The day of waiting and discomfort was over. The British Eighth Army – including Australian, New Zealand, South African, Indian, Polish and Free French forces – was poised for action. A frontal assault on the German lines was about to be launched. The prelude was to be an artillery bombardment, a tactic that had been refined by the British artillery in the First World War.
Almost every one of the most senior officers had experience of the Western Front, and would have had some idea what to expect. For younger men it was a surprising and awe inspiring event.
Ernie Huntley was one of tens of thousands watching and waiting that evening:
As usual in the desert, twilight fell very quickly. It was the time when all the Desert Force seem to come alive. The transport columns started to make their way forward from the rear echelon, over various tracks, Sun, Moon, Star, Springbok and many others raising as they did clouds of choking dust which completely blackened out the sky. Each evening they brought up fresh supplies of food, petrol ammunition and the odd item from the canteen, letters, replacements and for some, the ever welcome hot evening meal.
Supplies unloaded, the men sat down to eat. Those with letters read them very, very slowly. Then it was back to check, recheck, and keep under cover. Some of the replacements were surprised to learn they wouldn’t be needed this evening and when they asked the reason, were told they would find out soon enough.
By now, the dust had settled and the moon was exceptionally clear amongst millions of stars.
At the gun positions final checks had been made. Some of the men took off their coats, others took off their shirts for they knew before the night was over they would be wet with sweat as they were to be part of a large battery of 882 field guns which were to lay down a barrage of shells, the like of which hadn’t been seen since WWI and those guns still firing as daylight came, would have fired more than 600 rounds each.
At 9.30 p.m., the preliminary orders were given and at 9.39 p.m. the gunners were ordered to “Take post!”
The night of October 23rd was a wonderful moonlit night, bright and clear, as were so many nights in the desert. The atmosphere was graveyard calm. Like a brewing tropical hurricane. At 21.40 precisely the West Suffolk Yeomanry, committed to a small patch of the Westem Desert, over two and a half thousand miles from its home base took issue in the biggest barrage and concentration of gun fire since the First World War.
The massive, creeping barrage, spectacular and fearful was laid by a thousand guns. The heavens were ablaze and the sky was lit by thousands of searing flashes. The thunderous roar of the artillery was raw and deafening as, from the sea coast, across the moonlit desert, to the Quattara Depression allied artillery poured thousands of tons of high explosives into the enemy defence line.
The enemy gunners were bridled and stung to retaliation and, before long, shells began to fall all around us, throwing rich glaring glows, smashing equipment and killing men.
In some outlandish and fanciful way it was like a great big dream, a dream that was diffused and had no core. With the increasing tremor that threatened to split the earth there seemed to be too much noise, too many gun flashes and too many hanging clusters of parachute flares for it to be well founded and real.
Part of our night’s fire programme was to lay one hundred and twenty rounds of smoke shells into the minefield to blind the enemy and to give cover to the engineers as they cleared the mine lanes. We were supporting the main attack in the northern sector and the guns on the slopes to our right were now hammering away at full bore at the faceless enemy in the invisible fastness of the night.
There was a five minute pause in the fire programme as the New Zealand Division, with the moon touching their bayonets, went on to establish lanes through the minefields and to take some of the high ground to the west.
After a sleepless and exhausting first night of the battle, dawn brought into focus the beginning of a heavy and troubled day.