El Alamein – the infantry go forward

‘Australians storm a strongpoint’. A posed portrait of Australian troops advancing during the Second Battle of El Alamein, 3 September 1942.

El Alamein 1942: A large pile of empty shell cases beside a 25 pounder gun photographed at first light, illustrates the intensity of the opening barrage at the Battle of El Alamein.

The massive artillery bombardment of the evening of the 23rd was but a prelude to an attack led by the infantry. Only later would the tanks be passed through the cleared lanes through the minefields to exploit these first attacks. This meant a direct assault on the German and Italian lines, they would be well dug in with prepared lines of fire. It was hoped that the artillery fire would have killed or at least disorientated the enemy infantry in their trenches.

In a tactic developed during the First World War the artillery now laid down a ‘creeping barrage’ – the shells would fall ahead of the advancing infantry and continue moving forward ahead of them. It was a blunt weapon that depended on accurate fire.

Cecil Ritson was with ‘B’ Company of the Natal Mounted Rifles and he describes what it was like for the infantry to go into the attack in the early hours of the morning of 24th October 1942:

The advance was going steadily according to plan, but then out there in no-man’s-land something went awry and part of the creeping barrage descended on our own long line. We were forced to the ground as shells were bursting all around and shrapnel whistled in all directions. This was a most frightening time as the shelling was very heavy. This helpless situation seemed to continue for ages, but it was possibly only a period of five minutes or so. I was to learn later that many casualties had occurred in this period.

After passing through the enemy’s minefield we were called back into the minefield to adjust the line and wait for a coordinated final attack. We overran the emplacements on the ridge, rounded up prisoners, and took up defensive positions for a possible counter-attack.

We now came under sustained shell fire, and a mortar crew just behind me suffered a direct hit. I was to learn that Ted Harrison had “copped it” in this incident. He had been a fellow student in my 1939 Matric class.

Although a counter-attack was not forthcoming, ‘B’ Company’s duties were not over for the night. In the early hours of the 24th October, ‘B’ Company was assigned to attack positions held by German paratroopers. Apparently this defence area was set back from the front line in a depression, and the Field Force Battalion on our left flank had suffered heavy casualties in attempting to capture the positions.

We passed back through the minefield on a cleared gap and moved left to join the F.F.B.’s positions. Here we were given an appraisal of the conditions ahead, and I remember that we were told to beware of injured and dead F.F.B. men in front and also of German snipers.

Our Company Commander, Capt. Vic Paul, called for mortars to lay a smoke screen and we advanced as the dawn was approaching. In the charge, I remember having to negotiate a fence, and then there was a blinding explosion next to me. I must have passed out, because when I gathered my wits, I found I was lying about 15 paces in front of an enemy machine gun pit.

Our platoon officer, Lt. Dennis Platt, was lying on my immediate left. At that moment he raised his body possibly with the intent of charging and he was shot through the head. I “froze” in my exposed position and I could clearly see the gunner pointing his spandau in my direction. It was a terrifying moment.

Then I was aware of Jimmy Shrimpton closing in from the right and being shot as he jumped in among the Germans. I then rushed at the gun pit as other comrades converged from the left. The positions were taken and prisoners rounded up.
It was now dawn and I was guarding the group of prisoners from a stand-off position.

One of the paratroopers decided to make a break, and with head down, he dashed to my left front. I shouted to him to halt, but he still continued. My Bren gun was set on single shot, and I fired from the hip well ahead of him. I was amazed to see him drop like a log, hit in the head by a single bullet. This action appeared to put paid to any further attempts at escaping.

Friendly tanks and support trucks, etc., started to come through the area. Suddenly a shot rang out near us. Apparently, a German soldier hiding in a hole had jumped up, and shot a driver of one of our vehicles and attempted to make his escape in the vehicle.

We rushed across to the scene of action and, to our amazement, a whole company of German soldiers rose out of “dug-in” positions and surrendered to us. We were fortunate that they had elected to surrender, because they greatly outnumbered the weary survivors of our ‘B’ Company.”

Read more of this story on BBC People’s War.

British infantry rushes an enemy strong point through the dust and smoke of enemy shell fire.

South African engineers training with mine detection equipment in North Africa. British and Commonwealth forces trained intensively in minefield clearance in preparation for the Second Battle of El Alamein. This work would continue throughout the battle, often conducted under fire.

A line of Sherman tanks The Queen’s Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards), 1st Armoured Division, at El Alamein, 24 October 1942.

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