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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

4 Brigade Captures Gambut

4 Brigade Captures Gambut

To the right rear of this unintended advanced guard, 4 Brigade moved above the Via Balbia to Gambut airfield. It was well supplied with artillery, though for the tasks which confronted it a few medium guns in addition would have been most valuable. The 8th Field, an RA unit specially trained to support I tanks and intended to work in close co-operation with 1 Army Tank Brigade, had come under Divisional command and its V/AA Battery, temporarily under the 4th Field, moved with 4 Brigade. B Troop of the 4th Field, under Divi- page 211 sional Cavalry for the opening moves of the campaign, now rejoined 46 Battery. Two guns of N Troop, 34 Anti-Tank Battery, supported a Divisional Cavalry squadron leading the advance. A battery (the 26th) of the 4th Field and a troop of 31 Anti-Tank Battery stayed with 20 Battalion at the roadblock on the Via Balbia. The rest of the 4th Field and 31 Battery drove towards Gambut, together with the whole of 41 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery. Since a regiment of I tanks, followed by another, also moved with or close behind 4 Brigade, there seemed little to fear from any likely encounter with the enemy on the way.

The ground, however, favoured enemy rearguards. It rose from sea level in a succession of low escarpments which gave good observation and cover. Of these escarpments one passed just north of Gambut airfield and another three miles south of it. The northern flank was covered by 25 Battery and the southern by 46 Battery, while V/AA Battery covered the rear (but was later moved forward). After only a few miles fire came from both escarpments and all field guns were soon in action. To the south, where the main opposition lay, 46 Battery acted swiftly. B Troop brought down quick and effective fire and the enemy, ‘after receiving a considerable burst’ (in the words of Duff's report), moved off westwards. But the CO was less pleased with 25 and V/AA Batteries. GPOs, as Duff caustically comments, failed to realise that speed was essential:

‘Lines were laid out by compass bearing and director and parallelism checked by compass, which caused quite unnecessary delay. The enemy was visible on the escarpment … and guns could have, and should have been laid direct over the muzzle by swinging the trail. Parallelism was unnecessary and it was definitely an occasion for “bow-and-arrow” methods.’

Just after noon 41 Battery chased a twin-engined Messerschmitt across the sky from east to west and the bursting Bofors shells attracted attention from all sides. Soon afterwards the enemy moved off and 4 Brigade pushed on rapidly. After a few more miles 46 Battery was again in action against transport near Gasr el-Arid, well to the south. Further opposition on the extreme left, however, failed to delay the brigade and by mid-afternoon the I tanks drove on to Gambut airfield amid much confusion. The enemy was taken by surprise and, though few prisoners were captured, huge stocks of supplies of many kinds page 212 were found in the neighbourhood, including large quantities of petrol and diesel oil of which the German Africa Corps stood in great need.

The gunners had little time to investigate their new surroundings, however; for the brigade came under shellfire from several directions and for a time the guns were extremely active. V/AA Battery faced west and fired furiously, while A Troop of 25 Battery faced north-west and engaged tanks, guns and transport below the escarpment, as well as pinpointing and destroying a deadly ‘88’. A Troop then switched its fire to the southern escarpment, while C Troop fired north, one section advancing to the very edge of the cliff and sniping vehicles on or near the Via Balbia. This section caused ‘considerable nuisance’, according to Duff (who directed its fire), and knocked out a tank. The other section meanwhile reversed its direction and shelled transport and a high-velocity gun on the southern ridge. Mortar fire was at times extremely heavy and it drove RHQ of the 4th Field from a wadi which proved to be exposed to observation from the north. Several vehicles were hit, but none was badly damaged. The anti-tank gunners, too, had a lively time, the 2-pounders being disposed on the perimeter and the 18-pounders around Brigade Headquarters. RHQ of the 4th Field in its new position was shelled persistently by a 150-millimetre medium field howitzer.

The relief of 20 Battalion at the Via Balbia road-block outside Bardia was rudely interrupted by what looked like about 20 tanks attacking from the west. The company astride the road had sent three of the four portées of C Troop, 31 Anti-Tank Battery, up the escarpment and was about to follow when the enemy appeared. Second-Lieutenant Hill of C Troop hurriedly reconnoitred and brought the three guns into action on a slight rise, the fourth gun being still with the infantry. When the leading tank was 800 yards away the three guns opened fire and it withdrew. The remaining ‘tanks’ (there were actually only one or two, the rest being 20-millimetre guns on armoured carriers) continued to advance, firing profusely at the route up the escarpment and at the anti-tank guns. The three guns fired 137 rounds altogether before the action ceased and did much to discourage the enemy. Several hits were observed at fairly long range and one tank, hit three times, was slow to move off and seemed to be damaged. A section of D Troop, 26 Battery, then opened fire and the other section page 213 joined in after a minute or two. I tanks were also committed; but the main deterrent was the rapid fire of the three 2-pounders. At the end of it all one tank remained by the roadside, evidently disabled. Early in the afternoon the battalion group, with attached artillery which included a section of 41 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, moved off to join Divisional Headquarters, which had already left on its journey westwards.

The many vehicles of Divisional Headquarters were protected on the march by no tanks and very few guns. At the head of the columns were 21 Battalion with 47 Field Battery, sadder but wiser after their action at Bir Ghirba. The 2-pounders of O Troop and the 18-pounders of Q Troop travelled with Headquarters, as did the RHQs of the 7th Anti-Tank and 14th Light Ack-Ack. In the early evening 20 Battalion Group caught up and its I-tank squadron and artillery were welcome reinforcements. By 2 a.m. on the 24th Divisional Headquarters, with 1 Army Tank Brigade (less two battalions) and the two infantry battalions, had settled down for the rest of the night at Bir el Chleta.

Dawn on the 24th disclosed poor dispersion of the huge assembly of vehicles below the escarpment and a few shell-bursts emphasised the point. A fairly strong enemy position had been by-passed in the night and could be seen to the east astride the Trigh Capuzzo, the main axis of the Divisional advance to the Tobruk front. Another enemy group was almost due north, between Divisional Headquarters and 4 Brigade at Gambut. After some hesitation General Freyberg decided to attack the second group and clear the route to 4 Brigade.

Major Bevan had been returning the enemy shellfire since shortly after dawn and when 20 Battalion, with a squadron of I tanks leading, attacked soon after 11 a.m., Bevan followed as FOO close behind the leading tanks. He proposed to support the attack with observed fire and his troop commanders followed, laying telephone wire as they advanced. Two 2-pounders of C Troop covered each flank. The fire of mortars, Vickers guns, and all other available weapons, brought down in support of the infantry, raised so much dust and added so much smoke to it that Bevan found it hard to observe his own fire. In the end he was forced to adopt the unusual expedient of ordering a round of gun fire from the whole battery to observe ranging rounds. The task was complicated by the fact that the guns of 4 Brigade were also firing from the north on the same enemy group. An ‘88’ firing at almost point-blank range disabled page 214 page 215 seven I tanks in quick succession and the infantry had to push on without tank support. Their lorries drove through heavy fire, the infantry fanned out from them and pushed on with great determination, and opposition soon ceased, the enemy departing eastwards. The ‘88’ and two 50-millimetre anti-tank guns were captured and perhaps two 105-millimetre light field howitzers: the evidence is conflicting.

black and white map of attack position

20 battalion attacks point 172, 24 november

The ‘88’ had caused other damage, however, before 20 Battalion arrived on the scene. It had destroyed the tank of 44 Royal Tanks in which an FOO of the 8th Field travelled, killing an RA wireless operator. Before this 46 Battery had engaged this enemy pocket from Gambut airfield and C Troop of 25 Battery had moved forward in a sniping role. In this capacity C Troop claimed—perhaps correctly—to have destroyed the ‘88’. Later, when the 20 Battalion attack drove off the enemy, the guns of 4 Brigade, including V/AA Battery, helped to disperse the survivors and add to their confusion.

The chief concern of 4 Brigade was not with the small pocket of enemy to the south, but with what looked like powerful enemy concentrations to the north and west on both sides of the Via Balbia, as well as with mortars close at hand and the persistent 150-millimetre howitzer. The concentrations were actually of supply columns of the Africa Corps and they offered no threat to 4 Brigade; but this was not realised at the time. Lieutenant-Colonel Duff therefore ordered targets to be engaged by the largest possible number of guns, a display of strength to impress the enemy and deter attack. By 3 p.m. all was quiet and soon after this the brigade resumed its march westwards, parallel with a move by Divisional Headquarters along the Trigh Capuzzo.32

The move brought 4 Brigade almost level on a north-south line with 6 Brigade, which was completing its capture of Point 175. To the south the whole of the enemy armoured force was engaged in an astonishing manoeuvre, Rommel's celebrated dash to the frontier, which served the immediate purpose of ending the threat of tank attack on 6 Brigade and ultimately resulted in the defeat of the hitherto victorious German armour. Neither the scope nor the purpose of the move were immedi- page 216 ately apparent to 6 Brigade and the only effect it had this day was to attract fire from B Troop of the 6th Field, which was moved to the southern perimeter of the brigade to get within range of the close-packed enemy columns. Meanwhile 48 Battery engaged targets in the direction of Sidi Rezegh. Ammunition for the 25-pounders was not sufficient to allow a programme of supporting fire for the infantry attack in the afternoon which carried the barely discernible top of Point 175; but resistance was soon overcome. When Divisional Headquarters gained contact at dusk 21 Battalion Group joined 6 Brigade, to compensate for the heavy losses of the previous day, and 47 Battery came under the command of the 6th Field. The Divisional Artillery was further increased by the arrival of W/X Battery of the 8th Field and, unexpectedly, by 259 Battery of the 65th Anti-Tank. Both remained for the time being, however, with 1 Army Tank Brigade in Divisional Headquarters Group.

32 The stay at Gambut had been frustrating for a detachment from 1 Survey Troop, which had first tried with little success to pinpoint by flash-spotting the guns opposing 20 Battalion and had then moved to the scene of the fighting to flash-spot the enemy concentrations north-west of 4 Brigade. No sooner were posts established for this purpose and communications completed, however, than word came to pack up and move westwards.