2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Panzers Overwhelm Most of 6 Brigade
Panzers Overwhelm Most of 6 Brigade
A night counter-stroke overran enemy at Ed Duda and regained the position for the Tobruk garrison, which spent the day of 30 November strengthening it and the rest of the bulge from the original perimeter. Having failed there, the enemy turned his attention to Sidi Rezegh, meaning to break through from there to Belhamed and thereby sever the so-called Tobruk Corridor. But this was not at all clear to the Eighth Army, which was still thinking in terms of a decimated enemy mobile force trying to escape. Rearrangements of the New Zealand defences which would have made the enemy's task very much harder were therefore not undertaken and they remained as vulnerable as before to attack from the south.page 261
Messages during the night suggested that the South African brigade might have recaptured Point 175 by morning and eyes turned anxiously to this feature as it grew light. They saw a mass of transport on the edge of the escarpment there and speculation at once began as to its identity. Meanwhile enemy attacked westwards along the Trigh Capuzzo and were easily repulsed by the Matilda tanks and the artillery on the eastern flank. Miles had tentatively ordered all guns to lay on Point 175 while he conferred with Freyberg. It was after 8 a.m. when Freyberg was finally convinced that the vehicles on Point 175 were enemy, and Miles at once ordered all guns to fire four rounds per minute for three minutes starting at 8.35 a.m.—a total of nearly 800 rounds, duly fired with highly gratifying results. The whole feature erupted in flame and smoke and many vehicles, tanks among them, went up in flames. The rest quickly disappeared. A repeat order was sent to the 6th Field,' with emphasis on tanks on right', to deal with enemy still lingering in the neighbourhood. There was no need for more fire on Point 175. The New Zealand Artillery had given the Italians an unforgettable lesson.
The attention of the 6th Field was at once attracted to largescale movements to the south-west, and 29 and 30 Batteries engaged these at long range and at such a rapid rate that by early afternoon their ammunition was running very low. In such circumstances it would have been wiser to reserve fire—as 4 Brigade had done—for more rewarding targets and this lesson was soon driven home. Bombing by the RAF on the enemy concentrations eased the situation for a while; but by mid-afternoon the enemy began to move towards 6 Brigade. Just before 4 p.m. 50 tanks were reported in the approaching force and the outlook was ominous. The report was passed on to Lieutenant-Colonel Weir, who already knew about the tanks, and whose 29 and 30 Batteries were engaging them at such a rate that the former soon ran out of ammunition. A tremendous bombardment of the 6 Brigade area had begun and heavycalibre shells rocked the defences. Telephone wires were cut and communications between observers and guns were highly uncertain.
The 6th Field gunners had been firing all day. ‘I remember with what difficulty we managed to get anything to eat’, says one of them; ‘for no sooner did we start to eat than orders would come through to fire again and all the food prepared would have to be left—to be covered with dust raised from the page 262 firing of the gun’.33 When the tanks finally closed in on the infantry of 6 Brigade, many of the 6th Field guns were silent and 29 Battery was desperately replenishing its ammunition stocks from lorries of the Divisional Ammunition Company which had just driven through from Tobruk.
The brunt of the action at this stage fell on the 2-pounders of 33 Battery and the 65th Anti-Tank, RA, above the escarpment. J Troop under Jamieson had three guns at 50-yard intervals along the crest from the Mosque westwards and one gun just below, level with the Mosque. Second-Lieutenant Ollivier34 had K1 and K2 some 500 yards to the east, among 26 Battalion positions, and there were two 65th Regiment guns to the west of him. The remaining two K Troop guns and some more of the 65th were in direct defence of Brigade Headquarters below the escarpment, as were the four 18-pounders of M Troop, which would have been worth their weight in gold had they been sited above the ridge. Two P Troop portées were with engineers to the east and beyond them L Troop had three with 25 Battalion near the Blockhouse. Records of the 14th Light Ack-Ack are vague, but it seems that none of the Bofors were above the escarpment, where their considerable anti-tank capabilities might have been demonstrated, to the benefit of the sorely pressed infantry of 24 and 26 Battalions at the western end of the brigade line.
Had the Division been flexible enough in its approach to anti-tank defence, which in such circumstances was of paramount importance, it could quickly have reinforced the position with I tanks and many other anti-tank guns, including two more 18-pounder troops. Only a fraction of available resources was committed against what could very well have been a deathblow to the whole Division. Miles had had an inkling of the situation in the morning, when he signalled Divisional Headquarters asking if the western flank needed more anti-tank defence and offering for this purpose four guns of the 65th Anti-Tank. But Divisional Headquarters was obsessed with the idea that the main danger threatened the eastern flank and was still reinforcing this flank when 6 Brigade was overrun. The death of Lieutenant-Colonel Oakes from shellfire during the afternoon on the eastern flank perhaps contributed to the page 263 maladjustment and inflexibility of the anti-tank defences; for he was not the sort of man to stand idle in the face of disaster.
Such guns as were available to 24 and 26 Battalions when the tanks closed in—six and possibly eight—were doomed. The tanks came close enough to locate them, and then, with the help of accurate mortar fire, proceeded to shoot them to pieces. A captain of 24 Battalion describes it thus:
‘The 40 tanks deployed in groups of threes, two in front and one at the rear, and came on in this formation across our whole front. Their fire power was terrific. The 2-pdr Antitank guns were soon reduced to heaps of tangled metal, their gunners firing to the very last.’
A private mentions that the ‘anti-tank gun dug in just behind me was knocked out by the leading tank while it (the tank) was still hull down.’ Another says that ‘The two anti-tank 2-pdrs were the first to go and part of the shield of one landed on the side of my slit trench.’ A call for more anti-tank support from the battalion commander resulted in three more portées rushing to the scene, two of K Troop and one of the 65th Anti-Tank, all from below the escarpment.
The anti-tankers faced into the setting sun as they fought their brief action, but they nevertheless scored several hits and disabled a few tanks. The newly-arrived guns of K Troop under Second-Lieutenant Stone35 had to go into action from their conspicuous portées and their crews knew at the outset that their task was hopeless. But, as Stone says, ‘they were splendid, and never hesitated’. He adds, ‘The guns got a lot of shots away and I saw several hits …. one tank [being] definitely stopped.’ Of the two gun crews, only the driver of K4 got away, with the disabled and unmanned gun. All on K3 were killed or wounded. Stone was captured, but Ollivier managed to get away with his pick-up truck and an empty portée truck. All of 24 Battalion and two companies and headquarters of 26 Battalion were lost. Observation posts of all four batteries of the 6th Field were also overrun, though a few men, including Captain Symon, made good their escape.
Several accounts mention a puzzling silence at the 6th Field gun positions at the critical moment when the tanks started their final advance, and it was not only shortage of ammunition that caused this. ‘During the afternoon heavy firing became page 264 evident on the top of the escarpment’, says Gunner Cook36 of 48 Battery Signals, ‘although our guns did not appear to be very active.’ Part of the explanation lies in the continued anxiety, even when the tanks were on the last leg of their journey to the Mosque, for the safety of the eastern flank. As late as 4 p.m. Weir was ordered by Artillery Headquarters to give ‘all available support’ to defeat a tank attack threatening from the east, and 47 Battery was told to stand by for this. Lieutenant Stedman37 of this battery had an OP near the Mosque and asked for registering fire, which was refused. More ammunition arrived at the gun position; but 47 Battery was still not allowed to fire at the oncoming enemy. Then tanks were seen by the Mosque.
It was only then—too late to help the infantry—that the full strength of the 6th Field was exerted against the enemy in this area and the captured infantry, previously critical of the inactivity of their supporting field guns, now had to pass through a curtain of fire from them, to which the 4th Field belatedly made a solid contribution. In the gathering darkness they heavily bombarded the area of the Mosque, and burning vehicles on the crest of the escarpment lit up the surrounding desert.
As attack became imminent, Brigadier Barrowclough had ordered the four L Troop guns with 25 Battalion to be sent at once to the Mosque, a risky project since Ariete had many tanks in the Point 175 area threatening the infantry by the Blockhouse. The portées were being withdrawn when several tanks suddenly appeared in the Rugbet en-Nbeidat and started to attack. L Troop reacted quickly and L2, backing over a rise, set two of them on fire, damaged a third which drove off with smoke rising from it, and discouraging the fourth, which disappeared. The move was then cancelled.
The two guns of P Troop with the engineers some distance east of the Mosque could do nothing to help until just before dark, when two enemy tanks were seen descending the escarpment to the west and making for Brigade Headquarters about a mile to the north. Both disappeared, and then one reappeared closer and was destroyed by the two guns. After dark vehicles were heard below, approaching from the west, and when they were identified as enemy the anti-tank guns drove to the edge page 265 and fired down on them, destroying an ammunition lorry and starting a fireworks display. Two other lorries towing anti-tank guns were disabled and the guns captured.
Lieutenant-Colonel Weir had been taken largely unawares by the sudden setback in the Mosque area. Reports had been coming in regularly from the OPs there, and it was only when they suddenly ceased and all lines to them went dead that he began to realise what had happened. It seemed to him that all the infantry of 6 Brigade had been overrun and that his gun positions were now completely open to the enemy, though 25 Battalion, the engineer company, and two companies of the 26th were intact. He therefore pressed to have the guns moved behind infantry defences before dawn. Barrowclough took up the matter with Divisional Headquarters and was told to stay where he was. In the end he decided to allow Weir to move the guns a short distance north, where they would at least be beyond small-arms and mortar range of the Mosque, which the enemy now held. The guns accordingly moved an average of less than two miles north and took up hastily selected positions, most of the gun crews merely dropping trails and waiting for daylight, with all spare men ready to act as infantry. Barrowclough's hopes were still pinned on the hoped-for arrival of the South African brigade; but there was no chance at all of this.