Operation Splendour

'Splendour' was an unsuccessful British and commonwealth attempt by General Sir Claude Auchinleck’s 8th Army in the '1st Battle of El Alamein' to take and hold the Ruweisat ridge and the El Mreir depression against Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee 'Afrika' (21/23 July 1942).

By 18 July Auchinleck had come to the conclusion that Rommel’s German and Italian forces were in a very bad way, with the latter perhaps on the point of collapse, so the best way of inflicting a major defeat would be to strike again strongly in the centre, despite the fact that it was known that the German armour was now in the area of Deir el Abyad and El Mreir. Auchinleck’s estimate of the Axis forces' condition was essentially correct: a Panzerarmee 'Afrika' report of 21st July suggested that both the Germans and Italians had lost much of their field artillery and about half of their anti-tank guns, that their manpower had been reduced to one-third, and that since 10 July the Italians had lost the equivalent of four divisions. On 21 July the Germans had 42 serviceable tanks and the Italians about 50.

With regard to the 8th Army’s troops, Major General D. H. Pienaar’s South African 1st Division and Major General L. Morshead’s Australian 9th Division were still fairly well up to strength. Major General B. C. Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division and Major General H. R. Briggs’s Indian 5th Division each had two brigades. Major General J. M. L. Renton’s British 7th Armoured Division was being reconstituted as a highly mobile force to comprise Brigadier W. G. Carr’s 4th Light Armoured Brigade of armoured cars and Stuart tanks, Brigadier J. H. Anstice’s 7th Motor Brigade and Brigadier E. C. Cooke-Collis’s 69th Brigade. Major General H. Lumsden’s 1st Armoured Division had 61 Grant medium tanks, 81 Crusader cruiser tanks and 31 Stuart light tanks, as well as others in immediate reserve or transit. All the foregoing formations were battle-worthy top greater or lesser degrees, and, in addition, two fresh formations were now available. These were Brigadier F. E. C. Hughes’s Indian 161st Motor Brigade and Brigadier L. E. Misa’s 23rd Armoured Brigade Group. The former had come from Iraq and had been working for some time on defences in the nile river delta, and the latter belonged to Major General C. W. Norman’s 8th Armoured Division and had reached Suez on 6 July. The 23rd Armoured Brigade Group comprised three regiments each of about 50 infantry tanks, of which six were Matilda and the rest Valentine tanks.

On 19 July, the 'Splendour' attack was fixed for the evening of the 21 July, and during the next two days elaborate instructions were issued, principally for the pursuit and for co-operation with the air. The main role was given to Lieutenant General W. H. E. Gott’s XIII Corps, which was to break through at Deir el Shein and Deir el Abyad and then to exploit to the west. The corps was to make a subsidiary attack in the south and prepare to pursue to El Daba and Fuka. Lieutenant General W. H. C. Ramsden’s XXX Corps was to contain the Axis forces on its front by strenuous local action, and was also to be prepared to pursue towards El Daba. Vickers Wellington tin-engined bombers and flare-carrying Fairey Albacore single-engined aircraft were to attack targets in the central sector during the night of 21/22 July, and would be followed at dawn by as many light bombers and fighter-bombers as possible.

Gott’s detailed plan was for Briggs’s Indian 5th Division to capture Deir el Shein and Point 63 and for Major General L. M. Inglis’s New Zealand 2nd Division to capture the eastern end of the El Mreir depression. The inter-divisional boundary gave the entirety of the Ruweisat ridge to the Indian 5th Division. In the second phase the 1st Armoured Division was to go through and capture an area about Point 59, whereupon the Indian 5th Division and New Zealand 2nd Division were to advance about 2 miles (3.2 km) and consolidate the ground won. Up to this time, the task of the 7th Armoured Division was to be harassment of the Axis forces.

The units selected for the first phase of 'Splendour' were the Indian 161st Motor Brigade and Brigadier G. H. Clifton’s New Zealand 6th Brigade. Brigadier A. F. Fisher’s 22nd Armoured Brigade was to protect the southern flank, and Brigadier R. Briggs’s 2nd Armoured Brigade was to be prepared to frustrate any counterattack against the infantry after the first objective had been captured. The second phase was an advance to Point 59, to be made by the 23rd Armoured Brigade less one regiment lent to the XXX Corps to operate with the Australians. Artillery support was to be provided by about nine field regiments. The two infantry divisions were each to clear half of a wide lane through the minefields: in the Indian 5th Division’s area, close to the Ruweisat ridge, this was to be done by the Indian 9th Brigade, which had the additional task of occupying the second objective.

The British plan possessed the merit of placing the main part of the operations under a single corps commander; it aimed at striking at the point where the remains of the Panzer divisions were concentrated, probably in the belief that if they were defeated the rest of the front would crumble; it assumed that the minefields could be detected and lanes cleared in time for the 23rd Armoured Brigade’s commitment; and it gave key tasks to two inexperienced units, and once again allowed inadequate time for the study of a multitude of details.

On 18 July both Lumsden and Briggs had been wounded in an air attack. Major General A. H. Gatehouse, then commanding the 10th Armoured Division in the Nile river delta, was sent up to take command of the 1st Armoured Division, and arrived during the evening of 20 July, by which time the plan for the coming battle and the role of his division had been fixed.

Unlike the '1st Battle of the Ruweisat Ridge', the night attack was made with strong artillery support, but despite the considerable effort expended to ensure the early intervention of the 2nd Armoured Brigade, should it be needed, the experience of the New Zealand 6th Brigade was sadly reminiscent of what had occurred one week before. The New Zealanders reached their objective after some sharp fighting during which several companies went astray and many vehicles failed to arrive. The 25th Battalion was ordered to move np between the other two. There was great anxiety at Inglis’s headquarters when, at about 03.30, a report arrived from Clifton that Axis tanks were at large even at that early hour: it seems that the 8th Panzerregiment was preparing to make an immediate counterattack in the dark when General Walther Nehring, commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, intervened and ordered both Panzer regiments instead to attack at 05.15. When this took place a great volume of fire caught the New Zealanders in their exposed position in the El Mreir depression. Almost all of their anti-tank guns were knocked out, as were the two tanks and the armoured car of the armoured division’s liaison officers. Communication with the guns broke down. In this counterattack the brigade was overrun. Taken prisoner, Clifton disguised himself as a private and escaped after spending the day tending the wounded. It seems that the two regiments of the 2nd Armoured Brigade (the third was on the Ruweisat ridge) both tried to go forward when they heard of the tank attack on the New Zealanders, but one was held up by anti-tank fire and the other by mines. The New Zealand 6th Brigade’s losses in this action were nearly 700 officers and men.

The Indian 161st Motor Brigade’s attack also experienced varying fortunes. Its northern flank was protected by the seizing of a small depression by the 2/Regiment Botha of the South African 2nd Division. On the right the 3/7th Rajput Regiment broke into Deir el Shein but was driven out after a confused hand-to-hand fight. On the left the 1/1st Punjab Regiment was checked by fire short of Point 63, but at 08,00 the reserve battalion, the 1/2nd Punjab Regiment, successfully renewed the attack and took prisoner 190 men. Surprisingly enough, the Axis forces was taken off their guard, somewhat shaken perhaps by the appearance of the 23rd Armoured Brigade as it moved fast.

The events of the night had had an adverse effect on both divisions' mineclearing operations, and by arrival of dawn the cleared lanes did not extend very far. The 23rd Armoured Brigade’s advance was to begin at 08.00, and at 06.25 Gatehouse suggested that it should be cancelled because he was very doubtful if the mines had been sufficiently cleared. Gott considered that it was so important to exploit the Axis forces' uneasiness, as revealed by intercepted radio messages, that the operation must continue, but that its centreline should be shifted about 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south. This change should take the brigade through what Gott erroneously understood to be a mine-free area and farther from the Axis forces' position on Ruweisat ridge, which the Indian division had yet to take. A breakdown in radio communication, however, prevented the new orders reaching Misa.

At about 08.00, the 23rd Armoured Brigade, with the 40th Royal Tank Regiment on the right and the 46th Royal Tank Regiment on the left, started to advance along the centreline originally ordered. After an advance of about 1.5 miles (2.4 km), the 40th Royal Tank Regiment came under heavy artillery and anti-tank fire and then entered a minefield; by this time 17 tanks had been lost. Despite this setback, 15 tanks had reached their objective by a time soon after 10.00 and were hotly engaged from both flanks. Soon only eight tanks remained, of which three were too badly damaged to fight. Meanwhile the 46th Royal tank Regiment had struck another part of the same minefield and met much the same opposition. After losing about 13 tanks its constituent squadrons fanned out: some tanks joined the other regiment on the objective and some tried to work round south of the El Mreir depression and were never seen again. By 11.00, the remnants of the two regiments were strongly attacked by Generalmajor Georg von Bismarck’s 21st Panzerdivision and were ordered to withdraw. This courageous but disastrous action, on its debut in action, cost the brigade some 203 men, about 40 tanks destroyed and 47 tanks badly damaged. The Germans followed up the withdrawal past Point 63, but soon after 12.00 Rommel called them to a halt.

While all this had been happening attempts were being made to bring the 2nd Armoured Brigade into action in support of the 23rd Armoured Brigade and the New Zealanders thought still to be holding out in the El Mreir depression. This entailed the clearing of more mines in an area farther to the south. By 16.00 a narrow lane had been cleared and at 17.00 the 9th Lancers, followed by the 6th Royal Tank Regiment, began to move through the gap. They soon came under artillery and anti-tank fire from both flanks: five tanks were set on fire and others were being hit, and after 40 minutes Fisher, the acting divisional commander after Gatehouse had been wounded earlier in the day, called off the attempt as hopeless. Under cover of smoke laid by the 1st Royal Horse Artillery and the fire of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment, the British tanks reversed singly through the narrow cleared lane, now partly blocked by casualties. Seven more tanks were badly damaged, bringing this brigade’s losses to 21.

Elsewhere on the XIII Corps' front, little had happened: the 22nd Armoured Brigade had protected the left flank without incident, and the 7th Armoured Division had been engaged on a minor operation the extreme south. Howeverm on the XXX Corps' front, at 06.00 on 22 July the Australian 9th Division attacked with the 26th Brigade at Tell el Eisa and the 24th Brigade at Tell el Makh Khad. An immediate counterattack followed and hard fighting continued through the entire morning. The Australians gained the upper hand, and by a time early in the afternoon held the whole low ridge at Tell el Eisa and had advanced about 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south of Tell el Makh Khad. During the afternoon, Ramsden ordered the second phase, an attack on Miteirya, to begin at 19.00. This attack was made by the Australian 24th Brigade and the 50th Royal Tank Regiment which, although equipped with Valentine infantry tanks, had trained as part of an armoured division but not, however, in close support of infantry. In the event armour and infantry advanced independently, having failed to link. For an hour the tanks moved about on the objective, and at the fall of darkness withdrew as planned, having had 23 of their number knocked out.

Meanwhile, at 17.00 Gott had ordered the Indian 5th Division to capture Point 63 and Deir el Shein during the night. The 3/14th Punjab Regiment, of the Indian 9th Brigade, delivered the attack at about 02.00. Loss of direction led to confusion, but a second attempt in daylight nearly succeeded in reaching Point 63. The battalion came under intense fire from three sides, the commanding officer was killed, two company commanders were missing, a third company commander and the adjutant were wounded, control was lost, and the result was failure.