Chapter 27: The Fourth Day of Battle
The fourth day of the battle saw one of the most gallant actions of the desert war, an action that, though unpremeditated in its form and almost unknown at the time to the higher command, had a great effect on the enemy. It began in the half-light before dawn when 2 Rifle Battalion, hastily dug in short of its ‘Snipe’ objective, opened fire on the enemy tanks and vehicles almost surrounding it. In thus disclosing its position the battalion seems to have relied on the planned arrival at dawn of 1 Armoured Division’s tanks. At the headquarters of the division it was believed, from wireless messages received, that both the motor battalions were on or very close to their objectives, 2 King’s Royal Rifle Corps holding ‘Woodcock’ with a company, the rest of the battalion being only a little way to the rear, and 2 Rifle Battalion in full strength on ‘Snipe’, though, owing to the prevalent vagaries in map reading and navigation, the exact positions held were uncertain. With the Rifle Corps battalion apparently somewhat scattered, the commander of 1 Armoured Division told 2 Armoured Brigade to make a daylight reconnaissance before sending its regiments to ‘Woodcock’ but directed 24 Armoured to start at 4.30 a.m., as previously planned, for ‘Snipe’. The latter brigade, after its first quiet night for some days, was unprepared for so early a start, but eventually got its leading regiments, 47 and 41 Royal Tanks, on the move to the west about the same time, 6.30 a.m., as 2 Armoured Brigade, having completed its reconnaissance, set off in a north-westerly direction.
Collecting on its way a number of enemy stragglers, mostly German, 2 Armoured Brigade came up behind and to the south of the main body of 2 KRRC, then a little way east of the Kidney contour, where it came under anti-tank gun fire. Halting in hull-down
positions, the brigade proceeded to engage these guns, 10 Hussars on the left claiming to have destroyed one 88-mm and a Russian 7·62 centimetre gun.
Further south 24 Armoured Brigade worked its way forward on a wide front, 47 Royal Tanks on the right, 41 on the left and 45 in reserve. Troops of the Black Watch in the ‘Stirling’ locality had to take cover from indiscriminate firing as one group of British tanks passed through their right flank, while some of the brigade seem to have gone even further south to overrun positions still held by III Battalion of 382 Regiment, a unit which, though out of touch with the rear and reputedly overwhelmed earlier according to the Africa Corps’ diary, had been mainly responsible for upsetting the Highlanders’ efforts at clearing up their front.
As the tanks came slowly forward, the rifle battalion on ‘Snipe’ continued its lone battle, its guns firing on the enemy tanks to damage or destroy several and force the rest to move further away. Shortly after dawn broke, the whole battalion area was subjected to heavy fire to which, without an artillery observation officer, the battalion could not retaliate. Hopes of help rose about 7.30 a.m. when, through the haze raised by the shelling and the smoke of burning vehicles, tanks were seen coming up from the rear, but these at first opened fire at long range on the battalion’s vehicles and the derelict tanks around. Only a brave sortie by one of the rifle battalion’s officers persuaded them, then identified as a squadron of 47 Royal Tanks, to engage the enemy instead. Meanwhile a force of enemy tanks had approached from the south-west into range of the battalion’s six-pounders in that quarter. After losing three tanks to these guns, the enemy sheered off to the east to come face to face with the British tanks, which by 8.30 a.m. had drawn nearly level on the south of the rifle battalion’s defences. A fierce and confused battle ensued between tanks and anti-tank guns on both sides, but, unable to call on artillery support after its artillery truck went up on a mine, 47 Royal Tanks was forced to fall back under the dominating fire of the enemy’s 88-mm guns. With six tanks knocked out in one squadron and all but one destroyed or damaged in another, the tank battalion withdrew to hull-down positions well off to the south-east of ‘Snipe’. The enemy also drew back out of range but the rifle battalion was given little respite. About 10.30 a.m. a dozen Italian tanks drove at high speed from the west at a point where they could only be engaged by a few of the infantry’s six-pounders. These, however, quickly accounted for four of the Italians, on which the remainder turned tail, but a larger force of German tanks also advanced on the Italians’
right, passing to the south of the defences. Upon being engaged by the six-pounders on this front, some of the Germans turned north while the main force continued on to the east to encounter the hull-down survivors of 47 Royal Tanks. After the anti-tank gunners had accounted for eight of the tanks facing them, the whole enemy force retired slowly out of effective range.
With only eleven runners left, 47 Royal Tanks also withdrew, leaving 41 Royal Tanks, well to the south and engaged only at long range, to cover the southern flank of 2 Rifle Battalion.
During these engagements around ‘Snipe’, 2 Armoured Brigade had been trying to gain the high ground by Point 33 on the right rear of the proper ‘Woodcock’ objective, but had been held up by intense enemy fire. Claiming five German and two Italian tanks, four 88-mm guns and over 100 prisoners, the brigade withdrew to reorganise for a further attempt under prepared artillery support.
Thus by midday the men in ‘Snipe’, on the withdrawal of British tanks to north and south, were left completely unsupported, but fortunately the enemy also chose this time to slacken his efforts. The pause enabled 2 Rifle Battalion to check its losses, which were now serious. Casualties in men were steadily mounting and only thirteen of the original nineteen or twenty anti-tank guns remained in action. Ammunition for the guns was also running low. The respite was short, however, for about 1 p.m. the Italian tank force on the west again probed forward towards the sector which had had the heaviest losses in guns. Only one of the six-pounders could be brought to bear effectively but this one gun, courageously manned, drove the Italians off, accounting for nine of the tanks, some at a range of only 200 yards.
While this engagement was still on, the Bays of 2 Armoured Brigade had begun their second attempt to gain Point 33 with artillery support. Little progress had been made, and one tank lost, when the armoured division’s headquarters issued a warning, gained from intercept, that 21 Panzer Division (then estimated at a strength of 120 tanks) was on the point of launching an attack. The Bays accordingly fell back to form a defensive line with 9 Lancers and 10 Hussars across the sector held by troops of 2/13 Australian Battalion, 2 King’s Royal Rifle Corps, 7 Rifle Battalion and 1 Gordon Highlanders.
The first indications of enemy movement appear to have been seen by the Australian observers on Point 29 who reported tanks and infantry coming from the north-west towards 2/17 Australian Battalion. Under massed artillery fire this movement stopped, but
about the same time a force, estimated at 30 German and 10 Italian tanks, came in from the west past the northern flank of ‘Snipe’ to clash with the tanks of 10 Hussars. About half this force then turned away to the south towards the Rifle Battalion, where there were only three six-pounders still in firing order, and these with only ten rounds apiece. Undeterred, the anti-tank gunners opened fire to score three hits and, with the Hussars claiming further victims, the enemy slowly withdrew by bounds as daylight began to fail. The crew of one anti-tank gun, however, managed to cripple one tank with the last round on hand. Three of the enemy tanks, possibly damaged, stayed in hull-down positions from which they could sweep the whole of the rifle battalion’s defences with their machine guns.
Coinciding in time with this engagement, but proceeding much more cautiously, another enemy force advanced under a smoke screen to the south of ‘Snipe’ and commenced a long-range duel with 45 Royal Tanks, the reserve regiment of 24 Armoured Brigade, which had come forward to cover the withdrawal of 47 and 41 Royal Tanks. When British artillery fire was added to the tank fire the enemy withdrew.
The enemy’s final effort for the 27th was an advance from the north-west against Point 29 by tanks and infantry, who reached within 400 yards of the Australian defences before being dispersed by artillery fire.
When darkness fell on the 27th, and the British tanks carried out their normal manoeuvre of retiring to laager, 2 Rifle Battalion was left isolated in ‘Snipe’, its wireless out of action and with no physical contact with friendly troops. The senior surviving officer decided that his task was still to hold fast until relieved by 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade, as originally planned and as promised earlier in the day by 7 Motor Brigade when the wireless was working. He had the wounded collected and sent back in some of the remaining vehicles and reorganised the surviving men, guns and ammunition as best he could. About 9 p.m. heavy fire fell on one company area, probably as a diversion for the enemy’s efforts at tank recovery for no attack developed, but the company, out of ammunition, retired to battalion headquarters. Then, when 25-pounder concentrations began to fall in and around the position, the acting commander decided that the relief force was on its way and gave orders for the surviving guns to be demolished and the men to start marching back. Against a casualty list of under 100 of the 300 or so men who made up the battalion group and the loss of most of their vehicles, carriers and anti-tank guns, 2 Rifle Battalion was credited, after an official investigation, with a score
of thirty-two tanks.1 Several of its members were awarded decorations for gallantry, with the Victoria Cross going to the acting commander, Major V. B. Turner.
On a claim of 47 enemy tanks, 2 Armoured Brigade was allowed by the same investigation a total of 12 to 15, most of which fell victim to 10 Hussars. The brigade’s own losses were extremely light, though no exact record exists. No claims by 24 Armoured Brigade have survived except for a bag of 200 prisoners, and its own losses appear to have been about 44 men and 26 tanks. After dark the brigade sent 47 and 41 Regiments back to reorganise and brought up its lorried infantry, 11 King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and two anti-tank batteries to form a line with 45 Royal Tanks some way to the left rear of the ‘Snipe’ locality.
The Highland Division, except for its artillery, took little active part in the actions of the 27th, though its men in the northern part of the sector spent an uncomfortable day as the British tanks passed and re-passed, drawing enemy fire. The division took the opportunity of the presence of the tanks to strengthen its line and make firm contact with the various isolated groups scattered over its front. In doing so, the Highlanders gathered in the occupants of several enemy posts who were disturbed by the comings and goings of the tanks, principally of 24 Armoured Brigade, whose tanks spread so far to the south that some were clearly visible to the men of 5 New Zealand Brigade.
On neither the New Zealand nor the South African front was there any counter-attack, though both sectors reported air attacks and heavy shellfire in the morning. Freyberg himself, after viewing the battlefield from Miteiriya Ridge, felt that the shelling possibly signified the thinning out of the enemy in front and ordered vigorous patrolling for the evening. The plan for the general post of divisions, to allow the New Zealanders to be withdrawn, was commenced with the move of 2 Fighting French Brigade, under 4 Indian Division, into part of the South African sector and reconnaissances made by the South Africans preparatory to taking over the New Zealand sector overnight.
There were few hostile exchanges on 13 Corps’ front during daylight on the 27th. Having sent its main armoured reserve to the northern part of the battle, the southern half of the Panzer Army had little desire to invite attack. At the same time 13 Corps was busy with regrouping to extend its front into 30 Corps’ area and to fill up the gaps caused by the transfer of the main part of 7
Armoured Division to the north. The most Horrocks could do offensively was to order deliberate and careful shoots on guns and infantry, to the extent of his ration of ammunition, in the hope of preventing the enemy from sending further reinforcements northwards.
Owing to the general confusion over positions and the lack of reliable information being sent back, the significance of the actions on the 27th was not clearly understood until much later at the headquarters of the army or the two corps. Early in the morning Army Headquarters had warned the corps that 21 Panzer Division was likely to be thrown into the battle, upon which Lumsden asked that the reserve armour, 8 Armoured Brigade (58 Shermans and 24 Crusaders), should be kept in readiness and that all artillery available be prepared to lay down defensive fire. At the same time he called on 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade to prepare for a night advance to ‘Woodcock’ and ‘Snipe’. Any thought he might have had of going over to the defensive was nullified by pressure from Montgomery to exploit the overnight advance of his two rifle battalions, and it was particularly fortunate for 2 Rifle Battalion that both the armoured brigades attempted to continue the breakthrough operation on the lines originally planned.
A report on a reconnaissance of the objectives by the lorried infantry brigade illustrates how the situation appeared during the day. The report stated that the objectives were over a rise past the Highlanders’ forward posts, bare of cover, swept by machine-gun fire, unmarked and impossible to recognise on the ground. There was no point of observation from which they could be seen and no reliable guides. In fact, the brigade was left to work out for itself the route and positions to be gained, and could be offered no assistance other than artillery support which might, or might not, fall to its advantage.
On the Panzer Army’s side, the fighting on the 27th was called by the diarist of the Africa Corps a noteworthy defensive success against a powerful attempt to break through the line. The overnight advances of the New Zealanders and South Africans against 433 Regiment’s sector were reported as having been beaten off with losses to the Italian 61 Regiment. The action here enabled the compilers of the Corps’ situation maps finally to remove II Battalion of 382 Regiment from the centre of the New Zealand front.
The progress of 7 Motor Brigade gave more concern, for both 2 King’s Royal Rifle Corps and 2 Rifle Battalion had cut gaps in a part of 15 Panzer Division’s front where the infantry defences were thin and to some extent badly organised. Infantry of 21 Panzer Division, arriving overnight, were sent at once to back up this
sector, but before dawn 15 Panzer Division reported that it had restored its line except for some small infiltrations. The early morning tank losses (sustained by a detachment of II Battalion, 8 Panzer Regiment of 15 Division and 3 Battalion, 33 Armoured Regiment of Littorio Division) and the appearance of the two British armoured brigades in daylight caused 15 Panzer Division to change its mind and call for assistance. Rommel viewed the situation as so critical that he ordered a major counter-attack on the front from the Kidney area north to Point 29, with 21 Panzer Division coming in from the south-west, 15 Panzer Division in the centre, and 90 Light Division from the north-west, the infantry in the line cooperating and the whole operation to be preceded by a short softening-up by artillery, the 88-mm batteries, and Stuka raids. After some ill-coordinated efforts in the morning, the counter-attack proper got going in the afternoon, under Rommel’s direct order for it to continue after nightfall until all the gaps in the line were plugged.
With as poor communications and as much confusion as on the British side, the attack broke up into a number of independent actions. The infantry, accepting as their task merely to regain the line held the previous evening, did not press their advance further than was necessary against the British artillery concentrations, and never, as far as is recorded, reached the British defences.
The tanks, on most of the front, were prepared to withdraw once they found that the infantry were not coming up to take over the ground gained. Only at ‘Snipe’ did the tanks reach within range of the British infantry’s anti-tank guns. This pocket of resistance is not specifically mentioned in the German records, but it was clearly the appearance of the rifle battalion so far forward, together with the early morning advance of the British tanks behind it, that brought 21 Panzer and 90 Light Division into the fight. The Panzer Army’s tank losses on this day cannot be clearly established, but between the 26th and 28th, 15 Division’s strength went down by 18 battle-worthy heavy tanks, and 21 Division’s by 53, leaving the two divisions with but 67 heavy tanks between them. In the same period Littorio Division lost 27 of its 60 ‘runners’.
Towards evening, with such evidence that even with all his available armoured reserve, his Panzer Army could not even dent the Eighth Army’s line, Rommel called the counter-attack off, directing that ‘present positions’ should be held.
The Night of 27/28 October
As dusk fell on the 27th the Desert Air Force concentrated on harassing the enemy forces in the battle area to impede the assembly
of forces for the counter-attacks anticipated the next morning. Forward landing grounds, the main road and the railway received attention, while special efforts were made to jam the enemy’s wireless traffic. This ‘war of the wavelengths’ was carried out by bombers circling the battlefront and caused Africa Corps considerable annoyance, slowing its communications and adding to the fog of battle. Though it probably had little effect on the outcome of operations, it at least reduced the efficiency of German communications down to the level of those prevailing in much of the Eighth Army.
On the ground, 152 Brigade of 51 Division set out from its reserve position to travel north into the Australian sector and then west to take over the western front held by 20 Brigade, whose two battalions, on relief, were to sidestep into the Point 29 area, 2/13 Battalion occupying the right flank and 2/17 Battalion the point itself. The troops then around the point, under 26 Brigade, were to go back to prepare for the next phase of operations.
The Highlanders were several hours late, holding up the movement of 20 Brigade. In the meantime 2/48 Battalion on Point 29, while packing up preparatory to relief, had to withstand a determined attack by infantry who came from north and west. Though this was repulsed by small-arms and artillery fire, with the capture of twenty-four Germans of I Battalion, 104 Regiment, the total delay held up the completion of the relief until nearly dawn. The Australian front, on the morning of the 28th, was then held by 24 Brigade on the coastal sector and by 20 Brigade, with the Composite Force under command, facing north as far as Point 29. Also during the night the bulk of the New Zealand artillery moved into the Australian sector to have its guns in action by daylight.
As the Australian regrouping was taking place, the front to the south of Point 29 was the scene of confused troop movements and action. The men of 152 Brigade, due at midnight, eventually reached 20 Australian Brigade’s area by about 4.30 a.m., settling in, fortunately without enemy interference, as day broke. Just to their south, that is, east of Point 33, 2 King’s Royal Rifle Corps clashed with an enemy force, capturing an Italian tank intact. To the rear of this engagement, the men of 7 Rifle Battalion were so well dispersed that some hours had to be spent in assembling two companies to provide cover for tank recovery attempts. Then, on marching south to a rendezvous with the tank recovery party, both companies became lost. Further south still, the survivors of 2 Rifle Battalion were marching back in the dark from ‘Snipe’, their gallant stand – and survival – as yet unknown at the headquarters of their brigade or division. As late as 4.30 a.m. 7 Motor Brigade
thought they might still be on ‘Snipe’ while 1 Armoured Division reported them as overrun.
Moving forward ostensibly to 2 Rifle Battalion’s relief, 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade had delayed its start, and its artillery support, for an hour owing to various confusions, chief of which was lack of information on the rifle battalion’s exact location and its survival. Finally, with an hour’s artillery support laid on ‘Woodcock’ but well west of ‘Snipe’ in case of the riflemen’s survival, the three lorried infantry battalions set off about 10.30 p.m., 4 Royal Sussex making for ‘Woodcock’, 5 Royal Sussex for ‘Snipe’ and 2 Royal Sussex for the area in between. The leading troops of 4 Royal Sussex were soon in action but their opponents turned out to be the Gordon Highlanders in the ‘Aberdeen’ locality. After several casualties had been suffered on both sides, the error was discovered and the Sussex men moved on to a point probably a little short of the true ‘Woodcock’ locality, where two companies dug in as best they could in very rocky ground. Patrols demolished several abandoned guns and a tank and brought in over 100 prisoners.
The third company had earlier turned off to the south to deal with fire coming from that quarter. What happened then is uncertain, but the company seems to have been captured almost intact, for the German diaries record a large bag of prisoners taken about this time.
The left-hand battalion, 5 Royal Sussex, passed through the Black Watch troops in ‘Stirling’ without untoward incident and about midnight reported to its brigade headquarters that the objective had been gained against little opposition. The actual position taken up appears to have been well east of the proper ‘Snipe’ locality, not even as far west as 2 Rifle Battalion had gone, while, in spite of the lack of opposition, casualties amounted to 86, of whom 26 were later posted missing and the rest killed or wounded.
In the centre, 2 Royal Sussex seems to have gone slightly further west than the left-flank battalion and was possibly nearly level with that on the right. Its advance was relatively uneventful, though it became separated from its anti-tank guns and other support weapons which were not brought forward until well after daylight.
With the advance of 133 Brigade, Gatehouse of 10 Armoured Division had begun, on Lumsden’s orders, to take command of the operations from Briggs of 1 Armoured Division. The necessary changes were arranged in a piecemeal fashion, 24 Armoured Brigade reverting to 10 Armoured Division’s command on the evening of the 27th, though 2 and 8 Brigades did not pass over until the next morning, while 7 Motor Brigade, with its three battalions still forward, remained under 1 Armoured Division. This method of
switching riders in mid-stream, allied to the bombing of Tactical Headquarters of 10 Armoured Division at 5 a.m., had considerable effect on the lack of information received and passed on during the night.
By 3 a.m. Gatehouse claimed that all information received indicated that the three battalions’ objectives had been occupied. His headquarters confirmed this in a message which reached Army Headquarters three hours later. However, the wireless link with the headquarters of 133 Brigade was working erratically and at 4 a.m. failed completely. Neither the artillery observation officer with the brigade nor the armoured division’s liaison officer, both of whom could have provided alternative wireless channels, were of much help for both had lost touch with the brigade headquarters group as it moved forward behind the centre battalion.
Shortly before dawn three squadrons of the Yorkshire Dragoons2 drove forward in the wake of 4 Royal Sussex with the task of covering the gap between the fixed defences of 152 Brigade and ‘Woodcock’.
On the southern flank of the operation, on hearing that 5 Royal Sussex had gained ‘Snipe’, the commander of 24 Armoured Brigade ordered 45 Royal Tanks, reinforced by the surviving ‘runners’ of his other two regiments, to advance with the brigade’s lorried infantry (11 King’s Royal Rifle Corps) and anti-tank guns to protect the southern flank of ‘Snipe’. However, the commander of 45 Royal Tanks had just led his night laager to the rear, on a false warning of an impending attack by enemy infantry, and replied to the order with the complaint that his men were exhausted and that he was not in touch with the lorried infantry or with the other regiments. His protest was overruled and, by dint of strenuous staff work, some 13 ‘runners’ of the other regiments were added to 45 Royal Tanks’ total of 21, the regiment then setting off in the early dawn from its uncertain laager position on a westerly course over the almost featureless terrain. Whether contact was made with 11 KRRC or what action the lorried infantry took is not clear, but 45 Royal Tanks was promised that it would be relieved as soon as possible by a regiment of 8 Armoured Brigade.
On the rest of 30 Corps’ front there was little hostile activity this night. Early in the evening the three New Zealand field regiments with their attached anti-aircraft batteries pulled out their guns and moved to positions in the rear of the Australian sector. Here the regiments, under the divisional artillery headquarters, were
integrated into the corps defence framework. At the same time preparations were begun to hand over the New Zealand infantry positions to the South Africans, but before the latter arrived, several patrols were sent out from 6 Brigade’s lines, as ordered by Freyberg earlier, to test whether the enemy was withdrawing. Reports of enemy parties working on defences and minefields, as well as information gleaned from five prisoners captured by the patrols, made it appear that no withdrawal was in the offing.
During the night troops of 1 South African Brigade came up in transport and, in spite of a heavy bout of mortaring from the enemy, took over the front line in a smoothly organised relief. The New Zealanders and their armour then travelled back to a bivouac area a few miles to the rear.
The southern front also passed a quiet night as 13 Corps extended its front northwards into 4 Indian Division’s sector and made preparations to relieve 7 Armoured Division of responsibility in defence. Patrols were unable to find any evidence of enemy withdrawal on this front.
The dawn of 28 October saw almost a repetition of the situation that had existed twenty-four hours earlier. Once again lorried infantry had advanced overnight into a salient in which the exact locations of the battalions were uncertain and communications with the tanks and artillery unreliable or non-existent. As before, the enemy came to life in the increasing light with counter-attacks before defences and communications had been established, but on this morning the doughty resistance of the Rifle Battalion was not repeated.
At first light 2 Armoured Brigade broke night laager and sent the Bays and 9 Lancers off under orders to gain Point 33 and support both the Yorkshire Dragoons and 4 Royal Sussex. Through some confusion in the receipt of orders, the Bays halted for breakfast while the Lancers continued towards Point 33. After overrunning some gun positions and taking a number of prisoners, the Lancers came up behind B Squadron of the Yorkshire Dragoons but then came under enemy fire. On losing three tanks, the Lancers retired to find cover, and their withdrawal was followed up by a small force of about eight enemy tanks which swept through the Dragoon squadron. Unprepared for defence, with anti-tank guns not dug in, the Dragoons scattered, abandoning many of their vehicles and guns. About the same time, A Squadron of the Dragoons further north came under fire and retired to the east as enemy infantry advanced towards its position, while another
group of enemy tanks approached 4 Royal Sussex, using their machine guns from hull-down cover against the battalion’s anti-tank guns. In hastily dug defences in hard ground, the men of the Sussex battalion could offer little resistance, and within a short time the enemy broke into the defences, rounded up the survivors and marched them away. This action appears to have passed unnoticed by other British forces nearby, except that 10 Hussars reported a column of prisoners seen marching to the west about eight o’clock.
When lack of communication with his battalions brought the commander of 133 Brigade forward on reconnaissance, all he could find of 4 Royal Sussex, apart from some abandoned anti-tank guns, were members of the Headquarters Company who had been following up the main battalion group.
Further south, and possibly slightly to the rear of 4 Royal Sussex, the men of 2 Royal Sussex were fortunate in not being directly attacked, as they also were poorly dug in and were not joined by their anti-tank guns until well after daylight. The presence of 10 Hussars to their rear may have helped in keeping the enemy off. The battalion spent an uncomfortable day under constant fire.
On the southern prong of the advance 5 Royal Sussex also suffered under enemy fire but was not directly attacked, again possibly because of the uncoordinated action of British tanks in the vicinity. The Crusader squadron leading 45 Royal Tanks to the lorried infantry’s support first reported finding some British infantry in its path and then went off the air. The regiment’s commander, unaware of any exact positions, presumed these were troops of the Highland Division in the forward defences (when, in fact, it seems likely they were 5 Royal Sussex) and accordingly ordered the advance to continue. The regiment then came under anti-tank and artillery fire, losing one tank, and withdrew on to an unidentified infantry area. Here the regiment stayed for some time, firing on enemy tanks which approached from the west.
Action continued in the area during the morning when enemy tanks, possibly the same that had attacked 4 Royal Sussex and the Yorkshire Dragoon squadron, advanced to threaten 2 King’s Royal Rifle Corps some way to the east of the ‘Woodcock’ locality. The enemy withdrew on meeting fire from the battalion’s anti-tank guns and probably from the tanks of 2 Armoured Brigade, for 9 Lancers in the vicinity claimed five victims during the morning.
The extremely fluid method of command practised by the armour was in full evidence this morning for, instead of being urged to break out to the north-west as originally planned or even to press forward to the support of the Royal Sussex, 2 Armoured Brigade
was told as early as nine o’clock that it was due for relief by 8 Armoured Brigade. Fortunately for the various bodies of lorried infantry in the area, the armoured brigade found it impossible to move from its hull-down positions in daylight without danger from the enemy’s 88-mm guns or it might have pulled out and left the front without any tank support, for 8 Armoured Brigade (less 3 RTR already on its way to the left flank) took some hours to arrive. Also under orders to withdraw, 2 KRRC was in the same predicament and stayed in action until the late afternoon, when the arrival of 8 Armoured Brigade, and a lull in the firing, allowed it to disengage.
Shortly before noon on the 28th the most determined counter-attack of the day began with heavy artillery fire on Point 29, where 2/17 Australian Battalion had relieved 2/48 Battalion in the early morning. Lorried infantry and tanks came in on a wide front from the north-west, picking up several groups of the enemy in their forward defences until the whole body of the attacking force was in considerable strength. Although subjected to artillery fire directed by the observers on the point, the force continued to advance until the leading infantry were within tommy-gun range of the Australians, with the tanks not far behind. Only under the concentrated fire of all weapons did the forward movement cease and the tanks take up hull-down positions. During the afternoon the main enemy force disengaged, but several parties of infantry remained close enough to the Australian defences to harry them with mortar and machine-gun fire.
Coinciding with this midday attack on Point 29, the enemy to the south showed similar signs of activity, but a series of sweeps by the Desert Air Force, aided by concentrations fired by the medium guns, appeared to break up his tank concentrations and the battle resolved itself into artillery exchanges and long-range tank duels in which the three regiments of 2 Armoured Brigade claimed a rather ambitious total of twenty-eight tanks knocked out during the day. Activity decreased as the afternoon wore on, permitting some movement about the battlefield. Patrols out searching for the lost Dragoon squadron and 4 Royal Sussex found some of the squadron’s men and brought back several of its anti-tank guns intact, but could gain little further information of the fate of the Sussex battalion. By 5 p.m. the ‘Woodcock’ front was quiet enough for 2 Armoured Brigade and 2 KRRC to start moving back, support of this part of the front then being assumed by 8 Armoured Brigade, whose two regiments were by this time ready to take over.
On the ‘Snipe’ front the commander of 45 Royal Tanks withdrew his regiment during the afternoon well back into the Highland
lines. This action, which seems to have been prompted by the losses suffered by enemy fire and the tank crews’ need to rest and refit, makes it appear that the commander had no clear idea of his role in support of 5 Royal Sussex or of the battalion’s situation. Casualties in the three regiments of 24 Armoured Brigade in this day’s operations, based on rather uncertain reports, amounted to over fifty men, ten tanks lost by direct enemy action, and possibly another fifteen by mines and other causes.
On the withdrawal of 45 Royal Tanks, 3 Royal Tanks (of 8 Armoured Brigade), which had moved into this sector during the morning, was given orders to support the front. Advancing on to the low ridge along which the Highland front ran, the leading squadron lost a tank to enemy fire. On this, the regiment halted and took up hull-down positions on the east side of the ridge.
This was the situation when dusk fell on the 28th. The two surviving battalions of 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade, 2 and 5 Royal Sussex, were still in their isolated and exposed positions well west of the main defence line. The supporting armour, the three newly arrived regiments of 8 Armoured Brigade, were within the main line, with no clear idea where the two infantry battalions were or, in fact, whether they still existed. Fortunately for the Sussex men, the enemy was just as confused.
Apart from the actions on the north-west corner of Eighth Army’s front, there was little activity other than the limited harassing programmes of artillery fire by 13 Corps designed to keep the enemy from regrouping. Both the South Africans and the Indians, as well as 13 Corps, were busy with organising their rearranged sectors and preparing for further troop movements to fit the Army’s latest plans. In the morning of the 28th the Army Commander held a conference at which he laid down that further offensive operations through the ‘Woodcock’ and ‘Snipe’ objectives would cease until the next morning, when 10 Corps would make another attempt at exploitation to the west. The troops of the two armoured divisions on this part of the front – as well as 1 Gordon Highlanders, to prevent further misunderstandings – were to come under command of 10 Armoured Division, which itself was to be under the operational command of 30 Corps until the evening, while Headquarters 1 Armoured Division was to withdraw to prepare for the next phase of action.
Montgomery’s action in permitting this switch of command while many of the troops involved were still in action offers some evidence that he was not yet fully aware of how haphazard were the methods under which the British armour still operated. The channels along which information was sent back and orders forward were normally
far from perfect as the records show, and this switch only helped to cause confusion and discourage determined and united action. As earlier in the campaign, a great deal of bitter comment arose over the failure of the tanks to support the infantry as expected, against which the tank regiments brought out their old bogey of the ‘88s’. The trouble, however, lay deeper, in factors such as the command structure of the armoured corps, the acceptance of reports from tank commanders at their face value, and the continuing inability of the armoured regiments to cooperate closely even with the infantry with which they had trained.3
Further conferences this morning confirmed the plans for the next Australian push, to begin that night while 51 Division went completely over to the defensive on a front composed of strong-points linked by wire and mines. The commander of the Highland Division also arranged for a set of beacons to be erected in an attempt to reconcile the discrepancies in map reading which had added to the confusion whenever the armour and its artillery were involved.
After a visit to the Australian sector, General Freyberg had lunch with the Army Commander to discuss the new major operation, SUPERCHARGE, intended to be the final blow of the battle. He had earlier made submissions to Leese that the New Zealand Division should be kept in being for its original role as part of the ‘break-out’ force and, because of its low strength and lack of immediate reinforcements, should not be used for further ‘break-in’ operations. But as there was no other commander with greater desert experience – except Morshead who was fully occupied with his own operations – the Army Commander decided that Freyberg should be given the command of the ‘break-in’ phase with a collection of brigades from other formations under his command.4
The provisional plan at this stage was for a New Zealand brigade to take over part of the Australian sector on the night of 30–31 October as a base from which the heterogeneous collection of attached brigades would advance practically parallel with the coast, with 10 Corps moving on the left, or inland, flank prepared to exploit once the main enemy defence line was breached. The
New Zealand Division itself, with 9 Armoured Brigade, was to be under 10 Corps for the exploitation role. As will be seen, events caused the detail of the plan to be altered.
The rest of Freyberg’s day was taken up with further discussions on the plan, and ended with a conference at Headquarters 30 Corps on the administrative problems of routeing the break-in and break-out forces – equivalent to more than two infantry and two armoured divisions – along the narrow and congested channels to their various start lines, and ensuring that they arrived in the right order and at the right times.
At the end of this day Army Headquarters released the news that an enemy tanker had been sunk off Greece, thus adding to the Panzer Army’s fuel problem,5 and that so far in the battle 175 tanks had been destroyed or badly damaged. Of this total, thirty-one had definitely been demolished by British engineers and the balance was an estimate based on claims. The German records seem to support this estimate for by the 28th the three divisions most affected, 15, 21 and Littorio, were 271 ‘runners’ down on the total with which they had started the battle on the 23rd. This figure includes tanks out of action through mechanical failure as well as through mines or other battle damage, but by this time repairs and replacements were hardly keeping pace with daily losses.6
On the German side the continuing action around the ‘Woodcock-Snipe’ area led Rommel to the conclusion that this was the intended focal point of the Eighth Army’s offensive, though the commander of Africa Corps, von Thoma, seems to have had his doubts. The advance of 4 Royal Sussex and the Yorkshire Dragoons had caused outposts of I Battalion of 104 Regiment to fall back, but an immediate counter-attack at dawn by a scratch group of German and Italian tanks with infantry restored this part of the main defence line with the capture of 300 prisoners and numerous anti-tank guns. Later prepared attacks, however, met heavy defensive fire and developed into tank duels in which the British tanks ‘firing from hull-down positions at over 2000 yards range simply outshot our tanks’7 and, against a claim of only fifteen British tanks destroyed, 21 Panzer Division lost heavily. In the afternoon the Africa Corps commander called off all counter-attacks in order to form a reserve ready to operate to the south as, for some reason,
possibly reports of British troop movements, he thought action might be needed in that direction. This halt in operations coincided with the more or less unplanned halt in the British armour’s efforts to find and relieve the surviving Royal Sussex battalions. Rommel himself continued to expect a British advance to the north or northwest, and in anticipation of this 90 Light Division’s front was strengthened with re-formed units of Trento Division. Rommel also asked Kesselring to reinforce the Luftwaffe, particularly with fighter aircraft, as the ‘vast English air superiority’8 was having its effect on operations and morale. Eleven raids by flights of eighteen bombers were suffered by 21 Panzer Division alone this day. The Panzer Army’s claims of British tanks destroyed since the 23rd amounted to 293, together with 510 prisoners of war brought in. Its own losses were recorded as 1994 Germans and 1660 Italians ‘missing’, with those taken prisoner mostly wounded.9
Both petrol and ammunition were bringing Rommel greater worries each day. Although he had not yet seriously considered leaving the fixed defences for a war of manoeuvre, as he still had hopes of holding on until the Eighth Army wore itself to a stand-still, he knew that petrol stocks were diminishing at a rate that would limit the possibilities of withdrawal and manoeuvre.
The ammunition problem was of a different nature, for it was only in certain types of ammunition that the dumps were running short. On appeal to von Rintelen in Rome, he got a promise that submarines would be used to bring over the required ammunition to be landed at Mersa Matruh or Tobruk, but the petrol problem was almost insoluble. The Italians would not risk sailing their tankers further east than Benghazi, where the long road haul and the shortage of trucks made their loads almost valueless, but, on a suggestion that they could supply strong naval cover to allow the use of Tobruk or Matruh, retorted that they could only do so if the Germans allowed the Italian fleet sufficient fuel oil. The Italians were also unable to supply effective air cover, while Kesselring’s air fleet was already feeling the effects of the demands of the winter offensive in Russia.10
However, Rommel managed to get a promise that both Italian and German transport aircraft would fly in petrol, but von Rintelen,
in a report made on 29 October stated that, unless Malta could be dominated, ‘in the long run the means necessary to carry on fighting cannot be brought to the German-Italian Panzer Army’; he estimated the middle of November as the time when shortages might become critical.11
The Panzer Army had acquired by capture a British operation order, presumably forlightfoot, in which the intention was given as exploitation north-west to the coast after the defence line was breached. The mass of movement during the day in the north-west corner of the British salient confirmed Rommel in his appreciation that a renewal of the attack would commence from this point, probably during the night of 28–29 October, ‘which could only be beaten off by the greatest possible effort by all arms’.12 He directed the army artillery commander to concentrate on this area, using observed salvoes rather than harassing fire, and urged all troops to open fire with their machine guns at long range. He also directed that 20 Italian Corps should assume control of the southern front with 10 Italian Corps under its command, and that the reserve stiffening of 21 Panzer Division’s tanks left in the south should come north in exchange for the detachment of Ariete’s tanks which had moved up with the main body of the panzer division. Ariete at this time still possessed about 128 tanks in going order.
For its general reserve the Panzer Army had the Trieste motorised division with about thirty-four tanks, its three reconnaissance units, 3, 33 and 580, manning armoured cars and captured light tanks, and the Army Battle Group which, except for the few tanks of the headquarters defence unit, was little more than a staff prepared to take command of any troops – reinforcements, service and supply units, and similar bodies – who might be drawn into the battle. Further to the rear there were the Young Fascist and Pistoia divisions, but there were no other formed units of German troops available. In the light of after-knowledge it is surprising that Rommel retained the well-trained paratroops of the Ramcke brigade in the Ruweisat and El Mreir area, but there were several factors, including the transport problem as well as uncertainty over 13 Corps’ intentions, that must have affected any proposal for their relief by spare Italian troops.