Battle for Egypt
CHAPTER 11 — New Zealand Division Isolated
New Zealand Division Isolated
UP to this stage, midday, nothing had occurred within the knowledge of New Zealand Division, 13 Corps, or Eighth Army Headquarters to justify apprehension concerning the position of the Division. General Freyberg, in his wide experience of artillery action, dismissed the bombardment with the comment: ‘Proceedings opened with a searching strafe of the area early with the usual lack of success for amount of shooting.1 Fifth Brigade, which had sent its vehicles away, got no shelling of consequence.
No fearful significance had been given to the subject matter of a divisional conference which broke up two minutes before the disastrous shell fell on headquarters. The brigade and other formation commanders were given 13 Corps' instructions for the battle, and a provisional plan was made for withdrawal eastwards should this become necessary.2 The withdrawal plan was thought to be merely a precautionary measure, something to be considered while there was time for unhurried reflection on all possibilities. The emphasis was on fighting the enemy and inflicting the maximum damage on him.
1 GOC's diary, 27 June.
2 Details of this plan, later confirmed in a written order, are given in more appropriate perspective on pp. 103–5. Here it may be said they afford ample confirmation of the fact that the Division received 13 Corps Operation Order No. 133, signed at 1.20 a.m. on 27 June, and discussed on pp. 74–5.
These differences, which are material to subsequent developments, were of course not apparent at the time. The visit was cordial and ended in an atmosphere of mutual confidence. The only trying point was the fact that enemy shelling made it advisable to talk in a slit trench.
Gott, however, on his return to 13 Corps Headquarters, telephoned Brigadier Whiteley at Eighth Army about 12.30 ‘that the situation of New Zealand Division was not satisfactory as it was being heavily shelled by the Germans and was suffering considerably. He had refused Freyberg's request for some infantry tanks as he wished to concentrate his armour. He had, however, told Freyberg to side-step if necessary and not to regard the ground which he was at present holding as vital. Freyberg intended to attack the enemy tonight should this prove possible.1
Even if Gott had had an inkling of all that was impending, there was no cause for worry. But on the information then available to him and to Eighth Army, and, indeed, on that possessed by the divisions in contact with the enemy, the battle was developing on lines for which provision had been made in the Army and 10 Corps' appreciation of 24 June. Panzerarmee had struck in the centre between 10 and 13 Corps, with a holding attack against Matruh fortress and its armour protecting the southern flank. The known situation was sufficiently near to the expected to warrant the belief that the time was approaching, if it had not already arrived, for 13 Corps to counter-attack northwards against either the enemy's fighting formations or his soft-skinned transport, perhaps both.
The decision to call on 10 Corps to help the New Zealand Division was the product of an unrealistic appreciation by Gott and Whiteley. Freyberg certainly expected the co-operation of 1 Armoured Division in beating off an enemy attack and he had asked if heavy infantry tanks we available. But he had not sought any other assistance, least of all relief from 10 Corps. On the contrary, he believed it to be part of the New Zealand Division's task to attack under 13 Corps' direction to help the garrison of Matruh. He did not consider that the attacks so far made on the Division had prejudiced this plan.
1 Eighth Army war diary, 26 June.
There was yet another weakness in the new plan. Gott had told Freyberg ‘to sidestep if necessary and not to regard the ground which he was at present holding as vital.’ This suggests the possibility that 10 Corps might find itself deeply involved in operations for the relief of a division which, in the meantime, had moved away. Finally, it does not seem to have occurred to the higher commanders that a division pinned to its ground, and suffering so considerably that it needed relief, could exercise little influence on the battle. There was no suggestion that by standing at Minqar Qaim New Zealand Division was easing the pressure elsewhere, or that it was depriving the enemy of freedom of manoeuvre and so paving the way to his destruction by other forces.
In sum, on a faulty appreciation of the situation, resort was had to counter-attack as a matter of habit rather than of judgment. There is no consolation in the fact that the Germans were prone to this habit.
Although the enemy was still labouring in the dark concerning some important matters, a succession of orders given about the same time by Rommel in person and by the headquarters of Panzerarmee and Afrika Korps revealed a clearer conception of the battle than that held by Eighth Army.
1 90 Light Division diary.
Other orders by Panzerarmee and Afrika Korps were more portentous for New Zealand Division. At eight minutes past one 21 Panzer Division received an urgent instruction by wireless from Afrika Korps to operate against the enemy on the escarpment. Within half an hour, at 1.37, the division was ordered to cut the road [the Khalda track] immediately and to move parts of the division on to the escarpment at Bir Slayim, roughly four miles east of Bir Abu Batta. The division's artillery was instructed to operate on both sides of the road and, in conjunction with 15 Panzer Division, carry out a flanking move. Afrika Korps also advised that it had asked for a Stuka attack.
Half an hour later, at ten minutes past two, Panzerarmee sent XX Italian Corps an urgent order that it had been placed under the command of Afrika Korps ‘to clear the area ahead of 15 Panzer Division and surround the enemy groups.’ Again, at 2.20 p.m., XX Corps was ordered by Panzerarmee to ‘attack the enemy to the south-east immediately in co-operation with Afrika Korps.’
Such was the enemy action provoked by the New Zealand Division's presence at Minqar Qaim. Instead of waiting at Bir Shineina ready to continue the advance to Fuka and Alamein, 21 Panzer Division was diverted to an enclosing attack from the north, east and south. A squeeze on the defenders from the west was to be applied by 15 Panzer Division, then being engaged some eight to ten miles to the west of Minqar Qaim by 1 Armoured Division. To facilitate the progress of 15 Panzer, XX Italian Corps was placed at the disposal of Afrika Korps and given a task against 1 Armoured Division. The Italian corps had moved at dawn from its overnight positions west of the Siwa road to an area approximately the same distance east of the road, under orders to ‘organise in depth ready for battle with divisions one behind the other.’
Thus, because 13 Corps thought only in terms of relief and further retreat, the initiative was left to the enemy. Rommel and Nehring used their freedom to organise an attack by four armoured divisions on 1 Armoured Division and the New Zealand Division.
Although unaware of the attention it had attracted in the higher levels of Panzerarmee, New Zealand Division soon knew that more vigorous enemy action was under way. The volume of the enemy artillery fire increased, the New Zealand batteries being the target. Then, as further enemy forces assembled to the north of Minqar Qaim, the infantry defences, including the headquarters of 4 and 5 page 94 Brigades, were subjected to shell and mortar fire. Next, tanks approached from the north on a line directed at the centre of the Division. These and lorried troops debussing and deploying to the east of the tanks were engaged by 4 Field Regiment.
By two o'clock there was every indication of a full-scale attack developing. At five minutes past two the Division reported to 13 Corps that enemy infantry were debussing all along the front. The message was followed a quarter of an hour later by a situation report stating that ‘eight possible tanks’ moving south from a point a mile and a half north-east of Bir Shineina had been joined by other vehicles from the west, but had been driven off by artillery fire.
The report was unduly optimistic concerning the results of the shoot. The target comprised tanks and lorried infantry then making the turning movement southwards to gain the escarpment as ordered by Afrika Korps. Little more than an hour later, at 3.40 p.m., the enemy column, now seen to comprise 20 tanks and about 200 other vehicles, turned westward on and below the escarpment towards the Division. A section of 19 Battalion carriers was sent to investigate. Divisional Headquarters advised caution in opening fire until the column was identified, as supply convoys for the Division were expected from that direction.
Almost concurrently with the receipt of this advice, 20 Battalion signalled 4 Brigade Headquarters that swastika flags could be seen on the vehicles. At the same time heavy firing broke out in 19 Battalion's area. The three batteries of 4 Field Regiment had opened fire on the tanks. Their fire was later supplemented by that of four two-pounder anti-tank guns which 19 Battalion was ordered to send to strengthen the eastern flank.
On the Division's north-eastern flank, 20 Battalion revealed the high standard of its morale and training. It calmly awaited the descent of the enemy infantry in their trucks until the leading vehicles were within a range of about 400 yards. Then the infantry and anti-tank gunners opened fire, which put a number of the enemy vehicles out of action and halted the advance. To the credit of the Panzer Grenadiers, the fire was returned in considerable volume from the cover of low scrub into which they dropped when their trucks were halted.
While 20 Battalion was bearing the brunt of the attack, another enemy column advanced down the Khalda track against 28 (Maori) Battalion. The column had been seen forming up much earlier and had been engaged by the New Zealand artillery. The haze created difficulty in assessing its strength until it neared the Division. Even then it was impossible to determine whether nine or ten suspected light tanks covering the infantry advance were in fact tanks, armoured cars, or half-track troop-carriers. As 4 Field Regiment was fully engaged with the enemy attack from the east, 6 Field Regiment in the Divisional Reserve Group was called on to assist in arresting the advance of the new arrivals.
This spirited response by 4 Brigade and the supporting artillery was noted by the enemy. At twenty minutes past four the Panzer Grenadiers reported that ‘the attack does not go well owing to strong enemy artillery fire.’ Another message a few minutes later said: ‘The enemy pulls out in front of 1/R. Regiment 104 [1 Battalion, 104 Panzer Grenadiers] but the artillery fire remains as strong as ever.’ The battalion was deployed on a front opposite 20 Battalion and the right flank of the Maoris, about a mile and three-quarters from the face of the escarpment. The reference to a withdrawal on the battalion's front was probably to the movement of some of the Essex men who were being severely shelled and who were given a wrong order to move back. When the order was corrected, they reoccupied their posts and continued the fight. Hard on the heels of the report, the German battalion asked that it should be reinforced by the 3rd Battalion and that a flanking movement should be made from the east. Engineers were also asked for to clear gaps in the minefield which the Grenadiers reported they had located all along the front.
Summarising the situation about this time, 21 Panzer reported that it had encircled a large concentration of transport on the escarpment. After noting the position of the Grenadiers, the report added that ‘units of the enemy resist most stubbornly; our tank attack gains ground slowly.’ The division was encouraged by Afrika Korps' recognition that the measures it had taken were correct and was advised that 15 Panzer Division would attack at six o'clock. Korps Headquarters wished to know whether 21 Panzer would be able to give direct support to this attack at the time stipulated. At 4.30 the division also recorded receipt of a message from Rommel that ‘the enemy seems to try to withdraw in the Khalda area; the division will prevent his doing so.’
The claim that the division had encircled the motor transport on the escarpment was hardly correct. On reaching the escarpment, General Bismarck directed one tank column almost due west against the New Zealanders' eastern flank and sent another one on a southwesterly course to attack from the south. Fifth Brigade's B echelon transport was between these columns and some of 4 Brigade's vehicles were a short distance to the south, outside the enemy movement, at Qabr Abu Raiyat, where the Division's replenishment point was to have been located. Both groups of transport were fired on by the German tanks, but quickly broke clear. The 300 to 400 vehicles in the 5 Brigade group made off at high speed and in confusion to the south until they were brought under control again some nine miles from the scene of action. The 4th Brigade transport, which had not been in such a hazardous position, made a more orderly withdrawal to the east towards Rear Division Headquarters. Among the prizes thus snatched from the enemy were three six-pounder guns on their portées which Lance-Sergeant Mantle1 of 5 Field Regiment saw were being abandoned. With Gunners Mullooly2 and Watkins,3 with whom he was escaping from the tanks, Mantle took over the guns and drove them to safety.
This thrust from the south was dangerous as penetration of the defences would have carried the enemy tanks and infantry on to Divisional Headquarters and bisected the Division. The enemy, however, was vigorously engaged by 30 Field Battery, which had made the sortie to Bir el Haswa in the morning, and by 33 Anti-Tank Battery, which now fledged itself with its six-pounders. Also in the area were six of the new guns for 32 Battery, which had been too busy to make the change from two-pounders. Five of these guns were removed to safety and the sixth was manned by a scratch crew from the battery headquarters, 6 Field Regiment, and No. 1 Machine Gun Company. This crew claimed one tank destroyed and direct hits on a number of other vehicles. The 30th Battery devoted most of its attention to the tanks, one troop alone claiming at least four victims.
Events now hurried upon each other to reveal that the Division was in a serious position, one which might become precarious.
While the attack from the south was developing but before the enemy's intentions had become clear, General Freyberg at last managed to make radio-telephone contact with 1 Armoured Division, whose two brigades were then six to seven miles west of Minqar Qaim. To his astonishment and alarm, he learned that the Armoured Division had no knowledge of the attack on the New Zealanders and that it was withdrawing independently without thought of supporting or co-ordinating its movements with the Division. He protested that the armour should come to the support of the Division.
Lieutenant-Colonel R. Peake, GSO 1 of 1 Armoured Division, replied that the division had orders to concentrate at Bir Khalda that night and that, in the circumstances then prevailing on the division's front, he could not see how a regiment or a brigade of tanks could be disengaged to help the New Zealanders. He was sure, also, that the divisional commander would not agree to send a ‘few tanks’ to the New Zealand Division.1
1 General Freyberg was under the impression he was talking to Major-General Lumsden, commanding 1 Armoured Division. The latter, however, was not at his headquarters at the time. The conversation is recalled in notes supplied by Brigadier Peake to the British Historical Section.
Concurrently with the attack from the south, the light tanks which had been seen forming up on the track to the north of 28 Battalion opened heavy fire, under cover of which the infantry advanced. The Maoris' fire discipline was good. Itchy fingers were kept off the triggers of rifles, Brens and tommy guns during a trying period of waiting until the enemy was close enough to make the fire effective. Then, when bursts of controlled small-arms fire stopped the advance, B and C Companies made a sortie with the bayonet. Ten prisoners, including three non-commissioned officers, of 1 Battalion 104 Panzer Grenadiers were collected and many dead were seen. The Maoris lost only one man killed and two wounded.
This, so far as the Division was aware, was the last attempt of the day to penetrate the defences.
2 Tank squadrons of the County of London Yeomanry.
3 22 Brigade diary.
These facts forced Freyberg to the conclusion that if the Division was to retain its power of manoeuvre, indeed if it was to avoid being overrun or cut off from the remainder of Eighth Army, it would have to break clear. Moreover, it would have to rely on its own resources for the operation. Accordingly, at 4.40 p.m. detailed orders were issued defining assembly areas, the rearguard, order of march, speed by night and day, and fixing Deir el Harra, 90 miles east, as the final divisional rendezvous.
Having given the basis of these orders, General Freyberg left his headquarters to make a personal appreciation of the enemy attack from the south, which he regarded as the most serious threat. At five o'clock, while he was watching the attack from a forward position, he was wounded in the neck by a shell splinter. As his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Griffiths,1 was attending to the wound and assisting the General back to his car, other shells landed close by, but fortunately in soft ground and without causing further casualties. At Divisional Headquarters General Freyberg was attended by Colonel Ardagh,2 the Assistant Director of Medical Services, and made as comfortable as possible in a slit trench. Brigadier Inglis was called to command the Division, Lieutenant-Colonel J. T. Burrows, of 20 Battalion, taking over 4 Brigade.
At five minutes to five 13 Corps sent a curious message to 1 Armoured Division. It said: ‘As far as I can see New Zealand Division has fallen out of the bedstead. I advise you to Iodine as soon as possible at your discretion.’ Decoded, the message meant that so far as could be seen, New Zealand Division had either been pushed out of Minqar Qaim or had withdrawn, and that 1 Armoured Division should withdraw east of the Khalda track as soon as it could do so. The corps' log does not say who sent the message but Major-General Lumsden ascribed it to General Gott. Lumsden interpreted the message as, ‘the battle was all over and that the New Zealand Division did not exist.’3
2 Brig P. A. Ardagh, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; born Ngapara, 30 Aug 1891; surgeon; 1 NZEF 1917–19, Capt 3 Fd Amb; wounded three times; in charge surgical division 2 Gen Hosp, Aug 1940–Oct 1941; CO 1 CCS Nov 1941–May 1942; ADMS 2 NZ Div May 1942–Feb 1943; DDMS 30 Corps Feb 1943–Apr 1944; died (England) 6 Apr 1944.
3 Court of Inquiry, Vol. II, pp. 328–9.
The possibility of a withdrawal was envisaged in 13 Corps Operation Order No. 133. Each division was given an axis of retreat, a rendezvous at Alamein, and was told it would have to furnish its own rearguard. On the other hand, the order stated specifically that the battle would be fought on the lines previously agreed upon. There was no mention that Auchinleck had taken command of Eighth Army and had changed the plans—only his exhortation to all ranks to make a supreme effort.1 Essential detail for the retreat was taken from this order for the Division's own precautionary instructions issued that morning.2
It is difficult to understand the pessimistic report to 1 Armoured Division or the reason for allowing that division to continue under the impression that the New Zealanders had been knocked out. At six minutes past five New Zealand Division asked: ‘Shall we join you at second destination [i.e., Deir el Harra]?’ The question carried in itself an implication that the Division was master of its fate and therefore available for an intermediate task in the retreat. Moreover, Gott was at Corps Headquarters at the time and was aware of the message and the reply. If any doubts remained they should have been dispelled by the Division's message to Corps at 6.30: ‘Have we got any further orders?’ The answer was: ‘No fresh orders.’3
At 7.20 p.m. 13 Corps sent the following to all of its formations:
lounge, bedstead, iodine. A rearguard posn will be held for as long as possible on the line escarpment four miles west of Fuka…. Right 5 Ind Div left 1 Arm Div…. If 10 Corps arrive Fuka area they will be responsible from right…. This line will be known as HERRING.
Lounge, was an instruction to 5 Indian Division to withdraw east of the 710 grid which ran north and south through Minqar Sidi Hamza, an area then well behind the enemy's advanced formations and over 20 miles west of the positions 5 Indian Division had occupied since dawn. BEDSTEAD was an instruction to New Zealand Division to withdraw. The Division was already supposed to have fallen out of the ‘bedstead’, had been given permission to Bedstead at its discretion and, when the instruction was sent, was making ready to move. When 1 Armoured Division received its order to IODINE over the Khalda track, it was already on the track on its way to Bir Khalda to refuel.
2 NZ Division Operation Order No. 9. See also p. 103.
To this it may be added that Lumsden called on New Zealand Division at 9.15 p.m. His purpose, according to his recollections later, was ‘to ask which way the New Zealanders proposed going out if they had the order’ and if there was anything he could do to help. In the recollection of a staff officer who accompanied him, however, ‘it was just to be a sort of friendly visit with nothing particular to discuss except to see where the New Zealanders were and what sort of day they had had.’ Brigadier Inglis told Lumsden of the Division's intention to break out that night and suggested that the armoured division might co-operate in the operation. As 1 Armoured Division's brigades were then separated and the division had to go to Bir Khalda to refuel, Lumsden could not agree to the suggestion. However, he agreed to see out the B echelon and troop-carrying transport of 5 Brigade, the Divisional Cavalry and 21 Battalion, which were then south of the Division in the area in which he had to refuel and separated from the Division by enemy armour.
There was also some confusion on the enemy's side. The warm reception given tank and infantry attacks by the artillery and the firm front presented by the infantry surprised 21 Panzer Division. On the frontier and in the advance to Matruh, the British rearguards had given way before firm pressure. The Germans appeared to have forgotten the many examples of determined defence up to the fall of Tobruk. Notwithstanding the size of the concentration at Minqar Qaim, they appeared to think that, on deployment and assault, the defence would yield as other rearguards had done.
Experienced New Zealand officers, although aware that the Division was being placed in a hazardous position, were not awed by the enemy attacks. They saw that the attacks were not pressed with determination. They appeared to be more in the nature of probes for weak spots on the Division's eastern flank, both tanks and the infantry assailants withdrawing when heavy fire was maintained against them.
1 The code name of a possible development of the battle. Looking ahead during the morning of 27 June, Auchinleck sent a personal, most secret message to his corps commanders saying that, should it become necessary, both corps were to disengage and resume the fight on the general line of the escarpment four miles west of Fuka. They were to ensure that during the disengagement and withdrawal their corps acted in concert.
Also at this time, seven o'clock, Bismarck was encouraged by a message from Afrika Korps that it ‘regards the chances of the attack by the division as extremely promising.’ He replied that he intended to launch an attack from the east that evening ‘and to destroy the enemy.’ He gave the location of his battle headquarters as 10 kilometres south-south-west of Bir Shineina', a position about a mile and a half from 19 Battalion. Further encouragement was given about an hour later by a ‘most immediate’ message from 15 Panzer Division that, since a quarter past six, it had been attacking and would continue until it linked up with 21 Division. The message was accompanied by a request for details of 21 Division's foremost lines.
Shortly afterwards, however, Bismarck received information which seems to have induced him to change his mind about the projected assault ‘to destroy the enemy’ that evening. At 8.15 he advised Afrika Korps that interrogation of prisoners had confirmed the presence of the New Zealand Division. The next entries in the divisional log record a series of orders and movements designed to place the division in defensive positions ‘with the intention of preventing the enemy from breaking out.’ Korps Headquarters was advised that the attack had been discontinued. It, in turn, approved the division's intention ‘to destroy the enemy next day.’ The destruction of the New Zealanders, however, was to be effected under Korps' direction, the main attack being launched by 15 Panzer Division and the Italian XX Corps from the west, with 21 Division standing by to take up the pursuit.
In favour of Bismarck it should be said that his divisional log records at nine o'clock that the division was short of ammunition and fuel. But convoys were on the way and arrived half an hour later.page break
Wire for defensive positions in Syria
Machine-gunners digging in, Syria
Sappers digging a gunpit, Syria
Convoy at the ruins of Palmyra
Dumps on fire at Mersa Matruh after a raid
Uploading on the escarpment at Minqar Qaim. Dispersion is bad on the first return to the desert
Looking east from 5 Brigade HQ during the artillery duel
A 25-pounder in action at Minqar Qaim
Lieutenant-General Freyberg in a slit trench after he had been wounded
Wrecked vehicles at the foot of Minqar Qaim - from the painting by J. Crippen
Headquarters of 5 Infantry Brigade halted after the break-out at Minqar Qaim. The 3-ton truck held German prisoners
The northern edge of the Qattara Depression
19 Battalion advancing against Ariete Division on 3 July 1942
Some of the guns of Ariete Division captured by the CRA's column and 19 Battalion
German 88-millimetre guns captured on Alam Nayil. New Zealand engineers have blown the barrels
Ruweisat Ridge, photographed in September 1944
21 Battalion Signal Office on 16 July
El Mreir Depression - from the painting by J. Crippen