2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Garrisons of Menastir and Capuzzo Repel Attacks
The Garrisons of Menastir and Capuzzo Repel Attacks
At Menastir 22 Battalion anxiously watched the smoke and heard the guns for an hour and then realised that Brigade Headquarters was lost. Later in the morning two more tanks, one of them a captured Matilda, advanced from the west–another mission to open a supply route to the Africa Corps–and F Troop engaged them. One drove off westwards, but the other suffered track damage and could not escape. For some time its tough armour defied the 2-pounders, but one shot knocked the smoke projector off the turret, another passed through the resultant aperture and wounded some of the crew, a third shot jammed the turret, and a fourth, knocking off a plate guarding the suspension, allowed a fifth shot to penetrate the motor. More than 50 shots were needed to disable it completely. It was an impressive demonstration of the fighting quality of the Matilda and explained the high regard the Germans had for this tank. But it made nonsense of the decision of the Crusader planners to exclude Matildas from the battle of the armour and reserve them solely for direct support of the infantry. Most German tanks were fitted with a short 50-millimetre gun which had very much the same power of penetration as the 2-pounder.
In an effort to gain confirmation of the loss of Brigade Headquarters a volunteer was called for to investigate in person, and Gunner Dobson17 of the 14th Light Ack-Ack offered to do so. He drove off by motor-cycle at 1 p.m. and did not return. He found Sidi Azeiz in enemy hands, was chased by the enemy, and had his motor-cycle shot from under him. page 247 Taken prisoner, he soon made his escape, heading straight into the fire of a British detachment to do so, his courage and persistence earning for him an MM.
In the early afternoon the Menastir defences received their severest test, when a detachment of 21 Panzer Division attacked from Bardia with strong supporting fire of all kinds. D Troop of the 5th Field was heavily outgunned and received a merciless bombardment. Hits or near misses were suffered on all four guns, knocking out two of them and temporarily disabling the other two. Four men of one gun team alone were killed and losses throughout the troop were heavy. Following on the action of E Troop at Sidi Azeiz, this made it a bad day indeed for 28 Battery.
The defence, however, was far from subdued. F Troop's 2-pounders fired at ranges up to 2000 yards, destroying a staff car, decapitating yet another passenger in a motor-cycle combination, and hitting several other vehicles. The Left Section of D Troop of 42 Light Ack-Ack moved two of its Bofors to the edge of the escarpment and they shot up transport at 1500–2000 yards, one gun firing 110 rounds. At 3000 yards they hit a mortar and exploded its ammunition. Vickers gunners fired relentlessly. To the enemy it was apparent that the Menastir position was not weakening under pressure and soon after 5 p.m. he suddenly broke off the action. The night was unexpectedly quiet.
Capuzzo, too, had its share when a German engineer battalion, also with strong support, attacked from the south-west in the early afternoon (under the keen eye, as it happened, of Rommel himself). The 27th Battery engaged quickly and scored direct hits which forced the oncoming enemy to dismount. A G Troop 2-pounder portée under Sergeant Stewart18 was also quick to react, driving well forward and knocking out many vehicles, but attracting much return fire. The portée caught alight but its crew put out the flames and continued firing. Again it was set on fire and the three gun numbers, including Stewart, were wounded. The Bren-gunner of the crew then joined Stewart and the two kept up fire until exploding ammunition forced them to abandon the portée, after removing the firing mechanism. Form the ground they continued to engage the enemy with small-arms fire until surrounded. When Stewart realised that continued resistance was endangering his page 248 wounded crew members he agreed to surrender. (He later escaped and rejoined his troop, and was awarded in due course a well-earned DCM.) The gun G3 also took part at this stage. Its sergeant and bombardier had been wounded earlier in the day and it was now commanded by Gunner Ashby,19 who scored several hits on enemy vehicles.
The enemy, daunted by his reception, began to work his way round towards the northern flank and in so doing came within reach of a Bofors of E Troop, 42 Battery, which set a troop-carrier on fire. This in turn attracted fire and the troop subaltern, Second-Lieutenant Chance,20 came forward to see if page 249 he could help. Quickly sizing up the situation, he decided to bring another gun forward, No. 1 under Sergeant McClelland.21 This drove forward under cover of the west wall of the old fort until the driver was killed by a sniper. McClelland at once brought his gun into action and ‘engaged and knocked out an enemy tank, silenced a machine gun nest, and dislodged a considerable number of enemy infantry’. The quotation is from a report soon after the event by the troop commander, Lieutenant Stratton,22 who was with the third gun just to the north-west and saw it all. In a fierce engagement four of the crew were killed and two wounded, and at this stage Second-Lieutenant Chance ordered the survivors to withdraw the gun, which they did successfully. A gun of E Troop, 32 Anti-Tank, also intervened, driving forward from the Musaid area with the troop subaltern, Second-Lieutenant Foubister,23 and in the ensuing engagement Foubister was killed. The enemy succeeded in penetrating the transport lines of 23 Battalion and the situation for an hour was highly confused. Friend and foe were so intermingled that the gunners could do little to help, and the situation was in the end righted by vigorous infantry counter-attacks.