2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
THE journey from Tripoli to Medenine provided a medley of impressions of daylight and darkness. For the early ones it started at night and ended in daylight; for others it was the opposite. Those gunners who set out by day from Tripoli saw in the first few miles elaborate blockhouses, anti-tank trenches, much barbed wire, and what looked like poor Arab houses but which turned out on closer inspection to be concrete ‘pillboxes’. Beyond Zuara, after miles of cultivated land, the convoys traversed semi-desert; at the frontier they passed more concrete emplacements, then, after many miles, the strange honeycomb hillside dwellings of Ben Gardane. Up to this place drivers enjoyed the almost-forgotten night-time luxury of using headlights. Drivers and others who stayed awake in the long night drive saw many empty tank transporters returning noisily and were held up by others advancing slowly in front. They saw, every now and then, Bofors tracers rising up lazily to mark the route for the RAF ‘taxi service’. Some of them saw the occasional distant flash of a bomb.
It was, on the whole, a fast move. Artillery Headquarters reached Medenine at 2.40 p.m. on 2 March, after a cold night on the road. In a light aircraft which had passed low overhead at 11 a.m. the staff had been thrilled to see the CRA. The 4th Field arrived at 5 p.m., having driven 135 miles. At 10 p.m. the 5th Field began to arrive, to occupy gun areas already reconnoitred by Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow, who had gone on ahead. In Medenine gunners saw a few gleaming French buildings among the Arab homes of blue-grey clay—three-storeyed homes in a series of arches leaning back upon the hillsides so that external stairways could serve the higher floors. The surrounding countryside was green and wooded, intersected with little valleys, leading up to higher country inland.
The German-Italian Army was planning an attack and Eighth Army well knew it. Since its object was likely to be to disrupt preparations for a British attack on the Mareth line, a few miles beyond Medenine, and gain time, the enemy attack was not likely to be long delayed—hence the haste in moving up the New Zealand Division.page 469 page 470
The 5th Field was in position at 4 a.m. on 3 March and the regiment completed its gun pits and command posts in bursts of energetic work interspersed with sleep. Next day the sappers lent a compressor for further work at the gun pits and OPs.
The 4th Field soon suffered a serious setback. It had taken up a temporary position, and then on the 3rd the CRA called to indicate the final gun area. He took the second-in-command, Major Gilbert,1 with him to reconnoitre, and the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart, followed, travelling in a jeep with the RSM, WO I Bartley, and a Signals operator. The jeep ran over a Teller anti-tank mine and the RSM was blown up in the air, but he landed unhurt. Stewart was wounded, however, and had to be evacuated. From the leapfrog withdrawal of 26 Battery near Tempe in Greece through all the desert fighting Stewart had been a skilful and forceful commander, and it was very bad luck to lose him thus before the battle began. For the time being Gilbert assumed command of the regiment. Five days later Lieutenant-Colonel Philp from the 5th Field took over.