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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Gun Positions

The Gun Positions

The gun groups at Maleme and Galatas had meanwhile been extremely busy. Major Bull had personally chosen a commanding position on the hillside above the positions of sapper-infantry in the eastern end of the 5 Brigade area for Snadden's four French 75s. Getting the guns there, however, was far from easy. A working party constructed a track up a steep hill and over several terraces, with materials supplied by the nearby sappers. With a borrowed Bren carrier the gunners then towed and manhandled the guns up the hillside.

When the guns were in position, however, there was no mistaking that the effort was worth it. The whole brigade area below lay in full view. The airfield was two miles north-northwest. In front of it was Maleme village, surmounted by the dome of the Orthodox church, among vineyards and gardens looking so near and clear in the sunshine that they seemed within an arm's reach. The ground occupied by the sappers (19 Army Troops Company on the right, 7 Field Company to the left or west) was plain in every detail of its cornfields, vineyards and vegetable patches, with the sea rising behind it like a blue wall. Just beyond the airfield was the 600–800 yard wide mouth of the Tavronitis River, mostly dry shingle, with a gravel bed 200 yards across and a strip of ‘dead’ ground to the west of it. Farther west the massive hills of the Titiros Peninsula filled in an impressive background. The village of Modhion lay half a mile to the south, with Kondomari a mile to the south-west.

Some such position was essential; for the French guns would have to fire over open sights, since they had no instruments and could engage only such targets as were visible from the guns. Indeed they did not even have sights until the gunners improvised them. Efforts to get gun sights made in army workshops failed. The final solution was to fix a piece of wood firmly in the sight bracket, cut a groove in it to form the back sight, and stick a suitably moulded piece of chewing gum into the sight aperture in the gun shield to act as a fore sight. The page 113 barrel of the gun was lined up by means of cross threads on to a distant object and the chewing-gum fore sight then adjusted to coincide with the groove in the wood. The guns had range drums and a separate angle of sight. Once the fire was correct for line the range could be corrected by manipulating the elevating gear. Sights were made this way for all four guns and proved to be quite accurate. It was nevertheless primitive gunnery. The 75s were to be used, in effect, like oversized rifles, with the layer looking along the sights direct to his target.

He could not, of course, do this from a position that was not in full view of the enemy. All four guns were sited in the open, with no protection from enemy fire. The ground rose in a series of rock terraces and it was impossible to dig in. Four limbers of the old horse-drawn type had been delivered and Snadden thought at first to use them for protecting the gun crews; but this could not be done and they stayed at the foot of the terraces. Camouflage nets were flung across low olive trees in front of the guns to give some concealment from ground observation; but there was no way of hiding them from the air. All the same, the position had been skilfully chosen and enemy aircraft, though they could plainly see C Troop, found it extremely hard to attack the gun position.

Most of Snadden's men had already trained on French 75s in England and had no trouble operating them. With official permission they fired several proofing rounds out to sea with good results. C Troop, with 200 rounds per gun on hand, was then deemed ready for battle.

The Italian 75s of B Troop and the 3.75 of A Troop had by this time become well established. They were hidden in folds of the ground and were hard to locate from ground or air (though the Luftwaffe searched endlessly for them it never found them). A Troop was half a mile south-west of Kondomari in the eastern bank of a little stream in a tiny valley, hidden from the airfield by a series of ridges. The gun position was a hundred yards or so from a side road at a point a mile and a half from the coast road at Maleme and 4000 yards from the airfield. B Troop was on the edge of an olive grove three-quarters of a mile south of Maleme and 300 yards west of the side road to Kondomari. Olive trees gave excellent cover from aerial observation and the right-hand gun was hidden effectively from the front by a large bush.

The Italian howitzers had a thin shield and short barrel with a recoil of about four feet. The breech was easy to open: press page 114 page 115 a button or just touch the LBM (Lever, Breech Mechanism). They were therefore simple to load and fire; but sighting was tricky. Ammunition came in five parts: shell (high-explosive), fuse, cartridge case, primer and propellant charge. All had to be assembled before a round could be fired. Then the case had to be charged and primed again. Such a complicated process took time and manpower and each gun therefore had a crew of 11 men, half of them to load and fire and the remainder to prepare ammunition. There were 350 rounds per gun at hand, but only 40 cartridge cases all told. The British 3.7-inch howitzers, with 300 rounds each, presented no special problems.

black and white map of brigade

fifth brigade, maleme, 20 may 1941

A and B Troops were sited for indirect fire and this naturally depended on a system of communications between guns and OPs. No hope was held out that telephone equipment would be forthcoming and wireless sets were quite unobtainable. A visual signalling station was therefore planned for the hill in front of the guns, though it was bound to be spotted from ground and air and put out of action. Observation was essential, nevertheless, for controlling the fire of A and B Troops, and Captain Williams and Lieutenant Cade15 selected a position for an OP. It was on Point 107, a few hundred yards south of the airfield, giving good command of the landing strip and of the coast beyond the Tavronitis River. When complete it was well covered and hard to detect from the ground. While gunners worked on it, others tackled the vital matter of communications. Brigade Signals co-operated and in the end Major Bull got some telephone cable from a unit near Suda. Two Italian telephones, fitted with torch batteries, served faintly and reluctantly; but they were better than nothing. Two wireless sets arrived on 18 May, but they would not work.16

Major Philp set up his headquarters with Captain Beaumont and 20 other ranks in the village of Dhaskaliana, half a mile south-east of Maleme and not far from Headquarters of 23 Battalion, so that he could keep in touch by means of a roundabout telephone circuit with his guns. A Troop had 36 men and B Troop 40.

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Captain Duigan's F Troop at Galatas had a mixture of howitzers: two Italian 75s and one German one of either 75 or 77 millimetres. Ammunition for them arrived in the form of 1000 primers, 600 charges, 600 shells, 750 fuses and 200 cartridge cases. They were sited south-east of the village of Karatsos with the intention of firing to the north and northwest towards the beach in support of 10 Brigade, but their zone of fire was later increased to include the Prison Valley. Enough telephone cable arrived to establish an OP in Karatsos church to observe the beach and another on Cemetery Hill overlooking the valley, while another line ran to the 10 Brigade exchange in Galatas.

The four 3.7-inch howitzers of 1 Light Troop, RA, were emplaced on the flat just south of the Canea-Alikianou road, outside the defended localities of 4 Brigade. An OP was set up near the guns of F Troop and a telephone line connected the troop to 19 Battalion. It was a good position for shelling the beaches; but Captain Dawnay, who commanded the troop, was strangely reluctant to accept infantry protection. When he did ask for it, it was too late.

Busy though they were with their artillery or infantillery work, gunners still had time to look around and to feel the tightness of the situation. Each new day brought an increased sense of expectancy. Intelligence reports contributed something to this, but the chief cause was what everyone could see for himself: the gathering momentum of air attack. The Luftwaffe early in May had concentrated on shipping and installations at Suda and was persistently opposed by the few Hurricanes and Gladiators at Maleme and the anti-aircraft guns defending the harbour. Canea had only a slight taste of bombing and the enemy aircraft usually passed over the divisional area at considerable height. Gradually the raids came closer, were more frequent, and became more personal. Maleme airfield had its first dose one evening at dusk when six Messerschmitts pounced down: a brief firework display, and then they were gone. The succeeding raids became increasingly severe and one of them delayed the proofing of Snadden's guns. An unexploded 3-inch anti-aircraft shell landed beside Captain Williams's bivouac, but it could not have been meant for him, as Major Philp noted, as it had four kisses on it'.

15 Brig G. P. Cade, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Hawera, 10 May 1909; Regular soldier; 5 Fd Regt 1941–43; CO 6 Fd Regt 1945; Director RNZA, 1948–54; comd Malaya Force 1957–59; Commander, Central Military District, 1960–64.

16 The only other instruments possessed by 27 Bty were: one Italian director, slightly damaged; a No. 7 director head; and two remote controls, one of which was used to link the gun positions with HQ 5 Bde and 21 and 23 Bns.