Operational Accounts of the 41/47RTR
 

4lst (Oldham) Royal Tank Regiment (TA).

An account of operations 19th to the 29th October 1942

written by Lieutenant Colonel J B Whitehead MC TD, Commanding Officer

"This diary of events may be of some assistance when the history of the Regiment (41 RTR) is written and may provide some details for the history of the 24th Armoured Brigade which was later broken up, with the exception of 41 RTR, to provide highly trained tank personnel for other armoured brigades. This step was inevitable, damaged tanks could be repaired quicker than personnel casualties could be healed and the junior brigade, 24th, was chosen for this unfortunate role."

September 20th Whilst the Regiment (41st RTR) was part of the 8th Armoured Division, the Divisional Commander, Major General C H Gairdner CBE, and the 10 Corps Commander, Lieutenant General H Lumsden DSO MC, had a sand-model exercise at Divisional Headquarters, some 30 miles east of Gebl Ruzza, at which all formation commanders attended. In great detail they explained the forming up of a division, the march to the assembly area, the passage of the division through our own and the enemy minefields, and then into the forming-up position beyond ready for the attack. It must be mentioned that our advance party was to be preceded by an infantry division plus a few Valentine tanks to establish a bridgehead into which the 8th Armoured Division would move.

September 24th The 8th Armoured Division actually carried out this exercise in every detail and it was successfully done. The sand was very soft, tanks had to pull out guns and lorries, and many had to be left behind and some days passed before all were recovered. Our tanks, Shermans, and transport have had a gruelling time since we received them new in early September and all ranks long for the day of battle, feeling that both 'A' and 'B' vehicles are being worked too hard with little time for maintenance. The Regiment moved slowly by bounds in a north-westerly direction across the desert and long journeys had to be done daily for water and rations.

October 11th Major General C H Gairdner said good-bye to us as we (24th Armoured Brigade) were to come under command lOth Armoured Division, 8th Armoured Division Headquarters was to be left behind.

October 12th The Regiment was encamped at "Pools after Rain", Point 149, (map reference) 488867 (Cairo map) and a week allowed for solid maintenance. A number of crews were sent by road for odd days leave to Alexandria, all were to be ready for a move forward by the l9th October. The Regimental group was now formed, placing 'G' Battery 5th Royal Horse Artillery, 'B' Company 11th Battalion (Queen's Westminster's) The King's Royal Rifle Corps (TA), one section 8 Light Field Ambulance and one troop 166 Light Anti Aircraft Battery and one reconnaissance troop Royal Engineers under command Lieutenant Colonel J B Whitehead MC TD, Commanding Officer 41 RTR.

October 19th At 1600 hours l9th October the Commanding Officer addressed all ranks of Headquarters Squadron 41st RTR, and at 2030 hours the Regimental group moved off on the first phase. After moving some 20 miles to a staging area, the Regimental group remained dispersed and the tanks were quickly camouflage painted by the special camouflage section.

October 20th The Commanding Officer at this time was on his way to Amirya to attend a conference with the 8th Army Commander, Lieutenant General B L Montgomery, and at 1000 hours 20th October, the Army Commander gave his plan for the battle. He stated it was to be one of the decisive battles of the war and he had no fears about the result. So far as it affected the 24th Armoured Brigade, the New Zealand Division was to attack at 2200 hours 23rd October 1942 with Some infantry tanks to establish a bridgehead some three miles in depth in the area west of El Wishka, and to allow the 8th and 24th Armoured Brigades (lOth Armoured Division) to pass through onto the objective (codename) 'Skinflint', a feature some seven miles due west.

24th Armoured Brigade was to follow the 8th Armoured Brigade through the minefields and then face left (south), one Regiment up, 47 RTR leading. When through the minefields, 41 RTR was to move up and contact 3 RTR (8th Armoured Brigade) and 45 RTR to move south west towards the large minefield north of Deir El Abjad. Zero Hour for the general advance would be 2200 hours.

On 20th October a reconnaissance party under Major L D Slater went forward to the Assembly Area, located between Gabr Gaballa and Bombay Road, and then beyond along (codename) 'Bottle Track' which was to be the route of the Regiment going forward to the minefields. At 1630 hours 20th October the Commanding Officer returned to 41 RTR from the Army Commander’s conference, in the Staging Area.

October 21st On October 2lst General Gairdner, the commander of the Regiment's former 8th Armoured Division, called on the Commanding Officer to wish him good luck. At dusk the Regimental Group formed into two lines: tanks and tracked vehicles left (50 tanks) - wheeled vehicles right, and at 2330 hours moved to the Assembly Area. The moon was almost full and visibility about 400 yards and a journey of 26 miles was done in good time. There was no shelling and in one incident tank ‘Coyote’ ran onto one of our own minefields with no effect. The entire group in the assembly area was under the cover of sun shields (canvas mock lorries) well camouflaged, which had been there for some time, and all movement was restricted by day.

October 22nd At 0930 hours 22nd October the Commanding Officer was called to 24th Armoured Brigade Headquarters to receive operation orders for the battle. At 1400 hours the Commanding Officer gave his orders to his group just west of the Bombay Road.

October 23rd Friday 23rd October - final preparations were made, medical first-aid boxes checked up morphia and chloroform crackettes supplied deficient binoculars and sun-compasses issued. Filled sandbags were placed in the cabs of lorries to minimise blast from mines etc.

The Commanding Officer and Adjutant made a quick reconnaissance forward and at 1600 hours final instructions were given by the Commanding Officer and General Montgomery's 'Order of the Day' was read to all ranks. At 2030 hours the Regimental Group moved off - up Bombay Road with a perfect moon to assist them along (codename) Bottle Track in line ahead - tracked vehicles left - wheeled vehicles right. At 2200 hours the artillery barrage opened as the infantry ahead crossed the start line. The Regiment halted at midnight at Springbok Road to top-up vehicles with fuel and the first battle ration was issued (rum, boiled sweets and chocolate).

October 24th The position of the Regiment at midnight was 4 miles east of El Alamein and very little enemy artillery activity was encountered. By first light 24th October 47 RTR were west of Quattara Road and 41 RTR level on their right with 45 RTR in reserve. Before midday 41 RTR had advanced into previously held enemy territory captured by the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Division. Evidence of the previous evening's fighting was obvious, smashed equipment, including our old friends the Valentine tank, also there was much evidence of death.

The bridgehead had not actually been made as was expected and 41 RTR was held up and had to sit all day in the middle of the German minefield, it was not pleasant, and there were many losses to vehicles, personnel casualties were few and not serious. The Brigade was not on the radio frequency of the 8th Armoured Brigade and were not on the left as originally intended, as Commander 8th Armoured Brigade had requested protection of his right flank. 8th Armoured Brigade appeared to have had serious tank casualties as at least ten Shermans were burning on the Miteriya Ridge in front, this was a depressing sight indeed.

Lieutenant Colonel Whitehead CO 41 RTR attended a 24th Armoured Brigade conference at 1600 hours where he received orders to advance through the enemy minefields where gaps would be made by Royal Engineer sappers, and at 2230 hours to take up a position on the forward slope east of El Wishka. 47 RTR was to move on our left and 45 RTR in reserve. 'B' Company l1th Battalion (Queen's Westminster’s) The King's Royal Rifle Corps (TA) to rejoin their regiment and 'G' Battery to rejoin 5th Royal Horse Artillery.

The Regiment advanced at 2030 hours down Bottle Track to a gap in the minefield and, about one-hour later; news came that we could not advance, as the gaps in the minefields were not cleared. The Brigadier (Brigadier A G Kenchington) ordered dispersion in good time. One German plane dropped an oil bomb in the middle of the vehicles of 8th Armoured Brigade and these blazed for hours lighting up an assembly of 150 tanks etc.

October 25th It was difficult to collect 41 RTR together again but at 0430 hours, 25th October, orders were given for 41 RTR to advance through the minefield onto (codename) 'Pierson'. a line on the west of 'Kidney'. By first light 41 RTR was in position, right of the 24th Armoured Brigade with 45 RTR in reserve. Enemy tanks were engaged at long range and some set on fire, anti-tank guns were engaged and several destroyed. Enemy MT (motor transport) was also engaged at long range and this shooting continued throughout the day. Towards the evening an enemy tank attack was reported developing from the northwest. Just before sunset about forty German Mark III and IV tanks attacked across the flank of 41 RTR. These were hotly engaged and several were soon in flames. Throughout the day our tanks were subjected to heavy artillery shelling from l05mm guns, which were numerous on our front and our first tank, 'Cocky', was knocked-out. At dusk the action was broken off and 41 RTR pulled out leaving infantry in possession. By tracks east and north and west 41 RTR moved by night to new positions to protect the left flank of the 2nd Armoured Brigade (lst Armoured Division). This trek was no easy task and there was some confusion in the night march. It was a most hectic day for all and 48 hours without rest and little prospect of any.

October 26th The Regiment was now under the command of lst Armoured Division. At first light quite a number of tanks were missing, some with the Commanding Officer and others with Major Greaves. At 1030 hours all tanks were rallied and were halted on (codename) Star track. The Commanding Officer, Major Greaves and the Intelligence Officer went forward to make a reconnaissance in a scout car and some excitement was caused when they found themselves some distance inside no-man's land.

Eventually a reconnaissance was made of Miteriya Ridge where a party of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (5lst Highland Division) were discovered who had been without water for some time and they had some prisoners. This reconnaissance party was observed by the enemy and was shelled and was reported over the air by the enemy as captured. The Regiment moved forward to the area reconnoitred, where it remained for the rest of the day during which time sappers of the Brigade were arranging to prepare a gap in the enemy minefield beyond.

Then 45 RTR were ordered to move to the high ground east of the minefield and 41 RTR to move on their left. Immediately 45 RTR were shelled and one tank burnt out. The Regiment (41 RTR) did not move forward and remained in its present location, west of Star Track, until dark.

At 1700 hours the Commanding Officer and Adjutant were called to Brigade Headquarters to receive orders for the attack to take place the following morning, 27th October. The orders group were under continual shellfire and dispersed when a shell burst amongst them - the Brigade Major being wounded (Major N E O Watts). The orders were very brief, the 24th Armoured Brigade was to advance over the Miteriya Ridge at 0600 hours 27th October after passing through a gap made by Brigade Sappers. The route up to this gap would be marked. 47 RTR would lead and 41 RTR follow and 45 RTR in reserve. The advance would be on a compass bearing of 220 degrees and the task was to secure a feature (codename) 'Shield' shown on attached map. There was no artillery fire-plan and information about the enemy was vague. It was necessary to secure this feature to protect the left of the Rifle Brigade. Infantry were to attack on our right at 0430 hours with a task to destroy two 88mm guns on the right front.

October 27th The Commanding Officer gave his orders at 0200 hours to Squadron Commanders and the Regiment moved towards the gap at 0445 hours and no reconnaissance was possible. Orders were for 'C' Squadron to lead followed by 'B' Squadron (both Sherman squadrons), and 'A' Squadron (Crusaders) to move in reserve, as little was known of enemy gun positions.

At 0630 hours the Commanding Officer reported to 24th Armoured Brigade that 47 RTR were not in position, and received orders to lead the advance. The Regiment took 23 Sherman tanks and 8 Crusader tanks forward. Heavy anti-tank fire and artillery shelling were encountered and minefields made manoeuvring very difficult. 'C' Squadron on the right had four tanks knocked-out and some burnt out. 'B' Squadron had a troop knocked-out very early on and then moved over to the left of 'C' Squadron. The ground was very unfavourable for the Regiment to fight on and littered with anti-tank guns - 50mm, 7.62cm and 88mm. Heavy shelling made visibility difficult and our artillery was not able to silence the enemy guns.

The whole battlefield was strewn with tanks - many on fire - some with tracks blown off and others damaged. Tank casualties of both 41 RTR and 47 RTR were heavy. The advances of the latter being extremely bold and some tanks almost over-ran anti-tank guns with disastrous results: Commanding Officer (Lieutenant Colonel G Parkes DSO), Adjutant and two Squadron Commanders and several troop leaders killed. It was useless to attempt to secure 'Shield', a feature that did not exist, and orders were given to continue to engage the enemy from the ridge. Crews continued to attempt to recover their tanks from the minefields and to collect ammunition from damaged tanks, many casualties resulted. About 200 Germans surrendered in the area and were passed back.

By afternoon 'B' Squadron had five tanks in action, ’A’ and ‘C’ Squadrons also much depleted. For the rest of the day shelling continued and tanks were engaged at long range and just before dusk twenty Mark III and IV's appeared at 3,000 yards but no attack took place. The Regiment rallied back after dusk at the head of (codename) Star Track and during the night recovery was carried out on tanks in the minefield. Throughout the day the tanks have fought well under adverse conditions. Mention should be made of 'B' Squadron under Major McDonald, gallantry shown by Squadron Sergeant Major Peel and excellent work by Lance Corporal Salmon, both of 'B' Squadron. During the night our Sappers laid a minefield in front of our harbour area, which was defended by 11th Battalion (Queen's Westminster’s) The King's Royal Rifle Corps (TA).

The crews were now feeling the strain and the welcome battle rations again arrived in the leaguer area, being brought up with food by the B1 Echelon (41 RTR's logistic element) under Captain Tanner. The Regiment was reduced to ten Shermans and eight Crusaders. Some were under repair with the fitters, just in rear. Major Greaves, Lieutenants Canfor, Cockbaine, Moyens, Harrison, Stock and Newman have been wounded, Corporals Moring and Crowther, Troopers Bone, Wood E, Baker and Crabtree have been killed, and 22 other ranks wounded, 26% of tank crews. Recovery of tanks was carried on and fitters, under Captain Hallett, working day and night to get tanks on the road, no less than 17 tanks had been repaired by fitters during the last four days and returned to the battlefield.

Maj Greaves scout car.jpg (93849 bytes) Maj Greave's Dingo scout car after hitting an anti-tank mine.

October 28th At 0400 hours 28th October the Commanding Officer contacted Lieutenant Colonel S C Dumbreck, 45 RTR, to ascertain what tanks he had available the next day and agreed that one troop of Shermans and a Crusader be attached to 45 RTR from 41 RTR. Brigade ordered Lieutenant Colonel Whitehead to take command of 41 RTR and the much depleted 47 RTR - Lieutenant Colonel Parkes and Major Ward (47 RTR) both killed. The tanks under command 45 RTR attacked at first light advancing due west. Lieutenant Colonel Whitehead's force (41st and 47th RTR) of eight Shermans and fourteen Crusaders were ordered to move Southwest onto the higher ground to take up defensive positions whilst the Crusaders made a reconnaissance north.

Heavy shelling took place all the morning and Crusaders of 45 RTR suffered severe casualties, only four coming out of action. Soon after midday it was reported that enemy tanks, part of 15 Panzer Division, were approaching from the north and a refill of ammunition was called for by Brigade and B1 Echelon did a great job, all tanks were refilled and enemy tanks engaged at long range. Orders were received before dusk that we were to pull out and be relieved. No one had slept for nights and had been kept awake by the pep Pills (Benzedrine). The Regiment had fought magnificently, all the time being handicapped by the lack of manoeuvrability due to the continued procession of minefields but they have helped to break the l5th Panzer Division, and enabled the 2nd Rifle Brigade (7th Motor Brigade) to advance.

The Sherman tanks have behaved grandly, not a single case of turrets being pierced. The Crusaders, nothing more than armoured cars, could not be committed to the attack and little can be said of their usefulness.

October 29th The 41st RTR moved back to rest and re-form, sleep needed urgently by all, everybody has fought and worked hard and their first big battle over.

(Signed)

Lieutenant Colonel J B Whitehead MC TD

Commanding Officer

4lst (Oldham) Royal Tank Regiment (TA)