2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Key Men Leave for Service in the Pacific
Key Men Leave for Service in the Pacific
Syria provided a wealth of new experiences for the New Zealand gunners, most of them enjoyable: leave at Baalbek, Damascus or Beirut, a ski school high up in the Lebanons, entertaining and being entertained by the French Foreign Legion in Aleppo, and a variety of interesting outings and tasks, including reconnaissances, which brought them into contact with the colourful and hospitable inhabitants. The climate, too, provided far more variety than that of the North African desert. An enduring concern, however, in both the Bekaa Valley and the frontier area was the guarding of camps against would-be thieves, who were numerous, skilful and daring. It was a period, too, of rumour and counter-rumour and earnest debate about the future of the Division in the light of the disasters in the Pacific. Despite denials from General Freyberg himself, there were many plausible allegations that the New Zealanders in the Middle East were going home. A few able gunners did go, to help train forces in New Zealand and to provide a leavening of battle experience for forces in the Pacific, then at brigade strength.
Among these was Danny Duff, who had commanded 34 Anti-Tank Battery in the early days, then the 7th Anti-Tank in Greece, and then, for nearly a year, the 4th Field. His extensive knowledge of gunnery and battle experience would be of great value in dealing with the urgent problems presented by the Japanese advances in the Pacific. Not everyone in the 4th Field page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page 309 was sorry to see him go; but the 4th Field owed more to him than most of its members realised. He had reconstructed the regiment after the disaster of Greece and Crete and saw that it was trained to the highest standards for the campaign in Libya. His handling of his guns at Zaafran and Belhamed, in circumstances of bewildering complexity, was superbly skilful. On the fateful 1st of December after the 6th Field was overrun, the defence of the remnants of the Division at Zaafran against disaster which threatened from the west was entirely in his hands. Even the divisional commander and his two brigade commanders did not fully grasp the danger and debated a quite unrealistic proposal to withdraw westwards; but Duff saw it clearly and, out of touch with them for several critical hours (because he insisted on keeping his complex telephone communications intact and refused to move when brigade headquarters moved), he fought a lone battle with all available guns, field, anti-tank and ack-ack, against two panzer divisions and the Italian Ariete Armoured Division and held them off until dark, when the Division withdrew. His contribution in this crisis was never properly recognised in the Division; but in due course his abilities were rewarded by his appointment as CRA of 3 Division in the Pacific. He left the 4th Field in April and was replaced early in June by Lieutenant-Colonel Queree, slender, retiring and at that time relatively unknown, but also of high ability which took him eventually in Italy to the position of CRA.12
Manhandling Bofors into position on the way to Gazala
A 5th Field gun in the Gazala battle
2-pounder portée at Gazala
5th Field on Combined Operations training in the Gulf of Suez
A 33 Battery portée below the Aleppo citadel
25-pounder on Forqloss plain
The first shell lands at Minqar Qaim, 27 June 1942
A 25-pounder in the Minqar Qaim action
A makeshift OP at Minqar Qaim
Disabled vehicles at the foot of Minqar Qaim, from a painting by Sergeant J. W. Crippen
Minqar Qaim, by Crippen
A 5th Field gun firing under a camouflage net, at Alam Nayil, August 1942
A survey camp in the Transjordan. Front row: A. W. Cross, Jack Arthurs, A. I. Lyall, N. Russell, Back row: Pat Malthus, Jeff Hole, J. Fenton, T. Harmon
A 4.5 at Alamein
A 7th Anti-Tank lorry bogged down near Fuka
Fuka after the deluge, November 1942
There was no thought early in June of doing anything more than continuing the manning of the frontier positions, completing the Djedeide fortress, and carrying out more extensive and advanced divisional manoeuvres (in the course of which Brigadier Weir hoped to get nearer to his ideal of a divisional artillery trained to operate flexibly and efficiently at all levels from single guns up to unified control at divisional level or even higher). But all these projects suddenly dissolved on 14 June when orders arrived for the Division to move in great haste to Mersa Matruh in the Western Desert. The Eighth Army had been defeated at Gazala, Tobruk was threatened, and reinforcements were urgently needed to check the advance of the victorious Axis army. Acutely aware of the many shortages page 310 of transport and war equipment, the officers and NCOs of the Division hastened to comply with this startling order, improvising and borrowing to meet deficiencies, and turning the many camps in the Bekaa Valley and at the frontier into scenes of turmoil. The 4th and 6th Field and 1 Survey Troop left on the 16th, the 5th Field on the 18th, and the 7th Anti-Tank and 14th Light Ack-Ack in batteries and smaller groups, as their attachments and various local tasks allowed, between the 16th and 19th.
It was an extraordinary exodus. When 31 Anti-Tank Battery moved off on the 17th, for example, it did so without 50 men, a significant proportion of its strength, who were still on leave. Two troops of 33 Battery had left as recently as the 9th with 6 Brigade for Aleppo to relieve 5 Brigade, and E Troop of 42 Light Ack-Ack Battery had remained in the frontier area.13 The Left Section of A Troop of 41 Battery had not long gone to Saida (Sidon) on the coast south of Beirut and 43 Battery still had a section at Khalde. All these far-flung detachments and the men on leave and on special tasks14 had to be gathered in and despatched southwards. New Zealand insignia of all kinds had to be removed from uniforms and vehicles in a hasty effort to disguise the move and deceive enemy agents—though none of the civilians on the route seemed in any doubt about the identity of the New Zealanders. At Rayak 41 Battery had lent four three-tonners to a pioneer unit, its remaining vehicles were crammed with men and equipment, and still the predictors had to be left behind, to be picked up by the four lorries when they returned. The first main staging area was to be at Affule, south of Tiberias in Palestine, and it was hoped that many detachments would rejoin their units there.
Impressions of the journey varied. Some detachments, for example, had refreshing interludes in orchards and citrus groves when their convoys were held up. All found the heat oppressive. At Tiberias, over 120 in the shade, it was stifling. The haste under such conditions caused vehicles to overheat and the scorching roads—especially the shimmering macadam through the Sinai desert on the second day—and overloading caused some tyres to burst.page 311
The main convoy crossed the Suez Canal on the 19th, drove through Cairo without halting, refuelled near Mena, and staged in the Wadi Natrun near Halfway House. The familiar scenes brought home to the gunners that the Syrian interlude, instructing, refreshing and in the main very enjoyable, had ended. All realised the gravity of the situation they now faced; but in good health and high spirits most of them welcomed the new adventure.