Chapter 14: The Fighting in the El Alamein Line
See Map 36
THE last days of June saw General Auchinleck striving to plug the gap between El Alamein and the lip of the Qattara Depression, partly with troops who had been there for some days, and partly with those who had escaped from Matruh. Meanwhile reinforcements from Palestine and Iraq were on the way. Field-Marshal Rommel, for his part, had but one thought—to hustle the British and prevent them settling down. If the momentum of his pursuit could be made to carry him past El Alamein, he felt confident of reaching the Delta without much further opposition. For this reason he drove his men unmercifully. (A plaintive entry in the diary of the 90th Light Division shows that they were not even allowed time to bathe in the sea.) Many were the complaints of exhaustion and shortages, but all were brushed aside in furtherance of the policy of allowing the British no respite.
It had been understood in the Panzerarmee that after the capture of Tobruk there would be a pause of at least six weeks. When, as it turned out, there was no pause at all, the supply and transport services were taken unawares and had more than they could do to keep up with the spearheads which were being persistently driven forward by the energetic Army Commander. No use could be made of the railway, for not a single repairable locomotive had been left behind by the British.1 Captured stocks of all kinds were considerable and undoubtedly of great value, but did not provide the complete answer, for they took time to distribute and absorb.2 The air forces, in particular, were seriously short of transport. Water and ammunition were causes of constant anxiety. In spite of all this the Field-Marshal, by his devil-take-the-hindmost methods, drove his advanced troops into contact
with the so-called ‘Alamein line’ on the 30th June, on the same day that many of the retreating British reached it. Indeed there were several brushes in the desert inland of El Daba between small parties, many of them not very sure of the identity of the others, but all determined to make the Alamein line as quickly as possible.
The thirty-eight miles of desert between the Qattara Depression and the coast near the wayside railway station of El Alamein has no prominent features except the rocky hills which border the salt marshes and sand-dunes of the depression itself. From these hills, some 700 feet above sea level, the ground falls gradually to the coast, so that it is everywhere almost flat. Patches of loose sand alternate with areas which allow of free movement. There are occasional mounds (‘tells’) of which two—Tell el Eisa and Tell el Makh Khad—should be noted; several shallow saucers of various sizes, called ‘deirs’; and numerous low ridges, among which the Miteiriya, Ruweisat, and Alam el Halfa ridges play a prominent part in the story. The ridges generally are of hard rock, barely covered with loose sand, which made the construction of field defences extremely laborious and the rapid consolidation of a captured position well-nigh impossible.3
Some work had already been done. Since before the war the ‘Alamein line’ had been recognized as the possible site of a position for defending the Delta of Egypt—a glance at a map is enough to show why—and various troops and civil labour gangs had been employed there from time to time. But when preparations began for CRUSADER and for the defence of the Syria-Iraq front, work at El Alamein naturally fell very low on the list of things to be done.
The plan had been to create three defended localities, about fifteen miles apart, at El Alamein, Bab el Qattara (also known as Qaret el Abd), and Naqb Abu Dweis. The defences of the first had been dug and were partly wired and mined; at the second they had been dug, but there was no minefield; at the third very little had been done. A water pipeline had however been laid right across the front from El Alamein to Naqb Abu Dweis, though owing to changes in the dispositions it turned out to be of little use. General Norrie wished to create other localities in the gaps, one of them to be sited at Deir El Shein, just north of the western end of the Ruweisat Ridge. No work had yet been done on any of these. Such was the slender framework of the position to which the British were withdrawing: the term ‘Alamein line’ at this time meant only a line on the map.
It was General Auchinleck’s intention that part of the Army should
hold positions to canalize and disorganize the enemy’s advance, while the remainder, keeping mobile, should strike at his flanks and rear. Infantry divisions were to organize their mobile components into ‘artillery battle-groups’ whose actions were to be co-ordinated by Divisional Commanders in person. Corps Commanders were to ensure that the maximum forces were concentrated at the decisive point, even if this should be outside their own sector. Everyone and everything which did not fulfil an immediate tactical purpose was to be sent to the rear—an instruction which, however sound tactically, favoured the spread of discouraging rumours.
It may be thought that General Auchinleck should have declared that it was now ‘Backs to the Wall’ and that the Army, reinforced by every possible man and gun from Egypt, and fully supported by the Middle East air force, would die where it stood. Certainly such an order would have cleared away much bewilderment and doubt, for some of the measures adopted at this time seemed to the men in the ranks inconsistent with a firm determination to fight. To this extent a clear and resolute call would have been all to the good. Yet there was no denying that the enemy was on the crest of the wave. He had soundly defeated the British at Gazala, Tobruk, and Matruh. British losses in men and equipment had been very high. Now, almost within sight of a most coveted prize, Rommel would certainly press on with all his might. His troops were tired, no doubt, but so was the 8th Army, which, unlike the enemy, had not been stimulated by a run of success. The Alamein positions were not complete and the British formations were mostly weak and disorganized. On the whole General Auchinleck felt that, although he had a good chance to stop Rommel, and firmly intended to try, it would be wrong to ignore the possibility that once more his own rather loosely-knit army might be outmanoeuvred or outfought. Above all, he decided, it must be kept in being. Therefore it might have to retreat again.
One of the most awkward problems that can confront a Commander-in-Chief, still hoping for the best, is how to prepare for the worst without causing such alarm and despondency that the worst is almost bound to occur. Nowhere would this problem have been more delicate than in Egypt—a sovereign State not at war with the Axis. Neither the Egyptian authorities nor the people could be expected to be enthusiastic about measures for flooding their precious cultivation, or for demolishing their public utilities. But the British did their work discreetly, the Egyptian authorities gave their co-operation, and the country remained remarkably calm. To this happy result the Minister of State, Mr. Casey, the Ambassador, Sir Miles Lampson, and their staffs contributed not a little. It was certainly a fortunate outcome, for a breakdown of internal security in Egypt would have gone far towards ensuring a British defeat. As it was, defensive positions were constructed
west of Alexandria and a large amount of land to the south was flooded. A fortified area was organized between the Wadi Natrun and the edge of the Delta. Defences were built near Mena and the Pyramids, to cover the close approaches to Cairo. Rearward communications were improved and boat bridges were thrown across the Nile. The Royal Navy organized a Nile Flotilla of armed small craft. All GHQ schools were closed and every available fighting man found his place in some improvised unit or formation. All administrative establishments and stocks were cleared from the Western Delta.
General Auchinleck intended, if he failed to stop the enemy at El Alamein, to fight step by step through Egypt, and in the last resort to hold the Suez Canal with part of his force while the remainder withdrew along the Nile. Plans for these operations were made, taking advantage of the work already done to develop Aqaba and link it by road to the new branch of the Hedjaz railway from Ma’an.4 GHQ made ready to move to Gaza and leave an operational section in Cairo. A ‘scorched earth’ policy was examined but it was decided that, broadly speaking, nothing essential to the existence of the Egyptian people should be destroyed.5 The list of demolitions to be prepared was nevertheless a long one, and included wireless stations, telegraph and telephone systems, transportation and electricity systems, oil and petrol installations and stocks, and stocks of cotton, silk and coal. No flooding in the Delta was to be done until the need became compelling. All these plans were no doubt wise and necessary, but as they could not be kept secret they furnished rich material for the gossip which, especially in back areas, thrives on emergencies.
The fighting in the El Alamein positions during July was almost continuous and often very heavy, and much of it is difficult to follow. A broad outline will serve as a background against which to view the details later. The outstanding feature is that the enemy’s triumphant rush was not merely checked but was stopped.
The month began with a typical Rommel operation—a replica of his successful stroke at Matruh. He intended to penetrate just south of the El Alamein locality with the object of cutting the coast road and to make a sweep with his armour towards the south. The thrust was successfully opposed by the 30th Corps in the north, and the 13th Corps tried to attack the enemy’s southern flank. This phase melted into another in which the 30th Corps still barred the way while the 13th Corps tried to outflank the enemy by manoeuvring north and
north-west. This attempt failed. On 10th July the 30th Corps attacked near the coast at Tell el Eisa, throwing the enemy on the defensive. General Auchinleck next tried twice, both times unsuccessfully and with heavy loss, to break through the enemy’s centre—on the Ruweisat Ridge between 14th and 16th July, and again on this ridge and at El Mreir on the 21st and 22nd. In these attacks the 13th Corps took the main part. After a short pause the 30th Corps again attacked near Tell el Eisa and the Miteiriya Ridge. This too was a failure, and General Auchinleck then decided that he must make a long pause to rest, reorganize, and re-train his sadly battered army.
Meanwhile a great deal of work had been done on defences designed to give depth to the position, and on plans—in case withdrawal should be necessary—for keeping the 8th Army in being and for continuing the fight for the Delta.
It has been seen how, towards the end of June, the Desert Air Force had done its utmost to take the pressure off the retreating 8th Army by attacking the enemy’s troops, transport, and supplies. Nevertheless, the pursuit had been carried out remarkably quickly, but only by a comparatively small force which had become tired and weakened by shortages of all kinds. The idea of giving the Axis forces no respite from air attack throughout the twenty-four hours had now begun to be translated into action.
By July the Desert Air Force had been pressed back into the lap of the Egypt-based portion of the Royal Air Force, and there were not enough airfields to go round. The light bombers and the main force of fighters were therefore allotted the airfields in the Amiriya area, with main bases in the Canal zone and at Cairo, and the medium and heavy bombers were forced to move back to Palestine.
In July, with the front stabilizing, a new peak of intensity of air effort was reached. From the 1st to the 27th the Royal Air Force in Egypt and the Levant flew close on 15,400 sorties, apart from those against ships, which gives the impressive average of 570 sorties every twenty-four hours. Of this achievement General Auchinleck wrote in his Despatch: ... Our air forces could not have done more than they did to help and sustain the Eighth Army in its struggle. Their effort was continuous by day and night, and the effect on the enemy was tremendous. I am certain that, had it not been for their devoted and exceptional efforts, we should not have been able to stop the enemy on the El Alamein position, and I wish to record my gratitude and that of the whole of the Eighth Army to Air Chief Marshal Tedder, Air Marshal Coningham, and the air forces under their command.’6
The pattern of air operations throughout the month did not vary greatly. It covered broadly three types: operations directed against the enemy’s supply lines, those against his air forces—in the air and on the airfields—and those in more direct support of the Army. The emphasis was on the last of these when the Army was attacking or being attacked; during the comparative lulls part of the air effort was lifted on to other objectives—notably Benghazi, Tobruk and Matruh, and occasionally Heraklion and Suda Bay in Crete.
Throughout the month British aircraft roamed up and down the front and deep into enemy territory on offensive and defensive tasks and on reconnaissances of all kinds—strategical, tactical, survey and photographic. It was inevitable that the losses should be heavy; in fact the Royal Air Force lost 113 aircraft from all causes against about 80 German and 18 Italian.
One result of the long retreat had been that the machinery for army air co-operation had slipped out of gear. Indeed, it was to be some time before it was again in full working order. On many occasions good targets were reported by the tactical reconnaissance aircraft without the information being passed on to the bombers. The bomb-lines were often drawn so far to the west as almost to rule out any close support at all; moreover the wishes of Divisions and Corps in this respect seem to have differed from those of the Army. In an attempt to improve matters the Army undertook to be able to predict the position of its foremost troops two hours ahead, leaving the RAF to decide how close to these positions they could attack. This was not entirely successful, and there were many complaints of British aircraft being fired at by their own troops, and also of British troops being bombed by their own aircraft. German and Italian diaries disclose similar occurrences on their side, and it is interesting to read that on 3rd July the Fliegerführer Afrika, General von Waldau, was complaining that the lack of co-operation between the Panzerarmee and the Luftwaffe made it difficult to judge the course of events, for information from his Air units did not agree with that supplied by the Army.
It is noteworthy that on the British side the first essential for good co-operation was lacking, for General Auchinleck was directing his operations from an Advanced Headquarters near El Imayid fifteen miles east of El Alamein, while Air Vice-Marshal Coningham’s Headquarters were forty miles away, close to the Main Headquarters of the 8th Army at Amiriya. Towards the end of the month matters improved a little, and with good information coming from units on the ground the Air Force could operate much closer to the British positions, to the great satisfaction of the troops who were often able to pass back the results immediately. At about this time the enemy began to disperse his vehicles by day much more widely than before, which made them less profitable as targets. By night, however, the combination of
target illuminating by the Albacores and attacks by the Wellingtons often caught concentrations of vehicles in leaguer and interfered seriously with the work of maintenance. More than that, the harassing effect of ‘round the clock’ bombing was noted with growing frequency in the enemy’s diaries, and Rommel himself referred to it as the main feature of the violent and bloody battles of July.
For the British, perhaps the most serious feature of the month was the wastage in fighters. Although the proportion of aircraft fit to fly had been high, the strength of many squadrons had fallen below one half—Kittyhawks being especially scarce. This fact gives added interest to the opinion of General von Waldau, who wrote on 25th July: ‘... Although the enemy has lost a great many of his fighter aircraft during the last two months, there has been so far no apparent sign of a decrease in flying ability or combat performance. Combat effectiveness has been maintained, and indeed increased, by the assignment of new and excellently trained Spitfire squadrons from England. The employment of the Spitfire has given the enemy the confidence he needs to hold his own against our Me.109s.’
The pursuit to El Alamein had made advanced landing-grounds available to the enemy at El Daba, only 90 miles from the naval base at Alexandria, 185 miles from Cairo, less than 250 miles from the main Army and RAF depots, installations, and airfields in the Delta and Canal zone, and little more from Suez itself. These distances were much less than from Crete, and it was to be expected that there would be daylight attacks by bombers with fighter escort on Alexandria, and minelaying and bombing by night on the Canal and the busy terminal port of Suez. This threat was serious, for anti-aircraft guns were few for so many targets, and the fighters had necessarily to be mainly concentrated in the forward area. Yet except for fairly large raids nightly from the 3rd to the 7th July, when he lost four He.111s, and again between the 25th and 30th, when he lost two more He.111s and two Ju.88s, the enemy showed no inclination to use his bombers to attack the sensitive spots in the British back area. The emphasis was almost all on giving support to the Army.
The attacks just mentioned achieved nothing at Alexandria. There was some damage to a pumping station and a fuel tank at Port Said, and mines were dropped in the Canal, which closed it to shipping for about a week. Mines were laid and bombs were dropped among ships off Suez, but the only casualty was one water boat. On 28th July the Boom Defence Vessel Punnet was badly damaged and HEMS Fawzia, employed on coastguard duty in the Red Sea, was sunk. But the great volume of shipping, bringing the reinforcements with which the British were enabled to fight back, continued to arrive and unload with very little interference, just as they had done the previous year during the lull before CRUSADER. Now, as then, the Germans and
Italians seem not to have realized how important it was for them to dislocate the busy port of Suez, focal point for the arrival of British reinforcements of all kinds.
The nearness of the enemy’s airfields had, as described in the previous chapter, led to the evacuation of Alexandria by the Mediterranean Fleet at the end of June, and preparations were made for demolishing the port and blocking the harbour. The cruisers and destroyers were divided into two bombarding forces, one based at Haifa, the other at Port Said, and four times between 12th and 20th July some of these ships were called upon to bombard the Matruh area by night with the aid of flares dropped by Albacores of the Fleet Air Arm. These bombardments sank two merchant vessels and added to the damage to the port and other shipping already caused by RAF bombs. Thereafter, the enemy restricted his coastal shipping to still smaller ships, landing craft, and sailing vessels. Supplies passing through Mersa Matruh fell considerably in consequence.
July was a disappointing month for the enemy, who started with high hopes of a quick success at the gateway to Egypt. Within a week these hopes had almost vanished, and before the month was out there were doubts whether the Axis forces would even be able to hold on. Mussolini, accompanied by Cavallero and von Rintelen, had flown over to Cyrenaica on 29th June, in readiness to be in at the kill. He spent some time discussing the relative merits of Cairo and Alexandria as objectives; what was more to the point, he ordered the Italian air forces to be reinforced, which led to arguments with the Germans over the supply of oil fuel for the Italian Navy. He did not visit the front, and Rommel did not visit him. On 20th July, by which time it was evident that there would be no early triumph, he returned to Italy.
Marshal Cavallero, who was pointedly promoted to that rank a few days after Rommel had been made a Field-Marshal, applied himself energetically to the task of building up the Italian forces, by now woefully weak and disorganized. He arranged for seven infantry battalions and four artillery regiments, as well as tanks, armoured cars and self-propelled guns, to be sent over from Italy; most of the men were to be flown, and the tanks were to come in barges. The Folgore Parachute Division was being sent to Africa at once, and would be followed by the Pistoia and Friuli Divisions. Meanwhile the Germans had begun to fly reinforcements from Crete to Tobruk—over 2,000 had arrived by 5th July—and a start had been made in bringing over the 164th Light Africa Division, to be followed towards the end of the month by the Ramcke Parachute Brigade.
On 21st July Rommel made a long and depressing report to OKH
—a report of the failure of his plans. His German troops had been fighting for eight weeks without a break and had lost heavily. He had been obliged to spread them all along the front to stiffen the Italians, who were a constant anxiety to him. Having done this he did not fear a wide break-through, but the position would be critical until the 164th Division had arrived, a mobile reserve had been formed, and the front covered by obstacles. The Germans were down to 30 per cent. of their effective strength and the losses in experienced men were particularly serious, as the replacements were found to be only partly trained.
Reviewing the British situation, he rated high the New Zealand and 9th Australian Divisions which had had time to train in Syria and Palestine. He praised the British field artillery for its versatility and for its plentiful supplies of ammunition, and noted that the medium and heavy artillery was being strengthened. The British supply situation was very favourable because of the convenient harbours and network of railways. The Royal Air Force, now concentrated in Egypt, was attacking everything—sea traffic, the Luftwaffe, and the ground organizations, as well as the forward troops. His own supply situation was precarious, owing to air attacks on Tobruk and Matruh. Food was adequate (thanks to captures) and there was enough fuel for the present type of operations but not for a large offensive. Captured transport was plentiful, but suffered from lack of spare parts, and the daily loss from air attack was thirty vehicles. In short, he wrote, the Alamein position could be kept supplied, but stocks for an advance could not be built up. He pressed for more shipping space to be allotted to German reinforcements, and for ‘Special’ tanks, armoured cars, 5-cm. and 8.8-cm. anti-tank guns, and recovery vehicles. It was important to reinforce the air forces in Africa, not only to protect the troops and their supplies, but to enable attacks to be made on railway traffic and on shipping at Suez and in the Canal.
In fact, as Cavallero and Kesselring no doubt noticed, Rommel was reciting a list of the evil consequences which they themselves had feared would follow if the Panzerarmee failed to break through at El Alamein. To Kesselring in particular the situation was most unsatisfactory, for on the one hand Rommel was pressing for more air action in Egypt and on the other hand he himself had already been obliged to divide his air strength by concentrating a large force of German aircraft in Sicily (including more than half the Ju.88s available in the Mediterranean area) in order to resume the attacks on Malta. And at this moment von Waldau was reporting that his fighters were steadily decreasing and that his fuel situation was critical.
We now turn to consider the July operations in more detail.
On 30th June Rommel had two obvious choices—to attack as soon as possible or spare a little time in learning about the ground and the British dispositions. He chose the former course, and paid heavily for being in such a hurry. The British dispositions were as shown on Map 36, but the enemy did not know of the presence of the South Africans and expected to find the 18th Indian Infantry Brigade at Deir el Abyad. Rommel’s plan was for the 90th Light Division and the DAK to penetrate between the El Alamein defences (held, he supposed, by the remains of the 50th Division) and Deir el Abyad, starting at 3 a.m. on 1st July. The 90th Light would then make for the coast and cut off El Alamein from the east—just as they had done at Matruh. Meanwhile the DAK would swing south to Alam Nayil (which meant a night march of twenty-two miles) to take the British 13th Corps in the rear. One Italian division was to attack El Alamein from the west, another was to follow 90th Light, and the Italian 20th Corps was to follow the DAK and deal with Bab el Qattara. The Littorio Armoured Division and the German reconnaissance units were to protect the southern flank.
The 90th Light Division, still badly in need of rest, reached its assembly area in good time. The DAK ran into some very bad going, and at 1.30 a.m. on 1st July reported that it could not be ready to attack at the time ordered. One of its trials was an early sandstorm, and only by a continuous firework display of light signals were its units able to keep in touch. The 21st Panzer Division became mixed up with the 15th and at 6 a.m. was in dire confusion; it only needed a heavy air attack to make its misery complete. At 6.15 this, too, took place.
The 90th Light soon lost direction, strayed too far north, collided with the El Alamein defences, and became pinned down. It did not resume its advance until early in the afternoon. Nor had the DAK fared much better, for in its belated attempt to circle round Deir el Abyad—it was now broad daylight—it discovered that Deir el Shein was in British hands, and General Nehring decided to attack it.
The 18th Indian Infantry Brigade, under a temporary commander, was newly arrived from Iraq.7 Two of its three battalions had never been in action. Helped by the South African Engineers the Brigade had laboured for three days to construct defences in the rocky ground and now had section posts, a thin wire obstacle, and a partial minefield. It was short of small arms ammunition. It had received a small reinforcement of nine Matilda tanks manned by scratch crews, and was
struggling to organize itself on the latest column idea. The supporting artillery was drawn from three different regiments and was short of signal equipment. Fortunately, whatever else was lacking, the small garrison at Deir el Shein had courage and determination in good measure.
For some time before 9 a.m. on 1st July registration by enemy artillery foretold an attack. Then came a demand to surrender, which was refused. Heavy shelling was followed by infantry attacks and by about 1 p.m. the enemy, aided by the dust, managed to gap the minefield in the north-east corner. Through this gap passed about a dozen enemy tanks, but the defence was hotly maintained and not until 4 p.m. did the arrival of eight more enemy tanks turn the scale. Many guns were knocked out and by 5 p.m. the Matildas were also out of action and the greater part of the position had been overrun. The brunt of the fighting had been borne by the 2/5th Essex Regiment and the 4/11th Sikhs, for the attack had not fallen on the 2/3rd Gurkhas. Various parties continued to resist and it was not until after 7 p.m. that all was over. The Brigade’s gallant defence had not only dislocated the enemy’s plan but had gained several precious hours during which the 1st Armoured Division, which had been almost out of petrol and whose 4th Armoured Brigade was stuck in an unsuspected tract of soft sand, was able to replenish and regroup.
The first intimation that Deir el Shein was in trouble reached the 30th Corps through the 1st South African Division at 1.30 p.m. The 1st Armoured Division was ordered to intervene, but at 2.30 received word from its armoured cars that all seemed quiet at Deir el Shein. At 4.30, on a more urgent order from the Corps, the 22nd Armoured Brigade (the 4th was still in trouble in the sand) was sent out and clashed with enemy armour—in fact part of the 15th Panzer Division-to the south of Deir el Shein and drove it west.
Meanwhile the 90th Light Division had had a bad afternoon. Under cover of the dust it had extricated itself from the El Alamein defences and resumed its advance eastward at about 1.30 p.m. It soon came under fire from the guns of all three South African Brigade Groups. Something like a panic occurred, and when this was checked the Division went to ground. Rommel tried to get it moving, but was himself pinned down for a while, and failed. He seems to have persuaded himself that he had achieved at least the beginnings of a break-through, although the Italians had had no success, 90th Light was digging in,
and the DAK had got no farther than Deir el Shein, having only thirty-seven tanks left out of fifty-five. It reported having been bombed
many times during the day and complained of the inactivity of the Luftwaffe. Incessant air attacks by night had scattered the supply columns, and the logistic situation was still bad. In particular fuel and ammunition were running short. In spite of all this Rommel decided to
go on with the same plan, influenced, perhaps, by urgent news from Kesselring that the British Fleet had left Alexandria. He only changed
his mind when, early next morning, 2nd July, the 90th Light again failed to make any headway in the face of artillery and machine-gun fire. Rommel then called off the DAK from its intended sweep round the British rear, in order to throw its weight into the attempt to break through to the coast road; this move was to start in the afternoon.
Meanwhile General Auchinleck, realizing that the defended localities of Bab el Qattara and Naqb Abu Dweis were in danger of being isolated and captured, decided to abandon them and make his defence more compact. The New Zealand Division was to withdraw its 6th Brigade from Bab el Qattara, leaving there only a column, and prepare for a mobile role. The 5th Indian Division was to prepare for a similar role at Qaret el Himeimat. On the morning of 2nd July it seemed that Rommel would concentrate his efforts on bursting through near El Alamein, and General Auchinleck decided that an opportunity would occur for a counter-attack. While the 30th Corps held the expected thrust the 13th Corps would attack towards Deir el Abyad from two directions—the 1st Armoured Division westwards, moving south of the Ruweisat Ridge, and the rest of the Corps northwards. Exploitation would be towards the coast. This plan, which aimed at wresting the initiative from the enemy, would have had some chance of succeeding if the 13th Corps had been a Corps in anything but name. In reality it was very weak and becoming weaker by separating (or, as some would say, disintegrating) into its ‘mobile artillery battle-groups’, the latest development of the ‘Jock’ columns which, in the Commander-in-Chief’s own words of the previous April, could not ‘press home an attack against anything but very weak resistance’.8
The renewed German thrust and the British counter-attack began almost simultaneously on the afternoon of 2nd July. The weight of the first was taken successfully by the 1st South African Brigade and by a column of the 10th Indian Division, called ‘Robcol’.9 When General Pienaar asked that his Brigade should be given armoured support or else be withdrawn to Alam el Onsol, it was replaced by another column of the 50th Division—‘Ackcol’.
The 90th Light Division had fared no better than before and complained bitterly of being attacked every twenty or thirty minutes by 15, 18 or even 21 bombers with strong fighter protection. Wide dispersion saved them from having a great many casualties, but the attacks had a bad effect on morale. South of the Ruweisat Ridge the 4th Armoured Brigade clashed with the 15th Panzer Division, and the 22nd
with the 21st Panzer Division in engagements which lasted until dark, when the enemy withdrew to south of Deir el Shein. The Armoured Brigades, which had been well supported by their divisional artillery, by the New Zealand columns, and by a column from the 7th Motor Brigade, remained in possession of the field. The enemy, however, regarded the result as indecisive, and Rommel resolved to try again next day, starting with a probe forward to find the weak spots in the British line. In general, the DAK was to renew its eastward thrust, the 20th Corps to advance on its southern flank, and the 20th Corps to hold El Mreir. The combined strength in tanks of the two Panzer Divisions was only 26. The British air activity during the night was said to be very exhausting, though in fact the main weight of attack fell on ammunition and petrol dumps near the coast; one explosion at Ras Gibeisa was so violent that it destroyed the Wellington which had caused it.
General Auchinleck, too, had made no change in his object, but placed the 1st Armoured Division under the 30th Corps and ordered the 13th Corps to advance north-west of Deir el Shein in order to threaten the enemy’s rear. The two Corps were to start as soon as they could on 3rd July. This time the British armour awaited attack, and a sharp action took place south of the Ruweisat Ridge lasting an hour and a half, at the end of which the German troops are known to have been near their limit.10 In spite of constant urgings they made almost no progress. Thus the main thrust was firmly held. Farther south, in 13th Corps, the New Zealanders began the day well. Soon after 7 a.m. their columns opened fire on what turned out to be the artillery and some infantry of the Ariete Division, advancing on the southern flank of the DAK. The Italians replied, but got the worst of the exchanges, and the 19th Battalion of the 4th New Zealand Brigade assaulted and overran them, capturing some 350 prisoners and 44 guns, besides other weapons and much transport. The 5th New Zealand Brigade, sent to cut off the expected retreat of the Ariete, attacked El Mreir, found to be held by the Brescia Division, and by dawn on 4th July had secured a position near the western end of the depression.
The twenty-four hours ending at dusk on 3rd July had seen the Royal Air Force make its greatest effort to date in flying 900 sorties (or nearly four times as many as the enemy) of which the Desert Air Force flew 770. Bombs had been dropped on troops and vehicles at the rate of ten tons every hour.11
The day’s fighting had convinced Rommel that he would have to call off his major attacks for the time being. He reported to OKH that his divisions were down to 1,200 or 1,500 men each, and that it was scarcely possible to supply the army at night since the road and tracks were almost completely blocked by the enemy’s air action. The fighting strength of the Italians was very low. For these reasons he expected to have to remain on the defensive for at least a fortnight.
The 4th of July was a day of disjointed engagements which had no significant results, and the records are contradictory. General Auchinleck seems to have sensed the enemy’s condition and felt that they might be on the point of retreating; he even gave orders to prepare for a pursuit. It is true that the enemy had become alarmed at the situation on the Ruweisat Ridge owing to the action of the British armour, and by 3 p.m. it did look as if some withdrawal was afoot. Both Corps were ordered to be ready to pursue, but the armoured brigades, probing forward, met an anti-tank screen which held them up. (According to the enemy this screen was a scratch affair, thrown together in great haste.) The 13th Corps did no more than order the New Zealanders to carry out a limited advance at El Mreir. This had already been planned by Brigadier Kippenberger and took the form of a raid by the 23rd New Zealand Battalion. General Auchinleck persisted with his idea of loosing the 13th Corps towards the enemy’s rear, and 5th July was spent in moving to jumping-off places. He then decided that he had not the superiority to justify the dispersal of his forces in making such a wide movement, and a new plan was made by which each Corps was to operate towards Deir el Shein. The outcome was a number of actions by columns without very much result. One column from the 7th Motor Brigade, however, having evaded observation, reached Fuka on the evening of 7th July and shelled one of the landing-grounds for half an hour. It withdrew in the dark and rejoined its brigade after some brushes with the enemy. The same night a detachment of Special Air Service troops under Major D. Stirling, guided by a patrol of the Long Range Desert Group, raided two other landing-grounds nearby. The Italians recorded that altogether seven CR 42 fighters were lost on the ground.
Meanwhile Rommel was regrouping his forces, his object being to relieve his armour and draw it into reserve. The Italian 10th and 21st Corps were to take over from the DAK, the 90th Light Division, and
the 20th Corps. The move of 21st Panzer Division, made on 4th July in accordance with this plan, was apparently the cause of the British
idea that the enemy was beginning to retreat. The regrouping was
supported by the Luftwaffe, which made several Stuka attacks, chiefly on the New Zealanders. (The reappearance of the Stukas ‘after a long absence’ was said to have raised the morale of the German troops.) Rommel now began to take particular interest in the southern sector,
where he hoped to cut off the New Zealand Division, which he had noticed as being rather far forward. But General Auchinleck, as has been seen, had given up the idea of making a wide sweep from the south; instead he now planned to attack in the north, near the coast, where success would present a threat to the enemy’s main line of supply. The 13th Corps was accordingly drawn back, and next day the 21st Panzer Division made a full-dress attack on Bab el Qattara, which had been given up. Rommel began to think that an opportunity had occurred for a thrust towards Qaret el Himeimat, and his reconnaissance troops did in fact reach this area on 10th July. At that moment, however, the new battle in the north demanded his whole attention, and nothing significant came of these moves in the south.
The lull in the enemy’s attempts to break through the British front had enabled the Royal Air Force to lift some of the weight of its attacks back to more distant targets. The 5th July saw a resumption of attacks on the enemy’s airfields, and that night No. 205 Group began to turn its attention once more to the ports; the Wellingtons went to Tobruk and next night the Liberators attacked Benghazi. Meanwhile in the Desert Air Vice-Marshal Coningham had decided to curtail offensive sweeps for a few days and direct most of his fighters to fighter-bombing, and the DAK diary for 7th July records that the fighter-bomber attacks on that day had been especially unpleasant. Another form of activity was an attempt by the Beaufighters to interfere with the German air transport traffic from Crete; on the 8th and 9th three large formations were in fact intercepted near Tobruk and some slight loss inflicted.
On 8th July General Auchinleck ordered General Ramsden (who had just succeeded Norrie in command of the 30th Corps) to capture, as a first step, the low ridges Tell el Eisa and Tell el Makh Khad. The defences were rightly thought to be manned by Italians and, as seen on air photographs, were not highly developed. From these objectives mobile battle groups would move south towards Deir el Shein and raiding parties would make for the landing-grounds about El Daba. The 13th Corps was to prevent the enemy reinforcing the coastal sector from the south and was to be ready for any opportunity to attack; for this purpose the 2nd Armoured Brigade was to come under its command on 9th July, moving by day in order to attract the enemy’s attention in the wrong direction.
The 9th Australian Division (Lieut.-General Sir Leslie Morshead) had been moving up from Alexandria and came under command of the 30th Corps on 3rd July. Since its relief from Tobruk the Division had been working on the construction of defences in Syria and was not in suitable training for very mobile operations. The final plan for the
30th Corps’ attack required the Division to capture Tell el Eisa, while the 1st South African Division (less one brigade) captured Tell el Makh Khad. Each division was to prepare to exploit on its own front. The 44th RTR (which included one squadron of the 8th RTR) with 32 Valentine tanks came under command of the Australians, and 8 Matildas were allotted to the South Africans. The raiding parties for El Daba were provided by the 1st Armoured Division.
The attack began at 3.30 a.m. on 10th July with a bombardment of unusual intensity—one German diary likened the sound to the drum-fire of the First World War. The Sabratha Division on either side of the coast road made little resistance. Many of the British tanks became bogged in salt marshes near the road, but eight went on with the 26th Australian Infantry Brigade, who by 7.30 a.m. had cleared the Italians from all their positions east of the railway. By about the same time the South Africans had taken their first objective. By to a.m. the Australians were consolidating the ground they had gained and were preparing to attack the western end of the ridge; the South Africans had taken Tell el Makh Khad and were occupying covering positions.
The headquarters of the Panzerarmee were only a few miles away on the coast, and in Rommel’s absence the officer in charge, Lieut.-Colonel von Mellenthin, hurriedly collected part of the 382nd Regiment (of the 164th Division, then in process of arriving by air) and with some machine-gunners and anti-aircraft guns improvised a new front just in time to stop the Australians crossing the line of the railway. Meanwhile Rommel, who had spent the night at Bab el Qattara, had been speeding north, collecting a battle-group of the 15th Panzer Division on the way. That evening a counter-attack broke into the position of the 26th Australian Brigade and was thrown out again.12 In all about 1,500 prisoners were taken, mostly Italians. The fighters of the Desert Air Force had had a particularly strenuous time, patrolling over the battle and sweeping ahead, and together with the fighter-bombers flew more sorties in the day than ever before. Seven enemy air formations, some of which included CR 42 fighter-bombers, were intercepted.
At 6.30 a.m. on 11th July the 2/24th Australian Battalion, supported by the 44th RTR, attacked the western end of Tell el Eisa ridge. Soon after midday the whole feature was in their hands. A small column of tanks, infantry in carriers, and field and anti-tank guns had been sent off to raid Deir el Abyad, and on the way it caused about a battalion of Italian infantry to surrender. It was later held up at the Miteiriya Ridge, from which, after being bombed and constantly
shelled, it was forced to withdraw in the evening to the El Alamein perimeter.
During the day the enemy had sent over a number of large formations of Ju.87s and 88s with strong fighter escorts, and several were met and turned back by the British fighters. Another attempt by the long-range fighters of Nos. 252 and 272 Squadrons to intercept the air transport traffic from Crete was successful; one Beaufighter and one Ju.52 were lost and two aircraft on each side were damaged. That night a Halifax bomber from No. 10 Squadron joined the Wellingtons attacking Tobruk; this was the first operation by this type of heavy bomber in the Middle East.
On 12th and 13th July the enemy attacked the Tell el Eisa salient, and also tried to cut if off by attacking the Alamein ‘box’, but had no success. On 14th July another counter-attack, made after considerable bombing, failed, and next day the main interest shifted to the Ruweisat Ridge, where General Auchinleck had launched a new attack.
See Map 37
Having drawn several German units to the rescue of the Italians in the coastal sector, General Auchinleck sought to keep the enemy worried by striking another blow as quickly as possible—this time against the Pavia and Brescia Divisions in the centre. This decision led to a costly and partly successful action on and about the Ruweisat Ridge between 14th and 17th July.
The Commander-in-Chief’s object was ‘to break through the enemy’s centre and destroy his forces east of the track El Alamein—Abu Dweis and north of the Ruweisat Ridge’. The 13th Corps was to secure the western end of the ridge at Pt 63 by a night attack and then exploit north-west; the 30th Corps was to protect the right flank by securing the eastern part of the ridge and was also to attack southwards from the Tell el Eisa salient to secure the low ridge at Miteiriya.13 The artillery fire plans of both Corps were to be co-ordinated by the Brigadier, Royal Artillery, 8th Army, but the attack was at first to be silent. Little was known of the enemy’s dispositions except that they had various scattered posts to the south of the ridge, mostly held by Italians.
The formations chosen for the attack were: in 30th Corps, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade (of the 5th Indian Division); in 13th Corps, the New Zealand Division, with its 5th Brigade on the right and the 4th on the left. On 14th July it was decided that the operation would take place that night. General Gott was to lay down the hour of arrival
of both Corps on the objective, and made it 4.30 a.m. on 15th July.
In his own orders General Gott defined the intention of 13th Corps as ‘to secure Point 63’. The 1st Armoured Division was to protect the left flank of the New Zealanders from first light on the 15th July and be ready to exploit to the north-west with armoured forces if a favourable opportunity should occur after that time. The Division was to place its ‘Wall Group’ in support of 30th Corps.14
The 1st Armoured Division’s order stated that the Division would co-operate in the attack of the two Corps, and went on: ‘2 Armd Bde will be prepared to move on centre line of the inter-Corps boundary [i.e. through Point 64] with the tasks of (a) exploiting success of the NZ Div to the NW, (b) countering any counter-attack by the enemy armour against NZ Div which may develop from the NE, North or NW.’ The 22nd Armoured Brigade was to be prepared to move from Deir el Hima to a prescribed area north of Alam el Dihmaniya with the task of protecting ‘the southern and western flank of the NZ Division attack from first light 15th July, particularly against attack by enemy armd forces’. In fact, the Brigade was moved on the evening of the 4th to Alam Nayil to deal with some enemy tanks reported approaching from the south-west.
The New Zealand Division, with some six miles to cover from its start-line to its objective, began its advance at 11 p.m. The night was moonless but visibility was good, and Albacores were busy illuminating and dive-bombing groups of transport behind the enemy’s lines. Both brigades moved on narrow fronts because of the shortage of riflemen. Shortly after midnight minefields were met, and soon the enemy’s flares began to go up and his machine guns opened fire. The assaulting troops, guided by the lines of tracer, tackled (with the bayonet) any post that was near, and the advance swept on. But cohesion and control suffered, and many posts were unnoticed or left to be mopped up-it was hoped—by the reserve troops.
By a little before dawn the 5th New Zealand Brigade had reached its objective on the right, but its left battalion had become completely dispersed, having, among other adventures, attacked and killed the crews of three stationary tanks. Its third battalion, the 22nd, had advanced steadily in rear without finding much mopping up to do. Most of the anti-tank guns had been unable to keep in their correct positions and were some way back. Failures in wireless sets and difficulties over cable-laying made communication with Divisional Headquarters intermittent, and within the brigade it had broken down
altogether. The left brigade—the 4th—had become partly scattered for much the same reasons, but on the left had reached its objective and had a number of anti-tank guns well forward. Digging was impossible in the rock and much equipment was still missing. A good haul of prisoners had been made, but behind the forward troops were many centres of resistance still unsubdued. The Divisional Reserve Group, including the three field regiments, was still south-west of Alam el Dihmaniya, out of supporting range.
At this time—just before dawn—the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade’s right battalion (3/10th Baluch Regiment) was held up cast of Pt 64. The left battalion (4/6th Rajputana Rifles) had got out of control at the very start, and when it advanced it was caught in flank by heavy fire and fell back in disorder. The t/4th Essex Regiment had not been committed.
Of the armour, the 22nd Armoured Brigade was close to Alam Nayil and the 2nd Armoured Brigade was still near Deir el Hima.15
On the enemy’s side there was much confusion and no little anxiety as refugees from the Brescia and Pavia spread alarming stories. North of Alam el Dihmaniya, however, a detachment of some eight or ten tanks of 8th Panzer Regiment happened to have been passed unnoticed in the dark. When it was light the Commander saw the 22nd New Zealand Battalion to his north and at once attacked it. In the short sharp duel which followed the four New Zealand anti-tank guns on their portées were soon knocked out, and the tanks then closed in on the infantry, who were in the open with practically no cover. The choice was between extermination and surrender, and about 350 were taken prisoner. The tank commander hurried his prisoners off westward and withdrew.
Brigadier Kippenberger, who had seen something of this episode, had gone to report personally to General Inglis and was sent on by him to contact the British armour. He saw Brigadier Briggs and General Lumsden, and by 7 a.m. the 2nd Armoured Brigade had moved off in a north-westerly direction. Two of its regiments became involved with minefields and with a locality known as ‘Strong Point 2’. The third, finding that the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was renewing its attack, joined in to help it, and by to a.m. the Baluch Regiment had reached the ridge. An hour later the reorganized Rajputana Rifles, with artillery support and helped by the tanks, attacked Pt 64. By the early afternoon they had taken it.
Meanwhile the New Zealanders were collecting their scattered detachments and trying to consolidate. One platoon, commanded by Sergeant K. Elliott, had had an astonishing morning. When the tanks overran his Battalion—the 22nd—Sergeant Elliott and his men escaped northwards only to find themselves in an Italian defended locality. Sergeant Elliott, though wounded, decided to attack. He and his party, which now included some men of the 21st and 23rd Battalions, reduced five posts and took over 200 prisoners before returning to where they had started. For his gallantry and initiative Sergeant Elliott, who had been wounded three times, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
But the main trouble still existed, for near Alam el Dihmaniya and in various other positions south of the Ruweisat Ridge there were still centres of resistance which frustrated persistent attempts to run vehicles forward in support of the foremost troops. There were no infantry to deal with these pockets except the 26th New Zealand Battalion of the Divisional Reserve Group which, like the two armoured regiments, was more or less pinned down. Gradually, however, the opposition was worn down by shell fire, and one by one the positions were taken.16 By 4 p.m. some vehicles were beginning to reach the ridge.
During the night the enemy had thought that a large raid was in progress. When Rommel realized that the Pavia and Brescia had collapsed he began to rush German troops to the spot: from the north, the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit and part of 21st Panzer Division, and from the south the 33rd Reconnaissance Unit and the Baade Group of 15th Panzer Division, which had been attached to 90th Light Division for the intended operations at Qaret el Himeimat. These were all placed under General Nehring, who at 3 p.m. ordered a counterattack. At 5 p.m. it was launched.
The 4th New Zealand Brigade had already had many casualties from shelling and mortaring. It was short of ammunition because of the delay to its vehicles, and it had no artillery support. By 5 p.m. the visibility was bad, owing to dust and smoke. Out of the haze and under cover of heavy shell fire the German attack came in, headed by armoured cars of the Reconnaissance Units. The anti-tank defence soon collapsed, and, as in the early morning, the infantry were then practically helpless. About 380 were made prisoner, among them Captain C. H. Upham, who, for his gallantry during this night and day, and at Minqar Qaim in June, attained the great distinction of being awarded a Bar to his Victoria Cross. At about 6 p.m. the enemy
turned against the area of Brigade Headquarters, where there was but one-2 pdr, and captured nearly everyone, including Brigadier Burrows, who later managed to escape. At about 6.15 p.m. part of the 2nd Armoured Brigade came into action, and stopped the enemy’s eastward advance. At dusk the enemy broke off the action, and, when at 10 p.m. news of the reverse reached General Gott, he ordered General Inglis to hold a shortened front from Pt 64 to the south-west of Alam el Dihmaniya.
Elsewhere than on the Ruweisat Ridge nothing much had happened during 15th July. The 90th Light Division and the Ariete, probing north, were easily held off by the 22nd Armoured Brigade and by columns of the 7th Armoured Division.17 Formations of Ju.87s and 88s had made several attempts to intervene in the fighting, but most of them had been driven off. The British fighter-bombers had one of their busiest days; in good weather conditions and with abundant targets they shuttled to and fro flying nearly 150 sorties.
That night the enemy was still anxious. They had expected the British night attack to be followed by an armoured thrust, and were uneasy lest this might still happen. The best counter seemed to be to regain the lost ground, and early on 16th July an unsuccessful attack was made against the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade’s position near Pt 64. There were clear signs—including intercepted signals—that another attempt would be made, and there was time to make a good artillery plan and reinforce the 2nd Armoured Brigade by a regiment from the 22nd. At 7.30 p.m. the new attack came in and was repulsed.
On 16th July the Australians had regained some ground in a small operation at Tell el Eisa, but the enemy shelled and mortared the area so persistently that it was given up as not worth the cost. The day was remarkable for a record number of sorties—641—flown by the fighters and fighter-bombers. At dawn on the 17th July the 24th Australian Brigade, supported by a squadron of the 44th RTR and strong fighter cover, carried out a limited attack towards Miteiriya. The Australians had some initial success and captured about 800 men of the Trieste Division. They were then heavily shelled and bombed and were counter-attacked by a hastily collected German force, in which the hard-worked Reconnaissance Units were again prominent, and the 24th Australian Brigade suffered over 300 casualties. The situation then stabilized with the Australians consolidating a little north of Tell el Makh Khad.
The three days’ fighting had cost the New Zealand Division 1,405 officers and men killed, wounded or missing. These sad losses were aggravated by a bitter feeling that the Division had been let down by
the armour. The New Zealanders’ attack, made in difficult circumstances, had been largely successful, for which they deserve full credit. Most of the things that had gone wrong were of the kind that do go wrong in a complicated night operation for which there has not been time to prepare thoroughly—particularly as regards finding out about the enemy’s dispositions. But the Commander-in-Chief had felt that the situation demanded another blow at the weakening enemy, and no more time could be spared.
There is no doubt that General Inglis had understood at Corps conferences that from first light on 15th July British tanks would protect his division either by exploiting beyond it, or, if there were no exploitation, by supporting it closely. Although in the written order issued by General Lumsden the armoured brigades were required to ‘be prepared’ to move on definite tasks, they expected an executive order before moving. This fact probably reflects the dislike of the armoured forces—the result of much painful experience during CRUSADER—to be tied to the protection of the infantry at the expense of their wider role. Whatever they did they could not guarantee that no enemy tanks would ever approach the infantry, who, after all, should have the support of the field and anti-tank guns. So General Lumsden reserved to himself the decision to commit his armoured brigades, realizing that much would depend upon timely information of how the battle was going. As has been seen, the battle went fairly well in front but for most of the day the situation in the wake of the advance was far from clear, and the supporting weapons found their way barred by pockets of resistance which had not been dealt with. Many suggestions could be made as to what should have been done, but they would all be open to criticism as owing much to wisdom after the event. But it is fair to say that co-operation between an armoured division (as distinct from ‘I’ tank units) and one or more infantry divisions had not been really studied and had certainly not been practised.
The Desert Air Force had done its utmost to help the Army during this fighting, and the system of notifying targets to the air had been working better. Fighters, reconnaissance aircraft, bombers and fighter-bombers had all played their part, and during the three days no less than 1,900 sorties were flown solely in support of the land battle, which was equivalent to at least two trips a day by every available aircraft. This says as much for those who kept the aircraft in the air as for those who flew in them. The 17th July was marked by a new enterprise—the first daylight raid by the heavy bombers on Tobruk. A force of eight RAF and USAAF Liberators approached the port from the sea and attacked it successfully without suffering any loss.
See Map 38
By 18th July General Auchinleck had come to the conclusion that the enemy was in a very bad way—the Italians even on the point of collapse—and that the best way of inflicting a major defeat would be to strike again strongly in the centre. (This in spite of the fact that the German armour, after rushing frantically to and fro, was now known to be about Deir el Abyad and El Mreir.) This estimate of the enemy’s condition was substantially correct. A Panzerarmee report of 21st July (referred to on page 338) shows that both the Germans and Italians had lost much of their field artillery and about half their anti-tank guns; their men were reduced to a third of their strength and it was stated that since 10th July the Italians had lost the equivalent of four divisions. On 21st July the Germans had 42 fit tanks and the Italians about 50.18
With regard to the British troops, the 1st South African and 9th Australian Divisions were still fairly well up to strength. The New Zealand and 5th Indian Divisions had each two brigades. The 7th Armoured Division was being reconstituted as a highly mobile force to comprise the 4th Light Armoured Brigade (of armoured cars and Stuart tanks), the 7th Motor Brigade and the 69th Infantry Brigade. The 1st Armoured Division had 61 Grant and 81 Crusader tanks, besides 31 Stuarts, and there were others in immediate reserve or transit. All the foregoing formations were battle-worthy in a greater or less degree, and, in addition, two fresh formations were now available—the 161st Indian Motor Brigade and the 23rd Armoured Brigade Group. The former had come from Iraq and had been working for some time on defences in the Delta; the latter belonged to the 8th Armoured Division (whose coming was referred to on page 260) and had reached Suez on 6th July. It consisted of three regiments each of about 50 tanks, of which 6 were close-support Matildas and the rest Valentines.19
On 19th July the attack was fixed for the evening of the 21st and during the next two days elaborate instructions were issued, principally for the pursuit and for co-operation with the air. The main role was given to the 13th Corps, which was to break through at Deir el Shein
and Deir el Abyad and exploit westwards. It was to make a subsidiary attack in the south and prepare to pursue to El Daba and Fuka. The 30th Corps was to contain the enemy on its front by vigorous local action, and it too was to be ready to pursue towards El Daba. Wellingtons and flare-carrying Albacores were to attack targets in the central sector during the night 21st/22nd, and would be followed at first light by as many light bombers and fighter-bombers as possible.
General Gott’s plan was for the 5th Indian Division to capture Deir el Shein and Pt 63 (of unhappy memories) and for the New Zealand Division to capture the eastern end of the El Mreir depression. The inter-divisional boundary gave the whole Ruweisat Ridge to the 5th Indian Division. In the second phase the 1st Armoured Division was to go through and capture an area about Pt 59, whereupon the 5th Indian and New Zealand Divisions would go forward about two miles and consolidate the ground won. The 7th Armoured Division’s task up to then would be to harass. The part of the plan which dealt with subsequent action need not be considered.
The formations chosen for the first phase were the 161st Indian Motor Brigade and the 6th New Zealand Brigade.20 The 22nd Armoured Brigade was to protect the southern flank, and the 2nd was to be prepared to frustrate any enemy counter-attack against the infantry after the first objective had been captured. The second phase was an advance to Pt 59, to be made by the 23rd Armoured Brigade (less one regiment lent to the 30th Corps to operate with the Australians). The artillery support would be provided by about nine field regiments. The two infantry divisions were each to clear half of a wide lane through the minefields; in 5th Indian Division’s area, close to the Ruweisat Ridge, this was to be done by the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade, which had the further task of occupying the second objective.
Some features of the British plan may here be emphasized. It had the merit of placing the main operations under one Corps Commander. It aimed at striking at the point where the remains of the German Panzer Divisions were concentrated—probably in the belief that if they were defeated the rest of the front would crumble. It assumed that the minefields could be detected and lanes cleared in time for the 23rd Armoured Brigade’s drive into battle. It gave key tasks to two inexperienced formations, and once again it allowed insufficient time for the study of a multitude of details. It saw the wood well ahead, but lost sight of many nearby trees.
On 18th July both General Lumsden and Brigadier Briggs had been wounded in an air attack. Major-General A. H. Gatehouse, then commanding the 10th Armoured Division in the Delta, was sent up to take command of the 1st Armoured Division. He arrived on the evening of
the 20th, by which time the plan for the coming battle and the role of his division had been decided upon.
Unlike the ‘First Ruweisat’ the night attack was made with strong artillery support, but in spite of much trouble to ensure the early intervention of the 2nd Armoured Brigade, should it be needed, the experience of the 6th New Zealand Brigade was sadly reminiscent of the week before. The New Zealanders reached their objective after some sharp fighting during which several companies went astray and many vehicles failed to arrive. The 25th Battalion was ordered to move up between the other two. There was great anxiety at General Inglis’s headquarters when, at about 3.30 a.m., a report came from Brigadier Clifton that enemy tanks were at large even at that early hour. It appears that the 8th Panzer Regiment was preparing to make an immediate counter-attack in the dark when General Nehring intervened and ordered both Panzer Regiments to attack at 5.15 a.m. instead. When this took place a great volume of fire caught the New Zealanders in their exposed position in the El Mreir depression. Their anti-tank guns were nearly all knocked out, as were the two tanks and the armoured car of the Armoured Division’s liaison officers. Communication with the guns broke down. In this counter-attack the Brigade was overrun. Brigadier Clifton, who was taken prisoner, disguised himself as a Private and escaped after spending the day in tending the wounded. It seems that the two regiments of the 2nd Armoured Brigade (the third was on the Ruweisat Ridge) both tried to go forward when they heard of the tank attack on the New Zealanders, but one was held up by anti-tank fire and the other by mines. The 6th New Zealand Brigade’s total losses in this action were nearly 700 officers and men.
The 161st Indian Motor Brigade’s attack also experienced varying fortunes. Its northern flank was protected by the seizing of a small depression by the 2nd Battalion Regiment Botha, from the South African Division. On the right the 3/7th Rajput Regiment broke into Deir el Shein but was turned out after a confused hand to hand struggle. On the left the I list Punjab Regiment was held up by fire short of Pt 63, but at 8 a.m. the reserve battalion, the I/2nd Punjab, successfully renewed the attack and captured 190 prisoners. Surprisingly enough the enemy was taken off his guard, somewhat shaken perhaps by the appearance of the 23rd Armoured Brigade thundering past, as will presently be related.
The events of the night had had their effects upon the mine-clearing operations of both divisions, and by daylight the lanes did not extend
very far. The 23rd Armoured Brigade’s advance was to begin at 8 a.m., and at 6.25 General Gatehouse suggested that it should be cancelled because he was very doubtful if the mines had been sufficiently cleared. General Gott considered that it was so important to take
advantage of the enemy’s uneasiness (revealed in wireless intercepts) that the operation must go ahead, but that its centre line should be shifted about a mile to the south. This change should take the Brigade through what he understood (wrongly) to be a mine-free area and farther from the enemy’s position on Ruweisat Ridge which the Indian Division had so far failed to take. A breakdown in wireless communication, however, prevented the new orders reaching Brigadier Misa.
Just about 8 a.m. the 23rd Armoured Brigade, with the 40th RTR on the right and the 46th on the left, started along the centre line originally ordered.21 After advancing about a mile and a half the 40th RTR came under heavy shell and anti-tank gun fire and then struck a minefield; seventeen tanks had by now been lost. In spite of this setback fifteen tanks had reached their objective by shortly after 10 a.m. and were hotly engaged from both flanks. Soon only eight remained, three of which were too badly damaged to fight. Meanwhile the 46th RTR had struck another part of the same minefield and met much the same opposition. After losing about thirteen tanks its squadrons fanned out; some tanks joined the other regiment on the objective and some tried to work round south of the El Mreir depression and were never seen again. By 11 a.m. the remains of the two regiments were strongly attacked by the 21st Panzer Division and were ordered to withdraw. This gallant and disastrous action, on its first day of battle, cost the Brigade 203 casualties, with about 40 tanks destroyed and 47 badly damaged. The Germans followed up the withdrawal past Pt 63, but soon after midday Rommel called them off. While all this had been happening attempts were being made to bring the 2nd Armoured Brigade into action in support of the 23rd and of the New Zealanders who were thought to be still holding out in the El Mreir depression.22 This entailed the clearing of more mines farther south. By 4 p.m. a narrow lane had been cleared and at 5 p.m. the 9th Lancers followed by the 6th RTR began to move through the gap. They soon came under shell and anti-tank fire from both flanks; five tanks were set ablaze, others were being hit, and after forty minutes the acting Divisional Commander called off the attempt as hopeless.23 Under cover of smoke laid by the 1st RHA and fire by the 6th RTR the tanks reversed singly through the narrow lane, now partly
blocked by casualties. Seven more were badly damaged, bringing the total losses in this brigade to twenty-one.
Elsewhere on the 13th Corps’ front little had happened. The 22nd Armoured Brigade had protected the left flank without incident, and the 7th Armoured Division had been engaged on a minor operation on the extreme south. It remains to tell of the fighting in the 30th Corps’ sector.
At 6 a.m. on 22nd July the 9th Australian Division attacked—the 26th Brigade at Tell el Eisa and the 24th at Tell el Makh Khad. An immediate counter-attack followed and tough fighting went on the whole morning. The Australians gained the upper hand and by early afternoon they held the whole low ridge at Tell el Eisa and had advanced about a mile south of Tell el Makh Khad. On this day Private A. S. Gurney, AIF, won a posthumous Victoria Cross for destroying, single-handed, several enemy machine-gun posts. In the afternoon General Ramsden ordered the second phase, an attack on Miteiriya, to begin at 7 p.m.
This attack was made by the 24th Australian Brigade and the 50th RTR, who, although equipped with Valentine tanks, had trained as part of an armoured division but not in close support of infantry. In the event armour and infantry advanced independently, having failed to marry. For an hour the tanks milled about on the objective, and at dark withdrew as had been planned, having had twenty-three of their number knocked out.
Meanwhile at 5 p.m. General Gott had ordered the 5th Indian Division to capture Pt 63 and Deir el Shein during the night. The 3/14th Punjab Regiment (of 9th Indian Infantry Brigade) made the attack at about 2 a.m. Loss of direction led to confusion, but a second attempt in daylight nearly succeeded in reaching Pt 63. The Battalion came under intense fire from three sides, the Commanding Officer was killed, two Company Commanders were missing, a third and the Adjutant were wounded, control was lost, and the result was failure.
General Auchinleck’s final attempt to make the enemy crack began in the northern sector on 26th July. The 30th Corps was reinforced for the purpose by the 1st Armoured Division (less 22nd Armoured Brigade), the 4th Light Armoured Brigade and the 69th Infantry Brigade. The object was to break through between Miteiriya and Deir el Dhib, and to extend the penetration to the north-west. The 13th Corps was to contain as many of the enemy as possible, and made elaborate arrangements to simulate another attack on its own front.
Briefly, the plan required the South Africans to make and mark by midnight 26th/27th July a wide gap in the enemy’s minefields southeast of Miteiriya. By 1 a.m. the 24th Australian Infantry Brigade was to
capture the eastern end of the Miteiriya ridge with one battalion and then exploit north-west. The 69th Infantry Brigade was to pass through the ‘South African gap’ to Deir el Dhib and was also to make, mark, and protect gaps in any further minefields. Through these gaps would then pass the 2nd Armoured Brigade to El Wishka, followed by the 4th Light Armoured Brigade which would raid the enemy’s communications.
The timing soon fell behind, but by 3 a.m. the Australians had taken their objective. By 1.30 a.m. news had been received that the gaps were partly cleared, and the 69th Brigade began to advance. In crossing the minefield there was a good deal of confusion, but two battalions passed through and by about 8 a.m. had reached their objectives. Two specially formed anti-tank groups did not fare so well; many of the units missed their way and only one small detachment was within a mile of the foremost infantry by first light.
Now followed a period of doubt and muddle. The reports from the front were confused and conflicting, particularly in regard to the minefield gaps. There was confusion between the South African gaps, the gaps behind the Australian battalion, and the gaps which the 69th Brigade was expected to make. All this caused the advance of the 2nd Armoured Brigade to be delayed. The enemy, perhaps grasping that the leading troops were isolated, counter-attacked, and though the 6th RTR tried to come to the rescue it had trouble with mines and heavy anti-tank fire, and the two battalions—the 6th Durham Light Infantry and the 5th East Yorks—were both overrun. Meanwhile the 2/28th Australian Battalion had been under heavy fire which prevented the proper clearing of the passage for the supporting weapons and for the Valentines of 50th RTR. Before the tanks could find such gaps as existed they were heavily fired on; thirteen were destroyed or damaged and the unsupported 2/28th Australian Battalion was overrun. In this sad failure there had been about 400 casualties in the 24th Australian Brigade and 600 in the 69th Brigade.
During the night 26th/27th raids were made on landing-grounds near Sidi Haneish by Special Air Service troops, guided, as usual, by the Long Range Desert Group. About thirty aircraft were thought to have been destroyed or damaged. The Germans recorded that three of theirs were destroyed and two damaged by tank fire [sic]; the Italian figures are not known. On the 27th the Desert Air Force had its busiest day since the 17th, though the exertions of the past few weeks were having their effect upon the numbers of aircraft serviceable, especially fighters. In spite of this the day-bombers and fighter-bombers earned a special word of praise from the 8th Army for their co-operation on this day.
The July actions at Ruweisat, El Mreir, and Miteiriya showed clearly the value of infantry trained to attack by night. But they also
showed that, besides the all too familiar anti-tank gun, the anti-tank mine was now making it very difficult for the armour to carry on with what current tactics held to be the next phase, namely, to provide tank support for the foremost troops at dawn, or to pass through them in order to exploit success. It was a regrettable fact that the failure of all these operations caused a lack of confidence in the British armour to spread in the 8th Army. Some critics were so outspoken and unfair that they had to he openly rebuked. Nevertheless, the problem of co-operation between infantry and armour in the attack was as yet unsolved. It will be seen later how the 8th Army tried to tackle it in the great offensive in October.
It has already been seen that Field-Marshal Rommel had decided quite early in July that he must go over to the defensive. By the end of the month the 8th Army had also exhausted itself, and on 31st July General Auchinleck issued instructions to his Corps Commanders to strengthen their defences, rehearse the plans for meeting attack, and rest, reorganize, and train the troops. He thought it unlikely that the enemy could muster the strength to make a serious attack during August. Plans were to be made for a new British offensive, but the programme of reinforcements would not allow this to start before mid-September. Thus July ended with a stalemate on the ground. More than twenty years earlier the front lines between Switzerland and the North Sea had stagnated for months behind barbed wire: now, in Egypt, the front between the Qattara Depression and the Mediterranean was being sown with belts of mines, which, unless a means of crossing them could be found, looked like depriving the armoured forces of their mobility—for there was no way round, no open desert in which to manoeuvre.
The fighting during July had been costly and, except in the air, was in many respects disappointing, but it brought the Axis advance to a standstill and put a stop to the run of British disasters. It would be wrong to underrate its importance, and a special word of recognition is due to those who fought through this period in the most trying conditions, parched by heat and sandstorms and pestered by loathsome swarms of flies. That horrible affliction, the desert sore, was common. These and other forms of the ten plagues had to be endured day after day in cramped or exposed positions or in roasting-hot tanks. Small wonder that tempers were short or that strain and malaise set hasty tongues wagging. But it is to the lasting credit of the troops that, although they suffered heavily, they nevertheless responded to every demand made upon them. This could not have happened with a dispirited army. The 8th Army was certainly perplexed and puzzled by the continual changes of plan and the switching of formations and
units here and there. There was a feeling, too, that as our enterprises seemed to start well and end badly there must be something wrong with the machine somewhere. But underlying all this was the plain fact that the fabulous Rommel had been stopped and it was well known that fresh troops and equipment were arriving in the country.24 Moreover the soldier could see and hear for himself the almost ceaseless hammering by the Royal Air Force, and the effect was most stimulating, for seeing is believing and it was good to know that the enemy was receiving worse than he was giving.
At the same time it would be unfair and ungenerous not to recognize the remarkable achievement of the German troops. They had been fighting just as long, and in many cases longer. They had all the same discomforts of the terrain and the climate with the added handicap of an uncertain supply line under constant attack by an aggressive air force. They had almost no rest and very little prospect of relief. Small groups of units or sub-units were constantly being flung together for some desperate enterprise—usually to plug some gap—and it is astonishing how often they brought it off. The German soldier always seemed capable of making one more supreme effort.
But everyone has his limit, and General Auchinleck persisted with his costly and hurried attacks because he felt that the Italians had reached theirs and the Germans must be nearing theirs too. Was he right in doing so? Perhaps the best commentary is that of Rommel himself, who wrote to his wife on 17th July: ‘Things are going downright badly for me at the moment, at any rate in the military sense. The enemy is using his superiority, especially in infantry, to destroy the Italian formations one by one, and the German formations are much too weak to stand alone ... ’ And again the next day: ‘Yesterday was a particularly hard and critical day. We pulled through again but it can’t go on like this for long, otherwise the front will crack.’