The El Mrier raid, August 1942

Brigadier H.K. Kippenberger, commander of the 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, describes the Māori Battalion’s successful raid on the El Mrier Depression in August 1942:

On 24 August the General asked me if I could put on a raid. He told me that no prisoners had been taken on the whole Army front for a fortnight and some must be got. I said that we were ready to go into the El Mreir depression again if we could have the support of the divisional artillery. He replied that we could have two divisional artilleries, 144 guns, and to go ahead.

I decided to do the raid with two companies of the Maoris, who were the freshest battalion and had had the least fighting during the [El Alamein] campaign so far, and told them to submit a plan. Preparing plans was not their strong point and a few hours later, with a touching faith in Brigade, they asked us to produce a plan. Monty [Fairbrother] and I worked it out very carefully that hot afternoon and I took it up to [the 28th Battalion's commanding officer, Lt-Col Frederick] Baker in the evening.

The date was set for the following evening, 26 August. Briefly, the plan was as follows:

First, a company of the Twenty-third [Battalion] was to move out after dark into the area our patrols had cleared, as a covering party. Under its protection a tape line was to be run out from one of our forward posts at a right angle to our front and 300 yards south of the salient. The two assaulting companies were to move out along this line, halt and face right when the leading file had gone 500 yards. They would then be on their start-line. The guns were then to open, all concentrated on the tip of the salient, and for 300 yards back. Under cover of the bombardment the troops were to advance up to the wire and gaps in it were to be blown by a detachment of sappers with Bangalore torpedoes. The guns would lift and continue on the western portion of the depression and posts thereabouts and the infantry would assault. They were to go straight through, out on the northern side, turn right and return to our own lines. As it turned out it would have been better to bring them back the way they had gone out. Timings were very carefully worked out and we had detailed arrangements, which worked very well, for dealing with and evacuating wounded and getting prisoners quickly back to Division, where Army was to send a team of interrogators. It was a little like crushing a beetle with a steel hammer and I was confident of success. Indeed, I was rather afraid that the guns and the Maoris between them would kill all the unfortunate Italians in the area and that we would not get a satisfactory bag of prisoners. Accordingly I warned the Maoris that I wanted prisoners and not scalps. This was the first time the Maoris had fought under my command. I watched them during the next afternoon and was pleased to see that they studied the plan thoroughly, explained it carefully to the men, and made their preparations in a cheerful business-like manner. The men were delightful, laughing and talking with one another, working busily at oiling and cleaning and polishing their weapons, and all giving me the most cheerful grins.

Half an hour before zero I went up to see them off. Both companies, Ngapuhi under Porter and Arawa under Pene, were ready, waiting together at the near end of the tape. I walked about among them and was amazed and amused by the number of weapons they were carrying. Every other man had an automatic, mostly captured Spandaus or Bredas, they were loaded with grenades, many had pistols, very few had rifle and bayonet only. Otherwise they were lightly equipped. The Maori padre spoke to them, most eloquently and impressively. Then he said a prayer, very moving in the utter silence. Baker asked me to speak. I did so briefly. I said how many guns would be in support - there were grunts of satisfaction - that I was confident they would do well, wished them all good fortune and concluded by saying: ‘The fame of your people and the honour of your battalion are in your hands to-night.’ There was a pause and a moment's silence, broken by a long burst from a Spandau in the salient. A man said: ‘Let her go, boy, that's your last.’ Baker said: ‘On your feet, men,’ said ‘Good-bye’ to me, and they moved silently off and disappeared into the gloom. I returned to the Battalion Headquarters to wait and watch.

Of course I could see very little and might just as well have stayed in my own headquarters. The guns opened punctually, a ripple of flashes round a quarter of the horizon. For the first time I realized that the sound of the opening of a bombardment or of a barrage, however perfectly synchronized, is not a crash, as often described, but a series of rapid thuds, for the guns are varying distances away from the listener. Then there is the whirr and whine and scream of the shells passing overhead and a series of crunches as they burst. After a few moments it works up to an incessant hammering and drumming. The depression was soon ablaze with shell-bursts, the first concentrations were very heavy indeed, and it seemed impossible that there should be any resistance. The enemy guns replied promptly, putting down defensive fire just where we expected, and it was very pleasing that the men in the assaulting companies did not have to go through it. But they made things very unpleasant for the rest of us and we had to keep our heads well down. We could recognize the moment when the bombardment lifted and when the assault was to go in, and could see the Bangalores exploding exactly on time. Then we had to wait as patiently as we could.

At the expected time, the company in the line rang to say that Ben Porter's company was coming back through them, bringing prisoners. Pene and Baker came in soon afterwards. The first prisoner to arrive was gibbering with terror. He clung to me in the shallow dug-out and trembled violently with every near burst. We packed him off alone to Division, where he cannot have been of much use, and a few minutes later sent another batch. There were some late-comers, but half an hour after zero all was quiet again. The bag of prisoners, forty-one, was satisfactory in the circumstances. They came from two companies of Bologna Division, and the Maoris reported that there were scores of dead and wounded and that they had left no one unhurt or not a prisoner. These two unfortunate companies must have been annihilated. The Maori casualties were heavier than I had hoped - over thirty, including a very good officer, Mitchell, and a few men missing. Most appeared to have been incurred from our own artillery fire, either from shorts or through over eagerness in pressing on. The missing were all wounded and would no doubt have been picked up if the raiders had returned over the same ground. A few pockets of Italians had shown fight and some Germans had also had to be killed.

This was the first offensive operation of Eighth Army under General Montgomery's command, and we received warm messages of congratulation from him and from General Horrocks, the new Corps Commander.

From Kippenberger, Infantry Brigadier (1949), pp. 201-04.

Submitted by mbadmin on

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