‘LA CADUTA DEGLI DEI’ Part I

THE FALL OF THE GODS

For the watching Bernard Freyberg the barrage for Operation Supercharge was disappointing. He had envisaged something more spectacular than Lightfoot. The anti-climax was almost certainly because, despite the barrage’s use of 192 field guns with 168 further guns employed on other tasks like counter-battery fire, the attack front was considerably narrower than before. Consequently, the artillery flashes were much more concentrated.1 It was rather different for the attacking infantry, as Private Jackson Browne of 8th DLI observed:

‘Get your kit on’. And then when the time comes, everybody’s just waiting. Half a dozen guns opened up – pop, pop, pop, pop ssshhhhhwwww!! Then all of a sudden you hear – Bugger! The earth starts to shake. Well, you looked back and saw that lot. God Almighty! Hell!

It was well organized. On each flank – on the battalion flanks – they had Bofors guns firing tracer every two or three minutes so that you could keep on line. The barrage was going now for about two minutes then they’d drop two or three smoke bombs – they were a bloody nuisance… But when they dropped you knew the barrage was lifting. You just moved in.

Never before had British infantry received such artillery support in the Desert War. The tried and trusted techniques from the Great War (as during Lightfoot) were again applicable, as Captain Ian English described:

We realized that [the barrage] in fact was our armour. That was our protection. The barrage stood on the opening line for twenty minutes while we closed up. This was the first attack behind a barrage we’d done and it was emphasized that one should always be within a hundred yards of it so one can arrive on the enemy position within a few moments of the barrage passing over.

Among 9th DLI, it was Lieutenant Wilfred White’s first action:

The noise was terrific, gunfire, shell bursts, mortars, rifle fire, machine-gun fire, the skirl of the bagpipes, the shouts of our charging infantry all combining in an incredible and unbelievable cacophony of sound. And above this noise we could hear from time to time the call of our Company Commander’s hunting horn. It made us feel rather special and somehow comforted us.

Major Teddy Worrall’s hunting horn – another example of the eccentricities of British officers in combat throughout the Second World War.

The barrage rolled forwards, battering a path, until pausing at 0220hrs on the first objective. Both infantry brigades advanced to time behind it, as English recalled:

Promptly at 0105hrs we crossed the start line in formation with bayonets fixed. At that time it was a pretty dark night because the moon was well past full and ten minutes later the barrage started. We had been expecting a lot of noise. We heard the guns behind us and the flashes we could see and the whistle of the shells going over our heads and then an enormous crash and clouds of dust in front of them.

The terrain, seemingly flat, did little to assist the advance. English described the scene:

It wasn’t flat, but it was extremely open. There were little bits of scrub. When you got down on the ground you could see in fact there were undulations and little crests. If you took a quick look at it, standing on your feet, you’d say they weren’t there at all. But in fact these little crests and pieces of dead ground were extremely useful.

Dead ground, however, could conceal Italian and German defenders whilst the absence of any features, except the line of telegraph poles marking the Rahman track, made it especially hard for any officer or sergeant with compass and map ‘trying to walk a straight course through the inferno for more than two miles to an objective which was only a pencil line on a map’.8 Jackson Browne remembered:

The company commander had a bloke – his batman. He had to pace this out all the way. He had a hell of a job. He had to count the paces. Somewhere along the line – it was about 5–6,000 yards we had to do – I think when we got to about three and a half thousand yards we had to stop for consolidation. Find out what was happening.

Despite assistance from 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion, which was to deal with a strongpoint on the right flank, it was the three DLI battalions who encountered the greatest problems. Initially, however, their advance met little opposition, as Jackson Browne recalled:

The first thing I knew was some of the Germans were coming out hysterical. What a bloody state they were in. God Almighty! There was dozens of them coming out. Some of them was cradling and crying and one thing and another. It must’ve been bad then right under that barrage. But his machine-gunners were still having a go – the diehards, y’know. Odd mortars and that coming over.

The Māori battalion had a tough fight in fulfilling its task and suffered almost 100 casualties, including its inspirational commander, Fred Baker, who was seriously wounded. The attack was conducted wholly in the spirit of its warrior heritage, as one of its officers, Major Charles Moihi Te Arawaka Bennett, made clear:

We had to fight almost every inch of the way. We were never far behind the barrage which gave us good protection and did some damage too… At one spot we were opposed by a wall of enemy firing at us with all they had. We all broke into the haka ‘Ka mate! ka mate!’ and charged straight in with the bayonet… It was the most spirited attack that I myself had taken part in.

The advance of 151st Brigade was led by 8th and 9th DLI. Ernie Kerans was with the latter’s Headquarters Company when they first met determined resistance:

The barrage was literally raising the dust and through it I could see the single explosions of shells and grenades and multiples from scores of Spandaus and other machine-guns. My Alamein was in full swing. I realised I still had my rifle slung. Bullets were now plucking at our clothes in large numbers. The bullets and bits of shrapnel came like a shower of deadly hailstones and we had to throw ourselves down to live. On the right a vehicle burst into flames and by the light I could see A Company men trying to advance. We were ahead of them but some of them were still on their feet, others were falling or had done. There were tracers amongst them and explosions all around them. Over the sounds of the barrage and the small-arms could be heard curses and the cries of the wounded. Someone in a pitiful voice was crying for his mother.

Kerans, surrounded by the terrifying sights and sounds of battle, did what the ‘poor bloody infantry’ always did in such circumstances: buried his nose in the dirt and hoped not to get hit:

From everywhere ‘Stretcher Bearer, Stretcher BEARER!’ Whatever had been on fire went out and we were just left with noise. Sight had gone but the screams and curses mixed with the chatter of the machine-guns and explosions of shells continued. We hugged the ground and bullets skimmed our heads. Ken took a bullet in his shoulder.

Similar resistance was met by 8th DLI. Men were helpless as they saw mates killed by their side.

Private John Drew’s memories were bitter:

Though we had to keep apart Joe and I kept in touch with one another till we were held down by machine-gun fire… Things here looked pretty grim and it was only the audacity of an NCO that got us out of it and which cost him an arm. By this time Joe and I had got our Gun going again and we began to advance with the section. The next thing I knew was a tremendous crash behind us. As I fell forward I caught a glimpse of Joe going down. Picking myself up, I discovered that, except for a few scratches, I was OK. I then walked over to Joe and found much to my regret that there was nothing I could do for him. Looking round I found what had been the cause of it all, one of the Jerrys had feigned dead. I then picked up the Gun. I must admit I was pretty mad by this time and let him have a full magazine. I am pretty certain he never lived to tell the tale.

As the attack fragmented, control by officers and NCOs became difficult to exercise. Lieutenant Jamie Kennedy of 9th DLI, describing his experiences in the third person, admitted his helplessness:

The company came to tanks, some dug into the ground, and here the fear of the power of the tanks seemed to make Jamie’s men crazed; he realised that they were beyond accepting any orders other than his finger pointing out targets. If a German tried to get out of his tank no one waited to see if he was surrendering; two men jumped on the tank, pushed the German back in, dropped a grenade in and closed the lid.

From a variety of motivations, men in this extreme environment of savage violence and fear committed acts that defied justification by rational explanations of revenge, orders or conditioning. The most basic instinct of survival – kill or be killed – overwhelmed them. Clear concepts of ‘combat’ and ‘atrocity’ were lost, as is evident from Jackson Browne’s account:

Quite a few went back as prisoners but there was a hell of a lot got their come-uppance. You see that list of Montgomery’s – the last list we got, the final one about what he was going to do – he said the watchword is ‘Kill Germans’. So that’s what they did. They were shooting the buggers down like they was flies. Blokes who’d never shot any bugger before were having a go. They certainly were. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It was good from our point of view!

Browne witnessed further callous and brutal actions, some committed in cold blood:

We were having casualties what with one thing and another but we had no problems with mines or anything like that. We found two blokes – one was dead with the barrage and the other was typical German with his blond hair and that. They had a tin box. I think they’d been going to lay booby traps and they’d been caught in the barrage. So, he’s lying there and Phil Thompson from Bishop Auckland shot the bugger. He said: ‘_____ !’ (Bad Language – you know). ‘Laying so-and-so booby traps!’

Distasteful as it may be to citizens of the modern democracies, such acts were committed in the defeat of fascism, giving the lie to the myth of ‘Krieg Ohne Hass’. Moreover, these actions were exceptional neither in the desert nor in the war in general.

Lieutenant-Colonel William Watson’s 6th DLI followed the lead battalions. The necessity of adequate ‘mopping up’ of resistance after the first advance (another Great War principle that was still applicable) was brought painfully home to Watson:

The tragedy was that in our enthusiasm we must have walked over some of these Italians – single chaps or ones or twos – who lay ‘doggo’ as we passed. Undoubtedly one of them killed my RSM, [Arthur] Page, killed my doctor who was tending [the wounded] and also Sergeant Fairley, who … played cricket for Crook and for the battalion down in Dorset. They all three were killed together and it was a great blow. I also think young Vickers, who had just come to the battalion, who was a splendid junior officer from a well-known Durham family and whose father farmed and was an auctioneer and valuer, he too was killed.

Watson, a true County Durham man, felt these losses of his ‘neighbours’ keenly. His men sought out the line of dug-in Italian armour marking the point at which they swung to form a north-facing flank for the bridgehead:

Sure enough, we came across this group of dug-in tanks. It was almost too good to be true that we should find them there. Practically every one of the crews was still inside and I remember walking up to one and the corporal shouting ‘Stand back, sir, stand back!’ after planting a limpet mine that sticks onto the armour plating. It just blew inwards and killed the crew. I saw A Company having great fun trying to set one alight. But we did the turn and we got into these positions. The positions that we held were absolutely in the right place. Then the guns opened up again for the 8th and 9th Battalions to continue their advance.

When the advance resumed, it was inexorable, as Browne described:

The barrage had stopped for that time and then, when it started, it was time to start moving forwards. You weren’t charging forward. I mean, you weren’t more than a bloody stroll, y’know. There were dugouts and such as that and, whether there was anybody in or not, you either fired a burst in or threw a grenade in. A lot of these Germans, they didn’t know how to give themselves up they were in such a bad state and blokes were just shooting the lot of them down.

Private Corley, Ian English’s batman, still paced out the distance:

After we’d gone about 35 minutes from the first objective, Corley said that by his reckoning we were just about on the objective. So I said ‘Right, we’ll go on about another 200 yards to make certain we are there.’ We realized we must be because the barrage had halted and we came up to it and started to consolidate the position. This was at 0340hrs and the barrage went on till 4 o’clock. The silence when it stopped was absolutely amazing. One thought one had almost got used to this deafening noise. Then it stopped and you could see the stars and the moon and it was a different world.

On their objective, perhaps even a little beyond it, the Durhams attempted to dig in. Their survival until the tanks’ arrival depended upon it.

The advance of 152nd Brigade met less opposition. The men, dressed (unlike the Durhams) in full battledress and each wearing a St Andrew’s Cross made from strips of ‘four-by-two’* on their backs for recognition purposes, went forwards to the sound of bagpipes. Douglas Wimberley recounted:

It was not an easy attack, and George Murray and his Brigade did splendidly. Casualties were by no means light. For instance, 5 Seaforth, whose first attack it was, as they had held the whole start line on the night of the 23rd, lost 12 officers and 165 men. The whole Brigade reached its objective up to time on the instant and began to dig in on the hard ground.

In its wake, two squadrons of armoured cars from the Royal Dragoons succeeded in breaking out to the west to attack supply lines and installations. With 133rd Lorried Infantry Brigade also completing its task on the left of the attack and with heavy losses inflicted on Panzergrenadier-Regiment 115 and 65o Reggimento Fanteria Motorizzata, the infantry awaited 9th Armoured Brigade’s ‘Balaclava charge’. 9th DLI’s Jamie Kennedy wrote:

The armoured might of Brigadier John Currie’s three regiments was something of a façade. Montgomery had ordered on 29 October that it be brought up to full strength, but this was accomplished by supplying repaired and reconditioned tanks as imagined by Guingand. The process had been too rushed and many had mechanical faults. Of seventy-nine Shermans and Grants and fifty-three Crusaders, only a total of ninety-four tanks reached the start line.

The eccentric use of fox hunting terminology was again in evidence, with the brigade assembly and advance referred to as ‘The Meeting of the Grafton Hounds’.26 The tanks encountered various problems in ‘attending the meet’. For one regiment, the approach march was ‘painful’ as ‘the track was narrow and the dust appalling’.27 At 0500hrs Currie requested a half-hour postponement of the attack and supporting barrage because the Warwickshire Yeomanry’s passage of a minefield was delayed. Nevertheless, this regiment, like the Wiltshire Yeomanry and 3rd Hussars, was ready at the original ‘Zero’. However, the revised artillery arrangements meant the attack started at 0615hrs. Len Flanakin, with the Warwickshire Yeomanry, met a horrific sight:

We were in the vanguard of the armour and as we came out of the minefields we fanned out to form a line. I had just witnessed the most gruesome sight I had ever seen in my life. Where the infantry had passed by they had left a tangle of bodies from both sides but the most pathetic sight was that of a Pipe Major in kilt and bagpipes hanging on the barbed wire. We had lost a few tanks in the mines but the remainder of us reached the start line and waited for the signal to advance.

The three regiments used Crusader tanks in front of Grants and Shermans but on the right 3rd Hussars had only three still running. They and the Wiltshires, in the centre, met only slight opposition initially but the Warwickshire Yeomanry, whose path of advance diverged from the other regiments, was engaged early, as Flanakin recounted:

We charged in with dawn not too far off and were soon in action against dug-in tanks and anti-tank guns including the nasty sort, the dreaded 88s. All the tanks by now were fighting their own individual battles and I was too busy to notice anything. The turret was filled full of acrid smoke each time the 75mm ejected a spent cartridge case and another shell had to be pushed in.

Since the battle opened, Lance-Corporal Mick Collins and his team of ‘flying fitters’ had worked flat out to give the Wiltshire Yeomanry tank crews every conceivable combat advantage. Collins described how:

We were doing our damnedest to keep the old Crusaders mobile and in fighting condition. When the crews asked us if we could give them a bit more pep for their engines we were only too glad to oblige. The Nuffield Liberty engine on the Crusaders was fuelled through a ‘Solex’ carburettor that was sealed to limit the speed and revolutions. To appease the tank drivers we broke the seals and adjusted the carburettors to allow maximum revs and the speed increased noticeably. After all, we agreed with the drivers that a good turn of speed is vitally essential when you know there is a distinct possibility of an 88mm shell chasing you with the sole intention of blowing you and your tank apart.

Now the value of applying learning from previous combat experience was revealed:

Our Squadron of Crusaders were able to travel quite smartly when conditions permitted and it was becoming fashionable with some of the lads to indulge in what was termed ‘beetle crushing’. If a Jerry 88mm was being troublesome and was within range the Crusader was driven straight at the gun emplacement and straight over it, thereby inflicting considerable damage to the gun and its crew. This manoeuvre depended entirely on getting in quick before Jerry could loose one off at the Crusader. Now you can appreciate why the drivers wished to have the governors removed from their carburettors. The six-pounders on the Crusaders were a definite improvement on the two-pounder on their previous tanks but even so it is a pity they were not fitted with 75s as on the Shermans.

In fact, some Crusaders in the attack were armed only with the 2-pounder gun. More significantly for their crews’ chances of survival, the artillery barrage, advancing at 100 yards every three minutes, was too slow for these tanks, which depended on speed and manoeuvrability in the absence of thicker armour.32 Those from the Wiltshires, therefore, drove rapidly through the barrage to get onto the Rahman track ahead of the heavy squadrons.

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