2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Guns Fail to Save 5 Brigade Headquarters
The Guns Fail to Save 5 Brigade Headquarters
The night of 26–27 November was bitterly cold and flares rose thicker than before in the Sidi Azeiz area. The cavalry patrolling with its four attached portees reported half an hour before dawn that all was quiet and no enemy was in sight. Visibility to north, west and south was excellent; but to the east it was restricted by gently curving upward slopes.
All but a platoon of the infantry company was on the western flank, in close defence of E Troop of the 5th Field. The remaining platoon was in the south-east, around the 18-pounder H3. Another H Troop gun faced west along the Trigh Capuzzo and the third was in the north-east, with the Vickers guns. One Bofors was in the north, one in the south-west and the third in the south-east. The four portees, after dawn, remained within the perimeter, ready to move in any direction. Thus only one 18-pounder, one Bofors, and one Vickers gun, plus page 241 the portées, could bring down unobstructed fire to the east, where danger threatened. The 25-pounders had poor fields of fire in that direction, blocked by masses of lorries.
Nearly an hour had passed after dawn and men were getting ready for breakfast when the cavalry commander drove in and reported 40 tanks approaching from the direction of Bardia. Hargest told him that his lightly armoured tanks and carriers could do little against tanks and he should therefore get clear. The cavalry vehicles therefore raced through the headquarters area and away to the south. The portées were still under cavalry command and in default of other orders might have done the same; but the two officers concerned, Lieutenant Webb of P Troop and Second-Lieutenant Thomas5 of N Troop, had no hesitation in driving in the opposite direction to meet the attack.
Since there was no organised defence in the east there was no pattern into which they could fit their four guns. On the spur of the moment, therefore, they took them forward some 200 yards beyond the perimeter and up a slight rise to get good visibility and arcs of fire. There was not a vestige of cover for the high portées and nothing for it but to form them up in line. The two remaining Tac/R Hurricanes hastily took off from the landing ground–just in time–and then the enemy attacked out of the rising sun. The Bren-gunner of P4 counted ‘about forty’ tanks in a long line. There was no point in holding fire, for the portées were too conspicuous. P4 therefore opened at 1200 yards and the other three quickly followed suit. When still 1000 yards away the tanks began to reply, concentrating their machine guns and heavier armament on the four portées and scoring hits on all of them. The 2-pounders also scored hits; but the circumstances were so desperate and the enemy so numerous that it was impossible to judge the results.
The No. 1 of P4, Bombardier Niven,6 directed the fire of his gun with remarkable aplomb, allowing three shots for each tank engaged and then switching to another until his gun was hit and its traversing and elevating gears wrecked. The other crews remained similarly steady in what was as all knew a hopeless contest. N1 was on fire, one of its crew killed and page 242 two others wounded. On P3 Gunner Allen,7 a skilful artist well-known in London, had his leg shot off (and in an hour or two he died). Two of the crew of N4 were killed and the sight bracket was damaged. All this took place in a very few minutes and the large gallery of spectators in the headquarters area, including Hargest himself, marvelled at the parade-ground drill of the anti-tankers under such terrible fire.page 243
Niven strolled, with a deliberation thrilling and yet agonising to watch, to the other guns to lend a hand, helping the wounded aboard N4 and directing the driver to the ADS within the perimeter. Then he brought the portée back into action with Gunner Hynes8 (who was in Niven's own words ‘as cool as a cucumber’) as driver. Between the two of them they got it back into action from a position abreast of Hargest's slit trench. The gun had had its sights shot off, the telescope smashed, and the semi-automatic firing gear out of order. But with the help of a wounded gunner observing with binoculars, Niven fired seven or eight more shots. ‘I watched him load, aim, fire–load, aim, fire, time after time’, Hargest wrote in his book.9 ‘Soon the enemy concentrated on him. His truck received a direct hit on one side, starting a fire, then another just behind the gun; a third struck the shield and shot the muzzle straight upwards where it remained pointing to the sky.’ Niven then made his way to the nearest 18-pounder and stayed until it, too, was knocked out, then to a Bofors, and he joined E Troop of the 5th Field in its last agony.10
With the four portées silenced and the enemy getting closer, other guns took up the fight. H3 was the only one of the 18-pounders which gained a clear field of fire, and it engaged the tanks when they breasted a rise 1000 yards away, drawing heavy return fire almost at once. Three gunners were killed, but the rest kept firing until the gun itself was wrecked, by which time two more were killed and two wounded. The last shot, as the layer, Bombardier Brown11 says, was at about 150 yards and he saw the tank slew round under the impact. One of the three Bofors also managed to get away 15 rounds of HE and AP, halting one of the tanks: ‘Probably damaged tracks’ is the laconic remark in the 42 Battery diary. This gun also carried on firing until it was put out of action, by which time another Bofors was able to come into action, firing all its AP ammunition, 30 rounds, and then getting away 40 rounds of HE before it was damaged and its crew withdrew.page 244
E Troop of the 5th Field, served not only by its own officers and gun crews, but by many members of 5th Field Headquarters including the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser, and the 2 i/c, Major Grigg,12 opened indirect fire at a range of 2000 yards over the mass of lorries between the guns and the oncoming tanks. It was no time for finesse. As Sergeant Cook says:
‘We could still see nothing. We fired away for some time before answering shots fell near us. Then once they got our range things started to happen. In a very short time guns 1, 2 and 3 were knocked out which left my gun the only one firing. We were running short of ammunition so the gun numbers led by Major Grigg … carted the remaining ammunition from the other guns.’
Captain Ombler13 set his E Troop gunners a gallant example and at the height of the action he was killed. Cook himself was badly wounded in the arm as he was lifting the trail of his gun. As he moved back to a slit trench he saw Gunner Mathews14 drive a three-tonner to the rear of the gun, where it was at once hit by shellfire and burst into flames. Mathews tried to put out the flames with his fire extinguisher and while so doing was killed. Cook tried to get back to the gun, but a storm of enemy fire made it suicidal to persist and he gave up the attempt.
Fraser and Grigg had gone from gun to gun throughout the action, encouraging the gun crews and trying to observe through the swirling smoke the effects of their fire. German artillery to the strength of almost a full regiment, including 105–and 150-millimetre calibres, started by firing airbursts to keep the heads of the defenders down (which they failed to do). Then, when E Troop opened fire, it concentrated its great weight on the New Zealand field guns at a range of no more than two or three miles. The effect of this fire was formidable indeed and it was only from time to time that, in the closing stages of the action, the field gunners could glimpse, as one of them says,15 ‘tanks on the skyline silhouetted against the rising sun.’ Accurate fire by E Troop was out of the question, whereas the enemy easily page 245 gained by flash-spotting from higher ground the bearings he needed to engage the 25-pounders with great precision.
Fraser was lightly wounded by a bullet luckily deflected by a cigarette case in his breast pocket. Grigg, after Ombler was killed, virtually assumed command and his gallantry was outstanding. He had already earned an MC in the First World War and was MP for Mid-Canterbury. When he saw the need for more ammunition, he found a truckload and started back with it to the gun position. Bullets flew thick around and the smoke from bursting shells and burning lorries made it impossible to see from the cab of the ammunition lorry. Grigg therefore dismounted and led it forward on foot, ‘threading his way past burning vehicles and round obstacles such as wire and trenches, for a quarter of a mile.’ The quotation is in the stilted language of a VC citation submitted a year later and supported, as usual, by the testimony under oath of several witnesses of standing. But all who saw him this day gained the same impression of fearless dedication. The lorry was the one Cook saw hit. Grigg continued to unload ammunition until the flames drove him back and propellant charges began to explode. This made the gun position untenable and Grigg moved on to another gun, collecting for it a scratch crew which included Bombardier Stone16–one of those who testified for Grigg.
No other gun in the Sidi Azeiz position remained in action but this solitary 25-pounder and it therefore attracted the undivided attention of the enemy artillery and many tank guns. But Grigg carried on, standing to a flank from which he could see better than Stone could see through his sights. Calmly, in full view of the enemy, he directed the fire. He was wounded in the thigh by a mortar burst; but he carried on until hit again and rendered unconscious. By this time Hargest and most of the surviving troops in the area had already surrendered to tanks which closed in on them, and when E Troop at long last ceased fire an eerie silence descended on Sidi Azeiz.
In this ill-planned and probably unnecessary action 44 men were killed and 49 wounded, most of them gunners, and 700 were captured. But never have gunners faced more hopeless odds or served their guns with greater devotion. It is some page 246 consolation that most of those captured were held in Bardia and within a few weeks were released. The officers, however, were almost all sent on to Italy. Fraser, among these, a first-class regimental commander, was a serious loss to the 5th Field. Only one or two officers wounded too badly to be taken to Bardia eventually got away. Grigg was taken with these wounded to the ADS and there visited briefly by his parliamentary colleague, Hargest, by special permission of his captors. Then Hargest walked off into captivity and his friend Grigg did not recover consciousness. It is a matter of record that the VC citation was not accepted; but gunners and others who saw Grigg at Sidi Azeiz have in their hearts awarded him the highest honours.
9 Farewell Campo12 (Michael Joseph, 1945), p. 20.
10 Niven volunteered for medical duties when captive in Bardia and because of this was one of the few other ranks who were taken to Italy and remained in enemy hands after Bardia fell. Characteristically, he made two attempts to escape, travelling hundreds of miles on the first of them and being caught unluckily in a routine street check. The second was successful.
15 Bdr C. H. B. Stone.