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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Moving Up to the Front

page 375

Moving Up to the Front

The 4th Field welcomed Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart back on the 6th and Sprosen, now a lieutenant-colonel, left on the 11th to take command of the 5th Field. RHQ of the 14th Light Ack-Ack, under Lieutenant-Colonel Bretherton, moved forward from Maadi Camp in the middle of the month and on the 19th joined in a general and carefully planned advance from the ‘Swordfish’ area to the battle front. Artillery Headquarters followed on the 21st and its vehicles, moving in ones and twos, halted well forward near the Qattara Track, which ran from the coast road halfway between El Alamein and Tell el Eisa (‘Tell’ meant a hill), south-westwards over the divisional objective, Miteiriya. Nearby to the west was Bir el Makh Khad and beyond it Tell el Makh Khad.

These were names in a desert that was seething with activity. The journey forward had taken the gunners past huge concentrations of new Sherman tanks and transport and a great many workshops, supply dumps, ordnance depots, medical centres and other services provided more lavishly than ever before. Camouflage nets stretched tautly over most of the parked vehicles. Tracks had proliferated in the period since the New Zealanders were in the line and each had its distinctive sign: the sun, moon, star, bottle, boat and hat (from north to south) at the end of a steel rod driven into the sand and supplemented at night by hurricane lamps in four-gallon petrol tins cut to the appropriate shape, shielding the light from enemy observation while indicating the route to drivers. In the forward area thousands of acres had been sown with mines, marked clearly enough by day, but a deadly trap for the unwary by night. Here and there were parks of dummy tanks and lorries, some of them near the new gun positions of the New Zealand field regiments.

In their new areas the gunners rested as much as they could under camouflage nets, forbidden to move outside them and thereby attract enemy attention. Most officers and many NCOs, however, had much to do, especially in the field regiments, to prepare for the heavy programme on the opening night of the offensive and the moves which would follow it. Under the nets many trenches were dug to protect men and ammunition. Outside them miles of telephone cable were buried. In office trucks and command posts officers and their assistants plotted positions and targets on artillery boards and carried out hundreds of calculations with logarithms and slide rules, each calculation page 376 meticulously checked, so that the line, range and time of each 25-pounder shell was worked out and the information passed on to those who needed it. Artificers, knowing the strain to which the guns would be subjected, did their best to prepare them for it. Mechanics and driver-mechanics checked their vehicles and in some cases overhauled them. Some gunners, fully prepared for what lay ahead, were able to relax; but others were keyed up to a feverish level of excitement. All knew that the next few days of the desert war would be crucial. Very few had any doubt about the outcome.