Antony Brett-James

BALL OF FIRE
The Fifth Indian Division
in the Second World War

 

CHAPTER XII

CYPRUS INTERLUDE
NOVEMBER 1941-APRIL 1942

To the men who had come from the Desert and Iraq, Cyprus was an utter contrast. Gone were the sandy miles of no landmark, no green thing, no tree. Now there were flowers and hills, rivers and trees. Those who disembarked in Famagusta and drove along the coast road could wonder what lay round the corner, what the brow ahead concealed. In the Desert there were no such hidden bends. The Division had quitted the Egyptian desert, still scorching in the hot season. Cyprus was now on the brink of winter. The first rains would fall within a month.

After Egypt, Cyprus was to the troops an island that seemed backward, under-developed, and content to remain so. It was a place cut off from the mainland by more than the Mediterranean Sea. Though from the mountains about Troodos could be glimpsed the deep shadow of Syria and the Lebanon sixty miles distant to the south-east, and, in the north, still closer, the mountain peaks of Taurus in Asia Minor, nine-tenths of the people of this island had never left its shores.

In Cyprus, too, East meets West, for the Turks and Greeks live together. The Turk still wears his fez and the vraka---quaint, voluminous pleated trousers made from cloth that is indigo or black. The Greeks are to be found rather among the merchants, lawyers and money-lenders. At their doors the shopkeepers sit, smoking their hookah pipes. In the coffee-houses of the towns and villages men drink black coffee while they talk and play dominoes. Cyprus is an island of peasant farmers, fishermen and craftsmen; and of the people three-quarters work on the land.

The villages in the hills and valleys are either all Greek or all Turkish. Those in the hills consist of little better than primitive hovels with sun-baked walls of mud and straw, attractive when seen from afar. in narrow lanes the flat-roofed houses stand close one to the next, their wooden balconies gay with a splash of flowers. Often a slim minaret casts its shadow across the village and recalls the Orient to those who see it. On the coast the villages are more advanced, by virtue of a shop or two and some small café. Down the narrow streets of the towns walk black-robed priests of the Greek Orthodox Church. Here and there women pass by, wearing their coloured veils. And in the gutters and squares the naked children play.

Wealth lies in the hands of the few---usually the Greeks---and to gain a living demands a struggle. In Lefkara in the south and centre of the island the women still weave their lace. Many a girl has worked till her eyes have become too weak to do more than the lace edgings. You can watch a mother and her three daughters at work upon the same bedspread.

Cyprus is a blend of wooded mountains and arable plain. Terraced hills with dark forests slope down to a coastline shaped by little bays edged with white sand and half shielded by rows of olive trees. There are cedar trees and cypress, tall pines and massive gum trees. Acacias grow, and oaks, and the grey-green eucalyptus tree. Acres of land are given up to row upon row of orange trees and olives, citrus and grapefruit. From the dark and glossy carob trees comes the bean sent across the sea for cattle food. Of fruit there is abundance and variety: oranges and peaches, figs, apricots and pomegranates, lemons and cherries and olives. Dense vineyards cover large stretches of hillside and plain. Waving fields of barley and wheat catch the eye, as do red poppy splashes and clusters of purple bougainvillia against the white stone houses.

Along the dusty roads, when the rains are still awaited, sway the rough country carts pulled by oxen. These beasts are yoked to the plough in the fields. Strings of camels lurch past, laden with timber and merchandise. From the thousands of goats that wander about the island in their flocks come milk and cheese and sustenance for the poor. Fierce dogs bound and bark by the country farms, and Cyprus possesses countless stray dogs that prowl about the streets and villages. Watchful lizards lie basking on sun-warmed rocks or scuttle from sight at the sound of footsteps.

This is an island upon which the marks of religions and history, traditions and personalities remain vivid and strong. Almost nineteen hundred years before, Paul and Barnabas had landed at Salamis, then the commercial capital, and crossed to Paphos, in the south-west corner. Here they had converted to the Christian faith the Roman pro-consul. More than eleven and a half centuries later Richard the Lionheart had married Berengaria of Navarre in a chapel at Limassol. Cyprus had been owned in turn by the Knights of the Temple, the Lusignan family, and the Venetians. Then had come the Turks to conquer and to hold for three hundred years, a period as long as that during which the Lusignan dynasty held sway.

Othello the Moor was said to have murdered Desdemona in the tower at Famagusta. And the legend tells how Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, was born of the foam, off the coast by Paphos, where the Mediterranean waves break on rocks. In the early eighties the future Kitchener of Khartoum, then a captain of Engineers, was Director of Survey.

The civilizations of Greece and Rome, Christendom and Islam, Venice, Genoa and Turkey had left their imprint upon the island. And witness to this is borne by such splendid ruins as the fortified palace of the Lusignan dynasty in Kyrenia, the castle of St. Hilarion on its precipitous mountain top, the beautiful Abbey of Bellapais that lies in the green foothills behind Kyrenia, the Venetian walls and gateways of Famagusta and Nicosia, the square keep of Kolossi Castle, built by the Knights of the Hospital, and the traces of Greece and Rome in the temples, forums and pillars of Salamis, Curium and Paphos.

It was to the defence of this island and its people that Mayne's Division came in the first days of November 1941. It relieved the 50th British Division. To bluff the enemy Intelligence, advanced headquarters in Nicosia was given the designation of 18 Corps, rear headquarters at Larnaca received that of an Indian division, while all those units in the Nicosia area that had been placed under the command of Brigadier van Straubenzee, the C.R.A., were known collectively as the 7th Division.

The task of the Division was to prepare against an enemy airborne attack on Cyprus. General Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in- Chief, Middle East, had told Mayne before he left Egypt that Cyprus must be held at all costs. There would be no question of withdrawing the garrison, even in the event of enemy attack on the heaviest scale. 'Nor was there to be a repetition of our failure in Crete. To that end the garrison was to be made "to fit the island" instead of pretending, as hitherto, that the island was adequately defended by whatever garrison happened to be there. Mayne was to demand such additional reinforcements of units and equipment as he deemed essential for his plans. This directive smoothed his path, and in due course---in fact, quite soon---he received all that he asked for, including the Household Cavalry and the Yorkshire Dragoons to add punch to the counter-attack troops. Four battalions from the Indian State Force came to relieve the regular battalions from their task of static defence of the main landing grounds that we intended to use.

The principle of defence was contained in the dictum: "Mobile and aggressive defence based on secure harbours." It was considered that invasion might be made by enemy forces from Southern Anatolia as well as. from Crete and the Dodecanese Islands. General Mayne laid down his intention in these terse words: "To deny to enemy forces, whether seaborne or airborne, access to the Island; and to preserve the security of aerodromes for the operation of our own aircraft."

To these ends, Rees' Ten Brigade Group, which included the Household Cavalry, was entrusted with defending the eastern part of Cyprus; 161 Brigade Group under Brigadier Stamer, with Skinner's Horse attached to it, was responsible for the north-west area; and to Fletcher's Nine Brigade went the problem of guarding the south-west. Van Straubenzee's 7th Division, comprising the 3rd Hussars in tanks, the motorized Sherwood Foresters, 1st Field Regiment of 25-pounders and a field company of sappers, was quartered around Nicosia and formed the counter-attack reserve under control of the "Corps" Commander.

A system of coast watching and inland observation was set afoot. The sappers of the Division under Colonel Napier made preparations to demolish, in case of dire need, the all-weather runways of aerodromes and harbours, jetties and port facilities, particularly along the south coast of the island, and to block the vital roads across the Kyrenia hills. Minefields were laid. Plans were drawn up for the destruction of dumps, in case some of them fell into the enemy's hands. Prohibited areas were announced. Great attention was paid to camouflage; preparations were made for the disposal of civilian transport in the event of a "stand to"; and the role of the civilian governor in the event of an invasion was settled. So, too, was the control of the local population, to prevent panic and streams of refugees. To all landowners with large expanses of flat land went orders for the erection of mounds five feet in height, spaced at 100- yard intervals and designed to obstruct aircraft landings.

During the first month in particular all the units of the Division were busily engaged in completing their defensive arrangements. They built new battalion command posts and signal offices. Camouflage was improved, dumps were dispersed or resited.

The 4/7th Rajputs, who defended the airport of Nicosia, had taken over from the 8th Durham Light Infantry. These men, who were mostly Durham miners, had dug deep, and the Rajputs continued the work. Digging was nothing new to them, for during the first winter of war the battalion had dug a complete defensive position in the sandhills near Mena, outside Cairo. On this the original Army of the Nile had practised attacks in co-operation with tanks. In the following summer the Rajputs had been called on to dig yet another defence position to the cast of Mersa Matruh. The airfield outside Nicosia was their third full-scale effort.

General Mayne had decreed at the very start that each infantry battalion was to make at least two companies mobile. Salomons has recorded the episode that ensued. "At first," he writes, "this was a bit of a shock, as we had just finished positions for the whole of the battalion. And when Brigadier Stamer came round to 'vet' my proposals for the defence of the airport with only two companies, we certainly looked a bit thin on the ground . . .

" 'I hope,' said Stamer, brushing up his moustache with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, and with the usual twinkle in his eye, 'that posterity will not say: Who were the two fools responsible for the loss of the Nicosia airport? Couple of S's they were---ah, yes---Stamer and Salomons.' "

Later, when reinforcements of static Indian State Force battalions and of equipment had arrived, it was possible to fully motorize practically every regular battalion and to organize really strong mobile columns of all arms from each of the three brigade groups. It was then, at the end of January 1942, that the Division began to feel fully confident in itself and sure that if the invasion came to pass, the enemy would get the knock-out he deserved. And the "Fighting Fifth" would add fresh laurels to the reputation it had already won.

As the main instrument of resistance to invasion was the employment of mobile columns of all arms, one of the urgent tasks was the improvement and widening of certain new roads in Cyprus. Some were narrow and bad. Mobility demanded good arteries for rapid communication. Columns must be able to be rushed from point to point to meet any threat anywhere. Accordingly, the units lent aid to the engineers in the form of men and lorries. Local labour, too, was employed on these roads, and even the women could be seen at work on excavation.

During December and January this labour on roads and defences was hampered by the heavy rains. These fell in periods of two or three days, with a dry day in between. All but the main roads became impassable to transport for three-quarters of the time. Many were the trucks bogged in deep mud, and minor accidents were frequent.

Although these works were to be carried through at speed, units sent men to demonstrations and on courses; TEWTS and mobile exercises were planned and held at every level---battalion, brigade and division---and gas-masks were worn on what were known as "Brigade Gas Days." To add zest or disappointment to the daily routine, there came the usually fruitless or groundless reports of unidentified aircraft, investigations of flashing lights at sea, explosions and Very lights.

These four months provided a happy though strenuous interlude for the members of the Division. Despite the meeting of East and West, Cyprus appeared more like Europe than any place they had been in for many months. True it is that some men found the island cramping and oppressive; once the novelty of Cyprus had worn thin they longed to return to the Desert, where they had left behind their comrades Of the 29th Brigade, and a few began to suffer from what they called "islanditis." But for most soldiers Cyprus, with its good food and abundant wines, its syrupy and amber-coloured Commanderia, famous from the days of the Grand Commander of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, its white Aphrodite and its sherries, with the green fertility and pleasing climate, induced a sense of well-being and enjoyment. Opportunities for extensive sightseeing were closed to all but a few, though some fortunates recaptured the joys of winter sports in the, snows about Troodos, or enjoyed good duck shooting.

British and Indian alike made firm friends among the islanders. Dances were held, and parties in the hotels.

By contrast there were some who recalled vividly the combined Sunday service in the ruins of the church at Famagusta. The church, which was full to the outer walls, had no roof, and tufts of grass were growing inside. On a cold November day the theme of the service was Then and Now, and during its course the congregation dedicated themselves to the same cause as that fought for by the Crusaders.

One of the R.E.M.E. workshops had an Indian whose father was a parson. This Madrassi Telugu played the organ in the little church in Larnaca on many Sundays, and when the time came for the Division to leave Cyprus the Christian Indian other ranks presented a lamp to this church. Remarkable, it appears, was the look of wonderment upon the faces of the British troops.

 

CHAPTER XIII

ENTRY INTO THE DESERT
APRIL-MAY 1942

TEN BRIGADE, now commanded by Brigadier Charles H. Boucher, Rees having left to take the reins of the Tenth Indian Division, were the first to sail away from Cyprus. On March 12 they travelled in the Antwerp to Haifa. Trains bore them south across Palestine and Sinai to Qassassin again. Then on April 8 the Brigade set off for the Western Desert, and moved through Amariya and Mersa Matruh to Halfaya. Meanwhile Fletcher's Nine Brigade embarked early in the month at Famagusta and sailed direct to Alexandria. During this crossing to Egypt the ships, escorted by a destroyer, were bombed by a German plane, and fortunately without damage or casualties. It was a Sunday, when the attack started the West Yorkshires and others were at church service, in the act of singing the hymn "For those in peril on the sea."

On April 15 Divisional Headquarters and Nine Brigade moved westwards to the Sollum box, and in company with all other divisions in the Middle East reorganized on a Brigade Group basis. This meant that artillery regiments, field companies of engineers, field ambulances and other service units and detachments were placed under direct command of the brigade in question and helped to form the group.

Here in the Desert Reid's 29 Brigade, already at El Hamra, rejoined the Division after a long period away with the Eighth Army. Nine and Ten Brigades concentrated first on the flat, stony ground near Sollum, and then on the 25th linked up with Reid's force at the Kennels by El Hamra.

The Desert here was stony and almost bare of sand, and when the winds blustered in from the sea they could swirl but little dust. There were no caves or buildings as at Sollum, where the Highland Light Infantry had housed their mess and orderly room in caves.

But the water of the Kennels was sweeter than before; at Sollum it had tasted brackish and salt, no doubt tolerably palatable with tea or gin and lime, but horrid with whisky. And the water ration increased to one gallon a day for each man, with the same quantity for the vehicles. Throughout this period frequent and heavy dust storms blew up, and the men learned to endure days on end of the khamseen with its stinging blast. The heat was often fierce, and many suffered from heatstroke. But while at Sollum parties had driven down the Halfaya Pass to the seashore and bathed. Antiaircraft sentries were mounted, and the men took grenades in case they met a shark.

This was a time of changes within the Division. In Cyprus the 3/5th Mahratta Light Infantry, the 6/13th Royal Frontier Force Rifles, and the 3/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles were posted away: the Commander-in-Chief decided to strengthen six Indian brigades without battle experience by drafting to each an Indian battalion from the Fourth and Fifth Indian Divisions. To replace the Mahrattas in Nine Brigade came the 3/9th Jats, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel H. V. Bragg, M.C. At the beginning of May, while 29 Brigade were in the Kennels box, they were joined by the 1/5th Mahratta Light Infantry. And to Brigadier Boucher's command came the first Gurkha battalion to serve with the Division, the 2/4th Gurkha Rifles. This was appropriate, for Boucher himself had been with a Gurkha regiment.

Then on May 8 the Divisional Commander, who had led Nine Brigade in the Sudan and Eritrea, who had won the battle on the heights of Amba Alagi and taken the surrender of the Duke of Aosta just a year before, Major-General A. G. O. M. Mayne, was. promoted to command a Corps in Iraq. For a few days the reins of command were in the hands of the C.R.A., Brigadier G. M. Vallentin, and then a week later came Major-General H. R. Briggs, known to the officers, and no doubt to the men, as "Briggo."

He had left Bedford and Sandhurst in time to go to France in 1915 with the King's (Liverpool) Regiment. After a year he transferred to the Indian Army, joined the 31st Punjabis in Mesopotamia, and later served in Palestine. Then in 1924 Briggs joined the 1/10th Baluch, saw action on the North-West Frontier six years later, and after another such period was given command of the 2nd battalion of his regiment. When Seven Indian Brigade left Poona in 1940 with the Fourth Indian Division, Briggs was its commander, and he led it at Sidi Barrani, behind Keren and at Massawa, as we have already seen. He continued to command the Brigade during operations in the Desert in 1941 and 1942, took part in the capture of the Omars and Derna, and planned and led the celebrated break-out from Benghazi.

Briggs was every inch a soldier, and a fighting one rather than a passive or staff soldier. The battle was for him the one thing that counted at the time, and, though he might lack the urbanity proverbial in an ambassador, he was as fine a commander in battle as could be found. In action he could be fierce and quick-tempered, but he was neither petty nor vindictive. He was at times shy and retiring, and unbent to but a few of his staff officers; maybe it was from this shyness that sprang the impression of fierceness.

He was resourceful and cheerful at heart, a man who did his share and more. As a leader he went out of his way to ensure that good work was appreciated, and as a strong personality he stood no nonsense. He seldom relaxed, but smoked many cigarettes. Severe sinus trouble caused him moments of suffering that were masked in moods of taciturnity or of barking at those who surrounded him during a battle. But he had a sense of humour, and the smile that played on his lips just before he made a "crack" was worth waiting for in the grim warlike days.

He was imperturbable, a good leader for the tight corner, and never allowed himself to become rattled. Having done all that was humanly possible, he did not appear to worry---surely a great trait in any commander. When in July and August he had to put inexperienced troops into battle on Ruweisat Ridge, he gave no undue commiseration, no embarrassing apology, no incorrect picture-painting of the task ahead. He credited his commanders with sufficient imagination and confidence in him to understand that the gravity of the situation justified this action. Briggs therefore issued orders and offered his personal assistance, the help of his staff and of any hands experienced in warfare to help carry them out. To one Brigadier he telephoned and said: "Old ----- has got rather a tough one. His brigade is a bit new. I wonder if you would be good enough to drive across and see if you can help him."

WHEEL-MARKS IN THE SAND

A DESERT TRACK

A TENT IN THE DESERT

MR. CASEY WITH MAJOR-GENERAL BRIGGS ON RUWEISAT RIDGE

He had not been to the Staff College---he had refused---and did not interfere with his staff and their working. He trusted them implicitly, and devoted himself to forward planning and deep thought on moves that were open to the enemy, or to visiting his troops. He had a nose for danger, and many a time he was found in his caravan by a staff officer with a map in front of him. He would say both what he planned to do, and what the enemy would do as a result. Seldom was he wrong in his anticipation of the enemy's reactions.

He was not the showman, he did not advertise, but none was more successful, more trusted, more "true blue." He would not allow himself to be bullied or the Division imposed upon by his superiors, and he would fight to get equipment and men and the fair deal that he gave to others. He would never make rash, proud promises to Corps and Army Commanders, and was ready to say firmly that a certain hill could not be taken by next Tuesday. Far from committing himself and his troops to capturing the hill as early as Monday, he would give assurance that success would be ours by the Thursday. He was usually right. And the casualties were much fewer than might otherwise have been.

The Division's equipment was by no means complete; much had to be improvised; spares were hard to obtain; materials for the Signals and Engineers were scarce. Not that such shortages, problems and improvisations were a new feature of war in the Middle East; indeed, units had become well versed in overcoming them. But now the time for gaining experience of the Desert was short, and there was none for exercising as a division, owing to the wide dispersal of brigades and battalions and to lack of transport.

Particular attention was paid to practice in desert navigation, to the use of the sun compass, to the establishment of brigade group boxes, then known colloquially as "cowpats." The battalions practised moving in desert formation and trained in minelaying. Senior officers of the Division liaised closely with their opposite numbers in brigades---particularly Reid's 29 Brigade---already experienced in the ways of the Desert, and picked their brains for help, suggestions and sound advice.

29 Brigade was hampered by the lack of an artillery regiment in the group, for though the 3rd Field Regiment had been allotted, it did not arrive from Iraq until May 21, by which time the Brigade had moved to the area of Sollum, Halfaya and Capuzzo for the defence of the railhead and dumps. And ill-timed confusion and reorganization followed the transfer, at this very moment, of the 4th and 28th Field Regiments from their Indian establishments of two batteries to the British establishment with three.

All this time Fletcher's West Yorkshires, Jats and 3/12th Frontier Force Rifles formed part of the Tobruk garrison. They had moved there on May 17 after training near Halfaya, and the companies were now well spread out along the perimeter, the reserve companies and headquarters further in towards the centre, and the telephone cables far longer than the resources of a battalion signal platoon were supposed to manage. But manage they did by reeling up many miles of old British and Italian cable and by taking drums of it from the local Ordnance Supply Depot.

Before we trace in detail the fortunes of the Fifth Indian Division in the desperate campaign that was to follow these weeks of preparation and initiation, it is of vital interest to describe this unique battleground, the Western Desert. Those who wish to understand the human side of battles should remember always the conditions in which the men fought and lived. And those conditions, with the peculiar setting and spirit, were uncommon enough and not to be forgotten by soldiers who spent any time there.

The landscape of the Desert was painted in the colours of brown and yellow and grey. And the fighting men learned to hide themselves in this Desert, which at first sight had no natural cover, by skilful use of these same colours in the paints and camouflage nets that adorned their vehicles. It was a land of fawn or black rocks, of beige sand: a scene without interest, being drab in its slight undulations, its occasional low ridges, its steep escarpments. The endless stretches of monotonous Desert were broken by greyish clumps of scrub, by stones and grit, by ridges of stone, by rocky outcrops and by rare hillocks. The Desert provided no obstacle to motor transport, beyond here and there the cliff, the softer patch of sand, and to the south of El Alamein the Qattara Depression. This gave you an unusual sense of freedom. If you wanted to go to a certain point on the map, you could go there on a straight course, provided that your navigation was sound. Sometimes the ground was firm and rocky, defiant of the shovel and pickaxe; sometimes it was powdered dust that swirled up when a vehicle's wheels rolled through it. There were not the usual restrictions of route imposed by river, bridge or mountain. Movement was slower than along a road, the wear and tear on the lorries greater.

There was the coast road and the railway as far as Capuzzo otherwise nothing better than tracks. No camel, no wall. no tree, no river, not even a stream, no grass, no civilian. It was the green trees that the men up in the Desert missed most. Those who passed the fig plantations at Burg el Arab on their on their way up were not impressed. But on the way out some months later these same trees would seem beautiful and were admired, as they grew in their groves against the white sand of the coast.

The Desert has been described, acidly but with no little justice, as "miles and miles and bloody miles of absolutely damn all." There was a seeming eternity of barren, inhospitable nothingness. And this lack of physical features and recognizable landmarks by which to find your way made navigation a problem to all, and was particularly baffling to the newcomer to the Desert. You learned to move by map, compass and speedometer. You were never really certain that you were actually at the point from which you thought you were starting, and you had to take your map reference on trust: there was no guarantee. It was hard to tell how far away the horizon was. Your sense of direction became befuddled, you were haunted by the constant risk of losing the way. After a time you developed a sense of direction in daylight; but at night, though to proceed in a general direction was tolerably simple, it was no light matter to pin-point a unit or a rendezvous. You might search for a group of tanks reported to be leaguered at a certain map reference, and you might spend hours driving round the sand, when all the time the tanks were only a mile distant. Unless it was extremely urgent that they be found, it was wiser to camp down for the night and wait until daybreak. Usually the tanks were then visible towards the horizon.

You had to step out of your truck or jeep, lorry or staff car whenever you needed to take a new compass bearing. You kept a watchful eye on the speedometer. And you found your way back by observation of tiny details: a pile of stones or jerry cans that someone had dropped, or a strip of red flag on a hillside, or a tin of bully beef lying in the sand. All vehicles looked alike, and to search for your unit was sometimes like looking at a sea of transport as though in a nightmare. You gazed upon acres of flat desert studded with scores of trucks, and these were poor landmarks---they might move at any time.

And you had to learn to drive without sticking in soft sand, when there was no other jeep or four-wheel-drive truck to tow you out. Then there was the problem of finding the gap in our minefields, which were often only protected, and marked, by a strand or two of barbed wire. Many were the vehicles travelling at some speed which blew up on the first few mines of the field. After dark a driver might find the gap, and still drive off its narrow path and blow up. Perhaps it was best to be blown up in a jeep, for the resistance was slight, and you might be thrown clear.

All vehicles could be seen moving from afar because of the trail of dust that billowed up behind or to one side. When two trucks did meet, each driver tried desperately to steer to windward and so avoid the dust of the other vehicle. You might wear sand goggles, but your face was coated with sand, that caked itself into a beige mask, clinging to the sweat of your countenance, collecting in the corners of your eyes. Hands and arms, necks and knees, became coated with this same sand, which penetrated under your shirt, and caught in your throat, and made your eyes smart. Your hair became matted and bistre. Along your limbs the trickling sweat would cleave little rivulets through the sandy coating.

All day long thousands of vehicles shod with balloon tyres or with tracks were moving about, each with its plume of sand, that poured up over the mudguards, penetrated into the carburettor, came through chinks in the truck's body, or round the edge of a staff car's windows. The tanks cut deep ruts in the sand. Half the surface of the Desert might appear to be in the air at one time, and drivers would keep their windscreen-wipers going in order to clear the dust and so see a few yards ahead. For in a sandstorm, with its blown and gritty sand that lashed the human body and was blasted everywhere that particles of sand can go, there was an opaque yellowish fog ahead, into which you could peer for but a yard or two. It was as though some shuddering beige curtain had been drawn across the face of the Desert; the light of day became unreal in its strange hues; you stumbled over tent ropes and into slit trenches; minefields became a still greater source of danger; while maps were invisible beneath the layer of dust that stuck to the marks of chinagraph pencils---red, blue, yellow and green--- on the talc sheet above. And those who were trying to work out map reference or signal codes found their stencils clogged.

Although you were permanently coated with sand when driving or when the wind blew up, baths were impossible and you grew accustomed to being dirty, to washing seldom. Water was short in the Desert, scarcer by far than petrol. On a gallon a day for all purposes it became an art to wash, shave, clean your teeth, wash your feet, all in a mug of water, with the resultant glutinous fluid being strained and poured into the radiator of your truck. Some men planned to wash a third of their bodies each day, for the sand became matted on the hairy parts of the body, and they felt the imperative need for washing it away, even though a fresh lot of sand was picked up at once.

But few cared deeply about washing so long as there was no shortage of drinking water. And, with rare exceptions, there was always enough to drink. Yet the water was either brackish or salt to the taste, and to make a good mug of tea was hard. A new officer might well drive up to join a unit, and the Colonel would ask him whether he had any water and where he came from. If the new officer said he had filled up at, for example, Mersah Matruh, and the unit was now at Gazala, there would be a shout of joyous triumph: "Boys, we've got some Matruh water!"

Just as the Desert possessed few natural sources of water, so too it provided the opposing armies with no raw food. The rations were good, but men lived from tins. Bully stew, with onions, peas, beans, or whatever was to hand, formed the evening meal, cooked before sunset, and good it all was. You might, in default of a cooker, cut a four-gallon petrol tin in half, fill one part with sand, pour on petrol and set it alight. You then cooked your food in the other part of the tin, using it as some rough pan. Brewing tea became almost a recreation, a form of relaxation, despite the spoiling taste or the water. And for the porridge of the Desert---known as 'burgoo'---you came to know which issue of biscuits made the best dish, oatmeal or wheaten or other types. You cooked the mess in water, added a dollop of condensed milk, and sugar if you had it. Some men added cocoa to make a sort of chocolate pudding, and on occasions marmalade was used in the mixture.

When the evening meal was eaten, officers and men bedded down in the Desert, some in the open alongside their lorry or truck, some in the canvas side-shelters of their vehicles; others erected small bivouac tents in the lee of a dune or a lorry. Each slept the sleep of the weary, rolled in his blanket, for the nights could be cold after the heat and glare of the daytime. Though many worked stripped to the waist by day, they pulled on battledress blouses and even greatcoats at sundown and at first light. Some men lay naked on top of their blankets, and when the night grew colder towards the early hours they pulled up the blanket over their bodies. They cleared the stones and scooped little hollows in which to rest their hips and shoulders. They slept wonderfully, and awoke refreshed for the day ahead. And after spending some period in the Desert, men found it oppressive to sleep in a large square tent or in a building. They had slept beneath the stars, and could not forget. At night they experienced a sense of rest and relaxation in the impressive silence. When the light of evening failed, and the lengthened shadows were fading into night, the air grew cooler to the feel, and there was blessed relief. You could sit down and smoke a cigarette, or sip a whisky and tepid water, and there were no flies till the morrow, and the peace of it all was astounding. After sundown you could strip and stand to enjoy the gentle breeze blowing in from the sea and cooling---slightly, but enough---the hot, sweaty, dusty skin. And in the early morning, too, you drank your mug of tea, and a cigarette was really worth-while smoking. On rare but memorable days you could reach the shore and plunge with a sensation approaching ecstasy from the gleaming white sand into the blue waters of the Mediterranean.

General Briggs has drawn the distinction between the two main phases of Desert life.

"You were either 'put' in defences, where you just had your unit vehicles with you, or you became mobile and lived in your lorries (troop-carrying) and were self-supporting in food, water, petrol, blankets, ammunition. When 'put' you were digging all day, wiring or laying mines, with certain days set aside for training. You always patrolled well out in the Desert by day, and occupied defences by night. You slept in and around your positions, which you tried to make flush with the ground.

"Life 'mobile' had its special characteristics. First, every man had to learn to cook and fend for himself. You learned to dig slit trenches when halted, to avoid frequent hostile dive-bombing. When day broke you moved into Desert formation, each vehicle about one hundred yards from the next, while at night you closed up to avoid losing one another and halted in close 'leaguer.' And when things moved, they did so very quickly. Generally speaking, except at Alamein, the infantry were out of contact with the enemy except when asked to attack, or while being attacked, or whilst on patrol. You learned to debus in close contact with the enemy."

But beyond all these physical conditions that characterized life and war in the Desert, a peculiar spirit existed among the men there. They had a sense of brotherhood and hospitality, as though Man made recompense for the barrenness of Nature. The atmosphere was one of intimacy and friendliness. Life had a new simplicity, and was nomadic, primitive. Men found a new sense of values, and those things that had mattered to them in civilized life now hardly seemed to count; the troops were ready to sacrifice that which normally they considered necessary for ordinary living. Life had been reduced to essentials, and, apart from the fighting itself, eating and sleeping were now the important factors in a man's preoccupation. Most vital was the mere process of existence.

A common danger unites men, and here they were away from civilization, stripped of social barriers and artificialities except for that of officers and other ranks, and even rank seemed to count for less than in other places of battle. You saw the other man as he was, for himself and not for any false position he might have occupied in civil life. You accepted him, and it made little difference whether he was a professor or a bricklayer. You shared things, and there was the spirit of "mucking-in" abroad.

Except during the holding of the Alamein Line, men were always on the move, and perhaps it was this that was conducive to the carefree spirit that was remarkable in the Desert, as were the new code of manners, the lack of regimentation in the soldiering, the atmosphere symbolized by the fly whisk and the pair of suede Desert boots. And by the unifying Good Samaritan spirit that forbade you to pass a man whose truck had broken down without calling out to him, "Are you OK, Charlie ?" In mobile warfare neither side occupied the Desert; they merely took up positions for a day or a night; and in this respect Desert warfare resembled that at sea. Men attached enormous importance to the bit of ground on which they landed up. There was delight if they found some scrub bushes, as these made excellent fuel. But groans were heard and curses if the ground was stony. For it was of importance whether or not the area of Desert made easy or difficult the digging of slit trenches.

To analyse this spirit of the Desert is hard, for it sprang from a host of varied factors, and there were many differing views on the life in the sand. But it was exhilarating, and such a different existence from the normal that men felt they had been in the Desert for years rather than for weeks or months. They were cheerful and on the whole healthy, and only asked for a week in Cairo before being ready to return. In such surroundings Man seemed tiny, insignificant, and yet human relationships loomed large. The Desert played its part in restoring men to themselves, and revealed to them some of the riches of their own inner beings and of their companions in battle.

 

CHAPTER XIV

ROMMEL'S OFFENSIVE
MAY 1942

ON January 21, three months before the entry of the Fifth Indian Division into the Western Desert, the enemy had reopened the offensive, outpaced our forces, driven them back from Agedabia to Msus. When a stand was ordered at Benghazi, the enemy feinted successfully, and the Fourth Indian Division found itself without armoured support. Briggs and his Seven Brigade became isolated in the town, but fought their way out with great skill and daring. A series of rearguard actions was fought by this division, until by February 4, it had reached our defence line at Gazala, which the remainder of Ritchie's Eighth Army was busy fortifying.

Our immediate aim was to stabilize a front behind which reserves might be accumulated and a striking force built. Accordingly, a minefield was hurriedly laid from the coast by Gazala south to Bir Hakeim, a distance of some forty miles. And within this minefield strong defensive positions were prepared from Gazala to Sidi Muftah, and at Bir Hakeim itself. Organized in depth as it was, over an area thirty-six miles square, the line was strengthened by Tobruk on the coast, and by positions farther east at Acroma, El Adem and Bir El Gubi. These Gazala defences were manned by General Gott's Thirteen Corps; while far back, near the Egyptian frontier, Thirty Corps, under General Willoughby-Norrie, prepared new positions of defence.

Between the end of February and May the Desert front remained quiet, but both sides made intensive preparations in the race to be ready for the next offensive. Our strength in heavy bombers and naval forces in the Mediterranean did not suffice to prevent the steady reinforcement of the German and Italian armies in Libya. And this strengthening of Rommel's forces had so far progressed by the middle of May that it became clear to our commanders that our own attack was likely to be forestalled.

Gazala Line

During the first two weeks of May our Intelligence received many indications that the enemy would soon end this period of inactivity. More tanks than usual had been employed in the forward area. There was evidence of a wish on the enemy's part to screen still more effectively his own movements. Our air reconnaissance showed the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions to be now well forward. The only German prisoner to be taken for some time said that a rumour was about among the troops of an impending attack. Further evidence was gathered when an indiscreet German staff officer from Libya, on leave in the Balkans, stated over his cups that Rommel's offensive was intended to start between May 20 and 27. And whereas during the whole month of March the enemy had unloaded only 1,500 tons of supplies in Benghazi harbour, he was now unloading 2,000 tons a day. Indications suggested that the enemy's most likely course of action would be a feint in the south, combined with a strong attempt to punch a way through our minefields and defences on top of the Gazala escarpment.

We planned to give the impression that our own forces were unprepared, but so to deploy our armoured formations that, having once blunted the enemy's initial thrust, we could contain his tanks in the area between the Gazala line and Knightsbridge. For this plan to succeed it was essential both that the enemy's main attack should come from the south and that the Gazala defences remain firm.

The dispositions of the Eighth Army on May 25 were as follows: the 1st South African Division held the front from the coast west of Gazala to El Hamza. Eastward from this point stretched two brigades of the 50th British Division, while its third, 150 Brigade, had established a detached strong-point at Sidi Muftah. The Tobruk defence perimeter was divided between the 2nd South African Division and Fletcher's Nine Brigade. Of the Thirty Corps formations, the 1st Free French Brigade, led by General Koenig, held another detached position far to the south at Bir Hakeim. Of our tanks, the 1st Armoured Division (Major-General H. Lumsden) was centred round Knightsbridge, while Messervy's 7th Armoured Division was ready a little further south.

It appears that most of our senior commanders thought the enemy thrust would come through the centre, trying to break our minefields. Intelligence reports also gave this impression. But, though it was said to be impossible to go round the south of our line, south, that is, of the French in Bir Hakeim, several senior officers were suspicious, and believed that Rommel planned to try this southern route. Perhaps because of this difference in view, our tanks were dispersed, ready to meet threats from the centre and the south.

Finally, the Fifth Indian Divisional Headquarters and Ten Brigade, in reserve, had the task of guarding the group of airfields north and south of the Trigh Capuzzo by Gambut, and of protecting Advanced Army Headquarters there.

General Auchinleck felt that the Eighth Army had sufficient infantry to cope with any eventuality. But we held no reserve of field artillery. Though we had numerical superiority in tanks, these were inferior in gun power and reliability to those of the enemy. The Commander-in-Chief laid down that, whether the German and Italian forces tried to break our centre by attacking on a narrow front, or whether they tried to pass south of Bir Hakeim---in either case their object would be the capture of Tobruk---our intention must be "to force the enemy to depend on the long and exposed southern route for his supplies, and having thus placed him at a disadvantage, to defeat him in the triangle formed by Gazala, Tobruk and Bir Hakeim." The enemy must be stopped short of Tobruk, then attacked in the flank with armour, in the rear with infantry and guns, and dealt a blow from which he would find it impossible to recover.

What part the Fifth Indian Division would play when battle started was at this time undecided, but was generally thought to be the advance guard for our follow-up. The eventual role was entirely due to an unexpected turn in the tide of operations.

* * * * * * *

The enemy struck. Once more the sands blew up to the turmoil of mobile warfare. Once more the chinagraph marks on a thousand map cases were altered. Rommel spurred forward his full-scale attack in moonlight on May 27. He did choose to make his main thrust round the southern flank, and the Afrika Korps came against our 3rd Indian Motor Brigade to the south-east of Bir Hakeim. This brigade fought with gallant tenacity but was overwhelmed. By midday on the 28th the enemy was being engaged from Knightsbridge east along the Duda ridge to Bel Hamed, a distance of thirty miles. That evening saw the Germans' main striking force stretched out over a great expanse of Desert. To supply the tanks large numbers of soft-skinned vehicles were driving to and fro amid clouds of dust that could be seen for many miles. The Royal Air Force lost no opportunity of bombarding the enemy columns.

Rommel sent one group against Acroma, but this withdrew. Our tanks began to gain the upper hand, and the enemy forces found themselves not only held along a line between Knightsbridge and El Adem, but pinned against our Gazala line in the area of Desert to be known later as the "Cauldron." All day heavy fighting went on; the contest was maintained from morning till nightfall; the result was not decisive.

Then Rommel drew back his armour into our minefields north of Bir Hakeim. But here it was surrounded and trapped within the triangle bounded on the west by our line of mines linking Gazala and Bir Harmat; to the east by troops from Bir Harmat through Knightsbridge to the coast; to the north by the South Africans near the sea, and by the 50th Northumbrian Division, grouped at intervals down the minefield line. Far too great a reliance was placed upon the effectiveness of these minefields. The enemy was to prove them to be anything but invincible, and he soon turned our defences to his own advantage and protection.

On May 31 he established a corridor through the minefields, under cover of a violent dust-storm. It was a brilliant coup that changed the face of battle. Even while general optimism prevailed among our Army, while its commanders congratulated themselves on having forced the enemy into a dangerous position where he might be destroyed, Rommel's men cut two lines through our minefield in the east, ten miles apart and on either side of 150 Brigade's position at Sidi Muftah.

Thus our opponent formed a bridgehead, and provided a new supply route to his forces within the Cauldron that had hitherto been contained with a diminishing supply of food, water, ammunition and petrol.

150 Brigade, isolated, without armoured support, could not hold out beyond June 1. Despite the efforts of our soldiers and aircrews, the enemy widened the two gaps, known as Peter and Paul, and reopened the lifeline to his armoured forces. With the arrival of supplies these became once more actively menacing. Our extreme optimism faded. The face of battle had changed again. At all costs these gaps must be closed, or, if this were not possible, the amount of material allowed to pass through them must be severely limited.

Reid's 29 Brigade had meantime moved from El Gubi to El Adem, and was under command of Thirteen Corps. Marriott's Guards' Brigade held Knightsbridge. Nine Brigade under Fletcher had driven down from Tobruk to the same area; while Boucher's Ten Brigade was in the neighbourhood of Bir Harmat. It was planned to form two "boxes" opposite the gaps of Peter and Paul, the northern one at Bir et Tamar to be established and held by Ten Brigade, the southern box two miles west of Bir el Harmat to be Fletcher's responsibility.

But delays occurred. Plans were altered. The days passed. And all this time the enemy was able to reinforce and refuel his units within the Cauldron. Precious time was lost, time that was precious to Rommel and dangerous to ourselves.

Reports varied about the enemy's strength. Some patrols said that all the tanks in the Cauldron were derelict, having run out of petrol. Could we advance far enough to plug the two holes in our minefields? Who was to gain the initiative after the heavy fighting of this first week ? Lack of reserves, of fresh troops, and the fog of war caused delay and indecisiveness over our counterstroke. We delayed four days before attacking in force. We then hurried too late.

Some commanders thought we should pull back to the Tobruk--El Adem line, re-sort properly there, and fight an organized battle. Others considered that an immediate come-back must be staged upon the enemy where he lay. We must fight hurriedly, desperately ---in fact, fight with everything in confusion, and hoping that the enemy was in a worse state. The two gaps must be closed, and the enemy forced to withdraw.

But the, Germans had meantime brought in many 88 min. anti-tank guns to stiffen their defences. And to evict them grew more difficult and perilous a task as each day passed. However great the risk taken by the enemy in punching boldly back, so soon as he had realized that he had failed to destroy us, he had now placed himself in the heart of our defences, in positions where we must destroy him or ourselves retire. Rommel had been able to disengage one armoured division, rest and re-equip it, and bring it up ready for his assault upon Tobruk. It emerged just at the same time as our attack on his 'bulge' in the Cauldron.

And our Intelligence erred. For the Italian Ariete Division, facing the eastern side of the Cauldron, had not been correctly located. It had false-fronted us. The German tanks were said to be massed about Sidi Muftah. The 21st Panzer Division was there, it is true, but not the 15th, which lay further south in the Cauldron.

The situation was grave, the time short, the planners not of one mind.

General Briggs wrote that, though the Fifth Indian Division was supposed to be in general reserve at the start of Rommel's offensive, in fact every brigade and some battalions even had been taken out of his control and placed directly under one of the two Corps, or under the Armoured Divisions. In this whirlpool battle, brigades were swapped from one command to another. Contact was sometimes made by wireless alone. Briggs called his own headquarters an "H.Q. on Ice," and was occasionally given formations to look after for a day at a time.

"It was not," he records, "till Rommel had established himself in our minefields, had overrun 150 Brigade, and was threatening Bir Hakeim that I was called in. 'Strafer' Gott, optimistic as usual, sent for me. The Army Commander was coming to a conference in, two hours' time. Would I meanwhile consider attacking Tmimi through the South African position along the coast. It was held by a German parachute division and half of 15 Panzer Division, protected by unlocated minefields. I had to collect in the Division, plan, reconnoitre, and attack within thirty-six hours. I never thought harder in my life.

"My answer was in the shape of an alternative. I suggested a Desert move round the south of Bir Hakeim on to Tmimi and Rommel's L. of C., by use of surprise mobility, and in a place where there were no mines. This was agreed to by both Ritchie and Gott, and I thought everything was settled. It looked as if we should have a good, open fight with the whole Division together. Unfortunately, the armour intervened . It had been arranged that they should protect my right flank. Now they said they needed a day to refit. In my absence the whole plan was changed to a frontal attack against Rommel in his prepared position. And we were not to be a complete division after all."

The Army Commander considered that this attack would be the decisive one of the present operations. So it was, but for the enemy. Ritchie ordered Thirty Corps, with the First and Seventh Armoured Divisions and the Fifth Indian Division, to attack from the east, while Thirteen Corps co-operated in an attack from the north with a brigade of 50 Division and the 32nd Tank Brigade. Meanwhile the Free French Brigade would continue its gallant defence of Bir Hakeim. The Thirty Corps attack was allotted to the 7th Armoured Division and the Fifth Indian Division. The 1st Armoured Division would prevent the enemy from breaking out to the north and north-east.

The general Plan of Operation 'Aberdeen,.' as it was called, divided itself into three parts. General Briggs had charge of the opening phase. Ten Brigade with the 4th Royal Tank Regiment under command would attack first. The H.L.I. (Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Thorburn, O.B.E., M.C.) was to capture B.180, Bir El Aslagh, Bir Et Tamar and B.204. On the left Sundius-Smith's 4/10th Baluch were responsible for taking B.100 and B.178. The 2/4th Gurkha Rifles (Lieutenant-Colonel Weallans) would remain in reserve. The starting time was three a.m. on June 5. The infantry were to gain their objectives within two hours.

The second phase of the operation, under command of Messervy's Seventh Armoured Division, was the establishment, on a line from Sidi Muftah to B. 176, of three boxes defended by infantry battalions to be provided by Fletcher's Nine Brigade, with the 4th R.T.R. under command, and Brigadier Carr's 22nd Armoured Brigade in the lead.

In the third phase of 'Aberdeen,' which never materialized, the Fifth Indian Division would assume command of all infantry in these boxes, and our armoured forces were to rally, in order to exploit any success westwards through our minefields, to complete the enemy's destruction, and to re-establish a line running from Sidi Muftah through Dahar El Aslagh to Got El Scerab.

The enemy force within the Cauldron being largely if not entirely mobile, it was impossible to expect infantry battalions to pin down divisions of German tanks. For this reason our commanders had recourse to this principle of "boxes," the establishment of which was designed to compel the enemy to assault them. At this point our armour would attack the enemy in the back. But to establish such boxes the infantry needed adequate time, to lay anti-tank mines, to site its anti-tank guns with the greatest care and skill. Even had this time been available, the enemy might always be able to concentrate superior force against one isolated "box" and destroy its garrison before our tanks could intervene. In the event, this fate overtook the few infantry "boxes" that were established on June 5.

The whole plan for 'Aberdeen' was ill-conceived, and 'the preparations rushed. It was carried out by troops who had not trained together, and with a dual control which produced various grave faults. Insufficient attention was paid in the later stages of the battle to the security of the flanks; several units engaged had reached the Western Desert but a few hours before the battle, and had had no time to find their way about or to gain experience in the peculiarities of Desert warfare.

Briggs established his headquarters some three miles south-west from B.743, and at nine o'clock held a conference at Brigadier Boucher's H.Q. to outline the plan of attack. After Ten Brigade's thrust south of Knightsbridge, under Briggs' personal orders, the 22nd Armoured Brigade would enter the Cauldron, advance by way of B.178 to Bir El Scerab and Sidi Muftah, and execute a 'milling attack.' They would enter the Cauldron along its southern side, penetrate deeply, swing right towards the north, and rally at B. 104, ready to exploit west of the minefields. Then Nine Brigade, now under Messervy's command, whose Tactical Headquarters Briggs was to share, would follow in lorries, advancing on a general axis of B.742, B. 183, B. 100 and Bir El Scerab, and would establish the three battalion boxes: the 3 /12th R. F. F. R. (Lieutenant-Colonel W. E. Dean) near Dahar El Aslagh, the 3/9th Jats (Lieutenant-Colonel H. V. Bragg, M.C.) just south of Bir El Scerab, and Langran's 2nd West Yorkshires at Sidi Muftah. Each battalion was to be preceded by a squadron of Infantry tanks, which would act as local protection; and under command of each unit would be one battery of 157 Field Regiment.

"Progress of the attack," said Messervy's orders, "will depend on any armoured action in which 22nd Armoured Brigade becomes involved."

At an afternoon conference on June 4 it was decided that Carr's 22nd Armoured Brigade should leave its forming-up area at four o'clock, aiming to reach the Knightsbridge- Bir Hakeim track by 5.15 a.m. Nine Brigade, following behind, would assemble near B.183, cross the Trigh Bir Hakeim, pick up its battery of guns and its armoured squadron. These Fletcher would take forward to the three battalion "boxes." First would go the West Yorkshires. Then, when they had secured their objective, the Jats would follow in, and behind would come Dean's 3/12th Frontier Force Regiment.


Chapter Fifteen

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