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Into Battle Again:
Mersa Matruh - Alam Nayil
The Syrian interlude was over. Here we were battling against the tide to get to grips once more with the enemy. This time all were better prepared for what was to come, and in the main, most of the Regiment had been through at least one campaign.
But the general trek was in the opposite direction to which we were heading and, to the ever ceaseless cry of "You are going the wrong way" from all and sundry, we headed on to eventually reach Mersa Matruh on 23rd June 1942.
After we left El Adem the Germans had reinforced and were attacking in force South. The Free French had put up a stirring effort at Bir Hachiem and, having fought a most gallant action, were overwhelmed.
The South Africans, after being surrounded at Tobruk, surrendered. A very sore point, as most of us who had been and seen the defences there could not understand how the town could have been taken. Especially as the Aussies had held it, and to a lesser degree, the English for months. Still, Tobruk had fallen and to our eyes it looked as if the 2nd N.Z.E.F. was there to stem the tide if they could. Hence the roads choked with troops in full retreat. It was something to see, to be believed. In lots of cases we had to go off the road into the Desert to make headway.
We had reached Matruh in darkness, and immediately set to, to dig defensive areas. We were told we were there to stop the advancing Germans, and the defensive box at Mersa Matruh was where it was to stop.
So we dug our Gun Pits and had Ammo brought in. It was while we were unloading the Ammo that Henry Foote dropped a box of shells on his foot. So, that was Henry out of action. A pity it had not been his pipe, as we sure could have used Henry on the Gun over the next week or so. Mind you, if it had been his pipe, and it had been broken or lost, it would have been worse as Henry was a mean fellow if he could not light up the old smelly pipe.
After getting ourselves settled in at Matruh and waiting for the enemy to get closer, which from all reports he was doing, we found we were being relieved by an Indian Division, and we were to move out into the Desert. Eventually finding out we were at a place called Minqar Quaim.
Not for long though, as 27th Bty., 21st Battalion, with a Troop of 6 Pounders from the 32nd Bty. and a few Div. Cav. we set off to relieve an armoured crowd at a supply depot called Bir Kalda. As we neared Bir Kalda, a few Troops passed us in a hurry. Can't remember them even stopping to say good-day. We eventually stopped, placing the Guns in an Anti Tank position and Quads and Trucks plus personnel all in the middle. It must have been tea time, as I recall getting the Dixies out and Bill Thornton, who was B.C., calling an 'O' Group. It was then the enemy bombers appeared. Not too good with all the Troops packed as they were. But the bombers flew over, and everyone sighed with relief. Unfortunately it was short lived, and 18 bombers broke off and came back. They must have thought it was their birthday, and chaos reigned. After it was over, 27th Bty. had lost or killed 5, all 'B' Troop, and 17 wounded. On our Gun we lost Sgt. Snow Prebble and Reg Cann, both wounded, who were among those evacuated. Don't know how many men 21st Batt. lost, but it was quite a few.
There were many acts of heroism in those few minutes of carnage, but one that stands out in my mind was Johnny Banks (our driver) on top of his beloved Quad which was blazing fiercely, throwing off the camouflage nets and petrol cans. This Quad was still going strongly when I left the Regiment in Italy. I wonder how many of the Gunners who travelled in that particular Quad knew if it had not been for Johnny, it would have been a burnt out wreck in the sands at Bir Kalda.
At the risk of being rung up and told I don' t know what I am talking about, I would like to tell the story of Bill Thornton, who was holding his Orders Group as the bombers came in. The Officers attending started to get a bit fidgity, as any normal person would in the situation. And the story as told is that Bill said, "Gentlemen, I am talking to you". Right or wrong, it shows the character that was Bill Thornton. I am sure that Terry Nolan or Ken Gibson who were present will agree or disagree next time we meet.
As we were divorced from the main body at Minqar Qaim, I will leave it to someone from that area, 28 Bty, 47 Bty and RHQ, to tell of the fight there and the break out.
South of Minqar Qaim, 27 Bat. had a most confusing time. All sorts of stories were circulating and it finished up with "A" Troop staying with some Div. Cav. while the rest of the column departed to try and join up with the Division. This it did not do, because of confused information. 'B' Troop did engage an enemy position, which had caused casualties to a carrier platoon. During this, the 21st Battalion became split and some returned to Bir Kalda, where 'A' Troop was handed back, and the Div. Cav. withdrew.
Somehow it was learned the Division was heading back to Alamein, and with 21st Batt. we headed back also. It was a rather scattered Division that finally met up again at the Alamein line. We even spent a night in the Kaponga Box which we had so laboriously worked on, something like 12 months before.
So it was that all Artillery from the Division during 26th June to 28th June 1942 had shown the Panzer Division and part of the 90 Light Division of the German Army that we had come of age.
Casualties during this phase for 5th Field were:
|Killed || 14|
|Wounded || 50|
|P.O.W. || 2|
When we left Bir Kalda our convoy picked up a few stragglers from Minqar Qaim, and the first night we bedded down it was with the Guns set up in what was usual at this stage of a most fluid battle, an Anti Tank role. All night long one could hear the clank of Tanks rolling, and not knowing whether it was friend or foe. Funny the ideas one gets, because I remember changing my socks and saying if I was going to be taken prisoner, at least I would have clean socks.
The next night we spent in the Kaponga Box, and it was a very restless time for all. The German Air Force was out in force looking for targets and to help them were dropping flares everywhere. Not many got much sleep that night.
After that, things became a little more organised, and most times we were out in Jock Columns looking for trouble and, luckily for us, finding little. One day we went out in the afternoon, and fired on an Italian Column, and then beat a hasty retreat. This little sortie from all accounts was most successful.
It was around this time that LtCol Glasgow, our C.O. (Gussie when he could not hear) made it a habit of walking around his Troops most days and the boys looked forward to seeing the little man appearing with his stick and a couple of Officers. And although water was rather short, everybody made sure they were shaved and cleaned before the little visit by a very popular C.O.
Eventually we finished up in a position at a place called Alam Nayil. Just behind us was what had been 88-mm Gun Position. The Guns were knocked out, and the crews dead, all lying around. A very unpleasant smell came from these bodies, and the flies were something you had to see to believe. After a couple of hours it became too overpowering, so one Jim Watson and myself took a few cans of petrol and, after pouring it over the bodies, set fire to them. This not really getting rid of the smell or flies, certainly improved our lot.
Then came a day when we had to move forward to a place called Stuka Wadi. At this stage I think both 6th Field and 4th Field had had their turn up in this Wadi, which had become a fairly hot bed of activity.
It was certainly no different when we went up, because from the time we arrived until we pulled out, we were incessantly bombed and shelled. And to add insult to injury, we were shelled with 25 Pdr which the Germans had captured at Tobruk. Not a nice feeling at all. Then as we withdrew to Alam Nayil at dusk, we were bombed. During this attack Bill Thornton's driver was killed.
After things quietened down and everyone was getting back into their vehicles, we noticed one Sgt Ike Gilman missing. Ike had left N.Z. with the Survey Troop, and how we in "A" Troop had been honoured with him, I never found out. But anyway I yelled out to Ike to come back as we were moving, and a voice came out of the darkness and said, "But it is not safe, Allan". This broke everybody up, and the tension that was on seemed to vanish.
The Troop settled down at Alam Nayil, and for a time we were bombed at regular hours, morning and night. Somehow Ike always found a reason for disappearing over a ridge at the appropriate time. So much so, by the time we were there a week or so, this ridge became known as "Gilmans Ridge".
For three months we were around Alam Nayil, and most of the time we had the Ammo rationed as well as food and water. Buck Hazelhurst was the Bty. Cook, and one Ernie Fishlock would bring up the breakfast in Hot Boxes. This would consist in the main of porridge and bacon, all mixed up in one container. Ernie would call out "Come and get it", and as one would walk over as nonchalantly as one could under the circumstances, Ernie would lift the lid and flies would pour in by the thousands and Ernie would stir the lot up. Great food.
Les Sheehan was wounded for the second time at the breakfast queue, while Jack Christiansen, who had placed his cup of tea on the Limber, had it spilt on him as the bombs fell. Just as well we had a sense of humour left, as here was Jack crawling around saying "I have been hit, I have been hit". Seemed quite upset to think he was not going to be a casualty. Around the same time, Ken Gibson was to suffer a bad wound, as were Keith Palmer and Harry Rainsford. Other than that, the time was being taken up with a bit of harrassing fire, and going out through the wire at night and doing a bit of sniping.
Around this time we had a couple of changes in occupations around the Troop. Jock Peacock had gone out, and we got Lt. Johansen. Bas Mitchell had changed over from the Guns to be a Signaller, and Doug Wiggins went from G.P.O. Ack to O.P. Ack when Alec Smiley decided he had had enough up at the O.P. Everyone had Desert sores, and these with the diet we were on just would not heal. So for the three months we were around the Southern Sector, it was a fairly fortunate Gunner who did not have a few sores, and nowadays still the scars to show where they had been.
This article first appeared in a 5 Fd Regt Newsletter.
5 Fd Regt
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