Episodes & Studies Volume 1
THE BATTALION was immediately deployed in an all-round defensive position. Colonel Page placed four of the 30th Field Battery’s 25-pounders (E Troop) on the northern side of the perimeter and four (F Troop) on the southern, while L Troop was told to dig its guns in facing east.*
The level ground offered no choice of positions, so the guns were simply sited in line at intervals of about fifty yards along the infantry FDLs**. Once the sites were decided, long training made the procedure automatic. As the gunners reached for picks and short-handled shovels the gun commanders (sergeants in charge of individual guns) leaped to the ground and traced with their heels the dimensions of the gunpits. There had been no chance to brew a cup of tea at breakfast-time or later, and, while the others dug, one man in each crew pumped up the primus stove and soon had a hot drink ready.
* Diagram A.
** Forward defended localities. This term is applied to the most advanced areas of a defensive position. They are usually sited to support each other by fire. In the case of an all-round defence, as on this occasion, the FDLs marked the circumference of the area held.
The real blow fell on the South Africans a few minutes after 3.30 p.m. A strong force of enemy tanks with infantry in lorries approached from the south-west, swung across the brigade’s western perimeter and, making good use of the knowledge gained from their earlier reconnaissance, drove hard at the defences.
The smoke, dust, and flames of battle, and the position of the late afternoon sun, made it hard at first for the New Zealanders to see what was happening. A few shells, probably overs, landed in the 26th Battalion area. But very soon after the attack started, urgent messages from the South Africans, asking for all the artillery support the battalion could afford, made it clear that the situation was desperate. The 30th Battery’s guns were then moved to the western flank and opened fire at the German armoured vehicles and transport.
About four o’clock, when the L Troop gunners had finished digging their gunpits—L4 was actually in position in the pit—all gun commanders were called to troop headquarters, in this case the troop commander’s truck. In charge of the four two-pounders were Sergeants T. E. Williamson7, P. Robertson8, T. E. Unverricht9, and T. H. Croft10, of L’s 1, 2, 3, and 4 respectively. They quickly reported to Lieutenant Pepper, and learned from him that the South Africans were in imminent danger of being overrun, that all the 26th Battalion’s supporting guns were to form a line on the western perimeter, and that the troop was to move immediately. The sergeants ran back to their guns. The gunners cursed more or less automatically when they heard that their digging was all for nothing, but the sight of their commander’s truck, with Lieutenant Pepper leaning from the cab and beckoning them emphatically to follow him, made it plain that this was no time for recrimination.
L2 and L3 were the first guns to follow. Their crews had been warned that they would be required to take part in a dusk patrol and were not to take the guns from the portées before it was over. L1 and L4 had to be winched back on the portées and clamped down before they could start to move. Lieutenant Pepper set a merry pace round the northern flank of the battalion perimeter, and the portées, especially the last two, had to travel fast to keep up with him. The four field guns that had been deployed to the north had already moved and were getting into action in new positions, this time preparing to fire over open sights instead of indirectly at distant targets, when the troop raced behind them. Following the original plan, some of the British guns had fallen back to help close the gap on the west of the battalion. The new gunline started from the right with four of the 30th Battery’s 25-pounders, then two British field guns, and then two two-pounders en portée, also British. When his truck reached the left of this line, Lieutenant Pepper leaned out of the cab with a red flag. First waving it in violent circles, he pointed to the west. Every anti-tank gunner knew then where his weapon was to go into action, and the direction from which the enemy would appear.
The regiment’s two-pounder troops had practised many times the manoeuvre which L Troop now carried out in grim earnest: the quick deployment of guns en portée to meet a sudden attack. After the signal for action, the pointing flag told the gun commanders in which direction their page 8 guns were to face. Each wheeled his portée into its place in line facing the enemy. The gunners agreed that nothing they had done in practice could compare for speed with their performance under the stimulus of real action. And there was another time-saving factor: the gun commanders did not have to look for cover. There was none.
It was about half past four by the time the troop’s guns, high on the decks of their portées on a bare desert and with a sinking sun shining almost directly against them, swung into position on the left of the line. By this time the enemy was aware of the presence of the New Zealanders for small-arms fire was brought down on the 26th Battalion. The South African position was enveloped in swirls of dust and overhung by smoke, shot through in many places by the flames of burning vehicles, and at first it was impossible to make out individual tanks or trucks. The gunners had been told by Lieutenant Pepper that the South Africans were being overrun and that German tanks would almost certainly bear down on the New Zealand position. ‘There are lots of them,’ he said in warning the gun commanders, ‘maybe over 150. But don’t let that worry you. They are only little ones.’
The infantry waited in their slit-trenches for the enemy to come within effective small-arms range. On the right of the gunline the 25-pounders were firing steadily, and still farther to the right the anti-tank gunners could hear the gunfire of the other 30th Battery troop*. Two tanks, dimly visible over 1000 yards away on the right front, were thought by the troop to be the Valentines which had earlier accompanied the brigade group. In the haze they could not be certain, and until individual targets offered, there was little point in firing into the confused and dust-choked mass of friend and foe a mile away to the west.
‘Keep your engines running all the time,’ said Lieutenant Pepper to each gun commander as he hurried round the troop for a final check. Even though there was no cover, the guns were to be moved after each few shots, so that when smoke and dust obscured the position the enemy gunners would not be able to pick them by their flashes.
* Diagram B.
A. FIRST DISPOSITIONSpage 17
B. FINAL DISPOSITIONSpage 18
BATTLE SCENES IN LIBYA