Battle for Egypt
CHAPTER 13 — Eighth Army in Last Ditch
Eighth Army in Last Ditch
ONE after the other six defensive lines had fallen. Gazala-Bir Hacheim, Acroma-El Adem, Tobruk-Belhamed-El Adem, the frontier, Matruh-Hamza, the Fuka descent—each told a tale of defeat and most of disaster. Now the remains of Eighth Army were on the Alamein Line, the gateway to Alexandria, Cairo, the Delta, the Great Middle East base. They were in that last ditch sometimes glamorously termed ‘the spiritual home of the British Army.’ Here they turned at bay while General Auchinleck sought to ‘regain the tactical initiative’,1 to convert defeat into victory.
Ever since the British occupation of Egypt, the Alamein Line had been recognised as the best position on which to defend the cultivated area against attack from the west. The line was sited between the sea coast north-east of Alamein and the northern edge of the Qattara Depression at Naqb Abu Dweis. It straddled the narrowest part of the coast belt on a front of about 38 miles and rested its flanks on the sea and the Qattara Depression. The few natural obstacles and marked features on the line had an importance which explains much of the course of the fighting.
On the coast there is a strip of salt marsh and then a belt of sand and dunes about 200 yards wide. The land then rises about sixty feet in a ridge along which the coast road runs. Below the road on the landward side there is the railway. From the road and railway the ground gradually rises over a wide and rather featureless plain to the escarpment, which drops precipitously some 600 feet into the Qattara Depression. This relatively narrow strip between the sea and the depression canalised all land traffic. The line could be penetrated, but not turned.
Of the sparse features, the most notable are the depressions such as Deir el Shein, Deir ei Mreir and Deir el Munassib. The depressions provide cover and their low ridges a degree of observation. Miteiriya, south-west of Alamein, and Ruweisat, running eastward from near Deir el Mreir, are the main ridges Towards the Qattara Depression the ground is broken into small flat-topped hills.
1 Despatch, p. 364.
The approaches to the position follow three main lines—the coast road and railway, the Barrel track from Fuka through Deir el Munassib and Qaret el Munassib and Qaret el Himeimat to the Cairo—Alexandria road, and, in the south, along threads of good going north of the escarpment. The escarpment is almost impassable to wheeled or tracked vehicles for about 125 miles west of Naqb Abu Dweis. Salt marsh and sand dunes make the Qattara Depression a complete obstacle to the passage of vehicle columns of any size. Throughout the length of the line the ground generally is rocky and power tools and explosives are required for excavation. Patches of scrub and soft sand complicate movements by transport.
On assuming the Middle East command in August 1939 General Wavell inherited reconnaissance reports and plans for the Alamein Line prepared under the direction of General Sir John BurnettStuart a few years earlier. But like his immediate predecessor, Major-General (later General Sir R.) Gordon-Finlayson, Wavell preferred to fight as far west as possible and to regard the Alamein Line as a back-stop It was decided in 1940 under the threat of Graziani's advance to prepare the line for defence, and Lieutenant General Marshall Cornwall laid out three boxes or defended localities around Alamein station, at Qaret el Abd,1 and at Naqb Abu Dweis. Work on the line was speeded under the direction of Major-General Evetts after the unfortunate BATTLEAXE operation on the frontier in June 1941, and the two South African divisions, were earmarked by Wavell to hold it. At that time it was thought the line would require a minimum garrison of an army corps of two infantry divisions and an army tank brigade, with a strong armoured force in reserve.
Lieutenant-General Norrie, with Headquarters 30 Corps, having handed over Matruh to 10 Corps, took command of the line on 26 June. Next day he reported to Eighth Army that up to ten days would be required to complete the defensive works Mines had to be laid, wiring completed, and the localities stocked with water, rations and ammunition. General Norrie also considered that additional defensive localities should be made to fill the gaps of 16 to 18 miles between the Alamein and Qaret el Abd boxes and between Qaret el Abd and Naqb Abu Dweis. As the gap between Alamein and Qaret el Abd was the more dangerous, he decided to construct a position for a division less one brigade group in Deir el Shein.
The South Africans had many criticisms of the box. In their operational report they said: ‘Topographically it was NOT a good position. The Box was dominated in the north by the high ground [due east of Tell el Eisa station],1 a fact of which the enemy was NOT slow to take advantage. Centrally, two ridge Trig Points [two to three miles from the south-western segment of the perimeter], later to become the key feature of the Division defences, gave good observation of the Box. … A serious ‘soft’ spot in the Box was the gap between localities 15 and 17 [in the south-western segment], another fact which the enemy was quick to realise. To these tactical points, must be added the fact that although 2 SA Division had contributed largely to the Alamein defences in 1941, in June '42 the defences had either been filled in or were incomplete. The Eastern sector was at no stage of the campaign a serious obstacle to a determined enemy attack from the East.’
Norrie Ordered 18 Indian Brigade, newly arrived from Iraq, into Deir el Shein, a saucer-like depression with' good observation from the rim. The choice of the deir was largely, dictated by the fact that it was the only place in the area where it was possible to dig. Ruweisat Ridge, the western end of which was immediately south of the deir, was solid rock. The brigade was at first under command of 1 South African Division which, recognising its difficulties in building defences in the deir, gave it first call on the rock-drilling compressors.
For Fortress A at Qaret el Abd (Kaponga) Norrie called 6 New Zealand Brigade from Amiriya on 27 June. When Brigadier Clifton reported at 30 Corps Headquarters, Norrie was surprised to learn that instead of the brigade group Eighth Army had led him to expect, there were no guns, ‘just three infantry battalions and one field company in borrowed transport which has orders to dump us and go.’2 Clifton was assured that mines would be provided for the box and that the New Zealand Division, with its guns, should reach the position in good time. If anything went wrong, guns for the brigade would be found elsewhere.
1 Authors interpolations are in square brackets. Map references have been omitted.
During the day petrol and ammunition for the armoured divisions were dumped into the box. The empty transport went back swarming with Egyptian labourers who had been working in the box, and who departed abruptly when the news spread that the enemy was approaching. Barrel Track ran past the northern face of Kaponga and, at its junction with the track to Alamein, General Norrie set up a post to collect stragglers and direct traffic. Brigadier Clifton put out a telephone line to the post and from this useful contact acquired three anti-tank guns and a detachment of 64 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, with three 4.5-inch guns. The most welcome acquisition was 11 South African Field Company with 10,000 mines which, according to the officer in charge of the collecting post, ‘they refuse to give up except to someone who is willing to fight.’ Clifton took 5000 of the mines and sent part of the field company and the rest of the mines to 18 Indian Brigade in Deir el Shein. Great as were his own needs, Clifton considered the Indian brigade had more pressing claims on the mines and the assistance of the South African sappers.
Ninth Indian Brigade of 5 Division was put into Naqb Abu Dweis but without expectations of having to stay there as they had hardly any artillery and were short of water.
These dispositions were changed considerably by Auchinleck on 29 June. The South Africans were ordered to hold Alamein Box 29 June. The South Africans were ordered to hold Alamein Box with only one brigade group and a British medium gun regiment under command. This small force could man only twelve of the forward positions and one of the supporting posts covering the western and south-western face of the perimeter. There were no troops for the remaining twenty-four positions. Consequently, the eastern face of the box was undefended and the principle of all-round defence had to be thrown overboard.
The divisions other two brigades were reduced to battle goups and stationed in the gap between the Alamein defences and Deir el Shein. All surplus infantry were sent back to the Delta. South African critics of these dispositions consider it was wise to place the battle grops in the gap, but that the surplus infantry shouold have been placed in the Alamein Box.page 140
In Deir el Shein 18 Brigade was ordered to restrict itself to building a brigade position, instead of one for a division less a brigade. It was also to reduce itself to a battle group and send the surplus infantry to the rear. Of New Zealand Division, 6 Brigade was left to hold Kaponga and Divisional Headquarters and 4 and 5 Brigades were given a mobile role based on Deir el Munassib, some nine miles in rear. The Division was again ordered to organise itself into battle groups and again ignored the order.
Summarising his orders and dispositions, Auchinleck says in his despatch: ‘ On the 30th June I ordered our armoured and motor brigades which were still operating far to the west and well behind the line reached by the enemy's advanced elements, to withdraw into reserve. The 13th Corps took over the southern half of the El Alamein—Qattara Depression line with what was left of the New Zealand and 5th Indian Divisions, while the 30th Corps, with the 50th and 1st South African divisions, concentrated on the defence of the northern sector and especially of the Alamein fortifications. Not needing a third corps headquarters on the El Alamein position, I sent General Holmes with his 10th Corps Staff back to command Delta Force which was forming in Egypt to defend Alexandria and the western edge of the Delta.’1
The summary hardly outlines the picture. At midday on 30 June 1 Armoured Division, with 7 Brigade of 7 Armoured Division under command, was in the midst and on the southern flank of the German and Italian armour south of Daba, more than 30 miles west of Alamein. Many local but worthwhile actions were fought as the division, in its rearguard role, gradually worked its way eastward. During the morning 7 Brigade had two engagements with the Italian XX Corps which so hampered the corps' movements as to provoke Rommel's ire. The 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades ran into Littorio Armoured Division, with such unpleasant results for the Italians that they reported ‘30 of our tanks hit and damaged. At present division has no tanks and only six guns left.’ These blows on the enemy had important results, as during the first days at Alamein the Italian armour was ineffective.
1 Despatch, p. 364.
This engagement also had important results. First Armoured Division was thrown off its course and, when darkness fell, it was disorganised and unable to take up its appointed position in the vicnity of Ruweisat Ridge. The 22nd Brigade neared its allotted area, but 4 Brigade was compelled to go into laager near Deir el Abyad, where it stuck in soft sand. Consequently the brigade had to spend most of the night towing vehicles and guns out of the sand so that by first light General Lumsden reported, ‘all troops and commands were dead tired.’ The brigade's position was perilous as it was in the area designated for Afrika Korps' assembly. In the event, the brigade completed the march eastward almost in company with 90 Light Division which, in the early hours of 1 July, was trying to encircle the Alamein Box. As the brigade came up to 22 Brigade, it again got stuck in the sand.
The net effect of these hazards was that in the morning of 1 July 1 Armoured Division, instead of being in Army reserve and immediately available for action, was badly placed tactically and administratively insecure. It was unable to play an effective part in the opening phase of the battle.
On 30 June also, 1 South African Division had completed the reorganisation required by Auchinleck, but there was still much work to be done in the defensive positions. In Deir el Shein 18 Brigade was in difficulties. The brigade had to rearrange the at they could be manned by one brigade instead of two and the work were far from completed. On top of this the brigade commander, his staff, and unit commanders had to reorganise into a battle group. This reorganisation was in hand and there was a mass of soft transport in the deir waiting to carry out the surplus troops when the enemy struck.
The 50th Division, which the despatch says was ‘concentrated on the defence of the northern sector’, was in fact 30 miles in rear of Alamein reorganising into three eight-gun battle groups. Thus, instead of there being two divisions in this vital part of the front as the despatch implies, there was less than the fighting power of one division.
Why Auchinleck should write ‘what was left of the New Zealand ’ Division is incomprehensible. On 30 June the Division was fully rested and restored, with 6 Brigade in Kaponga and Divisional Headquarters with 4 and 5 Brigades in mobile reserve in Deir el Munassib. It was true, however, that there was very little Deir el Munassib. It was true, however, that there was very little left of 5 Indian Division. The relics were in the neighbourhood of Qaret el Himeimat trying to form themselves into some sort of page 142 battle groups. The division's 9th Brigade was in Naqb Abu Dweis, a hostage to fortune in its isolation, its inadequate artillery and lack of water.
Seventh Motor Brigade, with a squadron of 4 South African Armoured Car Regiment under command, reverted to the command of 7 Division late on 30 June and moved to Qaret el Himeimat.
For even such a comparatively short front as the Alamein Line, Eighth Army was woefully thin.
Eighth Army's morale was as disturbing as its apparent thinness on the ground. Concurrently with his reorganisation of the Army and his orders for the approaching battle, Auchinleck provided for the defence of the Delta, lines of retreat from Alamein, and the evacuation of the Middle East base. The Royal Navy, except for a few light units, left Alexandria, which was now within close bombing range. At Middle East Headquarters and among the base units there was what Major-General de Guingand has described as ‘a pretty good flap’ as the transfer of the various installations, organisations, and documents was arranged and papers now deemed unimportant were burned. Reports of these activities reached Eighth Army in the field and the tales lost nothing in the telling. As the first battles were fought at Alamein, the dangerous ‘looking over the shoulder’ policy again obtained.
Auchinleck's wisdom in taking additional precautions cannot be questioned. The fault was in making them so obvious. Little harm might have been done had he and his staff kept the plans for further retreat to themselves, or restricted their circulation to the corps commanders under the highest degree of secrecy. As it was, the orders were freely distributed. It was natural that in absorbing details of positions in rear to be held, of routes for withdrawal and administrative instructions, commanders and staffs overlooked the vital paragraphs that the orders were merely precautionary and would become operative only in the most dire circumstances. Subsequent orders emphasizing these points could not overcome the impression that the Alamein Line might be abandoned as readily as the others on the long road from Gazala and Bir Hacheim.
Writing in September 1949 to the Union of South Africa War Histories, General Norrie said:
It is easy to be wise after the event, but at the time I thought it was dangerous to have hinted at the possibility of withdrawing to the Delta (however remote these possibilities might be considered). … Alamein was the last ditch, and it was a real case of Do or die' with every chance of stopping the enemy whose armour had been reduced to a shadow of its former self.page 143
Having been given the task of defending the Alamein position, my whole time was spent in organising the defences and in going round the troops encouraging them to fight to the last man and round. The orders. issued by 30th Corps on 2 July1 were done at the direct instructions of Eighth Army, but it was made clear that the intention was ‘Definitely to fight and stand on the position.’
It is also fair comment to say that on some other occasions there had been a tendency to look round over the shoulder, but this was not made any easier by Auchinleck's later policy of ‘thinning out’ and keeping transport handy for possible withdrawals.
New Zealand Division felt the impact of this indecisive attitude of the Army and theatre commands.
On his arrival on the line, Inglis, temporary major-general since 28 June, was annoyed to find 6 Brigade in Kaponga without artillery, anti-tank guns and transport. He considered the move was stupid in that it might well have tied the Division down to the protection of an immobile brigade. He was annoyed both with the Army for giving the orders and with Brigadier Clifton for acting on them. However, he accepted Clifton's explanation that when he got the orders they seemed to be urgent, and that he had not known where the Division was or what had happened to it and therefore had not been able to ask for confirmation.
Early on 29 June General Inglis, having failed to find General Norrie, went on to Eighth Army's tactical headquarters to see Auchinleck. He protested about the situation in which 6 Brigade had been placed and obtained authority to draw transport and antitank guns for it. Auchinleck told him that the Division would be under 13 Corps and that he was to reorganise it into battle groups. When he objected, he was told he was being given an order. To this Inglis replied that he was sorry but it was an order with which he must refuse to comply.
‘The expected explosion did not follow,’ General Inglis said some time later.2 ‘I was merely asked why I objected and what I proposed to do. The reason was that, if I broke up the Division and dispersed it over a wide front, I had about as much chance of stopping Rommel as a piece of tissue paper would have had; and my intention was to keep the Division concentrated in a central position so that it could fight if it were attacked and could have at the enemy if the latter tried to by-pass us. … The matter … was dropped there and then so far as we were concerned.’
1 Precautionary order prescribing lines of retreat
2 Letter to War Branch, 14 Oct 1952, amplifying diary entries of this period.
‘This Army,’ Dorman Smith said, ‘is the only effective fighting force the C-in-C has and he is determined not to lose it whatever happens. If he cannot stay here, he will withdraw to the Delta and fight there and, if necessary, in Sinai and Palestine. I am now considering whether I should advise him to withdraw on Alexandria or on Cairo or partly on one and partly on the other.’
Inglis could hardly believe his ears. He considered, and said so Plainly, that all Eighth Army needed to do was to face westwards and fight. Its continued existence was useless if it did not hold Egypt and the Canal. The Alamein position had to be the limit of withdrawal eastward. These forthright views were not well received. Dorman Smith said they were unwarranted and were disrespectful to the Commander-in-Chief. They did not part harmoniously.
Brigadier Kippenberger had a similar disconcerting experience when, while temporarily commanding the Division, he called on General Gott. Gott handed him a short letter from Auchinleck's Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Corbett. The opening sentence said: ‘The Chief has decided to save Eighth Army’, and the note then went on to say that the South Africans would retire through Alexandria and the rest of the Army down the desert road to Cairo.
‘I asked what was meant by the first sentence,’ Kippenberger has recorded.1 ‘ “It means what it says—he means to save the Field Army,” the General said. He went on to explain: a general retirement and evacuation of Egypt was in contemplation and Inglis had gone to Cairo to arrange for the evacuation of 2 NZEF rear installations and hospitals; he supposed we would go back to New Zealand.2 I protested that we were perfectly fit to fight and that it was criminal to give up Egypt to 25,000 German troops and a hundred tanks (disregarding the Italians)—the latest Intelligence estimate—and to lose as helpless prisoners perhaps 200,000 Base troops. Strafer replied sadly that N.Z. Division was battle-worthy but very few other people were and he feared the worst.
‘I returned to Division and told Gentry of this unpleasant conversation. We said nothing to anyone else and were both sorely perplexed and depressed. In the evening a provisional order for our retirement arrived from 13 Corps. It certainly envisaged the abandonment of Egypt.’
2 As a fact General Inglis had gone to Cairo for precisely the opposite reason of ensuring that the New Zealand base formations were not taking part in the ‘flap’ and that they were sticking to the job. See pp. 145–6.
At this interview and also later to General Inglis, Gott conveyed the doubts of the higher commands on whether Major-General Pienaar would stay in the Alamein Box with his South Africans. After asking Kippenberger whether he knew Pienaar, Gott said: ‘Well, he says he is not going to fight in the Alamein position.’ To Inglis he intimated that a great deal depended on whether Pienaar would stay and fight in the box and that Auchinleck and the corps commanders had grave doubts as to whether he would.
This was hardly a correct interpretation of Pienaar's attitude. He was bitter about the reverses suffered by the Army, had no confidence in the command and was pessimistic about the result of the approaching battle, so much so that he was reported to be saying openly that it was wrong to fight at Alamein and that the best place was behind the Suez Canal. On the other hand Major-General Theron, personal representative of Field Marshal Smuts, found Pienaar indomitable in spirit and determined to fight.1
These matters had a decisive influence on Inglis' subsequent actions and, therefore, on what New Zealand Division did. He had no knowledge of the contents of General Freyberg's ‘charter’ and thus none of his powers as Freyberg's deputy in dealing with the British commanders. His stand against battle groups and on the necessity to fight at Alamein had been inspired by the practical issues in the field. The question of his legal authority to be so forthright had not entered into the matter.
‘It was evident that the British thought they had to treat us tactfully,’ General Inglis said later, ‘for I was sure that no British divisional commander could have jibbed at the battle-group order without being awarded a bowler hat; but it was equally clear that one would have to give the fullest co-operation unless there were absolutely decisive reasons for withholding it. To act other-wise might result in the Army packing up, and to avoid that irreparable disaster one might have to go a long way.’2
These reflections are of particular moment when considering General Inglis' approach to the battles on Ruweisat Ridge a fortnight later.
2 Letter to War Histories, 14 Oct 1952.
The return journey which it was hoped to complete before dark was troublesome and also disconcerting in its implications. General Inglis thus describes it:
We set out at 4 o'clock expecting to reach the Division well before dark. But we found the asphalt road to Amiriya now crammed with panicking transport from the battle area—British, South African and Free French trucks and vehicles of all kinds bustling one another Cairo-wards on a two-vehicle front and often locked in traffic jams several miles long. What an opportunity the Luftwaffe was missing. Only my car and an occasional RAF truck were making against the stream which forced us off the road to run in soft sand that cut our speed down and removed all prospect of reaching the Division before dark. I decided, therefore, to travel by the coast road and then by the Alamein-Qattara track instead of risking a cross-desert journey with one car in the dark when a breakdown might have marooned me.
It took us so long to make headway on the Lake Maryut causeway that it was already dark when we turned west along the coast road which was crammed with unlighted, eastward-bound traffic, including tank transporters, which once more forced us to travel off the road in the sand until, somewhere between the Burg el Arab turn-off and the beginning of the Hog's Back, the road emptied. There we switched on the lights and put on speed until we got near the Imayid area when we switched them off again. From the time we passed the last of the traffic we saw nobody at all until, several miles south of Alamein, we passed some laagered British tanks.
When we reached the area where we had left the Division in the morning there was only empty desert. Deceived several times by what looked like bodies of dispersed transport in the moonlight, we found only clumps of camel heather. As there could be no doubt that the Division had moved while we were away, we camped until daylight and then struck east for a few miles until we encountered one of our Divisional Cavalry patrols who directed us to the Division some miles further still to the east. We had spent the night in No-Man's Land.
1 The ‘secrecy’ of this visit mentioned in Infantry Brigadier (p. 139) was inadvertent. Permission to make the visit was received late the previous night, and as there was no need to wake Kippenberger and Gentry, the duty staff officer was told to advise them next morning. Apparently this was not done.
2 Field Censorship Weekly Summary No. XXXIV (for period 1–7 Jul 1942, inclusive).
The correspondence from other divisions, however, led the Chief Field Censor to observe: ‘The Eighth Army is without doubt a very angry army.’ All ranks sought to explain the defeat. The censor noted it as extraordinary that few writers criticised the quality or quantity of British equipment. The reverses were attributed by a number of writers ‘from field rank to trooper to the fact that “Rommel seems to be the better general” ’. A field officer is quoted as saying that the Germans would require time to reorganise and ‘by then some better generals and also in some cases, colonels, will be found to replace those who I am afraid have made some ghastly mistakes.’ The same writer is further quoted that ‘there must be something wrong with the training of our staff officers in peacetime because it stands out a mile that our staffs and commanders have not shown up at all well.’
Another officer wrote home that a few American generals might be an improvement—‘ they certainly couldn't be worse than our own.’ The summary also said that ‘other ranks pray their people not to blame them for being outnumbered by tanks. … If anyone is to blame it is the “higher-ups”.’ The distrust of the Army command, however, did not produce a defeatist attitude, for the censor reported that in spite of the ‘expressions of very bitter disappointment from all ranks. … seldom have writers not concluded with the assurance that the Axis advance would be halted and the enemy eventually compelled to give ground once again.’
Such was the moral and physical condition of Eighth Army when it turned at bay at Alamein on 30 June. Little more than a month earlier it had stood at Gazala-Bir Hacheim, rested, refreshed and expecting victory, with four complete infantry divisions and an infantry brigade group. Another division was on its way to the front. There were two armoured divisions, an army tank brigade and two independent motor brigades. Behind the Army were immense stores and well-established lines of communication.
Now there was only one complete infantry division and a reduced division, one brigade group new to the field and another without guns. The remnants of two other divisions could provide only small battle groups. One armoured division, short of tanks, could function as a division, but the other was less than a brigade command and was to disperse its efforts in small columns. Behind the Army, between it and the great Middle East base, there was but one complete infantry division, the 9th Australian, and it was still assembling and short of equipment—a thin core in a host of hastily organised base formations striving to build yet further defensive page 148 lines. And the roads and tracks, instead of carrying transport to sustain the Army, were congested with fleeing vehicles of all types.
To the relics of Eighth Army General Auchinleck on 30 June sent a message: ‘The enemy is stretching to his limit and thinks we are a broken army. His tactics against the New Zealanders were poor in the extreme. He hopes to take Egypt by bluff. Show him where he gets off.’ Much of the effect of the message was lost because it did not reach all the troops ere the battle opened and they still did not know that Auchinleck had taken personal command of the Army. Only a few realised that Alamein was the ‘last ditch’. The most widespread knowledge was of more defensive lines being built in rear and the possibility, indeed the probability, of further retreat.