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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

5 Brigade Mans the El Adem Box

5 Brigade Mans the El Adem Box

The gunners of 5 Brigade perhaps felt all this most acutely. They had the unhappy task of retracing their steps in the second week of February to the Tobruk area, where their brigade stationed itself in an all-round defensive position at El Adem. A last-minute rush of re-equipping had put all units more or less on war establishments. Now they had to dig in and prepare to engage the enemy if he ventured past the Gazala position. It seemed as if the bitter fighting of the Crusader campaign had yielded no lasting reward—nor, for those interested in tactics, had it taught any lessons. Isolated brigade boxes, out of reach of each other, seemed all too likely to be defeated in detail and overrun. Moreover, the propensity Eighth Army had displayed in Crusader to split itself up into ineffectual mobile detachments now seemed to have become a mania and the brigade was ordered to form itself into Jock columns for the purpose of ‘swanning about’ the desert. The New Zealand command, however, insisted that all defensive positions be well dug and protected and the 14,000-yard perimeter was strongly wired and mined.

On the way to El Adem a 5th Field truck sent to Matruh to collect water tins was unluckily hit by high-level bombing and two gunners were hit, one of them being killed instantly and the other dying of wounds.6 Orders to form a Jock column arrived before the guns got past Belhamed on 15 February. The gunner contribution was to be 28 Battery, F Troop of 32 Battery, and the Right Section of E Troop, 42 Battery. These were to stay with their units, but were to be ready to move within a quarter of an hour when ordered. Of the field guns, 28 Battery was to remain mobile, while 27 and 47 Batteries were to take up anti-tank positions, excepting one troop of each which were to have dual anti-tank and field roles. To strengthen page 301 the anti-tank defences still further, six 75-millimetre and six 47-millimetre Italian guns were to be manned by infantry, supervised by a field gunner on each ‘75’ and an anti-tank gunner on each ‘47’. The brigade layout seemed to be designed for a do-or-die action against a full-scale panzer onslaught—not a reassuring prospect and even less so when it was discovered that the 75s were practically useless and the 47s almost as bad. The least that could be expected if a strong enemy did reach the neighbourhood would be a bombardment by field and medium artillery to which, in replying, the 5th Field would be very much at a disadvantage. Even the Bofors gunners, who looked forward to some brisk action, had their spirits dampened by orders not to open fire except against planes which were actually attacking the El Adem Box from a ‘reasonable height’. In the next few days they saw many hostile aircraft; but most were at high altitudes, evidently respectful of the heavy ack-ack guns defending Tobruk and the El Adem landing ground.7 Four 18-pounders arrived in mid-March to replace defective Italian 75s and were duly dug in. The anti-tank guns—2-pounders, 18-pounders, 25-pounders and captured enemy guns—were sited in depth with overlapping arcs of fire.

Early on the morning of 28 February 13 Italian aircraft came over low and ground-strafed the nearby landing ground and the gunners of 42 Battery fired freely at them whenever they came within reach. Fierce sandstorms at the end of the month were followed early in March by heavy rain which bogged many lorries and flooded or otherwise damaged gun pits, but also reduced air activity on both sides. Mainly because of salvage work, which was extensive, ammunition for most types of gun became plentiful and live-shoots gave field, anti-tank and ack-ack gunners good practice. Some shooting of this kind was even carried out by guns on patrol with the brigade mobile column; but no enemy was seen on those occasions. Then, on 16 March, the Bofors gunners had the interesting experience of carrying out a practice shoot with a new automatic loader. A few days later an advanced party of a South African brigade inspected the El Adem Box, and on the 24th the main body of 5 Brigade was relieved and withdrew, in a sandstorm which cut visibility down to a few yards and made travel most unpleasant, across the frontier. By the 28th it was back in Maadi, to the delight of the gunners.