Under Fire at Sidi Rezegh
by Robin Wait, 6th Field Regiment, 2NZEF
This is part of a letter written by Robin Wait, while serving with the 6th Field Regiment, New Zealand Artillery, in North Africa in 1941, and is reproduced with permission of the Wait family. All text is copyright © RS Wait.
It is Sunday 30th November 1941 and we are in the Sidi Rezegh region. We could see the Mosque from our gun-line. A convoy of supplies comes out from Tobruk and another, huge one from Sidi Omar in the south-east. Ammunition is plentiful and we send a great number of shells over to Jerry. Our air force is very active. We watch many sticks of bombs land on the German and Italian front lines. Our supply vehicles draw much enemy shell and mortar fire. The wounded and POW were put on the trucks and that evening they set out for Tobruk. I think the convoy got through.
During the late evening our OP party gets mixed up in a tank battle and most of them are now missing. Enemy tanks played hell with our infantry.
The sun is setting. 'White from seven until eight, Bildy you're on from nine to ten, me from eleven to twelve' ... that is what you hear almost every evening just before dark. We are making out our picquet roster for the night. There is always someone on duty, sometimes one man per gun, other times two men do for the whole Troop, it just depends how close we are to the enemy, but there will always be a picquet so it seems, even when we are miles from Jerry. Of course the best shift is the first one, seven to eight. When you are finished there is still a good night's sleep ahead (if it does not get too cold or the enemy decides to play up). This roster system makes it fair and before long you find yourself patrolling the guns at many queer and cold hours.
'About two minutes and you're on', someone yells in your ear as he lifts the corner of your blanket, letting in a gust of icy cold air. If it is light enough you can check the time on your watch, curse under your breath at being awakened and slowly draw yourself from the blankets. Should you have been awakened ten minutes too soon you yell a string of oaths in the direction of the retreating picquet and try and lie-in for just a few extra minutes.
'Why did I join up? What a silly game this is', are the thoughts running through your head as you stumble for boots, scarf and greatcoat. (Close to the enemy we sleep with our clothes on, sometimes our boots too; but if possible we try to strip off a bit but always have everything handy.) Pick up the rifle and you're off into the night. Our line of guns usually cover the distance of from one to two hundred yards and walking between them is fairly easy if they are in a straight line but of course we have to stagger them, the second gun may be ahead of the first and the other two likewise put out of line. Gives better protection from air and shell attack. So, if you are not careful you can find yourself setting off towards no-mans land, thinking all the time that No. 3 gun is 'just over there', it was before dark anyway!
Sometimes there are strange things to watch, flares, shells landing, air raids and so on. At other times there is just nothing, I myself, always carry a pocketful of Service biscuits to nibble at while on picquet, it is something to do. 'Five minutes more' you mumble to yourself as you peer hard at your dark watch (the least number of minutes to go the better). A few minutes before time you tell the next man 'It's your turn now' and with a feeling of inward satisfaction you leave him the rifle and head for bed, throw off your boots, clamber in, a difficult job if you want the blankets left tucked in. Before the next shell lands near you are asleep. 'Take Post' or 'Time to get up' is your next contact with the War.
That night we moved again, it was a move of just one mile, we settled down for what was left of the sleeping hours. Dawn came, the picquet had come off duty and the troops who had been 'standing to' for the half-hour prior to dawn relaxed and started the daily routing of rolling blankets and preparing breakfast. The primus was stubborn and needed more juice, Bildy went off to the truck to get some. The noise of battle always present at first-light seemed close, but we were used to noise now. But before the primus could be filled, bullets began to whistle in the area. 'Hello, Jerry is making an attack', remarked Dick, but the enemy often made attacks only to be repulsed by our infantry. Tank guns could be heard. Was that a mortar? Some of our more forward field artillery opened-up. Time for 'action' or 'slit-trench' was our one thought. No fire orders came so we squatted in our none too deep trenches, the ground was too rocky and hard for good protection.
The noise and hail of lead was coming far too close, spurts of dust were rising all around. We lay and watched. Then the order 'Take Post - Stand By'. Sheltering behind the gun and trailer is not the best place when hot lead is flying about. Ahead were clouds of dust and columns of black, sickening smoke. The tanks were playing merry hell. Tanks and infantry were advancing. Some of our unarmed trucks were getting away, a few had their sterns ablaze. A gun Quad came near, it was filled with bloody men, some appeared dead. As they passed us, those who could speak yelled words of encouragement. We later learned that this was the only truck to get away from that particular gallant troop. The guns ahead of us were being attacked. We saw one reel under the direct hit of a German tank shell. She was ablaze. We were helpless, we could not fire, our own troops and trucks were all around the area and the German tanks advanced behind a shield of dust and Kiwi prisoners. Not a target for our guns. Each man sat or knelt at his post, many wished that we could at least fire, but is was just wicked to sit there and watch. Our Regiment was being cut up.
With my binoculars I tried to make the scene a bit clearer, it was difficult to say whose infantry was out in front, I think it was a mixture, Axis ground troops and our boys. Someone tapped my shoulder, 'A great fight going on out there. Give one shell for one tank. Good work, keep it up.' We were not a little startled to see Brigadier Reginald Miles CRA, the headman of the New Zealand Artillery standing beside us. He was in battle dress and wearing his CRA armband, a rifle and light coat slung over his right arm. He strolled on paying little attention to the pattern of bullets which filled the air. We last saw him disappear into dust near another group of our guns. He stooped a little as the firing became more intense. (I am told that the German radio announced a day or so later, 'among the high officials taken during the battle of Bir Bel Hamed was the New Zealand General Miles Reginald'.)
RS Wait, November 1941