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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Gunners in Tobruk Fortress

Gunners in Tobruk Fortress

Inside Tobruk fortress, which from 1 December was again besieged, there were more than 3500 New Zealanders, including many hundreds of gunners. Most of the survivors of the 6th Field, less 48 Battery, were among them and the five 25-pounders they brought with them from Belhamed went into action under command of the 1st Field, RA, near the Tobruk By-pass Road while the Belhamed battle was still raging. Three Bofors of 43 Battery had also managed to withdraw from Belhamed with the 6th Field, together with several other battery vehicles. They came under heavy shellfire as they drove towards Tobruk and then struck serious trouble in the form of anti-tank mines, which disabled four ack-ack vehicles including a gun tractor and badly damaged a Bofors gun. The remaining two guns went into action in support of 2/13 Australian Battalion.

Divisional Artillery Headquarters and Headquarters of the 14th Light Ack-Ack, with many B Echelon trucks, including those of the 4th Field and 31 Anti-Tank Battery, had driven into Tobruk in the confused night before the Belhamed battle. page 287 RHQ of the 14th Light Ack-Ack eventually settled in an Italian barracks, but Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow, the senior NZA officer in Tobruk, had to leave later in the day to join Artillery Headquarters as acting CRA.

Enemy attacks on the Ed Duda part of the Tobruk Corridor were renewed while the Belhamed fighting was still going on, a further attack started up during the night of 1–2 December, and next day it gained added momentum. The garrison commander and all his Eighth Army superiors had been ready to withdraw from the Corridor to the original Tobruk perimeter on the 1st, not realising that such a move would have conceded victory to the enemy and ended Crusader campaign. A detached observer might therefore have concluded that the New Zealanders in the Corridor—gunners, infantry, Signals and ASC—had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. But the men concerned knew better. The anti-tankers serving as infantry with 18 Battalion, for example, helped to repulse a German attack on the 2nd and drive the enemy back in disorder. They realised in the course of this fighting that the morale of the German positional infantry, unlike that of the panzer troops they had fought the day before, was on the verge of collapse and their own spirits therefore soared upwards.

Behind them other New Zealand gunners were learning, to their surprise, that there were many guns to spare in Tobruk, most of them captured from the enemy. A Troop of 29 Battery and the one gun of B Troop—the five guns of the 6th Field that had reached the Corridor from Belhamed—took up antitank roles with the 1st RHA in the area of 2/13 Australian Battalion, at first on a notorious feature known to the ‘locals’ as Murderers' Ridge, where they were shelled mercilessly from three directions. Later A Troop was directed by the RHA to an area they called with good reason Quiet Valley, and the B Troop gun with its crew were ‘given away’ to an RHA troop. Meanwhile Major Sharp80 took the remaining men of 29 Battery and some of 47 Battery who were with them, together with various wounded New Zealanders from the Belhamed battle, to Tobruk proper, reporting to Artillery Headquarters there. He arranged for rolls to be called and for the wounded to be evacuated to hospitals in the town. Then he and other senior artillery officers worked out details of a plan for New Zealand gunners to take over some of the idle guns and with page 288 them to strengthen the defences of Tobruk. There would still, however, be an undue proportion of headquarters and administrative troops and those not needed to service the guns would be evacuated by sea as soon as possible. The Division had already suffered grievous loss, the whole of the fortress area was under shellfire and was frequently bombed, and General Freyberg (who was in touch by wireless) had no wish to expose his men to unnecessary danger.

These arrangements were made in close co-operation with the Tobruk garrison. The Workshops Section of the 14th Light Ack-Ack worked with a parallel section of the Royal Ordnance Corps to salvage and repair guns, Bren carriers, and other vehicles, while the Ack-Ack Signals Section established telephone communications between NZA detachments in the fortress area.

Two or three days later most of the New Zealand guns withdrew inside the perimeter—though not before a Bofors of 43 Battery was damaged by shellfire near Ed Duda. The five 25-pounders of the 6th Field plus four Italian ‘75s’ and four German 105-millimetre gun-howitzers—P, Q and R Troops respectively—made up a composite field battery under Major Snadden. In a brief course on the foreign guns RA instructors explained, among other things, that they were quite likely to blow up when fired. It was just as well, therefore, that they were not in fact put to the test. The battery moved into a reserve position near the original perimeter and stayed there a few days without opening fire. The main role of these field gunners was anti-tank and none of several enemy efforts to regain the Corridor area gained enough ground to present them with targets. The Tobruk battle was dying down. The enemy, exhausted by the fighting at Sidi Rezegh and the strain of maintaining the siege of Tobruk against a lively and powerful garrison, was losing his grip.

The gunners who were best placed to observe this were those of the two N Troop guns of 34 Anti-Tank Battery under Lieutenant Lund who had accompanied 19 Battalion to Ed Duda and stayed there in reserve positions. ‘In reserve’ had a special meaning at Ed Duda: it signified getting shelled from three sides by guns of calibres from 75- to 210-millimetres without being able to hit back. In these last days of the siege, moreover, it meant not having the encouragement that the forward troops had of seeing for themselves the diminishing strength of the enemy infantry; for the artillery and mortar fire remained page 289 heavy. The last major effort against the Corridor was on the 4th. It occasioned many fireworks and a slight local withdrawal; but its repulse was decisive. On the 6th outside British forces again made contact with the garrison and the siege was virtually ended.

From then onwards only the Bofors crews had occasion to fire their guns. When Snadden's field battery was formed, the light anti-aircraft gunners formed X Battery under Major Bretherton, with nine Bofors manned by New Zealanders and eventually two existing RA troops each of five Breda LAA guns. Three Bofors under Lieutenant Simpson81 were at once detached and came under the command of the 39th Light Ack-Ack, RA, serving in the area of the composite field battery. The rest of X Battery came under the 69th Heavy Ack-Ack, RA, and took up positions guarding the El Gubbi airfield and satellite landing grounds in roughly the middle of the fortress area, with roles also in the harbour defence scheme. They contributed to the spectacular night-time ack-ack barrages over Tobruk on the 5th, 6th and 7th of the month. Next day Simpson's section returned to X Battery. From the 10th to the 19th the battery fired nightly and also engaged Stukas and other aircraft which attacked Tobruk by day. Enemy ground troops had already slipped away westwards towards Gazala; but Tobruk retained a high priority as a target for the Axis air forces and the New Zealand addition to its ack-ack defence was very welcome. By the time X Battery handed its guns over to an RA regiment on 21 December and prepared to drive back to Baggush, other New Zealand gunners had resumed fighting against enemy ground troops and aircraft west of Tobruk, at Acroma and then Gazala.

80 Maj R. W. Sharp; born NZ 23 Apr 1907; civil engineer; 2 i/c 6 Fd Regt Sep 1941-Aug 1942.

81 Maj R. S. V. Simpson, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Hastings, 4 May 1914; solicitor; GSO III (Ops) 2 NZ Div, Aug 1943-Mar 1944; Bty Comd, 5 Fd Regt, May-Nov 1944; wounded 27 Jun 1942.