20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 10 — Return to the Desert
Return to the Desert
On 27 May Rommel, largely reinforced, attacked the Eighth Army in Libya and a great battle commenced whose varying fortunes were watched with interest by the New Zealand Division then in Syria. About 4 June the battle began to turn strongly against the Eighth Army and on 14 June the Division was ordered to move to the Western Desert with the utmost speed.
Movement orders quickly passed down from Division to battalion, and by 7 a.m. on the 16th the Bren-carrier platoon under Captain Phillips1 had been loaded on to the train at Rayak. At the same time Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows, with the Intelligence Officer, Second-Lieutenant Sullivan, and the company commanders, left for Maadi to receive instructions. Major McKergow, OC Headquarters Company, left the battalion for a tour of duty with the Greek Brigade in Palestine.
In the meantime rubbish fires burned sluggishly, disconsolate Arabs poked about on the fringe of the camp, and quartermasters were unusually lavish with changes of clothing and the much-prized pocket-knives. Even so, due to an acute shortage of transport, a certain amount of stores had to be sent back to Egypt by rail.
By 6.25 a.m. on 17 June the battalion was ready to move, and after waiting for another unit the convoy moved off at 6.42. The battalion convoy numbered 32 officers and 775 other ranks in 57 lorries and 11 motor-cycles.
Passing through Tiberias, the convoy reached the staging camp at Tulkarm at 8.15 p.m. after a journey of 205 miles on a very hot day. At 6.45 a.m. next day the journey was resumed through Lydda to Asluj. Water was limited to one bottle a man a day, and in the open lorries, without canopies, the heat was very trying. At one hourly halt cases of tomatoes were noticed stacked under some trees at the corner of the road. Most trucks in the vicinity benefited from the discovery.page 228
On 19 June the battalion moved out at 3.30 a.m. and arrived at Ismailia eleven hours later. Here news was received that the Eighth Army was in full retreat. Several vehicles had tyres blown out on the journey through being overloaded. Most men were able to have a refreshing swim in the Canal.
Next day the convoy passed through Cairo. Badges and titles were down, fernleaves blacked out, and the lorries kept moving, but wily George Wog soon knew to whom he had sold yesterday's paper. After a trying journey of thirteen hours the battalion reached Amiriya, where instructions were received to proceed next day to Mersa Matruh. At 6.30 p.m. on 21 June the convoy halted at the end of its 900-mile journey, and later in the evening the battalion moved out to its area on the outskirts of the town and bedded down in the unoccupied huts of the Egyptian Army barracks, in the flea-infested dugouts, or once again on the accommodating sand outside. Native troops from a South African unit woke up and put on an impromptu concert with commendable harmony.
During the day orders had been received from 30 Corps for the New Zealand Division to occupy Matruh fortress and also to man an outpost position at Charing Cross. This message stressed that time and immediate action were of vital importance. Fourth Brigade was ordered to take over the defence of the fortress perimeter from the Sidi Barrani road to the coast until the arrival of other units. Accordingly, early on 22 June 4 Brigade Headquarters moved into the Egyptian barracks, 18 Battalion took up a position on the coast to the north-west of the lagoon, 19 Battalion covered the area between the barracks and the Sidi Barrani road, while 28 (Maori) Battalion, still under command of 4 Brigade since the move to Syria, moved first to the airfield south of the road and later to a position between the other two battalions.
At 5 p.m. the 20th, with 48 Battery of 6 Field Regiment and a troop from 31 Anti-Tank Battery under command, moved out to an outpost position at Charing Cross on the junction of the roads from Siwa and Sidi Barrani, about ten miles south of Mersa Matruh. Next day a platoon of Bren carriers from 6 Brigade joined this group.
On its way to Charing Cross the battalion had great difficulty in moving against the solid stream of Eighth Army trans- page 229 port in retreat—‘a weird mixture of vehicles that were being driven, towed or pushed, nose to tail and four abreast’. Containing surprisingly few troops and converging from the Siwa and Sidi Barrani roads, they created a confusion that was increased when enemy bombers appeared over the crossroads. In the circumstances the Tommy driver's laconic greeting, ‘You're goin’ the wrong way, choom,’ was understandable.
The battalion's area at Charing Cross had been mined some years before with Egyptian-pattern mines of doubtful quality. Mines were stacked at the side of the road and the whole area needed cleaning up. This, and the checking of all traffic, comprised the battalion's duties.
At half past five on the afternoon of 23 June a message was received that the battalion would be relieved in a day or two by 6 Brigade and would move back as reserve battalion in Matruh fortress. Next day, however, the CO was informed that a brigade of 10 Indian Division would relieve the battalion at first light next morning.
About 1 a.m. on the 25th enemy aircraft strafed the road from the railway to the road junction for about half an hour. A small patrol from A Company was on the road and had an interesting time. Bombs were dropped at the intersection but caused no casualties. At 8 a.m. the relief of the position at Charing Cross began and an hour and a half later the battalion had returned to Matruh.
In the meantime the general situation was changing rapidly. The New Zealand Division had passed to the command of 10 Corps, 30 Corps Headquarters then retiring to prepare the Alamein line. After handing over the defence of Matruh to 10 Indian Division the New Zealanders were to move to the south, where they were to be organised into battle groups and operate in a mobile role, this time under 13 Corps. As there were not enough guns to protect the infantry and their vehicles it was decided to send back to Amiriya one company, less all weapons except rifles, from each of the seven infantry battalions of 4 and 5 Brigades and to hold 6 Brigade at Daba as reinforcements. The CO decided to send back B Company, under Captain Fountaine.
Half an hour after returning to Matruh the battalion was ordered to move to the Minqar Qaim area, but a change in page 230 orders a couple of hours later sent it back to Charing Cross with two troops of two-pounder anti-tank guns, one troop of six-pounders, and 25 Field Battery to protect parties of engineers who were to lay mines on the Siwa road in an attempt to close the gap in the western belt of minefields. By 2 p.m. the battalion was on the move. The rest of the Division was moving south to Minqar Qaim, where the 20th would join it later.
Transport was so short that, when Headquarters Company came to move, the anti-tank platoon had to be left behind so that the cooks and their gear could be carried. The Indians were already in the fortress, blandly ‘salvaging’ Headquarters Company's cookhouse gear and the tools of the pioneer platoon. The anti-tank platoon had now neither guns nor transport. Twenty-five of its men had been sent the previous day to an anti-tank school run by 95 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, to the east of Smugglers' Cove, but owing to the changing situation they had been recalled. Only the platoon's officers and NCOs were trained and many of the men were to go into their first action without having previously sat in the layer's seat of their two-pounders. With mixed feelings the men watched the battalion depart and settled down to wait for the trucks that the CO had promised to send back if possible. One of the drivers salvaged an Italian Lancia truck from a vehicle dump, but that evening two 6 Brigade lorries picked up the platoon, which caught up with the battalion at Charing Cross just as the last mines were laid across the road.
The minefield was old and there were no plans to work from. It was mainly through Colonel Burrows's drive that the mine-laying was finally done, as the South African and Indian troops engaged on the work seemed to have conflicting orders. The Germans were rapidly approaching, making extensive use of flares during the night, but they did not attack. During the work four field company trucks were severely damaged or destroyed by mines, luckily without casualties, but just after the laying had been completed a truck carrying 350 mines blew up, killing two engineers and wounding five. The flames from the burning truck must have been visible for miles.
Its work completed, the battalion then moved off in four lines of trucks to join 4 Brigade. At a narrow gap in the minefield vehicles converged to form a single line and everyone was page 231 relieved when this stage was over and night formation resumed. By eight o'clock next morning, 26 June, the weary troops moved into the brigade area, dug in and rested.
It is now necessary to pause and consider the general situation. During 25 June, when the 20th was being relieved at Charing Cross, the enemy forces, having by-passed Sidi Barrani, halted for the day less than 20 miles from Matruh and resumed their advance in the evening. This pause enabled Eighth Army to straighten out some of the disorganisation caused by the retreat. The plan laid down by General Auchinleck was that 30 Corps should prepare defences for a final stand between El Alamein and the Qattara Depression, leaving 10 and 13 Corps, including the New Zealand Division, fully mobile with the task of attacking the enemy at every opportunity without permitting themselves to be encircled or overwhelmed.
In its mobile role under 13 Corps the Division was to take up a position in the Minqar Qaim area with the object of denying the escarpment to the enemy and commanding with fire the approaches from the west both north and south of the escarpment. It was also to maintain a mobile reserve of columns with the task of delaying the enemy advance from the west or up the Khalda track from the south, and of attacking any enemy within striking distance. One task had been declined. Owing to the rapid approach of the enemy the commander of 10 Corps had asked, just after noon on 25 June, that the Division take up a position in Wadi Naghamish—the upper end of the famous ‘Kiwi Ditch’ tank-trap dug by 4 Brigade in 1940. As the wadi had only one entrance and one exit and, in General Freyberg's view, was ‘an impossible position’, this proposal was ruled out.
At 5 p.m. on 26 June the New Zealand Division passed from the command of 10 Corps to 13 Corps, and 4 Brigade in desert formation with 19 Battalion leading, 20 Battalion on the left, and 28 (Maori) Battalion on the right, left the dispersal area at Bir el Sarahna and, after travelling about eight miles roughly south-east, arrived at the escarpment east of the telephone line and the track to Bir Khalda. No sooner had the companies taken up position and commenced to dig in than information was received from Brigade that the enemy had broken through page 232 the minefield south of Charing Cross and the battalion was ordered to embus immediately and move northwards to meet him.
It was about 8 p.m. and there was already a bright moon in the midsummer sky. The CO had just gone to a conference at 4 Brigade Headquarters and the rifle companies were embussing when a steady drone turned all eyes skywards. Circling around like great black bats were over a score of enemy bombers. The first one peeled off, dived with sirens screaming, and the rest followed. Some men managed to jump down and disperse to the sandhills but many were caught on their trucks. A Company lost four men killed and twelve wounded, mainly NCOs and ‘old hands’. As each bomber pulled out of its dive the rear-gunner sprayed the area and the planes returned to strafe. It was a nasty introduction to action for the reinforcements.
The gunners of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment showed their mettle. At the beginning of the raid their guns were on wheels, but as the first bombs hit the ground they got into action and claimed one plane shot down.
A Company had lost two of its three troop-carrying lorries and was therefore not mobile, but the rest of the battalion re-formed and, with one battery of 25-pounders, two troops of two-pounders and one of six-pounder anti-tank guns, moved out about four miles north along the Khalda track with instructions to make contact with the enemy, take up a defensive position, and gain time for the Division to deploy. On the way the battalion met many odd units—some from the ASC—quite defenceless and unaware of their danger. At one stage the head of the column met a convoy of new six-pounder guns looking for the Division. They were given the correct map reference and sent on to Minqar Qaim.
About 11 p.m. the battalion stopped and shook out to defensive positions for the night. While this was being done a strange truck approached. With the driver was a slightly wounded man. Both claimed to be from 22 Armoured Brigade, which had been shelled by an enemy mobile column while in night laager about 12 miles away. They were guided back to Brigade for interrogation.
By 4.30 a.m. on 27 June sounds of firing were heard and a page 233 platoon of C Company fired on what appeared to be an enemy column, which retired after returning the fire. With the growing light large concentrations of enemy vehicles were seen on the escarpment a few miles away, and a column of tanks and lorried infantry approached the battalion but withdrew after an exchange of fire. At this stage Divisional Headquarters ordered the battalion to withdraw and rejoin 4 Brigade, now in the vicinity of Bir Abu Batta.
The battalion returned and took up a position below the Minqar Qaim escarpment near Bir Abu Shayit. Digging in was often a hard task where outcrops of rock had to be attacked with pick and shovel, and it was not until well after daylight that weapon pits were completed and minefields laid by the field companies on the north-east and north-west approaches.page 234
About 11 a.m. the battalion received a quota of two-pounder anti-tank guns from 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, which had taken over the six-pounders from the convoy rescued the previous night. They were placed in position, some on the flat with the rifle companies, and others on top of the escarpment and in front of 19 Battalion. NCOs promptly began to instruct their untrained crews as the area was already under enemy shellfire. By midday Battalion Headquarters on top of the escarpment was under heavy shell and mortar fire. Most spectacular were what seemed to be duds, or heavy armour-piercing shells, that landed with a prodigious thump and then ricocheted through the vehicle area, causing amazingly few casualties. The enemy appeared to be searching for our artillery, and once he had ranged with airburst shells the next two hours were very warm for the 25-pounders. The infantry positions and Brigade Headquarters also received plenty of attention as enemy forces collected to the north of Minqar Qaim.
At 3.40 p.m. the Intelligence Officer, Second-Lieutenant Sullivan, who was at the observation post on the escarpment, warned Brigade that he had seen a large column of vehicles led by fourteen tanks approaching from the west, and about eight miles north. The column swung past Minqar Qaim and, continuing the curve, approached the Division's position from the north-east and south-east. Three heavy tanks had passed south when suddenly the column divided, and one group approached the 20th while the other continued south-east. Brigade warned the battalion not to fire until certain identification was possible as the column might be an ASC one. However, swastikas were soon observed on the approaching vehicles and action commenced.
Its crew flushed with victory, a captured two-pounder en portée led a group of other vehicles at high speed down the Khalda track towards the gap in the minefield. Lieutenant Cottrell of 9 Platoon A Company describes its reception:
We were well dug in and the portee (a captured one of ours with a swastika across the front) came straight through at full speed towards my platoon. My front section was in charge of an old soldier, Corporal Bob Doig from Ashburton, who was killed that night. In a clear voice he said, ‘Hold your fire till I tell you.’ Every man in the platoon had his weapon trained on that portee. On and on it came and still Doig's calm voice said, ‘Hold it—hold it—hold page 235 it—Fire!’ Every gun hit its mark and the portee stopped immediately. Most of its crew were dead—we sent the wounded ones back as prisoners and kept the swastika.
At the same time the newly-formed anti-tank platoon went into action. Nonchalantly smoking his pipe, Sergeant McConchie, with three campaigns as an infantryman behind him, directed the fire of a gun which, with the unit armourer as gunner, stopped the leading enemy portée with its first shot. Lieutenant Moodie2 directed another crew which destroyed two troop-carriers before the gun was damaged and he was slightly wounded in the knee. He then directed the crew to the safety of slit trenches and retrieved the portée. Collecting his crew, he drove back up the escarpment to get the gun repaired and then took it forward for further action.
Meanwhile McConchie's gun and crew had accounted for a light tank, a troop-carrier and two lorries. These actions had been very encouraging for the men of the rifle companies, who by now were firing steadily. Mines which had been laid on top of the ground caused the enemy to turn either right or left, where they were engaged by the guns and small arms. One command vehicle got a direct hit at close range and disintegrated. Enemy infantry had debussed at close small-arms range to pick up the mines, but they soon ran back into the scrub, where they were hard to locate. Captain Upham daringly stood up on the cab of a truck to draw their fire and mortars were used to flush them. Upham, with characteristic coolness, moved round his company on foot, crossing open ground swept by small-arms and mortar fire, steadying one platoon which was under shellfire and encouraging his men; he set an example appreciated by all who saw it, except perhaps the field gunners, whose 25-pounders were firing over C Company's positions over open sights.
A Company's commander, Captain Washbourn, endeavoured to have the field guns directed on to a re-entrant to the right into which a steady stream of enemy vehicles was disappearing. A few shells went over but shortage of ammunition curtailed the effort. The artillery at this time was reduced to thirty-five rounds a gun, which included armour-piercing and smoke shells.page 236
During the day when fire from enemy in the scrub wounded Sergeant McConchie's gunner and damaged the firing mechanism of the gun, he coolly walked out to the enemy portée, salvaged the firing mechanism, and fitted it to his own gun. Later, with Lieutenant Moodie, he drove out to the portée and towed it back to the battalion's lines. For their courage and resource in this action McConchie received the DCM and Moodie the MC.
Enemy transport seemed to be running a shuttle service eastward and the battalion two-pounders on the escarpment engaged soft-skinned targets at almost maximum range. Even the enemy seemed to be confused as to the situation, for first a motor-cycle and then a staff car approached rapidly from the east. Fire was opened much too soon, however, and in both cases the quarry escaped. As the guns were withdrawing inside the infantry positions at dusk a German Mark IV tank moving at speed to the west suddenly stopped and, from a hull-down position in the wadi, shelled the congested vehicle area, again strangely without success. The excitement of watching high-velocity shells describing parabolas of fire in the half light as they approached was abruptly ended as one troop commander loudly claimed a hit, and sure enough the tank withdrew. A few moments later a strange truck, moving slowly across the front, was challenged, fired on and captured.
As soon as it became dark Lieutenant Cottrell sent a section out to repair the gap in the minefield and to patrol it. Patrols from C and D Companies were also sent out.
So closed the first day of battle which had been mainly between our artillery and the enemy's guns and tanks. The battalion's casualties for the day were two men killed and one officer and twenty men wounded. Most of the enemy shelling had been directed at the gun positions and the transport, apparently with a view to silencing the 25-pounders and immobilising the infantry, after which the Division would have been at the mercy of the tanks.
On other sectors the story was much the same. About 5.30 p.m. the Maori Battalion beat off an infantry attack and replied with a bayonet charge. Over twenty of the enemy were killed and ten prisoners taken. (As an interesting sequel to this attack Corporal P. R. Blunden, who had been wounded and taken page 237 prisoner in Crete and who escaped while being transferred from Greece to Germany, relates an experience he had while being sheltered by a Greek family in Salonika. Shortly after this action at Minqar Qaim he was sitting in a picture theatre watching an official German film depicting the drive along the North African coast. The commentator explained: ‘We have been temporarily halted in our victorious march on Suez by the unexpected appearance of the New Zealand Division in the desert.’ The announcer then went on to pay a compliment to the fighting qualities of the Division, especially the Maoris.)
Late in the day there was a change in command. About 5 p.m. General Freyberg had been wounded in the neck by a shell splinter and Brigadier Inglis had taken over command of the Division; Colonel Burrows succeeded to the command of 4 Brigade and Major Manson took over 20 Battalion.
The role of the Division was to gain time and inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy, but to remain intact and fall back on receipt of the code-word. By evening when the message to withdraw east was received, enemy flares were going up in all directions and the Division appeared to be surrounded. With no tanks and with 25-pounder ammunition nearly exhausted, prospects at dawn would be grim. The occasion required a prompt, bold decision, which was duly made.
Brigade Headquarters advised that the Division was to fight its way clear. Fourth Brigade, moving on foot, was to attack the neck of high ground south of Bir Abu Batta, make a break through the enemy line, and lead the whole column east. Divisional Headquarters, with 18 Battalion attached, and 5 Brigade Group would follow closely the 4 Brigade transport; 5 Brigade would act as rearguard. At six o'clock next morning, 28 June, 4 Brigade was to halt and take over the rearguard from 5 Brigade, which would pass through to Fortress A in the Alamein line while 4 Brigade remained at Fuka.
A reconnaissance by a carrier section from 19 Battalion confirmed that there was an enemy concentration in the wadi south of Bir Abu Batta. It was fully appreciated that the move would meet with considerable opposition. On the right flank, in the area south of Bir Abu Shayit, were enemy tanks.
The brigade orders group met at 9.30 p.m. and Brigadier Burrows gave his plan: the whole brigade would make a page 238 bayonet attack on a narrow front to break through the surrounding enemy. Nineteenth Battalion, with one company of the Essex Regiment which had come in during the morning, would lead, with the 20th on the left rear and the Maoris on the right. It was considered that the narrow neck of high ground to the east had to be cleared to allow the transport to come straight through, and this was a one-battalion task. The 20th and the Maoris had tasks of moving to the flanks when the necessity arose. After passing through, 19 Battalion would protect the east flank, 20 Battalion the north, and 28 Battalion the south. There would be no artillery support, partly because it was felt that this would destroy the surprise effect but mainly because of the shortage of ammunition. The attack would start from 19 Battalion's lines at 12.30 a.m. and a flare signal would bring up the transport. A section of engineers behind the infantry would search for mines in the area through which the transport would pass.
Transport would travel in the usual brigade night formation and it was hoped that, when the vehicles halted in the ‘box’ made by the infantry, the latter would find their own trucks nearest them. Anti-tank and artillery units were placed on the flanks and across the rear. In the bright moonlight it was considered that the guns could shoot over open sights if necessary.
Companies were withdrawn from their defences and marshalled in position ready to attack. Twentieth Battalion formed up on the left of Brigade Headquarters behind 19 Battalion with the companies in column on a front of 200 yards. A Company was in front, followed by C and part of Headquarters Company, with D Company in the rear. Two platoons in each company were posted on the left flank and one on the right. Despite lack of sleep and a hard day's fighting under a broiling sun, the men were in high spirits and keen to get to grips with the enemy.
Brigadier Burrows describes the attack in his report:
Zero was 0030 hrs. The 19 NZ Bn were on time but the 20 NZ Bn arrived at 0045 hrs and the 28 NZ (Maori) Bn not until 0145 hrs. Both Bns had some difficulty in withdrawing troops from the forward lines and the 28 NZ (Maori)Bn lost their way when moving to the Start Line. This delay was extremely unfortunate. It meant there was danger that the rear parties of the 5 NZ Inf Bde page 239 Gp would not be far through the gap before daylight came. On the other hand had I ordered the attack to start without the 28 NZ (Maori) Bn it might have meant losing them altogether. I waited until they had arrived and the advance began as soon as they were on the Start Line. The Bns moved quietly for about 1000 yds, keeping good tight formation. There was no sign that the enemy had any knowledge of our advance until we were right on his FDLs. Then the most intense firing began. It included rifle fire, automatics of all types and A Tk. Lines of tracer bullets crossed and re-crossed and it was obvious that fire had been deliberately held in these forward posts until we were very close. It seemed almost impossible that troops should ever be able to get to the guns without suffering heavy casualties. Any delay at this stage must have been fatal, but a most amazing and thrilling thing happened. To a man the whole Bde charged forward. No orders were given; no urging forward by Officers and NCOs. With shouting, cheering and war cries every man broke into a run as if he knew exactly what was expected of him. The Maoris swung to the right and made short work of gun nests in their area. The 19 NZ Bn went forward [and] cleared the high ground and the 20 NZ Bn dropped down into the Wadi on the left. It was here the fiercest fighting took place and the 19 NZ Bn were soon down lending a helping hand. Vehicles were parked quite close together. Many of them were set alight by our hand grenades and men carrying Brens and Tommy guns fired a burst into the engines of all vehicles they passed. Unfortunately these made fires which gave the enemy light to see us and probably caused us more casualties than we otherwise would have suffered. I saw no evidence that the Germans left their trenches to fight. When their fire power failed them they made no effort to meet our men with the bayonet. Most of them were killed in their trenches or around gun posts. One German had a tin of benzine which he poured along the ground and finally lit making a line of flame about 20 yds in length. In the Wadi on the North flank there was great confusion with the night full of the sound of trucks in low gear moving North to try to escape. Many of these were destroyed. Some were full of Germans. One truck full of the enemy was making slow progress in heavy sand when it was overtaken by two of our soldiers who destroyed it and its occupants by hand grenades.
As soon as it was obvious that the break was made and that the neck was clear of mines, I ordered the Verey flares to be fired. In a very short time the transport, under the Staff Captain, arrived. There was now considerable fire from the flanks, but from a distance and most of it was high and ineffective. There was some wild mortar and A Tk fire also from wide out. The troops in the meantime had re-organised, and with very little difficulty or confusion, embussed. Wounded were loaded in any available space. At this stage I was informed by the Staff Captain that Divisional HQ and the 5 NZ Inf Bde Gp had decided to make their break through another page 240 sector and were not following our transport. The column therefore moved East in tight night formation. After about 1 ½ miles we encountered enemy transport in a Wadi. We swung South to avoid this. An hour or so later we had to repeat the performance, and were now well South of the Grid which was to have been the axis of our advance. As soon as it was daylight the Gp moved into desert square formation with all round protection. Contact was made with Divisional HQ during the morning. Later in the day we were instructed to proceed directly to Fortress A area in the El Alamein line, and arrived at about 2100 hrs.
Each man had his own particular impressions of the night attack and breakthrough. Second-Lieutenant Sullivan says:
…. No shots [were] to be fired until contact [was made].
When forward tps reached the enemy area terrific fire was encountered but the Bde surged forward like a great scrum—very congested affair. 20 Bn caught up with 19 Bn, in fact the men were running forward to get into the free-for-all…. The trucks did not follow through directly behind the inf and the Bde had to move south to contact the vehicles. There were hy cas [heavy casualties] during this move but the men marched on in coy gps—100% battle control—embussed in excellent order though not always in their own trucks—and so East.
Captain Washbourn of A Company states:
The Bn formed up and after a long wait moved off … the only noise was boots on the stones. After a while an enemy MG opened up on the front. It seemed to be the signal for all hell to be let loose —mortars and MGs—as usual a lot of tracer from the enemy. All our LMGs and automatics were on the left flank and as a morale effect were firing outwards.
Lieutenant Cottrell says:
I remember well the yells of the Maoris—a grim noise…. As we caught up with the 19th men seemed to be hesitating at the edge of the gully. Down in the gully itself, full of transport, etc., trucks were beginning to burn and the noise was indescribable. As the men hesitated I remember a young soldier leaping to his feet, waving his arm and yelling ‘Come on chaps’ and moving down the slope. Two battalions followed him and all hesitation was forgotten.
Captain Washbourn describes his impressions:
An awe inspiring sight…. Shadowy forms running between the trucks and shooting at anything that moved in a slittie or near a truck, dropping grenades in cars and lorries, and bayonetting Huns, truck tyres, and jerricans of petrol. Mortar shells were coming down in the area just for good measure. Definitely not a spot for page 241 lingering. The coy went up the other side on to the flat with less enemy reaction there—a few MGs on fixed lines only. One was firing tracer about 6 feet above ground so the troops bent double or crawled under the fire. The coy reformed to the best of its ability and then the transport arrived and embussing didn't take long.
Captain Upham of C Company adds:
At dusk I wanted to go out and smash up the abandoned trucks but I was held back by the CO. The Maoris did go out…. The Maoris were late on the SL and I remember having a sleep until they got back…. In the advance the enemy were completely taken by surprise and many were killed at point blank range without their trousers or boots on. I have never seen trained soldiers so bewildered or ‘flap’ so much. Lance-Serjeant Brown [Browne]3 of C Coy was especially good in this advance and did not come out of it. CSM May was very good and kept the men together.
According to Sergeant-Major May:
The break-out … was much too hurried an affair to notice anything other than enemy tracer. The forming up after we were clear of enemy lines was very much disorganised by a party of Germans passing on our left flank, shouting ‘Don't shoot, New Zealand here!’ They set up a Spandau on a small ridge and sprayed us with lead. This firing was largely responsible for the men rushing the trucks.
Some of Captain Upham's work on this night is quoted from the citation for a bar to his Victoria Cross:
During the night when the NZ Div broke through the Germans at Minquar Quaim [sic], Capt Upham led his men in inspiring fashion and his Coy overcame several enemy posts. The attack took place in very bright moonlight and at one stage a truck full of German soldiers was seen moving slowly through the soft sand. Capt Upham and a Corporal ran forward together, and in spite of heavy Tommy Gun fire from the Germans they reached the side of the truck and with hand grenades wiped out the entire truck load and left the truck in flames. Not one German left the burning vehicle. Capt Upham was slightly wounded in both arms from the explosions of his own grenades. He did not report to get his wounds treated until the following night when the Div was back in new positions, and he then rejoined his Coy.
It was a hectic night for the transport following behind the attack. One of the anti-tank platoon saw it thus:
It was a gripping sight, the dark lines of the infantry melting silently away into the night. There was a long silence as we sat page 242 huddled in our closely packed lines of vehicles, wondering how our mates would fare. Planes droned overhead and night bombing took place near by but fortunately no flares were dropped. A tank battle was in progress to the north-west and ricochets cut red arcs in the sky. All at once the splutter of automatics told us the show had started. Tracer criss-crossed in the sky and we could see fires burning. At last the flare signal went up and off we set with a grinding of gears and in a choking cloud of dust. Suddenly round a bend we saw them. Some were standing, others lying on the ground, casualties obviously. There were cries of ‘D Company over here,’ ‘This way C Company’ and then the enemy machine gunning started. Men jumped on the nearest vehicle and the convoy lurched on. Mortars were bursting over the ambulances and one 2-pr swung its barrel left, levelled off and fired two angry shots with spectacular sheets of flame. One portee had a tyre badly ripped and the sergeant yelled for a spare. When one was tossed off to him he found he had no tyre removers and wasn't hard to follow after that with the smell of chafed rubber to guide us. A Bren carrier in the second lane was hit and the driver and commander badly scalded. Sgt. Lumsden came running back yelling anxiously ‘Where's Tom Veitch? Where's Tom Veitch?’ just as Tom and his driver clambered out of the clouds of steam. The Bren Carrier Platoon commander, Captain Phillips, slipped down off his carrier to take on an enemy machine gun that was giving trouble but at the first step he took from behind his carrier he was hit in the foot. Tracer was skimming just over the gun shield so we kept well down. I thought at one halt that I had lost my driver but when I hopped down to look for him he was crouched behind a front wheel. At the first sign of a move he was back in position and on we drove.
In the first few miles two parties of enemy were met, one of which fired on the column, some of the shells falling close to the ambulances. To avoid an engagement the brigade swung south each time and then moved eastward again, halting at 6.30 a.m. for breakfast.
During the morning the brigade passed a formidable looking column on the left flank and, as the enemy appeared to be page 243 following, no halt was made for lunch. At 9.30 p.m. the brigade laagered near Deir el Qatani, south-east of Daba, after a journey of 108 miles in eighteen hours. The wounded were evacuated after a trying day spent jolting over the stony desert in intense heat and choking dust. The battalion's casualties in the breakthrough were surprisingly light: 7 men were killed or died of wounds, 3 officers and 15 men were wounded and brought out safely, 8 men were wounded and left behind to become prisoners, and 1 officer and 15 men were taken prisoner of war. A further six men had been killed or had died of wounds on the two days before the breakout, making the battalion's casualties for the whole action 13 killed and 51 wounded. In the whole battle the Division lost fewer than 150 men killed.