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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Enemy Attack is Repulsed

page 474

Enemy Attack is Repulsed

Fog shrouded the opening of the attack on 6 March, but the fairly heavy shelling of forward positions, which began at 6 a.m., proclaimed what was happening. The policy for the field guns was to hold fire until main enemy forces were within reach and could be heavily engaged, and similarly the anti-tankers were to open fire only when the leading tanks were very close. But visibility was poor and the attack at first came mainly against 51 Highland Division and 7 Armoured Division. The 4th Field, being partly in support of the latter, was the first to open fire. Captain Johns4 from B Troop OP began to engage targets at 7.30 a.m. and within half an hour the whole regiment was firing. A tall OP ladder raised by the enemy proved too tempting for 46 Battery and was engaged at 8.32 a.m. The enemy, too, had surprise weapons and Captain Johns reported being fired on by a nebelwerfer—a multiple rocket launcher.

Visibility improved at 9 a.m. and the FOO of A Troop of the 4th Field reported 30–40 tanks in the vicinity of the Cold-stream Guards. All batteries engaged them and at 9.15 46 Battery reported three tanks knocked out.

Tanks had meanwhile approached the right of 5 Brigade, and Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow held the fire of the 5th Field until the lorried infantry following them were well within range. Ten of the tanks ventured along the wadi until they reached the dummy minefield, when they swung up the side of the wadi as expected. One gun crew of the 73rd Anti-Tank quickly disabled four of them and another crew knocked out a fifth.5 The remaining tanks, after some hesitation, directed fierce fire at the 6-pounders. Two members of one crew were hit. But fire came at the tanks from several quarters and they soon turned tail and disappeared.

At 10 a.m. 26 Battery reported 11 tanks knocked out by the Guards Brigade. By this time divisional artillery concentrations had been called for frequently and they landed with deadly effect, mainly on lorried infantry.

Command post staffs and GPOs were kept extremely busy handling a succession of tasks and the gun crews slipped off their shirts and glistened with sweat. Until 10.30 a.m. almost no fire came back at them—though the high ground beyond page 475 Metameur on which OPs and flash-spotting posts were established, topped by what was called Edinburgh Castle, was heavily shelled. Then 46 Battery came under fire from 88s and heavier calibres. A 4th Field gunner was killed about this time. The gun B1 suffered a near miss, two gunners were wounded between B Troop guns and BHQ, and the truck M1 just behind the guns was nearly hit.

About noon an enemy force was seen working towards a Free French detachment on the hills some miles to the south and General Freyberg ordered tanks and field guns to be sent to help. D Troop of the 4th Field (which already had Captains Nathan and Rainbow6 in liaison with the Staffordshires) was therefore sent at 12.40 p.m. to support the 50 tanks of the Staffordshires. C Troop of the 6th Field was accordingly ordered forward to take the place of D Troop. There is no record, however, that this force of tanks and 25-pounders actually joined the Free French and it was probably held in readiness on the southern flank if the situation got worse.

Targets for the first half of the afternoon were mainly hostile batteries, all but one of which were engaged effectively. The exception was caused by an error in co-ordinates at the OP.

Major Gilbert had been well forward on the high ground west of Metameur, centred on Point 270, Edinburgh Castle, since early morning. From 3 p.m. onwards he reported infantry deploying with tanks and evidently preparing to attack this vital feature. These and other reports were carefully studied at Artillery Headquarters and the CRA was determined that an overwhelming concentration of fire would be laid down when the time was ripe. From the many reports it soon became clear what route the enemy proposed to take, and all three New Zealand field regiments, the artillery of 7 Armoured Division, 5 AGRA, and the heavy ack-ack guns on the airfield were all warned and given a centre point and bearing for a stonk about 3000 yards from Point 270. Captain Hanna of the 4th Field was watching closely from that feature and at the critical moment called for the fire. It was ordered by Artillery Headquarters at 5.45 p.m. and began to land two minutes later: five rounds gun fire from the three New Zealand field regiments, the 58th Field, RA, and the 7th Medium. Then, with suitable corrections, all these guns and the 146th Field as well fired page 476 another five rounds gun fire. The total number of rounds was 1240 and the effect was devastating. There was rarely more than six yards between shell holes, as the CRA discovered when he inspected the ground later.

The attack ended abruptly and with heavy loss. Minor movements before dark were shelled; but the main battle was clearly finished and by nightfall the enemy was withdrawing from the front. He was harassed by the guns throughout the night. The main fighting had not been on the New Zealand part of the front: enemy tank losses all told were 52 and none of them were clearly credited to New Zealand guns. But the New Zealand artillery certainly had much to do with the day's success, and particularly with the crushing defeat of the final thrust. The 4th Field fired 3148 rounds during the day, the 5th Field about 2400, and the 6th not quite so many.

4 Capt F. D. Johns; Tauranga; born New Plymouth, 17 Dec 1908; bank clerk.

5 The Maoris claim to have destroyed a tank by mortar fire, so they may have shared in the destruction of one of these five.

6 Capt W. J. Rainbow; Havelock North; born Hastings, 4 Feb 1911; accountant.