2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
THE Australian attack in the night 28–29 October was complicated and the Australian CRA-and his staff had worked out the programme before the New Zealand gunners arrived on the scene. Their work was meticulous and the task tables were models of their kind. They followed the prevailing doctrine at Corps and Army which was to employ the creeping (or lifting) barrage mainly when enemy positions had not been satisfactorily located. Since the Australians had been fighting in the coast sector for several months they had a good knowledge of enemy dispositions. The New Zealand field and light ack-ack guns, unlike those of 34 Anti-Tank Battery, were not ‘under command’ but ‘in support’ and remained under Brigadier Weir's command.
The NZA programme consisted of timed concentrations, some of them rather awkward to fire, since the infantry they were meant to cover attacked towards rather than away from the guns. The attack started late, did not go well in the early stages, and the final phase, which included most of the New Zealand fire tasks, was cancelled. The New Zealand field guns therefore did not fire many rounds. The regiments had expected to move back to the wagon lines next day, 29 October, to rejoin the New Zealand Division; but a new attack was now planned for the night 30–31 October.
Major Hall-Kenney of 34 Battery had to take over positions vacated by the attacking Australians and moved forward on the 28th to do so. His Australian counterparts were busy, however, with details of the night's attack and it was with great difficulty that he managed to get information and guides. The front was quiet when the guns went forward, though a sniper caused some concern. The changeover took place by night. The Australians pulled out their guns and the New Zealanders ran their 6-pounders into the empty gun pits, some of which were much the worse for wear by the time the job was finished. Scarcely had they done so when the barrage opened and the enemy began to reply. He evidently knew precisely where the page 399 page 400 Australian guns had been and the guns were shelled with frightening accuracy. At one gun position five ammunition cases were blown up in quick order and the shellfire created havoc with the gunners' packs and bedrolls.
The Australian infantry then appeared on the scene, advancing steadily through heavy machine-gun fire which killed one infantryman outside an O Troop gun pit. A little later a medical orderly appeared with a wounded man, and cover was so scarce in the neighbourhood that O Troop gunners had to take him and attend to him in a gun pit while shells were falling close all round.
The next visitor was a Valentine tank equipped with roller and flails to detonate mines—a Scorpion. This drove over the gun pit, halting with the tank tracks over both of the gun trails and within inches of the wounded man's head. A neighbouring gun had even worse luck. An Australian Bren carrier drove up, mistook the crew for enemy, and gave them a burst of fire at point-blank range which killed Gunner Goodwin1 and wounded Bombardier Hitchen.2 It was a night of confusion and this incident, tragic though it was, aroused no hard feelings. The Australians had been fighting hard for some time, their infantry advanced with fine spirit, and the anti-tankers greatly admired them. In this position, too, an enemy sniper shot Hall-Kenney's batman.
The area was crowded with targets and attracted intense fire. Point 29, a key point of the German—Italian defences, was nearby, and Field Marshal Rommel (as he now was) made a tremendous but unavailing effort to recapture it when he arrived on the scene next day. Many enemy remained in the vicinity, however, and sniping on the 29th killed one gunner and wounded another.
The New Zealand anti-tankers were not sorry to learn that they would not be needed after the 30th and that they would withdraw that night. But they had many anxious moments before they got away. The new attack started with a heavy barrage and the enemy was replying freely when they pulled out. Liaison with the Australians was still very poor and they started off on the wrong track. They were heading straight for the enemy when an Australian stopped them. They had to turn round under fire, mount the 6-pounders on the portées, and page 401 then pass through a heavily shelled minefield gap before they could reach the coast road and feel at all safe.
The field regiments had put out OPs at first light on the 29th; but FOOs could see no suitable targets within range and the only firing was at almost extreme range by predicted fire. The 4th Field, which was farthest from the front, being sited right by the coast north-east of Tell el Eisa station, could do little and the gun crews were despatched to the beach in relays to have a swim. All guns were fully manned, however, by 5 p.m.
Men of 41 Battery were also able to swim during the day; but 42 and 43 Batteries were too far from the sea and they were both engaged during the 29th and the 30th against Stukas and fighter-bombers—the latter causing three casualties on the 29th in 48 Battery of the 6th Field. Early in the afternoon 42 Battery engaged and claimed hits on fighter-bombers. A butterfly bomb during the night damaged a tractor of H Troop 43 Battery, and it had to be sent back to Workshops.
The 5th and 6th Field were both called on to fire DF tasks when the enemy attacked in the evening of the 29th. The afternoon of the 30th was fully taken up with calculating, checking and promulgating details of the fire programme in support of the next Australian attack. For the New Zealand units it consisted as before solely of timed concentrations; but Australian regiments as part of their programme had to fire a creeping barrage.
It was again a complex attack and the New Zealand guns, particularly those of the 4th Field, were too far away to contribute much. They fired as ordered between 10 p.m. on the 30th—another awe-inspiring moment—and 3.28 a.m. on the 31st in the case of the 4th Field and five minutes past five for the 5th Field. Enemy aircraft flew over the gun areas throughout, dropping butterfly bombs and occasionally heavier bombs in an effort to check the firing. They wounded one man in the 6th Field. In the morning the gunners learned that the Australian attack had been very successful and hundreds of prisoners had been taken, but one strong position remained unconquered and this became the target of several concentrations fired during the day.