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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Attack on Bir Ghirba

The Attack on Bir Ghirba

A very different kind of action had meanwhile started up on the right of 5 Brigade. The early-morning successes there, page 192 in terms of various enemy detachments captured or driven off, were followed by an attack by 21 Battalion on a tiny settlement called Bir Ghirba, which happened to be the headquarters of the Italian division controlling the various strongpoints which constituted the frontier line from Sollum to Sidi Omar. This was regarded at the outset as a small and unimportant affair, undertaken to help distract enemy attention from a much larger concurrent attack by the Indian division on the southern anchor of the frontier line, a few miles to the south. The attention of 5 Brigade Headquarters was taken up with exploiting the capture of Fort Capuzzo and pushing on towards Bardia and Sollum. No anti-tank guns were therefore allocated to 21 Battalion. The right section of D Troop, 42 Battery, with its three Bofors guarded against hostile aircraft; but none bothered the battalion group. The only other artillery was 47 Battery of the 5th Field, a mere eight 25-pounders and far too few for the task of subduing the 600-odd defenders of Bir Ghirba in their well-fortified positions. The action that developed was a bitter tragedy, not so much because of the 70-odd casualties the infantry suffered (though these were serious enough for such a ‘side-show’), but because it was hopeless and pointless from the start, and to persist with it (as the battalion commander, the valiant Lieutenant-Colonel Allen,8 was told he must) was a serious misjudgment. To the 5th Field gunners it was heartbreaking. They worked hard and their FOOs braved the same fierce fire which pinned the infantry time and time again to the flat, open desert; but the 25-pounder shells made no impression on the concrete fortifications. In the afternoon, when the infantry could do no more than crawl forward inch by inch whenever the firing eased, the gunners worked like slaves, firing almost continuously, but to little effect. They were nevertheless delighted to score direct hits on an ammunition dump and see it go up in flames and start off a series of explosions. Some of these were heavy enough to shower the foremost New Zealand infantry with fragments, and they continued with a fireworks display well into the night. But the field gunners were miserably aware that their fire was not checking the machine guns and mortars which held up the attack. The infantry, for page 193 their part, were full of admiration for the gunners and the battalion war diary has this to say:

‘The 47 Bty NZA plus a further troop of the 5 Fd Regt (Lieut. Moir9 O.C.) from the time it opened up at 1200 hrs and apart from a very short stop fired continuously all the afternoon and evening and destroyed at least one med-heavy tank which had been dug in and was used as a MG post. The Bty fired all its ammunition and had to replenish during the afternoon. The Arty fire was directed by their own FOO and also by reports sent back to him by our foremost pls.’

The extra troop, D Troop of 28 Battery, was added in the afternoon when the brigade major (a former gunner) came forward to see for himself what was holding up 21 Battalion. It is curious that neither he nor anyone else sent up anti-tank guns and it was a stroke of luck that the enemy, who had several tanks at Bir Ghirba, was unenterprising and did not use them except at long range against 21 Battalion, which was extremely vulnerable throughout to tank attack. At 9 p.m. the twelve 25-pounders fired a barrage, hoping that the infantry might advance behind it in the dark and capture their objective; but defensive fire remained too fierce. A further attack was planned for two hours before dawn and the gunners prepared to support it; but orders came soon after midnight for 21 Battalion to withdraw. These orders had nothing to do with the immediate difficulties and were prompted by events elsewhere; but they undoubtedly saved the infantry from further heavy loss—perhaps complete disaster. The field guns fired over 2300 rounds all told, a heavy expenditure indeed on mobile operations and more than twice the first-line holding of 120 rounds per gun.

The fortified positions in the enemy's frontier line were immensely strong and the Indian division, attacking only a few miles to the south, accorded them full respect. This attack by two infantry battalions started with bombing and aerial strafing, was covered by the fire of a medium regiment of artillery and two field regiments, and was supported by two squadrons of heavily armoured I tanks and two anti-tank batteries. Even with this massive support, the attack was not completely successful. But Colonel Allen of 21 Battalion and Major Beattie10 of 47 Battery, in their lonely and desperate venture against Bir Ghirba, knew nothing of this.

page 194

As 21 Battalion received the welcome order to withdraw, 28 (Maori) Battalion, with G Troop of 32 Anti-Tank Battery, was poised to attack Sollum Barracks, at the top of the pass by which the coast road climbed the steep escarpment. From positions near Fort Capuzzo 27 Battery of the 5th Field was ready to give support. The Maoris attacked with great vigour before dawn on the 23rd, a squadron of I tanks came through soon after and entered the barracks square, and the enemy was quickly subdued, though guns from Sollum itself, below the escarpment, reacted strongly. The 2-pounders went into position around the barracks.

8 Lt-Col J. M. Allen, m.i.d.; born Cheadle, England, 3 Aug 1901; farmer; MP (Hauraki) 1938–41; CO 21 Bn May-Nov 1941; killed in action 28 Nov 1941.

9 Capt J. I. Moir; Auckland; born Auckland, 24 May 1911; accountant; wounded and p.w. 1 Dec 1941.

10 Lt-Col R. R. Beattie; born NZ 24 Sep 1908; warehouseman; wounded 1 Dec 1941.