Alam Halfa and Alamein
CHAPTER 21 — The Battle is Joined
The Battle is Joined
‘…in face of the overwhelming evidence of history no general is justified in launching his troops to a direct attack upon an enemy firmly in position.’—B. H. Liddell Hart, The Decisive Wars of History.
THE first move in the Alamein offensive, apart from all the preparations, was made at sea. In full daylight on the morning of 23 October a scratch force of warships and merchantmen gathered from Port Said and Alexandria and started to sail westwards. Its movement was seen, it would appear, by Italian naval reconnaissance aircraft and reported, as was intended, through naval intelligence to the Axis army. After dusk the convoy turned back, leaving eight motor torpedo-boats to continue as far as Ras el Kanayis where, after the land action had commenced, they made a mock landing under a demonstration of tracer fire and flares.
Land operations commenced at 9 p.m. when 24 Australian Brigade laid down diversionary fire from the sea coast to a point just south of the railway line. To leave the division's field guns free for the main assault, the brigade used its infantry weapons as well as a number of captured automatics and mortars and the new 4·2-inch mortars for which 1600 rounds were on hand. As the main 30 Corps assault went in at 10 p.m., two platoons of the brigade, one to the north of the railway line and the other to the south, were raiding known enemy posts. Both platoons suffered about 50 per cent casualties against strong opposition, though one managed to bring back five German prisoners. After the raiding parties returned, the diversion continued with a smoke screen laid by Boston aircraft while dummy figures, worked by concealed page 256 operators and briefly illuminated by searchlights, gave the impression that attacks on other parts of the brigade's sector were continuing. At 3 a.m. the diversion ceased, and that it was very successful was clear at the time from the strong enemy reaction. This was confirmed in the German records which show that the defenders, mainly of 125 Infantry Regiment, were so sure that they had repulsed a major assault that their morale remained high in later engagements. To add to the confusion, four Hudson aircraft dropped a number of self-destroying dummy parachutists and flares to illuminate them in the vicinity of Fuka.
These diversionary actions on the coast were intended not only to confuse the enemy as to the actual point of the main assault and hinder the deployment of reserves in the northern sector, but also to cause the Axis command to turn its thoughts to the south once it realised the diversions for what they were, for one of Montgomery's aims was to keep the Africa Corps from concentrating against 30 Corps.
The main Australian operation commenced at 10 p.m., when the guns switched from counter-battery fire to the supporting concentrations for the infantry's advance. On the right of the divisional sector 2/24 Australian Infantry Battalion, charging each enemy post immediately the shellfire lifted to the next, disposed of all opposition as far as the first objective, where a new start line was quickly laid out to allow the following unit, 2/48 Battalion, to form up and set off at the appointed time, 12.55 a.m. This battalion also advanced with great dash and, though meeting some fierce and determined opposition, passed through it all to reach the final objective about 2.45 a.m. The complete success of this advance by the two battalions of 26 Brigade along the right flank of the area of penetration, besides doing much to ensure the success of the whole corps operation, allowed the division's Composite Force to man posts and lay minefields to cover the junction of the sector of advance and the fixed defences of 24 Brigade to the north.
In its wider sector on the left, 20 Australian Infantry Brigade advanced with two battalions forward, 2/17 on the right and 2/15 on the left. Near the first objective heavy fire caught 2/17 Battalion and brought some eighty casualties, but by midnight both battalions were firm on the objective, to allow 2/13 Battalion to form up ready for the final part of the advance. This battalion was to be assisted by the forty-two Valentines of 40 Royal Tanks, but at page 257 12.55 a.m., when the second part of the supporting artillery concentrations was due to begin, the tanks were meeting trouble in navigating the tracks and minefields well to the rear, their route running through a lateral minefield for 1600 yards. Through the delays and difficulties in communications occasioned in such circumstances, it was found impracticable to stop 2/48 Battalion's advance on the north, so the divisional commander ordered the artillery fire to proceed as arranged and for 2/13 Battalion to attempt the advance without the tanks. Only a few minutes late, this battalion set off, but the delay was sufficient for the full value of the 25-pounder concentrations to be lost. Against strong opposition from ahead and on its open left flank, 2/13 Battalion suffered heavy casualties and was finally brought to a halt. About 5 a.m. some of the Valentines appeared, and with their help the survivors of the battalion, reorganising rapidly, broke through some of the opposition ahead. With the increasing light the tanks came under fire from the left which forced them to move into cover, leaving the infantry to dig in where they were, some 1000 yards short of the final objective and to the north of the planned line of advance.
Thus at dawn 9 Australian Division had one battalion in good strength on the objective and another weakened battalion slightly to the left rear. Three battalions were on the first objective in good order, ready to operate to north or west and, as Axis retaliation was relatively slight in the first few hours of daylight, the remaining Valentines and support weapons were able to consolidate the sector in strength. Communications were maintained throughout the action by both brigades though sometimes with difficulty. Casualties for this first night of the offensive are not known in any detail but were reported as not unduly heavy, while prisoners taken amounted to 137 Germans and 264 Italians.
Much of the story of 51 (Highland) Division, in the sector immediately to the south of the Australians, has been lost in the fog of war. The initial stages, however, in which it had been possible to prepare and train the men in their exact tasks, went almost as smoothly as a parade-ground drill. Ten gaps were opened in the outer British minefield, each 24 feet wide or more, so that each assault group of the division had a route of its own, whether it was to move in the first wave or later. The start lines were quickly and correctly laid for the troops of the first wave, who formed up in good order and, with pipers leading some of the units, set off at 9.50 p.m., some fifteen minutes later than the page 258 New Zealanders on their left, though with approximately the same distance to cover to the first enemy posts. From this point on the advance developed into individual operations by the various assault groups for, with a general breakdown of communications throughout the sector, many of the groups were ignorant of the progress of their neighbours as they fought for the four objective lines, Green, Red, Black, and Blue (Red and Blue corresponding respectively with the first and final objectives of the Australian and New Zealand divisions).
In 153 Brigade's portion of the divisional sector, the northern side, 5 Black Watch on the right successfully used its A and B Companies to subdue two enemy strongpoints and then passed C and D Companies through to the Green line by midnight without much trouble. Then A Company carried the advance to the Red line to cover the forming up of 1 Gordons, detailed to take the final lines, Black and Blue. This battalion, advancing with two companies forward and two to the rear, ran into heavy fire thought to come from the enemy, though it now seems likely that some of it was from supporting artillery concentrations falling short. The battalion then fell back until the shelling eased, when the two leading companies, A and C, again set off, only to find themselves without benefit of artillery support. On coming under fire from two strongpoints, the men gallantly attacked with the bayonet but were beaten back in some confusion. Rallied by officers and NCOs to try an outflanking assault, the survivors swung wide of the nearer strongpoint and broke into the further one, close to the Black line. At dawn three junior officers and sixty men were holding on in a part of this position with the enemy still determinedly defending the remainder. Here they remained, under constant fire and completely out of communication, until well after daylight.
The rest of the battalion, B Company and a platoon of D, had remained close to the Red line to await the arrival of the fifteen Valentines of A Squadron, 50 Royal Tanks, carrying the other two platoons of D Company which were detailed to make the final assault on an extensive enemy position thought to exist on the final objective, the Blue line. The tanks arrived late, about 2 a.m., when B Company was away trying to subdue some isolated enemy posts which were firing on the battalion from the left, or southern, flank. By the time tanks and infantry had married up, all the supporting artillery fire had ceased and enemy opposition was still strong, much of it coming from the two posts that A and C Companies had encountered. When two of the Valentines were lost on a minefield where fire prevented the sappers from working, the whole force turned back.page 259
On the left of 153 Brigade's sector, 5/7 Gordons successfully overcame a number of small posts to reach the Red line shortly after midnight. Here A and B Companies dug in while C and D set off for the Black line. In attempting an outflanking move against a strongpoint, D Company was caught in a thickly sown minefield under fire and disintegrated. On reporting that it was out of touch with other troops and unable to advance on its own, C Company was told by the battalion commander to dig in where it was, some way short of Black. Thus by dawn the farthest 153 Brigade had penetrated was about 2000 yards short of the final objective, where the survivors of two companies of 1 Gordons were holding out unknown to brigade headquarters. The rest of the brigade had gained little more than the middle objective, the Red line, and were not well organised to meet an immediate counter-attack. With a general breakdown in communications through loss or failure of wireless sets and the difficulties of night navigation in such an operation, the brigade's actions could not be plotted with any accuracy, so that there was considerable uncertainty over both unit locations and the positions of enemy strongpoints still unsubdued.
In the Highland Division's left sector, 154 Brigade had a much wider front to cover, for which it had been reinforced with 50 Royal Tanks (less A Squadron), the divisional reconnaissance regiment and two companies of 5 Camerons from 152 Brigade. On the extreme right 1 Black Watch, with its pipers to the fore, marched steadily up to the Green line, keeping close to the artillery concentrations and meeting little direct opposition. From this line, B and C companies pressed on to overrun a large strongpoint just ahead of the Red line, but in doing so suffered severe casualties from artillery fire which may have been part of the supporting concentrations. As these two companies reorganised, D and A Companies passed through to make for the battalion's last objective, the Black line. On the left A Company ran into a thick mine-garden sown with anti-personnel mines and 500-pound bombs, where it came under heavy machine-gun fire. Though with numerous casualties, the company rallied and fought on almost as far as the Black line, the survivors taking over an enemy post which they shared with thirty prisoners. Here they remained for some hours out of communication with the rear or with other troops on their flanks. The other company, D on the right, was delayed while forming up but, in order to catch up with the supporting fire, hurried forward with such purpose that it quickly and completely overran a large strongpoint, taking forty prisoners. Although elements of the company continued the advance probably as far as the Black line, page 260 they were forced to fall back into the captured strongpoint by fire from unsubdued posts in 153 Brigade's sector.
In 154 Brigade's right-centre lane, 7/10 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders set off in good time to take its portion of the Black line. Here it was to be joined by two platoons of its A Company carried on the tanks of C Squadron, 50 Royal Tanks which, advancing in the next lane to the south, were expected to move across somewhere in the vicinity of the Black line to lead the assault on the Highlanders' part of the final objective, where an extensive enemy position lay on the junction of the battalion's sector and that of 1 Black Watch on the right.
Meeting little direct opposition but suffering a steady drain of casualties from anti-personnel mines, booby traps and mortar fire, the Argyll and Sutherlanders passed Green and reached Red in good time. Here the battalion came under some heavy shellfire in which a whole platoon was wiped out by one concentration. However, when the second phase of the artillery support opened at 12.55 a.m., the battalion was sufficiently reorganised to resume the advance. A successful assault on a strongpoint brought the men to a position just short of the Black line where the survivors, about 100 men altogether, dug in to await the Valentines. As wireless contact had failed, an officer went back to give information about the strongpoint on the final objective and arrange for artillery fire in readiness for a combined assault on the arrival of the tanks. The tanks, however, had met considerable trouble with navigation and mines and did not appear until about 5 a.m., some way to the left (south) and cut off by a minefield. In the rapidly increasing light the enemy in the positions ahead were able to bring aimed fire on the sappers who tried to cut a gap to let the tanks join the infantry, and when anti-tank guns joined in, the Valentine force withdrew to cover some way to the rear.
The left-centre lane of 154 Brigade was cut for a special support force consisting of the headquarters of 50 Royal Tanks, with its B and C Squadrons and the Composite Squadron of 51 Reconnaissance Regiment. For some reason not entirely clear, the Scorpion tank allocated to this force was not available, while the accompanying sappers had no detectors in working order, so that the method of prodding the ground with bayonets had to be employed whenever mines were encountered. Progress was so slow that the commanding officer of 50 Royal Tanks detached his C Squadron, with its accompanying two platoons of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, early in the advance to find the Argylls' lane. It was apparently unable to do so and made its way independently forward, as has just been recounted.page 261
The rest of the support force worked its way through several belts of mines, meeting little direct opposition but occasionally coming under fire, and by 3 a.m. the commander decided that he had reached the Black line. Here the Valentines of B Squadron, carrying assault troops of 51 Reconnaissance Regiment and with a troop of the regiment's carriers on each flank, set off to assault what was thought to be a large defensive position just ahead of the final objective. Little or no opposition came from the objective, which was either unoccupied or hastily evacuated by the enemy, but heavy fire broke out from the flanks. With three tanks and six carriers lost by fire or mines, the commanding officer ordered the Valentines to lay smoke, under which the force retired to the Black line and took up hull-down positions as day was breaking.
For the final lane on its far left, 154 Brigade had borrowed two companies of 5 Camerons (of 152 Brigade) for the task of occupying the Red line, from which its own 7 Black Watch was to carry the assault to the final objective. Setting off level and in time with the New Zealand troops on their left,1 B and C Companies of 5 Camerons made a spirited advance under considerable fire, probably from bypassed posts along the boundary with the New Zealand Division, but reached the Red line on time and with forty prisoners in hand.
1 5 Camerons appear to have conformed with New Zealand timings.
Contact across the division's front and from front to rear was too patchy for a clear picture of the operation to be seen, as the infantry wireless links either worked only spasmodically or failed completely, while the Valentine tanks, though keeping radio contact, could do little more than report the situation in their own immediate areas. Few units knew their correct positions on the map so that the more sanguine reported they were further west than they had in fact progressed. Several bypassed enemy posts were still lively as the sun rose and were able to fire on movement west of the Red line, deterring the support weapons and vehicles, as well as the mine-clearing parties, from advancing beyond this line. The area to the rear thus became heavily congested, especially on the northern side of the division's sector, where the mass of vehicles of 1 Armoured Division banked up in columns and spread out in dispersal in any mine-clear patches available, adding to the Highland Division's difficulties of communication and movement and causing conflicting reports of progress to be circulated.
It later became apparent that the Highland Division was not within 1000 yards of the final objective except on the extreme left. In 153 Brigade's sector on the right, where congestion was the worst, an immediate enemy counter-attack would certainly have caused a great deal of confusion though it could have been held by the armoured division's tanks; but on the rest of the front the infantry were extremely thin on the ground, in places not well organised, and generally so out of touch with their support weapons that defence against counter-attack would have had to rely solely on the previously planned fire tasks of the field guns.
To complete the story of the right-flank operations, the events occurring to 1 Armoured Division need to be told. This formation was to cut its own three lanes, each separated from the next by about 500 yards, from the ends of Sun, Moon and Star tracks to the infantry's final objective. Then, breaking out beyond the infantry, the armour was to deploy across the front, ready to step forward in ordered bounds to its own objective some five miles further to the west. The tanks had received strict injunctions that they were to press forward relentlessly, but with full reconnaissance and on properly co-ordinated plans, against any opposition and were in no case to rush blindly against anti-tank gun screens.
Well on time the three regimental columns of 2 Armoured Brigade had formed up, fully equipped for the battle expected page 263 and with tanks topped up with petrol. With each column led by its detachment of the minefield task force, the advance through the infantry areas to the old front line began on time but was slower than anticipated because, in the darkness, the thick fine dust raised by the mass movement made the task of the tank and truck drivers extremely difficult. In spite of numerous minor mishaps, when vehicles collided or missed the route, as well as a half-hour delay caused by a misunderstanding over the use of Star track, the heads of all three columns passed through the last British minefield about midnight, that is, about the time when the Australians and Highlanders ahead were reaching the intermediate, or Red, line.
On the extension of Sun track behind the Australian advance, the sappers of the minefield task force had cleared numerous scattered mines and gaps in three main belts as far as the leading infantry battalion, which however was still some way short of the final objective. The armoured column following, led by the Bays,1 was for some reason unknown held up at the first enemy minefield until 4 a.m., although the sappers had cleared and marked a gap only half an hour after midnight. The column then made better time to reach the third field shortly after the sappers had finished marking the gap, but dangerously close to the approach of daylight. Two squadrons of Shermans then moved through the gap, only to be engaged hotly by anti-tank gun fire. With two tanks immobilised by mines, the Bays took up hull-down positions to the left rear of some Australian infantry (probably 2/15 Battalion) and sent a message back that they were on the infantry's objective, although in fact they were some 3000 yards short of it.
On the extension of Moon track which ran through 153 Highland Brigade's sector, the sappers had to call on their supporting troop of Crusader tanks to subdue opposition at the first enemy minefield and again at the next major mine-belt. Although a squadron of armoured cars came up to assist the task force, this second field was not gapped at daybreak. The column on this route, 9 Lancers group,2 therefore had to disperse as best it could among abandoned defences liberally sprinkled with scattered mines, just through the first minefield and a long way from the final objective.
1 The Queen's Bays, 2nd Dragoon Guards.
2 9 Queen's Royal Lancers.
3 10 Royal Hussars.
At dawn on the 24th, therefore, 1 Armoured Division's three columns had not got beyond the infantry's intermediate objective, the Red line. This failure was partly attributed to the unsubdued points of enemy resistance left in 153 Brigade's line of advance, but it was basically due to the lack of co-operation between tanks and infantry still endemic in the British Army, for the strongpoints encountered were mostly small, isolated, and vulnerable to immediate combined assaults, as was later shown. The northern column of the Bays, though handily placed to do so, does not appear to have co-operated in the resumption of the assault by 2/13 Australian Battalion and 40 Royal Tanks towards the final objective.
With its three columns no further than the Red line, the rest of 1 Armoured Division had perforce to halt and disperse as best it could, all units remaining to the east of the old front line except for some of the field guns which managed to deploy further west. Casualties in the division, both in men and vehicles, were very light and, in spite of the lack of initial success, the tanks were reasonably well organised and handily placed to deal with a counter-attack on a weak part of the front and to resume the assault later on. But the surprise effect hoped for by the Army Commander had been lost and the Panzer Army was already reorganising new anti-tank defences against the massive armoured breakthrough Montgomery had anticipated.
On the southern part of 30 Corps' front, 2 New Zealand Division was to make the infantry ‘break-in’ through which 10 Armoured Division was to pass and deploy, linking its tank screen with that of 1 Armoured Division to the north, while 1 South African Division kept pace on the New Zealanders' left, ready to assist in any exploitation that might be possible. For its advance the New Zealand Division had the use of its three field regiments and three troops from each of 78 and 98 Field Regiments, RA, and a battery of 69 Medium Regiment, RA, a total of seventy-four 25-pounders and eight 4·5-inch guns. The creeping barrage was fired by 4 NZ Field Regiment's twenty-four guns, while a Bofors troop of 42 NZ Light Anti-Aircraft Battery fired tracer at the rate page 265 of one round a gun a minute along the extremities of the divisional sector and down the centre line between the two brigade sectors.
The order of advance gave 5 NZ Brigade the right-hand or northern sector, for which 7 NZ Field Company the previous night had opened two gaps about 300 yards apart in the British wire and minefield about halfway between the ends of Star and Bottle tracks. After dusk on the 23rd these gaps were lined with tape and lights facing to the rear. Then the men of 23 Battalion, under Lieutenant-Colonel R. E. Romans, left their front-line trenches to file through the gaps and line up on a start line which had already been taped and lit. C Company took the right of the line, B Company the centre and A Company the left, with D Company and Battalion Headquarters behind B Company.1 At 9.35 p.m. the men set off from the start line in a clear moonlit night which, on this part of the line, seemed relatively quiet. The sounds of the Australian operation further north could be faintly distinguished, while nearer at hand occasional shellbursts or gunfire could be heard. Five minutes over the line the men felt the impact as the corps guns behind them started the counter-battery fire, and when this fire ceased fifteen minutes later, the men slowed to a halt, for, having marched on a compass bearing and at a carefully calculated rate of advance, they were now within 500 yards of the opening line of the barrage. As the barrage started at ten o'clock, the men edged forward so that when smoke shells twenty-three minutes later signified the first lift, they had only a short way to go before entering the smoke. Although casualties were already occurring from enemy fire and possibly from short-firing guns in the barrage, the battalion line moved steadily forward in good order close behind the barrage lifts for several hundreds of yards without meeting opposition. Then A Company on the left came under machine-gun fire and, in a series of charges against a group of enemy posts defended with determination, the company lost its commander and two other officers as well as a number of men. Delayed and reduced in numbers by the time the position had been subdued, the company resumed its advance under the command of its surviving platoon commander, Second-Lieutenant Cooper,2 but was unable to catch up with the rest of the battalion, and eventually joined 24 Battalion on the first objective.
1 23 Battalion's company commanders were Captain P. L. Lynch (A), Captain G. M. Robertson (B), Captain W. Hoseit (C), Major D. B. Cameron (D).
Setting out through two gaps cut on the evening of the 21st by 7 Field Company at the end of Bottle track, 24 Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam,2 moved up to the opening line of the barrage level with 23 Battalion. A Company, forward on the right, was in contact with 23 Battalion's A Company, while B Company was forward on the left and C Company in reserve.3
3 The battalions of 6 Brigade had only three companies each. 24 Battalion's company commanders were Captain E. W. Aked (A), Captain J. Conolly (B), Captain A. C. Yeoman (C).
The four companies of 28 Battalion,1 with the task of mopping up, set off close behind the leading troops but dropped back as they searched the overrun defence positions for any of the enemy who might have survived. Apart from suffering a few casualties from shelling and from machine-gun fire sweeping in from the north, A and B Companies in 5 Brigade's sector reached the first objective in good order only to find no sign of 23 Battalion there. In 6 Brigade's sector, C Company moved behind the main body of 24 Battalion and met little trouble, but D Company on the left met opposition almost from the start. Joining with 24 Battalion's C Company in several attacks, D Company even seems to have entered the South African sector to deal with machine-gun and anti-tank gun posts, thus clearing up most of the opposition untouched by 24 Battalion along the left-hand side of the sector.
1 28 (Maori) Battalion's company commanders were Captain J. C. Henare (A), Major C. M. Bennett (B), Captain W. M. Awarau (C), Captain F. R. Logan (D).
For this second phase, the artillery barrage was to resume at ten minutes to one just beyond the start lines, stand for five minutes and then move forward in 100-yard lifts every three minutes. In 5 Brigade's sector, 21 Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel R. W. Harding took the right-hand side with its A, B and C Companies in line from right to left and D Company in reserve,1 and 22 Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell2 was on the left with B, C and D Companies in line and A Company in reserve.3 The 6 Brigade battalions, with the same width of front but a shorter distance to go, placed two companies forward and one in reserve. Members of the battalions' intelligence and provost sections set off ahead with lights and tapes, navigating by compass and pacing the distance. In the smoke and dust of the night and under intermittent shell and mortar fire, the various groups met difficulties in laying out the tapes and assembling in their correct order, especially as very few of the men of 23 and 24 Battalions, who should have been preparing defence positions on the first objective, could be found. Enemy fire, sweeping in from the right flank, brought some casualties in 21 Battalion whose Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Abbott,4 was later awarded the Military Cross for his efforts in directing the laying of the line and assembling the companies while under fire.
1 21 Battalion's company commanders were Captain W. C. Butland (A), Captain J. R. B. Marshall (B), Major N. B. Smith (C), and Captain B. M. Laird (D).
2 Brig T. C. Campbell, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Colombo, 20 Dec 1911; farm appraiser; CO 22 Bn Sep 1942–Apr 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Jan–Dec 1945; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1953–56; Commander, Northern Military District, 1958–63; Southern Military District, 1963–66.
3 22 Battalion's company commanders were Captain P. R. Hockley (A), Captain J. L. MacDuff (B), Captain H. V. Donald (C), Captain D. F. Anderson (D).
On the extreme right 21 Battalion met opposition from ahead and the right flank. Edging over to this flank and probably encroaching on the Highland Division's sector, the battalion encountered men of 7 Black Watch, who remained in close contact as far as the objective. In the last stages of the advance over the broken ground which here constituted Miteiriya Ridge, a strongly defended German position had to be overcome before the battalion could cross the ridge to the final objective. A patrol led by Lieutenant P. Robertson, exploiting beyond the objective, overran a troop of field guns and brought back nearly a hundred prisoners, mainly Italians. In spite of fairly heavy casualties, which included two company commanders killed and one wounded, 21 Battalion had cleared its objective within twenty minutes of the ending of the supporting artillery fire.
1 The total strength of 22 Battalion was 35 officers and 628 men, but of these only about 310 actually followed the barrage, the remainder being headquarters, administrative and support group personnel.
On the left of the divisional sector of advance, 26 and 25 Battalions followed a similar pattern of movement through the British minefield up to their start lines. With only three companies each, both battalions placed two forward and one in reserve, the four leading companies thus being thinly spread over the front. Owing to difficulties in maintaining contact, 26 Battalion on the right reached the start line on the first objective rather later than planned and had to deploy its companies in some haste in order to be ready for the barrage opening. Consequently there was little time to search for 24 Battalion, whose survivors seem to have been in a concentrated group on the left. In the event, although contact was made with 22 Battalion on the right, 26 Battalion, under Lieutenant-Colonel Fountaine,1 set off without meeting any of 24 Battalion and with only uncertain contact with 25 Battalion on its left. With C Company forward on the right, A on the left and B in reserve,2 the troops at first met so little opposition that they were able to keep close up to the barrage, so close in fact that at one point C Company overran the shelling and lost several men. In attempting to keep in contact with the flanking battalions, the two forward companies spread so far apart that B Company moved up into the gap between them. On reaching the rise of the ridge, the battalion used the 15-minute pause in the barrage to reorganise into its correct formation and then continued over the broken ground of the ridge and well down the forward slope, where several enemy posts were attacked and subdued. Shortly after 3 a.m. the men of C and A Companies were digging themselves in along and forward of the ridge with B Company slightly to the rear. Good contact was established with 22 Battalion on the right, but continuing mortar and machine-gun fire from the left showed that 25 Battalion had not yet drawn level. Within the position there was an enemy headquarters area with an aid post in which a German doctor and several patients had been taken prisoner.
1 Col D. J. Fountaine, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Westport; born Westport, 4 Jul 1914; company secretary; CO 20 Bn Jul–Aug 1942; 26 Bn Sep 1942–Dec 1943, Jun–Oct 1944; comd NZ Adv Base Oct 1944–Sep 1945; wounded 26 Nov 1941.
2 26 Battalion's company commanders were Lieutenant J. R. Williams (A), Captain L. G. Smith (B), Captain H. J. H. Horrell (C).
1 Brig I. L. Bonifant, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d.; Adelaide; born Ashburton, 3 Mar 1912; stock agent; CO 25 Bn Sep 1942–Jan 1943; Div Cav Jan 1943–Apr 1944; comd 6 Bde 3–27 Mar 1944; 5 Bde Jan–May 1945; 6 Bde Jun–Oct 1945; wounded 24 Oct 1942.
2 25 Battalion's company commanders were Captain C. Weston (B), Captain C. S. Wroth (C), Captain G. A. W. Possin (D).
A summary of the records of events and times shows that the four New Zealand battalions maintained a relatively steady and level advance in spite of the tenuous contact between the leading companies, a feat due to the experience so many of the men had already had in night navigation over the desert, aided by the creeping barrage. The two Maori companies following 5 Brigade found little mopping up to do, and of those behind 6 Brigade, C Company reached the ridge with the loss of only two men. On the left flank, however, D Company missed 25 Battalion's passage over the start line and followed up later to find several unsubdued enemy posts along the left boundary. Altogether 28 Battalion's casualties for the night were 6 killed, 53 wounded and 3 missing. By the afternoon of the 24th, about 250 prisoners had reached the cage behind the start line; most of them had been taken in the night advance. They included Germans of 382 Regiment and Italians of 62 Regiment of Trento Division.
No sooner had the four battalions halted their men along the ridge than the commanders sought ways and means of communicating their success to their brigades. All had been supplied with special signal rockets, but none of those that survived the march, and were fired, were identified by watchers in the rear from the other fireworks of flares, tracer, shellbursts and explosions. Runners were also sent back and eventually wireless contact was established through various vehicles carrying sets that followed up the infantry, so that by 4 a.m. the staff at Divisional Headquarters was beginning to gain a picture of the night's results.
1 In surviving notes given by C Company's commander to one of those detailed to count paces, the distance to be marched is shown as 2760 paces. This was in fact the distance, scaled on the map, from the first to the final objectives on the extreme left boundary of the brigade sector. By diverging off course and also by travelling nearer the centre of the brigade sector, 25 Battalion, in marching the required distance, halted at a point estimated to be between 500 and 800 yards short of the objective.
By 2.30 a.m. all four routes to the first objective were open for vehicles, the lanes marked by signs and lights and policed by provosts. By this time the reserve engineer parties were already at the work of extending the lanes, with the infantry's support groups hard on their heels. Though Scorpions and detectors were used, both of these aids proved technically unreliable so that much of the clearing was done by the traditional method of prodding the ground with bayonets, a method which of necessity had to be slow and deliberate.
As each lane progressed, a dense column of vehicles gradually banked up on it–signal detachments laying cable, anti-tank guns on portée or towed, 3-inch mortar carriers, Bren carriers, Vickers gun sections in trucks, RAP vehicles, and numerous trucks and jeeps carrying essential equipment and stores. First came the support columns for the two battalions on the first objective and, as these dispersed off the marked route, the columns for the other four battalions passed through. With these latter were Crusader troops of 9 Armoured Brigade for the infantry's support against counterattack, and behind them again came the Stuarts and Bren carriers of the Divisional Cavalry and the heavy squadrons of 9 Armoured Brigade. Traffic discipline on the whole was good, though at points the narrow minefield gaps became jammed and vehicles were lost when attempting to take short cuts over uncleared ground, led by impatient support group commanders who knew how vulnerable their battalions might be unless their weapons arrived before dawn.
1 There were numerous diamond-shaped booby-trapped areas combined with the minefields in the New Zealand sector, possibly as many as fifty originally. Some were set off by the shellfire but many were untouched, especially towards the final objective where the barrage fire was thin. A typical trap consisted of a camouflaged captured British 500lb aerial bomb connected through igniters to two anti-tank mines, and with radiating trip wires as well as a remote-control wire leading to an enemy post, the whole contraption set to explode by a change of tension on any of the wires. Two such booby traps were detonated, one causing casualties to the engineers, as recorded, and the other to 26 Battalion's support column. Several others were rendered harmless by the engineers by the hazardous process of inserting fine wire into each of the igniters.
On the route behind 22 Battalion, the clearing of the scattered mines took so long that, of this battalion's support weapons, only two two-pounder anti-tank guns arrived in time to be dug in before daylight. However, on learning that tanks of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, of 9 Armoured Brigade, were also on this route, the battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell, had his men search and mark a mine-free track through the battalion's positions. Not long after six o'clock, tanks of the leading squadron had been guided over the ridge and were well forward of the infantry, in engagement with enemy posts, and shortly afterwards the regiment's other heavy squadron followed, thus bringing to the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry the honour of being the first, and only, regiment to break out beyond the infantry's final objective on this first morning of the Alamein battle.
In 6 Brigade's sector, an advance support column for 26 Battalion, including three Crusader tanks of the Warwickshire Yeomanry, two-pounder anti-tank guns on portée and carrier-borne 3-inch mortars, had set off on the right-hand Route ‘A’, led by a small detachment of engineers manning two Scorpions. Both the flail tanks broke down early in the march and later several of the vehicles were damaged on mines. Three mortars and two of the anti-tank guns eventually reached the ridge intact and, about 4.30 a.m., were dug in, but one of the guns was almost immediately put out of action by a direct shell hit. Route ‘A’ was properly cleared and marked by 8 Field Company sappers following this advance party and on it the main battalion support column travelled, arriving in the lee of the ridge an hour or so later.
The southern lane, Route ‘B’, on which 25 Battalion's support column with its troop of Crusaders followed the engineers, was cleared fairly quickly as far as the ridge but then had to be diverted to the right to join the battalion's positions, where the first vehicles arrived about 5.30 a.m. Attempts by the engineers to cut a gap in the thick minefield on the forward slope of the ridge were hindered by heavy enemy fire and eventually stopped by Brigadier Gentry's orders as too hazardous in the fast increasing light.
The heavy squadrons of the Warwickshire Yeomanry and the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry also used this route but, unable page 275 to penetrate the minefield over the ridge, halted in hull-down positions along the brigade front.
The task of 10 Armoured Division was to clear its own four lanes from the ends of Bottle, Boat and Hat tracks, with an extra lane, called Ink, between Bottle and Boat. Once over the ridge it was to deploy its two brigades beyond the New Zealand objective and, making in a north-westerly direction, join the left of 1 Armoured Division. Instead of a strong minefield task force for each column, 10 Armoured Division was content with an engineer party with only a small covering patrol for each lane. The four clearing groups commenced work close behind the New Zealand infantry, the sappers on Bottle route meeting so little interference from the enemy that they had cleared and marked their lane to the 5 Brigade objective a good hour before first light. The men on Ink route were delayed by fire at the first enemy minefield but then made such good time that they soon had a clear lane as far as 26 Battalion's positions. Beyond this point the sappers discovered another field which they managed to gap, after their covering party drove off a small enemy post, shortly before first light.
The extensions of Boat and Hat tracks, the former commencing at the junction of the New Zealand and South African sectors and the latter within the South African area, presented greater difficulties, as the lanes here cut along rather than through the pattern of the enemy minefields, while the South Africans had trouble in subduing the defences in the area. The gapping of the first minefield on Boat track commenced under fire from a post close to the inter-divisional boundary, and it was not until one of the Maori mopping-up parties arrived to deal with the enemy that the gap could be completed. Further on the sappers were held up by heavy shelling, possibly a South African concentration, and then they encountered a very thick field sown with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. The gapping of this took until nearly dawn but a clear route then led as far as 25 Battalion's positions. Daylight prevented the sappers from clearing mines over the ridge beyond the infantry positions as the enemy covered this forward slope with fire. On Hat track the covering party met opposition only 300 yards beyond the South African start line and again about 1000 yards out. In both cases the enemy was too strong for the light covering party, so that the sappers were unable to work until the South African infantry had cleared the ground. They then found themselves in an extremely complicated part of the German mine-garden stretching for some 700 yards. With this page 276 laboriously gapped and marked, the party met another field a short distance on, through which, however, the covering party on a reconnaissance discovered a ready-made gap. The light was increasing by this time to disclose the sappers to an enemy position which guarded the exit to the gap. Under fire the sappers marked the entrance and then withdrew. So before dawn on the 24th, 10 Armoured Division had four minefree routes as far as Miteiriya Ridge. The two on the right led beyond the infantry's objective, and of the other two, Boat reached as far as 25 Battalion's front and Hat seems to have ended between that battalion's left and the South Africans' right flank.
The task of leading 10 Armoured Division into the open was given to the three regimental groups of 8 Armoured Brigade, the Staffordshire Yeomanry (Staffs Yeomanry) on Bottle, the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry (Notts Yeomanry) on Boat, and 3 Battalion, The Royal Tank Regiment (3 Royal Tanks) on Hat.1 The combination of dust and darkness gave the tanks a difficult task, but their routes up were marked and policed, and free from direct enemy interference save for the stray shell or two. Yet their advance was considerably slower than anticipated. The Staffs Yeomanry arrived on 5 Brigade's objective after 9 Armoured Brigade's tanks, having already gone over the ridge, had retired to hull-down positions, that is, about first light.
On Boat track, the Notts Yeomanry were probably the first on the infantry objective, arriving before first light. This allowed them time to clear mines and pass two squadrons and some field guns over the ridge. In the increasing light enemy fire forced a withdrawal after sixteen tanks and some guns had been lost either by mines or anti-tank gun fire.
Through reports of unsubdued opposition ahead, the column led by 3 Royal Tanks on Hat track started late and was still negotiating the 700-yard lane through the first minefield when dawn broke. On orders from its brigade headquarters, the tanks of the column went on to take up positions to the rear of 25 Battalion, while the rest of the vehicles dispersed as best they could. Armoured cars of the Royal Dragoons, following the 8 Armoured Brigade columns, tried to put out patrols on the flanks as ordered but called them in on losing two cars by shellfire and one on mines.
1 From lack of exact information, it can only be assumed that Ink route was kept as a reserve and/or return route.
In the New Zealand sector, therefore, at dawn on the 24th the infantry was practically on its objective, with its support weapons well enough organised to deal with an immediate counter-attack. In the same sector, in various stages of organisation and grossly overcrowding it, were the best parts of three heavy armoured brigades, enough to repulse an attack by a full panzer division. Communication throughout the sector was generally good so that both infantry and armoured headquarters had a reasonably accurate picture of the disposal of the various units.
To the south of the New Zealanders, the South African Division placed its 2 Infantry Brigade in the right-hand sector, in which the Natal Mounted Rifles were given the task of taking the intermediate objective (Red line), with the Cape Town Highlanders, right, and ½ Frontier Force Battalion, left, following through to the final objective. The advance was to be supported by artillery concentrations timed to fall on known enemy positions ahead of each infantry group.
The advance of the Natal Mounted Rifles appeared to go well, reaching the first objective in good time with some sixty-seven Italian prisoners in hand. The battalion, however, must have concentrated its efforts on defences immediately ahead and thus missed others to right and left. The enemy left on the north first fired on the sappers working on Hat track and then turned their attention to the Cape Town Highlanders as the latter moved up to their start line on Red. The right-flank company of the Highlanders suffered heavy casualties before overcoming this opposition, while the left-hand company also found its way barred by another defended area. Finally, the supporting fire programme was postponed for an hour while the reserve company was brought up to assist the survivors of the other two companies to clear the way page 278 to the start line. Another postponement was then necessary to allow the battalion to reorganise. All this time enemy opposition along the border with the New Zealanders on the north continued to be lively, firing into the flank of 6 New Zealand Brigade, which followed its creeping barrage without pause and was now well ahead of the South Africans. Several New Zealand groups crossed the boundary into the South African sector to deal with the more persistent enemy posts.
The opposition began to dwindle as the tanks of 10 Armoured Division progressed up Hat track and practically ceased when, shortly before 5 a.m., the Cape Town Highlanders began their delayed advance. Reaching Miteiriya Ridge with little trouble, the Highlanders, like 25 NZ Battalion, halted on the crest some 800 to 1000 yards short of the planned line of the final objective, and about the same distance south of the New Zealand position. On 2 South African Brigade's left flank, the Frontier Force Battalion also encountered enemy defences which it had to subdue before its companies could form up on the start line on the intermediate objective, and accordingly had to have the artillery supporting concentrations rearranged. Once over the start line, the battalion was unfortunate in meeting one of the key defence areas, determinedly manned by German troops, and although it managed to overrun part of the position, taking thirty-six German prisoners, it lost 183 men (of whom forty-two were killed). At dawn the battalion was still engaged with the enemy and well short of the ridge.
The opposition offered by this German position also had considerable effect on the progress of 3 South African Brigade further south. In this brigade's sector the plan was for 1 Battalion, The Rand Light Infantry, to assault a large strongpoint which lay just ahead of the first objective and then send patrols to clear a start line for the second phase. In this, the Royal Durban Light Infantry was to advance on the right and 1 Battalion of the Imperial Light Horse on the left to the final objective. The Rand Light Infantry met the strongpoint as and where expected and, under heavy artillery concentrations and machine-gun fire, used Bangalore torpedoes to good effect to break into the defences. Against fierce resistance by troops of 433 Regiment (164 Division), elements of the Rand Light Infantry fought through the strongpoint to reach the line of the first objective. The extension of the defence area to the north into 2 Brigade's sector was still unsubdued, so that the rest of the Rand Light Infantry had to form a front facing north to cover the troops moving up for the second phase. This action allowed the Royal Durban Light Infantry to reach the start page 279 line on the first objective, but further progress was delayed by heavy fire from the right flank coming from defences that the Frontier Force Battalion had not yet been able to overcome. By placing one company forward on the right to engage this resistance with fire and screen the route of advance, the battalion was able to pass the start line. Meanwhile, on the left of the brigade sector, the Imperial Light Horse ran into the southern end of the German defences on its way to the first objective but managed to work its way past and form up on its start line, where it waited for the Royal Durban Light Infantry. About 2 a.m. the two battalions set off together and, overpowering some opposition on the way, reached the ridge about 5 a.m., where they dug in on the correct objective.
Behind the main infantry advance the Divisional Reserve Group, of armoured cars, artillery, machine-gun and other units, moved up to provide depth to the defence against counter-attack. The fifty-one Valentines of 8 Royal Tanks were attached to this group with the task of helping to gain and consolidate the objective. Cutting their own gaps, the tanks led the group up the boundary of 2 and 3 Brigades' sectors but soon became enmeshed in the maze of German defence works, from which they eventually got clear by moving to the south, on to 3 Brigade's axis, and then back to their right line of advance. About dawn two squadrons of the Valentines reached the rear of the Royal Durban Light Infantry and took up defence positions.
Owing to the configuration of the front the South African Division had to use troops of its third formation, 1 Infantry Brigade, to clear the area between 3 Brigade's advance and the old front-line positions. Besides arranging a massive medium machine-gun programme in support of the main advance (sixty-six Vickers guns fired 640,000 rounds) and putting in an anti-tank gun screen at the point where the final objective met no-man's land, this brigade also was given the task of occupying the ground, part enemy and part no-man's land, on the left of 3 Brigade's advance. The anti-tank screen, in sites secretly prepared beforehand, was set out with no enemy interference, while the Transvaal Scottish Battalion cleared some scattered opposition to come up on the left of the Imperial Light Horse.
By dawn, therefore, 1 South African Division, in spite of initial setbacks, was well established on the final objective except on the right hand against the New Zealand Division. Here some enemy resistance still remained to be cleared out and no firm contact could be immediately established with 25 Battalion, itself behind the line of the objective.
To the south of the South Africans, 4 Indian Division was also under command of 30 Corps with the task of holding a firm base as the southern anchor for the assault. The division's artillery was given a part in the corps' counter-battery programme and defensive fire tasks, as well as supporting three minor diversionary operations designed to hold the enemy's attention and draw his fire. The first diversion was a raid by men of 7 Indian Brigade along Ruweisat Ridge to Point 62, the scene of 4 New Zealand Brigade's misfortunes the previous July. Undertaken by a section of carriers with two platoons of 2 Gurkha Rifles, the action was noisy but short for, in spite of strong supporting fire by three field regiments, the enemy encountered proved very stubborn. The raiders withdrew with the loss of eight men but claimed they had killed about fourteen of the enemy.
For the second diversion a trick was tried out, similar to that employed by the Australians on the coast, of placing out in no-man's land dummy figures which could be made to stand erect as required so that, illuminated by flares or even in bright moonlight, they gave the appearance of advancing infantry. The illusion was supported by vehicle noises, lights and covering fire. This deception was laid on by 7 Rajput Regiment at 1.30 a.m. opposite the eastern end of the El Mreir Depression and drew a heavy riposte of mortar and automatic fire.
The last diversion was a raid by a company of 1 Punjab Regiment to harass, and gain identifications of, the enemy in the line to the south of El Mreir. Starting out half an hour after midnight, the company seems to have run into the supporting fire provided by seven field batteries and withdrew without making any contact with the enemy.
All in all, the Indians' operations, though individually not scoring any obvious success, gained their object in keeping the enemy from moving troops from this sector for some time and causing him to waste a great deal of ammunition. The division had also prepared plans for an advance, but the progress of operations elsewhere caused this to be cancelled.