2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
CHAPTER 5 — Recuperation, Training and Reinforcement
Recuperation, Training and Reinforcement
THE fortunes of the gunners in Crete were followed anxiously by those who had reached Egypt, though reliable news was hard to come by. The bulk of the 6th Field and 7th Anti-Tank had disembarked at Alexandria or Port Said by the end of April and various detachments of these units arrived from Crete before the invasion started. In Egypt the gunners got new clothing and personal gear and then went on a week's leave. Arrangements for this were made by Brigadier Miles, who landed on 2 May and at once took command of a special headquarters, ‘New Zealand Troops, Helwan’, in charge of troops from Greece and Crete. On the 11th the 6th Field formed a ‘battalion’, 224 strong, of two ‘companies’ for guard duty at Abbassia, the great barracks and administrative centre for the British Army, on the outskirts of Cairo. Germans had come to the rescue of the Italians in Libya and their combined forces had recaptured Cyrenaica except for Tobruk, which was now garrisoned and besieged. Battleworthy units in Egypt were therefore sent to hold the frontier with Libya and New Zealanders took over various duties in Cairo, the Nile Delta, and the Canal Zone. On 20 May 30 Battery of the 6th Field moved to Almaza and there became Depot Battery. In this capacity the battery helped to train officer candidates from the local OCTU and its gun drill and shooting were much praised.
The 7th Anti-Tank meanwhile resumed training at Helwan and on the 9th welcomed fourteen 2-pounders from Ordnance. Another 10 guns soon followed. All guns were used for drill, but they had to be handled with care, for no gun stores were yet available. Anti-tankers, too, were sent to Almaza for guard duties, starting on the 14th with a detachment of 116. Two days later Lieutenant-Colonel Duff took command of the Artillery Training Regiment at Maadi and Oakes, newly-arrived from Crete and promoted to lieutenant-colonel, became the commanding officer of the 7th Anti-Tank. Oakes at once began a programme of elementary training and ‘spit-and-polish’ of a kind which might have had a beneficial effect in the Indian Army which he knew well, but which aroused resentment among many of his gunners.
The 14th Light Ack-Ack Arrives
The 36th Survey Battery had reached Egypt with the ‘4th Reinforcements’ (actually the first reinforcement draft from New Zealand), but it remained a non-divisional body and did not become part of the Divisional Artillery until more than a year later.1 The 5th Reinforcements in May, however, brought a valuable addition to Miles's command: the 14th Light Anti-Aircraft (Ack-Ack). This unit, formed on 7 January 1941 at Papakura Camp under the temporary command of Captain Aldridge,2 was the subject of much discussion and negotiation at various levels to decide what establishment it should adopt and what duties it should perform. Like the Second Echelon anti-tank batteries, it could not get its proper guns and equipment until it reached a theatre of operations. The guns were to be 40-millimetre Bofors and the main questions about them were the number to be allotted and the number of predictors3 that were to be supplied. It was not British Army policy to allocate its scarce light anti-aircraft resources permanently to divisions, but to place them at all times where they were most needed. Miles naturally objected to this, and his experience in Greece greatly strengthened his resolve to have the regiment under his command at least when the New Zealand Division was in action. At other times it might be used for the defence of rear areas; but he certainly did not want it attached to another division in action. Freyberg concurred and in the end Miles won the argument. The establishment had been provisionally for three 12-gun batteries, with a fourth to be added later. A War Establishment table providing for three batteries had been drawn up on 20 April and it made the 14th Light Ack-Ack, even on this smaller organisation, by far the largest unit of the Divisional Artillery in terms of manpower and vehicles. The strength, excluding the attached Signals, Workshops and NZASC (transport) sections, was to be 881 all ranks, with 70 motor-cycles and 127 other vehicles.
After elementary training at Papakura, the unit moved at the end of January 1941 to Ngaruawahia, a far less comfortable camp. There the gunners trained with 18-pounders, in default page 169 of any weapons at all like the Bofors they were to receive overseas. Temporary Lieutenant-Colonel Carty4 assumed command and in due course the regiment sailed from Wellington on 7 April in the Nieuw Amsterdam. At Sydney, three days later, the troops had to stay on board, to their great disappointment; but they more than made up for it in the three days (16–19 April) that they spent at Fremantle. For the first two days they had leave to visit Perth and sample the warm hospitality of the Western Australians. In a voyage of exceptional interest they left the main convoy on the 22nd, experienced a violent electrical storm at sea, and docked at Singapore two days later. A tiny warship escorted them through the anti-submarine booms, they sailed past the huge floating dock, and tied up in front of the Aquitania. Australians left the convoy to serve in Malaya, a fateful task, and on the 25th the New Zealanders disembarked, marched through the yards of the naval base, bathed in an open-air swimming pool, and then embarked in the Aquitania, a larger but much less attractive ship. Sailing on the 27th, they docked at Colombo on 1 May, and there, too, had ample opportunity to see the sights before they sailed on the 6th. Two days later they heard of the New Zealand cruiser Leander's capture of the armed Italian merchantman Ramb II no more than 200 miles away. They sailed in close to the coast of Italian Somali-land to enter the Red Sea and docked at Port Tewfik on the 13th. An epidemic of influenza had struck the troops in the Aquitania and the stretcher cases and walking patients disembarked first, entrained in a sandstorm in the late afternoon, and began their journey to Helmieh Hospital before midnight. Next day half the fit men went ashore and reached Maadi Camp, where Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow5 took command. The remainder disembarked on the 16th.
With a total strength, including the sick ones but not counting the Signals, Ordnance and NZASC sections to be attached, of 920 all ranks, they constituted the largest unit of the Division. They were organised into four batteries, but the new establishment decreed only three and they were rearranged accordingly on the 18th. The regiment from then onwards consisted of RHQ and 41 Battery (A, B and C Troops), 42 Battery (D, E and F Troops) and 43 Battery (G, H and K page 170 Troops). The RSM was WO I Holland.6 The authorised strength (including reinforcements) was 910, but for the time being the unit retained three officers per troop, one above establishment. ‘Q Area’ of Maadi Camp, which the 14th Light Ack-Ack occupied, was like an oven and the thermometer in the RAP tent reached a daily peak of between 114 and 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Besides the 14th Light Ack-Ack, the 5th Reinforcements included 546 other gunners, a useful number, though not nearly enough to replace losses in Greece and Crete, as was soon to be discovered.
Lessons of Greece
A searching inquiry into artillery operations in Greece was carried out in mid-May by the acting CRA, Colonel Parkinson, who conferred for five days on the subject with almost all available artillery officers. Miles, when he resumed as CRA early in June, carefully considered the findings of this conference and on the 11th summed them up, together with his own conclusions, in a letter to General Freyberg. He gave first place to anti-tank defence. The Germans had proved adept at getting tanks across natural and artificial obstacles and the 2-pounder had not been effective against ‘the heavier natures of tanks’ (a rather doubtful generalisation based largely on one incident in the Molos battle). Many more anti-tank guns were needed, particularly heavy ones, and he suggested that French 75s fitted with Martin Parry adaptors7 and Beach platforms might be used. If these or similar guns could be obtained, an infantry anti-tank company of nine 2-pounders might be formed in each brigade, backed up by anti-tank batteries with heavier guns. On the British Army attitude to light ack-ack guns Miles was scathing: ‘The cliché that “anti-aircraft defence must be on an area basis” cannot excuse the exposure of troops … to uninterrupted and unopposed attack by low-flying enemy aircraft.’ Small-arms fire had proved ‘quite ineffective’ and he recommended that all combatant units be equipped with machine guns of .5-inch calibre for anti-aircraft defence. The light anti-aircraft regiment, moreover, must be ‘an integral part of the Division’.
Regarding the 25-pounders, he was impressed by their anti-tank power but regarded their use in an anti-tank role as page 171 wasteful. Beach platforms—like huge steel cartwheels—which provided stability and quick traverse for anti-tank action, however, facilitated quick and accurate gun-laying even in field roles. Some 25-pounders had been fitted experimentally with attachments under their trails for carrying these platforms and these had proved successful. The normal way of carrying Beach platforms on trailers led to slower handling of the guns. Regarding fuses for 25-pounder shells, Miles thought that the fuse HE 117 was ‘very effective’ against troops in the open, and that HE 119 with the cap on gave a good cratering effect and could be used against dug-in positions. He suggested carrying a higher proportion of HE 119 fuses. For both field and anti-tank guns he thought two more men per gun were needed to allow for casualties, provide reliefs, and help guard against infantry attack on the guns.
New Equipment but No Medium Guns
The 4th and 5th Field were greatly concerned about their comrades in Crete and it came as a bitter disappointment to the latter unit that so few of them got back to Egypt. The 5th Field therefore had the lion's share of available artillery reinforcements and by the end of the third week in June new faces predominated. Meanwhile equipment of various kinds had been coming forward. The 4th and 5th Field received quads on 6 June and the former gladly took over two 25-pounders next day, and on 9 June six more arrived for the 4th Field and eight for the 5th Field. Next day three Mark II Bofors arrived for the 14th Light Ack-Ack and ack-ack gunners who had been attached for training to Bofors batteries in the Canal Zone carried out an excellent practice shoot at Ismailia in front of the CRA and the artillery COs.
All this was encouraging; but units remained desperately short of training equipment and the transport they had so far received was insufficient even for administration. Miles argued the matter at Divisional Headquarters and also at GHQ Middle East Forces, and a higher priority was given to the re-equipment of the Divisional Artillery. By 25 June all field regiments had received their full allotment of quads and on the 29th they gained armoured OP vehicles. The NZASC had suffered even heavier losses in Crete than the gunners and there was a critical shortage of ASC reinforcements. The 14th Light Ack-Ack could not operate, however, without its ASC section, and 14 Light Anti-Aircraft NZASC Section was therefore formed on page 172 17 June under Second-Lieutenant Fordyce8 with a strength of 74 all ranks. By 6 July all three field regiments had 16 guns each and 32 trailers—two-thirds of their full complements.
General Freyberg had early in the war declared his wish to have a largely self-contained division under his command with its own medium artillery and tanks. His ‘charter’ (as he called it) allowed him to form new units in the Middle East if he wished and resources allowed. The British Army, in turn, wanted New Zealand to provide more Corps and administrative troops and suggested as much in high-level discussions in May and June. The opportunity was too good to miss and Freyberg, warmly backed by Miles, earnestly explored the possibility of raising a medium regiment of artillery—intending, of course, that it should become, like the light anti-aircraft regiment, an integral part of the Division. German divisions were normally equipped with a battery each of 150-millimetre medium howitzers, which greatly outweighed and outranged the 25-pounder. A medium regiment equipped with 4.5-inch or 5.5-inch gun-howitzers (or both) would have remedied this disability and given the Divisional Artillery the advantage against any likely opposition. There was therefore much to be said for the proposal. The discussion was carried on between Cairo, London and Wellington; but in the end a shortage of manpower in New Zealand caused the scheme to be dropped. In a matter of months Miles and his regimental commanders were to regret this bitterly when they came under fire from the medium howitzers of the German Africa Corps and lacked the range or shell-power for effective reply. For the rest of the war the Division had to make do with whatever medium guns were allotted to it in action. This allotment was frequently inadequate, and in the very next campaign, when the situation cried out for medium artillery, none at all was provided for the Division. The only consolation was that this arrangement brought the New Zealand gunners into contact from time to time—when medium guns were allotted—with the gunners of some very fine medium regiments of the Royal Artillery—the 7th and 64th, old friends from the days in Greece, and many another unit.
In the fierce heat of July field gunners overhauled their equipment, paying particular attention to the packings of gun-recuperators, which had proved troublesome in Greece. Packings page 173 on the new guns were almost all defective and had to be replaced. Since it was important to keep sand out of the mechanism while recuperators were repacked, permission was obtained from the RAF to use part of the hangar at Helwan airfield for this purpose. Much attention was also paid to physical fitness and by the middle of July the 5th Field was able to report that its men were ‘desert-hardened’ and very fit. All units formed ‘tank-hunting’ squads and practised with anti-tank grenades and similar devices. With the arrival at the end of July of 370 gunners of the 6th Reinforcements, units were brought up almost to full strength.
The assumption during this period of training and re-equipping had been that the Division was not likely to go into action before August, though 6 Brigade might be needed sooner. The 5th and 6th Field, the 7th Anti-Tank, and the Survey Troop trained in the tented camp of Mahfouz, beside Helwan Camp, the 14th Light Ack-Ack stayed at Q Area in Maadi Camp, and the 4th Field occupied a new camp site at Maadi. Many field guns had been calibrated by 1 August, and many practice shoots had been carried out, but there was still a grave shortage of unit transport. Miles was therefore startled to learn from General Freyberg in a chance encounter on the 4th that their two headquarters were to move to Syria in two days' time and that advanced parties would leave the same day. Miles was to take command of all New Zealand troops in Egypt and Lieutenant-Colonel Weir of the 6th Field would travel to Syria as acting CRA.9 In a desperate race against time the many consequences of this astonishing order were explored, and appropriate steps were being taken when Miles returned breathlessly to his headquarters with the news that the move was cancelled. Sighs of relief were audible in many quarters.
Two other important items of news also arrived on the 4th: training in combined (or amphibious) operations was soon to be carried out in the Canal Zone and field regiments were to adopt a new three-battery organisation. The New Zealand Artillery had already thoroughly digested the lessons of the fighting in Greece; but the larger mills of the Royal Artillery ground rather more slowly. The fighting in France and Belgium a year before had demonstrated weaknesses in field artillery procedure and the existing organisation had proved cumbersome in mobile operations. Subsequent experience had con- page 174 firmed this and the new arrangement was designed to make the field batteries more mobile and flexible. The changeover, however, required much preparation, and it was not until 19 August that a new establishment was issued for field regiments. The total strength, formerly 611, was now 686 all ranks. Each regiment would have 36 quads and 48 trailers as before; but motorcycles would increase from 29 to 44 and other vehicles from 76 to 94—the latter including nine armoured OPs. Instruments and equipment for observing and controlling fire would need to be increased by almost 50 per cent.
New equipment was arriving almost daily, the tempo of preparation for battle was increasing, and to superimpose on it this far-reaching reorganisation of the field regiments created much extra work at all levels. On the 19th the field regiments received the balance of their quota of guns and trailers. The 14th Light Ack-Ack had received its Signals Section, 34 strong, earlier in the month and its Workshops Section obtained two 3-ton lorries on the 4th, a stores lorry on the 21st, and a fully-equipped machine lorry on the 26th.
The programme of combined operations training had meanwhile begun at Kabrit in the Canal Zone and a troop of 32 Battery of the 7th Anti-Tank had gone there with 5 Brigade at the end of July. All batteries of the 7th Anti-Tank except the 34th had their turn at Kabrit before the end of August, and all without exception carried out live shoots on an anti-tank range off the Suez Road. They were busy days.
Action for the Bofors Gunners
The 14th Light Ack-Ack, however, was first into action. Bofors guns were in too great demand for defence of the vital shipping and stores in the Canal Zone and the port of Alexandria to be spared exclusively for training purposes. Nine of them arrived on 19 August for 41 Battery and, with the previous three issued, brought it up to full strength; but Headquarters British Troops in Egypt, which was responsible for the Nile Delta and Canal Zone, meant them to be used without delay against enemy aircraft. On the 20th 42 Battery moved to the Alexandria area under the command of HQ, BTE, and took over guns at Ikingi Maryut and Aboukir from the Northumberland Hussars. Two days later the whole regiment came under the command of HQ, BTE, and 43 Battery relieved 88 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, RA, at Ismailia, Kantara and Port Said. RHQ of the page 175 14th Light Ack-Ack gained valuable experience of commanding and administering a mixed force of anti-aircraft artillery when it relieved the 25th Light Ack-Ack at the end of August at what was curiously called Spinney Wood, near Ismailia. Royal Artillery guns at Tel-el-Kebir, also in the Canal Zone, were taken over by 41 Battery and all three New Zealand batteries were soon in action against enemy aircraft. Firing was almost all by night and under conditions which made hits on enemy aircraft unlikely; but K Troop, heavily engaged at Port Said on 2 September, possibly helped to shoot down a German bomber. Early in September the other two troops of 43 Battery, G and H Troops, and BHQ left the Canal Zone and set up their guns to defend the huge Ordnance depot at Abbassia. K Troop came under operational command of an RA battery at Port Said. At Tel-el-Kebir 41 Battery was credited with bringing down a plane in the night 7–8 September. All G and H Troop guns fired when the enemy raided Cairo (including Abbassia) on the 15th-16th. For ‘Gussy’ Glasgow's men it was interesting and valuable experience.
The New Zealand ack-ack gunners and their associated Signals and Workshops sections (the ASC section remained at Maadi) had done much to improve gun positions and communications in the course of these operations and HQ, BTE, held them in high esteem. They had in fact done too well and a tug-o'-war began between Freyberg and Miles on one side and the Middle East authorities on the other for the services of the 14th Light Ack-Ack. The Middle East command wanted to keep the unit in action in defence of the rear areas until the last possible moment before the Division moved into its next campaign. It was almost certain, however, that this campaign would entail highly mobile operations and the Division was training with this in view. Anti-aircraft defence of infantry brigade groups moving over open desert was a matter of the first importance and Freyberg was just as anxious as Miles that the 14th Light Ack-Ack should have ample opportunity of practising this role before being called on to take it up in earnest. He wanted no last-minute dash from the elaborate fixed defences of the Canal Zone to fluid operations in the open desert. Moreover, Miles well knew that equipment received from Ordnance in the Middle East almost all needed thorough overhaul before it could be deemed desert-worthy. Freyberg would not budge from his position and by the end of September the 14th Light Ack-Ack was back in Maadi except for 41 Battery, on its way to Baggush in the page 176 Western Desert, and the ASC section, which was at Helwan. All batteries were more or less fully equipped for mobile operations.
Preparing for Desert Operations
Miles and his staff had meanwhile been extremely busy planning and supervising the artillery part of brigade manoeuvres, the amphibious training at Kabrit, and a move from Maadi and Helwan to Baggush.10 All field regiments completed calibration and practice shoots. On 1–2 September Miles was umpire of an important exercise by 6 Brigade in the desert near Helwan Camp and his headquarters also took part. The 6th Field crossed a canal by a bridge built by the New Zealand Engineers, fired several concentrations, and laid a smoke screen, while 33 Anti-Tank Battery tried out its new portées in mobile defence of the infantry.
Units were warned on 5 September that they would soon move to Baggush in an operational role; but two days later 5 Brigade, with the 5th Field, fresh from Kabrit, were rushed to the desert south of El Alamein—a name at that time of no particular significance—to prepare an elaborate defensive position and construct roads to serve it. The 6th Field carried out, with 6 Brigade, a most important exercise on the 10th to test the new Air Support Control system in conjunction with the RAF. Then 6 Brigade got ready to take its turn at Kabrit, while 4 Brigade moved to Baggush. Divisional Artillery Headquarters, which among its many other tasks had been developing a Counter-Battery Organisation to co-ordinate information about hostile batteries and provide reliable data for engaging them, moved on the 12th. By a last-minute change of plan, perhaps connected with a German reconnaissance-in-force in mid-September, 6 Brigade and associated artillery moved to Baggush instead of to Kabrit. For the ‘old hands’ among the 4th Field gunners it was like going home; but for newcomers it was an absorbing experience to camp in the coastal desert far from the Nile Delta and there begin a new life, away from the fleshpots of Cairo and the restrictions of base-camp routine and spit-and-polish.
The Division took over the Baggush Box, an all-round defensive area on the coast, from an Indian division on a ‘care and maintenance’ basis, which meant that time and labour page 177 would not be spent on extensive improvements (though the need for these was obvious). The defences were manned and held more or less ready; but training for a forthcoming desert offensive was the main task. This was to be mounted by the newly formed Eighth Army, which consisted of 13 and 30 Corps and the Tobruk garrison, and the New Zealand Division was to be part of 13 Corps.
The immediate task was to practise moving brigade groups by day and night in ‘open formation’ across the changing face of the desert. Each brigade would have about 1000 vehicles and would need to be protected against air or tank attack while on the move and be ready to fight an encounter battle at almost any time. Suitable techniques therefore had to be developed and co-operation between the many components of the brigade group practised until it became second nature. In this the Division was starting almost from scratch; for previous experience of other troops against Italians in the desert scarcely counted. The Germans, who would undoubtedly provide the main opposition, had been developing and refining techniques for mobile operations over open country since 1934. It was a tall order for the New Zealanders to cram a parallel development into a few short weeks.
The gunners' role in this war of movement was of critical importance. No tank force was to be permanently allotted to the Division except the Divisional Cavalry, which had some obsolescent light tanks and was intended for reconnaissance, but not for hard fighting. In the periodic absence of fighting tanks the guns would bear the full burden of protecting the Division on the move. Had the gunners become thoroughly proficient in the use of their own equipment and well-acquainted with their own organisations, their task of developing suitable tactics and techniques would have been hard enough; but all were concurrently immersed in learning the intricacies of new equipment and the workings of new organisations.
Field and Anti-Tank Batteries are Reorganised
The three-battery organisation of the field regiments, adopted in late August, besides involving many appointments, promotions and transfers, entailed getting used to new roles, new ways of doing business, and new systems of communication. Each regiment, moreover, had its own way of effecting the changeover, so that there was no standard designation of troops in the two-troop batteries. The 4th Field, for example, decided page 178 to extract the middle troop of existing batteries to form the new battery, which therefore contained B and E Troops. The 6th Field took the last troop of the first battery and the first troop of the second battery, C and D Troops, to form the third battery. The 5th Field took the last troop from each former battery, C and F Troops. The numbering of the new batteries had to await advice from New Zealand so as not to duplicate numbers used there and the final listing was as follows:
|4th Field||25 Battery: A and C Troops|
|26 Battery: D and F Troops|
|46 Battery: B and E Troops|
|5th Field||27 Battery: A and B Troops|
|28 Battery: D and E Troops|
|47 Battery: C and F Troops|
|6th Field||29 Battery: A and B Troops|
|30 Battery: E and F Troops|
|48 Battery: C and D Troops|
For the ‘old hands’, long used to the old numbers and letters, it was as if their brothers had all changed their names by deed poll and it was not easy to get used to it.
The anti-tankers had to put up with changes only slightly less confusing. In Greece only 34 Battery had had portées; now all batteries had them and had to master gun drill appropriate to them and learn a new set of tactics. The policy was to carry the guns into the forward area (the 2-pounders suffered damage when towed far over rough ground), but to dismount them when action threatened and engage the enemy from ground positions. Only in an emergency were the guns to be fired from the portées. This had seemed, on the flimsy basis of some of the experiences of 34 Battery in Greece, to be the best way of handling this equipment; but conditions in the desert were different and there was more to be said for portée action there. The 7th Anti-Tank could not leave Mahfouz Camp until late in September, because it was still in course of being re-equipped when the other regiments left for Baggush. Lieutenant-Colonel Oakes therefore had more time to consider the move and decided that, instead of the rather monotonous drive along the Cairo-Alexandria road and then the coast road, he would take his regiment in ‘desert formation’ across country from Mena. It was a good idea; but he found it hard to convince the Middle East Movement Control authorities of this and get their permission. In the end he succeeded and on 25 September the page 179 regiment moved through Cairo, out towards the Pyramids, and then off the paved road and into the desert. Careful checks were made of the petrol, oil and water consumption of the various kinds of vehicles, the gunners had each to make do with three-quarters of a gallon of water per day, and drivers gained valuable experience of changing desert conditions. The journey took three days, and in the course of it the LAD handled only two major repair jobs and 11 minor ones, as well as helping to pull seven vehicles out of soft sand.
Four-troop anti-tank batteries had already been provided for in a revised war establishment of 10 May. But Brigadier Miles's recommendation of heavier equipment bore fruit when 18-pounders were provided for the extra troops in place of the 2-pounders listed in the establishment table. These guns, adapted for use on Beach platforms in an anti-tank role, and fitted with telescope and open sights, were rather cumbersome, but would provide a useful and versatile addition to anti-tank resources, for they could fire HE shell as well as AP shot. They were manned mainly by gunners who had arrived with the 6th Reinforcements in July. After a course in anti-tank gunnery at the Artillery Training Regiment in Maadi, they were formed into detachments under NCOs sent for this purpose from the 7th Anti-Tank and drilled with the converted 18-pounders. The new troops, totalling 152 all ranks, joined the regiment at Baggush towards the end of October and brought the batteries up to their four-troop establishment as follows:
|31 Battery||A, B and C Troops (2-pounders)|
|D Troop (18-pounders)|
|32 Battery||E, F, and G Troops (2-pounders)|
|H Troop (18-pounders)|
|33 Battery||J, K and L Troops (2-pounders)|
|M Troop (18-pounders)|
|34 Battery||N, O and P Troops (2-pounders)|
|Q Troop (18-pounders)|
So great was the demand for Bofors to defend the huge dumps, railheads, and other centres of activity concerned with preparations for the forthcoming offensive, that even Freyberg's and Miles's sternest resolve could not deny the use of some of the guns of the 14th Light Ack-Ack for this purpose. The regiment did not move to Baggush until the end of the first week in October; but the senior anti-aircraft officer of Eighth Army had asked Miles a fortnight earlier if 41 Battery could supply page 180 guns to defend the forward depots and A Troop was at once despatched to the busy area known as Charing Cross. All its guns fired in the course of a bombing raid on the 10th. Two days later 42 and 43 Batteries each sent a troop to take up an operational role—F Troop to Similla, 10 miles east of Matruh, to guard the railway sidings, and H Troop back to Fuka for the same purpose. Other troops relieved these in due course and all took part in the brigade manoeuvres which were the main feature of the training at Baggush. A long argument about the number of predictors that the regiment was to have and the way they would be controlled was settled before leaving Maadi: the issue would be four per battery and they were to be under the control of the three battery headquarters. At the last possible moment—9 November—the batteries were reorganised to have two troops each of six guns, with the troops divided into sections of three guns.
All three infantry brigades carried out large-scale manoeuvres in the rough hinterland of Baggush; but Freyberg's and Miles's headquarters took part in the three main ones and made them in many respects divisional manoeuvres. The 4th and 6th Field and anti-tank and light anti-aircraft guns accompanied 6 Brigade on 9 October and took part in its attack on the simulated strongpoints ‘Sidi Clif’ and ‘Bir Stella’ two days later. The 4th Field and the 5th Field (after working on the Alamein defences) took part in the next manoeuvre with 4 Brigade on the 16th, with the Survey Troop and a different lot of 2-pounder and Bofors troops. The final exercise on the 20th was carried out by the 5th and 6th Field in support of 5 Brigade, with further anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. A troop from each of the field regiments took part in a final exercise with the RAF on the 9th and carried out a shoot in co-operation with aircraft.
The Battle Plan
Many were the other preparations for battle, all of them now complete. The Eighth Army offensive, known as CRUSADER, was to be on a grand scale, the culmination of five months of planning. Brigadier Miles had attended a select conference of New Zealand brigadiers and two colonels on 17 October at which Freyberg had disclosed, in conditions of great secrecy, the outline of the plan. The object was the capture of Cyrenaica and the first phase would be the destruction of the enemy armour. To make the enemy deploy his armour, Eighth Army was to threaten the forces besieging Tobruk; but the relief of Tobruk page 181 would be incidental. The British armour was thought to be slightly stronger than the combined German and Italian armour and it was expected to complete their destruction with little or no help from the rest of Eighth Army. The New Zealand Division was to be grouped with 4 Indian Division and 1 Army Tank Brigade (with heavy but slow infantry tanks) in 13 Corps to cut off the enemy defending the frontier positions and to do the mopping up when the enemy armour was defeated. Surprise was to be gained, if possible, by a series of marches on moonless nights to the Egypt-Libya frontier.
The artillery details stressed that protection on the move was vital. Command of the artillery was to remain with Miles and was not to be decentralised to brigades ‘unless necessary’. Freyberg thought tank attack was the greatest danger. To guard against this, anti-tank mines would be carried by sappers and infantry, and if mines were laid they must be covered by artillery fire. The anti-aircraft defence of a brigade while it was fighting a battle raised difficult problems, all the more worrying because the enemy was expected to have a decided superiority in the air, though nothing like the virtual monopoly he enjoyed in Greece and Crete.
These were Freyberg's views of the requirements of his Division if it followed the programme drawn up for it by higher authority; but the programme was hopelessly confused and unrealistic, the assumptions behind it—such as those about the relative strengths of the armour and air forces—were almost all incorrect, and Miles gained no useful guidance. But Freyberg's further points indicated that he realised at least some of the inadequacies of the crusader plan and was uncomfortably aware that the battle was not likely to follow the course that the planners supposed. He asked the brigadiers to consider two possibilities and plan for them: that the armoured protection promised for divisional moves might not be provided and that a brigade group (or more) might have to advance unescorted along an escarpment. Later Freyberg got the sappers to construct a relief model of the battle area, and when he studied this he became increasingly certain that the Division would have to fight not to blockade the frontier positions but to relieve Tobruk. If so, the escarpments leading towards Tobruk and passing through Belhamed or Sidi Rezegh would be all-important.
To Miles one defect of the Divisional organisation was that the Divisional Cavalry was too weak to overcome even slight page 182 opposition and it might therefore be prevented from carrying out its tasks. He was prepared to attach anti-tank 2-pounders to it, but was sceptical of their worth against German medium tanks. The 18-pounders, he felt sure, were vital to the defence of the infantry brigades. The only solution, therefore, was to attach a troop of 25-pounders to the Cavalry, and he considered the conditions under which the field guns might be able to operate with such a mobile force. There was no suggestion of putting a medium regiment of artillery under Freyberg's command; yet without one the Divisional Artillery was likely to be outweighed and outranged. Both Freyberg and Miles thought the crusader planners underestimated the fighting qualities of the Germans.
The New Zealand Division was in fact the only infantry division which was to have no medium guns. The 1st South African Division, in the armoured corps, was to have the 7th Medium and 4 Indian Division was to have the 68th Medium, while 70 Division, the garrison of Tobruk, had two medium batteries and a few heavy guns. Against the 172 guns of the New Zealand Divisional Artillery, the relatively immobile 4 Indian Division was to have about 300, including the medium unit and four field regiments. It was a curious distribution of resources.
All reservations or misgivings were filtered out as the plan passed from Division to brigade to regiment and then to battery and troop. The gunners were generally enthusiastic. They loved their new equipment and were confident of their skills. Morale was extremely high. When 5 Brigade moved forward from Baggush along the road to Matruh on 11 November (with the 5th Field, 32 and 34 Anti-Tank Batteries, and 42 Light Ack-Ack Battery) it seemed certain to be the beginning of a wonderful adventure. The troops had seen so much evidence of British strength on land and in the air and so little evidence of the enemy that they readily believed the most optimistic estimates.
The Move to the Libyan Frontier
The route branched southwards towards Siwa and then into the open desert for a few miles to a divisional assembly area. Next day 4 Brigade (with the 4th Field, the 7th Anti-Tank RHQ and 31 Battery, the 14th Light Ack-Ack RHQ and 41 Battery, and 1 Survey Troop) and Divisional Headquarters Group (with Divisional Artillery Headquarters) left Baggush and reached the page 183 assembly area. On the 13th Freyberg himself set out early, followed by 6 Brigade (with the 6th Field, 33 Anti-Tank Battery and 43 Light Ack-Ack Battery).
All but the Divisional Cavalry, already at the frontier, and a few detachments were assembled in the open desert in the morning of the 14th, the first time the whole Division was together. Occasionally some vehicle tore a thin ribbon of dust from the flat, scrub-covered desert. But 3000 lorries, quads, pick-up trucks and staff cars kept still, their engines silent, the troops resting. Freyberg called together officers down to battery or company commanders and gave them some of his ideas about the forthcoming battle, which promised to be ‘a very tough one’. The Germans were brave and skilful. ‘They realise the value of AFVs [armoured fighting vehicles] and they will not hesitate to use them in a desperate counter stroke.’ He drew attention, among other matters, to the constant dilemma of desert commanders: whether to open out and minimise losses from air attack or to close up and present a stronger front to enemy tanks. Tank attack could do more damage, and if this threatened then formations should close in, to thicken up defensive fire. Miles later conferred with his COs and the artillery Intelligence officers then met to exchange views, mark maps, and receive code lists. Three Bofors sections were detached, two to defend Headquarters Group and the third to defend the NZASC Group.
The Division, as it drove slowly forward on the 15th, made an unforgettable spectacle, with vehicles well-spaced and stretching from horizon to horizon, windshields flashing in the sunlight, and wisps of dust rising, building up here and there in the soft patches to a billowing cloud which trailed each lorry. The going became stony and ‘Steve’ Weir of the 6th Field was critical of the control of the march, which he thought was ‘rather ragged’. The 4th Field suffered several ‘blowouts’ and broken springs.
Aircraft were heard throughout the night and bombs fell in the distance. The morning of the 16th was cold and the wind raised much dust. Vehicles were mostly covered with camouflage nets and the troops rested. The Corps Commander, Lieutenant-General A. R. Godwin-Austen, visited the Division and met officers down to the rank of major. Brigade groups closed in as evening approached and at intervals of 10–20 yards between vehicles they set off at dark on a march of 16–18 miles. The leading vehicles soon struck trouble in the form of patches of soft sand. The concertina motion which developed as columns page 184 slowed down and then raced to catch up with their neighbours led to reckless speeding at times. The anti-tank portées could keep up; but the field and ack-ack guns could not be towed over rough ground at anything like the pace the 3-ton lorries maintained. Confusion therefore reigned until the going improved.
Gunners of the 4th Field were annoyed in the morning to learn that because 5 Brigade had halted too far south 4 Brigade would have to conform. Because of this they had to fill in their slit trenches and dig new ones. The frontier was close and much attention was therefore paid to anti-tank defence. Later in the day Freyberg conferred with Miles about the placing of guns in the columns on the move, and whether a 25-pounder troop should accompany the Divisional Cavalry in the opening stages of the offensive. On the prospects of success, the GOC remarked, ‘Everything depends on whether he [the enemy] has hidden reserves. If he has things are going to be difficult.’ Next day, 18 November, the Division would be through the frontier and facing north and crusader would begin. Anti-tank guns were to be posted in line 500 yards outside the concentrations of vehicles and protected by infantry in depth. On the move anti-tank portées and Bren carriers were to protect the flanks. The Divisional Cavalry returned to Freyberg's command during the day and 34 Anti-Tank Battery with two 2-pounder troops was placed under its command.11
3 ‘Magic boxes’ which computed the course of aircraft. They found some favour among ack-ack gunners in a static role; but on mobile operations, particularly against low-flying aircraft, firing over open sights was usually preferred.
7 Rubber-tired wheels in place of iron-shod wheels, with appropriate rearrangement of the gun carriage.
9 Ike Parkinson had already gone back to New Zealand to command an army tank brigade which was to be formed there.
11 Strengths and chief appointments at this stage were as follows:
|Headquarters||CRA, Brig R. Miles BM, Maj H. E. Gilbert||54 all ranks|
|4th Field||CO, Lt-Col C. S. J. Duff||754 all ranks (including E Sec Sigs, 9 LAD and other attached personnel)|
|5th Field||CO, Lt-Col K. W. Fraser||721 all ranks (including F Sec Sigs, 16 LAD, etc.)|
|6th Field||CO, Lt-Col C. E. Weir||731 all ranks (including G Sec Sigs, 18 LAD, etc.)|
|7th Anti-Tank||CO, Lt-Col T. H. E. Oakes||774 all ranks (including H Sec Sigs, 15 LAD, etc.)|
|14th Light Ack-Ack||CO, Lt-Col K. W. R. Glasgow||Just over 1000 all ranks (including Sigs, Workshops and ASC Sections, etc.)|
|I Survey Troop||OC, Capt S. H. Dawe||43 all ranks|