2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Infantry Complaints about Short-shooting
Infantry Complaints about Short-shooting
This was the first of several incidents which bedevilled the Arezzo action from the point of view of the New Zealand gunners. The possibility that enemy guns joined in and caused some or all of the losses was much greater than the infantry realised. The German artillery had the area well surveyed. Some 88s were established only 2000 yards to the north and two medium batteries were within 4000 yards to the north-east and easily able to bring down fire on the ground over which the New Zealanders attacked.6
The next of the incidents was at 9.15 p.m. on the 14th when a company of 25 Battalion reported being mortared. The battalion, however, reported to 6 Brigade on the 17th that 25-pounders were responsible and gave the bearing to the guns allegedly concerned. The 5th Field fired a DF task beginning at 9.30 p.m., and it is pertinent that this was a task the CPO of 26 Battery refused to accept because of crest-clearance trouble. It was not fired, however, until after the company reported the mortaring. Moreover, the commander of 20/21 Medium Battery was at that very time close to the infantry company and even farther forward. CB work was, of course, the main concern of the medium guns, and this officer was far more expert than the infantry in estimating the source and judging the nature of shell or mortar fire. Artillery Headquarters signalled at 8.40 p.m. on the 15th to the 5th Field in relation to this and later incidents that this battery commander was ‘sure that shelling in fact came from enemy’.
The fire plan began at 1 a.m. on the 15th with seven stonks fired by the field regiments until either 2 a.m. or 3.30 and two ‘murders’ fired for an hour by the medium battery, together with two concentrations by the two troops of heavy mortars. The 4th and 6th Field fired 150 r.p.g. and the 5th Field 100 r.p.g., while the mortars fired 600 rounds all told. Seven specific page 613 incidents of alleged shelling of the infantry by the New Zealand 25-pounders in this period of two and a half hours formed part of a later report by the battalion to 6 Brigade, the bearing in all cases being the same. This bearing ran through the gun area of the 4th Field; but this regiment was not firing at the time of the first incident and it was in any case meticulously careful, as the regimental log (a minute-by-minute original record) proves, to calculate crest clearances.
The battalion commander, hearing from the company that made the first complaint, made repeated efforts to have the shelling of Lignano lifted; but shells continued to fall on his men. The detailed account of this in the 25 Battalion history states that ‘direct communication between the FOOs accompanying the infantry and their respective artillery regiments could not be established’;7 but this might not be correct. Lieutenant MacKay of the 5th Field was well forward with 25 Battalion and in constant touch with his regiment. He reported at 2.47 a.m. (as the Log Book records), asking that the current DF task be raised 300 yards (though it was not fired), and again at five past three that it be raised a total of 500 yards. Twenty minutes later he reported again. At 5 a.m. he was far enough forward to see that the Guards Brigade on the left had captured its objective two miles north-west of Lignano and at 5.47 a.m.—for the first time—he called for defensive fire. Had MacKay thought the New Zealand guns were shelling 25 Battalion he would certainly have reported accordingly. He was a most determined FOO, always to the forefront of an action, and a highly skilful gunner.8
Either through MacKay or some other FOO, Artillery Headquarters also kept abreast of events and at 3.15 a.m. signalled to the 4th Field to treat one of the items of the fire plan as a DF task, but to raise it 500 yards. It was not, of course, to be fired unless called for. There are several mentions in infantry records of requests for the ‘barrage’ to be lifted 300 yards or 500 yards; but the only orders actually given to the field regiments related not to the fire plan, but to subsequent DF tasks which were prepared but not fired.page 614
The bearing cited by 25 Battalion as the source of the ‘25-pounder fire’, if it is extended in the opposite direction, passes through the site of a hostile battery just west of Arezzo. The sound of gun fire at night in the Italian mountains often seemed to come from the direction opposite to that of the guns. Either this battery or some other German long-range guns were active this night; for the 6th Field lost Gunner Blair9 of 29 Battery killed and another gunner wounded.10 The 25 Battalion men knew that their predecessors on the Lignano front had suffered many casualties from shelling and mortaring, and in daylight on the 14th both 24 and 25 Battalions sustained losses from the same cause. It seems highly likely that this damaging fire was repeated while the Lignano attack was in progress, and that at least some of it was wrongly attributed to the New Zealand field guns.
The complaints from the infantry, however, did not end with the night's action. Another from 25 Battalion related to shelling at 5.50 a.m. on the 15th. The 5th Field fired two DF tasks at that time just north-west of Lignano at the request of the infantry. The two tasks had been specified during the night and were urgently requested. In such a situation the risk of failing to clear crests would be accepted rather than the alternative of refusing support to the infantry in a crisis. But the map strongly suggests that the risk in this case was a serious one and that the complaint might have been justified. It is some consolation, if this time the 5th Field did fail to clear the crests, that the infantry suffered no loss as a result.
The next complaint related to firing on Lignano between 1 and 2 p.m. on the 15th. It was referred to Artillery Headquarters and, despite this, ‘one gun continued to offend’, according to the battalion diary. The 4th Field was asked and denied firing anywhere near Lignano at that time. The 5th Field was firing on Monte Camurcina in support of 24 Battalion. The 6th Field was preparing to move.11 At 12.26 p.m., in response to a request for a DF task near Lignano, 26 Battery page 615 signalled ‘cannot engage due to Angle of Descent’. The OPs of A and B Troops of the 4th Field were on Lignano and their staffs would certainly have protested had they been shelled by their own guns. The OP of B Troop on Lignano at 3.30 p.m. was ‘Pinned down by shell and mortar fire’ and the infantry did not complain about this; but there were three more instances of alleged short shooting between 4 and 5 p.m. At 5.12 p.m. the B Troop OP reported that the enemy mortaring of Lignano was ‘continuing’.
Artillery Headquarters had meanwhile taken up the suggestion that one gun was firing short and asked the field regiments to make a check. In the case of 25 Battery there was no need, as it had fired only one round all morning, while 26 Battery had fired only a shoot conducted by an Air OP. The targets of 46 Battery were also well away from Lignano. Every single gun of the 5th Field was checked to ensure that it was not firing short, and at 5.45 p.m., 5.52 and 6.35 p.m. 27, 28 and 47 Batteries respectively reported that all guns were working properly. A further inquiry from Artillery Headquarters at 5.30 drew another chorus of denial that the New Zealand guns had erred.
The mystery deepened with a further report just before 10 p.m. on the 15th of shelling on Lignano. The CRA instructed the 5th Field at 10.09 p.m. that 6 Brigade had taken a second bearing on the source of the fire and that it came from the regimental area. All guns were therefore to cease fire until the brigade major, McCredie,12 and the ‘REME’, Captain McWha,13 arrived and checked the sights. All were duly found to be correct and the 5th Field was allowed to take its part in the fire plan in support of a 24 Battalion attack on Monte Camurcina, starting at 2 a.m. on the 16th.
The fire plan for this was much like the earlier one, a series of five stonks and four ‘murders’ fired for not more than two hours mainly at a very slow rate. The medium battery did not take part.
This time the trouble was narrowed to one task, fired by 27 Battery only at a very slow rate. It was on the western end of Monte Camurcina and was to continue until 3.30 a.m. At 3.15 a.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Kensington of the 6th Field sig- page 616 nalled to the 5th Field to ‘Stop firing on BARDIA’ and 27 Battery was notified. Thus the battery task was curtailed by a quarter of an hour. But infantry complained of being ‘heavily shelled by 25-pounders’,14 a description which, if it related in fact to the shelling by one battery at a very slow rate of an area of the rugged extremity of a steep mountain, could only be regarded as grossly exaggerated. It soon became evident to the gunners, however, that 27 Battery was not the culprit. The battery ceased fire, asked at 3.24 a.m. for permission to empty guns, and did so. But the shelling continued. The OP of A Troop, 27 Battery, on Monte Cavadenti, south of Camurcina, reported at 3.42 that rounds were ‘falling short’ on Cavadenti, near the OP. At 3.51 the OP stated that ‘Shells are clearing the objective now, they were not before’; but at 4 a.m. the last report was: ‘Shells still falling on objective’. By this time none of the 27 Battery guns was firing. A later report clarified that shelling near the OP started at 3.30 and went on until 3.48 a.m., and it was then that the infantry reported rounds falling on their objective.
The 5th Field as a whole was largely exonerated when, at 3.40 p.m. on 17 April, it was able to report that all batteries ‘have checked MV on scale and found them correct’. The regiment could scarcely do more to prove its innocence: guns checked individually by firing, sights tested by the BM and NZEME, and muzzle velocities found correct.
The 6th Field fired two ‘murders’—pinpoint targets—in the Camurcina area and then for the final 25 minutes a stonk. The ‘murders’ were an unlikely source of trouble and were still being fired when Kensington asked the 5th Field to cease firing BARDIA, which he would scarcely have done without first satisfying himself that his own guns were not to blame. The 6th Field could not conceivably have corrected its firing of the stonk and then gone back to firing short.
The ‘two medium batteries’ of German artillery known to be about five miles north-east of Lignano on the 14th were excellently placed to fire not only on Camurcina but on Cavadenti, where the 27 Battery OP was stationed. They would have had no crest-clearance troubles and they could have judged from the New Zealand shelling just how the attack was progressing and where to place their own fire to best advantage. In the page 617 scrub-covered mountains in the dark who could have distinguished with certainty the fire of 25-pounders from that of German 105s?
The evidence does not allow a firm decision on whether or not the New Zealand guns fired on some of these occasions on their own infantry. In that sharp-peaked mountain mass in hastily-arranged operations it was likely that at times some rounds failed to clear crests. But the chief suspect, the 5th Field, was certainly not guilty of consistently firing short, though it might have fired one emergency task short on the 15th.15 The 4th Field was not firing on the first occasion and this regiment, too, checked its guns, as well as crest clearances, and in fact refused to fire certain tasks because of danger to the infantry. The 6th Field, like the other two regiments, was asked to check carefully and did so. Its firing programme cannot be closely reconciled with the reports of short firing and it could not have been to blame on most of the occasions when the infantry complained.
The verdict, then, must be that the charge that the New Zealand field guns kept firing short in these operations is at worst Not Proven. The enemy seems a far more likely culprit and it is less than generous not to give him credit for exploiting a situation which from his point of view was made to measure. It allowed him to make effective use of his guns in opposing an advance through the mountains against which he committed very few infantry—an economical kind of rearguard action.
The second attack met very little opposition from infantry—a fact attributed in many New Zealand infantry accounts to the effectiveness of the field artillery preparation. In the morning of the 17th it was soon seen that the enemy had departed and was blowing demolitions on the road north of Arezzo.
7 Lieutenant-General Sir Edward Puttick, 25 Battalion (War History Branch, Wellington, 1960), P. 453. Pages 450–60 deal with this episode. The author is not entirely uncritical of infantry versions of what happened.
10 The 6th Field narrowly escaped further loss when the gun A1 had a ‘premature’. The No. 1 received slight injuries.
D3 of the 4th Field gave trouble 20 minutes after the fire plan opened; but it was soon repaired. In the 5th Field B3 could not take part as its dial sight had been damaged in travelling and could not be illuminated.
11 The regiment was asked to take over from the 30th Field, RA, and was preparing to do so when the move was cancelled. This afternoon RHQ and 30 Battery moved forward, the latter to gun positions a mile north-west of Castiglion Fiorentino.
14 Norton, 26 Battalion, p. 414. Both Norton and Puttick (25 Battalion, P. 460) state that the New Zealand guns fired short in this attack and that they quickly remedied this when the infantry reported it. Neither of these assertions can be accepted without serious reservations. See below.
15 The 5th Field also fired an HF task near Lignano in the evening of the 16th and at 10.37 a.m. on the 17th Artillery Headquarters signalled as follows: ‘Line range and A/S [Angle of Sight] required from 28 Bty for their R sect on yesterday's harassing task’. This was duly reported and it was pointed out that all subsequent corrections increased the range and angle of sight. Everyone was anxious to get to the bottom of the mystery; but in all such checks as this the New Zealand field gunners could not be faulted and nor could their guns.