2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Moving on towards Tripoli
Moving on towards Tripoli
The Division, less 5 Brigade, began assembling in the desert south of Nofilia in the first week of January and on the 9th it moved off westwards. An elaborate exercise to lay out an antitank gun line on the right flank to guard against a hypothetical tank attack gave the gunners plenty of hard work digging gun pits and trenches and camouflaging them. All went well.
The next event was the crossing of the Wadi Tamet on 12 January, which meant driving slowly and uncomfortably through a rocky defile. Air attack was a serious danger for this phase and the RAF was asked to lend support. The guns of 41 and 42 Batteries had already gone forward and some of them, after much manhandling, were sited high on rocky eminences. Their crews waited patiently, but no enemy aircraft appeared and they did not fire. The route was very rough in parts, but the page 453 Division negotiated it safely. During the day, too, Brigadier Parkinson, recently returned from New Zealand, joined Artillery Headquarters as an observer for the advance to Tripoli.
After a 17-mile journey on the 13th, the Division continued on partly by day and partly by night. The Divisional Cavalry and 34 Anti-Tank Battery reconnoitred ahead, followed by the armoured OPs of field batteries, particularly 26 Battery of the 4th Field. General Freyberg himself travelled well forward in his Honey tank. Starting about two hours before dawn on the 15th, the Divisional Cavalry had worked partly round the southern flank of a strong enemy force by first light. It was broken country, criss-crossed by wadis, and offered good cover for the defence. N Troop of 34 Battery, leading with A Squadron, suddenly came under fire from machine guns and one or two 50-millimetre anti-tank guns sited among three ‘pimples’ rising up from the flat coastal strip to the right front. The portées, threading their way up and down steep sandy slopes in the foothills with their engines roaring, were highly vulnerable and had the enemy held his fire he could not have missed them. The leading portée hastened into the shelter of a little hollow with bullets showering stones over it from the crest. Calmly the gun sergeant, McIntyre,18 studied the ground, assessed the situation, saw there was no way out that was not under enemy observation, and backed the portée up to the top of the rise. With its gun pointing towards the three knolls, it then drove back and rejoined the other portée of the section. This then engaged the knolls and scattered enemy on the crests, almost certainly destroying a 50-millimetre gun. B Squadron and O Troop then worked their way round the left flank. They, too, came under fire and, responding to it, knocked out between them an armoured car, and O Troop also destroyed a half-tracked troop-carrier. B Squadron then withdrew; but the anti-tankers, N and O Troops, decided to brew some tea first, after a rather nerve-tingling few hours. In the midst of it enemy transport appeared and they manned their guns in a hurry. Then tanks of the Royal Scots Greys suddenly appeared on the scene at close range and caused some of the anti-tankers a few heart-stopping moments until they were identified as friendly. It was a tricky situation, full of surprises for both sides. P Troop with C Squadron came under fairly heavy shelling and a sergeant was wounded.page 454 page 455
Opposition was evidently stiffening and the CRA, who also travelled well forward, called up the two remaining batteries of the 4th Field (26 Battery was already under Cavalry command) and 211 Medium Battery.19 The ground was too broken, however, for these guns to make much progress until the enemy relinquished his hold on the better ground to the right front, towards which 7 Armoured Division was pushing. With difficulty 26 Battery managed to get into position and open fire towards the end of the afternoon and by dark it had fired 193 rounds, while 46 Battery got away three. In this and similar engagements entailing skill and determination to pave the way for a Divisional advance, the esteem in which 34 Battery already held the Divisional Cavalry, with which it had collaborated in Greece and in many another desert operation, was increased. The anti-tankers had many friends in the capable and enterprising squadrons.
During the night 15–16 January Brigadier Weir formed a gun group consisting of the 4th and 6th Field and 211 Medium Battery, RA, with ack-ack support from 41 Battery (less a section) and 43 Battery, to operate in direct support of the Divisional Cavalry and the Greys. Weir took a small tactical headquarters forward to control them.
The next likely source of trouble was the Wadi Zemzem, but only its steep sides, demolitions and several suspected minefields caused delay on the 16th. It was not until the late afternoon, some 35 miles farther to the north-west, approaching Sedada by the Wadi Nfed, that the enemy offered opposition. Until then the advance had been exhilarating. The Divisional Cavalry and 34 Battery, followed by the 6th Field with 43 Light Ack-Ack Battery, were on the right and the Greys followed by the 4th Field and 41 Battery on the left. Behind them the Division spread out in an enormous mass of bouncing and jolting transport. The vegetation varied from low camel-thorn to chest-high bushes and here and there enemy stragglers were picked up.20page 456
The pace was often set by General Freyberg himself and it was a fast one. On an occasional stretch of smooth dried mud the lorries and staff cars drove at full speed and the medium tanks were left far behind.
Suddenly black mushrooms of smoke sprouted among the leading carriers and Honey tanks on the right approaching the Wadi Nfed, and they quickly drew back behind cover to await the main body. The 4th and 6th Field quickly deployed and began to return the fire. Enemy tanks could be seen from time to time and the ruins of a great mediaeval castle gave the enemy excellent observation. Stukas soon arrived on the scene and circled high overhead; but the Bofors of 41 Battery quickly engaged them, splattering the sky with puffs of dark smoke. They stayed high and their bombing was ineffective. The reconnaissance group outside the ack-ack umbrella, however, received careful and leisurely attention from the escorting Messerschmitts, which came down almost to ground level, bombing and strafing the portées and armoured cars, though with little effect.
The enemy departed overnight and in the morning the Division wound its way slowly through the steep-sided defile surmounted by the massive ruins. Stukas came again, but this time they bombed 7 Armoured Division to the right rear. Once through the wadi the leading elements advanced rapidly, first through a curious landscape of grassy knolls sprouting small shrubs and short, distorted trees and then over a flat plain broken by areas of low sandhills, with here and there sticky patches of very soft sand. Away to the left the tanks of the Greys and their A Echelon trucks immediately behind them came under slight shelling from tanks in a low line of hills to the south-west. Then the columns halted for half an hour while the Shermans dashed into the hills and dispersed this opposition. The flat land merged into broken terrain inhabited by groups of poor Arabs whose ragged encampments marked cultivated patches of ground. Then came some ruins and the vanguard halted for the night not far from a gaunt Roman watch tower. The gun group behind, however, was savagely dive-bombed at 4 p.m. Two of the 4th Field and three of the 6th were killed, and three of the 4th Field and five of the 6th (including two officers) were wounded.21 The Division halted for the night about 25 miles short of the next major obstacle, Beni Ulid, having driven 40–50 miles this day.
19 This battery also fired this day. On 14 January the 94th Heavy Ack-Ack, RA, came under the CRA's command and supplied a battery to each of 5 and 6 Brigades and the Divisional Group. A battery of the 42nd Light Ack-Ack, RA, was also supposed to come under the CRA for this advance, but there is no confirmation in the NZA records that it did so.
20 One of these, an Austrian, climbed aboard one of the leading 6-pounder portées and made himself so useful to the crew, cooking, cleaning dixies, and doing whatever else he could, that they kept him overnight and were sorry—as he, too, seemed to be—when an irate Cavalry 1O arrived next day to claim him.
This day, 16 January, 48 Battery captured a German officer and 15 other ranks.