The senior commanders of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) were greatly encouraged by the apparent ease with which the garrison at Magdhaba had been destroyed. They now decided to mount a raid against the last significant Ottoman presence in the Sinai – the Ottoman garrison at Rafah. This involved much more risk than the attack on Magdhaba, because Rafah straddled the Sinai–Palestine border and was connected by road to Gaza, where the bulk of the Ottoman Fourth Army was gathering.
The Sinai railway had not yet advanced far enough to allow large numbers of infantry to be brought across the desert from El Arish to attack Rafah. The British would once again have to rely on their mounted troops. If these failed to capture Rafah quickly they would risk being overwhelmed by large Ottoman forces sent from Gaza. A key factor in the British gamble was the hope that the Ottoman garrison would have little stomach for a close-quarters fight. In this, the attackers were to be sorely disappointed.
On 7 January 1917 the Anzac Mounted Division was ordered to assemble at Sheikh Zowaiid, 16 km from Rafah, to prepare for the attack. The commander of the EEF raiding force, General Philip Chetwode, also had at his disposal the British 5th Mounted Brigade, the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade and a small British armoured car detachment. Against this force the Ottoman Turkish garrison could muster three battalions of the 31st Infantry Regiment, a mountain artillery battery (four guns) and small cavalry and camelry detachments – a total strength of just over 2000 men. These troops were well entrenched just south-west of Rafah village, occupying a large earthen fort complex known as ‘the Reduit’ which was protected by a semi-circle of three separate trench systems. There was little natural cover in the approaches to these defences and Ottoman machine-gun nests were well sited with good fields of fire. The only positive feature from the attacker’s point of view was the complete absence of barbed wire surrounding them.
After two days of preparation and reconnaissance, Chetwode’s force was ready to launch its attack. In the early hours of 9 January his troops moved out under cover of darkness. The basic plan called for the complete and rapid encirclement of Rafah by horsemen and cameleers, followed by simultaneous assaults from all sides. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade was charged with carrying out the most daring part of this plan: sweeping around behind Rafah in a wide arc to cut it off from the road to Khan Yunis and Gaza, then attacking the Reduit from the rear. In carrying out this movement the New Zealanders inadvertently became the first EEF soldiers to cross the frontier into Ottoman Palestine. The Auckland Mounted Rifles did so just before dawn, with the rest of the brigade soon following.
Once all the mounted brigades were in position, the attack began at 9.30 a.m. A half-hour artillery bombardment was followed by the first assaults on the Ottoman trenches. Most of the attacking troops had dismounted about 600 m from the Ottoman lines. It quickly became clear that crossing this gap and overrunning the defences would be no easy task. By midday the attackers were more or less pinned down by the relentless artillery, machine-gun and rifle fire. It was also clear that – unlike their counterparts at Magdhaba – the Ottoman garrison was determined to fight. Chetwode now threw in his reserve brigades and ordered his commanders to redouble their efforts.
As the afternoon wore on the attackers made only slow progress in reaching and reducing the defences, with the Ottoman Turks resisting fiercely. By now the danger that an Ottoman relief force would arrive from Gaza was increasing. Sure enough, just after 4 p.m. scouts reported that Turkish infantry were advancing through Khan Yunis. Chetwode reluctantly decided that he had no choice but to call off the attack and retreat.
Just as Chetwode began to issue the order to retreat, the New Zealanders, who had swept through Rafah village that morning and been engaged in the fight for the Reduit and a small hill known as Point 265 ever since, finally broke through the Ottoman defences. With two bayonet charges they crossed the last of the open ground and captured both Ottoman positions after a brief hand-to-hand fight. This opened the way for the other attacking brigades to outflank and break into the rest of the Ottoman trenches.
Chetwode quickly cancelled his order and his brigade commanders renewed their assaults. Within an hour the Ottoman defences had been completely overrun. Even then Chetwode had to move quickly to make sure his men gathered up all their wounded and Ottoman prisoners and moved out before the relief force arrived. As they were pulling out, troopers of the Wellington Mounted Rifles came under fire from Ottoman advance parties. It had been a close-run thing, but thanks to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, the Battle of Rafah had ended in another victory for the EEF.