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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Casa War

The Casa War

Muddy and crumbling roads and tracks in the next few days cut down the supply of ammunition and expenditure was restricted to 30 r.p.g. For most of the time visibility was poor, and in the period 26—28 December there was very little observed shooting and very few regimental or divisional shoots. In the nights 27—28, 28—29 and 29—30 December the 5th Field, 6th Field and 111th Field respectively fired harassing tasks. On the 29th the skies cleared and several OP shoots were carried out.

By this time, however, it was evident that the war of movement was over and a ‘casa war’ had begun. The CRA conferred with his COs at RHQ of the 6th Field on the 28th and told page 540 them they must expect to stay where they were for some time, and the troops were to dig in and make themselves as secure and comfortable as they could. Air photographs had shown that gun and HQ areas were very conspicuous: the muddy tracks leading to them and the bivouac tents around them showed up plainly. All such tents were to be dismantled and replaced by dug-in and roofed quarters. Gunners therefore scoured the countryside to find suitable materials. They collected bricks, tiles and rubble from the brickworks near Castelfrentano, roofing and revetting materials from ruined buildings, railway sleepers from the line which ran through the area, and other materials came from dismantled German dugouts. Those who could live in ‘casas’ were the lucky ones, though some of these houses were badly damaged, with gaping holes in their walls and leaky roofs.

In the morning of 30 December the 4th Field fired 50 propaganda shells into Orsogna, the first of many such shoots. Each shell scattered leaflets designed to undermine the morale of the enemy. Then, in the afternoon, the field guns shelled traffic on a road running north from just west of Orsogna. Both the 4th and 6th Field carried out shoots conducted by air OPs.

The 31st was bitterly cold. In the afternoon F and G Troops of 32 Battery, in the line north of Orsogna in support of 5 Brigade, were heavily mortared. The crew of F2 were living in a dugout and it suffered a direct hit which killed Gunner Earl24 and wounded a lance-bombardier. A gunner of G Troop was also wounded. The temperature dropped steadily and late in the evening snow began to fall, soon turning into a blizzard. Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart of the 4th Field, who had been visiting his batteries, was caught in this and it got so bad that he had to make the last part of the journey back to RHQ almost on his hands and knees. Many of the remaining ‘bivvies’ collapsed under the weight of snow, and in 25 Battery some gunners were buried for several hours and almost suffocated. Even some of the new dugouts collapsed, and in the morning there were some lively discussions on how they should be constructed. Almost all telephone lines were broken.

Artillery Headquarters had worked out a special task for New Year's Day. The guns were to spell out the words HAPPY NEW YEAR FRITZ in capital letters spread over the main enemy position at Orsogna, the 4th, 5th and 6th Field and the 111th Field page 541 all contributing to each letter except the ‘I’ and ‘T’. Because of the difficulty of clearing the guns for action, however, this had to be postponed and it was not fired until the 3rd. In the afternoon of New Year's Day, 1944, the 4th Field fired a round of gun fire to ensure that all guns were in working order.

It was not a happy start to the year. Gunners had to make emergency arrangements for sleeping quarters and then set to work clearing and draining gun positions. In some cases they had to pull or winch guns out of pits and lay a firm platform of bricks and rubble. Signallers had endless back-breaking work mending lines. E Troop of the 4th Field was ready for action at noon and was the first troop on the whole front, including enemy artillery, to open fire this day and year. Underneath the snow was squelching mud and in the afternoon rain came down heavily.

Behind the gun areas the roads and tracks were clogged with mud and slush which only jeeps could negotiate at all confidently. Bringing up and handling ammunition, rations and other stores was arduous and unpleasant work. Off the tracks the thin crust of snow with slush underneath it made walking difficult even for unburdened men; for those with loads to carry it was almost impossible and they had to stick to tracks.

Anti-tankers of 33 and 34 Batteries (less J and K Troops) moved on 3 and 4 January up into the mountains on the left flank, under Divisional Cavalry command, to serve as infantillery. From San Eusanio they carried ammunition, spades and rations for three days and climbed up the snow-covered slopes. O and Q Troops lived for the next fortnight in the little village of Ascigno and mounted pickets there each night. N Troop stationed itself high up on the Bianco feature and P Troop, joined later by a troop of 33 Battery, moved into Bianco village on a track leading to Guardiagrele and about two miles from that place. Another 33 Battery troop occupied Ciommi village, halfway between Bianco and San Eusanio. From these positions the anti-tankers patrolled in white capes and they watched Germans in the Guardiagrele area doing the same. Ascigno could not be reached by road and 16 mules were therefore allotted to 34 Battery on the 5th to supply the anti-tankers there.

Meanwhile 31 Battery, under the command of 2 Independent Parachute Brigade since early December, moved with that formation from this mountain area to the right flank of the Division in the sector which included on its left the village of Poggio- page 542 fiorito and the outskirts of Arielli. B Troop was released on 5 January and moved to Lanciano and J and K Troops of 33 Battery replaced it. The enemy was extremely active on this part of the front and shelled Poggiofiorito mercilessly. On the 7th Gunners Hargreaves25 and Allan26 of 31 Battery and Lance-Bombardier Laing27 of 33 Battery were killed or fatally wounded, and three others including an officer were wounded. Then on the 11th Gunner Toll28 suffered mortal wounds and another gunner of 33 Battery was also hit. It was a thoroughly nasty situation in which the anti-tankers had no chance of replying to the shells and mortar bombs that came their way, and they were glad to see the last of Poggiofiorito. The 33 Battery gun crews withdrew on the 11th and 12th and those of 31 Battery on the 16th, moving right back to Perano station, south of the Sangro.

The guns E3 and E4 of 46 Battery moved to the Poggiofiorito area on the 7th in a sniping role; but the parachute brigade was getting enough attention from enemy guns and mortars already and persuaded the 4th Field men to move into the 21 Battalion area. From there, until they were relieved on the 12th by D1 and D2 of 26 Battery, these two guns were active, firing all night every night at road junctions and other selected targets.

The rest of the field guns, in the first fortnight of January, constantly harassed the enemy, usually under Divisional Artillery arrangements, and did relatively little observed shooting. Conditions at the guns were so disagreeable that batteries kept the numbers of men in the gun positions to a minimum and changed them frequently with others who had been resting in B Echelon areas. Observation post staffs were similarly exchanged. The 6th Field had moved forward in the afternoon of 3 January, but only with the greatest difficulty. Getting the guns out of their existing positions was far more easily said than done. After five hours of violent effort only two guns of 29 Battery had reached the road, and the gunners despaired of getting the others out until the sappers lent a tractor for this purpose. The new gun area was nevertheless a good one—a page 543 steep-sided gully just north-west of Lanciano—and there were enough buildings nearby to accommodate all gun crews.

From this area the 6th Field supported 17 Brigade of 5 Division and also the parachute brigade, taking over OPs from the 92nd Field, RA. The patrol reports of the infantry, checked carefully with air photographs, provided the information on which a series of regimental harassing fire tasks were drawn up. FOOs kept in close touch with the infantry to check results and highly effective fire resulted. Most of the targets were buildings and these were engaged with HE ammunition with the cap on.

The 5th Field supported 5 Brigade in similar fashion, keeping in close touch with the infantry. The enemy evidently kept a close watch on movements in the OP areas and on the 7th he scored direct hits with 170-millimetre shells on A and F Troop OPs, wounding an officer lightly and a gunner severely. Next day two D Troop guns moved up just behind E Troop OP in a sniping role, doing the same kind of work as the 4th Field sniping guns. On the 11th Captain Gilbert29 took his D Troop OP party to a house in front of 23 Battalion. Shortly after their arrival this house received several direct hits by 170-millimetre shells, and the OP party and a mortar crew had to shelter in underground dugouts. After dark a patrol from the unit flanking the Bianco feature crept close to Guardiagrele and then fired a signal the enemy used to get his troops to stand-to. After allowing him enough time to do this, the New Zealand guns fired concentrations against the positions probably then being occupied in that sector. On the 15th the gun E3, firing its second round of a concentration just after lunch, suffered a premature at the point where the rifling in the barrel began. The explosion was frightful and blew pieces of the barrel 100 yards or more away. The breech block also blew off. Gunner Pascoe30 was killed and two other gunners wounded. Half an hour later a mysterious projectile which gave ample warning of its approach—‘a screaming noise’ was one description—struck five yards from the pit of a medium gun sited 300 yards from RHQ of the 5th Field. It made a crater eight feet across and six feet deep, and in the middle of this a hole two and a half feet across and about 15 feet deep which entered the ground at an angle of 70 degrees.

24 Gnr T. H. Earl; born Oamaru, 23 Nov 1919; sheepfarmer; killed in action 31 Dec 1943.

25 Gur F. A. Hargreaves; born NZ 11 Mar 1916; machine moulder; killed in action 7 Jan 1944.

26 Gnr W. M. Allan; born NZ 13 May 1922; farmhand; died of wounds 7 Jan 1944.

27 L-Bdr B. Laing; born Milton, 19 Apr 1912; orchard hand; died of wounds 8 Jan 1944.

28 Gnr T. J. Toll; born Arrowtown, 1 May 1921; Regular soldier; died of wounds 12 Jan 1944.

29 Capt L. de V. Gilbert, MC, ED; Dunedin; born Wellington, 19 Nov 1917; clerk.

30 Gnr F. J. Pascoe; born NZ 31 Jul 1921; messenger; killed in action 15 Jan 1944.