Chapter 15: The Eve of the Offensive
For the New Zealand Division as well as for most of the troops in the Eighth Army, the first fortnight of October was set aside on the Army Commander’s instructions for detailed and intensive training in the particular tasks which each unit was to undertake in the offensive. Three New Zealand units, 4 Field Regiment, 31 Anti-Tank Battery and 6 Field Company of the engineers, remained under command of 9 Armoured Brigade for exercises in cooperation with the tanks. The Divisional Cavalry, warned that its role would be reconnaissance and exploitation ahead of the armour, practised drills for getting its armoured cars and Stuarts quickly through minefields and for passing back information about enemy defences and strongpoints. Perhaps the busiest men in the Division were the engineers, who were expected to become proficient in the standard army drill for mine-clearance and then practise it on exercises with the brigades or units to which they were attached.
The infantry brigades carried out day and night exercises on the lines of the September manoeuvres, with innovations and alterations that earlier faults suggested. Each brigade in turn advanced behind an imaginary barrage in daylight so that faults of contact and cohesion, not easily observed at night, might be studied and the troops themselves could gain a better picture of what was expected of them. Two of the infantry battalions in cooperation with tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade, 28 Battalion with the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry and 25 Battalion with the Warwickshire Yeomanry, carried out exercises under machine-gun and artillery support designed to crash through an enemy gun line.
On 14 October the Division began a series of movements which eventually brought the troops to the starting line for the offensive. About the same time the two armoured divisions of 10 Corps, which had also been exercising in the inland desert, followed a similar
procedure, every move of men, transport, and tanks carefully dovetailed into the deception plan so that no evidence of a mass movement westwards might be observed from the air.
By this time the Egyptian winter had set in, for although October opened fine and warm, as early as the third day the troops in the desert were shivering under grey skies and biting winds that brought showers and hailstorms. In one burst of hail the pellets rattled down almost as large as the undersized ‘eggs-a-cook’ of the Cairene street hawkers, so unpleasant a battering that a performance of the Kiwi Concert Party for the benefit of 9 Armoured Brigade had to be hastily abandoned. The broken weather lasted over a week, strong winds bringing either driving rain or dust-storms, after which a few days of calm, clear skies showed the desert winter at its exhilarating best. On the 16th, however, the calm gave way to stormy squalls which swept in from the sea for about twenty-four hours with hardly a break, blowing down tents, bivouacs, and dummy vehicles and flooding several of the coastal camp sites. This storm took another day to blow itself out, but from then until the end of the month the weather settled down with only an occasional dust or rain storm. Apart from the work of repairing damage caused by gale or flood, the exercises of the army were little hindered except during the worst of the dust-storms when navigation, even on known tracks, became exceedingly difficult. Freyberg himself had to curtail a visit round the front-line positions when the gale on the 16th was at its height and visibility often no more than fifty yards, while on the following day the commander of 9 Armoured Brigade, Brigadier Currie, was unable to pick out the route from his brigade area inland to Divisional Headquarters on the coast and failed to arrive until the next morning, thus missing a divisional conference.
From the 14th to the 19th, the two infantry brigades remained on the coast by Burg el Arab, sorting gear and equipment and making last-minute preparations. On the 19th they were joined by the Divisional Cavalry and 9 Armoured Brigade, who drove in from the inland desert to take over a ‘dummy’ assembly area just south of the coastal road, their places in the desert being taken by the surplus transport of the Division, augmented with dummies. That same evening the three New Zealand field regiments, together with six attached troops of 10 Corps’ artillery, drove forward to a specially prepared artillery area nearer the front where the guns and towers were camouflaged under and among dummies that had been placed ready many days earlier. Also on that evening 23 Battalion, under Lieutenant-Colonel Romans,1 went forward in
transport and took over the left sector of 51 Division’s front-line trenches. By this action, each of the four divisions with a part in the initial attack held the portion of the front which was to be its start line.
After dusk on the following evening, the 20th, the guns moved again, this time into the prepared and camouflaged pits from which they were to fire in the battle, each pit having been carefully surveyed in, with its quota of ammunition in hidden dumps nearby. Before daylight the towers withdrew to be hidden again in the dummy area while the gunners settled down to a day of inaction, except for such minor tasks as would not draw enemy observation.
Darkness on the 21st saw the two New Zealand infantry brigades in movement, ferried by 4 and 6 Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies to an area some ten miles behind the front. Here the infantry were dispersed among ready-made slit trenches with strict instructions not to be seen above ground in daylight. Though the day was fine and mild, it seemed exceedingly long before dusk allowed the men to stretch cramped limbs above ground and join the queues at the cooks’ trucks for a hot meal. Then trucks of 4 RMT Company appeared, to gather up the men of 5 Brigade and take them to a position immediately to the right rear of 23 Battalion’s front-line trenches. As there was some doubt whether the second transport company could get 6 Brigade up and its trucks back along the difficult and congested tracks near the front before daylight, the three battalions of this brigade were told they had to march. Setting off ahead of the 5 Brigade units so that the latter in their trucks overtook them, the men of 6 Brigade, stoically enduring uncomplimentary remarks and clouds of choking dust as each truck passed them, trudged the ten winding miles through wire and minefields in some five hours. Shortly before dawn began to lighten the eastern sky they thankfully dropped their loads of weapons, extra ammunition, grenades, picks, shovels, and other impedimenta into ready-dug trenches on the left of 5 Brigade. The same night the brigade and Divisional Headquarters groups drove up and occupied positions in which dug-out signals exchanges were already prepared alongside pits for the armoured command vehicles which the Division was using for the first time in battle. Much of the work on these headquarters had been done by 5 Field Park Company whose bulldozers, operating so close to the enemy, had drawn considerable shellfire. This night, however, there was no enemy interference as the two brigade headquarters settled in close behind their battalions, with Divisional Headquarters about a mile and a half further to the rear. Farther back still, 9 Armoured Brigade and the Divisional Cavalry took another disguised step
forward to bring them to their final assembly area some ten miles behind the front.
Although the New Zealand Division was the only complete infantry formation to move from the rear to the front, all the other divisions already in the line had to bring up their reserves of men and extra artillery, whose movements and arrival were camouflaged in the same manner. The complicated movements of men, vehicles and guns took place on a series of roughly parallel tracks starting some eight to ten miles behind the front line. Certain parts of these tracks had been in use for normal supply purposes for some weeks but the remainder, particularly the stretches immediately behind the front, had been camouflaged from observation by allowing wire, minefields and other defences to appear to cut across them. At night all such obstacles were removed and traffic kept flowing by control posts manned by provosts and linked by telephones, so that any accidents or breakdowns likely to disclose in daylight the use of the tracks could be quickly cleared away.
The Australians, using mainly the coastal road for normal supply, had developed a system of short tracks to the sector of their front on which the attack would start. These went under the names, from north to south, of Diamond, Boomerang, Two Bar2 and Square. The sector held by 51 Division was served by Sun, Moon and Star tracks, the New Zealand front by a short branch leading south off Star, and by Bottle and Boat, and the South Africans by Hat. Each of these tracks was clearly marked along its length by its distinguishing sign in cut-out form set on a post, and by petrol tins holding hurricane lamps or electric torches that shone through holes pierced in the shape of the sign and facing the rear.
This carefully prepared traffic plan, upon which the speed and secrecy of the final assembly depended, was in general extremely successful. Although the western ends of all the tracks were well within enemy artillery range and the whole system as well as the concentration and assembly areas of the troops and transport was in easy bombing range, the enemy was unaware of the vast movements taking place in the three or four nights preceding the offensive. Lone night bombers continued to fly over, dropping random bombs but seldom causing any damage, while both by day and by night the enemy’s artillery loosed occasional salvoes which only rarely found a worthwhile target. Yet several units, in accounts published later, reported difficulty in preventing unauthorised transport movement and in keeping their men from appearing above ground in areas over which the enemy should have had good ground observation.
The amount of detailed planning and execution that went into the preparations for the offensive cannot be adequately told in brief. Every branch of the services took its share, from the men in the base installations who worked long hours in assembling, repairing and testing equipment to the provosts who policed the traffic lanes from base to the front line. Signals troops laid many miles of cable, much of it underground to avoid damage from traffic, and set up exchanges, duplicating and in some cases re-duplicating their lines so that vital information and orders could be passed without delay. The men of the Army Service Corps, British and Commonwealth, worked together in a comprehensive plan of delivering and dumping the many tons of stores, from rations to ammunition, needed to carry the army through the opening phases of the battle. Behind a flapping hessian screen in the coastal sandhills a team of engineers and mechanics, South Africans predominant, worked in secret to construct a fleet of twenty-four ‘Scorpions’ or flail tanks for beating a way through minefields. Artillerymen worked on tasks varying from the digging of gunpits close behind the front line and the dumping of vast quantities of ammunition, to the intricate calculations of fire tasks for each gun.
Perhaps the most diverse jobs fell to the engineers. A special Eighth Army school of mine-clearance was set up in an empty portion of the desert, run from 18 September onwards by a New Zealander, Major Currie,3 to evolve and teach a standard drill for mine-lifting, a drill whose value was fully proved in actual battle. Teams of sappers also demonstrated to the men of other arms the known types of enemy mines and booby traps, teaching them how to recognise them and disarm them. Other sappers went through courses of handling and operating electrical mine-detectors, fragile mechanisms that needed constant servicing but invaluable when in working order, of which some 500 were issued to the engineer units in the Eighth Army. Among other engineer stores called for in the battle plan were some 120 miles of white tape and 9000 electric lamps, both items for marking the cleared lanes through the minefields.
One large headache for the planning staffs lay in preventing traffic congestion on the tracks leading to the front. The Eighth Army at this time was probably the most mechanically minded army that the British had ever fielded and, with its short lines of communication, was more than adequately provided with vehicles of all types. Unlike the Panzer Army, whose trouble was in bringing its
supplies and men forward, Eighth Army faced the danger of a congestion of transport, first in giving away the deception plan in the nights before the offensive, and then in delaying the speedy replenishment of material and the transport of reserves, reliefs, wounded and prisoners, once the battle had begun. A most detailed traffic plan was finally devised, the front-line units reduced to essential vehicles and all convoys run on prearranged times and routes. With fortunately little enemy interference by either long-range shelling or air attack, the plan generally worked out extremely smoothly for the great mass of vehicles.
The medical organisations of the British and Commonwealth forces, though retaining their individual entities, were also integrated in a master plan so that wounded would be evacuated and treated with a minimum of delay. For this, the lines of evacuation of each division were carefully planned from advanced dressing stations to field and base hospitals, with check posts linked by radio or telephone so that the wounded could be distributed according to the degree of injury and a heavy influx at any one point might be spread over several of the medical channels. Cab ranks of ambulance cars were set up well forward so that an empty car could be despatched at once to take the place of every loaded car coming back through the check posts. In this work the drivers of the American Field Service were prominent, greatly casing the strain on the medical corps’ staff at the height of the battle.
The divisions holding the line had their medical channels in going order for some time, though in the few days before the battle the facilities were increased and improved while the majority of patients then in hospital, both wounded and sick, were moved rapidly out of the desert to the base hospitals in Egypt. The New Zealand Division, however, had to set up a complete new medical link. No. 1 New Zealand Casualty Clearing Station had fortunately been established early in October at Gharbaniyat, near Burg el Arab, operating in conjunction with British and Australian stations and taking its share of the many sick and few wounded being sent back at that time. The next two links in the chain forward, the main and advanced dressing stations, had to be set up in the terms of the deception plan, for any indication that the medical arrangements were being increased would have put the enemy on the alert. The main stations were able to complete many of their preparations with time to spare, except for the erection of the large medical tents and Red Cross signs, but the two advanced stations, operated by the A companies of 5 and 6 Field Ambulances, were able to make no preparations until dusk on the evening the battle opened. Then they had to set up their tents and operating
theatres in positions ahead of the guns that were firing the opening barrage, and they had to admit their first patients before they had fully completed their preparations. In the event, the medical arrangements worked smoothly except for a certain amount of delay in the forward areas when ambulances returning from the front found it difficult to travel against the stream of tanks, lorried infantry and supply transport moving up on the first day of the battle.
Montgomery’s desert offensive commenced in the air some days before the ground battle was joined. Since the end of the Alam Halfa action, close cooperation with the air forces, so successful in that battle, was brought a stage further by agreement between the army and air commanders on a plan designed to lead up to the new offensive. The fighter and light bomber forces were to be given a period of rest and reorganisation, while the heavy and medium bombers were to develop a gradually increasing weight of attack on the Axis supply lines. From 6 September to 22 October, flights of twenty to thirty bombers flew over Tobruk on almost every night while other flights paid attention to Benghazi, Bardia, Sollum, Matruh, and even Suda Bay and Navarino, according to intelligence reports of shipping movements. In this phase, the Royal Air Force was greatly assisted by the Middle East detachments of the United States Army Air Forces, whose Liberator bombers proved invaluable. Meanwhile, as the light bomber, fighter-bomber, and fighter squadrons were reorganised, attacks were gradually stepped up on the landing grounds, railway, camps, and supply columns immediately to the rear of the Panzer Army’s front. A particularly intense effort was made by day and night on 9 October when it was learnt that heavy rain had made several of the enemy’s forward fighter landing grounds unserviceable. For the loss or damage of some nineteen aircraft, the Desert Air Force succeeded in this series of raids in crippling the enemy’s air defence to the extent that it never fully recovered, so that from this day on until the end of the campaign in Africa the Luftwaffe was never a serious threat to the Eighth Army’s operations.
On the night of the 18th, the air offensive in direct support of the land operations was officially commenced with the light bombers and fighters joining in, the main weight of assault being concentrated on the area between the Alamein line and Tobruk. Throughout the whole of the five succeeding nights and days, this assault was maintained, with hardly an hour in each twenty-four in which
Allied aircraft were not over the Axis lines. At the same time the fighter screen over the Eighth Army was gradually thickened.
Although the Axis commanders noted the increase in air activity, the suspicions of most of them were lulled as each day passed with no corresponding land action, while the Luftwaffe was so fully occupied with defence and repairing the damage to its landing grounds and aircraft that it had little time or opportunity for offensive action or even for reconnaissance. In fact, according to reports made by the front-line units, during daylight on 23 October not one enemy aircraft was seen over the Eighth Army’s lines.