A narrow escape in the Desert

A 25-pdr field gun of 11th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, in action during the First Battle of El Alamein, July 1942.

A Vickers machine gun team ‘in action’ near El Alamein, 17 July 1942.

On the 21st-22nd July 1942 New Zealand units of the 8th Army attacked Rommel’s lines west of El Alamein, attempting to expand the position of the Ruweisat Ridge. Initially the plan went well with the infantry reaching their objectives at El Mreir. But to consolidate their positions they needed tank support – but the tanks intended for this role never reached them, having failed to get through the minefields. When the Panzers mounted the German counter-attack they were very vulnerable. Brigadier George Clifton describes his personal situation in the early hours of the 22nd:

The Aucklanders and my own H.Q. crew were hard at work, scraping shallow foxholes in the silt of the depression, and the battle looked like pausing until first light. Might as well rest a bit, ready for the day ahead; so I got down on the old bed-roll and “died”, leaving Crowley to dig in the Div. wireless set against possible trouble.

Forty minutes later, Cliff George woke me up, reporting his safe arrival. I told him what the plan would be at first light, and to rest his men until we could see enough to put them at it. The hour was probably about a quarter to five. He disappeared into the dark and I started putting my boots on.

Then hell broke loose. An Auckland carrier came dashing in across the depression, yelling “Stand to! Tanks! Lots of the bastards”. But that was obvious. A deluge of “golden rain” fell on us from the northern edge of the depression about four hundred yards away.

Unknown to us, a Panzer formation was harboured just beyond it. They rolled up to the rim and gave us the works properly. Flames from a six-pounder portee lit up the scene very early, and seeing our two unlucky tanks, their red-hot solid shot tore through them with thuds like hammer on anvil.

A modern version of the Wild West attack on a caravan – flaming trucks, tracer bouncing, men dying – things blowing up. The Engineers were carrying mines, primed ready for quick laying, and one three-tonner detonated like a “block-buster” bomb.

Some of our anti-tank guns fired back at the flashes on the skyline, only to be knocked out by the deluge of heavy machine-gun fire. Their shields just weren’t thick enough.

During training we had often talked glibly of “pinning the enemy with fire” or “keeping their heads down”. Here was a perfect, and for us, disastrous example.

About 5.30 a.m. when our guns were knocked out, the Panzers rolled down the bank and over us. Under cover of the heavy smoke and dust, some men tried to make the break, but on foot, across open desert, it was hopeless. One or two vehicles attempted running the gauntlet.

Dick Pemberton, having been badly sand-blasted when his mine-truck exploded, had come across and was sitting by me. We were debating the next move, when Beattie, one of our drivers, came rushing across, jumped into my jeep, pressed the starter and, as it miraculously revved up, yelled “Come on Brig! Let’s go.” And Dick and I went.

See George Clifton: The Happy Hunted

Those interested in the full military history can find it on line at NZETC.

A German 88mm anti-tank gun captured and destroyed by New Zealand troops near El Alamein, 17 July 1942.

Tank transporters carrying re-conditioned Crusader tanks back to the front line, 23 July 1942.

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