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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter V — Into Palestine: Rafa

page 193

Chapter V
Into Palestine: Rafa

Sinai was not yet clear of the Turk; he still retained a foot-hold at Rafa with a strongly entrenched position at Magruntein, held by a force estimated at 2000. The General Staff decided to strike at this point to endeavour to surround and capture the garrison in the way that had been so successful at Magdhaba.

General Sir Philip Chetwode was sent on the evening of 8th January with a force comprising Yeomanry, Anzac Division and the Imperial Camel Corps, supported by artillery, with the object of surrounding and capturing the garrison. A few light armoured cars accompanied the force.

The Brigade's portion of the operation was the capture of Rafa. The Squadron participated in the thirty mile night ride, and in the early morning sent two guns to the Auckland Regiment, four guns to the Canterbury Regiment, keeping six guns as a mobile reserve under Capt. Harper, O.C. Squadron.

The attack was one of the most successfully executed operations in the campaign, the whole objective being attained in the very nick of time—just before the large enemy rein-forcements were able to throw their weight into the scales; but the reinforcements were not only too late, but the main body advancing from Shellal was driven off by the 5th Australian Light Horse, after suffering heavy casualties from the bombs and machine guns of our airmen.

The machine gunners were fully engaged throughout the day, and the splendid handling of the mobile reserve guns under Capt. Harper won high praise.

As the Brigade moved round to the right flank of the line of attack, a good target of trendies and enemy parties was noticed by Capt. Harper. One section was sent forward to deal with the target. The officer in command of the scc-page 194tion, Lieut. P. D. Russell, by carefully reconnoitring the position, brought his guns into action from a small ridge that provided good cover. These two guns had a wonderful field of fire, and successfully engaged many targets. It was seen that not only could these guns harass the enemy, but they could give valuable assistance to the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades on the left. Half a troop of Mounted Rifles was requisitioned to protect the guns, and throughout the day they continued their work. The Light Horse Brigades quite frankly admitted that without the support of these guns they could not have reached their objective. Capt. Harper took the four remaining reserve guns and the two guns that had been allotted to the Auckland Regiment for distribution along the line of attack as far as the sector held by the Canterbury Regiment. The six guns were then moved up to the front line of the attack. As these guns were being moved across an exposed stretch at the gallop, the gunners came under machine gun fire. Trooper R. A. Reid was leading a gun pack when he was shot through the spine. In spite of this he continued in the saddle and led his pack horse another 250 yards, to where the gun teams halted under cover; he then fell from his horse, and was at once examined by the doctor. His officer, thinking he would comfort him, said: "You'll be alright, Reid. You're hit in the muscles of the back." Reid replied: "Ye'r lying, sir, I'm shot through the back, but I hung on to my horse tho'." He died two days later. For a pack horse leader to let his charge get loose was an unpardonable sin in a Mounted Machine Gun Section; this stolid Scotchman, in spite of his terrible wound, determined that his record should not be broken at the last, and succeeded.

It was seen that a strongly-held enemy redoubt was interfering with the advance. The six guns were then ordered to engage the redoubt, and after about ten minutes gained complete superiority of fire. Four of the guns then maintained a rapid fire upon the redoubt until it fell to the attacking troopers. As the troopers began their assault on the redoubt one subsection had to cease fire because it did not have sufficient clearance to cover the advance. The officer in charge of these guns left two men "to look after" them, page 195and with the rest of the subsection joined in the charge that carried the redoubt. Although this officer's action cannot be commended from a strict military point of view, and in fact was deserving of censure, it was typical of the irresistible zeal that permeated our mounted troops.

After the fall of the redoubt four guns pushed ahead to the forward line, from which they raked the enemy positions, which were holding up the Australians and the Camel Corps. The positions were by this time almost surrounded, and shortly afterwards were captured: this brought about the fall of the Magruntein fortifications.

The four guns with the Canterbury Regiment supported the right flank with covering fire. As the attack progressed, the guns were moved up, first to an old trench, and then to a sunken road, from which positions they were able to sustain overhead covering fire until the troopers were ready to make their final assault. The fire lifted as the troopers dashed forward—reaching their objective with few casualties. The excellent gun positions along the sunken road were maintained, because they were such that if our men had been compelled to withdraw they could have been properly covered.

The covering fire of the Squadron was of a very high order, and in a decisive manner beat down the enemy rifle and machine gun fire, and as the battery supporting the attack of the Brigade had run out of ammunition the final attack of the Brigade depended entirely on the covering fire of the Squadron's guns. The lack of co-operation between the regiments and the guns, that was so noticeable in the August operations, had completely disappeared, to the mutual advantage of both. The very light casualties sustained by the regiments were largely due to the co-operation that was maintained with the gunners.

The Squadron expended 40,000 rounds of ammunition—which exceeded the amount laid down to be carried by a Squadron. The ammunition pack animals could not be brought up to the gun positions to replenish supplies, which necessitated extra work for the ammunition carriers; had the ordinary regimental supplies also been brought up, the guns could have been used to greater advantage, as the fear of a shortage curtailed the volume of fire.

page 196

The idea of keeping a larger number of guns as a reserve under the Squadron Commander was found very satisfactory, and, except when the regiments were sent off on independent missions, it was considered that the whole Squadron should remain under its own Commander. The Lewis guns, which now had been added to the regimental establishment, released the machine guns for covering fire. Keeping the Squadron under its own Commander during an operation enabled guns to be sent when and where they were most needed, instead of being attached to the regiments where they might not be required as much as at some other part.

In the long advance over open ground exposed to heavy fire, the Maxim guns were again found to be very awkward, owing to their great weight, and consequently the Light Vickers Guns were used to a greater extent.

The Squadron was withdrawn for the night to Sheikh Zawaiid, and next day returned to the old camp near El Arish, where it remained until 22nd February. During the period in camp, Lieut. Yerex rejoined the Auckland Regiment, and Lieut. A. C. Hinman was appointed Second in Command of the Squadron.