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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Preparing for Desert Operations

Preparing for Desert Operations

Miles and his staff had meanwhile been extremely busy planning and supervising the artillery part of brigade manoeuvres, the amphibious training at Kabrit, and a move from Maadi and Helwan to Baggush.10 All field regiments completed calibration and practice shoots. On 1–2 September Miles was umpire of an important exercise by 6 Brigade in the desert near Helwan Camp and his headquarters also took part. The 6th Field crossed a canal by a bridge built by the New Zealand Engineers, fired several concentrations, and laid a smoke screen, while 33 Anti-Tank Battery tried out its new portées in mobile defence of the infantry.

Units were warned on 5 September that they would soon move to Baggush in an operational role; but two days later 5 Brigade, with the 5th Field, fresh from Kabrit, were rushed to the desert south of El Alamein—a name at that time of no particular significance—to prepare an elaborate defensive position and construct roads to serve it. The 6th Field carried out, with 6 Brigade, a most important exercise on the 10th to test the new Air Support Control system in conjunction with the RAF. Then 6 Brigade got ready to take its turn at Kabrit, while 4 Brigade moved to Baggush. Divisional Artillery Headquarters, which among its many other tasks had been developing a Counter-Battery Organisation to co-ordinate information about hostile batteries and provide reliable data for engaging them, moved on the 12th. By a last-minute change of plan, perhaps connected with a German reconnaissance-in-force in mid-September, 6 Brigade and associated artillery moved to Baggush instead of to Kabrit. For the ‘old hands’ among the 4th Field gunners it was like going home; but for newcomers it was an absorbing experience to camp in the coastal desert far from the Nile Delta and there begin a new life, away from the fleshpots of Cairo and the restrictions of base-camp routine and spit-and-polish.

The Division took over the Baggush Box, an all-round defensive area on the coast, from an Indian division on a ‘care and maintenance’ basis, which meant that time and labour page 177 would not be spent on extensive improvements (though the need for these was obvious). The defences were manned and held more or less ready; but training for a forthcoming desert offensive was the main task. This was to be mounted by the newly formed Eighth Army, which consisted of 13 and 30 Corps and the Tobruk garrison, and the New Zealand Division was to be part of 13 Corps.

The immediate task was to practise moving brigade groups by day and night in ‘open formation’ across the changing face of the desert. Each brigade would have about 1000 vehicles and would need to be protected against air or tank attack while on the move and be ready to fight an encounter battle at almost any time. Suitable techniques therefore had to be developed and co-operation between the many components of the brigade group practised until it became second nature. In this the Division was starting almost from scratch; for previous experience of other troops against Italians in the desert scarcely counted. The Germans, who would undoubtedly provide the main opposition, had been developing and refining techniques for mobile operations over open country since 1934. It was a tall order for the New Zealanders to cram a parallel development into a few short weeks.

The gunners' role in this war of movement was of critical importance. No tank force was to be permanently allotted to the Division except the Divisional Cavalry, which had some obsolescent light tanks and was intended for reconnaissance, but not for hard fighting. In the periodic absence of fighting tanks the guns would bear the full burden of protecting the Division on the move. Had the gunners become thoroughly proficient in the use of their own equipment and well-acquainted with their own organisations, their task of developing suitable tactics and techniques would have been hard enough; but all were concurrently immersed in learning the intricacies of new equipment and the workings of new organisations.