Chapter 22: 13 Corps’ Operations
In the southern sector 13 Corps did little more than carry out a fairly costly diversion. The operations of this corps have been somewhat clouded by later emphasis that it was intended to accomplish no more than was in fact accomplished, that is, to hold 21 Panzer Division away from the north. Yet the corps’ task, as laid down in orders, was to ‘destroy the enemy east of his main position’. It was erroneously thought that this ‘main position’ lay along the old line held before the Alam Halfa battle and that the ground to the east, given up by the Eighth Army in that battle, held some loosely-knit strongpoints defended mainly by Italians. Several factors, including the broken ground and consequent difficulties of observation and patrolling, had apparently obscured from 13 Corps the fact that the new line was based on the thick mine-garden pattern in the north though not so fully developed. Rommel, however, had insured against its possible weaknesses by manning it with some of the best of the Italian troops, bolstered by German parachutists. Had not this misconception of the type of defences to be overcome been generally held, it is doubtful if the plan of attack prepared by Horrocks, commanding the corps, would have been accepted by Montgomery. The plan in effect was for the corps’ armour to break into the supposed crust of outposts and roll them up ahead of the Panzer Army’s main position, while the infantry stepped up behind to provide a base from which the tanks could work, the diversionary quality of the operation lying in the threat to the main position by which it was hoped that the Panzer Army infantry and armoured reserve would be kept in the south.
It is of course possible that a certain amount of wishful thinking affected the method proposed, for Montgomery’s method as used by 30 Corps, of an infantry ‘break-in’ followed by an armoured
‘break-out’, could hardly have been employed by 13 Corps, whose infantry in the main was not in a fit state of organisation, training or experience, or in sufficient numbers, to make a successful break-in assault, the weakness in infantry being balanced, at least on paper, by the quality of the corps’ armour, the veteran 7 Armoured Division, the ‘Desert Rats’. With its long experience in the desert, especially in mobile operations, this division could be expected to employ its mixture of light and heavy armour and supporting arms to best advantage in the mobile battle envisaged in isolating and overpowering the enemy outposts.
That this was the type of engagement anticipated is made clearer by the injunction Montgomery gave to Horrocks, similar to that given to 10 Corps, against loosing the armour in any ‘death or glory’ charge. For 13 Corps the injunction was even stricter. Having committed the bulk of his armour in 10 Corps at the start of the offensive, Montgomery needed 7 Armoured Division to be kept in existence both to supply a reserve and to keep his army’s ‘balance’, the latter a point on which the Army Commander laid much stress.
The British estimated that the enemy facing 13 Corps consisted of three Italian infantry divisions, Brescia, Folgore and Pavia, all probably below full strength but stiffened by the German troops of Ramcke Brigade. The armoured reserve was thought to be divided into three battle groups of mixed German and Italian tanks from 21 Panzer and Ariete divisions, all under German command and manning 132 German, 150 Italian, and some captured British tanks, to a total of nearly 300 all told. The artillery in positions to cover 13 Corps’ front was placed at 300 field, medium and heavy guns, including thirty or more 88-mm guns. According to the German records, this estimate was fairly close to the mark in actual numbers, though possibly overstressing the weight of artillery fire likely to be encountered. These records also show that the bulk of the infantry was concentrated well forward, the method of defence being that any breaches should be sealed off and recovered by the armoured reserve. As for withdrawal on to a ‘main position’, it is doubtful if any form of retreat had been discussed with the Italians and only general indications given to 21 Panzer Division, but it is clear that the Panzer Army intended, if forced, to withdraw, not by a step back to the west, but by a swing back to the north on to the Qatani minefield. For this the paratroops of Ramcke Brigade had been deliberately placed to hold the hinge. On paper the advantage seemed to lie with the defence, but the Panzer Army in the south was spread over more than 15
miles of front, against which 13 Corps was attacking on a relatively narrow sector.
The 13 Corps operations started in the north about 10 p.m. when 1 Greek Brigade in the vicinity of Alam Nayil, in the old 6 Brigade area of the New Zealand Box, laid on a raid in company strength against a post to the west. This resulted in a bag of eighteen men of Brescia Division for a loss of four casualties. Next in order were the operations of 151 Brigade, a simulated attack on Deir el Angar and a raid on a post to the south of this depression. These deceptions, besides diverting attention from the main attack, were intended to unsettle the enemy troops so that, when 4 Light Armoured Brigade reached its objective behind them, they would be cajoled into surrendering and would allow 151 Brigade to advance its line to the corps’ objective. The deception against Angar commenced at 10 p.m., with what effect is not known, and the raid, by two officers and twenty-four men of 9 Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, met strong opposition in which the two officers were killed. Altogether 151 Brigade lost nineteen men killed or missing this night.
Similarly 69 Brigade, from its positions in Deir el Munassib, laid on two diversions and a raid, the former at 10 p.m. and the latter at 2 a.m., but little has been recorded of the results. All these raids and diversions were given strong support by artillery, medium machine guns and mortars.
The main 13 Corps operation took place to the south of the Munassib Depression, where the British line swung back to the east of the old third minefield across the end of Deir el Ragil, leaving between it and the enemy front on the old first minefield through Himeimat an expanse of no-man’s land in places three or more miles wide. Partly because of the difficulties of accurate navigation and surveying by mobile patrols in this area of rough going, details of the exact dispositions of the enemy had not been satisfactorily plotted and, though attempts were made on the days preceding the attack to induce the enemy to disclose his positions by opening fire, such attempts had met with little success, probably because the enemy troops were under orders to conserve their ammunition.
The method of attack called for the main assault to be made by 7 Armoured Division on a due westerly course and on a front of about 2000 yards under a form of creeping barrage. The right flank of this area of penetration was to be covered by an advance of
infantry of 44 Division, using a combination of creeping barrage and concentrations against certain known enemy positions. The southern flank was to be protected by a wide encircling movement carried out by the Fighting French round Himeimat and the southern extremity of the minefields. Once the enemy’s outpost line had been breached, that is, after three to four thousand yards, 7 Armoured Division was to swing north on the west of the old first minefield and 50 Division was to come forward to the minefield.
The width of no-man’s land and the corps’ dispositions necessitated an approach march of over four miles for some of the infantry and ten for most of the armour. Some preparation and concentration was therefore done before dusk and may have been seen by the enemy, for 21 Panzer Division hinted in a report made out later that the offensive was not altogether unexpected. There is, however, no evidence that the front-line troops were ordered to be any more on the alert than on previous nights.
Movement forward of 7 Armoured Division began after dusk along routes lit by over a thousand oil or electric lamps placed to face the rear. The advance was led by 44 Reconnaissance Regiment, formed into four minefield assault groups with engineer detachments and Scorpions. Each of these was followed by a mixed column of 22 Armoured Brigade of about two hundred vehicles, comprising tanks, field artillery, anti-tank guns and lorried infantry. These in turn were followed by 4 Light Armoured Brigade in four columns, each of about a hundred vehicles. Coordinating their timing with the armour’s advance, units of 44 Division set off to occupy the ground on the right while Fighting French forces swung south round Himeimat.
After a counter-battery programme fired from 9.25 to 9.50 p.m. by thirty-four troops of 25-pounders (136 guns all told) on known or suspected enemy battery positions, there was a ten-minute pause before the main weight of the corps artillery began to fire the creeping barrage behind which the 44 Reconnaissance Regiment’s parties were to assault and gap the minefields. But the armoured columns had first been halted because it was thought they were travelling so fast that they would reach the start line too early and would thus be exposed to enemy defensive fire; and then, on resuming the march, they had difficulty in finding the routes (it was later claimed that some of the guiding lights had gone out). Finally, enemy fire in retaliation to the counter-battery programme fell in the area, setting some vehicles alight. All this brought delays which allowed little time for any form of reorganisation on the start line, the leading troops getting away in fact some minutes after the barrage commenced.
In the lead, the task forces put into practice the method of mine-clearance developed by 44 Reconnaissance Regiment. In each group carriers took the van until mines were encountered, when the group’s Scorpion was brought up to flail its nine-foot path. A Stuart tank and two sections of carriers followed through the gap to form a bridgehead while sappers enlarged and marked the gap. In the event, the short time lag in crossing the start line was augmented by further delay caused by bad going, scattered mines, and the mechanical unreliability of the Scorpions. With the barrage well lost, the mine-gapping parties came under fire from machine guns and mortars which the tanks and carriers were unable to subdue. Units of lorried infantry were then sent up to clear and occupy the small bridgeheads so far gained beyond the first mine-belt; the barrage was stopped and a hasty reorganisation made, the survivors of the four groups of the Reconnaissance Regiment being re-formed into two parties, each with one of the two Scorpions still in going order. At 5.10 a.m. the barrage resumed but the gapping parties were again unable to keep up with it. Enemy posts, recovering after the shellfire had passed over them, were able to prevent any breaching of the second main mine-belt.
Under this defensive fire, and with the sky rapidly lightening, 22 Armoured Brigade ordered its troops to withdraw into the bridgeheads between the minefields. Here, with the coming of daylight, conditions were extremely unpleasant, for the areas were very congested with men and vehicles, under enemy observation and, because the gaps had been cut closer together than intended, exposed to a strong concentration of the enemy’s fire.
The night’s losses in 22 Armoured Brigade were estimated at 250 men killed, missing, or wounded, up to thirty carriers and a few tanks destroyed. One damaged Scorpion was unfortunately left within reach of enemy patrols. On the credit side, the brigade claimed 400 prisoners, all Italians and mainly from Folgore Parachute Division. In the meantime, the columns of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, due to come up behind 22 Brigade’s right and draw up on the right flank, were still well short of the start line when it became obvious that the operation was not progressing according to expectations. The light brigade was therefore directed to halt and disperse in defensive formation where it stood.
The infantry operation by 44 Division to cover the armour’s right flank gained even less success. Advancing under a mixture of barrage and concentrations, 1/7 Battalion of the Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey) of 131 Brigade fell into some confusion under determined enemy resistance, though the Commanding Officer managed to rally and lead a small group of his men as far as the
first objective. However, in moving south to make contact with the armour, the group ran into more hostile positions, the commander being killed and the rest dispersed. The battalion’s casualties, of 76 killed or missing and 104 wounded, included the commanding officer, the second-in-command, the adjutant, and all company commanders. The other two battalions of 131 Brigade, 1/5 and 1/6 Queen’s, whose task was to follow the armour and form a firm base around the gaps, were not called on, while 132 Brigade remained in its defensive positions along the old third minefield.
To the south of 7 Armoured Division’s operations, the Fighting French sent out four columns, two to form a base in no-man’s land, and the other two to work round the south of Himeimat, turn north and roll up the Panzer Army’s outposts as far as the armour’s left flank. Initially this operation went well, the two bases being taken up and artillery disposed to cover the area, while the two mobile columns, against some resistance, reached a position to the west of Himeimat. Here, however, stiff fighting was necessary before enemy troops could be driven off the high ground, and by this time, through casualties and the rough going, the attack began to lose its punch. The enemy garrison on and around Himeimat was apparently unconcerned that it was being encircled, so that with the failure of 7 Armoured Division’s operation, the French were faced with determined opposition both on the north and east, and with artillery fire from the west.