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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Blockhouse

The Blockhouse

The Division, less 5 Brigade, was now poised, with strong I-tank support, to strike at the enemy besieging Tobruk, and Freyberg was all for thrusting quickly through what he thought were weak Italian forces which barred the way. He was deterred only by what was evidently, according to the latest Intelligence, a strong gun group between Sidi Rezegh and Ed Duda, the bottleneck of communications through which the Trigh Capuzzo and the Tobruk by-pass road ran. He conferred with the commanders of the two infantry brigades, the I-tank brigade, and Brigadier Miles and it was Miles's voice that urged caution. Miles was not at all keen to advance farther westwards without taking in the third and southernmost escarpment which ran a mile or two south of that on which 6 Brigade was deployed. His tactical sense was in this respect sound and many troubles later arose from allowing the enemy to retain this vital ground. Miles was also much impressed with the estimate of 119 enemy guns of calibres from 75 to 150 millimetre believed to be in the area through which the Division would have to pass.33 Moreover, 6 Brigade now had too little field-gun ammunition to support daylight attacks. Freyberg was hopeful that the enemy was ready to pack up and retreat behind Tobruk, as the planners of the campaign had suggested he might; but Miles was sceptical of this. Both were still ignorant page 217 of the extent of the disaster which had befallen the British armour and believed their southern flank to be protected to a large extent by friendly tank forces.

Miles's counsel for the moment prevailed and the advance was to continue as he suggested, taking in the southernmost escarpment. It began with an early-morning advance by 6 Brigade, culminating in an attack on the so-called Blockhouse west of Point 175 at dawn on 25 November, while 26 Battalion carried on towards Sidi Rezegh airfield and 21 Battalion prepared to swing southwards and then advance along the southernmost escarpment. No detailed role was given to the brigade artillery and Weir therefore made his own arrangements, putting 48 Battery to support the right, 29 Battery the centre, and 30 Battery covering right and centre as the other two batteries moved forward; 47 Battery would move with 21 Battalion. The anti-tank guns would move up after dawn.

The Blockhouse on the right, across a deep wadi, was heavily defended and there was little the artillery could do to ease the burden of the attacking infantry. The enemy commanded the approaches to the Blockhouse so effectively that close and accurate observation of fire was not possible and there were several misunderstandings. Infantry mortars and the 6th Field guns, and even the Vickers guns, fired on outlying sections of 24 Battalion, luckily without causing them further losses. An unsuspected minefield on the western part of Point 175 held up artillery transport, mainly of 48 Battery, and delayed supporting fire. While the 6 Brigade infantry were closing in on the Blockhouse from east and south, 4 Brigade advanced in box formation below the escarpment until it drew level with the western end of Point 175. The left of this brigade, too, came under fire from the Blockhouse and could see up the deep wadi. More fire still was mistakenly directed at 24 Battalion for a few tense minutes. Then, when the action reached its climax, 24 and 26 Battalions were pressing on with great gallantry and the guns of the 6th Field were bombarding the area, the 4th Field joined in, knowing that fire was coming from the Blockhouse, but not knowing the rest of the story. The defence suddenly collapsed from the cumulative effects of this pressure and the 6 Brigade infantry rushed forward. The 6th Field fire stopped almost at once; but it took several exasperating minutes to get in touch with the 4th Field and get it to cease its bombardment. The gunners of 48 Battery had meanwhile suffered anxieties of a different kind as sappers page 218 page 219 worked their way through the gun positions clearing the mines.

black and white map of capture

the capture of the blockhouse, 25 november

No sooner had the Blockhouse fallen than enemy guns north of Belhamed to the right front began shelling the 6th Field gun positions, especially those of C Troop, as well as RHQ and the B Echelon vehicles. L Troop of 33 Anti-Tank Battery followed closely behind 26 Battalion towards the airfield; but the other three troops came under heavy fire as they moved forward and by the end of the day they had lost three officers wounded, Major McKay among them.

The gunners of 47 Battery, moving towards the southernmost escarpment with 21 Battalion, had little to do at first and they marvelled at the profusion of abandoned vehicles, not all of them unserviceable, and the variety and quantity of equipment with which the desert through which they drove was bestrewn. It was the first evidence they had had of the fighting in which the British armour had been defeated and it came as a revelation to them. At the western end of the escarpment the group came under mortar fire and halted. As the infantry began to dig in the field guns returned this fire. Two 2-pounders of P Troop, 34 Battery, had been attached, but they were far too few to provide adequate defence to the battalion in its isolated position. There was no intention of committing the group to heavy fighting in such a situation and when patrols located a strong enemy position ahead the group stayed where it was.

The advance of 4 Brigade was an operation of a totally different complexion. It did not begin until after dawn on the 25th, when the group formed up in an impressive array of strength and drove forward unopposed. The 44th Royal Tanks and the squadron of Divisional Cavalry (with the two N Troop 2-pounders) led the way, taking 150 prisoners without firing a shot. Within an hour the leading infantry were past their allotted objectives and began to dig in, those on the right coming under fire from the Blockhouse.

The I tanks went some way beyond their objectives to overcome machine-gun fire directed at the leading infantry and in so doing struck trouble from anti-tank guns. A Troop of 31 Anti-Tank Battery had been committed to support the tanks and continued to advance when they withdrew a short distance. Lieutenant Harding rode on the portée A1 and got within 100 yards of a strongpoint before trying to engage it. The enemy, however, struck first. A 50-millimetre anti-tank gun hidden in the tufted desert fired three shots which could not page 220 miss and destroyed the gun, killing the No. 1, Sergeant Maffey34 and badly wounding the layer, Bombardier Sim.35 Harding and the rest of the gun crew managed to get Sim back through 500 yards of enemy fire to a place of comparative safety, covered skilfully by Bren-gun fire from Gunner Hutchins.36 The other three guns of A Troop meanwhile carried on the contest and knocked out the offending 50-millimetre gun and possibly another. In so doing the gun A4 was also hit and Sergeant Harper wounded.37 Half an hour later an I tank returned and finished off several other enemy guns in this area.

FOOs with the leading infantry came under heavy mortar fire when the advance halted, thickened up after a few minutes by shelling from the Belhamed area. Captain MacLean of the 4th Field was seriously wounded, his OPA, Bombardier Organ,38 and Gunner Copland39 were killed, and there were several narrow escapes. To their left rear, in the 20 Battalion area, C Troop of 31 Battery also ran into trouble and Second-Lieutenant Hill and his driver, Gunner Sweetman,40 were killed. It was a bad morning for veterans of Greece and Crete.41

For the field gunners the day was confusing and at times annoying. On several occasions infantry sent requests for artillery support not direct to the nearest FOO, who might have dealt with them quickly and accurately and thereby economised in ammunition, but by a roundabout route. This usually led back through Brigade to Lieutenant-Colonel Duff and reached him in such vague form that the batteries could act on it, if at all, only by bringing down wasteful fire on suspected areas rather than on pinpoint targets. For example, page 221 ‘18 Battalion is being mortared from the north; can you deal with this?’. On the left 26 Battery had poor observation westwards across the thickly tufted desert below the escarpment. Exaggerated reports from 20 Battalion of enemy movement ahead gave rise to mistaken impressions at Brigade that counterattacks were brewing and the fire tasks on this part of the front therefore took the form, more often than not, of regimental or battery concentrations. Since it was later discovered that the battery grid was faulty, being based on a wrongly identified landmark, this fire could not have done much harm to the enemy (who was in any case thinking more in terms of flight than of counter-attack). Some useful fire was nevertheless directed at clusters of enemy vehicles and the counter-battery and counter-mortar fire was certainly not all wasted. The 456 rounds fired by the 4th Field this day was more than could be afforded, nevertheless, for targets which were for the most part unrewarding. But gunners and infantry were learning fast.

One sphere in which the gunners were rapidly improving their techniques was in counter-battery work. The Counter-Battery Officer at Divisional Artillery Headquarters worked closely with 1 Survey Troop, which established flash-spotting posts. The hostile batteries thus located were reported to both the 4th and the 6th Field, and the latter, with far better observation, was able to bring down some useful fire. Brigadier Miles himself moved with the 4th Field on the right flank, saw many tempting targets to the north-west, and greatly regretted the shortage of ammunition which forced him to neglect them. In his absence his staff noted with some apprehension that enemy guns bracketed Divisional Headquarters and expected the ranging shots to be followed by a heavy bombardment; but the fire surprisingly switched to the empty slopes of the escarpment.

On the Trigh Capuzzo just east of Divisional Headquarters 1 Army Tank Brigade took up position with RHQ of the 8th Field and W/X Battery and 259 Anti-Tank Battery. There they were joined in mid-morning by RHQ of the 65th Anti-Tank and 257 Battery, welcome reinforcements who had been bombed on their way from the frontier.

The Division had so far seen little of either the German or the Italian air force and had not been directly attacked in any strength from the air. Gunners who had served in Greece and Crete, and in the first few days of this campaign had been careful to dig slit trenches at every halt ‘just in case’, were page 222 now getting careless. The RAF seemed to have full control of the air above them. When a large formation of aircraft flew over at 4 p.m. many men did not bother to look up. It therefore came as a shock to them when the section of 41 Battery attached to Divisional Headquarters opened fire and its 40-millimetre shells quickly produced a cloud of dark smoke above the bombers.42 Then came the whining dive of Stukas, and bombs began bursting among the lorries of Divisional Headquarters. They just missed G Office, but the many other headquarters clustered around it were badly shaken up. The worst hit was that of the 7th Anti-Tank, which had four killed or mortally wounded, including the quartermaster, Lieutenant McBride,43 and another wounded. Bombs fell all round the three Bofors guns of 41 Battery and killed a gunner, as well as damaging four vehicles; but the light ack-ack fire did not falter. Altogether 18 other men were wounded in the various headquarters, not counting two killed and two wounded in or around the tank brigade headquarters.

This was part of a large air operation in which some 60–80 enemy aircraft took part. They were met, south of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, by an RAF squadron and one from the RAAF, as well as by the fire of 43 Light Ack-Ack Battery, which brought down a Ju88 twin-engined reconnaissance aircraft. This battery had already had plenty of excitement from ground action and had fired against what looked like enemy tanks to the south. Some of the ensuing ‘dogfight’ took place over 6 Brigade and the successes of the defending fighter planes were warmly applauded.

33 This was a slight over-estimate of the number of guns, but the maximum calibre was even greater than was thought: 210 millimetres.

34 Sgt H. G. E. Maffey; born England, 18 Jan 1917; Regular soldier; killed in action 25 Nov 1941. Maffey was very popular. The smoke ring which rose from the burning vehicle to a great height was called Maffey's Halo.

35 Bdr G. F. Sim; Te Poi, Matamata; born Gisborne, 1911; stock agent; MP 1943–; wounded 25 Nov 1941. Sim, who lost an arm and an eye, became the first returned serviceman of the war to gain a seat in the House of Representatives.

36 Gnr F. W. G. Hutchins; Whakatane; born Eltham, 12 Jan 1913; paper maker; p.w. Dec 1941.

37 Harper was taken to the Main Dressing Station which three days later fell into enemy hands. There a stray shell killed him.

38 Bdr R. F. Organ; born Hastings, 30 May 1914; agricultural chemist; killed in action 25 Nov 1941.

39 Gnr A. J. Copland; born NZ 6 Feb 1915; advertising copywriter; killed in action 25 Nov 1941.

40 Gnr F. C. Sweetman; born NZ 14 Dec 1904; waterside worker; killed in action 25 Nov 1941.

41 Hill had earned an MC in Greece and Harper an MM. MacLean's patrol earned much praise in the six-day battle for Galatas in Crete.

42 The Bofors shells were self-destroying: i.e., if they did not first strike something solid enough to set off their sensitive percussion fuses they exploded after a set time, usually at 12,000 feet or more from the gun, though the altitude would of course vary according to the elevation.

43 Lt R. R. W. McBride; born Auckland, 8 Nov 1912; Regular soldier; killed in action 25 Nov 1941.