2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Anti-Tankers on Miteiriya Ridge
Anti-Tankers on Miteiriya Ridge
The anti-tankers inevitably had much trouble getting their guns forward: a more open and exposed position than that occupied by the infantry on Miteiriya Ridge could scarcely be imagined and the profusion of mines made it perilous indeed to drive portées and emplace guns there. They nevertheless succeeded fairly well and with remarkably small loss. The portées of 31 Battery drove forward with the armour, breakfasted near the foot of the ridge, moved forward again, and the guns were then dug in. In the afternoon they moved farther forward and dug in again. The position seemed relatively quiet, but heavy shelling came down later, wounding Gunner Perrett15 and damaging some equipment. Then after dark on the 24th they moved on with the tanks.
The three troops of 32 Battery did their best to provide support for 5 Brigade. H Troop lost H4, damaged on a British mine early in the night, but pushed on and went into position in support of 23 Battalion. E Troop got forward but came under such severe fire (which wounded two gunners) that it was ordered back behind 23 Battalion and did not get properly page 390 established with 21 Battalion on the ridge until evening. G Troop was held up by slow-moving traffic and in an effort to by-pass it was ordered to use a track through the sector of the Highland Division. Fighting was still going on there, however, and the anti-tankers got mixed up in it before they could make their way through to 5 Brigade. When they got through they came under heavy fire from 88s and machine guns and could not get right forward until evening, when two guns were dug in on stony ground in the area of 22 Battalion.
Though 6 Brigade had more trouble than 5 Brigade in gaining its objectives, the supporting anti-tank guns, 33 Battery, had relatively little trouble in getting forward. The lie of the land was more favourable and L Troop managed to dig in on the crest of the ridge and just behind it in support of 26 Battalion, and J and K Troops similarly went into position with 24 and 25 Battalions. Two L Troop portées had broken down on the way; but they were quickly repaired and drove forward at first light. The troop commander's jeep, however, was blown up on a mine while carrying wounded infantry. The battery commander, Major Sweetzer, visited the forward sections, checked the siting of guns, and was pleased that none of his men had come to harm.
By evening Miteiriya Ridge was securely held; but there seemed little immediate chance of effecting the breakthrough which was the object of Operation Lightfoot. A further attack with strong artillery support was clearly called for. Two armoured divisions and 9 Armoured Brigade therefore advanced by night through the New Zealand Division and the Highland Division on its right flank. They were covered initially by counter-battery concentrations by some 300 guns from 10 p.m. to 10.15 on a very long frontage. These were fired by two field regiments of the Highland Division, the three New Zealand ones, four of 10 Armoured Division, and two of the South African division on the left flank, as well as by medium guns. In the New Zealand sector the concentrations were followed for an hour by a far more concentrated creeping barrage than that of the previous night, which lifted 200 yards every five minutes. At the last moment the CO of 26 Battalion learned that the opening line was within his FDLs and he at once withdrew his forward companies. One of them, however, was too slow, got caught in the barrage, and became disorganised.
A far greater confusion attended the attempt to pass a mass of armour quickly through the narrow minefield gaps under page 391 shellfire and very damaging attack from the air. Dozens of lorries burst into flames, blocking the narrow tracks and lighting the scene for further air attack. Two regiments of 9 Armoured Brigade somehow got past the obstructions, did some rather wild night firing to the south-west of Miteiriya, and found themselves at daylight facing well-sited 88s and other guns which soon caused them heavy loss. An armoured brigade to the north-west was even more exposed.
Long before daylight, however, Brigadier Currie had been in touch with Divisional Headquarters, making the familiar complaint that the 4th Field OPs were not forward. The CRA assured Freyberg that they would certainly be with 9 Armoured Brigade at first light; but Currie would not accept this. The OPs were in fact on the appointed ground, but there was some delay in establishing contact with the British armour—not surprising in view of the muddle into which the armour had got itself. The delay did not stop the FOOs from engaging any likely looking targets and the 4th Field guns were soon active.16 A far more serious matter was the lack of understanding between the three armoured formations which staged the attack: the two divisions and Currie's brigade, all of which were supposed to co-operate closely in effecting a breakthrough. But the trouble was really deeper even than this. The effort to exploit a largely successful infantry attack with armour almost completely divorced from infantry and supported, if at all, only by artillery indicated that Eighth Army thinking was still far behind that of the enemy. The Germans would not have attempted either operation without tanks and infantry in close and constant co-operation. The armoured brigade needed far more than the support of the 4th Field to make any real headway.
The 31st Anti-Tank Battery was certainly not slow in getting forward to support the armour. A Troop was right up with page 392 the leading tanks at first light, came under terrible fire, and the gun crews had to take up whatever positions seemed to offer advantage on the spur of the moment. A1 was lucky enough to come upon a pit dug to shelter a truck and gained excellent cover. The others did not fare so well. A mortar bomb soon burst near A3 and wounded all but one of its crew. A4 found reasonable cover, but several portées of an English unit clustered nearby, attracting much fire and suffering many casualties. Several wounded men came into the A4 position, followed by the driver of A4 with blood streaming from his face. An English officer drove up, halted his jeep, and was at once mortally wounded by a shell which slightly wounded the sergeant of A4. The gun position became a shambles. The tanks had withdrawn to hull-down positions and Lieutenant Abel17 was ordered to withdraw A Troop. It was a formidable task, but he set about it boldly and managed to bring out safely all the wounded and the three manned guns. Then he drove in his pick-up back to A3, hooked it on under fire, and towed it back. For this he earned an MC.
B Troop with two guns went into action against a minor counter-thrust and one of the two, under Sergeant Dilly,18 knocked out a tank. C Troop had gone into action the previous day with the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, which had since withdrawn. The commander of C1 and a gunner had been wounded in that action. This day the same portée suffered a direct hit which killed two gunners, and a portée following close behind had two men wounded by the same explosion. By the end of the morning only C3 remained in action. D Troop with the Royal Warwickshire Yeomanry had three portées deep in a minefield at first light and had to wait for sappers to clear a lane for them.19
The anti-tankers of 32 Battery were spectators of the fighting between the tanks of 10 Armoured Division and enemy guns to their front. It seemed like a grandstand seat, but their positions on the north-western extension of Miteiriya Ridge were barely 20 feet above the scene of the fighting. The many tank-versus-gun duels ‘continued throughout the day’, according to the battery diary, ‘and the firepower was enormous. Overs from page 393 the battle and from 88s and snipers kept the gun crews very quiet’. H Troop was lightly shelled, but E and G Troops suffered prolonged shelling and mortar fire, though the only casualty was a gunner who suffered a slight head wound but refused to be evacuated. Second-Lieutenant Doig20 and Sergeant Laing21 were both slightly wounded by shellfire while reconnoitring ahead. They went out again after dark and by day and by night they did very valuable work. They destroyed with hand grenades two 6-pounder guns which the Germans were using and brought back the firing mechanisms. They salvaged a 50-millimetre German anti-tank gun and a 41-millimetre Italian one and two anti-tank rifles. And they cleaned and repaired the machine guns of two burnt-out German tanks nearby, which were duly manned from last light on the 25th by two riflemen of 22 Battalion, who put them to good use throughout the night. For his part in all this Laing received the DCM.
16 Currie told Freyberg that his was the only armoured brigade without its own integral RHA regiment and a report by his brigade underlined the point: ‘It cannot be over-stressed that only the best and quickest-thinking Officers will ever succeed in this type of occasion, and it is no use thinking any Fd Regt can take on the job at a moment's notice…. When artillery support is expected and fails to materialise, it is a very serious matter.’ The implications for the 4th Field are clear, but they are unjust. The two regiments of another armoured brigade which got through were not saved from an even worse plight than that of 9 Armoured Brigade by their RHA regiments. Currie's tanks in fact received splendid support this day, not only from the 4th Field but from the rest of the New Zealand guns. The trouble was that the task they had been given of breaking through an enemy gun line was one which infantry attacking by night could have done far better.
19 The various accounts of B, C and D Troops of 31 Battery are vague as to dates. It is not easy to separate details of the fighting on the 24th and 25th and it might not have been done correctly.