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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Artillery Plan

The Artillery Plan

When General Freyberg, the CRA and the brigade commanders15 and their staffs studied the Senio line they knew from bitter experience that the undramatic landscape could conceal great defensive strength.16 Higher authority, too, at Corps and Army had concluded that the crossing of the river and the many water obstacles beyond it up to and including the Santerno would call for an unprecedented weight and variety page 697 of preparatory and supporting fire and they had gone to extraordinary lengths to provide this. When 5 Corps Operation Order No. 48 arrived late on 3 April it heralded the greatest assault ever staged by Eighth Army: Operation buckland.

At Artillery Headquarters discussions and preliminary work on the programme took up the 4th. Then, next day, with most points at issue settled, the staff began their huge task. The BM did the barrage traces from the outlines given by the CRA and three teams of two officers each superimposed the barrage outlines on overprinted 1: 25,000 maps and worked out timed concentrations for the medium guns, the heavies, and any other guns not used in the barrage. Each type of gun had to fire not less than a specific distance ahead of the barrage and this called for careful checking. The plotting was checked and also the application of the grid constant correction. The CRA satisfied himself that all desired areas were included in the concentrations and that the assaulting troops would not be endangered.

Then all was put on stencils and the first prints were run off. These were examined minutely, checked and rechecked. Each concentration had to be passed as ‘safe for our own troops’. Then 45 numbered copies of ‘2 NZ Div Arty Operation Order No. 15’ were printed and distributed, together with copies of the 29 appendices. Only one copy of the operation order went to most recipients, but as many as 42 copies of certain appendices went to some of them, in accordance with their requirements. The order, signed at 9.25 p.m. on 6 April by Major Catchpole, was by far the most complicated of the NZA operation orders of the Second World War and the number of appendices was easily a record.17 Early on the 8th command post staffs went to work converting their part of the programme into zero switches, elevations, ranges and timings. For the heavies and super-heavies there were some intricate calculations. Finally the programme reached down to gun crews, who had to compile their own records and prepare their ammunition. At every stage on the journey down from 5 Corps the programme entailed checking and checking again. Carelessness could cost the wrong lives, and there was not a man from the CCRA downwards who could view that with equanimity.

A novel feature of the NZA order was a series of ‘dragnet’ barrages. The 5 Corps order provided for five ‘gun attacks’—‘First Gun Attack’, ‘Second Gun Attack’ and so on—on the Senio defences, but left the details of them to the two assaulting page 698 divisions. They were to be part of a four-hour softening-up process in the afternoon, before the infantry assault. The NZA ‘gun attacks’ took the form of creeping barrages of up to eight lifts to be fired by the three NZA field regiments, the 1st RHA, the 17th and 158th Field, and the 5th and 75th Medium. These would roll over the stopbanks and on into the countryside beyond. Then they would suddenly shorten and hit the river line again, in the hope of catching the enemy off his guard. Each one of the five had a different sequence of lifts. Some such stratagem was called for: the enemy had had many months in which to strengthen his posts on the stopbanks to withstand artillery fire. Too much could not be expected of a standing barrage on the river line. The 25-pounders would be far more effective if they could catch the enemy in the open.

Each ‘gun attack’ was to be followed by a 10-minute silence from all guns and mortars, during which the fighter-bombers would strafe the river line. Then the rest of the interval between gun attacks would be filled with enfilade fire to strike the enemy side of the stopbanks, in conjunction with HF tasks by two field regiments on the river line. The enfilade fire was to be by a medium battery and a field battery (of 78 Division) and a squadron of New Zealand tanks. The HF tasks were to be shared between the 5th and 6th Field, the 1st RHA and the 17th and 138th Field.

Concurrently with the gun attacks, the 142nd Army Field (SP) and a heavy ack-ack battery would fire a mortar neutralisation programme; mediums, heavies and super-heavies of 2 AGRA would fire CB tasks or concentrations, all of them linear concentrations or ‘murders’; and 34 Battery and eight American 4.2-inch mortars of the 1st Kensingtons (from 78 Division) would fire linear concentrations and ‘murders’ close to the river.

These are the bare bones of the programme; but they give some idea of the seriousness with which Eighth Army faced up to its last great set-piece attack and of the work that was put in to ensure that not a single infantryman or assault engineer would go in unsupported—that each would have all the help that the various artillery staffs could provide and that every known or foreseeable source of trouble would receive attention from guns or mortars. Even in the great battles of the First World War which took months to prepare there was never more thorough planning than this. For attention to detail—and each ‘detail’ was the whole of life for those whose lives were being risked—the artillery programme of Operation buckland was a page 699 masterpiece. Never was there a more imaginative and meticulous artillery plan—and never a finer instrument for its execution.

D-day was 9 April, a day which dawned bright and clear with not a cloud in the sky. The 4th Field gunners became axemen and cleared away trees which affected their crest clearances, ruining the careful camouflage of the gun positions. In the 5th Field 47 Battery moved forward at 5.30 a.m., 27 Battery at 7 and 28 Battery at 7.30. By 9.20 a.m. all three had recorded zero lines in their advanced barrage positions. Battery and troop command post staffs surrounded themselves with sheaves of paper as they made their final preparations. All field regiments and the mortar battery made last-minute meteor corrections. Ammunition was already stacked and prepared. All figures were checked and checked again.18

15 Colonel T. C. Campbell (4 Armd Bde), Brigadiers I. L. Bonifant (5 Bde), Ike Parkinson (6 Bde), and W. G. Gentry (9 Bde).

16 No doubt they recalled that from the south-east Point 175 was hard to discern on the ground, or that Ruweisat exercised a dominance over the surrounding desert out of all proportion to its mere 20 feet or so of elevation. On the other hand, dramatic topography like that of the Vale of Tempe could be weaker tactically than it looked.

18 A late change, signalled to the 5th Field at 2 p.m. and the 4th Field not until 3.55, was that each lane of the opening line of the main barrage was to be regarded as a separate DF task and each regiment was to be ready to fire on any one of the six. This caused much extra work; but no such DFs were called for.