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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Battle of Alam Halfa

The Battle of Alam Halfa

The enemy had reinforced strongly and it was known that he meant to attack towards the end of the month, probably in the south. To upset his arrangements two Maori companies raided El Mreir in the night 25–26 August, with very strong support indeed: the 4th, 5th and 6th Field, the 58th Field, RA (under New Zealand command), and a battery of the 64th Medium all fired—104 guns all told. The Maoris thought the effect ‘terrific’; but they noted with their customary acuteness that one or two guns were firing HE when they should have been firing smoke and that the smoke was in any case a nuisance as it made bad visibility worse. The effect was marred, also, by the eagerness of some of the Maoris who were wounded through keeping too close to the bursting 25-pounders. The raid was nevertheless highly successful and 41 prisoners were taken at very small cost. Four days later the same regiments, now totalling 112 guns, fired three rounds gun fire at sangars a few miles south of El Mreir—an awe-inspiring exhibition of gun power.

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On 30 August 5 Brigade changed places with 132 Brigade within the New Zealand Box and the 5th Field and 58th Field did likewise that night, while 32 Battery, already at Halfa, stayed where it was. Enemy shelling as 30 Battery got ready to move killed two men and wounded two and the 58th also suffered loss. Gunners Carew29 and Derrett30 of 30 Battery both won an MM this night. Several drivers were hit and their quads were therefore immobilised under heavy fire, a desperate situation. Volunteers offered to drive, Derrett among them, though he was ‘badly and painfully wounded in both feet and the chest’ (to quote his citation). He had to be lifted into the driving seat and mustered his waning powers sufficiently to drive the gun crew together with some wounded drivers, as well as the gun and trailer, through the curtain of fire to an RAP. When he reached there he was on the verge of collapse. Carew's action was less dramatic, but it was typical of the selfless devotion he showed throughout the campaign. He went from his own E3, of which he was a crew member (as well as being the troop medical orderly) to E1 as soon as he heard there were casualties there needing attention. In so doing he had to pass through the thick of the shelling and did so unhesitatingly. He administered first aid and stayed until the wounded could be evacuated, when he managed to get on the last truck of his troop to depart for the new area.

The 4th Field answered many calls for help throughout the night from an Indian division to the north—an unexpected and puzzling direction. Enemy feints in the Ruweisat area were the cause of this; but other reports showed clearly enough where the main effort was being made. When this was established beyond doubt the CRA ordered the 5th Field to fire into Deir el Angar, south-west of Alam Nayil, through which the enemy was bound to pass, and the tasks were repeated until well after dawn on the 31st. Over 500 rounds per gun had been delivered in the preceding days—300 rounds more than the army quartermaster thought necessary, though General Freyberg considered the larger amount justified. Expenditure by daybreak was already 140 per gun and it was plain that Freyberg's judgment was sound.

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The CCRA31 signalled at 2.45 a.m. on 31 August that as many OPs as possible should be deployed on the southern flank. This was done; but the FOOs saw disappointingly little for some time after dawn. By 7.30 a.m. it was thought that enemy columns were moving east towards Muhafid, and in the next half-hour targets multiplied and all field and medium guns within reach were firing busily at transport to the south. Not much fire came back. The RAF could see better at first and reach farther and it bombed enemy concentrations to the west and south-west well beyond the reach of the guns until mid-morning, when a sandstorm started up. Visibility slowly deteriorated from the OPs (some of which were merely Bren carriers with wireless sets), the dust, smoke and heat haze combining by noon to make observation altogether too uncertain for several hours. The 4th Field continued to get calls for help from the Indian division to the north and just after 3 p.m. a massive concentration by all three field regiments and the 64th Medium was fired for two minutes at a rapid rate and two minutes normal towards Ruweisat—a waste of ammunition.

Although the Axis air forces could not match the strength of the RAF they did their best and gave the New Zealand ack-ack gunners their busiest day of the war. In the Divisional Headquarters area 41 Battery shot down an Me109F which crashed near G Office (the operational heart of the Division) and took the pilot prisoner. Another crashed nearby before 2 p.m. Early in the morning Divisional Cavalry reported two Stukas shot down in its area, probably by 43 Battery with 5 Brigade. A third Me109F fell victim to 42 Battery (with 6 Brigade) at 11.15 a.m. and a hit was registered on another which crashed to the north just after 2 p.m. Gunners manned their guns with scarcely a pause, firing at a succession of Me109Fs, Stukas and Macchi fighters or fighter-bombers. For such circumstances no accurate score-card is possible. The 41st Battery claimed two German fighters and 42 Battery claimed another two and a hit on a Stuka which was afterwards seen smoking, while 43 Battery states that five aircraft were shot down by the Bofors and a sixth by small-arms fire, though whether by the battery alone or by the whole regiment is not clear. The 7th Anti-Tank credits the 14th Light Ack-Ack with six aircraft shot down this day.

In the evening a large number of Stukas flew high over 43 Battery, out of range, but 42 Battery could reach them and page 360 fired non-stop at them and their fighter escorts, getting away 720 rounds and hitting a Stuka at 9000 feet. The gunners concerned will never forget it all and next day RHQ at Maadi was congratulated on the good work of its batteries.

At the height of the morning's action General Freyberg returned to his headquarters to learn that there was an incipient crisis over 25-pounder ammunition, as Corps had placed an embargo on further supplies for the Division—presumably because of the large dumping programme carried out before the enemy attacked. Already much of this had been fired and Freyberg telephoned the Corps Commander and got the embargo removed. Fortunately ammunition expenditure decreased during the long afternoon lull; but at 6 p.m. the sandstorm died down, accurate observation was again possible, and there was plenty to see and to fire at in the desert to the south. The 26th Battery of the 4th Field was attached to Divisional Cavalry and operated two mobile OPs. Several other OPs were also in front of the minefields covering the southern flank of the Division, but they were recalled in the evening when it was expected that the enemy would attack.32

The night was surprisingly quiet and even when the morning came, 1 September, and gave the field gunners a feast of targets in the areas of Deir Alinda, Munassib and Muhafid—mainly infantry and transport—it seemed curiously one-sided for the opening stages of an attack intended to break through the Alamein line. Infantry in the southernmost FDLs suffered slight mortaring and occasional shelling; but there was little return fire at the gun positions. A hostile battery in the Kaponga Box attracted 10 rounds gun fire from the 64th Medium early in the afternoon—the only recorded evidence of a gun duel this day.

It was very different, however, with the OP parties. They were mostly well forward and clashed frequently with elements of the Italian flank guard of Panzer Army Africa (the spearhead of which was far to the east of the New Zealand positions). At one stage a thrust by Italian tanks seemed to threaten several New Zealand OP parties and the Divisional Cavalry, operating some miles to the south-east of the Division, engaged the tanks page 361 to gain time for the OPs to withdraw. A mobile OP of 29 Battery was with the Cavalry and called down fire on the tanks, which withdrew and took up hull-down positions. F Troop of 30 Battery fired in the afternoon on guns deployed to the south-west. Evidence seemed to suggest the enemy was preparing to attack northwards and the guns were active in shelling any signs of movement throughout the afternoon. It was all observed shooting, against tanks, transport and infantry, and at the end of it five tanks were believed to have been destroyed and two damaged.

The enemy made no major move to threaten the Division, but an attack was thought likely at dawn on 2 September and various steps were taken to prepare for it. At the same time Eighth Army planned a New Zealand move to threaten the enemy line of supply by thrusting among the extensive minefields to the south. This called for another infantry brigade and a good deal more artillery. But the enemy had in fact already decided that the offensive had failed and was concerned now with the tricky problems of a withdrawal, in the course of which his northern flank would be exposed and vulnerable.

Most of the enemy's air attacks were in direct support of the critical armoured battle to the east this day and the New Zealand Bofors gunners, though they were kept busy, had few good targets and recorded no success. The gun E1 fired 111 rounds and the whole of 42 Battery, according to its diary, ‘heavily engaged Stukas and Me109Fs’; but it was not until the evening, when a few fighter-bombers raided the New Zealand area, that low-flying planes were seen. The 41st Battery fired 1332 rounds, most of them at long range.

The field gunners had to work hard and the 4th Field again fired more than 6000 rounds in 24 hours—actually 6304. The 5th Field figures are not recorded, but the 6th Field fired 2299 rounds, in the course of which 30 Battery set a tank on fire and disabled another (which the Cavalry later destroyed after it was abandoned).

Most of the anti-tankers saw enemy only in the far distance and could do no more than sit and wait. The exceptions were those of O Troop of 34 Battery, far forward with the Divisional Cavalry. Two carriers had incautiously approached a 2-pounder portée not knowing that it was manned by enemy and it knocked them out. An O Troop portée engaged the enemy-operated portée at fairly long range, there was a brief exchange of fire, and then the 2-pounder disappeared. A Cavalry officer page 362 then pointed out about a dozen tanks grouped 1200 yards away. The anti-tankers had seen them, but thought them friendly. The officer knew better and O Troop opened fire. Each gun fired about three rounds before the tanks moved off. The 6-pounders kept firing as the range increased until the tanks disappeared, except for one that had burst into flames and two others that were disabled.33

O Troop then withdrew a short distance to conform with Cavalry movements and was shelled all the way back. In the afternoon the troop returned to the scene of the engagement with the 2-pounder portée and there followed another sharp engagement between the 6-pounders and Cavalry Honey (or Stuart) tanks on the one hand and what was thought to be a German Mark IV tank on the other (though it was probably an Italian M13). A 6-pounder hit and immobilised the tank; but it kept firing and killed a Cavalry sergeant. Two more tanks, two high-velocity guns, and some enemy infantry then approached and the patrol fell back to a defensive position held by another Cavalry squadron and P Troop of 34 Battery. Field guns, probably of 29 Battery, fired at the enemy, but he kept coming. A 6-pounder fired at extreme range, 2500 yards on the range drum, at a captured Crusader tank and scored eight hits, all of them verified when the derelict tank was later examined. O Troop fired 110 rounds all told.

The night was again quiet; but in expectation of a dawn attack from the south-east, the CRA issued tasks to be fired at first light by two batteries from each of the three field regiments and by the whole of the 64th Medium. This formidable concentration duly fell east of Alam Nayil; but no attack was brewing. For most of the day two batteries from each of the field regiments, including the 58th Field, RA, and one battery of the 64th Medium were engaged in firing or repeating various ‘hates’ worked out at Artillery Headquarters, while the third battery fired by observation at enemy movement to the south. Thus in the 6th Field Captain Spring34 and his OP party of page 363 48 Battery worked with an army tank brigade, but could do no more than bring down harassing fire on transport at almost extreme range. The ‘hates—precursors of what were to become known as ‘stonks’—prescribed an oblong target zone for each regiment and each was to be searched and swept.

There was nevertheless some variety. After 29 Battery of the 6th Field had used supercharge to engage transport far to the south-east, the battery commander, Major Turner, reported that an enemy fighter hit by small arms had made a forced landing in enemy lines. He ranged on to it and scored a direct hit. The 5th Field made greater efforts this day to get observers far enough forward to pick out suitable targets in the confusion of smoke and dust and transport movement to the south and south-east. Major Snadden for this purpose went to RHQ of the Divisional Cavalry and Captains Caughley and Parkes had mobile OPs with the squadrons. At the end of the day the 64th Medium had fired 390 rounds, the 4th Field 2279 rounds; the figures for the 5th Field have not been preserved but must have been of the same order, and the 6th Field had fired 609 rounds with supercharge and many more with Charge III.

The Bofors gunners had much the same kind of day as the one before, but there was one bright spot. Seven Ju88s flew over at noon after bombing targets to the east. Their crews evidently miscalculated and thought they were over friendly transport; but they actually passed over all three batteries of the 14th Light Ack-Ack at a height of 2000–3000 feet and three of them came crashing down in flames, while others were certainly damaged. A member of the crew of E1 recorded the incident in his diary:

‘We were the first gun to fire and we got 4 shots right into the leading Ju88. He caught fire and crashed. We then got direct hits on the second one and it caught fire and crashed. All told we fired 33 rounds in this action.’

The damage was not all on one side, however. One gun of 43 Battery suffered a premature, probably caused by a worn barrel, and a crew member was wounded.

29 Sgt C. P. Carew, MM; Masterton; born Christchurch, 20 Nov 1918; french polisher.

30 Sgt W. A. Derrett, MM; Auckland; born Auckland, 18 Oct 1914; clerk; wounded 30 Aug 1942.

31 Brig H. M. Stanford, MC.

32 The 4th Field diary records that it fired 6409 rounds from midnight on 30 August to 10 p.m. on the 31st. But it is not clear about when most of these were fired and there is a hint that it was on the night tasks to the north-west. It further states that gunners were feeling the effects of a hard night's firing and complained of deafness, which might refer to the night 30–31 August.

33 There are various accounts of this action. The 7th Anti-Tank war diary says two tanks were knocked out. The Cavalry do not mention anti-tank guns. General Freyberg himself, who watched from a distance, says he saw the Cavalry knock out an armoured car. O Troop witnesses, however, are unanimous that they engaged tanks, not armoured cars, and destroyed three of them.

34 Lt-Col J. F. Spring, MBE, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Timaru, 3 Nov 1918; Regular soldier; Bty Comd, 4 Fd Regt, Feb-Sep 1944; 2 i/c 7 A-Tk Regt Feb-May 1945; 2 i/c 6 Fd Regt Jul-Aug 1945; CO 7 A-Tk Regt Sep-Nov 1945; Bty Comd, 25 Bty, J Force, Dec 1945-Dec 1946; wounded 1 Dec 1941; Director, RNZA, Army HQ, Sep 1963-Mar 1966; Area Officer, Auckland.