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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Training in Combined Operations

Training in Combined Operations

In the first week of January 1942, 5 Brigade with its artillery moved to Kabrit in the Canal Zone and Artillery Headquarters to Fayid in the same area (followed within a few days by the RHQs of the 7th Anti-Tank and 14th Light Ack-Ack), while 4 Brigade moved back to Maadi Camp. At Kabrit the gunners trained earnestly with the infantry to make landings by night on a hostile coast, and those at Fayid, Baggush and Maadi undertook more orthodox training. Towards the end of the month 5 Brigade completed its exercises and moved to a desert area south of the Sweetwater Canal, and 4 Brigade took its place at the Combined Training Centre, being in turn replaced at Maadi by 6 Brigade from Baggush.4 It was like an intricate version of musical chairs, the complications arising mainly from shortages of transport and other essential equipment, so that there were many train journeys and much borrowing. Early in January the 6th Field had been ordered to send a detachment to Tobruk to collect guns and trailers, and sent Captain Angell5 on this mission with a party of drivers and 23 quads. He expected the journey to take four days; but it actually took eleven. The guns so far salvaged, he found when he got there, were all earmarked for immediate operations; but he was determined not to return empty-handed. He and his party therefore scoured the Tobruk battlefields on their own account, salvaging and page 299 repairing trucks and guns, and on 16 January they got back to Baggush with no fewer than 34 guns and trailers for the NZA, a splendid achievement. After a brief rest Angell carried on to Maadi to deliver most of these guns to the 4th and 5th Field, with the dual capacity of acting as advanced guard for the main body of the 6th Field. In Maadi the transport of the regiment dwindled rapidly as various items were requisitioned for operations in the desert: six three-tonners and the 30 Battery water truck, then 16 pick-ups and six ‘monkey trucks’ for the RHA and a Signals unit of 7 Armoured Division. ‘We were beginning to wish that someone would come and take the lot,’ one officer remarked, ‘and then we would know where we stood.’

A brigade amphibious exercise in the first week of February took the 5th Field and 32 and 42 Batteries in Glen ships (designed for landing operations) into the Red Sea for a beach landing in the Gulf of Suez. It was a spectacular undertaking; but some details of it gave rise to apprehension about what it would have been like had it been the ‘real thing’. C Troop of the 5th Field left its mother ship by MLCs, followed half an hour later by RHQ and 47 BHQ in another MLC, which had to stop on the way to the beach to take in tow a sinking MLC carrying two guns and a quad and some of the gunners of C Troop, which in due course was safely beached. On the beach there was much confusion. The guns of 47 Battery waited, conspicuous and vulnerable, while their quads towed 27 Battery guns. Late in the afternoon all guns were technically ‘in action’, but no ammunition had so far reached them, while communications remained uncertain throughout.

General Auchinleck was among the high-level observers. He had hoped that 5 Brigade would be able to land behind the last-ditch Axis position at Agheila, covering Tripolitania, to pave the way for a British advance to Tripoli. But the enemy was at that very time thrusting forward from Agheila towards Benghazi and within a short time was back at Gazala. The New Zealanders were therefore spared a landing in the Gulf of Sirte which would almost certainly have been disastrous (as they realised when they inspected the ‘objective’ later).

The shape of the war had changed for the worse. Considerable German air strength had been transferred from the hiatus of the Russian winter to the central Mediterranean and covered the despatch of ground reinforcements to North Africa. At the same time British forces were called away from the Middle East to Burma and Singapore to meet the Japanese threat and two page 300 Australian divisions were off home for the same reason. New Zealand gunners heard the news of rapid Japanese advances with mixed feelings. The war had seemed distant indeed when they sailed from New Zealand. Now it was closing in behind them and gave many of them an uneasy sense of being far away from where they were most needed. America had scarcely begun to mobilise her strength, but even when American troops did reach New Zealand their presence there, when news of it reached the Middle East, was not regarded as an unmixed blessing.