2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Burg el Arab
The next move was to Burg el Arab, halfway between Alexandria and El Alamein, for divisional exercises. Before it began the vehilcles were sprayed with a paint of sombgre grey, which prompted the usual guessing game about which theatre of page 517 operations had been chosen for the Division. When the invasion of Italy was announced on 3 September that country became a hot favourite; but some hopeful ones bet on England and others, the pessimistic ones, on Burma. The obvious choice, had New Zealand's interests been paramount, was the Pacific; but it was already clear that the Government in Wellington had somehow been talked out of that.
Burg el Arab, then, was the immediate goal and by the current plan almost all the gunners, like almost all the infantry, were to walk much of the way in a series of fast night route marches —97 miles in seven nights. Only the 4t Field as a whole and transport parties from other units would miss this test of endurance. The idea was to toughen up the men for a winter campaign in Italy; but it misfired badly. Preceded by a series of more modest route marches, it might have done some good. In the event it crippled many gunners for a considerable period and caused bad blistering which made the journey an ordeal for most men. A passing vehicle ran into the back of E Troop of 42 Battery as the column marched along the road from Mena towards Amiriya on the first night and injured two men, one of whom had to be evacuated. From then onwards the columns carried lanterns fore and aft. The 5 Brigade artillery marched for six nights, covered nearly 90 miles, and then the march was called off. Artillery Headquarters and the 6 Brigade gunners marched two nights only and then were picked up to take part in a brigade exercise near Burg el Arab. The 31st and 34th Batteries marched three nights, about 43 miles, and then were carried the rest of the way. Sick parades at Burg el Arab were inordinately long and some gunners were still limping when they embarked for Italy early in October.
The exercises near Burg el Arab were marred by a tragedy. Three shells from a 5th Field gun fell short in the course of a lifting barrage and they killed four Maoris and wounded six. The implications were even more serious. If the confidence of the infantry was undermined they might not keep up close to the barrage when it came to the real thing and this could cause heavy losses.
An error at the guns was only one of many possible causes of such a disaster and many of them were beyond the control of the gunners: imperfections of shell or charge, of gun or instrument, even of map or communication, and local vagaries of air conditions—these are some of them. In training as well as in battle men and machines operated under great stress. page 518 Already the three New Zealand field regiments had fired over a million rounds in practice and in anger, and over each of them as the gun was fired there hung a question mark. Would there be a savage shattering of the gun itself or an explosion as the shell left the barrel, or would it continue on its mission only to hit friend instead of foe? No one was more distressed than the gunners when they did hear of such a mishap.