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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

CHAPTER 8 — Interlude in Syria

page 297

Interlude in Syria

REINFORCEMENTS had reached Baggush from base camp long before Christmas and units were quickly restored to something approaching their original strengths. This meant many new faces in some units—one in three in the 6th Field and over one in four in the 7th Anti-Tank, for example.1 It meant four new regimental commanders: Glasgow, as mentioned, for the 5th Field, Lieutenant-Colonel Walter2 for the 6th Field, Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell (formerly second-in-command of the 4th Field) for the 7th Anti-Tank, and Lieutenant-Colonel Carty (formerly of 41 Battery) for the 14th Light Ack-Ack.3 And it meant a new CRA, ‘Steve’ Weir, promoted to brigadier. Among existing regimental commanders there were only two Regulars of the RNZA, Weir of the 6th Field and Duff of the 4th Field, and the former was one rung higher on the gradation list. Both were highly accomplished gunners, but of very different kinds. Weir was a dominant personality whose heart and soul was in field gunnery. He had so far found regimental life ‘all that one could wish for’ (as he wrote in a December letter to his brother); the 6th Field was to him a ‘very happy family’, and he did not at first welcome the wider responsibilities of his new command.

Weir's record was already auspicious. In 1925 the officer commanding the Central Military District had written of him that he had ‘outstanding qualities—a strong personality, a good physique, soldierly appearance, and a very good cadet and Territorial record’. What was at issue was a cadetship to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and the OC continued, ‘I place him first and strongly recommend his selection as a man well fitted to uphold New Zealand's reputation and to become a valuable officer’. Fortunately for the artillery it was not to Sandhurst that Weir went but to the Royal Military page 298 Academy at Woolwich. Passing out in 1927, he spent a year attached to field, medium and anti-aircraft units of the Royal Artillery before returning to New Zealand. A varied career included special duty at Napier after the 1931 earthquake. In 1933 he became adjutant of the 1st Field Artillery Brigade and in 1936 of the 18th Anti-Aircraft Battery. The outbreak of war forestalled a course at Camberley; but it led to rapid promotion. By July 1941 Weir had already been twice mentioned in despatches. For outstanding service in Greece he was awarded the DSO and in due course, for his contribution to the fighting at Sidi Rezegh, he earned a bar to it. Only 37 years old when he became CRA, even greater honours were in store for Steve Weir.

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.

5 Brigade Mans the El Adem Box

The gunners of 5 Brigade perhaps felt all this most acutely. They had the unhappy task of retracing their steps in the second week of February to the Tobruk area, where their brigade stationed itself in an all-round defensive position at El Adem. A last-minute rush of re-equipping had put all units more or less on war establishments. Now they had to dig in and prepare to engage the enemy if he ventured past the Gazala position. It seemed as if the bitter fighting of the Crusader campaign had yielded no lasting reward—nor, for those interested in tactics, had it taught any lessons. Isolated brigade boxes, out of reach of each other, seemed all too likely to be defeated in detail and overrun. Moreover, the propensity Eighth Army had displayed in Crusader to split itself up into ineffectual mobile detachments now seemed to have become a mania and the brigade was ordered to form itself into Jock columns for the purpose of ‘swanning about’ the desert. The New Zealand command, however, insisted that all defensive positions be well dug and protected and the 14,000-yard perimeter was strongly wired and mined.

On the way to El Adem a 5th Field truck sent to Matruh to collect water tins was unluckily hit by high-level bombing and two gunners were hit, one of them being killed instantly and the other dying of wounds.6 Orders to form a Jock column arrived before the guns got past Belhamed on 15 February. The gunner contribution was to be 28 Battery, F Troop of 32 Battery, and the Right Section of E Troop, 42 Battery. These were to stay with their units, but were to be ready to move within a quarter of an hour when ordered. Of the field guns, 28 Battery was to remain mobile, while 27 and 47 Batteries were to take up anti-tank positions, excepting one troop of each which were to have dual anti-tank and field roles. To strengthen page 301 the anti-tank defences still further, six 75-millimetre and six 47-millimetre Italian guns were to be manned by infantry, supervised by a field gunner on each ‘75’ and an anti-tank gunner on each ‘47’. The brigade layout seemed to be designed for a do-or-die action against a full-scale panzer onslaught—not a reassuring prospect and even less so when it was discovered that the 75s were practically useless and the 47s almost as bad. The least that could be expected if a strong enemy did reach the neighbourhood would be a bombardment by field and medium artillery to which, in replying, the 5th Field would be very much at a disadvantage. Even the Bofors gunners, who looked forward to some brisk action, had their spirits dampened by orders not to open fire except against planes which were actually attacking the El Adem Box from a ‘reasonable height’. In the next few days they saw many hostile aircraft; but most were at high altitudes, evidently respectful of the heavy ack-ack guns defending Tobruk and the El Adem landing ground.7 Four 18-pounders arrived in mid-March to replace defective Italian 75s and were duly dug in. The anti-tank guns—2-pounders, 18-pounders, 25-pounders and captured enemy guns—were sited in depth with overlapping arcs of fire.

Early on the morning of 28 February 13 Italian aircraft came over low and ground-strafed the nearby landing ground and the gunners of 42 Battery fired freely at them whenever they came within reach. Fierce sandstorms at the end of the month were followed early in March by heavy rain which bogged many lorries and flooded or otherwise damaged gun pits, but also reduced air activity on both sides. Mainly because of salvage work, which was extensive, ammunition for most types of gun became plentiful and live-shoots gave field, anti-tank and ack-ack gunners good practice. Some shooting of this kind was even carried out by guns on patrol with the brigade mobile column; but no enemy was seen on those occasions. Then, on 16 March, the Bofors gunners had the interesting experience of carrying out a practice shoot with a new automatic loader. A few days later an advanced party of a South African brigade inspected the El Adem Box, and on the 24th the main body of 5 Brigade was relieved and withdrew, in a sandstorm which cut visibility down to a few yards and made travel most unpleasant, across the frontier. By the 28th it was back in Maadi, to the delight of the gunners.

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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.

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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’.

Increased Anti-Tank Strength

There were other encouraging developments, too. A surprising order early in April that all portées of 34 Anti-Tank Battery, complete with guns, were to be returned to the ordnance depot at Abbassia in Cairo was duly complied with. It was followed by news that all four anti-tank batteries were to be re-equipped with 6-pounders. These guns, mentioned at first only guardedly by code-names, would certainly be more powerful and therefore very welcome. The much-maligned 2-pounder had in truth served well against enemy tanks in the Crusader battles, but a few German tanks with specially hardened armour had caused some concern, more were certain to appear (as indeed they had already done in the Libyan desert), and anti-tank guns which could engage them at longer range and with more destructive effect were most desirable.

The course of the Crusader fighting, moreover, indicated that the allotment of C4 anti-tank guns was insufficient for all-round protection in mobile operations, in which many more or less isolated detachments would be subject to tank attack. This point had been strongly urged by senior New Zealand officers after the campaign and their urgings now bore fruit. All the 2-pounders were to be handed over to the infantry and more still were to be provided so that each infantry battalion would have two four-gun anti-tank platoons, making a total of 80 infantry anti-tank guns. The 7th Anti-Tank, when fully re-equipped, was to have 64 6-pounders. This huge increase in the anti-tank strength of the Division would allow far greater tactical flexibility in mobile operations.

The task of training infantry to man the 2-pounders was undertaken by 34 Battery, which in the early days in Egypt had trained Australians, Indians and RA gunners. It was the sort of thing this battery did extremely well. It still retained many of the ‘old hands’ recruited in the United Kingdom, page 308 more widely-experienced and rather better educated than average New Zealand recruits; it had been on active service longer than any other sub-unit of the Division, and its present commander, Major Hall-Kenney, probably knew as much about anti-tank gunnery as anyone in the Middle East. The six-weeks' course he provided, with every detail meticulously planned, gave representatives of all 10 infantry battalions, a total of 21 officers and 88 NCOs who were to form the nuclei of the infantry anti-tank platoons, a thorough grounding in their new roles. The camp at Zabboud resounded to their gun drill, the course included many lectures and demonstrations, and it ended late in May with a field exercise and a live shoot.11

Key Men Leave for Service in the Pacific

Syria provided a wealth of new experiences for the New Zealand gunners, most of them enjoyable: leave at Baalbek, Damascus or Beirut, a ski school high up in the Lebanons, entertaining and being entertained by the French Foreign Legion in Aleppo, and a variety of interesting outings and tasks, including reconnaissances, which brought them into contact with the colourful and hospitable inhabitants. The climate, too, provided far more variety than that of the North African desert. An enduring concern, however, in both the Bekaa Valley and the frontier area was the guarding of camps against would-be thieves, who were numerous, skilful and daring. It was a period, too, of rumour and counter-rumour and earnest debate about the future of the Division in the light of the disasters in the Pacific. Despite denials from General Freyberg himself, there were many plausible allegations that the New Zealanders in the Middle East were going home. A few able gunners did go, to help train forces in New Zealand and to provide a leavening of battle experience for forces in the Pacific, then at brigade strength.

Among these was Danny Duff, who had commanded 34 Anti-Tank Battery in the early days, then the 7th Anti-Tank in Greece, and then, for nearly a year, the 4th Field. His extensive knowledge of gunnery and battle experience would be of great value in dealing with the urgent problems presented by the Japanese advances in the Pacific. Not everyone in the 4th Field page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page 309 was sorry to see him go; but the 4th Field owed more to him than most of its members realised. He had reconstructed the regiment after the disaster of Greece and Crete and saw that it was trained to the highest standards for the campaign in Libya. His handling of his guns at Zaafran and Belhamed, in circumstances of bewildering complexity, was superbly skilful. On the fateful 1st of December after the 6th Field was overrun, the defence of the remnants of the Division at Zaafran against disaster which threatened from the west was entirely in his hands. Even the divisional commander and his two brigade commanders did not fully grasp the danger and debated a quite unrealistic proposal to withdraw westwards; but Duff saw it clearly and, out of touch with them for several critical hours (because he insisted on keeping his complex telephone communications intact and refused to move when brigade headquarters moved), he fought a lone battle with all available guns, field, anti-tank and ack-ack, against two panzer divisions and the Italian Ariete Armoured Division and held them off until dark, when the Division withdrew. His contribution in this crisis was never properly recognised in the Division; but in due course his abilities were rewarded by his appointment as CRA of 3 Division in the Pacific. He left the 4th Field in April and was replaced early in June by Lieutenant-Colonel Queree, slender, retiring and at that time relatively unknown, but also of high ability which took him eventually in Italy to the position of CRA.12

black and white photograph of gun movement

Manhandling Bofors into position on the way to Gazala

black and white photograph of artillery firing

A 5th Field gun in the Gazala battle

black and white photograph of artillery firing

2-pounder portée at Gazala

black and white photograph of ship

5th Field on Combined Operations training in the Gulf of Suez

black and white photograph of truck

A 33 Battery portée below the Aleppo citadel

black and white photograph of soldier with gas mark

Gas-mask practice on the Forqloss manoeuvres, Syria

black and white photograph of artillery

25-pounder on Forqloss plain

black and white photograph of soldier with gun

Boys anti-tank rifle on manoeuvres—seldom fired in action

black and white photograph of shelling

The first shell lands at Minqar Qaim, 27 June 1942

black and white photograph of artillery

A 25-pounder in the Minqar Qaim action

black and white photograph of soldier on truck

A makeshift OP at Minqar Qaim

black and white photograph of damaged vehicles

Disabled vehicles at the foot of Minqar Qaim, from a painting by Sergeant J. W. Crippen

black and white photograph of minqar qaim

Minqar Qaim, by Crippen

black and white photograph of desert

A nearby wadi

black and white photograph of painting

The break-out, from a painting by Captain Peter McIntyre, formerly of 34 Anti-Tank Battery

black and white photograph of jeep moving artillery

A jeep towing a 6-pounder in the early days in the Alamein Line

black and white photograph of destroyed artillery

The remnants of the Ariete Divisional Artillery, 3 July 1942

black and white photograph of artillery under net

A 5th Field gun firing under a camouflage net, at Alam Nayil, August 1942

black and white photograph of soldiers near artillery

The 14th Light Ack-Ack engaging the Luftwaffe at Alam Nayil

black and white photograph of destroyed artillery

The burial of a gun crew of 43 Battery, all killed when their Bofors sustained a direct hit by a bomb, 16 July 1942

black and white photograph of destroyed artillery

27 Battery goes to ground in a Stuka raid, August 1942

black and white photograph of trucks in desert

‘Swordfish’ area, September 1942

black and white photograph of montogomery and weir

General Montgomery presents a DSO to Steve Weir, 12 October 1942

black and white photograph of soldier receiving award

Lance-Bombardier B. W. Johnston receives an MM from the 8th Army Commander

black and white photograph of soldiers relaxing

36 Survey Battery relaxing on the shore of the Dead Sea

black and white photograph of soldiers sitting

A survey camp in the Transjordan. Front row: A. W. Cross, Jack Arthurs, A. I. Lyall, N. Russell, Back row: Pat Malthus, Jeff Hole, J. Fenton, T. Harmon

black and white photograph of soldiers discussing

General Freyberg confers with senior officers before the Alamein offensive. Steve Weir centre

black and white photograph of artillery firing

A 4.5 at Alamein

black and white photograph of guns firing

A gun of A Troop, 5th Field, fires its last round on supercharge before the breakthrough, November 1942

black and white photograph of soldiers relaxing

A Troop gun crew, 5th Field, relaxing before beginning the pursuit, November 1942

black and white photograph of lorry

A 7th Anti-Tank lorry bogged down near Fuka

black and white photograph of fuka

Fuka after the deluge, November 1942

There was no thought early in June of doing anything more than continuing the manning of the frontier positions, completing the Djedeide fortress, and carrying out more extensive and advanced divisional manoeuvres (in the course of which Brigadier Weir hoped to get nearer to his ideal of a divisional artillery trained to operate flexibly and efficiently at all levels from single guns up to unified control at divisional level or even higher). But all these projects suddenly dissolved on 14 June when orders arrived for the Division to move in great haste to Mersa Matruh in the Western Desert. The Eighth Army had been defeated at Gazala, Tobruk was threatened, and reinforcements were urgently needed to check the advance of the victorious Axis army. Acutely aware of the many shortages page 310 of transport and war equipment, the officers and NCOs of the Division hastened to comply with this startling order, improvising and borrowing to meet deficiencies, and turning the many camps in the Bekaa Valley and at the frontier into scenes of turmoil. The 4th and 6th Field and 1 Survey Troop left on the 16th, the 5th Field on the 18th, and the 7th Anti-Tank and 14th Light Ack-Ack in batteries and smaller groups, as their attachments and various local tasks allowed, between the 16th and 19th.

It was an extraordinary exodus. When 31 Anti-Tank Battery moved off on the 17th, for example, it did so without 50 men, a significant proportion of its strength, who were still on leave. Two troops of 33 Battery had left as recently as the 9th with 6 Brigade for Aleppo to relieve 5 Brigade, and E Troop of 42 Light Ack-Ack Battery had remained in the frontier area.13 The Left Section of A Troop of 41 Battery had not long gone to Saida (Sidon) on the coast south of Beirut and 43 Battery still had a section at Khalde. All these far-flung detachments and the men on leave and on special tasks14 had to be gathered in and despatched southwards. New Zealand insignia of all kinds had to be removed from uniforms and vehicles in a hasty effort to disguise the move and deceive enemy agents—though none of the civilians on the route seemed in any doubt about the identity of the New Zealanders. At Rayak 41 Battery had lent four three-tonners to a pioneer unit, its remaining vehicles were crammed with men and equipment, and still the predictors had to be left behind, to be picked up by the four lorries when they returned. The first main staging area was to be at Affule, south of Tiberias in Palestine, and it was hoped that many detachments would rejoin their units there.

Impressions of the journey varied. Some detachments, for example, had refreshing interludes in orchards and citrus groves when their convoys were held up. All found the heat oppressive. At Tiberias, over 120 in the shade, it was stifling. The haste under such conditions caused vehicles to overheat and the scorching roads—especially the shimmering macadam through the Sinai desert on the second day—and overloading caused some tyres to burst.

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The main convoy crossed the Suez Canal on the 19th, drove through Cairo without halting, refuelled near Mena, and staged in the Wadi Natrun near Halfway House. The familiar scenes brought home to the gunners that the Syrian interlude, instructing, refreshing and in the main very enjoyable, had ended. All realised the gravity of the situation they now faced; but in good health and high spirits most of them welcomed the new adventure.

1 J. L. Scoullar in his campaign history, Battle for Egypt (War History Branch, 1955), p.9, exaggerates the losses of these two units.

2 Lt-Col C. L. Walter, DSO, ED; Hamilton; born Christchurch, 10 Dec 1902; electrical engineer; CO 6 Fd Regt Dec 1941–Nov 1943.

3 ‘Snow’ Walter was a popular choice and was to retain his command, as it happened, longer than any other CO of a field regiment. Jack Mitchell was equally popular and retained his new command even longer.

4 Since mid-December various guns of the 14th LAA—at first of 41 Battery, then of 43 Battery—served in static roles as part of the harbour defences of Mersa Matruh and they continued to do so until 8 January.

5 Lt-Col A. A. Angell, MC; Auckland; born Whangarei, 27 Jul 1906; importer; Bty Comd, 6 Fd Regt, 1944; 2 i/c 5 Fd Regt Mar-May 1945; CO 6 Fd Regt May 1945-Jan 1946; wounded 26 Sep 1944.

Capt W. Halford of the 4th Field had also taken a salvage party back to the Tobruk area and recovered guns and equipment.

6 Gnrs G. D. McGillivray and J. R. Skinner.

7 One of them dropped six bombs in the 5th Field B Echelon area on 26 February, killing two gunners and wounding Capt H. T. W. Nolan.

8 Letter of 9 June 1948.

9 Some unexpected gunner reunions took place at Aleppo in March when 36 NZ Survey Battery (not strictly at that time part of the Divisional Artillery), less detachments on the Red Sea and in Cyprus, moved there to check existing maps of northern Syria. See Chapter 13.

10 Op. cit., p. 39.

11 A logical sequel to this course was another at Almaza in mid-June on the Roberts gun or 6-pounder. The CO, all four battery commanders, all troop commanders, and two sergeants per troop of the 7th Anti-Tank went to this; but they were not able, as it happened, to complete it. Before the course ended some of them were firing the new gun at the enemy in the Western Desert.

12 Queree soon demonstrated that he was a good ‘sport’ by taking part in a regimental gymkhana on 14 June and winning the donkey race on ‘Phar Lap’ (with Major Sproven second on ‘Beau Vite’ and Major Bevan third on ‘Wotan’).

13 Men of E Troop detailed to go on leave on 5 June had their leave suddenly cancelled ‘because of food riots among native population’.

14 A typical task was one undertaken by the 14th LAA, which had to send two lorries loaded with jerricans to Alexandria. These managed to rejoin the regiment at Affule, but it meant that the unit was short of two invaluable three-tonners when it left the Fortress area.