Mersa Matruh was the last significant victory for Rommel’s troops in the Libyan-Egyptian theater, in which the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment, 32nd Combat Sappers Battalion, Littorio Armored Division, Brescia and Trento Divisions played an important part.
After Major-General Hendrik Klopper’s surrender at Tobruk, both sides were very much exhausted and much reduced in numbers. Nevertheless on 23 June 1942, lead elements of the Deutsche Afrika Korps sallied into Egypt. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s plan was to strike at the eastern end of the southern escarpment south of the Mersa Matruh position, where the 1st British Armored Division and New Zealand Division of Lieutenant-General William Gott’s XIIIth Corps were, to force a gap through which the 15th Panzer, the Italian Trieste and Ariete Divisions could pass, and then completely cut off and encircle Mersa Matruh. Most of Rommel’s troops were by now using captured British vehicles as their own vehicles were worn out. The Axis forces consisted of the 15th and 21st Panzer and 90th Light Divisions, and the Italian Brescia, Trento, Trieste, Ariete and Littorio Divisions. The Germans only had 44 operational tanks, and Italian forces could only muster fourteen M14 tanks when they reached Mersa Matruh. To complicate matters further, the three German divisions had no more than 2,500 infantry still on their feet. But the Italian divisions, had 6,000 infantry. Mike Stolmeyer describes the engagement at Mersa Matruh as
“surely one of the most incredible in military history. The outcome, given the relative strength of the opposing forces and the desperate situation the weaker army found itself in, due to its commander’s reckless audacity, is mind-boggling!
The British-led Commonwealth Army had eight infantry brigades in position, with their 1st British Armored Division amassing 160 tanks, of which 60 were the powerful Grants.
Shelled From All Sides
Axis troops, had arrived at Mersa Matruh on the afternoon of 26 June; consisting of motorized infantry and artillery units from the Brescia and Trento Divisions. Before dawn on Saturday 27 June, the 90th Light Division made a series of attacks against the 9th Battalion Durham Light Infantry position, about 27 kilometers (seventeen miles) south of Mersa Matruh and captured, after some bitter fighting, some 300 British troops. The New Zealander force was in process of taking up positions 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Mersa Matruh, when a report was received that a large enemy armored force was approaching Minqar Qaim, where the 2nd New Zealand Division was. The Brescia and Trento Divisions undoubtedly played an important role in the battle, and the Mersa Matruh positions came under heavy artillery fire. A British soldier, Les Davies recalled:
“You will have read about the boxes formed in the desert, the loss of Tobruk and the fast moving battles we have had. Well the last one of all, Mersa Matruh, was the worst, I will never forget it. We were in a box and Jerry shelled from all sides and continued day and night and we had to break out at the finish or be taken prisoner.”
S. D. Verma, then a major in the 10th Indian Division, recalled that they kept getting conflicting reports and orders:
“One day it would be that we were to stay and fight to the last man and last round. The next day’s rumors would announce that we would have to make a breakout.”
A Very Daring Officer
Meanwhile, General der Panzertruppe Ulrich Kleeman, took the 90th Light Division around the southern flank of the 10th British Corps, and cut the coastal road about thirty kilometers east of Mersa Matruh. A recent historian of the Deutsche Afrika Korps, Samuel W. Mitcham, notes:
“Ulrich Kleeman led the 90th Light through some of the worst fighting of the North African war, including the battles of the Gazala Line, the Cauldron, Bir Hacheim, the capture of Tobruk, and the invasion of Egypt. From an authorized strength of 15,000 men, the 90th Light was gradually reduced to a strength of less than 1,500 troops. A very daring officer, Kleemann drove east with almost reckless abandon and cut off the British X Corps (10th Indian and 50th Infantry Divisions) east of Mersa Matruh on June 27, despite the fact he had only 1,600 men at the time, was outnumbered more than 10 to 1, and was 15 miles from the nearest Axis unit.”
No Wish to Share Klopper’s Fate
On the night of 27 June, Gott decided in view of the condition of the New Zealand Division, which had been weakened, more by artillery fire than by direct enemy action, to withdraw to Alamein. Christer Jorgen notes,
“General Freyberg, the commander of the New Zealand Division, had insisted on this as he had no wish to share Klopper’s fate dismal fate at Tobruk.”
At the very least, as Tim Rowe observes,
“By nightfall, the New Zealand Division was encircled. Ammunition was down to 35 rounds per field gun and the Division’s capacity to resist a further attack was very much in doubt.”
Noel F. Wootton gives an account of the period in the New Zealand Division:
“We were soon under enemy artillery fire, and during the later part of the afternoon, while making my way to our brigade H.Q., I observed a small group of engineers laying a protective minefield in front of our infantry positions. Clearly visible to the enemy, they soon came under heavy fire and suffered casualties. From seemingly nowhere an American Field Service ambulance appeared, heading directly into the danger area. Some of the casualties were obviously beyond help, but the others were quickly loaded aboard and rushed to the nearest aid post.”
The whole of Lieutenant-General William Holmes’ Xth Corps, encircled at Mersa Matruh, could have withdrawn on this day, but it was still hoped that the 1st Armored and New Zealand Divisions would come to their rescue, and it was not until 0430 hours on 28 June that news was received that the XIIIth Corps was in full retreat, and their southern flank was now open. With XIIIth Corps in some disarray, Rommel sent his 21st Panzer Division to pursue the British and overran elements of the 29th Indian Brigade.
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