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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Barrage

The Barrage

A breeze from the north-east stiffened in the late afternoon of the 23rd and when vehicles began to move after dark it lifted the dust uncomfortably through the rear areas. Later it died down and the night was calm, with bright moonlight. Over towards the sea the dark sky was hung with patchy bits of translucent cloud. At the gun positions the field gunners were making last-minute adjustments for the latest METEOR—a signal giving barometric pressure, air temperatures for various periods of flight of shells, and relative wind directions and velocities. Watches were checked and checked again. The Nos. 1 on the 25-pounders tried out their torches and the illuminating gear of their sights, as well as the night aiming points for their guns, while others saw to it that troop picket lights were satisfactory. They checked zero lines. They went carefully through their elaborate programmes—one page of task tables for the 4th Field besides the barrage trace and five pages of instructions, and five pages of task tables for each of the 5th and 6th Field. As soon as it was dark enough the field gunners whipped off their camouflage nets and began to prepare their ammunition. To the south there was a little firing; but to their immediate front all was quiet. The anti-tank portées drove forward and then halted, some of them in front of the field guns, some among them. The minutes ticked tensely by.

Those close enough to the guns could hear GPOs break the silence with their first fire orders: ‘Lay on Serial One, HE Charge Three. Angle of Sight zero. Two minutes to go.’ Thus it would have been—or something like it—for all the field and medium guns as 30 Corps prepared its counter-battery tasks. Then would come ‘Stand by’. Then, after further indications of the time to go, ‘Fire!’

The horizon instantly filled with gun flashes and the ground shook. It was 9.40 p.m. on 23 October 1942, an unforgettable moment in the desert war. Many anti-tankers learned in shattering fashion how close they had halted to field or medium guns when a gun flash streaked overhead and their ear drums were pounded. Every variation of whistle, rumble and scream followed the shells. White flares rose up and sank slowly. A row page 384 of yellow parachute flares hung calmly in the distance. The intensity of the firing seemed to increase and the hard undertones of machine guns added to the noise. The ammunition numbers—no more than four per gun—were soon sweating, but they had a long way to go: in under five hours each crew would have to prepare and carry to their gun nearly seven tons of shells, to say nothing of cartridges. At RHQ of the 14th Light Ack-Ack the night had already been noisy from the sound of tank engines warming up, and when they began to move forward before 7 p.m. (when the full moon appeared from behind clouds), each making its own dust cloud, from inside the office truck their sound resembled ‘heavy surf pounding on a beach’—or so the diarist thought. At 9.55 p.m. the guns paused, beginning the barrage and timed concentrations—still under Corps command—at 10 p.m. as the infantry advanced. When they began the second task—in the case of the 4th Field the first lift of the barrage—they reverted to the CRA's command: 10.23 p.m. for the 4th and 6th Field and 10.29 p.m. for the 5th Field.

The barrage, fired from gun positions by Bir el Makh Khad, started at a slow rate on a front of 3100 yards. Before the first lift all guns fired one round of smoke, while C Troop throughout fired nothing but smoke to mark the divisional and brigade boundaries. The first series of lifts, at three-minute intervals, were of about 100 yards, with the frontage widening successively until at the 15th lift, which ended at five minutes past eleven, it was over 3850 yards long. At this, too, the last round was smoke; then the 4th Field abruptly changed from a lifting barrage to a series of timed concentrations at a very slow rate for about 50 minutes. This was the first objective and the pause was to allow the infantry to consolidate on it and perhaps reorganise before starting the advance to the final objective. At ‘Z plus 170’—12.50 a.m.—the regiment resumed the barrage, continuing with lifts of 100 yards every three minutes except for the 31st lift, at which the guns fired for three minutes, paused for eight, and then fired again for three minutes on the same line before starting the next lift. This was halfway between the first and final objectives and gave the infantry a chance to catch up if they had fallen behind. There was no need for this at least on the right; for the eager infantry of 23 Battalion had long since gone right through the barrage and were ahead of it. The battalion headquarters came under fire soon after midnight from the New Zealand guns and three page 385 men of the unit were hit. As the front widened and firing churned up the dust the barrage evidently became hard to follow; but the infantry still found it useful, not only to help them maintain direction, but to go some way towards checking the fire of the many centres of opposition outside the ‘known’ enemy localities. On three more lifts between the first and final objectives the guns fired a last round of smoke, which did nothing to improve visibility. As a guide it was much less effective than the pink Bofors tracer fired by the Right Section of E Troop of 42 Light Ack-Ack Battery to mark the boundaries in the opening phase. The front on the final objective was about 4250 yards according to the barrage trace, ridiculously long for a mere twenty 25-pounders.

The timed concentrations followed a similar general scheme, though the guns fired for longer than three minutes on the more important target areas, they varied their rates of fire, and they fired more rounds all told than the barrage guns. The tasks of the 5th Field lasted for 283 minutes, not counting the counter-battery fire before 10 p.m. on the 23rd, and those of the 6th Field lasted for 253 minutes, which took them to 2.43 a.m. and 2.13 a.m. respectively on the 24th. The barrage was supposed to last until 2.22 a.m., 262 minutes altogether, but the 4th Field diary says it went on until 2.30 a.m., which perhaps allowed for DF tasks covering the final objective. The regiment also fired smoke on selected areas beyond the final objective for 28 minutes after the barrage ceased.

Very little fire came back at the field guns and the only casualty reported was one 5th Field man evacuated with bleeding ears, a disability for which the enemy was not to blame. The wonder was that after an ordeal of more than four hours of constant firing there were not more like him at the gun positions. The last rounds were followed by the diminishing whine of the shells as they sped on their way and then an unexpectedly long period of rumbling as the sound of their bursting came back to the guns. The noise round the guns had ceased and after that the silence was almost painful. The divisional guns had fired an average of 630 rounds by the calculations of the CRA's staff and there was much evidence of it in the form of blistered paint on gun barrels.