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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Attack Begins

page 25

The Attack Begins

THE GUNNERS did not have long to wait before the Germans were seen to be attacking, with a mass of armoured vehicles, from the South African position. The two supposed Valentines on the right front suddenly wheeled and opened fire. One of their first shots, a 50-millimetre armour-piercing shell, crashed through the lower left side of L1, disabled the gun, smashed the left foot and ankle of the gun-layer, Gunner Andy Graham11 and came to rest on the deck of the portée. (The crew kept this shot, and when Graham went back to New Zealand it was his most cherished souvenir.) Before an effective shot had been fired at the enemy, L1 had been knocked out.

At 1800 yards, the extreme range on the range scale, the remaining three guns opened fire on the advancing enemy tanks. As they cleared the South African position, the enemy descended a slight fall in the ground below the skyline, which would otherwise have allowed them to be easily picked out by the gun-layers. On the other hand, as they drew out of the dust and smoke it was possible for individual vehicles to be distinguished, and the troop went to work in earnest.

Lieutenant Pepper’s remark to the gun sergeants that the tanks, though numerous, were small ones, was borne out when the troop started shooting. It was amply demonstrated in later desert campaigns that the more heavily armoured of the German Mark 3 and Mark 4 tanks were impervious to two-pounder fire at ranges over 800 yards. But the early German tanks had much lighter armour. On this occasion the gunners saw tanks burst into flame from hits scored with the range at 1500, 1600, and even 1700 yards. The calibre of the shells which knocked out L1 and scored a subsequent hit on L3, 50-millimetre, showed that there were German Mark 3s among the attackers. It is probable that they were an early type, without the heavier armour of the later Mark 3. It is also probable that there were some German Mark 2s, much lighter tanks, among them; if part of the Ariete Division was with the Germans, there would have been Italian M.13s, equally vulnerable, as well.

Beyond the apparent fact that there was an imposing mass of them, it was impossible for the gunners to form an accurate estimate of the number of enemy tanks in this first drive against the 26th Battalion. It was agreed by all on the spot that the number was at least fifty, but they could not see clearly enough to make an accurate count. Nor was there time to do so. At first the enemy tanks, apparently without knowledge of the identity or strength of the New Zealanders, simply poured down on the position with no sign of a definite plan of attack. When the blast of fire from the 25-pounders and the two-pounders convinced them of the strength of the defence, they withdrew, and a far more cautious policy was adopted. But until the attackers realised the position and altered their tactics, the L Troop gunners worked under great pressure.

Following Lieutenant Pepper’s injunction, L3 fired five shots, the tracer tracks of at least two of them showing direct hits on their targets, then changed its position. As its portée backed again towards the enemy another German 50-millimetre shell found a mark. It pierced the left side of the shield, miraculously missing both Sergeant Unverricht and the layer, Bombardier C. J. Smith12, went on through the cab of the portée, mortally wounding the driver, Gunner F. D. Nicholson13, page 26 and finished by striking the top of the engine and putting the vehicle out of action. Unverricht jumped to the ground to see the extent of the damage, and was just in time to see Nicholson stagger from the cab and collapse on the sand. Seeing at a glance how badly he was wounded, the sergeant at once set off across bullet-swept ground to find medical assistance.

With half the troop’s effective strength out of action, L2 and L4 carried on. In that first few hectic minutes while the tanks closed the range, the little two-pounder shells were most effective. The procedure of ordinary anti-tank shooting was, for a short time, discarded. Normally the Number 1, the gun commander, selects a target and directs the layer until it appears in his telescope. He then gives the range and deflection to be allowed for a moving target. The loader slams a shell into the breech and, as the spring forces the block home, taps the layer on the shoulder to let him know the gun is ready, and the Number 1 gives the order to fire. The gun’s target knocked out, the Number 1 orders ‘Stop!’ selects a fresh target for the layer, and so on. This time the targets were too thick to be easily selected and the need too pressing for any stops.

‘Pick your own target through the telescope, Frank,’ said Sergeant Peter Robertson, of L2, to his gun-layer, Bombardier F. C. Barker14. Almost at the same time, a similar understanding was reached between Sergeant ‘Chum’ Croft of L4 and his layer, Gunner A. B. Gordon15. Whenever enemy shells came close the portées moved; but after every change of position, the initial direction of the Number 1 and his final order to stop were the only formal commands.

As the range closed, the tracer showed hit after hit on the enemy tanks. On the right the field gunners worked like men possessed, firing armour-piercing shot over open sights. They could not match the high rate of fire of the two-pounders, with their semi-automatic breech and light, easily handled ammunition, but one hit with the 25-pound shell was almost always sufficient to disable a tank, while two, three, and even four good shots were often needed from the lighter weapons.

Noticing the troop’s rate of fire, Lieutenant-Colonel Page called to Lieutenant Pepper. ‘Cyril,’ he said, ‘if your chaps keep shooting at that speed they’ll be out of ammunition in no time.’ ‘It’s all right, sir,’ Pepper shouted in reply, ‘we’ve got some extra.’ When first the group had met the South Africans he had replaced the ammunition his guns had fired during the morning. The South Africans had urged him to help himself from their supply, and not only had he replaced the rounds fired, but he had also loaded a lot more on his own truck.

After what seemed to the gunners to be nearer half a day than little more than half an hour, the enemy decided he had stumbled on something that presented much more than merely a mopping-up task. The tanks returned to their original start line and fanned out on the flanks in crescent formation. This favourite German method of attack enabled the machine guns at either end of the line to bring a severe crossfire on the defenders. A line of burning vehicles testified to the shooting of the New Zealand guns, both two- and 25-pounders, but the casualties were only a small proportion of the enemy tanks. Enough remained to form a wide crescent and, although more cautiously, resume the attack. By now there was no sign of the British field or anti-tank guns. For some reason they had been withdrawn, and only L Troop’s two guns and the 30th Field Battery remained to protect the infantry and take what toll they could of the enemy armour.

Still there was no lack of targets for the two-pounders. Though the enemy tanks had fallen page 27 back and fanned out the guns were still able to reach them, though not with the same effect as at the closer range. Lorried infantry joined in the attack, and the troop concentrated some of its fire on the troop-carrying vehicles. Although these would halt and debus the infantry out of range of the guns, the layers, Frank Barker of L2 and ‘Abe’ Gordon of L4, made targets of them nevertheless. They would lay onto an enemy vehicle or group of infantry with the range at 1800 yards, then cock the gun up a little higher and fire, the gun commanders checking their judgment of the extra range by carefully observing each shot. Several lorries were hit in this way and parties of enemy infantry were scattered while trying to bring their mortars into action.

Meanwhile Sergeant Unverricht had not been able to find assistance for the badly wounded Gunner Nicholson. He reported to Lieutenant Pepper and was directed to get the help of the troop subaltern, Second-Lieutenant Scott, and the troop 3-ton lorry. Lieutenant Scott and his driver, Gunner R. F. Davies16, soon backed the lorry to the knocked-out portée. The tailboard was lowered and Gunner Nicholson lifted gently to the deck. But when the lorry tried to tow the gun back to a safer place two more casualties were suffered. With the tow-rope attached, Gunner P. J. Keenan17, the L3 loader, jumped on the front bumper bar of the portée and shouted to Gunner Davies to drive on. He did so, but just as the portée was gathering way down a slight incline the three-tonner unexpectedly stopped. With its steering gear and brakes useless, the portée rolled down the slope and crashed into the back of the lorry, Gunner Keenan having his leg badly shattered between the two vehicles. There was excellent reason for Davies’ lack of response to shouts to move his lorry out of the way. He had been wounded in the hip by a Spandau bullet as he sat behind the wheel.

The two guns still in action did not waste an opportunity to disrupt the enemy attack. Trucks were bringing enemy infantry well up behind the gradually advancing tanks, and parties were jumping out and trying to bring mortars and anti-tank guns into action. Gordon and Barker, through their telescopes, found that while the setting sun made it hard to sort out their targets initially, once they had the enemy within their lenses the bright background made accurate aiming easy. At extreme range and beyond, they engaged every party of enemy infantry they could see as they left their lorries, and several times the two-pounder shells prevented mortars from coming into action and scattered their crews. Many bursts of flame showed hits. All this time, machine-gun fire from the tanks was sweeping the New Zealand position. Often bullets rattled against the portées, and it was by good fortune that there were no further casualties in the troop.

Black and white sketch of panzer

A German Medium Tank — Mark 3

page 28