CHAPTER 12 — A Hard Summer
A Hard Summer
THE Alamein defences, bounded on the north by the sea and to the south by the huge expanse of the virtually impassable Qattara Depression, lay on the very threshold of the Nile Delta and the Suez Canal, a mere 60 miles to the east—glittering prizes which Rommel pressed forward to seize before the failing impetus of his almost exhausted formations brought his advance to a halt. Here, where the vast desert wastelands of Cyrenaica and western Egypt converge to a narrow defile less than 40 miles wide, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces, decided to stand and fight for the possession of Egypt.
In the north of this line, which unlike the Gazala-Bir Hacheim defences needed no mass of armour to hold its southern extremity, 1 South African Division held the Alamein Box covering the railway and the coastal road. Twenty miles to the south-south-west lay Fortress A, a prepared defensive position on which work had first commenced in the preceding September, and here 2 New Zealand Division came after escaping from Minqar Qaim to take its part in the defence of Egypt. Another 15 miles in the same direction was Fortress B, at Naqb Abu Dweis, near the lip of the Qattara Depression, and intended in the original plans for the occupation of the Alamein Line to form the southern extremity of the defences. Fortress B was held by 5 Indian Division which, however, consisted at the time of only a few mobile columns and was so depleted that it was barely the strength of one brigade. Moreover, it had very little artillery and no water. After a few days the Indian Division was withdrawn to reorganise, and Fortress A became the southern bastion of the line. The gap between Fortress A and the Qattara Depression became the responsibility of mobile columns of 7 Armoured Division.
The 20-mile stretch of ground between Fortress A and the South African positions in the Alamein Box in the north was page 260 marked by two principal features. The first, Ruweisat Ridge, which bisected the line at right angles about eight miles north of Fortress A, was a long, low feature rising almost imperceptibly in the west and running in a low crest for 10 miles to the east, where it ended abruptly in a low bluff. It was of considerable tactical importance—from its crest the northern sector lay under direct observation—and in the ensuing weeks the struggle for its possession was to cost much blood. A short distance north of Ruweisat's western extremity lay the second feature, Deir el Shein, a small depression bounded by low steep escarpments. It formed an isolated strongpoint in the Alamein Line and was occupied by 18 Indian Infantry Brigade, which had just been brought to the Western Desert from Iraq.
The Qattara Depression itself, a perpetual and practically impassable obstacle that precluded any possibility of a serious outflanking threat in the south, is a wide expanse of salt marshes about 7000 square miles in area. These marshes, in the vast hollow which lies below sea level at depths varying between 200 and 450 feet, are covered with a crust of sand and salt which crystallises into ridged surfaces not unlike a lightly wind- ruffled sea. In summer the evaporation rate exceeds the rise of moisture from the watery layers below and the surface becomes firm, but in winter the capillary attraction is aided by decreased evaporation and occasional local rainfall, so that the crust becomes much softer. The danger of attempting to cross these marshes lies not so much in the hardness or softness of the sabakha, as the mixture of sand and salt is called, but in the depth of the marshes themselves. Where the depth is considerable the hardening of the crust is positively dangerous because the crystallised surfaces will bear little weight and heavy transport venturing to cross them would sink through into the morass below.
The first groups of New Zealanders from Minqar Qaim began to arrive in the Qattara Box area soon after midday on 28 June, and later in the day larger, more organised columns came in. By nightfall Main and Rear Divisional Headquarters, the Divisional Reserve Group, and 4 and 5 Infantry Brigades were concentrated about three and a half miles to the north-west of the Box. Divisional Signals rejoined Main Division in page 261 the area about 9 p.m., and immediately set about counting its losses which, despite the rigours of the Minqar Qaim battle, were satisfyingly small, although the non-appearance of the Adjutant with his staff and the unit office vehicle caused considerable difficulty and anxiety.
By the afternoon of the next day signal communications were stabilised and in normal working order, new call-sign row directories, column sequences and radio-telephony codes having been obtained from Main Headquarters 30 Corps. Although the signals system was able to settle down again so quickly under the executive direction of Nos. 1, 2 and 3 Companies' headquarters, which had sustained little or no dislocation during the lively events of the day before, the loss of the unit's nerve centre, as it were, represented a major disruption in its operational and administrative machinery. Not only was Lieutenant-Colonel Agar deprived suddenly and at a singularly inopportune time of his Adjutant and RSM, but he had also lost all his unit's records.
It was a situation which might have arisen perhaps half a dozen times before in the field and therefore not one on which to waste unprofitable lamentations, so the Colonel set to work to restore the position as best he might. To OC No. 3 Company, Captain Marshall, fell the task of reorganising the unit headquarters. He gathered about him a new headquarters staff and set to work to rewrite war diaries and compile casualty returns, for which he was forced to rely solely on various soldiers' statements as to when and where so-and-so had been killed, somebody else had been wounded, and so on, until names, regimental numbers, next-of-kin and all the other innumerable details were once again more or less accurately recorded. For his work at this difficult time, for his resourcefulness while acting as Signalmaster during the Minqar Qaim battle, and later for his work as OC No. 1 Company during the anxious days of July and August, Marshall was awarded the MC.
The enemy had not yet appeared, having spent the 29th capturing Matruh, from which some of the garrison escaped and made their way to the Alamein defences. But his aircraft were not tardy in putting in an appearance, and aided by the bright moonlight which flooded the desert in the closing days page 262 of June, began to harass the defenders. Fortunately their bombs caused very little damage and few casualties, although the signal office at Main Divisional Headquarters narrowly escaped destruction in the early hours of the 30th, when two bombs fell close beside its dug-in shelter, wounding one man, Signalman Bevin,1 putting several lines out of order, and shaking the interior of the office like a dice box, so that switchboards, Fullerphones, and other movable installations were thrown violently about in wild disorder.
The Division came under the command of 13 Corps on the 30th, and by the late afternoon Main Divisional Headquarters, from its new position at Deir el Munassib, was in communication with Main Headquarters 13 Corps by Fullerphone superposed on speech circuits, and with Tactical Headquarters 13 Corps and Headquarters 7 Armoured Division by speech circuits. In the rear two control sets at Main Headquarters 13 Corps worked forward to Main Headquarters 2 New Zealand Division, 7 Armoured Division, 5 Indian Division and 1 Armoured Division by wireless telegraphy, and to Tactical Headquarters 13 Corps, Main New Zealand Division, 7 Armoured Division, 1 Armoured Division and 5 Indian Division by radio telephony. Forward of Main Divisional Headquarters the usual divisional communications consisted of Fullerphone telegraph circuits superposed on speech circuits to 4, 5 and 6 Infantry Brigades, wireless communications on the RT net working forward from the A control set to 4 and 5 Brigades, and wireless-telegraphy communication working forward from the B control set to Divisional Cavalry in the outpost line. From the C control set wireless communication was also available to the NZASC supply column and Rear Divisional Headquarters. The usual Divisional Artillery wireless communications were provided from a No. 11 control set at Headquarters Divisional Artillery working forward to No. 11 sets at the headquarters of 4, 5 and 6 Field Regiments.
Late in the afternoon of the 30th the enemy put in his first appearance on the ground when a strong concentration of his advanced elements was reported to be only 12 miles north of page 263 the Qattara Box. His main advance, however, appeared to be directed south of the coastal road. He opened his assault on the morning of 1 July with an attack on 1 South African Division in the Alamein Box, but the defenders, by this time well entrenched, beat him off. His second attack, this time on the Indian positions at Deir el Shein, gained ground, however, and by nightfall the strongpoint was overrun.
The situation at this time was considered to be precarious and fraught with peril for Eighth Army, behind which nothing lay to bar the enemy's approach to the Delta. The general expectation was that, should he penetrate the Alamein defences, he would split his forces and attempt to seize Alexandria and Cairo simultaneously. In order to meet these possibilities, a plan of withdrawal was issued in preparation for the manning of rearguard positions at Burg el Arab, near the coast 25 miles west of the outskirts of Alexandria. Eighth Army's main formations were then to pass back through the rearguard and take up positions covering Alexandria and the Delta, leaving on their way another rearguard at Alam Shaltut, which lay midway between Burg el Arab and the northern end of Wadi Natrun, 40 miles to the south-east. Divisional Cavalry and 5 Brigade were to be part of the Burg el Arab rearguard, and the rest of 2 New Zealand Division was to pass along the coastal area, bypass Amiriya, and move down the Alexandria-Cairo desert road to Wadi Natrun.
It was a disquieting document, this withdrawal plan, and it was not well received in the Division, but later, in the afternoon, an amending order arrived which sought in its preamble to allay any fears that may have been aroused by the implications contained in its predecessor. It said: ‘Nothing contained in this order is to be interpreted as a weakening of our intentions to hold the present positions, or as an indication that our efforts have or are likely to fail.’ The morale-building process continued shortly afterwards with a message which stated that it was not expected that the plan of withdrawal would have to be put into operation.
It was at this stage that the Commander-in-Chief decided to relinquish the prepared positions of Fortress A and Fortress B because of the absence of armour to support their garrisons, page 264 which he feared might be isolated and destroyed by a sudden and concentrated enemy attack. The New Zealand Division, therefore, was ordered to withdraw its 6 Brigade from the Qattara Box. The 5th Indian Division was also being withdrawn from Fortress B, and it was at this stage that the New Zealanders became the most southerly formation in Eighth Army's main front.
A new threat in the north, however, where the enemy appeared to be concentrating for another assault against the Alamein Box, caused 6 Brigade's withdrawal from the Qattara Box to be postponed. A plan was evolved to use the Box as a pivot on which 13 Corps was to wheel north against the enemy's southern flank and attempt to divert his strength from the expected massed assault against 30 Corps in the coastal sector. As part of this plan, a strong mobile column from 4 Brigade, followed a little later by one from 5 Brigade, moved off to the north early on 2 July. A few hours later both columns were amalgamated under the command of the CRA (Brigadier Weir), who maintained wireless communication with Main New Zealand Division by means of a No. 9 wireless set detachment from A (wireless) Section.
All that day the column moved about to the east and north-east of the Alam Nayil ridge, a low feature about two and a half miles long which rose out of the desert about five miles north of the Division's positions, but encountered none of the enemy. By nightfall the column was bivouacked just to the north of Alam Nayil, where it was instructed by Main Divisional Headquarters to remain for the night and be ready next morning to support a British armoured attack planned to move westwards past the Qattara Box and then strike north in an attempt to take the enemy's positions in the rear. Early next morning a strong enemy column was observed to the north-east moving south, and the guns of the New Zealand column immediately opened fire. Soon, in response to a wireless message from the CRA asking for infantry assistance, 19 Battalion arrived on the scene. A little over two hours after the enemy was first sighted, the engagement was over; it had yielded over 300 prisoners and the greater part of the artillery of the Ariete Division had been destroyed.page 265
Among the captured material, which included five British 25-pounders, was an Italian gun tractor, of which the driver, a middle-aged Italian with a frightened and submissive manner, would not or could not answer the questions fired at him. Several New Zealanders tried to start the engine of the tractor, which the CRA regarded fondly as a legitimate trophy for his own prowess, but without success. Brigadier Weir addressed the Italian: ‘Start her up, Joe.’ But the poor fellow was too terrified to do anything but maintain a quaking silence. An interpreter, or someone who could speak Italian, was brought from somewhere and the Italian was told to ‘talk and talk fast!’ Evidently the sound of his mother tongue calmed his terror of these fierce strangers; he answered all that was required of him and then, starting up the tractor, drove it into Main Divisional Headquarters' area in the wake of the CRA's column.
Soon after this success, which the CRA's column and 19 Battalion shared between them, 5 Brigade moved quickly west of the Qattara Box and struck north at the enemy's southern flank at El Mreir, a depression two and a half miles south-west of the western end of Ruweisat Ridge. Although it failed to carry its objective, this attack, together with the destruction of Ariete's artillery, forced the enemy to regroup his forces and abandon his projected frontal attack on the South Africans in the Alamein Box.
At 9.30 a.m. on 4 July Signals lost two killed and six wounded in an air raid, in which nine Stukas suddenly appeared without warning low over Main Divisional Headquarters' area and dropped their bombs on the too closely grouped transport. Signalman Yates,2 Major Smith's batman, who was sitting on the side of his slit trench talking to a British gunner from a nearby medium battery, was killed by a bomb which fell directly in the slit trench. There was no trace of the British gunner, who must have been killed too; nor was he identified.
Lieutenant Digby Cooper, who commanded F Section at Headquarters 5 Field Regiment, was on his way to Headquarters Divisional Artillery when the Stukas swept in over Main Divisional Headquarters' area. He had been asked just page 266 a short time before the raid to go to the artillery headquarters to discuss some problems relating to signal equipment in 5 Field Regiment. Soon after the raiders had gone Captain Borman, OC No. 2 Company, received a telephone call from Corporal R. Hulford, at F Section, who said: ‘Mr Cooper has been killed, sir.’ Borman and Signalman Glensor3 took their truck and searched for Cooper, whom they found where the greatest weight of bombs had fallen; he was lying on the ground midway between his undamaged truck and a slit trench about twenty yards away, to which he had apparently been running. He had died from several wounds received in the explosion of a bomb at close quarters. Cooper had been a happy, pleasant, well-liked young officer, and he was sorely missed for a time, not only in F Section but in the Signals officers' mess, where his stories, always clean and always funny, and his outrageous puns and quips never failed to raise a ripple of amusement. In F Section he had been immensely popular with the men and also with the commander of 5 Field Regiment, who rated highly his abilities as a Signals officer.
Two hours later a flight of Meiios—those sinister, swift fighters which seemed never to run out of cannon ammunition however long their unwelcome stay—came in suddenly from the west and lashed the area with a hail of fire which killed Lance-Corporal Anderson,4 a driver in Administrative Section, and mortally wounded Signalman Bain,5 an A Section operator, who died a few days later. Rob Anderson, a First Echelon soldier, was another favourite—a quiet, well-mannered fellow with an awkward gait and a slow, hesitating mode of speech —and the despair of all the unit's RSMs and CSMs, none of whom had ever been able to teach him to march or keep in step in a squad of men.
During the next few days a general movement westwards in preparation for an attack north-westwards took place, and 6 Brigade, which had been withdrawn from the Qattara Box, returned and reoccupied it on 5 July. Fifth Brigade was still page 267 south of El Mreir; because of heavy opposition it was unable to get across to its northern side. On the 5th 4 Brigade was brought around to the south-west of El Mreir, and two days later moved north and drew level with 5 Brigade on its right. These moves brought both brigades into a position designed to lend support to a British armoured attack on the western end of Ruweisat Ridge, but during the afternoon of the 7th the threat of an enemy armoured attack from the west caused 4 Brigade to withdraw again to the south. Meanwhile a British armoured attack by 30 Corps in the north, planned to push westwards while the New Zealanders and Indians were creeping up on the enemy's rear from the south, was postponed. The net result was that the enemy was left in firm possession of the ground west of Ruweisat Ridge. Moreover, he had strengthened his positions between the western end of Ruweisat and El Mreir by stiffening his Italian formations there with German infantry. The New Zealand Division was now in an uncomfortably exposed position and likely to be isolated should the enemy make a thrust south-eastwards towards Deir el Munassib from Ruweisat, so orders were given for an immediate move eastwards to positions on a shortened Corps front.
By early morning on the 8th the Division was back in the Deir el Munassib-Deir Alinda area after a very difficult night move. Sixth Brigade left the Box again that day and moved east to a reserve position from which it moved back to Amiriya in reserve next day.
The Division's positions faced north, with 5 Brigade just to the south of Deir Alinda, the Divisional Reserve Group in the centre, and 4 Brigade on the left at Muhafid, a large depression about three miles to the north-east of Munassib.
Next day the Italians stormed the Box with a grand display of bravado and captured it easily, mainly because it was quite empty, although this did not detract from a noble feat of Italian valour. Major-General Kippenberger has recounted how he watched this attack, and ends by saying that ‘It was all very pretty and I was sorry someone was not there to deal with it properly’.
On the evening of the next day the enemy moved in between Deir Alinda and the high plateau a few miles to the south, and page 268 there was a brief squabble with 21 Battalion. That night 5 Brigade moved east through 4 Brigade's positions to get out of an uncomfortable position. There was a good deal of jumping about from place to place at this time, but the signs were that some sort of stability had returned and that the critical phase which marked the opening days of July was easing to some extent. British armour had swept the enemy from Alam Nayil ridge and remained there in firm possession, watching the area south of Ruweisat Ridge from hull-down positions. A good deal of precious time, which in those anxious days was the very essence of success, had been gained to give Eighth Army a breathing spell, and this enabled both armour and infantry to pick up new strength and shake down into a better state of organisation.
On the 14th, a few minutes before midnight, Main Divisional Headquarters settled down again after a series of short moves which had brought it around the eastern end of Deir el Muhafid and then north-westwards in general conformity with the movements of 4 and 5 Brigades, which at that moment were moving forward in an attack planned to capture the central and western portions of Ruweisat Ridge. This new position of Main Headquarters, in a shallow depression about three and a half miles east of Alam Nayil, had just been vacated by Headquarters 5 Brigade.
The attack, under 13 Corps, was the culmination of several planned assaults which, during the previous ten days, had either been postponed or dropped altogether for a variety of reasons. It consisted of a three-brigade night operation, with 4 NZ Brigade on the left striking for the western end of the ridge, 5 NZ Brigade in the centre directed onto the central portion, and 5 Indian Brigade on the right to capture the eastern end. Zero hour was 11 p.m., and an hour earlier Headquarters 5 Brigade moved off to the start line; with it went—or rather, was intended to go—a B (cable) Section detachment to extend the Main Divisional Headquarters' line forward behind Brigade Headquarters as it went. Similarly, Divisional Signals extended its Corps and Rear Divisional Headquarters' lines forward as it moved up from Muhafid to occupy 5 Brigade's page 269 old location. Very much the same sort of arrangement occurred at Headquarters 4 Brigade, where another B Section detachment temporarily attached to J Section carried the Main Division-4 Brigade line forward as Brigade Headquarters moved.
This method of moving along line laid on the divisional axis of advance and extending the lines as the leading brigades advanced, or alternatively waiting until the leading brigades halted and then sending the lines forward quickly, was later to become the standard and well-tried drill of taking communications forward to leading elements with the least delay possible. It had a tremendous advantage over the usual wasteful method of putting cable on the ground and then having to take it up again quickly whenever a brigade moved, but an essential condition to its successful employment was, of course, that Main Divisional Headquarters and the brigades should move along a predetermined axis of advance and not scurry around between widely divergent points as they had been doing, quite unavoidably, during the last two weeks.
So far as 5 Brigade's part in the attack was concerned, the line communication plan went wrong quite early, in fact before the brigade passed the start line. From Deir Umm Aisha the 5 Brigade-22 Battalion line ran north-westwards towards the start line; it was this line that was to be joined on to the Main Divisional Headquarters-5 Brigade line and thus become part of the divisional artery. Actually, a D Section signal office detachment arrived at Headquarters 5 Brigade before it moved off from Deir Umm Aisha at 10 p.m. and installed an exchange there in readiness for Main Divisional Headquarters' arrival about midnight.
Just before Headquarters 5 Brigade moved off from Deir Umm Aisha towards the start line, where it would assemble behind 22 Battalion, a fault appeared suddenly on the 22 Battalion line, which was later to become part of the Main Division-5 Brigade artery. By this time—about 10 p.m.—the K Section line detachment was away taking up the 21 and 23 Battalion lines, so Captain Dasler, the section commander, led the attached B (cable) Section detachment forward to find the fault, leaving Sidey, his second-in-command, in charge of the section. The fault was soon traced and rectified, but Dasler, page 270 instead of turning back and rejoining Headquarters 5 Brigade at once, continued on and led the detachment towards the start line. Very soon another fault appeared on the line. Leaving the detachment standing, Dasler took one of its linemen in his own truck and went back along the line to locate the fault which, however, remained undetected. As he previously had made careful arrangements for Signals at Main Divisional Headquarters to maintain the line forward—this was a Main Headquarters' responsibility and there was no need for special arrangements—he turned back again to rejoin the B Section party, but lost his way in the darkness and did not reach it until daylight.
Meanwhile Headquarters 5 Brigade had reached the start line and found no trace there of the B (cable) Section detachment which was to extend its Main Division line forward with it. A foot party from K Section, equipped with a drum barrow and three miles of single D Mark III cable, had already gone forward from the start line and was laying a line behind 22 Battalion, which was moving behind the two assaulting battalions. This party rang back just before Brigade Headquarters moved off from the start line and reported that it had laid two and a quarter miles of cable along the brigade axis. The purpose of this was to enable the battalions, when they reached their objectives, to locate the cable on the brigade axis, extend it to their battalion headquarters, and so gain immediate line communication with Brigade Headquarters. But Brigade Headquarters did not move on the same bearing as that taken by the foot party, so that soon after it left the start line it had no line communication either to Main Divisional Headquarters or to its forward battalions, even had they been able to find the cable in the darkness and the confusion of battle.
The third of the unlucky incidents which were to render Dasler's signal plan so ineffective now occurred. K Section's cable detachment had been left at Deir Umm Aisha to reel in 21 and 23 Battalions' old lines. This job completed, it was then to move to the start line and travel behind Brigade Headquarters, taking up as it went the cable laid by the drum barrow party on foot. It was one of the intricacies of the signal plan that this detachment, moving behind Brigade Head- page 271 quarters, was to reel up the forward cable and send it forward at intervals in another vehicle to the drum barrow party to eke out its three miles and so provide enough to reach the battalions' final objectives, six miles away on the ridge. However, K Section's line detachment's cable-laying apparatus broke down while the 21 and 23 Battalions' lines were still being reeled in at Deir Umm Aisha, with the result that the detachment did not reach the start line in time to catch Brigade Headquarters before it moved off, which was about 11.20 p.m.
Wireless communications also had a brief and unhappy existence that night. The generator in the No. 9 set on the Main Divisional Headquarters' rear link developed a fault, but communication was quickly restored by the substitution of a No. 11 set working back to the C control set at Main Division on the divisional master frequency. But this was not entirely a satisfactory substitute. At Main Headquarters the A control set, which controlled the forward brigade group, was located quite close to the G office and was therefore readily accessible to the G staff; the C control set, on the other hand, was stationed some distance away. Inevitably there were delays while the GSO 1 (Colonel Gentry) stumbled in the darkness towards an unfamiliar set, and this caused considerable exasperation and impatience both at Main Divisional Headquarters and at Headquarters 5 Brigade. Moreover, Headquarters 5 Brigade was deprived of its lateral wireless communication to Headquarters 4 Brigade on its left.
The wireless communications within 5 Brigade itself, which were normally provided by a No. 11 control set at Brigade Headquarters working forward to No. 11 terminal sets at the headquarters of each battalion, were drastically modified for this operation to conform to an order that no transport was to move with the assaulting battalions. These terminal No. 11 set, which included one located with Headquarters 6 Field Regiment, moved with the A Echelon transport immediately behind the Brigade Headquarters group, and their usual places with battalions were taken by No. 18 sets working back to a No. 18 control set installed in the staff car of the Brigade Major (Major Fairbrother), who had to assist him a regimental signaller from 22 Battalion. The intention was that the No. 11 page 272 sets should go forward and take up their normal tasks after the battalions had reached their objectives on the ridge.
In 1942, however, No. 18 sets were unreliable instruments, owing chiefly to the advanced stages of deterioration in the dry cell batteries which were then supplied in the Middle East to operate them. ‘Tropicalised’ battle batteries, that is, batteries with hermetically sealed containers to prevent excessive evaporation of their exciting fluids in tropical countries, had not then reached the Middle East, and units had to make do to the best of their ability with the ordinary unsealed batteries which, more often than not, had almost expended their ‘shelf life’ in some remote ordnance store before they reached units in the field.
The batteries of the No. 18 sets in 5 Brigade—and probably the other two brigades too—were all ‘new’ ones. They were part of a batch, barely sufficient for his needs, that Dasler had received three days before from Divisional Signals' Quartermaster (Captain Waters), who like quartermasters the world over, was concerned not so much with the inward efficiency of the various items of equipment which passed through his hands as with their outward appearance, which he expected to tally as closely as possible with the description entered on his indent vouchers. These that he gave Dasler were beautiful batteries, resplendent in bright paper labels of red and blue and with shiny brass terminals, but inanimate as dry bones at their useless hearts. Dasler took them to his electrician and had them tested to gauge the veracity of their labels which said that each contained sixty lively volts. But they were useless, so he sent Sergeant Eadie6 back to Rear Divisional Headquarters to procure some more. There was none, however, the Quartermaster having dispensed his meagre stocks to other sections. The battalions said those that Dasler had would do and took them away.
Repairing a line, Tripolitania
Divisional HQ signal office in action. J. H. Penney, R. C. Bennett and J. Sherborne are in front, with M. A. Curry and R. M. Green behind
Thus, from the very beginning of the attack, Headquarters 5 Brigade had a none too satisfactory substitute wireless link and no line communications whatever to Main Divisional Headquarters, although a resolute attempt by Sergeant Eadie, of K Section, to restore the latter very nearly succeeded. The time—which cannot be determined with any accuracy—was probably several hours after the advance commenced. Eadie took a jeep and made his way back to the start line, along which he moved in a south-westerly direction searching for the Main Division-4 Brigade line, which he knew must lie somewhere close at hand. After a time he came across a cable and, teeing-in with a field telephone, heard Corporal H. L. Smith, a line- man of E Section, talking to Colonel Gentry, the GSO 1 at Main Division. Eadie knew or guessed that E Section had teed-in 4 Field Regiment on 4 Brigade's line, but in any case the fact that the GSO 1 was on the line was sufficient for him to identify it as the Main Division-4 Brigade circuit. He disconnected his telephone, teed-in a cable in place of it, and led the wire back to Headquarters 5 Brigade, where he informed Brigadier Kippenberger that he could now talk to Main Division by telephone. Before the Brigadier could use it, however, the line went dead.
By first light all three battalions of 5 Brigade were on the ridge and preparing to dig in. The 22nd Battalion was intact, and so was the 23rd, but the 21st, which had become split into several parties in an encounter with enemy tanks during the advance through the enemy outpost line, was widely dispersed, and its CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Allen, formerly commander of Divisional Signals, had been mortally wounded. Accompanied by a 23 Battalion sergeant, Allen was returning to the rear to bring up his reserve companies when he stumbled on to an Italian strongpoint which had been bypassed during the page 274 advance. He received four bullet wounds in the chest and died that afternoon at a medical post near 4 Brigade's positions at the western end of the ridge.
The supporting armour which was to have come up at first light did not put in an appearance, and soon after dawn German tanks swept in in a counter-attack from the south-west and completely overran 22 Battalion.
Meanwhile Headquarters 5 Brigade, which had halted two miles south of the ridge, had come under heavy fire and had been forced to withdraw about two miles south to a shallow depression which was later to become widely known as Stuka Wadi. It was here, a short time later, that Dasler and the lost B (cable) Section detachment rejoined the headquarters and restored line communication to Main Divisional Headquarters.
Throughout the day persistent attempts were made by various people at Headquarters 5 Brigade to get through to the ridge, but all were beaten back by fire which swept the intervening ground from the direction of El Mreir. Dasler had already assembled Corporal Barron's7 line detachment and a No. 11 wireless set detachment, and had gone forward as far as the enemy's fire would permit in readiness to seize the first opportunity of reaching the ridge and so establishing communication between the infantry there and Brigade Headquarters. Dasler had previously asked permission from the Brigade Major to go forward, but Fairbrother refused, saying that the brigade Intelligence Officer, Captain McPhail,8 was trying to find a route through in a Bren carrier.
From their position near an artillery forward observation post, Dasler and his two detachments watched McPhail's carrier moving to and fro across the front looking for a gap through which to reach the ridge. Some time passed and, as it was apparent that the IO's efforts to get through were not meeting with much success, Dasler turned and took his line and wireless detachments back to Brigade Headquarters, where he was greeted by the Brigadier with the question: ‘What the page 275 hell are you doing here now, Dasler?’ Stung into quick resentment by this reception, Dasler jumped into his jeep and headed back again, still followed by Barron and the wireless detachment. By this time the Brigadier had seen that the Indians on the right had succeeded in clearing out resistance below the ridge, so Dasler swung eastwards and finally reached the ridge through the Indians' positions. He reached 23 Battalion and immediately established wireless communication with Brigade Headquarters.
It was then that Dasler learned of Lieutenant-Colonel Allen's mortal wound, so he set off in his jeep towards 4 Brigade, at the western end of the ridge, with the object of seeing the Colonel, who was reported to be in an RAP there. About 4 p.m. he reached Headquarters 4 Brigade, where he hoped to learn of the whereabouts of the RAP. Soon after his arrival Brigadier Burrows9 received a message from his infantry that they were being heavily attacked by armour. Hearing the Brigadier inquiring anxiously about his anti-tank guns, Dasler came forward and said that there were about fifty tanks over the ridge in the rear. The Brigadier asked him to go immediately and get support from them as quickly as possible. Dasler drove back quickly and reaching the first tank, which was about 200 yards from Headquarters 4 Brigade but on the southern side of the ridge, climbed up on it, asked for the armoured brigade commander, and was directed to another tank some distance away. The brigade commander stated that he couldn't move his armour, but would send a reconnaissance officer forward, which so infuriated Dasler that he retorted that it ‘would be a bloody waste of time’. Jumping into his jeep, he drove back again across the ridge towards 4 Brigade, whose area by this time was enveloped in such a curtain of fierce fire that he was forced to return to 23 Battalion, farther along the ridge. There he picked up Barron's line detachment and made his way back towards Headquarters 5 Brigade, meeting on the way Brigadier Kippenberger and Captain McPhail, page 276 who were going forward to the ridge. Dasler reported what he had seen to the Brigadier and continued on to Brigade Headquarters.
That night 21 and 23 Battalions and the remnants of 22 Battalion were withdrawn south of the ridge, after 5 Brigade's valorous attempt to secure a lodgment there had failed. Most failures, however bitter, point useful lessons, and two important ones for Signals were brought out in this battle. The first was that terminal sets should not be separated from the headquarters they serve, which means that if they cannot be carried forward with the headquarters of battalions in trucks or carriers, they must in the last resort be manhandled. The second lesson was that the No. 18 set, at that time the only infantry-type set available, could not perform adequately the tasks of the No. 11 set, which was the only set available at that time for battalion terminals. Moreover, the No. 11 set suffers from severe limitations of performance and cannot be compared with the greatly superior equipments, such as the No. 19 high-power and No. 22 types, which came into more general use later in the war.
There was a salutary lesson, too, in the failure of line communications. Complexity in line communications must be avoided at all costs when they are to be established during night operations. K Section's plan for line communications in the Ruweisat battle was much too elaborate to hold a reasonable promise of success. There were too many things that could go wrong; most of them did go wrong, although the plan to extend the Main Divisional Headquarters' line behind Headquarters 5 Brigade as it moved forward should have succeeded and would almost certainly have done so had not the B (cable) Section detachment been sent back along the cable to locate a fault that in the normal course of events would have been traced and repaired by a detachment from Main Divisional Headquarters. The plan for providing line communications from a moving brigade headquarters to battalions fighting their way forward in darkness through an enemy outpost line was doomed to failure from the start. Moreover, Headquarters 5 Brigade did not move along the same bearing as that on which the forward artery had been laid, so whatever small page 277 chances of success the scheme had in the beginning vanished quickly as the attack progressed.
There is another and equally dismal side to the picture. The overall tactical plan for the operation was hastily prepared, with no proper liaison with the Indian brigade on the right, or with the armour that was supposed to join the infantry on the objective at first light as defence against the German counter-attack.
Besides Dasler and his line detachment, several important parties became lost during the move to the start line. A large group of anti-tank guns that was to move behind 22 Battalion lost itself in the darkness, and the brigade Intelligence Officer, who went off on his own to find the lighted start line, became separated and did not rejoin Brigade Headquarters until some time later.
In 4 Brigade's attack, which went forward on the left parallel to and simultaneously with 5 Brigade's, Brigade Headquarters was divided into two parts. Main Headquarters moved behind 20 Battalion, which as reserve battalion followed the two leading battalions, the 18th on the left and the 19th on the right. A B (cable) Section detachment, attached temporarily to J Section for the attack, moved behind Main Brigade Headquarters and extended the Main Divisional Headquarters' line forward. During the advance this line was used frequently for communication between Main Brigade and Main Divisional Headquarters. When Main Brigade Headquarters reached the objective at the western end of the ridge at first light, however, the cable detachment was halted about half a mile in the rear, having exhausted all its cable. Corporal George Sinton, one of J Section's veteran linemen, went back on foot with some more cable and was just able to make his way back to Main Headquarters 4 Brigade through the heavy enemy fire which began to fall south of the ridge. Some time passed, and still the cable detachment with the Main Divisional Headquarters' line did not appear. It was discovered later that it had been captured and its crew, together with Lieutenant Alp,10 the second-in-command of J Section, taken prisoner.page 278
Immediately upon Main Brigade Headquarters' arrival at the western end of the ridge a line was put out to 20 Battalion, but none was laid to 18 or 19 Battalions, which were digging in only three or four hundred yards from Brigade Headquarters. The only means of communication with Main Divisional Headquarters was now the No. 9 rear link set, since the B (cable) Section detachment had been captured. Apparently no attempt was made by Signals at Main Brigade to find the Main Division line, the end of which lay only half a mile away, but from Rear Brigade Headquarters, where the brigade's fighting transport and guns had been halted by enemy fire near the western end of Stuka Wadi earlier in the attack, Signalman Nilsen,11 a J Section lineman, came forward under fierce fire for two miles and repaired several breaks in the cable before he was eventually forced to retire. A little later, escorted by several Bren carriers, he made another attempt to repair the line through to Main Brigade Headquarters, but was again forced back. For these plucky attempts carried out with complete disregard for his own safety, he received an immediate award of the MM.
At Rear Headquarters 4 Brigade, halted near the north-western edge of Stuka Wadi, it soon became clear that the brigade's internal wireless communications had failed early in the attack. Nothing was ever heard from the No. 11 set at 18 Battalion, and it was believed to have been captured about dawn. The set at 19 Battalion succumbed early in the advance, when the engine of its vehicle was holed by a direct hit from a small shell, and it became separated from Battalion Headquarters; the vehicle was eventually forced by enemy fire to retire to Rear Brigade in tow behind another vehicle. The set with 20 Battalion reached the objective with the battalion, but no traffic passed between it and the control set at Main Brigade, probably because the latter had been damaged soon after dawn by a nearby shellburst while it was being removed from its vehicle and installed in a slit trench. There is some evidence to support this belief.
The only other set on the brigade forward control group page 279 was the brigade commander's reconnaissance set, manned by a J Section operator, Signalman Somerville,12 and stationed at Headquarters 4 Field Regiment. Somerville maintained a continuous listening watch on the group and called the control set at Main Brigade Headquarters every five minutes throughout the battle, but had no contact with any station on the group. At 3 a.m. he received a message from Main Brigade saying that the first objective had been captured, and a few minutes later the same message came from a station which he could not identify. From then until late in the afternoon nothing further was heard on the group until, at 5.17 p.m., Somerville heard a station using 20 Battalion's call sign calling the control set at Main Brigade at low signal strength. This call was heard also by the control set, which Somerville heard making weak answers without gaining contact. This suggests that, although the Main Brigade Headquarters' control set's receiver was working satisfactorily, its transmitter was defective. After a time the weak signals from 20 Battalion ceased altogether.
Wireless communications between Main Brigade and Main Divisional Headquarters continued without interruption until late in the afternoon by means of the No. 9 rear link set. A not unusual feature of the operation of this link was that although Signalman Byers,13 the operator at Main Brigade, had several messages calling for artillery support and replenishment of small-arms ammunition awaiting transmission, he was unable to break in on Main Division's transmissions because all the traffic coming from there had ‘P’ priority and therefore took precedence over his messages, which were in a lower category. Byers did not bother to inform the brigade staff of these delays, but altered the priority of his messages, quite on his own initiative, to ‘O ii P’ and, breaking in on Main Division's transmission, managed to get them away.
This overloading of wireless circuits with a preponderance of priority traffic to the almost complete exclusion of ordinary messages was an old defect. Notwithstanding the lessons learned in the campaigns in Greece and Crete, when high- page 280 priority messages often represented as much as 80 per cent of the total traffic handled by Signals, staff officers still persisted in marking most of their signal messages with the highest priority they were entitled to use by virtue of their various appointments. The result, of course, was chaotic and almost rendered the priority system completely useless. With the increasing use of radio telephony for operational traffic between divisional and brigade staffs, however, this nuisance was abated to a considerable extent, but important administrative traffic transmitted by wireless telegraphy continued to suffer long delays because of the abuse of priorities.
Another curious thing about this No. 9 set link from Main 4 Brigade to Main Divisional Headquarters was that all transmissions were apparently made in WT, although the range— less than nine miles—was well within the set's speech transmission capabilities. There is no evidence that the set's transmitter was faulty, except the probability that its rod aerial erected close to the slit trench in which the set was installed was too short to achieve radiation over the normal speech range.
Even as late in the war as the middle of 1942 there persisted among many formation commanders the curious belief that enemy direction-finding stations were able to pinpoint locations of headquarters by means of bearings taken on wireless sets operating at those headquarters. As a result of this quite erroneous belief, many commanders hesitated to use wireless at all in certain circumstances.14 Others often forbade the erection of high-rod aerials in the belief that a tall mast, however slender, was certain to attract the unwelcome attentions of artillery observers and low-flying aircraft.
Enemy direction-finding installations carried in the field could not pinpoint particular wireless sets. Under the best conditions the equipment available in field installations could achieve bearings correct to two degrees on either side of the true bearing; this is an error that expands to unworkable page 281 proportions as the range between the direction-finding set and the intercepted set increases. The best that enemy direction-finding could achieve, then, was to determine areas in which wireless sets were working, to detect their movements and so deduce probable movements of units, and to relate call signs to areas; but this correlation of areas and call signs could only be achieved in significant proportions when the direction-finding units were working in close collaboration with intercept units, so that as the organisation expanded in size it tended to fall farther back towards rear areas and therefore nearer to the limits of range of the smaller-powered sets on which interception was being practised. The single call-sign procedure in use in Eighth Army, daily changing of these call signs, frequencies of transmission and strength of signals, and the elaborate equipment required to determine night propagation paths of ‘sky wave’ transmissions were other important factors which restricted the value of the results achieved by enemy direction-finding and intercept units in the forward area.
In 1942 in Eighth Army it became almost axiomatic that command in battle should be maintained as long as possible by radio telephony. It gave quick results and preserved the personal touch between commanders, but an essential condition of course was that headquarters had to be kept well forward. As ranges increased or wireless conditions deteriorated, the use of radio telephony became more difficult and eventually impossible, and resort had then to be made to the ‘key conversation’ procedure at which many operators became adept in a very short time. The procedure went something like this: the staff officer, more often than not sitting beside the operator and wearing a spare set of headphones, would write his message on the back of a message form or other convenient piece of paper, putting the essential parts of it into radio-telephony map reference and appointments codes as he wrote. Sometimes, according to his facility in the use of the various codes, he would speak his message directly to the operator, who would then transmit it by telegraphy. Similarly, replies were received by telegraphy and then scanned and decoded by the staff officer.
Reference to staff officers writing ‘key conversation’ messages on the backs of message forms will probably remind readers of page 282 other curious habits. The signal message form was often put to unauthorised uses: soldiers wrote letters home and doggerel verse on their backs, and some embryo artists used them to make pencil sketches of the desert's ‘pastoral’ scenes. Others again used them for less dignified but utilitarian purposes, but staff officers used only the front of them for writing formal messages for transmission by the usual means of communication. When ‘key conversation’ messages were to be transmitted, however, officers invariably turned the form over and wrote on its back, and after a time the operators caught the habit too. They would send off the message and then, while waiting for the reply, would carefully turn their message pad over and poise their pencils.
There is one very important observation that has to be recorded concerning the evolution of wireless communications in mobile operations in 1942, and that is that the stage at which command had to be exercised in battle by means of enciphered signal messages was postponed until no other course was possible to preserve communications.
The reader, having read this digression or, according to his mood, bypassed it entirely, is invited to return to the account of 4 Brigade's misfortunes on the afternoon of 15 July. At Rear Brigade Headquarters, which was still unable to get forward to the ridge owing to the presence of enemy infantry and armour between it and Main Brigade, a spare No. 9 set brought up from Main Divisional Headquarters was added to the divisional forward control group in an effort to re-establish communications with Main Brigade. The operator was able to hear all the other stations on the group at good signal strength, but was quite unable to break in because of the stream of priority traffic passing between Main Divisional and Main Brigade Headquarters.
Meanwhile at Main Brigade, where the headquarters had been under heavy artillery and mortar fire for most of the day from enemy positions in the Deir el Shein area and to the west, all signal communications except the wireless link back to Main Division had failed completely. There were no lines to battalions, the only one that had been laid—that to 20 Battalion— page 283 having been almost completely destroyed by enemy shell and mortar fire.
At 4 p.m. the enemy launched an attack with tanks, armoured cars and infantry. It came in with great speed and, supported by heavy artillery fire from north of the ridge, completely overran all three battalions. During a lull which followed in the shelling and machine-gun fire, Captain Paterson suggested that the men should eat, and soon he and Lance-Sergeant Campbell,15 Corporal Stevenson,16 and Signalmen Gaze and Molloy17 were crouching behind a low parapet of sandbags, preparing to make a meal of tinned fruit. Paterson was on his knees and was just about to hand an opened tin to Molloy when he gave a groan and rolled over on his side, blood pouring from a wound in the crown of his head. At first Campbell and the other men thought Paterson was dead, but on finding that he still breathed, applied a field dressing.
About 6 p.m. enemy armoured cars—about three in number —entered the Brigade Headquarters' area, and after destroying all equipment and transport which could not be moved away, drove off, taking with them a number of serviceable trucks and anti-tank guns. About an hour later more armoured cars entered the headquarters' area and began to round up prisoners. Many J Section men were among them, and altogether the section was in a bad way. Both the No. 9 set and the No. 11 forward control set, together with RT codes, call-sign lists and other secret papers, had been destroyed by their operators, and the section commander was slowly dying from his head wound.
While the enemy was still rounding up the prisoners, British armour started to shell the area from the south-east, and the armoured cars immediately withdrew westwards, herding the prisoners before them. In the confusion the Brigade Commander (Brigadier Burrows), the CO 19 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell18) and the brigade Intelligence Officer evaded page 284 capture and escaped. An hour later they returned and, collecting a few stragglers and loading two vehicles full of wounded, including Paterson, made off again across the ridge towards the south-east, but when they had gone only three or four hundred yards they were intercepted again by enemy armoured cars. The party was loaded in threes onto the outside of these armoured cars, which then moved off, taking with them also the two vehicles carrying the wounded.
After about an hour's travelling the cars halted and the group bivouacked for the night. Since he had received his wound a few hours earlier, Paterson had not recovered consciousness and had had no medical attention except the rough dressings applied by his men; nor were the Germans able to provide any. At first light he was found to have died during the night, and he was buried at the German bivouac, two and a half miles north-west of the Brigade Headquarters' position, by two of his signalmen who used their steel helmets to dig a shallow grave.
Thus passed one of Signals' most promising officers, a quiet, well-bred and extremely likeable fellow who had concealed considerable ability behind a restrained manner. In times of need, however, this ability had emerged and earned for Paterson the enduring respect of his seniors. One such occasion had occurred on the afternoon of 14 July, when preparations were being made for that night's attack. At Headquarters 4 Brigade, near the eastern end of the Alam Nayil ridge, a shell had burst under the command truck, killing a brigade headquarters' runner and wounding the Brigade Major, Captain Pearson.19 The Brigade Commander had been on a reconnaissance at the time, so Paterson, then the only senior officer at Brigade Headquarters, had assumed the duties of Brigade Major; he had then got in touch with the CO 19 Battalion and asked him to take command until the Brigadier's return.
Of the party which the armoured cars had rounded up, two had managed to hide themselves on the boulder-strewn slope of the ridge and finally escaped to the Division's lines. One was Brigadier Burrows, in whom the trick of evasion was page 285 beginning to become a habit, and the other was Corporal Stevenson—‘Black Jake’—of J Section. They became separated in the darkness and each made his way back independently. Black Jake had acquired a pair of white canvas shoes from somewhere, and these he put on to enable him to move silently across the wide stretches of gravel, upon which boots make a loud crunching sound in the still air of desert nights. For all his caution, however, he stumbled into a German tank harbour, where he hid for a while in the shadow of a tank, several times barely escaping detection by groups of Germans who strolled about the harbour in the darkness. Fortunately the night was dark and he was soon able to slip away unobserved and continue his march in what he thought was the general direction of the Division's positions. By a strange chance, the first vehicle he came on was that of OC No. 2 Company Signals standing in the Headquarters Divisional Artillery area at the head of the Divisional Headquarters' position.
It was about 2 a.m. when Stevenson approached the dim silhouette of what appeared to be the friendly shape of a Dodge 8-cwt truck. OC No. 2 Company was awakened by the soft crunching of cautious feet in the darkness and called out: ‘Who goes there?’ ‘It's Stevenson—Black Jake,’ came the reply.
He came in, his steel helmet tilted on the back of his head, his rifle still slung over his left shoulder, and a wide grin splitting his dark visage. Then more gravely: ‘I've come in from 4 Brigade. They're scuppered and most of J Section are in the bag.’ Sid Glensor found him a spare blanket and a packet of biscuits. Jake sank down on the running board and announced that he was pregnant. Then, with easy unconcern, he went on: ‘About an hour ago I came through a Jerry tank laager. Ran into it in the dark and hid for about half an hour. I could hear the bastards standing around talking, but I managed to get away all right.’
At daylight he was taken down to Divisional Headquarters to tell the Intelligence Officer what he knew, and then on to Divisional Signals, where Lieutenant-Colonel Agar learned for the first time of the fate of J Section and that Tom Paterson was probably dead.page 286
Main Divisional Headquarters left its location at Muhafid at 11 p.m. on the 14th, just about the time that 4 and 5 Brigades were moving off from the start line towards the German out post line which extended in some depth south of the ridge. Signals took over the signal office site just vacated by K Section, where an advanced D Section detachment had already installed an exchange switchboard. Early in the attack there were some telephone conversations between Main Division and Headquarters 4 Brigade by means of the line being laid forward behind 4 Brigade, but this communication soon broke down and contact was then maintained by radio telephony, which also soon became erratic. Because of the breakdown which had occurred in 5 Brigade's No. 9 rear-link set, contact was main tained through the C control set which, however, was not readily accessible to the G staff for RT conversations because it was some distance from the G office.
When Main Divisional Headquarters arrived at its new posi tion at Deir Umm Aisha the sounds of heavy firing could be heard, and it was soon obvious that the assaulting battalions were being strongly engaged. The sinister sound of continuous enemy mortar fire dominated the noise of battle away to the north-west, and later came the sound of tank-gun fire. In the brief intervals between the low booming of the heavier weapons, the chatter of Spandaus sounded its spiteful tenor accompani ment.
About 2.30 a.m. the codeword DOG, which denoted the capture of the outpost line, came from both brigades. Just before first light the codeword TIGER came by RT from 4 Brigade, which had captured its objective on the ridge. The situation at 5 Brigade was obscure; its Brigade Major had reported just before dawn that Brigade Headquarters was not in touch with the leading battalions but that both were probably on their objectives.
Despite the uncertainty of the situation on the ridge, Main Divisional Headquarters moved at first light along the axis of advance. The next location was to be in Stuka Wadi—just forward of the brigades' start line—but after Main Division had gone about a mile and a half it was seen that the area ahead was occupied by brigade transport in some density.page 287
Moreover, an RT report received about this time from Head quarters 5 Brigade stated that the area ahead of Main Division was under fire and that enemy armour was attacking south of the ridge. Ahead of Main Division, now moving more slowly and cautiously, could be seen the glowing tracer from tank and anti-tank guns looping swiftly to and fro in the half light in long sweeping arcs. Suddenly up went the blue flag at the head of the column in the signal to withdraw, and the whole Divisional Headquarters formation turned about and retraced its tracks to the position it had just left. This was the second time in the Division's desert fighting that Main Divisional Headquarters had executed an almost perfect right-about-turn on the march; the first had occurred near Zaafran in the Libyan battle the year before. Drivers swung hard on the wheels of their heavy vehicles and, despite their ribald com ments on the staff's methods of running a war, were very glad to turn their backs on the fire hurtling back and forth like orange meteors not far away.
During the day the infantry held their positions on the ridge under almost continuous artillery and mortar fire, but enemy activity south and west of the ridge prevented supporting weapons from getting forward and coming into action. Late in the afternoon reports reached Main Division that 4 Brigade, on the western end of the ridge, had been overrun by enemy armour. That night the GOC (Major-General Inglis) ordered 5 Brigade to withdraw from its positions and regroup south of the ridge. The withdrawal was successfully carried out and the brigade went into new positions facing north and north-west.
The outcome of this disastrous battle, fought entirely by infantry without the promised armoured support and almost completely without artillery support, was the loss of one brigade and one battalion from another brigade. Signals suffered pro portionally in the loss of both officers and twenty-two other ranks of J Section. Many of the section's vehicles, four wireless sets, and the major part of its cable were captured or destroyed. An ironical twist of circumstance sent Lance-Sergeant Shirley back into captivity after only a few days in the field with the Division, to which he had recently returned after escaping from Crete.page 288
K Section, in striking comparison, suffered only slight losses, the only casualty being Signalman Mason,20 who was killed in a bombing raid on the 15th. None of the section's vehicles or wireless sets was lost, although a considerable quantity of cable laid out on the ground during the night attack was never recovered.
On 16 July 4 Brigade, less 18 Battalion, which had suffered least of the brigade's three battalions, was ordered to Maadi Camp to be reorganised, and 6 Brigade was immediately ordered up from Amiriya where it had been in reserve. The 22nd Battalion, which had suffered most heavily in 5 Brigade, was also sent back to Maadi to reform.
The Division's task in the next attack planned by 13 Corps was the capture of the eastern tip of the El Mreir depression, and 6 Brigade was given the job. It was to have the support of the whole of the Divisional Artillery and a medium battery of Royal Artillery. In addition, 5 Brigade was to assist with mortar and machine-gun fire on the eastern end of El Mreir. To form up for the attack from its existing line running north and south, 6 Brigade had to perform a sort of ‘at the halt—right form’ movement which brought its left flank almost on to the enemy defences in the west. Headquarters 6 Brigade split into two, as 4 Brigade had done at Ruweisat; the forward head quarters, which was to follow hard on the heels of the assaulting battalions, was called Tactical Headquarters, and that which remained in the rear until the objective was captured became Main Headquarters.
The communications plan was very much the same as that for the Ruweisat operation, except for one or two slight modifi cations. The battalions' No. 11 sets, for example, were to be carried forward in carriers, which indicated that some notice was at last being taken of the lessons demonstrated by failures of communications in former battles. The Main Division-Brigade Headquarters' line was to be extended forward as Tactical Headquarters moved, a normal sort of procedure and one which presents no great difficulties so long as the cable can be adequately maintained.page 289
Cable laid out on the ground is susceptible to damage from many sources; shell and mortar fire keep the best of line detachments busy, but where armour is operating over the ground on which cables lie, lines are mangled almost beyond repair and often have great lengths torn out of them and carried away for hundreds of yards in the tracks of tanks and carriers. In sandy stretches of desert little harm occurs because the tank tracks merely push the cable under the surface, but where lines cross rocky ledges and outcrops the tracks of tanks seize them like the jaws of a giant barracuda and grind them to pieces.
From Main Divisional Headquarters two lines were laid for ward to Main 6 Brigade Headquarters, and one of these—that with the Fullerphone circuit superposed on it—was intended to be strapped through to the Tactical Headquarters' line after the objective had been taken. From Main Division a line also ran to Headquarters 5 Indian Brigade, whose part in the Corps' plan was to advance westwards along the ridge and clear the enemy from its western end. Headquarters 5 Indian Brigade was also represented on the Corps' forward radio-telephony and wireless-telegraphy groups and was therefore in lateral wireless communication with Main Headquarters New Zealand Division.
Soon after the attack commenced at 8.45 p.m. on 21 July, Tactical Headquarters 6 Brigade, which consisted of Brigadier Clifton, his Brigade Major (Major Weston21), a line detach ment, the No. 9 rear-link set and the No. 11 forward control set, a defence platoon detachment and three battalion liaison officers, set off in the wake of the attacking battalions. Com munications went wrong from the beginning. Although con tinuous RT communication was maintained with Main Division by the No. 9 rear-link set, no contact could be established with any of the three battalions, whose No. 11 sets, instead of being up with the battalions' headquarters, had been left to move with the transport columns some distance in the rear. The 26th Battalion, the right leading unit, entered the depression just before midnight, but was completely out of touch with Tactical Headquarters 6 Brigade because its transport, with whom its No. 11 set was moving, had lost direction and was page 290 halted in a minefield. The carrier in which the No. 11 set was fitted was damaged, and later returned to Main Head quarters 6 Brigade in the rear. The 25th Battalion, on the left, reached its objective at 1 a.m., but its No. 11 set was also in the rear with the transport column which, like that of 26 Battalion, lost direction and, proceeding on a course too much to the east, was halted by an enemy minefield. It was some time after the objective had been reached that 25 Battalion made wireless contact with the Brigade Commander at Tactical Headquarters Very much the same sort of thing happened at 24 Battalion, and it was some time after 2 a.m. before wireless communication between Tactical Headquarters and 24 and 25 Battalions was firmly established. No wireless contact was made during the battle with 26 Battalion.
Tactical Headquarters joined up with 24 Battalion at 3.30 a.m. and the situation appeared to be satisfactory with both 25 and 26 Battalions on their objectives. Between 4.30 a.m. and dawn, however, the enemy threw in an attack with twenty tanks and machine-gun fire, and the area, heavily congested with vehicles of 25 Battalion, which had not had time to disperse properly, was soon lit up brilliantly by burning trucks. The tanks opened fire from the north, and as it was still dark, were shooting blind at first. But very soon one of them scored a lucky hit on an anti-tank portee and set it ablaze; other vehicles quickly went up in flames and turned the area into a brightly lit target. Presently the tanks came in for the kill and rolled right over the area, with the result that Tactical Head quarters 6 Brigade and 24 Battalion were completely overrun. Some of the men escaped in vehicles, but about two hundred, who tried to make their way eastwards on foot over one and a half miles of rising ground to the nearest cover, were quickly rounded up by the enemy and marched away into captivity.
At Main Divisional Headquarters the A control set on the forward RT group last heard Tactical Headquarters 6 Brigade at 6.8 a.m. at fair signal strength; thereafter there was complete silence, and communication was never restored. During the morning a B (cable) Section detachment attempted to get forward to repair the line between Main and Tactical Headquarters 6 Brigade, but was stopped two and a half miles west page 291 of Main Headquarters by a screen of British tanks and New Zealand anti-tank guns, which would not permit it to proceed farther west. Main Divisional Headquarters instructed the detachment to remain there and act as a report centre.
At 6.50 a.m. the first news of the disaster was received at Main Divisional Headquarters from Headquarters Divisional Artillery, which had received reports from a regimental observation post. Later it was learnt that 25 Battalion had been attacked by tanks and that 24 Battalion and Tactical Headquarters 6 Brigade had been completely overrun by fifty tanks.
Sixth Brigade suffered very heavy losses in transport; the major part of Tactical Headquarters and 24 Battalion was lost, and there were also considerable losses in 25 Battalion. Signals lost fourteen men from L Section, and the section commander, Captain Laugesen, was reported to be missing. No trace of him was ever found.
In the report made later by Brigadier Clifton on the conduct of the operation, two significant comments appear under the general heading ‘Communication’. The first is: ‘… where infantry are attacking on foot by night, their sets working to Brigade should be man-handled….’ It is difficult indeed to understand why the lessons contained in the reports of 4 and 5 Brigades' commanders on the Ruweisat battle only a week before were not heeded. Certainly there were no specific instructions issued in writing by Divisional Headquarters concerning intercommunication lessons learnt during that operation, but all commanders were aware of them, and none more so than Lieutenant-Colonel Agar, who spoke to General Inglis before a divisional conference and asked him to stress to commanders that battalion No. 11 terminal sets should on no account become separated from their battalion headquarters, and that if sets could not be taken forward by other means they should be manhandled when infantry were attacking on foot at night.
The second comment in the report of the commander of 6 Brigade says: ‘…. It was intended to lay cable on the Brigade axis. With the movement of our own and enemy tracked vehicles plus normal hazards this line never operated.’page 292
Now this line, which was actually laid behind Tactical Headquarters 6 Brigade as it advanced, passed through at least one minefield gap, a defile in which the cable would inevitably have been dreadfully mangled by the transport, both tracked and wheeled, that traversed the gap in both directions that night. Certainly the danger might have been easily averted if the line had been built back to the side of the gap and in the minefield itself, but the cable-laying detachment would then have lost touch with Tactical Headquarters, which would have drawn ahead and passed out of sight in the darkness. Shell and mortar fire falling on field cable might be described as a normal hazard, and so might tracked vehicles crossing a cable in the open desert, but the danger to cable laid through a minefield gap in darkness during a battle might well have been foreseen. The failure of wireless communications in 6 Brigade's attack on El Mreir was caused by the separation of terminal sets from their headquarters and not by any neglect or omission on the part of Signals.
8 Lt-Col E. A. McPhail, DSO, MC and bar, m.i.d.; Rangiora; born Wanganui, 31 Dec 1906; bank official; CO 23 Bn 6 May-10 Jun 1944, 4 Aug-13 Oct 1944; CO 21 Bn 30 Oct 1944-25 May 1945; wounded 9 Apr 1943.
9 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Gk); Korea; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn Dec 1941-Jun 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942-Jul 1943; comd 4 Bde 27-29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul-15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug-Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul-Aug 1944; Commandant Southern Military District 1951-53; Commander K Force Oct 1953-.
14 This entry from the diary of an Operations staff officer was made during the Libyan battle of November 1941: ‘The only catch in using wireless was that Jerry quickly located every HQ by his Direction Finder and promptly shelled us. When he attacked, he made straight for HQ and bagged them before mopping up. I got over it by digging in the sets well away and only using radio for essentials when line failed and M.D.R.s were getting shot up.’