2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Trouble for the Anti-Tankers
Trouble for the Anti-Tankers
The first barrage had ceased and the second one was starting when the battery reached the objective. The cruiser tanks and Shermans had been supposed to drive right through and beyond the infantry objective; but there were many of them in the area, clustering together like the infantry had done and attracting much fire, and they showed no inclination to move on. There were also I tanks supporting the infantry. The commanding officer of one regiment, riding on the top of one tank, proposed to site the 6-pounders himself, but Major Hall-Kenney flatly refused. Hall-Kenney was at that time perhaps the most experienced anti-tank commander in the Middle East4 and he had no intention of allowing a non-expert, regardless of rank, to do his job for him. He sited his own guns, O Troop with the 9th Durham Light Infantry and P and Q Troops with 8th DLI. The whole area was under fairly heavy fire, and Lieutenant Morpeth5 of O Troop told his men to dig slit trenches for themselves before they dug their guns in—a most unusual order. When it was light enough to see, the anti-tankers found themselves in the midst of carriers and other anti-tank guns and they had to move on and begin all over again. The portées of P and Q Troops also had to move, some of them through a minefield, leapfrogging the guns forward to get better positions. Sergeant Hastie's6 gun of O Troop drove forward under such heavy fire that the crew eagerly seized on an existing slit trench for their gun position and quickly enlarged it.
Many tanks were milling round in the area, some of them of 9 Armoured Brigade and some I tanks. They attracted intense fire and an 88 demonstrated its deadly power by knocking out one after another of them. The scene became blurred with smoke from the blazing tanks and the sudden interjections page 407 of the 88 gave the situation a desperate quality. The anti-tankers responded with a sense of urgency. Sergeant Wells7 rushed his gun into action and engaged the 88, and it at once turned its attention from the tanks to this new source of danger. Its first round struck with devastating effect, killing Wells and another of his crew and wounding others, and creating a shambles in the gun pit. Hall-Kenney at once went across to Sergeant Smith's8 Q Troop gun and directed its fire against the German gun. The first round must have struck the target, for it did not fire again, and the succeeding rounds added to the damage. No more fire came from this quarter; but there were many other sources of fire, including infantry and mortars, heavier guns out of sight and range of the 6-pounders, and several tanks farther away than the 88 and intervening cautiously.
Hall-Kenney noticed that the infantry around were departing, leaving his guns uncovered. He protested, but to no avail. The portées withdrew so as not to attract fire on the gun positions; but the drivers drew much fire on themselves when they moved and Gunner Tristram9 suffered a painful neck wound. Another driver was wounded in the leg. One driver, however, was so heedless of this fire that he stopped to pick up Italian prisoners and carried them back. The anti-tankers here had to put up with a great many projectiles originally aimed at targets out of their sight in the course of the fierce action being fought at the same time by 9 Armoured Brigade. Part of one of these, the aluminium ballistic cap of a sophisticated German anti-tank shot, knocked an O Troop gunner unconscious.
A tank counter-attack seemed to be developing—hence the withdrawal of the infantry—and one of the tanks engaged Q Troop with high-velocity HE fire from a hull-down position which offered the anti-tank guns a poor target. Its first shot wounded Sergeant Smith and its second came right into the gun position, killing a gunner and wounding several others. At the end of it this gun position, like Wells's, was a sad sight indeed. The tanks did not, however, come much closer.
Nearby there were three 6-pounders of the Sherwood Foresters, but the detachment had lost all its officers and the guns were page 408 unmanned. Sergeant Trail10 of 34 Battery went over to them, across 300 yards of bullet-swept ground, and brought one of them single-handed into action against the tanks. After some time he was ordered to withdraw; but he removed the firing mechanisms of all three guns before he did so and carried them back across the flat desert exposed to all kinds of fire. He displayed perfect self-control throughout and was later awarded an MM.
Concurrently Lieutenant Trower11 of the 5th Field concerned himself with getting anti-tank guns to fire on two 88s he could see from his OP about 1000 yards away. He had been observing from the area of the 8th DLI and he, too, found that the infantry around him had disappeared. He reported accordingly by wireless to his own B Troop and tried to get the field guns to engage targets on his front. The 5th Field were busy, however, firing on a large concentration of transport to the flank. He therefore left his OP and ran across the intervening ground, regardless of the fire which was coming down thickly over the whole area. For his action he was later awarded an MC, and the citation says that he caused an anti-tank gun—evidently Smith's—to engage two 88s and that it ‘dealt effectively’ with them. But it seems that Smith had already knocked out one 88 when Trower arrived and he congratulated the anti-tankers on their shooting. His action was nevertheless a brave one and his persistence in manning an OP after the infantry had departed was especially praiseworthy. It was a situation in which distant field guns, firing indirectly, could not do much. It was too confused and the visibility too restricted.
‘Overs’ from the tank battle ricocheted wildly through the area and six fairly heavy guns—possibly 150s—shelled it methodically. The 34th continued to lose men. Hall-Kenney was wounded and several more gunners were also hit. One driver drove his portée forward ‘up to the head of the tanks, right over the ridge’, according to Hastie. ‘He carried the job through safely.’ The job was to pick up the wounded at a gun position that was still under heavy fire and he undertook it of his own accord. All told 34 Battery had six killed (including de Schryver) in this action and 15 wounded, a very heavy loss indeed, for fewer than 70 men were involved.page 409
To the right rear of 34 Battery, the Maori Battalion had staged its supporting attack and E Troop of 32 Battery moved up with it, digging in under heavy small-arms fire and later coming under heavy shellfire which punctured several gun tyres. The troop took six prisoners before dawn. When day came the gunners saw enemy infantry well dug in 600–800 yards away and able to hold the gun area under fire, as every movement near the guns demonstrated. The enemy offered no suitable targets for the 6-pounders and E Troop gunners kept out of sight as much as they could.
While 34 Battery was fighting its desperate action at breakfast time, 31 Battery was also in serious trouble following through with 9 Armoured Brigade. Before dawn A Troop had to drive through a swirling cloud of dust raised by the tanks ahead and the portée A2 rammed A1 and was in turn rammed by A3. The guns A1 and A2 both suffered crippling damage. Then a tank blinded by the flying sand ran into A4, causing more damage. The troop was then heavily shelled and machine-gunned, and in the course of this a scout car ran over Second-Lieutenant Abel and a gunner, injuring them badly. The rest of the troop lost touch with the armour and ended up far from its destination. It could get no orders and finally returned to RHQ of the 7th Anti-Tank.
B Troop of 31 Battery was below strength and C Troop had only one gun at the start. D Troop found that visibility was at times practically nil. Going through a minefield D2 struck a mine. Its crew climbed on the side of a following tank, which in turn ran over two mines on their side, the explosions wounding four gunners. One of these was so badly hurt that Gunner Manson,12 driver of D3, had to carry him back to a dressing station. At the end D Troop possessed only D1 under Sergeant Cossey13 and D4 under Sergeant Younghusband,14 together with a gun and crew of the Sherwood Foresters who attached themselves to the New Zealand troop.
Soon after dawn these three guns began the final advance towards Tell el Aqqaqir with the Warwick Yeomanry, isolated from the rest of 9 Armoured Brigade and attracting the undivided attention of at least two 88s and many other guns. ‘Tracer and AP shot flew among the vehicles’, according to a page 410 D Troop gunner, ‘and two tanks were knocked out almost immediately. The Colonel ordered one of his squadrons to get those guns. The tanks went straight in, blazing away. They quietened the guns. Trouble then seemed to brew up from another sector. The tanks were firing at anything they could see.’ While this was going on Sergeants Cossey and Younghusband got D1 and D4 into action, ‘using any old pits we could find’. Cossey spotted a target almost at once and was kneeling down to the right of his gun directing its fire when he was killed. At the same moment an AP shot went through the back of the portée and set it alight. The driver, McKay,15 put out the fire and then reported to the troop commander, while the rest of the crew did what they could for the wounded.
‘All this time [according to the same gunner] the Tommy tankees were doing a wonderful job. Their Colonel had two tanks shot from under him. They just fought and fought, and there was never any question of their having enough. We were ordered to pull back to our lines and we did so, picking up several tank crews…. The Colonel was moving round in his own tank picking up wounded.
‘We came back through heaps of destroyed German equipment, both guns and tanks, and knocked-out enemy positions, with plenty of German dead. The chaps had a good feed of M and V (tinned stew) and we found the Warwicks reorganised. They had very few tanks left. There was a tremendous amount of our stuff concentrated, and we knew that we had broken through and were feeling in high spirits.’
The solitary C Troop gun went into position 300 yards behind RHQ of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, with some Vickers guns, and stayed there all day, though the Yeomanry withdrew soon after breakfast time. Fire came at the position from three sides throughout the day. The remnants of B Troop did much the same.
4 He had trained for six months in England at the start of the war, had served in Greece and Libya, and had had a great variety of anti-tank experience since July in the Alamein line. He had been one of the first New Zealand officers to see action in the desert when attached to the 3rd RHA (at that time anti-tank) on the Libyan frontier in July 1940.