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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Springtime in Syria

page 302

Springtime in Syria

Meanwhile the Division had been committed to a holding role in Syria, a different and much more attractive land. But the story of how the various units and sub-units of the artillery conformed to this role is too fragmented to follow in full detail. Various detachments of 41 and 43 Batteries, for example, helped to defend Kasfareet aerodrome near Kabrit from 21 January onwards, and the last of them, part of 43 Battery, did not leave until 19 March. G Troop was briefly detached in this period and sited at Shallufa aerodrome. Then this battery moved late in March to Beirut, stayed there for a day or two while the mountain passes were under snow, and then drove through the magnificent scenery of the Lebanons to Rayak aerodrome, set in green fields some 10 miles from the pretty town of Zahle; but the Left Section of H Troop stayed at Khalde on the coast near Beirut, under command of 84 Sub-Area of Ninth Army.

Most divisional units other than those of 5 Brigade moved to Syria in late February or early March. The 6 Brigade artillery, after Combined Operations training in the Canal Zone, moved by way of Beirut and Tripoli to Aleppo on the Turkish frontier, where various gun troops were dispersed among infantry battalions in defensive positions. The 4 Brigade guns moved to the so-called Djedeide fortress astride the main road and railway 150 miles to the south, in the Bekaa Valley flanked by the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon Mountains, where the gunners occupied various prepared camps—mainly corrugated-iron Nissen huts with a few square EPIP tents.

The 5 Brigade artillery paused briefly at Maadi and the 5th Field served for nearly three weeks as depot regiment at the RA school at Almaza, near Cairo, before travelling by road or rail-and-road to the fortress area. Artillery Headquarters was established in barracks in Baalbek.

For the gunners camped near Djedeide or the large villages of Laboue and Zabboud there was plenty of work. With the infantry and engineers they laboured to create a real fortress, with many concreted positions including anti-tank ‘pillboxes’, and to improve their camp areas. Brigadier Weir and his senior officers spent much time reconnoitring, planning and supervising the work. But the CRA had other matters as well which demanded his attention.

page 303

The ‘brigade-group thinking’ that lay behind the fruitless and frustrating experience of 5 Brigade in the El Adem Box showed itself in many other ways which aroused his strong antagonism. Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of brigade groups went so far as to want all units, including artillery and engineers, permanently brigaded. RHQs of anti-tank and light anti-aircraft units were in their view better disbanded. Auchinleck himself supported this view and soon after reaching Syria Brigadier Weir received instructions to disband the RHQ of the 14th Light Ack-Ack and amalgamate each of the regiment's batteries with the field regiments of their respective brigades. This would have been the beginning of a permanent commitment to the ‘brigade-group battle’, diminishing the firepower of the field artillery by two-thirds. In cases where a brigade, perhaps because of the terrain, had no need of ack-ack guns, it would have an idle battery at a time when another brigade was badly in need of more than one battery. If this policy extended, as it was very likely to do, to the anti-tank regiment, the same would be true of anti-tank batteries. And the decisions of brigade commanders about the siting of anti-tank and light anti-aircraft guns—a matter on which few infantry brigadiers were knowledgeable—would be beyond appeal. The brigadier would simply give his orders to the major who commanded the battery and that would be that. At the divisional level there would be no expert voice but the CRA's to speak for these specialist arms—and even the CRA and his headquarters, if the policy were logically applied, might be dispensed with. The effect on the fighting power of the Division would be disastrous.

This was all in accord, as Weir says, with Auchinleck's ‘doctrine of Brigade Groups’,8 which was the main cause of many of the setbacks in the desert fighting. Weir therefore submitted a strong case in writing for not carrying out these instructions and took it personally to General Freyberg, who readily agreed with him. The CRA's ideas marched in the opposite direction from those of the Middle East authorities: he was most anxious that the Divisional Artillery, which in the Molos battle in Greece, the preliminary exercises at Sidi Clif and Bir Stella before the Crusader fighting, and in the Belhamed battle had moved towards centralised control, should develop divisional fire drills and practice deployment and communications as a single entity. He therefore asked Freyberg to let him take each field regiment in turn into the Syrian desert page 304 to practise under Divisional Artillery control and to learn its place and tasks as part of an operational divisional organisation and not merely an administrative one. In the context of current Middle East thinking this was revolutionary; but the GOC was in full sympathy and again agreed.

For Weir and his immediate staff the days at Baalbek were crowded with duties related to the defence of Syria—conferences and committees, visits to Damascus and beyond on Ninth Army business, reconnaissances of the ‘front’ (including ground likely to be occupied by hostile batteries if it came to the worst), demonstrations to visiting senior officers, and much detailed planning. At the same time the 4 Brigade artillery laboured on gun pits, command posts, OPs and other defence works on ground so rocky that engineers had frequently to be called in with their pneumatic drills and explosives. The 6 Brigade artillery also had an active time, though less arduous, with headquarters in or near Aleppo (the 6th Field RHQ lived in a spacious barracks built for the German Asian Corps in 1917) and troops and batteries dispersed to distant border regions in support of the infantry—at Idlib in the north-west or Bab el Kaoua or by the large village of Afrine in the north, in wild, scrub-covered hills which sheltered trout streams and were the scene of night raids across the border by the picturesque Kurds to steal goats.9

Essential work on defences naturally had first call on the resources of the CRA, but he pressed forward with his project to form the Divisional Artillery—especially the field regiments—into a single weapon, powerful and flexible, able to exert whatever of its strength was required rapidly and accurately against any target within reach. All senior officers were soon brought into the discussion; but those of the 4 Brigade artillery were fully committed for the first few weeks on the Djedeide defences. So Brigadier Weir's former regiment, the 6th Field, was the first to conduct exercises conforming with his ideas of divisional control. A preliminary exercise at a firing area near Dezzaboui entailed a night occupation of a position on 1 April so as to be ready to fire a regimental concentration early on the 2nd. But Bedouins had also carried out a night occupation of the target area, as it happened, and it took some time to persuade them to leave. The concentration then came down on page 305 the target, course shooting followed, and the exercise finished with ‘a very effective smoke shoot with fuze zero’, according to a regimental report. A gallery of distinguished visitors seemed impressed.

In the second week of April 5 Brigade from Egypt relieved 6 Brigade on the Turkish frontier and the latter, with its artillery, took over a sector of the Djedeide fortress, the gunners being quartered mainly in camps near Laboue. The 5th Field did not take part in this relief and did not go to Aleppo: it went straight to the Djedeide area, arriving on 23 April, and set to work without delay preparing a regimental position in page 306 the fortress. In a fortnight the newcomers completed 17 gun pits, three command posts and one OP. As with the other regimental positions, those of the 5th Field were to include not only main gun emplacements, but alternative pits and posts, so there seemed no end to the work. The gunners in the fortress area paused briefly to smarten up for inspection by HRH the Duke of Gloucester on 20 May and then, five days later, the 5th Field carried out as an exercise a comprehensive and realistic occupation of the Djedeide position, going through the motions of firing barrages, air co-operation shoots and link shoots, and carrying out cross observation and other schemes.

black and white map of mediterranean

the eastern mediterranean

By this time, however, the CRA's plans for exercising the field artillery under divisional control had matured, despite the many other demands on his time, and he had the opportunity to put some of them into effect in the course of manoeuvres. The first of these began on 24 May when Divisional Headquarters (with Artillery Headquarters) and 4 Brigade and its artillery plus the 6th Field moved into the semi-desert to the north-east of the Fortress. The artillery contingent was further strengthened in the course of the manoeuvres by 211 Medium Battery, RA, and 27 Mountain Battery, RIA, and at the end of the month by the 5th Field and further elements of the 7th Anti-Tank and 14th Light Ack-Ack.

Besides taking their place in the brigade-cum-divisional exercises, the gunners practised various tasks independently. Field and ack-ack gunners, for example, carried out anti-tank shoots, a gun of 47 Battery demonstrated the new 210 fuse fired so as to burst low (its effect, not unlike that of shrapnel, was considered highly suitable for use against infantry or transport), and there were several shoots in conjunction with air co-operation and tactical reconnaissance aircraft, as well as more course shooting for the field gunners.

One of the main purposes of the divisional exercises was to free the Division, as Scoullar puts it, of the idea of ‘brigade groups as tactical entites’.10 The experience of other formations in previous campaigns had won converts, including many non-NZA gunners, to this current Middle East doctrine; but Freyberg and his senior officers were against it. All this reinforced Brigadier Weir's own determination to create a true Divisional Artillery as opposed to a mere aggregate of brigaded regiments and batteries. The exercises, in the Forqloss area a few miles east of Homs (fairly flat semi-desert with just enough water to page 307 serve the needs of the Division), were therefore a turning point in the history of the Divisional Artillery. They were conducted in weather that was getting hotter and hotter and the transport raised huge clouds of dust; but the physical unpleasantness was more than offset for most gunners by the awakening consciousness of unity and power. As one observer put it, ‘it was a grand sight to see a whole regiment, or a brigade…, rolling relentlessly on in desert formation, turning when the leader turned, stopping when he stopped, like a well-disciplined herd of buffalo’.