CHAPTER 14 — The Battle of Alamein
The Battle of Alamein
You could feel it in your bones that the tide was at last on the turn. Were not the Germans halted for good and all in Russia? They had faded out at Stalingrad; they were foiled at Leningrad; they fell short at the Caucasus, and were halted now by sheer bloody exhaustion. The other prong of this huge pincer, designed to meet somewhere amidst the wealth of oil in Asia Minor, rested at Alamein, softened and blunted. Had these closed they would then have fused into a greater one aimed at meeting the Japanese somewhere—perhaps in India. But to consider this is not within the scope of a mere unit history.
In the Divisional Cavalry the men had the same feeling as in the rest of the Division, or for that matter in the whole Eighth Army, that what Mr Churchill has called the beginning of the end was at hand. There were hard fights ahead but, given a short breather, they would be ready for anything. They needed only a spell from the dust and thirst and the filthy flies and from the monotony of constantly wishing for the temporary respite given by the dusk, yet answering immediately to their natural instincts by fervently wanting to see yet another dawn. As each dawn came it brought hope and warmth, but it brought also yesterday's discomforts all over again.
The order for a spell came to most men almost simultaneously with its execution, and on 10 September the squadrons moved off eastwards. By the following afternoon the men were sitting round their vehicles in an agreeably calm hollow south of Burg el Arab, listening to the band of 6 Brigade. To add to this pleasure word came round that nearly half of the regiment's strength would be granted four days' leave to Cairo, and the remainder were to follow them when they got back.
A short spell ‘with the lid off’ had a most wonderful effect. By the end of the week all the lined faces, previously hard and grim, were again smiling: dulled eyes came back from leave sparkling. Not even the dyspeptic or alcoholic remorse which accompanied some of the men back could lower their spirits, and every face asked the same question: when was the war-winning to begin in earnest? The men's very actions carried page 226 this query as they went about their routine jobs. Life was fun again. Each squadron carried out a practice shoot which both perfected the gun teams and afforded recreation. As the shooting improved, fresh gazelle meat occasionally found its way into the stews.
A fortnight slipped smoothly away, ending in a three-day divisional manoeuvre out in the desert to the south, before the regiment returned to its bivouac area near Burg el Arab. Two days later, on 30 September, the regiment, together with 27 MG Battalion, was inspected by General Montgomery. By his mere presence and by his quiet and infectious confidence, the fighting spirit of the men was raised as high as ever it had been. Something was afoot; something big; soon they were to deliver the knockout punch. Some of the men had actually seen new tanks: Shermans, hundreds of them, manned by a British brigade, the 9th Armoured, which was to be an integral part of the Division, and whose crews were even now proudly painting on them the silver fern of the Division.
Leave was still available by October but no one asked for it, not even for a day in Alexandria. Big things were afoot and no one was interested. Besides, one might easily get left behind. As it was, there was quite a big exchange of personnel going on with the Composite Training Depot. So nobody even dared show the slightest interest in being away from the regiment. One pitied the unfortunates, and there were quite a few, who succumbed to attacks of jaundice, an illness you could not conceal.
He who deserves the greatest pity of all for a cruel stroke of luck was the regiment's own Commanding Officer, Lieutenant- Colonel Nicoll. He had gone down to Maadi to arrange this exchange and late one night was set upon in the dark by a group of drunken soldiers. He was hit with a bottle and left lying on the road with a badly broken jaw, little more than a hundred yards from his tent. So he passes out of this story a bitterly disappointed man. He had led the regiment through difficult times. His brand of discipline was stern, but those under him reacted to it well for he demanded and received respect. He was a man of restraint and a resourceful soldier, and many of those in the regiment probably owe their lives to his skill in handling not only situations but men. It was a sorry day on which he lost his command, just as he was to taste the sweets page 227 of victory. Colonel Nicoll was evacuated to hospital and Major Sutherland assumed command.
The following day, 6 October, the first step was taken in the planning for the Battle of Alamein. At a squadron commanders' conference to discuss training ‘for an offensive action in moonlight beyond an enemy minefield, assuming that the gap would be narrow’, a technique was evolved for squadrons to pass through a lighted gap and then fan out on the other side. This was practised first by day and then after dark, and in a few days each squadron commander felt that it was perfected.
About this time General Freyberg decided that he would be better equipped to command a mobile division if he used a fast tracked vehicle, and accordingly demanded that Div Cav should send him one of its ‘Honeys’. The first one that RHQ parted with seemed to suffer stage-fright on greeting a general officer and promptly broke down, so the General was given the next best one. His tank had to mount two wireless sets so, in order to make room for the crew, the gun was removed and replaced by a dummy, which not only served to block up an unsightly hole but made the tank thoroughly recognisable by the jaunty angle of its gun-barrel. This appendage indeed made the tank look more like a unicorn than an armoured fighting vehicle, and thenceforth, as the General was notorious for a greater aptitude for getting into trouble than getting out of it, he had to be given another whole ‘Protective Troop’ from the Div Cav so that he was doubly distinguishable within the Division. Everybody was able to notice a group of four tanks roaring along, the leader, with its saucy gun, setting a rollicking pace and the others toiling valiantly along after it, trying to keep up close enough to do some protecting when and where necessary.
The signs of an approaching offensive continued to grow. On 11 October some twenty-three of the regiment's carriers arrived back from Workshops with new motors, and the following day the CO attended a conference with the administrative staff to iron out the problems of a complicated forward move. About this time, too, the senior officers attended an exercise carried out by 5 Brigade and the Royal Warwickshire Yeomanry in their new Sherman tanks. Then, on the 15th, the Divisional Cavalry made its first move towards the impending battle. This move served also to perfect the technique of moving in the dark along a line of lights.page 228
The principal appointments were now as follows:
|Commanding Officer||Lt-Col J. H. Sutherland, MC|
|Second-in-Command||Maj H. A. Robinson, MC|
|Adjutant||Lt P. S. Crisp|
|OC A Squadron||Maj G. H. Stace|
|Second-in-Command||Capt M. L. W. Adams|
|OC B Squadron||Maj W. G. Handley|
|Second-in-Command||Capt J. G. Wynyard|
|OC C Squadron||Maj A. Van Slyke|
|Second-in-Command||Capt R. A. M. Macdonald|
|OC HQ Squadron||Capt R. B. McQueen|
|Medical Officer||Capt J. R. J. Moore, NZMC|
|Padre||Rev. H. G. Taylor, CF|
All the time the pitch of excitement was rising, and with it a fear in everybody's heart lest he should be left out of the show. For the next four days the regiment camped close enough to the beach for parties to be offered bathing. Round Burg el Arab there is a lovely beach of snowy white sand and playful surf, but though transport was available for the men to go swimming, very few elected to go. The vehicles were their homes, and where the vehicles had to stay the men usually chose to stay also. That tie which in the days of peace had bound them to their horses was now binding them to their inanimate machines.
So they stayed where they were and lazed about or continued the interminable tinkering with their equipment until the evening of 19 October, when the regiment made the next move forward as far as El Hammam.
The CO arrived back next day from a reconnaissance of the forward areas and a series of divisional conferences and, accompanied by Lieutenant Lane,1 his IO, with marked maps, visited every squadron in turn, telling them the whole and complete story of the coming battle. Nothing that he knew did he with- hold from the men; and the same was going on at the time right through the Army. The importance of security was stressed and the men reacted to the confidence placed in them. The Divisional Cavalry was told that the battle (Operation LIGHTFOOT) was timed to start at 10 p.m. on 23 October prefaced by a terrific barrage, such as they had never before witnessed, which was to open up exactly twenty minutes earlier. The battle page 229 would consist of a break-in, ‘dog-fight’, break-out and pursuit. It might be over in ten days; it might last for a fortnight. All this depended on the enemy's capacity for punishment. The Eighth Army would consist of three corps, the 10th, the 13th, and the 30th. In the break-in stage the enemy was to be attacked simultaneously in the north and south, the former attack being carried out by 30 Corps, which was to form a bridgehead from the Miteiriya Ridge to the coast, namely where the main enemy defences and gun areas were located. The 10th Corps was designed to pass through this bridgehead once it was cleared and break out beyond to complete the victory. In the south 13 Corps' plan was to try to draw the enemy's reserves of armour there whilst at the same time launching a light armoured brigade, the 4th, round the southern flank to secure the enemy's supply and maintenance organisations at Daba. The 30th Corps' attack was to be on a frontage of four divisions: 9 Australian on the coast; then 51 (Highland) Division, come to avenge St. Valéry; then the New Zealand and 1 South African Divisions. Opposite them were 15 Panzer and the Italian Littorio Divisions, on and north of Tell el Aqqaqir, with elements of the Bersaglieri Division on the coast, and the German 164 Division and Italian Trento Division on and around Miteiriya Ridge. In reserve, on the coast road, were the Italian Trieste Division and the New Zealanders' old enemy—now almost their personal adversaries—the German 90th Light.
The New Zealand Division had a dual role. First it was to take part in the break-in battle and then become, with two armoured divisions, part of 10 Corps for the break-out, later named Operation SUPERCHARGE. The 9th Armoured Brigade was to take its place as an integral part of the Division. This time there would be no fear that the infantry, having captured their final objectives, might be overrun for lack of armoured support against a counter-attack, because the Armoured Brigade was to follow on the two infantry brigades' heels and actually pass through them before first light. The Divisional Cavalry was to go through, too, and try to gatecrash into the enemy's rear.
All this and more, each squadron in turn learned, sitting back there in the comparative peace of El Hammam. It came to them in a quiet, unimpassioned, almost laconic speech to which they listened gravely and in a mood restrained and sober; though all around could be seen glittering eyes as each man realised that at last they were certain of winning. After that speech there was no cheering, nothing spontaneous, for it had really been page 230 quite unnecessary to tell them that against a strong and brave enemy the fighting would be bitter and hard, and that for a single unwounded man there was to be no surrender. What they really did appreciate was the confidence placed in them to allow them to visualise the whole battlefield at any stage so that, when they were in the thick of it, they would not have to suppress that horrid feeling that the whole of the enemy's forces were concentrated against them. The plan captured their imagination when they visualised themselves milling around in the enemy's rear, carving up his supply vehicles, cutting his communications and thus causing confusion in his various headquarters. Had they not been denied that same satisfaction in the last battle simply because things went wrong on the infantry start line? This time it just could not happen.
In the late afternoon of 21 October the regiment slipped forward another five miles and settled down near El Imayid for the next day, camouflaged and quietly waiting for the next forward move. Each one of these moves gave the impression that the whole desert for 20 miles back was covered by a huge game of General Post, one formation slipping into an area vacated by the one ahead. This illusion was increased by the fact that those right in front could not move forward, and so with each move the squeeze became tighter until the whole Army, brought under pressure from behind, came to a crisis at zero hour and burst forward through and over the enemy. Each move was done unobtrusively in the dark, and for daylight camouflage all armoured units had their tanks fitted with ‘sunshades’, canopies painted to represent lorries. Though the crews were not to know, they probably were taking up positions previously occupied by real or dummy trucks, so that, to enemy reconnaissance aircraft, the scene on the ground never appeared to change.
During the 22nd the GOC visited the regiment and issued a further operation directive giving a definite axis of advance and definite bounds to clear. The squadrons were to finish up round and north of Deir el Abyad, about four or five miles south-west of Miteiriya Ridge. They were instructed not to become involved in an armoured battle but to concentrate in causing destruction and confusion. If the regiment was confronted with heavy armour it was to retire behind 9 Armoured Brigade, whose heavy Shermans and Grants would take care of it with their 75-mm. guns.page 231
After dark the general post took place again and by 9 p.m. Div Cav was in its jumping-off position near Alam el Onsol. Twenty-four hours to go!
All day on the 23rd the men rested, perhaps impatiently, though the temper of the regiment was of a quiet, determined kind. They were not grim nor were they light-hearted. One who did not know his New Zealanders might say they were phlegmatic. But anyone who did know would read in their eyes and in their actions, as they meticulously polished their guns of the last speck of dust, that they were thinking of their natural job in an attack, the exploitation task, of which they had been so often robbed. Conversation centred round crew drill, or perhaps here and there they were discussing who next within the troop could make best use of the next pair of captured binoculars.
The Corps had some six parallel routes for the axes of the attack, each of which was marked. There were the ‘Sun’, ‘Moon’, ‘Star’, ‘Bottle’, ‘Boat’, and ‘Hat’ tracks, all recognised by a line of petrol tins on standards, with the appropriate sign cut out from the rear side and lit at night from within. The Divisional Cavalry had been allotted the ‘Boat’ track for its final move into the fight. This track led to the axis of 6 Brigade's advance. The timings of the whole attack had been meticulously worked out and the regiment moved off at 8.5 p.m. in the following order: A, C and B Squadrons, RHQ, and the attached New Zealand Engineers' party. As anticipated, it was a slow trip with many hold-ups over the whole 15 miles, and the tail of the regiment had barely passed our gun lines when the great barrage opened up.
Though in later days there were many more intense barrages than at Alamein, it was the original one which remains most vividly in the memory for it came with such a shock; it seemed so revolutionary, so concentrated, so murderous. To find a good verbal description is most difficult. Imagine a factory chimney made of hand-grenades in place of bricks; loop a great hawser round its base and suddenly wrench away the foundations. The opening of the Alamein barrage rent the air as suddenly as would those thousands of grenades burst upon the ground. It was a crash, with no warning, which lasted for hours. There was no crescendo in its volume as it was fortissimo within a couple of seconds of starting, so perfect was the timing of the gunners' watches. No camera has truly recorded the sight because a photograph ‘freezes’ its subject and fails to grasp the eerie page 232 colour of the light. Some of this appeared in stabs, some in flashes, the far-away ones as mere flickers and the near ones as angry flames belching out, giving an instant silhouette of a gun and its crew. The noise of the barrage at close quarters shocked the system, since it was more than the senses could contain. It seemed to be just noise to an infinite degree.
The next morning, standing where the shellfire had fallen, it was impossible, for thousands of yards in any direction, to put a foot on the ground without treading on shrapnel fragments. Blue-grey with the heat of explosion, crystalline and jagged from rending into small pieces, they lay:Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
Out on the Miteiriya Ridge in the morning there was a knocked-out Italian tank. Under it were two dead Germans who had dived there for shelter and built a barricade of boxes of ammunition; but both men had been killed by shrapnel which had actually passed between the tank's tracks and bogeys and then through the crevices between the boxes.
So, it was right amongst the guns that the Battle of Alamein opened for the Divisional Cavalry. It seemed to be guns, guns; hundreds of them in the dark.page 233
Gradually the regiment worked forward, part of a wave 30 miles deep, surging steadily on. There was nothing much to see except the lighted signs looming up and then disappearing behind in the murk. Little by little the moonlight faded as the dust-cloud became thicker. Now and again a stationary figure was passed, a provost perhaps; or figures walking back, probably walking wounded; or a stationary vehicle, perhaps blown up on a mine. On the ground to either side of the column were white tapes which marked the edges of a cleared lane. On and on the columns crawled, slowly through the dark and dust, and ever and ever there was the clamour of the guns. The trip lasted all night, but the leading squadron of Div Cav was not on Miteiriya Ridge until daybreak. There for the time being the regiment came to a halt. The 6th Brigade had reached its final objective but had not managed to open the minefield in front, so the first chance of getting through was lost and the whole regiment was forced to pull back for the day just behind the brigade. It was considered suicidal for the Div Cav's own detachment of Engineers to try to open a gap in daylight.
After dark, however, the push was on again for the armour now that a gap had been made in the minefields. B and C Squadrons passed through on the original axis acting as a screen for 9 Armoured Brigade's tanks. The gap was under shellfire and, as the squadrons passed through, they came by a Sherman tank which had caught fire right at the mouth of the gap and which was burning so fiercely that its whole steel shell stood out in the darkness as a great glowing beacon for all to see. Naturally this was a bad place for anyone to linger and the leading troop was met by heavy anti-tank and machine-gun fire. Lieutenant Poolman, in command of it, charged straight through this but got only a short distance ahead before he ran into more mines. He was still under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire, but nevertheless he dismounted and managed to find a way through. Just after this, Mike Murphy2 found trouble when his carrier ran into dannert wire. He too leaped out of his carrier, went forward on foot, and cut a passage through.
After passing through the gap the squadrons immediately fanned out in a line facing south-west and began to advance, lengthening their line as they went. But they never got more than a quarter of the way to their objective as they were enfiladed by murderous fire from tanks and field and anti-tank page 234 guns. The 9th Armoured Brigade pressed on, however, smashing its way out into the dark. It had been mooted that the heavy tanks should use the smaller Div Cav vehicles to draw fire but this was quite unnecessary, since anything at all that moved drew fire, often at point-blank range. The heavy tanks pressed on, smashing, crushing and shooting, bent on straddling the enemy gun line and blowing it to pieces regardless of their own heavy casualties. In Div Cav the losses amounted to 5 tanks and 4 carriers for the night. Two sergeants were killed, ‘Ginty’ McInnes3 and Percy Titchener,4 and four troopers: Carr,5 Davies,6 Manson7 and Jensen.8 Four others died of wounds: Troopers Hardyment,9 Jones,10 McCallum11 and Scragg.12 Some twelve others were wounded, and all of them had occasion to bless Alf Bayliss13 that night for staying to care for them after the squadrons had been withdrawn under cover of the ridge, and for remaining out until they could be evacuated.
The battle lasted all night, the regiment experiencing its heaviest fighting when the big tanks drew back to join it. The anti-tank fire which caused most of the damage seemed to be from some kind of shell which did not penetrate but burst on the outside, showering its target with burning oil. It was rather effective as a tank-killer, though it did not cause the usual proportion of man casualties since most of the men managed to leap out of their burning vehicles and get back to the gap in the minefield to wait until the rest of the vehicles retired before first light. The Div Cav could not claim much certain page 235 damage in answer to what it had lost: only one anti-tank gun, one heavy mortar, and some infantry eliminated, and definitely no prisoners.
By daylight on the 25th everybody retired to the shelter of 6 Brigade and stood by, ready to repel any counter-attack or to repeat the operation of the night before; and in the evening Div Cav was withdrawn and became part of the Divisional Reserve Group. The 26th October was spent just off the Qattara road not far behind the original infantry start line. It was a relatively quiet day except for a Stuka raid in which Trooper Coventry14 was killed and seven others wounded, of whom Sergeant Dunbar15 and Trooper Crozier16 later died. The following day the whole regiment moved right back to its original jumping-off place near Alam el Onsol.
The next three days were more or less quiet ones for the whole regiment while it took over new vehicles and prepared to join in the battle as soon as demanded. During this time the Australians had launched an attack in the northern end of the line and pushed out another salient there. The ‘dog-fight’ stage of the battle was nearly completed and Operation SUPERCHARGE was coming due. One more bulge was now needed and this would surely burst outwards to complete the victory.
At 4.30 p.m. on 30 October a movement order arrived instructing the regiment to move forward again at four o'clock! This was rather a tall order no doubt, but the regiment did its best and by five o'clock it was speeding along towards El Alamein. The move was fast and very dusty since 9 Armoured Brigade was also on the move. No doubt Div Cav came in for some solid cursing from those in the heavy tanks, but Operation SUPERCHARGE was getting under way and everyone simply had to be up to a schedule, regardless of such things as movement orders arriving late. Considering the complexity of the whole operation the staff work was masterly, and such mistakes as did occur could usually be rectified with a little extra effort somewhere.
The general plan for SUPERCHARGE began rather similarly to that for LIGHTFOOT, with 30 Corps creating a salient through which 10 Corps could pass; but this time it was designed to page 236 pass out in pursuit of an enemy beaten in this last slogging match. The New Zealand Division had responsibilities in both phases and, since it was impossible for our infantry to be whipped up and away in their lorries when the break-out occurred, 151 and 152 Brigades of 50 and 51 Divisions respectively were given the job of making the required bulge. There was to be an even heavier barrage than for LIGHTFOOT and the infantry were to keep right up to it, leaving any pockets of armoured resistance to be cleared by the tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade which would be on the heels of the assaulting battalions. Each of the three regiments of this brigade would have a squadron of Div Cav attached to complete its mopping up, and when they reached the infantry's final objective the tanks were to continue to their own objective, a gun line along the Rahman track, straddle it as before and again blow it to pieces.
The attack was delayed a day and finally began at 1.5 a.m. on 2 November. On 1 November Div Cav was placed under command of 9 Armoured Brigade. A Squadron was attached to 3 Hussars, C Squadron to the Warwickshire Yeomanry. B Squadron was attached to the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry and began the battle, together with RHQ, following the brigade's tactical headquarters. At 6 p.m. the armour lined up at El Alamein station, moving off at 8.20.
The trip forward was again slow and dusty and the heavy tanks were rather delayed by having to clean up enemy pockets overrun by the infantry. As daylight approached, the armour was not yet quite abreast of the infantry's final objective and there was a risk of the whole operation being jeopardised by failure to launch 1 Armoured Division; so General Freyberg ordered 9 Brigade to press forward without waiting for gaps to be made in the minefields, but instead, to use the Div Cav and, if necessary, to sacrifice it to pilot the heavy tanks over them. This advance was intended to be covered by another artillery barrage, but the plan did not work out quite like that, as the advance, delayed as it was, outlived the barrage, which could not be kept up indefinitely. Moreover, daylight intervened, thus even adding to the tank casualties, disastrously heavy as they were expected to be. Nevertheless the job had to be done regardless of ill fortune; and those Tommies, bearing so proudly the silver fern, were men of ‘guts’ primed up to do anything—anything at all—that the New Zealand Division asked. They knew that this job alone would redeem the Tommy tank-men for ever in the New Zealanders' eyes.page 237
The Hussars, on the right, had suffered heavy shellfire during the night, and though they had lost all their anti-tank guns, they reached the Rahman track at daybreak. In the centre the Wilts also got there but only after awful battling in the half light. The Wilts ran on to an anti-tank screen and dug-in tanks which had every advantage. Undaunted they pressed on, with their leading Crusader squadron fighting a grim and gallant action in a suicidal headlong charge at six 88-mm. guns. The squadron wiped out four of these, then and there, but at the cost of every tank it had. The Wiltshires' two squadrons of heavy tanks were then hotly engaged, but fought bitterly for the ground and got up to the Rahman track, though by the end of the day this regiment's armour was more or less annihilated for the second time in ten days. Its strength in ‘runners’ was one heavy tank and one Crusader. B Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry was lucky not to suffer the same fate here for it was actually following right after the Wilts when they struck the worst of the fighting. The squadron did, however, get quite a thrashing from anti-tank guns which had been overrun without being eliminated, and did suffer losses, amongst whom was the gay and gallant Jim Wynyard. Poor Jim: he never lived to achieve his ambition of driving a carrier down the Unter den Linden. Peter Fullerton-Smith17 was also killed and Trooper Loe.18 Six others were wounded, of whom Lance- Corporal Eves19 died that day.
On the left flank of the attack the Warwicks mistook some high ground a little to the south for the proper objective, Tell el Aqqaqir, and got slightly off line, but though hotly engaged on three sides, accounted for every anti-tank gun opposing them.
In that grim and bloody battle full honours went to 9 Armoured Brigade, for though it did not reach right out to its objective, it did the job it was asked and wiped out the gun line. But at what an awful cost. In one day's fighting its strength of 150 tanks was reduced to 15 Shermans and Grants and 12 Crusaders; and then if you please, what was left of the brigade, amounting barely to squadron strength but determined to carry on, linked up with 1 Armoured Division until the fight was over.page 238
Though the Divisional Cavalry had been used as a trial-and- error (mostly error) method of finding minefields and as a screen to go ahead and draw fire, its casualties were amazingly light, despite the fact that a Bren carrier hitting a German Teller mine means certain death for one, if not two, of the crew.
Now that the heavier armour was well launched, the regiment, except for C Squadron which remained with the Warwicks all day, was sent back.
By 3 November it was becoming increasingly plain that the great Battle of Alamein was nearly over. True, there were still tank battles going on in other sectors of the line, but the columns of smoke in the enemy's rear could not all be caused by the Royals' armoured cars which had been gatecrashing again. The enemy shelling was definitely spasmodic and A Squadron of Div Cav had actually had some of its vehicles out of the north side of the salient into open country on the heels of a definite withdrawal. The battle in 30 Corps' bulge had gained its purpose, as once 10 Corps was launched it had severely mauled enemy armour both north and south of the salient. Now its 2nd and 8th Armoured Brigades had sallied out again across the Rahman track, whilst other armour had broken out further south and was thrusting north-west. The time had come for the New Zealand Division to get on wheels, burst right out, and complete a huge encirclement that would put the whole Africa Corps in the bag.
The Divisional Cavalry needed some re-equipping and, at dusk on 3 November, moved back to the south-east corner of the salient. But the idea was soon dropped as time was too short, and the squadrons went back to the middle of the salient and stocked up with all the petrol and water they could carry. The regiment again came under command of 9 Armoured Brigade until the advance was well under way. At 9 a.m. on the 4th, the first move forward began when the brigade was ordered to deploy ready to move west. There were not enough gaps for the Division to pass through and the congestion inside the salient certainly seemed dangerous. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade, the Divisional Cavalry, and 5 New Zealand Infantry Brigade, more or less nose to tail, were slowly milling round in huge concentric circles on flat and featureless ground. It page 239 would have been a perfect massed target for enemy bombers but they had all been beaten into the ground by the RAF. Many a veteran of the Greece and Crete campaigns had vivid memories that morning of previous experience when the enemy then had command of the skies. Gradually the crowding eased and by 2 p.m. Div Cav was out in the open and following the line of pursuit to the south-west.
After five months of being caged in, tighter and tighter, the Army was out once more on the offensive, with elbow room for everybody and clean ground to fight on. It was here in the open that the utterness of the victory was realised. To the north there was still some armoured fighting, but it was a running battle and running into the west, the right way. To the south and east there were groups of enemy, lost and disorganised and waiting for someone to ‘capture’ them, tell them where to go, give them water, just show interest. Some of these had actually organised themselves into bodies and were wandering off in a general easterly direction. Occasionally a motor-cycle or a truck came up, using its white flag more as a means of attracting attention than as a sanctuary. Their defeat was utter when such people were completely ignored or were merely shooed off by a casually indifferent thumb over the shoulder. Tanks, guns, trucks, all looking broken and beaten—so lifeless—littered the desert in places. Even coming through the regiment's forward wireless link was a disconsolate Italian voice bawling like a motherless calf, hour after hour, for ‘Numero Otto e Numero Sei’. But for all anyone cared, No. 8 and No. 6 had had bullets through their heads.
Across this despondent wailing came a message to all squadrons: ‘Move on as the axis advances.’ One operator cheerfully added a note to his log: ‘Move on as the Axis retires!’ So all these: soldiers confounded and amazed, disorganised vehicles, bleating Ities and beaten Huns; all were left to look after themselves; for the race was on to complete the victory and surround the lot. Before this was fully realised, night had fallen and Div Cav was in laager at a place called Agramiya, 20 miles south of Daba, led there by the glow of a burning truck which had suffered in some skirmishing a little while before.
The whole Division was rolling forward again before first light on the 5th, with the regiment acting as a flank guard to the north. The axis of advance was parallel with the coastline, and the first object of the Division was to take charge of the high ground behind Fuka and then, perhaps the following day, page 240 to secure the landing ground at Baggush. So fast did the advance continue on that day that Colonel Sutherland, whose tank broke down, had either to delegate his command to Major Handley or lose touch through being beyond wireless range; and once the tank was repaired, it took Sutherland a whole day to catch up with RHQ, despite the fact that the whole advance was checked for a while by an enemy rearguard action, and by a delay south of Fuka when the whole Division had to pass through the defile of a minefield running south from that place.
Orders for the 6th were for the New Zealand Division and 4 Light Armoured Brigade to advance swiftly, seize the defensive box at Baggush, and garrison the landing ground until the RAF could take over. This time Div Cav acted as forward screen.
Dawn had revealed a suspiciously clear atmosphere and it was not surprising later in the morning to encounter an occasional heavy shower of rain. This, however, did not have any immediate effect on the advance, and within an hour after midday, the regiment's patrols were on the prominent trig point 163 overlooking Sidi Haneish. Twelve months before, some of the men had been sent up to the escarpment to occupy as pickets the line of pillboxes at this very same place, as this was on the southern edge of the Baggush Box. At nights they used to grouse bitterly at the apparent futility of guarding against an enemy raiding party from the south when he was assuredly a hundred miles away on the other side of the Egyptian border. Little did they ever imagine swooping down on it from the south themselves.
Some of the B Squadron carriers drove straight across the aerodrome and down the escarpment on to the main road, whilst troops of C Squadron found their way down further east. The enemy had occupied quite a large area round Sidi Haneish, and very soon reports were coming back that Div Cav patrols were beginning to ferret out various Germans and Italians who had been, or elected to be, left behind. These prisoners were despatched back along the main road under their own initiative as soon as they were collected into parties of reasonable size. B Squadron released about 500 prisoners from the Indian division who were in the prisoner-or-war cage at Sidi Haneish, and then went back to make a hasty search of broken-down tanks, trucks and aircraft. The men did not allow their personal interest in such articles as binoculars, cameras and pistols—no doubt quite a strong interest—to blind them to the significance of a quantity of interesting documents which page 241 they collected and passed back via 9 Armoured Brigade headquarters. As far as the regiment was concerned, the most interesting find of the day were the quantities of aviation petrol, sufficient to give the whole regiment a complete fill up and thus retain mobility just at a time when replenishment was very difficult.
By mid-afternoon the suspicions aroused by the clear morning materialised in the form of a rainstorm which quickly attained the dimensions and intensity of a cloudburst; it was accompanied, moreover, by a curious radio phenomenon. All the operators had been noticing a regular click in their receivers. The tempo of this click gradually increased to a buzz which upset reception, and then, a minute before the rain really came down in earnest, it increased to a roar which, for about half an hour, blotted out everything.
By the time it was over, the squadrons were able to report that they were refuelled and ready to go anywhere, so the whole regiment set off hot-foot up the main road towards Mersa Matruh, with the Ford motors of the carriers roaring their delight at this new-found stimulation, and the big Continental motors of the tanks ‘pinking’ sorely in disgust at the ersatz petrol that was being fed to them. The leading squadron managed to get only about three miles up the road when the whole regiment was ordered to turn left up the escarpment to make contact with 9 Armoured Brigade. Here the B Squadron carrier men, who had driven merrily across the Sidi Haneish landing ground, were given over to more sober thought on the arrival of RHQ, because an admonition of caution came down to them when the adjutant's tank was blown up on a mine.
As evening approached, the rain showed no signs of abating. The surface of the desert had greedily soaked up the rain for half an hour, but great sheets of water were now beginning to form and there were quite substantial rivers running down the wadis. Everybody was wet to the skin and a dismal night was obviously approaching, since there was no possible chance of finding a place to erect bivvies. Most of the tank crews elected to sleep inside their tanks, huddled in the corners to escape the drips, while the carrier crews drew their tarpaulins over the tops of the vehicles and snuggled in round the motor compartments.
The rain was so persistent that on the following morning, the 7th, to look across the face of the desert was to see a mass of vehicles bogged down to the axles. The Divisional Cavalry page 242 was the one exception since it, by happy chance, had halted on some rocky ground and along the tarmac road leading to the landing ground. So, with its vehicles high and dry and its fuel tanks brimming, it was in an enviable state. But the rest of the Division was anchored, and there was nothing that Div Cav could do except to move across to the high ground at Point 163. There the crews were able to take a most welcome spell, and since the rain was beginning to abate, to indulge in a wash and a clean up. About dusk HQ Squadron arrived, the men very proud of being the first New Zealand B Echelon to get out of the bog a few miles away.
The 8th November dawned clear and sunny and the surface of the desert began to dry out quickly, so that by midday practically all the wheeled vehicles could move. The drive westwards was on again. The Divisional Cavalry was still attached to 9 Armoured Brigade and pushed on to a forming-up point about a mile north of Minqar Qaim to laager behind the heavier Grants and Shermans, many of them still down to their bellies in the sloppy desert. They still could not move the next morning, and Div Cav had to sit and watch the whole of the rest of the Division, with General Freyberg in the lead, roll by, heading for Charing Cross. The regiment did not get much further than here by nightfall as, much to its disappointment, it was not sent on ahead until after midday; and when on the morning of 10 November it was heard that the regiment was to revert to the command of the Division, it really set out to cover some ground. Indeed, 21 miles were covered before breakfast. The Division was making for Sidi Barrani with all speed, and Div Cav had to make up arrears of lost ground regardless of the fact that all vehicles were seriously in need of maintenance. The bounds that the leading squadron made were rather prodigious, so that by nightfall the regiment had almost covered a whole map and was ten miles west of Sidi Barrani when the time came to form into laager.
Halfaya Pass fell to a surprise infantry attack during the night and soon the Division and 4 Light Armoured Brigade were beginning to stream up the winding road. The Divisional Cavalry arrived at the bottom of the pass about midday and, for the first time in many days, had to wait. The whole Division had to negotiate the pass in single file. The regiment was at the top at 4.30 p.m. and immediately made a fast move to Capuzzo, and then along the Trigh Capuzzo to within three miles of Sidi Azeiz.page 243
Once again there came up from under the tracks that lovely sweet smell of crushed thyme that had, the year before, made the desert seem such a place of beauty. It now looked surprise- ingly modernised, with a railway running right across the landscape. Nevertheless everybody talked and thought of the year before; of scavenging—looting if you will—round the deserted enemy dugouts, of all the funny things that happened, for one is inclined to forget quickly the painful things; of how ‘Chook’ Fowler and Ted Andrews tried out a 2-inch mortar and landed a bomb right amongst RHQ; how Captain Van Slyke used to go out at night to ‘milk Gretchen’ for his visitors and come back with a bucketful of liquid more vinous than bovine.
The westward sweep continued the next day and Div Cav formed the divisional screen, with A Squadron driving along the top of the escarpment and the other two abreast of the main road. The spirit of the chase was somewhat damped near the 88 Kilo peg, on the way to Gambut, when enemy mines engendered more caution upon B and C Squadrons. Firstly a New Zealand Engineers' lorry, following C Squadron Headquarters, accidentally cleared a mine by the quick means when its wheel, swinging for a moment off the tarmac, found a mine which sent it flying. A moment or so later B Squadron had two men killed on the same minefield. Its carrier troops were deploying out to the right of the road and making haste to get up into line when one of the carriers blew up, killing Sergeant McGlashan20 and Lance-Corporal Ballantyne.21
Gambut proved to be the regiment's westernmost limit for the time being, as the Division had now halted to take a week or two's rest. On 13 November one patrol scouted west for about ten miles without incident. The Gambut aerodrome was reconnoitred and was immediately reported as clear of mines, so that the very next day, aircraft of all sorts were landing there with every appearance of having come to stay.
Five days were spent in bivouac round the Gambut roadhouse, during which time the long overdue maintenance was completed. Some new vehicles arrived up from Workshops to bring the regiment up to full strength; battledress was issued (just in time to be christened by a thunderstorm); memorial services were held; and there were some unofficial trips to Tobruk.page 244
Tobruk was now a place of filth, indescribable filth; cold, battered, dead, and desolate, it had an unhappy wind moaning through the rags and the rust, depositing dirty dust upon dirty dust as it came slinking round the husk of a building here, or over a heap of ghostly rubble there. The whole place was a miserable scrap-heap: the ort of a war.
In those few days the pursuit of the Africa Corps carried the Eighth Army away across Cyrenaica, whilst the New Zealanders were left behind to rest and gather strength. The Divisional Cavalry, no longer needed as a screen, was called back on 19 November to a more central bivouac area near Menastir. A few tents were erected, telephone lines were laid, a training directive was drawn up, football and hockey grounds were cleared and, in fact, general arrangements were made for a stay of some length.
1 Capt H. J. Lane; Kati Kati; born East Grinstead, England, 27 Dec 1912; PWD draughtsman.
13 Sgt A. Bayliss, MM; Manaia, Taranaki; born Faringdon, England, 13 Feb 1902; farmer.