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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

General Freyberg Sums Up

General Freyberg Sums Up

Freyberg sketched the outlines of this campaign to a high-level conference on VE Day, 8 May, as follows:

‘The plan behind the original battles was to smash him and not simply to drive him back. That necessitated great speed of planning and we worked with the maximum amount of arty in the quickest possible time and I want to congratulate the gunners including 5 Medium on the most excellent work they did. In the big attacks we averaged only 40 to 50 casualties per brigade due to the flexibility and great accuracy of the artillery.

‘The most careful intelligence is kept, as a matter of course, regarding every position which we are going to attack—this is done by the “I” Branch at Div working together with MAIU (West)55 and also by the gunners. While in main page 731 outline the arty programmes are settled at Div Orders Group conferences, yet you must remember that within that outline all the detailed work has to go on of fixing individual targets—and all this in the middle of planning and a lot of movement. You owe the fact that you have had relatively few casualties to the work of the “I” section and the whole set-up of the Div Arty. I want Brig Queree to tell his people that we do realise the value of what they have done—and also 5 Medium whom we look on as very old friends. 5 Medium in the whole of the African campaign fired 40,000 rounds: during these 23 days [9 April to 2 May] they have fired 20,000. In all we have fired over 500,000 rounds.’

If anything, this understated the performance of the 5th Medium. From the 9th to the 11th of April, under 2 AGRA in support of the New Zealand Division, and then from the 11th to the 24th under the CRA's command, this magnificent regular regiment fired 20,258 rounds. Often in this period the NZA gunners found the 5.5s breathing hotly down their necks. The mobility of the 5.5s was astonishing. The effect of their 100-pound shells on enemy morale was greater than that of bombing and, directed by the ubiquitous Air OPs, they caused the crews of German Panther and Tiger tanks to have many a nightmare. But the regiment suffered four prematures from 9 April onwards and two gunners were killed as a result. From the 24th to the 29th a shortage of 5.5-inch ammunition kept them out of the battle. Then the 5th Medium came storming back into the fray and its performance in firing from four successive positions on the last day of fighting, 2 May, must surely be a record for medium artillery. The NZA loved working with them and the feeling was mutual. ‘Working with the 2nd N.Z. Division is being in a gunner's paradise’, the regimental war diary remarks.

When Lieutenant-Colonel H. A. Hayes of the 5th Medium, following up an NZA suggestion, asked permission to ‘wear the New Zealand fernleaf’—to paint it on the regimental vehicles—it was gladly given. The 12th Lancers were also granted permission. Then a Lieutenant-Colonel Grey of the 76th Medium, a very fine Territorial regiment (the Shropshire Yeomanry) of the Royal Artillery, made the same request. Freyberg wrote on 30 May, ‘We are very proud and glad to establish this connection with your Regiment…. I would like also … to express … our appreciation of the most valuable support which you have given to 2 NZ Division at Cassino, Faenza and during page 732 the advance to the P0. Wearing the Fernleaf is a happy conclusion to our long associations.’

There were, of course, other regiments the NZA gunners held in equal esteem. Could they think less, for example, of the 7th and 64th Medium with whom they served in Greece and North Africa? But there were two regiments with whom they had recently had particularly close and warm associations: the 142nd Army Field with their SP 105s, from Florence to the P0, and the 1st RHA, old friends of Greece and North Africa, whose SP 25-pounders had been invaluable from the Senio onwards. With these two they had fired their last artillery programme of the war, with almost ridiculous ease at little more than an hour's notice, to cover the crossing of the P0.

The great weight, flexibility and mobility of the artillery from the Senio onwards gave well-trained and resolute infantry attacking by night an advantage over the defence. This was an enormous achievement. The defenders had naturally strong and well-prepared positions. They had machine guns that could fire 3000 rounds per minute, a deadly and terrifying torrent of bullets. They had anti-tank and anti-personnel mines which defied mine-detectors or flail tanks or rollers. They had rocket-projectors like the Panzerfaust and other sophisticated weapons. But the fierce preparation and the rolling barrage defeated them. Skilful and spirited infantry, in close co-operation with the guns through a network of LOs and FOOs, showed they could take such positions without crippling losses. In this campaign they stormed the Senio defences, bullied the enemy out of the Santerno positions, and worried him into a disorderly retreat from Massa Lombarda with the help of kettle and doormat. Under cover of foxy and spaniel they seized the Sillaro, then with austin they thrashed the cream of the Wehrmacht on the Gaiana, with quick barrages they crossed the Idice and broke out from a bridgehead beyond it, and then they were out in the open on the way to the P0. Each of these positions could have been another Alamein. Between each of them the Tigers and Panthers, with their formidable armour and guns, did their best to hold up the advance; but the fighter-bombers and the medium guns controlled by Air OPs defeated them.

At the end of the campaign Queree was awarded a DSO. But anyone who thought this was for attending a succession of conferences, stooping over maps and plans, and spending hours on the end of a telephone in positions seldom exposed to enemy fire would have been wide of the mark. The CRA's headquarters page 733 was likely to be forward of the field guns and Queree spent much of his time farther forward still. Despite his long experience of staff work, he was no ‘office soldier’. His bold aerial reconnaissances to select gun areas had a lot to do with the extraordinary mobility of the artillery, which was never once out of supporting distance of the leading infantry. Queree was utterly lacking in ‘outside show’. He was quiet and reserved, though not too proud even when CRA to turn out on the wing for the ‘Div Arty’ Rugby team against their perennial opponents, H Section of Divisional Signals. He had one obsession: efficiency. To the incompetents and the bunglers he displayed a ruthless streak. To the others he was sparing in his praise. He expected his gunners to be competent. In this final campaign his expectation was amply fulfilled.

The 7th Anti-Tank earned another award for this final advance. Lieutenant-Colonel Savage earned a DSO for bold reconnaissances for the mortar battery, and for skilful deployment which kept the whole front continuously covered. Savage had held almost every appointment in the regiment from subaltern to CO and it was fitting that his long and valuable service should be recognised in this way.

In their final advance the gunners' casualties were:

Killed Wounded Total
4th Field 6 15 21
5th Field 2 2
6th Field 4 4
7th Anti-Tank 4 22 26
Total 10 43 53

In April and May the NZA regiments fired the following totals of rounds:

4th Field 82,594
5th Field 62,195
6th Field 77,654
Total 222,443 25-pounder shells
34 Battery 12,000 4.2-inch mortar bombs

Statistics do not favour the mortar gunners; but their extreme mobility ensured that they were always close on the heels of the infantry and ready with immediate, close-range support when it was needed. Their value was reflected in the up-grading of their priority for river-crossing facilities as the campaign advanced.56

55 Mediterranean Air Interpretation Unit (West), a designation close enough to the name of a certain provocative film star to provoke ribald comment.

56 The 5th Survey Troop fixed 122 bearing pickets and 16 subsidiary pickets for a total of 21 artillery regiments.