Battle of Rafa - Battle

Battle

At 01:00 Chetwode's mounted units of Desert Column began moving to attack Rafa on 9 January 1916 without any reserve ammunition for the artillery, rifles and machine guns. Chetwode had ordered that all wheeled vehicles, excepting the guns remain at Sheikh Zowaiid, which was complied with under protest from all the brigadiers.

While the 1st Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigades rode to a position from which to attack from the south, east and north, the 5th Mounted Yeomanry Brigade moved off by the same route as the Anzac Mounted Division and Imperial Camel Corps Brigade. The Yeomanry brigade moved off at 02:03 accompanied by six Ford motor cars of the 7th Light Car Patrol in support, less two troops of the Worcestershire Yeomanry, at Sheikh Zowaiid protecting the ammunition, continued along the old El Arish to Rafa caravan road straight to Rafa.

At 06:15 the Auckland Mounted Rifle Regiment was first to reach the boundary pillars on the Egyptian and Ottoman frontier, moving from the African continent onto Asia. The Anzac Mounted Division headquarters was established near Karm Ibn Musleh on the frontier to the south south east of Rafa and El Magruntein. On the way there the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade was deployed .75 miles (1.21 km) to the west with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north. Desert Column's headquarters were established 4.5 miles (7.2 km) west of Karm Ibn Musleh, with the 5th Mounted Yeomanry Brigade in column reserve while a patrol of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment went to cut the telegraph line running east from Rafa towards Shellal, and Chauvel reconnoitred the El Magruntein defences. By 07:00 the telegraph lines to Gaza had been cut, isolating the Ottoman garrison and the British Empire horse artillery batteries began firing on the redoubts at El Magruntein.

Just after 08:00 the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade circled northwards moving into position in preparation to attack the groups of redoubts and trenches identified as C4 and C5, while the 1st Light Horse Brigade was ordered to attack C3, C2 and C1 groups. When these objectives were won both brigades were to attack the central redoubt. Three battalions of the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade were ordered to attack the D group of fortifications while the 3rd Light Horse Brigade was to form the divisional reserve. By 09:45 the attacking troops had approached to within 2,000 yards (1,800 m) of the entrenchments.

The divisional artillery had selected their targets and the Leicester, Inverness and Somerset Batteries Royal Horse Artillery were to cross fire with "B" Battery Honourable Artillery Company to produce a concentrated artillery attack for half an hour from 09:30 to 10:00.

At 10:00 the attack from the north was led by the Auckland Mounted Rifle Regiment supported by two machine guns while the Canterbury Mounted Rifle Regiment on their right rode towards Rafa where they quickly captured the village along with six German and two Ottoman officers, 16 other ranks and 21 Bedouins. Two troops were sent to watch for the approach of reinforcements from the north and the east. One troop moved north towards Khan Yunis and the other moved eastwards in the direction of Shellal.

The 1st Light Horse Brigade advanced from the direction of El Gubba westwards on El Magruntein, during their attack on the "C" group of redoubts, when the brigade was heavily machine gunned and German and Ottoman guns fired shrapnel. To the south the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade was moving towards B4 redoubt and at 10:30 the 5th Mounted Yeomanry Brigade was ordered to demonstrate against the works further west. On arrival on a plateau 2,500 yards (2,300 m) from El Magruntein the Warwickshire Yeomanry, 5th Mounted Yeomanry Brigade, was ordered to attack the B1 and B2 redoubts while the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, 5th Mounted Yeomanry Brigade, attacked the right of A1 redoubt, the most westerly entrenchment. They dismounted 2,000 yards (1,800 m) from their objectives, but these attacks also suffered, from heavy machine gun fire and two Ottoman or German guns firing shrapnel.

With the Ottoman garrison defending El Magruntein cut off from the north and east, orders were issued for all reserves, to be committed and the attack pressed. At 11:00 the position of the attacking force was the Canterbury and Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiments, two squadrons of 1st Light Horse Regiment, one squadron of 2nd light Horse Regiment, 3rd Light Horse Regiment, 10th Light Horse Regiment (3rd Light Horse Brigade), 1st (Australian) Battalion, Imperial Camel Corps Brigade, Warwickshire Yeomanry and Gloucestershire Hussars with the Inverness Battery covering the New Zealanders, the Leicester and Somerset Batteries the Australians, the Hong Kong Battery covering the Battalion of Camel Corps Brigade while the HAC battery shelled "C" group of redoubts from a distance of .75 miles (1.21 km). By this time, Chaytor, the commander of New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade had moved his headquarters up to the boundary post 1 mile (1.6 km)south-east of Rafa, immediately behind the Auckland Mounted Rifle Regiment and half an hour later the attack was progressing well all along the line.

By 12:15 the Wellington Mounted Rifle Regiment, had come up between the Canterburys on the right and the Aucklanders on the left, in the front line and were within 600 yards (550 m) of El Magruntein. Shortly afterwards, the Canterbury Regiment found touch with the left of the 5th Mounted Yeomanry Brigade, whose attack was extended to the left by the 7th Light Car Patrol, and the cordon around the enemy entrenchments was complete. Meanwhile, the batteries had pushed forward about 1,500 yards (1,400 m) from their previous positions, with "B" Battery HAC switching fire from the "C" group of redoubts and coming into action at a range of 1,600 yards (1,500 m) to fire on A1 and A2 redoubts, in support of the 5th Mounted Yeomanry Brigade.

However, the Ottoman defenders were in a very strong defensive position, with their redoubts ideally placed to provide supporting fire for other redoubts, and in most places the dismounted attackers were utterly exposed to view from the redoubts. In order to provide some cover for these dismounted attackers, a constant stream of fire was maintained on the Ottoman parapets, to keep the defenders suppressed and unable to take aim. The attack continued but from about 12:15 to about 14:15 they pressed more and more slowly, as little by little the cordon slowly drew tighter under intense fire over the bare, gently-sloping grasslands.

By early to mid-afternoon supplies of ammunition began to run low, and although Chauvel called on further effort, the mistake of leaving the ammunition vehicles behind was paid, as the attack falter. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade ran out of ammunition for four of its machine guns and the Inverness Battery ran out of shells and had to withdraw.

At 14:30 Chauvel ordered a fresh effort against the system of redoubts and the "C" group, to be launched at 15:30, while the artillery was to continue a sustained barrage until that time.

At 14:45 an Ottoman machine gun officer and three Germans, who had been captured by a troop of Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment, stated that their 160th Regiment had left Shellal on the Wadi Ghuzzeh when the attack began, with the intention of reinforcing the Rafa garrison. Shellal was about 10–13 miles (16–21 km) or three and a half hours away. The patrol of a section of Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment in the direction of Shellal, confirmed that about two battalions were advancing in artillery formation, over the ridges west of Shellal. At 16:15 the flank guard of one troop of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment watching in the direction of Khan Yunus reported about 500 enemy soldiers were marching in the direction of Rafa.

Launched at 15:30 the general assault supported by all available guns made slow progress and German planes became very active in their bombing while the Ottoman defenders in the trenches continued their stubborn fight. By this time two troops of the Wellington Mounted Rifle Regiment were engaged with the advanced guard of Ottoman reinforcements coming from Khan Yunus in the north and Shellal in the east.

Four guns of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles Regiment, on the right flank had been placed in a trench, but were afterwards moved forward to the sunken road. From there they were able to maintain overhead covering fire, until the assaulting troops were within a few yards of the trenches, providing good covering fire at effective ranges. These guns were also well positioned to provide cover for a retirement of the New Zealand brigade to the coast, if pressure from the Ottoman reinforcements from Khan Yunus and Shellal proved too strong.

We were quite stuck up in the open, about 400 yards (370 m) from the trenches, about 15:00, and I ordered the New Zealanders to work round the rear and assault the principal work.

Chetwode

After a day of steady methodical and persistent work the attack was carried through, and by 16:00 bullets from rifles and machine guns, fired on the central redoubt during the general assault, made a cloud of smoke like a furnace over the area. Faced with this fire, the Ottoman defenders had extreme difficulty in taking aim and firing their rifles and machine guns, and so it became possible for the attacking forces to cover the last 600–800 yards (550–730 m) of smooth grassy slope in two rushes, everyone determined to finish the job. At about 16:30 the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade launched its final assault on the central redoubt from the north north west, the north and the north north east. Without artillery support these troops were seen sweeping up the slope with the bayonet, and shortly afterwards the central position was captured. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade won the central redoubt in a final bayonet charge, at the run, with many men firing as they ran. Having captured the dominating central position, they were able to enfilade redoubts still held by Ottoman defenders, and the remaining positions quickly fell to the other brigades.

The New Zealanders' successful attack depended on the determined use of machine guns in the firing line, crossing this fire to get better targets, and cooperating with one another and with the machine guns of the 1st Light Horse Brigade to advance to within 400 yards (370 m) of the Ottoman's main position.

The 1st Light Horse Brigade followed up the success of the New Zealanders by advancing and capturing the remaining enemy positions on its front, as did the 3rd Light Horse Brigade on its front. The 3rd (Australian) Battalion, Imperial Camel Corps Brigade was also successful in assaulting the "B" group. As they approached the trench a white flag appeared while B2 and the central work of "B" group was captured by 16:50 together with five officers and 214 other ranks. The Warwickshire Yeomanry captured B 1 redoubt and another 101 prisoners.

This successful attack was supported by aircraft recently fitted with wireless, (they had had to drop messages during the Magdhaba attack) which hovered over the battle during the afternoon, reporting its progress constantly to headquarters. At intervals they dropped bombs on the system of redoubts and trenches.

After establishing a strong rearguard position manned by two light horse regiments commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Cecil Maygar, the bulk of Desert Column moved back towards Sheikh Zowaiid. They arrived about midnight where rations and water were waiting.

Chetwode reported to the commander of Eastern Force Charles Macpherson Dobell, that the work of all troops engaged had been excellent, and the part played by the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade had been outstanding.

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