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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The First Attack on Sidi Rezegh

The First Attack on Sidi Rezegh

The next stage of the Divisional operations was intended to effect a junction with the Tobruk garrison in the region of Ed Duda, and it included a scheme for a complicated and ambitious advance by 6 Brigade to this region and an altogether simpler and more modest advance by 4 Brigade to Belhamed. The details were not settled until the last moment, and for the 6 Brigade artillery the preliminaries were a race against time. No supporting fire could be provided for the page 223 infantry advance by night along the top of the escarpment and then across the low ground between Sidi Rezegh and Ed Duda; but guns of all kinds would be needed from first light on the 26th. They would have to be sited provisionally by night, after a series of moves in the vicinity of treacherous escarpments and wadis and in close co-operation with infantry.

The detailed orders Brigadier Barrowclough issued to commanders of supporting arms flowed so fast that his IO, jotting them down in a notebook, found it hard to keep pace. But each required further elaboration for which there was desperately little time. Some commanders of outlying detachments, having to race back in the darkness to their men, could not snatch a moment to iron out difficulties with the infantry or other supporting arms. The general intention for the artillery was to concentrate the main strength in field guns in the Sidi Rezegh area and to send only one battery forward to Ed Duda. But Lieutenant-Colonel Weir, realising that 47 Battery, attached to 21 Battalion, had been overlooked, decided to include it in what was hoped would become the ‘garrison of Ed Duda’ (together with his 48 Battery, attached to 26 Battalion). Only essential transport was to cross the Trigh Capuzzo for the final advance. Twelve 2-pounders and three Bofors were to go, too, and four 2-pounders, four 18-pounders and five Bofors, according to the IO's notes, were to stay at Sidi Rezegh. The IO was not working from correct figures of available guns; but the action as it unfolded soon made the point academic. Few guns, in the event, got even as far as Sidi Rezegh. None got beyond. But an even more ominous consequence of the ambitious plan was that it entailed withdrawing from the southernmost escarpment and thereby giving the enemy a valuable springboard for counter-attack. On this point Miles was far from satisfied with the night's programme.

Infantry were, of course, to lead the advance and 24 and 25 Battalions did so, starting from somewhere near the Blockhouse. The former came under heavy fire near Sidi Rezegh, its southern flank got mixed up with the 25th, and much confusion resulted. In the early hours of the 26th, by a misunderstanding, 21 Battalion passed through and descended the escarpment, waiting near the Trigh Capuzzo for 26 Battalion. But the 26th was halted by strong positions halfway to Sidi Rezegh and the wait was in vain. Major Beattie's 47 Battery, following the 21st, drove through the darkness, confusingly lit by flares and gun flashes, to the edge of the escarpment and there came under page 224 heavy fire. Disaster threatened, Beattie quickly surveyed the situation with an infantry company commander, and decided he must get his eight guns back south-eastwards to reasonable cover before dawn exposed them to what was evidently a strong enemy force. For commanders of the other artillery detachments the night was similarly fraught with difficulty and danger. Transport groups of the four 6 Brigade battalions became hopelessly mixed up and as dawn approached they tended to draw back as Beattie had done to less vulnerable ground. There was no sense in making sacrificial offerings to an enemy who was as yet clearly unsubdued and who held the dominating ground above and below the escarpment. But they were between two fires and could not drive too far south for fear of the enemy on the southernmost escarpment. For all concerned the situation was extremely awkward and the approaching dawn was regarded with much apprehension.

The advance by 4 Brigade to Belhamed was simpler, it met far less opposition, and the infantry gained their objectives at small cost. Yet the task, to those who worked out the details in the afternoon and evening of the 25th and carried them out by night, had seemed formidable, mainly because of failure to perceive that the large enemy transport assemblies visible to the north-west belonged not to fighting troops, but to the supply services of the German Africa Corps. The 4th Brigade possessed, moreover, the advantage of strong support from heavily armoured Matilda tanks: 44 Royal Tanks were to move forward at 4 a.m. on the 26th with 46 Field Battery, 31 Anti-Tank Battery, and a troop of 41 Light Ack-Ack Battery and provide close support for the infantry at dawn. The 26th Battery moved forward after dark to take over the positions of 46 Battery, and from then onwards two batteries of the 4th Field and two of the 8th Field, RA, would be available to give supporting fire as called for, though no programme of supporting fire was ‘laid on’ other than a few harassing fire tasks before and during the early stages of the advance and some periodic bursts of gun fire to indicate the objective to the advancing infantry. For the infantry the advance started from roughly the line of their existing FDLs and there were no long and difficult approach marches such as the battalions of 6 Brigade had to carry out.

Lieutenant-Colonel Duff listened on a ‘party line’ and kept in close touch with the course of the advance. His batteries (which included, from 6 p.m. on the 25th, 257 Anti-Tank page 225 Battery, RA, under Major D. F. Cartwright, MC), were ‘kept standing by’, as he says, but ‘no serious opposition was encountered.’ Some fighting did in fact take place before the two battalions, the 18th and 20th, reached their objectives and there was a certain amount of confusion; but all would undoubtedly have gone well had word not reached 4 Brigade that 6 Brigade had failed to clear the Sidi Rezegh escarpment and was unlikely to reach Ed Duda. Because of this Division ordered 4 Brigade to provide tank and artillery support for Barrowclough's troops, which in turn delayed the advance of 44 Royal Tanks, with its strong gun group, while its commander sought fuller instructions. The supporting arms therefore did not reach Belhamed by dawn, as originally intended, and the task of getting there proved far harder in daylight than it would have been under cover of darkness.

The 6 Brigade guns came under fire from several directions as soon as it got light on the 26th. They were plainly visible from the southernmost escarpment and were shelled by guns beyond it. For a short time, too, guns near Ed Duda and north of Belhamed were directed by observation from a lattice-work mast (the up-ended skeleton of an aircraft wing) south-west of the ‘Mosque’ or tomb of Sidi Rezegh. Soon after dawn, 47 Battery returned from the Mosque and went into action on the edge of Sidi Rezegh airfield, and a little later 48 Battery opened fire on enemy on the crest of the escarpment at very short range from the north-western edge of the airfield. ‘We were given a fairly warm reception during the morning’, says a 6th Field gunner.44 The anti-tank gunners found it hard indeed to gain positions from which they could give effective support to the infantry. All likely ground was in full view of the enemy and there was much readjustment of position among the New Zealand infantry units. The 18-pounders of M Troop moved forward while it was still dark and were sited in what was thought to be the area of 24 Battalion, facing west and south. The 2-pounders of J, K and L Troops drove forward at first light and joined 24, 25 and 26 Battalions respectively. The first target engaged by M Troop was the lattice tower, the observer on which, according to the troop commander (Second-Lieutenant Betts45), ‘had no further interest in breakfast that day or thereafter’. The effectiveness of enemy fire at once diminished.

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For several hours the field gunners were powerless to give support where it was most needed: below the escarpment near the Mosque, where much of 21 Battalion was in desperate straits, and in many wadis and re-entrants between the Mosque and the Blockhouse where detachments of 21 and 24 Battalions assembled. Several enemy tanks operated between the escarpment and the Trigh Capuzzo; but it was mid-morning before the field guns managed to drive them away. More tanks appeared to the south-west and M Troop was quick to engage them. Four were ‘engaged and destroyed’ (to quote a troop report) at 3500–4000 yards in the early morning. Then M Troop fired at guns to the south-west and silenced them. When two light howitzers were set up 2500 yards away Betts's gunners knocked them out before they could open fire. Other tanks advancing towards 25 Battalion were driven back. Then, about noon, M Troop turned its attention to what were recognised as strong enemy positions in ‘the immediate foreground’—a strongly fortified stretch of the top of the escarpment. In a warm exchange of fire one M Troop gunner was killed and three more gunners wounded. These wounded and several other casualties from nearby infantry and MMG positions had to be treated at the gun positions under heavy shelling. A squadron of 8 Royal Tanks equipped with Valentines also engaged enemy on the southern flank and in mid-afternoon drove off an Italian party forming up on the southernmost escarpment, with the help of A Troop of the 6th Field. M Troop also took the leading part in an anti-tank action just before dusk, when six or seven tanks appeared to the south-west. ‘Nos. 3 and 4 guns definitely hit five of the seven out of action, two having their turrets blown off and the other three [being] set on fire’, according to the troop subaltern, Second-Lieutenant Mitchell.46 The other two guns engaged the remaining two tanks, watched by an enthusiastic ‘gallery’of 6th Field gunners and infantry.

An entirely different set of problems and difficulties presented themselves this day, 26 November, to the artillery of 4 Brigade. The night advance had skirted the northern flank of a strong enemy position that was curiously sited between Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh and well concealed, so that its location, size and strength were only slowly disclosed. The 44th Royal Tanks, hastily briefed the previous evening, expected the infantry to page 227 occupy a larger area than in fact they did. Moving forward soon after dawn to support 18 and 20 Battalions, the Matilda tanks ran into this enemy position and seven of them were soon destroyed or damaged by an ‘88’ which found them easy targets as they breasted the gentle slopes of Belhamed. The infantry, meanwhile, had come under heavy MG and mortar fire and persistent shelling, and soon realised that their bald objective would not be easy to hold. It was bombarded from three sides and the field gunners were for some time unable to locate the sources of this fire.

The group of anti-tank, ack-ack and machine guns which was to accompany the I tanks to Belhamed came under heavy shellfire as soon as daylight came. The tanks paused for an uncomfortable hour and a half and then disappeared on their fateful sortie. In their absence the artillery and MMG officers weighed the situation and decided to make their own way forward to the leading infantry. Major Levy of 31 Anti-Tank Battery had been told by the tank officers that it was impossible to get the guns forward; but he rebelled at the thought of leaving the infantry unsupported. Leading his three troops forward (the fourth, D Troop of 18-pounders, had stayed with brigade headquarters and 19 Battalion at Zaafran) to the head of the column, he reconnoitred the northern edge of Belhamed—almost a cliff face—and found a difficult route. Taking one troop forward at a time, he despatched each gun separately along this and by degrees shepherded all his vehicles through machine-gun and shell fire without loss. It was a masterly performance on Levy's part. A, B and C Troops thus reached 18 Battalion; but the further journey to 20 Battalion on the western end of the feature had to pass ground so open and pitilessly exposed to fire from north and south that it could not be attempted until dusk.

Back at Brigade, Duff was much perturbed by the initial failure to get the group of supporting arms on to Belhamed and by the lack of FOOs on that feature. Calls for supporting fire were almost continuous from first light and, as a temporary measure, he ordered 46 Battery, which was waiting on wheels, to go into action at once on the eastern slopes of the long wadi which ran diagonally between Belhamed and Zaafran. Then, at 8.30 a.m., when it seemed possible to get field guns farther forward, he moved E Troop only, leaving B Troop in position to help answer the many calls for fire. E Troop could get no farther than the other side of the wide wadi and, though the page 228 two troops in their new positions were put on the permanent grid by the regimental survey section ‘in very fast time’ (according to Duff's report), 46 Battery could not function as such throughout the day. Calls were so frequent and compelling that each troop was too busy with its own tasks.

Observation was always hard to provide and most targets were engaged by predicted fire, after Duff and Inglis had agreed on ‘safe lines’. Infantry reports testified to the accuracy of this fire and confirmed that the 1:100,000 map from which the gunners were working was very accurate—a most reassuring discovery. Switches of fire required, however, took in so many points of the compass that existing artillery boards had insufficient scope and some delay was caused thereby. Communications with Belhamed were entirely by W/T, as lines were constantly being cut by mortar bombs or shells.

For an hour from 9 a.m. the field gunners fired almost continuously in a succession of quick tasks and quick switches. Many of these were repeated from 10.30 a.m. onwards, subduing enemy fire and greatly easing the strain on the Belhamed infantry, but at the cost of creating a shortage of ammunition which greatly worried Inglis and Duff. Towards the end of it Duff had to order the guns to engage only essential and emergency targets. It was no longer possible to reply every time mortars fired on the infantry: 25-pounder ammunition was down to 30 r.p.g. (rounds per gun).

It was already painfully clear that the first- and second-line holdings of ammunition (i.e., what the Division carried with it) on mobile operations were too small to sustain heavy fighting of the kind which was clearly developing. Prompt and reliable replenishment from ammunition dumps was essential; but behind the Division the supply situation was chaotic in the extreme and the German Africa Corps and Italian armour stood at that time across the lines of communication on which the New Zealanders relied. All that was known of this within the Division, however, was that supplies were coming forward slowly and haphazardly. Had Duff realised the true situation he would certainly have not allowed his regiment to fire, as it did, 564 rounds this day and leave itself with about 700 all told. The 8th Field, which had an equally busy day, was little or no better off.

The fire of both regiments was largely controlled from Duff's headquarters and the pressure of work was immense. Flash-spotting went on all day and all night and resulted in a stream page 229 of data from battery OPs and the flash-spotting OP of the Survey Troop, as well as much other counter-battery and tactical information. All this had to be co-ordinated, the artillery board had to be kept up-to-date, and the many and various fire tasks ‘farmed out’ as the situation dictated. Under the strain of this work the adjutant broke down and took some hours to recover. The CBO came over from Divisional Artillery Headquarters to help, the RSM and IO plotted information, and the 2 i/c (Second-in-Command), Major Mitchell, worked like a Trojan.

To supplement artillery support and ease the pressure on the infantry, Inglis was quick to avail himself of air support. Bombing was called for soon after dawn and several missions were flown in close support of 4 Brigade. But the assumption that the New Zealanders would be first to reach Ed Duda proved false. This day, unbeknown to the Division, the Tobruk garrison reached forward from the already extensive ‘bulge’ it had created in the siege lines around the fortress and extended its sortie to Ed Duda. Air support control was then in its infancy and its safeguards proved insufficient to save the gallant Essex battalion which carried out this task from falling victim to an RAF bombing attack called for in support of 4 Brigade. The situation on Belhamed, though anything but comfortable, was in fact not nearly as serious as the many calls for help suggested.

Much annoyance, however, was caused by a small German reconnaissance aircraft which persisted in flying over very low and in a most provocative manner, ignoring the small-arms fire directed at it from all quarters. No Bofors guns had managed to get through to Belhamed—they could not possibly negotiate the narrow track across the face of the escarpment, which fell away to the north, by means of which the anti-tank portées got forward—and it seemed to the infantry there that the troublesome aircraft escaped harm. But 41 Light Ack-Ack Battery waited patiently at Zaafran until the plane came within range and then the right section of B Troop, supported enthusiastically by small-arms marksmen, promptly shot it down. The wreckage yielded a most useful map of friendly and enemy positions in the Tobruk area, which was sent to Division and its contents reported to Corps.

44 A. L. Cook.

45 Capt B. F. Betts; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 1 Apr 1913; warehouseman.

46 Maj N. B. Mitchell, MBE; Wellington; born Morrinsville, 12 Sep 1916; Regular soldier; p.w. 28 Jun 1942; escaped, Italy, and rejoined 2 NZ Div Jun 1944.