Chapter 26: Montgomery Changes Direction of Attack
The change of plan entailed a northward advance by 9 Australian Division to ‘crumble’ the enemy infantry in the defences that lay between the northern flank and the sea. To cover this operation 1 Armoured Division, now comprising 2 and 24 Brigades, was to take up positions to the west of the Australian area and, if possible, bring the enemy armour to battle and threaten the main lateral supply route of the Panzer Army along the Rahman Track. The rest of 30 Corps’ front was to remain quiescent except for minor operations and improvements to the defences and communications so that certain adjustments could be made to release troops into reserve.
Montgomery had decided on this new plan, at least tentatively, well before the midday conference at the New Zealand headquarters, so that what was said there merely confirmed him in his decision. The Australian commander, Morshead, had already warned his brigadiers of the change of direction and preparations were sufficiently advanced for the first phase of the operation to commence that night. Plans prepared by 1 Armoured Division to take its tanks to the original first bound beyond the Australians’ western front were allowed to stand as they fitted into the change, as did a final attempt by 51 Division to occupy its original objectives and form a continuous defence line. But while the Australians went smoothly ahead with their preparations, the armour and the Highlanders found themselves still at loggerheads over their map reading.
The Australians’ intention was to advance the northern front up to Point 29, a small rise from which the enemy had observation over much of the ground to the east. This point lay about a mile and a quarter almost due north of the western limit of the advance, so that its capture called for the extension of the western defences and a swing forward of the whole northern front. The main task
was given to 2/48 and 2/24 Battalions of 26 Brigade, with 2/17 Battalion to extend the western front to the north and the Composite Force pivoting forward to conform.
The Night of 25/26 October
Reports from patrols and observation of the movement of enemy vehicles had already indicated that there were open channels in the minefields around Point 29 when good fortune rewarded the Australians’ always vigorous and intelligent patrolling. Among prisoners captured by 2/24 Battalion a sketch of the minefields was found and then, at dusk this very evening, an enemy party was seen approaching 2/48 Battalion’s outposts. Allowed to come well inside the lines before being attacked, this party provided two valuable prisoners, the acting commanders of 125 Regiment and its II Battalion. Besides providing a number of useful documents, one of these two officers confirmed the information gained from the captured sketch.
At midnight two companies of 2/48 Battalion set off due north for about 1100 yards to overcome several enemy posts and secure the intermediate objective. From this start line, a third company in carriers navigated a mine-free route at high speed to Point 29. Exactly timed to reach the point on the cessation of a heavy artillery concentration, the carriers completely surprised the German garrison and in a hand-to-hand engagement quickly subdued all resistance in the immediate vicinity. Attempts to exploit further north, however, met strong opposition. As this advance went forward, 2/17 Battalion of 20 Brigade took over 2/48 Battalion’s front-line positions and also moved a company out to cover the western face of the line of advance.
The next phase of the operation did not go so smoothly. At 4 a.m. on the 26th, 2/24 Battalion, having assembled on the intermediate objective, advanced in a north-easterly direction, but found the enemy in deep and well-protected defences. Though the leading companies fought their way to the planned objective, the reserve companies met fierce resistance as they tried to link the left of this objective to Point 29, while the Composite Force failed to join up on the right. But although the leading troops had to fall back to conform with their flanks, by dawn a valuable area of ground had been gained from which crumbling operations could continue. Prisoners taken numbered 240, most of them German. The Panzer Army’s reaction to this Australian operation was immediate and violent, showing the importance attached, as the German records prove, to the possession of Point 29.
While this new phase of the British offensive was beginning, 51 Division was carrying out four minor operations intended to complete the first phase. On the right of the sector 1 Gordons tried to advance to the ‘Aberdeen’ locality, where the survivors of its D Company were thought to be still holding out. With nearchaotic congestion in the Gordons’ area, where tanks, trucks, guns, and men of 1 Armoured Division were constantly on the move among the infantry positions, neither reconnaissance, observation, nor liaison with the armour was sufficient to pin-point the positions of the survivors or the enemy in ‘Aberdeen’ or of the leading elements of the armour nearby, so that artillery support could not safely be laid on. Accordingly, in a silent advance begun about an hour before the Australians’ attack started, a company and a half of the Gordons set off, only to meet unexpected opposition. Somehow in the engagement, the group of survivors was discovered some way to the north of the point of attack and contact was eventually made with them. Portions of the ‘Aberdeen’ locality, however, still remained in enemy hands.
About the same time, the four companies of 5 Black Watch, with a squadron of 46 Royal Tanks’ Valentines in support, marched forward in a silent attack on the ‘Stirling’ locality, a little way to the south of ‘Aberdeen’. Apart from some scattered firing, the Black Watch found the greater part of the ‘Stirling’ defences vacated, though two demolished 88-mm guns and some smaller guns in good order had been left behind.
The ‘Nairn’ locality, to the south-west of ‘Stirling’, was made the objective of 7/10 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, which sent three companies on a silent advance at 11 p.m. Here the enemy was still in position, and though the infantry gained part of the objective, fire from surviving posts together with mines and long-range shellfire prevented consolidation of the newly gained area for some time. Still further south, 7 Black Watch, in what was little more than a patrol action, drove the enemy out of a position from which machine-gun fire had hindered efforts to consolidate the battalion front.
According to the German records, the area against which most of the Highland Division’s attacks this night had been directed was held by III Battalion of 382 Regiment. Threatened during the day of the 25th, and almost surrounded by the advances of 2 Armoured Brigade on its north and 24 Brigade to its south, the battalion had sent back reports on which Africa Corps had prepared an armoured counter-attack to relieve the infantry. What exactly occurred to the force detailed for counter-attack is far from clear, but it seems probable that elements of the force came through the gap between
the two British brigades and found the battalion still holding out. However, the retreat from ‘Stirling’, where the headquarters presumably lay, was so precipitate on the Highlanders’ approach that Africa Corps lost touch with the battalion and assumed it had been overrun.
Also on the Highlanders’ front, an operation was planned for this night by 1 Armoured Division to place the reserve unit of 7 Motor Brigade, 2 Rifle Battalion,1 on the ‘Kidney’ feature, part of the armour’s original first objective. This feature was in effect merely a contour line on the map in the shape of a kidney and no true feature at all. In some accounts it is taken to be a slight hillock or low rise, in others as a shallow depression, but to the naked eye it presented no clearly distinguishable difference from the desert around it. As an objective, therefore, it could only be gained by careful navigation from a settled base. When news of this plan filtered through to 51 Division, the latter pointed out that the proposed area of operations overlapped that of the Gordons. It was then suggested that the motorised infantry of the Rifle Battalion should follow up the Gordons to ‘Aberdeen’, clearing routes for its numerous vehicles, and pass through to the Kidney objective. Further cooperation, however, broke down when the old argument over map reading arose between the staffs of the armour and infantry, the motorised infantry’s advance being then postponed until daylight.
A further opportunity for an advance by the armour was lost this night when 5 Black Watch, correctly gauging the state of the enemy’s defences at ‘Stirling’ as the records show, passed back word that an immediate tank advance through this locality might catch the enemy off balance. By the time this suggestion passed up and down the chain of headquarters the night was nearly over before the Highlanders learnt that the armour’s plan to go through ‘Aberdeen’ to the Kidney objective could not be changed – even though at that time it was still far from clear whether the route to be taken by the motorised infantry followed the path of the Gordons, or even whether ‘Aberdeen’ was still mainly in the hands of the enemy.
On the rest of 30 Corps’ front, that is, on the sectors held by the New Zealand, South African and Indian divisions, no major operations were undertaken this night though patrols were sent out in some strength, all of which reported that the enemy appeared to be working hard on new defences and showed no signs of withdrawal. At dusk all the units of 10 Armoured Division began to move out of the New Zealand front line, 8 Armoured Brigade and
133 Lorried Infantry Brigade to the rear, and 24 Armoured Brigade into 51 Division’s sector to cut across the front to join 2 Armoured Brigade. It is doubtful if 24 Brigade had any close liaison with the division into whose sector it was entering, and it seems to have had little knowledge of the Highlanders’ positions or the extent of their nocturnal operations. Moreover, having learnt of its night move late in the day, the brigade had had little time for reconnaissance of the ground, so that it is not surprising that after a period of confusion the brigade commander sought, and obtained, permission to use the known and marked routes leading back and across the rear. By dawn on the 26th, after nearly 12 miles of arduous night travelling, the brigade was assembling in the vicinity of the old start line in the north of the 51 Division sector, with only two tank squadrons missing.
The confusion over positions and objectives was brought to a head this night when the Motor Brigade’s operations had to be altered in consequence of the last-minute discovery that its objectives and those of the Highland Division either coincided or overlapped. The Motor Brigade was finally given a general role of sending a reconnaissance group behind the Gordons’ advance to check and clear a route for tanks to the Kidney feature. The reconnaissance appears to have been started late and, after dawn, was held up by enemy fire, the brigade reporting that it had run into opposition from the ‘Nairn’ locality. As this locality was so far from the intended route, the report was questioned, and when similar dubious reports from the armour reached Eighth Army headquarters, including one that the Kidney feature was occupied by Highland troops, Army insisted that the discord over map reading, which so bedevilled cooperation between armour, infantry and artillery, be settled once and for all. During daylight on the 26th it was arranged that certain tanks should fire signal rockets on which the Army’s flash-spotting posts could take bearings. This check, which showed that few if any of the tanks were as far west as they claimed, was only reluctantly accepted by the armour.
When, on the morning of the 25th, Montgomery was making his decision to change 30 Corps’ direction of attack, he had also under consideration alternative plans submitted by Horrocks of 13 Corps. Though the constricted bridgehead of the two beleagured battalions of 131 Brigade west of the second enemy minefield offered a sallying point for the armour, Horrocks himself favoured a new line of attack further north, away from the dominating observation of the enemy on Himeimat. As his proposals for this operation entailed the use initially of infantry only, Montgomery was only too willing to agree to the change, for he was getting
worried over the steady whittling down of 7 Armoured Division’s strength in actions which had succeeded so far in little more than containing 21 Panzer Division in the south. In agreeing, he enjoined Horrocks to keep his armour ‘in being’ in case it was needed elsewhere.
The new plans illustrate how strong the spirit of the textbooks and tactical exercises remained in 13 Corps. Whereas the older desert formations preferred to move on compass bearings to grid references, trig. points, or features named on the map, newer arrivals peppered their orders with nostalgic code-names. So in 13 Corps the minefields were called after the months of the year, the gaps after English towns ending in gate or ford (with the odd inclusion of Henryford), areas were known as ‘The Moor’ or ‘The Puddle’ and objectives as ‘The Cape’ or ‘The Twins’.
Horrocks’ plan was in effect the second phase of the original plan, in which the infantry of 50 Division were to move up when the armour had succeeded in breaking out and swinging north to its final objective. Details of such an advance had already been prepared so that its choice may have been influenced by this as much as by its tactical value. The first moves, made in full daylight on the 25th and designed to give the impression of impending armoured action, were for units of the dummy tank brigade to move openly to the rear of the area of attack and for 4 Light Armoured Brigade to reconnoitre ‘The Puddle’, the minefield loop to the south of the objective which the light brigade was to ‘dominate’ in order to prevent the enemy from outflanking the infantry on the objective. The dummy tanks were brought up without trouble and may have had an effect on the enemy, but the light tanks, sallying forth in the afternoon on their reconnaissance, became involved in a minefield and then came under fire, losing fifteen tanks all told.
After dark on the 25th, while the Greeks from north of Alam Nayil made a raid in company strength against Point 104 (where 25 Battalion kept its standing patrol before the Alam Halfa battle), two battalions of 69 Infantry Brigade, with strong artillery support in the form of concentrations, set off to capture ‘The Moor’ and ‘The Cape’ on the western escarpment of Deir el Munassib. On the right flank, 6 Battalion The Green Howards took part of its objective, together with 45 Folgore prisoners for a loss of 144 killed, wounded, or missing. On the left, 5 Battalion The East Yorkshire Regiment ran into trouble either from the supporting artillery fire or from the enemy, and with the loss of 106 men fell back before it reached its objective. This partial failure caused the next phase of the operation, an advance further north to ‘The Twins’, to be postponed.
While this action was taking place, the two battalions of 131 Brigade quietly withdrew from their bridgehead west of the outer minefield, the corps front then being established along the rear of this field.
By the morning of the 26th Eighth Army was in possession, from documents and prisoners, including the Australians’ valuable bag the previous evening, of information which made it seem unlikely that the Panzer Army would start a major counter-offensive. That this deduction was correct is borne out by the German records, the defence policy followed being for local counter-attacks to close breaches in the line and for the maintenance of a stubborn opposition to wear down the assault. Apart from the limited reserves of troops in North Africa, the main reason for this immobility, in an army noted previously for its mobility, was the petrol situation. So acute was the shortage that major movements could only be made at the expense of the daily maintenance of the troops in the defences. As at Alam Halfa, this shortage was not sufficiently understood by the British to be made a factor in their planning.
With fears removed of a counter-thrust, and also hopes disproved, by patrols and observation, that the enemy was thinning out, Montgomery devoted this morning to an appraisal of the situation. He was not yet aware of Rommel’s return to the theatre the previous evening so did not anticipate any change in the Panzer Army’s policy. His staff had prepared an accounting of Eighth Army’s losses set against an estimate of the enemy’s, the latter of such staggering proportions that, had it been correct, the Panzer Army would have had few men or weapons left to fight with.2
The British casualties since the evening of the 23rd were assessed as 4643 men in 30 Corps, 455 in 10 Corps and 1037 in 13 Corps, a total for the army of 6135. Although this was not a high rate of loss in proportion to the number of troops involved, the casualties came mainly from those whose task it was to be in the forefront of the assault. In the New Zealand Division the 800 or so casualties represented about a third of the fighting troops, and at such a rate of wastage the offensive power of the Division would diminish rapidly. The accounting also showed that replacements and recovery set against losses brought the total of effective tanks to 900. Artillery losses had been small both in men and guns, and though the very heavy expenditure of ammunition had at times
strained the supply arrangements, there was no real shortage. The whole of the supply organisation dealing with food, water and other essential requirements was in fact working extremely well.
With these facts and estimates before him, Montgomery issued a general directive, the main point of which was that the infantry of 30 Corps should form a firm front facing west and prepare to withstand local counter-attacks. Freed thus from responsibility to support the infantry, the armour of 10 Corps was then to cover the west of the Australians’ crumbling operations and draw the enemy armour to battle in an area where both artillery and antitank guns could take their part. The Air Force’s role was to soften up the panzer units as they moved in towards 10 Corps. Montgomery also warned Horrocks not to let 7 Armoured Division suffer any more casualties from offensive action.
Later in the day detailed dispositions were issued by Army Headquarters. These included the relief of most of the Australians’ original western front by 152 Brigade, the reserve formation of 51 Division, and the withdrawal of the New Zealand Division to reserve, the gap thus caused to be filled by a general side-step to the north, the South Africans and Indians moving up a sector and 13 Corps extending its northern boundary. The tanks of 7 Armoured Division were also to make ready to move to the northern sector as soon as word was received that 21 Panzer Division was doing likewise. All this reorganisation was to be completed by dawn of the 28th, ready for the next major assault timed for the evening of that day.
While this planning was in progress the Australians’ overnight gains were being subjected to a series of counter-attacks. The value of the newly won Point 29 for observation to both west and north was obviously recognised by the enemy, who shelled the area heavily throughout most of the morning. Although observers and their radio equipment on the point suffered severely, the Australians managed to maintain observation with few breaks in communication back to the artillery. Exact details of the counter-attacks have become rather confused in the various records, but it would appear that the major advance came in as day broke from due west against 2/13 Battalion and the leading troops of 7 Motor Brigade nearby. Before the vehicles of this attacking force could come within effective antitank gun range, they turned away under heavy defensive tasks laid down by the artillery. The enemy then commenced probing further north until by midday the main effort seemed to be making for Point 29 from west and north-west. For a time the defenders on and around the point were pinned to the ground by artillery fire, as well as by machine-gun and mortar fire from enemy troops who
had worked their way within range, but once the observers were able to pin-point the areas from which the fire originated and call for artillery and mortar concentrations, the fire lessened until movement could be resumed.
By two o’clock in the afternoon the observers on the point reported that there were some 200 enemy tanks within their area of observation – an estimate that must have included trucks and tracked troop-carriers – while groups of infantry could be seen collecting; at the same time the enemy fire noticeably increased. Under heavy air and artillery support called for by the Australians, however, the enemy vehicles dispersed to cover and only a few infantry came within rifle range of the Australian defenders of the point, and these men, divorced from their supporting tanks, either went into cover or withdrew. Gradually during the afternoon enemy movement and shellfire diminished until by last light the counter-attack appeared to have been abandoned, although up to one hundred vehicles could still be seen to the west of the point.
During this period, the tanks of 2 Armoured Brigade, claiming to be in the area held by 2/13 Australian Battalion and even as far forward as the Kidney feature, had received orders to fan out to the north-west and cover the western flank of the newly won Point 29 salient. The brigade, however, had not yet corrected its position by the flash-spotting check and was in fact further to the south and east, with units of 7 Motor Brigade on its north and in some confusion over their aims and objectives. The tanks, setting off to the north-west, met fire either from the enemy-held portion of ‘Aberdeen’ or from an early phase of the enemy’s counter-attack and fell back through the area of the Motor Brigade, whose leading troops, the motorised infantry of 7 Rifle Battalion, then were engaged by about thirty-five enemy tanks. Possibly assisted by 2 Armoured Brigade, the rifle battalion drove the enemy back, claiming thirteen Italian tanks knocked out. A report that the armoured brigade reached as far north as the Australian sector is probably incorrect and refers to movement of 40 Royal Tanks, whose Valentines came up behind Point 29 to give support against the counterattacks.
Under orders to join 2 Armoured Brigade, 24 Armoured Brigade, its tank crews suffering by now from loss of sleep, took some time to get replenished and sorted out. An advance party, navigating on the map references supplied by 1 Armoured Division, got as far as the isolated group of Highlanders in the ‘Aberdeen’ locality but was unable to find 2 Brigade. The rest of the brigade, setting off about midday, became delayed in the near-chaotic conditions prevailing along the extensions of Sun and Moon tracks, where the confined areas between the minefields were full of Highlanders, motorised infantry, artillery, and replenishment columns serving them all. As it neared the front the armoured brigade came under the shellfire that accompanied the counter-attacks, so the tanks dispersed and the guns deployed as best they could to help in the defensive fire. One squadron of 45 Royal Tanks and two companies of 11 Battalion, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, set off apparently on the directions of the advance party to blaze a trail to the north-west from the ‘Aberdeen’ locality. Advancing under a smoke screen, the tanks and infantry came under heavy fire from the enemy, who was still holding out in the north-west part of the locality, and fell back after the infantry lost about forty-three men.
Thus, by the evening of the 26th, the Army Commander’s orders for a screen of armour on the west of the Australian front had not yet been fulfilled, a screen that was vitally necessary if the Australian crumbling operations were to continue without interference from the enemy’s armoured reserve. The men of the tank
formations were by this time beginning to show the strain of continuous action. In both 2 and 24 Brigades the tank crews had had little time for rest, their short periods out of action being filled by maintenance and replenishment of their vehicles, while the latter brigade had had a particularly gruelling period culminating in their long move round from the New Zealand to the Australian fronts. New orders issued by the commander of 1 Armoured Division allowed them only until 4.30 a.m. the next day before they were to advance again, this time from a firm base to be gained by the division’s motorised troops on the west of the infantry’s objective.
The Highlanders on the northern part of their division’s front came under fire throughout the 26th, but were saved from direct engagement against the counter-attacks by the tanks and motorised infantry sharing their front. The lost company of the Gordon Highlanders in ‘Aberdeen’ was found and reinforced, the wounded brought out and supplies taken in. Further south, away from the protection of the tanks, the Argyll and Sutherlanders in the ‘Nairn’ locality, approximately in the centre of the division’s front and just short of the planned objective, could still only be joined by hazardous foot patrols. The garrison of three depleted companies was in fact, as one report stated, ‘virtually isolated’, short of water and ammunition and with only rifles and Brens to withstand attack. Fortunately no armoured attacks were made in this area, but the men had to remain in their precarious situation for some time longer as the Highland Division was still unable to straighten its front or secure it against counter-attack. The only effective defence of a large stretch of the front thus lay in the artillery fire tasks, but these needed a much better system of communication than had yet been established.
The men of the New Zealand Division and the tank crews of 9 Armoured Brigade, which now mustered fifty-nine tanks in two regiments, spent the day of the 26th under intermittent shell-fire. There was little enemy activity close to the ridge but observers reported considerable vehicle movement some two and a half to three miles to the west. Towards evening, after the artillery had laid some heavy concentrations on these vehicles, they appeared to withdraw. The artillery activity, however, drew the attention of enemy aircraft which bombed 6 Field Regiment’s gun lines, causing casualties and damage in the regiment and also in the Divisional Cavalry and 28 Battalion.
During the day plans were prepared for reorganising and straightening the Division’s front. For 5 Brigade the plans entailed the relief of 21 Battalion by 28 Battalion, and the reorganising of 22 Battalion’s sector after the departure of the 10 Corps lorried
infantry, as well as the laying of a defensive minefield across the brigade front. The task for 6 Brigade was to take its front forward in conjunction with the South Africans to the originally planned final objective, a task which in retrospect might appear an unnecessarily rigid adherence to the letter of the plans, for the ground to be won, much of it on an exposed forward slope, was of little tactical value and more difficult to defend than the crest of Miteiriya Ridge.
On the South African front the day’s activities were similar to those of the New Zealanders. Observers confirmed a trend of the movement of enemy vehicles towards the north from which it was deduced that troops were being moved from the southern sector. Initial preparations were made by the division to take over the New Zealand front and plans were made for the night advance to straighten the front. Next in line to the south, the Indians also prepared to ‘side-slip’ while continuing with their task of simulating offensive intentions. For this task, their artillery laid two bursts of high explosive and smoke on the western end of Ruweisat Ridge during the afternoon, but the enemy refused to be drawn and made little attempt at retaliation.
For 13 Corps the morning of the 26th brought a period of some confusion. When daylight allowed the results of 69 Brigade’s night attacks to be clearly known, Horrocks cancelled the further phases of the operation and ordered 50 Division to prepare a plan for clearing the Munassib Depression, with the use if necessary of 2 Fighting French Brigade from reserve. He also told 44 Division to continue clearing the minefield gaps ready for another sortie by 7 Armoured Division. However, by midday he had received Montgomery’s instructions not to endanger his armour, to ration his ammunition, and to limit operations to simulating an impending attack. The Corps Commander then modified his plans to selected artillery demonstrations designed to draw enemy reaction and a move by the dummy tank units just prior to dusk to simulate the start of an armoured advance. He, however, allowed 69 Brigade to carry out a daylight advance to the final objective on ‘The Moor’, for which a company of 6 Green Howards, about eighty strong, moved out at 2.30 p.m. under strong artillery support. Against light opposition the company gained the objective, taking eighteen prisoners of Folgore Division, but before the men had settled in, the enemy came to life with heavy defensive fire under which the company withdrew, with sixty-six of its number casualties.
Until dusk on the 26th the enemy facing 13 Corps showed no signs of withdrawing or thinning out. Though his harassing fire was reduced, his reaction by artillery, mortars and small arms to
any aggressive move by the corps was immediate and strong, while numerous tank patrols could be observed in the daytime watching the western side of the minefields. To 13 Corps’ credit, its operations had so far succeeded in containing the enemy forces in the south.
The Night of 26/27 October
By dint of concentrated staff work at all levels the details and timings for the changes in dispositions were ready for a conference held at headquarters of 30 Corps on the evening of the 26th. At the same time the motorised infantry of 7 Motor Brigade were getting ready for their advance beyond the FDLs to form a base of manoeuvre for 1 Armoured Division, while the Highlanders, New Zealanders and South Africans prepared their final efforts to secure those portions of the original objective as yet unattained.
On the part of their front facing north the Australians had a busy night straightening out their line eastwards from Point 29 and dealing with enemy troops who tried to regain some of their lost posts. The pressure of this infiltration, mainly by groups of infantry, was so persistent that three times during the early hours of the 27th the Australians had to call for artillery defensive tasks, but they ended the night with two Italian tanks knocked out, an 88-mm gun captured intact and forty-one German prisoners.
Matters did not go so well further south where 7 Motor Brigade planned to occupy two objectives, ‘Woodcock’ on the north and ‘Snipe’ on the south of the Kidney contour, and by pinching out the anti-tank posts in the area, allow the armour to pass through into the open. The troops of the Motor Brigade were then to follow the tanks, their places in ‘Woodcock’ and ‘Snipe’ being taken by 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade.
The commanders of the two motor brigade units concerned, 2 Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps for ‘Woodcock’ and 2 Rifle Battalion for ‘Snipe’, were told of the plan in time for them to reconnoitre routes forward and to observe the objectives, while an artillery programme was worked out for all available guns of 10 and 30 Corps to fire concentrations in the path of the infantry. With the confusion over map reading not yet fully settled, one battalion commander, with doubts whether the artillery fire would fall on the path he intended to follow, made a second reconnaissance but his return was too late to allow the plans to be checked and altered. In the event the advance began with some misgivings.
On the right 2 KRRC set off in Bren carriers at 9.30 p.m. with the intention of debussing 800 yards short of the map references given for ‘Woodcock’ and completing the advance on foot. With
no moon to help, and in thick dust raised by the supporting fire and enemy retaliation, and by the wheels and tracks of their own vehicles, the motorised infantry lost distance and direction but pressed on with some changes of course as they attempted to follow the fall of the artillery supporting fire. They unexpectedly encountered an outpost of the Gordon Highlanders and overran some enemy anti-tank posts. As day began to break, they found themselves with close on a hundred prisoners in hand, in a position so exposed to enemy fire that their commander ordered a short withdrawal. The battalion then fell back through the Gordon’s outpost, to halt finally on the east of the Kidney contour.
In similar conditions of poor visibility and uncertain navigation 2 Rifle Battalion set off from a start line laid out in daylight, probably to the east of the ‘Stirling’ locality, with the carriers ahead and the infantry following on foot. As a result of the battalion commander’s orders that the fall of the supporting fire should be taken as the main guide for direction, the line of advance had to be swung to the right when the artillery concentrations came down. After almost overrunning the Black Watch positions in the ‘Stirling’ locality, the men of the rifle battalion met little direct opposition and finally came to a halt, probably just short of the planned ‘Snipe’ objective, in the midst of an enemy store dump. About twenty six-pounder anti-tank portées and some vehicles with stores joined the infantry, the guns and stores being unloaded and the vehicles retiring, but unfortunately both the medical officer and the artillery observation officer were not with the battalion. Carriers on patrol to the south an hour after midnight had a short encounter with an Italian tank laager, while in the increasing light towards dawn the men on the north of the position reported a number of German tanks not far off. By opening fire as soon as visibility permitted, the anti-tank gunners claimed fourteen tanks knocked out before the enemy retired.
The orders issued by 1 Armoured Division were that at 4.30 a.m. 2 Armoured Brigade should proceed via ‘Woodcock’ and face north while 24 Armoured Brigade made for ‘Snipe’ and faced west, but at 4 a.m. 2 Armoured Brigade was ordered to wait until dawn, when it was hoped that reliable information of the ‘Woodcock’ operation would be available. As reports indicated that ‘Snipe’ was occupied, 24 Armoured Brigade was told to advance as planned. Having set its own zero hour half an hour later, this brigade had to hasten its start but eventually managed to assemble and set off in the dust, darkness and congestion through the minefield gaps, its tank crews close to physical exhaustion.
The Highlanders took advantage of the armour’s activities on the evening of the 26th to send a company to reinforce the isolated garrison holding ‘Aberdeen’, which lay almost midway between the ‘Woodcock’ and ‘Snipe’ objectives and about 1000 yards to the east. Some two hours after midnight men and vehicles of 2 KRRC passed through the locality and towards dawn marched back again, drawing a considerable amount of fire on the troops of 1 Gordon Highlanders holding the defences. Further south the men of 5 Black Watch holding out in the ‘Stirling’ locality hastily took cover as they were fired on when 2 Rifle Battalion cut through their northern flank, and again when 24 Armoured Brigade’s tanks came up behind. On the rest of 51 Division’s front no major attempts appear to have been made to straighten the front, for the group of 7/10 Argyll and Sutherland men in the ‘Nairn’ locality still remained virtually isolated, short of food and water.
The reorganisation of the New Zealand front and the extension of the left wing to the original final objective were completed during the night of the 26–27th in spite of heavy enemy fire drawn down by 6 Brigade’s attack. By 10 p.m. the men of 28 Battalion had taken over the front-line defences of 21 Battalion and the companies of 22 Battalion were being resettled after the departure of 10 Corps’ lorried infantry and tanks. Engineers meanwhile had started laying a minefield to cover the whole brigade front.
Under artillery support, the details of which were not clearly recorded, 26 Battalion set off at 10 p.m. to advance its right flank a short way to conform with 22 Battalion’s line and to swing its left about 400 yards forward in conjunction with 25 Battalion’s operation. Except for a heavily booby-trapped minefield which brought several casualties, B Company on the right met little opposition but was harassed by mortar and machine-gun fire as the new positions were being sited and dug. The longer advance by A Company on the left was met by similar fire and brought to a halt, and, though C Company from reserve was sent up to assist, the objective was not reached. Anti-tank and Vickers guns were then brought up behind B Company to cover the battalion front.
At the same hour 25 Battalion advanced under a creeping barrage with its three companies in line. The start was not auspicious for the battalion strength was too low for the riflemen to spread over the whole front in contact, and accordingly the companies had to operate almost independently. On the right flank, C Company overran some Italian-held posts and, after losing several men to booby traps in the minefields and nearly as many to escort prisoners to the rear, reached the area of the objective very low in numbers. A patrol exploiting further to the west met strong opposition from German
posts, so the company dug in where it stood, in a position which daylight disclosed to be overlooked by enemy ahead and on both flanks and with a very exposed route to the rear. In the centre D Company was delayed as much by having to round up numerous prisoners as by opposition, but finally settled in rather better positions some way to C Company’s left.
On the southern flank, B Company advanced without proper contact with the South Africans on its left. The two leading platoons were caught in a concentration of fire, possibly from the New Zealand or South African guns, and only one platoon covered the 800 to 1000 yards which brought it on to the line of the objective.
Though 6 Brigade could claim to have gained most of its objective by midnight, the enemy continued to react strongly with mortars and machine-gun fire, hindering attempts to establish contact between the companies and with the South Africans, though the latter could be heard and seen in action well off to the south. From the start of the operation enemy machine guns swept the minefield gaps over the ridge in 25 Battalion’s old front, holding up the passage of support weapons. About 3 a.m. a message from C Company reached the battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant, to report the movement of enemy tanks and lorried infantry on the company’s front. Calling on the artillery for the defensive fire tasks prepared for this sector, the battalion commander went forward to the ridge, where he directed fire from a tank against the enemy covering the gaps. With the help of Major Reid3 and his party of 8 Field Company sappers detailed to clear routes and lay the protective minefield, several vehicles including mortar-carriers and eight anti-tank guns ran the gauntlet of the gaps and threaded their way through the mines to reach the rear of D Company’s new position. By dawn of the 27th, although a line of sorts had been formed along the original objective, both 26 and 25 Battalions were rather precariously situated, with wide gaps between companies and routes to the rear exposed to enemy fire. However, with good observation over the front, the artillery, together with Vickers guns, anti-tank guns, and the tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade on and behind the ridge, could have held off any but the strongest of counter-attacks.
Enemy reaction to 6 Brigade’s advance remained lively until well into daylight, with machine guns and mortars firing at any movement in the company areas and 88-mm guns laying
salvoes on any vehicles that showed themselves over the ridge, and under this fire the engineers found it impossible to lay the proposed defensive minefield. Casualties in the brigade amounted to some sixty men, but these losses were offset by over seventy prisoners, almost all Italians of 2 Battalion, 61 Regiment of Trento Division, the battalion’s headquarters being among the positions overrun.
Immediately to the south of 6 Brigade’s area of operations, 2 South African Brigade had the task of bringing its front to the line of the original final objective by pivoting on its left flank to swing its right about 1000 yards to the south-west. Starting at 10 p.m. with artillery support in the form of concentrations on known enemy positions, the South Africans gained their objective except for the extreme right flank against the New Zealand sector. To clear this gap and also to subdue some enemy posts which lay just ahead of their final line and were hindering consolidation, they called up Valentines of their supporting armour, 8 Royal Tanks. This action, though successful, caused five Valentines to be lost on mines. Prisoners for the night came to 65 Italians and two Germans, for a cost of 34 South African casualties.
On the left sector of the South African front, 3 Brigade, already fully on the original objective, managed to improve its front by occupying several posts from which the enemy retired when attacked by patrols.
No major activity was undertaken by 4 Indian Division during this night as the division was concerned with preparations for the reliefs planned to start next day. These entailed the move on the 27th of 161 Brigade, on relief by 2 Fighting French Brigade of 50 Division, into 1 South African Brigade’s sector and of 5 Indian Infantry Brigade, from 30 Corps reserve, to take over 2 and 3 South African Brigades’ front after dark. With its 7 Brigade staying on the western end of Ruweisat Ridge, 4 Indian Division would thus have 5, 161 and 7 Brigades in line across its front by the morning of the 28th.
Apart from the showing of its dummy tanks and the employment after dark on the 26th of a ‘sonic unit’ to simulate the noises of tanks in movement, 13 Corps passed a quiet night. That hopes of further offensive action had not been entirely abandoned is shown by directions given by Horrocks for the engineers of 44 Division to continue gapping the February minefield ‘by stealth’. The corps’ main concern was, however, the problem of spreading its infantry over its extended front and the release of 7 Armoured Division.
Had Horrocks been aware of the enemy’s growing insecurity and fuel problems, he need not have worried about defence, for during this night the Panzer Army finally decided that it would have to
bring the reserves from the south to bolster the northern front and risk a breakthrough in the south. Once the reserves moved, there was unlikely to be enough petrol available for a return journey. Although a northward trend in enemy movement had been noted during the day by observers on the ground and in the air, Eighth Army’s intelligence staff had not gathered sufficient evidence by the evening of the 26th to report any significant changes in the dispositions of either 21 Panzer or 90 Light Divisions. But on the morning of the 27th, intercepted wireless messages gave a hint that 21 Division was in movement, while a study of tactical air reconnaissance reports indicated that the southern front had begun to lose vehicles to the northern. Shortly after midday, further intercepts confirmed that 90 Light Division had come forward to face the Australians and that units of 21 Panzer Division were opposite the Highlanders’ front. Eighth Army, however, was still unaware of Stumme’s death and Rommel’s return.