2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Christmas and the New Year by the Gulf of Sirte
Christmas and the New Year by the Gulf of Sirte
Two troops of guns, one from the 5th Field and one from 34 Anti-Tank Battery, moved westwards from Nofilia on 20 December with the Divisional Cavalry to the area of Sultan, halfway to the little town of Sirte. There, among other tasks, they covered a sapper detachment which was clearing mines from the roadsides and the Sultan landing ground. The 5th Field gunners were glad when the sappers were recalled on the 24th and they returned with them in time to have their Christmas dinner with their own unit. The gunners of O Troop of 34 Battery stayed in the Sultan area with the Cavalry; but they were not forgotten. A jeep arrived on Christmas morning laden with food, including turkey, and with much mail from home.
Christmas fare was splendid, except for a shortage of beer caused—so the gunners were told—by the sinking of a shipload of NAAFI stores. RHQ of the 7th Anti-Tank had constructed a messroom by excavating the side of a steep sandhill, building page 450 up the other side with timbers salvaged from the beach, rusty sheets of corrugated iron, and other materials, and roofing it with tarpaulins and canvas. In it the members of RHQ enjoyed their Christmas dinner on decorated tables and also a festive New Year's Eve dinner.
After Christmas efforts were made to complete the Absolute Calibration of a Standard Gun as a preliminary to the calibration of all the 25-pounders. A 46 Battery gun was chosen, a meteorological section arrived from Corps, and four OPs were stationed along the coast to observe the fall of shell at sea. All seemed to be going well; but after much work with logarithms checking the results it was found that the original data were wrong. All therefore had to be resurveyed and bad weather delayed this work. It was not until 3 January 1943 that the Absolute Calibration was finished and then bad weather again intervened. On 5 January the 5th Field hastily carried out its Comparative Calibration and in the afternoon moved to join 5 Brigade in an airfield construction task some 30 miles southwest of Sirte. The 32nd Anti-Tank Battery had already moved with the infantry on 1 January and Major Aldridge's 42 Battery gave ack-ack support. The 5th Field's share was to provide 25 lorries and 300 men.
The work had at first been most unpleasant because of sandstorms and then, on the 5th, the working parties were attacked by eight Me109Fs. Three Bofors engaged them, E1, E4 and E5, and fired 48 rounds, but did not hit any of them. Ten infantry were killed and some 35 wounded. Next day it was a different story. More than a dozen Me109Fs came over and 42 Battery engaged them at once and much more accurately. Sergeant Harris14 of D5, claimed four hits on one plane and two other aircraft were seen to crash. Gunner Newman15 of 42 Battery was killed by a bomb splinter and another gunner was wounded. The Messerschmitt pilots were taught a lesson, and when they came over again late in the afternoon they kept higher and there were no New Zealand casualties. On the 7th 10 Me109Fs made a direct dive-bombing attack on the Right Section of D Troop and the Left Section of E Troop, which were guarding a corner of the airfield, but the reception they got daunted page 451 the German pilots and they veered off without harming the guns or the crews. About 1 p.m. a dozen more Messerschmitts came over and all but three guns of 42 Battery engaged them. (They did not get within range of E2, D4 had a broken rammer spring, and E7 had suffered a misfire.) A third attack late in the afternoon was not pressed home and the Messerschmitts stayed mainly out of range of the Bofors. E5 nevertheless claimed a hit and two aircraft were seen to crash. By this time Spitfires and Kitty-hawks were operating well forward and the combined efforts of the ack-ack gunners and fighter aircraft caused the enemy to cease his attacks on the 2000 men labouring to construct the airfield.
The trickle of reinforcements continued while the Division was at Nofilia and there were many changes in all units. Some officers and NCOs were sent back to Base to train the next major reinforcement draft from New Zealand. Others were selected to form the nuclei of four troops to be equipped with a new and far more powerful anti-tank gun, still highly secret: the 17-pounder. At the same time F Troop of 32 Battery, which had been disbanded in July 1942, was reconstituted, entailing a considerable reshuffling of personnel in the 7th Anti-Tank. At long last, too, some HE ammunition arrived for the 6-pounders and it prompted an experiment with indirect fire by these guns. A sun compass was converted to give the line and a field clinometer gave the elevation. Major Nicholson of 31 Battery conducted a shoot, then Colonel Mitchell, and finally Brigadier Weir.