2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Maadi and the Western Desert
Maadi and the Western Desert
The arrival of the 4th Field at Maadi on 11 February 1940 had been more memorable. They had marched with their personal gear from the railway a mile away, led by the band of the Durham Light Infantry and watched by a sprinkling of local residents, English, French and Egyptian. The 4th Field was the first New Zealand unit to arrive; hence this special treatment. The artillery lines had been prepared beforehand by 1 Field Regiment, RA, and a party from this unit welcomed the newcomers and had a meal ready for them, as well as giving them a week's ‘mothering’ which was especially helpful in administration and quartermastering.
Gunners of the First Echelon could only do elementary training until their equipment arrived and therefore made the most of their leisure hours. No leave passes were needed to visit Cairo and this city showed a brighter and kindlier face than later arrivals were to see. The Egyptian Museum was still open, the lights of the city blazed, and the New Zealanders, the largest and wealthiest of the contingents of troops stationed nearby, were made most welcome. The residents of Maadi erected a huge tent among trees at the edge of the desert a mile from the camp and staffed it as a recreation centre which became very popular. In the camp there were several recreation huts and the ramshackle Shafto's Cinema.
Training proceeded rapidly with guns which arrived on 1 March and with the help of other artillery units, particularly the 4th Royal Horse Artillery. In April ‘Milesia’ under Briga- page 17 dier Miles fought ‘Puttagonia’ under Brigadier Puttick,26 and 4 Field Regiment supplied two batteries each of two troops and a party representing an anti-tank battery. This exercise, carried out in the desert up to 30 miles south of Maadi Camp, concluded on Anzac Day. After a service in the desert to commemorate the day, the gunners returned to camp and there met 34 Anti-Tank Battery when it arrived in the late afternoon from England via France and the Mediterranean.
The anti-tankers brought with them nine of their full complement of twelve 2-pounders and in almost all other respects were fully equipped for war, a unique distinction which aroused considerable interest. They possessed anti-gas capes, machettes, camouflage nets, field dressings, Horlick's emergency rations and many other items that attracted attention.
When the Wehrmacht attacked first Norway and then the Lowlands and France and it seemed likely that Italy might enter the war on the German side, Brigadier Miles redoubled his efforts to obtain the guns, transport and other equipment that his units urgently needed. The Italian declaration of war on 10 June caused the gunners much hard work in dispersing their tents and ‘digging them in’ in case of air raids. But it also meant the closing of the Mediterranean to British shipping and further delay in equipping the Army of the Nile. Dismounted artillery detachments also went to Helwan and Heliopolis to protect airfields, while other gunners made dummy tanks which were in due course sent to the Western Desert to deceive the Italians there.
A force of 120 guners laboured in the torrid July heat to dig a deep anti-tank trench at Garawla, 14 miles south-east of Matruh. A similar detachment relieved them after three weeks. A field battery received full war equipment early in August and by the end of the month the whole of the 4th Field moved to Maaten Baggush, where 4 New Zealand Infantry Brigade Group (to give it its full title) prepared a ‘box’ of a few square miles with all-round defences. Some men still laboured at Garawla, while 34 Anti-Tank Battery (now under the command of Major Jenkins,27 since Lieutenant-Colonel Duff commanded the 7th Anti-Tank) conducted a school in- page 18 struction for British, Australian and Indian anti-tank units at Maadi. The New Zealand battery was the only one in the Middle East trained in the use of the 2-pounder.
The Western Desert was still an empty wilderness in the autumn of 1940 and in it a force of little more than a division faced a large Italian army under General Graziani at Sidi Barrani. The New Zealand brigade guarded the lines of communication from Alexandria to a point west of Baggush. The single-track railway and narrow coast road traversed 160 miles of scrub-covered sand, baked earth and limestone rock which in placed formed steep escarpments. Occasional Arab homes, a few Bedouin encampments, a line of telegraph poles which sometimes sent out a branch to the south, and the ramshackle buildings near the railway stations of El Alamein, Ghazal, El Daba, Fuka and Sidi Haneish, with rare coastguard or light-house buildings, were almost the only evidences of man in this wasteland and on them were thinly superimposed the marks of the Western Desert Force with its RAF supporters. The sea for the most part was empty, too, and in the heat the land seemed to wobble like jelly. It was a lonely place in those early days to fight a war.
At Baggush the 4th Field occupied an area of scrub mounds laced with tracks knee-deep in soft white dust and the anti-tank battery lines reached down a gentle hollow towards the date palms and water wells of Burbeita. By September the regiment had 22 assorted field guns in five troops, two in a field role and three in an anti-tank role, while another troop was on special duty in Alexandria with four 4.5-inch howitzers. None of the troops had up-to-date equipment; but they prepared to do battle with what they could get. Battalion and brigade manoeuvres were carried out in the rough-country to the south of the Box, and gunners learned to navigate by sun compass28 and drive across steep-sided wadis and to play their various roles in a war of movement. They experienced their first bad sandstrom at the end of October. Early next month four troops were delighted to be re-equipped with 25-pounders, Mark I, as well as trucks and ammunition trailers. Parties from the 6th Field and 33 Anti-Tank Battery coming from Maadi for instruction gave the First Echelon gunners a sense, previously absent, of belonging to a larger family. Some of the newcomers were still page 19 attached when a rainstorm of great violence late in November changed dry wadis overnight into raging torrents, flooded most of the oasis, and turned much of the surrounding desert into impassable mud. Tent excavations flooded and their walls collapsed, and unhappy gunners had to salvage what they could of their belongings and dig new homes. Then, a mere four days later, they suffered a dust-storm. Such was life in the desert.
Western Desert Force struck against the Italian desert army early in December; but few of the New Zealanders had an active role at the beginning. It was only when success exceeded expectation that New Zealand drivers (gunners and infantry among them) were demanded with their lorries to carry supplies forward and prisoners back. Captain Sprosen29 took 55 4th Field vehicles on the first of these missions on 12 December. His party made three journeys forward with petrol and ammunition and one back with prisoners, covering 1000 miles of rough desert in eight days. Meanwhile more drivers were needed to collect captured diesel lorries and 55 went on the 16th, took over the huge and troublesome Fiats and Lancias, and shuttled supplies forward. Both groups of drivers passed through the battlefield south of Sidi Barrani and saw for themselves the sometimes pathetic relics of the fighting. After Christmas Sprosen took another group of 58 vehicles to Burg el Arab (between El Alamein and Alexandria) to help carry 19 Australian Infantry Brigade into Libya for its attack on Bardia. The gunners drove up Halfaya Pass on the frontier and put the Australians down near the recently captured Fort Capuzzo. The ubiquitous Sprosen then led an advanced party back to the Cairo area, to Helwan Camp (where 6 NZ Brigade was then established30) and on 10 January 1941 the rest of the 4th Field followed, leaving Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson behind at Baggush as acting brigade commander. The gunners' first long sojourn in the desert was over and new tasks were being planned for them. The union of 4 and 6 Brigades was an important step towards the assembling of the whole of the New Zealand Division.
26 Lt-Gen Sir Edward Puttick, KCB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Timaru, 26 Jun 1890; Regular soldier; NZ Rifle Bde 1914-19 (CO 3 Bn); comd 4 Bde Jan 1940-Aug 1941; 2 NZ Div (Crete) 29 Apr-27 May 1941; CGS and GOC NZ Military Forces, Aug 1941-Dec 1945.
28 Navigators had to take oil compasses away from vehicles to diminish the inaccuracy caused by the mass of iron and steel. This was not only time-consuming: in a large, dispersed group it was hard to find anywhere within a reasonable distance that allowed fairly accurate readings.
29 Lt-Col J. F. R. Sprosen, DSO, ED; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 20 Jan 1908; schoolteacher; CO 4 Fd Regt Apr-Jun 1942, Sep-Oct 1942; 5 Fd Regt Oct-Nov 1942; 14 Lt AA Regt Nov 1942-Jun 1943, Dec 1943-Nov 1944; 7 A-Tk Regt Nov-Dec 1944; wounded 24 May 1941.