Chapter 29: Australians under Counter-attack
The Night of 30/31 October
At 6.45 p.m. the first units began to move up, the tail following some three hours later. In spite of delays caused by congestion along the first leg of the route and the churned-up tracks and thick dust throughout, the leading unit, 2/32 Battalion, reached its start line only a few minutes late. Hurrying forward to catch up with the supporting fire, the men overcame some light opposition to reach their intermediate objective about half an hour after midnight. Stronger resistance was met on the way to the final objective, but positions on the road and railway were soon gained and the infantry dug in while engineers of 2/3 Field Company, having lost their bulldozer on a mine, set to work to dig a gap in the embankment with picks and shovels, a task which took three hours. Although the gap came under enemy observation and fire, several vehicles with anti-tank and Vickers guns were rushed through, the weapons being set up in the defences.
With good news of the initial progress coming back, the second phase was allowed to continue as planned. This involved an advance, starting at 1 a.m., through 2/32 Battalion’s gains, by 2/24 Battalion on the right and 2/48 Battalion on the left in a south-easterly direction between the railway and road for some 3000 to 4000 yards. Both battalions were delayed on the approach march, while 2/48 Battalion, in the lead, had to detach a company to subdue an enemy post which prevented the men from forming up on the start line. In the meantime, 2/24 Battalion, reaching its start line just after the supporting fire opened and assuming the other battalion had already started, set off at speed to catch up, but was quickly slowed down by stubborn opposition. This allowed the two battalions to regain contact, and together they fought slowly forward until losses and exhaustion brought them to a halt. One final effort was made by the commander of 2/24 Battalion who, on hearing
a rumour that Thompson’s Post was abandoned, led a patrol there only to find the position still strongly defended. With a muster of fewer than 150 riflemen between them, the two battalions then fell back on to 2/32 Battalion, 2/24 digging in south of the railway and 2/48 further north.
In the meantime 2/3 Pioneer Battalion1 had arrived in 2/32 Battalion’s defences and had had a battle with enemy posts to secure its start line. At the appointed time, 4.25 a.m., without clear information of the other battalions’ situation, the Pioneers set off for the sea. Covering about 1500 yards without much trouble, the battalion halted while one company exploited further. With possibly about 1000 yards to go to reach the sea, this company was held up by heavy artillery fire, which continued until the approach of dawn made further movement unwise. Digging in where it stood, the company sent out a patrol which met heavy small-arms fire and was driven back with severe losses. Daylight showed the company to be almost surrounded by enemy posts and its line of withdrawal cut off. The second company, on the first objective, was in little better straits, while the third, further to the rear, had tenuous contact with 2/32 Battalion.
The diversion by 24 Brigade to assist the main operation was only partly successful. In an attack from the east along the railway, one enemy position was reduced, but the main position around Thompson’s Post remained extremely active so that the opening of a direct route to 26 Brigade’s gains was not achieved.
From the reports sent back by the German troops defending the coastal area it is evident that, in the belief that they had repulsed major attacks in the diversion on the opening night of the offensive and in later raids by the Australians when other fronts had given way, their confidence in their ability to stand fast was high, and it was not until the extent of this night’s encirclement became known that their morale began to sag.
Although this Australian operation failed to gain the encirclement desired, it kept the Panzer Army’s attention to the coastal area, as well as bringing in over 500 prisoners and silencing several artillery batteries. For the Panzer Army it pointed the difficult decision whether to relieve the coastal pocket by counter-attacks across ground clearly dominated by the massed British artillery, or whether to withdraw at once to the new line being laid out by 90 Light Division from Point 29 to the sea. On the 30th the Panzer Army recorded that the ‘systematic attrition tactics’ employed by
Montgomery could not fail to break through in the long run,2 and Rommel had then ordered a new line running south from Fuka to be reconnoitred but had not put any particular urgency into actual defence preparations for this line.
Though all the information available to Rommel pointed to a major offensive in the north ‘expected to begin at any time’,3 he still held to the possibility of an attack in the south, either as a separate or simultaneous operation.
There may have been a suspicion of wishful thinking in this, for a British attack in the south would have had the result of easing the pressure in the north and allowing him to swing the line back as originally planned, thus shortening his front and concentrating his defences. Whatever his reasons, he was unwilling to draw out the small but valuable stiffening of German troops in the southern sector, a transfer made possible at this time by the easing of the petrol shortage through the use of transport aircraft. The supply of ammunition had now become the major problem.
During the night of 30–31 October, Trieste Division had begun to relieve the front-line units of 21 Panzer Division but was found on arrival to be too weak in numbers to take over all the German positions, so that one battalion of 104 Regiment had to stay in the line. The mobile units of 15 and Littorio divisions, now down to 39 German and 23 Italian tanks, the relieved infantry and the armour of 21 Panzer Division, and those units of 90 Light Division not already committed to the defences, were now to be grouped as a mobile reserve under the command of Africa Corps. The British operation this night caught the Panzer Army when reliefs were in progress and there was some doubt if a force could be assembled in time for an immediate counter-attack, but the cessation of the Australian advance at dawn allowed a respite. Early on the 31st, Rommel sent a hurried order for the commander of Africa Corps to counter-strike the Point 29 area with a battle group from 21 Division, elements of 90 Light, and the army’s mobile artillery. The diarist of the Corps entered the comment that ‘this step was most incomprehensible as the Corps Commander had to leave his main front ... to direct a counter-attack on an unfamiliar front some distance away’.4 On his arrival at 90 Light Division’s headquarters south-east of Sidi Abd el Rahman, von Thoma found Rommel in charge and was only allowed to take over when the operation had been going some time.
For the rest of Eighth Army’s front the night of 30–31 October passed quietly except for some minor patrol engagements and harassing fire, which did not hinder the reorganisation plans. Dawn on the 31st saw 6 New Zealand Brigade under 51 Division’s command in the positions previously held by 152 Brigade, with 26 Battalion to the south of the Australian defences around Point 29, and 24 Battalion with B Company of the 25th on the left, that is, on the east of ‘Woodcock’. The rest of 25 Battalion was in reserve some 2000 yards to the rear. All the other troops for the New Zealand share in SUPERCHARGE were in their assembly areas except for 151 Brigade and some of the artillery which was supporting the Australians. There was considerable relief when news of Montgomery’s decision was made known for, although most of the movement and artillery plans were completed, the troops themselves were in need of time to ensure that their weapons, equipment and vehicles were in order. There was also such congestion in the assembly areas and along the routes forward that Leese finally had to send out senior officers to get order into the chaos.
The postponement also gave the Army a chance to plan a ‘general post’ of brigades to build up a reserve but, except for the release of 131 Brigade from 44 Division to form the lorried infantry of 7 Armoured Division, most of these plans came to nothing as it became evident that the Australian operations had not cut off the coastal pocket but rather were drawing the enemy into counter-attacking.
The exact situations in which the attacking Australian battalions had ended up were not all clearly known until daylight allowed observation. There were rumours that the Pioneers had reached the coast, that the Valentines of 40 Royal Tanks were north of the railway in support of the bridgehead held by 26 Brigade, and that Thompson’s Post had been taken. About 7 a.m. the first enemy attack came in, a weak effort from the north-east. This, and a later assembly of vehicles west of Point 29, was engaged and dispersed by artillery fire. The forward troops of the Pioneers came under local attack from all sides, but for a time the enemy contented himself with bombing and shelling the gap in the railway embankment cut by 26 Brigade’s engineers. On the Australians’ request, the Air Force provided fighter cover for this gap which offered the only route for vehicles. Even then, the passage remained hazardous as the enemy had it under observation and laid periodic salvoes of 88-mm airburst over it. There is a confusion in the records over the course taken by the supporting tanks, but it would appear
they were either deflected by mines or took a short cut, arriving at the railway on 2/24 Battalion’s objective after dawn, that is, after that battalion had withdrawn. The engineers with the Valentines then cut a shallow gap through the embankment through which two troops emerged, but soon halted when several of the tanks fell victim to mines and fire.
Meanwhile the forces for the enemy’s counter-attack had assembled under Rommel’s direction and about midday came into view as they moved down the road and railway from Sidi Abd el Rahman. The remainder of 40 Royal Tanks’ two squadrons (one squadron had moved west to support 20 Brigade) then braved the embankment cutting and advanced between the road and railway to join 26 Brigade. Under fire from all available guns and a load of bombs from a flight of Bostons, the enemy force appeared to halt, but a portion swung round to the north, passing through the Pioneers’ thin line. With fifteen or more tanks in support, this force then swung south towards 2/32 Battalion, overrunning the positions held by the two forward companies of the Pioneers who were out of ammunition, but failing to break into the main 26 Brigade defences. A confused battle rose and fell in intensity until the late afternoon, when the enemy appeared to make a final coordinated effort, with infantry advancing from the north-west down the railway as the tanks attacked from the north. The infantry were dispersed by artillery fire but the tanks worked slowly forward, forcing some of the anti-tank guns and the Valentines to fall back through one or other of the gaps to the shelter on the south of the embankment. The losses in 40 Royal Tanks, whose crews with their two-pounders fought valiantly against the more powerfully gunned German tanks, were 44 men and 21 tanks.
The enemy’s attacks were directed mainly at the new gains so that the 20 Brigade battalions around and north of Point 29 were not directly threatened, though they came under a great deal of fire; the anti-tank screen set out in the wide gap between 2/32 and 2/15 Battalions was in continuous action.
From the enemy’s point of view the operation appeared at first to be going well. The commander of the battle group of tanks, infantry and artillery reported to Rommel that his force had captured over 100 prisoners and knocked out 18 tanks, though he admitted he had not broken through the small enemy force north of the railway and made contact with 125 Regiment. In the afternoon Rommel handed over to von Thoma with orders to complete the task and contact was finally made with some of the isolated posts of 125 Regiment, though the British bridgehead over the railway still stood firm. Reporting to Rommel, von Thoma advised the
withdrawal of the regiment, even if it had to abandon some of its heavy weapons and equipment, for its situation was merely inviting attack. His advice was supported by the arrival after dark of the commander of the regiment with the information that only a few of his men were still holding their original positions. Rommel, however, insisted that the counter-attacks should continue, possibly in the hope that reoccupation of the pocket would provide a base for spoiling action against the offensive which he and his staff expected to be released at any moment.
While the Australians bore the burden of attack and counter-attack, the rest of 30 Corps’ front was relatively quiet on the 31st. Most of the corps’ artillery within range of the Australian front was busy all day with opportunity and ‘on call’ targets as well as defensive tasks, the guns of 7 Medium Regiment laying shells into the area of resistance around Thompson’s Post for a solid five hours. Enemy shelling was also heavy, not only on the salient but also on the area to the rear, one burst catching 25 Battery of 4 New Zealand Field Regiment as it was moving out to assemble for SUPERCHARGE and causing several casualties. Stukas also were active, especially over the gun lines. At Eighth Army Headquarters plans were made, cancelled and reissued for 1 South African Division to extend further north into 51 Division’s front to release 154 Brigade to reserve.
General Freyberg used the extra time allowed by the postponement of the operation to hold a series of detailed conferences with the commanders and staffs of the troops under his command, using a scale model of the ground prepared by his engineers to explain movement and artillery plans. For fire support, his CRA, Brigadier Weir, had advised similar arrangements to those used by the Division on the first night, of a thin barrage filled out by concentrations on known points of resistance timed to coincide with the barrage. Freyberg stressed the need for the infantry to reach and hold the objective firmly, so that the engineers could clear the tracks and the armour get forward by dawn. He warned those concerned that, on the objective, they would be in a dangerous salient, exposed to counter-attack which they would have to repulse with their own weapons and artillery fire; they should not rely on the tanks to defend them. By the evening of the 31st most of the troops under Freyberg’s command for the attack were gathered in their correct assembly areas. The strength of 9 Armoured Brigade, after considerable pressure had been exerted by Freyberg against a proposal that one regiment should be cannibalised and replaced by a Valentine regiment, now stood at a total of 80 Shermans and 52 Crusaders. All other formations, including 151 and 152 Brigades,
reported that they were complete in most essentials for the battle. Some temporary confusion was caused by a proposal by Leese that 131 Brigade (44 Division) should replace 152 Brigade, apparently so that the Highland Division should remain complete, but this was settled when the Army Commander ruled that 131 Brigade was to go as lorried infantry to 7 Armoured Division, which was then in process of moving to the rear of the northern sector.
In 13 Corps, deception measures designed to precede SUPERCHARGE were allowed to continue in spite of the postponement. During daylight a mass movement of vehicles was made to give the impression that the front was being reinforced, and this was followed after dark by a programme of raids, harassing fire, and simulated mine-clearing under smoke screens. Although the desired effect of keeping the enemy guessing was probably attained, the only genuine raid – by Fighting French troops against Point 92, west of Munassib – was firmly repulsed, while elsewhere the enemy conserved his fire until closely approached but showed no indications of withdrawal.
Towards evening the Australian commander, Morshead, having personally visited the salient north of the railway, decided that the surviving troops of 26 Brigade were in no fit state to withstand further attack and ordered that they be relieved by 24 Brigade, the latter’s place in the original coastal defences being taken by a screen of the Divisional Cavalry. In one of the most efficient and quickest moves of the battle, 24 Brigade handed over to the Cavalry and, travelling the circuitous and difficult route to the salient, took over the defences under enemy fire and with the threat of attack possible at any moment. The brigade took its own 2/32 Battalion and the remains of 2/3 Pioneer Battalion under command in situ. The two fresh battalions, 2/28 and 2/43, were in nearly full strength, while the relieved units, 2/24 and 2/48 Battalions, had been at little more than company strength so that new positions had to be sited and trenches dug before the defences were firm.5 Fortunately the night was quiet except for sporadic shelling and mortaring and the two battalions were well dug in before dawn on 1 November. A similar quiet prevailed across the whole of the army front, allowing 154 Brigade to be relieved by the South Africans and for some readjustments of 13 Corps’ troops.
‘As our weary men climbed aboard the transports to move to Tel el Eisa, they said farewell in typical Australian language with, “Start digging, you b – s, or you’ll be sorry!” – The Second Twenty-fourth, p. 222.
The planning for SUPERCHARGE called for an accounting by Eighth Army of its losses and of the resources still available. In men, 30 Corps had lost, between 23 and 31 October inclusive, some 1157 killed, 4229 wounded and 982 missing, a total of 6368. Comparative figures in such detail for 10 and 13 Corps are lacking but were included in a round figure of 10,000 men for the whole Army. Of the infantry divisions in 30 Corps, the Australians and Highlanders had been hardest hit with more than 1000 casualties each, and the South Africans had lost under 750.6 All these three divisions were still battle-worthy as they had commenced the action with three full brigades each, their quota of divisional troops, and reinforcement pools of varying sizes.
The New Zealand Division, with two under-strength infantry brigades in the field, had sustained losses of 1860 men between the 1st and 31st of the month, of whom 1087 had been evacuated sick7 and 773 were battle casualties.
Unless 4 New Zealand Brigade, training in Maadi for conversion to armour, were brought into the field – and this was against the accepted plan for the Division – the Division was hardly battle-worthy as almost all its trained infantry reinforcements had already been put in the field. However, with its experienced and efficient organisation and its integrated armoured brigade, the Division could still provide a valuable force for the mobile operations in which it was trained. For this reason the two British brigades, from 50 and 51 Divisions, were used for the opening phase. The Highland formation had sufficient reinforcements for its immediate needs and even with heavy loss in 152 Brigade would still be operational on a two-brigade basis, while 50 Division, from which 151 Brigade was drawn, had earlier been labelled as ‘expendable’ as its history since Gazala shows.
Comparative casualty figures for the Panzer Army cannot be readily assessed, for the few surviving returns shown in the records are clearly incomplete. British records list a total of 3921 prisoners counted into the Eighth Army cages by the evening of the 31st, and from this it could fairly be assumed that the Panzer Army, though on the defensive and thus likely to have lower losses than the attackers, had as high a casualty total as 30 Corps, if not as high as that of the whole of Eighth Army.
In armour the British were reaching a higher ratio of superiority as losses on both sides increased. On 1 November the runners available amounted to 176 Shermans, 159 Grants, 272 Crusaders, 115
Valentines and 97 Stuarts, a total of 819, with another 300 in process of recovery and repair. The Panzer Army was down to approximately 100 heavy German tanks and 189 Italian in the field, with possibly no more than 100 of all types under repair.8
On the morning of 1 November it looked as if the postponement of SUPERCHARGE had caused no complications. From a prisoner taken by 6 New Zealand Brigade it was learnt that Trieste battalions had taken over 21 Division’s infantry posts, and from intercepts and other sources it was assumed that the whole of Africa Corps was now assembled on the north of the front, leaving only Italians in the path of the attack. The interception of German wireless at this period was giving early warning of the preparations for counter-attacks against the Australians so that defensive fire could be ready on call.
There is a strong hint in the Panzer Army’s records that Rommel had begun to lose faith in his ability to control the battle at this stage. He was aware that the British still had a pool of resources that would enable them to continue their attrition tactics for some time yet and, in fact, his staff had already supplied him with an appreciation in which a strong attack in the north, possibly with an outflanking move round the south, was considered certain and immediate. His own resources, particularly in men, petrol and ammunition, were being used up faster than they could possibly be replaced (two ships carrying ammunition to Tobruk were lost at this time), and his transport situation was such that a speedy general withdrawal was impossible. Yet he seems to have relied on the hope that the British would tire and relax their pressure, for he took few steps to prepare the second line reconnoitred at Fuka, merely asking the Italian rear authorities to provide labour on it, while he continued to concentrate on what the Panzer Army narrative referred to as ‘skilfully handled counter attacks’ to hold a front line, much of which had been hastily prepared for defence and occupied by units in uncertain contact to flanks and rear.
On this day Rommel continued to supervise von Thoma’s command, arriving at 90 Light Division’s battle headquarters shortly after 8 a.m. in time to watch a heavy attack by the Luftwaffe aimed at the Australian salient. This air effort was either precipitate or its results, in the form of Stukas flaming to earth, caused ground action to be deferred. Of the enemy bombers the Desert
Air Force claimed seven certainly, three probably and five possibly destroyed, and the South Africans and the enemy’s own troops seem to have received most of the Stukas’ jettisoned bombs.
By 9 a.m. the Panzer Army’s radioed instructions, intercepted by the Eighth Army, made it appear that an attack was imminent but nothing developed immediately, thus allowing the sixteen surviving Valentines of 40 Royal Tanks to take up positions to support 24 Australian Brigade and for the artillery to be ready ‘on call’. Some of von Thoma’s force was observed and fired on as it assembled on the road to the north-west of the salient about ten o’clock, but another two hours passed before a definite forward movement was seen. The enemy’s objective was the ‘Hut’ or ‘Blockhouse’ at Kilo 138 on the railway, a low stone building of uncertain origin used by the Australians as a collecting point for wounded and prisoners. Around it the newly arrived 2/28 and 2/43 Battalions were disposed in far from ideal defences, overlooked by enemy outposts on surrounding ridges. By midday the defences were under heavy fire of all sorts as the counter-attacking force advanced from the north-west down the line of the road and railway where, according to the German records, there were unmined lanes on which the tanks and following vehicles could travel. Although tanks and infantry took full advantage of any cover the ground afforded, the advance faltered under the curtain of artillery defensive fire called down. The Australian anti-tank gunners and the Rhodesian 289 Anti-Tank Battery, RA, manning the front, including the gap between 24 Brigade and 2/15 Battalion, did much to keep the tanks from closing with the infantry defences and were probably responsible for causing part of the enemy force to turn away to the north before pressing on further east. Here the enemy regained contact with the troops of 125 Regiment still holding out in Thompson’s Post. Probing advances and heavy fire continued throughout the afternoon, to die down towards dusk, but nowhere had the counter-attack succeeded in doing more than cause some minor withdrawals of Australian outposts. Casualties in 24 Brigade, however, were heavy, equal in fact to the total number of men 26 Brigade would have had available had it not been relieved overnight.9
The Australians’ determined resistance and heavy artillery fire took its toll of the enemy force, particularly of the infantry of 90 Light Division, whose commander told Rommel towards evening that his troops were not strong enough to occupy a line to the surviving 125 Regiment’s positions or to mount another attack.
Rommel, however, refused to call up any of his thin reserves yet, as he had plans to draw the Eighth Army’s attention from the coast by simulating attacks on 15 and 164 Divisions’ fronts, that is, on the southern flank of the area chosen by Montgomery for SUPERCHARGE. Reminiscing over this period of the battle, Rommel claimed that he was fully aware that he would soon have to retreat, ‘But first we had to wait for the British to move, to ensure that they would be engaged in battle and could not suddenly throw their strength into a gap in our front and thus force a break-through’.10 Even if he was mentally prepared for retreat, the lack of practical preparations would indicate that he gambled on his conviction that the British command would remain ‘slow and cumbrous’, unable to follow up strongly and quickly.
The British move that Rommel anticipated was being prepared methodically throughout 1 November. At an early morning conference at the Tactical Headquarters of the Army and at a coordinating conference held by Freyberg at his own headquarters, timings and movements were settled. The operation was to start at five minutes past one on the 2nd, when the infantry under New Zealand command would set off from the existing forward line under artillery support similar to that used by the New Zealand Division on the opening night, that is, a creeping barrage thickened by concentrations on known or suspected points of resistance. The advance was to lead due west for about three miles past 6 Brigade’s front to reach the 863 easting grid by 3.45 a.m. Two hours later 9 Armoured Brigade was to pass through the infantry on this grid and, under another barrage, drive 2000 yards approximately to cross beyond the Rahman Track. Here the New Zealand armour was to deploy and prepare to repulse counter-attacks which were expected to come in from the north. With its leading regiment following an hour later, 2 Armoured Brigade was to pass through the gap cut by 9 Brigade, closely followed by 7 Motor and 8 Armoured Brigades. These three brigades were each given a definite objective on the ground and their task was to complete the destruction of the enemy’s armoured forces and open a gap to the west. Though there are certain points of timing and movement which are difficult to reconcile in the various records of the plans, the generally understood intention was that, even if the New Zealand operation was not fully successful, 10 Corps’ armour should advance close behind 9 Armoured Brigade and complete the breakthrough. Once the armoured battle was joined, 9 Armoured Brigade was to pass to 10 Corps’ command.
To avoid previous muddles over desert navigation and map reading, Army ordered that direction beacons should be erected well forward from which bearing pickets could be surveyed in along the routes across the ground won. These beacons were poles about 20 feet high carrying the distinguishing shapes of the named routes – Diamond, Boomerang, and Square – and they quickly proved their value. After Lieutenant-Colonel Baker of 28 Battalion had attended a conference11 at 151 Brigade’s headquarters, he was so concerned over several details that he had his Intelligence Section check the position of the brigade start lines against the beacons, only to learn that the lines were well out of the correct positions. At dusk, these lines were hastily relaid.
Though little actual movement towards the start line could be made in daylight in case of enemy observation, some risks had to be taken in the rear areas over which strong fighter cover was maintained continuously. Most of the tactical headquarters for the operation were occupied during the day by advance parties, and guiding parties were sent along the various routes as far as the start lines. In the afternoon 5 New Zealand Brigade travelled from the Onsol area to the Alamein station, detaching 28 Battalion to join 151 Brigade. This latter brigade marched up to a position south of Tell el Eisa, where it halted at dusk across the Diamond and Boomerang tracks on the right of 152 Brigade, which was already assembled along Sun track.
No movement of the armour was made in daylight, the time being spent in getting the tanks into fighting trim and assembled in their various columns. No written orders were apparently issued for the armoured brigades or regiments, the final plans being passed on verbally at conferences held late in the day. The armoured plan was for a minefield task force of 2 Rifle Battalion, and three troops of Crusaders with engineers and other necessary troops, to travel in three sections, one to a track, along Diamond, Boomerang and Square tracks as far west as the success of the infantry allowed. Following the cleared routes, the three regiments of 2 Armoured Brigade, then at a total strength of 90 Shermans and 66 Crusaders, were to lead the break-out. Next was to come 7 Motor Brigade, also in three columns carried in armoured cars, carriers and trucks, and with four of the new Churchill tanks.12 Finally, 8 Armoured Brigade, at a strength of 62 Shermans and Grants and 47 Crusaders, was to pass through the Motor Brigade and come up on the left of 2
Armoured Brigade. All three brigades were under 1 Armoured Division, which was to command the armoured battle. In the rear 7 Armoured Division with 22 Armoured Brigade13 and its lorried infantry provided the reserve for exploitation, while those troops of 10 Armoured Division which had been withdrawn from the front were placed temporarily under 30 Corps’ command.
Along most of the Eighth Army’s front except for the Australian salient the day of 1 November passed with little more than customary harassing fire by both sides and occasional sharp exchanges between guns or tanks. In the southern sector 13 Corps continued its deception movements during the day and prepared for raiding and reconnaissance patrols for the coming night under orders to keep in contact with the enemy and follow up any withdrawal.