Matruh to Ruweisat: Sources

Discussion in 'North Africa & the Med' started by Charley Fortnum, Oct 29, 2016.

  1. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    Can anybody suggest books that focus on the sporadic fighting during the retreat from Mersa Matruh at the end of June 1942 to Ruweisat Ridge from early to July 1942? I know that a great many desert war titles are available that cover this period, but I'd hoped that somebody might mention some that do so in depth.

    I'm especially interested in material pertaining to:

    a) Smithcol (formed 26th June under Major D. J. M. Smith and including elements of 1/4th Essex and a single troop of 121st Field Regiment R.A. - does anybody have the war diary or the regimental history for this period?

    b) Robcol (formed: 1st July under Brig R. B. Waller DSO MC and including elements of 1/4th Essex, 11 Field Regiment R.A ., 'A' battery of 11th RHA (H.A.C.), 265 Anti-Tank Battery and one troop of 155 LAA Battery. Reinforced on 2nd July by 104th (Essex Yeomanry) Regiment RHA and three machine gun platoons and one anti-tank company of 4th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (further reinforced by by a mixed Guards battalion, 9th Rifle Brigade and the mass of 104 RHA and 3 RHA)

    I've ordered a copy of the following as the description seems to offer at least a chunk on the topic, but I'd be glad of any further recommendations.
  2. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

    From The Scots Guards 1919-1955, David Erskine, pages 108 - 115:

    (f) The Alamein Position

    June 1942 marked the nadir of our fortunes in the Middle East. While the New Zealanders fought their great defensive battle at Matruh, every formation that could be collected was moved to the west of Alexandria. In Cairo “the air was full of Bowler Hats and the ashes of secret papers”; at Alexandria what was left of the Fleet began to look for safer harbours.

    On the 27th June the Battalion started for Amiriaya, and on the 30th at Ikingi, preparations were begun for forming a Composite Battalion. The period of rest had been all too short. Rommel had realised that his best chance lay in unrelenting pursuit and attack before a defensive position could be stabilised. “Yesterday the rumble of gunfire reached us again, there was nervousness about the el Alamein Line, the wind whistled through the Eighth Army, and our battered remnants were ordered to take the field.”

    These battered remnants consisted of of Battalion Headquarters (Lieutenant Grant, with Major G.C. Pereira, Coldstream, as second-in-command), one strong composite Company (Right Flank) under Major MacRae, with Captain Maxwell as second-in-command, and consisting of two Motor, one Carrier, one Machine Gun, and one Anti-Tank Platoons, and two weak Coldstream companies under Major Sainthill (who received the D.S.O. for his action at Tobruk and was shortly succeeded by Major B.E. Luard, M.C.), and Captain D.R.W.R. Watts-Russell. “It was rather a blow for the chaps as they had been told they were really coming out at last for a spell in the Delta. However, on the whole everyone has taken it very well, and they realise that their presence is badly needed here. When we got back four days ago things did not look too good, but now everyone is much more confident and we feel it will not be long before the tide starts to flow the other way. The R.A.F. have been wonderful, and I reckon that Rommel would now be in the Delta but for them.”

    On 2nd July the Composite Battalion was moved sixteen miles in the wrong direction, to the detriment of eleven new carriers and further wear on the old ones, and then immediately despatched west to take its place in the Alamein Line, just north of the Ruweisat Ridge. The word “line” in this connection is apt to be misunderstood, for its association with, for instance, the Siegfried Line tends to give the impression that there was a sort of wall of prepared positions behind which the Eighth Army retired. No such wall existed. The original Alamein Line consisted of the partially prepared Alamein Box and little more than good intentions extending south-west to the Quttara Depression. Except for the Alamein Box, this “line” was never in fact held. The final stand which saved Egypt and changed the whole course of the war was made roughly on where the original support line should have been. At no time did the Composite Battalion occupy a position already prepared, and it may be doubted if any other unit outside the Box did so either.

    The move, hindered by the softness of the ground and by break-downs among the Battalion’s aged vehicles, was completed by the morning of the 4th [July], when the Battalion took over protective duties for two Batteries of 3rd R.H.A. “The going was extremely bad,” the War Diary recorded, “and there will be no possibility of withdrawal from this position in face of the enemy. So far there are no mins on our front.” In at least one sector it would seem that General Montgomery’s famous order - “There will be no withdrawals. Absolutely none, none whatsoever - NONE” - had been anticipated by topography, and “there followed days noteworthy through the constant noise of shelling, the heat, the flies (aggravated by the unburied Italians in front of us), and the soft sand, in which our un-desertworthy vehicles often stuck.” It was an exacting life for men already tried, and unnecessary additional irritations made things no easier: the occasion, for instance, when orders were suddenly received to send out a “Deep night patrol” with no further instructions than that the direction had better be west or west-south-west, with the only result that Lieutenant Clarke’s carrier was hit by a shell from a tank at close range and had to be abandoned: a Coldstream sergeant bringing up some badly-needed men and asking the way and being told to got back towards Alexandria as “The Guards Brigade here is a new one just arrived from Syria”, Nor was it clear at times under which formation they were serving. And on top of it all was ever-deferred recall from the Desert and again the growing list of casualties, among them Lieutenant A. Drummond-Hay, who had broken out of Tobruk in the Coldstream party, and was killed by a shell, and Lance-Serjeant A.S. Smith (M.T. Technical Stores) killed in a Stuka raid. But through it all a mood of modified confidence emerged. “All is under control, and if no more mistakes are made we have a great chance of pushing him back some distance. This desert battles will always be a running sore. The supply problem means that we can never get further west than Aphelia. Similarly (we hope) they can’t get any further east than Alamein. All these places are no more than names. There are no buildings there.”

    On the 14th, orders were received to move south under the 7th Armoured Division with the purpose of harassing the enemy and forcing him to withdraw forces from the centre and north, and two days later the Composite Battalion went into action with M and J Batteries R.H.A. to the north-seat of Qaret el Himeimat, a sugar-loaf hill of considerable height, the only distinctive landmark in the area, and much appreciated by navigators. About fifteen miles further west and just over two miles north of the Qatar escarpment, lay el Taqa, one of many flat-topped hills in that part of the Desert, but important both from its size and its position. It was decided that the surest way to cause the enemy to reinforce his southern flank was to gain a footing on the plateau.

    The task was formidable, and in the circumstances the attack was one of the finest achievements of the Regiment in the Desert. Except to the north-west, where the ground fell gradually, making ascent to the plateau a simple matter for tanks, the side of the hill were steep and in places precipitous and the numerous wadis descending from the irregular edge of the plateau made the concealment of defensive positions easy. At the south-eastern corner a single track age the only possible approach for vehicles. A little below the plateau this track crossed a shelf about forty yards wide before completing the ascent. It was as though the top of the mountain had been sliced off and an attempt to take off another slice had been abandoned as soon as begun. It was clear that this pass and the south-eastern edge of the plateau were defended, but careful observation could not identify any anti-tank gun posts, although a patrol from the Battalion was certain they had drawn the fire of one such gun, a captured Russian piece which the Germans had flow across from the Balkans. The only advantage that the ground gave to the attacker was the presence of a similar though smaller hill, Naqb el Khadim, separated from the eastern end of Taqa by a narrow pass and giving concealed forming up and artillery position in its re-entrants.

    Early in the morning of 19th July, Captain Maxwell was sent out with a fighting patrol to secure the pass on to the plateau for the passage of six of the carriers followed by the rest of Right Flank at first light. The attack was successful in that a German officer and three privates were captured, though it was not made in quite the correct place. The proximity of other well-manned enemy posts, however, made it clear that he could not hope to hold the pass with his small party, and he accordingly withdrew with his prisoners. Nevertheless since no signs of any anti-tank guns had been seen that day, it was decided to continue the assault as planned, and at first light the attack went in. As the carriers got close in under the crest they came under heavy fire from machine-guns and anti-tank guns. The leading carrier was almost immediately hit and its commander, Second-Lieutenant M.F. Benson, was killed, and the second carrier under Lieutenant Clarke was also hit and set on fire, Lance-Serjeant Doran, the wireless operator being killed. The situation was saved from getting worse largely by the quickness and courage of Guardsman S.R. McCormick, who engaged the crew of a 50-mm. anti-tank gun so successfully that they never succeeded in manning their gun and then with a grenade silenced a machine-gun post and enabled Lieutenant Clarke and his driver to get away safely from their burning carrier. The remaining crews dismounted, but the impossibility of dealing successfully with the hidden guns made it clear that the carriers alone could not take the position. Right Flank was therefore moved up in trucks to their left where they quickly got two machine-guns into action to give covering fire, while Lieutenant R.A. Willis brought his platoon up to the crest further to the left. On reaching the crest, Lieutenant Willis’ right section was held up by close-range fire from an enemy post set up a little way back on the plateau. Major MacRae at once went forward to this point with Lieutenant Willis to see how the situation could best be handled, but was almost immediately killed by a burt of machine-gun fire and Lieutenant Willis was wounded by a shell from an anti-tank gun.

    Meanwhile the artillery from the north of Naqb el Khadim continued their efforts to silence such enemy posts as they could see, but the lie of the land gave them only a narrow strip of plateau on which to place their shells, and inevitably their “shorts” fell among our won carriers and their “overs” among Lieutenant N.H. Barnes platoon which had come up on the left of Lieutenant Willis’ and was trying to work round the enemy’s right flank. The skill and determination of this attack, which entailed the methodical silencing of each post in turn until the flank of the position was reached, was such that Lieutenant Barne was eventually able to work his way on to the plateau behind the enemy’s position. During this flanking movement, in which the boldness and initiative of Serjeant A. Turner were also conspicuous, the platoon captured two lorries with anti-tank guns and complete crews, and on its gaining the plateau the enemy retreated and the Company was able to advance and occupy the position. In addition to those captured earlier by Captain Maxwell’s party, twenty-nine prisoners were taken, and four anti-tank guns, including the Russian 76-mm. and a number of machine-guns and smaller weapons. Two enemy dead were buried.

    It had never been intended to consolidate and hold the position, but further action was necessary to cover the evacuation of wounded and prisoners and the withdrawal of the Company, Armoured car O.Ps with the Battalion’s four anti-tank guns under Lieutenant Calvocoressi and a troop of South African armoured cars therefore moved out westwards along the plateau, which they had reached by a steep and narrow track, while a carrier patrol with another O.P. went to the northern edge. This anti-tank platoon was the original No. 18 Platoon of Left Flank, the sole survivors of the Rigel battle. One section of two guns mounted on Portees, on the orders of one of the O.Ps, went into action at long range against some enemy field guns. Despite frequent requests for high explosives, the 6-pounders had only armour-piercing ammunition against the field gun’s high explosive, so the result was inevitable. Both the O.P.s were put out of action, the crew of one being rescued by Lieutenant Calvocoressi in an unarmored vehicle. Lieutenant Calvocoressi was soon afterwards wounded when standing beside one of his 6-pounder portees which received a direct hit, but stayed with his guns to deal with an enemy counter-attack led by five tanks until the withdrawal was completed.

    The attack on the Taqa plateau was doubly successful in that it achieved its immediate object and also caused the enemy to reinforce his southern flank, and in the circumstances the casualties (two officers killed and one wounded, and one other rank killed, two wounded, and one missing from the earlier fighting patrol) were astonishingly light. But the loss of Major MacRae was a bitter and grievous blow. Fearless, determined, wise and quick in action, he as a leader such as no Battalion could afford to lose. When his body was brought back on a carrier, the crew would not admit he was dead; the found it too hard to believe. He was buried in the re-entrant on the south side of Naqb el Khadim where his Company had assembled before his last attack, and to commemorate him Pipe-Sergeant A. MacLennan composed a march, which is named after him.

    “There followed uncomfortable days of order and counter-order, when much was required and little finally done.” In the circumstances it was with something approaching surprise that the Battalion learned on the 21st that, having been to considerable trouble on the 19th to ensure that el Taqa was reinforced by the enemy, its next task was to take part in its recapture. It appeared that the occupation of el Taqa was essential to a scheme to send the newly constituted 4th Light Armoured Brigade round behind the main enemy forces, and that this was to be done on the following day in spite of the two essentials of success, tank support and sufficient infantry, not being available. “The men have had a longer innings here than any other unit,” one of the officers wrote. “We have only one Company left, and now that the general situation is in hand we should have a rest to get back and forum up the Battalion again. The men were magnificent in the last engagement, but I am developing a view about the use off the remnants as Shock Troops.” Actually the task given to the Battalion was the comparatively simple one of occupying the western rim of the Naqb el Khadim. But this entailed a night approach followed by the men spending the greater part of the day in shadeless slit trenches, confined by fire from the other side of the pass, under a very hot sun, and with no other sustenance than the warm water in their bottles and the bully that they had carried with them, while two weak battalions of the 69th Brigade put in an unreconnoitred attack that night on the Taqa Plateau. This attack was unsuccessful, and as a continuation of the policy of keeping the enemy’s eyes upon the southern end of his line, the Battalion was invited to carry out another attack on the night of 22/23rd, although the last man only got back to leaguer at 2230 on 22nd.

    The feature to be attacked was that of Gebel Kalakh, a smaller but more precipitous flat-topped hill about seven miles to the north-west. Fortunately the Commanding Officer was able to get the attack postponed, and the wearied men were able to get a short night’s rest before starting off for a morning attack on the Gebel. After advancing about a mile and a half this attack was also cancelled and the Battalion returned to its former position east of Naqb el Khadim. It was perhaps fortunate. An advance over four miles of open country in full view of the enemy before passing through a gap in a minefield into soft sand was not an encouraging introduction to an assault on an unreconnoitred hill so steep that the one track up it was known to be usable only by vehicles coming down. The difficulties in the way for finding the gap in the minefield and attacking and consolidating at night were hardly offset by the advantages of a less conspicuous approach. A night attack, however, was proposed for the same night, but this was also cancelled, and that night the Battalion and 69th Brigade were withdrawn and on the morning of the 25th set off for the north.

    By the afternoon of the 26th the Battalion was in its new area south of the railway between el Imayid and el Alamein stations, and later that day news was received that it was to be relieved with the exception of No. 18 Anti-Tank Platoon, which was required in action a little longer. Two days later the Composite Battalion had split up, and the Coldstream had gone to Mustafa Barracks at Alexandria and the Regiment to Cowley camp at Mena outside Cairo.

    The respite was short, and by 2nd August the Battalion (now composed of two motor companies and Headquarters, all of the Regiment) had taken over guard duties on three aerodromes in the Amirya area and had been rejoined by Lieutenant Butter with No. 18 Platoon after fighting a gallant action at Ruweisat Ridge on the 26th and 27th. However, leave once more became possible, and the discomfort of August in the desert and its flies and the additional dust that goes with aerodromes were considerably alleviated by the kindness of the Royal Air Force.
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  3. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    Thank you for that.

    A few videos for flavour:

    And I've never seen this one before:
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2016
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  4. Stuart Avery

    Stuart Avery In my wagon & not a muleteer.

    Charley, North Africa is not my speciality & I'm not a expert in any campaign. You could try & obtain a copy of.. THE PATH OF THE 50TH, by E.W.CLAY. Published by GALE & POLDEN. Please see the attachment of the contents page. PART TWO, CHAPTER VII . CHAPTER VI may be of use as-well?

    dbf, that's a epic piece of typing skills & knowledge...
    Stu.. ;). Respect for your time
    CCF01112016 (2).jpg
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2016
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  5. Steve Mac

    Steve Mac Very Senior Member

    Morning Charley,

    The 50th (Northumbrian) Division is my main area of interest and I have the book mentioned by Stuart in his post above (and other multifarious sources that cover 50 Div's involvement in the actions you are looking into). That said, your initial post did not request information on 50 Div units. Please let me know if you wish to look at 50 Div sources - which may indeed cross-refer to those units you have a specific interest in anyway.

    You do mention "three machine gun platoons and one anti-tank company of 4th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers". The 4th Bn Royal Northumberland Fusiliers had been a 50 Div unit, but had been permanently removed from the Division on 16 February 1942 and was at this time part of the 22nd Armoured Brigade, 1st Armoured Division. However, it wasn't then known as the 4th Bn Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, rather it was the '50th Recce Regiment'.

    The 50th Recce Regiment got so badly mauled in the Cauldron battles (and its OC killed), that it had effectively ceased to exist circa 19 June 1942. What remained of the Regiment/Battalion formed of their own volition the ad-hoc MG and anti-tank units you refer to. The 8th Army was in a desparate predicament and needed dogged, determined, fighting men to stem the Axis advance. No whinging from these guys about their predicament. They stepped up to the mark.

    I will return later with specific 50th Recce Regiment information, concerning the actions you are looking into.

    NB. One of my great grandfathers served with the 4th Bn [Royal] Nothumberland Fusiliers, 149th Infantry Brigade, 50th (Northumbrian) Division, in WWI, being killed in action on 12 April 1918. I have a 'soft spot' for this Battalion.


    Last edited: Nov 2, 2016
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  6. DaveB

    DaveB Very Senior Member

    Probably useful as background info - using the collection search function at the Australian War Memorial website ( and searching for the word Matruh produces a whole bunch of hits.

    Around 180 photographs, of which 120 relate to WW2 - general scenes of the area before, during & after the period of time in question.
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  7. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    DaveB, thanks for the tip - will explore.

    Steve, thanks for the info (and the correction). I was being rather microscopic and had considered the 50th Div experience that you and Stu mention. Will have a quick read up and take a look at the wider picture and see whether there may be connections.

    Thanks to all.
  8. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    Has anybody read or got:

    Checkmate at Ruweisat: Auchinleck's Finest Hour by Donald Grey Brownlow?

    I'd be grateful if you could let me know whether it's any good?
  9. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    A bump to this thread for those interested that didn't see my post on the 'Coming Soon' thread. The following publication is soon to be published:

    More generally, can anybody manage images of Ruweisat Ridge in 1942?

    I'm usually pretty good at turning such things up online, but nothing is obvious and the few images I do have are hopelessly small.

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