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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Move to the Libyan Frontier

The Move to the Libyan Frontier

The route branched southwards towards Siwa and then into the open desert for a few miles to a divisional assembly area. Next day 4 Brigade (with the 4th Field, the 7th Anti-Tank RHQ and 31 Battery, the 14th Light Ack-Ack RHQ and 41 Battery, and 1 Survey Troop) and Divisional Headquarters Group (with Divisional Artillery Headquarters) left Baggush and reached the page 183 assembly area. On the 13th Freyberg himself set out early, followed by 6 Brigade (with the 6th Field, 33 Anti-Tank Battery and 43 Light Ack-Ack Battery).

All but the Divisional Cavalry, already at the frontier, and a few detachments were assembled in the open desert in the morning of the 14th, the first time the whole Division was together. Occasionally some vehicle tore a thin ribbon of dust from the flat, scrub-covered desert. But 3000 lorries, quads, pick-up trucks and staff cars kept still, their engines silent, the troops resting. Freyberg called together officers down to battery or company commanders and gave them some of his ideas about the forthcoming battle, which promised to be ‘a very tough one’. The Germans were brave and skilful. ‘They realise the value of AFVs [armoured fighting vehicles] and they will not hesitate to use them in a desperate counter stroke.’ He drew attention, among other matters, to the constant dilemma of desert commanders: whether to open out and minimise losses from air attack or to close up and present a stronger front to enemy tanks. Tank attack could do more damage, and if this threatened then formations should close in, to thicken up defensive fire. Miles later conferred with his COs and the artillery Intelligence officers then met to exchange views, mark maps, and receive code lists. Three Bofors sections were detached, two to defend Headquarters Group and the third to defend the NZASC Group.

The Division, as it drove slowly forward on the 15th, made an unforgettable spectacle, with vehicles well-spaced and stretching from horizon to horizon, windshields flashing in the sunlight, and wisps of dust rising, building up here and there in the soft patches to a billowing cloud which trailed each lorry. The going became stony and ‘Steve’ Weir of the 6th Field was critical of the control of the march, which he thought was ‘rather ragged’. The 4th Field suffered several ‘blowouts’ and broken springs.

Aircraft were heard throughout the night and bombs fell in the distance. The morning of the 16th was cold and the wind raised much dust. Vehicles were mostly covered with camouflage nets and the troops rested. The Corps Commander, Lieutenant-General A. R. Godwin-Austen, visited the Division and met officers down to the rank of major. Brigade groups closed in as evening approached and at intervals of 10–20 yards between vehicles they set off at dark on a march of 16–18 miles. The leading vehicles soon struck trouble in the form of patches of soft sand. The concertina motion which developed as columns page 184 slowed down and then raced to catch up with their neighbours led to reckless speeding at times. The anti-tank portées could keep up; but the field and ack-ack guns could not be towed over rough ground at anything like the pace the 3-ton lorries maintained. Confusion therefore reigned until the going improved.

Gunners of the 4th Field were annoyed in the morning to learn that because 5 Brigade had halted too far south 4 Brigade would have to conform. Because of this they had to fill in their slit trenches and dig new ones. The frontier was close and much attention was therefore paid to anti-tank defence. Later in the day Freyberg conferred with Miles about the placing of guns in the columns on the move, and whether a 25-pounder troop should accompany the Divisional Cavalry in the opening stages of the offensive. On the prospects of success, the GOC remarked, ‘Everything depends on whether he [the enemy] has hidden reserves. If he has things are going to be difficult.’ Next day, 18 November, the Division would be through the frontier and facing north and crusader would begin. Anti-tank guns were to be posted in line 500 yards outside the concentrations of vehicles and protected by infantry in depth. On the move anti-tank portées and Bren carriers were to protect the flanks. The Divisional Cavalry returned to Freyberg's command during the day and 34 Anti-Tank Battery with two 2-pounder troops was placed under its command.11