Battle for Egypt
CHAPTER 28 — Raids, Patrols, Consolidation
Raids, Patrols, Consolidation
THROUGHOUT 16 July the enemy devoted most of his efforts to clearing Ruweisat Ridge as a preliminary to recovering the defensive localities previously held by Brescia and Pavia Divisions, and to relieving some strongpoints north-east of the ridge in which he believed elements of Pavia were still holding out.
Fighting was resumed at 5.30 a.m. when 33 Recce Unit on the crest of the ridge, 15 Panzer Division on the southern slope, and 21 Division on the northern slope advanced on 5 Indian Brigade. On this occasion the enemy encountered well dug-in infantry supported by anti-tank guns, the field artillery of 5 Indian and 2 New Zealand Divisions, 2 Armoured Brigade, and 22 Armoured Brigade which was deployed between the ridge and Alam el Dihmaniya. The attack made little headway against these forces, the advance being limited to more or less undisputed ground in the vicinity of Point 62 where the pipeline crossed the ridge. Tank fighting stopped when the usual midday dust-storm arose, and about two o'clock General Nehring called off the advance in order to reorganise and lay on a more comprehensive operation for later in the day.
The New Zealand Division's share in the morning fighting was limited to artillery action. The chief targets were enemy tanks and infantry observed near the eastern end of Mreir at 8.30 and an artillery group seen moving up to join the tanks on the southern slope of the ridge about 11.30. This group was subjected to such heavy fire that the gunners withdrew in disorder and abandoned their guns. Enemy air activity caused the Division some losses. A raid in the early afternoon scored a direct hit on the crew of a Bofors gun from 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery which was protecting 5 Brigade's headquarters, and also destroyed or set alight a number of vehicles. This raid was thought to be in retaliation for a heavy bombing attack by the Royal Air Force half an hour previously on the enemy's forward elements on the ridge.
Besides the vigour of the local defence, a diversionary attack by the Australians towards Tell el Makh Khad hampered Nehring's operations. While the advance of Afrika Korps was getting under way, the Australians overran the last remaining battalion of Sabrata Division and part of the 1st Battalion of 382 German Infantry page 309 Regiment. The attack was halted by the survivors of the German battalion supported by artillery. To prevent the furthher breaching of the defences Rommel sent for 33 Recce Unit, the 1st Battalion of 104 Regiment from 21 Panzer Division, and Briehl Group from 90 Light Division.
Nehring timed his second attack for 7.25 p.m., when the setting sun would intensify the dust and smoke haze and thus severely restrict the vision of the defenders. He ordered his heavy dual-purpose anti-aircraft, 10-centimetre, and other single guns to engage the British tanks continuously before zero hour and, at 7.15, to change the fire to timed concentrations falling quickly on worthwhile targets. The concentrations were to be supplemented by two troops of heavy howitzers with, however, only twelve rounds each. The ground assault was to be preceded at 7.25 by what was described in the orders as ‘powerful air support’ spread over the general area from Point 64 south to Brescia's old line and Alam el Dihmaniya. This bombardment was to last for five minutes. Nehring specially ordered that when the last bombs fell the troops were to advance immediately ‘in order to take full advantage of the enemy's confusion.’ ‘This will be decisive for the success of the attack,’ he added. Nehring also said that it was important for the general situation to regain the entire strongpoint line and push the British into the minefield.1
The main assault was to be made by 21 Panzer Division, on and just south of the crest of the ridge, and 15 Panzer Division, on the southern slope with its tanks concentrated on its left hard against 21 Division. The 3rd Recce Unit was to conform to the attack on the northern flank. By this time 21 Division was down to eight tanks and 15 Division probably had no more than twelve. The precise British tank strength in the sector is not known, but examination of tank states before and after 16 July suggests that 2 and 22 Armoured Brigades had between them more heavy Grants than the total German tanks. The latter brigade, however, was operating towards Kaponga throughout the 16th.
1 Presumably the minefield forward of the enemy posts before the 15th.
As in the morning, New Zealand Division's artillery contributed effectively in repulsing the attack. In the opening phases the guns engaged targets on and to the north of the ridge, but when 15 Panzer Division appeared on the southern slopes the fire was switched to what appeared to be a more direct threat to the Division. By 7.30 the guns were putting down exceptionally heavy fire. The diary of 4 Field Regiment mentions that it alone used 2224 rounds during the day. In the expected Stuka attack, a formation of twenty bombers unloaded its bombs across 5 Brigade and the Divisional Reserve Group, causing several casualties among men and vehicles before being chased off by RAF fighters.
With the fall of darkness about eight o'clock the fighting waned, although Nehring urged his divisions to push their infantry ahead. These orders and their further transmission to the units were clearly heard by the British wireless interceptors. The urgings did not avail. The attack made no progress against the stubborn defence and at midnight the divisions were ordered to defer further efforts until daylight. However, between two and three o'clock in the morning Nehring and Rommel discussed the situation and decided to go over to the defensive again to permit the army to rest and refit. German and Italian infantry were to hold mined and wired strongpoints on the existing line and the armour was to withdraw behind them into mobile reserve. Creation of the reserve was made a matter of urgency.
Although the New Zealand infantry was on the fringe of the attacks, and therefore had to be alert to the situation, and was also bombed, its comparative freedom from enemy molestation permitted extensive regrouping to be carried out throughout the day.
Muster parades disclosed that 5 Brigade's 22 Battalion had had the worst losses, its remaining riflemen totalling only 30. In 4 Brigade, 19 Battalion's A Company had about 50 riflemen, B Company 21, and C Company only 17, a total of 88. The numbers in 20 Battalion were about the same. These were the most badly hit infantry units.
General Inglis decided to keep 18 Battalion in the field and to send the remainder of 4 Brigade with 22 Battalion to the rear to refit and reform. Sixth Brigade, less 26 Battalion already in the line, was to come forward immediately. The units to be relieved were concentrated at Rear Divisional Headquarters, and on 17 and 18 July were moved in unit convoys first to Amiriya and then, on Brigadier page 311 Burrows' urgent representations, to Maadi. Inglis was loath to move his only reserve so far back. However, he agreed that Amiriya transit camp was unsuitable for refitting and reforming, and after consulting 13 Corps he consented to the move to Maadi. On 20 July the brigade, now totalling only 50 officers and 1058 other ranks, in 156 vehicles, made the journey of 140 miles to Maadi.
On the initial withdrawal of 4 Brigade on 16 July, the remainder of the Division was reformed on a line to the west and north of Stuka Wadi, with 5 Brigade on the right and Divisional Reserve Group on the left, the Divisional Cavalry Regiment and elements of 7 Armoured Division covering the south-western and southern flanks. Divisional Headquarters was in Deir Umm Aisha and that of 5 Brigade in the eastern end of Stuka Wadi.
The 18th Battalion, now under 5 Brigade, held the northern front on a line roughly parallel with the crest of Ruweisat, about two miles south of the core of 5 Indian Brigade's defences at Point 64. Facing north-west, 23 Battalion with nearly 200 men prolonged the line on 18 Battalion's left. The 21st Battalion was held in reserve to the north of Stuka Wadi in case action developed during the day. At first the battalion could muster only 90 all ranks in its rifle companies, but several groups which had fallen back through the Indians rejoined later in the day. The Divisional Reserve Group held the positions it had occupied on the 15th. Of the artillery, 4 Field Regiment was taken under direct command by the CRA, 6 Regiment redeployed its batteries to cover the new front, and 5 Regiment remained at Alam Nayil. The CRA reported that the RAF was at call to cover the Division during the reorganisation.
Local operations to capture or recapture tactical features, raids with heavy artillery support, fighting and reconnaissance patrols, considerable air activity and extensive regrouping marked the four days 16 to 20 July. In Eighth Army the object was to prepare the way for a further decisive battle, provisionally fixed for 20 July and then postponed to the 21st. Rommel intended to hold his present line with a series of strongpoints and his armour in mobile reserve. As his tank regiments were refitted, he hoped to undertake aggressive defence to improve his positions and damage Eighth Army and, when Panzerarmee was rebuilt, to resume his advance to Cairo and the Suez Canal.
Although Eighth Army consistently overestimated the enemy's strength, in this period Panzerarmee was reduced to its lowest in tanks and personnel. The Royal Air Force gained such ascendancy over the Luftwaffe that enemy air raids became hit-and-run affairs and dive-bombing by Stukas was made extremely hazardous. Eighth Army's wireless interception service also picked up many of the page 312 enemy's important messages and passed them quickly, to lower formations.
Nevertheless, as events were to prove, Panzerarmee still had plenty of sting and was vigorous in riposte. Perhaps the most outstanding impression of the period and of the remaining few days of the month is how much it was able to do with so little. This was particularly notable of Rommel's German forces, which, on 22 and 27 July, imposed worse defeats on Eighth Army than that at Ruweisat on the 15th. New Zealand Division was involved in the disaster on the 22nd. As the operations between the 16th and 20th provide the background it is necessary to follow them in some detail.
In the northern sector small Australian forces from 26 Brigade defeated counter-attacks near Tell el Eisa on the 15th, and that night, with the support of a squadron of tanks, gained a foothold on the eastern end of the feature from which they were forced to retire on the 16th under the enemy's artillery reaction. The Australians then sent their 24 Brigade, with fifteen tanks in support against Tell el Makh Khad and the ruin on Miteiriya Ridge. By 5.20 a.m. on the 17th Tell el Makh Khad was taken, but with the loss of six tanks on an uncharted minefield. The ruin was captured at 8 a.m. by a battalion and the remaining tanks, but it was impossible to consolidate the position owing to the enemy's artillery fire. A counter-attack by German and Italian tanks forced withdrawal on to Tell el Makh Khad, which also had to be abandoned in the late afternoon. After having suffered considerable infantry losses and with only six tanks left, the Australians finally consolidated near Bir el Makh Khad.
In these latter operations the Australians broke through the right wing of Trieste Division and overran a strongpoint held by the 6th Bersaglieri. They claimed nearly 800 prisoners. The enemy admitted the loss of a battalion from Trieste and an artillery unit from Trento. The counter-attacks were made by 33 and 3 Recce Units supported by Briehl Group, which had been taken from 90 Light Division into Army reserve, and Baade Group of 15 Panzer Division. In addition to the destruction of the British tanks, the enemy claimed 500 prisoners. The German and Italian tanks which took part cannot be identified. They may have been 15 Panzer Division's Kirsten Group, which was sent to the coastal sector on the 10th, or a hastily assembled force of spare tanks. Again, Lienau's vigorous use of the armoured cars of 33 Recce Unit may have created an impression that the enemy armour was stronger than was actually the case.
There was also some activity in the central sector at first light on the 17th. German infantry and tanks which had harboured over- page 313 night at the limit of their advance the previous evening awoke to find themselves in full view of 5 Indian Brigade. They were promptly engaged by the Indians' field and anti-tank guns over open sights, support being given by the New Zealand 4 and 6 Field Regiments. The efforts of the enemy to withdraw into cover, of 3 Recce Unit to relieve the Pavia strongpoints and then of the Italians in the strongpoints to get back to Deir el Shein, appear to have been construed by the Indians as offensive action. According to the German records no attacks were made or ordered. The enemy was then intent on carrying out Rommel's order to go over to the defensive, an order which was intercepted by the British and circulated to New Zealand Division during the morning.
The remainder of the day in the central and southern sectors was relatively quiet. In New Zealand Division's area defences were improved, salvage collected, and enemy weapons and equipment destroyed. The bodies of numerous Italians were buried and much of the litter of the Ruweisat battle cleared away. Brigadier Clifton, with Headquarters 6 Brigade and 24 Battalion, arrived in the afternoon and moved into the Divisional Reserve Group's sector. The 28th (Maori) Battalion was ordered to move forward from Alam Halfa to replace 22 Battalion. A small draft of reinforcements reached 5 Brigade. Of six officers of the draft posted to 23 Battalion, one was killed and another died of wounds within a few hours of joining the unit.
On the enemy side, the calls for relief against the attacks of the Australians strengthened the decision to abandon the effort to recapture the positions lost at Ruweisat. The 90th Light Division was ordered to move to the southern flank of Trento Division north of the ridge, and the remnants of X Italian Corps were instructed to take up positions between Deir el Shein and Alam el Dihmaniya. The protection of Kaponga Box was given to the 288th German Special Force and the Italian armour, and 3 Recce Unit was marked to cover the ground to the south. Nehring ordered 21 Panzer Division to develop Point 62 on Ruweisat Ridge as a strongpoint to deny the British observation over Deir el Shein. This task was given to 3 Battalion, 104 Regiment.
Huelsen Battle Group, comprising Lindemann Battle Group from Afrika Korps Headquarters, part of 155 Infantry Regiment and part of 2 Battalion, 382 Regiment, was under 15 Panzer Division's command opposite New Zealand Division. Huelsen was a colonel who had seen service in the First World War and on the eastern and western fronts in the Second World War. He had joined Panzerarmee in June during the fighting in Cyrenaica as a regimental commander. His confidential reports spoke of him as an ‘officer page 314 with plenty of brains, wide interests and vast general knowledge.’ He was said to be very reliable but a little dependent on the help of others.
Towards evening on the 17th, Huelsen reported that a British attack was gaining ground. This appears to have been a misinterpretation of the entry of 6 New Zealand Brigade into the line. The report led the enemy to expect a night attack on Kaponga and a warning order was issued. That night New Zealand Division initiated vigorous patrols which were to be a feature of its subsequent operations on the Alamein Line. The patrols confirmed that the enemy was building a new defensive line and also proved that the occupants of his strongpoints were alert.
On 18 July 25 Battalion and the Maoris came into the line. With all its battalions forward, 6 Brigade took over from the Divisional Reserve Group with 5 Field Regiment under command. The Maoris were sent to 5 Brigade to relieve 18 Battalion, which again reformed a divisional reserve group. In the evening, the 2nd Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment from 9 Indian Brigade moved through 5 Indian Brigade's positions and captured Point 62. The attack was supported by the artillery of 5 Indian, South African, and New Zealand Divisions. The West Yorks consolidated on a line about 500 yards west of the height under the protection of a screen in the vicinity of Point 63. The 21st Panzer Division reported to Afrika Korps that its battalion on the height was too weak to withstand the assault and had withdrawn. At 9.30 p.m. the enemy claimed that a counter-attack had recaptured the strongpoint, but it did no more than compel the covering troops to fall back on the consolidated position at Point 62. While the Yorks were attacking, considerable activity was seen in the enemy lines facing New Zealand Division. These movements were engaged by 5 Field Regiment and 22 Armoured Brigade.
During the night the enemy was harassed by patrols along the whole of the line. A 5th Indian Division patrol on Ruweisat brought back ten German and Italian prisoners. A patrol of twelve men from D Company of 26 Battalion under Lieutenant Gifford1 found a post held by fourteen Germans about 3000 yards west of the battalion's forward posts. Twelve of the Germans were killed in a bayonet charge and a sergeant and corporal from 382 Regiment were taken prisoner. Another patrol from 23 Battalion and some engineers were forestalled by the enemy when they went out to destroy abandoned guns and tanks. Germans blew up the weapons as the party approached and developed sufficient fire to prevent investigations.page break
El Mreir: Plan of attack and dispositions on 21 July 1942
In the southern sector, 7 Armoured Division columns had been observing the enemy's withdrawal since 16 July. During the night 18–19 July, June Column advanced through Naqb el Khadim to the Taqa plateau and captured four anti-tank guns and thirty Germans from 2 Battalion, 155 Regiment. The column held its ground against counter-attacks during the day by about six Italian and one or two German tanks, but in the evening it had to withdraw on to Naqb el Khadim. August Column raided south of Kaponga in the morning of the 19th and captured twenty prisoners and a 105-millimetre gun.
Except for the customary bombing raids in the morning and late afternoon and the usual midday dust-storm, the daylight hours of the 19th were tranquil. The capture of Point 62 permitted New Zealand Division to realign its front by swinging its right flank to face north-west instead of north. This shortened 5 Brigade's front and enabled 23 Battalion to extend its left to take over part of 26 Battalion's area, a move which in turn allowed 6 Brigade to spread its defences to the south to cover 5 Field Regiment near Alam Nayil.
As now disposed, the Division held an arc of roughly six miles from about a mile and a half south of the crest of Ruweisat to Alam Nayil. The Maoris were on the right flank and in contact with 1 Armoured Division and the Indians. Then came 23 Battalion, with its right flank resting on the western of the Alamein-Himeimat tracks. Roughly a mile ahead of 23 Battalion, a detachment of 21 Battalion, with a troop of six-pounder anti-tank guns and a platoon of machine guns under command, held an abandoned enemy strongpoint in Alam el Dihmaniya in order to deny a slight depression to the west as a forming-up position for enemy tanks. Sixth Brigade had 26 Battalion on its right, 24 in the centre, and 25 on the left. Sixth Field Regiment covered 5 Brigade and 5 Regiment the 6th Brigade, with 4 Field Regiment still under divisional command. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment was operating on the southern flank and 18 Battalion had moved to the neighbourhood of Rear Divisional Headquarters. Major C. L. Pleasants, from 19 Battalion, succeeded Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch in command of 18 Battalion.
By this time the Royal Air Force fighters had regained their ascendancy over the Luftwaffe, although the many complaints by the German ground forces suggest that from their point of view the RAF had been master of the air throughout the greater part of the campaign. The Luftwaffe bomber formations found they needed strong fighter protection and their bombing in hit-and-run Stuka raids was far from accurate. On 19 July the RAF claimed forty-three enemy aircraft destroyed in the air or on the ground, and page 316 messages of mutual satisfaction and appreciation were exchanged between the air and army commands.
In New Zealand Division's sector the most important event of the night, one which brought General Gott's congratulations, was a raid by 24 Battalion on known enemy positions in a small depression where the pipeline crossed the eastern end of Deir Umm Khawabir. The raiding party was commanded by Major Beyer1 and comprised thirty riflemen, a troop of six-pounders, a platoon of machine guns, three Bren-carrier sections, and a small detachment of sappers from 8 Field Company to deal with mines. Support was given by six batteries of field guns and two troops of the medium artillery firing on the perimeter of the depression ahead of the attack. The objective was roughly three miles from 24 Battalion's forward posts.
About 400 yards ahead of the start line, which was crossed at 8.30, the raiders encountered a minefield through which the engineers cleared a passage for the carriers. The noise of the carriers was attracting fire from the left and also on fixed lines from the north, but by this time the leading infantry had reached the objective. Freshly dug earth disclosed the enemy weapon pits, into which bakelite grenades were thrown and were followed by bayonet charges. Several groups of prisoners were taken, and with the help of the sappers a heavy gun, two of lighter calibre, an anti-tank gun, and four machine guns were destroyed.
When enemy armoured fighting vehicles were heard coming to the relief of the garrison, the carriers were called up to cover the infantry raiders and assist in getting the prisoners back. Three of the carriers were lost, one by an anti-tank shell and two on mines. With one carrier covering the withdrawal, the others took the riflemen and sappers and their prisoners back to the start line. When it was learned that several men were missing, Major Webb,2 second-in-command of that battalion, and Lieutenant Andrew,3 of 8 Field Company, made a search in the course of which they spent some time observing the enemy in the raided posts. They noted that the gap in the wire about the posts had not been repaired and that the enemy troops were behaving as if they were convinced that no further activities might be expected. Webb reported that a second raid between two and four o'clock in the morning would probably have caught the enemy unprepared. Most of the men at first thought to be missing were brought back by the carrier which had covered the withdrawal and had come home by another route.
2 Lt-Col R. G. Webb, ED, m.i.d.; Pukehou; born Stratford, 5 Aug 1906; schoolmaster; OC 2 NZ Fd Maint Unit Nov 1941–Jan 1942; CO 24 Bn 22 Nov-16 Dec 1942; wounded and p.w. 16 Dec 1942; headmaster, Te Aute College.
The cost of the raid was two killed, two seriously wounded, one man missing and the three carriers. Against this loss the raiders could put the destroyed enemy equipment, 42 prisoners, and an estimated 30 killed. The prisoners were from 4 and 8 Companies of 8 Bersaglieri Regiment of Ariete Division. They said their companies were about a hundred strong and that each had three 47-millimetre anti-tank guns and three heavy and three light machine guns. They asserted that their officers had withdrawn when the raid began. One prisoner reported that he had seen six M13 tanks and four guns on tank chassis at his headquarters and that he believed these represented Ariete's armoured strength.1
Reporting on the raid, Lieutenant-Colonel Greville,2 commanding the battalion, mentioned the difficulty of evacuating prisoners and recommended that in future enterprises of the kind a special party should be detailed to take them in charge and hurry them to the rear. He also suggested greater use of tracer ammunition to permit the Bren gunners to observe their fire.
In his message, General Gott said: ‘Please convey my congratulations to the patrol commander and the patrol on their great work last night. It was a good show and gave us very useful information.’ The German records of the raid had an opposite note. Afrika Korps diary mentioned that ‘elements of Ariete flung away their arms’, while 15 Panzer Division reported that some of the Italians ran away. The division's diary also noted that ‘the fact that the enemy had made a penetration at a part of the line held by Italians was again regarded as significant.’
The enemy records contain the further information that Lindemann Battle Group had an 88-millimetre gun destroyed by the raiders and that the crew of a 20-millimetre anti-aircraft gun went missing. A specific reference to the fact that the 88-millimetre gun was blown up by the raiders suggests that it was on loan to the Italians. The route taken by the raiders was past the southern flank of Lindemann, and no mention is made in 24 Battalion's reports that any Germans were encountered. Afrika Korps was so perturbed by the penetration that Baade Group was sent forward to restore the situation, but before it arrived on the scene the raiders had withdrawn. The diary of 15 Division contains a correct diagnosis of the affair as ‘only a raid with a limited objective to harass us and destroy equipment.’
1 An Italian tank return on the 17th credited Ariete with 15 tanks and there is nothing to suggest that it had lost nine in the meantime.
The daylight hours of 20 July were quiet but not without incident. During the morning 5 Indian Division lost its hold on Point 62 and thus observation over Deir el Shein. In New Zealand Division's sector the engineers by this time had marked the main minefields and with the help of the infantry had cleared the area of most of the debris of the Ruweisat battle. About 3500 mines had been lifted by 7 Field Company in 5 Brigade's sector and stacked in a rear dump. The sappers had lost several men in this work, and on this day they lost another six when a truckload of between 700 and 800 mines was blown up during unloading at the dump. No trace could be found of the truck driver and the sappers and blast knocked over several men some hundreds of yards away. The cause of the explosion was never satisfactorily explained.
The night of the 20th-21st was marked by extensive patrolling in preparation for an attack on Mreir which all ranks of the Division knew was in the immediate offing. All six battalions sent out fighting and reconnaissance patrols to locate and test the enemy posts and his minefields. Most had brushes with Germans and Italians. A patrol from 25 Battalion which tried to improve on the feat of the previous night at Kaponga was the only one which suffered misfortune. It was ordered to break into the perimeter of Kaponga, secure prisoners and destroy transport. After breaching two lines of wire, it was challenged by a sentry of Stein Company in the 288th German Special Force and was then fired on with machine guns. The patrol was forced to withdraw with the loss of one man killed and four taken prisoner.