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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Battle Plan

The Battle Plan

Many were the other preparations for battle, all of them now complete. The Eighth Army offensive, known as CRUSADER, was to be on a grand scale, the culmination of five months of planning. Brigadier Miles had attended a select conference of New Zealand brigadiers and two colonels on 17 October at which Freyberg had disclosed, in conditions of great secrecy, the outline of the plan. The object was the capture of Cyrenaica and the first phase would be the destruction of the enemy armour. To make the enemy deploy his armour, Eighth Army was to threaten the forces besieging Tobruk; but the relief of Tobruk page 181 would be incidental. The British armour was thought to be slightly stronger than the combined German and Italian armour and it was expected to complete their destruction with little or no help from the rest of Eighth Army. The New Zealand Division was to be grouped with 4 Indian Division and 1 Army Tank Brigade (with heavy but slow infantry tanks) in 13 Corps to cut off the enemy defending the frontier positions and to do the mopping up when the enemy armour was defeated. Surprise was to be gained, if possible, by a series of marches on moonless nights to the Egypt-Libya frontier.

The artillery details stressed that protection on the move was vital. Command of the artillery was to remain with Miles and was not to be decentralised to brigades ‘unless necessary’. Freyberg thought tank attack was the greatest danger. To guard against this, anti-tank mines would be carried by sappers and infantry, and if mines were laid they must be covered by artillery fire. The anti-aircraft defence of a brigade while it was fighting a battle raised difficult problems, all the more worrying because the enemy was expected to have a decided superiority in the air, though nothing like the virtual monopoly he enjoyed in Greece and Crete.

These were Freyberg's views of the requirements of his Division if it followed the programme drawn up for it by higher authority; but the programme was hopelessly confused and unrealistic, the assumptions behind it—such as those about the relative strengths of the armour and air forces—were almost all incorrect, and Miles gained no useful guidance. But Freyberg's further points indicated that he realised at least some of the inadequacies of the crusader plan and was uncomfortably aware that the battle was not likely to follow the course that the planners supposed. He asked the brigadiers to consider two possibilities and plan for them: that the armoured protection promised for divisional moves might not be provided and that a brigade group (or more) might have to advance unescorted along an escarpment. Later Freyberg got the sappers to construct a relief model of the battle area, and when he studied this he became increasingly certain that the Division would have to fight not to blockade the frontier positions but to relieve Tobruk. If so, the escarpments leading towards Tobruk and passing through Belhamed or Sidi Rezegh would be all-important.

To Miles one defect of the Divisional organisation was that the Divisional Cavalry was too weak to overcome even slight page 182 opposition and it might therefore be prevented from carrying out its tasks. He was prepared to attach anti-tank 2-pounders to it, but was sceptical of their worth against German medium tanks. The 18-pounders, he felt sure, were vital to the defence of the infantry brigades. The only solution, therefore, was to attach a troop of 25-pounders to the Cavalry, and he considered the conditions under which the field guns might be able to operate with such a mobile force. There was no suggestion of putting a medium regiment of artillery under Freyberg's command; yet without one the Divisional Artillery was likely to be outweighed and outranged. Both Freyberg and Miles thought the crusader planners underestimated the fighting qualities of the Germans.

The New Zealand Division was in fact the only infantry division which was to have no medium guns. The 1st South African Division, in the armoured corps, was to have the 7th Medium and 4 Indian Division was to have the 68th Medium, while 70 Division, the garrison of Tobruk, had two medium batteries and a few heavy guns. Against the 172 guns of the New Zealand Divisional Artillery, the relatively immobile 4 Indian Division was to have about 300, including the medium unit and four field regiments. It was a curious distribution of resources.

All reservations or misgivings were filtered out as the plan passed from Division to brigade to regiment and then to battery and troop. The gunners were generally enthusiastic. They loved their new equipment and were confident of their skills. Morale was extremely high. When 5 Brigade moved forward from Baggush along the road to Matruh on 11 November (with the 5th Field, 32 and 34 Anti-Tank Batteries, and 42 Light Ack-Ack Battery) it seemed certain to be the beginning of a wonderful adventure. The troops had seen so much evidence of British strength on land and in the air and so little evidence of the enemy that they readily believed the most optimistic estimates.