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ON OPERATION "CRUSADER" 1941
O - PIP Ack Report in Diary Format
Gunner Frank Austin, C Troop, 47th Battery, 5th Field Regiment
"Crusader" had been envisaged since the sixth and later reinforcements had filled the gaps left in the 2 NZEF Division after the severe casualties suffered in Greece and Crete. C Troop, 47th Bty, which on Crete had been emplaced overlooking Maleme aerodrome with a few obsolete Italian 75mm guns, could only muster some 17 survivors at Helwan camp in Egypt. As I had been left in No 1 General Hospital with amoebic dysentery when the 5th Regiment sailed for Greece, all I can report is that when I went A.W.O.L. from Arty Base Camp to Port Alexandria and approached a British Destroyer for a hitch to Greece, I was told that they were going to evacuate all our troops - so go back to Base Camp, which I did, in time for roll call.
About July, 1941, I rejoined the Regiment at Helwan, as O.P. Ack in C Troop again under Capt Grady Whittaker, who replaced Capt John Pine Snadden, who had been promoted. With Gnr Jack Starr, I saw our General "Tiny" Freyberg in his H.Q. cabin about volunteering for Crete rescue Ops - but he told us that it was a Royal Navy affair, but "thanks anyway". Then I had 7 days leave in Palestine.
10 days later, our 5th Brigade, including 5 Fd Reg., left Helwan for a couple of months digging Fort Kaponga Box. As I stepped up on to the 0. Pip truck, I flaked out cold. I had taken some aspirin from the R.A.P. M.0. to sweat a "cold" the night before, but this turned out to be something more serious. They left me on the step of the hut, saying they would leave a message at No. 1 N.Z.G.H. in Helwan town as they passed. An Ambulance found me in the empty camp about 10-00hrs and took me to the General Fever Tent Ward for one week of fever, rigors etc, till my Typhoid was identified (ex Palestine) and I spent a futher three weeks in No 1 G.H. Isolation Ward, and a spell in Artillery Base Camp, Maadi.
Late in October, 1941. I rejoined "C" Troop which was encamped near Sollum, and now under command of R.N.Z.A. Captain 'Blackie' Burns. Just a day before 18th Nov 1941 (start of Crusader) Capt Burns was given a new post and was replaced by a Temporary Captain from a Reinforcement Draft with very little experience of the desert.
On the night of 18/11 The Fifth Brigade moved South to a point near Sidi Omar where we crossed the border of the Libyan Plateau, unopposed except for the low rock cairn on which our 0-pip truck was grounded for a while.
C Troop drove West for an hour or two and laggered while the Troop Commander and I went to a temporary O-pip which was the only spot marked on the flattish contour Grid Map of Bir Ghirba as a Sheik's Grave - a white-washed rectangular grave cairn. Also on the map was overstamped the RAF code for a machine gun emplacement and the words German H.Q.
About mid morning, we were sharply reminded of our lack of slit trenches by the sight and sound of a 105mm shell burst some 500 yards away. The Boss and I moved off, firstly from the white-washed grave and then from each other as a second shell on line with the grave dropped less than 100 yards off. A third shell over my head had me bracketed and I dived for the ground and made myself small to await gunfire from 4 guns which followed solely for my benefit. I called out to an infantry slittie which I could now see, for room, but they loudly advised me to stay where I was. The third and last rounds came very close (8yds) and I propped myself just in time to get thumped on the chest by a cone shaped lump of metal - the nose-cap off a 105mm, it was too hot to examine further.
The Colonel's station wagon cruised up about noon and advised us that the 21st Battalion was about to mount an attack on the German H.Q. at Bir Ghirba and the 47th Bty should drive up behind him to establish an O. Pip and provide gun support as required for the operation.
We followed the CO's station wagon a mile or two to the crest of a mile-wide, saucer-like depression which looked across to the opposite side where a line of earthworks had been dug in. We all took to ground as a swarm of mortar bombs warned us we had been seen, and this was followed by a short sprinkle of rain - the only one I experienced in the three years of the Middle East Area.
The CO took command of our O.Pip as over to our right flank, we gazed with awe as the vehicles and men of three 21 Bn Companies drove carefully and quickly over the lip and down as far as the centre of the depression where the platoons jumped out under a hail of mg and gunfire, while their trucks withdrew. Later, a single platoon close to our left, calmly spread out and walked over the rim where we lost sight of them. Our Colonel fired off some more than 90% of our total ammunition to keep casualties down till dark, about 1800 hrs.
That night we were relieved by 4th Indian Div., and under orders from N.Z.Div.H.Q., we withdrew in order to form a mobile column to assist our4th and 6th Brigades which needed reinforcements south of Tobruk near Sidi Resegh where progress had been checked. The column was to consist of 21Bn, 47 Bty, 34 A/tk Bty and one Honey Tank and one Bren Carrier, Div Cav.
We heard a rumour that 4th Indian Bde troops were greeted by a white flag waving above the German H.Q. this morning. On and or parallel with Trigh Capuzzo, we set off for Sidi Resegh. No incidents.
At first light, a brief fire exchange took place as our Div Cav Honey escort moved towards some strangers who took off to the distances as we moved on East to the South side of Gambut air-field for the night.
Set up O.Pip by a ruined building amidst the litter of burnt-out tanks and planes left from an earlier tank battle. There still appeared to be quite a few Gerries in the slit trenches on the side of a big wadi to the East of us, but, as our only Bren carrier was with Capt. Crawford-Smith of F Troop, and our ammunition so low, we had to leave them alone.
Another flurry at first light. Honey tank seems to have gone, quiet day.
Morning warm and clear Winter day till about 10 am, driving across a flat plateau in wadi country, suddenly, we made out a vast number of vehicles, British Army types set out like a "B" echelon. Closing very cautiously, we became aware of a complete Brigade of Artillery and Infantry Etc, equipment dug in shallow trenches, but there was no-one to be seen manning the defences. We moved through the centre of the Brigade and I saw no-one alive or dead, though somebody reported some bodies wearing Pink South African shoulder flashes. From this and other evidence, we were able to identify this as the "Beau Geste" Fifth South African Div Bde which never materialised, not surprising, as they had been surprised and over run by the Panzers and more than half of their number were captured POWS. From subsequent events, it will be revealed that nobody in Army Corps H.Q., or even N.Z. Div H.Q. believed any report 47th Bty must have made on the next day when we finally made contact with 4th and 6th N.Z. Bdes at Sidi Resegh. Although we had clear air superiority we had no Army co-operation plane to confirm or deny important - vital tactical reports, but the Germans were able to put up a little Fieseler Storch every day at Resegh. Land radio communication on our side was never efficient.
First, we had to drive in towards Tobruk (ElDuda, in fact) to meet the perimeter outposts of the 2/13th Australian Batallion so that Winstone Churchill could declare to the world, that the Tobruk Corridor had been opened, eight months after the siege had begun. Later, as we were crossing a smaller plateau, we were fired upon by a Spandau m.g., long enough for No.1 Gun to take post and let him have a 25 pound shell using charge 1 just like a mortar. We had no further exchange, and pushed on to line up behind 21 Bn which was to lead us to EdDuda that night.
Moving off at about 2100hrs, through the pitch black night - no lights, gurr-gurring along at 3-5 mph for an hour or two found ourselves going between the steep sides of a very deep wadi from the crests of which on both sides came a veritable Guy Fawkes display of fixed lines, red and yellow Mg fire most of which flew well above our heads. C Troop sadly incurred one fatal casualty. Gunner Jock Cairns (Petone), one of the few original Gunners who survived Greece and Crete, was sitting in the back seat of No. 2 gun Quad when the stray bullet struck. He was immediately unconscious and died in Hospital later.
When the 21Bn men came back to us, they told us they had met the Aussie Anzac and shared a few mugs of rum and agreed the corridor was open.
Our column left the area and we headed once more for our two N.Z. Bdes at Sidi Resegh and finally tacked ourselves onto the side of 6th Bde late in the afternoon.
am. Still no more ammunition for us. Same old rumour about British tanks arriving shortly. Also 5th South African Brigade to reinforce us hourly--???
pm 1400hrs. C troop O.Pip sent with two 6th Field Bty Commanders' pick-up trucks to do Forward Observation in support of a counter attack by our infantry. This was about to start from the scattered front to the North of our position.
We followed the 6th Fd trucks across the East side of a long flat plateau with a few of our Inf. weapon pits scattered here and there.There-was a low range of hills to our left from which a German 105mm field gun was firing sporadically and a long sloping wadi fell away to our right. The Major heading our little group signalled stop, dismounted with a tommy gun and fired off a few shots to the right down the wadi. Our Tp. Cdr said "spread out", so grabbing my German Schmeisser machine pistol, I scurried back along our track about twenty yards but could see no movement down the wadi. The eye-opener, however was the whole hill-side precisely dotted with circular, yellowish stone sangars, 2-3ft high and able to hold 3 or 4 men, the nearest being about 30 yards down from me.
Glancing back along the track I saw our 47th Bty. Bren carrier bringing up the O.Pip phone wire about 100 yards away. Thinking how brave I should be inside those bullet-proof walls, I signalled them urgently to come up to me, but the machine seemed to become prone to stalling and was not about to come near me. Disgusted, I turned to our truck where the other three, Gnr Tommy Edwards (Maori Driver), Tp. Cdr. T. Hume, and Gnr Colin Massey, (signaller) had wisely spread out in the lee of our truck. I forgot about my exposed position - only my inch thick felted 1914 Great coat as I watched as Tommy, who had found our Bren gun in the cab, raised it to his shoulder in the general direction of the sangars, pulled the trigger and held it so that the barrel jerked up towards the horizon and nearly blew his toes off when he jerked it down again. On the heels of this episode, a round of 4 by 25 pdr shells dropped among the lower echelons of sangars - origin unknown.
Quickly, first one head, then a second, then two more, were slowly raised in the nearest sangar to me. Their hands went up as I beckoned them to "come in" then, quietly they stepped out of their sangar and walked towards me. They were clad in khaki shirts and shorts and seemed exhausted and perhaps without water as they half staggered up the slope. Seeing this, 3 or 4 men stepped out of each sangar, piled their weaponry and gear at my feet, and formed up in three ranks, as I directed. An older soldier (most seemed quite youthful) half-way along the front rank was telling me "Von of your Comrades down there - Vounded". I was enjoying myself more than somewhat, when the heavy hand of my boss tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Come on Frank - we're wanted up front" and sure enough, there was some shelling up ahead of us.
We scurried along across tributary wadis till on the flat ground after the fourth we came under Spandau fire from the hills at our left. The Boss and I jumped out and sent Tommy and Colin back with the truck to cover. The only cover between us and the Mg, was dead, ankle-high sage brush, so when I tried to push myself backwards, horizontally, my old Army great coat, buttoned up under the arm-pits, forced my backside up in the air. I agreed with the Boss to lie doggo till sundown about half-an-hour later(1800 hrs) when we were able to sneak away and return to our gun-position base for the night. Tanks and Ammo still expected to-morrow.
Early, we climbed up to the flat plateau on which stood the small white mosque of Sidi Resegh and set up our O.Pip about two hundred yards from it, 47th Bty guns being behind and below us across from the low slope of Belhamed.
To-day 28th and 29th - Bully and biscuits still sole diet - No ammunition delivered and none to spare so no shooting. Infantry on both sides too depleted to make any moves?
A tiny German Fieseler "Storch" observation plane flew over us each morning low enough to drop a few grenades out into our slittie but forebore; but as we had no weapons except the Captain's revolver we felt pretty futile.
An eight inch gun, "Bardia Bill" fired from a very great distance put a few tiny splinters into our O.Pip once or twice but did no harm otherwise. No antitank position guns could be seen - our Column A/Tk Battery having long disappeared.
Noticed a 27th Bn Vickers Mg crew dug in near the Mosque - Pte Jack Clemens, the number one, was my best mate from St. Bede's College, Christchurch, boarding days, but I didn't know it that day.
Just after noon, the Troop Cdr T/Capt Hume and I with Gnr Colin Massey, are relieved in the O.Pip by 47th Bty C Troop Gun Position Officer, Lieutenant Ian(?) Stedman and a relief signaller. Our siesta was rudely interrupted an hour or two later, by a flurry of shells which accompanied the final and successful attack to capture the Resegh Plateau by the Panzer Afrika Corps returning from its abortive plunge into Egypt with their remaining tanks, against which we had neither tanks nor anti-tank guns left. We had a very brief telephone commentary of the attack from which some of the scattered Kiwis managed to escape over the steep sides. Not so lucky were our C Tp O.Pip men who were put ''in the bag" and quickly transferred to Italy, and less so for the Vickers Mg crew two of whom were killed. The Number One, Jack Clemens, pretending to be dead with his eye-glasses askew, survived a casual foot in the ribs by a curious German and headed for Tobruk when early darkness came. Heard this from Jack Clemens, himself, some 4 months later when his South Canterbury Mg Company ended up right next to 47th Bty Gun Position at Djdiedie. This was on the Orontes River, near the Roman Ruins town of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. O.Pip altitude, 5000 feet.
Meantime 47th Btn guns had been placed in the critical position, partly athwart the flat pass leading from behind the plateau of Sidi Resegh past the lower flat slope of Belhamed.
Ammunition held by 47th Bty was 7 to 10 rounds H.E. per gun. Immediately behind us, away from the pass, the 4th and 6th Field Regiments plus 47th Bty C and F Troops, received orders "Prepare to Move" which meant pack up and be ready to Hook-up and go. This order was never rescinded to my knowledge, and officially, we were still awaiting the long expected nonexistent British tanks (see result of the first day's tank battle) and the vanished 5th Sth African Brigade. We were still waiting before dawn on the next morning.
Meanwhile, between 1900 hrs and 2000 hrs Private Jack Clemens descended the steep side of Resegh and found himself at the edge of a considerable Panzer force in German Laager position for the night and decided that he could work his way through it observing as he went. Coat collar up, he counted tanks up to seventeen and estimated lorried infantry, etc.
Out the other side of the Panzers, he headed towards Tobruk by compass and, incidentally, towards Belhamed where some of the 46 survivors of the 21st Bn were acting guard on 47th Bty front and side and captured him. Jack had an olive skin and had a deep sun-tan and they suspected him somewhat, whereat Jack challenged them to "take me to 'Tiny' Freyberg then" which they did. So, at 2200 hrs or later he unloaded his information to General Freyberg and his I.O. and Staff, who listened carefully - and when he had finished, Jack volunteered "If I were you Sir, I'd get to hell out of it".
The General thought it over for a bit and quietly asked his I.O. what he thought. The Intelligence Officer was of the opinion that Private Clemens had done well but after such a very trying experience, was possibly not quite himself. Were we not expecting British Armour and the South African Brigade from the same direction? I believe Jack made his own way back to his own Sth Canty Coy (of which he was an old hand) in 27th Battalion.
Still on "Prepare to move", just before 'first light', I was boiling the "billie" by the left front wheel (leeside) of the C Tp O.Pip truck. This was parked about a hundred yards in front of and to the right of C Tp guns which had F Tp sited to its left and rear. With me were Driver Edwards, Sig Massey, and visitor Tiffy (Artificer) John Reeve. For a little while now, the squish, squeak and squeal of heavy Tank track movement had been getting our attention and also that of a bunch of Staff and Regimental Officers with our Capt. Hume, on the higher ground to the right rear of C Tp gun position. They were all peering through their binoculars towards the source of the noise which could not be seen clearly at this stage for the dust cloud accompanying it. No attempt was made to organise our defence, but this issue was quickly decided by our last operational 2 pounder A/tk gun which was sited on its own on the side of Resegh and which opened up a hot fire upon the leading Panzers.
Both of our Troops opened fire at once as the large force of tanks and assault troops raced for the guns from a few hundred yards away, with our recent Infantry transfer now Gnr, 'Buster' Starr lending support from the right front with our other Bren gun. I announced my intention of going to the guns to carry ammunition but was stopped twice by bursts of Mg tracer past the nose of the truck. Third time I was running as I stood up and got clear over to our ammo limbers behind the guns. Smoke and dust had risen to obscure the whole of the gun front area and sounds were indistinguishable. Tiffy Reeve had followed me over, only to discover that all 4 limbers were empty. Our only officer, a very new 2/Lt, still not known to me, joined us and confirmed the lack of ammo and said he would go to his No. 2 section. He was not seen again, nor were Gnrs Massey and Edwards, who were captured at the O.Pip truck. By now, Nos. 1, 2 and 3 guns were out of action - Captain T. Hume dead at No 1 still holding a loaded rifle, beside Gun-Sergeant Dolamore, mortally wounded amongst his wounded Gunners. No. 2 was in like case, with Gun Sergeant Sinclair with his crew dead and wounded. No. 3 had only a few wounded. Gnr Buster Starr appeared dizzily through the smoke from our front like the good Infantry man he was, having fired all his magazines and copping a bullet through the soft end of his nose.
Meanwhile, a small comedy took place at No.4 gun, the crew of which appeared to have no casualties, but must have had a jammed cartridge in the breech which prevented them loading their last shell. I felt a hot sting in my thigh and went to ground to investigate. A tiny splinter of shrapnel. From here I watched two gunners run with the wooden ramrod to the front of the gun and throw it forcefully down the barrel of the "piece" - no luck. Tipping the ramrod out by lifting up the Trail was followed by two more gunners using the much heavier Traversing Lever, a four foot long, 3 inch diameter, iron pipe - again no luck. While they were trying to extricate this item from the "piece" the recuperator system was hit and smashed by a solid shot, luckily not explosive, for the crew and its Gun Sergeant Hugh Carter, who was heard to say "I think it's time we got out of here".
The Panzers skirted Belhamed and I'm sure that 4th and 6th Regiments must have got a few shots at them from their batteries on that side of their circles, to pay for the few casualties they incurred from the "overs" shot at 7th Bty.
Moving towards our wagon-lines close up, I came upon Gnr Joe Brewer, one of our Quad Drivers, who was trying to start a shot-disabled 3-tonner Bedford tpt wagon amid a small bunch of Drivers and Sigs. Frustrated, he tried the next near wagon. This one was loaded with full petrol tins in one layer tightly across the floor of the truck. When it started, two layers of 3 or 4 Gunners laid themselves parallel on top of the tins. I was last aboard and stretched along on top of Gnr Alf Curry, but when I saw his right forearm bleeding from a bullet wound and apologised, Alf quickly said "Stay where you are Frank, stay where you are. I feel safe.
The Germans were away ahead of us as they hurried clear of the Southern perimeter defences of Tobruk and headed for Gazala, their nearest base West of Benghazi through which they were chased on by our 5th Brigade plus other units of "Crusader". 4th and 6th Brigades took ages to sort themselves out, but eventually, our sadly depleted "reinforcement column" followed them into Tobruk; seeking help ourselves, as well as being the actual physical relieving British Force to the gallant Garrison.
C Troop's survivors roll call mustered seventeen, under Troop Sgt Major George Carroll and Sgt Hugh Carter and were allocated some ancient 75mm guns for defence of Tobruk if need be. F Troop, in a similar plight, was close by. Our biggest danger, however, came not from the enemy, but from the heavy flak falling on us from our own heavy Ack Ack guns around Tobruk as Luftwaffe bombing of the Port and environs was continued indefinitely.
This day was remarkable for the receipt of the first loaf of bread seen for more than a month. This rarity was rationed to us from the Tobruk Army Bakery in the evacuated town, and arrived by open truck with the addition of a certain quota of sand - one slice each - Imagine:: The first bite, though, caused acute pain, felt in the salivary glands, but this was ignored completely as the starch was converted instantly to honey-like sucrose-sugar.
Later that day, at our N.Z. Salvation Army Canteen Van which had materialised from nowhere, I ate a ½ lb block of dark chocolate in about five minutes or less, and was nearly half-way through a second block, when I seemed to have had enough.
I was not able to be present at the temporary gravesides of our mates at Belhamed, but a British General at the spot - seeing the Panzer wreckage was reported to have exclaimed "Here was a battle, who did this?" and he picked up a rammer from one of our guns - had it gold plated, and presented it to the N.Z. Artillery Corps. It was later accepted by Lt. Colonel "Gussie" Glasgow ( by then Commanding Officer 5th Field Regiment NZFA) for the 47th Battery and he displayed it later at a Regimental Parade at Kabrit on the Suez Canal Lakes Shore. We were there for the Churchillian purpose of practicing the loading and unloading of our 24 Guns. Equipment and Gunners at sea for a possible invasion behind the lines, at Tripoli say. This would have been fragmentation of forces in the extreme; the disastrous results of which we had so recently experienced. These had taught us that our Division would be fought as a Division in future, and with our Cdr, Arty N.Z. developing a new technique our 72 guns could be brought to bear on a target within a 400 yard square within 15 minutes. It became famous as the dreaded "Stonk", the word plus two three figure co-ordinates which destroyed with fearful casualties, a German lorried attack at Medenine. No other Arms were needed.
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