Chapter 18: 10 Corps’ Plans
For his armoured corps to follow the infantry break-in of 30 Corps in the north, Montgomery had hoped to have three full armoured formations, 1, 8 and 10 Armoured Divisions. But shortages of equipment and trained men could not be made up in the time available so that, just prior to the opening of the operation, 8 Armoured Division had to be ‘cannibalised’ to build up the others. Thus 1 Armoured Division was composed of 2 Armoured Brigade, 7 Motor Brigade, and a composite force, mainly artillery, from 8 Division, and 10 Armoured Division of 8 and 24 Armoured Brigades (the latter from 8 Division) and 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade (from 44 Division). The tank strength in 10 Corps Headquarters and the two divisions on the eve of the battle amounted to a total of 457, made up of 216 Shermans, 62 Grants, and 179 Crusaders, with 168 armoured cars of various types.
The plan of operations gave 10 Corps the task of sending its leading elements forward on the heels of the assaulting infantry of 30 Corps, making its own gaps in the enemy minefields, and placing its tanks beyond the infantry’s final objective to cover the ‘crumbling process’ and draw the enemy’s armoured reserve into counter-attack. On the right, 1 Armoured Division was to find its way through the northern side of 51 Division’s sector, advancing almost due west, while 10 Armoured Division took a route through the New Zealand sector, travelling in a south-westerly direction.
In discussion and study of the problem of traffic movement in the area of penetration, Freyberg pointed out that he had to get the whole of 9 Armoured Brigade forward before the 10 Corps armour, and then keep it replenished in action, while 51 Division had a similar, though lesser, problem with its supporting Valentines; and this could hardly be done if the routes were congested with long columns
of 10 Corps armour and its ancillary vehicles, while his engineers were too few in number to cut more than the routes needed by his own division. The final arrangement was that 30 Corps should be responsible for clearing and marking the six named tracks, Sun, Moon, Star, Boat, Bottle and Hat, as far as no-man’s land, and from that point on each division, infantry and armour, would cut its own lanes. The armoured divisions therefore prepared minefield task forces, which included engineers in sufficient strength to breach the minefields expected to be met, together with tanks and lorried infantry to subdue any enemy posts bypassed by the infantry.
For the advance of 1 Armoured Division it was planned to extend Sun, Moon and Star tracks on a compass bearing slightly south of due west, the extension of Sun track running almost on the boundary between the Australian and Highland divisions’ sectors. On each route the way was to be led by a reconnaissance party of the task force in touch with the infantry ahead, followed by a detachment formed into three groups, the first to deal with the first enemy minefield, the second the next and so on. Behind the gapping parties, one of the three regiments of 2 Armoured Brigade was to lead each of the three main columns, the Queen’s Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards) on Sun track, 9 Queen’s Royal Lancers on Moon, and 10 Royal Hussars on Star, each with its supporting tail of lorried infantry, engineers, artillery, and replenishment vehicles. The commander, with his Tactical and Main Headquarters of 2 Armoured Brigade, was to travel with the Lancers on the centre track, Moon. Following the tank columns, the armoured cars of 12 Royal Lancers were to have a squadron on each track and behind them were battery groups of 2 Regiment, RHA.
On the tail of the armoured brigade, 7 Motor Brigade was to have a battalion on each of the outer tracks, 7 Battalion, The Rifle Brigade, on Sun, and 2 KRRC1 on Star, with brigade headquarters in the centre on Moon, followed by the remaining company of 2 Battalion, The Rifle Brigade (the others were with the minefield task groups), two troops of Churchill tanks and various anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery. The main columns were completed by battery groups of 4 Regiment, RHA, and detachments of 78 Field Regiment, RA, the latter detailed to collect en route its six troops which had moved up earlier to fire in the opening
artillery programme. The final group of 1 Armoured Division consisted of ‘Hammerforce’, drawn from elements of 8 Armoured Division with the task, if plans fell out as hoped, of reinforcing the front and passing its armoured cars through any breach made in the Axis defences. This force had an anti-tank regiment on Sun track, its headquarters and a mixed group of artillery and Royal Army Service Corps vehicles on Moon, and the fifty-five cars of 4/6 South African Armoured Car Regiment on Star track.
In each of the columns on the two outside tracks there were well over 200 vehicles, and on the centre route, Moon, considerably more. The armoured fighting vehicles of 1 Armoured Division consisted of 92 Sherman tanks, one Grant, and 76 Crusaders, a total of 169, with 118 armoured cars.2
The other armoured formation of 10 Corps, 10 Armoured Division, planned an advance, generally similar but differing in detail, from the western ends of the three southern tracks, Boat, Bottle and Hat, within lanes that ran in a south-westerly direction through the New Zealand Division’s sector of the assault. Possibly because of faith in the capability of the New Zealand infantry and its attached tanks to clear the ground, 10 Armoured Division’s minefield task force comprised mainly engineers, with tank or lorried infantry support. The detachment for each track was divided into a reconnaissance group to advance ten minutes behind the New Zealand infantry to locate the minefields, of which it was thought there were only two, and a working party following fifteen minutes later to cut the gaps, while provosts put out signs and tapes to guide the main columns and signalmen laid telephone cable and set up exchanges. A reserve party, with stores and medical detachment, was to move on Boat track ready to send assistance to the gapping parties. There were in fact four gapping parties as, for a purpose still obscure, 10 Armoured Division decided to cut an extra lane, Ink, between Bottle and Boat.
Behind the task forces, 8 Armoured Brigade led the division, with the Staffordshire Yeomanry on Bottle, the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry and brigade headquarters on Boat, and 3 Royal Tanks on Hat. The armoured cars of the Royal Dragoons came next on Hat, and Divisional Headquarters on Boat. Then 24 Armoured Brigade followed, with 41, 47 and 45 Battalions, The Royal Tank Regiment, on Bottle, Boat and Hat respectively, and finally 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade with 5, 4 and 2 Battalions, The Royal Sussex Regiment, respectively on the three tracks. The
total of 10 Armoured Division’s tanks was 273, made up of 31 Shermans, 57 Grants and 45 Crusaders in 8 Armoured Brigade, and 93 Shermans, 2 Grants and 45 Crusaders in 24 Armoured Brigade. The armoured cars of the Royal Dragoons numbered 46. It has been estimated that, when the rear vehicles were preparing to start up, the leading vehicles were more than ten miles ahead, each column consisting of up to 400 vehicles or more.
To avoid the slightest chance of observation by the enemy, the vast mass of tracked and wheeled vehicles of 10 Corps had to form up in the assembly areas after dusk. Then, in complete wireless silence, each group had to be fed in its correct order on to its selected track on a detailed timetable that allowed little latitude if the tanks were to pass through the infantry’s final objective before dawn, as was planned. With starting times from 7.30 to 9.30 p.m. according to the distance to be travelled, the six columns advanced until their heads reached the Springbok Road, the track running south-west from Alamein station. Here petrol tanks were topped up and last-minute adjustments made, and at 2 a.m. the whole of 10 Corps set off. From Springbok Road to the infantry’s objective, the armour had about ten miles to go.
In the orders given to the armour, it was appreciated that the infantry might not succeed in reaching its objective and that news of success or failure might be too scanty and incomplete for some hours to indicate whether the Axis defences had been sufficiently breached for the tanks to pass through and deploy. The armour was therefore warned that its columns might have to fight their own way forward at any point. To allow for any disorganisation caused by opposition or delay in getting through the minefields, the various armoured groups were instructed not to make their way direct to the final 10 Corps objective, some four miles beyond the infantry objective, but to halt and rally on three defined bounds. The first of these, only a short way past the infantry line, was to be gained by dawn, but further advances were only to be made on orders to be sent out from Corps Headquarters after the course of the battle had been studied.
In detail, 1 Armoured Division was to deploy 2 Armoured Brigade on the first bound to cover the western end of the Australians’ area of penetration and then, as it advanced westwards to the next bound, was to bring up 7 Motor Brigade to extend the Australian northern flank to link the infantry’s gains with the armour’s objective. Meanwhile 8 Armoured Brigade of 10 Armoured
Division, on debouching from the New Zealand sector, was to spread northwards immediately and link up with 2 Armoured Brigade on the first bound; it was to be followed by 24 Armoured Brigade, which would extend the line southward with 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade guarding its left rear. By these dispositions, with three armoured brigades stretched for about four miles in a nearly north-south line and, if all went well, with at least 400 tanks in fighting trim, Montgomery hoped to be able to exploit any situation that might develop. He expected the first enemy move to be a counter-attack by the armoured reserve under 15 Panzer Division which, according to Allied intelligence, was stationed to the west of 2 Armoured Brigade, a move with which both 2 and 8 Brigades could deal. Should the southern armoured reserve under 21 Panzer Division be brought up rapidly, it would probably be intercepted by the New Zealand Division’s exploitation force, consisting of 9 Armoured Brigade, on whose right flank 24 Armoured Brigade would be well set to give assistance. The Army Commander pinned considerable hope on the exploitation role given to the New Zealand and South African divisions, allied to pressure by 13 Corps, to drive a wedge between the northern and southern halves of the Axis fixed defences and thus prevent the free movement of reserves; but he was also prepared to take the alternative or complementary action of driving from the north flank of the Australian penetration towards the coast. His policy was deliberately fluid, stressing the importance of all formations being prepared to operate immediately on any changes in plans.
It should be noted that Montgomery retained no true armoured reserve. All the fully equipped armoured brigades, 2, 8 and 24 in 10 Corps, 23 and 9 in 30 Corps, and 22 and 4 Light in 13 Corps, were committed in the opening stages of the battle. He had, however, a fully functioning armoured command in Headquarters 8 Armoured Division, which was under orders to prepare plans to assimilate any newly formed units and others withdrawn from the battle and reorganise into a mobile force which could, if opportunity offered, make a dash as far as Tobruk. The infantry situation was more satisfactory as there were three brigades uncommitted, the veteran 5 Indian Infantry Brigade and the less experienced 132 Brigade and 2 Fighting French, while six others, 24 Australian, 7 and 161 Indian, and the three in 50 Division (1 Greek, 151, and 69), had holding tasks only and could thus be made available to reinforce the successes of the attacking formations.