"At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man - they were an awe inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze - knee to knee and horse to horse - the dying sun glinting on bayonet points..." Trooper Ion Idriess
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The Battle of Rafa, Sinai, 9 January 1917, Outline Topic: BatzP - Rafa
The Battle of Rafa
Sinai, 9 January 1917
Rafa landscape, January 1917.
Rafa, the site of a former Egyptian police post on the Mediterranean border with Palestine. is the name generally given to an action between British and Turkish forces on 9 January 1917 which was actually fought about 1.5 kilometres to the south on ground known as El Magruntein. Following the capture of the other main Turkish post inland at Magdhaba (q.v) a fortnight earlier, the British commander of what was called the Desert Column, Lieut.-General Sir Philip Chetwode, prepared to take Rafa as well. Aerial patrols reported that place to be held by 2,000 - 3,000 enemy troops, who were busily digging in. Available for this operation was the Anzac Mounted Division (1st and 3rd Australian Light Horse brigades and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade) commanded by Major-General Harry Chauvel, reinforced by three of the four battalions of the Imperial Camel Corps (which also contained many Australians) and the 5th Mounted Brigade, a British yeomanry outfit.
Map outline for the Battle of Rafa, drawn February 1917.
[Click on map for larger version.]
After a period spent in reconnoitring routes and compiling plans of the Turkish defences from the air, Chauvel's troops commenced their march from El Arish at dusk on 8 January. Moving first to Sheikh Zowaiid, an Arab village sixteen kilometres short of the objective which was seized and sealed to prevent a warning being carried to the enemy, by dawn the attacking force had entirely surrounded Rafa and was in position to attack. Only at this stage was the true difficulty of the operation apparent to Chetwode and Chauvel. The Turks occupied a network of trenches rising in tiers around an earthen redoubt on a central knoll, and although these works were not protected by wire they completely dominated the long bare slopes leading up to them.
Once commenced at 10 a.m. the British assault-as at Magdhaba - made only slow progress. For the first time use was made of aircraft to direct the fire of artillery using radio, but despite this innovation the attack lacked the weight of guns to destroy the enemy's defences or their spirit. By midafternoon the force's reserves had all been committed, ammunition was getting short, and Chetwode was beginning to fret about whether success could he achieved in time to meet the pressing need for water for both his men and horses. When news reached him at about 4 p.m. that two strong groups of Turkish reinforcements, probably 2,500 men, were approaching from the east and north-east, Chetwode decided soon afterwards to break off the fight and withdraw.
Wellington Mounted Rifles 2nd Troop from 9th Squadron charging the trenches at Rafa.
Acting on this order, Chauvel had issued the necessary instructions to his brigades. As at Magdhaba, however the recall was ignored at unit level where the troops were determined to bring the action to a climax. The New Zealanders and the Camel Corps both succeeded in overrunning the redoubts in front of them, and within a short period the entire Turkish defence collapsed. Of the garrison, some 200 were killed and 1,602 taken prisoner (including 168 wounded); only a few escaped into the darkness which soon afterwards enveloped the battlefield. British losses totalled 486, including 71 killed.
With his flank guards already exchanging fire at long range with the approaching Turkish reinforcements, Chauvel did not attempt to hold the ground just won but withdrew to Sheikh Zowaiid where water and supplies had been dumped. The enemy did not re-occupy the defences, however, and - apart from a fruitless clash by cavalry and camelry the next morning with two light horse regiments left to cover a field ambulance while it searched for wounded - left the British in uncontested possession of Rafa.
Prisoners captured at Rafa.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 122-123.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
H.S. Gullett, (1944), The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
A.J. Hill, (1978), Chauvel of the Light Horse, Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.
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