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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Attack on Ruweisat

The Attack on Ruweisat

The next step was a critical one. It took both brigades some miles north-westwards in transport, then on foot in the later afternoon of 11 July, to a line near Alam Nayil. Enemy artillery reacted strongly. The line thus gained was the starting line for a major attack on Ruweisat; but the move forewarned the enemy and the starting line was in any case most unsatisfactory. It was oblique to the front of the projected attack and too far from the objective.

There followed two days of continual artillery action, with lulls in the early afternoon when the heat haze was at its worst. Brigadier Weir and his staff worked without pause to settle the many details of the forthcoming attack. The main feature of the artillery plan was that it was designed not to disclose to the enemy what was afoot. Until 9 p.m. on the 14th the guns of the Division and of other formations within reach were to fire against hostile batteries and other known targets. Then normal harassing fire was to continue until 12.30 a.m. on the 15th. Half an hour later the infantry were expected to stage a silent assault, after a long approach march. This would be at almost extreme range of the 25-pounders, which could not therefore give close support. On current estimates of enemy page 342 strength there seemed no need for artillery at that stage. The allocation of guns to 4 Brigade was the normal one; but 5 Brigade would have the 6th Field and 33 and 43 Batteries instead of the 5th Field and 32 and 42 Batteries. At least two-thirds of the field guns were to be ready on the objective for whatever tasks were required from first light onwards.

black and white map of ridge

ruweisat ridge, morning 15 july 1942

Enemy dispositions, however, were largely misunderstood and the enemy showed almost at the outset a lively awareness of what was happening. What were thought to be outposts were in fact part of the main defence line. When the infantry pushed rapidly past them and on towards the eastern end of Ruweisat they left behind them, in the form of posts by-passed in the advance, a copious source of trouble for the troops that were to follow, particularly the gunners.

There was trouble enough even before this for the anti-tankers. Major Sweetzer of 33 Battery on the right found it hard to collect his troops and only M Troop, allotted to brigade page 343 reserve, found its correct place for the start. In due course Lieutenant Ollivier, after waiting fruitlessly for the other two troops, drove forward with his K Troop and caught up with 5 Brigade Headquarters. J and L Troops were led astray by a liaison officer and found themselves in the 4 Brigade area. On the left B, C and D Troops of 31 Battery followed close behind the infantry and soon struck trouble. Flares rose on all sides when the infantry reached the ‘outposts’ and the portées were prominent targets. They were mortared heavily, a sergeant and an artificer were killed, an officer and two gunners wounded, and B4 with its engine disabled had to be taken in tow. A shell splinter punctured a tyre of C3 and the crew had an anxious time changing the wheel. ‘Morning seemed slow in coming,’ said the gun sergeant later. ‘Infantry were scattered among the knolls and shallow wadis. The enemy artillery was busy, some of the incoming shells being of heavy calibre. As the light increased, German tanks in hull-down positions put over a stream of bullets, clearing all our men from the mounds and forcing them into hollows. Truck after truck was destroyed.…’

Ollivier with K Troop ended up with 22 Battalion, but the situation was so confused that he thought it better to await firm instruction or reliable information before siting his four 6-pounders. He therefore halted in a little wadi containing about 100 Italian prisoners until dawn, which was misty. An infantry colonel then warned him that German tanks were in the offing and they soon appeared, machine-gunning the infantry. K4 at once opened fire, but the smoke and dust quickly thickened the mist and all the gunners could do was to fire at gun flashes. K1 suffered a hit which carried away a foot of the gun muzzle before it could fire. Sergeant Booth8 of K2 quickly set on fire a tank on the other side of the hollow. Then he was badly wounded, and while his men attended to him the portée was put out of action. Sergeant Wright9 of K4 knocked out two tanks and then, by a frightful chance, a light cannon shell or explosive bullet went right through the telescope, killing the layer and wounding Wright.

The last episode of this grim action was enacted by the crew of K3. The layer was wounded and the loader, Gunner Davies,10 page 344 at once replaced him, while Gunner Paulger11 loaded. They fired briskly and as they did so a shellburst set fire to the bedrolls and ammunition on the truck. They were ordered to abandon the gun; but instead Paulger threw the blazing gear and ammunition clear while Davies went on firing. A tank in front burst into flames. Davies suffered a painful grazing wound and was wounded again moments later when the gun received a direct hit. Paulger found to his surprise that the portée was still working and he drove it back over the ridge, only to have it hit twice in the engine by fire from another tank. He then continued on foot and got away. Davies, with other wounded, took shelter in slit trenches until rescued later by a carrier. Both these gunners were awarded the MM.

Seven other members of K Troop stayed with infantry nearby until 4 p.m., when the Germans counter-attacked and drove the infantry back to the area of 4 Brigade. The remainder, setting out later, found the route blocked. With four tanks in front and enemy infantry all round they had to surrender.

The anti-tankers of 31 Battery also had a hard task. The tanks opposing them at dawn were more cautious and fired hull-down. A curtain of smoke from burning lorries soon gave them further concealment. A large group of Italians to the left of C Troop had surrendered, but the tank fire kept captors and captives pinned down. C Troop fired steadily at a point some 2000 yards away from which most of the fire seemed to be coming and the enemy there moved away. Machine-gun fire from higher ground in front, however, could not be silenced. It set several trucks on fire including portées, some of them 2-pounders belonging to the infantry. Shells were also landing in the area, some of them monstrous 210s. C Troop gunners fired a captured Italian mortar at the nearest enemy guns; but its range was insufficient. New Zealand machine-gunners gave excellent covering fire on both flanks, but the rest of the infantry seemed to have withdrawn.

D Troop started rather better. Coming under fire from the south, the troop moved over a ridge and found itself in an Italian headquarters area. A solitary German opened fire, but a Bren gun fired from a portée silenced him and the Italians offered to surrender. Major Nicholson of 31 Battery located tanks to the south-west and B and C Troops engaged them. page 345 They were difficult targets hull-down at 2000 yards, but the 6-pounders knocked out three tanks, two captured Grants and a Valentine manned by Germans. Nicholson then rearranged the guns and brought some infantry 2-pounders into his layout. Some crews tried to dig gun pits, but soon gave it up.

When the enemy counter-attacked in the late afternoon the portée were highly vulnerable. One of B Troop and another of D Troop were set on fire and a second one of B Troop was immobilised. Another B Troop portée trying to take the damaged one in tow also went up in flames. In the end an infantry portée took over and towed the damaged B Troop portée out—the sole survivor of the troop. The remaining three guns of D Troop and all four of C Troop, however, got out safely, though not without trouble. Sergeant Parks backed C1 up a rise when he heard the attack coming. He could see vehicles burning and infantry surrendering, but at first no enemy. Then he saw tanks at 300 yards and halted two of them. He had a third tank in his gunsight when a party of New Zealanders moved between gun and tank. He could see the tank gun trained on his gun and his situation was tense in the extreme. Neither fired until the last man crossed the line of fire. Then both fired at once. The tank shell struck just below the gun-shield and wounded all but the driver; the tank burst into flames. The portée driver started up and drove off. Parks, who was badly wounded, was awarded an MM for his work this day.

OP parties which had tried to get forward with the infantry in the night had similar adventures and few of them managed to establish workable communications with their guns. Other parties sent forward from the guns were halted as soon as they came within reach of the many weapons in the ‘outposts’ and naturally called down fire on these. No route through to Ruweisat could be established. The 6th Field fired persistently at what was clearly a main centre of resistance straight ahead and Major Sawyers of 48 Battery gathered a scratch force and attacked it, only to be driven back. He then brought down concentrated fire and softened resistance to the point that white flags appeared early in the afternoon. Sawyers sallied forth again and this time took the position, with 20 German prisoners and 160 Italians. It contained two 88s, several anti-tank guns, and many other weapons. Sawyers (who had carried out similar attacks twice in the previous campaign) also came upon a 6th Field truck and in a nearby slit trench a wounded OP officer, page 346 Captain Pountney,12 and his driver. The rest of the OP party had been killed.

Lieutenant Carson of the 4th Field was one of the very few persons on Ruweisat who succeeded (with his No. 11 set) in establishing any communications back to Brigade. Another 4th Field FOO was wounded and the third who went forward with the infantry survived (only to be killed two days later), but could get no word back to the guns. Gunner Worsdale13 of the 4th Field rose gallantly to the occasion. The armoured OP in which he was wireless operator was set on fire by tanks close at hand. When he was given fire orders to transmit back, however, he climbed into the burning vehicle and manned the wireless set. He managed to transmit two complete sets of fire orders before evacuating the now fiercely burning vehicle.

The 6th Field, impatiently waiting to get through to Ruweisat, eventually had to deploy in what later became known as Stuka Wadi, north of Alam Nayil. The 4th Field fired a two-battery concentration on Deir el Shein and was held up in the same way, taking up temporary positions south-east of the objective from which it shelled posts and strongpoints ahead. The area was crowded with vehicles and attracted much shellfire. ‘Not much to do during the day’, a sergeant of A Troop, 25 Battery, remarked; ‘knew little about the results of the attack’.

The new gun area in Stuka Wadi was bombed several times, though 41 Battery had deployed there and put up a thick barrage, firing 1268 rounds all told, and scored many hits. To the south-east 42 Battery did very well indeed. Every D Troop gun claimed either a Ju87 or a Ju88. In E Troop only the three guns of the Left Section were forward and they had much trouble with misfires; but E5 shot down a Ju87 and it crashed in their area. Similarly 43 Battery, in the same wadi, shot down a Stuka. In a final effort before dark 28 Ju87s and 15 Ju88s came over with an escort of more than 30 Messerschmitts and ‘All hell was let loose at them’, as an E Troop gunner remarked; ‘2 Stukas crashed and others were winged’.

page 347

For the field gunners generally the attack on Ruweisat was a succession of disappointments and frustrations, some of them annoying, some humiliating. Others blamed the British tanks for not supporting the infantry when well-placed to do so; but the field gunners could not feel completely guiltless about being unable to bring down fire when the infantry urgently needed it. For several critical hours when emergency steps might have been taken to provide supporting fire, men at the guns were led to believe that all was well, and it was saddening to learn later that the attack had ended in disaster and the greater part of three battalions and 4 Brigade Headquarters were lost—over 1200 men all told. That a larger number of Italians and a few Germans were captured was small consolation.

In the next few days 4 Brigade, less 18 Battalion but plus the remnants of the 22nd, withdrew to Maadi and 6 Brigade was called forward. The 4th Field came directly under the CRA, with the 6th Field still under 5 Brigade and the 5th Field with Divisional Reserve. For the period of urgent reorganisation which followed, Brigadier Weir arranged close liaison with the RAF and strong air support could be called up if needed. But the field guns were kept busy. They drove enemy gunners south of Ruweisat off their guns on the 16th. The enemy retaliated by bombing at 2 p.m., when the heat haze was at its worst. Ju87s came over first and then Ju88s dived from a different direction, so that Bofors gunners engaging the Ju87s were facing the wrong direction and were taken unawares. D1 claimed yet another Stuka and the Left Section of D Troop shot down another with small-arms fire. But 43 Battery suffered the rare disaster of a direct hit on one of its guns which wiped out the whole crew—a shocking spectacle for men of nearby guns.14

The 16th ended in a crescendo of fire by the New Zealand field guns and the 64th Medium against enemy armour to the north-west. The attack was not directly against the Division, but the New Zealanders opposed it strongly and the 4th Field alone fired 2224 rounds this day. In the 6th Field Sergeant Conway15 as an OPA took command of his OP when his officer was wounded and continued to shoot the guns coolly and effectively. When the attack was at its height and visibility from the OP inadequate, he took the telephone and crawled forward under page 348 heavy fire to gain observation and bring down fire on tanks and machine-gunners. For this and similar work later he was awarded an MM. The enemy on this front was evidently deterred by the weight of the strength of the opposition and next day went over to the defensive. A little ground had been gained by the New Zealanders and Indians at the eastern end of Ruweisat; but in the final accounting it was not nearly enough to justify the losses incurred.

8 Sgt E. Booth; Rotorua; born Napier, 16 Jan 1906; electrician; wounded 15 Jul 1942.

9 Sgt S. N. Wright; born NZ 17 Apr 1917; labourer; twice wounded.

10 L-Bdr W. F. Davies, MM; Wellsford; born Auckland, 5 Nov 1916; farmhand; wounded 15 Jul 1942.

11 Gnr A. D. Paulger, MM; Taupiri; born NZ 23 Nov 1918; fruiterer; wounded 9 Oct 1944.

12 Lt-Col J. A. Pountney, MBE; Wellington; born Hamilton, 17 Feb 1915; Regular soldier; 6 Fd Regt 1942; wounded 15 Jul 1942; CO 16 Fd Regt, RNZA, Korea, Apr-Nov 1954; Commander K Force, Nov 1954–May 1955; Director, RNZA, Army HQ, 1960–61; Director of Training, Army HQ, 1961–63; Area Officer, Area 5, Wellington, 1964–65.

13 L-Bdr O. Worsdale, DCM; Wellington; born Christchurch, 9 Dec 1919; brushmaker. For this and other distinguished service, Worsdale was later awarded the DCM.

14 Sgt D. P. Patterson, Bdrs E. J. McAlpine and C. A. Walker, Gnrs S. W. Bracken, W. W. Hooper, J. F. Lynn, H. F. Preston and M. G. Smith were killed and Gnrs T. L. Joseph and N. J. Thurlow died of wounds.

15 Lt S. Conway, MM; Wellington; born Islington, 19 Jan 1910; accountant, NZ Railways; wounded 22 Dec 1944.