2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Duff's Gun Group Beats Back All Attacks
Duff's Gun Group Beats Back All Attacks
The 4th Field had waited anxiously for instructions when the early morning attack took place, unable to bring down fire because of the smoke pall which blocked observation. By the time this cleared the action was finished and the 6th Field and 20 Battalion were overrun. From then onwards observation was steadily maintained and the enemy to the west was shelled vigorously. ‘Throughout this day’, Duff says in his report, ‘tasks were allotted by question and answer to Btys, as FOOs were continually on the move and with guns swinging all round the 360 deg. and RHQ confined to a hole in the ground … it was very difficult to find out who could or could not observe and to remember which btys were at any given moment facing in the most suitable direction.’
That the Division would have to withdraw by nightfall at the latest was obvious and Freyberg had earnest R/T discussions with General Norrie on this point before deciding to do so to the east and south-east. But to the gunners covering the approaches from Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh it was painfully evident that the enemy was getting ready for a further advance, ammunition was running low, and the situation was critical. To delay the impending attack was important; but how much ammunition could be spared for this? A gathering of vehicles page 282 and tanks south of Belhamed was shelled at 3 p.m. with gratifying results. An ammunition lorry went up in flames and the tanks moved away.
Half an hour later Duff was called to a conference at Brigade Headquarters and told to begin forming up for a move eastwards, but that no move was to take place until 5.30 p.m. It was an hour before he could assemble all battery commanders and the commander of 1 Survey Troop to pass on these orders. By this time the artillery preparation for the further advance of the panzer division to Zaafran was well under way and the wadi was under intense fire from 150-millimetre medium howitzers and 105s.
The RAF provided a welcome interruption to this fire when two squadrons of Marylands bombed south of Belhamed. This bombing had originally been requested by Brigade Headquarters soon after midday; but the bomb line specified was much too far east. Many guns and all the I tanks were beyond it, indicating how little Brigade Headquarters knew of the situation of the gunners. The mistake was pointed out and a new line proposed; but this, too, was dangerously close to the gun group in the wadi and there were several FOOs well beyond it, including Major Kensington and Lieutenant Varian. Kensington escaped harm, but Varian was killed. Soon afterwards the Luftwaffe came over and Stukas bombed their own panzer troops.
There was no question of moving any gun until the last possible moment and the gunners faced the spectre of empty limbers as they waited for word to pull out. For them the timing of the enemy attack was all-important and they conserved ammunition to meet it. Duff envisaged a fighting withdrawal and therefore did not attempt to form batteries up when they withdrew. He merely told battery commanders where he wanted them to be in the divisional assembly and instructed them to take up those positions after they withdrew as and when circumstances allowed.
The attack started just before 5 p.m. and in the shallow wadi almost all guns reverted at once to Gun Control and fired over open sights. Withering fire from Q Troop and 46 Battery met tanks which appeared at the mouth of the wadi and tried to ascend it. Though ‘shooting was very hard on account of the dust and smoke’, according to the CPO, Lieutenant Hodge,73 page 283 the tanks were repulsed. More then appeared due west, across the wadi, and trails were quickly swung round to meet them. The three 18-pounders of Q Troop, on the extreme right of the gun line, fired as fast as they could and to better effect than the field gunners, who were not so experienced in this kind of fire. Farther south the 25-pounders, 2-pounders and Bofors blazed away until the tanks fell back. Then the gunners had to contend with infantry, engaging them with HE over open sights and causing them heavy loss, but failing to subdue the machine-gun fire which swept the gun areas. Fortunately this was not accurate or well-controlled.
Enemy shell and mortar fire had in the preceding half-hour caused a rapid turnover to take place in some gun crews and the attack came when several guns were manned by scratch crews.
The desperate nature of the fighting from five o'clock onwards is well illustrated by the case of the two 4th Field guns with W/X Battery. Second-Lieutenant Nathan74 had just returned from the command post and with two gunners he took over C2, while Sergeant Lindsay75 controlled C3. One of the C2 gunners was badly wounded almost at once and on Nathan's orders the other helped him back towards the RAP. Sergeant Masters76 appeared on the scene and with his help Nathan continued to fire until the appointed time for withdrawal, 5.30 p.m. Meanwhile one of Lindsay's gun crew was so gravely wounded that it took four men to carry him out of action and get urgent medical attention for him. This left C2 and C3 with only two men each; nevertheless they replied vigorously to the enemy fire which swept the gun lines. When W/X Battery began to withdraw in parade-ground order, Lindsay signalled his driver, who had been waiting to the rear with his engine running, and the quad at once came forward. Nathan sent Masters to get the C2 quad, but in the turmoil behind the gun lines it could not be found. There was no alternative, therefore, but to abandon the gun and Nathan and Masters both went to help Lindsay. C3 was under fierce fire, but the four men managed to hook it on to the quad without further harm. On the way back Lindsay paused under fire long enough to hook on an abandoned trailer as well. It seemed to him that a gun of W/X Battery halted page 284 to cover the withdrawal and was overrun in so doing. The 8th Field had served the Division magnificently.
The gun C4 had joined A Troop of the 4th Field and spent an hour or two in the afternoon under fire so heavy that it put two other guns in the vicinity out of action. The situation quickly got worse. A1, struck between the wheels, had its traverse and bearing face damaged. A bombardier was killed and five gunners were wounded, and the one remaining unwounded man of A Troop went to get transport for the wounded. He succeeded and all were carried back to safety. Captain Shortt, with two officers and two wounded men, left the gun position under terrible fire at 5.30 p.m., by which time the enemy had practically reached the gun lines. It was out of the question to attempt to save the guns.
Meanwhile Lance-Bombardier Gay77 on C4, seeing transport moving off to the rear, ordered all but one of his gunners to ‘make their way out as best they could’. With Gunner Whitehead78 he continued to fire the gun, hoping from moment to moment that his quad would arrive and enable him to take the gun out. An enemy column had advanced from the right and was perilously close. The two gunners, when it seemed that they were on their own and it was plain that any effort to get the gun out would have been suicidal, decided to cease fire. Reluctantly they removed the dial sight, sight clinometer and firing mechanism and set off across the wadi in the gathering dusk. A short distance to the rear they came upon Nathan and rode out with him.
The three 18-pounders of Q Troop fired until it was ‘too dark to pick out targets’. They were near the mouth of the wadi, and since they reserved their fire for tanks the enemy artillery paid them less attention. This was particularly fortunate, for their anti-tank fire was more effective than that of the 25-pounders: with one-piece ammunition their rate of fire was higher and they were better trained in firing over open sights. When they finally ceased fire, bringing the action to a close, they claimed six tanks knocked out—revenge, as it seemed to them, for the loss of one of their guns in the early-morning action.
The remnants of the Division had meanwhile been assembling on Zaafran to withdraw south-eastwards. The attack from the page 285 west halted at dusk, allowing the gunners in the wadi to form up with unexpected ease for the night move. But 26 Battery and the five guns of the 65th Anti-Tank in the Sciuearat strongpoint were hotly engaged until 6 p.m. by a dozen German tanks which advanced from the east and worked their way round the southern side, along the foot of the escarpment. The range was about 1100 yards and the panzer troops showed no inclination to come closer. They were making for Sidi Rezegh, and when they broke off the action it was dark.
The various artillery vehicles joined the divisional columns for what promised to be an exciting dash through enemy lines, but the enemy had flown and the journey was remarkably free from incident. Drivers struggled to keep awake as they drove towards Bir Gibni, the starting point of their Crusader adventures; but exhausted gunners lay limply wherever they could find room on their portées, quads or three-tonners79 and most of them slept throughout the journey. They reached their destination about 3.30 a.m. on 2 December, quickly arranged pickets, and then resumed their sleep. Their contribution to Crusader campaign had ended.
79 The anti-tank 18-pounders were drawn by 3-ton lorries.