It is that wonderful time of the year again. Deadlines are looming, traffic is congested, frantic shoppers jostle for position at the cashier and all the while we are being mocked by sadistically ironic jingles about what a wonderful time we are supposed to be having. It sure can be stressful and it has been no exception for History Geek, however now might be a good time to have a bit of a reality check. It could be worse – we could be in a desert fighting Nazis.
One of my favourite ephemera collections is dedicated to the silly season. I like to collect vintage Christmas cards. Specifically, I like to collect cards designed for ships, businesses or military units. They are fun to collect as they are often exceedingly rare, sometimes even one of a kind items, are interesting to research and the prices they reach at auction are yet to be driven sky-high by bored philatelists. So there is a lot to be jolly about.
Today I’m going to share a card from Christmas 1942, sent by a member of the 4th New Zealand Field Regiment in the Middle East. If you thought that your festive season is filled with stress and difficulty then spare a thought for the sender of this card – he was living in a tent in the desert and was about to be involved in one of the most critical battles of the Second World War. Before I begin the story, here is the card:
The 4th N.Z. Field Regiment was a New Zealand Artillery Unit. In the artwork on the cover of the card you can see a 25-pounder field gun and limber being towed behind a Quad – a specialized tractor made for towing artillery into position. In 1942 the 4th N.Z. Field Regiment was in active service fighting as part of Montgomery’s famous Eighth Army.
As you can see from the inside of the card, to make sure that it arrived back home before Christmas it was sent on the 1st of October. The sender of this card is unknown but for his first name, Jim. It is also unknown if he would even live to see Christmas Day as within a few weeks of sending this card the 4th N.Z. Field Regiment was to play a crucial role in the success of the Second Battle of El Alamein.
To find out exactly what part the 4th N.Z. Field Regiment played at El Alamein I spent a lunch hour at the Dunedin Public Library looking through the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War. It is a fifty volume series which was written soon after the war and while dry compared to contemporary accounts and often short on the personal and emotional experiences of the war it has a fantastic amount of detail and is perfect for figuring out what regiment was where at what time. So where was the 4th N.Z. Field Regiment based when this Christmas card was sent in early October 1942?
For the first fortnight of October they were involved in brigade exercises and were calibrating their guns while advance working parties dug gun and supply pits in forward positions ready for the upcoming attack. In mid-October they took up their new positions, hidden under camouflage netting to protect them from air attack. The gun crews were forbidden from moving outside the netting so to not attract any attention. It must have been a weird waiting game lying under those nets and counting down the days, but the 4th N.Z. Field Regiment were lucky, they were so advanced in their preparation for the upcoming battle that on the 22nd of October most of their gunners were allowed to spend the day at the beach! I imagine it was a welcome break from the heat and monotony.
The 4th Field Regiment was down in numbers, they had only 36 officers and 497 other ranks – this gives an indication of how rare the Christmas card might be!
After the sun went down on the evening of 23rd October the artillery crews stripped off their camo nets and prepared for battle. In scenes reminiscent of the First World War there was to be a “creeping barrage” in front of the advancing Allied infantry. I’m not an expert on military strategy but am aware that there has since been much debate over how successful it was, or if it is even fair to label it a “creeping barrage”, the consensus seems to be that it was more of a series of timed concentrations of fire on known enemy positions in front of the Allied advance. At the time the 4th Field Regiment referred to it as a “lifting barrage” but names aside, I suspect that if on the receiving end then any barrage would be a bad barrage.
The 4th Field Regiment started firing at 9:40pm on 23rd October 1942, just four weeks after Jim sent that Christmas card home.
During this opening stage of the battle there was little enemy fire on their position and they scraped through without any injuries, but after the barrage ended at 2:30am there was already another job waiting for the 4th N.Z. Field Regiment. They were to quickly move forward and support the advance of the 9th Armoured Brigade.
Moving forward wasn’t without danger. In the dark they had to tow their guns through a narrow gap in the German minefields. In the early hours of the 24th October they took up their new positions at the foot of Miteiriya Ridge. Soon after dawn the 4th Field Regiment came under fire which intensified through the morning. They lost 10 men and another 21 injured.
The Allied breakthrough at El Alamein was the turning point of the North African campaign and was the first successful major offensive against the Germans since the start of the Second World War. In short, this was when the good guys started winning.
It may almost be said, “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.” – Winston Churchill
Somewhere in that desert while preparing for the battle a Kiwi serviceman sent a card home to wish his friends or family at home a Merry Christmas. I don’t know if Jim made it through the war, or even through to Christmas, but it does put things into perspective and perhaps as silly as this season may seem it is worth remembering that it could always be worse. You might want to curse that shopper who bet you to the last turkey or shake your fist at the stressed driver that took your park, but just remember that at least you aren’t stuck in the desert fighting Nazis.
© Lemuel Lyes