3-inch mortar crews searched them out, working under the direction of Corporal McClurg4 who, from an exposed rise, continued to direct the fire until the mortar ammunition ran out. By this time the six surviving Valentines of B Squadron, 50 Royal Tanks, had moved close in behind B Company to add their two-pounders and machine guns to the volume of defensive fire.
As the infantry assault faltered, a number of tanks came forward. The six-pounders manned by 32 Anti-Tank Battery opened on them at long range, forcing most of them to take cover, but four, later identified as Italian M13s, kept going until almost into the defences. Here they came into view of 28 Battalion’s anti-tank platoon commanded by Captain Logan.5 Within minutes, the two-pounders had stopped all four tanks at ranges between 150 and 250 yards, forcing the crews to bale out. Subsequent shots set three of the tanks on fire.
The summary disposal of these tanks, and a repetition of the shoot ARTHUR to which 6 Field Regiment added its guns, appeared to break the back of the enemy’s attack. Shortly after 1 p.m. both tanks and infantry could be seen in withdrawal and the volume of enemy fire died away. Fire was maintained by the defenders for some time but targets were difficult to observe as the wind had risen to drive clouds of dust across the battlefield, so that visibility distance at times was less than a hundred yards. When the wind fell temporarily about half an hour later, observers reported much activity down by Munassib, possibly as the counter-attacking troops were being reorganised and wounded evacuated. After a shoot by 6 Field Regiment, all movement in the enemy lines ceased for some time.
About the time that the attack on 22 Battalion was at its peak, shell and mortar fire on 26 Battalion’s sector increased. Signal cables were continually being cut and, with wireless working only erratically, communications were badly disrupted until Corporal Gordon,6 of the Divisional Signals, who had already spent much of the night laying and repairing cables through the minefield gap under fire, then took over the task of keeping open the telephone lines to 26 Battalion’s headquarters.
Enemy infantry again appeared in numbers to the west of A and B Companies’ lines, small parties of them, as if reconnoitring the way for an assault, approaching close enough to be fired on by the infantry. After some rounds had been fired on them by 5 Field Regiment and the Vickers guns, the enemy troops went to ground and, in the early afternoon heat when the rising wind began to lift clouds of dust, the western front quietened down to spasmodic exchanges of fire.
Several attempts had been made by individuals and small patrols during the morning to scout for signs of C Company and Clifton’s jeep, but the enemy seemed to have complete coverage of the desert round the south-west of A Company’s sector. Hope had practically been given up when, shortly after noon, Lieutenant A. J. Fraser, one of C Company’s platoon commanders, arrived with one of his men to give the news that the company was surrounded but still holding out some way to the south-west. Three of the Bren carriers that could be spared from 132 Brigade’s front were then sent out with Fraser as guide to bring the company in under a smoke screen to be fired by 5 Field Regiment. By this time the dust-storm was so thick that navigation was almost impossible, so the carriers waited until the dust subsided, about 2 p.m., before starting off. Twenty minutes later the field guns, as well as the mediums of 64 Medium Regiment, RA, laid smoke and HE across the west of the area in which Fraser had indicated the company lay. Well short of the smoke, however, the carriers ran into fire, one being disabled. On the return of the other two carriers to the battalion area, a patrol on foot set off to find a way round the enemy positions but met fire at every turn.
As the dust-storm died down and the carriers set off, the western front had begun to come to life again. Both A and B Companies were in action against small parties of enemy infantry which were working their way forward, while behind them a large force of men was assembling. A divisional artillery shoot had been prepared earlier, but not fired, when the enemy assembled in the same area
in the morning. This was now fired by the three New Zealand field regiments, 58 and 4 Field Regiments, RA, and 64 Medium Regiment, RA, a total of well over 100 guns laying several shells each on a strip some 2000 yards wide by 1000 yards deep. When the dust raised by this concentration dispersed, the enemy had clearly had enough. The western front settled down for the remainder of the day to occasional exchanges of small-arms and shell fire.
At the same time as the counter-attack appeared to be starting opposite 26 Battalion, the enemy in Munassib showed increasing movement. Again the 13 Corps intercept service reported having overheard several orders for an attack and, just as the big artillery concentration was being fired for 26 Battalion, observers in 5 Brigade’s lines reported that up to twenty-four tanks were advancing in the strip between Munassib and Muhafid. Waiting until the enemy had completed his assembly and the advance was on its way, Kippenberger asked the CRA to repeat the task ARTHUR. At 3.25 p.m. the target was pounded by more than 100 guns for five minutes. As the smoke and dust cleared, enemy vehicles could be seen retreating into the cover of the depressions, leaving behind several vehicles blazing, on which 6 Field Regiment continued to fire to discourage salvage and rescue.
Meanwhile, well dispersed infantry, followed by some unidentified vehicles which were to the north of the target area, continued to advance until they were within range of 22 Battalion’s weapons. Under fire from the infantry, the Vickers and the Valentines, these troops turned to the east but, coming under more fire from 21 Battalion’s right-flank defences, retreated over the escarpment into the Muhafid Depression. By 4.30 p.m. the men of 22 Battalion could get out of their trenches, stretch their cramped limbs and compare notes on the fighting, for the desert to the south, except for the few trucks still burning, was bare of the enemy and all firing had practically ceased. This calm continued until dusk was falling, when the enemy came to life with a burst of shell and mortar fire on 5 Brigade’s front.
A few surviving records of ammunition expenditure offer some idea of the volume of fire that the enemy had to endure this day. The two batteries of 64 Medium Regiment, RA, in the box together fired over 2000 rounds and the three New Zealand field regiments used well over 1000 rounds each. The two other regiments under the CRA’s control must have used about the same. Much of this total of 7000 rounds fell in limited time on the confined areas of the enemy’s assembly opposite 22 and 26 Battalions.
In the defence of 22 Battalion, the Vickers gunners of 10 MG Platoon on Point 100 fired 8000 rounds, mostly at rapid rate. There were about twenty-five Bren guns in action manned by 22 Battalion and the right-flank troops of 21 Battalion, and their expenditure, added to that of the riflemen and the machine guns of the Valentines, must have equalled, if not surpassed, the total fired by the Vickers gunners.
There are no Axis records which give even a hint of the casualties sustained in these counter-attacks. Only the advanced troops, probing for a weak spot, reached the defences and came under the small-arms fire. The main body of the counter-attack force, preparing to follow and exploit any weakness disclosed, was caught by the shellfire as it formed up but, though it was obviously too disorganised to continue with its task, it may not have suffered a great number of casualties.
Losses in 5 Brigade, almost completely confined to the two companies of 22 Battalion and the various small groups supporting them, amounted to four men killed or died of wounds and about twenty wounded.
It may seem strange that the Axis forces attempted to attack only on the two narrow fronts and did not disturb 21 Battalion or, particularly, the long and poorly organised front held by the remnants of 132 Brigade. The reason for this, however, was that the Axis operations were nothing more than local counter-attacks to regain supposedly lost ground. Rommel had learnt from both German and Italian sources that parts of the defences had been overrun. In conformity with standard German tactical doctrine he issued orders that the defence line must be restored. But most of the defences on the northern flank had been taken up hurriedly and to some extent temporarily, so that no one except the local commander on the ground knew exactly where the line ran. In Munassib, where troops of Trieste had only just taken over from 90 Light Division in darkness under shellfire and bombing and had then been thrown into confusion by 28 Battalion’s attack, the Italian officers could have had little idea where their front was supposed to be. Reports of the extent of the British penetration sent to Panzer Army and Africa Corps were vague and contradictory, so that when Rommel’s order percolated down, the officer on the spot responsible for mounting the counter-attack had a problem in deciding how far the advance should go. There was a story, repeated by Freyberg in one report but never verified by men in the front line, that some of the leading Axis infantry approached 22 Battalion with their hands up, only to be fired on by their own tanks. It seems possible therefore that the Italians, who constituted
the bulk of the attacking force, decided they had done their job when they reached their old front line, but were driven further by Germans who were under the impression that British troops had to be met and driven back for the line to be restored.
A similar confusion seems to have existed on 26 Battalion’s front. Here the Axis front had in fact been penetrated at one point and news of this, added to reports of defences overrun and prisoners lost by 18 and 25 Battalions’ raids, also triggered off high-level demands for a counter-attack to restore the position. The practical Italians, having found they could regain their deserted posts in Deir el Angar without fighting, were deterred from unnecessarily pressing their advance by the heavy fire of the New Zealand artillery.
Once the Maoris had withdrawn from Munassib, all the Axis counter-attacks to ‘restore the situation’ were in fact unnecessary, except at the one small point where C Company of 26 Battalion was sitting some way inside the line.
The enemy posts which prevented patrols from reaching the company were a continuation of the line against which 132 Brigade had broken. The men of the company, marching down behind, and to the west of, that brigade, had seen the burning trucks and the firing on their left before they themselves met the enemy. Coming under fire, the company charged, to overrun the flank of a position held by Folgore parachutists and break through into clear ground beyond. The commander, Captain Hall,7 had been given what he later described as ‘vague’ instructions, the gist of which was that his company had to reach a position from which he could dominate a gap in the first minefield at the western end of Deir Alinda. His task was then to control the gap, either to let an exploiting force of the Divisional Cavalry through or prevent the enemy using it. The map showed that the company would have to march some 4500 yards to its selected position.
The brush with the Folgore defence upset the calculation of distance, done simply by counting paces, but Hall continued to lead his men on until he reasoned he was on his objective. The exact position taken up is difficult to determine but appears to have been further than planned, though it complied with the orders in
that it overlooked the minefield gap. Hall confidently expected to find A Company moving in on his northern flank and was not at first unduly worried over its absence.
After the confusion and delay in reaching the start line, Hall was told not to wait for the rest of the battalion but to push ahead. In doing so his company had been caught in the confusion of 132 Brigade’s tail and had somehow lost its medical orderlies and signallers. The company arrived on the objective about sixty strong but with no means of communication other than by runners. The commander laid out defences and the men dug in before dawn broke. Daylight brought scattered small-arms fire, mainly from the west, but not enough to hinder patrols being sent out to find 132 Brigade and A Company. None of the patrols got very far, however, before meeting much heavier fire. It was soon clear that the position was nearly surrounded, with Italian posts on the northeast and east, more Italians to the south, and Germans on the west. As the morning wore on and details of the enemy positions could be observed, several men tried to find routes between the posts, but only Lieutenant A. J. Fraser and one man were successful in breaking through the ring.
Captain Hall had been given to understand that he was to hold his objective for twenty-four hours, by the end of which period the second phase of the operation would have been decided on. He guessed that he had advanced slightly further than expected but, unaware of the complete failure of 132 Brigade’s attack, he was confident that, at any moment, friendly troops and supporting weapons would appear over the slight crest that hid him from the north. The enemy at first showed no great interest in the company except to subject any movement above ground to bursts of small-arms fire. Small parties of infantry who approached, either to attack or merely to investigate, were seen off and in the middle of the afternoon the company opened fire on a staff car that came up the Alinda track to the minefield gap. Three of the occupants of the car were killed and three taken prisoner, the latter being added to the three prisoners the company had earlier collected.
By the late afternoon C Company had accounted for about thirty of the enemy at a cost of only six casualties. By this time Hall had decided that in the circumstances the orders for a stay of twenty-four hours could be ignored, and had warned his platoons to be ready to withdraw as soon as darkness offered some concealment.
At 6 p.m. shells commenced to fall across the position, killing three men and wounding several, including Hall himself. At the same time enemy infantry closed in from the west. Salvoes of mortar bombs and bursts of automatic fire preceded repeated
attempts by the enemy to break into the defences, but for nearly two hours the company held firm. Nine of the original sixty had been killed, most of the others had suffered major or minor wounds, while Hall himself had been wounded a second time. As first the Brens and then the rifles fell silent from lack of ammunition, Hall gave permission for surrender. Although the enemy infantry, who were pressing closely at the time, moved in at once, many of the men managed to evade surrender in the fast-growing dusk, but thirty, most of them wounded, including Hall, were taken prisoner. Those who got clear made their way back to the box with one of the six prisoners, the driver of the staff car, a German from 200 Infantry Regiment of 90 Light Division.
From survivors’ accounts and the enemy records the story emerges that the initial, and rather half-hearted, attempts to seal off C Company’s penetration were made by Italians. After the staff car was shot up, the job was given to the Ramcke parachutists on the company’s west, a group about 100 strong. After capture the prisoners watched the occupants of the car being buried with considerable ceremony as if one of the dead was of high rank. They also saw in the vicinity the grave of Major-General Bismarck.8
The return of the survivors of C Company coincided with a general withdrawal from all the ground gained by Operation BERESFORD. After touring the whole front during the morning, General Freyberg had returned to find the commanders of both 13 and 30 Corps at his headquarters. A discussion was proceeding on whether the second stage, that is, an advance into the depressions, was feasible after the failure to gain the full line of the first objective, when news of the counter-attack on 22 Battalion began to come in. All three commanders were in agreement that, with this obviously vigorous reaction by the enemy to the threat to his line of communication and because of the losses sustained, particularly in 132 Brigade, it would be unwise even to leave troops in the exposed and insecure positions they now held, let alone to attempt any further advance.
General Horrocks, however, was unwilling to forgo the ground won by 5 Brigade, especially Point 100 with its observation over both Muhafid and Munassib depressions and, though he gave Freyberg permission to make plans for pulling 26 Battalion and 132
Brigade back from between the first and second minefields, he reserved any decision of withdrawing 2 Buffs and 5 Brigade from between the second and fourth fields.
In the middle of the afternoon he let Freyberg know that the Army Commander was willing to let the western positions be evacuated, with 132 Brigade going to reserve and 26 Battalion back to its old sector, now held by ¼ Essex. As for 5 Brigade’s sector, 151 Brigade was already on its way to the box, either to relieve the troops in the front line or to pass through and continue the advance into the depressions. Just before this, the enemy attack on 22 Battalion had been resumed, convincing Freyberg that the enemy would continue to react to the threat posed by British occupation of Point 100, at least until the Panzer Army had withdrawn far enough to the west to make the point valueless for observation. In fact, any keenness Freyberg may have earlier felt for attacking the Panzer Army had evaporated once he fully realised that the Army Commander was standing firm on his refusal to allow the British heavy armour to take part, even as a covering force on the left. He felt sure that any further threatening moves would bring German tanks into the picture. In this, his appreciation was close to the mark as Rommel had already ordered a strong tank detachment to stand by ready to counter-attack any further advance against his northern front.
So convinced was Freyberg that his appreciations were correct that he had already passed on the withdrawal orders to 132 and 6 Brigades, and had also told Kippenberger to tidy up his salient as soon as the fighting on 22 Battalion’s front permitted, so that the front-line troops could be pulled out without undue delay after dark. When liaison officers from 151 Brigade reported in to Divisional Headquarters, with advance parties hard on their heels, Freyberg directed that they be sent to the old 5 Brigade sectors within the box perimeter.
At 7.20 p.m., after touring the front and discussing the situation with Kippenberger, he used all his powers of persuasion to argue Horrocks out of further action in the salient. He explained that the desired observation over the depressions could only be obtained from the small area around Point 100 and, because of its value, this bare and exposed vantage point invited heavy fire and counterattack which new troops, put into the front line overnight, would find it hard to withstand without heavy losses.
The Corps Commander then passed on Freyberg’s appreciations to Montgomery who agreed, with some reluctance, to complete withdrawal into the box. With this official sanction, the withdrawals and reliefs then went ahead on the lines Freyberg had
planned. The three southern sectors within the perimeter were taken over by 151 Brigade, with 6 DLI9 on the west, 9 DLI in the centre and 8 DLI on the east. With some New Zealand Vickers and anti-tank gunners temporarily under command to make up for some of its own shortages, this brigade assumed command of its sector from eight o’clock that evening. Troops of 5 Brigade within the box were moved into the eastern front, for which the brigade took responsibility.
With plenty of warning for details to be seen to, the withdrawal from the salient went smoothly. As soon as dusk fell the surviving tanks of A Squadron, 46 Royal Tank Regiment, and the anti-tank guns in 132 Brigade’s front formed a line covering the minefield gaps on the south of Alam Nayil, through which the troops and transport of the English brigade marched back to a bivouac area in the box. This covering screen and the two companies of 26 Battalion then followed, the battalion bedding down for the night in Stuka Wadi. As soon as the last vehicle was through, sappers of 8 Field Company relaid the mines in the gaps, and it was while this work was nearly complete that the party of thirteen survivors of C Company, 26 Battalion, with one German prisoner arrived out of the darkness. Patrols from 18 and 25 Battalions covered the front for some time longer, returning to report that enemy activity was unusually light.
The troops in 5 Brigade’s salient also started on their return journey as dusk fell, with 21 Battalion moving first to pass through the box and bivouac by the main gap in the north-east corner of the minefield. The men of 22 Battalion thinned out in the front line behind rearguards who watched for enemy patrols, the two forward companies then falling back through the reserve company. Once back in the box, the battalion settled into its old sector on the eastern face.
Care taken to ensure that nothing of value and no troops were left behind, as well as precautions against surprise raids by the enemy, delayed the planned timing of the withdrawal of the first two battalions so that 23 Battalion, arriving at the gap by tactical headquarters, had to wait until 22 Battalion could report that all its men were through. By 2 a.m. 23 Battalion was through, to bed down near Brigade Headquarters, and the sappers of 6 Field Company had started to re-lay the mines in the gap. Lieutenant Ross,10 a liaison officer sent from Brigade Headquarters to check the passage of the gap, then returned to report that 2 Buffs, who
were expected to pass through between the two New Zealand battalions, had not appeared. It was at first thought that the Buffs had misunderstood the instructions and might be trying to return through 6 Brigade’s area, but when inquiries to this brigade drew a blank, Major Fairbrother himself drove out to the gap with a wireless operator. While waiting for the sappers to reopen a narrow lane, he called the Buffs on his wireless and fortunately established communication without delay, to learn that the battalion had become ‘bushed’ in the darkness. By radioed instructions he led them towards the gap, but it was dangerously close to first light before the tail of the Kentish column was safely inside the box.