CHAPTER 13 — Rommel's Last Bid for Egypt
Rommel's Last Bid for Egypt
JULY passed into August without any signs of important activity by the enemy. His Stukas, however, continued to call several times a day. The last of each day's visits occurred with a monotonous regularity within a few minutes of the same time, just before dusk, so that the expression ‘Stuka time’ came to be widely used in the Division. When the sun was just beginning to sink below the horizon and the flies had already left for wherever they roosted for the night, to husband their energies for the infliction of the next day's torments, a restful calm seemed to settle over the divisional area. Men strolled about and chatted; others sat about their vehicles and bivouac tents and wrote letters, mended socks, and attended to the innumerable small tasks which fall to the soldier in the field who liked to preserve the outward appearances at least of civilised behaviour amid the drudgery and degradation of war; others congregated in small groups to broach twelve-ounce tins of American beer and toast eternal damnation to Jerry, the Ites, the ancient land of Egypt—and the flies. Then, as the dusk deepened, the little groups would break up, the sock menders would rise from their tasks and, without any apparent co-ordination, the men would stroll casually towards their own private slit trenches and stand above them, casting nonchalant glances from time to time at the darkening western sky. Then, too, the Bofors crews would be seen testing the elevating gear of their guns and carrying clips of 4o-millimetre shells to a handy place of readiness within their posts. This was Stuka time.
Suddenly, right on time, there came from the gloom of the western sky the low drone of aircraft engines, swelling and receding in the pulsating rhythm by which the men identified the non-synchronous motors of unfriendly aircraft at night. Now there were no men above ground except the crews of the Bofors guns, whose ugly muzzles were slowly training up and round towards the sound of the approaching raiders. From the page 294 bottom of a slit trench it was a grand spectacle. The big lumbering shapes, thirty to forty strong, trundled in over the headquarters' area, banked over slowly on to one wingtip, and then came rushing down in a screaming dive. Presently little dark blobs appeared below the planes and fell away quickly towards the ground in wide curves, and the men in the trenches took a firmer hold on Mother Earth. Sometimes they would call to each other from trench to trench. ‘Watch out, Bill, and don't get up too soon. One of the bastards has only let three go. He's going to catch the ack-ack blokes on the hop.’ Amid the roar of the raiders' engines and the whistle of the falling bombs could be heard the staccato barking of the Bofors as they pumped their tracer into a vast cone of flaming streamers, which seemed to reach to within a few feet of the marauders' bellies as they flattened out of their dives and turned clumsily towards home. All over the area were great clumps of black billowing smoke, shot with crimson barbs of flame, and the air trembled with the awful crunch of the detonations.
The raiders were gone now, and the pall of smoke and dust was starting to clear. Here and there among the acres of dispersed vehicles a few trucks—miraculously few, it seemed— burned fiercely and sent black pillars of oily smoke into the sky. Men clambered from their trenches, dusted down their clothes with open palms and threw a few rude gestures and obscene curses after the departing planes.
Although they made jokes about them afterwards, the men did not like these Stuka raids. Newcomers to the field sometimes evinced a desire to see one, but their curiosity was invariably fully satisfied after one dose of Ju87. Casualties were usually few, but generally two of three trucks were destroyed, which strangely enough always seemed to be those which carried ammunition or petrol.
At dawn each morning, almost before the first faint rays of light appeared in the east, the flies were back at their nefarious work; foul, putrid, loathsome pests that swarmed in hundreds of thousands everywhere in Eighth Army's lines—and, the men fervently hoped, in the enemy's lines too—settling on the eyes, mouths and nostrils of sleeping men, or wherever else moisture might be found, and irritating the waking ones with page 295 the ceaseless caressing and settling of their horrible mucus-laden legs. Normally placid temperaments were gradually undermined by this plague and lashed into excesses of ill-temper which even the summer heat had failed to rouse. Men went about their tasks with butter muslin and gauze veils covering their necks and faces like Tuareg tribesmen; others took refuge in the cabs of their trucks, closed the windscreens and side windows and evicted the flies already there with flit- guns. But soon the sun, beating a fierce heat on the metal bodywork, filled the cabs with a suffocating and intolerable torment, and the men were driven into the open again. At mess trucks and wherever men handled food in the open the flies swarmed about in black swirling clouds and fought for their share of food between hand and mouth. They sneaked through chinks in face nets, crept through the vents in the tops of opened cans of beer, and crawled inside open-necked shirts to suck at body perspiration beneath armpits and waist bands.
This plague had first appeared early in July, when the Division occupied a position near Munassib where some native troops had been located a little earlier. The primitive excremental habits of these people, together with old but still filthy traces of indiscriminate defecation left by Egyptian labourers who had been employed on the Qattara fortifications a year earlier, quickly bred vast swarms of flies, probably the most resourceful of their kind in the whole wide world.
At dusk the flies went away, but the heat remained. In the dug-in signal office, entirely enclosed by a heavy tarpaulin and its entrance covered with a double drape to serve as a light trap, perhaps a dozen men worked throughout the night. The atmosphere below the low canvas roof was intolerably heavy, and the operators and signal clerks perspired so profusely that the sweat trickled through their hair and ran down inside their clothes or dripped off their bent heads onto the message pads on which they wrote. It covered their hands, too, so that Fullerphone operators could hardly grasp their keys. All the elements of exasperation were there, but no one complained. At dawn these men went out again to face the flies and fight them for their breakfast, and then snatched some sleep, between page 296 Stuka raids, in their slit trenches and bivouac tents, hemmed in by curtains of gauze which kept some of the pests out and most of the heat in.
In the wireless vans it was as bad and often worse, especially in the 5 ft by 6 ft interiors of the ‘bread-vans’ where some of the No. 9 sets were installed. Here the operators on watch sat through the night, and the sweat trickled down through their hair too. It tickled their scalps and ran down their faces and left its acrid taste on their lips before it dripped off their chins and noses onto the operating benches to form little pools of water. At dawn they, too, would have to go to the mess trucks and fight for their breakfast. The flies at Alamein in July 1942 were so incredibly numerous that few of those who afterwards heard descriptions of them ever believed the sober truth.
August was a month of significant events. It brought a new commander to Eighth Army, a little man with cold eyes, restless energy, a confident demeanour and a firm belief in bowler hats for those who needed them. He went quickly but without haste from formation to formation and shot quick, terse, and unequivocal questions at the people he went to see; when he received terse and informative replies he went away pleased. His name was Montgomery and his rank Lieutenant-General; with his coming occurred the rebirth of confidence in Eighth Army and an abandoning of the now almost unconscious habit of glancing back over the left shoulder to count how many ditches there were before the last one.
The nearest ‘ditch’ at that time was at a place called Alam el Halfa, a prominent feature about 12 miles to the east of 2 New Zealand Division's positions, where 13 Corps was then busy preparing a defensive box to which it was to fall back if turned out of the Alam Nayil positions.
General Montgomery liked plain words, but ‘box’ was not one of them, and he forbade its use to describe what he said should be called a ‘defensive position’. Boxes usually had lids and no one was going to put the lid on Eighth Army if he had anything to do with it. He also disliked the expression ‘alternative positions’ and said that Eighth Army would stay where it was and fight; if it couldn't stay there alive it would ‘stay page 297 there dead’. To give force to this edict he commanded that all formations were to despatch all but essential transport to a rear area. So off went all the Division's non-essential transport to a place called swordfish area near Amiriya.
Main Divisional Headquarters moved from its position near Deir el Hima, about two miles east-south-east of Stuka Wadi, to an almost equally barren stretch of desert two miles to the north, where the Engineers were constructing great underground dugouts for headquarters offices. Here Signals' headquarters office, signal office, and officers' and mens' messes were housed in dugouts; the remaining transport, which was now reduced to twenty-three vehicles and eight motor-cycles, was dug in in open pits and camouflaged.
By this time General Montgomery was planning the defeat of Rommel. Already he had decided that Rommel would attack first. He had decided also that he would be beaten and then it would be his (Montgomery's) turn to take the offensive, which would be launched in such strength and with such determination that the Germans would be cleared out of Egypt and eventually out of North Africa. In due course he issued an order of the day to that effect. In the meantime, however, Eighth Army's task was to prepare to resist the enemy's final effort to break through to the Nile Delta and the Suez Canal.
August's second momentous event was the visit of Mr Churchill to Eighth Army's lines. He arrived at Main Headquarters 13 Corps on the 20th and there met representatives of formations and units of 2 NZ Division and other formations of the Corps. Lieutenant-Colonel Agar and Corporal H. L. Smith represented Divisional Signals at this reception, where the Prime Minister, wearing a boiler suit, pith helmet and the inevitable cigar stuck between his beetling brows and aggressive chin, greeted all with a few brief words and a handshake.
On the 31st, August's third moment in history, Rommel struck for the Delta and the conquest of Egypt. But General Montgomery had seen him coming in his mind's eye and was ready. According to him Rommel was a creature of habit who would repeat former tactics that had brought him success. Rommel vindicated this belief by striking in the south of the British line as he had done at Gazala three months before. His page 298 striking force contained nearly all his armour armour and the cream of his infantry, and its task was to break in through the British minefields in the south, move quickly east and then strike northwards to crush Eighth Army's armour, after which the isolated infantry formations might easily be dealt with before the panzers rolled easily and victoriously towards Alexandria and the gateway to the East. Of such stuff are dreams of conquest made!
Although the battle of Alam el Halfa in the opening days of September was a tense struggle for the possession of Egypt, the crucial and anxious time had already passed. The 2nd July was generally regarded as the turning point; it was then that Rommel's desperate efforts to sustain his eastward drive towards the Delta had begun to flag, and since then both sides had been methodically building up their resources for a decisive stroke. The Germans had put down defences in considerable depth behind their forward positions and were neglecting no opportunity to speed up their administrative and supply services from the ports of Tobruk, Benghazi and Tripoli. The British line at Alamein, woefully thin, was being held doggedly and stubbornly by means of thrusts against the enemy's forward defences. In this fashion during the months of July and August Eighth Army prevented Rommel from amassing enough strength for a decisive stroke, and in the first week of September inflicted on him a sharp setback. He spent his strength in a vain thrust towards the east and whittled away his armour on the British artillery and tanks snuggling comfortably in hull-down positions in front of Alam el Halfa.
This feature, instead of being an ‘alternative position’, was now the eastern bastion of Eighth Army's positions, and became the focal point of the September fighting. It was literally stiff with field, medium and anti-tank artillery, which struck hard and spitefully at the panzers as they approached from the south-west and then turned north to get behind the Alamein defences. The enemy attack began to slow up and came to a halt. Simultaneously the RAF began a series of crippling strokes against the concentrations of armour and transport. After suffering heavy losses, Rommel began to withdraw and left his wake strewn with the wrecks of tanks and soft-skinned transport. page 299 General Montgomery then attempted to close the gaps in the minefields and so block the escape route, but the Germans fought hard for survival. Finally, when the British defences had been restored and the enemy badly mauled, Montgomery called the show off. He now had his breathing space to bridge the month of September, and nothing could hinder his preparations for the counter-stroke.
In the early hours of 30 August the New Zealand brigades moved into new positions facing south in readiness to meet the expected attack. Two battalions of 5 Brigade occupied the Alam Nayil ridge and the third, the 22nd, which had just returned from Maadi, where it had been reforming and refitting after its losses at Ruweisat Ridge on 15 July, carried the line northwards from the brigade's left flank and faced east. On the right of 5 Brigade was 132 Brigade of 44 (Home Counties) Division, a formation recently arrived in the Middle East to reinforce Eighth Army. For this battle 132 Brigade was under the command of 2 NZ Division. On the right again was 6 Brigade, whose positions were not changed from their north and south line, although 25 Battalion—the southernmost unit— carried out vigorous patrolling to the south-west.
The New Zealand Box, as it was called despite the Army Commander's dislike of the term, was closed on the north, at some distance, by 5 Indian Division, to the north of whom again were the South Africans. The New Zealand defences, therefore, were the most southerly of Eighth Army's fixed positions.
The Division's part in the plan to cause ‘alarm and despondency’ in the ranks of the Panzerarmee Afrika was an attack designed to strike southwards against the northern flank of the enemy's column, of which the head was halted under the guns of Alam el Halfa on 3 September. The general pattern of the attack was a thrust southwards by 5 Brigade and 132 Brigade to objectives which stretched from Muhafid in the east to Deir Alinda, a mile or so to the west. From 6 Brigade 26 Battalion was to move south and west to secure 132 Brigade's right. Behind Alam Nayil the Divisional Artillery, built up to twice its normal strength with Royal Artillery field and medium page 300 regiments, reared its 144 ugly snouts towards the south, to lend its thunder to the brawl when the enemy mounted the inevitable armoured counter-attack at dawn.
Signals' plan was simple but comprehensive. Two line circuits ran from Main Divisional Headquarters to Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade, near the eastern end of Alam Nayil, and two others to 6 Brigade, three miles to the west. The B (cable) Section detachment with K Section was to extend one of the Main Divisional Headquarters' lines behind 5 Brigade as it moved, and then lay a second line back to Rear Headquarters 5 Brigade to join up with the second Main Divisional circuit. From there, that is, from Rear 5 Brigade, it was to set off on the most difficult and hazardous part of its task, the laying of a lateral line to Headquarters 132 Brigade which, at this stage in the operation, would be several miles south of Alam Nayil and close to the eastern end of Deir Alinda. It was while laying this lateral that the detachment's truck was disabled by shellfire, but there were no casualties and the line was continued with a jeep until a second B Section detachment arrived to complete the task.
Within 5 Brigade itself lines were not to be laid to 21 Battalion on its objective on the northern rim of Muhafid or to 28 (Maori) Battalion at Munassib until both had reported by wireless that they were in position. The 21 Battalion line was eventually taken through according to plan, but was of little use as it was almost continuously disrupted by enemy shellfire. K Section's line detachment worked on this line continuously between 21 Battalion and Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade; the average number of breaks reported by each patrol was thirty.
The line taken forward to the Maori Battalion by jeep did not reach the battalion headquarters, which could not be located. Finally it was terminated at a regimental aid post and the line party returned to Tactical Headquarters to report. By this time the line was of little use, large gaps having been torn in it by airburst shellfire, but later, when the Maoris withdrew from Munassib, where they had wrought dreadful havoc among German transport harboured there, the line was continued from its temporary termination at the RAP towards 21 Battalion, away to the left at Muhafid. The jeep line party, page 301 however, was unable to reach the edge of Muhafid and the attempt was abandoned.
Lines were also run to 22 and 23 Battalions, but that attempted to 2 Buffs of 132 Brigade, on 5 Brigade's right, was unsuccessful because of heavy enemy shellfire.
The wireless plan within 5 Brigade worked out still less satisfactorily. At Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade the control set, a No. 11, was to work forward to terminal No. 11 sets installed in jeeps moving with 21 and 28 Battalions. Other terminal sets, also No. 11 but stationary with their headquarters, were at 22 and 23 Battalions and at Rear Headquarters 5 Brigade. Another station included on this group was that with 50 Royal Tank Regiment, but communication with this set was never established owing to faulty netting at the tank regiment's headquarters. Fortunately there was at Tactical Headquarters a Dingo scout car with a No. 19 set netted on one of the tank regiment's squadron frequencies, and this was used for communication.
At an early stage in the attack both the No. 11 sets with 21 and 28 Battalions became separated from their headquarters, but that of the former eventually reached Muhafid and wireless communication with Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade was maintained from then on without interruption.
Communication was never established with 28 Battalion; it appears certain that the set did not reach Battalion Headquarters, which itself was separated from the rifle companies so earnestly at work among the German transport on the floor of Munassib. Soon after first light the battalion was withdrawn under cover of a smoke screen put down by the artillery.
Although 5 Brigade's positions came in for a good deal of shelling during the morning, the enemy's armoured counter-attack, strangely enough, did not develop until about midday. The Brigade Commander was ready for it when it came, however, and called down a heavy artillery concentration where he thought it might do the most good. The tanks scuttled away to safety, and the New Zealand infantry watched them go with elation. During the afternoon the enemy attempted another counter-attack, but it was much less determined than the midday affair and was easily driven off by artillery and mortars.page 302
Captain Shirley was a little dismayed by the failure of his careful signal plans, but had he known it he could have written it off with a fairly easy conscience against experience. This was his first attempt at communications for an infantry battle, and he hadn't looked carefully enough for the snares. Previously he had been with Divisional Cavalry, which used line communications very rarely and maintained the greater part of its communications by wireless. Then he had been for a time with 6 Field Regiment, whose more or less standardised line and wireless communications, like those of other regiments, seldom incurred serious disruption from enemy fire. During the planning stages of the September battle Shirley had presented what the Brigadier called ‘a good and comprehensible signal plan’. After studying it carefully, the Brigadier had asked Shirley if it would work. ‘One hundred per cent, sir,’ he had replied, with all the boyish exuberance of his nature and the wide perpetual grin which split his eager countenance.
During the attack, when repeated calls on the wireless to the battalions brought no response, it was the Brigadier's turn to grin. But John Shirley need not have despaired. He was not yet acutely aware of the habit to which battalions were addicted in night attacks—that of allowing their wireless sets to become separated from battalion headquarters. Nor did he realise the unreliability of lines laid in exposed positions in the open, where they were in almost continuous danger of damage from vehicle tracks. There were many signals officers who knew just how vulnerable cable laid in the desert was, but none more so than Lieutenant-Colonel Agar who, however, continued to persist in his belief that the policy of pushing lines forward energetically in an attack was still worth while, despite the numerous hazards.
Line communications to 132 Brigade for the attack took very much the same pattern as those for 5 Brigade, except that there were no lines on the ground before the attack commenced. It was decided, therefore, to use Headquarters 6 Brigade, between which and Main Divisional Headquarters there were already two line circuits, as a switching centre for 132 Brigade. Headquarters 6 Brigade, which was not to move, lay about three miles west of 5 Brigade and almost the same distance north page 303 of 132 Brigade's assembly position. An extra B (cable) Section detachment was sent from Main Divisional Headquarters to Headquarters 6 Brigade, and was to be met there by an officer representing 132 Brigade who would guide it to his headquarters. It was to lay a line as it went and later extend it behind 132 Brigade as it moved with the attack. This task done, the line detachment was then to lay a second line back to Headquarters 6 Brigade, where it would be joined through direct to Main Division. The plan included no details of line or wireless communications within 132 Brigade itself, which were in the hands of the brigade's own signal section.
The first thing to go wrong was the late arrival of the representative from 132 Brigade at Headquarters 6 Brigade. In due course, however, he put in an appearance and went off with the B Section detachment, from which the first report was received when it was two miles from Headquarters 6 Brigade. Some time went by, but there were no further reports, so another detachment was despatched to lay another line. This second detachment reported back at intervals, stating that the line was severely damaged by tank and carrier tracks. After it had progressed three and a half miles nothing further was heard from it either.
At first light, therefore, a signals officer was sent out to investigate. He found the first detachment at Headquarters 132 Brigade, but its line had not been connected to a telephone or an exchange and no one there could give him any information —a not surprising state of affairs since the headquarters had been heavily shelled throughout the night and had received so thorough a drubbing that it was quite unable to maintain any sort of control. The second detachment was later discovered to have been waylaid by some unidentified officer who used it to carry wounded men to the rear. Eventually, however, both detachments were back on the job and, after numerous breaks had been repaired, communication was finally established with Headquarters 6 Brigade at 9 a.m. The second line was then laid back from 132 Brigade to Headquarters 6 Brigade and joined through to Divisional Headquarters at 10.50 a.m.
Meanwhile 26 Battalion, which was to move south to extend page 304 6 Brigade's positions and so provide cover for 132 Brigade's western flank, had moved outside the defensive minefield to its forming-up area. A line had previously been laid in daylight to this place, where 26 Battalion was to pick up the L Section line detachment which would extend the cable behind the battalion as it moved. This line was through to 26 Battalion's final position at 3 a.m., but was continually interrupted by enemy shelling and the movements of tracked vehicles. Most of the damage occurred in the minefield gap, where Battalion Headquarters and an anti-tank troop were held up by heavy enemy artillery and mortar fire. Corporal Gordon,1 the NCO in charge of the line detachment, moved about under the heavy fire and continued to repair breaks in the cable with a complete disregard for his own safety. After the line was laid, Gordon and his detachment patrolled it ceaselessly, repairing breaks wherever they occurred and moving continuously in the open under heavy shell, mortar and machine-gun fire. For his indomitable courage and outstanding qualities of leadership, Gordon was awarded the MM.
The 26th Battalion's attack met severe opposition that night, and one of its companies became isolated and fought it out with a numerically superior enemy until only a few remained unwounded. During the morning of the 4th Brigadier Clifton, the 6 Brigade commander, went out to look for this missing company and was himself taken prisoner through approaching a group of troops whom he thought were friendly. With him went Lance-Corporal Dowling,2 of L Section, the operator on the Brigadier's reconnaissance set. Dowling's capture was the only casualty suffered by Signals in this battle.
Rommel's withdrawal to the west was now in full flight and by the 5th, six days after the battle began, he was again beyond the western minefields. Thus, the enemy's final effort to achieve the conquest of Egypt, described so grandiosely in Rommel's special order of the day on 30 August as ‘the attack for the final annihilation of the enemy’, became an utter failure that left the balance of superiority in Montgomery's hands.
Inspection of Divisional Signals by General Freyberg before the departure of the first furlough draft, June 1943
The move to Italy—loading a jeep
Repair and maintenance truck in the Sangro valley
The road to the cookhouse at the Sangro
A forward signal centre near Castelfrentano, A. C. Francis operating an exchange