Chapter 28: Australians Keep the Initiative
The Night of 28/29 October
Nightfall on 28 October heralded the start of the final phase of Montgomery’s effort to overwhelm the Panzer Army. Although the battle so far had not gone exactly to the letter of the plans – for the armour’s break-out had not yet occurred, while the ‘crumbling process’ had been restricted to the relatively narrow front of 30 Corps’ salient – much had been achieved in inducing the enemy to lay on costly and fruitless counter-attacks. The transfer of 21 Panzer Division to the north was a sign that the Eighth Army retained the initiative, for all of Rommel’s reserves of any value were now being drawn into the battle at the point where Montgomery intended to use his superior strength in tanks and artillery. Rommel was also playing into Montgomery’s hands by allowing 164 Division to hold out in its coastal pocket. Any threat of encirclement of this pocket had to be countered by attacks made within observation and artillery range of the salient that reached out to Point 29 where, instead of the customary weak link along the boundaries between corps or divisions, there had developed an unusual overlapping in which two corps with two infantry and two armoured divisions were involved; though this made for some muddle and cross-purposes in offensive operations, it gave the defence an abundance of observers backed by tanks, anti-tank guns and artillery.
As part of his plan of enticing counter-attack, Montgomery had always intended to ‘crumble’ the defences between the north of the Australian penetration and the coast, an operation that would not only remove the most complicated and strongly defended sector of the Panzer Army’s line but would also free the coast road and railway for a break-out and pursuit. As already recorded, the first stages of this crumbling had been attempted and a further operation was
planned for the evening of the 27th, but owing to various factors had had to be postponed; so that on the morning of the 28th Morshead’s headquarters was faced with the task of working out an entirely new set of detailed orders to fit the changes in situation and deployment of troops. As the whole plan, particularly the artillery programme, presented some unusual features of timing and direction, much of the detail was not settled until the middle of the afternoon, allowing little time for preparation of the task tables and ammunition allocation. The operation was divided into three interlocking phases, starting with the extension of 20 Brigade’s positions around Point 29 for some 3000 yards to the north and 2000 to the north-east. Next, 26 Brigade was to drive another 3000 yards to the north-east from this base to gain the road and railway, and then swing to the south-east along the road to join with a separate advance to be made from the south against Thompson’s Post, an enemy strongpoint on the inland side of the railway on the Composite Force’s front. In the third phase, 24 Brigade in the coastal defences was to take advantage of any successes and advance between the road and the sea. Armoured support was to be provided by the Valentines of 23 Armoured Brigade and artillery support by nearly 300 field guns and some of the mediums, with a total expenditure of close on 50,000 rounds (of which the New Zealand gunners would fire 9320).
The first phase opened at 10 p.m. with 2/13 Battalion moving north-east from its defences on the east of Point 29, and 2/15 Battalion advancing north from 2/17 Battalion’s area around the point. Though fairly strong opposition was met on the right, by midnight both battalions had troops on their objectives, after which the divisional commando platoon patrolled as far north as the railway and returned with some prisoners.
As 2/15 Battalion’s new position formed a narrow and vulnerable salient, strenuous efforts were made to secure it firmly, with the four companies dug in for all-round defence and a Hawkins minefield laid on north and west.
As soon as information sent back indicated that Phase I was going well, Morshead ordered that Phase II should proceed as planned. In this phase 2/23 Battalion (26 Brigade) was to marry up with 46 Royal Tanks, with whom it had trained before the offensive, and move by an intricate route, in dust and darkness, through 2/13 Battalion on a two and a half mile drive to the railway. First mines, then enemy resistance forced the infantry to dismount from the tanks and carriers and, though some of the men fought their way to the railway, the battalion finally reorganised close to the start line with the surviving tanks in support.
As news of this action filtered back, Morshead called off further operations, directing 2/23 Battalion to go under 20 Brigade’s command and join its front with 2/13 and 2/15 Battalions. Australian casualties for this night were not excessive, while the whole operation brought in some 200 to 300 prisoners, mostly German. Fifteen Valentines were put out of action, mainly by mines, but most were later recovered.
The Panzer Army recorded that this night started with a ‘terrific’ artillery preparation that rose ‘to a violence not before experienced’. After a gallant defence lasting six hours, II Battalion of 125 Regiment and 11 Battalion of the Bersaglieri were overrun, the Italians being almost completely destroyed, though the Germans fought on even when surrounded by tanks and infantry. Dawn counter-attacks were prepared by 90 Light Division, which was given command of all troops in the coastal pocket including the survivors of 164 Division, with orders to construct a new defence line from the west
of Point 29 north-east to the coast. The defences east of that line were, however, to be held for at least two more days.1
With most of their artillery firing for the Australians on this night of 28–29 October, neither 10 Armoured nor 51 Division attempted any major action. With a strength of 46 heavy and 17 Crusader tanks, 8 Armoured Brigade deployed east of ‘Woodcock’ while patrols went out to find the Royal Sussex battalions of 133 Brigade. From a few survivors of the reserve company of 4 Royal Sussex a little was at last learnt of this battalion’s fate, and both 2 and 5 Battalions were located and supplied. On the rest of 30 Corps’ front and the northern portion of 13 Corps’, most of the units were still organising their defences after the widespread reliefs, so that local reconnaissance patrols only were operating. Owing to delays in movement and a last-minute change of plan, one brigade sector of 13 Corps’ front was left almost unoccupied overnight. Only in 44 Division’s sector was there any hostile activity and here 132 Brigade lost about a dozen men in patrol clashes, which showed that the enemy had apparently no intention of withdrawing as yet.
At dawn on the 29th the Australians were well settled in their new gains. Though the finger pointing north from Point 29 appeared on the map to be extremely vulnerable, the excellent observation and communications developed on the point allowed massive defensive artillery fire to be brought down where and when needed, even the heavy shells of the medium guns arriving within ten to twenty minutes after the observers called the target. The enemy on the other hand was still in some confusion, several trucks driving unconcernedly into the Australian lines. It was not till well after daylight that the counter-attack ordered by 90 Light Division was observed in the form of groups of infantry forming up to the north-east of 2/13 Battalion. Under the defensive fire, the troops disappeared from view and no further attempts were reported during the morning, though enemy shellfire, particularly of airburst salvoes, was heavy at times over the newly-won area. About midday Stukas flew overhead, dropping their loads rather indiscriminately on their own as well as the British lines east of the point, and at the same time the enemy shelling increased. Both tanks and infantry were then seen advancing from the west against 2/15 Battalion. Artillery fire called down by the observers on Point 29 stopped all movement well before this force could reach the Australians’ forward posts.
The fog of war was particularly thick this day for the enemy. Not only around Point 29 but further south, the front-line units reported constant British attacks continuing until the late afternoon. The Australians, however, did little more than attempt to improve and organise their gains won overnight. Further south, under fire laid down by 10 Armoured Division across the front of 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade’s salient to screen the movement of supply vehicles to the Sussex battalions, several groups of infantry came out of their trenches with hands up to surrender to patrols of 2 Royal Sussex and 8 Armoured Brigade, more than 100 altogether being gathered in, mainly of 115 Regiment ( 15 Panzer Division). This caused a gap in the defence line held by 15 Panzer Division, which thought its front was under attack and consequently ordered a counter thrust to regain the line. Africa Corps directed that this thrust should be coordinated with the operations by 90 Light Division against Point 29, but the strain on both divisions was such that preparations and assembly were not completed until late in the afternoon. The advance was first seen by 10 Armoured Division and 152 Brigade but, though a few Italian tanks came into range of 8 Armoured Brigade which claimed several hits, the main force of tanks and infantry swung north-west towards Point 29. Here it disappeared in the dust raised by the fire of over 300 guns and by 7 p.m. had disintegrated. For its share 15 Panzer Division reported that it had successfully regained the gap in its line, but 90 Light Division was more honest, claiming no headway at all.
The Panzer Army was given quite a scare towards evening of this day when the Italian headquarters commanding the rear area reported that a British column of two divisions was moving deep in the desert south of Matruh, a report probably arising from the activities of one of the British raiding parties. Air patrols were sent out to locate the mythical force, the Young Fascist Division and 288 Special Force were alerted, and the proposed relief of 21 Panzer Division by Trieste was delayed.
On the British side the 29th was noteworthy as the day that an innovation long proposed was finally translated into action. Many soldiers, particularly among the armour, had been asking why the 3·7-inch anti-aircraft gun, used to protect rear areas and headquarters, could not be brought into the line and used in an antitank role as the German 88-mm gun was used. A trial in which these guns were brought forward and laid on derelict tanks in the front line proved clearly what the artillerymen already knew, that they were not designed for rough travelling or speedy action.
As well as suffering disappointment in its hopes of retaliation against the 88s, the armour also came under a serious criticism this
day when the headquarters of 10 Armoured Division admitted to 30 Corps, who in turn told Eighth Army, that the tank codes, call signs and recognition signals had probably been captured by the enemy in a tank lost as long ago as the 27th. No satisfactory explanation was given of this delay, but it brought the need of preparing and issuing new documents to all concerned at a moment when all staff were immersed in the new plans.
The partial failure of the Australian operation during the night, together with information reaching him on the enemy’s dispositions, persuaded Montgomery, early on the 29th, to change the detail of his plans. From prisoners, intercepts, and other sources, it had become evident that 90 Light Division, the last German reserve considered of consequence, had been at last committed to battle, joining the concentration of German formations in the north of the line, and from this Montgomery deduced that Rommel, of whose return he learnt this day, was apprehensive of an offensive directed along the coastal road.
The Eighth Army’s analysis of the Panzer Army’s dispositions was far from accurate in any detail, and understandably so in the circumstances. At the opening of the battle, 164 Division, with Italians sandwiched among its units, had held the whole front facing 30 Corps, but, under attack, it had been forced to spread its infantry into some of the Italian positions and had then been split by the penetration from Point 29 to ‘Woodcock’ and ‘Snipe’. Its infantry in the coastal pocket and round to the west of Point 29 were now being taken over by 90 Light Division, leaving it in command only of the troops left in the southern part of its original front. In the central portion there was a confusion oddly similar to that on the British side. Here infantry of both 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions, sent in to plug the gaps, were mixed with survivors of 164 Division and the Italians, but unlike the British confusion in command, Headquarters of the Africa Corps retained direct control over this sector.
The Eighth Army did not as yet know how heavily 21 Panzer Division had been involved in the fighting, and though British intelligence estimated the surviving tanks in 15 Panzer and the Italian armoured divisions with some accuracy (an estimate of 40 and 225 respectively against an actual strength of 31 and 190), 21 Panzer Division was still given a strength of 110 when in fact the division was down to 57 ‘runners’. A more serious intelligence miscalculation, possibly caused by information gleaned about the proposed relief of 21 Panzer Division by Trieste, was that the German formations were combining to block the coast road, leaving
the Italians to hold the desert further south. As Montgomery himself put it, ‘The Germans had been pulled against our right and were no longer “corsetting” the Italians. ... the dividing line between them appeared to be just north of our original corridor.’2 There is no hint in the German records that Rommel intended to drop the system of sandwiching the two nationalities and give the Italians any sector to themselves; his problem was to get his armoured formations free of commitment in the line so that they could act as a mobile reserve to be thrown in wherever German or Italian units gave way.
However, on this assumption, Montgomery was open to the influence of the proponents of the old ‘Hit the Italians’ policy and accordingly changed the thrust line of SUPERCHARGE from the coast to the ‘dividing line’ between the two Axis nationalities, while the Australians continued their crumbling process towards the coast to hold the German formations. Though based on error, the change of direction had several advantages, chief of which was that it would lead the armour into open desert instead of along the coast where the terrain and defences were less suitable for armoured deployment. Timings for the change were for the Australians to start their next crumbling operation on the evening of the 30th, with the New Zealand opening of SUPERCHARGE taking place the next evening. Whether the infantry managed to make a breach or not, 10 Corps’ armour was to pass through the infantry early on 1 November.
When he learnt of the change of direction, Freyberg told Leese ‘That is what I wanted to do originally. Are any more [tanks] to be put under my command. It is in command that the thing breaks down.’3
The new plan gave the New Zealand infantry attack a narrower front, of about 4000 yards with an equivalent depth of advance. This allowed a greater concentration of artillery fire from the thirteen field and three medium regiments available to cover the path of advance. The Australians and Highlanders were given subsidiary tasks designed both to deceive the enemy on the main point of assault and to assist the clearance of the flanks, while the Air Force promised to step up its operations to the maximum, especially on known positions of enemy armour at dawn on 1 November. The alteration in the plans brought in its train a mass of staff work to rearrange assembly areas and movement routes and tables, as
well as some changes in command and the extension of 13 Corps’ front to take over 4 Indian Division in situ.
The Night of 29/30 October
To assist land operations by keeping the enemy’s available reinforcements well spread out, the Royal Navy sent off three destroyers and seventeen smaller vessels in daylight of the 29th to sail from Alexandria on a westerly course along the coast. At dusk most of the force turned about, leaving eight torpedo boats to demonstrate with flares, smoke and automatic fire off beaches to the west of Fuka, an effort which the enemy did not take very seriously.
For the army, the night of 29–30 October was relatively quiet on all fronts except in the Australian salient north of Point 29. Here, with an unopposed advance of up to 1000 yards, 2/23 Battalion straightened its front to join its right and left flank neighbours.
While this occurred, the troops on the left, 2/15 Battalion, were laconically reporting a series of minor counter-attacks from midnight until nearly daylight. Under artillery fire these attacks were not resolutely pressed, gaining no ground and losing twenty-three prisoners, all of 90 Light Division. What was apparently happening was that this division was sending reserves up to form its new defensive line but, in the general uncertainty and the darkness, the troops ran foul of the Australian outposts. The German division complained that it was under incessant air attacks and artillery fire throughout the night.
Further south, 10 Armoured and 51 Divisions made some minor readjustments of their combined front, the two Sussex battalions of 133 Brigade being brought back to a less exposed reverse slope and tied into the Highlanders’ defences on their flanks. On the rest of the army front the night was uneventful except for some small patrol clashes. A noisy demonstration by the Sonic Unit in the far south brought little enemy reaction.
The 30th October dawned fine and clear, the meteorologists of the Eighth Army promising several days of good weather ahead. This was officially the day when the desert summer ceased, but Montgomery decided to retain Egyptian Summer Time for his army, mainly to save any upset that might arise in the timings of the mass of movement and artillery tables already prepared for the new offensive. It was probably a wise decision but, as it was confined
to the army in the field, it brought a little confusion in contacts with the Navy, Air Force and certain base installations which had automatically reverted to standard time.4
Throughout this day conferences at all levels were held on the new offensive, and further orders issued. At the New Zealand divisional conference, General Freyberg made public the reason why the break-in was to be made by formations attached from other divisions. He stated that the New Zealand Division had already lost 97 officers and 1481 men since the battle opened and, as reinforcements available were few, the Division could not afford the possible casualties of the initial action without endangering its role in the pursuit for which it had trained. He also promised that his final orders would be issued the next morning.
Apart from the conferences, the day passed quietly. Air reconnaissance about midday warned the Australians of a possible attack against Point 29, and preparations, including heavy bomber support, were made to repulse it. Apart from several Stuka raids, however, nothing eventuated and, when Australian observers reported that several guns in the coastal area were no longer operating, it was presumed that the movements seen from the air might have been connected with the withdrawal of the enemy’s heavy artillery.
The concentration of the large force due to operate under the New Zealand Division into its assembly area by Makh Khad was delayed by the inertia of several bodies of 10 Corps who resisted being shifted to other areas. By nightfall most of the New Zealand units were in place, though 9 Armoured Brigade, now built up to 75 heavy tanks and 49 Crusaders, did not get beyond Alamein station while 151 Brigade failed to reach its appointed bivouac area. Travelling independently at dusk, 6 New Zealand Brigade left the Division to go forward to relieve 152 Brigade, and at 12.35 p.m. passed temporarily under the command of 51 Division.
As the various units sorted themselves out, Freyberg went round the troops and as far forward as the Highland Division’s front. Impressed by the fatigue of many of the infantry due to take part in the offensive, he returned to his headquarters to reconsider all the factors involved in mounting the offensive – the strain on the artillerymen in switching without a break from the Australian operations, the difficulties inherent in the cooperation of the various troops from the different divisions, the shortness of time allowed
them for reconnaissance of the routes, points of assembly and start lines, and the still near-chaotic congestion of the area shared by Australians, Highlanders and armour through which most of his assaulting troops would have to make their way to their start lines. Shortly before midnight he called on Leese to say that in his opinion a twenty-four-hour postponement was imperative; the advantages were many and the disadvantages mainly that the delay might allow information to leak to the enemy, and that the timings would have to be put two hours later because of the later rising of the moon, thus leaving less time before daylight for consolidation.
Leese agreed with his arguments which he passed on at once to the Army Commander, who some hours later issued an official notice of postponement until the night of 1–2 November. Later, Montgomery enlarged on his action, stating that although the decision was taken with reluctance, it was necessary as, once 10 Corps and the New Zealand Division were committed, he had virtually no reserves ready to complete the break-in or to reinforce success.
While the complicated movements of assembly were taking place in their rear and the postponement of the offensive was under consideration, the Australians went steadily ahead with the next step in the crumbling process. This was in effect an enlargement of the previous attack, its first objectives the gaining of the railway and a swing along it to the south-east, as before, with a thrust from this base due north to the coast, the whole operation to be undertaken by 26 Brigade. For Phase I, 2/32 Battalion (from 24 Brigade in place of 2/23 Battalion, which was to remain under 20 Brigade in the defences by Point 29) was to advance in a north-north-easterly direction from the area of the point to the road and railway. For the second phase, 2/24 and 2/48 Battalions were to follow and consolidate a base between the road and railway. From this, for a third phase, 2/24 Battalion was to clear up Thompson’s Post from the north while 2/48 Battalion ‘exploited’ towards the coast. In a final phase, 2/3 Pioneer Battalion was to attempt to carry the exploitation right to the coast. There were also two subsidiary actions planned, one by 24 Brigade to reduce a strongpoint on the railway just east of Thompson’s Post and another by 9 Australian Commando Platoon to attack a suspected enemy headquarters off to the north of 2/15 Battalion’s salient. The operation was to have the support of the field regiments of the Australian, New Zealand and Highland divisions augmented by some of the armoured divisions’ field batteries and the corps’ medium guns, a grand total of 312 field and 48 medium guns scheduled to fire more than 64,000 rounds on a flexible timetable permitting postponements of the various phases and sub-phases.
Although time allowed for preparation was short, the operation was on the same lines as those attempted before, and the Australians felt they had sufficient experience to iron out many of the earlier hitches. A detailed engineer plan was made for clearing and laying mines, and particularly for blowing and bulldozing gaps in the railway embankment, known to be a difficult and hazardous obstacle for tanks and vehicles. One problem that could not be overcome was the long and involved route to the first start line, the final northerly leg of which was exposed to enemy observation from east and west, so that the approach march could not be commenced until darkness limited observation.