Chapter 8 — The Battle of Alamein
The Battle of Alamein
THE journey to the divisional assembly area at Alam el Onsol was made after dusk on the 21st and took less than three hours. Unit guides met the convoy and directed companies to their dispersal areas, and by midnight the troops had dug in. Next morning detailed orders for the attack were received from Brigade HQ, and shortly afterwards Col Fountaine issued his own orders. These plans were the main topic of conversation for the rest of the day as officers and NCOs discussed their part in them and studied special overprinted maps of the new sector. This was the first occasion the rank and file had been given full details of what lay ahead of them, and to this can be attributed some measure of the subsequent success of the battle.
General Montgomery planned to attack along an eight-mile front from a point north of Ruweisat Ridge to the coast. Four divisions under the command of 30 Corps were to make the assault: 9 Australian Division in the north, 51 Highland and 2 NZ Divisions in the centre, and 1 South African Division in the south. Fourth Indian Division, also in 30 Corps, was to carry out a diversion raid along the Ruweisat Ridge. The full weight of Allied air power had already gained air superiority and would be used to harass enemy movement. It was believed that the enemy was not expecting an attack on the northern front, and various measures had been taken to encourage this view and hide the assembly of the Allied forces. At the same time as 30 Corps' attack, 13 Corps was to attack in the south with 44 Division, 7 Armoured Division, and 1 Fighting French Brigade, to breach the defences if possible and distract the enemy's attention from the vital thrust in the north. The infantry task was to penetrate the enemy's fixed defences sufficiently to allow armoured units to exploit westward. Immediately the enemy showed signs of abandoning the line, every effort was to be made to cut off his retreat. For this phase of the operation 2 NZ Division was to become fully mobile and take a leading part.page 184
There was a gap of 3000 yards to the second and main enemy line based on Miteiriya Ridge. This feature ran diagon- page 185 ally across the front, rising about 25 feet above the surrounding desert. A battalion from 164 Division and a company of Italians were occupying this line and were closely supported by a screen of heavy machine guns, mortars, and anti-tank guns established in the vicinity. Extensive minefields had been laid on both sides of this ridge. Between the two defence lines lay other uncharted minefields and an unknown number of machine-gun posts. There were no tank forces directly opposite the New Zealand sector, and it was hoped that the Allied armour would pass through the infantry before the enemy could regroup his forces. Behind El Wishka Ridge, west of Miteiriya, the Axis Commander had concentrated most of his light and heavy artillery, including approximately seventy 88-millimetre guns. By deepening his defences and equipping his troops with a high proportion of automatic weapons, Rommel had been able to present his attackers with a formidable task. Except for Miteiriya Ridge and a few low folds, the desert was fairly level, affording little cover. Moreover, the ground was hard and stony.
Much time and thought had gone into planning this assault, in which the infantry were required to capture the two enemy defence lines and consolidate beyond the minefield on the forward slope of Miteiriya. To give the armour more room to work, the assaulting troops were to extend the front as they advanced so that on the final objective it would be approximately treble the width of the start line. As a guide Bofors guns were to fire tracer along the line of brigade boundaries. Strong artillery support would be provided, and in the New Zealand sector over a hundred guns would be firing. They would concentrate at first on known and suspected enemy positions, and later some would switch to firing a barrage behind which the infantry would advance. By this means it was hoped to force the enemy troops to remain under cover until the New Zealanders could reach them, and also disrupt his counter artillery fire. The rate of advance was fixed at 100 yards in three minutes, with pauses on the main objectives.
The attack was divided into two phases. The first entailed the capture of the enemy FDLs, and in the 6th Brigade sector this task had been entrusted to 24 Battalion. The 25th and page 186 26th Battalions following up would then pass through and advance to the final objective. The 26th Battalion was given the right-hand sector, and Col Fountaine decided to move through 24 Battalion with A and C Coys in the van and Tac HQ1 and B Coy following close behind. The rest of Battalion HQ would bring up the rear. The three companies would all continue over Miteiriya Ridge and consolidate beyond the minefield. Battalion HQ would be set up on the reverse slope. All internal communication would be by No. 18 set or runner, but signallers were to lay line to the companies as soon as they had consolidated. Although the companies were only at three- quarter strength because of sickness, it was expected they would be able to extend over the widening front and maintain contact with flanking battalions.
Success largely depended on the early arrival of supporting arms. This presented a much more difficult problem than the infantry assault. At least three minefields lay between the start line and the final objective, and these would have to be gapped before tanks and guns could move forward. Sappers had been detailed for this work, but as only one section was attached to 26 Battalion there was a possibility that casualties or slow progress might cause considerable delay. With this in mind the Colonel divided his supporting arms into two groups. The first, the Special Group, was placed under the command of 2 Lt McDonald,2 the Carrier officer, and comprised two Scorpions (Matilda tanks fitted with mine-clearing flails), three Crusader tanks (Warwickshire Yeomanry), two two-pounder anti-tank guns, two Universal carriers, and four 3-inch mortars also on carriers. This group was to follow the infantry and, with the aid of the Scorpions, make its own way through the minefields.
The Second Group, the Fighting Transport Group under the command of Maj McQuade, was to assemble at a traffic control post which would be set up by Brigade HQ east of the first objective, and remain there until ordered forward by the Brigade Commander. It would then follow a route lighted by page 187 battalion provosts to the minefield gaps, and join up with Battalion HQ east of Miteiriya. The provosts were given an important task. Together with the sappers, they were to follow 24 Battalion in its advance and endeavour to have a lighted start line on the first objective before A and C Coys reached it. After the companies had passed through they were to light lanes to Battalion HQ.
Throughout the 22nd the preparations continued, although the date of the attack was still not known. Ammunition, extra rations, sandbags and grenades were issued. Three Bangalore torpedoes for blowing gaps in the barbed wire, flares, and rockets were issued to each company. At this late stage sickness, principally jaundice, added to the CO's worries. In less than a week he lost Maj Morten, Maj Richards, Capt McKinlay and Lt Barnett, all of whom were evacuated to hospital. Lieutenant J. R. Williams was given command of A Coy and 2 Lt Seal3 became Adjutant. After dusk the brigade set out on a ten-mile march to a forward lying-up area. It was a long, dusty march, made more trying by continual traffic which stirred up swirling clouds of thick, yellow dust. What was more irritating was the sight of infantry of other units in these trucks.
By midnight the battalion had reached its new area and slit trenches had been dug. Everyone was very confident and sensed that the attack would not be long delayed. Having studied maps and reports, all knew what they had to do and were aware of the difficulties they might encounter, but they had also seen the tremendous reserves at the back of them. The sight of hundreds of guns, squadrons of tanks, and the almost constant roar of Allied planes passing overhead had given a big uplift to morale. The stage was set for the offensive and the players ready.4page 188
During the 23rd the troops rested in their slit trenches and kept out of sight. However, it seemed that the air battle had been won for no enemy planes appeared. Late in the afternoon Col Fountaine attended a conference at Brigade HQ; he returned with the news that the attack would begin at 9.40 p.m. Like a well-oiled machine, all sections of the unit went ahead with their final preparations and soon all was ready. Zero hour was close and the men were glad the waiting period was almost over.
By half past nine the companies had formed up away from the direct line of the guns just behind them, ready to move to the start line. Except for those men hurrying to and fro completing last-minute tasks, everyone was standing or lying about in the moonlight waiting for the guns to open fire. Knowing that this attack might well prove the turning point in the battle for North Africa, all ranks were keyed up and excited. The old hands knew this was no ordinary attack. The silence was almost oppressive. Minutes passed.
Suddenly, with a crash, guns all around belched flame and shells. Hundreds of guns up and down the line joined in. Sharp flashes of orange flame stabbed the night sky and the ground trembled. Unconsciously voices were raised and ears covered to keep out the deafening noise. The attack was on!
At 10.46 p.m. Col Fountaine gave the order to move, and 35 minutes later the companies reached the start line. They immediately extended and continued to advance in open formation with sections in line. Ahead was 24 Battalion and the dull flash of exploding shells. Although there was a full moon, dust and smoke had reduced visibility to a few yards. As the leading platoons neared the first objective visibility became worse. On several occasions there was delay while contact was re-established, and the troops were a few minutes late in reaching the second start line, which they were due to cross at 12.40 a.m. The CO wirelessed both companies not to delay as the barrage was already starting to lift. Hastily deploying into extended line, the four leading platoons set out to catch up with the line of exploding shells. Scarcely anyone had noticed 24 Battalion on its objective and, apart from a few lamps, the second start line had been almost unrecognisable in the poor light.page 189
Soon after they caught up with the barrage A and C Coys had difficulty maintaining flank contact on the widening front while continuing to hold the barrage. In the bad visibility it was hard to judge the barrage line. Runners were continually moving from platoon to platoon and to the flanks to check up and ensure that contact was being kept. C Coy on the right flank was considerably assisted by the tracer from the Bofors guns and contact with the left-flank company of 22 Battalion (5 Brigade) was maintained almost without a break right on to the final objective. Unfortunately C Coy's wireless set was damaged by a shell splinter early in the night. This threw a heavy burden on the CSM, WO II Neal,5 and the runner, Pte McIndoe,6 who were continually on the move for the rest of the night carrying messages to and from platoons and Tac HQ On the left flank it was a different story. Touch with A Coy was soon lost, and there seemed to be an ever-widening gap between the two companies as the advance continued. For tunately ground opposition was almost negligible at this stage and the gap was adequately covered by B Coy moving up behind.
Lieutenant Williams was in a similar position. Soon after leaving the start line contact with C Coy, 25 Battalion, was lost, but about half-way to the ridge 8 Platoon reported that it had been regained. However, by extending to the left to keep contact, A Coy was unable to reach over far enough to the right to link up with C Coy, and the gap between Nos. 7 and 14 Platoons remained. As they approached the ridge both companies came under small-arms fire from the left flank, but it was not heavy enough to hold up the advance. The men crossed the minefields almost without knowing it, the only casualty being an A Coy runner who was killed when an anti-personnel mine exploded. On the extreme right flank 15 Platoon was being troubled by a 25-pounder firing short. Nothing could be done about it and the platoon suffered a number of casualties. Tactical HQ and B Coy, not affected by page 190 the problem of flank communications, bumped into the forward platoons on several occasions. Receiving several messages from the CO urging him to keep up with the barrage, Capt Horrell kept his men moving and in the thick visibility overran it. Shells crashed all around the company and eight casualties were suffered. Up to this stage the opposition had been negligible. Very few enemy troops had been encountered; some had run away into the haze and others had been killed or taken prisoner.
There was a 15-minute pause while the barrage pounded the ridge, and during this period contact between the two com panies was re-established. A Coy suffered casualties from enemy shelling and small-arms fire, 2 Lt Ramsay7 (9 Platoon commander) being killed while attending to a wounded man. Sergeant Hinton8 took over. Then the barrage lifted, and both companies climbed the ridge and continued down the forward slope against slight opposition. Contact between them and with 25 Battalion was lost almost immediately. C Coy met no direct opposition but was seriously hampered by small-arms and machine-gun fire from the left and left rear. A Coy also was held up several times by heavy crossfire. The enemy was using less tracer than usual and it was difficult to discover where the fire was coming from. Most of it seemed to be from 25 Bat talion's sector. Beyond the minefield the company ran into more trouble, this time from machine-gun posts directly ahead. Bren gunners tried to dislodge the enemy but failed, and each post had to be charged and captured.
When he was about 400 yards beyond the minefield Lt Williams gave the order to halt, and the men took cover from the still troublesome flanking fire. He was not certain if he had reached his objective, and hesitated to go farther until he was more sure that 25 Battalion was on his left. Soon afterwards he met Capt Horrell. C Coy had moved about 700 yards down the slope before halting. Capt Horrell was making a quick reconnaissance when Sgt Lock of the Provost section appeared out of the gloom. He had been sent forward to locate the page 191 forward troops, and he informed Capt Horrell that he was too far forward. The Company Commander moved his men back about 200 yards, and the three platoons sheltered in two shallow parallel wadis. Company HQ was set up in some abandoned enemy trenches.
The two officers decided to consolidate along the line of the wadis, extending as far left as possible to cover that open flank, for it was clear that 25 Battalion had not advanced over the ridge. B Coy, which was digging in forward of the minefield and had also suffered losses from the crossfire, was asked to cover this flank. While the troops were digging in enemy fire increased considerably, and A Coy and to a lesser extent B Coy suffered serious losses. Lieutenant Williams lost another platoon commander when 2 Lt Gillett9 was killed as No. 7 Platoon extended across to the left flank. Success signals were fired but were not seen by Battalion HQ, which at this time was in trouble of its own. However, Sgt Lock and Pte McIndoe were already on the way back with the news.
It was nearly 3 a.m. by the time Tac HQ reached the wadi east of the ridge where Col Fountaine had set up his headquarters. The situation there was somewhat confused. An hour earlier Main Battalion HQ, which had followed B Coy during the advance, had been heavily shelled as it neared the ridge. A direct hit killed three men and wounded several others. Signal rockets and flares were lost and the batteries and aerial of the No. 11 set destroyed, severing all communication with Brigade HQ. More important still, Battalion HQ personnel were so scattered that several hours elapsed before they were collected together again. The Colonel was carrying on with a reduced staff, and on receiving Sgt Lock's news he sent Sgt Hay10 to Brigade HQ with a report. Two signallers were sent back to collect another mast and batteries.
While he was with Capt Horrell, Lock was wounded in the face when a captured enemy gunner threw a grenade at him. He refused to be evacuated and, after helping with some of the page 192 other wounded, returned to where sappers were hard at work trying to clear a gap through the minefield east of the ridge. In lighting the first objective and the lane through the minefield the provosts had all become casualties, and it was left to this NCO to complete the task and later guide the transport column to Battalion HQ.
Shortly afterwards Capt Rutherford and his staff arrived. To an anxious inquiry they reported that the Transport Group was still held up in the minefield. The RAP was set up in the wadi, and almost as soon as it was up the doctor and Sgt Bowie12 set out to collect the wounded from the forward slope. For some time stretcher-bearers had been carrying wounded across to a central line between A and C Coys to await evacuation. Some were sheltering in a captured RAP, together with a spectacled German doctor and several of his patients. From 4.30 a.m. onwards Bowie spent most of the time in the forward areas attending to the wounded and helping the stretcher-bearers. On several occasions he accompanied the doctor in a jeep over ground thickly sown with mines. Back and forwards they went despite the shelling and mortar fire. Twice their jeep was blown up, but another was soon acquired and they carried on as though nothing had happened. Bowie suffered concussion and was evacuated but within twenty-four hours was back again. The stretcher-bearers were doing a grand job. Corporal Lonie13 and Pte Ives14 attended to C Coy wounded and trundled them back to the collection point in a German handcart. It was a tribute to all concerned that only three of a total of nearly eighty wounded died during the 24-hour action.
Five o'clock came with no sign of the supporting arms. The Colonel was very concerned about the open flank and hoped to have guns sited to cover it before dawn. Just before first light 2 Lt Barcock15 arrived with two two-pounders and three mortar carriers—all that was left of the Special Group. The CO immediately ordered him to take the two guns forward and site them to cover the forward companies. The mortars were page 194 dug in along the ridge. The two gun crews negotiated the forward minefield without loss, and Barcock positioned the guns about midway between and close behind the two companies. Not far away was the German RAP. Enemy shelling was very heavy and, before the guns were properly dug in, one gun sergeant, Sgt Thorburn,16 was wounded. The German doctor was brought over, but before he could attend to the wounded NCO the enemy scored a direct hit on the gun. Thorburn was killed and Barcock and the doctor wounded. The other gun was dug in without mishap and did some good work later in the day.
Meanwhile, the Transport Group had reached Battalion HQ. It was too late to send any more support through to the forward companies so a gunline was formed along the crest and reverse slope of the ridge. Beyond it signallers were laying lines through to each company. The No. 11 set had been repaired and the battalion was again in touch with Brigade HQ. The late arrival of the Special Group had been caused by a number of unforeseen difficulties. One of the Scorpions had broken down at the start point, and the other led the tanks, carriers, and guns across the desert. It was dark and visibility was obscured by clouds of dust and smoke, but everyone was keeping a sharp lookout for the lighted second start line and 24 Battalion. After travelling about 2000 yards without seeing anybody or anything, the second Scorpion broke down and the party stopped. 2 Lt McDonald was a little perturbed about the direction in which the tanks had led the party, and he went ahead to examine an object that looked like a man in the distance. There was a loud explosion, and when 2 Lt Barcock went over he found the Carrier officer dead. The object, a booby-trapped shell, was a maze of trip wires. Barcock was considering the next move, when a New Zealand sapper officer arrived who said that the minefield gap lay south of the axis of advance. This did not help much as the party was unaware of the line of this axis. Some South African soldiers then appeared, and this indicated that the party had swung south in its initial advance. Realising the importance of reaching the battalion page 195 before daylight, Barcock decided to risk everything and move through the minefield in a north-westerly direction. Two of the tanks and three of the carriers were blown up but the rest got through.
The Transport Group had been delayed mainly by the slowness with which the minefield east of the ridge was gapped. Initially some delay had occurred at the TCP, where 24 Battalion vehicles blocked the passage of the group, but when Maj McQuade reached the minefield gap the sappers were hard at work with bayonets prodding for mines. They were making slow progress, and Maj McQuade decided to move his guns and vehicles into the gap so that there would be no delay when the job was completed. Tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade arrived shortly afterwards and attempted to crowd into the narrow gap. As a result the battalion column was split into several small groups separated by the tanks. When the gap was reported clear more confusion was caused as each tank and truck tried to get through first. Major McQuade, with Sgt Lock helping him, was able to despatch his group piecemeal, Lock directing them to the wadi where Battalion HQ had been established.
The arrival of the supporting arms and the 9 Armoured Brigade's tanks eased the situation considerably. Both were in a position to cover the immediate front and the troublesome left flank. From Miteiriya Ridge the ground ran gently down to the El Wishka Ridge, and in the words of one officer ‘it was as bald as a billiard table.’ While this created problems for the battalion in that it allowed the enemy to watch all movement from El Wishka, it also minimised the chances of a counter-attack in daylight. A more acute problem was the enemy still holding 25 Battalion's objective. Mortar and small-arms fire from this area had already caused casualties to A and B Coys and was hampering movement. On the right flank three Crusader tanks reached C Coy, leaving more of their number disabled in the minefield. They arrived soon after dawn and attracted heavy fire. One was hit and the other two soon withdrew behind the ridge, earning the thanks of the infantrymen who had suffered most from the shelling. The disabled tanks were a target for enemy gunners throughout the rest of the day and were soon a shambles.page 196
With the situation more or less stabilised, Col Fountaine was able to sum up the position. The companies had succeeded in reaching their objective, and although they had subsequently withdrawn slightly the purpose of the attack had been achieved. C Coy was in touch with 22 Battalion, but there was a wide gap on the other flank. Lack of numbers prevented the infantry extending across the 1300-yard front and beyond it. Few prisoners had been taken and, although there were a number of enemy dead about, it seemed that the enemy had withdrawn in the face of the barrage to the comparative safety of El Wishka Ridge. Several anti-tank guns and spandaus had been captured intact. The sappers had not been able to gap the minefield on the forward slope. This minefield was much more extensive than originally thought, particularly to the rear of C Coy. A narrow, winding lane, taped off by the enemy and of little use to tanks, led through it.
Some of the troops had been able to utilise the well-constructed enemy defences in the area, but the remainder had to hew out holes in the rocky ground. It was impossible to get down more than a few inches, but the spoil was built up round the sides to give better protection. While the men were digging in, the enemy had sent up flares against which they had been silhouetted. The whole area was almost continuously under heavy fire and this caused a large proportion of the casualties. By daylight Pte Scanlan17 and his linesmen had run line to B and C Coys, enabling them to call down counter-battery fire.
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By 7.30 a.m. dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles had reached the reverse slope of Miteiriya. They milled around for a while and then settled down to engage enemy targets on El Wishka Ridge. The 25-pounders also began firing. From a military point of view this was highly satisfactory, but unfortunately the enemy retaliation fire fell mostly on the hapless infantry. For a while the sector became an inferno with shells and mortar bombs exploding all over the place, each one throwing up a large cloud of dust, flame, and smoke. The forward troops had a bad time and suffered casualties. Those dug in page 197 around the ridge did not escape unscathed. An airburst over Battalion HQ wounded seven more of the staff, including the Adjutant. Nobody was killed, but four of the men were badly wounded. After this, to quote the Colonel, ‘everyone became a jack of all trades’.
The artillery and tank duel with the enemy lasted until midday and the doctor had been busier than ever. Stretcher-bearers carried the wounded to collecting points and the jeep raced down the forward slope to pick them up as before. The German RAP was cleared and the flag taken down. This flag had been a landmark giving the approximate position of the companies, and when it was removed there was nothing to show where over 200 men were stationed on the forward slope. At 10 a.m. the casualties numbered 90, including 24 killed. A Coy had lost nine killed and 22 wounded. Lieutenant Harvey,18 the only platoon officer left in the company, had been wounded, and NCOs were in charge of the three platoons. B Coy reported four killed, including its CSM, and 14 wounded. C Coy had lost 15 men, and Battalion HQ was operating twelve short. The specialist sections and platoons had also lost twelve, including two officers. By midday the total casualties had passed the century.
Progress reports of the Corps' attack were encouraging. Each division had succeeded in gaining a portion of its objective, although none had had complete success. A brigade of 9 Australian Division had reached its final objective and on part of its front so had 51 (Highland) Division. Except on the left, where 25 Battalion was about 800 yards short of it, 2 NZ Division had secured all of its objective. The right-hand brigade of 1 South African Division had not reached the objective but the other brigade was reported to be on it. In no sector had armour been able to pass through the infantry and exploit at daylight.
Shortly after midday the enemy shelling slackened off, much to the relief of the infantry, and the rest of the day passed almost uneventfully. At intervals the enemy sent over salvo after salvo, but at no time did the shelling become as heavy or page 198 continuous as in the morning. The forward troops soon found that any movement attracted heavy fire, not only from the guns behind El Wishka Ridge but also from machine-gun and mortar posts on the left flank. Snipers in this area had the greater part of the battalion sector under observation and they made conditions rather uncomfortable. Mortars engaged these snipers but only succeeded in quietening them temporarily. Matters were made worse by the intense heat and the ever-present flies. The troops were without the protection of the deep trenches, mosquito nets, and barricades used in the New Zealand Box two months earlier, and the flies swarmed around each shallow hole in their hundreds. Cursing could not drive them away; all ranks were thirsty, tired, and rapidly becoming irritable.
About 3 p.m. a column of transport was noticed moving along El Wishka Ridge. Shortly afterwards enemy infantry and tanks began to move down onto the flat and advance towards A Coy. They were immediately engaged by the 25-pounders and the tanks near Battalion HQ. Sergeant Foster's19 anti-tank gun scored a number of hits on a Mark III at a range of 1200 yards. The action did not last long, the enemy infantry withdrawing under cover of a smoke screen and the tanks making off south, leaving some of their number behind. While this was going on two companies of 133 Motorised Infantry Brigade and one from the King's Royal Rifles arrived in trucks at Battalion HQ. They had been ordered to take up a position behind the New Zealand infantry ready to follow the tanks when they broke through. Colonel Fountaine, realising the folly of attempting to dig in on the forward slope in daylight, ordered them to disperse around his headquarters until nightfall.
Later in the afternoon the CO attended a conference at Brigade HQ at which a plan for tank exploitation was discussed. It was to be another night operation. The battalion's part was to provide protection to sappers gapping the minefield on the forward slope. A barrage was to be fired to drown the sound of tank movement. Dusk fell and enemy shelling practically ceased. All ranks were pleased to learn that armour was soon to act as a buffer between them and the enemy, but at page 199 the time the forward troops were more concerned about the non-arrival of a hot meal. Ration parties had been sent back to the ridge, but at nine o'clock only A Coy's party had returned. The sappers had finished their task and everything was ready for the tanks to move forward.
Half an hour later the CO learned to his consternation that the opening line of the barrage lay approximately where A and C Coys were dug in. Messages were sent to all three companies ordering them to retire to the ridge as quickly as possible for the guns were to open fire at 10 p.m. Runners dashed out from each company headquarters and the platoons were soon on the move. C Coy was the slowest to get going, and Nos. 13 and 15 Platoons were caught in the barrage and quickly became disorganised. The rest of the troops were not much better off for the forward slope had become a mass of tanks and trucks. The enemy artillery had opened fire and shells were exploding all around. The darkness added to the confusion. The officers found it almost impossible to retain any formation and they continued back to the ridge with whatever men they could find.
By midnight the company commanders had located Battalion HQ from amongst the confusing lines of vehicles and tanks and had rounded up most of their men. No. 15 Platoon was missing, but the rest of the men were vainly trying to dig holes along the reverse slope and crest of the ridge. The missing hot-boxes were located and the men were having a half-cold meal when bombers were heard overhead. Nobody took much notice until the bombers dropped flares which silhouetted the long columns of transport and tanks. As the troops dived to shelter the first stick of bombs fell. It caught a number of thin-skinned vehicles on the left of the sector and within a few minutes about twenty of them were ablaze, lighting up the whole area. Anti-aircraft guns were firing hundreds of rounds in the air. Shells were going up and coming down from all directions. Trucks and tanks broke column and scattered. At one time the CO seriously considered withdrawing his men farther back. It was just about as unsafe in a slit trench as above ground, and the men were continually dodging out of the way of a lorry, tank, or armoured car. Fortunately, although the planes remained overhead for several hours, the bombing was not heavy. Enemy page 200 shelling also slackened off. By 1 a.m. things had begun to quieten down, although there was still a lot of tank movement.
Fairly heavy casualties were expected but a check revealed only two—one killed and another wounded. The British infantry had not escaped as lightly and the RAP staff had to forego their chance of a sleep to attend to their wounded. No. 15 Platoon had been found. It had bypassed Battalion HQ in the confusion and eventually reached Brigade HQ. As everyone was very tired the Colonel decided not to send his companies forward until just before daylight. It was evident that only part of the tank force had passed through the minefield gap, the balance, disorganised by the bombing, being scattered over a wide area.
The next day, 25 October, was a Sunday. Shortly before dawn the companies set out towards their forward positions. Tanks were still moving about, but apart from this the sector was quiet. Unfortunately, in the darkness A and C Coys swung too far to the right and C Coy dug in forward of 22 Battalion. This was not known until after daylight, when it was too late to do anything about it. C Coy's wireless set broke down, but later a message was relayed through 22 Battalion to inform Battalion HQ of what had happened. The troops had dug in along a line of shallow wadis with tanks all around them. The latter began engaging targets on El Wishka as soon as it was light, and before long were themselves the target for a considerable amount of hostile fire. Huddled in their shallow holes, the men fought off the flies and watched tank after tank being knocked out. Great clouds of smoke and dust at times hid everything from sight. Despite the heavy fire—and it lasted until midday—few of the infantrymen were hit. Some had miraculous escapes. After each salvo heads popped cautiously out of the holes and there would be a chorus of yells to find out if anyone had been hit.
After midday the remaining tanks moved south, taking most of the enemy fire with them. By 2 p.m. the sector was fairly quiet and the two companies moved across to their old positions. Later in the day 15 Platoon rejoined C Coy. Meanwhile, around Battalion HQ some reorganisation had been taking place. Part of the armoured force had withdrawn to the rear, page 201 leaving a few tanks stationed along the reverse slope of the ridge. In 25 Battalion's sector lay the wreckage of many vehicles, while on the crest of the ridge and down the forward slope were dozens of tanks. Many had struck mines and others had been knocked out by enemy fire. Fortunately, enemy gunners were paying little attention to these stationary targets and shelling of the area did not become heavy until nearly dusk. About 4.30 p.m. large-calibre guns opened fire on Miteiriya from long range. They caused few casualties, and by the end of the day only nine men had been wounded.
It had been a more successful day for the machine guns and mortars dug in along the crest of the ridge. Several of the troublesome enemy machine-gun and sniper posts had been quietened or completely silenced. Captain Rutherford, returning from one of his periodic visits down the forward slope, brought back some enemy maps which B Coy had captured, together with an officer and NCO. Even to a novice the maps appeared to be complete in every detail, and they were rushed to Corps HQ for examination. On another occasion the doctor returned with a combination periscope and rangefinder which was presented to 6 Field Regiment.
After dusk more tanks arrived at Battalion HQ and those forward of the companies began to move back through the minefield gap to laager for the night. It was clear there had been no break-through, and the armour had obviously suffered very heavy losses. Company commanders had been ordered to report to Battalion HQ at seven o'clock, and shortly before that time a disturbing message was received from A Coy's wireless operator that C Coy was being rounded up by tanks. At first the message was treated as a joke. Captain Horrell, who arrived at Battalion HQ a few minutes later, took the same view. A second message, this time from B Coy, confirmed the story. Colonel Fountaine immediately ordered both companies to withdraw behind the minefield. The three company commanders left to return to their headquarters. In the meantime Battalion HQ vainly tried to raise C Coy, which only a short while before had been in line communication with it.
When the three officers reached the minefield they met A and B Coys, plus a few men from C Coy. The C Coy men page 202 confirmed the presence of an enemy tank in the company's area, and Capt Horrell decided to go on to his headquarters to make sure. In the meantime the supporting tank commander had been warned of what had happened and had ordered all troops to remain where they were. The tanks opened fire and Capt Horrell, who was close to C Coy HQ by this time, had to race to cover. It was a tense situation, for nobody had the least idea of the strength of the enemy party. Lieutenant A. J. Fraser (14 Platoon), who had escaped, arrived at Battalion HQ and told the CO that there had been only one enemy tank and that it was probably well away by that time. This news was passed on to the British tank commander and movement restrictions were relaxed. Three tanks were posted to watch the minefield gap.
On going back to Battalion HQ Capt Horrell was ordered to round up a party of his men and return to the forward sector to collect any abandoned gear. The small party met unexpected opposition at the minefield gap, where the tank commander informed Capt Horrell he would fire at anything that moved. Colonel Fountaine had been adamant on the question of getting the gear, so the party continued on to C Coy's sector. Everything was soon collected, even the unopened hot-boxes of food. Sound asleep in one of the listening posts was a Bren gunner. He was very abusive at being wakened but lost no time in joining the others when he learned what had happened to his mates. Somewhat apprehensively the party set out on the return journey, but there was no sign of the tanks at the gap.
The story of how the C Coy men were captured was not pieced together until much later. After dusk listening posts had been established forward of the platoons, and the men were out of their trenches, yarning and stretching their legs after a long day in cramped positions. Tanks had been moving back through the sector since dusk and the arrival of one more did not arouse any particular interest. This tank, a General Grant, moved past one platoon, the commander saying something to the men in English. It then wheeled and came up behind the forward platoons. Still unsuspecting, the men approached to swap yarns with the crew, only to find themselves covered by two Germans armed with spandaus. Caught unarmed the men page 203 had no choice but to surrender, and Lt Barton20 and 32 other ranks were marched off to captivity. A few others managed to escape by dropping into tank ruts.
Immediately he realised what was happening Lt Fraser, who was at company HQ, rushed over to the nearest British tanks and begged the squadron commander to take some action. The British officer refused on the grounds that he would have to wait for instructions from his own CO. In the meantime 2 Lt Boyle,21 15 Platoon commander, had unsuccessfully tried to shoot the two Germans on the tank, which quickly disappeared from sight. C Coy was now reduced to few more than twenty men, some of whom had been badly shaken by the heavy shelling of the past 48 hours. Captain Horrell had been wounded during the afternoon but remained with his company.
For the second night in succession a line was formed along the crest of the ridge and the troops spent most of the time before daylight trying to dig in properly. About midnight the tanks withdrew from the sector, leaving one squadron behind the ridge. The British troops also moved out. A troop of six- pounders (7 Anti-Tank Regiment) was sent forward by Brigade HQ and took up positions to cover the forward slope. The line was further strengthened when the right-flank company of 25 Battalion extended across to link up with A Coy. While all this movement was going on the enemy guns were silent. The almost constant stream of Allied planes overhead probably accounted for this.
At dawn on the 26th hostile shelling and mortaring began anew with the enemy gunners concentrating on the ridge and the reverse side of it. Allied tanks and artillery were soon retaliating. A number of targets was registered but the enemy's long-range guns were beyond the reach of our 25-pounders. About 8.30 a.m. the enemy fire slackened off considerably and the troops were able to poke their heads out of their holes without fear of flying splinters. Hot meals were brought forward and for the rest of the day there was little activity on both page 204 sides. Captain Horrell, whose head wound had festered, was evacuated, and Lt Fraser took over the remnants of the company. A close watch was kept in case the enemy tried to infiltrate onto the forward slope, but at dusk there had been no sign of movement.
Meanwhile, the CO had been to Brigade HQ and had learned that there was to be another night attack. The 25th Battalion was to move forward to its original objective; the 26th would accompany it so that an unbroken line would extend across the New Zealand sector. The 25th Battalion was to have a full barrage and the 26th aimed concentrations. On reaching their objectives the forward companies were to provide covering parties to sappers detailed to lay mines across the front. At 6 p.m. General Freyberg visited Battalion HQ and discussed the situation with the Colonel, who by this time was scarcely able to keep his eyes open. Half an hour later a lone Ju88 appeared and everyone scattered. It continued on its way and bombed areas to the rear.
As there had been no movement on the forward slope during the day, the Colonel did not expect any opposition to the advance. The main problem was whether A and B Coys could extend across the front sufficiently to link up with 22 and 25 Battalions on the objective. A Coy had about forty men left and B Coy sixty. The guns began firing at 8 p.m. and the troops began to move forward. Lieutenant Williams had 8 and 9 Platoons grouped together under Sgt Hinton on the left and 7 Platoon on the right. The remnants of C Coy were in reserve. Captain Smith, B Coy, retained the normal formation of two platoons forward and one in reserve.
The advance was almost a repetition of that of 23 October. A Coy had not gone far before it came under heavy machine-gun fire from the left flank.22 Flares silhouetted the advancing men and Sgt Hinton's party suffered heavily. The sergeant was killed and Lt Williams wounded. The CSM, WO II A. D. Mangos,23 took over the company, part of which was pinned page 205 down by the flanking fire a long way from the objective. The balance, which included most of 7 Platoon, had been less affected by the crossfire and had continued through the minefield, only to be held up by small-arms fire short of the objective. One of the two signallers with the company was shot through the head but the other, Pte McCarthy,24 operated the phone, passing information back to Battalion HQ. He maintained this line under very heavy fire, and largely through his efforts the remnants of the company were eventually withdrawn from the slope in safety. In the meantime C Coy had been switched to assist A Coy, but it too came under heavy fire and was forced to seek cover.
On the right flank B Coy reached its objective without much difficulty, the only casualties being six men injured when a mine exploded. No sooner had the men begun to dig in than the sector came under intense mortar and machine-gun fire. Private Scanlan, who had accompanied B Coy with the intention of running cable out as it advanced, ran out of line some distance from the objective. For the next hour or so he had a lively time relaying messages from his phone to where Capt Smith had set up his headquarters. Deciding it would be best to withdraw the remnants of A and C Coys to the ridge, the CO then tried to put his decision into effect. A message was sent through Pte McCarthy to the men pinned down on the left flank, and those left in 8 and 9 Platoons and C Coy crawled back to the ridge, bringing their wounded with them. No. 7 Platoon was withdrawn through B Coy, which later moved to the centre of the sector and dug in again. By 11 p.m. the remnants of the two companies were back on the ridge. A Coy had lost another 14 men, half of whom had been killed or who died later. Its casualties for the three days were 16 killed and 40 wounded; C Coy's casualties were 4 killed, 19 wounded, and 33 taken prisoner.
The 25th Battalion had reached its objective, but B Coy was unable to link up with it or with 22 Battalion. In view of what had happened the night before, the Colonel was very anxious to get anti-tank support through to the company. Captain page 206 Ollivier25 was sent forward to site positions for the guns. Later the tank squadron gave covering fire as the guns moved down into position. By 3.30 a.m. four two-pounders and two six- pounders were dug in behind the company without a shot being fired at them. Sappers did not arrive to lay the mines, but the night passed without further incident.
The 27th was another day of early morning shelling and mortaring which slackened off after Allied planes appeared. Snipers were not so active and the day passed without casualties. All ranks were wellnigh exhausted from lack of sleep and the strain of the four days' action. Shortly before 11 a.m. came the news all had been hoping for—the Division was to be relieved at dusk by 1 South African Division, which was side-stepping to the right. Time passed slowly, or so it seemed. The heat was oppressive and the flies particularly irritating. At length dusk fell and the men stirred from their holes. B Coy sent out strong fighting patrols beyond its sector but they reported no sign of the enemy in the vicinity. The Transvaal Scottish Battalion was late in arriving and everyone was on tenterhooks, expecting at any moment to hear the uneven drone of enemy bombers. For once there was no air cover. When at length the South Africans arrived everyone was keen to be gone; but the South Africans would not be hurried. Colonel Fountaine abandoned the idea of sending his men back in two groups. Instead, as each truck was filled the driver set off for the Alam el Onsol area to which 6 Brigade had been directed. By midnight the troops, hollow-eyed and nervy, were clear of Miteiriya Ridge. A few hours later they were having a hot meal before settling down to some real sleep.
* * *
Only three days were spent in the Onsol area before the Division again moved into the line. Most of this time was spent resting and sleeping. Beards were shaven off and bathing parties taken to the beaches. Cigarettes, chocolate, and tinned fruit were distributed by Mr. Gray from National Patriotic Fund stocks. Mail was read and reread. By the third day much page 207 of the strained, set look had disappeared from faces and the troops were beginning to show more interest in the battle still continuing not far away. The recent action had taken a heavy toll of the battalion. Of the 615 men who had left the assembly area so confidently on 22 October only 430 remained: 32 had been killed, 101 wounded, 33 taken prisoner, and 19 evacuated sick—a total of 185. The loss of ten officers, including two company commanders, was particularly severe at this stage of the battle. Five officer replacements, four of whom had been on the sick list, returned to duty. Lieutenant Barnett resumed his duties as Adjutant and Lt Piper as IO. The heavy casualties necessitated some reorganisation in A and B Coys, in each of which the troops were grouped into two platoons.
Meanwhile, Eighth Army continued to exert heavy pressure along the whole front. On the 29th officers attended a conference at Brigade HQ. Brigadier Gentry discussed the recent action and the lessons to be drawn from it, and also outlined future plans for the Division. General Montgomery believed the enemy was beginning to crack under the continuous pressure. A full-scale attack was to be launched from 51 (Highland) Division's sector with the object of breaking through the remaining minefields which barred the way to armoured exploitation. Two British brigades (151 Brigade from 50 Division and 152 Brigade from 51 Division), under command of 2 NZ Division, would be making the assault, and 6 Brigade plus 28 Battalion would move forward to occupy the existing line. If, as was expected, the enemy did crack and the armour succeeded in its task, 2 NZ Division, fully mobile, would join in the pursuit.
On the 30th detailed orders for the move were received. Sixth Brigade was to relieve 152 (Highland) Brigade in the southern half of the new sector, 26 Battalion taking over from the 5th Seaforth Highlanders. A preliminary reconnaissance was made during the afternoon and at 6.30 p.m. the troops embussed. It was a slow journey made worse by the traffic on the tracks and the thick clouds of dust churned up by each vehicle. By eleven o'clock Battalion HQ had been set up and the companies were moving into their new positions. The Colonel had been in somewhat of a quandary as to how to hold the sector with so few men. He finally decided to place B Coy page 208 forward, with A and C in reserve. By 1 a.m. the men had dug in and the relief was complete. The transport had gone back to B Echelon, a few miles to the rear. Except for light and ineffectual shelling, the relief had been completed without enemy interference and the night passed without incident.
The attack was postponed until 1 November, and for two days the battalion occupied part of the forward defences. In comparison with the one left a few days earlier, the sector was very quiet. Enemy shelling did not become heavy at any time and only one casualty was reported. Forward sections spotted for the artillery and sent back reports on enemy troop movements, gun flashes, etc., which were registered as targets. After dawn on 31 October snipers caused some bother, but the three- inch mortars fired several concentrations on their reported location and nothing more was heard from them. To hide the presence of New Zealanders no patrols were sent out and pickets were on the alert for enemy raiding parties. Allied fighters and bombers were overhead most of the time, but at irregular intervals enemy planes sneaked through this screen.
After dusk on 1 November infantry, tanks, and transport began to assemble behind Battalion HQ. They made quite a din but the enemy displayed little interest. Hawkins mines around Battalion HQ were lifted, and about 10 p.m. B Coy withdrew from its sector as the opening line of the barrage had been fixed along it. To the men it felt rather strange watching other troops preparing to attack. Later, at 1 a.m., when the massed artillery began firing, the noise was deafening and sleeping became impossible. The barrage was the heaviest yet. Hour after hour it continued, with the enemy retaliating and laying a pattern of fire over the whole area. Fortunately his effort was not sustained and only A Coy reported casualties. Three men were killed by a direct hit.
The scene at dawn was amazing. In every direction as far as the eye could see were tanks, guns, transport and men. Prisoners, German and Italian, were arriving back from the front. They came not in ones and twos but in platoons and companies. By 10 a.m. over 300 had been counted. The British troops had suffered losses too, for ambulances were continually going to and fro. Later in the day details of the fighting were page 209 received. Both British brigades had suffered heavy casualties but claimed to have reached their objectives. Nearly 500 prisoners had been taken and, what was more important, 9 Armoured Brigade had passed through the infantry to continue the assault. Although the result was not known, the decisive stage of the battle had been reached.
During the night 6 Brigade took over the right-hand forward sector from 151 Brigade, 26 Battalion relieving the 9th Battalion Durham Light Infantry on the left flank. The transfer took an hour and was completed by midnight. Because the unit was operating with only three rifle companies, each low in strength, the British positions were not reoccupied. The troops had to dig new holes. The ground was rocky and most of the men gave up after they had gone down about six inches. Those who continued to dig had blisters to show for their efforts. Stones and sandbagged walls were built around each hole.
By daylight the battalion was firmly established in its new sector. A and B Coys had taken the forward positions and had dug in along a rocky ridge a few feet above the level of the surrounding desert. C Coy was in reserve near Battalion HQ. Signallers had laid line to the companies and the supporting arms were in position. Blankets and heavy gear had been brought forward on stores trucks. The forward platoons were in contact with 25 Battalion on their right and with 152 Brigade on the left. During the attack the 9th Durham Light Infantry had stopped about 800 yards from its objective, and as a result the troops were dug in alongside the reserve battalion of 152 Brigade. There was still a great congestion of guns and transport in the area. During the morning more arrived, including some tanks. While it was reassuring to have such a weight of arms close at hand, it formed an attractive target for enemy gunners. Nevertheless the enemy fire did not become heavy until later in the day.
The news of the success of the previous night's attack was overshadowed by an Eighth Army Order of the Day received during the afternoon. It stated that at last the enemy was cracking and pulling back from his Alamein defences. This was more evident in the coastal sector where the Australians had fought so well. The natural jubilation caused by this news page 210 was tempered by the reopening of enemy artillery fire. Using 88-millimetre guns at long range, he concentrated on the low ridge occupied by A and B Coys, and the latter had four men wounded. Later the peace around Battalion HQ was rudely shattered by a burst which exploded near the RAP. Headquarters personnel had just finished their evening meal and most of them were caught out of their dugouts. Four men were killed and six wounded. The Adjutant was peppered by shell splinters and had a miraculous escape from death. A splinter also hit the centre pole of the RAP tent and brought it down on all inside.
1 Tactical HQ in this action comprised CO, IO, Signals officer, and two signallers with a No. 11 set.
4 Appointments on eve of attack:
Adjt: 2 Lt J. E. Seal
QM: Capt F. W. Wilson
IO: Lt A. B. Kennedy
A Tk: 2 Lt W. A. Barcock
Carriers: 2 Lt C. C. McDonald
OC A Coy: Lt J. R. Williams
OC B Coy: Capt L. G. Smith
OC C Coy: Capt H. J. H. Horrell
OC HQ Coy: Maj H. G. McQuade
Signals: Lt K. W. Hobbs
Padre: Rev. H. S. Scott