2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Stalemate in August
Stalemate in August
Though Eighth Army seemed curiously slow to recognise that the standard of co-operation between tanks and infantry was too low, in other directions it was learning fast. In August the front hardened, both sides were unadventurous, and the Division, like the enemy opposite, worked hard with barbed wire and mines to strengthen its front. Siege warfare was replacing a war of movement and it gave the artillery a chance to develop a wide range of techniques. Co-operation with the RAF had a high priority and was practised in many forms. And there were many minor operations to assert superiority over the enemy and keep him guessing.
For the CRA the August lull gave a long-awaited opportunity to improve divisional control of the field guns and it is significant that in this period field regiments were usually placed ‘in support of’ the infantry brigades with which they were associated and not ‘under command’. In other words, Brigadier Weir exercised a continuous supervision and could concentrate their fire on any targets within reach quickly and to whatever degree was required. On the other hand there was no impediment to quick response to local dangers: the infantry and gunners worked closely together at all levels of command. The object was the greatest possible flexibility of control and speed of response.
An ‘air shoot’ against a hostile battery in the El Mreir Depression on 3 August required much preparation; but the result justified it. An RAF tender arrived the day before and from the area of the 64th Medium it provided a ground-to-air link. A troop of this regiment was to fire the ranging shots and, to guide the aircraft, two smoke flares were lit due east of the gun position at intervals of one mile. When a 50-yard bracket was achieved the 6th Field and 64th Medium were to fire two page 354 three-minute concentrations at a rapid rate with an interval of 20 minutes between them. Clouds unexpectedly hampered this programme and the final bracket could not be observed. But the target was engaged as arranged and aerial reconnaissance showed that the shoot had been effective. The hostile battery position was evacuated except for one gun left behind, evidently damaged. The co-ordinates of the battery were passed to the artillery of an Indian division to the north for further attention if the enemy reoccupied the position.
Not only had the Divisional counter-battery organisation improved greatly: the Corps organisation was becoming sophisticated and this was one of several examples of its work. Information about hostile batteries was all passed to Corps and its reliability estimated on the basis of a wider range of data than could be available at the divisional level.
Two days later the 6th Field fired on Point 59 near the western end of Ruweisat to indicate it to a photographic-reconnaissance aircraft, the point being the centre of the area to be photographed. This, too, was successful. The 4th Field inaugurated on 6 August a policy of sending a battery forward to a night-firing position from which various tasks were carried out. Alternatively, guns moved forward by night to fire by day. Several such moves convinced the enemy that the main New Zealand gun areas were a good deal farther forward than they actually were and much fire intended for them fell short and did no harm. Another air shoot on the 7th found the enemy prepared. The opening salvo was fired by the medium guns, but the pilot could not observe it and the salvo was therefore repeated. The spotting aircraft and its escorting fighter were then attacked by Me109Fs and the shoot had to be abandoned. The pilot, as soon as he landed, reported that the second salvo was correct for line but fell 400 yards short. On this evidence a battery of the 6th Field and the 64th Medium engaged the battery in the evening, the medium guns searching 100 yards and sweeping 30 feet.
A gun of the 64th Medium had suffered a ‘premature’ on 27 July which blew away part of the barrel, but luckily only one member of the crew was wounded. On 8 August the gun B2 of the 4th Field suffered a much worse one while ranging. It was an ugly incident in which Gunner Growden21 was killed and two others wounded and it made other gunners shudder to page 355 think of it. The CRA and the BM (Captain Hanna) examined the damaged gun carefully at their headquarters and found that the shell had detonated in the chamber and had blown out the barrel and jacket for about 18 inches from the breech block.
The 5th Field a few days later fired a long programme rather like a creeping barrage at a very slow rate over ground thought to be a tank harbour and to contain guns as well. While this was going on the 64th Medium shelled the final line to catch any enemy trying to escape in vehicles or on foot. Then the medium regiment set about calibrating its guns and for this purpose made use of 1 Survey Troop.22 The surveyors established several posts and from them made observations of air-bursts fired over the enemy lines. Several such airbursts had been fired in the evening of the 13th over Deir el Abyad northwest of Ruweisat when a ‘terrific explosion’ (to quote the Divisional Artillery diary) occurred. Calibration was immediately forgotten and the mediums began to fire for effect—ground burst, 10 rounds gun fire. Another huge explosion took place and the white smoke from the two rose well above 1000 feet high, a most unexpected dividend for a routine and exacting job.
The same day, the 13th, proved lucky in another respect: the CRA met the new Army and Corps commanders. Auchinleck had been relieved as Army Commander by Lieutenant-General Montgomery and as C-in-C, Middle East, by General Alexander. General Freyberg, having recovered from his Minqar Qaim wound, returned on the 10th, took temporary command of 13 Corps, and was succeeded in this capacity by Lieutenant-General Lumsden. Freyberg and Weir were greatly reassured to learn that the new man, Montgomery, was not enamoured of Jock columns and brigade groups and proposed to maintain firm control and to keep divisions intact wherever possible. Moreover he deplored the current talk of retreating if the enemy attacked and the open steps taken to prepare for such a contingency. In a desert gasping hot and plagued with flies this was like a breath of fresh air. On the 20th the CRA and representatives of the regiments met Mr Churchill, who was responsible for the change, and the CRA was invited to lunch. Montgomery page 356 spent most of the 23rd with the Division and the gunners saw him for themselves.23
For the ack-ack gunners the month was quiet until the last day, the enemy rarely attempting anything more ambitious than a hit-and-run raid with two or three fighter-bombers. The anti-tankers, however, found plenty to do. The 34th Battery ran yet another school to train men on the 2-pounder, this time from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.24 More 6-pounders arrived on the 10th, bringing the regiment's total to 55 (of which 31 and 33 Batteries had 17 each and 34 Battery 21). Of the 34th guns, six were with the 46th Royal Tanks, four with Divisional Headquarters, four on patrol with the Divisional Cavalry, and six with 132 Infantry Brigade (which was under Divisional command), as well as one with RHQ. The new guns needed to be cleaned and tested and the adjutant, Lieutenant Wells,25 therefore opened a firing range half a dozen miles to the south where the guns were zeroed at 700 yards. Loud complaints soon came from troops to the south-east that ricochets and ‘overs’ were setting off anti-personnel mines nearby. Another range was then set up 23 miles to the south and on it most of the anti-tank guns, old and new, were fired and adjusted. page 357 The LAD officer, Captain Barry, and the RSM, Warrant Officer Spence, continued their remarkable salvage work, often under fire, and the list of what they retrieved in August would almost serve as an Ordnance officer's vade-mecum. Sergeant Campion,26 whose experience of captured enemy weapons went back to July 1940 when he first entered Libya, trained field gunners to operate three 50-millimetre German anti-tank guns, one of which was then donated to each of the three field RHQs for local protection. On the 27th 32 Anti-Tank Battery returned to life, being made up of all the former members serving with other batteries, Lieutenant Williams27 with all of P Troop of the 34th (redesignated F Troop) and Lieutenant McKechnie28 as well, and 45 other ranks of the Divisional Cavalry. The battery was armed at first with eight 6-pounders (including a newly-arrived one) and six 2-pounders. Captain Dawe29 of the 6th Field took command. As the regimental diary says, ‘Everybody was most pleased’.
22 This troop had gone back to Maadi and returned on the 3rd. For the next few days it tried to carry out flash-spotting of hostile batteries, but was much hampered by uncertain line communications to posts.
23 Few of the New Zealand gunners had even heard of Montgomery and most of them were not much impressed by British generals, though there were certainly some who felt that any change must be for the better. The recollections of Sgt J. A. Kennedy of A Troop of the 4th Field are fairly typical:
‘A message arrived at a time when the men were getting about in shorts, boots and nothing else, that General Montgomery had taken over command of Eighth Army and that he would be visiting the Battery. Instructions were given to wear shirts, tin hats and suchlike; a full troop mustered nearly fifteen men and they assembled some 200 yards behind the guns. Other troops arrived and the parade assembled. It was unimpressive: the men were thin and scraggy, smothered with desert sores, not interested in their new commander.
‘Three or four jeeps came over the horizon (the first they had seen) and Captain Monaghan called the parade to the alert with, “Here comes the circus”. The General's party came to a halt and he jumped out of his jeep, catching his foot in so doing and thereby delighting the multitude by almost biting the dust. He was not constructed according to the popular conception of a general: Australian hat smothered with badges; a shirt too big for him and socks too small; untidy clothes; a penetrating eye the only redeeming feature. He spoke to every second or third man. The first three whose occupation he asked were barmen, which delighted the troops, who had already learned that Montgomery was a teetotaller and non-smoker. The whole affair was the most informal of formal parades.’