2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The 6th Field is Overrun
The 6th Field is Overrun
A light mist settled during the night on the lower ground between the Mosque and Belhamed. It was possible to see from one to the other at dawn, but in the 6th Field gun area distant vision was blurred. For a few minutes all was deceptively quiet and gunners were stowing away bedrolls and thinking of getting breakfast. Some had petrol burners going and were boiling billies. Many eyes turned towards the Mosque area as they had turned the morning before to Point 175 in the hope of seeing friends there—South Africans or the British armour. Major Snadden's OP of 46 Battery on Belhamed reported tanks to the south at 6 a.m.; but FOOs of the 6th Field who saw them nearer at hand were undecided as to their identity. When they moved forward a few minutes later Captain Crawford-Smith46 of 47 Battery—the nearest gunner-officer to them—still thought they' were our own … the second tank was flying our identification signals'. The leading tank was actually a captured Matilda, still flying its pennants.
The battalions on Belhamed, the 18th and 20th, had changed places so that the former was now at the western end, which came under heavy shellfire. Smoke and dust soon obscured the page 270 view southwards, though 20-odd tanks, guns and lorried infantry could still be seen advancing. To the south-east the shelling was not quite so heavy; but it was thickly sewn with machinegun bullets. Weir estimated that ‘two batteries started to shell us at a slow rate, just sufficient to raise the dust’.
All the defects of the positions taken up in the dark now glared at the gunners and in a mad rush they tried to remedy what they could of them. Guns were hastily moved here and there and unlimbered. Emergency anti-tank positions were taken up facing the Mosque or the oncoming tanks and ammunition was hastily prepared. The fields of fire in many cases were obstructed by vehicles, some of which caught on fire and further clouded visibility. Bombardier Loughnan's F Troop gun,47 for example, raced clear of the vehicles immediately around and then was unlimbered under fire. As he recalls it,
‘The gun was brought into position, sights clear and prepared; but no ammunition ready. Two of the others were trying to get the armour-piercing shot off the limber…. Next I was peering through the open sights at the tanks; they were far too close by now. Their light machine-gun bullets were penetrating the shield, and shot was flying in all directions.
‘Geoff Oliver,48 the gun-sergeant, swung the trail around and we fired the first shot—with what effect I do not know. After each shot we had to wait several seconds for the dust to clear and as it did so Geoff would heave the trail over and drop it to give me a sight on to the next.’
The section commander, Lieutenant Masefield,49 stood behind the gun and the GPO, Lieutenant Reed, moved from gun to gun, both of them regardless of enemy fire. After three or four rounds Loughnan was knocked from his layer's seat and Masefield ran up to take his place. A few more rounds and then a direct hit knocked out the gun, though the only further casualty was one man lightly wounded. Masefield then took the survivors to a neighbouring gun, the crew of which had all been hit. There they suffered another direct hit which killed all but one of Masefield's crew.50page 271
By this time the tanks were through the line of F Troop guns and infantry followed closely. E Troop, to the right rear, fired through a thickening fog created by the burning vehicles of F Troop. ‘Both sides fired at each other's gun flashes through the dense haze’, according to Sergeant Buchanan.51 E Troop had lost its commander the night before and Major Levy of 31 Anti-Tank Battery came up and directed fire at three Pzkw IIIs which were trying to outflank the troop, destroying two of them and disabling the third. Two F Troop guns were still in action when all four E Troop guns were knocked out almost simultaneously, and Levy ordered the survivors to destroy any workable gun parts and then withdraw. The wounded had to be left.
The struggle of 47 Battery was, if anything, even more desperate. It was a few hundred yards to the south and had even less notice that the oncoming tanks were hostile. Bombardier McCowan52 was at the C Troop command post and the tanks were ‘almost near enough to throw stones at us’ when the telephone rang and Weir announced, ‘I think those tanks are hostile’. The tanks were in most cases about 200 yards away when the guns opened fire, hitting two or three and driving the rest round the western flank and on to 30 Battery. Some tanks opened fire from the shelter of transport at the ADS 300 yards to the right front, while infantry advancing through the smoke brought the guns under fierce small-arms fire. Drivers and spare gunners replied with rifles and here and there a Bren gun.
It was Gun Control from the start, and in F Troop of 47 Battery Captains Cade and Crawford-Smith and Lieutenants Young and Harper53 each took over a gun. Major Beattie was everywhere. Bombardier McCowan became, as he explains, the sole survivor of C2:
When only one F Troop gun under Sergeant Cooper56 remained serviceable, Beattie, Cade, Harper and Young rallied to it. All AP ammunition had gone and Cooper was firing HE with 119 capped fuse against tanks, to increase penetration. Then, when infantry appeared ahead, closing in, he ordered caps to be removed from fuses. Then more tanks came on and it was again 119 with cap on, and the last round was fired at a tank which had actually reached the gun position. Beattie ordered the survivors to withdraw and Cooper removed the gun sights, only to be killed a moment later. Gunner Jackson57 picked up the sights and carried them out. On the way back towards the east Beattie was badly wounded and Cade picked him up and carried or dragged him behind the shelter of a trailer. Beattie ordered Cade to leave, but again he picked up his battery commander and carried him back under terrible fire. For the last few hundred yards Gunner Nevins58 helped and between them they got the badly wounded major to comparative safety.
At the height of the action a burly and familiar figure appeared on the scene, carrying a rifle and wearing his CRA armband. Miles himself, evidently feeling that the situation had been mismanaged—as indeed it had—to the point that his guns were being needlessly sacrificed, and wanting to be with his gunners to the last, strolled forward ‘for all the world as though he were going duck-shooting’, according to Sergeant Ross59 of 29 Battery. ‘He patted one of the Nos. 1 on the shoulder and said “Every shot a tank, boy” and then wandered away ahead of the guns.’ He went from A Troop to B Troop, and by the time he reached the latter 30 and 47 Batteries were finished and 29 and 48 Batteries were chiefly concerned with infantry pushing their way through the smoke, taking cover behind burning vehicles, and bringing deadly machine-gun and mortar fire to bear on the remaining guns.page 273
‘We've driven them off. The tanks have pulled out. Rest. Hunched, tense shoulders slump down, backs curve, bodies relax—we wipe our mouths with the back of our hands and look round at one another.’61
A Troop had missed the worst of the anti-tank action, mainly because its front was thickly encumbered with vehicles. By the time tanks appeared it was impossible to engage them without endangering men of the troops in front. B Troop had better fields of fire and blazed away at tanks and then at infantry. The final assault on the gun position was strongly supported by machine-gun and mortar fire which put three guns out of action. The fourth withdrew in the nick of time. (Weir himself had authorised the gunners to pull out when the position became untenable, after seeing what happened to 30 and 47 Batteries.) Miles described it all in a letter as follows:
‘I reached the nearest gun—No. 4—as most of the crews of the others were casualtied by m.g. fire; though we could see nothing for smoke. Then figures appeared which I saw were German infantry, and I told 2/Lt. Bevin62 to take them on. As I spoke No. 3 gun pulled out past us, and a shell struck the quad; but the gun and quad went on though I could see no driver. Almost simultaneously a burst of m.g. fire shot down Bevin and most of the crew of No. 4 alongside me. I was a bit dazed, but heard a voice say “Limber up”. Another voice said “Cannot tow the gun with a punctured tyre” and the first replied “What else to do unless we fire over open sights”. I called out “Yes, fire over open sights”, but as I spoke a shell landed to the left of the gun, a splinter slightly wounding me in the small of the back. The German infantry were advancing straight towards us, so I got into a slit trench by the gun with my rifle, hoping to pick off the German officer leading them and the chap beside him with a Tommy gun. Unfortunately I had no amn but the 5 rounds in the magazine, and though I waited till he got close and fired steadily I missed him! Shades of my early days as a rifle page 274 shot!! The German inf. then enveloped us, and I thought they'd have got the whole bag. Thank God they didn't.’
Captain Fisher saw it from a distance of 200–300 yards and lost no time in withdrawing his guns, finding a route down the escarpment to the north. It was barely passable and only an extreme emergency would have prompted him to try to use it. But the vehicles bounced down, followed by machine-gun fire, and at the foot of the ridge they turned left towards Tobruk. By this means all four A Troop guns withdrew and one of B Troop, joining vehicles of 30 Battery on the way to what was left of the Tobruk Corridor.
Gunner Winthrop63 was driver of the quad B4, and though wounded in both arms and both legs he managed to crawl into his seat and drive to the gun position when withdrawal was ordered. The gun was already disabled, but survivors of the crew were able to get on the truck; Winthrop drove them for two miles before he collapsed and had to be lifted from the driving seat. For this he gained a DCM.
Another DCM was won in this withdrawal by Sergeant Batty64 of A Troop, whose gun was the leading one, heading towards the corridor. Having escaped from the desperate action south-east of Belhamed, the little column was suddenly beset with danger from the north as it reached the Tobruk by-pass road. Some enemy tanks operating there in support of the remaining strongpoints on that side of the Corridor attacked without warning. They fired heavily with cannon and machine guns, and one was charging the party when Batty firmly ordered, ‘Halt, Action Rear’ and with his first shot destroyed the tank. He then engaged the others, giving the rest of the gun crews time to get into action. The rest of the tanks then drove off. Batty's presence of mind prevented a nasty incident from developing, for the other guns were awkwardly placed and their crews could not have reacted in time to save themselves.
The only other 6th Field guns which got away were those of C Troop, 48 Battery, which did not open fire. ‘From where we were’, Lieutenant Wood65 wrote, ‘all we could see was a black pall of smoke … with a few figures milling about and plenty of small-arms ammunition whistling everywhere. We page 275 could see nothing to fire at so I got the guns out and … stopped to have a word with the General who was as cool as a cucumber. When I left him I found all our vehicles had scampered off, so I wandered off on foot and later rejoined the troop.’ These guns, however, turned right and drove across the wide wadi to Zaafran, where they joined 4 Brigade. D Troop continued to fire under circumstances that were truly formidable until all guns were overrun. Sawyers exercised his own initiative in withdrawing C Troop and the survivors of D Troop at a time when Weir was trying to get orders through to that effect. In the 4 Brigade area the C Troop guns were quickly put into anti-tank positions and the spare gunners formed a thin infantry screen in front.
The great fight of the 6th Field had ended and the scene of utter desolation caused Weir much anguish as he saw off the last vehicle of 48 Battery and then retraced his steps to where he had left his car. As he neared his headquarters he saw German infantry in possession and he turned tail and hastily descended the escarpment. When things got quieter he moved on eastwards, only to be fired on by I tanks defending 4 Brigade, though he escaped harm and in due course joined the survivors of his regiment on Zaafran. G Section, Divisional Signals, and many RHQ vehicles, together with stragglers from various batteries, made their way to the Tobruk Corridor.
The losses of the 6th Field (with 47 Battery) came to the extraordinary total of about 275, including 57 killed, by far the heaviest losses of an NZA unit in a single action in the Second World War. Those listed as wounded numbered 113 and the prisoners (many of them also wounded) 96. The 29th, 30th and 47th Batteries lost 75, 87 and 75 respectively. With them, of course, was Brigadier Miles, marched off to captivity.
47 30 Battery consisted of E and F Troops; 47 Battery of C and F Troops.
50 Some accounts say that Masefield was the last survivor and continued to fire one gun single-handed until he was killed.
55 Rt. Rev. G. V. Gerard, CBE, MC, m.i.d.; Rotherham, England; born Christchurch, 24 Nov 1898; Lt, The Buffs, 1918–19 (MC); SCF, 2 NZEF, May 1940–Nov 1941; p.w. 1 Dec 1941; repatriated Apr 1943; SCF, 2 NZEF (IP), Apr-Dec 1944.
57 Not traced.
61 Gunner Inglorious (Whitcombe and Tombs, 1945), p.27.