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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Hard Fighting at Point 175

Hard Fighting at Point 175

The next halt was at the Wadi esc-Sciomar, a few miles farther along the escarpment. Just beyond it was Point 175, marked clearly enough on the map, but exceedingly hard to locate on the ground. Major Wilson16 of 29 Battery says, ‘Point 175 could not be distinguished as a feature and there was no visible indication that enemy were in the locality.’ Brigadier Barrowclough had been ordered to occupy the feature, nevertheless, and went forward with Lieutenant-Colonel Weir to ‘have a look and make a plan’, as the latter says. ‘We got up and had a look and there wasn't a thing to be seen and I could have sworn that there were no Huns holding that hill.’ To most observers the ground ahead looked like flat desert, with perhaps a slight upward slope to the west. From the head of the brigade group the escarpment to the north and the Rugbet en-Nbeidat to the south (a deep wadi starting south of Point 175 and cutting the escarpment west of it) could not be seen.

The brigadier decided to deploy 25 Battalion on foot to advance and occupy the feature. K Troop of 33 Battery was page 199 already attached to the battalion and Weir received no request for any other artillery support; but he nevertheless decided to place 29 Field Battery under command of the battalion. Another mission had already been agreed to: 26 Battalion with 30 Field Battery and L Anti-Tank Troop were to move south-westwards to make contact with 5 South African Brigade south of Sidi Rezegh. Then a third task was accepted: the squadron of I tanks, with a troop of 48 Field Battery and two infantry platoons, was to move far to the south-west to capture some 50 Italian tanks reported to be abandoned there. This would have left only one troop of the 6th Field and the remaining anti-tank and Bofors guns to guard the long perimeter of the brigade group—and the brigade group was very much on its own.

The day continued in the same dramatic vein in which it began. The surrounding desert contained many little groups of enemy, most of them only too anxious to get away. Some, however, could not resist taking a few pot shots or letting loose a few bursts of machine-gun fire before they left and a few, more determined or foolhardy, needed to be routed out. The escarpment, with its many wadis and minor indentations, provided good cover, and to the south-west and south there were many derelict vehicles, victims of the furious fighting which had led to the defeat of the British armour. Some of them were still smouldering and figures moving among them were identified, when the brigade got closer, as German. Several truckloads drove off hastily and L Troop of 33 Anti-Tank Battery engaged them at long range, firing some 50 rounds until Lieutenant-Colonel 17 of 26 Battalion ordered the anti-tankers to cease fire on the grounds that there might still be some wounded among the wreckage. The anti-tank portées, instead, covered a section of carriers which went forward to investigate. At this, an ambulance car filled with British wounded who had been in enemy hands drove into the battalion area. Farther off enemy transport could be seen and D Troop of 48 Battery fired at it.

The ambulance car brought with it a medical officer of 8 Hussars who had sensational news. His unit was, of course, a tank unit, and he knew something about enemy tanks. He gave an eyewitness account of a great mass of German tanks page 200 of all kinds which had assembled that very morning on Point 175 (after having captured the tanks of 8 Hussars in the night). At first light there had been at least a hundred Pzkw IIs, IIIs and IVs there. To the brigade commander, who had no knowledge of the disaster which had struck the British armoured corps and envisaged, like Freyberg, only a local setback which the arrival of his brigade was to remedy, this was highly disturbing. It put the occupation of Point 175 in a very different light. The sally by the I-tank battalion (8 Royal Tanks) was at once cancelled and the I tanks were ordered to accompany 25 Battalion in its advance (which had already started).

Some of the battalion had been halted; but at noon it started off again—two companies forward, widely deployed across the flat scrubland, and behind them the portées of K Troop. At the same time 26 Battalion drove south-westwards towards the South Africans with L Troop's four portées and the eight 25-pounders of 30 Battery. Near the Wadi esc-Sciomar 29 Battery had gone into action and two FOOs moved forward with 25 Battalion. The remaining artillery of the brigade group, 48 Field Battery, J Troop with four 2-pounders, M Troop with four anti-tank 18-pounders, and 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, remained with the straggling mass of brigade vehicles which stretched out for more than a mile along the top of the escarpment. One troop of 48 Battery was in action and fired from time to time against enemy to the south-west, among the many derelicts.

Major Wilson's 29 Battery began by firing at a slow rate on a cairn of stones which seemed to mark Point 175 itself—a trig point. No enemy was to be seen ahead and the fire was meant only to reassure the infantry as they advanced on foot. The battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel McNaught,18 hastily called a conference and produced a string of orders to meet the changed situation, and Major Wilson and Major McKay19 of 33 Anti-Tank Battery listened attentively. K Troop was to move 800 yards behind the forward infantry—too far behind, as it happened. J was to protect the awkward right flank on the escarpment. The field guns were to fire on the cairn, on trenches which could be seen (though there was as yet no sign of enemy in them), and on the Blockhouse beyond page 201 —a square stone building used by the local tribe of Bedouin, though it looked from a distance like a fortification. It was hoped that the I tanks, which at that stage were believed to be almost invulnerable to anti-tank fire, would be able to deal with any enemy tanks that appeared on the scene.

black and white map of brigade position

6 brigade positions, 1 p.m., 23 november

Wilson asked if there were any special orders for the guns; but all McNaught could add was that Wilson should move with him—no sinecure, for McNaught was among the bravest of the brave. There was only one armoured OP vehicle, a Bren carrier, and Wilson therefore sent this forward on the right, with Captain Fisher of A Troop. Captain Molloy20 of B Troop travelled in his pick-up truck with D Company on the left. Fisher and Molloy were both told to engage the cairn until better targets could be seen. There was no restriction on ammunition, as only a few AP rounds had so far been fired. None had any inkling of the fury that lay ahead.

The infantry on the left, led by I tanks, soon reached the cairn, after a sharp skirmish, and took many prisoners. But this was only the beginning. The scrub, sparse towards the page 202 south but thicker towards the escarpment, concealed a strong battalion defence and the re-entrants and wadis, including the Rugbet en-Nbeidat which curled round from the right front to the left rear, gave covered approach to reinforcements from the Blockhouse area. As the advance continued opposition stiffened. I tanks were soon blazing wrecks, their myth of invulnerability shattered by 50-millimetre anti-tank guns close at hand and by ‘88s’ in the Blockhouse area. Low and deadly machine-gun fire—the mark of crack troops—thinned the ranks of the infantry. Molloy and Fisher, trying to locate its sources and braving intense fire in so doing, were baffled. McNaught had said that he would have his advanced headquarters a few hundred yards south-east of the cairn within half an hour and he did so. Wilson was with him and the area was swept by fire.

On the right, just above the escarpment, a bitter struggle developed. The infantry found that every re-entrant harboured machine guns and brought them under cross-fire. They tackled each centre of opposition in spirited fashion; but they got fewer as they advanced. Behind them the two portées under Lieutenant Muirhead21 drove backwards, to give their gun crews the slight protection of their gun shields and be in instant readiness to fire. The leading portée engaged a German tank below the escarpment and forced its crew to evacuate. A short distance beyond, K1 fired on a machine-gun post and got away about 10 rounds when a mortar bomb put it out of action. The crew dismounted, McNaught came along to investigate, and Muirhead suggested bringing K2 forward. ‘No,’ said McNaught, ‘you are infantry now. Forward!’ No more than 25 yards farther on the crew of K1 was pinned down by murderous fire which wounded Muirhead and mortally injured Lance-Bombardier Sievert.22 K2 was not dawdling behind. It engaged a large tank which came up from below the escarpment, blew its turret off, and set it on fire. Pushing on into what had become a curiously empty stretch of desert swept by fire, K2 came upon another tank and dealt with it likewise. On their high portée the anti-tankers felt naked. They could see nothing ahead—no infantry—and they could hear the bullets and feel the blast of the mortar bombs. An hour or page 203 so later more infantry—a company of 24 Battalion—came up from below the escarpment and moved past them.

Meanwhile on the left Second-Lieutenant Ryan23 led the other two K Troop guns forward. A supposed derelict tank to the south suddenly came to life and enfiladed the advancing infantry, killing an officer. Ryan quickly drove over towards it and his two portées tackled it, one on each flank, both scoring hits and between them knocking it out. Mortar fire was directed at both portées, but did no harm. But this action, brief though it was, held up the two guns long enough for the two companies of 25 Battalion on this flank to be overrun by three tanks. A deceptive curve of the ground hid the whole episode from the anti-tankers and it was only after the surrender that Ryan spotted one tank. Both guns fired and must have hit the tank gunner; for the tank kept coming at them but did not fire. Finally, at 50 yards, it burst into flame. K4 had kept pumping 2-pounder shots at it, one after the other. Before this another tank had appeared. Ryan at first thought it was a Valentine; but he decided that it was hostile and switched the fire of K3 to it. K3 scored several hits and then infantry rose up just in front of the tank—to Ryan's surprise—and lobbed anti-tank grenades at it. The tank was knocked out; but Ryan says, ‘I think the honour should go to the infantry.’ The third tank disappeared.

This flank was now open and McNaught hastened to reinforce it. Yet another ‘derelict’ tank appeared in the middle of the position and tried to run over the infantry of the reserve company which McNaught had called forward; but one of Ryan's guns or K2 drove over and knocked it out.

The afternoon was frustrating to Fisher and Molloy, who could seldom locate the machine guns that caused heavy loss to the infantry or the anti-tank guns which disabled all but three or four of the 16 I tanks. As soon as Molloy and Major Wilson realised that the enemy was reinforcing by sending troops up the Rugbet en-Nbeidat to the left flank, 29 Battery fired heavily and frequently into this area, causing the hidden enemy much loss (as was later discovered) and discouraging him from exploiting the gap that resulted from the surrender of the two companies of 25 Battalion. When another company was sent forward it came under heavy fire, and 29 Battery responded by ‘putting down a spot barrage that was suicidal page 204 in its closeness’, according to an infantry sergeant. It nevertheless helped to save the day.

In mid-afternoon all battalion wireless and telephone communications had broken down and only the artillery wireless sets were working between battalion and brigade. McNaught wanted the I-tank commander to intervene again to ease the pressure on the infantry and Wilson drove back to find him. Only three tanks had rallied, however, and two of these were damaged. While Wilson and the I-tank colonel were discussing McNaught's request, the brigade commander arrived and Wilson told him of the plight of 25 Battalion, suggesting that, as no tanks were available, more infantry were urgently needed and stating that ‘the situation was extremely serious’. The guns of 29 Battery were firing nearby and the brigade commander asked what targets they were engaging. Wilson went across to find out and as he approached the gun position he could hear the wireless operator calling to the GPO that he had a message for the brigade commander. The message was: ‘Send reinforcements 25 Bn right flank urgently.’ Wilson describes what followed.

‘I got in touch with both FOOs and they reported that our infantry had been practically wiped out and that their positions were almost untenable. It was at this time that Fisher reported his driver wounded and I instructed him to return to the battery area. Molloy had good observation and he was instructed to cover the whole area using both troops if necessary.’

Fisher had managed to bring down fire which destroyed a troublesome mortar; but one of its last few bombs narrowly missed Fisher's Bren carrier, damaged it slightly, and badly wounded the driver. Fisher reported this to Wilson, who promptly suggested he teach himself to drive. Somehow Fisher did so, under fire from machine guns and mortars, and managed to get the carrier back to safety. Molloy carried on as best he could; but eight 25-pounders could provide only slender support on a front of well over a mile.

Meanwhile on the right flank the gun K2 on its high portée claimed a third or fourth victim. A company of 24 Battalion had come forward and was advancing above the escarpment when it was threatened by a tank which came up a re-entrant. The portée intervened, backing up to the edge of the escarpment and destroying the tank. Machine-gunners, too, came page 205 forward and by degrees the front settled down. Firing died down after dark and stretcher parties worked to breaking point to bring in the hundreds of wounded.

16 Maj H. S. Wilson, ED; Auckland; born Auckland, 19 Jul 1907; company secretary; p.w. 30 Nov 1941.

17 17Brig J. R. Page, CBE, DSO, mid; Wellington; born Dunedin, 10 May 1908; Regular soldier; CO 26 Bn May 1940-Nov 1941; wounded 27 Nov 1941; Commander, Northern Military District, 1950–52; Adjutant-General, 1952–54; QMG 1956–60; head of NZ Joint Services liaison staff, Canberra, 1960–63.

18 Lt-Col G. J. McNaught, DSO, ED; New Plymouth; born Wanganui, 26 Nov 1896; schoolmaster; NZ MG Corps, 1916–19 (2 Lt, 1919); CO 29 Bn (UK) Jun 1940-Mar 1941; 25 Bn Sep-Nov 1941; wounded 23 Nov 1941.

19 Lt-Col L. N. McKay; London; born Auckland, 25 Nov 1908; Regular soldier; wounded 25 Nov 1941.

20 Capt J. T. Molloy; born NZ 22 May 1912; secretary; died of wounds 30 Nov 1941.

21 Maj J. C. Muirhead, MC; Palmerston North; born Palmerston North, 5 Oct 1911; clerk; wounded 23 Nov 1941.

22 L-Bdr F. E. Sievert; born NZ 30 Jul 1918; apprentice electrician; died of wounds 18 Jan 1942.

23 Capt E. L. Ryan; Auckland; born Wellington, 15 Aug 1906; bank officer; wounded 25 Nov 1941.