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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery


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THE GUNNERS have a long history and are proud of it. Their ‘colours’ are their guns and their guns, as their motto proclaims, have served ‘Everywhere’. In its first few centuries, to be sure, the artillery was not much loved, even by its servants. These were civilians—chemists and mathematicians—preferring gentler disputes than war and forced to rely on farm labourers who, with their horses, had the unsought and unwelcome task of towing the guns. Gunners gained popularity as weapons and methods improved; but the process was extremely slow. Four centuries of coaxing failed to rid the guns of all their cantankerous traits and those they were supposed to support were nervous of them. Smouldering wicks of matchlocks near open barrels of gunpowder made the men near the guns fidgety. Indeed it was not unknown for the forced labour at the wagon lines to try to run away. But from the earliest days gunners have served their guns to the last in many a bitter contest.

The Royal Regiment of Artillery, formed in 1716, became in due course a powerful and indispensable partner of the cavalry and infantry. On the Western Front in 1914–18 the guns bickered incessantly and flew into violent rages which dominated the battlefield for weeks on end. ‘Of those still living who went with the guns through Longueval that day, and down the tortured road that led to Flers’, says the New Zealand artillery historian about the Battle of the Somme in 1916, ‘assuredly none will forget it…. Battery after battery wound through the tumbled ruins of the village, and down past the ragged remnants of Delville Wood, a ghastly place where the big high-explosive shells were sending up great gouts of black earth and pieces of wood, and Heaven only knew what else’.1

Beneath the massive ramparts of Le Quesnoy British soldiers first tasted cannon fire—in the year of Crécy, 1336. Nearly 600 years later the New Zealand Division found this same fortress barring its way through Belgium to Germany. The heavy walls and outlying defence works in late 1918 were sprinkled with trees and shrubs and garnished with grassy banks, a picturesque page 2 survival of an earlier mode of warfare. But they were not altogether outdated. The New Zealanders had somehow to overcome the German garrison without harming the French civilians crowding the town. They therefore could not use heavy guns to crumble the walls into the moats below. They might try to deluge the defences with shrapnel and high-explosive from their light field guns and howitzers; but they could not let shells fall among the houses beyond. Furthermore, they had to make an exceptionally long advance, 10,000 yards or more, and their guns could reach no more than 6600 yards,2 so batteries would have to leapfrog forward in the course of the attack. It was a tricky project.

The assault began at 5.30 in the misty morning of 4 November and soon gained ground. A complicated set of artillery barrages led some infantry round the northern side of the town and others round the south to link up in the east and carry on towards the Mormal Forest. Cavalry, gunners (including many attached from the Royal Field Artillery), engineers, infantry and machine-gunners played their various parts in the intricate scheme with admirable precision. Some guns kept hard on the heels of the infantry to guard against German tanks and machine-gun fire poured down from the walls of the fortress on these gunners as they passed. Other batteries were heavily shelled. The wagon lines of one battery were churned up and 52 horses were hit. The advanced guard of horse-drawn 18-pounders and limbers in the leapfrog movement attracted fierce fire, but pushed on regardless of it and installed itself in positions a mile and a half beyond the town. When these guns resumed their role in the barrage programme other guns ceased fire and moved forward. Thus the curtain of bursting shells continued to screen the advancing infantry until they reached the forest in the afternoon.

The struggle for the ramparts meanwhile continued. The artillery, massed Lewis guns, and light mortars concentrated on the few possible approaches. With this support the infantry made many a determined attack which was beaten back. In the end a sudden rush carried a 60-foot wall, the breach was quickly widened and exploited, and in the late afternoon the defence collapsed. Four neighbouring villages also fell, nearly 2000 prisoners were taken and with them 60 field guns and hundreds of machine guns, and the civilians were delirious with joy. Not one shell had fallen in the town. It was a fitting climax page 3 to the history of the New Zealand Division in the First World War. Particularly it was so to artillery operations which had begun under desperate circumstances at Plugge's Plateau and Russell's Top at Gallipoli in April 1915. The gunners claimed no special credit, however, for this ‘memorable and striking success’3; the Division had worked as a team and thereby lived up to its tradition. Armistice Day came just one week later and the guns along the Western Front fell silent.

Thus the ‘war to end war’ ended; but on 1 September 1939 another and greater one began, and two days later the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand joined in. New Zealand soon made up her mind to form another expeditionary force to serve overseas, a more or less self-contained force as before of an army division with ancillary services. This was more easily said than done. The tradition of the 1st NZEF had survived; but the fighting machine had long since been dismantled. Compulsory military training had ceased in 1930. When war broke out the Regular Force had 100 officers and fewer than 500 other ranks. A three-month recruiting drive had brought Territorial volunteer numbers up to nearly 17,000 and there was a special reserve of about 10,000. These were slender foundations for an expeditionary force plus a Territorial division for home service. Equipment was scarce and most of it out of date.

The 2nd New Zealand Division,4 the core of 2 NZEF, was of course to have its own Divisional Artillery—and a ponderous organisation it must have seemed to a gunner of the First World War. In place of the Divisional Artillery Headquarters, the three ‘brigades’ of field artillery, each of sixteen 18-pounders, the ‘brigade’ of twelve 4.5-inch howitzers, and the Divisional Ammunition Column, all horse-drawn, of 1916, what was proposed in 1939 was this:

Divisional Artillery Headquarters.

Three field regiments each of twenty-four 25-pounders, a Signals section, and a light aid detachment of Ordnance.

One anti-tank regiment of forty-eight 2-pounders, a Signals section, and a light aid detachment.

One light anti-aircraft regiment of (at first) thirty-six 40-millimetre Bofors guns, a Signals section, a transport section (NZASC), and a workshops section of Ordnance.

One survey troop.

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There was also to be a Divisional Ammunition Company, NZASC, not under artillery command (unlike its counterpart of the First World War). The total allotment of assorted motor vehicles including this company would be nearly 950, a generous amount for a Divisional Artillery strength of just over 4000 men. Such a body of men and such a mass of equipment could not materialise overnight, and in the event it took nearly two years to complete the Divisional Artillery of 2 NZEF.

On 27 September 1939, when the first of the 4000 entered camp at Hopu Hopu, near Ngaruawahia and down river from Hamilton, it was impossible to envisage such a force. Certainly it would have been out of the question to recruit and train it as one body. There were too few instructors, too little accommodation, and hardly any training equipment. The field regiments, the anti-tank regiment, and the survey troop were therefore raised in three stages, to conform with the three successive contingents or echelons of 2 NZEF. The anti-aircraft regiment would have to be raised later and would sail with a reinforcement contingent.

Even this programme, however, strained the resources of the small Royal New Zealand Artillery (the Regular force). Royal New Zealand Artillery officers and NCOs had somehow to be found for key positions in all units, others would be needed as instructors for later contingents, and some would have to administer artillery affairs at home, with the help of Territorials.

The raising of an expeditionary force at once presents problems of nomenclature. The First, Second and Third Echelons were each to be built around an infantry brigade, 4, 5 and 6 Brigades respectively. The field artillery regiments were by chance given the same numbers as the brigades to which they were related, so the men training at Hopu Hopu formed 4 Field Regiment, part of 4 Infantry Brigade. They were to be followed by 5 Field Regiment of 5 Brigade and then by 6 Field Regiment of 6 Brigade. The anti-tank regiment therefore became the 2nd, soon renumbered the 7th, and the light anti-aircraft regiment, taking numerical precedence behind other units formed after 7 Anti-Tank Regiment for service at home, became the 14th. The survey troop was the 1st and the battery that was eventually formed (at first non-divisional) became the 36th. These facts can mean little enough to readers who were not involved; but to the men concerned the numbers of their regiments, of the batteries within their regiments, and of the units with which page 5 they were associated in action became indelibly part of their lives and laden with emotion. To a man from 25 Battery another from the same battery was a brother, a man from 26 Battery was a cousin, and anyone else from 4 Field Regiment was still within the family. Among themselves the gunners used the names 4th Field, 5th Field, 6th Field and 7th Anti-Tank, and this history will conform to this practice.

The father of the family at first was Lieutenant-Colonel G. B. (‘Ike’) Parkinson,5 Commanding Officer of the 4th Field and formerly commander of the RNZA, and he was a fatherly figure of a man. Gruff and heavily built, with a sandy moustache, he was an experienced and dedicated gunner. A graduate of Duntroon, he had served in France in 1917–18 and later in Fiji and had attended Staff College in England. His Regimental Sergeant-Major was another experienced Regular, Warrant-Officer Class I Fitzgerald,6 an efficient supervisor of drill and elementary training. Under him, according to one of his senior NCOs, ‘the spit and polish was terrific’.

1 J. R. Byrne, New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914–18 (Whitcombe and Tombs, 1922), p.132.

2 A few with new-type recuperators had a range of 9600 yards.

3 Byrne, p.292.

4 As it came to be called at the end of June 1942. Until then it was officially The New Zealand Division.

5 Maj-Gen G. B. Parkinson, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Christchurch; born Wellington, 5 Nov 1896; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1917–19; CO 4 Fd Regt Jan 1940-Aug 1941; comd 1 NZ Army Tank Bde and 7 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) 1941–42; 6 Bde Apr 1943-Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 3–27 Mar 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div Jun-Aug 1944; comd 6 Bde Aug 1944-Jun 1945; QMG, Army HQ, Jan-Sep 1946; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1946–49; Commander, Southern Military District, 1949–51.

6 Capt W. J. Fitzgerald; born Hastings, 23 Jun 1893; Regular soldier; served in 1 Fd Bty, 1 NZEF, 1914–18 (twice wounded); Camp Commandant, Linton Military Camp, 1947–48; died Palmerston North, 28 Sep 1951.