Alam Halfa and Alamein
CHAPTER 30 — Operation supercharge
The Night of 1/2 November
TOWARDS evening, as the setting sun blinded the defenders, enemy tanks closed in from the west against the salient held by 24 Australian Brigade at the same time as infantry infiltrated from the east. Some of the movement fired on was possibly the withdrawal of equipment and wounded men of 125 Regiment, but the proximity of the enemy round three sides of the salient brought constant sharp exchanges of fire which continued well into dark, even after the infantry advance of supercharge had begun. At one time the Australian field gunners had to switch from their tasks in support of the advance to dealing with urgent calls from 24 Brigade for defensive fire.
The supercharge operations opened at sea where, about midnight, four motor torpedo-boats off the coast to the north of Sidi Abd el Rahman set adrift balloons and rafts carrying flares. The boats then sailed further west, where they fired such a variety of weapons and flares as to cause the enemy's coastal defence headquarters to report an attempted landing by 200 men. The air offensive also started before the ground action with bombing attacks on the areas where the panzer groups were thought to be and along the road between Daba and Matruh. The enemy's wireless frequencies also were jammed by the special aircraft of 162 Squadron, RAF, and this, combined with some lucky hits on key points of Africa Corps' signal network, badly disrupted the enemy's communication system for some hours.
Ground operations did not start as auspiciously as they might for poor communications between the two attached brigades and the New Zealand headquarters brought some confusion in the page 384 assembly of the troops, especially among the support groups forming up behind the infantry on the start line. Most of this was sufficiently straightened out by staff and liaison officers to allow the operation to start on time.
The first of the attacking formations to move was 151 Brigade, which left Tell el Eisa in trucks at 7 p.m. along the Diamond track, with 28 New Zealand Battalion in the lead followed by its own three Durham battalions1 and its supporting arms, among which were 34 NZ Anti-Tank Battery, E Troop of 32 NZ Anti-Tank Battery, 4 Company and No. 3 Platoon of 1 Company of 27 NZ Machine Gun Battalion, and 244 Anti-Tank Battery, RA. Engineers of 7 NZ Field Company moved with the forward troops and the forty-four Valentines of 8 Royal Tank Regiment brought up the rear. Artillery observation officers of 5 NZ Field Regiment in support of the brigade were distributed among the four battalions.page 385
The start line for supercharge commenced close to Point 29 and stretched due south through the defences held by 26 and and 24 Battalions. From this line, 28 Battalion was to advance on a narrow front from just south of Point 29 as far as the 865 easting grid, a distance of about two miles altogether, and form a front facing north, linked on the right to the Australians, and so covering the flank of the main area of penetration. Immediately to the south of the Maoris, 8 Durhams on the right and 9 Durhams on the left were to advance on a 2000 metre1 front as far as the 863 easting grid, about 2000 metres beyond the Maoris. Moving close behind the leading battalions, 6 Durhams were to wheel right when the objective was gained, and fill in the gap between the Maoris and 8 Durhams. The task given to the 7 Field Company sappers was to extend Diamond track in two lanes, Diamond A and Diamond B, behind the infantry as far as the final objective.2
Half an hour before midnight the four battalions under 151 Brigade, debussing close to their start lines, were deploying ready to follow the artillery barrage due to open at five minutes past one.
In the same manner 152 Brigade assembled on its start line, unfortunately suffering some casualties when one of its columns missed the track in the dust and darkness and ran into a minefield. Engineers of 8 NZ Field Company and the thirty-eight Valentines of 50 Royal Tanks followed the infantry battalions. For keeping its men supplied with meals and other needs, this Highland brigade had an elaborate administrative plan which included the issue of strips of rifle cleaning cloth (‘four-by-two’) to be worn on the back of every man in the form of a St. Andrew's Cross in order to permit easy recognition. The men also wore full battledress, in contrast to the troops of 151 Brigade who were still in their summer uniform of jerseys, shirts and shorts. The plan of advance of 152 Brigade was for 5 Seaforths to take the right flank and 5 Camerons the left, while 2 Seaforths followed on the left to cover the southern flank. The attached New Zealand engineers' task was to extend the end of Square track from 24 Battalion's FDLs in two lanes about 500 yards apart and called Square D and Square E.
1 Metres were used in this operation, rather than yards, to facilitate map reading; 2000 metres is a little less than one and a quarter miles.
2 Of the three tracks on the supercharge front, Diamond and Square were split, but not Boomerang. To prevent confusion they were named Diamond A and B, Boomerang C, Square D and E.
Just before the main barrage was due to open at five past one, the men of the two battalions of 6 NZ Brigade, across whose defences the start line was laid out, moved back some 400 yards as a safety precaution. Prior to this some carefully selected hostile battery positions were fired on but in such a limited and seemingly erratic manner that the enemy would not take warning. The deception schemes in supercharge were in fact generally successful for, having observed engineers working on the tracks leading north, the enemy was expecting further attacks from the Australian northern front. When a ‘deception barrage’ was fired on this front, at the same time as the main barrage, it so happened that 90 Light, Division's communications to the rear were in order while Africa Corps' signal system was in chaos through the air bombing and jamming, so that the rear headquarters received news only of the deception barrage and consequently assumed that the attack was coming in where they had expected it.
1 Apart from defensive tasks fired on call, supercharge plans allowed for an expenditure of 104,576 rounds of 25-pounder and 8284 rounds of medium ammunition.
As soon as the main barrage opened, the leading troops of 151 and 152 Brigades left the start line and closed up as near as safety permitted to the line of bursting shells ahead, and when the smoke shells signalled the first lift, the whole front advanced. On the far right the leading companies of 28 Battalion, C on the right and D left, met opposition almost from the start. Overcoming determined resistance by both German and Italian positions, C Company reached its objective by 2.30 a.m., though suffering heavy casualties in the process. D Company met less opposition and reached its objective a little earlier, but could then find no sign of either C Company on its right flank or 151 Brigade on its left. The company commander therefore set out his men in positions for all-round defence and had just got them organised when he was joined by B Company which, coming up behind to mop up, had been halted by a curtain of defensive fire falling in its path. When this fire ceased the company hurried forward, only to meet a line of enemy posts. Charging with bayonets and grenades, the men broke through the enemy line, collecting numerous prisoners in the process. The two companies then formed a defensive box with D facing west and B north. Here they were joined by survivors of C Company who found themselves too few and isolated to hold their objective. The fourth company, A Company, whose task had been to follow C Company in a mopping-up role and then extend the right flank to link with the Australians, met a great deal of unsubdued opposition in its path but eventually reached the area of its objective. Enemy posts on the east prevented contact being made with the Australians while, on the west, only a few wounded men could be found where C Company was expected to be. The company then dug in, rather isolated and under fire from three sides. By dawn therefore the battalion, though on the general line of its objective, was in two groups out of contact with each other and with the Australians on the right or the Durhams on the left. The positions were under enemy observation and any movement was greeted by fire from machine guns and snipers.
The support column was delayed by scattered mines but E Troop of 34 NZ Anti-Tank Battery, 3 Platoon of 3 Machine Gun Company and some of the battalion's 3-inch mortars managed to get into positions behind the main position before daylight made page 388 movement impossible. The attached Royal Artillery troop of antitank guns,1 attempting to move further forward, was badly shot up but managed to site two of its guns, and the Valentines of B Squadron of 8 Royal Tanks found cover of sorts in the rear. Casualties in 28 Battalion amounted to nearly 100 men and included the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Baker, who was wounded early in the advance, as well as the second-in-command, Major Hart,2 who was sent forward to take over. As many of the enemy posts overrun were manned by Germans who resisted to the last, the toll of enemy dead was high, while some 162 Germans and 189 Italians were sent back as prisoners. Under Major C. M. Bennett, who took command after Hart was mortally wounded, the Maoris held their exposed positions throughout daylight, constantly under fire and without communications to the rear, even by runner. Members of the battalion were awarded a Distinguished Service Order, a Distinguished Conduct Medal and two Military Medals for their share in this action.
1 A troop of 244 Battery of 84 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA.
On the left of the brigade sector, 9 Durhams fared better up to the first objective but, on resuming their advance behind the barrage, encountered dug-in tanks and gun positions. These, however, were not defended with resolution, the enemy apparently being affected by the shellfire of the barrage, and by four o'clock 9 Durhams were up with their neighbours of 8 Durhams on the final objective. With support arms which included a troop of 34 Anti-Tank Battery and a platoon of 4 Machine Gun Company coming up before dawn, the two Durham battalions had established a continuous front to the west before the tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade were due to pass through.
The third battalion, 6 Durhams, let the others get some 500 yards ahead before it left the start line, and met only desultory shelling and mortaring but no direct opposition for the first 1000 yards. Once beyond the area cleared by the Maoris the battalion came under heavy machine-gun fire from the north. One platoon of D Company, sent to investigate the source of the fire, was pinned to the ground and eventually the whole company had to be committed. Leaving this engagement still in progress, A Company moved from reserve and, with C Company on its left, overran some scattered infantry and Italian gun crews to reach the final objective in the rear of 8 Durhams. A battalion front was then set out facing north behind a screen of carriers and backed by the support weapons, which included two platoons of 1 NZ Machine Gun Company and 244 Battery (less a troop) of 84 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA. Upon D Company's disengaging and joining the rest of the battalion, a wide gap was left unprotected between the Durhams' positions and the Maoris. However, 151 Brigade had achieved its task of occupying the north-west corner of the final objective though its infantry was very thin on the ground, the casualties amounting to 50 killed, 211 wounded and 87 missing, a brigade total of 348. Prisoners captured in 151 Brigade's sector amounted to about 350, and came mainly from 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, Littorio and Trento divisions.
From first light onwards, the three Durham battalions could do little to improve their defences or communications because of the fierce tank battle that raged in and beyond their positions.
Behind the attacking infantry of 151 Brigade sappers of 7 NZ Field Company set out with two Scorpions to extend the two branches of Diamond track. Work on Diamond A went forward steadily under considerable fire and the carriers leading the Durhams' support column were guided through before 5 a.m. On page 390 Diamond B the engineers' transport with most of their gear was destroyed in a burst of shellfire, but the party then cut and marked a short junction from the point reached north to Diamond A. The commander of 151 Brigade, Brigadier Percy, relying on the wireless in the carriers of the support group for information of his men's progress, grew impatient and complained to Divisional Headquarters that the sappers were not working, upon which the engineer commander, Lieutenant-Colonel F. M. H. Hanson, sent staff officers to investigate, and called up a reserve party to complete Diamond B. Before the staff officers could report on the progress of the clearing, Brigadier Percy made another complaint, and this was supported by the Valentines of 8 Royal Tanks who reported that the markings on their route had run out and they were among mines. Further investigation showed that the Valentines had missed the marked route and were stranded in a minefield, so a Scorpion was despatched to flail a way through to the marked and lit route. The complaints caused Freyberg to suggest to Leese that 10 Corps' armour should be directed to follow 152 Brigade, whose mine-clearing appeared to be going smoothly. However, before any alteration could be made, word came in that both Diamond tracks offered a route to the objective. When the Valentines were led clear of the minefield, the regimental commander ordered B Squadron, which was in the lead, to hurry forward to the support of 28 Battalion, while A and C Squadrons continued to the west to join the Durhams.1 All three squadrons, each of about twelve runners, reached the forward troops about dawn.
On the left flank of the advance, 152 Brigade had on the whole an easier task. The men of 5 Seaforths on the right met very little opposition before the first objective and managed to bypass some dug-in tanks on the way forward to the final objective, which they gained shortly after 4 a.m. with extremely light casualties. The left-flank battalion, 5 Camerons, met similar tanks in greater depth, but the leading troops kept close to the barrage to reach the final objective before 4 a.m., though with company formation somewhat disorganised. Losses here were also low, one account giving the total as only twelve.
1 The planned distribution was for A Squadron to join 28 Battalion and B and C Squadrons to join the Durhams.
Behind 152 Brigade, 8 NZ Field Company sappers extended Square D track close behind the infantry to let the brigade transport go forward, but had to gap a minefield to clear Square E for 50 Royal Tanks. At a cost of ten casualties, both tracks were cleared and the Valentines moving up well before dawn. For some reason the battalion support columns were delayed, 5 Seaforths' transport reaching the front after daylight and 5 Camerons' close to 9 a.m.
The Valentines on their way up received reports of enemy tanks on the left of 5 Camerons' front. One squadron turned off to engage them but lost three tanks to anti-tank fire. After two heavy concentrations by the artillery of the prepared defensive tasks for the southern flank, the enemy tanks appeared ‘to be melting away’, in the words of a message from 152 Brigade. Two squadrons then took up supporting positions behind 5 Camerons with the third squadron and regimental headquarters a little way further to the rear. From its starting strength of 38 tanks, 50 Royal Tanks, through breakdowns, track damage by scattered mines and enemy action, was now down to 24 ‘runners’. However, they claimed to have destroyed two enemy tanks.
The task of forming a line to cover the southern flank of the main advance was carried out successfully by 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade against little enemy opposition. The leading battalion, 2 Royal Sussex, overran some gun positions and by dawn was in contact with the left of 2 Seaforths, while 5 Royal Sussex, meeting little direct opposition, carried the line on to the south-east to join 5/7 Gordons on 51 Division's front. Casualties in the lorried infantry were very few, but over sixty prisoners were gathered in during the advance and numerous stragglers were rounded up after daylight.
Once the infantry advance had been successfully completed and the new front line formed and supported against counter-attack, the way was clear for the second phase of SUPERCHARGE, the advance of 9 Armoured Brigade. The task laid down was for the brigade to cross the infantry line on the 863 grid at 5.45 a.m. and, under a moving barrage, to occupy the rising ground on the 861 grid and there ‘prepare to resist armoured counter-attack’. In effect the brigade was to draw out the enemy's armour and take the first blows to screen the arrival of 1 Armoured Division. This was the key action of the whole operation, for it was expected to complete page 392 the gap punched by the infantry to the extent of smashing the rearmost anti-tank gun line along the Rahman Track and so allowing the armour free access to the enemy's rear. Montgomery himself announced that he was prepared for heavy casualties in the brigade.
Forming up near the Alamein station with 105 tanks in battle order, 9 Armoured Brigade set off in its three regimental groups as darkness fell about seven o'clock. The early part of this night was moonless and exceptionally dark, while the sandy tracks over which the brigade travelled had been pounded by months of heavy traffic, shelling and bombing into a powdery dust that rose with the slightest disturbance by wind or movement. Visibility was so bad that speed was often reduced to a crawl and numerous collisions occurred.
In the lead the 3 Hussars group, of some 300 vehicles, made good time along Sun track, turning off to the west at the Diamond track junction to cross the railway near Tell el Eisa station. About midnight the column halted to refuel and then set off again for the infantry start line. Here it caught up with the tail of the 8 Royal Tanks column whose head, as earlier related, had encountered a minefield. By the time the Valentines moved on, the mines blocking Diamond B had been cleared so the Hussars advanced again. Movement was still slow and stoppages frequent and it was not long before harassing fire from the enemy artillery began to fall, causing damage among the soft-skinned vehicles in the tail of the column. The lorried infantry of A Company of 14 Sherwood Foresters and the gunners of A Troop, 31 NZ Anti-Tank Battery suffered numerous casualities and fell behind the tanks, the gunners eventually having to pull off to the side of the track to reorganise as so many of their guns and portées had been damaged by shellfire or collisions. Six of the Hussars tanks were damaged, four by breakdowns and two by mines, but by 3.30 a.m. the leading tanks were passing the infantry's intermediate objective and by 5.15 a.m. had reached the defences being dug by 9 Durhams. The attached squadron of the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, following the tanks, managed to round up a number of enemy stragglers.
The regimental column of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, together with brigade tactical headquarters, the Divisional Cavalry headquarters, and the headquarters support group, a total of 175 vehicles, followed the Hussars on Sun route, finding the going extremely difficult in the dusk and darkness. Turning off on to the Boomerang track, the Royal Wiltshires halted to refuel at 1.45 a.m. and then, having been joined by the engineer party from 6 NZ Field Company detailed to extend the track, set off along Boomerang C. The headquarters groups were delayed and did not page 393 follow the Yeomanry until some time later. After some scattered mines were met, the engineers brought up a Scorpion to keep the Yeomanry's progress up to schedule but, though the tanks kept going, the tail of the column slowed down when shell and machine-gun fire brought casualties to B Company of the Sherwood Foresters and the engineers. The leading tanks reached the forward infantry shortly after the Hussars and formed up on the left ready for their attack.
The third column of 9 Armoured Brigade, the Warwickshire Yeomanry with about 120 vehicles, travelled independently along Moon track and turned on to the extension that led to Square track, on which it halted at the rear of the 50 Royal Tanks column. When the Valentines advanced on Square E, the Warwick Yeomanry took Square D and, though delayed by trouble in keeping to the marked route, the regiment's tanks were deployed among the forward infantry of 152 Brigade in time to advance at 5.45 a.m. Here again the soft-skinned vehicles in the rear of the column had suffered, mainly through mines which accounted for six trucks and two guns of D Troop of 31 NZ Anti-Tank Battery, and caused several casualties to the gunners and to C Company of the Sherwood Foresters.
As the three columns eased their way along the tracks in the newly-won ground, Brigadier Currie was disturbed by the reports of damage and delays and just before five o'clock asked General Freyberg if the advance of his brigade could be postponed for half an hour. From the reports then available it looked as if the brigade would not in any case be ready at the planned time so, although the postponement might affect the artillery timings, Freyberg had little option but to agree. On receiving Leese's approval, he discussed the gunner problems with his artillery commander, Brigadier Weir, who pointed out that the curtain of fire laid down in front of the infantry objective would have to be kept up for the extra half hour, with consequent strain on the guns and gunners, and that the carefully timed counter-battery fire and concentrations might lose some of their effectiveness. It was nearly 5.30 a.m. before the New Zealand artillery headquarters could inform the various regiments of the changes required, but the programme was altered with no recorded hitches. Brigadier Weir even managed to have the rate of barrage fire increased, and at 6.15 a.m. the guns put down their second barrage for the night and 9 Armoured Brigade passed through the infantry as the first faint signs of dawn were showing.
On the right 3 Hussars were now down to only twenty-three ‘runners’ through further damage and breakdowns. Instead of advancing on a wide front as intended, the commander sent the page 394 three surviving Crusaders of A Squadron ahead, with B, Headquarters, and C Squadrons following in that order, and A Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry bringing up the rear. Moving at the rate of 100 yards in three minutes behind the barrage, the column at first met little opposition but flushed a large number of the enemy, who were left for the Cavalry to round up. A few hundred yards further south the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, with a strength of thirty-three tanks, set off at the same time with the twelve Crusaders of B Squadron in the lead, and C, Headquarters and A Squadrons level in line a short way behind.
From the beginning of dawn until well into daylight, the details of the operations of these two regiments are confused for, although individuals and units told their stories and made their official reports, few could correlate their actions with those of other troops around them. It would seem that the Wiltshire's Crusaders led the field, overrunning gun pits and shooting up trucks until they were well past the Rahman Track, a much-used route identifiable from other churned-up desert tracks in the area by the line of telephone poles running alongside. Here the enemy defences appeared more scattered, but the growing light disclosed the Crusaders to heavier guns sited further west and to enemy tanks that approached from the south-west. The other squadrons also came under fire as they approached the track, upon which the commander ordered them into hull-down positions while he called B Squadron back so that artillery fire could be laid on the opposition. However, wireless communication with B Squadron could not be gained, while damage to the Stuart tank and equipment of the artillery observation party with the regiment prevented calls being made on the supporting guns. The commander therefore directed the two heavy squadrons to lay smoke under which B Squadron might withdraw. This smoke brought a decrease in fire from the north, but then tanks seen on the south, and thought to be those of the Warwick Yeomanry, began firing on the regiment. According to survivors' accounts, all but one of B Squadron's Crusaders went up in flames, after which the enemy switched his fire to the heavy squadrons. As fit and wounded tank crews bailed out of their blazing vehicles and sought to escape to the rear, they were caught between the fire of the enemy to the west and of the Durhams to their rear.
The Hussars on the north do not seem to have advanced as far or as fast as the Wiltshires, possibly through encountering a greater concentration of anti-tank guns. Their leading tanks certainly passed the telegraph poles marking the Rahman Track but then, as with the Wiltshires, the lightening sky behind outlined them in silhouette to the enemy gunners. Attempts to get artillery fire page 395 brought down on the gun positions failed as the Stuart tank of the attached New Zealand battery commander was knocked out and other wireless links would not work, while wireless communication within the regiment gradually ceased through injuries to operators and sets. Under the direction and example of the regimental commander, messages were carried by men moving on foot under heavy fire to the seven surviving heavy tanks, until eventually they formed a line in visual contact. Some time after first light the commander managed to send a message through his rear-link radio to brigade headquarters to report his precarious situation. Of the support columns following the tanks of these two regiments, the anti-tank guns of A Troop, 31 NZ Anti-Tank Battery, and the lorried infantry of A Company of 14 Foresters with 3 Hussars had, as earlier recorded, suffered casualties and damage in the approach march and had fallen well behind the tanks. One anti-tank gun and some of the infantry apparently reached the Durhams' line after dawn and formed a small defensive position facing north behind the Hussar line. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry's column, of B Company of the Foresters and C Troop of 31 Battery, kept close to the tanks and halted about 300 yards to the rear of the heavy squadrons, where they hastily dug themselves in.
In this dawn attack by 3 Hussars and the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry there were many acts of gallantry shown by the tank commanders and crews in a determination to carry out Montgomery's orders and Freyberg's plans both in the letter and the spirit. In a later examination of the ground, the two regiments were credited with overpowering some thirty-five anti-tank guns, mainly Italian 47-millimetre and German 50-millimetre and a few of larger calibre, thus making a dent, if not a complete breach, in the enemy's gun line that only needed immediate exploitation.
Brigadier Currie, keeping well forward with the Hussars and Wiltshires, and acting throughout with extreme courage and resolution, did his utmost to control the battle and keep the gap open for the arrival of 1 Armoured Division. Several times, as he saw his squadrons disintegrating in front of him, he radioed Freyberg to ask that the Division be hurried forward.
The third regiment of 9 Armoured Brigade, the Warwickshire Yeomanry, fought an independent battle a mile or more to the south of the other two. On reaching the forward infantry of 152 Brigade with 38 ‘runners’ of the 44 with which it had started out, the regiment advanced on more of a south-westerly bearing than it should have done, possibly because of enemy opposition which the Valentines of 50 Royal Tanks had engaged in that direction or, according to one account, mistaking a rise to the south of Tell el Aqqaqir as its objective instead of the Tell itself. Just beyond the page 396 infantry line, the Warwicks ran head on into a concentration of anti-tank guns backed by enemy tanks. Although numerous guns were shot up or overrun, enemy fire took a heavy toll of the regiment's tanks, forcing the survivors to fall back on to a line hastily set up by the two remaining six-pounders of D Troop of 31 Battery and C Company of the Foresters.
Shortly after seven o'clock Eighth Army circulated a warning, gained through an intercepted wireless message, that the Panzer Army was preparing to counter-attack from the north. Between 7.30 and 8 a.m., Freyberg's requests, passed through his GSO I to Leese, became more and more urgent to get 1 Armoured Division into the battle. Currie himself was determined to keep the gap open if he could, but his brigade was down to about seven heavy tanks in 3 Hussars, nine in the Wiltshires, and seven in the Warwicks. The support groups were very thin on the ground, the lightly armoured vehicles of the Divisional Cavalry, unable to face the heavy enemy fire, had fallen back with any prisoners they could collect on to the infantry positions, while artillery co-operation had broken down through damage and wireless failures. About eight o'clock enemy tanks were observed assembling to the west of the Wiltshires.
The advance of 1 Armoured Division was headed by the armoured cars of 4/6 South African Armoured Car Regiment on Diamond A track and 1 Royal Dragoons on Square E. Their cars loaded with ten days' supplies, the two regiments had orders to search for gaps in the enemy's lines, slip through before daylight, and continue well into the rear areas to harass communications and installations. On the north, the South Africans passed round the north flank of the Durham infantry but soon met resistance and swung west, only to find themselves facing an anti-tank gun line. After suffering some casualties and losing three cars, the regiment pulled slowly back as daylight approached and eventually withdrew to the rear.
The Dragoons1 on the south were more fortunate, moving out to the south-west through 133 Brigade's positions and finding the enemy thinner on the ground and much less alert than in the north. Successfully bypassing several enemy positions in the half light without disclosing their identity, the Dragoons turned west at dawn into open country to begin a period of raiding which caused the Panzer Army considerable concern and some material losses. Only three cars were lost in this advance and these were all recovered later.
1 Two squadrons, mustering about 18 armoured cars.
Next in order of the armoured division's advance came the three groups of the Minefield Task Force of forty-two carriers and trucks, each group led by three Crusaders. Starting off earlier than originally planned, the groups found their way blocked by the columns of support vehicles and armoured cars ahead. As the tail of each column hurried to keep in touch with the trucks ahead on the sudden forward moves, collisions were frequent in the thick dust and darkness. The task forces halted on the infantry start line to allow the armoured car columns to get clear, and finally started on their task of widening the extension tracks about 5.20 a.m. At least one of the three groups reported shortly after 6.30 a.m. that it had completed its task as far as the infantry's final objective, and it is believed that the other two reached the objective a little later.
The three regimental columns of 2 Armoured Brigade, each following its group of the minefield task force, also had a slow and trying journey to the infantry start line, where they complained they were delayed by congestion on all routes. However, reports indicate that the heads of all three columns passed the 867 grid, just west of 6 Brigade's FDLs, close to 6.30 a.m. As far as can be ascertained, the Bays on the right, owing to the confusion earlier recorded on the clearance of Diamond B, swung north on to Diamond A, but 9 Lancers in the centre and 10 Hussars on the left took their planned routes, Boomerang C and Square D respectively. The fifty-nine armoured cars of 12 Lancers followed the tank columns to reconnoitre and mop up.
1 The sun rose at 7.09 a.m. according to the sun and moon tables used by 2 NZ Division.
At what time the regimental columns of 2 Armoured Brigade joined the survivors of Currie's brigade is difficult to determine. Reports were received about a quarter to seven that the 9 Lancers column in the centre was under fire from 88-millimetre guns on the north, and that 10 Hussars on the south were engaging seven enemy tanks away to the south-west. Neither of these regiments was apparently as yet up to the infantry's final objective.
About 7 a.m., though the time is not definitely established, Brigadier Fisher, the commander of 2 Armoured Brigade, learnt that the Bays on the north and 9 Lancers believed they were through the last minefield, a piece of news which meant that the regiments were prepared to deploy off the cleared tracks on which they had been travelling. Fisher thereupon ordered the two regiments to advance to Currie's assistance. Bad visibility was said to be hindering deployment but, somewhere about this time, 9 Lancers, or more probably a reconnaissance party ahead of the main column, met Currie in person and were told forcefully that their assistance was late. Shortly after half-past seven, reports were received by Freyberg through New Zealand engineers that a lateral track had been cleared some way behind the forward infantry to allow the tanks freedom of movement, and that tanks of 2 Armoured Brigade had crossed this track, moving west. However, the burden of these engineer and other reports gave Freyberg the impression that the brigade was stopping among the forward infantry to engage the enemy at long range. In a message timed 7.43 a.m., but possibly despatched a little earlier by his GSO I to Headquarters 30 Corps, he suggested that a senior officer, presumably meaning Lumsden himself, should come forward to ‘coordinate and invigorate’ the armour.
About eight o'clock Lumsden spoke by radio from Main Headquarters 1 Armoured Division, situated just south of Alamein station, to the divisional commander, Briggs, who was at the division's tactical headquarters, then moving at the tail of the armoured columns and some five miles east of the battle area. He warned him of the counter-attack intercept and gave orders for the division to ‘push on’. But then messages came in of enemy tank forces on the west and south-west, against which 9 Lancers and 10 Hussars had taken up hull-down positions. Three-quarters of an hour later, although reporting that their tanks had reached the Rahman Track, but could not get further because of a screen of 88-millimetre guns, the Bays and 9 Lancers had not drawn level page 399 with the remains of Currie's squadrons. Fisher himself was uncertain whether to whip his regiments on or fight a cautious hull-down duel while awaiting the expected counter-attack, so just after nine o'clock he wirelessed Briggs for instructions. The divisional commander's reply was apparently ambiguously worded for it permitted Fisher to signal back that, in accordance with orders, his brigade had taken up positions against attack from west or north. Briggs immediately replied, ‘Destroy opposition and get on’,1 but this exhortation came too late. At ten minutes past nine, by arrangement betwen 30 and 10 Corps, 1 Armoured Division took command of what was left of 9 Armoured Brigade, and the opportunity passed of the massive breakthrough envisaged in Montgomery's plans.
The Bays cautiously worked their way up behind 3 Hussars' line of heavy tanks, now down to six only, and sent their Crusader squadron to the north, but this movement drew fire in which two of the Bays' tanks were hit. The Crusaders then fell back and, on brigade orders, the Bays' tanks took up hull-down positions with their supporting arms and infantry stretched out to the rear, facing north.
It would appear that 9 Lancers edged forward at the same time as the Bays on their north and took up positions in the infantry's FDLs. On 1 Armoured Division's assumption of command of 9 Armoured Brigade, the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry's tanks, out beyond the infantry, were given permission to withdraw, but the message failed to reach the supporting arms with the Yeomanry column. When the surviving tanks, hardly one in fighting trim, moved back, the company of Sherwood Foresters and the gunners of C Troop of 31 NZ Anti-Tank Battery were left out on their own under the crossfire of the Lancers behind them and the enemy on the west. On the south-western corner the surviving tanks of the Warwickshire Yeomanry fell back on the armoured division's orders to join 10 Hussars. The Warwicks, 10 Hussars and 50 Royal Tanks were then concentrated in this corner, exchanging shots with the gun line on the Rahman Track and with enemy tanks off to the south-west.
By this time columns of both 7 Motor Brigade and 8 Armoured Brigade had begun to advance through 6 Brigade's positions into the area of the salient. The motor brigade appears to have halted and dispersed off the tracks, leaving the way open for the three regimental groups of armour to go forward, the Staffordshire Yeomanry on Diamond B, the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry on Boomerang C, and 3 Royal Tanks on Square D. The Staffs Yeomanry soon reported that it was under fire from the north and had halted to return this fire, while the other two regiments appear to have continued forward to join the mixed group of tanks in the rear of 152 Brigade's positions. While this mass movement of the British tanks was occurring, the armoured cars of 12 Lancers, seeking the gap on the southern front used earlier by the Dragoons, overran an enemy position, taking sixty-nine German prisoners, but then had to pull back in the face of anti-tank gun fire.
By the middle of the morning the congestion in the small area of the infantry's overnight gains, an area as flat as a billiard table, was presenting a problem. Hostile fire was constant but apparently haphazardly placed, and it is possible that the dust raised by the continuous movement of vehicles, as well as the smoke from those hit and set alight, screened much of the area from enemy observation. Though numerous vehicles were damaged by the shellfire and by scattered mines, casualties among the troops were extremely light.
The Australians spent one of the quietest days for some time, although patrols to north and west from their lines could not progress very far without meeting intense machine-gun fire. Movement in the 28 NZ Battalion's defences brought immediate fire from all sides until midday, when some armoured cars rounded up a large number of Germans who had remained to the rear of the battalion. Even then A Company on the right, though in visual contact with 2/17 Australian Battalion on its east, remained out of contact with the other companies and none could establish contact with the rear by either runner or radio. To the left of the Maoris there was a wide gap, though parties of lorried infantry, tanks and armoured cars were further south.
On 151 Brigade's front, 8 Durhams in the north-west corner of the salient fell back about midday when enemy activity seemed to forecast an attack, leaving the observation party of 5 NZ Field Regiment to hold the front. Later 6 and 9 Durhams extended their page 401 fronts inwards to cover this gap. No actual counter-attacks were made on the brigade front this day, all enemy movement being subjected to heavy artillery concentrations, but the Durhams spent an uncomfortable day in shallow defences while tanks and Vickers gunners fired over their heads and the enemy retaliated. Plans were being made for 8 Durhams to be replaced by a battalion of 6 Brigade when Freyberg visited the sector in the late afternoon. Finding the Durhams poorly organised in defence and communications, he decided to bring up the whole of 6 Brigade to relieve 151 Brigade overnight.1
Casualties in the supercharge operation so far had not been unduly heavy except in 9 Armoured Brigade. An evening check on 2 November gave the brigade about 24 ‘runners’ in sufficient order to be used immediately out of the 94 tanks which crossed the start line. Casualties in men came to 163 in the tank regiments, 66 of the motorised infantry, and 22 among the attached cavalry squadrons, anti-tank troops and engineers. The tank losses in 2 and 8 Armoured Brigades were 33 all told from enemy action, mechanical breakdown, and other causes, and casualties in men in the two brigades also totalled 33.
There is no doubt that the direction and sector chosen for supercharge had not been anticipated by the enemy, just as Montgomery had hoped. The attack, however, did not meet a purely Italian defence, for part of the front was held by infantry of 15 Panzer Division, and the grimly determined anti-tank line that broke up 9 Armoured Brigade was manned mainly by German gunners. Owing to the confusion caused by the disruption of the Panzer Army's communications, the customary immediate counter-attack was not made so that the gun line, unsupported and low in ammunition, was on the point of breaking as in the morning light the gunners were able to discern the mass of British tanks moving up behind the swirling smoke of 9 Armoured Brigade's wrecks.
1 151 Brigade's casualties in supercharge were assessed at 489 all ranks, of whom a high proportion was listed as ‘Missing’. Many stragglers were being held at this time in the Australian and New Zealand lines.
Montgomery's reaction to the initial results of Supercharge is best seen in the light of the orders he then issued. Soon after dawn he joined Leese at the tactical headquarters of 30 Corps and, from the directives he sent out during the morning, he seemed to be in no doubt that the salient was secure against counter-attack. His first action was to order 7 Armoured Division to assemble as quickly as it could in the area south-west of Tell el Eisa station. Here the division was to be joined by 4 Light Armoured Brigade from 13 Corps, the ‘probable intentions’ of the reserve armoured division being in general to break out from the southern flank of the salient. For an infantry reserve the Army Commander called for 4 Indian Division to reorganise its front in order to release 5 Indian Infantry Brigade.
Montgomery appears to have accepted 1 Armoured Division's failure to follow up 9 Armoured Brigade's attack for he asked no further action during the day than an advance by 2 Armoured Brigade to the Rahman Track, a request based on the armour's oversanguine reports that it was close to the track. By midday he and Leese had made plans for a late evening advance by infantry south-west from the salient to ‘Skinflint’, a ring contour on the map encircling Point 38, and the occupation of the old ‘Snipe’ objective. This action was to clear the immediate opposition from the south of the salient to allow armoured cars of 4/6 South African Armoured Car Regiment to exploit the gap found the previous night by the Royals, possibly followed by 22 Armoured Brigade (of 7 Armoured Division) and 3 South African Armoured Car Regiment.
The switch of direction from the west to the south-west of the salient was based not only on the success of the Royal Dragoons in that direction but also on the information of the enemy's dispositions acquired from air and ground reconnaissance, intercept, page 403 and other sources, all of which indicated that the enemy's reserves were to the north and west of the salient and were likely to be held there by the threat posed by 1 Armoured Division. Speed, however, was essential in exploiting the southern egress before Rommel redisposed his forces to cover the weakness there, but Leese was faced with the problem of finding troops for the operations desired by Montgomery. Plans were concocted and issued in such haste that, before Freyberg or his staff were aware of what was afoot, 51 Division was receiving orders direct from 30 Corps to use troops still under New Zealand command in the New Zealand sector. On Freyberg's representations, the confusion was settled by the division of the Supercharge salient along the 299 northing grid, with the New Zealand Division retaining command of the sector and the troops on the north of the line and 51 Division taking over the southern part of the salient. The day's misunderstandings did not then cease, for the orders issued by 51 Division under pressure brought signal errors and ambiguous wording that confused the roles of the various groups assigned to the operations. Apart from the necessary haste, the basis of these troubles lay in the shortage of infantry, which in turn caused divisions to be dismembered and put the Corps Commander in the position of having a direct say in the employment of brigades or even battalions.
When the majority of the misunderstandings had been settled, a plan emerged for 2 Seaforths of 152 Brigade to be relieved in the south-west corner of the salient by 5/7 Gordons (153 Brigade) and to advance on ‘Skinflint’ with the support of 50 Royal Tanks with whom the Seaforths had earlier trained. At the same time 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade was to extend south-westwards to ‘Snipe’. The various delays allowed no time for more than a very simple artillery support programme to be arranged before the start of the operation at 4 p.m. Further delays in the relief and assembly caused the infantry to ask for alterations to the time and, after a false start by some of the guns, the advance of the Seaforths appears to have begun in earnest at 6.15 p.m., led by a squadron of Valentines. Trieste Division troops in the defences showed little inclination to resist, at least 100 giving themselves up, and in a short time ‘Skinflint’ was reached for the loss of two tanks by shellfire, two on mines, and no recorded casualties in the Seaforths. The tanks then withdrew, leaving the Seaforths to dig in and thus extend the western face of the salient for about a mile and a half to the south.
After settling a misunderstanding whether it would be relieved before or after its operation against ‘Snipe’, 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade made plans for an artillery supported advance by 5 Royal page 404 Sussex to this objective to coincide with the Seaforths' advance. Either through delays in preparation or through uncertain liaison, the Sussex set their starting time at seven o'clock, but before this time arrived, signs of surrender began to appear on the objective. Apparently the artillery fire and the advance of the tanks to ‘Skinflint’ led the Italian defenders on ‘Snipe’ to believe they were outflanked. The artillery support was then cancelled while 5 Royal Sussex marched forward, meeting little opposition other than scattered shellfire from distant guns. For a loss of seven men through mines, and the gain of some sixty prisoners, the battalion dug in on ‘Snipe’ as daylight faded. This action could be said to complete the first phase of SUPERCHARGE and the stage was set for the final breakthrough.
On the enemy's side the initial effects of SUPERCHARGE were curious. Convinced that the next British assault would proceed from the north or north-west of the Australian sector, Rommel had planned to distract attention from this area by artillery deception programmes on 15 and 164 Divisions' fronts, that is, on the SUPERCHARGE frontage and to the south. The panzer division's gunners were probably too busy on defence but 164 Division seems to have fired its programme. The deception effect was, however, completely lost, the fire being taken by the Eighth Army as part of the enemy's retaliation to the assault barrage. When the British assault had broken into 15 Panzer Division's lines, bombing and radio jamming had so disrupted the Africa Corps communications that most of the news received at Panzer Army headquarters came through 90 Light Division, and thus added to the conviction that the point of attack was where it had been anticipated. It was not until nearly dawn, when Africa Corps' communications had been partially restored, that some idea of the extent and direction of the attack was grasped. By this time counter-attack plans had been issued on the basis that the line of the coastal road and railway was threatened and a period of confusion ensued as the plans were revised. Finally, orders were given for 21 Panzer Division to move against the SUPERCHARGE salient from a northerly direction and for 15 Division's mobile reserve, augmented by tanks of Littorio and Trieste divisions, to drive from the west. Exactly how many tanks were involved in the operations is uncertain, but before the day was out most of the 90 German and 50 Italian ‘runners’ available on this part of the front were drawn into the battle.page 405
In spite of emphatic urging by the Corps Commander, von Thoma, neither panzer division made much progress. Unable to find the infantry line they were expected to restore, and without infantry of their own to consolidate ground won, the counterattacking tanks could do little more than probe forward until the British fire became too heavy, when they went into hull-down positions. Many of the tank commanders appear to have encountered the Eighth Army's Shermans for the first time, to find themselves outgunned, and though both panzer divisions reported that they caused heavy casualties among their opponents, Africa Corps had only 35 German and about 20 Italian tanks still in battle order by the evening. Unfortunately no record exists of how these tank casualties occurred, so they must be attributed to a combination of the British bombing, tank, anti-tank and artillery fire.
As the day wore on the Panzer Army was better able to assess its situation. Its reserves were inadequate, its front was on the point of cracking and withdrawal in a short time was inevitable, while the opportunity that Rommel had been awaiting was at hand for a quick disengagement at the moment when the British appeared heavily committed and temporarily halted. Towards evening Rommel called for von Thoma and, having ascertained how desperate were the straits of the thin line around the British salient, he gave his orders for the withdrawal to be set in motion. His first move was to call for Ariete's tanks from the south to thicken up the screen of mobile forces intended to cover the retreat, and in so denuding the southern defence of its last mobile reserve, he must have assumed that all the British armour was committed in the north, for the petrol shortage and the condition of Ariete's tanks made it impossible for the division to return. According to records of this time, Rommel did not expect to leave any of his German or Italian infantry in the lurch, for he seemed confident that, if the rearguards played their part properly, the bulk of his forces would be able to fall back in good order in spite of the petrol and transport situation. Clauses in the orders recorded by Africa Corps stated that as many fighting troops as possible were to be taken back in the available transport, with the Italians given priority ‘as their fighting value is smaller’1 and that not a single German soldier was to be left behind.
On both northern and southern fronts the first bounds to be reached by the evening of 3 November gave most of the front-line formations less than 20 kilometres to cover in twenty-four hours, so that, had the rearguards played their part and the available transport been efficiently used, the majority of the Panzer Army might have got back to the first bound at least. Many of the Italians had already anticipated the order, on what authority it is hard to ascertain though it may have been on the ‘priority’ clause, for it was in the late afternoon, about the time that the Seaforths started for ‘Skinflint’, that the Panzer Army released the official order for front-line and rear troops to set the withdrawal in motion. By nightfall the Eighth Army was faced, except around the SUPERCHARGE salient, with a thin screen of rearguards of a company in each original battalion sector prepared to demonstrate noisily with automatic fire and flares. Though it may be supposed that the Italian commanders left their most reliable companies behind, the line of rearguards must have had many weak links.
Although the records show how Rommel saw the progress of the battle, they do not show so clearly what Montgomery was thinking at that time. His first orders after he learnt that SUPERCHARGE had bogged down were for regrouping while pressure was maintained on the enemy. The regrouping covered an extension northwards of the South Africans to narrow 51 Division's front, the reinforcement of 10 Corps with 7 Armoured Division, and the formation of an infantry reserve consisting of 5 Indian, 5 New Zealand, 151 and 154 Brigades. The maintenance of pressure, a current term which, like exploitation, allowed elastic interpretations, was left to suggestions from Lumsden as to what his armour could do.
Montgomery also set his administration staff to implement the first steps of existing plans to extend the chain of supply dumps, the water pipeline and the tracks. From this it may be assumed that he saw the end of the ‘break-in’ phase of the battle near if not immediately to hand. His intelligence staff, however, still insisted that the Germans had up to 80 tanks and the Italians 160 in going page 407 order. The staff in fact had not yet fully realised that SUPERCHARGE had broken clean through the enemy's infantry line and had only been stopped by the factor discussed earlier in these pages—the resolutely manned anti-tank gun line that the Germans were so adept in forming in an emergency and the British so untrained in subduing.
Freyberg, having made a tour of the salient and studied the signs of destruction there and in no-man's land to the west, told his staff he was convinced that the enemy's withdrawal was imminent, if not already in progress, ‘no doubt to some new position’, and warned them to be ready for mobile operations early on the 3rd.1 In a draft report he prepared for his Prime Minister, he wrote:
… I feel it is rash to make forecast regarding fighting here in Western Desert which has been productive of so many disappointments. For information of Government perhaps it would help if I gave my opinion page 408 for what it is worth. I feel future here is bright. I believe German resistance was finally broken by last attack and cumulative effect artillery fire during last ten days. I feel present German position is precarious, that we shall push him back in near future to frontier and later under certain conditions I am led to hope we may eventually clear Africa.1
The various rearrangements of the front already planned were set going towards evening of 2 November. In the Highland Division's part of the salient, 5/7 Gordons moved into the position vacated by 2 Seaforths as the latter advanced on ‘Skinflint’, and after dark 1 Black Watch extended its front to include the ‘Snipe’ feature, thus releasing 133 Lorried Infantry Brigade to rejoin its armoured division.2
When dusk made movement possible, 28 Battalion established contact with 6 Brigade and, on being told it was under the brigade's command and to hold its defences, rearranged its positions and brought up supporting arms while engineers laid a minefield across its front. This was accomplished with little enemy interference as activity practically ceased after dark.3
Also at dusk the battalions of 6 Brigade left the ‘firm base’ to take over the front from 151 Brigade, the northern part of the base then being occupied by 22 Battalion under the brigade's command. The southern half of the base passed to 51 Division's command and was occupied by a battalion of 154 Brigade. The relief of the Durhams proved a slow and difficult task for the locations of their defences were inadequately and, in some cases, inaccurately known to their headquarters while their communications were incomplete. As the men of 6 Brigade searched for the platoons and companies they were to relieve, troops and vehicles of 7 Motor Brigade were passing through the area. It was well past midnight before the relief could be called complete, but by dawn the three battalions, 24 on the north, 25 on the north-west and 26 facing west, were firmly established with supporting arms sited, backed by the survivors of 9 Armoured Brigade and the Valentines of 8 Royal Tanks.
2 133 Brigade's casualties from 23 October to the evening of 2 November came to 717, of whom 417 were listed as ‘Missing’.
3 Total casualties in 28 Battalion in supercharge were recorded as 22 killed, 72 wounded, and 4 missing.
The attack by 7 Motor Brigade, finally settled to start at 1.15 a.m. on 3 November, was planned, as in previous operations by the motorised infantry, more as a set of battalion raids than as a brigade action. The brigade had spent the day in the congested salient awaiting decisions for its employment, and accordingly few of the troops had taken the trouble to dig themselves in or disperse their transport so that casualties and damage had been suffered under the enemy's shellfire. Patrols had been sent to the front in daylight in view of possible night operations, but little clear information had been gleaned. Artillery support could be only hastily arranged in the form of concentrations on the right-hand objectives and a sort of box barrage on the left.
In the north of the salient, behind the front where the men of 6 Brigade were sorting out the defences after sending the Durhams back, 2 Rifle Battalion formed up on the right and 7 Rifle Battalion on the left, with a number of their men and vehicles missing, and with some uncertainty over their exact objectives. Passing through the New Zealand defences, the carriers leading the advance met opposition as they neared the Rahman Track. Although the artillery support had already moved on to the more distant objectives, the men of 2 Rifle Battalion overcame some enemy posts only to meet with fire from anti-tank guns and, it was claimed, enemy tanks, which caused the companies to break up in some confusion. The battalion commander thereupon asked, and received, permission from brigade headquarters to withdraw.
Moving on a course a few hundred yards to the south, the companies of 7 Rifle Battalion had trouble finding the start line and were accordingly well behind the artillery programme. Told to expect little opposition, the companies lost touch when they met the same area of resistance as 2 Battalion encountered, and the men scattered. Although some individual efforts were made to rally page 410 the troops, the survivors eventually made for home. As the sky began to lighten, individuals and groups of the two battalions in carriers, trucks and on foot, filtered through 6 Brigade's lines and re-formed in the rear.
The third battalion of the motor brigade, 2 Battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps, had been given the task of advancing through the defences held by 5 Camerons on the south of the salient to occupy the low rise where the Rahman Track surmounted Tell el Aqqaqir. With trouble in making its way across the congested salient and with some misunderstanding of the plans, this battalion set off about an hour after the box barrage on its objective had been fired. Well to the east of the Aqqaqir feature and probably 500 to 1000 yards short of the track, 2 King's Royal Rifle Corps came under fire and halted. The commander then laid out a defence area, the men dug in as best they could and the antitank guns were brought up. The advent of dawn found the men overlooked by hostile posts on the feature and almost within a stone's thrown of the nearest enemy positions. For some unexplained reason the headquarters of 7 Motor Brigade issued a report that the Rifle Corps battalion had gained its objective and, although infantry observers in the salient reported after daylight that the Aqqaqir feature was still in enemy hands, the battalion's true position did not percolate through to headquarters of 10 Corps until well on into the afternoon, a delay that had odd repercussions.
The failure of 7 Motor Brigade to clear the ground brought the cancellation of further advances by the armour, which was due to start at 5.30 a.m. on the 3rd. However, in the belief that Aqqaqir was held, Lumsden told 8 Armoured Brigade to ‘feel its way forward’ round the south of 2 King's Royal Rifle Corps and set 4/6 South African Armoured Car Regiment on its way from the south of the salient. The two squadrons of armoured cars involved encountered minefields and opposition, and failed to get very far before turning back.
While the various operations and reliefs were taking place this night, the British intercept service picked up a message sent by 90 Light Division to tell its 200 Regiment to send vehicles to help bring out the heavy weapons of 125 Regiment in the coastal pocket. When this information reached 9 Australian Division, some two hours after the message was intercepted, patrols were hastily sent out and harassing fire commenced on the enemy's known tracks. All patrols met strong opposition, one suffering heavy casualties, but several small posts were overrun and some prisoners taken. It was obvious, however, that the German infantry were still in position, prepared to screen the withdrawal preparations.