by R.I. Cunningham
‘I must say how I appreciate the time and trouble you have spent in clearing up this very complicated part of the critical —
and decisive — first Battle of Alamein’.
— J.A.I Agar-Hamilton to the author.(2)
‘Possibly you are the only person who knows with any degree of certainty what happened at that time out in the
fog, and smoke and heat-haze’.
— Barrie Pitt to the author.(3)
Crisis in the Desert(4) by Agar-Hamilton and Turner is the accepted chronicle of the ‘Gazala Gallop’, the headlong retreat of the British 8th Army during the six weeks following 26 May 1942 from the Gazala line in Cyrenaica to the Alamein line, 113km (70 miles) west of Alexandria. But while even Homer nods or, more fairly, is the victim of inaccurate or inadequate information, he is not alone. So, too, was Sir David Hunt in his A Don at War(5) and the British historian Barrie Pitt in his recent Year of Alamein, 1942(6) who both accepted the above source. And so it is left to the eye-witness to fill the gaps, sustain or overturn the ‘guesses’ and render accurate a story that was ‘startling at the time’.
I served throughout the whole period of the ‘Gazala Gallop as a subaltern in ‘E’ Battery, 1st Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery the artillery regiment in the sorely tried 4th Armoured Brigade. (The motorised infantry battalion in the brigade was the 1st Bn King's Royal Rifle Corps, from whose history in the Second World War I later quote). And the focus of my attention is the first four days of July 1942 — the turning point — where certain of the accepted standard versions of what transpired are disputed, even contradicted, and justice is done to a small and extremely gallant band of men.
By way of introduction, a small amplification may be made of Agar-Hamilton’s account of 90th Light Division’s attack on the South African 3rd Brigade’s Alamein box, in which he says: ‘90th Light was still under fire from the Box itself, but was also being shelled by the batteries in 1st and 2nd South African Brigade positions, and perhaps by some of the artillery of 1st Armoured Division as well.’(7) The word ‘perhaps’ can be deleted. 'E' Battery, 1 RHA certainly fired intermittently, if not furiously, during the day from behind the Alamein Box — a fact borne out by the historian of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps who writes, ‘The fresh South African troops were able to counter-attack successfully with supporting fire from the Royal Horse Artillery’.(8)
Of this day Agar-Hamilton wrote (in part): ‘In his orders for the next day (3rd July), he [Rommel] accepted the fact of 90th Light’s failure, and merely told the Division to dig in where it lay, while the main blow was to come from the German Afrika Korps, which would continue thrusting to the east. Among the Italians ... X Corps was ordered once again to advance over Alam Nayil to Deep Well and cut off the New Zealand Division’. (Map 2)
Agar-Hamilton, drawing upon Rommel’s account in his memoirs, states that:
‘He had already determined to abandon the offensive after one more day ... On 3 July, therefore, the third day of the Alamein battle, the Panzer Army attacked once more. The main assault went in at 09h00 with 21st Panzer, 15th Panzer and Ariete, but there was no enthusiasm ... The Afrika Korps made no real progress. Ariete moved south-east on its mission to Deep Well, in order to outflank 13th Corps, and was engaged by British tanks ...
The movement of Ariete was observed from the New Zealand CRA’s Column on Alam Nayil and Brigadier Weir brought his guns to bear on an unsuspecting enemy ... and called on the Division for further infantry support. The 19th Battalion of 4th New Zealand Brigade was sent up and put in an independent attack ...
The Italian artillery men, who had no time to dig in ... were driven from their guns. The New Zealand infantry charged with the bayonet and overran them, and by 09h40 all was over ... The New Zealanders had captured a large number of vehicles with quantities of ammunition and, above all, virtually the whole artillery of the Ariete Division ...
Meantime Ariete’s M13 tanks sustained an attack by the stronger British 4th Armoured Brigade and ... at midday the Division reported that it was left with no more than 5 tanks and two guns ... At 12h50, after an unsuccessful morning, Rommel signalled imperiously: “I demand energetic attack by the whole of DAK.” ... He moved up to the Afrika Korps in person, and at l3h20 the Corps Commander broadcast a wireless message that “The Commander-in-Chief” orders that the attack must be carried out with the utmost energy.”’(9)
I disagree with the connotation Agar-Hamilton gives to the name ‘Ruweisat Ridge’. He uses it in a much broader sense. I take it to refer to the comparatively narrow, somewhat steep ridge running from square 878279 eastward through points 64 and 63 to approximately square 425890. The southern edge of this ridge is bounded by the 60 contour line which after running eastward to square 425890, then turns back WSW for a very considerable distance and, in fact, then forms the northern edge of a rather indistinct ridge which rises as high as 70m, enclosing a ‘depression’ from square 889277 westward to square 884275. Further, between the 60 contour line where it forms the southern edge of Ruweisat Ridge and the northern edge of the ‘indistinct’ ridge is a very shallow valley (known to the troops as ‘Death Valley’); it is too shallow to be marked by contour lines but, at point 63 on Ruweisat Ridge, the valley there is seen to be some 1 300m broad. My contention is that some of the fighting Agar-Hamilton describes as occurring on ‘Ruweisat Ridge’ actually took place either in ‘Death Valley’ or on the parallel indistinct ridge some 3 000m to the south. In correspondence to me, he admits his cartographer erroneously wrote the name Ruweisat Ridge for Death Valley.(11)
At this time our tanks were deployed on Ruweisat Ridge eastward round the head of ‘Death Valley’ (round about square 424889) then southwest along the ‘indistinct’ ridge to Baoshaza and beyond. They did not actually sit in the valley itself but were fanned out bow-wise round its head. I cannot remember precisely the map reference of my battery position; however, we were definitely on the ‘indistinct’ ridge south of Ruweisat, probably at the western end of square 888276 or 888277. We were in advance of all our tanks except a few Smarts of 4th Armoured Brigade and a very small infantry cover from lst Bn King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
The main assault at 09h00 on 3 July, which Agar-Hamilton mentions above, I cannot remember but he has since concurred with my ‘private impression ... that Rommel’s orders at 09h00 on 3 July produced no result at all. The German diaries suggest that their formations were doing their best to emulate Strachan and Chatham in the famous rhyme.’(11)
By then my battery had no wireless trucks left with which to man OPs (observation posts) and I was sent southward with a l5cwt truck possessing the only mile reel of telephone wire to man OP facing forward. My battery was very quiet that morning, the only excitement being that my OP was shelled at long range from the south at about l0h00 almost certainly by the New Zealanders. (The arriving shells had a 25 pounder whine to them!) I saw the New Zealanders moving up but my command post had no information as to who they were; I did not see their battle with the Ariete Division. Similarly the main assault at midday did not worry us as we were out on the left flank of the brigade.
The historian of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps writes about these first two attacks:
‘Next day, 3 July, was the turning point of the battle for the El Alamein line. Some will believe it was the turning point of the war . . About 09h00 on 3rd July they launched a heavy attack on the 4th and 22nd Armoured brigades. ‘A’ Company and ‘B’ Battery, 1st Royal Horse Artillery were deeply involved but the main onslaught was on the 22nd Armoured Brigade who fell back on our right. The 4th Armoured Brigade conformed. All British armour concentrated on some high ground known as Baoshaza. It was possible that the next determined attack by the enemy would overwhelm the two Brigades. Then the way to the Delta would be opened.’ (12)
‘To the south, where the main assault came in along the Ruweisat Ridge, 1st Armoured Division claimed to have checked an enemy movement by midday. Thereafter there was a pause, with conferences and re-grouping on the German side, and their armour did not advance till later afternoon. At l6h00 (German time), under Rommel’s continued prodding and with their accustomed appeals and recriminations, the German panzers went into action under cover of intense artillery fire. For three-quarters of an hour they pressed the attack with vigour, but the British armour held them off. The preliminary bombardment, however, had concentrated on the narrow front of the Ridge .. and at 17h45 Afrika Korps Headquarters announced that their infantry had occupied Alam Baoshaza.
The last German attack of 3 July, had indeed gained considerable ground ... but the grand sweep to the
sea was decisively halted ... the German advance seems to have been in a narrow salient driven by the
weight of their artillery ...
Rommel was prepared to give the British full credit for their mastery in close fighting. At 22h56 the German Afrika Korps was ordered to dig in and await the enemy’s counter-thrust.’(13)
But the reality was rather different. What actually happened was this, as described first by the King’s Royal Rifle
‘At this point (i.e. about midday) the Commanding Officer, 1st Royal Horse Artillery, made a decision. He announced his resolve to fight to the last with his regiment. Lieutenant Colonel C. d'A P. Consett concurred on behalf of the battalion. “D” Company accordingly took up a position in front of “E” Battery; “A” Company dug in a few hundred yards in advance of “B” Battery, whose right flank was covered by “B” Company.’(14)
At about 14h00 a subaltern from ‘D’ Company King’s Royal Rifle Corps came to see me at my south-facing OP. Movement and objects were visible to the west on the continuation of the indistinct ridge whereupon we were situated. I ceased looking southward and now looked west. Observation was very difficult because of the heat haze; the southern troop of ‘E’ Battery (Salamanca Troop) was engaging these shapes (with what effect it was difficult to see) at about 4 115m (4 500 yards) with direct observation from the gun position. The infantry subaltern, having found the approximate range from me, went off westwards to his troops to engage with medium machine-gun fire. The next attack, which Agar-Hamilton times at 16h00 (German time) then began, but on our ridge - NOT the Ruweisat Ridge. The few Stuart tanks to the west withdrew eastward pursued by machine gun fire which, as they passed me, caused me also to leave in my 15 cwt truck. I drove east to avoid a bad patch of sand, then north, then west back to my troop of guns.
‘E’ Battery RHA was composed of ‘Gardiner’ and ‘Salamanca’ troops which at this time were deployed facing west, with ‘Gardiner’ troop to the north nearer ‘Death Valley’; some 366m (400 yards) separated the troops. ‘Salamanca’ troop was in a very slight depression and masked from the attacking German tanks by the rising ground in front of it. It took no part in the subsequent action whose intensity broke over the four guns of ‘Gardiner’ troop supported by two or three 6 pounder Atk (anti-tank) guns.
When I arrived back at the gun position, I found that the time it had taken me to make my detour around the soft sand had enabled the German tanks (for such were the shapes in the haze) to come within sight and range of ‘Gardiner’ troop who were engaging them over open sights at about 2,4km (1.5 miles) range. The troop of four 25 pounder guns was under concentrated and accurate machine-gun fire from tanks, approximately 20 in number, which formed the attack but, at that range, the gun shields were sufficient protection against the bullets which caused few casualties. Among the tanks were some Mark IVs which shelled us closely with HE (high explosive) but just sufficiently inaccurately to do any damage. The stationary Mark IV consistently placed its ‘unders’ 14 to 29 metres in front of my gun and its ‘overs’ 14 to 29 metres behind it.
When many targets present themselves simultaneously in direct view, a troop of field guns reverts to ‘gun control’. In theory each sergeant in charge of a gun then controls the fire of his own gun on selected targets. In practice (and I imagine my regiment had more practice than any other) we used officers (when available) behind each gun to control the fire, because they were more experienced and because the ranges at which we fought in the desert were, on the whole, much greater and the type of ranging required different.
I took my place behind ‘Gardiner’ troop’s No. 2 gun which had so far been commanded by the Troop Sergeant Major, who thereupon took over the laying of the gun. The Battery Commander (Maj C. Armitage, MC and two bars) was behind No. 1 gun, the ‘Gardiner’ Troop Commander (Capt M. Harris, MC) behind No. 3 and the ‘Gardiner’ Gun Position Officer (Lt H.A. MacDonald) behind No. 4.
Our fire at this range was ineffective and the tanks continued to advance. At this range we were firing HE shells (fuse 119, cap on, if available); we had a regimental order that no AP (armour piercing) shot (of which we carried only some 5 rounds per gun with the troop) was to be used until the range came down to 732mn (800 yards). At 1 646m (1 800 yards) I secured a hit. The rank stopped, then began turning slowly to its right; I ceased firing momentarily but when it was obvious it was turning wholly about, I changed the ‘lead’ and remembering what I had been taught at OCTU - at once increased the range by 366m (400 yards) to 2 012m (2 200 yards) and blew off its turret. It went on fire. (Subsequently, as an Instructor of Gunnery at the School of Artillery, I searched all reference books for the instruction to increase range by 366m (400 yards) - and couldn’t find it!).
Observation of fire was proving exceedingly difficult as the muzzles of the guns were low owing to the short range which meant each discharge threw up a huge cloud of sand which blinded the observers. I tried standing to one side but was no better off - besides exposing myself to a hail of bullets. For one round I even got into a slit trench in an effort to see under the sand but finally found that the best view, bad as it was, could be obtained from being immediately behind the gun, when, on occasion, one could follow the shell with binoculars to the zenith of its flight (approximately 19,5m (64 feet) i.e. 4t2 where t = time of flight in seconds). In the case of the shell which blew off the tank’s turret, I actually saw it descend almost to the point of strike. I knew, before it struck, that it would.
I destroyed another tank at 1 920m (2 100 yards). The enemy then withdrew leaving five tanks on the field. The northernmost of these, a Mark IV, was stopped but not destroyed and was firing steadily with HE at my gun. I had just secured a short bracket over it at about 1 920m (2 100 yards) when the Battery Commander, released from supervising the firing of No. 1 gun which had been put out of action, came up and told me to cease firing as ammunition was extremely low and it was feared the German tanks might regroup and attack again before fresh ammunition supplies were available. I expostulated but the Battery Commander was firm; he turned and had walked some 18m (20 yards) towards the Troop Command Post when an HE shell from the same tank went over our heads and exploded beside him, wounding him seriously in the throat. I fear I then disobeyed orders and wrecked the tank with just two more rounds. That night our Engineers went out and made sure all the tanks were irreparably disabled.
The historian of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps describes the action as follows:
‘During the evening the enemy put in another attack with twenty tanks and infantry. It was easily driven off by “E” Battery and “D” Company’.’
I was not aware of nor could I see any supporting infantry from the gun position. There was, however, a supporting artillery OP. When the tanks had withdrawn I walked over to No. 1 gun, which had been put out of action by a direct hit in its recuperator system by an AP shot, and came under fire from an 88mm gun; when I walked back to No. 2 gun some 32m (35 yards) away I was unmolested and all our efforts to get to No. 1 were repulsed. The enemy OP could obviously see that and that alone. We suffered further casualties in our wagon lines some 366m (400 yards) in the rear from ‘overs’ and shelling during the action.
Therefore, I disagree with Agar-Hamilton’s description of the late afternoon attack. The German armour may have pressed the attack with vigour but they were held off by the four guns of ‘Gardiner’ Troop, ‘E’ Battery, RHA, without a British tank having been in sight. If there was an attack two miles to the north on Ruweisat Ridge itself, then it can only have been by infantry, without tank support, as all available German tanks were dealing with us. I do not doubt that Afrika Korps Headquarters announced that their infantry had taken Baoshaza, but it is not possible for them to have done so in the teeth of a concentration of two British Armoured Brigades.
The importance of the action by ‘Gardiner’ Troop was evident from the number of senior officers who hastened up to congratulate the survivors and it was widely said at the time that ‘Major Armitage’s forward troop had saved the Brigade.’ The Commanding Ofiicer, 1st Royal Horse Artillery had seen his decision vindicated.
‘The grand sweep to the sea had been decisively halted’ and ‘the turning point of the El Alamein battle reached’ (Agar-Hamilton) - this, thanks to the steadfast and highly professional action of 4 officers and 25 warrant officers NCOs and gunners of ‘Gardiner’ Troop, ‘E’ Battery 1 RHA.
The only award for this action came in the form of a bar to the Military Medal to Warrant Officer II Hurry who initially commanded, then took over the laying of No. 2 and continued to do so though shot in the leg. The London Gazette mistakenly awarded him a second Military Medal and the Regimental Sergeant Major, being thoroughly regimental, insisted on his wearing two ribbons of that decoration until a revised notice appeared some weeks later in the Gazette.
Agar-Hamilton describes this as ‘a confused and inconclusive day’(17) and comments:
‘On 4 July he [Rommel] withdrew 21st Panzer from the “Ruweisat Ridge”’ and later ‘behind the bare statement in the War Diary of the DAK, that part of Rifle Regiment 115 had been overrun lies in a story which was startling at the time and whose full implications have not yet been determined ...’[The account of the 1st Armoured Division begins with the statement that at 14h15 the enemy on the Ruweisat Ridge was thinning out - in other words the 21st Panzer Division was making its move. The DAK War Diary observed almost simultaneously, "As was to be expected the enemy became aware of the withdrawal of 21 Panzer Division and at once began to exercise strong pressure". The British 1st Armoured Division however, puts it the other way: "An infantry attack developed against 22nd Armoured Brigade and 600 infantry surrendered, and when our tanks halted, an 88mm opened fire and also on their infantry". The version of 30 Corps is that "22 Armoured Brigade reported 600 infantry coming towards them with their hands up ... The officer of 22 Armoured Brigade who went forward to receive the surrender of 600 infantry was fired on by an 88mm and it is believed the 600 infantry escaped". Next day Rommel’s daily report stated: "The news broadcast by English radio regarding the capture of 600 German soldiers is incorrect."
Something obviously happened, and some highly coloured stories were current in Eighth Army, but the most likely explanation is that the British tanks noticed some movement behind the German lines and sought to profit by what was happening. The commander of 15th Panzer threw in the only force at his disposal, Rifle Regiment 115, now a bare 200 strong. When threatened by the tanks of 22nd Armoured Brigade they were probably seized by panic, but the British were prevented from accepting any surrenders by the fire of German guns ... he [Rommel] describes the move of forty British tanks so which made a 4km breach in his front. The artillery and anti-tank guns were without ammunition ..."Fortunately," Rommel says, "Group Zech had one battery left with ammunition, which was able to halt the British advance." This battery may have included the 88mm gun which appears in the British narrative.
The details of the story remain obscure, but what is clear is that 15th Panzer was stretched to its utmost limits and that a vigorous attack at this moment would have driven through the German defences to wreak havoc in the rear areas.
One of the great opportunities of the war had been missed. That evening the Afrika Korps claimed that
"in spite of violent enemy attacks the front had been held" but it seems rather that the chief characteristic
of the day was the absence of any serious threat from the British armour. Any attacks that were
made hardly seem to have been violent".(18)
Sir David Hunt accords the rumour concerning the surrender of the 600 German infantry two paragraphs but gets the dates wrong, placing it on 2nd July unstead of the 4th which, in effect, is really no more accurate or factual than Agar-Hamilton.
What actually happened was this. Maj P. Gregson, MC, the Second-in-Command 1RHA, took over command of 'E' Battery on the evening of 3rd July when Maj Armitage was wounded. Like the Afrika Korps, the battery leaguered for the night on its gun position. I remember the reason for this seemed to be that as half the battery had seen off the armoured might of the Afrika Korps - could do so again - there was little point in retreating for protection to the tanks leaguered some miles to the rear. We were entirely on our own without any support. All seven surviving guns of the battery were lined up at close intervals, loaded and laid at 914m (1 100 yards), the guard was trebled and eveeyone slept with small arms at hand. During the night a captured British15cwt drove into our midst and three prisoners and a quantity of 88mm ammunition were taken.
The historian of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps describes the evenintg of the 3rd and the morning of the 4th as follows:
‘the Germans were too weary to make the final effort that day. But they evidently had plans for the following morning as they leaguered only about 1 000 yards away from our forward troops.
At first light the artillery observation posts discovered this leaguer still in close formation. Immediately a tremendous barrage was put down on the sleeping Huns by the 1st Royal Horse Artillery and other batteries of 25 pounders which had come up. Our tanks also joined in the massacre. The Germans had to abandon whatever designs they had for 4 July and leave 100 vehicles odamaged or destroyed on the battlefield.’
Much as I would like to claim that 'E' Battery took part in this action, I cannot remember our doing so. The morning for us passed fairly quietly, reorganising after our casualties. By then we were very deficient in serviceable equipment and again it was only possible to send out one OP from the battery with a reel of wire to a point a few hundred yards north of ‘Gardiner’ troop. From here one could look from the edge of our ridge northward down ‘Death Valley’. The OP was manned by Lt H.A. MacDonald who shelled five enemy tanks just to the north of him in ‘Death Valley’. The valley was also covered like a rash with vehicles of the Afrika Korps. Our own tanks were well in our rear around Alam Baoshaza looking north into ‘Death Valley’ and westward down it, while others were at the head of the valley and on the eastern edge of Ruweisat Ridge.
I changed places with Lt MacDonald at about lunch time. It was shortly afer this that Rifle Regiment 115 attacked. In front of me in ‘Death Valley’, to my left, a force of infantry in attacking formation emerged from the mass of vehicles and I saw them advance across my front in an easterly directiion. I was behind them and to the south. All the tanks at the head of the valley opened up on them with long range machine-gun fire, and it appeared to me that the decisive factor in stopping them was the intense artillery fire from two 25 pounder batteries (16 guns) which absolutely deluged upon them. They were pinned down. A Stuart tank from 22nd Armoured Brigade on Ruweisat Ridge advanced south-westward towards them but was knocked out while still on the southern slopes of the ridge by a gun I could not see. Nothing happened for a while and then the infantry got up and retreated, pursued by artillery fire. I reported the force as being about 150 strong (it was certainly nothing like 600) and I did not fire upon them as I thought the existing artillery concentration adequate. Also, I had little hope of seeing my ranging rounds in the smoke and dust. They disappeared among the rash of vehicles in the valley. I saw no prisoners taken but when I later crossed the valley at Ruweisat Ridge for OP duty I saw the bodies of the fallen still lying there. They had surprisingly few casualties.
Very shortly after the infantry had retreated the mass of enemy vehicles positioned immediately in front of me withdrew westward, which I immediately reported. I suppose it must have been about 14h15. I shelled the retreating vehicles and kept up a running commentary, including a report on the number of tanks and vehicles abandoned by the enemy. The figure 29 sticks in my memory and I imagine this to have been the number of derelict vehicles. There were also some abandoned tanks - I think four in number. Our two tanks then advanced very slowly along our ridge and by 15h00 had still not reached our gun position.
At about 14h52 I was told that at 15h00 three regiments of artillery were to lay down a barrage upon ‘Death Valley’. The 1st Royal Horse Artillery was to take the westernmost third of the valley and ‘E’ Battery (being the most forward) the westernmost third of the Regimenes zone. Would I please register the task at once. I was called upon to turn my attention to an area thousands of yards away to a zone I had scarcely seen and never shot over. Needless to say, by 15h00 I was far from ready. I was then told the artillery concentration had been called off - and quite rightly so, as the enemy retreat had been so fast that two-thirds of the proposed concentration would have fallen on empty ground.
Shortly after this our tanks arrived at my OP and continued westward for a very short distance before coming to a halt. I went with them, accompanied now by both my Commanding Officer and Battery Commander. A l55mm howitzer was dropping shells 91m (100 yards) behind me among the tanks. That was less distracting than the urgings of my senior officers. I was then told to engage immediately a gun, dug in on the southern slopes of the Ruweisat Ridge some 6 400m (7 000 yards) away to the west-northwest, which was firing at our troops. As I could see only the flash and could never pinpoint the gun pit my engagement of the target was poor. By now, little observation could be obtained from the ground and my Battery Commander and I climbed on the back of the Brigade Commander’s tank (Brigade HQ had now arrived). We engaged targets from there until ordered off (very nicely) by the Brigadier who said he did not doubt we liked making ourselves conspicuous but he did not. At this moment, the Brigade Major reported the information to the Brigadier I had passed back 1 1/2 hours or more before on the number of derelict vehicles and tanks left behind. Our leading tanks were a little in advance of Brigade HQ but no further advance was made that day. At night all the tanks scuttled back several miles to leaguer. We leaguered where we were, again without support.
I quite agree with Agar-Hamiiton’s assumption: ‘It seems rather that the chief characteristic of the day was the absence of any serious threat from the British armour. Any attacks that were made seem hardly to have been "violent" and ‘it is more than doubtful whether 1st Armoured Division did indeed undertake any serious operation.’(19) My own estimate is that our tanks sat well back round the head of ‘Death Valley’ recuperating and being prepared to break up any attack; that they had a jolly time shooting up Rifle Regiment 115 shortly after midday; and, that in the afternoon, when 21st Panzer Division had withdrawn, they ambled gently after them, the leading tanks on the southern ridge reaching the forward gun position (‘F’ Battery) after l5h00 - and then sitting there till last light.
Let the Italians have the last word: ‘Until the evening of the 3rd it was hoped that we should pass. On the 4th it was realized facile optimism was out of place’(20)
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