2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The sight of batches of prisoners became a commonplace of the advance and the desert was littered with disabled guns, tanks, other vehicles and equipment of all kinds. There was much evidence of enemy confusion and there were many cases of mistaken identity. ‘One Jerry half-tracked vehicle wandered into the area by mistake and its advent and capture were sufficient to make us redouble our alertness’, an officer of 32 Battery wrote later. ‘In G Troop we even had rounds up the spout.’ In another incident 32 Battery was on the point of firing at half a dozen vehicles, including an Italian tank, at point-blank range when a Maori voice called out from one of them and the gunners paused long enough to discover that all the occupants were Maori. At the end of the day RHQ of the 14th Light page 418 Ack-Ack had travelled 34 miles and the 4th Field just over 40. The Division was well placed to help cut off a sizable body of enemy at the Fuka bottleneck; but the hesitation and delay at the minefield allowed the enemy to escape.
The weather came to the enemy's aid on the 6th. The day started overcast, with rain in places which became general and steadily increased, greatly slowing down the advance. The Division was now directed on Baggush, and the desert on the way there, a manoeuvre ground for the 4 Brigade artillery in the early days and therefore familiar to the ‘old hands’, quickly drank up the rainwater at first. Then it showed signs of having had enough. Pools formed everywhere and the surface became slippery. Innocent-looking stretches of scrubland became treacherous bogs. The steep routes down the escarpments became dangerously slippery. The leading brigade, now the 9th Armoured with the 4th Field and 31 and 41 Batteries, reached the escarpment above Sidi Haneish station in the former Baggush Box early in the afternoon against slight opposition. The going deteriorated rapidly, however, and the portées of 31 Battery had no chance of keeping up with the tanks. Most of the 4th Field guns made good progress despite the worsening surface of the desert and were in action before 2 p.m. to cover any assault that might be needed. The Bofors of 41 Battery did exceptionally well and were deployed in time to shoot down two Messerschmitts which flew off from a landing ground at the last moment before the Divisional Cavalry overran it.
The 4th Field, some 31 Battery portées and some Bofors descended the escarpment, in company with the tanks of the armoured brigade and cavalry. It was a difficult task indeed for the drivers of the quads and, when the regiment was ordered at 3 p.m. to ascend again without having fired, the effort seemed wasted. The rain was now very heavy, it was as much as the drivers could do to reach the top, and having done so by nightfall they found the desert there had become altogether too boggy for them to make further progress.
For other gunners farther back the journey towards Baggush became progressively slower as the rain filled in minor depressions, and vehicles in skirting them became mixed up. Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell of the 7th Anti-Tank was delighted when a Lieutenant Tosser of the Royal Artillery reported to him with four ‘Bishops’ (25-pounders on Valentine chassis), one three-tonner and three jeeps. At the end of the day, however, the only member of this detachment that had managed page 419 to retain its place in the group was a solitary Deacon, and Mitchell therefore searched the desert for miles around until he found the remainder. In the darkness he could not find Divisional Headquarters, however, and had to bed down for the night with his party of RA vehicles in the 6 Brigade area.
Most of 7 November was spent ‘digging, winching or pulling vehicles on to hard ground’, according to the RHQ diary of the 14th Light Ack-Ack. ‘In many cases tanks had to come to the rescue and pulled the worst cases out. Our Bedford tractors did good work with their winches, and the drivers had an extremely strenuous day. Wet feet were the order of the day.’ The rain had softened the surface of the desert overnight, but the morning was fine and ‘prospects of getting the vehicles out were bright’. Then rain set in again and things went from bad to worse. Even the four-wheel-drive jeeps sometimes got bogged and several of them had to be towed out of trouble. By this time, too, some vehicles were running short of petrol (though the Division had been ordered to leave the Alamein line with full tanks and enough for 200 miles as well) and several officers who tried to get more had to return empty-handed. The 4th Field, after a hard morning winching out bogged vehicles, was dismayed to learn in mid-afternoon that supply lorries with petrol were bogged down three miles away.
Dawn on 8 November was fine, the morning was sunny, and the ground was rapidly improving. As petrol and other supplies were not expected until about noon, however, the 4th Field gunners took the opportunity to dry blankets and clothing. It was now out of the question to intercept any significant part of the retreating forces. The Bofors guns were coated with mud and gunners spent a busy morning cleaning them. The next stage was Mersa Matruh and the Division moved off in the afternoon intending to attack it. The 4th Field found the going ‘particularly bad’ and so many vehicles were getting bogged that the regiment was ordered to close up at dusk and bed down. The 6th Field, too, had to drive through ‘very heavy mud and slush’. But RHQ of the 14th Light Ack-Ack, driving along beside the telegraph line at Matruh, found the ground quite firm and ‘there was very little bogging’. All passed many prisoners walking eastwards and even some parties sitting in vehicles waiting to be captured. None of the New Zealand units had time to bother with them.
Long before the main body of the Division got near Matruh the light armoured brigade reported it clear of the enemy. The page 420 units passed within sight of the Minqar Qaim battlefield in the afternoon and bivouacked for the night to the north-west of it.
The next stage was to be Sidi Barrani, and to reach it the Division would have to defile on to the road skirting Matruh. The CRA was now given command of the Divisional Reserve Group with the 4th Field, the 14th Light Ack-Ack less two batteries, 34 Anti-Tank Battery and the machine-gun battalion less two companies; but the 4th Field remained until the 11th with 9 Armoured Brigade. South of Sidi Barrani the light armoured brigade caught up with enemy rearguards in the afternoon of the 9th and the rest of the Division was six or seven miles away at dusk, except for 6 Brigade, which (with 33 Anti-Tank and 43 Light Ack-Ack) moved into Matruh and stayed there. Supply considerations dictated the shape of operations at this stage.
For the gunners of the two batteries it was disappointing, but there were many compensations. It was interesting for ‘old hands’ and newcomers alike to see the little town and port after nearly five months of enemy occupation. The guns of 43 Battery went into position covering the harbour; but they were soon displaced by RA Bofors and the gunners were able to relax on the beach and swim in waters that were still quite warm. Men of 33 Battery found they had camped by extensive enemy stores and depots, including a Luftwaffe workshop with all its magnificent equipment intact. Later they moved to an area in the original defensive perimeter and most of them took up residence in ‘pillboxes’. When they moved to rejoin the Division on the 20th they had taken advantage of their knowledge of former enemy supply depots to stock their cookhouse vehicles with large quantities of tasty items to supplement their army rations, as well as alcoholic refreshments originally intended for the Italian conquerors of Alexandria. For the rest of the North African campaign this was the best fed and the most hospitable of all the New Zealand batteries.
For the other batteries the advance along the coast to Sidi Barrani and then Sollum was chiefly memorable for the amount of enemy equipment strewn along the route and the ample evidence of the havoc created by the RAF as the enemy retreated along the coast road. The field batteries did not fire again; but on the 10th fighter-bombers in a fleeting attack destroyed a troop stores truck of the 6th Field, damaged a signals truck, and wounded three gunners. Next day 41 Battery was quick to engage more fighter-bombers which flew over and shot down page 421 one of them. This was the only firing by New Zealand guns between Baggush and the Libyan frontier. New Zealand infantry had stormed Halfaya Pass in a silent attack in the night 10–11 November, and the Bofors fire from the bottom of the pass in the morning at the fighter-bombers came uncomfortably close to the men at the top of the escarpment.
For the rest of the 11th and all through the night a continuous snake of New Zealand vehicles and others slowly wound its way up the pass, while engineers repaired the normally much superior road up the Sollum pass, blocked by a huge demolition. Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart of the 4th Field, tired of waiting in columns five abreast to mount the Halfaya pass, led his regiment by a side route to the foot of the Sollum escarpment, reaching there at 3 p.m. on the 12th. Two hours later the sappers completed their repairs and the 4th Field was the first unit to ascend by this route.
By this time 9 Armoured Brigade had departed for the rear,18 other formations not under New Zealand command were keeping up what pressure they could on the rapidly retreating enemy, the supply lines of Eighth Army were stretched taut, and the Division was to rest briefly and ease the strain on them. It therefore began to assemble in the Sidi Azeiz area near Bardia. Equipment—especially gun towers and portées—was badly in need of maintenance and the 4th Field and 7th Anti-Tank stood in urgent need of reinforcements. A breathing space was most desirable and the gunners hastened to take advantage of it. With Egypt clear of the enemy they felt they could now relax. A vital phase of the desert war had ended and the next, whatever form it took, promised to be very different. Their thoughts were now on Tripoli and no one was looking over his shoulder.
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18 Though they disagreed with Currie about tactics, those of the 4th Field who saw him in action admired him greatly and they were sorry to see the remnants of his gallant brigade depart.