El Mreir, 22 July 1942
The task of the New Zealand Division was to capture the eastern end of the El Mreir Depression.
Most of 25 Battalion’s records were destroyed in the battle and the battalion’s operation orders are therefore not available. The unit diary does, however, give most of the details of the plan. The battalion was to advance 6000 yards to a position about 1000 yards past the pipeline, where it would be in reserve 2000 yards south of the first objective. A Company was to be on the right, B Company on the left, Battalion Headquarters 200 yards behind the junction of the two companies, and C Company was to follow 450 yards behind B Company and 250 yards to the left-rear of Battalion Headquarters. Thus the battalion, while advancing on a two-company front, could rapidly form a similar front facing the left flank. The two-pounder guns of the anti-tank platoon and the carriers were to be in rear, with the six-pounder troop of 32 Anti-Tank Battery following.
With its companies in open order, 25 Battalion about an hour before dark moved due west for a mile to reach its forming-up place on the start line, drawing fire from enemy guns on the way, fortunately with few casualties. Some trouble had been experienced with the start lines of 24 and 25 Battalions, and Private Bates8 of the Intelligence Section has explained how it occurred:
‘Somehow that attack seemed destined to failure before it began. With infinite patience the three of us (Lt Jackman, IO, Pte Herbert Carter,9 and myself, all of I Sec) built up a row of high cairns (in no man’s land as a start line) in a convenient depression, only to find they overlapped the start line marked out by 24 Bn‘s I Sec, who were working at the same time. Barely had we returned to HQ and gulped down a hasty, half-cold meal, than Jackman was … demanding if I could be ready to go out again immediately. Skid (I Sec driver Pte Rapley10) drove us back into no man’s land where, in full view of Jerry, we laid a fresh line further south with old petrol tins (they were flimsies), using an old iron wheel lying on the desert as the central point…. We excited mild interest in the German arty lines. The three shells he lobbed at us were close and as the old war horse (the I Sec PU) came galloping down from the far end of the start line I leapt on the running board. (Note: It was impossible to take a bearing out to the start line. I recall looking back at the hills and trying to memorise the general direction of the start line. But we were zig zagging like fury, so it was all pretty vague. I was given a bearing later.)
‘I had just time to slip back to Bn HQ, swallow a small tot of rum, stuff a pick down behind my haversack and bolt back to A Coy. My orders were fixed in my mind: “Wait at A Coy till B Coy comes round; guide them out on a bearing of 261 degrees to the left flank of the start line. Then the axis of advance will be 351 degrees.”
‘From A Coy HQ I could see figures moving across to the north, about 500 yards out. Shells were spattering around and among them. B Coy? Surely not. It was too early. Major Hutchins (OC A Coy, I think) came up and confirmed their identity and I gave chase. I intercepted the last platoon and learned from Lieut Sharpley,11 the cmmdr, that the OC, Capt Armstrong, was ahead somewhere.
‘Already soaked with sweat, I jogged over the rocky surface, pack, pick, and rifle dragging like a sea anchor. I somehow caught Coy HQ—and still Armstrong was ahead. Already the coy was too far forward. A runner who went on to catch the OC contacted him finally in the original depression, where the two fwd platoons already were. He explained (when he came back) that he had known of the change of start line but one of his pl cmmdrs, unaware of the alteration, had already gone fwd too soon. Armstrong had chased him, leaving me more or less in the air.
‘All seemed chaos. Men, ant-like figures in the gathering dusk, swarmed over the base and up the northern slope of the depression, a gathering concentration that was gradually easing out into battle formation. Shells were dropping among them, each bursting like a splodge of ink flicked on to a dark photograph. Close by were a few open trucks that had brought up MMGs. A jeep whirled past, the occupants’ faces set and preoccupied. The sun was a red ball, low over the western ridges.
‘Somewhere in this glorious mess were two of our platoons.
‘Somehow we reformed. Jerry was no assistance, following us around with his guns as though he had us marked…. I left Capt A to collect his coy and went off with his batman and several others of coy HQ to locate the start line. The sight of men apparently going back gave the mob the idea they had to retire again. I recall turning and bellowing to Jack Bone12 (Armstrong’s batman, I think) to stop them. Almost as I spoke the crowd turned and were streaming in my footsteps. The reason I soon discovered to be the arrival of the Colonel and Bn HQ but another shelling epidemic temporarily annulled my interest.
‘The Col was quite calm and merely nodded his head when I explained what had occurred.
‘(We never did find that start line.)’
On reaching the start line 25 Battalion formed up facing north. The barrage opened at 8.30 p.m. and drew fire from the enemy guns and mortars. With visibility still fair, the leading companies a few minutes later crossed the start line in fairly good order under shell, mortar, and machine-gun fire. During the advance to the objective, which was reached about 11 p.m., the enemy positions encountered gave little trouble and were quickly overrun. The principal hindrance to movement came from machine guns firing across the line of advance from slightly elevated ground to the west, guns which had fired earlier on 24 Battalion’s advancing troops. As Colonel George relates: ‘These guns were firing tracer on fixed lines and it was possible to walk right up to the line of fire, wait for a pause between bursts, and then slip safely across’. ‘Overs’ fired by the enemy in the north at 24 Battalion were also encountered.
At the objective it was found, about 1 a.m., that touch with two platoons of A Company had been lost, but it was learnt later that they had advanced so rapidly that they had caught up with the left flank of 24 Battalion and had gone on with that unit. Touch had also been lost with C Company, and one of B Company’s platoons, losing touch with A Company on its right, hurried on and overran the objective and reached El Mreir. On the objective the hard rock made digging impossible and sangars had to be constructed.
C Company, which was out of touch with the battalion when the first objective was reached, had followed B Company in the advance in accordance with the attack orders and until reaching the minefield kept that company in sight. At that point Colonel George spoke to Captain Wroth, the company commander, and then went on, while the company continued the advance on the bearing laid down, 351 degrees.
‘Shortly we were fired on by automatic weapons at 100 yds on our left flank,’ said Captain Wroth, ‘the fire being of such great intensity that we were forced to go to ground; the situation was made worse by the guns firing sufficient tracer to light up our positions as effectively as a red verey light. On an order the two fwd pls and Coy Hqs rose and ran fwd, but it is not known whether 13 Pl (Mr Patterson in reserve) moved to the left to rush the guns, or carried on through the fire. Casualties were amazingly light and the coy moved on until reaching the metalled road at 4000 yds—the objective. Enemy trenches in this locality showed signs of hasty and recent evacuations. We moved on forward with the intention of contacting B coy and then turning about and taking up a defensive position. It would appear now that at this position B coy had been told to swing right as the ground was too flat for proper defence, but as word did not reach us we carried on, on the original bearing, thinking B coy (and the whole Bn) must be moving forward further than originally intended. Another thousand yards or so and 15 Platoon (left fwd pl, Mr. Matthews16) saw several enemy on his left flank, some of whom called out “Kamerad” but as the left section of this platoon moved left, the enemy opened fire, whereupon the pl commdr immediately swung his pl left and went in with the bayonet, killing 8 or 9 and losing 2. The enemy scattered, 20 – 30 men taking with them some sort of light tracked vehicle, but leaving an anti-tank weapon which Lieut. Matthews destroyed as far as possible with the butt of a rifle.
‘After moving 4000 yards from the originally intended objective, we called a halt and laid low because of there being so much light from air force flares, taking the opportunity to decide what should be done next.
‘The enemy, however, made the next move when several vehicles on our left forward flank started up and moved, proving by their rattle to be tanks. A staff car leading them completely encircled us but we withdrew before the tanks had moved sufficiently to our rear to cut us off. The enemy had apparently seen us in the light of the flares as there was a good deal of activity to our front prior to the tanks arriving. Moving back down our advance line caused us some worry for the first 1000 yards or so as verey lights were constantly being fired by the enemy, the lights never appearing any further to the rear. Nearing the metalled road again (a fair check on distance was maintained the whole time by men detailed for the purpose) we were confronted by a line of vehicles, some MT and some tanks. Too long to outflank, the coy moved towards a truck in the line, threw a 36 grenade underneath causing no uncertain consternation, took four prisoners, and left others wounded. One tank under which a ST grenade exploded, moved off in great haste, and the coy moved through without being fired at, although it was noticeable that all enemy contacted, both there and during the whole night, were completely dressed and wide awake.
‘Reaching the road we swung east to the line of the blue lights marking the Bde Axis line, 0400 hrs, and rested until first light when it was intended to move up the axis and find the Bn. Firing to the north caused us to decide against it, however, at first light, and we moved slightly north of east with the intention of parking up in whosever lines we happened to contact and moving up to the Bn when the coy commdr could definitely verify its location.
‘The coy was, however, marched back to its original position before the attack and then withdrew with the remainder of the Bn B ech.
‘The exact time or location where 13 Platoon was lost is not known, although it is possible, in addition to the possibility mentioned in the first MG episode, after crossing the metalled road a Bn runner with instructions to turn NE did meet 13 Pl (rear of C Coy HQ) and divert them.
‘On several occasions in addition to those mentioned intermittent enemy fire was opened, but casualties in C Coy HQ, 14 and 15 Pls are not heavy.’
Although C Company during its movements had encountered a good deal of fire and was the only company to meet direct opposition during the advance, its casualties, apart from the loss of 13 Platoon, were not heavy. It was easy to go astray at night in the desert, but the company was guided by its bearing of 351 degrees and by men detailed to check the distances, and on these data reached a point about 500 yards east of the eastern end of the El Mreir Depression before turning back.
The RSM (O’Kane) throws a little light on the loss of touch with C Company. On the arrival of the vehicles at the first objective, O’Kane was instructed by Colonel George to lead the carriers to the various areas to deliver ammunition. He went first to B Company, where he met Lieutenants Sharpley and Cathie with their platoons. Sharpley told him that C Company was on his platoon’s left flank but after going out some 400 yards O’Kane could not find it. On returning to Battalion Headquarters he was told by Colonel George that the battalion was moving forward and there was not time to search further for the company. O’Kane’s account continues:
‘The Bn continued forward in a northerly direction and was met by heavy MMG fire at approx 4.50 a.m. and almost immediately afterwards by mixed MMG and A Tk fire, with occasional mortar fire. At this stage the Bn was very bunched and slightly ahead was other transport, presumed to be English. 20 yds distant on the right (east) was a heavy British tank. The wounded previously picked up in the SAA truck in the minefield and elsewhere were here placed in slit trenches already dug, approx 30–40 yds away from the ammunition truck. 6-pr A Tk guns attached to the Bn withdrew under intense fire at this stage. Our portees moved into position to engage the enemy. One under Cpl Fraser17 was stuck in soft sand and though strenuous efforts were made to get it out, it was hit and caught fire. Other vehicles hit and burning were A Coy’s carrier, SAA truck, and the tank. All men took to the ground except the portee crews. Fire continued with some intensity for a half to three-quarters of an hour when light started to break. Troops could then be seen in strength to the north and large numbers to the NW. To the NE rifle coy men could be seen moving towards enemy tanks without being fired on and it was presumed that they had been forced to surrender. Enemy tanks then approached from the NE and moved to encircle the Bn position. Capt Wilson with jeep called on all men around “to make a break for it”. RSM O’Kane, CSM Smith, and a man from the A Tk Pl were able to get clear on the jeep and were subjected to concentrated fire from the tanks. No one was hit.
Unfortunately, the fears of the New Zealand commanders that the supporting tanks would not be on the objective in time had been realised. Headquarters New Zealand Division had heard by midnight that 26 Battalion had reached its objective and had encountered enemy tanks, and was assured by Headquarters 1 Armoured Division that its tanks would be there at first light. About 4 a.m. Brigadier Clifton was in touch with Colonel Gentry (GSO 1 NZ Division) at Divisional Headquarters and asked him to ensure that tank support came up quickly. Clifton also asked one of his three tank liaison officers to call his headquarters and, climbing on that officer’s tank, heard him report the situation and ask for tank support at first light. It was a tragedy that it was not so arranged.
A few minutes after 8 a.m. on the 22nd, the Valentine tanks of two regiments of 23 Armoured Brigade advanced westwards along the northern lip of El Mreir, encountering minefields and heavy artillery and anti-tank fire and suffering heavy losses. Several squadrons reached the objective three miles west of the pipeline but at midday, with only seven tanks left, the brigade was withdrawn, having lost eighty tanks. There was no lack of determination and courage in 23 Armoured Brigade.
Efforts were still being made to find out what had happened to 6 Brigade and whether part of it might still be holding out in El Mreir. Second Armoured Brigade attacked late in the afternoon against the south-east corner of El Mreir. Under heavy anti-tank fire, the brigade was soon in a dangerous position from which it was ordered to withdraw, with eight Grant tanks destroyed and ten others disabled. Even as late as 5 p.m. 6 Field Regiment reported that what appeared to be men of 24 and 25 Battalions were close to their objectives and the tanks were asked to investigate. Reports from survivors, however, soon dispelled any hopes in the matter.
It is perhaps futile to surmise what the result of 6 Brigade’s attack would have been had the tanks arrived on the objective at or a little before first light, but the great determination and gallantry displayed when the tanks did attack leave little doubt that the operation would have been an outstanding success.
The battalion’s withdrawal was made gradually so as to simulate a supply column, one half moving at 5.30 p.m. and the other half an hour later.
Field Ambulance Equipment and Training
Small groups from the medical units, had during April 1940 proceeded out into the desert to establish and work an advanced dressing station for the training operations carried out by combatant units. The exercises emphasised the need for frequent practice in the field to master all the functions of a field ambulance. Practice blackouts and air-raid alarms pointed to the need for the unit to be prepared to deal with air-raid casualties.
John was attached to the 2 NZEF, 6 Brigade, 25th Battalian, 6 Field Ambulance which referred to 2 NZ General Hospital, based in Helwan, Egypt
From Alexandria a single railway line and a tarmac road ran along the coast to Mersa Matruh; the road extended further to Sidi Barrani. Thence all transport was obliged to use desert tracks which quickly cut up into loose sand in which progress was slow and arduous.
No ambulance trains were at first available. A temporary arrangement was made for an ambulance coach to run daily with the passenger train from Mersa Matruh to Daba and there empty into the CCS and return to Mersa Matruh. When patients had to be evacuated to base hospital at Alexandria, another coach was despatched from Alexandria to Daba to pick them up. Later, ambulance trains ran daily from Mersa Matruh, stopping at Garawla, Sidi Haneish, and Fuka to pick up sick from field ambulances and the Royal Air Force, unloading minor sick patients for treatment at the CCSs at Daba and, after taking on others for evacuation, proceeding to Alexandria and Cairo.
On 13 September 1940 the Italian forces pressed their advance beyond the frontier of Egypt to Sollum and later to Sidi Barrani. Before numerically superior forces, the British troops gradually withdrew to prepared defences at Mersa Matruh. On 15 September, following an air raid during the night, a number of casualties, all British, were admitted to 4 MDS for treatment. By 18 September the MDS held 31 patients, and by the end of September there were 64. The enemy air force was making frequent day and night attacks on troops, camps, and supply dumps in the Western Desert and on the railway line from Alexandria to Mersa Matruh.
During October the unit, which was nearly forty under strength, evacuated 634 patients sick and wounded—mostly sick. Of this total 289 were New Zealand troops and 345 British. In addition, many patients were detained under treatment and, on recovery, were discharged directly back to their units.
During this period in the desert opportunity was taken by 4 Field Ambulance to view the arrangements in the field made by ambulance units of 7 Armoured Division. Officers were impressed by their methods of dispersal, the set-up of the MDS and the ADS, their use of large tarpaulins (40 feet by 40 feet as a minimum) for providing quickly erected and efficient lightproof coverage for patients, and their arrangement of equipment in their panniers.
It was realised that several additions to equipment would be necessary because of the changed functions of a field ambulance in mobile warfare in the desert.
small tents had to be supplemented with coverage that was capable of quick erection and removal.
As a result tarpaulins were provided for 4 Field Ambulance and became standard equipment. They were used with a truck, such as the operating truck, as the principal support for the tarpaulin, one side of which was spread over the vehicle and the other sides pinned to the ground. Poles inside the tarpaulin raised it sufficiently high off the ground to provide coverage for twenty to thirty stretchers. The open end of the truck faced inwards so that the equipment was easily available for use inside the marquee-like structure. Such a structure could be erected in a few minutes.
Lessons learned in a training exercise in November 1940 included navigation, by day and by night, and the art of dispersal, and further practice was received in the rapid establishment of both main and advanced dressing stations. The unit was now highly trained, although further improvement was thought desirable in the collection and transportation of a continuous flow of casualties from a battalion.
25th July 1942
D Company, accompanied by five reinforcement officers, now arrived from Maadi after being three weeks away from the battalion. A, B, and C Companies were then formed into one company and named C Company, and after dark the two-company battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Burton moved forward to reoccupy the position it had formerly held west of Alam Nayil.
The night was quiet and after daybreak the companies dug in. There was a little spasmodic shelling but the principal annoyances were the plague of flies (which appeared to be increasing), the intense heat, and a heavy dust-storm which arrived at midday.
During the night of the 26th several demonstrations to simulate an attack like that against El Mreir on 21–22 July were made along the front of 6 Brigade. The purpose of these was to hold the enemy on the front while the Australian and armoured forces attacked—unsuccessfully, it was learnt later— on the coastal sector. Raids were organised, minefields blown up, artillery and machine-gun concentrations fired, and other measures taken to deceive the enemy. Fifth Brigade took similar action.
That night a patrol led by Lieutenant Moffett,24 the Bren-carrier officer, moved towards Fortress A, finding fresh marks of MT and tracked vehicles but no sign of enemy troops. The laying of mines along the brigade front was pushed on and by the 29th the front was fairly well protected in this way. A rather unusual visitation, a plague of mosquitoes, was experienced on that date, giving everyone a bad time and for the moment superseding the terrible flies as enemy No. 1; a small palliative was the hope and the belief that the Germans and Italians were similarly afflicted. From samples of these mosquitoes sent back for identification, malaria-bearing types were found to be present. A strong breeze from the south during the night had apparently brought the insects up from the Fayoum, 120 miles away to the south-east.
Active patrolling continued each night with little result, though a patrol on the 31st under Second-Lieutenant Budd25 encountered a working party from which it attempted to cut off three of the enemy; unfortunately, because of faulty fusing of three 36-type grenades, which failed to explode, the patrol was forced to retire under fire, eventually returning to the battalion by a circuitous route.
The enemy was also harassed by fire from 25-pounders, mortars, and machine guns and often responded by laying heavy defensive fire around his positions, a sure sign of nerves and of the need to bolster-up the resolution of his infantry. August saw continuous patrolling by all battalions. Twenty-fifth Battalion had a standing, reconnaissance, or fighting patrol out on every night of the month, no fewer than twelve officers, including two captains, taking part, each of them on several occasions. A good deal of information about the enemy defences was obtained but there were few encounters with his troops, apart from rather heavy fire at times. The patrols operated to a considerable distance forward of the battalion’s front; for example, Pt 104, where strong standing and other patrols of the battalion were almost continuously present each night, was three miles to the west-south-west of the front line.
On the night of 9–10 August Lieutenant Kempthorne‘s27 patrol encountered a large enemy patrol a mile west of Pt 104 and inflicted and suffered casualties; Lieutenant Kempthorne and Private Snell28 were missing, the former being reported later as died of wounds and the latter as wounded and prisoner of war. Again, eleven nights later, Second-Lieutenant Budd’s patrol was fired on from both flanks as it withdrew after inflicting casualties; Budd was killed and one man was wounded and missing. A third brush with the enemy took place at about 1 a.m. on 26 August when Lieutenant Hewitt’s29 patrol engaged an enemy patrol of over thirty men; after an exchange of fire the enemy withdrew, losing a parachutist (fighting as infantry), armed with a light machine gun and a machine-carbine, as a prisoner.
Two nights later Moffett’s patrol of carriers visited the enemy wire and, after firing on an enemy position, withdrew under fire with one carrier and its crew missing. This occurred near Pt 104, where a fighting patrol of one platoon, two sections of carriers, an anti-tank gun, one section of mortars, and a No. 18 set for R/T communication to Battalion Headquarters, all under Lieutenant Norman,30 was in position; the No. 18 set, as was so often the case, was unsatisfactory.
A note on John’s file says for 29th July 1942 – 25th battalion 6 field ambulance remains on strength.
On 12th August 1942 he was admitted to 43 field ambulance wounded and transferred to 14 Bn casualty clearing station and admitted to 8 General Hospital. He marched into the NZ reception depot on 29th August 1942.
In the very early hours of the 29th C Company had some excitement when an enemy aircraft, a Ju88, crashed in flames in the vicinity of 14 Platoon and exploded with a terrific bang, the crew of four and the aircraft being totally destroyed, though two 500-pound bombs were found intact. At midday there was a good deal of air fighting and three enemy aircraft were shot down; next day there were frequent enemy air reconnaissance’s.
The enemy was not inactive in meeting the intense patrolling of the New Zealanders and from early in the month showed much greater alertness. He also thickened up his defenses with booby traps and used a tank or armored car, in combination with searchlights, to cover his nocturnal working parties, thus making surprise attacks by our patrols almost impossible.
August was a most trying month for the Division and diaries and letters frequently referred to the conditions: ‘Heat and flies exceedingly trying—Getting dirtier and stickier each day and hope for a wash soon—Breeze a little cooler in the evening —Tea not till 8 because of the flies—This sitting about all day in the heat with the flies just about eating us alive is not so hot—Dirty clothes exchanged for new in the evening—very sticky with perspiration and dust and only a bottle-and-a-half of water a day.’
During the greater part of the day the heat was intense, a blazing sun from a cloudless blue sky creating almost furnace conditions on the stony, shadeless desert. In the afternoon sandstorms were frequent, bringing visibility down almost to zero. Early in the month the men occupied shallow slit trenches and a groundsheet over the top gave some slight protection from the sun, though the occupants found it difficult to believe. Later, as the trenches were deepened, there was some improvement. Diarrhea and desert sores were common and jaundice even more evident, the rate of sickness being high with 1126 sick from all units admitted to the divisional dressing stations during the month. The nights, however, were a real relief with cooler temperatures, no flies, and some liberty of movement often impossible during daylight because of enemy observation. Moonlight nights in particular were brilliant, but these were bombing nights and the moon was not always as welcome as otherwise it would have been.
Early in August the rations were changed over from tinned to fresh, a very welcome change, though it continued for only two or three weeks. Occasionally a little beer was available, and the daily water ration (a matter of equal importance in such an arid country) was increased in the middle of the month from one gallon to one and a quarter gallons per man for all purposes, i.e., cooking and drinking, and such washing-up by the cooks as was inescapable.
The day was also notable for domestic reasons as leave to Cairo or Alexandria for 5 per cent of the strength for four clear days, exclusive of travelling time, was resumed. On the same day a very welcome reinforcement of 121 all ranks joined 25 Battalion, its share of 330 which reached the brigade.
On 7th September 1942 John joined the 32nd Battalion. On 9th September 1942 was admitted to 42 General Hospital (SOXii) and the following morning posted back with the 25th battalion.
The order for the relief was received the morning of 9th September and advanced parties from 8 Durham Light Infantry arrived in the late afternoon. The relief was to be completed by 2 a.m. on the 10th, but an hour and a half beforehand the battalion transport was able to move off to the bivouac area, five miles east of Alam Nayil. The majority of the men had to march, and after a three-hour trudge through the dust and soft sand, reached the bivouac area just before dawn.
All that day a dust-storm blew and for once was welcome, effectively concealing in the afternoon the battalion’s move to the divisional rest area on the sea coast near Burg el Arab, a rough and dusty three-hour journey in MT. The beach in the new area was a delight after the strain, hard work, and dirt of the last two months, but lifesaving precautions, which included organised bathing parties and pickets with improvised equipment, were necessary. Six days’ leave to Alexandria and Cairo was granted, preference being given to those who had been through the summer campaign without a break.
On 16th September John marched out to 32nd NZ Bn X(i) list as reinforcement and rejoined the 25th Bn X(i) in the field on 23rd September 1942.
The battalion remained in its pleasant beach camp until 19 September, enjoying the concerts given by the brigade band and the Kiwi Concert Party though, because of the risk of air attack, it was necessary to restrict gatherings to about 400 and to provide anti-aircraft defence.
The New Zealand Division was now to commence training for the forthcoming offensive and moved into bivouac areas to the south of Burg el Arab by 19 September. Twenty-fifth Battalion then took part in a full-scale divisional rehearsal, held under conditions as similar as possible to the actual attack which was to be made later. After the rehearsal the battalion was engaged on general training, and with the other units of the brigade carried out a further exercise in attack in co-operation with tanks and supported by artillery.
Training continued for the first three weeks of October and covered a wide field, including movements in MT by day and night, desert navigation, signals co-operation, and the digging and occupation of a brigade defensive position with all-round defence. The weather was now growing decidedly colder, jerseys being worn (by order) from 4 October in the early morning and after sunset; an extra blanket was issued four days later when there was a strong wind with occasional rain, although not sufficient to prevent a heavy sandstorm.
In the late afternoon of 16 October a very unpleasant dust-storm arrived and put a stop to training; it was considered to be the worst experienced since the very severe one at Amiriya on 14–15 March 1941 prior to the battalion’s embarkation for Greece. Rain at dusk reduced the dust a little, but the wind with a little rain continued the next day, raising a rough sea which stopped all bathing.
It had been decided, therefore, to attack in moonlight, the earliest feasible date being 23 October, the day before full moon. The main attack was to be made in the north, with a secondary attack in the south to pin down the enemy forces there. In the northern sector the Miteiriya Ridge, a narrow feature several miles in length and about a hundred feet above sea level, and stretching from south-east to north-west, was the key to the enemy position.
The New Zealand and South African Divisions were to attack in a south-westerly direction to secure the Miteiriya Ridge and establish a southern corridor through the defences. Fourth Indian Division, farther south, was to carry out a diversionary raid along Ruweisat Ridge. When the corridors were formed, armoured formations were to pass through ready to meet enemy armoured counter-attack or to continue the operation to get astride the enemy communications. In any case the New Zealand Division and other infantry of 30 Corps, after securing the objectives, were to proceed at once, under the protection of the armour, with the methodical destruction of the enemy troops between the two corridors and, later, those on the flanks.
It was vital to the success of the whole operation that the leading armoured brigades should be right forward in their deployment area, ready to fight at first light in the morning following the attack and not be delayed or diverted by local fighting on the way. All enemy troops, especially guns, had therefore to be thoroughly cleared from the routes and the deployment area before the arrival of the armoured brigades, also great care had to be taken to see that the vehicles of the New Zealand Division and other attacking troops did not block the armour.
The New Zealanders’ main task was to capture the Miteiriya Ridge on a front of 5000 yards. The attack was to be made by 5 Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left, in two phases, with 110 minutes between.
The rate of advance to the second objective was fixed at 100 yards in three minutes, the same as for the first advance; the second objective was 1500 yards beyond the first objective.
The night of the 23rd was still and clear, with a brilliant moon lighting up the landscape, and it was a great relief to the men to be able to stretch their cramped limbs and move about a little. At 9.40 p.m. the comparative calm of the night was rudely disturbed by the crash and flash of nearly a thousand guns, which opened fire simultaneously all along the front against located enemy batteries. It was the opening of the great British offensive which had been awaited with tense expectation by friend and foe alike.
Almost all the hostile guns were silenced, for the time being, by this intense counter-battery fire which, as planned, continued for fifteen minutes, ceased, and five minutes later reopened with equal fury against the enemy forward positions when the infantry of the Eighth Army at zero hour, 10 p.m., advanced to the attack.
The gunfire was tremendous; the terrific crash and flame of the exploding shells mingling with the great thunder and flashes of the guns behind. This artillery concentration made a very deep impression on the troops and, as is always the case, it seemed that nothing could live under it. Such a result, however, can never be obtained, and the main effect is to shake and unnerve the enemy troops and keep them down in their trenches or away from their guns while the attackers behind the barrage cover the last few hundred yards. While somewhat dazed by the noise and the spectacle, the men were thrilled by this demonstration of the tremendously powerful artillery support they were to receive and they entered the attack with the greatest confidence. All artillery was under centralised control during the counter-battery fire and for seven minutes while it pounded the enemy’s forward defenses. The field artillery then came under the Division for the first phase of the infantry attack, while the medium artillery continued counter-battery fire.
Twenty-fifth Battalion (which because of the shortage of infantry had three companies only, B, C, and D) left its lying-up position at 10.50 p.m. It had about 2000 yards to go to reach the 24 Battalion start line and another 3400 yards to its own start line, where it was due to commence the attack behind the barrage at fifty-five minutes after midnight. To pass through the minefield gap just beyond the original forward defended localities, 25 Battalion narrowed its front, with C Company (Captain Wroth) leading, followed by B (Captain Weston) and D (Captain Possin1), but did not find the blue lights which according to orders would be marking 24 Battalion’s start line. Both Wroth and Weston, however, had noticed a white tape line which they agreed must have been the start line, and so, with C Company on the right, B on the left, and D in reserve, they pushed on. The companies had men detailed to pace the distance from the 24 Battalion start line, but there was now no fixed point from which to measure. Captain Wroth with C Company, the directing company, commented:
‘It was difficult to know just where to expect to find the lights marking the line especially when we suddenly found ourselves enveloped in a heavy concentration of smoke. Right in the centre of this smoke the coy comdr ran direct against a Bn Provost NCO complete with light which had not been visible in the murk, the NCO being able to give explicit directions of where the other lights were placed. While the coy correctly placed itself, with 15 pl on the right, 13 on the left, and 14 in reserve, contact was established with 26 Bn on our right, and whereas a moment before everyone was worried about locations, we were all set now for the big attack. Bde training a few weeks previously had proved invaluable in that the forward sections of the forward platoons knew what advancing under a barrage was and how close it was possible to keep up to the rear shells, with the result everything went according to plan and but 18 casualties were suffered, mostly from enemy shelling. After a 3840 paces advance we reached a wire marking a minefield which would appear from directions given prior to the attack to be the exact spot we were looking for as an objective. A hurried conference with B Coy Comdr who was also sure this was our objective and C Coy Comdr set fire to his success rocket, a cylindrical piece 14 inches long by 2 inches wide attached to about 4ft 6in of ½″ × ½″ wood which must have appeared to the enemy to be one of our secret weapons. The coy then took up a defensive layout—we had lost contact with the right neighbouring battalion during the advance and a patrol sent out to locate them contacted their Bn HQ approx 600 yds on our right flank, proving their forward elements had pushed on further than us in accordance with the layout of the enemy minefield. While returning, this patrol contacted two coys of Maoris moving up into the gap between the two battalions, and they undertook to cover the gap until first light when a fuller reconnaissance would be possible.
B Company (Weston) had the same difficulty as C Company regarding the first start line.
The company passed through the gap in the minefield, ‘opening into artillery formation on the western side of the gap,’ wrote Captain Weston, ‘moving forward with 11 Pl on the left, 12 Pl on right, and 10 Pl in reserve; 12 Pl on right was contacting C Coy who were directing and they reported being unable to contact 26 Bn who were on their right. Consequently the attack had a tendency to drift to the right.
‘After a 3000 yard advance the Coy was on the second start line passing over this at 0030 hours still not having contacted the South Africans or 26 Bn. C Coy reported that they were still unable to contact the 26th Bn and we were unable to contact the South Africans on our left.
‘Some shells were falling short causing a considerable number of casualties. Owing to the dust and smoke it was impossible to cover the front allotted to the Coy and keep contact. The attack still drifted to the right as C Coy endeavoured to contact the 26th Bn. Opposition from the enemy was slight. Single Dannert wire and booby traps were encountered. The Coy passed over several dug enemy positions, many of which were unoccupied and others showed signs of a hurried departure. Those of the enemy who were left surrendered after firing a few shots. Some were killed before having a chance to surrender. On reaching the objective at 0200 hours the Coy consolidated and dug in. No. 10 Pl passed through and exploited for about 400 yds then returned and dug in on our left rear flank. D Coy passed through later to exploit.’
As indicated in these reports, 25 Battalion was about 600 yards to the right of its correct position but it was also about 800 yards short of it, having stopped on the near or eastern side of the ridge (as explained by Wroth) instead of continuing the advance to the western side to the true objective. The battalion was to be required to make another attack to place it on the objective.
By daybreak on the 24th 7 MG Platoon was in position to support 25 Battalion by indirect fire from the left flank, while 8 and 9 MG Platoons on the right between 25 and 26 Battalions helped considerably to make the brigade front secure. The situation on the New Zealand Division’s front was fairly satisfactory. All of the objectives had been taken except on the left on 25 Battalion’s front, but owing to delays caused by minefields very few anti-tank guns were in position. Only a few tanks of the Yeomanry had passed through into the open, but later these were withdrawn. The main concentrations of armor were still on the wrong side of the ridge and could not exploit the bridgehead which had been made in the enemy defenses.