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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Moving into Libya

page 3

Moving into Libya

IN November 1941, when the second British offensive in Libya began, the 33rd Battery of the 7th New Zealand Anti-Tank Regiment consisted of four troops, each of four guns. Three troops were armed with two-pounders and one with the old 18-pounder field gun modified for use against armoured fighting vehicles. The two-pounders were carried on the decks of specially constructed lorries, termed portées, which were fitted with ramps and winches to enable the guns to be quickly hoisted into place. Special fittings on the lorry enabled the trail and spade to be clamped firmly to the deck so that the gun, pointing over the rear of the portée, was ready for immediate action.

During the training in preparation for the campaign, the regimental commander, Lieutenant-Colonel T. H. E. Oakes,* insisted that great attention should be paid to training the gun crews in fighting the two-pounders from the decks of the portées: that is, en portée. It was obvious that the best place from which to fight an anti-tank gun was from a properly dug gunpit; but the digging of pits took time and, once dug in, the gun could not be moved at a moment’s notice. Colonel Oakes therefore made provision in training for those occasions when there was no time to dig pits or when a formation on the move had to be defended against attack.

Portée tactics had to be based on the fact that the gun was high off the ground, with the gun-shield the only protection for crew and weapon. This shield could ward off small-arms fire only from the direct front, so that against crossfire, explosive shells, mortar bombs, and armour-piercing projectiles both gun and crew were vulnerable. It was laid down that this vulnerability should be reduced by exposing the gun and its crew to enemy observation for the shortest possible time. The men were taught to fight their guns from behind whatever cover, in the form of ridges or folds in the ground, was available. First the gun made for such cover; then the vehicle was backed up until the barrel of the two-pounder cleared the concealing rise—that is, to a hull-down position. A few shots were fired and the portée was again run down under cover. That process was repeated, with the gun changing its position as often as possible to confuse enemy gunners. The lie of the land did not always permit this, but on several occasions in the 1941 Libyan campaign these tactics were employed with notable success, thanks largely to the thorough training of crews and drivers.

The initial role of the New Zealand Division in this campaign depended on the success of the armoured divisions of the 30th Corps, which opened the fighting on 18 November by driving across the Libyan border with the intention of first searching out and destroying the enemy tanks, and then continuing westward to relieve beleaguered Tobruk. At first reports were most favourable, and accordingly the three brigades of the New Zealand Division, operating under the command of the 13th Corps, set out on previously allotted tasks. That of the 6th Brigade, which had under its

* Biographical details of those named in this account are published on p. 31.

page 4 command the 33rd Battery, was to move westward along the Trigh Capuzzo* to an area about half way between the Egyptian border and Tobruk, there to clear the enemy from Bir el Chleta and the airfield at Gambut. Then, if necessary, the formation was to assist 30th Corps in its Tobruk operations.

On the afternoon of 22 November, when the brigade was on its way towards Bir el Chleta, urgent messages from 30th Corps showed that the early reports of British armoured successes had been optimistic. Far from being destroyed, German tanks were pressing in strength against Sidi Rezegh, now held by the Support Group of the British 7th Armoured Division. The 30th Corps urged that the 6th Brigade should hasten to the relief of Sidi Rezegh. Headquarters New Zealand Division ordered the brigade to fall in with these demands. The brigade pressed on, halting at eight o’clock to laager for the night some miles to the east of Bir el Chleta.

Because the German armour was still strong, and not as weakened as the first reports had indicated, a heavy responsibility was thrown on the New Zealand artillery, and especially on the Anti-Tank Regiment. The British tanks, outgunned by the German tanks and the very effective 88-millimetre and 50-millimetre anti-tank guns, were far too hard pressed to spare much of their strength to protect the New Zealand infantry.

The 6th Brigade kept a strict lookout during the night of 22–23 November. The 33rd Battery’s two-pounders were placed round the brigade perimeter, and outside them the infantry manned a series of listening posts. In relays, one gunner watched at the firing position of each anti-tank gun while his crew-mates slept beside the portée. The night was tense but without alarm. At 3 a.m. the march to Sidi Rezegh was resumed with two battalions forward, the 25th on the right and the 26th on the left, the B echelon vehicles behind them, and the 24th Battalion to the right rear. In the darkness L Troop was delayed, and it was a quarter of an hour before Lieutenant C. S. Pepper,2 the troop commander, led the four portées after the rest of the brigade.

The troop caught up with the 24th Battalion, under whose command it had been the previous day, at first light, just as the brigade group halted for breakfast. The formation had set out with the intention of swinging to the south to avoid a German force known to be at Bir el Chleta, but in the darkness an error in navigation had resulted in the halt being made right on top of the German position, and when the troop arrived a small engagement was raging. The brigade had clashed with part of the headquarters of the German Afrika Korps. The Germans had a few tanks and armoured cars, but those were quickly dealt with by a squadron of Valentine tanks of the 42nd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, which was in support of the 6th Brigade. In a brisk fight several of the enemy were killed and valuable documents and some high-ranking officers captured. None of the battery’s guns had a chance to fire, but there were several casualties among the transport drivers.

The order of march had been changed overnight, and L Troop now found itself under the command of the 26th Battalion. There was no longer time for breakfast, and the brigade resumed its move towards Sidi Rezegh, the gunners allaying the keen appetite of early morning with a

* Trigh Capuzzo, marked on the map as a motor road, was in fact a series of tracks to the south of, and running roughly parallel to, the main Bardia-Tobruk highway. Before turning north to Tobruk, it passed between the features of Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed.

page 5 snack from the ration boxes and a short drink from their water bottles. In this campaign it was seldom that they were able to have a full meal prepared by the battery cooks. Each gun carried rations for five days, consisting of biscuits, bully beef, tins of meat and vegetable stew, jam or marmalade, cheese, tea, sugar, and canned milk. The gunners augmented this with whatever they could buy from the Church Army canteen or had received in food parcels from home: generally tinned sausages, tinned fruit, and cake.

The brigade made for the Wadi esc Sciomar, a break in the escarpment three miles east by south of Point 175, a convenient place from which to reconnoitre the position and plan its action. L Troop was on the left front of the 26th Battalion group, followed by four of the Valentine tanks. The gunners were surprised that they and not the tanks headed the advance; but the Valentines, heavily armoured and slow, were not as manoeuverable as cruiser tanks, and not as well fitted for the lead as the more mobile portées.

A few miles before the wadi was reached there appeared to the west a large group of British tanks and other vehicles, some of them still smouldering. (It was learned later that on the previous afternoon enemy tanks had forced the 7th Armoured Division’s Support Group off Sidi Rezegh after heavy fighting.) Movement among them showed that they were in enemy hands, and Germans in trucks were seen making away to the south and south-west. The range was extreme, but the troop opened fire at the escaping vehicles. Lieutenant Pepper hurried to battalion headquarters for orders, and was told by the battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel J. R. Page3, that as there were probably British wounded among the wrecks their safety must be the first consideration. By the time Lieutenant Pepper returned and gave the order to cease fire, the troop had fired about fifty rounds at distances above the limit allowed by the range scales. The Germans were seen to be making off to the west with some captured Honey tanks, but the gunners were forbidden to resume firing. Instead, the troop’s guns covered the advance of three of the battalion’s Bren carriers, which went over to the mass of tanks and trucks to look for British wounded. An ambulance, packed with injured men, came back to the battalion.

The carriers soon returned and the column resumed its march. At the Wadi esc Sciomar it was apparent that the enemy held Point 175, on the escarpment to the east of Sidi Rezegh, in force. At half past eleven Brigadier H. E. Barrowclough4, commander of the 6th Brigade, issued orders for the 25th Battalion, with the 24th in reserve, to attack and capture Point 175; the 26th Battalion with its supporting arms was to establish contact with the 5th South African Brigade, five miles south-west of Point 175.

The 26th Battalion group set out at once. With the infantry were the four two-pounders of L Troop and eight 25-pounders of Major A. T. Rawle’s5 30th Battery (6th Field Regiment). Again the troop led the advance, with the guns in a shallow crescent in front of the battalion column, the order from the right being L1, L2, L3, and L4, the centre guns slightly in advance of those on the flanks. Lieutenant Pepper in his 15-cwt. truck rode behind L2, and the troop 3-ton lorry, containing reserve ammunition and rations, in charge of the troop subaltern, Second-Lieutenant I. G. Scott6, followed L3.

The battalion met the South Africans just before half past twelve. They had been in action the previous day, and had dug in on a rise on the southern escarpment. (Though this was ‘high ground’ page 6 by desert standards, the rise was a very gentle one, which did not offer the slightest obstacle to armoured fighting vehicles.) With the South Africans were a few tanks—those of the 22nd Armoured Brigade which had survived the previous afternoon’s action. Colonel Page, who had decided to dispose the 26th Battalion on a smaller rise about a mile to the east, met General Gott, commander of the British 7th Armoured Division, who had under his command twelve 25-pounder field guns, the remnants of the regiment which had been with the 7th Support Group at the Sidi Rezegh airfield. These he proposed to site on the east side of the South African position, facing north-east, and he directed that the New Zealand guns be disposed to the east, north, and south of the 26th Battalion area. Should any threat develop against the New Zealanders from the west, the British guns would be moved to cover the battalion’s western flank.