Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Fight in the north of the El Alamein position from 12 July 1942

On 12 July 1942, the 9th Australian Division had been in a holding posture until late afternoon. The enemy prepared for an attack on Australians on Hill 33 with increasingly heavy artillery fire. The Germans sent their infantry forward in waves starting at 6pm. This was directed at the 2/24th Battalion positions. The German infantry faced fire from the 2/8th Field Regiment and some British howitzers, possibly the 6in BL 26cwt used by medium regiments. A company from the 2/23rd Battalion, reinforcing the 2/24th Battalion, was heavily attacked. A Bren gunner and a machine-gun platoon inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans. The company commander, however, was killed "when his trench was hit".
The German infantry attack had ended by about 9pm. The Germans had lost some 600 casualties in the attack, perhaps most to the machine-guns. The Australian infantry company had also taken many casualties. Captain Harding was now the company commander for the men from the 2/23rd Battalion. He commanded the company over the next five days while defending their position.
Early on 13 July, the men of the 26th Brigade received word that the 21st Armored Division was planning an attack. Rommel apparently hoped to push into the Australians rear and isolate them. East Point 24 was attacked twice, but was protected by artillery fire from five artillery regiments. Rommel's attack hit the South African Division, which was holding positions south of the El Alamein Box. The South Africans were able to beat off the attack.
General Auchinleck was already planning for an attack on Ruweisat Ridge. At first, he considered moving the whole 9th Australian Division to a new position "south-east of Jevel Bein Gabir." This original plan would leave the 26th Brigade with the South African Division. After some preliminary moves and some reconnaissance, Auchinleck decided to only send the 20th Brigade. They would be in a box just behind Auchinleck's headquarters, which was so close to the front as to be very vulnerable. Because of that, the position of Auchinleck's headquarters was kept secret. No one was allowed to mark the position on a map.
Rommel's latest plan was to hit the Australians on 14 July. During the night before, the Australians could see infantry and artillery movements. That drew Briitsh/Australian artillery fire. By "mid-morning" they could see enemy infantry moving close, while three tanks drove up near a company of the 2/24th Battalion to provide cover for engineers who were lifting mines. The Australians were not able to fire on the tanks with anti-tank guns and infantry weapons were ineffective. The Australians finally were able to call in artillery fire, which slowed the enemy progress. By mid-afternoon, German infantry supported by tanks attacked two Australian companies at East Point 24. The tanks looked for weapons pits and drove over them to crumble them when they were found. The defenders kept the tanks under heavy fire with infantry weapons, forcing the tanks to keep closed up. The Australians beat off a second attack, killing time until dark, when the tanks couldn't see well enough. The Australians were in desperate straits, so they eventually walked out to keep from being taken. The anti-tank gunners took their breach blocks, but were able to bring in vehicles later and towed the guns out of harms way. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 25, 2019

A dangerous business, being so far forward into enemy territory on 11 to 12 July 1942

Traveling in the dark when you were so far into enemy territory was very dangerous. 26th Brigade held a conference at their headquarters very late on 11 July 1942. They were returning to their units early on 12 July, driving in the dark. They were all in a jeep. They left the meeting but never arrived at their destinations. They found that the driver had missed the turn "just east of battalion headquarters" and had driving straight into enemy positions. They were put in the bag by the Germans. The same thing happened again "three nights later".
The XXX Corps attacks in the north had been very effective and had turned into a crisis for the enemy. The attacks started early on 11 July after heavy artillery fire falling on Italian units. Two Italian positions that were thought to be strong, as the had held on 10 July. They "fell very soon". They sent a Trieste Division battalion to "plug the gap", but it was "wiped out". The situation was so dangerous, that the enemy had to commit most of the army-level artillery to the fighting in the north. The remaining battalions from the Trieste Division had to be used at Point 21 to stop the British attack. The situation with the Italian forces was so bad that Rommel got all his German soldiers out of bed and sent them to the fighting. The Reconnaissance Unit 3 was ordered to the area southwest of point 237 to keep the British from breaking through the front and pushing to the west.
Sometime on 11 July, Rommel decided to attack the British force in the north with the 21st Armored Division. Rommel ordered the division to move north on 12 July to be ready for a battle on 13 July. Rommel wanted to capture the El Alamein Box and isolate the Australians at Tel el Eisa. Rommel put a high priority on the operation so he allocated "every gun and every aircraft". As you can imagine, what was eventually named "The First Battle of El Alamein" turned into an extended affair.
General Auchinleck was very aware of the German movements. With German armor moving north, Auchinleck put in motion a plan to attack Ruweisat Ridge from the south and middle. The 21st Armored Divsion had some thirty tanks, which amounted to  about two-thirds of the remaining German armor. Despite that, the bulk of the German armored force, included in the German Africa Corps, was still in south, now commanded by General Nehring. They were armored, but without many tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of hte Australian Official History.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

More action in the El Alamein area from 10 July 1942

Later in the afternoon on 10 July 1942, the enemy launched three more tank attacks on the 2/48th Battalion. Two companies were engaged, but managed to hold their ground. During the last attack, tanks actually got near the train station, but were engaged by anti-tank guns. Six of the ten attacking tanks were knocked out. When one tank crew tried to escape, a machine-gunner picked up the gun, with another man's help, and fired over a rise at the enemy crew. They surrendered rather than take the fire.
"Just after dusk" the enemy attacked again with tanks and infantry. The attack was preceded with "two hours of shelling". The tanks broke into the right-most company positions. A counter-attack stepped off at about 8:30pm. The counter-attack was made by one company with two more platoons. The company charged and "fired from the hip". They pushed the enemy force back beyond the railroad. One group commanded by a sergeant attacked machine-gun positions. They took "many prisoners" and damaged two tanks with sticky bombs. By morning on 11 July, the 2/48th had "39 causalties" but took 89 Germans and 835 Italians. They captured 27 guns of various types. To the south, the South Africans had attacked Tel el Makh Khad and pushed out the enemy that had occupied it. They then pulled back into the El Alamein Box.
The enemy had been greatly affected by the attacks. Lt-Col. von Mellenthin had been left in charge at the headquarters while Rommel was elsewhere. He dealt with a bad situation. The news was that the Italian Sabratha Division was panicked and had fled. The division only had two regiments each of two battalions. Their artillery had been captured. Lt-Col. von Mellenthin had seen the fleeing Italians "rushing past". von Mellenthin pulled together a scratch group from "headquarters troops" with "machine-guns, anti-aircraft guns" and some additional infantry. His goal was to "close the road to the west". A regiment from the 164th Division had just arrived at a convenient time.
Rommel was in the south, hoping to launch an attack that would push through to Cairo. Rommel heard the gunfire to the north and immediately took action. He pulled together a battle group from the 15th Armored Division and from his headquarters battle group. The Africa Corps was located in the south, where they were ordered to limit their operation. The battle groups sent north only had 15 or 16 tanks. The Germans were hampered by heavy shell fire from the El Alamein area.
A mixed force of all arms, "Daycol", left the El Alamein fortress area at 5:30am. Before they could reach Miteiriya Ridge, they ran into two infantry companies. They overran them and took them prisoner. By afternoon, they were taking artillery fire and withdrew at 1:30pm. They had taken over one thousand Italian prisoners and destroyed eight guns. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Trig 33 and beyond on 10 July 1942

the White Knoll was a feature on the coast. The White Knoll was home to a machine-gun nest. Lt. McNamara's platoon, supported by carriers, and reinforced by soldiers from the reserve company overran the White Knoll. Trig 33 was in Australian possession by 6:35am. From there, another platoon moved forward and captured four heavy guns and took about one hundred Italian prisoners.
One company, mounted in trucks, was supposed push forward to Point 24, but their supporting tanks and machine-gunners were "hopelessly bogged" in the salt marshes. The company commander had his  men dig in on the Point 33 "reverse slope". At about 5pm, the enemy sent 18 tanks against the Australians. The ubiquitous salt marshes created obstacles to motorized vehicles, so most of the tanks got bogged down in the marsh. Artillery and anti-tank guns knocked out 14 of the 18 tanks. One gunner rolled his anti-tank gun forward of Trig 33 and commenced firing. It was a hazardous occupation, since the gunner and three of his men were wounded. He bagged two tanks with his gun. Another nine tanks attacked Trig 33 on the southern side. The Australian anti-tank gunners knocked out five of the nine. The 2/24th Battalion was heavily engaged. They had six men killed and 22 wounded, but they did well, as they took over 800 prisoners and much equipment.
Tanks also attacked the 2/48th Battalion positions. At about 11am, five enemy tanks moved forward from the south of the train station. The supporting British tanks were driven back by the attack. The infantry was heavily shelled where they were, on rocky ground that prohibited digging very deep.
At about 11:30am, the 9th Australian Division Cavalry was sent forward. They did not get far, because of artillery fire and the tanks that were attacking the 2/48th Battalion. Some three hours later, they were bombed and lost a carrier. They eventually gave up and were pulled back.
Tanks attacked again at 2:30pm towards the 2/48th Battalion. The tanks rolled over some of the shallow trenches occupied by the Australian infantry. After the tanks passed by, they were attacked by men with sticky grenades. The tanks were stopped at the rail line by field and anti-tank gun fire. The tanks eventually had to pull back. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

More from the Australian attack on 10 July 1942

The Australian historian had fun saying "Before dawn broke, the Italians garrisoning Point 26 awoke to discover that they had been captured." After that, the British laid down a barrage reminiscent of Great War "drum fire". The Africa Corps diary is where the drum fire reference can be found. They fired on Point 23 and laid down smoke on Trig 33. After the firing stopped, the two 2/48th Companies "passed through" and captured Point 23 with "only light opposition". Not surprisingly, they took prisoners, some were still in bed. The advance had moved some 4,500 yards forward from the start.
Two companies executed the planned turn to towards the southwest, towards the Tel el Eisa station. The charge by the two companies was executed so well that they "overran a battery of four guns", taking 106 prisoners. The men attacked with bayonets fixed against two guns manned by very determined men that held out until the Australians were in among them. After reaching the station, the men dug in and "patrolled forward". They were accompanied by the tank squadron attached. By 9am, six Australian anti-tank guns had joined them. The Germans commenced dive bomb attacks on the battalion. They hit the headquarters at 9:45am. Since the Australians were well-dug in, they only took one casualty. The Germans kept up the attacks, hitting the 2/48th Battalion five more times that day.
The 2/24th Battalion was also moving forward. Despite bogging down in "soft sand", the energetic battalion commander got his men in place early. Their attack started at 4:30am. They moved past Point 26, now held by the 2/48th Battalion. The 2/24th Battalion had one platoon scouting ahead, Their carrier platoon also charged forward. They were able to overrun machine guns and anti-tank guns. The Italian-manned anti-tank guns never fired. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Australian attack on 10 July 1942

The 9th Australian Division attack on 10 July 1942 was supported by artillery and air power. The division had the 7th Medium Regiment firing in support, along with the divisions three field regiments and guns from the South African division that were able to bear on targets. Starting at 7:30am, the air force was set to sweep over the battlefield. There were to be bomber and fighter-bomber attacks. There was also the division cavalry regiment ready to advance at 8am with a field battery in company.
General Morshead and the division headquarters were located in the El Alamein "fortress" from 9 July. The attacking battalions were sent to their starting positions on the west side. The battalions were well-supported. They each had an anti-tank gun troop, a machine gun platoon, some engineers, and a tank squadron (presumably infantry tanks).
The 2/48th Battalion was assigned to take Point 26. The battalion commander was Lt-Colonel Hammer. He served in Greece as the brigade major of the 16th Brigade and afterwards. He was appointed to command the battalion in January 1942. Colonel Hammer called his battalion "Hard as Nails" based on his name. His men came to respect his abilities.
Colonel Hammer planned to attack Point 26 with two companies forward. To surprise the enemy, he would attack with artillery preparation. They would advance as quietly as possible. Artillery would fire on Point 23, the next objective, and the other half of the battalion would advance to Point 23. After that, the leftmost two companies would wheel towards the Tel el Eisa train station and take and hold it.
The 2/48th was transported in trucks which got stuck in the salt-marshes that lay next to the rail tracks. That burned time that might have been used for men to sleep. The move forward while being quiet started at 3:40am. There was an aircraft overhead, presumably enemy, that dropped a "parachute flare" that lit every thing for the attackers. The 2/48th men expected to be fired on but they were relieved that none came at them. They were able to see to move quickly. Point 26, with its Italian defenders, were captured before dawn. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Auchinleck decides to attack in the north from 8 July 1942

To implement his plans for an attack, General Auchinleck ordered General Ramsden to capture Tel el Eisa and Tel el Makh Khad. These features were located south of the coast road. Once these were taken, Auchinleck wanted to move south to Deir el Shein. He would send raids towards landing grounds near el Daba. The 9th Australian Division was given the task of capturing Tel el Eisa. The South Africans were asked to capture Tel el Makh Khad. The 9th Australian Division had the 44th RTR with 32 Valentine tanks in support. The South Africans were given 8 Matilda tanks to support their attack. The raid to El Daba was composed of a tank squadron, an armored car troop, and troops of field guns and anti-tank guns.
The coast road was apparently asphalt, so it appeared to be black. West of the El Alamein Box, there was a flat area with a salt marsh. Beyond that was Hill 86, which stood but eighty feet high. The hill appeared to be white, perhaps from the salt. Beyond this was a feature with hills that rose to Trig 33, which had a steep slope side. South of Trig 33, there was rolling ground that crossed the railroad. The ridge was usually called Tel el Eisa. Trig 33 was actually part of a two-hill hump, with Trig 33 and Point 26. What the 9th Australian Division was asked to accomplish seems to have been to take Trig 33 and Point 26 and then push down to Tel el Eisa, which was across the railroad.
General Morshead met on 8 July with General Ramsden and General Pienaar, the South African commander. Morshead issued orders to his division on 9 July for an attack starting early on 10 July. The 26th Brigade would take the ground discussed. The brigade would take Point 26 and then move to the saddle. That was the responsibility of the 2/48th Battalion. Trig 33 was the objective of the 2/24th Battalion with tank support. They would move over the sand dunes and turn to the left to take Trig 33. From there, they would turn to the left and travel to "East Point 2 south of the railway". The Australian cavalry with artillery was also ready to move out on 10 July. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 04, 2019

The Australian raid on 7 July 1942 had an effect

While the raid on the Germans on the evening of 7 July 1942 encouraged the 9th Australian Division and nearby units, the real effect was on the enemy. In reality, the attack was just "play" to exercise the troops. The Germans took the attack seriously and the 15th Armored Division commander was concerned about a breakthrough into their rear areas. He ordered his division reserve forward. Before dawn on 8 July, the 21st Armored Division sent some 19 tanks forward in response to the same threat. Rommel was so concerned that he ordered all officers in the area near the British forces to stay awake all night to keep from being surprised.
The inaction on the enemy side of about two weeks came to an end. Mussolini had visited in late June to be present when the Axis forces captured Egypt, which in the event never happened. Mussolini liked the idea of taking Alexandria, but Rommel and the Italian Cavallero preferred Cairo as an objective, because of the advantages of cutting "the Red Sea supply route". Rommel's army had been able to increase the tank strength to about fifty German and sixty Italian tanks. Rommel had positioned the 21st Armored Division, 90th Light Division, and the Italian Littorio Armored Division in front of the XIII Corps. They were given the two German reconnaissance units that had been re-positioned from their previous location in the south. Rommel's plan was for them to push forward to Alam Nayil and then turn north on 9 July. The 15th Armored Division and Trento Division were sitting on Ruweisat Ridge. This seems unclear, but the Australian historian says that to their north were the the Trento and Sabratha Divisions, where the Trento was mentioned as being on Ruweisat Ridge.
During the night of 7 to 8 July, the New Zealand Division, acting on Auchinleck's orders, had abandoned the box at Bab el Qattara. The Germans only realized that the box had been abandoned during the evening of 8 July. Despite that, Rommel had ordered an attack on the box, which was unopposed, while the 5th Armored Regiment was sent to Alam Nayil, but was stopped by New Zealand artillery fire. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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