2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Action at Wadi Matratin
The Action at Wadi Matratin
The morning was indeed full of surprises for both sides. Soon after daylight a stray Pzkw III crossed the front of K Troop of 33 Battery at a range of 600 yards and the 6-pounders quickly destroyed it. The 6th Field had to deploy again when they found that enemy on high ground to the west overlooked the gun area at close range. Fire of many kinds was directed through the gun area: 88s, mortars and small-arms all joined in and the field gunners replied with direct and indirect fire.6 Targets included enemy OPs and guns and many clusters of vehicles, all anxious to get out of sight. The main targets on the Via Balbia, however, could not be observed. The infantry failed to hold the only possible vantage point for the OPs and the bulk of the enemy managed to get away in the course of the morning. A final effort by the infantry with 25-pounder support gained a rise to the west about noon, but it was too late.
Though unable to bring down observed fire on the coast road, 6 Brigade was fairly near to it, while 5 Brigade was some miles away to the south-west and the 4th Field was rather isolated south-east of the latter and roughly south of 6 Brigade. The 5th Field guns were mainly on the western side of 5 Brigade, expecting to fire north-eastwards towards the coast, with OPs page 444 advanced accordingly. E Troop of 33 Battery had a sharp clash with tanks as soon as it got light enough to see, and in the course of this exchange an AP shot went through the gunshield of E2, wounding Gunner Dobbs.7 The other guns of 32 and 34 Batteries were unhappily sited on the wrong flanks and found no targets. The 5th Field found a few targets, mostly well-dispersed vehicles at long range and rather elusive. One troop of 47 Battery fired about 40 rounds at transport; another fired 10 rounds. E Troop of 28 Battery engaged some 50 vehicles moving north at 9.50 a.m., but soon found that most of them were out of range. The enemy hastily departed and by 10.30 a.m. there was nothing at which the 5th Field could fire.
The 4th Field was close to a sizable enemy force at dawn. A wireless intercept had indicated that the enemy would move at 5 a.m. and the regiment therefore stood to. The first targets did not present themselves, however, until 8 a.m., when transport crossed the front at long range. Half an hour later 20 tanks seen moving west were hurried on their way by the 25-pounders. Soon after 9 a.m. 26 and 46 Batteries engaged 17 tanks, mostly Pzkw IIIs, and about 15 wheeled vehicles. Some of these approached from the left flank at a range of 4000 yards; others appeared closer at hand and were engaged both by indirect fire and over open sights. For the next half hour the 4th Field was busy. The enemy had evidently been probing to locate the New Zealand force, had discovered the gap in the front, and was now pushing through it at top speed. In 46 Battery Major McKay ‘shot’ the guns, then Captain Shortt, then Captain Hanna, and finally, from the top of the GE truck, Lieutenant White,8 GPO of E Troop. At one stage a Major Douglas of the Royal Artillery, who was acting second-in-command of the 4th Field,9 controlled the shooting of a troop of 46 Battery. Driving round the guns in his jeep he announced, ‘I have one bottle of gin left and will give it to the first No. 1 who hits a tank’. All tried hard, but none qualified for this gift.
The last firing by the 4th Field, at 10.50 a.m., was at 10,000 yards. After this it was evident that the prey had escaped. In page 445 the afternoon a perhaps over-cautious Freyberg called 6 Brigade in to the 5 Brigade area and the enemy was allowed to get right away and recover from the wild disorder into which many elements had been thrown by the morning engagement. It was a disappointing outcome to what had promised to be an exciting encounter. The gunners had hoped to do a good deal of damage. A troop of 34 Battery, with Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell, took part in a pursuit of the enemy by a mixed force from 5 Brigade; but the enemy was well clear.
6 When 88s began bursting near the water truck of 33 Battery the imperturbable Gunner George Crawford descended from the cab, strolled to the back where some of the liquor acquired at Mersa Matruh was stored, and announced loudly but calmly to all within earshot, ‘I think that calls for a drink’.
9 Several RA officers were at this time attached to NZA units, partly for experience, partly to make up for the shortage of New Zealand gunner officers.