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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Belhamed is Also Lost

Belhamed is Also Lost

The 6th Field was not entirely alone in its last stand, nor was this action isolated and complete in itself. It was part of an attack on Belhamed which was opposed, in the first instance, not only by the 6th Field who met it head on, but by flanking fire from troops around 6 Brigade Headquarters to the southeast. In its later stages it came up against the eastern defences of Belhamed: 20 Battalion and supporting weapons.

Major Snadden had his OP in the western half of Belhamed, near Headquarters 18 Battalion, and mortar bombs showered page 276 down there, as he says, ‘like rain’. It was the heaviest bombardment Snadden experienced throughout the war. There was nothing he could do about it, however, for his line to the 4th Field was cut and his wireless out of order. The only gunners in the neighbourhood who could help were the anti-tankers. They had A2 and A3 covering the north-western approaches and C3 the southern, with A4 near the boundary with 20 Battalion and facing south-east. A fifth gun, B2, was on the other side of the boundary and a sixth, a captured German gun manned by WO II Stobie, was some 200 yards south-west of A4.

When Stobie gave a sharp ‘Tank Alert’ A4 engaged an infantry truck which emerged from the smoke and destroyed it, together with the gun it was towing, according to Gunner Cowan,66 the gun layer. ‘The smoke and dust swirled forward again and covered everything.’ C3 fired on a troop of field guns taking up position to the south, hit several of them, and forced the rest to withdraw behind the smoke. Then A2 and A3 swung round and engaged tanks to the south-east.

The four 2-pounders of B Troop were disposed with B1, B2 and B3 just behind the leading platoons of the 20th and B4 nearer to the escarpment. C Troop had been sited to fire northwards from the eastern end of the feature; but Major Levy, the 31 Battery commander, brought it into action behind 29 Field Battery once the direction of the attack became apparent. When the tanks finally approached 20 Battalion they did so with great caution, halting and firing smoke grenades or shells to blind the gunners. B1 and B3 got away one round and four rounds respectively before being put out of action and the survivors of B3 were shot down when they tried to get away. B2 fought a brave action which lasted a good deal longer. The last part was a solo effort by the only survivor of the gun crew, Bombardier Marshall. ‘He must have been shooting at gun flashes’, says a witness, ‘for it was impossible to see tanks in the thick smoke’. Marshall continued to fire after the infantry in front had surrendered to the tanks and he was still firing when the attack moved on to the 18 Battalion area and the gun A4 was overrun. He had been captured in Greece and then escaped, vowing he would never again be taken prisoner. In the end a tank ran right over his gun. The Germans must page break page 277 have been impressed; for Marshall was the only New Zealander on Belhamed they bothered to bury in their short occupation of that feature. The crew of B4 and Second-Lieutenant McCluskey67 who was with them could see no target through the haze, and when the infantry around surrendered they made their escape down the escarpment, taking their firing mechanism and followed by machine-gun fire, which wounded McCluskey and a gunner. The gun was later recovered.

colour map of last stand at zaran

Only a few detachments of 18 Battalion near the 20th surrendered and the crew of A4 was among them. The rest of the battalion stood fast, still supported by the 2-pounders A2, A3 and C3, and field artillery support was somehow obtained in the form of DF tasks from Tobruk guns to the north-west. Stobie had manned his German gun until wounded and when German infantry began digging in nearby he shammed dead. (Next day he took over a deserted vehicle and drove to safety.) When 18 Battalion withdrew a short distance and wheeled to face the enemy on the eastern part of the feature, A2, A3 and C3 could not be taken. There were no towing vehicles and the distance was too great and the ground too rough to manhandle them under fire. The survivors of their crews therefore served for the time being as infantry and became, like the rest of the battalion, part of the Tobruk garrison. All guns but A4 were later recovered.68

66 Sgt J. L. Cowan; Waipawa, Hawke's Bay; born Gisborne, 8 Jan 1916; farmer; p.w. 1 Dec 1941; escaped, Benghazi, 21 Dec 1941; safe at Base Camp, Maadi, 8 Jan 1942; wounded 25 Oct 1942.

67 Lt F. H. McCluskey; Wellington; born Dunedin, 18 Dec 1905; engineer; twice wounded.

68 Brigadier H. B. Latham, BRA (Brigadier, Royal Artillery) of 13 Corps, went over the Belhamed battlefield two or three days later and was much moved by what he saw. After the war he was in charge of the preparation of narratives for the British Official History, and in a letter of 16 July 1949 to Major-General Sir Howard Kippenberger he described this episode. The letter in part reads as follows:

‘The first thing one noticed was that the Gunners had obviously put up the hell of a fight. And I was so impressed that I picked up a rammer and after having it roughly inscribed sent it off to Freyberg. Practically every gun was a “write off” though in the shops it might have been possible to make up one out of the parts of two. The dead were lying around each gun, each man nearly in his place and burnt out tractors and trailers were just in rear. Here undoubtedly there had been no thought of surrender or withdrawal and all had died in the service of the guns.

‘The whole thing gave me the feeling of the fort in “Beau Geste” and I thought to myself: I have seen these chaps fighting for many a day now and something has happened here quite out of the ordinary … a battle royal had taken place with the N.Z. guns which ended in the utter annihilation of the latter.

‘I found poor Miles's car, on its side with its kit still in it and I went back sadly to Tobruk to ask the New Zealanders there to send out a party to clear the battlefield and bury the dead.’