2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Mopping Up Near Sidi Rezegh
Mopping Up Near Sidi Rezegh
The action at Capuzzo in the afternoon of 27 November was the enemy's last effort in the frontier area, and before it ceased the bulk of the Africa Corps was well on its way back to the Tobruk front. After clashing on the way with British armour at Bir el Chleta this evening, advanced elements were working their way along the southern flank of the New Zealand Division by the morning of the 28th. The significance of their return was grasped no better than that of their departure from the Tobruk area had been comprehended on 24 November and the Division was destined to experience some rude shocks.
The Division still concerned itself chiefly with putting its own house in order. Two places in particular needed to be cleaned up: the fortified position on the escarpment west of the Blockhouse and the large enemy pocket between Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh. The strength of the latter had been reassessed after the failure of the two-company attack the previous day page 250 and planning for a second attack was far more careful. Divisional Headquarters and 6 Brigade both contributed to it. Brigadier Miles spent a busy morning concerting arrangements between the 4th and 6th Field. Both regiments and some of the 8th Field, RA, were to fire in support, the 4th Field starting with a five-minute concentration at 4 r.p.g. per minute ‘in front of tank start line’, the 6th Field joining in later. This programme required 480 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition, which was more than Duff could afford for this preliminary shoot. Weir, who had far better observation of the ground than Duff, was put in charge of the field artillery, and in the morning registered targets with all batteries concerned and his page 251 headquarters made the calculations on which predicted fire was to be based. As an afterthought, Captain Turner of Miles's headquarters went to see Major ‘Stump’ Gibbon of the 44th Royal Tanks, who was to command the attacking force, with an offer (which was accepted) for the 6th Field to fire smoke shells to shield the advance of the I-tank squadron which was to lead the advance.
The concentration started at 2 p.m. and the tanks and two companies of infantry, with carriers and some of the cavalry squadron, attacked promptly. Freyberg and Miles watched it intently and it was an impressive sight. Weir, observing from the escarpment above and in touch by wireless with both regiments, says ‘I had the best bird's eye view of any attack that I suppose I am likely to get.’ He brought down fire from his own regiment on the second objective and kept it there until the I tanks arrived and the enemy there surrendered. Then he lifted fire to the third objective. The attack went like clockwork except that, at the last moment, he had to cancel the 6th Field part in the third and final concentration because of urgent need for supporting fire for 6 Brigade infantry south of the Mosque. This made no difference. The attack was a complete success and something like 700 prisoners were taken at very little cost. All three field regiments provided observed fire as required and it was overwhelmingly effective. The defended area was ‘thoroughly churned up’, according to the 4th Field report, ‘and little resistance was met.’ By 2.14 p.m. 25 Battery reported its fire tasks were completed. At 2.45 p.m. F Troop OP reported thus to the 4th Field:
‘Tks well up into area. INF. well into area. Prisoners coming out in all directions. Firing practically stopped. Leading Tks are well up towards Sidi Rezegh. One vehicle on fire believed Bren Carrier.’
Five minutes later E Troop OP stated that there was ‘still a little opposition’. At the end of it all the three batteries which had fired under Duff's command reported their ammunition states as follows:
|25 Battery||35 r.p.g.|
|26 Battery||30 r.p.g.|
|V/AA Battery||55 r.p.g.|
The whole operation was a polished demonstration of the co-operation of all arms in an attack and stood in sharp contrast to many other operations carried out in this campaign page 252 in which the same effect might have been produced had the authorities concerned made the necessary effort. It was followed almost immediately by an example of much the same kind of thing to the north-west of Belhamed where the Tobruk garrison was ‘mopping up’ strongpoints. I tanks were in evidence to watchers on Belhamed, large numbers of prisoners were glimpsed, shelling was seen from both sides, and 46 Battery contributed on the spur of the moment one round of gun fire which silenced three enemy guns. Just before 6 p.m. Major Bevan of 26 Battery, the easternmost of the 4th Field guns, reported that a ‘Heavy scrap’ was taking place on the escarpment above him to the south, and that ‘someone [was] on edge of escarpment, someone below shooting up MG A Tk and mortar, people on top doing same. People on top firing white flares.’ This was the first indication to 4 Brigade that the rear of the Division was threatened, though it contained no suggestion that the German Africa Corps had returned from the frontier. It was taken more seriously at Brigade Headquarters when further information came in during the night and Brigadier Inglis caused Duff to set up a strongpoint at Bir Sciuearat, north of the Wadi Esc-Sciomar, with 26 Battery and later five 2-pounders of the 65th Anti-Tank, RA, and some attached infantry, including South Africans.
After a quiet morning, 6 Brigade spent an anxious afternoon. Its battalions were greatly below strength. One company consisted of a captain, a corporal and thirty-odd privates. Barrow-clough nevertheless decided to capture without fail the fortified position on the escarpment west of the Blockhouse, and preparations for this were in progress when much enemy activity was seen to the west and south.
The first move was to register the targets for the 6th Field for the attack on the strongpoint and A Troop did so. It proved difficult, for the strongpoint, as Weir himself says, was ‘built into an escarpment’ and ‘very cleverly constructed and concealed’. His officers failed to locate suitable targets and so he went personally to a derelict tank from which he could observe at least part of the general target area. From there he could ‘plainly see Huns walking about taking the sun.’ He ranged on the area and they quickly went to ground. At the same time (and unknown to Weir), Major Sawyers of 48 Battery had set up an OP from which he could bring down small-arms fire on part of the enemy position. As soon as Weir completed his part of the artillery programme of the 4 Brigade attack, he page 253 turned his attention to this task. Two infantry platoons had been waiting to stage the attack. Weir called for them to do so and watched them work their way towards the strongpoint, holding it under fire from A Troop. As soon as the infantry were close, Weir lifted his fire and they charged.
The result surprised everyone. Even the infantry concerned thought they still had some way to go when the enemy rose from the desert around them and surrendered. Sawyers had gone forward, impatient as usual, to get a better view while his OP staff kept up covering small-arms fire, when he noticed a German who evidently wanted to give himself up. Sawyers indicated that he should bring the rest of the garrison with him and the German apparently did so. Weir, who had meanwhile planned a programme of supporting fire by most of his guns to reduce the strongpoint, was delighted to see the enemy thus easily taken. Thinking that the strongpoint contained no more than an anti-tank gun and about 20 men with a machine gun or two, he was astonished when 180-odd Germans plus 20 of their captives (most of these New Zealanders) appeared. Doubtless the enemy were depressed by the sight of the surrender of the much larger strongpoint below them, of which they had a grandstand view. The fortifications were also astonishing. They contained an ‘88’, several smaller anti-tank guns, and several mortars, as well as many machine guns. All gun pits were roofed in and concreted and had covered sleeping quarters.