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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Break-out After Dark

page 326

The Break-out After Dark

So long as the Division could escape from the encircling enemy during the night, the shortage of ammunition did not greatly matter; but the enemy was in considerable strength on the escarpment to the east, the ground to the south-east—the only direction not blocked by enemy forces—was unknown and might prove impassable on a night march, and a night fight was clearly necessary. The Division would have to force its way through or past the concentration to the east, which had been observed by the 4th Field as early as 5.15 p.m., but could not be effectively shelled because of the shortage of ammunition. For the same reason and to preserve the element of surprise, no artillery preparation could be given to the break-out attack.

The artillery was able to provide invaluable assistance, however, to the rest of the Division this night. A last-minute attempt by 5 Brigade to recover its transport, regrouped to the south-east, was unavailing and the transport stayed where it was. This was bad enough even for the gunners, who would have to do without many portées and other vehicles they needed for the night march; for the infantry it threatened calamity. A large-scale exodus on foot was unthinkable. The 4 Brigade position was less cramped and the brigade had retained considerably more of its transport than 5 Brigade. The artillery, however, had to keep many vehicles—ammunition lorries, OP and Signals trucks, and much HQ transport—at hand to service and control the guns and these were now worth their weight in gold. Without them the 5 Brigade infantry could not have got away from Minqar Qaim.

The plan was that 4 Brigade infantry would form up, stage a short, sharp, silent night attack, mount the transport following close behind, and the Reserve Group and 5 Brigade would drive through the gap thus made into the open desert beyond and make for El Alamein, 90-odd miles away. The anti-tank portées and field guns would guard the flanks and rear of the transport. Zero hour was 12.30 a.m. on 28 June.

The usual profusion of German flares of many colours went up after dark, seemingly in all directions. The four troops of 31 Battery formed their portées and other vehicles up behind the 4 Brigade transport, the exhausted gunners of the 4th Field lined up their vehicles on the flanks,20 and 41 Battery page 327 dispersed its Bofors—ill-adapted for fast night travel over rough desert—among the other vehicles. Then the 4 Brigade gunners waited. Zero hour came and passed and they were still waiting, many of them fast asleep.

For the gunners of 5 Brigade it was not so simple. The 5th Field assembled all its vehicles as infantry were forming up to march off. Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow, asked to carry about a company of them, ended up by finding room for about a battalion and a half ‘on top of quads, in amn vehicles, PUs and even sitting on parts of guns’, as he later wrote. The anti-tankers had to carry a 6-pounder on each portée and tow another one, and also had infantry and others sitting, lying or clinging wherever they could on the overloaded vehicles. For the Bofors gunners of 42 Battery it was almost as bad. The packed transport drove into the Reserve Group and Divisional Headquarters area and there some men transferred from the grossly overcrowded vehicles into others with more room to spare. Even so, the 5th Field still carried the better part of a battalion, besides the gunners.

The 4 Brigade infantry attacked before 2 a.m. with great élan and burst through the lines of 21 Panzer Division, creating havoc as they did so and provoking much erratic fire. The transport and guns passed through almost as planned and the enemy was so shaken that very few of them were hit. The infantry mounted their lorries and the group moved on into the quiet desert beyond. The 4th Field, which had already lost an A Troop gun in the day's fighting, lost a B Troop gun and trailer and a pick-up truck disabled in the breakthrough. Sergeant Stevenson21 stopped to render the gun unserviceable. Later in the night the RHQ office truck broke down and RSM Bartley,22 who could not bear to part with it, worked frantically until he succeeded in repairing it. A Troop of 31 Battery lost its troop subaltern, Second-Lieutenant Bloore,23 who was killed while sitting on a portée by an AP shot which also wounded the driver. The same burst of fire damaged a hub of Sergeant Parks's 6-pounder, which was being towed, and after a few minutes, by which time C Troop was three or four miles from the enemy, the wheel came off. The gun crew, loth to leave page 328 their new gun, worked hard to repair it, together with the crew of another portée and the passengers of a three-tonner who generously stopped to help. The brigade had long since disappeared when they finally managed to put another wheel on and mount the gun on the portée. A little while later there was a sharp explosion, perhaps from an anti-personnel bomb lodged in the camouflage net, which slightly wounded Parks and caused Gunner Yates24 a nasty wound in the leg. Two portées of A Troop broke down on the journey and had to be towed by the other two. The two ad hoc gun crews of 33 Battery travelled behind 31 Battery. One of them, carrying Lieutenant Latta25 and four gunners including Frank Trace, was stripped for action; the other had 16 men on it and was towing a gun as well as carrying one. Latta had already sent away the 2-pounder portées still with 33 Battery laden with men of 18 Battalion after telling them that ‘if anything happened they were to head east and go for their lives’. When enemy fire opened on the transport, Trace's gun swung round and fired three shots at the flashes of tank guns. The third shot jammed and the portée hastened on. One tank, according to an NCO of Divisional Headquarters who saw it all, split in half and burst into flames. The ack-ack gunners with this group were luckier. They lost one 41 Battery vehicle; but none of the gunners was hurt.

The rest of the Divisional Artillery did not fare so well in the break-out. After waiting impatiently for 4 Brigade to send up the success signal, Brigadier Inglis, who now commanded the Division, decided to move over to the right of the 4 Brigade transport. The desert to the south-east seemed quiet by comparison with the firework display ahead and the rest of the transport might be able to drive through there unscathed. Some confusion occurred as a few 4 Brigade drivers joined this movement, but the mass of vehicles moved steadily for about a mile and a half until green flares rose up directly ahead. The leading vehicles halted, others at the rear closed up, and almost at once the enemy opened heavy fire on the packed transport, causing casualties, especially among trucks carrying men already wounded. The confusion that followed will live in the memories of all concerned.

page 329

Inglis drove out to the left as the darkness was shattered by gun flashes, tracers and burning vehicles, as well as the inevitable flares. Many drivers followed, including some of the 6th Field and 33 Battery and some of the 14th Light Ack-Ack; but the move took many painful minutes to get under way and those farther back had every reason to be impatient. Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow, quickly studying the situation and seeing that the enemy fire was on fixed lines, swung out to the right and then the left and gave the order ‘Right Take Ground’, bringing the following lines of vehicles out on to lines roughly parallel with those of the transport which followed Inglis. This manoeuvre was undoubtedly helped by fire directed at the enemy from a variety of weapons, and also by the fact that enemy fire was unduly high and much of it passed harmlessly overhead. Many other lorries farther back still, however, turned right away from the action and dispersed towards the north, where the commander of 22 Battalion spent anxious hours gathering them together. Other vehicles drove independently into the night and ended up driving eastwards in the general direction of the given destination.

Major Sawyers of 48 Battery rushed one of his 25-pounder troops into action in a manner reminiscent of the dawn engagement of the 6th Field seven months before at Bir el Chleta and it fired 10 rounds at the ominous shadows ahead before hooking on the guns and driving through. Many other gunners fired Bren guns, rifles or revolvers either from their vehicles or from the ground. Many vehicles were disabled and some of them burst into flames. Those travelling on them jumped, if they could, on to other vehicles passing. Captain Fisher of the 6th Field was one who lost contact with the main group under Inglis and made his own way through the enemy laager; he drove slowly, anxious not to attract attention, past an Opel car and other German transport, and once clear of it had no trouble in finding the dust clouds which marked the main route. Others were not so lucky. Lieutenant Mitchell and Second-Lieutenant Graham26 of M Troop, 33 Battery, drove at the rear of Divisional Headquarters at first. Then the column in front halted and 5 Brigade, presumably under Glasgow's orders, swung away to the right. Mitchell was ‘cruising round in the rear … to make sure there was nothing following’ when what he thought was an ‘88’ shell struck the engine of his page 330 crowded truck (Graham thought it might have been hit by a mortar bomb). A truck loaded with anti-tank mines was also hit, crashed into Mitchell's truck, and burst into flames. Both vehicles were evacuated in great haste and the sapper truck blew up shortly afterwards. With their driver and two batmen, Mitchell and Graham set off on foot in the direction they thought the Division had taken, collecting several stragglers on the way, all of them wounded or suffering from burns, and were in course of trying to get through the German lines unobserved (and perhaps steal a vehicle) when they were captured. The portée J3 was struck in the ammunition box by a tank shell and three of the crew were wounded by the exploding ammunition, the other three being picked up by a passing lorry. E Troop of 32 Battery towed the 2-pounders of F Troop as well as carrying its own 6-pounders on the portées. The actual breakout ‘was a spectacular and highly terrifying affair’ according to Lieutenant Rutherfurd:27

‘There were German machine-guns firing at us from our immediate front, while on the left enemy tanks at close range were firing heavily and with devastating effect at our columns. It was impossible to keep the troop together, and after a short time it developed into a headlong dash eastwards. Later I found myself in a small column of about a dozen vehicles, and at dawn we halted after having covered about 50–60 miles…. Present in this party were Lt-Col C. L. Walter and Major Don Sweetzer. There were a number of dead in our vehicles, so we buried them before continuing.’

Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow's handling of the large group which followed him towards the enemy lines was masterly. The war diary of the 5th Field mentions a bombardment with thermite mortar bombs; but none of the 5th Field vehicles was lost. At great speed Glasgow raced through, veering away from any green flares that went up around him, until the enemy was some way behind. Then he halted and regrouped the vehicles. The columns passed within 20 yards of a tank laager without being challenged or fired on and the break-out was achieved at very small cost. When Glasgow halted again some miles farther on and took stock of the situation, he found he had what he took to be 22 of his own guns, six anti-tank and four Bofors; but some of the 22 must have belonged to the 6th Field, because page 331 his own 27 Battery was far away to the south. His RMO, Captain Bryant,28 had three trucks carrying severely wounded men he had been caring for in the 5th Field RAP. Bryant felt that they had had as much as they could stand and now decided that they should leave the column and drive eastwards at a more comfortable pace than that of Glasgow's group. Ambulances and other trucks carrying wounded joined him and Bryant duly brought them safely back to a hospital in the rear area. For his skill and bravery he won an MC.

BHQ and E Troop of 42 Battery had spent the day with the B Echelon vehicles of 5 Brigade. Most of the latter remained near Minqar Qaim, joined the group gathered together by the CO of 22 Battalion next day, and withdrew with it. Whether BHQ and E Troop did this or travelled with some other detachments is not clear; but they got back safely on the 28th to the Alamein position. All told the battery lost one gun by night and one three-tonner; one officer was wounded and captured, another man was killed, three wounded, and three more were captured. Curiously enough, though 43 Battery ran into very heavy fire in the break-out and lost three guns and one three-tonner, it suffered only two casualties, one killed and one wounded. In such a situation the ack-ack guns were conspicuous, slow-moving and vulnerable.

Ten miles south of Minqar Qaim the 21 Battalion column, with 27 Field Battery and H Troop of 32 Battery, had spent a quiet morning, but a most confusing afternoon. The battalion commander received an order that a Divisional Cavalry squadron would relieve him and he was to leave a field troop with it. B Squadron arrived at 3 p.m. and the column departed, leaving A Troop of 27 Battery and H Troop with the Cavalry and taking Major Thornton's BHQ and B Troop. It did not reach the Division, however, being taken up with a series of moves in the broken country to the south-east of the Division in response to confused information and orders and to enemy activity. B Troop was at one stage ordered into action against an enemy position which had caused casualties to the carrier platoon. The battalion became split up in the course of all this and some of it returned to Bir Khalda, where A Troop was handed back by the Divisional Cavalry, which then withdrew. In due course 21 Battalion and attached artillery did page 332 likewise, learning that the Division was heading for Alamein and reaching there late next day. H Troop of 32 Battery, with the Divisional Cavalry squadron, travelled a longer route along the lip of the Qattara Depression to the south, but also got back safely.

On 28 June the Divisional Artillery, which had maintained a splendid unity at Minqar Qaim and made a panzer division and part of the 90 Light Division dance to its tune, was widely scattered, though mostly well under control—remarkably so, as Lieutenant-Colonel Queree of the 4th Field thought. But it took several days to reassemble all the bits and pieces and to count the cost of the Minqar Qaim action and the retreat.29

20 Bty suffered about 25% casualties during the action and by the end of the day batmen, drivers and spare Sigs personnel were manning guns'.—Sgt J. A. Kennedy.

21 Sgt R. S. Stevenson, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Edinburgh, 28 Feb 1917; timber machinist.

22 Maj F. R. Bartley, EM, m.i.d.; born NZ 26 Feb 1908; warehouseman; wounded 4 Sep 1942; died 6 Oct 1961.

23 2 Lt A. G. Bloore; born NZ 28 Sep 1915; shop assistant; killed in action 28 Jun 1942.

24 Sgt B. G. Yates; Tauranga; born Parenga, 6 Feb 1913; station hand; three times wounded.

25 Lt G. C. Latta; Auckland; born Pukekohe, 11 Aug 1908; salesman.

26 Capt J. B. Graham; England; born Feilding, 23 Aug 1917; shipping clerk; p.w. 28 Jun 1942.

27 Maj J. S. Rutherfurd, MC; Auckland; born Stratford, 23 May 1918; bank officer; wounded and p.w. 22 Jul 1942; escaped 23 Jul 1942; Bty Comd, 5 Fd Regt, 1944.

28 Maj A. L. Bryant, MC, m.i.d.; Otokia, Taieri; born NZ 25 Apr 1917; medical practitioner; RMO 5 Fd Regt Dec 1941-Jun 1943; 5 Fd Amb Jun 1943-Jul 1944; 1 Mob CCS Jul-Dec 1944; 1 Conv Depot Dec 1944-Aug 1945.

29 Casualties to the end of June were:

Killed and Died of WoundsWoundedWounded and Prisoner of WarPrisoner of War (Unwounded)Total
4th Field135063
5th Field14501166
6th Field113021356
7th Anti-Tank3282437
14th Light Ack-Ack5261638

These figures must be taken as approximate as the exact date of casualty is not always given in the 2 NZEF casualty lists. Most of the above are Minqar Qaim casualties.