2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Minqar Qaim Position
The Minqar Qaim Position
The first intention was that 4 Brigade would settle some miles to the east at Bir Abu Batta. Gun positions had been chosen and gunners were busily digging as dusk approached, their vehicles, like others of the brigade, bunched closely together in a wadi. Over came a squadron or so of aircraft and few men other than ack-ack gunners bothered even to look up, so active had the RAF been in the past few days. The gunners of 41 Battery, however, saw what they took to be 27 Ju88s—twin-engined medium bombers—and quickly engaged them. They bombed from medium height, did much damage, and page 316 caused many casualties—seven killed and 55 wounded.7 But the Bofors gave them a hot reception, 41 Battery firing 240 rounds, D Troop of 42 Battery 243, and E Troop (which fired briskly but later lost its records) probably as many. Three bombers were reported to have crashed. It taught both brigades a sharp lesson. Later 4 Brigade moved alongside the Reserve Group, making a divisional area of about five and a half miles long from east to west and up to two miles deep. When 5 Brigade learned that E Troop had the only 6-pounders, H Troop was sent to replace it at Bir Khalda. Before the relief, however, the column was heavily bombed and many infantry hit. E Troop page 317 escaped harm; but 27 Battery lost five killed and 17 wounded (according to a report to the 5th Field next day) and three ammunition trucks set on fire.
The night was full of activity, much of it enemy, as the many flares suggested and the morning of the 27th confirmed. The 6th Field, facing mainly north from the Reserve Group area, saw many columns to the north moving eastwards at long range. The 4th Field had meanwhile gained a welcome addition: a troop of the 121st Field, RA, and two anti-tank guns, cut off from their parent units, which drove in at 7 a.m. An hour and a half later the battle opened in earnest with ranging shells from the north. The guns responsible could not be located immediately. Their fire was not systematic; but one source roughly located after some time was at long range. The 4th Field sent a troop forward at 9 a.m. to engage the motorised troops and tanks passing to the north and it did so with evident success. Three-quarters of an hour later the 6th Field sent 30 Battery forward with two sections of 18 Battalion carriers to engage a hostile battery. It was a risky errand, as the enemy soon proved. The guns moved off, but tanks then attacked, setting one of the carriers on fire. The two 25-pounder troops, under Major Lambourn's skilful direction, then made a leapfrog withdrawal which earned the admiration of observers on the low escarpment to the south.8 The tanks brought down very heavy fire, killing five men of the battery and disabling at least one quad and another vehicle. For their part the gunners claimed to have put three tanks out of action and damaged three others; but in the smoke and dust and heat they could not be sure.
In the artillery duel which began about 9 a.m. and was the main feature of the Minqar Qaim action, the enemy had several advantages. He had a variety of gun types and calibres which included 75s, 88s, 105s, 150-millimetre medium howitzers, a number of captured 25-pounders, and even, according to some accounts, heavy 210-millimetre howitzers. Against shallow trenches and gun pits on the rocky ground the tremendous blast of the heavier calibres could be far more effective than that of the defending 25-pounders—which were in any case outranged. The ‘88s’ could fire low air bursts for anti-personnel effect. Moreover, the enemy had far more ground on which to deploy and could move his guns as he pleased, whereas the Divisional Artillery had relatively little choice and most of its page 318 field guns were fairly close together. But the escarpment, low though it was and gently sloping, dominated the flat desert to the north and south: the GOC and CRA had chosen well.9 Allied to this, the flexibility of control of the New Zealand field guns, in striking contrast to the piecemeal and somewhat disjointed control of the opposing artillery, more than compensated for all their disabilities. Even better results might have been achieved had better maps been available and had communications between Artillery Headquarters and the 4th Field been more reliable: telephone cables were frequently broken by shellfire and wireless was uncertain. Though far from perfect, the performance of the field artillery confirmed that the Syrian training and exercises had been highly beneficial. And for bravery and persistence the gunners won many admirers. ‘From my position on the cliff I could see shells bursting incessantly among our guns,’ the commander of 5 Brigade wrote, ‘and admired the way our gunners were standing to their work.’10
7 Only two gunners are listed among the killed, N. Hulme and J. S. Craig of the 4th Field, but others of that unit and at least one of 31 Battery were slightly wounded, and 41 Battery evacuated two gunners suffering from shock and ‘several slightly injured’. BSM B. K. Bassett gallantly drove a burning 26 Battery ammunition truck away from the area.
8 Lambourn was in due course awarded for this a DSO.