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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery


page 235

THE artillery of 5 Brigade had meanwhile fought several hard actions in the frontier area. For three and a half days, while the New Zealand Division fought its way through to Tobruk, the German Africa Corps busied itself almost exclusively with trying to subdue 5 Brigade and an Indian brigade in the frontier area. In the end it failed and had to dash back to the Tobruk front still smarting from this failure. The effect of this on the outcome of the campaign was every bit as great as that of the success of the New Zealand Division and the Tobruk garrison in gaining the vital triangle formed by Belhamed, Ed Duda and Sidi Rezegh.

When 22 Battalion relieved the 20th at Menastir on 23 November, Headquarters of 5 Brigade took over the defence of Sidi Azeiz, with its small but useful landing ground. Its resources for this task were small indeed. In the end, after thinning out the Menastir position slightly, they amounted to two cavalry squadrons, a company of the 22nd, a defence platoon, E Troop of the 5th Field, the 18-pounders of H Troop, 32 Anti-Tank Battery, four 2-pounders of 34 Battery, and a section (three Bofors) of D Troop, 42 Light Ack-Ack Battery, together with a platoon of four Vickers guns. Besides these there were various headquarters: those of Divisional Cavalry, the 5th Field, 32 Anti-Tank Battery, 42 Light Ack-Ack Battery, and the Machine Gun Battalion–a valuable but largely defenceless aggregation of staffs and vehicles.

At Menastir 22 Battalion (less the company) held the road block and the lofty escarpment above with 28 Battery (less E Troop), F Troop of 32 Battery, a section of 42 Light Ack-Ack, and an MG company. At Capuzzo 23 Battalion held the battered fort and the track junctions to the east as far as Musaid with 27 Field Battery, E Troop and part of G Troop of 32 Anti-Tank, a section of E Troop, 42 Light Ack-Ack and an MG company. At Upper Sollum the barracks and the pass itself were held by 28 (Maori) Battalion, which shared the support of 27 Battery, part of G Troop of 32 Anti-Tank and an MG platoon. The brigade therefore occupied four distinct positions, Sidi Azeiz, Menastir, Capuzzo and Upper Sollum.

page 236

The last two shared the services of 27 Battery, but in other respects there was no co-ordinated defence. The weakness of such dispositions when it came to meeting the onslaught of the Africa Corps are evident enough and a well-planned attack would certainly have overwhelmed 5 Brigade. Had it been left to the Corps Commander, Lieutenant-General Cruewell, this might well have happened; but General Rommel himself intervened in hasty and haphazard fashion and squandered his resources.

The first serious fighting on this front, however, was not with the Africa Corps, but with the Bardia garrison, which staged a sortie at 7 a.m. on 24 November against the Menastir position. The 25-pounders of 27 Battery fired ‘point blank over open sights’ (according to the brigade major) and the Bofors gunners depressed their barrels and joined in with excellent results. After half an hour the enemy drew off, mounted their vehicles, and hastened away. The only other action this day was counter-battery fire by 27 Battery against the strong artillery of the enemy position around Sollum proper and Halfaya Pass.

The Halfaya guns resumed this duel on the 25th, and since some of them were at very long range and well hidden, 27 Battery could not always give effective reply. Ammunition was, moreover, scarce and it could not be wasted on long-range fire of doubtful effect. A more rewarding task was to engage actual enemy movement below and likely OPs, and the field gunners gained much applause from the watching Maoris when they scored a direct hit on a much-frequented warehouse by Sollum pier.