2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Anti-Tankers Form 39 Mortar Battery
Anti-Tankers Form 39 Mortar Battery
But the anti-tankers had another element in the battle, a newly-formed battery which would allow them to strike at the enemy and not merely wait until he attacked. This was 35 Mortar Battery, equipped with 4.2-inch mortars which could fire a 20-pound bomb 4100 yards with Charge 2. These mortars had been issued to infantry battalions since the early days in Italy and the infantry continued to employ them; but it is no discredit to the infantry to say that they did not make really effective use of these powerful weapons. For one thing they were chronically short of manpower, especially officers. Moreover, they had insufficient signals equipment and the wrong kind of training and experience. In any case the 4.2 mortars needed to be operated in a way that would make their fire complementary to that of the guns, not independent of it. Artillery methods of controlling their fire would be far more satisfactory, with FOOs, GPOs, the usual range of CB, DF, HF and counter-mortar tasks, and with the mortars surveyed in like guns to enable them, among other things, to bring down accurate predicted fire. The War Office had been strangely remiss about the way it had had these weapons produced and issued without serious thought about who should use them or how they should be used. One of the first things done by the New Zealand gunners, for example, when these mortars were handed over to them, was to prepare a range table. This was ably done by Second-Lieutenant Menendez,12 formerly of the 14th Light Ack-Ack; but it should have been done long before.page 591
The battery was formed at Venafro in April, under Captain E. C. W. Nathan, by extracting a troop from each of the existing batteries of the 7th Anti-Tank—C, G, L and P Troops. These came with all their existing transport, small arms, and other equipment. Certain specialist officers from field regiments were transferred, together with an experienced NCO to be in charge of signals—far more important to the mortar battery than to an anti-tank battery.
Brigadier Weir told Nathan the battery was to be ready for action in about six weeks and it moved to the Isernia area to train. At that stage it did not even have cooking gear and nobody in the battery had seen a 4.2 mortar. Nathan conferred with Lieutenant-Colonel Lambourn and Ordnance officers. The CRA had laid it down that training and organisation should make it possible for all 16 mortars in the battery to be brought to bear on one target.
Plenty of signals equipment was available and the battery received eight 4.2-inch mortars on 22 April. An officer and two sergeants from 6 Brigade also arrived to guide training. A heavy mortar company had meanwhile been training at Maadi and, at a higher level, it was decided that this company, less its officers, should join the battery. All members of it had received a good basic training on the mortars.
Drill was modelled on that of the 25-pounder, even though the sights were graduated 180 degrees right and left and the directors received—the latest type—were graduated o to 360 degrees. X (Survey) Troop put in a bearing picket for a practice range and on 18 May Major Drummond and two officers of the Survey Battery climbed a nearby mountain overlooking the range and took sound bearings on the mortars as they fired. But the war did not wait for the battery.
Before this practice C Troop had already been called forward to deploy north of Acquafondata. On 20 May the troop was in position and ready to fire. A nearby 3-inch mortar platoon had been firing all day and the enemy replied at night with heavy shelling. The line to Artillery Headquarters kept getting cut and the NCO in charge of signals, Lance-Bombardier Nicol,13 took two men out to mend it. They found a break and mended it and then another and another—more than 30 breaks all told. It was their first time in action and Nicol's leadership and encouragement under heavy fire earned for him an MM.page 592
G Troop deployed in the same area, off the Ancina Track, on 21 May and on the 26th P Troop also came forward. By the 29th the whole battery was concentrated in the Vallerotonda area and the B Echelon was moving up to join it. By this time C and G Troops had carried out several shoots and were quickly gaining confidence. L Troop, not yet fully equipped, stayed with B Echelon. The rest of the battery hastened to take its place at the forefront of the Division in its pursuit of the enemy.14 In due course word came from New Zealand that there were already batteries numbered 35, 37 and 38 and the heavy mortar battery was therefore renumbered the 39th.
14 Though the 4th Field and a battery of the 6th Field had been kept busy in their positions above the Hove Dump, the rest of the Divisional Artillery had had relatively little to do in the mountain sector. On the 26th they held a sports meeting near Montaquila and, as usual, the 14th Light Ack-Ack won. The Survey Battery and Artillery Headquarters tied for second place.