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Some ill-considered Action!

Confronting an Enemy in Retreat

by Des O'Connor
Some Recollections of a 2WW Artilleryman To 4 Fd Regt Return to artillery of 2 Div Arty

When confronting an enemy in retreat, in an atmosphere of euphoria, caution was sometimes 'thrown to the winds'! And soldiers' lives placed at risk - quite unnecessarily. Three such incidents, in my experience, come to mind:-

At The Mareth line in North Africa

In North Africa after the capture of Medenine in Tunisia in March 1943, our regiment (the 4th Field) was attached to the 4th Light Armoured Brigade and sallied forth with the tanks out onto an open plain where we sat doing nothing. We were under enemy observation and soon became the target of two high velocity, long range (170mm) guns hidden in the hills of the Mareth Line. The shelling lasted until dark and resumed again at daybreak, making the preparation of breakfast a fairly hazardous task. Both guns were firing simultaneously, one shell bursting on impact and the other in the air. Earlier, we had received orders from the Armoured Brigade to 'prepare to move at 0800' and when the shelling resumed the troopers clambered into their tanks and closed the turret hatches - in relative safety. Those of us in 'thin-skinned' vehicles remained exposed as the shelling continued and there were a number of casualties including members of our own Troop (B Troop), but we did not move from that area until precisely 0800 hours! Brigadier Currie was in command and for some time thereafter we recalled the occasion as "the day we had curry for breakfast!"

I should note also that on the Medenine front prior to moving out into the plain, we were in direct support of a battalion of Grenadier Guards and our gun position was immediately behind the tiny village of Metameur which was composed entirely of primitive cave-like dwellings. The village had been evacuated in advance of our arrival and when we entered those 'caves' we found ourselves literally knee-deep in fleas; and among the crude furniture in one of them was, to our surprise, a Singer sewing machine - treadle of course. We were joined at Metameur by 2/Lt Reid, not long arrived from NZ. He was a gentleman to whom everyone took an immediate liking and, just a few weeks later, he was tragically killed when we were heavily shelled in the El Hamma area of the Mareth Line. Some people were so incredibly unlucky!

At Enfidaville in North Africa

The following month at Enfidaville in Tunisia, prior to the capture of Takrouna and other enemy held high ground, our gun position (B Troop, 4th Field) was on an open plain but 'concealed' behind a high cactus hedge. The 4th Field O.P. vehicles were General Stuart tanks ('Honey' tanks) and one day our gun, B3, was ordered to proceed forward a considerable distance and join one of those tanks, also concealed behind a high cactus hedge. Thus we found ourselves at the Battery O.P.! We opened fire at near maximum elevation using supercharge! It could only have been an Air OP shoot at that range because observation from our position at ground level was very limited - but we never did learn the nature of that target. As soon as we fired the first round we revealed our position to the enemy on the high ground overlooking us and the inevitable happened. The German artillery began ranging in copybook fashion and just as we were about to be enclosed in a verified short bracket, the O.P. officer yelled, as he slammed closed the turret cover above him, "#%$$! Off!" - certainly one of the shortest & most graphic 'fire' orders ever given a unit of artillery!

We wasted no time and were on our way back to our gun position as 'fire for effect' came crashing down and a forward troop of the 111 Field Regiment Royal Artillery copped some of it. [The 3 lines at the bottom of page 497 & the top of 498 of the NZEF Artillery History seem to refer to that incident; if so, the author was not at all familiar with the actual sequence of events].

Note about 111 Regiment R.A. We had been associated with gunners of the 111 Regiment over a long period and they had certainly earned our admiration. They were almost always deployed ahead of us and sometimes well ahead of us in very exposed positions, and suffered accordingly. On the 12th May 1943, the day before the war in Africa ended the Germans began to expend their remaining ammunition, much of it being fired indiscriminately. And we were saddened to learn that some of it that passed over our gun position fell on the RHQ of 111 Regt RA, killing their Commanding Officer.

At Sora In Italy

At the beginning of June 1944, when the fall of Rome was imminent, the foray into the Sora valley towards Balsorano was a clear case of euphoria-inspired irrationalism. The high ground left and right, forward of the gun positions, had not been cleared of the enemy and the three field regiments provided targets that artillerymen only dream of! Had it not been for the fact that the retreating Germans were conducting a rear-guard action only, it is likely that the entire divisional artillery would have been severely crippled. As it was the German artillery had several 'field days' picking-off troop gun positions one by one. And once again we remained under fire suffering needless casualties before being withdrawn, following the fall of Rome on 4 June.

It was surely not a series of coincidences that in Italy our guns were almost invariably deployed in close proximity to farmhouses where the GPOs & staff could settle themselves in relative comfort. Admittedly, farmhouses were fairly numerous in the Italian countryside but they were by no means always the best places to deploy guns. And that was certainly demonstrated at the Sora position with both a house and a church conveniently placed to the left of our gun position - excellent reference points for enemy ranging purposes. Here the writer, as No.1 of B3 (46 Bty, 4th Fd Regt), with considerable experience of gun positions, made himself very unpopular with the newly arrived GPO when he drew his attention, rather pointedly, to an infinitely more secure position a couple of hundred yards to the rear!

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