18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 22 — Trial by Heat
Trial by Heat
The battalion was now spread over a mile and a half of undulating desert just north of the Alam Nayil ridge, with A, B and C Companies in order from the right, and Battalion Headquarters and HQ Company half a mile back in a shallow sandy basin. The slopes round here were very gentle, and there were no good landmarks to orient yourself, but it was surprising how the bumps and hollows—often only a few feet of difference—limited the view. The enemy, some two miles away, was visible only from the highest points, and the most constant reminder of him was a battery of British guns just behind the battalion which seemed to keep the air perpetually vibrating with their hard, metallic whangs. Jerry in his turn landed a few shells on 18 Battalion from time to time, ‘particularly,’ remarks the war diary crossly, ‘at meal times’. B and C Companies, on open forward slopes, got more than their share of this shelling; back in the sheltered Headquarters wadi life was much easier, and you could even play cricket or football if it was not too hot.
Within a week 18 Battalion had been part of 4 Brigade, 5 Brigade and the Reserve Group, jumping from one to another so quickly that you tended to lose track of where you were. Now, to complete the rounds, it came into 6 Brigade. Its new position, on the south-west corner of 2 NZ Division, had been occupied earlier by 24 Battalion, which had now been pulled out of the line after its mauling at EI Mreir. At first 18 Battalion had no immediate neighbours here, and the carriers had to go out patrolling empty ground on the flanks, but within a day or two the remains of 6 Brigade moved in, 26 Battalion going to 18 Battalion's right flank and 25 Battalion to Alam Nayil on the left.
The New Zealand line was now continuous, with 5 Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left, and it looked as if the Division might be there for a long stay, so the battalion set to page 307 work to make itself as much at home as possible. To begin with, the most urgent sanitary needs were dealt with—all the battlefield junk lying about was disposed of, Italian trenches filled in, corpses buried. Then the boys turned their attention to their comfort and safety. Company positions were reorganised in a permanent form, the rough slitties dug on arrival or bequeathed by 24 Battalion gradually acquired such refinements as sandbagged sides and canvas roofs, fighting pits were perfected, headquarters and cookhouses and trucks were dug in. On Corps orders the whole front was wired, sappers laid thick belts of mines ahead of the infantry, mortars and Vickers and anti-tank guns were sited to cover every foot of the front, and the whole position took on a Maginot quality such as the Kiwis had never before experienced.
The seven stationary weeks that followed were a trial by heat, heat such as nobody back in New Zealand could ever have imagined, heat that could not be escaped above ground or below it. The flies were as persistent as ever, water just as scarce. The fine powdery sand blew about in dust-storms that sometimes blotted everything out. Nearly everyone had ‘Gyppo tummy’ to some extent, and the smallest scratch was liable to develop into a festering ‘desert sore’. Life was dirty, boring and unpleasant.
On 14 July 18 Battalion had gone into action at Ruweisat with nearly its full complement of 800 men. After EI Mreir, not counting A Company at Maadi, it could raise just over 400. An immediate call went out for A Company to come up and replace the unlucky D Company, and on 25 July the two companies changed over, D (only half strength now) going back to the peace and quiet of Maadi. Two batches of reinforcements, totalling 220, brought the unit up to something like full strength again early in August, but it did not stay that way for long, as each day took its quota of sick men, so that by the end of August numbers had dwindled again nearly to 500. In these two hot, unhygienic months the sickness rate in the Division was higher than it had ever been.
Yet there were compensations for all these drawbacks. With a short supply line from Base, mail came up fairly regularly, and there were a few parcels from home. There was tinned beer available if you could afford it, too warm to drink during the page 308 day, but delightful in the evening when it had had time to cool off. Just as popular was the washing service, by which dirty clothes could be changed for clean ones twice a week. Perpetual war was waged on the flies without much success, but one helpful invention was a tubular net hitched to the rim of a tin hat, which (even if it made you look like something from another planet) gave your face some protection from the hungry hordes.
Early in August, as a change from bully beef and M & V, fresh meat and vegetables began to appear on the menu about three times a week, and about the same time leave began again, a few men going to Cairo or Alexandria every six days. These signs of increasing civilisation were welcomed on all sides, but they did not last long, as towards the end of August another imminent flare-up in the battle forced the Division back to tinned food and killed the leave scheme. There were grumbles at this, of course, but they were perfunctory ones and not serious, for by this time the July gloom had disappeared and the Division was almost its old self again.
Before the battle had been static for very long a set daily pattern of life began to emerge. By daylight nobody in the forward companies moved round if he could help it, and a stranger suddenly set down in the middle of the New Zealand lines would have had no idea of the teeming underground life all about him. ‘A boy's best friend is his slittie’ was the slogan. A slittie certainly gave a little protection from sun and sand, and there was no sense in parading round asking for attention from Jerry. So during the long days there was lots of spare time, and few ways of passing it, apart from thinking up ideas for keeping a little more of the scorching heat out of the trenches, and designing new sorts of fly traps.
After dark the desert sprang to life. Meals, ammunition, wire, sandbags, mail all came up, sick men went back. Engineers went out forward with mines, or came round with compressors and power drills to deepen holes in the stubborn rock. The infantrymen went to their battle stations and stood picket, gun crews took their posts, patrols went out through gaps in the minefields to roam no-man's land. Then, like the ghosts' revels which cease at cock-crow, all this activity subsided with the first gleams of dawn, and the daily torpor settled over the desert.page 309
With the switch over into 6 Brigade, 18 Battalion came into closer contact with one of the Division's unforgettable characters in Brigadier Clifton, a cheerful, democratic commander who spared no effort to put zing into the dullness of static warfare. The Brigadier's schemes for ‘rotating’ Jerry consisted largely of variations on two main themes, night patrols and harassing shoots, but he showed high ingenuity in making the most of his limited scope for variety.
More spectacular and noisy than the patrols were the harassing shoots, carried out sometimes at night and sometimes at dawn, usually from spots in no-man's land looking into the enemy's lines. The key to these excursions was the carriers, which, besides regularly going out beyond our minefields for a look round first thing in the morning, sometimes went quietly out in the dark along some convenient depression, taking with them a few Vickers and 3-inch mortars, plus ammunition. The usual procedure was for these weapons to give Jerry a brief but page 311 solid plastering, the carriers joining in the party with their guns, then loading up and legging it for home before Jerry could get his own guns ranged. Sergeant Dick Bishop records the story of one such shoot:
There was quite a heavy fog…. We went right out to the German wire & waited there till the fog lifted, when we could see troops walking about as large as life less than 1000 yds. away. We got away without having a shot fired at us & the next morning we went out again with a Vickers mounted on each of our four carriers. We were in position before first light & soon after daybreak could see troops moving about quite unconcernedly. We could even hear them calling to one another…. It was only to be expected that they could see us & in the finish they lobbed a mortar bomb across. The first one went about five hundred yards too far, the next four hundred & the third one fifty by which time we had all four Vickers going. Each one got five hundred rounds away & each carrier fired its Bren as well…. We quietened all opposition & no more mortars were fired till we were on the way out.
It was typical of the carriers, and of their commander (Captain Laurie4), to try to brighten up their job in this way. Often the 25-pounders co-operated by putting over a few rounds at the right time; Lieutenant Jackson5 of the mortar platoon relates that on returning from one such outing they ‘were informed by O.P. officer… that Gerry had sent about 3 tanks down to nail us but they had been dispersed by directed 25 pdr. fire.’
Another experiment for rotating Jerry, tried out towards the end of August, was for a ‘recce’ patrol to wireless back targets to the artillery. It is not recorded whose idea this was, but Brigadier Clifton was delighted with it. In his diary he says:
18 Bn tried WT (18 set) with recce patrol and it works very well indeed. Put arty to real targets for first time at night…. Upsets Boche. He fired fixed line stuff everywhere.
It was impossible to tell how effective this was, though some patrols declared that they heard wounded men crying out. But it undoubtedly got on Jerry's nerves and made him waste his ammunition.page 312
The story of these seven weeks, despite all the drawbacks of the Alamein summer, shows a gradual increase in 18 Battalion's keenness and drive. For one thing, the despondency arising from Ruweisat and EI Mreir naturally tended to lift as time went on. For another, the aggressive patrolling and its accompanying assurance that now we were on more than equal terms with Jerry gave a great boost to morale. Thirdly, the sweeping changes in Eighth Army leadership in August, the advent of the famous Alexander-Montgomery team, was felt by everyone, right down to the grumbling private sweating in his slittie. General Montgomery, with his ‘NO WITHDRAWAL AND NO SURRENDER’ message and his appearance in the front line—he toured the battalion's forward positions on 23 August, something no Army Commander had ever done before—had the priceless gift of instilling his own self-confidence into everyone. Life did not suddenly become a bed of roses, but there were, everyone felt, better times coming.
The ‘no withdrawal’ order was more than just empty words. On 16 August orders came down for every unit to make large reserve dumps of food, water and ammunition, all dug in and camouflaged. This job kept a lot of men busy for several nights, including parties of engineers with their compressors and ‘poppers’, and when it was finished 18 Battalion was self-contained and able to exist for six days if cut off from supplies, with a big central dump in HQ Company's area and smaller ones forward with each rifle company. At the same time the transport in the front line was drastically reduced, only a bare minimum—mainly jeeps and light trucks—staying with the units while the rest went away back 45 miles to a new divisional B Echelon area. Even the anti-tank portées were thinned out, half going and half staying; carriers were the only exceptions to this sweeping order. There were a few hostile comments from the men who had so recently toiled on the pits for all these vehicles, but their annoyance, like all army grouches, was soon over and forgotten.
The new policy also brought the Kiwis some new neighbours, 132 Brigade of 44 British Division, just arrived in the desert, which moved in on the south side of the New Zealand ‘box’. For a week its units sent parties of officers and NCOs to their corresponding New Zealand units for ‘indoctrination’ in page 313 desert conditions, 18 Battalion playing host to 4 Royal West Kents. This could not be called a great success, for the visitors, though quite friendly, seemed to resent playing new chum to Dominion troops, and did not take kindly to their indoctrination. They certainly did some unusual things. A spectator from 18 Battalion recalls:
There was the really extraordinary spectacle of some 32 2-pr anti-tank guns of 132 Bde… being taken outside the wire, six at a time, to be zeroed using a derelict Honey tank as an aiming mark. Each gun fired at least five shells and we all felt that it would have been interesting to know what deductions the enemy made from it all.
This long-suffering Honey tank, sitting a little way out from the wire in a wadi on 18 Battalion's northern flank, was a convenient practice target. The battalion's own anti-tank boys used it occasionally, but, unlike 132 Brigade, they did not risk going out in broad daylight. Towards the end of August their shoots were helped along by 2-inch mortars firing flares, a new idea for lighting up targets at night, and one evening three Valentine tanks went out to this unofficial range and did some flarelight shooting. This experiment, though interesting, was only moderately successful—the tanks and guns were able to lay on a target very quickly, but the range of the flares was too short for most practical purposes, and one windy night they blew back over our lines. The scheme, much to the relief of the 2-inch mortar men, was never tried out in action.
July's wear and tear on the nerves was much lightened in August by the virtual disappearance from the sky of that abomination, the Stuka. Jerry might be saving up for his big attack, but for the time the British fighters had the upper hand by day, and almost every night RAF bombers passed overhead and could be heard going for the enemy not far away. Sometimes they hung round his front line dropping flares which gave our patrols a few anxious moments. During the month two German planes hit the ground near 18 Battalion, one a Messerschmitt fighter-bomber and the other a Junkers 88 which crashed with a tremendous bang not far from C Company in the very small night hours of 29 August. German planes at night were quite the exception, though there was a minor panic one night when, after one of their rare visits, 25 Battalion reported page 314 paratroops dropping nearby. The whole of 6 Brigade stood to and prepared to repel boarders, but the paratroops turned out to be harmless propaganda pamphlets, most of them written in Urdu. A few 18 Battalion men managed to souvenir some of these, but there were not nearly enough to go round. However, they gave everybody a good laugh; and laughs were scarce in the Alamein summer.
The idea of a raid on the enemy was not new. In mid-August the Maori Battalion staged a most rewarding raid at EI Mreir, killing or capturing nearly 100 Italians, and earned high praise even from General Montgomery. It was a model operation—the enemy's positions had been carefully reconnoitred, the raiders' movements had been planned almost to the inch, the teamwork between infantry and artillery was very smooth. It was unlikely that 6 Brigade would let 5 Brigade get away with this honour and glory unchallenged. Brigadier Clifton told Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants that he wanted a good-sized raid turned on, and Pleasants suggested going for Deir Umm Khawabir, the biggest of the long east-west wadis on the New Zealand front, which ran west from 18 Battalion's northern flank. This seemed to be as good as anywhere. There was a good approach along a line of wadi bottoms and the Italian defences were nice and thick. So the suggestion was heartily approved. The job was given to A Company, the obvious choice, as its patrols had been prowling about this area and knew the layout pretty well.
For a small hit-and-run raid, this show took a lot of preparation, almost as much as a divisional attack, or so it seemed. There were diversionary fire schemes by 25 and 26 Battalions, artillery fire before the raid and carefully timed concentrations on Khawabir while it was in progress, Vickers fire on the defences, engineers to make gaps in the minefields if necessary, provosts to light the route out and turn the lights round for the benefit of the returning raiders, a salvage party with a truck to tag along behind and pick up anything useful that was left lying about. Every commander from General Freyberg down to Captain Pike of A Company pored over patrol reports and air photos, which were being used for the first time on a big scale. With all this to help it along, it would have been surprising if the raid had failed.page 315
As it was, it was a brilliant success, the kind of ‘do’ that lifts the spirits of everybody concerned. Everything went like clockwork. Twenty-fifth and 26th Battalions began their diversions on the ridges south and north of Khawabir a little before zero hour, the artillery (nearly all the Kiwi 25-pounders plus some medium guns) opened up as arranged half an hour in advance and kept up its fire ahead of the raiders till their job was all but finished. A Company itself moved out through our wire when the artillery opened up, advanced a mile and a half due west to the enemy's wire, waited there till zero hour with the shells falling a few hundred yards beyond it; then at 10 p.m. (30 August), as the artillery lifted another 300 yards, the company slipped through a gap in the wire, pushed forward through the smoke and dust, and sailed into the enemy. The Ities were too bewildered by the shelling and the sudden appearance of A Company in their midst to offer much resistance. Some were shot in their trenches, some before they even seemed to realise what was afoot. One or two machine guns fought briefly, but met a swift fate, like this one recounted by Sergeant Bill Goodmanson of 7 Platoon:
An Italian M.G. opened up on us and … I had two men wounded….They could not depress their gun enough to do any damage & ‘Snow’ [Porter6] held them down until I could toss a ‘36’ [grenade] in and that finished that.
Small parties of raiders penetrated deep into the defences, rounded up batches of prisoners, and destroyed an anti-tank gun. Goodmanson goes on to recall the adventures of his party:
We lost contact with the Coy … and I finished up with eight men. We were having a hell of a good time when one of the boys said that flares [the signal for recall] had gone up a long time ago. I was just going to pull out when we ran into the anti-tank gun, well, that had to be fixed & it was fixed. When we pulled out the ‘Wops’ carried my wounded boys back home at the point of the bayonet until ‘Stiffy’ [Lt-Col Pleasants] met us with the Bren Carriers & everybody was happy.
About 11 p.m. a tired, sweat-soaked but exhilarated A Company made its way back through the enemy's wire, leaving behind it many dead Italians and bringing back thirty-three prisoners. Best of all, the company had not lost a single man killed, only three wounded. It had had things nearly page 316 all its own way—even the usual wild retaliatory fire speeding it on its homeward path was lighter than expected, for by this time, as will be seen, the enemy's guns were beginning to be fully occupied elsewhere.
At a time when the Eighth Army was starved for excitement, A Company's foray attracted attention that it would never have got at a more lively time. Brigadier Clifton, Lieutenant-General Freyberg, and Lieutenant-General Horrocks of 13 Corps watched proceedings with interest from a forward observation post in A Company's area. Next day there were congratulations and pats on the back all round; even Clifton seemed to think the enemy had been satisfactorily rotated. It was agreed that Captain Pike had made a particularly good job of planning and leading the raid, and his team had responded well.
Back at Battalion Headquarters, after the show, interest centred for a while on one lone German paratroop among the prisoners, who, in a fit of pique, told his captors in barely understandable English that Rommel was attacking again that very night, and that in a couple of days their positions would be reversed. Later, back at 6 Brigade Headquarters, he evidently thought better of his boasting, and told the interrogating officer that there was to be no attack; but by this time events had borne out his first statement beyond all doubt.
The British had guessed right in thinking that Rommel was about to attack again, and they were right, too, in picking that his attack would come at the south end of the Alamein line, where 7 Armoured Division held an open, mobile front, in contrast to the tight line farther north. Rommel had been planning to this end since early August. His main mobile forces, both German and Italian, would gatecrash 7 Armoured Division's minefields in the south, push a little way past, then swing round to the north, cut off 2 NZ Division and the rest of the British line, and drive to the sea east of Alamein. The German go Light Division would advance through Alinda and Munassib, then turn north and come in on 2 NZ Division's southern flank just east of Alam Nayil, while a striking force of Italians with a German stiffening would do the same thing on go Light Division's left, hitting the New Zealand positions not page 317 far from 18 Battalion. There was to be a big fireworks display at Ruweisat to divert the British attention from the real business in the south.
The night finally arranged for the balloon to go up, after several delays due to shortage of petrol, was 30-31 August, the very night of the Khawabir raid. At 10 p.m.—exactly the same hour as A Company got in through the Italian wire— Rommel's Panzer Army crossed its start line and advanced to the attack that was intended to annihilate the Eighth Army.