‘LA CADUTA DEGLI DEI’ Part III

Churchill III tanks of ‘Kingforce’, 1st Armoured Division, 5 November 1942. The unit was named Kingforce after its commander, Major Norris King MC.

The mixed fortunes of the infantry operations meant that Lumsden revised Briggs’ orders; at 0530hrs. 2nd KRRC was to be supported by 2nd Armoured Brigade whilst 8th Armoured Brigade worked south-westwards. The poet Keith Douglas was a lieutenant with the Sherwood Rangers and wonderfully evoked the atmosphere of this (and perhaps many another) armoured move at dawn:

The moment I was wakeful I had to be busy. We were to move at five; before that, engines and sets had to be warmed up, orders to be given through the whole hierarchy from the Colonel to the tank crews. In the half-light the tanks seemed to crouch, still, but alive and like toads. I touched the cold metal shell of my tank, my fingers amazed for a moment at its hardness, and swung myself into the turret to get out my map case. Of course, it had fallen down on the small circular steel floor of the turret. In getting down after it, I contrived to hit my head on the base of the six-pounder and scratched open both my hands; inside the turret there is less room even than in an aircraft, and it requires experience to move about. By the time I came up, a general activity had begun to warm the appearance of the place, if not the air of it. The tanks were now half-hidden in clouds of blue smoke as their engines began one after another to grumble, and the stagnant oil burnt away. This scene with the silhouettes of men and turrets interrupted by swirls of smoke and the sky lightening behind them was to be made familiar to me by many repetitions. Out of each turret, like the voices of dwarfs, thin and cracked and bodyless, the voices of the operators and of the control set come; they speak to the usual accompaniment of ‘mush,’ morse, odd squeals, and peculiar jangling, like a barrel-organ, of an enemy jamming station.

The tank units were straight into action that morning. Arthur Reddish recalled:

At first light on November 3, the Sherwood Rangers tanks were on the left flank of an attack by the 1st Armoured Division on the remnants of the Panzerarmee’s anti-tank gun screen dug-in before and behind the Rahman Track. The day started propitiously for our crew. As the regiment assembled behind the infantry line prior to advancing, a young Highlander officer left his slit-trench and jumped onto the back of the tank. He’d spotted an enemy anti-tank gun, he said. It was in the scrub only 200 metres [approximately 220 yards] away and was right in front of our position. John quickly got him into the tank and into the gunner’s seat. His first shot missed but not the second. The third caused an explosion. Presumably, he’d hit the ammunition.

Major Anthony Wingfield was concerned by the ammunition shortages his unit was suffering, but was soon temporarily bolstered by the arrival of another new weapon in the Eighth Army’s armoury:

At first light our Recce Troop and the Crusaders of B Squadron moved out to make contact with [the] KRRC, and support them against any tank counter-attack. The situation had become grave because the replenishment of 75mm ammunition to the Shermans of A and C Squadrons had not arrived during the night. However 4 or 5 new Churchill tanks, as an experimental detached troop, now arrived between ourselves and The Bays. These heavy tanks had been sent out to the Middle East for battle trials; whether it was the sight of these new monsters which scared the German tanks I did not know, but they withdrew behind a screen of 88mm anti-tank guns. The latter then promptly halted the Churchill tanks whose crews were possibly concussed if their tanks were not actually ‘brewed up’.

There were too few Churchills – a heavy ‘infantry’ tank for close-support work designed to replace the Valentine – for losses to these tanks to be significant at this time. Nevertheless, this British-built tank ‘made a favourable impression on their crews, and also on the co-operating troops’. On a more personal level, it was Wingfield’s misfortune that day to be caught quite literally with his trousers down by the Germans:

It was while we were withdrawing a short way to find hull-down battle positions that Nature gave me her morning call. I dismounted but stayed close to my tank for protection. Just at ‘le moment critique’ an HE shell burst underneath my tank and a red flame shot between my bare legs. A momentary thought of my ancestor at ‘the singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’ passed through my mind. Motion – in every sense – was quick and I was back in my tank in a flash and before there was another one.

Throughout the day, the British armour was held up by the continued resistance offered by the screen of anti-tank guns and by the remaining tanks covering the slow withdrawal of the Axis forces on foot or in vehicles. The work of the remaining elements of Panzerjäger-Abteilungen 605 and 33 and Flak-Division 19 was especially noted by the British. Nevertheless, the Axis withdrawal was observed by the Desert Air Force and the coastal road consequently came under almost-constant attack from the air.

The Panzerarmee and its commander suffered another significant blow to morale in the early afternoon with Hitler’s response to Rommel’s plans for withdrawal, which constituted a direct order to stand and fight and, if necessary, die. In Hitler’s view, this was a battle in which the commander with the strongest will to fight would ultimately win through. If that was indeed the case (which it was not, of course, given the attritional effects of the last ten days’ fighting), it was already too late. Alamein was lost in the mind of Rommel. A characteristically magniloquent message from Mussolini only served to compound the Panzerarmee’s confusion as Rommel ordered all units to defend their present positions till the last although permitting Thoma to withdraw the Afrika Korps ten miles east of El Daba. This, in effect, abandoned infantry without motor transport – almost exclusively Italians and Fallschirmjäger-Brigade Ramcke – to their fate.

Meanwhile, the continued resistance of the Panzerjäger units and the Luftwaffe 88mm gun teams, combined with Freyberg’s perception of the imminent collapse of the Panzerarmee as a whole, led him to suggest to Leese that a breakout through the salient’s south side should be attempted. This would avoid the screening anti-tank positions. An attack by 5/7th Gordon Highlanders of Wimberley’s division supported by 8th RTR was decided upon. The events of this attack were especially tragic and another indication of the problems beneath the veneer of Eighth Army’s ruthless efficiency. Wimberley described them as follows:

On the afternoon of 3rd November I was ordered to attack again, and selected the 5/7 Gordons as the freshest battalion available. With the help of George Elliot, we laid on a heavy barrage to take them forward on to the Rahman Track. Shortly before the attack was due to go in, I was amazed to be rung up by Oliver Leese to be told that our Armour was already on the objective, that the Gordons had been ordered by me to capture, and it was only a question of their moving forward. This was not my information at all, and I pleaded hard for the Tanks, if there were any there, to clear out and let my attack go in properly under a Barrage. I was told, No. It was only with difficulty that I could get leave to let, at least, a smoke barrage be fired to guide the Jocks. So, late in the afternoon they were launched in a divisional attack under Saunders with smoke only. As in the case of the ‘Kidney’ feature, we were again right and the Armour’s Intelligence was all wrong. This time it had even more tragic consequences on many lives.

Wimberley took no pleasure in being right where Leese and Briggs, whose 1st Armoured Division’s headquarters was the source of the erroneous information, were mistaken:

The position was, as we had reported, strongly held. Not a sign of our tanks was to be seen, but plenty of enemy ones. To move forward in daylight, under smoke only, was impossible. The Gordons made little progress, and lost a lot of men, and I felt it had been sheer waste of life and was sick at heart. Worst of all, thinking that it was an advance rather than an attack, the Gordons put a number of their Jocks on the top of the tanks to be carried on them forward to the objective. I saw those tanks, later, coming out of action, and they were covered with the dead bodies of my Highlanders. It was an unpleasant sight and bad for any troops’ morale.

The two units suffered ninety-four casualties, including sixteen officers; nine Valentines were destroyed and a further eleven damaged from about thirty-two starters.

Two further attacks were planned for 4 November. The first involved 5th Indian Brigade which, according to Major-General Francis ‘Gertie’ Tuker:

after struggling and buffeting its way through the choked corridor, was eased forward by over 350 guns, and punched a narrow hole four miles deep through a few pickets covering the retreat, out into the open desert.

The number of guns mentioned by the division’s commander was important. After the debacle over the 5/7th Gordons attack, Wimberley was insistent that 1/4th Essex and 4/6th Rajputana Rifles should have the support of a fully constituted and effective artillery programme of counter-battery fire, concentrations and creeping barrage. This was all organized in a short time by the combined efforts of the staffs of 51st and 4th Indian Divisions, 5th Indian Brigade and Brigadier Weir’s 2nd New Zealand Divisional artillery – a remarkable example of the maintenance of operational tempo. As a consequence, the two battalions encountered only sporadic opposition.

Before 1st Armoured Division’s tanks could break out into the open desert, however, a dawn attack by 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders went in. The attack of the Argylls – ‘almost the last reasonably fresh infantry available’ – was, as Wingfield described:

directed onto Tel el Aqqaqir, the top of the whole ridge to our front. They found the enemy gone. 2nd Armoured Brigade was ordered to advance immediately, with 10th Hussars leading (always their rightful place!), with The Bays on the right and 9th Lancers on the left. But it was not till 9.00 a.m. that we got under way.

As a consequence of this action, more armoured cars were also able to break out to the south and into the open desert.

The sight of the armour passing through 5th Indian Brigade moved one overawed Havildar, Nila Kanten, to hyperbole:

Our role was something less than a participant and more than a spectator… We were asked to break through at Ruweisat Ridge and allow all the armoured divisions to pass through and trap him. When we captured our objectives, then came the thunder of these armoured divisions passing through us. I remember that. I had never seen so many tanks going in one go. Two divisions, I think, passed through. If the head of the column of an armoured division was in Bangalore, the tail would be in Madras – so many vehicles there were and they were all racing. So many tanks, so many armoured vehicles, so many personnel carriers. Oh, the dust cloud! We created dust, we ate dust, we drank dust… Then the whole Eighth Army started moving.

However, after 4,000 yards, the tanks met the Panzerarmee’s rearguard of 90. leichte-Afrika-Division and the Afrika Korps under Thoma’s personal command. The Afrika Korps commander and Kampfstaffel were in the midst of the fighting throughout the morning before the battle group was destroyed and the courageous Thoma surrendered. Fittingly, as the armour was let loose to pursue its quarry, the officer who took the general prisoner was Master of Foxhounds with the Hursley Hunt. Wingfield recalled:

One of our tanks had ‘brewed up’ a German tank at considerable range and I could see a man waving a red cross flag near it. Grant Singer – the Recce Troop leader, went forward to investigate and found a highly decorated General coming towards him. Grant returned with this prize to the Colonel who decided that Grant should take him at once to Brigade HQ. On arrival there Grant was told to take him straight to Monty at Army HQ as quickly as possible, for it transpired that he was Rommel’s deputy who had been on a forward reconnaissance to convince Rommel of the British breakthrough when he had been captured.

At Army Headquarters, liaison officer Carol Mather described the meeting of Montgomery and Thoma:

Well, of course, I couldn’t judge him [Thoma] as a commander at all, although he was deputizing for Rommel at the time. What he had to face at Alamein was something quite new as far as the Germans were concerned, which was a set-piece attack. As a man he seemed rather a charming fellow actually. Very civilized and you couldn’t help thinking he was quite a decent one. The meeting was so short it was difficult to judge. Montgomery was tickled to death at the idea of having the commander of the opposing forces in his tent having dinner and questioning him and discussing the progress of the battle. This was a great feather in his cap really. It was just the kind of situation he enjoyed. And it was a very amusing meeting.

Whilst 1st Armoured Division was engaged in this action, Major-General John Harding’s 7th Armoured, led by Brigadier ‘Pip’ Roberts of 22nd Armoured Brigade, was out in the open desert from 0830hrs. But it too encountered strong resistance from the remaining Italian armour, XX Corps’ artillery and some 88mm guns. Despite Roberts’ urgings by radio to his units to ‘Brush them aside, we have bigger fish to fry!’, the opposition proved a tough nut to crack. A long-range artillery duel in which the excellent Italian guns, under centralized control, performed well, went on all day and there were frequent clashes between Roberts’ brigade and the inferior Italian armour of Divisione ‘Ariete’, ‘Littorio’ and ‘Trieste’. Soldato Antonio Tomba of ‘Ariete’ remembered:

Our poor M13s with their 47mm guns could never be effective against them – we could only hope to hit their tracks in order to immobilize them at least; our shells just bounced off when we hit their armour. In addition, while they numbered sixty, we had little over half of that. We did everything possible, giving our very best… We had no chance, but we proved a difficult opponent for the English: the secret lay in manoeuvring the tank properly. Our tactics were simple: always keep moving, never expose your flank to their guns, and don’t let them fire first. All the crew must act as a single unit: everyone must know what to do and when to do it, in complete harmony with each other. We managed to hold off the enemy that day, but they replaced their losses again while we could only count how many of us were left alive. We could never have resisted for another day… Everyone fought an unequal battle without complaint and without yielding, even when there was no water and no food. We were lucky when it started to rain as this slowed the English advance, and we, the last survivors of the Ariete Division, were able to escape their pursuit.

The Germans were grudgingly admiring of their allies’ bravery, which undoubtedly made possible the escape of many remaining German units. Doctor Alfons Selmayr saw assault guns of Divisione ‘Ariete’ conduct an attack. ‘Despite their poor armour, they advanced boldly. Of course, they were blown to bits in a miserable fashion.’

Major Hans von Luck was more generous:

It was heart-rending to have to witness how the Ariete Division (our most loyal allies) and the remains of the Trieste and Littorio Divisions, fought with death-defying courage; how their tanks (the ‘sardine tins’ so often mocked by us) were shot up and left burning on the battlefield. Although I was engaged in actions myself, I kept in contact with the XX Italian Corps until it was almost surrounded. At about 1530 hours, the commander of the Ariete Division sent his last radio message to Rommel: ‘We are encircled, the Ariete tanks still in action.’ By evening, the XX Italian Corps had been destroyed. We lost good, brave friends, from whom we demanded more than they were in a position to give.

The Italians’ resistance was finally overcome when 4th Armoured Brigade tanks attempted to complete their encirclement from the south. Roberts described the day as ‘very good battle practice for the brigade!’92 but 7th Armoured’s momentum had been arrested and night intervened shortly after the advance started again. Jack York remembered the scene:

As we carried on in the direction our tanks had taken, we could see, reaching up into the sky, great columns of black smoke, and enormous dust clouds. This was the funeral pyre of the Italian Armoured Corps (Ariete, and remnants of Littorio and Trieste Divisions), who had been engaged for several hours by nearly 100 tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. Nearly all their tanks had been knocked out, and a large number of field and anti-tank guns were destroyed or abandoned. The Italians had fought with exemplary courage in this action, and although nearly surrounded, had held their positions to the last. During this day also, our 1st Armoured Division to the north of us, had severely battered the weakened Afrika Korps, giving them no choice but to retreat. We spent the night concentrated behind the tanks of the 22nd Armoured.

Churchill had seen an intercept of Hitler’s ‘victory or death’ message at 1020hrs on the morning of 4 November. Ever cautious, Brooke had implored him not to order the ringing of church bells in celebration until ‘we were quite certain that we should have no cause for regretting ringing them’. Alexander, whose statement confirming that the Panzerarmee was breaking reached the Prime Minister in the afternoon, was contacted with Churchill’s arbitrary figure of ‘at least 20,000 prisoners’ as ‘proof’ of victory. That night, in his diary, even Brooke, with his knowledge of the imminent landings in Algeria, was prepared to see the possibilities victory at Alamein offered for the future direction of the war. It was the culmination of many of his hopes and his constant toil:

The Middle East news has the making of the vast victory I have been praying and hoping for! A great deal depends on it as one of the main moves in this winter’s campaign in North Africa. Success in Libya should put Spaniards and French in better frame of mind to make Torch a success. And if Torch succeeds we are beginning to stop losing this war and working towards winning it! However, after my visit to Cairo and the work I had done to put things straight, if we had failed again I should have had little else to suggest beyond my relief by someone with fresh and new ideas! It is very encouraging at last to begin to see results from a year’s hard labour.

Only on the evening of 4 November, with the remnants of the forces that once stood on the brink of capturing Alexandria and Cairo in tatters, did Hitler offer vague promises of significant numbers of reinforcements for the North African theatre and, finally, give Rommel permission to act as necessary in the light of events. This was prompted by the arrival at his headquarters of Rommel’s aide, Alfred-Ingemar Berndt, with full details of the crisis. However, Rommel had already been forced to act. At 1530hrs he had ordered a general retreat to positions near Fuka. This decision, essentially confirming the instructions of his chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Siegfried Westphal, to the Afrika Korps the previous evening was the Panzerarmee’s official sanction for the mobile units to abandon the Italian infantry and the parachute units of both nations in the south. Many Italians never forgave their allies; others, like Tenente Emilio Pulini, were restrained in their response:

We were slightly uncomfortable about the idea of being left there without no transport. Our division had very little transport. Because we were paratroops we had very little transport of our own. But as far as I know the majority of the German troops withdrew before us and not too much transport was left to us.

As Eighth Army’s advance recommenced on 5 November, the victorious troops encountered similar scenes throughout the day, as Gervase Markham observed:

We were able to advance. My first experience of advancing across a battlefield and seeing a defeated army with all the relics that they’d left behind, and their dugouts still there with meals half eaten and Italian troops standing there waiting to be captured because the Germans had taken all the transport and had driven away, leaving the Italians to look after themselves without food or water or transport, begging to be taken into captivity.

The sight of large numbers of Italian troops walking towards captivity seemed confirmation of the widely held view that Mussolini’s forces were a liability to their ally. Sergeant Neville Howell of the 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment was struck by what he saw:

There were just hundreds and hundreds of Italians walking in groups and we were passing through them. Literally hundreds of them… They were asking for water. The Italians. That was the one thing they were asking for. Water. Hundreds of them. How long it took them to reach somewhere where they were given water, I don’t know. Of course, we couldn’t give them water. We only had a limited amount. You’d got to look after it. If you stopped – which you weren’t allowed to do of course – you’d have been surrounded by them in no time.

The sacrifice of the ‘Ariete’, ‘Littorio’ and ‘Trieste’ and the tough ‘Folgore’ was quickly forgotten. Yet without them the Afrika Korps could not have garnered the laurels it had, survived at Alamein as long as it had, or escaped in the manner it did.

Only one ‘infantry’ unit of significant size managed to escape, despite its lack of transport. Hans von Luck recounted:

On 7 November, in the depths of the desert, a patrol putting out a long feeler to the east, discovered General Ramcke, the commander of the paratroop division, which had been in action on the right wing south of Alamein. General Ramcke was brought to us in a scout car. He looked emaciated and asked to be taken, at once, to Rommel. His paratroops – an elite unit – had been through an adventurous time. I at once sent a radio message to Rommel: ‘General Ramcke, with 700 men and all weapons, has been discovered by us; he himself is with me at the command post.’

The exhausted paratroops had nothing except their weapons and water. They had captured a small British convoy on 5 November and used this to reach the Axis lines. It was small comfort to Rommel, given that on 5 November Eighth Army had easily exceeded Churchill’s target for prisoners of war. Alexander had duly signalled: ‘Ring out the bells!’

The battle was over. It was theoretically time for the victors to pursue and annihilate their opponents. It did not happen. There was no single reason why not, but many could be laid at the door of Eighth Army’s commander. To the amazement of their enemy, the British remained cautious in their operations. Ambitious plans to cut off the retreating Axis forces were not attempted. Proper reserves for pursuit had not been prepared. Congestion prevented units from getting forward. Personal animosity between Montgomery and several subordinates – especially Lumsden, Briggs and Gatehouse – stood in the way of effective use of the armoured formations they commanded. Poor staff work was the cause of at least one brigadier’s subsequent dismissal. Tanks worn out by continuous action and needing overhaul consumed so much fuel they outran their supplies. Bad weather – something outside the control of any commander – played a part as heavy rain fell on 6 November hampering movement and preventing air reconnaissance. However one informed critic felt ‘this was a very thin excuse, seen through by all who had known the desert dry out in a few hours after rain the previous November.’

Nevertheless, as the Official History rightly points out, the fact that a small part of Rommel’s command managed to break away probably seems more of an anti-climax in retrospect than it did at the time to the men of Eighth Army. The remarkable Charles Potts – ‘The Fighting Parson’ – writing on 12 November summarized the experience of Second Alamein for many of the survivors:

The shelling was terrific for the first 13 days of the battle while we struggled through the rows of enemy minefields. All day and all night the noise was deafening, gun flashes and explosions all round us. It was horrible, and very frightening. Some men lost their nerve altogether and shivered and chattered with terror. It was a job to keep some of them going. I was lucky in that I managed to keep pretty cheerful all the time, except for such ghastly moments as when my best corporal, of whom I was extremely fond, had his head blown clean off; I had to cover him up so that the others shouldn’t see him. And now everywhere there is wreckage, vehicles, including huge tanks, blown to smithereens. Thank God the dead are mostly burned. It was not an easy victory – at least not at first. We had a bitter struggle and a taste of bloody hell. It must have been even worse for the Germans. Our artillery pounded them mercilessly and our bombers strafed them continuously (Damn these b____ flies – they are all over me).

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