Alam Halfa and Alamein
CHAPTER 16 — 30 Corps' Plans
30 Corps' Plans
BY the morning of the 23rd, all the major preparations for the battle were going according to the plans. The infantry to start the advance were lying doggo in trenches near the front, the guns were in their camouflaged pits, the tanks and transport vehicles waiting in their various echelons in the assembly areas in the order in which they would be called forward. Normal and unhurried wireless messages were being passed by the few stations that the deception plan permitted to stay on the air, though telephone lines hummed with last-minute queries and instructions. Medical teams, mechanics, engineers, signalmen and drivers checked their equipment to ensure that, when dusk fell, they could start their varied tasks without hitch or failure. And in every unit cooks were making preparations to issue, in dixies of tea and stew, what was likely to be a last hot meal, at least for some time and to some men.
In spite of the care with which the deception scheme had been planned and the stringent orders given to the troops to keep in cover with no unnecessary movement, the area over which the enemy had observation must undoubtedly have offered some signs of unusual activity. Yet no hint is carried in the enemy records that any suspicious movement was noted, and this is confirmed by the enemy's inaction. The Eighth Army's gunners were under orders to restrict their fire, retaliating only if Axis shellfire was above normal and obviously directed at some observed section of the preparations, restrictions intended both to lull suspicion as well as to keep the Axis gunners from moving to alternative positions which might not be within the area of counter-battery fire planned for the night's operations. The Axis gunners appear to have taken their cue from their opponents, for by all accounts their harassing fire was even less than customary and certainly caused little damage.
Along this almost somnolent front, the troops of the Eighth Army were disposed as described below. Against the coast and page 229 holding the line for some four miles south of Mersa el Hamra lay 24 Australian Brigade, with 2/28 Battalion between the sea and the railway line, 2/42 Battalion further south, 2/32 Battalion in immediate reserve, and 2/8 Field Regiment in support. As on the rest of the front, the Australians had prepared camouflaged tracks, gun pits, trenches and headquarters beforehand so that, on the evening of 22 October, the two other field regiments of the division with six attached troops of 10 Corps artillery were able to move up from the rear and quickly get themselves settled and hidden in the prepared pits and signal exchanges. Following the guns, the infantry of 26 and 20 Brigades took over trenches in the southern half of the sector.
The Australian division's task was to drive due westwards from Tell el Eisa on a 3000-yard front for some 8000 yards. The southern flank of this penetration would be covered by a simultaneous advance by 51 (Highland) Division but the northern flank would be unprotected. The Australian plan was for 26 Brigade to advance on the right on a narrow frontage of under 1000 yards, with 2/24 Battalion taking the first objective, about half way, and digging in to face north and 2/48 Battalion passing through to the final objective to face both west and north. The third unit of this brigade, 2/23 Battalion, remained in reserve. In the southern part of the sector, 20 Brigade was to take the first objective with 2/17 and 2/15 Battalions, on right and left respectively, where they would be well placed to support the defence against counter-attack from either west or north. Then 2/13 Battalion, with 40 Battalion, The Royal Tank Regiment, in Valentines and under command, was to gain the southern part of the division's final objective and dig in facing west. A special composite force was formed, strong in antitank and machine guns, to cover the vulnerable angle where the northern flank of the penetration projected from the original front line.
The Australian operation was to be supported by the whole of the divisional artillery, six attached troops from 10 Corps, 7 Medium Regiment, RA, and another troop of medium guns, about 100 guns all told. General Morshead, the Australian commander, had decided that the design of his attack would not be best served by the creeping barrage as advocated by Freyberg for, although his men would be advancing on a narrow front on which a creeping barrage would be effective, there was the need to lay fire almost continuously throughout the operation on enemy positions along the long exposed northern flank. Moreover, the Australians had been in the line for a long time, their patrolling was always vigorous, and they held several points from which good observation over the enemy could page 230 be obtained, so that the majority of the enemy positions facing them had long since been noted and marked on the map with a considerable degree of accuracy. The method therefore chosen was for a portion of the artillery to keep all enemy posts on the northern flank subdued while the infantry advanced at the rate of 100 yards every three minutes, in relatively compact order, against each known strongpoint, on which a heavy artillery concentration would be timed to fall, marked by smoke shells at commencement and ending, just before the infantry's arrival.
To allow the infantry to keep up with the timed concentrations, three pauses were allowed, one for ten minutes at approximately halfway to the first objective (called the Red line), another for an hour on that objective, and one for thirty-five minutes halfway between there and the final objective.
Hard on 9 Australian Division's left, 51 (Highland) Division was to advance at the same rate to a final objective that ran in a south-easterly direction for some 5000 yards from the end of the Australian objective. The Highland Division's front had been narrowed to about 3000 yards by the relief of its left-hand sector by 23 New Zealand Battalion, and the distance from this line to the objective was between 6000 and 7000 yards. The divisional commander, Major-General Wimberley, chose to follow the Australian method of timed concentrations rather than a barrage, although he possessed as many guns as the Australian artillery and had no need to disperse his gunfire to a flank. The method he proposed looked relatively simple on paper but had within it the germs of confusion. The division's sector of assault was marked off into three intermediate objectives and a final objective, called the Green, Red, Black and Blue lines respectively, roughly equidistant one from the other. All the known enemy positions were given code-names in good Scots and the intermediate objective lines were bent around these positions so that no one line was parallel to another or to the start line or final objective, a system unlikely to make for co-ordination in the advance.
On the right, 153 Brigade was given about a third of the total frontage from which it was to advance with all its three battalions. The method of advance was for 5 Battalion The Black Watch on the right, and 5/7 Battalion The Gordon Highlanders on the left, to take the first and second intermediate objectives (the Green and Red lines). Then 1 Battalion The Gordon Highlanders, passing page 231 through 5 Black Watch,1 was to join 5/7 Gordons in taking the third, or Black, line. Finally, two platoons of 1 Gordons, mounted on Valentine tanks of A Squadron of 50 Battalion, The Royal Tank Regiment, were to assault and occupy the final objective or Blue line. It was thought that an enemy strongpoint, code-named ‘Aberdeen’, lay along the right-hand half of the final objective and another, but smaller, strongpoint, ‘Ballater’, lay just ahead of the Black line on the left-hand side. The available orders do not make it clear whether ‘Ballater’ was to be subdued by the passage of the tanks or by exploitation by 5/7 Gordons from the Black line. Had the orders been carried out to the letter, 153 Brigade's final objective, some 1800 yards long, would have been held at dawn by the survivors of two platoons of infantry and a squadron of Valentine tanks.
The left-hand two-thirds of the Highland Division's sector was to be occupied by 154 Brigade on a plan that, even on paper, appears to be somewhat elaborate, with six groups of men operating in four lanes of varying widths. On the extreme right, 1 Black Watch was to advance to the Black line (third objective) and in the right-centre lane 7/10 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was to follow suit. From that objective, two platoons of the latter battalion accompanied by C Squadron, 50 Royal Tanks, in Valentines was to capture a large strongpoint, ‘Stirling’, situated on the final objective.
The procedure for the left-hand side of the brigade sector, believed to be thinly held by the enemy as far as the Black line, involved an advance by two companies of 5 Battalion, The Cameron Highlanders (attached from 152 Brigade), to occupy the Green and Red lines. Then 7 Black Watch, moving up on the left of the sector, was to assault through the Black line to the final objective. However, the attack on a strongpoint, ‘Nairn’, just ahead of the final objective, was the special task of a composite force which was to advance on the right of 7 Black Watch. This force comprised a squadron of 51 Reconnaissance Regiment mounted in carriers and trucks, together with 50 Royal Tanks, less A Squadron detached to 153 Brigade and less C Squadron which was to move with the composite force as far as the Red line and then cut across to the right to join 7/10 Argyll and Sutherlanders. After capturing ‘Nairn’ the composite force was to retire to divisional reserve, leaving 7 Black Watch to hold the whole of the left-hand half of the brigade's objective. The division retained its 152 Brigade (less 5 Camerons) in reserve.
1 In order to save constant repetition of the rather cumbersome full titles, units will customarily be referred to, after first mention in full, by the shortened forms in use by Eighth Army: e.g., 5/7 Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders, becomes 5/7 Gordons; 50 Battalion, The Royal Tank Regiment, becomes 50 Royal Tanks, and so on.
Artillery support for both of the Highland brigades was to be by concentrations, of predicted fire without previous registration, on the enemy strongpoints as shown on a map prepared by 30 Corps and Eighth Army intelligence staffs, the fire on each position being timed to lift just ahead of the arrival of the assaulting infantry, who were to advance at the rate of 100 yards every three minutes after making contact with the forward defended positions. Pauses of 15, 60 and 15 minutes were to be made on the Green, Red and Black lines respectively, each pause marked (‘pricked out’ was the phrase used in orders) by a short barrage fired on the line at the calculated time of the infantry's arrival and repeated at the time of departure. Tracer shell from Bofors guns in short bursts was also to mark the estimated times of arrival, and a burst of three similar tracer shells fired every ten minutes was to mark the divisional boundaries and the inter-brigade boundary.
The Highland Division had its own three Royal Engineer companies as well as a troop of sappers of 50 Royal Tanks attached for clearing gaps in the minefields but, as for the New Zealand sector, all clearance for 10 Corps' tanks, except of the initial gaps in the forward positions, was to be left to that corps. All the customary preparations for defence against counter-attack were ordered, with anti-tank and Vickers guns taken forward and artillery defensive fire on call to cover the final objective.
A great deal of work and care was put into 51 Division's initial preparations. As early as the evening of the 20th, the start line was surveyed and inconspicuously marked. After dark on the 22nd, eleven gaps in the British minefields were cut and camouflaged, and on the following evening the start line, the gaps, and all the routes leading back to the lying-up positions of the assaulting troops were marked by lamps facing eastwards and by white tape, some nine miles of this tape being used altogether. This work was accomplished by engineers and infantry parties of the reserve brigade without detection by the enemy, who had good observation over most of the ground, though some alarm was felt when, on the morning of the 22nd, it was found that an officer and NCO, out on a night patrol to cover the preparatory work, had not returned.1 For some reason news of this was not sent to Eighth Army Headquarters until next day, when of course it caused some consternation.page 233
Immediately to the south of the Highlanders, the New Zealand Division was given the task of assaulting and occupying a sector closely similar in shape and size. From a start line of some 2000 yards extending south-east from 51 Division's line, the Division was to advance nearly 7000 yards on its right but only 5000 yards on its left to gain an objective 5000 yards in length. This objective lay along a slight rise known as Miteiriya Ridge, of which the highest point was 100 feet above sea level, though no more than 30 feet at the most over the ground immediately to the east. The ridge extended into the Highland Division's objective for a short distance but soon merged into the surrounding desert, and even on the New Zealand objective it was far from being a clearly recognisable feature of the landscape, although in places it afforded observation both to east and west. Occupation of the ridge was intended to provide a firm base from which the Divisional Cavalry and 9 Armoured Brigade could ‘exploit’ to the south-west, both to search for a weak spot in the enemy's defences and to provide a flank guard to the main sortie by 10 Corps' armour.
Of the battle to gain the ridge, Freyberg had already pointed in conferences to its resemblance to the conditions of the First World War and repeated this conviction in his report written later: ‘The northern sector of the Alamein front … was the nearest approach to the static defences of the last war yet seen in North Africa and it was the technique of 1918 which was used as the basis of the plan for our attack.’1 Though Freyberg was wise, as events proved, to insist on this similarity, points of dissimilarity were numerous. There were no clearly defined lines of trenches to be given as objectives, there was far from enough artillery to provide a solid curtain of barrage fire or prolonged bombardments, and, particularly in the New Zealand Division, there were far fewer infantry than would have been used in the First War on a similar width and depth of penetration. Moreover, the distance to be covered was close to the limit that infantry could penetrate at night without losing cohesion, control and the impetus of the advance.
Though unable to sell his ideas to the other commanders, Freyberg remained convinced that the only way his two under-strength infantry brigades could reach the objective was under some form of a creeping barrage. But against the enemy's system of defence by individual strongpoints separated by expanses of open ground, a simple creeping barrage would have been ineffective as only a relatively small number of shells would have fallen on any one strongpoint. Freyberg therefore accepted a compromise plan worked out in consultation with the commander of the New Zealand artillery, Brigadier Weir, for one quarter of the 104 available guns to fire a standard creeping barrage, while the remainder laid concentrations, timed to coincide with the barrage, on the known strongpoints. In this way the leading waves of infantry would be page 235 able to ‘lean on the barrage’, that is, follow it so closely that the required rate of advance of 100 yards every three minutes would be maintained evenly across the whole front, and at the same time would assault each strongpoint immediately after it had been subjected to a very heavy concentration of fire. Smoke shells were to be used freely to mark the extremities and the centre of each barrage lift, the commencement and ending of each concentration, the opening line of the barrage, the pause of an hour and 45 minutes on the first objective, and the point when the barrage crossed the left-hand edge of the final objective. As an aid to direction, Bofors tracer was to be fired down the divisional boundaries and along the centre line.
The sector was divided evenly, the right-hand half allocated to 5 Brigade and the left-hand to 6 Brigade, with start lines and objectives of equal lengths. Owing to the angle at which the final objective ran in relation to the start line, 5 Brigade had a slightly longer distance to go. From the start lines, marked with white tape by the sappers just ahead of the forward posts held by 23 Battalion, one battalion of each brigade was to advance at 9.35 p.m., covering 100 yards every two minutes. With the opening line of the creeping barrage 1800 yards ahead of the start line, the leading infantry would thus be some 500 yards short of the shellfire when it commenced at 10 p.m. Fire on the opening line was to be maintained for twenty-three minutes, during which time the two leading battalions were to approach the shellfire as closely as was safe, ready to resume the advance as soon as a line of smoke shells indicated that the barrage was beginning its lifts of 100 yards every three minutes. Fourteen such lifts, the last marked by smoke and finishing at 11.5 p.m., would bring the men on to the first objective, a line some 3500 yards long and about the same distance from the start line. Here the two leading battalions were to dig in to provide a base from which the other four battalions would carry the advance to the final objective.
At this point, the barrage trace supplied to the infantry held a small discrepancy which passed unnoticed at the time. The trace made it appear that fire would jump 200 yards beyond the first objective and continue there, on what was in effect the opening line of the second phase of the barrage, for an hour and 50 minutes, giving covering fire for consolidation by the men of the two leading battalions. Some of the officers in fact expected to use the line of this fire to indicate the forward edge of the objective and thus simplify the laying-out of the defences. The actual artillery programme, however, was for the barrage to cease for this period while concentrations were laid on known enemy positions between the page 236 first and second objectives, the fire creeping forward and back in a pattern designed to deter any movement of enemy troops. Also during this time the guns in rotation were given short periods for rest and servicing.
The four battalions following up were to deploy along a start line on the first objective ready for the barrage, which was to recommence at 12.50 a.m. with a five-minute stand on the opening line followed by lifts and concentrations similar to those before. There was to be a pause of fifteen minutes, indicated by smoke, in the progress of the barrage as the shellfire reached the final objective on the extreme left, though in this case the fire was to continue throughout the pause. At 2.22 a.m., that is 4 hours 22 minutes after the opening of the artillery programme, the barrage was to cease as the fire reached the junction of the Division's centre line and the objective, after which some heavy concentrations were to be fired on the untouched triangle of ground between the centre line and the extreme right flank. On the conclusion of the fire in support of the infantry advance, all guns were to be ready to lay down defensive fire on call to cover consolidation on the final objective.
Although the other divisions in the assault were expected to carry out the customary exploitation for a short distance beyond their objectives in order to clear the ground ahead of their new lines, both the New Zealand and South African divisions were given a larger exploitation role. According to 30 Corps' orders, the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, following the night assault, was to reconnoitre at dawn to the south-west on the north side of the Qattara Track as far as Deir el Abyad, a distance of about four miles, and lead the way for a methodical advance ‘with tanks, covered by field guns and supported by anti-tank guns and infantry’. The South Africans were to assist by pushing forward a strong reconnaissance on the south side of the Qattara Track. Contemporary comments make it clear that, after the first phase of the infantry ‘break-in’ and the positioning of 10 Corps' armour, this was in fact intended to be Montgomery's next major move. The New Zealand Division, with its heavy armoured brigade and mobile infantry, was expected to break through the crust of the enemy's fixed defences and cut the Panzer Army in two. The 10 Corps armour, poised on the right flank of the breakthrough, would then either follow through or occupy the corridor and force the enemy to commit his reserves. Future action by the Eighth Army would depend on the detail of enemy reaction; withdrawal of reserves from the north would ease the crumbling process of the fixed defences between the Australian salient and the sea while movement of reserves from page 237 the south would lead to increased pressure by 13 Corps. Whatever happened, the Panzer Army would be forced into committing its reserves at a time when its whole front line was under pressure, so that it would have to dance to Montgomery's tune.
Careful study of the Division's campaigns has shown that General Freyberg, in spite of a certain reputation to the contrary, was invariably very canny in committing his men to battle. He was still unconvinced that the ideas held by the British armoured commanders of co-operation with infantry had changed fundamentally and, though in discussion he was given to believe that the armour's role was clearly understood, he noted, immediately 10 Corps' orders appeared in writing, that the armour was more concerned with the detail of getting into position at dawn than with its role of protecting the north-western flank of his division's proposed exploitation. Through the commander of 30 Corps he asked for – and received – confirmation that the armoured commanders were fully aware that, once they were through the infantry's final objective, their primary role was to protect and support his division's exploitation. Even then Freyberg must have decided to let the exploitation role wait upon events, for his written divisional orders carry no more than that the Divisional Cavalry should move out beyond the infantry objective and, swinging in an anti-clockwise circle, cause panic by approaching enemy posts from the rear, acting boldly but avoiding engagement with armour or aimed anti-tank gun fire. In a conference on the morning before the battle Freyberg stated that he intended to ‘test the market’ with the Cavalry, other moves depending on information sent back. He himself did not think the area of exploitation would be unguarded, ‘but it is just possible the enemy has misjudged it because of his contempt for our generals’.1 Later comments and events show that Freyberg was not unduly surprised that no opportunity for immediate ‘gate-crashing’ was found, and he was moreover fully prepared to consider another infantry assault at night to breach the defences. Except for the definite reconnaissance and exploitation role of the Cavalry, no other written orders were issued within the Division to cover either the composition or action of the exploitation force that the 30 Corps' orders envisaged.
The South African division was an experienced and well-trained formation whose artillery held a reputation for versatility and ability to co-operate closely with the infantry. The division had been holding its sector of the front for many weeks and had the opportunity to observe and range the enemy defences facing it in some detail. All this, added to the circumstances of the advance in that the division's left flank would be moving along the line of the enemy's front rather than through it, appears to have influenced the commander, Major-General Pienaar, to choose timed concentrations for his artillery support. The South Africans had their own three regiments of field guns, plus three troops from 10 Corps and a battery of mediums from 69 Medium Regiment, RA, a total of about ninety guns.
The position of the South African sector allowed a 2000-yard start line, and a short advance of about 4000 yards in a south-southwesterly direction to an objective that extended from the left flank of the New Zealand objective until it reached the existing front line, a distance of about four miles. The plan of assault gave the right-hand half to 2 South African Infantry Brigade, with the Natal Mounted Rifles taking the first objective and the Cape Town Highlanders on the right and ½ Frontier Force Battalion on the left passing through to the final objective. In the left sector, 3 South African Infantry Brigade gave 1 Battalion, The Rand Light Infantry, the task of taking the first objective, with the Royal Durban Light Infantry (right) and 1 Battalion, The Imperial Light Horse (left) to occupy the final line. On the left flank, 1 South African Infantry Brigade was to provide assistance by giving covering fire in enfilade from 60 Vickers guns and 12 3-inch mortars sited in secretly prepared positions in no-man's land, and also by providing forces to link the final objective with the existing positions further south.page 239
A third force, called the Divisional Reserve Group and consisting principally of the fifty-one Valentines of 8 Royal Tanks, the infantry of 2 Battalion, The Regiment Botha, and a number of support weapons, was to advance along the boundary between 2 and 3 Brigades, ready to help in the capture of both the intermediate and final objectives, to assist in mopping up, to support the new front against counter-attack, or to exploit southwards. This exploitation, led by cars of 3 South African Armoured Car Regiment, was to proceed on a course parallel to that of the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, on the south side of the Qattara Track as far as Deir el Abyad. Besides keeping the gap open from the objective to Abyad, this force, or elements of it, was presumably to join with the New Zealand exploitation force in attempting to find a way through the enemy's defences. Of this role Freyberg remarked that the ‘Corps Commander has told Pienaar that if he can't break through he can maintain our flank.’1
There was one further division under the command of 30 Corps, 4 Indian Division which, since the Alam Halfa battle, had relieved 5 Indian Division in the Ruweisat Ridge sector and was made up of 7 and 161 Indian Brigades in the front line and 5 Indian Brigade in reserve. Although it was intended to use this division in subsequent operations, its tasks for the first night of Alamein were diversionary, to draw fire away from the South Africans and to keep the enemy defence occupied. Over ground well known to the New Zealanders in the July actions, 7 Indian Brigade was to lay on a company raid westwards along Ruweisat Ridge while 161 Brigade made a dummy attack on the eastern tip of El Mreir and a two-company raid across the pipeline just to the south of the depression. These three operations were timed in sequence so that each could be supported by the Indian division's three field regiments, which manned forty-eight 25-pounders. Two more regiments in 13 Corps further to the south, with thirty-two guns within range of El Mreir, were to assist. Just before the opening of the attack, 5 Indian Brigade was to move into the rear of the South African defence sector and come into 30 Corps reserve.