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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Artillery Plan

The Artillery Plan

The CRA, BM and CBO spent a very busy day on the 19th preparing barrage and task tables and were able in the new page 377 area on the 22nd to relax. For a man with the restless energy of Steve Weir, however, the term ‘relaxation’ had only a comparative meaning. This day, among other things, he toured the gun positions with General Freyberg. He noted that some of the 5th Field guns were within 1500 yards of the enemy FDLs and vulnerable if the enemy attempted a night raid. Accordingly he rescinded an order that no vehicles but jeeps must stay in the forward area and had 12 of the 5th Field quads held forward by night to withdraw the guns in such an eventuality. He also told Lieutenant-Colonel Sprosen that the E Troop guns were the best camouflaged of all the divisional guns. The 6th Field guns were mostly sited under dummy 3-ton trucks and the quads were also made to look like trucks. Freyberg critically inspected the regimental area and ‘expressed satisfaction with the camouflage and lay-out of the gun positions’, according to the 6th Field diary. The 4th Field had so far advanced its preparations for its role in the barrage and the later follow-through with 9 Armoured Brigade3 that most of its gunners were able to spend the 22nd on the beach.

black and white sketch showing artillery fire plan

barrage trace for the new zealand sector, 23 october 1942

colour map of mediterranean

The artillery plan, as finally developed, was extremely complicated. Much has since been made of the weight of fire brought down in support of the opening attack; but the plan was in fact a masterpiece of making do with resources not really sufficient for the task. The three New Zealand field regiments were too few to produce an effective creeping barrage even on the 2500-yard front of the first objective and would be very thin indeed along the 4800 yards of the final objective. The main programme was therefore not a creeping barrage at all, but a complicated set of timed concentrations on ‘known’ enemy localities in the line of advance. Brigadier Gentry, for one, doubted that enemy locations were accurate and for that reason was in favour of a barrage which would sweep impartially over all the ground his men had to cross; moreover, he thought it would be helpful to stir up dust and obscure the enemy's view. A creeping barrage would also help to keep the infantry ‘on page 378 the proper line of advance’ (as Freyberg put it in a later report) and maintain the momentum of the attack. The 4th Field was therefore to fire what it correctly called a ‘lifting barrage’ while the other two fired timed concentrations in support of their respective brigades. A twenty-minute series of counter-battery tasks would precede this and DF tasks would follow as requested. The artillery of 51 Highland Division and 9 Australian Division to the north-west and of 1 South African Division to the south would be able to add weight to DF tasks in this final stage if needed; but the New Zealand gunners in turn had to be ready to reciprocate, and the inexperienced Highlanders were more likely to need help than the New Zealand infantry. The Australians, Highlanders and South Africans also included creeping (or lifting) barrages in their various plans, as well as timed concentrations. Since the latter in every case formed the major part of the programme, this was not really to be a full-scale test of the effectiveness of the creeping barrage. That was to come later. But Freyberg and Weir, for their part, were keen to try out the method even on this limited scale.

For the preliminary counter-battery shoots all the corps artillery would come under direct command of 30 Corps: 18 field regiments and three medium regiments, 480 guns in all. They would fire for 15 minutes and then pause for five. At 10 p.m. on the 23rd they would then fire for some minutes on the enemy FDLs, after which the field regiments reverted to divisional command. Most of the medium guns would continue the counter-battery fire under corps command throughout the attack. The New Zealand artillery would be supplemented by three troops of the 78th Field, RA, and three troops of the 98th Field, RA, from 1 and 10 Armoured Divisions, and also a 4.5-inch battery of the 69th Medium, bringing the total of field and medium guns to 104.

The 4th Field divided the barrage line into five sections, covered by A, D, F, B and E Troops in that order. C Troop was to fire single rounds of smoke every three minutes on the brigade and divisional boundaries to help the attacking infantry maintain direction and to guide detachments following up behind them, while a section of E Troop of the 14th Light Ack-Ack fired one round per gun per minute to mark the same boundaries from the start line to the first objective. The 4th Field was also to fire smoke briefly on the opening line of the barrage and also on the first objective as a general indication to the infantry.

page 379

This programme called for a huge expenditure of ammunition, made possible by the labours of the Ammunition Company earlier in the month.4 In four nights 72 lorries dumped 48,384 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition for the 96 field guns, and on the fifth night they dumped a further 160 r.p.g. for the 72 New Zealand field guns, another 11,520 rounds, and 8000 rounds of Bofors ammunition as well. The procedure had been worked out carefully to facilitate the handling of the ammunition at the gun positions and avoid attracting enemy attention. The 72 lorries split up into groups of three, each guided by an artillery officer to a troop position. The first lorry carried 168 rounds of HE shell, 40 rounds of smoke, and 128 cartridges No. 111. The second carried 144 HE, 24 smoke, 128 cartridges and 48 supercharges. The third carried 140 HE, 28 smoke, 128 cartridges and 40 ‘super’. Each group therefore completed the ammunition for one gun per troop on each of the first four nights. The final instalment for the New Zealand guns only was for use after the attached guns passed from New Zealand command. It was dumped in ‘regimental packets’ for the field artillery and in ‘battery packets’ for the ack-ack artillery, three lorry-loads for each Bofors battery. Even this huge supply, however, fell short of the calculated requirements of the gunners for the coming battle, and in the night 18–19 October another 76 Ammunition Company lorries collected and dumped in the rear wagon lines south-south-east of El Alamein station a first-line holding of 160 rounds and a second-line holding of 200 rounds for each of the 72 New Zealand field guns, bringing the total stocks for each gun to the following impressive figures:

New Zealand Guns (72)
At guns 664 rounds per gun
At forward wagon lines 360 rounds per gun
At rear wagon lines: first line 160 rounds per gun
second line 200 rounds per gun
Total 1384 rounds per gun
Field Guns temporarily under Command (24)
At guns 504 rounds per gun

The combined total for the 96 field guns was 111,744 rounds. It was a back-breaking effort, as the gunners and drivers con- page 380 cerned well knew; but it inspired much confidence in the gun crews.5

3 Weir had had an argument with Brigadier J. C. Currie of the armoured brigade about the 4th Field role at a conference on the 10th. The task was complicated, as 10 Armoured Division would be trying to push forward through the minefield gaps when the 4th Field was advancing in support of the 9th Armoured. It seems that the chief point of difference was that Currie was still wedded to the ‘orthodox’ use of field guns in ‘penny packets’ giving very close support to tank squadrons, while Weir was all for the power and flexibility that divisional control could provide.

5 Another rushed job was to replace camouflage nets left by the New Zealand gunners in the Alam Nayil area when relieved in September by 44 Division. In the end the Ordnance authorities had to send to Maadi for nets and other camouflage equipment and it was hurried forward by special convoy.

The medium regiment seems to have made its own arrangements to supply the battery under NZ command.