2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
New Equipment but No Medium Guns
New Equipment but No Medium Guns
The 4th and 5th Field were greatly concerned about their comrades in Crete and it came as a bitter disappointment to the latter unit that so few of them got back to Egypt. The 5th Field therefore had the lion's share of available artillery reinforcements and by the end of the third week in June new faces predominated. Meanwhile equipment of various kinds had been coming forward. The 4th and 5th Field received quads on 6 June and the former gladly took over two 25-pounders next day, and on 9 June six more arrived for the 4th Field and eight for the 5th Field. Next day three Mark II Bofors arrived for the 14th Light Ack-Ack and ack-ack gunners who had been attached for training to Bofors batteries in the Canal Zone carried out an excellent practice shoot at Ismailia in front of the CRA and the artillery COs.
All this was encouraging; but units remained desperately short of training equipment and the transport they had so far received was insufficient even for administration. Miles argued the matter at Divisional Headquarters and also at GHQ Middle East Forces, and a higher priority was given to the re-equipment of the Divisional Artillery. By 25 June all field regiments had received their full allotment of quads and on the 29th they gained armoured OP vehicles. The NZASC had suffered even heavier losses in Crete than the gunners and there was a critical shortage of ASC reinforcements. The 14th Light Ack-Ack could not operate, however, without its ASC section, and 14 Light Anti-Aircraft NZASC Section was therefore formed on page 172 17 June under Second-Lieutenant Fordyce8 with a strength of 74 all ranks. By 6 July all three field regiments had 16 guns each and 32 trailers—two-thirds of their full complements.
General Freyberg had early in the war declared his wish to have a largely self-contained division under his command with its own medium artillery and tanks. His ‘charter’ (as he called it) allowed him to form new units in the Middle East if he wished and resources allowed. The British Army, in turn, wanted New Zealand to provide more Corps and administrative troops and suggested as much in high-level discussions in May and June. The opportunity was too good to miss and Freyberg, warmly backed by Miles, earnestly explored the possibility of raising a medium regiment of artillery—intending, of course, that it should become, like the light anti-aircraft regiment, an integral part of the Division. German divisions were normally equipped with a battery each of 150-millimetre medium howitzers, which greatly outweighed and outranged the 25-pounder. A medium regiment equipped with 4.5-inch or 5.5-inch gun-howitzers (or both) would have remedied this disability and given the Divisional Artillery the advantage against any likely opposition. There was therefore much to be said for the proposal. The discussion was carried on between Cairo, London and Wellington; but in the end a shortage of manpower in New Zealand caused the scheme to be dropped. In a matter of months Miles and his regimental commanders were to regret this bitterly when they came under fire from the medium howitzers of the German Africa Corps and lacked the range or shell-power for effective reply. For the rest of the war the Division had to make do with whatever medium guns were allotted to it in action. This allotment was frequently inadequate, and in the very next campaign, when the situation cried out for medium artillery, none at all was provided for the Division. The only consolation was that this arrangement brought the New Zealand gunners into contact from time to time—when medium guns were allotted—with the gunners of some very fine medium regiments of the Royal Artillery—the 7th and 64th, old friends from the days in Greece, and many another unit.
In the fierce heat of July field gunners overhauled their equipment, paying particular attention to the packings of gun-recuperators, which had proved troublesome in Greece. Packings page 173 on the new guns were almost all defective and had to be replaced. Since it was important to keep sand out of the mechanism while recuperators were repacked, permission was obtained from the RAF to use part of the hangar at Helwan airfield for this purpose. Much attention was also paid to physical fitness and by the middle of July the 5th Field was able to report that its men were ‘desert-hardened’ and very fit. All units formed ‘tank-hunting’ squads and practised with anti-tank grenades and similar devices. With the arrival at the end of July of 370 gunners of the 6th Reinforcements, units were brought up almost to full strength.
The assumption during this period of training and re-equipping had been that the Division was not likely to go into action before August, though 6 Brigade might be needed sooner. The 5th and 6th Field, the 7th Anti-Tank, and the Survey Troop trained in the tented camp of Mahfouz, beside Helwan Camp, the 14th Light Ack-Ack stayed at Q Area in Maadi Camp, and the 4th Field occupied a new camp site at Maadi. Many field guns had been calibrated by 1 August, and many practice shoots had been carried out, but there was still a grave shortage of unit transport. Miles was therefore startled to learn from General Freyberg in a chance encounter on the 4th that their two headquarters were to move to Syria in two days' time and that advanced parties would leave the same day. Miles was to take command of all New Zealand troops in Egypt and Lieutenant-Colonel Weir of the 6th Field would travel to Syria as acting CRA.9 In a desperate race against time the many consequences of this astonishing order were explored, and appropriate steps were being taken when Miles returned breathlessly to his headquarters with the news that the move was cancelled. Sighs of relief were audible in many quarters.
Two other important items of news also arrived on the 4th: training in combined (or amphibious) operations was soon to be carried out in the Canal Zone and field regiments were to adopt a new three-battery organisation. The New Zealand Artillery had already thoroughly digested the lessons of the fighting in Greece; but the larger mills of the Royal Artillery ground rather more slowly. The fighting in France and Belgium a year before had demonstrated weaknesses in field artillery procedure and the existing organisation had proved cumbersome in mobile operations. Subsequent experience had con- page 174 firmed this and the new arrangement was designed to make the field batteries more mobile and flexible. The changeover, however, required much preparation, and it was not until 19 August that a new establishment was issued for field regiments. The total strength, formerly 611, was now 686 all ranks. Each regiment would have 36 quads and 48 trailers as before; but motorcycles would increase from 29 to 44 and other vehicles from 76 to 94—the latter including nine armoured OPs. Instruments and equipment for observing and controlling fire would need to be increased by almost 50 per cent.
New equipment was arriving almost daily, the tempo of preparation for battle was increasing, and to superimpose on it this far-reaching reorganisation of the field regiments created much extra work at all levels. On the 19th the field regiments received the balance of their quota of guns and trailers. The 14th Light Ack-Ack had received its Signals Section, 34 strong, earlier in the month and its Workshops Section obtained two 3-ton lorries on the 4th, a stores lorry on the 21st, and a fully-equipped machine lorry on the 26th.
The programme of combined operations training had meanwhile begun at Kabrit in the Canal Zone and a troop of 32 Battery of the 7th Anti-Tank had gone there with 5 Brigade at the end of July. All batteries of the 7th Anti-Tank except the 34th had their turn at Kabrit before the end of August, and all without exception carried out live shoots on an anti-tank range off the Suez Road. They were busy days.