2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
New Zealand Corps Reinforced
New Zealand Corps Reinforced
A new stage of operations began on the 24th when the New Zealand Corps was strengthened by another division and a corps headquarters, which was expected in due course to absorb it and assume command. The effect of this was to stimulate General Freyberg into more vigorous action along lines suggested by the Army Commander. The 24th was a day of more page 484 counter-battery concentrations and much air activity. Ju88s came over low at 8 a.m. and H1 scored several hits. At 4.30 p.m. an FW190 scored a direct hit on A2, put it out of action, and killed two and wounded two of its crew.10 The 25th was a quieter day, though not for the various staffs which were busily planning a major attack to take place next day. The 4th Field moved forward, attracted fire in so doing, and an 8th Reinforcement officer, Second-Lieutenant Reid,11 was killed.
An essential preliminary was the capture of high ground to the right front of the proposed start line, and 21 Battalion seized this in the early hours of 26 March under cover of concentrations from the 4th and 6th Field and a medium battery which demoralised the defence. At the same time the 5th Field moved well forward for the big attack, but did not attract attention by opening fire. Artillery of 1 Armoured Division and 10 Corps also came forward hastily and Brigadier Weir personally deployed these guns by moonlight. The 6th Field helped also by guiding the 4th RHA forward to positions already reconnoitred by Lieutenant-Colonel Walter. The tanks of 1 Armoured Division came as far forward as they could without attracting much attention. By 3.30 p.m. all was ready.
Almost always in the desert war the New Zealanders had found themselves at critical moments like this looking into the sun and having the sand blown into their faces. But this was a different land. It suggested at one and the same time desert and fertility, there was the sweet scent of countless wildflowers in the air, there were blue distances and rugged mountains. For days the wind from the south-west had been lifting a fine white powder from the many tracks, and clouds of this powder now hung in the valleys and were creeping upwards like a fine mist. The attack followed the wind and the attackers, men and machines, appeared from the mist. Above them RAF fighter-bombers and tank-busters (Hurricanes mounting two 40-mm. cannon) stormed into the attack. As they did so gunners received their meteor corrections with gasps of surprise. They were enormous because of the wind and heat and called for much hasty correcting of programmes. (The telegrams were the work of R (Sound-Ranging) Troop, which reached the Division this day, bringing 36 Survey Battery up to full strength.)page 485
For half an hour the air attacks continued, then the guns joined them. The artillery programme was complex, as the shape of the ground and the dispositions of the enemy decreed it must be. In the course of it the three New Zealand field regiments fired a 42-lift barrage, the first 10 lifts at one-minute intervals and the remainder every two minutes—97 minutes all told, the last four minutes being taken up by firing smoke 200 yards beyond the final objective, 4400 yards from the start line. For roughly the same period the 2nd and 4th RHA, the 111th Field, and the 69th Medium fired a series of tasks and the 64th Medium carried out for 113 minutes a heavy counter-battery programme.
As the guns fired and the aircraft flew overhead and the tanks and infantry moved forward they combined in an unforgettable spectacle. But though FOOs and other watchers on the hillsides might have seen it thus, the men in the 25-pounder pits, handling several tons of ammunition in the space of an hour and a half, were oblivious of everything but the task at hand and when it was finished they were weary beyond words.
For the anti-tankers of 32 and 33 Batteries who were forward with the infantry, there were many local emergencies and five men were wounded. Then, when the worst seemed over and they were moving forward, Lieutenant Baker12 ran over a mine with his jeep and was killed. Similarly when Lieutenant-Colonel Philp of the 4th Field was touring the forward area in his tank, it struck a mine and his driver13 was fatally wounded.
Early on the 27th it was evident that the Maoris were still having trouble with a stubborn enemy on their objective and the 4th and 6th Field fired several stonks to support them, starting at 6 a.m. Apart from these tasks there was little to do. The enemy in the Tebaga Gap area was thoroughly disorganised and the British armour was pouring through towards El Hamma. The battlefield was totally unlike most desert battlefields. The fighting had been concentrated into a far smaller area and the work of the aircraft and guns was plainly evident. Twisted guns, burnt-out tanks and transport, and equipment of all kinds littered the scene. Prisoners or would-be prisoners were everywhere.
The New Zealand Corps, except for 5 Brigade, moved on again on 28 March, with the KDGs leading, still with F Troop of the 4th Field under command. At the Wadi Merteba, well page 486 on the way to El Hamma, there was opposition, F Troop under Captain Carson opened fire, and, with prompting from the KDGs, resistance collapsed and over 700 Italians were captured. The force continued, but the going was bad and the pace slow. The 5th Field was now with 6 Brigade and the 6th Field with 5 Brigade, which had stayed to guard the right flank and rear, where several large pockets of enemy remained. In the afternoon 29 Battery went into action against a few tanks and guns, but these soon disappeared. A 17-pounder of H Troop was rushed forward, with two 6-pounders, but they did not fire. Next day, with nothing more to guard against, 5 Brigade hastened to catch up with the rest of the New Zealand force.
10 Sergeant S. C. Burge and Gunner E. W. Longman were killed.
13 Gunner R. W. Savage.