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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Jock Column Policy Continues

The Jock Column Policy Continues

There was bigger game, however, in the offing. The mobile column on the 30th returned empty-handed. Next day a larger one under Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow with two of his own batteries, two troops of 32 Battery, MMGs and carriers went forward to engage enemy attacking a brigade box at Deir el Shein, a dozen miles to the north-west. Glasgow deployed his field guns after a few miles and reconnoitred ahead with his OP parties. They saw a tank and it opened fire on them; but, as the war diary adds without comment, the tank ‘proved to be one of our own’. More tanks and vehicles farther ahead were moving in clouds of sand and smoke and the 5th Field observers could not tell whether they were friend or foe. This patrol, too, came back without firing. The afternoon sandstorm left the 6th Field gunners for some time in doubt about what was happening in front of the Box, where carriers and portées could be seen page 335 firing into a thick haze. Then it cleared and the 6th Field fired with gusto at about 20 tanks and 1000 vehicles until dusk. They were at almost extreme range and came very little closer. More enemy passed from first light on 2 July and the 6th Field again shelled various groups that came within reach, evoking return fire on the infantry and 6 Brigade Headquarters. The enemy, having overrun the box at Deir el Shein, was moving past it to Ruweisat Ridge, halfway between the Kaponga and Alamein Boxes. It was a critical stage of the fighting: if the enemy broke through the door to Egypt would be open. The New Zealanders had to do what they could to relieve pressure on the South Africans to the north.

The steps taken to deal with this crisis have been described after the event as if they were well-thought-out and part of a coherent plan; but they were not. The stock Eighth Army solution to such situations, though it had never worked in the past, was still to disperse its strength in mobile columns. The New Zealand Division began to conform; but it soon had second thoughts. It formed mobile columns as ordered, but made them stronger in artillery than the fashionable Jock columns. Lieutenant-Colonel Queree assembled all his 4th Field guns, three troops of 31 Anti-Tank Battery and another of 33 Battery, and moved off to the north early in the morning with three companies of infantry, carriers, and a Vickers platoon. Another under Major Snadden set off after it with 28 Battery and a 6-pounder troop of 32 Battery, also with infantry and carriers. Both columns soon reached Alam Nayil, five miles away, and there, on divisional orders, Brigadier Weir amalgamated them and himself took command of the combined force.

The object was to keep the enemy off the eastern end of Ruweisat; but in the absence of much of its artillery the Division was highly vulnerable and for the rest of the day Weir's strong gun group had to adjust and readjust its position in response to the moves of the enemy on Ruweisat and also to other enemy moves that seemed at times to be threatening the Division. None of the threats was sustained; but they had the effect of distracting the group from its main task and it was not until late in the day that the field guns were able to bring down much fire on Ruweisat and to support British tank sorties beyond Alam Nayil. The gun group stayed the night north of this feature and some enemy withdrew south-eastwards, halting out of range of the 6th Field. A column with 48 Battery, an anti-tank troop, and some Maoris went out from the Kaponga page 336 Box and the field guns engaged enemy beyond El Mreir with doubtful results. In the Box itself the Bofors were busy and 43 Battery claimed a Ju88 and an Me110 probably shot down— the latter when flying very low.

Next day, 3 July, Weir's gun group was soon in action against numerous vehicles to the north-east. Return fire was half-hearted and the New Zealand guns clearly had the upper hand. The enemy turned out to be the Italian Ariete Armoured Division and was in poor shape. Infantry of 4 Brigade, after some delay, attacked the concentration and took many prisoners. More important still, they captured virtually the whole of the Italian divisional artillery: twelve 105s, eleven 88s and Russian 76.2s, sixteen 75s and five 25-pounders, 44 guns all told, not counting some 20-millimetre dual-purpose automatic cannons, mortars, and small arms. Two tanks were abandoned. There was other booty galore. Four of the 25-pounders were serviceable and the 4th Field gladly took them over, with one or two enemy guns, and large quantities of ammunition. The rest was destroyed. It was a striking and brilliant success and the four field batteries had done much to achieve it. At the end 4 Brigade Headquarters arrived to take over command, and Weir and his staff returned to Divisional Headquarters with (in the words of the war diary) ‘a small amount of loot and a large Italian gun tower’. Meanwhile 41 Battery went forward to give welcome ack-ack support to the 4th Field south of Alam Nayil.

The current plan was for 5 Brigade to relieve 6 Brigade in the Box and for the latter, short of transport, to withdraw from the battlefield. It quickly yielded to another: 5 Brigade was to pursue the remnants of Ariete towards El Mreir, picking up the 6th Field and 33 and 43 Batteries on the way. The 5th Field and 32 Battery were to join Divisional Reserve Group. The Box was to be evacuated and the Division was to keep mobile.

The ack-ack gunners did not conform to this scheme. In the Box 43 Battery spent a quiet day digging gun positions, while 42 Battery stayed in the Munassib area and was often in action against Stukas and other low-flying aircraft. D1 shot down a Ju88 which crashed four miles away.4 The Bofors crews were beginning to enjoy themselves and their popularity was climbing upwards.

page 337
black and white map of ariete division

the rout of ariete division, 3 july 1942

The defile through the minefields of the Box and soft going afterwards held up the field guns, and 5 Brigade was already attacking towards El Mreir late in the afternoon when Lieutenant-Colonel Walter brought his guns into action, one battery at a time. He engaged enemy holding the northern lip of the depression, obviously not part of Ariete. Enemy guns were page 338 numerous and hard to locate and they fired freely until after dark. A smoke screen covered a withdrawal by New Zealand infantry before dusk, but it drew sharp retaliation against the guns. An hour or two later the 6th Field fired an eight-minute concentration of 58 rounds per gun, searching and sweeping, then fire lifted and for a quarter of an hour the guns fired at a slow rate north of the depression while infantry attacked from west to east across the brigade front and took a few Italian prisoners. By dawn the brigade was back in its former position facing El Mreir.

After dark the Reserve Group moved westwards to Deir Alinda, halfway to the Box, and 4 Brigade closed up to the north, linking up with the Box. Divisional Cavalry had been patrolling widely to the south-west, west and north-west with various troops of 32 and 34 Batteries and D Troop of 31 Battery and the anti-tankers had several engagements.

4 D1 fired 27 rounds this day, D4 53, D5 18 and D6 35; E Troop also engaged, but its records were later lost—it claimed no hits.