Young Men who went off to War
FIFTY years ago this week hundreds of youthful volunteers converged on Hopu Hopu camp and joined a small advance party to form the fledgling 4th Field Regiment, New Zealand Artillery - the senior unit of the Divisional Artillery and the vanguard of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
Compulsory military training had been abolished in New Zealand for almost a decade before World War II. The young men who assembled on October 4, 1939, had had precious little, if any, military experience. But they had patriotism and enthusiasm in abundance. Some were impatient that the war might end before they could become involved in it. How many would have dreamed that, five years on, the end would not be in sight?
The task of moulding that motley lot of individuals into a disciplined team of skilled gunners fell to instructors from the tiny regular force (Royal New Zealand Artillery) and former part-timers of the Territorials. This nucleus of experienced officers and non-commissioned officers was led by the commanding officer and "father of the regiment", Lieutenant Colonel "Ike" Parkinson and his RSM, Warrant Officer Class One, W.J. Fitzgerald, both long-serving regular soldiers and veterans of World War I.
The 4th Field Regiment sailed for the Middle East on January 6, 1940, on the Empress of Canada in a convoy with other units of the lst Echelon. The journey took them via Sydney, Perth, Colombo and the Red Sea to Port Tewfik at the Suez end of the canal, then by rail to their final destination, Maadi Camp near Cairo. Many more contingents were to follow that route in years to come.
The New Zealand division was specially trained and equipped for a highly mobile role within the 8th Army but was twice condemned by stalemate to static periods of attrition for more than three months. "Artillery duels" was how news bulletins described activity at such times. Each period of prolonged confrontation was the prelude to a battle of the utmost importance to the Allied cause in the region.
The first occasion was at Alamein in Egypt and the second at Cassino in Italy. Before the final offensive and breakthrough at Alamein, the 4th Field Regiment was given a new primary role in battle - close support of armour (in this case, the British 9th Armoured Brigade). Observation posts were re-equipped with American General Stuart light cruiser tanks, commonly known as "Honey" tanks.
The regiment fired a barrage during the night of October 23, 1942, in support of the attack on Miteiriya ridge and early in the morning redeployed after following the tanks through a gap in the minefield. At daybreak B Troop of 46 Battery found itself inside the enemy's former forward defence lines, uncomfortably close to the base of the previous night's objective in an area of considerable enemy activity.
A warning had been issued to be particularly wary of teller mines and anything resembling a booby trap. Sure enough, a suspicious looking German pith helmet was sitting right In the centre of the gun position. Dual leads protruding from its underside were concealed in an adjacent clump of camel thorn. Everyone gave it a wide berth while plans were made to deal with the problem. Eventually a generous length of signal wire was obtained and laid out with one end looped over the hazard. All hands took cover as the other end was tugged vigorously. The helmet rose sharply, somersaulted several times and came to rest upside down, harmlessly trailing its dual leads-cum-chinstrap.
The other static front, Cassino in Italy, had a tale to tell that implicated a sizable element of the 4th Field but never did find its way into the official war histories.
The action took place a comfortable distance behind the line at Caserta, a historic town famous for its huge 13th century royal palace. But neither history nor architecture was the focus of a large party of 46th Battery personnel who had exchanged their gun pits and command posts (under the evil eyes of the Axis on Monte Cassino) for a few hours of peace and freedom in the town.
In the main square around noon an uninhibited display of gunner exuberance fuelled by varying degrees of over-indulgence attracted the unwelcomed intervention of the United States Military Police. The international incident that followed came to be known unofficially as the "Battle of Caserta". Later that day, after some compelling argument in the palace at Allied Headquarters by the officer in charge of the leave party, all the gunners were released from military custody so that they could return to their posts at the official and rather more important Battle of Cassino.
An influential witness to the action at Caserta was the commander of the United States 5th Army, General Mark Clark. A sequel to the day was an order from his headquarters placing Caserta "off limits" to personnel of the 4th Field Regiment. The regiment did indeed play vigorously at times, but it also fought with dogged determination at the forefront of the action in the abortive campaigns of Greece and Crete and throughout the fluctuating fortunes in Libya and Egypt.
Then came the final breakthrough at Alamein. The 4th Field advanced westward with the leading formations of the Eighth Army during its epic pursuit and ultimate capture of Rommel's Africa Corps and the remnants of the Italian Army at Enfidaville in Tunisia - six months and 3000 kilometres later.
During the advance the regiment acquired an extra troop of artillery pieces that contrasted markedly with its normal complement of 25 pounders. It comprised four captured German 88mm multi-purpose high velocity guns manned by members of the Royal Artillery and christened "Mac" troop after Brigadier McIntyre RA, who had presented the guns to the regiment.
The last chapter in the saga of the 4th Field Regiment was a long and frustrating one - the slow hard slog up the Italian peninsula through two bitter winters and across much formidable terrain to final victory at Trieste.
In North Africa, the 4th Field Regiment was the senior regiment when the campaign ended there. By the time the war in Europe was over, few other regiments had equalled its operational service. The special status the regiment enjoyed within the Divisional Artillery often attracted tasks of particular difficulty or importance.
Thus it was, at the end of the war in the Pacific, that its 25 Battery was chosen for the "J" Force component of the army of occupation in Japan.
Interview between Des O'Connor and the Dominion newspaper, 7 October, 1989