In Peace & War: A Civilian Soldier's Story
5 — The Desert Campaign
The Desert Campaign
Back in Egypt, it was approaching mid-summer with all the sights, sounds and smells we had briefly experienced before embarking for Greece. Summer kit was issued with pith helmets, shorts and puttees and the battalion settled in at Garawi Camp, an uninspiring place in the desert south of Cairo. A welcome group of 365 reinforcements was soon absorbed within the battalion, bringing the all ranks strength up to 782. We had come through our baptism of fire defeated, but with the knowledge that on even terms, we could more than hold our own against Jerry. And particularly, we had noticed his dislike for close quarter fighting and night attacks.
Col. Andrew — ‘Old February’ as he was nicknamed and called himself — reverted to his hard disciplinary tactics and was even harder on his officers than on his men. He also had a grudge against ‘Bludger's Hill’, our base headquarters, and especially against the Military Secretary who had turned down nearly all of the recommendations for decorations put forward page 50 by the various battalion commanders after the Greek and Crete campaigns. His argument was that decorations were not warranted after a defeat.
The colonel himself had put forward a number of recommendations both for officers and other ranks but most of his recommendations had been rejected completely. Colin Armstrong was the only one to receive his Military Cross. I was awarded a Mention in Dispatches. The CO was furious as it had been downgraded from a Military Cross. He threatened to refuse ever again to put a recommendation forward and to throw his VC into the Nile. Meanwhile, hard training was the order of the day. His reputation as a disciplinarian hardened and he continued to impose the maximum penalty he could — of 28 days' detention — for practically any misdemeanour which came to his orderly room. Hence the nickname ‘Old February’.
However, I was blissfully unaware of this, idling my time away in hospital for two weeks waiting for my wound to heal. Then there was 10 days' sick leave which Barney Clapham and I spent together recuperating. We went to Jerusalem to visit my parents' good friends — Sir Herbert and Lady Hart — from my home town of Masterton. Sir Herbert had practised there as a barrister and solicitor and looked after our family legal affairs. He had served in the Boer War, and in Gallipoli and France with the 1st NZEF where, as a young infantry brigadier, he was awarded the DSO. He was later appointed Administrator of Western Samoa. Prior to the Second World War he was put in charge of the War Graves Commission in the Middle East, based in Jerusalem and, when the war started, he was transferred to GHQ Middle East Command in Cairo. They were both wonderful people and, in company with their daughter Bettina, they showed us the life and sights of Jerusalem.
After Jerusalem, Barney and I travelled together to page 51 Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jaffa and the Dead Sea where we photographed one another floating on the water reading the Auckland Weekly News. By the time Barney and I returned to the battalion, it was stationed at Kabrit some 16 miles south of Port Suez. From there the battalion moved to a new camp at Ismailia, a gruelling all day march with full packs up, but I was pleased to be back with 14 Platoon, one of only three platoons from the whole battalion to complete the march without anyone dropping out. As a punishment for what Col. Andrew regarded as a poor performance, all the platoon commanders, without exception, were sent on another march the next day when temperatures were between 100° and 118° and tempers rose similarly. There was no reward for the three platoon commanders who had successfully coaxed their platoons to the finish line on the previous day.
It was refreshing to meet up with a number of old friends from home who had joined us with the reinforcements: Gough Smith, who lived in the same street, the Bunny twins — Dick and Joe — Tony Riddiford, Bill Ashworth, Cliff Clemas, Hubert Barton and many others. Hubert was pleased to be greeted by his cousin Tom who by now was an ‘old hand’. We also heard of the girls we had left behind; it loomed large in our minds that they were becoming engaged, along with the likelihood of them all being married before we got home.
Our next move — 280 miles west out into the desert — was welcomed. After the steamy heat of the Delta, with the constant threat from malaria mosquitoes and the never ending flies, it was good to get out into the open again. The flies seemed to follow us but, by keeping our lines scrupulously clean, I found that the little tormentors mostly went next door where the troops were possibly not quite so fussy. The Kaponga Box, in which we found ourselves, was an ill-conceived concept, being an isolated strongpoint which could be easily page 52 surrounded. The 5th Brigade's task was to create a strong-point of camouflaged slit trenches, underground headquarters, gun emplacements and supply depots. It was gruelling work in the rocky ground but we became hard and fit, accustomed to living on half a bottle of water a day for drinking, shaving, clothes washing and, perhaps, a sponge down twice a week if we did not drink too much.
We had small two-man bivvy tents to sleep in. Each tent was erected over a hole measuring six feet by four feet dug about two feet deep into the rocky ground. The idea was that, if the enemy launched a general attack, we could sally forth and attack his flanks and then pull back into a secure position. The fatal flaw of this strategy, which persisted until Alamein, was that the Allied divisions were broken up into brigade units or smaller, each of which could be easily overrun by Rommel's tanks.
The really useful training carried out here consisted of map reading and compass work, navigating across the desert at speed during daylight and darkness. First we practised on a company basis, then by battalion and brigade and later again as a complete division. The troops learned to embus and debus quickly into and from our three ton trucks, heave or tow the trucks out of soft sand if they became stuck, and regain their places in the convoy. Our role as a hard hitting mobile force quickly evolved and we became skilled at moving from place to place in a relatively featureless environment using compasses, watches and the vehicles' speedometers. Some officers never did master the art, but most could move about with relative confidence.
Similar training was being undertaken by other divisions within the 8th Army, now under the command of General Auchinleck. Word filtered through that the second Libyan or ‘Crusader’ campaign was about to start, the objective being to drive the enemy out of North Africa. The plan envisaged penetration of the frontier wire by mobile forces, including page 53 the New Zealand Division, through which the British armour would pass to take on the opposing German armour. Our division set out on November 15 1941, an impressive sight with its 2,800 vehicles in convoy stretching eight miles wide and 12 miles deep, with every vehicle in its place 200 yards apart as we swept over the frontier.
However, unfortunately, our armour was inferior to the Germans in every respect except the courage of the crews. The ‘Panzer Division’ had well trained crews, gunners, recovery units, engineers and supporting infantry, superior tanks and anti-tank guns and more experienced commanders. In the first few days, the British lost 530 tanks to the Germans' 100. One Allied unit, the 7th Armoured Division, started with 500 tanks and ended up with 90; the Germans began with 356 better tanks and 250 survived. The battle raged back and forth for four days while we waited the outcome and, with the unexpected capture of Afrika Korp Headquarters, we thought we might be winning. The infantry poured through to exploit the so-called success and we were given scattered objectives. The brigade group was regarded by army headquarters as the most satisfactory fighting unit and initially we were sufficiently gullible to accept this theory.
Our 5th Brigade was told to occupy Sidi Azeiz, a cross road in the open desert some 12 miles inland from the port of Bardia. It was our good fortune that the 22nd was given a strategic defensive position on top of the Menastir escarpment some eight miles north of the 5th Brigade HQ. Our B Company had the bad luck to be chosen to give infantry support to an otherwise almost defenceless brigade headquarters stuck out on its own in the middle of the desert. I well remember talking to Lofty Hunt about this time; he was an original 14 Platoon private, a country man from Hawke's Bay, prepared to speak his mind without too much regard for authority. “Why,” he asked me, “do we split ourselves page 54 up into ‘penny packets’ to be overrun by the Jerry tanks?” I had no answer. Perhaps Lofty should have been in charge of Corps headquarters and, given a different background, he may well have done a better job.
The 22nd dug in furiously on top of the rocky escarpment with C Company on the eastern flank nearest to Bardia and we were in position by 2.00 pm on November 23. Word came through that the 23rd Battalion was pressing up the road north from Capuzzo to Bardia driving the Italians ahead of them, so D Company of the 22nd was directed to cut them off before they reached the Bardia defences. Major Tom Campbell, in charge of D Company, was given some mortars and seven Bren carriers to support the endeavour, but unfortunately he was given as his objective a cross road five miles south west of Bardia, and this turned out to be just inside the enemy defence perimeter.
Unwittingly, with his carriers under Lieutenant Bob Knox acting as a screen in front of his company trucks, Tom ran slap bang into the Bardia defences. Without realising where they were, Bob led his carriers through a gap in the wire and approached a large group of soldiers lounging around whom he mistakenly believed to be members of the 23nd Battalion. “Watch up!” yelled one of his men, “They're Italians.” They opened fire and suddenly all hell was let loose. Tom Campbell's trucks came under fire so he debussed and pressed on determined to reach the cross road. The carriers withdrew through the wire and, after a spirited exchange of fire, Tom was ordered to withdraw. Several of his men were wounded but had to be left behind as they were too exposed and too close to the defences to be rescued in daylight.
Later I was briefed about what had happened and ordered to take my platoon and pick up the four wounded men left behind. This entailed a compass approach in the dark to a location eight miles away right up against the Bardia defences. Sgt. Gerry Fowler from D Company came with us to help identify the exact position of the wounded men. I can do no better than quote from our page 55 battalion history, which gives a good account of the incident.
“In two three-tonners just after dark, Donald and his Platoon (14) from C Company went back for wounded who could not be found or who were isolated by particularly heavy fire during the withdrawal. Near the spot the Platoon left the trucks and walked forward cautiously. ‘It was pitch black’ writes Donald. ‘We had to comb the ground close to the defences. We left one section at the trucks: too many men would have been difficult to control. We spread out in a long line about five yards between men, almost the limit of visibility, and started to comb the ground systematically. It was very eerie with the searchers calling out in hushed voices the names of the missing men, with flares meantime going up intermittently from the Italian lines. Everyone froze when the flares went up and we felt as if we had been stripped to the skin but not a man moved, although every moment we were expecting to hear the dread clatter of a machine gun.
“Then Donald received a shock. A grinning face under a shock of curly hair poked over his shoulder and a Scotch voice said ‘Hullo”. It was Jock (“Haggis”) Lowe, flatly disobeying orders to stay with the trucks. Donald reprimanded him, ‘But you are bloody pleased to see me aren't you?” said Jock. ‘Yes, said Donald emphatically. With Jerry Fowler and Jock playing a notable part, they collected every man.”
This was a very satisfying outcome as the wounded would not have had much chance of surviving the following day in page 56 full view of the enemy.
Meanwhile, anticipating an attack on our position, Col. Andrew had recalled B Company from 5th Brigade HQ and, sure enough, an attack was launched at about 8.00 am along the top of the escarpment from the east directly on to C Company's position. They came at us with shells and mortars, machine guns and rifle fire but our reaction was so fierce they withdrew after about half an hour. During their advance both my sergeant, Viv Hill from Fernhill near Hastings, and I suffered similar wounds. Out slit trenches were shallow in the rocky formation and we were being heavily shelled as the Germans approached. While waiting for the attackers to come within closer range, Viv and I were lying on our backs in our shallow slit trenches about 10 yards apart watching a dog fight between fighter planes going on above us when a barrage of shells landed alongside and we were both knocked unconscious. After I woke up I saw that a shell had landed on the edge of my slit trench, had missed my nose by about six inches and had blown a hole in the broken rock alongside me about the same depth as my trench. Luckily the debris had all carried beyond me.
Exactly the same thing happened to Viv and, when we looked at one another later, we would have burst out laughing had it not been so painful. My eardrums were burst and both our faces turned a greenish blue and swelled up till our eyes were reduced to slits. We revived quickly enough to take part in the counter attack which C Company mounted immediately afterwards, but I admit I was not over enthusiastic.
Here my good friend and mentor Sgt. Bob Baylis distinguished himself. With his section, he pursued the Germans for a mile past our counter attack objective, being fired at and returning fire when the opportunity occurred. Eventually they forced five Jerries to ground and, with covering fire from both flanks, Bob went in with his Tommy page 57 gun, killing two before he ran out of ammunition. However, he continued his charge on a weaving run with the German officer firing point blank at him and missing six times before he emptied his Luger pistol. Bob rounded up the officer and his two remaining soldiers and, with his section, brought them back as prisoners. He was awarded a Military Medal for this action.
Bob, a 30 year old shepherd when he joined up in Hastings, was an original member of the 22nd Battalion. As a private soldier on Crete he showed he was a natural leader, but accepted promotion rather reluctantly. He quickly rose through the ranks to later become a sergeant major in charge of an anti-tank troop of 6 pounder guns, having turned down my offer to recommend him for a commission.
Five of our men were wounded during this unsuccessful German attack on C Company's position and we took nine prisoners in our counter attack and killed a number more.
With 14 Platoon, I was sent out on patrol later that afternoon to search for any German stragglers, with instructions to keep out of the machine gun or mortar range of the Bardia defences. We combed the ground and didn't find any Germans alive, but drawing fire from their defence line, I could, by observing their flashes, pin point gun positions on the map using bearings from my compass. We also located several strong points within the wire to give our artillery something to fire at. We returned without suffering any casualties; we were, temporarily at least, in charge of no-man's land.
Soon after dusk, as we were having our evening meal, the sound of tracked vehicles moving close by disturbed our tranquillity. As there were no Allied tanks in the area, they had to be German. We had been issued with sticky bombs, hand-held contraptions like large toffee apples, with the explosive knobs covered with a gluey, treacle-like substance. page 58 The idea was to hurl or smash the bomb onto the side of a tank where it would stick and explode after a delayed fuse had given the operator time to take cover. “Here's our chance,” I said to the boys, “let's go after them and see if these sticky bombs really do work.” Viv Hill and I were the only ones keen enough to have a go, so off we went in the dark. Perhaps fortunately, we could not catch up with the tanks. We all were, it must be said, a little sceptical about how effective these sticky bombs would be.
Next day was fairly quiet with both sides holding off. We had effectively blocked the coast road between Tobruk and Bardia so, except for a few stragglers whom we shot up, enemy traffic was restricted to the open desert south of the escarpment. However, the following day alarming reports of enemy activity came in from all directions. Huge motorized enemy columns were roaming the desert, south, east and west of 5th Brigade headquarters, so Brigadier Hargest decided to send his soft-skinned vehicles to the 22nd area where they would be protected by the escarpment. He considered moving his whole headquarters to our area also, but left the decision too late. Early on the morning of November 27, 5th Brigade HQ was attacked by 40 of Rommel's tanks, infantry and supporting arms. With the sun rising behind the Germans, the defenders were partially blinded. It was an unequal struggle although our artillery and a few 2 pounder anti-tank guns put up a spirited defence until they were knocked out one by one. Five Brigade had no tanks in support and a request for air cover drew a blank.
In the end, 47 officers and 650 of our men, including B Company of the 22nd, were marched off to Bardia as prisoners of war, victim of the faulty tactics of splitting up our forces. A number of others were killed and some of the wounded left behind did not survive.
Colin Armstrong was among the officers escorted to Bardia. page 59 We later heard he had been shipped off to Italy by submarine and when there were reports of two Italian submarines sunk about that time I was anxious about Colin's safety. However, he survived and, after several daring escapes, finally got away from Germany to England via Sweden. After furlough in New Zealand he returned to the 22nd in northern Italy and was with us, as second in command of the battalion, to share in our final triumph when we led the Allied forces into Trieste.
With no headquarters, 5th Brigade had to be reconstructed. We were all widely dispersed. The 28th Maori Battalion was near Sollum, the 23rd was at Capuzzo, we were at Menastir, and the 21st was acting as a reserve at divisional headquarters. Meanwhile, 4th and 6th Brigades were being badly mauled outside Tobruk with little or no tank support. The 22nd was isolated and short of ammunition, food and water so Colonel Andrew wisely decided to withdraw to the Sollum area to be in touch with the 28th and 23rd Battalions. The 220 vehicles involved were assembled and our intelligence officer Sam McLernon, who was later best man at my wedding, had the formidable task of navigating us in the pitch dark through no-man's land to our destination four hours' drive away. Twice we ran into enemy columns and had to deviate, but Sam succeeded brilliantly and every blacked out vehicle and all personnel arrived at our new location — Musaid — intact and before daybreak. Colonel Andrew then left us to form a new brigade headquarters under the command of the 4th Indian Division which was also in the area.
The battalion's only brush with the enemy came during our three day sojourn at Musaid when I was given orders to ambush a party of Germans, observed by a Bren carrier patrol to be occupying a well, named Bir el Silqiya, at dawn each morning. I was given a map reference of the Bir which was several miles away and told to take my platoon in three Bren carriers on a fighting patrol to ambush this German party page 60 and bring back some prisoners. This involved fairly tricky navigation in the dark over country I didn't know, but I was told there were some high rocks surrounding the Bir which could be seen in the dark when we got close to them.
We set out after midnight and located the spot using compass, watch and the speedo on the Bren carrier and arrived in plenty of time to disperse the three sections strategically before dawn. We were well within artillery range of the main German positions so could expect a hot reception when the firing started. I told Sgt. Bill McKenzie, who was in charge of the Bren carrier troop, to hide his carriers behind some high rocks about 100 yards away and not move until I sent for him in the morning. I gave instructions that no one was to shoot until I opened fire and, using what cover we could find, we settled down to wait for daylight
As expected, a staff car followed by two trucks came out of the early morning haze from the German lines. Their approach was cautious and to our dismay they came to a halt about 500 yards away. We watched as they debussed and set up a mortar pointing ominously in our direction. Then the occupants of the staff car, which had been captured from the British, and of one of the trucks climbed aboard their vehicles and came slowly in our direction leaving the mortar crew behind. My men knew not to show themselves. I had pulled up a short scrubby bush growing nearby, holding it in front of my face so I could watch without being seen — an old deerstalking trick.
They came right into the rocks which partially surrounded the well and when they were only about 30 yards away, I opened fire with my Tommy gun, aiming first at the driver of the staff car. When the whole platoon joined in, firing at the occupants of the truck and the car, those not hit came out of the vehicles with their hands up and we stopped firing. The officer in charge was not wounded and we quickly collected page 61 him and four others to take back for interrogation and disarmed the rest, all of whom were wounded.
However, the German officer had managed to fire a flare to warn his headquarters of our ambush and soon we were being plastered with shell and mortar fire. We quickly took cover in the rocks and engaged the mortar crew with a Bren which silenced them. However, the shells continued to come over thick and fast, alarming Bill McKenzie who thought we were being annihilated so, ignoring instructions, he came in with his carrier to offer what help he could. With rotten luck, a shell splinter went through the narrow carrier visor and killed him. He was a fine soldier and a very popular man, coming from a prominent family in Hawke's Bay where he was well known on the polo fields.
The carrier remained with us until the shelling ceased and then the other two came to pick us up and away we went with our five prisoners in the staff car followed by a few parting shells from the Germans. Bill was our only casualty but, while we did a lot of damage to Jerry and obtained a great deal of information from the German officer's papers and marked maps, I felt we were the losers.
While the 5th Brigade was acting as 13 Corps reserve back in the Sollum-Bardia area, the New Zealand Division headquarters, with 4th and 6th Brigades, was being cut to pieces by Rommel's tanks near Tobruk 100 miles further west. Casualties were so high that divisional headquarters and the two brigades were pulled out, returning to Baggush on the coast, well back into Egypt, where they hoped to recuperate. Five Brigade, now under Brigadier Wilder, was to continue the advance westward from Tobruk under command of 13 Corps. General Freyberg was convinced that had 5th Brigade not been taken from the division as Corps Reserve, the battle at Sidi Rezegh near Tobruk would have been won. He was adamant throughout, as were his senior commanders, that page 62 General Auchinleck's theory of brigade groups being the most effective unit was wrong, largely because, being dispersed, the stunning effectiveness of the divisional artillery acting as one unit could not be utilized.
On December 11 1941, 5th Brigade was moved to Acroma some 17 miles west of Tobruk to prepare for an attack on the enemy positions at Gazala. Moving forward on the morning of the 13th we came under heavy shellfire so we debussed and continued the advance on foot. We had been given objectives which we had marked on the map. My platoon was to finish up on the extreme left of the battalion's forward positions. While the line looked good on the map, I noticed the contours showed I must take my platoon over the ridge in daylight with the enemy's main positions well within range. A red light flashed in my mind and I resolved to assess the danger when the time came. I never did like daylight attacks and was apprehensive.
On the way forward we collected 120 Italian prisoners who had been given outposts to defend but had little stomach for fighting. There were two instances of treachery when the Italians opened fire after showing a white flag, the shooting coming from the area of the flags. As we drew close to our objective, we were being heavily shelled but, keeping well dispersed, managed to avoid casualties.
As I had expected, the last 100 yards of our advance would take us over the ridge so I stopped my platoon short of it and crawled forward to take a look. Sure enough, there were the enemy forward defence posts in full view behind barbed wire and the ground was open with no scrub more than two feet high and only a few folds in the ground to give us cover. To try to dig in on the objective in the hard rock under direct fire was sheer madness so I decided to wait a couple of hours until it was reasonably dark. When Major Irvine Hart, our company commander, a friend from my home town and a page 63 colleague from territorial days, came to check on our positions I explained why I had stopped short of the objective. He came back about half an hour later, having reported to Colonel Andrew, with instructions for my platoon to push on to the final objective. “Ho hum,” I thought, “this sounds like First World War mentality.” Subsequently, it took me longer than usual to collect my section leaders and give them detailed instructions about how to go forward over the ridge, widely dispersed, moving just two at a time from each section with a weaving run and exposed for no more than 20 seconds at a time with those on the ground giving covering fire to the ones on the move.
There was now only about an hour of daylight left so I made the start time in 60 minutes which gave them ample time to explain the move in detail to their men. Everything went without a hitch and no shots were fired by either side in the darkness. Orders had been obeyed, it was just the timing that was a bit delayed. We dug in as deeply as we could, camouflaging our positions effectively with the low desert bushes growing nearby and prepared to spend the following daylight hours without moving as we were so exposed.
It was a long day but half way through the afternoon there was a diversion when a lone dispatch rider on a motorcycle, one of ours, sailed across our front, midway between our lines and the enemy. Hell, he must be lost I thought as I watched from my position on top of the low ridge. Inevitably the enemy opened fire and the motorcycle and rider did a flip. A few more shots from the enemy lines and then silence. He won't know we are here, I thought, and he may be wounded — perhaps I can help. Acting on impulse rather than good judgment, I crawled forward where there was a little cover and some folds in the ground. Passing through my forward sections, I told them what I was doing.
The dispatch rider had gone down about 100 yards away page 64 and I could see his motorcycle but not him. When the time came that I had to expose myself I rose quickly and, with a weaving run, reached the next bit of cover. It took the enemy some time to realise what was going on and I had almost reached the motorcycle before they opened fire. They were about 300 yards away and were, thank goodness, poor shots. I found the dispatch rider unharmed, lying in a fold in the ground where he could not be seen, so I joined him. There was no time to waste as the enemy might open up with mortars which would have been most uncomfortable. I gave him general directions about where to go and explained that we should crawl apart and then run in different directions for 20 seconds, then drop to the ground, both at the same time, crawl to a different spot and then run in different directions again and so on.
We drew plenty of fire and a bullet from one burst grazed my forehead while another creased my helmet deeply, spun me round and threw me dazed onto the ground. However, I soon recovered and we made our way back over the ridge to safety with the mission successfully accomplished. I treasured that helmet until it got lost in the fog of war. It had undoubtedly saved my life.
I never found out who the dispatch rider was or what unit he came from but at least he survived that incident. Later, when the opportunity occurred, I took my section leaders mildly to task for not giving us covering fire, but they said they were so absorbed by the pantomime out front it had not occurred to them. Just as well really, because they would have given away their positions.
That night the Poles were to mount an attack through our lines and, on their way forward, a Polish platoon commander joined me in my shallow slit trench. He spoke good English and asked me if there were any Germans ahead. I said that so far we had seen only Italians. He was disappointed — he wanted page 65 Germans. He explained that his two sisters had been raped during the German occupation of Poland and his fiancée had been forced into a German brothel attached to their troops. I could understand why he was after Germans.
The Poles moved through our lines after dark for their attack on the enemy positions; we were to follow up next day if they were successful. All was quiet in the morning and, as there had been no news about the outcome of the battle, I was instructed to find out whether there were Poles or Italians in the enemy lines in front of us. Sgt. Baylis and I went forward to have a look. We could see movement in the nearest trenches but not tell, using our binoculars, whether they were friend or foe. We moved cautiously forward until we were within 200 yards and had just decided to turn back because, if they were Poles, they would have shown themselves by then. When a hail of bullets kicked up the dust around us we beat a hasty retreat, zigzagging and crawling back to our lines.
While the Poles had not taken those positions on that occasion, they carried out a successful attack on the following night. Sometime before dawn, we were startled to hear the most terrified screams imaginable floating back over no man's land from the enemy lines. My Polish friend had found his Germans who, without doubt, would now be impotent.
The Gazala battle of mid-December 1941 was a complete success with the New Zealand 5th Brigade, the Polish Brigade and the 5th Indian Brigade all taking part, and the artillery, tanks and infantry operating to great effect. Our attacks all reached their objectives and enemy counter attacks were mostly broken up by well directed artillery, mortar fire and machine guns. The enemy's withdrawal to the west signaled the end of the second Libyan campaign for 5th Brigade and we joined the rest of the division at Baggush — across the Egyptian border and half way back to Alexandria. It was a long journey by truck to the railhead and then by rail to page 66 Baggush, with half -hearted Christmas observances on the way.
The division was united again and the lid came off when New Year's Eve was celebrated in earnest. The fun started when someone let off some German flares. Every unit made its contribution with star shells from the artillery, smoke bombs from the mortars, tracers from the machine guns, search lights from the ack-ack, Verey pistol flares from the infantry and a cacophony of bursting Italian hand grenades going off in all directions. The commanding officer, Colonel Andrew, took part too, firing his Verey pistol into the night sky.
It had been a spontaneous reaction; the division had suffered 4,594 casualties, a large proportion of the fighting force and one officer in every three and one man in every four had become a casualty in the three weeks of heavy fighting. We were in the mood to let off steam. However, a neighbouring British unit stood to, ready to repel a suspected seaborne invasion.
Since November 27 when my eardrums had burst, I had been having trouble with infection. My ears had been suppurating constantly for over a month and the RAP was unable to help much as we always seemed to be on the move. As we were now out of the line, I applied to go back to base to have my ears attended to properly under sanitary conditions and I was admitted to our No. 3 General Hospital on January 6 1942. After a week of tender loving care from our own nurses and doctors, I was discharged with the infection cured but holes remaining in each eardrum. The following day my home town next door neighbour — Leslie Beetham — reported for duty as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment). Had I known she was coming, I could easily have developed a mysterious ailment to keep me in hospital a little longer. I was not to know at the time that I was destined to marry her younger sister, Ana, two years after the war ended. With Leslie came page 67 Isabel Barton, another near neighbour, and Nancy Morrison whose aunts also lived close by in Masterton.
It was announced that I had been awarded a Military Cross for the Libyan campaign and my captaincy was also gazetted. Clearly cause for celebration. We gathered at Sheppards Hotel with the three Wairarapa girls, Tony Riddiford also from the Wairarapa and Bill Farrell from Hastings, a friend of Isabel's. It was a night to remember, only marred by the girls' needing to be back on duty by midnight, but a telephone call to Matron Chisholm resulted in a two hour extension which was much appreciated.
From hospital, I was sent back to base at Maadi and two days later was told by the Military Secretary to report to the 25th Battalion. “No Sir,” I said, “I belong to the 22nd Battalion and that is where I want to go.”
“The 25th are short of experienced officers,” he replied, “So you've been posted there.” I could not refuse outright but made it clear I would have to be dragged there by wild horses. He demurred but finally gave in, and off I happily went to rejoin the 22nd, now based at Kabrit near the Suez Canal. I was in time to take part in the farewell parade for our commanding officer Lt. Col. Andrew VC, who had been posted back to New Zealand.
After Les Andrew had won his VC in the First World War he had been a regular soldier. Although his strict discipline did not suit everyone he had certainly knocked us civilians into shape and left an indelible influence. He was a very brave man who served his country well and we respected and admired him while, at the same time, being privately incensed at some of his orders. We were sorry to see him go. He had filled his position with distinction and thoroughly earned his DSO. We gave him a good send off and welcomed our new commanding officer — Lt. Col. John Russell — son of Sir Andrew Russell, who had commanded the New Zealand page 68 Division in the First Word War. John had come to us from his post as second in command of the divisional cavalry where he had been awarded a DSO. We had been in the same hospital ward together after Crete, so I had got to know him a little. At 37 years of age and with his battle experience, he was an ideal choice for the 22nd.
Early in the new year, a scare up in the desert had 5th Brigade moving smartly back into Libya where we furiously dug holes preparing for a German breakthrough which, thankfully, did not eventuate. So in March it was back to Maadi Camp near Cairo, where we were pleasantly surprised to find that the New Zealand Club in the city had recruited a number of New Zealand girls — ‘The Tuis’ — to help the staff, and how welcome they were. We blessed Lady Freyberg for her inspired idea!