Artwork Description / Detail
Erwin Rommel, popularly known as the Desert Fox, took control of Tobruk on the 21st of June 1942. Tobruk was a crucial point in the Allies’ defense of Egypt and the Suez Canal, as it forced the Axis troops to bring most of their supplies overland from the port of Tripoli, across 1,500 km of desert terrain.
After their defeat at the Battle of Gazala in mid-June 1942, the British 8th Army fell back to Mersa Matruh, Egypt. It was here that the New Zealand 2nd Division was deployed in an attempt to stem the German tide. The New Zealanders formed part of the Allied forces (Britain, British India, Canada, Australia & South Africa) and came under the jurisdiction of the British 8th Army commanded by Commander-in-Chief General Claude Auchinleck. Auchinleck, had to rely on his infantry divisions to halt the Axis progress. He placed the New Zealand 2nd Division at Minqar Qa’im, on the escarpment 48km inland from the Mersa Matruh line.
According to official New Zealand war artist Peter McIntyre, ‘On 26 June a bloody and confused battle was fought above Mersa Matruh. The German tanks were the trouble. As was proved later at El Alamein, the infantry can hold and even gain ground when properly equipped, but it cannot be expected to hold that ground against tanks when equipped only with bayonets. Gradually the New Zealand Division was surrounded’. In McIntyre’s view, there was no question of surrender, even though their Commander in Chief, Lieutenant General Freyberg was seriously wounded, his 18th war wound.
The New Zealand 2nd Division had delayed the German advance long enough for the 8th Army to reform on the Alamein Line. A plan was formulated for the Division to break through the German lines just after midnight on the 28th of June 1942. The infantrymen of the fourth brigade spearheaded the Division’s attack.
The Division charged through the German defensive line, ‘hell for leather’, with ‘cheers’ and ‘Maori war cries that struck terror into the heart of their opponents’. The attack took the surrounding German forces completely by surprise. The New Zealand Division negotiated a hail of bullets, tracer shells lobbing through the air, burning trucks and flames rising like huge bonfires that illuminated the billows of smoke. ‘Men, silhouetted against the flames, could be seen running from burning trucks to leap on the tailboards of others, but the pell-mell rush went on until the whole cavalcade was through’. One man, using a very New Zealand metaphor, described how ‘we went straight down the field through everything and everybody, like a pack of All Black forwards’. The Division made it through and because they had succeeded in halting the momentum of Rommel’s army, the Alamein Line was saved. By the 1st of July, when the Germans reached the Alamein Line, the British were dug in and Rommel’s men were too exhausted to fight.
Peter McIntyre captured the chaos, excitement and violence of the breakthrough in the illustrated ink on paper sketch, The Breakthrough, Minqar, Qa’im, 27th – 28th June 1942. He would later rework the scene in his studio at New Zealand’s Maadi camp, Egypt, and create an oil painting, which is now housed in the New Zealand Archives War Art collection.
- Grace Alty