2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Counter-attack Southwards
The Counter-attack Southwards
A first instalment of the extra artillery strength needed for the thrust southwards against the enemy line of supply arrived in the morning of 2 September, when the 7th Medium, the 149th Anti-Tank (less two batteries) and two Bofors troops, page 364 all RA, came under Weir's command. At night the Division sent patrols southwards to ‘prevent enemy establishing himself in this area and facilitate your future operations’ (to quote an order from Corps). The 5th Field laid down fire on Deir el Angar to pave the way for one of these reconnaissances and had to bring down more fire to cover the withdrawal of the patrol when it struck trouble. The enemy was evidently in some strength and digging in.
Soon after daybreak on 3 September—the start of the fourth year of war—the FOOs discovered that opposition had hardened and there were several 88s sniping from the south, making it most uncomfortable for them. The enemy, anxious not to have his retreat cut off, was paying close attention to his long northern flank. Two or three divisional concentrations were fired at hostile batteries in late morning and early afternoon and there was much harassing fire. This day, too, the Divisional Artillery received its first jeeps and they were allocated on a meagre scale to units—three all told, for example, to the 7th Anti-Tank.
In the night 3–4 September the Division was to attack southwards to the edge of the Munassib Depression with 26 Battalion on the right, the inexperienced 132 Infantry Brigade (of 50 Division) in the middle, and 5 Brigade on the left or eastern side. Much of the day was taken up with preparations. It was to be a silent attack, so there was no night artillery programme to draw up; but a number of defensive tasks to cover the final objective had to be provided. Anti-tank and light ack-ack guns and artillery OPs were to go forward with the attacking infantry or be placed in handy positions to be able to give support when needed. The 6th Field was in support of (not ‘under command’) 5 Brigade, the 5th Field in support of 6 Brigade, and the 4th Field of 132 Brigade (the 58th Field, RA, remaining in the northern sector newly taken over by an Indian brigade). During the night the 1st Field, RA, with two batteries was to come under the command of the 7th Medium in the Divisional area. The CRA would therefore control well over a hundred 25-pounders and about 24 medium guns—4.5s and 5.5s. The only tasks to be fired during the night, unless some local crisis developed, were to be by the 5th Field on Deir el Angar in support of a diversionary raid by 6 Brigade infantry.
The raid to Deir el Angar went fairly well; but the attack by 132 Brigade met much opposition from ground and air and page 365 failed to gain the objectives. On the right 26 Battalion, with G Troop's three 6-pounders, had trouble getting past brigade transport milling around under shellfire in and beyond the minefield gaps; but it reached its appointed goal. The brigade, however, became disorganised. The enemy seemed to know what was afoot. Aircraft dropped anti-personnel ‘butterfly bombs’ by the hundred, many heavier bombs, and ground flares of a new kind which landed in rows and lit up the surrounding desert for a considerable distance. Strafing from the air was widespread and nerve-racking. As the 7th Anti-Tank diary says, it was a ‘Very unpleasant night with bombing, machine gunning and shelling’. Italians facing the advance, moreover, fought with unusual vigour and determination.
Major Bevan of the 4th Field,35 travelling as liaison officer with brigade headquarters, thought the trouble all started when, about midnight, a shell or mortar bomb set a truck alight and attracted attention to the surrounding vehicles. Shelling and mortaring set more and more vehicles on fire and some of them exploded. The columns became thoroughly disorganised as drivers sought to dodge the shells and mortar bombs which seemed to be directed at each vehicle as it became silhouetted against the flames. ‘Every time another of our trucks went up in flames we moved just far enough to get out of the worst of the light’, Bevan says. ‘This was fairly frequently and there weren't many trucks left by morning.’
‘The situation in front was very obscure [he adds]. Brigade had no communication with any of its three battalions—no phone, no wireless, no runners—until after dawn. The Brigade wireless trucks were not hit and they must have been in touch with NZ Div all the time. I was in touch with my battery and regiment throughout.’
The brigade commander, searching for his battalions, was wounded and his brigade major took command. Bevan says of the brigade major that
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‘It was bad luck for him that his first action should have been such a mess. He was willing to take any advice except that he would not move off that ridge. I wanted him to move back a few hundred yards on to the back slope where his vehicles—and mine—would be safer from observation and gun fire, but he would only say “I won't retreat”.’
One of the vehicles put out of action was the wireless and cable truck of the liaison officer of the 64th Medium, no great loss in the current crisis, since the occasion was not one for night fire by the medium guns; but in daylight they might be badly needed. Bevan says that he called down at least two divisional concentrations in support of 132 Brigade during the night and the citation for the DSO he was awarded for this action reads in part as follows:
‘[Bevan], disregarding his own personal safety, was able to load a considerable number of wounded on to the wireless van accompanying him, [and] at the same time called for fire from the whole Divisional Artillery. Under this concentration, he restored complete order and confidence in the men around him by his coolness and utter disregard of danger.’
There is no record of the firing of such a concentration, but the war diaries for this period are far from satisfactory. The 4th Field fired a concentration at 3.30 a.m. on 4 September; but it seems doubtful that any divisional concentrations were fired this night, even if Bevan did call for them. At all events he did manage to bring down fire and it helped to restore order. A little later, with dawn approaching, Bevan persuaded the brigade major that ‘unless he moved off the ridge he would lose all his vehicles … and that he was useless without his wireless trucks’. Bevan then lined up the transport and guided it to about 400 yards from the minefield, dispersing it at first light.
The anti-tank guns chiefly concerned were G Troop of 32 Battery (which got through with 26 Battalion), all guns of 33 Battery and two troops of 31 Battery. G Troop came under heavy fire which wounded one man and immobilised a portée. Captain Dawe, who had supervised the resurrection of 32 Battery, did not hold his new command long; for he was wounded this night. C Troop of 31 Battery ended up on a minefield. Two portées were damaged and a third could not get out until more mines were lifted. The troop commander, Lieutenant Jardine,36 and another officer and a gunner were wounded by a mine explosion, and another gunner was hit by a shell fragment. Being stranded on a minefield in the dark under shell and mortar fire with blazing trucks and evident confusion in the nearby brigade transport was hard on the nerves; but the anti-tankers did not panic and all the portées were recovered.page 368
O Troop of 34 Battery was attached to the Divisional Cavalry and reached the gap in the minefield when the shelling was at its height. An aircraft dropped a string of flares when the Cavalry and anti-tank vehicles were nose to tail and stationary. ‘They fell just sufficiently clear’, a sergeant recalls, ‘but it was a nasty moment.’ Some of the trucks became stuck in the sand, but were pulled out. The infantry ahead made poor progress and O Troop could not deploy. A 34th gunner was killed by a bomb. From the anti-tank viewpoint the operation was badly planned and carried out and the gunners felt their efforts were in vain. None of them fired even a single shot throughout the night or the following day.
H Troop of 43 Ack-Ack Battery had the same sort of trouble in the night. It reached what looked like the FDLs by 4 a.m., and then had to withdraw with the infantry at dawn. The cost was one officer and four other ranks wounded by shellfire.
The main object of gaining observation over the supply routes of the enemy was far from being achieved. The FOOs, after much trouble, took up positions in the morning in the neighbourhood of Point 100, north-west of Muhafid; but even the imperfect observation to be gained there was soon to be denied them. The enemy was in considerable strength to the south and south-east and had no intention of letting Eighth Army cut off his retreat. Machine-gun, anti-tank and artillery fire swept through the area and tanks were seen approaching from the south-east. Before long the area was untenable.
Two batteries of the 6th Field fired smoke soon after dawn to cover a Maori withdrawal and the screen was particularly effective. The 5th Field also fired smoke. Then the 4th and 5th Field and all but a battery of the 6th Field, plus the 64th Medium, fired a concentration for 10 minutes at normal rate from 7.40 a.m. in support of 5 Brigade and repeated it at a very slow rate for half an hour from 8.30. A similar concentration a little later helped to repulse an attack on the exposed positions of 26 Battalion on the right or west. Enemy movement gave ample warning of an attack from the south against 22 Battalion, and when it began soon after noon the 4th and 6th Field brought down observed fire and the 5th and 58th Field and the medium guns and howitzers, including those of 107 Battery of the 7th Medium, repeated a concentration called ‘Arthur’ and fired it yet again in mid-afternoon. The total expenditure of ammunition was not great, except for the 6th Field and the mediums, but the effect of these massive concen- page 369 trations was important and perhaps decisive. A good deal of fire came back, from a variety of guns, and when this became troublesome it was also dealt with by heavy concentrations rather than troop or battery fire. One such task, at 6.40 p.m. against guns sited near the northern lip of Muhafid, was fired by the 4th, 5th and 6th Field and the 64th Medium.
In the air, too, the enemy made his main effort this day against the Divisional area, including the salient created by Operation BERESFORD, and all three batteries of the 14th Light Ack-Ack fired repeatedly. A diary of 42 Battery records attacks by Ju88s, Me109Fs and several kinds of Italian aircraft and there was a sharp Stuka raid at 10 a.m. on 41 Battery. One Ju88 was shot down. After dark H Troop withdrew, with the rest of the New Zealand troops and 132 Brigade, from the forward position south of the minefield and the Bofors guns went back to their former pits.
Early in the afternoon the CRA was asked to pass to all artillery units General Freyberg's ‘congratulations on the splendid way they have conducted themselves during the past three days’. All the New Zealand units were advised and the 58th Field and 64th Medium as well. The night was quiet and the gunners were duly grateful for this. They all needed a rest. When the 6th Field totalled up its ammunition expenditure for the day it came to a record for the campaign so far: 5307 HE, 812 smoke and 6 rounds with supercharge. (That of the 4th Field was a mere 1008 rounds.) The history of the 7th Medium, however, records that 107 Battery fired over 1000 rounds this day on ‘programmes and other targets’ (an astonishing total, relatively much greater than that of the 6th Field) and also that the battery was ‘repeatedly bombed and shelled and sustained several casualties’, as well as having one gun and tractor damaged.37
Whatever the verdict on BERESFORD, for the gunners it was a striking demonstration of the power of artillery under divisional control. Appropriate fire drills had been developed almost to perfection, counter-battery work was crushingly effective, and co-operation with infantry and other arms had improved greatly. Had the enemy not been so busy congratulating himself on his success in repulsing the threat to his communications, he might have drawn from this operation an ominous hint of the shape of things to come. But the battle was not quite over.page 370
After withdrawing, 5 Brigade went into reserve, its place in the Divisional ‘box’ being taken by 151 Brigade. On the 8th it withdrew to a rest area on the coast road. Meanwhile 6 Brigade stayed in position and the Divisional Cavalry—always with 6-pounder portées—patrolled to the west and south-west.
The morning of 5 September disclosed an enemy clearly retreating. Deir el Angar was the chief source of trouble, especially with 88-millimetre guns, and at 9.20 a.m. nine batteries of the 4th, 5th and 6th Field and the 4th and 58th Field, RA, and the 64th Medium (with 107 Battery) shelled it. Mobile OPs engaged opportunity targets of infantry and transport to the south and south-west throughout the day. Heavy-calibre guns shelled 6 Brigade; but their fire was erratic and they did little damage. A Stuka raid in the morning and several fighter-bomber raids were followed by a heavy dive-bombing attack in the late afternoon which straddled the guns of 42 Battery, killed one and wounded six at the gun positions of 107 Medium Battery and totally wrecked a gun and tractor, and gave 43 Battery a success when it shot down an escorting Me109F. A shell landing near a 4th Field cookhouse in the evening slightly wounded eight men, including the RSM. The night was quiet.
Extensive rearrangements of artillery attachments were meanwhile carried out.38 Targets had thinned out considerably by the morning of the 6th, though the enemy shelling continued and ‘88s’ searched the 4th Field area without causing casualties. The enemy had been moving north-westwards for some time across the western flank of the Division and the fire of the New Zealand guns followed him. They fired another heavy concentration on a hostile battery in front of the Kaponga Box; but in the afternoon they had to be content mainly with minor targets of infantry and transport. The main interest of the day was a series of ‘dogfights’ in the air, one in the morning lasting a considerable time and causing loss to both sides. It was fought at a very low altitude and the Bofors gunners joined in whenever they could, shooting down two German fighters and possibly a third. Then there was bigger game in the evening when Stukas bombed the medium guns again. The Bofors shot down two of them—E1 caimed one and E7 the second—and damaged others.
On the Army Commander's orders all OPs adopted an aggressive policy on the 7th, engaging all targets in sight, particularly page 371 to the south and south-west. They started early and provoked heavy counter-battery fire, some of it by 210-millimetre howitzers. The lines of 46 Battery of the 4th Field were heavily shelled, but no harm was done. Then it was the turn of 25 Battery and the popular and accomplished battery commander, Major Stevens-Jordan,39 was killed by a direct hit on his bivouac tent. Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart at once arranged for battery representatives to attend a burial service; but the guns did not pause and within an hour they fired two regimental concentrations on a point beyond Deir Alinda. By 6 p.m. the hostile battery was located with some confidence and the regiment shelled it vigorously. It did not fire again. By the end of the day Artillery Headquarters was busy on plans to hand over existing positions to the artillery of 44 Division and move to a rest area.
Reconnaissance parties of the relieving artillery arrived on the 8th, studied the ground, and were told all about the situation. The front was quiet and, for the first time for many weeks, the Bofors did not fire at all throughout the day. The 4th Field were still touchy about the death of Stevens-Jordan and fired 1608 rounds this day. The relief began on the 9th and was completed when the CRA handed over command to the CRA of 44 Division at 9 p.m. on the 11th. All went well except in the 4th Field, which had all three batteries heavily shelled on the 9th and lost one man killed and one wounded and a truck badly damaged.
Leave was started to Cairo and Alexandria even before the regiments reached the rest area south of Burg el Arab and those not on leave were given as much free time as possible to spend on the beach. For the next week skeleton staffs carried out essential administration—the 7th Anti-Tank, for example, being commanded by a captain who arrived as a reinforcement and found he was the senior officer in the camp.
The rest was badly needed. The men had lost a lot of weight, most of them had ‘desert sores’ and other disabilities, jaundice or its aftermath affected many of them, particularly officers, and the beach parties were not good advertisements for the physical qualities of New Zealand manhood. Two regimental commanders were admitted to hospital: Colonels Stewart and Glasgow of the 4th and 5th Field, replaced temporarily by Majors Sprosen and Philp respectively.
35 Commanded since 20 August by Lieutenant-Colonel G. J. O. Stewart. Lieutenant-Colonel Queree this month became GSO I of the Division.
37 The History of the 7th Medium Regiment Royal Artillery during World War II, 1939–1945 (published by the regiment, renamed the 32nd Medium Regiment, RA; 1951), pp. 108–9.
38 The effects on the NZ Artillery were that the 1st Field, RA, replaced the 58th Field, the battery of the 7th Medium (107 Battery, also called 426/7 Battery) returned to its parent unit, and the 64th Medium recovered a detached battery.