The Importance of the New Zealand Artillery
The Importance of the New Zealand Artillery
This dramatic check to the German advance was almost wholly the work of the artillery. Twenty-fifth Battalion had certainly covered the left flank and adjusted its front under fire, but the other battalions of 6 Brigade had heard much but seen little of the action. B Company 24 Battalion had occasionally seen tanks and lorried infantry but the battalion had not been seriously attacked. Its task when the Germans began to encircle the left flank was to bring A Company over from the coast to protect the area between it and 26 Battalion. That unit to the rear heard the action but was not involved until late afternoon, when its C Company was sent forward on the left flank to cover the long re-entrant into Molos. And the piatoons of 3 Machine Gun Company, one with each battalion, had not been seriously involved, though No. 1 Section on the left flank had been forced to withdraw when the left flank of 25 Battalion had crumbled.
Fifth Field Regiment, used in an anti-tank role, and the defensive fire of 4 and 6 Field Regiments and 2 Royal Horse Artillery had saved the day.
The guns of 5 Field Regiment had been on both sides of the road. To the north, C Troop was in the 24 Battalion area from the coast to Ay Trias and thence to the highway. In support, just short of a stream that crossed the front, was a troop of two-pounders from 102 Anti-Tank Regiment. South of the road was E Troop (5 Field Regiment) in the area of B Company 25 Battalion, and farther back along the road was F Troop in the D Company area. There concealed, they had waited for the German attack.
In the morning and early afternoon they had remained silent under their camouflage nets, leaving the strafing aircraft to harass the regiments about Molos. The only group to be noticed was C Troop, page 392 which for almost four hours was dive-bombed and machine-gunned.
Then, when the Germans made their first approach, the fire of all guns, and particularly those of B and C Troops 6 Field Regiment, had forced the tanks and motor transport to halt before they reached the forward platoon of 25 Battalion. The tanks seemed to withdraw or, at least, to take cover; the infantry began their encircling movement below the cliffs and forced the withdrawal of C Company 25 Battalion.
Indirectly this meant trouble for the artillery. Its forward observation posts had to be vacated in a hurry to avoid encirclement. One was surrounded but Captain Levy1 and his assistant managed to escape; three men with the OP truck were captured. The telephone lines to the forward posts were cut but Lieutenant Cropper,2 hastening forward with signallers and wire, established another OP for the use of 6 Field Regiment.
The second attack developed about 6 p.m. with the tanks advancing in single file at intervals of about 50 yards. When they came forward the guns in the Molos area opened up and shells began to explode all along the road. ‘As the road twisted and turned about the foothills there were portions of the road that we could see and when the tanks reached one portion about 600 yards range’3 the forward troops of 5 Field Regiment opened fire. The tanks continued to rush forward, but when they were 300–400 yards away F Troop used armour-piercing shells and high-explosive shells with the caps left on. It was afterwards thought that the troop accounted for three tanks before the column disappeared into a hollow along the undulating road.
There it was ruthlessly dealt with by E Troop firing in enfilade at very short range from the south side of the road. With one gun was Bombardier Santi,4 ‘the perfect gun layer, a natural’,5 who remained cool and in spite of the fire from the tanks soon had eight mediums and one light tank disabled or on fire. Another gun of the troop claimed to have set one on fire and to have disabled another. Even so, the tanks still pressed forward, one getting through to within a few hundred yards of the bridge in the area of D Company 25 Battalion, where it was dealt with by B Troop of 31 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, the only New Zealand two-pounder to open fire in this action.
3 2 Lt C. C. Pipson, F Troop 5 Field Regiment.
5 Lt Cade, the GPO.
While this was taking place the units on the north side of the road were being rewarded for their hours of dive-bombing and machine-gunning, small-arms and mortar fire. One gun, that of Sergeant Ames,1 probably hit two tanks and may possibly have halted others; eventually it was hit by German fire, a solid shot hitting the recuperator and damaging the sights. The troop of two-pounders of 102 Anti-Tank Regiment came into action soon afterwards and secured hits on five tanks.
In all some twenty tanks were claimed to have been hit. The artillery report states that the column was brought to a halt with the loss of fifteen tanks, most of them in flames: the brigade reported that the artillery had accounted for thirteen tanks and suggested that there could be ‘no question that any enemy movement along the road must have been seriously discouraged by the prospect of these gutted tanks and the dead bodies of their crews.’2 The Germans admit that all the tanks in the action—18 or 19—were damaged, 12 of them being total losses.
In addition, the other artillery regiments, 4 and 6 New Zealand and 2 Royal Horse Artillery, had been firing a special anti-tank defence task on the road about Thermopylae. This concentration halted the supporting tanks and infantry so effectively that one German afterwards wrote of the shell and anti-tank fire performing a ‘danse macabre’.3 In the cruder language of the New Zealand Division the artillery had fired its first ‘stonk’: the terrifying concentration of the fire of all the divisional artillery upon a single crucial point. Later on in the desert when the system of mobile columns and brigade groups had been dropped and the Division was operating as a complete formation, there were many variations of this device, all based on the groundwork prepared by Brigadier Miles.4
To be so successful the artillerymen had overcome several difficulties. In the morning, when it was expected that heavy fire would be needed to cover the withdrawal, the policy had been to conserve fire, but after midday the supplies of ammunition had been increased. The dump and the four-mile stretch of road between it and the guns were often attacked from the air, but supplies had been hastened forward and gun numbers had assisted in carrying supplies from lorries to the guns.
2 6 Brigade report.
3 Appendix to report of I/31 Panzer Regiment.