Friday 3 November 2017

Ninety Sixth Day of the Third Battle of Ypres and the Third Battle of Gaza

Saturday 3rd November 1917

A victory has been won at Gaza. The attack began on the night of 1st and 2nd and has resulted in part of the town falling to our men. We have heard at length from the adjutant of 1st/5th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, of which more anon.

The overall picture seems to be that XXI Corps made the attack - a formation comprising 52nd (Lowland) Division, 54th (East Anglian) Division and 75th Division, the Imperial Cavalry Service Brigade of Indian lancer regiments, and attached troops. The attack was aimed at three main areas - Umbrella Hill, raided twice by the Bedfords earlier this year, El Arish Redoubt and the coastal defences. It was designed to bottle up the garrison and prevent it interfering with our forces’ advance to the south-east at Beersheba.

The initial attack on Umbrella Hill was made by 52nd Division which succeeded in taking the hill. The division then moved on and attacked El Arish Redoubt, supported by six tanks. The eastern half of the redoubt was taken and then the western half was attacked by 54th Division, supported by four tanks. Both divisions then attacked the south-western portion of Gaza, which they took, along with Rafa Redoubt, assisted by fire from vessels of the Royal Navy.

Thus the attack has achieved its desired outcome and more, with a portion of the town itself falling into our men’s’ hands. The adjutant of the Bedfords has given us a good description of his unit’s endeavours. At 2.10 am they left their bivouac area, passing Sheikh Ajlin at 3.10. By 3.45 they were within 150 yards of Sea Post, right on the shoreline. Between 4.10 and 4.30 they moved forward about three hundred yards. Companies moved off and Battalion Headquarters were established about 150 yards south of Cricket Well, waiting here until Advanced Battalion Headquarters reported that Tomb Spur had been cleared and the Advanced Headquarters established there.

About 5.10 Battalion Headquarters moved to Tomb Spur where they came under heavy machine gun fire from the ridge between Rafa and Belah. Next came an attack on Sheikh Hasan: “carried out absolutely to programme” and by six o’clock yesterday morning Hasan Garden was cleared right through and consolidated. Thirteen Turkish officers and 140 other ranks were taken prisoner and sent back - “a number of Turks were killed, twenty have been counted, there are probably more as the locality is too big to reach properly. Three Machine Guns, fragments of a fourth over 200 rifles many thousand rounds of small arms ammunition, bombs, engineers’ material, quarter master stores, papers and booty is being collected, but owing to consolidation no proper salvage arrangements can be put into operation”.

The adjutant went on: “In the attack one platoon led by Second Lieutenant E A Phillips, Royal Berkshire Regiment, attached this until, with more dash than thought for his orders reached and entered Turtle Hill. The Turks put up the white flag, but a machine-gun in the rear opened on the platoon and nearly all of them were wiped out. Second Lieutenant Phillips was killed”.

“During the advance through the garden our shrapnel barrage is said to have been erratic, or it may have been the keenness of the men, but we suffered most of our casualties there from our own shell fire. The tanks were not on time and only vehicle Number 5 turned up eventually at 6.25, this off-loaded its Royal Engineers’ material and proceeded forward, but soon afterwards it broke down. From about 6.15 to 8.30 the enemy shelled us heavily”. Efforts were made to support the attack by 1st/4th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment on Lion and Tiger Trenches, north-east of Sheikh Hasan, but owing to smoke and mist visibility was bad.

During the morning the Bedfords suffered from enemy machine-gun and rifle fire from Tortoise Hill and Turtle Hill. At 2.30 pm the 1/4th Northamptons attacked Tortoise Hill and Belah unsuccessfully and were driven back. At the same time the whole locality came under very heavy enemy shell fire again and a very strong enemy counter-attack developed between Tortoise Hill and Turtle Hill. The Bedfords reinforced their right, and all communications being cut by shells fired the SOS signal for a barrage which then came down and this together with their own machine-gun fire stopped the enemy.

One disturbing part of the adjutant’s account follows: “At the same time Turks were reported advancing from the direction of Tiger Trench and this was confirmed by the action of the Navy who opened fire on them at once and this stopped the movement. It is said that this party was, in fact, the remains of the Northamptonshires returning to our lines”(1). During last evening the remaining Northamptons and one company of 1st/11th Battalion, London Regiment (Finsbury Rifles) were put under the orders of the 1st/5th Bedfords. Ominously the adjutant ended his message with: “We are under close observation from Turtle Hill and it is beginning to tell”.

Here at Ypres there has been some activity today. Drake Battalion of 63rd (Royal Naval) Division took the front line up to the swampy morass that is the Paddebeek and then captured Sourd Farm. Meanwhile the 3rd Canadian Division took Graf House, but had to abandon it due to enemy machine-gin fire. Similarly they took Vanity and Vine Cottages but had to yield them up again.

Source: X550/6/8

(1) The Northamptonshire Regiment suffered 63 dead on 2nd November compared with 14 for the Bedfords.

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