The Defence of Outpost Snipe

Armoured Fist

Outpost Snipe ~ The second Battle of El Alamein 27th October 1942

On the 26th October Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Turner’s 2nd Battalion The Rifle Brigade was ordered to take part in the offensive operations against enemy positions around the Kidney Ridge sector. The Battle of El Alamein had been raging for 3 days, the sector before Kidney Ridge had been captured by Leese’s XXX Corps and lanes had been cleared through the minefields.

The way was now clear for Monty to launch Lumsden’s X Corps through the gaps in the hope of committing Rommel’s Panzers into battle with their limited fuel supplies.

Turner’s battalion along with the 7th Battalion Rifle Brigade and 2nd Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps, made-up the 7th Motor Brigade which was the infantry component of the 1st Armoured Division. 

Casualties had now left Turners 2nd Battalion with 76 men and 22 carriers (though it must be remembered the established strength of a British Motor Rifle Battalion is only 90 riflemen). Once support troops were added Turner’s command came to a little under 300 men.

Turner had at his disposal:

His Motorised battalion
3 Motor Companies:    Each of 2 Motor Platoons
1 Carrier Platoon
1 MG Platoon
4 Platoons of 6pdr Portee Anti-tank guns (16 guns total)

Outpost Snipe
6pdr gun

Attached to his force:   

239 battery of 76th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery
2 Platoons of 4 and 1 of 3 6pdr Portee guns (11 guns total)
7th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers (16 sappers)

Turner’s task was to advance on and establish a base at a feature positioned in the relatively sparse terrain of El Alamein, known as Snipe. Once established this was to be used as a pivot point for the 24th Armoured Brigade’s advance towards the Rahman Track. 

Outpost Snipe was an oval depression, a mere 900 by 400 yards, and it offered the only available cover for thousands of yards, the surrounding terrain was little more than featureless desert with the odd patch of camelthorn.

At 2300 hours on the 26th the men and machines of 2nd Battalion The Rifle Brigade moved off towards their objective. After a struggle through the soft sand they took possession of what they thought was the objective, but, they were in fact 900 yards south of their target. By luck they had found a similar depression that would offer them protection from the coming storm.

As the column of Portees and supply trucks struggled their way forward, they came under attack from some aircraft, losing several vehicles and personnel.

Motorised column
6pdr gun being simply towed by the Portee truck

Eventually a total of 19 6pdr Portees made it to the position (13 from the Battalion and 6 from 239 Battery). They were all off loaded and ready for action by 0345.

Forces Deployed in Outpost Snipe

3 Motor Companies:    Each of 2 Motor Platoons
1 Carrier Platoon
1 MG Platoon
4 Platoons of 6pdr Portee Anti-tank guns (13 guns total)

Attached to his force:

239 battery of 76th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery
3 Platoons 6pdr Portee guns (6 guns total)
7th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers (16 sappers)

First Contact

Once the Battalion had begun to establish its positions ‘C’ Company’s carrier platoon, under the command of Lieutenant Dick Flower, were sent off westwards to reconnoitre the enemy positions. During their reconnaissance they took some prisoners and discovered a mixed Italian/German kampfgruppe laagered up for the night.

Under fire
M14/41 Italian tanks

In this group were tanks, tank destroyers and infantry units.

In an act of sheer bravado Lieutenant Dick Flower, commanding the scouts, opened fire with his machine-gun armed carriers setting alight several supply trucks. The tank crews were soon scrabbling for their turrets and returning fire. The axis fire set a derelict vehicle alight revealing the carriers’ positions, forcing the British to make a hasty retreat. The carriers had disturbed an angry hornet’s nest. Kampfgruppe Stiffelmayer had been discovered. 

Meanwhile back in the depression Turner was beginning to suspect their positions might now lay somewhere within the enemy lines. Campfires could be seen to the north and west, and 1000 yards to the north another large tank laager (from the 15th Panzer Division) could be seen from the British position.

Not long after settling in to their positions Turners force heard the sound of engines and tracks approaching, Kampfgruppe Stiffelmayer had broken its camp. Turner was soon able to observe the kampfgruppe; it had split into two columns, one headed towards the larger laager to the north, while the other headed straight for his positions.

The Axis column advanced in line abreast, and seemed unaware of the British positions. In front was a Panzer IV F2. 

Motor Company HQ team
The Rifle Brigade gunners (with C company) waited patiently until the tank was within 30 yards, and with a single 6pdr shot set it alight. On their right the gunners of 239 Battery (with A company) were able to do the same to a Marder. This sudden ambush sent the Axis force retreating to the west to await daylight.
Panzer III

The Battle Continues

At 0400 Turner’s artillery observation officers went forward to scout around, but never returned, denying Turner full control of his artillery support. It remained quiet for the remainder of the night and at 0545 Major Tom Pearson (Turner’s 2IC) left the positions with the transport, taking them to the safety of the rear.

At 0615 the first streaks of light appeared over the horizon and as the light grew stronger both the Axis tank groups started to move westwards.  

The enemy still seem unaware of the strong anti-tank force parked in the midst of their lines. The scrub and hollow that Turner’s force was nestled in left them invisible to the probing Axis eyes.

At a range of 800 yards as the two tank column passed by, apparently oblivious to the British positions, the 6pdrs opened up a devastating hail of fire. 
The Panzers exposed side and rear armour made them easy pickings, the escaping crews easily picked of by the battalions Vickers machine-guns. Each Axis column lost eight vehicles, Outpost Snipe had claimed a total of 18 vehicles for no loss, but their latest efforts had called attention to their position. The Axis artillery homed in on them and the casualties began to mount.

Despite their success so far, Lieutenant-Colonel Turner was worried that the 24th Armoured Brigade had not made an appearance as yet. At about 0730 dust clouds could be seen approaching from the British lines, but when the tanks (47th Royal Tank Regiment) crested the rise they mistook Outpost Snipe as an enemy laager and opened fire.
6pdrs fight off Italian tanks
The 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade’s intelligence officer, Lieutenant Jack Wintour, was sent off in a carrier to tell them of their mistake, but was unable to make contact. It was not until the guns of Snipe started firing on some more approaching German tanks, knocking out several, that the 47 RTR realised their mistake.

The tanks joined Turner’s battalion, but seemed to attract more fire, and by 0900 they were forced to withdraw behind the ridge again, after losing 5 Shermans. 24 Armoured Brigades attack had been halted.
Knocked out Panzer IV F1 As soon as the tanks had left  Italians to the south were sighted forming up for an assault. Turner dispatched the Scout platoon’s carriers to deal with the threat. The Scouts were able to destroy two vehicles and inflict heavy casualties on the infantry, breaking up the attack.

As soon as one attack was fended off another was launched, this time a unit of Italian M14/41 tanks attacked from the southwest. Two guns had to be man-handled into place to reinforce this flank, a difficult job in the soft sand, made worse by exposing the crew to enemy fire. Four tanks were destroyed by the 6pdrs, which seemed enough for the Italians who quickly withdrew.
This thrust by the Italians was meant to neutralise Snipe while Kampfgruppe Stiffelmayer counter-attacked 24 Armoured Brigade. Stiffelmayer had to detach part of his force to deal with Snipe. The German attack went in to the south of Snipe, so both the force attacking Snipe and the 24th Armoured Brigade were exposed to flanking fire from their comrades targets. A further eight German tanks were ablaze, forcing Kampfgruppe Stiffelmayer to withdraw.

During this intense bout of fighting the casualties and loss of weapons continued to mount, and by 1100 only 13 6pdrs remained in action and ammunition was getting low. Turner evacuated most of the seriously wounded in three of the carriers.
On the ridge Pearson had returned with the remains of the supply column, but the intense fire on the ridgeline did not allow him to approach his battalion’s position. The men of Outpost Snipe were on their own.

At 1300 the Italians attacked again, and this time with more determination. Once again they advanced on the southwestern sector of Snipe. They came on with fierce intent, ignoring losses. Against them stood only the one 6pdr of Sergeant Charles Calistan, and ably assisted by Lieutenant-Colonel Turner as loader. They held fire until the vehicles were within 600 yards and took out six, one after the other.   
6 pdr gun
They were down to 2 rounds, so two of Calistan’s crew had to crawl through machine-gun fire to get more ammunition. Finally Lieutenant J. E. B. Toms, Calistan’s platoon commander, ran across the open to his jeep where he had 4 boxes of ammunition. Driving wildly through the Italian fire he made it back to the gun, but the jeep wasn’t going any further. While unloading the ammo from the blazing jeep Lieutenant-Colonel Turner copped a piece of shrapnel through his helmet. Turner was propped up behind some scrub, but Toms keep a running commentary on the success of Calistan’s gun. When Calistan hit three successive tanks with three shots Turner yelled “Good Work ~ a hat trick!”
Charles Calistan (left) and fellow NCOs They stopped the attack at 200 yards; Calistan put a pot of water on the burning jeep and brewed a cup of tea. Turner’s head was bandaged, but after a short while he started to hallucinate and was guided to the safety of the command dugout. A large number of the other officers had been killed or wounded with some sectors of Snipe commanded by senior NCOs.

As Snipe had long since out-lived its original purpose the normal course of event would see them withdrawn, but the 21st Panzer Division was moving along the Rahman Track. The 1st Armoured Division wanted to conserve their tanks for the coming threat and could not spare any to cover the 2nd Battalion The Rifle Brigade’s withdrawal.

As the 2nd Armoured Brigade manoeuvred into position to the northeast of Snipe the Royal Horse Artillery opened up on the outpost, mistaking them as an enemy position. Yet again the men of the battalion were victims of friendly fire, but it was quickly halted.

Two new groups of Axis tanks could be seen forming up to the west, these two forces started advancing on the 2nd Armoured Brigade’s positions at 1700. Their route lay across the path of 239 Battery’s (now 4 guns) field of fire. The gunners waited until the enemy tanks were within 200 yards and their sides were exposed before opening fires with devastating effect.

Those who turned to face the 6pdrs were soon being hit in the side by the tanks of the 2nd Armoured Brigade. The Germans withdrew, but detached 15 tanks to have one last go at Snipe.

Major Thomas Bird (centre bandaged head no hat)

Major Thomas Bird (centre bandaged head no hat), commander of
2nd Rifle Brigade’s anti-tank company and his officers and NCOs. 

The Destroyed Axis tanks

They attacked the position of A company, who were down to their last three 6pdr guns. With a mere ten rounds per gun they waited as the Panzers advanced on them making full use of dips and hollows and covering fire. At 200 yards they fired, taking our four tanks, by 100 yards another 2 were destroyed. The rest of the tanks reverse back to 800 yards away, but continued to fire until the final light faded. The guns were down to three rounds each.

After initial promises of relief, the final order to withdraw was given at 2300. Only one gun from 239 Battery was recovered, the remained were disabled before they withdrew.

The wounded were loaded aboard the remaining battalion transport (3 Jeeps and 6 Carriers), while the remaining 200 men formed a small column and moved back to their own lines.

Left on the battlefield was over 60 destroyed tanks and self-propelled guns, but it had cost Turner’s force all bar one of their 6pdrs, and 72 casualties.

Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Turner won the Victoria Cross for his command and gallantry, the anti-tank company’s commander Major Thomas Bird got the Distinguished Service Order, Sergeant  Charles Calistan was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and several others also received awards.

Last Updated On Tuesday, January 11, 2022 by Wayne at Battlefront