2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
L Troop's Anti-Tank Action
L Troop's Anti-Tank Action
The mission of 26 Battalion with 30 Field Battery and L Anti-Tank Troop also led to a fierce action, but of a very different kind. The South African brigade sprawled across a large area of desert a few miles south-west of 6 Brigade and the New Zealand battalion group approached to within two miles and then took up a defensive position on a very slight rise in the open desert. The desert around was strewn with derelicts from the tank battle, but the only action was occasional shelling of the great laager ahead to which the South African guns replied. The battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Page, a Regular gunner, noticed that long-range shelling of the laager was increasing and knew that the 25-pounders had no answer to it. The 4th RHA posted itself along a line between the northern part of the South African position and 26 Battalion, but could do little to subdue the fire on the South Africans. The New Zealand gunners could do even less and they tried with scanty success to protect their gun positions on the rocky ground.
For the next hour or so the shelling of the South Africans increased and clouds of smoke and dust rose up. A solitary shell was all that landed in the New Zealand position before 3 p.m. From then onwards, however, the fighting ahead became intense, though at first it was hard to see what was happening. A request then came from the South Africans for urgent anti-tank support. Page realised the danger of detaching guns from his group, isolated as it was in open desert, and sought permission from brigade headquarters, which duly authorised him to send a troop of 25-pounders. The guns of 30 Battery were therefore hooked on and quickly driven through the battalion position to the western perimeter. At the same time two portées of L Troop were also rushed to the west. Just as the field guns reached the foremost infantry posts, however, enemy tanks were seen to break through the South African positions and head towards 26 Battalion. The field guns were at once unhooked and prepared for emergency action and the 2-pounders got ready for portée action. Shelling of the area had begun, rather spasmodically, and small-arms fire, mostly ‘overs’, began to arrive. Lorries packed with South Africans drove at high speed through the New Zealand lines. E and F Troops of 30 Battery page 206 and L Troop were now in a north-south line level with the foremost infantry. The 25-pounders of the 4th RHA, to their right front, soon moved off, probably to new positions to the south-west. The New Zealand field guns were on their platforms and the four anti-tank guns en portée.
As soon as the retreating South African lorries drew clear of the guns 30 Battery opened fire, at first indirectly. What was thought to be a derelict British tank to the right flank then suddenly fired on the portée L1 and disabled it, smashing the foot of the gun-layer. The other three portées at once retaliated and knocked out the tank. They then turned their attention to a mass of tanks which seemed to be coming straight at them. The range, however, was still too great for effective fire and the anti-tankers, high up on their portées, had to endure several anxious minutes of exposure to small-arms fire which now began to sweep through the area. L3, nearest the source of this fire to the south-west, fired several shots at long range and then was put out of action, its driver mortally wounded.
Only L2 and L4 and the eight 25-pounders now remained in action and they fought a furious action against a large body of tanks. Some of the field guns quickly ran through their small stocks of AP shot and had to use HE shell and then, when this was finished, smoke shell. Captain Stewart,24 forward in his pick-up truck, at first directed the fire of F Troop. Then, as the range dropped, he ordered Gun Control and the field guns fired over open sights. ‘Spare’ gunners manned Bren guns or rifles from the ground alongside the guns and kept up heavy fire. Extra ammunition for the two remaining 2-pounders came from the other two and the troop commander, Lieutenant Pepper,25 scouting round the desert, found some more and replenished the rapidly dwindling stocks on the two portées.
After an hour of this firing, almost continuous on the part of the anti-tank gunners (who could see more from their high platforms than could the field gunners, often blinded by dust on the ground), the enemy tanks and transport drew off, leaving behind many blazing tanks and trucks. By a careful count, which included only burning tanks, the two L Troop guns, with some help from the field guns, had disabled the remarkable total of 24 tanks, though at long range and under such confusing conditions it was hard to be sure. Each of the two page 207 portées fired more than 300 rounds, a quite extraordinary total. Bombardier Barker,26 who was layer on L2, says that at some stages targets were ‘very numerous and creeping closer all the time, so it was practically impossible to miss a shot.’ But much of the shooting was nevertheless at long range and the gunners were delighted to see that their fire was effective. As Sergeant Robertson,27 who commanded L2, says, ‘We fired at everything we saw and put tanks on fire with one or two shots at extreme range, 1800 yards’. For the field gunners the range was even longer, for they were north of the 2-pounders and the tanks came from the south-west. Throughout the action Lieutenant Pepper moved from gun to gun—when he was not away looking for more ammunition—and one gunner recalls his ‘shouts of joy as the German column veered to the left past our guns’, adding that Pepper ‘had courage to burn’. All were later delighted to learn that Pepper won for this action an MC.
But the action was far from finished with the disappearance of the German tanks. After a fairly long pause, during which the field guns engaged various targets as they appeared, a heavy attack by German motor-cyclists and machine-gunners serving as infantry brought the whole area under intense small-arms and mortar fire. The field guns fired at their fastest possible rate into the oncoming enemy and the 2-pounders engaged whatever vehicles they saw. So fast and furious was the action that each gun crew got the impression that it was engaged single-handed against what looked like ‘the whole of the German Army’, as Sergeant Close28 puts it. ‘Still Gun Control’, he adds. ‘Gnr Robb29 has a captured Mauser Rifle and is kneeling behind the trailer using this and thereby earned the nickname of Rapid-fire Robb.’
For a few brief minutes the setting sun silhouetted the enemy against a dark desert background and the defensive fire from gunners and infantry caused heavy loss. But in the gathering darkness the enemy continued to advance. Several of the field guns had fired all their ammunition and withdrew in search of more. Close's gun of F Troop ‘retired a short distance to where our G.P.O. Chas Reed had found us some which we page 208 fired’. Looking around it seemed to Close that all the portées had gone, though he was mistaken in this. In the distance fires from the South African laager provided an eerie background. The field guns withdrew, but the two L Troop guns still had some ammunition and fired from time to time in the dark at enemy parties outlined against the burning vehicles. Flares lit up the desert briefly but brilliantly. Second-Lieutenant Scott,30 subaltern of L Troop, describes the close of the action:
‘L Troop remained until the last movable truck had gone and then moved away from the area under a canopy of flares, the enemy by this time being only a matter of 100 yards away. Occasionally we opened up with Bren gun fire to show them that we were still there. My truck moved off first independently with the wounded [three men] to find an MDS.’
The very last vehicle to leave was Pepper's pick-up and in it was a German captured in the course of Pepper's search for ammunition. The battalion group disengaged with less trouble than expected (though some infantry were temporarily lost) and drove back without further incident to 6 Brigade, now closing up on the part of Point 175 which had been won at tragically heavy cost. The losses in the action near the South African laager were fortunately light. L Troop lost one killed and three wounded and 30 Battery had none killed and only a handful wounded. F Troop, for example, had four wounded, including a gun sergeant and the troop artificer. It was a small price to pay for an anti-tank action that must rank among the finest in the war.