Battle of Rafa, 9 January 1917

The battle of Rafa, 9 January 1917, was a minor British victory that ended the Sinai campaign of 1916. On 21 December the British had captured El Arish, their main objective, from where they could both protect Egypt and threaten Palestine. Despite the objections of their German chief-of-staff, Kress von Kressenstein, two Turkish detachments remained inside Egypt. The first, at Magdhaba, was captured on 23 December 1917.

This only left a 2,000 strong Turkish force at Rafa, 25 miles east of El Arish (now right on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt). This was made up of two battalions from the 31st Regiment and a battery of mountain guns, defending a strong position at El Magruntein, to the south west of Rafa. This was made up of three groups of defensive works, backed up by a central redoubt on a hill. The position was surrounded by a clear area 2,000 yards wide.

The British dispatched a mobile column under Lt. General Philip Chetwode to attack Rafa. This column contained three of the four brigades of the Anzac Mounted Division, the 5th Mounted Brigade (Yeomanry), the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade and No. 7 Light Car Patrol (made up of six Ford cars each armed with a machine gun). 

The British left El Arish late on 8 January. After a night march, they surrounded the Turkish position at El Magruntein at dawn on 9 January. Chetwode’s cavalry force was not well suited to job of storming a strong infantry position. No progress was made during the morning or during most of the afternoon. Between 3 and 4 p.m. news reached Chetwode that Turkish reinforcements were moving towards Rafa, and at 4.30, having made no progress, Chetwode ordered a withdrawal.

Just as Chetwode was issuing this order, the situation changed dramatically. The New Zealand Mounted Brigade captured the central redoubt after a bayonet charge. Soon after this the Camel Corps captured one of the three groups of defensive works. Chetwode immediately cancelled the order to withdraw. The remaining two defensive positions were soon captured.

The battle of Rafa cost the British 71 dead and 415 wounded. The Turks lost 200 dead and 1,635 captured. The British position at El Arish was now secure, and attention could turn towards a possible invasion of Palestine. The War Cabinet decided to postpone any invasion until late in 1917, after the planned spring offensive on the Western Front. Despite this overall policy, the British commander in Egypt, General Murray, soon decided to make an attempt to capture Gaza, to clear the way for the main invasion.  Two attempts would be made during the spring of 1917 (First battle of Gaza, 26-27 March, Second battle of Gaza, 17-19 April), and both would end with Turkish victories.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (2 September 2007), Battle of Rafa, 9 January 1917 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_rafa.html

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