The Pursuit of the Afrika Korps

The battle of El Alamein had been comprehensively won. The pursuit was bungled, at least in the vital few days after the break-out.

This was not the fault of the staff. For some time Freddie [Francis Wilfred de Guingand], Montgomery’s chief of staff, had been thinking about how to cut off the retreating Germans – the Italian infantry divisions were immobile and abandoned, surrendering in tens of thousands, whilst the two Italian Armoured Divisions were also effectively sacrificed – and had asked Richardson to put together a force which would be sufficiently strong and provided with enough fuel to carry out the job. To meet the requirements of Operation GRAPESHOT, as this venture was called, Richardson assembled 96 tanks, to be brought forward by transporters, 45 armoured cars, two batteries of 25-pounders and three of light anti-aircraft guns, two battalions of infantry and soft transport carrying enough fuel and other supplies to be self-sufficient for at least a week. The units came largely from what remained of 8 Armoured Division and the force was to be commanded by the latter’s GOC, Charles Gairdner, whom Freddie met almost daily, and controlled by its HQ, to which was added the necessary RAF and RN liaison staff.

Monty was having none of it, preferring to use all the divisions which had participated in the break-out. These were the same as those which had comprised the corps de chasse put together on paper by John Harding on 12 August, except that 7 Armoured Division, now commanded by Harding himself, replaced 8 Armoured Division. These four divisions were now all sent forward simultaneously on 5 November to cut off the enemy at different points between El Alamein and Fuka, but 1 and 10 Armoured Divisions only arrived on the coast road after the enemy rearguard had passed through, whilst 7 Armoured and 2 New Zealand Divisions were delayed by a dummy minefield, allowing the Germans to withdraw with minimal contact.

Monty now ordered the four divisions to envelop the next objective, Mersa Matruh, but both 1 and 7 Armoured Divisions ran out of fuel, whilst late on 6 November it began to rain heavily and by the following morning all the pursuers were bogged down, leaving Rommel to withdraw once again in good order. To cap it all, the RAF was largely ineffective, preferring to offer ground support to the advancing British rather than strafe the German columns, whilst at the same time being hampered by confusion as to which friendly formation was where. Little training had been carried out in low-level ground attack, and such attacks as were made were largely high-level bombing, which made little impact. To avoid anti-aircraft fire, bomb runs were made across rather than along the road, and only one or two vehicles at most would be hit by each pattern. When they followed up, the pursuers were astonished by the lack of damaged Axis vehicles on the road, although there were many abandoned for lack of fuel.

The problems were twofold. First, too many divisions had been committed to the pursuit, resulting in both confusion in command and control and a temporary supply problem. Kirkman was to say many years later that a single division, as long as it was highly mobile, could have done the job, suggesting that it could have been either 7 Armoured, the freshest of the lot, or 2 New Zealand, with its own brigades rested and restored to it, or 4 Indian Division, of which only one brigade had been involved in the battle and then only briefly in the closing stages. At the last of these the GOC, ‘Gertie’ Tuker, believing that his three brigades could be on the Egyptian frontier by the morning of 6 November, issued orders to them to be ready to move, with a flying column of all arms organized to lead the advance. To his dismay, the division was instead ordered to hand over its troop-carrying transport to the Greek Brigade and to begin work on clearing up the battlefield.

The second problem was that Lumsden appeared unable to exercise control over the corps de chasse and, worse still, failed to remain in close communication with Monty. Both to Monty and to those around the two commanders, this silence seemed to be intentional. Bill Mather, attached to Lumsden as a Liaison Officer, spent much of his time trying to persuade the X Corps commander to contact his superior. Whenever they stopped, Mather would begin the lengthy business of erecting the cumbersome Wyndham aerial necessary for his wireless to function, only to have Lumsden say, ‘Whips out! We’re off’ – and he would have to dismantle the apparatus again.

Mather’s brother Carol accompanied Monty for much of this period and was asked to navigate to a pre-agreed map reference in the desert for a meeting. There was no sign of Lumsden and Monty was predictably livid. In the end he summoned Lumsden to Main HQ, where a furious row ensued. Bill Williams, listening outside, communicated this to the Ops Room, where a board had been set up showing the odds on all the generals for future advancement. ‘Sell Lumsdens’ was Williams’s advice and the price was duly marked down, only for Lumsden himself to come in, pull away the cloth hiding the board and leave without saying a word, but clearly seething with anger.

Main HQ had been very quick to move forward behind the advance; indeed, at one time it found itself ahead of Tac. With confusion reigning as to which formation was where and even where the front was, but in the belief that the Germans had withdrawn from Mersa Matruh, Mainwaring went forward to look for a new Main HQ site, taking with him Dick Carver, Monty’s stepson, who was serving as a GSO2 (Ops). Belchem followed in a second jeep, accompanied by a puppy which he had recently adopted and which suddenly became carsick. Whilst he halted briefly to look after it, a German anti-tank round struck his jeep and he was forced to take cover in a ditch. Mainwaring and Carver drove on, only to be taken prisoner by a German unit forming part of the rearguard.

Richardson was immediately made GSO1 (Ops). His replacement, together with Carver’s as a GSO2, arrived shortly afterwards, both fresh from the Staff College at Haifa. Geoffrey Baker was a gunner who had served in 4 Indian Division in the East African campaign against the Italians, where he had been wounded and won the MC, before being posted to Haifa as an Instructor. Tall and fair, he had acquired the nickname of ‘George the Swede’ whilst a cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and was thereafter always called George. Harry Llewellyn, like Bill Mather, had arrived in the Middle East with 1 Cavalry Division, in his case with the Warwickshire Yeomanry, and had been a student at Haifa. Together with Andy Anderson of the Royal Signals, a fellow student who had been posted as an assistant to ‘Slap’ White, they paraded in front of Monty, who told them that if he liked them and they did a good job, they could stay; on the other hand, if they did not like him, they were free to go!

Llewellyn was immediately identified by Freddie for a role which he had not needed whilst Eighth Army was stationary behind the Alamein Line, but would become vital as it became highly mobile and Tac HQ moved out of regular physical contact. Together with Peter Paget, he was made a GSO2 (Liaison), carrying out a role akin to that which Carol Mather was performing at Tac HQ, but responsible directly to Freddie. The ‘Freddie Boys’, as the Main HQ LOs became known to differentiate them from the ‘Monty Boys’, were there, in Llewellyn’s words, ‘to see that Freddie did not get caught out by receiving information later than Monty did.’ When the distances between Main HQ and the leading formations lengthened so much that daily visits proved impractical, Freddie had his LOs located at the corps HQs, whence they would report back daily.

In early November another officer joined Tac HQ who would spend almost every day in Monty’s company from then until well after the end of the war. Whilst John Poston had more than proved his worth as an ADC, Spooner was unfamiliar with the desert and had gone astray on occasion when taking Monty on visits. Monty now asked Poston if he knew anyone who would suit the role and Poston immediately proposed Johnny Henderson, a lieutenant in an armoured car regiment, the 12th Lancers, whom he had known before the war. Monty consulted Henderson’s CO, who told him that the young subaltern had a remarkable facility for navigating around the desert, having successfully crossed the Qattara Depression to see if it could be used by a large outflanking force.

Henderson was summoned to Tac, by then established near Mersa Matruh, where he had a brief interview with Monty. He was then invited to dine in Monty’s mess, where they were joined by Poston and also by Freddie and Williams, who were both visiting. During dinner he was subjected to an interrogation on his family, school and interests. Afterwards Poston gave him an invaluable piece of advice, which was that he should always tell Monty the truth, regardless of any potential consequences.

Ten days later, Henderson went to Monty to request a return to his regiment, where he might see some real action. Monty asked him to stay on until a replacement had been found and, shortly afterwards, the two men flew back to Cairo to attend the Thanksgiving Service for the victory at El Alamein. After the service Henderson was given the rest of the day and the evening off, during which he and a friend went to the zoo. Whilst there, the friend grabbed Henderson’s military cap and offered it to an elephant, which duly began to eat it. With no chance of rescuing the item and no time to replace it, the improperly dressed Henderson was unable to attend the Guard of Honour at the airfield, as he had been instructed to do by Monty. Quizzed as to why his explicit order had not been obeyed, Henderson told the truth. Monty ordered him to board the aircraft and then spoke not a word on the return journey. However, he raised it at dinner and the amusement generated so softened his reaction that Henderson decided to stay on, as it turned out for nearly four years.

With the immediate opportunity to cut off the Germans now lost and Rommel conducting a skilful withdrawal, offering Monty no immediate opportunity to outflank him, the focus was turned fully on to the longstanding problem of desert warfare for both sides – how to sustain an advancing army which was moving rapidly away from its supply base. The distances were very quickly too great for the large dumps behind the Alamein Line to suffice alone, and mobility became of the essence. The options available were road, rail and sea, as air despatch was in its infancy at this stage of the war and there were in any event few suitable aircraft in the area. Although Eighth Army prided itself on its ability to move across open desert, the single metalled road would remain the main supply artery throughout the campaign, but it very quickly became cluttered with traffic of all descriptions and major jams built up, especially at the Halfaya Pass between Sollum and Bardia. The ports along the coast offered good possibilities, but other than Tobruk and Benghazi they were mostly small and it seemed certain that the Axis would block the channels and demolish port installations, causing inevitable delays to the landing of significant tonnages.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that in the Eighth Army Administrative Instruction No. 140, issued shortly before the beginning of Operation LIGHTFOOT and setting out the policy for the Q branch in the event of a withdrawal by Rommel, Brian Robertson laid heavy emphasis on the third alternative, rail. In the aftermath of Operation CRUSADER, the Western Desert Railway had been extended from the railhead at Misheifa, first to Capuzzo on the Libyan frontier and then to Belhamed, about 20 miles south-east of Tobruk, where a railhead opened on 26 May 1942, the very day of Rommel’s attack round the end of the Gazala line. In the subsequent retreat the railway played a major part in backloading stores, and only one locomotive was lost. During their occupation of the territory west of El Alamein, the Axis forces used the railway for their own supplies, but did nothing to increase its capacity. They did, however, extend the line from Belhamed to the harbour at Tobruk, which was to prove valuable to the Allies.

Robertson spelt out in his instruction where successive railheads would be opened and what supplies they would each cater for. The Movements and Transportation branch of the Q staff was responsible for ensuring that reconnaissance parties moved up immediately behind the forward troops to assess the damage caused by the retreating Germans and that repair material, railway construction units and labour companies would follow as required. A complete construction train was held ready at Alexandria and another two at Suez, ready to be called forward.

Q (Mov & Tn) was also responsible for coordinating joint military and naval parties to take control of the ports, with recce parties placed on standby to move in as soon as each was captured, in order to make an immediate assessment of the requirements and to define the docks area, the entrances to and exits from which were to be closely controlled. Arrangements were also made for the landing of limited quantities of supplies over beaches, to be used on the occasions when the forward troops could not be adequately maintained overland. At this stage of the campaign there were few specialized landing craft in the theatre, so cumbersome lighters had to be used.

Robertson set up 86 Sub Area to provide the necessary structure around the Army railheads and later the roadheads as it moved forward. In addition to all the supply depots, the sub area included a Prisoner of War cage, a Transit Camp for reinforcements and a Main Traffic Control Post to manage the motor transport convoys. One of the main problems was the supply of POL, and Robertson directed that, in addition to the fuel tankers, every single vehicle proceeding westwards, from staff cars and jeeps to huge recovery vehicles, should carry more cans than it needed for its own purposes, to be offloaded as far forward as possible.

Another problem endemic to the desert was the supply of water. Kisch was made responsible for the development and repair of water points at suitable places in the line of communications, with 86 Sub Area taking responsibility for them as soon as they were ready. The ration was one gallon per man per day, including an allowance for vehicle radiators, with additional allowances for medical facilities and workshops and for certain vehicles which required large quantities of water, such as tank transporters.

In order to get supplies to the forward divisions, Robertson and Miles Graham created a new organization, the Field Maintenance Centre (‘FMC’), which would provide the link between corps transport, which lifted supplies from the railheads, roadheads and ports, and divisional transport, which distributed them to the forward troops. In the desert, where space was not a problem, each FMC was laid out identically and became in essence a huge shopping centre. There were specified areas for POL, general supplies, water, engineering stores, ordnance stores and ammunition, together with a POW cage and a Field Post Office. Corps third line transport would approach from one direction to unload and divisional second line transport from the opposite direction to pick up, with clearly defined entrance and exit routes from each area. Each FMC held between one and two days stock of all commodities. Under the previous system, divisions had to notify their requirements three days in advance, but this was now not necessary, so switches in formations or units from one corps to another were no longer a logistical problem.

Every single item of supply, other than water, originated from Egypt, and Robertson thus had to rely on Middle East Command to provide Eighth Army with all its requirements. It was fortunate that the Chief Administrative Officer at GHQ was one of the most experienced in the business. Lieutenant General Sir Wilfred Lindsell had been a fellow instructor of Monty’s at Camberley, where he had taught Q&A to Robertson among others. He had been Quartermaster-General of the BEF and then CAO of Home Forces before being posted to the Middle East. There was nothing he did not know about supply and he could be relied upon to deliver whatever was required.

Whilst Eighth Army retained responsibility for its immediate lines of communication, this became impracticable once the distances became too great. At such times GHQ took over the rear areas, so that Eighth Army could always focus on the task ahead. Once the Army had progressed as far as Benghazi, the responsibility for the LOC up to the frontier was devolved to British Troops in Egypt, whilst in due course Cyrenaica District and then Tripolitania District were set up as static organizations within Middle East Command.

After the setbacks at Fuka and Mersa Matruh, the advance gathered pace. Sidi Barrani was taken on 9 November, and the Libyan frontier crossed on 11 November. Tobruk fell on 13 November and the first ships were unloaded three days later. The railway was slower to reopen, but the railhead at Capuzzo, just across the frontier, received its first train on 20 November and the one at Tobruk on 1 December. Robertson had persuaded Monty to use fighting troops to provide the initial working parties at both ports and railheads, as bringing up Pioneer and Labour companies would use precious transportation resources.

That troops would be available for labour duties was an anticipated consequence of a fast advance, with divisions stalled for lack of supplies, even after the measures taken by Robertson. X Corps still controlled the leading formations, but only 1 and 7 Armoured Divisions remained in the field, and it was the latter which led the advance. Monty was cautious, excessively so in the eyes of a number of his critics, notably Tedder and Coningham. He refused initially to follow the example of O’Connor in 1940 by cutting across the desert to trap the enemy retreating from Benghazi, believing that he risked an upset that he could not afford. Instead, he sent only armoured cars on that route, whilst the bulk of 7 Armoured Division followed up methodically behind Rommel, reaching Benghazi on 19 November. A belated attempt by 22 Armoured Brigade, using tanks borrowed from 1 Armoured Division, failed to get behind Rommel at Agedabia, and the Germans established themselves on a well-prepared defensive line at El Agheila. The RAF was mollified to some extent by the capture intact of the key group of airfields around Martuba, in the bulge of Cyrenaica, just in time to provide cover to a vital convoy for Malta.

Monty had by now run out of patience with Lumsden. He was sent home to the UK, his place in command of X Corps assumed by Horrocks, who was ordered to take the corps into reserve and train it for future operations. Miles Dempsey, one of Monty’s protégés, was summoned from the UK to relieve Horrocks at XIII Corps, which played no further part in the North African campaign. The front facing the Germans at El Agheila was taken over by Leese’s XXX Corps, now comprising 7 Armoured, 2 New Zealand and 51 Highland Divisions.

Whilst Monty built up his supplies, there was a pause in operations, during which Main and Tac HQs were briefly co-located. A number of changes in key personnel took place, the most important of which was the Chief of Staff. Shortly after his own arrival in Benghazi, Freddie experienced acute stomach pains. Evacuated to Cairo, his chronic complaint of gallstones was diagnosed. The treatment was effective, but the subsequent Medical Board recommended three months leave, which he realized would mean the end of his time at Eighth Army. On Monty’s return to Cairo for the Thanksgiving Service, he visited Freddie in hospital and heard the news. He asked his Chief of Staff how long he would need to recuperate and was told only three weeks. Monty immediately persuaded the doctors to change their minds and Freddie went off to Palestine to convalesce, getting married before his return! In the meantime, his place was taken temporarily by Bobby Erskine, who had been BGS at XIII Corps since Gott’s time and was highly experienced, although he lacked Freddie’s unique ability in handling Monty.

David Belchem was also taken ill, in his case with appendicitis, and his job as GSO1 (Staff Duties) was taken over by George Baker. Likewise evacuated to Cairo, after his recovery Belchem was initially posted as Brigade Major of 2 Armoured Brigade before being given command of 1st Royal Tank Regiment, which was serving with 7 Armoured Division. The posting came with the express approval of Monty, who was a strong believer in his staff having battlefield experience so that they could appreciate better what was happening on the front line. Other examples of this policy at much the same time were Carol and Bill Mather. Carol rejoined the SAS, having been persuaded to do so by David Stirling, who came on a visit to Tac HQ to discuss his plans with Monty; a month later he was captured during an operation and sent to a POW camp in Italy. Bill left on a posting as Brigade Major of 9 Armoured Brigade, which was reforming after the terrible losses incurred during Operation SUPERCHARGE.

Monty now wished to attack the German position at El Agheila with all speed. Both the attack and the subsequent drive on Tripoli required the efficient functioning of the port of Benghazi, but it had turned out to be in far worse shape than Tobruk. There were a number of ships sunk in the harbour and the Royal Navy were moving too slowly to remove them in time. This meant that the Army was still being supplied from the port and railhead at Tobruk, whilst the build-up of the RAF had also put huge demands on the whole logistic apparatus. Robertson’s solution was to commandeer all the transport of X Corps and use it to move supplies up as quickly as possible, thereby enabling Monty’s deadline to be met.

Monty moved Tac HQ up to XXX Corps on 5 December and the battle kicked off nine days later, when 7 Armoured and 51 Divisions began to advance through the minefields between Mersa Brega and El Agheila, the Highlanders in particular taking heavy casualties. Even before this, the New Zealanders had, on the night of 11 December, set off on a 200-mile left hook. By the evening of 15 December they were in sight of the sea and poised to cut off the Germans and Italians, but Rommel, plagued as always by lack of fuel, had already decided to withdraw. The New Zealanders were unable to close the net, and most of the enemy managed to break through the gaps. It was, nevertheless, a satisfying victory in terms of morale. O’Connor and Ritchie had both reached El Agheila, only to be thrown back again soon afterwards. The Army had come 760 miles and this time there was to be no reverse.

The next defensive position was at Buerat. Once again Monty was forced to pause for nearly a month for logistical reasons, not the least of which was the continued slow progress by the Royal Navy in clearing Benghazi harbour. Robertson was authorized by Monty to give the officer in command a rocket, after which the situation improved considerably, only for a major setback to occur when a violent storm hit the coast on 3–5 January, breaching the mole and causing a number of ships to come adrift from their moorings. X Corps transport was once again pressed into service to remedy the deficiency.

The attack on Buerat, launched on 15 January, was so successful that the Axis forces retreated in some confusion both along the coast road and into the more hilly country on the approach to Tripoli. There was a natural defensive line between Homs and Tarhuna, but Eighth Army was by then moving with such momentum that, to the surprise of both Monty and Leese, it bounced the line on the run and broke clear through towards Tripoli, which was entered on 23 January.

During the advance from Buerat to Tripoli, Tac HQ briefly became an operational headquarters. The left of XXX Corps, comprising 2 New Zealand Division and most of 7 Armoured Division and directed on Tarhuna, and the right, with 51 Highland Division and 22 Armoured Brigade moving along the coast road to Homs, were well separated. With Tac following closely behind 22 Armoured Brigade, Monty effectively became a corps commander, controlling the right-hand thrust directly and giving Douglas Wimberley, the Highlanders’ GOC, a very hard time. He was quite evidently enjoying himself enormously, as was John Oswald, who had sometimes wondered if he had been doing a very useful job in charge of Tac. Clearly Tac lacked the full apparatus of a corps HQ, not least Ground/Air wireless tentacles, which inevitably limited cooperation with the RAF, but in the relatively short time – just over a week – that this situation existed, it hardly mattered. At Main HQ Freddie had by then returned, but for the first time Monty was so far ahead and so involved in day-to-day operations, that the COS found it difficult to keep fully in touch with what ‘Master’ was doing. This was to become a recurring problem.

Eighth Army’s supply problems had become so severe that a temporary halt to major operations became a necessity, although 7 Armoured Division, now commanded by Bobby Erskine as John Harding had been seriously wounded in the final stages of the battle, pushed forward to the west. The port of Tripoli was initially unusable, the entrance blocked by sunken ships and the installations demolished. It was 3 February before the first ship could enter the harbour and three days later before a full convoy was able to unload. Serious restocking now needed to take place before the Army could take on the challenges ahead.

As Cairo was now over 1,000 miles away, it was decided to create a permanent base and lines of communication area in Tripoli. Robertson was given command, with promotion to major general, whilst Miles Graham stepped into his position as DA&QMG Eighth Army and was himself succeeded as AQMG by Rim Lymer, who now ran the Q activities at Rear HQ. Robertson was occasionally irked to be given orders by Graham, but took such firm control of the supply situation that it was not to be a problem for the remainder of the campaign. Graham, for his part, established a particularly close relationship with Freddie, which endured until the end of the war. He enjoyed many of the same interests, particularly gambling, and provided something of a safety valve for the Chief of Staff at moments of stress.

Main and Tac HQ were again briefly co-located, which was convenient for two significant events which took place in Tripoli. The first of these was the visit on 3 and 4 February of Churchill and Brooke. There was a minor hiccup in the arrangements when Monty’s Humber car, which was to be used by the visitors, was stolen whilst Poston and Henderson were in nightclub on the evening before the victory parade. After a momentary panic, the situation was restored when the Military Police reclaimed it from a drunken soldier. The parade on the following day was led by the pipes and drums of the Highland Division, wearing their kilts, causing both the Prime Minister and the CIGS to become quite emotional. This was followed by a church parade at Main HQ, at which Padre Hughes gave an ‘inspired sermon’. Both parades were a propaganda gift for Geoffrey Keating, whose films received widespread distribution in both Britain and the Empire, and Warwick Charlton, who used them as a morale booster in his newspapers, which now included a new title, The Tripoli Times. Charlton was later to fall foul of Robertson, whose somewhat puritanical character disapproved of the newspaper’s more risqué articles. He attempted to sack Charlton, which Monty refused to countenance.

The second event was a four-day conference from 14 to 17 February, presided over by Monty, during which he conveyed Eighth Army’s experiences over the previous three months to an audience which arrived from Home Forces, Allied Forces (the name given to First Army and other formations now fighting in Tunisia and also based in Algeria and Morocco), Persia and Iraq Command and Middle East Command. The delegation from Home Forces was led by the C-in-C, Bernard Paget, and included a number of senior officers, including Henry Crerar from the Canadian Army and Gerald Templer, now GOC of a corps in the UK. Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, AOC-in-C of Fighter Command, represented the RAF. Monty was less pleased by the lack of high-level representation from First Army in Tunisia: neither the Commander, Kenneth Anderson, nor any of his corps or divisional commanders attended, although Anderson sent a number of staff officers. On the other hand, there was one senior American General in the shape of George Patton.

The conference was held in a cinema in Tripoli and at some outdoor locations for physical demonstrations, which included a simulated attack by an armoured regiment. Monty opened with a two-hour exposition of the whole campaign to date and was followed by Freyberg and Wimberley on specific aspects. Richardson and McNeill, together with the Wing Commander (Ops), staged a very realistic presentation on Army/Air Cooperation and Kisch dealt with the problems of and solutions to mine clearance. Overall the staff worked hard to prepare and rehearse for the conference, an unusual activity for them in mid-campaign.

One of the staff officers to attend from First Army was Kit Dawnay, now the GSO1 (Intelligence) at Anderson’s HQ. Seeing that he was present, Monty invited Dawnay to dinner in his mess and sat him next to himself:

Then occurred one of those appalling indiscretions to which Monty had always been prone, but usually not in front of so large a number of people. In a sudden lull in the conversation, he asked me a loud and highly rhetorical question: ‘Who are you with now, Kit?’

‘General Anderson, sir, 1st Army.’

‘H’m – good plain cook.’

Observations such as this, gleefully repeated by his supporters, were calculated to make him more popular in some quarters than in others. To make matters worse, the more outrageous they were, the more he enjoyed them.

Monty’s aphorism soon spread round Eighth Army and reached First Army as well, doing little for the relationship between two formations which would have to cooperate before very long.

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