2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Threats from All Quarters
Threats from All Quarters
The heat of the early afternoon was scorching and caused the FOOs much concern. The heat haze made targets look like jelly and monstrously tall. Gun blasts and exploding shells raised so much dust that accurate observation was at times page 322 almost out of the question. Nevertheless tanks approaching from the north soon after 2 p.m. met fire from the 4th Field and quickly halted. The 5th and 6th Field dealt with lorried infantry deploying farther east. A little later another group of tanks began to work round to the east of the Division. B Troop of 31 Battery had already lost one of its new 6-pounders in a duel with a German gun; the driver was killed and two crew members were wounded. Then A Troop destroyed an armoured car at 1300 yards and neighbouring infantry and field gunners literally jumped for joy at seeing the 6-pounders prove themselves. When the enemy reached the escarpment and began working back towards 19 Battalion he met the fire of the infantry 2-pounders, D Troop of 31 Battery, and all the 4th Field guns. The foremost elements were driven back, but the enemy built up strength in the cover of a deep, wide re-entrant in the escarpment at Bir Abu Batta and pushed on southwards and then south-westwards to threaten 4 Brigade from the south.
When shells began to land in the Divisional area from the south, a battery of the 4th Field was detailed to cover this new front and some of the 6-pounders, as already related, went forward to help. The threat developed against the southern flank of the Reserve Group. Besides the 6-pounders, some manned by scratch crews, the guns of 30 Battery engaged the tanks. Lieutenant Polhill's14 troop fought the tanks fiercely. One gun was knocked out and the GPO wounded; but Polhill kept the other three guns firing from a most exposed position until the enemy had had enough and drew away, leaving four disabled tanks on the scene. Then Polhill recovered the damaged gun. For this stout engagement he received the MC. Many B Echelon trucks, including some artillery ones, had been dispersed south of Divisional Headquarters and this attack scattered them. Some rallied at once; others were not seen again until the Division reached Alamein.
The 1st Armoured Division had been operating some miles to the south and now ventured northwards to help, coming under fire from the New Zealand guns in so doing and losing one tank. This misfortune was a product of the loose control which characterised all Eighth Army operations. Corps control had never at any stage been effective and if Auchinleck had had his way with the battle-group scheme there would have been little or no divisional control. There was little enough to the page 323 north at that very time. Though the 10 Corps commander was doing his best to keep his divisions intact, they had already provided, under Army orders, a number of battle groups and further orders entailed even more dispersion. The New Zealand Division came under 13 Corps, whose commander, General Gott, had a fervent belief that in the desert war no ground was tactically important. This was in effect a standing invitation to all subordinates to avoid heavy fighting and this very day he told Freyberg, in the words of the Eighth Army war diary, ‘not to regard the ground which he was at present holding as vital’. It was a recipe for defeat and Freyberg ignored it. When 1 Armoured Division announced its intention, in the early afternoon, of withdrawing independently, however, Freyberg protested strongly: hence the last-minute and ill-planned intervention against the enemy attacking from the south, in the course of which a British armoured patrol came under New Zealand artillery fire. The enemy was at that stage highly vulnerable and a determined attack by the British armoured division, in conjunction with the damaging fire of the New Zealand Division and spirited local counter-attacks by its infantry, would certainly have had 21 Panzer Division in serious trouble. The armoured division was uncertain and ill-informed, however, and its squadrons withdrew southwards. Freyberg, realising that his division was under attack from three sides and that the enemy was across his line of retreat, decided he would have to withdraw by night and could expect no help.
It was a serious situation, but not a grave one. The guns retained their dominance of the battlefield and enemy attacks were tentative and not persistent in the face of the 25-pounder fire. The most worrying aspect was that ammunition was getting low and there was no hope of replenishing it, while a further concern was the diminishing effectiveness of wireless communications. Partly because of this, Brigadier Weir, controlling his guns from a central signals exchange, did not ‘have his hand on’ the 4th Field as much as he would have liked.
The attack from the south, then, petered out and an almost concurrent attack from the north by infantry covered by tank fire was opposed at first by the 6th Field. The field gunners, however, knew that the Maoris on that sector were well forward, though uncertain of their exact positions, and had to cease fire for fear of endangering them. Sergeant Parks15 of C Troop was page 324 holding his fire in case the tanks came on; but when a light gun towed by a lorry swung round at about 1800 yards as if to come into action against the Maoris, he engaged it. The 6-pounder demonstrated a vicious habit it had when the layer was struck in the eye by the shoulder piece and knocked unconscious.16 The enemy gun was nevertheless disabled and a fresh layer took over, stopping the truck with his first shot. Meanwhile an ammunition number of Parks's crew gave the Maoris covering fire as they counter-attacked. His Bren gun had no spare barrel and other gunners cooled it by emptying their water bottles on it, enabling him to fire 13 magazines of .303 ammunition. The counter-attack was completely successful and the enemy made no further attack on the New Zealand position at Minqar Qaim.
FOOs and CPOs were puzzled by the German artillery tactics. Several times during the day they found their positions clearly bracketed and registered as targets and waited apprehensively for the fire for effect which the ranging shots heralded. Sometimes no such fire came; at other times it fell harmlessly distant from the registered target. Evidently, in the latter cases, the Germans were making some ‘correction’ after ranging which put them right off their target. In many cases, also, German guns which seemed fairly close together in certain areas did not fire in any kind of unison, but as separate guns, individually controlled, thereby minimising the effect of their fire. Freyberg wrote in his diary about the morning's action: ‘Proceedings opened with a searching strafe of the area early with the usual lack of success for amount of shooting.’ He had experienced this kind of gunnery before and Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow said, of this day's fighting, that this ‘curious feature of German gunnery’ was ‘met with not infrequently’.
The most striking example of it this day was from a group of at least a dozen guns in a very shallow, scrub-covered depression between 5000 and 10,000 yards north of 5 Brigade. Their fire was troublesome nearly all day, but not damaging. In the absence of the flash-spotters of the survey troop it was hard to range on individual guns which were firing irregularly. Finally, after many fruitless attempts to silence them, Glasgow adopted the policy of bringing down a regimental concentration page 325 on each known gun whenever it fired. It was expensive in ammunition, but completely effective. From about 3.30 p.m. these guns were silent.
The 5 Brigade area, which had seemed in the beginning most vulnerable to attack, was never directly threatened; but it suffered heavy shelling, directed mainly at the 5th Field guns. The gun positions had little or no protection and inevitably some guns and vehicles were hit. One gun, under Sergeant Hoare,17 suffered damage and its trailer and ammunition were set on fire. Hoare rallied his men, put out the fire, and started to repair the gun. The shelling continued and he was forced to withdraw until it abated. Then he went back and brought the gun into action again. Bombardier Beard18 of 28 Battery was wounded, but stayed with his men. A lorry was set on fire and ammunition on it kept exploding, endangering nearby lorries. Beard collected some gunners and with them unloaded ammunition from these other lorries, regardless of the violent explosions close at hand. For the rest of the day he was tireless and selfless in his determination to keep the guns supplied with ammunition. Both Hoare and Beard were awarded the MM.19
Freyberg was wounded in the neck by a shell splinter at 5 p.m. while studying the aftermath of the attack which the Maoris repulsed. This spate of firing was the enemy's last major effort this day and when it died down the noise of battle slowly subsided altogether. As dusk approached, the field guns were down to about 35 rounds per gun, and many of these rounds would have been armour-piercing or smoke, of little use under the circumstances except as a last resort. A further heavy attack at this stage might have brought about a crisis; but the enemy had had enough.
16 This early version of the 6-pounder was a menace to layers, but later versions were fitted with shoulder pads which overcame this trouble.
The injured layer, Gnr R. M. Williams, travelled in an ambulance in the night break-out and in the course of it was killed by machine-gun fire.
17 2 Lt H. R. Hoare, MM; Waitaki; born NZ, 6 Jan 1919; printer; wounded 5 Feb 1944.
19 Another gunner who was decorated partly for what he did this day—though his DSO was not awarded until the end of the year—was Lt-Col Mitchell of the 7th Anti-Tank. He was here, there and everywhere at Minqar Qaim. His pick-up truck was riddled with shell splinters and his driver wounded in the arm. His own safety seemed to be the last thing he thought of. When the attack started from the south he helped to get the spare 6-pounders manned and into action and some say that he helped to fire one of them, though he denies this. His example was inspiring and greatly endeared him to his men. It was not until 7 p.m. that he returned to his HQ, consisting of the adjutant's truck in the Artillery HQ area.