Following victory at Romani on August 4, 1916, the British forces had been on the offensive in the Sinai. However their pace of advance was governed by the speed by which the railway and water pipeline could be constructed from the Suez Canal. In December 1916 Australian and New Zealand mounted troops reached El Arish in the eastern Sinai and captured the garrison at Magdhaba, a short distance inland. The railhead was still 30 miles behind but the British 52nd (Lowland) Division marched the remaining distance to El Arish which they began to fortify as the forward British base. The dominance of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean meant supplies and artillery support were assured.
The commander of British forces in Egypt, General Sir Archibald Murray, was keen to complete the advance across the north of the Sinai, believing this would compel the Turks to abandon their inland outposts as well. So on the evening of January 8, 1917 the Anzac Mounted Division, under the command of General Chauvel rode out of El Arish towards Rafa where a 2,000-strong Turkish garrison was based. The commander of the Desert Column, General Philip Chetwode, travelled with the division to supervise the attack.
The attacking force comprised the Australian 1st Light Horse Brigade and 3rd Light Horse Brigade, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, the British 5th (Yeomanry) Brigade and three battalions of the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade. On the morning of January 9 the attacking force reached the vicinity of Rafa. The New Zealand brigade circled around to the south and approached Rafa from the east and north. The light horse and camel brigade approached from the east and south. The yeomanry, with 6 Ford motor cars of the British 7th Light Car Patrol in support, approached along the road from the west.
The Turkish position was located at El Magruntein, about one mile south of the Rafa police post on the border. A bare hill, named Hill 255, dominated the surrounding country which was utterly devoid of cover. The Turks had constructed four redoubts; one on the summit of Hill 255 and three more to the west, south and east of the summit, named "A", "B" and "C" Redoubts respectively.
At 7 am the Turkish garrison was isolated by the cutting of the telegraph lines to Gaza and the British horse artillery batteries commenced firing on the redoubts. Around 10 am a party of Turks attempted to escape up the road towards Gaza but were intercepted by the Canterbury Mounted Rifle Regiment of the New Zealand brigade who captured 171 prisoners.
The attack commenced with the dismounted troops advancing from the east and south. The 3rd Light Horse and 5th (Yeomanry) Brigades were initially held in reserve but were quickly sent to join the attack such that by 11 am a ring of infantry was advancing on the Turkish position. However the Turks were in a strong defensive position and their redoubts were ideally placed to provide supporting fire for each other. The advance was brought to a halt with the attackers up to a mile from their objectives.
In most places the attacking troops were utterly exposed to view from the redoubts so a constant stream of fire was maintained upon the Turkish parapets to keep the defenders suppressed. As the afternoon wore on, the attackers' ammunition began to run low. The New Zealand brigade ran out of ammunition for two machine guns and the Inverness Battery of the horse artillery ran out of shells and had to withdraw.
Chetwode and Chauvel were well aware that the Anzac Mounted Division comprised the majority of the mounted troops available to the British in the Egyptian theatre and consequently they were not willing to sustain significant casualties. They were also of the belief that the Turks would probably withdraw the garrison in the near future anyway. When news arrived that a Turkish relief force was approaching from the east, Chetwode decided to call off the attack and retreat back towards El Arish. However, as evening approached and orders were being issued to disengage, two brigades mounted final assaults in an attempt to get amongst the redoubts.
From the north, the three regiments of the New Zealand brigade charged over a mile against the main redoubt on Hill 255. At the same time, the camel brigade charged from the south against the "B" Redoubt. Seeing these attacks going in, the 1st Light Horse Brigade moved in from the east against the "C" Redoubt. In all cases when the attackers got into the Turkish trenches, the defenders quickly surrendered and as each redoubt was taken, the resistance from the other redoubts diminished until by nightfall the entire position had been captured.
Under threat of a Turkish counter-attack from the east, the British force withdrew towards El Arish, leaving two light horse regiments as a covering force for the light horse field ambulances who were gathering the wounded. The British had suffered 71 killed and 415 wounded while the Turks lost about 200 killed, 168 wounded and 1,434 prisoners.
The remaining Turkish garrisons in the Sinai at El Hassana (near Magdhaba) and Nekhl were captured or expelled in mid-February. The fate of the garrisons at Magdhaba and Rafa made the Turks wary of leaving isolated troops at the mercy of the Desert Column. With victory at Rafa, the British were now in a position to advance into Palestine but to do so would require the capture of the Turkish fortress of Gaza.