Chapter 25: Tanks Attempt Night Advance
During the afternoon of the 24th the various commanders settled the details of the night’s plan, which was in effect the armoured phase of the original but with extra support from all the available artillery of 10 and 30 Corps. Though both Lumsden and Gatehouse stressed the dangers and the possible heavy loss of tanks in an armoured advance without infantry to precede it, they appeared to agree that unless the advance was continued as soon as possible, the battle would become static and, in Lumsden’s own words, would just ‘fizzle out’.1
Freyberg was concerned to give the enemy no time to deploy a new gun screen and wanted to get the armour over the ridge so that he could assess the chances of continuing his division’s role of exploiting to the south-west.
There are, however, clear indications from recorded statements made at the time that none of the commanders concerned, except perhaps the as yet inexperienced Leese, was very sanguine of the result of an unaccompanied armoured sortie. The experienced infantry leaders, assessing the armour’s capabilities on the opening night’s performance, would have preferred a repetition of that night’s plan had the reserves of infantry and the time to prepare been available. Lumsden himself counselled caution, both in speaking to the Army Commander from the New Zealand headquarters and later in conversation with Freyberg:–
Playing with armour is like playing with fire. You have got to take your time about it. It is like a duel. If you don’t take your time you will get run through the guts. It is not for tanks to take on guns.2
The Army Commander, however, was insistent that the momentum of the advance must be maintained and there was no other way of maintaining it.
The start of the operation was timed for 10 p.m. under the support of 300 guns. The positions of the two 10 Armoured Division brigades were reversed from the original plan so that 24 Brigade was to advance on the right and 8 Armoured Brigade on the left, the former using the route through 21 Battalion and cutting its own gap through a minefield known to lie further out, and the latter using the way through 22 Battalion along which the tanks had broken out earlier in the day. The artillery support was to start with timed concentrations just beyond the infantry lines and precede the tanks to the objective, which was the original first bound, some 3000 yards to the west.
At the same time the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry and 9 Armoured Brigade, now reduced to two regiments as the Wiltshire Yeomanry had been withdrawn and its surviving tanks given to the other regiments, were to cross the ridge in the area held by 26 Battalion and, proceeding behind a creeping barrage fired by the New Zealand guns, were to form a front facing generally south to link the left of 10 Armoured Division’s objective to the infantry positions.
It was also proposed that 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade should take over 5 Brigade’s area so that it would be ready to advance and consolidate ground won by the tanks, while 5 Brigade would be free to follow 9 Armoured Brigade in the exploitation role. Freyberg, uncertain of the quality of support 51 Division could give his right flank and becoming more doubtful of the likelihood of the armour’s completing the task it had accepted, held up the orders for this relief and, in ringing Leese shortly after dusk to explain his actions and his doubts, started an argument which has echoed down the years. He told Leese bluntly that 10 Armoured Division was being commanded from too far back and that it was not ‘properly set up’ for the night’s operation. The basis of this complaint lay in the fact that, though Gatehouse maintained a tactical or forward headquarters, this was apparently mobile and very hard to find or reach by wireless, so that the only reliable channel of communication was through the headquarters of 10 Armoured Division, well to the rear and manned by a staff often out of touch with the latest developments and unable to make valid decisions without relaying messages to their commander. There is evidence that Gatehouse visited both his brigades in the New Zealand sector during the late afternoon or evening, but in failing to keep in constant personal touch with Freyberg he showed
a lack of appreciation that the operations of 9 Armoured Brigade should have been closely coordinated with those of his own armour. The orders issued by 10 Corps, 10 Armoured Division, and the New Zealand Division show numerous points of variance, and though the records of what actually occurred are in places very confused, it soon became obvious that the operation was, in Freyberg’s words, not ‘properly set up’.
At dusk the rearward side of Miteiriya Ridge, already very crowded, became a scene of near confusion as the infantry, antitank gunners and others in the defences took advantage of the failing light to move above ground, improving their defences, bringing up stores and distributing rations, while groups of sappers and their covering infantry parties, together with the leading elements of the armoured columns, were assembling for the advance. Men and vehicles filled almost every available yard of space between the minefields and at times completely blocked movement through the minefield gaps behind the front.
At the same time the Panzer Army, estimating that, as no major tank advance had been made by the Eighth Army during the day, the British would attempt a renewal of the infantry advance in the dark, started to lay artillery harassing fire on and behind the ridge, while the Axis infantry, returning to forward posts vacated in daylight, began their customary bursts of machine-gun fire on fixed lines, with salvoes of mortar fire on the gaps west of the ridge.
This enemy activity delayed the sapper party of 6 New Zealand Field Company detailed to clear the ground beyond the gap between 25 and 26 Battalions’ fronts for the passage of the Divisional Cavalry and 9 Armoured Brigade. Led by their company commander, Major Woolcott,3 the sappers had not quite cleared the mines when the supporting fire opened on them. Although they suffered a number of casualties, including their commander who was fatally wounded, the men carried on under the leadership of Sergeant Lawrence4 to get the gap taped and lit, and allowed the Cavalry through with only a short delay. The supporting fire also caught one of the forward companies of 26 Battalion. Though warned by the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Fountaine, who learnt only a short time beforehand that his men would be on the opening line of the barrage, the men of this company failed
to retire in time and were so disorganised both by the barrage and when moving back through the congestion behind them that it was some hours before they could be reassembled as a company.
The two squadrons of light tanks and Bren carriers of the Cavalry, on passing through the final gap, soon met machine-gun and anti-tank gun fire and were further delayed by scattered mines so that they lost the barrage. On losing two tanks, C Squadron halted, but B Squadron pushed on for nearly two miles, clearing a route along which the tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade followed. On being joined by the heavy tanks, the Cavalry asked permission to fall back, but Freyberg instructed them to stay out until dawn. This they did, retiring to the ridge at first light. The Cavalry’s total losses for the night were 23 men, five light tanks, and four Bren carriers, against which they overran several defence positions and were responsible for rounding up a number of prisoners.
Next in time over the ridge after the Cavalry were the Staffordshire Yeomanry of 8 Armoured Brigade, who appear to have gone through a gap in 26 Battalion’s sector, though they were supposed to have used the route previously taken through 22 Battalion. Whichever gap they used, they pulled off to the south and were found some 500 yards out, waiting for the rest of their brigade, by the leading regiment of 9 Armoured Brigade.
The Staffs Yeomanry were followed by the Notts Yeomanry, the ‘soft-skinned’ part of whose column came up through the left of 25 Battalion’s area and turned right, parallel to, and in the shelter of, the ridge, and halted while waiting for their tanks, which came up on a different route further to the right. Some time before midnight a random shell or mortar bomb hit and set alight one of the leading vehicles of this stationary and closely packed convoy which was carrying infantry, petrol, ammunition, and other stores. Lone enemy bombers which had been about since dusk then used this blaze as a target, dropping several sticks of bombs around it, while enemy gunners also laid some salvoes on the area. In spite of attempts by men of 25 Battalion to drive some of the unharmed vehicles clear, few were saved, the majority being abandoned to the flames which eventually swept through the whole column. The constant enemy attention caused by the blaze forced a number of 25 Battalion men to leave their slit trenches, some of which were within a few yards of the burning vehicles. Casualties directly attributable to this event were at least fifty and probably more, mainly in the lorried infantry of the Notts Yeomanry. The losses in men, vehicles and stores completely disorganised the advance of the Notts Yeomanry and eventually of all 8 Armoured Brigade. The commander of the regiment called a halt while he assessed
and reported the damage, and this in turn caused 3 Royal Tanks, following on behind, also to halt. On a request from both regimental commanders to be allowed to disperse where they stood, the brigade commander gave this permission and also rang up Gatehouse with a proposal that the whole advance be postponed.
Meanwhile Brigadier Currie managed to lead 9 Armoured Brigade through the congestion and confusion and, personally reconnoitring on foot the route over the ridge, sent his leading regiment, 3 Hussars, off on the advance. The second regiment, the Warwickshire Yeomanry, was delayed but managed to follow some time later. One group of tanks was helped to cross the ridge by New Zealand machine-gunners, who not only fired a special barrage of some 12,000 rounds but also replaced lights in the minefield gap and guided the tanks through.
Encouraged by the appearance of 9 Armoured Brigade on its left, the Staffs Yeomanry joined in the advance to the west, successfully using its infantry, a company of 1 Battalion, The Buffs, to overcome some anti-tank guns. The two regiments of 9 Armoured Brigade drew away to the south-west, following the trail blazed by the Cavalry. How far the Staffs Yeomanry advanced is a matter of conjecture, estimates ranging from 1000 to 3000 yards, but as day began to break, they were in a slight hollow, offering a little cover, about 1000 yards in front of 22 Battalion. The regiments of 9 Armoured Brigade went about 2000 yards, overrunning many enemy posts and collecting a body of prisoners. At dawn they found themselves in a shallow valley overlooked by strong enemy posts to west and south and accordingly pulled back a little, so that 3 Hussars was on the right to the south of the Staffs Yeomanry, facing south-west, and the Warwick Yeomanry on the left, facing south.
On the right flank 10 Armoured Division’s operations went even more slowly. The engineers of 24 Armoured Brigade, through lack of liaison over the routes already cleared, came up in the rear of 5 Brigade’s positions and spent some time in clearing a new gap through a minefield there. Once on the ridge they could not at first find their reconnaissance party, which had gone forward to lead the way but had had to retire hurriedly when it found itself under the artillery supporting fire. No sooner had the sappers got to grips with the first minefield over the ridge than a false alarm of an enemy counter-attack caused the engineer officer to
lead his men back. In doing so, he lost touch with the infantry covering party of 5 Royal Sussex and, more importantly, with his wireless truck. When eventually a gap was cut in a fairly thick field, it was not until about 4 a.m. that 24 Armoured Brigade learnt that the way was open. The two leading regiments, 41 and 47 Royal Tanks, had meanwhile dispersed fairly widely when the wandering enemy aircraft had been attracted by the fires among the Notts Yeomanry’s vehicles and took some time to assemble. The greater part of the night had therefore passed, and only the two armoured regiments under New Zealand command and one of 10 Armoured Division had so far broken out. Five regiments still remained behind the ridge.
The first news of the progress of the advance, reaching Freyberg through an intercept about 11 p.m., indicated that everything was going according to plan. Soon after that, he received requests from several sources for anti-aircraft protection against the bombing of the armoured columns. He accordingly ordered 14 New Zealand Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment to move its Bofors up and also asked Army Headquarters for heavy AA guns, a request that was refused. Then Brigadier Currie complained that the observation officers of 4 Field Regiment were not with his tanks, though it later transpired that the officers in question were forward but had become separated from the armoured columns when passing through the confusion in the area of the bombing. Currie’s next report was that his two regiments were going over the ridge and he would like information on 10 Armoured Division’s progress. A later message stated that Staffs Yeomanry had been met over the ridge.
News of the activities of 10 Armoured Division reaching the New Zealand headquarters was so scanty and conflicted so much with information coming from New Zealand observers that Freyberg called up Leese to state that, as far as he could tell, most of the armoured division was sitting doing nothing among the infantry behind the ridge. This conversation must have taken place after the commander of 8 Armoured Brigade had given permission for the Notts Yeomanry and 3 Royal Tanks to disperse and had suggested to Gatehouse that the operation be called off, and it seems probable that Freyberg had learnt either directly or indirectly through intercepts what was going on. No records have survived of any discussions involving either Lumsden or Gatehouse, but shortly after 2.30 a.m. 8 Armoured Brigade received an order from Gatehouse to send the two regiments out to join the Staffs Yeomanry, an order that could be justifiably connected with the reports of success coming from the Staffs Yeomanry and 9 Armoured Brigade. As the two regiments had by this time settled down for
the night, they took a good hour or more to assemble. Between 4 and 5 a.m. they streamed through 25 and 26 Battalions’ areas, 3 Royal Tanks leading and Notts Yeomanry in the rear. By the time the tail of the tank columns had passed over the ridge the sky was perceptibly lightening.
But Freyberg’s call to Leese had already set in motion a sequence of action that had important consequences. The 30 Corps commander, concerned over the way the battle appeared to be shaping, called up Eighth Army headquarters and gave his version to the Chief of Staff, de Guingand. The Chief of Staff felt that this was one of the exceptions to the strict rule that the Army Commander’s sleep was not to be disturbed and, after arranging for both Lumsden and Leese to attend the headquarters at 3.30 a.m., he woke Montgomery and put him in the picture.
There are several records of this ‘fateful’ conference5 held in the small hours of the morning. According to his memoirs, Montgomery based the decisions he made on a belief that 1 Armoured Division was ‘out in the open and was being furiously attacked by the enemy armour’,6 when in fact 2 Armoured Brigade, joined overnight by the division’s lorried infantry, 7 Motor Brigade, was still to the left rear of the foremost Australian positions and passed a quiet night, broken only by some sporadic bombing and shelling and a short exchange of fire by a party of the Motor Brigade with what was thought to be an enemy post but could easily have been an Australian patrol. Had it not been for Freyberg, similar misinformation might easily have been passed to the Army Commander on 10 Armoured Division’s efforts. The armour was perpetuating the tradition, established by General Gott (under whom both Lumsden and Gatehouse had served) of giving lip service to the plans but holding to a determination to run the armoured battle its own way.
As it was, the New Zealand reports of 9 Armoured Brigade’s advance and the inaction of 10 Armoured Division were too factual to be easily discounted so that Lumsden, at this conference, could only pass on Gatehouse’s plea that the armour was trained for a static role and not for difficult night operations. To support his opinion that further advance by the armour was at the moment impractical, Lumsden, according to Montgomery’s memoirs,7 asked him to telephone Gatehouse. Gatehouse’s story is that, on hearing of the decisions given at the conference, he went back from the
front area to his main headquarters and opened a telephone conversation with Montgomery by saying ‘What the hell’s going on here?’8
Whichever way the call was made, Montgomery used the fact that Gatehouse was some ten miles behind the front to castigate him for leading his division from the rear. The implication in this charge may not be fair as there is indirect evidence that at some time during the night Gatehouse was in the New Zealand sector, but there is no doubt he laid himself open to the charge by his rather casual method of command and communication and his failure to keep in direct and constant touch with the other commanders. That Freyberg believed the charge at the time is made obvious by the comment written in his diary the next morning that ‘commanding an armoured division from right back is not a success’.9
Montgomery’s orders at the conference and by telephone to Gatehouse appear to have been merely that the original plan should be adhered to and are probably reflected in a written message received some three hours later at Headquarters 10 Corps – that the armour was to advance west of the minefields, free to manoeuvre, and hold off the enemy’s armour from the New Zealand operations to the south-west. At 10.30 a.m. more details were given in a message passed from Tactical to Main Headquarters of the Army. In this, 24 Brigade was to line up with 2 Brigade and act offensively, and 8 Brigade was to form a ‘hinge’ from which 9 Armoured Brigade and 5 New Zealand Infantry Brigade (relieved by 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade) were to exploit to the south.
Gatehouse’s understanding of the decision, whether gained from Montgomery or Lumsden is not clear, appeared in an order he issued to 8 Armoured Brigade shortly after 4 a.m. for the brigade either to move or maintain one regiment forward to assist 9 Armoured Brigade and to hold the other two behind the ridge, and also to have the minefield gaps widened. Receipt of this message by the commander of 8 Armoured Brigade was delayed for some hours and, moreover, acting on earlier orders and urged on by Freyberg, he had already set his brigade in motion again. As recorded earlier, the two regiments behind the ridge were on their way forward to join the Staffs Yeomanry.
By the time the last tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade were breaking out, that is, about 5 a.m., the minefield on 5 Brigade’s front was
reported clear, on which 41 and 47 Royal Tanks passed slowly through to deploy some 800 yards to the west, leaving 45 Royal Tanks and the brigade’s lorried infantry, 11 Battalion, KRRC, among the already congested infantry positions on and behind the ridge.
Thus, at dawn on 25 October, there were seven regiments of tanks out in front of the New Zealand positions. On the right were 41 Royal Tanks which reported that other tanks, believed to be those of 2 Armoured Brigade, were in sight some two miles to the north. Next came 47 Royal Tanks, in visual contact with the squadrons of 8 and 9 Brigades further south. Both the Royal Tank regiments reported that they were on ‘Pierson’, the first bound some 3000 yards beyond the original infantry objective, though both infantry and artillery observation indicated that they were probably less than 1000 yards out. The position they held was shielded from enemy observers to some extent by the configuration of the ground so that they were subjected to a surprisingly small amount of fire at first.
A thousand yards or less to the left of 24 Armoured Brigade, but without that close contact that would have allowed cooperation, the Staffs Yeomanry of 8 Armoured Brigade had by dawn begun to move from the hollow occupied during the night, closely followed by the first tanks of 3 Royal Tanks from over the ridge behind. Both regiments, joined by some of the tanks of 3 Hussars on the right of 9 Armoured Brigade, started to advance westwards but soon encountered enemy fire and mines. The Staffs Yeomanry lost six tanks and the Hussars three, and by the time 8 Brigade’s third regiment, the Notts Yeomanry, caught up, all squadrons were seeking cover from the enemy’s fire. About 6.15 a.m. the regiments learnt of Gatehouse’s last order, that one regiment should remain out and the other two stay behind the ridge, but through some misunderstanding all three obeyed the latter part of the order with such alacrity that by seven o’clock the whole of 8 Armoured Brigade was in cover of the ridge, while several tanks of 3 Hussars in error conformed with the withdrawal. Although the Notts Yeomanry had suffered fairly heavy casualties in men, mainly from the night bombing, neither the Staffs Yeomanry nor 3 Royal Tanks had been badly hit, and the brigade still had in running order nearly a hundred tanks of the 111 with which it had started the battle.
When the Staffs Yeomanry had started its advance, 9 Armoured Brigade’s two regiments were spread in an arc facing south-west and south, with 3 Hussars on the right and the Warwick Yeomanry on the left. The morning light disclosed that the brigade
was mostly on low ground overlooked from the west and south-west but, though the tanks came under increasing fire, there did not appear to be any organised defences immediately ahead. Brigadier Currie therefore decided to take his tanks further forward where the ground offered better cover, but before doing so he proposed to Freyberg by radio about 8 a.m. that, instead of risking his supply vehicles in the open, he should bring the brigade back behind the ridge to refuel and rearm. He also mentioned that his brigade was on its own since the tanks of 10 Armoured Division earlier on his right had retired about an hour before, taking some of his tanks with them, and he made another complaint of the lack of direct artillery support. The basis of this complaint must have been the lack of effective communications as 4 Field Regiment left records of several tasks fired at this time for the forward observation officers with the tanks.
Before receiving Currie’s request, Freyberg had been trying to get some definite information on 10 Armoured Division’s action and plans. From New Zealand observers he learnt that numerous tanks had withdrawn through 6 Brigade, but others were still out in front of 5 Brigade. According to comments he made later, the headquarters of 10 Armoured Division could neither confirm nor deny 8 Armoured Brigade’s withdrawal. Thus uncertainty prompted him to keep the armour under his own control well forward, and he accordingly directed Currie to stay out to discourage counter-attacks, an object which, the German records indicate, the brigade’s presence achieved.
Some of the difficulties Freyberg met when seeking information might have been the result of Montgomery’s telephone talk to Gatehouse. After receiving the Army Commander’s censure for commanding from the rear, Gatehouse ordered his main headquarters to move up to a point within the old front line, and meanwhile about 6 a.m. led his tactical headquarters forward through the New Zealand sector. He appears to have made contact with 8 Armoured Brigade after its three regiments had fallen back over the ridge, that is, probably after 7 a.m. From this brigade’s headquarters he learnt that 24 Armoured Brigade claimed it had two regiments well out to the west of the ridge, though their exact positions were still uncertain, and that 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade was proposing to relieve 5 New Zealand Brigade. It is unlikely that he was told that 5 Brigade was objecting to being relieved, for contact between 8 Armoured Brigade and the New Zealand units among which his tanks were sitting was such that Gatehouse could learn nothing of the fortunes of 9 Armoured Brigade. Some of the companies of 22 Battalion, on hearing from
an unknown source that they were to be relieved by the lorried infantry, actually moved back from their positions this morning, leaving only one company in the forward defences.
What actual orders Gatehouse issued at this time is uncertain, but it could be assumed he instructed 8 Armoured Brigade to place one regiment forward to implement the ‘hinge’ plan, but, probably through disorganisation consequent on its early morning sortie and withdrawal, the armour had taken no definite action before the plan was cancelled later in the morning. Gatehouse then appears to have devoted his energies to getting his divisional artillery up into any spare spaces in the New Zealand sector to cover the front against counter-attack.
As 10 Armoured Division was making its tentative advances in the early morning of the 25th, 2 Armoured Brigade further north also joined in the operation. The two leading regiments, the Bays and 9 Lancers, broke out beyond the infantry defences along the junction of the Australian and Highland divisions’ sectors but soon came under fire from enemy positions on their south-west. After the loss of ten tanks, the brigade commander sent his third regiment, 10 Hussars, to make a wide flanking swing to the left and attack the main point of opposition. Before this movement got really going, observers reported that enemy forces were assembling to the west and north of the brigade’s positions. All regiments were then directed to take up defensive positions. By midday a general counter-attack seemed imminent but, under bombing by the Air Force and artillery fire from the Australian, Highland and 1 Armoured divisions’ guns, it developed slowly. Several enemy groups were reported coming from the west but only one seems to have approached the defences closely. About 2 p.m. this force, led by a group of Italian tanks, came into the range of 2 Armoured Brigade’s tanks, but turned away to the north and then swung east again to come up against the front of 2/17 and 2/13 Australian Battalions. Under heavy defensive fire the rear elements of the enemy were separated from the tanks in the lead, but the tanks alone pressed their attack with considerable dash, some even reaching the infantry outposts. Australian anti-tank gunners, aided by the troops of 7 Motor Brigade on their left and the tanks further south, managed to halt the attack and drive it back. Claims of tanks knocked out, all Italian, reached as high as twenty. German sources record that the attack was carried out by a tank battalion of Littorio Division aided by five German tanks, the Italians turning tail when their commander became a casualty. Littorio’s return
of tanks made shortly after this engagement showed that it possessed only 60 of the 116 tanks with which it had started the battle.
After this attack had been repulsed there were several false alarms of fresh enemy assemblies and advances on various parts of this front, culminating in a report sent in about 4.30 p.m. that 24 Armoured Brigade was in danger from a force on its north-west. The commander of 2 Armoured Brigade then ordered 10 Hussars to renew its earlier attempt to advance into the gap between the two brigades. Under supporting fire from 9 Lancers on its northern flank and from 1 Armoured Division’s field guns, the Hussars set off but soon halted and finally withdrew after five of their leading Sherman tanks had been knocked out. Casualties during the day on this part of the front, both from the enemy counter-attack and from shellfire, amounted to 85 men in 20 Australian Brigade and 49 in 7 Motor Brigade. Though about twenty-four tanks of 2 Armoured Brigade were put out of action, leaving the brigade with just under a hundred runners, casualties in men were relatively light.
While the troops of 1 Armoured Division and the Australians facing to the west were engaging the enemy, the Australian Division was already preparing for the Army’s new offensive and the Highland Division was planning a final effort to get its men overnight on to the original infantry objective.
Further to the south 24 Armoured Brigade remained out ahead of 5 New Zealand Brigade, surprisingly unmolested for most of the day. Some salvoes of 88-mm shells at midday ceased after artillery concentrations had been fired on the suspected gun positions, and another bout of shelling occurred when enemy vehicles could be seen assembling some way off to the brigade’s north-west in the late afternoon. The shelling ceased when 2 Armoured Brigade took action as recorded and the enemy dispersed.
Though it was logical for this brigade to be left out beyond the ridge to form a common front with 1 Armoured Division’s tanks on its north and 9 Armoured Brigade to the south, even though contact between the three groups was tenuous, the changes of plans made during the day entailed the brigade’s withdrawal. It is not known, however, when the order for the withdrawal was issued but the two regiments beyond the ridge were ignorant of it until after 5.45 p.m., at which time Gatehouse personally made contact with the brigade commander. At this time the two regiments were in long-range engagement with enemy tanks so had to call for artillery fire and smoke to be laid down before they could safely disengage. It was not until dusk was falling that they eventually drove back over the ridge to rejoin the rest of the
brigade in the rear of 5 New Zealand Brigade’s positions. Here 24 Armoured Brigade formed up to start a night march, on Gatehouse’s orders, across the Highland Division’s sector to join 1 Armoured Division.
While the two main armoured formations of Eighth Army were inconclusively skirmishing on the 25th, the New Zealand armour, on Freyberg’s orders, stayed well forward on the south-west of the infantry’s front. The two remaining regiments of 9 Armoured Brigade, 3 Hussars and the Warwickshire Yeomanry, out of touch for any tactical purposes with 24 Armoured Brigade to their north, provided a screen against counter-attack which never materialised, for they saw few enemy tanks or vehicles and those only at a distance. Though the tanks of the two regiments kept mainly in hull-down positions to avoid enemy shellfire, which however was never very heavy, they managed to round up numerous prisoners who were sent back over the ridge. Behind the tanks the infantry occupied themselves with improving their positions and communications, suffering a few casualties from salvoes of shells which the enemy directed mainly at the crest of the ridge. The two forward battalions of 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade, crowded in the rear of 5 Brigade’s positions with many men not in slit trenches and transport undispersed, lost about sixty men and several trucks to enemy shelling before new orders reached them changing their role and permitting them to move further back.
In the late afternoon Freyberg told Currie to bring his regiments back, but the preparatory movement brought immediate enemy reaction. A heavy smoke screen was then laid down by the tanks themselves and 4 Field Regiment, under which the withdrawal behind the ridge was completed about 7.30 p.m. A muster of the brigade showed that it had only thirty-six tanks in effective running order. A total of 200 prisoners for the day was claimed by the brigade while 25 Battalion, immediately behind the armour, claimed another 100 stragglers who gave themselves up to patrols when they found themselves encircled by the tanks. As many of these men were passed over to 133 Brigade to escort to the rear, an exact total cannot be definitely established.
The enemy, however, had his riposte, for as the last of the British tanks returned through 6 Brigade’s positions, a solitary Grant followed up and swung in among the men of C Company of 26 Battalion, many of whom were out of their trenches enjoying the freedom of movement permitted by the dusk. Some of the company managed to avoid capture, but thirty-four were lined
up under the guns of the German crew manning the captured Grant and marched off. The audacity of the enemy caused the story to be treated at first with disbelief at Battalion Headquarters and a belated attempt to recover the prisoners failed.
On the front to the south of the New Zealand sector, the South Africans used the previous night and the day of 25 October for organising their defences and clearing mines. They also sent out numerous patrols to discover the enemy’s new defence line. Overnight diversionary actions by 4 Indian Division and a programme of harassing fire by 50 Division in 13 Corps’ sector were carried out to keep the enemy guessing. From enemy reaction and from observation during the day, on all three divisions’ fronts, there appeared to be no sign that the enemy was thinning out his defences for reinforcement elsewhere.
The main action in the south was a resumption of 13 Corps’ original plan with some modifications, starting after dark on the 24th. Two battalions of 44 Division under the command of 7 Armoured Division were to break through the second mine barrier that had defeated the first night’s advance and were to form a bridgehead from which 22 Armoured, followed by 4 Light Armoured Brigade, was to sally out. As the armour swung north across 50 Division’s front, this division was to be ready to step forward and clear the ground encircled by the tanks.
Disorganisation in assembly delayed the start of the operation for an hour and a half but eventually the two units, 1/5 and 1/6 Battalions of the Queen’s Royal Regiment of 131 Brigade, made their way through the second minefield, only to be pinned to the ground in a very restricted bridgehead. Heavy enemy fire turned back the vehicles bringing up support weapons and, with the complete failure of wireless, the leading troops were unable to call for artillery fire to subdue the enemy guns. The engineers managed to cut two gaps, on news of which the leading armour advanced, but several tanks missed the gaps and ran on to mines while others were halted by anti-tank gun fire. About 4.15 a.m. the commander of 7 Armoured Division called off the armoured advance until observation in daylight would allow the use of artillery to subdue the enemy positions that dominated the bridgehead.
As his tanks claimed that the mine gaps were not properly cleared the armoured commander ordered the engineers out again, but poor communications delayed his order so that by the time a sapper party had been assembled, the growing light made a close examination of the ground impossible under the fire the
enemy was able to bring to bear. So sure, however, was the Commander Royal Engineers that his men had done their job thoroughly, that he and his field squadron commander, in two tanks, drove out through one of the gaps and back. The journey was made under a hail of fire in which one tank was immobilised on its way back. This action proved that the real stumbling block to 22 Armoured Brigade’s progress was a combination of the enemy fire and poor navigation, for daylight disclosed several immobilised tanks in the minefield well away from the narrow channel of the gap.
On the Corps Commander’s advice, the armoured commander then halted the whole operation, though this meant leaving the
two infantry battalions out all day, isolated and poorly dug-in, in a small bridgehead completely dominated by the enemy’s fire. Although observed artillery fire lessened the enemy’s activity, any attempt at a daylight withdrawal would have been disastrous.
At this stage of the battle, when the capacity of the Panzer Army to react was as yet not fully tested, it was still necessary for General Horrocks to keep 13 Corps spread over a very wide front and to be prepared to provide reserves for the Army as a whole. Under such restrictions the use of only two battalions to open the bridgehead was perhaps unavoidable but not well-advised, for such a small force was unlikely to gain an area wide and deep enough to enable the tanks to use the mine gaps unmolested. Estimated losses for the operation up to the evening of the 25th amounted to 350 men, most of them from the two West Surrey battalions, and 26 tanks. Had the attack been intended to delay the switch of 21 Panzer Division to the north, a purpose it probably achieved, the same result might have been gained more cheaply by a well-planned demonstration, so it can be assumed that more was expected of the operation. The French forces on the south flank of 13 Corps, still recovering from their earlier disorganisation and heavy transport losses, took no major action over this period, thus leaving the dominating feature of Himeimat in enemy hands to affect the next day’s planning.
Although stalemate seemed to have been reached on the ground, the Desert Air Force continued to prove that the air war had already been won. In 660 sorties intended both to curtail the Luftwaffe’s activities and to hinder counter-attack, over 300,000 pounds of bombs were dropped on landing grounds and targets close to the front. Although the Luftwaffe itself was more adventurous than on the previous day, its activity on the 25th was confined mostly to hit-and-run raids which did little damage.
From the start of the offensive to the evening of the 25th, some 1456 prisoners, of whom about 600 were German, had been counted into the Eighth Army’s cages. Including this figure, the Panzer Army’s losses were probably not much different from those of the British, which totalled slightly below 3000 killed, wounded, missing and prisoner. Though British tank losses appeared heavy, many of the tanks had suffered minor damage or breakdowns and were recoverable. The total number of runners this evening in 2 and 24 Armoured Brigades, now to work together in 1 Armoured Division, was 189; 8 Armoured Brigade was down to 65 all told while
9 Armoured Brigade was left with only 36 heavy tanks. The four Royal Tank battalions of Valentines in 23 Armoured Brigade still had over 150 tanks for infantry support.
Against this a German supply report indicates that 15 Panzer Division had only 31 runners of the 119 with which it had begun the battle10 and Littorio had about 60 of its original 116. In the southern sector 7 Armoured Division had about 70 Grants and the same number of Crusaders and Stuarts to oppose 21 Panzer and Ariete divisions, neither of which had so far lost many of their original 143 German and 129 Italian tanks.
Although the British advances on the ground seemed inconclusive from the Panzer Army’s side as the main minefields had been penetrated and not fully breached, and that only on a narrow front, the events of 25 October proved that the Axis had little chance of wresting the initiative from the attackers. The messages recorded in the Africa Corps’ daily diary made clear how precarious was the hold of the thin screen of infantry lining the area of penetration and also how ineffective, under the British fire and air assaults, were the counter-attacks designed to relieve the pressure on the infantry. The system of narrow but deep battalion sectors, though perhaps ideal for sandwiching the two nationalities, made it difficult for the higher headquarters to appreciate the situation in detail, a factor which led to the misdirection of counter-attacks. Many of the infantry, both German and Italian, had fallen back under the threat of the British tanks and then, in some cases, returned to reoccupy their positions, while other strongpoints thought to be holding firm were later found to have been overrun or abandoned.
The Panzer Army’s worries were not lessened by the fact that for twenty-four hours it had had no commander. During the previous day General Stumme had set off on a tour of the front from which he failed to return, and it was not until midday on the 25th that his body was found. The accepted story was that he suffered a heart attack when coming under fire, probably in the vicinity of the Australian objective. On his disappearance, Rommel had been warned by the General Staff to resume his command and immediately flew over from Germany, arriving in the evening of the 25th and ‘feeling that we would fight this battle with but small hope of success’.11 News of Rommel’s presence, however, soon spread round the front and raised the Panzer Army’s morale.
The events so far described up to the evening of 25 October were all part of the dying impetus of Eighth Army’s first attempt to breach the Panzer Army’s line. The first orders for the day issued by Montgomery at the early morning conference were for a continuation of the operation. The detailed orders to implement this decision were, in short, for 8 Armoured Brigade to get its three regiments in line to the south of 24 Armoured Brigade to form a hinge on which 9 Armoured Brigade, supported by 5 New Zealand Brigade, could exploit to the south-west, the New Zealand brigade’s positions on the ridge being taken over by 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade. At the same time both 2 and 24 Armoured Brigades were to ‘act offensively’ against enemy armour and battle groups.
It is difficult to say when these detailed orders reached down to the New Zealand Division, but Freyberg certainly knew the gist of them well before 10.30 a.m. when they were officially recorded, and this knowledge was the basis for his decision to keep Currie’s brigade out in the open. But the day had not far advanced when he heard from his brigadiers that 8 Armoured Brigade was back behind the ridge. He then complained to Leese that, because of a lack of drive by Gatehouse’s division, the ridge situation was ‘rapidly becoming static warfare. I always thought we were going to form a common front – there is no common front – 9 Armd Bde are not in touch. They have got to get the armour together and fight a battle’.12 He still lacked faith in the armour’s ability to withstand strong counter-attack and predicted that, should the Panzer Army regain the observation of the ridge, the Eighth Army would be forced back to its original line. With such doubts in mind, he was against the idea of letting Currie’s tanks and 5 Brigade off on an unsupported exploitation role, and also of letting 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade replace 5 Brigade, especially as Brigadier Kippenberger and his staff advised him that 133 Brigade was too green to make a successful daylight relief.
He also gave Leese his opinion that the delays had allowed the enemy time to recover and prepare a new line of defence so that further operations to the south or south-west would have no element of surprise. In discussion later in the morning, both Freyberg and Lumsden agreed that since the impetus of the attack was rapidly dying, it would be wisest to pause and consolidate in preparation for the use of artillery and infantry as before to
neutralise the enemy gun line before the tanks should be sent out again.
With such opinions finding their way back to his headquarters, and with more exact information of what had really happened to the armoured advance, Montgomery soon decided that a change of plan was necessary, and accordingly called his two corps commanders to a conference at the New Zealand headquarters at midday. Though Gatehouse may have been present there is no record that he attended this conference, but Freyberg was called in to give his report and views: these were that the exploitation by his division to the south was now undesirable and that an infantry and artillery operation should be made to carry the line another 4000 yards to the west, clear of the mine-belts.
The wisdom of this proposal, shown in the records to have been accepted by Lumsden and probably by Leese, is doubtful. Infantry casualties would have put the New Zealand Division, and possibly the Highland Division as well, out of effective action for some time, while, even if the armour had broken out, coordinated action between the armoured groups had already proved too uncertain to ensure that the Panzer Army would have been bottled up and defeated. It is more likely the enemy would have withdrawn in reasonably good order to fight again another day.
As it was, while prepared to change the detail of his planning, Montgomery held to his main intention – to defeat the Panzer Army where it stood by the process of holding off the armour while ‘crumbling’ the infantry. Accepting Freyberg’s assessment that the southward exploitation was no longer feasible, especially as 13 Corps’ northward thrust was showing so little results, Montgomery changed direction completely and in doing so started the action which, assisted later by Hitler, was to bring about the complete defeat of the Panzer Army of Africa.