1941 Desert Campaign
The night of 17th November 1941 was quite cold, and we approached the Wire with a certain amount of trepidation. Remember, we had a fair number of men just new to the Regiment. Even the Officers and Sgts were changed, if not new. In 'A' Troop, Bill Bent became our Troop Commander. Bill had sailed with the Regiment in 28th Bty and, although Capt. McAvoy had sailed with 'A' Troop, Laurie Williams took the Troop to Greece and was captured. When the Regiment was reformed after Greece and Crete, Capt. McAvoy was 'A' Troop Commander again. But when we left Baggush, Bill Bent became our Troop Commander.
The G.P.O. was Neil Paterson. As he sailed with the Regiment, he was the only original Officer. Then we had Bob Edgar as Section Commander. Where he came from, I forget, but think he was commissioned from 4th Field.
T.S.M. was Doug Body and the Gun Sgts Johnny Franklin, the only original Sgt., Bert Good, Ralph Prebble and Ray Pearson. All originals, but promoted.
So there we were being told about how the Tanks were going to engage the enemy, and all we would be doing was a bit of a mopping up job. History, of course, shows this was far from the case, and we were in for a hard time once again.
We moved through the Wire the night of 17th/18th, and as I remember it Bill Watkins, one of our Sigs, had a brother in the Div. Cav. Somehow on the horizon a few British trucks appeared, so the Officer in Div. Cav. told Bill's brother to go out and tell them to get out of sight. Unfortunately the trucks had Germans in charge, so took D.R. Watkins as Prisoner. Other than that, the crossing of the frontier was quite uneventful.
On the night of the 18th it was fairly quiet, but in the distance great flashes could be seen. Everyone speculated that this was a Tank battle taking place. But, as it turned out, it was only an electrical storm.
From now on the Regiment was split, and it was not until later that we really got together again as a Regt. 47 Bty was to come under command of 6th Field Regiment, and as such were to have a rather torrid time at Sidi Rezegh.
27th Bty, with the 23rd Battalion, attacked Fort Capuzzo. This was taken with hardly a shot being fired. The Artillery certainly did not fire a round. 'D' Troop 28 Bty attacked Bardia with 22 Battalion. This was not so successful and 'D' Troop finished on top of the Escarpment at Menistir. 'E' Troop was off with 5th Brigade H.Q. after seeing that Capuzzo was secured. Brigade H.Q. settled down at Sidi Azeiz. What happened there you can read in the account by Bill Brown.
27 Bty moved north between Capuzzo and Sollum and there supported the Maoris in their attack on Sollum, this being taken with very few casualties. With the Division being scattered as it was, one can imagine the job it was to supply all Units. So there we were with little ammunition or food. So it was delighted Kiwis when someone captured an Italian truck which had beautiful conserves and bread aboard. In fact, if my memory serves me right, when they brought in the Prisoners (Italian) there were a few girls amongst them. Home comforts and all.
It was at this stage I was on Picquet one night, and thought I might try a smoke at "Stand to". This was a big decision as I had never smoked. However, at "Stand to" there was the Gun Crew down on their hands and knees scratching around in the sand. When asked what they were up to, the answer was "looking for butts". There and then I decided if that is how smoking got you. then it was not for me. And here you have a virgin, as far as smoking is concerned.
This position we had between Capuzzo and Sollum was not far from the top of Hellfire Pass. and here we had a few Germans bottled up. Then they must have decided to do or die, and make a dash for Bardia. So with the Maoris at Sollum and our guns on the other side of the road, we had a rather hectic time. Don't think we hit much, although I do remember one truck being hit and the occupants flying through the air, just like you see in a comic.
Being short of ammunition we fired everything we had, which included Smoke and A.P. Things were getting a bit hot when we were told to pull back to the Fort. As we were getting back, which I might say was quite orderly considering, a German came alongside riding his B.M.W. and asking us to surrender. Unfortunately for him, the boys were not quite ready for that and gave him a burst which ended the War for him. After that, Katie Palmer was the proud owner of a B.M.W. for a while.
Getting safely back to Capuzzo, we went into action. Hoping, no doubt, that someone would get through with some ammunition as we certainly had none. In fact, that night the Germans brought up a 50 mm gun to within 50 yards of us, and kept on insulting us by calling out "Surrender, you Kiwi and we won't fire. Won't put down here the replies they got. The 23rd Battalion did a good job there by an Officer calling out corrections to a Mortar Crew, which eventually cleared the crew out. Being in the dark, this was no mean feat. After that we spent a rather restless night, walking around with only a few grenades and rifles to protect us.
Next thing of any consequence then was that a small force of Germans attacked the Fort from the south. This was repelled when the 23rd and some Engineers fixed Bayonets and charged. The Engineers had been out as the Guns close defence. Must say they did not seem too keen on getting out of their holes to chase the Germans.
The best news we had around this time was when Norrie Mitchell, Athol Whitcombe and Max Prebble came back to the Troop. These three, amongst others, had been left behind in Crete and had escaped. So there was great excitement, getting as much news as we could about the welfare of some of the others.
Our news of what was going on around us with the other Units of the Div. was pretty sketchy, but at no stage was it good. Our Tanks were getting a hiding, not because the Tankies were inferior but the Tanks themselves were. And all we had was Two Pounders, which the Ante-Tank boys did a heroic job with, and the 25 Pounder. This also did a magnificent job, but no match for the German Mk IV.
And here we were going out on Patrol, a Troop of Guns and a couple of Vickers Guns. They called these forays "Stirling Patrols" after a Col. Stirling who apparently had some success with this type of warfare against the Italians. Not a very pleasant experience driving around the desert in such small numbers looking for trouble.
Then we were on the move again. This time we were to cut the Tobruk - Bardia Rd. On the way to the Escarpment where we were to go down to the road, Shells started to fall amongst us. So there it seemed were hundreds of trucks going all ways. It turned out to be the Indian Div. just being on the safe side, and we were able to gather our forces and go into action just outside Bardia. The Maoris and 23rd Battalion being between us and Tobruk. 'D' Troop, who had been having their problems, were up on top of the Escarpment.
Next morning the Germans tried to get a Supply Convoy through to Bardia. Somehow they could not have known a thing about us being there, as the Maoris let them get nearly through and opened up. This particular Battle, if you can call it that, did a lot for the morale of the Troops because with all the ups and downs, at last there was a clear cut victory. I know for a fact the Maoris enjoyed it.
That night while on Picquet. just don't know how it happened but Bas. Mitchell and I were doing our stint when a Bren Carrier came into the position. Doing the proper thing, we investigated and found it was Bill Bent. Somehow he had found a place which had some grog and brought it back for the Troop. He handed us a bottle, and we thought what a good chap he was and immediately opened it. The bottle contained Rose Water, I swear, but anyway we drank it and it did us no harm.
That night we pulled out, and formed up on the top of the Escarpment. Were heading back to Capuzzo when we were told there was a composite Regiment to be formed, and we would be advancing as the Germans were on the run.
As it happened, the Germans holed up at Gazala, and after quite an uneventful trip we arrived at Gazala to have more air attacks than we had had, and quite a lot of action. The actions were mostly in support of the Maoris, who made quite successful attacks, and to a minor degree the Poles. In fact, at one stage we were not too popular with the Poles for if my memory serves me right, a few Shells fell amongst them and they did not appreciate it. Bill Philp, 27 Bty Commander, and I think Bill Bent to a lesser degree, smoothed over the troubled water.
Somehow there is also the story of Bill Bent going forward to take the surrender of some Italians. Perhaps at one of the Reunions Bill may be able to give the facts, but as we heard it, these Italians with their hands up had grenades also in their hands. How Bill got out of it, I don't know but he is still with us and a very popular figure at the Reunions.
On 17th December 1941 the Germans, to almost everyone's surprise, cleared out after looking as if they were going to defend Gazala Defences to the finish. At this stage Bill Philp asked for permission to allow 27 Bty to continue to serve with the 13 Corp. This was flatly refused, and with a few other Officers he was rushed off back to Baggush. This was the last time Bill Philp served with the 5th Field. An officer who was the original 'A' Troop Commander became Bty 2 I/C, then Bty Commander, and after leaving the 5th Field was to serve with distinction in other Regiments. Now the Patron of the 5th Field Regiment Association.
The Regiment as such headed back to Baggush and was delayed somewhat by a fierce sandstorm at Bug Bug. 27 Bty arrived at Baggush on Christmas Day and 28 Bty on Boxing Day. We celebrated our return with some great reunions and perhaps New Years Eve would have been the most spectacular in the five years of the war.
Shortly after, we had the news that all P.O.W. held at Bardia had been released, with the capture of Bardia by the South Africans. Also the news came through that Slick Rush had a brother killed at Belhamed and Ralph Prebble had news his younger brother, a Pilot in the R.A.F., had been shot down over Malta. So with the good and the bad news, the Regiment had had a fairly torrid time. but the casualties not quite as bad as first thought.
So another Battle had been fought, not without blood, sweat and tears, but more was to come. The only difference now being that we could consider ourselves battle trained. Or Veterans!!!
This article first appeared in a 5 Fd Regt Newsletter.