Our speaker on 10 May 2007 was Col. Lionel Crook whose topic was the 12-day battle of El Alamein. In view of the difficulty of doing justice to this complex subject in two hours, he decided to devote his talk to the battle on the northern front where the South Africans were involved and the final breakthrough via the all-important coastal road was finally made.
In his previous talk, Col Crook had described the 3rd SA Infantry Brigade's successful thrust into the Miteiriya Ridge with low casualties. This long, low, rocky ridge scarcely recognisable as a feature was one of the numerous ripples on the land surface in the area and witnessed some of the bloodiest fighting of the desert war.
2nd SA Infantry Brigade were held up by a banana-shaped strong point which had not been detected on aerial photographs and protected by booby traps and mines. Mortar and machine gun fire exacted a heavy toll of the brigade's troops.
At 0205, Maj. Gen. Pienaar decided to advance. All over the front what should have been an orderly surge forward became a desperate struggle to keep up, destroy the enemy and move on whilst keeping in touch with other units. On the rocky, congested slopes of the Miteiriya Ridge two almost complete armoured brigades were joined by a third and fog-like dust clouds covered the battlefield. Field gunners unlimbered and came into action without delay in response to requests from Forward Observation Officers (FOOs) up ahead, regardless of their proximity to the own forces' positions, vehicles or their occupants!
On the following morning Gen. Montgomery ordered Gen. Leese to concentrate on clearing the "northern lane", where pockets of enemy troops were offering stiff resistance. The basic plan for the battle was for XXX Corps to secure a bridgehead through the German minefields and defences before dawn on 24 October. Secondly, they were to help the armour of X Corps to pass through and, finally, to exploit the breakout on both flanks. Col. Crook then discussed the order of battle of XXX Corps, which included 1st SA Division.
The attack over the whole front was to be carried out in two phases. The first objective was the capture of enemy forward positions within two hours. In most cases these were ±1,6 km behind the edge of the first enemy minefield. On reaching the Red Line, troops would pause for an hour to allow them to bring up heavy weapons and ammunition, recover casualties and sort out units and sub-units. The second objective was to capture the Blue Line which would include the enemy's main posts by 0245.
By dawn the South Africans were on their objectives, except for the Field Force Battalion (FFB) who had suffered 350 casualties. Excellent work was done by the Cape Coloured Corps and Indian and Malay Corps personnel, carrying ammunition and signal cables, escorting prisoners of war and tending the guide lamps that marked routes and boundaries. The Native Military Corps stretcher-bearers did sterling work. During the night, the SA gunners had fired 62 500 rounds of ammunition.
Col. Crook described the successes achieved by the Australian, New Zealand and Highland Divisions. F-M. Rommel was in Germany on sick leave when the battle started. Gen. Stumme, who was temporarily in command, was unsure whether the attack in the north was a feint or not as there had also been an attack at the southern end of the line. He refused to allow his artillery to reply and went forward to see what was going on in the north. While doing this, he died of a heart attack.
There was no major engagement on the SA front on 24 October, although a post of 14 Germans who had been concealed in their area attacked the FFB. At this stage, the South Africans had suffered some 350 casualties.
Soon after 1600, 2nd Armoured Brigade passed through the minefields and approached a position north-east of Kidney Ridge where they were counter-attacked by the 15th Panzer Division. They were beaten off after a fierce tank battle which lasted until dark.
Efforts by British armour to break through resulted in violent reaction. Gen. Ritter von Thoma launched a whole series of counter-attacks against the Australians and New Zealanders. The counter-attack on 26 October against the South African positions, which were held largely by the Cape Town Highlanders, was repulsed by heavy artillery, mortar and machine gun fire. By 2000 the SA Division had occupied the objectives they should have reached on the morning of the 24th October.
Miteiriya Ridge with its blackened hulks of burnt out tanks and decomposing corpses, covered in black clouds of flies, was no longer a part of the battle of Alamein. Although the destruction of Rommel's tanks had begun, Gen. Leese was of the opinion that 8th Army was still within an ace of losing its grip on the battle and Gen. Montgomery was considering what options were open to him.
There were no further reinforcements for the South African and New Zealanders. He decided on a new plan. There would be a further thrust to the north to cut off the enemy in the coastal sector and open up the coastal road behind the minefields. While this was happening, the divisions of XXX and X Corps would be regrouped to form a fresh striking force for a break-out to the Rahman track.
The redistribution of forces would assist the Australians by shortening their front but the moves proved to be a very difficult tactical operation in the midst of a battle amid rolling clouds of dust.
F-M Rommel had returned from Germany and planned to drive 8th Army back with all the forces he could muster. He was relying on the safe arrival of three ships loaded with petrol, ammunition and replacement tanks. All three ships were sunk on the 28th of October.
The Australian attack began at 2200 and thrust north before swinging south-eastwards to destroy the strongly defended Thompson's Post. Enemy opposition was fierce and the Australians were forced to dig in at 1615 the next day. Heavy casualties and a gap in the German line caused F-M Rommel to consider a withdrawal.
On the British side Churchill feared that he had made a mistake by appointing Montgomery and Gen. Alanbrooke had to defend the general. F-M Rommel now concentrated all his German troops in the northern sector. The Australians were ordered to resume the northern attack on the night of 30th October to keep F-M Rommel distracted. A new plan was devised and the point of assault was changed to between the Kidney and six miles south of the coastal road.
The Australian assault resulted in heavy enemy losses and led F-M Rommel to attempt to drive the Australians from the salient that they had taken. On the following day their own Luftwaffe twice bombed the Germans! F-M Rommel ordered a new attack on 1 November and another long and bitter fight in sweltering heat and choking dust ensued.
The final breakthrough (Operation Supercharge) by the British armour, was the turning point of the battle and of the campaign. By the end of 2nd of November there were only 20 German and 20 Italian tanks left and on the following day the Germans were withdrawing. The battle of Alamein was over and the long chase had begun.
Questions followed and Mac Bisset thanked Col. Crook for his excellent and well-illustrated talk and presented him with the customary gift from the Society.
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Thursday 14 June - WAR IN ITALY - A Personal Experience
Bob Buser (Secretary/Treasurer)
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