GUNS AGAINST TANKS
L Troop, 33rd Battery, 7th New Zealand Anti-Tank Regiment
in Libya, 23 November 1941
IT IS THE INTENTION of this series to present aspects of New Zealand’s part in the Second World War which will not receive detailed treatment in the campaign volumes and which are considered either worthy of special notice or typical of many phases of our war experience. The series is illustrated with material which would otherwise seldom see publication. It will also contain short accounts of campaigns and operations which will be dealt with in detail in the appropriate volumes.
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Moving into Libya
IN November 1941, when the second British offensive in Libya began, the 33rd Battery of the 7th New Zealand Anti-Tank Regiment consisted of four troops, each of four guns. Three troops were armed with two-pounders and one with the old 18-pounder field gun modified for use against armoured fighting vehicles. The two-pounders were carried on the decks of specially constructed lorries, termed portées, which were fitted with ramps and winches to enable the guns to be quickly hoisted into place. Special fittings on the lorry enabled the trail and spade to be clamped firmly to the deck so that the gun, pointing over the rear of the portée, was ready for immediate action.
During the training in preparation for the campaign, the regimental commander, Lieutenant-Colonel T. H. E. Oakes,* insisted that great attention should be paid to training the gun crews in fighting the two-pounders from the decks of the portées: that is, en portée. It was obvious that the best place from which to fight an anti-tank gun was from a properly dug gunpit; but the digging of pits took time and, once dug in, the gun could not be moved at a moment’s notice. Colonel Oakes therefore made provision in training for those occasions when there was no time to dig pits or when a formation on the move had to be defended against attack.
Portée tactics had to be based on the fact that the gun was high off the ground, with the gun-shield the only protection for crew and weapon. This shield could ward off small-arms fire only from the direct front, so that against crossfire, explosive shells, mortar bombs, and armour-piercing projectiles both gun and crew were vulnerable. It was laid down that this vulnerability should be reduced by exposing the gun and its crew to enemy observation for the shortest possible time. The men were taught to fight their guns from behind whatever cover, in the form of ridges or folds in the ground, was available. First the gun made for such cover; then the vehicle was backed up until the barrel of the two-pounder cleared the concealing rise—that is, to a hull-down position. A few shots were fired and the portée was again run down under cover. That process was repeated, with the gun changing its position as often as possible to confuse enemy gunners. The lie of the land did not always permit this, but on several occasions in the 1941 Libyan campaign these tactics were employed with notable success, thanks largely to the thorough training of crews and drivers.
On the afternoon of 22 November, when the brigade was on its way towards Bir el Chleta, urgent messages from 30th Corps showed that the early reports of British armoured successes had been optimistic. Far from being destroyed, German tanks were pressing in strength against Sidi Rezegh, now held by the Support Group of the British 7th Armoured Division. The 30th Corps urged that the 6th Brigade should hasten to the relief of Sidi Rezegh. Headquarters New Zealand Division ordered the brigade to fall in with these demands. The brigade pressed on, halting at eight o’clock to laager for the night some miles to the east of Bir el Chleta.
Because the German armour was still strong, and not as weakened as the first reports had indicated, a heavy responsibility was thrown on the New Zealand artillery, and especially on the Anti-Tank Regiment. The British tanks, outgunned by the German tanks and the very effective 88-millimetre and 50-millimetre anti-tank guns, were far too hard pressed to spare much of their strength to protect the New Zealand infantry.
The 6th Brigade kept a strict lookout during the night of 22–23 November. The 33rd Battery’s two-pounders were placed round the brigade perimeter, and outside them the infantry manned a series of listening posts. In relays, one gunner watched at the firing position of each anti-tank gun while his crew-mates slept beside the portée. The night was tense but without alarm. At 3 a.m. the march to Sidi Rezegh was resumed with two battalions forward, the 25th on the right and the 26th on the left, the B echelon vehicles behind them, and the 24th Battalion to the right rear. In the darkness L Troop was delayed, and it was a quarter of an hour before Lieutenant C. S. Pepper,2 the troop commander, led the four portées after the rest of the brigade.
The troop caught up with the 24th Battalion, under whose command it had been the previous day, at first light, just as the brigade group halted for breakfast. The formation had set out with the intention of swinging to the south to avoid a German force known to be at Bir el Chleta, but in the darkness an error in navigation had resulted in the halt being made right on top of the German position, and when the troop arrived a small engagement was raging. The brigade had clashed with part of the headquarters of the German Afrika Korps. The Germans had a few tanks and armoured cars, but those were quickly dealt with by a squadron of Valentine tanks of the 42nd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, which was in support of the 6th Brigade. In a brisk fight several of the enemy were killed and valuable documents and some high-ranking officers captured. None of the battery’s guns had a chance to fire, but there were several casualties among the transport drivers.
* Trigh Capuzzo, marked on the map as a motor road, was in fact a series of tracks to the south of, and running roughly parallel to, the main Bardia-Tobruk highway. Before turning north to Tobruk, it passed between the features of Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed.
The brigade made for the Wadi esc Sciomar, a break in the escarpment three miles east by south of Point 175, a convenient place from which to reconnoitre the position and plan its action. L Troop was on the left front of the 26th Battalion group, followed by four of the Valentine tanks. The gunners were surprised that they and not the tanks headed the advance; but the Valentines, heavily armoured and slow, were not as manoeuverable as cruiser tanks, and not as well fitted for the lead as the more mobile portées.
A few miles before the wadi was reached there appeared to the west a large group of British tanks and other vehicles, some of them still smouldering. (It was learned later that on the previous afternoon enemy tanks had forced the 7th Armoured Division’s Support Group off Sidi Rezegh after heavy fighting.) Movement among them showed that they were in enemy hands, and Germans in trucks were seen making away to the south and south-west. The range was extreme, but the troop opened fire at the escaping vehicles. Lieutenant Pepper hurried to battalion headquarters for orders, and was told by the battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel J. R. Page3, that as there were probably British wounded among the wrecks their safety must be the first consideration. By the time Lieutenant Pepper returned and gave the order to cease fire, the troop had fired about fifty rounds at distances above the limit allowed by the range scales. The Germans were seen to be making off to the west with some captured Honey tanks, but the gunners were forbidden to resume firing. Instead, the troop’s guns covered the advance of three of the battalion’s Bren carriers, which went over to the mass of tanks and trucks to look for British wounded. An ambulance, packed with injured men, came back to the battalion.
The carriers soon returned and the column resumed its march. At the Wadi esc Sciomar it was apparent that the enemy held Point 175, on the escarpment to the east of Sidi Rezegh, in force. At half past eleven Brigadier H. E. Barrowclough4, commander of the 6th Brigade, issued orders for the 25th Battalion, with the 24th in reserve, to attack and capture Point 175; the 26th Battalion with its supporting arms was to establish contact with the 5th South African Brigade, five miles south-west of Point 175.
The 26th Battalion group set out at once. With the infantry were the four two-pounders of L Troop and eight 25-pounders of Major A. T. Rawle’s5 30th Battery (6th Field Regiment). Again the troop led the advance, with the guns in a shallow crescent in front of the battalion column, the order from the right being L1, L2, L3, and L4, the centre guns slightly in advance of those on the flanks. Lieutenant Pepper in his 15-cwt. truck rode behind L2, and the troop 3-ton lorry, containing reserve ammunition and rations, in charge of the troop subaltern, Second-Lieutenant I. G. Scott6, followed L3.
The battalion met the South Africans just before half past twelve. They had been in action the previous day, and had dug in on a rise on the southern escarpment. (Though this was ‘high ground’ page 6 by desert standards, the rise was a very gentle one, which did not offer the slightest obstacle to armoured fighting vehicles.) With the South Africans were a few tanks—those of the 22nd Armoured Brigade which had survived the previous afternoon’s action. Colonel Page, who had decided to dispose the 26th Battalion on a smaller rise about a mile to the east, met General Gott, commander of the British 7th Armoured Division, who had under his command twelve 25-pounder field guns, the remnants of the regiment which had been with the 7th Support Group at the Sidi Rezegh airfield. These he proposed to site on the east side of the South African position, facing north-east, and he directed that the New Zealand guns be disposed to the east, north, and south of the 26th Battalion area. Should any threat develop against the New Zealanders from the west, the British guns would be moved to cover the battalion’s western flank.
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
The Attack Begins
THE GUNNERS did not have long to wait before the Germans were seen to be attacking, with a mass of armoured vehicles, from the South African position. The two supposed Valentines on the right front suddenly wheeled and opened fire. One of their first shots, a 50-millimetre armour-piercing shell, crashed through the lower left side of L1, disabled the gun, smashed the left foot and ankle of the gun-layer, Gunner Andy Graham11 and came to rest on the deck of the portée. (The crew kept this shot, and when Graham went back to New Zealand it was his most cherished souvenir.) Before an effective shot had been fired at the enemy, L1 had been knocked out.
At 1800 yards, the extreme range on the range scale, the remaining three guns opened fire on the advancing enemy tanks. As they cleared the South African position, the enemy descended a slight fall in the ground below the skyline, which would otherwise have allowed them to be easily picked out by the gun-layers. On the other hand, as they drew out of the dust and smoke it was possible for individual vehicles to be distinguished, and the troop went to work in earnest.
Lieutenant Pepper’s remark to the gun sergeants that the tanks, though numerous, were small ones, was borne out when the troop started shooting. It was amply demonstrated in later desert campaigns that the more heavily armoured of the German Mark 3 and Mark 4 tanks were impervious to two-pounder fire at ranges over 800 yards. But the early German tanks had much lighter armour. On this occasion the gunners saw tanks burst into flame from hits scored with the range at 1500, 1600, and even 1700 yards. The calibre of the shells which knocked out L1 and scored a subsequent hit on L3, 50-millimetre, showed that there were German Mark 3s among the attackers. It is probable that they were an early type, without the heavier armour of the later Mark 3. It is also probable that there were some German Mark 2s, much lighter tanks, among them; if part of the Ariete Division was with the Germans, there would have been Italian M.13s, equally vulnerable, as well.
Beyond the apparent fact that there was an imposing mass of them, it was impossible for the gunners to form an accurate estimate of the number of enemy tanks in this first drive against the 26th Battalion. It was agreed by all on the spot that the number was at least fifty, but they could not see clearly enough to make an accurate count. Nor was there time to do so. At first the enemy tanks, apparently without knowledge of the identity or strength of the New Zealanders, simply poured down on the position with no sign of a definite plan of attack. When the blast of fire from the 25-pounders and the two-pounders convinced them of the strength of the defence, they withdrew, and a far more cautious policy was adopted. But until the attackers realised the position and altered their tactics, the L Troop gunners worked under great pressure.
Following Lieutenant Pepper’s injunction, L3 fired five shots, the tracer tracks of at least two of them showing direct hits on their targets, then changed its position. As its portée backed again towards the enemy another German 50-millimetre shell found a mark. It pierced the left side of the shield, miraculously missing both Sergeant Unverricht and the layer, Bombardier C. J. Smith12, went on through the cab of the portée, mortally wounding the driver, Gunner F. D. Nicholson13, page 26 and finished by striking the top of the engine and putting the vehicle out of action. Unverricht jumped to the ground to see the extent of the damage, and was just in time to see Nicholson stagger from the cab and collapse on the sand. Seeing at a glance how badly he was wounded, the sergeant at once set off across bullet-swept ground to find medical assistance.
With half the troop’s effective strength out of action, L2 and L4 carried on. In that first few hectic minutes while the tanks closed the range, the little two-pounder shells were most effective. The procedure of ordinary anti-tank shooting was, for a short time, discarded. Normally the Number 1, the gun commander, selects a target and directs the layer until it appears in his telescope. He then gives the range and deflection to be allowed for a moving target. The loader slams a shell into the breech and, as the spring forces the block home, taps the layer on the shoulder to let him know the gun is ready, and the Number 1 gives the order to fire. The gun’s target knocked out, the Number 1 orders ‘Stop!’ selects a fresh target for the layer, and so on. This time the targets were too thick to be easily selected and the need too pressing for any stops.
‘Pick your own target through the telescope, Frank,’ said Sergeant Peter Robertson, of L2, to his gun-layer, Bombardier F. C. Barker14. Almost at the same time, a similar understanding was reached between Sergeant ‘Chum’ Croft of L4 and his layer, Gunner A. B. Gordon15. Whenever enemy shells came close the portées moved; but after every change of position, the initial direction of the Number 1 and his final order to stop were the only formal commands.
As the range closed, the tracer showed hit after hit on the enemy tanks. On the right the field gunners worked like men possessed, firing armour-piercing shot over open sights. They could not match the high rate of fire of the two-pounders, with their semi-automatic breech and light, easily handled ammunition, but one hit with the 25-pound shell was almost always sufficient to disable a tank, while two, three, and even four good shots were often needed from the lighter weapons.
Noticing the troop’s rate of fire, Lieutenant-Colonel Page called to Lieutenant Pepper. ‘Cyril,’ he said, ‘if your chaps keep shooting at that speed they’ll be out of ammunition in no time.’ ‘It’s all right, sir,’ Pepper shouted in reply, ‘we’ve got some extra.’ When first the group had met the South Africans he had replaced the ammunition his guns had fired during the morning. The South Africans had urged him to help himself from their supply, and not only had he replaced the rounds fired, but he had also loaded a lot more on his own truck.
After what seemed to the gunners to be nearer half a day than little more than half an hour, the enemy decided he had stumbled on something that presented much more than merely a mopping-up task. The tanks returned to their original start line and fanned out on the flanks in crescent formation. This favourite German method of attack enabled the machine guns at either end of the line to bring a severe crossfire on the defenders. A line of burning vehicles testified to the shooting of the New Zealand guns, both two- and 25-pounders, but the casualties were only a small proportion of the enemy tanks. Enough remained to form a wide crescent and, although more cautiously, resume the attack. By now there was no sign of the British field or anti-tank guns. For some reason they had been withdrawn, and only L Troop’s two guns and the 30th Field Battery remained to protect the infantry and take what toll they could of the enemy armour.
Still there was no lack of targets for the two-pounders. Though the enemy tanks had fallen page 27 back and fanned out the guns were still able to reach them, though not with the same effect as at the closer range. Lorried infantry joined in the attack, and the troop concentrated some of its fire on the troop-carrying vehicles. Although these would halt and debus the infantry out of range of the guns, the layers, Frank Barker of L2 and ‘Abe’ Gordon of L4, made targets of them nevertheless. They would lay onto an enemy vehicle or group of infantry with the range at 1800 yards, then cock the gun up a little higher and fire, the gun commanders checking their judgment of the extra range by carefully observing each shot. Several lorries were hit in this way and parties of enemy infantry were scattered while trying to bring their mortars into action.
Meanwhile Sergeant Unverricht had not been able to find assistance for the badly wounded Gunner Nicholson. He reported to Lieutenant Pepper and was directed to get the help of the troop subaltern, Second-Lieutenant Scott, and the troop 3-ton lorry. Lieutenant Scott and his driver, Gunner R. F. Davies16, soon backed the lorry to the knocked-out portée. The tailboard was lowered and Gunner Nicholson lifted gently to the deck. But when the lorry tried to tow the gun back to a safer place two more casualties were suffered. With the tow-rope attached, Gunner P. J. Keenan17, the L3 loader, jumped on the front bumper bar of the portée and shouted to Gunner Davies to drive on. He did so, but just as the portée was gathering way down a slight incline the three-tonner unexpectedly stopped. With its steering gear and brakes useless, the portée rolled down the slope and crashed into the back of the lorry, Gunner Keenan having his leg badly shattered between the two vehicles. There was excellent reason for Davies’ lack of response to shouts to move his lorry out of the way. He had been wounded in the hip by a Spandau bullet as he sat behind the wheel.
The two guns still in action did not waste an opportunity to disrupt the enemy attack. Trucks were bringing enemy infantry well up behind the gradually advancing tanks, and parties were jumping out and trying to bring mortars and anti-tank guns into action. Gordon and Barker, through their telescopes, found that while the setting sun made it hard to sort out their targets initially, once they had the enemy within their lenses the bright background made accurate aiming easy. At extreme range and beyond, they engaged every party of enemy infantry they could see as they left their lorries, and several times the two-pounder shells prevented mortars from coming into action and scattered their crews. Many bursts of flame showed hits. All this time, machine-gun fire from the tanks was sweeping the New Zealand position. Often bullets rattled against the portées, and it was by good fortune that there were no further casualties in the troop.page 28
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.
THE BATTALION’S withdrawal was made in good order, quickly, and with complete success. German flares were casting a bright light over the position when the troop received orders to retire. Its vehicles, now three portées, the commander’s ‘pick-up’, and the troop 3-ton lorry, were in the last party to leave. This comprised the field artillery, which kept up its fire to the very last moment, the battalion’s Bren carriers, and the last infantry company, the infantrymen riding on the gun vehicles and the carriers. One German prisoner also found a seat in the troop commander’s truck. It was not until eleven o’clock at night that L Troop and the 26th Battalion re-established contact with the 6th Brigade and bedded down for the night near Point 175.
Before the withdrawal the troop’s casualties were attended by the 26th Battalion’s Medical Officer, Lieutenant G. C. Jennings23, who earned the admiration of the gunners by bringing his RAP* truck to within fifty yards of the forward positions.
Reporting on this action, Brigadier Barrowclough wrote: ‘It will be appreciated that this small force had been hotly attacked by an enemy column which had already proved itself strong enough to defeat and overthrow the whole of the 5th South African Brigade Group. That the 26th Battalion and its supporting artillery and anti-tank guns were able to maintain their positions and come out of the action with surprisingly few casualties was an eloquent tribute to the high standard of training and fortitude of all ranks. After the action there was no question that the infantry had the highest possible regard for the gunners. Nor were the gunners less generous in their praise of the way in which the infantry first stood its ground and then fought the rearguard action back to the main body of the Brigade group.’
Lieutenant Pepper estimated that L Troop had knocked out 24 tanks as well as many unarmoured vehicles. As the fight progressed the front had become lined with burning vehicles, some South African, many of them transport lorries. In the dust and smoke, with the sinking sun shining into the eyes of the observer, it must have been extremely difficult to make an accurate count. The fact that eight field guns of the 30th Battery were also in action against the enemy armour made a tally all the more uncertain. It was reported by the British that the German attack against the South page 30 Africans and the 26th Battalion cost the enemy 52 tanks. With that as a total figure, and taking into account that the two L Troop guns fired nearly 700 rounds between them in about three hours’ fighting, the figure of 24 certainties is at least possible, even allowing for the long range at which many of the shots were fired.
On the debit side, one L Troop gunner was killed and three were wounded, and two guns and one portée lost. The afternoon’s fighting in this area cost the Eighth Army almost the whole of the 5th South African Brigade, as well as some tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. Against that there were the indefinite but certainly considerable German infantry casualties besides the losses in tanks and transport.
At the time of this engagement, it is probable that Rommel thought he had encountered a considerably larger proportion of the New Zealand Division than was actually the case. It was later stated by Colonel Mario Revetria, Chief Intelligence Officer of the Italian forces under Rommel’s command, that the German leader had first been under the impression that the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade had been virtually wiped out in company with the 5th South African Brigade on 23 November. Instead, on that same afternoon, the 25th Battalion had driven the Germans from Point 175, and the brigade was to take heavy toll of the enemy from the Sidi Rezegh escarpment before it was finally dislodged on 1 December.
Throughout this short but severe action the leadership of the anti-tank troop commander, Lieutenant Pepper, was an inspiration to his men, and indeed to all the New Zealanders there. Regardless of the heavy small-arms fire, he moved from gun to gun encouraging the crews, meeting every emergency promptly and with skill. At one stage, when the arrival of some South African vehicles and the distortion of an order gave the impression that there was a general withdrawal, he corrected the error and by personal visits to each gun made sure that the line was maintained. For this outstanding work under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and his complete disregard of personal danger, Lieutenant Pepper was awarded the Military Cross. It was a grave misfortune for the troop and the regiment when, three days later, he was so badly injured by a staff car which backed into the slit-trench in which he was resting, that he had to be invalided back to New Zealand.
Good fortune attended L Troop to the end of the short but bitterly-fought campaign. Both the battery’s other two-pounder troops, J and K, were overrun with the 24th and 26th Battalions above the mosque at Sidi Rezegh on 30 November, with heavy casualties and complete loss of equipment. With the survivors of the 25th Battalion, L Troop was able to withdraw next day, and made its way back to Baggush with what remained of the 4th and 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigades.
* Regimental aid post.
3 Lt-Col J. R. Page, DSO, m.i.d.; Regular soldier; Wellington; born Dunedin, 10 May 1908; CO 26 Bn, 15 May 1940–27 Nov 1941; wounded 27 Nov 1941; invalided to NZ, 25 Feb 1942; Inspector of Training, 26 Aug 1942; GSO 1, Army HQ, 19 Jan 1943; Rugby All Black 1931; 1932 and 1934 (Australia); 1935 (United Kingdom).
4 Maj-Gen H. E. Barrowclough, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d.; barrister and solicitor; Auckland; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; in First World War rose from Pte to Lt-Col commanding 4 Bn, NZRB; wounded, Messines, 1917; in Second World War commanded 6 NZ Inf Bde, 1 May 1940–21 Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in the Pacific and GOC 3 NZ Div, 8 Aug 1942–20 Oct 1944.
5 Maj A. T. Rawle, m.i.d.; insurance clerk; born Auckland, 26 Sep 1909; died of wounds, 3 Dec 1941.
7 Sgt T. E. Williamson; contractor; Te Kauwhata; born Gisborne, 23 Sep 1911.
9 Sgt T. E. Unverricht; labourer; Heretaunga; born Lower Hutt, 4 Jul 1918; wounded 1 Dec 1941 and 5 Jul 1942.
10 Sgt T. H. Croft; farm worker; Omihi; born NZ, 6 Nov 1909.
12 Sgt C. J. Smith; carpenter; Upper Hutt; born Wellington, 23 Feb 1912.
13 Gnr F. D. Nicholson; labourer; born NZ, 19 Feb 1914; died of wounds, 23 Nov 1941.
19 Sgt M. A. Harry; cellarman; Christchurch; born NZ, 4 Jul 1914.
21 Sgt L. O. Naylor; labourer; Lumsden; born Lumsden, 13 Oct 1908; wounded 18 Apr 1941.
23 Capt G. C. Jennings; medical practitioner; England; born NZ, 21 Jun 1913; p.w. 13 Dec 1941; repatriated May 1943.
The occupations given in each case are those on enlistment
* First World War
THE OFFICIAL SOURCES consulted in the preparation of this account were the war diaries of Headquarters 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade and the 26th New Zealand Battalion, and a special report on the campaign by the commander of the 6th Brigade, Brigadier H. E. Barrowclough. Most of the material is drawn from interviews and correspondence with men who took part in the action. The assistance of former members of L Troop, 33rd New Zealand Anti-Tank Battery, and also of the 26th Battalion and the 30th New Zealand Field Battery, is gratefully acknowledged.
THE MAP, DIAGRAMS, and SKETCHES were drawn by L. D. McCormick.
THE PAINTING on page 17 was by Captain Peter McIntyre.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS come from many sources, which are stated where they are known:
|page 9 (top)||I. G. Scott|
|(bottom)||New Zealand Army official, W. Timmins|
|page 10 (top)||E. A. Frost|
|(bottom)||A. B. Gordon|
|page 11||New Zealand official|
|page 12||Peter McIntyre|
|page 13 (top)||F. C. Barker|
|(bottom)||A. B. Gordon|
|page 14||T. E. Williamson|
|page 15||Australian official, George Silk|
|page 16 (bottom)||A. S. Frame|
|page 18||A. S. Frame|
|page 19||A. S. Frame|
|page 20 (top)||Peter McIntyre|
|(bottom)||A. S. Frame|
|page 21 (top)||F. C. Barker|
|(bottom)||A. B. Gordon|
|page 22 (top)||Australian official, George Silk|
|(bottom)||F. C. Barker|
|page 23 (top)||T. E. Williamson|
|(bottom)||I. G. Scott|
|page 24 (top)||T. E. Unverricht|
|(bottom)||T. E. Williamson|
THE AUTHOR, E. H. Smith, is a member of the staff of the War History Branch. A former newspaper reporter, he served overseas in the 7th New Zealand Anti-Tank Regiment and is at present writing the history of that unit. He was wounded on 3 August 1944 during the advance to Florence.
the type used throughout the series is Aldine Bembo which was revived for monotype from a rare book printed by aldus in 1495 * the text is set in 12 point on a body of 14 point