2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Difficult Approaches to Azizia
The Difficult Approaches to Azizia
Working across tangled country, the Cavalry at 3 a.m. on 21 January found a possible short cut over the last range of hills which fell away abruptly to the plains of Tripoli and the sappers laboured to open it. They were still working on it when the leading Cavalry squadron with its troop of 34 Battery portées began to mount the steep and winding slopes on what had previously been no more than a footpath. General Freyberg soon appeared on the scene, riding on a palliasse tied to the front of his Honey tank. Overtaking the portées, which were straining in bottom gear, he waved them urgently on. This put one driver, Cliff Dorne,22 on his mettle and with a rapid succession of skilful gear changes he managed to overtake the General's tank. As he did so the gun crew stood up on the back and waved the General on, causing his grim, dust-covered face to break into a smile.page 459
There was every reason to hasten. The Division would be vulnerable as it defiled on to the plains below until an antitank gun line could be established and the field guns could get forward in support. The leading squadron was edging down the treacherous slopes and the crest of the pass behind it was a mass of vehicles when Stukas made a sudden appearance and dropped their bombs. Some of these fell near C Troop of the 4th Field, but did no harm, some were directed at 34 Battery portées but exploded on the far side of a gully, and the rest landed on the hillsides well away from the transport. Sherman and Grant tanks of the Royal Scots Greys squeezed past the lorries and descended to the plains. The portées followed and quickly fanned out to guard against interference from 40 enemy tanks reported to be in the neighbourhood. At this stage 34 Battery came under the command of the Greys. No German tanks appeared, but four 88s apparently directed from the white battlements of Azizia covering the approaches to Tripoli, opened accurate fire on the tanks and portées. For the latter the going was extremely difficult and it took several hours to deploy the 6-pounders in soft sandy country. Then the tanks moved on without warning and the anti-tankers followed as best they could. At one pause an anti-tanker renowned for his courage was strolling from his portée to the next and had reached halfway between them when four 88s burst almost simultaneously around him at very close quarters. The deep sand muffled the explosions and saved him from physical injury, and to the onlookers it seemed miraculous when he walked out from the midst of the cloud of sand and smoke. But his nerve was shattered and from then on he was a different man. Fighter-bombers straddled the distant hillsides; but the 88s continued to fire.
The field batteries found it even harder to deploy and it was not until late afternoon that 26 Battery and 211 Medium Battery opened fire. The 26th fired 11 rounds and, with the medium guns, destroyed one gun and a truck.
The Divisional Cavalry and the Greys, with 34 Battery, continued to push forward on the 22nd to find a route suitable for the rest of the Division and to push back the enemy. Behind them the field guns also advanced slowly. Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart of the 4th Field established an OP in the afternoon from which he could engage the Azizia area. He spotted a gun and some vehicles and with accurate fire soon drove them away.page 460
Major Moodie of 26 Battery observed gun flashes near Azizia and brought down fire ‘with good effect’, according to the regimental diary. By nightfall the 4th Field had fired 1305 rounds and 211 Battery about 300. Return fire had been sporadic and largely ineffective; but it wounded one man of 25 Battery and two men of 46 Battery.
In mid-afternoon of the 22nd the portées of N and O Troops of 34 Battery were suddenly taken forward and interspersed with tanks of the Greys—about a dozen Shermans and four Grants. This force then advanced over knolls 50—60 feet high and so close together in places that the portées had to drive over the crests at a walking pace, in full view of the enemy at Azizia. Four 88s near this white-walled fortress guarding the approaches to Tripoli engaged the tanks, and several enemy tanks also fired. The anti-tankers on the struggling portées felt naked and exposed. One tank burst into flames, then another. A third tank had its 75-millimetre gun shot away and the rest suddenly disappeared, taking up hull-down positions out of sight of the anti-tankers. The eight portées were thus trapped among the knolls, for with no tanks to attract enemy fire they dared not appear on the crests. The 88s had the whole area ‘taped’ and were quick to engage any targets offering.23 Frey-berg and Weir strolled up one knoll just in front of the portées and had scarcely begun to raise their binoculars when four shellbursts almost at their feet caused them to scuttle down out of sight of the enemy at Azizia. Accurate airbursts followed them.
To the rear the Division continued to debouch slowly from the hills, creating an enormous congestion of vehicles. Infantry of 5 Brigade advanced through the Cavalry screen in the evening and the brigade guns and transport followed. They came up against a strong position, resolutely held, however, and withdrew behind the Cavalry. The enemy was expected to withdraw soon and there was no point in inviting losses at this stage.
23 The two days 34 Battery spent under command of the Greys could not be considered ‘as satisfactory in any way’, according to the battery commander, Major W. C. Savage. They further emphasised the lack of co-operation between armoured and unarmoured units of the British army. Savage, in a report appended to the unit war diary, is scathing in his comments. He says of the officers of the Greys that they ‘did not appear in the slightest degree interested. Sqn. Commanders in particular, completely ignored Troop Commanders and passed no information’. He recommended more training with armoured units ‘if only to enable us to make a guess at some of their intentions and requirements’.