2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Bad News of the Tank Battle
Bad News of the Tank Battle
With this success the offensive actions of the New Zealand Division in the frontier area ceased. The large garrisons of Sollum and Halfaya (another and rougher pass on the escarpment) and of the strongpoints between there and the Omar forts to the south-west were cut off from Bardia and their sources of water. But all chance of exploiting this favourable situation further had for the time being vanished. The armoured battle, on the successful prosecution of which the whole CRUSADER plan rested, had by the 22nd almost come to an end, and in it the British armoured corps had been completely outclassed by an enemy inferior in almost every respect except organisation, training and tactics. The only important weapon superiority the enemy possessed was in anti-tank guns: long-barrelled and low-slung 50-millimetre guns and huge, vulnerable, but devas-tatingly powerful 88-millimetre triple-purpose guns. The German tanks had no decisive superiority over British tanks and were in some respects inferior. The few Pzkw IVs with their stubby, low-velocity 75-millimetre guns were of little use in tank-versus-tank fighting, and the short-barrelled 50-millimetre guns in the Pzkw IIIs had very much the same AP performance as the 2-pounders of the British tanks. Had the British I tanks, especially the Mark IIs (Matildas), which the Germans dreaded, been used against them, the German tanks might have fared far worse. But only cruiser and light tanks were employed against the German armour, with little or no infantry support, few anti-tank guns, and no concentrated field artillery. No amount of bravery on the part of the British tank crews—and there was no lack of this—could compensate for being introduced to action with little or no support against a skilful enemy page 195 who carefully co-ordinated the efforts of his tanks, guns, engineers (with mines), and infantry.
All this was, however, unknown to General Freyberg and his brigadiers as they pursued their skilful and successful operations around Bardia. When Freyberg was asked to send 6 Brigade westwards towards Tobruk late on the 21st he took it that things were going well with 30 Corps. When, next afternoon, he was asked to send 4 Brigade to Gambut, halfway to Tobruk on a parallel northern escarpment, he thought it strange, but still had no reason to doubt that all was well. His GSO I, Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry,11 thought that only a raid to Gam-but was intended and Freyberg continued to think in terms of an assault on Bardia, which was more strongly held than he had been led to believe. Brigadier Miles called to discuss ammunition holdings, which were getting low. They agreed that there were insufficient field guns available for an effective barrage and regretted the lack of medium guns to support an attack on the fortress. Something Miles said reminded Freyberg of a talk, before the campaign began, with the Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham, who spoke of the desert war as a ‘brigade-group war’ and was hotly challenged on that point by Freyberg. ‘Against the Boche’, Freyberg wrote in his diary, ‘[I] consider the striking power and manoeuvrability of a Division is necessary to give weight and effect to attack.’ Freyberg advocated to Corps ‘a definite policy of dumping ammunition’ so that the Division could go ahead with its aggressive operations—particularly against Bardia.
The next visitor was a liaison officer from 30 Corps with the news that the Support Group of 7 Armoured Division (two infantry battalions with field and anti-tank artillery) was surrounded at Sidi Rezegh and in urgent need of help. This was scarcely credible; but confirmation came from another messenger from the armoured divisional commander. Still thinking only in terms of a local setback in the armoured battle, far short of the disastrous situation that had actually developed, Freyberg sent an urgent message for 6 Brigade to hurry westwards along the escarpment that led from Bir el Chleta through Point 175 to page 196 Sidi Rezegh. He had predicted to the Army Commander that more infantry would be needed in the struggle to join hands with the Tobruk garrison and he now began to consider taking as much as possible of his Division to strike through the Italian divisions he supposed were besieging Tobruk (a German division had actually taken their place on the sector concerned) and link up with the garrison, which had staged a sortie the day before. By early morning on the 23rd he decided to leave 5 Brigade (less 21 Battalion and 47 Field Battery) and Divisional Cavalry (less a squadron) to hold the ground won in the frontier area and keep Bardia isolated. The rest of the Division would move to the Tobruk front. The Corps Commander duly approved.
11 Maj-Gen Sir William Gentry, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1920–22; GSO II NZ Div 1939–40; AA & QMG 1940–41; GSO I, May 1941, Oct 1941-Sep 1942; comd 6 Bde Sep 1942-Apr 1943; Deputy Chief of General Staff, 1943–44; comd 9 Bde (Italy) 1945; Deputy Chief of General Staff, 1946–47; Adjutant-General, 1949–52; Chief of General Staff, 1952–55.