18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 19 — Alamein Chessboard
The next fortnight was for 18 Battalion a period of bewildering and apparently pointless manoeuvres, flitting round the desert digging holes only to leave them and go off somewhere else and dig more holes. Occasionally the unit stayed in one set of holes for two or three days, more often for only a day or part of one. Some of the moves were at very short notice, some were only a few miles, and you could never predict their direction. Nobody in the battalion knew much of what was going on outside; such news and plans as filtered down to unit level seemed to change startlingly from day to day. There was no stability in life and little confidence in the future. You lived only for the moment, doing what you could to escape the pitiless sun and the voracious flies, keeping your eyes and ears open for ‘Stukas’, not knowing or caring what was to happen next week or tomorrow or in two hours' time.
And yet this frustrating fortnight was the turning point of the war in North Africa, for it halted the enemy's triumphant course, flung back his last dangerous thrusts, laid the foundations for his future rout. It was not 18 Battalion's good luck to share in that rout, but it had its part to play in the preliminaries, and that part began with the infuriating desert-trotting of early July.
It began on 29 June with the whole of the New Zealand Division recovering in the Kaponga Box. That evening new orders arrived, rather perplexing orders with the enemy expected to arrive almost hourly—only 6 Brigade to stay in the Box, the rest of the Division to move back east a little way and be prepared to send out mobile columns to support the defence of the Box.
For this move the Reserve Group went out of existence, and 18 Battalion, back again in 4 Brigade, left Kaponga after breakfast on 30 June and rode away eastwards. This was disappointing for the men, who had had enough eastward page 266 movement in the meantime; but they went only 12 miles along a series of scrub-covered depressions with broken, jagged escarpments enclosing them on both sides, then stopped and dug in just below the southern escarpment, at a spot where the desert was particularly cut about with steep faces, dry watercourses, and small hills.
18 Bn's Moves, 28 Jun–11 Jul 1942
In this shallow valley, the Deir el Munassib (Dear Ol' Munassib to the boys), 4 and 5 Brigades sweltered through three days of sandstorm and inactivity, fretting at being out of it when they heard tank battles to the north and gunfire away to the west. The situation was truly dangerous, for Jerry's attack on 1 July breached the Alamein line ten miles to the north, and his armour was pushing through the gap and threatening to fan out, in good old German style, behind the British defences.
The Alamein line was paper-thin, for so much of the Eighth Army had been mauled in battles farther west that there simply was not enough left to man the line properly. The ‘box’ defences were strongly held, but between them were large open spaces containing only mobile troops. So the Division, which page 267 had come back fit to fight and with its transport almost intact, was inevitably caught up in this ‘mobile column’ business. Jock columns, flying columns, battle groups—call them which you like—were in fashion in the Eighth Army just then. Their value was always dubious. The Division never liked them, and later when the Army grew stronger they were discontinued. They dispersed strength and did not effectively conceal weakness. But in early July they were the Army's only means of punching Jerry's nose.
D Company was the first in the battalion to go out on a mobile foray. Early on the morning of 2 July it went over to 20 Battalion's area and joined a strong column—most of 20 Battalion, a whole field regiment, anti-tank and Vickers guns— to drive north into the flank of the salient where Jerry had broken in. This column spent a very unsatisfactory day circling round a few miles of desert in obedience to orders which reflected a rapidly changing situation to the north. Except for a little shellfire in the morning it did not come to grips with the enemy, and towards evening it ended up on a barely perceptible rise called Alam Nayil ridge, listening to the sounds of a tank clash farther north. D Company rejoined 18 Battalion the same evening.
This tank battle broke the force of Jerry's thrust in the centre of the Alamein line, and he now seemed to be tending northwards towards the coastal end of the line, held by 30 Corps. So higher plans changed again for the umpteenth time. Briefly, the new orders were:
30 Corps to engage Jerry in front, 13 Corps (of which 2 NZ Division formed the largest part) to push north from the Kaponga Box and take him in the flank. This would entail a general westward and northward move by the Division, and the Reserve Group was to be re-formed for the protection of Divisional Headquarters.
There was some resentment in 18 Battalion when it learnt that it was to go back to the Reserve Group. Though there had been no lack of excitement at Minqar Qaim, the men were still inclined to look on divisional protection as a ‘sissy’ job not fit for a fighting unit—quite an unjustifiable idea, especially in the fluctuating desert conditions, but the stigma of ‘headquarters troops’ is very real in an infantry battalion. So it was page 268 a slightly disgruntled unit that saw the rest of 4 Brigade move away north early on 3 July, and then had to turn to and pack for a move of only half a mile nearer to Divisional Headquarters. Here, in an eroded basin dotted with little flat-topped hills, with both British and German planes frequently overhead, the Reserve Group assembled. In it were 18 Battalion, most of 5 Field Regiment, a battery each of six-pounders and Bofors, most of two Vickers companies and an ambulance detachment. As before, 18 Battalion Headquarters also served as Group Headquarters, and in the meantime Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch commanded both group and battalion. Brigadier Gray was now commanding 4 Brigade.
Next night Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group moved back westwards along the soft sand of the depressions to Deir Alinda, some four miles nearer Kaponga. Only 18 Battalion Headquarters and HQ Company were with the group at the time, for the rifle companies, under Major Brett's1 command, had been ordered away south to deal with a laager of Italian lorries that Divisional Cavalry's roving vehicles had reported a few miles away. The companies rode off in high hopes, but these were dashed when, on arrival, they met only some Divisional Cavalry carriers, and learnt that the Ities had left in a hurry. So three very disappointed companies had to turn back empty-handed and look for the battalion, which by now had moved off nobody knew where. After spending several hours bumping over unknown country and bogging down in soft sand, Major Brett eventually bedded his column down about 2 a.m., and when day broke found the Reserve Group only half a mile away. After scraping themselves the shallowest of slitties the men settled down to sleep.
Perhaps weariness made the drivers a little careless, so that they parked their vehicles closer than they should have. But in that they were in good company, for Divisional Headquarters and the rest of the Reserve Group were all pretty badly bunched. At 9.20 a.m. along came a flight of very hostile Stukas, dived out of the blue and bombed right along Deir Alinda. It was 18 Battalion's worst raid so far. Six men were wounded, one truck totally wrecked and half a dozen more set on fire. An page 269 ammunition lorry not far away was hit, blazed for a while with its cargo exploding in all directions, then blew up, and high into the air above Alinda floated a huge smoke ring.
For two days the Reserve Group sat in Alinda while German planes came round periodically—18 Battalion, on a little eminence, had ringside seats for several raids along the bottom of the depression. British fighters were patrolling the sky, but somehow they never seemed to be there just at the right time. To the north and west were noises of battle, and just below them in Alinda British artillery was firing north. Then on the night of 5–6 July they had to pack up and move again.
This was part of a general forward move by the Division as 13 Corps' push on Jerry's flank developed. The Division was now getting into position north and west of Kaponga for an attack to the north-west. The infantry brigades took up their new positions in daylight on 5 July, Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group that night. Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch was now commanding only 18 Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam2 the Group.
It was certainly safer moving round the desert at night than by day, but it was much more laborious. This latest move took the Reserve Group across broken ground and soft-bottomed wadis in the Deir el Qattara, and it struck real trouble. Private Hamilton's story is typical of what happened to 18 Battalion:
We had to cross a few very soft places and a lot of our old cattle trucks were getting stuck, and it was through this that our convoy became dispersed. A truck would get stuck and the rest had to stop, and those in front kept going, and we would not be told the bearing. Anyway, we kept on going in the same direction, and didn't we come to a messy piece of sand. Just about every truck got stuck. The Ack Ack fellows had a bit of trouble getting their guns through. We pushed and dug at ours and gave it up as a bad job. Eventually we whistled up a big truck that pulls the guns. It was going to pull us after they'd got their guns out. But a Bren Carrier came along in the meantime and pulled us right through.page 270
These ‘cattle trucks’, 2-ton Fords with high slat sides and two-wheel drive, which 18 Battalion had acquired in Syria, were noted for their habit of sticking in soft sand, and to spend all night over a move of a few miles now seemed to be the regular thing. It was well after midnight when the strays were rounded up and dispersed in the new position—quite a peaceful position, despite the intermittent growl and flash of gunfire to the north, and Very lights continually rising and hanging over the horizon. Next morning the battalion found itself at the north edge of a flat stony plain, with a surrealistic landscape of cliffs and wadis to its north, and a few skeletons of burnt-out trucks to add to the effect. Somewhere among or beyond those broken cliffs was the rest of the Division; the Reserve Group was in the extreme rear, covering Divisional Headquarters against any attack from the south.
Once again 18 Battalion spent two whole days waiting for something to happen. Two hot, boring days they were, with only an occasional air raid nearby as a diversion. The battalion was more than usually depressed, too, for the news had just spread round of Brigadier John Gray's death in an air raid, and the sense of loss all through the unit was enormous; though no longer in command of the 18th, he was still its most familiar figure, and even those to whom his feats on Crete were only hearsay felt now that something irreplaceable had gone from the battalion.
On the afternoon of 7 July D Company, a little luckier than the rest, went out with a battery of 25-pounders to investigate reports of enemy seen to the west; the artillery banged away a few rounds at some vehicles on the horizon, but apart from that the excursion was a ‘fizzer’, and there was neither glory nor loot to be gained.
The rest of the Division seemed to be in the same unhappy position. It had pushed quite a long way north from Kaponga, but 30 Corps was finding it difficult to get its share of the party going, and it looked as if 13 Corps might be left out in an awkward place, as there was a nasty gap between the two corps and miles of empty hilly desert to the south, both danger spots where an enemy force might sneak in. So on 7 July another new set of orders was issued, completely reversing the last ones. The New Zealand Division was to go east again, back to its page 271 starting point, as the right-hand division of a new 13 Corps line running south from Alam Nayil. Kaponga and the country north of it were to be left to Jerry.
The Reserve Group seemed to be out of luck with its night moves about this time. Going back to Deir Alinda in the small hours of 8 July it dodged the soft patches that had trapped so many victims two nights earlier, but this time some of the lights marking the track failed, there was confusion and delay while the convoy got back on to its right route, and daylight caught it still short of its goal. At dawn the trucks moved out from their close night formation to the widely spaced desert formation for the remaining mile or two, and reached Alinda with no unpleasantness from German planes. For the rest of the day there was nothing to do but chase flies, watch British fighters patrolling the sky, and envy 6 Brigade's convoy moving back through Alinda into reserve. Nobody could sleep much for the heat, so by evening everyone was tired, and the news of another move at short notice was not at all well received. It was only a six-mile move over ground that, though rough and stony, contained no treacherous soft patches. The Reserve Group ended up about 9.30 p.m. beneath the northern slopes of Munassib.
By the morning of 10 July the whole of the Division was back, facing north, watching the south side of Jerry's salient (which seemed to have grown bigger and more hostile since the Division left five days before). Fourth and 5th Brigades held the front, with the Reserve Group, as usual, well back screening Divisional Headquarters. Not well enough back, some of the boys thought, for during the day an odd salvo or two of shells fell not far away. C Company spent a day up near Alam Nayil with a small mobile column of 25-pounders and anti-tank guns; according to a witness, it ‘lay about and watched the arty shooting, but was not called upon to take any more active part in the proceedings’. In the end the company had to move back smartly when Jerry landed some shells unpleasantly close.
It was one of those days when Rumour runs riot. Very early in the morning it was obvious from the heavy gunfire up north that something unusual was going on. It was still in progress when, about breakfast time, a report arrived that sent page 272 spirits up high—the Aussies were attacking on the coast and going well. Thus far the report was true; but Rumour spoilt things by adding a few very untrue details, that advanced parties of the attackers had reached Daba, that Jerry's front was crumbling, that he was getting ready to retreat. However, these extravagant stories did not last long. Jerry's behaviour at Alam Nayil gave them the lie, for his troops in the salient, far from showing signs of withdrawal, were probing busily at the New Zealand line, testing the defence for weak spots. From the Kiwis' point of view, the best effect of the attack up north was that it drew the Luftwaffe away, so that 13 Corps had a day free from raids.
That evening the Division again side-slipped eastwards. Eighteenth Battalion, misled by the Aussies' attack into thinking that it would at least stay where it was for a while, had settled down for the night with a clear conscience, and only the pickets were awake when orders came through to pack and move in half an hour.
This was the champion of all the night moves of the first half of July. Hamilton describes it:
About 10.45 the RSM came round waking up everybody, and telling them to be ready to move within half an hour. There was the usual chorus of growls about having to shift at that hour of the night…. We had to move very fast, too, as we weren't expecting to move this night, and our gear was lying round everywhere…. Well, like all the moves, we get so much time to be ready to move in, and we rush around like a lot of cats, and then we spend the rest of the time sitting on the trucks for an hour or two….
Well, after a lot of waiting round we started off, but hadn't gone very far before we stopped again. Just to the north of us slightly our planes were dropping parachute flares and they looked all right drifting down, only they were lighting our transport up a bit…. We passed through miles and miles of soft sand, and of course we had to do a lot of pushing and digging…. There were quite a few trucks like ours and we were getting left behind all the time…. We were very tired … as we had no sleep that night, and very little the previous nights.
It was daylight before the battalion finished its move; it dispersed and dug in as usual, to the accompaniment of dull, distant noises to the north-west, where the tank battles in Jerry's salient had been raging for days. This was the farthest east that the Division was to go. The same afternoon there was page 273 another sudden move—the boys were getting to the stage now when they did not even bother to growl—not east as everybody expected, but back the way they had come. Once more 18 Battalion ended up at the foot of a steep slope, the northern rim of the Deir el Muhafid, north-east of Munassib. The area was soft sand, pitted with bomb holes, doubtless a reminder of some Stuka raid.
This was the last move of the apparently meaningless shuttling up and down the desert that had sapped the energy and patience of all hands during the past fortnight. All that time the Alamein line had been a sort of chessboard of manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre, and 18 Battalion a very humble pawn on that board. It had been hard sometimes to escape the idea that all this manoeuvring might be a bit over-subtle and not directed firmly towards its final aim, a decisive counter-attack on the enemy from two directions at once. But now both British corps were poised for this attack, the enemy's spearhead in the central salient had been blunted by days of fighting, and it was only a matter of time before the balloon would go up.
Not only had this fortnight been one of sudden, inexplicable moves, it had also brought conditions that the Kiwis had not had to cope with in action before. The Division was no stranger to its present diet of bully and biscuits; it had learnt to bear thirst. But the Alamein line had more to offer than these. It had heat, heavy oppressive heat that brought the whole war practically to a standstill for three or four hours every afternoon. It had desert sores, it had ‘Gyppo tummy’. Above all, it had flies, a never-failing supply of aggressive, greedy flies ready to gorge impartially on tea, bully stew, or human flesh, living or dead.
To 18 Battalion the war seemed a particularly futile business just then. It had suffered all these discomforts, it had been annoyed by Stukas, it had had its hopes raised by baseless rumours—and at the same time it seemed to have done nothing useful, had not got near enough to Jerry to have a shot at him, but had pottered round out of range while battle noises floated down from the north. So it is no wonder that now, when the prospect of an attack and some close-range action loomed up, the battalion welcomed it with gladness.page 274
Ruweisat Ridge, as ridges go, is very small indeed. It is a long narrow hump of sand and stones running east and west, only 30 or 40 feet above the level of the desert around it. From a distance the ground does not even seem to rise at all; but from the crest of the ridge you can see a surprisingly long way in all directions. Jerry's break into the Alamein line in early July had put him firmly astride this ridge, and when the Eighth Army's idea of a ‘pincers’ attack farther west came to nothing, Ruweisat Ridge became the next focus of attention as a desirable jumping-off point for a counter-offensive aimed at smashing Jerry's front.
Another point channelled the strategists' minds towards Ruweisat. It was right in the middle of the enemy's salient, and both its north and south slopes were held by Italians, easy meat compared to the Germans. There was, the British knew, a small sprinkling of German anti-tank men among these Ities, but behind them was only a small force of German tanks—most of these were tied up nearer the coast, while the Italian armour and German motorised infantry were away to the south. A night infantry attack on Ruweisat, then, could be fairly immune from counter-attack, and British tanks could come up on the heels of the infantry and push on westwards before the enemy had got over his astonishment.
So the Eighth Army planned. Thirteenth Corps was to deliver the first blow against the western part of Ruweisat, and 5 Indian Brigade of 30 Corps against the eastern, after which the armour would exploit to the north-west and 30 Corps would attack south from the coast. After that, unleash the pursuit.
In 13 Corps the New Zealand Division would do the first attack, starting two miles north of Alam Nayil and approaching Ruweisat from the south-east. It would be a long advance, six miles altogether, the last two through enemy territory. The attackers, leaving the start line at 11 p.m., were to be on the ridge at 2 a.m., and by dawn the tanks of 1 Armoured Division were to be up in support, 2 Armoured Brigade on the right and 22 Armoured Brigade on the left, ready to meet a counter-attack or to push on westwards when the time was right.
There would be three battalions in the van of the New Zealand attack. On the right 23 Battalion and in the centre 21 Battalion, both of 5 Brigade; on the left, 4 Brigade would be page 275 led by 18 Battalion, now released from its frustrating reserve role. Nineteenth Battalion would advance slightly behind and to the left of the 18th, and the open left flank would be looked after first by Divisional Cavalry and the Reserve Group, later by 22 Armoured Brigade. Eighteenth Battalion's objective was Point 63, a trig point near the western end of the ridge, much more prominent on the map than on the ground.
The line now held by 4 and 5 Brigades, running north-east from Alam Nayil, was not a very healthy spot. For the last three days both sides had been hammering away at each other's infantry and gun positions, and the constant undertone of shellfire had been audible in Muhafid, sometimes rising to barrage proportions for a short time. Now, on the morning of 14 July, 26 Battalion of 6 Brigade arrived up from reserve to take over 18 Battalion's job in the Reserve Group, and the 18th packed up and left Muhafid at 2.30 p.m., with orders to relieve the Maori Battalion under 4 Brigade's command, and to get ready for the attack that night. For the first time since Minqar Qaim the battalion left its B Echelon transport behind.
Sending a unit up to the front line in broad daylight was an unusual idea; according to Captain Batty, the adjutant, ‘someone argued that the shimmering heat waves would block the view of the enemy’. This convenient theory did not work out well. On the way up the battalion came under shellfire, not very concentrated but very uncomfortable, and everyone was quite glad to leave the trucks in the lee of a small escarpment and walk the last mile. As the companies neared the front line the first Maoris were coming out, tired, grimy, cheerful, bristling with a fantastic variety of weapons, shouting out pithy comments on front-line life (‘She's a bastard in there, eh, boy’) with wide grins as they passed. By 5 p.m. 18 Battalion was settling in, digging new slitties or adapting old ones, while shells still fell in steady ones and twos all over the area.
Not only the front line was unhealthy that day. The Luftwaffe, after a few days off, had been over in large numbers, and there had already been a hit-and-run Stuka raid on Muhafid in the morning. A second raid only half an hour after 18 Battalion left hit its B Echelon fair and square, and the Battalion Headquarters office truck with most of the unit records went up in flames—a casualty looked on with unconcern by the men in the companies, who would have been page 276 much more upset if it had been a cooks' truck. But the cooks' trucks were untouched, and the cooks were able to send a hot meal up to the companies as soon as it was dark. By this time the shelling had slackened off, and the battalion was working fast to prepare for the attack.
It was impossible to make thorough preparations. There was no time to arrange liaison with 19 Battalion or 21 Battalion. There was no time for Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch or his company commanders to make any reconnaissance, and little time to arrange a plan of communications. Everything was hurried, and to make things worse 4 Brigade Headquarters came along with an instruction to 18 Battalion to send a company off to the south to cover a gap in the defence, as the German motorised columns of 90 Light Division were supposed to be pressing forward in this area. A whole company could not be spared just then, so the 18th compromised by sending the defence and carrier platoons, who hastened to the threatened gap but found no Jerries. They were withdrawn at 9 p.m., and one defence platoon man remarks bitterly that nobody had remembered to keep any tea for them.
There was also no time to make out a proper written battalion operation order for the attack; all the orders were verbal, scribbled down on scraps of paper by company and platoon and section commanders. Even then there was barely enough time before 9 p.m. At that hour the A Echelon vehicles left for a rendezvous at 4 Brigade Headquarters ready to advance when ordered, and the rifle companies and Battalion Headquarters moved off to the start line two miles north, everyone loaded up with ammunition, digging tools, and a day's food and water.
The Germans and Italians would have been very interested to see this part of the desert just then. Everything was unnaturally quiet, for this was a silent attack with no artillery preparation. Along the taped and lighted start line lay, sat or strolled hundreds of dark figures, outwardly calm, dozing or talking in low voices, but inwardly tense and fidgety, as everyone always is on these occasions. The battalion was ranged along 4 Brigade's 400-yard front, B Company on the right, D on the left, Battalion Headquarters in the middle, C Company behind, all waiting for 11 p.m. and the word go.