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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Division Moves North

The Division Moves North

Divisional Cavalry led off at 11 a.m., with its 25-pounder troop and two anti-tank troops. In the late afternoon it came upon the mud huts and a few tents of Sidi Azeiz, a 2-pounder page 188 page 189 portée opened fire, and an Italian officer promptly appeared waving a towel. Fifty Italians and four Germans were captured and Captain Moodie of the 4th Field had them driven back to the Division in his six quads and a pick-up truck. A Breda gun which would have been well able to deal with the lightly armoured Cavalry was also captured without firing.

black and white map of artillery advance

the advance into libya, 18–21 november 1941

The rest of the Division followed, with 5 Brigade leading, then 4 Brigade, then Divisional Headquarters Group, and 6 Brigade last. The task of marking the route was given at short notice to Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow of the 14th Light Ack-Ack and he led off with his RHQ and Workshops Section, detaching a truck or lorry at intervals with its ‘breakdown flag’ flying to mark the axis of advance. After dark he carried on, marking the route with lamps spaced half a mile or so apart. In the darkness his little group ran into a carload of Italians and duly accepted their surrender.

As the Division advanced northwards, 5 Brigade veered to the right and fanned out, 4 Brigade carried on towards Menastir, overlooking the Bardia-Tobruk road (the Via Balbia), and 6 Brigade veered to the left. Before dark 43 Battery engaged six Italian aircraft. After dark 5 Brigade captured Fort Capuzzo with ease, but the other two brigades struck very muddy going and were held up.

Next morning, 22 November, 4 and 5 Brigades, having surprised the enemy, began to exploit a promising situation. In the first glimmerings of daylight in the Menastir area, however, the surprise at a local level was often mutual and in one unfortunate case it resulted in the capture of a 4th Field FOO, Captain Atchley4 of 25 Battery. Atchley, with 18 Battalion, saw some men in the half light and left his vehicle and the three escorting Bren carriers and went ahead to investigate. That was the last that was seen or heard of him and it gave rise to anxiety not only on his behalf, but because he was known to have with him a map reference code and a daily time and map reference adder for adjusting codes up to 30 November. ‘These were not dated’, Divisional Headquarters hopefully reported to Corps in the afternoon, ‘but are just a mass of figures in his notebook.’

In a matter of minutes the 4th Field was firing briskly at a thoroughly confused enemy, 25 Battery in direct support of 18 Battalion and the other two batteries at targets along the page 190 Via Balbia and the country north of it. FOOs were on the top of the high escarpment and had excellent observation over an area that, as the brigade commander remarked, ‘resembled a disturbed ant's nest.’ Camps and bivouacs were hastily abandoned and vehicles drove off in all directions. The first 4th Field rounds were fired at 6.20 a.m. by E Troop of 46 Battery at a cluster of vehicles under the escarpment. Several were destroyed on the spot and others were stopped in full flight and men were seen to run from them. The loss of Atchley delayed 25 Battery's registration until the battery commander, Major Kensington, came forward and acted as FOO. After an hour or so a few enemy aircraft came over and 41 Battery promptly engaged them and drove them off.

All went splendidly until mid-morning, when 20 Battalion, blocking the Via Balbia at the western end of the brigade front, was counter-attacked from the west by what looked (to both the battalion commander and Colonel Duff of the 4th Field) like half a dozen tanks and an armoured self-propelled gun with motorised infantry. It was actually a scratch force mainly of German supply troops supported by 20-millimetre light anti-tank/anti-aircraft automatic cannon on half-track carriers. The company at that end of the road-block had no anti-tank guns and began to withdraw. Two 2-pounders rushed across, but the company departed and the anti-tank troop commander, Second-Lieutenant Hill, sited them to cover the open west flank of the other company that was below the escarpment. The field guns meanwhile engaged the enemy heavily and accurately and halted him. A squadron of infantry tanks (I tanks) had been attached to each New Zealand brigade and those with 4 Brigade were sent down the escarpment to deal with this enemy. As they advanced astride the Via Balbia, 26 and 46 Batteries fired a five-minute concentration at a rapid rate. Duff's instructions were that this should be lifted (i.e., the range extended) by observation if the tanks advanced faster than expected and this should have been a simple matter. The OPs were, as he says, ‘practically on the flank of the objective’ and looking down on it. In fact 26 Battery did not lift its fire and the tanks had to go round the curtain of bursting shells. No harm resulted; but the incident illustrated the lack of understanding between armoured and infantry forces which was a grave weakness of the desert army. The tank commanders had given an inaccurate estimate of timings and 26 Battery had placed too much reliance on it and had not watched the action page 191 closely enough. (Shortly afterwards the tanks fired at another company of 20 Battalion making a parallel advance above the escarptment.) The battery commanders concerned, Majors Bevan and Levy, acted as FOOs, engaging opportunity targets as the enemy withdrew, and the I tanks rounded up prisoners, mostly Italians. One column of vehicles on the road presented a splendid target, but radio-telephony (R/T) failed at the critical moment and the column was almost out of range before the guns could engage it. Two infantry guns (probably short-barrelled 75-millimetre howitzers) in good condition and with plenty of ammunition were captured.

Above the escarpment and farther to the west Divisional Cavalry operated with Moodie's B Troop of the 4th Field and N and P Troops of 34 Anti-Tank Battery. When the cavalry screen was held up Moodie came forward and engaged several pinpoint targets on a ridge ahead, anti-tank guns and machine guns, and soon cleared the way. At the landing ground at Bir el Baheira there was still much activity when the cavalry arrived and Sergeant Fowler, a daredevil anti-tanker, with one of his men, took possession of a Bofors gun there and with it fired on machine-gun nests and transport. Second-Lieutenant Webb5 and Gunner Brown6 then relieved Fowler and fired a further 50 rounds before the Bofors jammed. Sergeant Stephens,7 with the gun P3, in the terms of an official report ‘silenced a 20 mm Breda gun, destroyed one truck and immobilised another’ in the afternoon. It thus took anti-tank gunners to demonstrate the effectiveness of Bofors guns against ground targets, and the many New Zealand Bofors, reserved strictly for action against aircraft, had little or nothing to do. They were largely wasted and many opportunities of engaging ground targets were missed, through no fault of the gunners concerned. They simply followed the policy laid down. The enemy had no such rigid doctrine, as the action below the escarpment demonstrated.

4 Capt T. R. Atchley; Hamilton; born London, 19 Sep 1905; clerk; p.w. 22 Nov 1941.

5 Capt R. C. Webb, m.i.d.; Cheviot; born Christchurch, 13 Sep 1917; clerk; wounded and p.w. 27 Nov 1941.

6 L-Bdr C. V. Brown, m.i.d.; Kent, England; born Kent, 20 Apr 1904; farming; p.w. 13 Dec 1941.

7 Sgt E. R. W. Stephens; Clyde; born Invercargill, 9 Feb 1908; sports goods retailer; wounded 27 Nov 1941.