2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
THE journey along the coast road, after the next refuelling point at Amiriya (outside Alexandria), was like swimming against the tide. The Eighth Army seemed to be in full retreat, with vehicles nose to tail and much evidence of disorder and poor morale. Tobruk had fallen by the time most of the gunners travelled this road, and when they staged at El Daba rumour was indeed rife and some lively imaginations were at work in the NAAFI. The pace was slower on the way to Sidi Haneisb because of the weight of traffic on the road in both directions; but most detachments reached their general destination, Mersa Matruh, in five or six days from when they left their camps or barracks in Syria, exceptionally quick time for such a long journey over roads which were mostly the worse for wear. ‘The long trip from Syria was a good test for guns and vehicles,’ the diary of 43 Battery noted, ‘some minor faults being weakness of stub axles and gun stays, several breaking down during the 1000-mile journey.’
The 4th and 6th Field carried on past the town on 21 June to bivouacs some miles farther west, and the 14th Light Ack-Ack was in course of following suit when it was recalled to take up defensive positions within the Matruh Box. Most of the Bofors were still on the move when an air raid began, they had been allotted no role in the defensive barrage, and they did not open fire. The 5th Field did not arrive until the 23rd and at once deployed in the Box. RHQ of the 7th Anti-Tank and the main body of the regiment halted on the 23rd at Smugglers' Cove, six miles east of Matruh. The move could scarcely have come at a worse time for the anti-tankers. They had been in daily expectation of the arrival of 6-pounders in Syria, 34 Battery had already sent its 2-pounders back to Egypt, and all senior officers and many NCOs were at the 6-pounder course at Almaza. Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell and his battery commanders left the course hastily after one week and rejoined the regiment. There was not much 34 Battery could do without guns and with very little transport, and on the 25th it was sent back to Amiriya to be re-equipped. All other batteries expected their 6-pounders from hour to hour. Then word came on the 25th that 28 of the new page 313 guns were to be collected at Baggush and the RQM, Lieutenant Cornwell,1 hastily unloaded two trucks, left his RQMS and a small party in charge of the equipment from them, and departed with drivers for the ordnance depot.2
The Division had meanwhile withdrawn into the Box and occupied a sector of its defences, which meant for the gunners a lot of work repairing old gun positions, command posts and living quarters or preparing new ones. The dugouts taken over by RHQ of the 14th Light Ack-Ack on the 23rd, between the railhead and beach behind the waterfront hotel, were filthy. Most other quarters were not much better. By this time ack-ack barrage lines had been worked out, three predictors were put into action with A Troop, and the Bofors opened fire in the night 23–24 June, 41 Battery firing 144 rounds and 43 Battery about the same. Telephone lines were laid underground to all three ack-ack batteries for early warning of raids; but 42 Battery was unable to fire until the night of the 24th, by which time E Troop had arrived.
Ten miles south of Matruh, 20 Battalion from 22 June guarded the important road junction called Charing Cross with 48 Battery of the 6th Field and C Troop of 31 Anti-Tank Battery. To reach there the gunners had to drive against an even more chaotic and undisciplined mass of retreating vehicles than that they had met on the way to Matruh. The group returned early on the 25th only to retrace its steps later in the day, this time with 25 Battery of the 4th Field in place of 48 Battery and B Troop of 42 Light Ack-Ack Battery as well. The guns covered a huge minefield which various sapper detachments, including some New Zealand ones, were laying and the gunners saw several sappers blown up and the shattering explosion of an RE truck. All in all, the situation seemed anything but reassuring.
Those who were planning and working on the defence of the Box were not at all happy about it. The front was overlooked by an escarpment to the south and the anti-tank prospects were poor indeed. Fortunately the stay there was to be only brief and a mobile role was now envisaged for the Division. Not nearly enough transport was at hand to move all units at once, 6 Brigade (but not its artillery) had been left at Amiriya, and now each battalion of 4 and 5 Brigades sent back one company. page 314 For the force that remained to meet the oncoming enemy there would therefore be a high proportion of guns to infantry.3
When it was further suggested that the Division should reorganise into battle groups not unlike the Jock columns that had dissipated the strength of the desert army in earlier fighting, General Freyberg would not hear of it. He intended to retain firm control of the forthcoming New Zealand operations and in particular would not decentralise command of the all-important artillery, to the delight of Brigadier Weir. But a greater compliment was yet to come. After much hesitation and many changes of plan at corps or army level (and at army level there was even greater confusion than usual, because General Auchin-leck, who had sacked his army commander at the height of the CRUSADER battle and evidently believed in changing horses in midstream, now sacked another and took over personal command of Eighth Army), the Division was finally told to secure a box in the general area of Minqar Qaim on an escarpment some 25 miles south of Matruh and to maintain a ‘mobile reserve of columns’. Eighth Army then and for many months to come, until Auchinleck himself was superseded, could think of nothing but boxes and columns. Freyberg did not intend to get boxed in; nor did he intend to disperse his strength in columns. He proposed to fight a delaying action in which he could exert the full force of his artillery under circumstances as favourable as possible. And for this purpose he consulted his CRA closely and with him reconnoitred the ground. ‘The position we take up will depend a good deal on what you say,’ he told Weir. ‘You must fight the guns.’4
This was a startling advance on previous practice. Instead of merely conforming to what seemed best for the infantry (which would among other things, of course, take into account anti-tank possibilities), the gunners were to have a large influence on the page 315 choice of the actual ground to be defended. It was, as Weir remarked, a turning point in the history of the Divisional Artillery. The battle that resulted, like Molos in Greece, was a gunners' battle.5
An Indian division relieved the New Zealand Division in Matruh on the 25th and in the afternoon and evening the two brigades moved off and travelled an average of about 15 miles to the south-east. The 6th Field (with another 14 three-tonners and three pick-ups which arrived at the last moment), 33 Anti-Tank Battery and 43 Light Ack-Ack travelled with Divisional Reserve Group. Next morning there was much juggling of scarce transport and carting of ammunition dumped at Matruh. Then the Division moved to Minqar Qaim. From the escarpment there 5 Brigade despatched a column including 27 Battery and E Troop of 32 Battery—the only troop so far with 6-pounders6—to guard supply depots at Bir Khalda 10 miles farther south. Above and below the escarpment 5 Brigade Headquarters established itself at Minqar Qaim itself, with 22 Battalion to the west, 23 in the centre and 28 (Maori) Battalion some distance away to the east, 18 Battalion of the Reserve Group being between the last two.
2 The RQMS and party stayed on guard until the enemy overran the area and captured them.
3 Various detachments were ordered to be left out of battle (LOB), among the NZA ones being all but a skeleton of Div Artillery HQ and RHQ of the 14th Light Ack-Ack, less the CO and a handful of others, and these left Matruh on the 25th and reached Maadi next day. On the 25th, too, Lt-Col Carty became sick and was evacuated to hospital, his place as CO being taken by Major Bretherton. LOB personnel from the LAA batteries took the predictors with them.
The 14th LAA Signals Section, now under the command of 2 Lt L. E. Vaughan, was also to be LOB, its essential duties being taken over by remaining Signals sections. It travelled by coal trucks on one of the last trains to leave the Matruh area and reached Amiriya on the 29th.
1 Survey Troop and many unessential elements of other NZA units drove eastwards on the 26th.
4 As remembered by Weir in a letter of 9 June 1948.
5 It might have been part of a larger battle crowned with success; for Eighth Army could deploy far greater strength on this front than the advancing enemy, whose resources were rapidly dwindling. But Auchinleck on his way up to take command, and before he had had a chance to examine the position closely, had already decided to ‘keep the Eighth Army fully mobile’—fateful words, highly reminiscent of the disastrous conduct of the armoured battle in CRUSADER campaign!—and withdraw to a line at El Alamein, many miles to the east. The quotation is from John Connell, Auchinleck, p. 614.