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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

El Mreir: Another Costly Failure

El Mreir: Another Costly Failure

The next major effort was on 22 July, when 6 Brigade attacked north-north-westwards towards El Mreir, and its similarities to the Ruweisat attack were too striking to pass unnoticed or to be forgiven. There was the same uncertainty from Auchinleck downwards about the main purpose of the operation, the same lack of timing in relation to other operations; again the approach march was too long and the co-ordination between infantry and armoured formations poor, and there was no fresh and promising solution to the vital problem of getting supporting arms forward. Moreover, the enemy minefields were far more formidable than any previously encountered by New Zealanders.

Stronger and more concentrated artillery support, however, could be provided. The fire of all three New Zealand field regiments plus the 64th Medium and an RHA battery could cover 6 Brigade (though some guns would also have to support 18 Battalion on a flanking mission). The programme worked out for them was heavy, starting with the medium guns and howitzers at 5.30 p.m. and ending with the 2nd RHA at 10.45 p.m., with further fire as required. One battery of each of the New Zealand regiments was reserved for special tasks. The rate of fire for the 25-pounders was ‘troop fire ten seconds’—one round every 10 seconds from each troop—for two or three minutes on each of about a dozen targets selected for each regiment. The formal part would entail the firing of about 2400 25-pounder rounds and much ammunition of the 64th Medium. It was only part, however, of a larger operation in which nine field regiments (not counting the RHA) and the medium regiment had a full share.

The violence of the result was awe-inspiring to gunners used to pinching and scraping for ammunition. Only First World War men had experienced anything like it. Back at Divisional page 349 Headquarters the noise of gun fire sounded ‘terrific’. But the immediate aftermath was ominously like that of the Ruweisat attack.

black and white map of el mreir

el mreir, 22 july 1942

The 4th Field stayed where it was, stood-to at 4.30 a.m., and got ready to fire when FOOs with the attacking infantry indicated targets. No such information arrived. The 5th Field already had 27 Battery well forward and it was shelled and suffered loss. The other two batteries were to move forward 3000 yards when their tasks were completed; but the situation seemed so uncertain that Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow kept them where they were. The 6th Field was to move over three miles page 350 forward to new positions already reconnoitred by Lieutenant-Colonel Walter. He gave the order, but it did not reach the guns until about 4 a.m. and they could not reach the new area until after dawn. They, too, had to rely on what could be seen from near the guns or predicted from the map; for nothing came through from the FOOs. The enemy was so close that some of his guns could bring down direct fire on the 6th Field positions and they caused casualties and damaged several guns. By noon on the 22nd there was still no word from the FOOs and the CRA ordered predicted fire on the second objective.

Of the three 6-pounder troops of 32 Battery which set out for El Mreir, F Troop under Lieutenant Rutherfurd had got forward and its guns were sited in the dark to cover 24 Battalion, while H Troop under Lieutenant Holt15 and one gun of E Troop were with 6th Brigade Headquarters, ready to move when it was light enough to site them. The other three guns of E Troop under Lieutenant R. M. Smith16 had been held up by soft going and were eventually ordered to stay with 18 Battalion to guard the gap in the minefield. C and D Troops of 31 Battery also arrived later and disposed their guns, with those of Smith's troop, along the western flank. Their story from then onwards is tragically like that of Ruweisat—in one way worse, for the enemy had more tanks on the scene and used them more confidently and his supporting arms were far more numerous and deadly in their effect.

Of F Troop, only one man, a driver, returned unscathed. Even before dawn the enemy brought down crushing fire and some of the 6-pounders fired at gun flashes, some of them from tank guns. The enemy was in all directions and the gun crews could do no more than fire furiously until either they or their guns were disabled—a matter of minutes at the most. Sergeant Kavanagh's G3 was the only G Troop gun at El Mreir and Major Bliss of 32 Battery was with it. The portée backed up a slight rise and then was silhouetted by the light of two carriers that burst into flames. Bullets streamed past, their tracers looking very bright in the darkness, but an anti-tank gun dug in ahead could not quite depress its barrel low enough to hit G3. The situation was evidently hopeless and when it got lighter page 351 the portée would be a sitting duck. Kavanagh directed it back down the rise and in looking for a better position ran over a mine. The sole E Troop gun had lost its sergeant, wounded on the approach march, and was commanded in its brief action by a gunner. An H Troop portée on its way forward had caught fire while passing through a minefield; but the flames were put out. When the firing started H2 had its buffer holed immediately and its crew all wounded. On H1 only the driver survived and he was taken prisoner. On H4 two were killed and the rest captured. H3 by a stroke of luck was excellently placed at dawn, suffered no harm in the fight that followed, and when the infantry surrendered it made its way safely back through the minefield. (Rutherfurd and Holt of F and H Troops were both lightly wounded and captured; but they escaped next day and, after a march that would have been arduous even had they not been wounded, they got back to the Division. They both won an MC.)

No such onslaught was directed against the two 31 Battery troops and the three E Troop guns with 18 Battalion—partly because they managed to dig their guns in. Heavy fire swept the area after dawn and when an enemy vehicle could be discerned D3 opened fire at it. The D Troop commander, Lieutenant Laurenson,17 walked over to the gun, and as he reached it a shell scored a direct hit, mortally wounding him and wounding several others. Timely and well-directed fire from the New Zealand field artillery drove off three tanks.18 Shelling and mortar bombardments continued, but no counter-attack came. Instead the anti-tankers suffered a series of attacks from the air which caused few gunner casualties but damaged many portées beyond immediate repair. When Major Nicholson in the afternoon ordered the guns to withdraw some had to be left behind. A 15-cwt pick-up, after its tyres were changed under sniper fire, managed to tow one D Troop 6-pounder out. One badly-damaged D Troop gun had already been sent back and the two that were left behind were soon recovered by Captain Barry19 page 352 and Warrant-Officer Spence20 of 15 Light Aid Detachment, whose splendid salvage work under fire earned them an MC and an MBE respectively. All C Troop guns were brought back safely, but three gunners were wounded in the bombing. For the anti-tankers El Mreir was worse than Ruweisat.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell spent all day forward trying to improvise anti-tank defences, which were urgently needed on the exposed western flank in the absence of the British tanks which had been expected to drive through to El Mreir before dawn. Neither he nor anyone else in the Division could persuade the tank commanders to carry out their part of the plan; but he did manage to direct the fire of an anti-tank gun attached to the armoured brigade and with his first shot hit a hull-down tank and caused it to surrender. Later he distributed the few remaining 32 Battery guns to other batteries and the 32nd ceased to exist.

The Bofors gunners spent one of their busiest days, 42 Battery firing over 1000 rounds and 43 Battery more than twice as many, for a score of one Ju88 shot down and a Ju87 hit and smoking. The enemy was keeping high and was therefore hard to hit. When the 6th Field advanced westwards from Stuka Wadi 43 Battery moved with it, coming under shellfire in the new area and even getting ‘mixed up with tank shells’, as a diarist put it. One Bofors suffered a ‘premature’ in the barrel—not necessarily a disaster with such a small-calibre gun—which pointed to a deficiency of the new Mark IV automatic loaders then in use.

At the end of the day the Division had lost another brigade headquarters and nearly 1000 men. The territorial gains were slight and there was no large haul of prisoners as there had been at Ruweisat. Of the thirteen 6-pounders lost two were soon recovered; but the heavy losses of gun crews and the small return for their gallant efforts were heart-breaking. To the field gunners who fired all day in the hope of bringing relief to infantry, most of whom, as it happened, had already been overrun, the train of events was baffling.

The Divisional Commander flatly refused, after El Mreir, to stage a further night attack unless he had tanks under direct command so as to ensure their support while the infantry were consolidating. This did not stop Eighth Army from repeating the sad ritual with other troops to the north in the night 26—27 page 353 July: infantry on their objectives, but no sign of ‘supporting’ tanks, and three battalions as a result overwhelmed. The New Zealand artillery gave strong support, the 4th and 6th Field and 64th Medium directly and the 5th Field in a diversionary programme. Two 6-pounders of 33 Battery also tried without much success to distract the enemy's attention, while the Divisional Cavalry with 28 Battery and the 6-pounders of Q Troop fired all weapons into the Kaponga Box (now in enemy hands) with rather more success, though they failed to persuade the enemy that this was the ‘real thing’.

15 Lt D. L. Holt, MC; Bay View, Napier; born NZ 14 Apr 1918; farmer; twice wounded.

16 Capt R. M. Smith; Wellington; born Mataura, 24 Sep 1906; bank auditor.

17 Lt I. G. Laurenson; born Christchurch, 12 Sep 1996; advertising clerk; died of wounds 22 Jul 1942.

18 E Troop had engaged these tanks by night, the gun-layers sighting through their telescopes. They attracted such a hail of fire in return, however, that the infantry in front were seriously endangered and they therefore ceased fire.

19 Capt F. D. Barry, MC; born NZ 20 Oct 1911; labourer; killed in action 30 Oct 1942.

20 Lt-Col J. R. Spence, MBE, MC; Clevedon, Auckland; born Wellington, NSW, 20 Nov 1915; Regular soldier.