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Speaking in german, although evidently he understood English, he proceeded to harangue me about the ‘gangster’ approaches of the New Zealanders. It appeared that we had bayoneted the German wounded at Minqarqaim in the night battle behind Matruh and he was very considerably annoyed by it. He said that if we wanted to fight rough, so could they, and that any additional action of this sort on our element would be answered by quick reprisals.
As the nearest New Zealander available for such reprisals, it became a rather individual matter to me. I was, nonetheless, capable to clarify our point of view over the occurances of that renowned evening attack. Our 1st wave, going by way of in the dark, caught the Germans by surprise. Some of them, lying on the ground, had fired and thrown bombs right after the initial firm had passed. As a outcome, the supports following on just stuck each man who failed to stand up and surrender. It is fairly probably that some of the Germans had been bayoneted many times by people in passing.
From a passage in Dal McQuirks’s book, "Rommel’s Army in Africa"
published in 1987, McQuirk described how 2nd NZ division "steam-rollered" by way of a German field hospital killing everybody in it. The 104
Regimental Field Hospital lay behind the initial line of German autos
and trenches in an location held by 111 Bn of the 104th Motorised Infantry
Regiment of the 21st Panzer Division. According to McQuirk: "What
followed was an incident that was to incense Rommel and gave rise to
charges in the German Press that the New Zealanders were gangsters
fightingan uncivilised war."
According to each sides it was chaos. Some of the
Afrika Korps described the New Zealand division as behaving like
"Bolsheviks drunk on vodka" and according to Brigadier JT Burrows (4
Brigade), "complained bitterly about the way the New Zealanders carried
out thier bayonet attack that night". Brigadier George Clifton was
closely questioned by Field Marshall Edwin Rommel about the break out
right after Clifton was captured.
Transcript of Phil Goff’s (Minister of Defence) speech throughout the launch of ‘Breakout: Minqar Qaim, North Africa, 1942’
Veterans of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, National President of the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association, John Campbell, Deputy Chief of Army, Brigadier Barry Vryenhoek, Bob Anderson, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for the invitation to launch, Breakout: Minqar Qaim, North Africa, 1942 by Colin Cameron. I congratulate Colin and also Bob Anderson and his group at Willson Scott Publishing.
To Tim Skinner and Capital Books, thank you for hosting this function. Capital Books has a strong tradition of supporting publications about New Zealand’s military history. As a shop much frequented by Defence Force and Ministry of Defence employees, this is an suitable spot to do the launch.
In a couple of days time it will be the 64th anniversary of the New Zealand Division’s epic escape from encircling German forces at Minqar Qaim, near Egypt’s border with Libya. Late in June 1942 the New Zealand Division was within hours of destruction by vastly superior enemy forces. ‘Breakout’ is about how the Division escaped this fate.
Surrounded and facing defeat the following day, the program was formulated for the Division to break by means of the German lines just following midnight on 28 June 1942. The infantrymen of the fourth brigade spearheaded the Division’s attack. Their advance was marked by cheers and Maori war cries that struck terror into the heart their opponents. The attack caught the surrounding German forces by surprise. In confused and ferocious close-quarter combat the New Zealanders bayoneted and shot their way by means of the enemy forces. 1 man, in a quite New Zealand metaphor described how "we went straight down the field by way of everything and everyone, like a pack of All Black forwards."
The Fourth Brigade’s commander Jim Burrows was stunned by the way his males surged forward spontaneously. Every man appreciated that they had been in a desperate position, and that the fate of the New Zealand Division and the hopes of New Zealanders at property depended on them. The spearhead of infantry was followed by hundreds of vehicles of all sorts into which as a lot of men as possible had been crammed.
The breakout was an audacious operation and an electrifying encounter for all these who took component. The New Zealand war artist, Peter McIntyre captured this in his popular painting of the battle. One of the items that comes by way of clearly in this book is the way in which the confusion, fear and exhilaration of that night has imprinted itself on the memory of all who survived it. Colin has used initial-hand accounts, both by New Zealanders and Germans, to bring the battle to life.
The day before the breakout, General Freyberg was seriously wounded and had to pass command of the Division to Brigadier Lindsay Inglis. During the breakout, the improvised ambulance carrying Freyberg was twice hit by enemy fire. At one particular point Freyberg pulled himself up from his stretcher and hunting out a window referred to as out: "My God, One more Balaclava"!
Luckily, the breakout was not an additional charge of the Light Brigade, and despite the fact that the New Zealand Division suffered important losses, it quickly recovered and went on to play a crucial part in stopping the Axis advance into Egypt. Had the Division been destroyed at Minqar Qaim, New Zealand would not have been in a position to make the substantial contribution it did among 1942 and 1945, in North Africa and in Italy, to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The outstanding bravery and leadership displayed by Captain Charles Upham in the course of the breakout is properly known, contributing to the awarding of his second VC. In addition Colin Cameron recounts several other incidents in which the officers and males of the New Zealand Division showed wonderful courage and devotion to duty.
Nonetheless, the breakout was not without having controversy. Sadly, throughout the melee a German medical unit was inadvertently attacked and many of its personnel and patients killed. This incident has led to allegations that some of the New Zealand troops involved in the battle committed a war crime. Colin Cameron’s function, like earlier research that have examined the battle in detail, demonstrates that these charges are not justified. All the accessible proof shows that in the heat of the battle the New Zealand troops involved not aware that the German personnel they have been attacking had been from a medical unit.
Military historian and soldier Chris Pugsley has pointed out, in the context of a battle being fought in the middle of the night ‘anything that moved received interest just in case you all of a sudden got a burst from behind as soon as you had passed over’. A few months soon after the battle, Field Marshal Rommel, the commander of the German Africa Corps, raised these allegations with the newly captured New Zealander, Brigadier George Clifton. Clifton responded by explaining the situations of intense and confused fighting at evening. Rommel, a honourable man and a vastly knowledgeable front-line soldier, accepted this explanation. I hope that this book will support guarantee that what actually happened in the early hours of 28 June 1942 is appropriately understood.
Rommel’s conversation with George Clifton is the most popular exchange between a senior New Zealand officer and an enemy commander. During that conversation Rommel also asked why the New Zealanders have been fighting in North Africa, so far away from their homeland. In this context it is worth repeating wartime Prime Minister, Peter Fraser’s comments about why New Zealand had gone to war with Germany in 1939. Fraser saw the war as "a conflict among two diametrically opposed conceptions of international relationships, among purpose and force" and believed that victory for Germany would "mean the triumph of violence and the trampling underfoot of all that we hold dear".
These very same ideals lie at the heart of why New Zealand at present has its military personnel serving around the planet in locations such as Afghanistan and Timor-Leste. New Zealand has in no way been afraid to stand up for the core values that we treasure. This tradition is an crucial part of New Zealand’s identity on the planet stage.
It is now far more than 60 years given that the end of the Second Globe War. The males and ladies who served our nation in that fantastic conflict are now elderly and with every passing month there are fewer of them to explain to younger New Zealanders what it meant to serve in a globe war. By writing this book Colin Cameron has accomplished a lot to guarantee that this dramatic action and the experiences of these involved are remembered by current and future generations of New Zealanders. It is with pleasure that I officially launch, Breakout: Minqar Qaim, North Africa, 1942.
Steve Weir: New Zealand’s Master Gunner
by Employees Sergeant Tim Rowe
Chapter 4 Return to Battle: Minqar Qaim and Ruweisat Ridge
A planned divisional workout was interrupted on 14 June when the New Zealand Division was suddenly ordered to move to Mersa Matruh in Egypt, following Rommel’s penetration of the 8th Army line at Gazala. The Division departed in piecemeal fashion, gathering isolated detachments en route and reaching the Suez Canal on 19 June. Weir led the Division the rest of the way to Mersa Matruh as Freyberg was temporarily detained in Cairo. As the Division moved westwards, it encountered a mass of 8th Army troops retreating from the front in different states of flight and disorder.
Weir’s orders had been to concentrate the Division to the west of Matruh in readiness for a counterstroke and most of the units have been there by 21 June. News that day that Tobruk had fallen, nonetheless, meant the Division was ordered to withdraw to the Matruh Box. The withdrawal that evening was confused, due to a late alter in the route orders, with a result that Weir described as a ‘sorry spectacle’. The Matruh Box was a poor defensive position, as an escarpment overlooked it from the south. Freyberg (now back from Cairo) was determined to challenge his orders to defend it and appealed to Lieutenant Basic Neil Ritchie (GOC 8th Army). The Division was subsequently ordered to move instead into the Nagamish Nulla and then to Minqar Qaim, an location of higher ground about 25 miles south of Matruh that offered the New Zealanders a a lot better defensive position.
In the course of reconnoitring Minqar Qaim with Weir and Brigadier W. (Bill) Gentry, Freyberg turned to Weir and told him ‘the position we take up will rely a good deal on what you say. You must fight the guns’. Weir later remarked ‘as far as I know, in the development of Artillery doctrine in 2nd NZ Div that occasion marked a optimistic milestone from which we never ever looked back and as far as I know was the first occasion when the specifications of the Artillery Manage took quite higher priority in the siting of the Division’. Weir regarded as Minqar Qaim ‘not a negative position with fair observation and fair cover’ but it was exposed to enemy observation. There was insufficient transport to move the whole Division and six Brigade (stripped of most of its autos) was sent eastwards to Amiriya, whilst the rest of the Division moved south as brigade groups. The New Zealand Division at Minqar Qaim on 26 June consequently faced the Afrika Korps with only two of its three infantry brigades.
There was intense activity all through the evening and at dawn on 27 June, enemy columns have been observed to the north advancing eastwards past the New Zealanders’ positions. A column of the German 90th Light Division was engaged at about 0900 hours and an artillery duel started that lasted most of the day. Late in the afternoon the New Zealand Division was attacked by tanks of the 21st Panzer Division, which emerged from the opposite path. Casualties had been light contemplating the concentrated deployment of the New Zealand guns and the difficulty of digging into the rocky ground, though a significant blow was suffered when Freyberg was seriously wounded. The tanks were lastly driven off by 25-pounders from 6 Field Regiment that had been hastily switched about from the action to the north and by 33 Anti-Tank Battery employing its new 6-pounder guns for the initial time in action. The gunners fought nicely and Kippenberger later commented ‘I could see shells bursting incessantly among our guns and admired the way our gunners were standing to their work’. Headquarters Divisional Artillery had been scattered in the confusion of the evening move and Weir improvised by controlling his guns from the central signals exchange.
By nightfall, the New Zealand Division was encircled. Ammunition was down to 35 rounds per field gun and the Division’s capacity to resist a further attack was extremely a lot in doubt. Brigadier Lindsay (Bill) Inglis (now acting GOC) decided to stage a night breakout to the Alamein line. The artillery’s role was to use the 25-pounders and portee anti-tank guns to guard the transport’s rear and flanks. Thankfully for the New Zealanders, many of the Germans have been caught by surprise as 4 Brigade charged via their lines. Tracer fire was so thick that Weir claimed he ‘dodged lines of fire as you could see them as plain as day’. The charge continued for about 5 miles ahead of halting and then moving off once more to the safety of the Alamein line. Weir was really fatigued at the finish of the battle and journey, describing himself as ‘terribly tired – far more tired than I consider I had ever been before’.
Minqar Qaim was a narrow escape for the New Zealanders. ‘What had saved the division was the potential of the divisional artillery to hold the tanks of Afrika Korps at bay on 27 June and the ability and discipline of the New Zealand transport drivers’. It took a number of days for Weir’s regiments to reorganise in the Kaponga Box, which was occupied by six Brigade and located about 20 miles south of El Alamein. On 30 June, the New Zealand Artillery (less six Field Regiment) departed the Kaponga Box for Deir el Munassib, which was ten miles away. The Alamein to Qattara line was thinly manned more than its 40-mile length and Rommel was anticipated to launch a final offensive to reach the Nile Valley.
It was soon evident that Rommel’s forces have been advancing towards Ruweisat Ridge – a extended and narrow function protruding into the Alamein Line. Weir was ordered to ‘take out a column and roam the nation and do what I could’. The column, comprising an infantry battalion and 32 guns, after patrolling an region to the west, narrowly avoiding firing on a British column and being shelled by British artillery, halted and laagered for the night. At daybreak, a massive concentration of Italian tanks, autos and guns (like Italian-manned German 88-mm guns) of Ariete Armoured Division was spotted on a ridge about a mile and a half away, oblivious to the presence of the New Zealanders. Weir went up to have a look, expecting them to be element of two Armoured Brigade but right away recognised the 88s. He rapidly got his forward observer officers collectively and ordered the guns aimed on the Italian position. What followed was described by Lieutenant Colonel Jim Burrows (acting GOC 4 Brigade) as ‘one of the most extraordinary artillery duels that have ever been fought – a actual toe to toe slugging match with the gunners on each sides blasting each other more than open sights’.
4 batteries of New Zealand artillery (four Field Regiment and 28 Battery) plus 4 troops of anti-tank guns simultaneously opened fire. The Italian gunners returned fire but have been silenced within 30 minutes. Burrows described Weir that morning ‘literally licking his lips at the glorious chance that had presented itself, his large voice booming encouragement to his gun teams’. Following an hour, Weir ordered firing to cease and sent in some infantry from 19 Battalion who returned with about 500 prisoners. In addition, 11 German 88mm guns, seven Italian 105mm, four Italian 75-mm and over 30 Italian 47-mm guns have been captured, along with 3 tanks and over 100 autos. Only two New Zealand infantrymen have been wounded. Weir inspected the carnage for himself, ‘Italian gunners [have been] blown to bits and burnt to death by exploding charges, not by the dozen but by the hundred’. This action on three July severely broken the Ariete Division and has been described in the Official History as an ‘outstanding episode in the Dominion’s military history’. Even Rommel described the attack on Ariete as a ‘complete success’ and a ‘reverse that took us totally by surprise’.
The New Zealand Division (renamed 2nd New Zealand Division on 8 July) regrouped and prepared for a evening attack on the western half of Ruweisat Ridge. four and 5 Brigades had been deployed close to Alam Nayil on 11 July and for the subsequent two days, Weir and his employees worked challenging on the artillery plan. Throughout this time the guns were continuously in action harassing the enemy and engaging identified targets in preparation for an assault in the early hours of 15 July.
The night attack on Ruweisat by the New Zealand Division was initially effective. The infantry pushed by means of the enemy front and seized most of the objectives, but they by-passed pockets of enemy infantry and 20 tanks of 8th Panzer Regiment. These had been left unmolested and proved decisive in stopping most of the anti-tank guns and all of the artillery from following up in support. With daylight, the unprotected infantry on prime of the function were exposed to shellfire and an armoured counter attack. The ridge was as well rocky for digging in and the result was a disaster with 355 troops taken prisoner, mostly from 22 Battalion.
The New Zealand Artillery was on get in touch with for the attack and fired in assistance at maximum range. Weir ready his regiments to move up to the edge of Ruweisat, but enemy fire forced them to halt. The gunners had been then forced to engage the enemy forces in their instant vicinity, sometimes under air attack, at the expense of supporting their personal infantry on best of Ruweisat Ridge. Matters were created worse when couple of of the forward observers accompanying the infantry succeeded in sustaining radio speak to. Promised British armoured assistance failed to arrive and the position became untenable.
Ruweisat Ridge was a frustrating battle for the artillery and Weir acknowledged his regiments’ failure to provide adequate assistance. He later wrote ‘I don’t consider there is any doubt that the Artillery did fail to give good help on this day’. Weir attributed considerably of the blame to himself as the CRA, for not effectively communicating the difficulties for the guns to the acting divisional commander. The guns had to support an advance over a long distance (about seven miles) and the loss of fire cover for the attacking infantry would be critical if the guns were unable to speedily deploy nearer to Ruweisat Ridge right after its capture. Kippenberger was a single who felt that Weir was unduly difficult on himself, noting that ‘we all saw the difficulty and knew what variety our guns had’. One constructive outcome for the employment of artillery did emerge from Ruweisat – the BRA, Headquarters 8th Army broke with tradition and for the 1st time co-ordinated the British artillery under centralised handle.
The New Zealanders had been in action once more on 21 July when Auchinleck ordered a additional attack. 6 Brigade advanced along Ruweisat Ridge towards the El Mreir depression below a heavy preliminary bombardment from Weir’s 3 regiments, 64th Medium Regiment, RA (beneath Weir’s command) and an RHA battery. At zero hour at 2045 hours, the artillery erupted and ‘the dim skyline was darkened with the pall of dust and smoke from the mass of heavy artillery concentrations’. It was one of the heaviest concentrations so far in the North African campaign and ‘only 1st Globe War guys had knowledgeable something like it’.
The infantry attack by six Brigade was initially successful but it was soon pinned down on the primary objectives and the troubles of a week prior surfaced once more. The anti-tank guns of 7th Anti-Tank Regiment suffered heavy casualties from enemy artillery and tiny arms fire while advancing and the infantry faced close attack from German tanks at initial light. British armoured help once again failed to arrive and by the finish of the day the New Zealand Division had lost 6 Brigade Headquarters and most of 24th and 25 Battalions, comprising a total of 904 guys. The gunners lost 25 anti-tank guns, of which half were six-pounders. The portee anti-tank guns suffered the heaviest losses with Brigadier George Clifton (GOC 6 Brigade) lamenting that ‘it is regrettable that the gun shield is not double and proof against heavy MG [machine gun] fire’. The New Zealand Artillery gave further support on the evening of 26/27 July to a diversionary attack in the north and then settled into a lull as both sides ceased offensive operations, due to few remaining reserves and a mutual state of exhaustion.
The 8th Army’s morale was at its lowest ebb in the aftermath of the disasters of Ruweisat Ridge and El Mreir. The New Zealanders, from the divisional commander down, felt certain contempt for the British armour that had twice failed to help them at essential junctures and had diminishing self-confidence in the 8th Army’s high command. Kippenberger revealed his disdain for the overall performance of Gott and Auchinleck in private letters house and was reluctantly admonished by Freyberg. Weir privately shared this lack of confidence and later wrote that ‘this period will stand out in my memory as one particular of fantastic vacillation and lack of determination on the part of our [8th Army] larger command’.