Extracts from 'Only The Enemy In Front'. This page covers the the regiment's deployment to Egypt and action in Libya, including the second battle of El Alamein.

44 Recce > Only The Enemy In Front > Deployment to Egypt and action in Libya (El Alamein) 1942.

44 Recce were deployed to North Africa with 44th Division as part of the 8th Army under the 13th Corps (XIII Corps). 44 Recce first saw action at the Battle of Alam el Halfa when temporarily attached to 4th Light Armoured Brigade under 7th Armoured Division (the 'Desert Rats'). The regiment was to the fore in the opening of the second El Alamein offensive in October 1942, but augmented with all the Bren carriers from their division and 4th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers as the 44th Divisional Reconnaissance Carrier Regiment and their job was to clear gaps through minefields ahead of 7th Armoured Division. 

The text below suggests that the carriers were from the 132nd and 151st Brigades but the latter were not part of 44th Division. Could this perhaps be a typo for the 131st?

Only The Enemy In Front (2008) pp22–23, pp25–26.

After training in England, 44th Division sailed from Scotland in May 1942 with 44 Recce on board SS Santa Elena with divisional HQ. The voyage to Egypt via South Africa was memorable for a number of reasons: the ship carried twice as many men as it was designed to carry and therefore only two meals a day were served and, since it was American, no alcohol was permitted; not surprisingly its passengers quickly renamed it the Altmark after the German ship used to carry the Graf Spee's prisoners.

Arriving in Egypt in late July, the division concentrated between Cairo and Alexandria and 44 Recce spent two weeks in acclimatisation and training in desert conditions. A number of points were soon obvious: motorcycles would he useless in the desert; the Humber Light Recce Car was unsuited to driving in desert conditions where it would be an inviting target — the Humber LRC relied for survival in close country on its speed and the commander's eye for cover —but soft desert sand was passable if the skills and techniques of driving over it were mastered.

On 14 August 44th Division moved up to the Alamein line into a reserve position behind General Freyberg's NZ Division at the southern end. The recce regiment was placed under command of 7th Armoured Division, the Desert Rats, for a period of guidance. It had become clear that a reconnaissance regiment, as normally constituted, simply did not fit into the scheme of things for desert warfare. With its motorcycles written off and its LRCs of limited use, the regiment was left with its Bren-carriers and lorries and was far from being a balanced organisation. No-one had yet worked out a policy or a proper rôle for recce in the theatre. During its time with the Desert Rats 44 Recce was split up to serve with the battalions and regiments of 4 Light Armoured Brigade. The assault troops and carriers were assigned to motor battalions and the LRCs to cavalry regiments. When Rommel launched his attack on Montgomery's positions on 30 August elements of 44 Recce were engaged in action with their mentors of 4 Light Armoured Brigade during the Battle of Alam Halta. On 4 September, the regiment concentrated once again under 44th Division but a week later it was placed under 22 Armoured Brigade which had become a permanent part of 7th Armoured Division on 7 September.

For two weeks the regiment had the task of guarding front-line positions at the British 'Nuts' and 'May' minefields, near Himeimat. Then came a withdrawal into reserve where it seemed as if someone had come up with a positive idea for the use of the regiment: the LRCs were sent to guard rear areas and the regiment was redesignated 44th Divisional Reconnaissance Carrier Regiment. This new organisation included one strong carrier squadron formed from all the regiment's carriers with two additional carrier squadrons made up from men and machines of 132 and 151 Brigades. Detachments of Royal Engineers were included in the order-of-battle and there was talk of Scorpions — tanks fitted with flails to explode mines — being allocated.

And so it became obvious that the regiment's job would be to clear paths through enemy minefields for Eighth Army's armour in the forthcoming offensive. Specifically, it was told that its rôle would be to clear four gaps for an armoured brigade and, in carrying out this task, to be prepared to seize and hold ground, 'to carry out reconnaissance in force and in so doing to be prepared to overcome minor resistance.' There were shades of the original recce rôle in those orders but the task that lay ahead of 44 Recce was totally different to that for which it had trained for so long. Retraining was necessary and lasted into October.

A mineclearing drill was worked out, practised and then revised until a definitive drill was arrived at, which was then practised to perfection. Central to this drill were the Scorpions, six of which were issued to the regiment, one for each path with two tanks in reserve. As training continued a change in the shape of the regiment was thought necessary and so it reformed into two carrier squadrons and an assault squadron; Matilda infantry tanks were to provide armoured support.

On 22nd October the operation order was received: the regiment would go into action on the night of 23 October in Operation LIGHTFOOT. As the minefield taskforce of 7th Armoured Division, 44 Recce had absorbed all the carriers of its division and also contained 4th Field Squadron, RE. The six Scorpions were in the van, supported by the Stuarts of A Squadron, Royal Scots Greys rather than the intended Matildas, a battery of anti-tank guns and two companies of 1st KRRC. They had an approach march of almost ten miles over four parallel tracks through three British minefields before reaching their start line east of the German minefield codenamed 'January.' Clearing paths through 'January' and a second minefield codenamed 'February,' was 44 Recce's task.

B and C Squadrons led the regiment into 'January' ten minutes behind schedule. The gapping parties had arrived almost half an hour late at the start line, a delay caused by the fact that many of the lamps lighting the route had gone out. A number of further difficulties and mistakes beset the squadrons. Number 2 gap was cleared by C Squadron by 1.40am although the Scorpion had been damaged by a mine and then hit by anti-tank fire leaving the sappers to clear the gap by hand; number 1 gap was also cleared by C almost three hours later at 4.30am, but just west of the exit there was an enemy position. To the south gaps 3 and 4 presented even more difficulties for B Squadron: soon after leaving its start line the squadron had run into mines in a deep sandy wadi which claimed three carriers and, believing this to be the eastern edge of 'January,' the squadron leader ordered flailing to begin. It was not 'January' but mines that had been laid in front of it. One Scorpion overheated several times and broke down; enemy fire was heavy with machine-guns, mortars and artillery and the squadron sustained heavy casualties before reaching the eastern edge of the enemy minefield where the Scorpions fortunately were all back in working order through the efforts of their crews. By 2.15am, number 3 gap was clear but was useless for wheeled vehicles due to soft sand, one Scorpion was now disabled at the western end of the gap. The final gap, number 4, was as cleared by hand half an hour after midnight, the Scorpion assigned to it having been knocked out three-quarters of the way through.

The minefields had been bigger than anticipated and resistance very strong. B Squadron had been reduced to less than six carriers and casualties were severe. So bad were those casualties that 44 Recce's CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Corbett-Winder, told Brigadier Roberts of 22 Armoured Brigade that his men could only clear two gaps instead of four in 'February;' the two squadrons could only muster one column each rather than two. The attack through 'February' was due to start at 5.30am. It had to be called off; one gapping party was unable to get to 'February;' the other reached it but came under heavy fire from the enemy. Dawn was breaking and, as any attempt to clear minefields in daylight would be suicidal, the operation was cancelled. One Scorpion, hit by anti-tank fire had to be abandoned.

Daylight saw 22 Armoured Brigade trapped on either side of 'January.' Their situation worsened when the Free French were pushed off Himeimat and their commanding officer, the popular and inspiring Colonel Amilakvari, killed. Throughout the day there was heavy fighting all along the Alamein front and 7th Armoured Division had orders to extended their bridgehead westward through 'February' that night. The men of 44 Recce were to clear two gaps through which 22 Armoured would pass to be followed by 4 Light Armoured Brigade. Once again things did not go according to plan: although both gaps were complete by 2.30am fire was so heavy that the sappers were unable to mark the sides with dannert wire and lights; so much enemy anti-tank artillery was still operational that the British armour, after making one attempt to pass through, was forced to withdraw. For 7th Armoured Division the situation had virtually stalemated; 44 Recce was pulled back to a reserve position at Deir el Ragil where it remained until 2 November. After forcing its way through 'February' the regiment had only four carriers surviving from 38; 13 officers and over 100 other ranks had been killed or wounded.

As the Axis forces began to withdraw from the El Alamein line 44 Recce, at the head of 44th Division, began a pursuit of the Germans and Italians from Himeimat. For 70 miles the division harried the retreating foe, taking hundreds of prisoners and large quantities of arms and equipment after a number of minor actions. Then came news of the division's withdrawal. Worse was to come: the CinC, Middle East Forces, General Sir Harold Alexander, judged that the need for reinforcements for Eighth Army, plus the supply problems of the advance, meant that two of his divisions could no longer be kept in being: the axe fell on 8th Armoured and 44th Infantry Divisions. Informed that it would be disbanded also, 44 Recce was sent to Qassasan, in the Nile delta, to await that fate.

However, a stay of execution was ordered and the regiment was reorganised with Marmon-Herrington armoured-cars replacing its Humber LRCs. Without an operational rôle it moved to the Citadel in Cairo in January 1943 to guard GHQ. That task ended in February and, by the end of that month,44 Recce had moved to Gaza and 56th (London) Division which had left its own reconnaissance regiment in England on moving to the Middle East. By the beginning of April, 56th Division was moving westwards to join Eighth Army which had broken the Mareth Line and was operating in Tunisia.