CHAPTER 7 — Alamein
In a letter he wrote home on 22 July 1942 Lieutenant-Colonel Russell said:
Well, I've got the story of what happened now and it's a sad one to say the least of it as I'm pretty well short of three companies and my headquarters; fortunately all the specialists were a bit behind and so escaped the mopping up. I gather two Jerry columns of tanks one on each flank caught them as they were moving up at first light and as they were unsupported at the moment simply rounded them up and put them in the bag— the whole show taking ten to fifteen minutes—tragic but very few casualties thank goodness so we will get them back in time. Please God we will be back on Jerry's tail and have him cleaned up before he can get them shipped away….I feel very sad about it. Had I been there I gather there was nothing I could have done and most likely I should have been in the bag too…. I've got a very good foundation to build on…but I have lost so many good young officers and NCOs to say nothing of men….’
‘After the Battalion was captured I applied for transfer from stretcher bearers as the whole “guts” seemed to have gone out of the outfit and no 16 Platoon and all: just couldn't bring myself to settle with the new chaps—Mac felt the same—think most of us did.’—Mick Bradford.
‘That's the finish. I'm not training any more bootmakers for the b—Jerries. Just as they were starting to be handy, too’.— Battalion bootmaker, Corporal Jack Lines,1 whose five recently trained bootmakers had been captured.
Twenty-second Battalion had gone into the field on 22 June 720 strong. Then 125 (A Company), left out of battle, were sent back from Mersa Matruh to Maadi, where they stayed page 186 during the Minqar Qaim and Ruweisat actions. Before the attack on Ruweisat Ridge the battalion's casualties in killed, wounded, and missing (120) were nearly balanced by reinforcements numbering 106. Casualties in the next few days were 278, most of them prisoners. After Ruweisat the battalion had only about thirty riflemen left in the field, but men from A and B Echelons, the anti-tank, mortar and carrier platoons totalled 273. They went back to Maadi, where A Company was waiting; 157 reinforcements arrived, and at the end of July the battalion's strength was 28 officers and 577 other ranks.
During the first fortnight in August the battalion was still taking shape and reorganising in a Maadi undergoing the purge of its lifetime: many a New Zealander was jerked from ‘a sweet possie’ and dropped in the front line before he had gathered together his hitherto most serviceable wits. By 18 August the unit had been built up to the strength of three rifle companies and Headquarters Company.2 The next day the move back to the Division began, ‘up the Desert Road in the middle of a scorching day, and as we stood in the front of the tray looking ahead over the cab the wind came up in our faces in hot gusts off the scorching asphalt—it caused my lips to crack and bleed in the week following this at Alamein Box.’
In the last month, both armies having fought to a standstill, positions had changed very little along the 35-mile Alamein line, which stretched from the coast almost due south to the treacherous sands of the Qattara Depression, impassable for a modern army's heavy vehicles and armour. The Alamein line (groups of minefields, holes, gun emplacements, strongpoints) still barred the way to Alexandria, 60 miles away.
The New Zealand Division, in a square about five miles across and just south of Ruweisat Ridge, remained on the inland or southern flank of the line. The troops dug laboriously deeper into the stubborn rock, strengthened positions, gunpits and minefields, and endured with growing exasperation the flies, the blazing mid-summer heat, and the regular attacks of dive-bombing Stukas. Sickness, particularly yellow jaundice and dysentery (‘Wog guts’) spread, but despite the great heat sun- page 187 stroke was unknown at Alamein. With some men the slightest scratch meant another desert sore, which took a long time to heal and attracted the flies. Some men seemed to get desert sores (or septic fingernails) for no reason at all; others apparently were immune. This summer was the worst period in the Division's history; veterans who went on into Italy look back and say: ‘It was easily the worst, without question.’
However, a clean wind was beginning to blow in the desert. ‘The scientific soldiers were now to come from England,’ wrote Brigadier Kippenberger. General Alexander took over command of the Middle East Forces, and General Montgomery (‘the man who really put the ordinary soldier in the picture’, as many men describe him) took over the Eighth Army. The new—the startling new—head of Eighth Army declared, ‘there will be no withdrawal and no surrender’, and underlined his words by sending the transport many miles back behind the Alamein line.
Montgomery visited 22 Battalion on Sunday, 23 August, two or three days after the reorganised battalion had taken its place in the New Zealand fold again and settled down at the front. He impressed everyone by his quick and confident manner. One officer in the battalion says: ‘Within a few days a new spirit was abroad. His greatest success was the raising of morale of the troops, and with the raising of that morale came his success.’ Another man considered him ‘rather like a jockey’, which certainly can be taken as a tribute from a racehorse-crazy country. Tom De Lisle recalls how the commander, ‘deceived by Private Harry Sansum's3 (Signallers) frail appearance, asked Harry if he felt all right.’ The signaller replied he had never felt better in his life. The General smiled and passed on, and ‘later the boys chided Harry on a golden opportunity lost. As one of them said: “Why, when a big shot like that thinks a man's crook, he's as good as back in Taranaki!” ‘Men of C/D Company ‘were in slitties, under cover, lookouts posted, when we were called together in a hollow square. The general wanted to see, and be seen, by all his men. All of the officers were presented to him.’
When the battalion returned in late August to the New Zealand Box, near Ruweisat, where a most trying fortnight would page 188 be spent, it was given the eastern flank (a reserve position) to defend, and came under the command of 132 (British) Brigade, which was under New Zealand command at this time. Fourth Brigade, smashed and broken, would take no further part in the desert war. The battalion, scarcely shaken down into shape and now changed almost beyond recognition, fell to on the old familar task: digging in on hard, rocky ground—sometimes helped briefly by pneumatic compressors—wiring, filling sandbags, piling up rocks, siting 3-inch mortars and two-pounder anti-tank guns along the front, carving weapon pits and slit trenches.
A veteran still rather shamefacedly remembers a particularly deep slit trench he dug there: ‘that slit trench, of all the hundreds one must have made, is called to mind notably for the fact that it was very evident of “fear”, and is marked too by receiving there a telegram of all things of the death of a member of the family—how anybody could be bothered to deliver it at such a time and place speaks a language of its own.’
Flies, heat, thirst and dust, in that order: that was the curse of the New Zealand Box, which brings to mind a weary picture of the constant waving of hands in front of faces all day. ‘Putting our hands over our mugs of tea to keep the flies out, and waving our bread and jam in the air between bites, which stopped them getting stuck on the jam but didn't stop them from settling up near your shoulder and crawling down your arm to get at it.'Some, holding tea and food in front of them, walked briskly into the breeze, which the flies disliked (but breezes were very few). Best of all was to clear the little two-men bivvy (some had dug-in bivvies here), leaving the flaps up at each end and covering them with mosquito netting ‘so what breeze there was could come through. Then lay down on your back for a bit of peace, and let the sweat from your chest run down your ribs in cool dribbles. But the flies got in again sooner or later.’ Early-rising flies, a little dopey and hard to shift, were up before sunrise; by sunset most of them mercifully would be gone. The flies (strongly attracted by moisture, went for eyes, mouth, sweat and desert sores) were dark in colour, gave the impression of having cast-iron heads, and were about the size of a New Zealand housefly (not, mercifully, as large as a bluebottle). Men hid from the tormentors in slit trenches covered page 189 with groundsheets, but the stuffy heat soon drove them out again, more exasperated than ever.
Dusk came like some great sigh of relief over the entire battle-front. Newcomers to the battalion, placed in turn on night picket and pacing their unit's area in the Box, learned how easily a man could lose his bearings (a landmark would be a stunted bush or a small pile of stones) and get lost in the bare sand with only an odd patch of camel-thorn and an occasional vehicle looming out of the darkness. A feature of the Alamein line, of course, was that little if anything showed above ground. When lost, a man had to make a mental note of where he stood, and then strike out hopefully in various directions until he came to something familiar. Another night task, until the end of August, was lighting special beacon-flares (tactically placed tins filled with kerosene-soaked sand). This was for the benefit of certain night flyers in the RAF. Off to kindle his beacons at most uncomfortable hours every night went Sergeant Cyril Whitty,4 of the intelligence section, leading his grumbling and swearing helpers, and insisting that nobody went to sleep or neglected his flare.
‘I think the most exciting thing in those days were the dogfights which took place above us. The chaps standing and looking up and cheering and shouting encouragement. The dive to earth (usually trailing smoke), the eruption, and a second or so later the sound of the crash. It was also good to watch our ack-ack following an enemy plane: sometimes you wouldn't see or hear the plane until he was quite near, but you knew where he was by listening to and watching the ack-ack. Then it was very satisfying to watch those bombers that day when our Bofors caught them dawdling over our lines and shot down most of them. I clearly remember one of these bombers. You could see a flash on his right-hand motor as a shell hit it, and then for a fraction of a second nothing, and then the whole motor burst into a ball of orange flame.’
Allowing for dogfights, Stukas, shelling and so on, the battalion soon found the line much quieter. The Axis forces, still most confident of victory, were massing for their final thrust towards Alexandria. Few enemy prisoners had been taken along the entire front for two weeks, so in the night of 25-26 August page 190 the Maoris swept back from a characteristic raid with thirty-five Italians, the first New Zealand offensive operation under General Montgomery. By this time Rommel's next attempt to master Egypt was expected: his last throw, probably coming on the inland flank and brushing past the New Zealanders' positions. All preparations had been made to meet this attack; the thrust deliberately would be allowed to penetrate east until yet more positions would be met. Then, blocked in front, hampered by intricate minefields, and pounded from the flanks and from the air, the raiders, out on a limb, would have no choice but to withdraw from the trap. And furthermore, this plan to turn at last the Axis tide in Africa would work.
On the night of 31 August-1 September 5 Brigade and 132 (British) Brigade changed positions, and with this change 22 Battalion (not moving) came again under 5 Brigade's command. Before the brigade had fully settled into positions, the codeword TWELVEBORE arrived, and this celebrated Eighth Army order was read out: ‘The enemy is now attempting to break through our positions in order to reach Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria, and to drive us from Egypt. The Eighth Army bars the way. It carries a great responsibility, and the whole future of the war will depend on how we carry out our task. We will fight the enemy where we now stand; there will be NO WITHDRAWAL and NO SURRENDER. Every officer and man must continue to do his duty as long as he has breath in his body…. Into battle then, with stout hearts and with the determination to do our duty. And may God give us the victory.’
Within twenty-four hours 22 Battalion, at the Box's ‘back door’, was liable at any moment to be in the front line. In fact, although the by-passed New Zealanders were not attacked in the eastward ‘victory drive’, some Germans must have penetrated close to the south-eastern corner of the Box, for German mines were found laid there afterwards.
The Luftwaffe staged a particularly lively night: ‘I suppose some of the planes could have been ours but I should think nearly all of it came from Jerry,’ writes a private in 13 Platoon. ‘He started soon after dark and the last plane went back with the coming of first light. I don't remember any time during the night that there wasn't at least one plane flying around. There were flares, bombs, butterfly bombs [their first appearance, page 191 vicious things leaping like jumping-jacks from the opening canister] and strafing. Early in the night he dropped three flares quite near us and they seemed to hang in the sky for a long time….I was surprised by their brightness—I remember I could quite easily read the words in an old Auckland Weekly in the slittie beside me. A rear-gunner busily fired bursts trying to provoke a target, but not a sound came from the Bofors or anyone else that night. A plane … [dropped butterfly bombs]: there was a gobbling and crackling noise and all these sparkling lights appeared on a patch of desert: depending on how many you could see they looked like the lights of a big town or a prison camp at night.’
Fortunately for 22 Battalion the British armour to the east held firm, and Rommel began to withdraw. Now came the turn of the New Zealand Division to strike, in the night of 3-4 September, and to ‘harass’ (a favourite non-committal sort of word in the first half of the war) the withdrawing forces. The New Zealanders were to attack to the south and hurry along Rommel's withdrawal. The 132nd Brigade went in on the right, 5 Brigade on the left; 22 and 23 Battalions were warned to be prepared to follow up the Maoris and 21 Battalion, which led the attack. One company from 22 Battalion (B Company) had the role of guarding a party of engineers who were to follow up the Maoris and lay a minefield. The attack wasn't the full success pictured: after adventures and alarms in the night B Company and the sappers didn't get far enough forward to lay the minefield. Before dawn the Brigadier ordered B Company to dig in behind the Maoris and called the rest of 22 Battalion up to join it. A mine blew a wheel from the intelligence truck and Lieutenant Webster5 was wounded. After daylight C/D Company had joined B, and the two companies formed a line on a ridge through which the Maoris withdrew. A Company remained in reserve with Battalion Headquarters, about a mile to the rear. Supporting 22 Battalion were said to be the few remaining Crusader tanks of a squadron of 50 Royal Tank Regiment, which had been severely mauled in the night. The battalion had the Maoris' anti-tank platoon as well as some six-pounders in the neighbourhood.page 192
The battalion was not into position before daylight. Several platoons were shelled as they moved up (‘I remember the tiny bits from one airburst “ticking” on my tin hat’), but they moved on and dug in as quickly as the rocky ground would allow. The anti-tank guns were up with them, reassuringly, but during the morning several platoons were moved forward, moving, digging and moving on, and thereby getting further away from anti-tank protection.
Before this an artillery smoke screen had been ordered to cover the Maoris' withdrawal. Parties of Maoris began drifting back through the smoke: ‘I'll always remember them. They were coming back in anything from singles to small groups, swaggering and strolling along with happy carefree faces, and not seeming to have a care in the world… seemingly back from a cross-country stroll rather than a slaughtering match down in the depression.’ The Brigade Commander noticed the whole of 22 Battalion's area ‘under heavy fire from tank guns and 88's. I was pleased to see how little notice anyone appeared to be taking. After all, they were only small shells.’ One man, Hec Jensen,6 nicked in the buttocks, would have disputed this statement.
No sooner had the Maoris pulled back to the 22nd's lines than there were obvious signs that the enemy was going to attack. Shelling, mortaring, and machine-gun fire increased. About noon enemy infantry and a few tanks advanced towards the slight gap between B Company's and C/D Company's positions. Seventeen Platoon, well advanced and badly placed, had not dug in properly and had no anti-tank protection, ‘when we saw what appeared to be a section of Jerries with their hands up marching towards us before tanks coming on towards us in a pincers movement. We were very exposed.’ Private Orr,7 a Bren-gunner, had an arm severed and later died.
Artillery support was called for, but the enemy was very close before the shells fell. The positions were in ‘horribly flat and exposed country’ on the forward side of the ridge and could be seen from two or three miles away. Exact movements are not clear, but with the spectre of Ruweisat upon them again, page 193 two platoons from the makeshift C/D Company got up and ran (it happens even in the best armies) over the crest of the ridge to shelter. When the enemy thrust was held up by the anti-tank guns, the men were ordered back to their positions, but when the next wave came they withdrew again.
This hasty retreat is seen through the eyes of a new reinforcement, whose impressions of first going into action could be typical of many new men experiencing their first action on this day.
After arriving at Maadi from New Zealand he had listened to men from the battalions ‘talking about their narrow escapes and laughing about it—laughing about things they must have thought far from funny at the time of the happening. It didn't sound so bad. So from then on till my first action I felt more confident. (They didn't say that after a time you could feel sick of hearing that “crump” followed by those wicked bits of shrapnel whining away—and think of all the misery they were causing all over the world.)’ When bombers flew over the base areas at night, he heard the sound of bombs dropped and saw ‘those wonderful fireworks displays’—it was really exciting.
‘Then joining the battalion and moving up to Alamein (I noticed that whenever we stopped as we neared our destination jokers always seemed to be inclined to get a shovel and start digging, also at different times on the way you would see somebody now and again just glance up around the sky). But to me—well—it was an adventure. And it was in the Alamein Box that I saw my first enemy shell land, just over in the minefield a hundred or so yards away, and our sergeant said we had better get near the slittie—but I was in no hurry.
‘And from then on with dogfights above us and bombing in different places all around—and all that shelling while moving south to take up our positions on top of the escarpment overlooking Munassib—it was all adventure.’
Now comes the retreat.
‘Then we saw those Jerries forming up and then start advancing across the flat towards us—and I was enjoying every minute of it—I had no nerves at all. (After all what show had fifty or a hundred Jerries and a few tanks advancing across a bare flat got against a battalion of us, sitting in slitties and looking right page 194 down on top of them? If I'd looked around I would have noticed that we didn't have any tanks at all.) Then I noticed jokers around me keeping their heads well down—but I wanted to get a good look at these Jerries I had heard so much about. The bullets started to clip the rocks in front of me and fly past my head, so I thought: well they ARE a bit close—I'd better keep my head down a bit.
‘And—well—from then on things started to deteriorate. The tanks came up the ridge round the side of us (one stopped and a figure appeared standing up in the turret having a good look around and taking all the time in the world to do it). But I was still quite happy.
‘But then someone says that we're getting out—and that's where the rot set in—running back there—with swarms of bullets tearing past me—going the same way as I was (like the hare—they were—I was like the tortoise—and running flat out), and looking and sounding a bit like swarms of angry bees—saying to myself: “Well it's here—they can't miss me— I wonder what it'll feel like”—and waiting for it—and shrugging my haversack up on my back in the vain hope of some protection. And—well—to finish the story—I never looked forward to going into action with the same glee after that!’
When one of the platoons reached the shelter of the anti-tank guns (Sergeant Danny Gower gamely lugging the stricken Orr out with a fireman's hoist), Colonel John Russell, collecting Orr in his jeep, ordered the men back, but to return now seemed impossible, so they halted in front of the guns. There the shelling intensified and the platoon suffered seven casualties within half an hour. One man, dazed with blast, realised he was walking round and round a gun in circles, but ‘we were set once we got back to the anti-tank line for three tanks were knocked out by the Maori anti-tank gunners in double-quick time.’ The attack was beaten off by concentrated fire from the Divisional Artillery: ‘shells rained down like pepper out of a pepper-pot, the desert seemed to brew up, terrific.’
The enemy pressed his counter-attack spasmodically for nearly three hours, but against the heavy artillery fire from the large number of New Zealand guns in the Box he finally gave up about 3 p.m.page 195
Corporal Len McClurg,8 in the noon attack, had controlled his mortars admirably when the enemy closed in towards the battalion positions. The accurate and intense fire of McClurg's men (‘They played their mortars to an unforgettable rhythm, like a piano’) halted them until the artillery SOS fire broke up the attack. McClurg, with great coolness, had moved repeatedly to and fro over 100 yards under heavy fire directing and observing the ranging and fire of his own mortars. In the afternoon attack the corporal, although wounded in three places, carried on with his duties until this attack was beaten off. He won the DCM. Another cool man was Corporal Lacy Craig,9 with a most advanced section screening an anti-tank gun. When the tanks were 200 yards away, Craig held his section firm, and the anti-tank gun, working at top efficiency, held off several tanks. Among other men who distinguished themselves this day was Captain John MacDuff, actively and reassuringly keeping groups in contact and moving about freely in most unpleasant conditions.
In the night the RAF, dropping flares, revealed German transport huddled together in a gap in the minefield ‘and let them have a lot of bombs. We could see trucks being blown up and ammunition exploding in the dark.’
The New Zealanders moved back that night, and within a few days British and Greek troops had taken over the New Zealand Box. When the confused battle of Alam Halfa was over, nobody was quite sure who had been ‘harassed’ the most.
The news of the withdrawal that evening was like a reprieve, and the weary trudge back through the sand began. All next day (6 September) the men rested, heartened by the news that the Division was going on leave, and with ‘Colonel Russell wandering round, sitting down and yarning with chaps for their point of view.’ Overhead a large air battle raged, and eight unidentified aircraft were shot out of the sky. A Hurricane fighter crash-landed half a mile east of A Company, and the South African pilot (who received attention at the battalion RAP), thinking he was in enemy territory, was found smashing page 196 the last of anything at all useful, much to the disgust of souvenir hunters. In the afternoon three Stukas were shot down in another air battle.
That evening came'the incredible news, a call for all officers to attend the funeral of Colonel Russell.’ After sadly telling Brigadier Kippenberger he would have to give up command of 22 Battalion because his feet were seriously troubling him again, John Russell went to visit an English friend in 132 Brigade. Returning in his jeep, he saw a Bren carrier in difficulties. It had run over and exploded a mine. The Colonel walked forward to help the crew and trod on another mine. ‘The manner in which he met his death portrays his true character,’ reads 22 Battalion's war diary this day, ‘he was always willing to help those in difficulties.’ After the long weeks of disaster in the desert and the misfortunes of 1941, the tragic death of this most human commander seemed an almost unbearable blow. It was hard to fight down the feeling that the battalion was unlucky, perhaps even a doomed battalion. But, with this last sad blow, the fortunes of 22 Battalion were to change. The days of defeat were over.
‘Sad beyond words’, that evening, in a New Zealand war cemetery, the General, the Brigadier and all the battalion officers attended the burial conducted by Padre Champion, who thought’ it seemed so sad (in the dark) to be laying to rest so great a soldier with such a simple service. I thought of those words written about the burial of Sir John Moore: “Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note”.’
In his last detailed letter home, written at the front a fortnight before his death, the Colonel had said: ‘… [heat and flies] but it's the same on the other side of the wire. It's grand to get back to the Division again and be in the picture. One never knows what is happening when one is away from it…. It was a great sight coming up, to see the stuff stacked up behind us gives a great feeling of confidence in the future…. We had the new Army Commander around my area yesterday and he was most impressive—looked as if he knew his own mind and meant to see things were carried out on the dot. Small, quiet spoken and tight-lipped with an eye that saw more than the obvious so I shall be surprised if he does not produce the bacon. This W.D. [Western Desert] has certainly produced a page 197 number of bowler hats for British Generals and by the process of elimination we must get the goods soon…. ’… my word what a lot of problems there are going to be, to be squared up after this show. It's very interesting yarning to the boys under these circumstances for you get so much closer to them in the field when you share their grub and jokes along with the hardships, and the one thing that they are all emphatic about is that no political differences or class warfare must be allowed to interfere with the comradeship built up under these conditions. That the RSA must never be used for political ends—but the carrying into all shades of life the camaraderie learnt in the field. How many of us will remember this five and ten years after? DV we will learn our lesson once and for all this time—but the human animal is very wayward and delights to go his own way regardless of his fellow man…. I shall have to stop as the light has almost gone and it's definitely no lights by request at night in these parts.’
Colonel Campbell again took over the battalion. Then came the long gruelling trek out, manhandling stuck vehicles to the ‘rest area’, 37 miles west of Alexandria. For a treasured fortnight the troops rested by Burg el Arab, an unforgettable contrast with its clean white sand, the Mediterranean, and the old picture-book desert fort said to have been used in filming ‘Beau Gest’. There was no desert, no flies, no thirst, no war at Burg el Arab, but plenty of time to laze around, to forget some things and remember others, to enjoy hot showers, clean blankets, free cordials and biscuits and cups of tea from the YMCA—and, of course, swimming, resting, visiting Alexandria and Cairo with and without leave. ‘When I had my first bath the sight of so much precious water made me feel like drinking it!’ Men just back from four-day leave to Cairo could be picked out at the beach by the appearance of their faces, eyes and hair. They watched movies, and saw with genuine pleasure and pride first-class shows by the Kiwi Concert Party, ‘which showed what New Zealanders really could do musically etc. if they got cracking.’ Then back to work, about 20 miles south into the desert for special training in a ‘hush-hush’ locality known as ‘Swordfish area’, where a pet dog gave birth to a litter of pups; and Private Alf Adams remembers how soldiers came from all over page 198 the desert, like the wise men following the star, just to look at those little live pups. Here D Company was formed again, and the following officers now commanded companies: A, Captain Hockley; B, Captain MacDuff; C, Captain Donald; D, Captain Anderson; Headquarters Company, Captain Farrell;10 and Support Group, Captain Knox. Major Steele11 became second-in-command. The 23rd September brought the great news which the battalion, and B Company especially, had been waiting for impatiently: Keith Elliott had been awarded the Victoria Cross for valour on Ruweisat Ridge.
The Division rehearsed for its attack in the Alamein line which would follow a month later. The New Zealanders would approach the front under cover of darkness, send back all tell-tale vehicles, rest all next day dug in and out of sight, go forward again when night returned, and attack in the moonlight. The real assault would go forward on Miteiriya Ridge, to the north of the fateful Ruweisat, and for the rehearsal a patch of desert closely resembling this ridge was chosen. Conditions were made as authentic as possible: minefields (which the sappers swiftly cleared and marked), live ammunition, smoke, tracer, wire, and movements of units duplicated as exactly as possible the assault which was to be made a month later.
At 7 p.m. on 24 September the battalion climbed into its vehicles and moved 11 miles westward along a prudently lighted track to 5 Brigade's assembly area, a rough, dusty ride with the going bad, many vehicles sticking and churning in soft sand. Dug in and keeping as still as possible, the companies rested all next day. In the afternoon the Colonel and the Intelligence Officer joined the Brigadier's reconnaissance of the area chosen for the divisional attack exercise, and placed guides in the battalion forming-up area. That night the battalion marched six miles to where the guides took companies to selected areas, where they dispersed and dug in before midnight. They stood-to for an hour at dawn, and company and platoon commanders made reconnaissances for the night-attack exercise. At 8 p.m. the battalion moved to the start line at a gap in the minefield, page 199 where the companies deployed on a 600-yard front in this order:
|D Company||B Company|
|A Company||C Company|
At 11 p.m. the battalion advanced 2660 yards to the second start line, which had been secured by 23 Battalion ‘attacking’ ahead. Here the battalion front was extended to 1200 yards, and now, with nobody in front, 22 Battalion, advancing close behind the artillery barrage, ‘attacked’2400 yards to the final objective, where positions were organised. The success signal was given at 2 a.m., and the supporting weapons brought up into position. At dawn the battalion was ready to deal with any theoretical counter-attack. Then General Freyberg held a conference of all officers and NCOs down to sergeant to discuss and criticise the exercise.
While the battalion went on a route march, Support Group practised weapon training. Lance-Corporal ‘Pluto’ Hulme's12 two-pounder anti-tank crew practised loading live rounds. ‘It was quite safe, the firing mechanism had been removed. During smokeoh someone replaced the firing mechanism—there was nothing surreptitious about it, the crew were standing around fiddling with the gun as guncrews do, trying the sights, the traverse, firing mechanism. After smokeoh, back into the training. “Action left!” A live round was rammed home, the gun swung round on to the RAP truck with a bigger queue than usual because of the current route march. “Action Right!” The gun swung round on to the 2 i/c's tent: still no fire order. “Action Front!” The gun came round on to the colonel's tent. “Range 700.” “Zero.” “Fire!” And Private Fred Putt's13 foot pressed the firing pedal.
‘The well trained gun crew observed the shot. Right on the mark, but high, it cleared the tent, ricochetted from the ground, and away into the blue. Then it flashed home to everybody that the damned gun was not supposed to go off, at least not then. Apparently the battalion, still on route march, was marching in single file because everyone seemed to think the shot went directly over his head. From that time on, Private Putt, alone among our eight, and later sixteen, guncrews enjoyed the rank and title: “Gunner”.’page 200
When the Division's rehearsal for Alamein was over (further rehearsals on a smaller scale would, of course, follow), the battalion moved back a few miles in a dust-storm and prepared for the brigade ceremonial parade due on the last day of the month. Sixteen Platoon of D Company was two minutes late for the rehearsal parade: beer, in short supply and very precious, was stopped for the whole company. A deeply disturbed meeting delegated Jack Sullivan (canteen representative) to tell the OC that 16 Platoon was prepared to take any punishment (except the beer cut), and it was considered unfair to penalise the whole company. The decision remained, but D Company helped themselves to their beer ration just the same. An alarmist felt that the company ‘would be up for mutiny’. After next morning's parade Colonel Campbell arrived, inspected the company, and asked the men to try to bring back the spirit of the old ‘Don’ Company he once commanded. Then, sending all officers away, he said: ‘Sit down men, and you may smoke.’ When everyone was comfortable he went on, ‘Now tell me all your troubles—what's all this business about the beer?’ The Colonel listened patiently, asked why they had not gone to him, and finally said he wanted no more such nonsense. He then appealed to the old hands to give newcomers all possible help, saying that any reinforcement wanting advice should never hesitate to approach an old soldier. ‘The company fully appreciated this tactful and understanding manner of dealing with the situation,’ sums up Tom De Lisle, ‘and felt that their old OC had endeared himself more than ever to the boys of his old company.’ Touches like these were not uncommon between senior officers and their men in the New Zealand Division.
The big parade for General Montgomery passed off happily, a spectacular and heartening sight. The General took the salute, and pinned the VC ribbon on Sergeant Keith Elliott's chest, the DCM on Corporal Ron Garmonsway, and the OBE on Major Steele (which he won while commanding the New Zealand squadron of the Long Range Desert Group). Addressing the parade through a microphone the General said: ‘A magnificent spectacle. I've seen you in action and on parade you're equally good. You've killed Germans before and you'll kill them again.’page 201
On 19 October, when the battle was drawing close, Padre Champion took a service, preaching on Luke, XII, 2: ‘For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.’
‘This is the big day and tonight the big show begins. I am writing this in a large slit trench which was conveniently dug by Australians previously,’ wrote Lieutenant Wardell.14’ It is a beautiful day, sunny and not too hot so far (10.30). Haddon Donald and other company commanders have been out on a reconnaissance and has just been over to tell me what he has seen. So far I don't know what time zero hour is, it is always a last minute secret. We have buried all our gear except what we stand up in, and it will be collected later.
‘A lot of shelling is going on and our planes and German ones are having a scrap right overhead about 20 thousand feet up. I have just been round my men, they are joking and confident about tonight and so am I. I cannot take my diary with me so this will be the last day I record until we get our gear back after this scrap. If it is not continued….’
All along the front the Eighth Army was about to attack.15 The New Zealand Division was to attack south-westwards to secure the north-western portion of Miteiriya Ridge and clear a wedge-shaped patch roughly two miles wide and three and a half miles deep. In 5 Brigade 23 Battalion, setting out at 9.35 p.m. (five minutes before the opening bombardment), would lead the attack, advancing about two miles to capture the first objective, the enemy's foremost defences, just through the first enemy minefields. Then, at five minutes before midnight, 22 Battalion (on the left) and 21 Battalion (on the right), page 202 after moving up 23 Battalion's cleared lane, were to take over from where the 23rd had left off and attack for about another one and a half miles. In 22 Battalion D Company was on the left, C in the centre, B on the right, and A Company in close reserve.
Battalion Headquarters' forward group would follow the rifle companies: Rear Battalion Headquarters would be further back with the head of the Support Column.
Although the strength of 22 Battalion was 35 officers and 628 other ranks, actually less than half of these (310 all ranks) would take part in the attack, and the great burden of casualties would fall, not on the battalion as a whole, but almost exclusively on the riflemen; 129 all ranks from Support Group were to follow into position immediately the attack succeeded.
One man (who found the Alamein attack not as terrifying as some actions he had been in), remembers the reassurance of ‘all the signs of the attack about to take place before official word reached us—that word was confident, and I think we felt confident too—although there were some mutterings about our tanks. We heard about the great mass of our equipment— guns, tanks, 25 pounders and everything to the last detail seemed to have been taken care of. The picture was confidence—with sometimes just a slight doubt.’page 203
The evening meal—the coolness as the sun set—the full moon rising in the east—the YMCA Mobile Canteen arriving and a man buying a tin of tomato juice, ‘What a wonderful drink it was to quench my thirst and I felt remarkably good although rather nervous—and expectant. We wondered among ourselves just who would and who wouldn't make the objective. But there was none of that dread fear that I have experienced on one or two other occasions. When you feel sick and watery in your stomach or when you can't eat anything, things are getting bad then.’
Padre Champion remembers the moon ‘peeping out from behind a bank of clouds at 5 minutes to 7 p.m. like wishing us “good luck”.’
That evening, 23 October, ‘we had a good meal of stew after dark and then back to our platoon areas,’ continues Wardell, writing up his diary after the battle, ‘where we saw to the rifles and Bren magazines, primed grenades and a last general once over of all our weapons. Then at 8.40 my platoon joined 14 and 15 and we were soon going through … [a British minefield] through which sappers had cleared a track.’ They were soon just behind 23 Battalion, poised for its advance to the first objective beyond the first enemy minefields. ‘…dug in and waited for the barrage from some of our 800 25-pounders to begin. Approx 200 opened up behind us [at 9.40 p.m.] and the row was terrific; they fired about four shells a minute and kept this up for four hours.’
‘And what a sight!’ adds Mick Kenny. ‘Red flashes all over the place, the air became thick with dust, smoke and burnt cordite. The sound of the Highland Bagpipes and the Maori Battalion doing their war cries. What a scene! Something we can't ever forget.’
‘The shells bursting blew up a large enemy ammo dump and at one time an ammunition truck went sky high and disintegrated on the way down,’ Wardell wrote. ‘This was clearly visible against the continuous glow of shells bursting. The 23 Battalion went off the … [start line at 9.35 p.m.] and the attack started….16page 204
‘All this time we had waited flat on the ground with shells whistling over our heads in incredible numbers; the blast from the bursting shells was so great it was hard to breathe as the wind was knocked out of your lungs. Never had Alamein known a night like it. Warships were shelling the enemy from the sea, and our bombers roared overhead dropping enormous loads of flares and bombs.
‘For a moment during the lull we heard the pipers from the Black Watch [the Highland Division was on the right of 5 Brigade], it was a grand sound and an inspiration to us all. Our zero hour [10.30 p.m.] had come and we had our ration of rum which Og Wood and I gave out to the platoons; then we formed up and away to the [first] start line. Still the bombardment went on—it seemed incredible that anyone could live through it; we were soon to find out that they could. They were very well dug in.
‘After about 600 yards of perfectly flat desert we came to the [British] minefields and wire entanglements [through which gaps had been cleared], it was brilliant moonlight and we could see the mines and anti-personnel mines on iron standards about a foot above the sand with trip wires to set them off; because of the moonlight we were able to see the mines and trip wires.’
The battalion advanced for forty minutes on a compass bearing of 245 degrees, or practically west-south-west. The men were moving over the ground cleared by 23 Battalion and the Maoris, the latter in a mopping-up role; they had met no hostile fire so far, but closer and closer grew the flashes and noises ahead of machine guns, mortars and shellfire. After forty minutes they saw purple lamps. This was the forming-up area, on 23 Battalion's objective, carefully lit up and marked in advance by the Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Butchart,17 and his party, who had followed close behind 23 Battalion. Here a signal was received from Brigade that 23 Battalion had been held up (actually it had gone on beyond its objective), and Colonel Campbell told all companies to be prepared for opposition earlier than they had expected. Shell and mortar fire was being met, and some casualties were caused by shorts in the New Zealand artillery barrage.page 205
The companies fanned out into extended line. The main attack for 22 Battalion began from the second start line (23 Battalion's objective) at fifty-five minutes past midnight.
The attacking companies were well into position in relation to the artillery barrage, now bursting in a violent wave close in front of them. The advance continued at the rate of 100 yards in three minutes, with contact being kept between Headquarters and the companies. Elements of 23 Battalion met falling back on the left flank said that they had struck heavy opposition further forward. D Company, which had lost contact with 26 Battalion on the left flank, reported that it was held up by strongpoints previously reported by 23 Battalion. C Company went in, wiping out all opposition, and the advance continued.
‘The enemy now opened up on us with everything they had,’ Wardell continues, ‘and their fire was withering. They were obviously expecting us in spite of the utmost secrecy of our previous movements. It seemed impossible that anyone could advance into this fire, but we did. By now we were going through thick dust like fog caused by bursting shells and smoke from bursting shells; it was pinkish to look at as tracer bullets winging through all the time made it so. The enemy used tracer a lot and it was actually possible to avoid machine gun tracer and you could see where it was going and walk beside it as they were firing mostly on fixed lines.
‘We returned their fire with Bren and rifle fired from the hip, also Tommygun. Then a mortar shell landed almost at my feet, blew me up into the air and when I came to I was quite allright, but Hori Toms18 my batman had blood pouring from a wound gaping in his hip, and his leg all twisted and broken. Then Adams19 got hit badly and his trousers on fire. Sergeant Reidy20 and I ripped them off. Then Lofty Veale21 then Simmonds22 and a few more got wounded, and our stretcher bearers following up did great work. We pushed on all the page 206 time. The creeping barrage was crashing shells overhead and bursting about 200 yards in front of us. On we went and now right in front of us was a large German machine gun pit with about 7 or 8 Germans firing with all they had; we charged them with Brens, Tommys and grenade and finished them off. Then on again. We had come a long way by this time and still the fire was terrific. Then we were going through a very heavy cloud of dust and smoke, and I got a most terrific whack on my shoulder and a burning pain and I was on the sand again with blood running down my arm onto my chest.’
Contact with the companies was now becoming increasingly difficult because the dust and smoke hanging over the battlefield made visibility bad despite the full moon. Another complication now set in. Some of the attackers advanced too fast (the rate was 100 yards in three minutes), and when the 25- pounders opened up after the next lift, ‘the shells tore down and crashed around us.’
Wardell was now out of the battle, so another man takes up the tale: ‘There was much ducking and diving around us as we got back behind them. The dust and stuff from the barrage was dimming the moon, and it wasn't always easy to see or keep contact. At least two of us got out of position, saw an n.c.o. from the company behind us, asked him which company he was, and he jumped in the air and jabbered and roared and we were treated to the finest exhibition of “scone-doing” we ever saw in the army. He was waving his arms around in the air and by what we could make of it he reckoned we should be further ahead.’ The two men regained their places and carried on, a little peeved at perhaps being mistaken for deserters.
‘I don't think we noticed half the stuff coming our way because of the noise of our own guns. But now and again you would notice a man stagger or fall or do something that told you he had been hit—then a chap near spun round, dropped his rifle and grabbed his ankle and said: “The bastards have got me”. Then one of our jokers a few yards to my left and slightly in front of me, he must have spotted something for as I glanced his way he was standing with his legs well apart, and just as I looked there was a flash right between his legs and just in front of him: he seemed to pull back a bit but then page 207 carried on again. Now and again we passed the dead body of one of the enemy—each lying in its own special position.’
Despite the dust clouds the advance halted according to plan at the pause of the artillery barrage at 1.40 a.m. Colonel Campbell visited all the company commanders and, finding that C Company had suffered heavy casualties, ordered A Company to take over a forward role in the centre, with C Company moving back into the reserve position. D Company was still on the left. Lieutenant Wood had been killed and two other officers wounded in C Company, in which only thirty other ranks remained to take part in the final phase of the attack. Corporal Lacy Craig had become the commander of his platoon, and was discharging his duties with considerable skill and judgment.
B Company (on the right), extraordinarily enough at this stage, had met no opposition, but one of its men had been killed and another wounded.
The advance was resumed at 1.55 a.m. into heavy shell and mortar fire and some machine-gun fire. Mick Kenny in A Company saw it like this: ‘To be advancing and seeing tracers coming towards you, hissing past, shells bursting around, being met by whizzing dirt, seeing comrades blown over, challenging dugouts, getting Ities out at Bayonet point, over-running dugouts and to be fired at from behind—what a night! However, Lieutenant O'Reilly who carried on, although wounded, got us to our objective—a great effort for a wounded officer.’
About this stage a particular enemy machine gun, firing on fixed lines, kept putting short strings of tracer at an angle through the battalion's line of advance. A man in C Company (which was following behind A Company) could ‘see several points of light appear far ahead and sail gracefully and quite slowly towards you, then as they got near you they would seem to speed up and dart past then go serenely on until they disappeared somewhere behind. It came to the time when I had to pass through its line of fire so I kept a sharp lookout ahead then got onto the other side as quickly as possible without getting out of line too much.’
Soon victory was within grasp, for at last the battalion was moving up the northern slopes of Miteiriya Ridge itself. Rear Battalion Headquarters group joined the forward headquarters, page 208 and the mopping-up party from 28 Battalion was in close and thorough attendance at the rear. This detachment from the Maori Battalion also gave brief and invaluable attention to the wounded, thrusting dropped rifles in the sand bayonet first as a guide for stretcher-bearers. A wounded man remembered the dead ‘surrounded by great dark patches in the sand, their faces looking ghastly in the moonlight.’
B Company still kept touch with 21 Battalion on the right flank, but contact with the centre company had been lost just short of the ridge. B Company had suffered further casualties by this time, losing two killed and twenty wounded. As the leading infantry, thinning fast but undaunted, crested the ridge they struck intense fire from enemy machine-gun posts which were not at that time hampered by the artillery barrage. Quickly sizing up the situation, Captain MacDuff placed some of his Bren guns in position to return the fire, and rushed the remainder of his men virtually on to the edge of the barrage with great skill, stamping out the enemy practically before the artillery had lifted. This swift action undoubtedly minimised casualties in the rest of the battalion and enabled it to reach its objectives according to plan. For this action MacDuff won the Military Cross.
By now all companies had met strong opposition, and heavy duelling with automatic weapons was taking place on the battalion front. A Company, in the confusion of the attack, had eased over to the left, and just before reaching the final objective met Battalion Headquarters. This company also had suffered during the assault: one killed, twenty wounded and seven missing so far, and every man with his own particular narrow-escape story. ‘On one occasion while we were lying on our stomachs waiting for the barrage to lift I felt what seemed like a worm give a wriggle in the back of my shirt—only it felt hot.’ Later this man found that the bullet, after entering the top of his haversack, had gone through a packet of army biscuits (‘incredible’) and then a tin of bully, and had broken in two; one part had passed out through the bottom of the haversack, and the other fragment had smashed the haversack's buckle.
D Company had lost touch with 26 Battalion after moving through the wire, and the relative positions of A and D Companies page 209 in the line of advance had been reversed. C Company (despite its losses and its return to reserve position) had again gone forward with D Company, and all four companies took part in the advance to the final objective. D Company struck its first enemy posts at 2.20 a.m., but these and further enemy strongpoints were routed until the final objective was gained. Even then the company did not halt—the same company which had been appealed to over the ‘beer strike’ four weeks ago. D Company (and, in fact, most of the battalion) attacked a further 600 yards, taking sixty prisoners, while C Company also moved forward and accounted for a number of prisoners, as well as killing many of the enemy remaining in their pits.
During the advance over the ridge Battalion Headquarters had been seriously depleted and divided. The wireless set had gone astray and communication with Brigade lost, while A and C Companies' sets were out of action. A company from 23 Battalion (which had overshot its objective) was met, but luckily these troops made themselves known very quickly.
In the final stages of the attack the battalion endured intense bombardment from mortar and airburst shells, but by 2.35 a.m. all the companies had reported reaching their objectives. Unfortunately the men carrying the rocket flares were either wounded or missing, and not until 3.15 a.m. was Colonel Campbell able to fire the success signal. The attack had gone entirely to plan and the objectives detailed in operational orders had been taken. A further 600 yards of enemy territory also had been exploited successfully, many of the enemy killed, and some 150 prisoners taken. Throughout the attack the battalion had not strayed from the correct axis of advance and had been under full control and in contact with Headquarters. The Intelligence Officer and his party, doing exceptionally good work in the marking of the forming-up areas and in laying the start line, had contributed to the success.
The casualties, 110 altogether, undoubtedly were heavy, but considering the opposition and the final success, these losses were not thought unduly high. Nevertheless, one man in every three in the actual attack had become a casualty—such is the lot of the infantryman. Further grim work was ahead, for the companies still had to consolidate. Although they had advanced an extra 600 yards, they now drew back, and while consolidating, page 210 still under heavy shell and mortar fire, suffered more casualties. Captain Donald (C Company), who had been wounded earlier, returned to the field after his wound was dressed, and was wounded again. Lieutenant Butchart, who had stayed with the forward companies after laying out the start line, was killed while trying to raise Headquarters over a No. 18 wireless set; the shell also killed the signaller alongside him.
The battalion had consolidated by 4.30 a.m., with its foremost positions about 1000 yards beyond the crest of Miteiriya Ridge, and Battalion Headquarters was established on the reverse slope by 5 a.m. Prisoners taken during the attack were handed over to the most helpful and capable A Company Maori Battalion, under Major Bennett.23 The battalion stretcher-bearers had worked nobly, their work being exemplified by cool and fearless Corporal Frank Blackett,24 who won the Military Medal. In charge of the stretcher-bearers attached to B Company, Blackett collected, attended, and sent out all of the twenty men wounded in the company during the attack, and also attended the wounded from other companies who could not be moved. He and his fellow stretcher-bearers were under extremely heavy shell and mortar fire. When tied down by enemy fire towards the end of the attack, Blackett dug in his remaining wounded until he could shift them. Next day, returning to his company, he did not spare himself and moved round under machine-gun fire to bring in further casualties.
Just before dawn on 24 October the most welcome sound of the ‘Scorpion’ group and battalion support party could be heard approaching from the rear, and then, true enough, the sound of tanks. The Colonel sent a party to comb a strip of ground to the left of a marked minefield at the foot of the ridge. The party found this patch clear of mines. The first twelve to fifteen tanks got to the strip safely, but the next tank, foolishly taking a short cut to the right, ran on to the minefield. Others followed, and four were crippled. Vehicles streamed up and milled about this place; some suffered the same fate. The whole of the battalion area was still under heavy shelling. The support page 211 weapons, delayed by the minefield further back, were late in arriving, and only two two-pounders were able to get into position. The remaining anti-tank guns and medium machine guns were forced to go into position behind the ridge, for the forward positions were being heavily and continually shelled.
The barrage still shattered the night. The assault troops had moved forward long since. Support Group were given the order to move. The long slow crawl forward—nose to tail—losing the vehicle ahead in the dust—the gap in the minefield [cleared by New Zealand sappers]—the wrecked Scorpion blocking the cleared track. The long hours—barrage still thundered—D.A.K. [Deutsch Afrika Korps] and Italians spat back fitfully. The sky lightening as dawn broke, and just as it became light the sudden activity as Support Group were diverted to the right and through the gap cleared for 51st Highland Division. [This diversion prevented trouble ahead where the four tanks were shortly to be crippled.]
Trucks and carriers trailed through the dust of the gap, swung left again, and raced across the front in daylight. Jerry threw everything at them, they should have been a perfect target—a gunner's dream. Then into the comparative shelter of the ridge. ‘No. 1 gun here.’ ‘No. 2 there’ and so on. Our long training stood us in good stead as ramps were flung into position—guns eased onto the ramps— wheels locked into position—ramps stowed away—ammunition off— and away went the portees.
‘Dig in.’ ‘Just a minute, we'll have to change your position.’ ‘Pack up again.’ ‘Can't they ever make up their … minds?’ A jeep draws up—the gun is hooked on—a few boxes of ammo. flung aboard—shovels and picks—and away goes the gun and two men. Two more walk across carrying rifles and bren—the fifth man stacks up the gear left behind and makes his own way. The shells still scream over, odd ones coming close.
The new positition is about 20-30 yards back from the ridge facing a break—just a shallow depression breaking the line of the ridge. By no means a good anti tank site, but our tanks haven't come up (they never do) and that gap must be covered. It's a one shot position—either you get him in the belly as he breasts the rise or —you've had it. Hope he doesn't sit hull down and stick his gun through, but he couldn't do that—on a slope the other side— couldn't depress his gun sufficiently—we hope. Dig, Dig, Dig.
No.4 plods back and forth. A box of ammo. and a pick—another box of ammo. and the cleaning rod—and so it goes on.
‘Here come our tanks.’page 212
Looking back they can see clouds of dust and occasional glimpses of tanks through the dust. One or two draw up close and sit hull down behind the ridge. Someone yells ‘Hell, look at that.’ A long line of tanks breaks through the gloom. One, two, three—no use trying to count them as they appear and vanish in the gathering dust.
‘They can't be ours. Too many of them.’ To old desert digs who have waited so often in vain for our tanks to arrive it seemed too good to be true. But it is true, and they are ours—an endless stream pulling in to form a wall of steel along the ridge where a short time before a lone 2 pounder crew weighed up their chances of a lucky belly shot as the first Jerry tank came over the rise and then— curtains.
It was The Dawn for the New Zealanders, for the Eighth Army, in many more senses than one.
‘Scorpions’ flailed and cleared a path through the minefields on the top of the ridge. A number of tanks from the attached armour moved through. A small tank battle developed. Battalion Headquarters, now within twenty yards of the gap in the minefield which had become the enemy's target, had a hot time until 10 a.m., when it moved a little and set itself up on the reverse slope of the ridge.
A glimpse of the ‘small tank battle’ mentioned above was seen by Bart Cox:
[Some Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry and Staffordshire Yeomanry] tanks lined up on the ridge—others in the narrow area between ridge and minefield. Odd ones burning. A Crusader manoeuvring near the R.A.P. hit a mine—crew baled out, but tank did not brew up.
Spasmodic firing. Officers sitting on ground with maps behind a tank. A runner dashes up, comes to attention, salutes, hands over a signal, stands at attention while officer reads message. ‘What, salute in the middle of a bl… battle’ a New Zealander gasps in horror. ‘B… must be mad.’ The runner took a smart pace forward, accepted a reply from the officer, saluted, wheeled and doubled away. Discipline took on a new meaning to sundry old desert digs.
A tank is hit and brews up over the ridge. The crew bale out and stumble back to safety, their hands and faces burnt horribly. Their faces are black—seared—except for those queer white patches around the eyes where the men had screwed up their faces as the blast hit them. Their hands are burnt and useless, they hold them up in front of their chests. They do not say much—just stand mute— shocked—in agony.page 213
Willing hands lead them away to a jeep, and their officer speaks. ‘These good people are going to take us to the R.A.P. Very good of them. Is the seat of my pants still on fire? Would someone mind putting it out for me? Can't use my hands. Well, don't waste time lads, and hurry back, THERE'S MORE KILLING TO BE DONE.’
This morning ‘Tiny’ Revell, D Company's quartermaster, in his most conspicuous lorry driven by Jack Ford, made a trip up to the battalion with Captain Crarer, who told Ford ‘to pull up in an area littered with weapons of various kinds, greatcoats, and one or two bodies. There were two or three tanks quite close with their crews sheltering beneath them and one valiant Pongo was boiling his billy, for shai, on yet another that was still burning. Crarer said we were to pick up everything in sight and await his return.’ ‘Tiny’ Revell continues: ‘The Pongos proceeded to remonstrate with us in their language, begging us to take our something 3 tonner elsewhere before the 88s got the range. Unfortunately the 88s were quick off the mark and loading that truck lives with me yet. We did it between shell bursts and in the process discovered two terrified little Eyeties hiding under some discarded greatcoats: two unwilling workers added to the party. Just then a light tank or A/c. came on the scene with Freyberg standing up through the hatch complete with binoculars. “Who is old—with the red hat?” said the nearest Pongo. “That's ‘Tiny’ Freyberg the G.O.C.,” I said and Jack and I started work again. We were stooping at the tail of the truck to raise it when a shell burst painfully close, blowing both of us over and throwing shattered rock etc. into the truck. When the terror left me I found that I had snuggled under a blanket covering the body of Arnold Widdowson26…. I promptly stood up and Jack Ford called out to me “Are you all right Tiny?” At the time Freyberg's tank was stationary a few yards away and the G.O.C. turned, waved, said “I'm fine”, and the Pongos said: “Ee what a Fred Karno's Army.”27page 214
The battalion expected a counter-attack at noon. Twenty to twenty-five enemy tanks, with infantry in support, had moved in to within 400 yards of its front. The situation looked critical. When two tense hours had passed, it became obvious that this move was only for the purpose of establishing forward infantry.
The tanks in support of the battalion, as well as the artillery, fired continuously during the rest of the afternoon. Hostile shells, machine-gun and snipers' fire brought further casualties among the forward companies: ‘terrific mortar shells bursting in the air spitting death as the shrapnel fell down.’ A nearby couple were not as lucky as the observer just quoted. ‘Bob and I in the same slittie: the next thing I remember was waking to find my tin hat jammed down over my ears (the sandbag-covering stuff on it was ripped to threads). I think we were only stunned for a few seconds. When I looked at Bob he was looking at me as though he was just coming to his senses too. We looked at each other, collecting our senses, and then I saw blood all over his face and hands, then he gave one look at his hand and said: “Aw, hell.” ‘
Support Group, about 500 yards to the rear and slightly to the right of Battalion Headquarters, also came under heavy shelling. At 6 p.m. D and C Companies were ordered to withdraw over the ridge to behind Battalion Headquarters. Captain Oldham, who had taken over command of C Company, while moving back over the ridge trod on and exploded a mine. One man was killed and six wounded, including the captain.
The signallers laid lines to company areas during the night. The battalion anti-tank guns and attached machine guns and six-pounders moved into forward positions. Two two-pounder and two six-pounder anti-tank guns were held in reserve. The ‘Q’ staff, established with A Echelon, arrived at 8 p.m. with an unforgettable hot meal. The padre, under constant shelling, got up safely too, and the RAP was set up within a mile behind Battalion Headquarters. Lieutenant McKirdy,28 with an A Company patrol, passed beyond the foremost positions and returned to report enemy minelaying parties 1000 yards in front of the battalion.
Except for the sentries, the troops settled down to snatch as much sleep as possible, marred by intermittent shellfire and page 215 bombing attacks by single enemy planes on the tank unit's headquarters over to the left. Pickets on duty all through the night reported no particular alarms. Soon, however, A Company was to suffer unnecessarily. It was mistakenly relieved by a unit from Sussex Regiment and then was ordered back again. ‘What a royal welcome Jerry gave us when he saw us going back still in broad daylight: mortar fire, machine-gun fire— the air was blue, not only with smoke but with oaths—someone had blundered.’29 One man at a time dashed across the open ground. ‘Bluey’ Sapsford30 was killed and two wounded. Slit trenches, when reached, of course were full of the English troops until they pulled out. A lull—a sergeant called out to keep heads down, then'suddenly a resounding bang—the dust clearing… poor “Tich” Tichborne31 had copped it. That night we wended our way to see Captain Hockley and reported to him our misfortune, and Captain Hockley that night read the last rites for “Tich” while his comrades gathered around.’
Another sad loss that day was Sergeant-Major Bob Bayliss, one of the battalion's outstanding soldiers. He was killed while trying to silence an anti-tank gun.’… and it wasn't hard to picture his effort, or the reason for it,’ wrote somebody who afterwards visited the scene, ‘because hard by the position was a British tank with the crew still inside looking very calm in their death.’
No counter-attack broke on the battalion's front. The stolid British tanks (now winning their spurs back again with the New Zealanders) fired most hearteningly at any enemy objectives from hull-down positions on the ridge. Signallers worked untiringly page 216 to keep their lines open. C Company, cut up, was disbanded, its men sent to the three remaining rifle companies. Lieutenant Cross took over command of D Company, which moved briefly out to protect a minelaying party of engineers. A Company (which suffered two casualties through bombing in the early hours of 27 October) extended its area to cover a gap where a platoon from 26 Battalion had been captured.
The shellfire ‘wasn't so bad at first—just one shell at a time, I should think about a minute between each, but as time went on and each one landed in the area somewhere near a slit trench, it began to get on the nerves. One would come over and crash down somewhere around. If it was close you would see (from where you were lying in your shallow slittie) a ragged thin dirty coloured cloud drifting through the air; sometimes it cast a light shadow as it went across the sun. Then you waited for the faint first whispering sound of the next one, then the sound would increase in volume and down she would crash again. Then there would be momentarily a feeling of relief that that one didn't have your name on it, but then you started to wonder where the next one was going to land. This type of shelling (I thought) was the worst on the nerves of all the enemy's ways of making war which I experienced.’
General Freyberg visited the battalion again on 27 October and inspected with Colonel Campbell the land ahead of Miteiriya Ridge. Arriving alone at B Company headquarters, he joined Captain MacDuff and members of B Company in a mug of shai, waved towards a distant tank battle, and remarked: ‘Out there history is being made.’ Vicious shelling spread later in the afternoon, but an advance party from the Transvaal Scottish reconnoitred the area, and news that the battalion was to be relieved was confirmed at 11 p.m., when the battalion changed over with the South Africans, embussed in RMT lorries, and drove back via Star track to the rest area before dawn. ‘And has anyone ever noticed how peaceful it is just to lie back on the good old desert sand and let the good old sun shine on you?’
Miteiriya Ridge had given the battalion another hard knock with 25 killed, 114 wounded, 12 missing: altogether 151 casualties. This was the battalion's last, and most creditable, battle in the desert.
Breaking the Alamein line took eleven bloody days. The Axis defences sprawled back four or five miles. Four nights after page 217 seizing Miteiriya Ridge, the New Zealanders were withdrawn. Eighth Army kept up the pressure, but no signs of a break-through came until after 2 November when Operation Supercharge, controlled by New Zealand Divisional Headquarters, smashed through to Tell el Aqqaqir (north of Miteiriya Ridge) under an even heavier artillery barrage. A decisive tank battle ended the days of Rommel's victories in Africa. British tanks, heedless of casualties and opposition, swept forward most gallantly, charging, fighting, and overrunning enemy positions and guns; and on 3 November the headlong stampede back to Libya began. Next day the New Zealanders moved out through the breach in pursuit.
Eight days later, on 11 November, one year exactly after the move from Baggush towards the frontier forts, 22 Battalion crossed over into Libya, then turned to unloading work at the port of Sollum. There three small raids by three unescorted bombers on 15 November brought three casualties, one of whom, Lance-Corporal Stone,32 died of wounds next day. General Freyberg arrived with the news that the battalion would be turned into a highly mobile unit attached to the New Zealand armoured brigade being formed in Maadi. Before 9 a.m. on 17 November 22 Battalion was heading east, >Maadi-bound, its days of desert campaigning over.
The convoy pulled into Maadi Camp, passed Shafto's theatre, turned left, passed 4 Brigade's area, the Church Army hut, and continued out into the ‘tiger country’ of ‘U’ Area, right alongside the camp prison, known as ‘Rock College’. It was a desolate area—a few tents were up, piles of others waiting to be erected, a few cookhouses, but it was to be ‘home’ for the battalion for almost a year.
‘Next day a parade was called,’ writes Sergeant Bart Cox. ‘We were to be inspected by Brig. Inglis. Gear was to be cleaned—rifles and bayonets were to be removed from their cocoons of oil, rust, and sand—boots to be polished. It was hopeless to try to improve the desert-stained battlestained clothing, but an effort must be made.
‘The day of the parade arrived. Subalterns gazed horror-struck at the array of dusty, creased and stained uniforms, battered glengarrys covered with soot and oil, and the rifles and bayonets!!! (No comment.) Senior officers were tight lipped. page 218 Most of the officers and men had at some time or another served under the Brig., especially when he was in command of the Training Depot. They recalled with horror those battalion parades when every Company had been inspected in detail, and after each Company was inspected its O.C. had been instructed to march away the shattered remnants of his command, while the Brig., the light of battle in his eyes, swept on to the next victims. Officers and men recalled these events—the men not so vividly, for they had little to lose—but to the officers the outlook was grim. “Bunty” Cowper33 summed up the position when he looked at one of his men—recoiled—came back for another look—and said, “No matter what the Brigadier says to you, don't say a word unless he asks you a direct question. Then agree with him, agree with anything he says. Only thing you can do in a case like this is to hit him over the head with your rifle. Better not do that.”
‘But they did not know the Brig. Those old days in 32nd Battalion, they had been raw recruits—new officers. He had been hammering them into shape. Now they were his boys— part of his command—they were trained men—this was different.
‘On battalion parade things went as usual, only more so. It seemed as though officers and senior N.C.O.'s conscious of the obvious deficiencies in their men's appearance would make up for it by immaculate dressing and drill. Came the Brig—General Salute—etc. etc.—and here it comes!—but no, instead of inspecting his men, he stood in front of them, beckoned with his hands and said, “Close in, I want to speak to you.” And he spoke to them, welcomed them to the 4th Brigade, told them of future plans, and apologised to them. Yes, Apologised! He explained that although he knew 22nd were to come under his command, he did not know until the advance party arrived a few hours before the Battalion, that we were on the way. So he apologised because our tents had not been erected, because the area was not prepared for us. He thanked us for the parade and departed amid a flurry of salutes. And the pent up breath of every officer, held since the car with the blue pennant first rolled up, was released in one long Phew!! And 22nd Battalion was received into the bosom of 4th Brigade.’
2 The company commanders and seconds-in-command were:HQ Coy, Capt K. R. S. Crarer, 2 Lt J. P. Farrell; A Coy, Maj D. G. Steele, Capt P. R. Hockley; B Coy, Capt J. L. MacDuff, Capt A. J. Young; C/D Coy, Capt D. F. Anderson, Capt F. G. Oldham.
12 2 Lt I. G. Hulme; born NZ 1 Aug 1914; clerk; wounded 3 Aug 1944.
15 This was the plan: 30 Corps between the coast and Miteiriya Ridge, was to attack with (from right to left) 9 Australian, 51 (Highland), 2 New Zealand and 1 South African Divisions. South of 30 Corps, 13 Corps was to make diversionary attacks. Two lanes were to be cleared through 30 Corps' sector for the passage of the armour of 10 Corps; the southern lane, through 2 NZ Division, was to cross Miteiriya Ridge. 2 NZ Division was to secure the north-western portion of this ridge with 5 Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left. 23 Battalion (right) and 24 Battalion (left) were to capture the first objective, the foremost enemy defences, and in the second phase of the attack 21 and 22 Battalions (5 Brigade) were to pass through 23 Battalion, and 26 and 25 Battalions (6 Brigade) through 24 Battalion, to take the final objective (the ridge). In both phases the Maoris were to mop up behind the assaulting battalions. The engineers were to clear gaps through the minefields and mark lanes for 9 Armoured Brigade (under the command of 2 NZ Division) and the supporting weapons.
16 The 900 medium and field guns certainly opened the heaviest bombardment so far in Africa—but only 104 guns covered the New Zealand front, each gun firing on a lane 24 yards wide and increasing later (as the New Zealand front widened) to 46 yards—in fact, despite the shellbursts and the dust clouds, a very thin barrage for the infantrymen.
27 A First World War song, sung to the tune of the hymn ‘The Church's One Foundation’, went like this:
We are Fred Karno's Army,
The ragtime infantry,
We cannot fight, we cannot shoot,
What earthly use are we! etc.
Fred Karno was an English Edwardian music-hall comedian, an artist in the portrayal of comic inefficiency, whose acts rose to a climax of misunderstanding, hopeless confusion, disintegration and despair.
29 5 Brigade received a warning order in the evening of 24 October that it was to be relieved by 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade next day. No such relief took place, but the expectation that it would caused some confusion in 22 Battalion. B, C and D Companies were withdrawn to the transport area near Brigade Headquarters on the morning of 25 October, and only A Company (MacDuff) remained on the forward slope of Miteiriya Ridge. The following morning (the 26th) A Company, believing that it was to be relieved, also withdrew, but was ordered to return while on the way out. C Company was disbanded and its men were absorbed into the other three rifle companies. On the night of 26-27 October B Company went back into position on the ridge. D Company protected a party of engineers laying mines in the evening of 26 October and went into position behind Battalion Headquarters next morning.