2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Gun Group pushed on past the village of Sidi bou Ali on the road to Enfidaville, a town at the foot of a towering mountain range which barred the way to Tunis. To the west of the town the village—or perhaps twin villages—of Takrouna clung to a precipitous hill of the same name which dominated the approaches ominously. The fun was clearly over and there was heavy fighting ahead.
The 4th Field prepared positions in bare country 6–7 miles from Sidi bou Ali and half a mile west of the road to Enfidaville. The ground was almost solid rock, but the gun crews were spurred on by shellfire on the road near them. A section from B Troop went over four miles farther along the road and engaged a suspected enemy locality, attracting return fire. Late page 498 in the afternoon the section was recalled to the main gun area, and it was just clear of the forward position when that was very heavily shelled. It was a narrow escape. The KDGs had done their job well and now departed from the Division; 26 Battery returned to the 4th Field.
The 6th Field established two batteries two miles north-west of the 4th Field and 30 Battery remained on wheels,32 while the 5th Field dug in four miles west of the 4th Field. Selecting these positions was simply a matter of making the best of a bad job; for good gun positions were quite unobtainable.
Two troops of 34 Battery took up positions covering the long stretch of white road leading to Enfidaville. For a day or two theirs were the foremost guns. Some infantry occupied a dark patch of trees half a mile along the road and a company was out to the right, towards the salt marshes by the sea. This company threaded its way back and that left only the infantry in the little wood ahead. Occasionally the enemy mortared the wood or shelled the field guns behind.
Planning and preparation for an Army assault on the great rugged fortress south of Tunis were well advanced. For the present there was no sense in provoking an enemy whose positions completely dominated the New Zealand gun areas. In the next day or two, therefore, the chief ambition of the gunners was to keep quiet and out of sight. But the 5th Field33 had done less shooting than the other two field regiments in the course of the advance across North Africa and perhaps had itchy trigger fingers. On the 15th 28 Battery established a sniping gun 2500 yards in front of the main gun area and it engaged many targets. Next day another from 47 Battery also went forward and only these two guns fired. This was highly provocative; but it drew no return fire. No targets appeared on the 17th; but the sniping guns were busy again on the 18th. Still no response; but when 27 Battery and a troop of 28 Battery moved to a new position four miles farther north a heavy concentration came down just in front of the guns and Bombardier Tyler was killed. The 5th Field took care to do no firing by day from these vulnerable forward positions, and 47 Battery and the rest of 28 Battery did not move up to them until 7 p.m. on the 19th.page 499 page 500
Meanwhile both the 4th and 6th Field moved in readiness for the big attack. The 4th Field, relieved in its existing positions on 16 April by the 65th Field, RA, of 50 Division, went to a ‘laager area’ eight miles south of Takrouna—-an area memorable for its cactus and for mosquitoes that copied the tactics of the Stukas. From this area working parties went forward by night to prepare battle positions on flat ground 6000 yards south-west of Takrouna. The soil there was black and sticky and hard to dig, but a bulldozer gave valuable help. The 6th Field moved to positions just under four miles due south of Enfidaville and about five and a half miles south-east of Takrouna, which was the main objective of the New Zealand part of the attack. The regiment gladly received on the 17th an air OP; for it was impossible to locate from the flat below many of the targets which were hidden in the labyrinthine folds of the mountains. This valuable OP consisted of a highly-trained RA captain, who flew solo a tiny aircraft which could operate from short and rough runways, and a supporting detachment of four other ranks with lorry and a motor-cycle. It was the first of many air OPs to operate with the NZA, and in Italy they became almost indispensable.
Another addition to the New Zealand guns was a huge, long-barrelled German 170-millimetre gun of very modern design, one of two captured in the Tebaga Gap. This one was manned by a special crew believed to be from the 51st Medium, RA, and it was set up among huge cactus trees between the laager area of the 4th Field and the reserve position of 34 Battery. At dusk one evening its long nose rose from the cactus and it fired one round, to the astonishment of many gunners who had not seen it arrive. Next day many of them strolled over to see it. They found that the crew consisted of about 35, with a high proportion of officers, all of them taking part in a vigorous debate about how the gun worked. The gun itself was plastered with detailed instructions; but none of the crew could read German. All in all, it was a highly entertaining sideshow. Some of the massive rounds were later reported to have gone clean over the enemy in the hills above Enfidaville and to have landed on the other side in the area of the First Army. When one of these rounds burst prematurely over RHQ of the 4th Field in the early hours of 19 April there was consternation; but it did no damage.
The preparations for the Takrouna attack were strikingly similar to those for many an earlier operation in the desert, page 501 and the artillery plan with its two-phase lifting barrage was of a familiar pattern. They were almost totally inappropriate to the task at hand, which was in the first place ludicrously optimistic in its allocation of forces in relation to the strength of the defences, and in the second place was of a kind so different from those to which the Division had become accustomed as to call for an almost completely new approach. Warfare in the mountains gave little or no scope for many of the skills and techniques developed in years of mobile desert warfare.
The New Zealand part was an attempted advance of 4000 yards on a front of 4000 yards, the same area as that of Operation supercharge which broke the Alamein line—the same area, but utterly different terrain. Brigadier Weir expressed his concern at a conference on 18 April. He pointed out that the guns had to be emplaced in the open and that it must be expected that some troops would be knocked out by counter-battery fire, causing gaps to appear in the barrage. If certain high ground, particularly Takrouna, remained in enemy hands, most of the gun positions would be untenable next day.
The barrage, when it did start at 11 p.m. on the 19th,34 sounded different from earlier barrages. The sharp crack of the guns on the plain went through a quick series of metamorphoses as it echoed and re-echoed in the mountains until it became a dull heavy boom, a constant drumming background of noise. As they toiled at the guns, a breeze from the north blew the cordite fumes back into the faces of the gunners. For 6 Brigade on the right the barrage, fired by the 6th Field, the 65th Field and three troops of the 124th Field, pivoted on the right for 18 minutes to roll over enemy positions south of the road to Enfidaville until it straightened up. For 5 Brigade on the left, the barrage, fired by the 4th and 5th Field, the 111th Field, and the other three troops of the 124th Field, paused on the opening line for half an hour. Then with the two brigades in line—so far as the broken terrain permitted—the two barrages rolled on in unison, lifting 100 yards every two minutes, a rate of advance that was ridiculously fast for that type of country (though it was what the infantry said they wanted). With a two-hour pause in the middle the barrage ended at 1.44 a.m. on the 20th. Mac Troop, with badly worn barrels in its 88s which made its ranging uncertain, was allowed to take part page 502 only on condition that it fired 800 yards beyond the barrage. The 74th Field fired tasks on various danger points over the whole front. The 64th and 69th Medium, from 5 AGRA, also fired tasks on selected areas, mainly on the left. The right-hand gun of the 65th Field and the left-hand gun of the 5th Field fired smoke throughout to mark the divisional boundaries. The field guns fired 238 rounds each and very little fire came back at them. When word came that 5 Brigade had not taken the whole of Takrouna the 6th Field guns and at least 47 Battery of the 5th Field withdrew from their forward positions, and they were back in their former positions by first light.page 503
Soon after dawn Brigadier Weir drove with General Freyberg to 5 Brigade Headquarters, learned of difficulties the infantry were meeting, and ordered several stonks to be fired on high ground beyond Takrouna. Most of the 5th and 6th Field guns, however, were then too far back to take part and the CRA had to rely mainly on the 4th Field and the medium guns. On the other hand the enemy did not counter-attack as expected and his guns were curiously unenterprising. They gave some of the foremost infantry close attention from time to time; but they ignored tempting targets below Takrouna.
The FOOs of the New Zealand units were well forward at dawn, and soon after this an unnamed FOO and his OPA of the 64th Medium reached the leading elements of 28 (Maori) Battalion high on Takrouna. He saw useful targets below to the north, but was out of touch with his regiment and could only send his OPA down to report on the situation. Captain Catchpole35 of 28 Battery reported back at 8.30 a.m. that the area he was in, approaching Takrouna, was heavily mined and booby-trapped, but that prisoners were coming in from that feature. An hour later he understood Takrouna was captured and he drove forward. From the foot of the feature he reported at 10.20 a.m. that machine guns were urgently needed there. At 10.30 a.m. a report from the OP of D Troop of 28 Battery reached RHQ:
‘Do not do Takrouna over as we are on top. Do it over West & Nth.’
Captain Muirhead of the 5th Field had been with 23 Battalion, but, unable to help them, he moved on to Takrouna and soon climbed to the top. There was little happening there and he page 504 had no communication with his guns, so he descended and about noon reported personally to Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow, suggesting that infantry reinforcements were urgently needed on the feature. In the afternoon Muirhead returned and played some part in defeating a local counter-attack, though he still could not bring down fire because of faulty communications.36
The 4th Field made similar efforts to get observers forward and bring down fire. Majors Bretherton and Moodie of 25 and 26 Batteries had got in touch with 8 Armoured Brigade in the morning, but tanks could do little until the infantry situation clarified. Captain Carson of F Troop and Lieutenant White of B Troop were also forward with their OP parties. In mid-morning the regiment fired a concentration north-west of Takrouna, probably one arranged through the infantry. Other concentrations followed throughout the day, interspersed with observed fire which the FOOs reported as effective.37
A few shells had dropped in the area of RHQ of the 4th Field soon after the barrage ended. At 11.30 a.m. a single 88 ranged to the west of the 5th Field gun area; it dropped eight rounds in the E Troop area, and then almost bracketed D Troop. In their rear positions the 6th Field and 47 Battery guns were left undisturbed. Encouraged by the enemy's evident disinterest in counter-battery work, the 6th Field and 47 Battery reconnoitred new positions well forward. The 6th Field guns moved forward after dark 9000 yards to gun areas south-west of Takrouna, and 47 Battery moved next day to what the battery log describes as a ‘very well covered posn’ in a large patch of cactus south of Takrouna.
The 21st was a busy day for the guns and the enemy artillery was also aggressive. Captain Spring's CB organisation had plenty to do.38 The CRA's policy was to bring down heavy concentrations on any hostile batteries that could be accurately located, and on one of them this morning he ordered fire from nine regiments, a ratio of 48 guns to one and therefore a record for Eighth Army. The 5th Field records having fired 19 concentrations this day and six stonks, as well as troop and regimental targets engaged by observed fire; but 47 Battery, which moved page 505 forward during the day, did not take part until 3.15 p.m. Its first task was 10 rounds gun fire at what were thought to be 20 to 30 hostile guns.
Captain Harding of the 5th Field had gone forward and climbed Takrouna in the morning. He watched the infantry trying to engage enemy on the summit with a tiny mortar. Then he took over this task with an E Troop gun, at a range of 8000 yards on a target less than 100 yards from the ledge on which he was stationed. It was a risky venture, but it succeeded. From the top, he proceeded to bring down fire on enemy in the village on the hillside below, silencing mortars there and on ground to the north. Mainly for this, he was later awarded an MC. Captain Muirhead also arrived and engaged a nebelwerfer, but without success. The enemy in the lower village, however, were hard to get at and in the end a 17-pounder of H Troop, 32 Battery, was brought forward. This gun, H3, fired 30 rounds all told and its high-velocity solid shot easily penetrated the damaged buildings and did much to drive the enemy out.
Visibility on 22 April was poor, heavy clouds appeared, and by mid-morning it was raining. Little observed fire was possible, but several divisional and corps tasks were fired. Takrouna, now firmly in New Zealand hands, was heavily shelled and the log of 47 Battery states this: ‘O.Ps. shelled off Takrouna’. The OP of D Troop, 28 Battery, signalled at 12.45 p.m. that the situation, presumably on Takrouna, was ‘Pretty sticky’. Next morning the CRA called for a 200-gun stonk on hostile guns and transport, and on the 24th under corps arrangements and with the corps commander observing from Takrouna, 14 regiments fired at a ridge ahead, Djebel Froukr, which directly overlooked the 6 Brigade area. This was a highly spectacular shoot, but its effect was doubtful; for the ridge was knife-edged and the all-important summit was hard to hit.39page 506
In the night 24-25 April 6 Brigade staged a silent attack, hoping to meet no opposition. Three stonks were called for between 3.30 and 4 in the morning of the 25th to help the infantry and each was fired by eight regiments. A fourth was fired at 6.20 a.m. The 4th Field then heard from ‘Ike’ Parkinson, father and friend of the regiment, who now commanded 6 Brigade, that all objectives had been taken. The massive concentrations nevertheless continued, and in the afternoon 15 stonks were fired, each by 15 regiments. This fire could be observed even from RHQ of the 4th Field and seemed to be highly effective. Those who gave a thought to the date might have considered it to be an appropriate way to celebrate Anzac Day.
Never before had so many guns and so much ammunition been available to engage targets on the Divisional front—and never before had such speedy and effective methods existed of bringing down their fire in unison. Had it not been for the crushing weight and effectiveness of the artillery here, the infantry would have had a hard time indeed. For the enemy, too, had plenty of ammunition, he was making a last-ditch stand, the end was clearly in sight, and he had every reason to fire as many rounds as he could. Only the near-certainty of massive and indeed almost overwhelming reply from the great concentration of Eighth Army artillery served to restrain him, though even this could not fully neutralise his fire.
The 26th was by contrast quiet. In the night 26-27 April 6 Brigade was relieved, but the field artillery and some of the Bofors remained in action, though each regiment was allowed to withdraw one battery per day for a brief rest.
On the 28th all three regiments moved forward to new positions, mainly in olive groves north of Enfidaville, to support an attack by 56 (London) Division. In the morning infantry of this division came pouring back through the gun lines in some disorder. Brigadier Weir ordered the gunners to man whatever small arms they could in defence of the guns. In the 4th Field area, however, elements of 4 Indian Division were resting, and these soon took up covering positions. No threat developed and in due course the hostile shellfire which had caused this setback was dealt with effectively by the usual massive concentrations of fire. The three enemy aircraft destroyed by the 14th Light Ack-Ack in April, according to the war diary, brought the total thus far to 59 aircraft destroyed, not counting those shot down in the month of October 1942.page 507
May opened with several divisional tasks, a quick barrage, and (as an exercise) a new kind of pyramid barrage on a conical hill feature. Then, to the delight of the field gunners, who were by this time getting very weary indeed, all the New Zealand guns except the 6th Field withdrew in the night 1-2 May for a rest of about three days. The 6th Field had to stay behind to support 56 Division. With them were H Troop of 43 Battery guarding the wagon lines and a section of 36 Battery, which maintained the existing flash-spotting and sound-ranging bases on the front of 56 Division.
More reinforcements had arrived at the end of April. Detachments from each unit also met the Minister of Defence, the Hon. F. Jones, but he did not get a sympathetic hearing from gunners whose nerves were by this time getting rather ragged. The rest, welcome though it was, was all too short and on 4 May the artillery was moving once more to the front, this time farther inland in the Djebibina area.
32 On 15 April the 6th Field were heavily shelled and suffered four killed and four wounded. Those killed included Gunners I. A. MacKechnie, R. Wilkin and R. A. C. J. Thomas.
33 Major Kensington had been acting CO of the 5th Field; but Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow returned on 9 April and resumed command.
34 Artillery supporting an attack by 4 Indian Division to the left opened fire earlier.
35 Brig S. F. Catchpole, CBE, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Huntly, 12 Apr 1916; salesman; BM 2 NZ Div Arty Nov 1944-Jul 1945; Associate Member representing the Territorial Force on the Army Board, 1964-.
36 Catchpole and Muirhead were both awarded MCs, mainly for their work in this attack.
37 Fire was also brought down by Captain Nathan of the 4th Field in close co-operation with an officer of 21 Battalion.
38 Either this day or the next a marked enemy map was captured, probably by Captain Carson of the 4th Field, and, after Captain Robinson of X (Survey) Troop adjusted the grid, the CBO was able to arrange a thorough CB programme to deal with all the hostile batteries marked on it.
39 The commander of 48 Battery, Major A. Marbeck, was killed early on the 24th when at an OP in the 26 Battalion area. His loss was ‘a blow to the Regt’, as the war diary remarks, and also to the 7th Anti-Tank, who warmly remembered him.
Four decorations were earned in this operation. Lance-Bombardier C. C. Daniell and Gunner K. Browne won the MM for extinguishing a fire on their portée while under fire. Although blown off the portée when it was hit again, they returned to put out the flames. Gunner C. Reeves of the 5th Field earned his MM for helping a wounded man back to an ADS from an OP under heavy fire. A similar action earned Captain P. Gilchrist of the 6th Field an MC. In an OP north-east of Takrouna his radio operator was gravely wounded. Under heavy shellfire, Gilchrist sought help from a tank some 50 yards away and arranged for it to evacuate the wounded man. He then returned to the OP, manned the wireless himself, and continued to observe for his guns.