Recollections of an Old Soldier: Herr Günter Halm (Part two)

A critical point in the North Africa campaign, British forces have repelled relentless German advances, and now both sides settle in to prepare for the decisive engagement of the First Battle of El Alemein.

View CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

Following its defeat at the Battle of Gazala the British retreated east into Egypt and dug in along a new defensive line at Mersa Metruh. On the 25th June General Ritchie was replaced as commander of the 8th Army by Claude Auchinleck. Auchinleck decided that the Metruh Line was indefensible due to the loss of his armoured units at the Gazala Battles, and opted instead to initiate a fighting withdrawal to a line further east near El Alemein. Only 40 miles to the south of El Alemein, the steep slopes of the Qattara Depression prevented the Axis armoured units from outflanking the position to the south as it had done earlier that month.

Since the fall of Tobruk on 21st June the Axis forced had relentlessly marched east in pursuit of their enemy. The continuous advance combined with constant harassment from the RAF left the Axis supply lines extremely vulnerable and by July the forward units were tired and under-supplied with water and ammunition. However, Rommel believed that if he maintained this pressure for a little while longer and managed to break through the El Alemein line, Egypt would be his for the taking.

El Alemein

After five days of ferocious fighting with no side making any significant advance, Rommel decided to dig in to allow his units to rest and regroup. The lull was broken by a British counter attack on the Ruweisat Ridge, a line of rocky outcrops running west to east at the centre of the British defensive line. New Zealanders and Indians stormed the ridge under cover of darkness and took several strategic positions. However, unsupported by armour and low on ammunition, the New Zealanders were forced to surrender. This was Günter’s first experience of enemy prisoners in such larger numbers. More startling to Günter however was the loss of several of his comrades to disease and combat during this period, another first. Late in July Günter once again found himself in advance of the German line south west of the Ruweisat Ridge and facing another strong British counter-attack.

Indian infantry defensive position
British infantry dug in near El Alemein

Gefreiter Halm and his crew were in a precarious position. In the low ground they were vulnerable to enemy fire from higher up the ridge, and when the enemy finally came they knew the fight would be hard. At daybreak on the 22nd July the moment came. After hearing the sounds of skirmishes all along the ridge, Günter observed several dust clouds heralding the approach of enemy armour. Like a well-oiled machine the crew got to work, picking targets and firing with deadly precision. However, unlike the fight at the Gazala line, the determined enemy were attacking in force. At first the enemy’s fire was wild and inaccurate; however Günter knew that sooner or later it would find its range. Relentlessly firing his gun he managed to knock out two, three then four enemy tanks, but many more rolled on threatening to envelope his position.

Then the inevitable came. Günter did not see the tank that fired the round, but its impact threw him to the ground in a cloud of dust and debris. A direct hit! Stunned and in pain from the impact of debris from the blast, Günter managed to find his feet. Looking around he saw two of his comrades lying wounded on the ground, the others, like him, were dazed and struggling to their feet. All the while the enemy continued its advance and would soon be upon them. Günter shook himself free of his half-conscious state and returned to his gun hoping that it was still operable.  Finding to his relief that it was, he and what remained of the crew proceeded to load and fire, putting several more British tanks out of action.

Valentine_tank_Mk3_desert
A British Valentine Tank carrying infantry to assault positions

 

Through shear bravery and dogged determination to continue the fight, Günter knocked out 7 enemy tanks which effectively blunted the British advance and allowed the Germans to reinforce the position. On the recommendation of his regimental commander he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class on the 23rd July. This was upgraded to the Knight’s Cross; Germany’s highest award for bravery, which he was presented by Rommel himself on the 7th of August.

This engagement would mark the last significant combat that Günter would see in North Africa. After contracting dysentery he was hospitalised in Athens and then Geneva. Finally ending up in France, Günter found himself out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Gunter and Rommel
Gunter shaking the hand of Rommel after being presented with his Knight’s Cross

 

View CHAPTER THREE

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