Tag Archives: New Zealand Division

Chapter 6, Al Alamein

The battle of Alamein

During the end of September through to early October training and preparation continued. The battalion was involved in two main battles during 18-29th October for the battle of Miteiriya Ridge. Five awards were later made just before Christmas  representative of the gallantry and devotion to duty of the whole battalion.

The first indications of enemy withdrawl came on 3rd November. The 25th were now heading toward Fuka about 12 miles away. They covered 5 miles at dusk and dug in for the night. The following day more Italians were captured – 400 or more including about 100 germans.

‘The Alamein attack, as far as the mortars were concerned, was a matter of being called upon at odd moments to assist the infantry or to knock out enemy mortars or gun positions. Also much assistance was given to our patrols at night by direct barrage, etc. When patrols went out with mortar support at night two mortars would go out on two carriers. These patrols would advance at night to a suitable position and wait for first light to pin-point enemy positions. The carriers would withdraw after the job had been completed.’

On 27–28 October, as part of a reorganisation, 1 SA Division relieved 2 NZ Division, which (with the exception of the artillery) was withdrawn into reserve in the Alam el Onsol area south-east of the Alamein station. (The artillery was left behind to support an attack that night by 9 Australian Division farther north.)

Twenty-fifth Battalion received the warning order for the relief about noon on the 27th and later in the afternoon received orders stating that General Freyberg, who though the enemy might be withdrawing, had instructed that fighting patrols from 25 and 26 Battalions were to be sent out at dusk. The patrols found little to report, though the 25 Battalion patrol captured a German and four Italians.

From 3 p.m. on 29 October the battalion was at two hours’ notice to move.

The new position was a little over four miles north of that held on Miteiriya Ridge and the foremost localities about five miles east of Tell el Eisa station. These were held by 26 Battalion on the right and 24 Battalion on the left, with 25 Battalion in reserve two miles back, on a frontage of 1400 yards, with D Company on the right and C on the left. Sixth Brigade’s task here was to hold the position for three days as a firm base for a forthcoming attack.

The start line for the attack ran north and south about 1000 yards west of the positions occupied by C and D Companies. There was a good deal of traffic through the battalion area and just to the north of it, and the several tracks that were being used were filled with the engineers’ vehicles, the armour, the supporting arms and other essential transport, resembling the congestion behind Miteiriya Ridge on 23 October. Although the barrage at 1.5 a.m. was three times the weight of that given for the attack on Miteiriya Ridge, the general opinion in 25 Battalion was that it was not so impressive. The attacking infantry got away to time and succeeded in capturing its final objective, but the operations of the armour beyond the infantry objective were only partially successful. Further attacks were made during the night 2–3 November to get the armour to the west of the Rahman track, which ran south-south-west from Sidi Abd el Rahman through Tell el Aqqaqir and was about 9000 yards west of 25 Battalion’s position; the attacks were only partly successful.

During the evening of the 2nd 6 Brigade relieved 151 Brigade at the western end of the corridor, the battalion receiving its warning order in the middle of the afternoon to relieve 8 Battalion, Durham Light Infantry. Sixth Brigade’s front faced west and north on two sides of the bridgehead. Twenty-fifth Battalion reached its position, about 5000 yards to the north-west, before midnight and dug in. Contact was made with 24 Battalion (which was on the right and facing north) and with 26 Battalion on the left; all three battalions and also the Maori Battalion, which was on the right of 24 Battalion and under command of 6 Brigade, were forward, 22 Battalion (of 5 Brigade) being under command as the reserve battalion.

Twenty-fifth Battalion had all three companies forward, B right, C centre, and D left, the frontage being about 500 yards, facing north-west. Attached to the battalion were one troop of 33 Battery, six medium machine guns, eight six-pounder anti-tank guns and one company of lorried infantry (both from the Rifle Brigade). The battalion’s strength was very low: B Company, 3 officers, 38 other ranks, and four men from HQ Company; C Company, 2 officers, 33 other ranks, and eight from HQ Company; and D Company, 2 officers, 29 other ranks, and twenty from HQ Company.

In the morning the battalion’s position was spasmodically shelled but fortunately there were no casualties. The afternoon was enlivened by the approach of a Stuka formation which was broken up by fighters and anti-aircraft fire. There was also expectation of a move that night but it was postponed till the the next day, 4 November.

The Alamein battle had in fact been won and the enemy was in full retreat, covered by an anti-tank-gun screen and rear-guards. The first indications of an enemy withdrawal came early in the morning of 3 November and the evidence increased as the day progressed. Throughout that day the enemy had held his position along the Rahman track, but an attack during the night 3–4 November by 51 Division south of Tell el Aqqaqir (about 4500 yards south-west of 25 Battalion) forced the enemy anti-tank-gun screen back to the north-west.

This opened the way for the armour of 10 Corps (1, 7, and 10 Armoured Divisions) and the motorised New Zealand Division to break out to the west from the Alamein line. Tenth Corps was to swing northwards to the main road to cut off the enemy motorised forces at the bottlenecks of Fuka and Matruh while 30 Corps was to maintain contact with the enemy on its front. Thirteenth Corps in the south was to clear up and destroy the enemy in its area.

After passing through the enemy defences, the Division assembled two miles east of Tell el Aqqaqir, a very complicated and difficult movement as formations and units were widely separated and a good many of them were in positions on the battlefield. There was much congestion, with clouds of dust. Fortunately enemy aircraft were unable to take advantage of the wonderful target presented. Throughout the movement the armour and other troops provided a protective screen against any enemy enterprise.

Meanwhile 25 Battalion, relieved at 2 p.m. by two companies of the Black Watch and moving off in the early evening, travelled all night and halted for breakfast near the divisional concentration area.It had been a rough and dusty journey, with many delays and much digging and pushing to extricate vehicles from the many patches of soft sand. The route had been marked by the Divisional Provost Company with diamond signs on iron pickets and with green lights. These diamond signs were destined to show, at about 700 yards’ intervals, the way to Tripoli, 1400 miles to the west.

There were many signs of a defeated enemy in destroyed tanks, guns and vehicles, some of the last still burning, and here and there were groups of prisoners marching east, some under escort, others with large flags and no escort, but controlled by their acceptance of utter defeat. The Italians generally were rather buoyant and anxious to please, the Germans sullen. Salvage parties were busy recovering knocked-out British tanks.

For the move from Fuka, Baggush and onwards 25 Battalion was ordered to pass through the gap in the minefield 13 miles south-south-west of Fuka, and then proceed 22 miles on a bearing practically north-west to the top of the Baggush escarpment. Moving off at 10.45 a.m., the battalion passed through the minefield half an hour later, progress being very slow because of a traffic jam at the gap. Heavy rain commenced to fall early in the afternoon, just as the battalion approached the telephone line four miles south of the escarpment, and continued for the remainder of the day and throughout the night. As will be seen, this rain was to have a very important effect on the operations and for the enemy-was to be literally one of the ‘fortunes of war’.

The day’s journey ended at 7 p.m., eight miles south-west of Baggush and five miles short of the escarpment, when the battalion settled down for the night

The remainder of the Division had spent the morning on the high ground south of Fuka and in the early afternoon moved off to the north-west. Much difficulty was experienced in negotiating the sodden desert which the heavy rain was rapidly transforming into a bog. The Division had instructions to see that the landing grounds in the Baggush area and the coastal strip in the vicinity were clear of the enemy and so available to the RAF; another task was to clear the enemy from between Baggush and Charing Cross (the road junction south-west of Matruh and about 30 miles north-west of 25 Battalion).

Dawn on 7 November found the desert a quagmire after all-night rain; the whole Division was bogged and so, too, were the supply vehicles some miles back. Without petrol, quite apart from the impossible state of the going, the Division could not move. It was a most unpleasant day, the frustration of the high hopes, or indeed of the certainty of cutting the enemy line of retreat, accentuating the gloomy conditions. But Private Hawkins found some humour to relieve the gloom. ‘We had something to grin about,’ wrote Hawkins. ‘With all the trucks potentially bogged, we stood listening to the BBC-“Rommel is in full flight for the Egyptian border with the NZers in hot pursuit”.

By 10th November they had pushed through and crossed minefields to take Mutruha were foodstores were salvaged and trains and ships unloaded at the small port.

The Division (less 6 Brigade) had experienced little difficulty in its advance, the first real resistance being encountered at the formidable Halfaya Pass, which was captured by 21 Battalion in a surprise attack before daybreak on 11 November. The troops moved on to El Agheiha and were fighting in Wadi Matratin Desert by 16th December 1942.

Leave

In Rome, one of the finest hotels, the Quirinale, had been transformed into another very popular New Zealand Forces Club. Here conditions were really on luxury lines, and the city had boundless sources of interest. Tours of the City of the Seven Hills were among the many amenities provided free of cost in divisional transport with experienced guides. Leave to Rome was arranged as liberally as possible, and the field ambulances were able to release large quotas of men for day leave. Three-day leave to the lovely island of Ischia was also reinstituted. This wooded island off the Bay of Naples, with its ancient castles and pleasant beaches, provided a place of relaxation from the strain of war conditions.


Mount Vesuvius was climbed on numerous occasions by the members of the staff of 2 General Hospital. From the rim of the crater one looked down into a huge cavity of forbidding appearance, but all around was a panorama of marvellous variety and beauty: to the north-west the city of Naples, and beyond, the Isle of Ischia; then the majestic Bay of Naples, bordered to the southwest by the Sorrento Peninsula and the Isle of Capri. Close to the foot of Vesuvius in the south was both old and new Pompeii, while away to the north and east, across wide plains checkered with cultivated fields and vineyards, extended the rugged Apennines.The Sorrento Peninsula was a popular place for leave for a while, but it was not long before restrictions

were placed on going there. Sorrento was an attractive, straggling village of one main street, meandering happily along craggy cliffs high above the sea. It commanded a superb view of the shimmering Bay of Naples. From there an hour’s trip in a launch took one to the Isle of Capri, with its famous blue grotto and the heights of Anacapri. Farther round the rugged coastline were Amalfi, Ravello, Maiori, and Positano. This last village was built on an inlet, with a tiny, sandy bay
cluttered with half-painted fishing smacks. Houses perched precariously on the cliffs were outwardly unprepossessing but within were spotless and wonderfully cool. Positano had a magical charm as a ‘honeymoon haunt’ for some of the staff of 2 General Hospital, for in this as in other hospitals hardly a month passed but some of its female staff were married.

 

Advance to Tunisia

The battalion remained in its Sidi Azeiz bivouac till 4 December, spending the interval in training, reorganisation, and recreation. No time was lost in leveling an area for a parade and sports ground. A series of inter-unit rugby, soccer, and hockey matches was played throughout the Division; athletics, baseball, boxing, and wrestling competitions were also organised. As usual, various working parties were required and 25 Battalion sent troops to Bardia to work on the wharves and trucks to carry supplies from Bardia to Tobruk. To ease the difficult supply problem captured Italian rations were issued to the battalion, an unpopular innovation because of the surfeit of macaroni.

Before dawn on the fourth day the carriers rejoined 25 Battalion. There was a very heavy fog when the march was resumed after breakfast. ‘A great sight when things cleared a bit,’ wrote Corporal Wakeling, ‘as a real little army was moving forward over the miles of sand; tanks, trucks, armoured cars, jeeps, ambulances, and guns of all descriptions.’ From further reports it was clear that the enemy was now in full retreat. Unfortunately, the Division was

Some delay ensued while the confusion amongst the vehicles was straightened out. Twenty-fifth Battalion was off its trucks a little after midnight (15 – 16 December) and, with C and D Companies forward and B Company in reserve, moved 2000 yards almost due east and took up a position overlooking the road. At the same time 24 Battalion advanced against the ridge. There was some enemy shelling during the advance but 25 Battalion made no actual contact with the enemy. Before dawn the engineers had laid a minefield on the battalion’s right flank, which was likely to be exposed to tank attack by enemy forces retiring from the east. Captain Matthews, with the battalion carriers, moved towards the coastal road and reported that the enemy in three columns was retiring westwards. Targets on the road were engaged by our artillery.

On 24 Battalion’s front, to the left of 25 Battalion, it was seen, when daylight came, that a ridge 500 yards to the north obscured a view of the road which, instead of being close to the position as expected, was over 3000 yards away. An attempt by 24 Battalion to occupy this ridge was forestalled by enemy tanks. There was also a little enemy activity on a hill to the west of Brigade Headquarters, from which the enemy would gain observation over the transport vehicles of the brigade. This situation was dealt with by the reserve battalion and the artillery.

There was little information available regarding the strength and whereabouts of enemy forces to the east of the Division, though about the time 25 Battalion moved forward to occupy its position, a concentration of enemy vehicles with tanks south-east of Merduma was reported to be moving to the south-west. This caused a stir in the Divisional Administrative Group, which had already moved back ten miles, and caused it to retire a further ten miles to the south-east. Other reports indicated that enemy armoured forces were still to the east of the Division. To meet a possible attack from that quarter, General Freyberg concentrated his tanks in readiness to push in front or to the right of the Division and arranged for 5 Brigade to reduce the very wide gap that existed between it and 6 Brigade.

Enemy columns including tanks were reported on 5 Brigade’s front on the morning of 16 December. From the evidence since available it seems certain that 15 Panzer Division, which was to the east of 2 NZ Division, probed at various points to ascertain the dispositions of the New Zealand forces and then, moving south of 6 Brigade, escaped in a north-westerly direction, between 5 and 6 Brigades. Other enemy columns, including 21 Panzer Division, escaped along the coastal road.

In the early afternoon C Company had the misfortune to lose a truck in the minefield on the battalion’s right flank, Lieutenant May3 and three men (McPhillips,4 Thompson,5 and Woolford6) being injured. About the same time two Germans were brought to Battalion Headquarters. Otherwise all was quiet and only an occasional enemy vehicle was passing along the coastal road in front of 25 Battalion. A little later orders were received to move back to the vehicles and rejoin the brigade en route to the Division ten miles back. Just before the vehicles moved off, a German tank was destroyed by the anti-tank guns attached to the battalion and three Germans, who had abandoned their tank but offered fight, were captured by Major Morrison of D Company. Another German was taken by C Company.

The enemy was now reported to be holding Nofilia, 35 miles to the north-west, and the following morning (17 December) the Division advanced in that direction via the desert route with the intention of passing south of the village and cutting the road beyond. As the battalion passed to the south of Nofilia along the divisional axis, 4 Light Armoured Brigade and the Divisional Cavalry were in action nearby and the men were interested to see men and children from some bedouin tents in the vicinity standing around, apparently wondering what it was all about. After travelling 41 miles in six hours, the battalion halted at 4.30 p.m. about eight miles south-west of Nofilia.

In the meantime 5 Brigade a couple of hours earlier had passed through to the lead and had turned north to endeavour to cut the coastal road about 12 miles west of Nofilia. It encountered considerable opposition from an enemy covering force and took up a position 2500 yards from the road, but was unable to cross the road itself. Sixth Brigade Group occupied positions south-west of the village to assist 4 Light Armoured Brigade to contain the garrison there, and two batteries of 6 Field Regiment provided a screen of guns to guard the brigade against attacks by tanks. Twenty-fifth Battalion established a perimeter defence near where it had halted on the outskirts of the Brigade Group, with D Company (Major Morrison) on the right flank, C Company (Captain Wroth) in rear, and B Company (Captain Wilson) in rear of 6 Field Regiment. A Company (Major Hutchens) was in reserve.

During the night (17 – 18 December) further attempts by 5 Brigade to cut the road failed, and a couple of hours after daylight it was found that the enemy had gone, apparently escaping along the main road and also by a track nearer the coast. According to a captured German officer, the strength of the German garrison at Nofilia had been about 2500 men with four 88-millimetre guns, 32 anti-tank guns, and 32 tanks. Once again the enemy had escaped the trap.

The rapid clearing of various airfields and landing grounds for use by Desert Air Force fighters was again a responsibility of the New Zealand Division, a vital task as the fighters, operating from forward positions, could protect Benghazi and ease the most difficult supply problem. The airfield at Merduma was being cleared by New Zealand engineers, and when it was found that the enemy had gone from Nofilia, two sections of carriers of 25 Battalion under Captain Matthews escorted 8 Field Company to Nofilia airfield for a similar task, returning to the battalion the following day.

A stage had now been reached when it was necessary for Eighth Army to pause for a time while the divisions were brought up to strength and sufficient reserves of ammunition, petrol, stores, and supplies of all kinds accumulated. For this reason a plan for the New Zealanders to seize a gap near the Tamet airfield, 100 miles to the west, was not proceeded with, and after a few days of uncertainty, which affected all units, 25 Battalion was able to settle down for a rest period until 3 January. To guard against any enemy enterprise, 5 Brigade occupied a covering position to the west of Nofilia and the Divisional Cavalry provided a screen on the divisional front.

Four days before Christmas 6 Brigade, with the exception of 24 Battalion which followed a day later, moved about 20 miles to an area astride the main road eight miles north-west of Nofilia, adopting the brigade twenty-four column desert formation before digging in. Twenty-fifth Battalion was north of the road, with 26 Battalion behind and Brigade Headquarters and (later) 24 Battalion to the south of the road. It was a beautifully fine day for this change, which brought the battalion within easy reach of the coast, and all ranks looked forward to a clean-up and then, Christmas. The camp and sports grounds were improved, football was played, and a compulsory bathing parade was held, compulsory, presumably, because the weather was bitterly cold. The men did not enjoy a march to the beach in the afternoon of the 22nd. One comment read:

‘Bitterly cold morning—route march to the beach at 1.30 and after two hours of plodding through mud and slush arrived at the sea wet through with perspiration and mud to our knees. A great dip in the Meddy though a bit on the chilly side. What a march home! Letters.’

The water supply situation at Nofilia was difficult as the enemy had polluted or destroyed the wells, and for a few days, until the engineers had remedied matters, the men were on a very meagre issue, the only available water coming nearly 500 miles by road from Tobruk, via a supply point at Marble Arch. On Christmas Eve the companies marched to the beach and had lunch there before returning to camp where, to the delight of all, a large parcel mail awaited them. Christmas Day was fine but appropriately cold for the fare to come. After a church service in the morning a sports meeting which followed was enlivened by an American pilot, who flew over the battalion with his aircraft upside down and had the men guessing what sort of plane he was flying. The American pilots indulged in a good deal of low-flying over the New Zealanders’ bivouacs: ‘These Yanks will hit a man’s bivvy one of these days,’ wrote one man, ‘as they fly so low and put the breeze up us when we don’t see them coming.’

The men’s Christmas dinner, the third away from home, was held at midday. Great efforts had been made to provide Christmas fare and make the day a memorable one. Excellent fresh white bread, a great luxury in the desert, was provided by the New Zealand Field Bakery, which had been brought up to Nofilia. Stores for the occasion, ordered some months previously, came forward over the hundreds of miles from the Nile Delta in time to be distributed for Christmas, 25 Battalion’s order for beer, cigarettes, and foodstuffs being collected two days previously. New Zealand ASC transport brought up the Christmas mail which, for the whole Division, included 60,000 parcels. A general distribution of a bottle of beer, fifty cigarettes, a National Patriotic Fund parcel (of tinned fruit, cake, and other gifts), and a rum issue was made to every man of the battalion. The dinner itself was impressive and reflected great credit on all concerned in its provision, especially the cooks, who overcame all the difficulties of cooking in the desert and prepared a splendid meal. The menu included turkey, fowl, roast pork, baked and boiled potatoes, peas, apple sauce, plum pudding with sauce, and nuts. Colonel Bonifant visited the men at their meals to wish them the season’s greetings, while the officers waited on their men and had their own meal in the evening.

The men’s evening meal was a very good one, the rum issue which followed it providing just the finishing touch required. Purchases from Regimental Funds and private parcels supplemented the excellent Christmas fare, which was doubly appreciated by men who for months had lived on plain desert rations, often prepared under very difficult conditions. To illustrate what a real achievement it was to bring all these Christmas supplies forward over the great distances involved, General Freyberg, when speaking to one unit said: ‘It would take two tons of petrol to bring three tons of beer from the Delta to Nofilia’.

Rain fell during the evening and Boxing Day was very cold. Work and training were resumed immediately. A landing ground at Sidi Azzab, 40 miles to the west, had to be prepared for use and the three battalions of the brigade sent off that day eleven officers and 300 men under Major Morrison of 25 Battalion to do a week’s construction work there. ‘Normal army rations for the working party were augmented by the gazelle (the N. African antelope) chased and shot by parties of soldiers in light vehicles,’ commented Major Morrison. Throughout Boxing Day the monotony of the usual desert scene was broken by the advance of 7 Armoured Division along the road near the battalion and the long columns of tanks, guns, and vehicles of all kinds made an impressive sight.

Training and recreation filled the last days of December. Parties of men attended the Corps school of mine-clearing and patrolling and a composite platoon represented the battalion in a film of the recent advance which was being produced at Nofilia by the New Zealand Film Unit.

Since the battalion had left Matruh on 20 November there had been few casualties: one man had died of wounds and one officer (Lieutenant May) and five other ranks had been wounded.

Sunday, the third day of the New Year, was most unpleasant. There was a gale on shore and a severe electrical storm a short distance out in the Mediterranean. The few very large drops of rain which fell were insufficient to lay the dust and a cold dust-storm raged. More rain which fell in the afternoon reduced the dust but the wind and low temperatures continued to make conditions very uncomfortable. The following day was even worse, a very cold sandstorm raging as the Division concentrated to the south of Nofilia and 25 Battalion marched (on foot) to the new area, a distance of 17 miles over rough country. During the march and just after midday, General Montgomery watched the troops go by and later addressed all the officers of 6 Brigade Group; he congratulated the brigade on its part in the recent operations, gave an indication of his plans for the future, and showed the greatest confidence in the successful conclusion of the campaign.

Twenty-fifth Battalion remained in the concentration area for four days. Its carriers with full crews then joined the other carriers of the brigade, all under Captain Matthews (25 Battalion), and went back to Nofilia for carriage on transporters to the next destination, the Tamet area about 25 miles west of Sirte.

When the march was resumed some care was taken to prepare for the crossing of the large Wadi Tamet which lay immediately ahead. To prevent congestion the Division moved in blocks at hourly intervals, anti-aircraft guns were sited to cover the route, and fighter cover was asked for. However, no difficulty was experienced, though the sound of bombing and anti-aircraft fire to the north just before the battalion started served as a warning that precautions were necessary even in these desert wastes. The battalion’s vehicles did a good deal of climbing up and down small, steep slopes, but completed the journey of 30 miles in a little less than three and a half hours.

Another heavy air raid was heard the following evening and-again the next morning, 14 January. The column was now in the vicinity of Pilastrino, 30 miles south of Buerat, and ap-proaching the El Gheddahia-Bu Ngem track, beyond which was the enemy defensive line to the south-west of Buerat.

Planning to drive quickly to Tripoli to secure the port as a base. The inland column was now concentrated, ready to cross the GheddahiaBu Ngem track in the morning (15 January), and at an early hour the Divisional Cavalry crossed the road while 6 Brigade Group in rear approached it slowly. It was a fairly quiet day for 25 Battalion, which moved at dawn when the artillery in front was in action against enemy positions, and only nine miles were covered, the men then watching the artillery duel. A move was made early in the afternoon but was halted by a tank battle some distance ahead, a few of the very unpopular 88-millimetre high-velocity shells landing amongst the battalion’s vehicles without effect. Late in the afternoon 25 Battalion crossed the Bu Ngem track and shortly afterwards halted for the night. C Company (Wroth) was sent forward to join the front of 26 Battalion, which was providing a defensive screen for the laager area of the Greys, Divisional Cavalry, and forward guns of the artillery. Some very stony country was passed and after crossing the Bir DufanBeni Ulid road, 25 Battalion was on the roughest piece of desert it had met for some time; it consisted mostly of large rocks and the column was soon held up 11 miles north of Beni Ulid, no further move being made that day. Small green valleys with a few trees dotted about were to be seen occasionally and were a welcome relief from the drab desert.

Now 30 miles south-east of Tarhuna, General Montgomery had made it very clear that the very difficult supply situation made it impossible to accept any delay in the capture of Tripoli (40 miles north-west of Tarhuna).

 

There was something of the atmosphere of a race for Tripoli between 51 Division on the coast, 7 Armoured Division in the centre, and the New Zealand Division on the left, while 22 Armoured Brigade, also near the coast, was well placed. A route down the escarpment, 12 miles south-west of Tarhuna, was discovered, and the leading troops of 2 NZ Division entered the plain on 21 January. In a series of short moves and long halts 25 Battalion, near the rear of the Division, covered 16 miles in thirteen hours, to be within ten miles of Tarhuna. There was a slight frost that night which caused ice to form on the men’s groundsheets, but the morning sun soon asserted itself to the great comfort of the troops.

The battalion had another long, slow move the following day, changing early to three-column formation because of the rough ground, and then to single file to pass through Tazzoli. After travelling 36 miles in fifteen hours, 25 Battalion halted for the night on the coastal plain an hour before midnight. The country traversed during the day was a little more attractive, with a dahlia-like weed and patches of grass giving some resemblance to a green landscape. A few Arabs with their donkeys added interest to the scene; small white houses were dotted among the valleys and an occasional large building, also white, could be seen on the hills. As the battalion passed through an Italian village, the men found the people quite friendly but otherwise unimpressive as they stood on the roadside and asked for cigarettes.

During the morning of the 23rd January 1943 25th battalion prepared to enter Tripoli, thus completing in 80 days, the dessert journey of 1400 miles from Alamein.

25 Battalion formed into three columns, but no move took place. On the previous day 5 Brigade had been held up by the enemy at Azizia, 14 miles to the north-west, but found that the village had been vacated during the night. During the morning British troops had entered Tripoli, and 5 Brigade reached the city in the afternoon, thus completing in eighty days the desert journey of 1400 miles from Alamein. While British and New Zealand troops occupied the town, 7 Armoured Division continued the pursuit.

In the afternoon General Freyberg and a party of senior officers of the Division (which included Brigadier Gentry and 6 Brigade’s Staff Captain) had a very narrow escape when their cars ran into a close ambush while on reconnaissance near Bianchi, 25 miles south-west of Tripoli. Gentry’s driver was wounded while trying to turn the car, and later died, and three other men were wounded. The incident emphasised the necessity for an adequate escort for reconnaissance and other parties entering territory recently occupied by the enemy, a necessity that does not appear to have been sufficiently realised from time to time throughout the war.

 

The occupation of Tripoli proceeded smoothly. The civilians gave no trouble, the few who were on the streets appearing to be friendly, but most stayed indoors.

In the morning following the capture of Tripoli, 25 Battalion in single column moved along the tarsealed road through Azizia to its allotted area near Giordani. For seven miles to the north of Azizia the road was lined with gum trees, presenting a very pleasant picture, and from the Italian colonies all round families were out watching the troops and, inevitably, asking for cigarettes. The cultivated belt on the Tripoli plain was a striking and very attractive contrast to the desert. By New Zealand standards the country could not be described as very fertile, but given water it would grow almost anything. Starved by months in the barren desert of the sight of green grass, trees, and the like, the men revelled in the change, and the ample supply of very fine water was the champagne of the occasion.

A tremendous afforestation scheme, covering hundreds of thousands of acres over the last decade or two, was the most outstanding feature. Everywhere, eucalyptus and pine trees had been planted annually along the roads, on vacant desert between settlements, and along boundaries. The value of trees in a treeless, sandy country was manifest. In the battalion’s bivouac area the young children playing nearby and gathering round at meal times greatly interested the men after their long isolation from any form of home life, and the cooks gave the children a little fruit salad, cottage pie, and other titbits, to their great delight.

 

Another change of scene occurred on 2 February when 25 Battalion moved to the brigade’s new area near Suani Ben Adem, 14 miles south of Tripoli. It was a most pleasant camp site, situated amongst acacia, gum, and fruit trees. Here the battalion carried out smartening-up drill and then took part in a brigade parade, in preparation for a divisional review and address on 4 February by Mr Winston Churchill. At the review Mr Churchill, in the uniform of an air commodore and accompanied by high-ranking generals, addressed the troops in his own inimitable style and made a deep impression.

On the 11th, twenty-fifth Battalion took over the duties of 5 Camerons and was accommodated in the Law Courts building and in and around the Governor’s Palace. Five guards of a total strength of 1 officer, 17 NCOs, and 51 men were mounted, two of the more interesting posts being those on the wine factory and the brewery. Referring to the local wine one man wrote: ‘In Tripoli the men first made contact with the species of high explosive known coloquially as “plonk”, a vicious type of red wine. Casualties were many but none fatal.’

 

Late the first night wharf duties were taken over in heavy rain and a high wind which caused the sea to break over the mole and made the work hazardous. Throughout the month the battalion provided guards and working parties on shore, lighters, and ships, both by day and night, the total number of men varying from 100 to 300 daily. Sudanese troops took over most of the guard duties on the second day, and 25 Battalion guards were reduced to one officer and eight men, the battalion war diary containing the entry: ‘… and the petrol dump guard discontinued. An officer was maintained on the wine factory.’

The working parties had a march of two miles to the docks, where they unloaded a wide variety of items including 44- gallon drums of petrol, rations, ammunition, 500-pound bombs, and medical supplies. A satirical comment on this work by ‘some person or persons unknown’ went the rounds of the battalion: ‘The Kiwis could unload more in three months than the Regulars in twelve, but as they “acquired” more in three months than they unloaded in twelve, the score was about even.’

24th February 1943

‘Some nights we would wake with the ground practically jumping under us and a noise as if all hell were let loose. It would be one of the frequent air raids and we were inside the concentric rings of guns of increasing calibre which sent up a devastating cone of fire…. With the rest of the Bn we worked on the unloading of ships—sometimes by day, more often it seemed by night and on several occasions long stretches of both. We weren’t so — keen on it at night … for raids were always in the offing and it wasn’t particularly funny lying between a couple of tram lines while bombs screamed down and the guns barked thunderously and spewed shrapnel which had to come down. Nor were such raids altogether very frightening; the spectacle of it all was so big and awesome, like some super drama in relation to which one was a mere spectator. It was like that the night our lads were unloading the three bottomless holds of a Liberty ship on to lighters, in the middle of the harbour. At the forward hold, bombs and shells came up in the slings and were gingerly lowered into their lighter. Amidships, away down below, the lads packed cases and tins and bags of provisions on to the slings…. At the stern hold toiled the Aks-Aks, half the team down in the hold and half in the lighter, handling tins and 40-gal drums of petrol, with Tommies working the winches. Then it came upon us—guns and bombs, roaring planes and shrapnel plopping everywhere. Smartly out of the hold scrambled the boys and we strained our gutses out to get a heavy tarpaulin over the hatches to keep away from the petrol any stray hot bit of shrapnel. Down on the lighter the lads just sat down on the drums of benzine until it was all over, which was half-an-hour later. Night was well ended when we were told to heave to.’

The city was disappointing. The buildings were badly battered and the harbour seemed full of sunken ships. Most of the city had been destroyed and the greater part of the civil population had been evacuated. Food was unprocurable by the troops, and indeed its purchase was forbidden because there was insufficient food for civilians. There was evidence, however, of the former beauty of the city:

‘The esplanade along the waterfront, lined on the landward side with ultra-modern buildings and on the seaward side by a beautiful concrete balustrade, the road itself a double avenue of splendid palms all set in flower gardens, is easily the finest I’ve ever seen.’

Tunisia to Italy

The enemy forces had now retired into the Mareth line, about 180 miles to the west of Tripoli.

The coming attack was expected on 4 March in the Medenine area, and 2 NZ Division was ordered forward to be in position in that locality by the afternoon of 3 March.

Sixth Brigade left Suani Ben Adem for Medenine, about 160 miles to the west, in the morning of 2 March. Travelling throughout the night, 25 Battalion reached Medenine the following morning. The greater part of the journey was over the asphalted coastal road which, although cratered in many places, provided easy going, but the 50 miles of road beyond Ben Gardane was badly potholed. Burnt-out vehicles, road demolitions, and marked minefields were familiar signs of the enemy’s retreat. Headlights were permitted as far as Ben Gardane, 25 miles west of the TunisiaTripoli border. It was a tiring journey, very cold, with the men cramped for room, and it was a relief to reach the position.

The brigade was in reserve on high ground to the north-east of Medenine. The troops stood to arms at a quarter to six next morning (4 March). The day was beautifully fine after a chilly night that had been disturbed a little by Desert Air Force bombers passing overhead and by the crash of their bombs in the distance. A field of oats of two acres accommodated part of 25 Battalion, which enjoyed a fairly quiet day. In the late afternoon there was some excitement when about twenty aircraft were manoeuvring overhead and the anti-aircraft guns were very active; three aircraft were shot down and, after much argument as to their identity, it was learnt that they were German.

During the night while the companies practised night operations, fire from the artillery nearby added a realistic touch. Extensive movements of enemy tanks and transport reported by air during the day had pointed to the possibility of an attack the following day, but all remained quiet though small parties of enemy infantry, transport, and armoured cars were seen.

 

For 25 Battalion and the remainder of 6 Brigade Group in their somewhat retired positions, 6 March opened with a rumble of guns. Though only two shells fell in the battalion’s position, bursting near B Company without effect. There was also much air activity, including enemy dive-bombing, which had the men moving rapidly into their slit trenches throughout the day; little damage was done.

For troops holding the forward positions the picture was different. About 6 a.m. fairly heavy enemy shelling commenced and for the next hour and a half enemy transport, guns, and tanks advanced eastwards from the hills west and south-west of Medenine. Orders had been issued to withhold fire until tanks were at point-blank range, and it was remarkable to see the enemy advance proceeding while the Allied guns remained silent.

About 1000 enemy infantry and forty tanks advanced against Pt 270, an important tactical feature about five miles west of 25 Battalion. It was met by devastating artillery fire and repulsed with heavy casualties. There was considerable air activity at dawn, and an Italian pilot who had been shot down landed near 25 Battalion.

To deal with the Mareth line General Montgomery decided to attack in the coastal sector and at the same time carry out a wide turning movement around the enemy’s inland flank. New Zealand Corps comprising 2 NZ Division, 8 Armoured Brigade, King’s Dragoon Guards, 64 Medium Regiment, RA, and General Leclerc’s (Free French) force was to undertake the turning operation.

 

From 11 to 17 March the various groups of New Zealand Corps were moving by a circuitous route to an assembly area about 50 miles south-south-west of Medenine. This route ran through Ben Gardane, 43 miles to the south-east. Twenty-fifth Battalion followed a little later in the day, halting for a few hours at a staging area about 70 miles away, and then, travelling throughout the night, reached its area another 70 miles farther on a little after daybreak. It was cold and dusty in the vehicles and, as no headlights were permitted, the journey was slow and the driving difficult, with the vehicles constantly opening out and closing.

The orders required that all precautions were to be taken to avoid observation and identification during the move. Arrangements were made for wireless deception and silence, the fernleaf signs on vehicles were obliterated, and shoulder titles and hat badges removed. After arriving at the assembly area in the morning of 12 March vehicles were to move as little as possible during daylight, and then only at reduced speeds to avoid raising dust; no fires or lights were permitted after dusk; no tents were to be pitched and bivouacs were not to be erected before 6 p.m.

 

In the late afternoon of 12 March the appearance of an enemy reconnaissance aircraft caused some anxiety. While the remainder of the New Zealand Corps was assembling, 25 Battalion continued to carry out such training as was possible under the restrictions imposed. Conferences and tactical exercises without troops were held for the officers. A plaster model of the area where operations were expected to take place was used to explain the overall plan, first to the officers and then to the senior NCOs, so that before the battalion left the area, the leaders of all ranks had been well briefed and the men had a good understanding of the impending operation. Air photographs of the enemy position at Tebaga Gap became available after a few days and were a very valuable aid to realistic discussions and planning.

On the 17th a strong, cold wind with much dust, followed by rain the next day, made conditions very unpleasant. ‘Very cold and wet night. Packed ready for a move but no move. Real winter’s day’ read an entry in a diary. The battalion carriers rejoined a couple of hours after midnight, titles, badges, and vehicle signs were replaced, and at dusk on 19 March 6 Brigade Group resumed the advance on the Tebaga Gap. The wind had eased and the sky had cleared as 25 Battalion closed to night-visibility distance and moved off over rough, scrubby country abounding in sand drifts and wadis which gave the drivers some difficulty. The Brigade Group was following the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry and armour at the head of the Corps until the early morning, 25 Battalion halting for the night about 2 a.m. some ten miles east of Ksar Rhilane and 40 miles south of the Tebaga Gap.

After breakfast, as the battalion was on its way once more, artillery fire in the distance dispelled any illusion there may have been that in these wide desert spaces the war was far away. The march continued slowly all day, over rough country at times, crossing many dry creek beds which forced the columns to converge on occasions. Towards evening American Warhawk aircraft attacked but the battalion was not involved, and after travelling about 30 miles it halted just after dark. Some distance ahead artillery in action could be seen.

21st March 1943

The Gap was a defile about four miles wide, with high hills to the south-east and north-west. The road through it gave access through El Hamma to Gabes on the coast, 30 miles to the north-west of the coastal end of the Mareth line and about the same distance from the Gap. Allied troops passing through the Gap would therefore be a grave menace to the enemy holding the Mareth position.

His defences ran north-west across the Gap, following generally the line of the old Roman Wall, which the passage of centuries with their countless sand-laden winds had reduced to an archæological curiosity, a mere two-foot wall of rubble in many places. A few hundred yards in front of the wall, that is, on its south-western side, and almost in the middle of the Gap was Pt 201, a defended outpost; a minefield extended across the front and barbed-wire entanglements protected part of the defences. Further works to the north-east gave some depth to the position.

The attack was to be made by 26 Battalion on the right and 25 Battalion on the left, the inter-battalion boundary running north and south through the centre of the objective. A start line 3500 yards from the objective was selected. On the battalions’ leaving the start line at 9.30 p.m., the artillery would open fire on the enemy forward positions about a mile away, the fire remaining there for twenty-one minutes and finishing with one round of smoke per gun. The fire would then lift 300 yards and after one minute lift again, and continue on Pt 201 at the rate of one round per gun per minute as a guide for the advancing infantry.

The infantry rate of advance was to be 100 yards in one and a half minutes as far as the enemy forward positions and thereafter 100 yards in two minutes. The axis of advance to the centre of the start line would be lit with the usual provost lights, ending with two blue lights. A section of engineers was attached to each of the two battalions to clear lanes through the minefields, 2 Section 8 Field Company being with 25 Battalion.

A slight hitch in placing the lights on the axis caused Brigadier Gentry to delay the start half an hour. Meanwhile, in the early afternoon, 25 Battalion had moved forward for two hours over a track from which the loose sand had been removed by bulldozers, and halted in desert formation while tanks and artillery were engaging the enemy. It was during this halt that the brigade order for the attack was received, and at 5.30 p.m. The battalion advanced another two miles, debussed, and marched about half a mile to its forming-up position. During the move the battalion was machine-gunned by a low-flying Ju88 but suffered no casualties or damage.

It was bright moonlight when at 10 p.m. 25 Battalion crossed the start line with two companies forward, C Company (Norman) on the right and A Company (Matthews) on the left. D Company (Morrison) was in the centre behind the leading companies, with Battalion Headquarters following and B Company (Wilson) in reserve in rear. After advancing about 1500 yards without opposition, the first three companies and Battalion Headquarters passed through the minefield and over a deep anti-tank ditch with little difficulty, though heavily laden men had some trouble scrambling up the steep sides of the ditch. At this stage C Company, losing direction a little, deviated to the right and, encountering a double-apron wire entanglement while under heavy small-arms fire, overcame the obstacle and captured its first objective; this was a strongly prepared position which was actually in 26 Battalion’s area. Many Italians were captured.

The final objective, Pt 201, lay about 2000 yards ahead, and after reorganising C Company continued the advance. The enemy appeared to be taken completely by surprise and the company, still well to the right, secured the south-eastern slopes of Pt 201, capturing many Italians, including a colonel, and much war material. C Company then reorganised to meet a possible counter-attack; its casualties were three killed and ten wounded.

On 21st March 1943 Pt John Green was badly wounded. On 7th April 1943 he was admitted to 6 field ambulance and transferred to the X(ii) list as a battle casualty [STI].

A Company continued the advance on the left of C Company and the two leading platoons. Drawn away to the right in trying to keep touch with C Company, worked their way forward to the wire entanglement and under sweeping fire cut gaps. Charging through with shouts that were heard by Brigadier Gentry 2000 yards back (and which gave him his first indication that the attack was going well), the platoons swept through all opposition.

The advance continued until it was discovered that the battalion was about 400 yards to the right of its objective. A few unsuspecting enemy callers and escapees were captured while the company was digging itself in. There were many prisoners and much material, including three field guns, three trucks, and many medium machine guns. A considerable quantity of rations was found and appropriated, the German bread being especially relished as a fine change from hard biscuits.

D Company (Morrison) followed behind until the minefield was reached, when it came forward on the left of A Company. The enemy then opened fire with machine guns and 20-millimetre Bredas. The wire entanglement gave some trouble as a Bangalore torpedo failed to explode, causing delay while several gaps were cut by hand. All three platoons suffered casualties. The company then charged through the wire and attacked the first enemy positions, which were quickly overcome by the use of bayonets and grenades. No. 17 Platoon captured a Breda gun and killed the crew; 18 Platoon charged and captured a small field gun and some prisoners and then advanced half-left to cover the company and battalion left flank. There it surprised a number of the enemy near several vehicles, which it immobilised, and knocked out some machine guns, capturing a great many prisoners in deep dugouts near a couple of small hills and in a wadi. Crossing the wadi, the platoon took more machine guns and prisoners on the flat ground beyond.

The capture of the final objective, Pt 201, was completed about 11.30 p.m. and, with the exception of 12 Platoon, B Company took up a position at the rear of the battalion on the reverse or southern slopes of the hill.

The anti-tank platoon also struck trouble in the minefield, as Private Hawkins relates:

‘Waiting on the starting line we all took good nips and joked and the show looked fine. Half-an-hour later it was just merry hell as well-dug-in Bredas went “glug-glug-glug-glug” and red-hot tracer shells skimmed the ground; as LMG fire sprayed the area with illuminated death; as S-mines4, telemines, and mortars went off on all sides. Our model show had developed into a nightmare.

‘Then suddenly it was all over. D Coy … had worked around the flank and appeared silhouetted on the hill-top behind the enemy, whence, in the most thrilling sight of my life, they delivered a rapid and overwhelming attack on the key positions. Soon Hill 201 was in the hands of the Battalion. Support groups came up and the position was consolidated.’

During the many hours of daylight preceding the attack the men lay concealed in their slit trenches. The casualties since the attack on 21–22 March were one officer and twenty-two other ranks; of these, three other ranks were killed, one died of wounds, one officer and eighteen other ranks were wounded.

The absence of any increase in the enemy artillery fire, except against the newly captured positions of 21 Battalion, was evidence of the success of the measures taken for concealment, though perhaps some credit should go to the windy and dusty conditions which reduced visibility, especially as the enemy had the wind, and therefore the dust, in his face.

Twenty-fifth Battalion’s position on Pt 201 was under enemy observation from the high ground, particularly that to the north-west. It was well prepared against tank attack by the siting before dawn of three 17-pounder, ten 6-pounder, and three 2-pounder anti-tank guns for all-round defence, and in addition was covered by such of the Corps artillery as had been moved within range.

As dawn broke, 6 Platoon of 2 MG Company attached to 25 Battalion, which had just dug positions on the northern slopes of Pt 201, was fired on by 47-millimetre guns situated on a ridge 1500 yards away. This caused an immediate reaction by the machine-gunners, whose heavy fire forced the enemy to retire; they also engaged enemy vehicles at long range. Later in the morning a Crusader tank on occupying the ridge destroyed one of the 47-millimetre guns and secured the surrender of about 200 Italians.

The battalion mortars were active after dawn against any targets which presented themselves; a mortar section with D Company silenced four field guns at 950 yards range, causing thirty-eight Italians to come over and surrender; anti-tank guns at 2600 yards were silenced and various machine guns were fired on. Mortars with A Company were also engaged with machine guns and those with C Company fired on infantry in positions to their front. The machine guns and mortars were particularly valuable at this stage, when the artillery was moving forward and was required to conserve ammunition for vital tasks.

Exposed to observation as it was, 25 Battalion during the day experienced a good deal of artillery fire, suffering ten casualties, including Captain Matthews, the commander of A Company, who was wounded. The New Zealand Corps artillery responded briskly to the enemy guns and its counter-battery bombardments were very effective. Crossings over the anti-tank ditch and through the gaps in the minefield were widened and improved during the early hours to assist the advance of the armour. As early as 2.30 a.m. a squadron of Sherman tanks under command of 6 Brigade commenced to move forward through the gap behind 25 Battalion, following the carriers but ahead of the other supporting arms of the battalion. At first light an armoured regiment advanced through the obstacles and was followed by the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry. Enemy artillery was quickly in position on the high ground on both sides of the Gap, and heavy fire from 88-millimetre guns at long range and from other anti-tank guns at shorter ranges prevented the armour from pushing through and exploiting success as had been planned. Little effort appears to have been made to exploit success.

From their elevated position on Pt 201 the men of 25 Battalion had a grandstand view of all that occurred. They watched the RAF bomb and machine-gun the enemy positions and saw the first Spitfire and Hurricane tank-buster aircraft in action; this was most impressive though some of the first targets were ill-chosen. The armoured regiment and the Divisional Cavalry did not get more than 2500 yards beyond Pt 201, though they were collecting prisoners throughout the morning and were engaged at times in hull-down actions with enemy tanks, which soon appeared in increasing numbers. Several small ineffective enemy air attacks took place during the day.

At 7.30 p.m. (22 March) 6 Brigade was to take over from the armour the responsibility for the front, and by that hour the two forward battalions after dusk were to straighten the front. Twenty-fifth Battalion was to move its right flank farther to the right (or east) and swing its left forward a little. Twenty-sixth Battalion on the right was to advance level with 25 Battalion, but its right flank was to be refused or swung back to the south-east. Except for some fighting on the right of 26 Battalion, the new front was established without difficulty, 25 Battalion moving B Company (Captain Hewitt) forward and farther west on the left flank of A Company, the foremost defended localities of the battalion being generally a little short of the Roman Wall.

Wakeling said in his diary:

‘Mar 23. Stand-to at daylight as our tanks moving forward. Shelled consistently all morning as bty of our 25-pdrs moved in close behind us. Coy formed up again so went back with Capt Hewitt. Plenty of shelling off-and-on during the afternoon and the total of prisoners around the 2000 mark. Moved forward about 1000 yards at 7 and dug in.’

By the morning of 23 March the enemy had reinforced his position with tanks and infantry and was using tanks defensively to provide a screen for his guns. Early in the morning the British armour had attempted to infiltrate the enemy positions on the right or eastern flank but had met with severe artillery and anti-tank fire and had made little progress. During the morning 25 Battalion’s position was bombed on three occasions by enemy aircraft and once by the RAF, all with no effect. In the afternoon ground strips and smoke were used to direct the RAF to the enemy positions. The battalion ‘had a large V of cut-down kerosene tins burning all night to direct ‘planes, right next to us,’ wrote Captain Webster (A Company). ‘This was the first time the Battalion had been in charge of one of these guides and were not too happy about it as it was in full view of the Hun but he never wasted a shell on it.’ Throughout the day there was considerable artillery activity on both sides, including counter-battery exchanges.

After dark 24 Battalion occupied a position on the left of 25 Battalion, extending the front along the general line of the Roman Wall to a point about 3600 yards north-west of Pt 201. The armour, which had moved over to the left flank where the ground was more suitable, advanced slowly the next morning and the artillery, concentrating on any targets that presented themselves, seemed to be gaining the ascendancy. Enemy aircraft on three occasions again dropped bombs near the battalion, again with no effect, and one aircraft was seen to be shot down. By nightfall tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade had secured high ground on the left, 4000 yards north-west of the battalion’s forward positions, and a Divisional Cavalry patrol was 2500 yards north of the battalion.

On the other flank a French force had infiltrated the enemy positions on the high ground south-east of 6 Brigade and was attacking the following day to link up with the right flank of the brigade. In the late afternoon of 24 March the appearance of a lorry, preceded by a motor-cycle, on the El HammaKebili road, and moving steadily towards the New Zealand position, intrigued the men of 25 Battalion on the forward slopes of Pt 201. Unfortunately, as so frequently happened on such occasions, someone—this time the New Zealand machine-gunners—opened fire at a range of 2000 yards and so prevented the much closer view the expectant infantrymen had hoped to obtain. The following morning bombs were dropped at the rear of the battalion’s position by an enemy fighter-bomber and during the day there was the usual shelling, which the men were beginning to find very irksome. No doubt the enemy infantry felt the same about the shelling they were receiving, probably much more so.

The enemy gave every indication of his intention to hold his positions stubbornly, as well he might in view of the danger to the Mareth line, and it was obvious that a full-scale attack would be necessary to dislodge him. The British frontal attack on the coastal sector of the line on 20–21 March had failed, and this had caused General Montgomery to decide to hold the enemy in that sector and to make the decisive attack on the New Zealand Corps front. Headquarters 10 Corps and 1 Armoured Division were ordered to reinforce that front with a view to breaking through without delay. Very heavy air support had been arranged for the operation, which was finally

Tebaga Gap, 26 – 27 March 1943

timed to commence at 4 p.m. on 26 March. At that hour the New Zealand Corps was to advance astride the main road for a distance of 4500 yards to the north-east of the Roman Wall; 1 Armoured Division would follow up the advance and at 7.20 p.m. would pass through New Zealand Corps and concentrate beyond the Corps’ objective by dark. At 11.15 p.m., on the moon rising, 1 Armoured Division would advance astride the main road and capture El Hamma. Immediately the armour had passed through, New Zealand Corps would, with the greatest possible despatch, destroy the enemy in the hills on either side of the Gap so that it could rejoin the Armoured Division in the Hamma-Gabes area without delay. The attack by New Zealand Corps was to be made on a two-brigade front, 5 Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left, with 8 Armoured Brigade superimposed over the whole front. The attack would be supported by the whole of the Corps artillery, reinforced by two field regiments and one medium regiment of 10 Corps. A creeping barrage was to be fired, with timed concentrations on known enemy positions and batteries. Eighth Armoured Brigade during the attack was to move in advance of the infantry and at 4 p.m. would cross the start line, which in the centre was about 600 yards north-east of the Roman Wall, followed at 4.15 p.m. by 5 and 6 Brigades.

The rate of advance to the first objective, 2000 yards from the start line, was to be 100 yards in one minute, and to the second objective (a further 2700 yards) 100 yards in two minutes. There was to be no pause on the first objective. The Divisional Cavalry in support of 6 Brigade would move north-east along the foothills on the western flank and assist in mopping up.

On the capture of the final objective 5 Brigade was to exploit along the high ground to the east while 6 Brigade completed the mopping-up of enemy pockets in the foothills to the west. Before the attack several adjustments in the dispositions of the forward troops were necessary. On the night before, 5 Brigade was to take over the existing forward defence line of 6 Brigade and was to capture Pt 184, a dominating feature on the right flank, which completely overlooked the start line.

Twenty-sixth Battalion was to be relieved by the Maori Battalion and would then take over the 25 Battalion area to the east of the road and forward of Pt 201, to 1000 yards beyond the Roman Wall. Twenty-fourth Battalion was to remain on the left flank as far as the road, with its forward line level with 26 Battalion.

Twenty-fifth Battalion, on relief by 26 Battalion, was to relieve a battalion of the Buffs on the left flank. For the operation 25 Battalion was allotted one machine-gun platoon and those anti-tank guns of 33 Anti-Tank Battery already supporting it, and was also to take over 57 Anti-Tank Battery, RA, from the Buffs.

All these preparations were to be completed in darkness and movement after dawn was to be restricted to a minimum to prevent the enemy discovering the start line dispositions. However, 25 Battalion moved over to the left flank in the early afternoon of 25 March and relieved the Buffs as arranged, a strong wind and a good deal of dust reducing enemy observation. Only light shelling was experienced during the move.

In the very early hours of the 26th, 21 Battalion was firmly established on Pt 184 and the other battalions then moved to their allotted positions, though a company of the Maori Battalion could not reach the start line by dawn and so dug in a thousand yards short of it. The tanks also moved up in darkness into wadis and behind spurs ready to advance through the infantry in the afternoon.

On 6 Brigade’s front the attack was to be made by 24 Battalion. There were two objectives: one, the high ground 1000 yards ahead, and the other a wadi another thousand yards farther on. From its position on rising ground on the left flank, 25 Battalion was to support the attack with observed fire and also assist the Divisional Cavalry in mopping up on that flank. The battalion was also to be prepared to advance to the line of the final objective on the left of 24 Battalion, a diversionary operation to widen the front of attack and so reduce concentration of fire against that battalion. It was to be supported by overhead fire from 1 MG Company, which had joined 25 Battalion the previous night.

Punctually at the arranged time, 3.30 p.m., the Allied air attack on enemy positions and gun emplacements began and the tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade moved from their concealed positions towards the Roman Wall on their way to the start line. After half an hour’s air attack the guns opened fire and the tanks, followed by carriers, crossed the start line and commenced their advance.

From their elevated positions about 3000 yards west of the left flank of the first objective, 25 Battalion saw the first wave of the fighter-bomber attack sweep low across the enemy position, shooting up everything in sight, a most impressive display. The battalion’s position was also strafed, causing one casualty. Earlier in the afternoon a United States pilot had baled out of his burning aircraft and landed in the battalion area, where he was joined by another pilot on his way to the rear. One Spitfire pilot, shot down just prior to the attack, remained with the battalion for the operation; much amusement was caused later on his remarking that he would rather do ten crashes than take part in another ‘ground show’.

The leading troops of the attacking battalions crossed the start line fifteen minutes after the barrage opened and followed the tanks and carriers towards the first objective. Seventeen minutes later, 25 Battalion advanced on its diversionary and mopping-up role. The battalion had two companies forward and two in support, C Company on the right supported by B Company, and A Company on the left supported by D Company.

C Company (Captain Norman) encountered heavy machine-gun and rifle fire and sent two sections forward under the covering fire of the remainder of the company. The sections advanced to an enemy position on a spur in line with the first objective of 24 Battalion and about 2000 yards out from its left flank, and, with a spirited attack with the bayonet, captured the position. The enemy immediately behind the spur retaliated, however, with small-arms fire and hand grenades and forced the sections back to take cover. From there the two sections inflicted many casualties on the enemy with rifle fire, resulting after dark in fifty men coming over and surrendering. C Company then moved up and occupied the enemy position, capturing fourteen heavy machine guns and so emphasising the great value of the operation to 24 Battalion. C Company lost four men killed and six wounded.

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Chapter 5, El Mreir, 22 July 1942

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.

El Alamein

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.

October 1942

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.