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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Gazala Battle

The Gazala Battle

It seemed like the end of the story for the New Zealand gunners in Tobruk; but there was more to come. After a few quiet days in the Bardia area following the slaughter at Menastir on the 3rd, 5 Brigade was committed to pursue the Axis forces retreating westwards. Its depleted artillery, however, was in urgent need of reinforcement and the 5th Field therefore entered Tobruk on its way to the front. The composite battery there discarded its German and Italian guns and added its remaining resources to those of the newcomers to form a new 5th Field of five 25-pounder troops under Major Sprosen, with Major Philp commanding 27 Battery and Snadden 28 Battery. The gun crews were a mixture of all three field regiments.

E Troop of 42 Light Ack-Ack had meanwhile salvaged the three Bofors of the Right Section of D Troop which had been lost at Sidi Azeiz and by 5 December D Troop had five guns and E Troop seven. The two troops, numbering 123 all ranks, moved with 5 Brigade to the outskirts of the Tobruk fortress area on the 9th; but D Troop lost one gun which capsized in a culvert. (It was salvaged by morning, but needed repair and was retained by the New Zealand Bofors gunners in Tobruk.) The brigade group paused outside Tobruk for a day, gathering and improvising resources for mobile operations, and then drove on westwards in the early hours of the 11th without waiting for the field guns. At Acroma it split up and the D Troop Bofors moved with the Maori Battalion inland while those of E Troop with 23 Battalion took the coast road.

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The Right Section of E Troop, which was leading, leapt into action when 13 three-engined Ju52s came over very low, evidently believing Acroma to be in Axis hands, and gave them a rousing reception. One Junkers came down in flames and others were almost certainly damaged. It was some compensation for the days spent under shellfire in the Sollum and Capuzzo areas when the Bofors gunners had no way of hitting back.

At Gazala from the 11th onwards the ack-ack gunners had a most exciting time. Three bombers coming out of the clouds on the 12th met the fire of E Troop and veered off quickly. Then E Troop engaged a formation of Me109Fs—high-performance single-engined fighters—moving away at 4000 feet. A twinengined Me110 made a better target; but a large group of Stukas did not come within range. D Troop with the Maoris was in action early on the 13th, firing at Heinkel bombers at long range. Two Me109Fs kept coming over and were engaged whenever possible; but they were elusive targets. Shellfire damaged a D Troop gun; but E Troop avenged this near Bir el Geff by bringing down three out of 25 Stukas. Two of the remainder were seen to be smoking as they flew away. An enemy bomber retaliated by making a deliberate attack on one of the Bofors; but it caused no casualty and did no damage. Next day the Right Section of E Troop saw 15 Stukas and 40 fighters and later in the morning a similar force; but to the keep disappointment of the gunners neither group came within range. D Troop with the Maori Battalion also had a frustrating experience watching a heavy dive-bombing attack on 5 Brigade Headquarters, just out of reach of the Bofors. From then onwards the ack-ack gunners, well forward with the infantry, came under shellfire which was at times quite heavy; but they had only one more opportunity to engage enemy aircraft in the Gazala area. On the 17th four Me109Fs attacked a force of Blenheim bombers with fighter escort and the Bofors were quick to bring the German fighters under fire and help to drive them off.86

The New Zealand infantry began their operations at Gazala under cover of fire from two brave and skilful troops of the 1st RHA. One of these with a famous name harking back to the Peninsular War, Chestnut Troop, advanced with 23 Battalion along the coast road. When the leading infantry came page 293 under heavy artillery fire on the 11th, Chestnut Troop engaged the much larger enemy artillery and covered a slight withdrawal. In fierce fighting next day the RHA gunners helped the New Zealanders to seize and hold against counter-attack the last major outpost in front of the Gazala line proper, while the other RHA troop covered the Maoris on an easier advance inland. On the 13th Chestnut Troop suffered a heavy bombardment from several enemy batteries and lost one man killed and five wounded. The other troop gave covering fire to 22 Battalion in a further advance; but at the end of it no fewer than 10 troops of enemy field guns were located ahead and for further page 294 operations much stronger artillery support would be needed. It looked very much as though the enemy was prepared to fight a pitched battle in defence of the vital Gazala line.

black and white map of assault plan

assault on the gazala line, 13–16 december

The reorganised 5th Field was therefore most welcome when it arrived on the 13th from Tobruk. Major Philp's 27 Battery with three 25-pounder troops relieved the RHA troop inland and this went to join Chestnut Troop with 23 Battalion on the coast, while Major Snadden's 28 Battery with two 25-pounder troops supported the Maoris. Philp and his OP party came under heavy and accurate fire as they went forward to study the situation, but they ‘took evasive action which was very neatly done’ (according to one witness) and suffered no harm. Philp was asked to bring down predicted fire during the night, but he was sceptical of reported locations of hostile batteries and did not do so—a decision vindicated when these were later found to be most inaccurate. The Maoris, however, were itching to attack a strongpoint immediately ahead and at 3 a.m. on the 14th Snadden's battery fired a 15-minute concentration on it before the Maoris charged in and took it at the point of the bayonet, making much use of hand grenades.

No further advance was attempted on the 14th, but the infantry were close up against the main defences and came under a lot of fire which the field gunners did their best to overcome. They engaged several Italian 75s and damaged more than one of them—old-fashioned guns with wooden wheels, some of them bravely but curiously fired from ground level and not from gun pits. Brigade Headquarters was twice bombed and in RHQ two gunners were wounded when an ammunition truck was hit.87 The Bofors were too few to give adequate cover to the large area occupied by the various headquarters, but one Stuka was shot down by small-arms fire.

A Polish brigade now arrived on the scene and its units were sited in an area overlapping that of 5 Brigade. The Poles were to attack in conjunction with the Maoris, but zero hour was changed several times and the impatient Poles, disclosing their positions prematurely, brought down much fire on themselves. This in turn caused 27 Battery to undertake a long and difficult counter-battery programme to ease the strain on the Poles, and in the course of this some Polish guns, in trying to help, fired short and caused casualties in a Polish battalion headquarters. Much confusion resulted and Major Philp had to try to sort things out with a Polish liaison officer.

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Both attacks were nevertheless successful and bit deep into the main defences of the Gazala line. That of the Maoris, starting in mid-afternoon, was ambitious and complicated and the gunners had a hard time trying to keep in touch with the changing situation and give support where it was most needed. Daylight on the 16th, however, disclosed many local difficulties with enemy posts by-passed in the night. A Polish carrier fell victim to one such post on the left flank and Captain Bent88 and his driver, with a Polish motor-cyclist, laboured bravely under fire to rescue the wounded. In the evening the Poles carried out a special patrol to avenge this incident and their success was attested ‘by the squeals of the Italians’. Early on the 16th, too, what looked like a counter-attack on the Maoris and Brigade Headquarters attracted the fire of every field gun within reach and of four New Zealand Vickers guns, and it was shattered before it began. Many of the force of some 800 Italians were killed or wounded, the remainder fled, and when the scene was inspected next day it provided some gruesome sights. The Maoris meanwhile struck dogged opposition in trying to extend their positions and a thrust by 22 Battalion failed to capture some troublesome enemy posts. The field gunners were therefore called on to keep these quiet.

Further strong opposition was expected on the 17th; but the enemy had fled in the night. It was a sudden anti-climax and many of the gunners felt somehow cheated. Infantry carrier patrols were allowed to carry on westwards (though they were soon recalled); but the guns had to stay where they were. On the 18th, in a concentration area at Bir el-Geff, gunners learned that they would soon return to Baggush. Next day Major Philp, with the full support of his men, asked that 27 Battery might be allowed to continue to serve with 13 Corps when 5 Brigade withdrew; but his request was flatly refused. On the 21st Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow arrived to take command of the 5th Field and a party of officers including Sprosen and Philp returned to Baggush. Two days later the regiment followed. X Ack-Ack Battery had handed over its war equipment, including guns, to RA gunners in Tobruk on the 21st and also made its way back to Baggush. The main body of the 5th Field split up in a fierce sandstorm near Buq Buq on the road back, with the result that RHQ and 27 Battery reached Baggush on Christmas Day but 28 Battery did not arrive until Boxing Day. There were many warm reunions and New Year's Eve was lively and page 296 spectacular. It was soon followed by the good news that almost all the NCOs and gunners (though not the officers) of the 5th Field, 7th Anti-Tank and 14th Light Ack-Ack who had been captured at Sidi Azeiz and imprisoned in Bardia were safely recovered and on their way back to Base. This was a happy tailpiece to what was for the Divisional Artillery as a whole the hardest campaign of the war.

The losses when they were finally worked out produced the following figures:

Killed and Died of Wounds Wounded Wounded and Prisoner of War Prisoner of War (Unwounded) Total
HQNZA 1 1 2* 1 5
4th Field 26 56 2 6 90
5th Field 49 52 8 53 162
6th Field 55 97 11 73 236
7th Anti-Tank 49 76 17 44 186
14th Light Ack-Ack 17 41 6 64
1 Survey Troop 1 3 4
198 326 40 183 747

Among them were two regimental commanders, Oakes, an inspiring leader in action, killed while recklessly refusing to take cover from the fire of 21 Panzer Division on the Trigh Capuzzo, and Fraser, captured at Sidi Azeiz.89 The gravest loss by far, however, was that of Miles (who escaped from captivity but did not survive the war). Reggie Miles was an all-round gunner, interested and accomplished in every sphere of gunnery; but he was more than that. At all levels and in all units he was admired and respected and when he disappeared into the swirling smoke and dust at Belhamed in the company of some of his beloved gunners it was as if the Divisional Artillery had lost its father.

86 On the same day, by an unkind twist of fate, a gunner of 42 Battery held captive in the Bardia compound was killed by an RAF bomb.

87 Gnrs J. Heenay and R. V. Green.

88 Maj W. S. Bent, m.i.d.; born Waiuku, 3 Oct 1916; insurance clerk.

89 Fraser in due course was repatriated and served with distinction in the New Zealand Returned Services Association, for many years as its president. As CO of the 5th Field he was most conscientious, and characteristically he did not regard his duty towards his wartime colleagues as ended with the ending of the war.

* *Includes Brig R. Miles, later classified as Died on Active Service.