2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Enemy Armour Approaches Bardia
The Enemy Armour Approaches Bardia
First reports came in this morning of the approach of the enemy armour and in the afternoon Second-Lieutenant Fagan1 took a section of E Troop portees on patrol from Capuzzo to inspect a concentration of transport to the south. When mortars opened fire he withdrew and 27 Battery engaged the enemy. Observation was from the top of the wrecked fort, which gave a wide field of view over open desert to the west, south and east. In the afternoon some guns of the battery changed position and almost immediately the vacant sites were shelled from the south by four ‘88s’, which later switched their fire to the new positions.page 237
At Menastir F Troop 2-pounders destroyed three lorries which drove towards them along the Via Balbia and decapitated the passenger of a motor-cycle combination, capturing the driver. The 28th Battery contented itself with shelling an OP inside the Bardia perimeter. The 34th Anti-Tank Battery (less various detachments) was still under the command of the Divisional Cavalry and its B Echelon moved during the night, with that of the cavalry, to the shelter of the escarpment at Menastir–a fortunate change as it turned out.
The night of 25–26 November was tense throughout the brigade area. Enemy flares rose and fell in all directions and there were several minor clashes. An hour before dawn the two guns of P Troop patrolling the southern approaches to Sidi Azeiz with a cavalry squadron heard vehicles pass close by in the moonless night and halt about 50 yards off. German voices could be heard and the cavalry opened fire. When flares lit up the scene P4 fired and hit a staff car. The vehicles were captured, together with their owners, and some 50 British troops they carried were released from captivity.
After dawn the surrounding desert was soon alive with movement as seemingly endless columns of German vehicles drove past both sides of the Sidi Azeiz garrison, making for Bardia. E Troop of the 5th Field went on patrol with Vickers gunners–a curious misuse of the slender resources of the garrison–and had an exciting afternoon driving to within 2000 yards of the enemy, ‘dropping our trails and banging a few rounds into them, then hurriedly shifting out again, only to do the same further along’, according to a gun sergeant, Cook.2 ‘We did this exciting manoeuvre three times’, he adds, ‘when we found we were out of ammunition with the exception of smoke’. Three Pzkw IIIs detached themselves from the column and drove towards E Troop, pausing to fire a few rounds and then advancing again. E Troop raced back to Sidi Azeiz and that was that. What prompted the 5 Brigade staff to despatch E Troop on such a reckless mission is hard to imagine. The four portees–two of N Troop and two of P–were better-adapted for such harassing tactics; but in several attempts they failed to get within effective range of the enemy columns before being engaged by heavier guns. Each time the anti-tank crews had narrow escapes and had to withdraw. Lieutenant Webb of P Troop could plainly see German tanks among the vehicles, but page 238 observers at brigade headquarters could not. The latter evidently thought the columns consisted solely of enemy supply troops (they were in fact the bulk of 15 Panzer Division) and Webb was taken aback when Brigadier Hargest reprimanded him for not ‘going on and getting stuck in’. Hargest and his advisers in this matter had a lot to learn and they learnt it too late.
Even the Bofors guns had their share of action, engaging an anti-tank gun and tractor which drove from the columns towards Sidi Azeiz. The diary of 42 Battery describes it thus:
‘1500 [hrs] No 1 gun (Sgt. Webb3) opened fire with alternate H.E.-S.A.P. Hit petrol tanks and tractor burst into flames. 5 of crew destroyed 2 captured. Guns of Rt Sec D Tp fired at M.T. several times.’
The three 18-pounders of H Troop, 32 Battery, shared this success. Having fired some 20 r.p.g. at the main enemy column, between Sidi Azeiz and Menastir, in the morning, they kept the tractor covered as it approached, but intending to hold their fire until it reached point-blank range. When the Bofors opened up H3 quickly joined in, firing high with its first shot, but scoring a direct hit with the second at 700 yards.
The guns at Menastir also engaged the enemy columns, but with little effect, and D Troop of the 5th Field finally decided that the target was ‘too dispersed’. Three tanks appeared, however, within the 22 Battalion area, having come along the Via Balbia from the west to try to open a route for supplies to the Africa Corps, and all four 2-pounders of F Troop engaged them at fairly long range, scoring many hits in a total of 36 rounds fired and driving them back. Though the antitankers did not know it, this was an important incident, for it deterred the German supply authorities from further effort to open up a direct route and caused them to continue to make long detours by way of E1 Adem which greatly delayed the maintenance of the Africa Corps in its frontier operations.
A half-hour concentration by 27 Battery at 7 a.m. on Lower Sollum, followed by a bombardment by an Indian brigade of the Halfaya position, were the start of a day-long exchange of fire between Major Philp's battery and the Halfaya guns. It was not until the evening that the large-scale movements entailed by the operations of the Africa Corps directly affected the Maoris. But 23 Battalion was on tenterhooks throughout page 239 the day. The guns of E Troop, 32 Battery, had to move several times in the morning to escape shelling from the south. Then they stood by to escort a 5th Field convoy to Sidi Azeiz; but by 4.30 p.m. it was clear that there was no hope of getting through this day. Shortly afterwards the troop commander, Lieutenant Moor,4 heard of an assault near the road to Sollum and hastened there to meet it. To the staff of the 27th Battery OP at Capuzzo the movements to the east above Halfaya were mystifying; but trouble was evidently brewing. In ignorance of the presence in the area of the Africa Corps, the impression gained ground that the garrisons of other frontier strongpoints were assembling to try to break through to Bardia and a covering attack from that fortress seemed likely.
An OP was stationed with an infantry company on the road to Bardia and from it fire was directed briefly on enemy forming up in front. Shortage of ammunition, however, prevented further fire on this tempting target. Just before dusk this enemy attacked and a lively action ensued until an hour after dark, in the course of which the New Zealand infantry by vigorous defence held off greatly superior numbers. The main attack, however, unconnected with this, came against Musaid, falling with great force on a Maori company there and on part of 23 Battalion.
As night was falling enemy approached in great strength. The Maoris held their fire until the leading vehicle had passed their FDLs; then they swept the enemy ranks with bullets and mortar bombs. The four portees of E Troop soon arrived and took up positions across the road to Sollum. Their first targets were half a dozen half-tracks towing guns driving towards Capuzzo and all were stopped. Then two light tanks drove boldly along the road and these, too, were disabled. A third group of vehicles followed the line of telegraph poles which led to Musaid and the anti-tankers watched them closely, intending to let them get closer; but 27 Battery opened fire first and they changed direction, moving parallel to the 2-pounders, which then opened fire at 1000 yards and scored several hits. In so doing the anti-tankers attracted a good deal of return fire, which continued until it was too dark to pick out targets. Then they moved inside the infantry position at the Customs House. Well after dark an E Troop gun opened fire again on an approaching tracked vehicle and was itself page 240 fired on by two anti-tank guns. The vehicle was knocked out at a range of some 200 yards and infantry mortars disabled one of the enemy anti-tank guns. Though heavy loss was inflicted on the enemy in this action and much booty was taken in the morning from the battlefield, the enemy nevertheless succeeded in slipping between the mile-and-a-half gap between the Maoris at Musaid and the rest of their battalion at Upper Sollum and entered Bardia during the night.
Meanwhile 22 Battalion reported finding a dump of 25-pounder ammunition near Menastir and some of it was collected to augment the meagre stocks of E Troop of the 5th Field. It was doubly welcome because earnest efforts by the BM had failed to get fresh supplies from the Indian division, under whose command 5 Brigade now operated. At the same time some of the mass of transport that clogged Brigade Headquarters at Sidi Azeiz and hampered its defence was sent to the Menastir position, where there was good cover. But hundreds of lorries still remained, including those of the various attached headquarters, and if Sidi Azeiz was to be defended there was every reason to move them, too, to Menastir. Had Hargest done so Sidi Azeiz might well have been left alone by an enemy who had no great interest in capturing it. Instead Hargest, after some hesitation, decided to stay where he was and as he was: he did not even attempt to redispose his slender forces to meet attack from the only quarter it now threatened–from the direction of Bardia.