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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Replenishing the Ammunition

Replenishing the Ammunition

BEFORE long both crews exhausted their ammunition. Each two-pounder in the regiment carried 192 rounds on the portée. In the morning engagement L4 had fired about ten rounds, which reduced its supply to 182, and L2 had fired about sixteen, leaving it with 176. There remained first of all the ammunition on the knocked-out guns. From L2, Gunner A. J. Harris18, the Bren gunner, and Gunner M. A. Harry19, the ammunition number, made their way over forty yards of bullet-spattered ground to L3. On each trip they brought back eight rounds apiece, a container of four shells in either hand. Gunner P. Quirk20, the ammunition number of L4, later assisted by the Bren gunner, Gunner L. O. Naylor21, had anticipated the shortage and was already replenishing his supply from the other knocked-out gun, L1. In his case as well, the task of bringing up the extra ammunition meant a most dangerous sprint under fire.

By this time the Germans were shelling the position and in spite of the efforts of the New Zealand gunners had managed to get some mortars into action, but very few of the heavy missiles landed among the troop’s vehicles. Either that was good luck, or the enemy might have been seeking first to knock out the field guns on the right of the line. But as the tanks and infantry began to close on the position, the machine-gun fire and armour-piercing shot became heavier. The ammunition numbers carried on until all the shells of the knocked-out guns were carried to the two-pounders still in action.

While the action was in progress its various stages were reported to the 26th Battalion’s parent formation, the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade. Brigadier Barrowclough ordered the battalion to disengage and retire to the main body of the group. To do this darkness was essential. The question was whether the enemy could be held at bay until last light. It would be about half past six in the evening before there was sufficient gloom to cover the withdrawal. By six the enemy was getting close; but the infantry and guns fought sternly on. After one heavy shell and mortar barrage the enemy’s fire slackened, but the battalion’s Bren gunners and riflemen maintained their rapid rate. When some of the crew of L4, not noticing that the light was beginning to fail, took advantage of the lull to smoke the first cigarette of the afternoon, the flare of their matches at once drew the enemy’s fire.

Any vehicle moving on the front was fired on by the anti-tank guns, and parties of infantry provided alternative targets. L2 fired all L3’s ammunition. Lieutenant Pepper had expected this, and in good time had an extra supply available from his reserve store. By the time the withdrawal was ordered, L4 was using the last of the containers brought over from L1.

The temporary slackening of the enemy’s fire did not mean that he was abandoning the attack. Just after seven o’clock, when the 26th Battalion was nearly ready to withdraw, there came a hail of machine-gun fire, which the German infantry followed with a resolute attack. It was dark by the time they had come within 800 yards of the New Zealanders but they could be seen clearly against the glare of burning vehicles. The New Zealand infantry then put the finishing touch to an afternoon of determined and skilful defensive fighting. Led by Captain A. W. Wesney22, the battalion’s B Company counter-attacked in a bayonet charge that caused heavy casualties and completely repulsed the enemy. In this charge this fine officer was killed.

page 29

As it could not be taken, away, Lieutenant Pepper ordered that L3, the gun with the knocked-out portée, should be made completely unfit for use. Sergeant Unverricht and Bombardier ‘Cy’ Smith took the breech block with its firing mechanism from the gun.

‘Since we’re here, Terry,’ said Smith, ‘wouldn’t it be as well to take some of the tinned stuff?’

The sergeant agreed, and each seized as many tins of tongue, sausages, and fruit as he could carry. They had just returned to the troop three-tonner when the heavy machine-gun concentration hit the area. Both dropped to the ground. Smith lay flat with his head against a tin of sausages, and when a lull enabled him to shift position he found that a German bullet had pierced the tin, missing his head by inches.