- Contributed by
- Kenneth D Kettle
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- Ken Kettle
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- 29 November 2005
Operational map of the "Battle of Alam El Halfa Ridge"
1942 The 8th Army — 44th Infantry Division
131 The Queen’s Brigade
Lt Ken Kettle o/c Mortar Platoon
The battle in the Western Desert had for long hung in the balance. Rommel’s first attacks had met with only moderate success, and at one time, his whole Army was within an ace of being cut off and annihilated. But then the tide turned and on the 15th June 1942 the British met with a severe defeat at Knightsbridge, Tobruk was over run and later surrendered with over 20,000 prisoners and vast quantities of stores.
The 8th Army retreated but General Auckileck took over personal command and on 1st July a reinforced Army held up the Germans at El Alamein close to Alexandria, about a forty mile narrow stretch between the sea and the impassable Qattara depression, a salty marsh in the south. Here there was a pause while both sides built up their strength.
In Russia the Germans had managed to hold up the powerful Russian winter offensive with only small losses of ground and were now returning to the offensive themselves. Whilst in the Far East the Japanese had overrun Burma and the Dutch East Indies. They were threatening Ceylon and India and building up Raboul and New Guinea as bases for the invasion of Australia.
Mr Churchill had early in the year foreseen the advantage of having a mobile reserve well on its way during May and June to reinforce any front that needed it and in March he had asked President Roosevelt for enough shipping to carry two Divisions (44th and 8th armoured) which had sailed a week or two earlier, with destinations a secret and by the time they reached the Indian Ocean, they could be used where urgently needed.
The convoy was a large one. In addition to the eight ships carrying the 44th Division there were fifteen others, besides an escort that, to begin with, consisted of HMS Rodney, HMS Nelson, an aircraft carrier and a number of Destroyers.
The 1/6th and 1/7th Battalions of the 131 Queen’s Brigade were in the British ship “The Strathallen” 23,000 tons still a P and O Passenger ship, one of the latest in design and the last “wet ship” in a convey (whisky was three pence and Gin two pence) Brigade HQ was also on board. Unlucky for them the 1/5th Btn were transported in relative hardship by the Christobal, and American “dry ship.”
We sailed from Glasgow on 30th May 1942 in rough weather for several days, then the escort left and normal ship routine started. A comprehensive programme of training of fitness was carried out, route marches around the top decks, swimming (in two pools), crossing of the line ceremony on the equator, boxing and P.T. at 6am, except Sunday. There were some eighty Queen Alexander’s nurses aboard, and those of us officers who enjoyed their company, in the main dining room, dressed up (KD mess uniforms) for the six course dinner every night, when not on submarine watch!
On 13th June we sailed into Freetown, Sierra Leone and remained on board for 4 days. Then Capetown 30th June for five days wonderful leave. After dropping anchor on the 24th July at Aden, we disembarked at Suez, entrained at Cairo and into the desert for training at Khatatha Camp, 60 miles from Cairo. We experience our first sandstorm for some 24 hours, strong winds, oppressive heat, sand everywhere. At least the swarms of flies that pestered us day and night are temporarily laid low. We sit it out in our tents or bivouacs, and stay undercover, all part of making us “Desert Worthy”. The camp was not comfortable but the training was good, and a valuable exercise was carried out by Commanding and Senior officers for several days in the fighting line.
Mr Churchill who visited the Middle East front in August was deeply dissatisfied and decided changes of command were necessary. He appointed General Alexander as Commander-in-Chief Middle East, and General Montgomery as Commander-in-Chief of the Eighth Army. The effect of the changes, especially the arrival of “Monty”, as he was affectionately known, whom we have already met in the Queen’s battalions in Southern England when he was Brigade Division and Corps Commander, and a new spirit was felt throughout the Army.
His first glance at the operational maps showed the outstanding importance of the Alam El Haifa Ridge that overlooked the Southern area of the El Alamein line and more importantly had insufficient troops within the Eighth Army holding it. He decided he must have the 44th Division moved at once. Monty personally got on the phone to General Alexander and on the 14th August 1942 the Division started moving the same night and was complete at the front in two days, joining the Eighth Army in the desert.
The three battalions 1/5th, 1/6th and the 1/7th of the 131 Queen’s Brigade, part of this 44th Division moved to the Alam El Halfa Ridge which was some fifteen miles behind the front and commanded a large area of Desert. It was undoubtedly the key to the whole position and any “right hook” by Rommel must capture it to be successful. The Battalions dug themselves in, hard work on the rocky ground (see map)
There was an effective minefield surrounding the position and it was ordered that the ridge would be held to the last. The 44th Division with the New Zealand and 7th Armoured Division formed the Southern XIII Corps of the Army. The Corps Commander (also newly arrived) was Lt. Gen B.G. Horrocks who had preceded Maj Gen Hughes in Command of the 44th Division. On August 20th the Division positions were visited by the Prime Minister, Mr Churchill, whose cheerful words and demeanour gave great encouragement.
On the 3rd August Rommel had announced to his troops that in two to three days they would be in Alexandria, along with the final annihilation of the enemy, the Eighth Army was nearly ready.
The attack came in the South as expected and throughout the 31st the enemy with the German 15th, 21st Panzers, 90th Light Division and an Italian Corps (plus two Armoured Divisions) advanced through our minefields (marked January, February, Nuts and May on the map) between Munassib and Himeimat where upon they where immediately engaged by our light forces. General Montgomery hoped they would strike against his powerfully held Alam El Halfa Ridge having planted a false map on the enemy. Here they were checked by the British heavy Armour, strongly attacked from the air and violently shelled by artillery including that of the 44th Division. The continuous shelling and bombing together with the harassing of their transport by our light Armour finally forced the enemy to give up his attack and retire.
During this battle the 131 Brigade had closed the gaps in their minefields and were subjected several times to dive bombing and shelling on their front, but they were well dug in and there was a steady flow of information down to the individual soldier which ensured good moral.
This vital battle attracted little attention, but if it had been lost we might well have lost Egypt, whereas now the initiative had passed to the Eighth Army. General Bayerlein, the German Commander of the Africa Korps, attributed their defeat to the surprising strength of the Alam El Halfa position. It is note worthy that “Monty”, whom the Division had been serving in England, had a high enough opinion of Queen’s to entrust to it the key to this position, though this was the first experience of Desert fighting.
On the 13th September our patrols verified that the enemy was holding the Munassib depression as a defence to our January and February minefields, and it was clear it would be of great advantage in future operations if this feature could be in our hands. It was therefore decided to attack it, and the 131 Brigade was detailed for the task.
The actual attack took place on the night of September 28th/29th. The approach march covered seven miles by lorry and two miles on foot. It was marked with covered lanterns placed by the Provost Company (Military Police) and was accomplished quietly without interference by the enemy. The barrage by nine field regiments of Artillery came down at 05:25 hrs and was most impressive, a great semi circle of continuous flashes. I lead the Mortar Platoon in twelve carriers split into four section, behind the infantry. The 1/6th Queen’s were well up with the barrage and as soon as it stopped were onto their first objective of the Pimples. There was no opposition, so their forward Companies pressed on to the final objective. This was also unoccupied and the 1/6th seized it without any casualties, though the enemy gun fire came down as soon as ours stopped. Machine gun and mortar fire from further west and south also joined in. Any prepared positions were found and occupied.
During the 29th the 1/6th Battalion, who had fortunately found unoccupied positions on their objective came in for fairly heavy shelling. Its positions were fully exposed to the enemy on the opposite side of the depression about a thousand yards away so bringing in the transport was a hazardous operation, but Maj J.H. Mason managed it with great dash and skill.
The mortars in the carriers found great difficulty in the dark and intermittent shelling fire from Artillery and tanks, of finding cover in support of the forward Infantry Companies.
I was forced out of my vehicle to run across areas, finding each one of the four Sergeants (section leaders) suitable locations. The noise of our engines together with our tracks over rocky ground and the illumination from the shelling gave the enemy some idea of our force and position, this invited more direct fire power. This came of in the form of the “Mini-Werfen”, a barrel like cement mixer wound by a handle that fired eight sizable mortar bombs in succession each with its own hideous whistle that followed its passage before exploding on the ground adding to the “confusion and fear”. I will never forget, it was during this early stage that one of these bombs whistled down suddenly and landed right in front of me in the soft sand with a thud. There was no explosion, thank god it was a dud!
I didn’t dwell, nor did I have time to think of the fatal consequences that might have been. In fact I preferred to feel my luck was in and it was a good omen. Later on I’m sure it gave me a source of courage at other “Tricky” times. Certainly a Sergeant and one or two others nearby at the time told me sometime afterwards, jokingly, that they were mighty pleased not to have to hang around looking for the pieces!!! Also later my batman Roy Saville (and also my gunner) was reported to have said “Thank Christ he had been allowed to remain in the carrier” rather than follow me around which is part of his normal duties when on foot on active service. A fine trustworthy lad from the heart of Bermondsey South East London like most of the Battalion.
With the approach of dawn my mortars were well dug in supporting the leading Companies, but the open exposed forward slopes would prevent any movement by day and all replenishment of supplies and meals were restricted to night time. On a more personal note this also restricted our daytime tolitery habits due to the high risks involved in exposing ourselves to the enemy!
The positions where heavily shelled and mortared during the day, sometimes at night by both sides. Towards evening an enemy counterattack could be seen forming up. Major A.R. Trench MC the Company Commander with complete disregard for his own safety went, accompanied by CSM Stratford, from platoon to platoon and directed the fire of all his weapons including his medium machine guns on the enemy. While bringing up extra ammunition to them he was severely wounded in the leg but continued to shout encouragement to his Company until the attack died away. He was then evacuated meeting Lt Col Gibbs the CO on the way. He and CSM Stratford both died in hospital from their wounds. The enemy heavy bombardment of artillery and mortars and other direct fire power continued over the next six days and nights. Capt J Priestly HQ Coy Commander and three other officers and 53 men where killed and the 1/6th Queens reached their objectives. The 1/7th were brought up on our left and the 132 Bde went back to the Hogs Back.
I feel I must add I’m naturally very pleased my name is not on this causality list here (or any other for that matter as we soldiered on) as I’m still lucky enough to enjoy a happily married life of 64 years, my age now being 87 this November. I continue to express gratitude for my good fortune, and will never forget the camaraderie, friendships and survival spirit found and enjoyed throughout my service life of six years in all the Armed Services. I remember with considerable sadness all those left behind and now its goodbye to so many gallant veterans as this year 2005 has seen the last of all commerative celebrations after 60 years.
Capt KD Kettle MC
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