2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Pressure on 6 Brigade
Pressure on 6 Brigade
Events now began to crowd in on Weir and his field gunners and also on the anti-tankers of 6 Brigade. The movements to the west and south of the Mosque had resulted in an attack on the thin infantry line in the south-west, which was not recognised as such until almost too late. Three ‘companies’ (they were that in name only), too of the 24th and one of the 21st, were overrun. J Troop of 33 Anti-Tank Battery had five portées with 24 Battalion–its own four and one from K Troop. They came under heavy shell and mortar and machine-gun fire, which wounded the troop commander, Lieutenant Stych,24 killed two members of gun teams, and wounded a third member, Bombardier Pilling.25 All of Pilling's gun team were captured, after he removed the telescope and breech block and hid them page 254 in a slit trench. (The gun was recovered after dark and the missing parts found, and it went back into service the same night with a scratch crew.) After dark Lieutenant Jamieson26 of K Troop arrived to replace Stych and he had all five guns in position and manned by 10 p.m. to support a shorter line formed by the remaining troops of 24 Battalion. There were many reports of tanks taking part in this attack; but the antitankers saw none.
The field gunners were largely taken unawares by this sudden adverse turn of events. Their observers watched the approaching enemy—uncertain, like the infantry concerned, that they were enemy—and were astonished to see the New Zealand infantry surrender with little or no attempt at resistance. The actual circumstances were very different from the appearances. Then, after this, it was extremely hard to sort out friend from enemy and bring down effective fire. Enemy guns had been firing well into the brigade area and it was not realised that this fire was meant to support this attack. Major Rawle27 of 30 Battery was only five yards from Headquarters 26 Battalion when he was mortally wounded. The battalion commander made Captain Molloy of 29 Battery take shelter in his headquarters until there was a lull in the firing and Molloy did so, only to receive mortal wounds soon after leaving. The shelling, moreover, cut many lines to OPs, and Captain Symon,28 who was observing with 24 Battalion, was out of touch with his guns. The 6th Field had not even completed its tasks in support of the 4 Brigade attack and was firing at the strongpoint on the escarpment when the enemy attacked. Weir, in a letter home, described it thus:
‘Two of my O.P. officers were wounded…and I had to get other O.P. [officers] forward to take their place which meant delay at the critical time. The attack came on a bit and came within our view from the gun line so we opened on them a fierce concentration and helped to restore the situation. Three German tanks came out of the dust about fifteen hundred yards away. I ran to the leading troop who quickly delivered a broadside of Armour-piercing shot at them and sent them up in flames.’
Sawyers' 48 Battery fired at infantry and tanks on the southernmost escarpment and 30 and 47 Batteries fired the concentration Weir mentions. Then F Troop tried to engage a hostile battery to the south which had been very troublesome, but the light was failing and the results were doubtful. Before dark, however, two more attempts were made to ease the situation: Valentine tanks supporting 6 Brigade were sent on hasty and unsupported missions into enemy territory which achieved little and ended for them in disaster—a sad sequel to the excellently staged 4 Brigade attack.
Three medium howitzers from the south-east opened fire on the gun areas of the 6th Field a little before dusk and continued for an hour and a half, doing only slight damage, but threatening serious harm; for on that rocky ground the gun positions could not be well protected. Weir was reluctant to reply to this fire until he felt sure he could do so effectively, and his observers and staffs were busy making cross-observations and calculations to pinpoint the howitzers from their flashes. Here the survey troop would have been most useful; but it was stationed with 4 Brigade and could do nothing. (The survey flash-spotting team might have served even 4 Brigade better had they been stationed above the escarpment, where observation all round was much superior.) When the howitzers ceased fire the 6th Field still lacked measurements needed for accurate counter-battery fire and so the opportunity was lost.
This was a mere taste on the tip of the tongue of the medicine 6 Brigade would have to swallow in great gulps in the next few days, and neither Weir nor Barrowclough, suspecting something of what lay ahead, relished it. The 6th Field gun positions around the airfield were extremely vulnerable to fire from the south and were overlooked by enemy on the escarpment there. During the night, therefore, the regiment moved below the escarpment to the 6 Brigade transport area halfway between the Blockhouse and Belhamed—ground until then dominated by the enemy pocket overcome this afternoon by 4 Brigade. From their new positions the batteries of the 6th Field could cover by indirect fire any part of the long brigade front, from Point 175 (reoccupied this night) to west of the Mosque. But they could no longer, as a last resort, take up an anti-tank role in defence of the infantry, and the burden of anti-tank defence to that extent fell more heavily on 33 Anti-Tank Battery and the attached guns of the 65th Anti-Tank, RA. It is therefore curious that M Troop with its page 256 valuable 18-pounders, which could provide the same kind of solid backing to the 2-pounders, was also moved below the escarpment.