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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Remnants of the Division Gather at Zaafran

page 278

The Remnants of the Division Gather at Zaafran

Divisional Headquarters—the little that was left of it after non-essential vehicles had gone into Tobruk—had camped in the north-eastern part of the 6th Field area and from it Freyberg and his senior staff watched the battle. Only at the last moment, when men no more than 200 yards ahead were surrendering and 48 Battery less D Troop had driven through, did Freyberg agree to withdraw. The last remaining ‘runners’ of the 44th Royal Tanks had gone forward and up the rough track leading on to the north-eastern end of Belhamed, where they stayed for most of the day hull-down, discouraging any exploitation of the enemy success.

Barrowclough's headquarters was to the south-east, covered by a thin line of infantry, 10 more or less damaged tanks of the 8th Royal Tanks, and a few guns, with the engineer company and 25 Battalion still clinging to their positions above the escarpment. On the western flank of 6 Brigade Headquarters there were at least three guns of the 65th Anti-Tank and three Bofors of 43 Light Ack-Ack Battery, with the four 18-pounders of M Troop to their left rear, much hampered by vehicles to their front. All had fired furiously as the enemy attacked towards Belhamed. As an infantry private recalls it, ‘Our AA were barrel down, flat out, open sights’. Shelling of the area continued after the tank force had passed and M Troop replied, though with doubtful effect. A lorry which came up to replenish 18-pounder ammunition was hit and one of the guns was put out of action. After two or three hours had passed and enemy was seen approaching from the direction of the Mosque in considerable strength, the situation seemed hopeless.

Salvation came, however, after much high-level discussion, in the form of Stuart tanks of a British armoured brigade, which drove from the south-east into the lines of the engineers and 25 Battalion and descended the escarpment. Screened by these tanks, most of the troops in and around 6 Brigade Headquarters managed to get away, in many cases under heavy fire, and after a false start which took some of them up the Rugbet en-Nbeidat towards the Italians on Point 175, they headed northwards to join 4 Brigade at Zaafran. The engineers had little transport and many of them travelled part of the way on tanks or on the anti-tank portées (two each of O and P Troops). L Troop with 25 Battalion withdrew under shellfire, but suffered no harm.

page 279

The remnants of the New Zealand Division—3000-odd men—were now utterly dependent on a handful of I tanks and on the guns, almost all of them under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Duff and most of them sited in the shallow wadi between Belhamed and Zaafran. The staff of 4 Brigade, after continuing to reinforce the eastern flank during the night, did not fully realise even at this late stage that the main danger was from the west. But Inglis's headquarters had moved in mid-morning from the wadi to Zaafran, interrupting communications and for several critical hours losing track of the situation. Duff stayed where he was and his communications to the guns were all-important. He commanded virtually a divisional artillery, with two field regiments (the 4th and 8th) and some of the remnants of the 6th Field, many anti-tank 2-pounders and 18-pounders, and some of the remaining Bofors. E Section, Divisional Signals, under Lieutenant Laugesen,69 improvised skilfully to cope with traffic far greater than their equipment was designed to handle. A diary entry in the afternoon reads: ‘Signal office exchange has now 21 subscribers and all lines very busy’. The RHQ office truck from which Duff conducted operations was exposed to fire from almost all directions and a hole some six feet in diameter was therefore dug nearby and equipped with extension telephones in case the truck was hit. But it was not until the final conference this day that the hole was used—with the warm approval of the officers concerned.

The wide, shallow wadi became for most of its length the front line and there was little or no infantry cover for the guns in it, though several resolutely manned Vickers guns gave close support. Near the mouth of it 46 Battery was badly placed to meet a tank attack after Belhamed fell and therefore moved back 500 yards to a slight ridge from which anti-tank fields of fire were better, though the guns remained in a field role, controlled mainly by Major Kensington of 25 Battery from the eastern edge of Belhamed itself. Also near the mouth, Lieutenant Gapes70 had his three remaining 18-pounders of Q Troop. A little to the south-east but still near the mouth, V/AA Battery of the 8th Field was getting short of ammunition when it was joined by C Troop of the 6th Field from Belhamed with welcome page 280 come reserves. Ascending the wadi, the next guns were nine 25-pounders of W/X Battery of the 8th Field, also badly placed for anti-tank action. Four of these (including the two attached from 25 Battery) were therefore sent farther south in an antitank role. At the Sciuearat strongpoint 26 Battery, in a combined anti-tank and field role, was joined by five 2-pounders of the 65th Anti-Tank. In the heart of the brigade position D Troop's four 18-pounders were the last defence against tank attack from the west. All available 2-pounders and Bofors were interleaved with the heavier guns in the shallow wadi to stiffen the anti-tank defence. Ten more 2-pounders and three 18-pounders (one of them unserviceable) arrived with the 6 Brigade remnants and could well have been used, with the infantry, to provide further strength on the threatened western flank; but the 4 Brigade BM had them sited or deployed on the eastern flank, which was quiet. The only enemy active there were some 3000-odd Italians in large lorries, intent on surrendering after the 8th Field fired a brief concentration at them. A few tanks were seen to the east from time to time, but none of them was venturesome. To the west it was a very different story. The bulk of 15 Panzer Division was preparing to continue its advance from Belhamed to Zaafran and only the few I tanks and the guns blocked its way.

The wadi was under constant shellfire, yet the many and various tasks which had to be performed to serve the guns and control their fire were carried out without pause. They included the work of 9 Light Aid Detachment under Second-Lieutenant Bourke,71 repairing damaged guns. Bourke worked in the open, with first a bombardier and then a sergeant of the 4th Field helping him. After the campaign there was a court of inquiry into the loss of certain guns and Bourke's evidence to this under oath reads in part as follows:

‘One of A Tp's Bdrs came to see me about repairing a gun with a damaged trail. I … found it had the trail damaged badly on the left side and also the dial sight carrier damaged. We then decided that there was enough of the trail left to carry on firing provided we changed the dial sight carrier bracket with the gun mentioned first.

‘No. 2 gun also had both tyres cut to ribbons. We changed the dial sight bracket from No. 1 and removed the two wheels complete from No. 1 gun….No. 2 gun was then taken page 281 away by the Bdr to A Tp….Captain Shortt sent down a further gun (No. 3 gun). The tell tale rod on this gun was right out. We removed the stuffing box and U-section packings Sgt Ayton72 of 26 Bty assisting me. We got new U-section packings and at this stage while fitting packings the position we were in was heavily shelled. We then decided to move the LAD and moved about 200 yards in the lee of the hill. I went back with Sgt Ayton. We managed to get two complete wheels at this stage which we placed on No. 1 gun.’

And all this work, related in this matter-of-fact fashion, went on in front of the infantry and in constant expectation of tank attack by enemy just beyond the slight rise to the west! In the overcrowded RAP of the 4th Field, also under shellfire most of the day, the same kind of selfless devotion to the work at hand was evident and taken for granted. Some of the patients, including Beattie and Symon (both badly wounded), were casualties of the 6th Field in its early morning fight.

69 Capt N. W. Laugesen; born NZ 4 Dec 1903; real-estate agent; killed in action 22 Jul 1942.

70 Capt B. G. Gapes, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wellington, 17 Jul 1915; car salesman. Gapes had gone forward in the morning in time to see elements of 20 Bn rounded up on Belhamed. Hull-down tanks knocked out one of his guns, Q1 under Sgt D. G. Mackenzie, and forced him to withdraw the other three.

71 Capt H. J. Bourke, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 15 Jul 1911; motor mechanic.

72 Capt J. J. Ayton, MBE, m.i.d.; Auckland; born New Hebrides, 12 Apr 1918; brass finisher; now Regular Force.