Fourth light - Alamein to Tunis - July 1942 to May 1943
In order to watch the wide left flank of the Alamein - Himeimat line and to control the increasing number of armoured car regiments becoming available, 4th Armoured Brigade was now reformed as a Light Armoured Brigade. Brigadier W. G. Carr, DSO, then commanding 22nd Armoured Brigade, a 12th Lancer who had commanded 4th CLY, took over command from Brigadier Richards. The task of patrolling on sectors on which contact was slight had in the past generally been done by the support group, later the motor brigade of the division. The disadvantages of tying the motor brigade down to this task had been made painfully clear in May. Although officially now an independent brigade, we continued to serve under command of 7th Armoured Division and to carry their sign. 22nd Armoured Brigade took our place as the armoured brigade of the division, a place it has filled ever since. At first the brigade was composed of 11th Hussars and 12th Lancers, 4th Hussars with one squadron of 8th Hussars, equipped entirely with Stuarts, RHQ and one squadron of 3rd CLY (Sharpshooters) 3 RHA and 1st Bn KRRC. After 69 Brigade's abortive attack on the Taqa plateau, we took our place on the left of the line, 1 KRRC, supported by 4/8 Hussars holding Himeimat, with one company back at Samaket Gaballa with the Sharpshooters. 11th Hussars and 12th Lancers took it in turns to patrol south of the escarpment to Maghra, and to send long distance patrols as far afield as Qara. There was little incident until, on the last night of August, Rommel made his final attack to reach Alexandria. Breaking through the minefield north of Himeimat, he advanced slowly, picking his way as cautiously through dummy as through real minefields, to Deir el Ragil, harassed by the brigade on his right and rear. His advance however had forced us to abandon first Himeimat and then Samaket Gaballa, as it had always been foreseen that it would. When he turned north east on the following day, we continued to harry his long right flank as his head came to an abrupt halt, held by 22nd and 8th Armoured Brigades. After several days' battering from the ground and air, he withdrew to a line running north from Himeimat, to which he clung. We continued to carry on with our old job.
The formation of 10 Corps wrought many changes. Brigadier Carr went home, replaced by Brigadier Mark Roddick, recently arrived from England as second in command of 22nd Armoured Brigade. 12th Lancers left us, replaced by 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry, and we were reinforced by The Royal Scots Greys, who had been serving as a fourth regiment in 22nd Armoured Brigade, after coming into the field ahead of the rest of their original armoured Brigade, the 8th. The Sharpshooters left us to reform in the Delta.
Shortly before the battle of Alamein, we were relieved by 1st Free French Brigade, and lost the Greys to 22nd Armoured Brigade. We carried out several exercises to practise our future role of exploiting the break-through, even to the extent of being equipped with carrier pigeons. When the battle of Alamein began on October 23rd, we were in reserve under 7th Armoured Division, ready to pass through 22nd Armoured Brigade, if they succeeded in breaking through the minefields east of Gebel Kalakh. This they had not managed to do when they were withdrawn from the south and sent up north on November 1st. The Greys rejoined us, but 11th Hussars left with 7th Armoured Division, 1st Household Cavalry Regiment taking their place. By November 4th the enemy had been finally broken, and 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions had begun to break out. The Brigade, under command of 2nd New Zealand Division passed through on the left, heading straight for the escarpment west of Fuka. We reached this, after capturing crowds of prisoners, on the afternoon of the 5th, but were held up there by a determined rearguard of 15th Panzer Division. 7th Armoured Division that night crossed us and turned north on our left. A short pause for petrol followed, while it poured with rain: we then continued the advance along the coast road west from Matruh, while 7th Armoured Division drove west well into the desert to the south. Late on the 11th, after dealing with a series of rearguards, we reached the foot of Halfaya Pass defended by the Italian Pistoia Division reinforced by Germans. This was attacked by the New Zealanders during the night: first light found us at the head of the pass in time to join hands with 22nd Armoured Brigade coming from the south. The enemy made no attempt to hold Bardia which we entered that afternoon.
We now returned to 7th Armoured Division, taking over command of the Royals and 4th South African Armoured Car Regiment in place of 2 Derby Yeo and the Household Cavalry. Taking a wide sweep to the south, we reached Knightsbridge at last light on the 13th and Acroma on the morning of the 14th, capturing the tail of the Germans fleeing west from Tobruk. Leaving the Royals under command Of 7th Armoured Division, and also leaving behind 4/8th Hussars, who handed over their few remaining tanks to the Greys, we continued the pursuit along the coast road into the Gebel.
Mines and road blocks were our trouble here and progress was slower. Brigadier Roddick was himself wounded on a mine and was succeeded by Brigadier C. B. (Roscoe) Harvey, DSO, another 10th Hussar. We entered Benghazi on November 20th, just beating the 11th Hussars, who came from the south.
We paused there for a few days while the King's Dragoon Guards took the place of 4th South African Armoured Car Regiment. We then rejoined the rest Of 7th Armoured Division between Agedabia and Agheila, and took up our usual position on the open left flank, the Royals returning to our command.
By 25th November Rommel had managed to form a firm defensive position at Mersa Brega, which could not be assaulted or turned by the slender forces which were all we had there and could maintain at the time. By December 12th 30 Corps had taken over control over operations from 10 Corps, bringing up 51st (Highland) Division and the 2nd New Zealand Division. 8th Armoured Brigade had replaced 22nd Armoured Brigade in 7th Armoured Division and we passed to the command of the New Zealand Division on the left flank, prepared to outflank the Mersa Brega - Agheila position by a direct advance north of Marada to cut the road between Agheila and Marble Arch. Faced with this threat, the enemy began to withdraw: by that time we were south-west of Agheila, but had not cut the coast road to the north. On the 15th December, while we protected the left flank, New Zealand troops turned north to do this, but got into great difficulties in trying to cross a very large soft wadi.
The main body of the enemy got away to the west that night by the light of a brilliant moon. During the 16th we had a running fight all day with a succession of rearguards, and on the morning of the 17th met the enemy's main body near Nofilia. The Greys closed in on the village from the east and south while the KDG watched the west. The leading squadron of the Greys overran the enemy's forward positions, capturing some 200 prisoners. A tank battle followed against some 30 German tanks, while the New Zealand Division passed round to the south of us in an attempt to outflank Nofilia and cut the road north-west of where the battle was going on. The enemy recognised the threat and began to withdraw, aided by the oncoming darkness. During the night the whole force withdrew. 7th Armoured Division now took on the pursuit and we stayed near Nofilia. 1st Bn KRRC left us to join 7 Motor Brigade, being very much in need of rest and re-equipment. Their place was taken by the 2nd Battalion, who have stayed with us ever since.
On the 21st we rejoined 7th Armoured Division, leaving the Greys behind with the New Zealand Division, with whom they were to stay for the rest of the campaign in North Africa. By the 24th we had closed up to the rearguard position just east of Sirte, which was evacuated that night. A thick ground mist and the presence of many mines and booby traps around Sirte delayed the pursuit, and it was not until Boxing Day that we regained contact with a rearguard of some strength on the Wadi Chebir. This rearguard withdrew on the night of the 27th into the enemy's main position, which was found to run from the sea just north of Buerat el Hstin, south-west across the main road west of the village, thence parallel to and south of the road to about 5 miles south-east of Gheddahia, whence patrols operated southwards along the line of the track to Bu Ngem. We took over the task of observation and keeping contact with the enemy along the entire front, 11th Hussars also coming under our command.
A further pause followed while supplies were built up, landing grounds built and more troops brought forward. Our main trouble in these weeks came from the GAF who carried out a daily strafe of our area. Patrols of SAS and LRDG were busy at this time spying out the land behind the enemy's line in preparation for our next move.
On the morning of January 15th ' 8th Armoured Brigade crossed the road from Gheddahia to Bu Ngem, the New Zealand Division coming up on their left. We crossed the New Zealand Division to our traditional station on the open left flank, remaining under command of 7th Armoured Division, although the New Zealand Division was between us and the rest of the division. Our objective was Beni Ulid and our route a narrow defile through the broken desert, previously reconnoitred by the LRDG. It was atrocious going and progress slow. It was not till the afternoon of the '7th that we made contact with the enemy east of Beni Ulid, which 8th Armoured Brigade were beginning to outflank from the north-east. Enemy vehicles were closely packed in the village: in the failing light 2nd Bn KRRC, supported by 3rd RHA, closed up on the tail of the column and caused much damage, continuing to shoot it up after dark. The enemy got away what he could during the night, but when we entered the village in the morning we collected a fair haul of prisoners and found a large number of destroyed or abandoned vehicles including thirteen Italian M 13 tanks. We could not continue up the main road to Tarhuna as the bridge was blown and there was no possible deviation. We set off therefore by a very indifferent track west of the main road, hoping to reach the track from Tarhuna to Garian about half way between the two. Every Arab assured us that the country was impassable, to all but donkeys and camels. It was not impassable, but it was the nearest thing to it imaginable. To add to the trials imposed by the frightful difficulties of the rocky, hilly country intersected by sheer wadis, we were subject to continuous attacks by Stukas and Messerschmidts. However we struggled through somehow and were rewarded by KDG finding what everyone was looking for, a way down the escarpment west of Tarhuna. On January 20th KDG went down the escarpment into the sea of soft sand below, while the Royals turned west along the track to Garian. KDG met some German tanks south of Azizia which might have proved troublesome, as their armoured cars were all getting stuck. On the 21St the rest of the brigade, less the Royals and one battery Of 3rd RHA, who had met an enemy rearguard east of Garian, descended the escarpment, the Greys leading the New Zealand Division following us and coming up on our right. While others raced for Tripoli, we turned west above and below the escarpment.
On the 22nd the Royals entered Garian, welcomed by the Italians as protection against the Arabs: there they joined hands the following day with General Leclerc's Free French force, which had come all the way from Lake Chad. While the rest of the division was celebrating the capture of Tripoli, we pushed further west to Jefren, communication with the Royals being made difficult by the fact that the roads up the escarpment at Garian and Jefren were both blown. 4th Field Squadron RE mended the blow below Jefren and we were able to join forces again. Extended to our utmost limit we pushed further westwards, and on February 2nd crossed the frontier into Tunisia, the first troops of Eighth Army to do so. Here we were up against old enemies, the German 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance units, and continued to have very considerable trouble from the Luftwaffe.
At the end of January Brigadier Harvey left us to take over command of 8th Armoured Brigade: he was succeeded by Brigadier D. S. Newton King, DSO, who had for so long commanded the 4th South African Armoured Car Regiment and had more recently been second-in-command of 22nd Armoured Brigade.
Gradually we forced back the enemy's patrols to a close ring round Fourn Tatahouine. The rest of the division meanwhile was struggling with the salt marshes near El Assa: after a causeway had been built, Ben Gardane was captured on February 15th, and 12th Lancers quickly closed up to Medenine. Meanwhile we faced the problem of capturing Fourn Tatahouine, a hilly stronghold on the edge of the ridge of mountains running south-east from the Mareth Line. By a brilliantly conducted attack 2nd Bn KRRC captured the key position commanding the approach from the east and quickly cleared the village itself. We now began pushing up the narrow tracks into the mountains, and linked up with the rest of the division on our right south of Medenine. As we pushed the enemy back northwards, we opened up a route through the mountains and joined hands again with General Leclerc on the far side. Brigadier Newton King was now succeeded by Brigadier John Currie, DSO, MC. At Alamein he had commanded 9th Armoured Brigade, before which he had commanded 2nd Armoured Brigade for a short time. At the beginning of March the Free French Flying Column, a small party of mobile troops which included a squadron of Crusader tanks, came under our command.
The New Zealand Division, with the Greys still under their command, also arrived to take over the area of Medenine and we came under them. On March 6th Rommel made his famous attack on Metameur and Medenine from the west. One column. struck south-east and was hotly engaged by the Free French Flying Column. By the end of the day it had been driven back to join the main body in its rout. After the battle we continued our difficult and novel task of mountain warfare. A Ghurka battalion came under our command from 4th Indian Division and soon made the mountains unpopular with the enemy. Before the Battle of Mareth began, the New Zealand Division with the Greys passed through us, by the mountain route we had opened up, to join General Leclerc west of the hills, and we came under command of 1st Armoured Division who had taken their place.
The Battle of Mareth opened on March 21st. On the 24th, when it was clear that the 50th Division's attack at the north end of the line had failed, 1st Armoured Division crossed the mountains to join the New Zealand Division south of El Hamma and 4th Indian Division took on the job of clearing the mountains. We returned to 7th Armoured Division moving up to the area west of Medenine between 22nd Armoured Brigade and 4th Indian Division. Our final job in the Battle of Mareth was the capture of the precipitous foothills astride the main road to Toujane, which was brilliantly carried out by 2nd Bn KRRC; their attack, and that of 1st Bn The Rifle Brigade on their right, resulting in the capture of a large part of the Italian Pistoia Division. Meanwhile the New Zealand Division, with their faithful Royal Scots Greys, and 1st Armoured Division had inflicted a crushing defeat on the enemy at El Hamma and forced him back to the line of the Wadi Akarit. We moved up to near Gabes with 7th Armoured Division, but left them there to join 10 Corps. We took no part in the battle of Akarit itself, which opened on April 6th, but followed 1st Armoured Division through and came out on their left, watching the open flank between them and the American 1st Armoured Division of First Army. We continued this task without incident as 1st Armoured Division advanced to La Fauconerie and Kairouan. At Kairouan we relieved 1st Armoured Division, who went to join First Army, and found ourselves between General Leclerc's Free French force on our right and the 19th French Corps of General Giraud's forces on our left, a tricky situation. We continued the advance north capturing Pjebibina, and pushing the enemy back into the foothills to the north. It was an unpleasant position in open low ground, overlooked by mountains on all sides: enemy shelling was intense and accurate, causing many casualties. We took command of General Leclerc's force, coming under command Of 7th Armoured Division later, when they moved up to Kairouan on April 16th. Between April 20th and 27th we pushed the enemy further back still into the hills, 22nd Armoured Brigade coming up on our right near Djebel Fadeloun, while New Zealand Division were attacking Enfidaville and Takruna and 4th Indian Division scaling Djebel, Garci. On the 28th 7th Armoured Division and 4th Indian Division were taken away to go round to First Army, and all further ideas of an attack on Eighth Army's front were abandoned. We returned to the command of the New Zealand Division. Our only other moment of excitement between then and the end of the campaign in North Africa on May 13th, was the negotiation of the surrender of the Italian Army by General Messe to General Freyberg. The operator on the brigade command net picked up a message from General Messe, which was passed to General Freyberg. We arranged a rendezvous for their representatives by the same means. We were sorry not to be in on the triumphant entry into Tunis, but could feel that we had contributed a very fair share to victory in North Africa since our formation in Egypt three and a half years before.