Chapter 23: Dawn, 24 October
The situation of the Eighth Army as day dawned on the 24th was that, in the main area of operations, the infantry of 30 Corps had gained most of the desired objectives, but the armour had not yet broken out as planned, while the subsidiary action by 13 Corps had done little more than keep the enemy on the southern sector engaged and apprehensive of further assaults.
The first estimates of casualties received at Army Headquarters indicated that the Australian and South African divisions had each lost about 350 men, of whom about forty were known killed, the rest wounded or missing. The New Zealand estimated total was slightly higher, 420 wounded or missing and 41 killed, while the Highland Division offered a rough total of 1000, but this probably included several of the isolated groups and stragglers out of touch with their units. The total loss in 30 Corps was therefore thought to be in the vicinity of 2000 men all told, a total not considered unduly high for the results gained on the first night. Yet the losses, coming as they did mainly from the effective riflemen of the infantry battalions, were felt heavily in the New Zealand Division with its seven under-strength battalions. The other three divisions, all of whom had at least nine battalions and better pools of reserves, were less affected. In 10 Corps, casualties were too light to have any effect on the armour’s efficiency, and though some thirty to forty tanks were out of action through enemy fire, mines or mechanical troubles, most of these were easily recoverable and repairable.
Casualties in 13 Corps, excluding the French, were under 400, almost equally shared by the armour and infantry, and of the total 71 were known killed and 50 reported missing. Losses by the Fighting French were believed to be relatively heavy in the two battalions of the Foreign Legion most actively engaged, but little was known of the French action until late on the 24th, when a
check showed about 130 casualties in men and some fifty vehicles and several guns lost.1
It will be seen that the first night’s achievements at Alamein fell short of Montgomery’s intentions, if not of his expectations. The essence of the operation was the mass ‘break-out’ of the armour, formed up, organised and under unified control, on ground beyond the infantry’s objective. It is doubtful whether, by the methods employed and in the conditions met, this could have been achieved in the hours of darkness available. Although the leaders of one or more of the six tank columns of 10 Corps may have shown undue caution in threading their way through the newly won ground, others certainly progressed at a rate probably near the limit of speed possible; yet not one of the six reached the infantry objective in sufficient time to break out and re-form in the manner prescribed and, as the experience of the Notts Yeomanry showed, a piecemeal advance, once darkness began to lift on Miteiriya Ridge, was extremely hazardous. Success required that all six columns, or the best part of them, should be in position well before daylight, with lorried infantry and supporting arms close behind.2
The failure of the armour to break out as a body gave the Panzer Army the small amount of time it needed to recover from the initial shock of the assault. German plans of the defences indicate that 30 Corps’ infantry had in most places penetrated the outer belt of the mine-garden design.3 Beyond this, the defences consisted of a number of tactical minefields intended to channel any armour that broke through, as well as numerous mined areas protecting rear strongpoints, headquarters and gun areas. No continuous second line had as yet been completed, so that there were several gaps and spaces clear of mines in which the British armour could have manoeuvred. Every hour’s respite allowed the Panzer Army to fill these gaps with mines and anti-tank guns to offer a formidable defence now that the element of surprise had gone.
On the Panzer Army’s side of the line it was some hours after the Eighth Army’s artillery fire began before General Stumme could be certain that the British attack was genuine and not merely a noisy diversion such as had been laid on for the Tobruk raid in September. Unfortunately many of the German records covering the next week or more, including the daily diaries of the
Panzer Army and some of the main German formations, were lost in the course of the fighting, while most surviving reports, prepared later when the course of events had become clearer, cannot be guaranteed to mirror knowledge and reactions at the time. However, it is clear that the British offensive did not catch the Panzer Army unprepared, in spite of Colonel Liss’s prediction on 23 October that a major attack was not imminent.4 It is unlikely that this appreciation was known to others than General Stumme and his immediate staff, and even more unlikely that, even if the army had accepted the visitor’s opinion, Stumme would have allowed normal precautions against sudden attack to be relaxed.
The only element of surprise lay, as Montgomery himself had expected, in the weight and direction of the assault, and it was in this that weaknesses in the command structure between Italians and Germans, acidly commented on earlier in German records, left the Panzer Army headquarters almost completely enveloped in the fog of war until well into the following day.
The last entry in the Panzer Army’s daily diary noted that after dark on the 23rd a heavy barrage commenced on the whole front, later slackening off in the south but increasing in the north. Communications with the front-line positions and for some distance to the rear were badly disrupted by the shelling, and though some of the German battalions seem to have passed news back, no reliable information was received of the Italian front-line positions. Even when the duration and extent of the shelling convinced Stumme that a major offensive had commenced, he felt constrained to order that immediate counter-attacks, customarily laid on by local commanders, should be held up in place of a planned and coordinated operation when daylight allowed observation and some assessment of the true situation. Only sufficient information had come in during the night for Panzer Army headquarters to estimate that a broad penetration had been made in Mine-boxes J and L (which, with K to their south, covered the assault front of 30 Corps). According to the German situation sketches, it was at first believed that the major assault had been made by the New Zealand Division backed by a part of 7 Armoured Division, with the Highland Division operating between the coast and the main road. The Australian Division was placed at the rear and south of the main area of penetration. News of the fortunes of individual front-line units, pieced together as the day wore on, indicated that the whole of the Italian 62 Regiment and a large part of the German 382 Regiment had been overrun. In detail, information
recorded by 15 Panzer Division shows that one battalion of Italians in the path of the Australians just ‘disappeared’, while a German battalion in this sector was ‘wiped out by drunken negroes with tanks’, in the words of an Italian message. The positions of another Italian battalion along the boundary of the Australian and Highland sectors were penetrated, no further mention of the battalion being recorded. The German III Battalion of 382 Regiment, in the Highlanders’ path, initially lost touch with the rear but later regained contact, and some of its companies were still in action during the next two days. On the boundary of the Highland and New Zealand sectors II Battalion of 62 Regiment was early overrun, as was III Battalion of 61 Regiment on the south of the New Zealanders’ sector, but survivors of the German unit, II Battalion, 382 Regiment, in the centre must have rallied after withdrawing as they took part in a counter-attack later in the day before their battalion was officially written off. The South Africans were obviously responsible for annihilating one company of III Battalion, 61 Regiment, but the German troops of 433 Regiment in their path appear to have fallen back in some sort of order, though one battalion was reported as overrun by tanks during the day of the 24th. When the commander of 164 Division, Major-General Lungershausen, proposed to re-form the German and Italian infantry still remaining under his command on a new line, General Stumme ordered that the main defence line must be held, and regained where lost. The command of the northern front was then removed from 164 Division and given to 15 Panzer Division, whose reserve battle groups were in action before the end of the 24th, trying to plug the gaps in the infantry’s line.5
A comment in the German campaign narrative, compiled later from diaries and reports, that ‘After the overrunning of the Italian battalions, the interspersed German battalions stood like islands in the holocaust’6 seems hardly fair, as all the battalions, both German and Italian, within 30 Corps’ objective were either overwhelmed or driven back except for the positions in the centre of the Highland Division’s sector. Several Italian posts are known to have resisted stoutly, but at the point of giving way, where German troops could stage an orderly withdrawal, the Italians were likely to fall into disorganisation.
News from the southern sector also took time to filter through to the staff at Army Headquarters, who appear to have decided at first that the British effort there was diversionary. This opinion was modified shortly after dawn when it became known that some
of Folgore Division’s outposts had been overwhelmed and that up to 160 tanks could be seen between the inner and outer mine-belts. Accordingly no immediate consideration was given to moving the reserve force under 21 Panzer Division to the north. In the few relevant records, there is no hint that the Panzer Army command at this stage doubted its eventual control of the battle, though General Stumme seems to have been more intent on gathering detailed information before taking action than Rommel himself might have been.
The Panzer Army’s losses for this first night cannot be accurately assessed but, on a basis of five battalions overwhelmed by 30 Corps together with the casualties inflicted by 13 Corps and by the British shellfire, the total cannot be far short of that suffered by the Eighth Army. A check of prisoners, mostly captured during the night and early morning, showed 954 held by 30 Corps and about 500 by 13 Corps, a total of 1454, of whom approximately one third were Germans.7