The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine
The Second Battle of Gaza
The Second Battle of Gaza.
On April 16th orders were received for the second attack upon Gaza.
- 8,500 at Gaza.
- 4,500 immediately east of Gaza.
- 2,000 in the great Atawineh redoubt, about 10 miles along the Gaza-Beersheba road.
- 6,000 Abu Hareira, and Tel el Sharia about half way to Beersheba.
- A garrison strength unknown in Beersheba.
East Force for this attack was about the same strength as at the first battle of Gaza with the addition of some tanks, but this time full use was made of all formations.page 98
The attack upon the Gaza position was to be made by the Infantry upon a line extending from the sea to and including the Sheikh Abbas position. This latter consisted of a great mass of broken ground thrust out as it were into the plain; and up which were excellent covered lines of approach from the Wadi Ghuzzeh; and together with the Mansura ridge formed the most important tactical feature south of the Ali Muntar position at Gaza itself.
The Sheikh Abbas and Mansura ridges were to form the principal objectives and when captured would be used as a point d'appui for the final thrust upon Gaza.
The role of the Imperial Mounted Division was to protect the right flank of this attack from a position of concentration at Tel el Jimmi and to hold a general line Kh. Erk-El Munkheileh-Atawineh, cutting the Gaza-Beersheba road.
The I.C.C. Brigade was to be in support of this operation.
The Anzac Mounted Division was ordered to demonstrate towards the enemy positions about Tel el Sharia and Abu Hareira, to prevent the enemy there and at Beersheba from detaching troops towards Gaza. For this purpose the Division was to cross the wadi at Shellal.page 99
At half-past six in the evening of 16th April, therefore, the Anzac Mounted Division marched from its bivouac at Deir el Belah with the N.Z.M.R. leading; and after an all night march the Canterburys crossed the wadi at the Shellal ford at half-past four in the morning of April 17th, and were shortly followed by the remainder of the Division.
There was a small Turkish post here with a machine gun on a conical hill commanding the ford. This hill was afterwards to become famous as the site of the "Shellal Mosaic," which was actually discovered about two hours after the New Zealanders had crossed over by two Officers of the Divisional Staff, an Australian and a New Zealander. This mosaic is worthy of more than a passing word and will be described later on.
Enemy aircraft were very active and bombed the column as it was crossing the wadi. The engineers had about a ton of gun-cotton on a wagon, ready for use in demolitions, and the driver halted with his Squadron beside the ford, unyoked his horses and took them off to water. All around, men and horses in hundreds were crossing the wadi, moving out towards Beersheba or watering their horses. At this particular moment the bombs were dropped by the enemy aircraft; but by the Hand of Providence they missed the gun-cotton, though the 2nd L. H. Brigade Headquarters were badly hit. Had the gun-cotton wagon been struck, few of the many hundreds in that crowded space would have survived.
By mid-day the New Zealand Brigade was holding a line about Hill 550, near Im Siri, on the Shellal-Beersheba road. Much movement was seen in the enemy lines about Tel el Sharia; and the great railway viaduct at Abu Irgeig was plainly visible on the Beersheba-Ramleh railway.
At dusk the Division retired to Shellal to water and to get supplies, leaving a brigade of yeomanry holding an outpost line.
The attack by the infantry on the Sheikh Abbas position was successful, but made no progress elsewhere.
The next day the New Zealand Brigade with the Aucklanders in the advance moved out at dawn and occupied much the same line, keeping up a harassing fire on the enemy out page 100posts. Much attention was again paid to the mounted troops by enemy aircraft, but little damage was done. At dusk the Division again withdrew to Shellal, leaving the 22nd Brigade (Yeomanry) on outpost duty.
C.M.R. awaiting orders to attack at the 2nd Battle of Gaza.
Col. Findlay watching bombs dropping among the horses.
The march took up the greater part of the night and reached a point near Kh. Erk by daylight, close to the junction of the El Sharia and Imleih wadis. Whilst waiting here the Canterbury Regiment was rather badly bombed, many men and horses being hit.
Lieut.-Col. J. Findlay, Commanding Canterbury Mounted Rifles.
At half-past nine the Wellington Regiment was sent up to support the 5th Mounted Brigade (Yeomanry) who formed the right of the Imperial Mounted Division. The regiment attacked "Sausage" ridge, a spur strongly held by the enemy and forming the southern flank of the Atawineh position. Here the regiment with four machine guns and supported by the fire of the Ayrshire Battery made a good advance, taking most of the pressure away from the 5th Mounted Brigade. At one time Colonel Meldrum had two and a half Horse page 102Artillery Batteries supporting his attack and he made great use of them at excellent targets.
About noon the remainder of the New Zealand Brigade was ordered forward and went in at the trot. The Canterburys went into the line on the left of the Wellington Regiment to fill up a gap between that regiment and the left of the Imperial Mounted Division.
Major E. J. Hulbert, D.S.O.
Major H. C. Hurst, D.S.O., Canterbury Mounted Rifles.
The Camel Brigade had a very difficult task, of attacking the Atawineh position over perfectly open slopes and with very little effective artillery support. The 15th New Zealand Company bore its full share of the three days' fighting, and lost its commander, Captain Priest, who had so ably taken the place of Captain McCallum, killed at Rafa.
Towards dark the enemy from Beersheba made a bold counter attack on the extreme right of the line held by the Division, pushing in the outposts of the 22nd Yeomanry Brigade and shelling the Divisional watering places in the wadi at Heseia, causing some casualties and much consternation to the popular Field Squadron who were resting after page 105a 20 hour bout of "developing water." After this if anyone ever wished to annoy an engineer all that was required was to mention the "evacuation of Heseia" and he got all the fun in the next 10 minutes that he wanted.
Darkness at length put an end to the third days' bitter fighting. During the night the Division crossed the wadi at Tel el Jemmi leaving an outpost line connecting with the Imperial Mounted Division on the left about El Magan and thence south across the wadi at Heseia and so to the old Turkish position at Weli Sheikh Nuran covering the Shellal crossing.
The troops dug in on this line in anticipation of an enemy attack. To the left the infantry remained on the Sheikh Abbas-El Mansura line and thence to the sea.
Thus ended the second battle of Gaza.
The battle was fought against superior enemy forces who were well entrenched upon higher ground with many and well-served guns skilfully placed. The advance to the enemy position was not only uphill but over perfectly open grassy page 106slopes, without an atom of cover. The country was too exposed and the distances too great for the successful use of tanks. And the water problem at all times gave the greatest anxiety. All drinking water had to be carried on camels from the wells at Belah to the firing line; and the courage and resource shown by the Camel Transport Corps was magnificent. This corps, which had borne the burden and heat of the day in the Sinai Campaign, was recruited chiefly from Egypt. The camel drivers were all "Gyppies," recruited mainly from the Delta, and the officers nearly all Egyptian Government Officials who had volunteered for the work. Many of the N.C.Os. were volunteers from the Australian Light Horse Regiments and these afterwards in many cases were given commissions and proved invaluable officers.