2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Breaking the Enemy Gun Line
Breaking the Enemy Gun Line
The first barrage had served its purpose well, despite the trouble on the right of the infantry advance. Then there was doubt about the ability of the tanks to advance on time from the infantry objective towards Tell el Aqqaqir, and the second barrage, the one in direct support of 9 Armoured Brigade, was therefore postponed at Brigadier Currie's request for half an hour until 6.15 a.m. There was really no need for this, as page 411 most of the tanks, despite many difficulties and delays, managed to get forward at the appointed hour, and the delay gave the enemy a valuable half-hour to regain his composure and stiffen his defences. The rate of fire, however, was almost doubled (at least for the three New Zealand field regiments) and a very considerable weight of HE shell therefore came down in support of the tanks as they advanced on the last bound—though this did not stop some of the detachments from complaining about the thinness of the artillery support.
Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart of the 4th Field was travelling with Currie, his battery commanders were with the commanding officers of the armoured regiments, and OP parties were well up with the tanks. But all of them suffered from having only one wireless link each. They could either communicate directly with their guns or with the armour; they could not do both, though this was just what they needed to do. Stewart, for example, had no direct contact with his regiment and if he wanted to bring down fire he had to call on a battery commander and thereby impede the latter's prime task of liaison with an armoured regiment. In the event Stewart's wireless link was put out of action for several critical hours by a shell splinter; he called for fire through the set of the 26 Battery commander until the Stuart tank in which this was installed was disabled, and finally he had to make use of the wireless set of the D Troop commander, Captain Louisson.16
Since the armoured commanders were fighting a bitter and deadly duel with a strong anti-tank gun line when they most needed help and tanks were going up in flames all round them, the task of the field artillery commanders and observers was one of extreme urgency and fearful danger. Major Wiles of 25 Battery was wounded early and had to be evacuated, together with two sick officers and several others. The Stuart tanks of the commanders of 26 and 46 Batteries were both disabled. Somehow or other orders did get through to the guns and the 4th Field switched to close-support targets as soon as the barrage ceased.
The armoured commanders complained of lack of support; their situation was desperate in the extreme, and if help was to be effective it would have to be provided in very great haste. Only a great weight of accurate supporting fire could save them from disaster. Currie seems still to have favoured the RHA page 412 method of troop fire in very close support of tank squadrons against Weir's method of flexible control under which the full weight of the field artillery could quickly be concentrated against important targets. In this case it was out of the question for a single regiment to provide at long range the weight and accuracy of fire needed to silence dozens of anti-tank guns and several tank detachments scattered over an area of several square miles.
Stewart studied the development of the action quickly but carefully and located the main source of trouble, a large nest of anti-tank guns, on which he called down a full regimental concentration. The action was followed closely, moreover, at Weir's headquarters and also at Freyberg's, as well as at the headquarters of the other New Zealand field regiments. All were anxious to help and did so whenever they could. All three field regiments brought down fire in the morning, the 6th Field, for example, firing two regimental concentrations against 88s opposing 9 Armoured Brigade.
By mid-morning an armoured brigade of 1 Armoured Division was passing through the rear of 9 Armoured Brigade and with it drove a valuable regiment of self-propelled American 105-millimetre guns, the 11th (Honourable Artillery Company) RHA. This new brigade, with the rest of the division, should have been able to force the issue quickly. But it displayed none of the vigour that Currie's brigade had demonstrated and there was a danger that the position would end in stalemate, as it had done earlier beyond Miteiriga Ridge. What saved it from this were the desperate and ill-conceived counter-attacks by German armour, costly in tanks and easily repulsed with the help of the mass of available artillery. At the end of these the enemy had dissipated almost all his remaining strength.
The 4th Field had planned to move forward at the earliest possible moment to get its guns in close behind 9 Armoured Brigade for its close-support role. The crises soon after dawn, however, forbade this, as the calls for fire were too numerous. By 11.15 a.m., however, one battery was in action well forward and the rest of the regiment, now reorganising on a two-battery basis, was on the move. A Divisional Artillery concentration was fired an hour later, 10 rounds gun fire, north-west of Tell el Aqqaqir, and came down with crushing effect on a large target of infantry and transport. As the afternoon advanced the situation seemed to ease, the armour made slight progress, and prisoners flowed back in a steady stream. But the northern flank of the divisional position was still insecure, there were page 413 several local crises, and the field guns fired several heavy concentrations. Tanks, for example, seemed to threaten 151 Brigade just before 4 p.m. and a prearranged DF task was therefore fired.
The three Bofors guns returned to their batteries from their boundary-marking tasks at first light and the Left Section of D Troop of 42 Battery moved forward to cover newly-cleared gaps in the minefields, while H Troop of 43 Battery did the same. Enemy aircraft came over frequently in the afternoon, first some Italian planes which 42 Battery engaged, claiming several hits. Ju87s and Ju88s then came over and 42 and 43 Batteries both engaged, the former helping to shoot down several of them. A 43 Battery truck was blown up on a mine, thought no one was hurt; but it prompted the battery to fire all the more eagerly when Stukas came over at 5.30 p.m. The foremost Bofors were well within range of enemy guns and came in for much shelling. At night enemy aircraft dropped many flares and bombed the B echelon of 41 Battery.
The Highland brigade attacked again after dark on the 2nd and easily gained its objective, while 6 Brigade relieved 151 Brigade and took command of its supporting arms, including the battered 34 Anti-Tank Battery. The 7th Motor Brigade, under Corps arrangements, then staged a further advance across the Rahman Track north of Tell el Aqqaqir. The New Zealand field regiments (excepting the 4th Field, which was well forward but still in support of 9 Armoured Brigade) were too far back to take part in the supporting programme. All they were asked to do was to fire harassing tasks to the extent of 50 rounds per gun on a restricted area.
By the end of the day the 4th Field, which had lost one officer and 11 other ranks (apart from the two officers who were sick), had fired the considerable total of 9651 rounds of HE and 72 of smoke. The regiment completed its changeover to two batteries during the night, 25 Battery being absorbed into 26 and 46 Batteries. Because of shortage of men and equipment no more than one OP per battery could now be maintained. Each battery now had two six-gun troops.
General Freyberg was convinced, by the evening of the 2nd, that SUPERCHARGE had succeeded, the battle had been won, and that the pursuit would soon begin. His colleagues were not as confident of this as he was; but his reading of the omens was correct. He told the CRA that he would have to think of mobility now and would need to be alert in the morning for signs of an enemy retreat. The enemy had been broken by the page 414 massed guns of 30 Corps supporting first an infantry attack and then the armour. Many of the prisoners taken in the night attack and during the morning of the 2nd were nervous wrecks, their resolution shattered by the storm of shellfire which had swept their positions. Steve Weir's first full-scale creeping barrage had been a success, and the DF tasks and other concentrations that followed it had proved to his satisfaction (if not to Brigadier Currie's) that centralised control of the field artillery in a ‘set-piece battle’ was essential.