An overview of New Zealand guns at war

Address by the Colonel Commandant, Barry Dreyer:

The battles I want to talk about are Messines, Passchendaele, two battles in Korea, the battle of Long Tan in Vietnam, and of course El Alamein.

Let me start though with Gallipoli. The only guns that got ashore in the early days at Anzac Cove were two 4.5 inch howitzers from I think 4 Battery, NZFA. They landed at dawn on April 26; the Australians could only get one gun ashore.

We have a formal picture of the men of that battery on the Awapuni Racecourse taken just before they left to embark from Wellington. They joined up with their guns in Egypt. The first time they live fired was on the beach at Gallipoli and they were in action 20 minutes after landing.

You can imagine how important they were in the first couple of days as the Anzac forces struggled in the foothills just beyond the beach. These were the guns after which Howitzer Gully was named.

This sort of story epitomises the gunners in New Zealand.

We have a serious international reputation in the gunner fraternity. We have had that since Gallipoli. Long may we have it in the future. Even in this month's Janes Defence Journal from the United Kingdom there is a four-page article on the ability of the current 16 Field Regiment to integrate their battle activities.

Anyway onto Passchendaele, on 12 October, 1917.

The New Zealand Division was called in at short notice to join the 5th Army, two months into the third battle of Ypres. The NZ Division had just successfully captured Messines on June 7 in a classic, almost impeccable divisional attack. The Division had attacked two Brigades up on a 1500 yard front.

The covering barrage was 2000 yards deep in 20 lifts over two hours and 12 minutes. The barrage had 114 18 pounder field guns, 36 4.5 inch howitzers, plus the Corps heavy guns and howitzers. The 18 pounder's did the creeping barrage, the howitzers were on special tasks or superimposed, and the heavies were on a standing barrage in depth behind the town. With an H-hour at 0310, Messines was captured at 0500, exactly on time.

It is for this exemplary attack, that the New Zealanders were called in to the 5th Army in early October. There were real problems on the battlefield as it started raining in July, repeated itself for the last half of August, and then rained for most of September and October. The positions our gunners occupied were waterlogged and badly cratered, and under counter bombardment and gas attack. The enemy frontline was 800 m away.

For the first 5th Army attack on October 4 gun ammunition was 960 rounds per gun and 760 for the howitzers. This divisional attack was successful despite strong opposition. The barrage was good, all objectives were captured, and 1000 German prisoners taken.

However, roads were impassable and pack animals were the only option for gun resupply. Most of the guns that were moving forward for the next attack on 12 October became stranded in the mud by October 8. Movement and re-supply were a serious problem.

By 1600 on October 11 the Division had managed to get only eight guns and four howitzers to the new positions – all without platforms. And this was on the afternoon before the attack.

The CRA of the New Zealand division reported to Division and Corps that the New Zealand artillery could not be relied upon for the attack due early on the next day.

Nevertheless the 5th Army pressed on with the plans for the attack, which was launched at 0525 on October 12.

It was a disaster – the attack failed on uncut wire and pillboxes before it reached the first objective. New Zealand lost 2730 killed or wounded in the two assaulting Brigades.

The reasons for the failure were:

  • A very weak barrage due to not getting guns into position
  • Deep and continuous belts of uncut enemy wire due to the weak barrage
  • Massive German concrete block houses which were new to the Flanders battlefield
  • Weather and mud.

On the formed tracks infantry were able to make 1 mile per hour; off the tracks it was four hours per mile for the infantry.

In the Passchendaele attack our Division was supported by 144 18 pounder's and 48 howitzers. But most of them were not in action for the attack. Those that were quickly sank up to the axles in the mud and became inoperable.

By October 20, 10 days after the Divisional artillery started deploying for the 12 October attack, only two thirds of the guns had managed to make it up to the original battle positions. Most of those guns had been man-hauled forward.

It was the New Zealand Division's only major defeat in the war. The greatest impact on the defeat was inadequate artillery support.

Now let me move on to Korea. The main battle for the New Zealand guns was at Kap’yong around Anzac Day 1951. It was the first major Chinese attack on Seoul. On the 27th Commonwealth Brigade front was a reinforced Chinese division which attacked as part of a Corps thrust seeking a complete breakthrough to Seoul.

The Regiment was initially deployed around 20 miles in front of its Brigade, supporting ROK forces who rapidly collapsed under the Chinese assault. The Regiment withdrew under fire towards Kap’yong carrying its supported Middlesex on the gun tractors.

They rejoined their Brigade and spent the next four days in almost continual fire in support of first 3RAR, then Middlesex Regiment, and finally 2PPCLI from Canada as 27 Bde fought the Chinese to a standstill.

Seven American batteries were put under command of the Regiment when the pressure came on. During the 30 hours preceding the dawn of Anzac Day the Regiment fired some 10,000 rounds at targets as close as 3000 yards. The Australians, with our artillery support, accounted for an estimated 1000 Chinese killed and 3000 wounded. Similar results happened when the Canadians beat off Chinese attacks with New Zealand artillery support.

Keeping up ammunition resupply to the guns over the four days was a major problem for NZ’s 10 Transport Platoon.

The guns had proven extremely effective in dealing with massed infantry assaults. This was not the only time in Korea.

In July 1953 just before the signing of the armistice and during the very fierce final battle of the Hook, the Regiment was on the flank of the 7th US Marine Regiment which came under violent attack from the Chinese. The American artillery was under some ammunition restriction so the Commonwealth divisional artillery with 25 pdrs was put in support of the Marines. 16 Fd Regt fired three divisional and 37 regimental targets in support of the Marine Regiment on the night of 24 July, a total of 13,000 rounds from the Commonwealth divisional artillery.

On the next night, 25th July, the Chinese made another major assault on the Marines. Corps artillery fired 10 rounds of fire for effect and there were a further two divisional targets and 25 regimental targets during the night. 16 Field Regiment fired 5700 rounds that evening. 7 Marine Regiment lost 43 killed over the two nights of fighting. It was estimated that the number of Chinese dead in front of the Hook was between 2000 and 3000.

Once again artillery was central to an infantry defensive battle.

Now let me move on to Vietnam.

The major New Zealand artillery battle was at Long Tan in August 1966. It was a classic encounter battle initiated by a company strength Australian infantry patrol on foot. The company were searching for enemy mortars and guns that had harassed the task force base a few days before.

The FO with the company was Morrie Stanley, a New Zealander. The battle was intense and at close quarters in a rubber plantation with a reinforced North Vietnamese regiment continually attacking and attempting to surround the 80 man Australian rifle company over a four or five hour period.

The available guns were the 1st Field Regiment of which 161 Battery formed one of the three gun batteries, and an American general support battery of six self-propelled 155 mm medium howitzers. The weather was atrocious, with very heavy monsoonal rains and plenty of lightning strikes.

The regiment fired in very close support of the Australian infantry and, as at Kap’yong, the artillery fire had a devastating effect over a number of hours until the attack was called off when the APCs arrived at dusk with another rifle company.

Despite having all night to carry away the dead from the battlefield, in the morning there were still more than 240 enemy dead around the rifle company’s position.

161 Battery had fired around 200 rounds per gun during the battle. Once than, ammunition resupply on the gun line became a problem, and large flying crane helicopters flew ammunition resupplies into the Task Force during the night. However, by the morning the enemy formations had disappeared to the north and east.

Now let me talk about the reason we are assembled today – the Battle of El Alamein on 23 October, 1942. This was the great decisive battle of the Western Desert campaign. Freyberg and his staff urged at Corps and Army level, with some success, that the attack by the eighth Army begin with a creeping barrage.

On September 27 the New Zealand Division carried out a full-scale exercise to test the creeping barrage concept. The barrage trace and timetable worked well.

In mid-October the New Zealand gunners moved to the Alamein line, dug in and camouflaged. Gun crews rehearsed the fire plan repeatedly. 660 rounds per gun were brought onto the gun position, and 720 rounds per gun were held at the wagon lines.

Each attacking brigade had a Regiment allocated with the third Regiment superimposed across both brigades. The first targets were at Corps level with 480 field and medium guns firing a preliminary 15 min counter battery fire plan and then the first line of the barrage up to the first lift. After that regiments reverted to divisional control to support the local infantry assaults.

On the New Zealand front Steve Weir had 104 field and medium guns under his command. The divisional front was too wide for a full-scale creeping barrage so a series of timed concentrations covered the advance.

The planned artillery attack commenced at 9:20 p.m. on October 23 and ceased at about 2:30 a.m. the following morning. Our guns fired an average of 630 rounds each during that period. The detachments were exhausted.

The New Zealand attack took almost all its objectives and the gun regiments started moving forward for the next phase of the operation.

The following days saw a number of highly effective divisional creeping barrages fired by all three of our field regiments in support of a number of single battalion and two battalion attacks.

There were casualties amongst the gunner's with 28 killed and 68 wounded, mostly from Rommel's counter-attack on Miteiriya Ridge.

The initial battle of Al Alamein, Operation Lightfoot, was followed by Supercharge on November 2. Steve Weir was given a particularly heavy concentration of field guns plus 3 medium regiments to support a British two brigade attack to start Supercharge. The New Zealand infantry were in reserve.

Weir had one 25 pounder for every 20 yards of front and was able to provide a full-scale creeping barrage over a 4000 yard front and with an initial advance of 4000 yards.

After a series of pitched battles with tanks, infantry and artillery, by the morning of November 4 the enemy's front had been breached, and Rommel's retreat commenced.

So there we have it, a grievous loss and three very successful battles for New Zealand, where artillery, or the lack of it, played a pivotal role.

To paraphrase a quote I read, " Ask any infantryman of any age who has been involved in a serious firefight whether guns make a difference”

They do.