2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Sidi Rezegh and Ed Duda
Sidi Rezegh and Ed Duda
By late afternoon of 26 November it was clear that 6 Brigade had much hard fighting ahead to gain full control of the Sidi page 230 Rezegh area and had no immediate hope of reaching Ed Duda. When Division learned that the Tobruk garrison had reached there and was ordered to join hands with it, therefore, 4 Brigade had to be given the task.
Though the advance from Belhamed to Ed Duda would have to cover a greater distance and seemed a formidable task, the capture of Sidi Rezegh was in fact far harder. The attack mounted on it in the night of 26–27 November, to which the artillery could lend very little support, saw the hardest fighting of the campaign and caused the already depleted infantry of 6 Brigade heavy loss indeed.
All the gunners could do was to close in on Sidi Rezegh under cover of darkness in readiness to take up whatever positions seemed suitable at first light. When Barrowclough went forward soon after dawn he found that he had got what he hoped and also what he feared. The success was complete and Sidi Rezegh was his; but the cost was only too apparent in terms of bodies scattered thickly on the ground, some clustered in front of the barrels of captured machine guns and anti-tank guns, others in the many wadis and indentations along the escarpment. In the region dominated by the Mosque itself the infantry came under fierce fire from below, much of it from three tanks which were shepherding the survivors of the enemy force to waiting transport. No FOO had succeeded in establishing communications back to the field guns from this point and there was a painful hiatus until two or three 2-pounders of the 65th Anti-Tank, RA, drove bravely forward and began to fire down at the tanks. The enemy at once withdrew and the action ceased.
The 6th Field (with 47 Battery) had meanwhile established its guns forward of the airfield with communications to FOOs in an arc from north through west to south. The only enemy activity to be seen was movement in the distance south of Ed Duda and this was at once shelled, though observation of results was obscured by rain squalls sweeping down from the north. Enemy guns far to the west and well out of range could be seen in action against Tobruk. The only remaining enemy in the area was the garrison of the strongly fortified position from which M Troop had been engaged on the 26th, an isolated pocket halfway between the Blockhouse and the Mosque which still proved troublesome. But the extent and strength of this pocket was still greatly underestimated and the gunners paid little attention to it.page 231 page 232
For one thing, they were getting short of ammunition and all who could be spared went with salvage parties to scour the derelict-strewn desert to the south and south-east for fresh supplies. Many hundreds of rounds were thus recovered and by the end of the day the 6th Field had enough to afford to send 500 rounds to the 4th Field, whose need was even greater. Towards dusk the 6th Field belatedly turned its attention to the strongpoint on the escarpment and shelled the general area of it, having failed to pinpoint any single target.
The advance from Belhamed to Ed Duda, undertaken rather gingerly in expectation of heavy opposition, was carried out almost without incident and without loss. The I-tank commanders were persuaded (though some have told different stories) to lead the way and 44 Royal Tanks did so on a narrow frontage. The 4th Field fired at the start on a known pocket of anti-tank and machine guns to the left front; but neither guns nor FOOs of that regiment were to accompany the advance. Perhaps the 8th Field sent an FOO or two with the tanks; but field artillery support at Ed Duda was expected to come from Tobruk. Behind the tanks, 19 Battalion followed in vehicles on the same narrow frontage, and with it went N2 and N4 guns of 34 Anti-Tank Battery under Lieutenant Lund.47
The leading tanks did some firing to the flank, but met no opposition. It took them an hour and a quarter to reach Ed Duda, which they did before midnight. Lund in his bald report describes it thus:
‘Marched steadily via Belhamed to Ed Duda. The I tanks apparently overcame all resistance, and when I passed through Belhamed I saw broken guns and a few German dead. Arrived at Ed Duda approx 0100 hrs (27 Nov) and contacted Tobruk garrison.’
The guns he mentions were medium ones, deserted by their crews and disabled in passing by the New Zealand infantry. At Ed Duda Lund found the position well defended by the I tanks of the Tobruk garrison, the battalion of the Essex Regiment, and the guns of the 149th Anti-Tank, RA, and his two guns went into position in reserve behind the RA unit. This quiet but fateful meeting with the troops on Ed Duda completed the relief of Tobruk, a vital, if temporary, achievement; but the troops concerned were too tired and became too page 233 bored with the waiting while arrangements were made to deploy them to appreciate the historic nature of the occasion. It was not until next morning, between periods of heavy shelling, that they grasped it.
On Belhamed itself the night was spent getting anti-tank guns—part of A and C Troops of 31 Battery—and other supporting arms and supplies through to 20 Battalion and consolidating the position. B Troop, which had spent the 27th en portée, now dismounted and dug in its guns in support of 18 Battalion, while the doughty BSM, WO II Stobie, took over a German anti-tank gun and sited it in an isolated position on the southern flank, manning it himself. Opposition in the neighbourhood of Belhamed had quietened down and the 4th Field spent an unexpectedly quiet night.
The day of the 27th should have been spent not only consolidating the positions on Belhamed and Ed Duda, but in effecting a firm junction between the two and co-ordinating resources. In particular, the artillery of the New Zealand Division and the Tobruk garrison should have done all they could to concert their activities and gain full benefit of the domination of the vital bottleneck of enemy communications which they had gained. But there was curiously little effort from either side towards this end. The 1st RHA from Ed Duda concerned itself with enemy artillery to the south-west, including a 210-millimetre howitzer which was bothering the Essex positions. At Belhamed and Zaafran the chief interest of the artillery was similarly with local difficulties and adjustments and with the scarcity of 25-pounder ammunition.
The gun areas of the 4th and 8th Field were mainly in the wadi between the two features. From there they briefly shelled the strong enemy position to the south-west at 11 a.m. and then two companies of 20 Battalion attacked. They soon struck trouble. The main position was some 2000 yards away and the intervening desert was flat and devoid of cover. Well short of the enemy they came under deadly fire, suffered heavy loss, and the survivors were pinned to the ground. The operation was hastily and poorly planned and it was some time before further artillery support was called for. The position was in any case too extensive and ill-defined to be effectively engaged with the few rounds that the 4th and 8th Field could in their impoverished state spare for such a task. The attack had clearly failed, a call for the 44th Royal Tanks to intervene from Ed Duda could not be met in time, and, indeed, an unprepared page 234 and unsupported I-tank attack from the west would have been a hazardous enterprise, unlikely to bring relief. The senior surviving officer in the two companies sent back three runners asking for artillery support and two other 20 Battalion officers, anxiously watching the scene, made further requests. A further concentration was fired in the early afternoon, but there was little else that Duff could do to help. Only heavy concentrations by both regiments could have subdued the enemy fire and ammunition states forbade any such extravagance.
In the course of the day, however, the artillery of both brigades, in conjunction with Miles's headquarters, concerted their arrangements. The gift of 500 rounds from the 6th Field to the 4th was one result of this. In the evening Miles got the 6th Field to prepare defensive fire tasks to be superimposed at call on those of the 4th Field, and later one of these was cancelled when it was found to take in part of the ground held by 18 and 20 Battalions. Several warnings were received of impending attack from the north and much movement was heard from that direction, while flares after dark lit up the sky all round. The enemy armour was returning from the frontier area and the opportunity of gaining firm contact with Tobruk and proper co-ordination between the Division and the garrison was passing.